Literary criticism, poetry, prose

Is This a Poem?

poetry pic for WP

In the musical play Carousel, a spruiker called Bill, and Julie, who works in a mill, try to tell each other how they feel. They don’t have the words to be true to such feelings so they sing it to make it real: what “if I loved you?” The scene needs the music to supply the emotion and for the would-be-lovers to be who they are, not for writers to give them words they would never use. Songs in musicals happen when words are not enough. Poetry happens when prose in not enough. To describe a spectacular tree, you can try to write it realistically as best you can but if it is truly spectacular you will get to a stage where you have to forget what you see and write what you feel; what it reminds you of; what the words are for: sense, surprise, and metaphor. When Auden wrote “As I walked out one evening, walking down Bristol Street” he described what he did, and then what he saw, but what he saw was so such more and he had no words that did justice to the scenery “The crowds upon the pavement” so he slipped into poetry, “were fields of harvest wheat.” And this adds meaning and insight; yes, and there’s rhyme and rhythm of course, a tune if you like.  What confuses poetics for the readers of verse is that so often with the text, it’s so personal, perverse, and has no meaning, no revelation; but like masturbation, it may satisfy the writer, and, no one else! I’m going to stop beating up on myself, for being a fool since it isn’t a test, so I’ll read more poetry, treasure those words that light something up, and dismiss those that maybe a gas for the poet, but hot air for the rest of us.

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Book review, Irish literature, Literary criticism, Short Story, Short story collection

Dubliners by James Joyce

james-joyce pic Intelligent

 Irish writer, James Joyce (1882-1941)

The first-person narrator, a boy, walks past the house of his dying priest night after night, wondering whether he is dead yet, but this night knows it to be true.

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.”

So begins the first story, The Sisters, in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) but in it is a clue to the theme of the book itself. Joyce wanted to write about the people of Dublin because to him it was the “city of paralysis” and the shadow of this word permeates the whole collection. For Joyce “paralysis” meant the inability to life meaningfully. Joyce spent most of his life on the continent, far away from Dublin, so strong was his belief that the city was tainted.

Here the “paralysis” is both literal, in the case of a dying priest after his third stroke, and moral: “simony” takes aim at the Catholic church’s corrupting stranglehold on Irish society; “gnomon” is somewhat different, being more about form than content (a gnomon is a parallelogram with a section removed, as well as the shadow-casting part of a sundial). The word is a cryptic warning to the reader that these stories contain many absences, not least traditional plot, character and scene-setting. These absences are part of what Joyce referred to as the style of “scrupulous meanness” with which he wrote Dubliners, meaning the frugality he applies to language, image and emotion.

Freytag’s pyramid, or dramatic arc or structure, suggests that a clear beginning consisting of a proper introduction of the setting and the characters, a middle discussing the conflict that would lead to a climax, and an end that ties the story together with a denouement are indispensable to any written work of fiction.

So was the literary thinking in 1914 – and in some circles it still is today. Joyce ignored it all, which may be why it took him 6 years to get this collection published.

In the story A Little Cloud, a shy and fragile clerk, known as Little Chandler, since “he gave one the idea of being a small man” meets in a bar, after 8 years, his friend Ignatius Gallaher, who once “known under a shabby and necessitous guise had become a brilliant figure on the London Press.” Little Chandler yearns of becoming a famous writer and dreams about the rave notices he would get for his work. He is delighted to see his old friend and Gallaher shouts him several whiskeys and regales the little man with innuendo and suggestions of his racy experiences in London and Paris: no married life for him. Of course, Little Chandler is late getting home to his young wife and child and had not brought the tea and sugar she had urged him not to forget. “She was in a bad humour and gave him short answers” and decides to go out and get the tea and sugar herself. “She put the sleeping child deftly in his arms and said: ‘Here. Don’t waken him’.” Little Gallaher cradles the child and stares at a photograph of his wife wearing an expensive blouse he had bought her. The image of his wife weaves no comparison to the “rich Jewesses” with “dark Oriental eyes” of Gallaher’s salacious plans and stories. Little Chandler feels nothing but entrapment, paralysis, in his mean little cottage with debt-laden furniture and no way of writing the book that “might open the way for him.” He reads some melancholy verse by Byron while nursing the child and wonders where he can find the time to write like that; he has so much to say. The baby wakes and cries and will not stop no matter how hard he tries to sooth him. Everything is useless. He is “a prisoner of life!” He loses his temper with the child and shouts at him which scares the infant and causes him to scream and “sob piteously”. His wife arrives and rescues the babe and glares at her useless husband and he listens to the child’s sobbing grow less and less in the arms of his loving mother. The story ends with Little Chandler just standing there as “tears of remorse started to his eyes.”

The reader is left with a feeling of pity and yearning for this little man who did the right thing, that every man should do, marry, start a family, and work to keep and protect them; while his friend did the other thing: travelled, wrote and became famous and whored around in London and Paris. This is the ending that Freytag’s pyramid espouses but it is a thought, not on the page but in the mind of the reader.

This was radical for 1914, when this collection first appeared. However, is it true today that more and more writers of fiction are leaving aspects of descriptive, consequential, and circumstantial narrative out of the text and up to the reader.  This is so true that it is not the writer’s place any more to answer the question, “And what did you mean by writing that?” After a story is in print – or, for that matter any creative work that is finally in the public domain – the meaning of what the reader reads is all to do with the reader – it means what the reader thinks it means – and has nothing to do any more with the writer and what was meant by the writer in the first place.

Although Dubliners is considered one of the greatest short story collections ever written, it is Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, who is generally considered the father of the modern short story. “The revolution that Chekhov set in train – and which reverberates still today – was not to abandon plot” – or Freyberg’s Pyramid – “but to make the plot of his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, meaningless”. Chekhov’s short stories had been available in English since 1903, but Joyce didn’t get Dubliners published until 1914. He claims not to have read them. Many critics think this a little implausible since Dubliners seems to owe a lot to the work of the Russian. However, Joyce finished the collection by 1907, and with Chekhov’s work having been available in English only for a few years when Joyce was working as a teacher in Europe, it is entirely possible that he did not read it. Although William Boyd, American novelist and short story writer asserts that Chekhov liberated Joyce’s imagination as much as Joyce liberated writers that followed and “that the Chekhovian point of view is to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment”. The Joycean view seems to look at life from the inside of his characters: to chart his country’s “moral history” in Dublin; and he does this by turning the plot inwards. It’s the landscape of dreams, desires, hopes and disappointments that bind the 15 stories together into a whole, which in itself is unique, creating a form of a novel in fifteen disparate but morally interconnected chapters: the early stories are from childhood, the centre charts the middle years, and the final devastating story, The Dead, his masterpiece, culminates in a mature realisation of man’s insignificance in the universe. In fact, the first image of the first story: a boy looking up at a window behind which lies a dead man, is reflected in the last image of the last story where a man looks out of a window contemplating all the dead that have gone before him and which one day he will join. Images like bookends.

Joyce’s narrator varies from story to story: first person in the first, but usually in the third-person but not of the omniscient kind:

“…as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly reemerged into the light. It was an old man’s face, very bony and hairy.” (Ivy Day in the Committee Room). The narrator doesn’t know the face until it is seen as everyone else sees it, including the reader. It’s like the narrator and the reader see and know everything at the same time; as if you and he are watching the scene together.

It is the final story, The Dead, that marks Joyce a masterful writer and it is easy to argue that it is the best short story ever written. It is the quintessential modern story although it’s structure is almost classic. It opens with a scene featuring minor players in the story; a device used by Shakespeare in the opening scenes of many of his plays: it’s a way to introduce the scene and action before the principle players emerge, creating setting, background, and expectation. The bulk of the story is the colouring of the situation: the interconnecting relationships, the characters, the party as life’s metaphor, building tension and expectation, preparing the reader for what will happen.

Lily the house maid is “run off her feet” tending to guests as they arrive for the annual dance party given by the aging Misses Morkan, Kate and Julia, and their niece Mary-Jane, a music teacher to some of the “better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line.” All eyes and ears are attuned to the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, the old ladies’ nephew, and his wife, Gretta, but they are also worried that the local drunk, the course-featured Freddie Mullins, might make a too-soon appearance and spoil the party. All arrive as expected and the party is in full swing; shoes shuffle and skirts swish and sway to the dance music on the polished floor of the upstairs parlor under the chandelier and a piano recital is given by Mary-Jane and songs are sung by the talented tenor, Mr Bartell D’Arcy. The strata of Dublin society are represented: the proud and successful Gabriel and his unhappy wife, Gretta; the Morkans drenched in their good-natured, middle-class hospitality cocooned in their well-established morality; and the likes of Freddie Mullins who prizes a drink over employment, filial duty, and nationalistic pride.

And then there are the galoshes. Gabriel wears them and urges his wife to, but she refuses. They are a symbol of modernity, recently arrived from London and “Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent”. They are a sign of progress but, of course, the locals don’t wear them, much to Gabriel’s disappointment, thinking that he may have been able to bring the modern world into the lives of his community and family; Aunt Julia isn’t even sure what they are; Gretta thinks they’re funny and “says the word reminds her of the Christy Minstrels”. The social boundaries are clearly drawn.

On the dance floor, Gabriel, preoccupied with his forthcoming speech and worrying that his planed quotes from Browning “would be above the heads of his listeners”, is half-jokingly harassed by his dance partner, Miss Ivors, who “has a crow to pluck” with him. She chastises him for writing book-reviews for an English newspaper; refusing to holiday in his “own land” among his “own people” and to speak his “own language” and therefore labels him a ‘West Briton”.

Gabriel is a dignified man. He is angered by Miss Ivor’s assertions regardless of her light-hearted tone; considers Dublin, like Joyce, a back-water of pseudo-happy and ignorant people; looks to England and Europe for artistic, fruitful, and intellectual sustenance; but, despite all this,  tonight he is excited by the idea of Gretta and he spending the night, without the children, in a local hotel. Their marriage has soured over the past few years into something that he sees as all too common in this society. He is hoping for, maybe even lustful, but at least an intimate night alone with his wife.

After all the singing, dancing, and a minor ruffle between the Catholics and “the other persuasion”, the goose is carved at the head of a fine, happy, and plentiful supper table. Gabriel’s speech is a great success.  The champagne flows freely. The annual party is drawing to a close and Gabriel while putting on his coat asks after his wife. He finds her standing high on the landing in the semi-darkness gazing at nothing in particular but seemingly listening to something. There is a plaintive singing voice “in the old Irish tonality” and distant chords on a piano that seemed to render his wife transfixed. This is the peak of the drama. What is happening to Gretta, what is going on in her mind, will bring down the story’s protagonist. But Joyce stretches the tension. There is the walk with others into the city, then to the hotel, then to their room, and their preparation for the night. Here, he, all expectant and eager, is willed finally to ask why she is so melancholy. Her reply, his reaction, and the devastating realisation because of it, ends the story.

What begins as a classically structured tale of Dublin life, full of Chekhovian realism bolstered by detail, humour, character, emotional connections, and social hierarchy, the epitome of life itself, ends as a modern fable, not based on action, but internal thought. And like all good writers, Joyce ends with an image: a disappointed and humbled man gazing through a window on to a darkened city as snow gently begins to fall all over Ireland.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

-oOo-

The works of James Joyce, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake, are out of copyright and can be downloaded, via various formats, for free here.

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Australian Literature, Book review, Literary criticism

Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse

frank-moorhouse-pic

The Australian writer Frank Moorhouse

The most remarkable thing about Cold Light, the last in the Edith Trilogy (Grand Days 1993, Dark Palace 2000, Cold Light 2011), and indeed the trilogy itself, is the woman, Edith Campbell Berry. She is the type of woman who, while working at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s and visiting a Paris nightclub, slips lightly from the lap of a lone black musician and puts his penis in her mouth; falls for and marries a bi-sexual, cross-dressing, English diplomat but only after mis-marrying an American journalist who turns out not to be whom he seems; masturbates a mutilated war veteran as her deed for post-war reconstruction; hates the smell of keys, and who kisses her brother’s girlfriend on the lips. This is Edith Campbell Berry who in 1950 finds herself, aged in her 40s, living in Canberra “…about as far from the centre of the modern world as you can get without being in a desert … a slap-dash country of such unhappy food.”

If this mismatch isn’t mismatched enough Cold Light opens with Edith discovering her long-lost brother, Frederick, who is now a working member of the Communist Party which is about to be banned by the new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. How’s a girl, with a lavender husband and a red brother supposed to get a job in this town? This is particularly galling for Edith who wants – believing she deserves it –  a status-riddled diplomatic post, which was something then a married woman could not have no matter what colour her husband was.

Because of a few pulled strings, she gets an invitation to dinner at the Lodge, where she airs and wears her Chanel, but diplomatically tells the other wives ‘it’s a copy’, and gets a hand up her dress from the man on her left, something she relishes, and offered a job by the man on her right, something she despises, because it’s only a job of sorts: as ‘special’ assistant to Canberra’s Town Planner. However, despite its low status, really no status as all, she is inspired by the sketches of the Canberra dream made by Marion Mahony Griffin, wife of Walter Burley Griffin, and takes the job but insists on her own office, gets one, but one with no windows, and decorates it with bespoke furniture from Melbourne and a cumquat tree. She drinks Scotch, is a fastidious dresser, wears stockings under slacks, a Tam o’ Shanter, when necessary, and does her husband’s nails and lets him wear her silk nightie to bed.

Edith Campbell Berry is a hotel cat: mistrusted by a few, loved by most, but belonging to no-one. Her wish for a Bloomsbury life leads her to recognise a man for her, and so marries again, but after years that began passionately, her marriage slips into one of normality and routine (wonderfully and insightfully described by Moorhouse) and when confronted by a new Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, whose lieutenants know nothing of her, her ideas, or what she has to offer, she is then unemployed, discarded, and emotionally alone. However, her past does not desert her, and her experience as an officer of the League of Nations in Geneva (Grand Days), her work in Spain during the civil war and her position on a UN committee (Dark Palace), and her reputation in Canberra, mainly fuelled by incorrect gossip about MI5, ASIO and her truthful but unconventional life, comes to the attention of Whitlam. She is offered a position as an ‘eminent person’ to be a pair of eyes for the new Australian government in areas of international diplomacy and unease. She is delighted. This takes her to the Middle East where the book ends, surprisingly, dramatically, but really, so appropriately. No spoilers here.

Frank Moorhouse is a living Australian writer who deserves to be better known. He has won the Miles Franklin Award (for Dark Palace) and many state and national awards as well. The Edith Trilogy is a major contribution to Australian literature where trilogies are rare: Henry Handle Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1917 – 1929) and Ruth Park’s Harp in the South (1948 – 1985) are ones that spring to mind. The books are big, Cold Light, is very big, but where Moorhouse excels is his tone and insight into love and all its shades, romance, sex, politics, human frailty, personal ambitions, and inevitable failures. All three books can be read in isolation but once you taste Edith Campbell Berry you will want to taste her again, so read them all. You won’t regret it and you won’t forget her.

You can buy the eBook here for $10.99, as well as the others in the trilogy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Literary criticism, poetry

Poetry

poetry pic for WP

I have always had a rather unstable relationship with poetry. Usually, when asked what I think about it,  I reply rather lamely, “Poetry and I have a love/hate relationship; I love mine but hate everyone else’s”.

Below is an attempt to ‘write it out’: to explain, mainly to myself, what it is and how I can make this relationship more productive, and stop worrying about it.

Poetry

In the musical play Carousel, a spruiker called Bill, and Julie, who works in a mill, try to tell each other how they feel. They don’t have the words to be true to such feelings so they sing it to make it real: what “if I loved you?” The scene needs the music to supply the emotion and for the would-be-lovers to be who they are, not for writers to give them words they would never use. Songs in musicals happen when words are not enough. Poetry happens when prose in not enough.

To describe a spectacular tree, you can try to write it realistically as best you can but if it is truly spectacular you will get to a stage where you have to forget what you see and write what you feel; what it reminds you of; what the words are for: sense, surprise, and metaphor.

When Auden wrote “As I walked out one evening, walking down Bristol Street” he described what he did, and then what he saw, but what he saw was so such more and he had no words that did justice to the scenery, “The crowds upon the pavement” so he slipped into poetry, “were fields of harvest wheat.” And this adds meaning and insight; yes, and there’s rhyme and rhythm of course, a tune if you like.

What confuses poetics for the readers of verse is that so often the text is so personal, perverse, and has no meaning, no revelation; but like masturbation, it may satisfy the writer, but does nothing for the reader.

I’m going to read more poetry now and stop flogging myself since it isn’t a test. I’ll treasure those words that light something up, and dismiss those that maybe a gas for the poet, but hot air for the rest of us.

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Literary criticism

The Paris Review Interview: E.M. Forster

The Paris Review has been conducting interviews with writers since the 1950’s and now with editors, translators and playwrights. For your interest and enjoyment here is the interview with E.M. Forster, writer of A Room With a View, and A Passage to India; and who is the subject of Damon Galgut’s fictionalised account of Forster’s years culminating in the writing of a Passage to India; Galgut called it Arctic Summer, the title of an unfinished novel by Forster. You can find my post about this novel on this site.

Meanwhile check out the interview here.

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Australian Literature, Book review, Literary criticism

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower. 

Elizabeth Harrower pic

Australian writer, Elizabeth Harrower.

 

I am ashamed to admit that it took an American literary critic, James Wood, in a long, detailed, and inclusive article in The New Yorker dated October 20 2014 to inform me of an Australian writer who is not only still alive, but has always lived in Sydney in a suburb next to a suburb where I lived for twenty-five years. I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower; and as if to make up for lost time, or as an urging to put things right, I found a book of hers, this book in the Text edition, praised by the New Yorker for re-discovering her, in a second-hand book shop on the little tropical island in Indonesia where I live. But to rub salt into the wound of my ignorance, when I mentioned her to my book-loving sister in the Barossa Valley Sis said, “Oh, yes! I read her years ago.”

Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928, spent her childhood in industrial Newcastle, New South Wales, north of Sydney, but lived in London from 1951 to 1959 where she wrote her first two novels, Down in the City (1957) and this one, The Long Prospect (1958); the latter was highly thought of by Christine Stead, a champion of Harrower’s work. When she returned to Sydney she worked in publishing and wrote three more books, The Catherine Wheel (1960), The Watch Tower (1966), considered her best, and In Certain Circles, which she withdrew from publication, sent it to the National Library and gave up writing. It was finally published in 2014 when Michael Heyward of Text Publishing re-discovered her and ultimately re-issued all her work. In 2015, a collection of stories, A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories was published.

Her major themes are somewhat repetitive: a naïve woman, or women, trapped in their parochial and/or stifling circumstances come under the spell of a bully, usually a man, but in The Long Prospect, a woman: Mrs Lilian Hulme is particularly unpleasant, manipulative, and selfish, especially to her granddaughter, Emily.

Harrower’s women characters can be adequately summed up by this, said about Paula, Lilian’s daughter and Emily’s neglectful mother:  “And there, in the city, as far as one could tell, she had been content in her own quiet humourless way to sit with the resignation of a decoy duck in a fun-fair allowing things – life in this instance – to be thrown at her.”

Men were hated, described as old women or letches, but useful to humiliate. Girls thought they drowned little girls in sacks or pursued them through mulberry bushes, wanted more than they could get, had slippery hands and shiny foreheads, slapped other men on the back for just being men and trying to get what they wanted which was always what they couldn’t have.

“… she hates all men. So do I, so do you, eh, Thea? Still you’ve got to have some around.”

Yet women read magazines of true love stories where heroines, after much trouble, get the men they want, but such men never seem to be anywhere around where such women readers live; and others read real-life murder stories where men are fiends on the prowl just waiting for a young girl to be left alone when they leap through carelessly closed windows and do what everyone knows men do. All this causes little girls to dream that they are orphans or that their mothers are not theirs, especially when those mothers return from partying having left little girls all alone and frightened; those little girls run back up to bed and listen to giggles and someone being sick and it is all normal again and nothing is ever said: bad mothers know nothing of little girl’s fears and if they did, so what, it had happened to them, and they turned out alright, didn’t they?

And on these men and women, lay an attitude of “humourless endurance” which “had been imposed on most by parents like themselves, surroundings of monotonous ugliness, participation in wars the young could not remember, and by a brief education delivered with so little relevance to circumstance and ability as to be incomprehensible.”  And where female friendships, at best, are full of nothing but silent, sad contempt interspersed with moments of need disguised as affection.

Lilian – “dyed blonde hair and grey eyes” stated at her friend Billie – “dyed black hair and great cow eyes.” So ageing, they thought.

Such is the social landscape of Harrower’s characters in the late 1950’s Australia. In the muddle of all this Emily Lawrence grows up and one Christmas holidays she turns twelve and “made capable of objectivity. Overnight she had become all-seeing and all wise … which she incredibly, sometimes shockingly, and often to the dismay of her heart, knew what was true and what was not.”

Then Lilian takes in a boarder, Max. He not only looks at Emily, he sees her, “No one ever looked as if they saw her” and what excited her most was not all his books, or the gramophone, although that was indeed exciting, but that she was “conscious of his unconsciousness of her…and felt a small physical reaction on her spine to the suddenly strange, living humanity of the man…” In a world of men who had no control over their vices, tobacco, alcohol, pride, and the pity of women, here was a man who talked to her as if she was a grown-up and “she knew she would always have to be what he expected her to be.” Was it possible that there was such a thing as a good man?

The adults thought he taught Emily “high-falutin’ rubbish,” but “he was deep; he could do all that without looking silly or soft.” Max is indeed a very different kind of man. Can a genuine friendship between a grown man and a twelve-year old girl flourish in an atmosphere of gossip, small-mindedness, and stifling conformity?

Harrower is a master of language sometimes surprises you with her choice of words:

“His physical presence among them was a phenomenon, to which they accustomed themselves with the ease of savages”.

“The mild flowery smell preceded her into Max’s room, beginning another day in which he would be.” But her choice is always apt and enlightening.

There is little free indirect discourse (sometimes called close writing) here: the prose seldom reflects the language that each character would use – Emily sounds much older than she is, more like the narrator; but this was written in the 50s where such techniques were only sparsely used, but are now a common factor in contemporary fiction. However, The Long Prospect is still an effective portrayal of the narrow minded 50s of semi-urban Australia; no wonder most intelligent and ambitious people, like Harrower, left for London where civilisation and creativity dwelt, and a chance to be someone other than the person one was born as.

The Long Prospect is an intriguing read and recommended as an important work from an important ‘re-discovered’ Australian writer.

You can purchase the eBook through iBooks here or the paper book here from Text Publishing.

 

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