All posts by Ian

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.

 

The book-chat paradox

Reading and writing are essentially solo activities. Yes, they’re channels of communication, but they communicate indirectly through the printed page (or screen page). When we read or write, we do so as individuals – and generally in silence. Yet paradoxically, readers and writers can’t stop talking with other people about their literary experiences.

A book-chatterer at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

Most of us like (occasionally) to listen to writers speaking on the subject of things they have written. For those of us who are writers ourselves there can be a particular interest in hearing an insider’s comments on some aspect of the craft of writing. Literary festivals attract large audiences to sessions that feature various authors using the medium of speech – a very different medium from the written language in which they are supposedly expert.

Most of us also enjoy conversations with fellow-readers, comparing reactions and discussing opinions. The proliferation of book clubs and reading groups testifies to that.

Both of those kinds of book-chat can sometimes be disappointing, irritating, tiresome. In Sally Rooney’s recent novel Normal People a young student called Connell, who is himself beginning to write stories, goes along to a public reading by a notable visiting writer, and finds that ‘everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy.’ The writer’s performance is stiff, and Connell wonders ‘why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant.’ He reflects cynically that ‘they were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.’

No doubt some reading group members often feel similarly dispirited after a meeting in which the book-chat has been superficial, taken up with gossipy digressions rather than getting to grips with the literary qualities of the book that they have read (or half-read).

Yet despite our disappointments, we readers and writers continue to involve ourselves in book-chat. This isn’t really surprising, because the spoken word underlies all literature. Voice precedes print. Long before people began to produce books, long before writing emerged, singers and rhapsodic bards chanted epic stories and expressive lyrics around campfires and in ancient mead-halls.

At any rate, whatever reservations I may have about book-chat, I’m up to my neck in it. Within just the next week, for example, I’m giving talks to a couple of MALA groups about myth and literature, conducting a workshop for fellow-writers on editing towards publication, and speaking to the WA Genealogical Society on how a fiction writer looks at family history. Details about these occasions are on the Events page of this website.

Reading at a tangent

Recently, turning the pages of a newly released book, I’ve been reminded of the simple truth that different ways of reading can provide different kinds of pleasure.

Most of the time, whether it’s a newspaper article that we’re reading, or a poem, a novel or whatever else – we focus intently on what the language in front of us is directly presenting. We keep within a framework provided by the author because we want to follow closely the line of argument, or the plot, or the revelation of character, or the patterns of figurative meaning. The words on the page encircle ideas and images within which our attention is held. We try not to miss anything relevant, and so we stay within that circle, avoiding stray associations that might distract us.

But there is another, less disciplined kind of reading, which can yield another kind of pleasure. This happens when we move beyond the circle that the text itself has drawn around its subject matter, and let our thoughts wander off digressively.

This is what I call “reading at a tangent.” Being easily distractible, I often do it: I find myself thinking not so much about what’s within the text as about something that’s absent from it. It may be quite legitimately absent as far as the author’s apparent intention is concerned because it’s extraneous to the topic, off to the side at an odd angle. But to me, as a digressive reader, irrelevant associations can become absorbing.

I’ve enjoyed the experience of tangential reading while looking through Amanda Curtin’s just-published book Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, a study of the life and work of a notable painter who (like me) was born in New Zealand and eventually found a home in Western Australia, but (unlike me) spent most of her life as an expatriate in France.

There’s much to admire in Amanda’s meticulously researched, imaginatively written and handsomely produced book, but I’m not offering a review of it here. Instead I’m just recording a few musings that it has brought to my mind – musings about possible questions and imaginary connections that lurk silently outside the circumference of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris. In several passages Amanda indicates that she herself is aware of such possibilities but chooses not to pursue them, apart from a few speculative asides, because they are beyond the book’s scope. Fair enough. I’m not suggesting that she should have treated these things differently, just confessing to my own pleasurably undisciplined habits as a reader.

In this case what sets my reading off at a tangent is the fact that so many aspects of Kathleen O’Connor’s life remain obscure despite patient research. This is especially true of most of her personal relationships. Time and again Amanda scrutinises the available evidence in an effort to discover why Kathleen’s friend X seems to have fallen suddenly out of favour, or what may perhaps have been behind Kate’s coolness towards Y, or whether Z was really more than a casual acquaintance. Often the answers cannot be found. Kate was discreet, even secretive, and covered her tracks carefully.

This can lead a distractible reader (moi) to drift into a reverie about things that almost certainly didn’t happen to Kate but could conceivably have done so.

For instance, what if she had met Katherine Mansfield (who was also Kathleen until she adopted a pen-name)? Both spent childhood years in New Zealand, including Wellington, where they lived in the same street and went to the same school. Though KO’C was twelve years older, and left New Zealand when KM was only three, their paths might have crossed briefly in that little colonial outpost… Or later, as expatriates in London or Paris? Both women spent time to-ing and fro-ing between both those cities in the years 1906 to 1908, and again in 1914-16. Both, by then, were strictly dedicated to the vocation of an artist, though they differed not only in their choice of medium – the written word for KM, paint for KO’C – but also in their tastes. They were unlike each other, too, in temperament, and in their attitudes to men. KM was wildly promiscuous during those years; KO’C seems to have had a tendency towards ascetic habits.

But just suppose they had met, perhaps introduced by one of the many other antipodean-born writers and artists working in London or Paris: what would these two have thought of each other? Both tended to be severe in judging people, and my guess is that they would have irritated one other. If they had met after April 1917, they would have had one painful thing in common: each, by then, had suffered the loss of a brother on the western front. But they reacted differently to this trauma: KO’C wrote an embarrassingly sentimental verse tribute to Australian soldiers in general (which reveals not only a tin ear but also, as Amanda comments, an “emotional lack”), while KM’s response was to inscribe particular memories of her beloved brother into that great portrait of family and place, the story “Prelude.”

Still reading at a tangent, I begin to imagine other possible meetings of expatriate artists and writers in Paris and London during the time when KO’C was there. The New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins certainly did know KO’C, who was for a while one of her pupils and friends; but there is no record of FH ever meeting KM – though one of FH’s pupils while she was in Wellington was Edith Bendell, with whom KM had an erotic affair a couple of years later. So if FH and KM did happen to meet, and get talking about people they both knew, there might well have been some delicate nuances in their conversation.

Regarding the O’Connor/Hodgkins friendship, Amanda allows herself a passing conjecture about its sudden severance. “If there had been a romantic relationship between them, might that have contributed to the irrevocable nature of the estrangement? But I have seen no supporting evidence in Kate’s archives.”

This print of Rice’s Mansfield portrait has been above my desk for many years.

What if those three – FH, KO’C and KM had at some stage shared a table in a Montparnasse café, reminiscing about Wellington days? And if that had happened in, let’s say, 1922, the little gathering of female expatriate artists could also have included Australian writer and painter Stella Bowen (five years younger than KM), who had moved to Paris from London that year with her novelist/critic husband Ford Madox Ford, and also the American painter Anne Estelle Rice (one year younger than KO’C), who previously lived in Paris before the war, then moved to England, painting a famous portrait of her friend KM there in 1918, but often visited Paris during the 1920s.

As far as I know, KO’C never mentions Rice, though they both exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in the same years, 1911-13. Nor does she make any reference to Stella Bowen, though it’s hard to believe she hadn’t at least heard of her. But then SB’s talents were considerably more versatile than KO’C’s; they extended beyond painting to writing, and her  memoir Drawn From Life (1941, often reprinted) shows that she belonged to a much more prominent community of artists than KO’C ever did. KO’C, probably knowing this, might well have felt resentful. (I haven’t read Drawn From Life, but I’ve seen extracts from it in an absorbing chapter of Rosemary Lancaster’s book Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945.)

If those five had met together in 1922, surely sparks would have been flying. I’ve mentioned the tensions between FH and KO’C, and my surmise is that KM wouldn’t have found either of them congenial. As for SB, her literary circles were markedly different from KM’s. The previous year, KM’s husband John Middleton Murry had reviewed dismissively the latest novel by SB’s husband Ford, and the two men were intensely rivalrous editors of notable magazines. It’s likely that Rice, being close to KM and Middleton Murry, would not have been comfortable in SB’s company either.

Not a relaxed social occasion, I imagine. But all the more fascinating for that. It’s the sort of thing that can take shape when one reads at a tangent.

 

Lecturing: an unfashionable art

Next Monday, without shame, I’ll be doing something that many people these days frown on, though it has been a valued part of education for centuries. I’ll be giving a lecture, the first in a course of ten that will run weekly until late October. Lecturing! What a shockingly antiquarian practice!

I’m familiar with the usual arguments against lecturing. It’s said to be an incorrigibly authoritarian, top-down, monologic way of imposing an individual’s views on a docile group of listeners. It supposedly discourages independent learning and gives the lecturer a licence to parade his or her ego.

No doubt all of this can too often be true. But need it always be? Is it self-deceptive to think I understand those potential problems well enough to mitigate them when I stand at a lectern?

Many years ago, in The Making of Literature, I wrote about the importance of ensuring that a teacher engages a class actively in the learning process, combining the roles of “a resource specialist, who puts the learner in contact with useable information, and a response specialist, with whom the learner can negotiate and test particular communications.” The format of a lecture may not always facilitate this kind of engagement, but doesn’t preclude it either. Much depends on the nature of the group, particularly the motivations of its members, the knowledge and interest they bring to a session, and their level of maturity.

This particular course of mine is for the Peel (Mandurah) branch of MALA, the Mature Adults Learning Association. Knowing MALA members well, I can be confident that, while I’m responsible for much of the content that we explore together, they will bring a spirit of active enquiry to what we discuss. I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for groups of this kind in a previous blog post, ‘In Praise of Older Readers.’

In medieval universities a lecture was simply, as the French-derived word suggests, an oral reading from some text along with a commentary on what was being read. Its purpose was to impart knowledge of the text and instruct the audience in how to interpret it. Today, books are so readily available in so many ways that it may seem needless for a lecturer to read aloud even a few select passages from a chosen text. Why not leave it entirely to students to do their own silent reading? Answer: because well-written words sometimes deserve to be voiced. By reading a passage aloud, an experienced lecturer can draw attention to certain nuances of phrasing. This serves to model the process of interpretation. Marks on the page don’t supersede the spoken dimension of language.

The topic for my course is Myth in Literature and Society. ‘Myth’ signifies a range of things, from mere fallacies to fabulous old tales of gods, superheroes, creation and destruction. Why does the word have such diverse meanings? Why do many myths have long-lasting appeal? Why do creative writers go on retelling and adapting mythical stories? What can myths tell us about the societies that produced them, and what relevance can they still have in our own time and place? In exploring such questions, this course draws examples from literary sources, mainly in the western tradition (e.g. Greco-Roman classical drama, poetry and epic; biblical stories; medieval romances; Shakespearean plays), as well as from cultural practices, ancient and modern.

MALA is still accepting late enrolments. If you’re interested, click on this information.

I’ll also be presenting a different lecture course, beginning the following week (on Wed 22nd August), for the Rockingham branch of MALA. This one is on Historical Fiction. Details here.

Denmark: a story-haunted place

Last month I spent a memorable week in Denmark. Not the little West Australian town of that name but the Scandinavian country, which I was visiting in person for the first time. Yet this wasn’t a first encounter with Denmark, because in my imagination I’d often travelled there on a magic carpet of stories.

For one thing, I’d read fiction by a few Danish writers. A handful of sentimental tales by Hans Christian Andersen had assuaged the growing pains of my childhood. Later, Karen Blixen, who wrote as Isak Dinesen, had beguiled me with her novel Out of Africa and her short story Babette’s Feast, both of which were converted into memorable movies. I’d also admired Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg. In a broader non-fictional sense, ‘stories’ about aspects of Nordic identity are implicit in sombre essays I’d dipped into years ago by the 19th-century proto-existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, and in the writings of his antagonist, the famous nationalist poet, educator and politician N.F.S. Grundtvig, to whose work some Copenhagen friends had recently introduced me.

But more deep-seated were certain non-Danish sources for some of the Danish images in my head. The experience of being physically present in Denmark reminded me that two of the greatest masterworks of English literature have Danish settings and vividly express distinctive elements in the cultural history of that nation.

Kronborg Castle today, hardly changed since the 16th century.

One can’t walk around Kronborg castle in Elsinore without recalling scenes or lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and recognising how much the mood of that play was shaped by the upheavals of the Lutheran reformation that had begun not far south of Elsinore. (In some ways Danish culture remains profoundly Lutheran in character.) When the play opens, the young prince himself has been studying at Wittenberg University, where Martin Luther was a Professor.

The conscience-burdened self-questioning that suffuses Hamlet’s soliloquies, troubling his sense of purpose, is deeply Protestant in character. Standing in the lavishly decorated chapel, the sole part of Kronborg Castle that has survived in its original 1572 form unscathed by fire and decay, one can readily picture Claudius confessing there to the king’s murder. Several tapestries still hanging on the castle walls are original furnishings, some large enough for a ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’ like Polonius to hide behind.

Shakespeare adapted his plot from an old Scandinavian legend recounted by the 12th-century historian Saxo Grammaticus, but the English stage version from Tudor times ensures that Elsinore’s 16th-century castle has become Hamlet’s home, contributing to the allure of Denmark as a story-haunted place.

In a similar way the mighty Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf belongs to both Denmark and England. Written down a thousand years ago on the basis of previous oral transmission, it’s the earliest extant long poem in the English language, but its story has a Danish origin, incorporating people and events from 6th-century Denmark. While the eponymous hero himself is actually from the Geat tribe in what is now southern Sweden, the main narrative action begins when he comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose mead-hall Heorot is being terrorised by the monster Grendel. Archeologists have recently established that Heorot had a historical reality on the island of Zealand, where modern Copenhagen, Elsinore and Roskilde (the country’s ancient capital) are located. At Lejre (near Roskilde), the site of a royal court in pre-Viking times, the remains of a huge 6th-century feasting hall have been uncovered.

So Hamlet and Beowulf, this pair of ‘English’ literary heroes, have Danish origins. Yet the influence has not been in only one direction. The two quintessentially Danish 19th-century philosophers mentioned above were admirers of the great English works that their own culture had generated. Grundtvig, an enthusiast for Anglo-Saxon literature, translated Beowulf into Danish, and Kierkegaard made frequent reference to the hero of Hamlet as a way of meditating indirectly on his own habits of melancholy introspection.