The Last Man’s Head by Jessica Anderson

Hard to believe this was marketed as ‘crime’ at the time of publication – 1970 – when it is in fact a study in human frailty and psychological breakdown. It might be categorised with Simenon’s non-Maigret novels. It’s a comparison that does the book no favours as it isn’t really good enough to stand with Simenon’s masterpieces. The main issue for me was that I couldn’t see any of the male characters. Despite laborious and repetitive physical descriptions of them, they never became real.

I’d love to see this done as a movie, I believe that a good director would rectify that and make Alec and his nemesis Robbie as arresting as they should be and aren’t in the book.

This is not to say don’t read it, it’s hard to put down and worth a few hours of one’s life.

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Vincenzo’s Garden by John Clanchy

Not one friend of mine on GR has read any book by this author. Having randomly plucked this off the shelf at a secondhand shop and never having heard of Clanchy myself, perhaps I should not be surprised. But he has won prizes in Australia and his books typically go through more than one edition.

None of which is surprising. These are highly accomplished examples of the short story form. Perhaps it is the counsellor in him, but I was struck in particular by his deep empathy with people of all types. Whether he is an elderly woman in a nursing home or a young man, an Australian or the family at the inn Van Gough stays at, he does it all to perfection. The stories are beguiling, credible, beautiful. Surprises have you saying, yes, of course, in that appreciative way when you should have seen it coming, but good writers make sure you don’t.

At least four stars and I’m going to be reading more.

Amnesia by Peter Carey

I don’t understand why people are down on this, I thought it was a cracker. First Carey I’ve wholeheartedly enjoyed for many years. I am only uneasy because it reads like a movie. When you can see the movie reeling along as you turn the page – it makes me wonder whenever I read a novel which seems like it’s waiting to become a movie. If the author wrote the novel aiming for the screen is this okay? Are we reading a movie pitch or a novel?

If you want a book to read on a plane which is well-written, a nicely evoked picture of Australia starting at WWII and ending when children are computer hackers, stereotypical characters whom we all know – really well done, I thought – this is it. I won’t read it again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once.

After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

If you thought that this was obvious, a sequel, cashing in, you couldn’t be further from the truth. This companion to Romulus, My Father is the product of, on the one hand, the needs of the philosopher Gaita to process various ways in which the consequences of this book affected him and on the other, the needs of everybody who read it. Although I complained in my review that Romulus, My Father had been ignored by the world at large, it deeply moved Australia.

So you write a book, a philosophical – because you are a philosopher – account of the life of your truly heroic and brave and encompassing of all the best human virtues, father and his friend. You write of your life in the Australian countryside, where nothing happens except madness and the aftermath of madness. You make the prose sing like a poem, but still, it is just a book about a migrant and other people around him going mad. And it becomes such a thing, that before you know it a movie is being talked about. And eventually is made.

Gaita warns the reader at the start of this book that it is hard to read. To paraphrase the xkcd cartoon ‘Stand back, I’m doing philosophy’. Things could get dangerous. And certainly difficult. At that they do. I put my hard hat on and my brain still got a bit of a battering. Clearly there are, as Gaita himself advises, chapters that need to be reread and rereread as he talks about Romulus, My Father from a relatively formal philosophical viewpoint.

But Gaita wants nothing more than to be there with the reader every step of the way. It might hurt, but I’m holding your hand, see? And much of it is straightforwardly interesting. By a complete coincidence just before I started reading this, I had put about 200 volumes of autobiography/biography on the shelves. I didn’t know why, given that it is not something I ever read. But his discussions of memory and understanding have given me some perspective on that now. Perhaps I will learn something about the process of writing this sort of thing from reading the books I’ve gathered together.

The musings on the nature of memory continue on in a different form. He discusses at length, partly because he has been asked to by his readers, the making of the movie. Very few people will have seen this movie outside Australia, it was a typical Australian triumph, small movie, small budget, big effect if one cared to watch. Some of you will even have heard of the actor who played Romulus because it was The Hulk. The making of the movie was an incredibly painful process for Gaita. Much as he highly praises it, (and certainly I thought it was wonderful, having watched some years before reading the book) it could never be the same as what was in his mind. Worse, though, it changed things. There were many discussions about this, much angst. The film still stays true to the soul of the book and the changes are minor in general, but how each one must have ripped a little of Gaita’s innards apart.

Imagine it is your memory being played with here. You go to the movie and from the moment you start watching your own true memories are being contaminated. It must be so hard. Everybody remembers things others don’t. We are surprised when our friend can’t remember x, he is equally mystified that we have no recollection of y. But sometimes, do you not find, that somebody else’s memory of you becomes more than just his memory, it becomes yours. I’m scared when that happens, it isn’t just adding to you in some way, it’s changing you. How does Gaita see his life now except through those movie scenes?

He talks of poetry. The important of the book being poetic. The movie capturing that. But above all it is this gift of more of his father and his father’s extraordinary friend Hora. If everybody lived like this two great men, the world would be okay.

I have this idea in my head now that Gaita is the antidote to the world as it is travelling at the moment.

Chapter one on Hora:

When I was fourteen and fifteen we often went sailing in the boat he built with my father. He told me stories as we sailed. Usually they were stories of men and women who had been persecuted or ridiculed for their beliefs or who had resisted tyranny. He spoke in a resonant voice that held me spellbound as we sailed our small boat. Sometimes he spoke with hushed tones about the men and women he admired. Always, he said, even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved, sucking hard on his tightly rolled cigarette.

 

 

 

 

One of the Wattle Birds by Jessica Anderson

Another writer bites the dust, dead a few years and all but forgotten. Two reviews of this on GR.

I wonder if others were as irritated as was I by ALL THE BITS IN CAPS. The author was looking for a way to indicate a particular way of talking and although I have some sympathy for her chosen method, nonetheless IT DROVE ME CRAZY. Text in caps is aesthetically displeasing. Turning to a page and seeing them sporadically scattered through the text puts me in a bad mood before I’ve read a word.

Then, the protagonist is a 19 year old girl. Ugggh. You can trust me, I’ve been one, they aren’t worth writing about.

And yet, despite these obstacles to my reading pleasure and the grudging way I picked it up each sitting with it, despite the ending, it’s probably okay. I don’t know! I tried hard to be the girl – mother knows she will die while you are on the backpacking ‘trip of a lifetime’ the one that at least didn’t used to come twice, the one with no technology (pre internet story). No phone calls (expensive) your mother says, the sensible thing to say at the time, but she KNOWS SHE IS GOING TO DIE. So the girl, upon finding out what has happened, naturally sees it as something her mother did to her. WHY? WHY DID SHE DO THAT TO ME? DIE, PURPOSELY WHILE I WASN’T THERE?

In the same pre internet period I was in London, only communicating by letter to Australia on an extended stay. My mother almost died – not as in this story in a relatively controlled way where there was plenty of time to change her mind, beg her daughter to come back and share her death – but still, the decision had to be made about whether to tell me and nobody did. They decided that it wasn’t right to worry me, interrupt my trip, perhaps induce me to come back and it might be for nothing. Indeed, as it turned out it would have been for nothing. But if my mother had died, I wonder if I would have been as troublesome as Wattle Bird was, harrassing everybody over and over and over about WHY? Maybe I would have been just as angry and overwhelmed by it, unable to move on.

Of course, to make things worse, her mother, a single parent by choice, left a will which only let Cecily have the dosh if she gets married. Wow, what a thing to weigh upon a person. If you ask me, that’s worse than how she decided to die. Imagine how bad the daughter must have felt about that. A sort of denial of her life having been okay. My mother wished she’d done it different and is now trying to make sure I do too. I tried to get into those shoes to understand how that would feel.

And in the end, no truth, no revelation to explain any of this. It’s just people muddling along, one can’t even say right or wrong. And Cecily, always inclined to lie, starts hiding things in new ways from her partner, ways that signify that she also sees her own self as being something that must in part at least be secret. Much, I guess, like her mother. And I suppose we are left to understand this, that it is by acknowledging what she is, that she comes to terms with what her mother was too.

I’d love to know what other people think about this book. ARE YOU OUT THERE? TALK TO ME….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

This is an absolute stunner. It gets Australia completely right without the cheapness of St John’s shots. It nails the state of captivity of women without agency. Nora’s need to escape, and taking marriage as the way out is heartbreaking. The role of education, and even more that of reading, which I might add is big in Women in Black and also in My Brilliant Friend comes comes into play here too.¬†To be educated is to escape the poverty and meanness of life in city Australia and country Australia as much as it may extract you from¬†neighbourhood Naples. To forsake education in favour of marriage as one’s saviour is to court utter ruination. To read is to build one’s dreams of escape. Oh, I did this as a child and many must have had it much, much worse than I.

Unadornished truth – put both simply and exquisitely – from her discussions of sex to abortion to family relations, mothers-in-law, the house-wife reduced to pilfering coins from the wallets and purses of those who hold her in captivity. Life alone. I read that in the eighties this was a set text for high school in Melbourne. Harrowing stuff. Bitter-sweet. Sad. True. This is a book I’d like everybody to read.

Easily five stars. I confess I had not heard of Anderson, and I shall most eagerly be seeking out more.

Death in the Limelight by AE Martin

Plot-wise I can’t say I liked this as much as The Chinese Bed Mysteries, but it was still surprisingly fresh. Anybody who likes the old-fashioned pot-boiler murder mysteries should give Martin a go. As well as an engaging style, he knows his stuff, the world of his action is the world he actually lived in for many years prior to WWII, and this really makes a difference, not just because he is technically knowledgeable, but because he adds that air which comes from your subject matter being part of you.

I’ve a couple more on the shelves and I’m curious to see if they stack up. Will report.