books

Empty Vessel No More: Coming Back to (University) Life

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So, I’m a student again.

How the hell did that happen?

The usual way. I applied, somewhat blindly, to study Honours at a local university, unsure about my thesis topic and even about my discipline. I mean, how could I choose between literature, creative writing and history?

In the end I didn’t have to. I managed to nab myself a scholarship, one that came with a project attached. Over the next couple of years I’ll be studying the papers of two of Tasmania’s most prolific and unheralded authors (who happen to be siblings).

Fortuitously, the project encompasses my three loves. Coursework aside, I’ll have to produce a thesis (creative writing), exegesis (mostly literary criticism) and some kind of public program (history).

Somehow I chanced upon my holy grail.

What does it mean, being a student again?

That I can’t redraft this blog post to death, for a start. (Not such a bad thing perhaps.) I just don’t have the time.

What it really means that I can live a richer life again – which is ironic because study is costly, scholarship or no scholarship.

Remember the discredited diagram that purports to depict the teaching/learning process? The one that shows a teacher tipping information into a student’s open head?

Well, that’s how I feel, as silly as it sounds. I feel full again – full of ideas and excitement. Full of life.

Take the past week. I’ve had seminars on research and on writing an exegesis. I’ve been reading about and reflecting on literature and history; travel writing, colonialism and displacement.

I’ve been mixing with writers too, having been to workshops led by an acclaimed local author. It’s been immensely inspiring, all the thought and talk about books and writing. It’s brought me back to life.

Returning to study has reopened my mind, and the ideas are already flooding in. Like the kid in the picture, I’m an empty vessel no more.

The next question is: will I drown in the deluge?

Frank’s Lament: ‘The Sportswriter’ and the American Dream

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Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy. He’s isolated, irrational and unreliable – just like me. He’s a failed novelist – just like me. He’s a successful sportswriter – just like, err, not me. In fact, Frank’s the sportswriter, the figure made famous by American author, Richard Ford, in his novel of the same name.

Frank, he tells us himself, was all set up to have a fine life. Loving wife, great kids, fantastic job – he had them all. But when his eldest son, nine-year-old Ralph, is struck down by a rare brain disease, things start to go horribly wrong. The boy dies, dreadfully. Mired in mourning, Frank’s wife finds letters from a female friend in his desk and sues for divorce, separating Frank from his family.

Now Frank is trapped in a world of his own, isolated from others by his ongoing grief and by the very nature of his vocation – he’s a writer, after all, someone who belongs to a ‘club with just one member’. Frank tries to ‘lose that terrible distance’ by wooing Vicki, a young nurse, but his attempts to ‘simulate intimacy, interest, anticipation’ fail, as they’ve failed before with other women.

Frank’s relationships with men are equally appalling, for he has lost all faith in friendship, that ‘lie of life’. ‘What’s friendship’s realest measure?’ he asks himself. ‘The amount of precious time you’ll squander on someone else’s calamities and fuck-ups.’ When Walter, a fellow divorcee, comes to him seeking consolation, Frank keeps his cool and his distance – with tragic consequences.

It’s an unfashionable approach to friendship and yet one I find fascinating – as I do Frank’s unique way of thinking, which, we discover, is more intuitive than intellectual. Frank admits to having no love of ‘useless and complicated factuality’, he being drawn instead to mystery and all its ‘frail muted beauties’. ‘Explaining,’ he explains, ‘is where we all get into trouble.’

But Frank is in trouble anyway. Despite living largely in his head, he finds himself suffering from a ‘failure of imagination’ – an inability to empathise with others. This, according to Frank, is why he’s a sportswriter and not a novelist. ‘I did not, in fact, know how people felt about most things,’ he says. ‘And needless to say that is the very place where the great writers – your Tolstoys and your George Eliots – soar off to become great.’

Frank’s other endearing quality – to me, at least – is his unpredictability. He’s almost always on the move, racing restlessly from one place to another. If he’s not parked outside his ex-wife’s house, then he’s pulling up in front of a church or making his way to New York on a whim.

Frank’s unreliability – as a character and, I suspect, as a narrator – reminds me of another classic fictional creation: Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s precocious brainchild. Both characters lack a solid sense of identity and morality; indeed, both seem to have lost their ‘authority’, as Frank puts it.

The problem is that Frank is an idealist stripped of ideals, an ordinary American robbed of his illusions about family, friendship and, finally, the future. For the other character of note in Ford’s novel is the nation itself: America as an idea and an experience. In this sense The Sportswriter is a guide book; it takes us on a tour of Frank’s corner of the country, through New Jersey, Michigan and New York, through ‘literal and anonymous cities’ with all their ‘bricky warp’.

Tellingly, Frank likes nothing better than ‘staring off at the jewelled shore lights of New Jersey, brightening as dark fell, and feeling full of wonder and illusion – like a Columbus or a pilgrim seeing the continent of his dreams take shape in the dusk for the first time’.

At its heart The Sportswriter is a lament: a lament for the loss of innocence. The story speaks of an awakening and thus of the dispelling of a dream – of the American Dream, no less, a dream as familiar to a foreigner like me as it is to a native like Frank. It’s the last and largest thing we have in common.

Whether I like it or not, Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy.


Image courtesy of PxHere

Crossing That Bridge: Heather Rose’s ‘Bruny’ Blunder

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Seen the road to hell lately?

It’s a mess. Paved with good intentions, the path to perdition is littered with bad decisions, the failed forays of famous folk who sought success in a speciality other than their own.

Many are called to cross-over but few are chosen…

Singers and sportsmen, authors and actors – the line of wrecks is long and varied, taking in everything from Ash Barty’s crack at cricket to Chris Cornell’s dalliance with dance-pop.

Now the Tasmanian novelist, Heather Rose, has come a cropper.

Last year Rose published Bruny, the follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction. Billed as a thriller, her latest book proves that acing a new genre ain’t easy, even for an accomplished author.

What went wrong?

It’s a good question. Bruny appears to have all the hallmarks of a respectable thriller: a preposterous plot, a cast of barely credible characters, an awkward romance and a nondescript style.

And yet it lacks a key component of any self-respecting suspense novel.

Show don’t tell – it’s the shibboleth most closely associated with creative writing. Despite its limitations, this tenet holds true for some books. Take the thriller: readers of this kind of novel need to feel close to the action.

Too often in Bruny the real business takes place in the background, especially as the story goes on. The result? The tension never builds. (And the book garners praise as a ‘satire‘.)

Sadly, some parts of the story kept me on the edge of my seat: namely the narrator’s tiresome tirades about the state of Tasmania. Would they never end?

Despite my reservations – all totally valid, I’m sure, and yet totally irrelevant – Bruny continues to sell well here in Hobart, almost a year after its release.

Which just goes to show: I’m as bad a judge of another writer’s work as I am of my own. Failure is clearly more transferable than success.

Seeing Things Feelingly: Books, Climate Change and Me

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Books – they’re a man’s best friend. Patient and eager to please, they lead us into the light.

I realised this recently while convalescing at home, the victim of an illness less of body than mind.

It started with a familiar feeling: I wanted to write – desperately, truly, madly – but I didn’t know what. As I sat and pondered the options, my eye fell on a magazine I’d been reading whose theme is topical.

Climate change.

Okay, I thought, here’s my chance to take a stance on a hot button issue, on the most pressing problem, they say, of our age.

So I settled back to give it some thought.

Gazing out at the clouds racing across the sky – as if I could see the climate changing and not just the weather – I tried to make sense of my impressions.

I’m aware, first of all, of the scientific argument, neatly stated by NASA:

The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

I know, too, of the consensus in scientific circles, the one in which ninety-seven percent (to be precise) of actively publishing climate scientists agree that ‘climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’.

The evidence, I realised, should sway me, should spark outrage and action. And yet it doesn’t.

Then I remembered the news reports I’d read, the articles about displaced polar bears, besieged Pacific Islanders and smoke-swathed city-dwellers. Surely they tugged at my heart-strings?

Only a little. Truth be told, I sympathise with the sufferers without being truly touched.

Feeling sick at heart – am I some kind of monster? – I turned away from the window.

In desperation I looked to my bookshelves where, like a dog in waiting, one work leapt out at me: Peter Watson’s Ideas, a history of ideas ‘from fire to Freud’.

Unable to locate ‘climate change’ in the index, I turned at random to the chapter on romanticism. And there, in a book bought fifteen years ago but barely opened since, I found what I was looking for.

The real aim of romanticism, the underlying aim, had been set forth by Keats, who wrote poetry, he said, to ease ‘the burden of the mystery’ . . . Whereas the scientists tried – or hoped – to explain the mystery, the romantics relished it, made the most of it, used it in ways that many scientists could not, or would not, understand.

So, I thought with relief, I’m a romantic.

I mean, the signs are all there.

In my view the world can’t be analysed or fully explained; it can only be experienced directly or seen through a glass, darkly, reflected in the workings of the human mind.

Nature to me is more metaphor than model, even if the metaphor often used is that of a model. ‘We live in a world we create ourselves,’ the philosopher-poet, Johann Herder, once observed. (Herder him?)

Only the arts, I reckon, can ‘ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where,’ Shelley wrote, ‘the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar’.

I’ve said as much in a song:

You can cut it all up
And weigh it all out
But when you put it together again
You leave the meaning out

You can test all the theories
Check all the facts
And still the truth
Gonna slip through the cracks

(Nothin’ Adds Up)

Clearly I can’t rely on rationalists – scientists and journalists – to help me make sense of the world: they simply don’t speak my language. I have to look elsewhere for help.

Short of ideas, I turned back to the bookshelf.

This time a play jumped out of the pack: Shakespeare’s King Lear, a story wracked by a fabulous storm. I opened my Arden edition and began to read. Before long I found what I was looking for: ideas and images that made my impressions much clearer.

In Lear the heavens are in tumult because human affairs have fallen into disarray.

‘Nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects,’ the Earl of Gloucester declares.

Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twixt son and father.

Deceived by the fine false words of his two eldest daughters, Lear spurns the one who truly cares but flatters him not.

‘I love your Majesty/According to my bond,’ Cordelia tells him, ‘no more nor less.’

Having broken this bond, Lear is lost; assailed by wild and stormy weather, he wanders the heath, succumbing to madness. Later, when Cordelia is murdered, he dies.

Are we too doomed, I wondered. After all, aren’t we destroying that which sustains us, just like Lear?

But then I pondered the sub-plot of the play, which seemed to say something more. Can we not, I thought, take heart from Gloucester’s fate?

Blinded by egotism – he too has betrayed his one true child – the remorse-ridden Earl is led to the ‘brim’ of a cliff at Dover, where he leaps but does not fall, the actual edge of the precipice being a little way off. Thus is he reunited with his son.

Earlier on Gloucester had, with astonishing insight, given voice to my feelings.

‘Heavens, deal so still!’ he cried,

Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly

Greed, profligacy, heartlessness – is it any wonder nature rises against us?

Then, finally, there is Gloucester’s other implicit assertion: that by seeing things feelingly we can reconcile rationalism with romanticism and come to more fully appreciate what we have. This, and a little luck, might keep us one step ahead of oblivion – assuming, of course, that we are perched merely on the ‘brim’ of the precipice and not on its outermost edge.

Feeling better, I took my dog for a walk, safe in the knowledge that books are surely a man’s best best friend. For, unlike our furry favourites, literature guides us through dim thickets of thought and out into the light of the world, the one true home of humanity.

The WunderKindle (Making Books Better)

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Read all about it: Kindles are the best thing since printed books.

They’re compact, for starters. I once took mine on a five-day walk, slotting it into my pack without any trouble. Thus I was able to while away the evenings reading Clive James’ Complete Unreliable Memoirs, the book of which resembles a brick.

Kindles are food-friendly too. I like to read as I eat and yet most paperbacks make this an impossible feat, even with a sauce bottle on hand to help out. An open Kindle, however, never snaps shut.

The instant free samples are another fine feature, one which has led me to books I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Books like Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, my novel of 2019.

The best thing about Kindles, though, is the fact they’re not books.

By being so different they make books even better.


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They Called Him Herman (Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’)

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‘Call me Ishmael.’

So begins Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic tale of whales and whaling, first published in America on this day back in 1851.

The brevity of the book’s opening line is misleading: Melville’s masterpiece has 135 chapters and more than 500 pages, making it a whale-sized story by anyone’s standards.

Was the novel the ‘draft of a draft’, as Melville himself supposedly suggested? If so, his editor ought to have taken a harpoon to the text.

Melville had a tough time as a kid. Money was short, his eyesight was weakened by fever, and the lad had trouble impressing his father, who described him as being ‘backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension’.

Ouch!

Melville’s success might be attributed, in part, to an early lucky break. Unlike his brother, who wrote nothing, he was not given the name Gansevoort. He was called Herman instead.


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Typographical Errors (Badly Bought Books)

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Here’s an odd admission to make on a blog about books: I hate buying novels.

Although I’m no bibliophobe – I love books! – I have a fear of ‘what books may do,’ as Holbrook Jackson puts it. Not all books, mind, just new-release novels.

Let me explain.

Buying books is risky business. A new novel hardly ever lives up to the hype, which says more, methinks, about the way books are marketed than about the books themselves. And then what?

Reading a novel is no one-night stand. Unlike a mediocre movie, a bad book stays with you; it crouches on your shelf, glaring at you like the picture of Dorian Gray, with ‘eyes of a devil’, a reminder of your profligacy and poor judgement.

Here’s another admission: I hate selling my books, even the bad ones. My ‘typographical errors’, you see, must never be known.


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Ghosts of Books Half-Read (Here Laid to Rest)

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It’s time I tidied the books on my bedside table: two are giving me nightmares.

They’re fine novels, I’m sure, it’s just that I can’t read them right through. Here’s why: Less has too little sex and Atomised too much.

Like all earnest readers, I’m haunted by the ghosts of books half-read.

I can’t finish Catch-22 because the story changes; Inside Mr Enderby because it stays the same, funny but futile.

The Hobbit hobbled me a few pages in.

Of Tug of Love I’ve read only the title, while just one chapter of Eleanor Oliphant was completely fine.

I conquered War and Peace but that other Russian behemoth, Life and Fate, has got me beat.

Clearly it’s time I exorcised my literary demons. If reading is a kind of rewriting then my versions of some books are simply shorter than the rest.

Job done.

 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tug of Love by Penny Jordan
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Safer Waters: Evading the Shark of Life

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I was fourteen when my mother bought me my first ‘adult’ novel: John Hooker’s The Bush Soldiers. I was into war stories, you see, and the premise of this one was so good it appealed even to my mum.

Imagine this: the year is 1943 and Australia’s been invaded by the Japanese. What happens next? Battles, I hoped, and lots of ’em, like the gory ones in James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, which I read a few years later.

Wrong. Here the fighting is finished before the story starts, and all we’re left with is a rag-tag bunch of would-be resistance fighters who traipse around the desert looking for arms and ammunition they never use.

That was my teenage take on it. Today, as an adult, I think I know better. Now I’d say the book is less about the Pacific war than it is about the age-old struggle between white Australians (in the shape of the soldiers) and the continent’s red centre (the bush). There’s plenty of drama really, but it’s purely psychological.

Bored with the lack of explosive action, though, I never finished the thing. Which is why I’m surprised that, a few weeks ago, I allowed myself to be hooked by the Hooker again. This time by a novel of his called Our Jack, which, I’m pleased to report, I’ve read right to the end.

Jack Lamberton is a clever kid who grows up in the Antipodes during the 1940s and 50s. Like his country, he’s confused and weak, caught, as he is, between the old and the new, the near and the far. His mother is a remote Englishwoman who never really left her homeland, while his father, a hard man who admires Americans, is obsessed with order, discipline and concrete.

It’s an impossible upbringing in many ways and yet Jack finds a way through.

. . . by the time I was twelve, I had learnt that lying and deception were, for me, the ways to survival, and even success . . . Books had made me deceitful and knowledgeable – and we all know that knowledge is power

It’s a strategy that almost works. Despite his dodgy looks, Jack wins over a series of winsome women; one by one, though, they desert him, tiring of his ‘eternal childishness’ and his failure to come to terms with anything.

Our Jack admires another Jack: ‘strong, cheerful, reliable’ Jack Martin, the hero of R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Like his fictional namesake, Jack wants to master life’s challenges, and by the end of the novel – well, almost the end – it seems he might’ve done just that, since the book he writes becomes a bestseller.

This time it was I who was in command . . . Like Jack Martin, I had succeeded – I had thrust an oar down the throat of the shark of life.

Which brings me to my point. I, too, have viewed life as an enemy, as a predator I must repel in order to endure and prosper. I, too, have assumed that by re-imagining reality I would one day come to rule it. I, too, have been wrong.

Because, in one last vicious twist, Jack sees the error of his ways. His dying father, he realises, knows his secret: that his book is a deception, an imitation of an old bestseller beloved by his long-dead mother. The shark of life has dodged Jack’s thrust.

And yet it doesn’t have to end this way.

Having seen off the shark in Ballantyne’s book, Jack Martin and his pals leave their lagoon. They know there are more throats in the ocean than they have oars. Instead, they seek safer waters and are thrilled with what they find.

Inside the basin, which we called our Water Garden, the coral formations were much more wonderful, and seaweed plants far more lovely and vividly coloured, than in the lagoon itself.

This is what I hope to do. By seeking safer waters, I aim to evade the shark of life. Enough self-deception, I say. The world is not at my command and never will be. Far better, I think, to see life as a Water Garden to be immersed in and admired.

But how? By reading and writing, of course, only better. Because the best books don’t distort life; on the contrary, they magnify its marvels.

Jack Martin’s mate, Ralph, has but one book, from which he gains ‘much interesting knowledge’. It’s a volume of Captain Cook’s voyages – the very voyages that, in a sense, brought the British to Australia and thus, by extension, The Bush Soldiers to my bookshelf.

I really should read it one day.

Imaginary Friends: The Perils of Putting Books in Boxes

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For someone who has a lot of friends, I get pretty bloody lonely. Okay, so all my buddies are imaginary, but what has that got to do with it?

Years ago, I made a big decision, and probably a bad one. I decided that real people suck – as pals, at least. Phantoms, I felt, make better friends. What led me to such a pretty pass? Was it the misanthropy of my parents or my own social awkwardness? A bit of both.

Mostly, though, I put it down to the crazy ideas I had as a teen. Back then, all my friends – bar two – seemed to lack a couple of crucial qualities: complexity and concern.

No-one called me, you see. No-one came after me. No-one seemed to care. The friendships I had were fed solely, I believed, by me. And, in my youthful eyes, one-way streets inevitably led to dead ends.

Sure, there were no smartphones in those distant days, but I wasn’t that hard to contact. No, my unpopularity had nothing to do with my remoteness and everything to do with the way I perceived my pals: as shallow and lacking in seriousness.

You wouldn’t know it now, but back then I was an intense individual, one obsessed by the quest for, err, Beauty and Truth. I was, in other words, a pompous git; amusing at times, but definitely not someone to chat to about your holiday plans or family news.

People who thought about such things were superficial – such was my elevated opinion – and no doubt I made it clear to my friends that I felt this way. Thus they didn’t call me. Why would they?

Like nature, culture abhors a vacuum, and into the breach stepped books.

When I was little, my mum gave me a bookmark whose inscription I took to heart. You might know the poem. It begins, ‘Books are friends/Come, let us read’. What hope did I have?

So, over the years, instead of making friends, I bought books. Second-hand ones, of course, because they have more character. Books became my imaginary friends.

And now I’m lonely. Why? Because just as, years ago, I categorised my real friends and lost them, I’ve gone and put my books in boxes. Somehow I’ve managed to distance myself even from my imaginary mates.

Come, let us read. If only I could!