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Devastating

Devastating

A good thing about being down and out with a bad case of winter ’flu, apart from the distinct possibility of a deep, sexy (maybe) radio-esque voice, is being able to read uninterrupted.

This week I finished Richard Flanagan’s epic The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, 2013), which was the winner of the 2014 Independent Booksellers Award and has been shortlisted for other highly regarded literary gongs. I’m not going to review the novel – I wouldn’t know where to begin – but I do want to say that it’s extraordinary. Unflinching, devastating, multi-faceted, and ultimately very moving indeed. It focuses on an Australian doctor who was a POW on the Thai-Burma ‘death railway’ during the Second World War, but it also explores many other points of view, including the lovers of the men as well as those who found themselves guards and committed almost unspeakable atrocities. It’s sprawling, filmic, at times meandering, but it’s impossible not to be affected. Amazing that on the day I finished reading the work, Prime Minister Shinzo, Japan’s current head honcho, gave a presentation to a rare joint sitting of the Australian parliament; the associated speech by Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, is a different story.

2014 Independant Booksellers Award
2014 Independant Booksellers Award

2014 Independant Booksellers Award
2014 Independant Booksellers
Chekhovian

Chekhovian

Another book that’s been a part of my sick-bed (sick-couch, really) reading is The Wild Goose, a novella by Mori Ogai and translated by Meredith McKinney, the daughter of revered Australian poet Judith Wright. Ogai is considered one of the most notable writers of the Meiji era (1868-1912), during which Japan experienced significant changes in social and economic structures and foreign relations. McKinney has translated a work written by a man who was born in 1862 ‘in a Japan that had been officially closed to the rest of the world for centuries,’ as stated in the introduction. But Ogai went on to spend time in Germany where he immersed himself in western literature and although he was always convinced that Japan had to embrace modernity he also came to understand how much would be lost in the process. The Wild Goose, which has been beautifully produced by Finlay Lloyd, it’s a truly gorgeous object, is a story of love, entrapment, and the power of commerce. It is remarkably unformulaic, and it’s intriguingly Chekhovian in both spirit and scope. I’ll review it for Verity La soon, but I can tell you that it’s a novella that has got beneath my skin.

In the meantime, I really should hack up my other lung.

David Malouf's 'Collected Stories': grandly handsome book, in every possible way.

David Malouf’s ‘Complete Stories’: grandly handsome, in every possible way.

Empty days

There are times – like these last two days – when I feel as though I’m the luckiest man alive, because I’ve been starting the mornings reading on the couch in my library room.  For some, luck might be scoring that high-paid job, or travelling overseas, or being able to fill the house with the boundless rush of children, but for me it’s reading, it’s stillness, it’s silence, a book in my lap, a real book, one that needs to be held, one that has pages that have to be turned.

I’m in a writing lull, which sounds bad, as in I’ve lost some kind of fire.  But the fire is there; it’s still burning, raging even, it’s just that a manuscript has been completed and sent to my publisher and I’m not yet ready to start a new project.  So I’m filling these deliciously long, slow empty days with reading.

Where reading happens

Reading happens all over the house: there’s lap-top and iPad reading at the breakfast-/lunch-/dinner-table; there’s living-room couch reading; there’s writing-room reading, the conscientious, studious sort; and there’s bed-time reading.  But the reading I enjoy the most is the sort that happens in the library room, which I also sometimes call ‘the front room’ or ‘the fireplace room’.  When it’s really good, both the reading and the room, it’s cold and wet and windy outside, and I light the fire, pour myself a coffee, and cover my body with my grandmother’s black and red and yellow mohair blanket and get lost in the words.

David Malouf and the smell of smoke

Yesterday and this morning the words have been written by David Malouf: The Complete Stories (Knopf 2007).  It’s a grandly handsome book, in every possible way, and, at over 500 pages, it’s big, it has such weight – you need two hands to read these stories.  Sometimes, when the story is a long one, almost novella length, and I’m far too engrossed to rise for a break, I prop up the top of the book on the repositioned piano stool, which is the perfect height for the task.

Ah, the words on the page, Malouf’s words: searching, circling, yearning, but they’re always so warm; they take you in and have you.  Crafted but not overly crafted; satisfying, so very satisfying – days after living for such a brief period with these stories, the people of the stories stay with the reader, demanding just a little more time, a little more understanding, because they’re complex, and their predicaments are complex too – but they don’t wallop you; they’re intelligent, but never clever; they’re absolutely finished but not always perfect.  All the while there’s the fire crackling and hissing and popping and creaking away, the heat coming before waning, a thin fog in the room, sometimes even a sting in the eyes, but always the smell of smoke on my hands from getting the fire going in the first place.

When it’s as good as this

Perhaps it’s the stillness I love the most, and the silence, the sort of silence that seems to embrace that which is made by the fire, even enhanced by the fire.  And enhanced by the words, David Malouf’s words.  What does it mean to read like this?  Yes, it’s transportation, and communication, entertainment even.  It’s a good, worthy, even noble pursuit.  And, with the fire, there’s a kind of romance to the whole practice.  But there’s much more to it.  There’s depth, great depth, and illumination, everything stripped bare, everything and nothing is sacred, you can’t hide, the words will come for you – yes, you – in the end.  Exposed, that’s it; we’re all made raw.  Despite the fire and the blanket and the coffee and the couch, it’s uncomfortable to read.  When the reading is as good as this.

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