Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Success in obscurity

“There’s success in obscurity,” claims a recent article in The Guardian Weekly  (Nov 5 - Dec 5 2013). Lionel Shriver, apparently, has been writing of the woes of the commercially successfully author and growing nostalgic for the days when “the books were still fun to write, even if nobody read them.” The article muses on writers whose early success set them up for later failure (Ralph Ellison, Scott Fitzgerald), writers whose egos get seriously out of control (Martin Amis – Gert gave a loud cheer when she read this), and on writers who might be said to have benefited from obscurity (Kafka) or whose work got better even as their sales declined (James, Melville).

Is this consolation, as The Guardian says, for the many writers as yet unpublished? Probably not. Even those of us who genuinely did start writing for the fun of it get contaminated by the desire to have our work publicly recognized. And what is that desire all about? It’s surely not any expectation of great fame and riches. Maybe it’s just what fond parents want - for everyone to like their children as much as they do themselves.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

“That dreadful Terry Eagleton” (Prince Charles)

Terry Eagleton, enfant terrible of the British lit crit establishment, is one of Gert’s heroes.  It seems, though according to a review of his recent “How to read literature” in The Guardian, that Terry is a bit of an old fogey after all. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/26/how-read-literature-eagleton-review

The decidedly old-fashioned side to the radical leftie Eagleton was already evident in his memoir “The Gatekeeper”, more a series of essays cobbled together than an autobiography but a wonderfully funny and touching account of the quintessential scholarship boy, born in the unrelenting bleakness of 1950s Salford. Wearing a coat to school, which Eagleton did because of his poor health, “marked me out as sinisterly as if I had arrived at school in a Bentley with a caviar lunch tucked under my arm” (49) He progressed from here to Cambridge, arriving “an eighteen-year-old working-class Catholic, as certain as a speak-your-weight machine and as ignorant as a fish” and coming out the other end of the academic machine as a renowned scholar of literature, politics, culture and class.

The book opens with the truly surreal story of 10-year-old Terry’s job as “gatekeeper” at the local Carmelite monastery. Among other things, this involved lugging the elderly convent watchdog Timothy onto a turntable so that he could be passed in and out of the convent “as though required for some secret bestial rite”. 

Eagleton is acute and astute when writing of Catholicism:

It was less about charity than about candelabras.  We were pious and heartless, strict-minded and mean, pure-living and pagan. (30)

A radical stress on material practice, on the public, collective, symbolic dimensions of selfhood was entwined with a callous impersonality which would make even Stalin seem sentimental. (32)

Despite the benighted autocracy of their church, Catholics are prime candidates for the political left.  They are …taught to value systematic thought, feel at ease with the  collective, symbolic dimensions of human existence and are wary of subjectivism. They also…. inherit a fertile tradition of ethical and political thought, and are not afraid to think ambitiously. (35-6)

The old-fogey side shows through in constant swipes at Americans and post-modernism. But Gert can always forgive someone who writes like this: 

[Raymond Williams’] very presence deranged the conventional categories, and his fellow dons gathered inquisitively around him like zoologists around a dolphin whose low droning might just be a recitation of the Iliad. (26)

…childhood [is] a mixture of self-evident truths with an alarming inability to grasp what is going on (31).

...as stunning a rebuff as if the royal family were to renounce horse-racing (40)

My own personal proposal for furthering the cause of Socialism would be to abolish sport (83)

Of giving papers at conferences:

If your subject is the poetry of Northern Ireland some aggrieved audience member will enquire why you have been so churlishly silent about fin-de-siecle Bavarian orthopaedics (99)

Of an upper-class twit:

He spoke his few words like a man trying out some fiendishly difficult language which he had picked up a smattering of but had not yet dared to practise in public (156)

And finally, of his father:
What I remember most of my father is silence.  He was silent because he was agonizingly inarticulate and deeply ashamed of it…. I am still not sure whether his silence was a rock or an abyss, strength or indifference. He was painfully shy and unsociable, but also practical, rational, reliable and infinitely patient. (121)

The book ends with his father's death and with a return to the image of the gatekeeper. Now the gatekeeper is the don at Cambridge who accepted Terry as a student, but "it was my father who had turned the key."

Monday, 21 October 2013

Ruth Ozeki A tale for the time being

Ruth Ozeki had finished A tale for the time being and was about to turn it in to her publisher when the Japanese earthquake and tsunami hit in  March 2011. She decided then, she says, that the world had changed- she had written a pre-earthquake book and this was a post-earthquake world.  The only way to deal with that, she thought, was to “break the fictional container and put myself on the line as the character in the book” – how else to use fiction to deal with such a devastating reality?

Problems arise when an author puts herself into the book insisting on the seriousness of the real world she inhabits.  Ruth’s  (the character and the author) sincere seriousness, particularly as it plays out in the conversations between Ruth and her naturalist/environmentalist husband, is a drag on the book’s momentum.  The real energy is in the story of the Japanese girl Nao and her grandmother the Buddhist monk Jiko.  

As Liz Jensen says in her review, the book is  “a vast, churning basin of mental flotsam in which Schrödinger's cat, quantum mechanics, Japanese funeral rituals, crow species, fetish cafes, the anatomy of barnacles, 163 footnotes and six appendices all jostle for attention”

Impressive, yes, but there is something not quite right about the mechanics of the book. It doesn’t, strangely enough, feel thought-through. Maybe Gert would have liked the original version better.

Friday, 13 September 2013

In praise of Anthony O'Neill

Who is the Australian writer of whom these things have been said?

a remarkable and mysterious first novel, elegantly written and vividly characterized

a striking testament to the power of the imagination.

head and shoulders above the current run of ancient historical novels

wit, philosophy, poetry, eroticism and memorable characters

in a class of its own

timeless and timely, at once a chilling page-turner and a thought-provoking inquiry into the true nature of evil and the dangers of suppressing the imagination.

altogether brilliant

part mystery, part fantasy, but weighing in with the literary resonance of something more profound. A meticulous piece of narrative imagination

a dazzling effort

a level of skill that far outclasses many veteran thriller fictionists

a writing voice not to be missed.

an absolutely extraordinary performance

the sort of completely realized novel around which a career is made.

a suave, daring and unflaggingly entertaining story-teller

a seductive mixture of historical fact, redemptive philosophy and wildly imaginative fiction

unquestionably a tour de force

Pulp Fiction meets George Orwell's Animal Farm

combines talents for mystery and imagination and a furious narrative drive, as well as an unexpected metaphysical concern with the current human condition

can stand strong comparisons: like Fielding in Shamela, Twain in A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur and Orwell in Animal Farm. 

No, it's not him or him or him, definitely not him ....not her or even her  –

step forward Anthony O'Neill, otherwise known as Cornelius Kane, the author of four extraordinary  novels: Scherezade, The Lamplighter, The Empire of Eternity, The Unscratchables.  Any one of these should have made his name among Australian readers. Why hasn't it?  Gert is invariably met with blank looks when she mentions his name to her reading friends.  She once wrote to Ramona Koval suggesting Books and Writing feature this remarkable writer. No answer came the stern reply.

Do yourself a favour and get to know him.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Writing is Easy takes flight

Writing is Easy is finally up for sale as a ebook on the Australian Authors' Association website for the princely sum of $2.99.  We hope to have it up on Amazon, Kobo and similar sites soon. The terrific cover is by Lisa Reidy  www.lisareidy.com.au


Writing is Easy plays out a titanic clash of egos between the hugely-popular novelist Marcus Goddard and the avant-garde poet and performance artist Lilian Bracegirdle who are running a writing workshop at an idyllic country retreat. Marcus has a guilty secret and is prepared to kill to keep it, and stout, lazy Lilian is frantic to escape the clutches of the fitness fanatic John Brow, who is determined to make her the subject of his book Superhuman fitness in 26 days. Neither Marcus nor Lilian can be bothered with their students, who are wrestling with an assortment of novels ranging from the Raymond Chandleresque to the sadomasochistic punk. An attempted murder goes wrong, two blackmailers get their just desserts, and the would-be writers gradually come to grips with reality ....
Now read on...