#6Degrees of Separation: May 2022

What a pleasure it is to let the mind wander this weekend to form bookish associations in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with an Australian classic (has it really been that long?): True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I read it when it first came out and I remember I found it pretty hard going (the vernacular, the lack of punctuation, the toxic masculinity and violence), but it would be too easy to make my first link another novel I struggled with (there are too many!). So instead, I will refer to the fact that it took a long time – nearly twenty years – for the book to be adapted for film (I haven’t watched the film yet but hear it’s quite impressive). So what other book took ages before it was adapted?

Well, there is a notorious one, which is still under development and seems to have been for the past 2-3 years, although it is labelled a TV mini-series: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which was published in the same year as Peter Carey’s novel above. So twenty-two years and counting…

A simple connection for the next one – the word ‘clay’ in the title – and the long-awaited novel Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. After the huge international success of his Book Thief, everyone was waiting with bated breath for his next move… and it took him nearly 12 years to complete it. In an interview, he said something like: ‘I’m a completely different person than the person who wrote The Book Thief but also a different person to the one who started Bridge of Clay 8-9 years ago … If I don’t get it done soon, I’ll probably have to set it aside.’ Wise words of advice to me as a budding novelist, I think!

Bridge of Clay features five brothers in Australia, but the most famous ‘band of brothers’ are the Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs in Tsarist Russia. Pleasure and duty, rationality and faith, free will versus fate, everything is up for discussion in this story of family ties gone very wrong. It also features a lengthy trial scene, and this is the link to my next book.

In L’Étranger by Albert Camus we have a courtroom scene where the accused Meursault refuses to conform to expectations, justify his actions or show remorse. A cold, clinical look at crime and punishment which is in marked contrast to Dostoevsky – Meursault is a man alienated from society and from himself.

Of course, I cannot mention the Camus novel without thinking of the very powerful response to it, the much more recent Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen in 2015), a retelling of the story from the point of view of the brother of the Arab victim who didn’t even have a name in the Camus novel.

This retelling of a famous story from the point of view of what one might call a ‘secondary character’ is what brings me to the final link in this chain: the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is probably one of my favourite examples of witty, sophisticated and successful retellings of a classic (in this case, Hamlet). I don’t think I’ve ever read the script, but I’ve seen it performed several times and always come away with something new to marvel at.

I’ve just realised that my chain has been all male writers this month – and I wonder if my subconscious reverted to this because of the outlaw and masculinity issues arising from the starting point book. Next month the starting point is another Australian writer, but a woman, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which sounds much more like my kind of thing and which I might even read by June.

February Summary of Literary Things

With all of the bad news coming out of Ukraine (with whom Romania shares a considerable land border), plus the usual workplace stresses and household breakages, I have been in a bit of an anxious state this month, so I am simply plodding along, taking it one day at a time. As usual, books have provided me with much-needed distraction, beauty, connection and escapism.

It’s more than just reading, it’s also attending various literary events or writing or film watching – all the things that make my life worthwhile (it has all been virtual this month – and, to be honest, if all Covid protections are completely removed, I’m not sure I’ll venture out much in the future, except for unavoidable things like work and my much-postponed but hopefully still viable trip to Romania).

Reading

I read eleven books, including two chunksters (Frank Moorhouse and Christina Stead). Two were re-reads (Mihail Sebastian for my London Reads the World Book Club on 7th of March, and Maus because of all the uproar about it being banned in certain US schools). Seven were by women authors, one non-binary and only three male authors. One non-fiction (Josie George), one collection of short stories or vignettes (Wilder Winds), one graphic novel, two crime novels (just about) and the rest novels.

I declared this an Oz Feb month, to make up for my embarrassing ignorance regarding Australian literature, but relied on books that I already had on my bookshelves. I managed to read and review five of these. Naturally, this means that my proportion of works in other languages or in translation was lower: only three books.

In retrospect, there were perhaps some better choices I could have made for the Australian authors (I also had Elizabeth Harrower and Gerald Murnane on my shelves), but if I could draw any conclusions based on the diverse writers I did read, it’s that Australian authors seem to be much more frank and direct than their English cousins, they don’t shy away from difficult subjects, their opinions can be quite unvarnished, and there is far less squeamishness about physicality: sex or the body and its biological functions.

  • Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday – elegant and understated, she is the most similar to an English author, but with a far more international outlook
  • Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career – irrepressible, energetic, ahead of its time
  • Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children – unique baroque style, striking observations, but relentless subject matter
  • Frank Moorhouse: Grand Days – great combination of the personal and historical
  • Romy Ash: Floundering – a less unique but quite visceral account of deprived childhood and bad parenting, and also my only full contribution to #ReadIndies

Although I love Louise Penny and her Armand Gamache series, this particular one was not one of her best. It was almost too topical (and slightly optimistic about the end of the pandemic), especially in regards to the ‘who should die’ debate. I also felt somewhat manipulated by the author, trying to stretch out the drip-feeding of the information very, very slowly to increase the tension.

Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds from the fantastic Fum D’Estampa Press is one of my contributions to #ReadIndies (although I don’t have time for a full review). This translation from the Catalan proves that a slim volume of very brief, almost lightning flash stories can be more powerful than many a lengthy tome. Every word, every image is packed with meaning, and there are a great variety of voices: a young girl in a refugee camp, women of all ages, coming of age, migrants, revolutionaries, workers, mothers, voyeurs, women being catcalled on the street and more. I particularly enjoyed hearing the author and translator Laura McGloughlin talk about their collaboration at the Borderless Book Club, saying these are dark tales but with a tiny glimmer of hope. Extremely poetic and thought-provoking.

Another very brief review for my final #ReadIndie contender: The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo, transl. Chi-Young Kim, published by Edinburgh-based Canongate. Ostensibly the story of Hornclaw, an ageing female assassin (or ‘disease control specialist’, as she calls herself) stalked by a colleague who is out for revenge, it is in fact an unexpectedly moving story of loneliness, tenderness and regrets about past life choices. With a descent into a bloodbath at one point that I am beginning to expect after watching Korean films and TV series, the story is nevertheless more subtle than it might appear at first, and the characterisation of the contrary, stubborn, occasionally baffled Hornclaw, who can fool everyone, including herself, is spot on.

Events

Aside from the Borderless Book Club event, I also attended a panel discussion organised by the German House in New York around the anthology Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum / Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, with authors representing various ‘minorities’ and marginalised groups in present-day Germany, as a response to the creation of a Ministry of ‘Heimat’. Let’s face it, vast swathes of Germany are very traditionalist, and one quote that really made me laugh was: ‘But how can we Germans be homophobic? We’ve got Berlin!’ The translators of the anthology explain things far better than me:

Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum [Your Homeland is our Nightmare] is the title of our collective work: essays by fourteen German-language authors, framed at the beginning of 2019 as a sort of answer to these developments. Because as one can imagine, this concept of homeland is a nightmare for marginalized groups in our society. But not just for them. That’s the reason why two words on the original cover of the book (Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum) are colored the same shade of purple as the book cover itself. Because it is not the editors and authors of this book who decide where “we” ends and “you” begins. Every reader decides this for themselves: Do I want to live in a society oriented around völkisch, racist, antisemitic, sexist, heteronormative, and trans-antagonistic structures? Or would I rather be a part of a society in which every individual—whether black and/or Jewish and/or Muslim and/or woman and/or queer and/or non-binary and/or poor and/or differently abled—is treated equally?

I also attended a couple of translation events organised by the Society of Authors, including the 2021 Translation Prizes and social, all of which finally gave me the push to join the society. Having translated 271, 340 words over the past two years, more than half of which have been published, it would be nice to think that at some point I might actually get paid for translating, even if not for the writing!

I also watched the NT Live showing of Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard at the local arts centre, not only because one of the performers was the son of a friend, but also because it shows both the charm and rot of Vienna and its persistent anti-semitism over the first half of the 20th century through the story of one extended family. Brilliantly acted throughout, it manages to be both tragic and humorous, surprising despite its predictable, all too well-known story, and posing uncomfortable questions for present-day audiences.

Films

I tend to watch more films either when Younger Son is with his father (he prefers to watch either The Apprentice or anime with me) or when Older Son the film fanatic is around. Well, this month both of these conditions were met: YS stayed for longer than expected with his father, who tested positive for Covid while he was there for the weekend (it was a mild form and YS did not catch it), while OS came back home from university for just over a week, while his lecturers were on strike. So I had a very good month of films, not a lemon among all of these. The one thing I would NOT recommend is the TV series Kitz on Netflix, which I idly watched for two episodes in the hope that it would feature mountains, snow and skiing for some restful escapism after long working days. It was all about partying, drug-taking, sexual exploits and spoilt rich kids, with clunky dialogue, exaggerated and implausible scenario, I just couldn’t bear it.

It was funny how the films seemed to come in contrasting pairs. Olivier Assayas was the director for both the light-hearted satire of Non-Fiction and the pain of grief and inability to let go of the past in Personal Shopper. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson was at the ornate, highly stylised end of the cinematography and storytelling spectrum, while Petite Maman by Celine Sciamma was simple, almost simplistic, pared down to the bone. Both A Cat in Paris and The House were unconventional and beautiful examples of animation art, as far removed from Disney as one might imagine, but the former was an adventure story with a heart-warming ending, while the latter was a descent into the horror of house building, maintenance and ownership in Britain. The third animated film was The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s final film for Ghibli (allegedly), and I felt more ambiguous about that: although the artwork is beautiful as always, there is perhaps a bit too much whitewashing of the life of aviation engineer Horikoshi Jiro, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter planes used by the Kamikaze pilots in the final part of WW2. He must have known what his military planes were going to be used for, yet he seems to have suffered no remorse after the war and retired as a highly-awarded professor at Tokyo University, justifying himself by saying: ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful’. The final two films were both melancholy depictions of migration, loss and identity: the Quebecois Monsieur Lazhar directed by Philippe Falardeau is about an Algerian refugee teaching a class of ten-year-olds whose teacher committed suicide; while Preparations to be Together… directed by Lili Horvát is about an eminent female neurosurgeon returning to her native Hungary for the love of another doctor she met briefly at a congress in the States. A haunting story of self-delusion and hope, becoming a victim of your own dreams vs. the power of yearnings.

Writing and Translating

I have nearly finished the first draft of translation of a very long Romanian crime novel, and continued pitching another novel (by Lavinia Braniște) to publishers. You can catch me reading a small fragment from it on the Translators Aloud YouTube channel. I also entered an extract of my translation of the play The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian for a competition, so fingers crossed. And I have submitted my own writing as well several times this month.

I am also working hard behind the scenes of Corylus Books: launching a monthly newsletter, editing current translations in progress and considering possible future acquisitions, applying for funding, trying to find someone who can teach us how to use Amazon Ads wisely (apparently they are becoming more and more cut-throat, leading to bidding wars). I am probably neglecting my own son and health, and certainly my house, in the process – and occasionally that springs up to bite me! I sometimes wonder whether there is any point in continuing to write, translate, publish, when the world seems intent on destroying itself.

Still, I can’t help but remind myself how lucky I am, every morning when I wake up to a cold but safe house, when I switch the heating on (even if I can’t afford to heat it as much or as often as I’d like), when I sit down free to explore the internet at leisure, have access to any source of information. As the Romanian expression goes: ‘Let’s not anger God by taking this for granted!’

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Ukrainian author Andrei Kurkov. The whole lecture that he gave in 2018 in Hong Kong is worth reading (and available for free now), but this particularly stuck with me.

Even if you were born in a civilised European or other state to take your rights for granted is dangerous. We do not pay attention to the air that we breath until it becomes unsuitable for breathing due to pollution. We do not pay attention to our body while it is healthy, but we are frightened as soon as we face the first serious problems with our heart or lungs. Our rights are not violated only if we understand them and make sure that they are not violated. Forget about them, and the consequences can be most deplorable.

#OzFeb and #ReadIndies: Romy Ash – Floundering

Romy Ash: Floundering, Text Publishing, 2012.

Text Publishing feels like a big outfit, and they are my go-to publisher when it comes to Australian literary fiction, but it turns out that they are in fact an independent small publisher based in Melbourne. So I am delighted to be able to slot this book into two different reading challenge categories: #ReadIndies (finally!) as promoted by the veteran book bloggers Lizzy and Kaggsy; and my own reading Australia this month personal challenge, which I’ve somewhat irreverently dubbed #OzFeb, two short words for the shortest month of the year.

I didn’t know much about Romy Ash, other than that Floundering, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize (again! most of the books I read this month had some link to Miles Franklin). The same book was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and Prime Minister’s literary award in Australia, and it must have been recommended to me by one of my Australian book blogger friends, because she is barely known outside her native country. She seems to be an essayist and short story writer, as well as a regular newspaper columnist, but I cannot find another novel written by her.

Just like another recent Australian novel I read, The Man Who Loved Children, this too is a fictional account of a dysfunctional family, seen through the eyes of one of the long-suffering children who has not fully grasped – or not wanted to admit – the extent of the parental abuse they are suffering. However, Floundering is mercifully much shorter, the father is completely missing and the mother is (criminally) negligent rather than abusive. That doesn’t make it much easier to read in terms of topic, but the style is simpler, pared-down, full of the kind of minute and immediate observations that ring true for an eleven-year-old boy.

Tom and his older brother Jordy have been dumped onto their grandparents by their mother several years ago, but now Loretta is back and wants a fresh start with her boys. They set off in a battered yellow car called Bert, in an American-style road trip to the Western Coast of Australia, with hardly any money or clear sense of purpose. Along the way, they learn to cope with heat, sunburn and sleeping in cramped backseats, shoplift from service stations, be in equal measure embarrassed and entranced by their mercurial mother. When they finally reach their destination, a beat-up caravan in a camping site on the coast, with the nearest source of drinking water a driving distance away, Loretta vanishes once again, and the boys are left at the mercy of interfering or, worse, dodgy neighbours like Nev.

The story itself didn’t feel very new and lost its momentum towards the end, but overall it had me reading compulsively to see if anything bad would happen to the children. There were some memorable, visceral scenes, which worked very well from the child’s point of view, as children tend to be aware of every single physical sensation and discomfort, and perhaps the very murky motivation of the Nev character reflected the confusion of a child wanting to trust an adult but not quite daring to. The grumpy yet protective relationship between the brothers felt very realistic. There was, however, occasional slippage into terminology that was overwrought for an eleven-year-old and the scenes with the dead shark or ‘gummy’, as the boys call it, were nauseating and overlong, belabouring the mistreatment metaphor a little too much.

The book’s title is not just about ‘floundering’ in the sense of thrashing about wildly or flailing either literally or mentally in mud and water, but about the process of catching the fish flounder, which their mother wants to show them. Needless to say, the experience is not as pleasurable as she remembered, but in her obsession to recapture the fun and magic of the past, she seems horribly indifferent to the fact that one of her sons is nearly drowning in the here and now.

Floundering is what some have disparagingly called a ‘misery memoir’, but I would simply call it a novel about a childhood stunted by inadequate parenting and poverty-stricken living conditions. There have always been a number of those, some autobiographical, others more fictional, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of public interest and demand. I have struggled to engage with Angela’s Ashes, A Child Called It or Running with Scissors – but they all contributed to the boom in 2006-8 of this sub-genre teetering at the edge of fiction and true story. There was a lull after that, but we seem to be on a rising tide again, with Douglas Stuart’s fictional Shuggie Bain winning the Booker Prize in 2020, while Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn is at the memoir end of the spectrum. I haven’t read these last two, but the ones I have found particularly moving and subtly written (rather than purely in it for the shock factor) are (the country in brackets is where the events take place, rather than the nationality of the author):

  • Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals (Canada)
  • Janice Galloway: All Made Up (Scotland)
  • Jung Chang: Wild Swans (China)
  • Jason Donald: Choke Chain (South Africa)
  • Hanne Ørstavik: Love (Norway)

#OzFeb: Frank Moorhouse and the League of Nations

Frank Moorhouse: Grand Days, Picador, 1993.

It seems I am a sucker for long books written by Australian authors – or, rather, that the 512 pages of The Man Who Loved Children did not put me off attacking the 674 pages of Grand Days. And I’ll state up front that I enjoyed this novel far more than its predecessor. It is, quite appropriately, the winner of the Miles Franklin Award, and in some respect its main protagonist reminds me of Sybylla in My Brilliant Career.

For some reason, international organisations don’t seem to be represented very much in fiction, other than very much in the background. Perhaps it is too sensitive a topic? Anyway, I find them endlessly fascinating (both the organisations and the novels about them), so when I heard from my expert in all matters ANZ, Lisa Hill, that there was a novel about the League of Nations, I simply had to acquire it – and read it very soon thereafter.

I did not know that this is the first volume in a trilogy featuring Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman joining the League Secretariat. The first volume covers roughly the period 1926-1930 and is a novel of optimism, youthful enthusiasm and hope (but also growing up and facing reality). The second charts the decline of the League of Nations, disillusionment and the world sinking irrevocably into war. The third is set in Australia, as Edith returns after the war to her home country, to the new capital Canberra.

But it’s not just the subject matter to which I am partial, which made it a far more pleasant reading experience than Christina Stead, nor the fact that it sent me down all sorts of research rabbit holes and made me nostalgic for my life in Geneva. It is also the way Edith grows and develops, at times infuriating or pitiful, at times smart and admirable, but above all, always intensely self-analytical and unpredictable – and shaped by the social and political events of the time.The Edith in this first volume is still quite naive and idealistic, very self-confident and bolshy in some respects (very much a ‘New Woman’) but endearingly or even annoyingly silly in others. Just like people in general then (particularly young ones)!

It is also the most accurate and funny description of the way organisations operate:

Back in Australia, she’d liked astonishing people by saying that she revelled in a good committee meeting. She thought of committes as parlour games where each person’s contribution was their throw of the dice from which followed certain moves around the board… Of course, there should be a place in administration for dashing individualism and for grand leadership, but in her experience it was never a bad thing for lofty plans to be brushed down and combed by the committee.

The book is meticulously researched (Moorhouse lived for several years in France and Geneva while writing it) and full of juicy anecdotes, as well as historical figures perceived with some criticism or irony by the fictional figures, but the author really excels in showing the distancing from one’s one country that most expats, especially those working for international organisations, start to feel (although, to be fair, some of them double down and live in little ‘home country’ enclaves):

There was something unnerving about the idea of a visit from someone she had left behind… The discarded self… Did the visiting person seek to find the person they’d known? Or did they hope to find a new person who’d surprise and dazzle them? Or did they fear meeting some formidable new person who would dismay them?

She wanted to feel that she was absorbing from her world… She knew that French culture… would shape her, not into a French person, but into another sort of person… She had also lost mythical ‘Europe’… of her childhood pictures books… She lived in a real Europe now – and in some minor ways, regretfully.

The book is full of amusing insights and a blend of historical and personal events. It is also the story of Edith’s sexual awakening, as she embarks upon a relationship with the damaged English former military man, Ambrose. The Roaring Twenties were perhaps not quite as roaring if you were an Australian country girl living in Geneva, and some of the scenes of vice are funny while others are squalid. The novel is epic and detailed, but at times gets bogged down in tangentials and repetition. There are perhaps a few too many prurient details: I am not sure I needed quite so much information about different types of poo, for example. Nevertheless, it was good fun to read – and how can you resist observations such as this?

The best political arrangements were those which did not place ordinary people in situations in which they had to make difficult choices, because often they would choose badly and behave badly… When she was younger she’d opposed all red tape. Not any more. Red tape was often just a way of causing a pause in the impatience of things so that everything could be properly checked and considered… She’d come to know, sadly, that idealism did not ensure that things were done well or efficiently.

Palais Wilson in Geneva, formerly a hotel, then the HQ for the League of Nations until the new Palais des Nations was built.

If, like me, you love reading books about the flaws and idiosyncrasies (but also good intentions) of international organisations, then here are a few more I’ve come across:

Robert Menasse – The Capital (EU) Eurocrats are people who are polyglot, highly-qualified, enlightened and liberated from the irrationalities of national identity – although full of personal fiefdoms and rivalries.

Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses (UN) – chaotic, rambling, bureaucratic, stifling creativity – but also very funny, with the occasional bewildered idealist wandering through its corridors.

Dan Brown: Angels and Demons (CERN) – imperfectly understood science and conspiratorial misrepresentation of the way CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) is funded and works (as well as full of clunky prose), so this is not a book I can really recommend, but hey, it’s all entertainment!

Romain Gary: L’Homme à la colombe (UN) – thank you to Emma for drawing my attention to this one, which Gary published under a pseudonym, since he was working as a diplomat at the time (haven’t read this one yet) – not available in English, unfortunately

Mischa Berlinski: Peacekeeping (UN) – this is one I haven’t read yet either, but it sounds compelling: dogooders and misfits on Haiti. I think I may also have to get his first novel, Fieldwork, as it is about anthropologists, another subject I will never knowingly ignore.

#OzFeb, but not quite #ReadIndies: Christina Stead

Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children, Capuchin Classics, 2010.

Christina Stead (1902-1983)

I so very nearly had a book for #ReadIndies too, because Capuchin Classics was an independent publisher based in London bringing back or keeping alive forgotten classics. However, they don’t seem to have brought out any books recently or updated their website or Twitter since 2013, so I think they might no longer exist. Alas, such is the fate of far too many small independent publishers, so please support them if you can! The big mammoth publishers have big deals with the chain bookstores and libraries, can afford to pay for promotion at literary festivals or participate in literary prizes, but independents struggle to even be seen by distributors or readers.

But back to Christina Stead, highly respected Australian writer, and her magnum opus, The Man Who Loved Children, which is partly based on her own childhood, although the setting has been (rather unconvincingly at times) transposed to Washington DC for the US publication of the book – and there they remained. The novel was written in 1935 and published in the US in 1940.

It is the portrait of the unravelling of a highly problematic family with six children. Sam Pollit is the self-absorbed and preening scientist and narcisstic and bullying father of the title. Henny is the long-suffering mother, who vents her bitterness and dissatisfaction at her children, her husband, and above all at her step-daughter Louie, Sam’s daughter from the first marriage. Sam uses his children as a shield, confides in them things that he shouldn’t, controls and manipulates them, teases them mercilessly, has developed a secret language with them. They are enchanted by this playful, story-telling figure, who is so much more exciting than their grumpy, self-pitying mother, even when he hurts them.

If you need your characters to be likable, you should definitely not open this book! The warring couple are unbearable and hateful, each in their own way: their quarrels are brutal, nasty and left me as a reader feeling deeply uncomfortable. Personal disclosure here: my own parents were terribly mismatched and fought frequently when I was a child (although their story did not end in tragedy like this one), so it brought back a few traumatic memories.

So that is one reason I struggled with this book. The second was, of course, the way those poor children were treated, although the author presents all this in a matter-of-fact way, as viewed from within the family, so that the full eccentricity or even horror of it only becomes apparent when they receive visitors (for example, when the schoolteacher or a relative comes for dinner). The third reason is that I met leaders of religious cults who behaved in the same apparently charismatic, lovably naive but actually stone-cold manipulative way – and Sam does create a ‘cult’ atmosphere about the Pollits. The fourth reason is that the book is long, chaotic, repetitive, its style deliberately ugly at times. Powerful, yes, but painful to read. For example, here is Henny contemplating the parallels between their rundown house and her marriage:

She belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it, every fold in the curtains had a meaning… every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

Never knowingly simplify a sentence! Make sure you hammer home a certain sentiment by repeating it in every conceivable way! While this works well when uttered by the two main grownup characters, it does feel excessive in third person, especially when it is observed and commented upon by fourteen-year-old Louie. I admire the author’s ability to create such a stifling, horrendous family atmosphere and vile characters, but it proved too relentless for me, and I skim read the last third of the book. I recognised some of the darkness and dysfunctionality that Shirley Jackson also has in her writing, but how much more subtly and succinctly!

Here, for instance, is Sam demonstrating his manipulative misogyny and sneaky ways of winning the children over:

No man could be so cruel, so devilish, as a woman with her weakness, recrimination, convenient ailments, nerves, and tears. We mean are all weak as water before the primitive devices of Eve. I was patient at first, many years. You were too young then, Looloo; you did not see how kind I was, hoping for an improvement: constant dropping wears away a stone, and it was only much later that I found out hardness worked better than love. It broke my heart, nearly, to find it out. It would have broken my heart only that I had other interests.

Another speech that was a little too close to personal experience, to how my ex-husband would talk about me when I was clinically depressed. Although Henny irritated me in lots of ways, I could understand her exasperated, violent outbursts and almost cheer her on when she said:

…boasting and blowing about your success when all the time it was me, my poor body, that was what you took our success out of… I’ve stuffed mattresses for you and your children and cooked dinners for the whole gang of filthy, rotten, ignorant, blowing Pollits that I hate. I’ve had the house stinking like a corpse cellar with your formalin… and had to put up with your vile animals and idiotic collections and your blood-and-bone fertilizer in the garden and everlasting talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, boring me, filling my ears with talk, jaw, jaw, till I thought the only way was to kill myself to escape you and your world of big bluffs and big sticks, saving the whole rotten world with your talk.

But for all her big words, she ends up having another child with her husband, and does not find a sensible way out of the whole situation.

It is an extreme and very dark view of the relationship between the sexes, between parents and children. It may be considered a masterpiece of Australian literature or of 20th century literature more widely, but it left a very bitter taste in my mouth.

Oz Feb and #ReadIndies: Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career, Virago Press, 1980.

When I first asked for recommendations for Australian authors a few years ago, particularly women authors, the name that cropped up most frequently was Miles Franklin and her classic novel My Brilliant Career, written when she was sixteen and published when she was twenty-one in 1901. It contained enough autobiographical material for readers to think it was a memoir, and it became a ‘succès de scandale’, which proved so distressing to the young author that she forbade its republication until after her death. Nevertheless, she revisited the story in a sort of sequel called My Career Goes Bung, although that too was deemed too scandalous at the time and wasn’t published until 1946. She was a prolific writer, in spite of her peripatetic lifestyle and numerous other jobs across three continents, but never quite replicated her early success.

My Brilliant Career (brilliant in this case is both ironical and also expresses the idealism of the heroine) follows a few years in the life of young Sybylla and her downwardly mobile family and is one of the first examples of what one might call ‘working class’ literature, albeit from the rural environment.

There is no plot in this story, because there has been none in my life or in any other life which has come under my notice. I am one of a class of individuals which have not time for plots in their life, but have all they can do to get their work done without indulging in such a luxury.

As you can tell from the titles of the two books themselves, we are no longer in prim and proper English Edwardian literature territory here. The 1890s were very much a decade when Australia was finding its own political identity but also its voice, and what a raucous, unfiltered, lively voice it was, at least judging by this book. As one critic (Havelock Ellis) at the time described it, it reads a bit like the work of ‘a Marie Bashkirtseff of the bush’, which can be regarded as a back-handed sort of compliment. On the one hand, it is precocious, high-spirited and sincere. On the other hand, it can be regarded as childish, temperamental, pretentious, overwrought.

To me, it felt like both. It was certainly a book ahead of its time, with its rejection of marriage or a happy ending, and the way the heroine Sybylla expresses her desire to escape from a dull life and societal expectations, and pursue a fulfilling artistic career instead. It ventures further than even the Brontë sisters dared to go, but it all becomes permissible because it is seen through the eyes of a teenage girl (16-17 years old for most of the book), who wouldn’t really be portrayed again with such accuracy and detail until the 1960s. There is all the drama and complaining and concerns about her looks that we might expect of any girl that age, at any time throughout history, but Sybylla is more than that. She is interested in arts and politics, she is active and resolute, mischievous and witty, self-deprecating but also proudly independent. She is also very much in love with the landscape and life on her grandparents’ farm, providing us with many lyrical descriptive passages, but also no-nonsense glimpses of the hard daily work.

Although she protests so much about her lack of height and good looks, it seems there is no shortage of men falling in love with her vivacious personality, especially the tall, quietly supportive Harry Beecham, whom no doubt most women readers fall in love with. We may feel she is mistaken or even cruel when she ultimately rejects Harry, but at the same time you cannot help but cheer her on as she realises that she is not the marrying kind, that her ambitions are too high and she would never be content to be the accomplished dilettante wife of even the nicest of farmers. She is prepared for the loneliness that this might bring her in life, but she has already experienced that in her family: her drunkard father, her demanding mother with whom she clashes.

Our greatest heart-treasure is a knowledge that there is in creation an individual to whom our existence is necessary – someone who is part of our life as we are part of theirs, someone in whose life we feel assured our death would leave a gap for a day or two. And who can this be but a husband or a wife? Our parents have other children and themselves, our brothers and sisters marry and have lives apart, so with our friends; but one’s husband would be different. And I had thrown behind me this chance; but in the days that followed, I knew that I had acted wisely.

There are some unpleasant or puzzling aspects to this book too. The casual racism and disparaging treatment of servants would have been typical of the period, perhaps, but grate on modern ears. Although it is true that Sybylla does not have many positive male role models in her life, she seems to have rather extremist views about men in general, expecting them all to behave badly. There also seems to be a bit of sexual squeamishness going on, some overreactions when anyone touches her that could indicate some deeper traumas.

In conclusion, I am glad I read this book – it is refreshingly different from anything written in England at the time, but there was a bit of a YA tone to it. I think I would have loved this even more if I had read it aged fourteen, together with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

Still from the film My Brilliant Career (1979)

Virago is now part of Hachette, but back in 1980 when this book was first reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series, with a foreword by Carmen Callil, it was an independent publisher, so I am not really cheating, am I, if I include this in the #ReadIndies initiative organised by my blogging friends Lizzy and Kaggsy.

Oz Feb: Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday, 1966.

I don’t think the name ‘Oz Feb’ is going to catch on for my exploration of Australian literature this month, but a short name for a short month seems about right. My travel to a different country every month is also a way to finally read the books on my shelves instead of acquiring any new ones, so apologies to my Australian blogger friends who made some excellent suggestions that I ignored (and others who said I really should include New Zealand and Oceania too). I will investigate those suggestions in the future, for this is undoubtedly not the last time I venture into that part of the world with my reading. But please allow me and my teensy-weensy, whispy faint traces of willpower some time to recover from book-buying for the time being…

I’ve embarked on a rather massive volume (Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children), which will probably take me a week or two to finish, so I am reading shorter books in parallel. The first of these is a return to an old favourite, Shirley Hazzard, who was a truly cosmopolitan and peripatetic author, to the extent that we might question her Aussie credentials.

The Evening of the Holiday was her debut novel, and is set, like a few of her other novels, in Italy. It is a really simple story, following the love affair between Tancredi, a self-absorbed Italian man recently separated from his wife, and Sophie, whom he believes at first to be the quintessential English rose, but who turns out to be half-Italian. Although both of them are initially is unimpressed with the other, although they tell themselves they see things all too clearly, they appear to fall genuinely in love, but then each go their separate way, a Brief Encounter with more kisses and sex. Of course, the summer in Italy, the holiday atmosphere, the words in both English and Italian poetry, the song of the nightingale, the scent of the flowers all have a part to play in this magic. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the spells being cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as its own sensible but unsatisfactory resolution.

Lily King called this her perfect novel, that she returns to time and time again, and mentions that the book’s central male character reminds her of the ennui and riff on memory and desire of T.S. Eliot. I didn’t fall quite as much under the spell of the book as she did, even though it is full of the three sentiments I love above all else in literature: Weltschmerz, wistfulness, and the Romanian dor. The two main characters left me somewhat bewildered, although I do not need relatable characters to like a book. But what I do love about Shirley Hazzard is her elegant style, her sentences glittering like jewels, a sense of ironic detachment, a smile in the corner of her mouth, and all of this emerges perfectly formed already in her first novel:

I am perfectly able to deal with this man, who does not even attract me… except in so far as he has the qualities that are attractive about Italy itself – grace and the lack of earnestness. He was probably older than he looked. And then there was the language. If I saw him alone, she thought, I would have to wonder all the time about the subjunctive. I don’t think I can be bothered.

Hazzard can be quite scathing about the ways we are dishonest with ourselves:

Having made up one’s mind to suffer a great hurt, it was somehow disheartening, a disappointment, to be told it need not be borne and that some other way could be found, less lonely but harder, more imperfect but bearable.

I particularly like the way she punctures self-important rhetoric and over-romanticising things:

He had had, like everyone else, an exceptionally unhappy childhood, but his later memories, of adolescence, were predominantly pleasant ones. These memories were frequently represented in single scenes, like paintings – paintings in clear colours, well preserved, perhaps a little over-cleaned. Sometimes he would see himself, a tall young man, walking on the unpaved country roads in the morning. (In these memories, he was always taller, it was always morning, and the roads were still unspoiled by asphalt.)

Monthly Summary and Reading Plans for Start of 2022

You can see that December included holidays, a mood of hibernation and about 10 days without the children, because I read an inordinate amount of books and saw many films as well. I also managed to do some translating (about 28000 words, which brings me to just over a third of the way through the novel I’m working on). It was all rather cosy, but I hope to get more physically active in the New Year, as well as work on my own writing (no submissions at all this month).

Reading

18 books (although one was a DNF), of which:

  • 8 were for the Russians in the Snow theme of the month. I particularly enjoyed a return to the classics, such as Gogol and Turgenev, but I also enjoyed discovering new authors such as Victor Pelevin and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’ve failed to review the Bulgakov short stories or the memoirs about Marina Tsvetaeva by her daughter. And who would have thought I’d also find a retro-detective crime series set in St Petersburg and written by a Russian?
  • Two books were for the Virtual Crime Fiction Book Club: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I found rather harsh on the emotions, and John Banville’s Snow, which was not as cosy as I expected and just a tad overwritten.
  • There were several other books with a rather grim subject matter: In the Dream House (about an abusive lesbian relationship), Godspeed (about losing your youthful dreams and wasting your life chasing the impossible), mothers and sons and coping with lockdown in The Fell, and A Man (trying to disappear from your old life and forge a new identity). With the exception of the last of these, which felt rather stiff and pedestrian in its prose (not sure if that is the author himself or the translation), they were all very well written, which made the dark subject matter worth reading about
  • I tried to counterbalance this with lighter, escapist reading, such as Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis, The Pact by Sharon Bolton and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden.

Overall, I read 170 books this year, which is perhaps understandable since I had nowhere much to go and a couple of weeks without the children. However, it’s not even in the Top 3 of my years of reading (since I started keeping track of the books on Goodreads in 2013). Top place goes to 2014 (189 books), followed by 2015 (179) and 2016 (175). Unsurprising, perhaps, since those were the three years of marriage breakdown and lots of anxiety about the future, so I was looking for escape in books. This year also had its fair share of escapist reading, but felt much more grounded in good literature, in books that I truly enjoyed or authors I wanted to explore.

Reviewing, Blogging, Writing

Needless to say, with so much reading, I was unable to keep up with the reviewing, especially since I went a little wild with no less than six different categories for Best of the Year summaries: Modern Classics, Rereading, New Releases, Newly Discovered Authors, Deep Dives into Favourite Authors, and Page Turners.

Nevertheless, I managed an astounding 180 blog posts this year, writing nearly 150,000 words in the process. As a friend of mine says: ‘Why do you waste so much time crafting blog posts instead of working on your novel?’ I suppose it’s the instant gratification of receiving likes and comments. That is partly the reason why I submitted various shorter pieces (poetry and flash fiction) – you win a few, you lose a lot, but at least you get feedback a bit more quickly than when you work on a novel in isolation for years and years. In February 2022 I will be coming up to ten years of blogging and maybe it’s time I thought more carefully about what I want to achieve with it and if it’s worth continuing (at this pace).

I submitted about 40-45 times this year, got 24 rejections and 8 acceptances, but I got very discouraged when my novel didn’t get long or shortlisted at any of the various competitions I entered, so stopped working on it for several months. I hope to come back to it in 2022 – and make it a crunch year. Either I complete the novel to my satisfaction and start submitting it to agents, or else I ditch it and get started on something else.

I’m also working on another translation from Romanian and find that it helps my own writing, because I keep trying to figure out sentence structures and how to make them sound more natural in English. Plus I keep wanting to edit other people’s work, as if I could do any better! 😉

Films

I can’t even begin to review all the films I watched this month – no less than 19 (and there might be 1-2 more before New Year). Some of them were rewatches, typical of the Christmas holidays, like My Fair Lady, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, L’Avventura and Desperately Seeking Susan. Others were family films to watch with the boys – a very few Christmassy themed, like Tokyo Godfathers or Klaus, but mostly just films that have become classics, such as Fargo or The Usual Suspects. I also had fun watching Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse or Vivo or Inside Out or Tick Tick… Boom! (I was not a huge fan of the music of Rent, but I liked what Rent set out to show, and the film itself about the constantly thwarted creative artist or whether art serves any purpose nowadays rang a lot of bells, of course!)

The two that surprised me most were:

1) West Side Story, the new version, which I had initially dismissed as an unnecessary remake and probably doomed to failure. However, I really liked the way it stuck to some of the most loved aspects of the original yet also brought in some new elements quite successfully.

2) Winter Nomads – a documentary about shepherds who practice transhumance over the winter months, when the fields lie fallow, in the Valais and Vaud region of Switzerland.

Reading Plans

I will continue my eclectic mix of approximate planning, yet leaving plenty of room for serendipity. I also plan to focus a lot more on what I currently have on my bookshelves, as I prepare to move abroad (and have a thorough clearout of my books) in a couple of years.

January will be dedicated largely to Japanese literature, as usual. I have already started reading in preparation for that (A Man by Keiichiro Hirano) and it will be a mix of old and new, perhaps a reread or two: Tanizaki Junichiro, Endo Shusaku, Nakagami Kenji, Yosano Akiko, Miura Shion, Murakami Haruki and Natsume Soseki.

February I am thinking of going to the southern hemisphere and reading mostly Australian literature (or NZ or Indonesia if I have anything from there). The list of authors is still to be determined, but at first glance I see I have one unread Shirley Hazzard there, plus Elizabeth Harrower, Romy Ash, Miles Franklin and Frank Moorhouse. It’s a part of the world about which I know very little, so it’s bound to be a surprise.

In March I will explore Italian literature – although I am learning Italian and love the country, language and culture very much indeed, I haven’t read all that much Italian literature. I have built up a small collection of modern classics and contemporary literature that I can’t wait to try: Massimo Cuomo, Claudia Durastanti, Andrea Bajani and Alberto Prunetti, as well as better-known ones such as Italo Svevo, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese and Curzio Malaparte.

Finally, I want to read more poetry and weave it throughout everything else I do. Random opening of volumes of poetry, using favourite poets to ‘fortune-tell’ what my day or week might be like, close reading of an unfamiliar poem and discovering new poets: I want it all.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Mel McKissock?

Melbooks2

Mel McKissock is another fellow crime fiction aficionado that I met via the excellent virtual Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley. Based in Melbourne, Mel makes almost superhuman efforts to join us at the monthly book clubs, in the early hours of the morning (her time). You can find Mel on Twitter at more sociable hours and she always adds a touch of Australian knowledge to her reading passions.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Like so many other avid crime fiction fans, it was Agatha Christie who gave me my first taste of crime fiction. My parents had a complete set of her novels, and I steadily worked my way through them in my early teens, starting, I think, with ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.’ I moved on to more of the Golden Age crime writers, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

These days I enjoy contemporary crime novels. I love learning about new places and cultures, so anything with a strong sense of place is particularly interesting.  I love Scottish noir and Scandi noir, one of my favourite Scandi authors being Karin Fossum, who can bring out the pathos of a crime like no one else. I’ve recently discovered the Jungle Beat series, by John Enright, set in Samoa, and the Edie Kiglatuk series, set in the Arctic Circle, by M.J McGrath. Both of these series have taught me a great deal about their respective settings and I enjoy anything that really immerses me in a whole other world!

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Only one! Well, it would have to be a prolific author, to keep me occupied. I think it would be a toss up between James L. Burke and his Robicheaux series, set in and around New Orleans, and Louise Penny and the Inspector Gamache series, set in the intriguing Canadian village of Three Pines. Both are a series of long, extremely well-written books with many layers, all of which can stand re-reading.

MelbooksWhat are you forward to reading in the near future?

That’s an easy one to answer, as we have a long weekend coming up here in Melbourne, and I have been keeping a book to savour over the weekend. It’s ‘The Dying Beach’ by Angela Savage, set in Thailand in the 90’s and featuring PI Jayne Keeney. This is the third book so far in this witty and clever series, and I’m really looking forward to reading it over our Cup weekend.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

One book which made a huge impression on me is ‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin, an Australian author. A beautiful, lyrical book, it tells the story of ‘Fish Meggie’, her upbringing at the beginning of the twentieth century in Scotland, and her subsequent move to Australia. As a work of historical fiction, it’s very different to my usual fare of crime novels and I’d encourage anyone reading this blog to take a look at it!

Thank you for your excellent recommendations, Mel! I’m also a fan of exotic settings both north and south. Angela Savage and James Lee Burke are two authors that I am ashamed to say I haven’t read yet, but will certainly follow up with them (you are not the first to highly recommend them). As always, my TBR list is the biggest victim of this interview series. What do you think of Mel’s choices – have you read any or all of them?

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please, please, please do not hesitate to let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction of any description and would like to take part.