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My literary week (5), or, those reading coincidences

November 20, 2016

Last time I wrote a My Literary Week post it was because I’d scarcely read that week, but had some literary moments to share. This time it’s because I’ve been reading things which have generated some thoughts that I want to document, but not in long dedicated posts. (I’m feeling lazy). Most have been inspired by those reading coincidences (or synchronicities) where you read something in one place and then it, or something related to it, pops up in another.  See what you think …

Critical critics (and Jane Austen)

Georgette Heyer Regency BuckA week ago, I read a post about Georgette Heyer by blogger Michelle who, knowing my love of Jane Austen, wondered what I thought about Heyer, given she was an avowed Austen fan and wrote about the Regency. I’m afraid I disappointed Michelle because I confessed that I’ve never read Heyer. I tried one a couple of years ago, but I just. couldn’t. get. into. it. I commented on Michelle’s post that what some of those (not Michelle I might add) who try to compare Heyer and Austen miss is that Heyer was writing historical fiction, while Austen was writing contemporary fiction. Austen was writing about her own time, and this makes their works very different. Heyer doesn’t write Jane-Austen sorts of stories. Her stories are not about small villages and a small number of families, but are set on bigger stages and mostly amongst the wealthy. War and high drama are more her subject matter. Austen’s characters are mostly middle class, and even those who are wealthy live in the country and attend quiet social events. Her themes involve critiques of society and human behaviour.

And here comes the synchronicity, sort of. As I was preparing for my local Jane Austen group’s meeting this weekend on Austen’s grand houses, I read the essay “Domestic architecture” by Clare Lamont in Janet Todd’s (ed.) Jane Austen in context. In it, Lamont notes that critics have expressed disappointment at the lack of architectural information or descriptions of interiors in her novels. But, but, but, I say, Austen was writing contemporary fiction. She was writing for readers who knew the homes the wealthy, the middle-class, the parsons, farmers and others lived in. Austen did not have to describe these in detail. Historical novelists do though! So Austen, being the sort of writer she was, used her descriptions to convey character, not to tell us what the places were like.

When we read, it is so important to know the context and genre within which we are reading before we start casting aspersions!

What contemporary readers know

And this brings me to another comment on the topic of what contemporary readers – that is, readers reading books around the time they were written – know. I was mooching through Instagram this morning, and came across an image of mini-pineapples by Iger aforagersheart. She wrote that she’d read a history of pineapples which told her, among other things, that they were used as a symbol of wealth for “fancy Europeans”.

Aha, I thought, Jane Austen used this – and her contemporary readers would have recognised it for what it was, a pointer to the pretensions and focus on money of the character involved, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey. He has “a village of hot-houses” but, oh dear, “The pinery had yielded only one hundred [pineapples] in the last year” he complains to our heroine Catherine. General Tilney, we gradually discover, values people by their money, and is ungenerous to those without. This starkly contrasts with the admirable Mr Knightley in Emma who grows strawberries and apples, in fields and orchards, and shares them willingly with neighbourhood families. He even gives his last keeping apples, to his housekeeper’s dismay, to the poor Bateses:

 Mrs. Hodges … was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring.

We readers of later times see, of course, this generosity, but we may not know what the pineapples symbolise, and are therefore likely to miss that little early hint to where Austen was going with General Tilney.

Hungary and the war

Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

The third reading coincidence relates to my review last weekend of Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, in which she tells of her mother’s life in Hungary before, during and after the war, and her (and the 1943-born Susan’s) immigration to Australia. A great read. Then, I opened my digital edition of The Canberra Times this morning, and what did I see but an article about local food-blogger Liz Posmyk’s recently published book, The barber from Budapest, which tells the story of her parents through two world wars in Hungary, the challenge they faced in living postwar under Communism, and their subsequent migration to Australia.

There are still many stories to tell about people’s experiences of the two world wars, and about what happened postwar. Whether we’ll ever learn the lessons they provide is another thing.

Christina Stead Week

And finally, of course, I can’t let the post finish without mentioning Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Christina Stead Week, with which she has aimed to raise the profile of, and gather together a list of blog reviews for, this often overlooked writer. Stead was, Lisa shares on her post, described by the New Yorker as “the most extraordinary woman novelist … since Virginia Woolf” and by Saul Bellow as “really marvellous.”

I have contributed two posts – one on the story, “Ocean of story”, and another on the first three stories in the Ocean of story collection. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these, and thank Lisa for giving me the impetus to read them.

Christina Stead, Ocean of story, Pt 1: The early years – Australia (Review)

November 19, 2016

Christina Stead, Ocean of storyContribution no. 2 for Lisa’s Christina Stead Week from Ocean of story: the uncollected stories of Christina Stead.

My first post was on the titular story, “Ocean of story”, which is also used as the collection’s Introduction. After this Introduction, the stories have been organised into 7 sections by editor RG Geering. These sections are presented chronologically, Geering says, reflecting Stead’s timeline, not when they were written. The first is, therefore, logically titled “The Early Years – Australia”. It contains three stories – “The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon” – all of which have children as their central subject, which is, perhaps, interesting given Stead had none of her own.

Now, if you ever went to primary (or elementary) school, and that’s all of you I presume, you will enjoy “The old school”. If you were a girl, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. “The old school” was, Geering says, one of the few things Stead worked on in the last years of her life. It was published in Southerly in 1984. It’s like a little slice of life, and like the other two stories, starts with a fairly detailed setting of the scene before she gets to her main subject matter.

So, “The old school” starts with a description of the school, followed by a description of what happens at the school, or, more precisely of what the rumours say happens. But, we are told, in spite of this, “cause and effect” are clearer at school than at home, and “mostly concerned the boys”. Boys who are bad – who truant for example – will go to “the reformatory”. And if you go to the reformatory, your next stop will be prison. And who knows all this? Why “the informants” of course. And who are these “informants”, these “small sages”? Well, Stead writes, they are the “natural moralists, two or three to a class and as far as I knew, all little girls”. From here we are regaled with stories about these informants’ moral pronouncements by this “I”, this “I” who appears in two of the stories and who is an observer, rather than a participant, from within. In “The old school” then, the “I” is a student at the school.

The rest of the story explores the “moral questions” debated by these “informants”, whom Stead describes in more detail:

The informants, our moralists, had clean dresses, pink, blue or sprigged, patent leather shoes and white socks, and curls natural or rag. They did clean school work too, even when we got pen and ink. Goodness alone knows how, withe their pink cheeks and shiny curls and neatly dressed brink little mothers, they got all this news about jails, reformatories, judges and sentences, lashings, canings, bread and water.

They are, of course, often little tyrants, deciding which child will be approved and which won’t. The rest of the story chronicles some of their pronouncements and their impacts on their peers. Whenever anything happened in the school “they knotted together, a town moot: they discussed, debated and delivered an opinion.” What the teachers said was to them only “hearsay”. Our “I” character doesn’t have an opinion. She “thought then that cruelty and injustice were natural and inevitable during all of a poor creature’s life”. (The use of “then” would be worth exploring.)

The main story concerns poor little Maidie Dickon who is, literally, “poor” and thus ostracised by our “natural moralists”. She didn’t have the right shoes, didn’t bring the right notes from her mother, and didn’t have her own pen and paper and so would be given some from the school supply. “It isn’t fair” cry the well-provided “informants” who also prove, mystifyingly to our “I”, to be excellent “newsgatherers”. They somehow know about Maidie’s roadworker father, who is (illegally, in those days) striking, and washerwoman mother.

You are getting the drift I’m sure of the story and will be realising that Stead’s focus is on the “natural” justice delivered by these “sages” or “moralists” to those less able to defend for themselves, while the “I”, Stead’s young self, tries to make sense of it all, of how the world works. The ending is gorgeously sharp. The story could take up a whole post – I loved its vivid picture and its passion – but I’ll move on.

“The milk run” was published in The New Yorker in 1972 (and later appeared in a Penguin anthology, The Penguin book of the road, published in 2008). It is set in the same area of southern Sydney as “The old school”, but it tells the story of a family and a little boy whose job it is to get the family’s milk from the grandfather’s dairy a mile away. Stead takes some time setting the physical scene, and describing the family and the boy, Matthew, who worships his father.

It is a beautifully detailed story of a particular place and time. Stead captures ordinary family life and tensions with such precision – a comment here, a brief conversation there, convey all we need to know about the various relationships. It conveys a child’s eye view of the world, the child’s incomprehension of adult behaviour. Things happen. Sometimes they make sense to Matthew, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the father he worships supports him, sometimes he doesn’t. But, after a lucky find, Matthew gathers to himself a warming thought, something that offers him comfort when all else is uncertain.

And finally, “A little demon”, which was published, Geering says, in “an almost identical version” in the Harvard Advocate in 1973. It’s a satire, which again starts with setting a wider scene by describing a large and successful but rather insular family, the Masons. On the surface, they seem to be perfect, but asides and hints suggest that the surface is just that. There’s something a little claustrophobic and inward-looking about them with their “same notions” and suspicion of travel.

Into this family is born Stevie, the titular “little demon”. We hear a lot about him – the horror of his behaviour and what a trial he is to his mother, though, strangely, not to his teacher who finds him “very good” – but we don’t meet him until the last couple of pages. We are told what an “adorable” person his mother is, and how much she loves her two dogs, Duff and Rags. And here come some hints about who this adorable Mariana really is because, you see, she loved Duff and didn’t want her to ever have puppies. Why would you, after all, “spoil” that beautiful dog by letting her have puppies? Hmm, does this tell us something about Mariana’s attitude to motherhood? Ironically though, she falls in love with Rags, one of Duff’s unwanted puppies, the irony doubled because she doesn’t love her own offspring.

It all starts to go bad for Stevie when the cat that he found upset the dogs. He took the cat’s part, “just for a day or two; and then he saw which way the wind was blowing and lost interest”. And here the rot sets in. Stevie is depicted as having no feelings for animals, and as doing everything he can “to be disagreeable, to annoy, to tease”. How old is this Stevie that everyone – except perhaps his grandmother who defends him – hates? About 5!

It’s a satirical story in which Stead skewers shallowness and self-centredness, not to mention lack of maternal feeling. The language here is more heightened, using exaggeration and exclamation, than the more natural language of the previous two stories. It also has a somewhat stronger plot: we are set up to want to meet this Stevie, and there is a delicious little twist or sting in the tail, which the other two stories don’t have.

I’ve enjoyed reading these stories for Christina Stead Week. I’ll try to read more down the track, but in the meantime they have given me added insight into Stead, into the variety in her writing and into some of her broader themes. Thanks Lisa for the little push to read at least a bit of Ocean of story!

AWW Logo 2016Christina Stead
“The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
ISBN: 9780140100211

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1902 in Australian literature

November 14, 2016

Why, you may be asking, have I chosen 1902 for this post? After all, it’s not a nice round number of years ago, like 100. I could tease you with hints, but I want to get onto the post proper, so I’ll just tell you: it was the year Christina Stead was born. And, as you’ll have realised if you read yesterday’s post, this week in Lisa of ANZLitLovers’ Christina Stead Week. Now, of course, Stead wasn’t particularly sentient that year, but I thought it might be fun to see what was happening in literature in the (Aussie) world she was born into.

But first, let’s look at who else was born in 1902. Most interesting to me is Dymphna Cusack, whose memoir of her teaching days, A window in the dark, and first novel, Jungfrau, I’ve reviewed here. My research of the National Library of Australia uncovered that Cusack and Stead corresponded with each other, though I think Stead had a closer relationship with Cusack’s literary collaborator, Florence James. Anyhow, also born this year were Alan Marshall, famous for his autobiography I can jump puddles, and a lesser known author, Dorothy Cottrell, who had two novels adapted for film, one of them in her lifetime, Orphan of the wilderness.

Now, what was published in 1902? I’m going to focus on novels and short stories, because these were Stead’s main forms, and I’ve selected names that are reasonably well-known (to my mind anyhow). Here goes:

  • Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies (my reviews can be found here)
  • Rolf Boldrewood’s The ghost camp or, the avengers
  • Henry Lawson’s Children of the bush, plus individual stories
  • Louise Mack’s An Australian girl in London (I have Mack on my TBR)
  • Rosa Praed’s The insane root: A romance of a strange country and her autobiography, My Australian girlhood (I’ve read her The bond of wedlock)
  • Ethel Turner’s Young love (I have reviewed her Juvenilia)

There are others, but most are writers who are not known now, such as Hume Nisbett and Ambrose Pratt.

The interesting question is whether any of these writers influenced Stead? Did she read them as she was growing up? Not having read any biographies of her, I can’t say. However, Baynton and Mack went overseas in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, seeing it as important for establishing a writing career. Expatriation could offer better access to publishers and “a freer life” (Carole Ferrier). Stead also went to England (and later the US) a couple of decades later. She may not have explicitly “followed” them,  but it was a popular path for serious writers. There is an argument – both in her time and now – that Stead’s lack of recognition in Australia stems partly from the lengthy time she spent overseas. You can, it seems, be away from “home” too long! According to Wikipedia, she ‘only returned to Australia after she was denied the Britannica-Australia prize on the grounds that she had “ceased to be an Australian”‘.

A significant person active at the time of Stead’s birth is Vida Goldstein, the politician and women’s rights activist. In 1902 she was the Australian delegate at the International Women’s Suffrage Conference in Washington, DC. Again, whether Stead knew of her, I don’t know, but she was a person worth knowing and was part of a long tradition of Australian women who cared about women’s rights and broader social reform. Stead’s first novel, Seven poor men of Sydney, documenting “the relentlessness of poverty”, demonstrates her interest in similar issues.

I know this little post doesn’t tell us much about Stead, herself, but I found it interesting to research and think about. More useful might be to look at literary life around the time she turned 21? We might then find and think about those who were more likely her peers. Hmmm …


  • 1902 in Australian literature (Wikipedia)
  • Hooton, Joy and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian literature, 2nd ed. Melbourne: OUP, 1992
  • Trove (various newspaper articles!)

Christina Stead, Introduction: Ocean of story (Review, possibly)

November 13, 2016

Christina Stead, Ocean of storyI am so glad Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has given me an excuse, her Christina Stead Week, to finally pick up Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead. I bought this book, in 1991, from a sale table for all of 98 (Australian) cents! What a bargain. I then popped it on my Australian literature TBR shelves, where it has sat, and sat, and sat – until now.

Before I get to it, though, I must confess that this post’s title is a bit of a lie. Christina Stead just called this story “Ocean of story”, but RG Geering, the editor of this “uncollected” collection, made it the Introduction to the book. I decided that I could use this to differentiate in my post title that the post is just about this introductory story. Fair enough?

Now to the overall collection. I am on record as stating that I don’t read introductions to books before I read the book itself. I would in fact prefer these “introductions” to be called “afterwords” and placed at the end. And that’s what Geering has done here except, being perverse, I’d rather that for such a “curated” collection it had been at the beginning! Consequently, I didn’t see it until I’d read the first story and, finding it a little unusual, wondered why there wasn’t some sort of editor’s introduction. So, I went looking. And there, at the end, was his Afterword!

Geering writes that the book

brings together for the first time most of the short prose writings that appeared in various places (journals, magazines and newspapers) outside the thirteen volumes of fiction published during her own life, along with other unpublished pieces found among her personal papers after her death.

And then he says that he has grouped the pieces “according to their settings and contents rather than chronologically”. In this way, they will “follow the contours of [her] somewhat wandering life.” Then, right towards the end of his Afterward, he finally describes the opening piece: it’s

a contribution to ‘The International Symposium on the Short Story’ in Kenyan Review, 1968 … [and] is a highly personal essay, rather than a conventional article.

And that is exactly what it is, a “highly personal essay”, one that, by its end, has given us a “highly personal” understanding of what stories, and particularly short stories, meant to Stead. It starts:

I love Ocean of Story, the name of an Indian treasury of story; that is the way I think of the short story and what is part of it, the sketch, anecdote, jokes cunning, philosophical, and biting, legends and fragments. Where do they come from? Who invents them? Everyone perhaps. Who remembers them so that they pass endlessly across city life? I know some of those marvellous rememberers who pass on their daily earnings in story; and then they are forgotten to become fragments, mysterious indications. Any treasury of story is a residue of the past and a record of the day.

I love the open-endedness of her conception. It’s a free-flowing one that allows stories to take all forms. She goes on to say that “what is unique about the short story is that we all can tell one, live one, even write one down.”

Then she turns autobiographical, starting with her childhood with her father. She was, she says, “born into the ocean of story, or on its shores”, the daughter of a “lively young scientist”. He

told his tales. He meant to talk me asleep. He talked me awake.

Ha, the impact of stories on an imaginative child, which Stead clearly was. He told her stories drawn from his zoological work, and “stories of the outback…and even a few historic events.” But then comes the important thing – the thing that is important to all who read – that is, what stories do for us. She writes that the thousand stories she heard between two and four and a half

formed my views – an interest in men and nature, a feeling that all were equal, the extinct monster, the coral insect, the black man and us; and another curious feeling in me, of terrestrial eternity, a sun that never set.

This feeling came via her father’s nature-related stories which taught her that while death was necessary, there was always “a frail print” left. However, the storytelling – these times that allowed her “to see the unseen” – ended when she was four and a half and her father remarried. The magic was imprinted by then though!

“the million drops of water”

Indeed, she sees stories as “magical”. You only need for someone to say, she says, “Here’s a story; it happened to me” and all will listen. We seek stories – even those “twisted, inferior, cramped, and sterile stories on TV” – because we hope to recognise and “have explained our own existence”. She’s right – on both superficial (what am I doing) and deeper, more psychological (who am I) levels – don’t you think? She continues:

It isn’t necessary that these stories should be artistic or follow formula or be like Chekhov or the last metropolitan fad, or anything. The virtue of the story is its reality and its meaning for any one person: that is its pungency.

She argues that while the “masterpiece” might be appropriate for professionals, “the essential for us is integrity and what is genuine.” She then, interestingly given she wrote this in 1968, harks back to stories of the 1930s:

not all are memorable (some are) but all record the realities of the days when America was suffering and looking for a way out and thinking about its fate; and – look at those same today – they are a vivid and irreplaceable memento. That is what is best about the short story: it is real life for everyone; and everyone can tell one.

In other words, “the story has a magic necessary to our happiness”! We seek “the powerful story rooted in all things which will explain life to us”. I love all this. It is such an argument for the importance and value of the arts.

Stead concludes by telling a story about a group near London that she once joined. All were asked to stand up and tell a story, and

everyone, those stuffy and snug people came to life, became mouths out of which bubbled stories poor and ordinary or before unheard of.

There it was, she says, “the ocean of story”. And this happens everywhere, anytime. So,

The short story can’t wither and, living, can’t be tied to a plan. It is only when the short story is written to a rigid plan, or done as an imitation, that it dies. It dies when it is pinned down, but not elsewhere. It is the million drops of water that are the looking-glasses of all our lives.

I classed this post as “(Review, possibly)” because I haven’t really written a review. Rather, I’ve described/shared Stead’s attitude to stories – and to story-making and storytellers. I love her egalitarianism, even when describing stories that are “poor and ordinary”; I love her flexible idea of what makes a story; I love her chatty, idiosyncratic style; and most of all I love her passion for the importance of stories (particularly short stories) to our lives. I look forward to reading at least some of those in this book.

AWW Logo 2016Christina Stead
“Introduction: Ocean of story”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
ISBN: 9780140100211

Susan Varga, Heddy and me (Review)

November 12, 2016
Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

Susan Varga’s biography-cum-memoir, Heddy and me, was first published back in 1994, so why am I reading it now? By a rather circuitous route, as it happens. Lesley Lebkowicz, whose The Petrov poems I’ve reviewed, read my post on Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and suggested to Susan Varga that she might like to send me her book to review. Varga apparently liked the idea and consequently I received an email from her personal assistant offering it to me. I had heard of it, and am interested in the subject matter, so I said yes. That was, embarrassingly, over four months ago, for which I apologise, but eventually its time came and here, finally, is my review.

I’ll start with the judges’ comment when they chose the book to win the 1994 Christina Stead Award for Biography, Autobiography or Memoir*. They described it as “the front rank of autobiographical writing in this country”. That’s a big call but, having read it, I agree, because it is an engrossing book which intelligently negotiates two usually opposing forms, biography and autobiography/memoir. In it, Varga tells the story of her Hungarian Jewish mother Heddy – her life in Hungary, her experience of World War 2, and her subsequent emigration with her extended family to Australia. But, in telling this story, Varga, as the title conveys, also tells her own. She was born, mid-war, in 1943 and was just 5 when the family migrated. Hers was a complicated growing up in which she struggled to find self. She finally realised, late in her research, that she straddles two generations: the first (those who migrated) and the second (the children of those migrants).

Now, I can see why Lebkowicz thought I might be interested in this book, because both books involve a daughter not only telling the Holocaust-survival-and-migration story of a mother, but also working through her understanding of and relationship with that mother. Like Blay after her, Varga captured much of her mother’s story via tape recorder:

… the room itself is imposing, with its long oak table and chairs covered in embossed velvet. Imposing but not unfriendly, which is very much Mother’s style.

I switch on the tape-recorder. She talks, I listen. She [unlike Blay’s mother] doesn’t need much prompting; she’s telling me her life story, which she knows will be raw material for a book. In the past when people have said to her, ‘Heddy, you should tell your life story,’ she has said, ‘I’m waiting for Susan.’

I’ve told her it won’t be her life story, not properly. It will be filtered through my reactions and thoughts, my second generation eyes.

And Varga’s eyes are complicated, sometimes testy ones, as she strives to comprehend her strong-willed mother. So, like Blay’s book, Heddy and me is an amalgam of biography and autobiography, thereby neatly sidestepping David Marr’s injunction for biographers to get out of their story! Like Blay’s book, too, Heddy and me is a story of survival – of a peculiar combination of luck, resourcefulness and judgment – and it’s a story of the lasting impacts of the war. For both families, one of those impacts is an ongoing sense of fear:

… the fear of impermanence, the readiness to flee, takes the form, among others, of a deep conservatism running through the older generation, as if any change at all could result in their lives being uprooted again. They are over-protective, still prone to buy their children a diamond, something portable, just in case.

And we children feel a pervasive fear that we do not know how to express. Impermanence and insecurity lurk in the shadows behind this all-Australian red-brick security.

I found this analysis, this explanation of conservatism, enlightening – and helpful.

However, despite similarities with Blay’s book, Varga’s is different. For a start there are the obvious departures. Varga’s family is Hungarian to Blay’s Polish one, and Varga’s mother was married with a young child when the war started while Blay’s mother was still a teenager. Moreover, Varga’s mother managed to avoid, through various subterfuges, being sent to a concentration camp. She didn’t suffer the ghetto and concentration camp terrors and depredations of Blay’s mother, but Heddy and her colourful mother Kató, whose story is also told here, did suffer, including being raped multiple times by their Russian liberators. There are deeper differences too, speaking to the different psychologies of the two families, their individual wartime experiences, and how these subsequently played out in their post-war lives. And there’s the structure. Varga interweaves her own story and her reactions to her mother’s story within the one narrative flow, while Blay carefully differentiates her voice from her mother’s and aunt’s.

A particularly fascinating part of Varga’s book is the picture she paints of Hungarian society before, during and after the war. I learnt a lot, for example, about Budapest – its vibrant pre-war culture and life, albeit a life that, for its Jewish inhabitants, had its paradoxes. They lived, writes Varga, an outwardly normal life, “clinging to continuity while awaiting upheaval”. Varga chronicles the trajectory of anti-Semitism, from pre-war to the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation in which Hungary’s Jews found themselves post-war, when Nazism was replaced by Communism. Indeed, having survived the war, Heddy, Kató and family were prepared to stay in Budapest until it became clear to Heddy “that the noose was tightening again, like Hitler, except then it was against the Jews, now against everyone.” So, Heddy, ever attuned it seems to the political nuances around her, worked on her family until they agreed to move to “the New World”. Later, as part of research for her book, Varga returns to Hungary with her mother, and becomes aware of the increasing (or, really, continuing) anti-Semitism:

As I begin to grasp the subtleties of political life in the post-Communist world, I find it awful that the Jews should once again need friends and protectors, I think of 1943, when Hungary’s Jews still thought themselves safe because Kállay, or some other prominent politician, was their friend.

Once again, I am astonished, though I suppose by now I shouldn’t be, at how deeply anti-Semitism seems to run, particularly in Europe.

And here, I’m going to insert some personal connections with Varga’s story. I mentioned in my review of Sister, sister that I’d spent some time in my Sydney youth with Jewish people – eastern European Jews – who were business friends of my father’s. Blay’s and now Varga’s books consequently ring true for me, Varga’s particularly, because her parents did exactly what many of these people did – they set up business in the rag trade, and then handbags. I still have some handbags to prove it! But, my connections with Varga are more than this, because I went to the same high school she did, albeit a decade later. Unfortunately, Varga’s experience was not as positive as mine, partly due to her increasing sense of disconnection with her family and partly to the fact that by my time in the mid-to-late 1960s society was becoming less rigid (even in strict government girls’ schools). It was at that school that my understanding of civil rights – particularly, then, relating to racism and anti-Semitism – was honed. This is rather ironic given Varga found it “a school of endless strictures and platitudes”.

Anyhow, enough about me, and back to the book. Heddy and me was, I suspect, groundbreaking when it was first published, not so much for its portrayal of personal experience of the Holocaust, because such stories started appearing soon after the war, but for Varga’s intensely personal exploration of women’s experience and identity across three generations, before, during and after the war. Since then, similar stories have been written – Blay’s, for example, and another I’ve reviewed, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. However, these later books don’t minimise the power of Heddy and me, which not only illuminates the personal and familial costs of the Holocaust, but also provides an historical perspective on that mysterious thing we call human behaviour. This book deserves a continued life.

AWW Logo 2016Susan Varga
Heddy and me
Abbotsford: Bruce Sims Books, 2000 (2nd ed.; Orig. ed. Penguin, 1994)
ISBN: 9780957780033

(Source: Susan Varga)

* Unfortunately FAW’s awards website only goes back to 1999. This comment is on the front cover of my edition, and is credited to “Christina Stead Award”.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Hope Prize

November 7, 2016

I came across the beautifully named Hope Prize over the weekend via some online service. Was it Twitter? Was it Facebook? Perhaps even Instagram though I think not, but I really can’t recollect. Such is our online lives, eh?

Anyhow, the Hope Prize, was, according to the website, established by the Brotherhood of St Laurence “thanks to the generosity of the late Prudence Myer and the support of her family*, to encourage writing that transcends stereotypes of ‘the poor’ and reflects the resilience we know that people show in the face of poverty and testing times.” The Prize is supported by publisher Simon and Schuster and Readings bookshop.

So, what is the prize for? Well, it is subtitled the Brotherhood of St Laurence Short Story Competition. I understood from the site where I first read about it, that it’s geared to amateur writing. The competition rules say that entries “must be the original work of the applicant” and “must not have been published, broadcast, or won a monetary prize in any competition”. The applicant must also be a resident of Australia, and the story must be between 2,000 and 5,000 words.

Hope prize short stories book coverThe judges for the inaugural prize, whose winners have just been announced, were Australian actor Cate Blanchett, novelist Kate Grenville, and ex-Governor General Quentin Bryce. What a lovely panel (albeit an all-female one. Perhaps it would be good to include a token male next year! Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) Anyhow, the website says that “they were impressed with the very high standard of writing and reported that all the finalists revealed powerful perspectives on the world at large, and displayed unique, unpretentious and authentic voices.” According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), a collection, which will include the winning and commended stories, will be published by Simon & Schuster on November 9. Sounds like a gift worth buying and giving.

But now, the winners:

  • First Prize, $5,000: Catherine Moffat for “Better Homes and Gardens”
  • Second Prize, $3,000: Eloise Young for “555 to Reservoir”
  • Third Prize, $2,000: Katherine Hayes for “Queen St”
  • Young Writer winner, $500: Eleanor George for “Colours”

There were also six highly commended stories.

… an entirely different perspective …

The abovementioned SMH article says that the winning story, “Better Homes and Gardens”, is “narrated by a young girl who lives in her father’s car with her little sister and describes her trying to stay afloat at school”. Cate Blanchett says of this story that

I suddenly saw the world from an entirely different perspective … It’s language and perspective on the world that in middle class society we take for granted. I felt like my entire world had been turned upside down.

She says that the stories did not confirm stereotypes and were “utterly illuminating”.

Quentin Bryce says that the stories, which present the perspectives of refugees, asylum seekers and homeless people, gave her a real understanding of the isolation experienced by many Australians every day. SMH quotes her as saying:

I was reading those stories again and thinking about what this publication is about; about poverty and disadvantage and the compassion you really feel very deeply. It gives you an awareness of how easily life can change.

And finally to return to Blanchett, she is, SMH says, “a firm believer that great works of art and literature can be catalysts for change”. I have to agree, and love her passion and support for projects like these.

Hope: an anthology will be available in trade paperback and format, and royalties are being donated to the prize. You can order via the Simon and Schuster site, or presumably buy from shops like Readings, after November 9.

What an encouraging initiative this is – one which encourages the arts while also working to raise awareness of social justice – and what a great example of what philanthropy can do.

* I’m not sure if this has been organised through the Myer Foundation, but the Myers, through four generations now, are among Australia’s most signifiant philanthropists in the arts, social welfare and the environment. Prudence Myer was married to Kenneth Myer, whom I met eons ago through his active support of the National Library of Australia.

Josephine Rowe, A loving, faithful animal (Review)

November 6, 2016

Josephine Rowe, A loving faithful animalHow many novels have you read featuring the Vietnam War? I’ve not read many I must say, but last year I did review Charles Hall’s Summer’s gone, and now this year I’ve read Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal. It’s a debut novel but, from its form, you can tell that Rowe is an accomplished short story writer. I have in fact read one of her short stories – from her collection, Tarcutta Wake. Unusually for me, I didn’t review it at the time. I think this is because I planned to read the whole collection, but that hasn’t happened (yet, anyhow), which is clearly my loss.

So, before I discuss the content of this novel, I should explain what I mean by this statement regarding short stories and its form. For a start, it’s a multi-voice novel. On its own, this is not unusual, but here the voices are also in different persons, which is not unheard of either, really. However, added to this is the fact that the chapters (or “stories”), particularly “Breakwall”, could be read as stand-alone pieces. To make the novel out of these pieces, they are linked via character, and there’s an overall chronological narrative arc to them, but they also remain little jewels in themselves. There’s real skill here, in the way Rowe juggles her voices, perspectives, stories to create a very satisfying whole.

Now, to discuss the novel itself. It comprises six stories, starting in second person with Ruby, whom we come to realise is the younger daughter of the book’s central family. It then progresses through four stories told from different third person limited perspectives – Ruby’s mother Evelyn, her father Jack, her uncle and father’s brother Les or Tetch, and her sister Lani – before returning to Ruby’s second person voice to conclude. The story is one of a family broken by the father’s ongoing trauma (PTSD) following his Vietnam War experience. It’s a devastating story showing how such trauma can play out, resulting in domestic violence, dividing loyalties and causing splits in families.

… she did not drive away …

The novel opens on New Year’s Eve, around 1990. The family has struggled on for some time. Jack has been unable to retain good employment, going in and out of rehab, with Evelyn always drawing him back, wanting their relationship and the family to work. But, every time she takes him back, she loses something too, particularly in terms of the respect of her elder daughter. As the novel opens, it’s New Year’s Eve, and Jack has gone, for good this time it seems, after something unspeakably brutal – the full details are never, fortunately, given – has happened to the family’s pet dog, Belle, the titular “loving faithful animal”. Except, as you’d expect, there’s more to the title than this. Evelyn, too, is “a loving faithful animal”, as in her way is Ruby and, perhaps we could also argue, Jack’s half-brother, Les/Tetch. He had escaped the war by “getting rid of his own fingers” and now hovers on the edge of the family, wanting to keep an eye on them, wanting his brother to be okay, but wanting too some family for himself.

What I enjoyed most about this book, besides its tackling this important subject, is its empathetic but unsentimental portrayal of its characters. Evelyn’s loyalty (her faithfulness) is shown to be both admirable and stupid. We see the catch-22, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t nature of her situation, with the added element of a young girl having made her bed, that is, having married against her parents’ advice, and now having to lie in it:

But she could never quite bring herself to. Run out on him like that. And it was never as simple as money. It was never as simple as pride, because she’s not sure she’s never had much of that either. Or if she does, it hasn’t turned out to be worth much, not when it comes right down to it. (II “The Coastal Years”)

Life is cruel, particularly when stubbornness and lack of forgiveness face off against each other. Anyhow, we also ache for Jack who can’t escape his past, and nor “get a handle on” the future, so leaves rather than inflict more cruelty. We see and understand Lani’s decision to reject it all and escape into a future on her own, while Ruby stays determinedly loyal. Every decision though comes at a cost.

It’s not an easy book to read, and not just because of the subject matter. Rowe is not the sort of writer who wants to tell a simple narrative. She wants to convey emotions, psychology, motivations, not just actions, because these are the stuff of life. And this requires a particular sort of writing which, for Rowe here, is a sort of minimalist, sometimes disjointed, sometimes lyrical style:

This is Exhibit A in the Museum of Possible Futures, the life that might have rolled out smooth as a bolt of satin, if she had just swung her slender legs up into that beautiful car and driven as fast as she could in the opposite direction, leaving the man with the camera far behind. Your father, he could keep the photograph.

But she did not drive away. Instead she sold the car and spent every night of her life trying to lead your father out of the jungle, out of the mud, away from the cracks of invisible rifles, strange lights through the trees. (I “A Loving, Faithful Animal”)

There’s more of course – isn’t there always? – including little running motifs involving cicadas and panthers, and Tetch whom I’ve barely mentioned, but I’ll close here. This is the sort of book that I’d love to see in next year’s awards shortlists, for its writing and for its fierce, authentic evocation of the lasting effects of war. I wonder if I will.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by the book.

AWW Logo 2016Josephine Rowe
A loving, faithful animal
St Lucia: UQP, 2016
ISBN: 9780702253966