Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

When I thought about Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, I knew I’d have some hard choices to make as I have many eligible novels on my TBR shelves. However, the choice wasn’t too hard because there was one author who just doesn’t seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain.

I am a bit embarrassed about it, though, because I must have bought my copy around the time it was published, as the “Aust. recommended” price sticker on my Penguin says $7.95! Indeed, I referred to this book, albeit not by title, when I wrote about Canberra’s Seven Writers of which Barbalet was a member. This is another reason I’ve been keen to read this novel.

Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review), although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions.

And this is probably a good time to tell you what the novel is about. The back cover tells us that it’s “about Jessie … a young girl growing up and reaching for maturity in the Australia of the Great War and the Depression, as she moves from country town to country town and eventually to Adelaide”. It also says that her life is “in may ways, ordinary” but that Barbalet “follows Jessie’s odyssey with a perception and compassion that reveals a person who is quite extraordinary”. This is accurate, but it misses a few salient points.

“she feels everything”

For example, the novel starts when Jessie, 4 years old, and her brother Stephen, 8, are living with their parents in a small coastal town. In the first chapter, their mother walks out, and we never hear from her again. Jessie adores her brother, but with their father deemed incapable of raising them – in the eyes of the local churchgoing women – the two children are taken in by different relatives. And through one of those twists of fate, Jessie is taken into a loving family, the Whaites, while Stephen goes to the home of a stern maternal uncle Theodore, and his cowed unmarried daughter. There is no affection here, and, indeed, there’s disdain from Theodore, because Stephen’s father was an Irishman – “Of course, Catholics, Irish, what can you expect”. In his opinion, Stephen “had never been checked”.

We spend a little time with Stephen – just enough to realise that his youth was miserable, and for us to see the contrast with Jessie’s life – but the book is Jessie’s. The war comes, and with the death of Mr Whaite in that war, Mrs Whaite can no longer afford to keep her, so Jessie is moved on to an unmarried relation, Miss Symes. Miss Symes doesn’t have the motherly warmth of Mrs Whaite but Jessie realises early on that she “would not be unkind”. A major theme of the book concerns, as Jessie ponders in adulthood, “what made a life good or bad”. One factor, this novel shows, is a secure, loved childhood, something Jessie had well enough, but not Stephen.

Anyhow, the story progresses from here, with Jessie going off to work as a domestic when she’s around 14 years old … and we move into the Depression. Meanwhile, Stephen, with whom she manages to stay in contact, goes to war, and returns with an injured arm, but it’s clear that Stephen’s greatest injury is emotional. The siblings reconnect after Stephen returns to Adelaide with a wife, Pamela, and baby – and some time after, Jessie moves in with them. I’ll leave the story there.

Since I read this for Bill’s week, I want to comment on how this book might or might not fit into his ideas about Gen 4. I’ll start with style, and return to my point about Patrick White. A little research into Barbalet uncovered that she was a fan of DH Lawrence. Guess who was also a fan of DH Lawrence? Yes, Patrick White. I rest my case!

Seriously though, White writes in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass, about missing Australia, and says “I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape”. Well, you get the sense that Barbalet could too, as her descriptions of place – whether city, country, or coast – are so intensely evocative:

There was no one about but the smell of poverty remained.

The dew on the grass looks dirty, she thought, glancing through the pinched paling fence on the vacant block at the corner. Yellow light leant at corners, streaking the walls with new angles the colour of old flannel. Fingers of sun lifted new dirt in the glare.

There is also intensity in her descriptions of humanity, a Whitean (sorry!) sense of tough, hard lives that need resilience to survive. Jessie has resilience, seeking and enjoying, whenever she can, “manna in the dry waste of life”.

None of this is specifically Gen 4, but Blood in the rain does also embody its era. Barbalet, for example, plays with point of view, something that seems to start once Jessie is sentient. In other words, the novel is told third person, but at moments when Jessie’s feelings are likely to be strong we slip into second person. It begins when she is taken to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to her brother’s guardian. The mention of Stephen brings out feelings:

Your brother Stephen. If you skipped and walked even your feet would say the words. That dear face might suddenly slide in front of your eyes … You said the name over and over.

As does the awareness that, while Mrs Whaite had loved her, it wasn’t enough to keep her:

But, you, you, were someone who could be left.

It’s an intriguing technique, and a bit disconcerting at first, but it gives intensity to Jessie’s emotional self.

Besides style, though, is genre and subject matter. Blood in the rain is historical fiction, which was not particularly common in literary fiction, and it’s historical fiction about ordinary people, about ordinary women in fact. It’s a domestic story with little dramas, the sort of story that Gen 4 women made particularly their own.

Domestic, however, doesn’t mean trivial. This novel is about important ideas – about women’s resilience and stoicism in the face of poverty, about the raising of children, and in fact about love. Love, Jessie decides, is what makes the difference between a good life and a bad one. If that’s women’s fiction, it’s fine by me.

Margaret Barbalet
Blood in the rain
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1986
204pp.
ISBN: 9780140089448

Janette Turner Hospital, The inside story (#Review)

Between 1985 and 1990, Janette Turner Hospital wrote four books which had one-word titles – Borderline (1985, novel), Dislocations (1986, short stories), Charades (1988, novel) and Isobars (1990, short stories). I’ve read the novels, and they imprinted on my mind Hospital’s love of metaphor. In these works, her titles clearly herald her concerns, and I love that. All this is to say that I thought I might kick off my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, with a short story, so I checked The Oxford book of Australian short stories. I found a few to choose from, but the writer who grabbed my attention was Janette Turner Hospital. I’ve read four of her novels, and have her latest short story collection, Forecast: Turbulence, on my TBR. I enjoy reading her.

The story is “The inside story” and it comes from the Dislocations collection, which was first published in Australia in 1986. I specify Australia because, at the time, and for many decades, Hospital was living overseas, primarily Canada and the USA, but elsewhere too. I note, however, that her website says that she returned to live permanently in Australia in 2019.

And now, the story. There is, as you’ll have realised, wordplay in the title. It is set “inside”, with the first person narrator being a teacher of a college literature course in a jail – an American one I presume, though it’s not specified. However, it is also about the “inside” of the characters, about their selves, particularly the narrator. The story involves this narrator, speaking from a later time, telling about the period she spent as a teacher in the jail, sharing her experience and some of the interactions she had with the inmates. So, she is also an outsider, coming from outside, and also an outsider in terms of not having shared experience with her students. For the first half of so of the story, her students are simply “they”, suggesting they are alike in their attitudes and reactions to her, but towards the end two, Jed and Joe, are differentiated.

For budgetary reasons, our narrator is limited in what she can teach to what’s available, so she chooses Malamud’s The fixer as a follow-up to Sozhenistsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich which had not gone down well. She’s surprised, thinking they’d “enjoy the prisoner as hero”. Not this lot. After all, these are the people who had told her:

We can’t afford your romantic empathy … Please check your angst in at the cloakroom, before you see us.

Still, our narrator tries:

‘Kierkegaard suggested that we are all equally despairing, but unless we can write and become famous for our despair, it is not worth the trouble to despair and show it.

You people with a tragic world view, they sighed, you make like so difficult for the rest of us.

And so the story continues, with the narrator trying to understand their experience, and how they manage the brutality of prison life, while they fend off her desire to understand and “reform them with culture”. When she suggests reading Franz Fanon, they are not interested in “another tragic bloody humanist–because that would be the kind of invasion of our head space we can’t afford in here”. In other words, while she is concerned about their “moral survival”, eschewing the cynicism of her colleagues, their focus is pure survival.

She’s not the only one who started with “idealism and compassion”. Another is a guard, but he learns:

The institution could only operate in black and white, he said. Grey got it from both sides. Get out, he said, while you’re still human.

Inevitably, there is violence, and the job comes to an end.

I enjoyed the story, though my brief search of the internet suggests that it is not mentioned the way some others are from the collection. Anthology editor Michael Wilding, however, must have liked it, though he doesn’t mention it in his preface. There is a lot to think about here in terms of dislocations – the prisoners from their lives, for a start, and our narrator’s confrontation with ideal versus reality. Who is our narrator? Does she stand for liberal do-gooders that I can relate to from the 1970s and 80s. Why did she take this job, and is her closing answer completely honest?

On Hospital’s website is a link to an interview with literary editor, Steven Romei, in which she tells him that

All of my writing career is about how human beings negotiate dark matter. I am extremely interested in how people negotiate catastrophe, not because I’m morbidly interested in it but because I’m interested in the secret of resilience, that’s what I’m always exploring in the stories and the novels.

As for how this story fits into Bill’s conception of Gen 4 (see my first paragraph), I’m not sure. Hospital was an expatriate Australian writer when she wrote this, which places her at a remove from specific Australian movements, but – maybe – you could read it as occupying a transition between 196Os and 70s idealism and the cynical neoliberalism of the late 1980s. Then again, it could just be itself, and reflective of Hospital’s ongoing interest in “moral survival” and outsiderness, not to mention “dark matter”.

Janette Turner Hospital
“The inside story”
in The Oxford book of Australia short stories (ed. Michael Wilding)
Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
Orig. pub. in Dislocations, 1987
pp. 288-294
ISBN: 9780195536102

S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

I thoroughly enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay on Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino (1992) in Reading like an Australian writer. Consequently, I plan, over time, to read and share other essays in this book – at least those discussing books I’ve reviewed here. As it happens, there is an essay by Debra Adelaide on Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review), and it’s the perfect next cab off the rank. Not only have I already posted this year on Erik Jensen’s longer essay on the book in the Writers on writers series, but Snake is a novella, so I’m using this post as a contribution to Cathy’s (746books) Novellas in November. I hope that’s not too cheeky.

I’ll start, though, by introducing Debra Adelaide. A novelist with a few books under her belt, including The women’s pages which I’ve reviewed, she first became known to me through her work on early Australian women writers, her Bibliography of Australian women’s literature, 1795-1990 (1991) and A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). Like many writers, she also teaches creative writing, and Snake is one of the texts she regularly sets.

So Snake – for those who don’t know – draws from Jennings’ life, and tells the story of a lively, imaginative woman, Irene, who marries a decent but boring man, Rex. It cannot work, and the consequences are dire.

Jensen’s and Adelaide’s essays are very different. This is partly because Jensen’s, being in the Writers on writers series, focuses on the writer, whilst Adelaide’s in Reading like an Australian writer focuses on the reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the approach Adelaide takes is closer to mine – except that her writerly perspective is more astute, centred and expository.

The elastic novella

Early in her essay, Adelaide specifically address its form as a novella, saying that Snake demonstrates “how wonderfully elastic the novella can be”. In Snake‘s case, it is “so elastic that it can almost be prose poetry”. It is also “audaciously” abbreviated. She’s right – this is one spare novel.

Adelaide identifies three main reasons that she sets this text for her students – “its poetic brevity, its ‘experimental’ form, and its intriguing, sometimes maddening, allusions to and quotes from numerous literary and cultural references”.

It is, she says, the perfect set text, because it can be easily read in one night and remembered, but,

Brevity does not mean simplicity: its complex themes ripple out and take their time before finally landing on the muddy shores of our imagination.

This is what makes Snake such a good and memorable read.

The three s’s

Adelaide divides her essay into three main sections, those three s’s in the title: Structure; Serpents; and Scenes, sex and Serena McGarry.

I love discussions of structure, because structure can so often help inform the meaning. When a short novel like Snake has a complex structure, it is worth taking note. Adelaide talks about her own method of writing and wonders about Jennings’ approach. She doesn’t know how Jennings works, but she does say that this novel

opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing a novel that was straightforward yet clever in structure, that was stripped back to its narrative bones, and yet at the same time managed to be multilayered, dense, poetic and unforgettable.

She discusses the novel’s four-part structure, and explains how, although the book is primarily about the mother Irene, it manages to convey the POVs of all four characters, thus “deftly” delivering a portrait of the whole family. Simultaneoulsy, with its use of second person at the beginning and end, “it offers a powerful sense of everyperson”. I love this analysis. I also enjoyed her further discussion of second person, which accords with some of my assumptions about this voice. One of the points she makes is how second person makes (can make) the reader complicit, which is one of the reasons Madeleine Dickie used it in Red can origami (my post).

Adelaide also briefly discusses an issue that fascinates her, as it does me – “the unlikable character in fiction”. Irene is “remote, ruthless and selfish”, and yet, despite Snake‘s “staccato delivery and disparate parts”, Jennings manages to maintain the focus on Irene “without alienating us from her”.

However, the section I most enjoyed is Adelaide’s discussion of Serpents. She references DH Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, which Jennings quotes from in the novella, and Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. She also references Jensen’s discussion of snakes, because, of course, he discussed them too. The point is that snakes are both metaphorical (the cause of the original fall of humankind, and so on) and actual (a real threat to vulnerable children, dogs and women.)

And so, the heart of Jennings’ Snake lies in, says Adelaide, “the universal fear of the serpent, that potent post-lapsarian symbol of all evil and danger”. All associations with snakes race through our minds, she says, as we read this novel. This is one of the ways a spare novel can lay down meaning on top of meaning.

In the third section, Adelaide discusses Jennings’ “scrupulous clarity”, using a few examples from the novel. One is the murder-suicide of Serena McGarry and her husband. Adelaide explores how much, in less than 100 words, Jennings conveys about Serena, and its implications for Irene. Adelaide makes the point that these “marvellously condensed” scenes “contain entire longer stories within them”. She sometimes uses them as springboards for students to develop their own stories. I would add that this sort of writing can make a book a great reading group book because it encourages readers to think about characters – who they are, why they are who they are, and why the writer has written them this way. Endless discussion can ensue!

Adelaide concludes by saying that Snake is “a novel that replays re-readings well out of proportion to its size”. I second that.

Debra Adelaide
“Structure, serpents and Serena McGarry: Kate Jennings’ Snake
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 219-232
ISBN: 9781742236704

Consider Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino

Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolino

Commenting on my post on Helen Garner’s One day I’ll remember this, Bill (The Australian Legend) wrote that he’d hoped I’d mention Cosmo cosmolino (1992). It’s one of the novels Garner was writing during the period covered by these diaries, and Bill had struggled with it. I don’t blame him because, while I loved reading the novel, my own review written early in this blog is less than wonderful. Cosmo is a very different novel and I didn’t grapple at all well with its tricky themes.

Bill has, in fact, written twice about Cosmo cosmolino, his second drawing from Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay in Reading like an Australian writer (edited by Belinda Castles). I have now read that essay too, so I am going to write a second post on Cosmo – too!

There are two main issues that are tricky with this novel, its form and its content. I’ll start with form, which derives from the fact that the book comprises three pieces/stories: “Recording angel”, “A vigil” and “Cosmo cosmolino”.

But, is it a novel?

I am forgiving (or, wishy-washy, if you prefer) when it comes to questions like this. I think form is and should be a loose thing, and that it should have room to move. Even Bill, who sometimes has strong views on things, said that “If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel”.

So, Bill was happy, more or less, to accept it as a novel. I was certainly happy to do so because the first two pieces – “Recording angel” and “A vigil” – introduce two of the three main characters in the last story. They also introduce some of the ideas that she further develops, though I didn’t fully grasp them in my review. More on that later in this post. The point is that for me the pieces did speak to each other, albeit oddly, because, for example, the first piece is told first person in Janet’s voice, while the third is told third person with Janet as the protagonist.

Bennett Daylight discusses the form in her essay. She starts by suggesting that she would have broken down the last piece into smaller stories, and

seen the book as a whole as telling the central story through a kaleidoscope of scenes, points of view, small (and large) narratives. I’m thinking particularly of Alice Munro’s early short story collections … in which Munro builds a long narrative about her protagonists like you might a model train, adding stories like carriages until the narrative winds into the distance. The result, to my mind, can be more satisfying than the novel whose every scene is roped to a single central idea.

She then quotes Robert Dessaix who, while praising Garner as “one of our most gifted” writers, said that none of her fictional works were novels. They are “fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to nonfiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage”. He then gets to one of the nubs, the pedestal on which novels are put. Garner writes in her diaries that she needs to free herself “from the hierarchy with the novel on top”. She needs “to devise a form that is flexible and open enough”, wants to “blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real”.

She also writes of “pointless struggles to work my stuff into the shape of a novel, and my determination to write only what it’s personally urgent for me to write” (p. 181). The two urges, it seems, fight each other. She says more but this gives you the gist. I love her engagement with form, though in one sense, it shouldn’t really matter – should it?

Meanwhile, Bennett Daylight is convinced that Cosmo cosmolino is a novel because “what makes a novel a novel is metaphor”, meaning that in a novel it’s “as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it”.

“My strange experience”

What is this something? It’s certainly deeper than I was prepared to go in my review, because, to be honest, I was uncertain – and here is why. Bennett Daylight quotes an interview Garner had about the book with, in Garner’s words, “that hard-nosed leftie rationalist Craig McGregor”. In this interview, she was stupid enough “to blurt out my strange experience with the shadowy presence”. Afterwards, she panicked and asked him not to include that part, and while he reassured her he’d hardly mentioned it, this “mysterious visitor” is the backbone of his piece. The responses weren’t positive – “Garner’s got religion, etc”. It taught her, she told Bennett Daylight,

that in Australia you can’t write about experiences of ‘the numinous’ without opening yourself to sneering and cynical laughter. Back then, anyway.

This is the challenge I had with the book. What was the spiritual aspect about? I’ll flip to Bernadette Brennan’s book on Helen Garner, A writing life (my review). She says that the three interlinked stories all concern transformation, and are connected through recurring characters and the presence in each of various forms of angels:

The book’s structure mirrors that of a Christian pilgrimage: “Recording angel” confronts the physicality of a suffering body, “A vigil” enters the underworld to witness death head on, and “Cosmo Cosmolino” offers a sense of possible redemption, perhaps even resurrection. The structure can also be read as a meditation on the past, the present and the future.

Garner writes in her diaries that her main experience of religion is the Holy Spirit:

I don’t understand ‘God’ or even ‘Jesus’, but the Holy Spirit [the “shadowy presence”] has stood behind me on many different days, even though for a long time I was too frightened to acknowledge it or ‘call out to it’. It has visited me and comforted me and become part of me. (p. 160/161)

Bennett Daylight concludes her essay by talking about “the metaphor of belief” that underpins this novel:

Religion or belief is the attempt to impose order where there is none – and surely fiction is the same thing. In fact, from where I’m standing it’s exactly the same thing. I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.

Let’s discuss this definition of “a great novel” another time, but it works here.

As for Garner, what does she say in the diaries? There’s quite a lot, but I’ll just choose these:

I want to write things that push down deeper roots into the archetypal. Things whose separate parts have multiple conections with their own structure. (p.140)

I got to the end of Cosmo. Where is this stuff coming from? The weird state I’m in. I have to apply my intellect but at the same time keep my instincts wide open. I need to hover between these levels. (p. 206)

and

I’m scared that with Cosmo I’ll come a cropper. (p. 217)

It would be 16 years before she wrote another novel.

For me, Cosmo cosmolino, now read so long ago, remains memorable. Janet and “Recording angel”, in particular, are still vivid. I’d willingly read it again.

Helen Garner, One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1987-1995 (#BookReview)

Helen Garner, One day I'll remember this, book cover

I loved volume 1 of Helen Garner’s diaries, Yellow notebook (my review), last year, and equally enjoyed this second volume, One day I’ll remember this. As with my first volume post, I plan to focus on a couple of threads that particularly interested me.

First though, it’s worth situating these diaries in terms of Garner’s biography. The nine years encompass the writing of her screenplay The last days of chez nous (my review), her novel Cosmo cosmolino (my review), and her non-fiction work, The first stone (read before blogging). This time also covers the beginnings of her relationship with novelist Murray Bail (“V”) and the early years of their marriage. The trajectory of this fraught relationship gave the volume a strong narrative arc, though the volume concludes not on this relationship but her hysterectomy. Read into that what you will.

Like Yellow notebook, volume 2 offers much for Garner fans. It covers similar ground to the first: observations from life around her, snippets of conversations, occasional news items (like the fall of the Berlin Wall), thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We watch the tortuous development of her relationship with Bail, and the ups and downs of some close friendships. Music and religion feature again. And, there’s a search for home, for a place of her own.

“the little scenes” and “she never invents anything” (1987)

In her preface to The last days of chez nous and Two friends, Garner characterised her writing as “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.” Those who know Garner’s writing will know that she was, on the publication of her debut novel Monkey grip (1977), criticised for not writing fiction but just publishing her diaries. This issue of what sort of writer she is, and what sort of writer she wants to be, continues to occupy her in this volume. “My work is very minor”, she worries in 1990. She is not helped by Bail who clearly thinks that her subject matter is not worthy of her writing skills:

I asked V what he ‘really thought’ of my work. He said he thought it was very good but that I should get beyond the subject matter that limited me, ‘those households, what are they called? That you always write about?’ (1992)

So it seems did Z (who, I think, is David Malouf):

V reports Z’s ‘outburst’ against ‘women’s writing’ with its ‘domestic nuances’ which he dislikes and it not interested in. V tries to get me to pick up my upper lip but without success since he doesn’t hide the fact that he agrees with Z. (1989)

It’s not surprising that among the writers whom Garner admires is Canadian Nobel Prize for Literature Winner, Alice Munro, about whom Garner writes, immediately before the above outburst:

Alice Munro is deceptively naturalistic. All that present tense, detail of clothes, household matters, then two or three pages in there’s a gear change and everything gets deeper, more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious. (1989)

Bail and Malouf, like many, misread Garner if they think her writing is about unimportant stuff. Garner is interested in the sorts of things she admires in writers like Jolley and John McGahern, for example. She says of McGahern that “he goes in very deep, broaching a vast reservoir of sadness, passivity, hopelessness and despair” (1993). She is not at all interested in domesticity for domesticity’s sake but in understanding the darkness in human beings, and “what people do to each other”.

As well as content, Garner talks again about the process of writing, of the frustration when it feels “false and stiff”, “ugly, clumsy”, or exhibits “anxious perfectness”, and of the exhilaration when it all goes right:

Hours passed in big bursts and I ended up with seven pages of stuff I could never have foreseen or invented … This must be how it’s done–take your foot off the brake, unpurse the lips and see where it takes you. (1990)

These volumes offer wonderful insights into the insecurities, challenges, despair and triumphs of being a writer – and for Garner, specifically, of the struggle to find “her” mode:

I need to free myself from the hierarchy with the novel on top. I need to devise a from that is flexible and open enough to contain all my details, all my small things. If only I could blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real. (1989)

By the end of this volume Garner has moved from “those households” into The first stone – and from there, as we know, she took on narrative non-fiction, and produced books on her own terms in her own form. In these, she finally found a way to not only explore the “darkness” and the things “people do to each other”, but to do it with an openness that is not always pretty but that I admire immensely.

“This is what life is. It’s not for saying no” (1987)

So writes Garner about her newly developing relationship with “V”. This relationship provides the diary’s backbone. It drives, mostly, where she lives, who she sees, and how and where she works. As they move from place to place – in his Sydney and her Melbourne – Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own comes frequently to mind, because, wherever they are, he gets to work at home while she must find somewhere else. Even when she tries to put her foot down, she ultimately backs off and, yes, finds somewhere else. This, in many ways, epitomises their relationship – he confident in the rightness of his working where he wishes, and she uncertain about whether to compromise (again), he sure that he is “blameless”, and she, self-deprecatingly, wondering if she’s “a monster”. It’s a typical man-woman story in so many ways, and for women readers the gender issues are both illuminating and infuriating.

However, it’s not all bad. There are moments of generosity and tenderness, even of fun. There are conversations about books and reading, convivial times with friends, and trips away. But, it also seems clear from the beginning that they are the proverbial chalk and cheese. Garner is emotional – “hypersensitive, says friend R – and sociable. She loves nature, music and dancing. V, on the other hand, is reserved, austere, elitist, really. He is furious when someone criticises art that he believes (knows!) is good, while Garner is interested in the discussion.

It made for painful reading at times, but fortunately, there was always this sense, this thing she says early in the volume:

Nothing can touch me. The power of work. Art and the huge, quiet power it brings. (1987)

Amen to that, eh?

Challenge logo

Helen Garner
One day I’ll remember this: Diaries, Volume 2, 1997-1995
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2020
297pp.
ISBN: 9781922330277

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Elizabeth Jolley, Hilda’s wedding (#Review, #1976Club )

One of Elizabeth Jolley’s biggest fans is Helen Garner, as I have said before. Garner often mentions Jolley, and my current read, the second volume of her diaries, One day I’ll remember this, is no exception. She writes:

Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel, My father’s moon [my review]. She re-uses and reworks images from her earlier work, brings forth experiences that she’s often hinted at but never fully expressed. I can learn from this. I used to think that if I said something once I could never say it again, but in her book I see how rich a simple thing can be when you turn it this way and that and show it again and again in different contexts.

This is not the only reason Garner admires Jolley, but the reasons are not my topic for today! I will add, though, because it is relevant to my topic, that another thing Garner appreciates about Jolley is that both draw closely from their own lives in their writing.

So now, “Hilda’s wedding”, which I read for the 1976 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book. It’s not the short story I had planned to read, but I couldn’t find that one – also a Jolley – in my collection or online. Fortunately, during my hunting, I found this one from the same year, and it exemplifies the two points I made at the beginning. Firstly, it features a character, Night Sister Bean, who appears in other Jolley works, including the first of hers I read, the short story “Night runner”. And, being a hospital-set story, it draws on (let’s not say “from”) her own experience of nursing.

“Hilda’s wedding” is a rather bizarre or absurd story – which, again, is not a surprise from Jolley. In it, the narrator, who is a relieving night nurse – so somewhat of an outsider – organises an on-the-spot wedding for the very pregnant, apparently unmarried, kitchen maid Hilda. The various roles – husband, celebrant, parents of the bride, pages – are played by night staff including the cook, cleaners and porters. The bride is dressed, with a veil made of surgical gauze and a draw sheet as her train (which contains a hint of the Gothic that we can also find in Jolley’s writing). Immediately after the ceremony, Hilda goes into labor and gives birth in the elevator.

What does it mean? I’m not sure, but this little story about an impromptu wedding sounds like children’s play-acting. It’s a game which uses imagination and creativity, which provides a sense of fun in a grim place, and which brings a little joy to Hilda, whose “melon-coloured face shone with a big smile”. Melons, as you may know, are often associated with pregnancy and fertility. However, injected into the story at various points is the real world, one characterised by rules and impersonality. There’s also the unresolved mystery about Sister Bean and rumours about her negative impact on transfusions/drips. Is she a witch, they wonder?

Sister Bean opens and closes the story, but otherwise appears only occasionally. There are various ways we could read her. One could be people’s need to find a reason or explanation or scapegoat for the bad things that happen in a world where you have little control. In the third last paragraph, our narrator comments on the early morning, and the city waking up:

A thin trickle of tired sad people left the hospital. They were relatives unknown and unthought about. They had spent an anonymous night in various corners of the hospital waiting to be called to a bedside. They were leaving in search of that life in the shabby world which has to go on in spite of the knowledge that someone who had been there for them was not there any more.

It is against this backdrop of sadness that our nurse narrator was there for Hilda. In the next and penultimate paragraph, the narrator is standing outside, taking “deep breaths of this cool air which seemed just now to contain nothing of the weariness and the contamination and the madness of suffering”.

In this story, as is typical of Jolley, there is humour alongside sadness, comedy next to tragedy, unreality bumping up against reality, and, appropriately, no resolution at the end.

In Central mischief – a collection of Jolley articles, talks and essays compiled by her agent Carolyn Lurie – is a talk Jolley gave to graduating nurses in 1987. Before I get to my concluding point from it, I’ll just share something else she says, which is that “for me fiction is not a form of autobiography”. This is an important distinction, which I think Garner would also make. Writers like Jolley and Garner may draw on their own experiences, but what they write is something else altogether.

But now, I want to conclude on this that she tells them:

There is a connection between nursing and writing. Both require a gaze which is searching and undisturbedly compassionate and yet detached.

What a clear-eyed view – and how hard to achieve. What do you think about this?

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Elizabeth Jolley
“Hilda’s wedding” (first pub. 1976, in Looselicks)
in Woman in a lampshade
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1983
pp. 139-46
ISBN: 0140084185

George Orwell, How the poor die (#Review)

“It is a sound instinct that warns people to keep out of hospitals if possible, and especially out of the public wards.” George Orwell may have written this in 1946, in his essay, “How the poor die”, but I can’t help thinking that it is still a sound instinct, something only too vividly confirmed by the experience of COVID-19, world-wide. How many people have contracted COVID-19 in hospital, for a start? How many hospitals have been so over-run that they’ve had patients in corridors, in foyers, in ambulances on ramps, in quickly erected marquee wards, not to mention people on the streets waiting to get in. This isn’t the experience of all patients in all hospitals in all countries, but as far as I can tell one or more of these things has happened in every place that COVID-19 has taken hold. It’s not pretty.

But, I digress. Back to Orwell. The essay was inspired by an experience he had in a public ward of a hospital in Paris in 1929, but why leave it to 1946 to publish? According to Wikipedia, the editor of Orwell’s Collected Works, Peter Davison, suggests that it may have been first written between 1931 and 1936, when Orwell was writing about “the unemployed, tramps and beggars”, and that he reworked it over 1940 to 1941. It was submitted to a journal around then but was rejected, “possibly because readers would have been unwilling to read about ‘how the poor die’ at such a time”. In the end, a section [which section, I wonder?] was retyped and it was published in November 1946.

Orwell’s experiences were awful. He had pneumonia, he says, and was placed in a packed ward – “a long, rather low, ill-lit room … with three rows of beds surprisingly close together” – and treated with cupping and a very painful mustard poultice. This, however, was not the worst of it. He describes the impersonal, disrespectful way in which the patients were treated by the doctors, medical students and nurses, the lack of basic cleanliness and care (with patients, not nurses, for example, often getting bedpans for those who couldn’t do it themselves). That this was going to be the sort of story he’d tell is heralded in the second paragraph where he describes having a bath on admission as “a compulsory routine for all newcomers, apparently, just as in prison or the workhouse”.

Anyhow, Orwell then moves on to death. He suggests that the lonely, ignored death of patient numéro 57, would be seen as “an example of a ‘natural’ death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany”. He considers it might be “better to die violently and not too old”, because, for all the horrors of war, he writes, death via a man-made weapon nowhere near “approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases”.

At this point, I was wondering about what hospital experiences Orwell had had, but he goes on to mention a Spanish hospital and an English cottage hospital, both of which he experienced in the 1930s. So, when he argues that the English cottage hospital was superior, he is speaking from experience. I wonder, though, whether a French cottage hospital might have been similarly decent? I don’t know.

Orwell next gives a brief history of hospitals through the nineteenth century, describing how they were places where medical students practised on the poor. He focuses on surgery, which, at that time, was “believed to be no more than a peculiarly gruesome form of sadism”. This apparently inspired a nineteenth century genre (though he doesn’t use that term) of horror-literature “connected with doctors and hospitals”. All you horror lovers will be familiar with this, I’m sure. Doctors in these stories had names like Slasher, Carver and Fillgrave. He also mentions Tennyson’s poem “The Children’s Hospital” (1880) as being part of this anti-surgery literature.

I found all this interesting, but wondered what his point was. A page or so before the end, I thought I found a hint, when, after referencing the improvements brought by anaesthetics and disinfectants, he says

Moreover, national health insurance has partly done away with the idea that a working-class patient is a pauper who deserves little consideration.

And yet … he concludes by saying that, despite improvements, hospitals are still not the best place to die, and that “the dread of hospitals probably still survives among the very poor”. It takes a long time, he implies, for past experiences and history to die out in the collective imagination. Not necessarily a bad thing, I think.

Wikipedia tells us that in 1948, two years after this story was published, and one year before Orwell died, Britain’s National Health Service was established “as publicly-funded medical provision for all”. The person behind it was the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, who had once been Orwell’s colleague at the Tribune.

Previous reviews from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, “The prevention of literature” and “My country right of left“?

George Orwell
“How the poor die” (orig. 1946, in Now)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 50-64
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

Shirley Jackson, The lottery (#Review)

As a lover of short stories, I have wanted to read Shirley Jackson’s “The lottery” for some time. With Kate selecting it as October’s Six Degrees starting work, now seemed the perfect time!

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) pops up on blogosphere with some consistency, and is clearly well-regarded. Her career spanned two decades and, during that time, as the thorough Wikipedia article says, she wrote six novels, two memoirs, and more than 200 short stories. Her debut novel, The road through the wall, and “The lottery”, were both published in 1948, though she had had short stories published over the preceding decade.

It was “The lottery”, however, which established her reputation – particularly as a master of horror stories. Wikipedia says it resulted in over 300 letters from readers, many “outraged at its conjuring of a dark aspect of human nature”. In the San Francisco Chronicle of July 22, 1948, Jackson responded to persistent queries from her readers about her intentions:

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Many of you probably know the story, but, just in case, I’m not going to “spoil” it beyond that. I will, however, make a few comments.

I’ll start with Wikipedia’s succinct synopsis: it is about ‘a fictional small town which observes an annual rite known as “the lottery”, in which a member of the community is selected by chance’. It’s a great read, because the build-up is so good and the ending so powerful. If you were not forewarned, you’d have no idea you were reading a “horror” story, because there’s nothing Gothic about the setting, no eeriness, no overt build up of fear even. Instead, there’s the coming together of this village’s 300 people coming for this annual event. It’s summer, “the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green”. Idyllic, in other words, or, so we are set up to see it is (or, could be?)

The children are described, then the men and women. It all seems benign, though there are tiny hints of something else, that you may not notice if you’re not expecting it. The emcee of “the lottery” is the ironically named Mr. Summers, who has the “time and energy to devote to civic [my emph] duties”. Many of the names in the story sound normal, but they also carry symbolic weight – Graves, Adams, Delacroix (pointedly, as it turns out, perverted to Dellacroy by the townspeople).

Anyhow, there is a long discussion of the “black box” that is used for the lottery, but, although it is “black”, it sounds quaint and unimportant. No great care is taken of it between lotteries. There’s a bit of camaraderie and joking between the townspeople; there’s confirmation of the formalities; but, slowly tension builds. Mr Summers and the first man to draw from the black box, grin at each other “humorlessly and nervously”. We are now half way through the story, and there’s nervousness among the attendees.

Then, plopped in here, is a little discussion about some villages – because this is not just this village’s tradition – having given up, or talking of giving up, the lottery. However, Old Man Warner (another interesting name), who has been through 77 lotteries, doesn’t approve of change. He sees “nothing but trouble in that”. When you know the end, you wonder what sort of person he is! Certainly not the archetypal dear old man, grandpa to everyone! Meanwhile, anxiety slowly builds, with another townsperson saying to her son, “I wish they’d hurry”.

The “winner”, when identified, doesn’t behave like a winner, which provides another dark hint, but which causes our aforementioned Old Man Warner to pronounce that “people ain’t the way they used to be”.

The final line of the story is shocking, but by then you have worked out what winning means, so it adds an extra layer to the story’s meaning (as you’d expect in a good short story).

You can find in Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the web, all sorts of critical reactions and theories about what it means, but I’d like to return to Jackson’s comment that she intended a “graphic dramatisation of the pointless violence and general inhumanity“. Why do the townspeople accept “the lottery”? What makes some villages give up the ritual and others not? Why do some in this town act with relish and others not? It recalls, for me, Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap. Yes, it’s a novel and a very different story, but I saw it as being fundamentally about the violence that seems to be be lying too near the surface of our so-called civilised society. I’ll leave it at that, but it makes me think, plus ça change.

Image credit: Shirley Jackson, New York City. 1940s. Contact: photography@magnumphotos.com. Low resolution version from Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Shirley Jackson
“The lottery”
First published in The New Yorker, June 26, 1948

Avalailable online at The New Yorker.

Sara Dowse, West Block (#BookReview)

The decision to republish, last year, Sara Dowse’s pioneering 1983 novel, West Block, was prescient. Think about this. In last weekend’s The Saturday Paper (14 August 2021), journalist Karen Middleton wrote about an issue involving the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In her article, she shares some comments made about this Department by law professor Anne Twomey. Twomey, Middleton writes, called

the department “disorganised, shambolic and disrespectful of the legal process”.

“In days gone by, the department was full of extremely competent people – the traditional mandarins,” she says. “Look what’s coming out of it now.”

Now, this is the Department Sara Dowse worked in during the 1970s. It was housed in a wonderful old Canberra building called West Block, and it’s this building, and Dowse’s work there, which inspired her eponymous novel. I read it back in the 1980s, and loved it, but have always wanted to read it again. How would it stack up – as a novel, and as a document about Canberra and the public service – decades later? Having now reread it, I think it stacks up very well, and clearly so did For Pity Sake Publishing.

This new edition is prefaced by an Author’s Note, in which Dowse provides a background to the novel, including her career trajectory which inspired it. Dowse headed up the Whitlam government’s new Women’s Affairs Section, from 1974 to 1977. Dowse resigned partly in protest at the section’s removal from the Department by the Fraser Government, but partly also because what she really wanted to do was write.

But, what to write about? She was American-born, living in Australia at a time when Australian women’s writing was flowering – with Australian stories. Although she’d been in Australia since 1958, it was her experience working in West Block, that gave her such a story:

The building itself galvanised me. The minute I walked into it, I wanted to write its story, but now that I was in a position to, I was up against the prejudice against Canberra, most particularly, Canberra’s public service.

As a Canberran and a public servant myself – albeit a librarian/archivist rather than a bureaucrat – I know whereof she speaks.

‘Nuff said, so I’ll return to my opening description of the novel as “pioneering”. Some of you may have wondered about that call. First, few novels had been set, to then anyhow, in Canberra. There’d been some, like M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Plaque with laurel, but not many. That has changed, since, due partly in fact to Canberra’s group of Seven Writers, of which Dowse was a member. Second, not many novels had been written about the workings of the public service, particularly Australia’s. And finally, Dowse’s writing, particularly the structure she used for her novel, was innovative. Dowse said in the book’s zoom launch I attended last year, that one of her inspirations was John Dos Passos, and how he can tell a big story through overlapping individual stories.

All this makes West Block an excellent and meaningful read, not just for Canberrans, but for Australians and readers of thoughtful novels anywhere.

Servants of a nation (Harland)

With that long preamble, let’s now get to the book. Set in 1977, it tells the intersecting stories of five public servants: conservative, “sober-faced” bureaucrat George Harland; passionate, progressive Henry Beeker; socially conscious, dedicated but lonely Catherine Duffy; young, up and coming economist Jonathan Roe; and the femocrat, Women’s Equality Branch head, Cassie Armstrong, whose story bookends the novel, making her its main and unifying character. While each character’s story occupies a separate chapter, giving each centre stage in turn, they do occasionally appear in each other’s stories, and they all work in West Block to Departmental head, Deasey.

Through these characters we see the workings of government, and here, as a plus, we also gain insight into the issues of the time which, besides women’s affairs, included Australia’s uranium policy and Vietnam. Dowse uses these big issues to show what happens behind the scenes – trips overseas to negotiate with other governments, the IDCs (interdepartmental committees) and argy-bargying between departments as public servants try to find compromise between their various political masters, relationships between politicians and bureaucrats. Underpinning these is the daily life of public servants as they navigate the ethics of public service and their career ambitions alongside their jobs. We see tensions between different perspectives and approaches – the sober conservatives like Harland versus the crusading progressives like Beeker – of service. Dowse gives both their due.

This sounds dry, but it’s not because Dowse infuses her story with humanity. Her characters are not just public servants, but human beings with lives, and feelings. At the launch I attended, interviewer Seminara said she loved the characters for their commitment to public interest and because they are “admirable as characters, flawed as people.” Harland struggles to understand his daughter who has left her husband and children; Catherine confronts the ethics of personal relationships that intrude into work life; and Jonathan reacts poorly to his girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy, for example.

Cassie, the main character, is not Dowse but is clearly inspired by her. The angst is palpable as she and her staff struggle to get their voices heard and women’s agenda on the table. There is a telling scene with Deasey that says it all. She presents him with her Branch’s thorough report into women’s needs cross-government. He’s not impressed:

‘Seriously now. We’ve had enough of your fingers poking in every pie. Causes no end of trouble. I can’t allow it, do you hear? It’s no way to run a department. So, be a reasonable girl. Pick out one, two, maybe three things to concentrate on.’ He stopped for breath. ‘Discrimination legislation, for instance.

“Girl” eh! Would he have said to Harland, “be a sensible boy”? I reckon not.

There are two more crucial characters in this novel, Canberra and West Block. They breathe life into and enrich the read immensely, but this is getting long, so watch for a Delicious Descriptions in a couple of days

While West Block’s style and structure is not as unusual as it was in the 1980s, it will likely still challenge those who like straightforward chronological narratives with deeply interacting characters. For me, though, there is a overarching narrative arc concerning Cassie’s devastated realisation that she is not going to effect the change for women she’d envisaged – and I enjoyed every beautifully-delineated character.

Ultimately, West Block pays tribute to the public servants who understand that their role is to be “servants of a nation” not of their political masters. This is the role of the public service, no matter how much its political masters would like to make it otherwise. Unfortunately, this fundamental principle has been increasingly tarnished over recent decades, which makes re-publication of this novel, now, all the more relevant and, dare I say, necessary.

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Sara Dowse
West Block
Book designer: Barbie Robinson
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020 (New Edition, Orig. ed. 1983)
348pp.
ISBN: 9780648565789

Review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing and the author

George Orwell, My country right or left (#Review)

Having recently posted on the fourth essay, “The prevention of literature“, in my book of George Orwell essays, I’ve decided to plough on and try to finish it. The next essay is the short, cleverly titled, “My country right or left”. It was first published in Autumn 1940 in Folios of new writing.

It’s a curious little essay. I’m going to introduce it by sharing the Orwell quote used by the Orwell Foundation under its banner: “What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art”. You can certainly tell from “The prevention of literature” that he sees literature as being necessarily political. That essay was written in 1946, just after World War 2 had ended. “My country right or left” was first published just one year into this war – and is politically-driven.

The essay starts with:

Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks.

I wasn’t sure at all, from this opening, where it was going. Soon, however, it’s clear that war is the driver for the essay which turns out to be about Orwell trying to rationalise, or work through, his socialist beliefs, his previously avowed pacifism, and his patriotism (and thus support for the war).

He writes about being a middle-class school boy during World War 1 and being oblivious to what was happening, particularly to “the true significance” of the big events. He writes:

The Russian Revolution, for instance, made no impression, except on the few whose parents happened to have money invested in Russia. 

I’m sure that’s not unusual! He talks about how pacifism

had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. parades, and to take no interest in the war was considered a mark of enlightenment.

Interestingly, however, this pacifism, he says, gradually gave way to a certain nostalgia in those who had not experienced the war! He suggests that this was why his generation was so interested in the Spanish Civil War. He then moves onto World War 2, to the growing awareness in the mid-1930s that it was coming and – this is his main point – his realisation that he “was patriotic at heart” and “would support the war”.

Orwell’s sees this as a no-brainer. He says:

If I had to defend my reasons for supporting the war, I believe I could do so. There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist; in any case I can see no argument for surrender that does not make nonsense of the Republican resistance in Spain, the Chinese resistance to Japan, etc. etc. 

But, he admits that this support stemmed primarily from “the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through”. The drilling had, he said, “done its work … once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage”. This patriotism, however, in not incompatible, he argues, with his socialist view that “only revolution can save England”. That “has been obvious for years”. “To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility”, he writes, but it is, in fact, a fact, because such dual loyalties were happening everyday. Revolution could not happen with Hitler in control, so, Hitler must be resisted.

His final point is to criticise the left-wing intellectuals who do not understand this, though his method is curious. He turns to the idea of “patriotism”, arguing that “patriotism” should not be equated with “conservatism”, because, unlike “conservatism”, “patriotism” can encompass change. Indeed, he proposes that “socialism” can grow out of the emotions that underpin “patriotism”, whether “the boiled rabbits of the Left” like it or not.

So, curiously argued perhaps, but I can imagine the socialist-leaning, middle-class raised, intellectually open Orwell wanting to nut out how to marry his socialist beliefs with the very real threats his imperfect Britain was facing – and coming up with something confronting, but true.

Wikipedia writes that “according to his notes to his literary executor in 1949”, this was one of three essays that he did not want reprinted after his death. I can sort of see why, and I don’t know why the executor didn’t respect this. However, I do like the insight this essay provides into how Orwell thought, and that it shows him to be an independent thinker, rather than a parroter of received truths.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, and “The prevention of literature“.

George Orwell
“My country right or left” (orig. 1940)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.