Loving Roger by Tim Parks and The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini

I want to rant and rail against the system. Loving Roger is a wonderful – let me shout that, WONDERFUL – novella which is, 25 years or so after being written, neither fish nor fowl. Not old enough to be considered for Classic status. Not young enough to be modern. It’s the sort of book not read because its date is wrong.

On top of this, to add injury to insult, Tim Parks is an all rounder. Every bit of it is connected to writing. It isn’t like he does spin bowling and writes novels. No. However, he just won’t specialise and that’s considered plain unseemly now and for some time past. One isn’t allowed to be good at more than one thing. The very hint of it smacks with the suspicion that maybe one isn’t very good at either. Or, in the case of Parks, more.

He’s a teacher of literature. He writes novels. He writes memoir. He translates. He writes important books about translation. As far as I can tell, he’s damn good at all of these. But he must suffer the fate of the all rounder and somehow escape the much higher praise he would have been awarded for any one of these, if only he could have stuck to it and only it.

Grrrrrrr. I regularly get very cross about this!

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving away things that are best left discovered in the reading of. He is amazingly good at doing a female perspective, in the process making many sad-amusing digs at males. This makes me want to reference The Bleeding Tree by Cerini, of which we saw a wonderful production on Saturday night. Both start off with a killing which one might describe as a murder. In each the murderee is male. In neither does one wish to see him as a victim. From that start, Cerini and Parks go in very different directions, but nonetheless they share a point which is to talk about how it transpires that women may do these things. In the process the reader will not have the tiniest sense of sympathy for the blokes. There is nothing to be generalised here, they aren’t ‘people’ doing these deeds, they are ‘women’ and the dead body in each case was up to that point a ‘man’.

The styles of these two pieces are very different. Cerini’s is poetry, very stylised, but this, as one or more reviewer have mentioned, gives an impact which a more natural approach could not produce. He uses ordinary colloquial language as would have really been used by his characters, in his chosen setting. The action is swept along in the rhythm and cadence of the lines. Parks’ story is presented in a very naturalistic and true way. The murderess, who speaks to us from page one, is transparent. Yet at the same time, in that subtle way in which Parks excels, one realises as things go on that something is changing. Or perhaps that despite all that transparency, things were hidden. He has such a good ear, as no doubt a master translator must have.

These are both short works. Two writers who are able to distil the essence of what needs to be said without any padding. Fifty-five minutes from Cerini. One hundred and fifty-seven pages from Parks. Bravo gentlemen!

Crisscross by Pat Flower

Yikes. Another wonderful book shelved on ‘books you won’t read before you die’. I’d been told that Pat Flower was these days undeservedly unknown and with that in mind I now have half a dozen on my to-read shelf. And what better time than now, imprisoned by Covid-19, to start?

flower pat - AbeBooks

I am not the first person to comment on blogs here that concentrating on reading is a little tricky at the moment. You really want something to lose yourself in and Crisscross definitely fulfills that requirement. Comparing it with Simenon’s non-Maigret books and Patricia Highsmith says it all. Ruth Rendell on a good day. She’s a highly competent writer who captures that falling apart sociopathic anti-hero perfectly. Loved the mid-seventies Sydney backdrop. Ecology, do-gooders, and bad pottery; ah yes, they were the days.

Looking forward to the rest and highly recommend them to those who are not afraid to read books from the period shunned by so many. Don’t think of forty years ago as ‘old-fashioned’. Think of yourself as being ahead of the trend, she will most definitely be thoroughly revived sooner or later.

picture sourced from ABE Books

 

The Scarecrow by Ronald H Morrieson

On the way home from somewhere, I noticed that our local op shop had a bookshelf out on its verandah. I picked up six books for which I still owe $3, the shop being shut then, and for the duration of the Thing. Luckily for me, one of the books was The Scarecrow. The copy is the text classics edition, one of the series inspired by Di Gribble.

New Zealanders will have to forgive me for listing this under Australia. If you want our dole money then quit complainin’. The rural setting and the appalling drinking surely could come from the Australian backblocks. But this has an assurance and a ‘I’ll do this how I darn well please’ attitude that are pure NZ.

The assurance is not polished, it’s the confidence of existing with no natural predators. That’s NZ for you. Only a confident and inexperienced writer could even think of writing this book, let alone bring it into the world. The young teenager’s view is honest, witty, scared, sexual, full of the bravado which shows its true colours fast enough. All this creates a really beautiful small town story and that, despite the ugliness of it. Yes, it stacks up though it’s hard to understand how.

The author’s sad short life explains why he was so able to capture the setting of this and his other books. More on that here. And please, despite being thus referred to on Wiki, it is not a horror story, not even close.

There is a movie, but I have so far no luck in getting hold of it.

Highly recommended for: those who like reading. Those who want to understand a bit more about the rural areas which are so important to the ethos of Australia and New Zealand. That said, I am pessimistic enough to file it under ‘books you won’t read before you die’. Prove me wrong, please.

Text Publishing — The Scarecrow: Text Classics, book by Ronald Hugh

 

Martha in Paris and The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

‘I’ve come,’ announced Mr Joyce, ‘to talk about Martha.’

That’s a real suck-you-in sentence which had me loving Martha without knowing a dang thing about her. I imagined that she’d run rings about Mr Joyce and that she’d make me laugh in the process.

Margery Sharp again manages to combine sheer elegance of language with heroines that are anything but. Martha is fat and plain, but she doesn’t give a toss – or not even that, it’s more that she hasn’t even ever thought about such trivial matters. She’s an artist, obsessed with shape, and then with colour. Nothing matters to her apart from that. Oh, she likes a good bath, and she eats like she is built. But if she had the least reason to think that either of those habits were bad for her art, they’d be out on their ear. Just like Eric.

In fact, just like her baby. She gets pregnant to Eric. Drops him without his knowing that – he had plans to marry and obviously then she’d give up art. She has the baby in secret, and then leaves it with a note at Eric’s front door. It’s the spitting image of him. He lives with his mother. She left formula for the baby. Sorted. Back to painting.

I suppose that all sound awful, but it isn’t. It’s just funny and admirable that she can live in such a male-like way, obsessed with the thing she does and survive even the potential inconvenience, if not trauma, of an unwanted pregnancy.

*******************************

After reading this and picking up the other Sharp I’d bought at the same time, I discovered I’d read them in the wrong order. The Eye of Love is an account of the charming love affair between Martha’s aunt and her (spoiler) husband-to-be. It will come as no surprise that this pair is as unattractive as Martha. But they have only eyes for each other as those who attempt to part them discover. If you ask me, it doesn’t matter whether you read this or Martha in Paris first. But there is a third and I am pleased that I am going to read that last, when I am able to pick up a copy.

The edition I have of these two is just awful, not least because it wants to turn Sharp’s exceedingly clever writing into the most tawdry of chick-lit, or whatever it was called in the early sixties. The cover of Martha in Paris proclaims:

Martha went to Paris

to learn to paint…

and learnt to love instead.

It’s so insulting to Sharp when love of any kind, of her rellies, her baby, the father of the baby is just not happening. NOT HAPPENING. New English Library what on earth were you thinking?

Six New Tales by John Clanchy

Nothing like being sick to test a book’s staying power and this 2014 collection from Clanchy easily passes. For me the standout story is #3 Slow Burn. His comedic touch has such perfect pitch and timing that one is almost taken aback that he is capable of a different note altogether, one which is all but bereft of humour. They are all gripping and they all surprise.

It was a bit of a challenge finding this one, but Avenue Bookstore in Albert Park sourced it, and otherwise the publisher would have sent me one. Indeed, this book is a labour of love by Finlay Lloyd, an Australian non-profit publisher. Clanchy ends his book with the acknowledgement ‘May it flourish as it deserves’. They have an interesting selection of books on their list and Clanchy himself has another appearing under their aegis shortly. I’ve put a few on my to-read list.

By the by….I learnt a new word – sool – meaning to worry or attack in the way a dog might. It’s an antipodean word, apparently, but I’m sure I’ve never come across it before.

 

 

 

North of Nowhere, South of Loss by Janette Turner Hospital

I’m afraid this will be going on my rapidly growing shelf ‘Books you won’t read before you die.’ But who am I to be giving lectures, I hadn’t heard of Hospital until I speculatively handed over $1 for this in an op shop.

And wow, what an investment that turned out to be. She’s gone straight to the top of my list of short story writers. She’s good at the lot. Describing trees – usually an eyes-glaze-over time for me, her voice is always true, vivid settings and tight stories. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have said that about her voice. Her Australian voices are absolutely dinkum. I’m not the one to make the judgement about the ones set in the US, but I have an expectation not to be disappointed there either.

Her writing is beautiful without that being a luxury, which is to say, the words are necessary, not an indulgence. The beauty is despite the anguish and angst. She herself would probably call it music rather than beauty. She wants the words to sing and they do. Scattered through are several stories about the same characters, it reminded me of John Clanchy, but they are very different in their writing. Notably there is no humour in Hospital’s work, at least not in this book.

Half way through reading this I went down to East Ave Books to see if they had others by her and came back with three. It will be interesting to see how she fares with the novel. I will report.

For those who know the stories, but not the backstory of Philippa and Brian, Brian is the Peter to whom the book is dedicated. She makes you feel that you, too, have lost him, a matter of considerable regret.

Oh, if only people understood what a perfect form the short story is, and appreciated its great practitioners.

Homecoming by John Clanchy

The backcover blurb calls these three novellas an exploration of love. I beg to disagree. They are an exploration of loss.

First, a young soldier dies in mysterious circumstances during the Vietnam war. The loss is devastating to his parents. The question is how and will they go on.

Second, two people have an affair which means they meet for a week or two once a year. How painful is the resultant loss. Loss, dealt with and revived over and over. Loss, haunting their brief blasts of happiness, never far from their thoughts. The question is how and will they go on.

Third, a resident academic at a university college is in love with one of his charges – they have a sexual relationship. His field of expertise is the classics and he writes about Socratic love. His loss is projected. Well aware that the relationship can’t go on forever, he practises loss by sending the young lover to Greece whilst he stays behind. It doesn’t really help. The boy comes back, the torment is none improved. Loss, the future loss he can’t stop, fills his mind. The question, again, is how and will he go on.

John Clanchy is a wonderful writer. It’s really too bad that every one of his books belongs on the shelf ‘books you won’t read before you die’. I do hope somebody proves me wrong.

Tuna by Kenneth Cook

Having read Wake in Fright a while back, I noticed a copy of this on the shelves and it’s definitely a small-handbag book, so in it went.

I read this immediately after a discussion on FB with my friend Linda which involved questions of what is ‘Australian’ and what is ‘racist’. And here I was on page one of this, plumb in the middle of exactly that. The central character is a fisherman in a coastal town, a little Aussie battler, I think would be a fair characterisation, and dagoes are giving him grief. He and his mates despise the Italians. But that doesn’t change how one acts when one has to. When an Italian on another boat goes overboard, he does everything he can to save him. Racism is more complex than a lot of people make out: perhaps they are still waters that run deep. Jack’s off-sider in this is an Aborigine who sees himself as less than white people but definitely superior to the Italians, by the way.

The Italian’s death opens up an opportunity for Jack to go for broke, buy a boat he can fish for tuna from, instead of the piddling small catches which are his lot to date. I can see why this is compared with The Old Man and the Sea. It feels like a sea adventure book written by somebody who knows his ground (so to speak). I couldn’t put it down.

But laid over the adventure, the story, the how-tuna-are-caught detail, is the Australianness of the thing. Cook captures that so that you can see it, vivid, in front of you as you read. Once you get over the discomfort as he dives into the way in which White Australian, Italian and Aborigine relate – discomfort he wants you to feel – the strength of his writing is compelling.

Cook and Jacqueline Kent married in odd circumstances not long before he died. Having met him at a dinner party, a while later she was asked by a publisher to edit his Killer Koala stories. Cook called her:  “Ms Kent, I am not used to being edited. My characters do not exclaim, they do not snort, wince in speech, respond, or chuckle or gibber. I don’t want you to change ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ to any of these things. Is that clear?” Quoted from SMH.

She is sarcastic in return, but the point is surely well made. To do this to his spare, to-the-point writing, would be a editorial crime. I haven’t read Killer Koala yet, but I’m hoping his request was followed.

I note how shabbily this notable writer is treated by goodreads. This particular book isn’t even listed. He deserves better, but I doubt he’ll get it. It’s most likely a ‘book you won’t read before you die’.

 

 

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

I so wish I didn’t have to file this under ‘books you won’t read before you die’. Such a crying shame.

When my mother handed this back to me yesterday, she said it was mildly amusing here and there. Told me the sentence she thought was most important. A bit Jane Austeny she said, in that way that damns everything in a comparison I wish could be outlawed.

This, after I’d laughed out loud on most pages to the occasional envy of my reading companion who was stuck in his Persian grammar book, which is very light on laughs. I read bits out and wanted to torment him with more. I do wish people liked being read to – I need a willing audience, though I make do with a captive one.

Looking for confirmation that this book was hilarious throughout and not merely amusing now and again, I wondered if it had been made into a movie. Ah ha! Not only was it filmed, but it was directed by the comic – of a type – doyen Ernst Lubitsch. The words used to describe his work are urbane and sophisticated. There was, according to wiki a thing, the Lubitsch touch. I recommend as an example, The Shop Around the Corner, even though it has Jimmy Stewart in it. As I write I’m only 10 minutes into Cluny Brown – so far it’s a bit like the Morecambe explanation of the piano piece he’s playing: the notes are the same as originally written, it’s just the order that’s different. I will report when finished.

I read an early reprint of the original Collins 1944 edition. The information on goodreads that it was first published in the US, with the first edition not mentioned at all, is no doubt incorrect.