Archive for April, 2008

My name is Herbert Badgery. I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity. They come and look at me and wonder how I do it. There are weeks when I wonder the same, whole stretches of terrible time. It is hard to believe you can feel so bad and still not die.

I popped my Peter Carey cherry with Illywhacker, Carey’s second novel from 1985. I was disposed to like it before I had even opened it; the heavily typographic art characteristic of the UQP’s pretty, lyrical covers – this edition is part of a series of re-releases done in 2001 – and the rough-cut pages give the book a wonderful aesthetic heft. And, apart from having received the Booker and The Age‘s blessings (shortlist and Book of the Year, respectively), Illywhacker was a loan from friends who gave it high praise.

As a useful epigraph supplies, an illywhacker is a professional trickster, someone who is putting a confidence trick over whatever audience is available. This is no idle descriptions; it is a warning. It is as if in the moment Herbert Badgery begins his little introduction, you are challenged not to be yet another wretched fool taken in by his words. Lying is an art, and Badgery a master painter. Yet Illywhacker is not just Badgery’s story, and Badgery’s words are not only lies. Lovers, parents, rivals, children all make up the raft of memorable characters, each of which is delivered as warm and vulnerable as a baby’s delicate skull. For all his convoluted bluster, Herbert Badgery cannot hide the magnitude of their impact on his life’s report. This book is an epic of grand proportions, an account of life that, while altered, is so complete as to put memory to shame.

How to describe the experience of reading my first Peter Carey novel? (For I’m sure I will read another.) Fond-eyed as a lover, I read every page with exigent attention. Carey is a radical storyteller, and his capacity for the precise evocation of detail is the alchemical complement to his fulsome imagination. By rights, Badgery’s efforts to con and disappear should rankle. Since circumstances so disparate and overwhelming continue to threaten him and his family’s well-being, a coherent family history seems unimaginable. But from the cutaneous to the vehicular, the historical to the magical, Illywhacker traverses the rich journeys taken by blood that is fatally flawed; blood which is, after all but finest filigree of the strongest steel.

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April 28, 2008

update is coming…very lazy weekend. sorry!

A young woman answers questions on an exam with direct quotes from lectures and textbooks, but she doesn’t have a photographic memory; she can remember passages of incredible lengths if she puts them to music. A composer advises the owner of a piano that its upper register is out of tune, only to be informed that it is perfectly in tune, having been tuned only the previous week. A seventy year old woman has musical hallucinations at quiet moments, the playlist of which includes ‘a really dreary version of We Three Kings of Orient Are’.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain documents Oliver Sacks’ continued study of diverse psychological aberrations with typical respect for the dignity, and evocation of the effulgency of his subjects. The four parts of Musicophilia each consider a different category of musical anomaly: some of his patients and correspondents are ‘haunted by music’; other stories illustrate points on the spectrum of ‘a range of musicality’; later, Sacks describes psychological deviations which combine and affect ‘memory, movement and music’ as well as ‘emotion, identity and music’.

As the title indicates, those expecting an Idiot’s Guide to music will be left scratching their heads. Musicophilia‘s methodology, if it has one, is Sacks’ willingness to be led by the fascinating serendipities, and sometimes tragedies, of his subjects’ lives. Yet the strange territory covered by the books, interspersed with accounts detailing more well-known phenomena such as synaesthesia, will no doubt serve to put fire in the bellies of readers already interested in the workings of the mind, and in addition to his previous publications, Sacks readily cites other authors and texts to which a hungry mind might turn.

While wide-ranging within its musical theme, Musicophilia is yet another example of Sacks’ gift for explaining the intricacies of the mind and the body in accessible prose. He tells stories about musicians with Tourette’s Syndrome with deft and compassionate expertise, and reports previously unknown and therefore unnamed dis/abilities so as to leave no reader in doubt, nor simply in the wake, of his enthrallment by the fruits and the foibles of the mind.

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I present this book for whatever it is worth. It is a fruit full of bitter ashes; it is like the bitter-gourds of the desert, which grow in sun-baked places and only offer the thirsty a more fearsome burning, but which on the golden sand are not without beauty.

Immorality, much more than morality, is subjective. Gide was prolific and famously personal in his writing career. Therefore, one might expect a fiercely argued treatise of a book of this appellation. Nevertheless, The Immoralist does not simply comprise a marginally fictionalised account of Gide’s decidedly ‘immoral’ behaviours. It is in fact remarkably skimpy on details of any events which might today be eagerly recounted in the pages of novels or gossip magazines. Instead, The Immoralist interpellates readers, as moralists or im-, to explicit recognition of codes of morality within individual and social experience.

The Immoralist opens with a special pleading put to the Premier of France arguing the case of Michel, a former academic whose resolution to realise his true nature creates friction between himself and his wife, who is chronically ill; renders him incapable of enjoying aspects of his privileged life; and precipitates the making of hitherto unimaginable relationships with tenant farmers and impoverished African boys. Though appearing to beg employment for Michel, this appeal to the highest ranks of national representatives seeks more: to find out whether it is possible ‘to invent a use for so much intelligence and strength’ despite the owner’s deviation from the principles guiding middle-class citizens.

Michel is, at first, an exemplary repository of most of these principles. Familial commitment, intransigent love of work, ownership of property and an engagement with religion are all present in the earlier incarnation of the man. Change occurs in Michel’s life not as the acknowledgment of new, salient principles, but rather in his side-stepping the old ones on the basis of personal desire and whim.

Despite his joy at undertaking a way of life which caters for his interest in the lives of the lower classes, Michel experiences tension at every turn. The irruption of Michel’s old life into the new shows the intractability of tradition and human relationships and foregrounds the elusiveness of the ‘fresh start’. Yet when most of the trappings of society are successfully shed, the exigencies of life and desire expand to consume and collapse even the enlarged receptacle. Gide refuses to characterise The Immoralist as either ‘arraignment’ or ‘apologia’, rather severing our access to Michel’s story at the point where he is capable of an unsheathed interface with life’s pleasures and benefits but completely vulnerable to vicissitudes of life and the self.

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