Once again we are visiting our first-born in Melbourne and taking the opportunity to visit places we haven’t yet explored in this city and state. I’ve managed on this trip to tick off a few more “bucket list” items.
Captain Cook’s cottage in Fitzroy Gardens.
I first learnt of this cottage in my childhood when my siblings and I would collect Golden Fleece service station swap cards on road trips. These cards introduced me to all sorts of sights around Australia but three particularly took my fancy – Jenolan Caves with those amazing formations; the John Flynn Memorial in central Australia, because of the HUGE rock on top of it; and Captain Cook’s cottage because, yes I admit it, it was cute. The picture showed it with ivy growing over the walls, and for someone living in outback Queensland, that was romantic. I’ve seen the first two sights long ago, but for some reason had not seen the cottage – until now. It’s as cute as I expected, and a wonderful example of preserving the home of a significant person – albeit thousands of miles from where it was built.
And, it has a literary reference because upstairs was a display of a selection of the sorts of books people read in the 18th century – and there wasn’t a novel amongst them as the sign confirmed! This reminded me of Jane Austen’s famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey in which she argues that novels convey a “thorough knowledge of human nature” in the best language.
Harold Holt Memorial at Cheviot Beach.
Harold Holt was prime minister of Australia in December 1967 when he disappeared at Cheviot Beach while scuba diving. He was never found, leading, of course, to all sorts of conspiracy theories.
This is not particularly literary, except that the event did spawn much writing – journalistic, historical and biographical – including My Life and Harry written the year after his death by his flamboyant wife, Dame Zara Holt.
Immigration Museum, in the old Customs Building.
A more recent wishlist item, but a significant one, is Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. It tells the story of migration, primarily in Victoria, and so starts from around 1830s. I liked that it paralleled this story with that of the original inhabitants discussing how migration and migrants impacted them and their lives. This aspect of the story could be stronger, but I guess the main focus is the immigrants. I liked the way the museum incorporated historical/political facts, through a timeline and other displays, with personal stories of immigrants told in text, voice and visuals.
The extra treat for me here though was a little serendipitous find. Recently, I had a discussion, in some online forum or other, with the Resident Judge about different styles of museums. She talked about liking museums where you can discover little things for yourself. I was reminded of this discussion when, out of the blue, in a display about identity, I came across a statement by novelist Ouyang Yu. Born in China, he now lives primarily in Australia where he established his literary career. At least, I assume the statement is by the novelist as his identity wasn’t divulged. I rather liked discovering him in this place, but did wonder why he wasn’t further identified.
A comment by blog-reader Ian Darling on a recent Monday Musings post that he supposed literary prizes existed back in 1927, followed by the tardy announcement a couple of days ago of the shortlist for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (see Lisa ANZLitLovers’ post), got me thinking about the history of literary awards.
I’ve long been aware of The Bulletin’s prize for fiction which was inaugurated by its editor, SH Prior, in 1928. The inaugural prize was won jointly by M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built and Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo. The next year, it was won by Vance Palmer for The passage. I’m not sure what happened to the prize except that, according to the Oxford companion to Australian literature, The Bulletin’s next editor, John Webb, established the SH Prior Memorial Prize for Fiction, and it was awarded 1935 to 1946. But, were there other awards? Trove and the Oxford companion came to my rescue.
What I discovered was something that confirmed my understanding of the fundamental raison d’être for awards – to support writers and literature. I know some writers question the value of awards, and we’ve had some good discussions about the issue here, but putting aside some very valid concerns, it’s clear that the impetus is usually to support the writing endeavour. And so, the article on Literary Awards in the Oxford companion starts with this:
The rewarding of Australian writers began soon after the establishment of the first colony when in 1818 Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW, awarded Michael Massey Robinson two cows from the government herd for his services as an antipodean “poet laureate”. Macquarie’s decision inaugurated government patronage of Australian literature.
The article continues to tell us that the government at times found jobs for writers – such as a government inspector of forests job for poet Henry Kendall in 1881! This is supporting literature? (The article also says that the government gave his widow a job as superintendent of cleaners in a government office in 1884!) Interestingly, via Trove, I found a reference to this employment practice in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, in 1916. The writer of the article, which was about government encouraging literature through a prize as it was already doing for music and painting, introduced his/her argument with the comment that “Positions in the Government service had in the past been found on two poets — Kendall and Daley — but the positions were unsuitable”.
The Oxford companion continues, saying that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Australian writers began to receive prizes and awards on a regular basis. It divides these awards into two categories, those that:
- support creative activity by supporting a writer during the creation of a work (fellowships and writer-in residence programs, being examples); and
- reward a finished, usually published work.
We all know of current examples of both these categories so, in the rest of this post, I’m going to share (in chronological order) a rather random grab-bag of awards from the first half of the twentieth century:
- 1908-1972 Commonwealth Literary Fund. According to the Oxford companion, this fund, established by Alfred Deakin’s government was “the first systematic federal government initiative in support of the arts”. For the first 30 years it focused on providing pensions to sick authors and their families or families of authors who’d died poor or “literary men doing good work but ‘unable on account of poverty to persist in that work'”. However, from 1939, as the result of lobbying, the Fund was increased and started to offer annual fellowships and grants to writers, publishers, literary magazines. Through Trove I found articles identifying winners of fellowships in various years. In 1952, for example, fellowships were given to Judah Waten for “a novel dealing with a Jewish migrant family”, Kylie Tennant for “a novel about travelling beekeepers”, Victor Kennedy for “an interpretative biography of [poet] Bernard O’Dowd”, and Xavier Herbert for “the completion of a novel dealing with feminine behaviour in time of war”.
- 1908 Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work Literary Prizes. Apparently, the First Exhibition of Women’s Work was held in Philadelphia in 1876, but the first Australian one was held in 1907. What intrigues me about these awards is the categories: Story of not less than 100,000 words (with the first prize being £50); Play of three acts, scene laid in Australia; Temperance novel; Esperanto essay; Best historical sketch of Exhibition (Illustrated). Temperance novel? Esperanto essay? Signs of their times, eh?
- 1909 Tasmanian Literary Awards. I’m not sure exactly of the provenance of these awards as the article is very brief, but again, it’s the categories that intrigue: Essay, open to residents of Tasmania, any age, not to exceed 3000 words, subject, ”Modern Patriotism”; Original poem, not to exceed 100 lines, subject, lines written for “Foundation Day, 1910″; Original tale, not to exceed 3000 words, subject, any connected with some incident of Australian history.
- 1943 United Nations Literary Competition. This prize is clearly not related to the United Nations, given that body didn’t exist in 1943, but was created by the English publisher, Hutchinson and Co. Presumably its title comes from the fact that entry was open to international writers. It sounds like several prizes were offered, with the overall purse being £10,000. The article gives a range of topics: “Fiction, detective stories and thrillers, autobiography, war experiences and travel, history and biography, essays and belles lettres, poetry, children’s literature, philosophy of religion and general philosophy, scientific and technical literature”. I’m presuming these are not specifically award categories but subjects the publisher knows will sell well and would like to receive?
- 1946-1951 “Herald” Literary Competition. In 1946 (as far as I can ascertain), the Sydney Morning Herald instituted a literary competition for novels, short stories and poetry. In 1947, Jon Cleary won for his social realist novel You can’t see ’round corners, which spawned a popular television series in 1967 (albeit reset in the Vietnam era). In 1949, however, the judges did not feel any submissions met their expectations, so did not grant first prize in either the novel or short-story categories. They did award second prize to T. A. Hungerford for his novel Sowers of the wind, and third prize to D’Arcy Niland for his Gold in the streets. Niland also won second prize for his short story. The awards were discontinued in 1951 on the recommendation of judges, who felt that “the succession of competitions has been too rapid to allow competitors sufficient time for proper preparation and revision”.
Hmmm … we might continue this discussion another day.
It is a truth universally acknowledged – I know this is a tired old joke but I seem programmed to do it – that Jane Austen fans will collect multiple editions of her works. There are many reasons for this behaviour, but one of them is our interest in different introductions. And so, although I already had a copy of Lady Susan, in the Minor works volume of R.W. Chapman’s The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, I bought the Penguin edition for my Kindle because it had an introduction by Margaret Drabble. And I have a second confession to make: this is a rereading, but my reason for rereading has little to do with the reasons I gave in my recent post on Flanagan. The reason is simple – my local Jane Austen group decided to schedule it for our October meeting. I was happy with that. As far as I’m concerned all bets are off my usual “rules” when it comes to Jane Austen.
If you’re not an Austen fan, you may not have heard of Lady Susan. It is a complete novella that sits between her Juvenilia and her adult novels. It was written, we believe, in 1793/4 when Austen would have been 18-19 years old, but was not published until 1871, well after her death, when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, included it in his memoir of her. It is epistolary in form, something she tried again with Elinor and Marianne. While one she rewrote in her well-known third person omniscient voice, retitling it Sense and sensibility, for some reason she didn’t go back to Lady Susan. One reason might have been its subject matter.
“the most accomplished coquette in England” (Reginald of Lady Susan)
Lady Susan is a beautiful, 35-year-old widow of four months, who is already on the prowl for a new, wealthy husband. The novel opens with her needing to leave Langford, where she’d been staying with the Manwarings, because she was having an affair with the married man of the house, and had seduced his sister’s suitor, Sir James Martin. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon and his wife Catherine, whom she’d done her best to dissuade him from marrying. She’s not long there before Reginald, Catherine’s brother, arrives to check her out because, from what he’s heard,
Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect.
Of course, the inevitable happens and the artful Lady Susan captivates him. Meanwhile, Lady Susan wants her 16-year-old daughter, Frederica, to marry Sir James, the man she’d seduced away from Miss Manwaring – but sweet, sensible Frederica wants none of this weak “rattle” of a man.
You’ve probably worked out by now that this is not Austen’s usual fare. Lady Susan belongs to the 18th century tradition of wickedness, lasciviousness and adultery, forced marriages, and moralistic resolutions. The novel’s characters tend to be types rather than complex beings, and it is racily written, with a broad brush rather than a fine pen. And yet …
“Lady Susan is not wholly a villain” (Margaret Drabble)
This is also where Austen’s mature touch starts to appear. For all Lady Susan’s self-centred “bewitching” machinations, she is also, as Drabble says, “witty, energetic, intelligent and charming”. Drabble and other critics argue that Lady Susan’s spirit can be seen in characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and, particularly, Mary Crawford who, like Lady Susan, comes from London where she moved in “fast” circles. How could a teenaged country parson’s daughter imagine into being such a duplicitous character? Austen was, we know, a great reader and read the gothic novels of her day. She also knew the behaviour of Mrs Craven, the mother of her neighbour Mrs Lloyd. According to Drabble, Mrs Craven “had treated her daughters shockingly, locking them up, beating them and starving them, until they ran away from home …” just as Lady Susan’s daughter ran away from school. And, as her letters demonstrate, she was capable of bite.
We don’t know why Austen didn’t pursue this book, besides making a good copy of it in 1805, or why she didn’t try again to write about a beautiful 35-year-old widow.
Hints of what’s to come
All this is well and good, and I loved the read, but my main reason for reading these early Austens is their insight into the writer to come – her wit and irony, and her commentary on human nature. Lady Susan, having been written on the cusp of her maturity, is particularly interesting in this context. The melodrama, for example, is toned down, compared with the books Austen would have been reading. Frederica isn’t locked up as she might have been in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (my review), there are no rapes as we see in Richardson’s Clarissa. Austen is moving, in other words, towards the naturalism of her favourite topic, “3 or 4 families in a Country Village”.
I love Austen’s irony, and there’s plenty in evidence here. A good example is when Reginald, completely convinced by Lady Susan, writes to his father of how she has been misrepresented, saying that this
may also convince us how little the general report of any one ought to be credited … I blame myself severely for having so easily believed the scandalous tales invented.
The joke is on him because, of course, he should believe these “scandalous tales”. One of the complexities of the novel is this issue of gossip – who should believe what and whom? As Austen readers know, gossip plays a significant role in her characterisation and plots.
Other ideas and themes that we see in later novels also appear in Lady Susan. Bad mothering is one. Another, more specific, is this delightful comment on accomplishments, reminding us of the discussion between Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth at Netherfield. Lady Susan writes to her equally scheming friend Alicia Johnson:
Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages arts and sciences; it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list.
And then there’s that main reason I love Austen – her terse, pithy commentary on human behaviour. There’s much in Lady Susan, including
but where there is a disposition to dislike a motive will never be wanting
Silly woman, to expect constancy from so charming a man!
Have I convinced you to give it a go? I do hope so.
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 2003
Kindle Edition EISBN: 9780141907901
Available in e-text.
Lisa at ANZLitlovers has posted on Richard Flanagan’s (exciting-to-us) Booker Prize win for The narrow road to the deep north, and has provided links to reviews by several bloggers. So, I thought I’d do something different. In my review and follow-up post, I discussed the role of poetry in the novel. Reviewer (and novelist) Romy Ash suggests that there are two love stories in the book, the second one being a “love letter to literature”.
And certainly, there are many references to literature and books, besides the specific references to poetry that I’ve previously discussed. Early in the novel, on what we later realise was Dorrigo’s last sentient night, he’s in bed with his lover:
On the night he lay there with Lynette Maison, he had beside their bed, as he always did, no matter where he was, a book, having returned to the habit of reading in his middle age. A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound. He read late of an afternoon. He almost never looked at what the book was of a night, for it existed as a talisman or a lucky object — as some familiar god that watched over him and saw him safely through the world of dreams.
I was intrigued by the distinction he makes between a “good” book and a “great” one. There are many reasons why I want to reread books. Most of them, I’d say, have to do with the “joy” those books bring me. I don’t mean “joy” in terms of “happiness” but in terms of “inspiration”. This inspiration can take many forms – spiritual, intellectual, emotional, cultural, linguistic. And it usually springs from the two things I mostly read for – insights into human behaviour and great prose. Jane Austen is a good example of this. I’m not sure that I think about it in terms of my soul. Have you thought about why you reread?
Anyhow, there’s one other quote I wanted to share regarding books. This one occurs before the war, in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy, the love of his life:
It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books — an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.
And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work — an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.
What I particularly like about this quote is the idea that books can make you feel you are not alone. I love it when I read a book and think “I know that feeling” or “That’s me”. Of course, I also love it when I gain insight into how others think or feel too, but it can be reassuring to feel that someone else understands your particular neuroses or dark thoughts or sense of the ridiculous or whatever it is that sometimes makes you feel alone. Books can be such cheap therapy can’t they? I also like the second part of this quote, and its suggestion that there is only one book, one story that encompasses all stories. If only we could all see the world that way …
Hmmm, my post title for this week’s Monday Musings sounds rather provocative, but I’m going to keep this post pretty light. It’s been a busy few days so I’m just going to share an interesting little article I read a few weeks ago while I was reading about Australasian Authors Week in 1927. It’s from the Evening News of 24 February 1927, and is by someone using the by-line, Zeno.
It’s a short article, but it caught my eye for its opening paragraph:
When the really brilliant Australian novelist arrives, he will not fail of joyous welcome, and is assured of his reward. Meantime, it is the duty of readers and critics to encourage, as far as possible, those who are in process of development, and to help them in their difficult path to distinction.
Don’t you love that (ignoring the traditional-for-the-times use of “he”)? It denies the fact that some excellent novelists had already arrived, such as Henry Handel Richardson (a “she”) – but I do like its optimism (albeit somewhat naive).
That’s by-the-by, however. My main point here is his* argument that readers and critics have a duty to “encourage” writers on “their difficult path to distinction”. Admittedly, he does qualify this with “as far as possible” which I suppose allows us to use our critical faculty and not encourage thoughtlessly. The interesting thing is that the two authors he then “encourages” are not well-known today – so they, rightly or wrongly, despite his encouragement, didn’t achieve distinction. The two authors and their books are Stephen Westlaw and The white peril, and James Pollard and The bushland man.
Stephen Westlaw received 23 votes in the Argus’ plebiscite. I’ve had trouble finding out much about him. AustLit writes his name as “Steven” (though the plebiscite listing, like Zeno, spells it “Stephen”) and indicates that his birth-name was John Pyke. This doesn’t help much, but I did find a newspaper article stating Steven Westlaw was a nom-de-plume because of a relative writing under his birth-name. The article also indicated that he wrote satirical material under the name R.X. Jackson.
Anyhow, Zeno tells us that Westlaw’s The white peril is “a startling story of an insidious evil which is creeping slowly, but surely, into our cities”. The subject matter is apparently drug traffic, and Zeno says that Westlaw’s “description of the method of distribution tallies with the disclosures made by the New York police and apparently the same conditions obtain to some extent in Australia”. He concludes that “to read The White Peril in the light of this knowledge, will give some idea of the direful consequences which will result if this evil be not nipped in the bud”.
James Pollard received 6 votes in the plebiscite. He was born in Yorkshire in 1900, and so was young, 27, when the plebiscite occurred. He emigrated to Australia in 1913, serving with the Australian Army World War I. He then became a soldier-settler but abandoned this focus on writing. He wrote three adult novels, two children’s novels, and short stories. He also wrote articles for Walkabout magazine, and a natural history column in the West Australian using the by-line, Mopoke. According to AustLit, he lobbied for and established free libraries for children – presumably in Western Australia.
Zeno describes Pollard’s The bushland man as “a romance of the open spaces”. It’s about a forest ranger with “an intense love of the bush”, and describes “crops and herds, bush-tracks and broken roads; country folk with typically Australian speech, acres of wheat, loads of wool; sheep skins and marsupials”. Zeno calls it “a book for all Australians and one which may go forth to the world. It contains neither fulsome flattery nor stupid libel”. So glad there’s no “stupid libel”! As it turns out, the assessment from our times is that his work is popular rather than literary, and that he presents “a somewhat romantic picture of the beauty of the South-West for a growing number of readers becoming interested in their own country – in fact, the discovery of it through the novel and stories” (Veronica Brady and Peter Cowen, ‘The Novel’, The Literature of Western Australia, cited by AustLit).
I guess Zeno was writing for an evening newspaper, but these “reviews”, if that they be, tell us nothing really about the style or literary quality. Perhaps this is Zeno’s way of being encouraging – focus on the story, and get people to buy and read? Fair enough, but I think the duty of a critic is a little more than this.
* As Zeno is a male Greek name, I’ll use the male pronoun here.
I must start by thanking Western Australian short story writer Glen Hunting* for recommending Annabel Smith’s The Ark in his comment on a recent Monday Musings post. Hunting wrote that it “is self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has its own interactive website”. I was intrigued so checked it out. My initial reaction was “hmm, is this for me?” But, I’ve wanted to read Smith for a while, so decided where better to start than with this innovative project? I bought the iPad app version and was entertained from the first page. Lisa (ANZLitLovers), who reviewed it just after I started reading it, felt the same.
The Ark is, for want of a better description, dystopian speculative fiction presented in the form of a modern epistolary novel with interactive options. I say “modern” epistolary because the story is told through a variety of textual communications – emails, a blog, memos, reports, minutes of meetings, and news articles. It is divided into two books, of which the first is told, sequentially, through four characters, one on the outside followed by three inhabitants – Kirk Longrigg, CEO of SynBioTec Australia which established the Ark; Ava, a wife, mother and deferred PhD student-expert on despots; Roscoe, the 15-year old son of futurologist Mia; and Pilot, a botanist. At different points in the book we are invited to investigate the Ark via links though which we can tour the bunker, hear the inhabitants, add our own contributions or fan-fiction. I liked the graphics used to depict the Ark, but didn’t spend a lot of time exploring these interactive elements. I suspect different readers, depending on their interests, will behave very differently in this regard. Perhaps game-players will engage more with the interactive features? The good thing is that the book is flexible. It’s not necessary to engage in these digressions, but it can, I’m sure, enhance your enjoyment if you are so inclined.
Not surprisingly, an important element of the book is its design. Each different type of communication has its own visual style – the “dailemails”, the more private person-to-person “Gopher”, the supposedly secure “Headless Horseman”, Roscoe’s “Kaos Kronikles” blog, BLiPPs, and so on. Once these become familiar, they signpost the context in which each communication is occurring. As I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking what fun Smith must have had coming up with all the names and acronyms (like GARDEN, the Growth Apparatus for Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment) used in the Ark.
But please, I hear you asking by now, what is it all about? The story is set between 2041 and 2043, but commences with a brief newspaper report in 2093 announcing that:
Seventeen people have been recovered from a bunker built into Mount Kosciuszko in south-east Australia, where they have been living in total isolation for almost five decades, since the government collapse in the wake of the post-peak oil chaos in 2041.
There is more to the Ark than that though. It was not principally about saving people – as the presence of the botanist may clue you into. The Ark was in fact a seed bank or “National Arboreal Protection Facility” aimed at preserving seeds for an uncertain future. This aspect of the novel reflects Smith’s concern about climate change, something that is reinforced when we discover that the Mount Kosciuszko area in Australia’s high snow country is now rife with sandstorms! But, there is another theme to this novel, besides this specific climate change one. It’s a more universal one to do with charismatic-cum-despotic leaders. Consequently, it is Ava, the expert in despots, who is the first of the inhabitants to carry the story after Kirk’s opening section which concerns a disagreement between him and the Ark’s project manager, Aidan Fox, regarding Aidan’s unauthorised lockdown of the site for security reasons. For some time, we don’t know who to believe. Smith complicates the issue by Ava’s possibly being unreliable due to having suffered mental problems in the past.
Anyhow, the plot thickens. There’s adultery, a few deaths, and some excursions outside. As more things start to go wrong, conflicts arise regarding freedom and human rights versus security… It’s clever, but believable, and fits comfortably with other dystopian novels about people trapped in isolated locations or in alien futures, and it also draws on what we know about the experience of people in religious cults.
This is a plot and ideas-driven novel rather than a character-based one, which is partly due to Smith’s goals and the genre she is working in, and partly a factor of the multi-voice epistolary form which does not lend itself to in-depth characterisation. I say this, though, not as a criticism. It’s a good read, and doesn’t suffer for this lack of character focus, much as I love character-driven novels. It’s just that the characters are generally more “types” than fully realised individuals – the conniving henchman, the willing nurturer, the trusting hardworking followers, the loyal but open-minded offsider. There is, too, an opening for a sequel that could explore, for example, how the seventeen members engage with the world they enter (or reenter) in 2093.
As regular readers know, I’m not a keen e-Book reader. I’ve read a few books on my Kindle, but this was the first complete book I have read on my iPad. It was fine, partly because the form did not mean pages of dense text to confront on a glary screen, but I was disappointed that although I could bookmark pages of interest, I could not make notes on the text as I can on the Kindle or on “regular” books on the iPad. I do like my marginalia, but I guess it’s dependent on how the content is generated. Oh well.
Have I told you enough? I hope so. It’s well worth a read if you like dystopian fiction and/or if you are interested in experiencing different ways of telling stories in our digital world. I’d never want straight prose novels to disappear – and I don’t believe they will – but the arts should also be about experimenting and playing with boundaries, and this is what Smith has done here. Good for her.
* Glen Hunting’s story “Martha and the Lesters” appeared in Knitting and other stories, which I reviewed a few months ago.
In my review of Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north I talked a little about the importance of poetry to some of the main characters. I can’t resist sharing just a little more on this topic.
This is Dorrigo thinking, at the end of his life, though he doesn’t know just how near it is at the time:
He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much as possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt to be more moving that the reading of poetry; where excitement would come from paying for a soup made out of foraged grass. He had eaten foraged grass in the camps; he preferred food. The Australia that took refuge in his head was mapped with the stories of the dead; the Australia of the living he found an ever stranger country.
Dorrigo Evans had grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry, or, as it was increasingly with him, the shadow of a single poem. If the coming of television and with it the attendant idea of celebrity – who were otherwise people, Dorrigo felt, you would not wish to know – ended that age, it also occasionally fed on it, finding in the clarity of those who ordered their lives in accordance with the elegant mystery of poetry a suitable subject for imagery largely devoid of thought.
I was thrilled when I read that Dorrigo, who was born around 1913, had “grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry”. It reminded me of my recent observation that poetry seems to have played a more significant role in people’s lives back in the 1920s than now. So, for Dorrigo, poetry is what he turns to for sustenance, for meaning or explanation, in his life. He says at one point that he can sleep without a woman, but he can’t sleep without a book. I love the idea of a world where poetry is widely known, loved and referred to.
Anyhow, here is Nakamura, dying of cancer, thinking about “goodness”:
He told himself that, through his service of this cosmic goodness, he had discovered he was not one man but many, that he could do the most terrible things he might otherwise have thought were evil if he had not known that they were in the service of the ultimate goodness. For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word — perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem — a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil.
Yet somehow — in a way he tried not to dwell upon — this poem has become horror, monsters and corpses. And he knew he had discovered in himself an almost inexhaustible capacity to stifle pity, to be playful with cruelty in a way that he found frankly pleasurable, for no single human life could be worth anything next to this cosmic goodness. For a moment, as he was being eaten by Tomokawa’s* oppressive armchair, he wondered: what if this had all been a mask for the most terrible evil.
The idea was too horrific to hold on to. In an increasingly rare moment of lucidity, Nakamura realised what was imminent was a battle not between life and death in his body, but between his dream of himself as a good man and this nightmare of ice monsters and crawling corpses. And with the same iron will that has served him so well in the Siamese jungle, in the ruins of the Shinjuku Rashomon and at the Blood Bank of Japan, he resolved that he must henceforth conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man.
Nakamura, as I said in my review, saw poetry as portraying “Japanese spirit” and it helped him justify his actions as commander of the camp. After the war, he gradually started to question his actions, but here at the very end of his life he wants, needs in fact, to see himself as a good man. And by force of will he does so, enabling him to choose as his death poem one which concludes with “clear is my heart”.
I love the idea of choosing your own death poem – and think I’ll start thinking about mine. What about you?
* He’s visiting Tomokawa, who had been one of his corporals on the Railway.