Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

My friend Jonathan, who accompanied me on my holiday in Sri Lanka, is a keen photographer, so I thought I’d ask him how to take a good shot of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. ‘You want an awesome shot?’ he asked. ‘Okay.’

Not exactly what I’d had in mind.

What I did have in my mind after reading Running in the Family, though, was a wonderful, intimate portrait of 1920s Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. Though Ondaatje is well known for his fiction, including Booker Prize winner The English Patient, he is also a poet and non-fiction writer, and now lives in Canada. Running in the Family was a product of multiple visits Ondaatje took to the land of his childhood and is the product of his attempts to comprehend and reconstruct those years. Though it can be classed as a memoir, Ondaatje alludes to his process of storying the material: ‘I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or “gesture”‘. If it is to be termed as such, then this book is a gesture of grace and colour; a promise to bear, carry and perform history as if drunk on memory.

Oft-colonised Sri Lanka has a fascinating and tortuous history, and its parapets and creoles multiply with alarming alacrity for a reader unversed in that history. It’s pleasing, then, that while this book has a personal, familial focus, it can also illuminate certain aspects of the events that shaped the island nation. Ondaatje, as a scion of a well-known Burgher family, is well positioned to cast light on some of those events. At one point, he visits with John Kotalawela, Sri Lanka’s third Prime Minister, who served in the Ceylon Light Infantry with Ondaatje’s father, Mervyn. But this is not a political memoir; it is a personal one, and Ondaatje’s telling of the meeting is dominated by the fact that the animals in the household were fed before the people, while the meeting itself centres around the wildness Kotalawela remembers in Ondaatje’s father.

Of all the memorable personalities that appear in Running in the Family, and there are many, Mervyn Ondaatje is one of the most arrestingly portrayed. Sent down from Oxford University for a prank, Mervyn was a ‘veriest rogue’ kind of fellow: wilful, changeable and a terrible dipsomaniac for a good part of his younger years. Thoughtful and loving when sober, and unstoppably manic when inebriated, Mervyn once took off all his clothes on a train and threatened the driver with death unless he stopped the train. He proceeded to then go through all the passengers’ luggage, claiming that bombs were secreted there. When he lined up the ‘bombs’ outside, they were pots of buffalo curd, a common Sri Lankan foodstuff. Tales such as these are not told with bitterness or aggression, but rather keen curiosity and tenderness.

Just as Running in the Family is not a political memoir, neither is it a linear one. Short chapters with headings like ‘The Courtship’, ‘Monsoon Notebook (i)’ and ‘St. Thomas’ Church’ are interspliced with pictures of the Ondaatje family and their friends, including the only picture the author has of his parents together: an expensive black-and-white portrait in which they are both making mischievous monkey faces rather than the staid smiles dictated by the age. In some instances, Ondaatje chooses to interpret his recollections through the medium of poetry, and though his poems are strikingly heart-on-sleeve (or they were for me, obedient denizen of a satirical age), they are also strikingly, heavily evocative and often sensual, as in ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’:

I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers

And of course, through the filter of Ondaatje’s anecdotes, the wondrous splendour of Sri Lanka itself is radiantly apparent. Despite its political troubles, it is a land of diverse beauty and the source of innumerable stories. Whether detailing the procedure with which he would, as a young boy, ride the giant kabaragoya and thalagoya lizards over a wall; or writing about ‘the most beautiful alphabet’ of the Sinhalese language, ‘created without straight lines because the locals wrote on brittle Ola leaves that would fall apart if a straight line was wrought through it’; or explicitly treating the many names and identities – Serendip, Ratnapida, Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seylan, Ceilon, Ceylon – of his home country, Ondaatje continually adverts to the multifaceted allure of Sri Lanka. Since it is Ondaatje, this is done, as are all other tasks in this book, with deceptively casual grace.

In Running in the Family, Ondaatje writes of ‘a house that is an island’, and this book could easily be subtitled ‘an island that was many lives’. With prose – and sometimes verse – that easily echoes the gravid air of Sri Lanka and the lyrical anarchy of his parents’ social set, Ondaatje uncovers a series of familial narratives with sweetness and a meandering intent that are lovely to behold.

‘Oh, my God!’ screamed Estelle. ‘I am sure that this is the most televisual book I have ever read.’
‘Well,’ Ignatius J. Reilly said, three stolen hot dogs in hand, ‘I am sure that I am simultaneously the most vivid and incorrigible character you will ever come across in all of American literature. Indeed, I have been decorated for it.’
‘I have often wanted to slap you across the face, Ignatius. You are psychotic in the extreme.’
Ignatius sighed. The earflaps of his hat were folded up to facilitate his hearing. He arose from his chair, which would not depart from his elephantine body. It took an effort with both his hands to ease it from his frame. The seat looked rather different in shape when he set it down.
‘Have you read Boethius?’ Ignatius belched. ‘I am a staunch believer in Boethius. I cannot abide these new philosophers, the ignorance of whom astounds me. When I perceive the bookstore arrangements of those abortions they call books, the filth they impart to the masses, I feel sick. In fact, my valve is giving me considerable trouble now.’
Estelle paused. ‘What’s a valve?’
‘You are a maniac!’ Ignatius screamed, his voice choked with saliva and fury. ‘Get away from me! You little understand the respect due a personage of my immense intelligence, height and breadth! I would not be surprised if you were not even a human being; a phony whose molecules rejoice at the thoughts of other incompetents! I am certain that you revere film stars, those carriers of mange! You enemy of Pragmatism and Morality! False proponent of American ‘art’! Cataclysmic affront to Hroswitha’s wisdom! That Fortuna should let me spin so low as this!’
‘Oo-wee. I think I got siphlus from dat man,’ said Jones, who was sweeping the floor.

I am probably shooting myself in the foot, as John Self has also just written a review of Housekeeping, but sometimes we just need to soldier on despite all circumstances. Anyhow, I want to start with the cover. The edition I have – see above – is unprepossessing. (My shoes, however, are nice.) All the fervent lust with which I typically pursue secondhand Penguins usually goes to some dark place far away when I behold an 80s King Penguin. Images on these covers are generally so insipid as to be insulting to my inner rabid minimalist. Sure, they were the first of Penguin’s series to have pictorial illustrations on their covers, but honestly, I wish they hadn’t bothered. (The pictures on the inside of the 1940s KPs, though, are stunning.) Just remember, however, this is me talking, a person to whom a world in which every book looked like this:

would be bliss. I’m just waiting for the phone call from Penguin’s permissions people. As Phill Jupitus would say: ‘Bring on the points, bitch.’

But to the book’s subtle proceedings, which are far more wonderful than this unspeakable and indulgent introduction would indicate. I feel like a blackguard for allowing all this silliness to precede discussion of a novel whose gossamer delicacy forms one of the pillars of Marilynne Robinson’s reputation as a writer of the highest distinction. Housekeeping was her first novel, and was followed 24 years later by Gilead. This year, her novel Home won the Orange Prize. I’m not going to read Home for another couple of years — I’m saving it.

Crushing as it always is to resort to a book-discussion cliché, I read this book as slowly and driftingly as physicality and my hunger for its poetry would allow. Robinson’s prose is at once icicle-sharp and somnolent, glacial. In Housekeeping, it tells the story of Ruth, a girl from Fingerbone, a tiny outpost on the edge of nowhere selected as a hometown by her grandfather for its multitude of mountains. Ruth has a sister, Lucille, but no mother:

She asked them very pleasantly to help her push her car out of the mud, and they went so far as to put their blankets and coats under the wheels to facilitate her rescue. When they got the Ford back to the road she thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff.

The girls change hands through various maternal substitutes: first, their grandmother, then their maiden great-aunts, and end up in the care of their aunt Sylvie, an itinerant whose ways are unwelcome in small-town society. Gentle, stealthy, self-effacing Sylvie is loving but vague; she roams the woods in the mornings, throwing chunks of ice at the dogs who follow her home.

So inattentive, Sylvie is no barrier to the games Ruth and Lucille like to play, if what they like to do can indeed be called games. Many times deracinated sur place, the girls begin to associate visibility with powerlessness, and retreat into the woods for nights on end. Their attempts to escape from view are enacted by the two ‘almost as a single consciousness’, but their disappearances are felt as a different mantle on each girl’s back. Ruth — contemplative, curious — countenances their elopements with interest and equanimity, while Lucille suffers her self-imposed banishment greatly. The velvet-and-blood tension of the girls’ zygotic existence, it seems, will break upon what quality of acceptance each can foster towards the possibility of otherness.

Housekeeping recalls the qualities of a wishbone, with its invitation to break irretrievably that which was born resolute, whole, but divided as from an inviolable vertex. Housekeeping is resounding literature born from the dual sense of the verb ‘to cleave’. Robinson, with tender accretion and signal focus, examines the effects of the sonorous edicts of society and the stillness in the crevices between conventional words and things. Though her characters are few, and she pursues them through backwaters, nothing in Robinson’s world is mundane: she shows us that significant things don’t need to be violent to be absolute.

Bonus for you: Marilynne Robinson on writing.

When Helen Garner was asked at the Melbourne Writers Festival (yes, I’m still milking it) about the books she loved, she said that the last books she had read with a kind of crazed greed were Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Those are absolutely three of my favourite books in the world. I read that series ensconced in bed, the diary cleared, and tea and biscuits within reach.

It’s not uncommon for writers to have hits and misses – I loved all of Tamora Pierce’s books but I couldn’t get through a single of one of her Circle of Magic books. So, on the same logic, I never sought out Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books (the first of which is The Ruby in the Smoke). Finding it in the City Library last week, then, was a wildly mixed blessing. But I needn’t have worried because the first page is an absolute ripper. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good one.

The Ruby in the Smoke is set in London some time in the 1800s. Yes, I found this book in the YA section, but there are things in this book that would have the anti-Harry Potter brigade tutting for sure. Sally Lockhart is a very pretty 16-year old who carries a gun and doesn’t take to officious authority, but she also loves accounting and knows obscure things about photography. Plus she speaks Hindustani. If I had kids I’d much rather have them reading about her than the Olsen twins.

The titular smoke refers to opium, and during Sally’s search for her father, she discovers the wretchedness brought upon the Chinese and British people unfortunate enough to come under its spell. In Sally Lockhart, Pullman has given us a wondrously human heroine who is loyal, brave and capable, just like Lyra after her. Though there’s no comparison between this book and the His Dark Materials books in terms of scope (which deals with God and parallel universes, for crying out loud) The Ruby in the Smoke is certainly equal in compassion, excitement and intrigue.

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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.

Nicolas Barker once said that ‘all libraries lead threatened lives’. He should know – he, along with Cheryl Porter, oversees the Montefiascone Conservation Project, a conservation program focused on preserving the Seminario Barbarigo Library and its contents. A leaky bathroom was the culprit in that case, but the literary tumescence of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose disfavours such banal malefactors in its case of library trouble. Though its ingredients – a dead man or two, a cast of clowns with reasons to hide, an appreciably brilliant outsider, his somewhat dull-headed companion – are conventional, The Name of the Rose is not caught by the evils of cardboard or cut-outs.

William of Baskerville, our Chief Inspector Wexford in this 14th-century mystery, having been invited to investigate a mysterious death at an (unnamed) abbey, finds there a hubbub formed by fear and defensive self-interest. It is unclear, as always in a whodunnit, how the detective will penetrate the monks’ insular world. And it is a slippery orb, the sphere of the abbey; it is no mere drop of water whose quivering surface area allows access to anything solid and of weight. William and Adso, the sidekick narrator, visit at a messy time, with the abbey beleaguered not only because of the sudden death of a young monk, but also because of the fierce theological (and remember the historical setting – political) debates which all but obscure the devotion to God which forms the nominal anchor of the monks’ community. Difference of opinion in the context of religion is easily ascribed import beyond the tickle of intellectual disagreement. Residents of the abbey routinely take sides in arguments about whether, for example, Christ ever laughed, the ramifications of which would be of dramatic significance for men who live and die by the Word. Each opinion is extravagantly coherent and extensive, the pleasurably painful result of being able to follow one’s intellectual desire wherever it leads.

Against this background fraught with the patent lust for knowledge (and surely the repression of other lusts), the expression and attainment of it is understandably key. The library, from whose windows it seems the dead man fell, is an obvious place to start. But the library is closed to all but its keeper and his assistant, and the prohibition includes William. Eco, with his sheltering of the library from eager eyes, triggers a tide of thought, not dissimilar to that of Ahab pending his meeting with the white whale. What is the library, what is inside? What is a library? What does it represent? Who has been there, and can we enter? We are warned, though – its representative force, and its forbidding geography – ‘A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth.’

Even before an original copy of the Magna Carta sold for $21.5 million last year, we have known that people will do wild things for words, the objects that contain them, and the ideas they represent. Words are weapons, symbols and sources of power, utterly dangerous. So it is no surprise when deaths start coming, thick and fast, and fingers are pointed with equal speed. Yet who could divine the perpetrator in such a rabble masquerading as an order? Logic, though William puts all his trust in it, can only do its compromised best in the face of lunacy.

The name and the rose exist together; the rose dies, and we are left only with the name. But what is the name without the rose? Eco implicates us all with this curtain-drawn view of the confusion wrought by words, those pretenders at clarity and meaning, which can baffle even and perhaps especially the learned. I bet those Carthusian monks never have problems like these.

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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