Every year, my reading group aims to do at least one classic – usually something from the nineteenth century – but this year someone suggested Graham Greene. Yes, we all responded, why not? But which one? For reasons I don’t recollect, Travels with my aunt was suggested and given none of us had a burning desire to do another, it was scheduled. This suited me as I hadn’t read it before.
It surprised me a little. I was expecting something lighter because I’d understood that it was a comedy, a bit of a romp, and it is – but I found layers too. Wikipedia says of Greene’s work, overall, that “he explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, often through a Catholic perspective”. Travels with my aunt might be a fun book but this description is relevant to it too – though I’m not an expert on “the Catholic perspective” bit.
Anyhow, let’s start with the plot. It concerns middle-aged retired banker Henry Pulling’s travels in Europe and South America with his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta whom he only gets to properly know after his mother’s funeral. Henry is a bachelor whose hobby is growing dahlias. It’s a quiet, English sort of life. His aunt, though, is a completely different kettle of fish. She appears at her sister’s funeral, whisks Henry off to her flat where she lives with her valet-cum-lover, the black Wordsworth. She tells him that his mother was not his mother, but had married his father and faked pregnancy in order to take on his care when he was born to… Well, of course, we can guess who the birth mother is can’t we? From this point on, she engages Henry in her various travels which, it has to be said, become increasingly morally suspect. When she says that “sometimes I have the awful feeling that I am the only one left anywhere who finds any fun in life”, she’s not joking, but her fun can have a more than questionable edge.
The story is told first person by Henry. I’d call him a naive, rather than an unreliable, narrator – I think there is a subtle difference. This is one of the jokes of the book. We know or suspect things that Henry, in his inexperienced not to mention conservative British way, doesn’t immediately cotton on to. Part of the story’s enjoyment is the tension Greene creates between Henry and his free-wheeling Aunt. This tension provides one of the layers I referred to.
Another layer I’ll tentatively suggest was inspired by discovering that Green’s full name was Henry Graham Greene. This made me wonder whether there is a little of the autobiographical in the book. There’s certainly not in the literal sense, because Greene, who left his wife and the associated traditional, domestic, settled life, led a peripatetic and adventurous life, one closer to Aunt Augusta’s. But the ending, which I won’t give away, poses some interesting questions when looked at from this perspective.
Other layers relate to various issues Greene refers to or hints at along the way, such as American imperialism, particularly in South America; World War 2 and the actions of collaborators; the impact of the pill (resulting in pregnancy now being the girl’s fault); Catholicism and its role (or not) in personal value systems; and, I think, some critique of “Englishness”.
However, I don’t want to make it sound too serious. The book is a romp. There’s no doubt about that, as we follow Henry and his aunt to Brighton, France, Istanbul via the Orient Express and, eventually, to Paraguay. The activities his aunt engages in, not to mention the stories she tells Henry about her past shenanigans, are funny, outrageous, sometimes farcical, and not always legal. You do have to keep up with a rather large cast of colourful characters, including the young Tooley and her is-he-a-CIA-operative father O’Toole, the Nazi war criminal and love of Augusta’s life Mr Visconti, various policemen and military personnel, and the put-upon Wordsworth who calls Augusta his “bebi gel”.
Greene’s writing is frequently funny. Here is a description of an American tourist having a cuppa in Europe:
One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.
Then there’s Aunt Augusta on her plans to fund their trip to Istanbul:
“I hope you don’t plan anything illegal” [says retired banker Henry!]
“I have never planned anything illegal in my life,” Aunt Augusta said. “How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?”
And there’s this on the is-he-CIA O’Toole:
“Are you in the CIA like Tooley told me?”
“Well … kind of … not exactly,” he said, clinging to his torn rag of deception like a blown-out umbrella in a high wind.
There are also many delightful set-pieces, such as the description of a Christmas lunch for the lonely, and some ridiculous confrontations with various policemen.
This book is too well-known for me to write something more comprehensive, so I’m going to leave it here, and let you tell me what you think.
Meanwhile, I’ll conclude on a quote from early in the book. It’s Henry reflecting on his mother’s life:
Imprisoned by ambitions which she had never realised, my mother had never known freedom. Freedom, I thought, comes only to the successful and in his trade my father was a success. If a client didn’t like my father’s manner or his estimates, he could go elsewhere. My father wouldn’t have cared. Perhaps it is freedom, of speech and conduct, which is really envied by the unsuccessful, not money or even power.
Without going into what he meant by “successful”, I think this notion of freedom – particularly “of conduct”, which is an interesting take – is what’s at the bottom of this book, the freedom to choose how you will live your life. In the end, Henry realises he is free to choose. Whether he makes the “right” or “best” choice is up for discussion, but it’s the freedom that’s the point.
Travels with my aunt
London: Vintage Books, 1999 (Orig. pub. 1969)
In a tiny nod to Oscars week, I thought I’d introduce three Australian scriptwriters. I have written one Monday Musings on scriptwriters before in a post on the AWGIEs. There I named a few scriptwriters who also write novels, Luke Davies (who was, in fact, nominated for this year’s Oscars for his script of Lion), Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas. In this post, I’m going share three more, none of whom have written novels, but all of whom have written films* that I’ve seen and admired.
Rolf de Heer
Dutch-born de Heer came to Australia when he was eight years old. He is a significant fixture on the Australian movie scene, with his screen-writing credits including Bad boy Bubby, Dance me to my song (co-written with others including 2017 Stella Prize longlister, Heather Rose), The tracker, Ten canoes, Charlie’s country. Four of these films have been nominated for and/or won national and international awards, and the other, Dance me to my song, about a woman with cerebral palsy, was a critical success.
The tracker, which deals with that complex situation in which indigenous people were used by police to track indigenous people, won an AWGIE award for Best Original Screenplay. It also introduced de Heer to indigenous actor David Gulpilil with whom he went on to make two feature films about indigenous life in Arnhem Land, Ten canoes and Charlie’s country. Ten canoes was the first movie to be filmed entirely in Australian Aboriginal languages. De Heer, as you have probably gathered, doesn’t shy from difficult or challenging subjects.
A longstanding, and versatile, player in Australia’s film and television industry, Knight is probably best known for the several highly popular (and well-regarded) TV series which he has created and/or written, such as the comedy-sketch shows, Fast-Forward and Full Frontal, and the dramas, SeaChange (the three series of which Daughter Gums and I have watched several times) and Rake (starring the inimitable Richard Roxburgh).
Knight has adapted several crime novels by Peter Temple for television, including the telemovie of The broken shore (which I read and enjoyed just before blogging). His films include Siam sunset and the more recent films, The water diviner and Hacksaw Ridge. He is clearly an example of someone who has made a living out of screenwriting. Two years ago he received the Longford Lyell Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement, at our movie awards, the AACTAs.
Born to an indigenous Australian mother and a Croatian father, Sen belongs to that group of filmmakers who writes and directs his own films. He has made five feature films – most of which have been nominated and or won various film awards – starting with Beneath clouds which won the First Movie Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Made in 2002, it explores some of the challenges facing young indigenous people, through the story of two young people who hit the road, seeking, well, themselves, really. It’s a beautiful, albeit often confronting, film.
“It’s becoming more important for me to make films for Indigenous communities to see themselves on screen” (Sen)
The challenge of indigenous identity, features in many of his films, including in his most recent one, the 2016 Goldstone. It’s a crime thriller set in outback Australia, and features an indigenous detective. It deals with contemporary issues including industrial fraud, political corruption, indigenous land-rights, abuse of women immigrants. It was screened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, competing in the Platform section for “artistically stimulating and thought-provoking” films. One of the things I love about Sen’s films is his use of landscape to underpin his themes – and Goldstone is a perfect example.
I could choose more writers, but I’m going to give you all an easy post this week and keep it short. There will be other opportunities to share more writers because, while Aussies always worry about the viability of our film industry, we do seem to have a great pool of exciting writers able to tell meaningful and powerful stories.
How much notice do you take of screenwriters when you watch films? Do you have any favourites?
* Note: I haven’t seen every film I’ve mentioned here, but I’ve seen most of them.
Regular readers of my Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week posts will probably guess why I’ve chosen to write about this story: it’s by an appealing American writer and it’s about food. However, it’s quite different from the other food stories. Firstly, while it’s called “the great eaters” it’s more of a little memoir essay albeit structured around food, and secondly, it was published posthumously in 2005. McCullers was born in 1917 (on Feb 19 in fact, so this month in the centenary of her birth) and died in 1967. “The great eaters of Georgia” was written, LOA’s notes say, in 1954 but was not published, because …
It’s a complex situation, which the Wikipedia article section on her personal life fills in, but the significant thing for us is that she had returned (fled) to the US from Paris in 1953, because her husband had tried to encourage her to commit suicide with him. Soon after her return, he succeeded in taking his life. Now, this is relevant because LOA tells us that McCullers had been offered money by Holiday magazine for a piece on Georgia, but, according to McCullers’ biographer Josyane Savigneau, the magazine rejected the article because they were “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.”
I guess that’s fair enough for a holiday-oriented magazine, but for readers more interested in McCullers than in Georgia – sorry, Georgia – it’s great that the piece didn’t disappear. Like many people, I’ve read and/or seen The heart is a lonely hunter and The member of the wedding – but in my case so long ago that my main memory is not of the plots but of melancholy and loneliness, the sorts of emotions that appealed to my teenage self!
But now, “The great eaters of Georgia”. It’s an intriguing piece that doesn’t perhaps quite cohere – certainly as a piece for a holiday magazine. For example, she mentions visiting various people. First is the controversial writer Lillian Smith, who openly confronted such issues as race and gender equality. McCullers writes:
Lill, like other Southerners, feels passionately about the problems of the Negro. Most Georgians do not agree with her, and often when her name is mentioned there is that strange area of silence.
This may not have been what Holiday was looking for, particularly when she adds that during her visit they “discussed Georgia politics”. Then she visits psychiatrist Dr Hervey Cleckley. She doesn’t share her discussions with him about her husband’s suicide – this I learnt from LOA – but they did talk
of the improvement in the understanding of racial problems and the migration from the rural cotton areas to the cities and towns.
Again perhaps not Holiday content? She says they also talked about Dr Crawford Long, a Georgian who was the first to use ether in an operation. You may wonder why this came up, but it resulted from their discussion of “ether parties”:
These odd-sounding affairs must have been like marijuana parties to the modern teenager but there was no social stigma attached, and my grandmother told me that, as a young lady, she often held ether parties for her young friends after they had ridden home from church and gathered for Sunday dinner.
Fascinating eh? Dr Long apparently noticed the numbing effect of ether (!) and thought it might work in surgery! I found this interesting because I have reviewed Sawako Ariyoshi’s The doctor’s wife, which fictionalises the story of Hanaoka Seishū who is believed to have been the first to use general anaesthesia in surgery – in 1804. Long carried out his first surgery in 1842.
Anyhow, I guess McCullers included this story of Long as an example of Georgian ingenuity? Again it may not have been what Holiday was looking for.
She was probably on firmer ground in her description of eating practices and food, because yes, she does talk about those too as the title suggests! I enjoyed little tidbits such as that in her mother’s day:
a child wore an asafetida bag around his neck to ward off colds and contagious diseases. Asafetida is the foulest-smelling substance. I suppose it makes good medical sense because one was not apt to go very near a person wearing an asafetida bag.
Hmmm, that’s not a food story though asafetida is used in cooking – and, anyhow, it’s adds a touch of humour.
She also talks about what great eaters (hence the title) Georgians are – at every meal:
Georgians eat big meals three times a day. I have never gotten over this orange-juice-and-coffee breakfast they have up North. A respectable Georgia breakfast means fish roe and grits or at least eggs or maybe country sausage.
She remembers chewing sugarcane as a child, and the historic cultivation of chinaberry trees “to counteract miasma”. She mentions the razing of the home she was born in, and sneaks in a comment about the reduction in (though not removal of) poverty in her home-town, before returning to the subject of breakfasts. She talks of the Yankee vulgarity of referring to children as “kids”. And she tells us that fried chicken is probably Georgia’s best-known dish, closely followed by “field peas”. She surprised me by mentioning a dish I have in my recipe folders from my early recipe-gathering days, Country Captain. It’s a sort of curried chicken dish, and I didn’t realise it came from the American south.
She also tells us that “any discussion of Georgian food is incomplete without the mention of watermelon” and provides a loving description of the “special operation and procedure” it demands. Fruitcake, tupelo honey, and the smells of Savannah are also shared with us, before she comes to a little anecdote about a “town character”, a bachelor who prefers to eat alone. This is very “un-Georgian”, and she concludes her piece by saying that
Although we have our share of eccentrics, I know very few Georgians who do not love fellowship, good hunting, food, and laughter—who do not enjoy life.
All in all, it’s a fascinating article – for what it tells us about Georgian life and food but more, for the little insights we glean of her interests and her emotional state. A good read for anyone interested in McCullers.
Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) has also written a response to this story.
Note: My other LOA food stories are by John Duncan (“A Virginia barbecue“), Ana Menéndez (“Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings“), George G. Foster (“The eating-houses“) and George Augustus Sala (“The tyranny of pie“).
“The great eaters of Georgia”
First published: Oxford American, Spring 2005
Available: Online at the Library of America
My Jane Austen group is reading Northanger Abbey – again – because this year is the 200th anniversary of its publication. However, I did write about the novel when we did it in 2015, so what to do? Well, the thing is that every time I read Austen something else pops into my mind to think about – and I’d love to share a couple of them.
Now, my group often does slow reads of the novels, and we are doing Northanger Abbey in two parts: up to Chapter 19, which is just before Catherine leaves Bath; and from Chapter 20 to the end which encompasses her arrival in and departure from Northanger Abbey. My comments in this post relate to the first part.
On heroes and heroines
Northanger Abbey, as you may know, spoofs or parodies Gothic novels, which were popular at the time. One of the clues to the parody is the frequency with which Austen refers to her heroine Catherine’s likeness (or not) to “heroines”. The novel commences:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine…
And Austen goes on the describe why Catherine is not heroine material. She’s a simple country girl living in an ordinary family in which nothing dramatic happens. Her father is a “very respectable man” who is “not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters”. There are no lords or baronets in the vicinity to create hero intrigues … and so it goes.
However, it’s not this Gothic spoof that I want to discuss, but the whole concept of hero/heroine. It occurred to me as I was thinking about the heroine thread during this read that when I was a student writing essays I always referred to the protagonists of novels as the “hero” or “heroine”. I don’t do this so much now, preferring something like “main character”. I’m guessing this is part of our post-modern world.
But, this is not what I want to talk about either! My question to myself was where did this concept of “hero” and “heroine” come from, so I did a little digging. And here’s my disclaimer, because it was just a little digging that I did. I discovered a couple of things. One is that the poet-playwright-critic Dryden was the first to use the word “hero” in this way in 1697. The site on which I found this went on to say that “it is still commonly accepted as a synonym for protagonist, even when the protagonist does nothing particularly heroic”. Yes!
Britannica.com told me that:
The appearance of heroes in literature marks a revolution in thought that occurred when poets and their audiences turned their attention away from immortal gods to mortal men, who suffer pain and death, but in defiance of this live gallantly and fully, and create, through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants. They are the first human beings in literature …
This must be what Dryden was picking up on – a move from a focus on gods to people and their agency in their own lives. Another site (whose link I didn’t capture) said that:
The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or the drama, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections. For the first time, we have access to the thoughts and feelings of the hero.
I’d argue that Austen, in presenting Catherine to us as she does, is drawing our attention to a transition from the notion of “hero” (or “heroine”) as someone who “live[s] gallantly and fully, and create[s], through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants”, like a Gothic novel hero, to more realistic stories about ordinary human beings that she wrote. This is not to say that ordinary human beings can’t be heroic, but it’s a different sort of heroism, nest-ce pas? This is simplistic, I realise, in terms of analysing the “hero” in literature, but it’s given me something to hang my thinking on to.
In a conversation with hero (!) Henry and his sister Eleanor, Catherine asks Henry “do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”
Now, if you went to school when I did, you were probably told not to use the word “nice” because it’s over-used and meaningless. Well, this is what Henry teases Catherine about. He replies (teasingly, cheekily, condescendingly, depending on your attitude to our hero), “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”
At this point sister Eleanor steps in and tells Catherine that
“He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”
“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”
“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”
“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise…”
I loved reading that this injunction we all heard in the mid-late twentieth century was “a thing” back in the very early nineteenth. “Nice” has such a fascinating semantic history that I’m not going to explore here – but I can’t resist telling Henry that he’s wrong because my Shorter Oxford Dictionary says that, back around 1500, it originally meant “silly” or “stupid”. Did Austen know that too, and is having a joke on Henry?
What fun Austen is to read …
This should be my last post on Mr Haskell’s survey of the arts in Australia, and it focuses on Radio and the Movies. First though, in his section on literature, he talked about Australian readers and bookselling. He wrote that the average Australian “is a great reader; more books are bought per head of population in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else in the English-speaking world”. He admires Australian booksellers who can’t quickly acquire the latest success. So, “they buy with courage and are true bookmen in a sense that is becoming rare in this [i.e. England] country.”
I believe Australians are still among the top book-buying nations, per capita, but I couldn’t find any supporting stats, so I may be making this up! However, I did love his commendation of the booksellers of the time, and his sense of their being “true bookmen” (as against their peers in England). He certainly wasn’t one to look down on the colonials!
“an admirable institution”
He writes about the “admirable” ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). He recognises that wireless has become a necessity “in a country of wide open space” because it is, for many, “the only form of contact with the world”. He says the ABC “supplies much excellent music, and at the same time appeals to the man-in-the-street through its inspired cricket and racing reports”. You all know how much I like the ABC.
BUT radio is a vice too, he says, when it is left on all day “in every small hotel, seldom properly tuned and dripping forth music like a leaky tap”. He is mainly referring here to commercial broadcasting which he describes as “assaulting popular taste by their dreary programmes of gramophone records and blood-and-thunder serials … Unlike America, they cannot afford to sponsor worthwhile programmes”. Hmm, my old friends at National Film and Sound Archive might disagree given Australia’s large and by all accounts successful radio serial industry, though perhaps much of this occurred from the mid 1940s on – i.e. after Haskell did his research.
“isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”
Haskell has a bit to say about Australians’ love of cinema, with “the consumption per head being greater than anywhere else”. Film theatres are “the largest and most luxurious buildings” in Australian cities, but
the films shown are the usual Hollywood productions. There is as yet no public for French or unusual films.
Australian films are being made, he said, “in small quantities” but are “not yet good enough to compete in the open market.” He is surprised that given Australia’s “natural advantages”, it had “produced so little in a medium that would encourage both trade and travel”. He goes on to describe how much people knew about America through its films -“we have seen cowboys, Indians, army, navy, civil war and Abraham Lincoln”. He suggests that Australia had just as interesting stories to tell and places to explore:
What of the Melbourne Cup, life on the stations, the kangaroos, the koala bear, the aboriginal, the romance of the Barrier Reef and the tropical splendour of the interior, the giant crocodiles of Queensland? What f the early history, as colourful as anything in America? isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”
He suggests that films could do more for Australia in a year than his book, and yet, he says it seems “easier and safer to import entertainment by the mile in tin cans and to export nothing”!
He makes some valid points but he doesn’t recognise that Australia produced, arguably, the world’s first feature film, back in 1906, The story of the Kelly Gang – yes, about Ned Kelly. It was successful in Britain, and pioneered a whole genre of bushranging films that were successful in Australian through the silent era. Three more Kelly films were made before Haskell visited Australia – but films were pretty ephemeral, and he clearly didn’t know of them.
At the time he researched and wrote this book, 1938 to 1940, there was still an active film industry. Cinesound Productions produced many films under Ken G Hall from 1931 to 1940, and Charles Chauvel made several films from the 1930s to 1950s, but the war years were lean times, and it was in those early years that Haskell did his research. It’s probably also true that then, as unfortunately still now, Australians were more likely to flock to overseas (that is, American, primarily) productions than their own.
Anyhow, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little historical survey of an outsider’s view of Australia as much as I have – though I guess it’s all rather irrelevant, and even self-indulgent, if you’re not Australian! Apologies for that!
Time methinks for another Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, particularly since one of their recent offerings was one of my favourite American authors, Kate Chopin. “Fedora” is the sixth story by Chopin I’ve discussed here, and is probably the shortest, more of a “sketch”. In fact its original title was apparently ““The Falling in Love of Fedora. A Sketch”
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, or her novel The awakening which I read a couple of times before blogging, you’ll know that Chopin was not afraid to tackle confronting subjects, like suicide, adultery, and miscegenation. LOA’s notes briefly discuss the controversy surrounding The awakening. Words such as “morbid,” “sex fiction,” “poison,” were applied to it, and the clearly more conservative, younger, Willa Cather, whom I’ve also reviewed here, said that “I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.”
Well, of course, many of us do know why she explored the themes she did in puritanical late-nineteenth century America, and we admire her for doing so. LOA explains that while her stories were usually sought after, some were a little too hot to handle. “Fedora” was one such, being “turned down by the national magazines that often competed for her work”, only appearing “in an upstart literary journal in her hometown of St. Louis”.
So, what is it that was so shocking about “Fedora”? Well, there’s the rub, because it’s one of those short stories that leaves you wondering. Fedora is 30 years old – and is described pretty much as the quintessential spinster:
The young people—her brothers’ and sisters’ guests, who were constantly coming and going that summer—occupied her to a great extent, but failed to interest her. She concerned herself with their comforts—in the absence of her mother—looked after their health and well-being; contrived for their amusements, in which she never joined. And, as Fedora was tall and slim, and carried her head loftily, and wore eye-glasses and a severe expression, some of them—the silliest—felt as if she were a hundred years old. Young Malthers thought she was about forty.
The story concerns her going to the station – driving the horse and cart – to pick up young Malthers’ sister who is returning from college. Young Malthers is, we are told, 23 – and Fedora has become fascinated by him, suddenly realising he is a man – “in voice, in attitude, in bearing, in every sense — a man”. Now, early in the story, we’d been told that:
Fedora had too early in life formed an ideal and treasured it. By this ideal she had measured such male beings as had hitherto challenged her attention, and needless to say she had found them wanting.
But, suddenly she is aware of him, she watches him:
She sought him out; she selected him when occasion permitted. She wanted him by her, though his nearness troubled her. There was uneasiness, restlessness, expectation when he was not there within sight or sound. There was redoubled uneasiness when he was by—there was inward revolt, astonishment, rapture, self-contumely; a swift, fierce encounter betwixt thought and feeling.
Fedora could hardly explain to her own satisfaction why she wanted to go herself to the station for young Malthers’ sister. She felt a desire to see the girl, to be near her; as unaccountable, when she tried to analyze it, as the impulse which drove her, and to which she often yielded, to touch his hat, hanging with others upon the hall pegs, when she passed it by.
It seems, then, that she is in love with him, as the original title encourages us to think – or that she, at least, feels a desire or passion for him. So, when she picks up Miss Malthers, why does she do what she does? That is the question – and it’s one I’m not going to answer, because that would be a spoiler and because the story is so short that you can read it, and ponder it, yourself. And anyhow, I’m still thinking about it myself, given the way Chopin teases us. Suffice it to say that, however you read it, Chopin was challenging her readers to think about desire – its origins, its expression, and its impact on the person who desires.
This is a beautiful and intriguing little “sketch”, though to call it that doesn’t fully do it justice.
First published: Criterion, February 20, 1897
(Under the pseudonym, La Tour)
Available: Online at the Library of America
William Lane’s latest novel, The salamanders, is a book that keeps you thinking from beginning to end. As I started it, I was thinking of it as a cross between Julian Davies’ Crow mellow (my review), a satirical novel about a house party for artists and their patrons, and Emily Bitto’s The strays (my review) about an artist colony, focusing particularly on the founding family. A few comparisons could be drawn, but I soon discovered that this is its own book.
I hadn’t heard of this* William Lane before, but The salamanders is his third novel. In a different version, with a different title, it was apparently shortlisted for the Vogel Prize. The book’s author bio also told me that Lane did his doctorate on Christina Stead. So, he’s been about the place – just not the places I’ve been haunting, clearly!
But now to the book. It starts during a beach holiday on the New South Wales coast. There’s the obsessed artist Peregrine, his ex-wife Naomi, their daughter Julia, his sons, David, Arthur, and George, from his previous relationship – and the adopted Rosie. There are also some visitors, including friend Elizabeth and her husband Johnno. The children range in age down from the 14-year-old David. Arthur, aged around 11, has a crush on the slightly older Rosie, and George and Julia form a happy play unit. Lane sets up the idyll – Naomi says they are “enjoying one another’s company far more than when we were married” – and then gradually pulls it apart, exposing past and present cracks. By the end of the first chapter – the book is told in 5 chapters – the idyll has broken, mostly due to Peregrine’s arrogant and self-involved behaviour, and Naomi departs with the two girls. Chapter 2 jumps 15 years or so. Arthur is around 27 years old, and is back at the beach-house living alone. Rosie comes to visit.
The rest of the book focuses primarily on Arthur and Rosie as they circle each other, coming together, separating, all the while trying to come to terms with their lives, their pasts and their desires for the future. Lane doesn’t over-explain, preferring to show not tell, so we are left to guess exactly what had happened on that holiday and just after, which resulted in changes to the family units. All we know is that the fallout has had long-lasting impact and that Rosie is coming from England, to which she’d run away. She refuses to eat with Arthur. This eating behaviour of hers is one of the motifs running through the novel, and represents an inner discordance, despite the refrain that what happened wasn’t their fault.
Other motifs run through the book. One is the indigenous rock art image, in a cliff near the house, of a falling man. It mesmerises Arthur, and represents his emotional state. The other main motif relates of course to salamanders – and various members of the somewhat-related lizard and snake families. These creatures occur both literally and metaphorically. Rosie, in Chapter 2, says to Arthur:
‘Skinks, salamanders, geckos, frill-necked lizards, water dragons,’ laughed Rosie in her burred and husky way, ‘this is the land of the lizard. When I see a lizard, I think of this country. I never realised that its surface is so lizard-like. That’s what I saw from the plane.
This motif is complex, conveying a range of ideas, many of them unsettling:
… Peregrine glittered, and his eyes grew milky. He might be covered in scales, with discreetly expanding gills. With an absolute, self-preserving, inward rush of energy, Elizabeth removed herself from him.
Lizards also represent the antiquity of the continent – “the young lizard … considered them from some million years ago”. And in this, they also represent resilience. “Lizards are tough”, says Rosie, and toughness, the ability to grow and move beyond their youth, is what Rosie and Arthur are working to achieve.
There’s an underlying Gothic sense to the novel which imbues it with an overall eeriness. Peregrine creates strange paintings in caves. There are mysterious shapes or shadows which appear out of the blue – “Something scurried outside the glass. He looked up, but did not catch its form” or “A liquid slithering passed along the glass of the house …” or “Then that scrabbling again. Something ancient was trying to get in”. There’s Arthur and Rosie’s roadtrip into Australia’s interior, and their uncertain relationship with each other. Not blood-related but brought up as brother and sister, they mystify and concern others.
So, where does all this go? I’m not sure it’s a book you can easily comprehend in one reading. The road trip to the interior and Peregrine’s bizarre painting projects in caves within caves suggest some sort of psyche-seeking but it isn’t completely resolved in my mind. Need it be?
Overall, then, it’s one of those mesmerising books that can be read in different ways, making it a little disconcerting. The first chapter felt a little over-written at times and I feared a clichéd story about dysfunctional artists’ colonies, but it then shifted into something more mysterious, less-defined, slippery, something incorporating a broad, abstract story about our relationship to art, place and nature, and a more personal story about identity and family.
According to myth, salamanders are born of and resistant to fire. Rosie says during her road-trip with Arthur that “we’re salamanders – we don’t feel the fire”. And that, in a way, is the point of the novel, surviving the fires that confront us.
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2016
(Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge)
* I allude to the late nineteenth-early twentieth century Utopian of the same name, whose The workingman’s paradise I’ve reviewed.