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Category Archives: Fiction

Tony Parsons “My Favourite Wife” (2008)

At one level this is a fairly generic love-triangle story, but in sharp contradiction to this reviewer I found the characters quite well developed and sympathetic. The great triumph of the book, however, is that it provides more understanding of contemporary China and Chinese than a thousand ponderous tomes and learned articles might deliver. Having been very close to a Shanghainese (and knowing quite a few others) I congratulate Tony Parsons on his depth of understanding. He is also remarkably aware of the paradoxes of the new superpower, that, for example, its wealth, while benefiting many, depends on even more people being held in poverty. True though that mass famine has become a thing of the past.

… Bill walked. He was hungry to see what he thought of as the real China, the China that was nothing to do with plasma tele­visions and Dom Pérignon. The real China was somewhere nearby. It had to be. There were blocks of flats as far as he could see in a bewildering jumble of styles, but broken up with patches of manicured green and oversized statues. There were strips of restaurants – he could see Thai, Italian, everything but Chinese – a Carrefour supermarket, and a couple of international schools, including the one that Holly would go to in the morning. Little parks. A nice neighbourhood. Gubei was greener and cleaner than the grimy, crime-ridden patch of London they had left behind. His family could live here. His wife and daughter could be happy here. He felt a quiet satisfaction, mixed with relief.

He glanced at his watch and decided he had time to explore before Becca and Holly stirred. So he walked towards the rising sun and as he left Gubei New Area behind, the streets quickly filled. Women selling bruised fruit stared through him from shaded side streets. Someone bumped into him. Someone else spat at his feet. There were men in filthy, dirt-encrusted two-piece suits working on a building site. On a Sunday. And in the streets there were people. A tide of people. Suddenly there were people everywhere.

He stopped, trying to get his bearings. The roads were wide and traffic flew by, horns mindlessly beeping, ignoring red lights and pedestrians and the rest of the traffic. He saw a chic girl in sunglasses with her hair up behind the wheel of a silver Buick Excelle. There were flocks of VW Santana taxis. A muddy truck piled high with junk and men. And more trucks, lots of them, with their strange cargo of cardboard or orange traffic cones or pigs or yet more cars, so new they still shone with the showroom wax.

As the sun got higher, and Bill continued to walk east, the city got noisier, adding to his sense of dislocation. A woman on a scooter mounted the pavement and just missed him, beeping her horn furiously. Schools of cyclists with giant black visors over their faces swarmed past. Suddenly he was aware of the time difference, the light-headedness that follows a long-haul flight, the sweat of exhaustion. But he kept walking. He wanted to know something about this place.

He walked down alleys where thin men shaved over ancient metal bowls and fat babies were fed, and where ramshackle buildings with red-tile roofs were draped with drying laundry and satellite dishes. Then abruptly the jumbled blocks with their red-tile roofs suddenly gave way to the new shining towers and shopping malls.
Outside Prada men with their skin darkened by sun and grime tried to sell him fake Rolex watches and DVDs of the latest Tom Cruise movie. Young women hid from the sun under umbrellas. Naked Western models advertised skin-lightening products on giant billboards.

And as Bill walked on, he felt something that he had never felt in his life, and it was an awareness of the sheer mass of humanity. All those people in the world, all those lives. It was as if he truly believed in their existence for the first time. Shanghai gave him no choice.

Bill hailed one of the Santana taxis, impatient to see the Bund, but the driver didn’t understand a word he said and dropped him by the river, glad to get rid of him. He got out next to a wharf with a ferry; not a sightseeing ferry but some kind of local public transport.

Bill handed over his smallest note, received some filthy RMB in return, and joined the milling mob waiting to cross to the other side. He tried to work out where the queue began. Then he realised that it didn’t begin anywhere.
And as the ferry filled with people, and then continued to fill even more until Bill was hemmed in on every side, and fighting back the feeling that the ferry was overloaded, he saw that here, at last, was the real China.

The numbers.

It was all about the numbers.

He knew that the numbers were why he would be starting his new job in the morning, why his family’s future would be decided in this city, and why all the money problems of the past would soon be over. They filled the dreams of businessmen from Sydney to San Francisco – the one billion customers, the one billion new capitalists, the one billion marketplace…

See also the author’s site and The Independent.

This is indeed popular rather than literary fiction, but for its insight I give it star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25.

I also wonder whether Parsons’ working class accent still arouses snobbery on the part of some English reviewers? Oxbridge he isn’t.

 

Well, I’m enjoying it…

Hot on the heels of Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography, I am reading Will (Christopher Rush 2007). There’s an excellent review here by Joyce McMillan from The Scottish Review of Books. Rush follows Ackroyd’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s life quite closely but has involved himself in Shakespeare studies for several decades. He certainly knows his man.

Rush doesn’t spare us the smells as well as the sights of Elizabethan/Jacobean London. If you want to know just what was involved in hanging, drawing and quartering, or in bear baiting, you will be more than satisfied. Much of the book is pastiche, a mash-up of lines from the Bard – and I mean that as a compliment as it is most cleverly done. Here is an earthy and believable Will Shakespeare on his deathbed going back over his life as he dictates his will to his rather Falstaffian lawyer – a device that could stretch belief just a bit if you let it.

Joyce McMillan knows a lot more about the Scottish author than I did.

…In terms of the development of Rush’s own work, the origins of this book are not difficult to trace. It’s no secret that following the sudden death of his first wife in 1994, Rush experienced years of despair, depression and writer’s block, released only when he was able to write his own painfully frank 2005 memoir of that experience, To Travel Hopefully: Journal Of A Death Unforeseen. As a lifelong teacher of literature, he found some small, companionable solace even then in the profound knowledge and awareness of death that runs through all Shakespeare’s work; and now, he has gathered all his feeling for Shakespeare’s mighty dialogue with death into this startilng first-person account of the life, set in the framework of the last days – the settling of accounts, the making of bequests, and the final walk into the dark.

At first – as Will talks of his chiildhood and family, his brutal schooling, his father’s humiliating business failure, his early trade as a slaughterman’s boy, and his sudden dizzying fall at 17 into lust and love with Anne Hathaway, followed by a suffocating early marriage and fatherhood – the dialogue format works well, with the gluttonous Francis alternately shovelling down food, and chirpily contributing his own local insights and opinions. Later, the structural moorings begin to slip a bit, as the more familiar Shakespeare of the London years emerges, in great avalanches of narrative and descriptive prose to which Collins has little to say.

But always, Rush’s prose retains the same intense, hallucinatory quality, a strange mixture of brisk, frank modernity and Shakespearean pastiche, alarmingly laced, at every turn, with sudden shifts into Shakespeare’s own words, culled from those ever-present plays…

I am thoroughly enjoying the ride. star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, Shakespeare

 

Listening to Gorecki, reading Nowra

A rather powerful combination…

I’ll have more to say on Louis Nowra’s Ice later.

Ice

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Best read of 2009, Fiction, music, OzLit, personal, reading

 

Reading Jasper Fforde

A couple of years back my former Sydney University boss Ken Watson recommended Jasper Fforde to me.

fforde

Now at last I have read one of his amazing books, The Well of Lost Plots.

Imagine Little Britain meets the Cambridge Companion to English Literature + literary theory. Hilarious. The Wuthering Heights anger management day is just one gem of many.

 

Meanwhile, there is a bit of fiction to account for…

Yes, I have read quite a few things this past few weeks.

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. The Hours – Michael Cunningham’s 1998 take on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is just a delight. I love the little bit of trivia in the Wikipedia entry:

On her way to Richard’s apartment, Clarissa Vaughan thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa Vaughan in Stephen Daldry’s movie adaptation of "The Hours". In the book, Clarissa Vaughan considers it might also have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw. Curiously, Redgrave plays the part of Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs Dalloway.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. The Chameleon’s Shadow, Minette Walters (2007). The Iraq War is background to this psychological thriller.

This novel is a compelling page turner from the first page.  Acland may be frightening in his unpredictability, but the reader’s sympathy is caught and you want to know what will happen to him.  The story is another classic example of smoke and mirrors from Walters, where she tests perception and reality during the unraveling of fact.  It’s another of those "once started, must finish" psychological thriller novels that demands complete absorption. – It’s a Crime!

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 3. Past Mortem, Ben Elton (2004). The weirdest – and most unlikely — serial killer ever, and yes it does have a very heavy sex scene or two. At the same time the book is very funny, in a black kind of way, yet does have much to offer on the subject of bullying.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 4. Southern Cross (1998) has Patricia Cornwell in lighter vein than in her Kate Scarpetta novels.

The book’s pivotal event, and its most pleasing tilt at Southern pieties, takes place when Smoke brings Weed, the budding artist, to the South’s premier cemetery for the climax of his gang initiation ceremony. Weed, equipped with paint, is to “ruin” the statue of Jefferson Davis that dominates the cemetery. With no idea who Jeff Davis was, Weed is inspired to re-paint Davis as a tribute to Weed’s late, beloved brother, a budding basketball great recently killed by a hit-and-run driver.

By the following morning, the towering statue that greets mourners and early visitors to the cemetery is no longer of Jeff Davis, but that of a lanky black basketball player in the uniform of the University of Richmond Spiders. Meanwhile, Smoke has robbed another ATM and, this time, killed his robbery victim. Chief Hammer and her team are on the wrong trail, since a chance radio intercept has alerted them to what sound like evil designs on the part of the book’s most catastrophically inept character, the perilously named Butner Fluck IV.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 star_icons25 Damnation Falls (2007) by Edward Wright.

Randall Wilkes, his big-city journalism career in ruins, has returned after twenty years to Pilgrim’s Rest, the Tennessee hill town where he grew up. He has taken on a lucrative but low-prestige writing job for Sonny McMahan, a former governor and Randall’s boyhood friend, whose own career is under a shadow and who needs a ghost-written autobiography to ease his way back into politics. Faye McMahan, Sonny’s mother, is addled with age, imagining that her dead husband is alive and worrying that her son might be in danger. Amid a violent autumn storm, Randall finds Faye hideously murdered, hanged by the neck from a bridge over the town landmark called Damnation Falls. Within days, another person connected to the McMahan clan is murdered in an even more grisly fashion. And the bones of a third, long-buried murder victim — a young woman — have emerged from the earth. Randall’s ties to the victims force him to acknowledge debts that go back decades. Drawing on his investigative skills and his roots in the region, he sets out to discover who is behind the killings. His search takes him the length of the state – a land once split by civil war, where history lies close to the surface and tales of murder and betrayal weigh heavily on the town of Pilgrim’s Rest. Before all the answers are in, more people will die, an old score will be settled, and the dead will finally tell their stories.

“Complex, layered but never laboured, Damnation Falls weaves between fact and fiction, the past and the present, truth and lies, without ever missing a beat. Nice work.”  — Sydney Morning Herald. That review notes something I missed:

Wright was born in the same Arkansas town of Hot Springs as erstwhile American president Bill Clinton. Comparisons may be odorous (as Mrs Malaprop once said) but Sonny McMahan, the fictional former governor of Tennessee, is a man so charismatic that when he walks into a Nashville restaurant all the diners turn to watch his progress, "lifting their faces as if towards the sun". Further allusions to Clinton’s Arkansas days and the Whitewater property scandal are never spelled out but lurk suggestively in the background as McMahan is revealed to be up to his clean-cut jaw in something not entirely kosher.

 

When Snow Drifts Melt – 20 years on

1989 was quite a year for me, one way and another. In another work of fiction that isn’t really fiction I wrote “When Snow Drifts Melt” in two goes over a six year period. The act of writing in this case was also therapy, and as tomorrow is twenty years – hard to credit! – since the critical event in Part II I thought I would bring it to the fore again.

September 14 1989

– I miss that man so much.

– I know that Luke.

– I don’t know what to do about his birthday. I phoned but there was no answer. He doesn’t want to see me. It makes me so angry.

– Listen, Luke, he told me to tell you he still likes you. Take it from me, when he’s like this you just have to wait.

Luke cries publicly, there in the Unicorn Bar at 10 pm. Not something he would normally do. Later at the Oxford, trying to be wise I say something like breaking up is a bit like a death and you grieve and…

It’s possibly the best thing I have ever written.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2009 in Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, personal, writing

 

Two works of fiction from my August reading

star304 star304star304 star30a1 1. Tom Coffey, Blood Alley (The Toby Press 2008)

Blood Alley seeks to recreate post-war New York. It does so very successfully, the plot ultimately concerned with underworld and high capitalist shenanigans around the creation of the New York UN headquarters. The political incorrectnesses of the time on race and other matters are faithfully recreated, but there is a fairly subtle moral compass for the 21st century at work in the tone too, without losing the authenticity and, um, colour.

I really enjoyed this one.

Chapter One

The dead girl lay beneath me.  The pale yellow streetlamps shed just enough light to let me see her feet and legs clearly.  Black heels and flesh-colored stockings faded into a dark form that curled into a fetal position.  I wanted to look away, but I was here to observe.  I blew on my fingers to warm them and began to take notes.

Finkel turned on his flashlight.

“This is aces,” he said.

She had sustained two bullet wounds, one in her forehead and the other in her midsection.  Purplish bruises circled her neck.  She wore a dark blue dress and a sleek, unbuttoned overcoat that I guessed was cashmere.

An open handbag lay a few feet from her body.  Almost comically, her hat had remained on her head.

It was the middle of November in 1946.  The war had been over for more than a year.  With rationing at an end, people were buying whatever they could afford, although I suspected I was looking at a Manhattan society girl who was never denied anything.

She appeared to be in her twenties.  The hair I could see was red, with permed curls that fell to her shoulders.  Her features were pretty but too thin, as if she ate only half a meal a day.  Her eyes were hazel and had the troubled glaze of a tortured soul who was, at last, at peace.

A smooth line of blood tracked down the alley toward the street.  I wondered if I had stepped in it.

Finkel said he needed stuff from his car.  This was gonna make a swell pitcher.  He gave me his flashlight and told me not to move anything until he came back.  Then he hurried away, threading through stacks of wooden crates stacked ten feet over his head…

See also the author’s blog.

star304star304star304star304 2. Iain Banks, Dead Air (Little, Brown 2002)

As Callum Graham says in the review linked at the title:

…The plot seems to move, not because of, but in spite of global terrorism. Iain Banks looks more at the effects, such as the media’s caginess to deal with the issues of reporting the events on radio, the effects on the public and the general climate of Britain after the events, without getting wrapped up in the hysteria of it. Perhaps this is because, like many of Iain Banks previous characters, Ken is originally from Scotland and sees himself more as an outsider looking in.

By noting these little changes which appear to have happened to England over night Iain Banks captures perfectly a snap shot of every day Britain. He also creates a picture of the British relationship with America. If the planes had been flown into the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia would we have given it as much media coverage?

However, it is not just the above which makes Dead Air irrevocably the here and now of the 21st century. It is the way that Ken as a broadcaster lives and works. Iain Banks successfully contextualises our time period through the voice of Ken on his radio shows. This is done with mentions of the IRA threat from the 70’s to the 90’s, commenting on the now familiar removal of bins from train stations. Ken’s radio tirades also cover the Israeli/Palestine conflict which although has been going on for centuries is just as relevant now as it has ever been. He even comments on his scepticism of those who are against the EU, or as he calls them ‘Europhobes’, and the infringement of CCTV into personal freedoms; all very current issues today…

Stephen Poole in The Guardian was less impressed:

… Dead Air is narrated by Kenneth Nott, a shock-jock on commercial radio who takes a swollen pride in his contrarian opinions. We first meet him at a drug-fuelled loft party in the East End of London, where everyone, for some reason, starts chucking fruit and furniture off the balcony. Ken’s girlfriend, Jo, does PR for a snotty young British indie band called Addicta; he is also sleeping with a woman called Celia (or "Ceel"), who happens to be married to a dangerous gangster.

You probably wouldn’t like to meet Ken. He is one of those annoying, professionally opinionated people who are never off duty. Large portions of the novel are dedicated to expounding his reactions to the latest topics of media discussion, whether he is on air or just chatting in a pub: gun control ("Guns for nutters only; makes sense"), American imperialism, CCTV cameras, Euroscepticism, the death of Diana ("put on a fucking seatbelt"), all get extended libertarian rants. It is a tribute to Banks’s chatty prose skill that these discussions are largely entertaining, if superficially argued.

After hundreds of pages of colourfully diversionary drinking, shagging and talking, Banks eventually remembers that he needs a plot, and so Ken does something unutterably stupid with a mobile phone..

I didn’t fret about the apparent lack of plot in those pages – even if Poole is exaggerating, I feel. I was caught up in the voice, which is brilliantly created; you don’t have to like Kenneth Nott after all. And he is saved by his self-deprecation.

A quote:

… Maybe, even, some tiny little strand of [religious belief], like, for example, the Wee Frees, who are part of the Presbyterian movement in Scotland, which is itself part of the Protestant franchise, which is part of the Christian faith, which is part of the Abrahamic belief-set, which is one of the monotheistic religions … maybe they and only they – all few thousand of them –  are absolutely bang on the money in what they believe and how they worship, and everybody else has been wrong-diddly-wrong-wrong all these centuries. Or maybe the One True Way has only ever been revealed to a one-man cult within the outer fringes of Guatemalan Highland Sufism, reformed. All I can say is, I’ve tried to prepare myself for being wrong, for waking up after I’ve died and finding out that – uh-oh – my atheism was actually, like, a Really Big Mistake.

… If people want to respect their environment by believing that the fish they eat might have been an ancestor, or learn to lower the toilet seats because their chi is leaking out, I’m happy to accept and even honour the results even if I think the root of their behaviour is basically barmy. I can live with that and with them. I hope they can live with me…

 

One fiction, one non-fiction

Two good reads for the last July 09 book review.

star30star30star30star30  1. Gary Bryson, Turtle, Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2008

I am not overfond of some of what passes as magic realism, but in this case the magic is really magic and the realism gritty and true. This is a wonderful first novel from Bryson, who works as a radio journalist on Radio National’s Encounter. From the title link above:

Mandy Sayer interviews Gary Bryson

Mandy Sayer was Gary Bryson’s creative writing lecturer when he was writingTurtle. She calls the book ‘one of the finest debut novels I have read in years’ and says Bryson’s storytelling is ‘quite simply, enchanting’. She spoke to Gary for Readings on the eve of Turtle’s release.

What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?

You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.

So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?

When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians…

star30star30star30star30 2. Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

Sounds dry, doesn’t it? But is really is a most interesting book. As the reviewer in the title link says:

This is a real gem of a book – especially if you’re a translator. Eco does a great job of exploring the complexities of the translation process and the problems faced by literary translators in particular. Translation is not just "typing in a foreign language"; translators are forced to continually analyze, interpret, evaluate and – as Eco puts it – negotiate with a text in order to craft a translation that conveys not just the "meaning" but the intent of the original. As both a translator and a "translatee", Eco has a unique insight into translation, and he provides numerous intriguing anecdotes relating to how the trickier passages in his own books and the books of others have been dealt with successfully – and sometimes less successfully – by translators. Being a translator myself, I couldn’t help but nod and smile in agreement all through this book…

The Guardian reviewer exaggerates the book’s difficulty, though there are indeed some knotty passages. On the other hand very many of the anecdotes and examples are highly amusing as well as instructive, such as the passing of the opening of Genesis through several languages in a computer translator by which the Spirit turns into alcohol…

 

Two rather different experiences: book and dvd review

star30 star30star30star30star30  The Tracker (Rolf De Heer 2002)

This truly magnificent movie — so resonant, so beautifully made and acted — came out when Australia was lost in Howard’s Great Stony Desert. As Margaret Pomerantz said at the time:

The film opens with a painted landscape – and this is signficant because paintings by Adelaide artist Peter Coad are integrated into the action of the film to historify events and to move the violence from realistic representation. Into this landscape come four men – four archetypal characters. They are the Fanatic, Gary Sweet, a government trooper who is heading an expedition to find an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Others in the expedition are the Follower, Damon Gameau, a greenhorn trooper, the Veteran, Grant Page and the Tracker, David Gulpilil. Like a tapestry unfolding the film charts the attitudes, the shifts and balances of power within the group as if it were the history of white settlement here. Along the way are confronting scenes of violence. But at the heart of every scene is the Tracker. Graham Tardif composed and Archie Roach sings on the soundtrack and it was one of the most emotional film experiences of my life to see The Tracker with Roach performing live at the opening of the Adelaide Festival. De Heer’s use of Coad’s paintings adds an uncanny power to the film, strangely making the violence more meaningful, more tragic, taking away any notion that’s it’s only a movie. David Gulpilil brings important heart to the film. De Heer’s screenplay and direction has extraordinary compassion despite the violence. It’s actually a film that’s important not to miss.

It still is important not to miss. For more reviews and a synopsis see Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker.

star30star30star30star30star30 Alexander McCall Smith, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (Edinburgh, Polygon 2008)

This is the sixth in the 44 Scotland Street series; I reviewed the fifth here. Again I was delighted. What was true of the fifth is true of the sixth:

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it. I see that captured in a quotation I planned to use myself, but fortunately Kerryn Goldsworthy has used it in a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, thus saving me some typing:

For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.

Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

One issue that runs through the novel is the discomfort some (perhaps many) Scots experience about social change, particularly relating to immigration, though it would be silly to accuse McCall Smith of racism. I can understand the discomfort, as Scotland has been until recently an exporter rather than an importer of migrants: I am part Scot myself! Even if quite a lot of what passes for Scottish tradition was invented by or after Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century, I do sympathise with the sense of loss. At the same time McCall Smith skewers ultra-romanticism with his very funny Pretender travelling across Scotland in a motorcycle sidecar attempting to replicate the saga of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A lovely book, with much wisdom to offer.

 

David Leavitt, “The Indian Clerk” (Bloomsbury 2007)

star30 star30star30star30star30 No problem with thinking of a rating. This novel is superb.

In the world of mathematics, Srinvasa Ramanujan had a beautiful mind.

The 23-year-old was an uneducated bank clerk in the Indian city of Madras when, in 1913, he wrote a nine-page letter to Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy filled with prime-number theorems. Soon after, Hardy recruited Ramanujan to work at Cambridge.

In his new novel, The Indian Clerk, author David Leavitt re-creates the lives of these historical figures, delving deep into their intellectual and personal worlds. Though Ramanujan died just six years after arriving in Cambridge, he had a lasting impact on his colleagues and on the world of mathematics.

That summary is from NPR, which also includes an extract from Chapter 1.

The man sitting next to the podium appeared to be very old, at least in the eyes of the members of his audience, most of whom were very young. In fact he was not yet sixty. The curse of men who look younger than they are, Hardy often thought, is that at some moment in their lives they cross a line and start to look older than they are. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had regularly been mistaken for a schoolboy up for a visit. As a don, he had regularly been mistaken for an undergraduate. Now age had caught up with him and then outrun him, and he seemed the very embodiment of the elderly mathematician whom progress has left behind. "Mathematics is a young man’s game" — he himself would write these words in a few years time-and he had had a better run of it than most. Ramanujan had died at thirty-three. These days admirers smitten with Ramanujan’s legend speculated as to what he might have achieved had he lived longer, but it was Hardy’s private opinion that he wouldn’t have achieved much. He had died with his best work behind him.

This was at Harvard, in New Lecture Hall, on the last day of August, 1936. Hardy was one of a mass of scholars reeled in from around the world to receive honorary degrees on the occasion of the university’s tercentenary. Unlike most of the visitors, however, he was not here — nor, he sensed, had he been invited-to speak about his own work or his own life. That would have disappointed his listeners. They wanted to hear about Ramanujan.

While the smell of the room was in some ways familiar to Hardy — a smell of chalk and wood and stale cigarette smoke — its sounds struck him as peculiarly American. How much more noise these young men made than their British counterparts! As they rummaged in their briefcases, their chairs squeaked. They murmured and laughed with one another. They did not wear gowns but rather jackets and ties-some of them bow ties. Then the professor who had been given the task of introducing him-a youth himself, whom Hardy had never heard of and to whom he had been introduced just minutes before-stood at the dais and cleared his throat, at which signal the audience quieted. Hardy made certain to show no reaction as he listened to his own history, the awards and honorary degrees that authorized his renown. It was a litany he had become used to, and which sparked in him neither pride nor vanity, only weariness: to hear listed all he had achieved meant nothing to him, because these achievements belonged to the past, and therefore, in some sense, no longer belonged to him. All that had ever belonged to him was what he was doing. And now he was doing very little…

leav190 I am a mathematical retard, but I could still enjoy this wonderful imaginative recreation of a fascinating place and time. The tone is astonishingly good, rarely faltering – quite a tribute to an American author venturing into the Cambridge world of Bertrand Russell and many another known figure from that time. I found the book to be about G H Hardy as much as about Ramanujan, and also about the gay world c.1900 – c. 1936 – very well captured. This is gay fiction come of age in that it does not depend on gayness but rather explores wider human issues.

For more see The New York Times and  The Elegant Variation at THE INDIAN CLERK WEEK CONTINUES: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LEAVITT:

TEV: How did you first become aware of the story of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan, and what made it seem like there was a novel in that story?

DL:  A few years ago Jim Atlas, publisher of Atlas Books, asked me to write a non-fiction book of Alan Turing and the invention of the computer for his series "Great Discoveries." In the course of researching Turing’s life, I bumped up against the Riemann hypothesis, which is widely considered to be the most important unsolved problem in mathematics. Like many mathematicians, Turing was fascinated by the Riemann hypothesis, and, at one point, even designed a machine intended to test the zeros on the critical line. To understand what I mean when I say "test the zeros on the critical line," you need to know a little about the Riemann hypothesis, which, at the time, I didn’t. Luckily four books explaining the hypothesis to lay readers happened to have been published the year that I was working on Turing. The first of these that I read was Marcus du Sautoy’s superb The Music of the Primes, which included a chapter on Ramanujan and an account of his collaboration with G. H. Hardy, part of which touched on the Riemann hypothesis.

I admit that what first fascinated me about the story of Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy was the language that Hardy himself, years later, used to describe it. He called his "association" with Ramanujan "the one romantic incident in my life." Knowing already that Hardy was perceived—at least by his other principal collaborator, J. E. Littlewood—as a "non-practicing homosexual," I decided to investigate the history of this odd "association" between a devout but poor Hindu Brahmin from rural Tamil Nadu and a fixture of Trinity College in the years just before and during the First World War. In sharp contrast to Turing, who was socially awkward and a bit of a loner, Hardy—and this was unusual for a mathematician—traveled in sophisticated circles. He was one of the only scientists to be inducted into the Apostles, the elite and secret Cambridge society the other members of which, at the time, included Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also had close ties to Bloomsbury and literary London.

Rich fare indeed.

 

First July reviews – mainly comic

star30a Dante’s Cove 2 (2007 DVD)

I watched just 15 minutes of this heap of crap. If one was drunk or drugged and with friends it may work. Fortunately my copy was free, thanks to Surry Hills Library.

star30 star30star30star30a Julian Halls, The Museum, Hobart, Knocklofty Press 2008.museum-cover240

This gets two rather dismissive lines on SameSame.com.

Halls’s strength as a comic author lies in his sharp, crisp and snappy lines. Unfortunately, the novel sounds like a guidebook in places, and a boring one at that. This probably explains why the Tasmanian government gave the project its support.

I agree about the “sharp, crisp and snappy lines” but was certainly not bored. In fact I found the novel hilarious.

It is indeed “old-fashioned”, as the publisher says.

This is a most unfashionable book: it’s funny, it’s well written and constructed — and it has a happy ending.

It’s that rarest of things in an increasingly sad and troubled world: a comic novel, a genre which has almost disappeared under the weight of political correctness, post-modernist claptrap and the self-regarding seriousness of far too many authors.

Julian Halls has created an unlikely assortment of oddball characters — and they’re all people we’ve met or close to it — and placed them in and around a mouldering, half-forgotten regional museum in Tasmania.

The complex main plot concerns the relationships between two same-sex couples, one male, one female, and the whole thing is set in motion by a blowfly; it gets even more bizarre after that, although it’s never incredible—just like real life. Several curious sub-plots emerge and they are skillfully woven into a surprising conclusion…

The museum itself reminded me of the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1950s, even down to the enormous whale skeleton in the entrance hall. Its sudden descent begins the series of crazy events. You can tell Halls cut his teeth in theatre – the novel is nothing if not a farce, but a pungent one.

The artist Benjamin Duterrau (1767-1851) is an important element in the plot.

17nat_conciliation_painting

Duterrau, “The Conciliation” 1840. Click on pic for more.

I liked this book.

star30star30star30star30star30a J G Ballard, Millennium People, London, Flamingo 2003

Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is one of my favourite books, and the 1987-8 Spielberg movie of it one of my favourite movies. Millennium People is a dark comedy whose targets include the romanticism of revolution, the mindless violence of events such as 9/11, and the sacred cows of the middle class on England – though there may well be a degree of endorsement of the latter.

One could also add, with this very perceptive profile in a source I don’t often agree with, that another target is the reader who, given Ballard’s profile, is probably in that same middle class. Joane McNeill writes:

In Ballard’s slapstick satire Millennium People (2003), the bourgeois residents of a gated community commit terrorist acts. They riot, clash with police, and bomb upper-middle-class establishments such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum. What are they protesting? “Double yellow lines, school fees, maintenance charges…cheap holidays, over-priced housing, educations that no longer buy security.” They are rebelling against, in one character’s words, “the barriers set out by the system. Try getting drunk at a school speech day, or making a mildly racist joke at a charity dinner. Try letting your garden grow and not painting your house for a few weeks.”

Like most of Ballard’s fiction from the last 20 years, Millennium People uses the framework of a middlebrow English novel as a way to parody the reader. For Ballard, as he explained to Salon in 1997, the novel is “the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader and at every point offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.”

I have his last book, Miracles of Life (2008), in line for reading. Millennium People joins my 2009 top reads.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2009 in Australia and Australian, Best read of 2009, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, movies, reading, satire, Top read

 

June review catch-up 2

Some quickies.

star30 star30star30  1. Ed Gaffney, Enemy Combatant (2008)

A good courtroom drama with a strong post 9/11 twist. It may be improbable, but not so improbable as to not make you wonder “What if?” See also Thoughts On "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney.

star30star30star30star30  2. Susanna Gregory, To Kill or Cure (2007)

I haven’t read many in the Medieval Whodunnit genre. This one is sufficiently entertaining and informative. See also Euro Crime.

star30star30star30star30star30 3. 1945: The Year That Changed the World (DVD 2008)

This series (2 DVDs) is excellent. There are contributions from first-rate historians, one of whom, Ian Nish, taught me Japanese and Chinese history in 1962! Yes he is rather older now. If you check YouTube you will find it well represented.

star30star30star30star30 4. Frontier: Worse than Slavery Itself (DVD 1997)

Famous so-called “Black Armband” presentation of Indigenous Australia and European settlement 1830 – 1860, based on the work of Henry Reynolds. I was particularly struck, of course, by the NSW material which focussed on the Dangar family of the Hunter/New England areas, and on some of the better documented massacres of those years. The series still stands up well despite the reaction to aspects of it from the likes of Keith Windschuttle. It really is good on the role of evangelical thought as a conscience of the times.

It is interesting to compare the more recent SBS series First Australians (2008). Its episode dealing with NSW in the early to mid 19th century drew attention to another settler family, the Suttors of Brucedale, whose relations with the Aboriginal people were comparatively enlightened.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2009 in best viewing 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, History, Indigenous Australians, reading, Thriller

 

A Partisan’s Daughter

star30 star30star30star30star30  Louis de Bernières, A Partisan’s Daughter, Harvill Secker 2008

9781846551413 I thought this was just brilliant. I am quite amazed that some critics saw it as rather lightweight; I found it just right, and very insightful on human fallibilities and the nature of relationships. I see one complaining the Serbian history is tiring; I found it fascinating. The narrative voices are beautifully realised, the construction superb. What’s to complain about?

In The Guardian Joanna Briscoe writes:

Because Chris is narrating retrospectively, with the viewpoint shifting fairly seamlessly between him and Roza, an awareness of later events in Yugoslavia is enhanced by Roza’s descriptions of different factions and nationalities as she grows up. The Russians, she claims, "say we’re all just bandits and we’ve only got loyalty to our relatives, and we make pacts with our enemies just to take advantage of our neighbours". As a writer, de Bernières is truly international in his scope, inhabiting one country after another with convincing detail and authority.

The novel’s charm works by stealth. It reads like a memoir; it offers subtle comment on the art of storytelling; it rarely strikes a false note, and it contains lessons about love and regret and seizing the moment. Like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, A Partisan’s Daughter is a novel about missed opportunities and wrong paths taken, tracing the way in which one false move can alter the history of a life. "I have never lost the pain in the chest and the ache in my throat that Roza left behind," says Chris.

This is a work whose soul is too quiet to make a big impact, but whose artistic integrity should be applauded. It’s a wise and moving novel, perfectly accomplished. It shows that no life is ordinary. It shines fresh light on the nature of love.

Well, it made an impact on me; all to the good that it isn’t a blockbuster.

See also Sarah Vine in The Times.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, reading, writers

 

Book reviews as promised…

Fiction

Certainly Siddon Rock has many fine moments and does evoke a rural setting and its period (the 1940s) very well, even if Persia is referred to as Iran and Pakistan, then non-existent, mentioned. Perhaps too I am tiring of magic realism, or, in our Australian context, the Wintonesque; when people wander around with blue spots floating above their heads I tend to turn off. Nonetheless, the novel is well worth reading.

Cut Her Dead is an effective crime fiction, but the best of this lot is the witty T is for Trespass.

Non-fiction

In a field where pseudohistory is rampant – think Da Vinci Code – this intelligent, well-written introduction is a must read. It is so refreshingly no-nonsense.

Excerpt:

Introduction: Recouping Our Losses

It may be difficult to imagine a religious phenomenon more diverse than modern-day Christianity. There are Catholic missionaries in developing countries who devote themselves to voluntary poverty for the sake of others, and evangelical televangelists who run twelve-step programs to ensure financial success. There are New England Presbyterians and Appalachian snake handlers. There are Greek Orthodox priests committed to the liturgical service of God, replete with set prayers, incantations, and incense, and fundamentalist preachers who view high-church liturgy as a demonic invention. There are liberal Methodist political activists intent on transforming society, and Pentecostals who think that society will soon come to a crashing halt with the return of Jesus. And there are the followers of David Koresh — still today — who think the world has already started to end, beginning with the events at Waco, a fulfillment of prophecies from Revelation. Many of these Christian groups, of course, refuse to consider other such groups Christian.

All this diversity of belief and practice, and the intolerance that occasionally results, makes it difficult to know whether we should think of Christianity as one thing or lots of things, whether we should speak of Christianity or Christianities.

What could be more diverse than this variegated phenomenon, Christianity in the modern world? In fact, there may be an answer: Christianity in the ancient world. As historians have come to realize, during the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison.

Most of these ancient forms of Christianity are unknown to people in the world today, since they eventually came to be reformed or stamped out. As a result, the sacred texts that some ancient Christians used to support their religious perspectives came to be proscribed, destroyed, or forgotten — in one way or another lost. Many of these texts claimed to be written by Jesus’ closest followers. Opponents of these texts claimed they had been forged.

This book is about these texts and the lost forms of Christianity they tried to authorize…

It is worth the price of admission for Chapter 4 alone, on Morton Smith and the “Secret Gospel of Mark”. Is it a forgery, and if so, whodunnit? Fascinating, whatever your own religious views. Ehrman delivers an open verdict.

See also Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith by Anthony Grafton in The Nation January 7, 2009. “The sexual undertones of the document have led some to suggest, explicitly or by innuendo, that Smith, a gay man, forged the text for personal reasons…”. From Grafton’s article:

In 1973, Morton Smith, professor of ancient history at Columbia University, shook the world–or at least the world of scholars who work on early Christianity. Fifteen years before, Smith had found an unknown document in the Mar Saba Greek Orthodox monastery, fifteen kilometers southeast of Jerusalem–an ancient Christian text that no one before him had ever mentioned. A letter in Greek, originally composed in the second century by a church father, Clement of Alexandria, and addressed to one Theodore, it was handwritten in ink, in an eighteenth-century hand, on the blank end pages of a seventeenth-century printed book. Less than a thousand words long but rich in detail, the text attacked one of the wonderfully named sects that made the early centuries of Christianity so complex–the followers of Carpocrates, or Carpocratians. These heretics, as Clement and Theodore saw them, claimed that they possessed a secret version of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, they believed, had taught his followers that they were freed from the law and could do whatever they wanted without sinning. According to one of their Christian critics, Irenaeus, they actually thought they earned salvation by "doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts."

Clement assured Theodore that he had been right to silence these "unspeakable teachings." But he also admitted that there was a secret version of Mark’s Gospel–a version that the Church of Alexandria made available only to initiates. In a passage that Clement quoted, Jesus raised a rich young man from the dead in Bethany. "And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan"–a passage that suggests a libertine interpretation of its own, at least to the twenty-first-century reader. At the same time, Clement denied that an inflammatory phrase, "naked man with naked man," which the Carpocratians had cited, came from the true secret Gospel. The evil Carpocrates had obtained a copy of the text and "polluted" it with lies.

It was an astonishing discovery…

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Christianity, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, History, OzLit, reading