John Williams’s Stoner and the Book Group

John Williams, Stoner (1965, NYRB 2006)

1590171993Published in 1965 and rediscovered by the New York Review of Books in 2006, this novel is currently having a big day in the sun, and our Book Group has its metaphor-mixing finger right on the pulse.

Before the group met: I loved this book, though I find it hard to say why with any confidence. William Stoner, born late in the 19th century into a grim farming community is sent to university at age 19 because his father grasps that education in agriculture will help the farm to survive. He has an epiphany part way through his second year of study when a lecturer recites a Shakespearean sonnet, and he changes course. He goes on to complete a PhD in literature and then to a life of teaching at that same university. He marries unhappily, has a daughter who doesn’t turn out well, makes powerful enemies in academia who stymie his career, endures a major heartbreak, lives on and finally dies. Grim, grim, grim, you might say.

What’s more, William Stoner is no man of action: he chooses not to enlist in the First World War, not to leave his intolerable marriage, not to challenge lies being circulated about him. There’s a moment near the end when he has a chance to speak in public, to communicate something of what matters to him: he says six words – words that are moving to the reader, but must sound almost completely inconsequential to his listeners. He is exactly not the ideal protagonist of a Hollywood movie.

Which may be his appeal. He isn’t noteworthy because of any great achievements, but he is a man who falls in love with a vocation – the vocation to teach – and is true to it for the rest of his life. Even though for long stretches he is a mediocre teacher, he finds a deep spiritual nourishment and meaning there, and at key moments chooses to sacrifice his chances for advancement or happiness in order pursue it.

The book is beautifully written. Every now and then, I’d forget that I’ve only got so many years left and so many books still to read, and just linger over a turn of phrase, a sentence, a paragraph. Like this:

In his extreme youth, Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

 After the meeting: It’s winter: one man was down with a heavy cold starting a second round of antibiotics, two were off in the European summer, a third had an early flight to Manila this morning, one who works for an environmental organisation had urgent work sprung on him (whether because of the good news from the State government or the continuing torrent of bad from Canberra he didn’t say), and yet another had been intending to come but mysteriously failed in the  attempt.

So four of us drank from crystal glasses and sat down to far too much food and a sustained and animated conversation about the book, which we had all read (a rare event) and were all enthusiastic about. I think everyone read something, each picking out a different bit to hold up for the collective enjoyment.

Someone said that he wept in public as he read it; that when Stoner found love in middle age it was as if the novel changed from black-and-white to colour, and then, wretchedly, back again.

One of the passages that was read out was the account of Stoner and his wife’s sex life in the early years of their marriage. Be warned this might trigger sexual abuse memories:

Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed; sometimes at night, in her sleep, she unknowingly moved against him. And sometimes, then, his resolve and knowledge crumbled before his love, and he moved upon her. If she was sufficiently roused from her sleep, she tensed and stiffened, turning her head sideways in a familiar gesture and burying it in her pillow, enduring violation; at such times Stoner performed his love as quickly as he could, hating himself for his haste and regretting his passion. Less frequently she remained half numbed by sleep; then she was passive, and she murmured drowsily, whether in protest or surprise he did not know. He came to look forward to those rare and unpredictable moments, for in that sleep-drugged acquiescence he could pretend to himself that he found a kind of response.

Williams doesn’t shy away from the word ‘violation’, but ‘love’ isn’t just a euphemism either. As someone in the group said, your heart breaks for both of them.

Swapna Dutta’s Juneli’s First Term

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term (1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)

1jftBefore I was sent off to boarding school when I was 13, I enjoyed the tales of English boarding schools in the Boys Own and (yes, I read them too!) Girls Own annuals that occasionally found their way into our house. They were tales from another era, another planet almost – and I wasn’t surprised when my own boarding school experience had very little of their camaraderie, independence and adventure (though it did have some of the bullying – poor Billy Bunter!).

Similar stories captured the hearts of Swapna Dutta as a Bengali child a decade or so earlier, and of young Juneli, protagonist of this book a decade or so later. If Juneli’s First Term and its popularity with Indian children when first published are any evidence, the romance of those British stories (the Chalet School series is the name here that rings a bell) were closer to the experience Indian girls sent to missionary schools than they were for a North Queensland boy sent to a Brisbane Christian Brothers school.

Juneli lives in a remote place with only her widowed father and the servants for company. She is happy enough, but when she discovers her mother’s trove of boarding-school story books she yearns for the life she reads about there, for companionship and adventures with children her own age, and to learn from teachers other than her father. At the urging of his long-absent sister, Juneli’s loving father sends her to a boarding school, and it turns out to be just as wonderful as she had hoped, with samosas instead of cream buns and illicit play with colours on the festival of Holi instead of midnight feasts.

There is unpleasantness of course: a snobbish girl and her hangers-on make trouble, a cooking class goes seriously wrong, an innocent joke about a flamboyant male teacher brings shame on Juneli. These episodes ring true, but so does the overarching benignness of school life.

The book is illustrated by the author’s daughter Sawan Dutta. She did the illustrations for the original publication when she was barely out of school. For that edition, her cover image wasn’t used, but it graces this e-book, and it’s hard to see why it wasn’t used the first time.

I guess any boarding school book without magic and a cosmic villain who must not be named will seem pallid in this post-Potter days, but what this book lacks in spells and sorcery it makes up for in warmth and quiet celebration of ordinary things – with two added bonuses: for Indian readers as I imagine, the chance to see their own reality mirrored in the genre, and for westerners, a gentle example of the colonised speaking back.

You can buy the book from Dogears etc. for 99 rupees, which is about $1.75 Australian. I don’t know if there are any plans to bring out ebooks of the rest of the Juneli series.

I should mention that Swapna is a friend of mine, and that my copy of the book is a gift from her.

Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix

Art Spiegelman, Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps (Drawn & Quarterly 2013)

co-mixI remember the relief when I discovered in my 30s  that my father really liked Gentleman’s Relish, which David Jones sold in fancy jars that were big enough to last from his August birthday to Christmas and then Christmas to the next birthday. The presents problem was solved. Forever.

I suspect my late-found interest in comics has brought similar relief to my sons. I’m not complaining.

This big, hard-cover book isn’t a comic as such. Sandwiched between Spiegelman’s scathing one page review in comic form of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1990 exhibition, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture and an essay by Robert Storr about Making Maus, MoMA’s exhibition of Spiegelman drawings the following year, it’s a book-shaped equivalent of a retrospective exhibition.

It begins with early works that turned up in underground magazines and established publications, including Playboy. There are Mad-magazine influenced cards for a chewing gum company, and RAW, a graphic magazine Spiegelman ran with his wife, Françoise Mouly (who later became art director at The New Yorker). The early stuff tends to be satirical, surrealist, scatological, confrontingly sexual, but never stupid or bland.

Spiegelman is best known for Maus, the ground-breaking comic about his family’s Holocaust experience, originally published as two books, in 1986 and 1981. Co-Mix assumes its readers know that work (and if you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do), so reproduces only one page from it. But there are seven pages illustrating Spiegelman’s painstaking process of drawing study after study on the way to the final images. ‘In the time that other artists can draw forty pages,’ he’s quoted as saying, ‘ I can draw one page forty times.’

There’s a generous sampling of covers he did for The New Yorker in the 1990s, which segues into a section on In the Shadow of No Towers, the extraordinarily beautiful large-format book about his response to the terrorist attack on New York in 2011. In that book, Spiegelman represents himself sometimes in human form, sometimes with his mouse avatar from Maus, its pages are full of cartoon figures from an earlier era, and up the back there’s an essay and a number of beautifully reproduced comic from the early 20th century. The combination of 21st century New York angst, race and PTSD with Katzenjammer and earlier cartoonery feels completely right, but mysteriously so. There’s an illuminating comment here:

The classic comic strip characters, Spiegelman said, gave him aesthetic solace because they represented ‘vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the twentieth century … That they were never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy: they were just right.’

There’s a lot more, including children’s books, book covers, pages from his notebooks, lithographs, accounts of collaborations with a dance company and in musical theatre, and painted glass windows for New York’s High School of Art and Design.

It’s all interesting, but the section titled ‘Comics Supplement’ is on a whole other level: 17 pages of complete comics from The New Yorker, one from the Washington Post and one from McSweeney’s. Here’s where you’re reminded why a Spiegelman retrospective makes sense. In particular, if you have a chance to browse though this book, flip to pages 72–81 for the generous, witty, deeply respectful tributes to Maurice Sendak (on the occasion of his death), Charles Schultz (on the occasion of his retirement, published five days before his death), and – again on the occasion of his death – Harvey Kurtzman, early editor of Mad magazine who made a cameo appearance, without being named, in another book I blogged about recently, Lawrence Lipton’s Holy Barbarians.

The copyright notice says I can reproduce ‘small portions for review purposes’ without needing written permission. Here’s a strip from Spiegelman’s three pages on Schultz:

spiegelman

Jenny Blackford’s Duties of a Cat

Jenny Blackford, The Duties of a Cat (Pitt Street Poetry 2014)

1dcThis tiny book of 12 poems about cats, with seven charming ink drawings, would make an excellent gift for a cat-lover. But, dear reader, before you start thinking about cute internet kittehs, think of Christopher Smart considering his cat Jeoffry:

For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.

or, much more recently, David Malouf’s ‘Eternal Moment at Poggio Madonna’:

Miss Mischa in her cool
reclusion curls on the mat.
Has a feel for
creaturely comforts and has sniffed out
this spot, though nothing
in nature or that the eye
can see marks it as special.

Cats and fine poetry are by no means incompatible.

Pitt Street Poetry – publishers of, among others, Lesley Lebkowicz, Geoff Page, Eileen Chong, Luke Davies and Mark Tredinnick – have not lost their judgment. Jenny Blackford turns a loving, amused, admiring and sometimes unsettled eye on the creature from another species that shares her home.

It’s not irrelevant that some of these poems have been previously published in The School Magazine (though not yet in my long-ago time as editor) and in science fiction/fantasy magazines as well as literary journals for adults. The cats of these poems have eerie science-fictional qualities, as in this from ‘Their quantum toy’ (the whole poem is online here):

I’ve seen him levitate, I’ve seen him
lift, weightless,
impossible, from lawn to fence,
or rug to bed,
up from the ground without a hair
or muscle moved.

They can have great child appeal, as in ‘Soft silk sack’, which begins:

Cat puddles
against the floor
his body flat as milk

But there are poems that start cutely like that and end, for example, with the cat’s  eyes as ‘ chips of blue-grey glacial ice’. Like cats themselves, the poems can be charming and dangerous in the same breath.

So yes, this would make a great present for someone who loves cats and isn’t allergic to poetry, but also for someone who loves poetry and isn’t allergic to cats.

awwbadge_2014The Duties of a Cat is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Added later: I should have mentioned that we did publish two of Jenny’s ghost stories when I was editor of The School Magazine, that she and I are Facebook friends, and that she gave me a copy of The Duties of a Cat  as a gift.

Lawrence Lipton’s Holy Barbarians

Lawrence Lipton, The Holy Barbarians (@ 1959, WH Allen 1960)

1llhbA young friend pressed this on us, saying it had changed her life. It’s an account of the community of ‘beats’ in West Venice in Southern California in the 1950s. Lawrence Lipton introduces himself as a veteran of earlier bohemian communities who aims to give us a portrait of this one as it develops. Wikipedia says he was a journalist, whose name is linked to the beatnik movement mainly because of this book, but all the same this is an insider’s account, or at least an account by someone with full access.

I can see why it made such an impression on a teenage girl in a country town with artistic yearnings. It’s about young people and young adults from an earlier era who challenged the society of their parents to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller and so on, in what Lawrence Lipton calls Disaffiliation. It was interesting to me to see how much of what was novel, even heroic to the beats in the 50s (or at least to Lawrence Lipton reporting on them) was pretty commonplace for people in their 20s in Sydney in the 70s: relaxed sexual mores, jazz, marijuana …

The differences, though, are huge. The unquestioning acceptance of sexism is very in-your-face: women’s stories are told almost entirely in terms of their sexual behaviour and their relationships with men; at one point, being grandly inclusive, Lipton refers to citizenesses. African Americans are there, as Negro jazz musicians, the heroes of the beats but never really characters with their own stories. There is discussion of Marxism, but class is the elephant in the room, leaving the impression that this was a community of middle class white youth getting stoned and full of a sense of their own importance, choosing poverty but always with the possibility of asking their parents to bail them out, disengaging from politics but telling themselves that this was a mark of moral superiority.

Then there’s the language: even while professing a Zen rejection of dichotomies, the book assumes an apparently impermeable division between on one side the squares and on the other the hip, the cool, the beat. The squares might know about Taoism, for example, by reading and study, but the hip dig it. It’s awfully redolent of rigid high-school divisions between skaters, surfers, nerds, jocks, cool girls, etc.

Still, with some serious skipping, it’s an interesting journalistic account of an interesting moment in Western culture. It sent me off to YouTube to listen to Ginsberg perform ‘Howl‘, partly to check that the poem does refer to ‘angelheaded hipsters’ rather than the much more enigmatic ‘angleheaded hipsters’ mentioned by Lipton a number of times, but mainly because this book made me realise what a gap in my education it has been never to have heard him read it.

The book’s absolute highlight is not to do with the West Venice hipsters at all, but a marvellous account of a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, where a confrontation between a drunken Ginsberg and a drunken heckler escalates to the point where, provoking outrage among the square audience, Ginsberg strips naked, while Anais Nin – meeting Ginsberg for the first time – sits through it all unperturbed and regal. If you come across a copy I recommend you read pages 194–198. (It turns out I’m not alone in seeing this as the most interesting part of the book. At least two people have uploaded the passage, so you can read it here and here.)

The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills from CSIRO

Ian D. Clark & Fred Cahir (editors), The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives (CSIRO Publishing 2013)

0643108084History, as Winston Churchill famously said, is written by the victors. As someone else has surely said, it’s also passed on by word of mouth among the conquered, and – if we’re lucky – revised by the descendants of both. Although only one of the essays in this collection is written by an Aboriginal author, the book is a happy example of that kind of revisionism.

Every schoolchild of my generation and earlier knew the Burke and Wills story: the successful crossing of Australia from south to north, the terrible coincidence of arriving at the Cooper’s Creek depot hours after their supply party had given up waiting for them, the Beckettishly symbolic ‘Dig Tree’, the wretched death of most of the party in the ‘wilderness’, the survival of King among an Aboriginal community, the retrieval of the bodies. As one of the essays in this book comments, the story is a key example of ‘the mythology of victimhood that, ironically, secures a settler claim to cultural legitimacy by marginalising the actual victims of colonisation – namely, Aboriginal people’ (Leigh Boucher, ‘Alfred Howitt and the Erasure of Aboriginal History’, p 255).

The myth-making impulse was so strong that no official account of the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860–61, to give it its full title, was attempted at the time, and it wasn’t until 2011, when CSIRO published Burke and Wills: The Scientific Legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, that the expedition’s scientific achievements were explored in any systematic way.

The Aboriginal Story, edited by two Bathurst University academics, explores the other major area that has been largely neglected by the scores of journalists, novelists, filmmakers, painters, poets, sculptors and yarners who have dealt with the expedition, namely ‘the interaction between Indigenous people and the expeditioners and their potential and actual contribution to the expedition’ (p. v).

Not everything here is news. As a postgraduate student 40 years ago, I read the selections from Wills’s diary and letters published by his father, and was left in no doubt that Burke’s arrogant dismissal of Aboriginal hospitality and ABoriginal knowledge played a major part in his disastrous end. My abiding memory from that reading is the image of the bearded Irish policeman, close to death from starvation, knocking to the ground an armful of freshly caught fish being offered to him by a group of Aboriginal men.

That perception and that image occur in a number of the essays here, but there is much more. The book opens with an introduction by Aaron Paterson, a Yandruwandha man, descendant of the community in whose land Burke and Wills died, the people who cared for John King, the expedition’s only survivor. His lyrical description of his country demolishes in a couple of pages the whole edifice underpinning the tragic explorer myth: Burke and Wills weren’t crossing an implacable wilderness, but stumbling ineptly through other people’s home.

And it goes on from there. This is a collection of scholarly essays, each meant to stand alone if need be, with the result that there is a lot of repetition: the reader is introduced to characters such as the expedition artist Ludwig Becker many times over, and there is no single account of the expedition. I skipped a little, but only a little: most of it is fascinating reading – we learn about the languages of the people encountered by the expedition; there are Becker’s wonderful drawings of landscape and people, including the images on the cover; encounters with Aboriginal people quoted from the journals of members of the expedition and the follow-up expeditions; portraits of a number of the minor figures in the expeditions, including the Aboriginal men who worked as guides at various times; some scuttlebuck about Burke’s death and the daughter King may have fathered with an Aboriginal woman; an essay on Aboriginal people as messengers on the Australian frontier (a role which, unlike their role as trackers and as ‘native police’, has generally faded from the collective memory).

For me the most surprising essay was Peta Jeffries’ ‘The influence of Aboriginal country on artist and naturalist Ludwig Becker of the Victorian Exploring Expedition: Mootwingee, 1860–61′ (and yes, the essay titles generally aren’t too snappy), in which she explores one of Becker’s paintings, arguing that it prefigured an understanding of Aboriginal connection to country, that in it ‘the narrative of colonial occupation has subsided’. The most telling essay was the one by Leigh Boucher that I quoted from above, which demonstrates that Howitt’s early writing acknowledged the important role Aboriginal people played in the success of his expedition, but as time passed they disappeared from the story, their knowledge and help being replaced by Howitt’s own bushcraft. Genocide comes in many forms, and one of them is forgetting.

The ‘narrative of colonial occupation’ has dominated accounts of the Burke and Wills expedition and much else from Australian history until now. This book is a mostly very readable corrective. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t present a single ‘Aboriginal story’, as its title suggests, but many stories: there was a wide range of Aboriginal responses to the original expedition and to the follow-up expeditions, from active participation in a number of capacities, through benign oversight to outright hostility. As I read it, I could feel unexamined assumptions being dragged out from under rocks in my head, and the over-arching narrative of my early education being delivered another blow of the wrecker’s hammer.

Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian edited by Mabel Lee

Mabel Lee (editor), Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian (Vagabond Press 2014) – translated by Mabel Lee, Naikan Tao and Tony Prince

1ml This is the second book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series, and like the first – Poems of Yi Sha, Shu Cai and Yang Xie, edited and translated by Ouyang Yu – it features work by three poets translated from Chinese.

Strikingly, neither Mabel Lee nor Ouyang Yu mentions any of the poets who appear in the other’s book. The only overlap between their respective histories is a mention of Bei Dao, whom Ouyang Yu says is now regarded as ‘uncool, pretentious, even boring’ and whom Mabel Lee honours as a key figure in the post-Mao era. Clearly the story of recent Chinese poetry can contain multitudes.

Mabel Lee’s poets are a generation older than Ouyang Yu’s. Where his introduction discusses the way his poets turned away from the revolutionary zeal and protective obscurity of their Mao-era predecessors, she takes us further back, to the surge of translation of European literature into Chinese at time of the May Fourth movement (1915–1921), then forward through the turbulent decades that followed, the repression of the Cultural Revolution, then the process that began in the late 1970s, of Chinese writing ‘extricating itself from decades of stringent political censorship’.

These three poets were part of that process. They all came of age during the Cultural Revolution and were publishing poetry by the early 1980s. Hong Ying (born in 1962) and Yang Lian (born in 1955) left China soon after the brutal crackdown in Tienanmen Square on 4 June 1989, now live in London and are translated into many Western languages. Zhai Yongming (also born in 1955) lives in Chengdu (where the pandas are) and is something of a celebrity there as an artist and owner of White Nights, a wine bar ‘that functions as a literary and arts salon’.

Hong Ying, Mabel Lee tells us, writes as a form of self-treatment for trauma, and much of her poetry has a dreamlike, painfully introspective feel, like this from ‘Whose Mother?’:

She is linked with all words of grief
In endless gloomy rain
She delivers good fortune to my hands
I see clearly
Black ants crawling all over the road
Dragging along a crowd of silent monks

In the early 1980s Zhai Yongming was thrust ‘into a role model position for other aspiring women poets’. Her poetry is much more outward looking than Hong Ying’s, dealing with social issues, including but not at all limited to issues concerning women. The book’s sole endnote explains that her poem ‘Lament for Scholars’ relates to an incident she witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, in which the renowned actor Feng Zhe was publicly humiliated, later to be ‘tormented to death’. This factual background enriches the poem hugely for the ignorant reader (that is, me) and makes me wish for more. For example, I’d love to know the story behind a sequence of poems about a six-month stay in a village, with lines like this in ‘The Second Month’:

Shouts are heard on Cold Food Day
And to comfort the dead the villagers practise self-restraint
As I search I always wear a faltering smile
My inner wound linked to their eyes in a straight line
How can I enter Jang’an Village?
Though every day there are corpses of drowned infants and of brides who have swallowed poison

Is this telling us about the brutal conditions of village life, or is the speaker projecting something of her own inner suffering onto the villagers? I know I could look it up somewhere, but a note would help with the immediacy of first reading.

Mabel Lee describes Yang Lian’s poetry as possessing an exuberant male sexuality. There’s no sex as such in these poems, but there is a wonderful swaggering energy that carries all before it. here are some lines, picked almost at random, from ‘Dance: Swimming Naked with Li Bai’:

A cup of wine moulds the shape of a throat
A deeply private action _exposed to the public eye
Shakes the body’s _ defects become blindingly beautiful
Once you’ve jumped into the sweet stench of that river you’re drenched
From being submerged in it for a thousand years

I struggled with this book, partly because of my lack of familiarity with cultural/historical contexts, partly because I was constantly aware of the translators’ struggle to do more than paraphrase (though none of it has the English-as-a-second-language feel,of Ouyang Yu’s translation). On the way to writing this post I did some haphazard research (ie, a quick trawl of my bookshelves): I read T S Eliot’s comments on Ezra Pound’s translations from Chinese, in which he writes of the need for a great poet to communicate the poetry of another culture; I reread J P Seaton’s introduction to The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, which explains some of the complexity of translating from Chinese to English, and tells the history almost to the point where Mabel Lee’s introduction begins. I decided that my ignorance is profound, and that for me to really grasp the work of these poets would take serious commitment to study on my part, or a translator-poet of genius to hand me something on a platter. For now, I can be grateful for the glimpses I have gained from this little book, and hope to be able to build on them in time.

awwbadge_2014 I’m probably pushing the boundaries to count this as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. But Mabel Lee is an Australian woman, and translation is a form of writing (the book doesn’t say it in so many words, but I think she translated Hong Ying and Yang Lian’s poems, while Naikan Tao and Tony Prince translated Zhai Yongming’s), not to mention her lucid introduction. Maybe I should count it as half a title, which means I’m up to 5.5 books. I don’t remember how many books I signed up for. Assuming it was 10 – the ‘Franklin’ level – I’m on track to have completed the challenge by the end of the year.

Looking back: June 1964, 1974, 2004

Yesterday, searching for the name of a book I read in the early 70s, I dug out the little notebook where I listed every book I read from 1961 to 1974 – from ages 14 to 27.

As pure self indulgence – after all, what’s a blog for? – here is most of 1964:

1964
It was my last year of high school so I didn’t read a lot. It’s interesting to notice that before heading off to boarding school I read science fiction, crime, and a coulpe of James Bonds. After that, it’s religious books (I was on my way to being a member of a Catholic religious order), Charlotte Bronte (but not Jane Eyre), Goodbye Mr Chips, some Belloc, some Chesterton and some Paul Gallico. I know I also read Wuthering Heights and Macbeth, both more than once – evidently I didn’t count study texts as reading material for the purposes of this notebook.

By 1974, now 27, I had abandoned my unfinished MA thesis in Aust Lit and was working at Currency Press, publisher of Australian plays.

1974 June

In June – 40 years ago this month – I read 10 books and went to the theatre once. Religion had been replaced by C G Jung: I read two books about him, and one on the I Ching (which he sometimes used to diagnose children and others). There were two novels by Herman Hesse, which I don’t remember at all. Kind of work-related, I read some Sophocles, some Patrick White and some Peter Handke. (I’m surprised to find I read the Peter Handke eight months or so before I saw Peter Wherett’s brilliant production at the Nimrod in Belvoir Street with Kate Fitxzpatrick and Peter Carroll.) I went to Melbourne to see a Jack Hibberd play, at the Pram Factory with Bill Garner and the fabulous Evelyn Krape.  I also began reading a history of North Queensland, which a note says I took more than a year to finish. And there’s a book each from Bruce Beaver and Robert Adamson. Nothing by women.

I stopped making a note of my reading in my late 20s, so I’ll skip to 2004, just 10 years ago, when I was keeping a blog, the precursor of the one whose entries now appear in the right-hand column here. If you want details, you can click on this link. It turns out in June 2004 I read an amazing 25 books,  almost all of them for my work at The School Magazine. So I was paid to read fabulous novels by Terry Pratchett, Geraldine McCaughrean, Allan Baillie, Susan Cooper and Gillian Cross, picture books by Julius Lester & Jerry Pinkney, Alan Ahlberg & Peter Bailey, Colin & Jacqui Hawkins, and Anna & Barbara Fienberg & Kim Gamble, and poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston. Good work if you can get it!

On my own 10 cents in June 2004, I read three volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic, and – some suffering is self-induced – The Da Vinci Code.

So here I am in June 2014, two books read and three on the go. My recent excursion into self-improvement with Alain de Botton is perhaps an equivalent of the religious texts of 1964 and Jung in 1974. I’m still reading weighty Australian novels, poetry (this time from China as well as Australia), history, and comics artists.

Maybe by 2114 I’ll have kicked the addiction.

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel

Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin 2012)

Questions of Travel Cover

A number of my friends gave up on this book, one as early as page 80.

At page 80, by contrast, I was on the edge of my seat. Things had moved slowly, true, as the novel traced the lives of its two protagonists in roughly alternating chapters bearing their names and the decade: ‘Laura, 1960s’, ‘Laura, 1970s’, ‘Ravi, 1970s’ and so on. By page 80 we’ve reached the 1990s. Laura Fraser, an Australian in her 30s, is travelling in Europe and her small inheritance is running out, so something has to give. And devastation surely looms for Ravi Mendis, a young Sinhalese man whose wife is a Tamil activist. It’s not exactly a thriller, and my interest hasn’t really been in plot developments. Nor have the characters grabbed my emotions. What is really keeping me in there is the unfailingly elegant writing, and the way subject of travel has been held up to the light like a multifaceted stone, reflecting endless variations.

The musical play on the theme of travel continues to be the book’s holding power: people travel through time, and markers of the passing decades – in clothes, public preoccupations, communication technology – are carefully noted; they travel in different modes – as tourists, refugees, travel-guide researchers; they walk, ride bikes, fly, catch buses; they travel with joy and ennui and hope of starting over; their motives for travelling are probed – a recurring question for Laura is, ‘What are you doing here?’, a question that resonates ever more broadly as the novel progresses.

I did come close to giving up a little past halfway: where nine full pages are given over to enumerating a days’s activities of someone working in a publishing company, including 52 emails. That, and an accumulation of observations of physical and social Sydney as seen through foreign eyes with no discernible progress of the stories just about did me in. But, you know, many narratives lose momentum just after the midpoint: in a rom com’s soppy montage after the characters have finally had sex, the extended recap in a police procedural, the conversation where the action hero spells out his tragic back story. So I was prepared to weather the doldrums, keep hoping for a breeze.

The breeze came. It’s a very impressive book that I can imagine being read a hundred years from now (if people still read) as a compelling portrait of an age when people travelled as never before, out of desperate need, from heedless self-indulgence, or as a nameless quest, a pilgrimage without a shrine. Especially in the first quarter, there are turns of phrase and observations that made me catch my breath. These were offset by some passages where minor characters are pilloried in what I suppose counts as satire, but comes across as snobbery. And even when terrible things happened to the main characters, the sense that they happen to fill a general schema gets in the way of a direct emotional response. Among all the images of travel, for example, images of flowers, especially flowers in a vase, are deployed brilliantly: and the brilliance has an unexpected effect of creating emotional distance at moments that should pack a huge wallop.

I’m deeply impressed by this book. I completely get why critics and judging panels have lauded it. But it’s already fading from my mind.

awwbadge_2014 Questions of Travel is the fifth and biggest book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group go to the theatre and read the news

Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual  (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

024114647X

This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, an excursion to see a play in which one of us was performing – The Young Tycoons by C J Johnson, about the heirs apparent to two media empires. In deference to our nominal reason for meeting, we agreed to have a look at a book that’s at least tangentially related to the play. (We also read a fascinating piece of journalistic gossip for which, in lieu of further discussion, here is a link).

Before the meeting: This is a high-grade self-help book. If there’s an overall thesis, it’s this:

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.

‘The news’ is discussed in six main categories: politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster and consumption. In each category, de Botton discusses the way the news cycle  and the currently widespread addiction to it mitigate against thinking. There are plenty of interesting observations and insights, many of them obvious on reflection, though when dealing with addictions there’s no harm in stating the bleeding obvious. I had an uneasy feeling that ‘I’ the reader was being invited to feel superior to the ‘we’ that de Botton describes as manipulated by the news media. Maybe that, and a tendency to glibness, is something that comes with the territory..

After the meeting: It turned out, unsurprisingly, that I was the only one in the group, apart from the actor, who had read the book. We weren’t going to have much of a discussion in the foyer of the Eternity Theatre anyhow. But the conjuncrtio of the play and the book prompted at least one interesting reflection. In the chapter on disaster, de Botton compares the way heinous behaviour is typically described in the press with its treatment in ancient Greek tragedy:

The plot lines of [ancient tragedies] were unmitigatingly macabre, easily matching anything our own news could provide … But … in order for a horror (a meaningless narration of revolting events) to turn into what Aristotle called a tragedy (an educative tale fashioned from abominations), the philosopher thought it was vital that the plot should be well arranged and the motives and the personalities of the characters properly outlined to us. Extreme dramatic skill would be required in order for the audience to spontaneously reach a point at which it recognised that the apparently unhinged protagonist of the story, who had acted impetuously, arrogantly and blindly, who had perhaps killed others and destroyed his own reputation and life, the person in whom one might at first (had one come across the story in the news) have dismissed as a maniac, was, in the final analysis, rather like us in certain key ways.

C J Johnson is no Sophocles, at least not yet, and The Young Tycoons is a chronicle play rather than a tragedy, but it illustrates the point. The younger generation of the Murdoch and Packer families appear in the news as glossy celebrities, fair game when brawling with old comrades in a Bondi Street or being patted on the hand by a distraught patriarch before a Parliamentary Enquiry. In this play, stylishly delivered by a cast that has no weak links, we catch at least a whiff of just how appallingly constricted their lives are, and how callous they have been shoe-horned into becoming. I was reminded of Jamie Johnson’s extraordinary documentary, Born Rich, made a couple of years before this play was first staged in 2005.