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‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’ – Toni Morrison, The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, 2007
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.
‘Punk to me was a form of free speech. It was a movement when suddenly all kinds of strange voices that no reasonable person could ever have expected to hear in public were being heard all over the place’
– Greil Marcus, author, rock critic, journalist
One of the most thrilling events that has ever happened in my literary life is this: an Australian poet has created a ‘found poem’ out of something I wrote a long time ago.
The poet? Stuart Barnes. The poem? ‘Stern Man’. The written thing of mine? A novel called Remnants. It really is magical, this poem, for many reasons. Reading it, working it out, returns me to 2001, when I was completing a Master of Creative Arts/Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed. An early draft of what would become Remnants was produced during that deliciously immersive period of study.
I never thought the manuscript would see the light of day. But buoyed by something that my external examiner, Ian Syson (the then editor of Overland), had written in his feedback, that the manuscript would ‘surely’ find a home somewhere, I shopped the thing around. With no luck. Eventually a colleague suggested I meet with Ian Templeman, who at the time was the publisher at Pandanus Books, the Australian National University’s press (which appears to no longer exist). Ian had read a short story of mine in Overland and enjoyed its ‘intimacy’, so agreed to read my manuscript; months later he made an offer to publish it, though I would have to wait ‘some time, years perhaps’ as he needed to create an imprint to do so.
So, in 2005, out into the world came Remnants.
It’s a quiet story, a humble production, but somehow it received a large number of reviews, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra, Times, the Age, and Antipodes; all but one was more than positive.
What’s it about?
Following his wife’s death, Mitchell Granville, retired barrister and son of a celebration politician, spends his twilight years hidden in a village in the Blue Mountains. For company he has his books, his late father’s semi-wild peacocks, and a sculpture of a naked woman’s torso. Over time he succumbs to loneliness and realises that there is at least one person he needs to rediscover. When he finally makes contact, all does not go as planned. Soon he finds himself being coaxed into at trek that crosses the breadth of his country and the depths of his past.
At least that’s the story according to Pandanus.
I loved writing Remnants, and rewriting it, and editing it, and polishing it (though I admit to moments where I thumped the desk because the story and/or the prose just wasn’t up to scratch), and it was a thrill to see it make its way in the world. However, almost a decade later, I feel as though I’ve moved on. In 2010 there was the Launceston experience, those four weeks during which the way I wrote was turned on its head. Since then, I’ve been working on the Blemish novellas, which are much shorter works than Remnants. It’s almost as if that novel was a blip, an aberration, some kind of literary miracle, and perhaps it was. But now I’m thinking about that book again, because of Stuart Barnes’ ‘Stern Man’.
Stuart’s lines are collected mostly from the short proem that opens the story: Mitchell Granville, a melancholic man at best, is taking a bath in what was once an apple-picker’s shed, though something more serious is going on. What I admire most about ‘Stern Man’ is that Stuart has lifted the chosen lines and created something entirely new, something – yes – magical. I do love the idea of a peacock collecting firewood.
Magical, also, because I based Mitchell’s bath on the one I used to enjoy in the Blue Mountains holiday cottage that my family rented for many years every summer and some winters. You had to make a fire in a barrel and wait for it to puff like a steam-engine before turning on the tap so the water would warm and dribble through. When I was nothing more than boy, when I was soaking in that rust-brown water after yet another day of exploring wild bushland, did I used to imagine that my brain would spark a novel and that my novel would spark a poem written by someone else? I may have been a relentless dreamer, but I could never have dreamt that far.
Enough from me.
Here’s ‘Stern Man’ by Stuart Barnes, which was first published in Four W twenty-four (2013). Please note: what’s not included in the image, but is included as a footnote to the original poem as published, are the words ‘a found poem; source: Nigel Featherstone, Remnants, Pandanus Books, 2005′. These things are important.
Three cheers for literary miracles.
I’ve written about it here before, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, strongly hinted at it at the very least, because it’s a book that’s had a profound impact on me. And, yes, it was once a book, a stand-alone publication, a long short story or a short novella, no one can ever say – definitions, in the end, don’t mean much. First published by Fourth Estate in 1997, on my birthday (a good gift from the literary gods), Proulx’s story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and intimacy where they least expect it was an immediate hit. The book took a whip to American masculinity: the Marlboro man: resilient, laconic, adamantly heterosexual – the apparent real deal. In Brokeback Mountain, Proulx unearthed a different and potentially perplexing reality. Ang Le had a crack at turning it into a movie (2005), but it’s an average movie at best. Proulx’s work is brilliance on the page.
At first it was the story that got me: love, landscape, isolation, melancholia, tragedy, loss – all the things that turn my crank. These days, however, I return for the prose. Try this on for size:
The first snow came early, on August 13th, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down, another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific, and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.
That ‘purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on’. That ‘metal smell’. That ‘demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light’. That ‘broken-cloud’, broken up just like that. And that ‘bestial drone’. That ‘damaged krummholz’, which to me is both foreign and strangely known. Ennis’s ‘headlong, irreversible fall’, exactly like one of those ‘stones rolling at their heels’. Proulx’s mountains are alive: they’re breathing, humming, rumbling, threatening; we’re there but oh how small we feel – we could be swallowed up at any moment. Despite the rugged beauty, despite the fact that we’re only on page 16 of a 56-page story, we know that the peace is uneasy at best. There’s threat in those clouds; that storm will bring us more than snow, much more. We might not survive. But we do survive, and our lives have changed.
What should a reader take away from historical fiction, from a novelist dwelling in the past and mining what has already happened to bring us a story?
Surely it should not be just that, a story, but a work of substance and weight and depth that says something exhilarating about how we got to where we are now and in what directions we might like to go next. With the benefit of hindsight and from having access to a great trove of material, a historical novelist has the chance to turn things over and reveal fresh threads and meanings. The novelist’s task in this regard is to tantalise, not to offer up another record.
Enter Texan Kathleen Kent, a New York Times best-selling writer of historical fiction who in her third novel since 2008, The Outcasts, focuses on a loose group of folk struggling to survive the 1870s, that precarious period immediately following the American Civil War. Here was a country – two countries? – torn apart at the seams, deeply divided over race and identity.
The Outcasts is a quest for revenge and redemption. But only of sorts. It is constructed around chapters that alternate between two characters, and within the opening scenes it becomes obvious we are on a collision course – it is just a matter of who is going to live to see another day.
There is Lucinda, an intelligent, somewhat devious but determined prostitute who is fond of getting dosed up to the eyeballs on laudanum because she suffers from fits and ‘the palsy’, though it might also relieve her from the spot of bother she is in – someone she may or may not be using, and who may or may not be using her. About Lucinda we are told that ‘even the dullards sized her up with telegraphic precision’. During a moment in a carriage, she watches a passenger move discourteously away’ and decides that ‘he must have been a Methodist as a Baptist would have spent the greatest part of the trip staring at her bosom’.
Then we have Nate, a newly sworn-in Texas state policeman originally from Oklahoma. Principled and thoughtful, he is also a fine horseman and is dedicated to his wife and child, to whom he writes whenever he has the chance. And we have McGill, a ‘goddamn kidkiller’. And finally we have some buried treasure, which might be the objective of the exercise.
Page after page we travel across the countryside. Horses are ridden, people are shot, and we are told about ‘gaters’ and hard-luck towns and harsh but beautiful landscapes…
Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 11 January 2014
It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’
There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request. Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency. But still the request put me in a spin.
All was not lost, however. I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War. I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title. I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.
A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea. My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete. Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting? So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’
I already had the questions – What is a man? Who is a good man? Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories. Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine. I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams. Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction. Whatever that is.
Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan. The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences. The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words. But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground. So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction. With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.
I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction. It’s such an innovative enterprise. Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).
Plus I need more chook food.
A quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did. McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond. His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers. And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago. This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice. It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.
If there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter. Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart. Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).
Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live. No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him. It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.
I’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size. It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender. Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality. Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws. As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.
Staying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones. Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013). What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.
Just going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013). Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict. In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’
I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.