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SWF 2014 logoOne of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival was seeing Irishwoman Eimear McBride talk with Geordie Williamson about her stunning, award-winning debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (my review here). The novel was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Prize (previously the Orange Prize for fiction) in 2014 (announced this past week). The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to ‘reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, which gives you an idea of where A Girl is placed.

Geordie asked Eimear to set up their discussion by doing a reading. And what a pleasure it was to hear McBride read from the work that is so stylistically different to pretty much everything you’re likely to read. She read from the opening, which I confess I had to re-read a couple of times before I got what was going on, what with the jagged short sentence structure she employs. And although in my own head the writing quickly came alive, it was another thing to hear it spoken aloud by its creator.

The risk with the experimental style McBride employs, said Williamson, is that it could have fallen into an idiolect that no one understands, a modern companion to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which many regard as a dead-end of high modernism. This is something that McBride avoids. But, asked Williamson, ‘we have to talk about punctuation: what have you got against the comma?!’

The comma is overrated, joked McBride, before she went on to say the use of the full stop shows the reader that something else is going on in the story. It’s an immediate signal. Williamson noted Henry James as a great user of commas, the master of building up tension in a sentence for as long as possible, holding completion at bay. McBride said the truncated sentences match the experience of the unnamed girl narrator.

How did the style develop? She said she spent a long time writing and then, aged twenty-five, she read Joyce’s Ulysses, and everything changed. All the work she had done went into the bin. She felt there is a lot of room left in the modernist tradition to plumb. Proper sentences don’t necessarily allow us to show all of human experience.

Williamson said Irish writers typically choose between Joyce and Beckett as their inspiration, but McBride said she didn’t see the difference between the two. Language is key for both of them. Williamson mentioned another possible influencer, likening short sentences to the ultimate ‘bloke’: Ernest Hemingway. Did McBride consider choice of gender and flip it? She said, you’re not conscious of gender as a writer. You ‘don’t write as a woman’.

The discussion then went into the area of plot, the story being about the relationship between a girl and her mentally challenged brother in a close Irish Catholic community as she comes of age. In many ways, noted Williamson, this is the traditional Irish story. It was, said McBride, a horror to me that that was the story I was going to write. She did not set out to write that story, but that was what she found.

McBride spoke briefly about her upbringing. Born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents, she moved to the west coast of Ireland when she was two. She went to convent school with all the associated bad nun experiences. At seventeen she moved to London to go to drama school as a means of escaping all of it, thinking she’d never go back to Ireland. And when she did go back she found out she had been right to think she should have never gone back!

The conversation returned to Beckett and Joyce, the two giants of Irish literature who cast very long shadows. It seems you have to get them out of your system to be an Irish writer. Another influence McBride noted was renowned Irish author Edna O’Brien. Experimenting is not done with yet, said McBride. Finnegan’s Wake scared people into moving back towards realism. But there’s an appetite in readers for brave and different books. Readers are adventurous, she said, something publishers forget. She described the nine year wait from finishing the manuscript before she found a publisher to take the book on, arguing that the increasing commercialisation of publishing houses has played a detrimental part in cutting down variety. To be a writer and a reader, she said, is to be an adventurer, a point that was welcomed with applause from the audience. Here, here, I say.

It took her six months to write three drafts in 2004, and then sent it out to publishers. Some said it was brave, and of good quality, but they couldn’t see the market for it. This went on for four years before she gave up and put it in a draw. It was a series of fortunate connections she made in Norwich that led to the manuscript getting to a brand new publisher run by people who admitted they knew very little about publishing, and even then it took a while for it to come together. Kudos to Galley Beggar Press in Norwich for picking it up; (it’s published by Text Publishing in Australia). It was reviewed positively in the Times Literary Supplement in London, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What next? Her novel in development is an evolution of the style featured in A Girl. She is most interested in indescribable human emotion. Success does not make writing any easier or harder.

In response to questions, McBride detailed the writing process for A Girl as being one more of addition that subtracting through editing. She has a goal of 1000 words a day, and starts each day by reading the previous day’s work, something Peter Carey and many other authors do too. She then picks up at the most interesting sentence and continues on. She constantly asked herself whether a reader would understand what was going on, and she knew she was asking a lot of the reader. She read it aloud a lot, particularly in the second and third drafts. The darker parts were difficult to write emotionally, but ‘you need to give of yourself, a drop of your blood’.

She said she may well do an audio book version herself, which was greeted with applause, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else being able to read it like McBride does. And Geordie Williamson, who had made an earlier reference to a well-known curmudgeonly reviewer and his praise in the London Review of Books, said the final line of his review was ‘the nicest thing he has ever written’, which gives you a measure of the status of this gem of a novel. What was his line? Wondering about McBride’s ability to back up A Girl and create a new style for a new story, he wrote: “That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous.”

A great session. A treat to savour.

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SWF LogoIt was a grey, cold and wet start to the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) today, but I kicked it off in great style with ‘The Uncommon Reader’. Tegan Bennett Daylight chaired an engaging panel discussion with respected critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White on what books have inspired them, from their formative years through to their predictions on the classics of tomorrow. I’ll just pick out a few talking points…

There was a discussion about the moment they began to feel like they wanted or needed to reply to books. James said it wasn’t until university that he was taught to read better, at which point he began to be a better reader, or observer, of the world as well. I think this is true of all us readers.

Both Geordie and Jane spoke of the enthusiasm that works such as Wood’s The Broken Estate allowed them to have. Jane said she still reads with a child’s enthusiasm now, something that was evident when she spoke about her favourites.

For James, he wanted to be able to write about things that made him DSC03665 - Harbour Bridge in Mistwant to burst out and say ‘this is bloody good!’. He writes not for academics, but for other readers.

Tegan asked a great question about what are the books that these avid readers return to, time and again. For Geordie, it is V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. From Naipaul, post-colonial literature emerges. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a most ‘writerly’ book, something he leafs through when he feels a little stale.

James also admires Naipaul, noting A House for Mr Biswas as a very funny and poignant work. But for him, ‘the one’ is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a favourite of mine too. It has, he said, the thing so many works of fiction lack: the ideal ending.

Jane gets excited about any new translations of works by Homer and Tolstoy. But the two works she picked out are F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its ‘flawless prose’ (she read a passage of this out, endearingly trying not to cry!), and a favourite of mine: Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (my review).

Thoughts then turned to books and writers of today that will last. Tegan offered Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro. Geordie split the discussion into local and international contexts. For his local, he gave Tim Winton, admiring Winton’s ability to pull off writing that appeals to a wide audience and is also ‘pregnant with intelligence’. He had a smile when saying Stephen Romei had rung him to say the new Winton has just been delivered (expect it on your nearest bookshelf soon! – no title was given). For a global context, he offered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a ‘generational shift’, and praised the first page of Wallace’s unfinished work The Pale King.

James echoed Geordie’s praise of the opening to The Pale King, and agreed with Tim Winton. To that he added his admiration for Peter Carey, saying that while he liked his more recent works, he is eagerly hoping for the next ‘great novel’ from him, something to rival Illywhacker (my review) and Oscar and Lucinda (my review). (Given they are two of my favourite novels, I couldn’t agree more!) He also noted Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel. For his international, he picked out W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (which is featured in Wood’s most recent work of criticism The Fun Stuff and Other Essays). 

For Jane, it is Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the one that ‘knocked her socks off’ recently was Atomised by French author Michel Houellebecq, which had James Wood nodding too. Jane was positively gushing in her praise, and has blogged about Atomised at Bookish Girl.

For all that, the one author not mentioned, but mentioned by an audience member in a question was Jane Austen. Geordie swung this to Tegan, who re-reads every Austen each year, (and is an admirer of Northanger Abbey, whereas Jane Gleeson-White said she’s more a Persuasion fan (as am I).

I left with the feeling that if I had only attended one session at this years’ festival, then this would have been a great one to choose. The reading list alone would keep me going with great reads for a good while. The panel spoke with intelligence, wit, and above all, enthusiasm about the thing that brings us all together: books.

I’ll have more SWF musings over the coming days and weeks.

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A muse on tonight’s talk at the State Library of NSW entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, featuring Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Presented in conjunction with the Stella Literary Prize, there was a lively discussion of several Australian women authors who deserve a wider audience for their work. There couldn’t be two better-placed people to discuss the topic than Jane, blogger at Bookish Girl and author of the very accessible Australian Classics (see my review here), and Geordie, chief literary critic at The Australian and author of the recently published The Burning Library.

Jane aptly started off proceedings by declaring 2012 the year of the woman writer in Australia, with so many awards won by the likes of Anna Funder and Gillian Mears (see my review of Foal’s Bread here). The subsequent discussion touched on the issues of the imbalance of women-to-men in publication and reviewing statistics, and how even some of the published women’s stories in the twentieth century were edited by men for a particular assumed audience, during which the essence or flow had been excised and the story sadly depleted. As a bit of an idealist, I just find this sort of bias mind-bending and terribly sad. Anyway, we soon dived into a discussion of the following authors and their works:

  • Barbara Baynton: short stories, particularly, as Jane noted, the ‘chilling’ The Broken Vessel.
  • Judith Wright: how her second intimate poetry collection ‘Woman to Man’ was not published because it was considered ‘too obstetric’.
  • M Barnard Eldershaw: this was one of Geordie’s picks… or should I say two? -for, as Geordie explained, MBE was actually two women: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both highly intelligent, Geordie explained the cruel curtailing of Barnard’s dreams of taking up a place she won at Oxford by her father. She said, ‘Life is backed up in me for miles and miles’, such a heart-rending expression. Their novel A House is Built was discussed. Set in 1830s Sydney, it is the story of a successful early merchant – and sounds just up my street – expect a review of this soon(ish!). Other works include Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Geordie described how these women authors worked within the masculine rule book of publication, but did so with a very feminine focus as well as a subversive (and therefore much more interesting) streak. They were hugely influential on a certain Patrick White, too. And it wasn’t just their fiction, for they also wrote a lot of critical work, including reviews of the young Christina Stead. Marjorie Barnard went on to write solo; her works include The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories.
  • Henry Handel Richardson: Jane commented that HHR’s Maurice Guest is perhaps her favourite novel by an Australian author (to which she quickly added Voss and Carpentaria!). Her debut novel, it is, in Jane’s words, an ‘overblown, passionate, Wagnerian story. Set in Leipzig, it centres on a love triangle, with poor Maurice the hapless dupe who’s in love with the gifted music student, Louise Dufrayer. For Jane, it shines every bit if not more than HHR’s more recognised ‘Australian’ works The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
  • Christina Stead: Geordie said the neglect shown to HHR’s Maurice Guest applies to all of Christina Stead’s work – cue much nodding of knowledgeable heads in the audience! Jonathan Franzen is not the first to acknowledge Stead as one of the great twentieth century novelists, said Geordie. Many other critics and authors have said much the same thing. Yet still Stead sits in the shadows: she sold 199-odd books in 2008 and was only taught in one Australian University. Why? Is it because of her ‘intelligent ferocity’ an approach she had to life and to writing? Is it because ‘we like our modernism light and our Booker Prize novels well edited? Jane agreed that Stead can be difficult, admitting it had taken her a few attempts to get through The Man who Loved Children, but now adores her. Other titles of Stead’s mentioned included For Love Alone and The Salzburg Tales, a book of short stories.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, and how the Indigenous voices are starting to pick up the stories written in our landscape, by writers such as Alexis Wright (see my review of Carpentaria here) and Kim Scott (see my review of That Deadman Dance here).
  • Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here.
  • Exiles at Home by Drusilla Modjeska was also mentioned as a great way into this world of neglected Australian female authors.

An hour well spent!

It was a shame there weren’t more literature lovers in the audience this evening. I hope there’s a similar session at next year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the topic deserves as wide an audience as the female writers discussed.

In the meantime, there’s so many Australian women authors demanding my attention, it’s hard to know where to start…

Happy reading…

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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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Another fabulous day by the harbour for Friday at the SWF.  A brief muse on today’s sessions…

I started the day by going to the very interesting session ‘Book Design: The Story from Back to Front’ which celebrated the work of the designers of the books we love, featuring Stephen Banham, Hugh Ford, Melanie Feddersen, and facilitated by Zoe Sadokierski.  I’ll just pick out a couple of short points made…

I think Melanie Feddersen is my kind of book designer.  She related the charming story of how, from an early age, when she bought a new book she would write in it what she did that day and why she had bought that particular book.  Working as a freelance designer, Feddersen talked about her experience developing the design of a YA novel she worked on, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley.  For us fiction lovers, this was particularly interesting.  She explained where she got ideas from, starting with the publisher’s brief, reading the manuscript itself, and taking visual and textual clues from every part of her life.  She showed examples of the early design of the book cover, how a searchlight shining on a girl’s face worked with the book’s mood and themes of teenage ‘searching’.  A design was approved but then she was asked to change it!  The publisher wanted something more to do with graffiti in the cover.  Back to the drawing board – and she came up with the design shown in the photo to the left here – what a fantastic design(!) – working-in the graffiti can and spraying words.  Brilliant!  She then showed international versions of Graffiti Moon’s cover – there was such a wide range if interpretations and designs it often looked like a totally different book.  It’s rare that one design is used in a different territory.

Banham, a graphic designer / typographer, talked about the way everything is changing in design of books.  He explained the way he had approached a recent graphic design book not from the angle of the front-to-back cover design, but from the angle of how the design would appear as an ‘app’ on someone’s smart phone / tablet / web-site.  Increasingly, readers are buying electronic copies and this sense of ‘branding’ is very important, something that can translate across electronic mediums.  Font types are chosen only if they are a web font.

My second session was ‘The Sweep of Narrative’: Elliot Perlman talking about his novel The Street Sweeper, which deals with the holocaust, and race relations in America.  Perlman was very engaging, telling the story of the development of the novel, which commenced with a question that needed answering.  An oral history was recorded post-war Europe with Jewish survivors of the holocaust by psychologist David Boder.  When he had interviewed over 100, he was heard on the voice record he was making (which had a huge historical significance of its own), saying, ‘Who is going to sit in judgement over this [holocaust]?’  There was a pause and then he said, ‘Who is going to stand in judgement over my work?’  Perlman wondered why this man should have any guilt over what he was doing / had done, and knew that the answer to that question would become the subject of his work.  It took him six years to research and write, and he relayed how he hand interviewed hospital janitors, historians at Columbia University, African Americans, and students (now aged 80 or so) of Boder himself – a huge amount of work.  He also met the last living survivor of the group of Jewish prisoners who were tasked under the threat of death with the horrific task of undressing the bodies of Jews gassed in Auschwitz.  This man’s story became a character in the book.  Wonderful anecdotes of a book that has gotten rave reviews and is on my shelf as I type!

The third session of the day was ‘Classic’ – a discussion of Australian literary classics with Kate Grenville, Thomas Keneally, (both featured in Text Publishing’s new ‘Text Classics’ range of books), as well as Geordie Williamson and Text’s Michael Heyward.  First of all, full marks to Text Publishing for producing the Text Classic series http://textclassics.com.au/ , bringing back into print many books that should be read – one of which, Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is on my TBR.

There was a lot of discussion about how some things have changed in the Australian ‘canon’ – the fact that we have one for starters – and perhaps, how some other things might still need changing.  Keneally spoke about early Australian influences being Patrick White (Riders in the Chariot in particular), as well as poets Kenneth Slessor and Douglas Stewart.  He wanted to continue their work, joking about ‘the arrogance of young writers is breathtaking’(!).  He lamented the economic fundamentalism in publishing, how nowadays the poor editor has to not just get the book ready for publication but then get it by the corporate gatekeepers in Sales and Marketing.  As for more recent classics, he pointed to one of my favourites, Peter Carey’s Illwhacker (see my review).

For Grenville, growing up, writers were ‘dead white British males’.  Henry Lawson was as good as it got, though she also read Riders in the Chariot and although she was too young to understand it fully, she knew it was ‘something extraordinary’.  She also loved The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, another in the Text Classics series, as well as Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes – cue much communal love!  She spoke about how we are so ‘prize’ focussed when all books are part of what she likened to a forest ecosystem.  ‘There are giant oaks and there is moss and mushroom’, but every one is part of the system and need each other.

Following on from this wonderful analogy, and perhaps the best thing said in this session, was Geordie Williamson’s approach to thinking about the relationships between books, how the ‘density of the links is our culture’.  What a great summation.  He said we need to clear a cultural space around books – and gave the example of how the classic Careful He Might Hear You, by Sumner Locke Elliot, sold tens of thousands of copies in Germany, but before it won the Miles Franklin in 1963, had only sold 7 copies in Australia!  There was a lot of discussion about the role of improving education both in school and university level.  Geordie Williamson said that undergraduates and postgraduates are not obliged to read actual texts!  But all agreed that there is a real appetite for Australian writing as show in the success of someone like Tim Winton.  A good, fun session… many books added to the TBR – too many to list here!  BTW: Geordie Williamson is writing a book about the Australian canon, to be published later this year, entitled The Burning Library, so stay tuned for that.

That’s it for Day 2.  FYI: Radio National has SWF highlight programmes on both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, plus additional programming across the next three days.

Join the SWF discussion on twitter @: #SWF2012.

Bring on Saturday!

D.

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Another damp day in Sydney saw the close of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2010.  Peter Carey is giving the official closing address, which along with many of the sessions will be available from the SWF website.  It was another very interesting day.  This is a long post but I assume that readers can see which session interests them and read those summaries:

1. ‘Portraits of a Lady’ with Colm Toibin and Kirsten Tranter in conversation with the learned Geordie Williamson, in part discussing their work’s (Colm’s Brooklyn & Kirsten’s The Legacy) relationship with Henry James’ famous novel, although the discussion covered more than this, with Colm in particular showing his encyclopedic knowledge of James, his life, and his work.  Geordie opened the session with a quote of Virginia Woolf’s review of (I think) Henry James’ Letters; Colm told the story of how Virginia and her sister (and everyone else in London at the time) wanted to impersonate James.  James was a great friend of Virginia’s parents and was over for dinner one evening and was telling a story in his own unique way, rocking on his chair as he spoke, until he rocked a little too far and fell toppled over, but what amazed Virginia was that he kept talking through the entire descent! 

Geordie asked the authors how it was that they squared with themselves the task of taking on the ‘monolith’ of James.  Kirsten told the story of how The Portrait of a Lady itself was James’ response to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so this gave her a sense of confidence that such a project was appropriate.  Cue Colm’s very witty reason: he used to work a summer job in the motor tax office, ‘sorting paper records covered in dust and grime and dirt’. Said Colm: ‘In the day, I worked in the tax office, and at night I read The Portrait of a Lady'(!)  He was astonished with the idea of a secret held to the end of a story, and was puzzled and intrigued by James, and what appears on the surface to be the ‘style of morality’ but is really ‘the morality of morality’.  Geordie then asked about the different structure that each author took in their novels, with Kirsten favouring a fairly direct use of James’ structure (with some ‘grafted-on’ mystery elements, as well as changing the scandal from infidelity to the artist’s authorship of her work).  Kirsten purposefully did not re-read Portrait before writing her work, though she did dip into it.  Colm stripped out a lot of the original structure.  He noted that a lot of James’ work is poor, some of short stories in particular (often written quickly for money), but also some of his longer works.  Colm said ‘James struggled to write about the English’, but he did have a gift in his great novels of using a very intimate third person narrative which allows the reader to ‘become the character’.  Colm said James did this very well and Portrait is a great example.  In Brooklyn, Toibin said he limits his protagonist Ellis Lacey’s ‘ambition’, but he allows her the ability to observe events and surroundings with ‘full intelligence’.  A question was asked as to whether Henry James would have written great works had he been openly gay; Colm replied that EM Forster wrote a story which was openly gay but it was very bad because everything was given to the reader, whereas in other works his use of metaphor works, and the same could be said of James.  Another observation of Colm was that James, whilst very wealthy, wrote poverty well.  Colm clearly has both the gift of the gab – and the intellect to back it up.  A very interesting session that covered so much more than the premise allowed.

2. ‘The Boat to Redemption’ – Su Tong in conversation with Linda Jaivin (who also translated).  Another great session.  Su Tong has a wonderfully sunny disposition which came across even through Linda’s interpretation.  Tong’s books have included Wives and Concubines – which was made into the acclaimed film, Raise the Red Lantern – and others, with his latest novel The Boat to Redemption winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, making a total of seven novels, and over 200 short stories.  The story is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su grew up.  He saw people with placards around their necks with their crimes inscribed thereon and wondered what their struggles and stories were.  There is violence in his novels, but he defends this by saying that ‘violence was a part of everyday life.’  Su said he is now very awake to the ‘nightmare and corruption of his childhood’ and all its ‘blackness’. 

Interestingly, Linda noted that the title of the novel in Chinese means ‘River, Shore’ – it is set on a river, its narrator a young boy whose father decided to move from the shore to the river and they haven’t set on land since.  Su Tong’s own parents once lived on an island on the mighty Yangtze River, so for him the river was his world.  Yet the feeling of a river lends itself more to poetry than novels, so writing a story about the river proved a great challenge even for someone with his background. 

Su said that he sees himself as a doctor that looks at the ills of humanity and figures out what needs to be done.  He says it is common in China for doctors to cut out diseased tissue and show this to their families; Tong says this is what he does with society, he cuts out the rotten tissue and shows it to us – a nice metaphor.  We then had quite a funny description of how young people learnt about sex in China, with Linda noting the theme of sexual anxiety that it present in a lot of Chinese literature, including Su Tong’s work.  Mothers commonly tell their children when they ask ‘where do babies come from?’ that they come from the mother’s armpit or they are found on the street.  Su Tong was told he was taken from a boat.  He and his friends found out about sex from The Barefoot Doctor, the book given to rural people who were given very basic medical training.  Says Tong: ‘We studied Mao in class, and The Barefoot Doctor at home. 

We then arrived at Linda’s observation about the English translation.  Linda read both the Chinese and English version simultaneously and was appalled at the differences between them.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version.  The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book the other night!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises on Thursday night in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session.  So whilst I have not read it yet and will provide a review soon, I’m aghast to think that there are people out there that wont read it because they feel it is a poor book, and I for one am looking forward to reading River, Shore

3. ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’ with Hugo Bowne-Anderson and Chris Andrews (translator of several of Bolano’s works into English), with chair Don Anderson.  Bolano has captured the imagination of many readers since his premature death with his mysterious and incredibly prolific writing.  Don noted in his introduction that Bolano said ‘magic realism stinks’, but he also said of Garcia Marquez, that some of his novels were ‘perfect’ – and this in a nutshell gives us a glimpse into the elusiveness of Bolano.  Hugo spoke at length about Bolano’s works, observing that either of By Night in Chile or Amulet (see my review), are good ways into his work. 

Chris then gave us a particularly well-constructed talk on what he saw as the five characteristics of Bolano: Energy; Tension; Totality; Ehtics; and, Poetry.  He quoted the opening lines of The Savage Detectives and noted its lack of adjectives as well as the immediate sense of a ‘vibration’ of energy.  Tension is ‘something that Bolano can create out of nothing’, and Chris noted that quite often his short stories, like Poe’s short stories, reveal a hidden structure at the end and what you thought you were reading turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet many of Bolano’s novels eschew endings.  Instead we have very open endings.  Bolano wants to work the reader hard; he attempts to retain a sense of mystery, and wants understanding to be elusive.  In terms of the ‘totality’, both Chris and Hugo noted how Bolano’s works are related and connected.  However, Chris observed that there are many inconsistencies – characters’ reappear in other books but sometimes with different names.  Thus, there is some sense of a plan behind the totality of the work, but not a real plan given all these inconsistencies.  Chris said that these are a small price to pay for the whole.  Ethics: Bolano was quite a moralist in his fiction (if not in life).  His cardinal vice was ‘cosying up to power’, whilst his cardinal virtue is courage – a view that I share wholeheartedly.  Courage in Bolano’s works is often represented by duels.  Finally, poets are everywhere in Bolano’s stories, both as a metaphor for the creative class but also because Bolano himself was a poet before he began writing novels.  Poetry is important to him. 

Chris was asked about the method of interpretation, and gave an interesting insight when he said that often the first translation is very dry and awkward and does not retain the poetry of the original; it takes a lot of work to then arrive at a real sense of the original Spanish in English.  An observation was then made from a member of the audience which the panel agreed with, as do I, when it was argued that had Bolano lived a long life, the sense of a real plan interlinking his entire work may never have been forthcoming, and we would have instead what we have now, a lack of a definitive ending to everything, where, appropriately enough, the session was ended!  Very interesting.  I have The Savage Detectives and 2666 on my shelf, their weight pressing down into the wood, but feel now that I have a much greater awareness of what awaits me. 

4.  ‘Australian Stories’ with Thomas Keneally (Australians – Origins to Eureka), Jack Marx (Australian Tragic), Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers), moderated by Richard Glover.  A fun romp through some tall tales, interesting facts, and myths that each author has come across as an antidote to the view in school-children that ‘Australian history is boring’.  Richard opened the session with Mark Twain’s famous quote from his journey to Australia, which Peter Carey used as a quote before his excellent Illywhacker, and which appears in the excellent: The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia (see my review), that Australia’s history ‘reads like the most beautiful lies’. 

There were some interesting observations made by each panelist.  For instance, Jack believed that one Australian myth is that of ‘mateship’ – he felt there is nothing special about Australian male bonds than anywhere else in the world.  Tom noted that one myth is the notion that all aboriginals were ‘supine’ to white settlement.  This was an interesting observation for me, for I am well aware that many of the aboriginals of the day openly resisted.  This notion was explored further after a question on why the stories of violence toward aboriginals goes untold.  Again, I found this an interesting assertion, as I was aware of these stories myself, but perhaps they are untold.  Jack observed that the violence continues today, providing the example of the indigenous man killed a couple of years back on Palm Is by a policeman and the lack of punishment.  Michael’s myth is the notion that ‘everyone died searching for an inland sea’, noting the irony that as far as he was aware, the only man to die whilst searching for an inland sea was a man by the name of ‘Poole'(!). 

All-in-all, the session was proof that there is a myriad of interesting stories that constantly fuel and refuel our understanding of the past, and the idea that those things that are swept under the carpet or assumed to be isolated things in our history, and thus unimportant, are actually rife within the primary records of the day, and it is not hard to find facts and myths and wonderful things if we merely open the page – an apt thought on which to end my musings on the 2010 SWF – thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring, fun, and yes, a little damp, but my mind was definitely expanded. 

Let me know your thoughts.  What were your SWF highlights? 

The D!

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