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Helen Garner, Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987 (#BookReview)

July 12, 2020

Book coverThe opening session of last November’s inaugural Broadside Festival featured Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein about her recently published Yellow notebook, the first volume of her edited diaries. It was an excellent, intelligent conversation. Garner came across as the forthright writer she is, one who fearlessly exposes difficult and unpleasant things, alongside joys and triumphs.

The epigraph she chose for her diaries is therefore not surprising:

We are here for this–to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. (Primo Levi, The periodic table)

Certainly, in Yellow notebook, Garner both stands some blows and hands a few out. She admits to many mistakes. She allows herself to be vulnerable. She may have cut a lot, as she told Krasnostein, but she clearly didn’t sanitise. Her aim was to select what others might find interesting. She didn’t rewrite, only changing (or adding) something if it would otherwise have been meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voiceover, unlike a memoir”. That is, a diary contains what you did/felt at the time without the benefit of later reflection; she had to accept herself – both hurting others and being hurt – as she was at the time of writing. This gave her “fellow-feeling” with others.

She also decided not to identify people. She uses initials, such as M for her daughter, F for her husband at the time. Some of these people are, of course, easily identifiable for anyone who knows her biography, but I think there is still value in taking this approach. In this spirit, I decided not to investigate beyond what I already knew about her life.

The yellow notebook has a lot to offer Garner lovers. For what is quite a short book, its content is wide-ranging. It includes observations from life around her (as you’d expect from a writer), snippets of conversations (both overheard and her own), the occasional news item, stories from her life, thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We are introduced to her love of music, and her interest in religion. We hear about her marriage break-up and her all-encompassing love of her daughter. All this reveals a messy person – someone who can be wise at times, and immature at others, who can be confident but also excruciatingly insecure, who can be unkind but also warm and generous, a person, in other words, like most of us, except most of us don’t lay the worst of ourselves quite so bare.

I could give examples of all of the above – and I should, because there’s glorious sentence after glorious sentence – but I want to focus on her writing life. For the rest, do read the book yourself.

“thinking voluptuously of the stories I’m going to write”

Part of understanding a writer is knowing who they read and admire. The writer Garner mentions most in this volume is Elizabeth Jolley. While Jolley and Garner are, in some ways, quite different writers, they have a lot in common. Both don’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of human behaviour. Sometimes Garner simply quotes Jolley – as we do when a writer reminds us of something we’re experiencing. Sometimes she shares little anecdotes about Jolley, but other times she comments on Jolley’s writing, even when referring to another writer!

‘Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish.’ –Barbara Pymm, Excellent women. This is Elizabeth Jolley’s tone and it made me laugh out loud.

Elizabeth Jolley makes me laugh out loud too. Garner also loves Jane Austen. She writes:

Mansfield Park. She never tells you anything about the appearance of her characters. As if they were moral forces. I love it.

You can see why I love Garner. She, Jolley and Austen all get to the heart of humans, incisively – and with wit. Garner writes about being rejected:

My short story was rejected by the Bulletin because it contained four-letter words. A letter from Geoffrey Dutton: ‘It pains me to have to knock this back … it’s you at your best.’ Thanks a lot. I suppose he’s a skilled writer of rejection letters.

Other writers Garner mentions include, randomly, Frank Moorhouse, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Tim Winton, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, DH Lawrence (who “uses the same word over and over till he makes it mean what he needs it to”), EM Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, James Joyce, Doris Lessing, Christina Stead (whom, she discovers, is “a visonary”), Randolph Stow, Rosa Capiello, and Les Murray:

The infuriating accuracy and simplicity of his images – birds that ‘trickle down through’ foliage. Of course, I think, this is what they do – why didn’t I know how to say it?

Four of Garner’s own books are published during the ten years covered by these diaries, the novels Moving out (1983) and The children’s Bach (1984) (my review), and short story collections, Honour; and Other people’s children (1980) and Postcards from Surfers (1985) (my review).

She shares many of her struggles and challenges in writing The children’s Bach, in particular:

… each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets.

AND

This flaming book is jammed again. I feel my ignorance and fear like a vast black hole.

AND

I’m scared to go into my office in case I can’t make things up.

AND

Went to work and fiddled around for half an hour, then began to properly feel it come … Delirious I ran downstairs and bought myself a pastie …

She shares her thoughts about writing, such as

About writing: meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there: only revealed.

This is so Austen, too.

More broadly, she also speaks of critics, awards, and readers. It’s engaging and heart-rending all at once – and probably applicable to many writers.

Finally, she reflects on the value of art and on the creation process. Describing the experience of a painter finishing a portrait, Garner writes:

The miracle of making something that wasn’t there before. Pulling something out of thin air.

It’s that capacity that impresses someone like me. I’m sorry for the pain writers (and other creators) endure, but I’m so glad they are prepared to do it. I look forward to Volume 2, and beyond.

Challenge logoHelen Garner
Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
253pp.
ISBN: 9781922268143

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Bill curates: JM Coetzee’s Diary of a bad year

July 10, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

When Sue wrote this review in July 2009 – yes I am progressing only slowly, but there is so much to choose from!  – Diary of a Bad Year was Coetzee’s most recent work. I read it only a year or so ago and it impressed on me how lucky we are in Australia that Coetzee chose to live here.

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My original post titled: “JM Coetzee, Diary of a bad year”

Book coverJ.M. Coetzee is one of those rare novelists who pushes the boundaries of what a novel is. The progression from his mid-career novel, the spare but terrifying Disgrace (1999),through Elizabeth Costello (2003) to Diary of a bad year (2007) is so dramatic that there are those who question whether these last two are even novels. It’s actually been a year or so since I read Diary of a bad year but it is currently being discussed by one of my reading groups so now seemed to be a good time to blog about it here.

One of the first things to confront the reader who picks up Diary of a bad year is how to read it. It has three (two to begin with) concurrent strands running across the top, middle and bottom of the page. Some readers try to read the three strands as concurrently as possible while others read the strands sequentially. Following this latter path, though, means you risk missing the way the strands comment on each other. The three strands are:

  • the narrator’s formal voice, basically taking the form of essays he is writing
  • the narrator’s informal voice in which he talks about his life as he is writing the essays
  • the voice of Anya, his “little typist”, and, through her, of her boyfriend, Alan

The three characters represent three modes of viewing the world: the narrator’s is primarily theoretical, while Anya’s is more pragmatic and Alan’s rational. Through these modes, Coetzee teases out the moral conundrums of the early 21st century both in terms of the political (the events confronting us) and the personal (how are we to live).

Towards the end, Coetzee refers to his love of Bach. To some degree the book is a paean to Bach: its three-part structure in which each part counterpoints the others seems to be a textual representation of Bach’s polyphony. The essays running across the top of the page, while a little uneven and dry on their own, are counterpointed by the views of the characters in the other two strands, resulting in our being presented with different ways of viewing the same world.

The characterisation is interesting: Senor C, the writer of the essays, is the logical, moral but somewhat pessimistic thinker; Anya is practical, down to earth, but with a strong moral sense; and Alan is the economic rationalist for whom money is essentially everything. The views of the two men are strongly contrasted, while Anya is caught in the middle. There is a Darwinian sense in Alan of the survival of the fittest, while Senor C spurns competition as a way of life, preferring collaboration. For all his “moral” views, though, Senor C is not presented as a paragon and we are discomforted at times by his attitude towards the beautiful Anya.

The overall theme seems to be how do we live in a world full of paradoxes and contradictions, a world that seems to be pervaded by dishonour and shame (the things Senor C explores in the essays). He talks about ordinary people and how they (we) cope with things they (we) don’t approve of. He wonders why they (we) don’t do something about it, but suggests in the end that they (we) practise “inner emigration”. He says:

The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.

I like that concept though it does smack of burying one’s head in the sand. He also talks about collective guilt, and about bearing the dishonour of what’s gone on before. Through choosing a “novel” form like no other, one which blends but in no way harmonises fact and fiction, Coetzee shows in a very concrete way that difficult times need new ways of presenting ideas. He offers no neat conclusions, no easy outs; he is quite subversive really. Late in the book he ponders the value of writing, and says:

Are these words written on paper truly what I wanted to say?

This then is another step in Coetzee’s path of trying to find the best, perfect perhaps, way of saying what he wants to say. I, for one, will be ready for his next step.

JM Coetzee
Diary of a Bad Year
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007
178pp.
ISBN: 9781921145636

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I said in this July 2009 post that I was ready for his next step, but in fact other reading got in the way and I have not read any more Coetzee since then. However, like Bill, I’m very glad he chose Australia to be his home. I will try to read more of him in coming years because I enjoy his exploration of the novel-form itself, as well as being interested in his ideas.

Have you read any Coetzee? If so we’d love to hear what you think about his writing.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian biographies

July 6, 2020

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, and, as I have done for a few years now, I’ve decided to devote my Monday Musings to an Indigenous Australian literature topic. This year’s topic is Indigenous Australian biography.

I have previously written Monday Musings on Indigenous Australian autobiographies and memoirs. These have flourished in the last decade or so, particularly, it seems, memoirs from Indigenous Australian women. I’ve reviewed several on this blog. However, biographies are a different form altogether, and in researching for this post, I’ve struggled to find many. Readings bookshop, for example, provides a list of Australian First Nations Memoir and Biography but I struggled to find many biographies in their list. It is a positive thing that publishers and readers have embraced memoirs, but I can’t help feeling that the paucity of biography tells us something about the place of Indigenous Australians in Australian culture.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), self-described as “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, aims to provide “informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” This suggests that biography has a formal role in telling the story of a nation. Consequently, the dearth of Indigenous Australian biographies – if my research is right – is surely a measure of the continuing marginalisation or exclusion of Indigenous Australian culture and lives from our national story.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. In 2017, the National Centre of Biography launched a new project “to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography“. It’s being led by Shino Konishi who is of Indiengous descent from Broome. She is on the ADB’s Indigenous Working Party which was established in 2015, and which includes “leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars from each state and the territory”. The main aim of the project is to add 190 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biographies to the ADB which, they say, has published nearly 13,000 biographies since 1966, but “has tended to under-recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the Australian story”. The end-result of the project will be a dedicated Indigenous ADB.

Alongside this, the National Centre of Biography, which publishes the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also hosts a site called Indigenous Australia which “brings together all entries on Indigenous Australians found in the NCB’s biographical websites–Australian Dictionary of Biography, Obituaries Australia, Labour Australia and Women Australia.” It also supports the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive, which is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney. (However, it moves us away from my focus here on biography.)

Of course, the above is all very important, but the ADB is about biographical essays in a dictionary of biography. I’m also interested in full-length biographies. I didn’t find many, but, as always, I’m hoping you will tell me (or remind me of) others?

Alexis Wright, TrackerIndigenous Australian biography – a small selection

  • Max Bonnell’s How many more are coming?: the short life of Jack Marsh (2003): on athlete and first class cricketer, Jack Marsh, who died in 1916.
  • Kathie Cochrane’s Oodgeroo (1994): on poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
  • Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the past (1999): on Ginibi’s son, Nobby, who spent significant time in prison, and the systemic failures in handling Indigenous young.
  • Kevin Keeffe’s Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson (2003): on activist Patrick Dodson, and his family, and their commitment to reconciliation.
  • Marlene J. Norst’s Burnum Burnum: A warrior for peace (1999): on Burnum, Stolen Generations survivor, sportsperson and activist.
  • John Ramsland’s The rainbow beach man (2009): on Les Ridgeway, Worimi elder, who was a farm labourer, station manager and was eventually recruited by Charles Perkins to work in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A biography (2001): on activist, Freedom Ride participant and administrator, Charlie Perkins.
  • Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Janadamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (1995): on Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, and his resistance against invasion in the Kimberleys.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2018??): on the charismatic ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, activist, a book which is described by some as a “collective memoir” but which I’ve included here as an example of new forms of “biography”, particularly for Indigenous life-writing.

So, now, please add to this list …

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Six degrees of separation, FROM What I loved TO …

July 4, 2020

Half the year is over – and what an awful year it has been, generally and personally. I’d like to try to put the first half behind me (without ever forgetting the special person who left my life during it and whose 91st birthday would, in fact, have been today) and look to a more positive second half. Let’s see what we can do with this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme.  If you are new to blogging and don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Book coverJuly’s starting book is another I haven’t read. Indeed, I haven’t read any of her books, but if I did, this is the one I’d choose. The book is American writer Siri Hustvedt’s What I loved.

Jane Austen, PersuasionSiri Hustvedt is, I read a long time ago, a Jane Austen fan, so my first link is Jane Austen’s Persuasion (my reviews of volume 1 and volume 2) because Hustvedt wrote the introduction to the Folio edition of this novel. If you are a Jane Austen fan, like me, you will buy multiple versions of her novels just for the introductions. (For this reason, I’ll be adding my mum’s editions to my already multiple edition Austen library.)

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookAnother novelist who loves Jane Austen – they are legion in fact – is Helen Garner. She wrote about Austen in her collection of essays, Everywhere I look (my review).

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (PD, via Wikipedia)

Garner, in fact, wrote about quite a few writers in that collection, including Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolley, but the one I am going to link to next is a much older writer, Barbara Baynton, and her short story “The chosen vessel”, (my review). Garner says she has never got over it. It’s a powerful story, that’s for sure.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin (PD, via Wikipedia)

There are many short stories and novels I have never got over, though quite a few of them are from pre-blogging times. However, there’s a short story from my blogging times that affected me deeply and that I keep returning to. The writer is the American Kate Chopin, and the story “Désirée’s baby” (my review). Its underlying themes about race and gender are distressingly still too relevant today (or, do I mean still too distressingly relevant!)

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceRacism is an issue that we just can’t seem to resolve. Why is it that we can’t all see and respect each other as equal human beings? I have read many books over the years – fiction and non-fiction – that deal with race. However, I’m going to return to Australia, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review), for my fifth link, because her aim was to show “the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all”. It “erodes us all”: this is a lesson we are all still learning.

Book coverWhere to from here? Can I be a little less heavy for my last link? The hate race is a memoir about Clarke’s experience of growing up. I hope it’s not disrespectful to conclude with a very different, and rather happier memoir about growing up, Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano lessons (my review). Goldsworthy had her challenges – who doesn’t – but nothing like those faced by Clarke.

So, an unusual chain this month, because it includes two short stories, a book of essays, two memoirs, and just one novel. My links have stayed mostly in Australia, but I have popped over to early 19th century England and late 19th century USA. All this month’s writers are women.

Now the usual: Have you read What I loved? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Bill curates: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

July 3, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Sometimes I think I am well read and sometimes I come upon a post like this and realize just how far I have to go. Pamuk, I discover, is a famous Turkish novelist and the winner of the 2006 Nobel prize.

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My original post titled: “Orhan Pamuk, Snow”

Book coverOne of my rules of reading is that when I have finished a book I go back and read the first chapter (or so) and any epigraphs the author may have included. These can often provide a real clue to meaning. This rule certainly applies to my latest read, Snow, by Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk.

(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS)

Snow, in fact, has no less than four epigraphs:

  • lines from Robert Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” describing the paradoxical nature of things: “the honest thief, the tender murderer,/the superstitious atheist”;
  • a quote from Stendhal’s The charterhouse of Parma which warns about the ugliness of “politics in a literary work”;
  • a quote from Dostoevsky’s Notebooks for the Brothers Karamazov which suggests ideals like the European Enlightenment are “more important than people”; and
  • Joseph Conrad’s statement in Under Western eyes that “The Westerner in me was discomposed”.

These four epigraphs pretty well sum up the concerns of the book. What about the title? The second chapter begins with:

Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars, it no long promised innocence.

Here then is the first paradox: snow is pure but not innocent, and it covers dirt, mud and darkness. Already, you can see that this book is going to be ironic. Just how ironic though is a matter for contention but my suspicion is that its very foundation is ironic, as it grapples with what it means to be an artist in a political society, with how one is to live in a conflicted nation. The plot centres on a coup – a coup which is variously called a military coup and a theatrical coup! In fact, it is a coup by a theatrical group that is supported by the military! Art and politics could hardly be more entwined.

Snow though is not an easy read. It is my third Pamuk, but only the second one I have completed. I loved his memoir-cum-history Istanbul but could not, hard as I tried, finish My name is red.

What then is it about? The main action covers three days in the life of Ka, a Turkish poet recently returned from 12 years exile in Germany, who comes to Kars (in far east Turkey) ostensibly to write about the suicide epidemic among young women, but whose secondary (or perhaps primary!) reason is to fall in love with an old school-friend, Ipek. Soon after he arrives, however, the coup occurs and Ka is, rather unwillingly, caught up in the intrigue between the competing interests: the secularists, the Islamic fundamentalists, and the Kurdish nationalists. This sets the stage for exploring the art-politics nexus. Ka says to Sunay, the leader of the coup AND of the theatrical troupe that comes into town:

I know that you staged the coup not just for the sake of politics but also as a thing of beauty and in the name of art … you know only too well that a play in which Kadife bares her head for all of Kars to see will be no mere artistic triumph; it will also have profound political consequences.

Here then is one evocation of the second epigraph. The third and fourth epigraph refer to the running conflict in the book between European/Western values and Turkish/Eastern values. There is very much a sense that the people of Kars feel condescended to by European culture, but as a teen-ager says at one point, “We are not stupid! We’re just poor”. The people of Kars do not understand Western notions of individualism, and they see Western ideas of secularism and atheism as equating with immorality. Ka, as a Westernised Turk, acts as an uncomfortable, to him, bridge between the two worlds.

The core of the book is Ka. He is a sad and highly conflicted individual who, in his youth, had used words to argue that people should act for “the common good” but now finds himself using them to further his own happiness. Once politically active, “he now knew that the greatest happiness in life was to embrace a beautiful, intelligent woman and sit in a corner writing poetry”. The irony is that, for all his attempts to achieve this, he ends up with neither and dies four years after the coup a sad and lonely man.

The novel is interesting, stylistically and structurally. It is essentially a third person story about Ka but is told by a first person narrator, Ka’s friend, the novelist Orhan(!). This metafictional narrative technique, by adding another layer to the “conversation”, rather deepens the “artist in society” and art/politics themes of the book. Much of the story is foreshadowed: we learn of Ka’s death in Chapter 29, though the book has 44 chapters. The tone of the book is imbued with huzun, that very particular Turkish sense of melancholy that Pamuk explores beautifully in his book Istanbul. And, while it is about a coup and has a body count of 29, there are some very funny scenes, one being the political meeting at which the competing rebels prepare a statement about their beliefs for the Western Press. Anyone who has attended a political meeting will feel at home here!

All this said, the book is a challenge to grasp: there are a lot of characters, comings-and-goings, and ideas to track. Just why Ka is the way he is, just what did happen to him in the end, and just what Orhan is saying about art and politics are hard to pin down. I love the way the book is underpinned by paradox and irony – and yet at times the meaning can be a little tricky to discern. What is clear though is that Ka has found living by his political beliefs deeply unsatisfying but, ironically, is unable to bring about a situation in which he can live “happily” any other way.

Kadife, the leader of the headscarf girls, says (fairly early in the book):

…do not assume from this that our religion leaves no room for discussion. I will say that I am not prepared to discuss my faith with an atheist, or even a secularist. I beg your pardon.

Oh dear! Some reviewers call it a brave book. With its fearless exploration of the tensions in modern Turkey, it certainly feels that way. I am very glad that I put in the effort to read it.

Orhan Pamuk
Snow
Translated by Maureen Freely
London: Faber & Faber, 2005 (orig. Turkish ed. 2002)
426pp
ISBN: 0571218318

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I know what Bill means. I too keep stumbling across authors I should know but have never heard of. I would like to read more Pamuk, including The museum of innocence which is on my TBR. Meanwhile, though, my heart really belongs to his mesmerising memoir, Istanbul. I’d love to read it again.

Have any of you read Pamuk? If so we’d love to hear what you think about his writing.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Older men protagonists

June 29, 2020

Early last year, I wrote a Monday Musings on Older women protagonists. With my father having turned 100 last month, I figured it was time I explored older men protagonists in Australian literature. It proved a bit harder than I expected, but gradually books started to make themselves known to me.

As in my older women post, I’m using 60+ as my definition. (Please note that I am saying “older” here, not “old”, as I don’t see 60s as old, though perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective!) Of course, not all authors specifically state the age of their characters, so, as in my “older women” post, I’ve had to guess sometimes. Do correct me if you know I am way out!

My select little list is alphabetical by author (with links being to my posts). I have read most of the books below, but some before blogging.

Older men protagonists

  • Peter Carey, Amnesia (2014): An old left journalist, and his university friends, consider their activist pasts against the current world and the ongoing need for activism.
  • John Clanchy, In whom we trust (2019): Set in early 20th century Victoria, Father Pearse is a priest nearing 70, who wishes to retire and return to his Irish home, but there is trouble from his past that he is forced to confront and consider righting.
  • JM Coetzee, Slow man (2006): A 60-year-old man suffers a cycling accident resulting in the amputation of a leg, and has to refigure how he is going to live.
  • Elizabeth Jolley, Mr Scobie’s riddle (1983): Set in a nursing home, three 85-year-old men consider their lives, the past and the idea of home.
  • David Malouf, Ransom (2009): A reworking of a section of the Iliad in which the aging Priam risks all to ask Achilles for the body of his son, Hector, asking, that is, for some humanity from Achilles.
  • Alex Miller, Lovesong (2009): A retired novelist, living with his 38-year-old daughter, is told a love story which he shares with us through his own lens.
  • Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (2019): Covers the apostle Paul’s adult life, but focuses in particular on the lessons and understandings of three old men, Saul, Thomas and Timothy, in relation to the foundations of Christianity.
  • Arnold Zable, Cafe Scheherazade (2001): Journalist Martin visits Cafe Scheherazade to hear stories about displacement from its Jewish owners and patrons, particularly three friends who are also old men, Yossel, Laizer and Zalman.
  • Arnold Zable, Sea of many returns (2008): A dual point-of-view novel, with one of the POVs being a Greek-born grandfather who, in yearning for home, ponders the meaning of home and place in our lives.

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Ross King, writing in The Guardian in 2016 about older men protagonists, says this:

I was struck by the painter’s [Claude Monet] vigour, fortitude, ambition and (if I can declare some personal interest) sheer narrative traction. Monet in those years, his 70s and 80s, was very much an old man in a hurry, emerging from self-imposed retirement on the eve of the first world war to create some of the most daringly experimental pigmentary effects he had ever attempted. He offers proof that an eightysomething can propel a narrative without an author having to resort to wistful recollections of a vanished prime.

Interesting point. Certainly few of the characters in my little selection focus on their vanished primes. Several think about the past, but not in terms of their so-called prime. For some, like those older women books, there’s a need to resolve/atone for/amend the past, while for others there’s a more philosophical pondering about the meaning of the past, of home, of life. Unlike my older women books list, few if any of these older men books explore illness (like dementia and cancer).

Like that previous list too, but in reverse, most of the authors writing about old men are men – which is not surprising. I’m wondering whether any of our current male literary fiction authors who are now 60 plus, are writing about the topic? Like David Malouf (who has already done Ransom), Rodney Hall, Peter Goldsworthy, to name just a few.

And now, of course my question! Can you add some books to the list – Aussie if you’re Aussie, or your own nationality if you’re not?

Anne Tyler, Redhead by the side of the road (#BookReview)

June 28, 2020

Book coverIn the last couple of months of my Mum’s life I bought her a few novels that I thought would give her pleasure. Although we didn’t know, then, how dire her health was, I did know that she was tired and needed good but not overly demanding or depressing reads. So, for Easter, I gave her Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words; for Mothers Day, I gave her Sulari Gentill’s A few right thinking men and Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting moments; and, then, when she went into hospital, I bought her Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the side of the road. Being the lexicographer she was, she loved The dictionary of lost words. She took A few right thinking men into hospital and read two-thirds of it before tiredness defeated her. She was finding the historical background really interesting, but she was keen to get onto Tyler whose books she’d read before. Unfortunately, she never did, but I picked it up as I sat by her bed on the last day of her life. It’s a long time since I’ve read Tyler, but it turned out to be the perfect book for my current state of mind. Even so, it took me two weeks to read it …

Anne Tyler has created some memorable characters and/or situations. I loved The accidental tourist with its travel writer aiming to show American businessmen how to travel without feeing they’d left home – the antithesis of how Mr Gums and I like to travel. I remember the opening of Breathing lessons with the couple squabbling about navigating as they drive to a funeral under pressure. And, her empty-nest-fearing character in The ladder of years who just ups and leaves in the middle of a family holiday is such a wonderful conceit. If she were Australian, we’d probably describe her work as quirky.

What makes Tyler’s novels so enjoyable, then, are her characters and her writing. Her characters are believable but just a little off-centre, and her writing is accessible, but tight and evocative. Her novels are character rather than plot-driven, but they don’t wallow in her characters’ lives. She keeps the story moving.

So, in Redhead by the side of the road, we have 41-year-old Micah Mortimer, “such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.” Routine is his mantra, and you could pretty much set your clock by it. He’s not particularly socially astute, and doesn’t understand the jokes his four older sisters make about him, particularly when he tells them that it looks like his latest girlfriend, Cass, has broken off their relationship. He doesn’t explain that the cause was his inept response to her announcement that she feared she was about to lose her flat – because he hasn’t realised it himself. This is one of the catalysts that forces him to reconsider his life. The other is the sudden appearance on his doorstep of college freshman, Brink, who thinks Micah might be his father.

Now, Brink is the son of his first serious girlfriend Lorna. Micah knows for a fact that Brink is not his son but he accepts this young man into his home and tries, in his own way, to help. While all this is going on, he also keeps an eye out on his apartment building where he “moonlights as a super” and he attends calls for his sole-trader business, Tech Hermit. I must say that, living with my own tech expert, I loved Micah’s interactions with his clients, so many of which I’ve heard Mr Gums have with various friends and family members. “Have you turned it off and then on again?”, for example. The password-finding escapade for a young girl who had inherited her gran’s home and computer is particularly entertaining.

However, that’s not the subject of the novel. What is, is Micah’s slowly growing awareness of life not being as he has seen it, of realising that striving for predicable order does not necessarily make you happy. When Lorna explains why their relationship had ended, our routine-focused Micah, who has never been good at seeing things from other perspectives, has “to adjust to this altered view of the past”. The novel’s title provides a little insight into this:

He slowed to a walk on the last stretch approaching York Road. He momentarily mistook the hydrant for a redhead and gave his usual shake of the shoulders at how repetitious this thought was, how repetitious all his thoughts were, how they ran in a deep rut and now his life ran in a rut, really.

Micah, though, is not the only character muddling along. The thing I like about Tyler is that all her characters muddle along. She forces us to see below the surface, to see that while some may appear more successful than others, may have the trappings of success – like Lorna – all have their insecurities or uncertainties. The novel is full of gentle but no less pointed insights into relationships – Micah’s with his messy, chaotic family, for example, or, Lorna’s with her husband. And it has some sensible down-home philosophies, such as “what’s the point of living if you don’t try to do things better” and “try again, try again, and try again after that … because what else can a person do”.

All this might sound a bit cutesy, but the thing is that beneath Tyler’s apparent cutesiness, is a warm but clear-eyed view of human nature. She sees our foibles, our mis-steps, our little self-delusions, but she wants us to make our lives work. Redhead by the side of the road is no exception, and was just the right read for me for now. I must get back to reading Tyler.

Anne Tyler
Redhead by the side of the road
London: Chatto and Windus, 2020
178pp.
ISBN: 9781784743482

Bill curates: Tim Winton’s Breath

June 26, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Tim Winton is not my favourite novelist but as a Western Australian I feel obliged to read those of his books that I come across, and mostly they’re OK though a bit same-ish (boys growing up on WA’s south west coast). It seems Sue initially titled this post Tim Winton versus Thea Astley. Read on and you’ll see why.
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My original post titled: “Four time winner: Tim Winton wins 2009 Miles Franklin”

Well, it’s finally happened as I knew it must. Someone has equalled Thea Astley’s record number of four Miles Franklin Award wins, as tonight Tim Winton was announced the 2009 winner with Breath. I was seriously considering making Thea Astley my third favourite writers post – I think this means that I will now have to.

Winton has won the award for Shallows (1984), Cloudstreet (1991), Dirt music (2001) and now Breath (2009); and Astley for The well dressed explorer (1962), The slow natives (1965), The acolyte (1972) and Drylands (1999). Both writers are great stylists who use metaphor well, both tend to explore strong connections between character and landscape, and both are indubitably Australian! I think, however, that Astley’s pen ranged wider than Winton’s and she took more risks. That’s not to say that Winton doesn’t deserve his wins but I do think that Astley (she died in 2004) was and continues to be undervalued.

Breath

Tim Winton, BreathAnyhow, here is a brief recap of my thoughts on Breath which I read long before I started writing this blog. I’ll start with a quick plot summary just in case there’s someone out there who doesn’t know it! It is a first person, coming of age story told by Bruce “Pikelet” Pike. It starts with his boyhood friendship with Ivan “Loonie” Loon. As young boys, they dare each other to perform dangerous stunts in the local river, and then as teenagers, they take up surfing where they are encouraged into new levels of recklessness by a former professional surfer named Sando. As time passes, Pikelet’s friendship with Sando and Loonie disintegrates and is replaced by a rather equally scary relationship with Sando’s American wife Eva, an injured and therefore ex-skier.

I like the book. I like the way he sustains the “breath” metaphor throughout to represent various facets of life and life-giving (or life-taking) forces. Despite not being a surfer, I love his wonderfully visceral descriptions of surfing. I also like his exploration of the imperative to take risks that is so common in young men and that is often accompanied by a drive to “be someone”.

Book coverRelated, I suppose, to the coming-of-age issue is the theme of learning to accept being ordinary.  After Sando and Loonie leave the first time, Pikelet goes out and surfs Old Smoky: the first time he does it he’s so successful he feels he’s not ordinary, but then in his overconfidence he does it again and nearly does himself in…this is the beginning of his changing point of view. As he says a little later when he reviews his relationship with Eva, “No, Eva was not ordinary. And neither was the form of consolation she preferred. Given my time over I would not do it all again”. In other words, while he had originally equated not being ordinary with doing big risky things, with courting fear, by the end of the novel he realises that life is “a tough gig” and is about more than courting fear and taking big risks. This doesn’t mean that he can’t do and enjoy a job that provides an andrenalin rush (paramedic/ambulance driver) but it does mean that he no longer seeks to be anything other than himself and that he now goes for an adrenaline rush in “safer” more acceptable ways.

Before he gets to this point, though, he has to come to terms with his Eva experience and with the fact that he spent a big part of his life blaming her for his problems. He eventually comes to the conclusion that “people are fools, not monsters”. This closely resembles my own world-view: that is, that mostly(there are obvious exceptions) when people do the wrong thing they do it, at best, from the best of intentions, or, at worst, for reasons of laziness, selfishness or just plain obliviousness.

There’s no neat ending or pat conclusion: Pikelet recognises that he has been damaged by his life experiences and that he needs to manage himself – but he still loves to surf, that is, to do something “pointless and beautiful”. In this sense it is very much a book of its post-modern age: the lesson almost is that there is no lesson, that each of us has to find our own way. Pikelet says to Sando “maybe ordinary’s not so bad”. As one who is rather ordinary herself, I concur!

Tim Winton
Breath
Penguin Australia, 2008
224pp.
ISBN: 9780241015308

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Bill is nothing if not observant! He noticed that the URL for my Breath post was “Tim Winton versus Thea Astley”. Being an early blogger when I wrote this post, I wasn’t completely clued into changing the URL if you change the blog title before you finally post it. The thing is, I was, at the time, really irritated that Astley was never being mentioned – certainly not in the general or popular press – for her Miles Franklin record. Even now, I think, many people do not realise just how significant she is!

Are any of you Winton and/or Astley fans? We’d love to know your favourites if you are. Or, alternatively, we’d love to know why you aren’t!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Michelle on our Brave New (online) World

June 22, 2020
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Book coverToday, I present another Monday Musings guest post coordinated for me by Bill (The Australian Legend), this one from Michelle Scott Tucker, author of the wonderful Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review).
Thanks so much again to Bill and to Michelle for helping me out with my Monday Musings. Read on … and of course we’d love your comments  … Do you think your online activity will change significantly post-COVID-19?

Michelle’s post

Hands up if you’re quite the expert at videoconferencing now. Got your lighting all sorted? Your headphone hair? De rigueur Indigenous artwork behind you?

With the onset of the COVID-19 shutdowns, the Australian literary community has moved its events online with commendable alacrity. A few organisations, like the Wheeler Centre, were ahead of the curve. They’ve regularly livestreamed some of their events for a while now. But for the rest of us, the haste with which the move to online ‘events’ had to happen resulted in a few bumps along the way, but overall, the experiment has been a success, I think.

I’ve no insider data for you, no formal evaluation, but in the last three months I’ve been involved in quite a few literary events via Zoom, or similar – so let’s take a closer look at how the experiment is going.

The Stella Prize usually hosts a glamorous, invitation-only gala event at which the annual winner is announced. Egalitarianism be damned! The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards have an equally glamorous event which, in the past, was at least ticketed. This year, though, the events were cancelled, and the announcements were livestreamed. Well, I say livestreamed but what they really meant was pre-recorded clips of the relevant hosts and authors were livestreamed to the web at an agreed announcement time. That was a little disappointing, to be honest, although understandable logistically. It wasn’t that the winners weren’t fabulous, or the speeches less interesting but what was missing was the buzz. The excitement. The little jokes and patter that are part of a live event. Frankly, though, even big-budget events like the Logies (Australia’s version of the Emmy Awards) or the Academy Awards are pretty tedious. It’s only the fashion that gets them over line and let’s face it, fashion isn’t going to rescue a literary award – everyone wears black, or Gorman. Apparently that’s the law.

The organisers of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival managed to pivot from face-to-face to a live-streamed extravaganza with swan-like grace. I can only imagine how hard the organisers had to paddle beneath the surface. The livestreamed festival was a very professionally run event, and it showed. And it was actually ‘live’, which was nice. The organisers clearly had access to excellent video and tech support. Whispering Gums blog-host Sue wrote about the sessions she watched here, here, here and here. I “attended” the festival too, largely because I found their pricing to be irresistible. For $15 I could watch a whole day of sessions live, and for an additional $20 I could continue to have access to the recordings for the next two months. Bargain. To compare, attendance in-person would have cost me $75 for the day, plus food and petrol.

In the pre-COVID world there’s little chance I’d have attended the Yarra Valley Writers Festival. It was at least two hours’ drive from my place, and family commitments usually fill my weekends. So in terms of accessibility, the revised format was a winner. But I found it difficult to stay watching and engaged for more than a couple of sessions, and eventually spent the afternoon doing something else. I kept meaning to go back and watch those later sessions but somehow never got around to it. I would rather, I belatedly realised, have listened to them in podcast format while I was doing that ‘something else’. And my insider sources tell me I was not alone – the online version of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival could best be described as a qualified success.

Other writers festivals were not so confident about executing the pivot from face-to-face to live-stream and so sensibly aimed for a much less ambitious offering. The volunteer organisers of the excellent Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, for example, ended up cancelling the festival although they managed to salvage the Poetry Slam, which they ran live via Facebook, as well as some other book launches and workshops. I genuinely feel for the organisers, and for the would-be audiences, the local businesses and the speakers (of which I was going to be one. I was lined up for a couple of sessions at Bellingen, but the one I was looking forward to the most was facilitating a discussion between three Stella Prize winners: Heather Rose, Vicki Laveau-Harvie and Carrie Tiffany. How good would that have been?). On this last point, I should flag that I accept speaking gigs because I enjoy them. The fact that I occasionally also get paid for them is a happy bonus. But many writers rely on their speaking gigs as an important source of income. Some earn more from speaking than they ever will from sales of the book itself, especially those who speak at schools. This is yet another example of the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on artists’ incomes.

During the shutdown period, I also “attended” an online book launch and, separately, a bookshop event where a panel of three writers were interviewed about their work. Both these events were held via Zoom on weekday evenings. The book launch was a free event, and the bookshop panel discussion was sensibly priced at $5. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, and would have been unlikely to physically attend either in a pre-COVID world (not least because the bookshop in question was quite literally a thousand miles from my place). But, again, I had some reservations.

These days I usually attend bookish events because I know the author and want to support them. For authors I don’t know personally, but whose work I admire, I simply seek out their interviews in podcast format. ABC Radio is a great source of interviews with Australian writers, via The Book Shelf, The Book Show and Conversations, as are the excellent podcasts The Garret and The First Time. So all this Zooming has made me think about WHY I attend literary events.

I think that it’s less because of the formal proceedings, and more because of the interesting conversations that follow – with the author when I buy their book, and with the other book-loving attendees. At the last book launch I attended in person I ended up having a good chat with Helen Garner! At writer’s festivals, the same applies. I enjoy listening to the sessions, but I REALLY enjoy meeting new people or bumping into acquaintances in the crush of the coffee queue. To continue my blatant name-dropping, at Bellingen Writers Festival last year I had an impromptu pub dinner with Dr Marcia Langton AO and Dr Jane McCredie, CEO of Writers NSW. Halfway through we were joined by actor and director Rachel Ward AM. Yes, I managed to play it cool – sort of!  And, to be clear, while I know that Jane remembers this dinner very fondly, I very much doubt that Marcia or Rachel do!

So the online book launch I attended, and the online literary event were interesting, but they lacked buzz. I missed the face-to-face interactions of real life, and in this I’m not alone. A friend started up a Zoom book club as we moved into the COVID-19 shutdown. She reports that they were very popular early on, but enthusiasm was waning by the three-month-mark. Many reported that after spending much of the day using Zoom for the day job, the thought of logging-in again in the evening was less than appealing. I can vouch for that, too.

But what of the core purpose of literary launches and events – to sell more books? It appears that Zoom and its ilk have only been a qualified success. Writer and bookseller Krissy Kneen had some super interesting things to say on the topic recently, during a podcast interview. She was pleasantly surprised by the number of sales that livestream events generated but didn’t pretend that those sales were as high as they would have been for a face-to-face event.

So, in essence, livestreamed literary events have been a useful stop-gap but may play a decreasing role as physical distancing restrictions are eased. There is, however and of course, an exception to that rule.

Writers Victoria, in a usual year, hosts large numbers of face-to-face workshops, seminars and events. They adroitly managed to move most of these online and my sources tell me that the number of participants has been pretty much the same as usual. This is impressive, given that fees for a full-day online workshop remain at $155 for members (concessions are available, and non-members pay more) but the sweetener is that most online courses include, afterwards, personalised feedback by the presenter on a piece of writing up to 500 words. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that delivering online sessions often costs much the same as delivering face-to-face sessions. Fee-paying participants can also subsequently access a recording of the session, so they can go back and review what they learned.

The delightful part, though, is that the online workshops have provided access to people who otherwise could not have participated. Attendees have included people from overseas, from interstate, or who for various reasons would have been housebound even without the COVID-19 threat. Apparently there’s a mum with a newborn who has happily attended several! I delivered one of these full-day online workshops and was pleasantly surprised by how interactive it was, and how much we were able to engage with one another. The word is that Writers Victoria will return to face-to-face workshops when they can, but – beyond the shutdown – will continue to provide online workshops too.

And there, for me, lies the answer. As we move beyond a strict shutdown, I hope that we’ll be able to enjoy a blended approach to accessing literary events. By all means hold a live, face-to-face event but livestream or podcast it too. Include separate webinars as an integral part of your festival offerings, alongside face-to-face activities. By doing so, the literary community might become a little more open to the wider community and might become a little more accessible to readers – whoever, or wherever they are.

What do you think?

Michelle Scott Tucker is the author of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World (Text Publishing, 2018) – a compelling biography of the woman who established the Australian wool industry, even though her husband received all the credit.

Elizabeth Macarthur was shortlisted for both the 2019 State Library of NSW’s Ashurst Prize for Business Literature, and the 2019 CHASS Australia Prize (from the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences).

Michelle is a freelance writer and consultant, with a successful career in government, business and the arts – including a recent stint as Executive Director of the Stella Prize, Australia’s top prize for women writers. She has served as Vice Chair of the Writers Victoria board and is currently one of the organisers behind the inaugural ‘Mountain Writers Festival’. The festival’s focus on the environment, story and place not just as a theme, but as the festival’s entire purpose now and into the future, is unique in Australia. Passionate about Australian literature, history and storytelling, Michelle lives in regional Victoria with her family.

Bill curates: Notes from a Wikipedian

June 19, 2020
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Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

I first ran into Sue in Wikipedian mode when I wrote something wrong about Eve Langley, and Sue who had spent a great deal of time and effort on the Eve Langley entry in Wikipedia, pulled me up. Rightly, of course, because she was, and kindly, because she is. I have moved on only one day from May 2009, so when Sue writes “two years ago” she is referring to 2007.

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My original post

Two years ago I made my first edit in Wikipedia … and got hooked. You see, as a young teenager I decided I wanted to write an encyclopedia. I did start one, but didn’t get very far. Life got in the way as I recollect. As with several of my early dreams, however, life has had a way of seeing them realised, almost without my being aware of it, and so to Wikipedia I came.

Like any communities – and Wikipedia is a community – it has its ups and downs. Within a couple of days I had incurred the wrath of the “copyright” patrol. Some young (I could tell from their user page) French Wikipedian slapped a “speedy deletion” notice  for copyright infringement on a page one hour after I had created it and while I was still working on it. You see, I had “copied”, with some minor changes, a couple of sentences from a website into a new article I had created. The article was about a conference and these sentences essentially said the conference was held biennially and rotated around the states.  There are only so many ways you can say that! As someone who had worked closely with copyright all my career, I didn’t think I’d breached anyone’s creativity in almost-but-not-quite copying those sentences and, anyhow, I was still working on the article. My initial reaction was, I have to admit, a high level of distress. Sitting quietly on my comfy sofa with my laptop on my lap I felt attacked – personally and professionally (in terms of my sense of self). But, I calmed down, decided to react sensibly and got through it: I politely left a message on the tagger’s user page explaining what I was doing and set about enhancing the article. Three hours later the tag was suddenly, and as mysteriously, removed. Phew! I relaxed. But I did learn some things from that experience:

  1. the Wikipedia quality police are out and about 24/7;
  2. the best way to react is calmly so that you don’t enflame the situation; and
  3. there is an “under construction” tag you can put on a new article to tell the police (and other eager editors) to lay off for a while.

All this came back to me as I read David Runciman’s review in the London Review of Books of a book by Andrew Lih called The Wikipedia Revolution. Runciman describes in some detail the way the Wikipedia community works suggesting that it reverses Gresham’s Law which states that “bad money drives out good”. He writes:

One of the remarkable achievements of Wikipedia is to show that on the internet Gresham’s Law can work in reverse: Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad.

And how do they do it? Via the police of course! Because the truth of the matter is that my French Wikipedian was simply doing his best to ensure that the high principles of Wikipedia were being upheld. He wasn’t to know I was an honest newbie still feeling my way.

Anyhow, read the article … Runciman says some interesting things and, along the way, does manage to talk a little about the book he is reviewing.

Subsequent posts on WIkipedia:
2017 Monday musings on Australian literature: Boosting women’s entries on Wikipedia
2011 Wikipedia wants YOU (if you’re a woman)
2009 If you look up Wikipedia…
2009 Why I link to Wikipedia
2009 Using Wikipedia

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Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my motherWell, I wasn’t expecting Bill to choose this one for Bill curates, but I’m so glad he did because Wikipedia was an inspired idea and has become such a significant force on the Internet. I love that Bill went the extra mile and sussed out my subsequent posts to add to the end of my original post.  As for kindness! Bill has shown his own colours in that direction by producing this series for me.

As I became more involved in blogging, my Wikipedia work fell away, though I still regularly update pages when I can, particularly Australian literary awards pages or pages for contemporary Australian authors. However, I did take part in the Boosting women’s entries project in 2017, and created the page for Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Do any of you dabble in Wikipedia editing or article creation? We’d love to hear your experiences.