Archive for September, 2008

September 30, 2008

Yikes, so my friend John and I decided to start up a book club of our own. Our first book is going to be Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy. I’ll take two book club commitments in October, thanks. Melbourne Uni book club’s book is Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Of the already-reads of these, I’ve met with equal amounts of approval/disapproval for both books. Any thoughts?

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September 28, 2008

I love short stories, and I love a deadline (I’ll examine the latter part of that statement with some bemusement tomorrow, I think). So I’ve decided to join in the fun at Ready When You Are, C.B, where they’re running Short Story September, with a short story review.

Chekhov’s story Murder reminds me of the Theatresports game Murder Endowments, where the elected victim has to act in such a way that when the murderer returns to play, it is immediately apparent who should be knocked off. But in Murder, instead of just one odious victim, Chekhov gives us a whole range of characters whose personalities force detective guesses to rebound. Matvey Terekhov, the righteous simpleton, bores fellow villagers to tears with enthusiastic retellings of church happenings; the barbate good looks of Matvey’s cousin, Yakov Ivanych, can’t hide the lack of good feeling he has towards others; and Yakov’s sister Aglaya is a money-hungry mother who speaks only to shriek and whine.

Life at Progonnaya sees faith and hypocrisy as friends, and the characters each have their own variation of this curious blend of characteristics. One sings hymns while denying friends bread, another speaks of devotion while laying claim to family property; so it’s no surprise that before long at least one person has behaved in a most irreligious way. And of course, the titular murder is a chance for Chekhov to get some mileage out of the symbols of purity and sin; a white kerchief (worn in the 1800s by members of the Flagellant sect) gets well and truly splattered with blood at the scene of the crime.

Lest anyone think Chekhov has lost his moral compass, the climactic murder doesn’t mark the end of the story. Villagers watch as the culprits are most publicly taken in hand, and justice is of course served. Or is it? Somehow, ineffable and self-validating faith, the worst incarnation of that phenomenon, sneaks through the ugliness of hell to again find rest in its most loyal proponents. Murder teaches a lesson that is easy to see in the lives of others but difficult to discern in our own, and for that we may be grateful, or not.

Okay, so I’d never heard of Georgette Heyer before getting lots of phone calls at MWF from people buying tickets to the eventually sold out session about Heyer and regency romances, the genre she apparently coined. If I lean towards any type of genre fiction, it’s fantasy, and the historical histrionic romance had totally passed me by. But I had this sitting in my bookshelf at home, so I gave it a crack.

This charmingly soft-lit cover is pretty indicative of what this book (and I’m guessing the genre) is like–exotic girl with hyaline eye-whites involves herself in terribly exciting and dangerous things, like running away from home and murder mysteries. Young Eustacie de Vauban is to be married off to Sir Tristram Shield, who is as pragmatic and impatient as she is romantic and silly. A mystery to do with inheritance, wrongful conviction and stacks of privilege and wealth plays out between several cliched characters, though the action is light-hearted enough.

I’m not really one for dates and times, but I’m given to understand that The Talisman Ring is set some time between 1749-1830. That’s a good long time, but it’s hard to detect much similarity between this Sussex tale and stories told by Jane Austen about a similar period and milieu. Heyer’s book is in tone like a Shakespearian comedy without the sting, with its nescient heroines, fun complications and neat conclusions. Plenty of historical detail, dramatic acting, kissing and clever schemes make The Talisman Ring rather like one of the plays Austen’s heroines wouldn’t approve of — diverting and more than a little frivolous. There’s certainly none of the considered intimacy of Austen’s books, nor any of the eroticism. But it’s nevertheless a rollicking one-day read which would do to flick the swashbuckling switch in anyone.

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September 22, 2008


Hey, a picture from my phone this time. As I related earlier, the book club book for September was Kafka’s The Castle. It’s a novel that was never finished, and one of many works that Kafka asked his friend, and later, editor, Max Brod to destroy after his death. I thought it would be much harder to read, but as it turns out, its wickedly long sentences and three-page character monologues didn’t bother me at all. I could see how it would turn off a less intrepid or committed reader though. I mean, there’s no ending. But for all its unfinishedness, the book engages with significant philosophical dilemmas. Erich Heller portrayed Kafka as a writer interested in the tension between absolute freedom and the knowledge of terrible servitude, and The Castle shows an attempt to extract something, anything, from the space between those states.

K. arrives in the village at night, and is questioned about his presence. He claims to have been called to the village as a land surveyor, but the officious Schwarzer, son of a castle governor, doubts K.’s story. Schwarzer applies to the castle for guidance and receives conflicting advice. Thus begins an epic, triangulated back-and-forth between K., the inhabitants of the (unnamed) village and the castle itself. Nonsensical bureaucratic arrangements, such as a heavy reliance on paperwork and a random telephone answering system, and paranoiac behaviours are typical of the castle modus operandi.

Though the castle is physically salient, perched as it is on a hill (but made up of rambling buildings rather than stone ramparts), it is yet more significant in the mental geography of the villagers. When K. becomes engaged to Frieda, the bartender at an inn, it becomes imperative that he resolve the issue of his putative employment by the castle. When he inquires how to access the castle, though, he only receives horrified and debarring replies. Little is known about the castle, and what information K. coaxes from the villagers has the the ad hoc and ex post facto feel of early myth and religion, unveiling a frightened populace defining reality according to subjective experience and fear. We learn that though it is rare, the castle does intrude occasionally on the villagers’ lives, and the resonances last long in that insular community.

The City Library had the Underwood translation, which I counted as a blessing having read Coetzee’s article in the New York Review of Books about the earliest translation by the Muirs. The Muirs worked from the manuscript of Kafka’s friend Brod, who altered Kafka’s original significantly. Also, Brod apparently worshipped Kafka, and had a pretty religious coat on. A good example of the impact this type of editing had on the novel is the elimination, in the Muir translation, of K’s simple statement at the beginning of the book, that he left his wife and child behind to come to the village. The absence of that statement increases the availability of a psychoanalytic reading involving trauma (considering K.’s lack of previous memories and access to the hurts of others), it also disrupts the totally off-kilter perception of K.’s character–who would leave their wife and child for an illusory job, a wayward fiancee and complete limbo?

September 18, 2008

Last night I went to my first book club meeting. My friend Anna does an excellent job of running the Melbourne University book club; there was plenty of wine (good cleanskins) and cheese. It’s been going for a couple of years now, I think. Good dude mix as well, about half of us weren’t students, which surprised me. What book did we discuss? Kafka’s The Castle. Only about half of us read the whole thing, hmmmm. I did, but I’m almost a chronic finisher–I even finished that ball of grimy cheese last year. I thought reading to other people’s deadlines would make me a grump, what with my resuming library borrowing and having book club time limits. But I’m pleased to report that my goodwill remains intact. Which is pretty good–chalk one up for being disciplined. Well, we’ll see. I still have to finish Ward No. 6 and Other Stories so I can return it to the library this week.


I like to read fantasy from time to time, and people I spoke to about fantasy were always surprised that I hadn’t read any Ursula le Guin. And apart from her short story The Ones who Walk away from Omelas, which was included in the printed material for a literature subject I did a couple of years ago, I really hadn’t. I hadn’t even come across her a little bit. But I really enjoyed reading A Wizard of Earthsea, and here’s why.

Writing fantasy, of course, requires copious amounts of imagination. I have previously decanted my thoughts on the prodigious leeway given fantasy writers that would never be dreamed of for realist fiction writers. Helen Garner once talked about a mentor of hers telling her that good writing often necessitated the eliminating of adverbs, because anxiety resided in adverbs. This is a great way of explaining how I feel about poorly edited fantasy books–full of extremely anxious writing. Not, of course, that fantasy writers literally use more adverbs. But the superfluity of explanation that is often to be found in fantasy books speaks to a distrust of the reader–it preempts wonder and excitement in its haste to explicate itself. Lots of recent fantasy bestsellers contain huge breaches of the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim of writing.

There is nothing anxious about le Guin’s writing in A Wizard of Earthsea. In fact, some things and concepts go totally unexplained. Reading it is like learning a language; you must extrapolate the meaning of the unknown for yourself from the context, although without a dictionary you must live with the feeling that there is something ineffable about the components of Earthsea. This is an extraordinary experience that produces wonder in a reader more than the intimate and comprehensive enumeration of X tree bark or Y potion. Le Guin also has a beautiful way with description. For example, the quotidian lifestyle of the residents of the Ninety Isles, where ‘housewives row across the channel to take a cup of rushwash tea with the neighbour’, is portrayed in a way which makes the threat of hostile dragons loom suspensefully yet subtly.

This minimalist tale, the first in a series about a boy with great power, is a grave and deservedly honoured example of the magician’s coming of age story. It has all the requisite elements: dawning awareness of moral responsibility, competition, epic journey, danger and loneliness. But in le Guin’s hands, a narrative we think of as timeworn becomes archetypal.

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