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As has become a bit of a tradition around these UTC parts, the following is not a list of books that I consider ‘the best of the year’. Rather it’s a list of books I’ve read in the past twelve months that have had a personal impact in some way or another, either as a writer or reader, or just because they’re remarkable books no matter how you look at it. Also, not all were published in 2014, but in the world of literature that hardly matters, surely.

SixFirst up is Six by John Clanchy (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). As the title suggests, this is a collection of six short stories, although Clanchy specialises – indeed excels – at long stories, some of which are about 10,000 words in length. As is typical perhaps with Australian short fiction, family is the focus, but Clanchy always brings to his stories more than enough plot and action, albeit in the most under-stated way. The author is also committed to depth: of emotion, of relationship, and of meaning. Clanchy is equally adept at handling farce. It’s been a while since I read a short story that made me say to myself, That knocked me sideways – best take the dog for a walk now. That’s what happened when I read ‘The Day My Father Died’, the first story in the collection. (An interview I did with John Clanchy for the Canberra Times/Fairfax Media can be found here, and Peter Pierce’s review of Six is here.)

Drag down to unlockThey say short stories and poetry are close cousins, so let me now mention Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). For 20 years the Canberra-based Smith has been exploring her craft and being published in the smallest of presses. Then the highly regarded small press Pitt Street Poetry (talk about a micro publishing enterprise that’s punching well and truly above its weight) sent into the world Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Smith bags the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry. Divided into sections such as ‘Uploads’, ‘Downloads’, ‘News’, ‘Sport’, and ‘Weather’, what appeals the most is the combination of artfulness and accessibility. Some poems can be understood on first readings; others are more enigmatic. But all are magical and musical, and many are very affecting indeed. Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call should be in all Australians home. Maybe it should be handed out with tax returns.

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee (Text, 2013). As regular visitors to UTC will probably be aware, I’m a fan of JM Coetzee, the novelist from South Africa who has twice won the Man Booker Prize and now lives in South Australia. His Disgrace (1999), which scored the second of his Bookers, is a perfect though harrowing novel about a person, a people and a nation (or a range of nations) in absolute turmoil. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed his fictionalised autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and the more playful Summertime (2009). Playful is a good word for Coetzee, who despite being a serious literary practitioner seemingly likes to do nothing more than toy with readers and their expectations; rarely does he appear intent on just telling a story. This marks Coetzee as difficult, but his prose is simple, at least on the surface, and, in most cases, the complexity is in the layers. Having said that, The Childhood of Jesus is an an odd and slightly underwhelming novel. In some ways it seems to be responding to Australia’s morally dubious approach to asylum seekers, and in other ways just meanders along not entirely sure where it needs to go. If it is indeed an allegory it’s a vague one. Still, it had an impact on this particular reader, if only because Coetzee seems to not give a damn about trends and markets; as an author, he is progressing his craft on his own terms.

The Snow KimonoThe Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (Text, 2014). Like Coetzee, Henshaw appears to enjoy the art of the novel as much as the art of the story. Like Coetzee, Henshaw’s work is about the layers. Unlike Coetzee, Henshaw is not prolific. His first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published in 1988 and since then he has co-written two commercial thrillers with John Clanchy (as JM Calder) but no literary works. An intriguing overview of Mark Henshaw’s career can be found at the Sydney Review of Books. The Snow Kimono is a duel narrative, though in reality it has more strands than that. In its review, the Guardian Australia does a fine job of distilling the plot: ‘One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.’ The review goes on to define The Snow Kimono as a ‘philosophical puzzle’. It’s an apt description. I loved this novel.

The Pure Gold BabyThe Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble (Text, 2013). I was provided this novel to review so I read it in that context. The review didn’t eventuate (the world had moved on), but I found myself engrossed in this novel, which, similar to Coetzee’s work perhaps, meanders through its various sections though never fails to keep the reader engaged. Set in England in the 1960s, the narrative follows a young anthropology student who becomes a single mother after an affair with a colleague. This was my first Drabble and what struck me is the sense of a novel being ‘a directed dream’ (as others have said): the pleasure is in the looseness, the sense of allusion, an appealing lack of interest in traditional plot, and sentences that pulse almost painfully with life.

ChallengeChallenge (MUP, 2014) by Paul Daley. Daley is a high profile, Walkey-winning Australian journalist who currently writes for the Guardian Australia. Challenge is his first novel. And a challenge it is. It’s a brutal, at times confronting exploration of the current state of Australia’s political system. It is a fiction, but it doesn’t take much for the reader to link characters and events to their antecedents. In essence the plot follows, Daniel Slattery, the leader of a slightly progressive party in opposition. Daley himself describes Slattery as a cross between Mark Latham and Holden Coalfield, which is quite something, all things considered. Slattery’s political capital is diminishing and his personal life is falling apart; meanwhile the prime minister is milking a potential terrorist threat. There is a thriller element to Challenge, but the joy (if that’s the best way to put is) is the way Daley makes his readers realise how toxic Australian politics has become. If only 5% of this novel is true, we’re fucked.

Crow MellowOne of the year’s most left-field but highly readable novels is Crow Mellow by Julian Davies (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). This is a rewriting of Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Chrome Yellow (1930), a work that Davies admits in his foreword had a significant impact on him when he was a teenager. In Crow Mellow, a group of artists and intellectuals gather for a weekend at Crow, a bush retreat. Interesting that Davies, who is the key publisher behind Finlay Lloyd, lives in a bush retreat where artists and intellectuals gather, so it’s easy to see why the Huxley original had an influence on the young Davies. Again, it’s the playfulness of the whole exercise that’s so appealing, made even more evident by the drawings by Phil Day that adorn every one of the 400 or so pages. An original, eccentric, and highly enjoyable piece of work.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House, 2013). Enough has already been written about this novel that has won many of Australia’s and the world’s literary awards, including this year’s Man Booker. A Second World War novel, it focuses on the Australian servicemen pushed beyond themselves on Burma’s ‘death railway’. What works best in the novel is Flannagan’s lack of judgement and the commitment (to a certain extent at least) to showing both sides of the story – the Australians who were subjected to such harsh and degrading treatment but also glimpses into the lives of the Japanese guards. The novel also provides an exploration of how these men tried to get on with their lives once home. Readers will be aware that this novel isn’t universally loved, with some critics citing the overt jingoism as being a distracting element. Personally, there are many scenes in this novel that I continue to think about and no doubt I will revisit it years down the track. What I’ll think then is anyone’s guess.

Other works that have been a source of interest and/or inspiration this year include selected poem collections from Rosemary Dobson (1973) and David Campbell (1978), Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse (1906), The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani (1958) (both the Hesse and the Bassani are excellent examples of short novels), The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992; the perfect novel about war due to the poetry in the prose) and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), which stumped me on first read a few years ago but for some reason made complete sense in 2014.

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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.)

Ten books that have completely and utterly moved me to the core so that even now, when I look at the titles below, something reacts in my heart:

  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee
  • Holding The Man by Timothy Conigrove
  • The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
  • Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • The Riders by Tim Winton
  • Last Orders by Graham Swift
  • Eminence by Morris West
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigo
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Twenty-three things these books have in common (and I’ve been thinking about this for ages, years really, and for a long long time I had this list up on my wall and I’d add to it and take things off until now I think it might actually mean something):

  1. They’re all late twentieth-century literature
  2. They’re all set in relatively contemporary times (i.e. 1980s and beyond), except, perhaps, Brokeback Mountain, In Cold Blood, The Remains of the Day
  3. The main characters are all men, except those in The Blackwater Lightship
  4. They’re all written by men, except Brokeback Mountain
  5. They’re all about men, even The Blackwater Lightship in a roundabout way
  6. The writers are all Caucasian, except Kazuo Ishigo
  7. They’re all fiction, except In Cold Blood and Holding the Man
  8. They’re all set in the Western World
  9. They’re all dramas
  10. Only one of them is gay-lit per se: Holding the Man
  11. Most of the main characters have clear occupations: academic, schoolboy, cowboy, butler, priest
  12. They all understand their political context
  13. They all ask questions about nationhood, except The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
  14. The passage and complexity of time is very important to them
  15. Family – in the broadest sense – is at their heart
  16. They all have strong senses of place
  17. Apart from Brokeback Mountain, they’re all single point-of-view narratives – simple
  18. They’re also all relatively straight-forward in terms of structure, but they lead the reader into tough and dark terrain: murder, mental illness, racism, religion, homophobia, right-wing ideologies, death, grief, the weight of history…but there’s also a whole lot of love
  19. They’re all driven by clear ‘what ifs’ e.g. Eminence: what if the Pope-in-waiting was in fact an atheist
  20. The prose is accessible, sometimes understated, but always beautiful
  21. The writers appear to be burning to find something out through the writing of their works
  22. There’s an overt sense of warmth and humanity – this is their true power
  23. My life would be less without them

Following on from his other autobiographical explorations, Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee continues to bugger around with the whole prose caper, mixing up fiction and non-fiction in Summertime (Knopf).  There’s something about this writer that really gets me going (Disgrace is a favourite novel of mine, and it was great to see the Australian-produced film version living up to expectations).  Whilst Coetzee can undoubtedly be a self-absorbed misery guts – the narrator, a researcher writing about a ‘John Coetzee’ who is dead, describes his sexual modus operandi as having ‘autistic’ qualities – there’s a palpable sense of playfulness in this book.  I was only half a dozen pages into this when I decided that it would be placed on my shelf marked ‘If the house is burning down, risk life and limb to rescue these books’.

Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (Text) is a tale of a Moscow boy’s relationship with a pack of wild dogs.  Grim for sure, but what an extraordinary piece of  imaginative prose.  I can’t look at The Old Lady of the House without recalling Hornung’s story, and I can’t walk the peaceful, beautiful streets of Canberra without feeling thankful for being born an Australian and not a Muscovite.  The last few lines completely knocked my bloody socks off, but I won’t quote them here as it would suck the life out of this work, and piss you off, dear reader.  So go on, don’t be scared – give this book a whirl.  You might have nightmares for days afterwards, but the warmth and tenderness in the prose (it is there, it’s just not lashed on like honey spread across toast) will linger with you for a very long time.

Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith (4th Estate) has so much in it: an exploration of relationships, how they can shift deliciously though painfully between love and in love; and a thirst for knowledge and purpose, particularly in a global world that doesn’t really know where it’s going.  And that’s just for starters.  This is a slow-burner of a novel, but ever so subtly it gets under your skin and before long you find yourself caring about these people, which, of course, is the real test of a piece of fiction.  Ultimately, Reunion is a novel about friendship, and I’ll read great prose about friendship until the cows come home.

A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard (Allen and Unwin).  Reading young-adult fiction is a guilty pleasure of mine, usually because these books can be gobbled up in one sitting, and, perhaps more importantly, there’s often a lack of over-complication and pretension that can exist in adult fiction (I wanted to write ‘grown-up’ there…which, it seems, I’ve now done).  Like Reunion, Millard’s novel is a book about friendship, this time between a young boy and an old man within the context of an Australian city – Melbourne – that’s experiencing war (it’s a difficult conceit to pull off but Millard does it very well here).  These two unlikely people gather others to their lives, and soon find themselves forming the strangest though most intimate of families.  A surprisingly complex book filled with the deepest of love for its characters.

The Bee Hut by Dorothy Porter (Black Inc.)  This isn’t a novel, but as Dorothy Porter made the verse novel her own, and she completely and utterly rocked in every possible way, I’m including her final collection, The Bee Hut, in this list.  Everyone talks about Dorothy’s high-octane writing, the sensuality, the cheeky wit, and the jaw-dropping intelligence, and it’s all on show here.  From the first line, ‘The most powerful presence/is absence’ (‘Egypt’), to the last, from ‘View from 417’, the final poem she would write, ‘Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck’, I can only shake my head at the depth, the skill, and the sheer power of these poems.  If you buy one book of poetry this year… (Disclosure: I have other reasons for including The Bee Hut in this list, but I’m not discussing them here.)

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