Category Archives: Literary fiction

Revisiting Patrick White: The Aunt’s Story

Most of what we read tends to be restricted to what’s topical. Review pages, bookshop displays, literary prizes, festival programs and reading-group lists all usually focus our attention on the Latest Thing.

It can be salutary to resist this tendency by returning occasionally to durable books from the past. So from time to time I post on this blog a few thoughts about some memorable literary work first encountered years ago that may have more lasting value than anything currently featured in the literary marketplace. I’ve previously written in that spirit about Kate Grenville’s comic masterpiece The Idea of Perfection and about early fiction by Peter Carey.

My well-thumbed copy, with its haunting cover picture by Sidney Nolan

This time I’m revisiting The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White, one of the first Australian novels I came across (when I hadn’t yet migrated to this country). Published in 1948, a quarter of a century before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s a novel that retains a capacity to startle me. I admire all of White’s fiction and regard him as Australia’s greatest writer. It’s odd that he isn’t as widely read today as he still deserves to be, especially as he has had such a palpable influence on some of the best compatriot writers (e.g. Shirley Hazzard, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Michelle de Kretser). White was brilliantly successful in his determination to prove, as he once put it, ‘that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism.’ None of his works shows this with more verve than The Aunt’s Story.

At the novel’s centre is the character of Theodora Goodman, a middle-aged single woman. The narrative structure follows her erratic journey through the 1930s from rural New South Wales to middle America by way of a disintegrating Europe. To most of those who encounter her she appears strange and awkward. But as we see her world through her eyes, her gradual move into a kind of lucid madness is compassionately rendered. The novel’s richly textured language, full of nuances and disjunctions and arresting images, is a vehicle for conveying how Theo perceives what is happening around her and within her.

To a large extent this is a story about the limits and possibilities of storytelling. At the beginning, Theo sees herself as typical of ‘people who do not have many stories to tell,’ and several passages refer to storytelling in similarly negative terms: ‘There is nothing to tell’… ‘There is very little to tell.’ Seldom in the first or last of the novel’s three Parts do characters tell stories to each other. When they do, it’s usually just idle chatter. They show no confidence in being able to span ‘the distances that separate,’ either with tales of mundane personal experience or with grand modernist narratives of social progress. Theo is often described as ‘waiting.’ She is suspended between those two kinds of stories, the trivial and the portentous.

Part 1 (Meroë) includes glimpses of Theodora’s childhood, shaped by her extraordinary capacity for empathy – yet also by her experiences of painful exclusion. It ends with her feeling that ‘there is no lifeline to other lives’ – and therefore no worthwhile storyline. She is mistaken about this. Parts 2 and 3 move towards her discovery that our lives may become more bearable if understood as story-shaped.

The first paragraph of Part 2 (Jardin Exotique) repeats that Theo (now staying in a small French hotel filled with displaced eccentrics, the flotsam of cultural upheaval) is ‘waiting,’ just as Europe is ‘waiting for the crash’ – of markets, of tradition, of modernity. She feels directionless, ‘waiting to be told.’ Her travels in Part 2 take her through a wasteland of failed master-narratives:

Holding back the sun with her hands as she stepped out, she hoped that the garden would be the goal of a journey. There had been many goals, all of them deceptive. In Paris the metal hats just failed to tinkle. The great soprano in Dresden sang up her soul for love into a wooden cup. In England the beige women, stalking through the rain with long feet and dogs, had the monstrous eye of sewing machines. Throughout the gothic shell of Europe, in which there had never been such a buying and selling, of semi-precious aspirations, bulls’ blood, and stuffed doves, the stones arches cracked, the aching wilderness, in which the ghosts of Homer and St Paul and Tolstoy waited for the crash.

In fantasy, she begins to project herself imaginatively into the lives of her fellow-lodgers – Sokolnikov, Mrs Rapallo, Katina Pavlou and others. The borderlines between individuals, and between fact and fiction, blur in her mind.

Part 3 (Holstius) takes her through the rural American mid-west, which turns into a surreal landscape. In a deserted shack she communes with a mysterious figure called Holstius, who seems to be a comforting figment of her own invention.

In the peace that Holstius spread throughout her body and the speckled shade of surrounding trees, there was no end to the lives of Theodora Goodman. These met and parted, met and parted, movingly. They entered into each other, so that the impulse for music in Katina Pavlou’s hands, and the steamy exasperation of Sokolnikov, and Mrs Rapallo’s baroque and narcotised despair were the same and understandable. And in the same way that the created lives of Theodora Goodman were interchangeable, the lives into which she had entered, making them momently dependent for love or hate, owing her this portion of their fluctuating personalities, […] these were the lives of Theodora Goodman, these too.

At the Hôtel de Midi, Mrs Rapallo had urged Theo to relax with ‘a book where things happen.’ The Aunt’s Story isn’t that kind of book: instead of a chain of external events it provides inward-turning images and imaginary interrelationships.

My battered copy of this wonderful novel testifies to many readings, and I’ll continue to revisit it, discovering and rediscovering further details to cherish. I’ve written at length about The Aunt’s Story in one of the chapters of my book Narrative Exchanges, but I still feel I’ve hardly scratched its surface. No doubt it will continue to release new meanings each time I go back into its dreamlike world.

Ask an author – FAQ #3: Why are your stories so dark?

While I’m not filled with gloom myself, it’s true I don’t write happily upbeat stories. Why dwell so much on shady characters, sombre moods and grim situations?

Although we may all want plenty of sunshine in our lives, most of us don’t want to read a lot about it, because the state of happiness is not particularly complex and there’s little of interest to be said on the subject.

Being conscious of unhappiness (some of the time, and in various ways) is surely one of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals, and also stimulates the narrative impulse. It’s pleasant to listen occasionally to birdsong or to the purring of a cat, but birds and cats have no stories to tell us. Storytelling is the main medium through which we make sense of experience, and it doesn’t lend itself to cheerful chirping or merry miaows.

More often than not, I suppose, people tell or read stories in order to equip themselves to look unblinkingly into the shadows – to cope with difficult and dismal feelings, such as loss and grief, guilt and shame, fear and loathing, remorse and rejection.

Or just plain disappointment.  In large part, my novel That Untravelled World is a tale of dreams that don’t come to fruition – though it’s also a tale of consolations. I’ve tried not only to convey an impression of that troubled formative period of Australia’s development – covering the Great War, the Great Depression and the build up to WW2 – but also to get the reader thinking about the things that, during times of adversity, can either pull us apart or bring us together, especially in family relationships of different kinds.

Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection

Almost any Writer’s Festival program, such as the one coming up next month in Perth, focuses in a promotional way on what’s recently published. This buzz of topicality tends to push aside books we’ve read a while ago, though some of them may have more lasting value than anything that happens to be current.

Grenville

So as a counterbalance, I like to post occasional comments on memorable literary works first encountered a few years back that now seem well worth revisiting. In that spirit I wrote a blog piece about Peter Carey’s early fiction. Now I turn to Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, a comic masterpiece which came out in 1999 and received great acclaim at the time, including the award of the prestigious Orange Prize.

I love this novel, but can see why it would probably have little appeal to readers who crave page-turning excitement, dramatic events and energetic characters. The Idea of Perfection offers something different: a low-key humorous story about two gawky city-bred people, newcomers in a small unglamorous country town, who bumble their way through a series of seemingly inconsequential episodes.

What makes it an outstanding novel is the quality of the writing as a vehicle for sharp observation. Grenville’s style manages to convey both irony and empathy towards the socially clumsy self-thwarting pair at the story’s centre and also towards an assortment of minor characters and their environment. There’s a satirical edge to it, but without scorn; the general tone is affectionate.

In a few quick brushstrokes the opening chapter evokes the lethargic atmosphere of ‘Karakarook, NSW, pop 1374,’ with its deserted main street ‘lying stunned under the afternoon sun,’ a dog ‘stretched out lifeless across the doorway of an empty shop,’ and a few cars ‘parked diagonally into the gutters like tadpoles nosing up to a rock.’ This scene is filtered through an observer, visiting engineer Douglas Cheeseman, who watches the street from behind a dusty curtain of his unlovely hotel room, noting the grey corrugated iron roofs, the shop window with nothing on its shelves except dead flies and the broken sign ‘Merry Xmas Peace on Ear.’

Karakarook once had great expectations, reflected in names that are ludicrously discrepant with its down-at-heel rustic ambience: Parnassus Road, Virgil Street, the Acropolis Café, the Mt Olympus Panorama Café… The pretentiously labelled town buildings look puny in comparison with the real grandeur of a huge sky and an untamed landscape:

Up beyond the flimsy little shops the hills were very close, very solid. They were a structure of another kind altogether. Up there, dark timeless pelts of bush folded themselves over the curves of the land. Air moved in stately tides. Clouds made large bold gestures in the sky.

Douglas Cheeseman, baffled by diffidence and self-doubt, is in Karakarook because Head Office in Sydney has decided to replace a deteriorating local landmark, the Bent Bridge, and put him in charge of this little engineering project. He soon encounters opposition from the town’s Heritage Committee, which has been joined by the other endearingly inept main character, an angular woman called Harley Savage, visiting consultant for the pioneer community museum. As I observed in a blog piece a few weeks ago, one person’s heritage is another’s can of worms – so it’s not surprising that Douglas and Harley find themselves in a pickle. By this stage a reader knows that awkward situations are fairly normal for each of the excruciatingly shy misfits, yet there is still the hopeful possibility of a fortunate outcome: the narrator’s genial irony allows us to interpret optimistically the book’s epigraph (from Leonardo da Vinci) as applying to the relationship between Douglas and Harley: ‘An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength.’

In several respects The Idea of Perfection deserves to be cherished as a manual of exemplary writing.

For one thing, Grenville’s ear is extraordinarily well attuned to the quirks of colloquial Australian speech. Every passage of conversation or of interior monologue – and such passages comprise much of the story – is precise in its use of idiomatic phrases that capture distinctive personal traits and social attitudes. There are amusing examples on page after page, but perhaps the most richly comic dialogue occurs when Douglas is being driven at alarming speed by Chook Henderson along rough gravel roads to inspect the Bent Bridge; the cumulative effect of their mismatched vernacular exchanges is hilarious. In some other passages, little or nothing may be said aloud but a character’s voice is implicit in a sequence of inner thoughts; e.g. the second chapter is especially memorable for the pitch-perfect manner in which it renders Felicity Porcelline’s stream of self-deceiving consciousness as she lingers in the butcher’s shop, Alfred Chang Superior Meats.

She brushed away a fly that was circling her face, and shook her arm when it landed there. Then she bent down and brushed her leg, although it had not landed there yet.

Sometimes person could actually be pleased at the diversion a fly could provide.

Partly it was that the butcher was Chinese. She was no racist, and wanted him to know that she did not count it against him, him being Chinese. The trouble was, not wanting to be thought racist always seemed to make her too friendly. She could hear that her voice was a little too loud and a little too sprightly in the quiet shop. She smiled too much, and did not know how to stop.

She was no racist, but noticed, every time he spoke, how he spoke exactly the way everyone else did. She was no racist, but listened for something Chinese in the way he talked, the little foreign something. The funny thing was, it was never there. She had tried closing her eyes when he talked, and you would never have guessed. If you happened to find yourself with him in the dark for any reason, you would never know he was Chinese.

The vacuous Mrs Porcelline has made her first entrance in the story just before this passage, but already her scatter-brained thoughts are telling us a good deal about her, and we’ve begun to anticipate her eventual discomfiture when she does find herself with Freddy Chang in the dark.

Other features of Grenville’s prose are also worth close attention from any reader, especially from one who is also an apprentice writer. I admire in particular her deft way of weaving description integrally into the text so that it never seems static or obtrusive; it always contributes to the portrayal of character. Here, for instance, is Douglas walking around the town at night: being depicted from his point of view, the nocturnal details provide much more than background scenery.

Away from the stony light of Parnassus Road and the grim little sinister shops, under the big empty sky, there was a feeling that anything might be possible. Somewhere frogs creaked and croaked and other things made secretive clicking noises, getting on with their invisible lives, driven my urgencies and delights known only to themselves.

His senses felt clarified by the dark. It was not a barrier but a fluid medium, bringing him sounds and smells that lapped him around. Swimming through them, Douglas was no longer hunched under the weight of his shortcomings. He felt his shoulders pull back, his spine straighten, his senses come to the alert. He stood on a corner enjoying the way the moon lay on its back and slid in a dignified way behind the curve of a hill.

Since the divorce he had found himself often walking at night. It was not that he was any kind of Peeping Tom. He had no interest in ladies in their underwear. It was more the chance that you might learn something. The thing he would have liked to learn was not something you could ask anyone, although it was so simple. How do people get on? He had the feeling that others, somehow, had been born knowing things about how to manage with other people that he himself had been born without.

I’m tempted to go on quoting from this wonderfully clever and moving novel – to illustrate how well it blends social comedy into quietly tender moments, how lightly it touches on pathos without lapsing into sentimentality, how appreciatively it recognises the simple virtues (along with the tiresome constraints) of small-town life while avoiding anything parochial in its narrative tone. If you haven’t read The Idea of Perfection, get hold of a copy and see whether you agree with me that it lives up to its title.

Character and consistency

Most novels and short stories operate largely within the conventions of realism, and so their fictional worlds are inhabited by lifelike ‘characters.’ But what makes a character credible and interesting?

Dickens with his characters

Charles Dickens dreaming of some of his characters (detail from a painting by Robert W. Buss, 1875; public domain)

Although we know that characters are artificial creatures, illusions created entirely by language, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief in them as long as their attributes seem quasi-human. (Of course it’s more complicated than that. There’s a sophisticated theoretical analysis of ‘the centrality of fictional character – and, by extension, of social models of personhood – to reading of almost any kind’ in John Frow’s book Character and Person, newly published by Oxford University Press. My own book Narrative Exchanges, recently reissued in the Routledge Revivals series, also has a chapter on theoretical aspects of characterisation.)

When we read a work of fiction in the realist tradition, we want to be convinced that its characters are lifelike. But believing in them isn’t a simple matter. It often requires a reader to hold in mind two different things: on the one hand a sense that the actions, thoughts, words and attributes associated with a particular name (Heathcliff or Cathy or whoever) hang together credibly enough to represent an individualised personage, and on the other hand a sense that not everything about this personage is perfectly consistent. Total consistency would imply the repetitiveness of a robot, the flatness of a caricature. This may be appropriate for some minor characters in certain kinds of hyper-realist fiction (Dickensian figures such as Uriah Heep, for instance) but not otherwise.

So usually – unless the story is feeble – a major character will turn out to be less homogeneous than first impressions suggest. Readers can miss much of the point if they assume that a character in a story represents (or should represent) an entirely unified personality, a stable set of coherent and consistent traits. In reality that’s not how we ourselves are, and sometimes the point of a story may be to reveal incoherence and inconsistency within a character’s sense of self.

‘To thine own self be true…’ says Shakespeare’s Polonius – but let’s not take this long-winded old codger’s sententious advice at face value. Quoting his remark in her Journal, Katherine Mansfield comments scornfully:

True to oneself? Which self? Which of my many – well, really, that’s what it looks like it’s coming to – hundreds of selves? For what with complexes and repressions and reactions and vibrations and reflections, there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor, who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests.

One of the Australian novelists I most admire, Kate Grenville, has some astute remarks on characterisation in The Writing Book, an excellent practical how-to manual which is well worth the close attention of any aspiring author. Here’s part of what she says about consistency: 

Consistent characters run the risk of being boring characters. People aren’t consistent and characters don’t have to be either. Inconsistencies can make characters interesting, as long as they’re inconsistent in a way that adds something to the story.

While perfectly consistent characters may be boring, perfectly inconsistent ones may be frustrating to a reader: they never add up to a coherent personality. Inconsistencies can add depth to a character, but they have to be carefully controlled by the writer.

Exactly a century ago, while working on the novel that became The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence wrote a letter to Edward Garnett in which he tried to explain his view of characterisation. His aim, he declared, was to move beyond ‘the old-fashioned human element – which causes one to conceive a character in a certain moral scheme and make him consistent.’ He went on to say, ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states…’ The analogy here is with different states of the same element, just as diamond and coal are forms of carbon.

Even in classic nineteenth-century realist fiction, what looks like inconsistency is sometimes just the gradual development and disclosure of a character’s complexity. Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is introduced to us as an idealistic young doctor propelled by an ambition to reform medical practices. But time goes by, and under the weight of an unhappy marriage, he abandons his high social purpose and behaves in contradictory ways towards his wife. So in a sense the later Lydgate may seem hardly consistent with his previous self. But the change in him is credible because there have been early glimpses of a fundamental flaw: from the start his altruism is tinged with an arrogance that makes his attitude to the common people ‘benevolently contemptuous.’ There’s a Reader Alert when Lydgate first enters the story and the narrator advises us not to jump to conclusions: ‘For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown – known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.’

Think, too, of Dickens – not in the cartoonist mode he employs for minor characters but when he traces the intricate workings of a fully rounded personality as it moves this way and that in response to different pressures. David Copperfield, telling his own story from the vantage point of maturity and looking back at his younger selves with their incomplete self-knowledge, remarks: ‘These, with their perplexities and inconsistencies, were the shifting quicksands of my mind…’

Copperfield’s reflection sums up the topic nicely for me. When I read or write fiction, what interests me above all is an engagement with those same aspects of character: perplexities, inconsistencies, the shifting quicksands of the mind.

 

 

Revisiting Peter Carey’s early fiction

In the world of reading, The Latest Thing usually dominates our attention. It’s a natural focus of review pages, bookshop displays, festival programs. But it can become tiresome. None of us manages to keep up with the sheer quantity of publications appearing month after month. ‘What do you think of XX’s new novel?’ ‘Uh…I haven’t read her previous one yet.’  We droop with ennui, which tends to efface our memory of things we read a few years ago – though they may have more lasting value than The Latest Thing.

So in an effort to resist the buzz of mere topicality, I’ll be posting comments occasionally on books (or parts of books) first encountered some while back that now seem worth revisiting. I begin here with two examples of Peter Carey’s early fiction, ‘Crabs’ and Illywhacker. Looked at again after an interval of many years, they’re a reminder that sudden structural changes have always been a feature of his stories. Often these disruptive moments transform not only characters and situations but also the genre of the story itself: we find ourselves reading something quite different in kind from what we’d thought it was.

Although Carey has been regarded for a long time now as a novelist, he made his name as a boldly experimental writer of short stories. Most of the brief pieces in his first book, The Fat Man in History (published 40 years ago), showed an innovative flair that startled their readers. I’ve just revisited the opening story, ‘Crabs.’ Its title’s most obvious initial reference is to the disease that the main character has supposedly acquired – and has even become, in a sense: he’s known as Crabs. But the title suggests also the rapid sidelong movements taken by the narrative structure as it takes us from a seemingly realistic environment into something bizarre.

This is a darkly futuristic tale, semi-allegorical. Crabs finds himself a virtual prisoner in a drive-in cinema when his vehicle’s wheels are stolen by a gang known as the Karboys. There’s a disturbing implication that Australian society generally has become menacing, ruthless, predatory. People can find themselves in a kind of limbo, like a refugee camp.

‘Crabs’ was made into a low-budget movie called Dead-End Drive-In (1986) – an unsatisfactory transposition because the film medium couldn’t reproduce the story’s surreal climax, which comes when the eponymous character escapes (seemingly) by becoming fully mechanised himself through sheer willpower, turning into a tow-truck! That’s not quite all, but I won’t reveal the story’s final gear-change.

Illywhacker

In the many narrative experiments that have followed that first one, Carey continues to play textual confidence tricks that lead us as happy dupes up the strangest garden paths. What we find on the way is seldom what the story seemed initially to promise – but it’s more, not less, than we expected.

None of his other books show this as mischievously as Illywhacker (1985), a whopper story that implicates his own crafty fictioneering.

An illywhacker is a trickster or spieler, and this eccentric novel takes one of them as its narrator. Herbert Badgery introduces himself as 139 years old, adding that he’s a terrible liar and always has been. So we’re thrown straight into the classic Cretan paradox: when a liar says he’s lying, how can that be true?

Badgery himself warns us against taking his narration on trust. Now and then, after relating some episode, he will mention casually that it wasn’t like that at all. Such candour can be disarming; it makes him seem almost reliable in his unreliability – someone who wouldn’t mislead us for long. But he admits to mendacity on such a scale that everything is cast into question. By the time he tells us, near the end, that he has pinched a lot of his story from the writings of one of the other characters, we hardly know or care what’s believable. After all, crucial plot developments result from such prodigies as his ability to turn invisible, and his having preserved in a Vegemite jar a finger that keeps grotesquely changing into all sorts of weird things, the very sight of which precipitates disasters for those who see them. Willingly we suspend disbelief.

And yet a large part of Illywhacker obeys ordinary conventions of realism, and registers the contours of a thoroughly recognisable Australian setting and history. Traversing half a century, the novel evokes with affectionate irony many parts of non-metropolitan Victoria before coming to rest in Sydney. Often the scene shifts with the stages of Badgery’s semi-picaresque life as aviator, salesman, showman and roving lover. But beyond that, we sometimes follow separately the trajectories of other characters through further by-ways of Australian society – and in each case we see with their eyes, despite the fact that it’s Badgery who claims to be our source of information. With cheerful audacity this novel is having it both ways – all the intimate advantages of a lively first-person narrator, combined incongruously with omniscience. Badgery never hesitates to recount in detail things he couldn’t possibly have known within the terms of his apparently natural life s a character in a realistic tale.

What impressed me most when I first read Illywhacker at the time of its publication, and remains impressive now, is its unflagging comic inventiveness. It conjures a world where anything can happen and almost everything does. Some episodes are uproariously farcical, others depend for their fun on foibles and quirks of character. The novel abounds in memorable figures, richly idiosyncratic.

The prevailing tone is warm, full of genial regard for those given to perverse and obsessive behavior. But Badgery is no sentimentalist; he exposes in others and himself a compulsion towards shabby betrayals and stupid self-thwartings. He doesn’t linger on emotions; the mood can switch in a moment from pathos to slapstick. Switchability is made easier by subdividing the text into mini-chapters, some as brief as half a page. So Illywhacker has 213 beginnings and 213 endings, each implicitly emphasizing the incompleteness of any narrative act. No story can make itself heard without suppressing some potentially alternative version. In this sense, at least, every soothsaying illywhacker is a master of plausible falsehoods.

That basic truth about fiction is both confessed and celebrated in Carey’s marvellous compound of tall tales, sly lies and fabulous fibs.

 

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 2

photo

This is the second and final instalment of a retrospect on books I read last year that continue to impress me months afterwards. The previous post discussed several works of non-fiction, but most of my reading in 2013 was fiction – mainly Australian. A few novels from other parts of the world still stir my imagination, most notably Herman Koch’s The Dinner with its unforgettably creepy narrator; Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with its strong narrative momentum and troubling theme that comes much closer to home than the exotic setting led me to expect; Susan Abulhawa’s heartbreaking evocation of Palestinian suffering, Mornings in Jenin; Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a powerful psychological study of World War 1 experiences; and Julian Barnes’s witty and cunning The Sense of an Ending. Nevertheless it was Australian fiction that attracted most of my attention, and several novels (plus some short story collections) have kept a tight grip on me.

It would be hard to forget the narrator of Toni Jordan’s lovely story Addition: hilariously and sadly compulsive, intelligently self-aware, Grace almost manages to wreck her chance of happiness – but despite the shadows of mental instability this is a comic romance, after all. Comparable in its affiliation with true romance, though focused on a less quirky protagonist, Deborah Burrows’s A Stranger in My Street blends the love interest with a murder mystery and an historical setting (Perth in the WW2 years) that is convincingly rendered. Lynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper is similarly set in Western Australia and partly in the same period, but its narrative structure is more complicated than in A Stranger in My Street, and what has imprinted itself most distinctly on my memory is the nostalgic elaboration of its descriptive detail.

The genre of Kathryn Heyman’s Floodline seemed at first a satirical blend of a Hollywood disaster movie with a Deep Southern evangelical morality play – except that the muddle-headed self-thwarting characters and the emotional troubles generated by their poignantly dysfunctional family relationships soon compelled me not only to believe in them but also to want the best for them. Convincing characterisation is also the main thing that sticks in my mind from Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, a well-researched story of Norwegian whaling and Antarctic exploration in the 1930s: all three women at the story’s centre are distinctive and entirely credible.

The fine achievement of M.K Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans stems largely from its devising of an outlandish situation that is fraught with moral conflict and insoluble dilemmas, so that everything that unfolds from the brilliant narrative premise carries a sense of almost inevitable doom. ‘Brilliant’ is also an apt descriptor for Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, in which sentence after polished sentence sparkles with a mordant wit that often reminds me of Patrick White – though in retrospect that bright hard surface is more memorable than the interactions between characters.

During 2013 I read a number of short story collections, which by their nature are difficult to summarise although I still have a precise recall of several individual stories. Some of them were first published long ago: Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand stories (which I re-read every two or three years, and which I’ve discussed in a chapter of Narrative Exchanges) belong to the early 20th century, and Shirley Hazzard’s Cliffs of Fall goes back half a century. Mansfield’s are full of startling imagery, Hazzard’s are full of subtle perceptions, and both writers remind me that even the most economical form of narration can be capacious in its implications. The best pieces in two short-story volumes by Perth-based writers also made an impact on me last year and won’t be forgotten for a long while: Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky and Amanda Curtin’s Inherited. I’ve commented on both, along with Alice Munro’s Dear Life, in a previous post titled Brevity with Scope.

Amanda Curtin’s latest book is the outstanding novel Elemental, which for me (and many others, I’m sure) provided one of the most memorable reading experiences of 2013. Much of its enduring power comes from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch, but there is a great deal more to admire in the language of the text as a whole – every word counts, every sentence is perfectly balanced – as well as in the clever structure and in the vivid rendering of historical detail. Last year I also read Amanda’s previous novel, The Sinkings, which had been on my shelf since it appeared five years ago. (I’d delayed my reading of it when I became aware that its subject matter appeared to have something in common with a novel of my own that I was working on, and I didn’t want to be distracted or influenced by seeing how she had handled her story. As soon as I finished mine I read hers, and it turns out that I needn’t have worried: despite some similar ingredients, our novels are quite different from each other.) The Sinkings is a haunting tale; it depicts hardship, cruelty and loneliness unforgettably; and in my mind its most remarkable quality is the way it combines its unblinking realism with a deep compassion.

The main thing that sticks in my mind from Iris Lavell’s novel Elsewhere in Success is its insight into what can lie beneath the seemingly banal surface of suburban Perth. Most of the story’s foreground action is unspectacular and the characters are (as one of them says) ‘just ordinary people’ – which poses a considerable narrative challenge. But as deep currents swirl under them they thresh around, gasp for breath, and struggle towards something close to redemption.

I read a couple of novels by another Western Australian writer in 2013, and both have continued to give me plenty of food for thought. Nicholas Hasluck’s Our Man K and Dismissal are fine examples of political fiction grounded in historical fact – a genre that few novelists in this country have successfully grappled with. The central figure in Our Man K is Egon Kisch, a real-life Czech journalist who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Hasluck’s portrayal of Kisch emphasises his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (with whose own character ‘K’ Kisch becomes associated), and with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Dismissal is an absorbing tale of espionage, ethical dilemmas and personal disloyalties in Australia during the period from the 1930s to the fall of the Whitlam government. I can’t think of any other novelist so well equipped to write this kind of work.

So there it is – a mere glance back over my shoulder at residues of a year’s reading. The retrospect doesn’t extend to every publication I consumed last year but takes in about 30 books of various kinds (including those mentioned in the previous post) that for different reasons have lodged in my consciousness more than other things read during the same period. Two-thirds of them were written by women.

I wonder whether I’ll still recall the same aspects of the same books a year or two from now.

 

Seriously good for you

It’s reported in The Guardian, so it must be true!

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Reading serious (literary) fiction is better for you than reading popular fiction or non-fiction. Better, that is, in developing your capacity for empathy.

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Formulaic thrillers or romance novels won’t do it for you, but stories by the likes of Anton Chekov or Don DeLillo or Tea Obreht can improve a reader’s understanding of other people’s emotions. That’s the main finding of an experimental study devised by psychologists at the New School of Social Research in New York and published recently in the prestigious international journal Science. Want to know more? Find out here.

This claim to have demonstrated scientifically the value of reading high-quality fiction may be new, but there’s nothing new, of course, about the belief that literature is seriously good for you. ‘The great instrument of moral good is the imagination’, declared English Romantic writer Percy Bysshe Shelley nearly two centuries ago in his rhapsodic essay A Defence of Poetry; ‘and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.’ By ‘poetry’ he meant all that we now call ‘literature.’

Since the heyday of Romanticism this concept of the imagination as an ethical instrument has become widely diffused through the teaching of English literature in schools and universities. The key to the value of literary experience, says Shelley, is is its capacity to enhance a reader’s empathy: ‘A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ To this end, ‘poetry…awakens and enlarges the mind’ (and Shelley insists that in this regard ‘the distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error’).

Is it true, then, that reading literary fiction can put us more feelingly in the shoes of other people than popular fiction or non-fiction can do? For me as a writer of literary fiction the belief may be self-serving, but I’m encouraged by the fact that some writers of non-fiction readily acknowledge that a novelist is able to go where they cannot. For example the Australian historian Cassandra Pybus has acknowledged what she calls ‘the limitations of history as a narrative form.’ She remarks:

Not even a master of the popular history genre, such as Simon Schama, can construct a past world as rich and satisfying as the parallel universe the novelist can imagine, nor create characters who are revealed to us in their most intimate and private thoughts. The historian remain tied to concrete evidence, which is patchy at best and never allows access to the workings of the human psyche.’

Does that settle the matter, then? What do you think?