I was about half way through All My Goodbyes by Argentinian author Mariana Dimópulos, and a bit baffled by its fragmentary style, when I remembered Michael Orthofer’s indispensable The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World FictionBless him, he is the soul of brevity and tells me exactly what I need to know in less than four short pages.

Short summary: famous South American authors who cast a long shadow – Borges, Márquez, Llosa and Fuentes.  √Yes, I have read ’em all.  Only Isabel Allende broke through the period of repression under Pinochet et al.   √Yes, have read her too).  Then this bit:

… only recently have a post-Boom generation come to the fore.  Many writers have now repudiated magical realism and embraced American pop and consumer culture with as much fervour as the older generation denounced American imperialism.  The McOndo movement – its name openly mocking Garcia Márquez’s Macondo, the setting of One Hundred Years of Solitude – is one of the most prominent recent literary trends… (p. 389)

So, thus armed, I turn to Orthofer’s summary of Argentina’s contemporary literature.  Argentina, in the early C20th was wealthy, culturally aligned with the US and Europe, and with a thriving literary culture.  Borges is the towering figure, distinctive and influential.  There are others but the one that interests me is the one mentioned alongside Borges in the Giramondo blurb for All My Goodbyes: Julio Cortázar (1914-1984).

… Hopscotch (1963, English 1966) is one of the major novels of the Latin American Boom. (p.190) The first section of the novel is a conventional story, and Cortázar said that the nearly one hundred supplementary chapters of the second were expendable.  The protagonist of this soul-searching novel is Horacio Oliveira, who describes his unfulfilled life in first Paris and then Buenos Aires.  As the author explains, the novel’s 155 chapters can be – but do not have to be – read in the order in which they were printed. Cortázar supplies instructions for an alternative sequence, which ultimately leave the reader caught in an infinite loop.  While Cortázar’s presentation might appear to be a gimmick, it is carefully and well done and allows for different readings of the text, including the traditional one of front to back.  His novel 62: A Model Kit (1968, English 1972) builds on Hopscotch, specifically the sixty-second chapter of the earlier novel, putting into practice the theory outlined there, of a new kind of novel.  Melding place – the three locales of the novel: Paris, London, and Vienna – and presenting fragmentary material, this novel also demands more active participation from the reader. (p.390)

[Update (the next day): Synchronicity?  Stu at Winston’s Dad reviewed 62: a Model Kit just last week! ]

Now, I’m starting to make more sense of All My Goodbyes.  I certainly seem to be caught in a loop, and since the narrative is all over the place (just like its narrator, flitting from one place to another with no apparent purpose), perhaps it wouldn’t matter what order I read the pages in.  √Yes, she’s describing an unfulfilling life in places on the other side of the world.  What’s more, the settings (Málaga, Madrid, Heidelberg, Berlin) are indistinguishable from one another as if all cities are the same, signified by universal markers of modern urban life such as Ikea, a bakery, an anonymous auto-parts supplier and the ubiquitous café.  All her jobs are mundane and badly paid and all of them involve unreasonable working conditions.

This is the Giramondo blurb:

All My Goodbyes is a novel told in overlapping vignettes, which follow the travels of a young Argentinian woman across Europe (Málaga, Madrid, Heidelberg, Berlin) and back to Argentina (Buenos Aires, Patagonia) as she flees from situation to situation, job to job, and relationship to relationship. Within the complexity of the narrator’s situation, a backstory emerges about a brutal murder in Patagonia which she may or may not be implicated in, but whether this is the cause of her flight is never entirely clear – she is driven as much by psychological concerns, her relationship with her father, uncertainty about her identity and purpose in life. The novella is, as the title suggests, a catalogue of goodbyes, the result of a decade-long cycle of self-inflicted alienation which the narrator, despite herself, seems fated to perpetuate. In its structure it recalls the rich Argentinian tradition of Cortázar and Borges; its language is by turns stark and elaborate, brutal in its economy and yet poetic in its imagery.

This unnamed narrator is the self-destructive architect of her own alienation.  Her restlessness is not driven by a desire for adventure or self-fulfilment. and she makes no effort to connect with other people that she meets on her travels.  The narrative is equally disconnected too, as she recounts her dissatisfactions from place to place in no particular chronological or geographical order.  She is resentful of European culture and tired of being patronised for being from elsewhere, but she has nothing good to say about her homeland either.

Despite her unconvincing lies, her inattentiveness to the needs of others and her unreliability, people love her.  Julia, mother of a small boy called Kolya, loves her and wants to make a home with her, and is hurt when the narrator sets off again without even saying goodbye to the boy.  Alexander loves her but can’t overcome her hostility to Europe, whose cultural superiority offends her.

One of the party, who apparently hadn’t been informed of my origins (‘aren’t you Turkish?’) was busy disparaging the politics of Latin America.  He’d travelled to several countries in the Americas and had confirmed for himself the backwardness of our ideas and the corruption of our institutions.  He was one of those ignorant know-it-alls who manage to gatecrash every gathering. Spring billowed up in kilometre-high clouds, and we were soiled slowly by a gathering wind that worried the picnic implements.  In the wake of my cultural superior’s comments, a very civilised discussion unfolded on the triumphs of liberty and reason, and although a few of them revealed, like an unstitched hem, the guilt behind their Nazi past and the misdeeds of colonialism, to which Europe still owed a great deal of its wealth and progress, the group as a whole seemed terribly satisfied with themselves and with their cordial, democratic world.  One in particular seemed to consider himself some kind of apostle of social progress, and spent a while trying to convince me of the wonders of European transparency and the international market.  (p. 96)

After a decade away she makes her way back to Argentina and falls in love.  But things go horribly awry.  Her father with whom she had a rather twisted relationship is dead, and the conclusion suggests that she was right to avoid commitment because you end up losing everything anyway.

So, yes, it’s a pessimistic work, but it was interesting.  Whether or not its author identifies with the McOndo movement, I wouldn’t know, but All My Goodbyes seems to bear some of its preoccupations.  It refutes any stereotypical ideas about Latin Americans as gauchos in sombreros in a rural landscape: the narrator is, like so many in the modern world, a global citizen subject to the economic consequences of globalisation, that is, free to work anywhere in meaningless badly-paid occupations – and she doesn’t even need to take the initiative and learn the language because it’s not necessary for the kind of work she does.  The novella has what seems to be a McOndo kind of gritty realism, although the narrator doesn’t seem like a realistic person, but more of a cipher- a person of no importance whose only capacity for agency is to make sudden departures.  The only thing she can do, the only choices she can make, involve getting out and leaving.

I haven’t read a lot of books from Argentina – only Borges’ Labyrinths, Inez by Carlos Fuentes,  Varamo by César Aira, and Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman are reviewed on this blog and it’s been many years since I read Marquez, Allende and Llosa.  I meant to read All My Goodbyes during #WITMonth, but I got sidetracked by other things…

The cover art is an inspired choice.  It’s called ‘The Beginning’ and it’s by Kai Samuels-Davis

Other reviews are hard to find: Kerryn Goldsworthy in The Age.

Author: Mariana Dimópulos
Title: All My Goodbyes (Cada Despedida)
Translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017, Southern Latitudes’ series
ISBN: 9781925336412
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: All My Goodbyes

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2017

Non-fiction November Week #2

Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best is ahead of me,  in the five weeks of activities for Non-fiction November but I’ll have a go at Week Two.

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) Choosing Nonfiction: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I tend to gravitate towards history and politics in my choice of NF, as you can see from this year’s booklist, of which 1947, when now begins; The Art of Time Travel and Return to Moscow are my standout recommendations:

It might sound morbid, but because of personal circumstances and the proposed Voluntary Assisted Dying bill in Victoria, I’ve also taken an interest in issues around death and dying.  (Not grief, I am so over reading about grief!) So I’ve read two very different views of what might lie ahead:

I’m also interested in literary criticism, but I’m highly selective.  (Or you could say middlebrow).  I do not want to read university text books or opaque theorising.  That’s why I like the Oxford Very Short Introductions series:

I usually like anything to do with art:

I like literary biographies too, but surprisingly, I haven’t read a single one this year, not unless you count Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet, by Jennifer Gall.

I think that NF covers influence me more than they do for fiction.  They tend not to fall into cliché as so many fiction covers do.  (Indie publishers are exempt from that last generalisation.  They know they need to do better, and they do).

These NF covers are ones that demanded my attention at the library:

2017’s Nonfiction November is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Julie at Julz Reads, and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness.

This is one of those books that’s going to change the way I look at the world forever…

To quote part of the blurb:

In 1947, Elisabeth Åsbrink chronicles the creation of the modern world, as the forces that will go on to govern all our lives during the next 70 years first make themselves known.

It’s a remarkable book.  It charts world events – month by month, city by city – for the year of 1947,  as the world recovers from the cataclysm of WW2.  And even if you think you are reasonably up to speed with modern history because you’ve read books and watched films and you know people who lived through it, you will probably find yourself surprised by some of what’s chronicled here.  I certainly was.

The author does include the unsurprising past i.e. the beginnings of Soviet reprisals against its dissidents; the collapse of the British Empire (and blaming Britain for the catastrophe of Partition in India); the emerging Cold War and the Truman Doctrine of two Germanys.  But by personalising these events with the people involved, Åsbrink shakes off the dust of history and makes them vivid.  Mikhail Kalashnikov rewarded with a watch.  Musa Alami’s cautious attempts to influence the fate of Palestine. Christian Dior hounded over the extravagance of his designs in Britain under the bitterness of austerity.  (My mother wasn’t one of them.  She loved Dior).

One of the events that did surprise me was the Dutch expulsion of Germans:

… no one even wants to hear the word ‘Germany’ so strong is their hatred after the Occupation.  Under a new law, 25,000 Dutch nationals of German ancestry are branded ‘hostile subjects’ and sentenced to deportation – even if they happen to be Jews, liberals, or opponents of the Nazis.

The violence takes a well-trodden path.  The Dutch-Germans are given an hour to pack everything they can carry, up to a maximum of 50kg, then they are despatched to jails, or to prison camps near the Dutch-German border.  Their homes and businesses are confiscated by the state.  Operation Black Tulip.  (p.26)

Another element that surprised me was the stats about the homelessness.  I knew about the Blitz, of course, because my parents lived through it.  My father was bombed out of his home when he was a boy, and relations I never got to know were killed.  And as a small child in the middle 1950s I saw unrepaired bomb damage in my grandmother’s house as well as vacant blocks still with bomb rubble so I knew it took many years to sort everything out.  But still, having seen Russian photos of the German ‘scorched earth’ policy, and footage of the rubble in the cities of Europe, I had thought that Britain got off lightly by comparison.  But Åsbrink tells me that more than 4.5 million buildings in Britain are damaged…and 3.6 million apartments in Germany.  I had thought France got off scot-free because they surrendered, but nearly half a million French buildings were in ruins.  What these and other stats reveal is the unimaginable scale of the task ahead of postwar Europe and Britain, and while I’ve always been aware of the human misery, now I’m conscious of the work of the planners, the engineers, and the logistics people.  The mind rebels against it: where to start?  where to source the materials?  how to organise the workforce? And how to reconcile the urgency of the rehousing the homeless with building better living conditions than had gone before?

I didn’t know that a peace treaty wasn’t actually signed till 1947:

Never again, never again, never again.  These words have echoed for nearly two years, from the first day of the German capitulation in May 1945, until the last name is signed under the peace treaty, on 10 February 1947, in Paris.

When I looked it up at Wikipedia, I could see why the terms took so long to negotiate.

I had no idea that Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic publications inspired leaders of the Hitler Youth, and that he’s the only American mentioned by name in Mein Kampf.  I looked that up on Wikipedia too: apparently every customer who bought a car from a Ford Franchise got a copy of ‘The Dearborn Independent.’

That’s creepy, but creepier still is the way Åsbrink carefully unravels the way that Nazi fugitives not only escaped justice but also how the weary allies gave up the pursuit.  These people didn’t just die a comfortable old age, they thrived enough to continue their poisonous work and establish new conduits which persist to the present day.  She documents the origins of Islamic jihad too…

Miraculously, she also unpicks the complicated politics of the foundation of the State of Israel, and she quotes the prophets who foresaw the consequences.  The villains include Britain, whose weariness is a theme throughout the book, as is the theme of US betrayals, and the struggle to achieve a declaration of human rights, and a legal definition of genocide.  Åsbrink notes the omissions too:

What is not said in court dissipates into silence.  The Nazi’s persecution and murder of homosexuals does not even constitute grounds for prosecution, and is not part of the trials.  The killing of Roma people is mentioned by some of the leading Nazis, but no Roma witnesses are called. Although about 650,000 Polish Jews and an unknown number of Roma were murdered in Belzec and Sobibor, neither death camp is mentioned even once in the course of the 13 Nuremberg trials.  The death camp at Treblinka is referred to in passing on one occasion, when it is described as a concentration camp.  The fate of the Jews passes in a black flash, but the racial hatred that forms the core of Nazi ideology is not one of the main issues.  Rather, it is Nazi Germany’s aggression, striving for world domination, and crimes against peace that dominate. (p. 37-8)

There are individuals whose activities thread through the book – perhaps not the names you might expect: George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, Billie Holliday, Christian Dior, and Primo Levi.  And also Per Engdahl, the thriving leader of the Swedish fascists, and Hasan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I like Åsbrink’s shrewd awareness of how human nature can influence major events, just because we’re people with all our flaws.  For a while, German children learn no history at all because of the allies’ differing ideas about what the new school curriculum should include:

First of all the Russians come up with a textbook which stresses the material aspects of past times, how societal changes are driven by economic and social conditions.  But that is not an acceptable interpretation of history in the eyes of the Americans, who put together a version of history that they believe takes a broader view.

At the same time, the French prepare their selection of key events from the past, illustrated with reproductions of works by Eugene Delacroix. However, the French version of history is judged to be chauvinistic by the other Allies, and is not approved by any of them.

The British are painstaking in their approach, producing two volumes that are so bursting with detail that the first book only gets as far as humankind’s discovery of the pendulum. (p.92)

And if the past is an open question, the future is equally unclear.  What direction will Germany take?

By the time it is August, Åsbrink writes:

The world continues to fall apart.  In a number of places, at the same time, ideas are taking shape of a third power, a unified Europe: the notion of dismantling borders while nonetheless maintaining them.

That may be feasible.  That must be feasible.  There is no alternative.  If nationalism was the explosive that ignited the First World War, scepticism of that nationalism now seems to offer a possible path to peace.  The word on everyone’s lips is universalism.  The nation-state has had its day.  Europe must unite or perish.  (p.154)

Are today’s convulsions a sign that the world has stepped away from the path of peace that was trodden for decades since the formation of the EU?  Åsbrink doesn’t say but the reader can sense her dismay.

There are omissions, of course there are.  The book would be impossibly long, and perhaps less engaging if it covered everything.  But Åsbrink and her translator Fiona Graham have given us a vivid and compelling vision of a world long gone and yet still with us.  Highly recommended!

Author: Elisabeth Åsbrink
Title: 1947, When Now Begins
Translated from the Swedish by Fiona Graham
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925322439
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Fishpond: 1947: when now begins and direct from Scribe where you can also get it as an eBook or an audio book.


As usual, the nominations for the Dublin Literary Award are a generous mixture of the great and the good, and as usual I will try to locate all the authors from Australia and New Zealand among the 150-odd names there.  If there’s one I’ve missed, please let me know in comments and I’ll add it to the list.

The prize is one of the most valuable in the world: €100,000, but in terms of international exposure, just making it onto the longlist is a great thing for authors who might otherwise have slipped under the radar, and while I’m pleased to see all our Aussie authors doing so well, I am especially pleased by the inclusion of Patrick Holland’s One because it did not get the attention it deserved in this country.  Bouquets to the libraries that nominated it!


  • One, by Patrick Holland, see my review and Patrick’s explanation for his curious choice of title
  • Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, by Anita Heiss, see my review
  • The Dry, by Jane Harper
  • Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, by Toni Jordan, see my review
  • The Good People, by Hannah Kent
  • An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire, see my review
  • The Museum of Modern Love, by Heather Rose, see my review
  • The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith, see my review
  • The Sound, by Sarah Drummond*
  • Vigil, by Angela Slatter

New Zealand

Other titles that I’ve read

*Update, later the same day: Thanks to Tracy Farr (author of The Life and Loves of Lina Gault) for identifying two authors I’d missed.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2017

The Half-Drowned King, by Linnea Hartsuyker

The Half-Drowned King is one of the books I recently enjoyed for bedtime relaxation while reading more challenging books by day.  It’s the first of what will apparently be a trilogy: a saga of 9th century Norwegian kings during the period of unification.  According to the author’s note at the end of the book, it was ‘inspired by’ the saga of Harald Fairhair in the Heimskingla of the Icelandic historian and poet, Snorri Sturluson (1178/79–1241). Sturluson’s saga was written from oral sources ca. 1230 and isn’t considered entirely reliable about centuries much earlier, so an author has plenty of scope for invention…

The novel is a big. chunky book of 400+ pages, focussing mainly on two protagonists: Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the betrayed true heir to his family’s lands, and his sister Svanhild, a spirited individual not willing to submit to the role that custom demands of women.  When the story opens, Ragnvald is returning from successful raids on the coastline but is almost drowned (hence the book title) by Solvi, who has been put up to it by his father King Hunthof who’s in league with Ragnvald’s stepfather Olaf.  So Ragnvald starts the novel as a penniless victim who needs to keep out of the way of rivals who would kill him, and Svanhild is about to be married off to a boring old man whose previous wives have all died in childbirth.

As you’d expect in a novel of this type, there are plots and counter plots, and plenty of brutal fights among rival kings and their men.  There are a great many characters to keep track of, but fortunately the author sticks to a chronological narrative, all told in the 3rd person, alternately from Ragnvald’s perspective and then Svanhild’s.  Loyalty is a key issue for both protagonists, and Hartsuyker inverts expectations about the characters by making Svanhild the more adventurous while Ragnvald is more keen to settle on his farm, if only he can retrieve it from the brute Olaf. But he has few assets in this quest: only courage and determination, and a growing capacity to calm the hotheads amongst the rival kings.  In this period of rudimentary politics, it was a man’s personality and capacity for leadership amongst powerful allies that mattered most.

Hartsuyker writes well, recreating the landscape and the social structures with convincing detail and the plots romps along.  She sets up complex personalities with equally complex motives, and they don’t all behave in predictable ways. I doubt if The Half-Drowned King is the next Game of Thrones, but it’s entertaining reading which kept me absorbed to the end.

Author: Linnea Hartsuyker
Title: The Half-Drowned King
Publisher: Little, Brown  (Hachette), 2017
ISBN: 9781408708804
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: The Half-Drowned King

Oops, I read this last month but forgot to blog it!

The Decision by German-born author Britta Böhler is a book that I discovered last year when Stu reviewed it at Winston’s Dad – and I bought it as a companion to Summer before the Dark by Volker Viedermann (also reviewed by Stu) because they share the same theme.  They’re about famous Jewish authors confronting the perils of Nazi Germany… The works of those authors-in-exile were all exponents of Exilliteratur, literature written in German by those who opposed or fled the Hitler regime.

The Decision is a fictionalised account of three tense days in 1936, when the renowned author Thomas Mann is in Switzerland, weighing up the implications of publicly denouncing his homeland Germany.  At this time he had published, among many other works, Buddenbrooks, (1901, see my review); Death in Venice (1912); and The Magic Mountain (1924, see my review).  He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.  His was a powerful voice, and – having left Germany for Switzerland in 1933 when Hitler came to power, he had to decide how best to use his celebrity.

He has written a letter denouncing the regime to the Zurich-German press, that when published would amount to cultural suicide.   It is not just that he cannot ever go back unless things change, it is also that he is tormented by the idea that he shares the same cultural tradition as new regime, and may be tainted by it.  He’s not even sure if he can still enjoy the sublime music of Wagner, now that it’s been appropriated by the Nazis.

He had not realised, when he left Germany, that it would be the last time:

He had not suspected anything, nothing at all. How could he have foreseen that this journey would mark his farewell to Germany? Later he often wished that he had looked out of the train window. He should have imprinted the landscape on his mind – that way he could have taken the images abroad with him. He couldn’t even remember the border crossing between Lindau and Bregenz; half asleep he had let the last impressions of Germany slide by.  (Kindle Locations 308-315).


You go on vacation suspecting nothing, and before you know it your fatherland is gone. With a speed that makes your head spin. (Kindle Location 326).

The novel is prefaced by a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein:  ‘Ethics and aesthetics are one’  and while Wittgenstein wrote a great many impenetrable aphorisms, this one is crystal clear.   He is saying that aesthetics and ethics are inseparable.  Yet what this novel shows, is just how difficult Mann’s decision was.  You can see his torment in his own words, in Dr Faustus, a novel begun in 1943 and published in 1947, (see my review).  But in this novel, Britta Böhler shows Mann under pressure in intimate detail, as a family man, as a writer and as a public figure, trapped in the same dilemma as Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. (Not that I’m suggesting any similarity between Henry VIII and Hitler, only that public figures sometimes have to make risky public decisions that never confront ordinary folk whose opinions don’t have the capacity to influence events.)

Feeling torn, Mann considers the pressure he has been under from his adult children, Erika and Klaus:

These past three years Erika and Klaus have urged him repeatedly to break his silence, express his opinion, and publicly distance himself from the Nazis. There had been scores of rather nasty fights. Erika accused him of being arrogant; his reserve was presumptuous; it was unseemly to feel superior to everything in these terrible times. Erika and Klaus – both are so implacable in their hatred of Germany. The world is so simple and clear for them.  (Kindle Locations 130-133).

He is suspicious of his brother Heinrich:

That his brother felt so easily at home in his new living situation made him a little jealous. Well, it was of course a fact that in a sense Heinrich had always been on the side of the opposition; that made many things easier.

And he doesn’t get along with Heinrich’s new lady friend:

He had looked forward to Heinrich’s visit, to the joint walks and conversations, but unfortunately Heinrich had not come alone. Why had he brought along that horrible Mrs. Kröger? She was a typical girlfriend for Heinrich, loud and uncultured, like all the actresses with whom he had enjoyed himself while his wife and daughter waited for him. (Kindle Locations 405-410).

And even now, he still clings to some doubt, because he loves the Germany he knew, the Germany that is now so alien to him:

Yet he hadn’t been convinced right away. For days he hesitated over the decision. He was heartily sick of living in a hotel, but renting a house for a year or even two felt final. You couldn’t know whether a return to Munich might not be possible after all; the situation could perhaps change for the better. And even if that weren’t the case, shouldn’t he try to return in spite of it all? Staying away permanently from Germany – wasn’t that tantamount to a betrayal of his own country?  (Kindle Locations 441-444).

While he mourns the loss of his home and possessions, he is also confronted by an existential loss:

What is going on inside the people of Germany? What are they thinking and feeling when they take the tram to work in the morning or when they are shopping? Have the events left any marks on their faces as they walk in Herzog Park? He can still not make sense of it. The image of his fatherland is becoming increasingly vague and blurred. He has become an outsider, an observer who knows Germany only second-hand.  (Kindle Locations 485-488).

Stu was right, The Decision is an excellent book!

Author: Britta Böhler
Title: The Decision (originally published as Der brief de Zauberers but my edition is translated from the Dutch De Beslissing by Jeannette K. Ringold
Publisher: Haus Publishing, London, 2015
Source: Personal library, bought for the Kindle from You Know Who.

Available from Fishpond: The Decision (hbk)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #15 Chapter 14

We left Shaun, taking the place of his father Earwicker, floating in a barrel down the River Liffey at the end of Chapter 13…

… and because we have reached the second chapter of Part 3, we are in Vico’s Human Age, (see Chapter One) looking for signs and symbols of burials, cities, laws, civil obedience or popular government; along with vulgar speech, abstract discourse, and (maybe) radio and TV…

… and perhaps we’ll find wheels within wheels, according to Tindall, (see Chapter 13) shaping each chapter within each part, so we may find a divine age, an heroic age, a human age and a ricorso (a period of confusion). #WrySmile Or such Jocyean cleverness may go right over my head, as it mostly does…

Onward!  Tally Ho!

I mention the barrel because had I forgotten it I might well have thought that we had a new character called Jaunty Jaun.  But no, it’s just Shaun with a new name, halting his barrel and delivering another sermon, this time to the twentynine hedge daughters out of Benent Saint Berched’s national nightschool i.e.  the pupils at St Bridget’s nightschool, who made an appearance in chapter 9. (And now I’m remembering something about how the novel turns full circle by the time we reach the end.)  Young Shaun has become a ladykiller, the girls mussing his frizzy hair and the golliwog curls of him, and making a tremendous girlsfuss over him, and (my goodness!)

… feeling his full fat pouch for him so tactily and jingaling his jellybags for, though he looked a young chapplie of sixtine, they could frole by his manhood that he was just the killingest ladykiller… (Finnegans Wake, Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p. 430).

When I come to Shaun a.k.a. Jaunty Jaun presenting his own version of the Ten Commandments to these young ‘ladies’, that must be the Viconian Divine Age, right?

During our brief apsence from this furtive feugtig season adhere to as many as probable of the ten commandments touching purgations and indulgences and in the long run they will prove for your better guidance along your path of right of way. (ibid, p. 432).

But he gets a bit carried away because there’s a good few more than ten of these commandments:

Never miss your lostsomewhere mass for the couple in Myles you butrose to brideworship. Never hate mere pork which is bad for your knife of a good friday. Never let a hog of the howth trample underfoot your linen of Killiney. Never play lady’s game for the Lord’s stake. Never lose your heart away till you win his diamond back. Make a strong point of never kicking up your rumpus over the scroll end of sofas in the Dar Bey Coll Cafeteria by tootling risky apropos songs at commercial travellers’ smokers for their Columbian nights entertainments the like of White limbs they never stop teasing or Minxy was a Manxmaid when Murry wor a Man.

First thou shalt not smile. Twice thou shalt not love. Lust, thou shalt not commix idolatry. Hip confiners help compunction. Never park your brief stays in the men’s convenience. Never clean your buttoncups with your dirty pair of sassers. Never ask his first person where’s your quickest cut to our last place. Never let the promising hand usemake free of your oncemaid sacral. The soft side of the axe! A coil of cord, a colleen coy, a blush on a bush turned first man’s laughter into wailful moither.  (ibid, p. 433).

My trusty guide Tindall says that as well as laying down his commandments, Shaun is also celebrating a mass (reminiscent of Chapter 1 in Ulysses), signalled by this introit of exordium at the beginning and ite missa est (Latin, usually translated as ‘Go, the Mass is ended’) though here parodied as eat a missal lest.   (A missal is the book of the Catholic liturgy that parishioners take to Mass with them). Tindall says there is also a communion too, but although there’s some eating going on, I can’t see the allusions myself.

(I thought I spied a Baptism when I came across We’ll circumcivicise all Dublin country.  That’s in the section where Shaun is going to rebuild the morals of the city of Dublin, with boulevards, sweepstakes and turning the tip into a park.)

Tindall also says that:

… while preaching to the girls, celebrating Mass, and playing his organ, Jaun is going through the fourteen Stations of the crucifixion of Jesus – not, however, in their customary order.  [See The Way of the Cross,  [refer to Chapter 13].  (A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969, p.236)

He lists all fourteen, which serves only to show me how much I manage to miss in my naïve reading of this amazing book.  (I am cheered only by Tindall’s obvious perplexity in decoding Shaun’s possible ascension and second coming.  If Tindall doesn’t ‘get it’ after multiple readings and a team of fellow scholars to help him, who am I to be worried about it, eh?)

Anyway, here are Stations 1, 2 and 10, which show just how obscurely Joyce is playing with his hapless readers:

Station 1: (Jesus is condemned to death), hinted in Chapter XIII, is hinted again by “privy-sealed orders” (488.29)

Station 2: (Jesus carries the cross), also hinted in Chapter XIII, is now attended to by “gross proceeds”, “load on ye” (431.27-28), and “the Lord’s stake (433.14).


Station 10: (Jesus is stripped of his garments) is hinted by “undraped divine” (435.14-15), “undress”, “overdressed if underclothed”, “Strip off that nullity suit” (441.2–5,30), and “gentleman without a duster” (432.24).  Cf. “Mulligan is stripped of his garments” (Ulysses, 16) (Tindall, p.237-8)

(The numbers refer to the lines of the text of FW so that readers can find them in any edition).

In the sermon there is a warning against literature, (Vanity Fair, and three of Dickens’ novels); against arts; against music.  But his laws of ‘civil obedience’ allow for plenty of sex and food as long as it’s home cooking, everytime. Even incest – to be avoided with his father or brother –  is ok if it’s with him, he tells his sister Isabel.  I’ll be all over you myselx horizontally, he says, and goes on to say:

The pleasures of love lasts but a fleeting but the pledges of life outlusts a lieftime. I’ll have it in for you. I’ll teach you bed minners, tip for tap, to be playing your oddaugghter tangotricks with micky dazzlers if I find corsehairs on your river-frock and the squirmside of your burberry lupitally covered with chiffchaff and shavings.  (Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics, Kindle Edition p. 444).

and he threatens her too, if she should ignore his prohibitions, all for her own good:

Snap! I’ll tear up your limpshades and lock all your trotters in the closet, I will, and cut your silk-skin into garters. You’ll give up your ask unbrodhel ways when I make you reely smart. (ibid, p.445)

But, you may be pleased to hear, Isabel interrupts her loquacious brother, and announces that she’s not going to take much notice of any of this. This might be the Viconian heroic bit, eh?  The human age is surely where Shaun starts talking about food.  Eventually (after a mystifying interlude with trees, Egyptian gods and allusions to a sphoenix resurrection) Shaun sets off again in his pulpitbarrel to exile.  The girls think he’s dead, and there’s a bit of a wake, but off he goes very cheerfully it seems to me.

BTW radio and TV do get a mention: this is when Shaun tells Isabel, a.k.a. Sissybis and Sissytart and Stella (and *sigh* muddled with her mother too, and (so says Tindall) somehow also the two girls in the park that Earwicker may or may not have assaulted.  Campbell says she’s Iseult, whatever she’s called, she’s Shaun’s sister IMO):

 I was pricking up ears to my phono on the ground and picking up airs from th’other over th’ether. (ibid, p452)

AND there’s a clear signal how to look out for Vico: The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin. (That’s assuming you knew who Vico was and what his Viconian ages were all about, of course.  I wonder how long it took for the scholars to recognise that, and what Joyce meant by it?)

This chapter is, as Tindall says, comparatively easy.

However rambling and incoherent, [Shaun’s] discourse to Stella presents few difficulties to the moderately hardened reader. (Tindall, p 242).

So that’s what I’ve become, eh, a moderately hardened reader!

On to Chapter 15!


A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and

A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

Finnegans Wake (Modern Classics) read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, Naxos AudioBooks 2009

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics), introduction by Seamus Deane, Penguin, 2015.  (I’m using the Kindle edition ASIN B00XX0H95S, just to make quoting easier because typing the text is such a provocation to AutoCorrect).)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2017

Dragon and Kangaroo, by Robert Macklin

Robert Macklin is a versatile writer: he’s written books with titles as diverse as The Secret Life of Jesus; War Babies; and The Great Australian Pie.  And although he’s not an historian, he’s a journalist,  Dragon and Kangaroo, subtitled Australia and China’s shared history from the goldfields to the present day is highly readable and thoroughly researched.  It provides a political and cultural timeline of our mutual relationship that offers interesting insights.

Australia’s relationship with China is more important than ever because America’s influence and economic power is declining.   Allan Gyngell, writing about Australia’s relationship with the US, in the new journal The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy: Australian Foreign Affairs; Issue 1 (Schwarz Publishing, October 2017) has this to say:

Australia needs to put equal thought into its relationship with China.  In one way or another, China will be central to all Australia’s economic, strategic and political objectives.  It is hard to think of an international issue – from the security of the South China Sea to development policy in Africa – where China’s decisions will not be important.  Inside Australia, the impact of growing Chinese investment, the presence of rising numbers of Chinese students and tourists, and the role of Chinese Australians in politics and public debate will become increasingly significant.  (p. 40)

But it’s probably true to say that most of us know very little about our mutual relationship.  The book begins with not with the arrivals of the Chinese during the Gold Rush, but with the desire for cheap labour after the abolition of transportation.  Squatters got in touch with agents in Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy) and Singapore as well as the British East India Company in Calcutta.  It was the Chinese ‘coolie’ that they wanted because of his ‘untiring industry, frugality and perseverance’ which were ‘the inherited instincts of their race.’ John Macarthur employed at least three Chinese people on his properties as early as the 1820s, and…

…it is highly likely that they had compatriots whose records have been lost to history.  But either way, his family was at the forefront of the new push to engage ‘indentured labour’, a polite term for slave-like pay and conditions in the 1840s.

The Port Phillip settlers were not far behind, and the arrival of the Chinese provoked wonderment on the one hand, contempt mixed with hostility on the other. And so it proved to be for a very long period of Australia’s relationship with the Chinese.  In 1860, there was a disgraceful racist insurrection at Lambing Flat, now known as Young in NSW, which Macklin says affected Chinese-Australian relations for over a hundred years.

The Yass Courier described the terrible scene.  ‘Some 500 Europeans attacked a party of Chinese and maltreated them to such an extent as to cause the death of at least one of their number.  We are informed that the ‘pigtails’ of the unfortunate Celestials were cut off in so barbarous a manner as to detach the skin from the back of the head; and further than the brutality was carried to the length of cutting the ears off several’.

That was just the beginning. (p.48)

A subsequent mob of 2000 men brutally attacked and destroyed a Chinese camp of 300.  The victims included a British mother married to a Chinese and her infant whose cradle was set alight, escaping only just in time.  Needless to say, the attackers commandeered the mining claims of the vanquished and before long they were back again with repeated assaults, killing an unknown number of Chinese with an estimated 250 gravely injured – despite the presence of urgently summoned troopers from Sydney.

It seems that many Chinese put up with intolerable treatment because the Taipeng Rebellion in China had made their homeland into a killing field. 

I was fascinated to learn that in the era before Federation, Britain was embarrassed by the stridency of the White Australia Policy.

[At]…  the Intercolonial Conference of 1896 […] the premiers resolved to extend the 1888 Restriction Bill to include ‘all coloured races’, though the Queensland delegation made an exception for Pacific Islanders.

The British government, anxious about the reaction in its Asian and South Asian colonies, took a more conciliatory stand.  The new colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, told a meeting of the colonial leaders in London the following  year that he ‘sympathised’ with the Australians’ sentiments that ‘there shall not be an influx of people alien in civilisation, alien in religion, alien in customs [who] would most seriously interfere with the legitimate rights of the existing labour population.’ However, it would be ‘most painful’ for Her Majesty Queen Victoria, whose Diamond Jubilee they were celebrating, to be asked to sanction their exclusion by reason of their colour or race. (p.99)

And while the British solution to this dilemma was the infamous dictation test,  it’s still a shameful part of our history that it was the Brits who made our political leaders tone down their racism.

Mind you, Macklin – as you can also hear in this audio presentation at ACRI (the Australia China Relations Institute) in Sydney – makes the claim more than once, that the Chinese were just as racist.

[Early in the 20th century] … In the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal Protector, Baldwin Spencer, an anthropologist, conceived a particular hatred for the Chinese.  ‘There are a few decent ones,’ he said, ‘but 98 per cent are low, depraved beasts who want deporting.’  He was not alone in his racist views.  Many Chinese were totally opposed to ‘mixed marriages’ with Aboriginal women and the children of these unions were not given a Chinese clan name as it would bring ‘shame’ to the extended family.  (p.122)

(Unfortunately, while Spencer’s comments are footnoted, the statement about Chinese opposition to mixed marriages isn’t, so there’s no way to assess the credibility of the source.)

We learn about some interesting characters in the course of Macklin’s survey.  There was the entrepreneur and philanthropist Mei Quong Tart (1850-1903); Billy Sing the military hero and one of many Chinese who enlisted in WW1 despite the rules, (the subject of a fictionalised account of his life by Ouyang Yu); and amongst Australians who worked to forge more respectful relationships there was the journalist-adventurer George Ernest Morrison (1862-1920) noted for his heroic behaviours during the (anti-foreign, anti-colonial) Boxer Rebellion; and the newspaperman Bill Donald (1875-1946) who was a friend and advisor to Sun Yat-Sen and to Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek.

Macklin shows convincingly how Australia lost opportunities in the post-war period.  China in the Pacific theatre of WW2 played the same role in Australia’s interests as Russia did to support the allies in Europe, but has had very little recognition [despite Australia’s enthusiasm for commemorating military history].  But this opportunity for a ‘friendship treaty’ was lost.  In the wake of the Communist Revolution when Chifley considered recognising China in 1949, he was handicapped by domestic support for the White Australia Policy.  New Zealand went ahead, but Australia failed to take the initiative and ended up following the US in recognition of Taiwan instead.  We lost exports to Canada because they recognised China and we didn’t do that until Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971.  The only reason that Australia achieved any agricultural export sales to China in this era was because Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in catastrophic famine and the Chinese government had no alternative but to import grains to feel its starving people.

The failure to develop an independent foreign policy meant that Australia went along with the American theory of linking Vietnam and China as part of a monolithic Communism, thus generating antagonism throughout the Vietnam War.  There has been outright hostility between Vietnam and China for two millennia, because of Chinese territorial claims in Vietnam.  But Australian politicians tried to warn the Russian leaders, to their slight bewilderment, against Chinese expansionism and asked them to restrain the Chinese in Vietnam…as if … Beijing and Hanoi were now joined at the hip. They even went so far as to claim that Australia was at risk of Chinese aggression, when there is no history of Chinese territorial aggression against Australia, ever.

The last 100-odd pages of the book are about the recent history of Australia-Chinese relations during my adulthood, which is particularly interesting.  I would have liked to see a greater variety of Chinese sources from within China, but it’s still illuminating to read about the machinations of the Chinese communist party in the years since Mao’s death.  The chapter about Kevin Rudd’s time in office, and about Barack Obama’s policies in Asia is interesting too.

Now, of course, with the crisis in North Korea and That Man in the White House, who knows what will happen?  I can’t see our chaotic faction-ridden government coming up with an independent foreign policy any time soon…

I found another review by Stephen A Russell at The New Daily 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2017

Non-fiction November

I’m not sure that I can participate in all five weeks of activities for Non-fiction November (I have too many nice new novels to read!) but I can certainly join in Week One.

2017’s Nonfiction November is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Julie at Julz Reads, and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness.

In Week 1 (Oct 30 to Nov 3), take a look back at your year of nonfiction:

Australian non-fiction

and although I haven’t quite finished writing the review: Dragon and Kangaroo, Australia and China’s shared history form the Goldfields to the present day, by Robert Macklin.

And from overseas:

…and reflect on the following questions – 

What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?

Oh, too hard, much too hard!  I’m really getting a lot out of the Very Short Introduction series (and will probably finish the VSI for Russian Literature during November too, and I think The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths is a very valuable book for non-historians to read.  Return to Moscow by Tony Kevin is a good antidote to paranoia about Russia, but for sheer enjoyment as distinct from what I might pompously call ‘self-improvement’ I’d recommend Margaret Flockton, a Fragrant Memory by Louise Wilson and The Art of War by the late Betty Churcher.


What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Heavens, I don’t know… I’m always ear-bashing people about the books I read!  It might have been A Good Life to the End by Ken Hillman, because while I certainly didn’t enjoy reading about what lies in wait for our last years, I think it’s a very important book that people should read.  But I’m pretty sure I banged on about Kenneth Baker’s  The Burning of Books too….

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? 

What, just one?

That would be all the topics that I’d rather not read because they depress me.  You know, Brexit, American politics, climate change, and that stuff about death cleaning…

What are you hoping expecting to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Guilt, about all the books I haven’t read.  I had a purge of the NF shelves a month or so ago, and got it down to 101…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2017

First Person, by Richard Flanagan

It has taken me ages to read Richard Flanagan’s new novel First Person because there is so much to think about within its pages.  But as you can tell from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week, it’s a book that has a comic thread while also pursuing much darker issues.

I had long forgotten John Friedrich who as Executive Director of the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA*) in the 1980s, defrauded the banks of nearly $300 million dollars, but his story was astonishing news, even in the 1980s when we had become used to corporate fraud.  As I recall it, the NSCA was a national search and rescue outfit, which impressed us all with its high profile rescues and its gee-whiz equipment, and we were all flabbergasted to learn that all but one of the containers full of hi-tech equipment either did not exist, or were empty. What I did not know was that my literary hero Richard Flanagan was ghost-writing Friedrich’s memoirs at the time of his suicide (four days after he was charged) and that the book, Codename Iago was published posthumously.  (And sank like a stone). How could I have known about that?  It still doesn’t appear on his Goodreads page!

Out of this experience as an unsuccessful ghost-writer, Flanagan has crafted a cunning pseudo-memoir of a wily conman called Siegfried (Ziggy) Heidl and his memoirist the hapless Kif Kehlmann.  Kif is a penniless wannabe author in Hobart, struggling to get by on next-to-nothing with his wife Suzy and small daughter Bo.  While Flanagan writes this section with sardonic humour, it reads as if it’s from the heart: it’s tough for this young couple and mortgage stress is the least of it.  Everything they have is second-hand and cobbled together from junk at the tip.  Simple pleasures are what they enjoy because they can’t afford any other kind, and there’s no relief on the horizon because Kif has an implacable desire to be a writer and he has Suzy’s enduring support – her faith in him is unshakeable.

But Kif’s novel, (as we saw in the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week), is not going well, and he gets the sack from his job as a doorman; the mortgage payments are pressing and Suzy is pregnant with twins – so much against his better judgement he takes up the offer of a ghost-writing job.  He’s rather liverish about Tasmania, and not much nicer about Melbourne, where he has a fly-in-fly-out existence while he tries to write what turns out to be a most elusive memoir:

I was Australian, but I didn’t really know anything about Australia, having grown up in Tasmania, about which no one knows anything, least of all Tasmanians to whom it is only ever a growing mystery.  Melbourne was a confident town, by its own estimate, if few others, a great city, which believed it was born out of gold rushes rather than by invasion by Van Diemonian settlers a few years prior to the discovery of gold, men who had made their mark running death squads on the Tasmanian frontier hunting down remnant Tasmanian Aboriginals and massacring them at night around their campfires.

Some Tasmanians said Melbourne was like Tasmania, only bigger, which now struck me as stupid as saying Tasmania was like New York, only smaller, which was just as true and just as stupid.  Really, the world was full of stupid things yet without them what would we have to talk about?  (p.17)

[I suspect that Flanagan has read James Boyce’s magnificent 1835, the founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia.  In a book about truth and lies and how we delude ourselves, Flanagan’s demolition of Melbourne’s sanitised history and its founder John Batman is verifiable truth.]

In his naïveté, Kif thinks that ghost-writing a memoir is easy, but he hasn’t counted on Heidl being such a slippery customer.  The deadline is tight: the book has to be finished before Heidl goes on trial for the $700million fraud, and Suzy’s getting near to term – and twins often come early, don’t they?  Before long it’s only the promise of a cash payment to ease their financial crisis that keeps him going, because Heidl – still apparently masterminding deals and maybe things more menacing than that – can’t be cajoled into providing his memoirist with the requisite details of his life story.

Heidl is a strange character indeed.  Impossible to pin down – not even about where he was born – he meanders through these tense days spouting Nietzschean philosophical thoughts* about the nature of truth and lies, having oblique conversations with lawyers and publicists and also new dupes or fellow conspirators with whom he says he’s setting up a space station in Queensland.  He disappears off to meetings whenever he likes, leaving Kit frustrated and enraged and desperately trying to cobble together something resembling an outline for the publisher.

[*Heidl makes many references to Tebbe too, someone Kif also seems to know of.  Professor Google has failed me: does anyone know if Tebbe is a real person – a philosopher?  a cultural commentator?  a corporate psycho-babbler? Maybe it’s a case of Flanagan playing a trick on a hapless reader…]

The publisher, Gene Paley, provides Flanagan with an opportunity to satirise the publishing industry, and the ubiquitous memoir in particular.  Paley represents the corporatized industry that is dominated by profit rather than the intrinsic worth of books.  Paley is suspicious of anything ‘literary’ because it doesn’t sell.  And he won’t leave his writer alone to write the book: to tight deadlines he demands outlines and chapters and words he can mine for publicity, not to mention hounding Kif to get Ziggy’s signed release attesting to the veracity of the memoir.  And no, there’s no advance either, so Kif stays penniless until he delivers.  His runners are literally falling apart.

It seems improbable, but the reader finds the narrative tension almost unbearable.  It’s only about the writing of a book after all, and if Kif succeeds in writing it, not one worth reading at that.  But as the deadlines of Kif’s life converge, Heidl continues Heidling (a new word, very handy for describing dissemblers IMO!) and Kif finds that Heidl’s intrusions into his mind and his life are blurring his entire identity.  And there is no one, not even Suzy, who can share his pain.

I wasn’t expecting Flanagan to reach the heights of visceral prose that he achieved in The Narrow Road to the Deep North when writing about the Burma Railway – but he does, describing that most everyday of human events, the birth of his children.  My recollection of my time in the labour ward is that I tended to be a bit self-absorbed and paid very little attention to the emotions of the husband beside me until it was all over, so Kif’s awareness of his wife’s protracted agony and the risks to mother and baby were a revelation to me. Advised by the doctor that unless Suzy could push harder they would have to do a caesarean and even then there is no guarantee that the babies will survive, Kif is beside himself:

She began a low moaning, a strange animal sound, and I was again losing her; she was tumbling into some void as her body heaved and convulsed.  Her face was scarcely recognisable.  I leant in close, telling her again she could do it.  But it was becoming clear she couldn’t.  I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the handsome doctor.  I walked with him to a far corner of the room.

Your wife is exhausted, he said, sniffed, and continued.  The babies are increasingly stressed.  We have to operate.

Five minutes, I begged.  Just five more, that’s all I’m asking.

I went back to Suzy.  I pointlessly wiped her face once more, and once more I begged her.  She was very far away.  Her whole being seemed caught in some primal struggle that was not hers to share.  She suddenly screamed in such a way that I had never heard before, deeply, terribly, as much an unrooted gasp of horror as a primeval cry.  It was as if from somewhere deep within she was finding a strength additional to all she had spent, summoning some will to push her exhausted flesh further.

And as that awful screaming continued – a sound suspended between a moan of death and a plea for pity, an acceptance of what life was and a rage against it – as a mood of terse attention took hold of the room, everyone continued on as if it were everyday work, which it was also, and still measurements were taken and still vital signs were checked, and still people chatted softly.(p.240)

Richard Flanagan isn’t an author for everyone – I’ve read two spiteful reviews of First Person which I won’t dignify by referencing them.  They are typical Australian Tall Poppy efforts – more about taking down the winner of the Booker Prize than attending to the novel, patronising Flanagan for struggling over a work to follow the international success consistently denied to him by the Miles Franklin judges, and either out of ignorance or intent, completely missing the point of the book.  One of these reviews, judging by the length of the initial commentary compared to the brevity of references to the content of the book, may well have been written by someone who hasn’t read it, or merely skimmed it looking for a quotable moment.  The other is a jealous diatribe by a middleweight author, notable only for the way its puerile, vituperative style contrasts with the delicate writing in his own novel.

But I would say this: First Person deserves close attention and patience, and my advice would be not to read it just because it’s by a Booker winner.  Read it because you enjoy the meditative experience of reading an author who never fails to provoke. Fans of Richard Flanagan know that this is true of almost all his books.

  • NB: The NSCA reinvented itself after the Friedrich debacle and is (as it was before his disastrous time in the top job) a perfectly respectable outfit offering workplace health and safety training.

Update: Other (intelligent) reviews

  • Peter Keneally at the SMH
  • Sunil Badani at The Australian (Sorry, this one is paywalled, but you may be able to access it if you haven’t exceeded the free limit.  Badani, whose PhD was about literary frauds, noticed something I missed, though I knew which novel Flanagan/Kif was referring to when he says that his finally finished novel – rejected because it did not fit into any recognisable school of Australian literature and about a drowning man having visions of his life – was not something of any originality or appeal:

Yet, despite — or perhaps because of — this increasing artifice, life continues to imitate art. Death of a River Guide, the completio­n of which was paid for by the ghostwriting job, was beaten­ for the 1995 Miles Franklin by the most notorious fraud in Aust­ralian literary history: Helen Demi­denko/Darville’s The Hand That Signed the Paper.

There’s also a review at the Australian Book Review (paywalled) but I haven’t read because I stopped subscribing to the ABR when they stopped reviewing mainly books and writing and transferred their attention to the arts in general.

Update (later the same day): Lo and behold, The Guardian has just published an essay by Flanagan called ‘The corrosion of truth in these strange times is terrifying’.  It’s not the usual ‘genesis of the novel’ story, it’s more than that.

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: First Person
Publisher: Knopf, (Penguin Random House Australia) 2017
ISBN: 9780143787242 (hbk.)
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Available from Fishpond: First Person


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 31, 2017

2017 Colin Roderick Award winner and shortlist

It wasn’t until I saw the announcement for the winner, that I came across the shortlist for the Colin Roderick Award…

The following information comes from the website hosted by James Cook University:

The Colin Roderick Award is one of Australia’s oldest literary awards, founded in 1967 by Professor Colin Roderick. After Professor Roderick’s death in 2000, the award was renamed in his memory. The Foundation for Australian Literary Studies presents the annual award to the value of $20,000, coupled with the silver H.T. Priestley Memorial Medal.

The award and medal are presented to the best original book, in the judges’ opinion, that is published in Australia in the previous calendar year. Submissions must deal with any aspect of Australian life and can be in any field or genre of writing, verse or prose.

Josephine Wilson is the winner of the award for 2017, for her novel Extinctions (see my review) but there were some fine nominations as well.  Links are to the judges’ reports at James Cook University.

Congratulations to Josephine Wilson (which also won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award), and to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2017

Bridget Crack, by Rachel Leary

A female convict on the run in the Tasmanian wilderness in 1826?  It doesn’t sound very likely, does it?  But debut novelist Rachel Leary has managed to create a wholly convincing novel out of this inversion of the Intransigent Convict trope, and it’s breath-taking reading.

It’s historical fiction, but not as we might know it.  While her style is different, in impact Bridget Crack is more like Rohan Wilson’s disconcertingly powerful duo The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost, also set in colonial Van Diemen’s Land when the new society being created is confronting both the hostile forces of the Indigenous owners of the land and the harsh environment.  As in Wilson’s novels, the moral choices of Leary’s novel are trapped by pragmatism.

Everything is against Bridget.  The pugnacious landscape, the cruel weather, the entire apparatus of the convict system – and her gender, which makes her doubly vulnerable because of the attentions of men in a society where women are scarce and mostly there for the taking. Psychologically, she’s ill-equipped for survival in a place where she is dependent on others for fundamentals like food and shelter: she’s impatient, impulsive and intolerant.  She’s also poignantly naïve. Her initial placement is as an indentured servant in a comparatively benign Hobart residence, but – not knowing what to expect and having no idea about the realities of this crude, violent society – she finds it intolerable.  It’s her own intransigence that lands her in a Hobart gaol for insubordination and thereafter on assignment to the interior far from any kind of rescue.  Faced with a horrible man who lied to the authorities about having a wife so that he could be assigned a female servant, and who lets his other servant die without a qualm, Bridget runs away into the bush.  Her naïveté shows in the theft of the items she takes with her: she takes no provision for water.

Inevitably, she gets lost.  (As people so often do in the Tasmanian wilderness, even today, with GPS and mobile phones).  But her rescuers are four brutal bushrangers, also convicts on the run from the authorities.  The Sheedy gang gets by with raids on nearby farms and the reluctant help of shepherds and other absconders on the frontier.  Of these four, Matt Sheedy is the Alpha Male, but he is no romantic hero defending Bridget’s honour against the lascivious attentions of the repulsive Budders or the doubts of Henry and Sam about the wisdom of a woman slowing them down. Bridget Crack is most certainly not a romance.

Travelling in their company changes Bridget’s status from absconder to wanted criminal, eventually with a price on her head.  That price means that it’s not possible for her to trust anyone.  She’s at the mercy of the bush, the killers she’s travelling with, and the soldiers who hunt her.

However, apart from the circumstances which led to her conviction in the first place, Bridget is not a victim, except of the weather.

This was no ordinary rain.  It came across the sky in dark grey sheets, the drops barbed with ice.  It punished the canopy, the ground, without mercy.  This was weather of a new kind – weather with no name.  Whatever it was it grabbed the trees and shook them with an unbridled madness that had them groaning, their smaller branches scribbling in panic while strips of bark were ripped from their trunks and flung to the ground.

She scrambled up a slope, her boots bloated with water, the dress sticking to her.  A rock jutted out from the hill to form a shallow overhang, a space under it that she wedged herself into.

Daylight faded into pitch-black.  Thunder pressed the hills.  Lightning spilled across the sky, for a moment exposed the abused, bedraggled world below.  Then everything was claimed by darkness again.  She lay folded into the hole, watching, shivering.  Somewhere close by there was a crash and her heart hammered her chest bone.  The silence, when it came, was so thick it seemed to buzz.

For a while she slept then woke suddenly.  Something near her shoulder, something there.  The knowing of it sharp in her body.  She didn’t breathe, kept perfectly still.  It was close to her face now, blackness, darkness, whispering its ugliness.  There was another clap of thunder,  She pushed herself back against the dirt wall. (pp. 51-2)

Meanwhile back in Hobart, her former employer Captain Marshall is wrestling with his conscience.  He admits to himself that he was attracted to Bridget, and he also knows that he could have prevented his spiteful wife from offloading Bridget for a trivial offence. So he bears some responsibility for her plight.  Sent out to recapture her, he struggles with her moral culpability: has she willingly joined the bushrangers, or has her time with them been an unwilling matter of survival? The distinction is more than academic because bushrangers are hanged for their crimes; absconders spend a bit of time in the Female Factory doing hard labour and are then reassigned to a new employer.

The presence of the Indigenous people is skilfully handled. By 1826 they were being forced further and further away from their land, and they are about to be removed from the settled areas by the edict of Governor George Arthur stating that the military and settlers could use force to drive natives away from properties.  (This was the infamous Black Line). The use of the military is new, but the violence is not – the hunter Sully has already witnessed the aftermath of a massacre by settlers:

That night he sat by the fire drinking cider.  ‘This time,’ he said- and his voice was quiet and he leaned down and put his drink down on the floor – ‘I ain’t been in Van Diemen’s Land long.  Were out hunting roo, few mile upriver from town.  It were a windy day.’  He paused, squinted at the fire, and when he spoke again his voice seemed even more faraway.  ‘I remember it were real windy.  I come up this slope.  Come to the top of the rise and I seen them there.  I seen them.  I knew what I were seeing.  I knew it alright, but … sometimes you can see a thing, you know what it is, but you can’t figure it out.  So I stood there.  I just stood there.

Little kids and everything.  The dogs sniffing at them.  I turned round and just about run down the hill.

‘Blacks,’ he said.  ‘All of them shot. (p.172)

Yet the Aborigines are not without agency, interacting in an exchange of equals with one of the shepherds in a remote area, surprising Bridget with their fluent English.  They divert the soldiers from the gang’s trail, laughing off Primmy’s warning that they might get themselves in trouble:

‘Trouble?’  Trousers grinned. ‘Already in trouble.’

The irony of this comment is amplified by the exchange that follows.

‘He wants guns’, Sully said.  He spoke to Primmy, said Trousers had asked him to get guns for him.  ‘This hunting ground’s not yours,’ he said.  ‘Told him I knew it wasn’t bloody mine.  He says it’s theirs, gov’nor probably says it’s the king’s, some farmer’ll come out here with a piece of paper says it’s his, and not long now either.’  (p.171)

Trousers wants the guns because ‘Whitefella kill plenty blackfella […] Kill women, piccaninnies, and prophetically, Sully asks, ‘Do you think they’re going to stop killing you because you kill them?’

In a later episode Bridget encounters two hunters and surrenders a kangaroo caught by her dog, a metaphor for recognition of their prior ownership – a recognition that should have been exercised by colonial interlopers who are more powerful and more morally culpable than she is.

Bridget Crack is a stunning debut and I’m looking forward to seeing what Rachel Leary writes next!

You can find out more about Rachel Leary at her website.

Other reviews:

  • Ellen Cregan at Kill Your Darlings (where the book has been chosen for their First Book Club)
  • Ross Southernwood at the SMH
  • Rohan Wilson at The Australian, but that’s paywalled.


Author: Rachel Leary
Title: Bridget Crack
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2017
ISBN: 9781760295479
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Bridget Crack

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #14 Chapter 13

Well, here we are at Part III!

Tindall tells me, in A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” that that Joyce chose the title ‘Shaun’ for Part III, and he approves because three of the four forthcoming chapters are indeed about Shaun, who has superseded his father HCE a.k.a. Earwicker.  Reminding me that the four parts of FW are the Vico’s Four Ages (see Chapter One if, like me, you need reminding about what they are), he says that this part is the human age.

So, reminded that this age is signified by burial; that it produces cities, laws, civil obedience and eventually popular government; and that its language is vulgar speech, abstract discourse, and (in FW) radio and TV, I should be good to go!

Well, not quite.  Because, says Tindall, there are wheels within wheels. As well as structuring the whole book into four parts, the Viconian Ages also shape each chapter within each part, i.e. in this Part III shaped by Vico’s Human Age, within each of the four chapters there is a divine age, an heroic age, a human age and a ricorso (a period of confusion). (#WrySmile That last one, I recognise.)

So.  HCE is upstairs in bed, dreaming of his son Shaun incarnated as Jesus the Postman.  Shaun follows the Way of the Cross, a salve a tour, taking up his heaviest crux in this chapter:

a Salvator about to tour his fourteen stations, of which taking up the cross is the second. (Tindall, p.224)

And this is how he’s dressed, while messonger angels be uninterruptedly nudging him among the winding ways of random:

Ay, he who so swayed a will of a wisp before me, Hand prop to hand, prompt side to the pros, dressed like an earl in just the correct wear, in a classy mac Frieze o’coat of far suparior ruggedness, indigo braw, tracked and tramped, and an Irish ferrier collar, freeswinging with mereswin lacers from his shoulthern and thick welted brogues on him hammered to suit the scotsmost public and climate, iron heels and sparable soles, and his jacket of providence wellprovided woolies with a softrolling lisp of a lapel to it and great sealingwax buttons, a good helping bigger than the slots for them, of twentytwo carrot krasnapoppsky red and his invulnerable burlap whiskcoat and his popular choker, Tamagnum sette-and-forte and his loud boheem toy and the damasker’s overshirt he sported inside, a starspangled zephyr with a decidedly surpliced crinklydoodle front with his motto through dear life embrothred over it in peas, rice, and yeggy-yolk, Or for royal, Am for Mail, R.M.D. hard cash on the nail and the most successfully carried gigot turnups now you ever, (what a pairfact crease! how amsolookly kersse!) breaking over the ankle and hugging the shoeheel, everything the best – none other from (Ah, then may the turtle’s blessings of God and Mary and Haggispatrick and Huggisbrigid be souptumbling all over him!) other than (and may his hundred thousand welcome stewed letters, relayed wand postchased, multiply, ay faith, and plultiply!) Shaun himself.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle edition) (p. 404-5).

Not meaning to make the ingestion for the moment that he was guilbey of gulpable gluttony Shaun is fortified on his rounds by:

…meals of spadefuls of mounded food, in anticipation of the faste of tablenapkins, constituting his three-partite pranzipal meals plus a collation, his breakfast of first, a bless us O blood and thirsthy orange, next, the half of a pint of becon with newled googs and a segment of riceplummy padding, met of sunder suigar and some cold forsoaken steak peatrefired from the batblack night o’erflown then, without prejuice to evectuals, came along merendally his stockpot dinner of a half a pound of round steak very rare, Blong’s best from Portarlington’s Butchery with a side of riceypeasy and Corkshire alia mellonge and bacon with (a little mar pliche!) a pair of chops and thrown in from the silver grid by the proprietoress of the roastery who lives on the hill and gaulusch gravy and pumpernickel to wolp up and a gorger’s bulby onion (Margareter, Margaretar Margarasticandeatar) and as well with second course and then finally, after his avalunch oclock snack at Appelredt’s or Kitzy Braten’s of saddlebag steak and a Botherhim with her old phoenix portar, jistr to gwen his gwistel and praties sweet and Irish too and mock gurgle to whistle his way through for the swallying, swp by swp, and he getting his tongue arount it and Boland’s broth broken into the bargain, to his regret his soupay avie nightcap, vitellusit a carusal consistent with second course eyer and becon (the rich of) with broad beans, hig, steak, hag, pepper the diamond bone hotted up timmtomm and while’twas after that he scoffed a drakeling snuggily stuffed following cold loin of veal more cabbage and in their green free state a clister of peas, soppositorily petty, last. P.S. but a fingerhot of rheingenever to give the Pax cum Spiritututu. Drily thankful. Burud and dulse and typureely jam, all free of charge, aman, and. And the best of wine avec.

 Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle edition p. 405-6). .

Because I might need them throughout this Part III, I’ve copied the Way of the Cross from Wikipedia:

The standard set from the 17th to 20th centuries has consisted of 14 pictures or sculptures depicting the following scenes:

  1. Pilate condemns Jesus to die

  2. Jesus accepts his cross

  3. Jesus falls for the first time

  4. Jesus meets his mother, Mary

  5. Simon helps carry the cross

  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

  7. Jesus falls for the second time

  8. Jesus meets the three women of Jerusalem

  9. Jesus falls for the third time

  10. Jesus is stripped of his clothes

  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross

  12. Jesus dies on the cross

  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross

  14. Jesus is placed in the tomb

BTW These fourteen Stations of the Cross have inspired some exquisite art work in Catholic Churches.  This series is from the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Avranches, Manche, Normandie, France:

The Way of the Cross in Limoges enamel (Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

“We” (the readers) ask Shaun fourteen questions, one for each station of the cross, and one of the questions is about the author of one of the letters he carries.  It turns out to be Shem and it’s no surprise that he is scornful about every aspect of it.

Shaun, being human, can’t find it in himself to love his brother Shem.  He’s also childish, so his sermon includes nursery rhymes, fairy tales, fables and parables.  These, continues Tindall, put children to sleep, and so the congregation sleeps through his address, including two thunderclaps, the first (according to Campbell in A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed)  coming from his father upstairs or (according to Tindall) from Shaun clearing his throat before he begins his lecture predicting a rise after a fall, to the assembled audience  :


The second, Tindall says has not 100 letters, but 101, making a total of 1001 for all the ten thunderclaps :


1001 is not just the number of books, films, artworks and foods &c that you should consume before you die, it’s also the number of renewal – and salvation – as we know from The Arabian Nights.

John Vernon Lord’s illustration for this chapter (see here) focusses on the tale of the Ondt and the Gracehopper, which is based on the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper in which the grasshopper mocks the ant for his industrious preparations for the winter, and gets his comeuppance when the starving grasshopper sees the ant enjoying the grains he had laid by during the days of plenty.  In Joyce’s version, as told by Shaun, Shem is the wastrel and Shaun is the practical businessman, but he falls into the river Liffey.  The picture also shows some of the philosophers who get a mention in the text.

On to Chapter 14!


A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and

A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

Finnegans Wake (Modern Classics) read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, Naxos AudioBooks 2009

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics), introduction by Seamus Deane, Penguin, 2015.  (I’m using the Kindle edition ASIN B00XX0H95S, just to make quoting easier because typing the text is such a provocation to AutoCorrect).)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2017

Trial by Tandem, by Alan McCulloch

The moment when I stood awestruck in front of Trajan’s Column in the V&A in London remains etched in my memory forever.  It wasn’t even the real thing, it was a copy that had been made for students of the arts and the classics – and because of the vast size of the original in Rome, the part that stopped me in my tracks was only one of two halves of it.  (See here). But for me, fresh from the Antipodes on my first trip home to my birthplace after decades away, the sight of something I had studied in detail at university but only ever seen in books, was stunning.  For any Australian who’s interested in art, there is always an unforgettable moment somewhere in Europe where the sight of the artwork known only from books is neatly summed up in the foreword* to Alan McCulloch’s Trial by Tandem:

To him, the impact of the Old World, which he previously only knew vicariously, is terrific: for the first time in his life he becomes aware of a living past; the old masters are to him the new masters, and their values suddenly become eternal and universal instead of merely local.

Alan McLeod McCulloch (1907-1992) went on to become a Very Big Deal in the world of art and wrote the magisterial Encyclopaedia of Australian Art to prove it. But in the days before he became the associate editor for Meanjin (1951-1963) and then the highly influential art critic for the Melbourne Herald (1952-1982), he had found it prudent to decamp to the US.   Back in 1946 he had made more enemies than a football umpire at the Argus, because he had championed radical modernist artists like Albert Tucker.  His career as an art critic which was to have released him from the drudgery of banking seemed to be over when management discovered that in the person of its art critic it had inadvertently clutched a viper to its bosom.

But fate intervened.  He skipped town, found an Australian bride while he was in the US, and then departed for Europe on a tight budget, the result of which is this book.  Trial by Tandem is not great literature, it is not in the inimitable style of H.V. Morton, but the book – as Sian Prior told us at a workshop where I spied on the processes of travel writing the other day – has the requisite unique ‘angle’: McCulloch and his bride Ellen traversed post-war France and Italy by tandem, and this gave him the opportunity to write with wit and humour about many things…

Here he is writing about the traffic in Paris:

It is true that the tourist, on first viewing the traffic of Paris, goes up on his toes with a hissing intake of breath.  Death, it seems to him, dances impatiently on every crossroads.  He sees wax-moustached chaffeurs in their taxicabs, rushing at each other at full speed, autobuses parting the lesser traffic as the prow of a battleship parts the waves, motorcycles crackling nastily to and fro, and a shoal of glittering bicycles darting about like minnows in a turbulent stream.  (p.16)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, n’est-ce pas?

Moret-sur-Loing by Alfred Sisley (1888) **

In amongst the traveller’s observations of the places he visits and the comic anecdotes about the tandem, he records his dismay about his own ability as an artist.  McCulloch has three works at the NGV so he was perhaps being too hard on himself when he came to the village of Moret which had inspired the impressionist painter Alfred Sisley.

Farm carts, painted a brilliant ultramarine blue, rumbled past carrying peasant drivers sitting on loads of hay.  Straw hats, shaped like scoops, crowned the heads of other peasants coming into town for provisions.  The bridge, the river, the boats, the fishermen, the women at their washing, and a thousand other accents danced provokingly against the background of Sisley’s Moret, until the colours on my paper had become a hopeless muddle of gouache, and all hope of organisation had dissolved into the atmosphere.

His gloom is diverted by the antics of local children who thought his gouache was a glamorised species of mud pie but he concludes, mulling over a glass of vin rouge:

‘Itinerant, doodling, painter that I was.  How could I hope to make more than superficial notes of a subject which I knew only superficially?

I sallied forth and made a few pen notes in the small pocket sketch-book that I always carried.  They were my only compensation for the morning’s work.  (p.32)

Perhaps it was this mood that made him realise eventually that he could not be the great painter that he wanted to be, but could be a great art critic instead?

But I think it’s a good thing he devoted his pen to art criticism and not travel writing.  Most of this travel memoir is enjoyable, entertaining reading, but some of it seems a bit dubious to contemporary eyes…

The Europe McCulloch is writing about is post-war Europe, rebuilding its cities and dealing with the emotional and social scars of war.  Born in 1907, he was 32 and working in the bank when World War II broke out, but from what I can gather from the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), McCulloch seems not to have taken the chance to escape a dispiriting job by enlisting, not then, and not when Australia’s focus shifted to the Pacific after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941.  I say this not to judge, but to observe that McCulloch’s war would have been experienced only remotely and this shows by contrast with the great travel writer H.V. Morton in I Saw Two Englands (1942), where we see Morton walk the streets of post-war London in trepidation, fearing that turning a corner would reveal yet another well-loved landmark in ruins.  Morton knew the places that had stood on the bomb damage.  He had worshipped in the churches now lost forever.  This contrast is particularly noticeable when McCulloch writes about Italy, where the extensive rubble is undifferentiated and he laments the priorities of post-war reconstruction:

In various Italian cities we had often remarked the penurious state of the modern Italian artist.

Possibly at no other time in her existence had Italy offered the artist so little in the way of material subsistence.

The hand of the artist, which, for centuries, had enriched and immortalised the great cultural centres – had in fact created them – was often bereft of even adequate materials with which to carry on its work.

For the pre-war patrons – the wealthy connoisseurs, the professional men of taste, the decently paid scholars and the other collectors had lost their purchasing power.

The wealth of the country was in transit as it were, in the act of enriching the black marketeers and the opportunists, or transferring itself to a different class of society; and the few decent politicians had their hands full with more obvious sociological problems.  (p. 182)

Either he is glossing over it or he is not aware that those pre-war patrons flourished under the fascist dictator Mussolini.  And as you can see, his opinions are blunt – especially his criticisms of Italy.  He is scathing about everything from hygiene to morals, and not reticent about summing up the Italian middle class as incapable of discipline and having no character.  It’s embarrassing to read these scornful judgements in this day and age, and I can’t imagine any publisher ever reissuing this book.  And yet…

And yet, it seems to me that his judgemental outrage comes from a good place: he is a product of an egalitarian and progressive democracy where (unlike now) begging was rare; where there had been free and compulsory education since the late 19th century; where slums were not a commonplace but an item for reform; where corruption and chaotic politics had no capacity to impact on the ordinary lives of Australian working people; and where social mobility was more than a possibility.  Of course there was poverty and discrimination in the Melbourne that McCullough knew, but his brutal condemnation of Italy seems to me to derive from the shock any traveller experiences when he sees devastating, unrelenting and utterly hopeless poverty for the first time and recognises that there is structural inequality behind the tragedy to which he is an appalled witness.

It’s not a bad thing to compare McCulloch’s experience of Italy with mine, even if some of his judgements seem a bit intemperate now and they give an entirely different impression to those of his contemporary H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in Italy (1964).  Overall, they don’t detract from the pleasure of reading what is sometimes a quaint and sometimes a still surprisingly relevant travel memoir of a world that’s long gone.

* This foreword is pasted into our copy of the book: it’s a photocopy of a catalogue page listing 20 paintings and drawings from this trip, and the foreword tells us how when these paintings were shown in a London exhibition, a critic had noted that ‘they gave excitement … as though the artist was viewing his subject for the first time’As indeed he was.  It doesn’t say where this exhibition was, but since the photocopy hasn’t faded, my guess is that it was pasted in comparatively recently.

**Image source: Moret-sur-Loing By Alfred Sisley – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=158974

Author: Alan McCulloch
Title: Trial by Tandem
Publisher: F.W. Cheshire P/L
ISBN: none
Source: The Spouse’s bookshelves

Available: It’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a copy of this book.  It’s long out of print. Try OpShops and secondhand stores

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2017

Debut Mondays – at ANZ LitLovers

I don’t know why the Wheeler Centre stopped running Debut Mondays: it was a terrific series and I have a number of books on my TBR that derive from those wonderful early days when the  Wheeler Centre was more about books than ‘ideas’.

As soon as our staff meeting finished on Mondays, I could barrel down the Monash freeway, find a parking spot at the QV centre and head into ‘The Moat’ where there were light suppers and nibbles and four enthusiastic debut authors whose task it was to spruik their new novels in ten or fifteen minutes.  And even if I couldn’t get there in person, I heard about these authors because the event was advertised…

Some of those debut and emerging  authors reviewed on this blog or whose books are in my TBR because of Debut Mondays include Meg Merrilees, Eleanor Limprecht, Kirsten Krauth, Jane Rawson, Graeme Simsion, Jessie Cole, Amy Espeseth, Courtney Collins and Amy Choi; Romy Ash, Robert Power, Tony Birch, Melanie Joosten, Favel Parrett, Anna Krien, Lisa Lang, Catherine Harris, Lisa Reece-Lane, Roger Averill and Jon Bauer.

The advantage of Debut Mondays for those authors was that unlike the usual book launch it didn’t cost anything.  We who were attending bought our own suppers and nibbles.  All they had to do was turn up with some copies of the book – and persuade us to buy them.

The demise of this valuable series is on my mind because of a startling spike in my blog stats for a debut novel I recently reviewed: after a little searching I discovered that Kill Your Darlings has been running a First Book Club…

Established in 2014, the KYD First Book Club partners with local publishers to each month promote a new release debut book of fiction or non-fiction that KYD is gunning for everyone to read!

Through a series of events, online content, podcast coverage and profiles, the KYD First Book Club encourages wide-ranging and long-lasting conversations about these authors and their books both on and off the screen.

October’s book is Bridget Crack, the first novel of Rachel Leary, which I just happen to be reading, and the novel that had such an extraordinary impact on my stats was The Pacific Room by Michael Fitzgerald (which I reviewed here).  And that level of interest in a debut novel got me thinking…

What if I ran a series called Debut Mondays for Australian authors of literary fiction, which offered three or four debut authors 300-odd words to spruik their new books here on the ANZ LitLovers blog?  Depending on interest it could run weekly, fortnightly or monthly, and it could offer a wide Australian and international audience for the debut novel.

Authors of new or forthcoming books can contact me with an expression of interest in the contact form below.  Make sure that you check out my review policy first so that the books being spruiked appeal to the audience of this blog!

#Update: The next day: I’ve had an email from Emily Harms at the Wheeler Centre to say that they still run these ‘Debut Mondays’, renamed as The Next Big Thing.  But it’s not the same because (why??) they focus on a different genre each month, today’s one being a *sigh* Halloween edition.  I don’t want to be discouraging but one event is named Literary Fiction, which siloes those authors into a category that doesn’t appeal to everyone – while at the same time in their ‘past events’ I can see names that I recognise in events for other genres whose marketing didn’t appeal to me at all – and those authors have written books that I thought were great examples of literary fiction.

I’m sure most Melbourne readers subscribe to the Wheeler Centre and can access these events if they want to, but I still think ANZ LitLovers can be a place for publicising debut authors – beyond postcode 3000.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2017

Film, A Very Short Introduction, by Michael Wood

I have never really taken much interest in going to the cinema.  I tend to go along when friends invite me, and I quite enjoy it, and I buy the occasional DVD that’s been recommended to me, but films have never had an impact on me in the way that books do.  But from time to time cinematic style impinges on the books I read, so occasionally I have felt the need to find out more about this art form.   I have a copy of The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films  and 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die  both of which are dispiritingly full of films that I do not want to watch.  I have a subscription to Quikflix, and I get foreign films from them once or twice a month but I often forget to watch them until Quikflix nags me about them.  Perhaps Film, a Very Short Introduction might persuade me that I should invest more time in watching film?

The Contents consists of:

  • Before the titles – a brief introduction
  • Moving Pictures
  • Trusting the Image
  • The Colour of Money
  • References and Further reading
  • Around the world in 80 films (I’ve seen four of them: La Dolce Vita from Italy, Wild Strawberries from Sweden, and Brief Encounter and The Third Man from the UK.

It took a while for Wood to get to what I wanted: some explanation of why film matters, what’s good about it, and why I should watch it.  In ‘Moving Pictures’ there’s stuff about the invention of film, and yes, I did hunt out some of them on You Tube: Lumière’s La Sortie de l’usine Lumiere à Lyon (Leaving the Factory), and L’arroseur arose (The Waterer Watered) and then there’s stuff about film techniques and editing so I watched the *yawn* six-and-a-half minute introduction to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  I came across some new vocabulary: ‘montage’, ‘shot transition’, ‘shot-countershot’,  and its opposite – ‘parallel editing’ a.k.a. ‘cross-cutting’.  And there was this:

The moviegoer works less hard than the reader of books, in one sense, since so much is shown to her, pictured as complete.  But she also works harder in another sense, since she has a whole surrounding world to create, and all the syntax is in her head rather than on the screen. (p.22)

(But none of this answered my question: is what the moviegoer gets out of it as worthwhile as what the reader gets?  Does the viewer of The Grapes of Wrath become as sensitised to the issues raised by John Steinbeck’s book?  And just exactly how does watching Terminator II (which I haven’t seen) or 42nd Street (which I have) count as anything other than ephemeral entertainment?)

Having discussed the devices available to the film-maker Wood then raises an interesting issue:

I mention them for the record and also more tendentiously to suggest that once these elements are available to a director, and easily readable to an audience, film has reached its maturity as a medium and an art-form.  There are no more changes to come.

No?  What about sound and colour?  Computer-generated imagery? The whole digital revolution?  We’ll come to the revolution later in this book, but I’m suggesting that sound and colour have not altered the basic idioms of film in any serious way, however much they have altered its reach and looks and increased its affective power. (p.23)

And then, just to confuse me, he goes on to say:

There is one exception to this chain of completion. Well, there are many more than one, but let’s stay with the single case for the sake of argument. (p.24)

His exception is the music, which does produce new forms of film language but how does it advance his argument to say that there’s that one exception, and then contradict himself by saying there are many??

I got nowhere with this first chapter. Chapter 2 made more sense to me.  It’s called ‘Trusting the Image’ and it begins by pointing out that there are heaps of people like me who pay no attention whatsoever to the directors of films.  But he goes on to talk about the centrality of actors who often are the ones whose celebrity attracts cinemagoers and hence the financing of the film.   He talks about how stars are not only myths and not only fabrications and he quotes Richard Dyer as saying that Stars matter […] because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to most people.’  But he also says that in the early era of the cinema Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were not of the everyday world: they were remote and aloof, and they didn’t tell our stories, even when we are at our most ambitious or fanciful. 

(It does seem to me that there is an element of dreaming involved in the classic Hollywood era: dreaming of romance or of being more powerful.  Those Hollywood musicals were all fairy tales IMO, and the actors in them were inseparable from the gossip about them).

Talking of Hollywood… did you know that

In 1914, 90% of the films distributed internationally in the world were French; by 1928, 85% were American? (p.48)

You will no doubt already know that American films make up a huge chunk of the world market. But UNESCO reported 2006 that there are interesting exceptions, cases where the local product has the edge: India and France.

And India is where most [feature-length] films […] are made: 1091 in 2006. Nigeria came second with 872 films; the US third with 485.  In comparison, 203 films were made in France that year, 104 in the UK.  (p.48)

I wonder how many we made here in Australia?  And I also wonder what that might actually mean?  Is a film ‘made in Australia’ if it’s done with Hollywood actors and directors and special effects and whatnot?

Wood’s overview of foreign film in this chapter isn’t extensive, but it’s interesting, especially about Italian neo-realism and truth-telling films that I’ve seen, such as Rosselini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) which he says offered a correction to a thoroughly distorted world. He writes more about Japanese film but fails to persuade me to seek it out.  (Which I could easily do through Quickflix).  I can’t muster interest in what he describes at some length as experimental film or animé so I’m obviously too hard to please.

There is quite a long section about the differences between directors and what the French call auteurs, complicated by the fact that if it’s claimed that certain directors have an identifiable style, what then for directors who take pride (as some authors do) in eclecticism, and not having a recognisable style at all?

For these men, a certain idea of honour lies in being able to turn one’s hand to such different things – and precisely not sign them, as if to refuse the thought that everything had to belong to someone, that it was not enough to do the job well. (p.70)

One thing I learned, is the significance of the director’s cut.  In France apparently, the director always get the final cut, that is, he decides what version of the film we will see.  But in Hollywood,  someone elsethe studio, the producer, the money men – makes the ultimate call on which version of a film to print and distribute. So if we can get hold of a director’s cut, we get to see it as was originally intended.

Chapter 3 gets to the nub of it.  In 1930, a French novelist called Georges Duhamel went in to bat against film in his book Scènes de la vie future when he said that

… film ‘requires no kind of effort’ and ‘presupposes no capacity for consecutive thought’. (p.83)

For the opposing team, Walter Benjamin

… agrees that film audiences are distracted but claims that there are forms of distraction that may function as localised, medium-specific attention. ‘Even the distracted person’, he says, thinking of the moviegoer, ‘can form habits’.  ‘The audience,’ he adds, ‘is an examiner, but a distracted one.’

Duhamel, Benjamin implies, dislikes the cinema because he dislikes the masses.  We don’t have to like what the masses like – unless, of course, ‘we’ are the masses.  Even Benjamin is prepared to speak of the ‘disreputable form’ of some popular entertainment.  But we do have to see that the world changes, and that quantity doesn’t necessarily ruin quality. (p.83)

Is not being very interested in cinema as bad as disliking it for the implied reason that it’s mass entertainment?  The same argument gets tossed around in the world of books, where people like me who are not very interested in popular fiction are accused of being book snobs.  Speaking for myself, I don’t care to be pigeonholed like that, because (though I admit to being peeved about a folksinger winning the Nobel Prize for literature) I don’t actually have an opinion about cinema or popular fiction because I don’t engage with it much.  I’m not of the opinion that it’s essential to have an opinion about everything, nor is it essential to spend time sampling things that are not of great interest just because they’re popular.  Live and let live is what I say.  You can like Bryce Courtenay and Maeve Binchy if I can like Patrick White and George Eliot.

You can prefer cinema if I can prefer reading, and of course you are welcome to like both!

Author: Michael Wood
Title: Film, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions Series, 2012
ISBN: 9780192803535
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: Film: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2017

Stars Across the Ocean, by Kimberley Freeman

It sounds daft, I know, but I can’t read Richard Flanagan’s new novel First Person in bed because it’s a hardback.  It’s also deliciously thought-provoking, which is not ideal for bedtime reading, so I decided to take a look at a paperback that’s been languishing in my box of ‘maybes’ since July…

Stars Across the Ocean is badged as commercial women’s fiction on the blurb, and Kimberley Freeman is the pseudonym of Kim Wilkins, a prolific and award winning author across many genres who is also a teacher of creative writing at the University of Queensland.  She is very popular at Goodreads, where this and her other novels have pages and pages of 5 star ratings.

In an academic paper called ‘Popular genres and the Australian literary community: the case of fantasy fiction (2008), Wilkins analyses the way the literary community fails to pay attention to fiction outside the ‘genre’ of ‘Australian literary realism’.  Amongst other things she makes the point that:

Australian fantasy fiction has three strikes against its name: it is popular, not literary; it is set in European landscapes and history, not in Australian landscapes and history; and it is fantastic, not realist. (Kim Wilkins (2008) Popular genres and the Australian literary community: the case of fantasy fiction, Journal of Australian Studies, 32:2, 265-278, DOI:10.1080/14443050802056771)

Wilkins makes a convincing case for the way that commercial fiction gets little in the way of reviews despite its enduring popularity and commercial success, (though whether this is still true since the advent of the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the proliferation of online book review blogs, I can’t say). But prompted by my reading of Stars Across the Oceans, I’d hazard a guess that there are/were two reasons for this: firstly, most reviewers (whose credibility requires that they be widely read and therefore able to make informed judgements) probably don’t enjoy writing negative reviews and secondly, there really isn’t much to say about the formulaic writing of comfort reading a.k.a. beach reading.  Still, I’ll have a go, and perhaps bump up the stats…

Stars Across the Ocean is framed around two ‘indomitable’ women, one in the 21st century who is coming to terms with her mother’s decline into dementia and a failing marriage, and the other an impoverished Victorian era foundling who, in a highly improbable tale, seeks her birth mother in a quest that takes her from the north of England to London, Paris, Colombo and Melbourne.  These two narratives link together as Tori (Victoria) sorts out her historian mother’s research papers and finds the scattered pages of the unmarried mother’s confessional letter to her daughter.  Two love stories emerge with the requisite satisfyingly romantic conclusions.

The book is 447 pages long but I had worked out the plot ‘twist’ half way through, (page 265, I may have been a little slow) so the rest of the book was an exercise in observing how the author had managed to avoid overtly revealing it till the last chapters.  (Mostly achieved by laboriously not referring to a certain character by name).

What interested me was the inclusion of some deliberate taunts at ‘high culture’.  Trying to amuse her demented mother, Tori brings Margaret’s books from home to the clinic and reads to her, but finds George Eliot dull and slow.  Her Victorian counterpart likewise dismisses opera when she attends with her chivalrous rescuer Julius:

But the opera was the least interesting thing about her visit to the theatre.  Agnes quite liked the costumes, but could hardly bear the warbling voices and the deafening crescendos. (p. 215)

Julius, BTW is likewise orphaned but was taken into an aristocratic household rather than a foundling home, and likewise abandoned by Genevieve (the woman Agnes has identified as her birth mother).  Improbably, Julius hires Agnes as a companion for his aunt though she has no references, and subsequently doesn’t sack her when he finds her going through his desk but falls in love with her instead.  Agnes, improbably, spurns the opportunity to make a beaut marriage to a rich and improbably forgiving sort of bloke, and (because she is indomitable, I guess) continues her quest to find her mother, so she eventually ends up in a theatre which gives Freeman the opportunity for another barb: The Winter’s Tale goes over Agnes’s head when she sees it because she had never read any Shakespeare except for a few sonnets in school. […] She could not follow the plot.  Not simply because they used a stilted language she could barely understand, but also…  (#PlotSpoilerFollows though any reasonably alert reader has worked things out by the time this scene occurs).

Now why would an author (with a PhD!) deliberately insert these particular irrelevant offsides?  Presumably because her target audience will identify with them.  (Not unlike that canny red-haired fellow-Queenslander who deliberately parades her ignorance about issues in order to harvest the votes of people who identify with not understanding things too?)

Stars Across the Ocean is a fantasy novel without the medieval castles and Germanic folklore.  It is a Sara Crewe fantasy of a pauperised child who unbeknownst to all, is the legitimate heir to The Good Life.  Agnes earns her reward not from being a saintly Victorian child but by being Brave and Selfless and Independent and #Indomitable in an age where such recklessness would otherwise have ended up in the poor- or the whore-house.  She rejects material comforts and money and the only affection she has ever had (i.e. Julian) but she gets it all anyway because despite Julian being a Single Man in Possession of a Good Fortune, not to mention her long absence on exhaustive travels –  he waits for her.  And in the 21st century Tori gets her reward (A Nice Man Who Understands Her) by leaving Australia’s sunny skies to come home and look after her poor old (and exasperating) mum in England’s horrid climate.  And gosh, Tori also reads George Eliot to her – what greater self-sacrifice could there be, eh?

Read it and enjoy it for what it is.

Other reviews:

  • Kate Forsyth, not bashful about reviewing a book in which she is thanked as a soul sister
  • Ashleigh Meikle who says it’s a great read for lovers of historical fiction, and anyone who has read and enjoyed authors such as Kate Forsyth.
  • Jess Just Reads, who picked the twist after 100 pages but still found it intriguing and engaging.

Author: Kimberley Freeman
Title: Stars Across the Ocean
Publisher: Hachette, 2017
ISBN: 9780733633546
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2017

Book launch at Readings: Atlantic Black, by A.S. Patric

Yes, I know, I read and reviewed Alec Patric’s Atlantic Black a while ago, but still, it was nice to go to the launch and rub shoulders with some of Melbourne’s literary community who were there at Readings in St Kilda.

Barry Scott from Transit Lounge opened proceedings.  Barry publishes some of the best authors around, including Patrick Holland, Dominique WilsonOuyang Yu and Jane Rawson – who did the honours with the launch speech. Lois Murphy was there too so I was able to congratulate her on her debut novel Soona book I really enjoyed.

Barry teased me about barracking for Philip Salom’s Waiting for this year’s Miles Franklin when it was won by Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions but #Tongue-in-cheek I reminded him that although I loved Waiting and thought it was an important book about marginalised people, I had complained about its proof-reading so I didn’t really expect it to win, and Extinctions is a very fine novel which deserved to win too.  It’s very enjoyable to have these kind of conversations face-to-face with people who know all about books!

It was also a thrill to meet Antoni Jach who wrote Napoleon’s Doublea novel which I really, really liked so #Scoop! I am pleased to be able to tell you that there is another novel in the pipeline, this time about Rome!

If you haven’t got your copy yet, here’s the link to Fishpond: Atlantic Black

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2017

Sensational Snippets: First Person by Richard Flanagan

I am only up to page 65 of Richard Flanagan’s new book, First Person, and it seems to me that I have only just been able to resist sharing excerpts from almost every mischievous page so far. But now I can’t help myself.  I wasn’t sure until now just how much he was taking the mickey…

With a nod to George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, the narrator, who is a fictionalised Flanagan telling us about his travails as a ghost writer for a notorious conman, is at his day job as a doorman at the Hobart City Council’s civic square exhibition.  He is supposed to use a counter to track the number of visitors – which is easy, because there aren’t any.  No one is sufficiently interested in the desultory models, plans, and interpretation panels [forming] an exhibition which purported to encourage informed civic debate.  Similarly easy is the task of ensuring that no one walked out with one of the models. 

So four days a week he gets to write his novel, in an exercise book concealed beneath his table.  But on this day he is agonising about the job offer: not about the ethics of ghost-writing for a conman, but about selling his literary soul for mere money, and about his literary reputation:

I worried once more about my literary reputation.  After a time, I realised I had no literary reputation to worry about.  For that matter, I had no novel. Some years earlier there had been my art history honours thesis, which had been published to a screaming silence by a Brisbane publishing co-operative, Hoppy Head Press – not so much a publishing house as a share house got lucky, first through a commercial connection with Rodney McNeep, and later by making a great deal of money out of a Pritikin diet cookbook.  A little of this then lost on a far less lucrative McNeep suggestion: my Quiet Currents, A History of Tasmanian Modernism, 1922-1939.

There had, in addition, been two short stories, one of which won the Wangaratta City Council Edith Langley Award, the citation for which had meant even more than the five-hundred-dollar cheque, extolling me as ‘possibly a new voice in Australian literature.’   The adverb was, as I felt adverbs were, hopefully redundant.

(First Person, by Richard Flanagan, Knopf, 2017, p.64)

I can just imagine Flanagan, with that irrepressible smile, cheekily inserting that adverb into his sentence!

If you haven’t got your copy yet, you can buy it from Fishpond: First Person


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2017

The Man Who Took to his Bed, by Alex Skovron

The Man Who Took to his Bed is a collection of short stories by Melbourne poet and author Alex Skovron (whose novella The Poet I read and reviewed a while ago).  The collection comes highly recommended, with blurbers Helen Garner and Alex Miller, no less.

The titular story reminded me of Kafka’s MetamorphosisNo, no bugs.  But similarly, a man disengaged from the world.  He simply goes to bed, and doesn’t get up.  Like the man’s bemused wife, the reader doesn’t know why, or what eventually happens.

What is important is what happened to Lucas, and this can no longer be expressed simply.  One day Lucas took to his bed.  We may speculate that it was a headache or an upset stomach, that he was exhausted and needed to rest, or suddenly sleepy and needed to close his eyes, or we may choose to explore an entirely different set of possibilities, but all our conjectures and speculations will remain within the realm of speculation and conjecture, and Lucas in the meantime has escaped us forever. It is the only thing we can know with any certainty.  (p. 17)

It’s not the first story in the collection.  The first one, ‘Day in the Life’ sets the tone: it’s about a man who wakes up to find that there is a woman he doesn’t know sleeping beside him in his bed.  This complete stranger behaves exactly like a wife of long standing – and he, out of embarrassment and uncertainty, responds to her as if he knows who she is.  She’s there again when he comes home from work, cooking him some soup.

… I could see that I was going to have to confront her. This total stranger had slept in my bed, was coming and going freely, and behaving as if we had been together for years.  Was this some elaborately staged hoax, an intricate practical joke? Was I the victim of a reality-TV setup?  I could think of no other explanation. I didn’t believe that I had suddenly developed some weird selective amnesia; I certainly didn’t believe I was losing my mind.  (p.6)

The story that follows the metamorphosis of Lucas from ‘normal’ to being completely unavailable to others, is called ‘The Man who Tried to Erase his Shadow’, so you can see where the collection is taking the reader.  This one is more grounded in reality: it’s the ramblings of a discontented man with unacknowledged problems with his wife, but it has the same disconnected quality and the same poignant longing for some elusive thing that will make life worthwhile.

Most of the fourteen stories have been published before, in other collections or in journals.  The oldest one, ‘Gambit’ (published in 1987 in a collection called ‘Storyteller, Short Stories by Australian Writers’) is cleverly structured around a macabre game of chess, but I liked it for this:

The train stumbles, rattles along, preparing to be swallowed by the south-western pylon.  Train-trips have always been something of a treat and I decide not to disembark at Wynyard.  Adjusting my position against the hard squab, I become aware of another presence nearby; he must have jumped on at the last minute, or switched compartments. The man is occupying the window seat in the row directly to the left and across the aisle from mine, looking out eastward beyond the multi-lane carriageway with its cars and buses, past the steel mesh of the pedestrian footway, towards the dozing cranes of the Opera House site, half-lost in the early-evening gloom descending on Bennelong Point. By now the shadow of the Bridge must be creeping across the ferries’ wake, in the direction of Utzon’s bristling embryo.  (p. 84)

Sydney in transition!  Sydney before its icon was built! A teenage Sydney, if you like, like the teenage protagonist, on the cusp of a future barely glimpsed.

BTW Skovron is also an artist: I checked the book to find out about the intriguing cover art, and it’s a work called ‘The Clock’ from 1992.

Author: Alex Skovron
Title: The Man Who Took to his Bed
Publisher: Puncher and Wattman, 2017
ISBN: 9781922186973
Review copy courtesy of Puncher and Wattman

Available from Fishpond: The Man Who Took to His Bed

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