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Biff Ward, In my mother’s hands (Review)

April 2, 2015
Biff Ward In my mother's hands

Courtesy Allen & Unwin

“Profoundly moving”, “a kind book”, and “harrowing” could be blurb words for Biff Ward’s memoir, In my mother’s hands, but they’re not. They are some of the words used by members of my reading group when we discussed the book this week with – lucky us – the author in attendance.

It’s quite coincidental that I happened to be reading this book right when Annabel Smith asked me to name my favourite memoir for her Friday Faves, which resulted in my follow-up post on memoirs this Monday. However, I’m glad it happened this way, because it’s given me an excuse to continue the discussion a little more. There’s so much to say about Ward’s book, but for this post I’m going to explore just two aspects: the reading experience, and its literary qualities.

On reading In my mother’s hands

So, let’s start with the story. Biff Ward is the daughter of one of Australia’s most influential historians of the mid-twentieth century, Russel Ward. At our meeting, she told us that people expected her to write his biography, but, she said, that was never her interest. Instead, she found herself writing about her mother. In doing this, though, she did in fact write about her father – but in a memoir, not a biography, because this book is about her experience of living in a family with an increasingly delusional, paranoid mother. What that experience was like – and how she eventually unravels the full story – makes compelling reading.

But, there’s more to reading this book than the story, strong as it is. There is how Ward tells it. She evokes the times beautifully – particularly the 1950s and 1960s – showing, in particular, the devastating result of the lack of understanding or awareness of mental illness. And she does this while inhabiting the child she was at the time, that is, she manages to tell those years from her child’s eye view, interspersing this voice with her experienced adult one. Take, for example, her description of when, as a teenager, she’s home when her mother is visited by “top girl” or “the queen bee of the university wives”. Ward believed this visit showed her mother was being talked about publicly, and she felt “shame and embarrassment” as “Top Girl bustled down the hall and out the front door”. That word “bustled” perfectly captures the idea of a “busybody”. Later, though, she sees it differently:

Now I can see that the network of women, connected through the university where their husbands worked, might have cared about my mother. Or might have wanted to care but were not sure how to go about it.

Also contributing to my reading enjoyment was how seamlessly Ward incorporated her research into the story to substantiate her feelings and ideas. She quotes from letters her father wrote to his parents and sister. (How wonderful that these were kept, says this librarian-archivist!) She talks of speaking to friends and family members later about their memories. She shares her research into official records. She refers to her father’s autobiography. And so on. None of this is tedious, but is woven naturally, logically, into the narrative.

Then there’s Ward’s honesty in confronting difficult truths, and her ability and willingness to reflect on her experiences and comprehend their meaning or implications. Here she is, for example, on her response to her father’s overwhelming (and surely unreasonable) request for her to look after her mother for a year:

I didn’t know that somewhere inside me was a plan. My motivation was buried way too deep for me to connect that first touch of an erect penis with the request Dad had made of me.

You can probably guess the outcome.

It would be easy to read this book with anger – to be angry particularly with Russel Ward for his failings – but that would, I think, miss the point. Ward is not angry – and indeed her father did a lot right too. Her tone is more one of sadness, than of anger. She appreciates the culture of the times and she knows that people are flawed. I loved this – the generosity with which she relates what was clearly a traumatic upbringing.

What makes a memoir literary?

This might sound like a snooty question, but literary non-fiction is a recognised genre, and memoirs are making literary award lists. So, what makes one memoir stand out over another in terms of literary qualities? Critic Barbara Lounsberry captures my perspective: “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.” (from Wikipedia)

So, narrative form, structure and “polished” language. While I wouldn’t call In my mother’s hands particularly innovative or challenging in terms of style and technique, I would call it skilled and polished. Ward’s use of her child’s voice interspersed with her more reflective adult one effectively draws the reader in. Her use of foreshadowing – such as “I missed seeing that I had been provided with a rehearsal of what was to come” and “It’s hard, looking back, to pick the precise moment when a turning point arrives, when your life is about to change” – picks up on a structural device common in fiction. (It also neatly demonstrates the memoirist’s ability to think back).

The jewel in the crown, though, is her language. Ward’s writing is generally direct and to the point, but she has a great eye for metaphor and produces some gorgeous images that can encompass multiple ideas. I loved this description of her mother’s increasing (often self-imposed) alienation within the family:

Even when there weren’t visitors, we hardly spoke to her. As her delusions grew, as she had almost no everyday conversation, we cut off from her, twig by twig. Our family tree grew its gnarled limbs around us and through us, in the imperceptible way trees do, so that we didn’t notice how weirdly shaped we all were.

This obviously distorts the traditional family tree motif but also, I think, subtly suggests the tree of (non) life?

And then there’s the title itself. In my mother’s hands references so many ideas – the fact that children are (rather defencelessly) in their parents’ hands; the idea that as a nurse her mother had had caring, nurturing hands; her mother’s grotesque habit of gouging and hurting her hands (invoking Lady Macbeth, and the mystery at the heart of the book); and her mother’s terrifying attempt to strangle Ward in her bed when she was 12 years old. Literal, symbolic, metaphoric. They’re all there in those four words.

The chapter titles are similarly evocative, usually brief and apt, such as Brittle, Knife, The Cobweb, Running. Language is, in fact, a significant issue in the book because in those awful days when mental illness was not understood, Ward, her father and younger brother had no language to explain to each other, let alone to outsiders, what they were experiencing. Sometimes Ward would lie, she said, because “when there are not adequate words, fiction will suffice”; other times they would use “shorthand” to obscure the reality.

I could write more about the language in this book, because I found it perfectly tuned to the story and to conveying the feelings within, but I’ll leave it here.

At the end of our meeting, I mentioned to Ward her longlisting for the Stella Prize. She smiled a little wryly, and said, in relation to missing out on the shortlist, that she felt in good company being “rejected with Helen Garner and Sonya Hartnett”! She sure is – and on the basis of this book, I’d say she well deserves being mentioned in the same breath as those writers.

awwchallenge2015Biff Ward
In my mother’s hands
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781743319116

Monday musings on Australian literature: Scattered thoughts on memoirs

March 30, 2015

I’ve titled this Monday Musings “scattered thoughts” because I don’t want to raise expectations that I’m going to write a treatise on what is a fascinating but oh-so complex topic. I was inspired to write this post by author Annabel Smith’s asking me to take part in her Friday Faves* post on favourite memoirs. For this post, Smith asked six writers/bloggers to nominate their favourite memoir. Three of us chose Australian memoirs. Do check the link I’ve provided if you’re interested – I certainly enjoyed reading my co-invitees’ selections.

According to my stats, I have read and reviewed 24 autobiographies or memoirs over the history of this blog. I don’t want to get into discussions about autobiography vs memoir now, except to say that Wikipedia’s definition is pretty much how I see it:

An autobiography tells the story of a life, while a memoir tells a story from a life.

By this definition, a memoir will tend to focus on an aspect of a person’s life, often an event or activity that defines who they are or why they are the way they are! Over half of the 24 books I’ve reviewed are memoirs, and a little over half of them are by Australian writers.

The main point I want to make here is that while memoirs reach far back into time, as the Wikipedia article describes, they started gaining popularity – and, with it, visible literary status – in the last couple of decades. Early standouts for me were an Australian one, Sally Morgan’s My place, and an Irish-American one, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes. Who hasn’t read these! Both are moving stories, and both are written by people who can write! It’s all very well to have a story to tell, but there’s more to it than that …

So much more, in fact, that memoirs have become the subject of academic and critical discussion. Where, for example, is the boundary between memoir and autobiographical fiction? Why would an author pass off as memoir a work that was fiction – such as James Frey’s A million little pieces. Despite controversies like this, however, memoirs have cachet and are appearing on literary prize shortlists.

Take, for example, the Kibble Literary Awards (the Nita B Kibble Literary Award for an established Australian female writer, and the Dobbie Literary Award for a first published work by a female writer). These awards are for “life-writing” and can be won by “novels, autobiographies, biographies, literature and any writing with a strong personal element”. In recent years, memoirs have been among the winners, such as Kristina Olsson’s Boy lost: A family memoir (2014), Kate Richards’ Madness: A memoir (2014), Lily Chan’s Toyo: A memoir (2013), and Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger eye (2001).

These awards, though, are for life writing so it’s not surprising that memoirs feature. Memoirs, however, also appear in non-fiction awards. Kate Richards, for example, won the non-fiction prize in the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature in 2014 for Madness: A memoir. Kristina Olsson’s Boy lost: A family memoir won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction in the 2014 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, and Malcolm Fraser with Margaret Simons won the same award in 2011 for Malcolm Fraser: The political memoirs.

And then there’s the Stella Prize, established in 2012 for “writing by Australian women in all genres”. So far, a memoir hasn’t won, but they have been short and long-listed. The 2012 longlist included Patti Miller’s The mind of a thief; the 2013 longlist had Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and my family and Kristina Olsson’s Boy lost: A family memoir. Kristina Olsson also made it to the shortlist. This year, Biff Ward’s In my mother’s house which, coincidentally, will be my next review, was longlisted, though it didn’t make the shortlist.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to keep listing awards won by memoirs, because I think I’ve made my point that memoirs are worthy of serious consideration. Certainly, I enjoy a good memoir – and I like thinking about what makes a memoir. I’ve read several Australian memoirs last year which did not feature in awards but which had strong voices that engaged me, such as Margaret Rose Stringer’s And then like my dreams (my review) and Olivera Simić’s Surviving peace (my review).

I’m intrigued by novels which are closely autobiographical, like, say, Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review). It’s a novel, but Jennings used excerpts from it in Trouble (my review), which she called her “fragmented autobiography”. Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review) is also highly autobiographical.

Francesa Rendle-Short book cover Bite your tongue

(Courtesy: Spinifex Press)

Then there are the books that more explicitly span the memoir-fiction divide. Kate Holden’s The romantic: Italian nights and days (my review) is, she says, memoir. She started it as a novel, feeling memoirs are “narcissistic”, but realised it was her “life” so she turned back to memoir – and wrote it in third person! And this brings me to the book I nominated for Annabel Smith’s post, Francesca Rundle-Short’s Bite your tongue (my review). Described as a fiction-cum-memoir, it too is told third person – in the main, because a few first person chapters are interspersed in the book. Rendle-Short chose third person because the story was too hard to tell so she had to come at it “obliquely”, while Holden chose third person to maintain “critical distance” from her former self.

Oh dear, I think this has been a bit of a ramble … but it’s a topic I love thinking about. Thanks Annabel for inspiring me to post on it today!

Now I’d love to know whether you, reading this, are memoir readers, and if you are, what makes a good one for you.

Friday Faves is a series on Smith’s blogs in which she asks one or more writers and/or bloggers to write about a favourite book, often on a specific topic. I reviewed her novel/ebook/app The ark last year.

Charles Hall, Summer’s gone (Review)

March 29, 2015
Charles Hall, Summer's gone, Margaret River Press

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

When Western Australian writer Craig Silvey set his coming-of-age novel Jasper Jones in the 1960s I was a bit surprised, as Silvey himself did not grow up in that era. I’m not so surprised, though, about Charles Hall’s debut novel Summer’s gone as Hall did grow up in the 1960s. The novel is, from my reading of the brief author biography, somewhat autobiographical, as debut novels often are: both Hall and his main character played guitar in bands, hitch-hiked across Australia, worked in labouring jobs and ended up studying at university. This, though, doesn’t mean the story is Hall’s story. It simply tells us that Hall wrote of a milieu he knows – a wise thing to do!

Summer’s gone is a part-mystery, part-coming-of-age narrative, and is told first person by Nick. It focuses on his relationship with two sisters, Helen and Alison, and another young man, Mitch, with whom he’d formed a folk band in 1960s Perth. The novel starts, however, in Melbourne in 1967 with Nick finding 20-year-old Helen dead (or dying) on their kitchen floor. What happened to her, why it happened, and Nick’s feelings of guilt about it, form the novel’s plot. The theme, though, is something else, it’s about

the trouble with dwelling too much on the past – sometimes you remember other things as well, things you don’t necessarily want to think about.

Except, of course, we do often need to dwell on the past if we haven’t resolved it, we need to think, as Nick does, about the things we did, didn’t do, or might have done differently. We need, in fact, as Nick has come to realise, “to say goodbye to things. And perhaps even to understand.”

To tell his story, Nick slips between the 1960s, the mid 1970s, the 1980s, and sometime around the present from which he is looking back. Hall handles these time-shifts well: it’s not difficult to know where you are, and it effectively replicates the way we often approach the past, that is, in fits and starts as we put together what happened.

It’s an engaging story. Nick, the young version anyhow, is a rather naive and not well-educated – but not unintelligent – young man. He’s not wise in the ways of the world, but he’s decent, and prepared to give things a go. He has a poor relationship with his Perth-based mother, and his only real adult role model is his uncle Clem in Melbourne. The relationship between the four young people is nicely evoked, though because it’s a first person story, the other three characters are only developed as far as Nick understands them, and Nick is not always the most perceptive person. I found this a little frustrating – I wanted to know the other characters more – but I suppose it’s fair enough given the narrative voice chosen.

What gives this book its greatest interest is the social history. Many of the main stories of the period are worked into the narrative – abortion, and the horrors resulting from lack of legalisation; the Vietnam War, conscription, draft-dodging, and the physical and psychological damage experienced by soldiers. Nick also spends time in a hippie commune, and other news events like the Poseidon bubble and crash, the beginnings of women’s liberation, and the release of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album also get a mention. If you lived through this era, the novel provides an enjoyable wander down memory lane. It reminds us of the hopes and ideals of a generation which felt free to explore life and love, to rebel against the constraints of their elders, even though this freedom wasn’t always all it seemed to promise. I did feel, however, that Hall could have left the social history to this era. The references to Chernobyl and mesothelioma started to feel a little forced, and not really necessary to the plot, even though the mesothelioma issue is used to tighten the noose around one character just that little bit more.

Hall’s dialogue is realistic, and gives flavour to the era, and I did enjoy his descriptions of place – of Perth suburbs, and Melbourne, of travelling the Nullarbor and of country Victoria. These descriptions are kept to a minimum, but are just enough to breathe life into the scene.

Early in the novel, Hall refers to chaos theory and the butterfly effect, to the idea that “a minor detail has the power to change everything”. That’s probably true but I’m not sure it tells us anything we don’t already know! There are many minor details in our lives, and we could go mad worrying about which is the one that will (or did) change everything. Fortunately, I think Nick eventually agrees.

This is not a difficult novel, but it is warm, readable, and sings to us of summers past when the world seemed golden, but when in fact there was, as there always is, much more to it than that.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed the book also for its evocation of the era.

Charles Hall
Summer’s gone
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780987561541

(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)

Miles Franklin, Brent of Bin Bin and the Great Australian Bight

March 25, 2015

In this week’s Monday Musings I discussed the literary mystery concerning the identity of Brent of Bin Bin. I referred to an article written in 1954 after her death by Murray Tonkin in which he asked whether the truth that she is, or is a collaborator of, Brent of Bin Bin will now be revealed. I didn’t share though a delightful little story he includes.


Angus & Robertson 1956 ed.

You see, those who argued that Brent of Bin Bin was Miles Franklin used stylistic and thematic similarities between the works of the two authors together with facts about Franklin’s life to prove their case. “Bin Bin”, for example, was the name of a property (or run) next to the one her father managed in Brindabella. There’s a “Gool Gool” in My brilliant career and All that swagger, and one of the books in the Brent of Bin Bin series is called Back to Bool Bool. Thematic similarities between the two “authors” include the exploration of the harshness of life for bush women, and stories about literary women.

But, I didn’t share a fun little point which Tonkin says had “escaped other literary detectives”. It comes from poet Ian Mudie, who apparently knew her well. Tonkin writes that Mudie had identified that

Both she and Brent, in their books, have the Murray River emptying itself into the Great Australian Bight. But when he taxed her with it she brushed the point aside. “Of course!”   she said firmly. Every body knows the Murray runs into the Bight!”

Haha, I thought, he’s right, the Murray doesn’t flow into the Great Australian Bight but into Lake Alexandrina, which is rather east of the Bight. However, according to one definition of the Bight, Franklin was right. Wikipedia tells me there are two definitions of the extent of the Bight: The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) sets its eastern limit as Cape Otway in Victoria, which easily encompasses the mouth of the Murray, while the Australian Hydrographic Service (AHS) has it as Cape Carnot which definitely does not.

By the IHO definition, then, Mudie’s argument doesn’t work as a coincidence outing Franklin as Brent of Bin Bin, but I suspect she probably had made a mistake and that most Australians then, and now, would not see the mouth of the Murray as being in the area we call the Bight. Fascinating the places that literary detection can take you, eh?

Anyhow, what do other Aussies think about the Murray and the Bight?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Miles Franklin, and the mysterious Brent of Bin Bin

March 23, 2015
Miles Franklin, 1902

Miles Franklin, 1902, by H.Y. Dorner (Presumed Public Domain)

In last week’s Monday Musings I discussed an article by Canadian-born author Aidan de Brune on the novelist Bernard Cronin in his West Australian series on Australian Authors. The now little-known Bernard Cronin was no. 3 in his series. Number 4, though, was one of the giants of Australian literature – then, and still now – Miles Franklin. Most of you will know that she bequeathed our most significant literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and you probably have also heard of her most famous book, My brilliant career. But, Miles Franklin did have a secret …

This secret, as we now know, is that in addition to several other novels published under her name, she wrote a series of six novels using the pseudonym “Brent of Bin Bin”. They were completed by 1933 but not all had been published by her death in September 1954. According to Paul Brunton, editor of The diaries of Miles Franklin, Franklin saw this as “a publicity device”. She wrote in 1929 that “hiding under a pen-name … will be more fruitful of publicity”. Her plan was to retain the mystery until the last book was published at which time she would reveal her identity. Unfortunately, she died before they were all finished. Nonetheless, Brunton says, she “enjoyed the speculation on Brent’s identity”. In 1941 she chaired, “with a straight face”, a meeting of  the Fellowship of Australian Writers at which Brent of Bin Bin’s identity was discussed. Brunton continues:

She had no scruples about praising Brent’s books publicly as though she had nothing to do with them, as she does in her diaries. She even praised them in her Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures in 1950.

She also wrote to others, including the critic Nettie Palmer, as Brent of Bin Bin. I should add here that the current theory is that she used “Brent of Bin Bin” (and her other pseudonyms) because she feared not being able to repeat her My brilliant career achievement.

Anyhow, back to Aidan de Brune writing in 1933. He commences his article with:

Thirty years ago literary circles in Australia were astounded by the publication of an extraordinary book, written by a girl of sixteen, Stella Miles Franklin. The title of the book was audacious — “My Brilliant Career.”

He praises the book saying:

It throbs with a passionate love of the Australian bush, and particularly of horses, and with an equal passionate hatred of the cruelties of life endured by the people on the land, particularly by the women. It is the first statement, and to this day it remains the greatest statement, of the case for Australian bush womanhood.

He also quotes Henry Lawson’s praise in the book’s preface for its “painfully real” depiction of “bush life and scenery”. De Brune is concerned that in 1933 it, like many “fine” Australian books had been allowed to go out of print, with copies being hard to come by. He then gives a little of Franklin’s biography – her twenty years abroad working for the Feminist Movement in the USA, in the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Salonika, and for a housing committee in London. But now, he tells his readers, she is back and in 1932 had published a book, Old Blastus of Bandicoot, “under her name”. (Hmm … !) It was highly praised by many critics including John Dalley in The Bulletin. He also advises that another book, a detective story, would be published in 1933.

But, he asks:

Is that, then, the whole story of Miles Franklin? We shall see. Is it likely, or possible, that a writer of such power and sheer genius as the author of “My Brilliant Career” should have been silent for more than twenty years?

Fair questions! He goes on to tell his readers that “Miles Franklin will not admit it” but many people are identifying her with

the mysterious “Brent of Bin Bin,” whose books (published by Blackwood, of Edinburgh, be it noted) are acknowledegd to be the finest presentation in fiction of the Australian outback epic which have yet been written. “Brent of Bin Bin” loves the bush and understands horses, and hates injustice to bush women, as only the author of “My Brilliant Career” and “Old Blastus of Bandicoot” could love, and understand, and hate.

Brent of Bin Bin’s books are now Australian classics he says but, like My brilliant career, are hard to come by. How lucky we are that publishers like Text Publishing, Allen & Unwin, and others, are bringing back Australian classics in our times, eh?

Anyhow, I did love the conclusion to his article:

If Miles Franklin is also “Brent of Bin Bin,” then she is the greatest Australian bush novelist alive. And if she is only Miles Franklin of “My Brilliant Career” and “Old Blastus of Bandicoot” she takes second place to one writer alone — the tremendously gifted and mysterious author who writes in Miles Franklin’s manner under the pseudonym of “Brent.”

Ha ha … I bet he had fun writing that! I’m intrigued though that the praise is qualified, that she is “the greatest bush novelist”. I sense though that he doesn’t intend to diminish her achievement but to simply describe the milieu she was writing in. What I hear is that the bush continued to be a significant concern in 1930s Australia and was therefore seen as a worthy topic for our literature.

POSTSCRIPT: In an article written after her death, Murray Tonkin asks whether her death will finally solve the literary mystery. So, although many were confident they knew the identity, Franklin clearly kept up the pretence to the end. Tonkin says that he will “gladly eat his hat” if Franklin is not identified as “at least a close collaborator”. Love it!

Jane Austen, Emma Vol 2 (continuing thoughts)

March 22, 2015

EmmaCoversThe friendship plot – that theme I discussed in my post on Volume 1 of Emma – thickens in Volume 2. Several “new” friendships are presented, as Austen continues to deepen our understanding of what constitutes community via the little village of Highbury. For Jane Austen, I think we are going to realise, friendship is both a deeply personal thing as well as something that underpins society.

In Volume 2, three people are introduced to Highbury – Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, about whom we’d heard heard in Volume 1, and Mrs Elton, the new bride of Highbury’s minister, Mr Elton. Through them, and the previously introduced characters, we are introduced to several facets of “friendship”. Positive examples include:

  • Colonel Campbell’s generous act of friendship to Jane Fairfax’s late father by taking Jane into his household and educating her along with his daughter;
  • Mr Knightley’s neighbourly style of friendship in providing food from his estate to the Bates and transport for them to a wintry evening dinner-dance;
  • Emma’s similarly neighbourly friendship in providing food to the Bates;
  • Miss Campbell’s open-hearted, trusting acceptance of her fiancé’s preference for her friend Jane Fairfax’s piano playing over her own; and even
  • Mr Woodhouse’s entertaining some of the older women in the town.

More questionable ones include:

  • Mrs Elton’s profusions of friendship to Jane Fairfax but in fact interfering with Jane’s wishes; and
  • Emma’s inability to befriend Jane Fairfax.

In Volume 1, Austen explored the role (and value) of friends in providing advice and emotional support to each other, what we could call perhaps the more “personal” side of friendship. In Volume 2, there is I think a slight shift of emphasis to more practical, or societal, aspects such as the provision of material comforts and company. Through all these manifestations of “friendship”, Austen seems to be building a rich picture of human relationships, of what we need from, and can do for, each other.

There is also in this volume a discussion of what Emma doesn’t like in a friendship: it’s the “coldness and reserve” that she sees in Jane Fairfax, with whom everyone, including Mr Knightley, expected and still expects her to be intimate. She says of not looking to Jane for friendship:

But I must be more in want of a friend, or an agreeable companion, than I have yet been, to take the trouble of conquering any body’s reserve to procure one.

An additional impediment to Emma’s willingness to befriend Jane Fairfax is fact that Jane is lauded for skills in areas in which Emma is less accomplished (through, it seems, lack of application!) Interestingly, late in the volume, Mr Knightley, responding to suggestions that he might be thinking of marrying Jane Fairfax, says he is not interested:

She is reserved; more reserved, I think, than she used to be: and I love an open temper.

It will be interesting to see whether the issue of love and its relationship to friendship is teased out in Volume 3.

Jane Austen – protofeminist?

Just how “feminist” you see Jane Austen depends somewhat on your definition of feminism, but for me she demonstrates a clear recognition of the (economic) inequalities that affect women’s lives and of the (societal) factors that hold them back. She demonstrates this in Emma by presenting a heroine who is independently wealthy and who therefore has no economic need to marry. Emma recognises this and says early in the novel, in volume 1 in fact, that she won’t marry:

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry …  without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”

Part of the trajectory in Emma is for her to learn that there are other reasons to marry besides those of money and consequence. By contrast, her foil/double, Jane Fairfax has no independent wealth. The most likely course of life for her is to be a governess, but it’s not a cheery thought:

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies…”

For Jane Fairfax, a good marriage would save her from what she sees as a pretty devastating fate.

Contrasting these two quite different situations is Mrs Elton. In Austen, as in most authors, you need to be aware of who is speaking when assessing what they say. Mrs Elton is a figure of ridicule in Emma, rather like Mr Collins in Pride and prejudice. She’s the upstart who “has a horror of upstarts”. Her idea of standing up for women involves counteracting Mr Weston’s statement that “delicate ladies have very extraordinary constitutions”. She says:

I always take the part of my own sex; I do indeed. I give you notice, you will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women; and I assure you, if you knew how Selina feels with respect to sleeping at an inn, you would not wonder at Mrs. Churchill’s making incredible exertions to avoid it. Selina says it is quite horror to her; and I believe I have caught a little of her nicety. She always travels with her own sheets; an excellent precaution.

The satire here is multi-layered, but includes ridiculing Mrs Elton’s notion of standing up for women by asserting their focus on niceties!

More …

There’s a lot more I could discuss about this volume, such as its perfect plotting in which very little happens, or is said, that doesn’t move the plot forward, but that does it in such sly ways that we are barely aware it’s happening. However, I think I’ve made the main points here that particularly caught my attention during this re-read … so, onto volume 3 in April.

Ognjen Spahić, All of that (Review)

March 20, 2015

Regulars here know that I enjoy short stories, and that I review them regularly. Most of these reviews, though, are of Australian writers. I was therefore pleased when blogger roughghosts, in his review of a novel by Ognjen Spahić, provided a link to a Spahić short story titled “All of that”. As I haven’t reviewed many Balkan writers here, and definitely no Montenegrin writers, I grabbed the opportunity to read this story.

According to the biography provided by the online journal BODY, Spahić “is the best-known member of the young generation of Montenegrin writers to have emerged since the collapse of former Yugoslavia”. He’s published two collections of short stories and his novel Hansen’s Children (the one reviewed by roughghosts) won the 2005 Meša Selimović Prize for the best new novel from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Elsewhere I read that he’s been a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and won, in 2011, Romania’s Ovid Festival Prize for a prominent young talent. Have you heard of him? I hadn’t. Another win for litbloggers, methinks.

“All of that”, which I suspect comes from his first short story collection, All that, published in 2001, is a first person story by a father concerned about his son Danilo’s ability to cope with the death of a schoolfriend and with attending her funeral. Most of the story takes place on a father-son fishing trip in which the father plans to take his son’s mind off the death, but the son has other plans:

‘Dad, have you ever been to the cemetery?’ he asked as we were driving.

And so starts a conversation … I loved the writing (albeit I read a translation). The dialogue, which constitutes much of the story, is simple, direct, and true, but it is in the father’s reflections that the truth of the matter comes out. It’s the father who has problems with death. He’d lost his father (car-crash) when he was 6 years old and his mother (illness) when he was thirteen. “It’s difficult to talk about death”, he says

And even more difficult to explain to a child the ceremony and rituals which go with it in this rotten country.

“This rotten country” is alludes to something wider than the story at hand, and suggests to me there may be another level on which the story might be read. Interestingly too, as the father and son are rowing, the son says he doesn’t like fog though it doesn’t bother him. This surprises the father, but he suggests:

‘OK Danilo, Strange Prince of Darkness. Let’s row a little bit faster to that deserted island.’

Strange Prince of Darkness? Why does he call his son that? It seems affectionate. Other religious references, on the other hand, are more direct, such as “Deformed quotes from the Bible”.

Anyhow, the fog returns a few times in the story. At one time the father says it “creeps like a python after the slow process of digesting its prey”. It lifts towards the end, suggesting some resolution for the father/narrator’s anxieties.

What I enjoyed was the way Spahić slowly teases out the father’s feelings – through the dialogue, his reflections, the style (particularly the use of repetition), and the language and imagery – because in the end the story is more about the father’s feelings. Just after the “strange Prince of Darkness” comment, the father talks of making “a pretence at adventure, a small harmless attempt to escape from reality”. And yet, the son gives no sense of needing to escape from reality. It’s the father.

I’m not going to write more about this story. It would certainly bear multiple readings, but is powerful enough on the first reading to give a sense of yet another writer I’d like to get to know more. I might read Hansen’s children yet.

Ongjen Spahić
“All of that” in BODY, June 30, 2013
Translate by SD Curtis
Available online at BODY


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