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Overcoming shyness – the making of Sian Prior

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My review was published in June’s Australian Book Review

SHY: A memoir by Sian Prior    Text Publishing       $32.99
Shy is a strange beast – part memoir, part journalistic investigation, part cri de coeur. Reading it, you are immersed in the interior life of an intelligent and sensitive woman. The experience is unsettling, almost voyeuristic. You wonder whether you should be sharing such an intense and honest self-scrutiny, and often feel as if you were breaching the sanctity of the confessional. But discomfort is Sian Prior’s aim: she wants the reader to feel the unease and embarrassment she has had to cope with all her life. For Prior suffers from a common but crippling social anxiety: she is painfully shy.

Prior is a well-known media personality. She has written opinion columns for the broadsheets, covered arts for ABC radio, hosted literary forums, taught creative writing at RMIT. She appears, on the surface, to be cool, calm, collected; one colleague described her as a ‘sphinx’. But that, Prior tells us, is the calculated façade of a professional woman determined to show that she is completely in control.

At a party some years ago, Prior experienced a severe panic attack whenfaced with the daunting task of making small talk with strangers. ‘It was as if someone had spiked my drink,’ she writes. ‘My limbs were growing rigid and my smile was the tight rictus you see on the faces of young ballet dancers… sweat was trickling down the insides of my arms.’ Fleeing the party, she determines to find out more about shyness in order to write an article or book about the condition.

Prior, ever the journalist, prepares a focused list of questions. ‘What exactly was shyness? … Was shyness the same as introversion? … Was shyness born or bred, or both?’ And then, more tellingly, ‘why was I still fighting this battle after all these years? And why did it matter so much to me?’ Prior’s quest is therefore not simply rhetorical but a personal and anguished search for self-knowledge and identity. ‘Sian-ness’, as she admits herself, sounds a lot like shyness.‘ Shy … a timid little word that begs to remain unnoticed. only three letters long and it begins with an exhortation to silence: shhh.’

She reads widely, interviews psychologists and scientists, finds fellow sufferers who share their experiences, investigates the biological and social reasons behind shyness. She also reveals much about her journey from ‘Shy Sian’ to ‘Professional Sian’. Prior’s father drowned in the year ofher birth. Despite a loving relationship with her mother and stepfather, Prior keenly feels the loss of a parent who, it transpires, was also shy. Her mother, a psychologist, recognising the signs o fa withdrawn child, helped and encouraged her. Her shyness appeared more pronounced because her elder sister was an extrovert. Prior depicts herself at secondary school as tall, awkward, and androgynous-looking, desperately wishing to be noticed and to make friends, yet shrinking away from attention. These conflicting push-me, pull-you emotions plague her for years.

Until she discovers sex.  Relationships provide much-needed security. She can want and be wanted in return, without the scrutinising gaze of society. Nevertheless, there is a degree of rescuing behaviour towards her lovers. Her first boyfriend is agoraphobic – she launches a campaign to rehabilitate him. Years later, she meets ‘Tom’, her great love, whom she weans successfully off heroin. Through helping her men, she is clearly trying to help herself.

Prior candidly examines the apparent dichotomy she displays between a life in the public eye and the agonies she experiences in social settings. She explains that she is an expert in adopting personae, and ‘Professional Sian’ is more than willing to interview the famous, make speeches, host political debates. For someone who fears rejection, collective praise is empowering. Still, she faces a furore because of an article she wrote about Julia Gillard. Gillard had described herself as shy, and Prior’s opinion piece described that admission as a sign of weakness. Now she recognises the article was more about her own response to shyness than about Gillard herself. But Prior takes such criticism on the chin: she has no wish to be invisible.

Yet when she returns to the home a fear of the reflections . Prior invested much in this failed partnership, and Shy is an attempt to put the record straight after being sidelined by a man who no longer wanted a monogamous relationship. Despite meticulous and intriguing research
into social anxiety, it is the arc of this affair that remains the fulcrum of the book.

Prior’s style is fluid and confident, from Q&A to scientific analysis, reminiscence to interior monologue. She writes with great sadness about her post-breakup trauma, and here there is passion and poetry. It is common knowledge that Prior was musician Paul Kelly’s partner for ten years, yet she insists on calling him by the pseudonym, ‘Tom’. Why such coyness? Prior explains that this is her story, not his, and that Kelly’s fame could detract from her account. But this seems a spurious argument. By not naming Kelly, Prior is evading a reality that would see her reflected compellingly and indelibly in that fickle mirror. •

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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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Suburban absurdity: Mark Lamprell’s new novel

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The Full Ridiculous by Mark Lamprell           Published by Text:    $29.99

When a successful cinematographer turns to the art of the novel, the expectations are high. After all, the external, visual world of the screen is closely aligned to the internal universe of the novel – and books are often turned into movies.

First time novelist Mark Lamprell’s  screen credits are impressive and include the memorable Babe, so I was looking forward to reading The Full Ridiculous. But I was, I confess, disappointed.

Lamprell’s narrator is Michael O’Dell, a cinema reviewer turned film book writer who’s struggling with his latest opus, a history of Australian cinema. One day, as he’s completing his morning jog, he is hit by a car. A seemingly random event from which he recovers, but for Michael, it’s life changing.  From that moment on, his life is quite literally turned upside down.

His 14-year old daughter Rosie gets suspended for hitting another girl at her exclusive girls’ school. His son Declan smokes marijuana in his room and is dealing drugs. Michael himself is soon unemployed, as his publisher sees no future for his book. Only his wife, Wendy, sticks by him although, as Michael sinks further and further into depression, even her patience wears thin over the course of the narrative.

Male depression is an important topic and ripe for literary mining. Lamprell’s style is colloquial, easy to read, and captures the lilt, tone and preoccupations of 21st century family life. How do you pay the mortgage when one partner loses his source of income? How do you reprimand erring teenagers in a society where physical punishment is no longer acceptable, but pure verbal recrimination yields no result?  How does a man retain masculine pride when he feels he’s losing his grip on his family and on himself?

These are familiar themes and Lamprell tackles them with aplomb. And yet, there’s something fundamental missing from this novel.  Much as the reader feels sorry for Michael, who’s clearly undergoing a mental catharsis, his passivity and resignation make him a profoundly irritating hero.

And there are inconsistencies too. Chekov famously advised writers never to introduce a gun in Act I unless it was going to be used in Act 2. (Sound advice, which Alfred Hitchcock chose to ignore – the Hitchcockian MacGuffin was a red herring, deliberately planted early on in the script to keep the audience off the scent). There are many MacGuffins jarring in The Full Ridiculous, which add little to the composition of the narrative or the fleshing out of the characters.

Wendy is introduced as Jewish (why? Her religion and its impact on her family is not a theme in this book);  Rosie’s boyfriend,  Juan, an adopted black South American boy, comes to live with them because of family problems of his own, yet his presence is never satisfactorily accounted for.  Themes are introduced and underdeveloped, sacrificed to pace and the need to tie up the storyline in a perfect cinematographic arc, which cloud the central focus of male depression.

Maybe Lamprell wishes to impress upon us that life, like his novel, is full ridiculous, that absurdity reigns, that we have to be grateful for managing to bumble through each day because, who knows, we may be knocked off our feet at any moment.  If that’s the case, Lamprell succeeds – but such absurdities come at the expense of narrative depth.


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Roses with Thorns: a Text classic reprinted

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Rose Boys, by Peter Rose        Text Classics    $12.95

The Text Classic series is a wonderful initiative to reprint forgotten Australian literary masterpieces or highlight narratives that may have been published more recently but deserve a fresher scrutiny. Text has already reprinted novels such as Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom and CJ Dennis’ The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke.

Peter Rose’s Rose Boys was originally published to great acclaim in 2001. Ostensibly the memoir of his late brother Robert, Rose Boys won the 2003 National Biography Award and became a best-seller. It is not hard to see why.

For readers not from Australia, let me preface my review with a few words about AFL (not to be confused with American Football). Throughout the country, but especially in Melbourne, where I live, “footy” isn’t just a sport, it’s a religion. On Grand Final Day in September, the country comes to a virtual standstill. Every office runs its own sweepstake and the pubs are awash with punters predicting, reflecting, commiserating and jubilating.

Peter Rose was born into one of the greatest of sporting families in the state of Victoria. Both his grand-father and father were players and then coaches at the iconic Collingwood Football Club, one of the earliest clubs to be established in Australia and home to many footy heroes. The “Magpies” are known for their black and white sporting colours and courage on the field. Kicking a ball around the back yard with their Dad was one of Peter and Robert’s earliest memories.

Peter grew up to be bookish and literary-minded. After University, he became a bookseller and then worked for years in publishing, both at Oxford University Press in Melbourne, and now as editor of The Australian Book Review. He is also a poet and his last collection of poetry, Crimson Crop, won the 2012 Queensland Literary Award.

In complete contrast, Robert was a fine sportsman, both a footballer and a cricketer. He not only played for Collingwood but opened the batting for the Victorian state cricket team. Supremely talented, extrovert, handsome, recently married with a young daughter, Robert had the world on a string. But on Valentine’s Day 1974, a senseless, devastating car accident left him a quadriplegic. He would never walk again and spent the next 25 years of his life in a wheelchair until his death in 2000.

Peter Rose’s account of his brother’s life is immensely affecting. He writes simply and unsentimentally about the superhuman difficulties Robert faced. These were not only physical, but psychological. For any quadriplegic, the mental readjustment required to face a life of virtual immobility is extreme. But for a sportsman, this is almost overwhelming. Robert battled painful bedsores and lung infections, as well as boredom and depression. The extended family suffered, too. There was grief for everything Robert had lost but also insidious feelings of guilt. Rose’s portrait of Robert’s endurance and courage are recorded, as is the family’s despair and forbearance.  But there’s also anger and fear, and loneliness. Robert wasn’t a saint and the family had a roller-coaster ride battling both his and their fluctuating emotions over a long period of time.

Rose intersperses his narrative with snapshots of happier times, the brothers’ childhood, his parents’ courtship, the rise of the Rose sporting legend. Rose also reflects on his own life, his burgeoning literary career, his acceptance of his own homosexuality and individual path. His prose is restrained and as such, immensely evocative. I finished the book absolutely captivated and deeply saddened. The last 25 pages are especially distressing to read, as Rose gives us a blow-by-blow account of the final hours of Robert’s life, the futility and agony of his days in hospital, the eventual, blessed, release and the bureaucratic bungles that threatened to postpone his carefully choreographed funeral. Rose also includes his haunting poem I Recognise My Brother in a Dream, a tortured tangle of nightmare and beatific vision that sums up both Robert’s indomitable spirit and the unbroken love of brother to brother.

It is a memoir that captivates and involves the reader. With Peter Rose as our guide, we see Robert live again and get to know him. As Rose writes: “It is time to listen to my brother whose message, laconic but self-evident to many in his life, I somehow never fully heeded…I turn to the handsome lad, the vaunted youth, the rage recruit, and will him to speak to me.”

Read it: For an honest, warm and uplifting account of family life in almost unbelievable adversity.


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Speaking in Tongues – an interview with Diego Marani

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Diego Marani is so obsessed by language that he has created one of his own. Europanto, a delightful mix of French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and absurdity, features regularly in the Italian novelist, translator and Eurocrat’s newspaper columns. “Por speak Europanto tu just mix parolas from differente linguas und voila che tu esse perfecte Europanto speakante. Europanto necessite keine study tu just improviste, invente und  siempre esse fluente.”

Here in Australia for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and a brief visit to Melbourne at the Italian Institute of Culture, there is, says Marani, a serious side to this “provocation” of an invented language: the more we borrow words and phrases from each other’s languages, the more connected we become to one another. He frowns on linguistic preciousness (I suspect he has little time for the Académie Franҫaise). In Brussels, his current day job consists of co-ordinating language programmes at universities throughout Europe to promote multi-lingualism and his latest novel to be translated into English – The Last of the Vostyachs – features the last speaker of an almost dead language, which has roots that spread from the Balkans to the indigenous languages of North America. The novel’s message is clear: nationalism is dangerous and we are enriched by the cultures of others.

Marani’s passion for language developed early. Born in Ferrara in 1959, he was intrigued by his grandparents’ Italian dialect. Forbidden at school in favour of pure Tuscan, fewer and fewer people were speaking “Ferrarese”, yet it has a particular Italian richness which is ideal for story-telling. Marani recalls the delight of absorbing an ancient tradition and at the same time understood that this secret knowledge also set him apart. “I saw the link between language and identity and it is one I have continued to explore”.

This is especially true of Marani’s novel, New Finnish Grammar, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award and the Best Translated Book Award. Set in 1943, the central protagonist has lost both his memory and his language. Found wounded and dressed in the uniform of a Finnish sailor, he is sent back to Finland to reaclimatise himself with his heritage. Yet “Sampo” cannot relate to fiendishly complex Finnish as a language, nor to the bleakness of the Finnish landscape. To know a language is ultimately to know oneself, and Sampo’s desperate floundering on both counts drives Marani’s narrative.

Sampo’s plight in some ways recalls Marani’s own, as he too struggled to learn Finnish, and he voiced much of his own sense of isolation in the novel. “Fifteen cases – this is not a language, this is a torture!”, he jokes. At the same time, he recognises that learning another language also creates multiple levels of personality.

“When you learn to speak another language, your facial expressions change to reflect the personality of that language. You open your mouth wider when you speak Italian, you close your mouth tighter when you speak English. You wear a different face for each language, a different mask.  Language learning gives you a more profound awareness of the human condition but I am also aware that it gives you a more complex and perhaps indefinite identity.”

He has written about these many-faced identities in his latest novel “Il Cacciatore di Talenti” (The Talent Hunter) which has not yet been translated into English, and which tells stories of Italians living and working abroad. Currently, he is working on a book about work, in particular stories of people whose lives have been devastated by the loss of a job or the need to migrate.

Hopefully, the book will have an optimistic flavour, as his characters rediscover new versions of themselves and reinvent their lives in a new setting. After all, much of their personality will be shaped by the acquisition of language. “And at that point boundaries blur – speaking a language is like learning a musical instrument. Each has their own rules but all languages are like music, which is the most universal language of all.”

New Finnish Grammar and Last of the Vostyachs are both published by Text.