Know Them While You Can

Australian writer, Elizabeth Harrower

Recently I was alarmed by an article in The New Yorker (October 20 2014) entitled No Time for Lies: rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower by my favourite literary critic, James Woods. It was not the title that alarmed me, it was the opening line of Wood’s article:

“The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney … “

What!? Who!? I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower, much to my shame, and the fact that she was still alive added, curiously, to the urgency to find out more.

Several of her novels were published in the 1950’s but she withdrew her last novel, In Certain Circles, in 1971 on the death of her mother. She was “frozen” by her loss, besides, as she says, I was “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” How quickly readers forget: by the 1990’s all of her work was out of print.

Then in 2012 Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston of Text Publishing ‘re-discovered’ her and began re-publishing her work, The Watch Tower (1966), considered by some to be her greatest novel; “Down in the City” (1958), her first work; then The Long Prospect (1958), her second; followed by The Catherine Wheel (1960); and then Heyward managed to persuade her to let him have In Certain Circles (1960), completing the re-issue of her entire work. To this collection Text added, in 2015, a small collection of short fiction, A Few Days in the Country and other Stories, which includes the story, Alice, published in The New Yorker in 2015.

“Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished,” writes Wood and although he admits her themes are somewhat repetitive (a young girl bends to coercion and cruelty in a stifling and misogynist era) “her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And … her prose is full of variety.”

“I want to argue that Elizabeth Harrower is on a par with Patrick White and Christina Stead, who would be on anybody’s list of postwar literature giants in Australia.” Michael Heyward, Text Publishing.

The Watch Tower “reminded me of Zola in its unflinching depiction of two sisters entangled with a moody, violent man … It is a brilliant achievement.” Michael Dirda, Washington Post.

“I seized on Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, originally published in 1966. What a discovery! Harrower’s voice in this book is disconcerting at first: almost fatigued, as though she knows that everything to come is fated to be so and there’s little to do but tell the story.” Nicole Rudnick, managing editor, The Paris Review.

“The writing is just fantastic. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of her before,” Irish writer Eimear McBride told The Guardian. “Australians have their F Scott Fitzgerald in Elizabeth Harrower.”

Elizabeth Harrower was born in 1928: know her while you can.

Elizabeth Harrower is published by Text Publishing


Australian writer, Gerald Murnane

I recently set aside prejudices and inaction and knuckled-down and worked out how to use twitter; but, someone said, you’re a bit late, as usual, twitter’s on the way out. Is it? Anyway, I find it very useful. I follow all the literary magazines I can’t afford to subscribe to and whenever I get a tweet that interests me I click on the link and there is the article in full. Magic! This happened recently when I got a tweet from The Paris Review (despite its name it comes out of New York) about Gerald Murnane. I know that name, I thought. Why do I know that name?

He too is a mostly unknown Australian writer (although that is quickly changing) who lives in Goroke, a small Wimmera town in the west of the Australian state of Victoria.

Paul Genoni, Associate Professor, Faculty of Media, Society and Culture at Curtin University, Melbourne said in his 2014 review of Murnane’s The Plains (1982) that the opening could very well be the best in Australian literature:

“Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

“My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.”

And here is Gurnane’s opening line from his latest work, Border Districts (2016),

“Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.”

The first, “I kept my eyes open”; the second, “I resolved to guard my eyes…” Seeing or not-seeing is a recurring theme in Murnane’s work.

“Murnane’s work has always been a world in which what we see never exists in isolation, so that its reality is only fully understood in relation to what the writing tells us we cannot see.” Will Heyward, writer and editor, New York.

 Gerald Murnane won the Patrick White Award in 1999; the Melbourne Prize for Literature, 2009; and the Adelaide Festival 2010 Award for Innovation in Writing. His work has been translated into Swedish and Italian.

“The Australian Gerald Murnane, a genius on the level of Beckett, is known in Australia and Sweden but almost nowhere else.” – Teju Cole, an American writer of Nigerian parentage. He is currently the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.

“Murnane is a careful stylist and a slyly comic writer with large ideas. I know it’s the antipodes, but it’s hard to fathom why he isn’t a little better known here [the USA].” American critic and scholar, Robyn Creswell who joined the Comparative Literature Department at Yale in 2014.

“If you want the supreme triumph of Murnane’s method read Inland (1988), which he has admitted is the God-given book, a work that dazzles the mind with its grandeur and touches the heart with a great wave of feeling and brings to the point of maximum reality the grave and soulful preoccupations that run through every bit of fiction Murnane has ever written.” Peter Craven, Sydney Morning Herald, June 2014.

There are rumours that Murnane has never been in an airplane; he hasn’t watched a movie in decades; keeps meticulous files on his everyday life; and that Border Districts will be his last work of fiction.

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939: know him while you can.

Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Press and Text Publishing .

The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano


French writer and 2015 Nobel Prize Laureate, Patrick Moldano.

When you watch a movie it is important to understand, not only that decisions have been made about every thing in every frame: the glare from the wet tarmac, the broken zinnia in the vase of otherwise perfect flowers, or the dreadful yellow hat on the third boy from the right, but that even if something is missed, like the broken flower; if someone has not done his or her job well, or even if simply there was not time or money to re-shoot the scene or re-dress the set – so we will just have to live with the little boy putting his fingers in his ears moments before Eva Marie Saint ‘shoots’ Cary Grant in that now famous blooper from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest – we have to acknowledge that what we see is what is meant, and the person ultimately responsible for this is the director, because he or she has allowed his or her name to be put on it.  Just like a name on the bottom of a painting: the person is taking responsibility for what you see. It says, I did this; what you see is what I want you to see.

What the viewer thinks it ‘means’ is something completely different and has nothing to do with the creator but everything to do with the viewer.

Similarly with a book of fiction: what we read is what the writer wants us to read and the writer employs various techniques – tricks – to make us think – believe – in a particular way. Most writing is about wanting the reader to believe that what is written is true; and just like ‘the suspension of disbelief’ that audiences in the theatre and cinema have to do to become emotionally involved is what they are watching, so too does a reader: a young girl is fleeing her convent school and suffering the dangers of occupied France. This is what the writer wants us to believe is true, but it is only the appearance of truth, and there’s a glorious word for that: verisimilitude; but what is really true is that I’m sitting in a nice chair with good light and a cup of ginger tea.

This particular ability to mentally put ourselves in a description of something (using words, paint, dance, light, stone, sound) made by someone else is a wonderfully human characteristic and is the sole reason we have something called art.

One of the tricks writers use to make us believe that what is written is true is detail, and ironically, unknown detail (“I don’t know what the figures 20998 and 15/24 stand for”) makes that belief stronger: writers, creators, don’t usually use words or numbers that have no known meaning. Why does he tell us this? Because it is true; so goes the logic.

The Search Warrant, or as it was originally published in France, Dora Bruder, is the 1997 novel from this year’s recipient of The Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano. The story is sparked, so he tells us, from a missing-person ad in the magazine, Paris Soir, dated 31 December 1941, which reads,


Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

 As a reader, one accepts this. I can comfortably say that no reader is going to spend the time and effort researching copies of Paris Soir, and in particular the issue from New Years Eve 1941, to verify if this ad is true. It does not matter if it is true or not; in the world that Modiano creates between the covers of this fiction, it is true; we believe this, and to assist us in this belief Modiano includes a footnote (footnotes are also very useful in creating verisimilitude), giving the title of the column in which the ad appeared (“D’hier a aujourd’hui” – “From Day to Day”).

Modiano is obsessed with the past, and in particular, the German occupation of France and the French resistance during World War II even though (or because of it) he was born the year the war ended, 1945. “The plot too is the recognisable one [all Modiano’s plots are markably the same] as a search into the past of a first-person narrator.”*. It is a work (some, like Kawakani, say not a novel) that infuses memoir, (auto) biography, detection, and memory. The reader finds out much more about the narrator (the writer?) than he does about Dora Bruder. The narrator knows the address of the parents, 41 Boulevard Ornano; it is next door to a cinema he visited as a child. He, like Dora, and his father, like Dora’s father, Emile, are French jews and subject to the whims and prejudices of the German occupying forces that involve lists, registers, travel documents, curfews, identification badges, suspicion, and intimidation. There are many questions in this book, almost every chapter begins with one; questions about Dora Bruder that Modiano cannot answer, so he answers with details of others; police reports, timetables, journal entries, and memories of writers of the period; and if one of these writers once slept in the same room as he, or Dora, all the more reason for including it. These glimpses of many lives still add up to the shattering truth of Dora’s; at least one which Modiano wants us to believe.

The autobiographic detail is fascinating – what a surreal time and place to be in where what authorities think you are can cause alienation, deportation, imprisonment, death – and the mystery of Dora pulls you along, but memory as we all know can be treacherous.

(I have a friend, let me call her Gillian. Every time I poach tamarillos I have a vivid memory of Gillian showing me how, in the kitchen of someone else, let me call him Harry. Gillian, however, has no recollection of this, not of ever eating poached tamarillos, before I fed her some on a recent visit, or of ever being in Harry’s kitchen. Did this event happen? I believe it did. She believes it did not. What is true?)

As I’ve said before, somewhere**, fiction is all about truth, but to make it clear, one has to lie about it a little.

On his Italian father’s side he is descended from Sephardic Jews from northern Greece; his mother, was a Flemish actress, “a pretty girl with an arid heart“; Flemish is Modiano’s first language as he was raised by his maternal grandparents: his father, a black-marketeer,  was interned, his mother on tour. His younger brother Rudi died at the age of 9. Moldano wrote a memoir about his childhood and called it Un Pedigree: I couldn’t write an autobiography, that’s why I called it a ‘pedigree’: it’s a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me.” He is married with two daughters.

 He writes about “the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, the dark side of the soul“*** ; his art “is the art of speculation“****.

Whatever this book is it is a fascinating way (‘postmodern!’ I hear someone screaming) to tell a story. His novels are only now starting to appear in English, spurred on, no doubt, by the Nobel Prize. Search them out and let me know what you think.


*Kawakani, Akane; 2000, A Self-conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool

**In a soon to be published autobiographical fiction called Johnny William & the Cameraman.

***Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 9 2014

****Schwartz, Alexandra, The New Yorker Oct 5 2015





In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut


The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It is about a South African man called Damon; it may be Damon Galgut, or it may not.

He is only passing through … he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.”

 He is a walker, a little lost, a little directionless, a little uncertain of his own motives; a sojourner. He is walking in Greece where he meets, on the road, an enigmatic, and attractive German, Reiner – “He knows that he is beautiful and somehow this makes him ugly”. They travel together but the relationship never grows beyond the casual, despite the sexual tension in the air. Galgut is good at sexual tension. Yet even the casual becomes a disaster.

His second journey, Lover, involves meeting a mixed bunch of people, Jerome, Alice, Charles, and Rodrigo and following them over half the African continent. He doesn’t know why. He sometimes is surprised at what his legs are doing, at what direction they are taking him. Jerome seems interested in him but Damon does nothing. He leaves them, regrets leaving them, plans to follow, but doesn’t then eventually does. This ‘action’ is by no means boring; it is the most intimate of prose, deeply interesting, deeply personal, almost uncomfortably so at times. “It is a story of what never happened, the story of traveling a long way while standing still.”

 The third part, Guardian, is concerned about his traveling companion, Anna, on a trip to India. She is teetering on the edge and threatens to drag him over with her. She relies on a trove of pills which, if taken as directed, will reboot her life but if taken all at once will take it away, and what’s he to do in India with a corpse?

There is something about this book that I must tell you; it is the most unusual fiction, although thrilling too, I have ever read. I was in two minds about telling you about it; it may put you off, I can think of two people that it would put off, but it is so essential to the tone of it, the flavour of it that I could not not tell you. It is told in the third person, and begins, “He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown him….” and very soon he sees a figure in the distance walking towards him. Eventually they approach each other; both watching each other. The figure is described, all dressed in black; “Even his rucksack is black”, and then at the bottom of the first page, there is this, “What the first man is wearing I don’t know, I forget.” I felt a jolt. What? There is the walker, and the man dressed in black, and now another man? “I”? I read the first page again; maybe I had missed something. No I had not missed something. I read on and peppered sparingly are these first person references, and I realised that the third person narrator is referring to himself: the ‘he’ and the “I” are the same person, Damon; so, yes, maybe Damon is Damon Galgut. The writer is his own character. This is a little alarming only if you aren’t prepared for it; hence my telling you. Galgut is also free with punctuation especially of conversation:

Where are you from. He has an improbable English accent, very overdone. South Africa, goodness me, how did you get up here. Through Malawi, my word, I’m off to Malawi in a few days. Look around, yes please, be my guest. What did you say your name was.”

My same two friends would be equally put off by this, but it is surprisingly clear; or maybe it is only a thought of conversation, an expectation; a fictive chat.

Despite the title of the book what action there is takes place as far away from a room as you can get: the open road. Whether it be Greece, Malawi, Switzerland, India, or Kenya he is a traveler and his life is about the people he meets and journeys with, but the drama of this book is in the man himself, the ‘he’, the ‘I’ and in a sense this is a stronger form of autobiography: Galgut (I) is standing apart from himself, watching himself (he), describing his actions, trying to work out what it is about himself. “I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life. He sits in the empty room, crying.”

Lines like “I don’t remember what they do for the rest of that day” meaning ‘what I did for the rest of the day’ give the feeling of truth; ironically the admission of no action makes it all the more believable.

“In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one. He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.”

Yes, in the first two parts of the book the action is languid, undefined, unimpressive; where the drama is all internal: a personal journey to try and work out why Damon is like he is; fascinating it its novelistic skill. Part three begins as expected but suddenly a life hangs in the balance and Damon is forced to act. The pace is frenetic, the action white-hot, and Galgut doesn’t pull any punches. It hits you in the guts just like it did him, and I read and read ’til the end, redefining the term ‘page-turner’. His skill at internal drama is eclipsed with his mastery of fast-paced action. It’s head-spinning stuff!

I wait with heightened expectation for Galgut’s next work.






Collecting Stories by Michael Freundt

My writing desk
My writing desk

Collecting Stories, my first short story collection, goes live online on Monday August 3rd.

You can find it here

The stories have been written over the last 25 years; the latest, A Marriage of Convenience, was written last month. Inspiration comes from some unlikely sources: a bus ride from Balmain, a conversation in a foyer, something a friend said, and among others, an opening paragraph from a magazine article which I read again and again, after returning from my laptop where I recorded the thought, but darned if I could find what it was among those few printed words that sparked the thought in the first place. Apparently the history of my sparking synapses leaves no footprint; or is that just another sign of my age?

I have not included every story from my collection; a few now seemed trite, uneven, and dull so I left them where they are.

And friends, if you think that I have used you for literary purposes you’re right and if you object, then let’s talk about it.

More often than not, the stories are of the What If? kind. Nothing more needs to be said because I will always steer away from expaining to an inquisative reader what I meant by a story, a line, or an idea for two reasons: usually I don’t remember what I meant in the first place, my synapses being what they are, but more importantly I believe that what the reader thinks it means is what it means.

Sometimes stories tumble out like washing from a dryer; at other times they are few and very far between. I’m in the middle of one now which augers well for volume 2.

I hope you enjoy volume 1 and if you do, and even if you don’t, tell me about it.

hOme by Frank Ronan

Irish writer, Frank Ronan
Irish writer, Frank Ronan

When a novel makes you laugh out loud it’s a great and wondrous thing.

Home, Ronan’s 6th novel from 2002, is a first-person narrative of a young boy, Coorg, born to an unwed teenager into the hippiest of hippy communes in 1963. These hippies throw the I Ching to decide if they should leave a rock concert early or not; they carefully remove a cabbage, roots, soil, and all, and carry it to a quiet place before chopping its head off so the other cabbages won’t get upset at the carnage; and their form of free love, wantonly and frequently exercised, is more about longevity than climax.

He spends his first six years with these people who care, stimulate and provide for him in a rural English paradise. They believe him to be the ‘messiah’ – also courtesy of the I Ching – or, as they call him, the ‘mage’. He is special and treated so. A boyish question about why a tree, next to a big rock, is dying will get an answer something like “The spirit of the rock and the spirit of the tree aren’t getting along at the moment.”

Then his grandparents suddenly show up and kidnap him (‘save him’) back to Ireland and plunge him headfirst into Catholicism, village politics, fish and chips, sausages, chocolate, and school with a new name: Joseph. The commune disbanded soon after this not because of the kidnapping of their ‘mage’ but because its self-styled mystic leader was caught eating a Snickers Bar in the High Street. Now for Joseph growing up in Ireland a boyish question would elicit an answer like “Stop asking such silly questions or the boogie man will cut your legs off and put you in his sack.”

He swaps one unreality for another.

“Is Baby Jesus Black?”
“Don’t ever talk about Our Lord like that.”
She raised her hand at me and I looked at it and realised what had caused the sting on the back of my legs when I vomited down the side of the car door.
“Baby Jesus couldn’t be black. He’s God.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s on the altar. Behind the little curtain at the back there’s a gold door and he’s in there.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the lamp is lit.”
“Will he come out?”
“You have to wait for the priest to do everything, and the bell will ring and he’ll elevate the host, and if you’re good you can see God except if you’re good you’d be saying your prayers and not looking, and you have to make your Holy Communion first.”
“Is he a kind of wizard?”
“No. He’s God. He’s very, very holy.”
“Is that why you can’t see him?”
“Yes. And stop chewing that penny. A dirty black man might have touched it.”

Home is about belonging and it’s the first of a quartet although Ronan, on his website, warns us: “and the more you annoy me about it, the longer it will take to get on with the second”. He is obviously still being annoyed about it because nothing, novel wise, has appeared since 2002. However he is a keen gardener and talking about gardens and gardening will turn his usual laidback manner into one of wide-eyed enthusiasm. He also writes a monthly column in Gardening Illustrated and was a guest speaker at that magazine’s recent festival held in the Cotswold market town of Malmsbury last month; so gardening and writing about gardens, and not annoying readers, may be the reason the quartet is still only one book. His website ( seems equally unattended.

“I’m obsessed,” he says, “I can’t remember people’s names, but I can always remember plant names.”

For Ronan (born 1963) Ireland is ‘home’ but he lives in Worcestershire (“It’s the last bit of England worth living in”) where his partner commutes to London (“I hate London.”) but they spend weekends together.

His home town New Ross, not far from Colm Toibin’s home town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, is where the young Coorg is taken and ‘rehabilitated’ and although the novelist swears he’s never stayed in a hippy commune there is enough evidence to suggest that the Irish growing-up of the young Joseph could be very much like the Irish growing-up of the young Frank; but then again there’s autobiography to some degree in every piece of writing.

Ronan’s humour, and there’s lots of it, doesn’t come from a child narrator’s misunderstandings and lopsided conclusions but from an adult narrator and so an adult’s sense of humour: “The pub turned out to be the manyplies of the village, where all the life missing from the street was being fermented into a state of contented excretability.”

Let’s hope that somewhere betwenn weeding, picking cabbages and writing about them he can find time for  books 2, 3, and 4. I’ll read them.

Fun with Paul & Jane: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul (born 1910) and Jane (born 1917) Bowles led an eventful life including creativity in music and writing, the theatre (he as a composer, she as a playwright) literary frustration, depression, same-sex affairs, travel – Europe, Ceylon, and North Africa, drugs, and famous friends which included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Jean Rhys, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood – who would give Paul’s surname to his famous character, Sally, in Goodbye to Berlin, Aaron Copland – who gave Paul music composition lessons, Max Ernst, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Alan Ginsberg, and Peggy Guggenheim and they shared a house for a time in Brooklyn with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Virgil Thomson, and Gypsy Rose Lee. I would’ve loved to be at that breakfast table!

Although Paul wrote crime stories and painted in his youth he received his initial fame as a Broadway composer for, mainly, the works of Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and Summer and Smoke. He also wrote incidental music for his wife’s play In the Summer House for its Washington season before a short stint on Broadway in 1954.

Jane with her Morrocan partner, Cherifa
Jane with her Moroccan partner, Cherifa

Jane’s only novel Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 to mediocre reviews although Tennessee Williams loved it and called Jane “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters.” When I read that line in his memoir I was shocked that I had never heard of her. I soon remedied that and have been collecting her work ever since; that isn’t difficult, her output is small.

Two Serious Ladies began as Three Serious Ladies, she dropped one of them but from her early drafts featuring the third lady Paul edited various short pieces and submitted them whenever an editor or publisher wanted something from Jane.  She was completely indifferent to it all: she considered herself a failure as a writer.

Paul turned to serious writing and his first, and most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky came out in 1948 and by 1950 was in the New York Times best-seller list. There is a taste here of a potential Joe Orton/Kenneth Halliwell literary rivalry but there were no murderous consequences. Jane was more interested in her female lovers and pre-occupied with her declining health. The Bowles’ latter years were spent in North Africa.

Jane died, after several strokes and breakdowns in 1973; Paul died from a heart attack in 1999.

The Sheltering Sky.


Port and Kit are a married American couple, financially independent, and crave to visit the centre of the Sahara Desert. What they really mean is to go as far as they can as long as the degree of ‘desert-ness’ increases. The moment the desert-ness begins to weaken they turn back. They want to be lost. They encouraged another American, Tunner, to be their traveling companion, although by the opening of the story they want to be rid of him; and finally succeed. They also meet the mother and son team Mrs Lyle and her lay-about off-spring, Eric. The mother has got to be one of the more odious characters in 20th century literature and together with Eric, and Tunner, who has his heart set on seducing Kit, form a trio embodying everything the couple hate in the civilized world; giving them the reason they need for running away.

Getting lost in the desert is akin to going to bed, and waiting in an airport for a flight to begin: they abrogate life’s responsibilities especially if you believe those responsibilities are crushing you or causing you grief. At an airport life stops until you get where you’re supposed to be; going to bed forces everything to leave you alone so you can sleep; and getting lost in a desert leaves your life on hold while you find your way back to it.

Kit Moresby is obviously modeled on Jane. “Ambivalence was her natural element: a decision filled her with anguish. The possibilities for an ‘about face’ had to be kept open” writes Paul Bowles in a biographical piece for the collection of Jane’s work, Everything is Nice published by Sort Of Books in 2012. Kit’s psychological problem relates to her obsession with omens and the ever-possibility of doom: all decisions about unfolding days depend on events that may or may not happen. For Kit

“… the feel of doom was so strong that it became a hostile consciousness just behind or beside her, foreseeing her attempts to avoid flying in the face of the evil omens, and thus all too able to set traps her her.”

Doom does catch up with her and when it does Kit is almost relieved that she was right and takes to her appalling circumstances with an energy and satisfaction at not having to be Kit Moresby any more. The more abhorrent her circumstances the more she gives in to them. Her plight includes, thirst, near starvation, kidnapping, daily rape, imprisonment dressed as a boy, and a beating by three angry wives; but what terrifies her more is what she will have to do and say when she is rescued by the civilisation she is running away from.

Being born out of the mid 20th century’s romance with expressionism it’s not surprising that there are adsurdist and Kafkaeque elements in the writing. The pleasure is not just the exotic locations but also the waiting for what torment will fall on her next but Kit’s acceptence of all that keeps you applauding her resilience while at the same time wondering where will it all end. It is Bowles’ plotting skills, only seemingly haphazard, that keep the revelation of the point of it all to the very last paragraph.

Bernardo Bertolucci filmed it in 1990 with John Malkovitch, Debra Winger, and Campbell Scott. That I’ve got to see. The excellent short stories of both Paul and Jane are readily available. Give them a go first.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
When we watch a film we have to assume that everything we see is what the film-maker wants us to see: that dreadful yellow coat the woman on the left is wearing in the airport scene is delibate; the bad hair on the star in the night-club scene is also deliberate. This book reminded me that the same assumption applies to books.

My Brilliant Friend begins with a series of events, reminisesces by the narrator, Elena, about her friend, Lila, the ‘brilliant friend’ of the title. They are scenes like, ‘I remember one day when she …’ and ‘and then one evening when we were six she ….’ Ferrante is colouring a picture which isn’t going anywhere. There is no clear narrative, no feeling of time passing. I was getting impatient and a little frustrated; and then the teacher in me was getting annoyed at the sloppy grammar, the confusing pronouns, and the profuse scattering of seemingly random commas, as if from a sloppy pen: comma splices proliferate like ants.

And then on page 74 I came across this line …

“Trained by our school books to speak with great skill about what we had never seen, we were excited by the invisable.”

I found this line profound. I read it again. Thought about it and read it again. That’s when I was reminded about the veracity of the above assumption. I was forced to find a reason for the grammatical sloppiness and such a reason wasn’t hard to find. The voice is extremely informal, like a mate sitting with you over a coffee latte telling you a story. It’s very conversational and, I eventually conceeded, intentionally so. In fact about half way through the book Elena eventually receives a longed for letter from Lila and describes it thus,

“The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face; it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate to be born with the head of Zeus.”

This description of Lila’s writing as ‘vivid orderliness’ as if from the gods put Ferrante’s writing into focus as ‘the dross of speech’ and ‘the confusion of the oral’ and I understood that the sloppy grammar and punctuation had a purpose; it was a writerly technique designed to create the conversational tone and the confusion of the oral just as Lila’s letter wasn’t.

My Brilliant Friend is about self awareness and female friendship told by an elderly Elena Greco looking back at her lifelong friend, Lila Cerullo, from 3 years old to 16 years old, childhood and adolescence. Elena is the third-person narrator but very much part of the action; it feels like an autobiography.

Lilia’s family, like all the families in this book, is scarred with fillial violence. “What do you mean by love?” Lilia murmured to her brother, “what does love mean for our family?” Love seems to be at the heart of everything but it’s rarely visable. The Neapolitan characters, especially the men, wear their arrogance and ego so confidently and so visably but when it is challenged even ever so slightly they react as if such confidence and ego were tissue-thin: a side-ways glance is responded to as if a stab in the back; a smirk, a snide remark, as if a throat is cut, a eye gouged out and revenge is metered out ruthlessly.

This threat of violence is ever present, and terrifying since when it erupts it is life-threatening; not just between husband and wife but between father a daughter, brother and sister and usually over the purpetrator being made to feel foolish by circumstances that no-one has control over. It is the women who suffer the most. The blame, when its origins are unclear or undefinable, is always planted on a woman: a truely mysoginistic culture. Ferrante describes it as common-place, like doing the washing up and putting out the garbage. It is part of the fabric of their lives.

Despite what I said at the opening of this review the seemingly anacdotal descriptions give way to a narrative and a time-line slowly evolves and towards the end of this book, the first of a trilogy, tension and narrative builds slowly but firmly to Lila’s wedding day, at the age of sixteen, as a final act threatens to explode everyone’s lives. You don’t get the explosion, just the gasp, as someone who shouldn’t be there walks into the room, sits, crosses his legs, shows off his gleaming new shoes; the explosion, we assume, must open book two in the series. What a cliff-hanger!

We know that Elena Ferrante was born in Naples, and that’s about it. If you google images of her you get several pictures of Italian looking women which, if you pursue them, lead nowhere or to women who have written about Ferrante. However on ‘her’ website I found this …
” … guesswork around Ferrante’s identity proliferated, with reviewers speculating that “she” might be a mother, a man, or a sentient cabal of fire-ants,” says a reviewer Katy Waldman in her article for Slate (an online journal) heralding the Paris Review’s coup at gettng the first in-person interview with Elena Ferrante; in their Spring 2015 issue. So, soon, we may find out more about this intriguing writer that no-one has up until now seen and no-one up until The Paris Review has seemingly spoken to.

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain (noola o fway lorn)

Nuala O'Faolain
Nuala O’Faolain

I loved this book!

After the international success of O’Faolain’s memoir Are You Somebody? this novel, her first, was published in 2001 and in a brief Afterward she acknowledges “splendid energetic advice” from fellow Irish writer Colm Toibin who recently opined that

“… in autobiographical writing your [the writer’s] job is to create illusion, to work with rhythm and image and detail to make the reader feel that whatever is on the page matters and must have happened.”

I would venture to say that this also applies to writing in the first person, memoir or fiction, since the first person point of view is meant to make the reader believe the protagonist is also the writer. I recently complained that in The Cast Iron Shore, Linda Grant’s debut novel, that I reviewed on this blog recently (posted January 27), Grant failed her first person POV responsibilities by inadvertantly creating a disconnect between the protagonist and the writer: they seemed like two different people.

O’Faolain does not make the same mistake. Although a novel (fiction), My Dream of You reads like a memoir, feels like a memoir; so skilfully does O’Faolain make you believe, using “rhythm and image and detail” that her story actually happened to her. Having read her first memoir there is a lot of O’Faolain’s past in Kathleen’s but autobiography and fiction are interwoven seemlessly. How do I know this? I cared about her.

Kathleen de Burca is an Irish travel writer fast approaching fifty, and with a waist to match, who travels the world, usually with her best friend, an gay American man called Jimmy, writing travel copy for her boss, and also close friend, Alex. These two men, and staff in the office in London, serve as her family, since she has all but abandoned hers, and her country, many years before. Then there is her boyfriend, Hugo, a law student, who interests her in a divorce case from the annals of Irish history: the young wife of an English aristocrat, on a forlorn Irish estate in the middle of nowhere, is accused of infidelity with her husband’s Irish groom, a very common man. In those days, the 1850’s, a divorce needed an act of parliament so the event is well documented although from a very English point of view. The wife is chastised, forsaken, deprived of her young daughter, and locked up in an asylum where she inevitably goes mad.

Kathleen is intrigued and fascinated by this tragedy and when Jimmy, her moral compass, suddenly dies she takes leave of her job (Hugo, the boyfriend, she betrayed and lost) and travels to Ireland to, maybe, write a book about this young wife and her passion for a comman man.

The book has three narrative arcs: Kathleen’s journey to Ireland, her adventures, and the brief reunion with her siblings and their families; her memories of her arrogant, distant, and emotionally violent father, her deeply unhappy and useless mother, and her friends and lovers; and the story from the 1850s of Marianne and her affair with the lowly William Mullen. Yes, there is a book within the book.

She thinks she is going to Ireland to research a story about someone else’s passion but what she actually does is confront passion in her own life and what she discovers is not what she expected.

The writing of the Marianne’s story (in the third person) begins confidently and the affair with Mullen is handled expertly: O’Faolain makes the reader understand how intense physical attraction can operate outside the realms of reason; but Kathleen discovers another document that proports to prove that … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. There is here the flavour of a mystery to be solved.

O’Faolain’s literary skills are put to good use as she weaves the first and third narratives into a shared ending which also ends the book itself. Very satisfying.

My Dream of You is about love, sex, family, and aging, and it contains one of the best descriptions I have ever read of female friendship – how it works – and how emotional love with a woman can be far more rewarding and long-lasting than sexual love with a man. Mind you, Kathleen has a lot of experience with sexual love with men and she understands, and shows, that passion is far more complex and evolutionary than romantic books make out; and she comes to realize that her relationship with her body is also a part of the ‘passion’ equation and far from what she would like it to be, or thought it was. She is, or was, a beautiful woman and there are magic passages where a beautiful woman talks about being beautiful, without pride or sentiment, and when she believed it and when she didn’t. This is unusual stuff.

Nuala O’Faolain was engaged once but never married, had a fifteen year relationship with the Irish journalist, Nell McCarthy, but spent her latter years with a New York lawyer, John Low-Beer. She was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2008. Hugo Hamilton, whose memoir The Speckled People I recently reviewed on this blog (posted February 10), was a friend of O’Faolain’s and his 2014 novel Every Single Minute is a fictionalised retelling of a trip he took with the very ill O’Faolain to Berlin just before she died (May 9 2008).

She wrote two volumes of memoir Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (1996), and Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman (2003); another novel published posthumously in 2009 Best Love, Rosie; and a ‘history with commentary’ The Story of Chicago May (2005). Chicago May was the nickname of Mary Ann Duignan, an Irish criminal, who became famous in America, France and Britain in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

The American writer Dave Eggers
The American writer Dave Eggers

The relationship between truth and fiction is, and always will be, complicated and never more so than in the reading of this book: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. It was published in 2009 to great acclaim, won many prizes and is a non-fiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s battle with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I had heard of Dave Eggers but had never read any of his work. He is a remarkable achiever who sprang onto the literary landscape in 2000 with a memoir with the hubritic title, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

First of all it is a handsome and well-made book and heavy for its size; expensive paper perhaps. I was immediately impressed by the simple but effective language that painted a loving and respectful relationship between Zeitoun and his American, but Islamic, wife Kathy and their four children, while building the suspense of Katrina bearing down on them. The couple ran a busy and successful painting and maintenance business in New Orleans, but also had several rental properties that they managed. Everyone worked very hard. Zeitoun, originaly from coastal Syria, was a hard-worker, a loving husband, doting father, a devout Muslim, with a strong sense of community and duty to his neighbours. Here was the epitomic hero.

As the hurricane approached Kathy and the kids left for relatives further inland in Baton Rouge leaving Zeitoun to look after the house and their other properties. The storm comes and goes and Zeitoun wonders, is that all there is? No, the mighty storm was not the problem, but the rising water was. He moves everything he can to the second floor and when the water stops rising he jumps in his second-hand canoe and paddles around the city rescuing trapped people and neglected dogs. I knew from the back cover that he would be arrested for suspected looting and imprisoned in a cage but I hadn’t got that far yet.

Then on Thursday evening I went to meet some friends for dinner in a local restaurant. I was the first to arrive and so while I was waiting I Googled Zeitoun and Eggers; I was curious about what had happened to our real-life hero, Zeitoun, and his family. I wish I hadn’t.

Much has been written and reported about Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy since this book was published in 2009. The pressures of fame that the successful book generated, harrassment by the media, and not to forget the trauma of Hurricane Katrina herself all took their toll. Kathy Zeitoun accused her husband of repeated physical abuse, the first time, reportably, but witnessed, with a tyre-lever, and they were divorsed in February 2012. Abdulrahmin was then arrested on charges of attempting to murder his ex-wife and for paying a hit-man to do the deed. Both charges were dismissed in July 2013 by the judge who sided with the defense team who maintained that the prosecution pursued the case because of Zeitoun’s growing fame. In response to his aquittal Kathy Zeitoun said “I was shocked. I am now in fear of my life. I do believe he is going to attack me again, with all my heart.”

Knowing this informaiton before finishing reading the book changed the way I felt about it. This worried me. The publishers and Eggers himself have gone to great lengths to establish the story as not just non-fiction but as fact even though Eggers writes the book as a novel: he describes the thoughts in his character’s heads and conversation, in direct speech, between Zeitoun and Kathy in the privacy of their bed. These are the traits of fiction. Did Zeitoun leave out all the ‘bad’ stuff during his extensive interviews with Eggers? Kathy Zeitoun thinks so; or did Eggers only choose what he wanted to use for his narrative purposes? This is also a skill needed to write fiction.

I had to change my attitude about the book and treat it, think about it, as a novel; that was easy because it’s written like a novel, but changing the idea of the book from non-fiction to fiction wasn’t so easy. When talking about the frelationship between truth and fiction I’ve always used the line that

‘fiction is always about truth but, to make it clear, we have to lie about it a little’.

Dave Eggers has run away, literally, from reporters who want to ask him questions about the veracity of his book and if you google “Zeitoun + Eggers”, or similar, information runs out in late 2013 after Zeitoun was aquitted of the charges brought against him.

The hurricane itself certainly had a devastating effect on the people of New Orleans but for the Zeitoun family, did being the subject of Egger’s book bring its own misery and add to the family’s woes? Or were there already chinks in the relationship before Eggers came along? Chinks that he chose to ignore.

Non-fiction is about facts, truth is about emotion. The fiction may be set on a fictional planet or place but the interplay between the emotions and feelings of the fictional characters are about truth. I believe that the physical action of the story is true: the actual effect of Katrina on the people and the city of New Orleans, but I had to accept that the relationship between the characters, although they themselves existed, was not true, but manufactured, compiled, and organised by Eggers for his own novelistic purposes. This is what novelists do.

I went back to the book, I was only 50 pages in, but I was surprised to realise that I was no longer interested. I didn’t care anymore. The book was trying to be something it wasn’t. For years I’ve been telling people that if you’re not enjoying a book, stop and read something else, even though the urge to finish something you’ve started is very strong. I usually give in to this urge, but with this book, I didn’t. I stopped. Besides I had just found in my local bookshop a book that I’ve been longing for. This bookshop has a swap policy so I swapped my copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, the 2013 Man-Booker winner, ironically a book I also didn’t enjoy, but finished, for  Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: a fictional biography of E.M. Forster. Ha! Yet another permutation of fiction and truth.

All writing is fiction. The only thing true about it is its physicality: little black marks on a white background.

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.