Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2011, Finale

… and now we have a winner! Those of you who have been following the tournament will know that the two books facing off in the Finale were Helen Garner‘s The children’s Bach and Joan London‘s Gilgamesh. I would not have guessed this at the beginning (and neither, they say, did the organisers). Not because these aren’t great books – I’ve read them both – but because they are not the ones on the top of people’s tongues (like, say, My brilliant career) or the ones with critical weight behind them (like, say, The man who loved children or The fortunes of Richard Mahony). That said, I’m surprised but not sorry, because it’s no bad thing to expose other works to wider attention. The question is, will they get it?

Anyhow, onto the finale. It was judged a little differently: there was a panel of 5, with each giving a brief reason for his/her vote. You can read their reasons on the Meanjin site, because here I’m simply going to announce that the winner.  And it is, drum roll please, with 3 votes to 2,  Zombie Round returnee, Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach.  I’m happy – after all it’s one of the few from the original list that I’ve reviewed on this this blog. It was a reread too, which tells you something: Garner is a great writer.

The real question, though, is what happens next? Has the Tournament achieved anything for Australian literature, and Australian women’s writing in particular? Is it worth doing again next year? Well, I’m not sure. Leaving off the question concerning the merits of judging books, and looking at it from a consciousness-raising point of view, which were, I believe, its main goals, did Meanjin‘s Tournament achieve what it set out to. I fear it didn’t … and that I suspect is due less to the tournament itself than to lack of promotion of it. I didn’t see or hear much buzz about it around the traps – in neither the formal print and electronic media nor in less formal places like blogs.

Appropriately, the following quote from The children’s Bach has some application here:

Like many women of her age whose opinions, when they were freshly thought and expressed, had never received the attention they deserved, Mrs Fox had slid away into a habit of monologue, a stream of mild words which concealed the bulk of thought and knowledge as babbling water hides submerged boulders.

I fear that, like Mrs Fox’s wisdom, the submerged boulders of good Australian literature have stayed submerged … what must (can) we do to expose them?

Meanjin’s Tournament of Books 2011, Zombie Rounds

Just one round of Meanjin‘s tournament of books to go … after this one, that is.

The Zombie round comprises the winners of Semifinals 1 and 2 being pitted against the books returned to the fray by reader vote in the Zombie poll (on which I reported at the end of the Semifinals post).

Zombie Round 1: Joan London’s Gilgamesh defeated Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria

Well, hmmm … I don’t have a particular problem with the winner here as they are both very fine books. I love Gilgamesh and would not be sorry to see it win, though I did have a slight preference for Carpentaria because of the “bigness” (to use my best litcrit terminology) of its idea/s and language. It is a larger than life novel that takes you on a very wild ride. And it explores some of the conflicts and challenges faced by contemporary Indigenous Australians, something we need to see more of in our contemporary literature. But, this judging was odd. Firstly, the judge was First Dog on the Moon, the pseudonym of Andrew Marlton, the cartoonist for the independent electronic magazine Crikey. This is fair enough, but he got his facts wrong. He described the two books he was judging as “zombie” books. However, only one is. And then, the judging took the form of a cartoon. It was just a little too light-hearted, a little too minimal … but perhaps, really, he took just the right tack. We’ll get a winner in the end but we all know, don’t we, that all the books are winners!

Zombie Round 2: Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach defeated Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career

Ah well, the grand old dame of Australian literature, the bequeather of our (arguably) most important literary prize, has been toppled off her perch by the zombie! Just shows it’s never over till it’s over, eh? Lorelei Vashti, the judge, uses some rather odd criteria to make her decision – she likes the old-fashioned (or, is that, oldfashioned) way Garner’s book used “ear-rings” for “earrings”; she believes (and gives examples) that men called Harry always get the girl but Franklin’s Sybylla rejects her Harry for a career! In the end, being (semi-) serious, she gives it to Garner because, and I’ll quote:

So, in conclusion: near the end of The Children’s Bach, Philip instructs a girl who is trying to write pop song lyrics: ‘Make gaps. Don’t chew on it. Don’t explain everything. Leave holes,’ and that there is a Garner masterclass; it’s precisely what her book does. You never find her doing something so obvious as, for example, rhyming Harry with marry; this book is all about the gaps and holes.

I do think Garner is a very fine writer, so I won’t argue – though I probably wouldn’t have argued with the alternative either. It’s that sort of tournament after all.

Next …

The Final. Who will win? Gilgamesh or The children’s Bach? Which would you vote for?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Five fascinating fictional fathers

This week’s Monday musings has a personal, sentimental, genesis. Last Friday, my 91-year-old father underwent his third major abdominal surgery in 6 years. It’s a big ask for an older body but he’s hanging in there. My parents, not surprisingly I suppose, were instrumental in my becoming a reader. My mother introduced me to Jane Austen. My father would let me bring my “28 books” (why I thought there were 28 is lost in my childhood haze) to him in bed in the morning so he could read them aloud to me. It was also he who introduced me, through reading aloud again, to Banjo Paterson‘s ballads. I have a lot to thank my parents for – and my being a reader is one of them.

All this got me to thinking of fathers in literature, and particularly Australian literature. There are a lot of men – yes, really! – in Australian fiction, but how often, I wondered, is their role as fathers a feature of the writing? As it turns out, it’s more common than I thought, but I’ll just share five here.

Elizabeth Jolley‘s My father’s moon (1989)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy and, while it is really about Vera and her challenge to find a place in the adult world, the support provided by her father is critical in her life … and Jolley writes of it beautifully:

He always told me when I had to leave for school, every term when I wept because I did not want to leave, he told me that if I looked at the moon, wherever I was, I was seeing the same moon that he was looking at, ‘And because of this’, he said, ‘you must know that I am not very far away. You must never feel lonely,’ he said. He said the moon would never be extinguished. Sometimes, he said, it was not possible to see the moon, but it was always there. He said he liked to think of it as his.

Murray Bail‘s Eucalyptus (1998)

Eucalyptus is one of my favourite books. The writing is gorgeous and it explores fatherhood from a surprising angle – for a modern novel. It is in fact a rather traditional fairy story, with a modern twist. The father in Eucalyptus sets a task for his daughter’s wooers – they must be able to identify every eucalypt tree on the property in order to win her hand, but this modern father finds that managing his daughter’s future is not quite as easy as he thought. She might in fact want a say in it.

Joan London‘s The good parents (2008)

Joan London targets, among other things, the whole issue of parenthood by exploring three generations or so of parents and children. The central family is Jacob and Toni, with their two children, and Jacob is given reasonable “airplay” in his own right as he contemplates his missing daughter and his role as her parent, and along the way his relationship with his mother, Arlene. He wonders, as many parents do at some stage, whether the choices he made for his and his family’s life were the best ones for his children.

Steve Toltz‘s A fraction of the whole (2008)

The father-son relationship is the central idea of Steve Toltz’s big, loose, baggy monster of a novel as it explores Jasper’s rather typical desire to not be his father, the free-thinking-out-there Martin. After a rather wild ride in which Jasper learns many important things, he realises that he will never be his father, that he is the sum of more than one part.

David Malouf‘s Ransom (2010)

And then there’s Ransom, Malouf’s reimagining of Priam’s approach to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son Hector in order to give him a proper burial. The book has larger themes – about daring to dream, about humility, about the power of compassion, to name a couple – but at the heart of it is the love of a father for his son. Without that, there would be no book and we would have missed another beautiful read from Malouf.

This is a pretty quick introduction to some views on fathers in recent Australian literature, because my time right now is otherwise engaged – but I’d love to hear if you have favourite literary fathers. Who are they, and why do you like them?

Joan London, The good parents (Spoilers, sort of)

I was looking forward to reading Joan London’s most recent novel, The good parents, because I loved her Gilgamesh, not only for its engrossing story but also for its evocation of place and period and its spare writing. The plot of The good parents is a simple one. Maya, Jacob and Toni’s 18 year-old daughter, disappears just before they arrive in Melbourne to visit her, and the book chronicles the way they go about locating her and bringing her home. It is not, however, a mystery or detective novel but an exploration of “family” and particularly of parents and parenting.

London looks at these subjects through her various characters and their stories: Jacob and his mother Arlene, Toni and her parents Beryl and Nig, Cecile and her adoptive parents, Cy and his mother, and so on. And from these she uses parallels in their stories to tease out similarities and differences. For example, both Toni and Maya run away, Jacob and Cy are both products, essentially, of single mother families. It is, in fact, a cleverly constructed book, with links and refrains criss-crossing the narrative.

The book also seems to be about the life you choose for yourself and about how to find meaning in that life: Jacob has “the fear of dying without ever having been able to give expression to what it meant to live”; Toni is concerned that she and Jacob “opted for the small life”. I’m not sure that London quite marries these two themes together – and perhaps she doesn’t need to. I did find it hard to get a grip on Maya’s story – it’s an age-old story and yet it felt a little forced.  But, Jacob’s and Toni’s stories are well told and she sensitively portrays a wide range of parents and parenting and the accommodations people do and do not make in their lives regarding their families. The book is called The good parents. By the end, I wasn’t quite sure whether we are supposed to read this somewhat ironically (as in “you call that good?”), or straight, implying that parents in general do their best, even if the end result may not be exactly what they might have wanted. I suspect it’s a bit of both, showing London’s capacity to be wry and compassionate together.

It’s a very open book, with no neat conclusion and no apparent authorial judgment. Cy is not brought to book for his behaviour, nor is Maynard for his. Carlos and Chris will survive their respective affairs. And so on. I like books that are generous or forgiving of their characters. This is not to say that I don’t like gritty, hard-hitting books too, but I do like generosity sometimes and this book is generous. She allows us to look at her characters, warts and all, and to draw our own conclusions. I guess, in the end, it is a bit of a “slice of life” novel … but a tightly controlled one for all that.