Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 2: PM’s Pick (Brian Castro with Genevieve Jacobs)

Book coverPM’s Pick, featuring the multi-award-winning Brian Castro, was another must-attend session. The night before, while dining at Muse, I checked to see whether they had any Castro in their classy little bookshop. They did, including a second-hand copy of his fourth novel, After China. I snapped it up, and as I did, bookseller Dan reminded me that he’s “very literary”. I know, I said! He is also very reclusive, making this a not-to-be missed session. And it was free, my original payment being refunded when they found a sponsor. Woo hoo!

The session was titled PMs Pick in reference to the fact that Castro won the 2018 Prime Minister’s (PM’s) Literary Award for Poetry for his verse novel, Blindness and rage: A phantasmagoria: A novel in thirty-four cantos. Even the title is scary, but Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has tackled it.

Castro and JacobsCastro conversed with local ABC radio presenter Genevieve Jacobs. It was a smallish audience, and a quiet conversation, but provided some fascinating insights.

Castro, like Gerald Murnane whom he referenced a couple of times during the conversation, is a self-described recluse. This event is the first he’s done, he said, for three years! I didn’t know that when I booked it, but I’m doubly glad now. The worse thing when he’s writing, he said, is having to be “a social gadfly”, so he hides away, except that he needs to talk to his students at the University of Adelaide where he teaches creative writing.

I’m going to focus on what I learnt about Castro and his ideas (not quite in the order in which the conversation went), and end with a reference to Blindness and rage.

Firstly, why does he live in Adelaide? Hong Kong-born, he has been Australian-based since going to a Sydney boarding school when he was 11 years old. He called himself a fringe-dweller, explaining that he doesn’t, exactly, live in Adelaide but in the Adelaide Hills. Before that, he lived in the Dandenongs on Melbourne’s fringe, and before that in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney.

He likes the provincial life, which he doesn’t see as negative. It’s also something that Lucien Gracq, his fame-seeking protagonist of Blindness and rage, comes to value.

Then, there’s his job. He teaches creative writing, but he’s not convinced it’s a worthwhile thing to do. (Should I be sharing this?!) Universities, these days, he said, are factories. What do you do with a creative writing degree? Maybe get work in publishing? He has had just two writers win awards over the years he has been teaching. Creative writing has become an industry, but it pays his way, given his novels are not exactly best-sellers!

Indeed, he had quite a bit to say about the writing life, some of it in response to the Q&A, including how tough it was to get that first publisher when he was 32. Winning the Vogel award did it. He has been lucky, he said, and is particularly so now because his publisher, at Giramondo, is also his friend. One of the lessons he has learnt over the years is to accept disappointment! Cheery, eh? His early days were very difficult, because if you want to write, you must invest everything in it. However, reality starts to hit when you start to age, and need to shore up something for retirement. It’s difficult for literary writers in Australia, where returns are small. Only five Australian writers, he said, really live off their writing.

Various gems regarding what he likes to write and read came out during the conversation. For example, he thinks we should read for mood not plot. I relate to this, because this is exactly what I most remember about the books I’ve read. I rarely remember the story, or character details, but I remember the tone and/or how the book made me feel. He’s also most interested in metre and rhythm, which makes sense, because these contribute strongly to mood. He talked about hearing Homer in the original ancient Greek. He didn’t understand it, but the rhythms “electrify the brain even if you don’t understand it”.

So, he “always pays attention to the language first. The plot will come, if it comes.”

Castro described himself as a “short writer”. Long novels don’t appeal to him. He quoted WG Sebald who didn’t like 19th century novels because you could see “the engines grinding” in them! He also said, which won’t surprise you, that he’s not interested in linear narratives, though he recognises there are different tastes and preferences.

Interestingly, for someone seen as a “very literary” writer, he also questioned “grandiose notions of high literature”. He loves works you can read on multiple levels.

Jacobs, of course, asked him about winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, wondering whether he was surprised. Yes, very – though, when he resisted attending the Awards Ceremony, having previously experienced the bad end of such events, he was told-without-being-told that he should be there! Neither he, nor Gerald Murane, who also won that year (for fiction), wanted to attend.

Regarding winning, it shuts you up for a while he said! He’s having a year off, waiting until he retires. On whether winning has an impact on sales, he simply said his books don’t sell well. His publisher told him he was publishing Blindness and rage for posterity! (Hence Castro working as a professor!)

And regarding the mushrooming of literary awards and whether they support literature, he said Yes and No. Some people can win big money and disappear. However, money does help you buy time, which we’ve heard here before. But then you have get back to the desk. How you high jump that desk is the challenge he said.

The issue of translated fiction also came up. I sensed that Castro (like me) has a love-hate relationship with it. Love, because many of his favourite writers (like Sebald, for example) don’t write in English and he’s not fluent in all the languages of the authors he reads. But hate because he misses “the textures, colours, flavors when read in translation”. Castro said there’s a huge swathe of literary works that haven’t been translated. It came out, in the Q&A, that his novel, After China, had been poorly translated into Chinese, and that they had omitted the first chapter because of the sex!

Blindness and rage

Book coverNow, I should say a little about Blindness and rage. Inspired by Virgil, Dante (the 34 cantos of his Inferno), and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it tells the story of writer Lucien Gracq who, told he is terminally ill, goes to Paris to finish the epic poem he’s writing and to die there. He joins a secret writers’ society, Le club des fugitifs, which only dying writers can join. It publishes an author’s last unfinished work, but not in his/her name. This reflects Castro’s own view that the work is all, the writer doesn’t matter! He doesn’t think fame helps anything.

Castro said that he reads a lot of literary biographies for pleasure, but he inserts writers in the novel to mock. He particularly mocks what he sees as the glorification of French intellectuals, which has been “going on for too long”, he said. Lucien finds them, mostly, arrogant and dismissive. Jacobs commented on the many allusions in the book, and asked whether he expects us to leave the written page? No, he doesn’t expect us to go read the authors, but, he’s a “fictioneer”, and doesn’t mind if people check Wikipedia’! (Harumph!)

The novel chronicles Lucien’s gradual recognition of what’s real in life, from his initial desire to seek something “vainglorious”. It does this, I gather, with a good deal of irony and humour, undermining, along the way, various literary traditions and assumptions.

I haven’t read Blindness and rage yet, but I’m now intrigued. Anything that looks at the lives of writers/artists – that questions who they are, what they are about – intrigues me, particularly when in the hands of someone as clearly provocative as Castro. And as humorous! Castro said he didn’t set out to be humorous but the PM judges noted it, and he admitted that gravity needs a touch of lightness. Jacobs suggested that the undercutting of seriousness, such as can be found in the book, is very Australian. Castro seemed to accept that, but added “also democratic”!

And, of course, there was a reading – of Canto XXX, which starts:

It may be a fact that
if you’re dying of thirst
in the desert
you do not call for whisky
and all you want is water
which may drown you
in full irony.

Canto XXXI has a verse which starts “To be able to write is not to say anything/but to put small things together”, which do, in the end, I’m sure, say something!


There’s not a lot to share from the Q&A, besides what I’ve included above. One struggling writer of science fiction asked about finding publishers and agents, which didn’t feel quite appropriate for the forum.

Another asked – and this made me smile – how she could find a copy of After China! Luckily, Castro was able to say that Wakefield Press is republishing it. And another asked whether he would consider doing a reading (for audiobooks) of Blindness and rage, like Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf. Castro seemed intrigued and not totally negative about the idea.

The session ended as quietly as it started, but I left feeling glad I’d spent time with such a writer, and wanting to read Blindness and rage.

19 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 2: PM’s Pick (Brian Castro with Genevieve Jacobs)

  1. Oh, my, this would have been so good to go to:)
    You know, we in Australia owe a great deal to Ivor Indyk at Giramondo. He also publishes Murnane, another author who would never be published by commercial publishers but we would be the poorer for it if his books never saw the light of day.
    I would never pretend to be an expert on Castro but I have read five of his books and I think Blindness and Phantasmagoria is the most difficult of them (though most of my book group found The Garden Book difficult too). I’d suggest starting with Drift or with The Bath Fugues, (both reviewed on my blog)

    • Ivor Indyk – what a man! I studied Australia Lit. III at UoSydney in 1984 – Ivor one of my lecturers – as well as Peter Kirkpatrick, Leonie Kramer and Jim Tulip – a stellar line-up. Ivor I admired. For many years in Japan my literary thirst was particularly quenched by Ivor INDYK’s HEAT – turning up every quarter or so – brilliant Australian and other writing – transported from some of the more ordinary moments of teaching communication level English – my spirit soared. I would write thank-you letters of no doubt boring moment to Ivor trying to express my gratitude for the riches of writing I was receiving. You are so right in your estimation of Ivor, Lisa!

    • It was wonderful Lisa. I was thrilled to see him on the program. And you’re right about Giramondo. His list is truly impressive isn’t it.

      Thanks for those recommendations, but they are not the books I have! It will be useful for others to see though, and I’ll remember it for the future!

      • Well, that will be good: between the two of us we could end up having reviewed his entire oeuvre.
        Did I ever tell you that I got a lovely email from him, wondering who this ‘very young person’ (i.e. my avatar) was, who had ‘understood’ his book. I’ve put ‘understood’ in inverted commas, because really, the only thing I ever really understand is that I haven’t understood the book, But that’s ok, because he says himself (paraphrasing him) that he doesn’t expect readers to understand it all. I would so love to have met him in person, the CWF was just really bad timing for me this year *sigh*.

        • How lovely Lisa. It’s a thrill to hear from authors. I have think it is alright… I think most authors, but particularly tricky ones like him, love to see what people make of their writing?

        • Yes.
          #Musing: if he lived in Victoria he’d have won the Melbourne Prize by now, that’s a prize that has a good track record for recognising our more challenging authors.

  2. Thanks for this – can I say almost tender review – of your attendance at the session with Brian. When I read his Vogel book prize winner (shared with Brian KRAUTH that year) “Birds of Passage” early 1980s – I was so impressed. Brian did his Dip. Ed the year after me at UoSydney – some of my friends remembered him. Birds of Passage book touched on aspects of Australia’s Chinese mid-19th century past and mid-20th century (then) present which shed its own illumination on the realities of my mother’s Chinese landlords in 1951 in Tamworth NSW. The elderly mother – bound feet – connections via Hong Kong to Canton (Guandong). My first visit to Macau (is this where Brian was actually born – or was it on a ferry or boat midway between Macau and Hong Kong) was around the time After China was published. Another of his books was set in Japan. I seem to recall he was an “assistant” in France for a year – a trained teacher of French… I so much admire BrIan – literary form or mood – not necessarily narrative-driven in his work – but always beautifully laid out – historical, impressionistic, allusory. Again, WG – man thanks!

    • I was under pressure to produce a good post knowing you were waiting for it Jim! He just said Hong Kong, so no more details about his birth. And that when he finished school he told his father he didn’t want to go back!

      I gathered he was fluent in French, but didn’t know why. And didn’t know one of hid books is set in Japan.

      Oh Jim, so many books to read! And these posts take so long to write, taking up good reading time!

  3. I find that listening to writers is usually interesting. There seems to be s certain mystique about it when the writer is reclusive. Castro sounds like he is full of fascinating ideas. I think reading for mood is often the way to go but it depends upon the book.

    Blindness and Rage sounds very creative. I think that I would like to give it a try.

    • It is a creative book Brian, at least from what I’ve read and heard. Probably cheeky too, playing with sacred cows I’m guessing.

      I do love hearing writers, as most are articulate about what they do (not surprisingly!!)

  4. So good that there’s a place here still for interesting, funny if difficult writing and their creators. I haven’t seen Brian in ages but always liked both him and his books. Wish I could have been in the session with you, WG.

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