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An Uneasy Entente Cordiale: on the Trail of Expo 58

 

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EXPO 58 by Jonathan Coe      Penguin     $23.95

As we approach the end of the year, I thought I’d review something lighter and more amusing, in keeping with the forthcoming holiday season. Looking over my list this year, it’s been predominantly serious, with the exception of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which continues to do exceptionally well both in Australia and abroad.

Expo 58 was published earlier this year and is one of those books on my list to read for a while.  I hadn’t realised that Brussels had hosted an international exhibition in 1958. The Expo saw pavilions from all around the world erected to showcase the best of international design, art, and lifestyle.  Brussels’ famous Atomium was built to display contemporary engineering, science and creativity in the Exhibition Park. Mandarins, intellectuals and the media swarmed to Brussels to see what the post-war world had to offer.  With what’s described in the book as ‘an example of the Belgian sense of humour’, the US and Russian pavilions (remember, we’re at the height of the Cold War) nestled uncomfortably side by side in a public show of uneasy harmony.

Coe takes the Expo as a starting point for a farce on British mores and international relations. He blends elements of Ealing comedy and Le Carre (with more than a touch of David Lodge) to concoct an irresistible, fast-paced read that’s guaranteed to make you smile – if you appreciate an anglophile sense of the ridiculous.

Thomas is a lowly pen pusher in the Central Office of Information. He’s given the chance to escape his boring public service job and suburban marriage to travel to Brussels and be part of the British delegation at the Expo. His task is ostensibly to oversee the running of the Brittania, a replica of a British pub which takes pride of place near the British pavilion. However, he’s soon caught up in a network of hush-hush activity. Under the guise of camaraderie over a pint, the British, the Russians and the Americans are obviously spying on each other. Plus, there’s Anneke, the beautiful Flemish hostess, who soon captures his attention. Where, in more ways than one, do Thomas’ loyalties lie?

Reading this at a time when Indonesia and Australia are caught up in a “who spied on whom?” scandal, and the recent revelations of American and British phone tapping, Coe’s novel seems both prescient and topical. Plus ҫa change etc etc.  His novel doesn’t pretend to be anything more than lighthearted. And yet, it resonates with profound truths about Great Britain’s attitude to its neighbours  pre EU (usually condescending), a fact that’s particularly ironic considering Britain’s woeful state in 1958.

Having just emerged from rationing and a devastating war, Britain was struggling to get back on her feet. Riddled by a suffocating class system, insular, bridling with suspicion and prejudice against anything new and foreign, the country was stagnating. The liberation of the 60s was yet to occur. No wonder Thomas views a stint at the Expo as a chance to escape his stifling existence.  Here’s his (admittedly naïve) view of all the Expo has to offer, when he first arrives in Brussels: “Here for the next six months, would be thrown together all the nations whose complex relationships, whose conflicts and alliances, whose fraught, tangled histories, had shaped and would continue to shape the destiny of mankind.”

All this seems to be epitomised by the structure of the Atomium itself, which Coe describes as “this brilliant folly… a giant latticework of spheres, unperishable, interconnected, each one emblematic of that tiny mysterious unit man had so recently learned to divide and conquer: the atom. The very sight of it set his heart pounding”.

Of course, the novel is a gradual exploration of loss of innocence. And there are flashes of the real price countries had to pay after the Second World War. Here and there are reminiscences of villages pillaged, houses burned, friends deported, lives in ruin.  But the underpinning seriousness of the message is always deflated by farce and fun.

This is epitomised by the delicious cartoon characters, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford (we never learn their first names), two secret service men in black who recruit Thomas to the cause. With dialogue straight out of PG Wodehouse, a habit of finishing each other’s sentences and a penchant for tortuous language: “He had the sachet and the packet in the pocket of his jacket”, they’re a comedy duo, caricatured spies who come in from the cold with very English flair.

So if you’re lazing on a beach this summer digging into a raspberry Pav, or tucked up with a hot toddy and Christmas pud  and turkey leftovers near a blazing fire, Expo 58 is a good companion. Definitely recommended.

 


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MUSIC AND THE NAZIS: an interview with Raphaël Jerusalmy

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There’s an audio cassette that belonged to my mother, of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 conducted by Furtwängler in 1938 in a performance with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of the Nazi top brass were in attendance. It’s an extraordinary recording and the audience can be heard applauding when the last notes have died away. That sound always brings me out in goosebumps: one of the people I can hear clapping is actually Adolf Hitler.

The Nazi attitude to music is well-known: there was redemptative music (Wagner and Co) and degenerative music (Mahler, Mendelssohn and any other Jewish composer). Those composers and musicians who were able to flee, either because of their race or because they opposed National Socialism, did so. But a very large number did not. They included conductors like Furtwängler, but also other well-known musicians, such as the soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, and conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan.

Indeed, von Karajan and Böhm were vocal supporters of Hitler’s new Germany. And it is this inconsistency, the fact that brilliant artists who went on to have long-term careers after the Second World War, were actually Nazi advocates and collaborators, that lies at the heart of Raphael Jerusalmy’s Saving Mozart.

Sauver Mozart – a slim volume, a mere 125 pages – was originally published in France in 2012 and brought Jerusalmy to immediate world-wide attention. The story is a simple one: at the onset of the Second World War, the music critic Otto Steiner is slowly dying of TB in a Viennese sanatorium.  The gracious world he knew of music and culture is swiftly vanishing. In its place is violence, racial hatred, cynicism, and perhaps for him, worst of all, the exploitation of music as political propaganda.

He plots his final stand – a radical, incendiary gesture that will transform forever the music programme of the Salzburg Festival that Otto has been asked to compile. What ensues is a novel that writer Peter Goldsworthy calls: “veined with humour and love and hope… this novella offers the near-impossible: a fresh take on the Holocaust.”

At first glance, Jersusalmy seems an unlikely novelist. A graduate of Paris’ prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, he emigrated to Israel in 1980. After spending time in the army, he joined Israeli intelligence where he served for most of his life before becoming an antiquarian bookseller. During this time, however, he dreamed of writing fiction.

We correspond by email. “I only studied and acquired degrees to please my parents!”, he writes. “I always dreamed of action and adventure, hence joining the Israeli army. My plots and characters are all inspired by true events that took place in the field, in the Middle East, while I was serving in the army. I just transposed them into fiction.

“All my life, I lived close to books or rather with them. My grandfather and uncles were book binders and printers. I have collected beautiful volumes all along, repaired and designed some, bought and sold many, read hundreds. All that was left for me to achieve in that domain was to write one.”

He grew up with stories of the Holocaust. His father’s entire family perished in Auschwitz and Jerusalmy dedicates Saving Mozart to his cousin, the youngest member of that family. The plot for the book emerged from his own research into the way the Nazis manipulated music to further their political objectives.

“Whether played at military parades, in the concert halls of Salzburg and Berlin or at the gates of Dachau, music was an integral part of the Nazi era, and a direct accomplice”, he writes to me.  “In Otto, I see the cynical use of art and culture by the Nazis as the very last degree of horror. In Cambodia, it was ‘Year Zero’ – a total rejection of the past – whereas the Third Reich attempted to deprive humankind of its very essence (the love of beauty, the creative power of the mind), not by destroying it, but by stealing it and enslaving it to serve its diabolical purpose.  In the novel, music will eventually turn into the last stronghold of freedom and dignity but, at first, it is brought to trial (as are religious faith and culture). It is this trial that gives the novel its subversive streak.”

Although not a musician himself, Jerusalmy’s research enabled him to envelop himself in Otto’s world. “I decided to address my intuitive feelings as to what music is all about. For me, music is the ultimate literary tool since it transcends language”, he explains.

He agrees with me that the sanatorium is a symbol of a corrupt and wounded Austria. And  Otto himself – half Jewish, half alive, is also an outcast. He’s an observer who identifies with the sick and the oppressed, with no power to change society. What he is trying to redeem is the essence of music itself. His final act of resistance is one of  courage and conviction, despite its seeming futility. That, says Jerusalmy, is extraordinarily powerful.

Jerusalmy is scathing of collaborators like Böhm and von Karajan. “They willingly joined the Party (not under any duress)”, he writes. “There are no extenuating circumstances here. Not even that of sheer survival. Near illiterate Polish peasants risked their lives and the lives of their own families in order to save others, against all odds. So you would be entitled to expect just as inspiring an attitude from the élite.”

He identifies, he says, with underdogs, and his new novel, La Confrerie des Chasseurs de Livres, is a study of the medieval poet Franҫois Villon, who was hanged for his underworld activities. “Like Otto, Villon is a lone ranger, a rebel without a cause. Instead of saving Mozart, he will save the written Word (of Christ, but also poetry at large).

“Villon is full of contradictions and thus many facetted: a learned poet and a hooligan, a bad Christian but a true believer, a nostalgic of the past, like Otto, but also a revolutionary figure. Add to that the legend and mystery surrounding his life and you obtain the ‘novel hero’ par excellence. The challenge then resides in revealing the richness of such a character through situations and adventures in keep with his many aspects, the main one being that he is totally unpredictable (as when he’ll resort to poetry or just stab you with his dagger). Like Otto, he is a truly free man.”

Saving Mozart (in an excellent translation by Howard Curtis) is published by Text, $19.99

La Confrerie des Chasseurs de Livres was published in 2013 by Actes Sud and yet to be translated.


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INTO THE LION’S DEN AGAIN: PREPARING FOR THE WRITER’S WORKSHOP

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Well it’s finally happening.  In two weeks I’ll be working with director, six actors and script in a big, empty theatre space for one day’s rehearsal  to workshop the first draft of my new play Muffins at the Death Café. The public reading will be on 2 December.

I’m understandably both excited and nervous. My last two plays have had readings but gone nowhere, even though I was an artist in residence with the two theatre companies concerned. This is the greatest confidence knock a writer can get. You spend one year developing a play and working closely with a company. The public reading goes exceptionally well. The audience love it, applaud, congratulate you. You think you’ve cracked it.

And then the company decides not to run with the baby that you have loved and nurtured and wept and laughed over. You immediately think you are a hopeless writer, completely lacking in talent and prospects, so  you’d better quit now. Well, maybe other writers roll with punches better. I’ve always been far too thin-skinned for my own good.

Writing this new play has been a tremendous leap of faith on my part.

It is certainly a work in progress and needs a new draft, but I believe in the characters and what the play’s inherent message. It has had no development grant or support other than this workshop hosted by Melbourne Writer’s Theatre and La Mama Theatre for which I am exceptionally grateful. I have never worked with the director, Tammie Kite of Innatum Theatre or the actors before, so it will be like stepping into an unknown, rather terrifying but potentially exhilarating universe.

What I’m hoping for is a road map for writing the second draft. Hearing your script read aloud is a wonderful opportunity to see what works, uncover what jars and generate new ideas for plot and character development. I love the collaborative nature of theatre making (it’s probably why I’ve never tackled a novel).

And I love the unique smell of theatres. It hits you when you walk in – a mixture of dust, greasepaint, wood and cardboard burnished by years and years of diverse productions that somehow seep into the very walls.

Theatre making in Australia is a lonely business. There’s little support for playwrights. Which is why many aspiring writers form their own companies. But most of these are people in their 20s or 30s who all went to uni together. They have a built-in network they can tap into.

I started writing in my 40s and I wasn’t born in this country, so forming those crucial alliances has been hard going. Plus I run my own business, I’m married, mortgaged and have family commitments – I’m in a very different space to young, carefree singles. I have also found it absolutely impossible to work the system:  I’ve never been successful in obtaining grants for my work, so in order to produce it I’ve either had to pay for it to be put on myself (very expensive) or rely on  (as it turns out hitherto fruitless) writer-in-residence status.

So – am I optimistic about the future of Muffins At the Death Café?  Yes and no. I’m hoping someone will come along to the reading and like it enough to work with me to bring it to production. But even if nothing happens, at least the creative juices are flowing again after an 18 month hiatus. And that has to be a good thing.

If you’re in Melbourne, come along to the reading at the Carlton Courthouse on Monday 2 December at 7pm. Tickets are only $5, which assists Melbourne Writer’s Theatre run workshops and readings like this one. And if you come, please say hello (I’ll be the woman gnawing her fingernails at the back of the stalls) and say you read this on Books Now!


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CLASSICS VANDALISM: HANDS OFF JANE AUSTEN!

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As I was cleaning the oven this morning (a thankless if necessary task made only marginally more acceptable by a fresh crop of this week’s arts, books and music podcasts, the family sensibly staying away from me as I swore and scrubbed with a mad gleam in my eye), I reflected on the current Austen debate.

Cleaning the oven and thinking about Jane Austen may, at first glance, seem an oxymoron, but as I battled with seemingly irremovable burned-on grime, it appeared a suitable metaphor for a malaise spreading through the literary world: scouring the classics, re-inventing the déjà-vu.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of the next film adaptation of Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield, but it seems to me that Classics Mania is spawning a new breed of literature: Classics Reinvention, whereby contemporary writers are commissioned to write sequels to, or radically review our well-loved favourites.

In the columns of the British press, we’ve seen a sparring match between writers Sam Leith and Elizabeth Day in The Observer over the so-called “Austen Project”. For those not in the know, this HarperCollins publishing initiative involves six novelists reworking Austen’s oeuvre for the 21st century. Joanna Trollope has just published (and note the ampersand) Sense & Sensibility; out soon are Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice and Alexander McCall’s Emma.

Leith is all in favour – there’s nothing wrong with dressing an old aunt in new clothes, he says, citing Bridget Jones as the obvious pastiche-to riches phenomenon . Day, however, is scathing. “I’d much rather read a new book….containing inventive ideas and new ways of seeing human behaviour than a novel that is constrained by someone else’s plot devices handed down through the centuries.”, she writes.  “I don’t need to read about Mr Knightley listening to Arctic Monkeys on his iPod to be convinced that Jane Austen is ‘relevant’. I already know she is.”

There are in fact two ideas here. The first stream is the homage novel, inspired by a piece of fiction, but remaining highly original, with its own take on character and plot.  Although I’m not a Helen Fielding fan, Bridget Jones clearly falls into this category.  So does a work such as Zadie Smith’s fabulous On Beauty which revisits Howard’s End in a completely individual way.

A few years ago, BBC TV produced a superb series where a number of Shakespeare comedies, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were re-interpreted for today. Although plotlines were subscribed to in principle, the writers enthusiastically fitted them to contemporary mores, so they became free-standing works of art.

The second stream is where pure spin-offs or sequels of original works are written, which I have greater difficulty accepting. It’s all very well to say such books acquire a separate personality and should be judged accordingly but why tamper with what already works? Cynically, this seems to be an exercise in pure greed and commercialism, with publishers and the media cashing in on our seemingly unending appetite for much-loved classics.

There was a ghastly reworking of Pride and Prejudice on television a few years ago called Lost in Austen where a modern day London gel time-travels  back to the 19th century and finds herself living and acting out the role of Elizabeth Bennett. It was so unbelievably awful that I can’t recall it now without shuddering.  As a spoof, it was crass beyond belief and seemed to me to be merely exploitative, with no artistic merit whatever.

It’s not only Austen, of course.  David Benedictus has revisited Winnie-the-Pooh. This year, Sebastian Faulks has given birth to a new Bertie Wooster and William Boyd has launched a revamped 007. I’m sure that the authors who have been commissioned to write these “new” works have done so with respect, a high level of craft and great intelligence. And yet, and yet, I remain unconvinced. I truly enjoy the work of Sebastian Faulks but  have absolutely no interest in  a 21st century version of Jeeves.  I’ll keep on reading Wodehouse as I’ve always done.


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My Mother, My Father: remembering our parents

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My review appears this month in Australian Book Review.

My Mother , My Father, edited by Susan Wyndham                 Allen & Unwin  $29.99

In  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), novelist Dave Eggers recounts the horror of seeing both his parents die within one year, leaving him and his sister as sole carers of their young brother. Eggers recalls the intense pain of being orphaned at the age of twenty-one, but also the frustration and acute resentment at having to grow up too fast.

There being no uniform pattern to death, it breeds conflicting emotions.  Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, we all face our parents’ final exit in our own way. Susan Wyndham describes the ‘chaos of grief ’ that engulfed her following her mother’s death in 2011. This spurred Wyndham, the Sydney Morning Herald ’s literary editor, to assemble an anthology of essays from some of Australia’s best-known writers, as a tribute to ‘the people who have known us the longest’ – our parents and their legacies.

The fourteen memoirs in My Mother, My Father, include reflections by Helen Garner, Thomas Keneally, David Marr, and Mandy Sayer. Each resonates with a personal voice. Some are diary entries or interlinked thoughts, others more linearly focused. All are united in their unsentimentality and their desire to put cards on the table, frankly assessing both the positive and negative contributions their parents made to the adults they are now.

What emerges is a kaleidoscope of snapshots, vividly recalled anecdotes. As Nikki Barrowclough writes, ‘death gives memory added power’. Caroline Baum, in ‘Waltzing the Jaguar’, remembers her dapper, cosmopolitan, impatient father and their shared love of cars. As a child, she would nestle close to him in the front seat of their Jag when they drove through the car wash, forgetting their frequent rows, ‘as if we have undergone a ritual of purification, all the tensions that encrust the chassis of our family washed away’. Garner, in ‘Dreams of Her True Self ’, recalls spotting a girl on the street wearing a blouse from the 1940s: ‘At the sight of it a bolt of ecstasy went through me, an atavistic bliss.’ Her mother had worn one just like it when she was a baby.

Several memories amuse. Others twist the knife. Kathryn Heyman’s last meeting with her father was in 1990.She had just had her first play produced and was writing a second. He was completely uninterested. ‘Curiosity about my life … is beyond him. I tell myself it’s okay, that I don’t need him to see me, to notice me.’ ‘ A Tale of Two Fathers’ poignantly contrasts this indifference with the approbation and encouragement of Heyman’s late father-in-law.

The need for parental approval remains overwhelming, as does the acute desire to meet expectations. ‘I amhaunted by the things I did not do, the things I should have said,’ Susan Wyndham regrets in ‘Disbelief ’. Thomas Keneally recounts his early years, his ineptitude at school, wishing for parental ‘redemption’ in ‘Independence Days’. He believed himself a ‘massive failure’ in their eyes after abandoning his  seminary studies to concentrate on writing, this inadequacy only intensified by the early success of his brother, a doctor.

A young Susan Duncan realised that she had failed to fulfil her mother’s criteria of physical beauty – ‘Esther Jean’ damned with faint praise. ‘It was my mother’s dissatisfaction with me that taught me to distrust praise or compliments (her own rare approval was always delivered with a painful sting in the tail),’ Duncan writes wryly.

Yet even parents found wanting are missed, sometimes with a visceral rawness. The death of Keneally’s father ‘seemed to shatter the interior of the earth I stood on’. ‘ Oh, if only she would walk in here now,’ Garner laments, at the same time acknowledging her mother’s increasingly marginal presence in her life. For others, grief is heartfelt but kept within boundaries. David Marr recalls the deaths of his parents in ‘Afterlife’, admitting: ‘We were never a close family, affectionate but not entangled.’Nevertheless, Marr is ‘struck by something unexpected: a sense of growing into them … I find I am morethem than I ever was. It’s a reassuring surprise. I’m easy in their company.’

So what’s left? Rituals of closure, funerals, wakes, and the mixed blessing of clearing up parental possessions. In ‘Goodbye, Porkpie Hat: 16 Ways to Say Farewell’, Mandy Sayer’s funny, touching, episodic memories of her divorced jazz musician father and alcoholic mother, the flotsam and jetsam of lives left behind includes: ‘the saucer on the coffee table, knotted with roaches from his final joints; a racing guide with numbers scrawled in the margins; crockery and utensils on the sideboard, mostly stolen from pubs and clubs.’

Children also take on their parents’ physical and psychological makeups.  ‘Her ghost is in my body,’ writes Garner. ‘I have her long narrow feet with low arches… her fine grey-brown hair that resists all attempts at drama.’ Noting that his parents ‘died in character’, Marr quips that he expects to ‘make a noisy exit clamouring for attention’.

Lingering deaths from cancer or dementia, recounted in stark detail, are harrowing; children wonder how theycan help parents towards a ‘good death’. In a short space of time, Barrowclough’s mother, brother, and partner died; her anguish leaps off the page. But there mare life-affirming stories, too. For Jaya Savige, a chance discovery of a photograph among his dead mother’s belongings led to a reunion with his long-lost biological father. With loss, there is also recovery, growth, understanding. Some kind of an ending; some sort of solace. 