Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut, when he is not travelling, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is 52, and an openly gay man – which begs the question, why mention it? I mention it in relation to his latest book, Arctic Summer, which is a fictionalised account of the middle years – the early 20th century – of E.M. Forster’s life, his early career, his success with Howard’s End, his long roaming interlude that finally brought him to A Passage to India, but most importantly, his grappling with his homosexuality.

“At the time I grew up in South Africa,” said Galgut in a recent interview, “it was illegal to be gay. The whole system of apartheid was extremely patriarchal; all its values were skewed in that direction. To be gay growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s – it would be hard to overstate what a terribly suffocating oppressive place it was. I learned, like quite a lot of gay men do, to hide and to assume fake personas. That sense of concealment has stayed with me, even now. I suppose I’ve internalised a lot of self-dislike – self-doubt, maybe, is a better way to put it.”

Edward Morgan Forster
Edward Morgan Forster

Forster also hid and assumed a fake persona, all the more tragic that the persona he chose to hide behind was an imitation of the same persona all the men around him hid behind as well: English, literary, controlled, stiff-upper-lip, and straight, if only in that English way of not seeming to be interested in marriage. He also suffered immense self-doubt especially about his novelistic portrayal of relationships between men and women of which he had no experience at all. Yet he craved intimacy, especially sexual intimacy but had no idea of the actions or words needed to satisfy such a craving. When ‘it’ finally happened he stumbled into it, and before he knew it, there it was and his seducer did all the work; and although it was fleeting he was amazed and pleased, but he was thirty seven years old.

Arctic Summer was the name of another Forster novel but one that he abandoned in early 1913 having succumbed to a weariness at only writing, or being allowed to write, about the love between men and women.

Galgut’s writing is masterful especially in creating and colouring indecision, sexual expectation, and longing. Forster, who everyone calls Morgan, visits a country friend of a friend whom he hasn’t met yet although he has read some of the man’s writings on “Homogenic Love” which excited him. This country friend, Edward Carpenter, lives with his younger ‘companion’, George, a working class man from the Sheffield slums, and the three men have lunch, after which Morgan helps George clear the table. The following is the description of putting down the plates in the kitchen. A simple domestic act, but oh, there is so much more.

‘Looking for a clear surface on which to set down the plates, he was aware of George’s closeness behind him and of the sound of his breathing.
“Is this right?” he said. “Here?”
“Let me see. Yes, that ‘s all right. Just put them down.”
He put them down and stood, not moving. He could hear the sound of breathing, close enough to be intrusive. Then he realised it was his own.
“Oh,” he said, surprised.
And then a little frightened.
Because George was touching him.
It was merely a hand, in the lower curve of his back. The contact was suggestive though the fingers didn’t move. Perhaps it was the talk they’d been having, or the thoughts he’d entertained, but there was something subversive about that hand. Something flowed out of it, transmitted through the palm: a presumption of equality, or worse – ownership. Yes, this must be how it felt, to be touched by a lover. He could feel the heat of it, the possessive certainty of its contact. Then the hand dropped down to his bottom, wavered there for a moment, and came to rest a little above his buttocks, at the base of the spine.
It was astonishing. Something had happened to him. He wasn’t quite in the kitchen any more, not quite in his own body. His mind had flashed away from itself, to some inner place where the events of the day were still being arranged. Now they were arranged differently.
“Yes,” George said again. “That’s all right, there.”
Carpenter’s voice called outside, and the hand fell away.’

Forster did write a gay novel, Maurice, a happy-ever-after romance between men from different social backgrounds but it was only published after his death and inspired, Galgut suggests, by the scene of domestic ordinariness of that luncheon with Edward Carpenter and his companion, George.

This is a story concerning real people, real events but it is also full of conjuring, and flights of imagination, like the above quote – and Galgut’s depiction of Forster’s first sexual encounter – which sets this work as fiction, not biography. The above event may not have happened but it’s possible, and believable, that something like it did.

Galgut describes several of Forster’s relationships. The first, sexually unrequited, with an educated Indian, Masood, and the second, more successfully, although far from passionate, with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. Galgut also gives Forster the opportunity to tell the former about the latter: a ‘romance’ he called it, and it is due to Galgut’s skill that when Foster finally says it: vocalises his love for another man I was overjoyed for him, not so much that, finally, he had known sexual love, meagre though it was, but that he was able to express it.

Arctic Summer is not unlike Colm Toibin’s The Master, about another writer, Henry James, who also grappled with his sexuality, but in the American it was buried so deep that not even Toibin’s masterly conjuring could’ve produced a scene like that above, and nor would it have been appropriate: for James, thoughts such as those reliably never existed, whereas for Forster they plagued his every waking hour and sometimes his sleeping ones as well.

This work is an example of historical biographical fiction and if you are concerned about what is true – and you shouldn’t be – all that can be said is that this is Galgut’s version of what ‘maybe’ true; and there are many others. What IS important is what the reader understands, enjoys, is enlivened and enlightened by.

Damon Galgut was unknown to me until the arrival of my ‘book fairy’, a European friend who comes twice a year to the tropical island where I live bearing news about books and his reading adventures but also books themselves. He had forgotten the name of this book and its author but knew the work was about E.M. Forster. Google did the rest. Fancy finding it here in a local bookstore! It has only been out a year.

Galgut’s first book, A Sinless Season, was published when he was 17, and following a serious cancer scare, a collection of short stories appeared, Small Circle of Beings, in 1988. He has been short-listed for the Man-Booker prize twice: for The Good Doctor in 2003 and In a Strange Room in 2010. He has also written plays and taught drama at his alma mater, The University of Cape Town.

“… we’re constructing the story of our lives all the time, and memory, in the end, is no different than the telling of another kind of story.” Damon Galgut.

I’m going to make a space for Damon Galgut on my bookshelf between Anna Funder and Helen Garner.

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hugo Hamilton

“When I was small I woke up in Germany… Then I got up and looked out the window and saw Ireland.” And Ireland was a place where people spoke English, a language his father ferociously banned in his house. Hamilton said later, “The prohibition against English made me see that language as a challenge. Even as a child I spoke to the walls in English and secretly rehearsed dialogue I heard outside.”

Primarily, Hugo Hamilton’s intriguing memoir, The Speckled People, is about this: a language war.

“We lived in an imaginary place that my [German] mother had created in her stories,” Hugo Hamilton told an audience in the South Lounge on the Lincoln Center campus in February 2011. “As a child, I knew exactly how to get from my mother’s house where she grew up to the bakery, though I’d never been to Kempen, where she came from. And then there was also this imaginary place that my father had, which was a vision of Ireland as an Irish-speaking country.”

“We are the new Irish. Partly from Ireland and partly from somewhere else, half Irish and half German. We’re the speckled people…homemade Irish bread with German raisins.”

The Speckled People is like no other book I’ve ever read. Firstly it is told, in the first person, not surprising as this is a memoir, but by the author of about 8 years old, and to a person of such a young age whose world is that created by his parents there are things he perceives and understands but there are things he perceives and does not understand. His thoughts are usually long, bumpy, and windy but sometimes short and pithy.

“My mother makes everything better with cakes and stories and hugs that crack your bones. When everybody is good, my father buys pencil cases with six coloured pencils inside, all sharpened to a point …My father also likes to slam the front door from time to time. He sends a message to the world depending who knocked. If it’s the old woman who says, ‘God bless you Mister’, and promises to pray for him and all his family, if it’s the man who sharpens the garden shears on a big wheel or if it’s someone collecting for the missions, then he gives them money and closes the door gently. If it’s people selling carpets he shakes his head and closes the door firmly. If it’s the two men in suits with Bibles then he slams it shut to make sure that not even one of their words enters into the hall. And if it’s one of the people selling poppies, then he slams it shut so fast the whole street shakes.”

And like a child’s idea of what and when things happened different tenses are mixed, matched, and juxtaposed carefully constructed to give the impression of a child’s mind making sense of the world, juggling memory and present action to create an unusual but gratifying picture of a childhood marred by confusion, paternal foolery but maternal strength and self-acceptance.

Secondly, there is very little dialogue; the text is dense but accessible, and the narrative is reduced to chapters like vignettes; riffs on a common theme: a young boy’s memory of how and why he is what he is.

This may give the impression of monotone, both linguistically and metaphorically, but the patches of storytelling are fascinating as children seem to see things, and collate things, that adults either miss, discount, or deny; but given this format, like snap-shots, there is still an over-riding arc of passing-time which sees his father lose the language-wars and die before seeing his Ireland completely Anglicised and lost to his romantic and nationalistic idea of it; and yet his mother, as with everything, anchors the final image of widow and children lost on a family outing, watching the day disappear, vainly searching “to find things”, memories of her past in a new land…

“My mother took out a cigarette because she was free to smoke after my father died. We stood on the road and watched her face lighting up with a match. We smelled the new smoke in the clean air and waited. She said she didn‘t know where to go from here. We were lost, but she laughed and it didn’t matter.”

Hugo Hamilton, born in 1953, lives in Dublin and is well regarded in Germany where his contemporaries tell him he speaks German, softly, like it used to be spoken. So successful was The Speckled People that he continued the memoir in The Sailor in the Wardrobe which was published in 2006, as well as turning the former volume into a stage play that premiered at The Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 2011.

In 2008 Hugo Hamilton took fellow writer and friend, Nuala O’Faolain – also represented on my 2015 ‘to read’ list – to Berlin for a few days. O’Faolain was sixty eight, wheel-chair bound, doped up on Xanax, and in the last stages of metastatic cancer for which she refused treatment. She died 10 days after the journey. Hamilton fictionalised the experience in his 2014 novel, Every Single Minute, another must-read.

The Specked People is certainly not the Irish memoir of poverty and victimhood so universally popularised by Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and its ilk. This is unusual, bold and stimulating, profound and entertaining. Everything a memoir should be but satisfying in ways I didn’t expect.

After Dark by Haruki Murikami

The Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami.
The Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami begins After Dark in much the same way that Charles Dickens hints at in the opening of Bleak House; that George Miller uses in the opening sequence of the film version of The Witches of Eastwick based on John Updike’s novel; and like Stephen King (with Peter Straub) opens Black House: a vast view over the land, the city, and then gradually focusing closer and closer until alighting on just one story in a land, city, of countless other stories; but as with King and Straub, but not as menacingly, Murakami personifies the god-like, eagle-eyed narrator who can fly through the air, see through roofs, and into people’s hearts. Here Murakami takes you, the reader along for the ride.

You know this in the opening two sentences.

“Eyes mark the shape of the city.
Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from mid-air.”

That all inclusive, “we” puts the reader in tandem with the narrator, described as nothing but a ‘point of view’.

However Murakami’s third person narrator has limited powers: there is limited knowledge of what is in people’s minds and these rare internal monologues are italicized, as if unusual. What is mainly recorded is what people do and say. This allows for surprises, and you, like a first person narrator, are as surprised as the next character.

It’s Tokyo after dark, beginning at 11.56 to be exact: each chapter is a time, 12.25, 2.43, 4.33 … 6.52 that marks its passing. The cast of characters is small. Takahashi, a lanky law student who plays the trombone and jams with his friends all night; the plain sister of Eri the sleeping beauty, Mari Asai who reads novels in family restaurants all night; Kaoru, the hefty manager of a love hotel, Alphaville; her two homeless assistants, Komugi and Korogi; a nameless Chinese prostitute who is beaten, robbed, and left naked in a love room; her pimp; and her abuser, the mysterious, immaculately dressed businessman, Shirakawa who seems to never sleep much to his wife’s annoyance. There are reasons why these people inhabit the small hours of Tokyo, some we discover, some we do not; but it is the story of the beautiful sleeping sister, Eri Asai, that is the most mysterious and fulfilled my expectations of Murakami. She is sometimes profoundly asleep in her bed in her room, sometimes alarmingly awake in a television set looking out trying to attract someone’s attention. There is a mildly satisfying ending but it is the relationship between Takahashi, the trombone player, and Mari Asai, the plain sister that is the most touching. Their developing attachment is handled deftly mainly through realistic dialogue – oh how effective dialogue can be to advance action and build relationships.

There is indeed mystery, a romance of sorts, and suspense but one thing marred my enjoyment of this work: the translation… I think. All the characters talk like the disaffected youth from New Jersey as they hang out over a McDonalds counter.

“I’m not gonna let the bastard get away with beating up an innocent girl. And it pisses me off that he skipped out on his hotel bill. Plus, look at this pasty-faced salaryman son-of-a-bitch: I can’t stand him.”

Do stray Japanese youth talk in Japanese like stray American youth talk in English? Possibly. Does Murakami use an Americanised Japanese to write his fictions? Possibly. Is the translator being true to Murakami or true to the target audience? I’m not sure. Do we assume that an American translator should translate Japanese into American English? Probably. Should my dissatisfaction be aimed at Murakami or the translator, Jay Rubin? I don’t know.

I have always believed that everything we read in a published book, and everything we see in a released movie is intentional: a decision has been made by someone about every detail. What we read and discern we are meant to read and discern, so I had to try to get over my dissatisfaction with the translation. Besides Jay Rubin is one of the main translators of Murikami’s work, and famous for it.

One of the joys of reading a book born from a different culture is that difference. I’ve delved into Irish, Dutch, South American, and Scandinavian literature over the past decade or so and yes, I could discern, and argue, that an Irish-ness, Dutch-ness, etc is present in each of those works. However, I felt that there is nothing Japanese about After Dark except the names of people and places. It didn’t feel Japanese. Mind you, I haven’t read much Japanese literature, in English of course; I haven’t been to Japan; I have only taught English to a handful of Japanese adults.

Murikami’s voice, in his English translations, is obviously something that I will have to come to terms with if and when I again pick up another book my Haruki Murakami.

Getting Started, Again

Somewhere in the dim, dark, past of the very late twentieth century, two books, I read and loved, had an influence on the development of one of my own: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Mario Vargos Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The former for a great page one. Browsing bookshops has always been one of my favourite pastimes; and that means reading a lot of page ones. A good opening page, a good opening paragraph, can grab you; it can be the best marketing tool ever, and Irving’s is one of the best openings, rivalling, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love as THE best. At about this time I was dabbling with writing an autobiographical fiction and I got it in my head that the opening paragraph had to be a doosy. I had a name for my fictional me: my father, who died, when I was five wanted to call me Johann Wilhelm, he lost out. This would become the name of my hero. I first began an investigation, that continues today, into truth v’s fiction when I heard that the Australian commentator and writer, Clive James, had written something autobiographical. His Unreliable Memoirs were published in 1980. I found the title confusing, a contradiction, but as my reading education continued and as I discovered that my recollections of my own past differed from those who were also there, I developed a concept of fictional truth: every time we speak about the past something in the telling changes depending on who is listening AND the more we tell it the firmer those changes become part of our believed past. We are creatures whose desires, dreams, and fantasies can take root, grow, and evolve under favourable conditions, like mould, into memories. (Oo! That’s good. I might use that). Now I am of the view that anything that is written cannot be true: what is true is that we are looking at little black markings on a white page, or screen, and those markings, although we all share a common pool of meaning regarding those markings, the different arrangement of those markings can signify different meanings for different people.

LLosa’s great book I cherish, among many things, for its great title. The title of a book, the title for any piece of literature, needs to be specific, not general. Had Tolstoy consulted me about titles I would’ve said “Yes” to Anna Karenina, but “No” to War and Peace. I also would’ve poo-poohed Lawrence for Sons and Lovers. Oh well, I still like a specific title, like, The Prince of Norwood, and The Lavender-Hill Mob. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is very specific (it’s about an aunt called Julia and a man who writes TV scripts – how specific can you get?) but also intriguing: ‘Aunt Julia’ is familial, ‘Scriptwriter’ is vocational. There’s a mismatch that leads you to mentally ask a lot of questions: it sparks curiosity. I like that in a title. I worked for months on my biographical piece on my very first lap-top; but then in the late 1990s – it must have been after 1997 because I was living in Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney – my computer blew-up. Clouds of smoke, SMOKE! began billowing from the thing and my computer repair man, in a back lane off Bourke Street, just, school-m’amishly, shook his little head, at me. He was no use at all. Fifty thousand words gone! I had backed everything up but not on a different device. Well, actually, not completely gone. I had worked on the opening so much I had memorised the opening sentence. It was all I had. I remember it now. Here it is.

“If at any time you had grabbed him by the shoulders, made him sit, looked him in the eye, and asked the right questions, even he would have to admit that it was not possible for him to have killed his step-father three times.”

This was, is, my killer opening and so, finally, last week, after nearly two decades, (and with my sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, Veronica Spreads It Around, at the proof-reader’s) I started anew and so Johnny William and the Cameraman rides again.

The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant

Featured image

I must have read the name Linda Grant at some time in 2002 but definitely in 2008 since I always read the Man-Booker Prize short list when it comes out and Grant was long-listed in 2002 for her third novel Still Here, and short listed for her fourth novel The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008, but the name only impinged on my brain last month when her first, The Cast Iron Shore was gifted to me.

It’s the first read of my ‘to read’ pile for 2015 (see previous blog).

It’s the story of Sybil Ross, the only daughter of a Jewish furrier from Liverpool and his German wife, who was born and raised before and during the Second World War. Her mother is crazy about fashion, taste and style; her father equally so but in particular about furs: a woman isn’t a woman without a fur. The young Sybil is raised to be a fashion plate with little time or space for her brain.

Her life is dominated, and determined by men; first her father, or more aptly, her mother’s attitude to her father; then a bi-sexual sailor and baker, “a tearaway”, an opportunist, Stan, with skin the colour of milk coffee; and Julius, a reformed African-American hood who becomes immersed in the work, ideology, and expectations of the Communist Party. She has always liked men of a darker hue.

She first met Stan in Liverpool’s Sefton Park, late summer 1938, “I wore a shantung jacket over a mauve box-pleated skirt” with hair styled like Veronica Lake making her, “as usual” older than her childish years. Stan had a camera pointed at her. She always likes to be admired. Even in her sixties, when she crosses her still-shapely legs, in company and notices men looking, she stays exactly where she is and lets them. She goes where Stan goes; she has sex with him because he asks. She goes with him to America.

Julius is cut from a very different cloth and because he’s a communist, she becomes a communist and her middle years are defined by gestetner machines, rallies, leaflet-runs, and drop-in centres and when asked to speak about her working experiences as a shop-assistant in a fashion house she has no idea how to do it; no understanding of what she does, intellectually, when she sells something. She’s a worker without a voice and ripe for the CP who want to do nothing except give workers one.

“I myself have done as much as I can, all my life, to skate along on the surface of things.”

When Stan walks back into her life she goes off with him, because he asks, to Canada where Sybil has an affair with Stan’s best friend.

Her later years take her to the world “buying things cheap, selling dear” – antiques, jewellery, houses. She does alright for herself: a capitalist at heart.

“I know exactly what I am. A vain and shallow woman, though as far as I am concerned, it could have been so much worse.” A sensualist, in her dotage she gives a homeless boy, crouched in a doorway, a ten pound note because he is so handsome.

A distant relation asks her to take in a second cousin because she has the room. The idea of a man again living in her house, at 62, fills her with delight and so she fills her flat with freesias and does her yoga exercises in the nude. Twice.

In the final scene, Stan and Sybil, meet back in Liverpool, both in their 70s, she wearing furs again and both confessing to using the other: while Sybil was having an affair with Stan’s best friend, Stan was having an affair with the best friend’s wife. They were cut from the same cloth.

It’s a grand story of a woman’s life in the second half of the twentieth century, but like most people history, politics, and missed opportunities, travel in the background as people deal with their own kitchen events, justify their mistakes, and hope something better is just around the corner.

If our final years amount to a collection of outcomes prescribed by our choices made when we were younger then who we are in those final years is who we really are. For Sybil furs, a perm, matching accessories, and money in the bank is who she really is despite what she tried to make of herself because some man suggested it.

Grant writes in the first person, the most reader-friendly voice writing gurus will tell you, but in this work there is a disconnection. Sybil, the character, is forever described, even by herself, as “dumb”, “shallow”, and “vain” but the narrator is none of these things. However, by using the first person, the narrator IS the character: it is the character telling her story. How can the narrator be intelligent, insightful, and understanding when the character is not? This is a drawback to the reading of this book. There’s a feeling of unease that the writer is creating an unauthentic character and not the character telling her story.

However, finally, Sybil makes an appeal to the reader, “I am an atheist. I cannot appeal to God, only my fellow man. I set out my life before you, for judgement. Three injunctions. Self-awareness, social justice, the longing of every Jew in exile to find a home. Have I succeeded in any of it? You know my story now. You decide.”

My ‘To Read’ pile to begin 2015

My 'to read' pile. The other book is Colm Toibin's essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.
My ‘to read’ pile. The other book is Colm Toibin’s essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015: another year of reading and writing; but first the reading. As you can see from the picture my reading for 2015 begins with rather an eclectic batch. This was not planned, well, not all of it was planned. Here’s a little run-down on the list – to be read in no particular order – gleaned from the covers, a little Google search and information I’ve acquired through osmosis.

The Dinner by Herman Koch


I have a dear friend, an Irishman living in Brussels, who visits the island where I live twice a year and being a book-worm himself he brings me novels I wouldn’t otherwise have heard about. My to-read list contains several of his gifts, and The Dinner is one of them. I like to think of him as my Book Fairy. Herman Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and his sixth novel, The Dinner (2009), is his most successful, having been translated into 21 languages; it came out in English in 2012. Two couples meet at a stylish restaurant in Amsterdam for dinner. Each has a teenage son who, together, have committed a horrific act, caught on camera and beamed into living rooms all over the country. The New York Times reviewer called it “a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails.” Australia’s Christos Tsiolkas, who, by the way, is doing very well in Europe since the great success of The Slap, is quoted on the jacket, “A riveting, compelling and deliciously uncomfortable read… This novel is both a punch in the guts and also a tonic. It clears the air. A wonderful book.” Can’t wait!

Home by Frank Ronan

Frank Ronan

Another from the Book Fairy, but this time from an Irish author, Frank Ronan who also writes a monthly column for the magazine Gardens Illustrated; Home is his 7th book and came out in 2002. “Born into a cabbage-growing, peace-loving 1960s commune, Coorg is declared, courtesy of a favourable reading of the I Ching, to be the new Messiah… startling and often hilarious,” says the blurb on the back courtesy of the Irish Times.

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower

Elizabeth Harrower

I was shocked when a recent New Yorker edition arrived, and as usual, I checked out the “Books” section first, and I saw my favourite literary critic, James Woods, devoting a whole article to the re-release of the five novels of an Australian writer called Elizabeth Harrower, who, according to Woods, was alive and well and living in Sydney. She’s 84. I had never heard of her! The very next day I found The Long Prospect in my local second-hand book shop and in the new re-released edition by Text Publishing. Apparently she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago and now can’t be bothered with writing. She wrote 5 novels between 1957 and 1971 but withdrew the last, In Certain Circles, some months before publication, lodged the manuscript with the National Library of Australia and washed her hands of the whole writing thing; until, Michael Heyward, of Text, came along and persuaded her to let him re-publish the lot in 2012. All five are about female characters trapped in tempestuous relationships with a charismatic bully; all male except for this one where the bully is female, the hateful Lillian Hulm.

The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant

Linda Grant

Linda Grant is a British novelist and journalist and her first novel. The Cast Iron Shore (another from the Book Fairy) was her first, published in 1995. She has won numerous prizes (The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 for When I lived in Modern Times) and was on the long-list for the Man-Booker Prize in 2002 for her third novel Still Here and short listed for the same prize for her fourth The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008. Again, I’m ashamed to say, her name was new to me when the book landed in my hands only recently. It looks historical with a female protagonist who is raised ‘as an empty-headed fashion plate’ but a secret revealed during the Liverpool blitz of the Second World War changes her life and leads her to ‘a seedy hotel room in Hanoi’ and ‘a potato-chip factory in the prairies’, among many other locations, and ultimately to ‘a final choice’.

After Dark by Haruki Murikami

Haruki Murakami

I’ve always been a little afraid of Murikami. I don’t read fantasy or science fiction – I’m a literary realist, I think – but I’ve always been drawn to him, curious, as well – he’s on everyone’s lips – but his books are so big. This one isn’t: I’m putting my toe in the water. It’s his 11th and came out in 2004. “A sleek, gripping novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the spooky hours between midnight and dawn.

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Nuala O'Faolain
I’ve just read Nuala O’Faolain’s (Noo la O fway lorn) famous memoir Are You Somebody? and fell in love with her way with words. This is a novel which came out in 2001 after her memoir and is about an Irish travel writer who leaves all that she has behind and returns to Ireland to write a book based on an old scandal of the mid-nineteenth century: an affair between the wife of an English landlord and her Irish servant, but what she really wants to understand is passion itself. I’m curious to read her fiction having only experienced her memoir.

The Moon of Jupiter by Alice Munro

Alice Munro
Although I write short stories occasionally I don’t read them very often but when Alice Munro, a Canadian, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 I thought it’s time: she is a prolific short story writer, mainly because, as she explains in her introduction to the Vintage edition of her Selected Stories, “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children … it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time … so I got into the habit of writing short stories.” I’ve read several since BF brought me this collection of her work, and she is not so much interested in the interior life of her female characters but more in the heady and extravagant thoughts around that interior life. One of her characters, Lydia, in a story called Dulse is forever judging, pitting, herself against pleasing the men in her life. Every man she meets she thinks in terms of what would it be like to be with that man; and then she meets a man who is nothing like any other, who is so self-contained ‘alone’ is all he can be. She envies him. “What a lovely durable shelter he has made for himself.” And yet another man, one she has fantasised about, gives her a parting gift “Yet look how this present slyly warmed her, from a distance.” The gift? Eatable seaweed: dulse.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles

When my partner and I left Australia in 2010 we shipped 25 boxes of books, this one included, and not much else, but lost the lot so it’s good to get another copy to take its place. Thank you BF. I came to Paul Bowles via his extraordinary wife, Jane Bowles, whom Tennessee Williams called the ‘greatest writer of the English language’. Paul started out as a serious composer – studying with Aaron Copland – in New York in the 1940s (I’m playing his music as I write this) and this, his first novel, and most successful, came out in 1949. He died in Tangiers in 1999 aged 88. A story about three American travellers in the deserts and cities of North Africa after World War II, but it is really about how the American incomprehension of alien cultures ultimately destroys such cultures. It was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, and in which Bowles appears. Looking forward to revisiting this one.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggars

Dave Eggers

Every since Dave Eggars, an American writer, began his career with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, I believed the title. He’s a writer, publisher, screenwriter, editor, designer, philanthropist, journalist … Smarty Pants! He looms large. His books are so dense, heavy – in weight I mean, important, significant, worthy. Anyway, this one is non-fiction about a Syrian-American, a Muslim, who rides out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The theme is similar, I’m led to believe as Bowles’, The Sheltering Sky: the inability of white Americans to mentally process ‘the other’.

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hugo Hamilton
Hugo Hamilton is another Irish writer and this is a memoir that came out in 2003 but apparently free of the Catholic victim-hood, poverty and misery of the Irish memoir popularised by the likes of Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, and as Hermione Lee says in The Guardian, “it’s shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.” “To read The Speckled People is to remember why great writing matters,” adds Joseph O’Connor in the Daily Mail.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always wanted to read this book but have never got around to it. I would always pick it up in book shops, hold it, flick through it. An American, she began publishing in 1988 and this one came out in 1998, her eighth work and, I think, her most famous. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen it in the local bookshop. “Get it,” she said. “It’s great.” So I did. That’s all it took. I was primed. Another book about a white American NOT dealing with ‘the foreign’ but as told through the eyes of the women in the family of a stubborn missionary in West Africa in the 1950s.

Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

British novelist, Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

Many decades ago a dear friend of mine gave me a little pile of novellas for my birthday. They were all by Ian McEwan. I had never heard of him but I devoured those little books hungrily. I liked the darkness, the little knot of evil in those novels. It’s become a trade mark of his and to this day I still think the first chapter of Enduring Love is the most thrilling opening to any novel I have ever read. I’ve read them all; well that’s not entirely true: I couldn’t read On Chesil Beach. I started it and almost got to the end of the first scene; in the hotel room, the honeymoon suite, with the two innocent newly-weds and the snickering staff bringing in their meal on a tray. I had such an overwhelming sense of foreboding and embarrassment for these two child-like people that I had to shut the book. I’ve never opened it again. That little dark nut at the heart of most of his work has faded over the years but he still has a talent for the unexpected except his use of the unexpected can sometimes be very subtle. I know a few readers who didn’t ‘get’ the twist that was behind the climax of his 1998 Booker Prize winning novel, Amsterdam.

After Atonement (2001) – his masterpiece, Saturday (2005) is the most representative of his latter work, and his latest, The Children Act, begins with a similar scene: a person alone at home contemplating their future, although Fiona in chapter one of The Children Act has just had the bombshell that will change her life, while Henry, in Saturday, has yet to meet it.

The Children Act

At the centre of The Children Act is a high court judge, her husband, and a case she has to decide: a case of life or death. A young underage man, three months before his 18th birthday, desperately needs a blood transfusion to save his life. He and his parents are Jehovah Witnesses, devout, and are refusing treatment. The hospital has taken the court action to allow them to treat the boy. The legislation, the Children Act of the title, is clear. The young man, Adam, is intelligent, articulate, and more than capable of understanding his situation. However just before this case is thrust upon her the judge, Fiona, nearing 60 and childless, is confronted by her husband who wants her permission for him to have an affair; he says he still loves her but his libido and masculinity want one last chance before they and he slide into an inevitable but comfortable twilight.

McEwan takes us through every detail of the hurried case, time is short, and Fiona decides to see the boy. The meeting is deftly handled, moving, real, and McEwan manages to keep the emotion from spilling into sentimentality, although a duet sung at a deathbed’s side is strewn with potential pitfalls. We are, however, along with all the parties in the case, made to wait for her decision from her high bench. There is a feeling of expectation and intrigue: what will she decide? It’s page-turning; but her decision is not the end of the story. Her decision has consequences that no-one could predict, and I won’t spoil it for you by revealing them.

Like all her decisions, separating conjoined twins, deciding which spouse gets the kids and/or the money, she listens to the arguments, does her research, decides, closes the book, and moves on immediately to the next case and another decision about the future of people’s lives. However the image of the dying Adam stays with her in both personal, and professional terms.

She is highly regarded by her peers but the means by which she makes decisions about other people are very different to the decisions she must make in her own life. How should she respond to her husband’s request? Is it reasonable? He’s being very open and honest with her. Professional decision-making has policies and precedents, but with personal decision-making you’re on your own. On impulse she demands he leave the apartment and she immediately changes the locks, which her legal mind tells her is NOT the thing to do.

These two strands of the personal and the professional are skilfully woven together around a third: music. Fiona is a very competent amateur pianist and every year she takes part is a concert among her legal fraternity and it’s as she is walking onto the stage, in the penultimate scene, her mind full of Mahler and Schubert, that news is unkindly whispered to her; news that in another circumstance may very well stop her in her tracks; but like every aspect of her life she has other responsibilities, and now, those responsibilities are to her fellow performers, her audience, herself, and especially to the composers she is interpreting. She gives an astounding performance but can’t bring herself to acknowledge the rousing applause: one set of responsibilities are fulfilled and extolled but another responsibility, one she thought she had executed, well and for the benefit of all, had just unravelled. It’s so like McEwan to defer a climactic revelation while the protagonist is intent on doing what is expected, and so like the character not to let a past failing interfere with her immediate duty.

The end is a soft, satisfying coda as she begins to tell the man lying next to her of her shame.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas and a safe 2015.
Merry Christmas and a safe 2015.

To you who love reading and writing I hope you have a happy Christmas with your family and friends and a safe and exciting 2015.
Up-coming blogs in 2015; posts on Alice Munro, Ian McEwan, Elizabeth Harrower, Christos Tsiolkas, and Veronica Streads It Around, the sequel to my dedut novel, Veronica Comes Undone. I hope to have it published on by the end of February 2015. Cheers!

Introduction and Allegro


In the early stages of my mother’s relationship with my step-father, when she could get what she wanted – don’t think she was asking for diamonds, she wanted a good sized bathroom, a good sized laundry and a flushing toilet and those she got – she also got me a piano.

Unfortunately the means to teach me to play it were limited. There were two possibilities: I could go to the nuns or I could go to the Shefte College of Music; but being a good Lutheran family, going to the nuns was completely out of the question and therefore not a possibility at all, so the Shefte College of Music it had to be.

This turned out to be the wrong choice since the teachers at the Shefte College of Music were sloppy and extremely unmusical. They travelled up from the city to my small country town every Monday so I stayed with Auntie Ivy in town on Monday nights since the music lessons were after school and I would miss the school bus back to the farm. I liked staying with Aunty Ivy on Monday nights because my Latin teacher, Miss Linke, boarded with my Aunty Ivy and it was Miss Linke on whom I had an enormous crush.

But back to the music. The music teachers from the Shefte College of Music taught piano and piano-accordion. I actually wanted to learn to play the harp as another crush of mine at the time was on Harpo Marx. No-body had a harp but I had a piano so the piano it had to be.

We already had a piano-accordion player in the family. One of my step brothers learnt to play the piano-accordion from a local girl. He was so good at it that he married her. They used to play piano accordion duets in his room where my mother insisted they play with the door open. It was understood but never said that they might do things to each other that my mother disapproved of. This puzzled me because if the door was closed I couldn’t understand what they could possibly do to each other while both had piano-accordions strapped to their chests and all four hands energetically engaged in pushing and pulling, keying and buttoning piano-accordion arrangements of songs from South Pacific. If you haven’t heard a piano-accordion duet of “I’m Gunna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” then your musical upbringing is sadly lacking.

The teaching method of the Shefte College of Music was based on the belief that all young people were interested in pop songs. Therefore they taught their students to read music only in the treble clef. They completely ignored the bass clef but trained our left hand to vamp the guitar chords which were always printed in a little box above the treble bars. This worked well for songs like “Beautiful Beautiful Brown Eyes,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “The Impossible Dream.”  My earliest public performance was in the Glenelg Town Hall, in the big city, at the end-of-year concert where I was part of an ensemble of 10 pianos and 15 piano-accordions all bashing out “Lady of Spain” almost at the same time. The noise was … remarkable. It was my first taste of public acclaim. The audience applauded very loudly when it was finished.

When I asked could I learn the piano piece that accompanied a popular TV commercial about fabric conditioner they were a little surprised but they found the music which didn’t have guitar chords on it and that’s how I learnt to play a piece called “Fur Elise.” I only learnt the first page; it was a very short commercial.

My mother made me practice every day which I did after I came home from school. It was at this time of the day when everyone in the house was out of the house doing the evening chores. They all assured me that they could still hear me practicing and I was doing very well. I was particularly good, I thought, at “Sadie, The Cleaning Lady.”

During one Christmas holidays in another little country town I was baby-sitting my sister’s children. After the kids went to bed I decided to listen to some of my sister’s LPs. We didn’t have any music player on the farm. Music was more closely related to church, the organ, and Sundays. There was a pile of records in my sister’s very modern and very long HiFi unit, made of polished wood and glass with speakers at either end. It was a stereo system and you could stack on the central spike several records at a time and each one, and only one, would drop down after the previous record was finished. It was very mechanical and very modern and had a built in cocktail cabinet. Their record collection consisted of the James Last Band and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. That was it. But on this particular night I went right to the bottom of the pile and came across an LP that I had never seen before. It was red and written across the top were the words “The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The name of the motion picture was incorporated into the design; red on red, so it took me a few moments to find it. It was called “West Side Story.” I had no idea what it was so I played it. I watched as the black disc dropped down and the arm came across and lowered itself on the first track; and I listened. I was mesmerised. I had never heard anything like this before. It was so surprising. You could tell that there were a lot of musicians playing a lot of different instruments all at the same time. It sounded like there were hundreds of them; and no-one was vamping. There wasn’t even a piano. For the next hour or so, while I sipped Creme de Menthe from a very little glass I played the first song – it was called “Overture” – over and over again. It was the most exciting music I had ever heard.

Those same Christmas holidays were my last on the farm. In February I went to the big city, to boarding school, to do my matriculation year before going to university. I left home. On the first weekend I took my horde of pocket money, I’d been saving for months, and I went into the city on the bus, by myself, and found a music shop. I wanted to buy some orchestral music but I had no idea what to buy. I found a little music shop in a little lane-way that sold not only LPs but cassettes and cassette players. I bought a cassette player about the size of a small type-writer. Then I searched for music cassettes of orchestral music. I spent hours in that shop. I only had enough money for two cassettes. After much deliberation, based on nothing but the picture on the front, I bought a cassette with music by someone called Saint See-ens; a piano concerto it was called, Number 2. I searched for number 1 but couldn’t find it. It was clear to me that although the composer was a saint I was sure it wasn’t religious music. I knew I didn’t want religious music. I also bought a cassette of music by someone called De-vor-rak. It was called “From the New World” and I bought it because of the word “New”. I liked the fact that it was new.

My musical education, taste, and the pronunciation of European composers have all improved, wandered, and grown over the decades since. I played Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No 2 only yesterday which sparked my wish to write the above. It’s still one of my favourite concertos. However I cannot listen now to Dvořák’s From the New World, his Symphony No 9. I’m not sure why. It makes me cringe.

Little pieces like this have occurred to me lately, I suppose, because I have just finished reading a memoir. However the above was a little experiment on how to convey my naivety and wide-eyed wonderment at discovering orchestral music. Short and simple sentences, something that an eight year old might write, was my way of trying to achieve this; but it was also an experiment in meaning. I hope it was clear that when I wrote, “I was particularly good at “Sadie, The Cleaning Lady”” you understood that I meant the exact opposite and that despite my description of 10 pianos and 15 piano-accordions playing “Lady of Spain” you understood that it was probably the most hideous noise a pair of ears could endure. But, successful or not, I’m sure you’ll tell me.

I was reading a memoir, and suddenly …

I don’t often read memoir, or biography, or autobiography. I have read those of, or about, Tennessee Williams, W Somerset Maugham, Jane Bowles, Maurice Ravel; heroes of mine at the time; but yesterday I was reading Nuala O’Faolain’s remarkable memoir Are You Somebody? and suddenly this popped into my head …

I put down the book and sat down at my desk.

For Mrs Paterson

My earliest proud attempt at writing, at completing something, has stuck in my mind. I have thought about it often.

We were asked to write an essay on any subject but I chose to write a short story: completely made up. It was 1969, that year at Immanuel College, my last hurdle before University, boarding school, the best year of my education, when the Americans stepped on the moon; the first thing I wrote for the wonderful and sensual Mrs Paterson.

It went something like this, not the story itself, but my recollection of it.

In an unnamed little country town, every Sunday morning, an old widower, leaves his low-verandered cottage, a cottage with a frown, and takes a little bunch of flowers, whatever he can find in his garden, to his wife’s grave at the far end of the town; at the other end of the single street. Along the way he passes his neighbours and fellow towns-people pottering in their gardens or sitting on their porches, people he hardly ever speaks to except on Sunday mornings. He chats absent-mindedly to old Mrs So-and-so; to Mr and Mrs This-an-that. These people speak fondly of his dead wife, which is something he expects them to do; they knew her and they know where he is going and so they talk about her. They mention the time when she…; or the day they saw her ….; or even the time she told them about …; that sort of thing. They never mention much about him because he was always there and would, of course, know exactly what they are talking about. Like most people they speak in unfinished sentences where new thoughts interrupt the flow, or old thoughts occur to them again. He nods his head in recognition and chuckles when they chuckle, shakes his head at the likeness of her, at an anecdote he doesn’t remember but makes out that he does. And he shuffles on past the next house, the next garden, admiring the zinnias (he hates zinnias), getting a response or sometimes not. These little stories remarked on by the people he meets are sometimes the same as the Sunday before, and sometimes they are not; but on this particular Sunday, on this particular walk with this particular combination of familiar stories and unfamiliar stories, some he believes and some he thinks are pure humbug; on this particular Sunday morning with the clouds and the wind making these particular shapes against the blue, he gets to the little rusty gate of the little church cemetery and it dawns on him. They all hate him. They all hate him, and they loved his wife. She was the good one, he is the fool; she was the one who put up with his cantankerousness, his petty complaints about them, his way of blaming her for things he thought she had done. They talked behind his back and still do, he realises. If he looks back down the street now; if he turns his old fading body around he would see them all standing on their porches, amongst their silly zinnias, looking at him, whispering to each other about him. And that’s what they do every Sunday. It was her they loved. But he doesn’t look back because he is not brave enough to do that, not now. He shuffles on to do what he came to do. He stands on the damp earth by his wife’s neat little grave; and as he takes out the flowers from the little jam jar in its little concrete hollow his heart gives a jump because he knows his realisation is true: these are not the flowers he put there last Sunday. Other people tend her grave; these are other flowers, better than his. His old legs give way and he sinks to his knees still clutching his pathetic little posy, a daisy, a thistle, a piece of fern. As he feels the cold tears running down his cheek and feels the damp oozing through his trousers, he begs his wife to forgive him, she who was the good one, she who was loved more; and how can he get up and walk back to his little cottage when he now knows the truth: she is loved, he is not. What is he going to do? How can he possibly go on?

I was very proud of my story; god knows where it came from. I sat in my seat as Mrs Paterson gave back the stories to her students. I sat wondering how I was going to deal with the praise that I was sure would follow. Someone is always mentioned as the best. What would I say? Mrs Paterson, speaking in generalities about the stories, about her student’s work, paced up and down the aisles between our wooden desks and then she put my story down in front of me. I hesitated to look at the top of the page where the mark was sure to be, savouring the moment. Then I looked. I saw the mark, in red ink, at the top of the page and my heart stopped. Sixteen out of twenty. Is that all? I was devastated. There must be some mistake. I read the first line, “On a Sunday morning, like every other Sunday morning…” Yes, it was my story. But my story was a work of genius from one so young. Didn’t she realise? But by then Peter Fitzner was standing up receiving the praise that I was sure would be mine. Peter bloody Fitzner. Didn’t she understand? That was it. I had decided. It was as simple as that: she just did not understand. Genius can be so overlooked, you know. It had happened before, I was sure.