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.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

When I was seven my father disowned his family. It was, he explained at the time, because he did not want us to be raised in the culture of violence and ignorance that made his family what it was. Although from the stories I heard from him, I had some picture in my mind of what that meant, it was really only upon reading this series that I have a clear sense of what we escaped. In fact, my father’s family is Calabrian from the area where John Paul Getty III was held after being kidnapped. Far more violent than the pussy Neapolitans.

So, on a personal level what I got from this was an inkling of what my life might have been like, had my father not made that decision. The culture is violent, the people, all relationships on all levels. The language is not violent, it is violence. That is the purpose of dialect, to express violence and threats and anger and powerlessness and vitriol and abuse.  It is a weapon. Having read these books and lived through the sometimes terrifying behaviour of my father I wonder whether it is learned or genetic. I do so hope it isn’t something I can’t undo in me.

I felt part Elena so often I stopped counting. Not just because my father, despite his best intentions, could not save us entirely from this life because he could not save us from himself, but for so many decisions she made as a child, growing up, and then as an adult. It’s an excruciatingly painful business, watching a person in a book do incredibly idiotic things as she does in her personal relationships all the time, knowing that one has done them all with no better capacity to explain than this series does.  How could she have got involved with Nino, even as a teenager, let alone as an adult. The only thing that makes me realise that it is permissible within the constraints of the book is that I’ve done the same stupid, stupid things.

I was unable to put down the first volume until I’d finished it. The most fantastic end to a book I’ve ever read by the way, and endings are impossibly hard to do. Two weeks in Melbourne, back to Adelaide and I discover that there is one shop where I can buy them. Imprints Booksellers, thank you! I bought the other three volumes and read them back to back over the course of a week. Does one need a review after that statement? A friend in Melbourne who is an Italian literature academic started reading the first and called up uni to say she wouldn’t be in that week. Unputdownable does not in the slightest exaggerate the effect of these.

Peter at East Avenue Books put me onto this series. It’s a secondhand bookshop in Clarence Park specialising in literature – if you live in Adelaide you must go there!







Does James Bond have to go through airport security?

Geneva airport, our plane is boarding. We have just got to the top of the security check queue which is so long today that they have extended it into the airport pathway. That, after a ten minute wait in the fast track of Easy Jet luggage checkin. And today, of all days, is the first time our Easy Jet flight has been on time for years. That’d be right.

But we were okay now, through the thing where you might beep but don’t. Hand on my luggage when a voice says:

‘Is that your luggage ma’am?’

And you look up and say ‘yes’ to the female security guards who ask you to ‘come this way’.

‘Do you know why we are going to search your bags, ma’am?’

I give a seriously stressed out answer because I’m seriously stressed out.

‘So that I miss my plane?’

‘It’s because you have a large knife in your bags, ma’am.’

Do they think I’m a complete idiot? What sort of dickwit would pack a knife in their carry on luggage? Manny comes over and I tell him when he asks, ‘They are looking for the large knife we packed this morning.’ Spoken with all the sarcasm I could muster, which was quite a lot.

Losing it in Switzerland isn’t a great idea. Losing it in airports isn’t a great plan either. Swiss airports? Don’t even think about it. But our plane was boarding. They couldn’t find the knife. They are inclined, in fact to believe me and turn to look at the X-ray dude who has put me in this position. He stares at me and shakes his head in a way that says ‘Think you are getting away with this? Forget it.’

I start getting a wind up, I’m ranting away. ‘Hello? Do you really think ‘a big knife’ could be in there’ as one of them unzips my purse which is maybe 2 inches wide. They are pulling everything out of my bags and I’m in the middle of ‘What are you guys doing, seriously. Why aren’t you out catching terrorists instead of harrassing innocent travellers like -‘ and I don’t actually finish my sentence because as I’m saying that, it dawns on me that one of them is pulling a knife out of my carry-on, where it is hiding in the side at the bottom, just about where you would hide a knife if you were.

Hiding a knife. Which I wasn’t. But there it was. Undeniably there was what I would not call a large knife, but a decent sized one all the same in my carry-on. If Sharia law insisted that somebody’s head had to be removed from their body during the course of our flight to Gatwick airport, this knife wouldn’t cut it. But absolutely one could see it sticking into somebody’s heart or slitting their throat.

Or…as I recollect during the horror I am feeling, cutting cheese and fruit. The weekend before we had been on a train trip and I’d taken the knife to cut things for lunch. Here it was, still in my bag.

Fucketty-fuck. Grovelling apologies. Tip to the X-ray man who was so on the job. It turns out it only looks like they aren’t really looking. How tricky can you get? I’m explaining away and these very nice security guards who have just put up with my diatribe couldn’t be, well, sweeter about it. Maybe their English wasn’t up to it, I don’t know. Or it’s because I’m short. But although they said it was all right, no problem, they did nonetheless take my particulars.

They put my name and address in a big black book whilst telling me not to worry. If they don’t want you to worry, why is it big and black?  Couldn’t they make it pink or something? And smaller. A Hello Kitty notepad, something like that.

The terrorist register. I can just see it. And my worst fears are confirmed. I’ve felt like a terrorist since September 2010 when I was given my second passport. I guess lots of people have two passports from two countries. But mine have two names on them. Now I’m a person with two passports with different IDs and a penchant for packing dangerous weapons in my carry-on. James Bond, eat your heart out.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler

Consider this book a small break in transmission. One can read only so much about 1930s and 1940s Europe without respite.

Like the work of many good and bad writers, a Tyler book is something you slip into, she has her template. I continue to be amazed as what she does with it.

Every book is about the most ordinary people living the most ordinary lives, drab humdrum lives. Every book is hauntingly sad. But Tyler’s touch is so deft, where other writers stamp their words on the page, making sure they are noticed, Tyler’s float. And every now and then one suddenly stops and thinks, yes, that was the meaning of life just there, not trumpetted and fanfared – hel-lo reader, are you paying attention, I’m going to say something important now – but just a sentence, towards the bottom of a page, easy enough to miss altogether as you advance to the next.

There is always humour in her books.

Anne Tyler loves people. She loves her characters, she is effortlessly all of them. The main character, a male, whose downer of a life is managing to spiral even further down, or a teenage girl, it doesn’t matter, they are all intensely real and intensely characters; that is to say, you can picture them all clearly in your mind’s eye. So many writers can’t do that at all, it’s not to be taken for granted to find one that can give you this vision.

She writes novels, but they are sparing of words. There is no padding.

There is something of the Lucy-Charlie Brown relationship between the reader – Charlie – and the books – Lucy. Every time the reader hopes against hope, that this is the one, the one that’s going to end up happily ever after. It never is. I don’t mean by this that the boy never gets the girl, or the girl the boy, but that however the specific story goes, you will be left with the same emptiness inside. Boys cry when they read Anne Tyler. But despite that, Tyler doesn’t want her characters to give up, she certainly wouldn’t want the reader to either.

Her books are never judgemental of anybody or anything. They are never political. They contain no messages. They are simply as finely crafted observations of the absurd nature of the human condition as one could ever read.

The Philosopher as Expert by Richard Rorty

This is an essay which anybody who has ever regaled a professional philosopher should read. It will make you snort with laughter as Rorty tells you exactly how it is, these guys in their glass castles having obscure debates about nothing that matters, when we all know that philosophy is about the things that do matter. Well, it should be anyway, right? It’s lost its way, it used to be vital, now it’s irrelevant. We all know it except the professional philosophers and you have to wonder why they are so thick that they don’t get it.

So, there you are, chortling away, thinking how hilarious Rorty is, and how brilliantly he has captured what makes you right and them wrong, when at some point you start thinking you didn’t laugh at all on that page and you turn and, well, you don’t laugh on this one either, or when you do, it’s getting a bit half-hearted, and you note that you are still there on the page, but shit, somehow Rorty is starting to explain that you are a complete arse-hole, an ignorant narrow-mindeded bigot of an amateur philosopher. He explains exactly what philosophy is, so that even you can understand it and understand why it is doing exactly what it should be doing. And why every time you told a professional philosopher his business, you were being a complete dick.

I don’t know if I will get to the book that comes with the essay, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but for the first time in my life I have half a clue what philosophy is and why it’s important. What a pity there does not seem to be anything in the way of a Rorty-Feynman exchange. One cannot help feeling Feynman would have been put in his place too.

You can find the essay here.

The Human Touch by Michael Frayn

I can’t imagine reading this book, having lived through Manny’s reading of it. It was awful, listening to him talk about how completely Frayn had misunderstood everything in science and philosophy he talked about. When he did come to actual interesting content by Frayn he couldn’t stand the round about, waffling way in which he wrote, peppering everything with asides which were sometimes entertaining and generally irrelevant. Somehow Bill Bryson writing mostly of irrelevancies is okay, but not Frayn. Maybe he isn’t good enough a writer.

Having started this book some years ago, I am certainly never going to read it now. I don’t have the discerning eye resulting from knowledge of the fields to be able to read it in a discriminating way. But I want to make a few points which come from my understanding of Frayn which explain the failure of this book.

The first is that this book is the consequence of a shambles – Frayn’s mulling over the world for a great many years. So when, for example, he discusses some point of AI which has been obsolete for decades, or a Chomsky theory which he himself abandoned before the old queen died, this is, I suspect, because his ideas came from that period. We happen to be reading them now.

The second is that this book undoubtedly reflects something Frayn talks about in Stage Directions – he found it very hard to go back to novels after working as a dramatist for a long period because writing plays was writing in a highly disciplined limited way, whereas novel writing was like open countryside compared with the city. Limitless. He found it necessary to create ways to give the novel limits. One can see that, for example, in one of my favourites, The Trick of It. In this context, what could be more unbounded, less able to be disciplined, than the subject of The Human Touch?

The third is that Frayn – and again this comes from reading Stage Directions – is obsessed with the notion of the audience and in particular with is ability to change the thing it is watching. Nothing is objective. The meaning of everything and anything comes from its audience. Again, one can see how strongly this comes to bear on the ideas he discusses in The Human Touch. If Frayn had stuck to novel writing and never written plays, I don’t think this book would ever have been conceived of, let alone written.

However wrong Frayn gets the science and academic philosophy into which he ventures, nonetheless he had a germ of interesting content of his own which has been so drowned in a bad book that Manny in his review couldn’t even bring himself to talk about it. He didn’t want to give the book one way to escape from its awfulness. It is a mystery to me that this book was published. A mystery that it didn’t go through some kind of editorial process that could have transformed it into something worthwhile. A mystery that nobody who did read it prepublication had any sort of knowledge which extended far enough to explain to him that most of the book is drivel. Alan Lightman post publication was very kind to it. Other reviewers to a man seem to have either not read it at all, lied through their teeth, or were utterly ignorant of good layman’s knowledge of the fields in question – science, philosophy, maths.

One could conclude that this is an exercise in the complete failure of the publication system. And yet, then one comes upon this, from the WestEnd Whingers, not about this book, but about the nature of the entity of Michael Frayn:

To stage one verse play may be regarded as a misfortune; to stage two looks like carelessness. Or malice.

Yes, after the unpleasantness of Fram, the National has contrived to prescribe for the general public’s indigestion yet another unpalatable dose of doggerel in the form of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife.

Surely some mistake? We think this is how it must have happened…

Picture the scene at the National’s literary department the day that the eagerly awaited jiffy bag from Mr Frayn finally thuds into their in-tray with the force of a brick into a box of kittens.

They tear off the top of the bag and all gather round to gasp in awe at the first sight of a brand new play by the very clever man who penned the brilliant Noises Off and some other plays that were clearly written by someone of great intelligence and went down very well with the critics.

Tentatively holding the edge of the front page by only his fingertips, Nicholas Hytner gingerly turns the page…

“Salzburg. 1920. Yes. Different. Ooh, Max Reinhardt. Yes, people may have heard of him. None of your Fridtjof Nansen nonsense. Heh heh. Promising, promising…”

Mr Hytner turn the page to Act 1 and freezes. The room, hitherto silent yet buzzing with anticipation, is suddenly merely silent.

“It’s… in… verse!” someone – possibly Chris Campbell – finally whispers.

“Oh, no!” cries the entire congregation.

“What are we going to do?”

“We’ll have to send it back”

“Send it back? Send it back? It’s Michael Bloody Frayn not Marks and Spencer. We can’t send it back!”

“Well, someone’s going to have to tell him! We tried all this rhyming stuff in that bloody Harrison thing and look where that got us.”

They all shudder.

Mr Hytner turns to the next page. Then the next. Then the next and so on faster and faster until:

“Wait! It’s OK. It’s not ALL in verse. Just some of it!”

“Perhaps we could just ask him to take out the rhyming bits?”

“Well, I’m not asking him. It’s Michael Bloody Frayn! You ask him.”

“You do it. You’re in charge, aren’t you?”

The phone rings. They all stare at it, then at each other. No-one moves.

“Oh for heaven’s sake….”

Mr Hytner answers it cautiously.

“Hello? Yes, oh, hello, Mr Frayn. Yes, Sir, it’s just arrived. We’re looking at it now. Yes. Marvellous. These rhyming bits… Yes, oh, I see, I see. Yes, very clever. Yes of course we’ll put it into production right away, Mr Frayn.”

For the rest of the absolutely hilarious description of the National’s staging of Afterlife go here But the point is, maybe it is this simple. The Human Touch thudded into somebody’s inbox, killing a few kittens on its arrival, and the rest was inevitable. And to think, if it had been the right size, the size it should have been, not even the teensiest new born kitty would have even noticed it landing….

Nightwork by Irwin Shaw

There are lots of personal reasons for my declining to take my nose out of this over the couple of days it took to read. Much of it takes place in Switzerland, where I live. The main character other than the narrator is a hustler, and that includes bridge, my game. Reading of his exploits gambling with the wealthy patrons of the ski resorts made me recall the trip I once made to St Moritz looking for a big bridge game. Little did we know that everything closes down in summer. Fabian, the hustler, totally rings true. The story hinges on lost luggage and how I associated with that after an identical mixup earlier this year where somebody took our luggage of the same brand.

More objectively, you needn’t have been a pilot, skied, found 100K on a dead man or hooked up with a hustler in order to find this an engrossing tale. Shaw is a super writer who probably suffers the same fate of most who are popular – the mentality that you can’t be popular and good. As wiki puts it: ‘Though Shaw’s work received widespread critical acclaim, the success of his commercial fiction ultimately diminished his literary reputation.’ How ludicrous does this mentality make the whole process of literary criticism and review.

Irwin Shaw was born to be a writer, but he had a strong opinion on what that meant:


Could we ask: What are the writer’s responsibilities to his talent compared with his responsibilities to his state of well-being, his family?


Well, a writer is a human being. He has to live with a sense of honor. If when I got out of college I had abandoned my family to starvation, which is just about where we were, I think I’d have been a much worse writer. I know that the romantic idea is that everybody around a writer must suffer for his talent. But I think that a writer is a citizen (which is one of the reasons I went into the war), that he’s a part of humanity, part of his nation, part of his family. He may have to make some compromises.

Is there a particular irony in being blacklisted, as he was in the McCarthy period, after fighting in WWII? I daresay Shaw was not alone in this experience.

It comes through in Nighwork that Shaw is a great reader, so the following exchange comes as no surprise:


Do you have any general opinion about young writers starting off?


So many young writers I’ve met are uneducated. They don’t read. They don’t read what started things . . . produced the trends. They don’t know the classics. If they become enthusiastic, it’s about someone like Kurt Vonnegut, who is uncopyable. If they try to copy him, they’re in for disaster.


What words of advice would you offer them?


Keep going. Writing is finally play, and there’s no reason why you should get paid for playing. If you’re a real writer, you write no matter what. No writer need feel sorry for himself if he writes and enjoys the writing, even if he doesn’t get paid for it.


Why do writers protest so much that writing is no fun at all; why do they complain about the agonies of creation?


I don’t believe them. What do they do it for, then? Writing is like a contact sport, like football. Why do kids play football? They can get hurt on any play, can’t they? Yet they can’t wait until Saturday comes around so they can play on the high-school team, or the college team, and get smashed around. Writing is like that. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it.

I hope you can read the following – you can click on them for a larger image. It is Shaw writing about the privileged nature of the young writers now, how they play at being poor, while in the days of his youth they really were grindingly, all but soul-destroyingly poor.

Shaw talks about young writers
Shaw on young writers continued
Shaw on young writers continued

Shaw is on my list of writers I must read. I’m particularly looking forward to his short stories as he is highly regarded in this form. Or was, until he became popular, at any rate. Meanwhile, you must read his Paris Review interviews, the first took place in the early fifties, the next in the late seventies. They are fascinating, opinionated and always educational.

Finally, there is much to look at the Irwin Shaw site.