The Sea

I remain entranced by the Booker Prize and finally snared a copy of last year’s winner for a measily $4.95 on Ebay. Even for me, this one seemed uninspiring – a dull cover, and old-school author and a routine storyline, so it sat on the shelf for months.
I was nearly half way through before I felt I had settled with the rhythm of Banville’s writing, and from there on, it was an enjoyable ride, and I tried to slow down and savour things. It’s hard for me to believe that the story could be anything but largely autobiographical, as the convincing language of “the Colonel” and audaciousness of pre-teen Chloe rang true. Likewise the depiction of his growing helplessness during his wife’s sickness, the Murnane-like fascination with memory recollection and of early erotic awareness. Only the surprise ending felt engineered and fake to me. I didn’t come away from this book wanting to recommend it to frends – I never do that anyway, but I can see why it was in the shortlist – there are no flaws or mistakes, though another choice would have been more inspiring. Respectfully 4 stars.

Strong sense of the familiar

Sometimes you pay a price for loyalty and seeking completion. Nine days into our holiday I completed “Strong Motion” which appears to be Jonathan Franzen’s first novel and I found myself questioning my decision to read his books in reverse order, even at $7.95, discounted from $22.
To make a reasonable quote out of it, it felt like the Hardy Boys on enviro-steroids as the surprisingly unlikeable seismically qualified Renee and selfish lovestruck Louis expose bad corporate waste disposal practices that end up befouling Boston. It felt like teenage fiction after my recent Patrick White experience, and I’m glad to be rid of it. Onwards and upwards from here – 2 stars.

Enduring and revealing

This morning at 10am, I found myself at the end of a thoroughly pleasant book of short pieces written by Gerald Murnane called Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. I’ve written about him before, but that was before this latest, and most revealing work to date – some transcripts of talks, and articles from the late 80’s till now. Despite what he says, I have always considered his work to be autobiographical, and this book was even more so. It seems he is preparing to depart the world of writing for good in his mid 60’s and this book is his way of clearing out the little pieces that he hadn’t got round to publishing before, so in parts it reads like a valedictory speech. He makes dramatic statements about the way he goes about writing (manual typewriter, 1 finger only,many many redrafts), and the way he has limited his physical life so that he could continue to write about his internal life (never owned a TV, never flown on a plane, can’t swim, no visits to museums/galleries). I found myself wondering whether these are deliberate sacrifices he has willingly made for his art, or the confines of a person scared to try something new, or so comfortable with the familiar that even curiosity has been banished for fear it will spoil the party.
I forgot to mention – the man is obsessed with the Hungarian language nowdays also. I admire Gerald Murnane a great deal, and I identify with his stories because there are parallels with my own, having both been brought up as strict Catholics and living very near each other in the northern suburbs. Sometimes the repetitive overlapping nature of his sentences start to drive me batty, but most of the time his themes, honesty and candour are highly intoxicating to me. I give this 4.5 stars for all the new things I learnt about his life and his teaching methods. If this is supposedly his second last book – what could the last possibly reveal?

A journey with the Vivisector

This all started in a convoluted way a few months back, and it ends today with a book summary from me. It began with a ploy that has no doubt been going on forever; someone wanted to setup some experts for a fall, and make them look ridiculous to the public. Call it the Tall Poppy syndrome or the flattening of societal tiers in general that seems to be going on nowdays – no-one is beyond challenge. I suspect we all fear that our bluff will sometime be called in our area of interest – for me it would be beer or wine styles – a blind tasting is a slightly scary prospect! In the book world, the latest victims were in January this year in the U.K, when someone tried it on a bunch of publishers and then again in Oz a few months later. The Australian newspaper picked a chapter from the revered 1973 Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm and submitted it to a bunch of publishers under the guise of a new writer Wraith Picket. Predictably, it was unanimously rejected. Apart from the storm of protest about it being a cheap stunt and discussions about how writing has changed, and what publishers want and sell nowdays, some folks on Sarsparilla began wondering why no-one ever read any Patrick White anymore – and formed a readers group for his books, which I joined, having read only one of his works previously (The Tree of Man last year). In short order there was an online vote, and I found myself sizing up yellowed five buck copies of 1970’s The Vivisector in the musty basement of an Elizabeth Street bookseller in September.

As for the book itself, I finished it two days ago, and it was a bit of a relief in some ways because so much of the second half was a tortured journey of an ageing artist that it exhausted me. But the genius of the writing and wordplay in parts was astounding. I can’t remember being so blown away before by simple phrases and nuances as I did in this book. It sounds like a wanky afterthought, but I should have marked up relevant sections for further rereading or requoting. I’m picking it up and flicking through it now and all sorts of warm memories are flooding back as the troubled, searching life of artist Hurtle Duffield returns to me. I’ve read a few of the other reader’s blog posts about the book, and they do it very elegantly, I’m going to be crude and quick. White writes about the life of a man who indulges his need to create art to the point where all of his relationships suffer as a result. He uses people (in particular girlfriends) for his inspiration and at times cruelly vivisects them on canvas. He becomes very famous and his works sell well but is largely unconcerned about the monetary and status gains this brings. He has a sexual and artistic relationship with a young girl, who he recognises is the love of his life, but by then she is an acclaimed pianist, and they resort to loving letters from afar. In the last few disorientating, scattergun chapters, he seems to use his impending death as the final inspiration for his magnum opus, and paints a work depicting god in a brilliant indigo colour. There seems to be so many symbols and themes in this book that are linked to the politics of the time and the suffering of the artist, that I feel out of my depth in identifying or discussing them. Some of the points made are lengthy and don’t contribute well to the story (i.e the tangential trip to Greece, and the mysterious Mrs. Volkov being revealed – I still don’t know what the significance of that was) and profound statements are made by unlikely characters. I get the sense that White specialised in making complicated, worldly stories and then would muddy up the waters for flavour, so is anyone ever going to work it all out? I doubt it. I give it 4 stars and hope that someone can be arsed writing up a Wikipedia entry for it.

Meeting a man whose universe centres on Bell Street

On Sunday morning at 10:15, I sat in an inapproriately dark room at the Malthouse and watched a former favourite author Gerald Murnane be interviewed as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival for $18. It has been 5 years since I picked up one of his books, and that one was a little patchy, but I’m glad I went to see him, because he’s a rarely sighted species who was modest, funny and wonderfully eccentric. murnane.jpg
Central to most of his work are the mental mappings he makes between the events of his life and the way events are recorded and recalled in his memory. For instance he mentioned that he conceives of his life as one long journey down Bell Street between where he was born and where he lives now – with the cross roads being the hobbies and diversions of his life. His writing is very much like that – a fascination with direction and geography and the significance of this. Living in the same northern suburbs as myself, I connected with this when I first discovered his writing, and continue to do so when I have thoughts about the property I owned in Northern Bendigo for 3 years. Afterwards I lined up and had him scratch “For Darren” on the title page of his acknowledged second last book “Invisible, yet pervasive Lilacs”, and said a few nervous words of thanks. For a man who “hasn’t written a book that ever made any money” he was charming and inspiring, and I was in a great mood all day afterwards.

The Idea of North

I’m not really one for biographies normally, but had a fine old time whizzing through one on Canadian Glenn Gould last week. His name kept cropping up on Piano forums, where people gushed about his ideosyncratic performances. I only recently found out he died in 1982 at the age of 50. He had a myriad of oddball habits (daily arm bathing, sitting less than a foot off the ground when playing – on a tiny broken and lucky chair that his dad made, severe hypochondria, insisting his rooms be heated to 27C, refusing to cease singing along with his playing – even during recordings) and some staggering talents (prodigy at 10, turned professional at 15, considered the most brilliant player of Bach’s keyboard works that has lived). Some of the most interesting parts for me included learning of his delusions about being a funny, interesting guy and his often embarrasing overconfidence in areas of little expertise. gould.jpg
Glenn Gould – a bizarre individual, but what a player. Kevin Bazzana has written a very balanced work on Gould, but I get the sense that he really relished busting some myths and telling everyone how terribly untalented, flawed and annoying Gould could be, especially when it came to composing, and his utter disregard for anything but himself and his own interests. When describing Gould’s upbringing, there was a strong sense of his cosseted and privileged, Methodist childhood in suburban Toronto, and so it seemed a little strange to hear that he was reportedly fascinated with “the north” – meaning northern Ontario, a place he found haunting in its emptiness and raw beauty. Bazzani lists features of Gould’s personality that align with his northern-ness, include his crisp piercing playing style and his puritanical, frigidity about matters sexual. He wrote some ground breaking experimental radio plays that the author feels are underrated compared to some of the more sensational aspects of his personality. In the end, he died suddenly due to some blot clots on the brain, and in many ways the impression I got was that by then he was so over-prescribed on medications (700 pills a month) and paralysed with anxieties that it must have been a sort of sweet relief. I listened to his 1955 Goldberg Variations again a few days ago, and it’s just an incredible (if overly fast) performance. I think he went out at the right time.

Rip it up

Depressed about not being able to plough through Ulysses, I decided it was time for some junk reading – which turned out to be not junk at all, but a very astute and thoughtful take on my favourite musical period the “post punk” years of 1978-1984.

I don’t have a stack of things to say about it, but Simon Reynolds “Rip it Up and Start Again” was an excellent resource on the state of the musical trends in the U.K and U.S during this period. It’s a shame that the Australian/New Zealand scene wasn’t mentioned, because we had many inventive musical contributors also. It was great that Reynolds listed the bands featuring in each chapter at the beginning, so you could skip bits of little interest. Despite this, I found myself ploughing through the sections on Frankie Goes to Hollywood and ABC with a fascination I didn’t expect. The writing is that good. Somehow even Genesis P. Orridge’s various projects were made interesting, and I have half a mind to drag out 20 Jazz Funk Greats from the collection to give it another shot. I’m sure I’ll be horrified. What struck me was the amount of politically motivated music there was during this time. Lots of bands seemed to throw in anti-capitalist lyrics but were coy about it in interviews, but Devo, Gang of Four, The Minutemen, Scritti Politti and the Red Crayola had all done their homework and to me seem amazingly mature in hindsight. Last night I started scouring ebay in the hope of picking up a few seminal works from this period from bands I knew nothing about (i.e The Raincoats, The Associates, Cabaret Voltaire). And hoping for reasonably priced Sweet and Sour L.P’s, which have to date eluded me. Boy, are we going to dance to those once they finally arrive.

In Cold Blood

Hurrah for the Brunswick Book Club who once again have forced me to read a work that I would normally shun. Crime novels are amongst my least favourite books probably because the structure seems too linear and obvious and characters are often stereotyped. Sort of like the musical equivalent of reggae. Note how I didn’t say ska because at least ska offers upbeat fun, something crime books (-well the ones I’ve read) don’t have much of. Kim would differ on this citing Elmore Leonard, Janet Evanovich and co. I’m sure. But, I’ve got things slightly wrong – this one was a real-life crime book, so I was into new territory. These ones are scary!

It seems Capote is the flavour of the month recently due to the award winning film about him, and so plenty of folks have been telling me that this is the book he took 10 years to write and research. It convincingly describes a conservative 1950’s small town and its values, and contains authentic recollections and facts, which toward the second half starts to feel like overkill. I really don’t want to read for the fourth time about the family background and psyche’s of the murdering duo. There’s some gratuitous stuff near the end about fellow death-row inmates and their stories, which seemed odd, and I thought it cheapened a very good book. The writing was delightfully crisp and impartial; the back and forward chapters about the Clutter family (pre-crime) and the two bad guys approaching them was magnificent in building tension and suspense. At a certain point I was feeling nervous about reading THE CHAPTER WITH ALL THE KILLING IN IT, as it seemed like stuff to give you nightmares, but thankfully that was dealt with by Capote in a sparse unemotional way – much like how the killers later described it actually. I had been just about to recommend that Kim perhaps give it a miss. For me, a wonderful part of the book was the unsentimental contrast between the hardworking, puritan values and innocence of the average Kansas native, and the reckless, amorality of the killers. Even so, it seemed a time when once caught, bad guys confessed all, lest they be condemned to a worse fate in the afterlife. I thought it was a terrific book, that could have been 50 pages shorter. 4.5 stars.

Fortuna to be finished

I wrote a large review of this book a few days ago and lost the lot due a web-server config problem, so here is my I-can’t-be-arsed-and-I’m-tired-it’s-Friday alternative review. It was a book I’d heard mentioned on lots of people’s favourite lists, and had it pegged as in the same boat as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – mostly due to the language of the title. The cover picture of a box of popcorn sitting on an ample hairy belly should have been the giveaway, but when I hit page one and it described a lazy overweight fellow still living with his alcoholic mother in 1960’s New Orleans, I realised I had been totally fooled. I read on regardless. confederacy.jpg
This is not the cover on my copy. It says more about my morality and sensibilities than about the quality of the book when I say that I found the book annoying and Ignatius to be a thoroughly unlikeable individual till about half way through A Confederacy of Dunces. At some point I started to pity him, and towards the end, glad that the story had started to congeal into a pleasing climax, I almost empathised with the ingracious, blustering cartoon-character of outrage that he was. I don’t think this book is the cak-fest that many seem to feel, but there are some wonderful laugh-aloud one liners that could have come straight from the mouth of Oscar Wilde. Never has there been a literary character so outraged about the pop-culture world all around him, and yet so deluded. I’ll give it a 3.5.

The Volcano

I thought I had discovered all the Australian writers that I’d ever want to read, and there are only a few (Peter Carey, David Foster, Roger McDonald and Gerald Murnane), with borderliners Kate Grenville and Eliott Perlman hanging in there, but yesterday I added the exotic name of Venero Armanno to this group. Surprisingly I did what I said I would and read The Volcano whilst Kim was in hospital, which allowed me to rediscover the tram as my main source of reading time. Even so, the free MX newpaper continues to be a massive temptation of an evening. volcano1.jpg
After sauntering through Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard last year, I found the idea of reading another book about the recollections of an old miscreant appealing, and whilst the periods are different, there is a similarity in the way that both books convincingly describe Italy – at least for someone who has never been there. After 150 pages I was convinced this was going to be the best book I’d read in ages, but things took a Nino Cullotta style turn for the worse when Emilio arrived in Australia, and the author began to sink the boots in. There were lovingly composed chapters about the Sicilians being treated badly at the hands of 1950’s Brisbane working-class thugs, which made for cringeworthy reading. I got annoyed about the use of Emilio’s terrible mastery of english in one chapter, followed by his lucid thoughts in the next. I know this was meant to show that he was intelligent but unable to express this in his new country, but it didn’t work well for me. The middle section of the book felt more like an passionate, earnest history of Italian migration to this country than a story. Towards the end, the wonderful story of Emilio becoming a gardener, henchman and lusty playboy was a sheer delight, as was his triumphant return to the slopes of Mount Etna. It thoroughly deserves a solid 4 out of 5 stars.