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SWF LogoAnother year, another fabulous Sydney Writers’ Festival SWF in the sun(SWF). Over the coming few days I’ll post some thoughts on each of the main days’ highlights, beginning with Thursday. You can already catch some sessions on podcasts on Radio National’s Books and Arts website, and the festival’s podcast site will have podcasts up at some stage (not sure when).

 

Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanWell done to the festival organisers for scheduling an additional session with Zia Haider Rahman, which enabled me to see him on Thursday morning. The session was well marshalled by Aussie expat David Francis, a human rights lawyer based in New York. I wished I had have taken a photo of them, because they walked onto the stage wearing basically the same outfit of brown boots, blue jeans, red check shirts, and similarly styled and coloured jackets. They had only met in person just before the session but Rahman joked they had been separated at birth!

Rahman is the author of In the Light of What We Know, a sprawling epistemological novel that I’m reading now and which has garnered lavish praise from critics around the world. A ‘big’ book, its themes are myriad, including class, friendship, belonging/home/exile, religion and the East-West divide, knowledge and the ‘reliability of what we know’. It owes a debt to WG Sebald’s Austerlitz in terms of structure, a point Rahman made himself, with an unnamed narrator relating the story of his long-lost friend Zafar, whom he met at Oxford University where they studied mathematics.

Zafar is a true outsider, and his rage increases throughout his life at this unmoored life. He arrives at Oxford knowing the mathematics but not how to correctly pronounce the names of the serious mathematicians like Gödel, who devised the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’, which serves as a thematic touchstone for the story. His naivety over pronunciation reminded me of Laura Rambotham in Henry Handell Richardson’s delicious The Getting of Wisdom when she arrives at the posh city school knowing the French language but not how to pronounce it.

The novel features many narrative deviations, which one audience member in a question described as ‘slippings away’. This extends to the occasional footnote. Rahman said he knew when he sat down what the story would be about and where it was going. The ending changed a little after discussion with his publisher, reducing the number of ‘possibilities’. (He later said getting published was an ‘accident’. He sent it to a friend who sent it on to someone in the publishing world.)

He said his fiction is ‘grounded in reality’, which seems a bit of an understatement as it draws heavily on his own life experience. Rahman is a serial over-achiever. Born in Bangladesh (like Zafar), he was educated in Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, studying mathematics (like our protagonists), worked as an investment banker on Wall Street (like our protagonists) and then as a human rights lawyer.

Rahman said he wanted to explore the universal through the specific. He was concerned with this notion of ‘belonging’, how we all romanticise and yearn for ‘home’, and how class clashes or fulfils this need. Zafar, he said, ‘makes a home in the world of ideas.’ Rahman made an interesting point about there being not enough contemporary political writing, and how memoir has been so popular in the last two decades it has crowded out such writing.

I was a touch sceptical of the theme for this year’s festival, which asked the question of ‘how we should live’—sceptical because, to my mind, that is what literature always explores. Couldn’t any literature festival be said to ponder this? Nevertheless, one of the best things I heard said all week was Rahman talking about empathy. He said ‘we can do nothing more valuable than widen our empathy for others’. What a great mantra for how to live.

It was clear from my reading and also from the session that Rahman is a very thoughtful writer. Francis drew out Rahman on questions of masculinity in the book, the bond of male friendship that exists between the narrator and Zafar; and the very Englishness of the name for Zafar’s old girlfriend, Emily Hampton-Wyvern.

Francis also noted that the book reflects well on America. Rahman said this was because Zafar lives in that world of ideas, and the US is that kind of place. It’s a place of optimism and hope. Britain is about ‘muddling through’, a place where pragmatism trumps idealism. In the US, words matter, those founding documents matter.

However, Rahman himself, when asked about his life’s meteoric trajectory, said that he was the anomaly. The notion fed to us that ‘we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps is rubbish’, that so many of us fall through the cracks and needed lifting up.

Knowledge can’t answer every question. The irony is not lost on Rahman: it took a book about knowledge to show us this.

Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldThis was another very well chaired session, with Caroline Baum asking the questions of Helen Macdonald on her bestselling and multiple award-winning memoir H is for Hawk. I read Macdonald’s book (not reviewed here) long before the SWF program was announced, so was thrilled to see her. She also gave the closing address, so do check that out on the SWF website when it becomes available. I know I will. As it turns out, Jane Gleeson-White was also in attendance and wrote up the session brilliantly over at her blog here. It’s a great read.

So rather than cover the same ground, I’ll simply say that one of the most fascinating things about the book and Macdonald’s answers was the way she described becoming one with the bird, almost teetering on the edge of sanity in the wake of her grief. The world became ‘tessellated’, and her senses were so ramped up she could feel ‘intuitions’ in the landscape as she took Mabel out to hunt, the sorts of things Mabel herself was sensing and reacting to. As Baum noted at the beginning, H is also for Helen.

Macdonald, as a poet, writes beautifully. She read out one passage in which she describes Mabel’s appearance, and it is achingly beautiful. I highly recommend reading H is for Hawk. In the meantime, read Jane’s blog post!

These two sessions were the pick of Thursday at the festival.

 

Thursday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: the ridiculously long twitter hashtag preferred by the festival organisers: #SydneyWritersFestival – it was way too many characters. Why not use #swf, #swf15, or even #swf2015 … ? (Ashley Hay beautifully skewered the hashtag on the weekend when she said it’s ‘apparently okay’ for it to not have an apostrophe!); thumbs down also to the change to red shirts for the (wonderful) volunteers from the usual and more distinctive orange. I think I’ll start a hashtag of my own(!): #Bringbackorange

Thumbs up for: the ‘Book of Days’ collaborative project. Over the course ofBook of Days project the four days of the festival, Zoë Sadokierski, together with Astrid Lorange and Monica Monin, was tasked with creating an illustrated anthology—or ‘living index’—of the whole festival, based on the theme ‘how to live’. This included pieces of writing and art from selected presenters, as well as the ability for festival attendees to contribute through tweets or typewriters at Pier 2/3. Zoë is an award-winning book designer who also found time to chair and participate in a book design session on Saturday. The anthology will be available on a print-on-demand basis sometime after the festival, here.

Next up: Festival Friday…

 

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The Great Fire by Shirley HazzardSet in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the whole world was in a state of flux, and opening up like a flower from the heart of Asia to encompass England, Italy, Germany and New Zealand, The Great Fire is a sublimely crafted work of fiction. The story centres around honourable British war-hero Aldred Leith, thirty-three years old, who, after walking across China arrives in Japan to continue his study of ‘the consequences of war within an ancient and vanishing society’.

Pitching up in Kure, near Hiroshima, Aldred meets the two erudite and very close Australian teen siblings, Benedict (Ben) and Helen, offspring of the hideous Brigadier Driscoll and his inane wife. Poor Ben is dying of a debilitating and incurable illness. Helen is sixteen years Aldred’s junior but, despite his misgivings about the age gap, a love develops between them…

Having expected, repeatedly, to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him, [Aldred] had recovered a great desire to live completely; by which he meant, with [Helen].

Needless to say the Brigadier and Mrs Driscoll are not impressed. It is a forbidden love, one that will be tested in a great fire of its own before Helen and Aldred know whether it has turned to ash or steel.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Peter Exley, another learned Australian and good friend of Aldred, is interviewing survivors of war camps as part of his investigation into war crimes. Aldred saved Exley’s life in the war and feels, as per a Chinese proverb, somewhat responsible for him. He visits Exley in HK for a time. We learn about Exley’s backstory and circumstances in much detail, a point to which I’ll return later. Aldred tells Exley about Helen. Exley approves.

From there the inevitable separations occur. Exley promises to follow Aldred back to Japan at some point, partly in order to meet Helen, but is laid low by illness. Then in an act of cruelty that is heart-rending for us readers, the Driscolls send Ben off to the US alone for treatment. They then take Helen to New Zealand while Aldred is called back to the UK after the death of his distant author father. They are at the opposite ends of the world.

The writing is, in a word, glorious. Told in what has become an unfashionable omniscient narrator, the prose has a timeless quality to it, heightened perhaps by the lack of urgency until the final third or so. The reader is invited into a world of shifting colonial sands, experiences the lives of people exiting a terrible epoch and entering a new, uncertain one, all of them fearing another world war.

How often we question longlists and shortlists of literary prizes, and even their winners. Not this time. Judges on both sides of the Pacific fell for The Great Fire. It won the 2003 National Book Award in the USA and the 2004 Miles Franklin Award in Australia. The prose is lucid and exacting. There are so many wonderful images, descriptions and wordplays it feels wrong to highlight any. (The word dilettante is used, which alone must be worth the Miles Franklin!)

Still, I’ll give you a flavour, a sentence or two picked (almost) at random. A humble old mirror, whose quicksilver had been ‘got at’ by damp, is described as being ‘like the draped pelt of some desiccated leopard.’ A perfect image.

Characters descriptions receive the same care. A girl is described as having a ‘jostle’ of teeth. Right down to each word choice, Hazzard hits the right note.

How about the word play in this sentence describing part of Hong Kong harbour:

The … junks with tan sails boned like fans and the tan-coloured bony man at the stern working the yuloh;

And there is Aldred’s arrival in Kure, where he is picked up from the train in a jeep. As he travels along:

You could just see an arc of coastal shapes, far out from ruined docks: hills with rare lights and a black calligraphy of trees fringing the silhouettes of steep islands.

The style could be called ‘lyrical simplicity’, which might sound paradoxical, but I’m sticking with it. This last quote is part of the first chapter, which in many ways is a microcosm of the book. It opens with Aldred leaving the ‘charred suburbs’ of Tokyo on a train for Kure, contemplating a picture of his distant father on the back of one of his novels. Here we have the sense of travelling that is so much a part of the story to come, a rickety journey away from the horrors of war toward something brighter.

In Kure he seeks out a westerner called Ginger, who is suffering from radiation sickness after ‘being through the fire’ of Hiroshima. Aldred wants to ask him about the war and its aftermath, and although Ginger does tell him a little about the Driscoll’s compound where Aldred will be staying while in Kure, the two of them end up in intimate discussion about past loves. Even in the throes of Ginger’s death, which ends the chapter, the business of war is put to one side because of this more vital thing—love.

There is, though, this sinister layering of death following Aldred wherever he goes, forming a dark backdrop to the love that grows between him and Helen. We are always wondering which of these forces will win out: love or death? The lingering doubt builds through the final third of the story. The tension in the constant tilting of the impending fates is masterfully managed.  I’m not giving anything away by saying the ending is utterly fabulous.

If there are faults with the novel they lie with Peter Exley, who is given perhaps too much attention for a secondary character. For a time it felt as though the story might be about both Aldred and Peter, but it then really zeroes in on Aldred and Helen’s relationship and the question of whether they will get together. As such, the time spent in Peter’s point of view in Hong Kong when Aldred isn’t there is a strange indulgence, forgivable only because the writing is so damned good.

After reading Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson, a story Australian Women Writers 2013 badgebased on HHR’s own studying at the Leipzig Conservatorium, here we have another novel that uses the author’s experience as fuel for the fire: Helen’s life parallels that of the younger Hazzard, who grew up in Sydney, moved with her diplomatic parents to Hiroshima in 1947, then Hong Kong and New Zealand. She later spent a year in Italy and now resides between New York and Capri. (Having been to Capri, I can’t say I blame her!) It’s no wonder The Great Fire, years in the making, embraces so many territories. And not just the geographical and geopolitical, but the most complex terrain of all: the human heart.

A modern classic.

(And another Australian Women’s Writers book! It’s been all Australian women authors for me so far this year. Can I keep it going till the end of the year?)

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

2003

Virago

314 pages

ISBN: 1884081397

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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Maurice Guest by Henry Handel RichardsonThey say love is blind. And when that love is young love, well, the stakes are raised higher still. It’s tempting to summarise the plot of Henry Handel Richardson’s 1908 debut Maurice Guest thus: A loves B; B loves C; C loves D; D loves E; F loves E too; but E loves A. And so on. Everyone is in love with someone, but that someone is either unobtainable, or attainable and completely wrong for them.

Of course, the novel is more than that. Much more. As a study of obsession and erotic love it has few equals. Madam Bovary comes to mind as the obvious touchstone. (It could also be related to Ahab’s ill-fated obsession for the white whale in Moby-Dick.) But there’s something about the very European Maurice Guest that defies comparison, even with the great novels.

The prose, if a little overblown at times, is otherwise sublime. I could quote from any of its 631 pages. Here is a sample from the opening, where Maurice Guest, a provincial Englishman, finds himself newly arrived in Leipzig, a centre of music, to study piano in the renowned Conservatorium. He has exited a concert in which he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, (which I am happily listening to as I type):

Maurice Guest walked among the mossgreen tree-trunks, each of which vied with the other in the brilliancy of its coating. He was under the sway of a two-fold intoxication: great music and a day rich in promise. From the flood of melody that had broken over him, the frenzied storm of applause, he had come out, not into a lamplit darkness that would have crushed his elation back upon him and hemmed it in, but into the spacious lightness of a fair blue day, where all that he felt could expand, as a flower does in the sun.  

In many ways this passage sums up Maurice in a nutshell. He is the musical scales personified, either running up in some wild jubilation (brilliancy, rich promise, flood, elation, fair blue day, expand), or plunging down in a dark despair (darkness, crushed, hemmed-in). As he walks on, pondering the music yet more, he is ‘full to the brim of ambitious intentions’.

Poor Maurice, with all his grand plans! He soon finds himself lonely in a new city, longing ‘for a familiar hand or voice to take the edge of an intolerable loneliness.’ The first chapter ends on an unsettling nightmare, setting the tone for what is to come. And if that isn’t enough foreshadowing, in the following chapter we get his mother’s view of his chosen calling as a musician, which she sees as ‘something of a tragedy’. (Mums know best, don’t they?)

There are others struggling to find their place in the high-pressure world of concert-level musicianship. It is this broad canvas that takes Maurice Guest into a place beyond Madam Bovary’s relatively contained cast. It allows Henry Handel Richardson to explore several flavours of sexual love: homosexual, sisterly, woman for homosexual man (yet another ill-fated love with a tragic ending of its own), group sex and sadomasochism. All these things are somewhat disguised by Richardson, but not to any large extent. They add a rich supporting tapestry to the main game of Louise and Maurice’s relationship.

Maurice finds some friends, including the lovelorn Dove (who, as my limited plot equation above suggests, loves Ephie, who in turn loves Schilsky) and the steadfast and hardy Madeleine, who falls for Maurice. But he is too obtuse to notice. And once he lays eyes on Australian Louise Dufrayer he can’t see anything but her…

For one instant Maurice Guest had looked at the girl before him with unconcern, but the next it was with an intentness that soon became intensity, and feverishly grew, until he could not tear his eyes away. The beauty, whose spell thus bound him, was of that subtle kind which leaves many a one cold, but, as if just for this reason, is almost always fateful for those who feel its charm: at them is lanced its accumulated force.

‘Intentness that soon became intensity’. Wonderful. He goes on to take in her appearance. This is what he notes of just her eyes:

So profound was their darkness that, when they threw off their covering of heavy lid, it seemed to his excited fancy as if they must scorch what they rested on; they looked out from the depths of their setting like those of a wild beast crouched within a cavern; they lit up about them like stars, and when they fell, they went out like stars, and her face took on the pallor of earthly dawn.  

Oh dear. ‘Smitten’ doesn’t begin to cover it, does it?! He believes he loves her, but it is something else in truth, an obsessive passion that takes control of him body and soul. Madeleine tries to warn him off Louise, all to no avail. To his thinking, not a bad word can be spoken of her, and Madeleine’s warning is nothing more than scurrilous gossip.

Of course, the plotting equation will tell you Louise is in love with someone else, the genius violinist and composer (and cad) Schilsky. He treats her with contempt in the eyes of Maurice, who has to endure one torturous dinner where Schilsky complains about her suffocating him, which precipitates one of Maurice’s first explosions of rage, on this occasion at the man who is not worthy of speaking her name let alone touching her. Maurice, meanwhile, literally kisses the ground on which she walks (and I do mean literally!).

Louise is volatile, demanding and self-centred. She is an adventurous modern woman, whose life is one of ‘love, suffering and sensual abandonment’ as Carmen Callil writes in her excellent introduction to this Text Classics edition. Her ethos is summed up in this: ‘It’s myself I think of, first and foremost, and as long as I live it will always be thus.’ She is not the woman for the romantic and hitherto sheltered Maurice.

When the more-than-two-timing Schilsky leaves town, breaking Louise’s heart, Maurice picks up the pieces and attempts to put them back together with the glue of his ardour alone. He knows she cannot love him in the same way he loves her (and the way she loves Schilsky still), but he ploughs on anyway, pleading with her to be his.

At first she says no. But then, in a form of mental gymnastics I’m still trying to figure out, bends herself and enters the relationship. And Louise being Louise, this is no ordinary courting; it is a full-blown sexual affair. With the whole town whispering behind his back, Maurice sheds his studies and his friends as Louise consumes him. His tragedy is he can’t get beyond his jealousy of Louise’s past with Schilsky. She has to be his wholly, a state that is impossible.

There are so many wonderful scenes. To pick out any for mention does the others an injustice. However… the walk home from an evening concert where Maurice first talks to Louise is memorable, with all their talk of ‘peace of mind’, her overly dramatic talk of suicide, and the final ill-fated handshake. (She is not the only one to talk of suicide; Krafft, a homosexual with brief designs on Maurice and an unknown past with Louise and Schilsky, speaks of it also.)

A far more pleasant an excursion is had on the winter nights where Maurice and his loosely knitted group of friends go ice-skating along the frozen river. But even in these happier times dark clouds loom. There is the misguided Christmas Eve excursion on the ice with Louise when a snow storm blows in. Even when the two of them embark on their summer affair in a nearby town, Louise has her head turned by a female waitress who dotes on her!

Finally, the violence toward the end and the ultimate and heartbreaking disintegration of their relationship are unforgettable.

There were moments, though, where I wanted to throw the book, not so much across the room as at the characters. ‘What are you thinking/doing?’ I often wanted to scream. I found it hard to believe the way Louise commits to Maurice and then stays with him as he descends into his all-consuming, controlling and violent temper-tantrums. It was only when I allowed for her darker side toward the end that I found peace on this score. (Long before the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon there was Maurice Guest!) Even then I felt as though there would have been so many other more worldly (and more suited) persons for her to corrupt. But as I say, love is blind. And perhaps the abandonment that Louise all too often gives into is blinder still.

Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Australian Ethel Richardson, who herself studied piano at the Leipzig Conservatorium before she found the anxiety of public performance too hard to bear, at which point, encouraged by the husband she met in Germany, she turned to writing.

As befits both the writer and the story, music pervades every page of Maurice Guest, and wonderfully so. Fugues and etudes and sonatas and concertos and symphonies abound. I’ve mentioned Beethoven, but many composers are mentioned throughout, including Wagner, Mendelssohn, Vieuxtemps, Brahms, Handel, Chopin, and on.

Richardson is perhaps better known for the coming-of-age novel The Getting of Wisdom and the trilogy based on her father’s life The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Both of those novels are set in Australia. Maurice Guest is not a comfortable read at times. How can it be when, as Madeleine puts it, ‘romantic feelings of [Maurice’s] kind are sure to end in smoke’? It’s not Australian in any particular way, so I can’t call it an ‘Australian classic’. It is, instead, that greater thing, a realist European novel of the highest calibre, a forgotten classic perhaps, but a classic nonetheless.

This counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers’ challenge. Australian Women Writers 2013 badge

You can read Callil’s celebration of Maurice Guest on its centenary of publication on The Guardian website here.

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book program, Thomas Keneally, Geordie Williamson and Carmen Callil discussed the Text Classics series, which is being released into the UK. When asked what their pick of these novels was, both Keneally and Callil chose Maurice Guest (Geordie chose Patrick White’s Happy Valley.) I’ve not read anywhere near the full list of Text Classics, but I can at least understand why Keneally and Callil opted for this particular Henry Handel Richardson work. In every sense, it’s a titan of a novel.

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers felt much the same as I did. Read her thoughts here.

Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson

First published in 1908; this edition, 2012

Text Classics

631 pages

ISBN: 9781922079473

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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Just released: Australian Book Review’s readers’ poll of favourite Australian fiction which lists the top 20 voted-for books.  Not surprisingly, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet tops the poll.  Number two is The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, a trilogy The Dilettante is unfamiliar with, but must now be added to the TBR list.  The bronze medal as-it-were was given to Voss by Patrick White, a truly great read.  Polls like this are sometimes ‘polluted’ by more recent works which are fresh in the minds of readers, but are not worthy of such high placings on an ‘all-time’ list such as this.  Breath by Winton, for instance, places a very high fourth – it will be interesting to wait for the next such poll a few years down the road to see if this still rates so highly.  Good to see the much-maligned Patrick White has three works in the top 20.  Murray Bail, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Peter Carey all get a slot in the top 20 too, although I’m disappointed Carey’s Illywhacker is not present as this is a personal favourite of mine. 

Of course, this is what these polls are all about – insight mixed with a bit of fun; a chance to debate and discuss.  For what it’s worth, my top three would be Illywhacker, Cloudstreet & Voss, but as to which order I would opt for, well that is too hard a decision for a Libran like The Dilettante to decide upon!; (I’d also add that David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon is quickly becomming a top three choice).

What’s your favourite Australian novel?  Let me know!

The Dilettante

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