Archive for March, 2009


I like short stories, and I like that short stories are garnering (in my humble, based-on-anecdote opinion) a wider audience; I talk about Nam Le and Miranda July lately as much as I talk about Haruki Murakami and Ernest Hemingway. New Australian Stories is on Scribe’s ‘latest bestsellers’ list, so that’s heartening. The short story’s a great narrative form, and I’m not going to insultingly qualify that statement by saying ‘for our time’ or ‘for my postmodern, YouTube-inhaling generation’, because I’m not sure that those kinds of things are relevant except for as PR pap.

My love for short stories explained: I like the way short stories seem like biopsies, sampling as if for your edification and entertainment lumpy segments of life. My love for short story collections explained: I really like eating at restaurants partly because I love menus — if you read about everything on offer it’s like sampling each one, if only in your head. In the case of short story collections, reading/sampling is consuming. For me, a person who finds picking and choosing hard, that’s great. A local focus is good too; I like seeing what lots of Australian writers are up to, from the ones I’m familiar with from collections, literary magazines, newspapers and small press, through to the ones I’ve never heard of (no fault of theirs, I’m sure, as the authors all have extensive biographies). It’s also great for the writers, because it puts them in touch with a wider audience. So I guess what I’m saying is that I love the idea of an Australian short story anthology, especially considering that short stories (for whatever reason) are still considered black holes for the publishing dollar.

Scribe’s New Australian Stories, most of whose constituent stories are previously unpublished, gives us stories from the likes of Cate Kennedy, Louise Swinn and Paddy O’Reilly as well as lots of writers I’ve never read (my fault, not theirs — most of the authors have extensive biographies). Stories spanning the spectrum of experience, from the beginning of life to the guilt, agony and mystery of death, can be found in this diverse collection. Re: birth, see Max Barry’s anti-couvade experience in How I Met My Daughter: ‘They dragged this bloody, howling thing from my wife’s abdomen, its limbs twitching and clawing, its face like an angry pumpkin, and asked me, “Do you want to take a photo?”‘ Re: death, see Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Last Words’: ‘Most last words, he had discovered, were banal.’

If short stories are biopsies, then the writers of New Australian Stories are skilled surgeons. The best short stories can conjure a past and a future out of a segment of present. Lots of the stories in this collection do this well. Highlights for me included Abigail Ulman’s Chagall’s Wife, whose tale of a high-school student angling for the attentions of a teacher easily evokes the nonchalance and unexamined alertness of burgeoning sexuality. It also stands out for its lean, direct prose; most of the other stories have a tendency towards fleshier prose which can sometimes be less effective. Another stand-out was Vivienne Kelly’s The Third Child. In this story, Frances writes yearly letters about her unchanging life to an aunt who lives abroad. Kelly’s restraint is admirable and pays off in an unexpected way; it’s a breathtaking story.

In relation to the talk of eliminating the territorial copyright provisions, there has been some fear that if it were to go ahead, uniquely Australian voices and stories would be lost. I get the feeling that the production of this kind of book will be negatively affected by major changes to the Australian parallel importation laws; I’d guess that the risk to independent Australian presses of putting out works by new (to books) Australian authors put is offset by their domestic sales of big-ticket overseas titles and books by established local heroes. The way the Productivity Commission is going (i.e. arbitrarily hedging their bets), if you love short stories, you should buy books like these and make them bestsellers in their own right.

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Clockwise, from top left: Soren Kierkegaard’s the Seducer’s Diary, John Updike’s The Women Who Got Away, Giacomo Casanova’s Of Mistresses, Tigresses and Other Conquests and William Hazlitt’s On The Pleasure of Hating. I know I said earlier, self-embargo, dire economic straits, etc, but I bought these over three weeks ago at Fishpond, whose website I am not even going to cue here because their shipping policy is so flagrantly dilatory that the thought of them somehow getting custom because of me is galling. I was excited at the idea of an Australian online book retailer with postage deals and a large inventory, but if your idea of ’24-hour shipping’ equates to a reality of ’10-day shipping’ then I am not really going to chalk much up to your ‘win’ column. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. To be fair, only one of the books I bought was valid for 24-hour shipping, but that’s a 1000% failure, i.e. a pretty epic fail.

The books look sleek and friendly though, and I’m quite excited to get into fellow misanthrope Hazlitt’s ranting. (‘Excited’ meaning that some time in the next two months, I might turn the first page.)

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Just in case you thought this blog was only about showing off how many pieces of paper you can buy by simply transferring bits of data on the internet, here’s some correspondence between Rick Moody (whose short story collection is languishing on my ‘currently reading’ list to the right, not because of any flaws in the book, but because a restacking exercise banished it to the bottom of a very tall and precarious pile of books) and his friend Michael Snediker about the new Antony and the Johnsons album, The Crying Light (which, incidentally, I am very surprised to love). The correspondence is meandering, and we stop at Derrida, Artaud, Deleuze and Sontag along the way. I didn’t (want to) read it all, but it’s certainly thoughtful at times. Definitely disagree about Joanna Newsom’s Ys album, which for me is a triumphant example of emotion being exhibited at its prismatic best by difficult, technical, impressionistic music. Also, incandescent lyrics. But that’s just me.

March 24, 2009

Just quickly, a neat, quirky little story by Joey Comeau and letters to the late Frank Conroy from his students. Some of those letters remind me of that episode of Dawson’s Creek where the creative writing teacher was super mean to Joey Potter because she was the only one with real talent. But the upshot of this is that spending a little bit of time at eyeshot yields worthwhile results.

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I’m not allowed (the old self-embargo again), but Australian readers should look forward to some speculation in the literary market. According to the layperson’s converter, xe.com, 1 AUD = 0.481158 GBP. This means that Book Depository expects a spike in orders from Australia in 3…2…1…

March 23, 2009

You may have noticed that what’s pictured here is The Essential James Joyce, not a Dubliners edition. The collection contains Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and excerpts from the ‘difficult’ Joyce books. I’ve only read Dubliners so far; it’s one of the books I read while I was away over the summer. Two months have passed since I returned, so my memory of it has faded spectacularly. But what I do remember about reading it is that I was strongly reminded of the Oscar Wilde story ‘The Happy Prince’, which I loved when I was a child. (Full text here.) That story begins:

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.

A swallow nests at the base of the statue but is soon disturbed by the Prince’s tears. The Prince is unhappy because ‘they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead, yet I cannot choose but weep.’ Feeling sorry for the Prince, the swallow agrees to stay three winter nights taking the jewels and gold from the Prince’s statue to the poorest people in the city: the seamstress with a sick child, the playwright with no fire in his garret, a match-girl freezing in the square.

It wasn’t the sentimentality of Wilde’s story that Dubliners brought to mind, but the immediacy and interrelatedness of its vignettes, and the fossicking for drama in lots of everyday lives. Joyce’s stories alight severally on scenes from early-20th-century Dublin and feature places, characters and situations based on assiduous observations and sometimes his personal experiences. If we consider Dubliners a realist survey of its titular city, locating from amongst its thousands of minute happenings a sample of representative scenes, we can infer the significance (at least to Joyce) of the decay of political idealism (‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’), the negotiation of class through marriage (‘The Boarding House’), Protestant-Catholic push-and-pulling (‘Grace’) and dilettanteism in the Gaelic language movement (‘A Mother’). But a more domestic horizon is also figured; Joyce’s characters include an intellectual bachelor whose one love affair returns to affect him (‘A Painful Case’) and a young woman on the brink of leaving Ireland to live with her fiancé in Buenos Aires (‘Eveline’).

It’s interesting, though, to remember how controversial this book was when it was finished in 1905. Obviously, there’s nothing here to shock a modern audience. In fact, I found Dubliners curiously unlively. The detail of the stories is evocative: street and family names reoccur with verisimilitudinous frequency. But the detachment and disillusionment evident in the telling of these stories is alienating. They resolve the intricacies of Dublin into but a cold picture; carousing and conviviality are portrayed without warmth, just as relationships are made and abandoned without hope or affection. Dubliners is no surprising product of an expatriate son of Ireland, and it’s certainly not a cheerful companion. Unlike the Happy Prince, who was discarded by the mayor and his henchmen because of the shabbiness he acquires after giving his treasures to the city’s downtrodden, Joyce writes with a flat disenchantment, bestowing little gleam upon his Dubliners.

I had to use some Year 10 art perspective tricks to get The End of Mr. Y as small as possible, because it’s one of the ugliest books I’ve ever bought. Luckily, it’s a really good book, so you can just ignore what it looks like, and pretend it’s got a big dripping ice cream cone on the front or something.

Reading The End of Mr. Y is like hanging out inside the head of that girl at university who gave you the shits because she seemed so self-possessed, clever and well-read. She always knew what Derrida was on about, was never intimidated by Heidegger, and had read all of Ecrits on her own in a cafe over tea, because despite her wealth of intelligence, tea was all she could afford. (I actually went to university with about eleven versions of this exact person.) All these traits describe the novel’s main character Ariel, a PhD student who is feeling a little bit bewildered as her supervisor, Saul Burlem, has just mysteriously gone missing. Adding to that, her university has closed down because one of the buildings has collapsed. She is on her way home when she finds a copy of ‘The End of Mr. Y’ by Thomas E. Lumas in a secondhand bookshop. This is exciting news for our girl because the subject of Ariel’s PhD is thought experiments, that is, breakthroughs in conceptualising complex ideas based on metaphor or hypothesis (see Schrödinger’s cat), and Lumas is one of her passions. So the idea of finally acquiring the novel, which is extremely rare and, according to legend, cursed, is a bright light in her gelid, lentil-eating life.

Ariel fits the mould of my favourite heroines, who are characterised by a unique effectiveness which in their circumstances seems to be flailing about in the wind. Because or as a result of this, they exist at odds with common social agendas such as wealth and sociability, and of course the acceptability which flows from these agendas evades them as well. Though she’s socially adequate, and intellectually more than adequate, Ariel’s liminality is clearly writ: she has no parents, no money, and few personal attachments other than the occasional kinky sex partner. She loves knowledge and books and ideas more than anything. I guess the reason why I like this kind of heroine so much is that successful resolution for their stories always needs a lot of authorly thought, and Ariel’s story is resolved for me in a very satisfactory and poignant way.

Sorry to be so non-specific, but the book has a slow reveal and I don’t want to ruin anything for you. (Don’t, for example, read this review/essay before you read the book.) It’s safe to say, though, that Thomas has created a thought experiment of her own.

The End of Mr. Y elicited lots of ‘wows’ from me. I loved this novel’s thick ambition and proprietary confidence: there are so many ideas packed into The End of Mr. Y that occasionally I had to shake my head to clear it. Though it approaches unwieldiness (and even silliness) at times, the narrative is always engrossing. Kudos, too, to Thomas for creating a great (the first?) philosophy adventure novel. (Sophie’s World doesn’t count.) I mentioned Derrida and Heidegger earlier, and their work is mentioned so often in the novel that they are basically secondary characters. It’s clear that Thomas is fascinated by their ideas about simulacra, meaning and language, because she puts these ideas to wild and astonishing work: Ariel discovers that ‘The End of Mr. Y’ certainly deserves its mysterious reputation, because it describes a parallel dimension where a person can read another’s thoughts. Many serious hijinks of all-encompassing importance ensue, and they are a credit to the scope of Thomas’ imagination.

In a word: yes.

March 17, 2009

(images from the cia and badmovies)
Such an incredible-looking film.

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‘You like to hunt?’
‘Yes, man. More than anything. We all hunt in my village. You do not like to hunt?’
‘No,’ said Robert Jordan. ‘I do not like to kill animals.’
‘With me it is the opposite,’ the old man said. ‘I do not like to kill men.’

Dear The Rest of the World,

This is a little epistle about the anxiety of reading Very Important Books. This point has become of interest to me because I have finally read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. It’s the only Ernest Hemingway book I’ve ever read (apart from The Old Man and the Sea, which almost doesn’t count because it’s so beautiful and austere it reads like a story that has always existed about the creation of the world). I read For Whom the Bell Tolls every day on the train, swallowing that restraintful, resolute prose in twenty-page increments. How could someone portray the scale of war so well by simply writing about the monoplanes that fly over one small patch of Spanish sky and the cafes where Communist heroes go to meet their mistresses; and how is it possible that in the same book, that author can desolate as well as exhilarate a reader by furnishing them with a many-layered portrait of a man behind enemy lines?

But even though the famous terse locution thrilled me, and the intimacy with the protagonist, Robert Jordan, edified me, I have to admit to you, The Rest of the World, that sometimes I felt a little adrift. I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, and I don’t know much about Hemingway either. And when I felt my attention begin to wane, I panicked a little. Did I not know enough about the context to enjoy this canonical book? Was there something else I just wasn’t getting? Can I ask you a question, The Rest of the World? (And do you mind if I just call you ‘World’?) Do you get this anxious about reading canonical novels? Is it like going out on a date with the quarterback (or the full-forward)?

So I did what I usually do in these situations: turn to people who know more about things than I do. I found four academic articles about For Whom the Bell Tolls. In true me-style, I had picked one article which only referred to the book once, so that left me with three. The others were interesting, though. Kristine A. Wilson introduced me to the word ‘tauromachy’ (show-off synonym for ‘bullfighting’) and more importantly Federico Garcia Lorca’s concept of duende as a way of interpreting the novel. Duende is a slightly amorphous notion, but can approximately be described as ‘a depth and quality of emotion, a dramatic sense of emotional intensity, manifested in the production and experience of great art.’

Vague as that definition might be, World, I found this a very useful concept. Lorca claims that this variant of pathos resonates especially for the Spanish people, who accord death a special status. Duende arises out of a recognition of the tension between life and death, as well as the spectre and ‘weight of human history’. All this tension is aimed at an audience and ‘inspires passion for life’ –a little like the Greeks’ catharsis. Wilson’s article helped with the parts of the novel I found most difficult, which were the love scenes between Jordan and his guapa, Maria. These scenes are positively flowery compared to the terseness of the language elsewhere, and full of the kinds of claims–the earth moves!–that romantic little boys and girls everywhere might find sigh-inducing. I found them grossly misjudged at the time of reading, and I still find them some of the worst-written passages of the book, but Lorca’s schema gives them a place in Hemingway’s emotion-building.

The third article, ‘Gendering Men: Re-Visions of Violence as a Test of Manhood in American Literature’ by Josep Armengol, proposed that Hemingway was obsessed with the idea of violence as a test of manhood because of a violent father and evidenced by participation in military activities and hunting, and of course, his novels which ‘recurrently explore “the condition of a man in a society upset by the violence of war”‘. Thus, it follows that violence was one of his main fictional subjects. My understanding of For Whom the Bell Tolls was not as radically improved by this article, World — I didn’t think it was rigorous enough in defining its terms. But it did shade in a few pale areas of Hemingway’s personal history.

Finally, the work of Karen Engle, which used For Whom the Bell Tolls as a springboard for discussion of how sexual war crimes are conceptualised by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. That’s two of my favourite topics together, World, human rights and literature. Engle wrote about the judicial treatment of rape by the ICTY and how it functioned ‘to limit the narratives about women in war, denying much of women’s sexual, political, and military agency.’ Although many people consider Hemingway a misogynist, Engle argued that Hemingway’s portrayal of Maria was more complex than simply ‘victim’; she is also a woman who fought her abusers, assists with the partizans‘ preparations for the blowing up of the bridge, and continues to have a successful sexual life despite the suffering she sustains every day.

So, World, I think I succeeded in milking For Whom the Bell Tolls of as much meaning as I could happily extract without getting a qualification/payment out of it. I’m no longer embarrassed to say that I did get bored at times with the seemingly interminable minutiae in the novel. But I’m at peace with that being a subjective judgment, rather than the corollary of being poorly informed. As a bonus, my not-quite-connection with the book tossed me into contact with some interesting things. Sure, I’m a neurotic reader, but I’m a contented one now, too.

Nice feelings,
Estelle