Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

I have been getting right into the library over the past couple of months. We might be moving house in a while so I’ve been trying not to accumulate more books for the moment. Honestly, I think my boyfriend might break up with me if I buy any more before we move. Plus, have you been to the library lately? As my friend Maddie would say, you can get like THIRTY BOOKS FOR FREE. I am a pro at using the library. I get some good stuff there. It is a truly amazing institution.

So I’ll just briefly chat about the titles I have to return soon.

The Diving Pool / Yoko Ogawa

If you’re anything like me, you feel a little heartsick when looking at the spines of your Murakami and Yoshimoto books, remembering how much you loved contemporary Japanese literature and then read so much that you kind of had a brain hernia in response and now get hives whenever looking at book covers that feature brushstroke fonts on white backgrounds. It’s evident to me that I have avoided reading new Japanese writing for this not very good reason, which is totally dumb because The Diving Pool is really good. It comprises three stories that all exhibit Ogawa’s deceptively understated prose, which often gently depicts strange, repellent but morally opaque acts. In ‘The Diving Pool’, the only biological daughter of serial orphan-adopting parents hurries to the pool the same day each week to watch her foster brother, Jun, diving. This hidden obsession is a rare bright spot in her life: she thinks that her blood relationship with her parents ‘disfigures’ her family, and her relationship with its members is by turns callous and derisory.

‘Pregnancy Diary’ tracks the changing moods and diet of a pregnant woman through the eyes of her sister, who makes grapefruit jam to assuage her cravings. But this seeming act of sisterly affection takes on a grotesque malevolence through repetition. A disturbingly slanted take on familial care and the venerated ideal of a gravid woman.

The final story, ‘Dormitory’, sees a young woman revisit the dormitory where she lived while at university. Food is an integral part of each of Ogawa’s stories. This woman takes small cakes and other gifts to the dormitory’s caretaker as a way of showing respect and care, but also as an excuse to be there – or perhaps to excuse her being there, as her visits become more numerous. But food also rots and harbours malignancies; it decays, as do bodies and buildings. This book is more powerful for not pathologising the harms it describes; for its quiet, polite voices that utter terror.

A Single Man / Christopher Isherwood

I have to confess that the 1960s are not my strongest decade. I don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge about the historical context or adjacent literature to make the most of anything I read from that time. But I still enjoyed reading A Single Man, set over the course of one day in the life of George Falconer, an British expat teaching literature in Los Angeles. In some ways it’s a regular day; George wakes up, talks to his friend Charley, thinks about his neighbours, drives over the bridge and to work. But it’s also a day defined by a loss that George has recently suffered – that of his partner, Jim. Moving not only as an intimate portrait of a man psychologically reconstructing himself in response to his surroundings, but also in its frank treatment of aging and sexuality, this novella deals in gear-changes, masks and behaviours. Enjoyable, too, are the academic-novel scenes, in which colleagues bicker and gossip about each others’ wives. And much is changing in LA: a diversifying body of students represent a newish type of America, while Charley reminisces – in a plummy RP that leaps off the page into the ear – about the old country.

Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn

AAAARRRRGGGHHHHHHHHH. Okay, so I shot myself in the foot with this one. For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was a super literary thriller. I’d read about it all over the place and everyone was raving about it, so I thought I was reading a very different book than what I was. When it finally dawned on me that Gone Girl is essentially a grown-up Christopher Pike-ish type thing, I was already sore from having my ear chewed off by two of the most irritating narrators I have encountered in a long time. So please don’t take this as an unbiased opinion.

You probably already know enough about Gone Girl‘s plot or premise, so I don’t need to go into that too much. Perfect wife Amy Dunne goes missing on her and husband Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary, yada. They alternate chapters as narrators. There’s a big twist. Yes, it’s an extremely tight thriller, quite astonishing. I marvel at the structure of this book, and my imagination is not capable of coming up with this kind of story (though there are some stretch-the-imagination bits). I’m actually afraid of Gillian Flynn now. Don’t cross that lady. But I think the horrors here are almost purely structural – or even theoretical – rather than emotional. I felt absolutely nothing when I reached the huge twist (okay, that’s a lie – my attention had been flagging, and it whipped back into place once I reached the twist). And I think many readers would be able to guess what the twist is (though not the specifics, which are mindboggling) – there are enough clues. But Amy Dunne’s voice is so cloying (I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I understand that there’s of course a good reason for this) and Nick’s so lackadaisical that I really couldn’t have cared less what happened to either of them. Plus, he’s the kind of narrator (an ex-writer!!!) who feels the need to tell you all this stuff he knows about grammar and story structure. Cue zombie-style rolling of my eyeballs. Nothing makes me more annoyed. ARGHGH, etc.

When I got to what Peter Craven called a ‘sick-making’ ending in The Age, I was pretty unmoved. I felt more upset in Grade 4 when my frenemy stole my story about a fruit bowl, copied it and handed it in as her own. Okay, that’s a pretty dog act, but still. In conclusion: I admired this thriller. It is surprising and fairly well paced. I read it expecting it to be something else, so that’s just my bad. But I was disappointed and pretty annoyed. Kind of reminded me of Double Indemnity (amazing movie, okay, just wait) in that the suspense kept me going, but the emotional side of the character development was lacking, which made for little emotional punch. (Though Double Indemnity has much better dialogue. Uhhh, I regret bringing this up.) And that’s a genre thing, and that’s okay. Just letting you know how my experience was.

The Lover’s Dictionary / David Levithan

Oh my god, it’s like someone gave me a shot of vodka. I feel so much more calm thinking of this book. This is seriously like a pear and Sauternes sorbet after a main course of rotted monkey brains in terms how comfortable I feel. Ahhhhhh. Okay, here is a book that has heart as well as a creative structure. I’ll just be quick now. The Lover’s Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary: words like ‘caveat’ and ‘flux’ are presented, not with definitions, but memories and wonderings that make up a love story. It’s non-linear, so each ‘definition’ is like a piece of a puzzle that the reader puts together over the course of the book. This concept might be too cutesy for some, but Levithan’s pared-back prose ensures the end result isn’t too saccharine. A nice idea, well executed.

having selected the book by georges perec called the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise to read you are faced with a dilemma or if you like an unsolvable problem on the one hand you would like to read this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth most well known for which you have laid down the not insignificant sum of twenty-seven dollars and ninety-five cents and if you are honest with yourself you were expecting a book bigger than the eighty-four page volume you receive in the mail actually perhaps it is over one hundred pages with preliminary matter but that is really not to the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – but on the other hand you are worried that if you are seen on the way to work with such a title other people on the tram may think you grasping and even worse someone who works with you may spot you and think you insensitive as well as grasping for it is well known that your industry is going down the toilet but it’s one or t’other you have after all spent your hard earned money on this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth most well known perhaps not more well known than a void written without the use of the letter e no not once yes really quite a feat anyhow you decide to read this book regardless of what the general public and more specifically your colleagues may think should they see you reading it in this economic climate and more specifically in the midst of this age of uncertainty in the industry in which you work after all you have spent your hard earned money on this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth well known and what you discover is that you are relieved that the book is only eighty-four pages rather than say one hundred and forty-four pages because there is only one full stop in the whole thing and it appears at the end that is to say that this book is made up of just one sentence though whether it is a sentence or not is questionable because the book doesn’t even start with a capital letter and there are so many digressions asides whatever you want to call them and clauses lots of them and many ambiguous points where what is missing could as easily be a semicolon as a full stop or a dash em or en whatever you prefer or whatever is house style and even the translator some professor at princeton university has called this book unreadable or what he really calls it is close to unreadable and you would not like this work at all if it was merely an exercise in unreadability but it is not the difficulty of getting through the work that is the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – but the kind of translation the author attempted to begin with even before the translation by the princeton professor occurred or had been thought of the author accepted a challenge from the computing service of the humanities research centre in paris to write as a computer writes that is to say to adhere strictly to the possible plot given by a flowchart said flowchart is produced winningly in the front of the book so you know whether the protagonist ever gets a raise before you even start reading the text proper but if you have ever worked in an office you probably already know the answer nevertheless as previously alluded to the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – is that you have never read a book before that has been written as a computer might have written it but of course a computer couldn’t write a book or could it think of those choose your own adventure books from your childhood surely if you plugged in some short scenes the machine would be able to work something out no matter how circuitous or repetitive and perhaps even shades of meaning would come through regardless of whether a machine is capable of creating allegiances or attachments as indeed it has in this book which you have in your hands having laid down the not insignificant sum of twenty-seven dollars and ninety-five cents though you did think that perhaps nothing could be more boring than a book written as if a computer had written it but of course a computer couldn’t write a book or could it really boredom is besides the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – there is repetition and there is recursion here the book is after all following a pattern laid down by a flowchart what did you expect but as you know a flowchart builds in its let’s call it a reader a flowchart builds in a reader levels of expectation and tension and this book builds its story in washes like a watercolour almost it’s nothing like a mere circuit really finally you discover that the book you are holding in your hand not perec’s most famous book perhaps not more well known than a void was once produced for radio my god you think how did they do that how did they produce this work for radio being that you have just finished reading this book by georges perec called the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise having selected it to read regardless of flash judgments that may be made by co-travellers on public trams and the glances of your co-workers because although you know it must have taken you a few hours to read this book you feel like you have not taken a breath that whole time.

Sooooo, another book about old men having sex with young girls. Another solipsistic paedophile. How awkward. Beauty and Sadness opens with Oki Toshio, a writer now in his fifties, taking a trip to listen to the Kyoto bells. This trip is a wishful stab at the past; the bells are a metaphor for Ueno Otoko, a painter fifteen years younger than Oki. Oki muses on his memories of the relationship between then fifteen-year-old Otoko and thirty-year-old Oki, which ended in a miscarriage and an attempted suicide on the young girl’s part.

Beauty and Sadness — that name is pretty incredible; now you don’t need to read any other books, ever — is a slimmer tome than Lolita, and though it has the same learned elder opportunist, the same precocious, pleading, sexualised child, Kawabata’s Oki is less self-reflexive than Humbert squared. Or rather, Kawabata’s characters are less able to be expressive; they are more restrained. Although their emotions insist on alarming closeness to the surface, each finds a way to sublimate the sharp and the tender: Oki diverts all his energies into successful novels (the Japanese public was enthralled and offended by the publication of his A Girl of Sixteen…WTF, guys!); Oki’s wife, Fumiko, submerges herself in the task of typing up Oki’s manuscripts (What. The. F.); Otoko, now a famous artist, has taken her teenaged protegée, Keiko, as a lover (WTF!!!!!!!!.); and Keiko has taken it upon herself to revenge her mentor’s long-suffered trauma.

There is something in this disconnect between the characters’ fine artistic sensibilities — sensibilities which can pick out the outlines of plovers on kimono fabric, describe a painting’s diversion from traditional styles, appreciate delicate details in natural settings — and their dereliction of emotional awareness. Oki, with his inability to tame his taste for young girls, is an almost comical, singularly self-regarding vehicle for Kawabata’s exploration of memory. In one instance, he considers the food Otoko has gifted him, discerning in ‘some small, perfectly formed rice balls’ the depths of ‘a woman’s emotions’.

Just as the characters sublimate their disturbances into other channels, so do they elect to focus to a heightened extent on nature’s accoutrements; extended meditations on the beauty of stone outcrops and sparkling waters calm the minds of reader and characters alike, and the chapters all take their names from the external settings of the various incidents: ‘The Lake’, ‘The Lotus in the Flames’.

Though Beauty and Sadness climbs to a dramatic finish whose events reverberate for all involved, it is hard for the attention not to catch time and again on the difference between Kawabata’s depiction of Oki and the female characters. Oki’s pathetic inability to draw himself away from the lures of young flesh is illustrated in detail, but it is not decried in situ as the actions of the female characters are. Keiko’s obsession with revenge is ‘violent’, ‘conceited’; meanwhile, Otoko, at the time of her miscarriage, ‘being young, suffered no ill effects’. I thought that was a bit rough. Oki’s character, being impervious to the criticism of himself and others, is a poor candidate for moral redemption or learning, even when those lessons are learned at the expense of those closest to him. As such, the impressions of beauty and sadness derived from this book are only fractured and fleeting, the confusion of echoes in a hall of mirrors.

My first introduction to Georges Simenon was a Paris Review interview; I usually avoid these long, intimate and revealing pieces, as they’re guaranteed to make me chase the works of the profiled author, and my bookshelf requests respite, sometimes. But who wouldn’t be intrigued by a man who wrote 60-80 pages a day? This copy of The Blue Room was a lucky find at one of the City Library’s biannual book sales, where most everything is one dollar. Scoop-ups a-plenty. It’s in rather nasty condition, clearly having been the victim of a spill, but c’est la vie. I don’t generally read crime fiction, but I do like the occasional television crime show. So I’m not averse to the genre per se; I’m just usually much more focused on literary fiction. I like crime shows because they’re ‘hard fluff’ – you get your easy-to-pigeonhole characters, your souped-up logic and of course your predictable cathartic denouement, which is what a girl sometimes needs after a long day of shoe shopping.

The Blue Room didn’t quite adhere to these expectations. A little more interesting than your local cop show, it’s set in Saint-Justin-du-Loup, one of the many hamlets and villages of rural France where residents often have known no other home in all their lives. It opens with a conversation between two lovers:

‘Have I hurt you?’
‘Are you angry with me?’

These memories are rendered as replay in Tony Falcone’s mind, endless undertow troubling him while he is being questioned by psychiatrists and court officials. We only find out slowly what the crime is, and though it’s a slow-burning question, the crime itself is not the prime target of Simenon’s gaze. The reader is given front-row seats to the spectacle of the suspect’s torment – after a nicety sought by the judge during questioning: ‘This endless wrangling over words!’ In response to a line of questioning that would be thrown out even in the laissez-faire world of the American crime television franchises, we have ‘Tony, staring blindly into the Judge’s face…trying desperately to understand, to explain.’

In France, the criminal justice system is inquisitorial (rather than adversarial, as in Australia or the UK), and the judge’s wide-ranging, erosive questioning is compounded by the condemnation of the townspeople, whose propinquity explains their quickness to judge. Simenon maintains the pressure of these comparisons, describing the judge as a man not unlike Tony, a man who even likes Tony for who he is. It’s a quiet book which easily evokes the burden of trial by small town, as mild as it is utterly bewildering.

The Blue Room defied my baseless expectations of crime novels, though, granted, I don’t read many of those. It wasn’t a dense read, and did quench my thirst for lighter fare. But rather than just focus on gore or extreme personalities, though the latter certainly feature in the book, Simenon invites us to interrogate our opinions on culpability and traces the relationship between thoughtlessness and expectation: can we be guilty for the passions of others?

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Though the picture above is so genteel, what with the nice succulent and all, there is going to be some explicit language below because this book is all about sex. I wiggle my eyebrows at you in warning.

I got so excited when I saw Delta of Venus in the Popular Penguins stand that I bought it right away. I remember borrowing this book from the local library, sub rosa of course, when I was fourteen or fifteen. It was a surprising book for the young me, as there’s no Hardian delicacy about female sexuality in Nin’s work, and the things that are typically romantic about the characters (they’re all firm-fleshed, like pumas) are balanced out by, well, oddnesses. In the first story, ‘The Hungarian Adventurer’, the titular adventurer plays a game with two little children of the Spanish ambassador, in which the goal is to ‘catch’ the Hungarian’s erect penis as he waves it around under bedsheets. Those poor girls.

I never finished reading Delta of Venus when I was a teenager. Perhaps I found it weird that the mystery and nobility of sex (how sweet and naive a teenagerly conceit) was here reduced to the paedophilic gamble of a charming but unlikeable man. But I always remembered the passion with which Nin expressed, in the introduction, her endeavour to use ‘a woman’s language’ to describe sexual experience. Even though there are few people who would today subscribe to the view that there is such an absolute, discrete entity as ‘a woman’s language’, the idea that women should be writing about sex was compelling enough for me to want to pick the book up again this year.

Most of the stories take the name of their protagonists: Mathilde, Lilith, Marianne, Pierre, the Basque and Bijou. All have their proclivities and sensitivities — Mathilde is an idealist who rejects unromantic overtures from seemingly suitable aristocratic lovers, and her curiosity leads her to seek out different sexual partners, but the combination of her idealism and curiosity takes her to dangerous ground. Manuel is an exhibitionist who likes to expose himself in public, and searches for a woman who can understand his desires.

Sometimes it’s fun and titillating, sometimes it’s boring and a bit like flipping through a postal order catalogue, but sex is accorded primacy in each story. Delta of Venus‘s characters are all libertines who seem to live and die for sex, artists and aristocrats and prostitutes whose constant openness to sex seems to propose that all human relationships are potentially erotic ones. The extent to which the characters are willing to go past the boundaries set by society and themselves — Bijou progresses from struggle to pleasure in a forced bestiality scene — reveals their slavery to experimentation or sex itself.

But are the characters slaves to sex or to each other? Though Nin was interested in portraying sex from a woman’s point of view, Venus is not necessarily a feminist party. While the characters, bearing only first names like signs of the horoscope, all have their particularities, Nin sometimes writes the sexual act in erotic detail that deidentifies the participants: ‘A hand was opening someone’s buttocks.’ Women in these stories are often humiliated and dominated, as are their male counterparts. One character, Maria, is tricked into having sex by a man pretending to be another woman. Also problematic is Nin’s iteration that emotion, poetry and monogamy are necessarily bound up in her ‘feminine self’, a generalisation which she enthusiastically but somewhat unnecessarily extends to all women.

Some people consider her books as damning an accessory to the owner’s identity as plastic light sabres. But though I am not right behind her in politics, I still admire Nin as a lively, passionate person who couldn’t resist the urge to live and write about sex, which so enthralled her. You can roll your eyes all you like at teenage girls who brandish their copies of her books, but the passion and sensuality she championed is absolutely palpable in Delta of Venus. Just think about that the next time you read a sex scene.

Here’s a really bad one, to take you out. From Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart (which won a Bad Sex Award in 2007)

“You wanna pop me?” she said. This must have been some new-fangled youth term. The verb “to pop.”
“I wanna bust a nut inside you, shorty,” I said. “I wanna make you sweat, boo. Let’s do this thing.”

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.