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Two non-fiction books that have impressed me lately

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. Tariq Ali, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008)

Yes, I know: Tariq Ali, famous 1968 alumnus and “wild man” of the Left. But even London’s Spectator, hardly famous for Marxist leanings, concedes, while also drawing attention to the book’s very pleasing style:

… Tariq Ali’s universal cynicism might have been oppressive, but in fact his narrative is funny and gossipy, the high points being his own encounters with key players, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir and Indira Gandhi. He believes that the country’s satirists, writers and poets serve as Pakistan’s collective conscience and uses writers and poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Jalib and Ustad Daman to provide the moral compass for his wanderings.

Political turbulence has revived interest in stories from an earlier period of Muslim in the region, Ali says. He relates a 16th-century story that — with some modifications — sums up life in today’s Pakistan with painful accuracy. A man is seriously dissatisfied with a junior magistrate’s decision. The latter, irritated, taunts him to appeal to a senior judge.The man replies, ‘But he’s your brother, he won’t listen to me’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the mufti’. The man replies, ‘But he’s your uncle’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the minister’. The man replies, ‘He’s your grandfather’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the King’. The man replies, ‘Your niece is engaged to him’. The magistrate, livid with anger, says, ‘Go to Hell then’. The man replies, ‘That’s where your esteemed father reigns. He’ll see to it that I get no satisfaction there.’

The government, the political parties, the civil service, the mullahs and the army all have reason to be angry with Tariq Ali and The Duel will outrage as many in Washington as in Islamabad. But Americans should read it for its explanation of why so many in Pakistan hate the US, blaming it for the dire situation in which they now find themselves.

In fact this sprightly romp should be read by anyone who wants real insights into Pakistan. It is as good a primer on Pakistani politics as you will find, with the caveats that it is not the whole story, it is not always accurate and Ali’s prejudices are his own.

Yes, but he makes more sense of this part of the world (including Afghanistan as these stories are inseparable) than most. I see a great love for his subject despite what the Spectator calls cynicism – and indeed cynicism seems to me quite rational in this case.

See also Democracy Now and The Independent. There is also a one hour YouTube and some shorter ones you may access from there.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography (2005)

THE biography – a touch presumptuous that! But this is nonetheless a feast of a book which until recently I had just nibbled at for reference purposes. Some say Ackroyd speculates too much, but I find many of the speculations fruitful. It is also very grounded in excellent social history. Here’s a quick taste.

… Of his earthly life there was much less certainty. In the sixteenth century, the mortality of the newly born was high. Nine per cent died within a week of birth, and a further 11 per cent before they were a month old; in the decade of Shakespeare’s own birth there were in Stratford 62.8 average annual baptisms and 42.8 average annual child burials. You had to be tough, or from a relatively prosperous family, to survive the odds. It is likely that Shakespeare had both of these advantages.

Once the dangers of childhood had been surmounted, there was a further difficulty. The average lifespan of an adult male was forty-seven years. Since Shakespeare’s parents were by this standard long-lived, he may have hoped to emulate their example. But he survived only six years beyond the average span. Something had wearied him. Since in London the average life expectancy was only thirty-five years in the more affluent parishes, and twenty-five years in the poorer areas, it may have been the city that killed him. But this roll-call of death had one necessary consequence. Half of the population were under the age of twenty. It was a youthful culture, with all the vigour and ambition of early life. London itself was perpetually young.

The first test of Shakespeare’s own vigour came only three months after his birth. In the parish register of 11 July 1564, beside the record of the burial of a weaver’s young apprentice from the High Street , was written: Hic incipit pestis. Here begins the plague. In a period of six months some 237 residents of Stratford died, more than a tenth of its population; a family of four expired on the same side of Henley Street as the Shakespeares. But the Shakespeares survived. Perhaps the mother and her newborn son escaped to her old family home in the neighbouring hamlet of Wilmcote, and stayed there until the peril had passed. Only those who remained in the town succumbed to the infection.

The parents, if not the child, suffered fear and trembling. They had already lost two daughters, both of whom had died in earliest infancy, and the care devoted to their first-born son must have been close and intense. Such children tend to be confident and resilient in later life. They feel themselves to be in some sense blessed and protected from the hardships of the world. It is perhaps worth remarking that Shakespeare never contracted the plague that often raged through London. But we can also see the lineaments of that fortunate son in the character of the land from which he came…

See also Looking at Shakespeare, in 3 Different Ways.

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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.

 

I was led to one of those English Teacher moments…

By my reading of that newly found archive, that is. Back in June 2004 I noted this:

One of those nice English teacher moments that happen very occasionally.

Are you my English teacher from TIGS? If so, I just thought I’d let you know that the doors you helped open for me helped make me what I am today — a reasonably successful author.

Check out my website.

— James

Yes, it is still there.

hartley

 

Friday poem 15 & For the fifty million dead — 2: W H Auden

It has to be at this time seventy years later: W H Auden’sSeptember 1 1939”.

Auden and Isherwood sailed to New York in January 1939, entering on temporary visas. Their departure from Britain was later seen by many there as a betrayal and Auden’s reputation suffered. In April 1939 Isherwood moved to California, and he and Auden saw each other only intermittently in later years. Around this time, Auden met the poet Chester Kallman, who became his lover for the next two years (Auden described their relation as a "marriage" that began with a cross-country "honeymoon" journey). In 1941 Kallman ended their sexual relations because he could not accept Auden’s insistence on a mutual faithful relationship, but he and Auden remained companions for the rest of Auden’s life, sharing houses and apartments from 1953 until Auden’s death. Auden dedicated both editions of his collected poetry (1945/50 and 1966) to Isherwood and Kallman.

Here are the first and last three stanzas:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
***
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
 
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Posted by on September 4, 2009 in British, Europe, events, poets and poetry, writers

 

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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…

 

New anthology of Australian literature

macpen_auslit_shadow In today’s Australian Nicholas Jose has an article about the new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. A companion, the excellent Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, has already been published.

… But what is Australian literature anyway? If it seems a dumb question, the answer is not as obvious as it may appear. Does a piece of writing have to be about Australia to qualify, or is it enough if it is written by an Australian, or someone who was in Australia some of the time? Can fantasy or science fiction be Australian if it is written by an Australian but set in another world?

My answer would be yes, potentially, but it helps to be able to point to something Australian, however elusive. Nikki Gemmell’s novel The Bride Stripped Bare is an interesting case. First published by Anonymous in 2003, it was no surprise when the author was revealed as Australian.

There’s a giveaway when the heroine escapes the London cold for Morocco and the sun heats her up in a way she seems to know from some other life … down under.

And how do we define literature? Does genre writing such as romance and crime fiction count, and what about history writing or the speeches of (some) politicians? Again my answer would be yes, potentially, depending on what’s happening in the language, the ideas, the literary imagination of those writers, and what effect their words have on us as readers.

The terms Australian and literature are a potent but unstable combination, invoked in lofty charters and fierce debate…

There’s a touching scene in Alien Son, Judah Waten’s 1952 memoir in which the boy’s mother, a migrant to Melbourne from Odessa, wanting a "musical education" for her kids, takes them to listen to records at a friend’s house. The music "sounded far away and thin, like the voice of a ventriloquist mimicking far-off musical instruments". They go to a music shop where the mother asks the salesman to play records to the embarrassed children — Caruso, Chaliapin, "whole symphonies and concertos" — until the manager asks if she ever intends to buy one.

The son must translate his mother’s reply about her children’s "right to music and culture and in fact the rights of all men": "Just because we are poor must we cease our striving?"

The striving of many people such as Waten’s mother, and Waten himself, as a writer, has given Australia an extraordinary culture, including a great body of literature, transformed from distant mimicry into something of our own, something to share, to argue with, to extend and pass on.

I cherish in all the arts a space for Australian voices – even if it is just to remind ourselves that we are not, after all, Americans. ;)  This is not jingoism. Arts that can show us who and where we are with conviction and authenticity (old-fashioned words I know) are to be cherished, and the paradox is that it is often those works from other countries and cultures which are most “local” that move us most. So rather than being the literary equivalent of McDonalds, works like The Great Gatsby or even To Kill a Mockingbird speak to us of – and beyond – a locale they so wonderfully evoke.

I guess I will be able to learn more of the Macquarie anthology; I’ll be dining at M’s on Sunday and Nicholas Jose will be the guest of honour.

 

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.