You know what they say, too much of a good thing is bad for you, so, to save you dear readers from bad things, I thought we’d take a break this week from my historical survey of Australian literature. And, since I received this morning an email containing a call for submissions for Nature Conservancy Australia’s Nature Writing Prize, I thought it would provide the perfect interlude.
Back in May I wrote a post about non-fiction literary awards and listed a few of them, mostly already well-known. Nature Conservancy Australia’s Nature Writing Prize is not well-known. It’s a biennial prize and the 2014/15 prize will be the third one awarded. The prize, which offers $5000 and publication in the Australian Book Review, is for an essay of 3,000-5,000 words “in the genre of ‘Writing of Place'”. According to the press release, the award will go to:
an Australian writer whose entry is judged to be of the highest literary merit and which best explores his or her relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape.
The award was created, the press release also says
to promote and celebrate the art of nature writing in Australia as well as to encourage a greater appreciation of Australia’s magnificent landscapes.
I’m intrigued by the language: it’s called the “Nature Writing Prize” but it’s for the genre “Writing of Place”. The two do overlap but, in my head anyhow, they also differ. However, this statement just quoted above mentions nature and landscape, so it seems that by “place” they essentially mean “landscape”. But then, isn’t landscape part of nature? I suppose I’m being a pedant … I expect that it’s quite likely that writing about nature/landscape will often end up addressing notions of “place”.
The inaugural prize was won by Annamaria Weldon for “Threshold Country” and the second prize, for 2012/2013, was won by Stephen Wright for his essay “Bunyip“. In evocative language, drawing on the mythical bunyip, the native eucalypts and, pointedly, the introduced lantana “which replicates itself industriously, efficiently and will cover everything except shadow”, he explores the impact of the early European settlers on indigenous communities in South East Queensland and its legacy today. He makes the disconcerting point that:
We do not understand where we are, or what we have done. A landscape is not a sense of place for the non-Indigenous inhabitants of the continent. It is just somewhere we happen to be.
Note the distinction he makes between “landscape”, something physical, and “place”, which is something far more abstract. Anyhow, towards the end of the essay, he suggests that
It is as if, beneath the ordinary miseries of life, there is a current of displacement that allows us no rest. Our thought is always dislocated and perhaps this is the inevitable outcome of our attempts to consider ourselves at home in a landscape we have so spectacularly devastated.
While this is rather negative for optimist me, it does capture the uneasiness I, and I think many of us, feel about our relationship to the land of our birth that we know has an ugly history. We have a long way to go …
In a sad little postscript, the The Nature Conservancy commemorates Liam Davison and his wife Frankie who died in Malaysian Airline MH17 disaster in the Ukraine. Davison was one of the five writers shortlisted for the 2012/2013 Nature Writing Prize for an essay titled “Map for a Vanished Landscape”. Lisa at ANZLitLovers wrote a tribute to him soon after his death, and is now reading and reviewing his novels.
What I love about the Library of America is the variety of works it features in its Story of the Week program. Because of my interest in Japan and Japanese writers, I was particularly attracted to Toshio Mori’s story, “Japanese Hamlet”, that they published a couple of weeks ago. Toshio Mori was one of the first Japanese-American writers to be published in America – and he was best known for short stories. Two things that make him interesting to me.
According to Wikipedia, Mori was born in Oakland, California in 1910. Like many Japanese-Americans, he was interned in a camp (for him, the Topaz War Relocation Centre in Utah) during World War 2. According to LOA, the story “Japanese Hamlet” was written in 1939, but wasn’t published until 1946 – in a magazine called the Pacific Citizen which was apparently the “leading magazine of the Pacific Asian American community”. It was then titled “The School Boy Hamlet”. It appeared later, as “Japanese Hamlet”, in his collection The Chauvinist and other stories, published in 1979, the year before his death.
The story is told by an unnamed first person narrator. He talks of a man, Tom Fukunaga, who “was a schoolboy in a Piedmont home. He had been one since his freshman days in high school. When he was thirty-one he was still a schoolboy”. This Tom, who “did not want anything in the world but to be a Shakespearean actor”, visits the narrator regularly to recite Shakespeare to him. He’s a schoolboy because he still lives at the school, and has not got a job because he is perfecting his acting skills. Our narrator is happy to hear the recitation because “there was little for me to do in the evenings”.
Tom’s family is not happy with his decision, calling him “a good-for-nothing loafer” who “ought to be ashamed of himself for being a schoolboy at his age”. He tells his relatives that he’s “not loafing” but “studying very hard”. We learn that an uncle visits him regularly trying “to persuade him to quit stage hopes and schoolboy attitude”. His parents have disowned him, his uncle says, and “pretty soon your relatives will drop you”. But Tom is unmoved. He has his goal and will not be swayed from it. He lives on five dollars a week, plus room and board, presumably covered by his family. He feels no guilt about this.
So, what do we have here? We have the would-be artist persisting with his dream. We also have the suggestion of Japanese culture not understanding the pursuit of an individual goal over one’s responsibility to family and community. Then we add the fact that Tom’s favourite role is Hamlet, the quintessential dreamer and procrastinator. I like the complexity of this criss-crossing themes and ideas. Life, we know and Mori shows, is not a simple this-then-that but a complex web of interacting influences.
In all this it’s not clear who the narrator is – a friend, old teacher, neighbour? Is he American or Japanese? Interesting that Mori has chosen to tell the story through a first person narrator, and yet has told us nothing about this narrator. What is the narrator’s role? He (presumably “he”) mediates between us and Tom’s story but he is also an actor in the story. This complicates our response to Tom, I think, because we see him through the eyes of another, but we don’t know who that other is. Regardless of who the narrator is, he starts to be “afraid that Tom’s energy and time were wasted and I helped along to waste it.” He tries to encourage Tom to contact some theatre people, fearing “we are wasting our lives”. Interesting, here, that the narrator is not only worried about enabling Tom to waste his life but about wasting his own. Eventually, the narrator starts to dread Tom’s presence “as if his figure reminded me of my part in the mock play that his life was”. One night he suggests Tom give it up for a while because it is “destroying” him. Tom simply ceases to come.
The narrator feels “bad” because he knew Tom would “never abandon his ambition”. And, while he knew Tom would never become a great Shakespearean actor, he admired “his simple persistence”. The story ends quietly, with no clear resolution – though we do see Tom once again.
LOA’s introductory notes quote a literary scholar, David Palumbo-Liu, who says that while the story seems to offer a simple message, ‘it masks an underlying tension from “a faith in the power of Art to transcend race, ethnicity, and history.”” Ethnicity is not mentioned in the story, except in the title under which it was eventually published – and it is of course implied in Tom’s name. However, LOA continues, Palumbo-Liu expands his argument: “In a world of racial difference, to be Hamlet, Tom cannot be Japanese; to be Japanese, Tom cannot be Hamlet. Yet the myth of universal art denies that there is any contradiction since, in being an artist, Tom can do both.” LOA suggests that Tom is much like Mori himself who also persevered with his writing, hoping to reach “a wide American audience”.
Not knowing Mori’s oeuvre, I don’t know whether he intended this story to be what Palumbo-Lui sees. I don’t know, either, whether he intended it to be about Japanese culture’s emphasis on duty over individuality, since many Western families would also look askance at a young person not getting a job. What I do know is that although its “simple” message is about the perseverance of a passionate artist, it’s not a simple story. I’m glad to have been introduced to Toshio Mori.
First published: in Pacific Citizen, August 17, 1946
Available: Online at the Library of America
In my recent review of Brooke Davis’ novel Lost & found I mentioned her descriptions but didn’t really give any examples. I can’t leave this book without giving you two that involve a rather interesting tree. It also gives me an opportunity to share my photographs of one! They are beautiful (though my photographs don’t really do them justice).
The interesting thing about Gum Trees – because of course I am talking about gums – is their nomenclature. Many gums have multiple names, and sometimes the same name is used for several different species. An example is the Ghost Gum. This name is commonly used for several species of gums that mostly grow in arid Australia and have ghostly white bark. There are other examples though, one of which is the less commonly known Salmon Gum. I have only seen the Eucalyptus Tintinnans in the Northern Territory, but Davis writes about, I assume, the Western Australian native one, the Eucalyptus salmonophloia. I don’t have a photograph of it but you can see a gorgeous one on this blog (I hope they don’t mind my linking to it).
So, here is the first description:
They drive past rows of gum trees, leaning out over the road and into the sky, like dancers posing. Those trees there, the bus driver says. See how pink they are? Millie nods. They make her think of the inside of her mouth. Salmon gums. Always looks like the sun’s setting on them.
Do you reckon that’s a sly joke about “gums” there?
The second one comes in a description of the people of inland Western Australia, from Karl’s perspective:
Back home, on the southwest coast, the people have dazed eyes, blond edges, waterlogged strides. The people here are different: scratchy, like they’ve been sketched roughly on paper, like they are born of the very red dirt they scuff their feet in, made out of the salmon gums that line the streets. They yell outside the bakery, the supermarket, the pubs and in the main thoroughfare, chopping at words as though throwing their sentences in a blender. Karl doesn’t feel like he fits in here. Then again, Karl doesn’t feel like he fits in back there, either.
The sky is between day and night, that deep blue it gets when it’s shedding one for the other.
Not being from the West, I don’t fully understand the basis of the distinction she’s making here between the coastal and inland people – what’s this about yelling outside bakeries, supermarkets and pubs? – but I did enjoy reading this description. It’s vivid. I know that a few Western Australians read this blog. I’d love to hear what they think of this, and what it says to them.
I’ve devoted a few Monday Musings recently to Australian writers in the first few decades of the twentieth century. I expect to do a few more in coming months, as I’m enjoying the research. Today, I’m drawing from a report of a talk given by Barbara Baynton in Sydney in 1911 to the Writers and Artists Union. The article, titled “England and the Australian writer: Barbara Baynton’s experience” appeared in a column in The Argus titled Page Twenty-One, written by arts journalist Norman Lilley (d. 1941).
Barbara Baynton will be well-known to readers of this blog as over the last year I’ve separately reviewed the short stories in her collection, Bush Studies. This book was published in England, after she had not been able to get it published in Sydney. However, as she explains in her talk, it’s not easy …
Baynton told her audience that she’d explored many avenues in her search for a publisher – the English Society of Authors, the London-based Agent-General of New South Wales, publishers themselves, and, by accident, a man reading for a publisher. It was this man, Edward Garnett, who, in the end, read her work, liked it, and submitted it to Duckworths. Along her journey though, she was offered money by a publisher for one short story only; was told by another, Heinemanns, that it didn’t “touch short stories”; and was asked for “absurd sums” by others to cover the printing and distribution of her book. As I read all this, I wondered how much has changed!
Lilley comments that Baynton found “Literature … to be a costly pastime – that is, legitimate literature as distinct from sensational novel writing.” The latter, he says, could be made to pay “if you could catch the vogue and tickle the popular taste”.
The English mind
Baynton clearly spent some time discussing what English readers would read. Lilley reports:
Englishmen were not interested in Australia; they knew nothing about it, and did not want to learn. They regarded it as a land of strange contradictions, where the birds did not sing* and the flowers had no smell, and the trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; and nothing could persuade them that eucalyptus was not our national scent. They might read about the adventures of an Englishman in Australia; but they declined to take any interest in the country itself.
Baynton said, he reports, that “you cannot score a popular success with serious matter”. Again, one wonders how much, really, has changed – in terms of reading tastes, not in terms of interest in Australia, I mean.
Anyhow, Baynton apparently went on to say that writers who included “plenty about princesses and earls and gilded palaces” did sell! She gave popular English writer Marie Corelli as an example of this sort of writing. I discovered a brief paragraph about Corelli written in 1904 in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. The writer reports on one Rev. R. Eyton, of Bathurst, who, apparently said that “children were left with the minds utterly untrained, and no wonder that their literary zest is satisfied with writers like Marie Corelli. They never have had a chance to judge between literature and trash, which is certainly rough on the lady whose books have such a vogue.”
Baynton also mentioned Australian-born English writer HB Marriott Watson. She said he had been a great literary success, but that “the better written his books were the worse they paid. To make a commercial success he had to be frankly sensational”.
Baynton, you can see, was not afraid to express her opinions! In fact, she also mentioned Conan Doyle who made “₤2000 a year or more out of fiction that was not literature at all”! The most successful Australian writer, financially speaking, was Albert Dorrington, but his work “was not legitimate literature”.
Unfortunately, Baynton also referred to what we know as “the cultural cringe”. Lilley reports that “she was ashamed to say that a great part of general public here seemed to think you must have the English hallmark, and that the Australian was of no value”. Interestingly, she also said that America was interested in Australia, that “American magazines would take what the English publishers rejected as ‘peculiar'; and so the Americans encouraged clever writers”.
Baynton’s talk was, as I indicated in the first paragraph, given to a union audience and so union issues, particularly in terms of remuneration for writers, were touched on. She gave examples of payments writers could receive in different countries and from different publishers. She mentioned that the people “who made the largest incomes out of literature were the middlemen – the agents”. She said that England badly needed a writers’ union.
Unionism, Baynton preached to the converted, “was wanted in the literary profession: to force prices up – to make the rich papers pay decent rates for writers’ brains”. She argued that shareholders, like herself, should receive smaller dividends so that the men and women who did the work could be properly paid. Good for her.
Russian writing (and the English mind, again)
At the same meeting, Lilley reports, Dora Montefiore, the English-born Australian writer and founder in 1891 (according to Debra Adelaide’s Australian Women Writers: A bibliographic guide) of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, also spoke on writing and publishing in London. She gave the example of trying to find a publisher for a translation of some Maxim Gorky stories. Montefiore, according to Lilley, said that:
a very wide circle of readers had not been expected for them, as the English mind, being the very reverse of introspective, could not easily understand the psychology of the Russian mind, and was consequently prone to call such work as Gorky’s morbid**. The English made mistakes, promptly forget them, and went on again; they disliked exceedingly thinking about them, or dwelling on any process of thought. The Russian was the reverse of this …
If you are English and reading this blog, what do you think … about then, and now.
Lilley concludes his report with
The moral that Australian writers should stay in their own country, and by uniting should make conditions good enough for the best of talent, seemed obvious.
* They clearly hadn’t heard the Australian magpie!
** Coincidentally, you may remember that I reported in my Monday Musings on Baynton that she’d been likened to Gorky for her grim realism.
I must say that my antennae go up when I hear a book being touted as a publishing sensation even before it is published, as Brooke Davis’ recently published debut novel Lost & found, was. What does that mean? That it was the subject of a mega-dollar bidding war like, say, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites? Well, not necessarily, but Davis’ novel, according to hoopla.com, was “one of the hit titles at the 2014 London Book Fair and has since gone on to sell into 25 territories”. The question is, does it live up to this, hmm, hoop-la?
You’re all going to die (Millie)
I’ll start by saying that this “sensation” comes dressed as a light book and is, in fact, an easy and delightful read, but it also offers something more, content-wise and stylistically. For those of you who haven’t heard, the novel was inspired by Davis’s grief over the sudden death of her mother in a freak accident in 2006, and was written for her doctorate at Curtin University. It tells the story of three characters: seven-year-old Millie whose father has died and whose mother subsequently abandoned her in a department store; 87-year-old Karl whose wife has died and who has escaped the nursing home to which his son had abandoned him; and 82-year-old Agatha who hasn’t left her house since her husband died seven years ago, and who fills her day shouting insults at passersby. Three lost characters who come together, looking, though not initially consciously, to understand the old question: what is life about, or, more specifically, how do you live life when it is defined by loss, or even, as Agatha wonders, wouldn’t it be better to never care for anyone?
At the end of my edition is a short version of an article titled “Relearning the world” that Davis wrote about grief. If you have experienced the terrible grief of sudden or before-its-time loss, you will relate to much of what she writes. She talks of the moment when the loss becomes real (a moment I vividly remember in my own life), and of “feeling outside of everything and looking in” (another sensation I remember). She talks of theories of grief, like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s, and how it makes sense because “we like order”. “Isn’t that”, she asks, “why we like narrative?”. But, she says, there’s been a backlash against the compartmentalisation of grief towards a recognition of “the disorder of grief”. Grief, she has learnt, is part of everything she says and does, all that she is. It is never resolved.
We’re just living, Derek (Karl)
This all sounds pretty heavy, albeit sensibly heavy. Davis book, however, is quite the opposite. The narrative line owes something to the picaresque novel, and the linear but choppy structure supports this form. The main body of the story concerns a rather wild and wacky journey the three characters take, some of it on the Indian Pacific train, to help Millie find her mother. As befitting the picaresque, they meet various colourful characters along the way, such as Stella the bus driver and Derek the train conductor. As the journey progresses, the adventures and mischief get sillier and sillier, and less and less “real”. But then, this isn’t a realistic novel. In fact, it is quite slapstick, which is not my favourite form of humour. However, Davis makes it work, pretty well anyhow, because we are invested in her characters by then. We want them to find what they are looking for – or something equally worthwhile.
Old is not a choice (Agatha)
Davis also makes it work because of the voice. Using third person, it’s fresh, and direct, and authentically captures the perspectives of a curious young child, a loving old man, and a grumpy old woman. It might be a “light” novel, but it’s not a prosaic or formulaic one. Each character is associated with various “things” or “recurring behaviours”. Just Millie writes “In here Mum” messages whenever she goes to a new place so her Mum can find her. Karl the Touch Typist, who had deeply loved his wife Evie, carries around Manny the store mannequin, with which he had helped Millie escape the authorities in a department store and which is mistaken for a sex doll by some of the people he meets. Agatha Pantha, a closed-off woman who had not been a kind wife, has her Age Book, in which she obsessively records her day in third person. Some of the character “associations” might, depending on your point of view, be a little overdone, just as the slapstick, depending on your tolerance, may be pushed a little too far. Overall though, I found Davis’ characterisation effective and engaging.
All this is supported by the narrative, which is moved along through delightful language, from the zippy dialogue to tight descriptions that nail with their acuity.
Here, for example, is Agatha trying to explain to Millie why at seven she can’t start a family:
You can’t get pregnant.
You have to get your! Your! Agatha gulps. Your monthly womanly visitor!
Are they from the government?
Good God, no!
Where from then?
They’re not from anywhere!
Why are they called visitors, then?
That’s just what we say!
Agatha sighs loudly. Okay, I give up! Someone from the government comes to your house and makes you a woman!
Millie eyes the breastfeeding mum, and leans in close to Agatha. Will they bring me boobs too? she whispers. Because I’m not going to take them.
And here is Millie’s view on dates on gravestones:
The start date and the end date are always the important bits on the gravestones, written in big letters. The dash in between is always so small you can barely see it. Surely the dash should be big and bright and amazing, or not, depending on how you had lived. Surely the dash should show how this Dead Thing had lived.
Besides the loss-grief theme, Lost & found is about many things – loneliness, love, friendship and caring, and, above all, about taking risks because this is your life. It’s not a challenging novel, as it wears its heart on its sleeves, but it is lively, inventive and wise. It will be very interesting to see what Davis does next.
(Review copy courtesy Hachette Australia)
In July I wrote two posts based on Nettie Palmer’s 1920s assessment of great Australian novels. In 1935, another Australian novelist, Zora Cross, wrote an article about Australian women novelists and poets. I enjoy reading these contemporary perspectives, and I think some of you are interested too … do let me know if you aren’t.
I’ve said it before I think, and that is that there were two flowerings of Australian women’s writing in the twentieth century, one in the 1920s-40s and the other in the 1970s-80s. It’s a bit early to tell but I’m wondering whether we are experiencing another one now. Let’s hope so – not at the expense of our male writers, but recognised and read, alongside the men.
I don’t know Zora Cross (1890-1964) as well as I know Nettie (and Vance) Palmer, but she was a recognised novelist, poet and journalist in her day. Her aim in her article, published the Sydney Morning Herald in 1935, was to demonstrate the strength of women’s writing. She starts by naming writers who, at that time, had been writing for twenty years or more – writers still known to us (Miles Franklin and Mary Gilmore), and those far less known, if not pretty much forgotten (Louise Mack, Ada Holman and Dora Wilcox). The only one I know of these last three is Louise Mack – as she is in my TBR pile. Cross then mentions younger writers, of whom only one, Katherine Susannah Prichard, is well-known to me. The others are Dulcie Deamer, Vera Dwyer, Ella McFadyen and Nina Murdoch. When I read these lists, I wonder which of today’s writers readers a century from now will know. Sometimes I wish I did believe in eternal life – or, reincarnation!
Like Palmer, Cross uses headings in her article, so I will again follow.
Nettie Palmer, ten years earlier, also talked about writers succeeding abroad, but Cross writes of two different sorts of successes. One is that achieved by writers who started writing “at home” and then move abroad. She names several, again mostly not well-known now – Helen Simpson, Alice Grant Rosman, Dorothy Cottrell – and one completely unknown to me, and about whom some quick Google searching has revealed nothing, Daniel Hamlyn. Hamlyn, she says, won The Bulletin’s second novel competition, the first one having been jointly won by Katherine Susannah Prichard and M. Barnard Eldershaw. I think I’ll need to actually go to a Library and research The Bulletin to discover more about her! Cross doesn’t mention Christina Stead, but as Stead only published her first book in 1934, that’s not surprising.
The other “success abroad” Cross mentions is that achieved by those who hadn’t left home. One of the most interesting of these is, she says, Eleanor Dark. She does, however, name several others, all unknown to me, so I’ll just mention a couple which stand out because of her comments. One is Georgia Rivers whose novel, The difficult art about a young girl growing up, “is a most unusual book”. She doesn’t elaborate, but this has piqued my interest. Another is Jessie Urquhart who, she says, “will not, I think, do her best work until, like Alice Grant Rosman, she relinquishes journalism for fiction”. An intriguing comment from a novelist-poet-journalist! It would be interesting to know whether Urquhart needed her journalistic work to survive. The last one I want to mention is Mary Mitchell who achieved London success with the wonderfully titled Warning to wantons. Cross tells us that this book is not Australian so “of little importance to us here. She could write, I’m sure, a good Australian society novel, for which there is a waiting public.” I hadn’t realised until this point that her article is not just about Australian women writers, but about Australian women writers writing about Australia.
Here Cross mentions Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (aka M. Barnard Eldershaw), and another writer I don’t know, Velia Ercole, as writers brought to notice through winning competitions. But, as Palmer did (though under her “abroad” category), Cross focuses her attention here to Henry Handel Richardson who, she says, was introduced to Australia by Nettie Palmer.
Cross, like Palmer, praises Richardson, saying that few “have equalled her in style and form of production”. She says that fame finally came with the last book in her Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy, Ultima Thule, which she describes as “lucid and sincere”. Nonetheless, she does suggest that “there are faults to be found from an Australian point of view” with the novel, “but few with the presentation of it”. She’s not clear about what these faults are, though suggests that many may “question the worth” of such a detailed look at “a failure’s life”.
Cross’s last heading is devoted to Ethel Turner, whose juvenilia I plan to review later this year and who is famous for her novel Seven little Australians. Cross again shows that her interest here is writing about Australia when she says:
Too much stress cannot be laid on the fact that Ethel Turner, from the moment she opened the door of an Australian house and showed the world what we were really like, has been a guiding star for the best. She has not been able to give us adults as real as children but the germ is there.
But, the cultural cringe is strong, Cross implies, when she says that Australians do not recognise that Turner’s children are as immortal as Alice [in Wonderland] and much more real than Anne of Green Gables. Fighting words, eh! She names writers who have followed Turner, including Mary Grant Bruce whose juvenilia I reviewed earlier this year.
This is not one of Cross’s headings, but after her discussion of Turner she writes a few paragraphs about other writers and writing. She refers to “imaginative women writers [who] are immersed in journalism”, playwrights, and women who write humorously, such as Miss Lloyd and her book Susan’s little sins. Couldn’t resist mentioning that one!
She then writes, curiously, that:
All of our women writers are well read, none very keen about sport, though golf and tennis and sometimes dancing play a part in their leisure moments. All are earnest, sincere workers.
I wonder why she felt the need to say all this? Anyhow, she follows this by saying she has left one writer to last, Mary Gilmore “whose hobby may well be ‘the finding of new writers'”. Dame Mary Gilmore wrote poetry and prose, though Cross, rightly, believed that it’s for her poetry that she’ll most be remembered.
And here, I’ll conclude with her conclusion because – well, see what you think:
Our women aim at truth in writing just as the men do: and this is characteristically Australian. We do not need to read Russian literature to inspire us to realism. Our country, born of suffering and hardship, has shaped our character, and out of it is coming a literature entirely different from any other. Women are doing their share in the building up of this national literature just as they did their share towards the making and shaping of the nation itself.
I didn’t get around, in my recent review of Ouyang Yu’s novel Diary of a naked official, to discussing his language, so couldn’t resist another post.
As you would expect in an erotic novel, particularly one framed as a diary, the language is rife with obvious – and consciously so on the part of our narrator – sexual references and innuendo. It is, to put it baldly, in your face. Yet there are, also, some subtle undercurrents. I’ve chosen one excerpt to illustrate some features of the language. Reading it will also give you a feeling for the tone, which is, among other things, conversational, self-confident and unashamed. At one point, Shi Ma (the narrator) describes his diary as “the only confessional” that he can have in a world where there are “no priests of any religious or religious denominations worth my trust and confidence”, but from my understanding of the word “confession” I’d read this as irony.
Names are an issue in the book – as you might expect in a diary. Shi Ma uses initials for most of the significant people in his life: W is Wife and D is Daughter, for example. The women he “loves” tend to be anonymous or go by aliases, which are often flower names, such as Acacia, Daffodil, Goldenrod and Nasturtium. Some characters though have more ordinary names. Consider this:
However passionate and deep one’s love is, it tends to peter out like a brisk fire that burns with passion and heat, only to burn itself out at the end of the day. Peter – what a name in association with the phrase ‘peter out’ – had an affair with Third, the third daughter in her family, a pretty girl who did frames for his paintings, but had to marry a Singaporean woman when he went to Sydney. Third fought tooth and claw to stop him from marrying and going. According to Sam, Third threatened suicide but didn’t; instead, she left scratch marks all over Peter’s back, traces of love when gone, turned sour and resentful.
Love seems to have two faces, one loving, the other hating. Sue is a typical example. Like the name ‘Peter’, this name is portentous. I would run miles away from any woman by that name because who knows if she is not going to Sue you one day? In fact, when a girl I loved reported that her name was ‘Sue’, I said: It’s not a name you should have. I’d much prefer you call yourself ‘Su’ or ‘Soo’. In fact, Soo with two holes in it is infinitely preferable to Sue with a ‘u’. She seemed to like it and said: I’ll think about it.
Besides including an example of the book’s sexually explicit language, this excerpt also addresses two of the novel’s concerns – love and power. Shi Ma discusses “love” endlessly, all the while behaving in an exploitative and generally loveless manner. He is obsessed with sex but desires love, and seems unable to reconcile the two in any meaningful way. Power, on the other hand – who has it, how it is used, what effect it can or does have – is one of the undercurrents of the novel. Ouyang Yu reveals a world in which power, particularly between the genders, is a complex business (with business being perhaps the operative word!) Women in his novel do wield some power, but whether that power is to their (or anyone’s) benefit is a question Yu leaves for the reader to consider.