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Jaded Memories of Youth: Peter Goldsworthy

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His Stupid Boyhood by Peter Goldsworthy            Hamish Hamilton  $29.99

The trouble with history is that it’s retrospective. Everything makes sense and can be justified or condemned from the comfort of your 21st century living room. When writing about external events, objectivity comes naturally. The more difficult task by far is that of autobiography.

Nevertheless, writer Peter Goldsworthy attempts this in his deadpan but very funny account of the first 20 years of his life, His Stupid Boyhood.  Goldsworthy is a  prizewinning Australian poet, playwright, novelist and now librettist – his opera “Ringtone Cycle”, a delightfully-named cabaret quintet for singer, piano trio, and iPhone (sic), composed with Graeme Koehne, will be produced by Opera Australia this year.

Goldsworthy is also a doctor, and divided his time between writing and general practice. He’s been hailed as the “Australian Chekov”, (a sobriquet which should surely be awarded to playwright and doctor Ron Elisha, who was prominent during the 1970s and 1980s). I’ve often wondered about this curious link between medicine and writing. There seems to be a mystic line that links some healers and artists. Think of neurologist turned author Oliver Sacks, British poet and GP Dannie Abse – or, indeed other luminaries such as John Keats, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Carlos Williams, AJ Cronin, W Somerset Maugham and Mikhail Bulgakov who were all medically trained.  If science transits pleasingly into poetry, Goldsworthy’s special gift  is his ability to make the prosaic poetic, to take the seemingly mundane events of everyday life and give them a novel spin.

Goldsworthy takes us into the suburban life of his childhood in South Australia. His father was an itinerant teacher and so the family moved frequently from place to place. Maybe it was this sense of impermanence that spurred Goldsworthy on to putting things down permanently onto paper. We witness his first years at school, his friendships and battles, his first love – the sound of car engines being cranked into life – his forays into multi-culturalism as he surveys the strange and wonderful meals his Dutch and Italian classmates bring in their lunchboxes.

We see his early romantic crushes, the embarrassing fumbles with girls in the cinema, his disenchantment with his own lanky body as he grows taller and thinner in adolescence. He is both intellectually curious, and entrepreneurial: his first book sales were hand-written instructions for his used, cast-off Chemistry sets which he sold to gullible classmates!

Above all, Goldsworthy makes us share his burgeoning love for his twin passions – literature and science. Science was the subject of some of his earliest poems and remains a fascination. Here’s one to Ether:

The recipe for cooking ether

I’ve forgotten. One level tablespoon

of concentrated nitric acid

plus heaped teaspoonfuls

of poisonous powders, misc.

The names are gone:

from that short night

only this comes back:

drops of ether gathering

at the distal ice-cooled tip

like tears, like even clearer

moonshine, swelling till

detachment weight,

then falling, falling, gone;

vanished into dreamy vapour

Before they hit the bench

Under which I slept.”

Compare this later, successful mood poem to an earlier poem, Hollow Clocks, published by a young Goldsworthy in his University paper, Barbitos, in the 1970s.

“time no longer drifts

it runs; feet

stumblingbleedingaching.

dead

discarded days

twist away through space

lost, ashamed, sickened.

yet others wait

shining in military rows

eager

unsuspecting.”

Goldsworthy Senior tears into this youthful effort, ravages it. He hasn’t a good word to say about it now: for him it’s pretentious, forced, derivative (compound words like stumblingbleedingaching had already been coined by James Joyce fifty years earlier.) And yet, Goldsworthy has captured the fury of many young intellectuals contemplating Australia’s involvement with the Vietnam War. There’s undeniable promise here, which Goldsworthy refuses to acknowledge.

In fact, the most striking fact about His Stupid Boyhood is Goldsworthy’s complete self-deprecation. He doesn’t look kindly on his younger self. He dismisses himself as a dandy and a prig, self-obsessed, self-absorbed and completely lacking in self-awareness.

Though Goldsworthy’s honesty is refreshing, you can’t help feeling he’s being unduly tough on himself. Many of us have gone through the same phase of being arrogant as teenagers, indulged in precious affectations and written very bad verse. The difference is Goldsworthy’s early verses were not only better than most and published but read to – and enjoyed – by none other than Allen Ginsberg who just happened to be visiting Australia at the time. Not bad for an 18-year old pipe-smoking medical student with a penchant for bilious coloured cravats! If Goldsworthy writes a further instalment of his memoirs, I’ll be happy to follow him through the next stage of his life. Hopefully, he’ll look kinder on himself by Volume 2.

Read it: for superb poetry and almost total recall of an Australian suburban childhood in the Fifties and Sixties.

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The New Outlier Fiction: a look at Evie Wyld

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After The Fire, A Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld             Published by: Vintage, $19.99

One of the fascinating aspects of Granta’s Twenty Under 40 list is the range of countries from which the young novelists originate. Yes, the list features writers who were born in Britain, but there are also writers born in many other countries including India, Africa, Australia and Canada who now live in Britain. Over the next few months, I’ll try and look at a number of these young writers. Some, like Zadie Smith, are well-established and need no introduction. Others are new to me and I’m looking forward to exploring them.

Twenty years ago, Granta’s list was predominantly male with few foreign-sounding names among them. The 2013 list has more women than men and its sheer cosmopolitan quality shows the literary revolution that has occurred over this time. Today’s young writers explore the world through a well-travelled lens. They may be called “Best of Young British” but their formative experiences often lie elsewhere. This brings a richness to their writing but also a sense of displacement. Do the writers feel more at home in Britain or their birth country?  Is home more than once place? Or are they still searching for a place to call home?

These existential dilemmas are often explored through their writing. In a recent Guardian Books podcast, Michelle de Kretser was interviewed about her Miles Franklin prizewinning novel, Questions of Travel. Born in Sri Lanka, she now lives in Sydney and admitted to feeling neither particularly Sri Lankan nor Australian. She is both a part of, and no longer a part, of two continents. She writes, she says, with an outsider’s gaze that has learned to categorise and appraise many countries. This strange limbo state has no precise term in English but the French would call it dépaysement, alienation from an intimate connection with place.

It gives rise to what I’ll call Outlier Fiction, and I suspect we will see more and more of this as Generations Y and Next continue to publish. It’s evident in one of Granta’s Best of the Under 40s,  Evie Wyld. Her  first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, published in 2009, is set in Australia, in particular the rugged border between Queensland and New South Wales.  Her second book, All The Birds Singing, which was released a few days ago, alternates narratives between a sheep station in Australia and a bleak island off the British coast.

Though born and living in Britain, Wyld has an Australian mother and since childhood has frequently travelled to Australia to see her family. What strikes the reader of After the Fire…. is the vivid technicolour brushstrokes with which Wyld paints the Australian bush. You feel the heat, the barren landscape, the wide sweep of miles and miles of dusty, dirt roads. For someone who isn’t a native Australian, this is an extraordinary tour de force.

In an interview with Granta earlier this year, Wyld commented that she was able to write so convincingly because being away from Australia allowed her to uncover a narrative freedom she couldn’t have developed if she lived there. She was able to write more easily about Britain when living in Australia, she confessed, and about Australia when living in Britain. This surely, is a characteristic of Outlier Fiction – the cultivation of distance and objectivity that gives rise to a heightened sense of awareness, allowing the writer to conjure an unique image of place because of their status as outsider. And yet the danger here is that this very distance may give rise to a distortion of the truth, a personal fiction that may not be unbiased.

In After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, two narratives intertwine. Frank moves to a ramshackle shack off the east coast of Queenland that once belonged to his grandparents. Escaping from a broken relationship, he’s trying to rebuild his life in the wilderness. In alternating chapters, we also meet Leon, forty years earlier, and follow him through Aussie suburbia, then as a soldier after he’s drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. As the novel weaves their lives together, the reader discovers the link between the two men and the ties that bind them.

The assuredness with which Wyld adopts the male voice is striking. There is blood and violence here, the horror of war, desperation, loneliness. Wyld mimics Aussie demotic speech perfectly. Her men are rough and unsophisticated, as unpredictable as the weather and the bleak and barren landscape in which they live. At the same time, she paints a highly unflattering portrait of Australia: in the space of a few chapters, we’re presented with wife beaters, incest, rampant drunkenness, bigotry, blatant racism and child abuse. This is a country infested with huge, malign spiders, biting insects and dangerous sharks. Reading this book, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole of Australia was, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once put it, the “arse end of the world”.

As a city dweller, I admit this is not the Australia I personally live in, and it isn’t a portrait of a society I recognise, although I suspect isolated, rural communities share similar problems the world over. Unsurprisingly, Wyld hasn’t been adopted by the Australian establishment (notorious for figuring any excuse to claim a rising star’s Australian roots) as one of its own. This is especially notable as many ex-pats, including Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Peter Carey, who haven’t lived in Australia for years, are still trumpeted as being “Australian” in our press.

As an exponent of Outlier Fiction, Wyld’s cool analysis may lead her to over-sensationalise occasionally. But she is also able to raise  the curtain on unseemly aspects of Australian society that we’d prefer to forget. I’m intrigued to see how she paints Australia again in her new novel. (Interestingly, the novel she is currently working on is set entirely in Britain.) And I will be eagerly comparing her to many of the other novelists on the Twenty under 40 list, to see if they share her divided, distanced view of what was, and is, no longer home.

Read it: For a haunting evocation of the Australian landscape by a powerful new voice in fiction


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Where are the Women? A fresh look at James Salter

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All That Is, by James Salter

Published by: Picador    $29.99

James Salter’s new novel All That Is, is his first in 34 years. Not that he’s been idle. There  have been short story collections and his memoir, Burning the Days. Salter, an iconic figure in American literature, has had an extraordinarily varied writing life. Now 87, he was a war hero, serving as a fighter pilot in Korea (his novel, The Hunters, examines his wartime experiences). He then became a full time writer in New York and Paris before the Hollywood phase of his writing took over – he wrote the screenplays for acclaimed films such as Downhill Racer.

At a time when Philip Roth has declared there will be no more novels, it is heartening to see an older writer still very much in control of the medium. There are sentences in All That Is that are so carefully wrought, so luminous, a reader could weep with delight. There is no doubt Salter combines the rigorous and the poetic and he is a master of form. Why then, do I have so many reservations about the novel?

The first reason is Salter’s central character, Philip Bowman. In may ways he is a typical Salter hero, an action man and naval officer who after the Second World War, begins a career in publishing.  We see the burgeoning success of his career as a New York editor, track his first disastrous marriage and witness a series of doomed affairs, before (SPOILER ALERT!) his meeting with a woman with whom, the reader senses, he will spend the rest of his life. We meet his friends and colleagues and peer into their lives, which very much counterpoint or reflect Bowman’s own.

The sweep of the novel traces Bowman’s lifepath from the last days of WW2 to what appears to be the end of the 1980s. This is a momentous period in American history – TV, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights Movement, hippies, man on the moon, the IT revolution, the rise of feminism – the list of upheavals and innovations goes on and on, and yet none of this is tackled in the novel, which glosses over the shifting socio-cultural landscape as if it were a paranthesis.

Salter writes at the end of one chapter: “A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas”. And that’s 1963 dismissed, along with one of the most emotional and game-changing events in US politics. In the next chapter we’re back in the navel-gazing world of publishing and its smug acolytes. This is a network of WASP men, with hermetically-sealed WASP values that seem to hover somewhere around the 1930s. The handful of Jews who infiltrate this world are assimilated – no other ethnic minorities are represented.

Indeed, Bowman personifies the blinkered, prejudiced, retro-looking white American male. He is irritatingly self-satisfied and self-absorbed. He’s a lover of art and music, of Paris and good food, but if you told him that across town from his comfortable Manhattan condo there were single parent families living in poverty, rat-infested houses, racial unrest, he would probably look at you in disbelief. It’s a long time since I’ve met a protagonist in a novel so socially unaware. And it’s hard not to wonder if Salter is also out of touch with the dynamics and concerns of contemporary society.

Salter’s defenders would no doubt reply that the novel dissects and satirises a certain time and class, but I think he’s in deadly earnest.  It is telling that the most vibrant and affecting passages concern Bowman’s time fighting during the war. Here, there is an immediacy, a sense of empathy with his fellow-man that is not seen in the remainder of the novel.

This lack of empathy is especially true concerning Bowman’s attitude towards women. To backtrack for a moment: All That Is has received glowing reviews, but I’ve yet to see one female critic among the fulsome accolades accorded by the male reviewers I’ve scanned. Nor do any women writers appear on the book jacket, where you can read  plaudits by Julian Barnes, Tim O’Brien, Edmund White and (most disappointingly, as he’s one of my literary gods), John Banville.

To backtrack further, Salter’s treatment of women in his fiction to date has been equivocal at best. The women in his books are admired, worshipped, lusted over and possessed sexually, but they are also talked at (rarely conversed with) and patently intellectually inferior. Salter can write paragraphs of the most glorious sensuality and eroticism (A Sport and a Pastime arguably contains some of the best-written sex in literature – though written entirely from the male perspective) but the relationships between men and women outside the bedroom are strained.

All That Is continues in the same vein. Here’s a young Bowman with Vivian, soon to be his wife. On a previous date, he told her to read Hemingway (she hadn’t). Then:

“He wanted to go on talking about Ezra Pound and introduce the subject of the Cantos, perhaps reading one or two of the most brilliant  of them to her, but Vivian’s mind was elsewhere”.

Clearly, Vivian’s not up to such lofty discourse. Again, here’s a description of a girl met at a party. “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” 

Demeaning as this is, more disturbing is the way Salter completely ignores gender politics and the advances women have made over the past 50 years. Television series such as Madmen chronicle the evolution of women in the workforce and their transition from lowly secretaries in the 1950s to power-brokers. But Salter’s women never cross that threshold. They may work and hold down serious jobs yet their status remains ill-defined. Here’s a snatch of conversation that dates circa 1980, late in the novel, with Bowman very much an elder statesman by this time.

Claire continued talking about Susan Sontag. What did they really think of her – she meant what did Bowman think……

“All powerful women cause anxiety”, he said.

“Do you really think so?”……

“Men do”, he said.

That exchange almost took my breath away. It’s not only the way Sontag (one of 20th century culture’s most clear-sighted analysts) is so casually dismissed.  This scene is also a lesson in how to alienate a female audience and completely implausible given the inroads women had made by the Eighties. Whatever Bowman’s personal views, he could never, ever, have uttered them so publicly. In the next line, we read that Claire considers Bowman’s reply “chauvinistic”, yet instead of rebutting him, she goes on to make a drunken fool of herself.

Thirty pages and some plot twists later, the novel ends, with Bowman attaining a kind of peace, reconciling himself with all that is, was and is to come. Yet as a female reader, I felt cheated. Far from an epic narrative that scrutinises what it is to be human in the 20th century, I was left considering all that the novel was not but could have been.  If this is to be Salter’s last book, it holds its place uneasily and divides more than it conquers.

Read it: To observe a supreme stylist at work