littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: My Reading

Behrouz Boochani: No Friend But The Mountains

It is terribly hard to write about this book. For years, along with many other Australians, I have been deeply ashamed of the government’s treatment of refugees. When I think of it, I am humiliated. But here I am, sitting at my comfortable desk, groaning along with the crowd who voted against Scott Morrison as Prime Minister — yet my life hasn’t changed radically. I won’t become homeless, stateless or incarcerated.

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Behrouz Boochani, a professional journalist who fled oppression via Indonesia, wrote this book using a mobile phone and Whatsapp. It was mainly written after he was forcibly removed from Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre – Manus Prison – following a 23 day siege. He is still living on Manus Island and has no idea of his future.

Boochani was awarded the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. And I remember feeling personally embarrassed when a self-righteous aspiring writer wrote a letter to The Age complaining that the rules, which she had followed assiduously, had been broken, because Boochani is not an Australian citizen. Why not? Read the book.

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Indeed, the award may offer Boochani a degree of protection, as he says: ‘Being known, perhaps, and my work being recognised and supported by organisations and other thinkers and artists perhaps gives me an element of protection.’

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The book is a beautiful piece of writing. It has been described as ‘anti-genre’. In one sense it is a piece of social reporting, yet it is also a poem that has grown from the Kurdish literary tradition. What courage — what persistence!

He graphically describes the horrific outcomes of the use in Manus Prison of a Kyriarchal system of social domination where the principle is to turn prisoners against each other. He also writes poetic descriptions — flowers, ‘gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breezes’.

We start off by experiencing, through his poetry, the truck ride to the boat in Indonesia: ‘we look up at a sky the colour of intense anxiety. Every so often someone slightly adjusts their position on the truck’s wooden floor to allow the blood to circulate through tired muscles’.

A terrifying boat trip. Inhumane and unexpected imprisonment on Christmas Island, and then a plane to Manus. Where there is ‘a confrontation of bodies, a confrontation of human flesh’, and where  ‘the untreated sewage spilling out around the facility produces a smell … so vile that one feels ashamed to be part of the human species.’

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I don’t suppose any of the government personnel who make decisions about immigration policy have read this book. Quite apart from being a beautiful piece of literature it is an important document and we must not blench from reading it.

Boochani’s work will continue to be revered in Australian literary circles. Indeed, his poem ‘The Black Kite’ is in a book, The Sky Falls Down, to be launched next Saturday 13th July at Readings bookstore, Glenferrie Road Hawthorn, 2.00 pm.

Book cover Sky Falls Down (1)

Mozart and Birds

In March this year, at the Adelaide Festival, I attended Barrie Kosky’s extraordinary production of The Magic Flute.

Mozart Magic flute 1.jpg

Only the front of the stage is used, and much of the action involves animation on a huge screen, the actors at times greatly elevated (singers must be getting used to singing from alarming heights — I think of Kate Miller-Heidke in the Eurovision contest). The animation is by the company 1927, and indeed we are in the realms of the silent films of the Weimar Republic.

By no means an opera buff, I don’t like recitatives and on this occasion I didn’t have to listen to any because the words were shown as intertitles, in appropriate silent movie font. I particularly loved the depiction of the Queen of the Night as a huge spider.

Mozart Magic flute 2

The hero of this opera is Papageno, the Bird Catcher, who , after being the proverbial loser, ends up with his Papagena. The opera is about love, and as reviewer Cameron Woodhead has said, it depicts love as ‘something visceral, irrational and disordered, but also an intrinsic delight’. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/opera/kosky-s-magic-flute-enchanting-and-unforgettable-20190302-p511cj.html

I loved the animation. But I was aware that the music of the Berlin Komische Oper was superb. In particular the high soprano notes of the Queen were piercing and amazing. I did feel that the novelty of the animation distracted me a little from the beauty of the music. What would Mozart think of this?

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In March, I hadn’t yet read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book, Mozart’s Starling. For three years Mozart had a pet starling, which he kept in his rooms in Vienna. Some say that he revisited the pet shop and bought the bird because it could whistle a phrase from his piano concerto no. 17 in G major. (Who composed it first, I wonder, Mozart or the starling?) Haupt tried to teach the phrase to her starling — in case it was a natural part of starling song — but was unsuccessful.

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Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a keen bird lover. Although she doesn’t describe herself as an ornithologist, she knows a lot about birds, and she cares about them. She rescued her starling, Carmen, from a building that was to be demolished. In Seattle, where she lives, starlings are reviled. They are rats with wings. They decimate crops and invade sensitive habitats.

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In Haupt’s book, we have the parallel stories of her bird Carmen, who becomes a much-loved pet, and Mozart’s starling, ‘Star’. One thing that puzzled me, reading this book, was the matter of translation. Did Mozart call his bird ‘Star’, or the German equivalent? Also, there are long quotes in English of letters that Mozart wrote, and poems, beautifully rhyming — all quoted in English.

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Carmen was so much a part of Haupt’s family that she sat on Haupt’s head or shoulder while Haupt was writing, frequently ‘pooping’ in her hair or on her computer keys.  Starlings are great mimics, and Carmen could imitate sounds such as the creak of floorboards.  There is interesting discussion about bird langauge and understanding, with reference to the work of Noam Chomsky. Haupt suggests that Star was similarly a pet in Mozart’s household. Haupt visited Vienna and stood in Mozart’s apartment, imagining Star there.

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It is said that when Star died, Mozart arranged an extravagant funeral, whereas he hadn’t managed to find the means to travel to the funeral of his own father. Through Haupt’s book I came to see Mozart as a relaxed and fun-loving man. Previously I had thought that because his life was so short and he wrote so much he must have been driven and pedantic. No, he would have loved Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute.

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THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS

Pat Barker is recognised for her perceptive writing about war. Indeed, some time ago I wrote a post about her World War I novel, Regeneration.

https://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/308.

SILENCE OF GIRLS 1

The Silence of the Girls goes much further back in history — to the time of the Trojan Wars. It has been labelled a feminist Iliad. Mainly through the eyes of Briseis, we experience the cost of war to women — women who survive as slaves when men destroy their cities and kill their brothers, fathers and children.

SILENCE OF GIRLS Briseis Given Back to Achilles, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens: Briseis is given to Achilles 

Pat Barker has taken what we know of that time and looked at it through a different lens — how would the women have felt when, for example, they witness the teenage daughter of Priam and Hecuba being gagged and killed as a sacrifice? How did Briseis feel when she was handed over as an ‘award’ to Achilles after his army had sacked her city, Lyrnessus? Briseis says, ‘I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers’.

The characters in this book speak in 21st century English, and the women, particularly Briseis have an assurance that one might not expect of someone kept in subjugation. At first I balked at the language. For example, Nestor and Achilles are talking: ‘Nestor smiled and shook his head. “You won’t leave. Whatever else you are, you’re not a deserter.”

“I don’t see it as desertion. This isn’t my war.”

“You were keen enough to get into it.”

“I was seventeen.” Achilles leant forward. “Look, what he did today was totally outrageous, everybody knew it, and there wasn’t one voice raised against it.”

“Mine was. Then, and later.”

“So now I just think: Fuck it. He wants Troy, he can take Troy — without me. Except we both know he can’t.”‘

I realised, firstly, that we have no idea how people spoke then, so why try to make something up? And then, more importantly, it seemed that the use of 21st century English provides a sense of universality. This is a book about women and war — women’s relationships with men, not particularly about Ancient Greece. One of the most poignant parts of the book is where, debilitated by age and unarmed, Priam makes his way alone through the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the mutilated body of his son Hector. Briseis makes sure that Hector’s body is covered with a linen sheet and, in spite of the inhumanely savage way the son’s body has been treated, in Priam’s presence, there is a kind of reverence and respect for the father’s wishes, even though he is the enemy. These things are timeless.

silence of girls Tiepolo Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon

Tiepolo: Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chopin’s Piano

 

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At school I was taught that you shouldn’t describe something by saying what it is not. Nevertheless, I think that this opening paragraph from the Spectator review of Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano sums up the book admirably:

It is not a biography, nor a work of musicology. As an extended historical essay it is patchy and selective. It is partly about pianos and pianism, but would disappoint serious students of that genre. It is not quite a detective story — though there are, towards the end, elements of a hunter on the track of his prey. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/07/chopins-piano-is-an-eclectic-trip-through-19th-century-romanticism/

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Frederic Chopin

I started this book cautiously, because Chopin is not one of my favourite composers — probably because I am not a pianist and the vast body of his work was for piano. The ‘detective element’ is tracing the journey of a small Bauza pianino that Chopin took with him to Majorca in 1838 — a wintery sojourn spent in an abandoned monastery with George Sand and her children. On this little piano he completed the composition of his 24 Preludes. Apparently the only music he took with him to play was Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues.

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Barely one third of the way through the book, Chopin is dead. This is clearly not a biography. Kildea starts to examine the influence that Chopin’s preludes had on later 19th Century composers. To what extent did they influence Debussy’s Preludes?  There is a consideration of different interpretations of Chopin’s Preludes — descriptions of Chopin’s playing; slow, romantic, with much rubato (rubato concerns rhythm, the beats in a bar, it is later — on page 263 — described brilliantly as ‘like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in’). In the early 20th century Albert Cortot made recordings — much faster tempo, less romantic.

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I was fascinated to consider the impact on music of the Steinway grand piano — first built at the end of the 19th Century. With an entirely new way of stringing, so that the strings are like a harp lying horizontally, there can be consistency of tone and a strengthening of volume. The sound of such an instrument is able to fill a modern day concert hall, which was not the case with earlier instruments. In my mind, piano concerts moved from the intimacy and stuffy gentility of the salon to the more democratic accessibility of the concert hall.

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Wanda Landowska

In 1913, pianist and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959) purchased the Bauza pianino that had belonged to Chopin. And the book becomes a biography of Landowska. She is famous for having made the first recording of Bach’s complete Goldberg Variations. Although she had been baptised Roman Catholic, Landowska came from a Jewish family and thus had to flee Nazi Germany — at first to France, where her home was ultimately ransacked — many valuable sets of teaching notes and other possessions were never retrieved. Landowska herself was safe and escaped to the USA via Portugal.

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It is thought that after the war the Bauza was sent to the USA along with other instruments of Landowska’s, but Kildea has not as yet been able to trace it. He seems confident that one day it will turn up!

The book is subtitled ‘A Journey Through Romanticism’, and this is certainly one of its many strands. There is indeed an underlying suggestion that romantic music, by crossing national boundaries, has a unifying role. I am not convinced that its role is any more powerful than other art forms in general. I particularly enjoyed thinking about how styles of performance and interpretation are influenced by things like the design of a piano. If Chopin had had a Steinway with him in the little paddle boat that took him to Majorca rather than the diminutive Bauza, what of the 24 Preludes?

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Andrew Morton: 17 Carnations, a book about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

The seventeen carnations were given to Wallis Simpson by Ribbentrop, Hitler’s special commissioner in London, with whom she may have been having an affair before she married Edward VIII who abdicated from the English throne before his coronation.

 


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Ribbentrop, Hitler’s special commissioner in London








Edward-and-Wallis-Wedding-photo

Wallis Simpson and the former Edward VIII


I had understood that the abdication was purely because Edward, as king, was not permitted to marry a twice-divorced woman – however, it seems, from Morton’s account, that the British government may have been pleased for an excuse to claim that Edward should not remain king as he had dangerous connections with the Nazi Party. Just before the War, Edward and Wallis visited Hitler who considered that ‘when’ the Nazis won the war and conquered Europe and England, Edward, with his Nazi sympathies, would be an ideal puppet king of England. It was also planned that, through Operation Willi, Edward would be kidnapped by the Nazis and enticed into negotiating peace with them – a ‘peace’ that inevitably would favour Nazi domination of Europe.

 

the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Hitler

I was pleased to be made more aware of these facts, but by the time I was half way through the book I started to struggle – there were so many details, so many names and at times the book was more about Nazi spies in and around World War II than the story of Edward and Wallis. Edward and Wallis, Duke and Duchess of Windsor were not permitted to settle in England after the abdication.

 

a wedding photo

 

 

Edward was not invited to his niece’s wedding in 1947 or to her coronation in 1953 – they returned only in death, when they were buried side by side at Frogmore in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Edward comes over as very weak. Indeed maybe all of the children of George V and Mary suffered from the remote and severe upbringing provided – George VI’s stutter is well known.  

 

 

Queen Mary, Edward’s mother

 

 

I had thought that Wallis was poorly thought of purely because the royal family hated her so and referred to her as ‘that woman’. But maybe the label was deserved. After marriage to Edward it seems that she continued to have affairs and when he was dying of throat cancer and desperately wanting her by his side, there was only a nurse to look after him and Wallis was away with her lover. (This I learned from other sources, Morton doesn’t mention it.) A colourful story, but Morton’s book became rather tedious and I was glad when I’d finished it.

 

Wallis, Duchess of Windsor

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight

WARLIGHT 1

‘Warlight’ was the dim light that helped emergency traffic navigate London’s streets during the blackouts of World War II. Most of this book seems to be dimly lit. It is on the longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize (the shortlist will be announced on 20th September).

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With the book’s opening sentence, the reader is thrust into post World War II sinister murkiness: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ The two children, 14 year-old Nathaniel (the main narrator of the story) and his 16 year-old sister Rachel, understand that their parents are travelling to Singapore for a year for the father’s work. He boards a plane … and they never see him again. The mother will follow shortly – she makes a show of packing her steamer trunk.

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The children are left in the care of a rather scruffy man and his associates. They nick-name their main minder ‘the Moth’ – I assumed that he must hover around, but Nathaniel says he was ‘moth-like in his shy movements’. An ex-boxer, ‘the Darter’ becomes a significant second father figure for Nathaniel, indulging in clandestine activities such as late night smugglings of racing grey-hounds down shadowy waterways in a mussel boat. Rachel is taken along on many of these activities, but she is bereft and never forgives her mother for abandoning her.

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a disused Anderson Shelter, sometimes used by ‘the Darter’ to hide greyhounds

Then the children discover their mother’s steamer trunk. She didn’t take it. She didn’t go. But where is she? Some things are gradually revealed. The mother’s code name, associated with espionage, is Viola. We follow Nathaniel through his teenage life – abandoning school, falling in love, working in a restaurant, and then working for ‘the Darter’.  But pulsing away beneath all of this, like the murky canals and back lanes he traverses, are questions about his mother.

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There is an attempted kidnapping. A turning-point. Nathaniel is sent abroad to school. Then suddenly Nathaniel is in his late 20s and working in intelligence – mainly so that he can find out more about his mother. And suddenly there is light when we find ourselves at the mother’s country house called White Paint – there are bees, there is thatching, it is all seemingly wholesome and English. But no. The mother, the spy, is shot in her summerhouse. There is a funeral. Nathaniel sees a lone man there, with the evocative name of Marsh Felon. He loved her. More about the mother’s background is unearthed. When Nathaniel ultimately catches up with ‘the Darter’ (they were separated at the time of the attempted kidnapping) he discovers something that brings a heart-wrenching twist to the end of the story.

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Michael Ondaatje

This book was a page-turner for me – and yet I left it slightly dissatisfied. I was an observer. I couldn’t get inside or even feel some small degree of empathy for any of the characters – not even the poor abandoned Rachel. Nathaniel (as narrator) takes us into his past, but he is armed with his adult knowledge and experience – we do not feel anything quite as the 14 year-old did. As one reviewer comments: ‘You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a re-witnessing.’ https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/05/24/michael-ondaatje-warlight-mists-of-time/

Maybe we can be no more than witnesses to that distant, dimly-lit time. In many ways, reading the book was rather like watching a movie of the 1940s – it was definitely in black and white.

There is a lot to commend in this book and it will be interesting to see what happens on 20th September.

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THE OUTSIDER AND THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION

CAMUS 1

In Camus’s The Outsider, a nameless Arab is killed on a beach in Algeria. He is killed by Meursault, a man who seems to be totally lacking emotion. The first words of the novel, narrated by Meursault are: ‘Mother (or Maman – translated from French) died today.’ Stark and devoid of grief. Much later in the book, Meursault happens to be walking on a hot beach, holding a gun.

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He sees the Arab man and kills him. My sense was that it was just because the man happened to be there and Meursault happened to be holding a gun – some say it was because the sun was in his eyes. There is no apparent motive. Callous indifference to Arab life? It was 1942, a time of resistance to the French rule that would continue until 1962.

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Algerian money, 1942

It seemed to me that the killing was utterly cold-blooded, and in this way, Meursault is absolutely true to himself. He is put on trial and the significant evidence is that he is different – much is made of the fact that he showed no grief at his mother’s funeral. Camus said: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death. I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.’ The Outsider was first published in 1942.

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Albert Camus

Some 70 years later, Kamel Daoud wrote The Meursault Investigation. It is from the viewpoint of Harun, the younger brother of the Arab who was killed on the beach in Camus’s novel. The Arab, who is nameless in Camus’s book is given a name: Musa. And the opening sentence is: ‘Mama is still alive today’: a kind of helix, echoing Camus’s opening. Indeed, much of the book describes the mother’s desire to seek revenge even 20 years after her oldest son has been killed.

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Kamel Daoud

Harun was only seven when his brother was killed. The body was washed away, so there could be no funeral. Over 20 years (the book is set in 1962), the killing has dominated Harun’s life. He is now a drunk – his story is narrated from a bar, he is lost and a stranger in his own country – indeed, the implication is that Algeria has lost itself: Harun wants to ‘bellow’ his ‘impieties’. For him, God is a question not an answer. The choices of nationalism or religion are meaningless.

Harun ultimately enacts his revenge by killing a French settler just after the cease-fire in the War of Independence. Had he killed the man before the cease-fire, he would have been a hero. He certainly doesn’t seek notoriety. After murdering the Frenchman, Harun is taken by soldiers and questioned, but he isn’t questioned about the murder. Instead, he is interrogated as to why he never joined the fighting for the resistance. Harun feels cheated when he is set free with no punishment for the murder.

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According to Wikipedia: On December 16, 2014, a death threat against Daoud was issued from a Facebook page that is now locked. Daoud was labelled an apostate, ‘an enemy of religion’. There was a call for Daoud’s execution, on the grounds that he is leading a ‘war against God and the prophet’. Daoud filed a complaint for incitement with the ministry of religious affairs. Various individuals and groups also signed petitions and published open letters in support of Daoud. Defending himself against the charge of blasphemy in a TV interview, Daoud said: ‘It was a fictional character in the novel who said these things, not me. If we judge people on the basis of characters in their books, we will be facing dark times in Algeria.’

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THE ONLY STORY

This latest novel by Julian Barnes was a slight disappointment compared to the grippingly compelling The Sense of an Ending (winner of the 2011 Man Booker) which, at the time, I described as an account of ‘lurching regret’. Like The Sense of an Ending, The Only Story is concerned with things that can’t be undone and consequences of decisions made in one’s youth. In this case it is the consequence of the person Paul fell in love with at nineteen – that first love that one will never forget. The book examines love. Can one analyse love? Probably not. Paul, the protagonist whom we first meet as a surprisingly confident 19-year-old, keeps a collection of other people’s definitions of love. But his first love (not his first sexual experience) is so overwhelming that it takes over every aspect of his life (as it can). One weakness, I thought, perhaps the only one, was that 19-year-old Paul in 1960s middle class England has an extraordinary amount of assurance for a callow youth. He falls in love with a 48-year-old married woman, and this is what takes over the rest of his life.

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Paul walks jauntily into Susan (his lover’s) home, through the front entrance. One time, for fun, he scales the front wall up to her bedroom window. He and, sometimes, his friends, eat and even stay overnight at Susan’s home, which she shares with her husband. There seems to be an element of immature pride in Paul’s conquest of a middle-aged woman: look what I’ve done! But his love for Susan is genuine and he knows that she will always be a part of his life. They do ultimately run away together (from ‘the Village’ to London) but it is not a case of unassailable bliss.

Susan becomes an alcoholic and Barnes has depicted superbly the frustrating stonewall of alcoholism where the addicted person cannot be torn away from the constant need to imbibe more and more, and the hellish spectre of how they are changed. One time, before they had run away together, Paul and Susan are sitting on a floral covered settee, Susan wearing a floral dress that blends with the fabric of the settee covering as though she has partly faded into it. She jokes about it at the time, but that’s what seems to happen: she becomes consumed. There are questions of love and duty. Paul remains living with Susan for as long as he can, but ultimately escapes physically, if not mentally from the woman he loves . . .  has loved? ‘He couldn’t save her, and so he had to save himself.’

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People might say that Paul’s life is ruined by his years of devotion to Susan. He has a number of relationships but never marries or has children and his work is never central to his life.  He does not seem to resent this, or regret the considerable amount of his life devoted to Susan.   There was anger,  not directed at Susan, but at ‘whatever it was that had obliterated her’. In many ways he seems contented with his ordinary middle class single man’s life, to that extent he did ‘save himself’. As I neared the end of the book, I predicted that it would end with Susan’s death, and it almost does. The last pages describe Susan very close to death, when Paul visits her in an institution for the insane. He sits by her side, but she is too far gone to acknowledge that he is there. Paul considers the actions that one might expect in this situation: say good bye, kiss her … But no. It is back to the ordinary world: ‘On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.’ We are saved from any predictable cliche.

Yet, Susan is a presence throughout what we see of Paul’s life. After Susan has succumbed to alcohol and then a form of dementia and when Paul is leading a kind of average, uneventful life, thoughts of Susan are interspersed – it’s not just that things sometimes remind Paul of Susan, she seems to be a presence, hovering over his entire life. And in this way, Love is the only story.

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Brilliant writing.  Barnes deftly changes from first, to second to third person, gradually distancing the reader from the immediate youthful experience of love (first person) to the reflective stance of the older Paul (third person).

Whereas A Sense of an Ending ends with a kind of searing regret,  one feels that Paul never regrets his love for Susan.

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RICHARD FLANAGAN: FIRST PERSON

Some years ago I read Virginia Duigan’s novel The Biographer, which raises issues about the extent to which it is ethical to reveal personal details in a biography – the tantalising problem that these are often the most fascinating aspects of a person’s life: how far can you go? Richard Flanagan’s First Person demonstrates another, not unrelated, matter: if you ghost-write someone’s autobiography, to what extent might you be taken over by the essence of that person?

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First Person is partly memoir, partly autobiography. Some years ago Flanagan did ghost-write the autobiography of conman John Friedrich – and at the time his wife was expecting twins. In the book, a young as yet unsuccessful writer desperately needs money. He has little choice but to accept a job ghost-writing the autobiography of conman Siegfried Heidl, who is about to be jailed for his crimes. Heidl also needs the money he will get from the book but he won’t open up to the young writer, Kif Kehlmann – not one bit. Early on Heidl says, ‘I have been missing since I was born’. For much of the story, Kehlmann and Heidl are confined together in an office of a publishing house in Port Melbourne. Part of the contract is that they must go to work there every day. Kehlmann is utterly frustrated by his inability to get anything of Heidl’s story and Heidl spends most of the time in avoidance behaviour or going out to what are probably fake meetings and lunches. At weekends Kehlmann goes home to his heavily pregnant wife and 3 year-old daughter in Tasmania and is confronted by the pressing need for money.

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John Friedrich

One of the things that Flanagan does well in this book is to set the brutality of men’s relationships against the harshness of the Australian bush. There is a friend, Ray, who might have provided support to Kif but he is really just a means of demonstrating the bleakness of an alcohol-fuelled mateship. To me, Ray was a rather shallow almost unbelievable character. In backstory we learn that once Kif and Ray tried to cross Bass Strait in a dinghy with the not surprising outcome that they were both almost killed.

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Richard Flanagan

The family in Tasmania is probably intended to be a kind of back-drop – the reason for the desperate need for money. Yet, that’s what kept me reading. Again, not surprisingly, the marriage fails, but Kef has a warmth, tenderness and respect for Suzy: ‘later in the night [he] spooned into Suzy’s back’. For me, the drama was: she’s 8 months pregnant with twins, with threatening pre-eclampsia, they’ve been given a tour of the neonatal intensive care nursery – oh, hell, he’s not going to be there when she goes into labour! And he’s not. He’s not in Melbourne, but home in Tasmania, out drinking after an argument with Suzy. She goes through an horrific labour. Everyone survives. Suzy seems too tolerant, too earth-motherish.

This is all a part of Kef’s transformation into the subject of the autobiography. He becomes more and more like Heidl – lacking principles and morality, rather than the impoverished but genuine writer he might have been. Much later — after Heidl’s death — Kef becomes director of Zero Box Entertainment – far away from ‘shitty’ Tasmania. He travels overseas, has lots of women … There is no going back to the simple home-spun life of a Tasmanian writer.

Heidl dies. It would spoil the story for those who haven’t read it to say how and by whose hand. This is the drama of the book and this is where there is some superb writing; Kef is infused with the harsh bleakness of the bush. Kef and Heidl are both in the bush, near Heidl’s home:

‘And then I was standing above him … Small black ants crisscrossed the red-flecked gruel near his ear… Overhead a black jay was circling.

‘And that’s the worst part.

‘His eyes were moving, following the bird above.

‘He was alive.’

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Another stunning piece of drama takes place after Heidl’s death. He has sent the editor some photographs – slides to illustrate the book. Kef and the editor look through the slides together – they are unexceptional – we hear the click of the slide projector. There is blankness, the ‘show’ must have finished, but no, the slide screen ‘seemed to exist only to have shown us this one image’: a flayed human corpse hanging from a tree.

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)

sassoon 6

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 Robert Hanmer

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.

sassoon 7

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.

Sassoon 4

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’.

sassoon 5.jpg

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