All posts by Ian

Magical travel in the COVID era

Though virus restrictions continue to immobilise us, or at least rule out international touring, we can still visit far-off lands quite easily. Yesterday, in perfect comfort and without risking infection or breaching flight prohibitions or incurring any expense, I spent a few pleasant hours in a foreign country. How? Magical travel.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (public domain)

 One of the Arabian Nights tales tells how a prince acquires a carpet with wonderful properties:

“Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon another site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place near-hand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.”

This princely device is within our own reach. We all have access to imagination’s magic carpet whenever we pick up a book.

Almost any act of reading takes us metaphorically from one place to another, even if the content of what we read may not involve a sequence of actions and locations. Traversing the text brings us to a mental destination that’s different from where we began. But this imaginary journey structure is most salient when we engage with narrative forms — not only novels or short stories but also non-fictional travel literature.

Travel literature has a long history, going back to writers such as Pausanias, a peripatetic Greek cultural geographer in the 2nd century AD. The genre came into its own in the Victorian period, when steamship and rail opened up the world to large numbers of tourists whose appetite for exotic journeys was stimulated by itinerant journalists. (The restless main characters in my novel The End of Longing, set in the late 19th-century, embody this new-found transnational mobility.)

But then the first half of the 20th century, with its devastating experiences of two world wars, economic depression, fearsome pandemics and widespread poverty, pushed leisure travel out of the reach of many people. So by the 1950s the reading of travel literature had become a popular substitute for journeying in person.

 Which brings me back to my imaginary excursion yesterday: it was achieved through H.V. Morton’s  A Stranger in Spain (1955). This book has been on my shelf for many years (I acquired it as a school prize), and reading it took me not only to the particular country that is its subject but also back to the time when it was written. In my corner of the world, that was a period before TV documentaries brought remote locations into the home, and before most people had the wherewithal to afford any bodily expeditions to Europe.

So travelogue books like Morton’s were a primary source of information about unfamiliar places. In those days of cheap publication they seldom carried high-quality photographs, if any. The writer had to bring places and people and culture to life through resourceful uses of language. This was “creative non-fiction” before the term was invented.

In A Stranger in Spain the creative element isn’t a matter of elaborately depicted scenery and splashes of local colour. What Morton often does, with skilful economy, is to focus on particular individuals and their activities in a way that evokes a characteristic cultural attitude.

On the first page, recounting his arrival at the airport in Madrid, he sketches in a few well-chosen words the interaction between disembarking passengers and airport officials. A “costly-looking” woman is unlocking her luggage, “watched by two Civil Guards, who had the eyes of melancholy stags.” (Can’t you just picture them?) The passage continues:
I was impressed by the white cotton gloves which the Customs officers drew on before they probed into the luggage. I was soon to learn that white gloves are a symbol of the Spanish sense of fitness. A glove is an aristocratic symbol, and was once worn only by kings and bishops. As the world becomes more democratic one sees fewer gloves, and the clenched fist, of course, is always bare.
There’s a lot packed into those simple sentences. They evoke a distinctively stylish national sense of decorum; they gesture towards a long history of social stratification; and they allude to the country’s more recent history (the clenched fist salute originated in the Spanish Civil War, and when Morton’s book appeared Franco was only halfway through his four decades of dictatorship). The same kind of succinctness continues to characterise Morton’s prose. Straight after the passage just quoted, he observes Mexicans and Peruvians queuing at a passport window, “conquistadores in reverse,” and remarks that “Spain is one of the few places where America does not mean the USA.”
Although the best travel documentaries shown on our screens these days may bring exotic scenes to us with a vivid immediacy that seems to surpass any words on a page, they also lose something that writers like Morton can provide: the stimulus to our imagination. A Stranger in Spain, precisely because its medium cannot rival the realism of a filmed image, relies on the reader to visualise what a well-turned phrase conjures up. That’s its magic. That’s what can move us.

This is nothing like the Great Depression

Lately we’ve often heard that the economic and social dislocation caused by COVID19 has been more disastrous than anything since the Great Depression. It’s sometimes implied that what we’re now experiencing is basically similar to that 1930s global trauma. Not so! In some ways our present plight may seem worse, but for the most part it’s much less serious.

True, the situation we face is shockingly different from the one faced by an earlier generation in that ours is a double whammy, not only disrupting the financial system (therefore jobs etc.) but also bringing sudden sickness and death to many around the world. The health of the international economy and the health of vast numbers of people are simultaneously threatened. For us, it’s almost as if the Great Depression had coincided with the 1918-20 Spanish Flu. In that respect, 2020 is an extraordinarily frightening time. (In contrast, the Depression period actually saw an improvement in average population health: despite widespread malnutrition and an increase in suicide, the death rate was lower than in the prosperous years before and afterwards. An irony worth pondering!)

Yet the serious physical impact of the coronavirus has been far less extensive than that of the Spanish Flu, which killed c. 50 million worldwide and c. 13,000 in Australia, whereas figures for COVID-19 show c. 130,000 deaths worldwide so far, and fewer than 70 in Australia.

Perth, 1931: unemployed men march in protest to the Premier’s office (public domain image). Chap. 10 of That Untravelled World is based on this incident.

So too, the socio-economic impact of the Great Depression went far beyond anything that confronts us now.

Alarming though it is to envisage unemployment in Australia rising (as we’re told it soon will) to 10%, this prospect is still relatively mild. Depression-era unemployment at its peak officially reached 32% — a figure mainly confined to ‘male breadwinners’: the real number desperate for work was higher! Many of the men remained out of work until the end of the decade, when they were able to enlist as soldiers.

To the ‘30s crisis neither Commonwealth nor State governments made any response comparable in speed or scope to what Australia has seen in recent weeks — the Jobseeker payments and other alleviating measures. Back then, support for the unemployed was limited to patchy relief schemes, generally known as the dole or sustenance (‘susso’), which were not available to all. Evictions were common, many families had to live rough on public land, and welfare safety-net provisions of the kind we take for granted did not exist.

Much of what we currently regard as hardship would have seemed the height of luxury to that earlier generation. Although people weren’t constrained by ‘social distancing’ or required to stay at home during the Great Depression, they had very few of the resources we can utilise to pass the time pleasantly. Most households in those days had no access to radio or telephone, let alone TV, internet, email, social media… Much less food was available. Health care was rudimentary.

Statistics and other factual information can hardly convey more than a superficial impression of what it felt like to struggle through the 1930s. The deepest insights come from novels and short stories that help us to imagine being among those whose lives were wrecked by economic and social devastation. A long time ago, in my book Fiction and the Great Depression in Australia and New Zealand, I wrote about the dozens of stories published in the 30s and soon afterwards that recorded and interpreted the traumatic experiences of this decade. There’s a substantial body of Australian work; and while it doesn’t all have lasting value, much of it still deserves attention, especially certain novels by Christina Stead, Kylie Tennant, Leonard Mann and Alan Marshall, and short fiction by Peter Cowan, Dal Stivens and John Morrison. The influence of the Depression on New Zealand literature was also profound.

In our own time, several writers of historical fiction have gone back to that period — and I’m one of them. My novel That Untravelled World is set in Western Australia in the years 1912-39, much of it focusing on the Depression years.

Part of my aim in this book was to suggest how the main character’s vicissitudes reflect a larger national story about the painful transformation that our country endured in that formative period. Young Harry is initially caught up in the exhilarating prospect that technological innovation, especially wireless, will conquer distance and bring progress and prosperity to the young nation. His attitude changes as Australia moves from heady optimism into the hard times of WW1 and the Depression, becoming a sadder and wiser community. In the words of one reviewer,

Harry drifts between places and jobs, never really finding his niche. His tale of early confidence followed by recurrent disappointment is evocative of the period in which it is set…. With its rapid technological change and economic ups and downs, it’s a period that resonates with our own.

A pleasant antiviral activity

Wondering how to cope with the impact of COVID19? Troubled by the prospect of spending more time (by choice or necessity) in germ-avoidance isolation? Here’s a pleasant antiviral activity that you can enjoy:  reading!

While you’re still able to go shopping, stock up right now with a batch of new books. Your local bookstore isn’t likely to be dangerously crowded, so just make a quick visit, grab a generous armful of literary works, and take those thousands of pages of well-crafted words home with you for company. Then, before the dire moment comes (next week?) when normal social interaction shuts down, you’ll be well equipped to engage with vicarious relationships, imaginary journeys and stimulating ideas without leaving the safe cocoon of home.

You’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped to keep the book industry afloat during this period of economic stress.

I’ve just followed my advice by buying a swag of fiction titles from a new little bookshop nearby, which is worthy of particular support because it has only recently opened its doors — right at the time when COVID19 is beginning to threaten many small businesses.

This brave indie venture is Typeface Books, located in the Ardross Street “village” in the Perth suburb of Applecross. Its shelves carry a good range of quality publications (well, it stocks my novels!), and it deserves to attract plenty of customers. Check out its website here.

Wherever you get your books from, you can of course choose whether to read things that take your mind off COVID19 altogether or things that help you to confront it. If it’s the latter, you have no shortage of reading material;  it could include Albert Camus’ The Plague, David Herlihy’s The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, and Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders. Or you might turn to the global best-seller Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, in which Yuval Noah Harari argues (among other provocations) that humans are on the verge of becoming superhuman because in the last few decades we have managed to curb all three things that have previously held us back:  not only famine and war but also plague! “Epidemics are a far smaller threat to human health today than in previous millennia,” Harari says. Will he need to issue a revised edition?

The long arms of Shakespeare’s ghost

The long arms of Shakespeare’s ghost reach across the centuries into the present day, leaving distinctive fingerprints on a genre that did not even exist in his period but has become dominant in ours:  the novel.

Some modern writers rearrange situations and relationships from a Shakespearean play so that we see them through the eyes of a particular character or set of characters. Of course a dramatist can do this;  in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead a pair of minor characters from Hamlet takes centre stage. But I’m thinking especially of prose fiction, which lends itself well to this method of reshaping Shakespeare’s material because (in contrast to a theatrical presentation, which is performed through dialogue and action and spectacle) a story can be narrated from a certain point of view or from shifting points of view.

Two examples, both of them American novels derived from King Lear: Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) is a grim mid-West prairie tale told from the perspective of the eldest of three daughters whose monstrously abusive ageing father leaves them his farm, while Christopher Moore’s extravagantly comic novel Fool (2009) re-imagines King Lear from the perspective of the court jester, who schemes to save Cordelia from being married off. Shakespeare’s pivotal character, the tragic patriarchal figure that gives the play its title, is no longer the main focus in either of those novels. Instead, the story revolves around what were originally secondary characters. Accompanying that fundamental shift in perspective there are also changes of tone, of psychological interest, and of moral attitudes.

A different kind of influence occurs when the main thing a modern fiction writer draws from a Shakespearean source is a central theme with perennial relevance. In such cases the extent to which plot or characters are modified can vary a great deal. I’m thinking here of a couple of novelistic appropriations of the most spectacularly theatrical of Shakespeare’s plays.

Marina Warner’s Indigo (1991) boldly reshapes most of the characters and story elements of The Tempest. It is set (like Shakespeare’s original) in the 17th-century, but some of it also takes place much nearer our own time. When Shakespeare wrote The Tempest England was establishing itself as a colonial power, and we can see his play as dramatising issues arising from colonisation. Prospero, having come to Sycorax’s island and subdued her, imposes his own culture on its inhabitants. Warner’s Indigo expands the character of Sycorax, Caliban’s witch mother, who in Shakespeare’s play remains offstage. By also extending the story into the 20th century, the novelist can portray the consequences of colonialism.

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed retells The Tempest in an even freer manner while preserving  thematic parallels with the original source. The main character is Felix, a theatre director in present-day Canada. After being dismissed from his arts festival role he gets a teaching position in a prison, where over several years he regularly persuades inmates to become actors in productions of Shakespeare’s plays. By participating under his direction in the dramatised violence of Julius Caesar, Richard III and Macbeth, the prisoners are able to reflect on their own past crimes and come to terms with their incarceration. Felix himself is playing a long game: his scheme is eventually to use the prison’s Shakespeare program to inflict vengeance on his old enemies, especially on Tony, a former colleague whose treachery had led to Felix’s loss of the festival job, which Tony took over. The play through which Felix ingeniously pursues his revenge is The Tempest — where Prospero is himself creating theatrical illusions to bring retribution upon those who stole his kingdom. So Shakespeare’s original plot and Atwood’s reworking of it both focus on a protagonist who tries to control the actions of those around him. And both Shakespeare’s Prospero and Atwood’s Felix can be seen as representatives of the author manipulating his or her creative work.

Atwood’s novel belongs to a series of Shakespearean retellings commissioned by the Hogarth Press for publication in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Other contributors to this series of loose adaptations include Howard Jacobson, who turned The Merchant of Venice into Shylock Is My Name. Jacobson’s novel has such a complicated plot, such a crowded cast of characters, and so many digressive passages of dialogue that it’s not easy to follow who’s who and what’s going on. At the centre of the story are not only a contemporary British version of Shylock, a wealthy art collector named Simon Strulovitch, but also the original Shylock, who travels through time into the present and with whom Strulovitch has intense conversations about Jewishness and other topics.

Despite their various differences, the examples mentioned so far all adapt a story drawn from one of Shakespeare’s plays. But the long arms of Shakespeare’s ghost sometimes stretch beyond that kind of transposition. Modern fiction may give us an independently invented narrative line, with original characters that have no direct Shakespearean source, and yet make reference to the Bard’s writings (his plays and/or his lyric poetry) in ways that give depth and resonance to the tale. My own latest novel belongs (or at least aspires to belong) to this category. Here is Paul Genoni’s comment:

A good place to start in discussing A Thousand Tongues is with the novel’s two epigraphs, the first of which is derived from a soliloquy delivered by the King in Shakespeare’s Richard III : ‘My conscience hath a thousand several tongues /And every tongue brings in a several tale…’ It is accompanied by an epigraph from Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a novel that deals with composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s struggles with his conscience in Stalinist Russia. In the epigraphic quote, Barnes suggests that conscience ‘no longer has an evolutionary function, and so has been bred out’, and that ‘within the modern tyrant’s skin … there is no cave of conscience to be found’.
These two epigraphs declare that A Thousand Tongues is a novel about conscience, the multitudinous and complex ways in which it can be manifested, the ‘slings and arrows’ it sends our way, and the role it might have in the contemporary world. The Shakespeare quote obviously provides the novel with its title, and also carries further weight within the text, where it recurs several times and performs as something of a leitmotif in the life of Gavin Staines. In this novel of many characters, both historical and contemporary, it is Staines who remains the gravitational centre around whom other characters, and their stories, circle.

Paul Genoni’s remarks (excerpted from a longer review) provide a framework for considering my novel’s relationship to certain Shakespearean texts and themes.

I’ve explained elsewhere how the initial creative impulse came from my encounter with a particular place, Dartmoor’s Prison Museum, and the meditations to which that gave rise. As the reflective process developed, I saw opportunities for incorporating several links to Shakespeare’s writings into my story in a thematically relevant way.

The idea of imprisonment often recurs in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Think of Hamlet’s line “Denmark’s a prison”; or of Richard III, locking up the young princes in the tower; or of Richard II, jailed by his successor, Henry IV; or of the many characters in The Tempest for whom the island is a kind of jail; or of the sonnet that exclaims “Prison my heart…” and then develops this image in detail.

Two of my novel’s main characters are incarcerated in Dartmoor’s prison. One of them is Gavin Staines, mentioned above as a “gravitational centre” of the story. I’ve placed him among the conscientious objectors — more than 1000 — who were held there during World War I. Staines is uncompromising in his stance against military service but secretly burdened by a previous failure of conscience. I imagined a role for him before the war as a young teacher of literature at Queen’s College in London. Queen’s College was a notable independent school for teenage girls, some of whom were socially self-confident, intellectually precocious and emotionally adventurous. We know this from letters and diaries of some who were students there in the Edwardian era, most notably the writer Katherine Mansfield. A feature of the education offered at Queen’s was its provision of lectures courses by visiting academics. What might this environment have been like for a young man teaching poetry there? That question exemplifies how a story can emerge:  the creative process is stimulated when a writer poses “What ifs”… For instance, what if a certain sonnet by Shakespeare became troublesome for a young teacher and one of his female students?

Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?

When the war comes and conscription is brought in, Staines registers as a conscientious objector and is eventually sent to Dartmoor. Many of the Dartmoor “conchies” were well-educated men (journalists, teachers, artists…) and they proved resourceful in entertaining themselves during the long cold evenings. Archival records show that they often put on concerts, with items such as verse recitations and stage performances — including Shakespearean plays. One of the conchie characters I invented is Humphrey Latimer, a flamboyant chap with a background as an actor and a passion for the rich language of Elizabethan drama. During one of the concerts, he delivers Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “To be…” etc.

Glancing around as Latimer gave his rendition of that vacillating speech, Staines could see it was causing some disquiet. These men had resolved to suffer slings and arrows rather than take up arms; but to many of them the sea of troubles must still seem endless. Some perhaps remained privately unsure whether their refusal to fight had come from courage or something less. ‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’ – uneasy, tense, they shifted in their seats when they heard those bitter words.

Curious about Staines and intuiting that his aloof manner hides some secret, Latimer keeps probing. As they belong to the same work gang, Latimer has frequent opportunities to try squeezing information out of him, especially after discovering how Staines was employed before the war. Latimer uses their shared interest in Shakespeare as a means of indirect enquiry into what makes this oddly reserved man tick.

Because Staines is not only (by conviction) a conscientious objector but also (by vocation) a teacher of literature, it seemed to me plausible that he would contribute an essay to a pacifist magazine under the title “War and Peace: Shakespearean Voices.” In this invented article, Staines remarks that some British militarists had tried to conscript the nation’s supreme poet-dramatist as a patron in their zealous pursuit of bloody conflict on foreign soil, with Henry V as their exemplary text. Staines argues that, on the contrary, a wide range of Shakespeare’s characters, through their dialogue on aspects of war and peace, evoke the torments of conscience and “express eloquently what anyone sickened by the violence of warfare has felt.”

The other character in A Thousand Tongues who spends time in Dartmoor’s jail is a black man from an earlier generation, Joshua Dunn. Consigned to the margins of Victorian society because of his race and class, Dunn is treated with such cruelty during his years of imprisonment that he comes to the despairing conclusion that people like himself can’t afford the luxury of a conscience:

“Don’t give me a bloody sermon about scruples!’ Josh roared. “The likes of us can’t afford to have any. This place turns us into beasts. Every mongrel for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.”

Yet this repudiation of scruples is not absolute, as the reader discovers when Dunn’s story later connects with Staines’s in an indirect and ironical way.

And Shakespeare? At the very end, Staines has with him a copy of the Bard’s Complete Works, finding a bizarre purpose for it. So Shakespearean words bookend this novel, from its title and first epigraph to its final scene.

Looking both ways

So we’ve crossed the threshold into another New Year.  Now what?

To the ancient Romans a doorway (or gateway) had such importance, both practical and symbolic, that it warranted a special deity to preside over it: Janus, the god of portals and transitions, beginnings and departures. January takes its liminal name from him. Images traditionally show him (and the year’s hinge-point) as two-faced, looking both back and forward, both inward and outward.

Wooden sculpture by Annette Seeman

I like to think of Janus as a suitable patron for writers and readers. Why? Read on…

Having no predecessor in the Greek pantheon, Janus is usually regarded as a Roman invention. But comparable images recur in the art and mythology of several other cultures. The one illustrated here is from a series of large wooden sculptures by Perth artist Annette Seeman called “Stories from the Indies,” which draw on her family links with Indonesian culture. This double-headed forked-tongue figure has belonged in my household for nearly 30 years, and to me it has the significance of a literary totem, among other things.

Looking both ways is what serious writing mostly tries to do, because it combines memory with imagination. On the spectrum connecting the past to the future, those two faculties apparently face in opposite directions: memory is retrospective, summoning up what used to be, while imagination is prospective, envisaging what might be. On the spectrum connecting oneself with others, memory and imagination again may seem to represent contrasting tendencies: the former generally looks inward, while the latter is potentially more outward-turning and wide-ranging. Yet memory and imagination are inseparable in the act of writing, just as the two faces of Janus belong to a single body.

Evidence from neuropsychology indicates that the mental processes of remembering and imagining are intimately linked. This shouldn’t surprise anyone with literary interests. Remembering (like writing) actively reshapes the material it works on. And as the White Queen remarks to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” As we recall details from past situations, we can recombine and adapt them into new imaginary scenarios.

Commenting on the title character in her recently released film Claire Darling (itself adapted from a novel), director Julie Bertuccelli says “Claire is forgetting things she prefers to let go of, and summoning up in her imagination some unfinished business from the past.” Isn’t this often also true of autobiographical writing, and of characters in novels or short stories? I’ll have more to say on that subject in a couple of public talks I’m giving in March at the Glyde-In Community Centre: see the Events page of my website.

Looking both ways is a distinctively human capability. In my novel That Untravelled World, young Harry Hopewell has a conversation with his girlfriend at the Perth Zoo. She asks him what he thinks the main difference is between humans and beasts, and he replies:

‘To my mind, it’s summed up in a saying that my mother likes to repeat. A little quotation from some poet – don’t know who: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not.” More than anything else, that’s what separates people from other animals.’

She wrinkled her forehead. ‘I’m not sure I understand. What does it mean to you, that saying?’

‘Just that we humans don’t live fully in the present, the way a lion or a pig does. A lot of the time we’re preoccupied with what used to be, and what might yet happen. With remembering and imagining. That’s not true of creatures in cages. I hope not, anyway – terrible for them if they have regretful or wistful feelings.’

“We look before and after…” — those lines are from Shelley’s To a Skylark, written two centuries ago but still resonant. The bird addressed in the poem sings beautifully, but for a human listener its song is tinged with the sadness that accompanies our sense of what’s beyond the present moment. Janus is always at our shoulder, and writers whose work has durable appeal are especially good at evoking this dual consciousness.

As readers, too, we’re often looking both ways. While there can be great pleasure in the feeling of being immersed in an act of reading, this is seldom separable (for narrative in particular) from what we anticipate and recollect as we proceed through the text.

And sometimes we stand back from a finished book to reflect on the general patterns of our reading, on our specific library or bookshop choices. I find myself doing this annually in early January, casting an eye over a record of what I’ve read during the previous year. (I’ve kept these lists for many years.) It’s interesting to see what assortment of genres my reading has covered: how much fiction, how much poetry, how much non-fiction of various kinds… Other aspects of a year’s list also strike me: how many recently issued books, how many older publications, how many re-readings of what I’ve read previously, how many by Australians, how many by men and women respectively, how many multiple titles by this or that author, and so on.

None of these categories have determined my choices, and similarly I won’t set myself any fixed program of reading for the year ahead. I don’t need a “challenge” list to motivate myself to keep frequent company with books. Some such sign-ups (the annual Australian Women Writers Challenge, for instance) are too narrowly political for my liking. I enjoy the freedom to select what I read without being constrained — whether by the writer’s national affiliation or by gender identity or genre or period or anything else.

Still, the New Year seems an apt occasion for calling to mind a few titles and authors I’d like to spend time with in the future. Memo to self: when choosing, look both ways.

 

Writers need discerning friends

Though writing is largely a solo activity, even the most experienced authors need appreciative responses from at least a few readers after a book emerges into the world. Without this occasional encouragement it would be hard to sustain the effort to go on writing.

Book reviews in media outlets traditionally helped to meet that need. But now that nearly all newspapers and magazines have imposed drastic cuts on their review space, many worthy books get scant public attention. There would often be a deathly post-publication silence if it weren’t for thoughtful comments by discerning friends.

Such comments are especially valuable when they come from accomplished fellow-writers who can be trusted to read with insight. Does friendship impede their judgment or lead to mere flattery? Unlikely. Tact doesn’t require them to say things they don’t mean. And after all, total objectivity can’t be guaranteed in any circumstances. Published reviews by purportedly independent critics may sometimes be coloured by undisclosed personal attitudes (friendly or unfriendly) towards an author.

In the lull following the launch of my new novel I’ve felt heartened by messages from several writer-friends. Without hesitation they have agreed to let me quote some of their comments here — which also gives me, in turn, an opportunity to mention appreciatively a few of the many things I admire in their own writings.

At an early stage there had already been encouraging evaluations of my manuscript. Among the people I asked to read A Thousand Tongues and tell me whether it seemed fit for submission was Dave Whish-Wilson. Dave had previously sought my opinion of the ms of his fine historical novel The Coves, so I solicited this reciprocal favour. Of all his books, I like The Coves best. Its storyline sustains a strong momentum, evoking mid-19th-century San Francisco’s ugly outpost of Australian gold-diggers with unforgettable power. The language is replete with acrid smells and gruesome sights of that frontier world in all its raucous, rancorous violence, and the young central character is surrounded by a great rogues gallery of mostly unsavoury adults.

To my delight, Dave had this to say about A Thousand Tongues:

What a pleasure it was to read your ms, and what a fascinating story set over three different but linked eras. Not an easy job to manage, and hold it all together! For this reader the structure is working perfectly. As well, I thought all of the characterisation was spot on, as was the integration of what must have been a significant amount of research into the different story strands.

Subsequently the person I asked to launch my book was Paul Genoni, co-author with Tanya Dalziell of Half the Perfect World — a really absorbing account of the talented international bohemian community on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s and 1960s, in which Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston were pivotal figures. (The book’s cover shows them in the company of Leonard Cohen and his lover Marianne Ihlen, who also lived on Hydra; its title comes from one of Cohen’s songs.) Fittingly, Half the Perfect World has recently won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction, and will soon be made into a film.

In his launch speech (which can be read in full here), Paul praised my novel in terms that made the long toil of creating it seem worthwhile:

A Thousand Tongues carries all the hallmarks of Ian’s three previous novels—it is impeccably researched, meticulously plotted, and blessed with elegantly and artfully crafted prose. Nothing is laboured, and the pages slip by in a most beguiling manner. Ian is working at the top of his craft, and to my mind it is remarkable that this intricately crafted novel has been delivered in such a compact and constantly engaging form.

A few days after the launch I received a message from Nick Hasluck, one of Western Australia’s most eminent writers. I hold his work in high regard, and especially admire Our Man K, a novel that revolves around real-life Czech journalist Egon Kisch, who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Nick’s portrayal of Kisch imagines his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (whose own character ‘K’ becomes linked to Kisch), and also with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Like all Nick’s fiction, it is thoughtful and cleverly shaped. So I value his comments on my work:

I have now finished reading A Thousand Tongues and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your style, as always, is perfectly suited to the mood and theme of the story. Likewise, the historical background and related research were of considerable interest to me and handled deftly. The combination of these qualities is becoming increasingly rare in contemporary Australian fiction so, upon closing the book, I felt hugely rewarded.

Another leading fiction-writer in this state, Brenda Walker, has continued to express enthusiasm for my work since she saw a draft of the first novel a decade ago, and I’ve been buoyed up by her loyal support. Her own World War 1 story The Wing of Night made a big impression on me. It draws with great skill on a range of historical resources to create a moving tale about those who fought and those they left behind, evoking beautifully the resonance of linked events and the mystery of character. Within a few days of obtaining a copy of A Thousand Tongues, Brenda sent me this upbeat email:

I’m carefully reading your elegant book — very much enjoying the slight formality of the writing and the interesting shifts in time and location…. I think you have every reason to feel wonderful about this book and the next!

Also based in Perth is Tangea Tansley, but her books reflect the fact that she has lived in many parts of the world. These include the Middle East, where Out of Place is set, and Africa, the location for A Question of Belonging. I found the latter novel particularly memorable for its unflinching way of depicting the plight of a young widowed woman trying to maintain her independence on an isolated farm against the background of the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1970s. I was very pleased to get an email from her about A Thousand Tongues:

Just to congratulate you on your lovely book. Your clever choice of epigraphs, which led so smoothly into the braiding of past and present, was right up my street. A book to savour in the reading and ponder thereafter. Very well done.

Another friend, Professor Bob White, is a distinguished literary scholar with an international reputation, especially for his numerous critical studies of Shakespeare. When I was at an early stage of developing my novel I read his wide-ranging book Pacifism and English Literature. Its discussion of Shakespeare’s attitudes to war and peace gave me much food for thought. So the following message from Bob about A Thousand Tongues delighted me:

A great pleasure to read. I admire the way you interweave so many strands together while keeping them all clear; and there are powerful moments. Thanks for the memorable literary experience, and keep writing!

Ken Spillman and I became acquainted when we were both guests at the same literary festival a few years ago, and discovered a number of common interests. He began his writing career as a historian, and then moved into the creation of books for children. Ken is probably best known for his series of Jake stories, which are immensely popular with young readers in several countries, but of his many books the one that stands out for me is an allegorical fable called The Circle. Every sentence in The Circle is beautifully balanced. Knowing that Ken is such an exemplary stylist, I was particularly happy that he said this about A Thousand Tongues:

It really is exceedingly well written — there’s a great eye for detail and your prose is so polished.

I’ve known Andrew Taylor well and admired his poetry for many years. I reviewed one of his early books way back in 1973, co-founded with him in 1975 the long-running Adelaide institution known as Friendly Street Poets, co-edited an anthology with him in 1978… It’s been a long association. Many of his poems have stayed with me, but I have a special fondness for those collected in one of his relatively recent books, Impossible Preludes. It contains beautiful lyrics – often witty, sometimes poignant, always with an unforced conversational directness. Over the years, Andrew has kept a friendly eye on my own poetry and fiction, making lots of encouraging comments. While reading this latest novel, he sent me an interim message, describing it as “utterly engrossing … powerful and confronting.” And then, after finishing the novel:

A Thousand Tongues is very impressive. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, nor does it need to be. It’s a relentless exploration of what is conscience and its varied consequences, and you play that out within an extraordinarily well-realised historical and geographical context. Well, contexts, because of the two fine frames. I was very impressed by the detail with which you establish all that, and when I saw your list of sources consulted I wondered how you had time to write the novel. I also like the way certain things are left without unnecessary explanation, such as the wall the conchies are forced to build, which underscores its pointlessness. Also the exploration of ancestry is not only very topical but also very well handled.

For my part, I’m deeply grateful for all these appreciative remarks from fellow-writers  about my new book — and for the pleasure that their own books have given to me. Writers need discerning friends!

More than a quaint ritual

A quaint old cultural ritual, a remnant from the days when books emerged less often and seemed correspondingly more significant? A bit of ego massage for the author? A custom that is disappearing anyway because its cost is no longer justified by the sales generated?

Previously I’ve posted some thoughts about ceremonial book launches, noting that even authors themselves are not unanimous about the value of these events. David Malouf (so successful that he can afford to be dismissive) shrugs them off as merely “exercises in vanity,” while Miriam Cosic regards them as a vanishing species, “one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.”

Paul Genoni delivering his speech to launch A Thousand Tongues

Having had my new novel A Thousand Tongues launched at a cheerful event yesterday, I incline towards the more optimistic opinion that this traditional way of celebrating a book’s birth can still create ripples of publicity that reaffirm collectively the worth of literary creativity for readers as well as for writers and publishers.

Anyway, I enjoyed myself thoroughly and the crowd that filled Mattie Furphy House apparently did so too. I’m grateful to all who contributed to the afternoon’s success, especially  to Dr Paul Genoni for his eloquent appreciative speech (a version of which will later be published as a review), to my publisher Framework Press for all its support (particular thanks to Indeira William), to the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) for the use of its lovely heritage-listed venue, and to Olivia for a great sales job.

And by the way… I’m delighted that Amanda Curtin generously invited me to write a piece about my novel as a guest on her website. She posted it there today and you can read it here.

A story where past meets present

I’ve always tried in my previous historical fiction to raise issues relevant to our own times. So it’s encouraging when reviewers recognise (to quote one of them) ‘themes that speak to our present society’ in what I’ve written.

But I’m still aware that some readers see any stories set in the distant past as indulging in a kind of antiquarian escapism, looking nostalgically backwards instead of engaging with today’s concerns.

The book’s back cover

I hope any such misapprehension will hardly be possible for those who turn the pages of my new novel, A Thousand Tongues.

It tells a story in which situations from earlier periods are framed by a present-day setting, with characters in the here-and-now of contemporary Perth investigating characters from earlier periods and other places, discovering in the process that certain questions (e.g. about matters of conscience) are perennial even if they take different shapes as circumstances change.

Pleasant though it is to be praised for evoking authentic impressions of times gone by, my aim in A Thousand Tongues goes well beyond that – as the back-cover blurb asserts. In case you can’t see the text on the accompanying image clearly, here’s what it says:

Released from Dartmoor Prison in 1889, a black man soon breaks back into it. Interned in the same jail in 1917, a conscientious objector seems to invite trouble and seek punishment. On a present-day Australian university campus, a Muslim student is mysteriously murdered.

The suspenseful action of A Thousand Tongues reveals how these enigmas are interlinked. It explores racial and sexual tensions, twists and turns of conscience, the limits of historical enquiry, and legacies of guilt and shame.

“Ian Reid’s fiction is grounded in an understanding of how complicated character can be, how tragic fate can be, and how lives that might seem inconsequential carry the immense power of history and personality.” – Brenda Walker

Published by Framework Press, my novel is scheduled for release on the first day of the Australian spring season.

 

 

Cover preview

When its author first sees how a forthcoming book will look, there’s a frisson of pleasure.

So I’m very happy to share this preview of the cover of my soon-to-be-released fourth novel, A Thousand Tongues.

The design by Steve Barwick captures the story’s mood well, incorporating a landscape scene that figures importantly in the action. The row of stones, stark, uncanny, tongue-like, has stood in this part of Dartmoor since prehistoric times.

The title? It alludes to a speech by one of Shakespeare’s characters, quoted in an epigraph to the text.

More on this before long, as the release date draws nearer.

Curious journeys

Curiosity is a vital attribute for successful teachers and students, and for writers and readers as well. It can motivate us to learn and to invent: to pose questions, pursue answers, devise alternatives, refine our cognitive skills, and imagine fictional stories that take us beyond the small circle of self-absorption in which we often crouch.

So it was appropriate for the English Teachers Association of Western Australia to choose ‘Curiosity’ as the theme for its recent state conference, and to arrange the final plenary session as a conversation between two writer-educators, Josephine Wilson and myself, about the ‘curious journeys’ that we have undertaken during our careers. Tanya Dalziell skilfully facilitated the session and posed stimulating questions. I won’t presume to summarise the various interesting things Josephine and Tanya said, but what follows is a sketch of a few of my own thoughts on the topic.

We were asked, to begin with, what choices we’ve had to make along the way and where these choices have led. I said that, for my own part, I’ve tried to avoid either/or choices. Having always wanted both to teach literature and to produce it, I’ve done my best to sustain the two kinds of activity simultaneously. There are times when one or the other may take priority; but in general, over the years, I’ve juggled them together as best I can. Making a choice between an involvement in literary creativity and an involvement in teaching (or teaching-related work such as curriculum reform projects) is something I’ve resisted.

Choosing isn’t everything. Important turning points in one’s life sometimes just happen without much considered choice. Looking back, it’s tempting to see them all as purposeful, shaped by bold decisions – even, grandly, as constituting a kind of heroic quest, in the course of which one has bravely surmounted obstacles and survived ordeals, driven onwards by unshakeable belief in the chosen goal of vocational fulfilment.

But my curious journey has actually been less like a quest than a kind of peregrination, a wandering, meandering way of getting along. American writer Denise Levertov has a poem called Overland to the Islands that sums this up perfectly. It begins “Let’s go—much as that dog goes, / intently haphazard.” And it ends with the following lines:

Under his feet
rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in its perceptions—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction – every step an arrival.

Similarly my own progress (not quite the right word; more apt is Samuel Beckett’s “gress”) has been a medley of step-by-step discoveries, not a series of conscious purposeful career choices. Most of the big changes and commitments were unplanned. They came from other people’s suggestions or popped up as digressive distractions while my canine imagination was fully absorbed in just sniffing around. That kind of “intently haphazard” wayfaring, I believe, has something to recommend it.

Other questions that arose in our conversation were about the specific nature and extent of the curiosity that a writer or teacher should aim to nurture. What exactly do we want our readers and students to be curious about, above all? And should there be ethical constraints on our curiosity?

It may seem obvious that a primary objective ought to be developing curiosity about lives that are different from our own. Certainly that’s important, and has potential ethical value if it fosters empathy. Yet it’s not an end in itself, at least where literary experience is concerned, as I was reminded recently when reading John Banville’s brilliant novel The Untouchable. Its narrator and main character, Victor Maskell, makes this comment on an acquaintance who writes fiction: “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.” At first sight Maskell’s witticism may seem merely to reflect his own sardonic character, but I think it’s worth pondering. For while a keen interest in what makes people tick is part of a good writer’s necessary equipment, it’s not sufficient. Many a person, despite being genuinely and intensely curious about others, will lack what is required to turn that curiosity into patterns of words that are well worth reading. The first-rate writer must above all have a burning curiosity about the medium of language itself – its semantic resources,  its capacity to convey a great range of thoughts and feelings in precise and memorable ways.

Similarly, what the teacher of English needs to develop more than anything else is a love of language in all its varieties, and a deep understanding of how words shape every aspect of our lives – sometimes working negatively to constrain or distort our perceptions but potentially working to enlarge them.

So if I’m conducting a writing workshop (whether in a school classroom or with a mature-age group), I like to focus on details of language – stylistic nuances, subtle connotations, careful selection and sequencing of words. All sorts of things may serve as an initial stimulus – a physical object, a remembered scene, a photograph, etc., and these starting points can generate creatively a long string of productive questions – but my main aim is help students to concentrate their attention on the expressive capacities of their medium: the best words in the best order, as Coleridge put it.

Do we always have the “right” to be curious, or should we recognise ethical limits to curiosity? My view is that, in principle, the boundaries that may need to be respected in some real-life situations (an anthropologist encountering unfamiliar cultural practices, a neighbour itching to intrude on next-door privacy) should not apply to fiction writers, who are, after all, in the business of being transgressively voyeuristic, persistently nosey about how other people see the world. I reject the possessive kind of identity politics that wants to fence off some sections of experience and make them no-go zones for inquisitive writers who don’t belong to the particular group in question but want to imagine (and help readers imagine) what it might be like to do so. Of course it’s a presumptuous enterprise, and fraught with peril.  I wrote more about this in a previous blog post.

But what do you think about these matters, dear reader? I’m curious…

Writing to explore the self – or to escape it?

There’s a long and honourable tradition of writing about oneself. Many literary masterpieces have come from authors who choose to focus directly on aspects of their own lives.

St Augustine, painted by Philippe de Champaigne (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The earliest notable example in the western tradition is Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400 AD), which records an assortment of his experiences and beliefs as he progressed from naughty childhood to devout maturity. Another landmark of self-scrutiny is the work of Montaigne in the 16th century: ‘Je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre,’ he states (I am myself the subject matter of my book) – and what makes his essays so mesmeric is their candid way of enquiring into what he feels and knows. ‘I have never seen,’ he remarks unblinkingly, ‘a greater monster or miracle than myself.’

Deeply personal reflection on the writer’s emotional development continues in the 18th century with Rousseau’s Confessions and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, reaching its fullest expression in the Romantic period with Wordsworth, whose autobiographical work The Prelude: Growth of a Poet’s Mind runs for hundreds of pages of blank verse meditation on formative episodes in his early life. It was, Wordsworth admitted apologetically, ‘a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.’ The word autobiography didn’t appear in the English language until the first decade of the 19th century, but ever since then the idea of writing to express oneself has enjoyed huge popularity.

Some of the most engaging autobiographies and memoirs are written in response to trauma. Contemporary prize-winning examples include Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics, an acerbic depiction of her poisonous family relationships in Canada; Tara Westover’s Educated, which recounts in matter-of-fact detail her painful emergence from an abusive fundamentalist doomsday-obsessed household in rural Idaho, and Robert Dessaix’s What Days Are For, in which an almost fatal heart attack prompts a witty stream of introspective associations that include his experiences as a gay man charting a path through the jagged social terrain of late-20th-century Sydney.

So there’s no doubt that authors and readers alike can find great appeal in the act of writing to express and explore the self. Becoming increasingly popular during the last couple of centuries, it has established itself as a quintessentially modern genre.

BUT recognising the legitimacy of autobiographical literature is very different from suggesting that any other kind is illegitimate! A notion currently being advocated with alarming stridency and frequency is that unless writing stems directly from within one’s own experience it will be inauthentic, politically suspect and potentially offensive. This contention arises from a possessive, censorious kind of identity politics, and I find it bizarre. So female novelists should be disqualified from creating male characters? Someone with perfect hearing shouldn’t have the temerity to invent a story that presents a deaf person empathetically? An atheist mustn’t presume to write about someone with religious convictions? To argue that it’s ‘inappropriate’ (what a lazily dismissive cliché that is!) for a writer to try to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are different from the writer’s is to miss entirely the very point of fiction.

As Graham Swift, author of Waterland, Last Orders etc., remarks:

The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.

Most people value reading because it lets them escape the confines of the self, but the same principle should hold for writing as well. Rose Tremain, author of The Gustav Sonata and other fine novels, has said in an interview that when creating a character she prefers to choose someone unlike herself in gender, age etc. ‘If your subject is really yourself and your own life,’ she adds, ‘it is very likely that you will run out of steam,’ and anyhow to write only about what you already know ‘must be quite boring.’

Fiction writer Colum McCann emphasises that same point in his book Letters to a Young Writer:

Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.

Lionel Shriver fearlessly repudiated the interdictions of identity politics in her 2016 keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She observed that fiction writers today are faced by a ‘climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice.’ As a result, ‘the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.’

Those thoughts call to mind a famously succinct statement by T.S. Eliot in an essay published  a century ago. He was referring specifically to poetry, but the same point applies also to almost any imaginative writing: it is ‘not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’ In this context, the idea of writing to escape the self needn’t have a pejorative meaning. As Graham Swift says, ‘surely that initial escape is vital, and can be profitable if we are led back in the end, with something more than we started with, to ourselves.’

Storytelling line by line

‘Flash fiction’ has become a popular label for very brief written stories. Sometimes these have a compressed intensity that makes them indistinguishable from ‘prose poems.’ Anyhow, it’s generally assumed that their proper medium is prose. But what might flash fiction look like in verse form, where the line-breaks can create rhythmic patterns and nuances of emphasis? I have an example in mind – but first, let me put it in context.

In modern times the most popular vehicle for telling tales (as distinct from performing them on stage or screen) has been prose fiction. So we tend to think of novels or short stories, or short-short flash fiction, as the most natural ways to recount a story in words. Yet those prose literary genres are quite recent inventions. The oldest narrative forms are shaped by poetic rhythms: they are folk ballads and heroic epics.

Epic poetry goes far back into oral traditions that derive ultimately from prehistoric cultural practices. Bards chanted stories whose meaning emerged in the context of myth and ritual.

Ballads, too, were transmitted for centuries before printed versions appeared. The best-known published collections of traditional ballads in English are by Bishop Percy in the 18th century and Francis Child in the 19th. By then, Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats were inventing ballads that imitated the traditional forms, with a strong metrical beat and rhyming structure, while Australia produced anonymous bush ballads such as ‘The Wild Colonial Boy,’ emulated by poets like Banjo Paterson (e.g. ‘How Gilbert Died’).

But a different kind of narrative poetry emerged a couple of centuries ago with Wordsworth’s autobiographical work ‘The Prelude.’ Although it’s a very long composition, it contains numerous passages that can stand on their own as accounts of formative childhood experiences – ‘spots of time,’ he called them: moment of insight, epiphanies, traumatic episodes.

A recently published poem of mine is thematically similar to those Wordsworthian ‘spots of time,’ though I haven’t adopted his 1st-person point of view; the experiences undergone by the boy in this poem may have parallels within my own childhood but a 3rd-person point of view shifts the focus away from the purely personal. Nor have I reproduced Wordsworth’s ‘blank verse’ iambic pentameter. My three-line stanza form is loosely based on the traditional ‘terza rima,’ but with a less regular metrical beat and rhyming pattern: it uses half-rhymes and assonance, deployed in various combinations instead of a formal interlocking chain.

My poem, ‘Going Under,’ appears in the latest issue of StylusLit, a bi-annual online journal, where it’s in good company. You can access it here.