What becomes of the broken-hearted?

Cover: Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted

The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted
Robert Hillman (Text Publishing, 2018)

‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ wrote Theodor Adorno.

For a whole generation after World War Two, few novels were written about the Holocaust. It seemed too soon. Only in the nineteen-eighties did writers feel more confident that they could write about it without throwing the typewriter across the room with a cry of horror and despair. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Thomas Keneally Schindler’s Ark (both published in 1982) showed it was possible to write about the fate of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime with sensitivity as well as a clear artistic purpose. Since then, the Holocaust has become a frequent background for both fiction and movies, including the highly-praised Book Thief by Markus Zusak, another Australian like Keneally. For any writer, the dangers of writing about that period are legion; how easy to stray into treating what happened with mere sentimentality, a lack of the right kind of respect, or – almost worse – to bring that cruelty and horror into the domain of the normal through familiarity.

Robert Hillman ventures into this perilous territory with a new novel, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted. The year is 1968. A farmer, Tom Hope, has lost his wife, Trudy, not once, but twice. She runs away first to be with another man, and then again to join a religious cult. To add injury to injury, she abandons a child with him for a few years – long enough for the farmer and the boy to bond and love each other – and then takes him away again. Bemused and alone again, Tom considers himself a hopeless husband, a hopeless man. At this point, a newcomer opens a bookshop in the local town: Hannah Babel, an immigrant from Hungary. The plot is sprung.

Tom Hope is a simple man. A dab hand with farm equipment, metalwork, or a sick sheep, he is ‘soft,’ reluctant even to shoot a wild dog that is killing his sheep. He has few words, seems ignorant of the wider world, is passive, dull even – just the sort of man a wife would leave, you imagine. Hannah appears a familiar literary character at first. An attractive ‘continental’ (read, ‘Jewish’) woman arriving in a conservative country town: sophisticated, educated, well-dressed, and setting the feathers flying among the men.

The town is full of memorable characters, from the randy butcher to the eternal spinster. There is a flood. There is a wedding. There is a murder. More than one, in fact . . . around six million in total, including Hannah’s first husband and little boy who are killed in Auschwitz. Here, then, is the challenge Hillman sets his characters: how can you bear to live, let alone love, after such tragedy, such loss? How can you have hope? Into this maze, Robert Hillman leads his characters in The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted.

Hillman is a practised and masterful storyteller. The plot is ‘frictionless,’ carrying the reader forward eagerly as the pages are turned. Description of people and places is spare; the narrative pauses only occasionally with a telling detail. This is most obvious with ‘Hometown’. ‘You can’t have a wedding without sausage rolls,’ Hannah is firmly told by Bev from the CWA. Anyone who has lived in the country will recognise Hillman’s affectionate, sharply-drawn evocation of the suffocating yet also comforting familiarity of small town life. Once Tom and Hannah become lovers and marry, they begin to change. The reader’s initial impressions of them are forced to change too.

In Hannah’s presence, Tom is forced to grow up. His relationship with his first wife, Trudy, was in monochrome, either adoration or bleak despair. With Hannah, he learns about love as coming to understand that someone else actually exists in the same way he does, and the extraordinary struggle to accommodate sharing one’s existence with another person. This is profoundly true as he discovers Hannah’s past; she even has to educate him about the existence of the death camps and who the SS were. He learns the tenderness with which to manage her feelings, while at the same time, preserving his own integrity as a person. This becomes a crisis when his little step-son, Peter, runs away from his mother to be with Tom. The thought of having a little boy in the house and developing affection for him is unbearable to Hanna, whose own son was taken from her at Auschwitz to be murdered. She feels there is no choice but to flee.

Hannah, too, changes in Tom’s presence. We learn more about her experiences in the 1940s. It is as though the reader sees a pencil sketch turn to an oil painting with colour and subtle depths. Her initial exotic ‘cosmopolitan’ persona is revealed as a protective outer layer to her character, as she lowers her defences with Tom. He (and the reader) begin to see her complexity and pain and courage to somehow carry on living with the burden of horror she has known.

Among other things, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is a portrait of a good marriage. Being together challenges Hannah and Tom to mature and to become better people. They learn when to compromise and when to not. They learn when to be together and how to be happily apart. Tom can never completely know Hannah’s pain, but he knows its shape and how to respect its presence. In Rilke’s telling phrase, ‘Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.’

In Robert Hillman’s impressive canon, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is possibly the best book he has ever written.

 

Image: Text Publishing

Hatred

Drysdale. Country Child

THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN
Christina Stead (1940)

When was the last time you hated someone? I mean really hated someone, so much so that you would happily see them die? A person who bullied you at school perhaps? Someone who has hurt a child or an animal?

It doesn’t do, of course (or at least to admit it), but within a few pages of starting Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, The Man who loved Children, I felt in myself an unexpected and visceral hatred of both the ‘Man’ and his wife, Sam and Henny Pollitt. Exploring this reaction took me till the end of the book.

The novel is a classic of Australian literature, familiar from its 1966 re-issue with a dust-jacket featuring Russell Drysdale’s Two Children, one of his eerie outback paintings from the 1940s. Unlike the cover image, though, the novel itself is set in the suburbs of Washington DC during the 1930s. Stead had fled Sydney in 1928 and spent much of the remainder of her life in the United States. The origins of the story are avowedly autobiographical, based on Stead’s memories of her overbearing father, a renowned biologist and conservationist (Mount Stead in the Blue Mountains is named after him). What she does with this personal material is extraordinary however.

The Man who loved Children is one of those books you feel you should have read. It’s sat on my bookshelf (or rather the waist-high pallisade of books that lines my bedroom walls) for a good ten years, and last month I decided to tackle it at last. Except that a dutiful ‘tackle’ was not what I found. Stead’s prose thunders and crackles with all the energy and excitement of a storm. How often can you say that a book is truly exhilarating to read?

The story opens with a description of the Pollitt household. In a big ramshackle house live five (or is it six?) children, the eldest being Louie, Sam’s daughter with her first wife (now deceased). When Henny returns home from town, the children crowd around to see what she has bought; she dismisses them with lines that may equally be good- or bad-humoured – ‘What do you mean sneaking up on me like that, are you spying on me like your father?’ – then retreats to her room with a cup of tea.

As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncontrollable around its edge, the thousand storms of her life would rise up before her, thinner illusions on the steam. She did not laugh at the words ‘a storm in a teacup’. Some raucous, cruel words about five cents misspent were as serious in a woman’s life as a debate on war appropriations in Congress; all the civil wars of ten years roared into their smoky words when they shrieked, maddened at each other; all the snakes of hate hissed.

When Sam returns from work each day, there are cheers and picnics and building of tree-houses and speeches about democracy and freedom and the future of mankind . . . but it is Sam who is always in charge; Sam who does the talking and won’t brook contrary opinions; Sam who keeps Louie cleaning and cooking, as the eldest girl in the house.

When the children are in bed, they hear fearsome, screaming arguments between their parents that go on for hours. For weeks on end, Henny does not speak to her husband, but leaves notes for him or uses one of the children as an emissary. These communications are often about money. The spoilt child of a spendthrift father, she keeps secret from Sam that she is always hopelessly in debt. He would earn a reasonable salary as a government scientist, but Henny has no interest or capacity for doing anything with money apart from spending without thought. Debt is easy; you do not have to make any special effort to make it happen. It simply comes about when you do not budget, as Henny discovers. The more she owes, the more terrified she is of Sam finding out. In the end, she is shamelessly borrowing money from anyone she can: family and tradespeople, her children’s teacher, and she even sells her body for favours to a man she despises (and who fathers the youngest of her children). One by one, she disposes of everything of value in the house, and even steals from her son’s savings tin.

It is not the Pollitt’s treatment of each other alone which is fascinatingly repellant; it is how they treat their children. The sensitive Louie, on the verge of adolescence, is beaten by her father when she is recalcitrant. More painful to her, though, is the humiliation she suffers. Henny regularly reminds her step-daughter of how unattractive she is, how clumsy and overweight. Sam openly mocks Louie’s love of literature (her only refuge from family life). He even takes her personal notebook and reads it aloud to the others in a mocking voice.

Jonathan Franzen notes this cruelty in his admiring essay on the book:

Although its prose ranges from good to fabulously good — is lyrical in the true sense, every observation and description bursting with feeling, meaning, subjectivity — and although its plotting is unobtrusively masterly, the book operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes Revolutionary Road look like Everybody Loves Raymond. And, worse yet, can never stop laughing at that violence!

The pitch of the story rises as Sam goes on a long scientific expedition in Asia, loses his position in obscure circumstances, and the family are forced to move out of their home. The Pollitt parents grow ever more hateful to each other and the reader as the stress of their home life increases. Turning the pages is like hearing an orchestra play ever louder and faster, at a higher and higher pitch. It is here that a lesser author could literally have ‘lost the plot’ but Stead stays firmly in control. How tempting to make outright villains of this self-centred pair, like a couple of Dickensian grotesques. Yet this is where she turns the reader’s hatred of them (or this reader anyway) back on us. After all their repellant behaviour towards the children, Stead gives us glimpses of their inner lives, forcing us to acknowledge their three-dimensional, tragic characters, trapped in their own folly. Sam does love Louie, he makes clear, but is incapable of understanding or engaging with her in any way. His idealism about humanity is sincere but abstract. Henny is an appalling, selfish creature, and yet one can sense the maddeningly powerless frustration of being married to ‘the great I am’ as she calls Sam, who has Old Testament attitudes towards women, despite all his claims of modernism.

Louie is the main victim of their errant parenting. Her increasing pain at their humiliation of her reaches a crescendo when she begs to leave home, and Sam tells her she will never leave but stay always to look after him. In a scene which is ghastly and quite believable at the same time, she decides the only solution is to murder her parents. In a dreamlike state she mixes poison into their tea, hesitates, but sees Henny drink and fall dead before she can stop her.

It’s all too easy for everyone to believe the hysterical Henny took her own life. Sam insists again that Louie stay to look after him and the other children, but now she feels free and walks out of the house, never to return. The end of the novel is the beginning of Louie’s life.

The Man who loved Children is a masterpiece, and Christina Stead is rightly (if insufficiently) recognised as one of the greatest Australian writers of the twentieth century alongside Patrick White. Her 1946 novel, Letty Fox, was banned in Australia for over ten years due to its ‘salacious’ centent. I can’t wait to read it.

Image: Russell Drysdale, Country Child.

Bradley on the Beach

Clade: cover

CLADE by James Bradley (Penguin, 2015)

Note: plot disclosures.

Climate change. Genetic engineering. ADHD. How to be a parent of teenagers in the twenty-first century. The mysterious worldwide collapse of bee colonies . . .  Add a discussion about the Apple Watch, and a list of topics covered in James Bradley’s new novel would read like the front page of The Guardian.

Writing a serious novel that draws overtly on contemporary social concerns is a fraught project at the best of times. To begin with, it can date badly within a few years; issues that consume the chattering classes’ attention soon become out-of-date because of inevitable changes in circumstance or attitude. (When did you last discuss George Bernard Shaw or CP Snow over the dinner table?) There is, too, the thumping drum beat of Good Intentions which all too often drowns out any subtler artistic music. Even Ian McEwan did not escape this trap in Solar, his 2010 comic novel set against a background of global warming.

What to make, then, of Clade, James Bradley’s latest novel, his first since The Resurrectionist (2007). The tale opens with Adam, a scientist at an Antarctic research base, calling his wife, Ellie, from the snow-covered shoreline. They are going through the frustrations of conceiving by artificial insemination. Adam is researching climate change. ‘The planet was on a collision course with disaster,’ we are told. ‘In the United States and India, floods covered millions of square kilometres; in Africa and Europe the heat was becoming ever more intense.’

For some reason I’m reminded of Neville Shute’s On the Beach, unforgettably filmed in Melbourne in 1959. With the rest of the world destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, scientist Julian Osborn (played by Fred Astaire) realises that as soon as winds from the northern hemisphere reach the city, the last humans on earth will die too. Ava Gardener and Gregory Peck’s characters fall tragically in love. Others grab what pleasures they can before taking suicide pills as the radiation clouds approach. The film ends with a dead city: shots of an empty, windswept Swanston St, and a plea for nuclear disarmament. I settled down to read Clade, confidently expecting another tale of human love and tragedy set against an apocalyptic backdrop of climate change.

It’s here that something curious happens. Adam and Ellie have a daughter, Summer. With a turn of a page, time leaps forward and she is a troubled teenager. With a group of friends, Summer breaks into luxurious empty apartments to party as fires rage around Sydney. They take drugs and ransack the owners’ possessions and even their memories. Technology has continued to evolve even as the planet is racked by the effects of global warming. Summer slips on a pair of ’lenses’ and has virtual reality access to the apartment owners’ files and home videos. There is another lurch in time. Years later, Adam is in England to track down Summer and the grandson he has never seen, Noah. Just as he finds her in a remote East Anglian cottage (near Randolph Stow’s final home in Harwich, perhaps), a typhoon smashes into England causing catastrophic flooding. Summer disappears and Adam (by now divorced) takes Noah home to safety in Sydney. Once again, the story lifts off and whirls into the future. Little Noah is now an eminent scientist himself, about to make an astonishing discovery . . .

The effect of these repeated temporal disjunctions is disconcerting, as thought Clade were a literary TARDIS, unexpectedly whirling the characters through time and space into yet more unfamiliar situations. It is also strangely exhilarating, even when characters we are just becoming curious about fall into the slipstream of the story: Lijuan, the Chinese schoolgirl, Amir the mysterious beekeeper, and Meera the dangerously attractive teenage friend of Summer. We quickly learn to delight in the unexpected, while asking ourselves the question every author prays will form in the reader’s mind: What is going to happen next?

Another pleasure in Clade is the deft handling of how to describe future developments in technology. How easy this is to get wrong, falling into the trap of over-describing and revelling in self-indulgent sci-fi geekery. Bradley keeps his enthusiasm for the genre on a tight leash so that we barely notice the self-driving cars and virtual reality worlds or ‘vulchies’ into which some the characters escape. In this, it is part of  Bradbury’s deft skill at storytelling which carries the novel forward.

Most of all, though, Clade is a profoundly human story, in common with the great dystopian novels. Orwell’s 1984 is not simply about the dangers of totalitarianism. Camus’s The Plague is not about a disease or even the Nazi occupation. Clade, too, is not a polemic about climate change, profoundly concerning as that is. Like any novel worthy of the name, its true subject is how we respond to each other and the world around us: to our evolving relationships, to the inevitable death of ourselves and those we love, to the numberless baffling perplexities of being human – what Nabokov termed as ‘having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence’. At the ending of Clade – especially after Noah’s extraordinary discovery – there is an unexpected optimism and exuberance in the infinite variety and possibilities of life. The motif of the bee, so prominent on the cover as well as in the text, comes to mind. Ellie recalls seeing fossils of bees over 140 million years old; they had buzzed around the dinosaurs to collect their pollen, adapting to evolve and survive over unimaginable distances of time until the present. That too must be our future if we are to endure.