Helen Garner: The Spare Room

Garner, Helen (2008), The Spare Room, Henry Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-8888-5

DSC_0587There are few topics that are as difficult to write about as death. At the same time, there are equally few topics that get as much exposure as this one either. It seems a go-to topic for writers intent on writing solemn/serious literature, ranging from mediocre writers and their books (cf. Paul Harding’s Tinkers), to excellent writers and their books (cf. Graham Swift’s Last Orders) and excellent writers and their mediocre books (cf. John Banville’s The Sea). I have to admit that as a reader, I tend to be a tad suspicious of such books (an offshoot of these are novels about the Shoah (see my review of HHhH)). I have, however, recently read two novels in the genre that I found very impressive. Like the best books focusing on the death of individuals, they deliver a take on the ars moriendi that is interesting and original. Interesting enough that I will devote two reviews to them, one for each. These two novels were published within just a few years of each other, in different corners of the world but they are both attempts to examine this vast, difficult topic within less than two hundred pages, and both use simple language, with short sentences and small observations in order to do it. In both books it is cancer that ends a life and throws the lives of those around the terminally ill protagonist into turmoil. I’ll be basically writing a double review in two parts, posted separately. Part one is on The Spare Room and part two is on Grace (you’ll find it here)

bright-sidedHelen Garner’s The Spare Room is told from the perspective of Helen, whose friend Nicola, weakened by cancer, comes to visit in order to undergo an ‘alternative’ treatment. The novel focuses on the weeks that Nicola stays with her friend and shows how what is effectively palliative care can take its toll on those looking after terminally ill people, and how anger, frustration and exhaustion can completely take over a household. Its language is extremely simple, but not flat, filled with quotidian observations, moving chronologically from day to day with careful, bitter languor. We don’t get a look inside the mind of the dying person: she is instead reflected by Helen’s reaction to her. Linn Ullmann’s Grace, by comparison, sweeps through the life of a man called Johan, who is terminally ill with cancer. We are mostly sharing his point of view, including his reflections of what appears to be a failed life. The book jumps back and forth, and it is told in similarly simple, but highly evocative language. Ullmann doesn’t much bother with day to day events as she chronicles both a bitter life and a bitter death. Garner’s novel has the weight and care of a novel fraught with experience and thoughtfulness, while Ullmann’s appears to be more reliant on melancholic set pieces. At the same time, Ullmann’s novel reaches further than Garner’s. I can recommend both books, with reservations.

DSC_0591Helen Garner is an Australian writer born in 1942, and The Spare Room is her first novel in 16 years. This novel feels lived-in; the protagonist, Helen, feels fully fleshed out and the book is extraordinarily well grounded as far as its setting is concerned. It’s set in Melbourne and while the writer doesn’t offer many details about the city, all the references feel on cue and natural. There’s a natural tendency to consider this book somehow autobiographical, not just because the writer and the protagonist share the same first name and live in the same city. It’s the writing itself that creates this feeling. Helen Garner does not attempt to go for a poetic, elegiac style. Instead her writing is simple, never attempting to buoy simple situations by presenting them on an elevated linguistic plate. We find things the way they are. When people “slouch in front of the TV”, then that is what we are told. But the simplicity is never flat. I have been increasingly frustrated by contemporary novelists who assume that simplicity in style does not require the same degree of deliberation and artfulness as would a more flowery kind of writing. Books like Blake Butler’s otherwise very intriguing There Is No Year seem to be very disinterested in aesthetics. Garner’s book does not dispense with musicality, and it does not completely ignore the option of elegiac phrasing where appropriate. Rather, what Garner’s appears to be doing is reaching for the word or phrase that is genuinely most appropriate to her given the situation and syntactic context, instead of reaching into the bag of phrases, as a lesser writer would. Given all this, I am not surprised that this is a writer that won’t be rushed from book to book.

DSC_0595And it’s not just the prose itself that is believable. Helen, the protagonist, and Nicola, her cancer-stricken friend, are also instantly plausible. To be fair, if they were not, the book would instantly crash and burn. Unlike Grace, which is couched in a sea of metaphors, small stories, big scenes etc., the simplicity of The Spare Room means that unless the main character is believable, the distress and struggle, the chaos and conflicts, the overall damage that death did to Helen’s life simply from passing through it for a short while, it would just seem like agitated but irrelevant noise. Garner does not let ‘big themes’ do the work. Her book works hard to convince us that these lives matter, that it matters what happens to them. And it feels like naming the protagonist ‘Helen’ is part of the author’s attempt to drive home the plausibility of the situation and the significance of the two lives that are entangled for a short time in Melbourne. The fact that all this works so well is especially impressive given that in many other way, the book is deliberately staging a scene, structured around the titular “spare room”. It would be a misreading to dismiss the book as simple, whether we read it as realistic or staged. Cindi Katz and Janice Monk have written very eloquently about the role of spaces and geography in the life course of women, and how fear-based discourse – and an isolation of homes – often limits the mobility of women in geographic spaces. The way Nicola is compelled to travel in order to defeat fear (and this also involves leaving the spare room Helen prepares for her), and the fact that her temporary home is inverted as an unsafe place, a place where she cannot possibly find healing, all this presents exciting angles for reading this book, which cannot be easily exhausted. Other complexities are introduced by various objects and people, who often feel symbolic, arranged on a stage.

DSC_0590Garner offers us, at the outset, an epigraph, a quote from fellow Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley: “It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.” This could mean several things: from actual sleep to preparing a place for someone’s final rest. As we see quickly, what’s meant is something in between. Death just passes through, but the spare room becomes part of the process of dying. The aforementioned art of dying is examined by showing the reader someone who struggles with it, and in truly medieval fashion, they are struggling on a carefully circumscribed stage. This is the room, which is being prepared as we enter the novel, because the book starts before Helen’s friend Nicola arrives. Nicola has stage IV bowel cancer and travels to Melbourne in order to undertake a sketchy treatment at the Theodore clinic. Even though Nicola has not yet arrived at Helen’s home, she is already there in spirit. We are witness to Helen’s preparations for Nicola and as the reader will find out, preparing a place means more than just providing some clean sheets. Now, on some level we all understand that: most of us have at some point experienced the incredible kindness of having a space prepared for us in someone else’s house – and by extension, someone else’s life. But Helen’s situation is different.

DSC_0585She is careful about adapting the room for Nicola in two different ways. One of them is meant to reflect Nicola’s deteriorating physical state. Helen worries about the floor accommodating Nicola’s frailty, and the colors and shapes in the room making Nicola feel welcome. The other concern is expressed with much more levity, as Helen moves the bed “to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something?” These two preparations are not equal and are not equally expressed. Helen is a rational, careful, caring adult. She has prepared a space in her mind, as well as in her house, but unlike the spare room, the space in her mind is an assortment of rational medical knowledge about Nicola’s cancer. This is where the novel’s main conflict arises. Nicola has no intention of getting medical treatment. The clinic she is visiting will provide a variety of dubious treatments, including stays in a sauna, cupping, and above all, Vitamin C. As it turns out, these treatments are not just dubious, but they also massively weaken Nicola, who, in addition to all this, steadfastly refuses pain medication and as a result, becomes more and more frail and irritable. While Helen knows to expect some of this, the brute force of Nicola’s irritation and anger is tough to deal with. What’s more, Helen is perfectly aware that what she is doing is basically humoring a dying person. Helen knows full well that what she is doing is giving palliative care. She is “watching” Nicola, but at the same time, she is her caretaker. The room she prepared for her friend, in her house, in her head and in her life has been stocked with provisions, stocked with help. When Dr. Theodore, the unpleasant and clearly untrustworthy head of the Theodore clinic, imposes too much of a strain on her friend, Helen intervenes.

DSC_0589All of this happens in the span of a slim book and Garner’s writing is perfect for this: as I mentioned earlier, it’s simple, but at the same time it’s precise: she enumerates the elements of her world, as she prepared it for Nicola, and as it evolves during her stay. Events are also stated with care, as are Helen’s thoughts. No matter how much chaos arises, no matter how bad the emotional turmoil is, the writing never slips. This makes for devastating reading, because, robbed of poeticisms, what we are left with is the stark reality of how death enters the life of these two women. The struggle within Nicola, a struggle to believe in the possibility of being healed, is repeated in Nicola and Helen’s interactions. Nicola is learning to die. The phases of her moods seem to roughly reflect the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Helen’s love and patience allows Nicola to find a way to move on, find a way to accept death, or at least not fight it with the help of dangerous quacks. Helen Garner’s novel refuses typical narratives of cancer, and more importantly: it doesn’t offer a moral lecture on how to be a good cancer patient. We don’t get to see Nicola’s thoughts. We infer the challenges, the irritation, the conflicts from the effect she has on Helen and the things she says to her. But the truth about the pain and the approaching death, these things Garner withholds from us. Preparing a space for one’s own death is different from preparing a space wherein someone else’s death unfolds. Medieval ars moriendi tracts didn’t just instruct people on how to die well, they also instructed the family and friends of dying people on how to treat them, and in a way, this is an explication of such an idea: how to prepare a space for someone else to spend some time dying, not only as a spare room in a house, but also as a mental space in one’s head and life, to accommodate the rage, fear and sadness of a dying person.


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Peter Carey: Theft: A Love Story

Carey, Peter (2007), Theft: A Love Story, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23150-8

It’s quite frightening to hear that Peter Carey’s 2006 novel Theft: A Love Story is not his best work. It is frightening because it is such an extraordinary success on almost every level. Theft manages to do so much in so few pages and yet it succeeds in never sounding convoluted or dense. It’s is a funny, suspenseful read, a book sure to appeal to almost every reader. In it, Carey manages to craft a story steeped in Australian history and culture, in art and art history, a book that tells a fast, noir-ish tale, and is linguistically sophisticated and inventive, reaching as far into theory as Deleuze. Sure, there are slow moments in the book now and then, but they are an exception. Sure, too, it lacks plausibility in many places, but despite the realistic varnish and the noir genre borrowings, Theft isn’t supposed to be awfully plausible (in terms of verisimilitude) anyway. There are other minor flaws, but the good aspects dominate the reader’s impressions of Theft.

Among these, two achievements in particular stand out. The first is Carey’s treatment of othered speech, by which I mean the speech of a character marked as “slow”. The speech and the character attached to it are finely tailored to convey to the readers the complexities of having a mind that is regarded as deviant by your compatriots, without lapsing into exploitative and exotic exaggeration. The second success in Theft is Carey’s thorough and inspired discussion of art, originality and forgery. One of his protagonists speaks of art at great length, delivering several long rants. Peter Carey is not afraid to be precise and explicit about the techniques of creating and selling art, yet we never feel lectured to. Theft is evidence of impressive insights into art, artistic inspiration and the accompanying frustrations. The result of all this is a book that I’d easily recommend to anyone interested in the topic, or, well, anyone, really. Theft: A Love Story is a very, very good novel.

The basic story revolves around two brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone, also known as Butcher Bones and Slow Bones, who get involved in an elaborate, and ultimately murderous, art scam. As Hugh has it: “Phthaaaa! We are Bones, God help us, raised in sawdust, dry each morning.” The change from ‘Boones’ to ‘Bones’ is one of several absorbing, meaningful details. For one thing, “Bones” invokes a child-like, fairy-tale setting, a children’s story, which is a genre where aptronymns are quite common, where names are tailored to fit themes of the story and to suggest elements to come or destinies to be fulfilled, they also tend to add an additional layer of characterization. Changing the name of the Boones to “Bones” is relevant to the book’s major topics in still more ways: since part of the central theme of Theft is Australia, especially in relation to other countries, I’d suggest that “Boone” is an oblique reference to Daniel and Squire Boone, two famous historical figures connected to the myth of the American Frontier. In contrast, Hugh says “[w]e are the nation of Henry Lawson”, a realistic writer, often credited with dismantling the myth of the Australian Bush.

This possible reference to Daniel Boone is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in Theft. The amount of Australian references that even I was able to catch suggest that a reader more knowledgeable about antipodean literatures and history than me would unearth multitudes. As is, I felt sometimes a bit shortchanged, bewildered by names and places that Carey just assumes the reader to understand and contextualize. Some are explicit, like the mention of Lawson, but one suspects quite a few others lurking in place-names and other nooks. This is not a significant problem, however, since Theft is written with a very clear and precise sense of place. Carey constructs a version of Australia, Japan or the United States that works like a charm even for provincial, untraveled readers like me. The reader understands what any given place is supposed to signify, how it works within the story and how it interacts with the characters.

The plot is, typical for noir fiction, very convoluted and dense, relying strongly on revelations and twists. Much of it reminded me of Michael Frayn’s exhilarating and taxing 1999 novel Headlong. Some passages and plot elements in Theft contain such strong parallels to Headlong that it’s hard to imagine Carey not having had Frayn’s novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, now and then in mind. In Headlong, Frayn’s protagonist is an art historian, who believes to have uncovered a Brueghel painting heretofore unattributed to the great Flemish master. In his manic attempts to prove his theory and acquire the painting without letting its owner find out about its supposed great value, he entangles himself in a web of lies, deceit and crime. There is no happy ending in the cards for Frayn’s protagonist, which the author lets us know early. The whole of Headlong pretends to be the protagonist’s own account, including an introduction and an afterword ‘written’ by him.

This is not the case in Theft, although Carey’s novel is similarly transparent as a written artifact. None of the Bones explicitly mentions the writing process, but they both narrate the book (first person narrators, both) and Michael ‘Butcher Bones’ Boone for example frequently employs literary techniques such as foreshadowing or flashbacks, cleanly recognizable as such. The difference between these two set-ups, despite their similarities, closely corresponds to another difference between the two books. Headlong is about art history, it’s a novel as much concerned with the interconnections of archives and memory as with the actual art. Frayn’s readers are treated to extensive lectures on the history of Flemish art, and are offered art as an object, something that you look at from a distance, something to be contextualized. The art history in it is not imaginary, it largely contains knowledge that the reader is also privy to, that he may even know. Departures from that common knowledge and the inventions are meant to create a contrast to the archived bits.

In contrast to that, Peter Carey’s approach is different. He invents everything, the artists, the relevant sections of art history and so on, but more importantly, his protagonist Butcher Bones is not an art historian, he’s an artist, one who used to be quite famous, actually. Released from prison after serving a sentence for burglary he is content to get back to being a painter. His crime was having broken into his old house, now inhabited by his ex-wife, and Butcher Bones attempted to forcibly retrieve some of his own paintings, since “my own best work […] had been declared Marital Assets” (italics his) and had been lost in the ensuing divorce. This crime, as happens a few times in this dense and interlaced novel, already contains in nuce the tensions and questions that preoccupy the whole book: what is the economic and historical relationship of an artist to his work? What happens after a painting is finished, how does it end up in other people’s hands? How does this tie into questions of authorship, ownership and originality? One of the strengths of Theft is that it doesn’t present answers, merely suggestions.

In a patron’s house in a rural area in northern New South Wales, Butcher Bones sets up shop, builds a studio, nails a canvas to a wooden frame, buys colors and starts painting. This whole process is told in admirable detail. Butcher tells us about the types of colors he uses, about the types of nails, screws and wood utilized in his endeavors, but we are never overwhelmed. Instead, he involves us in his art, lets us be part of the small world he constructs in the house he doesn’t own. It’s a bit like listening to the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (my review here). Unlike Baker’s lonely poet, Butcher’s not alone, he never is, Hugh always accompanies him. Hugh is a bit slow, hence his nickname ‘Slow Bones’. He is obsessed with chairs and quick to wreak violence, with a special predilection for biting fingers. He has trouble reading or understanding maps and is very quickly lost in any kind of urban setting. But his apparent slowness and supposed mental deficiencies are much less pronounced in the book than they seem in this summary.

This is because Hugh and Michael narrate the story in alternating chapters. The chapters don’t overlap, there’s no cute ‘alternative view’ of events. Turns out, Hugh’s part of the narrative is not more obtuse or simple-minded than Michael’s. It’s different, but not in a “slow” way, if anything, it’s more complex and nuanced. Michael’s narration is maudlin, self-obsessed and a bit depressed. He uses low and high brow language both, equally at home in talking about art, talking to buddies or relating “shitty stuff”. These chapters do most to advance the story because they are conventional and told in a linguistically lean way, quickly stringing together events, except for the occasional monologue. Hugh, in contrast, uses a more sophisticated language that contains insights about art, about personal relationships as well as blunt retellings of events. Michael, exasperated over his brother, exclaims once “[w]ho could explain the dark puzzle of Slow Bones’ folded brain?” This sentence, meant to disparage his brother, to show impatience with his being too slow, not functional enough, is, however, revealing and helpful in understanding Hugh and through him, much of Theft.

See, Hugh’s language is much more careful than his brother’s, it displays a much greater awareness of words and syntax. Instead of relating linguistic platitudes like Michael, common in conventional speech, he tends to quote platitudes, not by using inverted commas or other markers (although he does capitalize words now and then, a fact that emphasizes the ‘written’ quality I mentioned earlier), but by speaking/writing in a pastiche of the person, book or statement quoted. Hugh’s chapters are the most fun to read, they are open and almost without guile. Evil and suspicions are quoted, distanced, looked on askance. Now and then he displays cunning, but its never terribly clever. Yet a comparison of Hugh’s and Butcher’s credulity shows us two people almost equally likely to be duped, made fun and taken advantage of. Hugh’s cunning, his naivete and wisdom are not that of how we often suppose the mentally impaired to be, but that of child’s literature. Personally, I’ve long considered the best prose work written for children to have qualities that approaches very good poetry or the work of a writer such as Samuel Beckett.

In all these cases one is likely to find a certain delight in words and an independence of simple conventionalisms, as well as a mixture of lightness and bleakness, which in Beckett’s work is often mistaken for absurdity. I think it’s a paying of close attention to the cog wheels of language, thought and of the structure of images and an awareness of the difficulty of unmooring our actions from conventional patterns and a false implicitness of common sense judgments. Much of that kind of thinking is implicit in those of Theft‘s chapters which are narrated by Hugh. Butcher’s difficult brother has, as Michael said, a “folded brain”. To most readers, this will immediately recall Deleuze’s concept of the fold, elaborated upon specifically in the marvelous book-length essay Le Pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988) and his book on Foucault (1986). Hugh’s narrative is actually the revealing, clear one, in it you can find the outside and its sounds and shouts folded into his own meandering ruminations. The end result of this is a narrative that seems at times like adult child’s patter, straight out of some strange, slightly surreal tale.

The fact of the matter is, Carey puts quite a strong emphasis on the genres of folk tales, fairy tales and child’s literature. Evidence of this is, for example, his foregrounding of Norman Lindsay’s classic children’s book The Magic Pudding (1918). Several characters in the book self-identify with characters from the book. Hugh especially uses other people’s knowledge of The Magic Pudding as an indicator of their soundness of character and taste, and it should have been a warning to him (and us) when a new acquaintance expresses sympathy for the book’s villains, the pudding thieves. The Magic Pudding is a book about three friends who walk through the world, dining each evening and each morning on a steak-and-kidney pudding which is not only alive, but can also never be depleted. Regularly they are set upon by a pair of pudding thieves, who manage, with the help of trickery and cunning, to steal the pudding a few times. The three friends manage to get them back due to the fact that one among them is equally cunning and devises clever plans to steal the pudding back. The other two then proceed to punch the thieves “on the snout”.

It is significant that Hugh is adamant that he and his brother are “like Barnacle Bill and Sam Sawnoff”, the two punchers of snouts. Clever people around them tend to outwit them and it is pure strength and stubbornness that propels the Bones forward through all the complications, the crimes and the occasional bout of misery. But, unlike Headlong, Theft never really gives in to that misery, the darkness of the noir genre. The subtitle of Carey’s novel is “A Love Story” and, in an oddly satisfying way, it is, in fact, a love story. The love interest here is Marlene, an art connoisseur who’s married to the son of the widow of a famous mid-century artist. In the time-frame of the book, the artist (Leibovitz) is long dead, so is his widow Dominique. Her son, Oliver, has inherited precious little, but one important thing he does own: the right to authorize Leibovitz pictures. He has the right to say which picture is a ‘real Leibovitz’ and which isn’t. The twist is this: Dominique proceeded, immediately after her husband’s death, to hide unfinished canvases, and doctored them later on to make them more expensive. Marlene, an ambitious but provincial woman with a criminal record, refined Dominique’s methods and acquired connections to art dealers all over the globe.

She meets the Bones when she visits the countryside to try and steal a Leibovitz original from one of the Bones’ neighbors. A nimble weaver of intrigues and tricks, she quickly draws the Bones into her machinations, seducing both of them: Michael sexually and Hugh emotionally. As she drags them into her plans, plans that finally result in murder, we can’t help but be fascinated by this amazing woman. Like the pudding thieves, her resources seem endless, her energy and dedication to the task is undeniable. Marlene is not a criminal who happens to do art scams: after decades of doing what she does, she has become a lover of art and an expert not just of the work of Leibovitz, but of modern art in general. Marlene is a self-made woman, an incredibly strong female character and while both narrators have limitations and weaknesses, fixed and slowed down by the narrative attention and tasks, Marlene glides through the story, stronger, and far more magnificent than either of the brothers.

On the one hand, Theft belongs to books like William Gaddis’ momentous The Recognitions. Its treatment of art and originality is rather similarly inspired and strong. There are similarities, too, to noir art tales like Headlong. But the heart of the book is staggeringly different from either of the book. These elements are additional elements on a dish that has a very peculiar, unique taste, because, when you get down to it, the Bones brothers, simple, and successful due to sheer patience and endurance finally seem to represent Australians. Not because Australians are necessarily simple or patient or stubborn, but because at the end, their art is shown to endure. It doesn’t triumph, it doesn’t vanquish other art, but it is equal to other cultural productions. In a way the book mellows out at the end. The first half throws ideas, references and places at us, but as soon as we catch our breath and have caught up with the book, it kind of peters out, but not in a bad way. Peter Carey wrote a book with an Australian story, with Australian means and references, but it’s a book that takes place all over the world, a world that accepts the odd antipodean couple into their midst.

The book (published in 2006) is set in the 1980s, and this historical purview, this gesture towards the archival dimension suggests a broader significance of the story. How far off the mark would it be to read this book, in a way the story of a convict redeeming himself through his own hard, original work, as a metaphor for the rise of the Australian nation? That may be going too far, I don’t know, but fact is, the book’s power is such that this kind of reading might just be possible. Peter Carey is an amazing novelist, if this book is any indication. With a frightful ease he weaves different, disparate threads together to weave a distinctly Australian story that has meaning and relevance for all his readers, and his prose is never less than superb and controlled. Read this book.


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Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon

Hazzard, Shirley (2005), The Bay of Noon, Virago
ISBN 978-1-86049-454-3

I’m sure I already said this once, but this is the great thing about prizes, with longlists, shortlists etc.: you keep finding new books, or new writers, or even old books that you haven’t, for whatever reason, been aware of so far. Ample opportunity to discover classical books was afforded by the recently announced longlist for the “Lost Booker”. Upon a reader’s recommendation at this blog, I started my journey of discovery with Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Bay of Noon, originally published in 1970 (like all the novels on the “Lost Booker” longlist, naturally), her second novel of only four altogether, so far. As I sit down to write this review, I’m not altogether sure what to make of it. It’s certainly a very, very good book, very well, that is: elegantly written, evoking its setting and its characters so marvelously that we have to remind ourselves that this is, indeed, fiction. Fiction written by a master of her craft, but there is something odd about this book, which can seem spry sometimes, strangely reticent for a book with such a sumptuous background, and such a classical kind of story. On a sentence-by-sentence level it’s consistently enthralling and enchanting, its complex construction and the deft handling of its characters is never less than admirable, but there’s a gap, a loss, a distance at the heart of the book, and noticing the elaborate care of the construction makes the reader only more aware of it. And this despite the story which is rather emotional, sentimental even, a story of loss and love, of displacement and yearning.

There are quite a few books which are similar in several crucial points, and sometimes, Hazzard seems to fall short of such extraordinary achievements like Ford Madox Ford’s near-perfect The Good Soldier. The arc of the story, the characters, the emotional impact seems to be less well wrought, but this is a mistaken impression. The love story is the least important aspect of the novel, and while it’s great for summaries, it doesn’t actually represent the novel very well. Shirley Hazzard didn’t write a book that is, first and foremost, a moving story, I think. Instead, she wrote a very clever novel that makes good use of the discourses inherent in the tradition of the genre, that tells a story in a sweltering underworld, drawing from the cultural background of a whole region, and makes a strong statement about feminity and narrative. And it does all this in a surprisingly naked way: unashamedly, The Bay of Noon foregrounds its conceptual structure. Make no mistake, we are presented with a sad and tragic love story, but it’s highly ambiguous, and the true tragedy, we learn, is outside of the story proper, which is incapable of wrapping up all the book’s possibilities in one tasty emotional dish. The Bay of Noon slops over, frequently, and its main target is the act of writing itself, visible in the way the private history of the characters and the public history of a region intersect, in the manner in which these two kinds of stories are told, reproduced and archived, and how, in each case, meaning is created – or lost. The Bay of Noon is affecting, yes, and moving, but it’s far more than that. Hazzard does more than create metaphors as proxy for her ideas, instead, she opts for a kind of obviousness, using the tools at her disposal in a transparent way, baring the commitments and impulses driving it, giving it coherence. Most of all, The Bay of Noon insists that we understand the role of writing in shaping the understanding of certain everyday issues, as, in this case, human relationships and history. The actual story takes a back seat in this undertaking.

That said, it’s not a bad story, by any measure. The Bay of Noon is narrated by Jenny, a young British woman who comes to Naples to assist in the compilation of an official report. She does all kinds of office work, but most importantly, she works as a translator. In an idle moment in Naples, she seeks out a female writer who a mutual friend suggested she visit, and even arranged for a letter of recommendation. During the following months, she strikes up a friendship with this writer, and the writer’s lover, the (slightly) brutish (and married) Gianni. Additionally, she enters into a strange relationship with a Scottish biologist. Both of these relationships, which do not appear to intersect at first, are oddly like love, without completely becoming, in fact, love. Exploring the complex connections between the four characters allows Hazzard to call on different hierarchies of power as they play out in human relationships, without having to abandon ambiguity. More than anything else, it is this ambiguity that enlivens the odd geometrical shape of the Neapolitan foursome, that highlights the possibilities and limitations that time, place and gender enforced upon them. Sometimes, this leads to a peculiar stiffness, as if we were watching a renaissance spectacle, with objects, characters and places mere symbolical or metaphorical stand-ins for ideas. But we never feel The Bay of Noon lecturing us; in fact, Hazzard embraces ambiguity with such a zest that no single proposition ever emerges from the book, but rather a mixture of ideas and possibilities. The only things we do keep finding are Hazzard’s commitments and her inquisitive mind. Additionally, she’s a wizard at creating full, rich, believable characters. Silences, as in the books of masters like James Salter, are loaded with subtext; we don’t need to interpret them, we ‘get’ the meaning immediately. And the end, the inevitable, sad end of the story, does move us, because we do care for these characters, no matter how studded with ideas each of them is.

Although The Bay of Noon seems to be realistic, the realism (much as so much else in the book) appears to be trained on cultural documents, artifacts and productions, like the movies of Vittorio De Sica, one of which is mentioned early in the novel. Another point of reference, one of the two most central references, is Naples itself. Even more than Venice or Rome, two cities which, throughout literary history, are regularly used to exemplify inner states or ideas, Naples is more cultural reference than city. For every description of the actual city, literary history knows countless fantasies and romances about Naples and the region of Campania. In his study Les Navigations d’Ulysse, Victor Bérard found that part of Ulysses’ travels were set at the Neapolitan coast, especially his encounter with Polyphemus, the hungry (and easily tricked) cyclops. Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens, while placed elsewhere by Bérard, is nevertheless as important, or more important, even, for the cultural image of Naples, which, in ancient times, used to be called “Parthenope” (after one of the Siren sisters), and, if we are to believe some cultural histories, is still colloquially called that way by some of the Neapolitans. Additionally, it has been identified with the gates to the underworld. There is a curious tension between how Naples is generally regarded (and has been for thousands of years) and how the region surrounding and containing the city is viewed. It’s fertile land and idyllic vistas led Romans to call it Campania Felix. Descriptions of Naples tend not to contain adjectives like felix (i.e. happy). On the contrary.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in the fragments published posthumously as La Reine Albemarle (one of Sartre’s most readable, though least well known books), described Naples as “une ville en putréfaction”, which seems to be more in line with traditional depictions. As he continues, he writes that “on va à Naples comme les adolescents vont à la morgue, comme on va à une dissection. Avec l’horreur d’être un témoin”. These phrases are apt descriptions of Naples as many people found it. It’s even more apt in the light of Hazzard’s depiction of it. In The Bay of Noon, we find sweltering heat, unbearable smells, grimy surfaces and a general sense of putréfaction, i.e. decay. Incredible poverty and the utter lack of a sense of tradition and elegance set it apart from cities like Rome, according to Jenny’s account. But behind these culturally saturated descriptions, the shadows from ancient Greece creep up. The Hades looms, and the one-eyed devourer of sheep as well as the enchanting singing sisters. Hazzard’s Naples glitters, her streets are at the same time paths into the underworld, populated by ghosts, and actual, paved, real streets. None of this is really explicit, but many details suggest this kind of reading. The témoignage mentioned by Sartre, the bearing of witness, is also important and salient here. If we talk about a book that makes use of Hell as a metaphor, a novel which is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, we can’t help but associate the tragedies and horrors of the war and its manifold murders. And, indeed, the female writer whom Jenny befriends is a survivor of the tragic events visited upon her city by its inhabitants during the beginnings of Mussolini’s reign, and the Germans and the Allied forces, in the 1940s.A victim, with a stealthy kind of strength, who connects all the different parts of the book and lends meaning and depth to its excursions and ideas, she is a strangely wan kind of character.

She is called Gioconda, and, like Naples, she’s a conglomeration of references and meanings. Her very name is a direct reference of Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous “La Gioconda”, which is probably the most famous painting in the world. Gioconda is mysterious: her motives are never quite clear, or rather: The Bay of Noon doesn’t inquire much into these motives. Instead, we learn about her history and circumstances, and are allowed to construct Gioconda’s motivation from these bits and pieces. From all this, a complex, ambiguous character emerges. Her sadness belies her jocund name, which marks an absence more than it describes what’s there. She’s a smart and successful writer (well, with only one book to her name, but a book that was, after all, made into a movie) with strong opinions, with a circle of (male) friends who all admire her. Jenny’s narrative shows us how easily enchanted one can be by the beautiful Neapolitan artist. Her appraisal, very early in the book, of her new-won friend reinforces the connection between person and reference, between seeing, remembering and writing, between culture and subject:

Gioconda’s appearance has become merged now with knowledge of her, with moods and events and questions, so that in describing it I feel I am giving a false impression and introducing, even to myself, a woman I do not know. If one says that she was rather tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with in winter a pale colouring, paler than apricot, one has described nothing more than a woman who is in all probability good-looking. Even in giving these few facets I am getting off the track, for I myself would hardly recognize her from such a description: it is almost as if I were describing here skeleton, without the intercostal tissue that gave it life and singularity. Yet her physical beauty was as strong a part of her character as though she were personally accountable for the deep setting of the eyes or the long rise of the cheekbone.

In this and other descriptions, we hear a faint echo of Walter Pater’s beautiful remarks on the Mona Lisa in his wondrous Studies in the History of the Renaissance, where he maintains that in Mona Lisa’s face show “all the thoughts and experience of the world”. More on point, he claims that “she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave”. In a way, this is true for Gioconda as well. Her status as a survivor has made her a victim of sorts, her every breath seemingly enveloped by a diffuse fear. Talking to Jenny seems to liberate her or at least help her. The answer to the question why Jenny accomplishes what none of her male friends, and her lover Gianni least of all, managed, is crucial to the structure of the book. When Hazzard writes that Gioconda may be “personally accountable” for her beauty, she touches upon the main theme, which is creation through writing. All the cultural and literary references create a sense of irreality, of constructedness, and as we listen to Jenny’s story, we see how she stumbles to create it, how she doubts her own words, and we look closer at the reliability of narratives, and, especially, who writes which history. As it turns out, the book Gioconda wrote is a memoir of the pre-war years, written from the perspective of an outsider, about a family of outsiders. This history, written by a woman, is not completely successful, it takes a man’s adaptation of the story to the big screen to make it a full success. Similarly, while Jenny takes part in writing the report which, for all intents and purposes, can be read as a history of Naples in wartime, she has no part in shaping it. Power over narratives, even over those created by or with the help of women, rests in the hands of men. The friendship between the two women, in this light, and the ambiguities enveloping it, starts to seem almost oppositional and Jenny’s narrative of the friendship a declaration of, for lack of better words: independence.

As we watch Jenny looking for the right words, our gaze keeps reverting to Gioconda, and we keep thinking about how Jenny calls her “self-contained” and “unoppressive”, and, from the narrow lanes of the story, Gioconda as an almost iconic figure slops over. Increasingly, we become interested in that character, and less in the story around it. Time and again, Hazzard tells us how the landscape resembles the characters, and in a region connected with Parthenope, and her search for Persephone (who, as we know was abducted by Hades), that search, and the loss that it connotates, as well as the disastrous role that men play in it (we shouldn’t forget that Parthenope killed herself when Ulysses resisted her song), seems to become a cipher for the female relationship in the story. But the story isn’t celebrating an oppositional friendship, as suggesting the possibility of one. Really, it’s about yearning, about not finding. Even Jenny’s own story is less a reliable map of her memory of that time than a rough approximation, “not to fix our positions, but to show us how we came”. In a sense, The Bay of Noon is about a utopia, a not-place, that could be a eutopia, a good place, but this is developed with the utmost care and a marvelous subtlety. In his recently published book on religion (Returning to Religion), Jonathan Benthall maintains, and he wasn’t the first to say so, that faith, religious belief is often employed as a means to deal with ambiguities, with the obscurities of life and its harsh, rough edges. I think it’s remarkable that Hazzard doesn’t really lapse into faith here, which would be the easy solution. Instead she continues thinking, and keeps the whole construct in suspension, which is a testament to her brilliance. Although the book’s cleverness often translates into a kind of coldness, Hazzard’s writing is astonishing throughout and the novel as a whole is highly, highly recommended. It’s an excellent read, and brilliant to boot.


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David Malouf: An Imaginary Life

Malouf, David (1980), An Imaginary Life, Pan
ISBN 0-330-27004-4

In his afterword to his second novel, David Malouf, one of the best known and most celebrated Australian prose writers, states that he wanted to write “neither [a] historical novel nor biography, but a fiction with its roots in possible event.” The result, An Imaginary Life, published in 1978, is an astonishing work of art, an enchanting, challenging, and poetical novel, that manages to sound exuberant and excessive while actually being fairly controlled and shrewd, moving and in the end even dazzling the reader. An Imaginary Life is a perfectly calibrated little book about something that probably didn’t happen, for various reasons, but is more an exploration of spiritual possibilities than real, historical ones, and whatever criticism could be leveled at it from that quarter it can dodge easily. When the book was published, Malouf was a well-known poet, winner of several prizes for his poetry, among them the Grace Leven prize for poetry and the gold medal of the Australian Literature Society in 1974. He had also, in 1975, published his first novel, Johnno, a semi-autobiographical, realist novel about Brisbane society, about two friends and the vagaries of masculinity including references to a homosexual inclination. Johnno is very much a social novel, drawing its strength and logic from the environment, from the social structure that Johnno and Dante, the two main characters, are a part of.

In many ways, the contrast to An Imaginary Life couldn’t be a more marked one. This novel about a “possible event” is set in Tomis ca. 17 AD. This is the year that we think Ovid, the magnificent Roman poet, died in the exile that Augustus had sent him to. We don’t know; in his letters to his wife he mentions a serious illness and more importantly, there is no more of his work after that year, no letters, poems or anything else from the pen of one of the most influential writers in world literature. This is why we assume it’s 17 AD, but it’s all guesswork. We simply don’t know, Publius Ovidius Naso “[c]alled Naso because of the nose” (to quote from Malouf’s novel) just vanishes from history. We have no idea where his grave is or when he died and of what. His life is shrouded in mystery and what we know of it, we know through his own letters, which are both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing, an unreliable witness if I ever saw one. Together with his fame, this makes Ovid a perfect candidate for portrayal in a novel, and indeed, this has been done now and then, the most recent example probably being Christoph Ransmayr’s somewhat overrated novel Die Letzte Welt. But instead of just using the dark spots in Ovid’s life and spinning a tale to fill the gaps, the unknown, Malouf, and this is why An Imaginary Life is such a full success, makes a different choice.

He decides, although he knows that Ovid isn’t to be trusted as far as historical truth is concerned, to not engage history at all. His book takes Ovid’s letters as a starting point and then it leaps out into the void. There is no point where the book displays any interest in what actually happened, but this turns out to be a great idea in that this, implicitly, does bring up the idea of truth, of construction, of delusion and deception. The story takes place in the town of Tomis, or rather: in the village of Tomis. Ovid, disgusted by the peasant lifestyle, pining for Rome, has not written kindly about the town where he spent the rest of his life after he’d been exiled. Then as now an important seaport, constructed by Greeks and constitutionally Roman when he arrived, it’s hard to believe the town to be the semi-savage village that he wrote home about (these are the base walls of the so-called “mud huts”). Malouf, and this is what strikes the reader within the few pages, reproduces Ovid’s fiction and then he uses the idea of this village at the periphery of the world, near the empire but not quite in it, to engage concepts of myth, to present an almost archaic culture that clobbers the mayor to death in broad daylight so he won’t go gentle into that good night, so his soul will leave his body not weakly, but imbued with a fighting spirit. It’s a village where a wise woman and a shaman can whip up the ire of a superstitious populace, suspicious of everything new and vaguely foreign.

So, the reader is immediately in on the fact that we don’t move in the historical Tomis, and Ovid’s life in exile, but in Ovid’s poetical distortion of it. In these letters, especially in those he had published as Tristia, Ovid doesn’t just relate to us what Tomis is like, but he constructs a narrative of his life. From these poems (and the subsequently published letters Epistulae ex Ponto) we draw all our knowledge of his life, it is to these letters that we fly when we want to find out why he was banished, how he grew up and even when he was born. And Malouf, too, draws from these texts, although his reliance on them fades as the book progresses. At first he even mimics tone and voice of them, with broad swathes of text that are addressed to some future reader, text that tells us about Ovid’s life and where he lives now. There appears, in the first chapter in particular, to be an unevenness in tone. The whole book is narrated by Ovid but the first chapter feels less narrated and more orated, acted out. There is Ovid the meek, humiliated poet who assumes no-one will read his work in the future: “Have you heard my name? Ovid? Am I still known?” He wonders what the fate of his work is at home where it, and he, has been banned, whether he is still read, remembered, “Have I survived?”. Like Malouf’s text as a whole, which tethers Ovid’s life to his Tristia rather than to some imaginary historical accuracy and truth, Ovid attaches his self and its well-being to the texts, to his words. His body plays but a small role in the whole thing.

In other places, he is surer of himself, of his reputation and his abilities, but even in these passages, which seem so out of line with the insecure ones, there is a kernel of self-consciousness. Its roots are in Ovid’s inability to properly speak the local language and, at the same time, his estrangement from his own. His learning the language of the Getae, a Thracian dialect, becomes a question of identity. “Will I have to learn everything all over again like a child?” He really means ‘everything’. His perceptions, his connections to the world of beings and things have become unstable. The Ovid of the Tristia has claimed “ipse mihi videor iam dedidicisse Latine: nam didici Getice Sarmaticeque loqui“ (~ I feel as if I had unlearned my Latin, and learned instead to speak Getian and Sarmatian), false modesty, clearly, since the book that contains these kinds of statement is incredibly artful. As with the depiction of Tomis, Malouf, however, takes Ovid seriously, and has his own Ovid be similarly insecure and uneasy about his language and that of those who surround him. At this point, the book is a very well-written, amusing exercise in creating a characters who is very much like the Ovid of the Tristia, it’s a bit dreamy, evocative and even learned, but nothing more, until, that is, Malouf sets the plot in motion.

This happens: a wild child has been sighted in the woods, grown up with wolves. The depiction of the child (or: the Child, as it is known in the book) is amazingly well done, effortlessly creating a mental image of a human being that seems more animal than human, uncanny, elusive. Part of the ease of this creation may be due to the fact that Malouf draws on “J.M.G. Itard’s painstaking observations of Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron” (to quote from the afterword again), which also gave us Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage. Ovid quickly develops a fascination with the Child, and soon becomes intent upon catching and analyzing the barbarous bairn, quite unlike the local populace which is scared by the Child, assuming it to be something demonic, possessed by a spirit maybe, neither wholly human being nor animal but changing from one to the other at will. Nowhere else in the book does the contrast between Ovid’s culture and that of the villagers become more clear. Ovid is more than just a Roman. In his thirst for analysis, for dismantling the Other, the curious, for craving clarity, not in general, but in respect to the anomaly, the deviant little demon, this aligns him with the Enlightenment, as does the fact that he appears to be an agnostic rather than religious. In the character of Ovid, the new age explodes onto the stage where the grubby, fearful old age is still active. It’s due to Malouf’s brilliance and his ahistorical approach (which brings issues like the Enlightenment into play) that An Imaginary Life can focus on just that one facet of a potentially vast topic without feeling reductive.

And it can, just as quickly, move the focus away again. An Imaginary Life consists of five chapters, roughly equally long. Each chapter stresses a different point, a different idea. Narrative momentum rarely spills over into the next chapter because of the hard breaks between them, and still the book is very coherent and suspenseful. It’s impossible to express how admirably Malouf manages to condense a tone, a set of ideas and a narrative impulse into a rather brief chapter and to assemble a book that contains these kinds of chapters but also one continuous story and a very strong coherence. And so it is that, as the child is caught, Ovid’s interest is no longer in understanding or analyzing the Child. Instead he tries to domesticate it and teach it to speak. This section takes up his own alienation towards language and puts it into a new context. The fact that he needs to readjust his relationship with objects and words, makes him open to see how someone without language, like the Child, encounters the world, cognitively, as well as to the mysticism that language holds for the locals, such as a wise woman, who

spies on me. She believes, I think, that I am some sort of rival wizard – is that what poet means to her? – who is using the child to make a different and more potent magic.

Language, perception and cognition are the frontier where he encounters those who are strongly different from him, and that includes the locals as well as the Child. By now, however, he has become susceptible to their kinds of logic, whether it’s the mysticism of the locals or the Child’s nonverbal reading of nature. Malouf’s Ovid is still firmly entrenched in that Enlightenment thinking, without hesitating a second, he Others the Child, presupposes things about its cognitive process that flow from his own oppositions and his own mental strictures. It is not until the fourth chapter, where events finally come to a head and force him to reassess his situation, that he is able to jettison, at least in part, this kind of thinking.

That we keep ending up in Ovid’s head, in the mire of his thinking, is due to the fact that Ovid’s mind is at the heart of the book. The whole book is a journey not into Tomis, not into the middle of a fascinating archaic custom, it’s an examination of Ovid himself. I said, earlier, that, in a roundabout way, this book raises questions of historical truth in regard to Ovid, the historical figure. It does that by examining his interior landscape rather than by assembling all the known facts, for, as we saw, all the known facts are largely those provided by Ovid himself, and Malouf decides to take the text and have it, the values, descriptions, the mind at work in it tell a story that the surface content, the ‘what’, cannot tell this well. As the book moves into the direction of historical obscurity, it doesn’t actually move away from Ovid, but moves from the surface of his texts (characterized by the tone and voice of the first chapter) into an almost phantasmagorically colorful world that hides within. Ovid himself used the exile and his reflections on it as a means to reflect upon himself, producing a marvelously introspective work, that, honest or not, seems authentic and strong, and Malouf follows his lead, just with a twist, designed to grant him and his readers true insight. Everything, from the village to the Child quickly becomes a trope in Malouf’s treatment. There are countless ways in which this can be analyzed and interrogated and contextualized, but the most prominent is probably the contrast between city folk and villagers, or civilization and nature, etc., with Ovid occupying different points, depending upon whether his relationship to the villagers or to the Child is in focus.

For all the imaginary events, the basic, underlying conflict, the one with roots in history, is the one between Augustus and Ovid. Ovid, in Malouf’s book, may be in conflict with all kinds of weird and unusual people on the margins of myth, but these are ‘imaginary lives’, meant to portray both a conflict within Ovid, and within Ovid’s society which, despite his relocation, is the Roman one. It’s the conflict between the stern, joyless state as represented by the Augustan empire, elegant, powerful, but somewhat unpoetical, Apollonian, and the humid, the passionately mythic, carnal, as represented by the poet who gave our culture both one of its greatest collections of love poetry, as well as one of its greatest examinations of myth, poetical, joyful, Dionysian, full of song. In the village, Ovid is confronted with that which is Augustan in himself, and the Child challenges this part of him. But the Child’s and the villagers’ lives are not the only ones that are imaginary.

Ovid’s, for the most part, is as well (it’s also, arguably, the “Imaginary Life” of the title) , and it’s hard not to think that this defense of the wild, the poetical, that is undertaken by the book, wouldn’t, in part, be a defense of Malouf, the poet, or poets in our time, in general. As Ossip Mandelstam, the murdered Russian poet, appropriated the Tristia to sing of his own troubles and to provide a gentle but powerful music for his time, so Malouf’s novel, in its allegorical, tropical construction, keeps snapping the reader back into his own time. In one of the most powerful scenes, the Child is driven almost insane when he’s not allowed to get out of the house to frolic in the snow. This burning, desperate urgency, it transmits itself on the reader, and lifts this book from being good and impressively well made to being great.

An Imaginary Life starts in an unassuming, a quiet manner. Malouf is an excellent writer, sure enough of his mind and his language that he’s never controlling, he’s a confident writer who doesn’t need to smother the reader with brilliance, he allows the reader to discover the book for himself. It’s a good read, and a superb book overall, that makes sense on many levels and will appeal to all kinds of readers. It’s a very strong recommendation, a genuinely good, nay, a great book.


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Blair Mahoney: Poetry Reloaded

Mahoney, Blair (2009), Poetry Reloaded, Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9780521746618

If you know me, you know I collect and recommend books on poetry; I keep recommending especially introductions to poetry. Good introductions are hard to come by, especially as my chosen field of specialty is often not well served by critics. And it’s worse for children. The few good introductions and guides I know are targeted at adults and mostly not fit to be used with younger kids. The only book I ever found commendable for children was Randall Jarrell’s effulgent The Bat-Poet, which remains highly recommended to all and any. There is now, however, a new book that I would add to said list.

An Australian teacher called Blair Mahoney has just published Poetry Reloaded, which is, strictly speaking, a textbook for teenage students, but it’s actually a great introduction into poetry that I recommend to anyone who might be interested in it. It’s fresh, well conceived and very well written. But, oh, you don’t have to take my word for it. If you follow this link, you’ll land at the publisher’s page that allows you to view a couple of sample pages and a plethora of other kinds of information. In a field where even decent publications are few and far between, a book like Mahoney’s is not just welcome, it’s necessary.

In this country, as in others (see Stanley Fish’s commentary), the uselessness of the Humanities is frequently claimed, an assertion that supports and provides the rationale behind cuts at universities and schools. As someone who’s currently preparing a phd on American poetry, my everyday concerns can seem downright quixotic when I look at the syllabus of our department and its academic priorities. Poetry matters! He shouts at the windmills. But appreciation of poetry doesn’t just fall into yr lap just like that, or it doesn’t usually. Reading poetry, properly appreciating it required a special kind of knowledge. To instil this knowledge, this capability of appreciating poems we often, and rightly so, turn to introductions, simple as this may sound.

For adults, who are ready to invest work on their own accord, who may see the worth of acquiring a knowledge of poetry, good introductions abound, by poets and critics both. There is mediocre poet Timothy Steele’s (for sentimental reasons, I think, Steele’s even less accomplished student Vikram Seth has been granted a place in Mahoney’s book) very good introduction, there is The Making of a Poem , Mark Strand’s and Eavan Boland’s amazing anthology, there are various books by Mary Oliver and Mary Kinzie, both highly accomplished poets in their own right. And then there are other books, collections of critical writings or interviews that can be enlightening, as well (J.D. McClatchy would be an example of such an enlightening writer).

But kids? Of all my close high school friends I was the only one who stuck with poetry and made it his life. The poetry classes at university tend to be rather empty; it gets so bad that a friend of mine suggested reading Billy Collins in school to get kids to like poetry. We need to have writers and books who both seduce children into liking poetry and challenge them at the same time. We don’t need to push the likes of Collins on kids, assuming they’re too dense to understand anything else. What we need are books like Poetry Reloaded. Blair Mahoney uses poems by the divine John Donne, he may start a chapter with a poem by Collins but proceeds, in the same chapter, to use Sandburg, Plath and Hardy. He may put in Seth’s waffle but the poem used just before is Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. If I had world enough and time, I’d go into further details, but suffice to say that Mahoney’s project is remarkable and the end result, as far as I see it, is terrific.

So, if you feel the need to turn to an introduction, if you have someone to introduce to poetry, I advise you to turn to Blair Mahoney’s fine and lively introduction, born from many years’ experience as a teacher, according to the bio on the publicity page I linked above. Poetry matters, remember. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mahoney’s book is out this week. Don’t miss it. I’ll close with the first lines of another great text that is used in the book, Beddoes’s “Last Man”:

Sing on, sing ever, and let sobs arise
Beneath the current of your harmony,
Breaking its silvery stillness into gushes
Of stealing sadness: let tears fall upon it,
And burst with such a sound, as when a lute-string,
Torn by the passion of its melody,
Gasps its whole soul of music in one sound,
And dies beneath the waves of its own voice!


Sonya Hartnett: Surrender

Hartnett, Sonya (2005), Surrender, Walker Books
ISBN 1-84428-656-8

Now, after the last, needlessly digressive review, I’ll try to wrap up things quickly here. Surrender is a very, very good book. Maybe this is one of those books you should just read without reading any reviews first? I have no idea whether I can spoil the reader’s enjoyment with the review, but here’s the thing: this is an extraordinary novel by an extraordinary writer. It’s central conceit, revealed near the end, is not very original nor very surprising, but the novel itself is full of surprises, smaller and bigger ones. Summing up its basic plot, about a small town boy who has experienced violence and hands it back to the world around him, doesn’t begin to do justice to it. Like any great novel, it sheds layer after layer, continuously delivering pleasures to the reader, many of them hidden in the language, which crawls with brilliant and evocative metaphors, suffusing the whole book with a feeling of mystique and earthiness. As I sit here, thinking about the book, I find myself unsure whether a review, however oblique, will not spoil some readers’ enjoyment of this book. Here’s what I say: Surrender is one of the best novels of its kind that I have read this year; if you trust my judgment at all, read it, read it, read it.

Surrender is divided into short chapters that are narrated either by a boy named Gabriel, who is actually called Anwell, or by his wild friend Finnigan. From the very first chapter we are aware that something is amiss in their friendship, and in Gabriel’s dealings with the world in general. It’s not just that we start in a hospital ward, as we are told that Gabriel is terminally ill, he’s “dying: it’s a beautiful word. Like the long slow sigh of a cello: dying.” and then we hear from him why “the sound of it is the only beautiful thing about it.”:

Several times a week I must be cleaned. Water comes to me on a sponge. I must lift my arms shift my heels, lower my flaming eyes. […] I am proffered a pan, and the sight of it shames me; at other times I cannot call for it fast enough. […] I am addressed as if an idiot, cooed over as though a child. […] I am poked, prodded, pinched and flensed, I’m needled and wheedled and cajoled. My existence is nothing but a series of humiliations, what little life is left to me can hardly be called my own.

In these last quotes we can see two characteristics of Surrender‘s language. It is both concerned with the purely aesthetic values of language, the sounds, rhythms and other prosodic qualities of words. At times, the book’s narrative seems to leap into song straight off the page; what’s more, Hartnett is capable of creating two distinct voices, two different varieties of song, two different registers, who both work marvelously. The end would not be as powerful and even devastating if her control of the musical qualities of language were not so consummate. That said, it needs to be pointed out that her style is not subtle; Hartnett is no Updike, she doesn’t go for smoothness, something that she developed as a writer of children’s fiction, where style often seems far more upfront, engaging the reader and his energies in a more direct way. At the same time, her writing also manages to tap the sense of wonder that makes so much great children’s literature so glorious, but we will return to that.

The other characteristic that we were able to see in the quotes above is the directness of the images, the unapologetic use of grimy, dirty, even, in the latter half of the book, brutal imagery. It is not, clearly, Hartnett’s intention of shocking the reader, she references bodily functions and defects in order to issue her characters with a body. That is no small matter; particularly in a novel such as Surrender authors are often liable to concentrate upon a psychological scheme, exploring the heads of its characters without considering the bodies attached to them. The contrast to Brian Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain, for instance, that is similar in many ways, is telling. Evenson bypassed a whole bushel of concerns and problems by constructing his protagonist as a head with an unimportant appendage. As many great children’s book writers, no, as many great writers period, Hartnett tries to take nothing for granted; in her rather short (251 pp in my edition) novel, she constructs her character from the ground up, offering many kinds of explanations for his development and his actions.

In order for this to work, words and images often have to perform triple duties, signifying multiple things all at once. Like Evenson, for example (see my review), the meanings of her names are an important, necessary element of her book where nothing appears to be arbitrary. That Anwell, a lonely, forsaken boy, would shed his name, which is Welsh and mean “the loved one” (that he would be called by such an ill-fitting name is another of many cruel ironies of his life) and assume the name of Gabriel, “the strong man of God”, an angel, no less, a strong, vengeful person, is understandable. But this change of name also touches upon issues of agency and narration, since angels are God’s messengers (as Gabriel himself says in the book: “I am Gabriel, the messenger, the teller of astonishing truth”), blame ultimately reverts to God, who is also a figure of authority and respect; he’s generally also read as kind and loving. I realize these remarks are too reductive and short, but you could write whole pages about these two names in the novel alone and not be finished; this is true of every name in Surrender, as it is of all or most other images, words and phrases. A friend recently told me that novels tend to babble more, whereas short stories and poems need to be concise, need every word to matter. Well, apparently Hartnett did not get that memo. Her writing is always careful and conscientious, with every word counting.

I sense a hunger for meaning in this kind of writing that is reproduced in Gabriel’s narrative. Gabriel’s greedy to understand what happens, he “need[s] the world caught inside the black pit of [his] eyes”. He has not been served well by the world, and on his deathbed, he feels like a trustee, surveying the remnants of his life. When Finnigan, his unruly wildboy friend, tells him that “the bones” (we do not learn until the very end of the book what bones these are) have been found, Gabriel, finally, starts to relate to us the events of his life that have led to his present situation. He is energized by that event:

The fact that it’s found is at my shoulders like a swarm, pushing me through the slop and fug, up and up the mountain. The earth I touch with my hands is cold (the earth is mine, the dirt, the seeds, the grass, the worms, the cracks, the clods, all of it, all). The mud makes cakes on my knees. Up high the breeze is colder, and smells like a snake’s belly, and bites with a snake’s fang.

The earth like (as I said) everything in the book is many things at once, but most importantly, maybe, it’s the earth where the bones were buried. By using the earth as burial ground, the protagonist assumes control of it; not in reality, of course, but in his mind, he colonizes it, he fills it up with his spirit and takes control of it. This is a general quality of his thinking; here’s where his body becomes interesting: this assumption of control, of bending something, even unconsciously, happens with his body as well. Hartnett does not, as many weaker writers would, misuse bodily defects as cheap metaphors. She shows how agitations of the mind can effect the body. That she does not factor out the body is a strength, it helps us situate Gabriel/Anwell, as a person, it also demonstrates the interdependence of mind, body and surroundings.

This is especially important in Surrender, which, in many ways, is an exploration of what Adorno called the authoritarian character. Apart from being a complex character study of Gabriel, it is also a study of small town dynamics and how a family fares as outsiders of the community. This triple relationship between family, town and Gabriel is maybe the most astonishingly accomplished part of the book. The town, Mulyan, is a rural town, and

there was no sadder sound in Mulyan than the moaning of the cows which, every other month or so, were crowded into these yards, smacked and spooked and harried and jostled, and offered up for sale. Separated from their companions and calves, they would call chestily to each other until the mountains reverberated with their sighs.

Gabriel’s family are outsiders in Mulyan, kooks, as Finnigan calls them, largely because of their sick mother, who lives in a room in the house, not wanting to be disturbed, she’s closed off from the world, like a wraith, suffering from a mysterious illness. Mulyan is like many other towns in rural areas, it instinctively rejects what it sees as deviations from the healthy norm, it rejects what it sees as strange, as, in short: malfunctioning. But this is not from conscious hate and prejudice, it’s ingrained in the culture, in everyday behavior, it’s instinctive, thus being both more flexible than conscious prejudice and more immovable at the same time. So when a series of fires break out in town, suspicions arise, attitudes change, but there is no open persecution, no witch hunt instigated.

Into this lack of overt hate, Gabriel’s father pours his energies. Gabriel tells us how his father starts to instigate a hunt on the arsonist. Gabriel’s father wants to restore order to his town, and, I think, ingratiate himself to the townsfolk, trying to create room for himself and his kooky family in Mulyan’s society. One would think that a man who is so intent upon creating and restoring order, would be supportive of the police in their efforts, but he distrusts the young policeman who is in command in Mulyan, he thinks him weak and, above all incompetent, and “Father despised incompetence”. He then raises a vigilante committee, to take matters in his own hands, and even threatens to depose the police officer. Both the town as well as his family create an atmosphere of fear for Gabriel, who is liberated, almost, by his friendship with Finnigan, a boy who is described as unruly. Finnigan and Gabriel have a pact, which allows Finnigan to do bad things, if Gabriel covers for him and only does good deeds, or at least not bad ones.

As many other self-declared unruly or anarchistic or nihilistic persons (the popular slander of Nietzsche comes to mind), Finnigan isn’t truly unruly, he just rejects the particular rules of his society, which is Mulyan, but he insists that his own rules are upheld, and he is true to his word, as far as his pact with Gabriel is concerned. To take up the novel’s title: there are many kinds of surrenders that people offer to others, and everybody’s surrender appears to fuel Finnigan’s resistance, his determination to stay put, it reinforces his fidelity, even, to his own rules, because they provide stability. The last important character I should mention is called “Surrender”, it’s first Gabriel’s and then Finnigan’s dog. Surrender is a wild dog, Gabriel’s violent, yet stalwart companion. As the remembered events draw to a close, or rather, to a cataclysmic finale, we see that it is Surrender who precipitates everything, by being, once again, not true to his name.

Surrender is, as I said, an excellent book, moving, disturbing, and very well written. The conceit of the book is transparent, you will have a hunch early on and the rest of the book just reinforces that impression, yet when the final, explosive events are told, we are still affected, still, somewhat, surprised, if only by the blast of the final events. Overall, however, the accumulation of history and details has, like many realist novels, the effect of a tragedy without harmatia. This is not a realist novel, however, it’s better described as magical realism; the dreams and memories, that colonize the ‘real’ world, do it in such a complete and complex way, that it feels like a blanket of magic draped over a realist landscape. And Hartnett’s language is instrumental in making all of this work.


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Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist

Persons and actions of this story are invented. If the description of certain journalistic practices shows ressemblances to the practices of the Bild newspaper, that’s because these ressemblances are not intended nor accidental, they are inescapable

The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan’s novel, is, as he himself says at the back of his forgettable new book, a modern take on Böll’s Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. And it is basically the same story. Woman fucks stranger, stranger is suspected of terrible crime, woman is suspected of being an accomplice. And I really like the Böll novel. Must be my favorite novel of his. So why was The Unknown Terrorist such a mess of a novel?

Can’t be the writing. Heinrich Böll is not a great stylist. What success his novels and stories have, style has nothing to do with that. Flanagan is, if anything, a better stylist. Much of the novel drags and much is functional at best, but there are outstanding passages as well. Can’t be the writing? Characters, maybe. That, actually, is the first problem. Although Böll’s characters are cliché characters, they need to be for the story to work in the little space that is allotted to them and Böll is a master in making even cliché come alive. Not so Flanagan. For one thing, he overdoes the cliché, adds many more layers of schlocky details. And then he just lets his characters get away with this. He doesn’t even try to make the characters believable. No Sir. When he slips his characters into the pockets of the story, he adds just the most necessary characterization. He sticks to the dolls (ironic, eh?) he constructed. Interaction between characters is unbelievable, as a rule.

But that is not his main error. The main problem with the novel is the old show-don’t-tell idea. He lets us know what people are thinking. Not just the protagonist, but also the journalist, the cops, and others. Every aspect of the story is examined and explained. It’s as if he was expecting his readers to be less smart than fourth graders. No guesswork for us. And this is where the novel goes terribly wrong. Yes, that’s tedious to read. But the political aspect of it is softened to an extent that is almost criminal. The hard criticism of mass media of Böll’s novel is softened to bad individuals who do know better but decide, greedily, to go ahead with the “story”. Whereas the only dedication of Flanagan is to David Hicks, a victim of misguided governmental policy, Böll’s reads like this:

Personen und Handlung dieser Erzählung sind frei erfunden. Sollten sich bei der Schilderung gewisser journalistischer Praktiken Ähnlichkeiten mit den Praktiken der Bild-Zeitung ergeben haben, so sind diese Ähnlichkeiten weder beabsichtigt noch zufällig, sondern unvermeidlich.

(Persons and actions of this story are invented. If the description of certain journalistic practices shows ressemblances to the practices of the Bild newspaper, that’s because these ressemblances are not intended nor accidental, they are inescapable). Lots of misguided governmental policies in his time, too. However, that’s plainly not his point. It’s about how the mass media distorts something if it conforms with certain bourgeois stereotypes.

This would have worked fine with The Unknown Terrorist, too. Slutty woman? Check. Arab terrorist? Check. Etc. And these stereotypes are seen to be at the basis of the journalist’s doing the story the way he does. However, it stops at this point. Richard Cody. And he does know better, but his greed for money and fame blinds him. Böll exposed the stereotypes that govern the press. Maybe a ‘real’ Richard Cody would not need the incentive of greed. The stereotypes alone are more than enough. This would have made an incisive commentary on the state of our nations. Look at the inane and inherently racist coverage of the remarks of Archbishop Williams, or check out the coverage in Danish newspapers of the alleged plot to kill the damn cartoonist. Or German newspapers covering that. Hell, mainstream coverage of muslims by privately owned media. Daily Express, anyone? Henryk M. Broder? Broder writes the stories Cody would write had he Broder’s erudition or style. Or check out how much of a deal it is that a photograph was published with Barack Hussein Obama wearing a turban.

No, The Unknown Terrorist is not tidy nor subtle. It doesn’t have to. It’s an angry book, wearing its moral indignation on its sleeve. But it is on this account, the political sphere, that it fails first and foremost. It attacks a government who uses a Patriot Act-like legislation to exert pressure on people. But the main protagonist’s life is not destroyed by that. It’s destroyed the hateful discourse taken up and whipped up by the press. Böll’s novel got him into a pickle with the press which launched a spite-and hateful campaign against the little indignant writer, a campaign that lasted years. No such chance with Flanagan, I presume. The boring little antepodean shit.