Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gustave Flaubert


December, 2011: In a desperate panic to leave The Royal Hotel in Carcoar, I accidentally left behind my powdered goats' milk and Folklore Of The Australian Railwaymen, a book of my grandfather's that I've been reading on and off for a year.  I was sorry to lose* my book, but if that was the price I had to pay to escape the clutches of the two-bottles-down-the-gullet publican and his dark and empty ("I cleared out the riff-raff - I had to go to court a few times to do it") pub, so be it.  So I arrived at Cowra bookless, but glad to be alive and free.  I picked Madame Bovary (1857), by Gustave Flaubert, off the shelves.
I've read it before, in that shadowy time between being a child and being the mature, worldly, sophisticated adult I am today (but perhaps wasn't before yesterday).  I remember thinking it was cold and spiteful; I remember my brother, John, saying, "People accused Flaubert of being cold, so he wrote four short stories to prove that he could write with heart."  Now that I think about it, I don't know why I wanted to read Madame Bovary again.  It is still cold and spiteful.  Flaubert spends a whole novel, and (according to the introduction), five years of his life, crafting a beautifully-finished novel about characters who are either stupid, boring and rather sweet (Monsieur Bovary), or else not stupid enough to be sweet (Madame).  If his characters are not utterly stupid, then they spend their superfluity of mental resources on trying to serve their own sensual, materialistic, narrow interests.  
As I read Madame Bovary, I kept complaining about it.  Naturally the advice was, "Stop reading it!"  Errol, in his shadowy youth, had abandoned it halfway through.  No one said, "Oh, persevere, it's wonderful."  Any doubt I had about Flaubert's attitude towards his characters ("Maybe he's going to redeem them?"), especially his attitude to Madame, is swept away by what he does to her.  He has her using her wiles with the young Justin (who is seemingly the true romantic hero of the novel, or rather, of a different novel; I wonder - is Justin actually Flaubert?) to gain access to the chemist's supply-room.  She grabs a handful of arsenic and stuffs it into her mouth.  Flaubert makes her die in gruesome detail over ten pages.  Her beauty putrefies.  Here's a soup├žon:

Soon she was vomiting blood.  Her lips were drawn tighter.  Her limbs were rigid, her body covered in brown patches, and her pulse raced away beneath your fingers like a taut thread, like a harp string just before it breaks.
The odd thing was that by the end of the novel, I despised Madame as much as Flaubert does, and didn't mind reading about her dreadful comeuppance.  But why - why write a book about it?  The way I see it is that we can find dispiriting ugliness just by walking out the door and mixing for a few minutes with our fellows.  Books and art help me to find, out of all the ugliness, the beauty of life.  So what was Flaubert doing - was he making himself and his craft the beautiful thing, set off by the foil of the stupid provincials?  Or did he find something positive in his novel, something that eludes me?  The detail is beautiful, the writing is beautiful.  But to me, he, heartless, is even-worse-than-completely-stupid, just like his characters.  
Obviously, I am puzzled by this book.  I am puzzled about why it has survived for a hundred-and-fifty years.  Most books that survive are written with great love.  Maybe Flaubert's has survived because Madame Bovary appeals to our worst traits (when it comes to reading, which is a pretty harmless activity) - our love of petty, ghastly, sordid detail, our desire to put everyone else down in order to feel our own superiority, our ability to be entertained by someone else's miserable downfall.  It is a moral tale, after all.  Maybe every reader who makes it through to the end has failed Flaubert's moral test.

*Mumma, driving back to Sydney with a car-load of native Christmas trees, bravely stopped by the Royal and rescued Folklore.  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Francis Ratcliffe


October, 2011: Flying Fox, Drifting Sand (1938), by Francis Ratcliffe, has turned out to be a book I'm still talking and thinking about, months after having read it.  
I've puzzled over Australia and my relationship to it since I was a child.  When I was 19 or 20, I wrote, for a short film: "I really love this country - not a motherland to me, but my husband-country."  There's something particularly intense about optional love, chosen love, an elective affinity - I can't afford to be complacent about my love for Australia, for there's the danger that, if I stray, I might go and fall in love with another country.  There's also the danger that Australia might prove, after all, to have no love to spare for me.  More from that short film: "I know this place, I want to know this place, I want to be inseparable from this place."  This passion of mine has endured.  Filling in a questionnaire for the Telstra Road To Tamworth a couple of years ago, in the 'Biggest Influence?' space, I answered: "Australia.  I've been eating, drinking, breathing, listening to, looking at and thinking about it all my life - I am made out of it."
Few of us feel we really belong here; rather, we long to belong.  Francis Ratcliffe was a young English biologist commissioned in the early '30s to come to Australia and, first, to conduct a survey of the flying fox colonies that lived along the east coast of Australia; later, a survey of the 'desertification' of South Australia and western N.S.W.  The times being what they were, these surveys were done not for the protection of the flying-foxes or the landscape, but of primary industry - fruit growers and graziers.  Ratcliffe was exactly the type - young, adventurous, curious, full of his own sense of purpose -  who had been coming to Australia for more than a century, ostensibly to make his reputation, to 'get ahead' by means of pillaging and plundering (hundreds, or even thousands, of flying foxes were shot and boiled down in the making of this book) all in the name of progress.  
Australia attracts do-ers and dreamers alike, and often one turns out to be the other.  Ratcliffe, the do-er, wrote up his surveys on flying foxes and drifting sands; but then Ratcliffe the dreamer wrote this book, which is one of the most poetic responses to Australian landscape, and the people who live in it, that I've ever read.  Ratcliffe is a biologist, not a poet; he doesn't conjure up the poetry from inside himself - he, with his keen eyes, notes it down as it appears before him.  His responses have that vivid clarity, or purity, of senses open wide with surprise, even shock.  When he came to Australia, it had not crossed his mind that he might fall in love with it. 
Here's his description of his first willy-willy:

"The power of a willy-willy is amazing.  I know, because I have been in the middle of one.  It was just such a day as this - scorching and still; and I had been helping a man put up a windmill.  We were resting from our labours, and the billy was on the boil.  I had been reading the instructions about the oiling of the mill, and was holding the printed folder in my hand.  I remember my companion had just made the delightful statement that he hated shaving at that time of year, because you felt every one of the six legs of the flies which walked over your face, when I noticed that the foliage of some trees about fifty yards away suddenly began to dance and toss in a most unnatural fashion.  I simply could not understand it; for, as I say, there was not a breath of wind.  The branches heaved more and more wildly and a cloud of dust rose up between the trunks and started to move in our direction.  I hardly had time to pull my hat over my face before the willy-willy hit us.  Some seconds of mad confusion followed; and when I deemed it safe to open my eyes, the dust column was a hundred yards away.  In it was entangled most of the litter which had been lying about from the unpacking of the windmill parts; while the lubrication brochure, which had slipped out of my hand when I grabbed my hat, was floating like a little white butterfly high up in the sky.  A pair of eagles, which had been circling overhead for the last half-hour, was apparently so smitten with curiosity that they swung over to investigate it."
It's the sort of writing that I love - like Felix Bartlett's, Richard Henry Dana's, and Albert Gaston's (the latter wrote a great account of his time on the Coolgardie goldfields), because I can trust it.  They are observers who can also convey; they are not artfully 'making things up' - they are telling me, to the best of their ability, 'what happened'.  I seek this in fiction, too.  
Ratcliffe's observations of people are equally trustworthy.  So many people made an impression on him, it's inadequate for me to cite one or two.  Please just read the book!  I think about this passage, especially "the saddest-faced girl":

"A man wise and experienced in bush travel once gave me counsel as follows: 'If you want the best directions on a strange road, get them from a woman.  I don't know why it is - whether they don't credit you with any intelligence, or whether they have the imagination to realise how useful it is for a stranger to have a list of signs and details to let him know that he is on the right track...'
"I remembered this advice when it became perfectly clear that the rather self-satisfied gentleman, who was trying to give us directions for a road which (as it subsequently turned out) he had not travelled upon for nearly twenty years, preferred to send us on our way with inadequate and inaccurate information rather than lose face by asking the advice of his family...So I sought out the womenfolk, while the other two listened politely to the lord and master.  From one of the saddest-faced girls I have ever seen, I obtained an astonishingly detailed and accurate map.  It was drawn on the lid of a cardboard box; and I kept it for some time as a memento and exhibit.  Later, in a fit of depression, I threw it away, wishing to wipe out all my memories of a place which I thought was a little bit of hell on earth."
His survey of people makes me think that, in Australia, human-animals grow like the flora and fauna - very diverse, and peculiarly adapted (by isolation, by extreme conditions) to the spot where they live.  Australia is not a place that gives birth to cultural movements, but to exceptional individuals (by exceptional, maybe I mean weird), who often disappear without discernible trace.  My unfounded belief is that these individuals - the people who loved Australia at the cost of their lives! - have a great influence on the way we live.  Australia is dangerous, and deep-down, we all know it.  We are safer around the outskirts, in the cities, all huddling together...safer, but not entirely safe.
For his second commission, Ratcliffe drives along the Birdsville Track.  It's affecting to read of a scientist getting a case of the heebie-jeebies (more so than reading of a poet getting them - poets go out of their way to get them):
"We arrived at the main channel of Cooper's Creek in a weird three-quarters light, with the western sky shining a luminous green.  As we dropped down from the stony slopes to the flat bed of silt, a chill fear took hold of me.  The dry bed of that dead river, which rose in the plains of inland Queensland, and vanished in the salt-pans of Lake Eyre without knowing the sea, was the most eerie and haunted spots I have ever visited.  Moreover, it was haunted by no friendly and comprehensible ghosts, but by the spirits of broken tribes which died misunderstood.
"For mile after mile we drove over the smooth grey silt, through a forest of dead and dying coolebah trees.  It was an awful scene, so colourless, so utterly unfriendly as to be almost menacing.  I peered ahead through the crowded trunks, hoping every minute to catch the faint pale gleam of sandhills, which would mean that we had reached the north bank of the channel."
Later, he says:

"Looking back on it [his trip along the Birdsville Track] now, little but the interest and humour remain.  The uneasiness, which almost overpowered me at times, has faded.  It has faded, but not disappeared.  I can never think of the Cooper and the Diamantina as mere rivers.  They have spirits of their own, which are not friendly to man."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Felix Bartlett


September, 2011:  I was in Cowra for the launch of Bush Doctor (The Memoirs of Dr. Felix P. Bartlett), edited by two of Felix Barlett's descendants, Jane Caiger-Smith and Michael Bartlett.  I bought a copy, and after Jude The Obscure, felt too wrung-out to start on another novel.  Bush Doctor was a good antidote to Jude.  Bartlett was born in Brixham, England, in 1855, and spent nearly twenty years in Cowra as the local doctor.  
This was the prime of his life.  I think people often look back on their lives and see one passage of it as particularly vivid - story-worthy!  The rest of their life looks more ordinary, less exceptional, but this one period stands out, made of an different substance.  By chance, I'm concurrently reading Francis Ratcliffe's Flying Fox, Drifting Sand (but I haven't finished it yet so will leave it uncommented-upon), another young Englishman whose vivid passage took place in Australia.  It's not just that this is the 'exotic' passage in their lives; another person could have come to Australia, or gone to India or Africa, and gathered just a few dull memories.  It's not what they did or where they went - it's the way they experienced it.  Sometimes you experience things as though you are freshly sharpened hour-by-hour.  Sometimes you are blunt for months, years, on end, hardly grazing the world as you pass through it.  
Bartlett found his time in Cowra stimulating; he was taxed to the limits of his resources, trying to keep everyone in the district alive.  Saving people's lives must give you a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and of your own almost super-human strength.  I felt envious, reading about Bartlett's life; being, as I am, a writer who writes things that might never be read, I often lack a sense of purpose, and am more likely to feel non-existent, or unreal, than super-human.  Bartlett is a real man; I am one of those semi-children, suspended in development, or maturity - an artist (why would anyone want to be one?, I have been asking myself in the past few years).  Yet even a real man like Bartlett succumbed, in the end, to making a story out of his real life.
And I'm grateful that he did!  My favourite part of his memoirs is titled 'Cowra: Medical Matters'.  His sub-headings include 'Sandy Blight', 'Accidents', 'Cancer', 'The Typhoid Epidemic of 1885', 'Hydatids'; I also liked 'Cowra: The Town', with the tantalising sub-headings that would keep me reading into the night, 'The Madmen', 'The Drink', 'The Carcoar Murders', 'The Mouse Plague'.  Perhaps because he was a doctor, he writes in graphic and intimate detail - after all, he was the medical student who didn't faint when his professor chopped off part of a patient's face and "the blood began to fly in arterial spurts.  Then came another incision through the upper lip and along the side of the nose nearly to the eye and Timothy's face was again sprayed with blood."  Bartlett's description of this operation covers a whole, long paragraph.  He ends with, "It was by far the most blood-thirsty fracas that I have ever seen, but as for feeling faint or even pale, it had no effect on me."  What a fearless observer for us readers to have on their side!  

Thomas Hardy


September, 2011:  Mumma recently read Thomas Hardy's last novel, Jude The Obscure (1895), and recommended it.  A recommendation from Sally is enough to put a book on my list, but her comment, "It's very anti-marriage," put it right at the very top of my list.  I said, "Can I borrow it now?"
Jude the Obscure is a cry for understanding, a cry of reason - and a fading hope that anyone will hear in time.  "Someone might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian.  But nobody did come, because nobody does..."  Naturally enough, it ends with death and despair.  This is a very real purpose of writing - that it can be a communion, of writer and reader, from beyond the grave.  And it does actually improve the writer's immediate life, and alleviate his or her sense of profound, Cassandra-esque loneliness, to salt away these thoughts and ideas for a future reader.  When you write a letter to a friend, for example, you feel companionship - writing a letter can feel like a social interaction.  If you happened - heaven forfend! - to get run over by a truck on your way back from your stroll to the post-box, this wouldn't nullify the companionship that you felt while writing the letter.  This is how I (an atheist) console myself when reading the work of writers like Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Eve Langley, Isabelle Eberhardt - it is worth something that they are appreciated after they've died.  And maybe in some ways they all, like Langley, "prefer to work in the lonely silence of the unknown winter."  Otherwise the tragedy of their lives is heavy - that they were sane, clear-eyed people, who, like Sue of Jude, "saw all my superstitions as cobwebs that [they] could brush away with a word"; but who were treated as mad or aberrant or ever - for shame! - obscene.

"As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago - when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless - the time was not ripe for us!  Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us."
Jude The Obscure is full of ideas.  It is principally a illustration of the damage caused by marriage.  It is also a case for making education freely available to those who really want it (as opposed to mandatory for all, as it is in our "qualification essential" society).  Jude grows up an orphan in a small, muddy hollow in Wessex, and develops an ambition to go to university at the far-off, glittering city of Christminster.  He prepares himself by learning Latin and Greek from a couple of old, secondhand grammars, while delivering bread for his great-aunt's bakery.  

But how to live in that city?  At present he had no income at all.  He had no trade or calling of any dignity or stability whatever on which he could subsist while carrying out an intellectual labour which might spread out over many years.
What was required by most citizens?  Food, clothing and shelter.  An income from any work in preparing the first would be too meagre; for making the second, he felt a distaste; the preparation of the third he inclined to.  They built in a city; therefore he would learn to build.

This is the soundest career plan I've ever read - what is required by most citizens?  Hardly a line of reasoning that would lead to the conclusion: "I know, I'll design apps for mobile phones."  
His ambitions are thwarted when a buxom young woman with dimples and abundant tresses (the first of which turns out to be studied, the second detachable and made of horse-hair) seduces him, then, following the advice of a girlfriend, pretends to be pregnant in order to make him marry her.  Jude, being serious and horourable, or "such an old slow coach", marries Arabella.  This soon turns out to have been a mistake.  

Their lives were ruined, he thought; ruined by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling which had no necessary connection with affinities that alone render a life-long companionship tolerable.
This simply-worded sentence sums up the core of my own disbelief in marriage.  Most of us want to find someone with whom we have these affinities, and getting married isn't proof that you've found him or her.  In fact, if you're lucky enough to find him or her, marriage is completely superfluous.  Even being together is superfluous, as Jude points out.  There are some affinities that endure to the end.  Marriage - and divorce - are irrelevant to these affinities.
I won't go on describing what happens over the next four-hundred pages.  For my own benefit, I will transcribe a few bits and pieces that appealed to me:

Perhaps Sue was thus venturesome with men because she was childishly ignorant of that side of their nature which wore out women's hearts and lives.
Jude, in a desperate bid not to give up his dream of going to university, sends letters to several heads of colleges in Christminster describing his situation and asking them for advice.  Only one writes back:

Sir, - I have read your letter with interest, and, judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course.

Jude goes out on the town and on the way back to his rooms, he chose:

"...a circuitous route homeward to pass the gates of the College whose Head had just sent him the note.
The gates were shut, and, by an impulse, he took from his pocket the lump of chalk which as a workman he usually carried there, and wrote along the wall:
"I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?"  - Job, XII 3.

Sue says that universities ought to exist for people like him.  At the end of the novel, she says:

"Your worldly failure, if you have failed, is to your credit rather than to your blame.  Remember that the best and the greatest among mankind are those who do themselves no worldly good.  Every successful man is more or less a selfish man.  The devoted fail...'Charity seeketh not her own.'"
The dialogue between Sue and Jude is natural, idiomatic, idiosyncratic, and conveys the depth of their affinity.  Here they are on their way to the church to try to get married (having obtained divorces from their respective spouses), and both are having grave doubts about the act:

"We are horribly sensitive; that's really what's the matter with us, Sue!" he declared.
"I fancy more are like us than we think!"
"Well, I don't know.  The intention of the contract is good, and right for many, no doubt; but in our case it might defeat its own ends because we are the queer sort of people we are - folk in whom domestic ties of a forced kind snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness."
Sue still held that there was not much queer or exceptional in them: that all were so.  "Everybody is getting to feel as we do.  We are a little beforehand, that's all.  In fifty, a hundred, years, the descendants of these two [the ones ahead of them at the altar] will act and feel worse than we.  They will see weltering humanity still more vividly than we do now, as '...shapes like our own selves hideously multiplied...' and will be afraid to reproduce them."
"What a terrible line of poetry!...though I have felt it myself about my fellow creatures, at morbid times."

Sue finds her first husband, Phillotson, who is twenty years older than her, so physically repugnant that she shrinks from him when he tries to give her a kiss on the cheek, and soon after their marriage moves into a separate bedroom.  One night, after their in-house separation, he absentmindedly goes into her room instead of his.  She wakes to find him undressed and about to get into bed with her, and she jumps out the window, falling a storey or two.  Phillotson is heroic, in his way, and this incident convinces him that he has to let her go.  Later, Sue finds out that Jude and Arabella spent a night together:

"Your story was that you had met as estranged people, who were not husband and wife at all in Heaven's sight - not that you had made it up with her."
"We didn't make it up," he said sadly.  "I can't explain, Sue."
"You've been false to me; you, my last hope!  And I shall never forget it, never!"
"But by your own wish, dear Sue, we are only to be friends, not lovers!  It is so very inconsistent of you to-"
"Friends can be jealous!"

Sue concludes the argument by saying:

"O it was treacherous of you to have her again!  I jumped out of the window!"

And a bit later:
"O don't you understand my feeling!  Why don't you!  Why are you so gross!  I jumped out of the window!"
"Jumped out of the window?"
"I can't explain!"
I read, in a Good Weekend column, the trite phrase "about as funny as Thomas Hardy", i.e. not at all.  It's true that Jude The Obscure left me convinced of the cruelty of the world - specifically, of groups of people towards anyone who differs from them.  And it paints being alive as a grinding-down process, in which all hopes, dreams, hearts etc. are slowly worn away.  But against this harsh backdrop, Jude and Sue's thoughts and feelings are beautiful and interesting (and sometimes funny); thoughts and feelings make life worth living.  Jude describes Sue as, "a woman-poet, a woman-seer, a woman whose soul shone like a diamond." 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ruth Park





August, 2011:  In a romantic mood, I bought Ruth Park's The Witch's Thorn and D'Arcy Niland's The Big Smoke from Sappho's Books, thereby reuniting the two lovers as they bumped along together in my bag.  Helen and I looked up Park and Niland on the Google - they are a beautiful couple:


And a line in the bio of The Witch's Thorn makes me almost sigh with envy: "...after her marriage to the author D'Arcy Niland, [she] roamed around the outback with him doing a variety of jobs, all of which has provided rich source material for her writing." 
The Witch's Thorn is Park's third novel, and I didn't dog-ear any pages - her writing, in these early novels, is ungainly.  She doesn't seem to have lingered over her sentences, carefully crafting them, nor her characters; her eye is on the plot and structure, and on getting her main point across.  This gives The Witch's Thorn a workmanlike feel, which I thoroughly approve of.  I walk away from Park's novels with new ideas in my mind; whereas from an unstructured writer like Eve Langley, I walk away with a feeling that the author has impressed her personality upon me.  I value both experiences, but the latter is more limited.  Inevitably I want more breadth than is offered by one personality, however fascinating.
Once I'd finished The Witch's Thorn, I suddenly saw how planned and plotted the whole novel was; while I was immersed in it, the story had felt pretty natural and organic, and only two or three times had I felt a clunk underneath me as the story moved to the next gear.  Park examines the social strata of a rural town in New Zealand, using a parentless (if not exactly orphaned) child, Bethell, as the tool with which to test the values of five different households, starting from the top - the respectable, church-going shop-keeper and his wife, who grudgingly accept charge of their niece - and one-by-one working down through the layers, as Bethell is rejected and failed by everyone in the town, even the nice old priest, and even the reformed prostitute with a dozen healthy children and a heart of gold.  Finally, Bethell is rescued from the brink of death by the ones well beyond the pale of the conservative town - a Maori family, who gladly sacrifices, for Bethell's sake, the skerrick of respectability and social acceptance that they have garnered over the years.
Once again, Park's boldness is notable.  I suspect that Park and Niland were a good influence on each other in this respect, encouraging each other not to shy away from the shadowy corners of society.  Such as, in The Shiralee, the part where Macauley has sex with an Aboriginal maid; he despises himself and her for doing it, and most callously gives her money when he leaves the property, thereby turning their encounter into a base transaction (while she had put a red ribbon in her hair, and probably had a big crush on him).  In The Witch's Thorn, there's a similarly dirty, degraded passage: Johnny Gow hates his downtrodden wife, Ella, who is debilitated by all the children she has borne, including a new baby about a week ago.  They are driving back from the funeral of the woman he loved:
"If I had any guts I'd murder you.  But I haven't.  I haven't the nerve to buck the rope, even for you.  There's only one way to get rid of you, Ella."
She stared at him, terrified.
"Get out," he ordered.
"No, Johnny," she quavered.  
He threw the reins over the pony's head and leapt to the ground.  With fierce, hating energy he dragged his wife out of the trap.  Her limp, flabby body both repelled and frenzied him.
"Johnny," she moaned, "give me a little time.  Just a little while.  I'll do anything if only you'll leave me alone for a while."
He dragged her after him over the rough ground to the lonely paddock with the broom hedge spiking along the ridge.
"Johnny, I 'll die if I have another one so soon.  Think of the children.  What would happen to them?  Oh.  Johnny, please, please."
He began to laugh.  She felt his body rumbling with mirth.
"Men have been murdering their wives this way for centuries," he said softly and gently.  "And it's all so nice and legal, too."
Park points the torch at numerous domestic taboos - Bethell's respectable cousin tries to rape her, and Bethell is blamed.  Her uncle has an inappropriate attachment to one of his daughters - there's a repulsive scene where the daughter has to give her father a head-rub.  Bethell's nicest aunt becomes a prostitute after being widowed with eight young children.  And Bethell herself is illegitimate, her mother having had an affair with the married Johnny Gow. Johnny Gow not only rapes his wife, but beats her regularly, too.  Johnny and his wife both beat Bethell.  And when I remind myself, "This is a society that stoned Eve Langley for wearing trousers!", I really admire Park for her fearless crusade against hypocrisy and social cruelty.  And although I get a bit irritated by her idealism of the characters at the outer edges of society - they're all so cheerful! as though they lack the depth to feel things such as existential crises or self-doubts - perhaps if I were living in '40s or '50s New Zealand, I would feel the same disgust with the inner-circle, with the ones with the power to change the rules.
There was one passage I puzzled over:
"My old daddy had some funny Scots ideas," said Lachie Gow.  "He used to tell me about a thorn tree that the Highlanders believed in.  When it pricked, it poisoned.  It was a witch's thorn.  And whoever it pricked could pass on the poison to someone else, just with a touch.  He believed in that thorn, my old man."
"I never heard of it growing around here," said Mrs Hush, puzzled.
He tried again.  "It's just a story, don't you see?  But it means that one bad action influences everyone else.  My brother Johnny loved your sister when he shouldn't have, and look what came out of that, ruined lives and changed lives, all through this town and out of it, too, for all I know, for who knows how many people Queenie met and altered in some way?  [He cites some more examples]...It's all mixed up in some way, and there's no getting away from it."
Fascinated and awed, Bethell held up her hands in the dusk, examining them minutely.
"I haven't been pricked by the thorn.  Mr. Wi hasn't.  Hoot Gibson hasn't.  But perhaps we will be someday."
The mystery, and the fear of the mystery, prickled her skin, and she crept out of the grass and ran like a hare for the light and the warmth and crowded companionship of the house.
It's a passage that isn't as straightforward as it first seems.  Considering that Park, in Swords And Crowns And Rings, wrote, "She had accepted that no one could come into another's life without consequences.  Jackie had taught her that.  She would not want him to feel guilt for anything in her life", I'm not so sure that Park is saying that being pricked by the witch's thorn is a bad thing.  Maybe she is saying that being altered by life's experiences and encounters, even to the extent of being poisoned by them, is the price we pay for being alive, just as losing innocence is the price we pay for knowing more.  We can't keep ourselves intact.

D'Arcy Niland


August, 2011:  I went to Cowra with no book, so had the pleasure of picking out one from my grandparents' shelves.  As I had just been reading about Ruth Park, and the Australian novelist for whom she was leaving New Zealand, I chose The Shiralee (1955), by D'Arcy Niland.  
I don't have The Shiralee here with me, so I have to write about it from memory, which is probably a good thing (seeing as I presently have a back-log of 'Books Of The Moment' to write about).  It's a story about a freedom-loving swagman/itinerant worker, Macauley, who unexpectedly gets lumped with his 4-year-old daughter, Buster.  He is unwilling to change his ways; the story follows his gradual compromising, and the increase of happiness that comes to him in exchange for taking on the burden, or shiralee (another name for a swag), of a child.  It's a simple, archetypal story about 'freedom versus attachment' - themes that I, for one, never tire of puzzling over - but it is made unique by the voice it gives to Macauley.  
Macauley is an ultra-masculine man, who expresses himself by action, not words, and is therefore a difficult subject to make the bearer of a written story.  These are men who frequently appear in stories (or more often, films) as the object rather than the subject; they are useful protagonists, as they so readily do things, and cause plot to advance, but few novel-readers or movie-goers would identify with them, would expect to be guided through a story by one of them.  The people who would identify with them aren't often, I'm afraid, reading novels.  Ethan Frome has a similarly inarticulate main-man, but I reckon Niland does it better than Wharton.  Niland shows the reader Macauley's thought-process, in all its rough, simple language and broad strokes, in its lack of detail, in its cruelty and every-man-for-himselfishness, and yet without leaving Macauley looking like a brutish Neanderthal or a lump of stone.  As an inveterate lover of this type of man, it was a great insight for me to read of Macauley's thoughts and feelings - so different to mine!  So impossible for me ever to understand!  
One passage I partially remember is when he is taking shelter from a downpour under a bridge, and thinking about the woman who served him in a bakery.  He is tormented with sexual frustration, and finally thinks (to paraphrase), "Leave it at that: he was a man, he wanted a woman.  Leave it at that."*
A passage that made me "well up" was when he meets up with a crazy old fellow with a few verbal tics, who nevertheless understands Macauley's type and gives him some advice, which will sound hackneyed when I put it down here without a context, and without Niland's straightforward language: it's all very well to keep on the move, but isn't this almost an act of despair, rather than an exercising of your freedom?  Isn't it because there's nowhere you want to be, nothing you want to be doing, isn't it a fleeing from, rather than an aspiring to?  Instead, find something you like and stick to it!  (Sorry, D'Arcy Niland, to Musak your beautifully-couched sentiment.)  Macauley reacts to this piece of advice not by moving into a little cottage and becoming a potato farmer - Niland never sacrifices his man for the sake of a moral - but by investing in an ancient horse and cart, and otherwise keeping up his itinerant ways.  
Another thing that I loved about The Shiralee was its lack of materialism.  Macauley doesn't have a tent - he has a bit of tarpaulin.  He doesn't have special walking boots.  He doesn't have a pram for Buster, or one of those baby-backpacks.  He makes her walk.  And when she starts to fall asleep walking, he picks her up and carries her.  It's good for us - we live in a time of great dependency - to read something that reminds us that all we need to live is our body.  We don't need equipment, a licence, or to have done a course.  We don't actually need money.  We certainly don't need mobile reception!


*In Cowra with my grandfather's bookshelf and my computer.  I feel the obligation to transcribe the passages as they are, putting my paraphrasing to shame.  Here's the bit about sexual frustration:
He twisted his hands with tension, but it was going from him, and he was feeling easier, and in a little while he was all right, quiet and reasoning.  He took a look at himself and he stood by what he saw.
I'm a man, he thought.  And I want a woman.  That's straight.  I wouldn't deny it before God himself.  If I didn't want one I'd start to think there was something the matter with me.  I want a woman all right.  Leave it at that.  For all the good it is thinking about it, I might as well be docked.  Leave that as it is, too.  I don't have to go on like a pimply-faced whore-chaser, do I?
Here's the conversation between Mac and Desmond, the philosophical crackpot:
Desmond suddenly said to him, "Do you know where you're going?"
"Going?"
"I don't mean going away tomorrow, or the day after, and so on.  I mean do you know where your life's going?"
Macauley looked puzzled for a moment.  He shrugged.  "Who does?  Do you?"
"I have a fair idea.  But I don't think you follow me.  I'll put it this way: Why do you move about?  Carry on the life you do?"
"Here and there and all over the place like a fly, you mean?"  Macauley sighed, gazing into the fire.  "Some people can move slow and get on all right, I don't know, I never could.  All my life, something's been biting me - urging me on."
"Yes, but where to, that's my point."
"How do I know?" Macauley said.  "Does it matter?"
"Listen!" Desmond exclaimed.  "Hear that river?  There's water coming from somewhere and going somewhere and so on.  It flows on a set course for thousands of miles.  It's not only getting away from something, it's getting to something.  It's getting away from the mountains and getting to the ocean.  Well, I'll tell you something.  That's the was a man's life should be and so on."
"Why?" Macauley asked.
"Well, otherwise there's no purpose.  A man is right to get away from evil, from trouble, and the things that are bad for him.  But he can spend all his life running away from them.  He should stop and think and so on.  Then he should pick something that will better him, that is good for him, and try to achieve it.  Then he's running towards something.  See what I mean?"
Macauley nodded his understanding.  "But who's talking?" he said.
"What I just said," Desmond replied, "I never thought of it till just a few months ago.  It took me all those years and so on to find it out.  And it's too late for me to start doing anything about it now."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Rudyard Kipling/Craig Raine



July, 2011:  About ten years ago, my father gave me the complete Kipling.  I loved Kim and The Jungle Book, but hated The Light That Failed, and didn't think much of one or two other volumes that I looked at.  In an effort to rectify my low opinion of Kipling, Geoff recently lent me A Choice of Kipling's Prose (1987), selected by Craig Raine.  Every one of these short stories is a jewel.  Thankfully, Raine didn't let the title of the selection put him off including some of Kipling's poems, too; I find poetry hard to read, as it is so dense and rich, and seems to demand repeated poring-overs - the kind of attention that I give to songs - so to have a few of Raine's favourites slipped in between stories was a good way of making prose-readers eat their poems (the way Geoff used to slip a whole lot of spinach into the spag bol he used to make for us children).
It's hard to write about short stories; each story ought to have at least a paragraph, and, alas, I don't want to spend that much time on the task.  One thing that made me love him was his great interest in every person who crossed his path.  He makes two old English ladies having afternoon tea together just as interesting, colourful and moving, as, say, the ill-fated love affair between a Hindu woman who and an Englishman (she ends up having her hands cut off).  And although I usually dislike dialect being put down in print - because it divides us into 'people who speak properly' and people who don't - when Kipling does it, it is because he has such a fine ear for voices, and the words people use is clearly of profound interest to him.  His ability to replicate a person's verbal style is miraculous.  His own voice is almost inaudible, so that I will find myself thinking, "Who told me that story about the handsome man getting his come-uppance?"  Then I'll remember - it was the story Love-o'-Woman, where the handsome man is dying, and all he can think about is a certain past love.  He finds her working in a brothel; his affair with her 'ruined' her.  
'"Fwhat do you do here?" she sez, an' her voice wint up.  'Twas like bells tollin' before.  "Time was whin you were quick enough wid your words - you that talked me down to Hell.  Are ye dumb now?"  An' Love-o'-Woman got his tongue, an' sez simple, like a little child, "May I come in?" he sez.
'"The house is open day an' night," she sez, wid a laugh; and Love-o'-Woman ducked his head an' hild up his hand as tho' he was gyardin'.  The Power was still on him - it hild him up still, for, by my sowl, as I'll never save ut, he walked up the veranda steps that had been a livin' carpse in hospital for a month!
'"An' now?" she sez, lookin' at him; an' the red paint stud lone on the white av her face like a bull's-eye on a target.
'He lifted up his eyes, slow an' very slow, an' he looked at her long an' very long, an' he tuk his spache betune his teeth wid a wrench that shook him.
'"I'm dyin', Aigypt - dyin'," he sez.  Ay, those were his words, for I remimber the name he called her.  He was turnin' the death-colour, but his eyes niver rowled.  They were set - set on her.  Widout word or warnin' she opened her arms full stretch, an' "Here!" she sez.  (Oh, fwhat a golden miracle av a voice ut was!)  "Die here!" she sez, an' Love-o'-Woman dhropped forward, an' she hild him up, for she was a fine big woman.

I can see I'm going to have to read the introduction (I rarely do), as it reveals some of the many secrets encrypted in his stories - Love-o'-Woman was dying of syphilis, of course!  And "I'm dyin', Aigypt - dyin'" is a quote from Anthony An' Cleopatra!  And the nephew in another of my favourite stories, The Gardener, is actually an illegitimate son!  I should have known this from:
...though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France.

Perhaps I would have picked that up if he had added, "for nine months." 


His stories about India, or ghosts, or lovers, are like dreams, and have stayed in my mind only as pictures or brief moments without their contexts, but his stories about war are memorable, maybe partly because they're written with intent.  My father says Kipling was a real "warmonger" until his son was killed in battle (but which one - the Boer or WWI?).  The Madonna of the Trenches is about a traumatised soldier  who had been at 'Butcher's Row' in France, where corpses were used as sand-bags to keep back the tide of mud.  This was all right in winter, but "all those trenches were like gruel in a thaw", and when the duckboards were missing a slat, you'd unavoidably tread on the corpses, and they'd "creak".  To the reader, it seems more than understandable that this would leave a person permanently unhinged.  But Kipling's Brother Keede (a local doctor) doesn't buy it, and over the course of the story, he unlocks the real cause of Brother Strangwick's anxiety.  Kipling is telling a good story, but he is also making the point that when you have been calibrated to the daily horror of war, walking down Butcher's Row is as traumatising as say, cleaning out a grease trap (which is pretty disgusting).  But do we want to reach that level of calibration?  


He writes just as well about the people left at home in England, and how they become calibrated - not to say hardened - to the constant dying around them.  Mary Postgate is a story about a 'lady's companion', an inert woman who has no family of her own, seems to have no desires, no impulses or emotions, excepting a slightly maternal attachment to her lady's nephew.  He dies in WWI, and she gathers together his belongings and burns them in the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.  An enemy pilot chances to have parachuted down to the ground nearby, and is mortally wounded.  As Mary incinerates, she listens to him dying.  Mary, when young, had a lot of experience with people dying - her mother, father, "cousin Dick", and "Lady McCausland's house-maid".  One line reveals her as she was when young, before life had cauterised hopes and emotions out of her: "Her long pleasure [in listening to the soldier's death rattle] was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life."  Mary Postgate might be the strangest anti-hero ever.  The Gardener is the other war-at-home story that really struck me - struck me so hard I cried, and not just a tear or two!  Helen goes to Belgium to see where her 'nephew' has been buried:
She climbed a few wooden-faced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath.  She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already.  All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces.  She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her.
This is one of those descriptions that is so odd and specific, I suddenly realised I was reading a first-hand experience, though Kipling has hidden himself in a woman's body.  The mass slaughter was one thing that made me cry; but the other tragedy was the grief of Helen, a self-contained, controlled, sensible, cool-blooded Englishwoman.  Her grief is so low-key, it isn't expressed in any way - she doesn't cry, she doesn't get flustered, she doesn't feel sick.  The only expression of her grief is via someone else, a man she takes to be a gardener at the mass cemetery.  He looks at her with "infinite compassion" - and that's the first and only suggestion that Helen might not be coping with the experience as well as we think she is; in fact, might be looking distraught and grief-stricken.  He looks at her slip of paper:

"Come with me," he said, "and I will show you where your son lies."

She had said "nephew", but he took it in spirit, and reinterpreted it (correctly, as the introduction points out) as "son".  She doesn't correct him.  All this small-scale drama is extremely moving - I suppose I can be recalibrated, too, and accept that subtle feelings are as significant as tumultuous ones.  Being a tumultuous feeler, I hesitate to say "or more significant!" - though perhaps they are, in that they occur, for one such as Helen, less frequently.