Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna

Australian writer, Sofie Laguna.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the marketing quotes on the covers, back and front: they were all for Sofie Laguna’s previous novels, not this one. I found this curious, particularly the quotes on the front cover. Were there no advanced critical readings? Maybe not. I have not read her previous work. However, I certainly know about her prizes and acclaim.

The title, Infinite Splendors (2020), is an uncommon collocation, and therefore very difficult to remember but when you realise it refers to the craft of painting it makes sense.

Lawrence Loman is an intelligent 10 year old growing up in Western Victoria in the shadow of the Grampians in the early 1950s. He lives remotely with his war-widowed mother, Louise, his younger brother, Paul, and next door to Mrs Barry. These people, and his teachers, Mrs St Clare and Mr Wade make up his world. They define everything he knows.

Mrs St Clare introduces him to splendors he had never imagined. One Friday afternoon she asks her students to don smocks, to stand in front of easels with paint and brushes, and to look at the large blank pieces of white paper on each one. She then directs their gaze towards the windows. What do you see? Lawrence does as he is bid, picks up the brush, dabs it in paint, and attends to what he sees out the window. Minutes later he looks at what he has done and gasps: Ah! Who did that?

From that moment he is attune to paint and light. He notices shadows on wet moss and wonders how to put them on paper; he notices the light on the mountains that loom over his world; he sees the light change and how it changes each peak; he understands how light on a face can change its expression, can change feelings. His teachers and mother are astounded at his intuitive skill, as is he. His future seems assured. These early chapters are wonderful to read and expertly described as a young bright boy discovers creativity, and more remarkably that that creativity is his own.

When his much-admired, and anticipated, batchelor uncle comes to stay everything changes, as did my expectations.

We are living in the golden age of television. Drama, particularly crime drama has been abundantly produced for the last few decades or more. Streaming services are many and the product they stream is excellent in every possible way. My only complaint at times has been the subject matter; too many crime dramas have relied on crimes against women: kidnappings, murders, rapes, mutilations, terror, and abandonment. This trend, I believe, is waning, much to my relief, but for a long time I lamented the apparent limited scope of television writers in their search for a plot. These crimes are horrific and spotlight the worst of our species and, of course, we can’t look away but as fodder for scripted drama I found it repetitive and predictable.

Similarly, was my reaction to this novel: a pedophile uncle? Oh no, not again! But yes. Lawrence Loman’s life is destroyed without any understanding, interference, or support from the adults around him: he has never told, can’t tell, anybody. His personality changes, he loses the ability to verbally communicate, he retreats within himself, and after all the adults in his world die or move away he is alone and we, as readers, are only left with his internal monologue and sparse meetings with strangers that scare him, abuse him, and think him crazy. That crazy old hermit who does nothing but paint. And paint he does, until the house is overrun with canvases, still lifes and the objects that inspire them, portraits, landscapes and cloudscapes. Anything that can capture light.

This is a great challenge for the writer: a protagonist that cannot effectively communicate and the 1st-person narrative combine to leave the writer with little but an internal monologue to work with. Laguna takes on the challenge head-on but is not completely successful. The latter half of the book is strewn with patches of repetitive purple prose that left this reader cold.

I also noticed that on her Acknowledgement Page no initial readers are thanked. So there were no advanced critical readings. This is a pity; such previews are invaluable and I’m sure this novel would’ve benefited from such a process.

Here is a short video of Sophie Laguna introducing her new book, Intimate Splendors.

You can buy Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendors, and her other novels, in various formats here.

Lanny by Max Porter

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British writer, Max Porter.

When you open a book to page one you usually do so with a blank mind,  but an expectant one; waiting for the writer to paint you a picture which becomes – the quicker the better you hope – understanding: place, time, people, action. But right from the start of Max Porter’s Lanny this assumption is useless.

Don’t be put off, if by the end of page 9 you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Let the snatches of village gossip and easy chatty phrases wash over you like breezes, like waves: exactly like they do on the page – yes exactly like waves, not in straight lines.

Watch and listen to Max Porter talk about the making and the essence of his book, Lanny.

In the first sentence you are introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort; at this moment, and for a few pages to come, a mystery. The more you read the more theories of his identity test themselves until you think that Dead Papa Toothwort is a presence, something like an invisible, all-knowing spirit that flits, swoops, and hovers in and over a village, through its stories, myths, and pliable imaginations, past and present. The strange beginning and pages of wavy lines are necessary: once you accept the existence of Dead Papa Toothwort, and you must, Porter prepares you to accept a whole lot more (no spoilers here).

But the village is real, as real as a novelistic village can be; a dormitory nameless village on the outskirts of London – and we finally meet characters in that village, and we are on safer ground. Understanding, place, time, characters, action emerge like a happy vista through a rising fog. Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad and Pete. They tell you their stories in the first person, and all of their stories revolve around Lanny. A boy. An exceptional boy. Everyone loves Lanny. He scares people sometimes, especially his parents. He sings when he walks. He collects stuff like a bower bird. He soothes anger with a well-chosen question or a song.  And then Lanny disappears.

This book is not a conventional book. Porter has created something different, and what that something is I’m not sure, yet. What it has in common with a conventional book is that it is satisfying, a strange, but satisfying read. There are some conversations and dialogue but not in the familiar form – punctuation is minimal, but no quotation marks – yet it’s always clear what you’re reading, who is speaking, what is being said. You get to know these people very quickly. It’s a small book, I read it in two consecutive afternoons.

In the middle of the book when the town, the police, the media, turn on these three people the tension, the fear, and the unease is told through multiple voices; it isn’t important who says them; you can guess who says them.

Lanny is the centre of the story, but Lanny isn’t given his own voice. You learn to love Lanny via those around him. Porter gives you recognisable emotions, flawed parents, uncaring neighbours, who themselves sometimes are given a voice; familiar novelistic traits that are compensation for, it seems, for the unconventional beginning and format.

I have only one criticism: I would’ve liked to have witnessed more of Lanny’s exceptionalism; his soothing of anger with a song, for example, than just been told about it.

As Porter says, it is not a book that has much to do with today. There are no mobile phones, computers, or text-speak. It is a book about sound and our imagination and how we need to let a writer tickle that imagination into forms and acceptances that are a little out of our comfort zone.

I urge you to give him that chance.

Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (2015), won many awards and nominations and has been sold in twenty nine territories. A theatrical version was staged in Dublin in March 2018.

You can watch an interview with Porter about Lanny, it’s themes and genesis, here.

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

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The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Don’t worry if you are woefully unread in South African literature, so is the South African writer Damon Galgut.

“Local writers are trying to escape a rigid set of moral gestures, if I can put it like that, which have imposed repetition upon us. Perhaps cliché is nothing more than the weight of the past pinning down your mind. In this sense, imaginative freedom is a way of finding the future, though it isn’t so easy to do.”

In other words, Galgut is looking out from South Africa not looking at it. However, there is a tone to his work that can easily be linked to his country, his continent: a tone that is built on the black and the white, the long distances, the heat, the poverty, the seemingly political ineptitude and the sense of people struggling to live a life they want but never seem to get. Most, but not all, of his male protagonists are slight in stature, indecisive, confused, loners with an ambiguous sexuality. Patrick Winter, the first-person narrator in Galgut’s 1991 novel, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is one such protagonist. He is also mentally fragile since his compulsory two-year stint in the military where he became not only horrified by death and boredom but he attained a sense of hatred and terror at things like the insistent regularity of bathroom tiles and the rigid diagonals of sunlight. He takes Valium twice a day.

He travels to Namibia by car with his mother to see her black boyfriend who is politically activated in the first free elections in Namibia, formally South West Africa, where Patrick did his mandatory South African national service one year earlier and, now on this trip, he constantly wonders if the locals he meets may have been the same people that he shot at; that shot at him. It’s a story about a child and his mother; she, extroverted, thrives to belong “but her glamorous strivings were hollow’’; he, introverted, convoluted, his “patterns ran inward, spiralling endlessly towards a centre that didn’t exist.” They, tragically for both of them, belong together.

This book fell out of print but it was Galgut’s shortlisting for the 2008 Man-Booker prize with his novel The Good Doctor (2003), and subsequent fame, that gave him the opportunity to refine the text for the inevitable re-print. He was never quite satisfied with the original text: ‘discordant’ he called it.

“I woke to the sound of a pig being killed. I sat up rigidly in bed, not moving till the noise suddenly stopped. Then I got up and dressed and went outside. I had forgotten this about the farm. Its calendar runs on slaughter.”

This is typical of Galgut’s prose: stark statement of fact, short clear sentences without any mention of what the narrator feels; but the arrangement of such words, sentences, creates its own feeling, supplied significantly by the reader. Galgut draws the scene, we colour it in.

I once heard an ordinary female tourist talk about the end of her wonderful and surprising holiday on a foreign isle and her inevitable return: “Home I go,” she said, “to crawl back under my rock.” For all Patrick and his mother’s yearnings and plans this is what will happen.

“I sat down on a swing and rocked myself to and fro. In a little while, I knew, I would walk back up the road to the hotel, and we would pack our bags and go, and our usual lives would resume.”

The promise of travel and the lure of a foreign place is rarely fulfilled, it takes courage to stay out from under that rock; and Galgut by writing about this makes us aware just how rare and courageous it is.

You can find this book here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

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The Australian Writer Hannah Kent

It is not all that long ago, 1994, that Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days was disqualified from the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary prize because it was not Australian enough (he won the prize for its sequel Dark Palace (2000), which contains one scene set in Australia); apparently Australian literary sentiment has grown up since then, thank god – although the real problem lies from the rules of eligibility for the Prize . Here now is an Australian author, Hannah Kent, whose debut novel, Burial Rites (2013) was set in Iceland and now her second, The Good People, is set in Ireland: and still not a gum tree in sight. The only thing Australian about this book is its author; but that’s all that is needed, and rightly so, to herald Kent as a new, rising, and shining voice in Australian literature.

Kent paints time, place, and character through dialogue. The time is 1825 in rural, south-west Ireland where the Catholic Church is as powerful as ever but also where old Irish superstition and language is still rife and useful. All of this is established through how the characters talk: here a man comes to seek council from Nance Roche about his troubling dreams. Nance Roche is a wise woman who lives alone in a windowless, mud hut near the wood and who is said to have ‘the knowledge’.

 

‘Faith, what does it matter? I’d best be on my way.’

‘Sure, Peter, Go on home.’

He helped Nance to her feet and waited as she used the tongs to pluck a coal from the fire, dipping it, hissing, in her water bucket to cool. She dried the dead ember on her skirt, spat on the ground and passed it to him. ‘You’ll see no púca tonight. God save you on the road.’

Peter put it into his pocket with a curt nod. ‘Bless you, Nance Roche. You’re a good living woman, no matter what the new priest says.’

Here archaic English (“Faith, what does it matter?”), old Irish (púca means ghost) and Catholic salutation (”God save you on the road.”) all create the world of this novel: illustrative, complex, colourful, informative, and believable. The last because of Kent’s success at creating verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. You do not need to look up the meaning of púca; nor do you need to research the veracity of the use of the word ‘faith’ as an exultation in nineteenth century south-west rural Ireland; nor that the possession of a cool coal from the hearth of a bean feasa living in a mud-hut will soothe one’s dreams. As quickly as you read the lines the reader accepts this created truth because of the trust we readers place in the creator of such truth; when the real truth is that we are sitting in our reading chair scanning and finding shared meaning from little dark marks on a pale background. All hail our imagination and those that tickle it!

Kent has done her publisher proud: produced a novel with all the qualities of her first that prompted her global success and her publisher’s trust in her in the first place (it’s rumoured her earnings from rights, foreign publishers and the like, was $1 million); mid-nineteenth century far-western Europe in a valley of poverty, crime, women, faith, and fear, but with such differences that make it fresh and new, in tone, theme, crime, spine, and ending.

This is a story of three women: a new and bitter widow, Nora; a servant girl, Mary; and a feared and revered loner, Nance Roach; unwedded, unbedded, and therefore considered unworldly, but ironically, powerful despite the “fear of any woman who was not tethered to man or hearth.” In a society of family and neighbourily trust, tension and anger can boil quickly if livelihood is threatened: if cow’s milk is without butter, if a hen’s egg is yolk-less, or if a man falls suddenly dead, the inhabitants clutch at reasons, causes – be it four crows seen huddled together at a crossroads; lights seen bobbing on a fairy mound; or a cretinous child thrust on a widow who has no means to support it.

This is what happens to Nora whose motherless and afflicted grandchild is suddenly handed to her but who firmly believes it is the mischievous fairies, The Good People, who have taken her Micheál and left her one of their own. Her attempts to return the fairy to its own kind and see the safe return of her grandson is what propels the narrative to its tragic finale.

The belief systems, be it Christian or fairydom, give meaning to these ignorant people; the world is mysterious and explanations are needed for everything that ties them down, keeps them safe, or lifts them up. They need these causes of things to be certainties to allow them to get on with their poor and mundane lives; to keep planting their potatoes, milking their skinny cows, and harvesting turf to heat their hovels because their only other choice is to take to the road: the worst of outcomes.

Some readers have found the book depressing; yes, the story is sad, but the writing is evocative and succeeds is creating a vanished world, surreal almost, for the reader to get lost in so when the world of this valley is pushed into a civilized courtroom the reader too is confronted by the complexities and necessities of belief, survival, and what is true, good, and right.

I urge you to read this book. You can find it here.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

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British writer, Patrick Gale

This is a very different book, Gale’s latest, from his other work which have usually been an insular look at a group of people in a localised area, usually a small Cornish community. A Place Called Winter is epic in its geography, historic in its time and language, and romantic in its tone. If you had to write a précis of this book it would read something like a historical romance, complete with abandonment of wife and family, a journey across the ocean to a strange and inhospitable land, the finding of love in the most unlikely place, a world war, murder, insanity, tragedy, and a villain of truly despicable proportions, but Gale avoids all the possible clichés that would otherwise render such a story fit only for the sensational shelves of suburban bookshops patronised by retired ladies.

“I didn’t decide, ‘Now for an historical novel!’ Rather I found myself more and more possessed by the material suggested by the fragments of my great-grandfather’s story,” and Gale has been reported many times as saying that for the purposes of fiction, and to account for surprising decisions from his ancestor’s known but sketchy life, he ‘turned’ his great-grandfather gay. This is not surprising for Gale readers, as Gale, an out gay man, writes often and well about sexuality. However “The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary we take for granted now.” Indeed, in his first homosexual experience, which he, Harry Cane, subconsciously seeks out under the guise of a remedy for his stuttering from a handsome, but opportunistic actor and speech therapist, says, when it is obvious what is going to happen and without any stutter at all, “I have absolutely no idea what to do.”

Once his affair is discovered by a kind but firm brother he is forced to avoid a family scandal and possible imprisonment, and flees to the wild cold west of Canada where he is befriended, then abused, but finally set up by a land agent next to a shy and reclusive brother and sister pair, there for their own reasons of displacement. It is here, near a place called Winter, that he discovers what life, love, sacrifice and family really mean. Plot points of self-realization, murder and reunion are described in unsentimental terms and even the climatic act of …. No; no spoilers here.

For all of Gale’s extolling his attention “on the psychology and emotional life” of his characters I found A Place Called Winter, although enjoyable and sustaining, not as rewarding as his other works that focused on a domestic band of rural characters dealing with each other, and more importantly, themselves. The Cornish landscape, both emotional and geographic, he knows well and writes about it with, insight, force and understanding, while such considerations in A Place Called Winter are a little overshadowed by the grandeur of the plot. However, there is a lot to gain from this book; it’s probably the most commercial of his works and one that will gain him a new and, hopefully, loyal readership. He’s prolific: this is his 17th work and I eagerly look forward to what next he has to offer.

Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

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Elena Ferrante is the pseudonymous name of an Italian writer. Publicity shy, she only accepts interviews by email.

        The abandoned woman has a long tradition in classic poetry and literature with Dido, Queen of Carthage during the Trojan war as the most famous example; a time when virtuous heroes where meant to choose duty over love. Abandonment, and the courage to put up with it, became a romantic womanly duty.
        Not so for Elena Ferrante in her most famous novel, Days of Abandonment, 2002, (courageously translated by Ann Goldstein): her protagonist, Olga, who is told by her husband, Mario, a man of “quiet feelings” that he is leaving her because he was having “terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice” and “he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him” leaving Olga “turned to stone beside the sink.”  At first she thinks it is just a phase, he will be back,  but when she finds out the real reason for his departure she is enraged, she becomes violent, obsessed, deranged but determined.
        Told in the first person, the prose is robust, strong; I can understand why some readers think Ferrante is really a man: it feels masculine and has a rowdy momentum that could sweep away any male equivalent like bulls before a train. But this is its strength. It certainly makes you turn the page. I’ve never read rage like this from a writer of either gender. It’s mesmerizing. And her attempt to redeem herself by adopting a man-ish attempt at seduction is funny, sad, distressing, messy, and humiliating all at once.
        The action culminates in a single hot August day: the kids are on summer holidays; there’s no money to entertain them, besides the lock on the front door is faulty and they are trapped. There is sickness, outrage, potential violence and indifference, an annoying brat, and ants. It is exhausting and exhilarating. Great stuff. But if you hate reading strong language stay away!
        It is a war, an internal war between the woman she was and the woman she’s become. Her senses become distorted: time stretches, her spacial understanding convulses and she no longer knows the usual spaces of her own home; they’ve become “transformed into separate platforms, far away from each other.” She loses her balance and can no longer trust her eyes to tell her what is there, her ears what is said, and her past what is true.
        Convoluted but fascinating discourses on love, her past, the world, and relationships – “what a complex foamy mixture a couple is” – sways her brain away from her responsibilities which she fears will unseat her; she employs her daughter to jab her with a paper-cutter. She is losing it but she knows she is losing it.
        She is also an outsider, from Naples, in Italy’s south but living in the northern city of Turin where a common saying peppers local conversation: North Africa starts at Rome. This would put her origins, in the minds of her neighbours, as somewhere in the southern Sahara, as remote as their imaginations could muster. They already think she is a little mad; maybe she is.
        What you think could happen in a locked apartment during a hot summer’s day doesn’t prepare you for what does. The ending will be for you to discover but Ferrante’s point is unexpected, politically incorrect, but perspicacious, and once you read it, digest it and realise what she means, that last line will stay with you for a very   long    time.

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Margarita Buy as Olga in the 2005 film directed by Roberto Faenza who co-write the script with six other writers.

        You can buy the ebook at Amazon, Kobo, and Europa Editions and if you haven’t read it you should.

Ease by Patrick Gale

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British writer, Patrick Gale

I’m not a recipe-bound cook. I like recipe books for ideas not instructions. Generally due to this approach I produce eatable, sometimes interesting, but usually unmemorable dishes. However, sometimes I even amaze myself: my first soufflé was a triumph and I basked in my own pride, and praise from others. Usually, though, when I attempt a former triumph a second time, it is a disaster: my second soufflé was more like a biscuit.

I have seen evidence of this second-time-failure phenomenon in other human endeavours, and not just mine, but Patrick Gale’s second novel of 17, Ease (1985), is not one of them.

His first The Aerodynamics of Pork (1985) was a joy to read but Ease surpasses it: its simpler, clearer, better structured, and philosophically more interesting.

Domina (Dom, Min, Mina) Tey is a successful playwright, who lives with her long-time partner – too long to be a boyfriend, but not legal enough to be a husband – Randolf Herskewitz, (Ran, Rand, Randy – Gale loves to play with names). He’s a writer too, although an academic one, more truth-as-wonder than Domina’s truth-as-reality.

Min writes plays about “menopausal lecturers and novelists” for “the discerning Guardian-reading, professional-oblique-arty masses”, which Des (Desiree), her agent, loves and can sell, but Min is worried she’s getting bored, and therefore boring.

Min leaves Randy and leaves behind the loveliest ‘I’m leaving you/not leaving you’ note you have ever read: “I won’t be in for dinner for a few weeks but the freezer is well stocked,’ it begins. She goes to “visit herself” and “secrecy of whereabouts vital to success of spiritual growth” and she signs “Apologetic affec. Mxxxxxxx.”

She moves to “a top-floor bedsit by Queensway, with no view, in a house full of odd little men and an old-bag downstairs who used to be a mortician.” One of these little men is Thierry, a young, French, gorgeous, promiscuous, and very successful, homosexual who takes her on one of his sauna-searching escapades; another is Quintus, a young, sweet, naïve history student who is trying also to find himself but has just found God, well, not God really, more a church; and not just any church, the Greek Orthodox Church. He captures Min’s curiosity and she captures a few other little things of his as well. I won’t go on; no spoilers here, and there’s quite a lot I could spoil, but no.

No-one knows how this thing we call human life started, if only by a bolt of lightning in a pool of primordial ooze, but start it did, with or without a creative hand. It sounds unlikely but it only had to happen once in a multi-squillion or so years. Anyway, stuff happens and us humans have many diverting, equally unlikely, annoying, and definite views on how we cause or are affected by such stuff and what we then need to feel or do; but if you are of the philosophical bent of our protagonist, Min, (and Mr. Gale, I suspect) you may come away from reading this book with a more peaceful, uncluttered, and sanguine view of us, allowing you to get on with life, like washing the dishes, walking the dog, loving, reading and /or writing books.

Patrick Gale is a British novelist whose ebook editions of his many novels are published in the US by Early Bird Books, and marketed by Open Road Media.

Know Them While You Can

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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

***

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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 Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

Page one can tell you a lot about a book. Here, in  Colm Tóibín’s 1996 novel, The Story of the Night, the first paragraph is in the simple past tense with a first person narrator, Richard Garay, a young Argentinian with an English mother:

“During her last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher.”

The second paragraph is in the present continuous: now, the time of writing.

“I am living once more in her apartment. I am sleeping in her bed, and I am using, with particular relish, the heavy cotton sheets that she was saving for some special occasion. ”

The third paragraph returns to the past, to the story Tóibín wants to tell; set in the time before, and after, his mother’s death,

“She died a year before the war [The Falkland’s war, 1982] and thus I was spared her mad patriotism and foolishness … The war would have been her shrill revenge on everybody, on my father and his family, and on the life she had been forced to live down here [Buenos Aires] so far away from home.”

What you also get from page one is the tone, generated by a sparse prose peppered with well-chosen adjectives (“her shrill revenge”); simple and often short sentences; a formal style – few contractions; and of course the situation, melancholic and fearful, which has a lot to do with meaning: his mother a widow in a foreign country with an only child who is anxious about his future and his desires.

By the end of page one it is clear that the world of The Story of the Night is dark, devious, and dangerous.

“She was elated by the election of Mrs Thatcher. Here is a woman, she said, who knows what is right and what is wrong. And that is what we need here, she said. She showed me Thatcher’s face in a magazine, pointed to her and said how sorry she was not to be in England now.”

This direct speech without punctuation; more like indirect speech is curious since there are passages of traditionally punctuated direct speech. It may be that this direct/non-direct speech, which is reported by Garay, is his version of what was said which raises the question of his trustworthiness; yet he is our key to the story. He is honest with us about his desires, inexperience, political naïveté, and inaction; or is he?

The creation of verisimilitude is essential to the novelist’s goal: to make the reader believe that what they are reading is true, even if that truth only exists in the universe that the writer has created and in which the story lives. As in the theatre, the audience, the readers, are expected to suspend disbelief and believe what they are experiencing. With a first person narrative a strong and common way to do this is, ironically, for the narrator to admit what he or she does not know:

“I don’t remember how or why I began to talk about this.”

Curiously, such a line makes the narrator more believable; we all forget things, why we said things, how we met someone, how we know something. (This doesn’t work, of course, for a third person narrative who is usually all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like) But this not remembering makes him more like us. Tóibín uses this little technique to also heighten the tension surrounding the narrative which is steeped in the political uncertainty following the war with Britain over the Falklands, the Malvinas as the Argentinians call them. Garay is fearful of his professional future; he has a lowly paid English-teaching job which he hates; he is watchful of others who may be spying on him; he is anxious about others knowing his desires; and doesn’t know who to trust. However he is brave (or foolish) enough to take a gamble and becomes politically involved with the father of one of his regular students who introduces him to an American couple, Donald and Susan Ford, with whom he embarks on a friendship but with hidden motives and where the real story, what he assumes, is possibly false. These layers of acquaintances help to deepen the fear; slipping him deeper into a labyrinth. This mixture of political and sexual intrigue creates a sense of danger that always threatens to manifest itself: it is as if danger is around every corner, under every bed, over every page. Garay is constantly on edge and so are we.

Tóibín has been criticized for getting the history wrong and although the setting is a country we all know exists, Argentina, it doesn’t have to be that Argentina; it is the Argentina of the writer’s imagination and this a reader accepts or doesn’t. This is creative writing and one has to accept that it is all created; just because he writer uses the name of an exiting place the reader should not confuse the associational reference with the place itself; anyway, how many of us know the political climate, atmospheric geography, and bar etiquette of 1983 Buenos Aires? And would you take time out to research such things at such times? I think not. The writer wants us to use our knowledge, albeit skimpy and tabloid-ish, to his advantage: he is creating a world in which it is possible for us to believe that what we are reading is true (even if it isn’t). That is the point of fiction.

The Story of the Night is a love story, a tragedy, but also an affirmation: Tóibín is too much an optimist about love to let it be down-trodden by plot.

Tóibín has written previously about men, The Heather Blazing (1992) and The Master (2004), but not for over a decade; his last three novels have been about women; but of all his long-form work The Story of the Night is the most unusual. It has been reported that he has said that his next novel will be again about a man. We can all look forward to that!

The Aerodynamics of Pork by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer, Patrick Gale

To begin a book review in a recent edition of The New Yorker (April 25, 2016), James Woods asserts that if there is such a thing as ‘late style’ in classical music then there must be such a thing in contemporary fiction; and then he describes what it might look like in the late works of Muriel Spark, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Edna O’Brien. He’s right, of course, but then there must be such a thing as ‘early style’; and having read, and blogged about, two later works of Patrick Gale, Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and A Perfectly Good Man (2012) this one, The Aerodynamics of Pork his debut novel from 1985, is a perfect example of such an ‘early style.

There are no exquisite sentences nor the confident rearrangement of narrative time that characterise Gale’s later work. You can sense that Gale is testing the waters with this one; not just testing his own talent but flexing his literary muscles really, paving the way for more complex, more personal, and more adventurous writing.

Gale starts chapters and you find yourself in a maze. This isn’t as disturbing as it may seem; it just ups your trust in the writer a notch or two. (So you think, “This better be worth it”) But, as in a maze, you gradually find youself making sense of where you are, and who people are, their friends and situations and before you know it you find youself out of the maze – it’s only page three and you meet a before-mentioned character, say, from page one – and suddenly you’re into a plot. Gale allows the reader to do some of the work, to test assumptions and make predictions based on the information he gives you without spelling everything out which always halts the flow causing the narrative to plod rather than skip. Gale’s plots always skip.

It remains popular with the reading public even though Gale has somewhat dismissed it as over-written and under edited; I see it more as one of the work’s two narratives working better than the other.

Seth Peake, 15 going on 35, a musical prodigy and an extremely well-adjusted gay school-boy, blossoms artistically and romantically during a summer music festival; and a police inspector, Maude Faithe, a lesbian who’s let her sexuality slip in importance in recent years, discovers it again during her investigation into a bizarre series of burglaries of the homes of astrologists and popular fortune tellers and their soon to be announced prophecy of global importance. Seth is certainly ‘out’ while Mo is definitely ‘in’; as she is about her profession: she’s secretive of her sexuality among her work-collegues, but even more so about her job to potential friends and especially to potential lovers.

Seth’s narrative is more satisfying if only for the characters of his mother and sister; the former a progressive thinker but still a worrier, and the latter, an underachiever who finally understands that her lack of interest in sex is her own affair and her anxiety is solely due to her younger brother’s success at it even if he is underage.

The title is intriguing and there are cute little references to ‘pig’ and ‘piglets’ as euphemisms for members of the constabulary, although more benign than one might expect; and subtle inferences to the adynaton, ‘if pigs could fly.’ It would be a mistake to read too much into this; a memorable title need not be anything but a memorable title; but, of course, it means whatever you think it means.

If you are new to Patrick Gale why not start with this one, just like he did.

This and other Patrick Gale titles are being released in the US as e-editions through Open Road Media and you can find this title here.

http://www.openroadmedia.com/ebook/the-aerodynamics-of-pork

You can also find the book on Open Road Media’s affiliated sites:

Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Aerodynamics-Pork-Novel-Patrick-Gale-ebook/dp/B01FRQEVBK?ie=UTF8&SubscriptionId=AKIAIWK3GU7N4Y5GTA6Q&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=B01FRQEVBK&linkCode=xm2&tag=httpwwwopen01-20

Barnes & Noble:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-aerodynamics-of-pork-patrick-gale/1000208127?ean=9781504037624

Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30227509-the-aerodynamics-of-pork