Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

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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Juliet feels the inexorable pull of Guernsey and these friends as she exchanges letters, laughs and literary loves with the society members.  We also feel her pain at the disappearance of the fearless Elizabeth – a woman she only knows through the second-hand tales of others – who was sent to the mainland and imprisoned after being caught harbouring one of the Todt slave labourers whom the Germans had brought to the islands in order to fortify them.  More and more, Juliet wishes to visit these people that she feels she knows and loves, and at the same time escape the overtures of the glib, rich and suffocating Markham Reynolds.

We are constantly drawn back into the horrors of war; there is always the sense that whilst the war is history, it is not yet over.  Amelia writes to Juliet saying that ‘life does not go on’, rather, “It’s death that goes on”, but she also glimpses ‘small islands of hope’.  And out of the ashes of war come tales of good Germans, such as the doctor, Captain Hellman, who befriends Dawsey and falls in love with Elizabeth.  They have a child, Kit, who now grows up without her parents, but with all the members acting as her guardians.  When Juliet travels to Guernsey, she quickly takes to Kit, and Kit to her, and all of a sudden Juliet sees her life through the prism of her existence on Guernsey rather than her flat in London.

We are obliquely offered the Society’s members’ views on a varied group of literary authors throughout the book: The Bronte sisters, Seneca – a Roman philosopher, Charles Lamb, Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales amongst others.  There is much mirth surrounding the impact these authors and books have on the various members’ lives.  There is also the delightful – and naturally lively – appearance of Oscar Wilde who soothes the broken heart of a young girl on the island after her cat is killed.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is suffused with wit and verve, much in the vein of Jane Austen.  Indeed Juliet’s love interests in the form of the slippery Markham and the strong, silent Dawsey clearly mirror Wickham and Darcy in both name and nature.  It does not shy away from the harsh truths of war and the fate of Elizabeth is keenly felt by all; in this sense – the weaving of light and dark – it escapes being a mere romantic whimsy.  However, much in the way of Pride and Prejudice, we are left with a very happy ending, as befits this charming read.

It is a perfect book club choice, and it also proves the magic of life – for it is Mary Ann Shaffer’s only book, written aged 70, written with the cajoling and encouragement of a group of her friends and writing-group companions, and published only after her death with the final touches of her niece Annie Barrows.  It is a testament to perseverance, joy, the creative spirit, and the encouragement that only the best of family & friends can provide us.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781741758955

265 pages (with Authors’ Acknowledgements and Afterword)

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