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Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoress (Review)

August 20, 2016

Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoressLet me start by saying that I’m not a big reader of historical fiction, and particularly not of non-Australian historical fiction, so to read a novel set in mediaeval times is quite a departure for me. However, I did want to read Robyn Cadwallader’s The anchoress for a number of reasons. Not only is Cadwallader an Australian writer living in the outskirts of my city, but we did meet a couple of years ago for a lovely lunch when she was in the throes of negotiating the publication of this book in three countries! And, besides this, the topic was so intriguing. I’m not a mediaevalist and had never heard of anchoresses and anchorholds before. It’s taken me sometime to get to it, but I finally have.

Now, one of the reasons I don’t jump to historical fiction is that I’ve tended to see it in terms of bodice-rippers and romances, and these don’t really interest me. But, The anchoress is not such a story. I don’t read back cover blurbs before I read books but towards the end of this book, as I was trying to guess where it might be going, I did look at the back, not because I wanted to know the end – because I didn’t – but because I was intrigued about how this book that was teasing me was marketed. The last sentence of the blurb is that the book is “both quietly heartbreaking and thrillingly unpredictable”. This reassured me that it wasn’t likely to go where a “genre” novel would probably go. Does that make sense?

Anchorites' cell, Skipton

Anchorite’s cell, Holy Trinity Church, Skipton, UK (Courtesy: Immanuel Giel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

So, the plot. It tells the story of Sarah, a young 17-year-old girl who, after some traumatic experiences including the death of a loved sister in childbirth, asks to be enclosed as an anchoress. This means she agrees to spend the rest of her life in a small stone cell, essentially “dead to the world”, tended to by a maid through a window in the wall and visited by a priest who will provide guidance and take her confession. Her support is paid for by a patron, the local Lord. She is given a Rule book as her guide, and is expected to provide advice to village women. Sarah’s story is told first person but, interspersed with hers – in shorter third person chapters – is the story of young, inexperienced Father Ranaulf, her priest-advisor-confessor. And so the stage is set for – well, we don’t quite know what.

As the story progresses, all sorts of narrative possibilities present themselves. Will she stay (like Sister Agnes) or leave (like Sister Isabella)? How will her relationship with Father Ranaulf develop? And why did Sarah really decide on this rather extreme course for her life (because, of course, there is a reason)? These all have the potential for melodrama or cliche, but Cadwallader keeps it grounded. There is drama – a fire – but even it is downplayed in the service of Cadwallader’s bigger themes rather than generating page-turning excitement.

However, it’s not plot that draws me in my reading, but character, themes and language. And here the main characters are well-drawn. The story takes place over the period of a year or so. At the beginning Sarah is an idealistic young anchoress, keen to do it right. She takes seriously her decision with the uncompromising enthusiasm typical of a young person, and so is determined to be disciplined. She allows herself no pleasure, not even some tasty food donated by the villagers, despite advice that this level of self-denial is not expected, and moves into self-flagellation. Over the course of the novel she comes to a more realistic understanding of what being “holy” might mean, and of what she needs to survive her chosen role. Father Ranaulf is also young and inexperienced, which results, initially, in stiff, black-and-white responses to Sarah. Over time, he too comes to a more humane understanding of her and of his role as her advisor. I’m almost tempted to call it a mediaeval coming-of-age story as these two young people come to a maturer world view. Anyhow, it’s nicely and realistically done.

There are other characters of course – Sarah’s maids, villagers who visit Sarah, various priests, and Sarah’s patron and local Lord, the somewhat cliched Sir Thomas. These are less rounded but they enrich the picture Cadwallader paints of mediaeval life, and contribute to the story-line.

“Body without a body”

“True anchoresses”, Sarah reads in her Rule, “are like birds, for they leave the earth – that is, the love of all that is worldly – and … fly upwards towards heaven”. Birds are a recurring motif in the novel, starting with a symbolic bird, the jongleur whom Sarah calls Swallow. “An acrobat”, she says in the opening paragraph of the novel, “is not a bird, but it is the closest a person can come to being free in the air. The nearest to an angel’s gift of flying”. For Sarah, being enclosed was her way of emulating Swallow, of leaping into the air, of being a “body without a body”. She yearns to be free of her body, to leave the senses behind, but the more she tries to escape them, the more they make themselves known. Her challenge is to reconcile this dichotomy, this need to deny the senses while still very much having them, this being, theoretically, dead to the world, while very much alive.

Tied up with Sarah’s challenge is the wider story of mediaeval life and values. Cadwallader conveys life at the times, mostly through the people who visit Sarah. Life, we discover, if we didn’t already know it, is hard for women. We meet women who are abused and assaulted, and we realise that their rights are few in a society which sees women as “lustful and tempting”. Father Ranaulf tell Sarah that:

It is man who is mind and soul, woman who is body.

Wise Father Peter allows women some advance on this when he tells Father Ranaulf that holy women can develop manly souls and “almost become a man”! But it is Sarah who really confronts Renaulf, and forces him to a more empathetic understanding of her (and, by extension, of other women).

Life is also hard for the poor, as Cadwallader tells through the villagers’ lack of power in the face of the Lord’s control over the land they work. And life is a challenge too for church-men, who have to manage villagers and lords while earning money to survive. Father Ranaulf wants to make beautiful books but must “produce an income”, not to mention advise an intelligent young woman who won’t accept his platitudes and thoughtless “rules”!

So, The anchoress is an engaging story. It’s about a time long distant, thus satisfying our historical curiosity, and it’s about power in gender and class, that still resonates today. But, above all, it is about human beings, about how we read or misread each other, about how (or if) we rise to the hard challenges, and about whether or not we accept a duty of care to those who come into our lives. An enjoyable read.

awwchallenge2016Robyn Cadwallader
The anchoress
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2015
ISBN: 9780732299217

Monday musings on Australian literature: Science writing

August 15, 2016

If you’ve read my last post on the Griffyn Ensemble, you’ll know it is National Science Week here in Australia (13-21 August). Last year I wrote two Monday Musings for the week, one on novels featuring scientists, and the other on non-fiction science books. This year I thought I write a little about science writing in general. Remember, though, this is not my area of expertise, so it will be a serendipitous post of bits and pieces.

Stephen Sarre, the scientist who inspired the Griffyn Ensemble’s concert, said about it

What I like about what Michael [Sollis] is doing is that he’s mixing science with art. He’s converting a scientific finding into a performance. It’s so important that scientists try to spread knowledge and merging science and art is wonderful.

Scientists in other words are keen to get their work known – and it is important. Not only does public interest, belief and support help them obtain funding, but we are of course the beneficiaries of their work. It’s useful for us to know, understand and be able to engage intelligently in what they are doing. Climate change, cancer cures, new light but strong building materials, and so on, all impact our lives.

Test Tubes

Test Tubes (Courtesy OCAL via

So, who is out there communicating science to us? Science journalists, for a start, but here in Australia we have a non-profit group called Australian Science Communicators (ASC). It was established in 1994 and its members include “scientists, teachers, journalists, writers, entertainers, students and other communicators who engage Australians (and people overseas) with science, technology and innovation”. A wide church in other words.

In this group, somewhere, are, yes, bloggers, and ASC’s website lists Australian science blogs. There are over 50 of them covering various interests such as “general science”, “climate science”, and “ecology”. I haven’t heard of ONE of them so I dipped in:

  • Espresso Science, written by Jenny Martin, a Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at Melbourne’s 102.7 FM Triple R community radio. She hopes her “shots of science” will be as addictive as coffee. Her most recent post (10th August) is about memory, not about our usual concern with maintaining memory but about the way we make up memory or remember “what never happened”!
  • Paperbark Writer (love this name), described as Australian nature meeting science and art, and written by Paula Peters. She has a PhD in ecology and has worked in environmental agencies. On her about page she gives a passionate explanation for why she does what she does. The latest post (13th August) on her blog is about a program she did for Gympie National Gallery. Gympie is where I turned 5 – the first birthday I really remember.
  • Science Book a Day, “put together by George Aranda” who runs a science book club in Melbourne. Describing himself as a “science communicator” he says his aim is “to engage people in science via books”. Science, he argues, “isn’t about being told by scientists that ‘this is science’ but for people to build an understanding and engagement with science in their own way”. There are “10 great” posts, such as “10 great books about agriculture” and “10 great books on women in science”. And, of course, there are posts about individual books, the latest being (14 August) for the science fiction book, Peter Watts’ Blindsight.

Three’s enough to give you a flavour. You can click on the link above if you’d like to explore what looks like a pretty vibrant community. Some of the blogs are by “professional” scientists and some by enthusiasts, some aren’t recently active, but many are.

William Lawrence Bragg

(William) Lawrence Bragg, 1915, Public domain, courtesy Nobel foundation, via Wikimedia Commons

I also discovered in my research that there is a National Science Prize, named the Bragg UNSW Press Prize in honour of Australia’s first Nobel Laureates, physicists William Henry Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg. The prize is for short pieces, up to 7000 words, of “non-fiction written for a non-specialist audience by a single author” and published in the previous year. Entries can include extracts from longer published works, including books but not from academic theses or conference papers. The winners are included in the university’s annual Best science writing anthology. The 2015 edition is my next reading group book so you’ll be hearing more on this one.

Previous winners of the prize include science journalist Christine Keneally, who won the 2015 Stella Prize with her book The invisible history of the human race; award-winning free-lance journalist Jo Chandler; and astronomer Fred Watson, about whom I have written before due to his involvement in Griffyn Ensemble concerts.

This isn’t the only science writing prize. There is also the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism which is sponsored by the Australian government and is “awarded to an Australian journalist or journalist team whose work is assessed as having most effectively communicated scientific or technological issues to the public”. It is part of a larger swag of science awards in different areas of science, and the list of winners and finalists names individuals or groups rather than specific journalistic works. For example, in 2014, the winner of the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Science Journalism was Sonya Pemberton of Genepool Productions, a television/documentarty production company. Their program Jabbed: Love, fear and vaccines apparently broke SBS records in 2013.

If you are interested in Australian science writing, Wikipedia has a category for Australian science writers. It’s not very extensive – Jo Chandler, for example, isn’t there, though she’s clearly a respected journalist – but is worth checking out.

In her introduction to Best Australian science writing 2015, Bianca Nogrady (whose The end I’ve reviewed here) wrote:

What a fabulous job it is to write about science. We get to gatecrash laboratories, hospitals, field sites, boardrooms, workshops, expeditions and zoos; peering over shoulders, pointing at complex bits of science and asking, ‘so, what does that do?’

She is active in the field of science writing and last year convened a panel which explored what she called “the knotty question of the intersection between science communication and science journalism”. Are they inclusive, or breeds apart? You can listen to the whole discussion at the link I’ve provided. As in other fields, social media is shaking up the field of science writing it seems. Nogrady’s view is that science communication (in its wider meaning) will continue but that the now-all-too-familiar challenge will be to sift the gold from the dross. I loved discovering another whole area of writing where passion is so evident.

I’ll conclude by returning to the University of New South Wales, home of the Bragg Prize and the annual science writing anthology. They say:

Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.

Have you read much science writing? If so, what have you read, and what has made it worthwhile (or not) for you?

The Griffyns do it!

August 14, 2016

By “do it” I mean, yes, “it”, that is “sex”, but I don’t mean they literally did it. They can be cheeky at times, but not that cheeky. No, the sex we’re talking about here is strictly reptilian. Let me explain …

The Griffyn Ensemble’s second concert for 2016 was designed to align with National Science Week (as they’ve done before, as in their 2014 Do you believe concert? ). Titled Sex and Dragons, this one came about, said artistic director Michael Sollis to The Canberra Times

 … when Stephen Sarre approached me and told me about the sex of dragons … At first I didn’t think it would really work as a program but then I thought that evolution is very like telling a story and that a sequence of base genes is like the notes in a musical scale.

Water Dragon

Water Dragon (not the Bearded Dragon, but closely related!)

And so was born a concert which explored the sex determination of the Australian (Central) Bearded Dragon. Now, if a musical concert inspired by and, in fact, teaching about sex determination in reptiles sounds like an impossibility to you, you don’t know the Griffyns. This was one of their multimedia concerts: it combined a musical program (of course) with video footage of reptiles and interviews with scientists from the University of Canberra (UC) about their “cutting edge research into the genomes of reptiles”. This includes exploring how high temperatures cause sex reversal in the embryos of the bearded dragon. What does all this mean – for the dragon, for us, for the world in fact?

So, what do you know about the ZW sex-determination system? No, not XY, but ZW. I knew nothing, but now I understand, at least, how much more complicated reproduction and sex determination is than I had realised. Throughout the program, interspersed with music, several UC scientists explained their passion for dragons and for the research they are undertaking, research which expands our understanding of how sex is determined. As they described their research, they also provided insight into the scientific research process – how you often find what you expect to find, but also about how “the more you look the more you see”. The exciting thing about this research is not just that the sex chromosome can be overwritten by temperature but that this happens in the wild. Scientists have been able to create sex-reversal in amphibians in the laboratory but in the dragons this happens naturally in the wild, which means that what they are doing has real relevance in nature. I can understand why that is exciting!

But, it wasn’t all science. There was music, and Michael Sollis, in addition to doing the interviews and filming the videos, devised a musical program that offered an often humorous or whimsical – but also serious – commentary on the science.

The program started with most of the ensemble performing Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 5”, a “counting song” which conveyed the codification aspect of the scientists’ work, particularly in relation to mapping genomes. This more formal “scientific” song was followed by one reflecting on the human implications of sex-determination and sex-reversal, The Kinks’ hit “Lola”! It was sung by Susan Ellis with a thoughtful expressiveness that balanced humour with something more sensitive and poignant.

As the scientists “took” us into their dragon laboratory, and with footage showing what “characters” these dragons can be, clarinettist Matthew O’Keeffe played Ross Edwards’ “Binyang” accompanied by Wyana O’Keeffe on clapping stick, providing an evocative Australian desert setting for our bearded dragons. I do enjoy Ross Edwards, and Matthew and Wyana did him proud.

The central – and longest – piece of the concert was another Australian composition, “Snark-hunting” by Marth Wesley-Smith, using percussion, flutes, double bass, and keyboard. Again, it combined seriousness with, in referencing an imaginary animal, a touch of humour. Arranged by Sollis, it was wrapped around more scientist interviews and delightful dragon footage.

Which is the rooster/which is the hen? (Leslie/Monaco)

And so the scientific narrative and musical journey continued. We learnt about sex-reversed animals and how their insides don’t match their outsides, how at high temperatures all dragon embryos become female and, most fascinating, that the sex-reversed female dragons are the most bold. Bolder than the shy “natural” females and bolder too than the males! But, sex-reversed females, who are also more fertile, don’t have the female chromosome so cannot produce female offspring. We also heard how the Y-chromosome is losing its genes and that in certain spiny rat species the sex-determining gene has already moved! There was also talk of a “loving” gene, and the fact that the female relatives of gay men, we’re talking humans now, have significantly more children than other women. In other words, this research into sex-genes, and how they work, has a long way to go.

Somewhere here, a whimsical little music box played “when you wish upon a star”. What a cheeky little insert that was.

Back to the music, the snark piece was followed by Sollis’ clever “Bearded dragon” which represents, musically, the secret genome code the scientists are developing. The number sequence is embedded accurately in the work Sollis said and could be decoded if you had the skills!

The next three pieces of the program were an eclectic mix, starting with the amusingly appropriate jug band piece, “Masculine women, feminine men”, led with classy aplomb by Susan Ellis. (Quite a different look to the YouTube version I found below!). This was followed by two quieter, more reflective pieces, by American composer David Lang – “lend/lease”, featuring Kiri Sollis on her favourite piccolo and Wyana O’Keeffe on percussion, and the soulful “you will return” from “death speaks” with Susan Ellis.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Bowie)

What does all this mean, the BBC apparently asked our scientists? Well, for a start, it simply increases our understanding of chromosomes, reproduction and sex-determination. Each piece of evidence changes our knowledge. A scientist’s job, in fact, is to be ready to change their views on the basis of new evidence.

And, of course, when we think temperature, we have to think climate change. What impact might this have on sex-determination in dragons (and potentially in other species)? The jury is out. Dragons have experienced climate change before, and are still here, but this human-induced change is faster. Will they survive this one? Then again, their evolutionary response is comparatively rapid, so … The questions are many as you can see.

The concert ended with the ensemble performing David Bowie’s “Changes” interspersed with a little more counting, nicely bringing together science and emotion to conclude what was a satisfyingly coherent and tightly performed show. “Time may change me,” wrote David Bowie, “but I can’t trace time”! True, but we sure can enjoy beautifully performed, entertaining, provocative concerts like this with the time we have.

Other (very different) YouTube versions of some of the music:

Griffin Ensemble: Founding members Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flute).

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in China

August 8, 2016

GrenvilleSecretRiverChineseNow I admit, right up, that this post is very much a toe-in-the-water sort of post. I know very little about the topic, but what I’ve come across I’ve found interesting and decided to share it. The thing is, we Aussies – those of us born here of Anglo parentage anyhow – tend to be monolingual. We also live in a fairly insular place, being an island ‘n all. Consequently, few of us I think know much about how well or far our literature travels. Occasionally, an Aussie book will do very well – say, Anna Funder’s non-fiction book Stasiland (my review) or Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river – and we’ll hear that it’s been translated into multiple languages. But mostly we tend to be fairly oblivious of these off-shore happenings.

I was therefore intrigued when, a few weeks ago, I found an article in Trove titled “Chinese interest in our literature” from a 1994 edition of The Canberra Times. It was written by Robert Hefner who was, as I recollect, the paper’s literary editor of the day. Hefner commences with:

I first met Chinese author, teacher and translator Li Yao six years ago [ie around 1988] when he was visiting Canberra with author Rodney Hall. Li had just met Patrick White, whose novel The Tree of Man he had translated into Chinese.

Wow, I thought, Hall and White are serious writers – that is, they don’t produce page-turners or simple plot-driven stories. How fascinating – how wonderful too – that our northern neighbours are interested in our literature at that level. Hefner was writing the article because Li was back in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival. He’d discovered that since that last meeting, Li had translated 15 more books, 8 of them Australian. These included Brian Castro’s Birds of passage, Patrick White’s Flaws in the glass, Nicholas Jose’s Avenue of eternal peace [a big seller in China], a short story collection, and Geoffrey Bolton’s A history of Australia. Hefner quotes Li, then associate professor in the Department of English at the International Business Management Institute in Beijing:

Translations of Australian books in China are welcomed by students and general readers, especially Patrick White. I translated A fringe of leaves and it sold 10,000 copies in Beijing. That’s a best-seller, even compared with Chinese authors.

Wow, again. Patrick White a best-seller in China? Who’d have thought?

Li told Hefner things were changing in China, that “people, especially young people” were “looking for something new”, wanting to “know another world, especially a world so far away as Australia”. They were also interested, he said, in how “China is seen through foreign eyes”. Consequently, his most recent translation was Alex Miller’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel The Ancestor Game, which is about early Chinese immigration to Australia. Li* hadn’t decided whom he’d translate next, but was “considering Tim Winton, David Malouf or Rodney Hall”.

Alexis Wright Carpentaria in ChineseThat was 1994. Was it a flash in the pan I wondered? I did some very scientific research, that is, I “googled”. And I found all sorts of things, such as the China Australia Literary Forum. It met in 2011, and involved “ten prominent Chinese writers” visiting Sydney for “in-depth discussions with Australian authors, and those involved in the translation and reception of their works”. The Australian writers they met included Judith Beveridge, Kim Cheng Boey, Lisa Gorton, Ivor Indyk, Gail Jones, Nicholas Jose, Julia Leigh, Shane Maloney, John Mateer, Michael Wilding, Ouyang Yu and Alexis Wright. The forum resulted, the report goes on to say, in the translation of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review), which was launched in 2012 at the Australian Embassy in China. Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan wrote the introduction to the translation, and guess who did the translation? Yep, Li Yao.

A second China Australia Literary Forum took place in 2013, this time in Beijing. Eight Australian authors attended, including JM Coetzee. The eight Chinese involved included Mo Yan.

Apparently though, Australian literature had been read in China long before these last few decades. Back in the 1920s four Australian poets, including Mary Gilmore and Roderick Quinn were read. Ouyang Yu (whose Diary of a naked official I’ve reviewed here) is reported as having read a poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon in 1927. (All this came from a 2011 article in JSTOR which is not available freely on the web.) This article disproves the previously held view that translated Australian literature hadn’t been available in China before 1949. Indeed Ouyang Yu has written a paper about the reception of OzLit in China from 1906 to 2008. It’s an interesting survey article which looks at the history of Australian literature in China, including the interest in and value of different forms such as poetry, popular writing, literary fiction, and so on. He concludes by saying that Australian writers are now receiving Chinese awards. In 2009, for example, “Alex Miller became the first Australian writer to receive a Chinese literary award for his novel The landscape of farewell”.

I won’t go on, because I think I’ve made my point about Chinese interest in Australian literature. Quite coincidentally, I discovered a (now expired) call for entries from the Australian Association for Literary Translation for its AALITRA Translation Prize. This prize “aims to acknowledge the wealth of literary translation skills present in the Australian community” and awards prizes for translation of a selected prose text and of a selected poem. Each year a different language is chosen, and in 2016 the language is Chinese!

This is all wonderful for Australian literature, but what about the reverse? How much effort do Australians put into reading translated literature from other countries. If my record is anything to go by, not as much as I’d like – or should!

* I found a 2010 article in The Australian about Li Yao’s introduction to English-language literature. It was in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, and he read, “under the covers” at night, books like Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice! This little comment reminds us too that availability of Australian (or any non-Chinese) literature in China hasn’t had the simple trajectory my post might imply!

Modern short stories, 1929-style

August 7, 2016

Pock, Modern short storiesAs I continue to clear out my aunt’s house, I keep finding little treasures. Most I move on. There are only so many little treasures, after all, that you can dwell on, let alone keep, but an old book of short stories? Of course, that captured my attention. Titled Modern short stories, it was my aunt’s school text around 1947. It edition date is actually 1929, and it belongs to a series of books, The Kings* treasures of literature, which was edited by Sir A T Quiller Couch*. Modern short stories was edited by Guy N. Pocock, who was “a novelist and educationist” according to the Wikipedia entry for his son Tom!

It contains twelve short stories, but I haven’t yet read them. I’m writing this post for other reasons. One is that my aunt wrote in the front of the book “Katherine Mansfield wrote good short stories”! Presumably the recommendation of her Methodist Ladies College teacher. Mansfield is not included in the anthology, although a couple of women (unknown to me) are. The book also has “Questions and suggestions” for each story at the back. The first story is “The lost god” by John Russell. Heard of him? I haven’t. Anyhow, one of the questions/suggestions for this story is:

“Good God!” breathed Bartlett. “He couldn’t get out!”

Explain this.

I think I’ll have to read this. In my search to find out who John Russell was I found a 2013 post on a blog called Pulp Flakes which describes itself as being about “Pulp magazines, authors and their stories. Adventure and Detective pulps”. According to the blogger, this story, written in 1917, was made into a film, The sea god. The blogger says that the story is “about an explorer who becomes a god. A standard pulp trope, you might say, and yet this has an unexpected ending. Or is it a beginning?”. One of the commenters calls it “one of the best short stories ever written”!

But, enough of that digression. I want to move on to my main reason for writing this post, Pocock’s introduction. Pocock commences by pondering how many short stories find their way into print. “Cataracts … come pouring out, monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly, from the American and English Press”, he says. And there are many others which are rejected. Of the thousands published, he asks, “how extraordinarily few are really worth the reading and writing – how extraordinarily few can be called great!” This, however, is not as extraordinary as it would appear, he continues, because “a great short story is a very difficult artistic achievement”. Of course, the stories he has chosen for this anthology are, he reassures us, “very good indeed”.

And so, in his introduction, he shares his ideas about “what constitutes a really good short story”. I’m going to dot point them:

  • it must be a story, that is, he says, there must be a plot – “however slight” (I like this qualification) – by which he means “some kind of development and crisis”. Otherwise, he suggests, it will be a sketch, a little snapshot from life or imagination”. To explain this, he describes going to “the ‘Pictures'”. (Interesting, given that going to the movies was still a fairly new thing at this time.) A sketch, he says, is like Pathé’s Gazette or Scenes from wild life, which are “just scenes”, while a short story is like Deadwood Dick or The adventures of Sherlock Holmes, because these comprise “a more or less artistic arrangement of scenes and situations developing to a climax”. What fascinates me about this is that he was clearly gearing his thoughts to young people – school students – by relating short stories to something they might know and enjoy. He was, in other words, “an educationist” as Wikipedia says.
  • it must be short, though there are, he admits, such things as “long short stories … a kind of literary dachshund”! Love it. Generally, though, they should be “brief and to the point”, ranging from a few hundred to two or three thousand words. In a short story, he continues, “there must be no padding out, no word-spinning. Every epithet, every phrase, every sentence should bear in some way upon the plot, character or atmosphere”. I think this is one of the reasons short stories are a joy to read. You really have to think closely about every thing the author writes.
  • if it’s an action story, the narrative must be rapid. This doesn’t have to be “breathless”, he says, but the sequence of events needs to be “swift and sustained”. And if it’s a more subtle, psychological story, the narrative still needs to move “rapidly”. There cannot be “loitering about and explaining the situation”. This is why short stories can be a challenge to read. If things aren’t explained, you really have to read all those words carefully – see the above point – to work out what’s going on!
  • we expect a consistent tone he says. He then discusses tone, such as how pathos is maintained or different sorts of humour injected, but he doesn’t really expand further on our “expectation”. I think he’s right, though. It’s the consistency of tone that tends to drive a short story on and give it much of its punch. When I think of my favourite short stories, it’s often not so much the actual story I remember as the feeling I’m left with, and this is usually created by the tone.

He then becomes a bit descriptive. He talks about “stories of Imagination”. The imagination can be “fanciful” taking us into “a world that lies beyond our everyday experience”, or “scientific” which may be beyond our experience but not beyond “possibility”. Stories, too, can convey an atmosphere of mystery (that is, be strange or haunting) or a sense of remoteness (that is, of happening, far away or long ago). “It is Style”, he says, “that works this magic; the personality of the author coming through”. I think I see “style” being broader than this – as also incorporating tone, pacing, characterisation etc – but perhaps I am misreading him.

Finally, he refers to characters, saying that

Their tongue betrayeth them. Either they are the real thing, or they are the author dressed up in borrowed and unfamiliar garb, which will deceive nobody.

The stories in this anthology, he says, are convincing – even those that are “most fanciful” – a qualification which suggests to me that he is a little wary of the “fanciful”? Then again, as one who tends to be wary of the “fanciful” myself, I understand where he’d coming from!

I’d love to hear what short story writers and fans think of his assessments.

* Kings has no apostrophe on the title page, and Quiller Couch is not hyphenated, though Wikipedia hyphenates it.

Mark Twain, A presidential candidate (Review)

August 3, 2016
Mark Twain, by Matthew Brady, 1871 (Public Domain in the US, via Wikipedia)

Mark Twain, by Matthew Brady, 1871 (Public Domain in the US, via Wikipedia)

Towards the end of his life, Mark Twain wrote, the Library of America (LOA) says,

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.

I’m not sure the US had/has a monopoly on this. However, let me get to the point. LOA published Twain’s column, “A presidential candidate”, back in 2012 but, given the current political shenanigans in the USA (no offence to my American readers intended), I couldn’t resist sharing it with you today. It’s very, very brief, so my post will be too. In fact, I suggest you ignore my post, and just click on the link below to read it yourself.

Sometimes, I think, we forget – at least I do – how little things have changed really. Just read Twain’s opening:

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done …

And he then proceeds to own up to a wide range of rather bizarre “wickedness” as you would expect from Twain, wickedness like running “a rheumatic grandfather” up a tree in the middle of a night because he snored, and burying a dead aunt under a tree to fertilise his vine. He also ran away, he says, at the battle of Gettysburg. His friends try to excuse him, he writes, on the basis that he was trying to emulate George Washington at Valley Forge, but no, he says, the reason is that he was scared. He’d like his country to be saved but would prefer someone else to save it. Indeed, he writes,

My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two­-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

I like his style! He also discusses his financial views and what he would do with poor people, but you can read those for yourself.

LOA tells us that the piece was written the year before the presidential race between Republican James A. Garfield and Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. Twain supported Garfield. As American readers would know, Garfield won, but was assassinated before he finished his first year.

But that’s another story. Twain’s “A presidential candidate” is an entertaining piece of political satire in which Twain suggests that all he need do to be a valid candidate is to make known upfront his “wrongdoings”. What sort of man he is, he implies, is far less relevant. Indeed, Twain once wrote that “an honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere”. If Twain is at all representative of his times, it makes me think that not as much has changed in the last hundred or so years regarding our attitudes to politics and politicians as current commentators think.

Mark Twain
“A presidential candidate”
The Library of America
Originally published as Mark Twain as a presidential candidate, 1879
Available: Online

Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower

August 1, 2016

Contemporary is an odd word isn’t it? I like using it, but worry about ambiguity, given it can mean either “living or occurring at the same time” or “belonging to or occurring in the present”. So, when I say “contemporary thoughts on Elizabeth Harrower”, how do you know which meaning I intend? Well, to put your minds at rest, in this instance I’m intending the former.

Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the countryMany of you know who Harrower is, but for those who don’t, she’s an Australian writer who was active in the 1950s to 1970s, and then largely disappeared from view. She was born in 1928 and is still alive. Four of her five novels were published in the 1950s to 1960s. The fifth novel, In certain circles, was written in the late 1960s to early 1970s, but not published until 2014, because she withdrew it from publication at the time. Her short story collection, A few days in the country, and other stories, was published last year, but includes stories dating back to the 1960s. (I have reviewed three of her books.)

So, she was an unknown to many of us when her books started appearing in Text Publishing’s Classics series. What a find she’s been, but what, I wondered, was thought about her in her heyday, and where did she fit in that literary world. To Trove, therefore, I went – and found the snippets I’m sharing today.

The first comes from “Your bookshelf” by Joyce Halstead in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1961. Halstead writes briefly about Harrower’s third novel, The catherine wheel, which was published in 1960. She describes the plot, and concludes with her assessment:

An intense, probing study of human relationships, intricately and interestingly resolved, and deserving of high literary praise.

That certainly accords with my experience of Harrower’s writing, though I haven’t read this one – yet.

Elizabeth Harrower The watch towerNext comes another article from The Australian Women’s Weekly, this time in 1966. (Why was this very literary writer mainly featuring in a women’s magazine?) The article is titled “Op art? … Commas caused full stop” and is about her fourth novel, The watch tower. It conveys a lovely sense of Harrower’s down-to-earthness:

We mentioned the publishers’ description of her as “one of Australia’s most sensitive and psychologically perceptive novelists.”

“You know, you shouldn’t blame writers for what other people say about them,” said Miss Harrower.

She says that she had never studied psychology, and that:

“Because I am interested in people, it doesn’t mean that I go around consciously analysing them … Sometimes it is years afterwards that you remember an occurrence which, when it happened, just flowed past you.”

She then describes “having words” with her publisher (for whom, in fact, she worked herself, because writers, she said, need to have a job unless they are “a Morris West or have a private income”):

“When the publishers sent me the proofs I found they had altered all my ‘whichs’ to ‘thats’ and had taken out a lot of commas. I didn’t like it — so I changed them all back.”

I love this. I much prefer “whichs” to “thats”, regardless of what grammarians say about nonrestrictive and restrictive clauses, and I’m inclined to use more commas than less, despite modern style!

My city’s newspaper, The Canberra Times, also wrote about The watch tower, in early 1967. The reviewer, John Laird, admires Harrower’s writing, saying she:

employs a style distinguished by its sensitivity and subtlety, and displays considerable ability in capturing the flow of thoughts, emotions, and sense impressions in the minds of her two main women characters.

But, he concludes that

What is not so convincing is the portrait of Laura’s misogynic husband. To me he seems a specially concocted figure, largely an embodiment of the malevolent and destructive forces that constantly menace the women characters in Elizabeth Harrower’s novel world.

I wonder how many women would find him “not so convincing”? Seems like Mr Laird wants to underplay the gender aspect of the “malevolent and destructive forces” menacing the women?

The next two articles* also come from The Canberra Times. One, in 1967, announces that Harrower (along with George Johnston and Thomas Keneally) had won a 12-month Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship, which is, I expect, the Fellowship that led to In certain circles, the one she withdrew from publication.

Second time around …

The other article comes from 1979, and we are now getting into re-issues of her work. The article, written by Lyn Frost, is titled “Fine Australian writing new and rediscovered”. It announces a new imprint, Sirius Quality Paperbacks, by Angus and Robertson. “The first six books”, Frost writes, “are by women and some have been out of print for far too long. Teachers of Australian literature must be grateful for their appearance.” I sure hope they were! The authors include Henry Handel Richardson, Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and, of course, Elizabeth Harrower. In fact, the six books include two of Harrower’s, The Catherine wheel and The long prospect (which Stead called Harrower’s “masterpiece”). Frost is impressed by Harrower’s writing, saying:

I can’t think how I’ve missed reading Harrower’s perceptive work before this.

How embarrassing is it that this was exactly the response many of us had over 30 years later when Text started republishing her!

Then, along similar lines, comes critic Peter Pierce in 1988 reviewing Murray Bail’s The Faber book of contemporary Australian short stories in The Canberra Times (again). It’s a “real” review which discusses the anthology at some depth, including reference, naturally, to some of the works included. One is Elizabeth Harrower’s “The cost of things” (which also appears in A few days in the country, and other stories). Pierce describes Harrower as “Too little celebrated and too long silent in Australian literature”. (I had to laugh at Pierce’s comment that the anthology is “misleadingly titled” but that “Bail is unapologetic about including stories written nearly half a century ago”. “Contemporary” by any other name!)

There are other brief references to Harrower – including to her being a National Book Council Award judge in 1981 – but I’ll conclude with another article from The Canberra Times. It’s one of those weekly new-paperback-releases columns, and this particular week’s bunch, in 1995, included Harrower’s The long prospect (ETT Imprint). Columnist (and local English teacher) Veronica Sen calls it a “determinedly unsentimental novel”, and says that it treats “suburban small-mindedness and the pain of growing up … with panache”.

If you haven’t read her yet, I hope my post has pushed you a little further in her direction.

* The Canberra Times has been digitised, to date, by the NLA, up to 1995, whereas the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, has been digitised to 1954. Disparities like this are primarily due to what permissions are granted by the respective rights holders.


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