Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from Victoria

Coat of Arms of Victoria (Australia)

Victoria's Coat of Arms (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Over the course of these Monday musings have been occasional posts on writers from specific geographic locations in Australia – but I have not done our two most populous regions, the states of Victoria and New South Wales. The time has come to confront there two – and so, today, I present you Victoria.

Now Victoria is a special state – not only does Mr Gums Jr live there, but its capital Melbourne was the second city to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature! That’s a pretty impressive achievement. I have written some literary road posts on Victoria, which have mostly focused on writers and works from the past, so in this post I will, as I have done in other regional posts, list (in no particular order) five of my favourite current writers from Victoria – some were born there, some migrated there.

Helen Garner

Garner is one of our most controversial writers – and has been, really, since the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip, which some critics argued was simply her writing her own life. They meant by this that it had no creative merit, no literary value. This didn’t deter our Helen though, and she has gone on to become one of our significant writers – of both fiction and non-fiction. She has also written some successful screenplays. She writes about relationships and the things that cause disconnects between people, no matter how much they wish it might not be so. As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t always agree with Garner, but I am always happy to read her because the woman has style. I’ve read too many of hers to list here, but if you’d like a recommendation, please ask!

Elliot Perlman

You may not have heard of Perlman, particularly if you are not Australian, because he is not particularly prolific. The first novel of his that I read was the multiple point of view Seven types of ambiguity (which makes a sly reference to literary theorist William Empson‘s book of the same name). It’s a good, thoughtful book about love and obsession, and the ambiguities therein! I then read Three dollars which explores the question of what happens “when bad things happen to good people” and how consumerism challenges (compromises) our values. It was adapted for film, starring the gorgeous David Wenham (aka Diver Dan if you are a Sea Change fan). Both these novels are set in Melbourne. According to Wikipedia he has a third novel out this year.

Arnold Zable

If you have been reading this blog recently, Arnold Zable will need no introduction. His focus is human rights, with a particular interest in the migrant experience. I’ve read two of his novels – Cafe Scheherazade and The sea of many returns – and will happily read more. His prose is lovely, his attitude warm and generous. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, Violin lessons.

Beverley Farmer

I’m going to throw in a somewhat forgotten, I think, writer here. Way back in 1988 when my reading group started, we focussed on Australian writers, particularly Australian women writers. One of those was Beverley Farmer. We read her collection of short stories Milk and not long after I also read her second collection of short stories, Home time. Both these were published in the 1980s. She has also written novels, and one of those writers’ notebooks, A body of water, in which she documented her ideas and thoughts over a year, the books she was reading, the people she met. I was drawn to her because of the evocative way she conveyed her experience of being a young Australian wife in a Greek village. Like Perlman, she’s not prolific, but in 2009 she was awarded the Patrick White Award (for writers who “have made a substantial contribution to Australian literature but … may not have received adequate recognition for their work”) which says something about the quality of her work.

Peter Carey

I’ll conclude on another controversial writer. People, it seems, either love him or hate him – and I fall more in the first camp. He is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice. I have by no means read all of his books but I like the fact that he takes risks in his writing. I think his Oscar and Lucinda is a worthy contender for the Great Australian Novel (should we take that notion seriously). His True history of the Kelly Gang makes a significant contribution to the Ned Kelly myth by attempting to tell the story in Kelly’s voice. It is not all “true” in the factual sense, but it contains a “truth” that Carey thought worth exploring. His most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in Americatook more risks – in voice and subject matter. Carey, as many of you will know, now lives in New York, but he was born in Victoria – and that’s good enough for this post!

So there you are, five Victorian writers. Now’s your chance to tell me what Victorian writers you like – or simply whether the writers I’ve listed here interest you.

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Arnold Zable on survival and stories

Arnold Zable is not, I believe, very well-known even in Australia, but I think he is a beautiful writer. He has a lovely way with words but, more importantly I think, his writing is warm and generous. I’ve read two of his novels – Cafe Scheherazade and Sea of many returns – and enjoyed them both. Zable was born in 1947 in New Zealand to Polish-Jewish refugees, a fact which clearly has driven his interest in human rights in general, and the migrant experience in particular. He has a new book out – Violin lessons – and so I thought now would be a good time to introduce him.

Cafe Scheherazade (2001), which is based on the stories told by Jewish refugees in the real Cafe Scheherazade in Melbourne, is, as much as anything, about survival – and, as is obvious from the title, about the importance of stories to this survival.

… but they persist with their opinions as if to argue is to know they are alive. They continue to tell their tales, as if to talk is to know they have survived.

and …

I feel the limits of my craft, the limits of what words can convey.

and …

panic … that … I would perish; and my tales would perish with me.

and, reflecting the practice of many survivors of the Holocaust (and other trauma) …

This is when the stories began to be suppressed … an urgent need to forget and to rebuild their aborted lives.

It’s a beautiful book … and well-worth reading if you ever get the chance.

PS If you Google Cafe Scheherazade Melbourne you’ll find some images (including those from a play that was adapted from the book) but I couldn’t find any that were free for me to use here.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some novels about the second world war

As I am still immersed in things paternal – and as my father served in the second world war – I thought that this week I’d take the easy way out again and list some of my favourite Australian novels about that war. Although I call myself a pacifist, I don’t shy away from war novels. The main reason is because in war we see humanity under duress and, through that, we see the best and worst of human behaviour. I love how the best war novels throw up the “truths” that I love to find in literature.

I’m going to list just 5 – though I’ve read more than that – in the order that I’ve read them. I’ve chosen these 5 not necessarily because I think they are the best (though I have enjoyed them all) but for the different perspectives they offer on the experience of war. (Note: the dates after the titles are not the dates I read them but when they were first published! Just so you know!)

Nevil Shute‘s A town like Alice (1950)

Nevil Shute was one of my favourite authors when I was a teen though when I read him now I see that he’s not as good a writer as my other teen passion, Jane Austen! Nonetheless, he was a good storyteller and many of his novels were adapted for film, including A town like Alice. It’s primarily a post-war romance, but the two characters, English rose Jean and rough diamond Aussie Joe meet when they are prisoners of war in Malaya, a story which is told in flashback. It’s a pretty stereotypical romance but the war, the English-Australian cross cultural story, and the Australian outback setting captured my teen heart.

Arnold Zable‘s Cafe Scheherezade (2001)

Café Scheherazade is set in, and based on, the real cafe of the same name. It was, from its establishment in 1958 to its demise in 2008, a significant meeting place for Jewish refugees who came to Melbourne post war. The novel tells the stories of the Cafe’s patrons – their lives in Europe, and how and why they came to Australia. It taught me something I hadn’t known before – that many Jewish refugees came to Australia via Shanghai. Zable’s prose is beautiful, and though the stories, as you can imagine, contain much tragedy, the final message comprises those universals of courage, endurance, love and even laughter.

Markus Zusak’s The book thief (2005)

Zusak’s The book thief is one of those rare books that pulls off telling a terrible story with humour. Its subject is an ordinary German family which fosters a young girl, and then hides, to their great risk, a young Jewish man. It’s a deadly serious book about bravery and cowardice, about kindness and cruelty – and yet it has, much of the time anyhow, a rather whimsical tone.

Hans Bergner, Between sea and sky

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Hans Bergner’s Between sky and sea (1946)

Bergner tells the opposite story to that told by Zusak. His characters are Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Poland on a boat – but no-one will let them land, no-one will take them in, the way the Hubermanns took in Leisl and Max in The book thief. It explores the impact of this, as the reality becomes clear to the boat’s occupants. It’s a pretty devastating story.

Alan Gould‘s The lakewoman (2010)

I started with a romance and I’m ending with a romance, but that’s where the similarity between the two books ends. Shute’s book has a pretty traditional trajectory – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, more or less – against the backdrop of the war and early post war period. Gould’s story is far more complex – more realistic about life and character, with a touch of the mystical thrown in. Gould argues that his is not really a war novel because it’s not about the war. To a large degree that’s true, but in a sense it’s true of many books set in war. War is the setting, but the themes are often something bigger (universals about human behaviour) and smaller (about how particular people behave under stress). One of the issues Gould explores is how the promise of a person’s life can be thrown, not only by the things that happen to them but by the decisions they make as a result. And in war, a lot of things can happen to a person!

I’ve limited myself to 5 so am sure to have missed some favourites of yours. I’d love to hear whether you read war novels, Australian or otherwise and, if so, what your favourites are. If you don’t read them, you can tell us that too!

Arnold Zable, Sea of many returns

He leaps through centuries, tears apart myths, and reassembles them in his own way.

Sea of Many Returns cover

Cover image courtesy Text Publishing

These words that are said of one of the characters in Arnold Zable’s Sea of many returns could just as easily be said of Zable himself – not only of this book, but of his earlier ones such as Cafe Sheherazade. Zable loves telling stories, stories that weave between each other in an attempt to understand the impact of dislocation and exile on the human psyche – well, on his characters’ psyches but it is not hard to universalise this.

Sea of many returns is, essentially, a dual point-of-view novel:

  • the first person narrator, Xanthe, who was born in Melbourne to an Ithacan father and who tells her story; and
  • the third person story of Mentor, her paternal (also Ithacan) grandfather whose journals she is translating.

The story roams, backwards and forwards, from 1895 to present time as Xanthe and Mentor tell of the lives of their family members in Greece and Australia…about all their leavings and returnings, for work or adventure, or more terribly for war or, simply, to find a better life:

The stories I have heard, and am yet to hear, are echoes of one refrain: Is there somewhere on earth where I can find peace and prosper? Once the question is posed, the agony begins, the eternal dilemma: to stay or leave? To retreat behind fortifications, or cast our fate to the winds? (Xanthe, p. 203)

Underpinning this dilemma is the yearning for Ithaca – which translates, really, to the yearning for place, for home. Towards the end of the novel Mentor discusses the notion of “nostalgia” or “the pain of longing for the return”. Put this together with “the Ithacan phobia, the fear that I may never return” and the result is a melancholic – but not depressing – tone, since it is mostly accompanied by, if not always strength of mind, a resilience of spirit.

Not surprisingly, it’s the men who travel, at least in the earlier times of the book. As Xanthe’s aunt says, resignedly, “Let your men roam distant lands. Let them do what they must. What choice do we have? Bend your back to the mountain. Sow and reap”. And so, while Xanthe talks to some of the women in her Greek family, it is the men whose stories she seeks as she tries to understand her father, the angry Manoli, and her grandfather, Mentor. However, the book’s final section, titled “Epilogue: The resident tiller of the soil”, focuses on 90-something year old Irini who, quite paradoxically Xanthe realises, has not left Ithaca since her arrival there 90 years before and yet “is both voyager and teller, Odysseus and Homer”. This is perhaps a little elliptical but it has a certain resonance nonetheless! And Andreas does mutter in the previous section, “To know one place is to know all places”.

While the novel takes on a mythic overtone, it is “history” which provides its backbone and puts flesh on its characters: there are, for example, the way-too-many wars (to which many men go and from which some return), the 1916 anti-Greek riots in Kalgoorlie, the 1953 earthquakes in Ithaca, and the building in Melbourne of Cafe Australia and the Capitol by the Chicago architects, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin. This last one seems a bit odd in terms of the overall thrust of the book but is interesting to one who lives in the city they planned!

I have only touched on a little of what this novel contains – there are the references to the Homeric quest and the story of Odysseus, there is the drunk but wise Niko, there is the beauty of the language in its rhythms and descriptions, and there is music – but if I go on, I might, like its storytellers, never stop. As Andreas says to Xanthe near the end

I have told you one version of the story and tomorrow I may tell it with a different slant. Each word I utter is true and false at the same time …

Paradoxical? Yes! But that is the essence of this lyrical and mesmerising but also rather mystifying – or, is that mythifying – book!

Arnold Zable
Sea of many returns
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 9781921351532