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Posts Tagged ‘Australian Classics’

The Magic Pudding by Norman LindsayI don’t know why the classic Aussie children’s book The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay passed me by in childhood. As an adult, the Norman Lindsay I knew was the painter of risqué female nudes (immortalised in the film Sirens) that shocked the prim and proper folk between the wars. I had no idea he had written novels and children’s books.

Then, like London buses, references to it kept popping up: firstly in Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics, in a newsletter published by the Australian Society of Authors, and as one of the top ten picks of the reading public for the ABC First Tuesday Book Club’s ‘ten Aussie books to read before you die’ list, by which time I had already picked it up for a change of pace.

And what a fabulous time I had acquainting myself with the savvy koala Bunyip Bluegum, the pugilist Bill Barnacle, the sidekick penguin Sam Sawnoff, and the cantankerous pudding that never runs out no matter how much of it is eaten!

It’s an absurd rollick as the band of four travellers fall prey to the wily, well-disguised and recalcitrant puddin’ stealers. Alongside, there is a raft of other characters our travellers meet, such as Finglebury Flying-fox, who, outraged after being measured by Bill on suspicion of being a puddin’ stealer, says ‘I shall have the Law on you for this, measuring a man in a public place without being licensed as a tailor.’

Further along they come to the town of Tooraloo, ‘one of those dozing, snoozing, sausage-shaped places where all the people who aren’t asleep are only half awake…’. They’re (again!) set upon by the puddin’ stealers, but this time they are ready for them. They cause a bit of a scene, at which point the pompous mayor and lily-livered constable debate about who will read them the Riot Act, only to find that neither of them have the Act in their possession. The resulting courtroom scene is classic farce and great fun.

The story is interspersed with an abundance of verses which are sung with gusto by whomever is making their point. The sailors’ ditty Salt Junk Sarah, a song with no beginning and no end recurs throughout.

There is also a wealth of wonderful drawings, done by Lindsay himself, and though they were black and white in this edition, they’re still a joy.

Norman wrote the story after betting a friend that children loved food and fighting more than they did fairies. Out of the peculiar Lindsay kitchen came this gem, much loved by so many Australians.

And not just Australians: Philip Pullman, author of the wildly successful His Dark Materials trilogy, has been quoted as saying ‘The Magic Pudding is the funniest children’s book ever.’ It’s hard to disagree.

I’m not sure what books parents read their kids these days, but The Magic Pudding, (even with all the fisticuffs!), is a delight and should be on every bookshelf.

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

1918

Text

172 pages

ISBN: 0207188645

Source: the local municipal library

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The Plains by Gerald MurnaneThe Plains by Gerald Murnane is a hallucinatory novella. It is narrated by an unnamed man hailing from the coastal region of Australia who is recounting the time he travelled to the inner plains in order to seek a patron amongst the almost mythical ‘plainsmen’ with the goal of making a film about the plains. The film is to be called The Interior.

It’s a mysterious read, one that draws you into a very interior landscape—a chief concern of Murnane. Indeed, reading the first-person story, one feels that Murnane is talking, and talking as much to himself as the reader. It’s the interior in every sense of the word, and the fact it was part of an intended larger work reinforces this notion: Murnane has pulled the interior out of a greater whole. The filmmaker writes: ‘I had sometimes thought of The Interior as a few scenes from a much longer film that could only be seen from a vantage point that I knew nothing of.’

It’s all so post-modern, no?

For lovers of ‘story’, of plot, of characters with actual names actively engaging with each other using, oh, I don’t know, let’s say dialogue, look elsewhere: this is not the book for you.

It opens with the narrator recounting the day he came to the plains. He describes the gathering of wannabe artists looking for a patron amongst the plainsmen, how they gather in a pub where they are called one-by-one over the course of several days to present their ‘pitch’ as it were. The plainsmen drink themselves into a stupor of sobriety. While our filmmaker waits, he recalls the bizarre conflict between different plainsmen, the Horizonites and the Haremen, and the colours of the two sides, one green-gold, the other blue.

… the whole matter had begun with a cautiously expressed manifesto signed by an obscure group of poets and painters. I did not even know the year … only that it fell during a decade when the artists of the plains were finally refusing to allow the word ‘Australian’ to be applied to themselves or their work.

Is this Murnane thinking of himself? Is he classifying his work? Shaking off the cultural cringe that was still in place in the early 80s? Or is he just a fan of irony given the concern over the hard physical landscape that forms the backdrop to so many of our great Australian novels? I have no answers.

This is what makes The Plains so beguiling. I felt like I was walking through a rather pleasant fog in which I occasionally spotted something concrete, only for it to disappear as soon as I could focus on it. The more I walked toward this something, the further away it seemed, just like will o’ the wisp.

Even the two warring factions acknowledge this ‘haze’ in the plains themselves, with one group saying ‘the zone of haze was as much a part of the plains as any configuration of soil or clouds.’

There are separatists and splinter groups of splinter groups, with the extreme position being to deny the existence of any nation with the name Australia, because ‘the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men.’

A wry humour is never far from present. Once our narrator gets in to see the plainsmen, he finds them having three different conversations at once, each ‘advancing steadily’. Pity the poor wife of ‘2nd Landowner’, for he seems destined to see everything through the prism of bustards, a type of bird than he seems quite enamoured with! This section gives us some of the only dialogue in the book, presented like a farcical play, as they circle around the topic of a classic poem about the plains entitled ‘Parasol at Noon’. The 4th Landowner recalls the scene of a plainsman looking at a girl in the distance with all the paddocks (unsurprisingly) swimming in heat haze. The 6th Landowner says:

That is the only scene as I recall the poem. Two hundred stanzas on a woman seen from a distance. But of course she’s hardly mentioned. It’s the strange twilight around her that matters—the other atmosphere under the parasol.

The 4th Landowner says:

[The poet] asks impossible questions: which light is more real—the harsh sunlight outside or the mild light around the woman? isn’t the sky itself a sort of parasol? why should we think nature is real and things of our making less so?

Later, the 5th Landowner speaks of how he retained a surveyor to map the settled districts of the plains:

When the map is finished I hope to plot the route of a journey of a thousand miles. And when I make that journey I want to see, just once in the distance, some hint of land that could be mine.

There are some quite lyrical moments. Take for instance the musician who developed a composition that tried to find the musical equivalent of his district. When the piece was played by an orchestra, its members were positioned far apart among the audience, and ‘each instrument produced a volume of sound that could be heard only by the few listeners nearest it.’ The audience was free to move around, but they only ever heard snatches of melody, and ‘most heard nothing at all.’

Any of these excerpts could be a summary of The Plains itself. There’s just layer upon layer of the same sort of impossible task of pinning the interior landscape down.

Another intriguing fragment comes after the filmmaker secures a patron and moves out to his palatial digs. There he ensconces himself in a library that sounds every bit as large as the State Library of New South Wales. In a different part of the library is the plainsman’s wife, reading about Time. There is a strange love that develops between her and the filmmaker, or a longing on the part of the filmmaker at least. He wonders how he might communicate with her and derives ever stranger options for doing so. Talking to her seems to be too trite. He must write a book of essays which will then be catalogued as part of the library to which she might one day get around to reading! I could almost feel the touch of Garcia-Marquez here, right up until the moment that nothing actually develops. Gabo would have seen to it that the love played itself out!

In the final scenes the filmmaker’s patron conducts what he calls ‘scenes’(!), in which he arranges people in a landscape in order to take a photograph that others will look at and interpret incorrectly in future years. And what a wonderful final sentence, in which our failed filmmaker grips a camera and asks his patron to take a photo of him looking into darkness. The ultimate ‘fade-to-black’, as it were.

I’m embarrassed to say that I only came upon Gerald Murnane when reading Jane Gleeson–White’s Australian Classics (see my review here). The Plains is one of the 29 novels to make Jane’s 50 classics. I have set myself the task of reading most of the ones that I’ve not yet read, as well as some other classic Australian authors I’ve yet to sample, such as Elizabeth Harrower, and any others I may come across in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library … hence the ‘Australian Classic’ part of the title for this review. Expect to see many more Aussie classics here over the next couple of years. Speaking of which, tomorrow, (Wednesday 5th December), I’m off to a talk at the State Library with Jane Gleeson–White and Geordie Williamson entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, which will cover some of the unsung female authors in the Australian canon.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review of The Plains penned just the other day, which you can read here. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is also a fan.

Me? I can count the books I’ve read twice on one, if not, two hands. The Plains will be one of them. In fact, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever fully leave it behind. I’m still in its pages now, chasing that will o’ the wisp.

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There I was all set to dive into reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell when I picked up Jane Gleeson-White’s lovely Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works. I had planned on perusing the first chapter, each of which is devoted to a musing on one work of our authors (with references to its place in the cannon, other works and a brief author biography), but just kept on reading. Along the way I compared my recollections of past favourites to her thoughts, and added many more to the TBR list. There are also contributions from many writers and other literary and artistic figures, who have provided a lists of their own favourites, many of which seem firm favourites beyond Gleeson-White’s choices.

Having attended a session on Australian Classics at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, I knew that Geordie Williamson’s book entitled The Burning Library is soon to be published, so it seemed like an opportune moment to delve into the literary history of our nation. I’m so glad I did. What’s more, in a moment of pure serendipity, I spied that both Williamson and Gleeson-White are giving a talk at the NSW State Library on Wednesday 5 December, called ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s Forgotten Women Writers’ (see here for more details and reserve your ticket for only $10). I quickly booked my place, certain that there can’t be too many more knowledgeable people to talk on the topic.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of the stories. How she narrowed not just novels, but non-fiction, essay and poetry into a representative fifty is beyond me. Each deserves its place, from Robbery under arms by Rolf Boldrewood, through to Tim Winton’s ubiquitous Cloudstreet. For all the talk of sexual bias that still exists, women have contributed so much to our literary culture, and Gleeson-White does these women proud by lovingly recounting her views of their works (many of course having written numerous works of distinctive pedigree). The past is littered with:

  • pseudonyms, used by both male and female writers too numerous to mention
  • the imprint of authors’ autobiographical details
  • relationships between authors, such as Joan Lindsey marrying a brother of Norman Lindsey, author of The magic pudding.
  • convicts – His natural life by Manning Clarke
  • bush-rangers – Robbery under arms by Boldrewood, Our sunshine by Robert Drewe, True history of the Kelly gang by Peter Carey
  • itinerant folk down on their luck – and many itinerant authors too!
  • girls and boys coming of age, as in Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career, plus others…
  • Indigenous Australians finding their voice
  • explorers disappearing – and not just in White’s Voss … Picnic at hanging rock anyone?!
  • families thrown together (Cloudstreet – in a Lamb and Pickle sandwich!)
  • tragedies, such as Grenville’s Lilian’s story, and others
  • I could go on and on… Seven little Australians, The man who loved children, Grand days, Monkey grip… somebody stop me!

The poetry of Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray, Oodgeroo Noonuccal is celebrated, as are short stories, including Henry Lawson’s The drover’s wife, as well as my favourite ‘long’ story: Storm boy by Colin Thiele. There is room for non-fiction works, such as AB Facey’s A fortunate life and indigenous author Sally Morgan’s My place which focusses on the stolen generation, and The magic pudding children’s book by Norman Lindsey.

It is a wonderful companion to all these works and a must for any lover of Australian fiction. I am now determined to search out Gleeson-White’s other book on global classics (I know it includes Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, so there’ll be at least one I’ve read!). I can’t wait to read that. I also can’t wait to hear Geordie and Jane talk about some of the books I’ve just read about and no-doubt many others, and to hear which books might appear in Geordie Williamson’s fiction-only The burning library. 

In the meantime, I’ve added quite a few of these Aussie classics to my TBR and they’ll feature strongly here over the coming year… I might even include some re-reads of old favourites too. The only difficulty is in deciding which to enjoy first!

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