It’s taken me a while to read Questions of Travel – it’s one of those books that demands time and concentration. However it’s been a worthwhile invest...moreIt’s taken me a while to read Questions of Travel – it’s one of those books that demands time and concentration. However it’s been a worthwhile investment; it’s an interesting, thought-provoking novel. It explores travel and tourism; work and leisure; and all the messiness of modern life, but it’s much richer than that. Almost every page triggers thought about all kinds of things, and the prose is a pleasure to read.
De Kretser explores the modern phenomenon of travel in all its complexity and contradictions: travel for pleasure, or for work; for migration, or for asylum. I am old enough to remember the first jumbo jet airliner arriving in Melbourne: little realising that we were witnessing the birth of the Age of Travel, we went outside with the Kodak camera to photograph it. Since then international travel has become mainstream and tourism is a major money-spinner in most economies around the world.
De Kretser is interested in travel to escape. Two characters absorb our attention. There is Laura, not very attractive, resented by her sole surviving sibling, doing what many Aussies do, travelling the world to escape the ordinariness of her life, in search of a culture that she feels is missing from her homeland. And then there is Ravi the IT professional from Sri Lanka, who tugs at the reader’s heart-strings as Laura does not. He has suffered appalling trauma in his homeland and must escape it for his own safety. Both these characters have adjustments to make and both find that painful aspects of their old lives travel with them, wherever they go.
Anna Funder, as one of her characters in her debut novel All That I Am, makes a cunning observation about authors using people that they know in their...moreAnna Funder, as one of her characters in her debut novel All That I Am, makes a cunning observation about authors using people that they know in their writing. Ernst Toller, (the left-wing activist playwright) is discussing with W.H. Auden (the poet) his reluctance to write about Dora Fabian in his autobiography. Fabian was his one-time lover and fellow-activist against Hitler and is the central character in the novel. (She was also a real person but she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page):
This is a conversation we’ve had before – about the temptation of art, like fire, to use people as fuel. (p94)
Like fire, which can be intensely harmful or benign, Funder’s art in this novel is to use the history of real people – including someone now dead that she personally knew and was obviously fond of – to write, as she has before in the non-fiction Stasiland, about the need for public vigilance to guard against totalitarianism. The book is dedicated to Ruth Blatt, (renamed as Ruth Becker in the novel) and Funder has drawn on Blatt’s life to write this story of a group of idealistic young people who challenged Hitler, ridiculed him in the press until they realised what a serious threat he was, fled to Britain when the repression began and – not without risk - tried to continue their activism from there in the hope of achieving international assistance to save Germany.
I wonder if it is because my mother also knew, and was fond of Ruth Blatt, that I feel a bit uneasy about this?
This is a wry novel, softly evocative of warm Queensland nights and deceptively gentle. In her old age, Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home af...moreThis is a wry novel, softly evocative of warm Queensland nights and deceptively gentle. In her old age, Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home after a long period away in London. As she recovers from a bout of pneumonia, like Albert Facey in A Fortunate Life she reflects on her life, in her case finally facing up to memories long suppressed.
David Ireland, AM, born 1927 and author of ten novels, has the rare distinction of having won the Miles Franklin Award three times, for
The Unknown In...moreDavid Ireland, AM, born 1927 and author of ten novels, has the rare distinction of having won the Miles Franklin Award three times, for
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner in 1971 The Glass Canoe, in 1976, and A Woman of the Future in 1979. There isn’t very much about him on Wikipedia, which - as Nicholas Rothwell suggests in the introduction to the recently reissued edition of The Glass Canoe* - might be because Ireland went out of literary fashion, because the literati has abandoned his brand of realism.
The Australia that Ireland wrote about still exists, says Rothwell,, but is
safely cordoned off, far from where books are read, and the books that once portrayed that other Australia are no longer seen as central to our literary life.
Ireland’s world in The Glass Canoe is ‘stuffed … with words of sexism, with prejudice and with brutal, escalating, unending violence’ incompatible with the Establishment’s ‘other, gentler books, with attitudes that did more to polish the moral virtues of the reading class’.
But now the days when Ireland was admired, and celebrated, not just as the hard voice of the people but as the chronicler of that world’s demise are gone. He hasn’t published anything new for ages.
When I posted a Sensational Snippet from The Glass Canoe a couple of days ago, I discovered that there are David Ireland enthusiasts out there who share my fascination for this author’s writing. Now that I’ve finished the book, however, I do think it’s a problematic novel.
Librarians have an invidious job, trying to allocate some books to the Subjects Catalogue. I really feel for whoever had to deal with David Ireland’s...moreLibrarians have an invidious job, trying to allocate some books to the Subjects Catalogue. I really feel for whoever had to deal with David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and eventually assigned it to these subject headings: •Manufacturing workers •Death •Working class •Economic development •Alienation
Well, yes, I can see why these subjects were assigned, but they are not really what the book is about. The Unknown Industrial Prisoner won the Miles Franklin Award in 1971 and I posted the opening lines of the novel here. It’s such a bitter and angry book that the word alienation seems inadequate to describe its concerns. Alienation today conjures up images of sulky adolescents lounging about in shopping malls instead of going to school, it just doesn’t begin to scour the depths of angst in Ireland’s novel. It’s the polarisation of society that interests Ireland: the brutal, amoral industrial world that traps the workers into imprisonment, a world which (he thinks) is invisible to complacent Australia.
I’m calling it a novel, but it doesn’t always seem like one. There are extremely short episodes instead of chapters, and the writing style seems mostly (though not always) more like journalism than literary. The multiple characters are all named, in that sly Australian way, to reflect aspects of their personality. These include, for example, Two Pot Screamer, Doctor Death, the Volga Boatman and Calamity Jane the nurse, and the central characters The Great White Father, the Glass Canoe, the Samurai, Far Away Places and the Wandering Jew. (He isn’t Jewish, so the moniker is anti-Semitic.) Some of these monikers are apt but others are a bit opaque – perhaps the allusions derive from the vanished pub world that Ireland evoked in The Glass Canoe (see my review). Or perhaps it’s because I’m a woman not privy to the secret language of men. But it wasn’t just trying to decode the names that made The Unknown Industrial Prisoner a challenge. Far from it.
Bring Larks and Heroes won the Miles Franklin in 1967, the third novel in Thomas Keneally’s long and impressive career as an Australian novelist. Read...moreBring Larks and Heroes won the Miles Franklin in 1967, the third novel in Thomas Keneally’s long and impressive career as an Australian novelist. Reading it is a little bit like finding an undiscovered Patrick White, because its style, to my surprise, is modernist – utterly unlike Keneally’s later novels that I’ve read: Schindler’s Ark a.k.a. Schindler’s List (which won the Booker in 1982); The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, (see my review); and The Widow and Her Hero (see my review). I think it would be most interesting to trace Keneally’s development as a writer through his entire oeuvre – but he’s such a prolific author, there’s a PhD in it, I am sure.
It was the religious allusions, the brutal imagery and that sharp adjective ‘futile‘ on the very first page that made me think of Patrick White:
The afternoon is hot in this alien forest. The sunlight burrows like a worm in both eye-balls. His jacket looks pallid, the arms are rotted out of his yellowing shirt, and, under the gaiters, worn for the occasion, the canvas shoes are too light for this knobbly land. Yet, as already seen, he takes long strides, he moves with vigour. He’s on his way to Mr Commissary Blythe’s place, where his secret bride, Ann Rush, runs the kitchen and the house. When he arrives in the Blythe’s futile vegetable garden, and comes mooning up to the kitchen door, he will, in fact, call Ann my secret bride, my bride in Christ. She is his secret bride. If Mrs Blythe knew, she would do her best to crucify him., though that he is a spouse in secret today comes largely as the result of a summons from Mrs Blythe six weeks ago. (p1)
Elizabeth O’Conner (1913-2000) was the fourth winner of the fledgling Miles Franklin literary award, and the first woman to win the prize. The Irishma...moreElizabeth O’Conner (1913-2000) was the fourth winner of the fledgling Miles Franklin literary award, and the first woman to win the prize. The Irishman’s win in 1960 would have pleased Miles Franklin; it is a quintessentially Australian story set in the Gulf country. It celebrates what we might call ‘bush character’: stoicism, courage, self-discipline and determination.
O’Conner won the prize in 1960, in the years of postwar prosperity and well before the Swinging Sixties challenged long-established mores across the globe. Cities in Australia were being transformed by post-war immigration from Europe and by the growth in manufacturing which was driven by the sudden availability of cheap labour. The Irishman, however, explores a different period of transition. O’Conner was writing about what was already a vanished era – the inter-war years when bush life was being transformed by the arrival of the motor-vehicle in the early 1920s. While at one level it’s an engaging coming-of-age story, it is also the story of a remote community confronting decline.
Vance Palmer is a name well-known to people of my generation who found his Legends of the Nineties or National Portraits on their reading lists at sch...moreVance Palmer is a name well-known to people of my generation who found his Legends of the Nineties or National Portraits on their reading lists at school, but I had never read any of his fiction until, working my way through the Miles Franklin Award winners on my TBR, it was time to read The Big Fellow which won the award in 1959.
I think it might have come as a bit of a disappointment to readers lured to the title by the award. It is just not in the same class as its predecessors. Voss by Patrick White (yet-to-be-awarded his Nobel Prize) is a brilliant book still widely read; and To The Islands by Randolph Stow was an astonishing work written in luminous prose when the author was only 22. (My reviews of these two novels are at http://tinyurl.com/3jdb6de). But The Big Fellow hasn’t stood the test of time, if indeed it ever deserved the accolade. (Astonishingly, there are no records of shortlisted books prior to 1987. Did successive judges and the Miles Franklin trustees not have any eye to Australia’s literary history????)
Perhaps the judges felt that they ‘owed’ an award to Palmer because of his contribution to Australian letters? He and his wife Nettie were the foremost literary couple of their era and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award recognises this by naming the fiction award as the Vance Palmer Prize and the non-fiction award as the Nettie Palmer Prize. As I have noted before, my copy of The Big Fellow is inscribed by Nettie Palmer, ‘To dear Dorothea from Nettie’, which adds a certain frisson to the reading…
But not enough to save the novel from itself. The truth is, (whatever they may say about it at the Australian Dictionary of Biography) it’s a rather pedestrian book, with a desultory plot and in places, rather plodding prose.
You can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very...moreYou can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin. As if you’re someone else altogether, some new self trying on the words. (p86)
This is exactly what this entrancing new novel achieves. It is, as you read, as if all the preconceived ideas of this country’s history of Black and White relations fall away and a new paradigm takes their place. What if, Scott asks, the benefits of White Settlement and indigenous expertise were mutual and equally valued? What if there were a genuine friendship of equals? What if the companionship of children grew into adult love across the colour bar? What if the Noongar landlord had been welcome in the houses that the White Man built across his land? And, is it too late now?
Effortlessly, these new ideas insinuate into consciousness. Bobby Wabalangay dances his way through this novel challenging the sourness of the History Wars. He offers a new way of looking at the past and at the future. Scott has the moral authority to play with these ideas because he is a descendant of the Noongar People who have always lived on the south coast of Western Australia where the early whaling settlements were. Like Bobby he speaks both languages and listens in both.
Trap, by Peter Mathers (1931-2004), is not an easy book to read. Published in 1966, it won the Miles Franklin award, which is why I have it in my coll...moreTrap, by Peter Mathers (1931-2004), is not an easy book to read. Published in 1966, it won the Miles Franklin award, which is why I have it in my collection, and why I chose it as a title for the 2010 Classics Challenge, which I like to do with all-Australian titles. However (and it pains me to say this) I did not enjoy reading it at all.
Mather’s landscape is an Australia familiar and yet remote. In 1966 Robert Menzies had finally retired (my mother wept!) and Australia had its first new Prime Minister since 1949. There was conscription of boys too young to vote yet there was electoral support for the war in Vietnam. Aborigines had yet to be recognised in the Constitution, much less as the indigenous owners of any land because of the bizarre legal fiction that prior to European settlement Australia belonged to no one (terra nullius) . Post-war migration had brought European migrants, but they were expected to assimilate rather than retain any aspects of their culture. Asian, African and Pacific Islander immigration was restricted by the White Australia Policy. Australia was insular in more ways than one.
Into this claustrophobic society comes Jack Trap, an enigmatic figure about whom the narrator, David David has been assigned to compile a dossier. An urban mixed-race Aboriginal, Trap is both dispossessed and powerful because he refuses to conform to expectations. He is notorious, but unknowable.
I read To the Islands for the Classics Challenge which I like to complete using all Australian titles. In this case, the book is also a Miles Franklin...moreI read To the Islands for the Classics Challenge which I like to complete using all Australian titles. In this case, the book is also a Miles Franklin winner, taking out the prize in only the second year of the award, and when Randolph Stow was only 22.
In some ways Stow’s novel reminded me of Graham Greene’s writing. There is the same interest in the ambivalent moral issues of the modern world, and the central character Stephen Heriot is a flawed hero, an Anglican missionary worn out by the oppressive climate and the ambiguous merit of his role in bringing ‘improvement’ to another culture. Stow shares Greene’s preoccupation with the internal lives of his characters and his economical prose never distracts from the issues at hand. His novel however is so quintessentially Australian that it could only have been written by someone who knew the country intimately. To the Islands is a masterpiece.
Swords and Crowns and Rings is the enchanting story of Jackie Hanna, a dwarf, and Cushie Moy, whose friendship as children matures into a love that su...moreSwords and Crowns and Rings is the enchanting story of Jackie Hanna, a dwarf, and Cushie Moy, whose friendship as children matures into a love that survives hardship, misunderstanding and a social chasm that would separate lesser mortals. They spend their childhood in an unremarkable Australian country town before World War I, where Jackie grows up believing that he can do and be anything. His step-father, Jerry Hanna, (‘the Nun’), is the rock on which this solid family life is based; Peggy Hanna (who should surely be played by Anne Phelan in the TV series that begs to be made) is his indefatigable mother. Together they keep a grocer’s shop, not smart enough for the Moys, who patronise the Hannas and express alarm that Dorothy (Cushie) might learn ‘common expressions’. (p24)
A powerful, angry book, written in 1999 and Astley's last. It is fiercely critical of Australian anti-intellectualism; cynical about justice for victi...moreA powerful, angry book, written in 1999 and Astley's last. It is fiercely critical of Australian anti-intellectualism; cynical about justice for victims of white-collar crime; scornful about attempts to import ‘culture’ in the form of writing groups and a branch library to the backblocks of Queensland; and contemptuous about small-town life and society. http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/200...(less)