Archive for August, 2008

August 31, 2008
The Melbourne Writers Festival finished today and I’m a little relieved, because I haven’t had a day off in a couple of weeks, and I can’t afford to sustain the spiked level of book buying – about 20 this week, thank you very much. 10 of those were from the City Library annual book sale, which was a gold mine of things I’ve always had a minor interest in (hardcover Pamela, a slightly water-damaged Georges Simenon, a Faber poetry collection) and I picked up a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; Robinson is of course the author of Gilead, the best of the books I read in July last year (haha, check the July 2007 posts).

I’ve got some notes on the MWF sessions I saw this week, but I am currently in recuperation mode and am going to watch the recent BBC production of Persuasion; later, Dexter. Ah, Sunday night.

Achilles, Antigone, Mary Magdalene–these are all figures we are used to associating with strength, sacrifice and forgiveness. Marguerite Yourcenar rewrites their extraordinary stories and interpolates therein the experience of tragic romantic love. But for all Yourcenar’s skill and thoughtfulness, evident in her other works, the torment and deliciousness of love are but poorly served in Fires; I was disappointed, even a little disgusted. The great dramatic potential in the most well-known stories of pre-Biblical times is utterly adrift in the prose, which ultimately seems to be the end point of a cathartic process rather than a narrative which can convey the true pathos of catharsis itself.

comprises 11 stories, or rather portions of lyrical prose, in the voices of the respective title characters. Thus, ‘Clytemnestra, or Crime’ begins with an address by Clytemnestra to the jury assigned to her case, the murder of her husband Agamemnon. ‘Clytemnestra’ is among the easiest of the chapters to follow. Others, like the Antigone story, begin with stream of consciousness musings and gain little structure thereafter. There is a certain horror to witnessing such emblematic women made the mouthpieces of trivial, bitter laments. One can only assume from the repetitive yet strangely vague vocalisations that Yourcenar had a very specific emotional axe to grind but was satisfied merely with wearing it away. The historical details used to set the scene, though plentiful, are overwhelmed by violently devotional symbolism and such time-travelling therefore seems useless. The utterer of the line ‘I am rich and hairless’ might well have been Donald Trump as the fabled Xerxes.

It’s possible, though, that if the book contained only these portions, Fires would not have been so unpalatable. But inserted between the stories are poetic segues in a voice ex nihilo, and it is these that completely unbalance Fires. Fawning, aggrandising epistles dedicated to an unnamed love-object are rarely attractive to anyone other than the recipient, and we get 11 of them here. They only aggravate a reader already left in tatters from the counter-intuitive and unknowable shifts of emotional direction that arise from the schizophrenia of catharsis.

What I had hoped to find from this book was an exquisite representation of reworked characters of classic literature, a typology detailing what love can drive a person, fabled or not, to do. Fires instead reads like the unedited diary of an anguished girl, and the bridging parts apparently were reworked versions of extracts from Yourcenar’s diary. However, the preface is fascinating; it’s analytical and controlled yet seems more convincingly passionate than the book proper. Read the preface, if you like.

The festival seems to be going well. Most of the attendees are enthusiastic and patient and kind, and I’m enjoying lots of little chats with them. Notes on the four sessions I saw yesterday:

The Honest Trader suffered a little from losing John Pilger. There were two replacement speakers which meant none of the three speakers had quite enough time. Duncan Green dealt best with this privation and was sharp and snappy. Kenneth Davidson seemed like he was only just getting started–his argument linked global warming and free trade but he barely scratched the surface. It was probably because he spoke so slowly, which I’m sure is very dignified but I wanted to hear much more. Davidson got to sharpen his wit on Q+A participants later on though. From my point of view (economics dummkopf), the suggestions of my RMIT building-mate Heikki Patomaki about the future of governing world trade were admirably succinct, though he was rushed in the end.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: As soon as David Rakoff used Duncan Green’s ‘one minute please’ warning sheet as the basis for a joke I was charmed. His author reading from Don’t Get Too Comfortable was a blast (he’s also an actor–watch for him as ‘not-Gore-Vidal’ in Capote). I’m a bourgie food-enjoyer so his jibes at artisan sea-salt consumers were not lost on me. Quite helpfully, if you’re not familiar with his work, he said he owes his whole career to David Sedaris (they are also friends).

I was ushering during Salman Rushdie’s The Enchanter session. Though I’m a bit weirded out at some people’s insistence on calling him Sir Salman (I get an image of a fish with a walking cane), and though I probably don’t want to read another book of his again (two is enough), he was an endearing centre of attention for an hour. Even beamed live from Edinburgh, he was a crowd-pleaser who cracked jokes and laughed at them afterwards, but in the best possible way, just like he was happy that everyone was having such a good time. Best moment was when someone in the Edinburgh audience asked him about towns in India that were good to visit for people with low mobility. Apparently the city where The Enchantress of Florence is set was designed with wide streets and ramps everywhere in order for the princess’ litter to be carried with ease, which makes it ideal for tourists with limited mobility. He suggested a very flat town whose name I can’t remember, and then told a story about a tower whose architecture amplifies the voice of a speaker such that it can be heard as far away as the ramparts.

The undisputed highlight of the day for me was Sailing with Nam Le. Le was articulate, considered, inestimably gracious, funny. I actually had a freak-out moment when I thought he was my age (24) but I found out later that he was older. From what I know about him, I wouldn’t characterise him as an ‘ethnic fiction’ writer, but two of his stories are about Vietnamese immigrants coming to Australia. Le discussed the exploitative potential inherent in ethnic fiction, which has often been on my mind lately, and explained his interest in the interface between audience and writer, the building up of expectation and knowledge through autobiographical detail. The discussion touched on writerly disappointment (his 700-page novel was turfed after he deemed it unsalvageable) and rigour. I was charmed to see a writer so enthralled by aesthetics and craft. A better advertisement for a book I have never seen. Thank god he left his law firm. It was great to see Sophie Cunningham chairing that session, as I missed her and Le in the morning’s Ear to the Ground session.

my zine co-collaborators and i are having a launch at sticky on september the 6th. our first zine is called ‘anyone can make a zine’, it is totally enabling, slightly exhortative and will crank you up with the fire of love. melissa is doing the cooking and baking, she is a pro. i am doing the ‘being there’ stuff. lots of people will be joining me in that pursuit. come get a copy of our zine, or laugh with us (and not at us, that would be insufferable) and play with us.
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Trauma, in its psychoanalytic variant, has been described by Cathy Caruth as the response to ‘unexpected or overwhelming violent events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena.’ Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled insists upon the magnitude of power our traumas possess over our waking lives; whatever illusions of functionality we may impose upon ourselves and others, we are all always engaged in smoothing over the cracks where our traumas lie.

Ryder is a world-renowned pianist recently arrived at a hotel, where plans are underway for a spectacle. He is patently key to the preparations, but he cannot manage to recall the exact nature of the event. The alacrity with which he is received and deferred to makes him reluctant to correct his benighted state. Instead, he agrees to various and increasingly random requests from hotel staff and finds himself in the midst of the town’s cultural identity crisis.

The town is full to the rafters of the title’s ‘unconsoled’. People unknown to Ryder confide in him their essential secrets: Stephan, the son of the hotel manager nervously seeks piano performance advice, musicality being crucial to his parents’ approval; an old friend who is having trouble gaining a foothold in the town’s artistic circles appears, as does an old school acquaintance who has fallen on lonely times. As if compelled by something in Ryder’s personality or presence, these individuals disclose their problems with little preamble and he finds it easy to comfort them.

However, the dream-like way in which Ryder progresses from event to event indicates that his perception is somehow marred. Time between his guest roles in others’ difficulties elapses without a trace, and he transits between locations inexplicably. Memories predating his arrival at the hotel are few and far between, until his consciousness emerges gradually, as if from a dream. He discovers, or rather remembers a connection to the porter, Gustav, and Gustav’s daughter, Sophie. Though he can act the lance for his supplicants’ cankers, it seems that with Sophie he is the subcutaneous malefactor. Ryder is asleep to this conflict, and as such is incapable of offering assistance. Sophie’s grievances remain unnamed, and their being so makes the possibility of their resolution only theoretical.

Ishiguro speculates and succeeds in estimating the manoeuvres and resources of a savaged mind. The revelation that Ryder is himself an agent of trauma has a transformative effect on the nature of the narrative. The cumbrous multiple flashbacks of others mask Ryder’s disinclination towards generating his own memories. His trauma is ineffable, and repeats itself upon his psyche in the form of its focus on the confessions of others. We know from Caruth’s definition what happens to victims of trauma, but The Unconsoled is a case study in the outcome for those who inflict it. Such infliction is traumatic in itself, the perpetrator equally incapable of processing the events as the survivor. Unwittingly suffering, and dramatically unable to turn his Gordian sword upon himself, Ryder constitutes an insulated mystery in plain sight.

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August 14, 2008

I just started working 5 days a week. P-ew. It is tiring. I am reading two books, currently, but it’s a surprise, and I won’t tell you what they are. That doesn’t include the two books I’ve stopped reading, as of a long time ago. I’ll tell you what one of them is. It is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Someone lent it to me, and I was amused by the atheist-as-highest-rational-being movement but it doesn’t feel relevant to me to read it anymore. I don’t really identify with using logic to put the eye out of a construct that can arguably be a vehicle for good or bad. It’s not the debate about the content and instrumentality of religion that I find uninteresting, by the way. I think that is always a relevant and complicated issue. But I don’t really warm to preacherly tones, so I suppose I will just never see eye to eye with that clever clogs. Quite post-zeitgeisty, isn’t it, talking about The God Delusion.

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Boy grows up in bucolic setting with beautiful but strict aunt and listens to the stories of a grizzled visiting traveller; a band of strangers start poking around, forcing him and some companions to leave the farm where he grew up; boy eventually finds out he has to save the world, and of course he does. Keep reading if the previous and the words ‘Orb’ (yes, with the capital letter) and ‘dryad’ don’t make you dry-retch.

This series was recommended to me as an exemplar of the quickie quest-fantasy genre. David Eddings’ author profile states that the five books making up the Belgariad series were writen ‘in an effort to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning’ the fantasy genre. The technical motive is obvious here; these books are pretty close to a scientific foray into fantasy as I (an enthusiastic but not very well-versed consumer of fantasy books) have ever seen. Well-paced, internally consistent, mostly powerfully characterised, it’s as digestible as strawberries with cream; move along if you’re after Tolkien-esque three-page tree songs.

The series tracks the life of Garion, a charmingly incurious farmboy who, among other things, lacks the facility to attend to multiple and not-very-subtle hints about his destiny. He is therefore amusingly surprised each time he finds out the nature of his next mammoth responsibility. He’s a bit dull but entirely sympathetic–loving, loyal and possessed of equal amounts of power and humbleness. Garion walks into danger with a bravery that every lonely kid wishes they could harness. Well, that’s from my experience reading in the bushes in primary school, but it’s probably not just kids–the fourth book, for example, was reprinted ten times in nine years and there is another five-book series which details the later lives of the characters. Can I say cash cow? Moo.

I gave away the ending at the beginning of this post, but no one would be surprised that Belgarion (the kingly prefix comes into play once he becomes a sorcerer-adept) succeeds in his gauntlet of tricky tasks, despite the constant assertions by everyone from the gods to the dogs of his 50/50 chances. But no one reads fantasy to be radically surprised, horrified or disappointed; that’s what George Orwell is for. Instead, the Belgariad features a rollicking admixture of magic, action and prophecy, and a cast of colourful characters with complex personal and political relationships. Only one major false note is struck, and that is the character Ce’Nedra, Garion’s destined bride. Not only is her name plagued by an insufferable fantasy apostrophe, but her character breaks a great cardinal rule of fiction; she is distastefully unsympathetic. Screechy, jealous, passive-aggressive, manipulative and smug without the benefit of true villainy, she could have been turfed after the main event without any tears being shed on my behalf. One suspects Garion wouldn’t have blinked an eye either.