Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘SWF2014’

SWF 2014 logoOne of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival was seeing Irishwoman Eimear McBride talk with Geordie Williamson about her stunning, award-winning debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (my review here). The novel was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Prize (previously the Orange Prize for fiction) in 2014 (announced this past week). The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to ‘reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, which gives you an idea of where A Girl is placed.

Geordie asked Eimear to set up their discussion by doing a reading. And what a pleasure it was to hear McBride read from the work that is so stylistically different to pretty much everything you’re likely to read. She read from the opening, which I confess I had to re-read a couple of times before I got what was going on, what with the jagged short sentence structure she employs. And although in my own head the writing quickly came alive, it was another thing to hear it spoken aloud by its creator.

The risk with the experimental style McBride employs, said Williamson, is that it could have fallen into an idiolect that no one understands, a modern companion to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which many regard as a dead-end of high modernism. This is something that McBride avoids. But, asked Williamson, ‘we have to talk about punctuation: what have you got against the comma?!’

The comma is overrated, joked McBride, before she went on to say the use of the full stop shows the reader that something else is going on in the story. It’s an immediate signal. Williamson noted Henry James as a great user of commas, the master of building up tension in a sentence for as long as possible, holding completion at bay. McBride said the truncated sentences match the experience of the unnamed girl narrator.

How did the style develop? She said she spent a long time writing and then, aged twenty-five, she read Joyce’s Ulysses, and everything changed. All the work she had done went into the bin. She felt there is a lot of room left in the modernist tradition to plumb. Proper sentences don’t necessarily allow us to show all of human experience.

Williamson said Irish writers typically choose between Joyce and Beckett as their inspiration, but McBride said she didn’t see the difference between the two. Language is key for both of them. Williamson mentioned another possible influencer, likening short sentences to the ultimate ‘bloke’: Ernest Hemingway. Did McBride consider choice of gender and flip it? She said, you’re not conscious of gender as a writer. You ‘don’t write as a woman’.

The discussion then went into the area of plot, the story being about the relationship between a girl and her mentally challenged brother in a close Irish Catholic community as she comes of age. In many ways, noted Williamson, this is the traditional Irish story. It was, said McBride, a horror to me that that was the story I was going to write. She did not set out to write that story, but that was what she found.

McBride spoke briefly about her upbringing. Born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents, she moved to the west coast of Ireland when she was two. She went to convent school with all the associated bad nun experiences. At seventeen she moved to London to go to drama school as a means of escaping all of it, thinking she’d never go back to Ireland. And when she did go back she found out she had been right to think she should have never gone back!

The conversation returned to Beckett and Joyce, the two giants of Irish literature who cast very long shadows. It seems you have to get them out of your system to be an Irish writer. Another influence McBride noted was renowned Irish author Edna O’Brien. Experimenting is not done with yet, said McBride. Finnegan’s Wake scared people into moving back towards realism. But there’s an appetite in readers for brave and different books. Readers are adventurous, she said, something publishers forget. She described the nine year wait from finishing the manuscript before she found a publisher to take the book on, arguing that the increasing commercialisation of publishing houses has played a detrimental part in cutting down variety. To be a writer and a reader, she said, is to be an adventurer, a point that was welcomed with applause from the audience. Here, here, I say.

It took her six months to write three drafts in 2004, and then sent it out to publishers. Some said it was brave, and of good quality, but they couldn’t see the market for it. This went on for four years before she gave up and put it in a draw. It was a series of fortunate connections she made in Norwich that led to the manuscript getting to a brand new publisher run by people who admitted they knew very little about publishing, and even then it took a while for it to come together. Kudos to Galley Beggar Press in Norwich for picking it up; (it’s published by Text Publishing in Australia). It was reviewed positively in the Times Literary Supplement in London, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What next? Her novel in development is an evolution of the style featured in A Girl. She is most interested in indescribable human emotion. Success does not make writing any easier or harder.

In response to questions, McBride detailed the writing process for A Girl as being one more of addition that subtracting through editing. She has a goal of 1000 words a day, and starts each day by reading the previous day’s work, something Peter Carey and many other authors do too. She then picks up at the most interesting sentence and continues on. She constantly asked herself whether a reader would understand what was going on, and she knew she was asking a lot of the reader. She read it aloud a lot, particularly in the second and third drafts. The darker parts were difficult to write emotionally, but ‘you need to give of yourself, a drop of your blood’.

She said she may well do an audio book version herself, which was greeted with applause, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else being able to read it like McBride does. And Geordie Williamson, who had made an earlier reference to a well-known curmudgeonly reviewer and his praise in the London Review of Books, said the final line of his review was ‘the nicest thing he has ever written’, which gives you a measure of the status of this gem of a novel. What was his line? Wondering about McBride’s ability to back up A Girl and create a new style for a new story, he wrote: “That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous.”

A great session. A treat to savour.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

SWF 2014 logoI am a dilly-dallier aren’t I? I’m still catching up on my SWF posts. Apologies for the delay, but sometimes life gets in the way.

On SWF Friday I went to a panel session entitled ‘Judging Women’, sponsored by the Stella Prize. Chaired by Aviva Tuffield, Executor Director of the Stella Prize; Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries (my review here); Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her non-fiction history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see Lisa’s review at ANZ Litlovers); and Tony Birch, one of the Stella Prize’s judges, historian and novelist, who was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for his novel Blood.

Tuffield opened the session with a history of why the Stella Prize was created, listing the statistics in key areas which indicates the bias shown toward male authors: the way males dominated literary award shortlists and winner-lists (both in the Miles Franklin (the much publicised ‘sausage fest’ year was noted) and also in State Premier’s Awards, as well as overseas awards such as the Booker Prize; the bias toward male authors in reviews in literary journals and newspapers; and the higher proportion of male reviewers of said works. Women writers are also under-represented in school reading lists. The statistics on the Booker Prize are worth highlighting, with men accounting for circa 90% of shortlist nominees. Hence the setting up of the Stella Prize. Tuffield noted wryly that in the two years after the creation of the Stella Prize, two women have won the Miles Franklin, and she noted the all-women shortlist of last year. Coincidence? She suspects not.

Opening up the discussion to the panel, Tuffield asked Catton about the furore she created in the wake of winning the Booker when in an interview she said male authors get asked what they think, whereas female authors get asked what they feel. Catton said her experience was that it was not men ‘keeping women down’, and most often the stereotyping interview questions she was asked came from women. To her, feminism is being aware of the statistics. And being self-aware, too, because she went on to note that she had to catch herself sometimes, for when she thought about philosophers she always pictured or thought of men rather than women, as if men were the only ones capable of being thinkers. So we’re all complicit in the way women are thought of, but, she felt, ‘feminism goes wrong in laying blame’.

There was a huge difference, Catton said, between sexism and misogyny. She believes there is sexism in the publishing industry, but not misogyny. She felt there is a problematic expectation that as a woman author her writing must speak to feminist issues. Briefly outlining the way her novel is structured around twelve men who represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, she noted that had sheused twelve women the story would have been about women; using men allowed the story to be about other things, such as astrology and determination.

Tuffield turned to Wright who, when she announced to her male academic colleagues she was going to write a book about the Eureka Stockade, they said ‘what can you possibly add to the story?’ It had been done, they said. Unless she could unearth new primary sources, the subject had been exhausted. Her approach was to go back to the same archives with different questions. As a result, she came back with different answers. Women were in the records, they just hadn’t been written about before. Indeed, the book took ten years to write not because she was off searching for needles in the haystack, but because there was so much material.

Wright made fun of the fact that she is rarely asked what she feels – perhaps, she said, academics don’t have feelings?! But she is asked about gender often.

Her book is about democracy, one of the ‘big’ topics. She talked about previous experience in trying to make the documentary Utopia Girls, learning that you cannot pitch to broadcasters that you want to make a doco about women: you have to say the doco is about ‘a great Australian story’. That is the approach that opens doors.

She went on to talk about the presentation of her book in bookstores, particularly in airports, with her off-handed social media comment about tables in airport bookstores being ‘dick tables’. She would go and re-arrange the books in the stores so hers, which was usually buried somewhere in the back, had more prominence! Now, after winning the Stella Prize, her book was front and centre, so the prize is definitely working.

Tuffield noted the reaction to the second year of the prize was much different than the first. In the first year it was all about the gender question. This year the focus was on great books. This was a great time to bring Birch into the discussion. He outlined the very deliberate and considered approach to judging that chair of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, demanded. He said she had scheduled a full day for the final discussion of the shortlist in the choosing of the winner. Birch said he had judged other prizes but none had the same passion in organisation that the Stella Prize has.  As a result, he himself felt even more committed to the process.

Birch made the comment that the body of work read this year – 160 books! – was more complex and enlightening that he had read before. Echoing Tuffield’s need for the prize, he gave his own experience, recalling the time he had read a tiny review of Meme McDonald’s Love Like Water, which he considers a great Australian novel, and next to it was a huge two-page spread on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is all about the tragedy of male premature ejaculation!

He felt women give more to their work, and young aspiring female writers need more role models, especially as women don’t put themselves forward in the same way men do. Catton echoed the need for role models, underlining the importance of the confidence to take risks as a writer. And having read The Luminaries, and heard Catton talk about that book in another session at SWF, it is clear she does not lack in confidence (in a good way).

Tuffield asked Birch what it was like to judge fiction versus non-fiction. Was it challenging? Not in a negative sense, no, he said. Birch himself has been a historian, as well as a fiction writer, so he quite enjoyed reading across genres and forms. The judges never judged one genre against the other. It was all about the quality of the work. Someone had come up to him this year and said a non-fiction work would have to win because fiction won in the first year, but there was never any question of that. The three criterions used in judging were: originality, engagement, and excellence.

I must admit it did make me wonder: if the Stella Prize had the funds to award both a fiction and a non-fiction prize, would they do so? On the evidence of this discussion, they would not.

Tuffield noted the coincidental links between Catton and Wright’s works: 19th Century goldfields. Catton said she read a lot of 19th Century literature in preparation for writing The Luminaries, including a period in which she read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, and Portrait of a Lady in succession, all novels that end in much the same way. It was both a great and heart-wrenching period, and she asked herself why women protagonists had to die at the end of such great works. She suspected it was because in those days the notion of women with eyes wide open was too threatening for society. She was, as a result, conscious when in writing a book in that style, to have women end in a position of some power, although Wright picked Catton up on the type of characters Catton chose for her women: a prostitute and a madam, arguing that in the goldfields women were a much more varied lot than these two stereotypes(!)

Overall, a very interesting discussion. Yes, it was run by the Stella Prize and tilted towards its message, but it’s a good message. A little rebalancing in those statistics is a good thing. Each on the panel had something important to add to the question of how we judge women authors. My own view is that much of the exciting writing in fiction right is coming from women. Eleanor Catton is one, to whom you can add Eimear McBride (thoughts on her SWF session coming soon), Jennifer Egan, and our own Alexis Wright. They are experimenting with all manner of things: form, style, genre, myth. (And before you jump on me, yes there are many others, and yes there are exciting male writers doing experimenting too, like Knausgard (a 2013 SWF guest) and Houellebecq, et al. To start a list like this is always doom to failure! The point is women deserve their place in our literary consciousness.

I was going to publish reflections on Alexis Wright in discussion with Geordie Williamson, but you can listen to the full podcast here.

Read Full Post »

SWF 2014 logoI’m catching up with my SWF posts, starting with the one and only Alex Miller…

Poor Ashley Hay: expressing sympathy for Miller’s publisher Allen and Unwin, who no doubt wanted Miller to speak about Coal Creek (my review here) as much as she did(!), she opened up this session by announcing Miller had told her Coal Creek would be his last novel. When she asked him why he had made this decision, he began the first of several long and lovely stories…

We novelists have no idea what we’re doing, he said. Going on to echo Richard Flanagan’s similar thoughts, Miller said readers are the ones who tell you what you’ve done. He recently visited a women’s prison, where he spoke to a group of women – many inside for hardened crimes – who had formed a book club. He went to speak about Coal Creek. Many had read several (or all) of his novels, and one women said she had noted a powerful recurring theme in his work: the influence of the absent mother. Miller acknowledged that while this absence is true in the life of Bobby Blue, the hero of Coal Creek, Miller had no idea it was something his other novels had also addressed.

He went on to tell them about his earliest memory, of being 18 months old and whisked off to a children’s home in a taxi because his mum was about to give birth to his sister. His father was working so there was no one to look after Alex. He was in the home for one week or so, and it had obviously had a much larger impact on him that he could have imagined possible.

As he told the women this recollection he realised he was speaking with a group of absent mothers, and it hit him that their children were without their mother, for several years in some cases, and while he had lost his own mum for a week – and to an 18-month old that seemed forever – these mums were in a real sense absent from their children forever.

The women felt he had encapsulated an inner truth, that ‘a lifetime isn’t long enough to get over some things’. One asked him, ‘will I ever get over this (incarceration)?’ He realised she was asking him for a very considered response. ‘No,’ he told her, ‘but I believe you will transcend it.’

When he left the prison he thought about truth, how you write it. Suddenly it hit him, and he became quite emotional in the car, saying to himself ‘you’ve never thought about liberty, have you?’ It was, he said, time to be afraid of things again, to take on a new challenge. He started in that same moment: by deliberately taking the wrong road home, because ‘sometimes the wrong road is the right f**king road’. It was golden autumn evening, beautiful light falling through the gums that lined this unknown road. It was, he said, exhilarating. Even a dead fox on the road was a thing of beauty. He was enjoying the gift of freedom that these women had given him. He drove on knowing what he had to do, paying the women’s kindness to him forward – or perhaps backwards a little, for he now wants to pay tribute to those who have helped him throughout his life, such as his close friend Max Blatt. Friendship is an important part of his work, as is autobiographical details, but he decided to go in this new direction and highlight it further.

He then continued to subvert his publisher’s wishes(!) by recounting a rollicking story about his roller skating youth in London, which involved him trading his prized pair of roller skates for a book called Billy Bunter’s Omnibus. It was the most important book of his life, he said, and even though his family had scraped together the money to buy him those skates that he subsequently gave away, he impressed his father in the process, and a life-long love of books was founded. (This was in response to a question by Hay on the power of reading, and how reading affects Bobby Blue in Coal Creek!)

Landscape was also highlighted. The Stone Country is a place he cannot leave behind, he said. Taking glorious delight in his publishers’ angst, he finally referenced Coal Creek by saying it had taken him all of ten weeks to write, after which it was done. There was no research. It just spilled out of him. During those short weeks he felt as though he was under Bobby’s spell…. just as we, the audience, was under Miller’s during this very funny and moving session.

More from SWF2014 in the coming days…

Read Full Post »

SWF 2014 logoOne of our wisest writers, Richard Flanagan is quite simply a national treasure. It was a thrill to hear him speak last night about his acclaimed The Narrow Road to the Deep North (my review here). He was always quoting from authors in a way that illuminated his own work. And he was very funny – you’ll have to listen to the podcast for his hilarious anecdotes about the French translation of a ‘brick shit house’ from an earlier work, and his promotional trip to the US after Death of a River Guide was finally published there.

He opened by a reading, chosen by Gale, of the traumatic surgery scene in which Dorrigo Evans tries to cut away some more of a gangrenous leg in the blood-soaked mud of the Line’s jungle. How did he capture such visceral details, asked Gale. Flanagan spoke about how the writer’s role is to communicate the incommunicable, both the ecstasies and horrors in life. Truth exists in details, and he would often ask his father, one of Weary Dunlop’s ‘one thousand’ men, about the small details, such as how the limestone cut feet – what it felt like on the skin – and what colour the rice was and how it tasted. These telling details are truths that build such visceral accuracy.

He went on to say the meaning is only ascribed to events and details) after they occur. It is the role of literature to point but not tell the reader how to experience a novel. Readers, he said, are far more creative than writers. They often carry novels in ways the author cannot. And it is the reader who is best placed to tell the author what the story is about.

It mattered to him to incorporate the Japanese experience in the novel. He said he would have considered it a failure had he not done so. Guilt is more abstract than shame. The Japanese may not have felt guilt, although some said they did and do, but some did feel shame. He spoke of meeting guards who had maltreated his father, how they said to say sorry to him. When he returned from this trip to Japan and told his father this, his father forgot that same day all his horrible experiences in the POW camps.

How did the POW experience change his father, Gale asked. Over time, before this event of forgetting, his father’s memory slowly distilled his experience into love rather than the darker alternative, and his memory of his father’s mates who had gone through the same experience was much the same, although he did acknowledge some POWs came home and were violent in their homes.

The story was as much about love in all its forms as it was about war. It had to be thus, Flanagan said. Love exists beyond reason, and when asked whether his novel left some questions unanswered, he said it would be a terrible book it if answered any questions.

Giving us a glimpse into the journey of writing any book, Flanagan said novels are ‘a cracked diary of your soul for the years you write them’, and he mentioned Flaubert’s famous ‘Madame Bovary cest moi!’ quote. Dorrigo Evans is me, he said. Novels surprise you as much as you hope they do readers.

He is nearly finished two further novels, after explaining how delivering the manuscript to his publishers (on the day his father died) has lifted a huge weight off him – the words are flooding out, and he’s writing in a way he never has before. The two future works? One about the true move to annex a large part of Tasmania for Palastine in the twentieth century, and a novel about John Friedrich, one of Australia’s infamous fraudsters. Again, you’ll need to listen to the podcast when it is posted to enjoy fully the hilarity of Flanagan’s angle on these stories.

He did three readings in total, his last one taken from near the end of the novel when the Line is swallowed by jungle. I was disappointed Gale did not ask him about the poetry that is central to both Dorrigo and the Japanese. But there was poetry in everything Flanagan said, about writing, war, love, the human condition, about memory and forgetting. He felt the Japanese were no different to the English who staked Aboriginal heads outside their tents in Tasmania. The seeds of their actions were sowed decades before, when the Imperialist dream warped the behaviour of ordinary people. It is sadly, he said, born of a view that some humans are less human than ‘we’ are, and made a moving rebuke of the way Australia has been stained by a similar insensibility toward asylum seekers. How true, and how sad. But there is a swathe of us who would do it differently, and it falls to us to make our voices heard and force change.

We have other things to look forward to as well: those two future novels for starters.

I encourage you to listen to the recording when it becomes available.

Read Full Post »

SWF 2014 logoIt’s ‘thinking season’, as the SWF advert reminds us, and there was much thinking going on today at the six(!) sessions I got to.

Earlier this evening I had the pleasure of listening to the very erudite, engaging and funny Eleanor Catton speak with Steven Gale about her Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries (my review here). Catton opened by talking about the delivery of the manuscript, some two years late!, to Granta, her publisher. It wasn’t until she wrote the final scene, which appears near the end of the novel, that she could see the whole picture of the structure coming together. The next day she felt as though she had shed twenty kilos (I know what you’re thinking: that MS probably weighted that much!). For a brief time she did not experience her fear of her own mortality, though she reassured us this fear has since returned(!).

Looking back on the person who wrote the novel now, she said, is a confronting thing, although she’s still ‘on-side’ with The Luminaries. She sees a different person when reading back passages now, and wonders how confronting thinking of these early works will be years down the track. Her first novel, The Rehearsal is for her very confronting because she was so raw (ie, young), when she wrote it.

Asked about her connection to the west coast of NZ where the novel is set, she said she has had family living near Hokitika and relayed a very humorous story of a family cycling trip she made when she was 14 to that region. Cycling over high passes is hard yakka, and this hardship makes you connect to landscape in a much stronger way than if you were passing through it in a car. That is one of the things she likes most about New Zealand: the best views you can’t see from the road. It was on this trip as a 14-year old that she first had the idea of writing a mystery set in the goldfields. It was telling that she mentioned here that it was pleasing looking back from the age of 28, because 14 is half her current age, and that was mathematically pleasing. Anyone who has read the novel will understand the waning structure and how each section is half the preceding one. So when she sat down to write the story, it was the landscape and the township of Hokitika, so beautifully depicted, that came to her first.

In speaking to the question of authenticity in the voices of the Maori and Chinese characters she admitted one of the inventions she made was in using Chinese, who in real life arrived a few years after the story is set. She found the device of using the opium as a tool to set up disappearances and altered states of mind too attractive, so included the Chinese characters.

She spoke at length about the zodiac ‘conceit’ of the novel, as well as its construction, saying she had asked herself ‘wouldn’t it be cool if she could write Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in reverse, starting with the twelve characters, and later made the point that she thought of the novel as a coming together of 19th Century fiction with 20th Century crime fiction, or, put another way, the coming together of Murder on the Orient Express with The Brother’s Karamazov.

People have discussed the archetypal characters of the story, given they are governed by the stars. Was this limiting? No, Catton said. She gave the example of how Gemini is associated with communication, and so she assigned her Gemini character with the role of the local newspaper publisher. There’s a huge difference between archetypes and stereotypes, she said. Archetypes are shadowy, and take many forms, while stereotypes are one form only. So writing archetypes was actually liberating, making the point also that she liked to paint herself into a corner with the story to force herself to find the most creative solution.

The idea of ‘relationality’ appealed to her: how people change depending on their surroundings, including how a person can be altered by the people around them, how people bring out in the worst in some people, but the best in others. The question of will versus fate was a key underlying question for Catton, and she sees paradoxes in both. It was also important to use the theme of fortunes being made on the gold fields given the fortune telling connotations of astrology. And she noted the importance in drama of what Aristotle highlighted in his Poetics: reversals and discoveries, how they are the most important things in ‘story’.

Gale asked her about the use of 19th Century language, and she made the humorous observation that she started out ‘all excited’ with using it and used less of it as she went along (she had earlier made the extraordinary point that she doesn’t redraft). She immersed herself in 19th Century literature, marking out sentences and dialogue and turns of phrase, which she then re-read over and over until they seeped into her writing organically. She read for one and a half years, and then spent six months finding the opening sentence(!): trying to get the right ‘voice’. Fortunately, she said, laughing, the process sped up from there. Influences included a long list of authors, including Dostoyevsky, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, ‘some’ Dickens, and then a host of crime authors. Otherwise, her reading is very eclectic, and finds her story ideas come to her mainly from non-fiction. Overall, she wanted to write an antipodean Victorian novel.

Her writing process is fascinating. She works a full day, getting up and setting herself a target and trying to get on with it, though often finds her frustrations due to a perceived lack of progress crucial fuel for a final hour of productivity. She’s a great believer in the notion that an author can start a story too soon; it’s important to know your story before you being, she said. After dinner she reads her day’s output aloud, including to her partner (who is a poet). Reading it aloud enables you to catch many things that would slip through. When asked about Dostoyevsky’s view that the artistic ambition is about suffering, she said yes, it is, because until a work is done it is a failure. (She also made the observation that Dostoyevsky was a Scorpio, so it stood to reason he would say such a thing!)

There were many other insights into craft, Hokitika, the zodiac, and so on. What I, and I’m sure most, in the audience came away with is the view that Eleanor Catton is a hugely impressive talent, mature way beyond her years. She is confident, collected, warm, thoughtful and very funny. And there is also a hint in her method of working of the burning desire that must fire in the soul of any writer tackling such ambitious works. I suggest you listen to the podcast when it goes up, to hear some very funny anecdotes, including an intense debate Catton had with friends in a bar about whether mercy or justice was more important (in response to a question on the Briggs-Myers personality test). In short, they each found the other’s answer to be couched in their own viewpoint of what mercy and justice meant, but they had to have the at-times tearful debate, which ended in the gutter after the bar closed, to realise their positions where mirrors. But they could only get to this realisation by having the debate. It was clearly thinking season that day!

A fascinating session. I’ll definitely be checking out Catton’s The Rehearsal soon, and can’t wait to see what she does next.

More from the festival over the coming days…

 

 

Read Full Post »

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard FlanaganRichard Flanagan’s powerful The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in many ways an immense achievement. It took some twelve years to write, during which time he tried a number of different forms for the story, realising each time he had failed, before he settled on the one that appears in the published novel. It was a very personal journey, because his father was one of Weary Dunlop’s POWs on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. For Flanagan, this was a book he always knew he would write. It was the advancing age of his father that finally got it finished; his father survived the war (as well as the cholera he had during his internment), passing away at the age of nearly 99 just after Flanagan had told him he had given the manuscript to his publishers. That this man passed with such poetic timing should perhaps come as no surprise because poetry is one of the foundation stones upon which this fine novel is built.

The title of the novel is the same as haiku master Basho’s epic haibun, and each of the five sections of chapters is proceeded by an epigrammatic haiku that reflects the chapters to come. And those chapters are the prose equivalent of haiku, compact things that generally run for no more than four or so pages, many shorter. Like haiku, they contain multitudes of understanding, depicting human nature at its most loving, needy, compassionate and diabolical.

The story centres on the deeply flawed but magnetic Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon, although it fans out to encompass the experiences of other captives as well as their captors, both during their time building ‘the Line’ and after the war. I suspect another author would have told the story of the many solely through one central character’s experience, but Flanagan chooses to branch out beyond the story of Dorrigo. Some readers might find this a little discombobulating, others will appreciate the linking of disparate lives on both sides of the war with the themes of poetry, survival, and what it means to love.

The story opens with Dorrigo as a boy, growing up in Tasmania, his earliest memory of a light-filled church hall. Already we have hints of salvation and its twin: suffering. We also have poetry, for Dorrigo grows up as a bookish lad, and often quotes from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:

My purpose holds,

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.’

Like Odysseus, Dorrigo will be held captive in a distant land, unable to return to the woman he loves.

The narrative structure is fractured, which seems an apt approach given the way war fractures the lives of its participants and their families. Although generally progressing from Dorrigo’s childhood to old age, there are numerous time slips, with Flanagan taking us forward and back to key moments. One of the early moves is forward, to Dorrigo with his lover Amy, where we get an early reference to Basho’s haibun. Dorrigo recites ‘Ulysses’ to her as he looks ‘to where, beyond the weathered French doors with their flaking white paint, the moonlight formed a narrow road on the sea …’. It’s a perfect image, and deeply resonant, for that is the road he must travel.

I mentioned survival above, and it is one of the great underlying themes of the novel. As a younger man, Dorrigo goes to the mainland, to Melbourne University, where he studies medicine. Surrounded by the elite, he finds that while he loves his family, he is not proud of them. Their ‘principal achievement was survival. It would take him a lifetime to appreciate what an achievement that was.’

For all his flaws, Dorrigo is at his best as the commanding officer of the POWs in the camp. At one point, when desperately hungry, he’s presented with a (contraband) steak by the cook, and although his mouth is flooding with saliva, he refuses to eat it, telling the man to feed it to the sick men in the hospital. He laments the way he is failing his men, as a doctor and a leader. His love for them is absolute.

There are some wonderful characters amongst Dorrigo’s men, including the artist Rabbit Hendricks, Lizard Brancussi, Jimmy Bigelow, Jack Rainbow, the outcast Rooster MacNeice, and Darky Gardener aka the ‘Black Prince’, a man who could got things by trading the black market, even when he’s on the Line.

The horrors are endless, gut-wrenching. Dorrigo ‘persuaded, cajoled and insisted on the officers working, as the ceaseless green horror pressed every harder on their scabies-ridden bodies and groggy guts, on their fevered heads and foul, ulcerated legs, on their perennially shitting arses.’ And these were the officers – the rest suffer even more.

When these horrors have been indelibly inked into our minds, Dorrigo is faced with an impossible dilemma, forced to choose one hundred emaciated souls to march one hundred miles through the jungle to another camp, knowing most will die along the way. Does he send the very sick, or ‘just’ the sick? It’s heartbreaking stuff.

It is here Flanagan does something brave: he makes the leap into the Japanese mindset as an attempt to understand how men can treat other men with such barbarity. We see into the lives of two Japanese commanders, the amphetamine-addicted Nakamura and his evil superior Colonel Kota. To them, the POWs are less than men, had they been Japanese they would have killed themselves because of the shame of being captured. Their purpose now is to serve the Emperor.

It is not just Dorrigo who is placed in impossible situations. Nakamura is placed in one by Kota, who demands more be done in less time. Despite Kota rebuffing Nakamura’s entreaties for more men and machinery, the two bond over Japan’s great destiny, and also over the haiku that reflects the Japanese spirit:

They grew sentimental as they talked of the earthy wisdom of Issa’s haiku, the greatness of Buson, the wonder of Basho’s great haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which, Colonel Kota said, summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.

In lesser hands, the post-war tracing of the captors could have been a mistake. In Flanagan’s hands we get to see the great weight carried by survivors and perpetrators, as well as more disturbing truths, such as that of one Japanese engineer-cum-guard, who says the time he had spent building the railway was the happiest of his life. Such is human nature, sadly.

But it’s not all about the war. It’s also about love in all its guises, be it the love Dorrigo has for his men, the men who he believes he is failing, and the love that burns between Dorrigo and Amy. It also explores love’s darker obsessiveness, ownership, the lies people tell out of spite.

The second section of chapters starts with a haiku from Issa:

From that woman

on the beach, dusk pours out

across the evening waves.

For Dorrigo, everything pours out of Amy, light, love, a hopeless inviolable need. It is a lovely linking of Amy and the waves that carry the narrow road of moonlight across the seas that are calling him. Held while he waits to be shipped off to war, their affair is brief but all consuming.

They meet by chance in Adelaide in late 1940 at a book store (where Max Harris is launching Angry Penguins!). They are instantly, magnetically, attracted to each other. The meeting is brief, a few minutes of talking about poetry (and penguins), with no names exchanged. But he meets her again at his uncle Keith’s pub. For yes, Amy is married to Dorrigo’s uncle, many years her senior. And while nothing happened in this next meeting, ‘everything had changed.’

The same is true for Amy. She seems to seek oblivion in it, in them. For her, love ‘is not goodness, and nor is it happiness. … It was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the destroyer of worlds.”

In an interview with Philip Adams, Flanagan said we intone ‘lest we forget’, but we do forget, and quickly. As a counter to this, there are two indelible truths I hold after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. First, the novel is an unforgettable testament to Weary Dunlop’s men and the other countless thousands who lost their lives in the name of the Emperor’s madness. The second is, while built, the railway was soon swallowed by the jungle, whereas the poetry of Basho lives on hundreds of years after his death. As Dorrigo learns, survival is the incredible achievement. (I’ve already dusted off my Basho and dived back into the world of haiku.) Ah, if only there were more poets and fewer warmongers. If only there were more Richard Flanagans.

The only lingering doubt is whether the story could have been even more powerful had it possessed a tighter focus on the one POW rather than fanning out as it does. Some will like it, some will have misgivings. I suspect that as much as Flanagan tried to write a fictional character who was not his father, he could not help but explore how war affects all its participants, not just its famous leaders. In some ways they all travelled on that narrow road together.

It’s hard to believe he has not won the Miles Franklin Award. While Alexis Wright would also be a worthy winner for The Swan Book (my review), this just might be his year.

Flanagan is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, which starts next week. I’ve got my ticket, so expect some additional musings on The Narrow Road over the coming weeks. You can also listen to that discussion between Flanagan and Philip Adams here (about 52 minutes from memory, and well worth it).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

2013

Vintage

467 pages

ISBN: 9781741666700

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

Read Full Post »

The Swan Book by Alexis WrightWell! What to say about Alexis Wright’s teeming The Swan Book? How about some history? While reading a little (more) about Sydney’s early colonial history recently, I learned black swans lived in and around Sydney waterways, including Sydney Harbour, when the English landed in 1788. Journals written at that time spoke of twenty to thirty black swans flying regularly over Sydney Cove until, presumably, they were shot for food or, in some cases, sent back to England as natural curiosities. Swans were also seen in numbers in both coastal and inland lagoons, as well as along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River at foot of the Blue Mountains.

Sadly, you won’t see them in these places today; you need to go west of the ranges to find any. It is a reminder that the natural imbalance for Aboriginal people is no future dystopia at all—things have been out of whack for over two hundred years already, since the first settlement at Sydney Cove. Driven out of their natural habitats, it was the Sydney Cove swans I pictured when reading about the giant flock that follows the protagonist Oblivia around in wildly imaginative The Swan Book.

And what a wild ride itis! The ‘story’, such as it is, is centred on Oblivia, a mute young woman pulled out of the hollow of a tree after being gang-raped by a group of Aboriginal ‘boys’ who are high on the sniffing of petrol and glue. It is no coincidence she cannot speak; she is another Aboriginal voice silenced. It is Bella Donna of the Champions, the European climate-change refugee (‘invader’), who finds her. Together they live on a rusty old hulk located in the swamp that was once a lake in the far north of Australia. The army has control, and Aborigines have been rounded up and moved in.

This post climate change dystopia is a disturbing future world in which weather events are wild and about-face. Cities are prone to flooding; cyclones regularly occur at southern latitudes; in short, the old balance has been thrown out, and there’s no doubt who is at fault:

Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.

Bella Donna brings to Oblivia stories of European swans, and soon a flock of black swans arrive at the swamp and become Oblivia’s totem. They follow her south when she is taken by the flashy Warren Finch, the half-caste Aboriginal ‘saviour’ who has risen to become the vice-President of the Republic of Australia, and who needs a wife to take the step up to President. He grew up in the nearby Brolga Nation, and Oblivia is his promised wife. As soon as they depart south, he has her homeland swamp demolished.

Bella Donna also brought the story of her voyage from European wastelands, comparing it to Icarus’s flight. Icarus’s feathers melted because he did not heed the warnings of his father. And this ‘dreaming’ is a forewarning of what is to come in The Swan Book, the sense of people not listening to their elders. In describing myna birds, Wright laments:

From a safe distance, you could hear these birds swearing at the grass in throwback words of the traditional language for the country that was no longer spoken by any living human being on the Earth. … You had to hear these sooth-saying creatures creating glimpses of a new internationally dimensional language about global warming and changing climates for this land. Really listen hard to what they were saying.

The myna birds spew up some English that ‘you would have heard used to try to defeat lies in this part of the world. Just short words like Not true.

There is a loose electricity in Wright’s story-telling, fusing styles, tenses, high and low registers, first and third-person points-of-view with varying degrees of ‘closeness’, left-field similes/metaphors, and numerous references to swans from other works. And it’s all underpinned by the Aboriginal belief system. Here’s an example:

Somebody had eye-witnessed the lake bubbling from tug boats mix-mastering the water with their propellers, whisking it like a spritzer and putrefying all the dead ancient things rising to the surface, spraying it around like the smell of eternity. No wonder the local people, the traditional owners and all that, were too frightened to go back to the lake anymore. They had heard stories – bad stories about what happened to anyone who went back there.

For the most part this energy is infectious, although I was occasionally somewhat bemused/lost, particularly in the overly long opening chapter (70-odd pages), in which I sometimes felt like a mouse spinning in the loop of Wright’s wheel but not going anywhere. Maybe this was maybe intentional on her part; maybe faced with the so-called greatest moral challenge of our time we are all, at the moment, spinning our wheels. In any event, after this chapter, when Warren Finch appears on the scene, the prose gains traction, repetition dissolves, and the bight of Wright’s razor-sharp teeth digs in.

It is a very political book. Wright skewers all sorts, such as the canaries repeating what they hear on talk-balk radio, and the many policies and practices aimed at ‘improving’ Aborigines. The ‘closing the gap’ mantra is given short-shrift, as is the policy of intervention in remote Aboriginal communities, and ‘moving forward’ as part of Aboriginal empowerment. The satire at times is very black, the rage seething. Although necessary, it is uncomfortable. Rich non-Indigenous Australians  learn ‘about poverty by not being poor themselves’, and are oppressors ‘capable of slipping down to the bottom of a fetid well to destroy whoever got in the way of their success.’

Wright also points to difficulty of singling out one Aboriginal person to speak for all Aboriginal peoples. This is what she says of Bella Donna’s arrival into the swamp land:

… she came to live out her last days among the poorest people in a rich land. … Another Eden. A place where hunger and death were commonplace to its elders, the landowners who knew that they were a social-science experiment with a very big cemetery. A small place where sometimes things got so bad when the swamp’s little gang of brain-damaged, toxic-fume-sniffing addicted kids ruled, that parents asked only for one moment of peace. … People were … gambling about the Messiah. … Messiahs come and go, usually in the form of academic researchers, or a few chosen blacks and one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people and sucking-dry government money bureaucrats.

I love the way Wright inserts traditional language words into the text when we’re in the swamp, but removes them when we get to the southern city, as if it has no place there. And how could it when buildings reach into the sky like giant fingers ‘that had come out of the ground to orchestrate the heavens’? Indeed, so out of place does Oblivia feel that when she sees people lay on the concrete paths with their ears to the ground, she assumes they are listening for the stories underneath, but they are actually listening for the tidal surges coming in through the sewer system below the city.

For all this, there are moments of great humour (the fitting of Oblivia’s wedding dress is a hoot), and great beauty, even in the swamp, where a crescent moon’s light ‘rode silver saddles on the backs of hundreds of black swans huddling around the hull with necks tucked under their wings…’

The sense of the magical is never far away. At one point Oblivia ‘thought that she was in the sky, flying, … she and the swans were caught in the winds of a ghost net dragged forward by the spirits of the country.’  Elsewhere, the ‘Harbour Master’, a larger-than-life guru of the swamp, comes and goes like a ghost. There is a lot of talk about ghosts in the novel, about spirits. Some people have used the term ‘Aboriginal Realism’ rather than ‘Magical Realism’ to describe Wright’s style, because they feel the former reflects the realism inherent in Aboriginal belief systems. While that is true, saying Magical Realism lacks grounding in reality misunderstands its use of magic in much the same way. Nevertheless, I quite like Aboriginal Realism as a term. It feels right (perhaps Wright?) to describe Wright’s story telling.

In statistics a ‘black swan event’ is something so outside our experience or comprehension it is impossible to believe (and therefore predict). The terms was coined for the surprise of finding black swans in New Holland (Australia) by the Dutch, an event depicted in the novel, because it was assumed prior to that that all swans must be white. (As a fan of the Sydney Swans AFL team, I’ve always found it curious the team’s swan is white rather than black. And yes, I know our colours are red and white, but this is an Australian team not an English one, and I’d very much like to see a black swan appear on the team’s outfits in future. It’s perhaps a measure of how European views persist. Maybe I should start a petition!)

Anyway, what is of no surprise, and in no way a black swan event, is The Swan Book. We shouldawwbadge_2014 have expected such a thing to spring from the mind of one of our very best story tellers. Possessing old wisdom, and rife with global resonance, it may well see Wright add a second Miles Franklin Award to her list of accolades. I just wish some of those old-soul black swans could once again fly over the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour (and maybe roost on the Swannies’ jersey!). Both would be a welcome sight.

Alexis Wright is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). The talk she is giving on The Swan Book is free, so I better get there early!

If you would like to read more erudite thoughts on The Swan Book than mine, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers, and Jane Gleeson-White’s at the Sydney Review of Books.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

2013

Giramondo

334 pages

ISBN: 9781922146410

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »