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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!

52 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2020 12:39

    Tim Winton is a well-known public figure in WA, as a noisy advocate for the environment. The big difference I find between his work and Astley’s is that Astley is angry about our treatment of the Indigenous population whereas Winton, who almost certainly shares her opinions, refuses in his writing to even acknowledge that Western Australia has a significant Indigenous population which has suffered and continues to suffer the same depradations that Astley wrote about in Queensland.

    • June 26, 2020 18:56

      Ah ha, we’ve discussed this issue before haven’t we Bill. Astley was amazingly brave in her writing about those issues – was ahead of her time I think in many ways. My first of hers, The kindness cup, was so impressive in this regard.

      I don’t blame Winton because right now I do think it’s a bit of a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t (for non-Indigenous writers.)

      • June 28, 2020 10:46

        There is an enormous difference between not telling other people’s stories and pretending that they don’t exist. Winton writes plain-vanilla white boy fiction set in a state with a significant Aboriginal population. To pretend they are invisible, which he does, is just another version of Terra Nullius, and Winton should know better.

        • June 28, 2020 13:57

          I just can’t accept, Bill, that the Winton I feel I know is not concerned about these issues. Here he is quoted in 2018 https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/less-than-lovely-what-tim-winton-learnt-about-today-s-men-while-surfing-20180307-p4z38l.html:

          ‘A few years back, Winton spent time travelling with the Ngarinyin people of the Kimberley. Despite their “many challenges and sorrows”, he says, “they maintain secret and sacred pathways that are highly complex and sophisticated. For the boys who have been through the Law, there was a sense of certainty and solidity you don’t see in their suburban Australian counterparts.” He is not suggesting mainstream Australians adopt some “bogus imitation” of Indigenous rituals. “But the stuff we put value on and the stuff we dismiss out of hand, they say a lot about us, don’t you think?”‘

          He comes across to me as a thoughtful caring human being. I’m not prepared to criticise someone whose heart is, I believe, in the right place (which, I suppose, is a very “white” thing to say?)

        • June 28, 2020 14:13

          I agree about Winton, but his fiction says WA is a whiteman’s world and that Indigenous people and their rights and history don’t matter.

        • June 28, 2020 15:37

          Fair point, Bill, but somehow that’s not what his fiction says to me. I can’t really draw that bow.

  2. June 26, 2020 14:38

    I love Tim Winton’s books and short stories. I have for a long time especially once I got used to living in Australia. It took awhile to pick up on his “Australianess”, then more specifically “Western Australianess”. Thea Astley is one of those writers people, one friend in particular, has told me I need to read but she has escaped me again and again though I do have a couple of her books on my shelf. No excuses, just haven’t read her yet. But you’re right as far as hearing more about Winton than Astley, probably because he is still living. It is sad when writers pass away, often their writing does also. At least for awhile.

    • June 26, 2020 19:00

      Thanks Pam. Your point about Astley not being live now is fairly made, except my argument is that even when she was alive very little was made of her MF record.

      If you haven’t read her before, I suggest starting with Coda. It is short and very accessible – not to mention relevant to women of a certain age.

  3. Meg permalink
    June 26, 2020 17:11

    I like them both. They give a great Australian flavour to their writing of their characters and story lines. If I had to pick one over the other – Thea Astley would win. She pulls no punches. Her wit and understanding of her characters are wonderful.

    • June 26, 2020 19:01

      Woo hoo, Meg. I’d pick her too, though I am also very fond of Winton as well and may, to date, have read slightly more of him though it’s close. As you say, they are both very Australian in their writing, in the best meaning of the word.

  4. Sue permalink
    June 26, 2020 19:56

    Do I have to choose between them? Both a wonderful in their own way. Winton comes from an adolescence which he admits was pretty wild – when I heard him talk he said surfing probably saved his life, as most of his friends died from risk taking pastimes such as fast driving and alcohol, and his books reflect that background – Breath certainly does as do stories in The Turnings.

    I probably enjoy Astley more now as her acerbic humour is so wickedly delightful, whereas I devoured Winton’s books when I was a bit younger. Maybe it’s just that certain books/writers appeal to us at different times in our lives?

    I think they’re both superb writers but I must admit Astley’s sarcasm makes me chuckle! I wouldn’t have wanted to get on her wrong side that’s for sure… Winton would be easier to get along with I think!

    • June 26, 2020 20:41

      Oh no, Sue, you absolutely don’t. I did say “and/or”, because I’m with you.

      I particularly loved how he explored masculine risk-taking in Breath.

      And I completely agree with you re Astley. I think she would have been terrifying to know, but I love her writing, I love her heart and passion, I love her wit and her language. Have you read the biography about her.

      • Sue permalink
        June 27, 2020 18:08

        Yes I did read it Sue, Inventing Her Own Weather (great title!) Glad I don’t have to choose between them both – they both write about Australia (and Australian country towns in Astley’s case) so evocatively. Winton’s more lyrical and not one for the biting humour of Astley.

        I was living in the sub-tropics of northern NSW and I really enjoy her descriptions of the humid parts of this country. I think she said she hated the heat but couldn’t stop writing about hot places! (I didn’t cope well with the humidity either).

        I’m in four seasons here not too far from where Astley lived in the mountains, and got chatting the other day with a pleasant chap who is about to take over the excellent 2nd hand bookstore here, so we got talking books & writers of course – and he used to live in Byron Bay (where Astley moved to) – I told him what Astley said about it with her usual wit, which was: “You know what they say about it here – lovey one day, developed the next”.

        I wish I could be that witty…

        • Sue permalink
          June 27, 2020 18:15

          Sorry, typo – lovely, not lovey! I shouldn’t type with the computer on the couch…

        • June 27, 2020 18:58

          Oh so do I Sue …

          and I don’t do humidity either, but I do like dry heat. I wish though that I’d gone to the BB Writers Festival when she was there.

  5. June 26, 2020 21:27

    This was a great post. Coming to understand that one is ordinary seems to be a fairly unusual theme. So many stories seem to revolve around special people realizing that they are special. The characters also sound interesting. I would like to read this.

    • June 26, 2020 21:49

      Thanks Brian … I love the way you put that – “coming to understand that you are ordinary”. I clearly remember when I came to that understanding. It was my 30th birthday. It wasn’t so much that I came to understand that I was ordinary, though that was in essence what I realised. What I reapplies was that this was who I was, and that I wasn’t going to be some amazing, different person, who would achieve astonishing things. Breath is an interesting book.

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        June 28, 2020 10:05

        Hm. Didn’t get that right. I think your blog is fairly astonishing!

  6. June 26, 2020 22:43

    I’ve admired everything of Astley’s that I’ve read, and I’ve still got a couple more on the TBR. She was so economical, packing a powerful punch in about only 200 pages. And yes, she had something worthwhile to say!

    • June 26, 2020 22:51

      Thanks Lisa … she sure did. She was a writer with a message but she wrapped it all up in powerful stories and evocative writing didn’t she.

  7. June 27, 2020 07:14

    The only Winton book I tried was Cloudstreet – I think I made the mistake of getting it on audio and trying to listen to it while on the treadmill. It was hard to get into. Any recommendations for what to try as an alternative?

    • June 27, 2020 08:47

      Hmm, Karen, that’s a good one! But I do know that audiobooks aren’t great for some books. I remember enjoying some early novellas of his, In the winter dark and That eye the sky. The turning may be worth trying though it is more like connected short stories which I loved but you may not.

      The riders may be a good one for you, tho it’s set primarily in Ireland so not so representative. Possibly the most “traditional” of his books though it’s a long time since I’ve read it.

      • June 27, 2020 09:21

        The Turning I think is Winton’s best work. He has a problem with endings which by writing this NOVEL in the form of interconnected stories he was able to avoid.

        Every library in WA has a few of his works so I just listen to them as they come up, they’re all much the same except Cloudstreet which I positively dislike.

        • June 27, 2020 09:58

          I think many writers (literary writers, I mean, as genre writers usually know the path of their genre) have trouble with endings? That fear of being too neat or too obscure or too grim or too positive? I did like The turning a lot too.

          And I liked The shepherds hut. A lot to get your teeth into. There were aspects of Breath that disappointed me but it’s overall impact, its depiction of surfing and its exploration of risk taking as a way of being are unforgettable for me.

  8. Sue permalink
    June 27, 2020 19:22

    I found Breath unique because it depicted adults, who should have been more responsible, encouraging risk taking behaviour in young teenagers (I think that was their age from memory).

    I still haven’t read Astley’s A Kindness Cup – it is worth seeking out a used copy? Many of her books are out of print now & I’ve got most of my Astleys from Op Shops, eBay and Fishpond.

    • June 27, 2020 19:36

      The whole world should read A Kindness Cup.

      • June 27, 2020 21:09

        Strong statement Bill, but I could get behind it. I first came across Astley through a couple of her early books being on my Mum’s shelves.

      • Sue permalink
        June 28, 2020 09:50

        Looks like I’ll have to source a copy then! It’s a shame so many of her books are no longer published.

        • June 28, 2020 13:51

          It is … you need the library or good second hand bookshops for many of them.

    • June 27, 2020 21:02

      Yes they were young teenagers at the start … but I think the risk taking (holding their breaths under water for a long time) started before adults became involved? The adults though didn’t discourage them as I recollect.

      • Sue permalink
        June 28, 2020 09:49

        I think Winton and his surfing mates used to do the breath holding under water to a pretty dangerous level. Teenagers/young men will do these things!

        • June 28, 2020 13:51

          Terrifying! He made it so real in the novel, which is what I loved about it so much.

  9. Sue permalink
    June 27, 2020 19:25

    I’m curious – Winton was taught at university by Elizabeth Jolley I think, and I think is friends with Helen Garner – does anyone know if he was influenced at all by Thea Astley? He must have read her books surely, but I don’t think I’ve read/heard him make any mention of her.

    • June 27, 2020 21:06

      No. I’m not sure I have either. He must have read Astley, as you suggest but his style is quite different. Garner can’t (couldn’t) abide Astley’s style, but she loved Jolley, so I can see a Jolley-Garner-Winton triumvirate.

  10. Neil Blo permalink
    June 29, 2020 08:18

    Hi Gums (and curator Bill), this doesn’t belong here, but I got too lazy to send you an email: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/28/beyond-google-my-afternoon-trawling-trove-for-the-first-mentions-of-climate-change

    I bring it to your attention because I know how fond you are of Trove, and I haven’t see you mention the relaunch. Feel free to move this comment elsewhere, or remove completely.

    • Neil@kallaroo permalink
      June 29, 2020 08:20

      Whoops! Pressed the button too soon. Trove article

    • June 29, 2020 08:20

      Thanks Neil. I had read of the relaunch, but with all going on here hadn’t had time to check it out. Will look at this article.

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        June 29, 2020 08:24

        I thought this probably the case. The article left me very depressed. Us smart humans are really very dumb.

    • June 29, 2020 11:40

      Good one Neil! I’ve re-posted it on Facebook. I remember global warming being discussed when I was at uni (50 years ago) and I occasionally see other earlier references but this is the first time I’ve seen those early mentions documented.

    • Neil@kallaroo permalink
      June 29, 2020 22:39

      I told a daughter about this, so she dived in to view the article about me that I told her was on Trove (mentions Mr Gums as well). She couldn’t find it searching in Trove, but when she Googled me plus Trove, she found it (and two others). A little odd.

      • June 30, 2020 08:12

        I found two IN Trove pretty quickly … the Maths one with you, Mr Gums, plus Steve and Peter; a Canberra High School speech night one. You can get a lot of hits

      • June 30, 2020 08:12

        I meant you can get a lot of hits, so it can be helpful to refine searches in Trove.

  11. June 30, 2020 20:09

    I am a Tim Winton fan. I know what you mean about some of the books being same/same. However the first book I read of Tim’s was Cloudstreet, and that is no way the same of some of the coming of age, growing up on the whalers coast sort of book. A further note of breath would be to say it has now been made into a movie (which I am yet to see by the way).

    • June 30, 2020 23:33

      Thanks davezart, I am a Winton fan too. But I haven’t seen the film of Breath either. I’m not sure I really want to, actually.

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