Saturday, December 1, 2012

Helen Garner

December, 2012:  At a Christmas gathering, a friend described meeting her long-time hero Helen Garner, and when I came home I found my eyes lighting upon The Children's Bach (1984).  I haven't read much of Helen Garner's work: Joe Cinque's Consolation, some short stories, and articles in journals.  I found Joe interesting - in fact, a 'page-turner' - but felt as though I had to crane my head around Helen Garner to see what was happening - she writes so much about herself and how she feels about the unfolding events.  Perhaps Garner considers it important regularly to remind readers that 'objective reportage' is a romantic fancy, and an impossibility.  Readers are not so stupid; we know that every writer is influenced by his or her individual slants, prejudices and partialities, but we have the capacity for filtering out the writer and picking out the truths.  And writers are capable of attempting objectivity, and getting close to it, if not achieving it.  Earlier this year, I met a man who was a personal friend of the woman made out, in Joe, to be a cold-blooded murderess; this man said Anu Singh was not guilty, and Garner's book was inaccurate and biased.  Garner's arguments in Joe were very convincing: if she got it wrong about Anu Singh, her book is a travesty in its own way.  I'm glad, as a writer of fiction, I don't have to take such risks.

So I picked up The Children's Bach, somewhat slanted and prejudiced against it.  If I find her reportage too personal, I find her fiction too cold and harsh.  I just don't think Garner and I will ever click.  I remember one short story I read, pulling off a book from my friend's impressive Australian-fiction shelf while babysitting: two friends are talking; one sighs, "I just want a man to look after me," the other says, "Women like us don't get men like that."  This comment both stung and enraged me, with its implication that independent feminist-type women (like me) disqualify themselves from supportive, loving relationships with manly men.  But perhaps it was true in Garner's generation - the women's independence might have been too fragile, too recently-won, to yield some of it back to love.

I found the reading of The Children's Bach to be on the unpleasant side.  My father complains that Patrick White is "too ugly".  I find Garner too ugly, even though her prose is elegant and clean.  It makes me think of the Picasso exhibition I saw some months ago, which showed his trajectory from beautiful to brutish and ugly; beauty was so easy for him, he seemed to despised it.  Beautiful prose is seductive and pleasant; Garner doesn't want her readers to relax, but squirm.  I was feeling a bit queasy as I read it, and when I think of it now, the queasiness returns.  I'll open three pages at random, to show you what I mean:

Arthur skipped around, squint-eyed with laughter.  The photos were of a naked baby boy lying on his back like a frog, flashing the enormous, raw genitals of the new-born.

At dawn Dexter stumbles in and stands looking at her.  She thinks, I can't be bothered fucking if it's going to be obscure.  But she does, they do, and the familiarity of his breathing by her ear brings up a rush of violence in her like vomiting...

The two mothers looked at her with their calm smiles.  She felt as jerky as a puppet.
'Last time I had my hair cut short back home,' Vicki chattered on, rushing to the round mirror in the corner, 'I looked so ugly that I cried all night.  And when I woke up in the morning my eyes were so swollen that I looked like a cane toad!'

Self-loathing seems to be a theme; the characters that aren't self-loathing are innocent, ignorant, lacking in self-awareness.  Is the Garner 'tree of knowledge' one that reveals you to be loathsome?  If you believe yourself to be lovable, that's only because you haven't bitten the apple yet.

However, taking a step back from the experience of reading it, I enjoyed and respected it for its structure.  The idea behind Children's Bach seems to be "let's take two family groups with different moral codes and send them colliding into each other."  I like it.  And the execution is very skillful - somehow the realism of the characters, what they do and how they talk, decoys the reader's eye away from this underlying idea; while I was reading it, I thought it was a vivid portrait of a culture; once I'd finished, I realised it was a scientific experiment.  A book such as Kate Grenville's The Secret River is too redolent of the author's intent for my liking - the author hangs over the stage, jerking the characters' strings and making them fulfill the author's requirements.  In Children's Bach, the author's intent is kept secret, until it's all over.  Then the reader can have a satisfying communion with the author, "Hm, very interesting!  I like the way the innocent, stable, loving family-group-#1 was blown apart by the worldly, individualistic, independent family-group-#2, and this resulted in both family groups being better off than when they started, despite the disastrous climax!"  My only gripe was the last two pages.  Writers feel they have to put on some sort of lyrical fireworks display for the ending, and despite Garner's stylishness, she also succumbed to this with a sort of arty wrap-up of the future:

and the clothes on the line will dry into stiff shapes which loosen when touched,

and someone will put the kettle on,
and from one day to the next Poppy will stop holding Philip's hand: he will drop his right hand to her left so she can take it, but nothing will happen, and when he looks down she will be standing there beside him, watching for a gap in the traffic, and she will not hold his hand any more, and she never will again,

and Dexter will sit on the edge of the bed to do up his sandals, and Athena will creep over to him and put her head on his knee, and he will take her head in his hands and stroke it with a firm touch,

And so on.  It's a daggy, unnecessary ending for a neat, ruthless novella.  In my reissue, I'd cut off the last two pages and end it with Athena sitting at the table, waiting for her family to come home.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mikhail Bulgakov

September, 2012:  I find myself reluctant to begin reading a new book, as I have seven books read from July to now (November) that I haven't yet written about for my 'Book of the Moment'.  These books are: 
Vanity Fair (1847-8), William Makepeace Thackeray; 
A Country Doctor's Notebook (mid-1920s), Mikhail Bulgakov; 
Victoria (1898), Knut Hamsun; 
Anna Karenina (1873-7), Leo Tolstoy; 
Still Life With Woodpecker (1980), Tom Robbins; 
The Woodlanders (1887), Thomas Hardy;
Mrs Robinson's Disgrace (2012), Kate Summerscale.

Clearly, the trouble started with Vanity Fair.  It was such a wonderful novel, it deserved a long and detailed essay the like of which I hadn't written since high school.  But I had to postpone it, as I had left my dog-eared copy in Sydney, unable to justify lugging it back to Melbourne on the train.  So I began to read (for the second time) Anna Karenina.  A writer could spend her whole life studying this novel - it demanded an equally detailed essay as Vanity Fair.  Now I've just finished The Woodlanders.  Among these three monuments, I interspersed the other 'lesser' works; although they were good in their own ways, they're not so daunting.  I'll break the log-jam by starting with the first* of them, A Country Doctor's Notebook.

While looking myself up on the Google, I read an unfavourable reader's-review of my first novel, The Showgirl and the Brumby; the part I remember was, "lurid with every possible unpleasant smear of snot, sex, and mastication."  Fair call, I thought.  As truth is often found in the fine detail, I like writers who examine people closely - the workings  of their psyches, bodies, any part of them.  This is why I like doctor-writers.  They don't shy away from things like eyeballs covered with a sac of pus, or head-ectomies on babies stuck in birth canals.  They find it all interesting.  A Country Doctor's Notebook is a collection of accounts of cases that came to Bulgakov while he was an inexperienced doctor at an outpost in the wilds of Russia.  Although each story is discrete in itself, and presumably published separately along the way, as a collection they plot the course of a young man growing to fit the responsibilities he has (somewhat prematurely) taken on.  The phrase "you have to start somewhere" takes on a different shade when you're talking about amputations.  As he faces the leg he has to cut off, Bulgakov seems almost as ignorant and unconfident as I would be if I had to do it.

It makes me think about twenty-year-olds in our time; older people consider them spoilt, lazy, like overgrown children.  The cure is to give them responsibility and leave them to their own devices, but the oldies seem reluctant to do this, either because they want to hold onto the responsibility (and power) themselves, or else because they enjoy fussing over their big babies.

The collection ends with the diary (fictional?) of a young doctor who had preceded Bulgakov as the local doctor in this huge, snowbound wilderness.  He found relief in morphine from loneliness, and the stress of being solely responsible for his patients' lives; he rapidly became addicted, tried to wean himself off it by taking cocaine, and finally killed himself.  His parting advice, having used himself as a test-case, was: don't try to cure a morphine addiction with cocaine.  This might be another lesson for our youngies in Bulgakov's book.

*Alas, the remaining six are as yet still unblogged.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

William Wordsworth

August, 2012: I always found poetry hard to read.  Where does one read it - in bed or over breakfast?  How does one read it - one at a time, followed by ten minutes of reflection?  Despite coming from a poetry-writing and -loving family, I struggled to find a place for it in my life.  I thought, "Oh, well, songs are my poetry."  Last year, my father (Geoffrey Lehmann) and his old friend, Robert Gray, published an anthology, Australian Poetry Since 1788.  It got me reading poetry.  I haven't written a post about it yet - as it's about the size of a house-brick, it doesn't come with me on my rambles, so I'm only two centimetres through it.  But it makes reading poetry pleasurable; the poems have been carefully selected, and Geoff and Bob's introductions guide the reader surely through the material.  For me, it has set a standard for reading poetry: if I'm not enjoying myself, then it's highly likely the poem is a dud.  Here's an enjoyable poem written by Jamie Grant about the anthology*:

So first there was Geoff and Bob's anthology.  Then there were the Philip Larkin poems Bob Ellis read aloud from his lap-top - they were so good, I carried around a volume called Witsun Weddings until I lost it.  Then there was the Wordsworth line Thomas Hardy quoted in Return Of The Native, "plain living and high thinking," that provoked me into seeking out the whole poem.  With William Wordsworth, my conversion to poetry was complete.  

For the rambler, a slim volume or two of poetry slipped into the backpack equates to incalculable hours of pleasure and enrichment, at a mere 50g of additional weight.  I took a Wordsworth best-of (selected by Stephen Logan from poems 1796-1845) off my grandfather's shelf, and have been carrying it around all year.  Wordsworth doesn't have a broad range.  He writes about love of the natural world, as opposed to the man-made world or "what man has made of man."  This just happens to be the theme closest to my heart - it's practically my religion.  I've never read anyone express the effect of nature on the soul as well as he does, and I don't care if it's the only thing he can write about.  His short poems written from (apparently) his point of view are my favourites.  They are pure, clear bursts of inspiration.  The poem quoted by Hardy, 'Written in London, September 1802', is only fourteen lines; here are a few of them:

The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us.  Rapine, avarice, expence,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone;

He gets a bit murky and muddled when he writes longer poems (though I like his long story-poems, or ballads).  I waded through the 206 lines of 'Ode' (1807), which, as far as I could gather, reiterates with each verse that the poet has become blinded to nature's beauty by a malaise, springing from his humanness.  There are beautiful lines, such as the last two, "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/ Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears", but the structure is weak - it has the simple, gem-like conclusion, but too few ideas leading up to it.  

Wordsworth is most successful when he has a narrative to hang his ideas on; often the narrative is as basic as "I went out walking and had an encounter that provoked an interesting thought," such as in 'Simon Lee, The Old Huntsman' (1798).  He describes an old man - and manages to slip in a few points about the transience of youth and vigour - whom the poet sees one summer day trying to grub up a rotten old tree stump.  Here are the last two verses (out of thirteen):

'You're overtasked, good Simon Lee,
Give me your tool' to him I said;
And at the word right gladly he
Received my proffer'd aid.
I struck and with a single blow
The tangled root I sever'd,
At which the poor old man so long
And vainly had endeavour'd.

The tears into his eyes were brought, 
And thanks and praises seemed to run
So fast out of his heart, I thought
They never would have done.
-I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning.
Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftner left me mourning.

This unexpected conclusion brought tears to my eyes; despite Wordsworth's own misgivings about it - "My gentle reader, I perceive/ How patiently you've waited,/ And I'm afraid that you expect/ Some tale will be related" - 'Simon Lee' is a much more satisfying poem than the loftier 'Ode'.

I spend quite a bit of time lying in long grass looking up at the sky, and if anyone should ever charge me with being lazy or sluggish, there is a good retort in 'Expostulation and Reply' (1798):

'The eye it cannot chuse but see,
'We cannot bid the ear be still;
'Our bodies feel, where'er they be,
'Against, or with our will.

'Nor less I deem that there are powers,
'Which of themselves our minds impress,
'That we can feed this mind of ours,
'In a wise passiveness.

'Think you, mid all this mighty sum
'Of things forever speaking,
'That nothing of itself will come,
'But we must still be seeking?

'-Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
'Conversing as I may,
'I sit upon this old grey stone,
'And dream my time away.'

In 'Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey' (1798), he revisits a landscape he knows and loves.  He speaks about these "forms of beauty":

Oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart...
...Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten'd: - that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame, 
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

For me, this perfectly describes the effect that nature - all that time I've spent looking up at the sky and stroking gum trees - has on me.

The other lines quoted in my small circle are:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

And also:

My former thoughts return'd: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed

The phrase 'Wordsworth's daffodils' is a shorthand for the solace that is to be found in nature:

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;

I can understand Wordsworth in terms of songwriters: he's no Cole Porter or Dolly Parton - versatile writers constantly exploring different emotions, characters, themes and scenario.  He's more in the style of Stevie Nicks, capable only of one perspective (their own), but now and then producing a piece of work in which the intense subjectivity is pushed all the way through into universality, becoming the final word on that particular subject.

*erratum: Grant's poem was about a previous Geoff and Bob anthology.  It's still a good poem.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Shakespeare - Romeo And Juliet

June, 2012: I caught the train from Sydney to Melbourne, and to vary my diet of Vanity Fair, I decided the slender volume of Romeo And Juliet (1597) would be worth squeezing into my pack.  I haven't read a lot of Shakespeare, just as I don't own a Beatles album.  I know the work is good without even looking into it; moreover, I know the work - picking it up on the ether - without even reading it.  But this is lazy and ignorant.  Shakespeare is really easy to read - it took only a few days to read Romeo And Juliet - so there are no excuses to pass him over.  
What did I discover?  He's good.  He tells his story in brisk, powerful strokes.  The only time the plot isn't being advanced is when he'll have a few characters standing around making ribald jokes; then the reader doesn't resent the slowing down, because it's funny and sexy.  And despite the minimal characterisation, and the somewhat rushed pace, he manages to throw in enough human-content to make you feel sad when a character dies.  Other surprises: I didn't realise that Romeo starts the play in love with Rosaline, and I like the depiction of a hungry-for-love young man.  Also, I liked Juliet being so desperate to have sex with him.  
Finally, it is amazing how much of this play has been incorporated into our language; numerous times, I came across commonly-uttered phrases, such as "A rose by any other name", or "A plague on both your houses".  It was like hearing Johnny Cash sing I Walk The Line at the Entertainment Centre, or getting out of the tour bus and seeing Uluru in all its might.  These icons are perfectly comfortable in their own skins, and as well as evoking a thrill of awe, the beholder also shrugs her shoulders and thinks, "But of course!"  Once again, it is proven that the literature we retain, century after century, is the good stuff - plot, poetry, human truths, humour.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Charles Dickens

April, 2012:  I love a beautifully-crafted novel, but if Charles Dickens had slowed down to polish his novels, there would only be six or seven of them, instead of a hundred (please don't correct me, I like to believe there is a lifetime's supply).  The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837) was, of course, written in installments, and it rambles along, just like Mr. Pickwick and his disciples, who set out to see the world very modestly.  I don't think they ever get farther than about twenty miles from London, and their adventures are on a very small scale; much of the fun of Pickwick Papers is derived from depicting insignificant events as momentous, and the homely Mr. Pickwick as a great sage.  There's the chapter titled, 'Too Full Of Adventure To Be Briefly Described': the adventure is Samuel Weller and Mr. Pickwick erroneously breaking into a girls' school, with girls screaming and old teachers getting excited.  Sometimes a chapter is merely an anecdote someone has retailed in a pub.  Dickens always has a pointed message, even when he's having fun: in The Pickwick Papers, his humour flips back on itself, reminding us that in real life, there's nothing insignificant about small-scale events - doing your first back-bend in a yoga class! sending a text message to the wrong person! - and also that Mr. Pickwick's ordinary wisdom is exactly what we need to navigate through our small-scale lives.
While I was reading The Pickwick Papers, I happened to see a friend chasing his hat down Glebe Point Road.  Even Mr. Pickwick loses his hat from time to time, and here's how he deals with it:
There are very few moments in a man's existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head; smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thomas Hardy - Return Of The Native

March, 2012:  I've often wondered why I consistently like old novels more than new novels.  I read Return Of The Native (1878) straight after Foal's Bread (see below), and was completely accepting of Thomas Hardy's dramatic suicide ending; whereas Gillian Mears's dramatic suicide ending left me annoyed and unsatisfied.  Why?  I started to think about the authors' moral purpose, and the fable their characters were playing out.  
I grew up reading fairy stories - perhaps this is why I write with a moral purpose (and read in search of one).  Every work I've made has a moral purpose that can be expressed in one or two sentences; for example, I wrote The Showgirl and the Brumby to illustrate the problems that occur when truths about the family are kept secret.  Recently I asked a writer, "Do you write with a moral purpose?"  She looked taken aback, even slightly offended, and said, "No!"  I'd never uttered the words "moral purpose" at a dinner party before, and hadn't realised I was making a gaffe.  I vaguely grasp how in our free-market, multicultural, areligious world, morals are seen as reactionary and narrow-minded, or even unsophisticated.  But I would have thought that in a world where morals are shifting and indistinct, it was more important than ever to explore them.
Thomas Hardy's suicide ending is completely moral, which doesn't mean it's simplistic or 'black-and-white'.  That's the whole point of morals, and why they're worth exploring: reconciling your conscience at the end of every day often requires delicate compromising, lowering of standards, cutting yourself and others a fair bit of slack, and embracing a passel of contradictions.  It's a wonder anyone can ever reconcile their conscience.  When Eustacia throws herself into the Shadwater Weir, it's an indictment; partly on Eustacia's restless, unsatisfied character, "an armful of wet drapery enclosing a woman's cold form, which was all that remained of the desperate Eustacia", but mainly on the times she lived in, which prevented her (as a woman) from seeking a life that would suit her better.  All these desperate nineteenth-century heroines throwing themselves into weirs, under trains or stuffing their mouths with arsenic - the moral purpose driving their (male) authors was to illustrate how impossible the prevailing social conditions were for a certain type of woman.  
Perhaps a reader could interpret these novels as condemnations of that type of woman, the ones that display traits such as quick intelligence, curiosity, ambition, passion, smouldering beauty.  Often there's a counterpoint female character in these novels - in Return Of The Native, there's Thomasin Yeobright, who is quiet, gentle, unintellectual, sweetly pretty, perfectly content to live her whole life in the desolate backwater of Egdon Heath, and moreover, has a baby (while Eustacia somehow manages not to).  Eustacia ends up drowned in the weir, while the widowed Thomasin, after a respectable grieving period, marries the nicest man in the whole book.  But I don't believe Hardy is saying Eustacia deserves to die, and Thomasin to live happily every after.  He has made Eustacia an attractive, complex, challenging character.  We want her to live, to reach her potential! It's a tragedy that she can't.  In 1878, his readership - Victorian englishmen - might not have been as sympathetic to Eustacia as I am.  But, crucially, Hardy has made Eustacia sexy.  Would any heterosexual male reader, on reading about the "wet drapery enclosing a woman's cold form", really be able to nod gravely to himself and think, "Well, that young lady got her comeuppance!"  Wouldn't he have felt some shudder of regret?  Eustacia must have played unsettlingly, ambiguously, upon the mind of even the most disapproving reader.
Thomas Hardy gives each of his main characters (five of them - Return Of The Native is a love-pentagon) an inner life.  He describes their emotions in the same observational, factual way he describes the local mores or the landscape.  It is plain reportage, rather than a clever conjuring trick done in words.  A couple of sentences my eye lit upon is: 
While the effigy of Eustacia was melting to nothing, and the fair woman herself was standing on Rainbarrow, her soul in an abyss of desolation seldom plumbed by one so young, Yeobright sat lonely at Blooms-End.  He had fulfilled his word to Thomasin by sending off Fairway with the letter to his wife, and now waited with increased impatience for some sound or signal of her return. 
In this excerpt, room isn't respectfully cleared away for the emotional content - Eustacia's profound desolation doesn't even get its own sentence, but is squeezed up between Susan doing voodoo on her, and her husband feeling lonely, then is followed by a sentence that, in story-telling terms, is a bit of humdrum-but-necessary housework.  It's one of the things I love most about Hardy: intense emotions are an everyday occurrence for him.  He neither avoids nor dwells on them.  It is a good lesson for apprentice writers (such as me) - the way he can write about passion without ever descending into melodrama.
So how does he handle his dramatic suicide ending?  The abyss of desolation is the last glimpse we have into Eustacia.  The next we know of her is when Wildeve (her lover) and Yeobright (her husband) hear a "dull sound" that is unmistakably the fall of a body into the weir.  There are a few lines of dialogue between the two men, "Good God!" etc., then they hurry to the weir with lamps.  After this are two paragraphs of specifications about the Shadwater Weir, the circular pool fifty feet in diameter, the ten huge hatches, the sides of the pool that "were of masonry, to prevent the water from washing away the bank", and so on.  I remember coming across this device when studying Latin in high school: just when things get interesting, throw in a whole lot of pedantic details.  It probably has a name.  Finally, at the end of the second paragraph, we find what we want: "Across this gashed and puckered mirror a dark body was slowly borne by one of the backward currents."
But Hardy doesn't pull a veil over the scene yet; over two pages, people plunge in, drown, get dragged out, are revived or not, all documented in the dauntless, plodding, Hardy way.  From then on, the fire of the novel has gone out, and the remaining four chapters are a raking of the ashes.  The last chapter is called Cheerfulness again asserts itself at Blooms-End, and Clym finds his Vocation - if the marriage of Diggory Venn and Thomasin is intended to compensate for the unhappy drownings, then Hardy was unsuccessful on this count, but in a few hasty sketches, he is making the simple yet important point, "life goes on".
Now I've started thinking about it, I've decided it's quite erroneous to think of suicide and/or marriage as a good ending for a story.  They're much better beginnings.  Best to end with a beginning, and begin with an ending.  Andy bought Romeo and Juliet from Cowra Vinnies, so I have another suicide ending up ahead to examine.
Some lovely lines from Return Of The Native:
Rejected suitors take to roaming as naturally as unhived bees.
Wildeve meets his old flame Eustacia, after he has affianced himself to Thomasin.  He replies to Eustacia, who has been trying to figure out whether he still cares for her:

"I care a little, but not enough to break my rest,' replied the young man languidly.  'No, all that's past.  I find there are two flowers where I thought there was only one.  Perhaps there are three, or four, or any number as good as the first."
Later, Eustacia manages to attract Wildeve away from Thomasin, but then loses interest in him:
She went indoors in that peculiar state of misery which is not exactly grief, and which especially attends the dawnings of reason in the latter days of an ill-judged, transient love.  To be conscious that the end of a dream is approaching, and yet has not absolutely come, is one of the most wearisome as well as the most curious stages along the course between the beginning of a passion and its end.
Of Clym Yeobright and his mother:
The love between the young man and his mother was strangely invisible.  Of love it may be said, the less earthly, the less demonstrative.  In its absolutely indestructible form it reaches a profundity in which all exhibition of itself is painful.  It was so with these.  Has conversations between them been overheard, people would have said, "How cold they are to each other!"
Yeobright says to Eustacia: 
"But the more I see of life the more I do perceive that there is nothing particularly great in its greatest walks, and therefore nothing particularly small in mine of furze-cutting.  If I feel that the greatest blessings vouchsafed to us are not very valuable, how can I feel it to be any great hardship when they are taken away?  So I sing to pass the time."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gillian Mears

February, 2012:  I first read Gillian Mears's work about twenty years ago - her short stories, Fine Flour (1990), and novel The Mint Lawn (1991).  I loved her cool, clear honesty.  I haven't reread those books, though they're both still cherished in my shelf.  I'm afraid now I'd find them too close to what I call "depresso fiction", where getting to the heart of the matter, the truth of something, always yields depressing nihilism; and where if you think something is sweet and happy, you're soon proven to be deluding yourself.  But Mumma is no fan of depresso fiction, and when she was a third of the way through Foal's Bread (2011), she told me it was wonderful, so I took it to Cowra, to get me through the hot days where all I can do is lie on the floor and read.
I said to a friend, "I liked Foal's Bread as a reader, but as a writer, I had a few problems with it."  I don't know if I can really split myself in two like that; what I was really expressing to Clare was ambivalence.  I loved the mise-en-scène of Foal's Bread - '30s-ish rural Australia, centring around the show-jumping scene.  I was surprised and delighted that a 'serious' writer like Mears would take the trouble to create a world so picturesque and appealing.  This was certainly not depresso fiction.  Moreover, there was a love story!  A love story between two beautiful, young, champion show-jumpers.  This classic, potentially cliquéed material was being handled by a writer who had not lost any of her clarity and honesty, but seemed less interested in hunting down 'harsh reality'.  There was still a lot of dirt in the cracks of the chocolate-box imagery - in the first pages of the book, our tough little heroine, Noah, secretly gives birth to a child fathered by her old uncle.  There's mud, poverty and cracked hands, as well as ribbons and flying horses. 
Thinking about it now, and about how, like Mumma, I loved it in the beginning, and felt really let down by it at the end, I can see that at some point, the novel loses hope.  At the beginning, the reader has reason to believe life will be kind to poor Noah, and despite her rough start, she'll pull through and be happy, by dint of her exceptional pluck and determination.  That's when the judge hits a button that produces some dreadful noise - WRONG!  Her beautiful young husband becomes impotent, the first symptom of a gradual creeping paralysis that kills him.  Noah's hard-won happiness and stability starts to unravel in every possible way, until she ends up committing suicide with one last reckless jump.  Nihilism - have faith in nothing! expect nothing! - is still the message.  I think of Wordsworth, "Fear that kills, hope that is unwilling to be fed."  If you look for nothing, you'll find it.
Like a lot of work these days, though its heart is empty, its finish is perfect.  Mears's writing is refined, pared-back and beautiful, her style and tone flawlessly consistent.  This is no rough-and-ready novel, with eye-sores and jarring clunks.  I actually have little objection to eye-sores and clunks; as I've said before, these are signs the writer is pushing his or her limits, groping for something out-of-reach.  The jarring clunks, say, of Ruth Park's The Witch's Thorn, are the sound of the author making her way to her later novel, Swords and Crowns and Rings, where she gets it all right: structure, poetry, and moral purpose.  The style and tone of Foal's Bread is perfect, but the structure isn't.  It's always problematic, strangely flat, to end with the hero or heroine's suicide (Henry James's Princess Casamassima comes to mind).  In Foal's Bread, this problem is dealt with by presenting the reader with an epilogue, in which Noah's grown-up daughter revisits the site of the suicide.  It's a case of unsatisfying added to unsatisfying.  In some ways, the real  ending seemed to be the several pages of effusive acknowledgements - there was satisfaction to be found in the fact that writing this novel was a feat, and - hurrah! - Mears pulled it off.  It was also satisfying, in the acknowledgements pages, to read Mears writing in a more natural voice.  It makes me wonder: perfect finish, empty heart - does the personality of the author, the author's own story, provide the content?

Sometime later...I felt a bit remorseful for describing Foal's Bread as empty-hearted.  I went on-line, thereby allowing the personality and story of Gillian Mears to influence me.  I know there's a lot of love in Foal's Bread.  But in what organ does hope and faith live?  The most interesting fact I found was that Foal's Bread is a near relation to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, which Mears has loved since childhood.  The Yearling is an expanded folk tale, in my memory, an apocryphal story a grandfather might have told you one winter when you were snowed in.  It's beautiful and perfect.  After I read it, about ten years ago, I thought, "We knew, from the first moment it stepped onto the page, that the deer was going to have to die."  I pondered this: why did I find the book so gripping, if I knew what was going to happen?  It's the great theme of inevitabilities: the interest, and the lesson, is in the limitless and unpredictable ways in which people deal with inevitabilities.  I think there's part of me that takes moral offence at the Thelma and Louise, glorious-release-from-the-trials-of-life suicide in Foal's Bread.  I don't regard Noah's suicide as an inevitability.  I wish the author had found a way through for her.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mikhail Bulgakov

January, 2012: I loved Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, so was keen to borrow Heart Of A Dog (1925) when I saw it in my father's study.  It starts from the point of view of a mangy dog roaming Moscow in search of food.  A man gives him sausage and takes him to his luxurious apartment.  The dog is overwhelmed to discover such kindness and generosity in the world.  Of course, we know there is no such kindness in the world; the dog's new owner turns out to be a brilliant scientist, Phillip Phillipovich, who transplants the pituitary gland and testes of a dead criminal onto the dog.  The dog turns into an uncouth and ugly man, who refuses to remain under the control of the scientist.  The scientist and his household are almost driven mad by his creation.
In writing the above summary, I'm trying to decode the story.  I know it's about the danger of meddling with the natural order of things, and about everyone having an equal right to life - Sharikov, the man with the heart of a dog, is Phillipovich's inferior in every way, yet asserts his independence from his master, his right to get drunk, to have a girlfriend.  But because I don't understand what it was like to be in the Soviet Union, the real point of this strange story eludes me.  I enjoy it as a piece of crazy fun, but I don't learn much from it.  Most Russian writers are very moral.  I'm afraid Bulgakov would be disappointed by my literal and unsophisticated reading.  

Sometime later...After reflecting on my unilluminated take on Heart Of A Dog, I decided I was being lazy, so read a few bits and pieces of what other people have to say about it. Now I think the reason I feel something has eluded me is because satire is more effective the more you're familiar with what's being satirised.  At a reading in 1925 of Bulgakov's new novel, his audience received a certain passage about galoshes being stolen in the communal hallway with "deafening laughter" - this was reported by a secret informer to the Soviet police (and more recently by James Meek in an introduction of a new edition).  A reader who knows more about Bulgakov's world would undoubtedly recognise and laugh at detail all throughout the novel.  

D'Arcy Niland, Alice Munro, Kasey Chambers and W. Somerset Maugham

January, 2012: The books banked up at the end of last year - too much reading, not enough writing my 'Book of the Moment' commentary!  I was writing the last draft of my novel, tentatively called Dust, and had very little writing-energy left over. So, draft all but finished, and a new year unrolling before me, I'm going to clean up last year in one fell swoop.  The books of last year that will pass barely commented-upon are: 
D'Arcy Niland's The Big Smoke, a collection of short stories published in the 1950s.  I can't give the exact date because I wasn't very impressed with the book and passed it on to Vinnies.  [I am lazy when it comes to checking facts on the Google, but I rallied myself and found it was published in 1959.]  Most of the stories are set in Sydney, and it's always interesting to read of your familiar old city in an earlier, exotic incarnation.  Reading history enables you to spot the bits that still linger on, bits that you might otherwise just pass by.  But Niland's brushstrokes are very careless and hasty, his colours squeezed straight from the standard-issue tubes; in the short story format, this equals cartoons and caricatures.  In The Shiralee, Niland's broad brushstrokes worked because we had a whole novel to see this archetypical character, Macauley, in various different scenarios.  Subtleties - truths - gradually accumulated, almost despite him.  That's the beauty of the novel - the gradual accumulation adding up to something that is expressible in no way other than several hundred pages.
Dance Of The Happy Shades (1968), Alice Munro. One of my flatmates recommended this collection of short stories.  Tony had seen Jonathan Franzen give a talk in which he had championed Alice Munro and Christina Stead.  Stead is the most sophisticated novelist I've ever read; the reason her work has not been given the laurels it deserves is because it's too hard for most people to read.  I'm not being snobby about this - I'm a well-practised and determined novel-reader, with the added advantage of a naturally long concentration span, and, moreover, it's my trade to read novels; someone who reads novels purely for pleasure would quickly get bogged down in Stead.  I'd read Dance Of The Happy Shades when I was younger (and didn't bother to remember things, except which dress I'd worn when I last saw such-and-such boyfriend), so, on hearing of Munro being held up beside Stead, was curious to read these short stories again.  
When I was partway through the collection, Tony asked, "What do you think?"  I said, "The writing is very feminine."  It was a notable contrast, going from D'Arcy Niland's stories to Munro's.  I have no preference between feminine and masculine writing - I just like good writing.  And of course, some writers aren't particularly one or the other.  Then I had to figure out what I meant by "feminine writing".  Munro's main characters were frequently women leading confined, conventional, domestic lives, and privately thinking seditious thoughts.  Her characters lacked the confidence, or the wherewithal, to act, to change the world they live in - the key is that these stories are the act, the author makes herself into the protagonist.  So the poor women left behind in their stories, where their interesting thoughts are smothered by their repressive neighbours, their dull husbands, the demands of their children, are given a glorious escape simply by a reader opening the pages of the book.  
It's not only the domestic settings, and the small scale of the drama (e.g. woman plucks up courage to tell her husband that she is renting a room to write in, but by the end of the story is hounded out of it by bothersome landlord), but also the subtle truths, the fine detail and observation, that make these stories (to me) 'feminine'.  Jane Austen, the self-described miniaturist - her stories written on "two inches of ivory" with "a fine brush" - is the obvious example of a 'feminine writer'.  I think Austen was throwing us a decoy (which we have all eagerly latched onto) when she said that about herself; she was probably trying to make her occupation and success more acceptable, less threateningly revolutionary, to her milieu; for the surprising thing about Austen is that, just like other famous writers of her time, her novels are rollickingly plot-driven.  Munro's writing fits Austen's description better; these stories have the feel of a private correspondence, or beautifully-crafted entries from a diary.  I don't mean to belittle them by saying that - what's wrong with 'little'?  This collection was her first; I'm curious to know whether the characters in her later work have the same timidity and voicelessness, and whether there is still the theme of trying to pluck up the courage to bring the inner self to the outer.
Little Bird (2011) Kasey Chambers.  I'm a Kasey Chambers fan, but my wallet always seems to get hopelessly lost in my bag when it comes to proving my fandom at the merch table.  Not so my friend and fellow-fan, Sophie.  When we saw Kasey launch her memoir in Leichhardt, Sophie bought a copy, and I borrowed it soon after.  It was a feel-good breakfast-time read for a week or two, with lots of photos and colourful anecdotes; the welcoming openness that is the signature tone of a Kasey show transfers perfectly to the page.  Of course, it's a piece of marketing, and she's too young to be writing her memoirs, and she's rather recklessly robbing her stage-banter of its freshness by putting it down in print - she's going to start telling the story of her and Worm kissing at a party, and the audience is going to say, "Yeah, yeah, we know that one, we've read the book."  But what's really worthwhile about the book is its moral content, and Kasey's depiction of how she and her extended family (including divorced parents, step-parents, half-siblings, children to two different men, an ex-husband, a new husband, the ex-husband's new wife etc.) find their way through their network of relationships.  She has probably idealised it for publication, and there are undoubtedly tensions and problems that are too private even for Kasey to discuss, but I don't care - I think our world needs new standards, and new ideals for dealing with complex families.  She is a great role-model for inclusivity.  
I gave the book back to Sophie, so I can't quote from it verbatim, but at one point Kasey wrote that when her parents broke up after about twenty years of marriage, at first things were a bit acrimonious.  I thought, "Oh, the usual sorry situation."  Then she went on, "So it was really great to see them become friends again after a few months."  A few months!  I was impressed.  Acrimony between people who once loved each other enough to have children should be frowned upon, or maybe pitied - it shouldn't be accepted as the decent and proper reaction to a relationship coming to an end.

The World Over Vol II (1952) W. Somerset Maugham.  Somerset Maugham has, it seemed, combed the world to find people in unexpected places tangled up in unexpected relationships.  His short stories have the feel of anecdotes polished up over a few dinner parties before being written down - what an invaluable guest he would have been!  Many good writers are first and foremost good conversationalists.  I read Somerset Maugham for his warm and interesting company, rather than to worship at the altar of his craftsmanship.
Here's a passage I dog-eared.  The dialogue is between a Somerset Maugham-type character and a man, Featherstone, he met in Malaya.  Featherstone borrows The Life of Byron from W.S.M., and returns it the next morning, saying:
"What do you think is the real truth of that story about him and his sister?"
"Augusta Leigh?  I don't know very much about it.  I've never read Astarte."
"Do you suppose they were really in love with each other?"
"I suppose so.  Isn't it generally believed that  she was the only woman he ever genuinely loved?"
"Can you understand it?
"I can't really.  It doesn't particularly shock me.  It just seems to me very unnatural.  Perhaps 'unnatural' isn't the right word.  It's incomprehensible to me.  I can't throw myself into the state of feeling where such a thing seems possible.  You know, that's how a writer gets to know the people he writes about, by standing himself in their shoes and feeling with their hearts."
I knew I did not make myself very clear, but I was trying to describe a sensation, an action of the subconscious, which from experience was perfectly familiar to me, but which no words I knew could precisely indicate.
Not only do I like this simple description of what a writer does, and the modest qualification that follows, but this excerpt also shows his willingness to attempt to comprehend anything, even romantic love between a brother and sister.  He knows that comprehension of human life comes by gathering up the fine details, the specifics, which is what he presents to his readers.