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This novel for a warm glow?

This novel for a warm glow?

To be under the doona, to feel the rush, a warm, warm gut, fizzing ribs, tingling fingers – well, it was such a surprise, let me tell you. It wasn’t because I’d over-done the port before going to bed, or had swum a million laps across the afternoon. It was because I had something in my hands. A book. A new book.

It might have been because it was the recent novel by JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus. I am a Coetzee fan; his Disgrace knocked my sideways when I first read it, and I dip into it annually. How to write as well as Coetzee? I’d like to know.

The warm, warm rush of a feeling might have been because the book was so beautifully produced, as in manufactured. A hard back. A hard back! How rare in this electronic day and age, in this era when the dollar drives every decision. (But was there ever a time when the dollar didn’t drive every decision? Only a fiction writer would be able to answer that question.)

Perhaps the warm, warm gut-rush of a feeling was because Coetzee, an exile from South Africa now living in South Australia, had decided to explore Australia’s current obsession with turning away those who come to our land of plenty by boat. How to take this on and make sense of it? Only Coetzee would be able to find some kind of adequate response.

Perhaps, though, the gut-rush that other evening was because reading has become so integral to my life. Sleeping, waking, eating, breathing – these are the essentials. Is reading fiction now essential to me? It could be. Is it critical? Can a day go by without being a part of the imagined lives of others, the worlds of others, the problems and dramas, the learning that comes as a result? Perhaps the answer is yes, a day can go by without reading fiction, without being a part of all that make-believe. But there’s that related question: should a day go by without reading fiction? No, I don’t think a day should go by without reading fiction.

The essence – the whole point – of life is experience. Surely that’s the truth. So, then, doesn’t reading fiction amplify and diversify and illuminate experience? That has to be the truth, too.

Perhaps, in the end, I’m just in love.

With the feeling of reading.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 May 2014.)

Is Autumn in Australia all sweetness and light? Unlikely.

Is Autumn in Australia all sweetness and light? Unlikely.

It’s better to burn out than to fade away. That’s what the torn-jeans-and-flannelette-shirt-loving North American rocker Neil Young famously reckoned in ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’. Regrettably, some of our number, including grunge god Kurt Cobain, have taken the wisdom to heart – it’s better to go out with an almighty bang than to age gracefully. Or disgracefully, as the Ulysses Motorcycle Club likes to have it.

As odd as it might sound, recently I’ve been thinking that Neil Young may actually have been referring to autumn, though being a Canadian he’d call it ‘fall’. Let me explain.

As everyone knows, autumn is officially the best season, especially if you’re lucky enough to live in or around the Australian Capital Territory. Have you seen a better sky than the one we get at this time of year? It’s almost always as blue as a Sunday afternoon. Plus there’s a hint – or promise – of frost.

We can pull the second doona down from the cupboard and feel its comforting weight on our lap and legs. The heaters are given a run: the smell of burning dust, which reminds us that those with the neatest, cleanest homes really do have the dullest lives. And for those who are fortunate to live in an older house there’s the pièce de résistance: an open fire at 6pm, the gorgeous dry heat, the soft crinkle of the last of the coals as we stagger to bed. I could go on, and give me half an opportunity I will.

Except there’s this: autumn isn’t all sweetness and light. The word ‘autumn’ may derive from the Latin ‘autumnus’, which may or may not mean – or refer to – ‘harvest’, but it’s also a time of darkness.

*

Keep reading at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on Monday 19 May 2014. For the first time in 20 years, something I wrote resulted in a letter of complaint to the editor. It’s a polite letter, mind.

Two novellas, one night out in Canberra: what can go right?

Two novellas, one night out in Canberra: what can go right?

The past and the present
There are good people in the world. It might be hard to believe, especially in Australia as the conservatives rip the heart and soul out of the nation. But it is true – good people do exist. An example? The very fine folk at Scissors Paper Pen, the ACT-based writing collective that makes things happen. The group’s latest adventure is The Same Page, a bi-monthly (that always sounds a touch rude, doesn’t it, or extra interesting) book club in a pub. Back in April they asked me to be on the panel and we had a robust discussion about Lucy Neave’s quietly affecting novel The Way We Were.

The tables have been turned for next month. Shit. The panel will be discussing dear old Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, two novellas I know a bit about. I won’t be attending, because if I’m not loved I’m in tears. But also because I don’t have to attend: I’ve secretly set up hidden web-cams in the venue so I’ll be able to watch proceedings from the comfort of my own couch[1]. So, if you live in or around the ACT, if you like a good read, if you like a good yarn, if getting into fisticuffs about literature is your thing, head along to Scissors Paper Pen’s The Same Page night at Smith’s Alternative, 6,30pm, Thursday 19 June. Just remember that earlier point: if I’m not loved, I’m in tears[2].

The near future
While I’ve got you, the third and final of the Blemish novellas is getting close to having its moment in the sun. A couple of things to share. Firstly, we have a title: The Beach Volcano. Secondly, I’ve seen a draft of the cover. It has a picture of me at the beach as a three-year-old with a little red plastic spade in hand and a very fat belly hanging over my little red Speedos. That’s not at all true (like some other elements of this post, as already identified). But the cover is wonderful; it’ll match Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now very nicely. Is there a launch date and venue? No, not yet. Blemish is waiting to see if there’ll still be a fair and decent Australia from which to launch the book. Or whether it might be better to do it in Sweden. Sweden sounds good, don’t you think?

[1] Might not be true

[2] This might not be true either; I’m really quite tough, you know – I shave my head and own a Clash record on LP

Elena Ferrante's 'My Brilliant Friend' - elusive, yes, but also blindingly extraordinary

Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ – elusive, yes, but also blindingly extraordinary

If the past is, as they say, a foreign country, then childhood, for many of us, if not most, is a completely different universe.

We all have them in our lives, childhoods, and perhaps not a day goes by when we don’t look back over our shoulders to how we started for the sake of a clue about who we are now and what we might become. What happened in the beginning? What did people do to us? What did we do to others? What are the big events that still drive and shape us? And what are the small events that have an even more profound impact, somehow existing in every breath we take, even when we’re sleeping?

It is fiction that’s best at helping to answer these questions.

The novelist Elena Ferrante, who was born in Naples in 1943, is the author of three previous works: The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), and The Lost Daughter (2008). There is, however, significant mystery around her, as she has chosen to operate under a pseudonym and interviews are conducted via email with her publisher facilitating. There is even speculation that she is more than one person, except there is a distinct sense that this, too, is part of Ferrante’s plot to put a nail in the coffin of celebrity authorship, for she is adamant that the contemporary tendency to value the author over the work is wrong. This deliberate obfuscation, of course, threatens to do the opposite and eclipse the writing. Thankfully, Ferrante is a novelist of immense substance, authority, and insight and it is easy – and prudent – to ignore the gossip.

As suggested by the title, My Brilliant Friend is a novel about love and admiration between two friends. There’s Elena Greco, whose father is a porter at the city hall, and there’s Raffaella Cerullo, who Elena calls Lila – Lila’s father is a shoemaker. Elena and Lila become friends when they are very young, but the novel begins when the two are middle aged and Lila has disappeared, though not necessarily in the usual sense.

‘It’s been at least three decades since [Lila] told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide…She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear; nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know here well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she had found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in the world.’

You’d think that what follows would be a rudimentary ‘Whodunnit?’, but instead…

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 3 May 2014.

Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires in 1973. (Image by © Horacio Villalobos). I might look like him one day. Might? Highly likely.

Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires in 1973: I might look like him one day. Might? Highly likely.  (Image: Horacio Villalobos)

‘Be careful,’ I said, ‘I got it cheap because it’s broken.’ I wasn’t talking about a watch or a television or a lamp, but a rubbish bin.  An old rubbish bin.

It’s actually a bread bin from the 1950s, which I’d found on one of my regular drives to a nearby town to hunt down something old that’s suitable for an old house lived in by a man who is feeling the weight of his years.  Most evenings when I get off the couch it feels as though I have a pallet of bricks strapped to my back.

But the bin.  Previously I’d had a cheap stainless-steel contraption bought from the local supermarket. In my kitchen it felt as anachronistic as a knight.  So, for months, I’d been looking for something that would suit, something that felt right.  And then last Sunday happened. In a little shop in a little town there it was: a generous-sized, smooth, cream-coloured ceramic body with a pale-green lid. I looked at it once, twice.  ‘You can get it for a very good price,’ said the cheerful-sounding shopkeeper.  ‘The lid’s cracked. But I’ve glued it up.’

Now I was seriously interested.

It wasn’t because the price was more than reasonable.  It was because the bin was broken.  All the old things I buy are broken in one way or another: a mirror with a snapped side bar; a chair with a gammy leg; a cupboard whose doors open on their own accord.  I don’t like perfect antiques – they’re as sterile as something new bought from a warehouse in an industrial estate. What’s the point of perfection? (Says he who can be greatly frustrated by his own imperfect words, written or spoken.)  Broken things have stories to tell.  They have experienced events, they have been under pressure, they’ve almost given in.  But they soldier on because they’re not yet done with the world.

My new – old – rubbish bin, the one that was once a bread bin, is not yet done with the world.  Despite its cracked lid. It feels right, appropriate, this beautiful object in my kitchen, in a house that is as imperfect as its owner, and owner who most evenings when he gets off the couch feels as though he has a pallet of bricks strapped to his back.

‘Time is the substance from which I am made,’ said Jorge Borges.

Isn’t that the truth.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 26 April 2014.)

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