Sunday 29 November 2020

Book review: The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’, Roger Scruton (2016)

I bought this at Abbey’s bookshop in November. I wasn’t acquainted with the store layout and the staff were helpful and found this on the shelves for me.

Early on, the philosophical foundations of the Ring are outlined. This is rare for the reason that most artists don’t have specific works of philosophy in mind when they sit down to write, paint, or carve. But Wagner did, drawing on German tradition, especially the ideas of Hegel. Doing so puts him in the same category of creative as Marx, who was working at the same time and who, in developing his ideas, also drew heavily on a writers such as Kant and Hegel. Then, on the political front, there was revolution in the air during the 19th century; I felt glad to’ve read about the European uprisings of the 1820s. I’d started to read books about the 19th century with an eye to better understanding the Ring

With respect to popular culture, the big topics of the middle of the 19th century were the links between European and Indian cultures and languages, as well as the burgeoning German nationalist project (which produced the works of the Grimm brothers). In order to write his magnum opus, Wagner also drew on Viking culture, especially Icelandic and Norse mythological narratives, which were available at the time. These artefacts offered a counterpoint to the usual Greek and Roman stories – obviously, Greek and Roman stories were very much discussed and plundered by artists working in the 1850s and 1860s – but in a way that privileged northern Europe. 

This was Wagner’s goal, anyway. I’ve not read much philosophy and am still researching the period in question, but it’s safe to say that a nationalist enterprise was central to the identities of people living at the time in the area now known as Germany. Many people today dislike nationalism – for obvious reasons, not the least being the way German nationalism spiked into militarism in the 20th century – but it cannot be argued against an assertion that it is an engine of change, since it mobilises people to achieve (what they see as) shared goals.

I won’t go into the evidence of anti-Semitism here as it doesn’t seem very relevant beyond the necessity of mentioning it in order to acknowledge such ideas as present in Wagner’s mind at the same time as he was writing his lyrics and scoring his music. Early on in his book, Scruton mentions this aspect of Wagner’s mind (or education), but more broadly this author is intent on something else, and he demonstrates this “something else” using plain evidence. There’ve been books lambasting Wagner on account of unpleasant expressed views and no doubt I will get around, at some later point, to reading them.

For the moment, having given my introduction, I want to say something about the music – which is the thing that first drew me to the Abbey’s Bookshop in Sydney’s CBD. 

Wagner represents for me a culmination of generations of a certain type of music, music I do not possess the cognitive tools required to eloquently classify, so I will use proxies in an effort to be specific and to help to orient the reader around my ideas. The 150 years leading up to 1900 were a time of amazing economic and political change and Scruton makes it plain that such changes functioned to motivate Wagner to create the ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ tetralogy. Notable influences were the revolutionary movements I mention above. Advances in scholarship, in science, and in politics were matched by shifts in emphasis in the arts. So Beethoven – who belonged to one of the two generations that came immediately before Wagner’s – was more different from Mozart than Wagner was different from Beethoven. Wagner and Beethoven both plumb emotional depths of the human psyche and, in using related auditory vocabularies, outline in their work the lineaments of humanity in a way that we recognise today as being, somehow, true.

We talk about progress and assume that, gradually, each artform moves inexorably toward a steady state of perfection. I won’t go into this in detail other than to say that such an idea is an oversimplification, and add as well that art is made by individuals working in communities. So while the values and ideas of the community condition the individual’s responses to the past, the individual is also able to act independently. While a man or woman is an echo time whelped, he or she struggles naturally against the constraints of his or her destiny. Singly or in concert with their peers, they rebel. Wagner addresses this dynamic in the work and, while by his day the apogee of the Church had well and truly passed and Enlightenment figures had repeatedly concluded that God was a relic, he takes a different tack and places religion at the centre of his work. What happens, he seems to be asking, if the gods really are dead.

Scruton’s study contains a detailed description, in chapter three, of the entire opera, punctuated by a welcome pause at the end of ‘Siegfried’ act two, at which point Wagner took a decade off from this labour and went away to work on other things. The composer came back again, in the end, to finish his work, and Scruton takes you through it in a blow-by-blow fashion, recording musical elements at their appropriate places (there’s a notated appendix that lists these motifs and themes, useful for those who can read music), and relaying the story in a way that allows you to gauge the influences he’d included in the previous chapter. 

The effect is challenging but engrossing, helping the neophyte to understand the scheme of the drama and to assess the significance of Wagner’s vision relative to other works of art – for example other long poems that had appeared in other eras – as well as to the history of the times. Having earlier fallen in love with the music, I was happy to find that Scruton – though he gives a full description of the intricacies of the narrative used to make the opera’s libretto – always comes back to it. 

Chapter four leaves the writing aside and here Scruton turns to the music itself, then in chapter five he loops back to the story again. This opera is so complex, and it has been interpreted in so many ways (its inherent complexity and innovativeness attracting both valuable and tendentious interpretation) that Scruton’s analysis is however not always easy. He proceeds in vertical categories (“Character and symbol” is chapter six) and then changes to horizontal ones (“Love and power” is chapter seven). Just as I noted in my mind this switch, it was because I was writing about the book’s density, and it was as though Scruton had anticipated my objection, and had decided, while writing (at a moment in time prior to my realisation), to facilitate my job (the reader does work, just as the writer does). Chapters five and six are so thick with references – both internal, within the work, and within the volume under discussion here – that at times you struggle to keep up. I hesitate to say that this is a weakness, but it seemed to me that taking individual themes as the jumping-off point – for example, the depiction of Albericht, the dwarf, and his role as nemesis and locus of power relative to Siegfried and Wotan; or the role of the Rhine-daughters and the redeeming power of nature, which is linked to the symbol of the Ring – might’ve made the messages Scruton is trying to convey more accessible. Often, I felt overwhelmed but, loving the music as much as I do, and conscious, reading the book, of the artwork’s power and reach, I persevered.

There’s no doubt Tolkien borrowed heavily from Wagner. The figures of Golem and Albericht are so similar as almost to make you cry foul. But the way the book ends compared to the opera is radically different, and while ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a brilliant work of art, ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ is most certainly more enigmatic and profound. While Tolkien gives the reader a typical quest story – an unlikely hero is given an apparently impossible task and sets out on a journey of discovery during which he meets obstacles and overcomes each of them to, finally, reach his goal – Wagner offers a different scenario. This is what I set out (on my quest, as a reader) to uncover, since originally (like Bilbo Baggins in the Shire) I had only become aware incidentally of the significance of what happens. With the tetralogy, you face – not dragons, orcs, or treacherous subhuman trolls – an historical conundrum since, despite its speculative (or mythological) elements, Wagner roots his work firmly in the context of the 19th century. As mentioned earlier, the work is a conscious attempt to come to terms with intellectual and political, technological and economic changes altering the face of Europe at the time he was alive.

Just a note about the cover: the design is fresh and mysterious. In it, four sections drawn by gold lines can be taken to represent the four parts of the Ring, and the sensuous and enigmatic lines (the colour representing the gold of the Ring, and the fluidity of the lines reflecting in the fact that it is the Rhine-daughters who give the Ring to Albericht) seem to point to the motive quality of music: something that is always in motion, but where assonance and dissonance alternate for the listener’s pleasure – the gold on the cover here shimmers, twists, and coheres but seems never to find a steady state. The lines are alternately parallel, then diverge, only to coalesce in coherent strands. 

Something about Wagner’s narrative and the transcendental beauty of his music is matched by this elegant cover. I found the book challenging and enlightening, and was so struck by a passage in chapter eight (titled ‘Siegfreid and Other problems’) that it was almost as though I was reading something I had written myself. At least it was something I had long been searching for in print – or so it seemed to me as soon as I had consumed this deathless passage, which I quote below:

The true artist stands back from his work so that it speaks to us directly. The artist who steps forward to moralize does an injustice, not to us only, but also to his characters, who are, by this gesture, deprived of the right to speak for themselves. In giving an interpretation of a true dramatic work we are exploring the characters, and what they symbolize. We are also clarifying the underlying ideas and assumptions that set the context for the drama, so as to show just why these people in this situation deserve our interest and sympathy and just why they have something to tell us. But we are not, or not usually, in the business of extracting a message that can be formulated as a maxim or a recipe for life.

In bad art, the author or composer stands over the reader or listener like a parent standing over a child who refuses to tidy his or her room, demanding that a certain understanding be taken away from a work of fiction (it even applies to nonfiction). Scruton’s strong ethical stance – in relaying the above snippet of wisdom (for it is a wise thing to write) – is evident in his qualification; that “usually” added in the final sentence in order not to offend the artist who writes allegories or aphorisms – or  other types of fiction that are designed to serve a didactic purpose. You can see Scruton summing up something that he strongly believes and that he offers to the reader as a corrective to the types of abuse that some creative people perpetrate by making their vision too rigid and not adequately true to life. 

His exegesis is in parts very dense and apparently neat in its progress toward achieving the epistemological goals he had set himself at the outset. For this reason the reader will not immediately grasp the meaning of every utterance the book’s nine chapters contain – you wonder sometimes if Scruton is going too fast or, alternately, whether what he is saying about the Ring is perhaps not, in the music, quite the way as he describes (for you cannot – or, at least not easily – simultaneously listen to a piece of music and read about it) – the reward to be gleaned from reading this book is that it excites responses within you that other types of writing cannot. This is the great benefit of criticism: that it allows you to revisit, as though seeing it through a differently-coloured lens, a familiar scene. As a result you are transported, as if by magic, to a strange kingdom where there are things you recognise but others that you had never seen before. If a work of art is like a landscape or a city, then the critic is like Virgil for Dante: a guide, with his or her own map, a document that resembles that of another person only in its general outline – the streets have the same names but the shops marked to visit do not. 

Scruton touches on the idea of verisimilitude and in broad terms he is congratulatory with respect to the Ring, although at the end of the book, through the lens of other commentators, he details some misgivings. The Ring is enigmatic to a degree that individuals apply their own thinking in talking about it, so it functions as a tabula rasa upon which generations of commentators have overlaid their views. Scruton isn’t shy of giving his own, and for the main I understood him. It helped me to read this as, now, when I go back to the music I’ll have a framework upon which to hang other images, other ideas, other was of imagining the meaning Wagner imbued the world with through his creativity. The edifice of the Ring will get higher still when I publish this review, an event that will, in its own small way, change the world.

Friday 27 November 2020

TV review: Vera, series 3 episode 2 (‘Poster Child’), ITV (2013)

Last week I watched this as a rerun on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s main channel. Unlike a lot of episodes of this TV show, ‘Poster Child’ includes some running. Not walking, but actual jogging along outdoors. Near the shore, in fact. Even Vera (Brenda Blethyn) at this point is seen hurrying forward along, arms raised to her sides and hair floating in the air. 

The beauty of this episode is in the way that the writers have brought narratives to do with the West’s international military exploits into the story of a murder in northern England. The inclusion of Malik (Amir Boutros) allows the filmmakers to draw moral equivalencies in a way that Twitter users would be familiar with from all the flame wars that continually carry on in cyberspace. 

The story in ‘Poster Child’ is a bit far-fetched and links between all of the secondary characters stretch the viewer’s credulity, nevertheless Blethyn’s soft-spoken, dowdy glamour enthrals. Joe Ashworth’s David Leon, Vera’s second-in-command, is shown dealing with PTSD in a credible – and suitably low-key – manner. At the right moments his wife and three children appear – as if by magic – to provide the support necessary to a working man under stress. 

This adds lustre in the gaps between tonic events, such as the occasional phone call from one of the two daughters of Dan Marsden (Reece Andrews) and his wife Laura (Saskia Reeves). Karen (Amy Cameron), their natural daughter, manages to phone her mother during her captivity while Mira (Shifaa Arfan) – who’d been adopted from Baghdad by Dr Marsden after, aged six years, being caught up in a US bombing strike and had been badly injured – is suffering the effects of insulin deprivation; she’s diabetic and needs meds to survive.

In an effort to rescue the two teenagers, Vera bustles doggedly and, reassuringly, from time to time crankily chides Detective Constable Kenny Lockhart (Jon Morrison) amid all of the accompanying procedural activity. In this busy episode time is of the essence. The filmmakers do well to keep the action trotting comfortably along but the participation of Jonah Regan – a photographer played by Dean Andrews – doesn’t do much for the episode’s coherence. It’s all too neat.

There’s a lot of art involved in making a complex mystery hang together and be entertaining over the period of time these episodes consume – about 90 minutes each. Even though it’s easy to make fun of ‘Vera’ – and in recent months an ABC skit show did just that – there’s something entrancing about a middle-aged, overweight female in a position of relative power – you rarely get office politics with this comfortable show – so that most older Australians can feel compelled to watch (and the ABC’s audience skews older). Vera strides purposefully through a cascade of intellectual obstacles like an icebreaker, pushing aside every conundrum and turning puzzles into heaps of frozen slush, ready to be cast aside in our journeys to a conclusion. 

It’s also got a social conscience, enabling viewers to feel justified in spending an hour-and-a-half zonked out in front of the box. If ‘Vera’ were a confection it would be a chocolate-coated hazelnut: the kernel of goodness inside functioning to reduce the guilt associated with all the sugar.

In ‘Poster Child’ the show’s creatives have acquitted themselves to an acceptable standard though the character of Karen is a bit under- (or over-) worked, and I wasn’t sure if this was due to the writing or the acting. She just didn’t entirely convince; I felt her insistence on Mira’s attractiveness to their parents – “Mira,” she seems to scoff, “always the favourite daughter” – somewhat over-used. 

Even here I’m reduced to endless qualifications; just like the show’s star: a jog down the middle of the road. By the end I was hoping that Mira would steal Karen’s boyfriend just to make Karen’s predictions come true. 

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Book review: Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry, Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington eds (2020)

I bought this Melbourne University Press publication at one of the independent booksellers’ shops and can recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s an exciting and important book that deserves to be widely read and discussed. If you’re looking for material for a book club, try this paperback.

It offers quality – and diversity (though there are some common features in the works – this will be my subject in this review). The book is exciting because it ropes in widely-dispersed writers across a broad time range. Because certain themes dominate I wondered while reading if this is due to the poetry community being small and well-connected (among themselves) or if it’s due to the fact that similar themes are explored at the same time in other forms of Australian literature – for example, novels and short stories. This is something the editors didn’t address. 

They talk about a particular quality that Australian prose poetry has. They contrast it with similar work made by practitioners in the US and the UK, but content themselves by saying that it has its “own flavour and tone”. It “sounds different”, they add, hopefully, before delivering a quantity of competent-sounding prose about “blurring of established boundaries” – prose poetry … duh! – and “the kinds of experiences that are neither fully coherent nor entirely resolvable” – ie the work is not uniformly boring and is experimental.

Later in this review I’ll try to resolve the intent of the collective work. What Atherton and Hetherington write sounds impressive and seems to tick all the right boxes (alternative community, counterculture – which they explicitly mention in the next paragraph – and other such commonplaces of academic jargon) but, as for helping the reader situate him- or herself in the world of prose poetry, or even in the wider world of Australian literature: not much. Nevertheless, they’ve done good work in assembling all these pieces together for general consumption, pieces that otherwise would be restricted to a much smaller pool of readers, or would have been left unread in old issues of literary magazines bound in the stacks of university libraries.

Even after reading only about a third of the book, certain patterns began to emerge around physical place (topography, geography) and personal situation (relationships). I’ll talk more about these things later on in this review, but for the moment want to concentrate on one other interesting aspect of the book. This is that none of the poems are flagged by a date on the page where they appear for consumption, meaning that, if you want to locate an author in time – orienting him or her within the confines of your own, personal, geography of literature – you have to consult a section near the back of the book that contains author biographies. This procedure is far too clunky for any reader to tolerate, so what happens – since the poems are ordered in the book according to the alphabet, by the author’s surname – is that you must deal with each poem on its own merits. You must ignore the chronological element that is embodied in such events as writing and publication. This is destabilising but not overly problematic, as it brings the focus back to the poetry itself rather than – had the initial publication date been contained in a rubric printed alongside each poem – on the context of the times. A holistic approach must be applauded for it imbues the poetry with added gravitas, and sidesteps any attempt by the reader to neatly slot each poem into a taxonomy that might bind and constrain the literature. 

It’s liberating, as is the occasional appearance of the Australian landscape, for example in Louise Crisp’s ‘Remnants’, which is subtitled ‘Gippsland Red Gum Plains’. It’s not certain from evidence contained in the anthology where the fragment, headed ‘Yeerung Bush Reserve’, first appeared in print (nor when), but one of Crisp’s books was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards in 1995 and she published books in many subsequent years. She is still alive and lives in East Gippsland, Victoria where “her work focuses on specific regional environments”. Local fauna appears also in Michael Aiken’s ‘By the sea (retired)’ where there are butcherbirds, and in Stuart Barnes’ ‘Hamlet without the Prince / with two lines from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet’ (where the attribution is heavy as lead, and loaded with irony):

Vulnerable as forest red-tailed black cockatoos, you went south the day the stock market headed south.

This poem introduces the idea of America (“the stock market”) that I’ll come back to later in this review, but also the notion of topography (“south”). I can now point to Judith Bishop’s ‘Definition of a Place’ where the geographical specificity of the continent is again brought to the fore, this time once more with wildlife (ibis, swallows, “butterflies”) and Carolyn Abbs’ wonderful ‘Poet on a Train’ where you find a more generic “ruffled blackbird” – the bird is European – used as a metaphor. 

This sliding between known places and a wider locus of fascination – Australia as part of the world and finding itself within it – is also present in other poems. Strikingly, Anna Couani’s ‘Map of the World’ epitomised, for me, an interest in the spatial and geographical, which are expressed by many of the pieces included in the part of the book I read. Couani’s poem has strong erotic overtones and compares the landscape to the human body, with all the expected obvious particularities that such an exercise must contain. Michelle Cahill’s ‘Agape’ revisits this locus of meaning-creation, in a way that again privileges the importance in the Australian psyche of America. 

My tutor in anatomy was an American research student with a slit in his heart like a mailing box.

He changed his name to a hyphenated form and we spoke a different language now. It was winter on campus and fortunately I came to be taught in Latin by an eccentric Professor of Anatomy.

Again, a feminised embodiment of the human form, with erotic and political overtones. Holding onto the place trope, there’s Michael Brennan’s ‘Hyde Park’, and Peter Boyle’s ‘Missing Words’ (with place and the body intermingled):

I don’t know how many things there are in this world that have no name. The soft inner side of the elbow, webbed skin between fingers, a day that wanders out beyond the tidal limits and no longer knows how to summon the moon it has lost …

The body and geography also come together again in Melissa Curan’s ‘this is the long drowning’ (“We are water (your skin becoming mine)”), and in Susan Fealy’s ‘Writing with the Left Hand’:

Moles channel under my skin – if they break the surface, what then? A rash. A plague. Hands could atrophy waiting for that mute continent, then a morbidity of doctors! I could be bandaged as a mummy, inside a polished tree! And what hands can understand inside such white, such practised bindings? What rhythm invokes restriction? What timbre its keynote? Yes, best to cut one off. Right is the left hand. Now is the left hand and blood on the table. Red on white holds no shadow. I will use the ink from my dead hand.

In Shastra Deo’s ‘light’ and Tricia Dearborn’s ‘The pouch of Douglas’ the body is centre-stage and performing a satirical and melancholy role. Medical and geographical themes merge once more in Vincent Buckley’s ‘Pen-Sickness’:

Pen-sickness: when you remember the poem waiting, perhaps liquid and infinitely yielding to each touch, or leaning back, resistant, towards its original spare shape, or dense and featureless as ice: then every gesture the world has made in it, every evening perception, every sip of speech, every word, comes back as bile, running precipitate into the throat hot as gruel from the long canals of the belly …

Peter Boyle’s ‘Some Mountains’ emphasises the extreme age of the land, and becomes distinctively Australian by association with Aboriginal culture (not explicitly mentioned in the poem):

The mountain beyond that pass has no name. It is too old for us to name it.

A spatial concern appears in the word “measure” in Quinn Eades’ ‘What grows’, in Laurie Duggan’s ‘Melancholia,’ (here with the medical faculty of society embedded in the world “laboratory”), in Michael Dransfield’s ‘Chaconne for a solipsist’ (“Robinson Crusoe on the wrong island”), and in Judith Nangala Crispin’s ‘On finding Charlotte in the Anthropological  record’:

We meet on the surface of a photograph, as a fish and bird might meet in a lake, at a point of sky and the water’s plane

In Gary Catalano’s ‘Pastoral (for Helen)’ the landscape once again features strongly, situated, in a decisive manner, at the centre of the poem. There is also the idea of domesticity. Judith Beveridge turns our frame of reference through 90 degrees in ‘My Name’, which puts the self at the centre of the square (“Someone is prowling around the borders of my name.”). In Fealy’s poem, there’s the hint of an American accent, too, nestled there in the word “timbre” (like the editors’ suggestion that Australian prose poetry “sounds” different from American or British work of the same type).

John Forbes’ ‘Tranteresque’ posits the Australian as foreign (“those big cans of Fosters you don’t get at home”) and highlights the allure of overseas that I’ve already pointed to above, especially the American and European. This particular theme is reprised in Michael Farrell’s ‘the snow depardieu’, here with an ironic frisson verging on applause: the French as the epitome of cool and sophistication. As also in Javant Biarujia’s ‘Icarus (from Virilities)’ (“a fort above Grenoble”, “Mont Blanc”). Adam Aitken’s ‘Lines from The Lover’ links a European precedent (the novel by Marguerite Duras) with southeast Asia (“a ferry crossing the Mekong say”) in a way that underscores the importance of place which I have flagged in many poems, in what appears above. Alternately, as in Kevin Brophy’s ‘When Death Comes (after Mary Oliver)’, the focus of the poet’s gaze is American (the poet in this poem’s title died this year).

Bruce Dawe turns the tables on this in ‘A Flexible Approach’, which remorselessly lambastes the visual and narratological culture of US TV, as it is relayed into Australian homes on the evening news on all the commercial channels and on the ABC (the national broadcaster), as well as SBS (a multicultural broadcaster subsidised by the federal government). A flicker of adulation reappears in M.T.C. Cronin’s ‘Yo-Yo Pietà’, in Jen Crawford’s ‘Ma Mere L’Oye’, and with Julie Chevalier the American ugliness appears in ‘a used band-aid stuck to the august 13, 1955 saturday evening post’.

The self-reflexive instinct that Beveridge’s poem brought to our attention returns in Luke Beesley’s ‘Audible’, here borrowing ideas from the television technology (and once more medical elements appear in the written landscape):

The camera panned up away from our conversation and fixed on a cloud artfully just fitting in the frame. It smouldered. The camera must have been mooring slowly following the cloud because the cheek of skyscraper sliced the cloud for a moment.

Abbs’ poem, mentioned earlier in this review, is about a woman seen on a train, and it’s not clear if the poet of the title is the narrator or the subject who, sitting there, is described in fulsome terms that veer off into the imaginative. The self and the Other mix and mingle in this poem, making it unclear where the objective ends and the subjective begins. This is delightful.

I also wanted to commend Kate Fagan for ‘Book of Hours for Narrative Lovers’, which again has that wry self-reflexive cast, Nathan Curnow’s ‘Dead Penguins’ (once more wildlife appears), and especially joanne burns’ amazing ‘the first few lines  a synopsis’, which is full of vibrant imagery as well as technology (“silicon chip”, “silk screen”, rotating fan”, “heater”, “magnifying glass”). The tendency to quote (in titles, subtitles, or in the poems themselves) is also reflective of this self-reflexiveness. All of the technology burns lists in her poem are in origin essentially foreign (American and European), and to contemplate this aspect of her poem serves to bring our attention back to the hybrid place/medicine concept used in so many of the poems in this collection. 

I haven’t gone into much detail in my review, preferring to point, in the absence of more space, to general trends. I have shown what the poets are writing about but not, in most cases, how. To go into more detail – though I describe below my reactions to some of the individual poems – would also require a lot more time. But I was able to see that the practitioners are struggling to come up with words to describe a native experience in the context of dominant global cultural hegemonies (which, IRL, is underpinned by a rapacious entertainment industry mostly generating mediocre and predictable fare for popular consumption, unlike the poetry in this book). 

If there is a distinctive Australian voice in this collection it has to work hard to be heard, and often the way that it is expressed is through recourse to the land or to nature. Beyond such elements it’s hard for me to go, although I read a collection of prose poetry last year that takes a broader view. At that time, I was unable to narrow my focus to individual themes, as I have done in the review you are currently reading. Even though I’ve given a very superficial survey of the poems I read in the ‘Anthology of Australian prose Poetry’ it was clearer this time what the individuals were trying to do. And while the earlier review spent more time talking about styles and movements, my attention with the ‘Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry’ is on more concrete things, ideas that have more currency and that can be used for other reasons. 

This is a limiting constraint but in a quick review it’s a necessary one if you’re going to cover a wide-enough sample of the offered poems. To a degree the practitioners sampled here seem to be deracinated and also cut off from their lyric heritage by an impulse that is evident in the editors’ introduction. They point to an early practitioner named Maymie Ada Hamlyn-Harris, who published a book in 1941 that they characterise as being “abstract and in a high Romantic mode”. But it might be in the lyrical formalism of the bush poets of the past that the real roots of this new crop of prose poets can be found, rather than the avant-garde of European and American high Modernism. While American influence is enticing it is also a source of shame (due to the idea of cultural dominance), and a similar – though not the same – effect characterises relations with European culture, which is heavier on the gravitas but also seen as foreign. 

Typical of the poets’ approach to middle Australia is Anna Couani’s ‘what a man, what a woman’, with its depressing repetitions and down-home commonplaces. It expresses a hatred of the ordinary (a common form of self-loathing of young Australian aesthetes).

Other poems endeavour to situate their ideas in a more productive sense of normal. In Anne Elvey’s ‘Treasure Hunt’, a horse appears on the moor with a rider on its back. There’s a horse also in Jennifer Compton’s ‘Very Shadows’, this time not removed from the present within the bounds of nostalgia, but rooted in the narrator’s imagination, a positive emblem of self. 

The horse is not the foreign object. Something else is – something I identified in works by the poets encompassed by this review; Australian practitioners sundered from their roots. Something different and also similar is visible in Fred Williams’ ecstatic canvases of the 1960s, an amalgam of abstract and Romantic, a pared-down, sublime snapshot of the intoxicatingly beautiful Australian bush. In this anthology are signs of a dominant urban subculture apparently united, with the editors – poets themselves –, in not so much rejecting as reformulating the bucolic enthusiasms of their urban ancestors. 

It would be unnecessarily reductive to posit, as I might be tempted to do if I were keen to shut down possibly productive avenues of enquiry, that the verse contained in this collection represents a puritanical distrust of them, or represent those of a rebel puritan adopting the manners and interests of a type of person she inherently despises without being able to admit as much. Similarly, it’s reductive of the editors to denigrate Hamlyn-Harris’ impulse to rework old forms, forms that have acquired gravitas – but that the promoters of a limited Modernism tell us to mock – over time. 

Things change over time but apparently the editors are as concerned with nationalism as the bush poets of 100 years ago. It is, to be sure, a powerful engine of enterprise and endeavour, as the title of this book attests. What are they looking for? Where do they turn to find it? Did the publisher bend their natural instincts to the fulfilment of prosaic purposes or is nationalism in the context of poetry important? Is it important for a culture to understand itself? How does one do such a thing? In order to understand, must you set yourself apart? This seems like a reassuringly Romantic approach to culture’s meaning, and not at all Modernist, nor universal. 

Just as not all that’s in this book is of equal quality, there are different approaches to the many shared themes and issues it carries, and while the editors don’t demonstrate in their introduction how the tropes and concerns of the poets included in the ‘Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry’ are disseminated throughout the broader culture, it’s probably through pop music and the theatre and, hence, TV shows, TV and radio ads, and movies. 

While I’ve restricted myself to the poets whose names begin with the letters A to F, you can see also how much wonderful material is in only the first part of the book. And I haven’t even mentioned poems dealing with relationships:

  • Pam Brown, ‘It’s Light’, ‘Pictures’
  • Kevin Brophy, ‘Dog on the Road’
  • Cassandra Atherton, ‘Bonds’
  • Jordie Albiston, ‘[anon]’
  • Robert Adamson, ‘Empty Your Eyes (after Pierre Reverdy)’
  • John Foulcher, ‘Before the Storm’
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann, ‘Intervention Payback’

Based on their concerns and thematic material, the poets in this collection form a recognisable group. Similarly, relationships are a source of inspiration for enterprise. From a parent seen in old age, to a child playing on the beach, from feelings of love for another, to feelings of disgust at the self, a variety of relationships is canvassed.

The last poem listed above is an amazing example of the power of the familiar, taking the reader inside a remote Aboriginal community in the most engaging way concievable. I felt attached to people I have never met and probably never will, and able to grasp concepts and realities far outside my personal orbit. 

Better than other forms of expressive art, this is what poetry is able to do. The immediacy, what the editors, quoting poet John Taylor, label “an electric shock” (and what a friend of mine labelled a “flame”). That difficult-to-describe spark that flares at the end of the appropriate poetic line and that, in the examples included in this book, struggles with the more “prosaic” nature of prose. The result is deeply attractive and interesting.

Monday 23 November 2020

New townhouses on Harris Street, Pyrmont

On 29 October I snapped the following photo while I was out doing errands. 

It shows a building just being completed on Harris Street – just a little bit up the hill from my old place (settlement was the day prior) – as a developer has been constructing townhouses. Of course with my budget I wouldn’t be able to afford one of them – the place in Botany didn’t break the bank – but if I’d been able to both stay in Pyrmont and secure more space for myself, I would’ve done so. 

In this photo workmen are removing scaffolding; the building has been under construction since the spring of 2017 (see my related posts here and here). The unit visible from the street in this photo is just one of 14 being made available for purchase. 

The townhouses being built on Harris Street are designed to complement existing structures, many of which date from the 19th century when Pyrmont was an industrial hub and home to a power station and a sugar refinery. Nowadays, apart from construction workers such as the people shown in the image below, most workers in this part of town are employed in offices.

Saturday 21 November 2020

Book review: The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price (2020)

Finishing this book the hairs stuck up on the back of my neck. I bought it in Bondi Junction while on an outing to pick up an umbrella for a friend. I also bought a kitchen scale while there, but this device at David Jones.

Price uses scholarly specificity – the agreement of thing with the word that describes it – but of a kind that a 5th century AD Viking mightn’t have understood, if we go by his reckoning of Viking religion, mythology, and psychology. In this sense, Price’s narrative is satisfyingly mysterious; the Vikings held the world to be inhabited by beings who were not human but who had an interest in the enterprise of humanity, and a specific class of person – often a woman – was in charge of communicating with this other dimension (in fact, several dimensions). 

Living in the 21st century and reading his lucid prose we can understand what he is talking about but nevertheless due to a lack of written records; unlike the Romans, the Vikings weren’t very literary. The track is shrouded in a disturbingly thick mist – suitably Gothic (though 18th century Gothic novels tend to be set in southern Europe!) – as Price struggles with linguistic barriers that might fetter comprehension. 

It helps to be acquainted with other, entirely foreign cultures but Price is not only energetic – sourcing information from an astonishing array of places – he’s also elegant. A wry sense of humour and a firm sense of justice illuminate the story he tells of raids, and state-sanctioned slavery, of gods and goblins, and international trade. Vikings not only took over in England they were also at the root of Russia’s civilisation, spreading out from their home in northern Europe even to America and the eastern Mediterranean.

An astonishingly interesting book, ‘The Children of Ash and Elm’ brings to life a way of living that appeared after the Romans withdrew in Western Europe. A lot of the scholarship needed to produce this book is very recent, demonstrating that Viking studies is a fluid space characterised by knowledge that relies not just on textual analysis and archaeology, but also such things as dendrochronology (the dating of wooden objects) and other types of science.

As Price shows, the presence of the Romans was intimately bound up with the lives of people we call Vikings, who lived in Scandinavia 1500 years ago. One reason for Vikings’ emergence on the global stage in the 7th century AD might’ve been due to the withdrawal of Rome as a stabilising force in northern Europe. Price doesn’t emphasise this point – rather pointing to environmental conditions that immediately preceded this period. 

The use of technology to ascertain the facts surrounding social conditions in Scandinavia (indeed globally) around the year 550 AD, when a large volcanic eruption filled the atmosphere with tons of effluvia, is very recent; indeed these things have only been known in the past five years or so. So, while the idea that a power vacuum resulted in the appearance of strong local rulers cannot be hard for anyone to imagine, the physical record shows that other factors were also in play leading to the rise of a powerful, militarised elite (Price labels them “nouveau riche” and “a hydrarchy”) in Scandinavia at the beginning of the Viking Era – the time when the famous raids started to be carried out.

Here we’re forced to trust the author, but there are no suggestions that might undermine his credibility. This historian’s job is to provide a translation of an entire culture that thrived and that, in decisive ways, altered not just Continental European history, but global politics (having the first parliaments). With the Vikings, who until the arrival of Christianity didn’t keep many written records, the task of the historian is a bit harder than for Southern European civilisations, though one chronicler in the Christian era fortunately took the time to write down the old stories of his people. Few such records survive. The thing that might’ve driven the chronicler to undertake his task was the enduring importance – for pagans and Christians alike – of strong community structures based on familial ties and bonds of allegiance; in other words kings. You see similar links between people in other societies at different times.

Such as those that bound the Roman aristocracy together in the republican era, or those that tied the pharaohs’ polities together. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how the use of elaborate burials containing manufactured goods, such as the Vikings made, chime in with similar practices in Asia (particularly China) and Egypt. The Vikings and the ancient Japanese also made barrows – burial mounds – to commemorate leaders, demonstrating another link but also showing how, through death, religion and politics meshed neatly together to form one, seamless, process of existence for the community. 

The early Viking chronicler might’ve thought that losing all traces of the past would be pitifully sad. As, indeed, it would’ve been. We can learn so much about ourselves from the past, but mostly we look the other way.

The title’s comforting normalcy shouldn’t be allowed to mislead readers as to how different from us the Vikings were. While Price demonstrates convincingly that piracy and the slave-trade became, for the people we call “Vikings”, a way of life, he doesn’t shy away from giving a nuanced view of their conduct, as earlier sources of information – such as Christian chroniclers – failed to do. The realities of Viking enterprise – and it was a whole-of-community business, raiding and, later, settling – meant that, despite the existence of a militaristic elite, everyone in the community (in what are now known as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland) – was involved in the animal husbandry, manufacture, and administration of the apparatus dedicated to furthering shared goals.

One welcome offshoot of this otherwise deplorable society that still animates our own lives, of course, is the democratic – or consensual (at least for free men) – system of government that obtained at different times despite the emergence of an aspirational elite that exploited available resources in order to further selfish ends. The widespread use of parliaments (which Vikings called things) meant that merit and talent were likely to prevail as qualifications for leadership (just as Roman emperors were wont to adopt likely young men to succeed them at the head of the polis). 

While echoes of Viking culture persist in Scandinavian countries the modern North is, partly due to such influences as Christianity, radically different from that which the Vikings inhabited, with its trolls, dwarves, elves, and other spirits, as well as a sometimes frightening array of gods, giants, and other beings, all of whom were very real to a Viking living in the 7th century AD.

Yet one of the things that is so original about this book – its (at least partially) successful attempt to describe religion as understood by a Viking – might be precisely the most modern aspect of their culture: its ability to anticipate, in a way that I’ve not seen an historian attempt for Mediterranean peoples, psychology and the deeper urgings of the human mind. With the benefit of hindsight the Vikings appear remarkably advanced, in comparison with their literal-minded southern coevals, the Romans, Greeks, and Arabs. Perhaps the Celts are closer to us: I’ll have to dig up a relevant book.

Thursday 19 November 2020

Podcast review: Voice of Real Australia, ACM (2020)

This show is a production of Australian Community Media, one of the largest newspaper companies in the country, and its editorial office is housed at the Newcastle Herald (see homepage header graphic below).

It’s basically journalism of a kind that allows more breadth, though whether this results in more depth is debatable. The show is evidently aimed at bridging the rural-metro divide but in a way that gives precedence to rural Australia – the bias is clear, in the first place, from the slightly provocative title.

Each episode has a theme but its scope is fairly conventional. For example, the tenuous lives of farmers located near the national capital of Canberra. 

Many farmers complain that metro coverage of the bush is overly negative, so ‘Voice of Australia’ gives a measured and balanced view of this part of the country. Some episodes deal with a crisis (for example, the one about institutions dealing with drug abuse in Dubbo) and some are good news (for example, the one about bicycling in the NSW town of Dungog).

You would get similar journalism if you watched a nightly magazine program such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘7.30’. The difference here being that the focus is entirely on the bush. 

With some diversions to other remote regions of national interest. The episode on the Aurora Australis – an Antarctic icebreaker – was as informative and interesting as podcast journalism gets. ‘Voice of Real Australia’ delivers what it promises.

Some elements of each podcast are consistent: for example, how the journalist gets each participant, before their view is heard, to announce their name and profession. So, an engineer who knows about flyash production – a byproduct of burning coal in power stations – says his name, what he does for a living, and describes other relevant aspects of himself in order to establish his credentials. 

Why, the implication is, should we be listening to this person? Why are they qualified to speak? 

This is an important part of the journalistic process but in other ways the series fails to go deeper. For example, in the episode about the periurban area around Canberra the views of peak body heads such as the real estate institute or the local chamber of commerce are not canvassed. You don’t get the views of those who represent the metropolitan interest, so a source of relevance for the listener – the conflict between the bush and the city – is avoided.

And while finding credible sources is half the battle when it comes to writing a story or, as in this case, capturing the sound necessary to do what, traditionally, words on the page have done, the way that the story is aligned with community concerns reflects the journalist’s own biases. You wonder who the program was made for? People in the bush or people in the cities? 

This is a source of drama that is sidestepped, but there’s another lack by my insight. The tones of the speakers’ voices are as important as the meaning of the words used, but in ‘Voice of Real Australia’ the individual characters of the people interviewed do not enter into the picture to any significant degree. As a result what you get here is plain journalism, without any of the literary artifice that makes creative nonfiction so appealing to modern readers. So, the producers again avoid drama, one of the traditional sources of interest when it comes to journalism.

Strangely, though, the home page features the faces of people in a striking and graphic manner (see image above). This disjunct between the aspiration of the program makers – to give substance to otherwise shadowy concepts (what is a farmer …? what kinds of people live in the bush …?) – and the actual contents of the episodes the journalists and editors make forms a site of disappointment. 

To overcome this failing would require a different approach entirely. A different set of guidelines or a different host. (Maybe a bit more gonzo is needed to achieve success.) In my view the makers of this podcast tentatively want metro audiences to engage with their production, but they also don’t want to inflame the passions of their audience members. They want notoriety but they don’t want to do anything that will achieve it. You’re left with brass tacks. But brass tacks that no-one wants to pick up and use are just wasted.

Perhaps the makers of the show decided to stick with what they knew best. Perhaps they feared going out on a limb. But only by breaking the mould can you cut through, so I’d have to say that ‘Voice of Real Australia’ is a lost opportunity, but a brave attempt at doing something that I’ve personally been trying to do (in a half-hearted way) for the better part of a decade. This material is just too cut-and-dried, it needs more warmth (which is partly provided by the actual voices of the interviewees entering the listener’s personal space, be it the cab of a moving car or their lounge room). 

‘Voice of Real Australia’ is not quite adventurous enough to intensely connect with the average city motorist, though this is certainly needed. My estimation is that the show skirts around issues it should be addressing, such as animal husbandry and issues relating to the handling and development of germplasm. What we eat has always been contested, often along lines marked out by religious belief, so it seems odd to be shy of raising contentious subjects when you have a perfect opportunity to do so. 

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Book review: A History of Crete, Chris Moorey (2019)

I bought this volume at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD. The purchase is part of an exercise in education surrounding antiquity.

Moorey uses archaeological and literary sources to arrive at his findings, which begins in Neolithic times, progresses through the Minoan and Mycaenean era, includes sections on the Roman and Byzantine eras, as well as the Arab, Venetian and Ottoman occupations. It’s a satisfying work of history that ticks all the right boxes. Not only informative, the prose is lucid and attractive and has been properly edited by the publisher. 

I cannot find fault with it, but on the other hand large gaps in the records – especially during the early years of the period covered by the narrative – see Moorey often falling back on strings of qualifications of a kind that are commonplace, I have found, with studies in ancient history. In the case of Crete, even some of the writing systems that were used in the millennia prior to the birth of Christ cannot be read, which to a degree limits one’s understanding of the civilisation in question. Furthermore, much written testimony was burned when each subsequent wave of occupiers entered the community, as happened in the case of the records belonging to the Arab pirates who ruled Crete for 150 years (the Venetian records were, mercifully, saved when the Ottomans arrived). In addition, where written records exist they frequently relate to things beyond the scope of religion, culture, and politics. As in the case of other written systems, record-keeping for the sake of economic activity replaces subjects of more enduring interest.

For this reason, I’ll need to consult other books relating to the periods in question, I’ve decided, and remember seeing at Abbey’s a history of the Peloponnesian War that might serve my purposes. As a discrete subject, Crete is perhaps more interesting on account of the visual record – artefacts, paintings and such like – but as Moorey notes at the beginning of his book in some cases it’s been impossible for him to secure permission to reproduce important images. 

Cretan history intersects intimately with Greek and Roman history and lessons gleaned from other sources – the pacification of regions that resulted from Roman domination, for example – is also visible in this book. Rome’s reputation as a civilisation able to encourage industry, to promote trade, and to maintain a kind of consistent application of law is merited by the facts shown here. The Arabs’ tendency to plunder, like the Ottoman’s tendency to tax, means that one’s opinion of Rome’s influence goes up a notch. When the Byzantine Empire dissolved following the Ottoman conquests in Asia Minor, many notables fled to Crete. The Cretan El Greco fled to Spain in order to practice his art unmolested.

Friday 13 November 2020

Book review: The Four Horsemen: Riding to Liberty in Post-Napoleonic Europe, Richard Stites (2014)

I bought this at a reduced price at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD one Friday in early November. I had needed a walk and something to read.

The author died of cancer just before the book was passed to editors, Stites having specialised in Russian history. He was born in 1931. Rather than concentrating exclusively on Russia, Stites in his final work turns his gaze also to other parts of Europe that underwent revolutions but as his focus returns to Russia at the end of this book, he didn’t have to venture too far from home. In the early part of the 19th century Italy, Spain, Greece, and Russia all experienced armed uprisings and this is the subject matter he talks about in his engrossing narrative.

As any good historian will be tempted to do, Stites attempts to reframe the narrative most of us grew up with, linking the October Revolution with the French Revolution and, to their precursor, the American Revolution. The book is therefore topical but beyond this you have to marvel at the level of erudition Stites displays, in addition to a dogged determination to find answers in the records of many countries, a task complicated by the fact that a number of different languages were used to make them. 

There are some commonalities between each of the events described, including the existence in each country of secret societies, the draughting of constitutions, armed struggle and war, and reaction which, except for the case of Greece, resulted in aborted revolutions.

The title for this stunning book draws on both fact and fiction. On the one hand you have the precursor artefact of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse”, which is a popular trope exploited by commentators – especially artists and cartoonists – from time immemorial. On the other hand you have four mounted revolutionaries who led bands of citizens against the forces of the Establishment in the countries under examination in the 1820s.

The 19th century was a globalised era, with the American and French revolutions inspiring men and women in Spain to demand the writing and introduction of a constitution. In turn, their success (though temporary) sparked similar aspirations in Naples (what is today southern Italy), as well as in Greece and in Russia.

A Russian specialist must be particularly attracted to such stories of struggle among people subject to arbitrary rule who, following America’s successful attempt to go it alone, wanted to be their own masters or, at least, to improve their lives. Property law was one area which desperately needed fixing, and (what we call) human relations as well. 

Stites makes a cogent observation toward the end of the book that liberalism and nationalism were, at the time in question, intimately linked. Making the puzzle more intricate was also the issue of religion. In the minds of priests and some parts of the relevant communities, a constitution didn’t just diminish the power of the king, it also threatened (based on the French experience) the viability of the Church, and Spain was a heavily Catholic country, but on the other hand catechisms were a way for the revolutionaries in all cases to communicate their aims to subalterns. For liberals at the time, therefore, popular ideas surrounding God and country made reaching their goals more difficult.

The book serves to locate the October Revolution in 20th century Russia within the context of a longer and larger struggle for self-determination, and ties the Cold War to America’s 18th century shift to self-government. Stites shows, if nothing else that, despite the ardent wishes of those who want to maintain the status quo, patches laid over underlying problems didn’t make them just go away. If there is discord you can’t just fix it with a Band-Aid; if you wish for long-term peace more attention must be given to solving the causes of problems to which discord is linked. Nowadays, governments in such places as Egypt and Thailand would do well to think on Stites’ conclusions. 

Personally, I do think that the kinds of liberalisation that Stites writes about in his book certainly have links to patriotism despite the fact that they derive their inspiration from global phenomena. It’s a clear paradox: if you want to become more global in outlook you must do it in a way that satisfies the desire to belong to a nation. 

Just as every journalist wants to break a big story and win acclaim, every historian must wish to have his or her most cherished insight turned into a full-length study that can then be read and celebrated by the broader community. It is in the grip of such ambition that volumes like this seek an entrance into the world. I received with enthusiasm the result of Stites’ labours, but noted to myself that better proofing might’ve eradicated some unfortunate errors in the text. Repeated sentences, missing conjunctions, and misspellings (“gage” instead of “gauge”, for example) dot the text and suggest that nobody read the thing through after the historian’s death with an eye to catching infelicities. 

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Podcast review: Patient Zero, ABC Radio National (2020)

This is the second in a new collection of posts; about podcasts (I’ve been listening to them in my new RAV4 Hybrid, so expect more such articles on the blog).

Evidently inspired by the onset of COVID-19, producers and journalists at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation decided to assemble a four-part series about a number of different infectious diseases.

The scope of this fascinating Radio National series is thus wider than just Covid, including episodes on HIV/AIDS as well as the case of a cluster of organ transplant recipients who died of a disease that had never before been described. There’s also a brilliant expose of the United nations’ contribution to a cholera outbreak that followed the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

This is solid and entertaining reporting and you stay engaged throughout. And though it comes recommended by me I was a bit annoyed at its brevity. It seemed to me that the makers had used Covid as a capsule into which they could pour other, similar types of phenomena, and I wondered how many other fascinating stories of disease might not’ve sprung up if they’d have spent a bit more time scheduling investigations. 

This kind of journalism obviously takes time and time is money. You have to brainstorm in meetings, do background research, find interview subjects, organise interviews at times suitable to both the subject and the journalist, transcribe interviews and edit them along with narration into a coherent whole, and make sure the legal side of things is watertight – all of this (and more) before you publish. Doing this kind of work is both exhausting and exhilarating, and so the emotions go up and down on a rollercoaster.

A listener is rewarded by persistence and I was therefore disappointed that Radio National appears to have chucked in a few stray ideas to complement Covid, and called it a series of podcasts.

The episode about HIV/AIDS was especially riveting, calling as it did for interviews with people, sometimes, who were investigating illness as far back as the 1980s. And while – for reasons outlined above – the series structure is a bit wobbly the gear that is set up within each episode is sound, and adequately supports the endeavour: to deliver a rich assembly of data to a complete novice in a period of about 30 minutes.

The Haiti episode, which involved talking at length to an investigative journalist, you get to meet a breed of knowledge worker who sometimes risks his or her life merely by going off in pursuit of a good story. A profound aspiration to be the first person to break news to a community with whom he or she shares values drives many such journalists and this part of the job can be, in itself, intriguing to the layperson. ‘Patient Zero’ succeeds in layering this facet of the subject over the question of the disease’s origins and Jonathan Katz, an American on the ground in Haiti in 2010, who Radio National talked with for their series, offers a glimpse into the life of such a person. You get to feel the excitement as well as the anxiety that forms part of his work.

This is compelling journalism. Pleasures are everywhere in this series and it’s a let-down when you perfunctorily get to the end of it and realise that the experience with Radio National is over and you’ll have to go and seek out other sources of entertainment while driving your car in horrendous Sydney traffic. It’s as though, worrying that they might’ve produced something that wouldn’t deliver the figures – in terms of downloads – they hoped for, they’d cut their losses with the Covid episode (there’s no indication anywhere, however, which ep follows which, in terms of the actual work done) and run away from the project before they could be accused of wasting resources. Like Oliver Twist, I wanted more.

Monday 9 November 2020

Book review: Guy de Maupassant, Christopher Lloyd (2020)

I bought this book for the RRP at Gleebooks when I was on the hunt for things to read during a period of uncertainty as I swapped homes.

The main reason for my choice was because I’d started – for the first time in about 35 years – to listen to Wagner and, as readers of this blog should not be surprised to learn, was for the first time blown away by the richness and variety of the artistic vision I found in his work. I’d recently bought albums with, on them, the music of other late-19th century composers – for example, Janacek, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, and Liszt – and while these functioned well enough as pastimes nothing equalled in my mind Wagner’s accomplishment with his magnum opus, the ‘Ring’ cycle. Fantastic tunes, fast pacing (interest never flags), extraordinary variety, a wall-of-sound technique in the days before electric music arrived, and an awe-inspiring ambition to transcend the mundane and to reach millennial heights.

This illustrated Reaktion Books ”critical lives” series biography of the famous French writer is brief and the subject was no saint but it serves to give you some idea of the nature of the times de Maupassant lived in, years when Wagner, also, was active, but across a contested border, producing work. 

Maupassant started out as a journalist writing occasional pieces and gravitated toward short fiction, and then to novels. His trajectory was steep but, according to Lloyd, he worked very hard to achieve a goal: to live by his writing. Initially employed as a state functionary, he aspired to something more meaningful. According to his biographer, Maupassant is still voluntarily read today, especially by young people (though I don’t have the figures on-hand and they are anyway hard to find because the author’s copyright has expired). The creative genius employed in drudge-work is a common theme in the annals of history: viz Pessoa and Kafka, among others.

Dying from disease contracted as a result of a louche lifestyle, Maupassant literally fucked up his body. Aside from this objection to his character and a dismaying degree of anti-Semitism, Lloyd’s de Maupassant raises many ideas that are still relevant today, especially relating to the place of the individual in art and, hence, in society. Maupassant belonged to the post-Romantic era when Modernism was emerging along with working-class consciousness and industrial technology. Other major shifts in the late 19th century involved humanity’s idea of itself, especially as this was affected by the writings of Charles Darwin. Following on from the advances forged by the generation of Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, Maupassant’s coevals, and the writer himself, tried to come to grips with a new type of reality. 

Today we are also faced with an almost insupportable degree of social and technological change so Lloyd’s effort has to be of interest to a general reader. Striking for me is Maupassant’s focus on the human, and on manners and sentiment as it was expressed by ordinary people, though sometimes, in his stories, the circumstances they find themselves in are anything but ordinary. Maupassant is not only known for his portraits of mid-19th-century society but also for his speculative fiction.

In a book like this you have to survey what other people have written about the author in question, and Lloyd does this but he also inserts his own views about his subject, who was only active for a period of about 20 years though he published hundreds of short stories, a handful of (admittedly short) novels, as well as novellas, plays, poetry and journalism. Illness cut short his productive years.

Maupassant was both a man of affairs – a successful writer able to afford luxuries – and a man of letters. In this book the age-old rivalry between France and Germany enters into the frame as a result of war, and certainly it’s possible to also view Wagner’s efforts in the context of a cultural divide that was at least 2000 years old by the time he sat down for the first time to mark his scores and to write his libretti.

Expect more reviews of the same type as this as I try to come to terms with Wagner. As succinctly put by Peter Nicholson, an Australian poet and acquaintance, in commenting on Facebook in response to a post I made about this book (before I’d started reading it): the ”Wagner meme” is evidence of the way the composer enticed many other artists to copy and pillage his work. 

It is capacious, transcendent, enigmatic. Yes, he had difficulties, but are we likely to leave a Tristan as our calling card to humanity? 

I couldn’t agree more. Janacek and Bruckner are mere shadows, though contemporary with Wagner, and while Liszt and Rachmaninov entertain, once you have sampled the ‘Ring’ you may find it hard to go elsewhere.

Saturday 7 November 2020

Podcast review: Trace: The Informer, ABC (2020)

This is the first in a new collection of posts; about podcasts (I’ve been listening to them in my new RAV4 Hybrid, so expect more such articles on the blog).

Chronicling the life and times of Nicola Gobbo, who was both a lawyer for Melbourne criminals and a police informer, ‘The Informer’ does the job nicely. Rachel Brown is the chief reporter.

Her show has tons of in-depth reporting. Both journalists responsible for the investigative work used for it work for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). At times the drama is amped up a tad high on account of the – illegality – of much of what happens to different people. As though breaking the law is the worst thing that a person can do. The moral compass featured in this production is narrowish. Many worse things are possible – as fiction (especially the novel) demonstrates – but Brown and her colleague Josie Taylor fix their ideas firmly within the bounds of propriety.

The modern shade of pink used for the title graphic is redolent with meaning, but given the way the series ends I’m not sure it’s entirely justified. Other people might have different views on this issue. 

Feminised stories fit the community’s expectations, and women have traditionally been among the most enthusiastic consumers of crime stories that are produced by both journalists and authors. Gobbo bent the rules in many ways, becoming personally involved with some of the people she met in the course of her working life. An affair with a policeman, and another with a drug dealer, serve as tonic points that add meaning to the podcast and help the listener to build a vibrant picture of the subject. 

Not that merely breaking the law is in itself without merit as a point of focus for a podcast. The thing is that fiction since at least the 18th century has been showing us precisely how incapable mere law tends to be (perhaps those authors might’ve done better to listen to more podcasts …). The tragedies that dead writers – both men and women – describe in their works often feature bad behaviour that is perfectly legal but that leads to the destruction of lives and to suffering that can only be described through fiction. In our earnest age where old certainties are breaking down amid a new world order we seem to have lost the ability to understand what is valuable, and instead choose to rely predominantly on the letter of the law to tell us how to behave. What might Dickens think of this development? Or Maupassant?

We know from Netflix that crime is a popular subject. A line should always be drawn between fiction and journalism, however, and while everything that is reported in ‘The Informer’ is factually correct the tone used in the conveyance sometimes verges on the melodramatic and sensational. I promised myself to listen to the first series of ‘Trace’, which is about a different set of people and which was aired on the ABC in 2017, but it’s not available in the podcast catalogue.

In ‘The Informer’ the line between fiction and fact is crossed on occasion and you feel as though Brown and Taylor invite the listener to sit on the edge of his or her seat regardless what’s being conveyed. Brown narrates the eight episodes in the series and she provides a terrific delivery, one that is both authoritative and engaging.

Death, lying, prison, drugs, money … such things constitute the lineaments of our desire? I wonder if anyone might occasionally insist that the rewards of crime mightn’t be worth the price people pay for them? Nicola Gobbo certainly paid a high price – she’s now living outside the country at an undisclosed location – but it’s arguable whether the people who made the series uncovered why it was that she did what she did. By the end of this podcast, questions remained in my mind. Perhaps if Brown and Taylor had taken further the fictional impulse, more answers might’ve resulted in the making.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Book review: The Story of Egypt, Joann Fletcher (2015)

I bought this at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD while on a search for information about antiquity. It cost the recommended retail price.

And this gripping thriller is worth every cent a reader pays to acquire. Fletcher goes quite fast and the book is filled with facts. Her chronology begins in prehistory when the people who would become residents of the Nile Valley lived in lush landscapes where desert is now. Those people migrated to the river in search of greener pastures, and the annual flood became the root of their civilisation, whereupon they based their entitlement to rule and their religion.

For thousands of years Egyptians commemorated their godlike rulers, preserving their remains so that they could live in the afterlife and so that the survivors could continue to enjoy a style of life to which their forefathers had become accustomed. It was a strange political settlement where the connection to the sun was of paramount importance and where, nevertheless, the king (pharaoh – literally, the resident of the big house) led the troops in battle.

Fletcher has a wry sense of humour and liberally comments on both earlier commentators and the political and religious figures – with the two provinces of endeavour inextricably bound up together in Egyptian history – she writes about. 

The historical record didn’t become visible in the West until the middle of the 19th century and when it did there was some attempt to conserve the remains of dead pharaohs, but more could sometimes have been done. Along with the state-sanctioned looting conducted by later Egyptian dynasties, European rifling of graves left holes in the record, which such later historians as Fletcher have been industriously patching up, mixing information gleaned from archaeological digs and laboratory studies with scraps of information from written records (including carved inscriptions, writing on jewellery, and paintings).

It's a mammoth task and completely engrossing for the attentive reader. If you persist with the thick tangle of facts contained in this book you’ll reap a treasure-trove of insights not only about Egypt in its ancient guise, but also about the nature of religion, Hellenistic antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans, and also about the history of Western civilisation.

A veritable cornucopia of happiness and reward cloaked enticingly with a semi-transparent veil of arcane and exotic names and ideas associated with the north-African region. So, the closer you delve into the mysteries the wider the applicability of the information that results from your reading. From the specific derives the general.

Enormously fun! I even developed my own theory about the origin of the ankh symbol (which looks so similar to the Christian cross): the south-north axis of the Nile Valley crossed from east to west by the track of the sun, with the body of the Mediterranean at the apex. 

This author in her engaging narrative focuses on the role of religion, a quality that sets this book apart from most histories of the pre-Christian period, which tend to be a catalogue of wars and rulers. As Fletcher notes, Alexander the Great wisely accommodated the Egyptians’ religion, something that set him apart from the despised Persian kings who had immediately preceded him. 

But Alexander was a cultured man, taught by Aristotle in his youth, so he knew better than to insult his hosts. As a result they welcomed him as the embodiment of Horus. To make Egyptian customs more acceptable to Greeks, Horus was equated with Zeus, and Thoth, the god of scribes, with Hermes. Fantastic stuff …

Sunday 1 November 2020

Grocery shopping list for October 2020

This post is the twenty-second in a series and the first to chronicle diets. During this month I left my home and moved in temporarily with an old friend in advance of the completion of a new house. More details will follow at the beginning of next year; separate blogposts are being written.

4 October

Got back from Wollongong and popped into the convenience store to buy milk.

5 October

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) couscous and pumpkin, coleslaw, apples, tomatoes, blue cheese, Arnott’s biscuits (Chocolate Montes, Caramel Crowns, and Gaiety), and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

7 October

On Facebook I put up a post asking for suggestions for apps for walking to lose weight and got some comments but then visited my GP and had a talk with him. He said it won’t matter how much you walk if you’re eating too much in the way of carbohydrates.

I weighed myself in his office – I don’t keep a set of scales at home – and the figure was higher than it had been two months earlier, so he gently lectured me for about five or ten minutes detailing what to look out for and how to keep my carb intake low. 

I found a mobile phone program in the Apple store called the Keto Tracking App. It’s free to use with basic functions, but you’ll probably need to pay (either subscription or one-off cost) if you want to use it properly. It allows you to scan barcodes to log foods consumed, which lets you see how much of the daily allowance – given my goal of losing weight – each item represents. For food without a barcode you can source details from the packaging or online, and then enter them manually. 

The app suggests 29g of carbs daily but a commenter on another post I made said 45g of complex carbs a day is the most sustainable method if you want to lose weight. If I stick to the phone’s recommended allowance, the app says I’ll reach my target weight – losing 10kg – by March. 

Some of the app’s navigation isn’t crash hot, but the ability to see – per item – carb intake is wonderful as it gives you an idea, from moment to moment, about what is suitable to eat and what is counterproductive. I would’ve liked to see a better progress chart with the goal strongly highlighted so that you have a better feel of where you stand in relation to it. 

The Keto Tracking App could also better integrate with the iPhone’s own health database. The phone’s step tracking is great as it tells you in the absence of any effort on your part – apart from the necessity to carry your phone with you – how far you have walked each day. The Keto Tracking App has a water intake recording tool as well as an exercise tracking tool but it wasn’t clear to me that there’s a benefit to using these. On the one hand, water has no carbs unless it’s sweetened with sugar. On the other hand, Apple provides its own exercise monitor for free, so: why not use it?

Carbs eaten on this day: 117g. (Estimate made with the app.)

In the evening I went with a friend to Coles and bought a honeydew melon, a pear, kiwifruit, and beetroot.

8 October

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) prawns, ginger, lentil salad, eggs, lentil soup, avocados, “Aussie Bodies” low-carb snacks, and mouthwash. Later I went to the Vietnamese restaurant near the light rail station and bought a container of fried rice to take away.

Total carbs eaten on this day: 94g (near bedtime I went mad with Gaiety biscuits, having eaten little during the rest of the day).

9 October

My first day using a new app I found the day before called FatSecret, which is free to use and which you can sign into using your Apple login. It also synchronises with the Health app that comes native with the iPhone. Instead of using a barcode scanner to identify foods, Fat Secret gives you a search function that allows you to find retail items in a list within the app. 

You can also change the way quantities and volumes are registered. Instead of a whole honeydew melon, you can choose a slice (one-eighth of a 13-inch melon); instead of a whole avocado you can punch in “0.5” as the quantity; instead of a standard serve (250ml, or a cup), you can punch in a different amount in millilitres. This gives you flexibility. And, unlike the Keto Tracking App, FatSecret allows you to edit meal entries instead of having to delete and re-enter them. 

Overall, it’s a better application and includes a barcode scanner so that you can add foods that are not already listed in the database. The way you can plan the next day’s meals, and monitor nutrients to be consumed even before eating anything, is marvellous.

I found this app while searching for carb content of a food I was going to enter into the other app. In fact I found both of the apps in the same way but FatSecret is definitely the one I’m going to use by preference, though I’ll keep Keto Tracking App on hand in case I need to find out things that FatSecret cannot uncover.

On this day my application to join the Keto Tracking App Facebook group was accepted and I bought a Withings wifi-enabled scale at Amazon Prime (delivery free and due in 2 weeks’ time).

In the afternoon, on the way to Wollongong, I bought a pack of water at a petrol station.

12 October

Went to the Fish Market for breakfast with a friend and while there bought school prawns, asparagus, a lettuce, tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggs, and chocolate snacks. In the afternoon had a local appointment and while out popped into Woolies and bought flavoured sugarless mineral water and some of the “Aussie Bodies” low-carb snacks my GP had recommended.

13 October

At Coles bought kimchi, noodles, pork sausages.

15 October

Went to the pharmacy and while in the arcade bought avocadoes and flavoured sugarless mineral water.

16 October

Went to Woolworths and bought milk and sugarless flavoured mineral water. Also went to the GP and got weighed: 2.5kg lower than at my last visit.

18 October

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) flavoured sugarless mineral water. The Woolworths branded bottles are bigger and cheaper than the Schweppes ones, but it always seems sneaky for a retailer to benefit from a supplier creating a market for a range of goods, then undercutting them with their own, home-branded product (priced lower than the original).

Here’s the winning record of a week’s worth of calories and carbs, using the Fat Secret app. Each meal is shown in a different colour: yellow for breakfast, blue for lunch, pink for dinner, and purple for snacks.

Here’s the iPhone’s activity report for the same week, measuring the number of steps walked:

A large number of snacks eaten on Friday indicative of hunger I felt due to the small quantity of calories consumed the day before (see earlier table). On Friday evening I ate a good deal of snacks – including ones with lots of carbs in them – at home on the couch after spending most of the day indoors. 

The week’s tally of carbs is visible in the following table:

20 October

Went to the convenience store across the road and bought milk.

21 October

Went to my GP and weighed myself. This time, I’d lost a further 1.7kg. We had another chat about dieting and eating.

26 October

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) brazil nuts, protein bars, and some flavoured sugarless mineral water.

My diet’s statistics for the previous week were also available on this Monday. First, the calorie intake:

You can see in the above chart how I’ve adjusted the intake level to increase the amount eaten at breakfast and lunch, and decrease the amount of food eaten for dinner. The level of calories consumed is also more uniform across the week, compared to the previous week. This is because I’m getting used to the diet, and can better, now, understand what my body needs. 

The following chart shows the week’s activity report made using the iPhone:

Finally, the macronutrient report for the same week:

The amount of carbs increased due to eating meals with others; it’s more difficult to control your diet when those around you aren’t following the same regimen. This trend continues in the subsequent week during which time I’m living at a friend’s house – appositely perched, looking out over a river, right on the edge of a cliff. At dawn you can hear birds and your computer’s fan, accompanied by a water feature making its sound.

27 October

Went to the GP and weighed myself. Had put on 600g, and I mentioned the circumstance where I’d been staying with friends and had less control of my diet. The doctor listened then gave me more pointers.