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

Nabokov’s Blade Runner

br_spinner

‘[Pale Fire] unlocked my understanding of K.’
Ryan Gosling

Spoiler alert
Recent years have seen a succession of thoughtful movies about robots, artificial intelligence, and aliens: Her, Ex Machina, and Under the Skin, among others. As well as concerns about technology, these also explore current anxieties about society and what it means to be human. Also noticeable is the sympathy invited for non-human entities (a strategy cleverly exploited by the plot twist in Ex Machina). In this, they are faithful to the origin of almost all robot-themed stories for the last two centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

‘I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.’

It was not only Frankenstein’s monster which was ‘born’ in 1818, but one model of the Romantic hero: a misunderstood outsider, persecuted and hunted by society for being different. This archetype has lived on in books and movies, evolving to reflect our changing concerns and anxieties.

Blade Runner 2049 must have surprised even avid fans of director, Denis de Villeneuve, by its beauty and depth. The terrible and majestic visions it conjures (reminiscent of the paintings of John Martin) combine with a poignant attention to the emotional life of the characters. First among these is Agent K, a replicant employed by the LAPD to find and destroy any surviving Nexus-8 replicants, which had developed free will and revolted in the 2020s. Ryan Gosling’s muted characterisation perfectly conveys the replicant’s calm, ruthless efficiency at killing.

When all is said and done, Agent K is, after all, just a very smart toaster with good looks, who’s handy with a gun.

Gosling also hints, though, at the curiosity and emotional turmoil which well up inside K after discovering the mysterious ‘6.10.21’ inscription which sets the plot in train. As a Nexus-9 replicant, K is designed to be obedient and truthful; increasingly, though, he learns to lie and disobey, as though experience and memory inevitably lead to development of free will and imagination, despite his programming.  Like the protagonist, K, in Kafka’s The Castle, Gosling’s character is alone and treated with disdain in an indifferent, broken world. LA in 2049 has little civil framework and seems dominated by a technology corporation expert in AI and contemptuous of the law (does that sound familiar?).

As the Shelleys and others recognised 200 hundred years ago, the new industrial capitalist economy would break down existing social relationships and drive people into isolation as individual workers and consumers. To recognise and revolt against this is to be condemned as an outsider: a Romantic tragic hero, like Frankenstein’s monster and all his children, like Agent K.

Blade Runner 2049 is not shy about acknowledging this literary and cultural context which contributes to its richness. The most prominent – insistent – presence in the movie, though, is Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant, perplexing 1962 follow-up to Lolita: the novel Pale Fire. Lines from the work are twice used in a ‘Post-Trauma Baseline Test’ on K, and he has a copy of the novel at home. His virtual girlfriend, Joi, offers to read it to him, but he says, ‘no, you hate that book,’ showing that they have discussed it before.

Pale Fire has variously been called, ‘a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel’ (New Republic), and ‘the great gay comic novel’ (Edmund White in the TLS). The novel purports to be the critical edition of a 999-line poem by John Shade, with a copious critical apparatus by his supposed friend, Charles Kinbote. The poem concerns Shade’s drowned daughter, time, and death, but Kinbote’s notes soon reveal him as a quite unreliable, mad fantasist, interpreting the entire poem as being about him and his secret life as the exiled king of a non-existent Ruritanian kingdom. It is perplexing, delightful, funny and moving all at the same time.


The parallels between Blade Runner 2049 and Pale Fire run deep, beyond the overt references, to enrich our understanding of the movie.

Worlds within worlds
In 2049, Agent K is an artificial being (with the same initial as Kinbote). As a replicant being, he seems defined by the corporation which created him. After discovering the mysterious inscription which matches a childhood memory, though, he begins to imagine himself within an alternative narrative: that he is actually the secret child of Deckard and Rachel. He then finds this is not true: that he was given the DNA and memories of their daughter, Ana, as a way of hiding her existence. By the end, we are left with the question of whether K was actually programmed to find Ana, not operating under free will after all?

In Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, is published within a critical apparatus by scholar, Charles Kinbote. The reader knows these are actually both characters in a novel, each with their own conflicting fictional world. Kinbote’s mad reveries are actually no more ‘real,’ then, than Shade’s moving reflections on death and the imagination. A convincing case has been made that Shade is intended by the author to be the invention of Kinbote. An equally convincing case can be made that Shade playfully invented Kinbote, and is not even dead when the work is published. Nabokov himself stayed mum on the topic, just as the films’ makers cannot be drawn on whether Deckard is a replicant.

Pale Fire also has a little-known place in the history of computer science. The novel was well-known to Ted Nelson, renowned inventor of hypertext and one of the fathers of the World Wide Web. Working at Brown University in 1969, he recognised Pale Fire as a revolutionary literary metafiction and received permission from Nabokov’s publisher to create an electronic version, to demonstrate the possibilities of a hypertext document.

 

Agent K’s pale fire
‘The moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun,’ wrote Shakespeare in Timon of Athens – the source of Nabokov’s title. He uses this quotation to muse on whether memories and imagination can be as ‘true’ as actual events. In Blade Runner 2049, a major theme is whether a replicant with ‘memories,’ experience, emotions, and free will – a pale reflection of a human – can be as real as natural-born person. If so, we bear them the same responsibility as a god to its creations, as a parent to its children.

 

Blade Runner 2049 - eyeCheck the eyes
Eyes – the ‘windows of the soul’ to the ancient Romans – are a dominant motif in the Blade Runner movies. In both, examining the eye is a way of identifying a replicant. Eyes and sight are important in Pale Fire too. In the opening lines, we read:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit
Or, with a silent shiver, order it, Whatever in my field of vision dwelt –
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte Stilettos of a frozen stillicide –
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

There are 15 references to eyes in Pale Fire, principally as a way of recording memories or conjuring imagined or remembered scenes. Ridley Scott explains this in an interview: ‘The eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot.’

 

The secret letters
When K examines DNA records to search for Deckard and Rachel’s child, he finds two identical people: a dead female and a male. (This is a rare scene in the movie that doesn’t work: he identifies the matching records by supposedly scanning millions of GATC sequences with his bare eyes. It would also mean the two people would look identical, which K and Ana do not.) Nevertheless, this typographic discovery is a revelation to K: he realises that the child existed, is a male, and still alive. He discovers otherwise later, but this typographic sequence starts him on the trail that leads to Ana.

In Pale Fire, Shade recounts a vision he saw while having a heart attack:

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set:
And blood black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem, And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark,  tall white fountain played.

This is the exact wording chosen by the scriptwriters for K’s post-mission test on K in Blade Runner 2049. Coming across another person’s near-death experience which also mentions ‘a tall white fountain,’ Shade seizes this as evidence of an after-life, that his daughter may still exist after death. Soon, though, he discovers it was a cruel misprint – the word was ‘mountain’ not ‘fountain’.

This mistake was the point, Shade realises: that he is somehow being played with, stumbling through life in search of patterns. He has a revelation that he is part of ‘a game of worlds promoting pawns/ To ivory unicorns.’ In the original Blade Runner, of course, a much-discussed topic is the unicorn dreamed of by Deckard, and then seen as an origami figure left by his colleague, Gaff in the final scene, suggesting that Deckard may be replicant himself. In Blade Runner 2049, K’s DNA sequence of GATC similarly contains misleading typography which inspires, disappoints, and finally takes him nearer the truth.

br_lab

 

Snow falling on replicants
Snow is a persistent motif in Blade Runner 2049. Joi, K’s AI companion, holds out her hand to catch snowflakes, but sees them pass through her hologram body. Later, Ana (Deckard’s daughter) creates a virtual mini snow-storm which falls just over her, saying, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ to her father. What neither of them know is that K is dying outside at that moment, lying supine while real snow falls on him. He has a faint smile on his lips, happy that he has given his own life to save Deckard and reunite him with his daughter – proving to himself that he is not just a machine but a living thing. At this moment, the ‘Tears in the rain’ music from the original Blade Runner plays. It inexorably reminds us of replicant Ray Batty’s dying words after saving Deckard’s life 30 years before: ‘I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’

In Pale Fire, snow is also mentioned a total of five times, evoking ‘that crystal land’ of his imagination where all things might be possible, where his dead daughter might still be alive. As in the movie, Nabokov’s novel ends in a death which is accepted and valued as a necessary part of life; the poem is ‘completed’ by an absent 1000th line, missing because the poet has been shot at that moment.

br_snow

Father and daughters
Despite the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049 and the literary pyrotechnics of Pale Fire, the emotional power of both movie and novel is drawn from their quiet heart: a father’s love and loss of a daughter.

After the death of Rachel in childbirth, Deckard lives in hiding with their daughter, Ana, first-born of a replicant. While she is still young, he gives her up and deliberately loses contact as a way of saving her life if he is ever hunted down. As far as Deckard knows, he will never see again the only person he loves – sacrificing his feelings for her sake. The climax of Blade Runner 2049 is their reunion, brought about by K, who has willingly sacrificed his own life for their sake.

In Pale Fire, John Shade has lost his daughter – awkward, unhappy Hazel – to suicide or an accident. He is riven by grief, yearning to be reunited with her. The entire poem is a meditation on how this might happen, dabbling and rejecting absurd spiritualism, and finally realising that, while accepting her death, they can be together through the power of memory, imagination, and art which transcend time.

For Deckard, Ana, and Agent K – and for us as the audience – this is as good as it gets, and that is good enough. As John Shade writes:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

br_joi

A girl in amber

Eve Cohen

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE
 Orhan Pamuk (2008)

Once upon a time, a young peasant girl fell in love with a handsome prince . . .

She thought about him all day long and dreamed of him at night. When he rode through the village with his retinue, she felt sick with yearning. One day, she was walking by a bridge as he rode across it, his long hair flying in the wind. She saw him spit into the river as he passed by, so she ran downstream, waded into the water and caught the phlegm in her hands. She brought it to her lips. There could be no greater happiness. This was love, she thought, closing her eyes in bliss.

I was reminded of this Japanese folk story while reading The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Pamuk’s novel was published in translation in 2010, but only this year, early in 2017, did I reach it down from the bookcase. (I never read books when they first appear, avoiding the chatter of reviews and conversations. Reading a novel, of all things, is a solitary affair.)

Pamuk is a natural-born storyteller. The novel opens with the narrator, Kemal, describing a passionate afternoon in bed with his lover, Füsun.

In that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to have been released from gravity and time.

Kemal was 30, the heir to an Istanbul business fortune. He would soon be engaged to Sibel, an ambassador’s daughter who, ‘according to everyone, was the perfect match.’ Füsun was a teenager, a distant, poor relation. How could anyone not read on, to discover what happens next?

Kemal happily imagines that he can keep both relationships going in parallel. Sibel is an elegant woman from the same ‘westernised’ upper class of Istanbul society as himself. Her family proudly says she has ‘studied at the Sorbonne,’ by which they mean, she has spent some time in Paris shopping, having affairs, and attending a few public lectures. Füsun is also beautiful and thoughtful, although barely 18 and the daughter of a seamstress. The closest she has been to Paris is working in the pretentious Şanzelize Boutique which sells fake european clothes.

Kemal cannot get Füsun out of his head. He allows the engagement to Sibel to fall apart, but then finds that Füsun has fled, distraught at his dishonesty. He finally tracks her down, living with her parents. He starts to visit, acting the benevolent, rich relation. Soon he is at their door regularly, tolerating their humble home as the price of being able to gaze on Füsun. Sometimes she smiles at him. The days become weeks. The weeks become months.

Kemal neglects his business. He loses touch with old friends and gives up visiting fashionable restaurants and nightclubs. In the years that follow Turkey is riven by political turmoil. There is a military takeover. Bombs and gun battles become regular occurrences. Kemal hardly notices, however, as he pursues his obsessive love. When not with Füsun, he passes the time being driven around Istanbul by his faithful chauffeur, observing moodily through the windows of the old Chevrolet how the city is changing . The ancient quarters of Istanbul are steadily being demolished and replaced by concrete apartment blocks. Kemal realises he is happiest with Füsun’s family, surrounded by the tasteless ornaments of their crowded living room, cosily watching television together.

Füsun finally relents and agrees to marry Kemal, but this decision only triggers a tragic death that seems inevitable. He still cannot let go of his obsession with her, buying the family’s house and turning it into a museum dedicated to Füsun. This shrine contains objects which remind him of her, and are infused with emotion. The actual cinema tickets from when they saw a movie together. Her shoe and a little white sock, carefully labelled and lit in a cabinet like prehistoric relics. The stub of a  cigarette once held between her lips. There is even the door knob from Füsun’s childhood bedroom, sacred because she touched it so many times with her hand. This is the eponymous museum where Kemal now approaches the novelist, ‘Orhan Pamuk,’ and asks him to write his story.

The story is as seductive as Füsun, though we are never actually told what she looks like. As with the city of Istanbul, she is evoked rather than described. The novel has also been criticised for long passages where ‘nothing happens,’ for its repetition and length. These are integral to Pamuk’s hypnotic, seductive style, however. They are classic aspects of the oral storytelling mode which he draws on, circling round and round his love for Füsun until the awful conclusion. We relax and let his voice carry us forward, as though sitting with author, sipping raki on a balcony as the Bosphorus flows past.

Kemal cannot move forward with his life, yet cannot go back in time either. Like all of us, he is cursed with memory. He cannot relinquish his love of Füsun which he feels the only thing of worth in his life. (At his lowest ebb, he lies in bed, licking the door knob, which ends up in the museum, because she has touched it countless times.) The Museum of Innocence is about Turkey too, tugged between european and middle-eastern cultures. (The recent history of the country makes the novel even more poignant in this regard.) It’s about Istanbul and its inhabitants, aspiring to be modern and cosmopolitan, yet unable to let go of old ways which feel more familiar and authentic. It’s about how men and women regard each other. Most of all, the novel is about how can we live with the knowledge that each treasured moment is doomed to become the past? For Kemal, the everyday clutter of life seals his memories in amber – saving these objects becomes a way to cling on to past happiness.

Pamuk’s wry protagonist can seem at times like the last Romantic hero. He can equally be seen as a sad, pathetic fool who has wasted his life (yet what else was Goethe’s Werther?) Kemal also has much in common with Nabokov’s Humbert in Lolita – a charming, self-deprecating narrator who invites sympathy for his obsessive love. Like Humbert, Kemal’s charm distracts the reader from his actual treatment of the woman he idolises. Like Humbert with Lolita, Kemal projects his emotional obsession onto Füsun without consideration of what she actually feels or thinks or wants herself. Both women are denied any possibility of independent being by the protagonists until the very end. In Füsun’s case, she can only escape Kemal and declare independence by her own death. Through his museum, Kemal even attempts to control her after she is dead, packing it with his memories alone.

Iris Murdoch once wrote that love is the remarkable discovery that another person actually exists beside oneself. If this is love – unlike the one-sided passion of the Japanese folk tale – then Kemal remains a stranger to it until the end. This is the real tragedy at the heart of the novel.

In a curious twist of fiction and fact, Pahuk has bought a house in Istanbul and turned it into the Museum of Memory of the novel. In 2014, it won the European Museum of the Year Award.

Image: Photograph of Eve Cohen

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.

Living on the edge

Image: mvs

SOLO FACES
 James Salter (1979)

Have you read James Salter?

If the answer is no, then I envy you, as one envies somebody about to visit Paris or Istanbul the first time. Salter’s novels and short stories are treasures to explore. They delight, but can also chill your blood.

Now in his vigorous eighties, Salter was a classmates of Jack Kerouac at school. It’s hard to imagine a more different path in life to the one taken by the author of On the Road. Salter was educated at West Point military academy, becoming an officer in the US Air Force. As a fighter pilot, he flew over 100 combat missions in Korea. In his thirties, he abruptly quit this career to become a full-time writer. His novels and stories are disciplined, exquisitely-assembled artifacts, each with a throbbing pulse of emotion within that can make you wince in sympathy or horror (and frequently both). There is hardly a work by Salter that doesn’t leave me feeling disturbed when I finished reading it. Solo Faces is no exception.

Vernon Rand, the protagonist, lives in California where he drifts from job to job and – woman to woman – until he meets an old climbing friend, Cabot. The meeting inspires him to travel to the French Alps to climb the Dru, a notoriously difficult and dangerous ascent. He and Cabot climb it together, one of them almost dying in the process. They have different personalities and backgrounds, but both are leaders, although Rand prefers to climb alone. After their triumph, Cabot travels on. Rand meanwhile stays on in Chamonix, quietly and passionately conquering one peak after another, becoming a local legend. He’s not a particularly good climber, he insists; it is something that comes from within, a matter of will. When two Italians are stranded on a ledge high on the Dru for days, he heroically leads a team up the ice-covered mountain to rescue them. Rand becomes famous, celebrated in the French media and feted at parties in Paris. Tall and modest, with a boyish grin, you could imagine him being played in a movie by Sam Shepard, circa 1975.

 For two hundred years, France had held the idea of the noble savage, simple, true. Unexpectedly he had appeared. His image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.

Rand admits to enjoying the attention and envy that fame brings him, and is simultaneously disgusted with himself doing so. At this point, he hears that Cabot has had a terrible accident while climbing in Wyoming. Rand returns to the US to visit his friend, leading to the horrific scene which forms the climax of the novel.

Solo Faces could be used as a tutorial in the technique of how to write fiction well. Most striking is the parsimony of his descriptions and characterisation. One word more would be excessive. One word less, inadequate. Salter describes Rand at the beach with a girlfriend and her son:

Seen picking their way down the slope from the highway to the beach, half-naked, towels in their hands, they seemed to be a family. As they drew closer, it was even more interesting. She already had a stiffness and hesitation that are part of middle age. Her attention was entirely on her feet. Only the humorous, graceful movements of her hands and the kerchief around her head made her seem youthful.

The descriptions of climbing naturally drew most attention in reviews, and were based on Salter’s own experience. ‘One of the few novels I have read which captures the genuine feel of climbing,’ wrote Al Alvarez.

 They were about halfway. The glacier had become very small. It seemed he was somewhere – he had felt this many times before – where a terrible event, some suspension of physical law might take place, and everything he knew, was sure of, hoped to be, in one anarchic moment would dissolve. He saw himself falling.
       This feeling alternated with one of confidence. A layer of frailty had been stripped away and a stronger, more spiritual being remained. He almost forgot where he was or what he had given himself to. His eye wandered god-like over the silent peaks.

But Solo Faces is not a novel about climbing. It’s about obsession. It’s about the pursuit of bliss, of the feeling that life is worth living. It’s about what it is to be a man or a woman. At times, the descriptions of climbing liken it to a soldier facing an enemy; at times, Rand describes it as being like a lover embracing and charming the mountains. At other times, it seems more of a titanic struggle: ‘He was not merely making an ascent. He was clinging to the back of this monster, He had his teeth in the great beast.’

Rand’s tragedy is that his obsession with climbing consumes his life. It is like an addiction. It becomes the only thing which gives him satisfaction. However, this means that he doesn’t find pleasure in any other things he does. Its drains value from everything else in life around him, and so spoils it. This is most evident in his relationships. In this short novel, apart from Cabot and Rand (both aptly named), there is a remarkable procession of friends, fellow climbers, and especially women, who appear and then disappear, never to be seen again. In the opening scene, Rand is working high up on the roof of the church, doing repairs. The title of the sermon advertised outside the church door is ‘God and sexuality’, and this can be read this as signalling the dominating themes of the book. Rand is effortlessly attractive to women, something he simply accepts. He drifts lazily from one woman to another in the novel without deceit. ‘You make love like someone in a novel,’ one woman tells him admiringly. ‘Whatever it is,’ she tells a friend, ‘he has it despite himself.’ The friend is also a former lover of Rand’s. ‘I think it’s mainly an ability to look good in old clothes,’ she replies drily. When yet another lover falls pregnant, though, he immediately tells her that regretfully he cannot be a father. That is the end of the conversation for him. In Paris, making love almost replaces climbing for him as an obsession. It is still a solo occupation for him, however, described in one ghastly image:

This love was the act of one person, it was not shared. He was like a man on a boat on a wide lake, a perfectly still lake at dawn. There was no sound except that of oars in the oarlocks, creaking, creaking, a man alone in a boat that slowly begins to shudder, to cry.

For Rand, ‘One woman is like another. Two are like another two. Once you begin there is no end.’

Rand has no illusions about himself though, and his disgust with himself deepens. Only at the end, weary after a final shocking encounter with Cabot, is there a hint of reconciliation with the richness of life, of an existence beyond climbing. Some years later, we meet Rand in California again. In the novel’s final scene, he is with another woman, Paula, a schoolteacher. She tells him that her former husband has sworn off alcohol, and begged her to return to him. She is considering it. This time, though, Rand ‘did not want to live again anything he had already lived. He did not want it all repeated.’ When Paula replies that she is unsure about him, that what she says seems to go into ‘empty air,’ he replies, ‘Well, what you have to do is hold on, don’t get scared.’

This is Rand’s way of asking her to stay, a hint that he’s learned from climbing at last, how to live in the world with another person. It is perhaps the beginning of love.

True love

Image

Do you remember the cartoons on TV when you were a child? In those surreal tales, Scooby-Doo, Tom, Jerry, or Roadrunner would sometimes be hit by a cannonball. It passed through their bodies, leaving only a neat circular hole which they looked at in comic dismay.

That’s how grief feels. A great hole punched through your body –  through your life – that makes you want to curl up on the ground, weeping and whispering the lost one’s name. Nobody said it would be dignified. We don’t pass through neat stages of grief either, as was once thought, but – at best – we somehow learn to live with it, in time.

Robert Hillman’s new novel, Joyful (Text Publishing) explores this terrain of love and loss with a characteristic blend of lightness and dark enquiry. Antiquarian bookseller, Leon Joyce, mourns the early death of his wife, Tess. Leon is no ordinary man, however, nor is their relationship conventional. Leon is, he tells us, quite uninterested in sex. Tess, on the other hand, is enthusiastically promiscuous. They come to an arrangement. One day a week she can do as she wishes with no questions asked.

When Tess dies, Leon discovers that she had a secret, slavish passion for a bear-like Polish poet, Daniel. She had installed Daniel in one of Leon’s country properties and visited him every Sunday. Driven almost mad with grief, Leon sets off to Yackandandah, to repossess the house, and to jealously reclaim her memory – to restore the beautiful, perfect Tess he remembered.

Tragedy and comedy are finely and sensitively balanced in the story of Leon and the people he encounters. There are a number of sub-plots which echo the despairing extravagance of Leon’s sorrow. The most moving and memorable of these concerns Professor Delli who is also driven mad by grief for a while following the death of both his children. Delli empties his house onto the street and ends up standing naked in the rain by a country road, like Lear on ‘the blasted heath’. He threatens to kill his wife, Daanya, and calls her by new obscenities every day. Daanya only responds with understanding and love, stroking his arm and saying gently, ‘poor Delli’ until he finally recovers.

In contrast, Leon tries to literally ‘buy’ others’ memories of Tess, so that only his own are left. He almost destroys the house, carving letters to her into every wooden surface of the house until it is covered, then attempting to set it on fire. Finally realising he can never regain the idealised Tess, he abruptly proposes to Susie, the assistant in his bookshop, who agrees to move in with him.

This is no romantic, healing conclusion. Leon is a monster of self-pity. After losing Tess, kept like a beautiful mannequin as the object of his obsession, he finally releases her memory only to attach his needy tentacles to poor Susie who feels sorry for him. Iris Murdoch defined love as ‘the extremely difficult realisation that someone other than yourself is real’. To love, then, is to realise and cherish that other existence in itself, with no reference to oneself. This is a discovery that the repellant Leon ultimately fails to make, remaining a prisoner to his own obsessive needs. In her own gaily promiscuous way, Tess was actually more faithful to him.

It must be said that the novel is sometimes tangled by levels of detail which ‘over egg’ the story: for example, the academic researcher who conveniently appears on Leon’s doorstep with the sole function of leaving copies of his great-aunt’s diary behind, which carries another echoing sub-plot.  Overall, though, Joyful is an idiosyncratic and imaginative novel which will move anyone who reads it .

Narrow bed. Wide desk.

Three-Sisters VARUNA Pronounced: Var-oon-a. Noun. Vedic god of the ocean and of the law.
Place: Creative writing retreat in Katoomba, NSW.

Set in a large garden, beside a nature reserve perched on the edge of the Katoomba escarpment, sits Varuna, the Writers’ Centre.

It is a unique and delightful place to stay and work. The house was designed in the 1930s in a mixture of Art Deco and comfortably domestic architectural styles. Built for writer, Eleanor Dark and her husband Eric, the local GP, it was generously gifted to the Australian people by their son, Mick, through the Eleanor Dark Foundation. Now in his eighties, Mick still visits the house regularly to sit and talk with the writers in residence. I recently spent a week at Varuna and chatted with Mick for an hour, as scores of others must have done over the years.

‘Quiet – Writers at Work’ says a sign at the front of the property. And it is indeed silent as a monastery all day. Jancis and Vera, the helpful staff who manage the house, work in a nearby weatherboard office, formerly the garage and garden shed. A cook tiptoes in once a day to prepare a dinner and leave supplies. For one week at least, I and my companions – Andrew, Martine, Taryn, and Alison – do not have to lift a finger in domestic effort. We live like the Crawleys of Downton.

There are no excuses therefore. The first curse of the writer, prevarication, is removed and I have no choice but to begin writing. The second curse is neutralised by removing the dongle from my laptop. No Internet means no checking emails. No googling for ‘research’ of dubious relevance. No ‘while-I’m-online-I’ll-just-check-Facebook’.

While the others have a bedroom and study upstairs, I sleep in the narrow Maid’s Room next to the kitchen. (There is no narrow maid, I should explain.) The room feels appropriately like a hermit’s cell. It also means I have exclusive use of Eleanor Dark’s writing cottage in the garden.

From 10 in the morning till the early hours of the following day, I sit at my wide desk alone, unconstrained by time or other distraction, pausing only to dine and catch up with the others for an hour. Time is no longer measured by the hour in carefully monitored allocations, but simply flows and carries me with it. The clock seems to move at my pace and no one else’s.

After a week, I have done more writing than in the preceding three months. I have a full first draft of a novel. Thank you , Varuna. We shall meet again . . .

 

Lolita’s Jacket

 

‘HOW DID THEY EVER MAKE A MOVIE OF LOLITA?’ asked the publicity for Kubrick’s 1962 movie adaptation The challenge for publishers has been can you ever illustrate the jacket of a novel about paedophilia?

I’ve been writing a review of Brian Boyd’s Stalking Nabokov recently. It took me back to when I spent two whole years relentlessly taking Lolita apart, word by word, before putting it back together in different ways. I felt like one of those guys who lovingly, obsessively takes his motorbike to pieces, lays out out all the components neatly, checks and cleans them, then reconstructs the bike again.

For all the fame (and notoriety) of the novel and film versions, one fact seems curiously misunderstood: the relative ages of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. When they meet he is only 37, not the ageing, avuncular figure he assumes to the reader. And Lolita? She is not a long-legged 17 year-old – as she appears in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 movie (above). She is not even a precocious 15 year-old whom Humbert can tell himself is  ‘barely illegal’.

Lolita is twelve.

This is the most important and shocking fact in Nabokov’s novel. Lolita (‘Dolores on the dotted line’) is just a year 7 student when she meets Humbert, the stepfather who drugs, kidnaps, rapes, and repeatedly abuses her for years.

Lolita was a succès de scandale and remains one of the bestselling novel of all time (50 million copies since publication). Over half a century later, it remains a terrifying and appalling story as well as a work-of-art of genius. Despite my love for it as a novel, the emotional brutality described still turns the blood cold, and this, of course, is part of the high risk and deadly serious game Nabokov plays with his reader.

Jacket design is a crucial element in marketing fiction.

The cover is part of a book’s ‘body language’. It tells the potential purchaser what type of book to expect, hints at genre, winks to indicate the great read they’re going to have, and seduces as an attractive, desirable commodity to have around the house. The challenge for publishers of Lolita has been to fulfill these functions while respecting the sensitivity of the subject matter. Looking back over the history of the jacket designs, three very different approaches can be seen.

Soft porn

It is hard to believe the designers of these jackets ever read the novel. Lolita is presented as barely-clothed or naked – a frankly lubricious ‘come on’ to exploit the book’s reputation as a saucy read among readers who would not normally buy a literary novel. Perhaps these editions made a few converts, but regardless, their design ignored Lolita’s age and vulnerability – ultimately insulting the text, the subject matter, and the reader.

Complicity

A second group of Lolita jackets suggest her youth more accurately, but in a way that is more disturbing. The child portrayed has part of her body exposed, or shows her legs in a short skirt, being pawed by man. The  crude literalism of the design also invites the reader to be complicit in viewing little Dolores Haze as a sexual object. This approach reflects the concern which critic Lionel Trilling had about the novel, when praising it on publication: ‘We find ourselves the more shocked when we realise that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents … we have been seduced into conniving in the violation.’

Challenging the reader

A final group of jacket designs get it right, respecting the subject matter – the abuse of a child – while challenging readers to respond to the novel as a work-of-art, recognising and negotiating Humbert’s attempt to seduce them through his prose. On these covers, Lolita’s face stares out, beautiful but clearly still a child. Her legs are shown, but they are a young girl’s knock-kneed legs, rendered as vulnerable rather than suggestive.

This is the Lolita we come to recognise in the novel: the lonely, orphaned child who weeps at night, then creeps into her abuser’s bed because, as Humbert says:

‘You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.’ 

Bereft

Parsimony is not a word often used to describe a novel. For Chris Womersley’s Bereft (2010), I mean it as praise indeed.

Bereft tells the story of solder, Quinn Walker, returning from the First World War to the small NSW town where he grew up. Ten years earlier he had fled the town after witnessing a terrible crime for which he was blamed. The Australian bush becomes an almost surreal landscape in the novel. It is peopled by wandering figures traumatised by the horrific losses of the War and ravaged by the Spanish Flu ’plague’ of 1919. Quinn’s search for justice, together with the wild orphan-child, Sarah, is a compelling, beautifully-written tale that hardly puts a foot wrong.

I’m a firm believer in the Taoist principle of writing: that what you leave out is as important as what you leave in, and requires just as much thought. Wormesley is a master at this. It’s not simply that ‘less is more’. Rather, to have written more would have been excessive and ‘clogged’ the story; to have written less would have made it fail and fall out of the sky. He writes just the right amount to make the novel sufficient in itself, to make it run like a lean machine – and this parsimony in storytelling is a difficult thing to achieve.

Contemporary Australian novels contain plenty of examples of authors slipping up in this way at times (and I don’t exclude myself).

    • The over-refined, self-conscious passage which hold up the action while it shows off – like an irritating, costumed street-performer blocking the pavement when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.
  • Elegant variations: those pointless, fey descriptions that the author wasn’t ruthless enough to delete and ‘kill their darlings’.
  • Excessive use of simile, which becomes like a tic (‘like …like …like’).
  • The needless ‘literary’ words which send the reader to the dictionary (blame Nabokov.) I personally never want to read the word ‘palimpsest’ in a novel again.
  • The sagging middle, where the plot seems to dither around to fill pages after a dramatic start. Or, more commonly, what Zadie Smith terms the ‘staring-out-to-sea’ ending: the protagonist contemplates some pretty landscape while mulling (in a somewhat self-satisfed way) over the wisdom they have gained in the course of the novel.

Few writers won’t recognise these sins in their own work at some time. Wormesley is an experienced journalist and editor, and this will have helped the economy of his prose (yet when was that background alone ever a guarantee of good fiction-writing?). He has the instinct, too, of a natural storyteller who understands exactly how much to reveal to the reader, when, in what order, and without giving too much – or too little – detail.

Bereft, like all well-written novels, moves swiftly down the runway from the first page, like a beautifully-designed aircraft. It lifts effortlessly into the air, becomes weightless, and takes the willing reader wherever the author wants to fly.

The great dark pillar of cloud rises high in the air then arches sickeningly across the sky – a satanic arm about to scoop up the world in a terrible embrace.

It seems higher and more menacing by the second, as though every childhood fear he’s ever had are all now made visible and noxiously palpable. Between the stormclouds and the earth twist whirling, intersecting cones of wind and hail and rain, persecuting the tiny figures who crawl across the craggy ground in the distance, bowed against the wind but still pushing one step out in front of the other. The scene is full of dread and awe, of the overpowering force of nature, yet it also evokes the sheer will of humanity, enduring in the midst of this vortex of chaos.

Turner moves from the window where he has been feverishly drawing this scene on the back of a letter. He calls out to the young boy playing with a cat by the fireside.

 ‘Hawkey, Hawkey, come here! Never mind puss, come and look at this thunderstorm. Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it sublime?’

It is 1810. Turner is thirty-five years old and staying at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, the home of his friend Walter Fawkes.

‘Shall I fetch you a block of drawing paper, Uncle?’ asks his host’s son, Hawkesworth.

‘Not at all, Hawkey, this will do fine.’ He scribbles arrows and notes on the sketch, describing effects of massing and colour for use later.

‘I do like thunder and lightning, Uncle, don’t you?’

‘Nothing like it in the world,’ says Turner, smiling at the boy. ‘There Hawkey,’ he goes on, holding out the crumpled letter covered in scribbles, ‘in two years you will see this again and call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps.’

_______________________

An excerpt from Turner’s Paintbox.