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Posts Tagged ‘Ulysses’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gail Jones is a cerebral writer and a consummate wordsmith.  Talking at last month’s Sydney Writers Festival about her novel Five Bells she was asked whether the ‘literariness’ of a book is important to her.  Her reply was an unequivocal yes.  The Dilettante’s kind of writer!

Jones spoke about the genesis for the work.  She was on a late night ferry and the words of Kenneth Slessor’s famous poem, Five Bells, came to her.  The poem was written as an ode to cartoonist Joe Lynch, who fell from a Sydney ferry and whose body was never found.  Jones said she could well imagine the poem being written just after the event so immediate was its sense of grief, but noted it was written twelve years later.  The ‘persistence of grief’ is something that she finds quite powerful – ‘you think you’re done with it, but the past keeps coming back.’

The way grief and memory inform the lives of the four characters whose lives are drawn together on this single day in and around Circular Quay is the cornerstone of the book.  It is like, said Jones, the wake of a ferry – the way water is churned out and then eddies back in on itself, returning and revolving.  Time and memory operate in the same way.  Slessor himself, in his notes on his poem said that time was like water rather than the tick of the clock.  Pei Xing, one of the protagonists of the novel, recalls a day when, as a girl, her father told the story of The Overcoat, how that story adds to the memory of the day’s other events.  She thinks: “It was there, years later, like breath on a plane of glass, a human trace to see through.”

The wake of the ferry, the way memories fold back up to the surface of our life, form not just a thematic premise for the book, but they also form the basis for its structure.  Here is Jones’ cerebral mind at work.  The story starts out with the arrival of the four into Circular Quay on this sunny Saturday, then, like the ferry wake, folds back to their individual starting points that day, then comes back through the day in a lineal progression.  But always through this progression the memories of past events and backgrounds constantly churn to the surface.  It’s a wonderfully symbolic structure.  It works on its own, but knowing why she chose to fashion it in this way gives it extra meaning.

Of course when you write a story that takes place in one day, particularly one in which the poetry of the prose is a strong feature as it is here, then you immediately place your work alongside other great ‘single day’ works, such as Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.  To me the particularly poetic character of Jones’ prose sets it up against Mrs Dalloway quite markedly.  There are other links between them too.  The passage of time is central to both books.  ‘Five bells’ is one of the half-hour marks of an eight-bell-long four hour watch on ships.  In Mrs Dalloway we have Big Ben marking out the hours (which was Woolf’s original title for the book, so well utilised by Michael Cunningham in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours).  There are other similarities too, but I won’t go into those as that will risk others’ enjoyment of them, but Jones said she was aware of borrowing from those books.

The other thing that I remember from reading Woolf’s novel is just how vacuous and unsympathetic the characters in it are.  This brings me to the four protagonists in Five Bells, each of whom are new arrivals inSydney.  Two of the four, Elise and James, grew up for a time in the same class in school in remote country town inAustralia.  They were teenage lovers, and now, both inSydney, have agreed to meet up.  When they were in school they shared a teacher who wrote unusual words on the blackboard, one of which was ‘clepsydra’: an ancient water clock, again reflecting the confluence of time and water.  It’s their secret word, and it’s a lovely reflection of Slessor’s ‘time as water’ observation.

James is Jones’ first extended male point of view protagonist in any of her novels.  He is a man who cannot let go of his tragic past, a past that even Elise is unaware of.  Jones said she was keen to make sure he had some form of progression, some change throughout the day.  I think she manages this, albeit somewhat obliquely (more on obliqueness below), for he decribes himself as ‘unconnected’ at the start of the story, but by the end – without giving the game away – he is in a way very much connected to the others.

Then there is Catherine, an Irish journalist, who leftDublinin part because of the death of her heroine, Veronica Guerin, the real-life journalist assassinated after she revealed the truth about the drug trade inDublin.  Catherine is also struggling to cope, in her case with the death of her brother.  Jones said that writing often is generated out of a sense of loss.  We all lose people, places, childhoods, she said.  Jones is a great supporter of PEN, and wanted to pay tribute to the heroics of writers including journalists and translators.

The fourth protagonist, Pei Xing, is a Chinese immigrant, survivor of the Cultural Revolution.  Jones said she is the moral centre of the book, and it is easy to see why.  She travels from her home in Bankstown, across the harbour to visit someone from her past every Saturday, someone to whom she gives forgiveness when such forgiveness seems impossible.  Her scholarly parents were abducted and killed while she was young and she herself is later imprisoned.  Her father was an interpreter and there are many references to interpreters in the story, including many references to Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  The theme of translation was something Jones wanted to portray as part of the way we all connect with each other, and, I believe, how we connect to ourselves.  Pei Xing’s ability to sense the future is used in a lovely way to offset the potential darkness in the story.

The four characters are drawn together by a fifth in an oblique way.  Jones said she wanted to study the resonances between people, those interconnections, in the same way that the peals of a bell reverberate and speak to one another – which seems spooky when I think that the very same thing was the theme of my last read: David Mitchell’s wonderful Ghostwritten (see my review here).  When we first meet James, he thinks, [p4]: “So much of the past returns … lodged in the bodies of others.”  The fifth character is a child.  Children are symbolic; each of us as adults carries the child within.

When asked by one audience member about the ‘lack of tension’ in the multi-protagonist structure, Jones said not all meaning lives in plot.  Switching between characters creates risk, she acknowledged, but ‘plot’ was not the most critical thing in the book.  I found each protagonist weighty enough to sustain my own interest.  Perhaps because I knew the symbolic underpinnings before I read the book I gave it a little more ‘room’ in this regard, but each of the characters has a depth to them.  They are sympathetic.  We care for them.  How Jones creates such depth in four characters in only 216 pages is to me a remarkable thing.

I have made mention of the poetic nature of the prose.  There are wonderful descriptions of the iconic Sydney Opera House andHarbourBridge, but particularly the white shells.  Jones eschewed the obvious ‘sails’ simile because ‘cliché is the enemy of good writing’.  She spoke of the need not only to be different, but also to develop images which were culturally relevant to the background of each character.  So for Pei Xing, the Opera House looks “like porcelain bowls, stacked one upon the other, fragile, tipped, in an unexpected harmony.”  James sees them as teeth, whose “maws opened to the sky in a perpetual devouring”.  Catherine sees them as petals of a white rose.  Elsewhere, the shells are described as a fan of chambers; meringue peaks; ancient bones; origami.

There are some lovely links between characters too, the things they see, the people, the music of a didgeridoo player.  There is also a recurring motif in the form of poeple waving to each other in greeting or farewell which I think is a subtle masterstroke – reflecting both the waves of the harbour’s water and the theme of connection between people.  It’s wonderfully done.

Following on from this are other echoes, most notably the use of some of the images of Slessor’s Five Bells.  Ellie thinks of ‘combs of light’ when she watches the ferries come and go at Circular Quay – an image used by Slessor.  There is also an echo of the wonderful line ‘ferry the moonfall down’.  And maybe there are others I have missed.  It is subtle and well done.

I said above that Jones is a wordsmith and part of the joy of reading Five Bells is in coming across unusual words, like: insufflation, susurration, brecciated, betoken, and so on.  There are also wonderful images, like an ‘apron of light’ spilling from a kitchen.  Wonderful.  Woolf would be proud.  There are perhaps a few instances where it didn’t quite hit the right note for me; Jones said she reads a lot of poetry and finds its ‘obliqueness’ attractive, and occasionally the images veered a little too much to the oblique rather than concrete.  Still and all, it is a minor quirk.

Five Bells is a highly enjoyable read.  It ponders in a deep, sensuous, and dare I say ‘resonating’ manner the connections and reverberations between people, the strength of memory and grief – how they alter lives, for better and for worse.

This is the first of a three-book run I’m taking on after attending another session on Sydney in which Gail Jones, Ashley Hay and Delia Falconer spoke about their love of Sydney and the interconnectedness of their books.  (See my musings on that SWF session here.)  Next up another multi-protagonist novel set in Sydney: The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay.

The Dilettante’s Rating: I’ve decided to stop giving marks for reviews.  It’s fraught with difficulties and is, in some ways I think, unfair to reduce a whole novel to a mere number, much as it is a neat idea.  I started using them because my musings tend to be long, so I wanted to give readers an opportunity for a snapshot view, but that, perhaps, perpetuates the sense of ‘reduction’ that I now want to avoid.  Let’s instead focus on words.  (I reserve the right to change my mind though – I’m a Libran after all!)

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Vintage

2011

ISBN: 9781864710601

216 pages

Source: purchased (and signed!) at SWF 2011

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Ah, a return to the bounty of Latin American magic realism, and not to just any book, but one of the banner examples of the genre according to some – at least that was the promise; the reality was slightly different.  The House of the Spirits is a sweeping family saga that (eventually) intersects with a crucial part of 20th Century Chilean history with devastating consequences.  In this sense, it gives us a dramatic insight into the history of Chile, a history that Allende’s extended family was a large part of – but more of this later.  Each page is packed with ‘story’.  For the most part, sentences are indulgently long and paragraphs are packed with all manner of story slivers that break-off from the main plot-line like shards of a broken mirror.  Written in flowing, accessible language, it is clear from the opening that Allende is a born story-teller and that this is a very personal story.  What is less clear is whether her execution matches up to the scale of her ambition.

What is immediately clear is Allende’s humour, use of magical realism.  We have one of our main protagonists’ Clara Trueba’s ability to move the salt-cellar across the dinner table, accompanied by her acutely sensed prognostications and general clairvoyance.  And we have her fantastic uncle Marcos whose failed serenade of his love throws him into a deep depression – but only for a melodramatic two to three days!  He then travels the world and upon his return constructs a flying machine; everyone turns out to see the spectacle of flight as Marcos elegantly takes to the sky and disappears.  Allende’s world is populated with such wondrous characters, events and humour.  On the flip side, deaths are gruesome; take Nívea’s – Clara’s mother’s – decapitation, foreseen in a dream by Clara, and the madcap search for her head.  Only Clara the clairvoyant can track it down days later whilst heavily pregnant.  Indeed, finding the head proves too much for her and she goes into labour.  Rushed back to the ‘big house on the corner’ – the rambling family pile and a character in its own right – she gives birth to twins whilst the startled eyes of her dead mother’s severed head look on.

It is the intersection of family and country – the political differences, challenges, and history – where the story tries to come to life.  Yet for most of the novel, the ‘nationalist’ angle barely simmers to the surface of things, yet we are clear that the seeds of betrayal and exploitation that Esteban Trueba sows in his rise to both familial and political power will be bear a most bitter harvest.  Esteban’s rise is accompanied by philandering and the rape and exploitation of the peasants on his hacienda, Tres Marías.  It is at the end of the novel that the Chilean historical angle is laid bare.  Before this, Allende’s feminism and sense of social justice is clear, from the discussion over women’s right to vote, to the growing unrest in the peasant populace over the distribution of wealth and the exploitation of workers’ rights.  It is this growing tension that plagues Esteban as he seeks to control everything in his domain – from the produce and workers of his hacienda to the all the women in his life.  Unfortunately for him, Allende’s leading lady Clara is more than a match.  She is never his to claim despite their marriage.  She never loves him, which only serves to increase his rage and desperation to possess her.

Given Allende’s leftist political connections, it is no surprise that Esteban – a Conservative – is such a thoroughly malicious character. The irony is that Esteban becomes almost sympathetic after he loses power, despite his conspiratorial plotting, particularly when he returns to Tres Marías to find it taken over by the peasants who once worked the land for him, whereupon they take him hostage.  But this slight reprieve cannot last, and we see the true terror Esteban unleashed come home to roost.  As he sips champagne at the moment of the coup’s success, members of his family – who have grown to admire more socialist and even Marxist views – are being tortured by the military.  Esteban soon learns the military have no intention of handing back Congress.  ‘The Poet’ – thought to be Neruda – dies and with him is buried democracy.  Soon after Esteban expresses his “regret that the Army’s action, whose purpose had been to eliminate the threat of a Marxist dictatorship, had condemned the country to a dictatorship far more severe, one that, to all evidence, was fated to last a century.  For the first time in his life, Senator Trueba admitted he had made a mistake.”

This is where the book becomes something altogether different, or attempts to, for its focus falls on the decline of nationhood and democracy after the military coup and the accompanied terror campaign.  It becomes an altogether different book.  But this is where it starts to struggle too, for it deals with this terror only at the end, it is the climax of the book, but the book which has been a family saga now becomes a form of historical fiction.  The writing itself changes too – gone are the long, sweeping and florid sentences that characterise the first 400 pages, and in their stead are now short, sharp, action-filled sentences that ripple with the tension of the coup and its terrible aftermath.  This section in itself works well, with the delightful rescuing of Esteban by Pedro Tercero Garcia in Tres Marías mirrored in the rescue of Pedro by Esteban.  But overall, it doesn’t seem to gel.  It tries to be too much.  There is so much going on in this story, it is a wonder that it comes together at all, (and it would be a mighty task to try to summarise the labyrinthine plot with the successive generations of Truebas, their loves, their lives).  You have to admire the scale of ambition shown by Allende, particularly given this is her debut novel, but the execution of the story is not, in my view, up to the task set by such vision.  It feels like an attempt to be a Chilean One Hundred Years of Solitude fused with a tense political thriller.  As a result, it feels disjointed, as if Allende was trying to write her way through to one storyline from another – perhaps a symptom of many a debut novel.  Perhaps even Allende herself recognised this afterwards, for she again turned her attention to the harsh reality of the Chilean dictatorship with reportedly better success in her third novel Of Love and Shadows.  But I’m sure others will find this fusion exhilarating, and interesting it certainly is.

I mentioned this was an intensely personal story for Allende.  Indeed, there is debate as to whether the story is a roman à clef, with ‘The Poet’ character being Neruda, and ‘The Candidate’ and ‘The President’ characters one in the same – and both Allende’s cousin once removed: Salvador Allende.  (Salvador helped to found the Chilean Socialist Party, a Marxist party that eventually won power in 1970.  The CIA then got involved to overthrow Allende who was indeed ousted and killed in a military coup in 1973, to be replaced as President by none other than the military dictator Augusto Pinochet).  The book is preceded by a dedication: “To my mother, my grandmother, and all the other extraordinary women of this story”, which is then followed by some of Neruda’s poetry.  All of which lends itself to the belief that indeed a hidden reality underpins the narrative.  This viewpoint is further bolstered by the portrayal of the right’s plotting to oversee the economic collapse of the country with the help of foreign “gringos” later in the story.  Allende herself was forced to leave Chile when she was added to wanted lists for helping others escape the brutal Pinochet regime.  It is not surprising that the heartfelt tragedy of her lost nation comes through so strongly in her writing.  She now lives in California, and owing to the success of The House of the Spirits – which she commenced writing on the 8th of January 1981 – she has started writing each of her subsequent works on the 8th of January too.

There are nice plot turns and sections of beautiful writing.  When Clara realises she is close to death and begins to put her affairs in order, her diaries are organised, and she finds all the jewels that she had put in shoeboxes and the like over the many years of marriage, placing them all in a sock and handing it to Blanca, saying: “Put this away, darling. Someday they may be good for something besides masquerades.”  You get the sense that we’ll see these jewels again and so it proves when Blanca is forced to sell them to make ends meet after Esteban turns his attention away from the upkeep of the house.  Clara is not perturbed by death; she sees it as merely a ‘change’, and because of her ability to confer with those who have passed over, she feels that she too will be able to communicate with those in the here-and-now, that “death would not be a separation, but a way of being more united.”  But Clara is the glue that had kept the big house alive, and with her departure the house begins an inexorable decline toward oblivion.  The decay of the house is well depicted; only Clara’s blue silk-covered room remains unadulterated.

SPOLIER ALERT IN NEXT PARAGRAPH ONLY

The depiction of Alba’s incarceration and torture is particularly affecting; eventually, she decides that death would be a welcome thing and stops eating, but Clara comes to her “with the novel idea that the point was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle.”  She then tells Alba to live so she can write down the horrible truth of what has gone on so that everyone will know the story.  In the meantime, Esteban finds himself calling upon an old whore he once lent money to, Tránsito Soto, who pops up in the storyline every now and then.  It is she who finally helps Esteban to free his grand-daughter.  A circle is completed here in the history of the family and the nation – Esteban raped Pancha García, a peasant in Tres Marías, and the grandson of this rape now rapes Esteban’s grand-daughter in a wretched parallel.  This circularity is reflected in the way Alba reads again the first line of her grandmother’s Clara’s notebooks as a place in which to finish the story, just as it had started, and reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses.

OK TO READ FROM HERE!:

But aside from the finer moments, there were plenty of clunky ones in this edition, which I’ll put down to the Spanish-English translation and poor type-setting. Examples: “Amanda clasped him to his breast frenetically”, seems a poor choice, and: “… no-one could accuse him of any greater offense that tax evasion”, [pages 258 & 259 respectively, emphasis added].  It would be interesting to see how Allende herself – now fluent in English – would ‘translate’ her own work.  There are also small inconsistencies in the plot – on the one hand Esteban is shocked when the socialists win government, whilst on the next page he has supposedly foreseen this eventuality and has prepared for it in minute detail.  Why would he be shocked if he had foreseen it?

Elsewhere, parts left me under-whelmed.  Early parts are over-written and there was a little too much repetition; I felt myself wanting to skip ahead which I rarely do in books I’m enjoying. In short, the book could be shorter, tighter and more focussed.   But I ask myself: would more ‘focus’ take away from the sheer exuberance of the tale which is what ultimately sustains interest?  We’ll never know, but all I can say is that it is a worthy read and a fairly memorable story, but the problems of execution were a let-down for me, which means it does not rate as highly for me as it will for others.  But it is a great debut novel, and strongly persuades that Allende deserves to be read further.  More highly rated by my old copy of The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide and also a 1,001 Must Read is Allende’s Of Love and Shadows which is on my TBR list.  I hope for a better read from an even more accomplished author.

There is much to admire both about The House of the Spirits and Isabel Allende herself.  For more on Allende, see her wonderful, impassioned TED talk on women’s rights.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Black Swan

ISBN: 9780552995887

491 pages

Source: Personal Library aka: the Bookshelf Rainbow.

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