Archive for March, 2008

(My picture to come. My camera is sad)

Dear Mr Hesse,

I love your books very much. I lend Siddhartha to everyone, and I took to heart the recommendation of one of my three favourite university lecturers (he carried himself like a lion) that I read The Glass Bead Game. I even want to read Narziss and Goldmund despite my suspicions that it may be another treatise on the exquisite, enduring but platonic love two men can have for one another.

That is why I feel guilty that Steppenwolf is sitting in the middle, not even on the top, of my Half-Read Books Pile. It has good company. It is three books below Hunger by Knut Hamsun, five books below Woody and Mia by Kristi Groteke (with Marjorie Rosen). It is on top of Tao Lin’s Eeeee eee eeee.

The usurper which very lately condemned all the books in this Pile to maintaining their ranked positions is The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. It took me one day to read. I hope you won’t be too upset.

You are about sixth in line.


Thirteen stories: a giant is walking. You are between her articular cartilage and patella, deep within the knee, wedged to the quick – then suddenly released. Such is the effect of Anais Nin’s fierce, intimate writing. One moment a reader dreads pending discomfort, but the next moment remembers suffocating and delightful intensity.

Nin’s indulgent, figurative prose may not appeal to everyone; her prose can be self-involved to a fault. Many of the stories read as undisguised excerpts from her famous and numerous diaries, and still others evoke their centrality in her creative life: “I was eleven years old when I walked into the labyrinth of my diary” (The Labyrinth). However, her life-long practice of journal writing has enabled her to shore up a capacity for observing others as well. Under A Glass Bell is magnetic when the narrator (often an ‘I’ barely distinguishable from Nin herself) extols the virtues of one of her various and terrible characters, whether a woman deep in the incoherent throes of childbirth or an artist conversing in his insanity.

Much of the stories’ impact comes from Nin’s penchant for vivid imagery, exemplified by the rare and beautiful Persian prints sent to the title story’s heroine, Jeanne. Such singular images signify emotion, often without bending to plot. Thus the stories of Under A Glass Bell read like postcards from a place withstanding a Mount Washington wind, featuring pictures of things which have been burnt long ago yet retain an extreme heat.

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And so: the tray, the milk and sugar, golden tea in a cup, a miniature eclair on a blue plate.
Tom’s breath caught in anticipation.
‘That looks absolutely nice,’ said Iris.

I have absolutely given Australian fiction a hard time in the past, not least due to the abysmal way such books are introduced to school-age girls and boys. Every local author seemed, to my youthful narrow vision, to whitewash their pages in reflections on ghostly gums and the infinite character of the land. (I realise this introduction does no favours to any representation of my open-mindedness.) The seeming ubiquity of this trope, exacerbated by the limits of my school and local libraries, led me to believe that it was impossible to find Australian fiction the parameters of which were not set by the shoreline. (Cringe.)

Thus, it was with trepidation that I approached Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog. As a gift from voracious readers, though, I staved off this anxiety in anticipation of ‘what kind of a book’ someone else thought I might like to read. Imagine my feelings when the opening pages read: Afterwards, he would remember paddocks stroked with light. He would remember the spotted trunks of gum trees; the dog arching past to sniff along the fence.

Yes, I was sorely vexed.

Sticking to my guns, and aware of the blurb’s promise of mid-twentieth century India, I continued past the initial paragraphs. There I met Tom Loxley, product of the union between an Indian beauty and an ignominiously English father. De Kretser’s description of the relationship between Iris de Souza and Arthur Loxley is skilfully wrought, with a lightness of touch that belies the unaccommodating acuteness of post-colonial India from which the Loxleys finally move: casual racism, familial incompetency, the avalanching phenomenon of emigration.

Hence Tom Loxley wrestling with the disobliging legacy of Henry James: in his office at university, at home in Melbourne, and finally in a cabin in the bush, which is where the dog gets lost. The cabin belongs to Nelly Zhang, an artist whose reticence, talent and history have an exquisite appeal. De Kretser’s greatest success is how she figures the mystery of the urban fey; Tom’s inability to secure any solid understanding of Nelly is foregrounded by the sporadic filtering of details through sensationalism, assumption and jealousy, those great guardians of accuracy. Contrasted with the dog’s disappearance, this much less tangible pursuit of the truth proves no less urgent and at least as compelling.

Considering the lyricism with which De Kretser conveyed this multi-generational tale, it was with no regret that I renounced my antipathy for Australian fiction. Even a sometimes awkward approach to dialogue enhanced her considered inquiry into personhood, revealing conversation for its brutal, dissembling self. Summoning brevity, empathy and familiarity to her aid, De Kretser has rendered the landscape of the Australian psyche with regard to all its sources and betrayers.