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Posts Tagged ‘The Wayward Tourist’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D!

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The highly entertaining Wayward Tourist publishes edited extracts from Mark Twain’s Following the Equator (1897).  Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, traveled to Australia in 1895 as part of a world tour of 150 lectures.  It is a fascinating, sometimes sad, but often very humorous excursion through Australia, its people, its cities and its peculiar histories.  In this sense, it’s really an early pointer to books such as the very funny Down Under by Bill Bryson.  They both successfully mix tragedy, success, history, culture, and bizarre travel experiences, and neatly wrap them in a laugh-filled package.  For lovers of Bryson and/or those with an interest in Australian history, this is a wonderful book.

The excellent introduction, written by Don Watson, summarises Twain thus:

… the essential American and the still small voice of the flimsy, paradoxical, eternal good in the democracy.  For most of those who have read him he still is.  The trick, as he said, was all in the telling.

Twain’s skill in ‘telling’ is evident throughout as he recalls his journey to and around Australia in short and amusing tales.  At the time of his visit, Twain was one of the most well known people in the world, and he and his family “were greeted – almost literally – like royalty, and the lectures, called ‘At Homes’ were triumphs.”

Twain also came to Australia at a very interesting time, with the rise in federalist sentiment, lead by Sir Henry Parkes and others, whom Twain met, that would lead to the formation only a few years later of the Federation of Australia.  Twain advised it would be ‘unwise’ and unnecessary for the colonies to ‘cut loose from the British Empire.’  The fact that Twain was such a keen observer gives us a fascinating insight into Australia at the time from an outsider’s perspective.

The stories start with Twain’s arrival in Sydney.  Twain finds the harbour “superbly beautiful” and then, on a “natural impulse … gave God the praise.”  The local he said this to suggested that Twain had only captured half of Sydney, stating: ‘God made the Harbor … but Satan made Sydney.’”  As a Sydney-sider myself, I have read this beguiling quote many times before and … cannot argue it!

Twain then describes, with some displeasure, the “most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show” … when he and all his fellow travellers must get out of one train and onto another in bighting evening cold near the border of NSW & Victoria because of the different track gauges used in the two states at the time.  He goes on: “Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth”.  Unfortunately for me, it seems the paralysis of transport planning still dogs Sydney, though Melbourne fairs much better.

Some pages read a little like reportage, but there is always a humorous anecdote to follow.  Some of the biggest events (and mishaps) in our fledgling history are explored.  Examples include the Rum Corps’ iron-grip on the early Sydney colony through its monopoly on rum imports; the Eureka Stockade which “may be called the finest thing in Australian history”; and the Melbourne Cup.  Twain is effusive in his praise of Cup Day: “The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, happy; … Cup Day is supreme – it has no rival.”  I’m happy to report that the fervent and national ritual of Melbourne Cup Day continues unabated.

We soon arrive at another of Twain’s famous ‘Australian’ quotes which Peter Carey used in introducing his wonderful Illywhacker, (a personal favourite).  Twain describes the splendour of Melbourne and reflects on how this “majestic” city grew from the most inauspicious, convict-laboured start.  He concludes:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place.  It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful of lies.  And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones.  It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened. 

It’s a perfect summation, and all the tales in this book reflect this.

Twain describes the locals as having “English friendliness with the English shyness and self-consciousness left out.”  But he can’t resist poking fun at the local accent, with its mislaid ‘y’, relating a chambermaid’s morning comments: “The tyble is set, and here is the piper [paper]; and if the lydy is ready I’ll tell the wyter to bring up the breakfast.”  It’s a perfect summation.

Twain is also much taken with the expression: ‘my word!’ He references it throughout the book, concluding that Americans “must import it. … spoken with the proper Australian unction and fervency … it is music to the ears … the first time I heard an Australian say it, it was positively thrilling.”

Everything Comes to He Who Waits describes Twain’s arrival into Adelaide, known in Australia as ‘the city of churches’ – and for good reason, as Twain tabulates the published census and the exhaustive list of religions, after which he delightfully observes that there are: “About 64 roads to the other world.”

Twain explores the collision of aboriginal and white settlers, particularly in Tasmania.  A staunch anti-racist, most of his observations are spot on.  However, some are not.  In The Conciliator Twain details the amazing story of one George Augustus Robinson, who set out in search of the remaining 300 Tasmanian aboriginals, in an effort to persuade them to be peacefully resettled on Flinders Island in Bass Straight.  This was the government’s last-ditch effort to save the aboriginals before they were exterminated.  Over four years he persuaded all of them, without shedding one drop of blood.

I say amazing, but it is also heartbreaking, for whilst Robinson was able to persuade the aboriginals, whose numbers had been decimated because of running battles with white settlers, the re-settlement was of course a complete failure.  The aboriginals were given religion and set classes and work and pay, but soon realised that they had been taken away from their land – their home – and the set structure of life on these foreign islands was a complete anathema to them.  Instead of a home they were given a prison camp, and many died of disease and broken hearts – one of the few times that expression will hold any truth.

(What Twain does not report is that Robinson reputedly offered inducements to the aboriginals that included the freedom to continue their own cultural traditions.  This was effectively denied them once they got to Flinders Island.  Robinson is effectively now seen as a negative figure for aboriginals despite what may have initially been good intentions.  Twain does capture the tragedy of the aboriginals’ loss, but there is some uneasiness in his notes that they widely practiced infanticide as a means of keeping their population low, as well as cannibalism; I have not heard of these before, and I thus suspect error; they may or may not be true, but I am unsure what to make of them without reading further.)*

I was hoping to find a quote of Twain on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, which I read some years ago, in which he compared it very favourably to his beloved Mississippi.  But alas, the Hawkesbury does not rate a mention and now I wonder whether I read such a quote at all!  Instead, we get a different river reference: Watson’s introduction explains that the pen name ‘Mark Twain’ originates from the river: “Mark Twain means ‘mark two’, the ‘two’ meaning ‘two fathoms’, meaning, on a paddle steamer … the river is twelve feet deep, which was the safe minimum for navigation.”  (You learn something new everyday).

I love thoughtful cover art for books – and this book is simple but effective, with a portrait photo of Twain on whose head sits a laughing kookaburra, perhaps Twain’s alter-ego for his trip ‘down under’.  I really enjoyed this entertaining read.  I can only sign-off on such a review with the surprised salute so-loved by Twain:

My word!

* Update: After reading Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers, as well as other primary sources of early colonial history, it is clear that Aboriginal peoples did commit infanticide in some situations, particularly when a suckling mother died. As Clendinnen states, the Aboriginals of the Sydney region were a warrior culture; men were extremely violent to women (a fact, of course, shared by white settlers too).

The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia by Mark Twain, with an Introduction by Don Watson

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 9780522854312

189 pages including Afterword and Notes, (plus an Introduction of an additional 27 pages)

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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