Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Book review: Close Call, Stella Rimington (2014)

For a number of reasons this is one of the most sombre of Rimington's novels, not the least of which is a notable death that impacts heavily on Liz Carlyle, the author's regular heroine. For me, the dark tone of this novel took hold when a second member of the forces that are ranged against criminals turned out to be a crook. The first bad apple to appear in the book is Antoine Milraud, a former member of the French security service who turned gun trader. We have met Milraud in earlier Rimington novels. But it is the second - a senior member of the British police's Special Branch - whose betrayal of the principles of justice seems to weigh most heavily on Rimington. It can't be easy to admit that some serving officers fall off the straight and narrow way, especially for someone like Rimington who, as head of Britain's domestic spy service, must have been privy to many such cases during her tenure in that post.

In the novel the terror plot which Carlyle is drawn to disrupt has an inexorable logic to it, too, and this mechanical advance of the terrorists' plans also serves to demonstrate that Rimington has reached a higher level of maturity, in this novel, compared to earlier ones. There is one moment of chaos when the author's hand appears a bit too prominently in the drama, toward the end of the book, but in general the action has a consistency and rationale to it that shows the author is firmly in control of her subject. You are able to concentrate on the details, confident that it is among them that the clues to the characters' destinies lies, and Rimington provides plenty of suspenseful pursuit - of villains in the streets of Berlin and London - and of the truth more broadly. This is a highly readable novel and one that represents a new level of composure for the author, one of today's spy fiction giants.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Book review: An Echo of Heaven, Kenzaburo Oe (1996)

This is another of Oe's explorations of faith, belief and the transcendent, along the lines of the more recent Somersault - his book about a religious cult that came out in English in 2003. In a way this novel functions within his opus as a prefiguring of that book. Here, Oe even elucidates his ideas about the novel as a 'incarnation' in the same way that Christ was an 'incarnation' of God, thus roughing out the lineaments of an aesthetic formula to follow. I had to ask my local independent bookseller to get this for me but they found it online; this copy once belonged to some library in New Jersey. It has travelled far, like its author, who has a number of novels as yet untranslated.

The book uses a number of familiar - to readers of Oe - tropes, such as the disabled child, the religious leader, and the search for transcendence. In it Marie is the main character, although we most closely follow the person and reactions of K, the author who eventually writes the book we read. Her name is pronounced Mari-Eh, in the Japanese way, but in English it also works well enough. A woman weighed down by a terrible domestic tragedy, Marie is a seeker whose quest takes her to America and eventually to Mexico, where she is involved in an agrarian commune. The last five years of her story - on the farm in rural Mexico - are the least satisfying for the reader. Presumably, Oe, who didn't know the place very well, kept a discrete distance.

There are other things about Marie however that serve to make her attractive. Her attraction in a sexual sense to K is evident, and she also has relationships with other men in the story. Beyond the purely physical attraction however there is also her appeal as a symbol of grief, and it is something like this that makes her attractive to the Mexican commune leadership. I doubt that Oe would appreciate having his characters so readily labelled in this way but there are indicators in the text that he himself is prone to this kind of habit of glossing. Oe is a slightly odd figure in Japanese letters, as he tends to refer most commonly to Western precedents - in this book there is a section where K introduces Marie to Frieda Kahlo, for example, and in other books we see Oe struggling with the mystic William Blake. With one foot in Japan and the other placed firmly in Europe, Oe has some kind of ability to appeal to readers in both places, and this is something that I regard as a kind of strength in his writing.

For Oe enthusiasts, An Echo of Heaven is certainly something that should be read. As usual with Oe, the sinuous and complex sentences always find their fitting end, and function to bring to life a set of compelling characters whose stories mesh into a satisfying whole. As always with Oe there is a quiet kind of energy that takes time to germinate into striking images, but once you see them, you will never forget them.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Book review: A French Novel, Frederic Beigbeder (2013)

This funny and epigrammatic novel - sort of like the best of Jane Austen - by French author Frederic Beigbeder (pronounced 'beg-bed-air') is a novel like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was a "non fiction novel", as the author self-consciously once dubbed it. In fact it's a memoir but it's written in the novelistic style we call 'creative non fiction'.

The premis is simple. Arrested by the Paris police for consuming drugs in a public place, Beigbeder is forced into confinement. Long lost memories bubble up in this pressure-cooker environment. The author likens the dependency and subjection of childhood to imprisonment. So he writes a history not only of himself (we seem to spend a lot of time between 1972 and 1974) but also of his family, starting with WWI, as so much of French national history, you imagine, must also do. In the kind of scientific and imaginative way we expect with the French, Biegbeder seeks as well to locate himself within French history - hence the book's title. It's a very compelling journey during which apart from learning you also tend to empathise, to shift the centre of your own soul's gravity so that it is located somewhere closer to that of the book's protagonist.

The young Frederic's parents were divorced, for example, so you compare his experience with your own (the author was born in 1965, I was born in 1962) and you enjoy the passages in which the narrator digests his experience and uses it to make general observations on the world. Complex and worldly, tender and intricate, the narrative carries the reader along with its flow like some broad estuary situated near a warm ocean. We spill out into the sea and swim for the horizon. With this kind of talent nothing is impossible, you think.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Book review: Point to Point Navigation, Gore Vidal (2006)

Having read through Edmund White's books about Paris (you can see the reviews on this blog) it occurred to me how American expatriates sooner or later return to their homeland, and because I knew about Gore Vidal - another lettered, gay American living in Europe out of preference to his native country - it behooved me to visit this memoir.

It was published three years after Vidal's partner of many decades, Howard Auster, died as a result of a lifetime of smoking. Those chapters are devastating for someone, like me, who recently gave up the habit. Vidal never wrote another memoir; he himself died six years after this book came out. It's clear that one of the main reasons for Vidal's moving back Stateside was in order to access the superior health system that country offers. (Although this depends; when White returned to teach at a US university with his lover, the lover, who had AIDS, had a health crisis; the two had to return to France because the lover was not American and did not have health cover.) Like Vidal, White moved back to the US eventually - after 16 years in Paris , in his case, far less than Vidal clocked up in Italy - and he now teaches there.

Vidal's memoir was supposed to start in the mid-sixties and go on from there; there had been a previous memoir, Palimpsest, which was published in the 90s. But it doesn't. It starts with his childhood, so people curious about what the author got up to in, say, the 90s might be disappointed with this book. There is a part of the memoir where Vidal matches his movements to his publishing of novels - having just arrived in Rome, he spends a month writing Myra Breckinridge, one of the novels he is most famous for - but this case is the exception rather than the rule. If there was a determined pattern for the author to follow it eludes me. The memoir is episodic and surprising. So what can it offer the reader who is not the sort of person who reads absolutely everything by and about Gore Vidal?

There's the amusing voice, full of laughter and the wisdom of age, for a start. Vidal saw a lot of American history in the 20th century first-hand due to his family connections, his politicking, and his work for TV, cinema and in publishing books. He was a regular on TV shows in his heyday (say, in the 60s and 70s) and his almost permanent absence overseas seems not to have dimmed his appeal for the public. In short, Vidal was a player, but also a liberal and an ambitious, talented man. So I think he's worth listening to, if you can find a couple of days to read through his final memoir.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Book review: Inside A Pearl, Edmund White (2014)

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed here another White book about Paris, one published 13 years prior to this one, but they are not similar even though some material from The Flaneur makes its way, changed to fit the setting, into this one. Inside A Pearl is a gossipy memoir that demonstrates the empirical tradition within which Anglosphere authors operate. There are generalisations - some are catty, others are sweet - but they all devolve out of reminiscences of people White met during his 16 years living in the French capital. Rather than being a book merely about people, as opposed to a book about pure ideas, Inside A Pearl is a book in which ideas evolve out of discussions of people.

I felt like I was standing in front of someone with a machine gun that only shot bullets made from Turkish delight.

There is however a structure in this very literary memoir, and as the pages wind down there is another lover - White must have been a very sweet man to have attracted so many men into his life. He divulges attitudes toward other objects too, of course, not the least of which being the leading lights of literary London, the social lights of Paris, the lights of Berlin's movie industry, the lights of New York's gay community. White's life is a life lit by candles held by posterity for its better scrutiny of what transpired. Through all of this, however, is White's friendship for MC, a woman who befriended him when he moved to Paris and who remained a friend throughout his sojourn.

The book also has a soft landing but there are plenty of passages where the treatment meted out to others is rather candid. An author well-known to many but ignored by probably more in his homeland might have more need to find a resort in a foreign country, even if he was a stringer for several magazines back home. Such a writer may even attempt to become an expert on France, or at least on Paris, thus curtailing debate. In my mind, having read White in my youth, he hardly has to prove his worth, but I'm glad that he has taken the time required to turn out this rather long book. We are all richer for the observations that have been captured in this format.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Book review: To Begin To Know, David Leser (2014)

Australian literary journalism has its lights but ever since I studied journalism at uni, beginning in '06, when this blog was established, David Leser has been one of the leading ones. For me this book stands as a turning point in that history: a thrilling and insightful, and deeply human, portrayal of a man's life. Because while it's ostensibly about David's father the book is more correctly a memoir. It might be that there was just so much to tell - David clearly loves his father very much, and the feeling is reciprocated - that the only way to do it justice was to include the whole shebang.

For me particularly there were furthermore many points of commonality. The executive father, the private school, the housewife mother, the help in first jobs, the exclusive postcode, the interest in journalism. For others there will be similarities in the late-30s stumble, the broken marriage, the striving for success - these are probably almost universal things that we all share. But for me there was so much I could identify with that I actually started to be both moved and enthralled at each point of turning.

David Leser's sophisticated style also made this an easy book to read. Unlike so many boring biographies, David does not just start with birth and go on from there. Things are introduced when they're needed. There are radical shifts in perspective and large jumps in time and space. These things are needed if you want to make sense of something as complex as a life - in a sense, two lives, those of both David and his father, the publishing magnate Bernard Leser. And there are certain times in life when certain things are accomplished: marriage for example. For David the puzzle became more complex when he started to have trouble sleeping. His life took a new tangent and the family relocated from Sydney to Byron Bay where he would live for the following 12 years. The place allowed David to explore the growth and flourishing of the counterculture within himself - the seeds that had been planted during his childhood through American popular culture. And then the decision to write the book - the seeds that had been planted during his sojourn in New Orleans when he had first read the works of Truman Capote.

I loved this book and would like to recommend it highly but I feel a certain hesitancy in doing so because the story feels to sit so close beside my own. But maybe this is the secret David Leser has uncovered. Whatever the case of the matter, I read through to the end hardly able to restrain myself from skipping ahead to the next paragraph, the next page. Which is hardly ever something you see used to describe one's reading of a memoir.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Book review: The Flaneur, Edmund White (2001)

I'm not sure what I envisaged when I purchased this book but having finished it the title seems slightly dishonest. White lived in France, he says, between the ages of 43 and 60 (I lived in Japan between the ages of 30 and 39, so he has some advantage over me were I ever to write about flanant in Tokyo), and so has a claim to understand Paris but his choice of topics - the book is divided into six chapters that each covers a specific area of interest - suggests an American rather than a French mentality. He describes why himself. In his chapter on gay (as in, homosexual) Paris, for example, White concludes that the specific tone of French egalitarianism precludes natives from identifying as, say, gay writers. Identifying with a minority is, somehow, illegitimate for the French, he tells us. But nevertheless there's a chapter on American blacks in Paris and one on the Jews. But he points right near the end of the book to "those little forgotten places that appeal to the flaneur, the traces left by people living in the margins" and it's hard to know if this was added as an afterthought to justify the author's idiosyncratic subject choices, or chapter themes, or if it had been a deliberate organising principle from the very beginning of the work.

I admit I was expecting a bit more footing around. The only places White actually describes walking are when he talks about Baudelaire's curious way of walking the pavements, and when he describes hunting for rough trade on the Ile de la Citee on nights that passed during his sojourn in Paris. Apart from that we are given more historical information than details about the actual appearance of the Parisian streets.

So the subtitle of the book is not quite accurate. More accurate would have been 'An American progressive's version of Paris' or some such. Which does not mean the book is not worth reading. It is. Just do not expect a tour guide or a dolorous account of slipping among the raindrops down dim cobbled streets around dinner time. (Which would have been preferable from my point of view.) This is a cultured American gentleman's version of Paris and it's worth a look even though the word "flaneur" tends to appear only occasionally, as the beginning of sections, being soon eclipsed by something of more pressing interest to the writer, such as Jazz Age performers and the current claimant for the Bourbon throne.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book review: Public Enemies, Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy (2011)

It's easy to think that a person with no particular interest in either of these authors might find this book a bit tiresome. The best parts deal with public criticism; both authors are apparently prone to such, although they're obviously best-known in their native France (Houellebecq was living in Ireland at the time this book was published - he may still do so for all I know). However for those who like Houellebecq's novels the book contains an interesting contrast in styles and attitudes towards life. Houellebecq has something of Eeyore about him while Levy tends toward the Appollonian, the shining knight wreathed in garlands striving off to do battle with his enemies.

The idea for the book apparently arose after a dinner the two men attended, and so they decided to down lances and amicably write about their fears, their literary loves, their philosophical predilections, and their fathers (more on fathers than mothers). It's a little bit contrived, but so are these two writers, both of whom live their lives very much always in the context of their public personas. It should be remembered that in France Houellebecq, at least, is hated by many; his progress in the Anglosphere I think has been a bit smoother. As for Levy, he's got money and is also an intellectual; perfect fodder for critique right there, I suppose.

As for where they sit on the ideological spectrum, I suspect that Houellebecq's pronouncements make him suspect-looking from either side. Levy probably is of the left, but not in it. Contradictory characters, it seems.

Houellebecq's hang-dog demeanour in the book lets him hide, however, an advantage. In the end, he comes out of the contretemps looking like the stronger writer; there's just something a bit too glamorous and steely about Levy for my taste, something adopted as a pose in view of the planned publication of the correspondence. Houellebecq seems to be the more subtle thinker, also. But these are probably not important considerations. From my point of view the most important thing going into this book was to understand better one of my favourite authors. Now, to get a better handle on Levy I have ordered a couple of his books. To orient myself. To better understand.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Book review: Forty-one false starts, Janet Malcolm (2013)

Among all these fabulous pieces my stand-out preference is a 72-page article about the editor during the 80s of a New York art magazine, originally published in the New Yorker, partly because it attests to the writer's abiding interest in the arts; she would never have thought to do the piece unless she had not personally been affected by the change in editorial style of Artforum, you think. A long article, the piece has that deep structure which is so hard to distinguish at first, but which all along is working to organise the writer's words. It contains extended sections of direct speech from art critics, mainly, but also from artists. The topic is such a strange idea though it coheres - but this is the kind of odd thing that fans have come to rely on Malcolm to deliver.

For journalism students the name Malcolm is almost shorthand for intelligence and quality in journalism, and this book delivers both in strong doses, like a good morning coffee. You wonder how the stories were assigned, or dreamt up, whichever the case may be, but you are constantly delighted with the acute eye of the writer, the depth of research, and the commitment to delivering strong stories. Like the Katrina Strickland book I reviewed a few days ago, this is a keeper, because it's pretty certain that one day you'll want to go back and reread one of the pieces because it will have remained with you in some way you cannot immediately anticipate.

There is plenty here to puzzle over and to think about. This is a very strong book, despite the drab cover which has something decidedly belonging to 70s amateur design about it. Of course, the pieces range in time over a period of 30 years, so appropriating that particular aesthetic is not out of place. It just doesn't do justice to the power and colour of Malcolm's writing.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Book review: Affairs of the Art, Katrina Strickland (2013)

In her excellent book, this journalist has done much more than add her piece to post-feminist commentary. There's a lot to learn in here for anyone with an interest in Australian art, which is a sphere most usually isolated from what happens in the rest of the world. So it's not just a book by a woman about women for women. Because most Australian artists in the relevant periods - the Modernist period and the period immediately following it - were women, and women tend to outlive their husbands, most of the subjects in the book are women. But not all.

In any case the most interesting thing for me personally was learning about things like the value of art. A good take-away for anyone who collects art is to make sure you have good documentation for your acquisitions. A gallery receipt might come in handy sometime, say 30 years down the track, if provenance becomes an issue.

That's on the practical side. Beyond that, there are tons of interesting stories in here not just about how women have handled their dead husbands' affairs but about how the art market works. For this reason alone the book can be profitably recommended to read for anyone who has an interest in art.

Strickland prior to writing this book had written about art for a major Australian daily newspaper, and over the course of writing the book she gained valuable insights into the way different people - let's say, different women - have handled the posthumous business of art dealing. The insights she developed over time give her license to make value judgements about people. So it's interesting to read at the end of one chapter her salute to Lyn Williams - widow of painter Fred Williams - who emerges from reading the book as a kind of superlative model of an artist's widow, at least as far as we are allowed to see by reading the book.

But the kinds of relationships that exist over time change and so the general relationship between the widow and the estate also changes for later generations, as we can see by reading about cases that came after Lyn Williams. There is a generational shift in the role of the artist's partner, and this emerges in the way the estate is handled for people living later. Robert Klippel's estate, for example, is being handled by his son, Andrew. So it's not always about women wielding power.

In many cases it is, however, and for biographers as well as auctioneers dealing with these women it can be a fraught business. How a widow relates to the memory of her partner becomes something that other people have to adjust themselves to, sometimes with explosive results. And so the personal enters the public sphere, in a way that we usually see only with pop stars and movie stars. The art world is a lot quieter, usually, than popular culture, so it can offer different kinds of lessons to us all.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Rereading Houellebecq

A most extraordinary thing has happened. I have read Michel Houellebecq's 2012 novel The Map And the Territory for the third time. It's of particular significance because it's frequently the case that I do not even get past the first 50 pages of a book. For particularly bad books, that is. Houellebecq's novel has allowed me to metaphorically snuggle up with emotions and ideas that have made me happy in the past. In this way, the rereading of the novel for the third time is a kind of virtual comfort blanket where the overriding sentiment is a kind of gentle nostalgia, a fond regard on what has passed that stands in opposition to the bright exaltation that suffused my being when, in my childhood, I finished a particularly gripping novel. I still remember finishing the Tolkein saga, for example, and I can happily say that finishing The Map And the Territory for the third time was nothing like that. This time, I felt pleasantly sad, as though I was aware of having done something pleasant for the final time.

Or like looking back over the past week and thinking about all the wonderful television shows I have watched; the police dramas, the comedy shows, the news telecasts. All of them leave a residue on your soul that is not removed by future viewing, but which rather is somehow enhanced as in a palimpsest so that new things appear amid the old, things belonging to the old but which were not visible yesterday, and these things become visible in a muted and subtle arrangement.

Not unlike in the final works of Jed Martin, the hero of Houellebecq's novel.

It would be natural for me to go on and reread Houellebecq's 2005 novel The Possibility of An Island, a reading that could then segue into my finishing Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault, since they both deal with cults. It doesn't really matter which one I read because I will always be looking for the emotional effect that rereading The Map And the Territory produced in me; if I don't find it in one book I can always try another, and another ad infinitum. There are an unlimited number of books in the world to choose from. So I can go on picking up books, trying a few pages, then possibly putting them down again if the desired effect is not achieved. I can then class the successful candidates as "books to read when mildly depressed". Maybe I can make a new narrow focus blog dedicated to this one concern, and generate a following of mildly depressed people throughout the world. Then the blog can be turned into a book and become a bestseller.

That's something to look forward to, but it's unlikely, as the requisite dedication and application of my mental faculties on such a small area appears right now to be completely beyond me. I shall just go on shuffling through my book collection and scanning the new release tables of independent bookshops in search of the next book that will attune itself to my mood.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

A day trip to Brisbane

Distance can remind us what is important. For example, yesterday I decided in the early morning to go to Brisbane to see the galleries so I got in my car, filled it up with petrol, and drove the 100km down the highway to the capital, where I parked under the gallery. I ate lunch in the cafe next to the library and mooched around finally ending up in the bookshop in the Gallery of Modern Art where I bought a book on Rauschenberg and one on Francis Bacon - this latter purchase a gift for my daughter - and then headed down to the State Gallery where there was a collection of watercolours on display.

The watercolours all showed scenes of Queensland and dated from the earliest colonial times to the 1950s. The thing that struck me about them is the temptation on the part of the painter to depict the atmosphere. There were dark, cloud-hung views of the Glasshouse Mountains, a steamy, blue view of Moreton Bay with a schooner making way, and an overcast sky above Brisbane and its potent river. I left the gallery, returned to my car, and headed back up the highway. I had only been in Brisbane for about an hour but it was enough to remind me that I belong at home with my mother, that we have a symbiotic relationship, and that it is only with her that I can be at peace. Even though I only spent a little time in Brisbane the sensory overload was too much; there was too much to see and to do.

Usually when I go to Brisbane I visit the bookshop in town but not this time. I felt full with happiness as I headed back north with the traffic making patterns around my car and the road streaming out ahead like a banner signifying rest.

On the way down there had been on the radio a discussion about how to commemorate war and it featured a man who spoke about service and how, instead of inane, knee-jerk celebrations of war we should rather give our time in service such as in a nursing home. So maybe my time looking after my mother enables me to feel what those men long ago felt about the wars they served in. Giving time to someone else in service is a kind of brake on ambition, it slows you down, you are tied to a large, immovable object. It grounds you. It defines you. It also gives you time to dream, though your dreams might be imbued with a substance as slow-moving and dark as the Brisbane River. I walk through this substance and breathe in its essence.

When I returned home yesterday I felt better. It was where I belong, among my books, with my kitchen, and with the routine of meals and phone calls that punctuate and give form to my days. Days that pass one after the other in stately procession. Days of hope, days of small joys, days of quiet despair.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Why I have been quiet for a week

I've been quiet online for the past week with no new blog post since Sunday when I had a minor crisis with confused thoughts, severe negativity, and a feeling of helplessness stemming from my mother's dementia. On Tuesday she and I went to see her geriatrician and I told him about how managing her illness was becoming more and more of a burden, and he took my words seriously, suggesting thinking about finding alternative accommodation arrangements for her. This involves getting her assessed by the government so that a suitable level of care can be found in a nursing home. There are a number of such residences nearby but the assessment will provide information that can result in an appropriate kind of residence for my mother's particular situation. She and I will go to see her GP in about 10 days' time to arrange for the visit, but it might then take some time for the team to come to see my mother.

But even though these discussions have been conducted, the mild depression I am living with continues to bother me. This week has been distinctly unpleasant. On Sunday last the negative thoughts proliferated as I tried to sleep, and throughout the week I have slept badly, usually waking during the night several times, and in the intervals having strong dreams. I have been exercising for about an hour each day, but I think that part of the problem is alcohol since I have been drinking a few glasses of wine in excess each evening.

Negative thoughts are a signal of poor mental health for me. You have confused thoughts, you spend long periods of time feeling lost, and you even compose critical diatribes as you lie in the dark that aim to say what you think you want to say to someone, to go over things that have happened in the past, or to rewrite the record in a way that suits you in your hyper-critical phase. The negativity is sometimes overwhelming, and while that may appear unfortunate it is a symptom of the malaise I have lived with for 14 years.

Sleeplessness associated with these running thoughts that involve your mind for long periods of time can also operate like a drug. You can easily become euphoric, but then that euphoria can suddenly switch to panic, and so your heart can ramp up to beat at 120 bpm and you can stay in this phase for hours and hours until you find sleep through exhaustion. I have experienced this many times because of my illness. If you live with mental illness you learn to know the symptoms, and so you try to manage them. The consequences of not doing so can be extremely unpleasant.

Looking after my mother also involves looking after myself but just for her care is complicated - even though we have someone to come in each day to do laundry, wash dishes, and do the shopping - taking in such things as medication, finances, monitoring the regularity of meals, making sure the house is locked and secure, checking up in case of falls, and generally just worrying about the thousand details that constitute a normal person's life. These details disappear for most people in the regular practice of living but when you have to look after someone else - as well as yourself - the number of them proliferates to an alarming degree.

Because I have two households to monitor and manage, and two people who are both living with a mental illness, the burden can sometimes be heavy, and so other things - like writing, in my case, or even reading - can fall away from the focus of current preoccupation. There might simply be no bandwidth available for things that are not immediately relevant to the basic demands of living. I think it is important to find a balance, and so I decided to get back on the blog this morning and talk about these issues here.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Way By Swann's, Marcel Proust

This is my second review of this book, completed after finishing reading it, but I suggest that you might realistically spend years writing about Proust's wonderful novel and never finish exploring the ways in which it reveals things about itself and about the constructed world in which we all live. I thought it appropriate to use a drawing of Charles Ephrussi with this post as he was it is said the model for Swann, Proust's hero in the novel. I have written about Ephrussi before in the context of Edmund de Waal's historical study of his own family, The Hare With Amber Eyes, which was published in 2010, and while Swann is a character of some interest in Proust's novel what is of more immediate interest is the way the author draws out the mystery surrounding the man, although to explicate this mystery completely here would equate to utterly traducing the reader's interests.

Yet there is a mystery in the book, which opens with a portrait of the narrator's family seen through the lens of his childhood, which is spent mainly in the countryside. In the second section of the book we learn about Swann's romance with Odette de Crecy, a love affair conducted on unequal terms due to Swann's elevated material lifestyle and to Odette's tendency to prey on rich men, and which terminates in the book at the point at which Swann finally rids himself of his obsession, an occurrence that happens in the blink of an eye, it seems.

But the mystery really emerges to the fore of the reader's imagination in the book's third part in which we are appraised of the narrator's own childhood obsession with Gilberte, Swann's daughter. Part of the mystery is linked to the fact that in the book's second part - which deals with Swann's love affair - Swann has no daughter and is not married. This part of the book takes place in Paris but most of the year it had seemed, from the novel's first part, that the narrator lived in the countryside; you also wonder how the narrator could have known so much about Swann's life if he - the narrator - was still a boy. If he's still a boy in the book's third part then he must have been a boy in the book's second part, when Swann was still unmarried. The mysteries proliferate. But the largest mystery is the identity of Swann's wife, and we do meet her near the very end of the book's third part although I am not going to tell you who she is.

Being able to see all the stages in the life of a man, as we do the stages of Swann's life - the visits to the narrator's family home in the countryside, the energetic pursuit of Odette through Paris's streets, the plangent expressions of frustrated desire when confronted by Odette's cruelty, the third-person accounts of the father's comments relayed through the daughter to the daughter's Champs Elysees playmate - is something that belongs to maturity, in this case the maturity of the writer planning his work of literature. To ensconce this sequence of relations within the ambit of the consciousness of a boy is to play a kind of trick, unless we are being invited to imagine the man the boy grew into, now thinking in retrospect about the events of his childhood.

For even as it peters out into oblivion - the oblivion that lies in the space created by the novel's final sentence - Proust's book turns its attention to the nature of this kind of retrospective regard, and to its colours, feelings, atmosphere and tones. The aerial blick - as in the German augenblick, or regard - that characterises Proust's novel - the lofty view, as though we are seeing things through a lens suspended high in the air - turns into a kind of sigh in the novel's final sentences as the author bids us adieu. While doing so he reminds us that there is something magical about the anterior regard - we might say the imaginative reconstruction of the past - because by its means we are able to learn something about ourselves and feel a complex of emotions that might reveal themselves as we walk down the street, head bowed somberly in contemplation, in a corporeal shiver. This frisson of recognition embedded in the final paragraphs of the novel is what, finally, determines the significance of the novel for us, and also reminds us that an equal sensation might be available to any one of us should we take the time to recount the past as it happened to us, as well.

There is for example the line of the Paul Simon song, "Losing love is like a window in your heart." But it is not true at all. This is because people may not, in fact, see you falling apart, and the effects of lost love might linger for years if not decades, a fact of which I was reminded yesterday when I was searching for some photographs of the 2009 Mardi Gras parade. As I was looking through my files in search of those photos I came across some photographs taken about 18 months after that event, and looking at myself in them, smiling for the camera, I remembered the moment that was thus captured and it became clear to me just what I have lost. The sensation is hardly comfortable, and translates into a hard ball settled in the pit of my stomach, but then again I can think of the things that I have gained in the years since, and I cherish the friendship.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Raking up memories of the Bill Henson case

From an SBS World News Australia segment
on the Bill Henson case, 23 May 2008. 
There was talk last night on the ABC's new courtroom drama Janet King about artists using the excuse of exploring the transition between innocence and adulthood to produce child porn, with Australian actor Darren Gilshenan on the stand as Alex Moreno, the alleged perpetrator, and Marta Dusseldorp as barrister Janet King on the offensive, and getting flustered. Moreno came across as a manipulative and unreliable character who probably lied on the stand.

If these parts of the the episode made some people think of the Bill Henson case in the autumn and winter of 2008, when the renowned Australian photographer had his artworks siezed by police from his gallerist in Paddington, in Sydney, and then had to tolerate everyone from child protection workers to the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, proclaiming his creations worthless and disgusting, they can hardly be faulted.

It is somewhat ironic then, if not downright disturbing, that yesterday also it was announced that in October the Classification Review Board banned a 1980 Swedish film after an application by the Australian Federal Police. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Save us from Charlotte Dawson's newly-grafted-on supporters

I had a dream in which I returned to Earth, and when I came back from space I was talking about what it was like but there was someone else, a writer, who produced a written description of what it was like to return to Earth. I read the description and then started talking, telling the writer how my version of returning to Earth differed from what was written. But the writer's words were read by many people while I was limited to speaking words quietly in a room, and the written description of what it was like to return to Earth was strong, although it differed in many material aspects to my version, which was based on experience. When I woke up it was 2.30am so I had a drink of water and went back to bed but a mosquito came out of the darkness, and so here I am writing.

My dream reminded me of something that happened yesterday when there was outrage on social media about an article written by a person called Deborah Hill Cone, in New Zealand, about the death of Charlotte Dawson. In the article, Cone suggests that Dawson suicided because of the ravages of age, and she said some things that are quite accurate, for example:
It is hard being 47. At the crisis of middle age, losing your sexual currency, becoming invisible. Psychologist Joseph Burgo says getting older inevitably involves a kind of narcissistic injury: as our bodies age and younger people find us less physically attractive, they seem to look right through us, as if we no longer exist.
Now I don't know how old Cone is but going by her newspaper dinkus she must be 35 if she's a day. I doubt that she lives with depression, but then again I doubt that the majority of the people who were wheezing with pompous outrage on Twitter have a clue what is involved in mental illness, from a first-person perspective. The truth is that a suggestion such as Cone's is hardly the worst thing that can happen to you if you live with mental illness; the hard realities of psychosis, for example, likely put far greater demands on your patience than any media columnist could produce, and so it seemed comical to me to read all the statements of regret and hatred, directed against Cone and in favour of Dawson. More than merely comical: it seemed ludicrous. As if the worst thing that could happen is that a few progressive opinion-makers in Australia might have their worldview challenged in the matter of someone else's suicide. Poor dears.

The fact is that as you age you do become invisible, and for someone involved in the image industry, as Dawson was, that must be challenging. There was surgery to help improve the image. As far as I know - for I am not a woman and I don't work in TV - Cone might be right, and Dawson found ageing too much to cope with, but I doubt it. I think that her depression was triggered by something else - a TV program featuring her ex-husband was mentioned - and she buckled in advance of public comments from anonymous trolls, those whose words she had unwisely heeded in the past. Dawson's mistake was to give a shit what other people - people too cowardly to come out from behind the convenient screen social media makes available - had thought and said.

For us the mistake is to sentimentalise her death. Her life, after all, was her own to end. We no longer say "commit suicide" because no longer is there the moral opprobrium attached to the act, as there was for millennia, when the opinion of the Church - that suicide was a mortal sin - meant different treatment for the remains of suicides, than for people who died by less violent means. Attempted-suicides were treated as criminals. If Dawson wanted to kill herself she had every right to do so, and it's nobody's business except hers.

The language we use to talk about suicide is filled with euphemisms, metaphors, allusions and other rhetorical tropes - Cone accurately points to the in truth annoying "demons", for example; a word that peppers talk of suicide in the media and on social media - because we are trying to deal with something that is alien to us and so we seek to find ways to make it conform to our view of the world. There is also a thick coating of sentiment used by people with no connection to the subject who think that by saying these things they are honouring a memory they never had except within the flickering simulacra of mediated culture. No wonder Cone got stroppy. Because that's what her article is, in the end. It's not addressed to Dawson herself but, rather, it's aimed at the legions of newly-minted Dawson groupies who emerged in the wake of her suicide to overlay public debate with their confected feelings of sadness, or whatever it was they felt. Probably not much actually.

So I sympathise with Cone - as I return to Earth and ready myself to tell people, in written words, what it felt like - because like her I cannot stand falseness and fatuousness, routine expressions, and bland moral outrage. In the face of the despair that someone with a mental illness faces - on their journey in space, outside the comfortable confines of Earth's sweet atmosphere - the chatter of the public looks to me something like the isolated specks of the unblinking stars that are embedded in the immeasurable blackness of the mortal universe.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

We need more people to come out like Charlotte Dawson

When I saw news online that a TV personality named Charlotte Dawson had suicided I had to puzzle and do a bit of research because I had no idea who she was, which is entirely due to the fact that I never watch commercial television least of all the to-be-avoided-at-all-costs Murdoch's Fox. While Dawson participated in the low-rent side of the media which flatters the aspirations of the unlovely majority, it seems that in private she was a nice person, someone who would look out for you and ask if you were OK. Ironically, it seems that it was the very medium she had adopted as her platform - a TV interview with her ex-husband that was to be aired - that led to the collapse of her sense of hope, and her death.

It may also have been fears of a repeat of the online attacks that she was subjected to two years ago, and which led to a suicide attempt. Whatever it was, Dawson found herself suddenly walking over a chasm into which all her hope fell in a glittering waterfall as it pulsed out of her chest, as panic set in. The black void below consumed the entirety of this output and as she took each uncertain step it continued to froth and splash down into the darkness filled with a thousand stars. The life was being drained out of her by the void. She was terrified and she did the only thing for which strength remained at the time.

The terrible truth is that people around the country - and around the world - do the same thing as Dawson did, all the time. Not a day passes that someone in Australia does not take the steps she took to end the fear and anguish, the terrible, crushing paralysis of despair. Just like Dawson was herself a really nice person behind the trashy mainstream-media glitz and bubble, in reality depression and other mental illness is a constant humming quietly - but awfully for those who live with it - in the background at a pitch that the majority of people just do not hear. This is why, in 2012 when Dawson was subjected to harassment by online trolls, the barrage was unceasing: noone realised what they were doing. But we never talk about mental illness, and so it's no surprise that this is so.

There are tens of thousands of functioning individuals in positions of authority and material significance who hide their mental illness because they fear that knowledge of it by the community will damage their prospects. But unless people like this come out and declare their conditions publicly we will just continue on in the same way, regretting another death among the cohort of prominent people that the community broadly speaking looks up to. And then they turn away and spend the rest of the year oblivious to the pain and suffering that surrounds them wherever they walk. The streets are in fact filled with invisible men and women. Meanwhile hundreds and thousands of ordinary people - who do not appear on TV daily and who do not live in exclusive harbourside apartments in Wooloomooloo - fall prey to the fear and the loss of hope.

It also struck me that the tendentious emotion that was generated in the wake of Dawson's demise assumed that death was the worst thing that can happen to you. The fact is that a mentally-ill person usually does not have the objective clarity to see this anyway questionable fact. What they experience IS real. It IS happening to them. And it IS unremittingly ghastly. You think death is bad? Try a 10-hour panic attack, or three months of paranoid psychosis. For people in such situations death can look just like a walk in the park.

Friday, 21 February 2014

A shopping centre is a fantasy trap

I took my mother to get a bone scan at the imaging clinic yesterday and after she went in with the practitioners I was told the wait until the procedure finished would be about 40 minutes, so since I was close to the department store I chose this moment to go and buy some shoes. My shoes were a mess and had deteriorated to a state of dilapidation equaled only by the facade of some inner-city luxury apartment. Unfortunately, unlike that, these were just as bad on the inside as they were on the outside.

After I reached the shopping centre I immediately varied my trajectory looking for a toilet and - engrossed in the difficult things to do with organising my elderly mother that had occupied me beforehand - I promptly walked straight into the ladies' loo before realising my mistake and backtracking, embarrassed. Once I had looked after nature in the appropriate room I turned south and made my way to the department store anchoring that end of the shopping centre. I had never realised how stimulating shopping centres are. Picking a path among the strolling walkers - people just passing time inside, or those conforming to type and window-shopping - I navigated through the arcade past the escalator, around the coffee kiosk, past the jewellery store, through the portable gondolas displaying women's clothing, and between the security stanchions located at the entrance to the department store. To get here I had had to cope as well with music - the insane kind of piped music that saturates all shopping centres and which makes mere photographs of the inside of shopping centres so entirely dissimilar to the reality they actually present if you visit - that asked me to slow down, smell the roses, spend time to look, attend to the plethora of wares available to the unwary.

All I wanted was shoes. I had no need for a new watch, a pair of running shoes, a hot coffee with milk. To buy shoes was my object, and so when I arrived at the shoe section at the very far extremity of the department store I picked up what I wanted, told the sales clerk it needed to be in size 11, walked to the cash register, paid, and walked out of the department store into the hot summer day.

There was no way I was going to return into the bowels of the shopping centre with its startling array of goods displayed with all the ingenuity bequeathed by 150 years of retail touting expertise, and with its insistent, saccharine piped music, something that gets into your system and pools there like a puddle of spilled honey, clogging your joints, infiltrating your intestines, slowing down your movements and begging you - please! - to stop and spend time and money on things of which you have absolutely no mortal need. I realised in my extremity - please try caring for an elderly parent with dementia if you wish to revisit the most difficult periods of your life: those linked to raising small children - that the shopping centre represented a complete fantasy that has nothing to do with satisfying actual needs, and everything to do with flattering consumers who enter it so as to extend indefinitely the period of time they spend inside. A shopping centre is a fantasy trap, a slow-moving carnivorous flower that gently encloses you until you are immobilised. When you are, it carefully sucks the life out of you until there is nothing left but a dry husk, shivering in the wind.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Labelling the ABC unpatriotic is the classic turn of the demagogue

It has been just on three weeks since prime minister Tony Abbott had a go at the ABC for a story it aired in which asylum seekers accused Navy personnel of deliberately burning their hands during an operation on the sea. Since then Abbott has announced an inquiry into efficiency at the national broadcaster, and further details about the maritime contretemps emerged via the Sydney Morning Herald, the Fairfax Media broadsheet. ''You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team,'' said Abbott, dog-whistling for the benefit of the mouth-breathers who read the Daily Telegraph and listen to 2GB, enacting a kind of fascist witch-hunt where those who are outside the tent can be attacked at will by anyone with a stick.

Abbott's tactic - labelling the ABC unpatriotic - is the classic turn of the demagogue and the tabloid media took the bait with the eagerness you would expect from the supine toadies of the monied classes. Xenophobia is one of the tried-and-true methods conservative governments use to convince the proletariat to support it despite the fact that they operate in the interests of quite other classes within the community. Hitler didn't invent this kind of othering, of course, as I learnt recently when I read a book by Simon Schama on the French Revolution: placing your enemies outside the protective haven of the patria was the first step in achieving their eventual elimination. And it's no accident that Schama placed prominently on the cover of his book an image of an axe fashioned out of a faggot - the symbol of the fascio that would be adopted by Hitler's model, Mussolini. You only have to hint that someone or some organisation stands outside the community in order for the dogs to start barking, as the Murdoch press immediately did in its eagerness to toady to its favourite son.

But the debate is not over. It's one thing for Abbott to demonise the ABC - criticising the ABC is a kind of knee-jerk reaction of conservatives when they need a whipping boy to draw attention from their own misdeeds - but Fairfax is another matter. As a broadly-held public company, Fairfax is not liable to claims of bias except by the loony fringe Abbott has no need to convince of anything.

The prime minister does not understand what a free press means, and it's hardly surprising. The Liberals early adopted the habits of the military in order to shut down debate on the treatment of asylum seekers: the military is expert in silencing discussion of things it finds inconvenient. It's not surprising that the prime minister resents a free press because he's not the first to do so: Paul Keating famously made sure that Murdoch dominated Australia's media in an attack on Fairfax that has turned out to have been demonstrably less than wise, given Murdoch's preference for conservative politicians. But a free press has a benefit far greater than the immediate personal biases of venal politicians like Abbott. It offers the community an essential safety valve because only a truly free press can pull together credentials adequate to counterbalancing the lies perpetrated by men like him.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Book review: A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (1992)

The author's success in keeping me interested - or, more precisely, her lack of success in this regard - meant I stopped reading at page 75 in a 750-page novel. You lose track of who's being dealt with, for a start. Is this Robespierre? D'Anton? Desmoulins? Heaven forbid you put down the book for a day or two and come back to it because you'll be completely lost in your tracking of the progress of these young men. And as happens with a lot of biographical treatments (non-fiction biographies are notorious for this structural deficit, which operates as a kind of obligation on the author's part and, like most obligations, it's just tiresome) Mantel starts right at the beginning - in childhood - and trundles on from there like an unpsrung wagon over cobblestones.

The men were all major players in the French Revolution and what we're supposed to see in these early stages of the narrative are the "seeds" of what they would become. And because Mantel is writing from a point of view 200 years after the events she deals with it's hard to offer surprises. It's just a lack of inventiveness. Everything "means something", is supposed to have a weight, an import beyond what's immediately apparent to those involved at the time. But it's dull.

Mantel tries to enliven the sludge by using a "light touch" - which is partly responsible for your never knowing who's in the frame at any given time - and a set of colourful metaphors that do not, however, consone with the aesthetic bent of the era. As a result you have a lot of writing that borrows its strength from a time far in the future in order to leaven the mix in the book's present. If the tropes were any good it might work but they're very average even for us now, and do not sufficiently stimulate the reader's attention, so they sit wobbling on the page like tricked-up anachronisms, or like gift boxes of chocolates at a gourmet picnic. They remain untouched on the grass and the ants of indifference end up getting at them.

I felt like each piece of artistic language was a present from some rarely-seen aunt from some stagnant by-water of the family tree and the incongruity of her offering related to her misapprehension of what I am interested in and what I need. Historical fiction hides deadly traps like this but it is the author's responsibility to make sure the language both matches the reader's ear and answers the questions the drama unfolding poses. Part of the problem may have to do with the fact that the protagonists Mantel chose are all men and, as a woman writer, she simply misses what they might have felt because of a lack of empathy.

There's no doubt the book is ambitious. It's just that the author fails to capitalise on the opportunities available to create drama partly because of the "light touch" she uses and partly because of a failure of imagination. Mantel is not "there" enough to enable us to see what she imagines should be seen, and the novel falls over in a heap of plot scraps and inappropriate poetic language.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Book review: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, Lyndall Gordon (2010)

By diligently suspending disbelief in the stupidity of the book's main topic - the affair between the poet's brother and a woman from Washington D.C. - I managed to get to about page 25 before the enterprise ended up seeming totally worthless. Gordon contrives both to adopt the values of the most doltish of those alive when the poet lived, and to take as her own the laborious prose style of the late 19th century, with the result that you feel truly to be wading through treacle with every sub clause and qualifying phrase. It's bad enough that the book is so trying to read, but to assume that the poet really cared about who her brother took to his bed is to either miss the complexity of the poetry or to devalue the originality of the poet's vision, a vision that has not yet - as far as I can tell - been adequately understood even today.

Gordon's tabloid obsessions are murky and squalid compared to the undeniably gnomic utterances of the poet. If we measure America's appreciation of Dickinson by this production we must assume that the case is still entirely unsolved. Imagine Austin falling for the blandishments of that interloper! Poor man. No doubt he found the society of Amherst as oppressive as a time traveler would, if a time traveler was to arrive from the 21st century into that small town with its religious curiosities and weird social stratifications. Unfortunately, when Gordon decided to go there she forgot to shrink wrap her 21st century intellect, and whatever remained of it after scouring the archives has been comprehensively wiped clean, leaving her with an archaic view of the world that even Dickinson would have laughed at.

As for the struggle of those who lived after Dickinson died, surrounding her legacy and its presentation to the world, I give not a fig. The idiots can scramble for reflected glory with as much passion as they like, I don't need to get involved. The poetry is enough for me.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Matt's update Friday, 14 February 2014

Bought USB extension cable.

Book purchases
  • Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
  • Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family Feuds, Lyndall Gordon, 2010
  • The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin (thanks to Hannah Forsyth for the lead) – edition of 1999, original German first published in 1982.
  • A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (for February Book Chat Oz), 1992
Book Chat Oz
  • February episode is to cover Simon Schama’s 1989 Citizens and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety
  • Both books are about the French Revolution
  • Schama’s book is a history book
  • Mantel’s book is an historical novel
  • Will go live at the end of the month
Made contribution to William Yang: Friends of Dorothy video through Pozible campaign.

  • ‘Giants’ (posted 30 Jan) looks at the anxiety that the weather can cause in a sub tropical location. 
  • ‘Thoughts of a friend of Geoffrey Zygier’ (posted 10 Feb) takes a look at the father of the Australian who died in 2010 while in the custody of the Israeli authorities.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Book review: Citizens, Simon Schama (1989)

Apart from bibliographical material and an index there are 741 pages of text in this book and I read 559 of them, which is not a criticism of the book, rather to openly acknowledge the brevity of my attention span; just getting me this far as a reader is testimony to Schama's superior style. In any case it's a story I already knew in many of its details; I gave up in the lead-up to the murder of the king, Louis XVI. Of course there's a lot of killing and shouting in this book, and these are the most likely candidates for my disinterest rather than familiarity but in any case the earlier parts of the story are those I had less knowledge of and getting to learn why the French people were able to move so quickly from loyalty to the king to the establishment of a new form of government formed, for me, a major new plank in my understanding of communities in general.

Most of us know something about the history of the early 20th century so will recognise something familiar in Citizens, where we learn of the wound to common amour-propre resulting from the loss of territories in the Seven Years' War adding a need for retribution to the stresses and strains associated with the nation's near-bankruptcy following the American Revolution, which was what forced the king to call his parlements to Paris to consult. Schama's achievement is to add to this equation the animating dynamic belonging to the age. As I wrote a few days ago:
Schama identifies dominant narratives used by people alive in the late-1780s, that were based on a set of notions that had been expressed in the books of Rousseau a generation earlier, to rationalise their actions even in the lead-up to the crisis of 1789 that we commonly refer to as the storming of the Bastille.
And also, he says on page 465, there was animating the community "the confluence of the neo-Roman obsession with exempla virtutes and the Romantic infatuation with the Promethean will".

Schama quotes relevant actors in order to locate those elements in the narratives animating people, especially in Paris, and so links a kind of interior monologue - which is of course an invention of a much later era - with the most terrible acts of murder as well as expressions of the sovereign will of the people. The irrational fear that people felt immediately after the National Assembly was constituted is probably nothing more complicated than popular understanding of the novelty of the situation people suddenly found themselves in but in many ways it was this fear that decided so many outcomes in the months and years that followed, and that eventually resulted in pan-European war.

So what is striking in this book is the author's ability to show not only how people felt but why. Schama's style lets him include a wide range of authorial responses to the material, as well, which brings the reader even closer to what's happening, so that you have a many-leveled narrative in which the author is as much a participant - if not the most important one - as any of the people whose lives are chronicled. Schama uses English in a sophisticated manner, as well, and employs complex linking sentences, usually placed at the beginning of paragraphs, that synthesise what has already happened while allowing the reader to segue to what is to come. Unlike the straight narrative of events, for example, these difficult sentences demand - and deserve - the reader's close attention.

Schama also often takes a lofty view of his material, ascending to a vast height above current concerns so as to add perspective to them, throwing on them the light of what lies in the future. At times this can be exhilarating but there are other times when he goes up too high and you lose sight of what's currently on the workbench. Names of gatherings of people blur, the timeline warps, and things generally tend to become fuzzy around the edges. However when this holistic method works, for example near the beginning of the book, the result is that Schama is able to construct the kind of expansive narratives that we enjoy in truly superior history books.

For those who are interested, Grant and I will be covering this book in Book Chat Oz at the end of this month, so you can get more feedback about it then.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Why I refuse to read the Bible

I'm reading a history of the French Revolution at the moment by the great prose stylist Simon Schama because Grant and I will be talking about it in Book Chat Oz, due for production at the end of the month. The book - Citizens (1989) - was suggested by Grant and this fact causes me to rack my memory because I'm trying to think of the reason he picked this book. I'm getting close to the half-way point in the book and in what I've read so far it's as clear as the nose on my face that Schama identifies dominant narratives used by people alive in the late-1780s, that were based on a set of notions that had been expressed in the books of Rousseau a generation earlier, to rationalise their actions even in the lead-up to the crisis of 1789 that we commonly refer to as the storming of the Bastille. But perhaps "rationalise" is the wrong word here. Perhaps those notions organically motivated people alive at the time to take attitudes toward the different actors in the contemporary French polis, that led to the well-known events. (The cliches multiply to populate popular consciousness even now: on the ABC's QI program the other night the program's participants were asked to identify a sound made by running the blade of a heavy knife down a length of steel pipe. The person holding the knife then hacked a cabbage and, finally, threw another cabbage into a steel bucket. Together these sounds mimic what the action of the guillotine sounded like.)

We are products of our time.

Since I was about 12 years old I have experienced pleasure from the act of reading. Part of the credit must be apportioned to my brother, who is two years older than me and who started reading hungrily even earlier than this. There was a time in my childhood, I remember, when my brother decided to read the Bible and I remember him walking slowly in the top garden lost in his thoughts. Reading was common in our household. Dad read Fortune magazine and my mother and grandmother - a woman who lived in our family throughout my childhood - read crime novels. My brother mainly read science fiction and his interest infected me until I started to become interested in European literature in my final years at school. I also read hungrily the Gerald Durrell books about travel and animals and other books of the same kind. Although my grandmother went to church every Sunday and my brother and I attended an Anglican school - where we went to chapel once a week and sang hymns during church services held at significant times during the year, and in the weekly assembly in the hall - the household was noticeably secular.

My Anglican grandmother - my father's mother - had married an illegal immigrant from one of Portugal's African colonies who had probably been raised a Catholic but who was fiercely anti-clerical by the time he arrived in Melbourne. On my mother's side her parents were brought up in the Presbyterian tradition, although her father later became a loyal Communist. All these different flavours of observance and non-observance seem to have had the effect of eliminating any ecumenical efficacy that might have endured in the others and in the process of mutual cancellation any last residue of attachment to God was forever and ineradicably lost.

I loved my brother but there was something fishy about his enthusiasms - and he had many in those years - and the Bible enthusiasm struck me as particularly fishy. I preferred to think about the blue plains of Mars created by Ray Bradbury and the immense plains of the ziggurat-world invented by Philip Jose Farmer. I grew attached to Gavin Maxwell's otter as described in Ring of Bright Water and thrilled at the adventures of Durrell in Africa, in South America, and in Greece. I was busy encasing myself in sentiment, forming deep attachments to fictional characters, and understanding my actions according to how far they strayed from the notions inhering in these examples of humanity. So the enthusiasms of the peuple in later-1780s Paris make more sense to me now than did then the philosophical abstractions of the Bible that preoccupied my brainy brother.

After school I went to university and the process of secularisation was accelerated through the study of the Renaissance and other historical periods, but at least that reading brought me to understand the importance - to people of the past, that foreign country - of the Bible in European history. Gerald Durrell and (later, during my university years) Henry Miller to me were what King David and Jesus were to Humanist book-lovers of the 16th century. I also came to understand how historical awareness animated the imaginations of the science fiction writers I had enjoyed so much in earlier years.

As for the Bible, for a secular youth of the late-20th century the Church was always going to cause problems. Studying Italian culture, as I did, brought me face to face with examples of great injustice. The names Giordano Bruno (pic) - burned at the stake - and Galileo - censured and attacked - endure in memory as the names of martyrs to the cause of the Enlightenment project I had been brought up to celebrate. What strikes me now is not so much how blind people had been for continuing to revere the Bible - which had, nevertheless, functioned in such a liberating way on the imaginations of so many people in the early Renaissance period - but that they did so for so long. It wasn't until the generation of my grandparents that irrational links to revealed religion had started to loosen.

Revealed religion is so anathemical to my view of the world that even to pick up the Bible to read it appears to me to be an act of pure disloyalty to the people who fought so hard so that I could be everything that I am.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Book review: The Way by Swann's, Marcel Proust (2002)

This is the first in a series of novels and it first came out in Proust's native language 100 years ago last year. I feel an obligation to say I'm still reading the final chapter in the book. You might ask why I didn't wait until I'd finished it before doing a review. The answer is I have other reading tasks that got in the way. I choose to write about the book now out of a feeling of compulsion.

Before reading this book, it might help some to know, I had never read anything by Proust, and it took one false start before I really got into the groove and settled down to enjoy. That false start involved a feeling of confusion, and having mulled over why I felt confused by the book I picked it up again, after a delay of many weeks, and found in it plenty to cherish, enjoy, celebrate, and master. I then became, in fact, a devotee.

One of the things devotees do is defend to the death the object of their devotion, so when I saw someone on Twitter lambast publicly the former New South Wales premier Bob Carr for having had the temerity to read out aloud, in Parliament, part of a book by Proust, I bridled like a draught horse who has just caught sight, in the road, of a snake, and I contented myself with regretting, as I had done so many times in the past, that hard-bitten and toadying anti-intellectualism that is the birthright of every Australian, who enjoys the evanescent joy of representative democracy with the overblown relish that a man who has survived adrift for two days on the ocean with the help of an upside-down Esky displays when he comes to shore and is handed a cold meat pie to assuage the burning hunger animating his miserable guts.

The length of the above sentence prompts me to want to reflect, momentarily, on Proust's language, because this is an author for whom no sentence can ever be long enough. His sentences are like the musical inventions of Wagner or Mahler or Liszt or Rachmaninoff where boors might regret the "longueurs" of the passages, but enthusiasts tremble with sensual delight at the weight that a single note is made to effortlessly convey across the gap between two tonic phrases. In Proust's case the method has its downsides; the section dealing with the party in the second part of the book suffers for this characteristic of the author's style because you simply lose track of who is talking, who is being talked about, or who is standing watching the other people mill about in the room. But granted the occasional shortcoming, I found much to celebrate in Proust's decision to take the sentence and draw out of its elastic stuff great plastic bridges on which sentiments and ideas travel as cars do across one of the high gorges in the national park north of Sydney.

Having dealt with these two problems - public reception and style - I will say a few things about the content. The first part takes us into the French countryside with our attention focused through the lens of a young boy, and the major point of interest in this part of the book is the boy's bourgeois family. We are also treated to the boy's emerging understanding of nature, and these passages are particularly delightful. The second part of the book is about a neighbour of the boy's family in the country - Monsieur Swann - and his love affair with a woman, in Paris, who is no better than she should be. We sense a mismatch between Swann and Odette - something to do with sophistication and class - but we would do well to reflect that Swann, himself, displays some of the characteristics of the dilettante or the amateur, and his occasional bit of attention accorded to the work of one painter or another is, if anything, rather more flighty than serious.

The last part of the book takes themes from the first two parts - youth and love - and deals with the boy himself, now in Paris, and a girl he falls in love with, Swann's daughter Gilberte. Swann's love for Odette and the boy's for Gilberte are perhaps phrases that belong in the lower register of love, and perhaps we are to come into contact, in the other books in the series, with other types of love, the more chastening and enduring types. I don't know yet. Those pleasures remain mine if I live long enough to read those books. Perhaps in the meantime a cyclone will bear down on my humble dwelling and wash away my library along with everything else, or a sudden bushfire will sweep through the town where I live, obliterating everything in its incandescence. Reading Proust in Queensland it is always possible that dangers such as these will interfere with your enjoyment of the text.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Matt's online activity update video for the week

An update on what I've been doing recently online that talks about my recent blogpost on mental health, 'Recovering from psychosis with depression and Jane Austen' as well as takes note of the addition of a third poem on my Patreon site. The video also mentions the work I am doing on my personal URL matthewdasilva.com

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Recovering from psychosis with depression and Jane Austen

There's been a fair bit of talk about depression of late exemplified by a story in the Sydney Morning Herald by journalist Alan Stokes in which he comes close to saying - but does not say - that he is prone to the disease. Stokes alludes to things that happen to him and feelings he has but they're embedded in an oblique recount of things that belong to the lives of others, people who we know have had the disease. To me the most disturbing thing is not that he admits to having depression but that he does it in such a circumlocutious way, and it's disturbing because of the legacy of fear and non-understanding within the community about mental illness. Psychologists and psychiatrists are sensitive to this and display comprehension when you talk about your own anxiety - of being discovered.

Depression is not the name I give to my mental illness: that name is a label that carries with it an even heavier burden of freight. You don't normally go around saying to people, "I have schizophrenia and I have had two psychotic episodes in the past 14 years." It just doesn't normally happen. But surrounding this ailment there might be secondary ones, like depression, and I do remember a period of about 18 months - in 2002 and 2003 - when I did not wash or clean my teeth, when I ate only cheese for weeks, when I slept until mid-morning on most days.

If it was depression there were good reasons for it. I had moved out of the family home in early 2000 - leaving my wife and children - and within the year I was a resident of the psychiatric ward of a central Tokyo hospital recovering with the help of medications with such severe side effects that I walked stiffly, my face was drawn and unnatural, and I had trouble with muscular coordination. A few days before the planes hit the towers I arrived back in Sydney and after about a month I was settled in share accommodation in the north of the city. I had lost: my family, my job, my car, and my self-respect. They changed the medication at least. And then I discovered Jane Austen.

Because I was a graduate of the University of Sydney I was able to have made a borrower's card for the library and I bought a cheap blue backpack - which I still have - and caught the train once a week to Redfern Station, from where I walked to Fisher Library. I read widely. The books I borrowed were often history dealing with the time immediately prior to and concurrent with the time when Austen lived; I also tried to read the kinds of novels and books of poetry that she herself might have read when she was alive. The image that accompanies this post is taken from that library card and shows what I looked like at the time. This is what mental illness looks like, often. It can be unkempt and a little bit frightening, but the things that this person has to deal with may be far more frightening than your feelings about his discount-store clothes, his body odour, his straggly beard, or the fact that he is walking down the street at 2pm instead of inside an office at a safe desk job.

And I was one of the lucky ones: I had a home to go to. It wasn't grand - a share house in a suburb studded with giant eucalypti, a quiet street, a back yard, three bedrooms - and I resided there with two other men who lived with schizophrenia, but it was safe.

I sat every day on the living room couch and read books until somehow I managed to shuck off the slough of despond and, in mid-2003, find a job. Then it was a matter of walking to the corner on the main road each morning and catching a bus to the train station. One day when I was on my commute I saw a man on the train reading a novel by Haruki Murakami and I discovered in his books the types of unmanageable life that I had personally experienced, as well as magic, aimlessness, frustrated searches, evil and love. For me love came later - some four-and-a-half years later - but when it did it changed my perception of who I was and what the world could be. Although psychosis returned not long after this moment of clarity the effects associated with the experience of falling in love endured beyond the point when I emerged out the other side of it - it took three months to overcome the fear - ferrying me on its burnished wings toward a future of growing possibilities, and restless confidence.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

We need more academic engagement in the public sphere

When I got wind of news that a scholarly association had "attempted to regulate the blogging activities of some of its members" my mind returned as if linked by a rubber strap to a social-media-for-scientists conference I attended two-and-a-half years ago in Brisbane which resulted in a magazine story. The problem, I knew, wasn't that academics blog too much, but rather precisely the opposite, leaving the public sphere unleavened by their insights and knowledge in far too many cases.

And then I thought about a podcast I had watched that was produced by La Trobe University in Melbourne that deals with two late-Republican-Rome personalities - the statesman and orator Cicero and the poet Catullus - and how excited I had been, which had caused me to suggest establishing "Uni TV" where content focusing on what academics are doing could be aired with even greater frequency than it is now. Love David Attenborough? There must be dozens - even hundreds - of researchers and teachers who know even more than he does. Love Simon Schama? Why not get to hear from the people who write the texts he relies on to make his splendid programs?

I can see how there might be objections though. For example, yesterday I saw a tweet that someone who was curating a conference put out, that went like this "Graham - journos reporting on climate change have been pulled in to the politicization of science reporting #asc14." And I replied: "Funny how some people think that in the public sphere you can separate things from politics #asc14." Because however much researchers might want to avoid the entanglement of the ideas they handle with the messy business of politics - and with the sock puppets who often deal in it - that's just the way things roll in the public sphere. Democracy relies on the free flow of ideas via the media - including social media - and in fact we have special laws in Australia to make sure that this happens. Not only that but you can make a case for deeming any institution that cannot be spoken about publicly unconstitutional.

And of course there are precedents. One of the wonderful things about The Conversation - where the article that started this blogpost was published - is that it functions as a filter between academia and the public sphere. You have a roomful of skilled editors who are talking with hundreds of specialists in universities around the country. Together, these two groups of people pump out dozens of new articles every day covering topical issues. How far this paradigm could be taken is anyone's guess, but I'm betting that there would be demand for Uni TV in the community, and by centralising resources it could be done economically. You might not even need TV spectrum to do it: just load everything online and let the links get shared. Andrew Jaspan, if you are reading this you are welcome to contact me at any time to talk about setting up Uni TV. I think it's a great idea.