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The Commandant by Jessica AndersonThere are many things to love about The Commandant by Jessica Anderson. Published in 1975 it echoes the themes in Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally (see my review here), in particular the harsh treatment of convicts at the hands of the elite. It also has the same tragic story elements, the Oh-no moments that have us shaking our heads, hoping it’s not to be, and turning the pages.

There are differences, though. Whereas Keneally’s modernism hints of Patrick White, Anderson has the flavour of Jane Austen, particularly in the scenes involving the female characters. There are key Austen elements: the planning of good matches with the available men; human comedy; and similar character traits, such as ‘absurdity’, naivety, independent thought(!), and coming-of-age with views set against the status-quo.

But Anderson’s quiet lyricism sets her apart from Austen. Her description of the Moreton Bay landscape is fantastic:

… a few clumps of tall trees, their rough bark the colour of iron, and their foliage a dun green, stood with the junction of trunk and root shrouded by tall pale grass; … It was as if everything here inclined not to the sun’s bright spectrum, but to those of the mineral earth and the ghostly daytime moon.

The opening chapter sees Frances O’Beirne, the sister of the Commandant Patrick Logan’s wife Letty, travelling the last leg of a voyage up from Sydney to the settlement of Moreton Bay (Brisbane) to join them. There are some delightful exchanges between her and the somewhat precious (and ridiculous) Amelia Bulwer, and the witty Louisa Harbin. Travelling with them is the drunkard doctor (and wit) Henry Cowper, and Captain Clunie, whose presence provokes nervousness and rumour.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the use of dialogue to start a scene. It’s something that modern ‘how to write fiction’ books frown upon. Better to ground the reader in the scene they say. Anderson uses it repeatedly, including the start of the novel itself, and it’s a refreshing change, getting us right into the scene from the off. On the first page Amelia is dressing up the settlement to Frances. She also establishes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ nature of the story, the elite and the convicts, commenting that ‘not a one’ of ‘us’ has died since the settlement’s establishment, and ‘only one soldier’. There is no mention here of how many convicts have perished.

Amelia explains the lack of clergy at the new settlement by saying: ‘We were sent a chaplain, but he and the commandant — We all have our failings, and our good commandant is sometimes short of temper.’ Even now we begin to form a picture of what this ‘good’ commandant must be like.

We also form a picture of the seventeen-year old Frances, who is described as ‘not stupid, but … often absurd.’  She laments the way she often acts foolishly, saying ‘I am made up of hundreds of persons, and I never know which one will come out.’ A supporter of reform of the system of harsh treatment, while in Sydney she became associated with the daughters of Smith Hall, the outspoken editor of an early newspaper. He is demanding trial by jury and sentences that do not exceed the law. And he has written a story on Logan’s methods of punishment, claiming he has killed a convict by flogging. Logan himself can’t see the trouble looming, although the arrival of another captain in the form of Clunie raises his hackles.

The convicts are held at arms’ length. Frances’s first view of them reveals much:

It was their great number, perhaps, or the clumsiness of their unfettered movements that made them appear sub-human, like animals adapted to mens’ work or goblins from under the hill.

When she sees an attack of one on another she says ‘It is said they kill because they wish to hang.’

One of the benefits of hiding the violence against convicts is that for much of the book we are left wondering just how bad it is. Are the rumours of mal-treatment that have given rise to the reportage in the Sydney press accurate? Is Logan the monster the convicts claim him to be? Perhaps we should listen to Logan’s six-year old son Robert, who tells us that the scourger (flogger) ‘Gilligan lays it on! … Swoosh!’

Viewing things from the commandant’s point of view, as well as the women’s, enables Anderson to strike an unsettling note of sympathy for Logan. We then learn the truth. Toward the end, one convict says there was a worse man on the notorious Norfolk Island penal settlement, but none of the other lags can force themselves to agree with him.

Like Phelim O’Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes, Frances’s innocence will get her into strife. Her actions have unintended consequences that leave us and her horrified after Logan shows his true self. The way she discovers this is heartbreaking. What is also moving is the way Letty’s unstinting support of her husband begins to falter through the months after Frances’s arrival. She begins to see that he is more ‘hunting dog’ than ‘shining knight’.

The convicts are tempted to steal off into the bush. Some are injured by Aborigines and return, while others join up with them. There is speculation over whether the Aborigines are violent toward the settlers of their own accord, or whether they are incited by the escapees. Either way, they are resistant toward the whites in a way that other colonial-era novels, notably Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill, do not depict. The way Anderson has her characters lay at the blame at the Aborigines’ feet for the climactic scenes of the book rather than at the convicts who incite them, in order to protect the good name of the discredited commandant, is masterful. It shows the lengths people will go to in order to edit out the lines of history they would prefer others not read.

Anderson’s characterisation is faultless throughout, from the ‘first-class’ convict servants, to the fewAustralian Women Writers 2013 badge convicts we do meet, particularly the hard man Lazarus. The understated handling of rumours surrounding Logan’s debts is pitch-perfect. Every character has their faults. The wives of the soldiers are rendered with a touch that Austen would be proud of, and Henry Cowper’s struggle with the demon drink and his religious father’s good name is memorable. His fantasy letter to his clergyman father that sets out his ‘spiritual progress’ is hilarious. In it he recounts a Sunday service he gave just after the previous scourger’s drowning. It was, he writes, the only service he has given before an enthusiastic congregation. The convicts sang their hearts out, forcing the silent and red-faced commandant to storm out of the chapel!

It’s difficult to understand why this classic Australian novel was out of print until Text Publishing got it back in the hands of readers with a beautiful cover from WH Chong. It’s accompanied by a good introduction by Carmen Callil (although it, oh-dear, mistakenly refers to Frances as ‘Francis’). No matter, The Commandant itself is wonderful. Callil believes it to be Anderson’s masterpiece. I’m not about to disagree with that.

This review counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge.

The Commandant by Jessica Anderson

1975

Text Classics

457 pages

ISBN: 9781921922138

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas KeneallyFor school excursions we used to go up to ‘Old Sydney Town’, in the hills on the Central Coast, north of Sydney. There we would see how the early convict settlers of New South Wales lived. It’s hard to recall all the details, but apart from women wearing bonnets and fulsome dresses with lots of frills, and a tall ship that became the centrepiece of some sort of acrobatic show with muskets firing and smoke and men diving into the water, possibly to escape the dastardly redcoats.

The only other thing that is seared into my mind was the re-enactment of a convict’s flogging. Much discussion ensued over what the actors used for blood. Was it tomato sauce? Strawberry jam? Some form of red dye? It was a garish red, almost as garish as the howls of the poor man enduring the indignity of having his back slashed for our entertainment. It was entertainment, at least that’s how I remember it, precisely because it wasn’t real. Perhaps the act itself was so alien a concept that my schoolboy mind couldn’t grasp the innate horror of it. Yet it resides in my mind still, the clearest image of all I took away from several visits.

There’s no playacting in Thomas Keneally’s Miles Franklin-winning novel Bring Larks and Heroes, especially when it comes to flogging. Set in an unnamed penal colony in the South Pacific in the late eighteenth century, it offers a stark and harrowing portrait of a settlement in which humanity and justice have been disavowed. The floggings metered out run into the hundreds of lashes. The descriptions of the suppurating wounds are indelible.

The story centres on Irishman Phelim Halloran, a soft-souled man in a hard world. Having joined the marines from prison he finds himself at ‘world’s worse end’, a place where sunlight ‘burrows like a worm in both eyeballs’, and vegetable gardens are described as ‘futile’.

He cannot marry his sweetheart Ann Rush, a convict servant, because there is no Catholic priest in the settlement. He identifies with the revolutionary Irish prisoners more than he does his Protestant English superiors. He feels himself to be living in a legend ‘because he underwent all the fervours set down in legends and in poetry.’

Things begin to change for Halloran when he escorts Ewers, a convict artist, upriver to what appears to be a fictional Rose Hill (Parramatta). There, Halloran finds Mealey, an Irish felon who has been so badly flogged he cannot move:

… Mealey’s unspeakable wound. It was so huge an injury that you needed to verify your first sight of it, were compelled towards it, pushing your nose through its solid reek. … Mealy was half-way wrapped round by a fat, black, vampiring slough.

The smell of it makes Halloran throw-up.

It is here that Halloran meets the Irish political prisoner Robert Hearn, a man who will seduce him into a conspiracy to steal provisions and a promissory note from the Commissary. Halloran argues with Hearn over the issue of justice, but in his heart he knows that Hearn is right, that something must be done to change the status-quo. His rebellious feelings are stirred when Ewers is arrested for raping an officer’s wife; it’s to Halloran Ewers turns, proving in the process that he is a eunuch. Nonetheless, Ewers is hanged.

It is not the only injustice that Halloran witnesses. Quinn, a convict whose term has expired asks Halloran to write a petition to the Governor. He ends up getting an interview with His Excellency, but finds the convict records back in England. (This actually happened in the early colony of New South Wales.) His Excellency cannot approve Quinn’s honest petition. When Quinn then slanders an officer, he is flogged. He blames poor Halloran because, as Ann notes, he couldn’t see clear to blame anyone higher up.

These injustices pile one on top of the other until the silver-tongued Hearn twists Halloran’s hand. The tragedy that transpires as a result is incredibly moving.

Written in omniscient narrator in a modernist style, it’s very much a product of its time. (All that ‘hissing’ that characters do!) Although the parallels are obvious, Keneally eschewed setting the tale in Sydney Cove, in part because in 1967 when the book was published the question of our convict past was still a fraught topic for readers. In an author’s note Keneally writes that he used the word felon in preference to convict because the latter ‘possesses pungent overtones and colours, a word loaded with distracting evocations, especially for Australian readers’. Of course, nowadays we are more likely to boast of convict ancestry than deny it! It’s a fascinating measure of how far we’ve come, and shows how a novel like Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (see my review here) can find the stage to be written (although it’s worth noting that Grenville’s work also plays around with the historical timeline, though to a much lesser extent).

In any event, it allows him to play around with events and historical truths. The failed Irish uprising of 1804 is decoupled and pulled forward into the late 1780s, allowing it to be connected to the French revolution.

There are other oddities which only make sense in a fictional settlement, such as the early arrival of an East Indiaman—a ship of the East India Company. ‘Natives’ are mentioned only in passing and only around three or so times. We do get this early, though significant, nod:

They would see no black people, Ann and he. Somewhere between the skirting-board and carpet-edge of the land, the black race, with the secrecy of moths, was dying of smallpox. Or, perhaps, dying out.

So much for the fictional setting: it’s clear he’s writing of Australia. There are many similarities with the early colony of New South Wales, such as the smallpox epidemic of 1789 that wiped out a significant percentage of Sydney-basin Aborigines; the way Aborigines used fish oil to ward off insects; the failed crops and reduced rations of a populace heading toward starvation; the terrible fact of early convicts serving their sentence out only to find their records had not been brought out from England to confirm their claims, forcing them to remain in servitude way beyond their original sentence; and the harsh environment (one of the highlights of the prose), and the borrowed landscapes: for example, ‘the Crescent’ was the name given to the curve of the river as it bends near Government House in what was Rose Hill (later renamed Parramatta).

There are some very droll moments, such as Mrs Blythe’s maladies, and the delightful scene with Ewers and Mrs Dakar, the woman who would subsequently claim he raped her, in which a captured kingfisher adds his own voice with ‘a talent for supplying affirmatives for Ewers’ in the form of deliberate ‘ucks’! But overall they feel few and far between because of the thrust of the story.

Bring Larks and Heroes is Keneally’s third novel. Geordie Williamson, in his excellent introduction, recounts a critic’s comments on Keneally’s second book: that the former seminarian would only produce ‘something lasting’ when ‘he wrote the Priesthood out of his guts’. Williamson argues that Keneally has overcome the Catholic dogma which allows him ‘free play of his imagination’. Well, Catholicism is still front and centre in this novel, although Halloran’s conscience is driven not only by his faith but by what he considers just. It is in this way that Keneally overcomes dogma.

Stylistically, Keneally is still finding his voice. The lighter prose evident in later works stands in stark contrast to the ebullient modernism on show here, replete with unusual words to test the reader’s personal dictionary (contumaceous anyone?!). It reminded me of Keneally’s words in a typically engaging Sydney Writers’ Festival discussion last year, in which he discussed how in ‘his day’ a publisher would allow a writer three books to find their groove; they would invest in their potential. He went on to lament the lack of time and investment given to new authors today.

We are fortunate that Keneally, at least, was given the time to find his voice. He won the Miles Franklin again the following year for Three Cheers for the Paraclete, and of course went on to write many other bestsellers, including the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark. His style may have changed, but his concern for the individual hasn’t. Those images of flayed backs will stay with me for years, the perfect answer to my long-held question of what substance marked the convicts’ backs: blood.

Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally

1967

Text Classics

369 pages

ISBN: 1921922237

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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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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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!

D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D!

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Well the first full day of the SWF 2010 has come and gone and a great day it was too.  (I did enjoy a couple of lunch time lectures earlier in the week at The Mint too).  I went along to four talks today and enjoyed each of them.

1. ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ – with Kath Leahy, David Foster & Jeremy Sims (who stood in for Jack Thompson), moderated by Katharine Brisbane. There were plenty of laughs and each speaker added depth to the discussion, which delved into the history of the accent, its transformation from a prim English accent – particularly in public life and broadcasting, through to the various incarnations we have today, including quite distinct regionalised language and delivery. 

2. ‘Tales of Adversity & Survival’ – with US author David Vann who wrote ‘Legend of a Suicide’ about his father’s suicide, Brenda Walker’s memoir Reading by Moonlight which is one of the books of the month on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, and Ross Fitzgerald, who has battled alcoholism and drug dependency and lived to tell the tale (and many others besides).  Each author spoke about the method in which they addressed tragedy, grief and/or illness, which ranged from quite distant or oblique structuring (Vann) through to the very direct (Fitzgerald).  What was clear was that each method seemed perfect for the story they were trying to tell. 

3.  ‘Performing Words’ – in which Jana Wendt discussed the role of music in their respective memoirs with Anna Goldsworthy (Piano Lessons) and Linda Neil (Learning How to Breathe).  Anna played a couple of wonderful piano pieces from Bach & Chopin, and Linda sang a song she had sung with her ill mother in hospital and then played a violin piece she had written whilst in India watching dead bodies float down the Ganges.  This session was excellent with moving performances & insightful discussion of how music informs both writing and life.  What struck me is how these women grew up with music around them and what a powerful force it has been in their lives, with Goldsworthy describing how her music teacher’s piano lessons taught her so much more than music, including great little gems of wisdom on how to live.  Neil described how her mother was a wonderful singer and would cook whilst singing opera!  This was then juxtaposed with her battle with Parkinson’s which stole her voice.  The emotion in the pieces played by both Anna and Linda was infused with these life-long lessons and knowledge, and it was a privilege to be party to some of their thinking and their gift for music. 

4. ‘Judges and Winners’ – a highly entertaining panel discussion, with Colm Toibin (twice a Man Booker Prize bridesmaid, but winner of many other awards including the Dublin IMPAC & also himself a judge on several major literary awards including the Man Asian Prize), Tom Keaneally (winner of Booker for Schindler’s Ark), John Carey (twice Booker Prize Chairperson, including the year Keneally won), Chinese author Su Tong, (he of Raise the Red Lantern fame, and more recently The Boat to Redemption – winner of the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize), moderated by Caroline Baum, herself a regular judge on Australian literary awards.  This discussion was a lot of fun.  It ranged from how on earth does a judge read circa 130 books in what amounts to just a four-month period in the case of the Booker Prize, which amounts to one book per day.  Astonishing!  I favour ‘close reading’, which is slow, so I’d be toast.  There was admissions of judges leaving the room knowing that the best book (in their opinion) hadn’t won (cue gasps from the audience!), judge’s walk-outs, as well as the inside experience of someone shortlisted for the Booker – with all the rigmarole of the presentation dinner – hilariously provided by Colm.  Colm also provided high praise for Su Tong’s book The Boat to Redemption, which sounded so good I bought it at the end of the session.  Tong gave some rare glimpses into the world of Chinese literary scene, including not only dodgy publishers, but street sellers who would copy out recognised authors’ works and sell them passed off as their own work!  Finally, there was all-round agreement on the announcement of  JG Farrell as the winner of the 1970 Lost Booker Prize for his book Troubles, the first of the Empire Trilogy, decided by public voting, with Troubles garnering a clear win with 38% of the vote.  Colm Toibin & John Carey were effusive in praise for a deserved win. 

I had wanted to go to another talk in the mid-afternoon, but not only was that one full by the time I’d had a quick sandwich, but all the rest were full too – clearly a sign of the popularity of the festival.  Otherwise, it was a very entertaining day, with a smaller number of talks on tomorrow and the weekend to come as well.

The D!

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Well, I’ve booked my programme of (ticketed) events for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Saturday 15th of May – Sunday 23rd), though I still have a few choices to make for some (inevitable) overlaps.  For example: should I go to E32 ‘Who Owns the Story’ – dealing with the rights of authors in the use of aboriginal myth and dreaming stories, or E34: ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ with Jack Thompson et al?  For a Libran like myself, such decisions are nigh on impossible!

It’s certainly shaping up to be a busy and interesting week.  I’m not going to give a critical opinion on how the SWF measures up to, say, the recent Adelaide Writer’s Week, which had some pretty big names in Sarah Waters and others… Sydney will have to ‘make-do’ with the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Colm Toibin, and Peter Carey amongst a host of local talent too numerous to list.    

Some of the events I’m particularly looking forward to (amongst others) are:

  • E66: ‘Judges & Winners’: John Carey, Thomas Keneally, Colm Tóibín and Su Tong dissect the agony (and fun) of the Booker prize fight.  (This promises to be very intriguing – everyone has an opinion on the Booker Prize!).
  • Reading Muster 5: Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall and Nada Awar Jarrar pass the word around.
  • E148: ‘Marie Munkara’: The award-winning indigenous writer of ‘Every Secret Thing’ shares her stories.
  • E167: ‘Peter Carey’: Peter Carey talks to ‘Granta’ editor John Freeman about ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’.  (Carey is also delivering the festival’s closing address.) 
  • E192: ‘The Colony & Sydney Harbour’: Grace Karskens and Ian Hoskins retrace the history of Sydney.
  • E236: ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’: A celebration of the work of the late Chilean novelist and poet.  (Okay, so I’ve only read the (slim) Amulet – see my review which I liked a lot, but I am stalking both The Savage Detectives & 2666(!) – which are both on my shelf.  Perhaps I should start one of these before the festival!

Is anyone else going? What are the events you’re most interested in?

The Dilettante!

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