littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: My Reading

SIEGFRIED SASSOON: COMPLETE MEMOIRS OF GEORGE SHERSTON

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot

Attack

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

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Siegfriend Sassoon’s ‘Sherston Triology’ takes us into the trenches of World War I – particularly France, and a brief experience as an officer in Egypt. It is ‘fictionalised autobiography’ – a three volume account of the life of George Sherston over the war years. These volumes are: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (the time leading up to the war when Sassoon was a well-to-do young man, fond of fox-hunting, golf and cricket), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Sassoon’s experiences as an officer in the trench warfare of France, his wounding and convalescence, during which time he comes to question the continuation of the war), and Sherston’s Progress (the outcomes of his fortuitous meeting with neurologist and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers – described elsewhere in reviews of Pat Barker’s books and the effect of this influence).https://jenniferbryce.net/2016/12/15/pat-barker-on-world-war-i/

Sassoon with David Cuthbert Thomas great friend who was killed

Sassoon with his great friend David Cuthbert Thomas, who was killed at the Front

It is believed that the Complete Memoirs of George Sherston accurately outlines the life of Siegfried Sassoon, who was decorated (MC) for bravery on the Western Front. Sassoon said that his alter-ego, George Sherston, personified only about one-fifth of his personality. One large part that is omitted is Sassoon’s homosexuality – understandable as it was illegal in Britain at the time the volumes were published. George Sherston certainly doesn’t make passes at any young ladies and when he is on leave he indulges in sports or solitary pursuits. Sassoon did marry after the war (1933) but the marriage broke down in 1945. There was one son, George, whom Sassoon adored.

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Through George Sherston we confront the realities of ‘The Great War’ with the eyes of an officer and a gentleman. There are descriptions of the mud, the long marches and aching feet, the horror of dead bodies – particularly those with whom one was joking a matter of hours earlier. But there is a lot from the officers’ mess; golfing and imbibing vast quantities of the best whisky, leave and rehabilitation on the estate of Lord and Lady Asterisk. And like all good officers, Sherston has a servant.

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Sherston is injured and convalesces in England. He comes to see the rift between political machinations and the on-going persistence of insisting that the military continue to fight until there is a victor. In a tremendous act of bravery, Sherston / Sassoon wrote a Statement, which was read to the British House of Commons on July 30th 1917 and published in the London Times the next day:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.


I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.


On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

He was saved from court-martial by the actions of his friend Robert Graves who convinced authorities that Sassoon was suffering from ‘shell-shock’. He was hospitalised at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh and there was a patient of W.H.R. Rivers who seemed to understand his position and indeed helped young Sherston to see his situation from a broader perspective. Sherston willingly returned to active service realising the ironic twist that one could only escape from the war by being in it, thus attempting to avoid his Statement being dismissed as the rantings of a ‘shell-shock victim’. The final words of the book are: ‘it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us’.

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THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR

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I came across this book at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Festival (see reviews on elwoodwriters.com    ). British writer Alan Hollinghurst was a guest. I had heard of him: The Swimming Pool Library came out in the 1980s when there was heightened interest in gay culture because of the AIDS ‘epidemic’, then, in 2004, he won the Man Booker prize with The Line of Beauty. But I hadn’t read these books. After hearing Hollinghurst speak, I was keen to read The Sparsholt Affair.

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Alan Hollinghurst

The book is broken into five sections and on one level it can be seen as an intergenerational narrative: in part 1 we see David Sparsholt as a young man briefly at Oxford during World War II – muscular and beautiful, lusted after by clandestine watchers in the black-out. He has a girl-friend and gets into trouble for having her in his room out of hours. In Part 2, David has a teenage son, a bit dyslexic, but good at drawing and just becoming aware of his gay desires. By Part 3 (1970s) the son, Jonathan, is a young art restorer finding out about the delights of living in London and, with his divine looks, asked by a lesbian couple to father their child. By Part 4, Jonathan, an established portrait artist, has a daughter, and some of this part is narrated from her point of view. Jonathan hasn’t married – he has fathered the lesbians’ child and clearly loves Lucy whom he sees regularly. In Part 5, Lucy is old enough to be married – a huge society wedding quite at odds with Jonathan’s style, and father/ grandfather David dies at the age of 89.

The most compelling feature of this novel, however, is not finding out how the different generations turned out; the reader has to piece together exactly what happened in the 1960s – the much publicised Sparsholt Affair. In Part 1 we observe that David Sparsholt, although keen to marry his girl-friend, is not averse to the amorous advances of a man. By the 1960s he is well respected, a decorated airman and businessman. We gradually learn that the ‘affair’ involved gay sex and a parliamentarian. It occurred at the time just before gay sex was decriminalised. After conviction and damning publicity, David Sparsholt left his wife, who was Jonathan’s mother (the girl-friend of Oxford days) and married his secretary. But all this we must piece together; the affair lurks in the background just as it does for Jonathan, who is aware that people befriend him in the hope that they may hear more about his father’s involvement in the celebrated scandal. Even when he is a successful artist, Jonathan cannot escape being David Sparsholt’s son. But the reader learns all of this gradually, third hand. The narrative of the novel is conveyed from various points of view:  firstly a memoir piece written by Freddie, a contemporary of David Sparsholt at Oxford. Much of the narrative is from the point of view of Jonathan, and Jonathan and his gay artistic world is also observed from the point of view of daughter, Lucy. David Sparsholt is first observed through a window at Oxford, exercising his enticingly beautiful body. And that is really how we continue to see him: the rather distant, but very proper war hero,  a father who drives a Jensen, who on one of the rare occasions he meets up with his adult son, dines at his club. When, at the end, Jonathan views his dead father’s body, he, the observant artist, can’t remember the colour of his father’s eyes.

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Oxford 1940s

What carried me through this book – effortlessly – was not the intriguing plot, but Hollinghurst’s vivid descriptions of people and places. The section below is from Part 1, a darkened Oxford in wartime blackout. Evert and Peter are looking up at David Sparsholt’s window:

He (Evert who would later have an affair with Sparsholt) and Peter (an artist who would sketch Sparsholt in the nude, not showing his head, so he couldn’t be identified) stood staring up at the room opposite. Their backs were expressive, Peter smaller, hair thick and temperamental, in the patched tweed jacket which always gave off dim chemical odours of the studio; Evert neat and hesitant, a strictly raised boy in an unusually good suit who seemed to gaze at pleasure as at the far bank of a river. p.6

Part 2, a scene at the beach. Adolescent Johnny aware he is gay:

The young man was changing, Johnny a second too late as he pulled up his pants with a snap and stood wringing the wet from the tiny green trunks. Johnny could be so absorbed in looking he forgot he was visible, and being looked at. ‘All right?’ said the man – a clench of shame for Johnny, but it was just pleasantness, unsuspecting. The dog ran over, and Johnny scratched its head with sudden rough energy and relief. p. 142

From Part 4, Lucy (Jonathan’s daughter, the product of a lesbian relationship) is the only child at a wake:

A little later Lucy went and stood near Grandpa George, who was in a corner of the crowded room with a tall white-haired man – she knew he hated people barging in when he was talking. After  a minute, though, the older man nodded pleasantly at her and said, ‘And this must be your granddaughter, George?’

He looked down to check. ‘Yes … yes, it is’ – with a momentary smile at her as if confirming he hadn’t lost his car keys. p.355

In Part 5, 60 year-old Jonathan goes to a gay nightclub – something he hasn’t done for many years, but his partner died a few months ago. The casual abandon of the music and dancing provides a precursor to Jonathan’s new world of freedom: his father dies that night :

Now a dark-haired young man was pressed against him, saying something in his ear, and they moved hand in hand into the dancing crowd, the young man stepping back to protect a space for them and make a cute little act of dancing with Johnny – he thought for a moment he was teasing him. He was lean and large-eyed, with a long nose, and a smile which only faded as he lost himself in his trance, then came back as he looked at Johnny, and hugged up close with him as they danced. p. 425

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EDDIE AYRES: DANGER MUSIC

 

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I am a great fan of Eddie Ayres. This started when I read Cadence, written as Emma Ayres, about cycling from England to Hong Kong on Vita, her trusty bicycle taking a violin with her so that she could communicate through music to people in what most of us would regard as incredibly dangerous countries for solo female travel. (Reviewed on this blog in 2016.)

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Emma was unhappy in a female body and in Danger Music, written as ‘Eddie’, he describes his desperate need to be male. By the end of the book the first part of the transition process has been undertaken. But most of the book is about a time, still as ‘Emma’, working as a teacher in a music academy in Kabul, describing poignantly how it is impossible to gain a real understanding of a foreign culture. Music had been banned in Kabul until recently and many conservatives still prohibited it. One student had to hide from her family the fact that she was learning music and attending a music academy. Eddie describes how for the Afghani people it is impossible to come to agreement both in terms of music education and politically.

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Emma loves these children and shares their musical triumphs – which seem incredible, given the environment in which they are working; bombs thudding in the distance, and sometimes near at hand. It must take tremendous courage to work there when you’re never quite sure what is going on.

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The book also shows, however, how music is a means of communicating and a means of giving these young people a purpose and a sense of achievement. The music played is both Afghani and Western. It is a beautiful and honest account of that time in Eddie’s life.

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I have now just heard Eddie speak at Adelaide Writers’ Week. I think everyone in the audience was stunned by his honesty and openness. From the age of 14 to 49 he had identified as a lesbian and one reason for remaining in a female body was a belief that there should be a broad spectrum of what it is to be female. As Emma, he went to Afghanistan to work partly to isolate himself from day to day life. Even at that stage he was deeply depressed: ‘I needed to be in a place where I could think about myself’, he said. Ultimately it became clear that he needed to be in a man’s body. As he spoke, his love for the children he taught was evident – he describes how well they played, how hard they worked and thrives on their various successes. It is good to hear that he now wants to turn to doing similar work with children in outback Australia, many of whom also lack music education.

Oliver Sacks

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From the time I read Awakenings – many years ago – I have been an admirer of Oliver Sacks. The two main qualities for me are his lucidity – his ability to express complex scientific ideas in an accessible way – a way that is a pleasure for a non-scientist to read. And the second quality is his vast interest and knowledge about all things; his breadth of knowledge of literature, his fascination with chemistry, botany, history of science and much more – he could even play the piano! And underpinning all of this, the boy who loved solitary work with his chemistry set, the meticulous collector of facts, turned out also to be fascinated in people: his formidable scientific knowledge and observation combines with an ability to enter into the skin of people as he writes case studies that come to life.

OLIVER SACKS AT THE PIANO

I haven’t read all of Sacks’s books, but I intend to read more. Around the same time as I read Awakenings, his account of the lives of people who suffered from encephalitis lethargica and his ‘awakening’ them with the drug L-DOPA, I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a particular case study of a man who suffered from visual agnosia. The story was later adapted to an opera – Sacks didn’t make fun of the condition, he laughed along with his patients, but not at them.

OLIVER SACKS THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE

Recently I read The River of Consciousness, a book of essays that were dictated by Sacks only weeks before his death in 2015. The essays range from Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers, to the Fallibility of Memory. I came away from reading this book with a different view of Freud – the young neuro-anatomist who studied fish. I gained a new awareness of the importance of looking back to scientific studies of a hundred or so years ago, where significant observations of phenomena such as continental drift and Tourette’s syndrome were made, and then almost forgotten. When there is a new scientific discovery we tend to eschew the ‘out-of-date’ thinking in that area, and in doing so we lose important clues and observations. The ‘river of consciousness’ examines how we think; our memories are formed by transforming and organising, which often includes misappropriation – Sacks describes instances where he did this, when he believed he had seen something, yet what he was remembering was his brother’s vivid description. Our remembering is essentially a creative process, and the ‘river of consciousness’ is not continuous, but a series of discrete experiences, more like shots in a film.

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Having become thoroughly engrossed in The River of Consciousness, I was delighted to discover that Sacks’s autobiography was also published in 2015. The title, On the Move: a Life, refers to Sacks’s enjoyment of riding his motor bike – various bikes during his life – long distances. When he was living in Los Angeles he would sometimes ride 500 miles to the Grand Canyon and another 500 miles back in a weekend. From seeing the film of Awakenings, I had gained an impression that Sacks was a bit of a loner. I knew he was gay, and he would have grown up in London around the same time as Alan Turin, whose sexual orientation was so horrifically condemned in the 1950s, leading to his suicide. It was reassuring to read of Sacks’s youthful love of motorbikes and to know that he did have albeit infrequent liaisons in Amsterdam and later in the US. Ultimately, when he was in his seventies, he met his partner Billy. For most of his life he was a loner, but a loner with rewarding and absorbing friendships. There was also a loving closeness to his family of brothers and physician parents.

OLIVER SACKS WITH BIKE

OLIVER SACKS WITH PARTNER

We learn about his inspirations, his disappointments, his achievements as he wrote his many books and scientific papers. The whole book is written in a chatty, easy-to-read style although it quite often tackles details of his extensive interests in neuro-psychology – visual perception, how we think, how we perceive ourselves.

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As I read these books I wished that I could have met this renaissance man of the 21st Century. I marvelled at his legacy and thought, how sad it is that there will be no more from him.

OLIVER SACKS READING

 

Brian Aldiss: When the Feast is Finished

Earlier this year I reviewed Brian Aldiss’s book, Forgotten Life. He died in August.

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When the Feast is Finished is Brian’s moving account of the death of his wife, Margaret, from Pancreatic cancer, in 1997.

When the feast is finished

‘When the feast is finished’ comes from a poem, unknown to me, by Ernest Dowson, expressing finality. What I found more touching, was Aldiss’s quotation in this book of the poem by William Blake:

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

What a poignant description of a beautiful, loved person being taken by cancer.

The book is based on journals, kept by both Brian and Margaret, over the all-too-short weeks of her illness. The reader becomes a part of their daily lives as they eat their chicken pies or Marmite sandwiches and Brian learns how to do the shopping and work the washing machine. This is what dying of cancer is: watching other people’s reactions, holding out what he knows is irrational – but desperately hoping – even for a science fiction writing atheist – that a miracle will occur and Margaret will be spared. At first Brian hopes that Margaret will be cured, then the wish is diminished – just that she will continue to be there, even in her damaged semi-bedridden state. And a part of this irrationality is that no expense will be spared to make the final days of the dying one as bearable as possible – a lift is installed although it will be used only a few times. Margaret has a week in palliative care; she deteriorates terribly.  At first, when he leaves, Brian taps on her window with his car keys and she responds by turning her light on and off, but within days the time comes when he knows there is no point tapping the window. Nevertheless, he knows that Margaret would like to go home – so, for her last few hours, she is brought home by ambulance, with special nurses.

As I read the book, at first I thought that there was too much; much more than the reader needs. Were all these details included as a therapeutic exercise for Brian? No.  Having been through a somewhat similar experience myself, I know that you feel that by recording every detail you are clinging on to a part of that person. The daily routine: new doors being installed, a new car (Margaret’s gift to Brian), an inventory of Margaret’s jewellery, its value, and to whom it is to be bequeathed, takes us right there – there to the practical side to dying. We are with them.

Margaret’s last moments are transcribed from Brian’s journal:

‘“One more breath, my darling!” I begged. She delivered it. Her breaths became few and slight. Far between. I held her gently. She ceased to breathe. It was about 3.55.’

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Brian Aldiss: Forgotten Life

The English writer, Brian Aldiss, died on 19th August, aged 92. I met him back in 1978 when he came to Melbourne as guest of honour at a science fiction convention. I am not a science fiction reader, and at that stage I hadn’t read any of his work. My new partner and I had just moved into a magnificent flat on Marine Parade St Kilda – big enough for table tennis and a large party of science fiction fans. I was overwhelmed and intrigued by science fiction fandom but quite unable to talk about science fiction. Aldiss, then in his early fifties, conversed politely and reassuringly in his gentle English voice. I remember he called me ‘Mrs Foyster’ and I was too in awe to correct him, although even later, when married, I didn’t use my husband’s surname.

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Recently I discovered Forgotten Life (1988), one of Aldiss’s mainstream stories. Although definitely fiction, it is a kind of memoir with his life melded into the character of Clem Winter. Clem’s wife Sheila (aka Green Mouth) writes science fiction. Clem lives a quiet and usually comfortable life as an Oxford academic – but his brother dies, leaving a whole lot of diaries and notebooks that on the one hand are a duty for Clem to sort through but also tell him and perhaps help him to understand the life of his almost estranged brother, 12 years older than him. Through this process Clem comes to understand his own life. Joseph, and to a lesser extent Clem, lived with the consequences of believing that their mother never loved them. Her first child was a baby girl who didn’t live and Clem felt that his being a boy was a huge disappointment. Joseph had been sent away to his grandmother’s at the time of Clem’s birth, and this had a profound effect. Aldiss spent much of his childhood away in boarding school.

Brian Aldiss Forgotten Life

Aldiss was just old enough to participate in the end of World War II, and Clem’s brother Joseph, as a very young soldier, was sent off to Sumatra, far away from his family. Here he had his first serious love affair with a married Chinese woman. Clem unravels his brother’s life through reading his letters and diaries. Joseph never settled down with a woman – we are led to believe (Clem is conveniently an analyst) that this was because he instinctively feared that if he got too close to a woman she would abandon him as he felt his mother had done.

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As Green Mouth, Clem’s wife is highly popular and successful. Early in the book there are scenes at a convention in America – parties, dress-ups, adoring fans. Near the end of the story, when Clem and Sheila’s marriage looks pretty hopeless, we find out that Green Mouth was the name of her favourite doll and Sheila had been literarily abandoned as a child – not just sent away to boarding school. Clem catches Sheila in bed with her editor, and she leaves, it seems for good, with her suitcase. But, within hours of storming out, she is back and the story ends with the sound of her key turning in the door of their Oxford home. Beautifully paced and crafted.

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair Mysteries

Sulari Gentill is onto a good thing with her collection of Rowland Sinclair mysteries. This is the seventh in the series and I have read all but one. The stories are a little like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five for grown-ups. Rowland Sinclair and his friends have many adventures but they revive themselves with gin and tonic rather than cocoa. Rowland is the youngest son in a wealthy Sydney family – so he has the means to do all manner of things – in this case, participate in a car race in his yellow Mercedes on the dangerous Maroubra Speedway. http://www.vintagespeedway.com/Maroubra.html

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Maroubra Speedway 1

 

Rowland and his artistic friends are disapproved of by his older brother Wilfred – the head of the family. But the family is so well-heeled, it is a case of, What will Rowley be up to next? And Wilfred  telephones for a doctor or sends for a chauffeur to rescue Rowley from numerous tight-spots.

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Each chapter references an article written about an event or phenomenon in 1930s Australia. The historical period is particularly well described and it’s for this that I enjoy reading the books as much as the detective aspect. Sulari Gentill has a special skill in depicting place and time. In this book, Rowland has almost too many scrapes – but the reader, along with Rowland and his friends, is kept on tenterhooks trying to solve a murder – along the way getting entangled with SP bookies and, in particular, the very right wing pro Nazi Eric Campbell and the New Guard.

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Colonel Eric Campbell

Margaret Drabble: The Dark Flood Rises

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Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel weaves around De Beauvoir’s observation that with people living longer ‘their idleness [is] all the harder to bear . . . mere survival is worse than death’. The main character in this book is Fran, in her seventies, ‘too old to die young’. She is not idle – she works as an inspector of nursing homes and is thus in a position to muse about the various arrangements of the characters in this book – all connected by blood or friendship. There is no plot, and there doesn’t need to be. Each character has a different way of coping with their ‘long journey towards oblivion’, (from D.H. Lawrence’s The Ship of Death).

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The book’s title comes from this poem:

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

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The title, for this reader, also suggested climate change – we live longer, we are idle, yet along with the inevitability of death is the inevitability of destruction. Fran has to cope with rising floods as she drives through the West of England and the superannuated gay gentlemen living on the Canary Islands must cope with a low magnitude earth quake.

Several characters die during the course of the book and, although some have been in quite advanced states of decrepitude, the death is still a shock when it happens. The saddest, perhaps, is Fran’s best friend from childhood. An academic, she lived in a kind of pseudo university college nursing home and was still teaching adult classes. Fran has been separated from her husband for 50 years, but now, in a new kind of companionship brought on by old age, she takes the almost immobile, very comfortably off retired orthopaedic surgeon frozen dinners that she prepares specially for him. Perhaps the greatest relief is to hear of the death of Aunt Dorothy who has lived ‘becalmed’ in Chestnut Court for many years in a late stage of dementia, ‘a porcelain figurine’.

The book ends much as it began, with Fran on the road again, staying in her favourite hotel chain eating an Indian dinner and watching the antics of a young family. I’d been worried that the book was going to end with Fran’s death in a road crash, as she keeps forgetting to have the brakes checked, but no, her road to oblivion continues: ‘Seeing it through, that’s the best she can do’.

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[W.C. Piguenit, The Flood in the Darling 1890, Art Gallery of NSW]

 

 

 

 

 

Nicholson Baker: Travelling Sprinkler

This was my first experience of Nicholson Baker’s fiction and I thoroughly enjoyed Travelling Sprinkler even though it is a sequel to another book narrated by poet Paul Chowder that I hadn’t read.

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We are drawn right into Paul Chowder’s somewhat frustrated 50 year-old poet’s life by wonderful stream of consciousness writing. There is a love story running through: Paul hopes to get back with his ex-girlfriend Roz, and by the end of the book this looks like a possibility. He is trying to write poetry – and indeed, has succeeded in the past, but now it is mainly song lyrics, which he puts together with his guitar and relatively low cost technology. (Nicholson Baker/ Paul Chowder has posted some of these on YouTube.)

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We go to his Quaker prayer meetings and we drive with him in his car. Why travelling sprinkler? There are such things – those watering devices – a version was invented in Australia – that move around the garden: ‘a heavy metal slow-motion techno-dance-trance device with two cast-iron toothed read wheels that dig into the turf, and a sort of baton or helicopter blade on top that spins’ [page 239]. Paul Chowder gets entranced by things like this.

 

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Paul learned the bassoon (and indeed seems to have an intimate knowledge of the repertoire) and there is some beautiful description of music in the book. I particularly enjoyed his impressions of Victoria de Los Angeles singing Villa-Lobos: ‘she sings like a mad tropical bird, and it’s just a fondue of molten wanting and grieving and everything that you wish you could remember and feel and know’ [page 215].

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Zoe Morrison: Music and Freedom

This first novel of Zoe Morrison has helped me to pursue my interest in the challenges faced by women artists in the first half of the 20th century – the challenges of being assumed to be second-rate compared to men, of believing that home-making should have priority over piano practice, of being dependent on men for money. Recently I’ve been interested in the lives of Australian pianists from that time: Margaret Sutherland and Eileen Joyce. Although these women weathered considerable difficulties, they had a better time than the fictitious Alice Murray in Zoe Morrison’s book.

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Alice grew up on an orange orchard somewhere near Mildura. A difficult childhood was on the cards, with isolation, poverty and her parents’ deteriorating marriage. But Alice’s mother recognised that her young daughter was a gifted pianist and (finding the money somehow) sent her off to boarding school in England.

Alice would have been about eleven when she travelled to England by herself. She never sees her parents again. I was a little surprised that she didn’t pine for them more, but as a young prodigy she is intent on learning all she can about playing the piano. After completing school, she wins a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and at a workshop in Oxford, meets the young(ish) man who will become her husband. It is clear that Alice has no choice. Her parents have just died, leaving her nothing, and she must marry this comfortably-off professor in order to survive, even when her infatuated late-teenage heart allows her to have some misgivings.

The brutality of the marriage (we would now call it domestic violence) is almost unbelievable. And Alice is totally trapped. Music gives her some identity, some raison d’être. But she loses that. When she ultimately does have the opportunity to give a public performance of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2, she develops a kind of arthritis that surely has a psychological genesis and, her husband forcing her to play, she makes a huge mess of it – she has lost everything; parents, country of birth, and now any remnant of hope.

At the beginning of the book we see Alice in late middle age. Her husband has died, but too late for her to make anything of the career she might have had. She has a son, a successful composer, who has inherited some of her musical ability. But Alice is starving herself to death and burning her husband’s research papers – severely unhinged – going for walks late at night and lying in a bog, following a simple routine of burn, file, call (presumably her son – she would hang up when he answered), play. She would play just one note on the piano, usually A, the note on which a symphony orchestra tunes, ‘Everything playing that note until it all faded and the silence began, that anticipatory silence between tuning and performance, although now there was no music because I had not played for many years’ [page 2]. One day she hears playing through the wall of her terrace house. At first it is just her A repeated. Ultimately she is able to help the young woman pianist who is practising the Rachmaninoff No. 2. In a sense this recues her. While the wall has a metaphoric role, providing a barrier between the life that might have been Alice’s and the grim reality of her existence, this involvement gives her strength to have some belief in herself. At one point she takes to her grand piano with an axe – a suggestion that music will not control her life now. Although the context is very different, this act reminded me of Eileen Joyce’s decisive closing of the piano lid at the end of her career.

Emily, the young woman on the other side of the wall, falls in love with Alice’s son and they have a child – thus Alice has a family for the first time. Over the next few years Alice becomes a writer and returns briefly to the home of her childhood. At the end of the book is a radio news report announcing that Alice Murray died at the age of 85, a writer of sufficient success for her death to be mentioned on BBC Radio 4.

Zoe Morrison is a pianist and has also worked professionally with victims of domestic violence. This combination of experience has led to a book where the sense of performing music is immediate: ‘Emily was playing parts of the concerto as if she were surfing it, as if the music were a wave coming towards her and she was pushing herself towards it . . . becoming part of it’ [page 251].  Earlier, there is a description of playing the Rachmaninoff Prelude Op.23 in D major: ‘I noticed its tendency to return to the tonic, the D. It was as if the piece were an ode to the note’ [page 71]. Descriptions of Alice’s terrible marriage – her inability to escape from it are poignantly real, from the pen of one who has insight into such situations.

The book is written in short chapters, each headed by a date, making an easy transition from Oxford to Australia; Alice writing the book and reflecting on her life in Oxford. Throughout most of the book we grapple with descriptions of a horrific marriage and the thought of what might have been if Alice had been able to pursue her career. One can’t ignore the unspeakable violence, but, given Eileen Joyce’s career, I wonder whether Alice would have had a satisfying life as a concert pianist? Maybe she ended up achieving greater satisfaction through her writing.

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