I’ve written some long posts recently so have decided to make this one a short one. I have been intrigued in recent years to discover how many Australian novelists and poets have turned their hands to libretti, often adaptations of novels but not always. Some are opera libretti, but others are for other vocal musical works. I’m not an opera tragic – though I did attend the Sydney Opera House’s opening season and have attended several operas over the years – so I’m not going to critique what these authors are doing. My post here is purely informational because I find it interesting. I’ve chosen 5 writers, who are of particular interest to me, to write about.
David Malouf (b. 1934)
I’ve written about David Malouf several times in this blog, including reviewing his most recent novel, Ransom. I also wrote early in this blog’s life about an event I went to focused on Patrick White’s novel, Voss. David Malouf wrote the libretto for the opera, which was performed in 1986. He sat on the board of Opera Australia from 2001 to 2009).
His libretti are:
- Voss (1986)
- Mer de glace (which seems not to have been well-regarded) (1991)
- Baa Baa Black Sheep (based on an autobiographical short story by Rudyard Kipling, and drawing also on The jungle book) (1993)
- Jane Eyre (based on you know what) (2005).
Randolph Stow (1935-2010)
Randolph Stow, like Malouf, is a Miles Franklin Award winning author. He wrote novels, poetry, children’s books and, of course since he’s in this post, libretti. Both his libretti are for theatrical works by English composer and conductor, Peter Maxwell-Davies.
His libretti are:
- Eight songs for a mad king (a half-hour monodrama about King George III) (1969)
- Miss Donnithorne’s maggot (half-hour piece based on the life of the woman claimed by some to have been the model for Dickens’ Miss Havisham), (1974)
Louis Nowra (b. 1950)
Like Stow and Malouf, Nowra is a versatile and an award-winning writer, having written novels, plays, essays and other non-fiction, and yes, libretti. I’ve reviewed his most recent novel, Into that forest.
His libretti are:
- Inner voices (about the son of Catherine the Great, with music by his ex-wife, Sarah de Jong) (1978)
- Whitsunday (3-act opera about farmers and slaves in 1913 northern Queensland) (1988)
- Love burns (subtitled “an ironic opera in two acts”) (1992)
- On the beach (presumably based on the Nevil Shute novel) (2000)
Peter Goldsworthy (b. 1951)
Goldsworthy is a writer and GP, and, like those preceding him here, is versatile, writing novels, short stories, poetry, film scripts and libretti. I have only read (before blogging) one of his novels, Three dog night, which was shortlisted for many awards, including the Miles Franklin. His daughter, Anna Goldsworthy, is a concert pianist and has written two well-regarded memoirs. Both his libretti were written with the Australian composer and conductor, Richard Mills.
His libretti are:
- Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (based on the classic Australian play by Ray Lawler) (1996)
- Batavia (about the wreck of the Batavia off the Western Australian coast in 1628, which inspired William Golding’s The lord of the flies) (2001)
Batavia won the 2002 Robert Helpmann Award for Best Opera and Best New Australian Work.
Dorothy Porter (1954-2008)
And last is the only woman in the group, the late poet Dorothy Porter whom I’ve reviewed a couple of times. Primarily a poet, including several acclaimed verse novels, she also wrote children’s books, and lyrics. Both her libretti were written with composer Jonathan Mills. When she died she was working on a rock opera with musician, Tim Finn.
Her libretti are:
- The ghost wife (based on a short story by Barbara Baynton) (2000)
- The Eternity Man (about Arthur Stace who, over 35 years or so, wrote “Eternity” on the walls and footpaths of Sydney) (2005)
Have any readers here seen any of these works? And do you know of other novelists or poets who have written libretti?
I love generosity of spirit, the ability to rise above terrible things to see the humanity that lies beneath. Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize shortlisted The narrow road to the deep north is, without being sentimental or glossing over the horror, a generous book – and this is why I expect it will be one of those books I’ll remember long into the future.
I know I’m late reading it – but this is because I’ve been saving it until my reading group did it, which was earlier this week. Consequently, I spent the last few days of September engrossed in the life of Dorrigo Evans, war-hero, lover of poetry (and of too many women), and, most significantly, POW from the Thai-Burma Railway. It’s one hell of a tale … and not exactly what I expected.
On the surface, Dorrigo had a successful life. He survived the POW camp for one thing, was highly regarded in his career, became a war-hero celebrity due to a documentary (loved this!), and had a long-lasting marriage with three children. But, this is not the full story. Chapter 2 of Book 1, commences:
A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else. Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or made it up. Made up, mixed up and broken down. Relentlessly broken down.
This sounds like it could be PTSD, but it’s not. PTSD is important, of course, but Flanagan is interested in broader issues. In many ways the book feels like a big 19th century novel – it has lots of characters, spans a long time-frame, doesn’t shy from coincidences, and explores big themes – but in style, it’s very contemporary, with frequent shifts in time and place, and multiple third-person subjective points of view. It requires concentration to get all the connections, and would benefit from a second reading. Just the sort of book I enjoy getting my teeth into.
I said in my opening paragraph that the book wasn’t exactly what I expected. That’s because I was expecting more war, and perhaps more anger, than I found. There is war, of course, much of it gruesome, as fits the “truth” of that situation, but the main thread is a love story, accompanied by meditations on ideas like truth, goodness and manhood. I can’t possibly discuss all these or we’ll be here forever, so I’m just going to focus on a couple.
“to somehow be more truthful as a human being” (Nakamura)
One of the novel’s strengths is the balance Flanagan strikes between brutality and humanity. He does this partly by paralleling the life of Dorrigo, the commanding officer of the POWs, with Nakamura, the commanding Japanese officer. Nakamura is the enemy but isn’t vilified as you’d expect. Flanagan shows Nakamura to be brutal towards prisoners but we also get inside his head. We learn that he is not comfortable in his own skin – he is, in fact, addicted to shabu (speed) – and that he needs his superiors’ arguments to convince himself of the right of what he is doing. That he is able to do so – that is, to buy completely into the notion of the “Japanese spirit”, into the Emperor’s goals of “The World Under One Roof” – is believable. What soldiers don’t buy into their nation’s “mythology” (whatever it is based on)?
Flanagan follows Nakamura post-war until his death, as he endeavours to rebuild his life – firstly under a false identity to escape being tried as a war-criminal, and later as himself, married and a father. He struggles to define himself – and is surprised to feel himself transformed into “a good man”. A decade or so after the war, his memory of his brutality fades:
time … allowed his memory instead to nurture stories of goodness and extenuating circumstance.
However, when he is dying, he finds it increasingly difficult to hold onto “his idea of his own goodness”. Comparing this goodness with that of his wife, it comes “close to collapsing altogether”. He searches for the “good things in his life — separate of the Emperor’s will, of orders and authority” but finds they are few when compared with his memory of “skeletal creatures crawling through the mud”. His death poem, concluding with “clear is my heart”, is tinged with irony, but reflects his desire “to conceive of his life’s work as that of a good man”.
By contrast, Dorrigo believes himself not to be a good man, to be “entirely bogus”. He marries a woman he doesn’t love, believing his true love to be dead:
For the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty. The guiltier he felt about his failure first as a husband and later as a father, the more desperately he tried to do only what was good in his public life. And what was good, what was duty, what was ever that most convenient escape that was conveniently inescapable, was what other people expected.
And yet, he’s a “war hero” and validly so. At one point on the Railway, when they are all starving, he refuses to eat some steak. Rather, he sends it back to the men, having “found himself the leader of a thousand men* who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not”. This is not false modesty – the men did bring out his best – and yet this modesty is not completely valid either because Dorrigo did have good in him. He was a man prepared to take action for others, at risk to himself. In his last comatose days, he feels that his life had “only ever been shame and loss”, but his final words are words of action, alluding, self-deprecatingly perhaps, to Don Quixote’s windmill but also reminding us of the last line of the poem that defined him, Tennyson’s “Ulysses” – “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
“a poem is not a law” (Bonox Baker)
Two other notions run through the novel – and I’ve already alluded to them both – the love of literature, particularly poetry, and the workings of memory. One scene in particular brings these ideas together. It concerns the funeral pyre for some cholera victims, who include the artist Rabbit Hendricks. When cholera victims are burnt, their personal belongings must also be burnt, but Bonox Baker wants to save Rabbit’s sketchbook because:
it’s a record … So people in the future would, well, know. Remember, that’s what Rabbit wanted. That people will remember what happened here. To us.
Dorrigo quotes from Kipling’s poem, “Recessional”, arguing that everything is forgotten in the end, that it’s better to just live. Bonox disagrees, telling Dorrigo that
A poem is not a law. It’s not fate Sir.
No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.
For Dorrigo, for Nakamura and for his commanding officer, Colonel Kota, poetry is essential in some way to their lives. Dorrigo, who lived at a time “when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry” eventually finds himself “living in the shadow of a single poem”, while for Nakamura poetry emulates “the Japanese spirit” by which he tries to justify or explain his actions.
Bonox, though, is interested in something else. He continues to argue with Dorrigo about the sketchbook:
Memory is the true justice, sir.
Or, the creator of new horrors. Memory’s only like justice, Bonox, because it’s another wrong idea that makes people feel right.
And so we come to one of the paradoxes that Flanagan exposes in the book – individual memory versus the memory industry. Dorrigo is outed as a war hero through a documentary, which makes him uncomfortable, and yet “to deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died”. The memory industry, however, too often ignores the “truth” of the experience in preference for the facts, as bugle-player Jimmy Bigelow discovers:
His sons corrected his memories more and more. What the hell did they know? Apparently a lot more than him. Historians, journalists, documentary makers, even his own bloody family pointing out errors, inconsistencies, lapses and straight out contradictions in his varying accounts. Who was he meant to be? The Encyclopaedia bloody Britannica? … His words and memories were nothing. Everything was in him. Could they not see that? Could they not just let him be?
Paradoxically, Flanagan is questioning the memory industry while at the same time contributing to it. And it is a powerful contribution. Just goes to show the power of literature!
This is a big messy novel, about the two messiest things humanity confronts – love and war. I love its messiness, its lack of answers, but it sure made it hard to write about. Fortunately, Lisa at ANZLitLovers and John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante have also given it a go.
The narrow road to the deep north
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
* Aussie readers will recognise Flanagan’s reference here to Weary Dunlop.
Just as some contemporary publishers, like Text, have decided to publish Australian Classics, so did publishers in the past attempt such projects. One such publisher was Lansdowne Press which, according to N.B. in the Canberra Times in 1963, began “a series of reprints from Australiana” which they called Heritage Books.
N.B. discusses two books in the series, Anthony Trollope’s Harry Heathcote of Gangoil* and Mrs. Charles Clacy’s A lady’s visit to the gold diggings of Australia in 1852-53*. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Lansdowne used “Heritage Books” in their imprint because I can’t find this series in library catalogues. I therefore have no idea what other books were published in the series, or how long it lasted. I did find other Lansdowne books that might have been in the series, such as The felonry of New South Wales: being a faithful picture of the real romance of life in Botany Bay: with anecdotes of Botany Bay society and a plan of Sydney by James Mudie (first pub. 1837), and Reflections on the colony of New South Wales by George Caley (first pub. 1829).
The Canberra Times article is headlined “Contemporary accounts of the good old days”, and you can see from the titles that “accounts” is the operative word. They are not all novels. In fact, of the four I’ve listed, only Trollope’s is a novel.
Trollope’s “Slight Plot”
N.B. starts by discussing Trollope who visited Australia in 1871 and stayed with his son who apparently ran a sheep-station in the Queensland outback. Trollope ended up writing a travel book, Australia and New Zealand (1873), and two novels, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874) and John Caldigate (1879). NB clearly knows Trollope well. I laughed at his/her statement that Trollope, “even at his best, which is very good indeed, tends to be careless and to use three words where one would do.”
So to Harry Heathcote. It has, s/he, says a slight plot about rivalry between free selectors and sheep farmers in Queensland. N.B.’s assessment is that Trollope’s portrayal is authentic and that the book
is still well-worth reading for its entertainment value for anyone who can dispense with the slicker techniques and concise prose of modern popular novelists.
And then, having a bet both ways, s/he also says, it
is short and dramatic, virtues which will commend it to modern readers who shrink from the traditional Victorian three-decker.
It’s for assessments like these that I so enjoy delving into old newspapers. They provide such insight into the thinking of another time (if 50 years ago is another time!). Anyhow, N.B. continues that Trollope, not a sentimentalist, presents in Heathcote “a real person with faults of personality as well as the representative virtues of an English gentleman …”.
In case you are interested, here* are paragraphs 2-4 from Chapter 1:
“I’m about whole melted,” he said, as he kissed her. “In the name of charity give me a nobbler.** I did get a bit of damper and a pannikin of tea up at the German’s hut; but I never was so hot or so thirsty in my life. We’re going to have it in earnest this time. Old Bates says that when the gum leaves crackle, as they do now, before Christmas, there won’t be a blade of grass by the end of February.”
“I hate Old Bates,” said the wife. “He always prophesies evil, and complains about his rations.”
“He knows more about sheep than any man this side of the Mary,” said her husband. From all this I trust the reader will understand that the Christmas to which he is introduced is not the Christmas with which he is intimate on this side of the equator–a Christmas of blazing fires in-doors, and of sleet arid snow and frost outside–but the Christmas of Australia, in which happy land the Christmas fires are apt to be lighted–or to light themselves–when they are by no means needed.
Trollope clearly cottoned on to Australia’s hot summers and the serious risks of bushfire. If this is a good example, N.B. is right about its authenticity.
Lansdowne’s “Real Service”
However, it seems that Lansdowne’s real service in N.B.’s eyes, was republishing A lady’s visit. Once again the issue of length is raised, this time by Patricia Thompson in her introduction to Clacy’s book. She says it’s not “too long, too dull, too pompous for the taste of the 20th century” like many early books of Australia. Thompson describes Clacy’s book as both interesting historically and a good read.
Clacy came to the Australian goldfields, “those auriferous regions” as she calls them, with her brother. N.B. says that Clacy’s book
should not be missed by anyone who appreciates a racy record which catches the flavour of what it was like to be there in Australia’s most rumbustious era.
Again, to give us a taste, here* is the second paragraph of Chapter 3, which describes their arrival in Australia:
The first sounds that greet our ears are the noisy tones of some watermen, who are loitering on the building of wooden logs and boards, which we, as do the good people of Victoria, dignify with the undeserved title of PIER. There they stand in their waterproof caps and skins–tolerably idle and exceedingly independent–with one eye on the look out for a fare, and the other cast longingly towards the open doors of Liardet’s public-house, which is built a few yards from the landing-place, and alongside the main road to Melbourne.
You can see what N.B. means, can’t you, about her style?
But what of Lansdowne now?
According to their website, Lansdowne is:
a leading independent book publisher and packager. We produce high-quality books and book-related products for publishers, retailers and distributors around the world.
We specialize in the subject areas of cooking, new age, interior design, gardening, health, history and spirituality for the international market.
Hmmm … a “packager”? They say they won the American Independent Publisher’s Award in 2000. An American independent publisher’s award? Intriguing. However, I can’t see any evidence of activity since 2006.
* Both books can be read at Project Gutenburg Australia: Harry Heathcote and A lady’s visit to the gold diggings of Australia in 1852-53.
** Nobbler is a small shot glass of hard liquor.
One of the best things about being involved in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is hearing of writers whom I may not otherwise have come across, or, if I had, who may not have registered strongly with me. One such writer who regularly pops up in the challenge is novelist Kate Forsyth. The reviews that keep coming in for her books, particularly for The Wild girl and Bitter greens, have intrigued me, but I haven’t yet found an opportunity to read these novels. I did, however, find time to read the short memoir, “Stories as salvation”, Forsyth wrote for the Griffith Review some months ago now.
Forsyth’s story is both common and unusual. It’s common because it is a tale of a young girl who turned to books and stories as solace during a childhood characterised by much ill-health and many hospital stays. How many memoirs have we read that tell this story?
Stories. My only source of sunshine, my only solace. I would read all day and as late into the night as the nurses would let me … Stories were escape. Stories were magic.
But, it is unusual too, because, like most such stories, hers has its unique elements. Her health problems started when she was two years old with a vicious attack by a family dog which, among other things, destroyed one of her tear ducts. She barely survived that attack, and then suffered multiple serious infections requiring hospitalisation, due mostly to this tear duct problem. She subsequently became, she said, at the age of eleven, “the first Australian to have a successful implantation of an artificial tear duct”. She includes in this memoir her poem “Scars” which was first published in Quadrant in 1994 and which evokes the visible and invisible scars of her experience, their power and her power over them.
What I found most interesting in this essay-length memoir was her clear articulation of how her childhood reading had informed the writer she is today. I am always interested in how writers end up writing what they write, and what their intention is (regardless of whether their intention is what I might take away from their writing.) For Forsyth, her introduction to Grimms’ Fairy Tales when she was seven came “to haunt [her] imagination”. She was particularly attracted to Rapunzel who
too was locked away from the world against her will. She too was lonely and afraid. Her tears healed the eyes of the blinded prince, as I so desperately longed to be healed. The uncanny parallels between Rapunzel and my life seemed to have some potent meaning.
And so, later, she started writing. Her first novels, commencing with The Witches of Eileanan in 1997, were firmly in the fantasy genre. In them, she says, “the themes of imprisonment and escape, wounding and redemption, appear again and again”. However, it seems Rapunzel stayed in her mind. She started researching the origins of the story, and realised that she did not want to write it as “an otherworld fantasy”:
I wanted to capture the charge of terror and despair that young girl must have felt. I wanted to remind readers that women have been locked up for centuries against their will in this world.
So the resultant novel, Bitter greens (2012), is set in a real place at a real time. It could not, therefore, she says, rely on magic to explain all the mysteries in the story. She also explains how this research led her to “undertake a doctorate on the subject, with Bitter greens as the creative component.” It also led her to write The Wild girl about Dortchen Wild who was a neighbour of the Grimm family and who told Wilhelm Grimm “almost one quarter of the eighty-six tales collected” in the brothers’ first edition. (Just to be clear, though … she was one of many from whom the brothers collected.)
Now, I have to say that I am not particularly interested in Forsyth’s fantasy series, but these two books, which tend more to the historical fiction genre, do fascinate me. I will try to get to them one day. Meanwhile, I’m intrigued by what Forsyth loves in a story:
romance, passion, tragedy, struggle, and, finally, triumph.
I do like those things – who doesn’t – but I don’t need “triumph”. I don’t dislike books with this result, but I am happy with stories that are more equivocal, that make me wonder at the end. Life isn’t always, in fact often isn’t, triumphant – and I am more than happy for the arts to reflect that reality. Moreover, I’m not sure what Forsyth thinks, but I think stories can, by their very existence, provide “salvation” without offering “triumph”. What do you think?
BTW, I was intrigued to read in her Official Biography that Forsyth is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring, the author of the first book for children published in Australia, A Mother’s Offering to her Children. Waring was the mother of Louisa Atkinson, about whom I have written.
“Stories as salvation”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 42, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review
I had another post planned for today, but it can wait, because this morning writer-artist-feminist and out-of-the-box-thinker Sara Dowse made a provocative comment on my review of Australian love stories, which was edited by Cate Kennedy and published by the well-known Inkerman & Blunt. Oops, did I say well-known? Perhaps that was overstating the case. The fact that they are not particularly well-known is, I presume, what prompted Dowse to ask:
are the interesting books being published by small publishers now? I know this is entering dangerous generalisation territory but I think it’s worth discussing, don’t you?
Well, let’s enter this dangerous territory – and let’s not be afraid to generalise a bit. How, though, to approach it? Perhaps we should start with definitions. What do we mean by “the interesting books?” and what is a “small publisher?”
I’ll start with the easier one, “small publishers”. We have, in Australia, an organisation called the Small Press Network or SPN (about which I wrote a couple of years ago). They define themselves as being “a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers”. They don’t specifically define what this means on their site but they do provide a link to a report they sponsored from Kate Freeth in 2007. Titled “A lovely kind of madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia”, this report aimed to come up with a usable definition. Here is what Freeth presented:
Based on survey data collected, other organisations’ definitions of small press, SPUNC’s [now SPN] current membership and the SPUNC working group’s discussion of how they judge membership applications, potential guidelines for ‘small press’ are independent publishers who:
- Have published at least one book title or journal issue (in hardcopy)
- Have an annual turnover of $500 000 or less
- Have print runs of usually less than 2000
- Have published more than one author
- Publish fewer than 10 book titles per year, and
- Usually do not charge authors fees for production, editing or distribution.
As an outsider, I can’t really assess which publishers that I think are small meet these criteria, but I suggest we be flexible as SPN is. For example, Text Publishing is a member but I’d be surprised if they fully meet these criteria. Most of SPN’s members probably do, though – so I suggest their membership could form the basis of our discussion here.
Now, the trickier question: how do we define “the interesting books”? For me, and I’d guess Sara Dowse, this would mean books that innovate, that take risks and break existing moulds, either in terms of style, form or subject matter, or that are by writers who aren’t from the mainstream culture.
So, let’s look at who’s publishing what? If we look at authors shortlisted for Australia’s best-known literary prizes in recent years, we see a mix of those published by the big publishers like Penguin (Tim Winton and Fiona McFarlane), Random House (Richard Flanagan and Evie Wyld), and Picador (Hannah Kent), and those by small publishers like Giramondo (Alexis Wright), Text (Cory Taylor) and Scribe (Cate Kennedy).
What about smaller prizes? Readings bookshop has created a new award called the Readings New Australian Writing Award. It’s for “an Australian author’s first or second book of fiction, and recognises exciting and exceptional new literary talent”. I’m going to assume that “exciting” implies “interesting” by our definition. The shortlist comprises six books by the following publishers: Giramondo (2), Hachette, Penguin (2, if we included Hamish Hamilton), and Allen & Unwin (a large but independent publisher). Again, there’s a mix.
But prizes aren’t necessarily the arbiter of “interesting” (particularly, if we use my definition above). Nonetheless, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin and must surely be described as interesting with its unique, slippery and exciting evocation of indigenous reality. It was published by small publisher Giramondo. If you look at Giramondo’s website, you will see a catalogue of what they call “innovative new fiction”, including by well-established and well-regarded writers, like novelists Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro. Murnane and Castro are not known for being “easy”, but they are interesting! You will also see novels, poetry and short story collections by newer writers like Maria Takolander (also published by Text), Alice Melike Ülgezer, Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
I could continue in this vein picking out examples of publishers and looking at who publishes whom. My sense from my brief survey and my own reading is that when it comes to novels, larger and smaller publishers are both publishing “interesting” work. I would, though, add the proviso that if you want novels by writers of diverse backgrounds (who are, for example, indigenous, non-Anglo, or LGBT) you are more likely to find them at the smaller publishers. UQP, for example, has published many indigenous writers, Spinifex Press specialises in “controversial” writing, Transit Lounge is expressly interested in “creative literary publishing that explores the relationships between East and West, entertains and promotes insights into diverse cultures and encompasses diverse genres”, and so on.
But, where small publishers particularly stand out, I think, is in “taking risks” with less popular forms – with short stories, novellas and poetry. While the novels I’ve read on this blog come from the gamut of publishers, large and small, the short stories, poetry and novellas I’ve read have been published almost exclusively by small publishers.
I’m not sure that this rather off-the-cuff discussion has gone in the direction that Sara Dowse was thinking, but it does lead to the important question: Does it matter? What are the implications for authors of being published by small publishers? I suspect there’s a complex web of pros and cons, with the balance varying from author to author, publisher to publisher. For readers? I fear that small publishers may not be able to reach as wide a readership as the works (and their authors) deserve. And for our literary culture in general? I’d like to think that variety and diversity in publishing is healthy – but it has to be sustainable (and, dare I say, “fair”). Is it?
Let the discussion begin …
Four hundred and forty-five stories! She read four hundred and forty-five of them! I’m talking about Cate Kennedy, the editor of Australian love stories. These stories were the response to Inkerman & Blunt’s call for Australian writers “to share their love stories, fictional or true”. Having no experience in these things, I don’t know what they expected, but 445 sounds like a good response to me! The final anthology contains just 29, and they are all, not surprisingly, good reads. This is not to say that I loved them all equally, but certainly none jarred for being ordinary or clichéd. Not only is the writing high quality, but Kennedy’s selection has produced a collection that is diverse in subject matter and style. It wasn’t hard to read four or five in a sitting.
If you’ve read my previous reviews of short story collections, you’d know that I’m always interested in the order of the stories. Well, this anthology has been overtly structured, with “like” stories grouped under headings. Each heading, cutely I suppose but nonetheless effectively, draws from a story within the group. So, for example, the heading “A sweetly alien creature” comes from the second story in its group, Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”. I’m easily amused, I know, but I did look forward to spotting the heading-title as I read each group. There are seven of these groups, each containing four stories, with one exception that had five. In her Introduction, Kennedy, herself an award-winning short story writer, says that “Donna Ward [the publisher] and I arranged the stories into a kind of narrative arc of the way love comes, creates its own disorders, then transforms itself and us [in] the process.” This arc, though, isn’t an obvious one, like, you know, young love, broken love, old love. It’s more fluid than that.
And so, the first story, Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn”, is about an older couple who have been together for a long time. The narrator, the man, clearly still adores his wife, and watches her, caresses her, in the early hours of the morning. While the birds come to life and sing in the day, she sleeps on. He knows her well, knows what he can do, how far he can go, before he will irritate her and break the spell:
So I don’t touch that bone. It would be over. She presses in closer to me and her breasts slide heavily against me and a thigh rises over mine and she squirms again, adjusting, moulding herself to me, fidgeting this limb and that, this foot against that, settling. It is not yet over.
This is an beautifully observed piece. It thrilled and inspired me – and gave me confidence that if the collection started like this, I was going to be in good hands.
What I particularly enjoy about an anthology like this is that it can give me a taste of writers I’ve been wanting to read for a long time (such as Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch and Lisa Jacobson), or reacquaint me with writers I have read before and enjoyed (such as Irma Gold, Leah Swan, and Carmel Bird), or, perhaps most excitingly, introduce me to writers I don’t know at all (such as J Anne DeStaic, Sally-Ann Jones and Sharon Kernot). But, here’s the thing. How to write about a collection in which pretty well every story moved me? I don’t want to simply generalise and tell you that they covered the whole gamut of love – from straight to same-sex, from romantic love to parental, from lasting to broken love, from supportive love to betrayal and revenge, from love across nations to love at home – though the anthology does do all these. And I can’t really describe every story in the book. So, I’ll just choose one from each section to give a flavour.
I’ve already mentioned Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn” so will leave it at that for opening group titled “A sensuous weight”. The second group, “Why cupid is painted blind”, includes stories about love that can be passionate, obsessive, overwhelming. J Anne deStaic’s “Lover like a tree” is a devastating story about a woman in love with a man in love with his drugs (and yes, also with her). DeStaic conveys this two-edged love, his need for the drug as strong as her need for him, with sensitivity and without judgement. It is what it is.
The next four stories, in “Adrift in shards and splattered fruit”, explore same-sex love. They are not the only stories to touch on this issue, which was pleasing to see. Confining them all to one section would have insulted today’s reality. Debi Hamilton’s “The edge of the known world” is about missed opportunities, about the one who loves and the other who doesn’t see it:
Carmelita. Carmelita. There. I like to think her name. If you want to hear a love story I can write you one. If you want a story in which someone breaks someone else’s heart, this is the story for you.
We are warned early in the story, and yet the end still saddens.
From this group we move to “There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret”. These stories are about difficult loves, sometimes past loves. It’s a powerful and varied group, but I’ll choose Sally-Ann Jones’ “Hammer orchid” to represent it. It spans thirty odd years in the lives of a young woman and an indigenous man. It starts “when she was eight and he was sixteen” and ends when they are fifty and fifty-eight. Set in Western Australia, it tells the story of a young girl’s crush and a young man’s recognition of the boundaries that need to be maintained. It gently encompasses issues like the patronising “naming” of indigenous workers (“Bill” is called “Biscuits” by his employers), knowing country, and environmental protest, all tied together by Levis and a silver belt buckle – but, beyond that, my lips are sealed.
“A sweetly alien creature”, as you might guess from this group’s title, explores parental love. Of course, like all love, this doesn’t run smooth. There’s a story about a false pregnancy (Rafael SW’s “Small expectations”), and another in which Lola promises to marry Henry and give him a baby if he’ll let her have a cat (Caroline Petit’s clever “The contract”). There’s Irma Gold’s only-too-believable story about “The little things” that can bring it all asunder, and Natasha Lester’s succinct piece about losing the language of adult love, postpartum (“It used to be his eyes”). And then there’s Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”, a bittersweet story about what happens when conception doesn’t happen on demand. What then?
I hope I’m not boring you, but we are nearly there! The penultimate group, “Firm as anchors, wet as fishes”, looks at how health issues can challenge or get in the way of love. There’s cancer of course, and I had to laugh at Sharon Kernot’s resourceful wife in “Love and antibiotics” when she tells her husband she has chlamydia. Allison Browning’s “These bones” is, we learn from the biographies, an excerpt from her current novel-in-progress. It’s about Enzo, a gay man with dementia. He’s in a care facility and misses waking up next to Nev. He might have dementia, but he still manages to escape the facility, despite its security-coded doors:
Today is a gardening day, the kind where no gloves are needed because the earth is warm and kind to the skin and the dirt feels soothing on the flesh.
We do meet Nev at the end, and he is as tolerant and loving as Enzo remembers and deserves. I’m intrigued now about the novel.
The last section, “The unbroken trajectory of falling” is – and you’ve probably been waiting for this – about love gone very wrong. There’s adultery of course, and breakups. There’s even a murder. Kennedy clearly decided that there would be no whimpering at the end of her anthology. No, we would go out with a bang. And so, if Pascoe opened the collection with a lyrical evocation of mature love, then Carmel Bird’s “Where the honey meets the air” brings it to a close with a breathless piece that barely stops for a comma, let alone a full-stop. Here, Sugar-Sam, in a stream-of-consciousness featuring word-play galore and “mincing metaphors”, chronicles his relationship with Honey-Hannah. It’s wickedly funny, with allusions high and low, little digs at our modern ways of communicating (“the merrymedia, social and anti-social”), and pointed references to contemporary issues. It is surely not a coincidence that Tasmanian-born Bird’s character marries into a family called Gunn. He describes the family’s taking over their wedding:
when Her Family swept in and tied us up in knots, ribbons, bows and a certain amount of barbed wire, and whirled us up the aisle …
Lurking in the language, behind its breezy tone, are, as you can see here, hints of something else. “I should have warned you”, he says at one point, “about how this narrative will tie itself in the knots of several metaphors and coincidences and things”. It certainly does that. By the end we are left fearing that Sugar-Sam has indeed tied us up in knots. A clever, satisfying, not definitively resolved story. What a way to finish.
(Review copy supplied by Inkerman & Blunt)
Last year, I attended the National Library of Australia’s two-day seminar, Writing the Australian Landscape, and wrote three posts about it, here, here and again here! In the first post, I wrote about Murray Bail’s somewhat provocative keynote speech. What I didn’t mention in my post was Bail’s reference to Arthur Boyd’s painting, titled “Interior with Black Rabbit” (which you can see at the National Gallery of Australia: BOYD, Arthur | Interior with black rabbit.)
I was reminded of this reference when I visited the Gallery’s Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy exhibition prior to the Griffyn Ensemble Concert because, on the label for this artwork was a quote from Murray Bail, which I recognised as being from his address at the seminar. I’d like to share it with you now. Bail introduced the painting, which he showed on a screen (presumably with copyright approval), by telling us that its subject is “the difficulty of being an artist in this new, largely empty place, Australia”. He then described the painting, thus (and this is the quote on the National Gallery’s label):
It shows the dilemma of the painter. It could just as well be the dilemma of the novelist in Australia, or the poet, or somebody composing a piece of music. Perhaps above all the dilemma faced by the painter and the novelist.
The painter is wearing a European ruff representing some sort of distant sensibility. Outside is the Australian landscape – glaring, pitiless, empty, uncultivated. That’s here. That is us. Landscape is always viewed through culture. And here culture is represented by chicken wire. Utilitarian, crude, provisional. And in the darkened room the artist is on his knees, trying to capture something of this, via the rabbit – and the rabbit is an animal that is always out of reach.
This view of the landscape is, of course, the view of a “distant sensibility”. I don’t imagine that the traditional owners of the landscape see it as “glaring, pitiless, empty”. One of the concerns in the audience that day was Bail’s Euro-centric focus. That was fair enough, in a way – he is, after all, like most of us were in that audience, descended from distant sensibilities – but some greater recognition of indigenous sensibilities would have been appropriate. Putting this aside, however, Bail is right about one thing, which is that landscape “is always viewed through culture”. This is particularly evident in Australia, where responses to landscape can vary immensely depending on your origin – indigenous, “settler” or settler ancestry, or recent immigrant. Certainly, landscape is a powerful – and complicated – force in both Bail’s and Boyd’s work.
So, how does it play out in their work? For Bail, there is still clearly a tension between his (our) European heritage and this place we are in. Indeed, in the talk I attended he said that
I hadn’t quite realised my novels are centred around journeys, all of them….. My people are instinctively hot-footing it out of here, turning away from the apparent barrenness.
He’s right … at least there are elements of this, surprisingly so at times, in the three novels of his I’ve read, Eucalyptus (less so), The pages and The voyage.
I’m not sure how much Bail himself hotfooted it out of here, but Boyd sure did. He lived in London from 1960 to 1971. On his return, he bought a place, Bundanon, in the Shoalhaven region (only a couple of hours from where I live). The Wikipedia article on Boyd suggests that at first he found the landscape “rugged and wild” but that he gradually “befriended the formidable landscape”. In fact, he befriended it so much that, as I wrote in my Griffyn Ensemble post, he donated the property to the Australian people. In Zara Stanhope’s Arthur Boyd: An active witness (Bundanon Trust, 2013) he is quoted:
I want it to be accessible to any Australian whose life can be enriched by the beauty, the history, the landscape, the environment and by the energy and stimulation from social interaction with Australian creative artists.
In the book, Stanhope says that Boyd wrote in a handwritten letter that he want the property to be used as “a base for research by practitioners in music, drama, literature, visual arts and science”. Phew … that answers my question in the caption above! Stanhope also discusses briefly in the book Boyd’s engagement in the natural world, saying that:
From being a compositional vehicle and a carrier of emotions, the landscape came to offer multiple meanings.
Those meanings include spiritual or abstract ones dealing with our relationship with or connections to the environment, metaphorical ones to do with our attitude to the natural world (including his series on animal research), and practical ones about preserving the environment. Boyd did also paint a series – the Bride paintings – expressing his concerns about conditions of indigenous people and the need for reconciliation, but these were earlier in his career after a visit to outback/central Australia.
I have no conclusion to all this – but just wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been having, connections I’ve been making. It just reminds me that in Australia at least, we can’t divorce ourselves from considerations of landscape, no matter what Bail said in his talk. Not only is it a presence that demands notice, but it defines our relationships – indigenous-nonindigenous, east-west, national-international, inland-coast, mainland-island – which in turn define our culture, who we are, how we see ourselves. No wonder we keep talking about it, writing about it, painting it, composing about it …