I have been fortunate to while away the last days of 2014 with a subtle and unsentimental novel: Joan London’s The Golden Age. Centred around a childrI have been fortunate to while away the last days of 2014 with a subtle and unsentimental novel: Joan London’s The Golden Age. Centred around a children’s polio convalescent home of the same name in 1950’s Perth, London tells the stories of patients Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs and their adolescent love affair alongside those of the other children, their parents and the home’s staff.
Frank initially feels “like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home.” With time though “it was a cheerful place. The children were no longer sick, but in need of help to find their way back into the world…The children enjoyed the benevolence of the attention. Here, they were not a worry or a burden to make their mothers sigh with weariness. They felt different – exclusive, like a family”.
London’s writing is clear and vivid and she has a knack for concise vignettes, be it Frank and his Jewish parents Ida and Meyer’s memories of wartime Hungary or Elsa’s childhood by the beach, and telling details, for example a boy’s father who “had eyes for nobody else…his eyes flickered in the effort of concentration on anyone but Sullivan”. She makes the plague of polio, for most of my generation something relegated to history, a live and terrible thing. You learn individual children’s onset stories, feel the pain and exhaustion of physical therapy, the joy of an outing, the consolations of games, poetry, music and each other. London’s ability to convey each character’s inner life is remarkable.
For example, seven-year old Albert Sutton “lying in bed, thought he would make a bolt for it. Now that he’d seen Lizzie and all his brothers at the concert, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer. The missing was worse than being sick. It filled his head, made him stupid, he couldn’t learn, couldn’t even speak. Deep down,all through himself, he knew that only when he went home would he get better. All he wanted was to open the front door and hear them say, ‘Allo! ‘Ere’s our Albert! He’d planned to run away many times: how he would take a bottle of water, maybe an apple and a warm jumper. But tonight as he lay in the dark, a quiet voice told him: Go now. If he took his wheelchair and followed the railway line, he knew he would find his way. At least he no longer wore splints. Just go, said the voice.”
The Golden Age is one of the highlights of my reading year, an evocative and emotive recreation of a bygone era which shows “the beauty that was there” and reminds us that “Polio is like love…Years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.” I succumbed to its spell and would rank London’s writing alongside two of my favourite authors, David Malouf and Alice Munro. I look forward to reading London’s two earlier novels and short story collections and am interested to hear from anyone who already has....more
In a fit of back-to-work doldrums, I picked up this slender novella which was my first time reading Melville. And what a time it was! Narrated by an uIn a fit of back-to-work doldrums, I picked up this slender novella which was my first time reading Melville. And what a time it was! Narrated by an unnamed lawyer and set in his Wall Street office, Bartleby concerns "a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw or heard of." On his third day of employment Bartleby does something outré: when asked to help his boss compare an original document to its copy, he mildly and firmly declines with the famous words "I would prefer not to." Subsequent events are only stranger.
What stood out for me while reading Bartleby was the voice, which is orotund as befits a lawyer and often very funny. You can sense the fun Melville had with language in the narrator's descriptions of himself:
"I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor, a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor's good opinion."
and his scrivener Nippers, who:
"Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sizes, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting-paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk:-then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted anything, it was to be rid of a scrivener's table altogether."
The writing throughout is as enjoyable and memorable.
Of course, the question hovering over the tremendous pleasure of reading this novella is: What is it about? It made me think of a Studs Terkel quote:
"Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."