Malcolm Knox, Bluebird (#BookReview)

Malcolm Knox’s sixth novel, Bluebird, comes with some impressive endorsements. On the front cover is “Charlotte Wood, author of The weekend“, while the back features “Christos Tsiolkas, author of Damascus and The slap” and “Adam Gilchrist, former test cricketer and beach-goer”. Hang on, Adam Gilchrist? What the?

Some of you will know why, but I didn’t. However, I now know that as well as being a novelist, Knox is a respected journalist who has been a cricket correspondent, sport editor, and literary editor. Wikipedia reminded me that he was the literary editor who exposed “the fake Jordanian memoirist, Norma Khouri“. This won him and co-journalist, Carolyn Overington, a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism.

The thing is, I knew Malcolm Knox’s name, but had read none of his novels or his many works of non-fiction. Consequently, I came to Bluebird cold. I have no idea whether it is typical of Knox’s writing, but, I did enjoy it.

Superficially, it looks like a satire on all those beach communities that pepper Australia’s coasts – the middle-aged men who prefer surfing to working, the country-club set, the councils which sell out to developers, small-town racism and gay-bashing, and so on. You can imagine it, I’m sure. Except that, in fact, it soon becomes clear that while a beach-town might be the setting, Bluebird’s satire is broader, reaching into wider aspects of contemporary Australian life – dysfunctional men and broken families, development, aged care, banking, local government, the list goes on. It’s more that given Australians’ love for the beach, such a town makes the perfect, relatable, setting for his tale.

However, satire can sometime be an intellectual exercise, engaging the mind more than the heart, but Knox achieves both, by creating flawed characters whom we recognise and can engage with, and by telling a story that is just that bit larger than life to make it exciting but not so much that it doesn’t feel real. At first, I was concerned that it was just a little bit too smart-alecky for me, that there were just a few too many biting lines, but I found myself drawn in because I cared about the seemingly hapless 50-year-old Gordon and (some of) his family and friends.

How did they get away with it?

The novel is told in four parts – First Part, Next Part, This Part and Last Part – with each introduced in an italicised section by “Bird’s eye”, a not quite disinterested truth-teller. The story concerns the recently unemployed, recently separated Gordon, and his attempts to keep Bluebird’s iconic house, The Lodge, intact. The Lodge, however, is more than a house; it’s a symbol of all that is both good and rotten in Bluebird, in Gordon’s family, in, I think we could say, Australia. It is a paradox. Bird’s eye, introducing First Part, says:

This house is not an answer but a question: absolute beachfront yet virtually inaccessible, sitting on premium real estate that is somehow not real estate at all, a historic abuse protected by custom.

And the question is, how did they get away with it, or, more pointedly, as Bird’s eye asks, what have they got away with, to, even more pointedly, will they keep getting away with it.

So, through Gordon, the novel explores how its characters (and, dare I say, Australians) have managed to maintain the good life. Gordon lives in his beloved Lodge, sharing the bunk room with his teenage son Ben, who has some sort of “Asperger-ish ADHD-sih, non-specific, nameless disorder-is Thing”, and his goddaughter Lou, who is, arguably, the most competent character in the novel. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Kelly, is also there, occupying the “queen room”. His many unemployed, or minimally employed, friends also hang around the Lodge – unless, that is, there is a surf. And, he has elderly parents, irascible father Ron, who is living, unwillingly, in aged care due to having terminal kidney failure, and mother Norma, “a model for pressing forward without an inward glance”. But, the centre of it all is Gordon, and he is floundering. He has no money, and is marooned by a secret concerning his brother’s death over 40 years ago. The problem is that he is likeable, “a good man” in fact, and people want to help him, even at risk to themselves.

And, of course, there are the bullies – including his soon-to-be ex-step-mother-in-law Leonie who pulls the family financial strings for her own purposes, Council heavy Frontal, and “big man” about town, Tony Eastaugh. None of these want to help Gordon save The Lodge, and thus Bluebird itself.

It’s a complicated story of financial skulduggery set against personal insecurities, jealousies, and just plain ineffectuality, but the novel holds together largely because of its language and humour, Knox’s ability to skewer Australian culture, and his insight into human nature. I loved for example his comment on Gordon and Kelly’s marriage:

Habit, over-familiarity, neglect and inaction killed more lives than cancer.

Change is what I’m ready for (Gordon)

Marriage, however, is not his main target. Rather, it’s Australian men and the way they are letting the side down. Bluebird’s men tend to be ambitious power-hungry bullies or ineffectual past-focused also-rans. There are few in the middle. Overall, it’s the women who are decisive, which is not to say that they are all “better” people. Knox’s attitude to most of his characters seems to be one of frustrated affection. These people, he seems to be saying, are hanging onto the past, but

The past was worn out, not as solid as it was made out to be. Past its best.

The ending, when it comes, is cataclysmic, but not hopeless. Knox wants us to believe that people – that Australia, which seems also to be wallowing in its past – can change. It’s not that the past is all bad, but it shouldn’t drive us.

Introducing the Last Part, Bird’s eye says

This is not the outsider’s story. This is the story of those who are in the middle yet on the margin, the hole in the doughnut, so close to the centre that they have fallen into the void.

The question is, can we get ourselves out? Bluebird is a warm and funny but also biting read. Recommended.

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

Malcolm Knox
Bluebird
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
487pp.
ISBN: 9781760877422

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 2, Pt 1: Art, Books and Politics

For my last day of the Canberra Writers Festival I chose two quite different sessions, as you will see! This post is on the first one …

(Note: these two posts will be in lieu of this week’s Monday Musings.)

The Art of Books

Chong, Bowers, Katsoukas

Chong, Bowers, Katauskas

I chose this session primarily because one of the participants was the multi-award-winning book designer, WH Chong (from Text Publishing) and, woo hoo, he was there, even though, once again, one of the advertised panelists, cartoonist-illustrator Jules Faber, was not. The other panelist was political cartoonist Fiona Katauskas, and the session was moderated by The Guardian Australia photographer and Talking Pictures presenter, Mike Bowers. It was, I must say, a hoot of a session – and it was held in the old Senate Chamber in Old Parliament House. I was keen to attend an event in one of the parliamentary chambers there and so that was an added plus.

Bowers was an lively moderator, sharing the questions, back and forth, between the two panelists, which was a bit of a challenge given they work in somewhat different fields. Still, Chong had started in journalism – working in The Age’s newsroom – and maintains an interest in political cartoonists, and Katauskas has illustrated books, so the disjunction wasn’t too great. For this post, I’m going to organise my discussion by person, though the actual session see-sawed between the two.

WH Chong

Jonathan Galassi, MuseBowers, who had also known Chong in earlier days, focused most of his questions, and examples, on Chong’s covers that feature typewriters and typewriter-style fonts. This gave Chong a chance to share his love of typewriters, and the fact that for most of those covers he used typewriters for the font, not digital fonts. One of the covers discussed was for Jonathan Galassi’s Muse, a novel about a poet. The letters of the word Muse are created with the letters for the word Poet (ie the M is made using “p”s, the U “o”s, etc). A concrete poem, in a way. A clever, striking design.

Janet Frame, In the memorial roomBowers asked Chong whether he thought the online world is causing the death of good design, but Chong felt not, arguing that the ratio of good to bad design, remains the same. There’s some great design online he said. Bowers also asked him whether the rules of design changed for online books versus print. Chong wanted to know what those “rules” were! But then said that they were basically the same, regardless of form: you make author’s name and the title as big as possible, and use as much colour as possible!

Another question concerned fonts, and whether Chong had favourite and disliked fonts. Chong admitted to having changing favourite fonts, but quoted someone (whose name I didn’t catch) as saying that there is “no such thing as a bad type, just type badly used”. Chong added, with a straight fact, that typeface (or font) is a serious matter and he ”won’t be typecast.” Haha.

D'Ambrosio, The dead fish museumSome process issues were discussed, such as who approves covers. Chong said, basically everyone, including the author’s hairdresser, dog, etc etc! Haha, again. But, he did say that Text works collegially, which was lovely to hear. Bowers then asked how important is the cover. Chong seemed to think that it’s not that important, but that marketing and publishers believe “it is important in our noisy world” so  “who is he to complain?”

Bowers, you can see, did well at asking all those questions we’d like to ask. Another one was whether he looks back – perhaps in horror – at old work. Again Chong quoted someone else, this time I did get the name, Bob Dylan, who said “Never look back, you might catch up.”

Finally, before we leave Chong, Bowers asked him whether he reads the book first. He prevaricated a bit here saying “y-e-e-s” which meant, I gathered, “mostly but not always.” He’s a slow reader he says, and he only sees the draft.

This was a terrible session because almost every book cover shown introduced me to a book I want to read.

Fiona Katauskas

Fiona Katauskas, The amazing true story of how babies are madeNow, Katauskas. Bowers started by asked her about her book The amazing true story of how babies are made. She wrote it, she said, because when needing to answer her 5-year-old son’s questions she discovered the only book around was the now old Where do I come from? The book has been very successful, shortlisted for both the CBC and ABIA awards, and is now being animated. It was a different project she said from her more usual work of political cartooning. For one thing, it was not cynical! Bowers then asked her to share the shock! horror! furore that developed in the UK and USA after someone posted some images from the book on Facebook. Katauskas has written about the story in July’s The Monthly article. The ridiculous thing is that the book hadn’t even been published in those countries. It was a good lesson in clickbait, she said, but the result is that a US book deal now looks likely!

John Birmingham, PopelandBowers then asked Katauskas about her cover for John Birmingham’s Popeland. She loves doing book illustrations, even though it’s one of the worst-paid jobs, but unfortunately, she said, this sort of work is drying up these days. Anyhow, her illustrations – cover and inside – were inspired by books like Captain Goodvibes, boys’ own adventure books and The Beano. She described researching the fun of 1930/40s Beano books in the State Library. These commissions tend not to come with briefs. She receives the manuscript, and a statement that, say, there’s a budget for 10 illustrations. She talked about the process of ensuring there’s a “visual cadence” underpinning the illustrations through a book.

The conversation then turned to political cartooning which forms the bulk of her work. You really had to be there and I’m afraid I’m going to say that, to some degree, what happened in the room – such as stories about (very) contemporary (if you know what I mean) Australian political figures – will stay in the room.

I will however share some of the discussion about modern political satire. Katauskas admitted that the “best of times for satire is worst of time for everyone else.” Ouch! Chong asked whether we were beyond parody and satire, to which Katauskas replied (not perhaps answering Chong’s question) that “it’s hard to take the piss when they’re giving it away.” (You can guess who some of “they” were!) Bowers shared that satirist comedian Bryan Dawe is so concerned about politicians moving into the satirists’ domain that he’s considering bringing a class action against them. You can see what fun we had.

Fiona Katauskas, Obama and Rudd

Fiona Katauskas cartoon

Katauskas commented on the importance of publisher Scribe’s annual Best Australian political cartoons publications because they recognise that political cartoons are historical documents. She also talked about her job of researching cartoons for the annual exhibition of political cartoons, Behind the lines, and how she sees some recurring themes over the last fifteen years, the two major ones being asylum seekers and climate change.

Chong then asked whether we are beyond (or past) hope – but that question just hung.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’ll just share the one about what media or technology Chong and Katauskas use. Both, interestingly, prefer to work in an analog way. Katauskas said she’s “old school”, and loves working with her pen dipped in ink. Chong said he was “very analog.”

Moderator, and photographer, Mike Bowers talked about the joy of working with good journalists, and named some of those he loves working with –  Paul Daley (with whom he has produced the book Armageddon), Katherine Murphy, Gabrielle Chan, and Lenore Taylor. With the breakup of the media and more people working alone, these important relationships are being lost.

He ended with the plea to us to “pay for your journalism.” I do, I wanted to say.

Michelle de Kretser, The life to come (#BookReview)

Michelle de Kretser, The life to comeMichelle de Kretser’s Miles Franklin shortlisted novel, The life to come, makes for great reading but difficult blogging because, like her Miles Franklin Award winner, Questions of travel (my review), it is big, and covers a lot of ground. Where to start is the problem. However, I’ll give it my best shot, starting with its form.

The novel comprises five distinct, almost standalone, parts, except that one character, the Australian novelist Pippa, appears in each one, providing a continuing narrative thread for the whole. She is introduced as a rather naive student in the Part 1 (“The Fictive Self”). We then move through Part 2 (“The Ashfield Tamil”) about Ash and Cassie, Part 3 (“The museum of romantic life”) about Céleste in Paris, and Part 4 (“Pippa Passes”) about Pippa and her in-laws, to end with Part 5 (“Olly Faithful”) about Christabel and Bunty. These characters are Australian, French, British and Sri Lankan.

But something intrigued me. The title of Part 4, “Pippa Passes”, rang a bell, of Robert Browning’s poem “Pippa Passes”. I don’t recollect much about the poem, but its form, interestingly, is similar to de Kretser’s novel. “Pippa Passes” is also the origin of the famous lines “God’s in his heaven/All’s right in the world”. However, while Pippa in the poem acts as a positive force, our Pippa does not. She thinks she’s a “good person”. As Céleste says, “Pippa would always need to demonstrate her solidarity with the oppressed – Indigenous people or battery hens, it scarcely mattered.” In fact, though, she regularly tramples on others, not necessarily intentionally, causing them pain. Presumably de Kretser intended this ironic allusion to Browning’s Pippa. I also wonder whether Christabel alludes to Coleridge’s poem Christabel, which explores the relationship between two women. Hmmm … I may be drawing long bows here as I don’t think Bunty is anything like Coleridge’s Geraldine. Still …

Anyhow, moving right along, I’m going to divide my remaining comments into two main strands – the personal and the, for want of a better word, sociocultural.

The personal

The novel’s title, The life to come, comes from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, as quoted in the epigraph. It provides a clue to the novel’s main theme. It’s the theme that most touches our hearts, because it’s about the hope for or belief in “the life to come”. It’s about the search for meaning, for transformation, for a full life.

Cassie, for example, realises that her relationship with Ash is about trying to work out “How was she to live?”. She thinks, self-centredly, that “the two Sri Lankans”, Ash and the Spice Market man, “had entered her life to change its course”. Paris-based Céleste, who is fifty-something, single, and having an affair with thirty-something Sabine, is confronting ageing. “Is this all there is?” she wonders, as she sees her future shrinking “to a single point of solitary, penny-pinching old-age.” Pippa, our ongoing character, imagines a glorious future for herself as a writer: “her future was as vast as the light beating its wings in clifftop parks.” Céleste, though, sees something quite different in Pippa; she sees “Excess so far in excess of achievement.” Finally, single, Sri Lankan immigrant Christabel, looks, from the beginning, for that moment of transformation when her real life will begin. At 34, “she had believed, briefly, that her life could be joyful.” She keeps on hoping, however, and even when she accepts, “humbly, that it might never exist for her (“I am ordinary”) … she needed to know it was there“.

De Kretser provides her characters with life’s reality check, that gap between what you imagine and what you achieve. Best to learn it sooner rather than later!

The sociocultural

While that personal strand touches our hearts, the other one provides more of the laughs, albeit rueful ones, because many of them are turned on us. The life to come, in other words, contains a healthy dose of satire, skewering our assumptions and pretentious. When I say our, I’m particularly referring to us left-oriented middle-class earnest do-gooders. Like all good satire, it makes you think …

Eva, Pippa’s mother-in-law, is a good example. She “likes rescuing things”. For example, she employs refugees from a “not-for-profit catering group” to serve food at her parties, while wearing “garments stiffened with embroidery and beads. At throat and wrists she wore silver set with gems, some the colour of butter, others the colour of blood. These tribal ornaments lit Eva’s face, and proclaimed her solidarity with the wretched of the earth.”

In another example, her osteopath Rashida, who also happens to be a Muslim Indian immigrant, dines with Eva and her family. They quiz her about her background:

‘My parents thought that India wasn’t the best place for Muslims,’ said Rashida. ‘I love these potato pancakes, Eva. Could I have the recipe?’

‘Were you persecuted for your faith?’ Eva asked, hushed and hopeful.

‘Not really.’

Keith [Eva’s husband] said, ‘So you were privileged migrants.’

Rashida said nothing. She seemed to be turning the sentence over in her mind, trying to work out its shape.

De Kretser skewers Australians’ naiveté and blindness again and again, particularly regarding the horrors experienced by others, offsetting actual history against the idea of stories. Cassie, who is “postmodernly tutored”, thinks history is “just a set of competing stories” but Ash, born of a Scottish mother and Sir Lankan father, knows the difference between history and story, and understands exactly “the historical sequence that … brought a Tamil civil servant to the counter of a shop in the west of Sydney.” Cassie, Ash sees, “clung to an idea of Australia as a place where kindness prevailed over expediency”, her face denying “the existence of evil, the possibility of despair”. Ash, however, gobsmacked by her lack of awareness, wonders

What is wrong with you Australians? You eat curries without rice, a barbarism. You fear being attacked by people you’ve killed. You stole their land for animals that you slaughter in their millions, when you don’t leave them to die by the side of the road.

Pippa is no better than Cassie. She “saw Europe, momentous and world-historical, magnifying eventless Australia”, oblivious, clearly, to the barbarism enacted on our own shores. After all, as Ash is told when taken to his friend’s country home, “there’s no actual historical [my emphasis] record of a massacre.”

There are lighter, though no less satiric touches, such as Pippa’s telling Christabel about dining out with her literary agent:

We went to this amazing new Asian place at Darling Harbour. It’s been quite controversial because they do live sashimi. But Gloria and I talked about it, the cruelty aspect, and we decided it was Japanese cultural tradition so it was OK.

Where do we draw a line on cultural relativism?

The life to come is an uncomfortable book, particularly for Australians, because it suggests we are generally naive, and blundering, in our assumptions about and behaviour towards others, no matter how hard we try to be “good”. It’s also uncomfortable for us all as humans, because it exposes the gaps between our dreams and hopes for large lives and the reality that more often than not confronts us. The result is something that’s touching but also a bit pitiful.

Is this a Miles Franklin winner? I’m not sure. It may in fact try to do too much. But, is it a great read? Absolutely. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book. And, for a non-Australian blogger, check out Guy’s post at His futile preoccupations.

PS I read this with my reading group.

AWW Badge 2018Michelle de Kretser
The life to come
North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2017
375pp.
ISBN: 9781760296568

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizer (#BookReview)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizerA cover blurb on my edition of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, captures the novel perfectly when it calls it “intelligent, relentlessly paced, and savagely funny” (Wall Street Journal). I loved reading it. It’s quite coincidental that I read this straight after Hoa Pham’s Lady of the realm (my review) but they make an interesting pairing because both deal with the Vietnam (or American) War and its aftermath, both are written in first person from a Vietnamese character’s point of view, and both question what happens when revolutions win. But, their approaches couldn’t be more different.

The sympathizer starts with an in-your-face statement by a never-named narrator: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” It is April 1975 and the war has ended with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army, but in the second paragraph we discover something else about our narrator. He is not talking to us but to a “Commandant”. So, where is he, and why is he talking to a Commandant? We don’t fully find out until near the end, although we soon discover that he is being held captive and is writing his “confession”. The story he tells, the story we read, is his confession. And what he confesses to is his life as a North Vietnamese mole in the close employ of a South Vietnamese General.

In this role, he leaves Saigon in the chaotic evacuation and ends up in Southern California, still working (now unpaid) for the General, while at the same time sending covert reports back to his “aunt” in Paris. In other words, in the USA, he maintains his life as a man of “two faces”, a man who is “able to see any issues from both sides”. He can do this, not only because of his role as a mole, but also because he is a bastard, the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest who had seduced her and had never acknowledged his son. With feet in both camps – the Orient and the Occident – he is well-placed to comment on their respective cultures and actions while, at the same time, symbolising their conflicts, confusions and misunderstandings. Near the end he says:

I was always ever divided, although it was only partially my fault. While I chose to live two lives and be a man of two minds, it was hard not to, given how people had always called me a bastard. Our country itself was cursed, bastardised, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, centre and south, to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for further bisection …

What makes this book such a great read – besides its heart and themes – is its writing. Nguyen migrated to the USA with his parents when he was 4 years old. In the notes at the back of my edition, he describes growing up in a Vietnamese enclave in California, and how he’d decided that he couldn’t live life well with two languages, so decided to “master one and ignore the other. But in mastering that language and its culture, I learned too well how Americans viewed Vietnamese”. This seems to the main driver for this book – to tell a story about the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective – but his aim is wider than that too. It is to comment on war, on its futility, and on the way American culture seems to thrive on it.

The first chapter introduces us to the central feature of Nguyen’s writing, satire, and my, it shows how well he mastered his adopted language. If the pace is relentless, as the Wall Street Journal says, so is the satire. Its targets are broad, and non-discriminatory, though, admittedly, American life and culture bear the major brunt. In Chapter 3, he discusses prostitution:

I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed wall of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.

The language is sly and wry, as our narrator of the divided-soul teases us – provokes us – again and again with dualities and paradoxes. Literally, he is a communist sympathiser, but his true sympathies are broader. “Although it’s not correct, politically speaking”, he says, he feels “sympathy” for the South Vietnamese poor who were attacked by their own soldiers. “No one asks poor people if they want war”, he writes.

And so the book continues. There are comic set-pieces such as his role as a Vietnamese expert on the making of a film that reads very much like Apocalypse Now. The experience teaches him that not controlling the way you are represented results in “a kind of death”. There are also awful scenes of torture and violence, including those where he is ordered by the General, even in the USA, to eliminate apparent opponents. He says of the General’s plans:

The General’s men, by preparing themselves to invade our communist homeland, were in fact turning themselves into new Americans. After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.

This idea of “freedom and independence” is the complex conundrum that underpins the fundamental irony of the book, from its opening chapters when Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom”. What these mean, what people do in their name, and why so often they are taken away by the very people who called for them, are scrutinised by Nguyen via his narrator.

The sympathizer is, in many ways, a bitter novel, because it sees clearly into the human heart, and its messy, divided nature, its “moth-eaten moral covers” – but the bitterness is offset by a sense of resilience and a belief that it need not be like this. A big thanks to my Californian friend Carolyn for sending me this.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen,
The sympathizer
New York: Grove Press, 2015
382pp.
ISBN: 9780802124944

Carmel Bird, Family skeleton (Review)

Carmel Bird, Family skeletonI love a cheeky writer, and Carmel Bird must be the doyenne of cheeky writers, so it goes without saying, really, that I thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel Family Skeleton. The cheekiness starts with the epigraph, which, as she is wont to do, is a quote from her fictional character Carillo Mean. As Bird has said in an interview, “he always has something interesting to say”. But that’s just the start of the cheekiness. The story is narrated by “the skeleton in the wardrobe”. Now, I know many readers don’t like what they see as cute or contrived narratorial devices – like girls in heaven or dead babies – but please don’t let that put you off here, because in the hands of a skilled writer such a device can lift a story to a whole new level.

So, when I tell you that the novel’s framing idea is an obsession with family history, you might start to understand where our narrator comes in – except that the story is not really about the skeleton, whose identity is never divulged, nor is it about family history. What it’s about, really, is family secrets and betrayal, and the tipping point. It’s about the recently bereaved and well-to-do Margaret O’Day, whose family, through her husband, has been involved in the funeral business for generations. Such a setting is, of course, ripe for black comedy and that’s what we get in this novel. But, back to Margaret. Her husband Eddie, “a philistine” according to our skeleton, was also a philanderer and died in the arms of his mistress. Margaret had been betrayed – more than once, in fact – but she knew this, and even accepted this last mistress, and her children with Eddie, at the funeral.

From this set up, the story progresses, mostly chronologically but with a couple of significant time-shifts along the way. It is mainly told by our omniscient skeleton, but Margaret starts a journal, which she calls – hmm, note this – “The Book of Revelation”. Her entries in it form some of the book’s chapters. This title, “The Book of Revelation”, is another of Bird’s jokes, for the novel is about things revealed and not revealed – particularly the latter, because as the story progresses Margaret discovers an even bigger betrayal than her husband’s, and she is desperate to hide it from visiting O’Day family historian Doria Fogelsong.

The novel, then, as I said, is about secrets and betrayals. For the “virtuous” Margaret, who has put up with much throughout her marriage and who has become very good at “concealing her true feelings from people”, this lately discovered betrayal is the last straw. It takes all her resources to keep going. The family history motif compounds the tension. Will the story come out? Will Margaret be able to keep Doria (“with her iPhone on her left, iPad on her right”) from finding it out.

There’s satire here, surely, on the current obsession with family history. Our skeleton tells us

I happen to know that one of the little violinists was the son of Eddie O’Day and a gorgeous Hungarian dress-designer. Evan didn’t realise that, not that it makes any difference to anything, although it is a nice detail for a family tree. Doria missed out there.

So cheeky, these little jibes dropped in. Bird also skewers fashions in family history – such as how it is now a positive thing to uncover a convict or an Indigenous ancestor – while also exposing its underbelly, that is, the pain discovery can cause. The obvious question, of course, is whether it is better to know the truth or not.

However, it’s not only family history which catches Bird’s eye, but the pretensions and self-absorption of contemporary middle-class life, from designer clothes to electronic devices, from shallow parties to theme park cemeteries. It’s all here, providing background to the main fare.

But there’s more to the novel too, because it is also about writing and reading fiction, a storytelling masterclass in a way. The skeleton does more than narrate. S/he engages with the reader, reminding us of things we’ve already read, making sure we are keeping up with any plot hints or twists. Oh, how I loved this. I felt Bird was right there, having fun, playing games with us, while at the same time teaching us about how writers write and, more significantly, how we should read. Early on, for example, our skeleton presents us with a future auction advertisement for Margaret’s house, Bellevue, and says:

I realise that the eye of the reader can easily slide carelessly across such elements of the text. However, I suggest you take your time and study this document carefully.

The joke, though, is on us because at this stage in the story we have no idea what “secrets” are contained within. (At least, that’s my reading of what Bird is doing.) At another point, after telling us that “nothing bad ever happened at Bellevue these days”, the skeleton teases us with, “I trust you are alert enough to hear a faint bell ringing”.

Bird also plays with the archetypes of popular fiction – the betrayed wife, the philandering husband, and “the archetypal stranger who rides into town … the harbinger of fate” – but she gently subverts our expectations. The betrayal that most disturbs Margaret is not her husband’s, and it’s not Doria, the stranger, who brings the news that so distresses Margaret, albeit, given Margaret’s discovery, Doria can certainly ramp up the pain.

And then there’s the writing, with its gorgeous descriptions, pert sentences, delicious irony, entertaining word-plays and its smart, cheeky tone which leaves you in no doubt about who or what is being targeted but is good-humoured rather than bitter. Here is Margaret preparing to have Doria for lunch:

When Margaret asked for just a plain omelette, Lillian [her housekeeper] understood that the guest was someone who gave Margaret no joy, and who was to be more controlled than entertained. It was control by omelette. A sliver here, a sliver there, and a quiet soft squashing with the tongue against the palate. Desultory conversation, meaningless smiles. Plain omelette.

What more can I say? Family skeleton delights on so many levels. It is in fact quite a shocking story, but one told with a spoonful of sugar that has just the right amount of spice. I can’t help thinking that Bird chuckled and chuckled as she wrote it. I certainly did reading it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the novel.

aww2017 badgeCarmel Bird
Family skeleton
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2016
228pp.
ISBN: 9781742588902

Delicious descriptions: Louise Mack’s dialogue and satire

Over Christmas, during one of my conversations with Son Gums, he commented how he tires of meaningless conversations, conversations, for example, in which people discuss a television series they’ve seen but say nothing of note. He mimicked the sort of conversation he meant … well, imagine my surprise when, in one of those surprising synchronicities, I came across exactly that sort of conversation a few days later in Louise Mack’s The world is round (my review). Here is part of it – the two speakers are at a social gathering, and published author Musgrave is eavesdropping:

It was the girl who pushed the ball this time. ‘Have you ever read a book called Lost in the Zodiac?’
‘No, never read it. Who’s it bai?’
‘I don’t know. I never look who a book’s by. Do you?’
‘No. Tell you an awfully naice book. Read it on board coming out, Miss Nobody of Nowhere.’
‘I haven’t read it. Is it good?’
‘Very good. Very er–er–interestin’.’
‘Is it? I must get to that. Do you know who it’s by?’
‘One of those French fellows, I think. Sounds like  a Frenchman. One of those detective plots, you know.’
‘Oh yes, I know. Like that book everyone was reading the other day, I forget the name of it.’
‘Yes. Sort of detective yarn you know. Very good.’
‘There’s a book called A Painted Polyanthus’ – Musgrave gave a sigh for a man he knew who would have revelled in this with a joy as keen as his own. ‘They say it’s very good. I haven’t read it yet.’
‘Neither have I.’
Musgrave was disappointed.
‘Have you read Speech in Passing?’
‘Oh yes, I read that. I cried over it.’
‘No? Did you? Bai Jove!’ leering sentimentally.
‘Yes, I couldn’t help it.’
‘The “sulky man” – he was a rum cove, wasn’t he? He was funny wasn’t he.’
‘I don’t think he was a sulky man at all.’
‘Neither do I. The only called him that,’ boldly.
Her voice changed.
‘”And Ida died,”‘ she quoted, in tones that suggested to you that she was just going to burst into tears.
Musgrave turned his head to see how she was looking. Just as he thought. Her head was a little on one side, her eyes were staring sadly straight back in front of her, and her mouth was doing its best to look pensive and full of feeling.
‘”And Ida died,”‘ she said again.
That was evidently the one point about the story that had struck her most impressively. Unfortunately hers was not the face to express the feeling she would fain have conveyed …

You can see why those early critics praised her dialogue and satire, can’t you? It’s quite delicious.

Note: The strange spellings, like “bai”, are attempts to phonetically capture the Australian accent – and is clearly being satirised.

Louise Mack, The world is round (Review)

Louise Mack, The world is roundI’ve had Louise Mack’s debut novel, The world is round, on my TBR for about 20 years. Published in 1896, when she was 26 years old, it’s a fairly straightforward tragicomedy about a young well-to-do 21-year-old girl, Jean, who aspires to be a writer, and the two men who love her, the 30-plus-year-old self-confident, successful lawyer-and-writer Musgrave, and the around-25-year-old, shy and financially struggling Harrison. It’s a short work, a novella really, being just 93 pages in my edition.

Now, when I was searching Trove for information about Mack for this week’s Monday Musings, I found a couple of articles about her writing, amongst a myriad about her lecture tours. One was written in 1895, before this novel was published but after some of her verse and short prose pieces started appearing in journals like the Bulletin. The article quotes Mrs Bright, editor of Cosmos:

In these early days it is not possible to predict the place that Miss Mack is destined to fill in Australian literature. At present she shines chiefly in dialogue and a quaint, satirical style; peculiarly noticeable in sketches like “A study in Invitations.” In time she may develope [sic] a faculty for descriptive writing, which will supply the only quality now lacking to ensure her high rank among the popular novelists of the day.

The other was written in 1896, soon after the publication of her novel. The writer says:

Miss Mack has a particularly taking satirical style, but her descriptive writing is hardly up to her ability in the other department. Were she to but slightly improve in that qualification it would enhance the already strong position she has attained in the ranks of popular writers.

So, the praise is qualified. Her niece, the writer Nancy Phelan who wrote the introduction to my edition, discusses her not living up to this early potential. She notes that a common view is that she was “praised too soon, told she was good and encouraged to rush into print” when she needed time to sit back and think, and “be disappointed”. Phelan writes:

She wrote instinctively … but without proper guidance and criticism her work too often became facile. Facility, with a fertile imagination and love of inventing stories, made her a successful romantic novelist but it eroded her talent, and years of formula writing elbowed aside the poet. She never lost her poetic awareness but had little occasion to use it. Haste, lack of reflection, putting words on paper before they were ready robbed them of their true value; it was quicker and easier to write of trivial events than to try to address deep, difficult thoughts and emotions.

Yet in all Louise’s books there are glimpses of the writer she might have been. Even in her most idiotic novels there are occasional patches of true feeling or sensitive descriptions …

Why have I written all this? Well, partly because it might explain why this particular writer from the past has sunk from view. However, I’d argue that The world is round is worth reading – for a couple of reasons. One is that it is a good read, in which you can see why she received early praise. As our 1895 and 1896 writers above say, her dialogue is good and she has a lovely, light, satirical eye. (I’m going to share an excerpt which shows both of these in a Delicious Descriptions next week.) The other is that it is a good example of why “classics” (or older works) are worth reading. I’m going to focus my post on these two points.

a “brilliant little study”

The 1896 writer notes that “the reader’s report” for this novel described it as a “brilliant little study of two men and two women, sparkling and witty, and told in a graphic style”. It is a fun read, still today. It has a light touch, never wallowing in the issues it raises, and not weighed down with long explication or too many adjectives that you sometimes find in debut novelists. There are moments of sadness or pathos – obviously at least one of the would-be lovers is going to be disappointed, for a start – but Mack never becomes sentimental. (You can see this skill in those columns I referred to in my Monday Musings.)

The story is told third person, chronologically, in named chapters – “Musgrave”, “Jean”, “In which a friend is brutal” – and takes place in various interiors, such as James Musgrave’s chambers, Harrison’s classroom, and Jean’s home. Mack draws on the life she knows, presenting a picture of a small group of characters moving around each other in a small environment. This is very reminiscent of Jane Austen, to whom there is a tongue-in-cheek allusion in this conversation between Jean and Musgrave:

“I don’t suppose I will ever be a George Eliot, or a Thackeray, but perhaps I may be a–”
“Miss Austen.”
Miss Austen! oh, surely I’ll be something b–I mean surely I won’t be like her.”
“She did some good work.”

I mean to say! Anyhow, Mack’s descriptions of her small group of people and their interactions ring true, while also drawing on standard literary tropes, like the well-to-do heroine and her poor friend, the experienced confident suitor and the awkward poor one. The plot plays out, perhaps more through little vignettes than a flowing narrative, but it is enjoyable to read, largely because these vignettes are well-drawn, and confidently mix a light tone with the occasional darker one. I’ll leave the story there.

on reading “classics”

As I was reading this old book or forgotten “classic” (let’s not get into the definitions of “classic” here now), I started thinking about why we read such books. It’s easy to explain those classics that belong to the canon: they address the big universal themes or ideas, their writing is skilled and timeless, and, often, they have innovated or contributed something to literary culture. But, what about what we might call the second rung, books like Mack’s The world is round? Are they really worth reading over contemporary writers? I’d say yes, and one of the justifications is in the first line of Mack’s novel. It starts:

Sydney was revelling in the clear, cold weather of June, the most delicious month of the Australian seasons.

Now, that is not an attitude most Australians would have today, but is clearly how the colonials, those transplants from mild temperate Britain, felt about Australia’s climate. In other words, books written in a different time can provide a fascinating insight into the attitudes and values of that time. They might be fiction, but they can’t help also betraying their era. For students of colonial Australia, Mack’s novella offers some delightful insights into “the life and times”.

I don’t want to bore you with details, but will just share one more example. It concerns the poor friend who tells Jean that she “can’t write about Australia, it doesn’t appeal” to her. She admits she’s a “Colonial” but she knows nothing of bush life. She says, “I’ve never taken my country into my soul, and never will until I get away from it”. However, she’s poor, and is offered a job governessing in the bush on a cattle station. She learns to love the Bushies and to prefer them over “the posturing, pseudo-intellectual Sydney set”. She writes several pages to Jean on the subject. Now, this friend plays a role in the plot in terms of providing a counter assessment of Jean’s literary skills and there’s a plot reason for sending her away, but I can’t see much reason for this little outburst, except for Mack to make some point about colonial society and its values.

So, there you have it. This is less review, more wandering reflections, but I hope I’ve convinced you that Louise Mack is a worthy addition to the list of past writers who should be kept alive.

aww2017-badgeLouise Mack
The world is round
Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1993 (orig. pub. 1896)
93pp.
ISBN: 9780207180163

Mark Twain, A presidential candidate (Review)

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

Edith Wharton, Writing a war story (Review)

According to Keirsey, Edith Wharton may have b...

Edith Wharton (Presumed Public Domain via Wikipedia)

“Writing a war story” is quite different to the Edith Whartons I’ve read to date, and it was clear from the opening sentence – “Miss Ivy Spang of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war”. It was the comic tone that did it. All the previous works of hers I’ve read, several novels and novellas, plus a couple of short stories, have been serious, if not downright tragic. However, Wharton was a prolific writer, so I wasn’t completely surprised. In fact, I was rather thrilled to have come across this story via the Library of America (a few months ago now).

I haven’t yet read the highly recommended biography of Wharton by Hermione Lee, but I’ve heard enough about her life to know that she lived in France during the First World War, and that she contributed significantly to the war effort. As LOA’s notes tell us, she stayed in France when the war started while others fled. She raised money, visited the front, established refugee hostels and homes for children. She was admired widely but she, herself, apparently underplayed her role, believing, writes LOA, “that nothing she did could compare with the agonies suffered by the soldiers and their families”. Her story, “Writing a war story” satirises both this role and the idea of writing stories for soldiers, for the war effort.

The plot is simple. Ivy Spang, who had published, to minimal recognition, a book of verse, is asked to contribute a short story to a new magazine, The Man-at-Arms, aimed at convalescent soldiers. Flattered, she accepts, and, due for leave from her volunteer work of “pouring tea once a week” for soldiers in a hospital, she sets off “to a quiet corner of Brittany”, because

devoted though she was to her patients, the tea she poured for them might have suffered from her absorption in her new task.

But, the task proves harder than she’d imagined. She struggles to find “Inspiration”, her mind being full of the one serious but unfortunately pretentious and condescending review, by the editor of Zig-Zag, of her published verse collection. She tells her companion, Madsy, that “people don’t bother with plots nowadays” and that “subject’s nothing”. Eventually, in desperation, she accepts Madsy’s offer to use/collaborate on one of the “stories” Madsy had jotted down from her hospital volunteer work. They agreed that Ivy would take the basic story but add her literary “treatment”. You can probably guess the outcome, but you should read the story to see just how it comes out. There’s a photo and a famous novelist involved too. In addition to the satire on “literature” and war volunteer work, there’s also a gender dig.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the story was its satire of literary pretensions, and how easy it is for an unconfident writer to be derailed by the wrong sort of praise, as Ivy is by Mr Zig-Zag!

In the story’s conclusion, a novelist laughs at her story, before he realises she’s the author. When he realises, and she asks for feedback:

He shook his head. “No; but it’s queer—it’s puzzling. You’ve got hold of a wonderfully good subject; and that’s the main thing, of course—”
Ivy interrupted him eagerly. “The subject is the main thing?”
“Why, naturally; it’s only the people without invention who tell you it isn’t.”
“Oh,” she gasped, trying to readjust her carefully acquired theory of esthetics.

Poor Ivy! I liked the fact that Wharton’s satire is subtle, not over the top. We readers can see what’s coming but Ivy isn’t ridiculed. We feel for her aspirations but we can see that her lack of confidence has laid her open to influence. And there’s irony here because that very influence, that editor of Zig-Zag, had warned her of “not allowing one’s self to be ‘influenced'”, of the importance of “jealously guarding” her “originality”.

There’s more to this story, particularly for people interested in Edith Wharton’s biography. My point is that whatever your interest – literature, war literature, Edith Wharton herself – this story has something to offer, as well as being a good read (with a subject, or two!)

Edith Wharton
“Writing a war story”
The Library of America
Originally published in Woman’s Home Companion, 1919
Available: Online

William Makepeace Thackeray, The luck of Barry Lyndon Review)

By the time I reached about the 30% mark (on my Kindle) of William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel, The luck of Barry Lyndon, I was reminded of a monologue by English comedian Cyril Fletcher which my father had on an old gramophone record. It’s about a “lunatic” (this was in less linguistically-sensitive times) who decided to write a novel. I won’t spoil the fun because you can watch Fletcher perform it himself on YouTube (it’s the first short story):

If you’ve watched it, you might see my point, because Barry Lyndon does go on and on and on, reporting adventure after adventure after adventure, with no apparent change or development in his character (except that he gets older!). I am exaggerating a bit, but …

So, why did I persevere? Firstly, it was my reading group’s June book, and I always like to do my homework; secondly, it is a classic that I haven’t read; and thirdly, I sensed satire, and was intrigued to see just where it was going. As a reading experience though it’s a challenge, one that was perhaps less so for contemporary readers in 1844 because they received it in serial form over 10 months or so. Still, I’m not sorry I read it.

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Anyhow, enough introductory patter. Let’s get down to it, starting with a little about the story. It’s a picaresque tale, a popular form in the 18th century in which the story is set, and spans many countries from Ireland and England to much of Europe. Its “hero”, Redmond Barry, pretends to be (believes, indeed, he is) a gentleman – he knows how to speak, dress, and duel – but, see how I enclosed “hero” in quotation marks? That’s because he is, in fact, an anti-hero – a conman and consummate rake (another great 18th century type!). Having lost the hand of his cousin, and then his money through gambling in Dublin, he ends up a soldier fighting the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War. While in Europe, he teams up with an uncle and together they manage to live the high life, gambling their way around Europe. “Luck”, of course, runs out, and he’s penniless again but he manages to essentially bully the wealthy and widowed Countess of Lyndon into marriage. However, things again go bad as Redmond Barry (now renamed Barry Lyndon) mismanages his wife’s money – and so the story continues to its inevitable conclusion.

The “luck” of Barry Lyndon?

One of the questions the book raises is that of “luck”. To what extent is Lyndon master of his own fate and to what extent does luck come into play. As one of the members of my reading group said, Lyndon is one of literature’s greatest justifiers. He can justify (excuse) just about everything he does, but he’s also the consummate unreliable narrator. He continually asserts the “truth” of his story, even though, early on, he’s told us that the “Irish gentry . . . tell more fibs than their downright neighbours across the water.”

The novel opens with:

Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it …

And there it starts. Whatever happens to Lyndon is always someone else’s fault – nothing to do with his gambling, his inability to manage money, or his insensitivity to the needs of anyone but himself. There is a strong misogynistic thread through the novel – but this is part of the satire, which is common in picaresque novels. The targets are many, but a major one is idea of the 18th century gentleman, the sort of person Barry Lyndon proclaims throughout that he is but that he shows by his actions he is not!

The novel is, overall, a romp, albeit a rather tedious one at times, but it does have some things to tell us, besides what a “gentleman” should be. One of these, I think, is that it chronicles social change in Europe, the change from the chivalric life of aristocracy to a more bourgeois life of the middle classes. I’ll give one little example. Lyndon spends his life settling scores through the “gentleman’s” method, a duel (though to be fair he “pinks” people rather than kills them). However, late in the novel, as things close in, he is brought to account for one of his schemes. He writes:

Of course I denied the charge, I could do no otherwise, and offered to meet any one of the Tiptoffs on the field of honour, and prove him a scoundrel and a liar: as he was; though, perhaps, not in this instance. But they contented themselves by answering me by a lawyer, and declined an invitation which any man of spirit would have accepted.

We are talking late eighteenth century, you see – the time of the American War of Independence and the lead into the French Revolution. The times, they were a-changing.

Truth or fiction?

So, there’s the issue of Lyndon asserting the “truth” of his story, asking us to trust that he is the decent, good guy he says he is. His misfortunes, he says, are due to

the consequences of villainy in others, and (I confess it, for I am not above owning to my faults) my own too easy, generous, and careless nature…

Hmm … not quite the “faults” we readers would ascribe to this wife and child-beater, profligate spender, and keen duellist.

However, there’s another angle to this “truth” idea. It’s related to the idea that this is a “memoir”, not a novel. He writes:

Were these Memoirs not characterised by truth, and did I deign to utter a single word for which my own personal experience did not give me the fullest authority, I might easily make myself the hero of some strange and popular adventures, and, after the fashion of novel-writers, introduce my reader to the great characters of this remarkable time. These persons (I mean the romance-writers) …

Later, we find, in one of the occasional “footnotes”, which are part of the novel and provide the occasional corrective to Lyndon’s narrative:

[Footnote: From these curious confessions, it would appear that Mr. Lyndon maltreated his lady in every possible way; that he denied her society, bullied her into signing away her property, spent it in gambling and taverns, was openly unfaithful to her; and, when she complained, threatened to remove her children from her. Nor, indeed, is he the only husband who has done the like, and has passed for ‘nobody’s enemy but his own:’ a jovial good-natured fellow. The world contains scores of such amiable people; and, indeed, it is because justice has not been done them that we have edited this autobiography. Had it been that of a mere hero of romance one of those heroic youths who figure in the novels of Scott and James there would have been no call to introduce the reader to a personage already so often and so charmingly depicted. Mr. Barry Lyndon is not, we repeat, a hero of the common pattern; but let the reader look round, and ask himself, Do not as many rogues succeed in life as honest men? more fools than men of talent? And is it not just that the lives of this class should be described by the student of human nature as well as the actions of those fairy-tale princes, those perfect impossible heroes, whom our writers love to describe? There is something naive and simple in that time-honoured style of novel-writing by which Prince Prettyman, at the end of his adventures, is put in possession of every worldly prosperity, as he has been endowed with every mental and bodily excellence previously. The novelist thinks that he can do no more for his darling hero than make him a lord. Is it not a poor standard that, of the summum bonum? The greatest good in life is not to be a lord; perhaps not even to be happy. Poverty, illness, a humpback, may be rewards and conditions of good, as well as that bodily prosperity which all of us unconsciously set up for worship. But this is a subject for an essay, not a note; and it is best to allow Mr. Lyndon to resume the candid and ingenious narrative of his virtues and defects.] (Ch. 17)

I love the satire here of romance-adventure novels, epitomised by writers like Sir Walter Scott, and note Thackeray’s plea for what became the great social novels of the nineteenth century. (You have to wonder, though, at the idea of “Poverty, illness, a humpback” being “rewards”!)

And here I will end because many have written eloquently about this classic. All I wanted to do was to make a couple of points! Have you read Barry Lyndon, and did you enjoy it?

William Makepeace Thackeray
Barry Lyndon (orig. The luck of Barry Lyndon)
Goldfish Classics Publishing, 2012
[339pp.]