Saturday, 24 November 2018

Clive James -- Unreliable Memoirs

Clive James has in recent years been serialising his struggles with leukaemia in a series he calls ‘Reports of My Death’, which such headlines as ‘My new wheelchair is a thing of beauty and precision’. This is Clive James to a T: beautiful phrasing, unending humour, and the temerity to put himself at the centre of every phase of his life, and assume that interest will follow. It does, because his sentences are that good. The Preface of Unreliable Memoirs, for example, opens with this beautifully balanced pair: ‘Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel’ (1). The first chapter, ‘The Kid from Kogarah’ introduces the voice of the main character in this novel, the egotistical man writing the memoir: ‘I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me’ (3).
See the source imageWhat follows in this first book of James’ memoirs (there were three initially, and two more in recent years) is the story of his growing up in Sydney, his experience at school and university, his long-suffering mother, early love affairs, national service, and departure for England. Here is James describing his first days at Sydney University, as a ‘man of the world’:
‘I had turned up in my school blazer, but in order to indicate that I was a man of parts I had pinned my Presbyterian Fellowship badge to the lapel, alongside the Boy’s Brigade badge in my buttonhole. A brown briefcase contained sandwiches. My haircut looked like an aircraft carrier for flies’ (130).
The style in uniquely James, and the book therefore reads like one extended newspaper column of cleverness and self-deprecating humour. I loved his description of his first sexual encounter, for example, which ends by undermining the integrity of the tale: ‘Lilith Talbot is among my fondest memories. And you can stop thinking that she’s a figment of my imagination. Of course she is’ (156).
For many writers, quoting lines like these would put the reader in danger of finding that the reviewer has picked out the best lines and the book is therefore a disappointment (like watching a film trailer that is literally funnier than the film itself). In Clive James’ hands, however, there is much more than this to enjoy. Some of the attitudes may have dated and there is at least one squeamish scene involving a young woman and a lot of randy boys – but, in the main, the story of growing up in Sydney in the 1950s is done very well and the book is a joy to revisit. The last few pages representing the 40 year-old remembering his youth could be clich├ęd but manage poignancy; the portrait of his mother on the quay as he sails away forever is a lesson in dignified restraint for one so ordinarily extravagant. So there it is: Unreliable Memoirs – a thing of beauty and precision.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

First Person

All of Richard Flanagan’s novels are different. Death of a River Guide takes a tour through a drowning man’s Tasmanian family history; Gould’s Book of Fish is Flanagan’s masterpiece – a historical tale of a convict forger and fantasist. Then there was Wanting set in Dickens’ London and Bass Strait; the just-ahead-of-its-time tale of political manipulation in the age of terrorism –The Unknown Terrorist; and finally a well-deserved Booker winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North where torture on the Thai-Burma death railway is set against the present life of Dorrigo Evans. The earlier novels are more obviously ‘literary’ (I haven't read The Sound of One Hand Clapping but its description sounds poetic). Flanagan seems adept at a more popular mode in Terrorist and Deep North (or, at least, a more straightforward one). If  Carey is Australian progressive rock; and Winton is Australian folk; then Richard Flanagan is  a one-man Supergroup, comfortable enough in his skin to shed it from time to time.

               First Person – given this characterisation – is thus both a surprise and not a surprise.  The story is a fictitious version of events that Flanagan went through, it seems, while writing Death of a River Guide; struggling to make ends meet; “compromising” as a writer by ghosting a memoir about an Australian crook, 1980s-style. As Kif Kehlmann invents a life for a chameleon who seems as soulless as the age (‘Seigfried Heidi’), he feels both threatened and invaded, as if the darkness within Heidi is creeping in to his own heart. Writing in the first person is a challenge at the best of times – when the story teller confesses to selfishness and blind rage, a failing marriage, the temptations of corporate publishing (already fading by the 1980s) and a thuggish-past, even a loyal Flanagan reader struggles at time to sympathise and connect.

               Flanagan knows how to layer this darkness and slowly raise the tension, however, until finally things do get to where they need to be – the heart of darkness at the “centre” of this de-centred character and narrative. Whether it was the best way to get there is another matter. This – in my view – is not Flanagan at his best. But maybe it’s a novel he had to write – a confession to the ugliness of the Australian soul, which he partly must own, as all of us must at some point. And beyond this – to New York and the age itself, the age of ‘literary selfies’:

Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have. I mean, isn’t that what you do in reality TV?

I don’t know what I do, I said. I just go in each morning and make it up.

That’s where we’re different then, Emily said. I don’t make it up. I had stories. We all hate them. We’ve heard them all before. We need to see ourselves.

That Flanagan kept his feet on the ground in “real life” is a credit to him; his narrator Kehlmann has taken another path to television writing and fame. Now Kehlmann writes in the first person. The biography on Heidi was made up. The fiction of his own life is closer to the truth.


Sunday, 17 June 2018

A Long Way from Home

Many years ago, when I was a mere intellectual slip of a thing, I wrote an Honours thesis on Peter Carey’s two major novels at the time: Illywhacker (1985) and Oscar and Lucinda (1988). Given that and the fact that I have read all thirteen of Carey’s novels, writing about A Long Way from Home (2017) should be – one would think – a walk in the park. However, I have avoided this task. Perhaps I know too much, or ought to? In such circumstances, one fears to open one’s mouth. The way to overcome this is to write the first thing that comes to mind and avoid mentioning your hesitancy. Or use a Carey technique and write in two voices to construct a complex, ironic view of the subject at hand.

The first voice is Irene Bobs, married to Titch, loyal to her husband despite – or perhaps because of -- the localized version of glamour and celebrity he represents. Titch is a Ford salesman, and the son of a once-famous aviator, ‘Dangerous Dan’, who is a bully and a shit-stirrer. Irene is a talented driver in the patriarchal days of the 1950s when women should be in the house, or behind the till, but certainly not behind the wheel. She’s a tough nut, however, and Carey writes feisty women well, with an understanding beyond his gender.

The second voice is their neighbor, a lanky “German” Willie Bachhuber, who on the surface is another Carey type: a misfit male who thinks too much in a land where men ought to just act. His gift – there is usually a redeeming feature to these intellectuals – is a map-reading ability that is second to none, so that he can see around bends as the car he and the Bobs drive in the Redex Trials speeds towards what they hope will be a startling victory.

Any Carey reader worth his salt will have the disposition to sympathize with a failed school teacher and temporary but ripped-off national radio quiz champion. Just what the two women in his life see in Willie is a little harder to fathom. The mysterious Sebastian of the Map Library department of the State Library of Victoria, at least knows of Bachhuber’s gifts. In any case, the novel at first runs along familiar lines when it comes to its representation of a flawed male character waiting for redemption in the hands of various women who might understand him, or betray him, or both. Things get more interesting, and new, once the story of the road race takes us into the outback where Willie Bachhuber’s white identity comes unstuck, and with and through him, the reader speeds headlong into the White Australia Policy and racism it is easy to ignore in the more enlightened parts of the city and national consciousness.

From here, the change of gears is startling; a third voice is Bachhuber’s son, years after the race, tracking down the ‘ark’ of Bachhuber’s cassette tapes and ‘mud books’ of outside-of-the-academy anthropology of an indigenous Australian people. The last lines of the novel can be quoted without giving the game away: ‘What may seem to be the signs of madness might be understood by someone familiar with alchemical literature as an encryption whose function is to insist that the mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak’ (p.357).

Perhaps here is a clue about my hesitancy to write about this book I have not yet fully understood.


Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

George Orwell wrote six novels and three non-fiction books. Of the non-fiction, I have now read Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and Homage to Catalonia (1938). “Down and Out” is – as it sounds – a portrait of poverty; and “Homage” the story of a man who sees a hopeful revolution collapse in the middle of a brutal civil war. Of the six novels, I have now managed (unsurprisingly) Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Listing these novels and books is only to say the following: I have read a bit of Orwell now, and amid the cleverness and the humanity and the bleakness of view, “Aspidistra” deserves a special mention (or perhaps, a vase) for being particularly depressing.

The story is of a young man, twenty-nine as the story who has declared war against money (surely better than war against terror). In doing so, Gordon Comstock resists generations of middle class Comstock’s, who have done their duty and lived staid, stale lives as a result. Gordon is determined to be different, throwing away a good job with prospects in that very twentieth century occupation of advertising, for a position in a book store that allows him to be so unfulfilled that he has material to write an extended poem about being unfulfilled (ironically called London Pleasures). The alternative, as he sees it, is to ‘drift along in an atmosphere of semi-genteel failure … so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens’ (p.41).

What Gordon discovers, of course, is that even being miserable costs money, and there is always somewhere to fall further from where he is just-about-safely ensconced. To say too much more would be to give away the plot. His good sister Julia suffers while he lets his (worker) talents lie; his girlfriend Rosemary, long suffering, suffers more. And as the failed sex scene outdoors in a natural alcove turns ‘squalid and ugly’ (p.157), he doesn’t even have the illusion of freedom in nature that Winston and Julia so briefly enjoyed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nor is that the only similarity in the two novels; perhaps the only thing worse than torture for a cause is the deliberate forgetting about it in the interest of survival. Others will read the ending of “Aspidistra” in more hopeful terms, but I think the rising up of the man is the falling down of the poet. It’s a little like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but with all of Hyde’s flaws spelled out. Plus some good women. Rosemary and Julia do make a difference to the falling man in a way that Jekyll’s lawyer and doctor mates cannot.

I would thoroughly recommend this novel to anyone who has an interest in a less Romantic view of the artist, one who suffers genuine poverty for his ideals, and is none-the-better a human being for it. An essay question: 'Keep the _______ flying: Redemption, or Surrender?' Support in 2000 words. Or just reach out for the aspidistra.