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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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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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