Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

 

Cleaning up: my goodness, I wrote this in 2014 and didn’t get around to publishing it. 

Sociologically speaking, Munro’s worth her weight in gold. Her stories preserve aspects of social history – mores, language, ways of living, the looks, the smells, the landscape – in a form that goes well beyond what is possible in documented sources. Nor does she need to introduce the drama necessary in movies. She can make things 3D without glasses. Layers of small vignettes that add up to a whole world – her world.

And because it is her world I suppose, her books, I see as I randomly attack them, seem to have a quality that reflects time and age. This set, her first, is preoccupied with the young and adolescent. It reads like a first. Slightly green and rough, they feel like maybe they were harder fought for than later stories, where she has found her exact voice and way. Even so, this first lot is still the same writer through and through. There is a sameness not just of topic and setting, but style which drove me to an impatient boredom in the end. Somehow Munro makes 3D very flat. I didn’t care to finish the last two stories, much as it included the title piece. She’d been writing already for many years by the time this book came out, it covers over a decade in terms of her output, so although it’s a first book, it isn’t a first book the way all those hyped up creations by creative university literary courses are; the writing may be a bit green, but the writer isn’t.

To be fair, as she writes largely of rural communities where her characters speak a very colloquial and uneducated brand of English, maybe green and rough reflects that, rather than her technique. That puts the reader of my edition, at least, in the bind in other ways. Mine is a shockingly proofread book. I have written to Vintage to try to find out more about this. We are talking about stories that were (in the main) published in magazine format, then into a book in 1968. My 2000 edition is a new one by Vintage/Random House.

Things don’t start well for Random House as one opens the book and there in the author’s biography is this in the opening sentence:

‘…including Open Secrets which one the WH Smith Literary Award.’

Some sort of team at Random House can’t tell the difference between its and it’s. It’s lacks its apostrophe at least nine times on pages 29, 129, 130, 138, 139, 141, and 156. Twice on two of those pages. There is nothing to suggest in the text as a whole that this is artifice on the part of the writer. This meant the person who set the copy, the copy-editor, the proofreader all failed this test for eight-year-olds.

p. 52 fourth line from the bottom it would appear that the word ‘his’ has been included instead of the word ‘this’. ‘Adelaide had said that his woman would probably let us use her front room…’ There is no ‘his’ in the story to make sense of this, so the simple fix is to make it ‘this woman’

p.76 One assumes that ‘promposity’ is supposed to be ‘pomposity’.

p.90 One assumes fom the description of the item of clothing in question that ‘kimona’ is supposed to be ‘kimono’ which is elsewhere correctly spelt.

p.178 ‘on’ should be ‘an’, presumably: She had ‘…a long wary face and on oblique resentful expression’.

I have so far sent two queries to Vintage Press to find out how the proofreading of this book was done. Unfortunately I don’t have other editions to hand to compare.

Update years later: Vintage Press replied asking me to give them a list of the mistakes. I asked for a job. I was not offered a job.

Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro

Although academics have made a career from the oeuvre of Alice Munro – AM: Paradox and Parallel; AM: Art and Gender; AM: writing her lives; AM: Mothers and Other Clowns; etc etc etc…. – she does not need to be laboured over. In the case of this book, take short story writer Alan Beard’s five line review. A line for each star. I agree. It’s an especially good collection.

Rather than elaborate unnecessarily on that, I am merely going to note that I more or less found myself on the page in the story ‘Oranges and Apples’. Amongst other things, it’s a story about how a person reads and relates to the rest of the world. I will write it down some time.

Australian short story writers

I am working my way through books of short stories by Australian writers, I will add to this.

John Morrison This Freedom strongly reflects his working class CPA background. The stories evoke a place, a time and a way without quite proselytising…or he is a good enough writer to get away with it if he is. Three stories were enough for me.

Beverley Farmer Home Time strongly reflects her female background. Two stories were enough for me and I thought the second one was awful. Sometimes I feel like women’s business should stay….secret. But she is well regarded, at least insofar as she won the Patrick White award for being under-recognised.

I want to find some great Australian short stories. I’m not even close yet.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia

Oh, I could easily give this five stars. I’d say it’s the most readily accessible of his books that I’ve read thus far. Short stories, no real room to get Off Topic, these are tight and ‘enjoyable’, a word that doesn’t seem suitable for his books in general.

If you are thinking of trying this celebrated Italian author, this really does make sense as the way to start. Dip your toes….into the water of The Wine-Dark Sea.

Sicilian Uncles by Leonardo Sciascia

I’m slowly reading all of Sciascia’s work insofar as it’s available in English.

Like John Berger’s fiction, there’s an urge to put Sciascia’s into sociology or some such category. Absolutely not because it’s a historical fiction, padded out with stuff about How Things Used To Be Done, but because they are political. This could be bad, but it isn’t. Although Berger and Sciascia have hearts and consciences, above all they are not proselytisers but observers. And if your observations are acute enough, there is no need to state the obvious.

In this set of four stories, described on the cover as ‘novellas’ but they are not that to me, the stages for the first three are small town Sicily, Sciascia’s usual backdrop.

But the fourth begins in that way, before diverging, with a poor labourer who decides that joining the army to go to fight with the Fascists in Spain is the way out of his terrible predicament. Perhaps predicament isn’t really the right word when you are simply talking of the normal, dreadful life of such exploited people. Life as a miner was awful enough that the army was a step towards something better – or so he hoped, like so many who were tricked or forced by economic circumstance into doing this. Only to discover, when he got to Spain that the good guys were the ones on the other side. He was fighting against peasants and labourers, he was warring against his own. This is a truly great story – Antimony.

Yes, you should read this. I can’t believe not one of my GR friends has.

 

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.

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance by Matthew Kneale

Looking at the newspaper review of this, I see a variety of interpretations including the obvious one. Nice white people turning life into shit for others, not directly intentionally, but nonetheless doing so.

But it seems to me there is a completely different way of looking at this collection of short stories. They are all about negativity and how that affects behaviour and the course of life. Whilst I’d be the first to distance myself from the delusional ‘think positive’ that has been imposed upon the American population in order to aid the dismantling of their society, at the same time, ‘think negative’ is at least as bad.

The first story sees a nice white family think the worst of the Chinese person hanging out the moment something goes wrong. They think he has stolen from him. Well, he hasn’t, the mother has simply misplaced something. But by then it’s way too late. Chinese person is dead, having been reported to the authorities by the family. If their mindset hadn’t been negative in the first place, none of this would have happened. There is, too, the negativity which sets off the trip in the first place. We don’t go on the right trips….

The last story is about a would-be Palestinian suicide bomber. Only ‘would-be’ because he wimps out, after thinking in a very negative way about what he is doing which leads to a stalled climax. He ends up in the worst place, caught, no doubt with some dreadful punishment to come, and nothing to show for it.

The lawyer who sees his life as a failure – if not for this negativity he wouldn’t have taken the bag of coke that sets him on an ultimately failed path of crime. The arms dealer who thinks he might be able to turn a leaf, but gets all negative about it. The women whose negativity translates into an affair that might ruin her family. The wealthy woman whose negativity sees her taking extremes to expose an employee she suspects of stealing…some small pantry items. The engineer whose life is defined by his negativity towards his fatness. And so on.

Any good games player knows how costly negativity is and this comes through in the book, we see the price paid on each occasion. Winners are not negative. Winners are realists with a streak of positivity. That’s so in games, and I rather think it’s so in life as well.

One critique of Kneale comments that he is acknowledged for his skill in creating ‘voices’. This collection is a time to show that off and indeed, I thought his voices were all eminently convincing.

Even if you don’t like short stories I can see why a reader might like this collection. It was hard to put down and that’s probably a particular compliment for short stories.

Lie of the Land by John Clanchy

Sometimes I feel like writing one of those list books, even though I hate them.

This one would be called A Pile of Wonderful Books You Won’t Read Before You Die. Because Nobody Does.

And John Clanchy would feature. Although I know lots of avid readers in Australia, the only one who even recognises the name isn’t  connected to his writing, it’s because they both worked at the ANU. Sigh.

This is short stories and one episodic piece which is sixty-six pages. It concerns the Murphys and is called wait for it, pun coming: ‘Murphy’s Lore’.

On the dangers of reading.

No, it was the boy worried her. He got too much inside himself. It’s not good all that rummacking about inside your own head, and reading, and him to the library three times this week already, books are all right in their own way there’s value in books her own father would say and him never read one in his whole life, value in books, but you need to get out once in a while.

The boy asks if he can wear one of his father’s detachable collars. The father is reluctantly interrogating him.

‘What? What the devil are you talking about, boy? No, you can’t. We’re not here for collars. We’re here about your lying tongue.’

‘Well, later then?’

‘Look, we’ll have no more of your ‘later’. This is the last time I’ll ask you nicely. Your mother says you’ve been telling lies. Now I want a full list of the lies you’ve been telling. A full list, mind.’

Would they be here forever, then, and miss their tea?….

‘Well,’ his father was pulling at his arm, ‘what lies?’ Have you been telling more of your damn lies? Or not?’

That seemed to provide the best alternative so far. ‘No,’ he lied. He held his father’s gaze.

‘Well, let’s leave the lying for the moment. Now what about all this money you’ve been stealing?’

‘What money?’

They were unlikely to get any tea.

There is a marvellous section about a priest who teaches the boy and his friends at school. Perhaps it isn’t allowed at the moment, writing sympathetically about a priest in the schoolroom, but it is hilarious and who knows, maybe it’s good for the soul to read occasionally about a priest who isn’t evil incarnate.

And how did they know Father Tierney was mad? He had been perfectly normal in their last chemistry lesson.

‘God’s gift to man, boys. Science is God’s gift. I love Science,’ he had roared from the big desk at the front with the bunsen burners and the enamel wash basins set deep into the wood and the silver fountains at the bottom which were supposed to spurt water up at great force to wash out the beakers and jars but only ever dribbled miserably. Terry O’Brien said he could do better lying on his back.

‘What’ll we make today?’ Father Tierney rubbed his hands and stood grinning at them.

‘Well, don’t just sit there like a row of stone puddings. Participate,’ he yelled, ‘participate. This is your chance to share in God’s wonderful bounty.’

Gavin O’Meara flicked through the pages of his exercise book, page after page of notes dictated by Father Tierney when science classes had been held in the library following the last explosion in the laboratories. His hand went up.

‘At last. O’Meara?’

‘Could we see,’ he read, ‘the startling effects of sulphuric acid on one of God’s greatest gifts to man, copper?’

‘What?’

‘Could we see the startling effects…’

‘No, certainly not. I’ve done that with the fourth form. It’s not very interesting. What else? What else?’

‘I’d like to see the hydrolitic process in action, particularly in relation to the long-term effects on zinc,’ said one of the scholarship boys.

‘Five hundred lines,’ shouted Father Tierney.

‘But Father…’

‘Six.’

He waited, staring at the boy, daring him to speak again. Father Tierney loved a gamble.

The rest of this scene I’ve read a dozen times, would happily read it a dozen more – I hope I’ve tempted you to get the book, just to carry on.

Feeling that Clanchy is at his sparkling best in Murphy’s Lore, I shouldn’t be surprised to see him say:

‘Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way.  I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length.  But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.’ Nigel Featherstone’s blog

and

“As a committed reader in the Age of Obesity,” he says, “I’ve cut the contemporary fat novel right out of my diet – too many carbs and too little nutrition at too large a price.”

I don’t really understand why the short story and in particular the novella is such an unpopular form to read. Apparently readers in general either want books that go on forever or things on the internet that are prefaced by ‘3 minute read’. Clanchy suffers from this mass thoughtlessness.

And perhaps from the priorities of his writing relationships too.

‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy

Come on guys. It’s so terribly depressing to look up a book like this on a site like Goodreads and see nobody has read it, reviewed it, or even heard of the author. We need more diversity on the internet. We know that all these sites channel people down narrow paths. Fight that. Start here! NOW!!!