Skip to content

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supermarket mini-collectables

August 3, 2020

Have you ever got caught up in those knicky-knacky promotional plastic toy campaigns that supermarkets often run to encourage you to buy at their store? You know, as in “spend $x and get a free y” with, usually, a new one every week for z weeks, encouraging you to get them all. I’m sure you know the deal …

Well, I was rather interested to read in various outlets recently, including Books & Publishing and news.com.au, that

Stikeez are gone and now Coles have announced their new range of mini collectables will be 24 pocket-sized books from the famous Treehouse series.

Now, that’s a much better idea.

Book coverIf you are not Australian, and not parents, grandparents or teachers of young children, you may not know about “the famous Treehouse series”. It started with the book, The 13-storey treehouse, written by Andy Griffiths and illustrated by Terry Denton. This book won the Australian Book Industry Association Awards (ABIA) Book of the Year for Older Children in 2012. Since then, this pair has produced 8 more books in the series, each book adding another 13 storeys to the treehouse, so The 26-storey treehouse (2012), The 39-story treehouse (2013), up to last year’s, or 2019’s, The 117-storey treehouse.

According to news.com.au, Griffiths and Denton “have collaborated with Coles” to produce a special set of 24 pocket-sized books for “the supermarket giant’s latest collectable campaign”. Griffiths says of this special “little” series that many of them

… will feature favourite characters from over the years and give them a chance to really shine.

There will be a couple of feature tours, one through the treehouse, some new episodes, including an elephant on a bicycle which is a sneak peek of a character you will see later in the year when the 130-Storey Treehouse comes out.

Given the huge success of the series – more than 10 million copies sold in Australia, 80 children’s choice awards and 10 ABIA Awards – this collectables campaign would, you’d have to think, be a bit of a winner for Coles. Described as a “world-first collectable campaign”, it aims, said Coles CEO Lisa Ronson, “to encourage a lifelong love of books”.

Of course it’s hard not to be cynical, when you read things like:

We all remember the excitement that Little Shop [a previous mini-collectables campaign] created for customers of all ages and we really wanted to create that same level of excitement for reading – because we know that enjoying books on a regular basis leads to improved literacy skills, better educational outcomes and happier children.

But, you know, it is about Australian books, reading and literacy, so perhaps it’s a case of “the ends justifying the means”?

Coinciding with the launch of this new campaign Coles is also running a competition inviting Australian residents (aged 3 to 18) to create their own picture book. There will be prizes and it will be judged by Griffiths. Coles “will donate a book to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation” for every entry. This is not to be sneezed at, and is, hopefully, a case where the combination of financial and social justice goals can generate a positive outcome. Let’s hope it does.

Do you know The tree-house series? What do you think about this sort of marketing-focused initiative – a cynical ploy, or a genuine attempt to do good while increasing business? And, what about the creators? Is it a good thing for them?

Six degrees of separation, FROM How to do nothing TO …

August 1, 2020

I am so glad to see that two thirds of winter is officially over. It’s been a horrible year, for all of us really, so a bit of warmth and spring rebirth (here down under) would be very welcome, eh? Meanwhile, I’ll entertain myself with things like the Six Degrees of Separation meme.  If you don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Book coverAugust’s starting book is yet another I haven’t read. Indeed, not only have I not read it, I’ve never heard of it or its author, which is not surprising because, as far as I can tell, it’s a sort of critique of how capitalist forces are driving us all more and more to perform, produce, to be forever doing something, or, as one GoodReads reviewer wrote, on “on how the attention economy and hustle culture is affecting our lives”. The book is Jennifer Odell’s How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy.

Book coverNow, I’m going to break with my usual practice and start with a book I’ve read but not reviewed on my blog, because this book is the. perfect. book. about. doing. nothing. What’s more, it was published in 1936, so this idea is not new, folks! The book is Munro Leaf’s now classic children’s book, The story of Ferdinand. Why don’t you take a moment to stop and smell the flowers before you read on!

Book cover

My next link is a bit of a leap, because it’s not about a bull, nor about doing nothing, and nor is it set in Spain, but it is about a BIG animal, a mammoth in fact. Yes, my next link is to my most recent review, Chris Flynn’s Mammoth (my review).

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable creaturesTracy Chevalier’s Remarkable creatures (my review) is an obvious next link, because it is about fossils, albeit not narrated by fossils. However, it is historical fiction about the early nineteenth century fossil collector, Mary Anning who lived in Lyme. I didn’t love the book, but I must say that the story it told – the historical truth contained within it – has stayed with me.

Book coverKeeping with the nature theme, and a coastal setting, I’m going to take us to  William Lane’s The salamanders (my review), part of which is set on the New South Wales coast. While this book is not about fossils, salamander fossils do date back to the Middle Jurassic period in England (and Kyrgyzstan), which is, of course, part of the broader Jurassic period to which Mary Anning’s finds belong.

David Mitchell, The thousand autumns of Jacob de PoetThe story of The salamanders is founded in an artist’s colony, and all the relationships and dysfunctions that such groups can generate. In a very loose link, I’m taking us to David Mitchell’s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet (my review) which concerns a different sort of colony, this one a colony of traders and their slaves on Dejima Island, Nagasaki, Japan. The traders work for the Dutch East India Company, and, as you can imagine, relationships are challenging.

Amitav Ghosh, River of smokeAnother book which deals with European trading in the East Asian region – this time by Britain’s East India Company – is Amitav Ghosh’s River of smoke (my review), the second book in his Ibis trilogy. It is set mostly in Canton in the late 1830s, and explores the lead up to the first Opium War. Hmm, are we back to smelling flowers?

So, a much more travelled chain than usual this month, with visits all over the world, but particularly to  Spain, America, England, Japan and China – as well as Australia. Unusually, too, almost all of this month’s authors are men. What was I thinking?

Now the usual: Have you read How to do nothing? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Bill curates: What do I mean by spare?

July 31, 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.

During this first year as a blogger (2009) Sue wrote an astonishing number of well-researched and interesting posts. Let’s say 4 per week at around 600 words per post. So I’m starting to skip posts that I might otherwise have included. Today Sue proposes a definition for ‘spare’, which I am sure you will agree with me is an important quality in good writing.
_______________________

My original post titled: “What do I mean by spare?”

If you asked my kids what my favourite mantras are, they would probably include “less is more” as one of them. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy flamboyance and “over-the-topness”, because I most certainly do, but it is true that I am more often drawn to what I would call “the spare”.

Claypan in Wurre (Rainbow Valley), south of Alice Springs

Claypan in Wurre (Rainbow Valley), south of Alice Springs

As we drove recently through Central Australian desert country, I started thinking about why it is that I love deserts, why I am drawn to them – and it suddenly occurred to me that my love of deserts can probably be equated with my love of spare writing. There are similarities: deserts and spare writing look deceptively simple and even, at times, empty on the surface but, hidden beneath this surface is a complexity that you can only find by looking and, particularly, by knowing what to look for. Conversely, in, say, a rainforest or a big fat nineteenth century novel, you are confronted with an embarrassment of riches. This is not to say that they, too, don’t have their complexities, but the “wow factor” is in your face!

And so, what exactly is spare writing? I realised that I have often called something spare but this has been an intuitive thing – I’ve never actually sat down and defined what I mean by it. I’m going to now – for my benefit even if not for anyone else’s!

What typifies spare writing?

Of course, nothing that I write below is exclusive or absolute – there are, as they say, exceptions to every rule, but there are too, I think, some generalities we can identify:

  • preponderance of short sentences
  • minimal use of adjectives and adverbs
  • apparent focus on the concrete rather than the abstract
  • simple dialogue
  • repetition
  • strong (often more staccato like) rhythm
  • short paragraphs and more white space on the page

By excluding anything that could be seen to be superfluous to the intent, the author can cut to the chase…and the chase is often the most elemental, the most intense of experience or emotion. In this sense spare prose is reminiscent of poetry – and in fact can often feel and sound poetic. Spare writing, though, can also be its own worst enemy: it can be so pared down, so concise, that it becomes elliptical; so non-florid, so unsentimental, that it can seem cold. But then, this is no different from any other style is it? There are those who use a style effectively and those who don’t. Used well, a spare style can grip me quickly and, often, viscerally.

Some proponents of the style

While Ernest Hemingway is the writer most often cited, I think, as a spare writer, I have read little of his work – something I would like to rectify. Albert Camus, particularly in works like The outsider, is spare: the protagonist Meursault explains little leaving it to the reader to untangle who he is and what he feels and believes (or not as the case may be!). JM Coetzee’s Disgrace is another rather spare work, exemplified by its detached tone, by the refusal of the main character to explain himself, and by its matter-of-fact description of fear and horror.

A recent very obvious example is Cormac McCarthy’s The road. This book is elemental in more ways than one: everything is pared down to the minimal – the landscape, the characters, the language. It is in fact about the struggle for life – literally and spiritually. The spare style – with its rhythmic repetitions – makes sure that we see that. And guess what? Its landscape, while not originally a desert, has been made so by cataclysm. This is one of the sparest books I’ve read – and also one of the most mesmerising.

An observation

Have you noticed something about the above? All the examples are male. Is a spare style more suited to the male psyche? While I can’t think of any specific examples of women writing quite like the male writers I’ve described, I’d suggest that writers like – yes, I admit it, my favourites, Jane Austen and Elizabeth Jolley – are closer to the spare end of the writing spectrum. Austen, for example, is quite out of step with her female contemporaries, most of whom were writing Gothic or so-called sentimental novels. She is more rational, witty and ironic than descriptive and emotional…which is why, really, Charlotte Bronte, child of the Romantic age, didn’t much like her!

And here, in the interests of following my own “less is more” mantra, I shall close! I would though love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.

 ____________________

I love that Bill chose this post, because all these years later it is still dear to my heart. Thinking more about writers, particularly women, espousing sparer writing, I would add someone like Helen Garner. She is not given to imagistic flourishes, but writes the most beautiful sentences. She’s not the only one I can think of but, rather than produce my own list I’d love to hear from you …

Do you like spare writing, and can you recommend some spare writers or, spare works?

Chris Flynn, Mammoth (#BookReview)

July 29, 2020
Book cover

Mammoth, by Chris Flynn (UQP $32.99)

I am not a big fan of anthropomorphism and have read very few animal-narrated books. Animal farm is one, while Watership down, so enamoured by many of my generation, is not. However, I was intrigued by Chris Flynn’s Mammoth, which is narrated by a 13,000-year-old American Mastodon fossil, and was glad when my reading group decided to schedule it.

It is an ambitious book, encompassing the story of humanity’s destructive, often brutal march through time as seen through the eyes of those we supplanted, that is, the fossils of extinct creatures. Our narrator, Mammut, is accompanied by a number of other fossils – the skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, a pterodactyl, a prehistoric penguin, and the severed hand of an Egyptian mummy – who have found themselves together in 2007 Manhattan, waiting to be sold at a natural history auction. This auction did take place, and was, in fact, a major inspiration for the novel.

The story is framed by Mammut’s story of his life, death, disinterment as a fossil, and subsequent “life”. As he tells this long story, he is interrupted by the other “characters” who share their own stories, albeit far more briefly than Mammut’s. Each tends to use the voice of the time when he or she was first disinterred, meaning, for example, that Mammut’s voice is the more formal “arcane” one of the early 19th century, while T. bataar’s is the hip voice of the late 20th century.

As Mammut tells his story, he takes us to selected (representative) hot-spots of human brutality such as the Irish Rebellion of 1803, the oppression of Native Americans in the early 1800s, and Nazi Germany. He also covers theories of extinction, climate change, and the equation of big animals with power in the minds of men. The novel starts with a letter written in 1800 by Thomas Jefferson seeking mammoth bones (which he does eventually acquire for the White House), and ends with male celebrities vying for our fossils at the auction. Early on, Mammut tells T. bataar:

Let me tell you, and I say this as an original American, nothing compares to this nation’s willingness to promote patently false notions about itself in order to create a myth of American potency … Who do you imagine will buy us? You said it yourself, T.bataar. We represent power, for that’s what we were: Behemoths, Colossi, Titans. (p. 15/16)

Later, Pterodactylus tells the group about being used in training Hitler Youth:

We were presented to the eager teens as proof that Germany had once been the centre of might in Europe and the origin point for life on earth. Your mastodon friend in particular was elevated as a symbol of strength … I was referred to as the Reptilian Eagle, an apex predator who dominated the skies. It would have been a compliment, had it not come from the mouths of maniacs. (p. 159/160)

Mammoth is, then, a provocative book, confronting head on the ills of humanity. It could be deeply depressing – and in a way it is – but Flynn has taken his own advice (more on this anon) and told his story with humour, mainly through repartee between his fossil characters. I must say that I initially found this humour a bit silly, a bit obvious, and I wondered whether I was going to enjoy the book. However, the more I read, the more fascinated I became by what Flynn was trying to do. I didn’t find it as “hilarious” as some blurb writers did, but Mammoth offers such an idiosyncratic journey that I’m glad I decided to go with the flow.

One of the book’s main pleasures for me, besides its commentary on humanity’s destructiveness, is the writing master class contained within its over-riding story. This started with some digs about the writing life, such as Mammut’s “no-one gets into the writing game for money these days. No-one in their right mind, at any rate”. A sentiment that is reiterated later by French writer, Bernadin de Saint-Pierre.

However, more entertaining was the discussion of writing, or storytelling, itself. As Mammut’s tale progresses, his listeners begin to question him. Sometimes, it’s the issue of disbelief, to which Mammut responds by explaining his sources, by arguing that it’s perfectly valid for his molar to be observing action in one place while his head is elsewhere, or by allowing himself a little leeway:

I know you’re technically an elephant and all, but your recall of events is a little too precise. Not to mention the verbatim dialogue. Surely, you’re making some of this up? This is my problem with the memoir genre. There’s always more fiction in it than people let on.

I possess a remarkable memory, Palaeo, though I will admit to the occasional romanticism of the narrative. For the most part, what I am recounting is true. But, as you say, I am a storyteller who enjoys indulging in a yarn. (p. 143)

There’s also discussion of tone, regarding the degree of brutality and tragedy in Mammut’s tale:

… This entire tale has been a veritable famine of LOLs. Really, Mammut, next time you tell this story, you need to inject some humour, bro.

No too much, I think, T. bataar. No comedian ever won the Pulitzer … (p. 235)

Flynn, thus, cleverly engages with some current issues in criticism while simultaneously fending off potential criticism of his own work. He crowns this early on with the pronouncement that “No story’s gold from beginning to end” (p. 66). How can you argue with that!

There’s much more to this book. I haven’t touched on the fact that almost all its hominid characters are historical personages, many findable in Wikipedia. Mammoth offers an entertaining, accessible introduction to the history of palaeontology and 19th century natural science, and provides a springboard for further research, should you be so inspired.

For now, though, I’m going to end with a poignant statement made by Mammut early in the novel. “Our world was changing”, he says, “and there was nothing we could do about it” (p. 44). I fear this is exactly how our earth is feeling right now. Flynn, I think, would like us to take note and consider what we might do to prevent avoidable extinctions under our watch. An imaginative, engaging read.

Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes) enjoyed this book too.

Chris Flynn
Mammoth
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
254pp.
ISBN: 9780702262746

(Review copy courtesy UQP and literary agent Brendan Fredericks)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Allen & Unwin’s House of Books

July 27, 2020

I have written a few posts over the years on the publishing of Australian classics, including one in 2014 in which I mentioned Allen & Unwin’s Australian Classics series. That series seems to have disappeared, but the publisher does have another initiative, House of Books.

Here is what Allen & Unwin say about this series (or, imprint):

The House of Books aims to bring Australia’s cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation’s most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia’s finest literary achievements, and the digital revolution is helping bring us all closer to the books and writers of Australia’s literary tradition.

The House of Books makes accessible a library of authors and their books at affordable prices to a whole new readership. Some books have long been out of print, some have recently slipped into oblivion but the House of Books should be the first stop for all readers of Australian fiction and non-fiction.

I can’t find out much about the history of all this, because the books listed on their House of Books page all seem to have been “published” over 2012, 2 years before I wrote my post referencing the now apparently defunct Australian Classics series in 2014. Does “House of Books” now include rebadged “Australian Classics”. Seems likely.

What makes this imprint interesting is that it uses a slightly different publishing model. All books, they say, “will be available simultaneously as ebooks and print editions (using POD  – print on demand technology)”. This means, of course, that bookshops don’t have to carry expensive stock of book titles likely to have low throughput.

So, I decided to test out whether these books – around 90 of them and all, as far as my random checks can tell, published eight years ago now – are still available. First, I went to Readings (online), because it is mentioned on the page as a source. I searched for a few of the titles and they all said “This item is not currently in-stock, but it’s available to order online.” So, I ordered a Thea Astley print version, and, well, so far, so good! I haven’t got it yet, but, fingers crossed it will arrive.

Book coverI then checked Booktopia, which is also listed on the page as a source. I searched for Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher. They provided this message: “This product is printed on demand when you place your order, and is not refundable if you change your mind or are unhappy with the contents. Please only order if you are certain this is the correct product, or contact our customer service team for more information”. Readings didn’t say this, but I’m presuming their copy will be POD too.

The prices seem to range mostly from $14.99 to $19.99, though some are more expensive.

House of Books books

But now, what you’ve been waiting for – if you haven’t clicked on the link above already – that is, something about the books available. They are listed in a strange order – alphabetical by title, with all book titles starting with “A” appearing under “A”, and “The” titles under “T”. Really? For me, the best order would be by author, so I could see, for example, all the Astleys they have, all the Cusacks, and so on. Also, very few of the book descriptions include original publication date which pedantic me would really like to know!

Book coverWhinge aside, the list is an exciting albeit serendipitous one, including many books barely remembered these days. There are, for example, Kylie Tennant’s memoir The man on the headland, and her autobiography, The missing heir. There are four by Thea Astley, eight by Dymphna Cusack (including the Newcastle-set Southern steel, which interests me), and four by Xavier Herbert.

Book coverOther treasures, in terms of their place in Australian literary culture, include Dal Stivens’ 1951 political (and debut) novel, Jimmy Brockett. Stivens is little known now, but, as Wikipedia tells, he won the Miles Franklin Award in 1970 for A Horse of Air, was awarded the Patrick White Award in 1981 for his contribution to Australian literature, and in 1994, he was given a Special Achievement Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Book coverAs you’ll have realised from the Tennants above, the books include non-fiction, like Australian historian Russell Ward’s memoir, A radical life. There are also books of poetry, such as AD Hope’s Selected poems, and short story collections.

More contemporary writers in the list include Nick Earls and Mandy Sayer (both born, coincidentally, in 1963).

I’d love to know if any of my Australian readers know of this series? The cover style is a little familiar to me, but I am certainly not as aware of them in the shops as I am of the wonderful Text Australian Classics series. My guess is that this is due to the publishing model they are using. Any comments?

Archie Roach, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music (#BookReview)

July 25, 2020

Book coverGood things come to those who wait! At least, I hope so, because Lisa has had to wait a long time for a review from me for this year’s Indigenous Literature Week. Finally, though, I finished the main book I chose for this year’s challenge, Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music.

Most Australians will know who Archie Roach is, but international readers here may not. A member of the Stolen Generations, Archie Roach is an indigenous Australian singer, songwriter, guitarist, and political activist. The story he tells in his memoir, Tell me why, is not an unusual one in terms of people of his background and generation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading, because not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can. Perhaps this is because he’s a songwriter, or perhaps, more correctly, he’s a songwriter because he can tell stories.

Roach starts his story with a Prologue set in 1970. He is 14 years old, and receives a letter from one of his birth sisters telling him that his birth mother had died. This is a surprise, because his adoptive parents had been told his parents had died in a fire. He then flashes back in Chapter 1 to tell us about his life, as he knew it, up to 1970. This life involved being stolen from his parents, and being placed in two foster homes, one abusive, before being placed, in 1961, with the Melbourne-based Coxes with whom he was still living in 1970. In Chapter 2 he picks up that point in 1970 when he received the letter, and tells his story chronologically from then on, with some flashbacks to fill in his family’s early life as he learns it himself.

Although Roach had had a good life with the Coxes, who had loved him and whom he loved, the discovery that members of his birth family were still alive brought with it a desire to learn who he was, and he left home. He managed to make contact with his family, but before that he was introduced to drinking (having “a charge”) and life on the streets. Not surprisingly, his story, like those of many young indigenous people who have lost contact with their culture and thus with their bearings, involves alcoholism and related illnesses, run-ins with the police, prison, unemployment, and all-round instability. Archie would obtain work, would be appreciated as a worker, but the demons would return and down he’d plummet again. It’s a common cycle.

However, Archie had a couple of big pluses in his corner. There was Ruby Hunter, whom he met while still a teen and who became the love of his life. It’s not that her appearance resulted in a miraculous turnaround. Real life is rarely like that. But she became the supportive base to which he would return and which, eventually, did provide the stability that enabled him to turn his life around and become the success he now is. The other plus was music, to which he was first introduced by the Coxes, particularly Dad Cox who loved to sing and who gave him his first guitar. While the stories about his drinking life were distressing to read, the story about how music “saved” him, and how he gradually came to realise that he could tell stories through music, was moving and inspiring.

This brings me back to my opening comment that “not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can”. The memoir is beautifully constructed, from the Prologue that vividly takes us into the classroom where Roach receives the letter about his mother, to the use of song lyrics, most of them Roach’s own, to introduce each chapter. Roach uses foreshadowing at the end of several chapters to move the story on, such as this at the end of the chapter in which he arrives in Adelaide – “This would be the last hours before finding Ruby Hunter”. And this one at the end of the chapter where Jill Shelton is recommended to him as a manager – “Jill would end up saving my life at a time when I didn’t see there was any point in saving it.”

Roach also mixes up the narrative, commencing some chapters with the next part of the story, while others he introduces with something more reflective. I particularly liked the opening to the chapter in which Ruby dies:

Some people see time as a river with a steady current. Some people say we get in and move with that current, all of us ageing uniformly. I don’t believe that’s true, though. I’ve seen people age years overnight.

It happens to a lot of our people, and it happens to an awful lot of us drinkers. It doesn’t just happen while we’re drinking, either; we could’ve been years off the stuff and then something might change. We might lose a sister or a brother, and suddenly we have age in our face and in our step.

Sometimes it happens for no reason. Someone will be living their life and all of a sudden time will heap years on their shoulders.

Of course, Roach also talks about politics, about Indigenous opposition to the 1988 Bicentenary, about John Howard’s  opposition to a national apology and his criticism of the “black armband view” of Australian history, about Aboriginal deaths in custody, about the stolen generations, and more. It’s all told through the prism of his own personal experience or through his involvement in political action. Most readers will know these issues, but the personal stamp offered by books like this helps keep the issues real and in front of us. Roach, like so many Indigenous people, amazes me by walking that fine line between anger at what has happened to his people and generosity towards the rest of us.

In the end, Roach’s message is an inclusive one. His songs, he has found, speak to non-Indigenous people too, with many telling him that “that’s what happened to me”. Consequently, his songwriting, he says, now “feels more inclusive, more universal” because “it’s about all of us – you can’t write about yourself without including everyone.”

He writes:

For so long we have been divided by ‘isms’ – racism, sexism, fundamentalism, individualism – but when we come back to the place of fire, I believe we will discover there’s far more that connects us than separates us. I believe we will be one humanity again, that we will find release, healing and true freedom.

I love the hope in this but, let’s be clear, Roach is not letting us off the hook. That is, he doesn’t believe we are there yet. He is, though, choosing an aspirational path, and for that I thank him.

ANZ LitLovers logoArchie Roach
Tell me why: The story of my life and my music
London: Simon & Schuster, 2019
378pp.
ISBN: 9781760850166

Bill curates: Imre Kertesz’s Fateless or Fatelessness

July 24, 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.

Sue reads some striking books and writes some (many!) striking reviews, of which this is one. I’m not sure I agree with her about Holocaust fiction, but I do appreciate that people who experienced the Nazi concentration camps, or their after-effects in the case of, say, Lily Brett, must write, just as we must read to honour their tribulations, and that a fictionalised account may be the way they choose to do this. Imre Kertész is another Nobel Prize winner I was unaware of. He died in 2016.
_______________________

My original post titled: “Imre Kertesz, Fateless or Fatelessness”

[WARNING: SPOILERS, of sorts]

Let’s get the first thing clear. I like holocaust literature – not because I enjoy the subject matter but because in it I find the most elemental, universal truths about humanity. Depending on the book, this literature contains various combinations of bravery and cowardice, cruelty and kindness, love and hate, self-sacrifice, self-preservation and betrayal, resilience and resignation, and  well, all those qualities that make up humanity and its converse, inhumanity. I have by no means read all that is out there but here are some that have moved me: Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl (of course) and Anne Holm’s I am David, from my youth, and then books like Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Bernhard Schlink’s The reader, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river. There are gaps, though, in my reading, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s ark (I did see the film), the works of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have, however, just added Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless to my list of books read.

Kertèsz adds a new spin to the universal truths explored by these books – it’s what he describes (in my 1992 translation anyhow) as “stubbornness” which seems to me to mean “resilience” or a determination to survive, and even to have, if possible, little wins against the system.

Anyhow, first the plot. The novel takes place over the last year of the war and concerns Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, who, one day, is suddenly called off a bus, along with all other Jews on the bus and transported to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, Zeitz and back to Buchenwald, before returning home at war’s end. It chronicles his experiences, his thinking, and the impact on him of his experience. He begins as the archetypal naive narrator…but by the end, though his tone has changed little, he is no longer naive. This is rather beautifully achieved as we see his youthful application of logic being changed into something more cynical and survival focused.

Gyorgy speaks with a strange sense of detachment borne, to start with, of an apparent unawareness of what exactly washappening to him and a disbelief that anything untoward would happen. And so, in the beginning, as events unfold he describes them as “natural” because of course, when they got to Auschwitz, it was sensible to inspect each person to see who was physically fit and capable of working. He didn’t know then what would happen to those not found physically fit. The horror gradually builds as reality sets in and he goes about making it through each day – through his share of beatings, the reduced food rations, and all the other deprivations that make up concentration camp life. In the first part of the book he uses the term “naturally” to mean some sort of normal logic but by the end it comes to mean, as he explains to a journalist who asks him why he keeps using the word for things that aren’t natural, that these things were natural in a concentration camp.

Early on in his captivity he says that they approached their life (and work) “with the best of intentions” but they soon discover that these “best of intentions” do not bring about any kindness from their overseers, and so his attitude to getting on, to surviving starts to change. As he starts to physically weaken, become emaciated and develop infections, he observes that “my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it”. Always dispassionate, always matter-of-fact, while describing the most heart-rending things.

Towards the end, he is placed in a hospital ward and there he is treated better and, even, with a certain amount of kindness. This in its way is as shocking to him as the cruel beatings he experienced at Zeitz. He can see no logic, “no reason for its being, nothing rational or familiar”. He can only understand kindness in terms of the giver receiving “some pleasure” from it or having some “personal need” satisfied. Never is there any sense that altruism might come into play. His view of “justice” is based very much on survival. He says, when he is spared, “everything happened according to the rules of justice … I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own … This was the lesson I learned”.

And so, in the end he returns home, and finds it hard to explain to people just what happened and how he now views life. He describes getting through his time as “taking one step after another”, focusing just on the moment. He implies that if he had known his fate he would have focused on time passing – a far more soul-destroying activity than concentrating on getting through each day “step by step”. This brings us to the fate/fateless bit. He says at the end that:

if there is a fate, there is no freedom … if, on the other hand, there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is … that is, we ourselves are fate.

I find this a little hard to grasp but he seems to be saying that we are free to make our own choices, even in a concentration camp – we are not fated but make our own fate. He was and is not prepared to accept any other approach to life. But life will not be easy:

I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live … I have to continue my uncontinuable life … There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?).

And yet, at the very end of the book, he says “and even back there [in the concentration camp], in the shadow of the chimneys, there was something resembling happiness”. Wow! This is an astonishing book – it charts horrors with a calmness that is quite shocking, and it is particularly shocking not because Gyorgy is unfeeling but because he can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. This is the fundamental irony of the book, and the fundamental truth of a naive narrator: we the reader know exactly how it is even as Gyorgy tries to make sense of it using logic and reason. I must read this book again – and preferably the newer more highly regarded 2004 translation by Tom Wilkinson.

Imre Kertész
Fateless
Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
Northwestern University Press, 1992 (orig. ed 1975, in Hungarian)
191 pp.
ISBN: 9780810110496

____________________

I looked in my bookshelves when Bill sent through this Bill Curates post, and discovered that the edition I own is the later Tom Wilkinson one. I must have bought it with the intention of reading it, but I haven’t yet. Oh, the dreams of an everyday reader!

Bill will, I hope, explain his introductory comment regarding Holocaust fiction. We’d love to know what you think – and/or read.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian writers and the Miles Franklin Award

July 20, 2020

This is not going to be a treatise on the Miles Franklin Award and diversity. We all know literary awards have not been as diverse as they could have been (and that they still have a way to go). We know, too, that this is not only due to judging, but also reflects the fact that the publishing industry has not been as diverse as it could be. It is probably also true that, in the past at least, we readers have not demanded more diversity in our reading. However, this story is too complex for this post, and, anyhow, has been explored many times. Today, I simply want to celebrate those Indigenous Australian writers who have been listed for and/or won Australia’s (arguably) most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, in the spirit of bringing attention to their work as a body of literature.

Notwithstanding the above, I do need to make the point that it wasn’t until 2000 that we started seeing Indigenous Australian writers appear in the short and longlists for the award*.

  • 2000 Kim Scott’s Benang (won) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2007 Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (won) (my review)
  • 2011 Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (won) (my review)
  • 2012 Tony Birch Blood (shortlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Melissa Lucashenko Mullumbimby (longlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Alexis Wright The Swan Book (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2016 Tony Birch Ghost River (longlisted) (my review)
  • 2018 Kim Scott’s Taboo (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2019 Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (won) (my review)
  • 2020 Tony Birch’s The white girl (shortlisted) (my review)
  • 2020 Tara June Winch’s The yield (won) (my review)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You could probably call this a round-up of the usual suspects, in terms of contemporary Indigenous Australian novelists, with Kim Scott and Tony Birch appearing three times, Melissa Lucashenko and Alexis Wright twice each, and of course relative newbie, Tara June Winch, once. It’s notable that every book here deals with Indigenous issues. This is important for truth-telling, but it will be a measure of our maturity as a nation when Indigenous Australian writers can feel free of the need to carry these truths on their backs.

Anyhow, I wonder what Miles Franklin would say? When she said “without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil”, I don’t believe she was thinking of the real Indigenous people of this soil. However, I imagine that, were she living now, she would love the richness that the growth of Indigenous Australian literature has brought to Australian life and culture.

It seems apposite, then, to leave this (very) little tribute with the words of this year’s winner, Tara June Winch, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “It doesn’t have to be POC writers against white voices – we have to work together to bring voices to the fore.” Absolutely. Let’s hope more and more diverse writers get to tell their stories to us. I – and I know many of my litblogging friends – love to read them. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do read The yield, a complex but strong book which its author calls “a once-in-a-lifetime love letter to Australia.”

Have you read any of the listed books, and if so, would you like to share your favourite/s?

* I may have missed a writer or two, as I didn’t find complete lists of short and longlisted authors from the beginning of the award, but I think my point still stands.

Bill curates: Elizabeth Jolley’s My father’s moon

July 17, 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.

Elizabeth Jolley is one of the greats and I am sorry that I have only read her in fits and starts. I have had, unread, Brian Dibble’s biography of her for so long now that I wonder if I should just hurry up and read all these fictionalised accounts of her life first, uncontaminated by knowing what she ‘really’ did.
_______________________

My original post titled: “Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon”

Book cover‘No one,’ she says, ‘can write anything till they’ve had experience. Later on perhaps. You will write later on.’ (Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon, 1989)

Although fiction demands imagination, it must be based on  some kind of genuine experience. (Elizabeth Jolley, “Only Connect”, essay first published in Toads, 1992)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the others being Cabin fever and The George’s wife. It won The Age Book of the Year Award in 1989.

I am an Elizabeth Jolley fan – and, along with Helen Garner, another Jolley fan, I enjoy the way she repeats and revisits stories and characters from one book or story to another. In this book is the chapter, “Night Runner”, which was published as a short story in Meanjin in December 1983, and again in a short story anthology, Room to move, published in 1985. The narrator of the story – and of the novel – typifies Elizabeth Jolley’s alienated protagonists and their often peculiarly self-centred and self-deluded ways of coping with their loneliness. Clearly Jolley decided that this was a character she wanted to develop further. And clearly she also drew a lot from her own experience to develop this character. Like Vera, Jolley was brought up as a Quaker, her parents sheltered refugees before and during the Second World War, and she trained as a nurse. Like Vera, Jolley probably experienced loneliness and alienation. However, this is fiction and so we need to be careful about how far we take these analogies between Vera and her creator. Much as I can empathise with Vera’s predicament, I must admit that I would hate to think she is Elizabeth Jolley.

It’s an uncomfortable novel. Vera, the first person narrator, is not a highly sympathetic character but neither is she totally disagreeable either. What she is, though, is lonely. The book has a somewhat challenging structure – and I had to concentrate to keep track of where I was. It starts with Vera, a single mother, leaving her parents’ home, with her young daughter, to live and work in a boarding school. Her hopes for a lovely life there among people “who feel and think as I do” are dashed. Such people “are not here as I thought they would be … I am by my own mistakes buried in this green-leafed corruption and I am alone”. In this first chapter are flashbacks to the past, and gradually the book moves into the past, providing us with insights into her character and how she has ended up where she is. Most of this past takes place in the hospital where she trains as a nurse during the war. The book finally returns to the beginning of the novel with Vera resolving to make a step towards alleviating her loneliness. However, we are by no means convinced she will.

The book comprises titled chapters, many if not all of which could be (and some have been) published separately as short stories. This gives it a somewhat disjointed feel – but seems appropriate for the story of a person like Vera. It is full of wonderfully drawn characters, with some very funny (if often dark) scenes and dialogue. Just think nurses and hospitals! There are many references to music – something that is common in Jolley’s works. Music is usually a comforting force for her characters, offering them respite from what is often a cruel world – and this is the case here, with Vera being drawn to characters who love and play music. There is a lot of irony, some of it subtle, some of it less so as in Magda’s comment to Vera who has fantasised about an affair with her husband: ‘You are so innocent and good … Don’t ever change’. Naive perhaps, innocent no!

So, what about the title? Funnily enough(!), it refers to Vera’s relationship with her father, a major stabilising influence in her life. He tells her throughout her childhood that wherever she is she can always look at the same moon he is looking at, ‘And because of this … you must know that I am not far away. You must never feel lonely’. A lovely concept and one to which Vera regularly returns in the book.

My father’s moon is not, I think, the easiest Jolley to read, and there are some things that might become clearer on a second reading. However, its concerns are very representative of her work – loneliness and alienation, homosexuality, parenting, memory, music and religion. While Vera is deeply lonely, while she often behaves selfishly, she can also be kind. She is also no quitter. For that I rather like her.

Elizabeth Jolley
My Father’s Moon
Melbourne: Viking, 1989
171pp.
ISBN13: 9780670822676

 ____________________

I have written several posts on Jolley over the years, including reviews of a couple of novels, a sort of memoir, and a short story, but I had hoped to have read and posted on more of her work by now. Instead, a few of her novels – along with that Brian Dibble biography Bill has – still languish on my TBR pile.

Have you read any Jolley? If so, do you have any favourites?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literature, 1970s

July 13, 2020

Although Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) annual Indigenous Literature Week is officially over for 2020, I thought I’d bookend it with a second Monday Musings, this one on how Indigenous Australian literature looked around 50 years ago. Who was writing then, and what were they writing?

My main sources were Trove, of course, and the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter. In their introduction, Heiss and Minter argue that:

Aboriginal literature as we know it today had its origins in the late 1960s, as the intensification of Aboriginal political activity posed an increasing range of aesthetic questions and possibilities for Aboriginal authors.

With the Constitutional Referendum of 1967, and, as they put it, “the election of the reformist Whitlam government in 1972 [that] saw a new radicalisation in Australian politics”, there was a growing interest in land rights and cultural self-determination. In this world, Aboriginal literature “began to play a leading role in in the expression of Aboriginal cultural and political life”.

Heiss and Minter nominate the period from 1967 to the mid-1970s as being “significant for the sudden growth in Aboriginal authorship across a broad range of genres.” Ha! It was in 1967 that I wrote a little piece for my school year book on “Aboriginal equality in Northern Australia”. (It’s a bit excruciating to read now, being the words of an idealistic young teen, but that was when my interest in Indigenous Australian rights really started – and when I started reading authors like Kath Walker, later Oodgeroo Noonuccal.)

Book coverThe writers they name from that time – Kath Walker, Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Monica Clare (who is new to me), Gerry Bostock and Lionel Fogarty – pretty much mirror the writers who cropped up in my Trove search. Heiss and Minter describe them as

active in the political sphere while simultaneously catalysing a nascent publishing industry and writing their own vanguard pieces of creative literature.

There is another name that they don’t mention, but who comes up in Trove, and that’s the controversial Colin Johnson (who also published under the name Mudrooroo.)

The interesting thing about this group of people is that they are primarily poets and playwrights. Davis, Bostock and Gilbert are both, while Walker (Noonuccal) and Fogarty are best known as poets. The exception is Monica Clare. She was primarily an activist, but wrote an autobiographical novel that was published posthumously in 1978, Karobran: The story of an Aboriginal girl. Why were poetry and drama so dominant at that time? Is it because they were easier to publish (or get published) – or perform? Is it because these forms lend themselves more to the activism all these writers were engaged in? A poem, after all, is a powerful tool that can be performed, learnt and quoted again and again – as Noonuccal’s were, I know.

Now, what did the newspapers at the time have to say about Indigenous writing? First, there were several references to the paucity of Indigenous writing and Indigenous characters in contemporary literature, including in children’s literature. Presumably this awareness marked the beginning of the slow change that led us to the last decade or so in which we’ve seen significantly more Indigenous writing being published across all forms and genres.

There was, though, less awareness of the importance of Indigenous people telling their own stories. The sense I get is that it was perfectly alright for non-Indigenous people to tell Indigenous stories. Reviewer Lyndal Hadow, writing in the Tribune about a book of short stories by someone called D Stuart, praises:

his wide and deep knowledge and appreciation of the Aborigine. I believe there is no one who has written with such understanding in all the literature of the subject. His ear and his pen for the subtleties of altered English as used by his Aboriginal friends are not matched by any one I have read, and I have read them all. Again Stuart shows that those of whom he writes are known to him, not as subjects to be studied, but as old friends whose lifestyle he understands, and whose strengths he respects.

I love her confidence in her assessment because she has “read them all”!

The most comprehensive article I found about Indigenous writing in Australia came from the University of New South Wales’ student magazine Tharunka in 1976. The article, written by John Beston, commences:

Who are the Aboriginal writers? The first person to supply an answer to that question was Kath Walker, herself the best known of Aboriginal writers. In an article entitled “Aboriginal Literature,” in the January 1975 issue of Identity, Kath Walker mentions five writers other than herself — Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Colin Johnson, Wilf Reeves and Dick Roughsey — and concludes that there is an exciting time ahead. I agree with her.

Beston comments on the three main poets of the time, Walker, Davis and Gilbert, and shares this:

Kath Walker has graciously acknowledged Jack Davis to be the better poet, but there is no clear superiority of one poet to the other: Davis is the more skilled craftsman, but Walker sometimes has greater emotional force.

This article is worth reading, because it surveys the gamut of Indigenous Australian writing at the time, across all forms and genres. He concludes, though, by returning to Walker and her significant role, saying (in the tone of his times):

The quality of her work and the success she met with — We Are Going went into seven editions — gave other Aboriginals a needed boost and encouraged them to express the creativity that they have always had. So Aboriginal literature is less than twelve years old. The young tree is certainly flourishing.

Another article I found noted Kevin Gilbert’s being awarded a literature grant to write a book. And, there was a 1979 review of the book Literature and the Aborigine in Australia by a non-Indigenous writer, which seemed to be more about “the history of the efforts of Australian writers to come to terms” with Indigenous culture than about Indigenous literary culture itself, though the review does say:

‘There is also, completing the record, the very new group of writers, Aboriginal or part-Aboriginal themselves, who are producing their own literature.’

In the 1970s, then, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of Indigenous Australian writing, but there was the beginning of an awareness that Indigenous Australians were writing – and that Indigenous Australians and their culture should no longer be overlooked. We have a long way to go yet in terms of all Australians reading and appreciating Indigenous Australian writing and culture, but it is useful to see where we’ve come from, don’t you think?

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings