Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

2021 Booker short-list has been announced

Recent posts have indicated that I’ve been reading books that were long-listed for the 2021 Booker prize. Last night the short-list was announced and two of my favourite books so far, Light Perpetual and A Town Called Solace, are not on it. The only short-listed book that I’ve read so far is recently reviewed, no one is talking about this. The other five short-listed books are: A Passage North (which I’ve just started), The Promise, The Fortune Men, Bewilderment and Great Circle. Watch this space!

2021 Booker Short-List

The Booker Long-list: no one is talking about this, by Patricia Lockwood

Another of the Booker long-list, this book had me asking myself, what is a novel? These days we are so influenced by social media, we are used to reading snatches of often witty (or trying to be witty) observations. This book, particularly the first part of it, is made up of just that: short clips that you might call stanzas – indeed, Patricia Lockwood is a poet. I don’t use Twitter, and this is most likely why I didn’t ‘get’ the first part of the book. For example I just don’t get the significance, or amusement of ‘Can a dog be twins?’ Yet I can see that Lockwood writes beautifully – poetically: turning ‘like the shine on a school of fish’.

Patricia Lockwood

It has been suggested that this novel continues to answer a question that Lockwood has addressed on Twitter: How do we write now? For some, the Internet is life – we are addled by it, overwhelmed by it. And Part 1 of the novel shows this. Then, near the end of Part 1 the protagonist (who remains nameless throughout) receives a text from her mother, concerning her sister’s pregnancy: ‘Something has gone wrong’. Elsewhere, Lockwood has presented her family as highly dysfunctional (Priestdaddy, 2017). Her father is a gun-toting, all-American, frequently semi-naked priest who underwent a religious conversion after watching The Exorcist seventy times on a Navy submarine. He was converted to Catholicism and was admitted to the priesthood although he was already married and had a family.

For the rest of the book we see how a family nestles around the sister, who gives birth to a little girl with Proteus Syndrome – thought to be the cause of the deformities of 19th century ‘Elephant Man’, made famous through film and play. This baby is warmly loved and cared for during the six months of her life. The story is still conveyed in snatches, but there is a binding narrative. And I ponder whether that might be the best way to tell such a story. We would expect it to be tragic – but was it? ‘She held the little hand and waited for its wilted pink squeeze, like the handshake of a lily.’

Revisiting Lily Campbell’s Secret

Elwood Writers colleague, Helen, unearthed this article published around the time that my debut novel was launched. It’s a clear outline of how I came to write the book. Here is the link:

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

This book has been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. The only other book of this highly-regarded author that I’ve read is Remains of the Day. I may be at a disadvantage having not read his other work that ventures into science fiction, particularly Never Let Me Go, indeed in his reivew in The Guardian, Alex Preston suggests that Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant and Klara and the Sun should be read as a trilogy

Klara is an android. Specifically she is an AF: an Artificial Friend – in this society, which feels very much like America in, say, thirty years’ time, the well-to-do young people have AFs who are combination sibling, plaything, and nursemaid. The book is written from the viewpoint of Klara, an AF who starts off in a shop on display with other AFs, but is ultimately chosen by Josie, a fragile adolescent.

Klara is powered by the sun, which for her seems to take on a kind of religious significance.  She is a mixture of intelligence (she can read, teach/ impart science) and what was for me unbelievable naivety, believing that the sun lives in a neighbour’s barn and that there is only one polluting machine in the world.

Josie and her mother (always referred to by Klara as ‘the mother’, Klara doesn’t seem to be able to use pronouns) take Klara home to what seems to be a well-to-do perhaps American household. The mother is a professional, who drives off to work each day, divorced from Josie’s father. There is a housekeeper, Melania Housekeeper (a coincidence that this is the name of the former US First Lady?). As I read, in my mind everything was a bit artificial. And why don’t they have a robot to do the housework? The house is in a rural setting – in my mind it was rather like a toy farmhouse and although the other characters were ‘real’ people, I pictured them as rather robotic.

Josie’s illness may have been caused by her being ‘lifted’ – something that seemed to happen to children of a certain class (maybe surgery – it’s unclear) that increases their intelligence. Josie’s friend Rick hasn’t been through this process – he seems quite bright without it (he designs drones), but the reason is most likely that his family is not well-to-do. We later learn that Josie’s sister died, possibly connected to the ‘lifting’ procedure. The main drama is that Josie might die like her sister.

Klara has learned to be devoted and believes that it is her duty to ‘save’ Josie. Klara learns that she is, in fact, being groomed by Josie’s parents (with the help of a scientist, Capaldi) to take on Josie’s characteristics to replace her in the event of her death. Perhaps fortunately, Josie does not die. Is she saved by Klara’s exhortations to the sun?

As Josie gets older, Klara is needed less and is consigned to a utility cupboard. When Josie goes off to college she glibly says, ‘You’ve been just great, Klara’.  That’s it. And Klara ends her days in a rubbish dump, where she is visited by her original store manager and she is in the company of other abandoned AFs – that seems to be what happens. This is acclaimed as a book about love. For me it was more a pessimistic comment on present-day society.

Virginia Gay’s Cyrano

There have been many adaptations of the late 19th century play, Cyrano de Bergerac, including opera and many film versions But Virginia Gay has done something special.

In case, like me, you haven’t read the original play, here is a summary adapted from Wikipedia:

This is a very cut-down account of Cyrano de Bergerac, the original play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand. There was a real Cyrano de Bergerac, and the play is a fictionalisation following the broad outlines of his life. The play has been translated and performed many times, and it is responsible for introducing the word “panache” into the English language. Cyrano (the character) is in fact famed for his panache, and he himself makes reference to “my panache” in the play. Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a cadet (nobleman serving as a soldier) in the French Army, is a brash, strong-willed man of many talents. In addition to being a remarkable duelist, he is a gifted, joyful poet and is also a musical artist. However, he has an obnoxiously large nose, which causes him to doubt himself. This doubt prevents him from expressing his love for his distant cousin, the beautiful and intellectual Roxane, as he believes that his ugliness would prevent him the “dream of being loved by even an ugly woman.”

One day Roxane and Cyrano have the opportunity to talk privately as she bandages his hand (injured from a fracas at the Port de Nesle); she talks about a man with whom she has fallen in love. Cyrano thinks that she is talking about him at first, and is ecstatic, but Roxane describes her beloved as “handsome,” and tells him that she is in love with Christian de Neuvillette. Roxane fears for Christian’s safety so she asks Cyrano to befriend and protect him. This he agrees to do, which gives Christian the opportunity to confess to Cyrano his love for Roxane but his inability to woo because of his lack of intellect and wit. When Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane expects a letter from him, Christian is despondent, having no eloquence in such matters. Cyrano then offers his services, including his own unsigned letter to Roxane. Later, when Roxane and Cyrano meet up again, Roxane says that Christian’s letters have been breathtaking—he is more intellectual than even Cyrano, she declares. She also says that she loves Christian.

Later, during a meeting with Roxane, Christian makes a fool of himself trying to speak seductively to her. Roxane storms into her house, confused and angry. Thinking quickly, Cyrano makes Christian stand in front of Roxane’s balcony and speak to her while Cyrano stands under the balcony whispering to Christian what to say. Eventually, Cyrano shoves Christian aside and, under cover of darkness, pretends to be Christian, wooing Roxane himself. In the process, he wins a kiss for Christian.

Roxane tells Christian that, because of the letters, she has grown to love him for his soul alone, and would still love him even if he were ugly. Christian tells this to Cyrano, and then persuades Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth about the letters, saying he has to be loved for “the fool that he is” to be truly loved at all. But, before Cyrano can tell Roxane the truth, Christian is brought back to the camp, having been fatally shot.

Fifteen years later Roxane resides at a convent outside Paris, eternally mourning her beloved Christian. Roxane expects Cyrano to come by as he always has with news of the outside world. On this day, however, Cyrano has been mortally wounded by someone who dropped a huge log on his head from a tall building. Upon arriving to deliver his “gazette” to Roxane, knowing it will be his last, he asks Roxane if he can read “Christian’s” farewell letter. She gives it to him, and he reads it aloud as it grows dark. Listening to his voice, she realizes that it is Cyrano who was the author of all the letters, but Cyrano denies this to his death. While Cyrano grows delirious, his friends weep and Roxane tells him that she loves him. He combats various foes, half imaginary and half symbolic, conceding that he has lost all but one important thing – his panache – as he dies in his friends’ arms.

Gay wrote her Cyrano while suffering from COVID-19. She says, ‘It felt like somebody was trying to press my brain and eyes out of the front of my skull’.

I saw one of the few performances at the Melbourne Theatre Company before Melbourne went into the current lockdown. Because of the previous lockdown, rehearsals had been mainly by Zoom. There had been one dress rehearsal held the afternoon before we saw it and Gay, who, as well as having written the piece plays the role of Cyrano, warned us that things might go wrong. So far as I could tell, they didn’t.

Virginia Gay

The big difference in Gay’s adaptation of Cyrano is that in her piece, Cyrano is a woman. And the outstanding quality is that, as in the original, Cyrano is a wordsmith. In fact, although this was an acted, almost cabaret-like play, it was the words I wanted to see: the deft use of late Victorian poetry, reference to the near impossibility of trying to resolve the politics of the Middle East — I know that I missed a lot. In the original play there is mention of Roxane’s balcony. (I am spelling her name ‘Roxane’, as in the original play, although I think Gay may use ‘Roxanne’ — there was no program, so I couldn’t confirm.) I was drawn to thinking of Romeo and Juliet as the balcony was central to much of Gay’s Cyrano. The main reason I’d like to read the script is that I think I probably missed a lot of good things.

I guess that when you change the gender of a major character in a play there is a risk of being a bit precious about it. This was not the case. Changing the gender and also not having a false ugly nose (although reference is made to Cyrano’s large nose) meant that there could be more emphasis on Cyrano’s not feeling worthy of love. This came out clearly as what the play is about — not feeling worthy of being loved by anyone, which is apparently how a young gay person can feel growing up in a heterosexual world. Another important difference from the original Cyrano is that Roxane is much stronger and far more independent than her 19th century version — Gay’s Roxane is a woman of colour (Tuuli Narkle who plays Roxane is of Aboriginal descent) and university educated — she is an intellectual match to Cyrano.

Gay gives her play a happy ending — a ‘joy bomb’ — Cyrano and Roxane make love in a (quickly dragged onto the stage and unfolded) leafy bower. While Cyrano’s panache may have faltered while Roxane was in the arms of Yan (the equivalent of Christian), it has certainly returned by the end of the play.

I want to see this play again, but I realise that with lockdowns, I’m privileged to have seen it at all!

R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams

This biography, originally published six years after the composer’s death, was written by Vaughan Williams’s second wife, Ursula, whom he met in 1938 when his first wife, Adeline, was badly crippled with arthritis. I had, perhaps naively, thought that there might be some revelation of the great composer’s conflict between devotion to Adeline and his passionate feelings for Ursula. No, apart from Ursula’s mention that one day about two years after Adeline’s death, VW asked her to marry him, there is no reference to feelings – it is all very British and very 1950s.

Ursula and Ralph Vaughan Williams

But I did learn how incredibly hard he worked, firstly assiduously collecting British folksongs in the early 1900s. He loved to go on long walks with his very dear friend, composer Gustav Holst. It wasn’t until after World War I that his writing became prolific: symphonies, operas and many different forms of choral and orchestral works. He was 46 by the end of the war, so the bulk of his work was written when he was over the age of 50.

walking in the English countryside

Vaughan Williams also spent a great deal of his time conducting choirs and orchestras all over England and seemed to be much in demand at country music festivals. Although a big heavy man he played tennis. He was often invited to give lectures — all over England and also in the US.

With first wife, Adeline

Vaughan Williams has written extensively about the interpretation and performance of J.S. Bach. He believed that a choir needed to passionately and deeply understand what they were singing about so, for the many English choirs he conducted, the script should be in English. He found the sound of a harpsichord ‘tinny’ and preferred to back it with an organ or piano during recitatives. This was probably before the resurgence of interest in performance on orginal instruments and so he argued that violins and oboes, for example, sounded very different in the 20th century from what they were like in Bach’s time.

This momentum persisted right into his mid-eighties. Ursula describes his death beautifully – as though he just went to sleep: It was all very ordinary, usual and like many other nights had been and we did not guess that before dawn death, not sleep, would claim him.

One of the most superb pieces of music is Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending — for complete contrast listen to his Sinfonia Antartica. I recently heard his Mass in G Minor and realise that there is still a great deal of his music for me to discover.

My Name is Gulpilil

This documentary of actor David Gulpilil is not so much about him; it is him. He narrates it and, one feels, is totally in control of it. The director, Molly Reynolds, has worked closely with him in a number of his movies. The career of this revered Indigenous Yolŋu actor spans 50 years and the story moves gently between present and past, the past being deftly inserted clips from Gulpilil’s many movie performances. Although he seems a fish out of water when he had to go to London (he’d barely been to Adelaide) after the success of Walkabout (1971) – he can joke about having to eat with a knife and fork.

Gulpilil’s present existence is that of a 60-something-year-old cancer sufferer and we see him having chemo (with Mary his friend and carer close by) and having radiotherapy. We see what an effort it is for him to walk to the post box each morning. I was interested at how this movie managed to show a kind of blending of Western medicine and Indigenous – to me, some of the diagrams of lungs shown were reminiscent of Indigenous paintings. But, as Gulpilil says, there is a difference – a difference which he manifests: Western medicine tries to beat the disease, but the Indigenous approach is one of acceptance and Gulpilil is going ‘back to country on a one-way ticket’.

Clearly, his days are numbered and I couldn’t help thinking that it is the Western lifestyle of movie-making that made him the drug addict and alcoholic that he admits to being. In a shot described by the Guardian reviewer as ‘Buñuelian’, Gulpilil is filmed from overhead, lying in a coffin with spools of film all around him as though they are sprouting from him – this is David Gulpilil.

Jane Austen: Persuasion

I always have a book, usually fiction, on the go. More often than not, it has been written in the last ten years. But, particularly at this time of Coronavirus pandemic, I sometimes feel as though the 21st century world is ‘too much with me’ and it’s refreshing to immerse myself in the fiction of another time. I was delighted to realise that I hadn’t ever read Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion.

For me, the plot was not particularly important and, although this is the only time when Austen’s protagonist, at the ‘elderly’ age of twenty-eight, is ‘mature’, the story was not all that different from other Jane Austen books I have read. I disagree that it is a ‘Cinderella’ story — as described by Penguin Classics: Anne, the point-of-view character/ protagonist is past her first ‘bloom’, but although her father has been unwisely frivolous with his money, she is hardly down and out. She has turned down the proposal of Captain Wentworth on the advice of her family because he is not of sufficiently high social status. When, after eight years absence, he returns from the Napoleonic Wars, wealthier, and therefore, in the eyes of her family, more desirable, it is thought that Anne is probably no longer of interest to him. But we learn, at the end of the novel, that their feelings have been smouldering throughout that long separation.

What intrigued me was the way that Austen uses place only as a back-drop to her writing — there isn’t much description at all. The hard rocks and solid wall of Lyme Regis do indeed provide a fitting setting for poor Louisa’s accident (allowing the opportunity for her to fall in love with Captain Benwick, who reads poetry to her during her convalescence), and the society of Bath seems to clatter on, appropriately supporting confabulations, gossip and liaisons. But the heart of this novel, for me, was the conversation — particularly, the internal dialogue of Anne. Austen also uses a device known as free indirect discourse, where a character’s voice (Anne’s) is mediated by the voice of the author.

For example, early in the book, Anne’s internal dialogue when, for the first time since their engagement was broken, she must see Captain Wentworth, who has returned from fighting in the Napoleonic Wars (Mary is her sister):

“It’s over! it’s over!” she repeated to herself again and again, in nervous gratitude. “The worst is over!”

‘Mary talked, but she could not attend. She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room.

‘Soon, however, she began to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less. Eight years, almost eight years had passed. since all had been given up. How absurd to be resuming the agitiation which such an interval had banished into distance and indistinctness!’

And near the end of the novel, Anne and Captain Wentworth secretly exchange words and looks, indicating that their feelings for each other are, if anything, stronger than ever. Charles Musgrove politely escorts Anne home, although he has an appointment at a gun shop, when, out of the blue, Captain Wentworth comes into view. By happy coincidence he is able to continue to escort Anne home, enabling Musgrove to go to his appointment. When Anne arrives home:

‘At last Anne was home again, and happier than any one in that house could have conceived. All the surprise and suspense, and every other painful part of the morning dissipated by this conversation, she re-entered the house so happy as to be obliged to find an alloy in some momentary apprehensions of its being impossible to last. An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of everything dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.’

Other marriages in the book seem to be concerned with property — as indeed many marriages in that time must have been. But in the final chapter Austen outlines what are surely her own views of marriage: ‘When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverence to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition?’

I am sure that there has been much discussion about the title, Persuasion. It is insinuated in conversations throughout the book, or it may be that the maturity gained through the long break in their relationship has strengthened the couple with a kind of universal persuasion — this is no frivolous liaison.


So far the movies I’ve seen this year have all been about death and/ or dementia. This hasn’t been a deliberate choice, although obviously something attracts me to them. From my perspective, with each movie, there has been an even better more beautiful dimension offered.

Tusker, a writer, played by Stanley Tucci, sits outside one evening with his partner’s niece (who is perhaps in her early teens) looking at the evening sky — showing her how you can see the Milky Way but also talking about infinity: the unimaginable vastness of space. She doesn’t quite understand. Who does? And maybe Tusker, who has early onset dementia is soothed by contemplating this unknown. He knows, but can’t admit, that he is now unable to write and won’t be able to complete his novel.

Tusker and his long-time partner Sam (played by Colin Firth), try to confront this illness by going on a road trip up north to the Lake District — brilliant incidental humour, they think that the Sat Nav lady sounds like Margaret Thatcher. They have the shared jokes and irritations of a typical longterm couple, as the Guardian review says, they have ‘a sweet and gentle chemistry’

But of course underlying (or indeed dominating) all of this is Tusker’s illness. Tusker is getting worse — they both know this. One time when Sam stops the van to get provisions, Tusker wanders off and gets lost. At a family gathering (everyone silently acknowledges that it’s a kind of farewell celebration) Tusker is unable to read a speech and Sam has to take over. Inevitably, when rummaging through Tusker’s things, Sam finds a tape to be played post mortem and suicide medication.

Throughout the movie we see in Sam’s expressive face — particularly Colin Firth’s eyes — the incredible toll this is for Sam. Firstly, he wants to prevent Tusker from carrying out his plans, then he ultimately comes around to seeing that the most loving thing to do is to be there to help him.

More than any of the other movies I’ve seen about euthanasia, Supernova takes us to the impact on the partner. As the illness progresses, the natural thing to do is to do more for the partner. But that isn’t what the partner wants — in this movie we see how very much Tusker needs to be in control — this need is paramount.

The success of this movie hinges on the fine acting of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci and the direction of Harry Macqueen (who also wrote the script). At the very end, after the screen has been grey for a few seconds, it is Colin Firth himself who sits at a grand piano and plays Elgar’s Salut d’Amour — a favourite piece of Tusker’s. Sam is now alone.

Sally Rooney

I have just discovered Sally Rooney. She’s a very gifted writer still in her twenties, whose work has won numerous awards including longlisting in the Booker Prize. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was published in 2017. She writes quickly and lucidly — she wrote 100,000 words of Conversations with Friends in three months.

There are two things that I especially like about Rooney’s writing: she writes about what she knows, the world of young people at school and university (Trinity College, Dublin) in the 2010s and she writes very strong and therefore memorable characters. As Claire Armitstead has said in The Guardian, what Rooney produces is no ‘callow university novel… her characters are inhabitants of the networked society: they communicate by instant messaging, texts and email, but what it means to them is singular’.

Frances, the protagonist in Conversations with Friends is a student at Dublin University and an aspiring writer. She has a close friendship with Bobbi, indeed, in the past they have been sexual partners. But when the story opens they are good friends who perform spoken word together and are hence a part of the Dublin literary scene — and that’s how Frances becomes involved with older married man (in his mid to late thirties), Nick. Frances is still in her twenties, and so many of these experiences are new to her. They are described candidly and vividly.

How many love stories have I read? Rooney’s Normal People is fresh and profound. It could be about love across a social divide — Marianne is from an unhappy upper middle class family and Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for the family — he and Marianne go to the same school. But it is far more than that. It is a love based on understanding and friendship that weathers other sexual partners and so much more. When, at the end of the story, Connell wins a scholarship to the US (they have both been scholarship students at Trinity), Marianne says, “You should go… I’ll always be here. You know that”.

The characters for both of these novels seem to have grown from a short story written by Rooney: Mr Salary. It is published in a Faber chapbook. The story explores a kind of underpinning love — and it is between Sukie, a young student in her early twenties and Nathan, sixteen years older than her, who as an in-law member of the family provides her with accommodation. They kiss passionately on one occasion but other gestures are tender and caring. Sukie says, “My love for him felt so total and so annihilating that it was often impossible for me to see him clearly at all” [page 20].

Although Rooney’s stories may jump around from a character’s recollections to straight narrative, these aspects entwine in a very readable and natural way. And sometimes a choice of word jumps out as particularly apt, such as at the beginning of Mr Salary when Nathan meets Sukie at the airport, Sukie recounts: “My suitcase was ugly and I was trying to carry it with a degree of irony” [page 1].

Rooney’s latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, is due out in September this year. I am looking forward to it.

Barry Lee Thompson

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