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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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First and foremost, I have to doff my hat to the cover art of this book.  It is a wonderful design and the iridescent aqua that shimmers as you move the book in your hands is very alluring.  Full marks. 

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautifully lyrical title.  Set in Japan the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the story surrounds a Dutch East India clerk, Jacob de Zoet, who finds himself stationed in the company’s Japanese trading beachhead in Dejima, Nagasaki.  (‘The Thousand Autumns’ is one of the names that Japan is poetically known as, so we effectively have a title that means: ‘The Japan of Jacob de Zoet’.) 

Jacob is a straight-laced nephew of a minister out to prove his worth to his father-in-law-to-be, so that on his return from the Far East he can marry Anna.  He quickly realises he is in a viper’s nest in the small island, named Dejima, that the company trades from in Nagasaki, surrounded by unscrupulous men from all corners, all of whom are on the make.  Foreigners must stay on the island and are forbidden to learn Japanese or smuggle any religious iconography into Japan. 

In the early pages, Mitchell creates a very interesting foundation for the story – the intersection of cultures and religious viewpoints in changing times, with liberal dashes of humour.  Dejima is full of suspicious traders, translators, strange customs, spies and forbidden love. 

Soon after landing, Jacob finds Orito, a Japanese woman with a burn scar on her cheek, who is learning midwifery from a Dutch doctor.  He is instantly attracted to her.  But she is unattainable.  Relationships with Japanese women are forbidden.  The first third of the novel sets up this relationship well.  Jacob frets over his fiancé in Holland, whilst secretly wondering how to show his favour to a woman her cannot have.  He paints her picture on a fan she leaves behind in a ware house and gets the fan back to her.  Even this small act is policed, and it is only when the women tells an officer that, ‘yes, it is my fan’, does the officer not bother to inspect it.  If he had, both of them would have been in a world of trouble.  A dictionary is Jacob’s next gift. 

The writing itself is mixed.  In parts, it is lovely, but in others, many descriptions of the natural environment seem rather neglected—they are cursory and over in less than a line.  For example: “Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting”.  More successful is: (p15) Nagasaki: “wood-grey and mud-brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes.”  

Early on, there are wonderful sprinkles of humour too.  In describing one of the dismissed company chief’s presence at the local brothel on the night one of the trading whare houses burns to the ground and the mystery of where the fire engine was that night, one of the men wonder whether the chief (p11) had taken “the engine to … impress the ladies with the size of his hose”.   And this: (p25) “No need for contracts or such stuff: a gentleman’ll not break his word.  Until later ….”  The wonderful ‘until later’ is said as a goodbye, but in this world of nefarious dealings and untrustworthy colleagues it serves as an ironic warning also. 

The book is dotted with pictures to aid out view of the action.  Dejima is drawn for us, and we get to see Jacob’s drawings of Orito.  The handful of pictures adds to our understanding of this environment. 

There are wonderfully drawn characters, from the wary, powerful, and inaccessible Japanese, to the rough and ready men of the company – including Dutch doctors, Prussians, Irish and English rogues — and a gout suffering captain of the English frigate Phoebus that surprises both the Dutch and Japanese when it sails into Nagasaki harbour later in the story. 

But, but, but: after the promising beginning, we have a rather indulgent middle section — which deals with the fate of Orito after the Powerful Japanese Magistrate Lord Enamoto moves against her after the death of her father, and the efforts on the part of one of the Japanese interpreters, Ogawa Uzaemon, to save her.  This section reads more like a literary hostage story and is quite at odds with the earlier section.  We are taken out of Dejima and Jacob’s world and though we want to know how Orito’s terrible fate is settled, Jacob does not feature and it suffers for it. 

The Thousand Autumns was long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize but did not make it through to the short list.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of his earlier novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas — and, moreover, doesn’t match Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America which did make it through to the shortlist. 

That said, I liked the ending of The Thousand Autumns and am looking forward to Mitchell’s next work and a nod from the Booker judges.     

The Dilettante’s Rating: 3/5

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre

ISBN: 9780340921579

469 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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The Man Booker Prize 2010 shortlist has been announced

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue Room (Picador – Pan Macmillan)

Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Atlantic Books – Grove Atlantic)

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy The Long Song (Headline Review –
Headline Publishing Group)

Tom McCarthy C (Jonathan Cape – Random House)

The list is a bit of a surprise says the Guardian & I’d certainly agree!  (When, though, isn’t it?!).  Christos Tsiolkas’s polarising The Slap didn’t make the cut.  Nor did David Mitchell’s wonderful The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I’m currently reading.  Half-way through and unless the ending is terrible, I’m at a loss as to how it didn’t get through.  It was one of the favourites.  Quite what Mitchell has to do to win the Booker is beyond me.  But that’s literary prizes for you – especially the Booker! 

Once again Peter Carey makes it through!  Were he to win for Parrot and Olivier in America, he would be the first person to win the Booker Prize three times.  I quite enjoyed Parrot, it is definitely a return to form for Carey, but at the time (read before I started this blog), I didn’t think it was quite as good as his previous best works.  Though worthy of a longlisting, I really can’t see how it is better than The Thousand Autumns.

I haven’t read any of the others.  I had planned to read the shortlist, but not sure I’d enjoy all of them.  Of choosing the shortlist from the longlist of 13, Chair of Judges Andrew Motion said: “In doing so, we feel sure we’ve chosen books which demonstrate a rich variety of styles and themes – while in every case providing deep individual pleasures.”  Does that mean the judges deliberately select a range of styles rather than the six best just so that everyone can find something on the shortlist they’ll like?  Who knows.  Apart from the glaring omissions, the list is broad and there are some genuine contenders left…

There has been a mixed reaction to Room by Emma Donoghue, but it is certainly generating much comment.  Lisa @ ANZLitLovers disliked it immensely.  The Guardian newspaper has been more generous in its praise. 

The celebrated experimental novel C by Tom McCarthy is also generating a lot of interest and has been installed as favourite.  This is the kind of novel I’d like to get my hands on… 

What are your thoughts on the shortlist?  Any favourites?  Any favourites that didn’t make it through?

jb @LD!

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Confession time!  Sue over at Whispering Gums rightly took me to task a few months back after she perused my ‘Favourite Reads’ only to find no Dickens.  The reason?  Even more shocking than not having him on my list was the fact that, as I quipped to Sue, the closest I’d come to reading Dickens was the thoroughly enjoyable Jack Maggs by Peter Carey(!)  (Jack Maggs is Carey’s Dickensian homage based around Magwitch—the convict who spooks Pip in the opening pages of Great Expectations.)  Now, my single brush with Dickens is not completely true, for in primary school did put on a musical production of Oliver one year, in which, thankfully, I had only a bit part.

I’m not really sure how my lack of Dickens came to pass, though I had for some years been operating under the (very false) perception that I did not need classic realist tales, so engrossed was I in my favourite magic realist genre.  I am a dilettante after all.  But, as Sue will be glad to hear, I am very fond of Jane Austen!  So it is a little strange that I hadn’t got round to Dickens.  In any case, what can I possibly add to what has already been written on such a great book?

Famous for his characters (and caricatures?), I think one goes in expecting over-the-top characterisations, yet I was very glad to find myself enjoying all the characters that Dickens establishes and defines so well and with such flourish.  It is no wonder his characters are some of the most memorable in literature.  Yet for all of the sense of character, for me Great Expectations is a wonderful illustration of plot and structure.  It is here that Dickens so excels, with an intricate—and yet completely controlled—plot.  Yes, there are some happy co-incidences here and there, but they are easily forgotten.  The three-part ‘stages’ of Pip’s expectations are equal in length and perfectly balanced.  Straight from the off we are introduced to a character who might seem a bit player in the form of the convict Magwitch, to whom Pip offers some food and drink, and yet it is these characters, so expertly stage-managed within the structure of the story, who go onto play very important roles in Pip’s life.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT – FOR ALL THOSE WHO HAVEN”T READ IT (WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR TIME?!):

In each stage we see a very different Pip, from the boy ‘raised by the (Rampaging!) hand’ of his very much older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery, who comes into his ‘great expectation’ of inheritance at the end of the first stage, to the snobbish, ungrateful, devil-may-care Pip, carelessly living beyond his much increased means in London in the middle stage, to the final stage in which he realises the errors of his ways, and begins to redeem himself by admirably assisting his good friend Herbert Pocket.  Along the way he also finds the truth behind his benefactor and his wealth vanishes before he finally comes to rest in a comfortable position.

Great Expectations is a bildungsroman story—i.e., the tracing of a youth growing into adulthood, gathering wisdom along the way, but it has very definite thrills and action sequences.  Set against the highly stratified and rigid class hierarchy of Victorian England, we follow Pip’s internal struggle with his guilt over jumping up the social ladder and the ill-treatment of those he left behind.  The story pretty much has a bit of everything, with the rise and fall of Pip’s wealth, his attaining of wisdom, his finding and losing and finding again of love,  whilst all around him the lives of very rich cast of characters evolve, including the slighted (and simply wonderful) Biddy who finds love, the rise of Magwitch (as a convict done well in our very own Australia, we should be so proud!), the memorable Mr Jaggers, who seems to act as lawyer to just about everyone—and why not?, for he’s seems unbeatable in any argument!—to the deceitful and cloistered Miss Havisham and her adopted and seemingly heartless Estella.  The list goes on.  And in each of them is traced out an arc of growth or retardation.  The book even has two different endings offered(!), with the original and discarded ending offered after the revised, refined, far more enjoyable and, dare I say it, more ‘Hollywood’ ending.

Last, but by no means least, there is the language.  The prose’s exuberance and vitality is so overwhelming it almost threatens at times to be a little too much, but it never is.  Instead, we are totally entranced by Pip’s (very erudite!) narrative of this wondrous and eventful story.  Humour abounds, with wry observations such as ‘one always feels better when one has a lot of stationery’ (how true!), to the more overt: take Trabb’s Boy’s mimicking of the pompous Pip when he returns a gentleman to the village he grew up in, as well as the delightful Mr Pocket lifting himself up by his pulling his own hair.

The evocation of place is another highlight – particularly when that place is either a very old house(!) or anything to do with London.   Early on (p14), we get a taste of Pip’s abilities to describe a scene:

Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.  Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

It is also quite moving at times too, none more so than Magwitch’s death (p436):

‘Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last.  You understand what I say?’

A gentle pressure on my hand.

‘You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.’

A stronger pressure on my hand.

‘She lived and found powerful friends.  She is living now.  She is a lady and very beautiful.  And I love her!’

With a faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it, and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips.  Then he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own hands lying on it.  The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.

Wonderful, and what great use of ‘passing away’ to refer to his gaze and, of course, his life.  I am so very glad I finally got around to reading it.  With thanks to Sue for her rightful prompting, it is left only for me to say: a classic.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Vintage

ISBN: 9780099511571

460 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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The Longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize has been announced.  It’s a wide-ranging and interesting ‘Booker Dozen’, ie: 13 novels. 

Peter Carey gets his expected nod for Parrot and Olivier in America, as does Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap.  There are no first-time novelists.  Interestingly, Ian McEwan’s Solar misses out. 

As ever, the prize is determined by the group of judges assembled each year.  This year’s prize is chaired by Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate, and features some highly qualified judges to assist him.  I think we should see a very exciting shortlist and winner if the longlist is anything to go by.  What price another Carey win?    

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan – Picador)

Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin – Fig Tree)

Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic – Atlantic Books)

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy The Long Song
(Headline Publishing Group – Headline Review)

Tom McCarthy C (Random House – Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  (Hodder & Stoughton – Sceptre)

Lisa Moore February (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin – Hamish Hamilton)

Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic – Tuskar Rock)

Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House – Jonathan Cape)

I usually don’t get excited by longlists, but this one looks very strong.  I’m particularly interested in the wonderfully packaged Skippy Dies by Paul Murray -widely said to be hilarious.  Also, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has had quite good reviews.  But the overwelhming early favourite is The Long Song
by Andrea Levy.  What are your thoughts on the list? 

The D!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D!

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Well, day three down and four more interesting sessions to muse on:

1. Marie Munkara: in conversation with Irina Dunn – A very entertaining chat.  Irina had done her homework and Marie was very engaging.  She also read a few sections from her award winning book Every Secret Thing.  The book recently won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award and also won the David Unaipon (the first published indigenous author and the man on the $50 Australian note) Award for unpublished indigenous authors.  The story centres on the Catholic missionaries in aboriginal communities, and is laced with vibrant humour.  Marie was born on a riverbank of mixed parentage.  She told us how her mother had been “promised” from birth to an aboriginal man (who had multiple wives), but refused to marry her and was sent away with the newborn Marie in shame to Tiwi Islands.  But Marie was separated from her mother when aged three and was raised a Catholic.  Needless to say, the mission clergy don’t get an easy ride in her book!  The book’s second half becomes a lot darker, tracing the demise of the aboriginal community as alcohol is introduced.  Marie talked of how she was then reunited with her mother at the age of 25 – at which point she had to learn all her culture from scratch (and almost re-learn her languages too).  Marie knows many aboriginals who still struggle to find their own place after being raised in the missions.  Fortunately for her, and us, she has found her place, and I went straight to Gleebooks to purchase Every Secret Thing.  Stay tuned for a review. 

2. Peter Carey in Conversation with John Freeman (editor of Granta).  It always interesting hearing Peter Carey talk – as well as read from his novels.  Here he was talking of his recent work Parrot and Olivier in America.  He said he had been asked many times when he was going to write an ‘American’ novel, and had one on the go which he wasn’t enjoying when the idea for True History of the Kelly Gang came to him.  So he dropped the former and went with Kelly – to much success and acclaim of course, winning the Booker Prize for the second time.  It was after this that he began to return to the American theme and what better theme to tackle than Democracy.  The book is based on Alexis De Tocqueville’s travels to America where he wrote Democracy in America amongst two other works.  Carey talked of his horror of the Bush-Chaney Presidency and noted that whilst De Tocqueville’s more affirming viewpoints on democracy are well-known in the US, he was actually quite ambivalent about democracy and saw its ills, noting his worries about the position of the President itself.  Said Carey: “De Tocqueville saw [Sarah] Palin coming.”(!)  There followed a discussion on the relationship between ‘free will’ & ‘free markets’, Carey seeing the ills of the capitalist machine – including its vice-like grip on government.  In writing Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey said he was most concerned with getting the voice of Olivier right – the voice of an aristocratic Frenchman – but in the end he said it was a matter of class, and here he drew on his own experience of the differences between Geelong Grammar – perhaps the finest private school in the country, and certainly home to many of the Australian ‘elite’ (though I shudder to use such a term) – and his upbringing in Bacchus Marsh, an interesting insight into how an author draws on their experience, no matter how oblique, and renders their story from both memory and imagination.  In the end, Carey quite enjoyed writing Olivier.  (The voice of Parrot, he said, was ‘less of a stretch’.)  John Freeman opened the session by stating that he thought the book Carey’s best.  Well, it’s good, but it’s not that good.  Illywhacker, Oscar & Lucinda, and True History are better books in my opinion, and I quite enjoyed Jack Maggs and even his first novel Bliss too.  That said, Parrot and Olivier is a far better book than his recent work, so it was a welcome enjoyment.  Today’s session was interesting, but it lacked something, perhaps John could have done a better job – having enjoyed Irina and Marie’s conversation (see above), this seemed slightly inferior.   

3.  ‘Writing Short’ – Pasha Malla & Steve Amsterdam with Mandy Sayer – a nice session with both authors reading a short story from their collected stories books and discussing with Mandy the short form – though as Pasha noted, it seems difficult to talk about the short story without talking about its big brother – the novel – too!  Mandy made one of the more interesting observations when she posited that people prefer the long stories because they ‘don’t like endings’ – readers love to invest themselves in the company of characters for a time.  That said, with everyone’s attention spans shortening seemingly by the day, perhaps the short story will be the preferred format (until, of course, we can’t cope with that and poetry usurps it!). 

4. ‘A Wombat at My Table’ – Jackie French talking with Geoffrey Lehmann.  Okay, so every now and then I like to go to something completely left-field!  And one thing’s for sure, you cannot come into contact with Jackie French and not be in any doubt as to her passion for wombats.  She has written stories for children, as well as her adult memoir A Year in the Valley.  Geoffrey also read a lovely poem featuring wombats that was published in New Yorker. I came out knowing a lot more about something and had quite a few laughs in the process.  Good fun.

I had wanted to get into ‘Still the Lucky Country’ but you have to line up pretty early for the free events, particularly on the weekend, although I had the same issue on Thursday with one session too.  Oh well, you can’t get to everything.  If anyone was there, let me know how you found it.

What are your SWF highlights?  Let me know!

More to come tomorrow, the final day of SWF2010, including a session on Roberto Bolano which I’m quite looking forward to. 

The D!

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