Monthly Archives: June 2010

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster

2009, 304 p.

This book opens with a funeral.  It is a stinking hot day and four adult children mill with their mother outside one of those drab suburban funeral parlours that just seem to have always been there in small strip shopping centres, easily ignored until you actually attend a funeral there. These children are clearly ambivalent about their father and as the book unfolds, you learn why.

The first chapters of this book are striking.  Forster writes about the 1960s Menzies years and working-class Footscray so clearly that you feel as if you have been there.  She captures the tensions of an unhappy family and I could feel myself becoming taut and anxious too, almost cowering as I read.  She writes in the present tense, a technique that even though I am using it right now, often makes me feel on edge.  In this case, it worked well to heighten even further the brittleness of the story she is telling.

But what about the bigger picture?  She does pointillism so well, but I’m not sure that she carried it across into the broader arch of the story.   Even though this book is fiction (and, rather disconcertingly ‘vaguely autobiographical’, according to the author), in some ways it felt like a non-fictional biography of a family.  One of the arts of biography is to develop a narrative that keeps moving, even though the day-to-day events in themselves are not momentous.  This book covers a span of probably forty years, but it unspools slowly without any obvious shape to the telling.

The book is presented as sixty fairly short chapters – sometimes only a couple of pages each.   On occasions these already short chapters were further divided into scenes, separated by an asterisk.  I felt while I was reading it as if I were being offered a series of anecdotes and that the broader narrative was only inching along slowly.  There is a shaping to the long-term story, but I found it rather dissatisfying, as  it petered into a sullen powerlessness and acquiescence, rather than giving me the dramatic act of revenge I craved.  I felt this at the structural level, as well as at the intellectual level.  How do you break out of a cycle of pain, pain and more pain? Is forgiveness a form of surrender rather than an act of will?  Can family dysfunction come to an end through any one definitive act, or is it inevitable that it goes on and on, shifting shape, but slowly poisoning everyone?

This book rather reminded me of Sarah Watts’ movie My Year Without Sex.  It’s not just the western-suburbs setting that they have in common: they also share a slow, intimate gaze on domestic family life , albeit dealing with two very different families.  The movie, however, had the month-by-month structure to draw it together. Although this book had a structure too, (starting with the funeral then rewind and play through until we reach the funeral again), I felt as if it was stuck in the one miserable place, and it was not a place that I wanted to be.

So- Miles Franklin material?  Not yet, and not with this book although I’d give it the nod for the short-list on the strength of its evocation of time and place and acute ear for voice.  So far, I’d put my money on Lovesong, although I’m now reading The Bath Fugues and it’s shaping up as a worthy contender.  Watch this space- only ten more sleeps!

‘The Commonwealth of Speech’ by Alan Atkinson

2002, 136 p & notes.

The full title of this book is The Commonwealth of Speech: An Argument about Australia’s Past, Present and Future . The extended title gives a better indication of the book’s flavour because it is a wide-ranging publication that meanders between history, politics, rhetoric and methodology.  Many of the chapters were originally presented as speeches or lectures in their own right, thereby complicating for us the relationship between speech and writing from the start.

Talking and writing were fundamental in the founding of Australia, Atkinson argues, and indeed the first chapter of Atkinson’s intended-trilogy The Europeans in Australia is titled “Talk”.  When the Aborigines came across from Timor or Sulewesi, they must have used language to plan their trip, and by the time the English made their own journey in 1788  the logistics and implementation of the First Fleet was a product of detailed bureaucratic talk and writing.  Unlike any other people in the world, the convicts and soldiers of the New South Wales penal settlement were recorded in writing from the very inception of the colony,  in convict indents and admiralty documentation.  Frontier life demanded writing, in the form of overseers’ orders, information from agents’ letters and the provincial newspapers that quickly emerged. When the early forms of democracy arrived,  their introduction was largely unproblematic because of this underlying basis of literacy.

Early white  settlers recognized that Aboriginal people were highly attuned to speech.  They noticed, even if they didn’t fully understand,  that when aboriginal people spoke among themselves, there were nuances of affability, tact, respect and authority. This is something that white Australians are still learning today.   Despite the ubiquity of text, talk is still important in both black and white communities.  Atkinson spends quite a bit of time on Australia’s bi-centenary in 1988, examining the speeches given by Bob Hawke, Prince Charles and Galarrwuy Yunupingu for the occasion, and notes the power-plays jostling amongst the three speeches and the paradoxical symmetry between the speeches given by Charles and Yunupingu.

In another chapter, Atkinson discusses what he calls “vernacular history”.

Vernacular History rests on a body of assumptions about the ethnic or national past which exists, mostly unquestioned, as part of common conversation and common judgement….They regularly seep into popular, everyday writing.  And the more familiar they become on the printed page, the more they belong to everyday talk. (p. 27) …..Vernacular History always throws up moral themes.  It establishes, or it tries to establish, a uniform moral message.  It offers moral contrast, sometimes even melodrama, with the evocation of heroes and villains, of golden ages and dark days. (p. 31)

I’m still not sure whether he approves of vernacular history or not:  he describes it as a

peculiarly powerful combination of formulas, old and new, a vivid mix of subtle tones and heavy patterning. (p.33)

He proposes three examples of Vernacular Historians: Manning Clarke, Robert Hughes and Henry Reynolds.  All three, he says, presented themselves as unique figures, somehow independent of the community of scholars.  Their histories burst off the page and broke out of the academy to become integrated into the talk of ‘ordinary’ Australians (albeit often at a fairly simplistic level).  He spends quite a bit of time on Henry Reynolds in particular, whose history, Atkinson argues, is a history told from the perspective of “we” whites that relies on the tension borne of the moral relationship between current-day blacks and whites.

I enjoyed reading this book, and I can see that I’ll be using it later in my thesis.  I’ve been aware, in my work on Judge Willis, of the importance of talk-  the talk of power in the courts, the middle-class respectable talk of men’s debating societies, and the gossip of the streets.  I enjoyed spectating while Atkinson joustedwith other historians (an acquired taste, I admit) and his discussion of the use of history by politicians.

A memorial for a memorial?

You might have seen on the back page of  today’s Age  a little article about the re-enactment of a photograph.  You can see the article here (scroll down about half way).  Apparently 50 years ago, as part of the 125th anniversary of Batman’s proclamation,  Robert Waddell stood with his mother Beryl at the corner of Flinders and Willliams Streets to have their photograph taken beside the Batman memorial plaque that was embedded in the footpath, outside what is now the Immigration Museum.  And here they are, fifty years later, standing on the same spot beside a piece of empty footpath.

As Bain Attwood tells us in his book Possession, this memorial has had a contested history right from the start.  In 1923, after the Old Melbourne Cemetery had been removed from what is now a Victoria Market carpark, it was felt by some city worthies that Batman deserved a new memorial close to where he was said to have disembarked and declared “This will be the place for a village”.  As a result R. A. Crouch proposed that a memorial be erected on the corner of Williams and Flinders Streets that read

This is the place for a village- John Batman 1835.

However, the Secretary of the Historical Society of Victoria, A. W. Grieg was wary of the wording because his own research had questioned whether Batman himself had visited Melbourne on this occasion.   A compromise, from which Grieg later distanced himself, was reached, and the amended wording read

John Batman landed near this spot June 1835. “This will be the place for a village”.

You can see a photograph of the artisans working on the plaque here and a report and photograph of the hatted gentlemen watching the slab being placed in the footpath at the official ceremony in March 1925  here and here.

The plaque became a popular rallying spot, not only for commemorations of Batman’s putative landing (the last of which probably occured in 1973) , but also for Aboriginal protest.  The Aborigines Advancement League began its protest rally against the loss of Lake Tyers from the memorial in 1963, and in 1970 The Day of the Mourning also commenced its march from the same spot.

Right from the start there had been disquiet about the accuracy of the claims on the plaque: whether Batman had even been there at that time;  whether the portentous words were ever uttered; whether “this” was the spot even under consideration.  Along with a heightened discomfort about the treaty and Aboriginal possession, there was the increased prominence given to John Fawkner as the alternative “founder of Melbourne”.  In 1995 a corrective marker was placed beside the plaque that read:

There is some doubt as to whether Batman was actually with the party that rowed up the Yarra in June 1835 or that they landed near this site.  The map that was drawn up by surveyor John Hedger Wedge on Batman’s return to Launceston indicates the land south of the Yarra River and down to its mouth as being reserved for a “Township and Other Public Purpose”.

This rather wordy correction was stolen in 1998 and not replaced.  But by 1998 the memorial stone itself went as well, gazumped somewhat by Enterprize Park directly opposite.  Ah well, we can always remember the memorial.  Perhaps a plaque for a plaque?

References:

Bain Attwood Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History , Melbourne, Miegunyah Press, 2009.

Shane Carmody ‘John Batman’s Place in the VillageLa Trobe Journal No 80, Spring 2007

‘The Hamilton Case’ by Michelle de Krester

2003, 367 p.

Three puzzling books in a row.  My dear daughter, bless her, says that I’m just getting stupider.  That may be the case (I blame Judge Willis), but in my own defence in my last three fiction reads I think that I’ve read

  1. a wilfully abstruse  book (House of Splendid Isolation)
  2. a genre high-wire act (Truth)
  3. and now a carefully constructed, unsettling book that I feel satisfied to puzzle over.

This was my face-to-face book group read for the month.  It was my selection (“Who chose THIS book?”) and I was rather disappointed to find when I was flipping through my reading journal that I’d actually read it before, in 2004.  I now realize that what I meant to nominate was her next book The Lost Dog which she wrote in 2007.  It didn’t matter though- I really could not remember much about The Hamilton Case at all.  I was interested to see that the comments I made six years ago are pretty much the same comments I’m going to make now.

This is a clever, clever book.  It commences with an autobiographical fragment, written by the elderly Ceylonese lawyer Sam Obeysekere, reminiscing about The Hamilton Case which he prosecuted many years previously.  The case was emblematic of Sri Lanka’s colonial past: it occurred on a tea-plantation where the white manager was murdered and two labouring coolies were accused of the murder.  Our narrator is a pompous, deluded, rather pathetic character, reminiscent of the narrator of  Ishiguru’s The Remains of the Day.  This section ends abruptly and the narrative broadens to an omniscient third-person perspective.  This is perhaps a little unfair as we have been repelled by Sam’s character in the first section, just as other characters in the book had been repulsed by him for other reasons.  What follows is a narrative of Sam’s family- his mother, sister and son- and what a steaming, foetid family this is.  De Kretser  evokes vividly the rampant Sri Lankan jungle- it reminded me a little of One Hundred Years of Solitude- and the book is drenched with colonial decay.   Much though I was enjoying this section, I did find myself wondering about the title, given that the Hamilton Case itself had taken up only a small part of the book.  But I was in confident hands, and sure enough the last section of the book, written as a letter from an author who had fictionalized (or had he??) the Hamilton Case, disrupted completely Sam’s telling of the case in the book’s opening.

Confusing?  It might read that way in my summary of it, but it didn’t feel confusing while reading.  Certainly, as a reader, you felt distrustful of all the characters and alert to the nuances and tricks of memory but at no stage did I feel that the author was losing control of her own narrative.  On the contrary, it was very assured, clever writing, very careful and well worth a second (or in my case- third!) reading.

‘Truth’ by Peter Temple

2009, 387 p

If this book wins the 2010 Miles Franklin award I shall be seriously disgruntled.

I enjoyed Temple’s The Broken Shore, which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin in 2006 and which I thought a subtle analysis of masculinity and aboriginality, wrapped up in a murder mystery.  This book lacks the nuance of the earlier book (to which it is tangentially linked) and instead reads very much like a film script.  Its sentences are short, almost monosyllabic and its descriptions read like a string of observational comments.  Conversations drive the narrative, often shooting back and forth like a ping-pong ball.  The masculinity that was so fragile in The Broken Shore is too macho here: the women are just props.

Temple establishes the Melbourne setting on the first page, when he backfills a little on the history of the West Gate bridge, and then alludes to the Black Saturday bushfires a few pages further in.   It felt clumsy and a little gratuitous.

I’m probably not the best person to read or comment on crime fiction.  Every Friday night Mr Judge and I settle down in front of the ABC for our weekly dose of crime, forensic science and forensic psychiatry (e.g. Wire in the Blood; Silent Witness; Body of Evidence etc. etc. etc.) I sit there and watch it unfolding before me and almost without fail half an hour later in bed, I’ll say “But I don’t get it- who DID it??”

Which is the way I felt at the end of this book.  Peter Temple has been quoted as saying “I hate things being spelled out” .  Don’t feel that way Mr Temple, spell away!  There were so many characters in this book, the plot-lines were so tangled,  too many themes were squeezed in- the last pages of the book just passed in a blur and once again I’m asking “But I don’t get it- who DID it?”