littlesmackerel

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Category: My Reading

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.

Brian Aldiss SF quote

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].

Victoria de los Angeles 2

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.

Pat Barker on World War I

Pat Barker is a British writer whose trilogy of novels examines World War I. The first book in the trilogy, Regeneration, was short-listed for the Booker Prize and chosen by The New York Times as one of the four best novels of 1992. The second book, The Eye in the Door, won The Guardian Fiction Prize and the third book, The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize.

Regeneration is a masterful blending of fiction and non fiction. It is set mainly in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where soldiers were sent to recover from the effects of nerve gas and other psychological traumas resulting from ‘shell shock’. The characters are based on actual people. The book starts when the poet Siegfried Sassoon published his declaration in July 1917, stating his belief that the war was being prolonged deliberately as a weapon of aggression and conquest, rather than the original intent (or that which the fighting soldiers understood) as a means of defence and liberation. We are taken into the hospital and get some insight into the horrors of the mental illnesses that beset these soldiers – some idea of what they had witnessed and lived with in the trenches. Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of the progressive Dr Rivers who, unusual for the time, empathises with his patients. Around him, treatments almost as horrific as the war experience are practised, particularly  by Dr Yealland who locked his patients in a room for hours and subjected them to high voltage electric ‘therapy’. Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen and advises him on some of his poetry – they discuss Anthem for Doomed Youth – and, although it is not covered in this story, Owen was ‘doomed’ and killed just before the end of the war. The book has been researched thoroughly – at the end, reference is made to papers written by Rivers and (separately) Yealland, whose methods seem to be a nineteenth century view imposed upon early twentieth century equipment. Once more, the utter horror of that war lives on.

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W.H. Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital

The Eye in the Door is the second part of the trilogy. Again, the empathic psychiatrist W. Rivers is central, but in this book he is a little less centre stage. And again, most of the characters are based on real people. Fiction enables Barker to make these people more alive than they might have been in an accurate historical account. We can get closer to them – we can know what they are thinking and we can almost live their horrific experiences of being at the front: holding an eye that had belonged to an injured companion, shooting a dearly-loved comrade because there was no way he could be pulled out of treacherous mud. One main interest in this book is the fugue state, whereby a sufferer has long periods of amnesia during which, it seems to others, he is quite lucid. A second interest is the contemporary campaign against homosexual men – ‘sodomites’. It’s all terribly early 20th century British, which is a great strength, and we see some of the life of the working class, often not documented in the literature about that time.

The novel takes place during 1918 and finishes before the war ends. Indeed, Britain is in a bad way. The main character is Billy Prior, who works in Intelligence and suffers from fugue states. Rivers is his doctor – and we see how Rivers respects Prior’s intellect and is deeply interested in Prior the person, as he is in his other patients, notably Siegfried Sassoon. Rivers himself seems to be torn between pacifism and patriotism – he is ‘curing’ these men so that they can go back to the manslaughter of the front. Rivers suggests that a state where a person has dual personalities is quite natural – the face put on to carry out duty versus the compassionate human being.

The eye in the door is, literally, an eye on a prison door, which Prior sees when he visits an inmate. That probing eye watches even when the prisoner defecates. And, for me, the ‘eye’ was more generally applicable, suggesting constant scrutiny of clandestine activities.

One character who makes a brief appearance is Winston Churchill. I did feel that Pat Barker must have come across this information and enjoyed finding a way to use it. Churchill, with Edward Marsh (a poet and civil servant known to ‘have sympathies’ with the homosexual community) spent an entire afternoon beating each other’s buttocks with plaited birch. Hmm – was Churchill gay?

This book shows graphically the horror of World War I. No matter how much one reads, how many pictures one sees, it was a hideous and brutal experience that is almost beyond imagination. The Eye in the Door, through fiction, manages to tell us things that maybe the participants, in that still rather laced up British society, might not have dared to say.

I look forward to reading The Ghost Road, the third book of the trilogy.

Ian McEwan: Nutshell

The central idea for this short novel is from Hamlet: ‘Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.’ The story is narrated (soliloquized) by a foetus Hamlet, whose mother is Trudy (as in Gertrude) and her lover is Claude (as in Claudius). The foetus  eavesdrops on the plot of the lovers to do away with the father (a poet), so that the two can be together without his intrusion.  It’s a clever idea. I’m sure that McEwan did his usual painstaking research so that the cramped environment from which the foetus narrates the story is accurate. Although, how a foetus could have any brain cells left after the huge amount of alcohol (including spirits) consumed by his mother, I don’t know. The whole thing is referenced, perhaps too nicely, to the play – the foetus makes the decision of whether ‘to be or not to be’, and ultimately decides it is best ‘to be’ and chooses to be born 2 weeks early thus intentionally , it seems, stuffing up the escape plans of the guilty murderers. It’s clever – but I found the whole thing a bit too much of a conceit. The father is a poet – giving McEwan opportunities to say things – through the foetus – about particular poets. The foetus is extraordinarily well informed about world events from hearing the podcasts that Trudy listens to – thus giving McEwan opportunity to make comment. Can you have Hamlet without a ghost? In this case, the ghost really does seem clumsy as the rest of the story is cast in 21st Century reality (the father succumbs to poisoning on the side of a freeway). The murderers are planning their escape when there are heavy footsteps on the stairs. How does the foetus know that his father’s face is bloodless and his lips greenish black? The ghost almost throttles Claude, embraces Trudy then returns up the stairs ‘and begins to fade’. The police are onto the murderers who overlooked DNA testing of a hat, significant to the crime. Baby Hamlet’s decision to be born disrupts the escape. He anticipates that he and his mother will go to prison and he looks forward to a world of sorrow, justice, then meaning. The rest is chaos – and with that, the book ends.

Madeleine St John: A Stairway to Paradise

With the adaptation for theatre of her novel The Women in Black, the writer Madeleine St John has been rediscovered. She would now be well into her seventies, but she died of emphysema some ten years ago. Having enjoyed The Women in Black, centred around a store very much like David Jones, Sydney in the 1960s, I recently picked up another novel by her, A Stairway to Paradise.

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This book has been described as ‘a dissection of desire’ and, although some reviewers see it as about a love triangle, I think that, far more, it is about the nature of desire and love. It is set in London – probably in the 1990s, the exact time doesn’t matter. Two men, Andrew and Alex, both married, love Barbara. But the desire between Alex and Barbara is the focus of the novel. Andrew, Alex’s squash partner has done what is perhaps the conventional thing and divorced his wife – she and his daughter live in another country now and he visits for school holidays etc. Alex and Barbara have a brief passionate encounter. She says that they cannot continue because Alex believes he cannot leave his wife at least until his young son is at secondary school – many years away. Why not a clandestine relationship? Even though there is ‘grinding, abominable pain’ [p.114], they cannot practise deception because of the nature of love. Over time love changes ‘and we wouldn’t find out’, Barbara confides, ‘it wouldn’t be the real thing’ [p.167]. By the end of the book we can see the prospect of the ‘real thing’. Alex starts asking Andrew how divorce has affected his daughter and Andrew believes it hasn’t had a bad effect. The last chapter is written from the point of view of Alex’s two children. They’ve been well aware of their parents’ incompatibility and discuss when a divorce might take place – they seem to accept it as a part of life. An obvious happy ending might diminish the outcome of the book. Instead, the children arrive home and open the door – we know that divorce is going to be discussed and we know how desperately Alex and Barbara want to be together. And the front door becomes a metaphor for what will be faced by Alex and Barbara and Alex’s children: ‘the latch clicked, and the front door began – but slowly, heavily – to open.’ [p.185] End of book.

Emma to Eddie

 

This week on the front cover of the Saturday newspaper’s magazine was a picture of Eddie Ayers. Not someone I’ve heard of, I thought.  Then I read the article.

I read Emma Ayers book, Cadence, two years ago, and loved it. I had enjoyed her friendly yet unassuming presence on the radio and I was particularly interested because she was a professional viola player.

Cadence is a book that can’t be classified easily – and indeed, why classify it? Readings Book Shop had it under ‘Music’. Yet it is a memoir, essentially about Emma’s remarkable trip from England to Hong Kong on Vita, her trusty bicycle. Along the way we learn about Emma – her childhood, her experiences with music. I marvelled at her daring – doing the trip solo. I felt that she accomplished this because of her warm personality and although I’ve never subscribed to the idea of music being a ‘language’, Emma used her violin (the viola was too big to take on such a trip) as a way of communicating with people from many different cultures. Cadence is cleverly structured.  Western music is based on a system of scales grounded on different tonalities – A, B, C etc. And this structure is founded on a cycle of fifths, whereby the fifth note of each scale is the starting-point for a scale with related tonality. The book is based on this structure. So, for example we start off in C major/ minor and, after ‘cycling’ through all the other scales, that’s where we finish. And of course we are ‘cycling’ through the book in two different ways. Brilliant!

Apparently the young Emma wanted to learn ‘cello, but her mother said it was a boy’s instrument. It seems that maybe the ‘cello represented more than a wish to play a deep resonant instrument. Emma is now Eddie – and he has taken up the ‘cello. I do hope that Eddie writes more and I look forward to hearing him play ‘cello.

Charlotte Wood:The Natural Way of Things

This book won the 2016 Stellar Prize for women’s writing. The language is masterful, conveying a pent up, simmering anger towards misogyny that is rife in our present society. Through the book we suffer the experiences of ten young women – some still in their teens –who come to from a drugged state and find themselves in a horrifying captivity. The story is told from the viewpoint of two of these young women, Yolanda and Verla.  In some ways the prison – a kind of run-down remote sheep station – is timeless. The girls are forced to wear scratchy uniforms and have their hair shaved like women in 19th century prisons. Yet they are contained by a high and powerful electric fence. Along with Yolanda and Verla, it takes some time for the reader to realise why the girls have been imprisoned. But we come to realise that each has been involved in some kind of sexual misadventure – scandals involving powerful men, footballers, a politician; the kinds of situations where the victim is accused of being the perpetrator. The novel has been labelled dystopian. How plausible is it that in today’s world, Hardings International Agency might run such a prison to remove women whose presence is an inconvenience (the politician, for example does not want his wife, or his electors to find out about the affair)? Force the women into hard labour, situate them in a place that is completely removed from any form of communication, feed them nothing but watery powdered food. What happens?

I do not see this as any kind of fantasy novel although some aspects are implausible.  The two guards seem to be imprisoned too. Supplies run out (and the electricity goes off, though not the electricity for the fence) but Boncer and Ted can do nothing about it. A pathetic woman, Nancy, who is supposed to be a kind of nurse, is almost as much a captive as the girls. Ultimately the girls kill their two captors, but this doesn’t mean they can escape through the fence. And prior to this they offer up (or force to submit) one of their own as a ‘sacrifice’ to Boncer’s sexual needs. There is no sense of sisterly bonding. Hetty waits ‘lumpish and squinting’ to face her ordeal – which ultimately leads to her suiciding by touching the fence.

For Yolanda and Verla there is some kind of return to the ‘natural way’, where Yolanda gradually, almost metamorphoses into a rabbit and Verla has a kind of obsession (not an addiction) with mushrooms. These women will not return to their former world or their former selves. Whereas – implausibly again – after months of captivity and after their captors have been killed, a bus comes to collect the remaining girls and – an overwhelming cynicism here – they delight in the expensive department store sample bags that are distributed to them. The bus takes them through the electric fence’s gate (and Yolanda and Verla slip through too), but where will it take the girls?  ‘The girls . . .burrow back into their treasures, not caring, not seeing that the bus turns west, not east.’ [page 309] And when the bus driver says, You poor girls. He ‘did not mean what had happened to them back there. He meant what was to come.’ [page 309]

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