Movie: My Cousin Rachel

A pigeon-pair for Daphne du Maurier’s other well-known book/movie Rebecca, here we have a young man who is unsure whether his uncle’s wife is a tragic widow or an arch manipulator.  Rachel Weisz is suitably enigmatic and your sympathies for her shift as quickly as her facial expressions do. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

My rating:  3.5

‘A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work’ by Bernadette Brennan

Brennan

2017, 298 p. & notes

This book is exactly what the title promises: a study of Helen Garner and her work.  It’s not, and nor does it purport to be, a full biography but is instead a ‘literary portrait’, firmly based on and in Garner’s own writings and writing practices.

The author (who, judging from her picture on the back page is much younger than I thought she would be) uses the publication sequence of Garner’s books as its organizing principle, but it seems in both the introduction and conclusion that she at one stage contemplated a different structure.

It is too simple to say that Garner’s body of work is one book, but everything she has written is interrelated. Over a period of forty years she has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters and questions. Because houses, and their domestic spaces of intimacy and negotiation sit at the core of all Garner’s fiction, I originally thought to structure this study around Garner’s primary spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, courtrooms and public institutions… Such readings, however, do not lend themselves to a full and coherent appreciation of Garner’s development as a writer…. In the end I decided to structure this portrait so that each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing. Some rooms have alcoves, others debouch into wider spaces; all are connected by passageways. (p. 7)

I must confess that I forgot about this intended motif until the author returned to it in the closing pages of the book, where she alludes to Henry James’ metaphor of the house of fiction, and Garner as a ‘watcher’ through windows. I don’t find it a particularly useful structure, and as it would seem, neither did the author, as it is left largely untouched through most of the text.

Instead, the book is presented in two parts: Part 1 Letters to Axel and Part II Questions of Judgment.  ‘Axel’ was Axel Clarke, the son of  historian Manning and linguist Dymphna Clark and a close friend from university days to whom Garner wrote often and honestly. His archive of letters to and from Garner, deposited in the National Library of Australia are a significant resource for Brennan. He died in 1990, after a long friendship with Garner tinged with tension  over her ‘use’ of his illness with a brain tumour in ‘Recording Angel’, one of the stories in Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), the last of the works analysed in Part I.   The ‘letters to Axel’ form a useful organizing device, although ‘1942-1992’ or ‘The First Fifty Years’ would have done just as well.  Each of the seven chapters focuses on a major work and Brennan  interweaves personal details, gleaned from Garner’s own works and interviews, and literary analysis based on the books themselves.

Part II, Questions of Judgment starts with The First Stone, the first non-fiction book that took Garner into the courtroom as the basis for her narrative, a practice that she has followed in Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and most recently in her Monthly essay ‘Why She Broke‘.  The chapter on The First Stone is the longest in the book and it marks not only Garner’s shift into long-form non-fiction writing, but also her most contentious book that provoked questions among her critics about her commitment to feminism and how that feminism was defined, and her attitude towards younger women.  Readers who do not like Garner’s work often criticize her insertion of herself into both her fictional and non-fictional writing, and Brennan (among others) is critical of Garner’s personal intervention in the form of letters to Master Alan Gregory, the man accused of sexual harassment. I had not realized the legal tightrope that her publishers trod with this book, and it took its toll on her relationship with Hilary McPhee.  It is a book that still evokes controversy. Most of the books in this second part are non-fiction, which is the genre in which Garner has predominantly worked in the last decades. The exception is The Spare Room, which is the novelized retelling of a real life experience when a friend undergoing an alternative treatment for cancer stayed with her. Brennan’s book closes with Everywhere I Look, Garner’s recent collection of essays.

It is not necessary to have read Garner’s books to enjoy this literary portrait, but it certainly helps to have done so.  Critiques of short story and essay collections are always difficult to write and read because the act of describing them often eviscerates them, and  several of Garner’s publications fall into this genre. Nonetheless, Brennan gives enough of the flavour of Garner’s works to jog the memory or provide sufficient background for her analysis to make sense.

It is not an authorized biography as such, in that Garner had veto power over it. She made available to Brennan her diaries, letters and drafts that are currently embargoed at the NLA, and participated in interviews with the author. It’s a rich, textured archive.

This is not a biography, and yet we do learn about  Helen Garner those things she chooses to reveal about herself, either through interviews or mostly through her own writing.  We read about her difficult relationship with her father, her life in share-house Carlton that prompted Monkey Grip, her three marriages, her daughter and grandchildren.  There are things we do not learn, too, most particularly who the ‘Philip’ character who floats through her early fictional writing was based on.  I did not realize the persistence of Garner’s religious quest, thinking that she had left it behind after Cosmo Cosmolino (which I reviewed here and did not enjoy). I remember, but did not fully appreciate, the virulence of the debate about The First Stone and was unaware of the legal and literary maneuvering that preceded its publication.  In my review of Postcards from Surfers, I wondered about how a book of short stories was put together, and in Brennan’s book I saw the collaboration between editor and author in constructing a ‘work’ of short stories as a distinct entity.  Through her diaries it is clear that the naive, ‘I-know-nothing-about-the-legal-system-but…’ stance that comes through in her courtroom non-fiction is a deliberate, and somewhat disingenuous choice.

Most of all, though, I am left with a sense of the writer at work– and work it surely is. The reading, the thinking, the writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. The author’s drawing together of observations from other writers and thinkers – most particularly that scholar of the art of biography, Janet Malcolm. The richness and texture of thought and reflection. The edginess and vulnerability of putting yourself out there as an author. The web of connections between people in the local intellectual and literary scene.  A life lived in the mind, but also in the everyday. A particular way of looking.  All the things that I appreciate most in Garner’s work.

My rating: 8.5

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

 

A new adventure!

I’m off for a fortnight to Chile and Cuba. Think of it.  A 61 year old woman. There by herself. Very rudimentary Spanish. What could possibly go wrong?

Join my on my (mis)adventures at my other blog Land of Increasing Sunshine – or, in approximate Spanish La Tierra Más Soleada

‘A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson’ by Kerrie Davies

wifes_heart

2017, 225p

David Marr, the celebrated biographer, has proclaimed for himself the rule that “biographers should stay out of sight”. I suspect that he would be ‘tut-tutting’ the whole way through this book, because the biographer/author Kerrie Davies is very much on-stage, using her own early 21st century experience as a lens through which to examine and reflect on the marriage and separation of Bertha and Henry Lawson.  The book both starts and finishes with Davies’ own reflections on single parenthood and she shuttles back and forth between her own memoir and a biographical examination of Bertha and Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson, as most (I hope!) Australian readers would know, is one of Australia’s best known writers, with his short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’  forming one of the staples of school anthologies in the last century.  He wrote in the 1890s and early 1900s at a time when ‘Australianness’ was being explored in writing through the pages of The Bulletin and through the works of the Australian impressionists – Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton et al. He is a much-biographied subject, as Davies found, with biographers falling into two camps: those who blamed his wife Bertha for pursuing child support payments and hounding him to imprisonment, and those who saw Bertha as the long-suffering, separated wife bringing up her children alone.

Davies falls very much into the second category. She, too, has brought her daughter up alone when her marriage to her musician husband fell apart through his incessant travelling, and this sense of identification with Bertha permeates the book. I’m not sure that it makes good biography, but I don’t know if a ‘pure’ biography was ever her intention. Certainly she draws on primary documents, including court files, letters, memoirs, secondary sources and Henry’s own writings, reproducing important paragraphs in the text itself, and footnoting the sources at the rear of the book.  In this way she has certainly given Bertha an identity and agency. She has carefully researched the legislation governing divorce at the turn of the twentieth century, and beautifully integrates Henry, in particular, into the bohemian and literary milieu of the day.  However, as a journalist, she makes no claim to be a historian, and in describing the Darlinghurst gaol in which Henry was imprisoned, she turns us over directly to the hands of the archivist at the gaol, Deborah Beck, in a manner reminiscent of meeting-the-historian in ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. In fact, that same sense of anachronistic identification that permeates ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ is evident in this book as well, and it means that as reader, you’re taken along for the story in the present just as much for the history.

Although a very different sort of endeavour, this book evoked for me Jennifer Gall’s Looking for Rose Paterson. There’s a symmetry in that both researchers are drawing an otherwise unseen woman (a mother, a wife) out from the background of these two writers – A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson- who are together synonymous with colonial nationalistic turn-of-the-century writing.  But Bertha Lawson was not unseen: she wrote her own memoir, her correspondence is found amongst Henry’s works, people knew her and she looms large in his lifestory as the force that he resisted and railed against, and which eventually- in the eyes of his champions- brought him undone.  The subtitle of the book is “The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson”, and Davies has succeeded in telling this untold story.  “No one is more pleased to see you yourself again than I am” Bertha wrote to Henry (p 185) during one of his recurrent phases of sobriety before lapsing into alcoholism again. In seeing Bertha, and the cycles of alcoholism and cruelty, unsuccessful reconciliations, legal maneuverings, emotional bargaining, justifications and accusation, we see  Henry ‘himself’ also.

The author’s paper to the 2015 Australasian Association of Writing Programs conference discussing her writing decisions can be found here.  (What a fantastic site! they have all the papers from decades of conferences).

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

Movie: The Hounds of Love

Ugh. What possessed me to go and see this? I hate violent movies.

Actually, I know why I did see it. Because it’s Australian (and I like to support local movies) and I heard that it garnered good reviews.  It IS good and highly authentic in its depiction of controlling, violent relationships. But you’ll never think ‘That nice Stephen Curry’ again, no matter what character he plays.  It’s not unlike Animal Kingdom, especially in its use of music. But I spent a lot of time looking down, especially as the victim looked so much like my stepdaughter. It has really unsettled me.

‘Cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe para estudiantes de espanol. Nivel A1’

poe

There’s a little test you can do of your language skill against the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). “I’ll try that with my Spanish!” I thought, only to end up thoroughly deflated at the realization that I came out at level A1 – absolute, absolute beginner. Or as Wikipedia helpfully puts it:

He is able to understand and use daily expressions of very frequent use as well as simple phrases intended to satisfy needs of immediate type. You can introduce yourself and others, ask for and give basic personal information about your home, your belongings and the people you know. You can relate in an elementary way whenever your interlocutor speaks slowly and clearly and is willing to cooperate.

Well, on second thoughts, that’s about it.  Apparently this level takes approximately 100 hours of study and that would be just about right too.  (Actually, I’ve probably spent more time than that, so I must confess to being a laggard. I’ll blame my advanced age.)

So I downloaded Cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe for the princely sum of $2.04 AUD and found that, yes, it’s exactly the right level.  I had to look up about five words in each page, which was enough to keep me on my toes, but not so much that I felt overwhelmed.  I don’t know if the stories became simpler, or whether I improved as I went along, but it seemed that the later stories were easier to read than those at the start of the book.

It helped that I can’t remember reading any Edgar Allan Poe beyond, perhaps, in short story collections at school.  There were seven stories here: The Black Cat, Berenice, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Mask of the Red Death, The Facts in the Case of Mister Valdemar and Ligeia.  The whole book was only 68 pages in length, so each of the stories was relatively short. There were lots of deserted houses, ghostly women and glittering eyes and my favourite was probably The Pit and the Pendulum.  I did double check some of the stories in Wikipedia to make sure that I had actually understood them, and yes- they were abridged, but they captured the essence of the story with enough tension and mystery to make it worthwhile.

So, if you’re an absolute beginner too- this is $2.00 very well spent.

‘The Pacific Room’ by Michael Fitzgerald

the-pacific-room

2017, 237 p.

When I saw that this book was about Robert Louis Stevenson I wondered if I should just spend a little time googling around before I read it. I knew very little about him beyond ‘Treasure Island’ and a vague sense that he was in the Pacific at some stage. No, I decided. Let the book stand on its own two feet and so I launched in.

At first I was reassured, if somewhat underwhelmed, by the ‘researcher as explorer’ framing of the story. It’s a technique  which is becoming a little hackneyed, having been used by several books in the last decade or so, and replayed over and over  with all the misty-eyed emoting in the television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ I don’t need to know any background here, I thought, because the fictional art historian Lewis Wakefield is obviously going to tell me, as he tracks down images in the Mitchell Library in Sydney and then travels to Samoa.  In particular, Wakefield is researching a portrait  by the long-forgotten (and real life) Italian artist Girolamo Nerli, who travelled by steamer to Apia in 1892 to capture on canvas the duality of the Jekyll and Hyde characters  through his depiction of their creator.  We don’t actually see this portrait, even though Hyde and the other characters in the book describe it. What we do see is a black-and-white photograph of Stevenson that runs the entire length of the inside cover, stretched out in a garden with two Samoans recumbent on the grass beside him, with a garland of flowers around his head and looking every bit the languorous bohemian.

The book has 36 chapters, some of which are very short. There are several threads to the story. First, there’s the present-day art historian Lewis Wakefield, orphaned as a child when his family, including his twin brother, die in an Antarctic air crash.  Then there’s Teuila, a dancer in a nightclub, grieving as she watches Henry, a Samoan who has returned from New Zealand, as he plans to marry Shema. We have Teuila’s friendship with the other dancers, and her family relationships now and in the past, most particularly her identification with her ancestor Sosimo. Then, moving back narratively to the past, there’s the household revolving around Robert Louis Stevenson, known by his ‘native’ name as Tusitala. Stevenson’s American wife and his widowed mother live with him there too, with Stevenson’s  servant boy Sosimo (Teuila’s ancestor) and the Australian Mary. The whole household is disturbed by the appearance of the painter wishing to paint the author’s portrait.  Rather confusingly, all these chapters- both in the present day and in the past- are narrated in the present tense, and each starts in a rather similar way with an unnamed character. Only gradually does it become clear which thread you are following, in an effect like a kaleidoscope gradually settling into an image.

It doesn’t surprise me that Brian Castro wrote the blurb for this book.  Castro and Fitzgerald are not dissimilar writers, who both revel in language and imagery. I found that Fitzgerald’s language evoked the riot of a jungle, sinuous and dense, and there were a couple of times when I found myself wondering if the image he was drawing even made sense.  Both writers deal with crossing borders and the exotic, and both these themes are important here.  I’ve read several Castro books (even though I’ve only reviewed one because the  others predate this blog) where, just as I felt with this book, I could follow the narrative at close-up but  wasn’t really sure whether I knew quite what was happening on the wider scale.

I’ve been thinking, too, about the technique of using a present-day researcher as a lens through which to tell the story.  I’m listening right now to Hilary Mantel’s excellent Reith Lectures (available here) . I don’t think – although I may be wrong- that Michael Fitzgerald (or I, for that matter) would describe this book as ‘historical fiction’. The present-day character tethers the book, and the perspectives that it is likely to explore, firmly in the twenty-first century.  It is a revisioning of past characters, not so much on their own historical terms, but through the sensibilities and awareness of the present day.

I chose not to read any background before reading this book, but what I have done since has enhanced my appreciation for Fitzgerald’s skill in integrating real-life characters into his narrative.  I’m still not sure that I understood it completely, which may be my failing, just as much as the book’s. It’s not a particularly easy read, but its imagery is beautiful. And, as I closed the book, I saw all sorts of things in the photograph on the inner covers that I just didn’t see before.

Sourced from:  Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge publishers