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Monday musings on Australian literature: Plebiscite on Australian poets and novelists, 1927

September 1, 2014

Pottering around old Australian newspapers on Trove, I came across reports of a “plebiscite” on Australian poets and authors. Suggested by the Australian Literature Society, it asked readers of Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper sending in the names “of those whom they regard as the six leading poets and the six foremost writers of fiction of Australia and New Zealand”. Their aim was to discover which writers are held in esteem by their own people, and to gain some understanding of how interested the public is in the work of Australian and New Zealand writers.

I’m not going to focus on the “winners”, so before I continue, I’ll list the top six (with their “vote” count in brackets after their names). I understand about 4000 entries were received:

Poets

  1. Adam Lindsay Gordon (459)
  2. Henry Lawson (421)
  3. Henry Kendall (412)
  4. “Banjo” Paterson (393)
  5. C. J. Dennis (308)
  6. Bernard O’Dowd (189)

Prose

  1. Marcus Clarke (393)
  2. Rolf Boldrewood (315)
  3. Mrs Æneas Gunn (292)
  4. Henry Lawson (272)
  5. Roy Bridges (242)
  6. Ethel Turner (234)

They include two names I don’t know – poet Bernard O’Dowd and prose-writer Roy Bridges. It’s interesting to see no women among the poets, but two under prose. A woman, Mary Gilmore, did appear as the 7th poet, with 165 votes.

Dirty voting

How reliable though are these results? We aren’t told much about the source of the votes, but presumably most came from Melbourne and Victorian readers of The Argus. This plebiscite, like any, needs to be interpreted with regard to how it was conducted. There is, however, a complicating factor, as the unnamed author of the results announcement explains. S/he writes that:

in three instances concerted efforts were made to swing the voting … without regard to the merits of the writer for whom the votes were cast. These movements were entirely opposed to the spirit of the plebiscite, in which it was expected that the lists submitted would reflect the personal opinions of individual voters. These attempts were too obvious to escape notice, especially during the last few days, when several hundred lists were received bearing the same names with but slight variation. Had these votes been accepted the insult would have been that the names of writers who are comparatively obscure would have appeared at the head of each section.

Votes received via these “unfair” tactics – and we have to trust the administrators here – were not counted. The writer tells us they may not have identified all such votes, but believes the results give “a fair indication of public opinion”.

It was ever thus?

As we’ve discussed before in these historical reports, it is interesting, comforting even to some, that not much has changed over the decades. The unnamed author of the plebiscite announcement said that the aim of gauging interest in local writers

is of no little importance, in view of frequently repeated complaints that Australian authors do not receive the recognition that their work merits. Whether this feeling is justified or is the result of only an apparent indifference, there is some ground for the charge that Australians do not know as much about their own writers and their work as they might.

Sound a little familiar? Anyhow, because of this concern the Society was organising an Australian and New Zealand Authors Week in September 1927, the month after the plebiscite, to increase public awareness of its writers, to show “that we have a literature that is worthy of serious consideration”.

Have we made progress in this area? I’d like to think we have, and suspect we have, but we could still do better.

The dangers of prophecy

There were of course several articles discussing the results. One I’m saving for another post, as it contains a broader discussion of the state of Australian literature, but another by the Western Mail’s pseudonymous “Fairfax” is worth discussing here. He (I’m assuming) says that Katharine Susannah Prichard was the highest ranking Western Australian, appearing 12th in the prose list with 89 votes. He expresses surprise at Guy Boothby’s listing – for two reasons. First, he didn’t realise Boothby (who had lived much of his short his life in England) was Australian. And secondly, he was surprised at Boothby’s low vote, just 39. Boothby, though, had died in 1905, and according to Wikipedia was most noted for “sensational fiction”. Perhaps the voters knew what they were doing? Still, “Fairfax” calls him, seriously I think, “A Rare Talent” – and he was apparently mentored by Rudyard Kipling and appreciated by George Orwell.

Dowell O'Reilly (Courtesy: State Library of Queensland)

Dowell O’Reilly (Courtesy: State Library of Queensland)

Then “Fairfax” turns to poet and prose-writer Dowell O’Reilly who does not appear in the list of poets, and scored a mere 14 votes under prose. O’Reilly, a Sydney-based writer, teacher and politician, had died more recently than Boothby, in 1923. “Fairfax” admires him immensely, and devotes over three paragraphs, or half his article, to him. He discusses several of O’Reilly’s works, stating

There is feeling and a quick sense of beauty in his verse. In the best of his short stories and sketches … is a psychological penetration in understanding of character, actions, and emotions, a masterly economy and eloquent directness in the prevention of his matter a deep and understanding sympathy …

I love his description of O’Reilly’s short story titled “Crow”, in which, he says, “the horrors of a drought have moved O’Reilly to three pages of graphic pictorial quality akin to a sharp etching”. I found, via Google Books, a discussion of it, with excerpts, by Tom Inglis Moore (in a book titled Social patterns in Australian literature). It sounds powerful and bitter, and a little reminiscent, despite different concerns, of Barbara Baynton.

Anyhow, my point is that “Fairfax” argues:

I hazard that the volume containing The prose and the verse of Dowell O’Reilly which Angus and Robertson published in 1924 will survive when a great deal of work placed higher in these lists has been forgotten.

Hmmm … many of those higher in the list have been forgotten but so – at least to my knowledge – has been O’Reilly. “Fairfax” exhorts his readers to buy the book during Australasian Authors Week. I admire his enthusiasm if not his powers of prophecy!

The Griffyns ask Do you believe?

September 1, 2014

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again, the Griffyns are a tricksy lot. Their second program for 2014 was titled The Three Futurists and was aligned with National Science Week. The theme was “Do you believe” – but we quickly realised that it wasn’t only do you believe in something, though that was certainly part of it, but also do you believe what you are told/what you hear, which is, I think, a more challenging proposition in our media-saturated world.

Pre Show, with scrolls under seats, and double bassist and a dancer doing a last minute practice

Pre Show, with scrolls under seats, and double bassist and a dancer doing a last minute practice

And so, early in the second half of a program that twice had the audience filling out forms, we completed the “Truth assessment” answer sheet from the scrolls under our seats. The sheet had no questions on it; they were read out to us. The questions were about climate change. On finishing our sheets, we were asked to show our hands if we’d answered “a” to a particular question. I was surprised when my seatmates who, I know, “believe” as I do on the issue, raised their hands. Huh? I felt disconcerted – for a moment. And then came: “Do you believe your answer sheet is the same as your neighbour’s”? I looked, and sure enough, Mr Gums’ “a” was the opposite to mine, that is, it was the same as my “b”. Whew, but the point was made, in a very practical way! Don’t take anything for granted!

This year’s theme, as I wrote in my post on the first concert of the year, is Fairy Tales, but they define it broadly to mean “spooky stories and twisted tales”. So far they are keeping their promise. The Three Futurists – aka (Mechanical) Evolution, Prophecy and Armageddon – confronted us with the usual Griffyn challenge. By this I mean, you don’t expect at a Griffyn concert to be transported into a peaceful reverie or to be allowed a simple emotional response; you expect to be intellectually challenged. This is not to say that the music doesn’t move or transport, but that a Griffyn program usually demands an additional level of commitment from the audience. These are artists who like to present ideas, often political ones, through their music. I don’t believe art must be political, but I do like it when artists want to engage politically. Put it down to the 1960s-70s idealist in me!

Anyhow, onto the actual concert. The Griffyns were joined by Liz Lea and four dancers from QL2, Canberra’s youth dance ensemble. An inspired idea, as they added a special dimension to the show. The choreography was expressive, and the dancing – in solos, duets, trios and in ensemble – was lovely and mostly sure. Their representation of mechanical evolution, of robots, was very effective – jerky but with an appealing fluidity that engendered some sympathy for these mechanical life-forms rather than rejection. I also liked Liz Lea’s ancient priestess dance that accompanied the “Song of Seikilos”. According to the program notes, its text comes from around 200BC-100AD:

I am a portrait in stone
I was put here by Seikilos
Where I remain forever,
the symbol of timeless remembrance.

Interesting that this lyrical, graceful reminder of timelessness was bookended by mechanical robots and intimations of Armageddon!

As usual with the Griffyns, the music ranged across genres. It’s one of the things I love about them. In this concert we heard arrangements of older or familiar pieces from popular culture, namely a thoughtful and provocative rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s controversial song “You’ve got to be carefully taught” from soprano Susan Ellis, and Radiohead’s confronting “Fitter Happier”. We also heard the Australian premiere of musical director Michael Sollis’ “Happy Deathday Mister Robot” (listen to a recording made in New York).

Appropriately, much of the music had a strong electronic aspect. I was fascinated by the three pieces by new-to-me Netherlands’ composer Jacob TV (Jacob ter Veldhuis), which use ghettoblaster accompanied by musical instruments such as, in Sollis’ arrangements, flute, harp and/or double bass. Some unusual conjunctions there but they worked in their eerie way. The strangest piece was “Jesus is coming” which includes, among other sounds, some repetitive (and mesmerising) baby talk, but the most confronting was the last piece, “Believer”. In it, Jacob TV incorporates the distorted voice of journalist Bill O’Reilly interviewing George Bush Jr in 2004 about the Iraq War and asking him “So you are indeed a true believer?”. Bush’s response “I believe peace is coming” is what – naive, disturbing, ironic?

I haven’t, I’m afraid, talked much about the musical performances. There was so much going on – the music, sometimes with the ghettoblaster, occasional commentary from the computer (did I mention that before?), live speech, and the dancing – that it’s difficult in retrospect to single out specific performances. So let me just say that the playing was exactly what we’ve come to expect – professional, thoughtful and engaged.

And so what did Mr Gums, our friends and I take away from the concert? Well, primarily that we’d been stimulated to think more upon’t. And that, I think, means it was an excellent afternoon.

You can hear other versions of some of the music on You Tube, such as:

More on Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a dutiful daughter

August 29, 2014

My recent review of Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a beautiful daughter was a little dry, focusing on some specific ideas or issues that interested me, rather than on her writing. It’s a pretty dense book, containing detailed description of her life and thoughts, but her fearless and often evocative writing carries it. I’d like to share a few examples to round out my review – but of course, in doing so, I can’t help but also discuss the book a little more too!

Nature

Beauvoir and her family would spend their summers with relations in the country – with her father’s sister at La Grillière and her father’s father at Meyrignac. In these places she developed a deep love of nature. Early in Memoirs, from when she is still a very young schoolgirl, she writes that

… I was learning things that are never taught by books or official syllabuses. I learnt to recognise the buttercup and the clover, the phlox, the fluorescent blue of the morning glory, the butterfly, the ladybird, the glow-worm, the dew, the spiders’ webs, and the strands of gossamer; I learnt that the red of holly is redder than the cherry laurel or the mountain ash, that autumn blooms the peach and bronzes the leaves, that the sun rises and sets in the sky though you cannot see it moving. The wealth of colours and scents excited me. Everywhere in the green water of the ponds, in the waving grasses of the fields, under the thorny hedgerows and in the heart of the woods were hidden treasures that I longed to discover.

This love of being in the natural world continues with her – at least until she is 21 when these memoirs end. Indeed, at one point, when she is 19 or 20 years old, she admits to a mystical experience:

… the fact of existing here and now sometimes took on a glorious splendour. During those few days, the silence of nature often plunged me into joy and horror. I went even further. In those woods and meadows undisturbed by man, I thought I touched that superhuman reality I aspired to. I knelt down to pick a flower, and suddenly I felt riveted to the earth, with all the weight of the heavens on my shoulders; I couldn’t move: it was both an agony and an ecstasy which brought eternity within my grasp.

One of the threads running thought the novel is her desire to find “the meaning of life”. With this “mystical” experience, she was tempted, she writes, to “believe that I had attained the Unknown”. However, being the intellectual she was, she continues, “I didn’t want to take myself in” so asked some respected confidantes. Their responses bring her to the conclusion that “one can’t base one’s life on such giddy notions and I did not try to bring them on again”.

“I am alone”

Sartre and Beauvoir

Sartre and Beauvoir, Balzac Memorial (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

In my review, I likened her autobiography to a bildungsroman, and nowhere is this more applicable than in her descriptions of what we would now call teenage angst. Sometimes I think I have forgotten my youth, but Beauvoir’s descriptions of her own inner conflicts brought the memories back – reminding me, as if I needed it, of one of the reasons I love to read. What teenager can’t relate to the feeling of being “alone”? Beauvoir certainly could. Being the daughter of a devout Catholic mother and an atheistic but socially conservative father, in a society in which women were (or, at least she felt) “cabined, cribbed and confined”* left her frequently feeling alone, in “exile”.

In today’s discussion of the book on ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily, literary critic Geordie Williamson quoted a heart-rending section from the book (p. 188-9) in which she discusses this issue, when she realises the error of her belief that

it would be possible to rise above bourgeois mediocrity without stepping out of my own class. Its devotion to universal values was, I thought, sincere; I thought I was authorised to liquidate traditions, customs, prejudices, and all kinds of political and theological particularism in the light of reason, beauty, goodness and progress.

She thought she would be praised if she wrote a book that “trampled conformity in the dust”, but she discovers that she’s wrong, that “people did not accept me at all; instead of weaving laurel crowns for me, people were banishing me from society”.  She “would always be ostracised”. Painful, painful.

This sense of aloneness – of “exile” – continues. Part of it is, of course, typical for adolescents. She writes, when she’s 20, that “I would fall into an arid despondency of heart, and then be bounced up into happiness again”. But it’s clear too that she was different from most of her peers. Joining Sartre and his little group brought her, finally, to “her” people, and she knew at last that she didn’t have “to face [the] future all on my own”.

A novelist’s eye

In my review I suggested that Beauvoir’s autobiography has some of the sensibility of a novel – particularly in language and characterisation. At my reading group’s discussion, one member shared her favourite quote. It’s a perfect example of the fiction writer’s ability to capture a moment. Here it is (with thanks to Kate):

On the evenings when my parents held parties, the drawing-room mirrors multiplied to infinity the scintillations of a crystal chandelier. Mama would take her seat at the grand piano to accompany a lady dressed in a cloud of tulle who played the violin and a cousin who performed on a cello. I would crack between my teeth the candied shell of an artificial fruit, and a burst of light would illuminate my palate with a taste of blackcurrant or pineapple: all the colours, all the lights were mine, the gauzy scarves, the diamonds, the laces; I held the whole party in my mouth.

* Roughly quoted from Macbeth.

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter (Review)

August 28, 2014

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

I have only read one other work by Simone de Beauvoir – and I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t The second sex (which still sits in my long-in-the-tooth TBR pile). It was, instead, one of her autobiographical novels, She came to stay. I enjoyed it as I recollect, but that was a long time ago. Then this year, my reading group decided to choose one of the books being discussed in ABC Radio National’s European classics series – and we opted for the first of Beauvoir’s autobiographies, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter.

Now, the things is, it’s a pretty dense book that can be looked at from multiple angles, too many to explore in one review. Consequently, my plan is to focus here on a few that interest me, and to later post a Delicious Descriptions containing examples of her gorgeous descriptive writing.

First though, as always, a brief summary of its content. Published in 1958, the book chronicles her youth from her birth in 1908 to when she turned 21 in 1929. It deals at some depth with her childhood, school and university days; her relationship with family and friends; her youthful thoughts about and experience, such as it was, of love; and, most importantly, the foundations of the ideas that drove her adult life. It shows the inner conflict she experienced as an independent thinker growing up in a conservative Catholic bourgeois family. I’d describe it as the autobiographical equivalent of a bildungsroman, which sounds silly since autobiography is intrinsically about the development of self. But this particular autobiography ends at the moment when she formally leaves childhood behind, and, like a bildungsroman, is primarily the story of her “formation”.

Autobiography

WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION – DOES THAT MATTER IN AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY?

BeauvoirMemoirsHarperPerennialThis leads nicely into the first aspect of the book I’d like to discuss, its form. It is a traditional autobiography in that it starts with her birth and moves in a linear way, with the occasional foreshadowing, to her chosen endpoint which is when she turned 21, finished her schooling and left home. Like an autobiography it contains many characters. (There is a comprehensive index if keeping track becomes difficult, though I didn’t find it that hard).

The book also, though, has some novelistic elements. While at times the style is dry and almost diary-like, at other times it is highly evocative, particularly when she describes her experience of nature. More relevant though to my argument is her use of characters, because while we meet many, there are three that she focuses on – herself, her first cousin and first love, Jacques, and her closest friend Elizabeth “Zaza” Mabille. These two significant people provide coherence to the narrative line and a semblance of a plot. Will she or won’t she marry Jacques? And how will Zaza develop?

Beauvoir doesn’t marry Jacques, but while the book ends when she’s 21 and he’s about 23, she briefly describes what happens to him in the rest of his life, which ends, sadly, when he’s 46. Zaza, on the other hand, could be seen as her alter ego. As we read the book, focussing on Simone as “the dutiful daughter”, we become aware that Zaza is also one. The difference between them is that while Simone is dutiful in an obey-the-parents sense, she is an independent thinker and learns to distance herself intellectually from her parents. Zaza, on the other hand, exemplifies the tragedy that can happen to “dutiful daughters” who don’t achieve this. She, in other words, rounds out the theme implied in Beauvoir’s title.

This sense of Jacques being her potential future and Zaza being her alter ego gives this autobiography some of the sensibility of a novel.

Gender

I couldn’t of course write on this book without discussing gender. But first, it’s important to remember when she was born – 1908 – and the community into which she was born – conservative, Catholic, bourgeois. It was intriguing to see how her ideas developed in this early part of her life.

Early in her childhood she saw that mothers had a life of “servitude”, and were “overburdened with a thousand tiresome tasks”. Her response was to decide not to have children but be a teacher. In her teens, she states that “I believed in the absolute equality of human beings” but doesn’t engage with  the idea of universal suffrage. A few pages later, she is a little fuzzy on this idea of equality when she considers her future husband:

I should be in love the day a man came along whose intelligence, culture, and authority could bring me into subjection.

Why, she says, did she think this? She continues

I never thought of myself as a man’s female companion; we would be two comrades [but, she goes on] My education, my culture, and the present state of society all conspired to convince me that women belong to an inferior caste.

She goes on to explain that the man she loved would be “the model of all I wished to become; he would therefore be superior to me”.

Overall then, her thinking was a little confused. Theoretically she believed in equality and demanded independence for herself, resulting in much conflict with her parents in her later teens, and yet she saw her ideal partner as being “superior”. Part of her belief in equality was an absolute rejection of the double standard. She ascribed to the Christian morality of her times but felt “that men should be subject to the same laws as women [...] I saw no reason why my future partner in life should permit himself liberties which I wouldn’t allow myself”.

By the end of the book, that is, by the time she turned 21, her thinking hadn’t developed much beyond this. She believed in equality, she didn’t want to be constrained as she saw married women with children were, but she had not developed the ideas that she presented in The second sex, which she wrote around the age of 40Tellingly, Beauvoir-Sartre biographer Hazel Rowley writes in my edition that it was Sartre who told Beauvoir that if she were to write her memoirs she would need to look into “what it had meant to be a woman”. Beauvoir was apparently dismissive, believing that being a woman had never really affected her but, she decided to do some research. What she discovered was “a revelation” and resulted in her putting her memoirs aside to write The second sex.

Literature and truth

The other issue that spoke strongly to me as I read the book was the importance of literature, of books and reading, to her – and, related to this, her search for truth. Reading was, she writes, “the great passion of my life”. If you are well-versed in French literature, as I am not, you could track her intellectual development through her reading. She discusses the books she read as a young school girl, her reaction as a young teenager to Jo in Little women and Maggie in Mill on the floss (both English books, I know!). She talks of engaging in her late teens with contemporary literature of “the disquiet” through writers like Gide (whom I have reviewed here), and of then moving on from them.

She learns much through reading, not only intellectually and morally, but practically. Books, for example, provided her with much of her sex education, so that when her mother finally decided it was time to tell her the facts she could say “I know all about that” – though what she knew about sex and what she understood about the world were two different things!

She learns that literature and reality are not the same thing, saying at one point that

Literature takes its revenge on reality by making it the slave of fiction.

At times she argues that literature is the truth, while at other times she feels its connections with truth are dubious, but this is all part of a portrait of the writer as a young girl. “Real” truths are not found easily, and she, we see, worked hard for hers.

Finally – and how long we readers had to wait for it – it’s her meeting with Sartre, “the dream-companion I had longed for”, that grounds her, as she reaches the end of her formal childhood. He is, she says, her intellectual superior, and she is, she knows, still naive, but

I no longer asked myself: what shall I do? There was everything to be done, everything I had formerly longed to do: to combat error, to find the truth, to tell it and expound it to the world, perhaps to help to change the world.

And so she did.

Simone de Beauvoir
Memoirs of a dutiful daughter
Translated by James Kirkup
New York: Harper Perennial, 2005
(First pub. 1958; Translated 1959)
364pp.
ISBN: 9780060825195

Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature Writing Prize

August 25, 2014

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.

 

Toshio Mori, Japanese Hamlet (Review)

August 24, 2014
Toshio Mori (Courtesy: Nancy Wong, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Toshio Mori (Courtesy: Nancy Wong, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Toshio Mori
“Japanese Hamlet”
First published: in Pacific Citizen, August 17, 1946
Available: Online at the Library of America

Delicious descriptions: Brooke Davis on salmon gums

August 23, 2014

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).

Salmon Gum

Salmon Gum from NT (Eucalyptus tintinnans).

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?

Another shot of Eucalpytus Tintinnans

Another shot of Eucalpytus Tintinnans

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.

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