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Ben Smith Noble, The sands of time (#Review)

March 4, 2018

Tasmania 40 South Issue 78Ben Smith Noble is the second young writer I have reviewed here, the first being Leah A with her 10 silly poems by a ten year old (my review) which came to my attention via Son Gums. Ben Smith Noble’s short story “The sands of time”, on the other hand, came to me from Mother Gums via Brother Gums who lives in Tasmania and knows the young writer. Indeed, I believe I’ve met him too, but that was nearly ten years ago, when he was probably around 6!

Many moons have passed since then and it appears that Ben Smith Noble is becoming quite the writer. “The sands of time”, which unfortunately is not available on-line, won the Junior Section (Years 7-9) of the 2015 Young Tasmanian Writers Prize – and what a delightful story it is. It’s a time-travel story about a man who dies suddenly and mysteriously finds himself in a coffin that had been used in England in 1122, during the time of the Crusades. What happens next, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that he finds himself in the Holy Land in 1098 “standing between two armies that had a very certain view on who was right”:

The hot sands swirled around Mr Smith as the two armies gave a roar and started moving towards each other at a speed that suggested the sides shared an intense hatred for each other, and further suggested to the out-of-place Tasmanian the idea of being impaled on a lance or scimitar.

He dearly wished he was somewhere else. Heaven for example.

In the next paragraph, things are getting dangerous: “An arrow drifted by in what seemed slow motion, and hit a nice young man who would probably have got along well with his killer had his killer not been holding a bow”.

Mr Smith is not impressed, and starts to run:

He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he was sure anywhere would be better than here.

However, he soon finds an English knight and a Saracen warrior approaching him on horseback from different directions, so he does the only sensible thing he can think of. He calls, “Stop!” The denouement, from this point, is beautifully and succinctly told, and conveys a message about war – something that “happens when people with small brains get big ideas” – that is pure and sensible. It’s an entertaining read.

What is impressive about the story is Noble’s grasp of language, of rhythm and pace, of voice, and of structuring a plot. We are told in the first paragraph that Mr Smith had “a guilty love of Doctor Who” which sets up the time-travel idea, but we are also told in the same paragraph that he likes “staying in the here and now”, and hadn’t, in fact, been anywhere further than Burnie. In other words, he’s a simple, ordinary man, and Noble sets this up effectively in the first paragraph. He also establishes his light tone in this paragraph, and sustains it through to the end. The story made me laugh – at the right times – and yet it has a serious message that’s relevant today. I don’t have a benchmark for what young writers are capable of these days, but this story would not embarrass its creator in adult company.

A search of the Tasmania 40° South revealed that Ben Smith Noble won the Senior Section (Years 10-12) prize last year, with a story titled “Napoleon, or, the musings of Mr Pink”. Clearly someone to watch. You heard it here first, folks!

Ben Smith Noble
“The sands of time”
in Tasmania 40° South, Issue 78?, pp. 85-86

Six degrees of separation, FROM The beauty myth TO …

March 3, 2018

Wah, it’s now the start of autumn here down under. I love, love, love autumn (and not just because my birthday occurs during it) but it does mean that winter’s next and I hate, hate, hate that! We do, however, have fun things to entertain us when things get glum like, for example, The Six Degrees of Separation meme. It is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) – and if you are not familiar with how it works, please click the link on Kate’s blog-name. She explains it all.  Meanwhile, this month’s book is one that I should have read when it came out, given my interests, but didn’t, Naomi Wolf’s The beauty myth. As always though, I’ve read all the linked books.

Naomi Wolf, The beauty mythNow, when I said I should have read The beauty myth, given my interests, but didn’t, I mean that I have been interested for a long time – since I read Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch back in the 1970s – in the way western culture, specifically, objectifies women. Wolf’s The beauty myth, which was praised by Greer, looks, among other things, at the way women are pressured to conform to set notions of beauty, and are exploited as a result.

A more recent – and Australian – book-cum-memoir which looks, among other things, at the way women are pressured to meet societal standards of beauty is Tara Moss’s The Fictional woman (my review). Her thesis is that women are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in myriad ways. Despite having some long bows, this book – written in 2014 – is spot on in terms of what is now, finally, coming to the fore. It’s distressing that so many writers (among others) have been saying the same things about this issue for SO long, but here we are, in 2018, still in a patriarchal society which thinks it’s ok to objectify and thus control women. Unbelievable.

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

Another memoir by a feminist is Kate Jennings’ Trouble: Evolution of a radical (my review). It’s a different sort of memoir, a “fragmented autobiography” she calls it. It comprises a compilation of Jennings’ writings selected and ordered by her to show how she has come to be the person she is, to believe the things she does. It’s an engrossing book that includes fiction (poetry and prose) and non-fiction (including interviews) written over a couple of decades.

And, it includes excerpts from her own semi-autobiographical novella, Snake (my review), which I have also reviewed here. Snake is a coming-of-age story set in rural Australia, and tells of Girlie and Boy, and their parents Rex and Irene. It’s not a happy childhood, and in fact the book was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “domestic dystopia”. The snake title provides a clever motif encompassing such ideas as temptation, deceit and danger.

Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit, book coverThere are several books I could link from here, including Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The road from Coorain and Francesca Rendle-Short’s fiction-cum-memoir, Bite your tongue, but I’d like to leave the Australian continent at least once in this journey. Consequently, I’m choosing another autobiographical novel about a difficult childhood, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit (my review). Unlike Snake though, the orange motif is far less clear but seems to relate, in part at least, to closed-mindedness. At the end of the novel, pineapples appear, which may suggest change.

Thea Astley, Hunting the wild pineapplePineapples bring us back to Australia and a book with pineapples in the title, Thea Astley’s Hunting the wild pineapple (my review of the short story from this collection). It is set on a pineapple farm in a place called Mango, and deals, among other things, with the power wielded by white men over others – in particular, women (reminding me of where this month’s meme started) and migrants. And now …

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau

For my last book, I’m going to link on names – from author Thea Astley to character Thea in Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (my review). Coincidentally, this book returns to another thread in this meme, the coming-of-age one (though perhaps, as Diana Blackwood suggested in the comments on my review of her novel Chaconne, it’s more a “wising-up” one.) Set in 1930s Sydney, it concerns three young women, Thea, Eve and Marc, and revolves particularly around Thea’s affair with her married professor. Hmmm … I think we are back to the idea of the unbalanced power relationship between men and women. I’ll leave it there…

This month, again, we haven’t travelled far, only visiting the same countries as last month – the USA, England and Australia. We’ve stayed in the last 100 years and with women writers only. I must diversify a little more next month.

And now, have you read The beauty myth? And whether or not you have, what would you link to? 

Carmel Bird, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories (#BookReview)

March 1, 2018

Carmel Bird, Dead aviatrix

Carmel Bird, whose latest short story collection, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories, I’m reviewing here, has to be the consummate writer. She can turn her hand to fiction and nonfiction, to short and long form writing, to formal and more informal voices, and to both serious and witty or satiric tones. She’s also an editor/anthologist in addition to being a writer. And now she’s experimenting with a digital platform. So, when she hesitantly offered me The dead aviatrix to read and review, there was only one answer, yes.

Her hesitation related to its e-book form. She feared that we Gums’ people aren’t much interested in ebooks, but, she wrote, “they are a growing part of the literary landscape”. Then, using a very Bird-like expression, she continued, “so maybe one day you will write a bit about them, and if and when you do, The Dead Aviatrix will be idling on the tarmac.” Well, how could I resist, even if I had wanted to, an aviatrix idling on the tarmac? And anyhow, as you know, I do read and write about e-books. Annabel Smith’s The ark (my review) is a good example, but I’ve reviewed several e-books here including Dorothy Johnston’s Eight pieces on prostitution (my review).

Like Dorothy Johnston’s book, which was a digital publishing initiative of the Australian Society of Authors, The dead aviatrix is the first Capsule Collection, a new platform by digital publisher Spineless Wonders. Subsequent titles in the series will, the book’s “About” says, include works “selected from The Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award”. You clearly can’t keep a good writer down. I love that this doyenne of the Australian literary scene is still exploring and experimenting.

However, it’s all well and good to explore and experiment with form, delivery platform, and so on, but in the end you need to produce the goods, and this Bird has done with her eight stories. I should say, before discussing them, that all have been published before – in publications like Southerly, Island Magazine, and Review of Australian Fiction.

So now, at last, the stories themselves. They are a wonderful lot. Bird regularly makes me laugh, and she does so again here. It’s not empty laughter though, because her targets are serious. It’s just that she frequently presents her ideas with a cheeky, often satirical approach.

The first story is “The dead aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate”. It’s written in the sort of style Bird used in Fair game, her memoir of Tasmania (my review). By this I mean it digresses or, as she says, becomes “productively sidetracked”. However, as “The dead aviatrix” is “a publishing story”, the opening digression about the prolific Edward Stratemeyer – creator of a childhood favourite The Bobbsey Twins – is relevant in a way (of course!). Actually, it’s very relevant because she finds a quote about an aviatrix in a Stratemeyer book, and uses it to springboard her story. Oh, she’s a character! The tone of the story, like several in the book, is chatty. She talks directly to us, the reader, leading us along, often lulling us into a false sense of security. In this case, it’s a little satire on the publishing industry – on proofs going astray, on distracted publishing interns – but along the way it invokes or references all sorts of ideas, including the Australian aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton who “unlike the great and mysterious Amelia … did not disappear in the skies.” Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Bird (our Bird, I mean!) but I love trying. This story is, partly, about the art of writing stories.

The second story, “The Whirligigge of time brings its revenges”, draws from a Shakespeare quote, and is also a publishing story, this one more satirical about first and second novels, the notion of “literary” novels, awards, and not using agents. Again, it has a similar chatty story-telling tone. Here’s an example:

The history of this novel (The Heat of Summer) is the real subject of my tale. That, and the wheel of fortune and the quirks of fate. The book takes its first inspiration from Camus’ famous L’Etranger, and its content is drawn from the aforementioned history of Joseph Tice Gellibrand, the disappearing Attorney-General of Van Diemen’s Land. Well, you can see that what Frankie was doing here was risky. It was what is often described as literary fiction.

There’s more delicious satire about publishers and their slush piles, but I’ll finish with a quote about promotion:

The media hype for The Heat of Summer is huge, what with the glamour of Frankie’s Paris life, and the deep fascination with gothic Australian bush stuff and so forth. Based around the tragic life of her ancestor. Smash hit. Frankie turned out to be a publicist’s dream, having, as well as the attributes I have alluded to, long legs, a face that could sell cosmetics and airline tickets, and an engaging lisp.

Delicious isn’t it?

And so the stories continue, addressing issues like missing children (“Cold case”), dying towns and New Age shops (“Cactus”), shallow suburbanites and their prejudices (“The matter of the mosque”), surrogacy (“Surrogate”), and species extinction (“Letter to Lola” and “The tale of the last unicorn”). All the stories could be lessons in writing – in tone, in varying form, in how to make words and language work for you, in being absurd without being absurd (if you know what I mean), in addressing serious matters with a light but pointed touch. I enjoyed every one.

While several stories are written in the chatty, satirical tone of the first two. Not all are. “Dear Lola” takes the form of a love letter from a Spix’s Macaw to his lost mate. It’s sad, and pointed, but the whole idea of a bird writing to its lover gives it a whimsical touch too. “The matter of the mosque”, on the other hand, is written in little scenes, comprising mostly dialogue between two mothers in which it’s clear that whether to use hairspray or mousse is more important than opening their minds to different ways of being. Bird’s control of language and narrative here, together with her use of repetition and recurring ideas or images, makes this a little gem.

Now, I know many of you aren’t short story readers, because you want to get lost in character. These stories aren’t those sorts of stories. However, what a mind, what ideas, what fun and, ultimately, what heart, you miss by ignoring a book like this. It’s only available in e-format and costs a whopping $4.99! Why not give it a go?

AWW Badge 2018Carmel Bird
The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories
Spineless Wonders, 2017
ISBN (e-version): 9781925052343

(Review copy courtesy the author, but available from Spineless Wonders)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Aurealis Awards for Speculative Fiction

February 26, 2018

Those of you who know my lack of interest in science fiction might be surprised to see a post dedicated to the genre here. However, I do like to be more representative in my Monday Musings series. If that means sometimes moving into areas that are out of my comfort zone, then so be it. And now seems to be an appropriate time to do so in this instance, because this year’s Aurealis shortlist has been released and it contains some books that interest me.

First, though, a little background. According to the website, the awards were established “in 1995 by Chimaera Publications, the publishers of Aurealis magazine, to recognise the achievements of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror writers.” Their aim is to complement the Annual Australian National Science Fiction Convention’s Ditmar Awards and various other literary awards, but they delve deeper into the genre by distinguishing different types of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Their “rules” explain their criteria. They see themselves as “first and foremost a literary award”, so “literary merit, originality and contribution to the genre are of paramount importance in selecting the shortlisted works”. In other words, genre elements alone are not enough for shortlisting. Regarding genre definitions, they say that “a problematic definition of what makes a work of a particular genre” should not “bar an excellent book that contains appropriate elements of that genre”. They prefer “an inclusive view of what genre markers may include”. So, while they provide guidelines for their three named types of speculative fiction, these are not meant to be proscriptive. Rather, fluidity and inclusivity is their goal. This broad view is probably why there are a few books on this year’s list that interest me.

Over the years, award categories have come and gone, but the end result is that, today, the list is extensive. Their 2017 awards are for:

  • Best children’s fiction
  • Best graphic novel/illustrated work
  • Best young adult short story
  • Best horror short story
  • Best horror novella
  • Best fantasy short story
  • Best fantasy novella
  • Best science fiction short story
  • Best science novella
  • Best collection
  • Best anthology
  • Best young adult novel
  • Best horror novel
  • Best fantasy novel
  • Best science fiction novel

Phew! I love that they cover their three “types” in novel, novella and short story forms, and that they separately recognise children and young adult works, and collections and anthologies. It’s comprehensive, and it’s clearly successful because these awards have now survived more than two decades.

There is also the Convenor’s Award for Excellence. It’s something a little different, being awarded at the discretion of the convenors for “a particular achievement in speculative fiction or related areas” that doesn’t necessarily fit into award categories. ” It can be given to “a work of non-fiction, artwork, film, television, electronic or multimedia work, or one that brings credit or attention to the speculative fiction genres.” There’s no shortlist, and people can self-nominate. Again, if you’re interested to see the sorts of works being considered this year, do check the website.

Interestingly, I can’t find anything on their site about what the winners win, which makes me think it is more for the glory than for monetary gain.

Selected shortlist titles for the 2017 Awards

Given the large number of awards made, I’m not going to list the complete shortlist, but if you’re interested check out their  announcement. However, I’d like to identify a few that caught my eye.

Firstly, there are a few authors in the list who have appeared here, such as short story writer Deborah Sheldon (see my review of her 300 degree days and other stories). There are also popular children’s and young adult writer Garth Nix, local writer Kaaron Warren, and several writers I’ve learnt about through the Australian Women Writers Challenge, such as Kate Forsyth, Margo Lanagan and Tansy Rayner Roberts. I don’t feel quite so out of my comfort zone now that I recognise some names!

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusBut, this year’s shortlist also contains some specific titles that interest me:

  • Lois Murphy’s Soon, published by Transit Lounge (for Best Horror Novel). It won the Tasmanian Premier’s Prize for Unpublished Manuscript. Lisa reviewed it and found it compelling.
  • Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius, published by Hachette Australia (for Best Science Fiction Novel). This debut genre-bending novel by an indigenous writer (who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people of Western Australia) has also been longlisted for the Stella Prize. The judges wrote that “Coleman’s punchy prose is insistent throughout, its energy unflagging”. My reading group will be reading this in March so you can expect a review here in a month.
  • Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, published by Text Publishing (for Best Science Fiction Novel). I’ve read one of her novels, Steeplechase (my review) and am intrigued to read more of her. An uncertain grace has also been longlisted for the Stella Prize (link above). The judges’ report begins with “Krissy Kneen does not simply perform the difficult feat of writing wittily about sex, she does so with aplomb. An Uncertain Grace is a formally ingenious and often amusing novel that combines eroticism and science fiction with a playful spirit of intellectual inquisitiveness.”
  • Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck, published by Transit Lounge (for Best Science Fiction Novel). I loved Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and am very keen to read this latest book of hers which, I believe, crosses historical and science fiction genres. I rather thought it might have been longlisted for the Stella, but that didn’t happen.

These awards are clearly sought after. This year 800 entries were submitted across the 15 categories. The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony over the Easter long weekend during the Swancon convention in Perth.

Does speculative fiction have a place in your reading preferences? If so, how?

Diana Blackwood, Chaconne (#BookReview)

February 24, 2018

Diana Blackwood, ChaconneDoes a book set in the early 1980s qualify as historical fiction? Does a book about a twenty-something woman’s romantic adventures, and search for direction, qualify as coming-of-age? The answer is probably yes to both. Certainly, it is within these parameters that it’s appropriate to discuss Diana Blackwood’s debut novel Chaconne.

Chaconne, as you can see, has a gorgeous cover. Rather than an image of a pretty young woman, promoting the idea of a “woman’s book”, it features a harpsichord – with an image of a Pershing (or similar) missile inside its open lid – sitting in a golden-lit rural landscape. This clues us into some important aspects of this novel, which are that music and war are involved. Of course, the title, Chaconne, also suggests a music theme. A chaconne, says Wikipedia, is “a type of musical composition popular in the baroque era when it was much used as a vehicle for variation on a repeated short harmonic progression, often involving a fairly short repetitive bass-line (ground bass) which offered a compositional outline for variation, decoration, figuration and melodic invention”. By this description, the “chaconne” works as a metaphor for Eleanor who is “sort of” progressing in her life, though with a deal of repetition, particularly in her way of choosing the wrong men and of  bumbling along, without goal, from job to job. And within this main storyline are several interesting people and events which intervene along the way to add variety and decoration to the whole!

The novel starts with 24-year-old Eleanor arriving in Paris in 1981 to meet her lover, the bourgeois communist Julien whom she’d met a couple of years earlier in Sydney while he was an exchange student in Australia. Eleanor, who has “a fuzzy sense of being shut out of her proper story as if she had failed youth, been found wanting by life itself”, seems to have little direction in her life, though we know from flashbacks that she’s interested in music. One of her complaints against her mother, Mavis, and there are many, is that she’d stopped Eleanor’s piano lessons, replacing them with something she deemed more important for Eleanor’s education, maths tutoring! Escaping to Paris, though, is a bit of out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire, because Julien proves to be rather less than she thought. She finds herself spending much time alone in a tiny flat, relieved somewhat by her English teaching job at a lycée. Fortunately, her loneliness is assuaged a little by some lovely people, such as Rosa and the kind Monsieur Joubert who recognises her interest in music and starts, in a small way, her musical education.

As her relationship with Julien flounders, she meets Lawrence, an American who is flat-sitting for her next-door neighbour. It’s not long before she follows him to Germany, where he, a PhD student in deconstructive theory, is an English tutor on an American airforce base near a German village. The novel is set during the Cold War, when fear of nuclear destruction was high. Here Eleanor also obtains work teaching English. But, Lawrence – as we readers could have told her, just as we could have with Julien – doesn’t turn out to be the man she hoped.

Providing a background to Eleanor’s lacklustre romantic life is the unsettled political situation. Julien is engaged in communist politics, taking part in peace marches and the like, while Lawrence works on a military base where Eleanor keeps her Parisian life quiet and tries not to get too close to the base’s scary off-limit areas. Nonetheless she lives with “the unpalatable truth … that the nuclear umbrella was sheltering her by paying her rent.”

Not only does Lawrence draw her to this uncomfortable environment, but he is also not interested in music. What was she thinking in following him? Luckily, Eleanor finds a choir in the village, and her life gradually starts to change as she finally finds the thing that enlivens her.

And this is perhaps where the novel was a little problematical for me. While Eleanor’s journey to self-discovery was interesting, I never quite “felt” her sadness or her joy. I liked her, but I didn’t fully engage with her. This may be because she makes too many bad decisions that didn’t quite ring true for the intelligent young woman she clearly is. The coming-of-age felt a little late (particularly for the 1980s, which was before our 30-is-the-new-20 age?) But, this could just be sensible me speaking! Still, I would love to have seen more of her gutsy-but-also-life-challenged friend Ruth.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like about this book. I particularly enjoyed Blackwood’s obvious love of the English language. Eleanor and her Australian friend Ruth – not to mention her aforementioned mother – are grammar nazis (though that’s an unfortunate phrase given the post-war setting of this novel, a time when Germany was particularly uncertain about its past). The book delights in wordplay (including puns), alongside more serious discussions of grammar. Lawrence pegs Eleanor as “a proponent of prescriptive grammar” while she expects that “traditional grammar was another thing he would like to see tossed on the scrapheap”. The discussions Eleanor has about language are those we have here among the extended Gums’ family. We discuss language with each other, yell at the TV, argue about prescription versus description, ponder how and why language does or should or shouldn’t change. There are no answers but it’s fun exploring the issue.

Blackwood’s writing is also beautifully evocative, such as this description of Monsieur Joubert – “loneliness was close about him like a Parisian winter”. And this of the beginning of spring:

In the last few days spring has retreated. The quickening of the senses, the opening up to life and fate, had been dampened by chilling rain and the need to wear a jumper again.

This is exactly why I’m not a big fan of spring! It taunts with moments of warmth before plunging us all into cold again! Time and again Blackwood captured moments perfectly.

Chaconne, then, is an intelligent, well-written, well-structured book set in interesting times and places. I did like the cheeky metafictional reference to The catcher in the rye’s Holden Caulfield. Eleanor suggests that he needed “a firm but loving grandmother”. However, she also recognises that,

of course, the whole point of being a fictional character was to suffer misadventures and setbacks and humiliations without being bailed out by your grandmother, at least not until you’re sufficiently chastened.

Very true – and in the end our fictional character is – but no, I’ll not give it away.

Chaconne is book that should appeal to those who love Western Europe and baroque music, who remember the 1980s, and who like their romantic novels to be thoughtful and not neatly wrapped up. By the end, Eleanor has grown, but, as in life, we know she has yet more growing to do – and that’s the sort of ending I like.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this novel and includes two YouTube links to music referenced in the novel.

AWW Badge 2018Diana Blackwood
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9781925272611

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s most successful writer, ever

February 19, 2018

The obvious question to ask when someone makes a “best ever” claim is by what criteria? The easiest way to justify “best” is with numbers. And so it is here, as it’s with numbers that Australian publisher Allen & Unwin’s blog, Things Made From Letters, suggests that Morris West is “Australia’s most successful writer, ever.” The numbers are sales of course. According to Allen & Unwin (A&U), West’s books have sold over 70 million* copies around the world – more, apparently, than any other Australian author.

Morris West, The shoes of the fishermanAnd yet, I wonder how many readers here know – or have read – Morris West. He wrote nearly 30 novels, not to mention radio serials, plays and non-fiction, and his work was translated into 28 languages. His most famous novels were The devil’s advocate  (1959), which made him an international best-seller, and The shoes of the fisherman (1963). These, and a few others, were adapted to film.

West was born in Melbourne in 1916, and died in 1999. The Oxford companion to Australian literature says that he was a member of the Christian Brothers order for 12 years, but that he left in 1940 before taking his final vows. This is relevant because he was known for writing about the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding its role in international affairs. During World War 2 he worked as a cipher officer and was briefly private secretary to ex-PM Billy Hughes. After the war, he worked in radio, and founded, in fact, Australian Radio Productions.

However, as the A&U blog says, he “was determined to build a career as a writer, and as for so many artists, musicians and writers before the 1980s, the only way to do that was to move overseas.” And so he did, living in Europe and the USA from 1955 to 1980. He clearly maintained contact with Australia during this time because in the early 1960s, he helped found the Australian Society of Authors. The A&U blogger is particularly interested to know why such an apparently successful writer is barely known today, indeed completely unknown to her “younger colleagues”. She offers a few reasons. One is that except for a couple of early novels, all his books are set overseas. “Is Australian literary culture reluctant to acknowledge a novelist who doesn’t write about Australia?”, she asks. Or is it that “an increasingly secular Australia is now uncomfortable reading fiction which takes religion seriously?” Even though he wrote this fiction with a critical eye?

But then there’s the issue of “literary” quality. The A&U blogger quotes the AustLit database as stating that his fiction “has not received a great deal of literary attention.” Kerryn Goldsworthy, writing about Australian fiction from 1900 to 1970 in The Cambridge companion to Australian literature, names West, along with Ion L. Idriess and Jon Cleary, as writers who were very popular in their time but who “tended to be dismissed by their ‘serious’ peers and by later literary historians as middle-brow.”  She describes his books as looking at public institutions, usually political or religious ones, on the international stage and dealing with “the moral dilemmas they pose for the individual”. These three writers are probably the equivalent of my generation’s Colleen McCullough and Bryce Courtenay?

Morris West, The clowns of GodSo, why the interest now? Well, you may not be surprised to hear that Allen & Unwin is re-publishing most of his work – in print and e-version. (The book covers here are from this new series). Author Simon Caterson writing in The Monthly refers to this reissue and asks what West has to offer contemporary readers. Good question. He talks about the subject matter, suggesting that the “fascination with church politics and influence” is of continuing interest. Books keep coming out dealing with these, he says, just think The Da Vinci Code!

What makes West worth reissuing is, he suggests, West’s ability “to turn the intellectual and emotional struggles within his faith – his own and that of others – into gripping melodrama.” Moreover, he says that

it makes commercial sense to bring back the books of Morris West, whose big themes – conscience versus power, the individual versus the institution – are as relatable to the struggles of secular – as much as religious – life.

And finally, there’s the writing. Caterson sums it up this way:

It is also important to note that West could not have sold tens of millions of copies of his books without knowing how to make the pages turn. The prose may sometimes be prolix and the endings not always satisfying, but his writing is always full blooded and, for the most part, remarkably fluent.

Middle-brow perhaps, but a good read it seems. And as someone who loves seeing older Australian writers being read again – even those who didn’t write about Australia! – I’m happy to see this blast from my past being published again. Good on Allen & Unwin. I hope, just as I continue to hope for Text Classics, that they do well.

* Wikipedia says 60 million, but I think that might be based on figures around the time of his death.

Jane Austen, The Watsons (Unfinished) Redux

February 18, 2018
Book covers for Jane Austen's The Watsons

Book covers for Jane Austen’s The Watsons

Jane Austen fans, as you probably know, do a lot of re-reading. Given we only have six complete novels, plus her juvenilia and a couple of unfinished novels, we have little choice. Fortunately, it’s not a chore! And so, having completed rereading all her novels over the last few years for their respective 200th anniversaries, my local Jane Austen group decided to return to her two unfinished novels, starting this month with The Watsons. This was the third time we’ve done it in our relatively short existence. We did it in 2008 and again in 2011 (at which time I wrote my own reflections for this blog).

I do not plan here to write a “proper” review, so if you are interested in my thoughts, please check the link above. However, there are a couple of additional comments I’d like to make, starting with the question I posed in my 2011 post. The question relates to its unfinished nature. There are in fact two main questions regarding this: why did she stop writing it and why didn’t she pick it up again? And here I’ll quickly recap the novel’s background for those who don’t know it. The Watsons was written in Bath probably around 1803-1805, though there isn’t complete consensus about this. It’s commonly believed that she abandoned it after her father’s death in 1805 because of sadness and the resultant uncertainty in her living conditions. Whether this is true or not, it is true that she didn’t take up serious writing again until she settled in Chawton in 1809.

Now, it was at Chawton that she took up two earlier works, which became her first two published books, Sense and sensibility and Pride and prejudice. Why did she not then take up The Watsons and rework/finish it too? This is the more interesting question, I think, than why she stopped it in the first place. There are some theories around, though I haven’t investigated them thoroughly. However, her nephew James Austen-Leigh, who wrote the first “memoir” we have about her life, conjectures that Austen had become aware of “the evil of having placed her heroine too low, in such a position of poverty and obscurity” but I’m not sure I buy it.

My group discussed this idea, and we all felt that Austen had other “poor” heroines, of whom Fanny Price is the obvious example. But, the Dashwood girls were not well-to-do either. It’s true that Austen’s plan for The Watsons, as Cassandra reported, was for things to get worse for our heroine, but still …

No, my idea is different. The Watsons is broadly about four sisters and their marriage prospects – as is Pride and prejudice and Sense and sensibility. When we look at The Watsons, which Austen started after drafting those two books, we can see characters and storylines which remind us of these first two books. And so, I wonder whether, having published P&P and S&S, Austen felt she didn’t have enough new ideas to add to this storyline and wanted to try something different. Certainly, the next book, Mansfield Park, was something different. The marriage plot is still there, but it’s about a poor relation who is taken in by her wealthier ones. The interesting thing is that The Watsons commences with the return of 19-year-old Emma Watson to her family having spent 14 years with a wealthy uncle and aunt. Perhaps Austen decided to explore the story of the poor relation from a different angle, from the time of arrival at the new home?

Another thing about The Watsons is that as well as having characters who remind us of those first two novels, it also has characters reminiscent of some in later books, particularly in Emma. This suggests that while she didn’t finish The Watsons, her work on it wasn’t wasted – and she knew it.

We’ll never know of course. There’s so much we don’t know about our Jane, but it is fun trying to fill in the gaps.

A couple of apposite quotes

There’s more I could explore about this tiny fragment of around 17,500 words, but I’ll save those for the next re-read! Instead, I’ll conclude with two excerpts which grabbed my attention this time.

Gender and money

The first is a conversation between the heroine Emma and the wealthy aristocrat, Lord Osborne, who is interested in her, though his regard is not returned. In this conversation, he suggests that all women should ride horses:

‘I wonder every lady does not. – A woman never looks better than on horseback. –’
‘But every woman may not have the inclination, or the means.’
‘If they knew how much it became them, they would all have the inclination, and I fancy Miss Watson – when once they had the inclination, the means would soon follow.’
‘Your lordship thinks we always have our own way. – That is a point on which ladies and gentlemen have long disagreed. – But without pretending to decide it, I may say that there are some circumstances which even women cannot control. – Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.’

Here we see Emma’s mettle. She stands up to Lord Osborne – to his assumptions about women and to his obliviousness that not all people have the means he has.

On reading to escape

And finally, The Watsons contains another of those wonderful quotes by Austen about books and reading. Here, right near the end of the fragment, Emma is thinking about the downturn in her fortunes through the death of her uncle:

The evils arising from the loss of her uncle were neither trifling, nor likely to lessen; and when thought had been freely indulged, in contrasting the past and the present, the employment of mind, the dissipation of unpleasant ideas which only reading could produce, made her thankfully turn to a book.

So, even in 1805, reading was seen as a way to occupy the mind and so escape, for a while, the troubles of life.

Jane Austen
“The Watsons”
in The Oxford illustrated Jane Austen. Vol VI, The minor works (ed. R.W. Chapman)
London: Oxford University Press, 1969
pp. 315-363