Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s difficult novels

A week or so ago I wrote a post about reading difficult novels. As I researched that post, I came across many lists of difficult novels, including the one I included at the end of the post. The interesting thing is that none of the lists I saw included any Australian novels, and yet they included novels from most of the other continents. Do we not have any, or, more likely, are we just not on the world literature radar enough? Anyhow, I thought I’d get the ball rolling and suggest a few possibilities:

  • Patrick White’s Voss. It’s logical to start with White, because, currently, he’s Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature. (I’ll do the rest alphabetically!).I’m not sure that Voss is his most difficult novel, but it depends on your definition of difficult. White’s prose is dense, with complex sentence structures and intense, but vivid imagery. Many readers find Voss particularly hard to read, though, because of the spiritual communion between Voss in the desert and Laura in the city. However, it appealed to my teenage sense of romance and resulted in my falling love with White.
  • Thea Astley’s Drylands. I’ve read quite a few Astleys. After all, she’s one of my favourite writers. She has a reputation for being difficult, with her earliest novels being particularly so, but I’ve chosen her last because of its form and its sense of desperation. Writer Mandy Sayer, an admirer like me, agrees that she is not “an easy read”, saying that she is “at once poetic, quirky, and literary”. Her imagery can be over the top, and she doesn’t shy from exploring our brutality, but she has such a heart. Every Australian should read her.
  • Peter Carey’s Illywhacker. Carey is hard to pin down, as his books vary so greatly. It’s one of the reasons I like him. You never know what you are going to get, from the at times surreal, to something like True history of the Kelly gang with its 19th century vernacular, unpolished grammar and largely absent punctuation, to the complexly structured like Parrot and Olivier in America (my review) and The chemistry of tears (my review). I’ve chosen Illywhacker, not because it’s regarded as his hardest but because I haven’t read it (yet).
  • JM Coetzee’s Diary of a bad year (my review). Coetzee, in this book and its predecessor Elizabeth Costello, pushes the envelope in terms of “the novel”. Some argued that Elizabeth Costello was more a series of lectures than a novel. Diary of a bad year presents readers with a very specific challenge. How do you read it, with its three (two to begin with) concurrent strands running across the top, middle and bottom of the page? Do you read one strand and then come back and read the next? Or do you try to read them concurrently? This is one of those books that is a challenge to read for its unusual structure and for the interplay between ideas and story that the reader needs to tease out.
  • Gerald Murnane’s The plains (my review). As blogger M. Sarki has written, “There is nothing but difficulty in reading a book written by Gerald Murnane.  But the reading gives me an enormous amount of pleasure…”. Murnane is one of our most innovative writers. He’s a challenge to read – where am I?, what is he saying? – but there’s exhilaration in that. I need to read more of him.

I think five is probably a good start, particularly given I’ve rambled on about each one. Other writers well worth considering if you are looking for “difficult” Australian literature include Rodney Hall, Thomas Keneally (his early works), David Malouf, Frank Moorhouse, Christos Tsiolkas. Not all works by these writers are “difficult” but many are recognised to be so.

I’ve read works by each of the writers I’ve named, but I’m sure other Aussies could name some favourite writers and “difficult” novels too. Has anyone read, for example, Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Let’s get our Aussies out there!

Reading difficult literature

I seem to have been reading a lot in recent weeks about reading, the end of reviewing, the future (or not) of the book, and so on. All interesting, though many revisiting familiar territory. One, though, particularly caught my eye. It was a post in Book Riot, by magazine editor/blogger/reviewer Greg Zimmerman, and was titled Our reading lives: Why I like difficult novels.

It’s not a long post. Zimmerman starts with David Foster Wallace’s notoriously difficult Infinite jest. He loved reading it, and says:

Readers read for dozens of different reasons. One of my favourite is to be challenged. Certainly, I don’t want most (or even 2 percent) of the novels I read to be as tough as Infinite jest. But I think spending a good amount of time with a book, really putting in some effort to piece it together, and coming out on the other side feeling like you’ve accomplished something is just so gratifying.

I’m sure you, like me, know exactly what he means. He next mentions Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s rainbow – which he found “really, really tough” – and then Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries. My eyes popped out at this point, as that’s the book I was about to start (and have, indeed, now started). While I knew it was long, I didn’t know it had a reputation for being difficult, but Zimmerman quotes others as saying it’s “long and demanding”, baffling”, even “an ingenious ourobouros“. Had I, I thought, left myself enough time to read it in time for reading group? Time will tell. Zimmerman took two weeks, he said, and that’s about how much time I’ve given myself.

The point I want to make though is that Zimmerman says that its difficulty is different. It’s “not like Pynchon because it’s really readable. And it’s not like DFW because it’s not digressive or purposefully superfluous”. Its difficulty comes from “the number of characters, how they’re all involved in the plot but from different perspectives and with different motivations, and the way the plot folds back upon itself several times”.

This got me thinking – not about The luminaries, as I’ll deal with that as I read it – but about my definitions of difficulty in novels. Dificulty is, I think, in the eye of the beholder, so I’ve come up with a few, not mutually exclusive definitions, which I thought I’d share (or, at least document for my own benefit!):

  • language and/or ideas are obscure and/or complex. A recent example for me is Gerald Murnane’s The plains (my review). It’s a short book but it demanded my complete attention. Miss a sentence and I was lost. I’m not sure I fully understood it, but I loved the challenge of trying to work out what Murnane was on about. Most of the world’s difficult books – those by Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Woolf et al – probably fall into this category. These books may have little or no plot. They are the books in which you wonder “what the hell is going on?”
  • structure is complex or disconnected or full of digressions, making it tricky to pin down things like where, when and/or who at different points in the book. Some readers found this with Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review). They found all the shifting around, particularly in the beginning, disorienting. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy fits here, though it’s a long time since I read it. This point is closely related to the first one, and most of the authors I listed there spill over here too, I think.
  • large cast of characters (often combined with complex or convoluted plot). This is apparently the case with The luminaries. David Mitchell’s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet (my review) is not overly convoluted but it has a large cast of characters, and keeping track of them is a challenge. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas would fit here too, and in several of my categories I reckon.
  • unflagged transitions between “reality” and “magic” or “dream” or “spiritual” worlds. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami and our own Alexis Wright (my review of Carpentaria), to name a few, can trip us up with the way they slide between worlds. Alexis Wright, however, would argue that this only a problem if you have a western mindset. My solution is to go with the flow – and usually all will be revealed.
  • emotionally confronting, that is, the story is distressing or grim. This is not something that usually bothers me. While I do become emotional about characters and what happens to them, I like that literature lets me explore things I hope I never have to experience in life. Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance is a novel that wears some readers down. For some it’s too depressing, and they give up. I found it ultimately uplifting, despite it all. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace fits here, as do Cormac McCarthy’s The road and Blood meridian, not to mention many Holocaust novels.
  • boring. It’s really hard to read a book that bores you. This is what put me off Great expectations when I first tried to read it in my early teens. I just couldn’t get interested. When I finally faced it again years later, I loved it. I think this might be the reason many readers give up on Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s mandolin. I loved the opening chapters, but he does take a while to get into the story proper.

Do you read “difficult” literature? If so, what do you find difficult and do you have any hints about how to approach such reading. Oh, and for a list of really tough books, check this list out.