Posts Tagged ‘SWF2012’

Bring up the Bodies plunges us once again into the absorbing life and times of Thomas Cromwell, here in the year 1535-6, as he seeks to oust Anne Boleyn and replace her with Henry VIII’s next squeeze, Jane Seymour.  For the most part the sequel is every bit as dazzling as the Booker-winning Wolf Hall.  The characterisation is incredible, the description of setting vivid.  The dialogue exhibits the same delicious humour of its predecessor.  The pacing is perfect.  You really feel as if you’re in the cut and thrust of Tudor England.

Commencing where Wolf Hall left off, Henry and his court are enjoying summer at Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family.  Timid and plain Jane is known to Henry already, but it is here that he sees her in a new light.  Cromwell begins to manoeuvre things to suit the whims of the monarch.

Times are tense.  Henry needs a male heir.  His bastard son, Harry Duke of Richmond, is no good.  The old families are plotting.  Cromwell is busy organising Henry’s affairs as well as those of his own.  He is a great moderniser, something that Mantel discussed in her recent Sydney Writers’ Festival appearance (see my muse on the session here).  He brings a bill to Parliament “to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbours, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist.”  To do this he suggests levying an income tax on the rich.  Henry himself goes to Parliament to argue for the bill but it is defeated.

In contrast, modernising the old monasteries might be what businessmen refer to as ‘low hanging fruit’.  He thinks:

… if the king had the monks’ land, not just a little but the whole of it, he would be three times the man he is now.  … His son Gregory says to him, ‘Sir, they say that if the Abbot of Glastonbury went to bed with the Abbess of Shaftesbury, their offspring would be the richest landowner in England.’ 

‘Very likely,’ he says, ‘though have you seen the Abbess of Shaftesbury?’ 

How droll!

Anne is pregnant and hoping to bear a boy that would secure her position.  While pregnant she is not to be touched by Henry.  So he asks Jane Seymour to be his “good mistress”. … Cromwell thinks:

There is a difference between a mistress and a good mistress: does Jane know that?  The first implies concubinage.  The second, something less immediate: an exchange of tokens, a chaste and languorous admiration, a prolonged courtship … though it can’t be very prolonged, of course, or Anne will have given birth and Jane will have missed her chance.

It’s Jane Rochford, George Boleyn’s suffering wife, who brings Cromwell news he can use against Anne: love letters are being sent to her from the hand of Harry Norris.  Cromwell sees an opportunity to right an old wrong.  In Wolf Hall, four courtiers ridiculed his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, in a play.  Cromwell is single-minded in his pursuit of them.  Conversely, he protects his friends, like Thomas Wyatt, who is also suspected of being a lover of Anne.

Poor Anne, she really doesn’t see the trouble she’s in, even when she knows Cromwell is talking to the Seymours.  She advises him:

‘Make terms with me before my child is born.  Even if it is a girl I will have another.  Henry will never abandon me.  … Since my coronation there is a new England.  It cannot subsist without me.’ 

Not so, madam, he thinks. If need be, I can separate you from history.

The machinations are a joy to behold.  No wonder Mantel, when asked at SWF, admitted that she likes Thomas Cromwell ‘very much’.  He had an ability to get himself out of situations that was incredible, she said.

Maybe, but Henry falls from his horse in a jousting competition and is knocked unconscious.  For two hours he is prone.  Everyone believes him dead.  Cromwell is summoned.  Arguments begin over the future of the monarchy, of the country itself.  History teeters on a knife-edge, so too Cromwell’s future.  This is one of those moments where the use of present tense works a treat.  We see the calculations as they occur; we hear the arguments; we witness Cromwell’s inner deliberations and upset that he didn’t prepare for this.  Take Henry away and he is finished.  The Duke of Norfolk snarls at him, telling him: “By God, I’ve got you now… By God, before the day is over your head will be spiked.”  Henry recovers.  Cromwell breathes again.

There are some sublime passages that follow this event.  When Cromwell’s chief clerk Rafe Sadler, who was brought up like a son, is promoted into the king’s privy chamber, there’s one on the art of being a high courtier, at the end of which, Cromwell thinks:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him.  But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion.  You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

There’s another passage on a dream he has at which he sits down to a feast with all the old families at which the “Boleyns are laid at his hand to be carved”.

There are wonderful exchanges with the Emperor’s ambassador, Eustache Chapuys.  In one of these Cromwell foresees his end when Chapuys says to him: ‘You fear that [Henry] will turn on you.’  Cromwell replies: ‘He will, I suppose.  One day.’

And how’s this for delicious dialogue when Edward Seymour seeks an interview with Cromwell.  Anne has miscarried, opening the door for Jane Seymour.  Cromwell tells him about the plan to seek an annulment, though he doesn’t know on what grounds yet.  Edward says:

‘The Boleyns if they go down will take us with them.  I have heard of serpents that, though they are dying, exude poison through their skins.’

‘Did you ever pick up a snake?’ he asks.  ‘I did once, in Italy.’  He holds out his palms.  ‘I am unmarked.’

It’s beautiful characterisation, perfect for the slippery Cromwell.  Slippery and ruthless.  When, as part of his orchestration of Anne’s downfall, he exacts his revenge on the four courtiers, plus another man who wrote a ballad of their exploits, he tells Rafe:

Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect.  Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle.  Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

True to form, Cromwell brings down Anne and her accused lovers with merciless efficiency.  Those claws of Henry’s could be his own.

For all its brilliance, there are a couple of off-key moments.  The first ten pages are ‘bumpy’.  The narrative voice struggles for traction.  Part of the reason is that we have a bit of re-hashing of who Thomas Cromwell is.  Another part of the reason lies, I think, in the use of the pronoun ‘we’.  It serves to distance the reader when it is trying to give us a role in the proceedings, undermining the closeness of Cromwell’s point of view that is one of the mainstays of both books.  I’d love to hear if anyone else experiences the same reaction.  I know one reader who did.

The second issue is ‘future-hopping’ in present tense.  In her SWF session Mantel commented that she saw the opening scene of Wolf Hall ‘cinematically’, so it seemed natural to use present tense.  It allowed her, she said, to show momentous instants in history as they were happening, to highlight how things might have gone one way or another, how things might have been different.  For me, this aspect of both novels is a huge success.  But: can you ‘jump’ into the future if everything is happening in the present?  Surely it’s a logical impossibility.  For example, there’s this bit of foreshadowing: “The young man gives him a glassy look.  It will be some years before he understands why.”  Some years?  How can he know this?  This is the author ‘speaking’.  If it were past tense, okay.  But in present tense it seems illogical.  Or is it just me?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

One other thing is the narrative gymnastics Mantel has been forced to engage in after some readers found the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall to be confusing.  The result is things like this:

‘And what did the lady say?’ he asks; he, Cromwell. 

Fortunately this is as bad as it gets, but it’s clumsy, which is a shame as the approach in Wolf Hall worked well.  Mantel discussed this issue in her SWF interview as well, explaining how difficult a thing it is to balance the desires of different sets of readers.  I don’t envy her.

The story is too engrossing to care about small ripples like these.  Bring up the Bodies is every bit as entertaining and wonderfully imagined as Wolf Hall.  It’s tighter and in some  ways and more riveting.  The risk inherent in everything Cromwell does pulsates on the page.  A joy.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel


Fouth Estate

407 pages

ISBN: 9780007353583

Source: the local municipal library


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I had planned to wait a while before reading The Sense of an Ending, but Stella Rimington’s appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a discussion entitled ‘But is it a Good Read?’ (see my muse on that session) prompted me to see if it was indeed just that.  Rimington, ex-head of MI5 and now a thriller author in her own right, was chair of the Booker panel of judges in 2011, the year Sense won.  She caused a stir with her comments that the shortlist should focus on books that rated well for their ‘readability’.  Well, didn’t that send the so-called ‘literati’ into a tizz!  Commentators suggested this represented an assault on the Booker Prize, or even on literature itself; Jeanette Winterson wrote a particularly scathing piece in The Guardian.  At the time I was a bit concerned myself.  Rimington suggested in the SWF session that she had chosen the wrong word, that ‘accessible’ was perhaps better.  If it is, it’s only slightly better.  If we chose the Miles Franklin Award based on accessible, then books like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance – both important books – would not have won.  Maybe Rimington et al herded themselves into a corner with their shortlist, making the winner a somewhat obvious choice, but whatever their faults, The Sense of an Ending is a fine novella – readable and accessible, yes, but also ‘literary’.  It might not wow Winterson, who admires literature that challenges and extends her ‘capacity to think and feel’, but it probably wouldn’t have have upset  her terribly, either.

When Tony Webster introduces himself as our first person narrator, he lists six things he remembers, then informs us: “… what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”  We know we have an unreliable narrator.  The six things are all in a sense liquid, be it a sweaty wrist, steam rising from a wet sink, a river, “bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door”, and so on.  These images are a conscious choice by Barnes, used to reflect the fluid nature that his memories now possess as he looks back on his life in old age.  They also hold other clues, a sense of wonder at a river that runs uphill, a sense of change in the steam, a sense of foreboding in what lies behind the locked door.  So we have details that work twice as hard, serving to reflect the thematic tilt of the story to come as well as set up that story.

Tony is thinking back to his youth.  At boarding school, his circle of three friends becomes four when the strikingly original thinker, Adrian, joins the class.  There are some interesting events in this section, such as the discussion in history class about what history is and how it relies on interpretation.  Adrian stuns Tony and the rest of the class, including their teacher, with his assessment, which he ends thus:

That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir?  The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.

Adrian is not just instructing his classmates and teacher, he’s instructing the reader as well.  We’re forced to wonder, what is this history that we are going to read?  How subjective will it be?  And who is responsible for it?

Other questions are raised in this section as well, such as the boys’ thoughts on the suicide of a fellow classmate, an act they concluded was “unphilosophical, self-indulgent, and inartistic: in other words, wrong.”

Adrian raises the suicide in class, much to the horror of his classmates.  He concludes that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

After school, the boys go their separate ways.  Shy Tony says that he has an instinct for self-preservation.  He is atrocious with girls, so it is some surprise to him when he finds himself in a relationship with Veronica.  They aren’t right for each other but Tony is so woefully pathetic he can’t see or do anything about it.  He just goes with the flow of things.  One day the boys re-unite and Tony takes Veronica.  She is charmed by Adrian.  Sometime after Tony and Veronica’s relationship crumbles, she and Adrian get together and write Tony a letter announcing said fact.  Tony first writes a postcard saying all is fine; then he writes a letter.  This letter is just the sort of documentation discussed in their history class.  Tony recalls his version of it – his no-doubt ‘imperfect memory’ of it.  We wonder what the real version was.

Now an old man, he receives a letter from a lawyer announcing that Veronica’s mother has left him five hundred pounds in her will as well as Adrian’s diary.  Only Veronica won’t hand the diary over.  It’s all very strange.  Why did she leave the money to Tony?  Why did she have Adrian’s diary?  Tony wants the diary because it is a form of documentation, something that might illuminate his memory of events that happened so long ago.  Suddenly we find ourselves dealing not with the boring, straight-laced man we thought we were, but someone infinitely more complex.

There are countless wonderful set-ups and pay-offs throughout.  As could be expected in a book of just 150 pages, every detail works hard to earn its place, even the particular flat-handed, horizontal wave that Tony receives from Veronica’s mother as he departs after a weekend is placed very specifically.

There are moments of delicious humour too.  When Tony visits Veronica’s parents’ house for the weekend, he takes the only suitcase he owns.  It’s huge, and he wonders whether they will think he has come to burglarise their home.  We’ve all been through those moments were we ‘meet the parents’ and stay over for a night or two.  It’s never-wracking and strange and Tony is in a dither about everything that happens, about comments made by her brother, about winks shared between family members, about why Veronica doesn’t kiss him goodnight, and about the mysterious breakfast he shares with Veronica’s mother.  And when their relationship ends, he takes a milk jug she’d given him to Oxfam in the hope she would walk past the shop and see it, but when he arrives he finds something she had given him in the window already!

Barnes captures the nuances of ageing with quiet sensitivity.  There’s an intimacy with it that is powerfully affecting.  Tony slowly pieces together the secrets.  Light is shed on those fluid memories we met at the open.  Life is made of moments, moments in which decisions are made that alter not just our own life, but the lives of those close to us as well.  This is something that Mantel made note of at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Sunday, something she wants to capture, those moments in which history could have gone one of many different ways; she does so through a cinematic-like present tense; Barnes does so through the fog of fluid memory.  For Tony, the repercussions of his actions have rippled out in devastating waves of unexpected consequence, forcing him to reconsider everything.

Perfectly formed, weighted, and considered.  That is Julian Barnes’ masterful The Sense of an Ending.  It is a damn good read.

Sue, over at Whispering Gums liked it a lot, too.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes


Jonathan Cape

150 pages

ISBN: 9780224094153

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Thomas Cromwell is back – in Mantel’s new book, Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to the hugely successful Wolf Hall (see my review).  In Bring Up the Bodies, we find Henry VIII ‘seeing’ Jane Seymour for the first time.  Of course, he knew her from her life about the court, but this was the time he saw in her something else.  Cromwell, the master strategist and tactician, has to work out what this means, for Henry, for Anne Boleyn, for himself, for England.

There is no personal record of Cromwell’s life, perhaps because he erased it as he went, perhaps because he was determined to live in the shadows.  But as an author, Mantel was able to read between the lines.  His private life was like ‘the dark side of the moon’ – we know it’s there but we can’t see it.  This is ‘where the novelist operates’, in the world that the historian cannot.  Cathcart quoted  historian Simon Schama who had said he often arrives into a scene only to find his subject disappearing around a corner.  When asked whether she was following Cromwell around the corner, she replied: ‘I’m already around it’!

She spoke about other sources, such as his relationship with Thomas More.  More’s death was not a victory for Cromwell.  More wrote a record of all their conversations, sent to family members from The Tower to be keep safe, and these provide an accurate picture of the relationship and the sort of man Cromwell was.  More thought of Cromwell as a ‘tender friend’, a relationship that is often thought of in a different light.

Mantel described the great modernising that Cromwell undertook, the innovation in public management, such as his introduction of the Births, Deaths and Marriages register, the taking of the bible out of scholar’s hands and putting it into the church, as well as the failed attempt to introduce a job creation scheme which would be funded by income tax.  It is in this sense, the time when England begins to become a nation.  When asked whether she liked him, she grinned and said, ‘Yes, I like him very much.’  Even at his worst.  She marvels at how he gets into situations and is ‘chortling’ as he then slips out of them.  He used ‘empathy as a weapon’, not just a shield.

When asked about how it was that she could bridge the five hundred year gap and get inside the minds of her characters, she said that the past is both strange and familiar.  It was strange in that there ‘were no atheists in those days – everyone was keeping a tally of their sins to judge whether they were destined for heaven or the other place’.  In a very funny line, she said that in those days it was an apt question as to whether the pope was catholic!  There was a sense that if you said or did the wrong thing then that was it – your life was over, which added poignancy to every moment.  On the other hand, the desires of people were the same as ours, their manoeuvrings similar to the ones we see today.  The other thing she made note of which was interesting, was the fact that Wolf Hall had been translated into 30 languages; someone in Korea is making the same cultural leap to read the book, so it’s something that us humans do naturally to some degree.

Mantel expanded on her point about those key moments when she discussed the use of present tense.  She saw scenes unrolling like a film, and wanted to show the possible turning points in conversations as they occurred, those moments in which history could have been different if something else had been said or decided.  In Bring Up the Bodies, one such moment is when Henry is knocked unconscious in a joust.  He was out cold for some time, perhaps two hours.  Cromwell is summoned and on his way to the prone body of the king he is playing in his mind all the ramifications, of who the next monarch might be, of how to engineer outcomes.  When he arrives, the moment is played out in a debate over the future of England.  Anne Boleyn is told the news that the king is dead (another moment) and blames this news for the subsequent miscarriage of a possible heir.

There was an interesting discussion about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall.  ‘He’ is always Cromwell unless Mantel notifies the reader otherwise.  Most readers, myself included, ‘got’ this in the first couple of paragraphs, but there was confusion in the minds of some readers.  The reason for the choice was her ultra close third person.  Because we see everything through his eyes, she found it hard to have him as narrator refer to himself in the third person.  In Bring Up the Bodies, she makes more use of ‘he, Cromwell’, to reduce confusion, but she noted that now some readers have said that the ‘Cromwell’ addition isn’t necessary – so you can’t please everyone.

In describing her writing process, Mantel said she writes in a ‘collage’, writing out different parts of the story, before taking a step back and seeing what she has and what the structure should be.

Has the winning the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall changed her?  ‘Less than you’d think’ was her reply.  She has increased confidence as a writer, but she still has to face the blank screen at the start of each day and those same insecurities are there – ‘you’re only as good as your next sentence’.  Stephen Romei, in another SWF2012 session ‘But is it a Good Read?’, pointed to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as being archetypes of great literature.  I’m very much looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies to experience what will surely be another cracking read, so I can test and savour all those beautiful ‘next sentences’…

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Saturday was wall-to-wall sessions, so apologies for some tardiness on my part, but there’s much to reflect on…

There was no better way to start my marathon Saturday than to sit with Kate Grenville and Ashley Hay to hear Grenville talk about her three colonial era books, The Secret River (see my review), The Lieutenant (see my review), and Sarah Thornhill (which had won the Australian Book Industry Awards gong for General Fiction book of the year on Friday night – my review forthcoming).  Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Grenville’s colonial stories.  Michael Heyward described The Secret River as one of Australia’s most important books in Friday’s ‘Classic’ discussion, which I think, (even given his bias as head of Text Publishing), is spot on.

Hay was a fine choice to conduct the session as she had her own love affair with Dawes – the man Grenville’s Lieutenant Rooke is based on – in her book The Body in the Clouds (see my review).  She asked Kate about landscape in her works.  Grenville said that imagination can work from very little.  The Hawkesbury is similar to the way it would have been at first settlement although the land management practices of the local indigenous population would have seen some differences.  One might have to work a little harder at Dawes Point, where the southern pylons of the harbour bridge now stand.  But even here there are some small footings of Dawes’ original observatory – and ‘you only have to squint and see the water and sky’ … to which Hay suggested she’d have to squint very hard!  But ‘the logic of the landscape is still there’ and the positioning of the observatory so far from the settlement (about a mile), told her much about the character of Dawes.  In this way, any place can tell you things as a writer.  Much of Sarah Thornhill is set in an area near Cessnock in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and she told us how she had driven around the valley’s vineyards trying to find a place that didn’t have vines growing over it so she could start to see this landscape as it would have been.  Ironically, she later described her visit to post Cyclone-Tracy Darwin – in which the world was utterly destroyed with houses turned upside down and cars up trees.  She felt numbness, a ‘limit of mind’, was blind without experience, and couldn’t find the words to describe what she was seeing.  (Me thinks she didn’t squint hard enough!)  But this yearning for making the strange familiar is what the colonial settlers were preoccupied by, choosing names after places from home (New South Wales for instance).

Somehow I’d managed to go for two days at a writers’ festival and not hear a reading!  So it was nice to finally hear a short reading from the start of Sarah Thornhill.  Grenville then relayed a lovely anecdote which I seem to have heard before, about how the voice of illiterate Sarah came to her – a voice that she described as: plain; strong; and being illiterate meant no large words.  She was hiking up a volcano in Auckland and for once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in.  The voice just came to her (cue much laughter about religious experience!) and she wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag.  She brought that paper bag to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested Hay!) and read those drafted lines.  It was a fabulous thing to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being.  Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.

The motivations for the two Thornhill books were discussed.  ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations.  These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on.  What happens when the secret comes out?  That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill.  She explained the family history connections again, which have been well explored in other interviews, describing her interest as something that kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’.  Not surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.

The discussion then moved to the decisions about the divide between black and white.  Thornhill made one choice, Dawes made another.  There was a sense of yin and yang about The Secret River and The Lieutenant.  When asked by an audience member whether women have a better chance of building bridges, Grenville said possibly, though Dawes did pretty well, even though he needed the native girl to come at least as far from the other direction.  She was asked about indigenous Point of View (POV), as she had written an indigenous character in one of her earlier novels, and much like Thomas Keneally (who had done the same in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), would not write from an indigenous POV today.  Part of the reason was that she believed it wrong, another that there are fine indigenous authors such as Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance – see my review), and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria – my review).  (I know this is a sensitive topic and I agree that the indigenous authors we have now can write these stories so, so well, but I find it strange at a more general level that any author should restrict themselves in writing from the POV of another ethnicity because it’s ‘wrong’.  Authors constantly write their way into other ethnicities or socio-economic groups or cultures or histories.  How did Keneally imagine his way into the minds of Jews and Germans for Schindler’s Ark, for instance?  But I digress…)

So why historical fiction?  Grenville said she wasn’t interested in the past per se, more so in the present.  But every book is a coin in the currency of understanding our past, each is necessary and part of a larger conversation.  ‘Fiction and history need to walk hand-in-hand’, a nice riposte to all the brouhaha over the ‘history wars’ that followed publication of The Secret River.

She made a comment which I’ve heard a few times over the course of the last three days, which was that writers ‘create moments of spongy potential’, and that each reader re-creates that book in their own minds based on the person they are.  In this way books become very personal things.

She also commented that the literary establishment needs to be more flexible on the question of genre.  I found this last point interesting, considering Sarah Thornhill seemed to be marketed as ‘woman’s fiction’ – a term I loathe, but one that was echoed by a panellist in a different session I went to, who said she thought the cover of ST looked like a romance.  Why is it that ST put forward for the ‘general’ category at the ABIA?  Why was it marketed thus?  Well, perhaps the new cover for Sarah Thornhill, on the left here, will redress this somewhat.  It’s much more in keeping with the others in this colonial ‘sequence’, don’t you think?

One of the interesting aspects of writers’ festivals is that authors explain their approach to writing.  Grenville described hers as ‘shambolic’!, saying she usually writes 60-70K worth of ‘fragments’ before she sits down to see what she has and makes decisions on structure and plot.  She said it was ‘inefficient’ but worked for her.  What it does mean is there’s a lot left over after she cuts out the fragments that don’t belong.  Many of these have become short-stories, or ‘tributaries’ of the main river of story.  Out of The Secret River came four or five short stories, which I’ll have to find and read at some point, as well as a couple from The Lieutenant, and others.  There was a suggestion from an audience member to roll them into a collection.  Grenville seemed to feel that they didn’t want to fit together like that, but she left the door open.

Finally, the common thread that runs through her work?  ‘Deconstructing stereotypes’, which I though was a lovely way of describing her oeuvre, and as good an end to this muse as I can muster.

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Participants: Dame Stella Rimington, thriller author and Chair of the Man Booker Prize judges in 2011; Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian; Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation; and Chip Rolley, SWF artistic director.

As chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, Dame Stella Rimington caused a bit of a brouhaha when she suggested that the shortlisted books – and thus the eventual winner – should be ‘readable’.  Many saw this as an assault on the prize’s literary status, a ‘dumbing down’ as it were.  Chip Rolley kicked off this session by asking her what she meant.  She responded by saying that perhaps she’d used the wrong word, that maybe ‘accessible’ would have been a better choice.  She didn’t mean to suggest that it need be populist or simple.  Rather, good books should be true to itself, relevant, something that is bought and read rather than bought and put on a shelf, like Ulysses.  There are no guidelines given the Booker judges apart from that the winner should be the ‘best book published in the year’.  In 2011 there were 138 books submitted to the judges, which they have to read in only a few months, owing to the need to select the longlist.  For any reader this is a herculean task.  Publishers are only allowed two books each to submit, although there are other avenues (previous winners and those requested by the judges among them).  So there is a filtering of books at the publisher level, which is why other genres – a term which is an unhelpful wall in the view of James – do not get submitted.

But is accessible a better word?  Slightly, said Romei, though Rolley said Jeanette Winterson, also a SWF attendee this year, who was scathing in her views of Rimington’s ‘readability’ was of the view: ‘what is wrong with difficult?’  She wanted a writer’s language to expand her mind.

James said that all forms of writing when done well have more in common than might be suspected.  He quoted Winston Chruchill’s wonderful speeches (and gave hilarious management-speak versions alongside) as a means of underlying his point.  Great writing can be simple and direct and inclusive.

Romei, a fan of Ulysses and Moby Dick, spoke about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (see my review) and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies (review forthcoming), which stand out as both challenging reads – owing to cast of characters – as well as being cracking reads.  They ‘zip along’ – a reference to one of Rimington’s fellow judge’s comments.

James loves being challenged, but not being bored, to which Rimington said she bought Ulysses and got through the first few pages and found it was not giving her anything back, so on the shelf it went.  Romei said that listening to Ulysses was the ticket, something he likened it to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, another difficult read with many allusions, but which satisfied him because he was the sort of person who liked looking those references up.  (He also highlighted the i-phone/i-pad app of The Wasteland, which will please Sue of Whispering Gums who has highlighted her pleasure with the same app on her blog.)  Part of reading is the learning, said Romei.

Rimington said that a book should be enjoyable.  When asked by an audience member what makes a good story, she said ‘change’ was key.  She talked about Julian Barnes’ Boooker winner, The Sense of an Ending, (my review coming very soon), in which we start with a seemingly boring old man but realise he’s incredibly complex as we move through the story.  James said that there needs to be shape and good characters, as well as what Elizabthe Jolly described as ‘some central mischief’ that animates the story.  He wondered whether literary prizes were somewhat past their best, to which Romei quickly countered that he was against taking ‘stuff’ away from writers, that if anything there should be more of it.

For all of Rimington’s controversial comments, the one thing that was agreed was that the Booker was awarded to a very ‘literary’ novel, something which got lost in the stoush over semantics.  What was interesting to her, was the giant unseen apparatus that survives on generating interest in the award, something that all of us Booker observers love to see.  I mean, what would a Booker shortlist be without some sort of controversy?

While a thoughtful debate, it wasn’t quite as lively as it might have been.  Perhaps we needed Jeanette Winterson on stage too.  Now that would have been interesting!

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I’ll say this up front: if you ever get a chance to see Sebastian Barry reading from one of his books, grab it with both hands.  It’s something you’ll never forget.  He did two readings in this session, one from A Long Long Way, the other from his most recent, On Canaan’s Side.  For each he rose from his chair and stepped to the front of the stage at the Sydney Theatre and gave what could be only described as a performance.  It was like watching a play, with one man performing both narration and the voices of his characters, singing a few lines of song into the bargain.

I was so mesmerised by not just his readings but by his poetic answers and ways of telling anecdotes about his writing that it’s impossible to do them justice in this blog.  But he was charming in a way that perhaps only the Irish can be, describing growing up in County Wicklow with Aunt Annie, and the inspiration for his writing, which uses family members like her to create characters.  He said he ‘wanted to make a box of Aunt Annie’, as it seems he does with so many other people, something to preserve their life, or re-create it in fiction.  Another poignant example of this was his character in The Secret Scriptures (see my review), which was a heart-wrenching story about a family member who had been sectioned and lived decades in a mental institution.  He wanted, he said, to give her back her life in a way.

When you are past fifty years old, you can hear the waterfall toward which we all head, he said.  You’ve seen your grandparents disappear over it, perhaps your parents, and the noise gets louder and louder and it’s up to you to do something.  ‘How to live’ is why he writes.  He wanted to leave something for his children that they might take in rather than the normal parental advice which would, of course, be ignored!

In talking about A Long Long Way and the impacts of war he described how he keeps a letter from a Vietnam veteran in his copy from which he read, in which that man wrote that the war he described in the book was that man’s war.  If we knew what we were sending our children off to when we send them to war we just wouldn’t do it.  History infects generations, Barry said, a theme which Kate Grenville had talked about earlier in the day as well.

I’ll wrap this up with one of his lovely thoughts, that ‘readers were the doctors of writers’.  If that’s the case, then Barry is in ship-shape condition, and long may this be so.

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Another fabulous day by the harbour for Friday at the SWF.  A brief muse on today’s sessions…

I started the day by going to the very interesting session ‘Book Design: The Story from Back to Front’ which celebrated the work of the designers of the books we love, featuring Stephen Banham, Hugh Ford, Melanie Feddersen, and facilitated by Zoe Sadokierski.  I’ll just pick out a couple of short points made…

I think Melanie Feddersen is my kind of book designer.  She related the charming story of how, from an early age, when she bought a new book she would write in it what she did that day and why she had bought that particular book.  Working as a freelance designer, Feddersen talked about her experience developing the design of a YA novel she worked on, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley.  For us fiction lovers, this was particularly interesting.  She explained where she got ideas from, starting with the publisher’s brief, reading the manuscript itself, and taking visual and textual clues from every part of her life.  She showed examples of the early design of the book cover, how a searchlight shining on a girl’s face worked with the book’s mood and themes of teenage ‘searching’.  A design was approved but then she was asked to change it!  The publisher wanted something more to do with graffiti in the cover.  Back to the drawing board – and she came up with the design shown in the photo to the left here – what a fantastic design(!) – working-in the graffiti can and spraying words.  Brilliant!  She then showed international versions of Graffiti Moon’s cover – there was such a wide range if interpretations and designs it often looked like a totally different book.  It’s rare that one design is used in a different territory.

Banham, a graphic designer / typographer, talked about the way everything is changing in design of books.  He explained the way he had approached a recent graphic design book not from the angle of the front-to-back cover design, but from the angle of how the design would appear as an ‘app’ on someone’s smart phone / tablet / web-site.  Increasingly, readers are buying electronic copies and this sense of ‘branding’ is very important, something that can translate across electronic mediums.  Font types are chosen only if they are a web font.

My second session was ‘The Sweep of Narrative’: Elliot Perlman talking about his novel The Street Sweeper, which deals with the holocaust, and race relations in America.  Perlman was very engaging, telling the story of the development of the novel, which commenced with a question that needed answering.  An oral history was recorded post-war Europe with Jewish survivors of the holocaust by psychologist David Boder.  When he had interviewed over 100, he was heard on the voice record he was making (which had a huge historical significance of its own), saying, ‘Who is going to sit in judgement over this [holocaust]?’  There was a pause and then he said, ‘Who is going to stand in judgement over my work?’  Perlman wondered why this man should have any guilt over what he was doing / had done, and knew that the answer to that question would become the subject of his work.  It took him six years to research and write, and he relayed how he hand interviewed hospital janitors, historians at Columbia University, African Americans, and students (now aged 80 or so) of Boder himself – a huge amount of work.  He also met the last living survivor of the group of Jewish prisoners who were tasked under the threat of death with the horrific task of undressing the bodies of Jews gassed in Auschwitz.  This man’s story became a character in the book.  Wonderful anecdotes of a book that has gotten rave reviews and is on my shelf as I type!

The third session of the day was ‘Classic’ – a discussion of Australian literary classics with Kate Grenville, Thomas Keneally, (both featured in Text Publishing’s new ‘Text Classics’ range of books), as well as Geordie Williamson and Text’s Michael Heyward.  First of all, full marks to Text Publishing for producing the Text Classic series http://textclassics.com.au/ , bringing back into print many books that should be read – one of which, Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is on my TBR.

There was a lot of discussion about how some things have changed in the Australian ‘canon’ – the fact that we have one for starters – and perhaps, how some other things might still need changing.  Keneally spoke about early Australian influences being Patrick White (Riders in the Chariot in particular), as well as poets Kenneth Slessor and Douglas Stewart.  He wanted to continue their work, joking about ‘the arrogance of young writers is breathtaking’(!).  He lamented the economic fundamentalism in publishing, how nowadays the poor editor has to not just get the book ready for publication but then get it by the corporate gatekeepers in Sales and Marketing.  As for more recent classics, he pointed to one of my favourites, Peter Carey’s Illwhacker (see my review).

For Grenville, growing up, writers were ‘dead white British males’.  Henry Lawson was as good as it got, though she also read Riders in the Chariot and although she was too young to understand it fully, she knew it was ‘something extraordinary’.  She also loved The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, another in the Text Classics series, as well as Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes – cue much communal love!  She spoke about how we are so ‘prize’ focussed when all books are part of what she likened to a forest ecosystem.  ‘There are giant oaks and there is moss and mushroom’, but every one is part of the system and need each other.

Following on from this wonderful analogy, and perhaps the best thing said in this session, was Geordie Williamson’s approach to thinking about the relationships between books, how the ‘density of the links is our culture’.  What a great summation.  He said we need to clear a cultural space around books – and gave the example of how the classic Careful He Might Hear You, by Sumner Locke Elliot, sold tens of thousands of copies in Germany, but before it won the Miles Franklin in 1963, had only sold 7 copies in Australia!  There was a lot of discussion about the role of improving education both in school and university level.  Geordie Williamson said that undergraduates and postgraduates are not obliged to read actual texts!  But all agreed that there is a real appetite for Australian writing as show in the success of someone like Tim Winton.  A good, fun session… many books added to the TBR – too many to list here!  BTW: Geordie Williamson is writing a book about the Australian canon, to be published later this year, entitled The Burning Library, so stay tuned for that.

That’s it for Day 2.  FYI: Radio National has SWF highlight programmes on both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, plus additional programming across the next three days.

Join the SWF discussion on twitter @: #SWF2012.

Bring on Saturday!


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What a glorious day Sydney put on for the first full day of events at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF).  If there’s a better advert for those of you who are further afield to swing into Sydney mid-May then I’ll eat my hat!

A brief muse on today’s sessions…

Due to overwhelming popularity of the session, I was unable to get into ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ – a discussion of indigenous land use practices before white settlement of Australia.  Here’s hoping there’s a podcast I can download at some stage via the SWF website.

I did get to The Second Time’: where critically acclaimed authors Kirsten Tranter (The Legacy & A Common Loss), Deborah Forster (The Book of Emmett & The Meaning of Grace), and Steven Amsterdam (Things We Didn’t See Coming & What the Family Needed) were chaired by Angela Meyer (Literary Minded) through an engaging and entertaining discussion about the so-called “Second Book Syndrome”.

Part of what’s fascinating about panel discussions like this is the different approaches and experiences that each author has to impart.  Steven Amsterdam spoke about his participation in two writing groups, something Forster and Tranter couldn’t imagine doing!  In writing his second he found a freedom in moving away from writing in the present tense exhibited in his first and found he had more control in writing his second novel, though it needed a lot more editing to get right.

Forster spoke about her stories ‘sneaking up on her’ and how she ‘opened the door to see if they wanted to come in’ – a delightful way of explaining how stories come to life – though she also said that stories were a result of a lot of hard work.  When asked if the response to her first novel influenced the writing of her second, she said she had started it before the first came out so was already on her way; the second story came out of the first one.  She also spoke of her love for The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead.

Tranter relayed her experience of working with the time pressure that her two-book deal imposed on her second book.  She also explained how after writing her first she recognised that books exist differently for each reader and so there’ll always be different reactions to her work, something us bloggers no doubt prove!

A good session – see if you can find a recording of it.

I sat in on ‘Standing on the Outside, Looking In’: another panel on three very different history books, each a category winner in the 2011 NSW Premier’s History Awards: Shane White’s (et al) Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars (winner: General History); Stephen Gapps’ Cabrogal to Fairfield: A History of a Multicultural City (winner: Regional and Community History); and Penny Russell’s Savaged or Civilised? Manners in Colonial Australia (winner Australian History).   Despite the wide subject matters, what was clear was the way in which each had found those characters and specific moments and social interactions which helped to drive the narratives of their works.  There were many interesting facts and people, typified by White’s explanation of so-called ‘Dream Books’ which were bought for 5c in Harlem to help people pick their number for the ‘Numbers’ gambling (essentially pick a number between 1-1000, with odds of 600-1 if you got it right).  These dream books had a number for an event or object that appeared in a dream.  If you had a dream about a murder, then that was number such-and-such; a fire engine, got another number, and so on.  Apparently you can buy these books on e-Bay for between $50-150.

Last, but not least, ‘Spirit of Progress’ with 2008 Miles Franklin winner Steven Carroll, talking with The Age and First Tuesday Book Club’s Jason Steger, about not just his most recent novel Spirit of Progress – a prequel to his ‘Glenroy sequence’ (as he now describes it, as opposed to ‘trilogy’ – but about all his work.  Steger had very thoughtfully handed out a print-out of Sidney Nolan’s painting ‘Woman and Tent’, which features Carroll’s great aunt and also features in his latest novel.  Described as an ‘indomitable’ woman, there’s a sense of something very personal about both the woman in the painting and the one transferred into his fiction.  I could go into a lot of detail about this session, but I’ll just pick out two points: first the book that got Carroll into reading as a young adult: The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a book he reads every two years or so, and one that has not lost its impact on him.  Part of the influence was the sense of key moments in people’s lives, how he likes to slow down the present and show these moments as they occur, and how characters ‘miss the moment’, that is, how they don’t recognise the importance of the present.  The second point is that his next novel will be about TS Eliot – a poet he said he greatly admired, not just for his poetry but for his essays on literary criticism.  One final observation is how important rhythm is in Carroll’s writing – and all good writing for that matter.  (Carroll is running a fiction ‘masterclass’ full day workshop on Friday – how lucky are those aspiring writers?!).  Lisa Hill loved Progress – see her review here.

That’s it for Day 1.  FYI: Radio National has SWF highlight programmes on both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, plus additional programming across the next three days.

Join the SWF discussion on twitter @ #SWF2012.

Bring on Day 2!


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