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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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Well!  I was enjoying Carpentaria so much I extended Indigenous Literature Week to ten days!

I’m a fan of big, sprawling, unruly books, even more so if they have elements of magic realism (Midnight’s Children, Illywhacker anyone?) – and Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin-winner is one of those books.  Set in the coastal town of Desperance, it’s a story about the indigenous Phantom family, headed by Norm, who live in the Westend of Pricklebush, and their running battles with both the Eastend mob, led by Joseph Midnight, as well as the white fella inhabitants of Uptown and operators of the Gurfurrit mine.  As you can no-doubt tell, Wright has a lot of fun with wordplay.  The names are a case in point, beginning with the town in which the story is set: the wonderfully named Desperance in the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the western coast of far north Queensland.

There is indeed a sense of desperation that underpins the story, with the constant threat of cyclones in the west season; the social breakdown that undermines some indigenous families; the racist Uptowners’ beatings and murders of indigenous people, including children; the fight (by some but not all) against the multi-national mine; and the in-fighting between different the Westend and Eastend aboriginal groups, who are disputing the ownership of Native Title rights for the land and sea around Desperance, (this battle having been going on for longer than white settlement).  The uneasy relationship between indigenous culture and Christianity is also present, with numerous references to biblical stories and themes.

Part of the book’s power is the sheer energy of the narrative voice.  Told in the (increasingly rare?) omniscient narrator, with numerous time loops and disconnected strands, Carpentaria is a force of nature as strong as the Gulf’s winds.  Although in some ways it reminded me of Rodney Hall’s equally wild Miles Franklin-winner Just Relations (my review), there is a sense that the way the story is told could only have been realised by an indigenous author.  It is dripping with symbolism and myth.  Dreams slip into reality and vice-versa.  A particular brand of humour is never far away, either.  Early in the story the town council debate whether to erect a “giant something” in the middle of town, like “the world’s biggest stubby [beer bottle], or the world’s biggest drunk”, or even a giant miner with a pick-axe!

There is a veritable carousel of characters, both indigenous and non-indigenous.  There is the enigmatic Angel Day, once wife of Normal (Norm) Phantom, who left him for the religious zealot Mozzie Fishman, a man with whom the community has an edgy relationship.  Fishman has a strange convoy of followers that comes and goes with him “in a red cloud of mystery”, often spending years at a time away from Desperance, “their convey contin[uing] an ancient religious crusade along the spiritual travelling road of the great ancestor, whose journey continues to span the entire continent and is older than time itself”.  Will Phantom, returned with Fishman after some time way, has been disowned by Norm for reasons that are unclear in the early part of the book but which form part of the backbone of the story.  There is also the mysterious Elias Smith, who arrives from the sea and has a mystical relationship with groper fish.  Elias becomes Norm’s friend, but although the town welcome him at first, he is eventually driven out of the town, returning to the sea in much the same way he came from it, but not before the mining company’s men have their way with him.  Then there are the anglo Uptown folk, like the local cop, Constable Truthful, and the blunt and violent mayor, Bruiser.  There are, for all the obvious factions in Desperance, some peculiar, in some cases disturbing relationships between some of the characters – the exploitive relationship between Truthful and Girlie Normal is a case in point.

The other character in the book is the setting.  A place of maddening winds and humidity so thick it “was a plain old sticky syrup falling through the atmosphere like a curse”, Desperance is seared into my brain.  It’s a country in which “legends and ghosts live side by side”.  It is also the sea, and the magic that lies therein.  When Elias makes his stunning entrance the scene is set thus:

Once upon a time, not even so long ago, while voyaging in the blackest of midnights, a strong sea man, who was a wizard of many oceans, had his memory stolen by thieving sea monsters hissing spindrift and spume as they sped away across the tops of stormy waves grown taller than the trees.

This also gives a sense of the magic realism utilised by Wright.  One of the more lyrical aspects of the story, though small, is the wonderful relationship the local hotelier, Lloydie, has with the mermaid sea spirit who is locked in the wood of the bar behind which he serves (and on which he sleeps at night).  There are also many Dreamtime–magic realism ‘fusion’ moments.  Norm stuffs dead fish and paints them in his workshop, a place in which the spirits of dead people speak to him.  There’s another sublime and moving scene in which Norm returns Elias’s body to the sea, guided by the big gropers with which Elias had a special bond.  And there’s another moving scene set in a cave in which three aboriginal children are laid to rest after being murdered while in police custody.

Most of the characters are deeply flawed.  The indigenous–non-indigenous divide is powerfully realised.  When Constable Truthful threatens Mozzie, for instance, his response is unequivocal:

‘You will die one day,’ the policeman warned, wagging his finger at Mozzie.  ‘You will know,’ Mozzie repeated, with a mocking sputter of spit, a little choking, and then silence.

But problems within the indigenous community are not papered over, either.  There is nothing magical about the three children’s demise.  Abandoned by parents and left to their own devices, they become petrol-sniffing addicts.  It’s a powerful indictment of the social breakdown on all sides which leads to this tragedy in the real world.  In a macabre twist, while the kids are in jail, the Uptowners are more concerned with their hens laying good eggs than why there are three children in custody.

The establishment of the Gurfurrit mine changes the town irrevocably:

Desperance had become a boom town with a more sophisticated outlook now, because it belonged totally to the big mine.  When the mine came along with its big equipment, big ideas, big dollars from the bank – Well!  Why not?  Every bit of Uptown humanity went for it – lock, stock and barrel.  The mine bought off the lot of them, including those dogs over Eastside.  They would be getting their just deserts, Westside told those traitors who ran down to the mine crawling on their stomachs for a job.   

But it’s not just the Eastsiders who go down the mine.  Three of Norm and Angel’s children get jobs there.  The youngest (and brightest), Kevin, is injured in an accident on his first day.  He is brain-damaged, his prospects and life stolen.  (There’s a wonderful moment in which Kevin, before his accident, is complaining of having to write an essay on Tim Winton – the doyen of coastal Australian tales!)  There is the sense that the ancient Dreamtime serpent, living underground, whose journey has been continued by Fishman and by association Will Phantom, has been disturbed by the mine.  Bad things start to occur to the town as soon as the mine opened.  Elias was murdered by the mining company.  Birds are drinking the contaminated water in the tailings dam and giving birth to mutations.  And not content with the land on which the mine itself sits, the company’s representatives are found by Will on other ancestral land that is sacred to the Phantoms.  There is an imbalance that needs to be put right.  Aided and abetted by Fishman’s crew, Will acts against the mine, with tragic consequences.

The book is not without blemishes.  There are some sections, particularly early on, that are overly long.  Also, Wright’s penchant for the oft-used “Well!” strangely seeps into different characters’ dialogue, which makes it sound as though the narrator is speaking.  She also rides roughshod over good grammar.  Pity the poor grammarian trying to make sense of missing commas, commas in wrong places, missing apostrophes and so on!  (There were also several proofreading errors in my copy, such as ‘breathe’ for ‘breath’, ‘too’ for ‘to’, ‘empathise’ for ‘emphasise’, and ‘gasp’ for ‘grasp’.)  I’ve got mixed feelings about the grammar.  The inconsistencies within the text may send some readers around the bend a little.  There are lengthy sections with pristine grammar, then sections that  are rough around the edges, which feel like they could have done with another round of editing.  Although sometimes distracting, and although there were sentences that technically had one meaning when they actually meant something else, there were few if any occasions when I didn’t have the sense of what the meaning should be.  I wonder whether the voice would have been crimped had grammatical conventions been followed to the letter.  I’m not so sure – I think the voice is powerful enough to survive good grammar.  I’d love to hear your views.

Given the story’s desperation, the book’s climactic scenes deliver a welcome catharsis.  There is a rebalancing of the Dreamtime spirits.  Through a cacophony of frogs, the landscape sings itself afresh.  Carpentaria is a powerful story, one that works away at you on many levels.  The mix of Dreamtime, myth, magic and harsh, frontier realism will stay with me for a long time.

I read this as part of Indigenous Literature Week 2012, hosted here by Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers.  Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely muse on her memories of the novel here.

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

2006

Giramondo

519 pages

ISBN: 9781920882174

Source: the local municipal library

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The word that comes to mind when I think about Cole and Utopian Man itself is ‘charming’.  How could you not love an eccentric like Edward Cole, purveyor of books in the magical Cole’s Book Arcade, a man who would rather invest in rainbows than land?  (I might be biased here: I organise my bookshelf as a rainbow based on the colour of book spines!)  I say man rather than character (although he was certainly the latter) because Cole was a real person who lived in Melbourne in the late 1800s-early 1900s.  The aptly titled Utopian Man brings his remarkable life, well, to life.  The title is an apt one for he was more than just a fancier of whimsy; he was a man of some vision.  He railed against the White Australia Act and the racism it sanctioned.  He saw this racism first-hand when pamphlets he had published and distributed in his store came back to him with scorn and sometimes spit.  He was disappointed in his friend Deakin, whom he had known before he became Prime Minister, because Deakin was a supporter of the Act.

We first encounter Edward in a prologue in which he is recuperating after illness in old age:

He instructed the gardener to plant a seventy-foot floral rainbow, a sweeping curve of petunias, marigolds and pansies.  When it was finished, he asked Eddy to construct a series of mirrors, like a periscope, so he could see the coloured flowers from his bed.  

This sets the tone for much of the story, taking in Edward’s troubled past on the goldfields—where he made some money with a Chinese partner, Lucky Cho, whose memory stalks Edward like a ghost—through to his book arcade and the ‘Wonderland’ he creates therein.  Along the way he advertises for a wife in the Herald, which proves a success, and he soon marries Eliza.  They have a bevy of beautiful children.  Their social life is somewhat curtailed, owing to Edward’s preference for the arcade and for family, but they move in the circles of powerful businessmen like Edward’s friend, D’Ama, who is always around to advise on aspects of business.

Trouble looms in the form of a great recession.  Banks and businesses and land speculators go bust.  One of their circle of loose friends, Mr Endicott, shoots himself and forces his wife, Joy, to make money by dubious means, including the running of séances.  Edward ignores the problems with his own business when Ruby, his youngest, dies of scarlet fever.  The pain both Edward and Eliza feel is palpable.  Eliza seeks solace in the séances.  Things get interesting when, during the séance, Joy runs her hand down Edward’s leg when everyone’s eyes are closed and tells him to think about having an affair.  She then inveigles herself into Eliza’s good books and life by claiming that she can see a white bird above Eliza’s head.  This forces Edward into a nice dilemma.  Joy brings some comfort to the shattered Eliza but he doesn’t want her near them because of her offer.  Meanwhile, Edward finds his own way of handling the loss of his child: he talks to her on the rooftop of the arcade.

There is much to like in Edward’s response to things, and the way he forges ahead with plans to expand the many-faceted attractions of the arcade when D’Ama is advising him to get out before things get really bad.  We fear that Edward’s aloofness from the realities of life and business mean that he is heading toward financial ruin.  When he does turn his attention to the running of the business, he is unable to see a different disaster looming for one of his children.

I first came across both Utopian Man and Lisa Lang at a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where she gave a reading and discussed her novel along with the other Vogel contenders of that year.  So reading the actual book gave me a feeling of coming home to something, a pleasant déjà vu.  This sensation was no doubt assisted by a lovely interview with Lisa Lang that Angela Myer did for her blog, Literary Minded, which I saw a few days before reading the book.  (The video is the one half of the first instalment of what will become a series of author interviews.  Go and take a peek here.)    Another reason for my response was the resonances Utopian Man has with Peter Carey’s Illywhacker – a personal favourite of mine in which the protagonist, Herbert Badgery, ends up with this marvellous arcade of animals and other curios in Sydney—an establishment very reminiscent of Cole’s Book Arcade.  (I’d love to know whether Carey knew of Cole when he wrote Illywhacker.)

You might also like to check out Lang’s responses to Lisa Hill’s list of author questions in her ‘Meet an Aussie Author’ series at ANZLitLovers.

I quite enjoyed Utopian Man, a story about an idealist.  Edward Cole is my kind of person.  His prognostication that the White Australia policy would one day fail has come to pass.  In many respects we’ve come a long way since those days; in others we’ve perhaps got a ways to go.  Where are our modern-day Utopian Men and Women?

I’ll leave the last word to Cole, who imparts some sage advice toward the end of the book:

Remember, books are never destinations, they are adventures, so have as many of them as you can.  

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

2010

Text

245 pages

ISBN: 9781742373348

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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There have been many enjoyable reads this year.  The Boat by Nam Le got 2011 off to a great start with a collection of disperse and riveting ‘long’ shorts.  I then had the pleasure of re-visiting two of Peter Carey’s great novels in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.  One of the standouts of the year was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, winner of the Miles Franklin.  I thoroughly enjoyed David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – so clever and absorbing, the way the inter-linkages worked was very impressive.  Then onto another debut novel, this time from an Australian, with Favel Parret’s wonderful Past the Shallows.  There was time for some great classics too, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Later in the year I was thrilled and appalled by Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – what a ride!  And speaking of rides, what a way to end the year with The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño: part road story, part loss of innocence, every part fantastic.  You can find the reviews of any of these by searching or by clicking on the tags at the end of this post.

What were your favourites this year?

As for 2012, I’m not about to go in for any challenges.  I just plan on reading more classics, both old – Anna Karenina – and more recent – Bolaño’s epic 2666.  And I shall keep abreast of some hot-off-the-press works.  Apart from that, I shall go where the wind takes me.

I hope you join me for future musings!

All the best for the new year.

John

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I’ve wanted for some time to read Peter Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) back-to-back with Oscar and Lucinda (1988).  My (distant!) memories of Illywhacker was that it was every bit the classic that O&L turned out to be, but somehow it seems to have been overshadowed by the latter’s Booker Prize-winning success.  An example of this is on the front cover of my old edition where it is pointed out that Illywhacker was written “by the author of Oscar and Lucinda”!

There are some interesting parallels between them.  They both have first person to third person narrative ‘frames’.  I’ve noted with O&L that this seemed illogical, but with Illywhacker the wonderful open silences any similar concern we might have … in this story, anything goes:

My name is Herbert Badgery.  I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity. … I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.  I say that early to set things straight.  Caveat emptor.

What a wonderful open.

The narrative frame works better in Illywhacker for other reasons too: though some of the scenes are a stretch for our first-person narrator, he does have connections and shares correspondence with other characters which makes this ‘reach’ believable.

Illywhacker is a big rollicking picaresque romp covering three generations, with helpings of lyrical ‘hyper-realism’ and a dash or two of magical realism.  There are so many story threads it’s hard to summarise the plot.  Herbert is an early Australian aviator and car seller and dreams of making Australian planes and Australian cars.  He almost secures funding but his scheme to make planes fails and he seems to give up on selling cars because none are Australian.  This notion of industries being sold or owned by Americans and then later Japanese interests rather than being our own is perhaps the central underlying theme of the novel.  When Herbert’s son Charles buys a Holden and proclaims it an Australian car, something his father should be proud of, Herbert can’t contain his anger, saying that Holden is American-owned and that the car is not Australian.

Alloyed to this theme of ownership is the associated question of national identity, how strong it is and how it places us in the wider world.  Much has changed in the past 26 years since the book was first published, though our ‘local’ car industry is still owned by the major international conglomerates.  I wonder what Carey must think of the economic situation in the US now (where he lives), the run-down of the uncompetitive US car manufacturers and the unrelated fact that most of the US government debt is owned by China…

In any event, events spiral out from Herbert’s efforts to secure the funding from a man named Jack McGrath who puts up Herbert in his rambling well-to-do mansion after Herbert crash-lands his plane into a farm next to where Jack and his wife, Molly, and daughter, Phoebe, are picnicking.  Herbert, an inveterate liar and womaniser, eyes off Phoebe as well as her old man’s money, selling him the dream of an Australian aeronautical industry.  Poor Jack dies, possibly of shame when he introduces Herbert to his business associates and the truth begins to unravel.  He comes back to haunt Herbert as a ghost after old Herbert shacks up with spoilt Phoebe.  This is poignant given Herbert and Jack’s earlier conversation where Jack told Herbert he did not favour older men with younger women.  Herbert builds a make-shift home for Phoebe (who he marries, although it turns out he already is!) and Molly out on the mudflats on land he doesn’t own, but it is not enough for Phoebe who, after bearing him two children, takes off with her female lover for Sydney.

And this is just the start of the novel!

We learn of Herbert’s upbringing, how he was taken in and reared by an old Chinese man, named Goon Tse Ying.  Ying teaches Herbert the trick of disappearing.  He warns Herbert not to use it as one of the repercussions of the trick is the making of dragons which bring evil into the world.  Needless to say Herbert uses the trick in order to impress a woman, Leah Goldstein, who becomes his lover.  While the trick impresses Leah it does indeed summon tragedy into Herbert’s life after his children try to imitate him.

Dragons and snakes form a recurring motif throughout.  Herbert’s son Charles becomes expert in the handling of snakes and then all creatures.  This skill is used by Herbert to run scams in country pubs.  It is also a talent which Charles then uses to create ‘The Best Pet Shop in the World’ in an arcade between George and Pitt Streets (reminiscent of our lovely Strand arcade) in Sydney in later years when Herbert is in jail.  Charles makes this into a success with his bare hands, but it transpires that some of the funding for the venture has come from an oil company in the US.  It seems that even pet stores have been sold off to foreign interests!

There is so much to love about this story.  The writing is Carey at his best: the historical details are vivid, the character sketches Dickensian, the descriptions of landscape lyrical.  Take for instance, [p62]:

The line of dwarf yellow cypress pines along Blobell’s Hill was smudged by dull grey cloud and nothing in the landscape was distinct except the particularly clear sound of a crow above the saltpans flying north towards O’Hagen’s.  It sounded like barbed wire.

Leah has a laugh [p209] which is “a tangle like blackberries, sweet, prickly, untidy, uncivilized…”

There are wonderful descriptions of wildlife too, glorious parrots.  (Any story that has king parrots in it is, in my view, a winner.)

And there is this advice on Sydney that Herbert gives Hissao, [p508]:

I showed him, most important of all, the sort of city it was – full of trickery and deception.  If you push against it too hard you will find yourself leaning against empty air.  It is never, for all its brick and concrete, quite substantial and I would not be surprised to wake one morning and find the whole thing gone, with only the grinning facade of Luna Park rising from the blue shimmer of eucalyptus bush.

The plot continues to spiral and I won’t try to describe it any further.  Suffice to say there are shenanigans aplenty when Herbert gets out of jail and comes to Sydney to live with Charles and the menageries of people and pets he has acquired – including his wife, Emma, who decides she’d rather live in a cage.  There is more triumph and tragedy.  There are tales of communists and smuggling.  There are deserved digs at the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’ of the mid 2oth century.  There is Carey touching on aboriginal issues too, albeit briefly.  There is Herbert’s grandson Hissao’s desperate effort to rescue the shop, which he does by securing Japanese funding, turning the pet shop into a bizarre and macabre show of people rather than just pets.  Herbert himself becomes one of the displays.  The selling off of Australia is complete – we begin to sell ourselves.

There are, of course, differences between Illywhacker and O&LO&L’s characterisation is deeper and sharper, more thoughtful – there is a lot of symbolism in Oscar and Lucinda’s characters.  These facets are to be expected in a book that focuses on two people.  Illywhacker spreads time across three generations and multiple wives and lovers.  Back stories are always fleshed out, even for minor characters.  There is a lot more ‘going on’.  But the theme of the selling out of Australian industry to overseas, of demurring to older or more confident nations, of being unsure of ourselves, comes across quite strongly.  There are a lot of characters serving the overall thematic structure.

If it has faults, say its length and its long back-stories to minor characters, they are for me easily overlooked by the richness and joy in such diversions and how Carey ties them together.

In the end you can’t compare apples with oranges.  Oscar and Lucinda is a tragic love story built upon a folly.  There is almost folly here too, but only to show the extremes with which the selling of Australian business to overseas interests is taken, to heighten the deep comic thrust of the narrative – for Illywhacker is a very funny book.  For me, Illywhacker is every bit as good as Oscar and Lucinda.  Rather than being cast in the latter’s shadow, it deserves its own spotlight.  It is a great book, Carey at his exuberant best.  It has kept me silent company all these years and it remains one of my all time favourites.

As an aside, it seems to me that Illywhacker and Steve Toltz’s Booker shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole share the same DNA.  They are both big rambling multi-generational comic tales that shine a light on what it means to be Australian, though each through their own unique lens.  (Their protagonist narrators both spend time in prison too.)  Lovers of one will enjoy the other.  What other books do you see as fitting into this particularly Australian comic story-telling cast?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and/or whether you think Illywhacker stands up to Oscar and Lucinda.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 5/5

Illywhacker by Peter Carey

faber and faber

1985

ISBN: 9780571139491

560 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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This is not the first time I’ve read Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey and I dare say it won’t be the last.  I’ve been on a bit of a historical bent of late, and an American friend of mine, recently arrived into Australia, wanted to read it so I thought, ‘why not?’  Winner of the Booker Prize in 1988, O&L sees Carey at his irrepressible best, writing with such vivaciousness that he is able to transcend the technical limitations he constructs, and provide us with a modern classic in the process.

The story is narrated by the great-grandson of Oscar who occasionally pops up with first person, present-day diversions, but whom we never really know much about.  This ‘frame’ allows Carey some freedom with language and also the details which the narrator uses (such as noting historical facts that occur after the time-period of the story).  However, it creates a problem of logic: the narration slips from 1st person in the present day to the close 3rd person in the past and we have to ask how our narrator could possibly know all these details?  It’s a fascinating authorial choice.  The slip between 1st and 3rd person is very sly, almost unnoticeable, but it is noticeable.  So apart from some minor benefits noted above, why does he do it?  I suspect the main reason, (without giving much away here), arises because of a need to set up the tale of the antecedents of the narrator.  That said, I’m not sure it was necessary for the narrator to be constructed in this way, and it might make it hard for some readers to suspend disbelief.

But enough of technical musings!

Our memorable protagonists, both outsiders, both by turns reserved and wild, are brought together quite late on – they first speak to each other only on page 231.  As the narrator tells us [p225], “In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet.”  Despite this separation, they are tied together by two of the core motifs of the novel: glass, and more particularly their unquenchable thirst for gambling.  These passions are fused together in Oscar and Lucinda’s mad folly to build a glass church for remote Boat Harbour on the Bellinger River in northern NSW – a folly which is sealed with a wager.  It is precisely because of the details with which Carey creates the past that this implausible bargain is made so real, so believable.

Glass appears in the very first paragraph, [p1]: “… the wall which held the sacred glass daguerreotype of my great-grandfather, the Reverend Oscar Hopkins (1841-66).”  Oscar is encased in glass in the very first image, and, as it happens, he is encased in glass at the end too.  It’s a lovely symmetry in a wildly picaresque story.

Not too long after, [p11], we meet Oscar as a boy in a coastal village in Devon England, son to a Christian fundamentalist preacher and accomplished naturalist whose “eyes were fixed, looked straight before him and shamed the devil.”  [p24]  Oscar is re-classifying his button collection, some of which are glass.  The re-ordering of several hundred buttons shows us his obsessive nature, a nature that will ultimately bring him trouble in many ways.

Soon thereafter, [p16], we are introduced to Oscar’s water phobia thus:

Oscar was afraid of the sea.  It smelt of death to him.  When he thought about this ‘death’, it was not as a single thing you could label with a single word.  It was not a discreet entity.  It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass.

This lovely linking of glass and water* lays the groundwork for the final scene.

When we meet Lucinda, in colonial New South Wales, [p77], we hear of her admiration for the Crystal Palace, a large cast-iron and glass exhibition space (originally built in London’s Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, later moved to a suburb south of London, and sadly lost to fire in 1936).  We also hear the story of how, as a girl, her father obtained from England and then exploded for her a Prince Rupert’s drop: a marvellous accident of glass making, at once incredibly strong and, if nipped in just the right place, overly weak, exploding into glass so fine it was like ‘brown sugar’.  Lucinda finds in this event an emotion—wonder—which is described [p134] as “very more-ish.”  Already we sense in her the thrill of such events, the rush that games of chance and gambling will later bring her.

Arriving into Sydney from Parramatta with a large inheritance, Lucinda comes across the Darling Harbour glassworks.  As chance would have it – and there is much of chance in this story – the factory is for sale, so she has to buy it.  Glass, she knows, “is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not solid at all, but a liquid, … and that even while it is as frail as the ice on a Parramatta puddle, it is stronger under compression than Sydney sandstone, … it is invisible, solid, in short a joyous and paradoxical thing, as good as any material to build a life from.”

Meanwhile, back in London, Oscar has eschewed living with his father for the local Anglican priest, the Rev Hugh Stratton.  He decides this by throwing a stone over his shoulder onto a hopscotch ‘court’.  It is a game of chance in, but the pebble keeps landing on ‘α’ – alpha or ‘a’ for Anglican.  Oscar takes it as a sign from God.  He moves out, breaking his father’s heart and perhaps his own in the process.  This tragic quality to Oscar rubs off on pretty much everyone he meets, including the Anglican priest who begs Oscar for his betting system and loses his entire wealth foolishly trying to make it work for him, and then commits the sin of suicide.  Later, when studying in Oxford, Oscar sees the arrival of the rouge Wardley-Fish into his life as another sign from God.  Wardley-Fish takes him to Epsom Downs and introduces him to a world he didn’t know existed: the world of horses and betting.  Oscar sees the light, so-to-speak.  He is hooked and develops an elaborate, obsessively maintained and successful betting system.  His decision to come to New South Wales on missionary work is made with the toss of a coin.  As he leaves, his father presents him with the caul from his birth.  Cauls are said to guard against drowning and were once highly prized good luck charms, particularly amongst sailors.

Oscar’s phobia for water foreshadows his tragic relationship with glass, given glass is a liquid.  So when we hear Lucinda think that it is as good a material to make a life from, we know that, for Oscar, such material is like kryptonite, and is not something he should make a life from.  But whereas Lucinda sees her “proty-type” as a dumpy glass ‘outhouse’, Oscar sees [p380]:

… a tiny church with dust dancing around it like microscopic angels.  … The light shone through its transparent, unadorned skin and cast colours on the distempered office walls as glorious as the stained glass windows of a cathedral. 

The die is cast.

One of the interesting facets of the book’s central relationship is the fact that Carey spends so long keeping our hero and heroine apart.  Apart from glass and gambling, Carey ties them together physically through their wild hair: Oscar’s [p13]: “… red hair, that frizzy nest which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting…”, and Lucinda’s [p80]: “Her hair was reddish brown, more brown than red except here, by the creek, where a mote of light caught her and showed the red lights in a lightly frizzy halo.”  Later, her hair is described as a mass of unruly ‘snakes’.  Whilst Lucinda only talks to Oscar for the first time on p231, she sees him a few pages earlier.  She is returning to Sydney after a trip to London, made for the purpose of finding a husband.  She is walking along the dock, hoping for some company on the voyage, when [201]: “A hansom clipped past … bursting with clergymen, or so it seemed.  She noticed the unusual red hair of one of them, but only in passing…”

This leads to the wonderful image of Oscar’s whole party being hoisted onto the ship by the crane used to load animals after their attempts to get him up the gangplank end in failure.

What follows is a delightfully rendered and very peculiar love story as these two outsiders and loners are brought together, painfully, in characteristically prudish 19th century fashion (heightened even more given Oscar is so religious).

In a wonderfully comic scene, Oscar comes up to the first class cabin of Lucinda to hear her confession, dreading the view out of the large glass windows of first class, crabbing his way to the table where Lucinda had been playing cards with herself.  She is mortified that he will see the cards, which of course he does.  But he shocks her, because, for Oscar, even religion—the strict prism through which he sees the world—is a gamble: [p261]:

‘Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier.  We bet – it is all in Pascal … we bet that there is a God.  We bet our life on it.  …  We must gamble every instant of our allotted span.  We must stake everythingon the unprovable fact of His existence.’

The novel also deals with the thorny issue of colonisation and its effects on the aboriginal population of Australia.  It was one of Carey’s initial themes: he saw an empty church of old Christian stories, having wiped out the old aboriginal stories, now itself being removed from the landscape near Bellingen because of a lack of funds.  Needless to say, the overland expedition, which Oscar’s delivery of the church puts into play, impacts local aboriginals with tragic consequences.

One of the brilliant facets of the book is its overtly visual descriptions.  It teems with life.  Carey has a Dickensian touch when it comes to drawing characters.  Take Wardley-Fish escorting Oscar to Epsom Downs [p109], in his “loud hound’s-tooth jacket with a handkerchief like a fistful of daffodils rammed into a rumpled vase.”  Even the steamer which carries Lucinda to Sydney is alive, [p136]: “The little steamer shuddered, cleared its throat of a clot of smoke, and pushed past the tangle at Market Street.”  Early Sydney is vivid; Lucinda sees the water of Sydney harbour [p136] rippling “with a satanic beauty: mother-of-pearl; spilled oil from a steamer.”  Later, we have the landscape: cockatoos rise off the trees after gunshot like feathers from an exploding pillow.  And there is Oscar sitting in the glass church [p498] as it is towed up the Bellinger River:

The man inside the church waved his hands, gestures which appeared, from the perspective of Marx Hill, to be mysterious, even magical, but which, inside the crystal furnace of the church, had the simple function of repelling the large and frightening insects which had become imprisoned there. 

Oscar is trapped there too, for he is described (relentlessly, repeatedly) throughout as being like a praying mantis.  He’s an insect trapped with all the other insects.  It is a lovely, reasonably subtle link.  Unfortunately for the insects, the church seems to be a hell, for they keep bashing into the ‘nothing’ of the glass.

At other times though, the repetition is odd.  We have the strange situation where images and descriptions are used by both the narrator and then by the characters.  For example, at Epsom Downs, Oscar is described [p117] by the narrator as “such a scarecrow that some ageing Mohawks called out after him.”  Then, the very next page, Wardley-Fish says to him: “You look like a grinning scarecrow.”  How does Carey get away with this mixing between narrator and character’s viewpoint?  Is it merely a perverse effect of the narrator ‘frame’, that our narrator imagines everything?

Some time ago I read a chapter that focussed on Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda in Kate Grenville and Sue Woolf’s book: Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written.  In that highly intriguing study, Carey spoke of his process of writing and what he calls his method of ‘cantilevering’, in which he begins from a place several times, trying to get a little further each time, with each effort a little better realised, “more fully imagined.”  There is a print of one of his first pages where Carey is noting down ideas, the word ‘folly’ keeps appearing, as does ‘deuce’ – meaning both the playing card and also the devil.  Here is the brain-stormer at work.  After the interview, there are some pages of his early drafts, containing ideas, character sketches, and examples of cantilevering.  Interestingly, it is on one of these pages that he himself has typed: [p46]: “HOW IS ALL THIS KNOWN IF IT IS FIRST PERSON.  MAYBE THIRD WOULD BE BETTER.”  Carey also notes in the interview that he has already thought of all the problems that bad reviews point out, and how writing is a form of vocation where you spend a fair amount of time in a state of doubt.  It is a fascinating interview and chapter (and book!) for those of us who like to peer behind the curtain and see how the magician works.  But maybe Carey should have listened to himself on the question of first person vs third?

As the Guardian review and the chapter in Ten Stories will tell you, Carey’s inspiration for the opening of the story – with the fractured relationship between Oscar and his father, Theophilus, comes from Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son.  Every book we read is very much part of a larger conversation; new books ‘speak’ to older ones constantly.  Carey is no stranger to this, of course.  I’ve heard it said that Illywhacker is a re-imagining of The Odyssey, (though I can’t find any references to back that up!); Jack Maggs is inspired by Magwitch from Great Expectations; True History of the Kelly Gang is inspired by Ned Kelly’s ‘Jerilderie Letter’; and his most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, is a re-imagining of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Oscar and Lucinda has its faults – the narrator framework and the repetition.  But do you know what?  I don’t care.  It is a small wonder that Carey can get away with such things and in so doing produce a classic, a book that lives long in the memory, something that will be read decades from now with as much love and affection as it received when it first hit the shelves.  The reason is the care in which he builds his characters and how they in turn breathe life into story.  Some might not like the ending, but for me it’s a worthy Booker winner and member of the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ list.  (It was also shortlisted for ‘The Booker of Bookers’, won by Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.)

Given my slight misgivings I can’t give it 5/5 … but I’d dearly love to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  And what do you think of the movie adaptation with Cate Blanchett and (the excellent) Ralph Fiennes?  Did you like the (much altered!) ending?

For more on Oscar and Lucinda, see the Guardian’s book club excellent discussion led by John Mullen here:

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

faber and faber

1988

ISBN: 9780571153046

516 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

* Spoiler alert: It is not just linking water and glass here – but death too.  This phobia of water that Oscar, also extends to his father who listens to Oscar’s lungs with a stethoscope every morning: [p26]: “They were always clear … but it gave him no peace, for God had told him there was something wrong with the boy.”  Oscar’s lungs might well be clear of water here, but by the end they’re not.  We see on the expedition too, his total abhorrence of water when he refuses to bathe, embarrassed to be naked in front of the other men, but perhaps just as likely, he knows he’s in a life-and-death struggle with water and senses that water will finally win out.  Not even his caul will protect him.  So we have this wonderful linkage: water, glass (which is a liquid), religion, gambling, and death.  Oscar’s fate is sealed right from the start of the novel, he is caught in the glass frame photo, and in the end he drowns, trapped in the glass church.

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What is the price of progress?

It seems the better the book, the slower I read!  This is counterintuitive perhaps, but I like to slow down and really—for want of a better description—gorge on beautiful writing.  I finished Just Relations a few days back but have been so flat out with other things (and other books!) I haven’t had time to write a review.

Just Relations is in many ways a product of its time.  Published in 1982, and winner of the Miles Franklin that year, it is a longish book.  In this regard it reminds me of books published around that time such as Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, and Illywhacker by Peter Carey (a little later, 1985)—and I mean this in terms of length as well as style and quality.  Great books transcend the time they are written in and are always worth going back to.

(Of course in ‘those’ days, there was no internet!  What did people do with their spare time?  They read, (or went to primary school in my case!).  Today, we are in a very interesting time in publishing with everyone’s short attention spans and the rise of e-books.  Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is what it all means for the length of the book.  I’ve heard it said many a time that publishers will not consider publishing manuscripts over 120,000 words, unless the author is established.  But are books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel reversing this trend, or is this a mere speed-bump on the road to shorter and shorter novels?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.  I could also pass comment about the changes in literary awards here, particularly with regard to books that win the Miles Franklin, but I shall desist!)

For lovers of quirky Australian tales with elements of magic realism that are beautifully written, Just Relations will not disappoint.  The by-line of the book is “A tiny, remote Australian community unites to thwart progress.”  It is a good summary of the town of Whitey’s Fall which is built up a strange mountain of gold that looms over the town and its old folk who gather silently in the Mountain Hotel, (the pub), to muse over their ‘religion’ of ‘Remembering’.

The opening scene will tell you much about the flavour of the story.  Into the town arrives Vivien Lang, a young English woman who enters the general store run by the ancient Mrs Brinsmead and presents her with a letter of introduction.  Felicity Brinsmead is old, like most Whitey Fallers and carries with her grotesque sack of hair and a terrible secret.  Vivien is a relation of one of the townsfolk (now living in England), and she is here to claim her relative’s property.  Mrs Brinsmead is excited by the arrival of so young a person in so old a town, and promises herself to introduce the woman to ‘Remembering’.  In the meantime the shopkeeper is having a conversation with the shop itself, who is a very miserable indeed(!)

After Viven’s exit, Billy Swan walks into the shop and asks for half a dozen sticks of gelignite.  This raises a few eyebrows.  The town was built years ago on the gold found in the mountain, and here is someone asking for explosives.  Has he found more gold?  Or has he found the gold but wants to not extract it but to blow it apart so that the town can remain the quiet backwater it is and not be over-run by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the back of the next gold-rush?  Mrs Brinsmead can’t find either gelignite or dynamite.  (It turns out that the ‘Fido’ she constantly calls out to is not the invisible dog that everyone thinks she is (madly) calling after, but her son, who she and her brother keep imprisoned in their house—not wanting to let him be known to the other townsfolk for he represents undeniable progress.  It’s Fido who has hoarded all the explosives.  But for what purpose?)

Billy leaves empty-handed and angry.  He soon meets Vivien and a relationship blossoms between them after they witness the death in a car crash of Mrs Ping who drives off the Mountain road.  And this is just the first one hundred pages or so!

It is impossible to summarise the cast of odd characters that Hall has assembled here.  They are as strange and quirky as the town.  The story is full of comedy, farce, tragedy, and wonderfully unbridled imagination.  There are many harrowing events; it seems Hall has a penchant for the grotesque things that people inflict upon themselves—or situations they wander into without warning.  Mrs Ping’s death is one example.  As is her husband “The Narcissist’s” razor-blade self-harm.

The town has steadfastly ignored the claims—and letters—of the outside world.  Things come to a head when Progress—represented by the new highway being built right through the town—threatens their very way of life.  (This made me think of a question asked of Peter Carey in London at a reading I attended when he was promoting True History of the Kelly Gang.  When asked whether he thought it terrible that the new freeway that skirted Glenrowan meant that people passed by without knowing the town and its history, he replied that ‘no, the people who want to know will take the turn-off’.  This is not quite what the townsfolk of Whitey’s Fall face, indeed quite the opposite, but they are both facets of the same ‘Progress’.)

What with the approach of the highway, what will the explosives in Whitey’s Fall be used for now?  The highway roadworks uncover the gold, but only the townsolf notice.  There is a lot of humour throughout the novel.  In this section we see Senator Halloran attempt to rally support for the road.  He says of the development that is cutting up the land: “Ecology is a web.  This road will make you part of it.”  How very droll!

No wonder Just Relations won the Miles Franklin Award, an award Hall has won twice, and been short-listed a further four times.  That’s a total of six short-listed novels out of the eleven he has written.  (He has also written numerous poetry volumes, non-fiction, and edited several poetry anthologies.)

Strangely, I haven’t read a lot of Hall’s work.  I heard him talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010) where he read from his just published memoir, Popeye Never Told You.  In that reading he described a German bombing raid in WWII.  The prose was sparse, haunting—and perfect for the subject.

In Just Relations, the prose is both lustrous and weighty, a combination that may seem impossible, but Hall achieves it.  I wonder how much the likes of Winton with all his ‘muscularity’ learnt from him?  Whatever the answer, he is, on the face of this book alone, a worthy teacher.

It might not reach the great heights of the works by Rushdie and Carey noted above, and here and there is perhaps a little indulgent—reflective of the time perhaps.  But its imagination is no less exciting.  It exhibits an intriguing range of narrative styles and voices.  It turns out the price of progress can be quite high, yet it also brings love and the promise of a new generation.

Just Relations kept me company for a while, and what good company it was!

Just Relations by Rodney Hall

Penguin

ISBN: 0 14 00.6974 7          [clearly an old ISBN format!]

502 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library

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