Daily Archives: June 17, 2008

Just about everyone I know is ambivalent about the USA

It was certainly the position of the World War II generation of my parents, and that was often based on memories of that war, both on the front line and on the home front. This is not the same as anti-Americanism. Many people I know who have lived in the USA, including some Aussies who still do, regard the place as, to quote one, having the best of what the world might offer and also some of the worst, but very little in between. Make of that what you will. Australians do tend to head “gladly home” at some point.

Contrary to the impression you may sometimes get, the Americans are nonetheless very often robustly self-critical. There is another example of a healthy American “anti-Americanism” in the latest New Yorker, a journal where one may often find such self-criticism: Return to Paradise: The enduring relevance of John Milton by Jonathan Rosen. It is primarily, however, a reflection on the great 17th century poet — whose work was out of fashion at Sydney U in the mid 1960s.

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A 20th century author I had never read before…

… which in itself is hardly surprising, given that if one thinks globally there were so many, and more in English alone than anyone could possibly ever have exhausted in a lifetime. Hence the popularity of books like 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. (See also here.)

I had a go a couple of years back constructing a “canon”. In my undergraduate days at Sydney U some fifty years ago the trend for canons was full on, and what we ought to read was neatly reduced to about twelve authors! Seriously! The whole exercise is dubious of course, which is not to say that all works of literature are equal in quality, obviously not the case. Mind you, back then we were not really encouraged to think critically about the exercise we were engaged in, perhaps laughingly called “criticism”. There were some exceptions to that generalisation, but English scholars were in general not noted for their depth of historical or philosophical knowledge.

This brings me to a writer of the World War II and mid twentieth century periods, Anna Kavan. There is also a web-site about her work. Guilty (2007) was in fact written much earlier.

Set in an unspecified but eerily familiar landscape, Guilty is told from the point of view of a young man named Mark. The novel begins in his childhood and as his father returns from war. In spite of being garlanded as a hero, Mark’s father declares himself a pacifist and is immediately reviled in a country still suffering from wartime divisions. When he is forced into exile Mark meets Mr Spector, a mysterious figure who becomes a dominant force in his life, overseeing his schooling, his employment and even his accommodation. When he tries to break way from Mr Spector to pursue and engagement with the beautiful Carla, Mark’s life begins to unravel. Thwarted at every turn by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, he falls prey to the machinations and insecurities of his guilt-ridden mind.

Drawing on many of Kavan’s familiar themes, Guilty will be welcomed by those who already know and appreciate her work and a revelation to those who don’t.

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Posted by on June 17, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, reading, writers