Peter Wegner’s Centenarians

In 2021 Australian artist Peter Wegner won Australia’s prestigious portrait painting prize, the Archibald, with his painting of the Australian artist Guy Warren, who also happened to be a centenarian. That year also happened to be the prize’s centenary. Coincidence? Who knows! Regardless, the portrait was in fact part of a Centenarians project which Wegner has been working on since 2013.

As it so happens, on our drive down to Melbourne a few days ago we stopped, as we often do, at the lovely Benalla Art Gallery. It has a great cafe overlooking the Broken River (a tributary of the Goulburn); it has three exhibition spaces offering varied programs; and its little gift shop is also excellent. On this visit, the smallest space, the Simpson Gallery, was occupied by an exhibition titled Peter Wegner: The Centenarians. This exhibition comprises pencil and beeswax sketches of 20 centenarians made by Wegner between 2015 and 2019. (Given some of the subjects we saw were born in 2021, this means that “centenarians” includes those nearly 100 as well as those who were actually 100 when they were drawn).

The exhibition notes quote Wegner on the process and his aims:

Each drawing was completed from life in an afternoon or morning with little alteration to that first impression, they are moments captured within a time allowed.

The exploration of ageing and how well we age is central to this project. Maintaining human dignity and independent living are important issues as we age, alongside the question of what it means to have a productive and meaningful life. One’s good fortune in life was acknowledged by nearly all of my sitters—sometimes bewilderment about having reached such an age was expressed.

I loved them, partly for the art work which seemed to capture their subjects beautifully (though of course, I don’t know them), but also for the centenarians’ little commentaries which Wegner incorporated into the sketches.

Boz Parsons (b. 1918, sketched 2018)

Most of these commentaries reflected on how they’d lived to an old age – and here’s the probably-not-surprising thing, there was no consensus. For example, some never drank, some had a glass of wine with a meal, while one had beer before dinner and wine with dinner. A couple mentioned genes, though not many. A few mentioned work and/or attitude, like not worrying. As Boz Parsons said, “there is no secret to living a long life”!

So, for example, when sketched in 2019, Jack Bullen (born 1921) had two glasses of wine every night, and still had his driver’s licence but didn’t have many “close friends” because “they didn’t see the distance”. Sylvia Draeger (also born 1921) reckoned “the secret to a long life – take one day at a time”. Married twice, she says “I’m not looking for another husband”. Maisie Roadley, another born in 1921, says “I never worry. Hard work and a glass of wine every night”.

Erwin Fabian (b. 1915, sketched 2017)

But my favourite is Mim Edgar (born 1914, sketched 2018) who said “I don’ feel very old. When I’m sitting down I feel 16. When I then stand up I feel 100”. Haha, know the feeling!

Gallery Director, Eric Nash, introduces the exhibition in its catalogue. He comments that the portraits have both a “stillness, and a sense of energy and vitality”. He’s right. The life is there in the expressions, while the poses have a lovely stillness.

Nash also suggests that the portraits have lasting value for two reasons. One is that they preserve “the sitters’ accumulated knowledge and insights”. He notes that the artist has ensured this by dipping the drawings in beeswax “to protect the pencil markings”. This also gives the work an effective sepia tone. The other reason, Nash says, is that the works

could inform how we as a society support our older residents to continue enjoying enriching lives. Wegner has particularly sought sitters who “are still living lives with my mobility, curiosity and purpose … the exploration of ageing and how will we age is central to this project”.

Colin being congratulated on his 100th by two grandchildren.

To conclude, I thought I would include a photograph of my own centenarian, my Dad, who was born in 1920 and died in 2021. I’m not sure what he would have said to living a long life. He did have a whisky every night until his mid-90s; he was an optimist; and he valued good friends and family. He was alert until the end. Vale, again, dad.

Peter Wegner: The Centenarians
Benalla Art Gallery
1 July -28 August 2022

Note: For copyright reasons, I have not included images of complete portraits here, but you can see Wegner’s winning painted portrait of Guy Warren at Wikipedia.

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays: Robert Dessaix

YVWF Dessaix Logo

Back in May, I attended several sessions of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival (YVWF), a COVID-19 bonus, as most of you know. The Festival also runs two regular events, a weekly New Release Sundays and a monthly Bookclub. I haven’t managed to attend any, until today, which involved Festival Ambassador Michael Veitch speaking with Australian novelist, essayist and journalist, Robert Dessaix. I read Dessaix’s memoir, A mother’s disgrace, before blogging, and I used to love his ABC RN radio shows, Lingua Franca, and Books and writing (which he did for a decade.) Today’s session was about his new book about growing older, The time of our lives: Growing older well.

The session’s promo described the book as “a wise and timely exploration of not just the challenges but also the many possibilities of old age”. Given I have had nonagenarians, and now a centenarian, continuously in my life since 2004, and given my own aging, this topic interested me.

The conversation

Robert Dessaix, The time of our lives: Growing older well Book cover

Michael Veitch started, of course, by introducing Dessaix, telling us that The time of our lives is Dessaix’s 10th book. He described the book as “joyous”, but hard to define – not a novel, not short stories, not a guide. More, he said, a kaleidoscope of impressions, spiritual and intellectual.

Dessaix liked that image, saying that kaleidoscope describes how he lives: he takes shards from what happens around him, shapes them, and hopes “a beautiful pattern will emerge”.

Several themes ran through the conversation, kaleidoscope being one, plus there being “bulwarks” against the ravages of age, the importances of having an inner life, the value of curiosity, and the idea of dance. The book begins with a dance (“Voulez-vous couchez avec moi”!) and ends with a Javanese dance, which nicely encapsulates his transition from loving Europe to being interested in Asia (particularly India and Indonesia.)

Later in the conversation, Veitch mentioned the death of Dessaix’s partner’s mother, Rita. It seems that she was the (or a) major impetus for the book. She was living in a retirement village – “village” being the wrong word Dessaix felt for such homogenous places – until she had the fall that resulted in her moving into aged care. I’ll return to this later …

Veitch read an excerpt from the book describing the inner life. This definition included that it’s like “a cherished piece of music [that is] shaped by our our individual memories”. (This is a tiny part of the full description, so please don’t quote me!) Dessaix said his aim is not to shut out the outer world, but simply to keep certain things in. The inner self is a conversation, and is something that “holds us together against nothingness”. Hmm, that sounds more like the time of Sartre and TS Eliot than now!

“of course, I’m curious”

Anyhow, Veitch moved onto the idea of curiosity, suggesting that it drives the book. Dessaix agreed, saying “of course I’m curious”. We are only here for a short time!

Dessaix went on to say that a major interest as he’s grown older is other people. How do people cope with what the world has served up to them? He loves to visit India, but not for the sights, which are purely background. He likes getting close to people, to understand their lives. Women, he said, are easier to become close to.

During this conversation he said something that spoke to me, which is that coping is “such a difficult thing to do”. We think, he said, that it will be easy. that we follow the path – get a job, marry, having family, etc – and that it will all just fall into place. I remember thinking that in my angsty teen years. But, he said, it’s not like this, “we have to cope every day with something”. He described the world as “an abattoir”, which is a strong image for what is apparently not a dark book.

This led to a discussion of friendship, but there was nothing particularly new here (for me anyhow), so let’s move on. He did, though, comment that the older you get, the things you care about become less. Now he will say what he thinks, and “take negative responses on the chin”. Around here, he commented that in the 1960s, we (and I became a teen in the 1960s so I was with him) believed everything would get better, but that euphoria of has evaporated into nothing. So sad, because we really did think we were on the way to becoming kinder, gentler, fairer.

“a stupid foreginer”

Veitch asked him about his current interest in Asia. Dessaix replied that Europe started to become tedious. He wanted to go somewhere where he would be a blank, “innocent”, so he started with India, and now visits (except this year) Java. Being in a place where he feels “not at home” stimulates him “to have important conversations with himself”.

He admitted that he is granted liberties because he’s “a stupid foreigner”; he feels open to saying things he would not say in Paris or Berlin.

Veitch read another excerpt which, if I got it correctly, described a secret door going from the formal European gardens of Dessaix’s younger days to the more riotous gardens of places like Java. He said he was humbled to discover he had shut out these intricate civilisations and now he’s too old. These are sensual places. Europe preens, and positions itself as sexy, but is not sensual.

“play and discipline”

Dessaix equated the inner life with a dance, the tango, which he said combines “play and discipline”. It is sexy, sensual, beautiful but also demands discipline. His aim is to hone these two – play and discipline.

At this point, the conversation turned to the aforementioned Rita, who died during the writing of the book. She, Dessaix said, did not have an inner life (though how he really knows, I’m not sure). Born in 1922, she, Dessaix suggested, was one of those women “crushed by the men they lived with”. He believes she did not feel she was worthy of having an inner life.

Veitch wondered whether you have to learn how to have an inner life? Dessaix thought yes, but that class is also involved. Rita was told she was a “stupid woman”. She was, he said, bored out of her mind. Dessaix said her aged care home “smelled of boredom”. This could be a judgement from someone not there yet, though I’m sure boredom does exist in aged care. Dessaix doesn’t feel he will be affected because “there is too much going on inside”.

Now, here’s the thing … many aged care places (here in Canberra, anyhow) offer many opportunities for residents to be engaged and mentally active, but it depends on one’s brain staying healthy, and on hearing and sight being good. Father Gums has quite an inner life. I know, because he tells me about the things he thinks about, but time can, nonetheless, hang heavily, because sight and hearing difficulties make it difficult to partake of opportunities offered to feed the mind.

“happiness & contentment”

The discussion turned to the difference between happiness and contentment. Dessaix initially saw little difference but refined his ideas as the book progressed. Fortunately, what he came up with is how I see it, because I’m bothered by the focus on “happiness”. Contentment – a sort of inner comfort – is what we aim for, he said, but it can never be complete, while there is suffering in the world. Happiness, on the other hand, can be complete, but it “drops on you”. There is no mystery to it. As Veitch said, happiness falls on you, while contentment settles on you.

Continuing this theme, Dessaix said that he doesn’t like “tranquility”, preferring “animation”. For this reason he likes the god, Ganesha, who dances! Apparently, grief guru Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said at the end of her life, “I wish I’d danced more”. I love it!

There was more, including a discussion about attitudes to death. Mainly, though, the conversation reiterated in different ways the main theme of continuing to “play” and engage in life actively, and of accepting ageing without fear. Ever the writer, Dessaix equated life with sitting on your own “Persian carpet”: it is beautiful, has repetitions, and is different from the one next to it.

However, he did add an element of reality, which I approved. Life, he said, is about maintenance – your eyes, your ears, your … well, you get the picture.

Dessaix said he found ageing liberating, meaning that things he had hoped for – like the Catholic Church disappearing – won’t happen, and he no longer cares, because he has his inner life. He is more tolerant now, accepting that some things can’t be changed.

As you age, said Dessaix, you can still be happy: there’s a shrinking list of things to be happy about but that happiness can be deeper.

Veitch concluded the session by saying that the book is not a dark book, and is more about life than age. He liked, he said earlier, that the book is called “growing older” not “old”.

Overall, a good session about a book I’d like to read, but it is clear – and he would probably admit it – that Dessaix is a privileged person for whom ageing and an inner life will come easier than for some.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays
1 November 2020, 4:00 – 5:00 PM

Griffith Review 68: Getting on (#BookReview)

Book coverI love reading the Griffith Review, though have mostly only reviewed individual articles on this blog. It’s a meaty quarterly, with each edition being devoted to a particular theme. Edition 68’s theme, Getting on, seemed apposite for my reading group and so was our August selection. Although it was confronting at times, it was a universally approved choice, and our discussion was lively and engaged.

Like all Griffith Reviews, this edition contains essays, reportage, memoirs, fiction and poems, some from writers who have previously appeared on my blog (like Helen Garner, Vicki Laveau-Harvie, Kathy Marks, and Charlotte Wood); some from writers known to me but not (yet) on my blog (Melanie Cheng, Leah Kaminisky, Sam Wagan Watson among others); and some new to me. The edition opens with editor Ashley Hay’s introductory piece, “The time of our lives: Senescence, sentience and story”. She frames the volume’s overarching subject matter by saying that ageing in Australia:

has been largely framed by intersections between a Royal Commission and its revelations of institutional shortfalls and betrayals; the urgent need for reform; the conditions we place under the umbrella designation of ‘dementia’; an increasing awareness of under-reported ageism; the seemingly intractable gap in life expectancies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; the day-to-day experience of some 200,000 older Australians who live in residential-care facilities; and an emphasis on the ‘costs’ of an ageing population rather than any framing of the potential benefits of longevity.

However, while these practical and political issues underpin the volume, it also includes some more philosophical and personal reflections which provide breadth and life to the discussion. And so, the edition proper starts with established writer, 77-year-old Helen Garner (“The invisible arrow”) who provides a personal perspective on the experience of ageing, on losing hearing (necessitating hearing aids) and failing sight (requiring cataracts). It’s also about the quandary of being a writer challenged by ageing, an issue somewhat addressed, from a different angle, by Charlotte Wood (“Experiments in the art of living”).

Because my life over the last couple of decades has involved elderly people, I was particularly interested in the essays on aged care practice and policy, especially Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Magical thinking and the aged care crisis” and Beth Mohle’s “System failure”. Both these provided detailed analysis of the current failures of the system – including the multiple reviews with their multiple ignored recommendations – and offer some ideas for improvement. The problem is also taken up provocatively by Gen Xer Ingrid Burkett in “Bold rage” and more calmly but also passionately by another Gen Xer, Charlotte Wood. I did laugh, though, when Burkett suggested one of the ideas discarded by Holland-Batt as “magical thinking”, the “geriatric co-op” or, as Burkett wrote, “buying a large house or building a purpose-built dwelling where we could all live together as we age”. It’s not a new Gen X idea. My Boomer friends and I posited this idea too in our youth!

Policy discussions also take up other issues, like euthanasia and assisted dying (Andrew Stafford’s “Dying wish”) and the disturbing problem of increasing homelessness among older women (Therese Hall’s “Almost homeless”).

Then there are the pieces specifically about the science of ageing (such as Bianca Nogrady’s “Longevity, science and, about medicine and about dead” and David Sinclair’s “Live long and prosper”); about how science may help ageing and aged care in the future (Leah Kaminsky’s intriguing discussion of AI in “Killing time”); and about personal experiences of chronic illness (Mark Aarons’ “Solving my medical mystery”) and death (Gabbie Stroud on her brother’s suicide, “In an unguarded moment”). In this personal vein too is the moving poem, simply titled “Andrew”, about the family’s experience of the terminal illness and death of writer, Andrew McGahan. Niece Anna McGahan writes:

He cannot carry our projected burdens
When he still has heavy gifts
Three glorious, painful months to fill

There are, in fact, several moving pieces – some personal, some professional. Melanie Cheng writes about being an unempathetic intern and what turned her around (“The human factor”) while palliative care specialist, Frank Brennan (“Contemporary loss”), details the practice of palliation. The fiction and poems that are interspersed amongst the non-fiction pieces provide personal perspectives on the information presented. Sam Wagan Watson’s short story “The elsewheres of Charlie Bolt”, for example, powerfully illustrates the isolation and loneliness that many of the contributors identify as serious problems of ageing. The line –

The only songlines Charlie Bolt knew were in the curdling of crow gargles on the street.

– conveys the dislocation Charlie experiences from his culture, as well as from life in general.

It’s impossible to list all the pieces, so I’ll conclude by sharing a couple of my responses to this volume (besides frustration with our policy-makers’ failure to properly address aged care). One relates to the discussion of older people as elders, because this suggests a more positive understanding of ageing. It’s discussed in depth by Jane R Goodall (“Joining forces: The wrath of age meets the passion of youth”) who says “there is little or no public discussion about what it means to be an elder rather than just a senior” and teases out what being an elder might look like. It’s also part of the conversation between Ruth Ross, Jay Phillips and Mayrah Dreise about making “Acknowledgement of Country” statements more meaningful (“Listening to elders: Wisdom, knowledge, institutions and the need for change”).

My other main response concerns denial about ageing and its consequences. I’m with Ailsa Piper (“Old growth: On luck, appreciation and acceptance”) who says “I like saying I’m old”, because, as she says, many never get to. Associated with this denial are people’s claims that they won’t go into aged care, that they’ll leave their home “feet first”, that they will not give up their independence. My experience of watching people age is that the situation is less that you are forced to “give up” your independence, and more that your independence leaves you!

How we handle this situation is up to us, of course, but, as Charlotte Wood reports:

Palliative care nurses have told me people almost always die as they live. A person who has lived with acceptance and gratitude will die in gracious acceptance.

She wonders when it might be time to “change one’s default state”! She then quotes an 84-year-old aged care resident:

Ageing, writes Peter Thomson of Ivanhoe, ‘is inevitable, inexorable and interesting. AAA rating for ageing: Anticipate, Adapt, Accept’.

Now that, rather than “I won’t”, seems to me to be a better default state to take.

Getting on is informative, as you’d expect, but it is also inspirational and challenging. Recommended for adults of all ages!

Note: Links on names are to posts in this blog on those writers. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote up a panel discussion on this volume at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival.

Challenge logoGriffith Review 68: Getting on
(edited by Ashley Hay)
South Brisbane, Qld. : Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing, 2020
287 pp.
ISBN: 9781922212498

Monday musings on Australian literature: Older men protagonists

Early last year, I wrote a Monday Musings on Older women protagonists. With my father having turned 100 last month, I figured it was time I explored older men protagonists in Australian literature. It proved a bit harder than I expected, but gradually books started to make themselves known to me.

As in my older women post, I’m using 60+ as my definition. (Please note that I am saying “older” here, not “old”, as I don’t see 60s as old, though perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective!) Of course, not all authors specifically state the age of their characters, so, as in my “older women” post, I’ve had to guess sometimes. Do correct me if you know I am way out!

My select little list is alphabetical by author (with links being to my posts). I have read most of the books below, but some before blogging.

Older men protagonists

  • Peter Carey, Amnesia (2014): An old left journalist, and his university friends, consider their activist pasts against the current world and the ongoing need for activism.
  • John Clanchy, In whom we trust (2019): Set in early 20th century Victoria, Father Pearse is a priest nearing 70, who wishes to retire and return to his Irish home, but there is trouble from his past that he is forced to confront and consider righting.
  • JM Coetzee, Slow man (2006): A 60-year-old man suffers a cycling accident resulting in the amputation of a leg, and has to refigure how he is going to live.
  • Elizabeth Jolley, Mr Scobie’s riddle (1983): Set in a nursing home, three 85-year-old men consider their lives, the past and the idea of home.
  • David Malouf, Ransom (2009): A reworking of a section of the Iliad in which the aging Priam risks all to ask Achilles for the body of his son, Hector, asking, that is, for some humanity from Achilles.
  • Alex Miller, Lovesong (2009): A retired novelist, living with his 38-year-old daughter, is told a love story which he shares with us through his own lens.
  • Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (2019): Covers the apostle Paul’s adult life, but focuses in particular on the lessons and understandings of three old men, Saul, Thomas and Timothy, in relation to the foundations of Christianity.
  • Arnold Zable, Cafe Scheherazade (2001): Journalist Martin visits Cafe Scheherazade to hear stories about displacement from its Jewish owners and patrons, particularly three friends who are also old men, Yossel, Laizer and Zalman.
  • Arnold Zable, Sea of many returns (2008): A dual point-of-view novel, with one of the POVs being a Greek-born grandfather who, in yearning for home, ponders the meaning of home and place in our lives.

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Ross King, writing in The Guardian in 2016 about older men protagonists, says this:

I was struck by the painter’s [Claude Monet] vigour, fortitude, ambition and (if I can declare some personal interest) sheer narrative traction. Monet in those years, his 70s and 80s, was very much an old man in a hurry, emerging from self-imposed retirement on the eve of the first world war to create some of the most daringly experimental pigmentary effects he had ever attempted. He offers proof that an eightysomething can propel a narrative without an author having to resort to wistful recollections of a vanished prime.

Interesting point. Certainly few of the characters in my little selection focus on their vanished primes. Several think about the past, but not in terms of their so-called prime. For some, like those older women books, there’s a need to resolve/atone for/amend the past, while for others there’s a more philosophical pondering about the meaning of the past, of home, of life. Unlike my older women books list, few if any of these older men books explore illness (like dementia and cancer).

Like that previous list too, but in reverse, most of the authors writing about old men are men – which is not surprising. I’m wondering whether any of our current male literary fiction authors who are now 60 plus, are writing about the topic? Like David Malouf (who has already done Ransom), Rodney Hall, Peter Goldsworthy, to name just a few.

And now, of course my question! Can you add some books to the list – Aussie if you’re Aussie, or your own nationality if you’re not?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Older women protagonists

This post was inspired by Book Word’s “older women in fiction” project, which involves her reading and posting reviews for books with older women protagonists as well as encouraging others to read these books and sharing them with her. She has quite a list on the page I’ve linked above, and is adding to it all the time. As I write, the list was updated in December 2018.

Now, her list does include a few Australian books, which I was thrilled to see, but I thought I would share my own list. It’s not a complete one – that would be impossible – but it’s intended to be indicative of what’s out there.

Of course, the big question is how do we define “older” women? Book Word uses 60+ as her definition. I think that’s a fair enough definition, so will use it too. However, I’ve had to guess at times, because in most cases, even if the age has been given I haven’t necessarily specifically noted it. Forgive me if a couple of the women below are not quite 60 yet!

My list is in alphabetical order by author (with links being to my posts). I have all of the books I list, except for Maria’s war, but some before blogging.

Older women protagonists

  • Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the river: Seventy-year-old Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home reconnects with the community she left, while also reflecting on the decisions she’d made.
  • Thea Astley, Coda: Kathleen, who’s “losing her nouns” describes herself as a “feral grandmother” and she’s not about to be pushed around by her selfish children.
  • Carmel Bird, Family skeleton: I’m not sure that Margaret O’Day’s age is given, but she’s a grandmother so let’s assume she’s in our ballpark. This book satirises middle-class family life, as Margaret works desperately to “save” the family’s image.
  • John Clanchy, Sisters: Three late middle-aged sisters get together at the request of the eldest who has more than one secret to share.
  • Brooke Davis, Lost and found: Seven-year-old Millie is joined by 82-year-old Agatha Pantha and 87-year-old Karl the Touch Typist on a wacky journey in which they all discover what it means to be human, no matter what your age.
  • Glenda Guest, A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline: Sixty-something Cassie has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and before she loses her mind altogether she wants to revisit her past, and make amends if amends are indeed needed.
  • Marion Halligan, The fog garden: Writer Claire’s age is not given, and she might still be in her 50s, but her husband of 30 or so years has died and she’s confronting her grief, life as an older woman without a partner, and the opinions of others.
  • Elizabeth Jolley, Orchard thieves: An unnamed seventy-something grandmother watches over her somewhat fractious family, remembering her youthful passions and quietly hoping to impart some of the wisdom of her age.
  • Eleanor Limprecht, The passengers: Eighty-something war bride Sarah journeys to the USA, with her grand-daughter, to reconnect with her past as well as putting right some lies.
  • Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stones: Sixty-something Ro is dying of cancer, and we look back at the decisions she made, the causes that drove her and, most of all, the community of friends she has built.
  • Fiona McFarlane, Night guest: Ruth, in her mid-seventies, lives alone, having been recently widowed – until her sons arrange for a carer.
  • Amy Witting, Maria’s war: Living in a retirement home, Lithuanian migrant Maria remembers the past, and the traumas of her war experiences.

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A few observations. The themes and subject matter are generally what you’d expect – illness (dementia and cancer being the main ones) and resolving/atoning for/amending the past. That pull is interesting, isn’t it, to reflect on and put right (with yourself and/or with others) the things you did, the hurts you inflicted, the decisions you made. Several of the stories use the journey motif to convey their characters’ mental or psychological journeys to self-discovery. And … only one of the authors (in my list anyhow) is male.

Finally, I struggled to find Australian books written before the 1980s that feature older women protagonists. There must be some, but, on the evidence I have here, I can only think that the second wave of feminism has resulted in a recognition of the importance of all stories.

And now, you know what I’m going to ask! Can you add some books to the list – Aussie if you’re Aussie, or your own nationality if you’re not?

Delicious descriptions from Down under: Julian Barnes on ageing and memory

This is the second Delicious Description I have written about ageing. It probably won’t be the last because, being a woman of a certain age, I am starting to connect with authors who explore the impact of ageing. I loved Barnes’ description of failing memory in his The sense of an ending (which I recently reviewed):

When you start forgetting things – I don’t mean Alzheimer’s, just the predictable consequences of ageing – there are different ways to react. You can sit there and try to force your memory into giving up the name of that acquaintance, flower, train station, astronaut … Or you admit failure and take practical steps with reference books and the internet. Or you can just let it go – forget about remembering – and then sometimes you find that the mislaid fact surfaces an hour or a day later, often in those long waking nights that age imposes. Well, we all learn this, those of us who forget things.

They say you should write about things you know about. It sure feels like Julian Barnes knows about this!

Nora Krouk, Warming the core of things

Nora Krouk, Warming the core of things, book cover

Nora Krouk, Warming the core of things (Image courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

life wrapped in bundles
of painful joy
(from “Skies will be luminous”)

The reason I like to read poetry is the obvious one – the way poets can capture a feeling or idea in just a few carefully chosen words that are presented through a controlled rhythm. Nora Krouk fills this bill nicely!

I hadn’t heard of Krouk before this book came to my attention … but she’s been around for a while. In fact, she’s 90 years old and has been in Australia since 1975. She is the daughter of a Polish Catholic father and a Jewish mother. She was born in China, married in Shanghai and lived in Hong Kong before emigrating to Sydney. She was educated in Russian schools and has written poetry in Russian and English. She has been published internationally, and has won several awards. Phew! I don’t usually provide such detail about authors, but it seems appropriate to do so here.

The collection is organised into three sections, and the order of these sections is interesting: In memoriam, Renewals, Transitions. I like the way it moves from death, through awakenings and rebirths, to change accompanied by uncertainty. This order keeps us on our toes. It offers no easy conclusions to the challenges posed in the first section but neither does it suggest hopelessness as the reverse order might have.

The poems are, for the most part, very accessible. Elizabeth Webby is quoted on the back of the book as saying that the poems “will appeal to both those who usually read poetry and those who don’t”. I’m in the middle ground here – I like to read poetry but don’t read it often enough – and I think Webby is right. Many of the poems have stories – seemingly about people Krouk knows – and those stories speak to the ordinary things of life which, for someone of Krouk’s age, include memory, aging, loss and death. These things are explored with a sense of enquiry and some resignation, rather than with a railing and ranting. The poems move between her daily life and historical events (some of which she or her family experienced), particularly the horrors that occurred under Hitler and Stalin.

I commenced this review with two lines from a poem in the Renewals section because they encapsulate what seems to be Krouk’s philosophy: Life is not easy, she’s saying, but there is much to enjoy and wonder at. The first poem in the book is a widow’s poem. It speaks of grief, but it also introduced me to something interesting about her poetry, what Anna Kerdijk Nicholson describes on the back of the book as her “idiosyncratic rhythm and lineation”:

I don’t weep much.     I read
and write     even cook     then
catch myself and return to you
(from “Fima (1914-2008)”)

These spaces in her lines control, force even, the rhythm for the reader. They allow us to breath, to feel the sense of the words and, in a way, they provide a more intimate, conversational tone to the work. They slow us down and prevent us from rushing through the poems.

Aging and memory, as I’ve already mentioned, are recurrent themes in the collection.  Memory, though, is a pretty broad church, and Krouk explores it in its various guises – from loss of memory to remembering the (often painful) past:

They chase a name
a thought     an event
(“The couple”)

It’s different for us
we have no grave
He was last seen
in the prison yard
(from “For Leon K” who died under Stalin’s regime)

But not all the poems are about challenge. There are lighter poems, and there is humour. I loved her short poem about a young smiling woman:

A smile is hovering over our street
a light funny quizzical smile
It slipped off her lips
brushed past the creamy cheek

dripped over a sunny wattle and stayed.
(from “A young woman”)

Much of her imagery is domestic, everyday. There are family dinners and bridge afternoons with friends. Jacarandas and gums, camellias and lavender feature, grounding her poetry in her Australian life. But, there are also allusions to things literary (such as Shakespeare and Tolstoy) and political/historical (as mentioned earlier), which confirm her as a poet of universal concerns.  Some of her poems combine the Australian and the political – such the example below, which demonstrates that she is capable of more than a little irony:

Where do we turn Matilda     Lead the dance
As promised in the anthem     we advance
(from “Sorry”)

There are also a few specifically religious poems, but I found some of these (“Widowed a hundred times”, and “I am not envious Lord”) a little too melodramatic for my liking, while others, such as her meditation on snakes (“Snakes are much maligned”), engaged me. Poetry, as I’ve said before, is such a personal thing.

Krouk has lived long and experienced much. There are many more poems I’d love to excerpt – and maybe I will in a future post. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a better way to summarise this book than through her own words:

Under the skies     luminous
things drop
(from “Skies will be luminous”)

Nora Krouk
Warming the core of things
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2011
ISBN: 9781921665431

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Thea Astley on aging

Regular readers of this blog will now that I’m a big fan of Thea Astley. One of her last novels (novella, actually) was Coda, a biting story about elderly widow Kathleen who is losing her memory but struggling, with little help from her self-centred children, to maintain some independence and, more, dignity. The book is full of wonderful acerbic insights that make you smile while hitting you in the guts at the same time. The novel opens with ‘”I’m losing my nouns”, she admitted.’

Here are some other excerpts:

… her oddities were increasing with age, her indifference to convention running counter to the refinements and pretentiousness of her children’s lifestyles.


… Public Service pension that drizzled brief fortnightly puddles of support into her bank account like a rusty tap.


She was scrabbling and rooting about for words in that old handbag of her years.

Astley’s early novels were exuberant, expansive in their imagery – though they too had satirical bite – but her last novels, particularly Coda and Drylands, were tighter, more spare. I wonder if that has something to do with her own aging, with no long having the gift of time?

Alice Joyce in her Booklist review, on Amazon, says “Astley’s high regard in her native Australia is understandable after reading this taut, compelling new novel about a strong-minded widow not yet ready to concede defeat and bow to the realities of her failing memory and the physical limitations of an aging body”. It is truly unfortunate that Thea Astley is not well-known outside Australia.

On growing old

Photo by Chalmers Butterfield (via Wikipedia)

Photo by Chalmers Butterfield (via Wikipedia)

I am currently reading Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running. I will write more on it when I’ve finished it, but today I came across this statement which rather caught my attention:

…one of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honour of physical decline is waiting, and you have to get used to that reality.

“The blessed right to grow old!” I like that. It is how I am going to think of myself from now on…