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Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross (#BookReview)

January 25, 2020

Book coverUnlike many, I think, I have not read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels which, I understand are very different to her only Australian-set novel, Trooper to the Southern Cross, which, in fact, she published under the male pseudonym of Leslie Parker. It has been on my TBR for some time, so I’m grateful that Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week provided the impetus for me to finally pull it off the shelves and read it.

That said, Angela Thirkell is a bit of a ring-in. Wikipedia describes her as an Australian and English novelist, but really, she, who lived from 1890 to 1961, only lived in Australia from 1920 to 1929. All her novels were published after her return to England, so, although she did some journalistic writing in Australia, it’s a bit of a stretch to call her an “Australian” novelist. Nonetheless, I’d argue that this book, which has an Australian protagonistwas and was published in 1934, is worthy of Bill’s week, and the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Before I get on with the book, I should tell you that Thirkell’s father was William Morris’ good friend and biographer, and her maternal grandfather was Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She had Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin as cousins, JM Barrie as godfather, and Beatrix Potter as a neighbour. She moved, then, in interesting circles.

Hilarious and affectionate satire

GoodReads writes that in Trooper to the Southern Cross, Thirkell “assumes the voice of an Australian army officer and relates an amusing, rough-and-tumble sea story about an eventful, post-World War I journey on a troop-carrying vessel deservedly labeled a ‘hell-ship.’ Thirkell’s keen ear for dialogue, and her skillful use of her own first-hand experience of a voyage on a similarly rumbustious vessel, combine to create an amusing and spirited yarn.” This is a fair description, but Virago’s back cover does a better job, describing it as “an hilarious and affectionate satire on the manners and mores of Australia”, “satire” being the operative word.

I make this point because, as Bill will be interested to know, HM Green, in his History of Australian literature, believed, says Virago, this book was written by a male, and described it as an example of “unconscious humour” rather than as satire. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly if you don’t know the full story. At this point, of course, I had to check out Trove, where I found two contemporary reviews. One, from Sydney’s The Sun (18 November 1934), is scathing, describing it as “without literary merit, with just a touch of sardonic humor and a good deal of unrestrained nastiness”. The main complaint is that the book “portrays the Australian soldier as something between a savage and a simpleton”.

The other review, from The Sydney Morning Herald (29 September 1934), is a little more positive. It has its criticism, though, saying that the “language and outlook” of its army doctor narrator “is that of the common soldier and rather difficult to reconcile with his rank and the assumption that he is a graduate in medicine of an Australian university. Our Medical Faculties hardly turn out their diamonds quite as rough as this unpolished specimen.” However, this reviewer finds the book funny, and concludes:

The voyage was full of incident, and the episodes, tragic, thrilling, or amusing, lose none of their interest in the free manner of telling. From the major’s mouth came artless revelations of opinions on all subjects that are reminiscent of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” though the artlessness has not the subtlety of the art of Anita Loos. Diggers will chuckle over this book.

Hmmm … not The Sun’s diggers, perhaps.

“a reserved kind of chap”

Trooper to the Southern Cross is based on Thirkell’s own trip to Australia in 1920 on the requisitioned German troopship SS Friedrichsruh which, like the novel’s fictional Rudolstadt, had been ingeniously sabotaged by the Germans. For example, the toilets flushed boiling water and salt water flowed from freshwater taps. Not surprisingly this added to the havoc on a ship that was carrying officers with their wives and families, “ordinary” diggers, and prisoner diggers who soon had it over the soldiers guarding them. As Thirkell tells it in her novel, there was much violence on board and at the only two stops made en route, Port Said and Colombo. All this is told in the voice of Major Tom Bowen, who is modelled on Thirkell’s husband, albeit her husband wasn’t a doctor or a major. Bowen’s wife, Celia, however, is not based on herself, says Tony Gould in Virago’s introduction, but Mrs Jerry, the Colonel’s wife, is.

The novel is interesting to read for a number of reasons, one being simply for its history, its being, according to its publisher, the first book to deal with “the repatriation of Australian troops after the war.” A very particular repatriation one would hope, but a story of such nonetheless. Mostly, though, it’s interesting for the voice of its narrator. He is quite something, and I can imagine different readers responding very differently to him. He, like George Thirkell, served in the war from the Gallipoli Campaign right through to Armistice. He’s reasonably educated, having done medicine in Sydney, but he uses Australian vernacular and his cultural tastes are popular. Virago’s Gould notes that Thirkell “became extremely well versed in Australian literature and culture and uses it to comic effect” in the book. Here, for example, is Bowen soon after meeting “the wonderfully pretty little thing” who was to become his wife:

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain that they were way out beyond everything. I asked her if she’d read ‘On Our Selection’, because that gives you some idea of the back-blocks. But she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We  of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’, so I knew she wasn’t literary.

You can imagine the female Thirkell enjoying writing this male character – and she does it so well. He makes you cringe – with his frequently smug patronising manner, sexism, racism, and general all round chauvinism – and yet you can’t help liking him too. He has nous dealing with men, particularly the diggers for whom he has a clear-eyed affection; he is resourceful; and he shows tenderness to others in need, regardless of who they are. He’s even open to having his mind changed, such as when the Roman Catholic padre helps him out:

To think of an R.C. showing me what Christianity really was. It gave quite a shock to a lot of my ideas.

As a document of 1920s Australian manners and culture, told with a lightly satiric eye, Trooper to the Southern Cross is a surprisingly entertaining read.

Challenge logoAngela Thirkell
Trooper to the Southern Cross
London: Virago, 1985
(Virago Modern Classic No. 171)
177pp.
ISBN: 0860685926

Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead’s 1930s, Beauties and Bankers

January 20, 2020

Today’s Monday Musings post is the second of two on Christina Stead that I promised for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week. These two posts – last week’s and this – focus on contemporary Australian responses to her four 1930s-published books, based primarily on my research of Trove.

Last week’s post looked at The Salzburg tales (1934) and Seven poor men of Sydney (1934), so this week The beauties and the furies (1936) and House of all nations (1938) get their turn. Although I’ve only read For love alone, plus some short stories of hers, I have know many of her books, including last week’s two. However, this week’s books are less familiar to me.

Book cover

The beauties and the furies was not one of Stead’s most successful books, it has to be said, and I had to dig a bit deeper in Trove to find reviews. It’s the story of a woman who, married to a boring man, runs off to Paris to be with her student lover. The reviews were not kind, mostly for the writing than the content.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer (22 May 1936) writes that her “definite tendency to develop an artificial style” appeared in her second book, but suggests that

That “visionary imagination,” for which she has been commended, runs away with reality altogether in “The Beauties and Furies” at times.

S/he then quotes from the book, and, I must say that out of context at least it is a little over-the-top, but the review isn’t all bad, saying that despite these passages and “a leaning towards redundancy”, Stead has “a definite flair for delineation of character and a good sense of dialogue and situation”. The book is, however, “too long”, presumable because of the redundancy.

Book coverThe Mail’s review (30 May 1936) is similarly critical, and is titled, in fact, “Not recommended”. This reviewer attacks both the writing and the content, describing the story as

merely a sordid one, not of a beautiful comradeship, but of an illicit love affair between two people, whose ideals are about as spiritual as those of a pair of monkeys.

S/he ends the review with the parenthetical comment “(Censors please note)”. However, even so, this reviewer does see skill, saying “she can write vigorously, yet with simplicity and charm”.

The Australian Women’s Weekly (20 June 1936) joined the chorus:

A good story spoilt by a maddening cascade of words to water the purple patches of the plot. Of course, some of them have their uses. “Endoped dome of misery” might be applied to the reader’s head after ploughing through some of these passages. It seems a pity, for the book might have been a good one had the author stuck to her undoubted gift for descriptive phrases only as the means of telling her story.

The best “review” comes from Melbourne’s The Herald (18 June 1946) which quotes America’s New Yorker critic, Clifton Fadiman, who sees more to admire than criticise:

again declares that Christina Stead, the Sydney woman who wrote “The Salzburg Tales,” “Seven Poor Men of Sydney,” and “The Beauties and Furies,” is “a simon-pure genius, showing not a trace of workaday talent.” “I say this,” he temperately adds, “knowing that ‘The Salzburg Tales’ had its excesses and that ‘Seven Poor Men of Sydney’ was no less flawed … ‘The Beauties and Furies’ though her finest book to date, is also imperfect. Yet it discloses such streaming imagination, such tireless wit, such intellectual virtuosity, that I cannot see how anyone who reads it carefully— and there is no other way to read it — can deny Miss Stead’s position as the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf. . . . The style is indescribable, the wit hardly suggestible.”

Book coverHouse of all nations (1938), which satirises bankers and financiers, garnered far more positive reviews overall. Edgar Holt in The Herald (9 July 1938) starts with

That I was not very familiar with her work before is an appropriate commentary upon the indifference of most of us to our Australian novelists. “House of All Nations” is a brilliant and exhilarating book, a superb performance of sustained wit, a crushing satire on the world of international finance.

Holt shares many quotes to show the quality of her writing, saying Stead “revels in words. They spurt from her pen, fountain-like”. He does have some criticism but, like Fadiman, is impressed, concluding that

The scope of this book is almost too ambitious; but instead of failing in an exceptionally difficult undertaking, she has written a novel which will command universal admiration.

We should be very proud to include her in the forefront of Australian novelists.

Like Holt, who described the book as a “mosaic”, Adam McCay, in Sydney’s The Sun (10 July 1938) also discusses the novel’s construction:

According to current literary jargon, “House of All Nations” might be called a cavalcade, or a pageant: but its plan is too well-made, not accidental enough, to let it be named a kaleidoscope. Looking for a word, we might say that it is a symphony, with privateering international finance as leitmotiv, and it is written wholly in scherzo movements.

McCay is fulsome in his praise, saying, among other things, that:

In her perception of financial intrigue, as well as in her naked studies of fraud, gluttony, perversion, avarice, and adultery, Miss Stead has eyes as ruthless as a studio light. It is a rare woman who can furnish scepticism and satire as unabashed as Voltaire’s.

I will just note here, in passing, the sexism in some of the commentary. It was the 1930s.

The writer in Brisbane’s The Telegraph (14 July 1938) starts by sharing the qualified assessment made by that American supporter of Australian literature, C Hartley Grattan, then goes on to quote English critic Ricard Church who said that:

Such variety of character, presented with so original and vivid a style, makes this book quite outstanding. And as for the author’s mastery of the details of the international money-market; well, that is worthy of Zola.

So far, then, Stead has been compared favourably with Virginia Woolf, Voltaire and Zola. The aforementioned Adam McCay writes in another article that while one English reviewer sees her as “the most important woman novelist in English since Virginia Woolf”, he’d “go back past Mrs. Woolf to George Eliot”.

One-time Stead friend and supporter, the Australian journalist Florence James, wrote various articles about Stead’s career during the 1930s. In The Sydney Morning Herald (22 September 1938) she noted that

at last Australia is waking up to realise that in London and New York this young Australian is considered by many famous critics to be the most important woman writing in the English language to-day.

There were, of course, naysayers who did not like Stead’s exuberant, untamed style, but we can put that down, in part at least, to the fact that her modernist style was new and innovative. Not everyone likes innovation.

Note: You can find bloggers’ reviews of various Stead works at Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page.

Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, The drums go bang! (#BookReview)

January 18, 2020

Book coverVolume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.

That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.

The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:

We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …

Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.

The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.

Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:

He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.

They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)

I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and

… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.

As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:

… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.

She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.

That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.

This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.

Challenge logoRuth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956
195pp.
ISBN: None

John Clanchy, In whom we trust (#BookReview)

January 15, 2020

Book coverMy first question when I read a book of historical fiction is why? And so it was for John Clanchy’s latest novel In whom we trust, which is set in Victoria around World War 1, albeit is not about the war. It is, in fact, about a Catholic home for orphaned children, St Barnabas, and three people associated with it, visiting chaplain Father Pearse, and two young people, inmate Thomas Stuart and scullery maid Molly Preston. Of course, when I say “about” St Barnabas, I don’t really mean that. St Barnabas frames the novel, provides its context, but the novel itself is about something far more complex, which gets me back to my opening question, why?

Now there are, to my mind, two main responses to historical fiction. One is to see it as something in the past, something that we might learn from but that overall we can leave firmly in the past. The other is to see its relevance to the present, to look at past actions or events, with the perspective of time, in order to reflect on now. This response also brings in those universals we like to talk about, those things about us that history (or time) doesn’t change. John Clanchy’s In whom we trust demands this second response: it asks us to look at the institutional abuse of children and its long history, and to see the human factors that enabled it then right on through to now. As Hilary Mantel has said, “all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time.”

In his Author’s Note and Acknowledgement, Clanchy thanks publisher Finlay Lloyd for “taking on a difficult book such as this”. What “difficult” does he mean? The difficult content or the difficulty of its execution? Probably both. The content is, of course, difficult. We have St Barnabas run by the tortured and torturing Brother Stanislaus. He is the epitome of the old-school hell-fire-and-damnation Brother. Ravaged by the Church’s constraints (particularly abstinence), he twists the scriptures, the theology, to justify his abuse of those in his care, who include, of course, Thomas and Molly.

However, this book is also “difficult” in its construction, which is not the same as saying that it’s difficult to read, because the story flows beautifully, despite frequent changes in voice or perspective. The story is told from three main – and easily differentiated – points of view: the third person subjective perspectives of Father Pearse and Thomas, and the first person voice of Molly via her diary.

The narrative is framed by a meeting between Thomas and Pearse, at the latter’s parish in Sale, some three years after the abuse had occurred. Gradually, through their conversations and private reflections, and through the insertion of Molly’s diary entries, the back story comes out and Thomas’s request of Pearse is revealed. At this point the diary entries finish and the narrative moves into a simpler chronology as Pearse works to fulfil his promise to Thomas, who has by now enlisted and wants this thing done before he leaves. What he wants done cannot right the wrongs of the past but will hopefully help prevent them continuing in the future. And that’s about all I’ll say about the plot.

“the strange, savage world”

That Clanchy can make such subject matter both engrossing and deeply moving is down to his writing and his understanding of humanity. The novel opens in Father Pearse’s head:

‘There was a boy came while you were out, Father Pearse,’ Mrs Reilly said. And stood.
The woman wanted strangling.

I loved this. So simple, but already we’ve learnt a lot, the main thing being, as the rest of the chapter confirms, that Father Pearse is not your warm-hearted priest. He’s an impatient, easily irritated one, so, when the boy, Thomas, appears, we are predisposed to like him more than we like Pearse. As the novel progresses, Thomas firmly but gently brings Pearse around to being – to use modern parlance – the best version of himself! In other words, Pearse, who is not a bad man, just a weak, cowardly one who “means no real harm”, is brought to see the right and humane thing to do.

This doesn’t come easily though. He is suspicious of and resistant to this trouble-making Thomas. He doesn’t trust him! And here is cornerstone of the novel, trust (as you might have guessed from the novel’s title.) There are many layers of trust in the novel. Clanchy shows how trust develops between people, such as between Molly and Thomas, between Thomas and his indigenous friend from St Barnabas Benton, and, eventually, between Pearse and Thomas. There is trust in authority and institutions, such as that St Barnabas will care for the children entrusted to it. There is trust in forms and rituals, like the confessional. And there is trust that people will do what they promise or undertake to do. All of these – their successes and failures, and the nuances surrounding them – are explored in this novel. The reality of the challenge becomes clear to Pearse late in the novel:

Trust. That was the crux of it. How was anyone meant to find a path through this forest of competing trusts?

Muddying this path are competing – or, shall we just call a spade a spade and say twisted – values and priorities. These include the age-old issue of abstinence and the inviolability of the confessional, and the need, as Pearse’s Bishop makes perfectly clear, to protect “our Mother Church”.

Through all this, Clanchy weaves a compelling, painfully true story about human beings – weak ones, arrogant ones, damaged ones, wise ones, loyal ones. Of all these people, it’s the young Thomas who has the clearest vision. He has, recognises Pearse, the

trick of putting his finger on truths so obvious that most other people, in search for something which redounded more to their own credit, looked right past.

And now, before I conclude, something about the writing, because it is this, alongside Clanchy’s understanding of human motivations and relationships, that make this “difficult” book also a pleasure to read. Clanchy’s ability to nail his points with a few words can take your breath away:

… then Thomas Stuart was equally checked by the massive theological boulder which the priest now rolled into his path.

AND

The crimson cloth of the Bishop’s patience was rapidly becoming threadbare.

The vernacular he creates for Molly’s diary – including words like “tumple” and “fumply” – gives her colour and character. There’s also some clever word play and light ironic touches, not to mention the little biblical in-joke about doubting Thomas, because in this book it’s the priest who doubts Thomas more than vice versa. Indeed, it’s the careful, sure way Clanchy develops the see-sawing doubting-trusting relationship between Pearse and Thomas that provides the novel’s backbone and interest.

There are of course no simple answers to the dilemma facing Father Pearse, and the ending we get is the only one it could be. It’s to Clanchy’s credit that he doesn’t opt for the easy feel-good fix. There are wins along the way but Clanchy knows, and we know, that it would be morally suspect and historically inaccurate to provide the ending we’d like. In whom we trust is a powerful and wonderful read.

John Clanchy
In whom we trust
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2019
251pp
ISBN: 9780994516558

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Christina Stead’s 1930s, Salzburg and Sydney

January 13, 2020

My first Monday musings on Christina Stead (my posts on Stead) was barely introductory, so I’m planning two more to coincide with Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 3 Week. These two posts – this week’s and next – focus contemporary Australian responses to the four books she published in the 1930s. I’m keeping this focus tight because Stead is such a complex figure in Australian literary history, and so much has been written about her already, including Hazel Rowley’s well-regarded biography. (See Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers). However, I enjoyed reading, in Trove of course, what some contemporary Aussies had to say about her, and wanted to share them.

To start though, a very brief bio relevant to this period. Stead, born in Sydney in 1902, went overseas, to England initially, in 1928. She then lived, and worked in a bank, in Paris from 1930 to 1935, before spending time in the USA, Spain and England with her husband-to-be William Blake (Wilhelm Blech). In 1937, they moved to the USA. She didn’t return to Australia to live until 1968. Her first four books were published in the 1930s: The Salzburg tales (1934), Seven poor men of Sydney (1934), The beauties and the furies (1936), and House of all nations (1938).

Although over the years Stead experienced a mixed reaction from Australia, some critics denouncing her as “expatriate”, it’s clear that in the 1930s, at least, she was well-admired by Australian newspaper reviewers. It’s also clear that she was seen as both a modernist and a realist, with no nods to our bush and pioneer traditions.

Book coverThe Salzburg tales was her first published book and it immediately received positive attention from Australian newspaper reviewers. I was tickled by the writer in Melbourne’s Argus who wrote that “Many times it has been said that there is no particular demand for writers’ collections of short stories but there are authors and publishers who continue to issue books of the kind and apparently the stories find readers.” Plus ça change, it seems.

Reviews of this book noted its inventiveness and original style. For example, S.E.N., wrote in the Daily Mail on 4 April 1934, that

her book is remarkable not only for its inventiveness, but for its original style. It commingles modernism and mysticism, realism and romanticism, the dramatic and the uneventful, love, law, life, laughter, and letters in an olla podrida which is both attractive and unusual. Some of the stories are, like that of the Wanton, a little too highly spiced here and there for the less sophisticated reader; but on the whole Miss Stead has given us a collection of tales which are admirably told and admirably contrasted.

There we have it – “modernism” and “realism” – two styles/approaches that were significant the 1930s literature, and of which Stead was a major exponent. The unnamed reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald (3 May 1934) remarked that “Miss Stead … really seems to belong in a class by herself”. This reviewer praises the variety, and concludes that “there seems no end to Miss Stead’s inventiveness and no limit to her powers of expression”. Jean Williamson, writing in the Australian Women’s Weekly (7 July 1934), is no less admiring, calling it “extraordinary in its concept, its vocabulary, its technique and its imagery.”

The reviewer in the Townsville Daily Bulletin (7 August 1934) states:

This author is, I understand, an Australian, who now lives in Paris. How long she has been there I do not know but she has accumulated experience, impressions, fed her imagination in a way that would not be possible for an author writing from this side of the world. It is not only that Miss Stead has set her scenes in such a town as Salzburg, and peopled her many pages with remarkable people. Most authors could have done that, but her story is saturated with her personality, lit up humor, knowledge, penetration, and is decidedly original.

This is an interesting comment in the context of Drusilla Modjeska’s book Exiles at home (posted on by Bill). Modjeska’s book is about “the ones who stayed” in Australia … tackling … how to live and work in this country as women and as writers and how to build a culture that has its roots in Australian histories and conditions, rather than in a foreign past” (from Introduction to Reprinted Editions.) Of course, the thing about Stead is that she too forged a contemporary literature, some of it set in or drawn from her Australian experience … which brings me to …

Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of SydneyStead’s second book, Seven poor men of Sydney, which garnered similarly positive reviews. However, the reviewer in The Newcastle Sun (22 November 1934) makes no bones about its grittiness. It has no “Australian local color of the wattle blossom and stockwhip kind”. S/he describes it as high art, and says “it gives evidence of intuition, of skill in handling of character and of words and of high achievement in the depicting of realities.” For this writer, though, there is such a thing as being too modern, too real:

And while no one can reasonably suggest that a writer should ignore the gutter, it is not necessary to bring in the language of the gutter. It is, indeed, a great pity that a writer who shows abundantly that she is capable of far better things, should think it necessary to be “modern” in this particular way.

I know some readers who still feel this today … Anyhow, interestingly, Bookman writing in the Courier Mail (30 November 1934) has an opposing criticism, saying that “perhaps” the novel’s “weakest point” is that “the characters all talk too learnedly”! However, he too recognises the novel’s “stark realism”. He calls it “a remarkable book; the kind of book to which the word ‘powerful’ is sometimes applied”, but he also clearly fears its politics:

She has revealed the mentality out of which revolutions are made. That lesson is especially important in these days when thousands of lads, with more education than judgment, are being thrown into desperation and into the arms of extreme propagandists because all they can see ahead is blind-alley employment or no employment at all. In such conditions communism flourishes, and Miss Stead doubtless saw it thriving in Central Europe.

The aforementioned Jean Williamson, writing again in the Australian Women’s Weekly (9 March 1935) reports Stead’s own comments on the book.

The Seven Poor Men of Sydney is not so much a novel, I suppose, as a cast of characters battling through daily life, as much passion being expended or the small accidents of daily life as on any one of the great tragic themes; in fact the great tragic themes are all melted down and infused there. That was my feeling in writing the Seven Poor Men.”

Stead, a deeply committed socialist, also says that the novel shows she hasn’t forgotten Australia, nor “the importance of the Labor Movement in everyone’s daily life”.

So, two very different books, both written in a modernist style, both hailed for their inventiveness and her “phrasemaking” – and, put together, neatly reflecting her seemingly dichotomous existence.

Note: You can find bloggers’ reviews of various Stead works at Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page.

Joan Didion, Quiet days in Malibu (#Review)

January 12, 2020

Malibu from Malibu Pier, August 1993

As for many people I expect, Joan Didion’s now classic The year of magical thinking made a lasting impression on me, so I was keen to read her essay “Quiet days in Malibu” when it popped up as a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week back in November. I was also interested in the subject matter. Having lived in Southern California in the 1990s, I wanted to see what Didion had to say about Malibu, a place that has always conveyed the romance of Californian beaches to me, largely through Gidget! There, I’ve admitted my teen-girl secret.

What Didion had to say was not what I expected. She starts with:

In a way it seems the most idiosyncratic of beach communities, twenty-seven miles of coastline with no hotel, no passable restaurant, nothing to attract the traveler’s dollar. It is not a resort. No one “vacations” or “holidays,” as those words are conventionally understood, at Malibu. Its principal residential street, the Pacific Coast Highway, is quite literally a highway, California 1, which runs from the Mexican border to the Oregon line and brings Greyhound buses and refrigerated produce trucks and sixteen-wheel gasoline tankers hurtling past the front windows of houses frequently bought and sold for over a million dollars. The water off Malibu is neither as clear nor as tropically colored as the water off La Jolla. The beaches at Malibu are neither as white nor as wide as the beach at Carmel. The hills are scrubby and barren, infested with bikers and rattlesnakes, scarred with cuts and old burns and new R.V. parks. For these and other reasons Malibu tends to astonish and disappoint those who have never before seen it, and yet its very name remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life [my emph]. I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it. 

Things have, naturally, changed since Didion lived there for seven years through the 1970s, but only a little I think. Pacific Highway 1 still runs through it, alongside the beach, though the more inland 101 Freeway is the main north-south route. It is still home to many celebrities and other well-to-do living in expensive mansions. This opening paragraph, however, also introduces us Didion’s style – including her use of repetition (“The water off … The beaches at … The hills are …”) and quietly pointed commentary (as in “I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it.”)

This essay, published in a 1979 collection titled The white album, was in fact a reworking of two pieces published in Esquire in 1976. LOA’s notes say that those pieces “showcase the beach community” not through its celebrities but through “the lifeguards on the beach and the manager of a local orchid farm.” To these pieces, which form the bulk of the essay, Didion added the above-quoted introductory paragraph and a concluding section, about which more later.

The white album, LOA’s notes also tell us, opens with her famous line, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. The stories she tells in this essay are about “ordinary” people, as much as anyone, really, is ordinary. First up is lifeguard Dick Haddock. She introduces him thus – with that same use of repetition:

Dick Haddock, a family man, a man twenty-six years in the same line of work, a man who has on the telephone and in his office the crisp and easy manner of technological middle management, is in many respects the prototypical Southern California solid citizen.

She describes visiting his “office”, the lookout on Malibu’s Zuma Beach, on Thanksgiving morning in 1975, when

A Santa Ana wind was just dying after blowing in off the Mojave for three weeks and setting 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire. Squadrons of planes had been dropping chemicals on the fires to no effect. Querulous interviews with burned-out householders had become a fixed element of the six o’clock news. Smoke from the fires had that week stretched a hundred miles out over the Pacific and darkened the days and lit the nights and by Thanksgiving morning there was the sense all over Southern California of living in some grave solar dislocation. It was one of those weeks when Los Angeles seemed most perilously and breathtakingly itself, a cartoon of natural disaster …

Oh no! As I post this story, we are suffering similarly from bushfires. We certainly feel that we are living in “some grave … dislocation”. Note too another of those pointed comments – on LA seeming “most perilously and breathtakingly itself, a cartoon of natural disaster”. Anyhow, Didion’s description of Haddock, his colleagues and their work, is respectful and evocative, recognising both the drama and the tedium of what they do.

The second piece is about another prototypical Southern Californian, “a Mexican from Mexico”, or “resident alien” (just as I, a wife, was a “derivative alien” to my husband’s “primary alien”!) Amado Vazquez is anything but ordinary, though, as he’s an expert orchid breeder for Arthur Freed Orchids. Didion shares with us her love of greenhouses:

all my life I had been trying to spend time in one greenhouse or another, and all my life the person in charge of one greenhouse or an- other had been trying to hustle me out.

And here, finally, was her opportunity to spend time in one! Again, in her chatty style, she explains the work of an orchid breeder – of stud plants, of orchid fertility, of the naming of plants, of the business of orchid breeding. She references that racist name-changing behaviour that white people often do, whereby the orchid named for Vazquez’s wife “mysteriously” becomes “Vasquez”.

But, I want to close on the short concluding section in which, after significantly mentioning the drowning death, “a casualty of Quaaludes”, of one of her 12-year-old daughter’s friends, she describes another horrendous fire:

Within two hours a Santa Ana wind had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike. By the time this fire storm had passed 197 houses had vanished into ash …

This fire also destroyed three years of the orchid breeder’s work … Malibu, you see, with its peculiar geography, has is rife for natural disasters.

It was at this point that I realised the irony of the title. Through restrained, respectful reportage about the ordinary people of Malibu, Didion conveys that, in fact, Malibu is rarely quiet, and that few of its inhabitants enjoy an “easy life”.

Joan Didion
“Quiet days in Malibu”
First published: The white album, 1979 (sections published in Esquire in April and June 1976)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Chloe Hooper, The arsonist: A mind on fire (#BookReview)

January 10, 2020

Chloe Hooper, The ArsonistIt may not have been the most sensible decision to read Chloe Hooper’s book, The arsonist, during Australia’s worst-ever bushfire week, but in fact I picked it up a few days before the crisis became evident, and once I started I couldn’t put it down. The arsonist tells the story of the man arrested and tried for one of the major fires in the Black Saturday series of bushfires that ravaged much of Victoria in February 2009. I have often wondered how you identify how and where a fire started. Hooper answers much of this.

However, what made this book unputdownable was that Hooper adopted, as she did in The tall man, the narrative (or creative) nonfiction style to tell her story, and proved herself, again, to be a skilled exponent of this genre. For those not sure about this genre, Lee Gutkind’s definition, quoted in Wikipedia, is a good start: “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” In other words, the information must be true or factual, but presented like a story.

Car in fire burnt bush

Bush, eastern Victoria, 9 mths after Black Saturday, 2009

Hooper structures her story like a classic three-act drama: I The detectives, II The lawyers, III The courtroom, followed by the Coda. She provides the facts – the whos, whens, wheres and whys – as much as they are known, but forms them into a narrative. So, after an opening paragraph which evocatively describes a fire-destroyed bush landscape, the second paragraph reads:

At the intersection of two nondescript roads, Detective Sergeant Adam Henry sits in his car taking in a puzzle. On one side of Glendonald Road, the timber plantation is untouched: pristine Pinus radiata, all sown at the same time, growing in immaculate green lines. On the other side, near where the road forms a T with a track named Jellef’s Outlet, stand rows of Eucalyptus globulus, the common blue gum cultivated the world over to make printer paper. All torched, as far as the eye can see. On Saturday 7 February 2009, around 1.30pm, a fire started somewhere near here and now, late on Sunday afternoon, it is still burning several kilometres away.

You can see, in this, that we are being invited in to see what her “character” Detective Henry is seeing, but we are also given very specific facts. The next paragraph, provides some personal background to this first “character” in her story:

Detective Henry has a new baby, his first, a week out of hospital. The night before, he had been called back from paternity leave for a 6 am meeting …

As Part I progresses, we meet other police officers and forensic experts; we travel with them as they investigate the fire itself and then follow leads to the most likely suspect; and we are with them as they interview this suspect and arrest him for the crime. We also meet many victims who lost family members and/or property. Their stories are heartrending – excruciating, in fact, as I wrote in the margins – and were particularly hard to read, with similar losses occurring in Australia right now.

Using a similar narrative technique in Part II – providing facts, and describing the “characters” and their feelings – Hooper then introduces us to the Legal Aid lawyers, or one lawyer in particular, brought in to defend the accused. As she does this, our allegiance and sympathies shift a bit from the hardworking police to the hardworking lawyer – and, perhaps even, to her client who, only now, at this point in his life, is finally diagnosed as autistic, which provides a previously missing context for his strange responses and behaviours. And then, finally, in the third “act” or part, these two – the police and the legal team – come head to head in court, with our allegiances swaying between the two as they tussle it out, until the jury delivers its verdict.

The Coda, “set” some years later, contains Hooper’s reflections on the aftermath and some commentary on the process. For example, it’s clear that she had researched the case, had visited the fire region many times, including soon after the arrest, and had interviewed many of the participants, but, like Helen Garner in her three major narrative nonfiction works, had not managed to speak to the person at the centre, in this case, Brendan Sokaluk, the arsonist. Her request is refused, for understandable reasons. She was, she writes, both “disappointed” and “relieved”. Would speaking to him, she wonders, answer the book’s central question of “why”, and, even if he were able to explain why,

would understanding why Brendan lit a fire make the next deliberate inferno any more explicable? Or preventable? I now know there isn’t a standardised Arsonist. There isn’t a distinct part of the brain marked by a flame. There is only a person who feels spiteful, or lonely, or anxious, or enraged, or bored, or humiliated: all the things that can set a mind – any mind – on fire.

And there, I suppose, is the multiple tragedy of this story: the tragedy of a man ridiculed and bullied all his life for being different; the tragedy of a community that isn’t very good at managing people who are different; the tragedy of the conflagration (in this case a fire, but it could be anything) that can result when the two collide; and the overriding tragedy that there are no simple answers to arson.

Now, I fear you might think that I have given the “story” away and that you therefore need not read it. But, you don’t read The arsonist for the “story”. After all, this is nonfiction and the basic “story” is known. You read it for the insights that a fine mind (not a mind on fire!) like Hooper’s can bring to the situation. What she brings is both clarity about the facts and a nuanced understanding of what they mean. The arsonist is, as everyone’s been saying, an excellent read.

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of this book includes information from a festival conversation session featuring Hooper.

Challenge logoChloe Hooper
The arsonist: A mind of fire
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
254pp.
ISBN: 9780670078189