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TALL TALES AND SUMMER SATIRE

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After my jetlag was compounded by searing days of 40+ degrees in Melbourne, leaving me and everyone else tired and mentally foggy, I took advantage of the last few days of holiday to tidy up the house, to the sounds of cool jazz and essential books/arts podcasts. My spring – or rather summer – clean was a great way to kick off the new year and I can’t tell you how cleansed I feel after de-cluttering, ruthlessly binning outdated files, and “I should keep this it might come in useful” oddities (anyone fancy a Duck Clock, complete with quacking alarm? Who gave me this? And, more importantly, why?), bundling up clothes for the Salvos and moving read books into boxes, to make room for this year’s crop.

It’s going to be a great year, with new work from amongst others David  Malouf, Sonya Hartnett, John Scott, Janet Turner Hospital and Favel Parrott; internationally, expect new books from Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwen. Martin Amis and, a personal favourite, Lorrie Moore. And of course, I’m still working out how much – if any – of the First War commemoration I should cover. A pile of freshly-minted books is eying me accusingly as I write this, but I have copy to write for the Australian Book Review, a grant application, and the second draft of my play to finish off first, so they will just have to wait.

One of the pleasures of holiday reading is that you have time to cover books you wouldn’t normally have time to savour, so I was genuinely pleased to chortle over Richard Glover’s George Clooney’s Haircut (ABC Books, $24.99).  Glover is a humourist who writes for The Sydney Morning Herald. Although his work is sometimes syndicated in the Melbourne Age, we don’t have the pleasure of reading his columns weekly, which is a great pity.

Glover has a talent for exploring the minutiae of everyday life. Whether it’s acknowledging the passing of time and accepting his mullet needs drastic, overdue attention – hence the “Clooneyesque” haircut of the title – pondering on the best way to fill out the census, or despairing over his never-ending home renovations, he cracks witty one-liners as easily as shelling nuts. He writes with an enviable ease and fluidity, an empathy for his readers that makes reading him both a joy and a feeling that you’re conversing with an old friend. I caught myself deliberately slowing myself down not to finish the book too fast, making myself wait for one more delicious chapter.

We can all identify with his list of faux-pas and declining standards of etiquette. They include Phone abandonment (leaving your mobile on your office desk, where it will ring constantly with a sickeningly cloying ringtone); Elevator Blindness (deliberately closing the door on someone you can see running to catch the lift); Eyejacking (some Philistine reading the newspaper you’ve bought over your shoulder on public transport) and Surprise Veganism (slaving over a hot stove cooking a meal for 10 only to find none of your guests can eat anything on the menu).

His survey of writers’ festivals wickedly partitions authors into purveyors of Quick Lit (news-related books published 24 hours after a cataclysmic event), Clit-Lit (erotic fiction aimed at the female market), Sick Lit (crime novels often with a Scandinavian setting featuring ghastly murders), Shtick-Lit (memoirs by comedians featuring their best one-liners), Flick-Lit (picture-filled coffee table fare), Sit-Lit (any book to be read in the loo) and so on.

This is all highly amusing, but Glover delves deeper. He has an uncanny ability to point out home truths, so you reflect on changing social mores, with a smirk on your face. Take his views on today’s increasingly complex menus in fancy restaurants. “Restaurant chefs claim to be obsessed with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, but… everything is presented in little towers, as if the plate were valuable real estate. It’s then splashed with a melange of butter, cream and salt in a way designed to cause a heart attack. The only place you get with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, is at home”.

Yes, yes, Richard, bring it on, carry on exposing the comedy in our ridiculous posturings and pretentions. Can’t wait for your next book.

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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. 


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Monday masterpiece: Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It

 

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The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie        Published by Text  $24.95

There is a black and white photograph taken of Kenneth Mackenzie in the 1930s, showing the author as a young man. It’s hard to resist that sensitive face, the sensual, perfectly curved mouth, the penetrating gaze. There’s a touch of Trevor Howard, of Oxbridge intellectual. Subfusc with absent pipe. A whole era is summed up in that image.

Yet Mackenzie was a Western Australian and his most famous novel, The Young Desire It, was published in 1937 when Mackenzie was 23. His life thereafter never reached the heights of that first, early success. Other novels were published, fizzed and faded. He married and had two children, but after a career that also encompassed poetry, journalism and the law, Mackenzie became a recluse, battling ill-health and alcoholism. He drowned in 1955 – the circumstances surrounding his death remain unknown.

I would probably have remained unfamiliar with Mackenzie had I not read critic Peter Craven’s fulsome review of The Young Desire It in the Australian Book Review recently, as it’s just been republished as Text Classic. I was also urged to read the book by WC Chong, Text’s head of design and illustration, whom I interviewed for a forthcoming Pageturners podcast.

Summed up, the narrative is conventional enough – a boarding school story, a 16 year-old boy’s rites of passage, the burgeoning of an adolescent love affair with a country girl. Erotically-charged yes, plot-driven, no. What impresses, as David Malouf writes in his excellent introduction to the new edition, is that it’s “perhaps the earliest novel in Australia to deal with the inner life in a consistently modernist way.”

One of the dominant features is the novel’s languid sensuality and lyricism and lush, haunting evocation of place. When the novel opens, the hero Charles Fox is about to go to boarding-school but before leaving indulges in a final walk, mushroom picking in familiar woods. Brought up alone and a child of nature, Charles is completely at one with the landscape. “Here the first mushrooms appeared, breaking through inches of half-softened crust from the moister warmth beneath, just as if for their pulpy, round heads it was no feat at all. They came up in a night: they seemed to come even as he walked about stooping with a knife to take them into the basket; against the darkness of the earth they shone like moons, and the pink flesh of their secret undersides was wonderful to see.”

This is gloriously poetic with obvious Lawrencian undertones, and indeed Mackenzie acknowledged DH Lawrence’s influence. When, later, Charles meets Margaret for the first time in his retreat in the woods, she appears almost like a spiritual emanation of nature, even before the second theme of love and sexual awakening is introduced. The reader has already been primed to expect the following: “Charles watched her…carefully seeing with a sort of delight that he had never known before that moment, the happy movement that turned her face away, and threw into full view the side of her head, smooth and fair, the one long plait near him fallen and hanging on her knees, and the soft curve of breast and arm. She was very beautiful, he thought.”

Towards the end of the novel when the two consummate their love over the summer, Mackenzie builds up the sexual tension between them with almost heart-stopping intensity. You feel the heat of the day, hear the beating of their hearts, witness their bodies’ abandonment to “the blind volition of their own single will”. What the young desire is not simply sex, of course, but freedom, independence of action and thought within the constraints of a conservative society, the need to be completely oneself. The novel aches with that passionate wish and struggle, which is tackled with fervour and immense literary sophistication and discipline, bookended by the largest chunk of the novel, which describes Charles’ time at school.

Modelled on an English public school, Mackenzie depicts the day to life of Chatterton as a factory for making English clones out of colonial country bumpkins. In this, the novel is quietly satirical. More graphic by far is the emotional and sexual life of the school. Charles’ instincts are completely heterosexual, but at Chatterton he discovers a hothouse of homoeroticism, veiled seductions and more obvious approaches, and his confusion at how to deal with this and survive is handled by Mackenzie with extraordinary sensitivity. The success of this section lies in part in its autobiographical content. In a letter written years later, Mackenzie recalled: “When I was at school I, being angel-faced and slim and shy, was apparently considered fair game by masters as well as certain boys. The boys were at least honestly crude in their proposals; but the masters – young men whom I thought very mature and wise – had a much better technique. They wooed the intellectual way, just at the very time I was beginning to comprehend something of literature and music, and so was most gullible.”

On his very first day, Charles is brutally gang-raped by a pack of boys under the pretext that he’s actually a girl. Later, he comes under the spell of Penworth, a young Classics master out from England, who is captivated by the boy’s beauty and love of learning. For Charles, Penworth is someone to look up to, a role model. When Penworth kisses him, Charles’ experience with Margaret has already laid the foundation for what he desires and his main concern is how to negotiate the inherent difficulties of the situation – rejecting Penworth’s advances whilst somehow managing to retain his favour in the classroom.

For the 21st century reader, this scene is truly shocking. Penworth’s action is a blatant betrayal of trust and we’re perhaps more aware of its lingering whiff of paedophilia and sexual abuse today than readers in the 1930s. Yet magnanimously, Mackenzie presents a predominantly sympathetic portrait of Penworth which is essentially non-judgmental, highlighting their similarities rather than their differences. Like Charles, Penworth is lonely, isolated, artistic. Penworth’s growing realisation of his own inner nature and his attraction to Charles – which both excites and repels him –  makes him one of the most fascinating characters in the novel. Again, for its time, the subject matter and the way it is tackled are groundbreaking.

The Young Desire It has all the hallmarks of a true classic – dazzling writing, deep insight and themes that are both of their time, yet timeless. As Malouf writes: “Among Australian novels it is unique and very nearly perfect, a hymn to youth, to life, to sexual freedom and moral independence, written in full awareness – and this is a second miracle – of the cost, both to others and to oneself.”

Read it: as an introduction to a largely forgotten Australian author who deserves full recognition.