Posts filed under ‘Australia’

Heaven’s Net is Wide

I moved to WordPress with my other blog, and my procrastinating soul couldn’t bear to leave this one behind. I will transfer my blogroll at some point, can’t say when, for the moment it’s accessible at The Little Book Room, take one.

Heaven’s Net is Wide is the prequel to the Across the Nightingale Floor series (now there are five books in all). I read the other four books last year and adored them. Set in a world modeled on a medieval Japan, the books explore conflicting loyalties and honour codes between three different groups: the warrior classes (their motto is fight and die with honour, even when it means killing yourself), the Tribe (secret families with magical skills who ultimately answer only to themselves but hire themselves out as assassins and spies), and the Hidden (equally secret religious sect based on Western Christianity, who refuse to kill). This is a promising background for a story, but as well as being gripping reads, the real beauty of these books is in the sensual descriptions of the places, the seasons and the characters. Amid the courage, betrayal, and doomed loved stories, these books offer true escapism of the loveliest kind.

That said, I thought this was the weakest of the five. Having read the other books, it was great to get a bit of the back story, and get inside the heads of the characters who were more distant in the other novels. But I don’t think the pacing was as tight as it is in the other ones, and there was sometimes the sense that it filled in background details just for the sake in it. This was most obvious regarding the Hidden – this religion is dealt with quite lightly in the other books, and as it was made more explicit here, it lost some of its mystery. I don’t know what it would be like reading this one first, but I would recommend starting with Across the Nightingale Floor, which dealt with the unfolding mystery and the conflicting loyalties in a much more compelling way.


August 5, 2008 at 4:53 pm 2 comments

Why you should read Francis Webb (with a medievalist interlude)

Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.

Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:

Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.

More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.

Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:

It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.

In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:

With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.

It’s so hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:

. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.

And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:

What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained –
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable –
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.

Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’

April 26, 2008 at 9:01 pm Leave a comment

The Secret River

Kate Grenville. I finished this a while back and it completely blew me away. So much so that I didn’t really know what to say about it. I started reading it in September last year, when I was leaving Norway for months and months and needed something to distract me. It was The Secret River or a medieval crime novel my friend kindly lent me. I thought I’d be in the mood for genre fiction. But – Grenville’s prose was utterly captivating. It’s hard to describe. As I’m back in Norway now and the book’s in England, I can’t quote you any. It’s not jarring at all. It lets you in. It somehow captures the tonality of nineteenth century London – Dicken’s London – while at the same time feeling like nothing you’ve ever read before. Strangely immediate. Strangely new. But comfortable all the same.

It tells the story of Will and Sal’s childhood and young adulthood in London, before Will is sentenced to exportation to Australia. Sal and their children go too. I hadn’t known that happened (families accompanying convicts, I mean), but I think Grenville has done some pretty substantial research. So it becomes a novel of the early settlement in Australia, and encounters with the Aboriginals.

I finished three quarters of the novel and then put it down for several months. I couldn’t bear to keep reading. I knew something horrible would happen. When I finally picked it up again, of course it did. It was hard to read but I am glad that it is written. What impressed me most about the novel is the incredible way she captures the way Will feels about his new land – both alienation and belonging, and the difficulties and necessity of building a future around an unspeakable past.

March 28, 2008 at 7:21 pm Leave a comment

The Solid Mandala

It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within.
Meister Eckhart

It was an old and rather poor church, many of the ikons were without settings, but such churches are the best for praying in.


The Solid Mandala, Patrick White, 1966. I’d been meaning to read this for quite a while, partly because of the intiguing title, and partly because of its epigraph from Meister Eckhart (always on the look-out for all things medieval). But I have to admit it was a sense of duty more than anything else that kept me plugging away through the first two hundred pages. I don’t find Patrick White’s novels easy to like. It portrays the everyday life of twin brothers, Waldo and Arthur, in grimy detail. Mucus, excrement, furtive orgasms, tedious suburbia, two old men and their two old dogs. Their codependent relationship of love and hate borders on homosexuality. The first two hundred pages are told in Waldo’s voice: the ‘clever’ twin, awkward and unlucky in love, narcissistic and burdened by his half-wit of a brother, he dwells endlessly on his thwarted literary ambitions. But, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the narrative shifts into Arthur’s voice. And lightens, and comes together, and starts making sense. Becomes beautiful.

Arthur is a holy fool. He is a lot cleverer than Waldo admits, because Waldo’s identity is predicated on being the smart one beside Arthur’s stupidity. In the first two thirds of the novel we see Waldo constantly taking care of Arthur, but in the last third it is revealed that Arthur is just as preoccupied with taking care of Waldo, perceiving his weaknesses so accurately that he knows to conceal what he knows, what he reads, and the success of his own relationships. He discovers that the concept of the mandala expresses perfectly what he intuitively knows:

“The Mandala is a symbol of totality. It is believed to be the ‘dwelling of the god’. Its protective circle is a pattern of order superimposed on – psychic – chaos. Sometimes its geometric form is seen as a vision (either waking or in a dream) or -”
His voice had fallen to the most elaborate hush.
“Or danced.” Arthur read.

Arthur is obsessed with marbles, which become the ‘solid mandalas’ of the title. Over the years, his collection condenses to four special marbles, which represent himself, and the three people he most loves. He considers throwing one away because it has a knot in it, before realizing the the knot, in fact, is the point: ‘…till from looking at his own hands, soothing, rather than soothed by, the revolving marble, he realized that the knot at the heart of the mandala, at most times so tortuously inwoven, would dissolve, if only temporally, in light’ (p. 273). He offers this marble to Waldo, ‘half sensing that Waldo would never untie the knot.’

There are repeated references to Tiresius, as well as to The Brothers Karamazov, which acts as an echo of the brothers’ fraught relationship, and their searches for transcendence. Their weatherboard house is fronted by a tragic parody of a Classical facade. Finishing the novel, I understood why White deserved the Nobel Prize. It is a heavy novel, but the weight of it is essential. Arthur’s voice would not come as such a relief if it had not been proceeded by Waldo’s. His revelations would not seem so dearly won. The two are connected, bound together. The epiphanies are expertly enfolded into the structure of the whole, much more convincingly than in my hazy memory of The Tree of Man. I was quite astonished how White managed to make this heavy material blaze with light – like the knot in Arthur’s marble. There are also some echoes of The Idiot, and in my opinion, The Solid Mandala is a worthy successor to Dostoevsky, much more so than Coetzee’s Master of St Petersburg, which I didn’t care for. This novel is quite remarkable. Consider me a convert.

Image: ‘The One’, Kiolero, flikr.

October 14, 2007 at 3:37 pm Leave a comment

Book Soup

I read all day until the words blur and refuse to stay in place, like lines of crawling ants. This is what I’m reading:

  • Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (a bit at a time)
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Preface to Of Grammatology (also a bit of at a time)
  • Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity
  • Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory
  • Kevin Hart, The Lines of the Hand; Your Shadow; Peniel (Poems. This is more fun.)

And pretty soon, I aim to start on The Cloud of Unknowing, some more books about Derrida and some stuff by Maurice Blanchot. I stupidly left in Leeds a couple of very important titles: The Trespass of the Sign and Flame Tree, both by Kevin Hart. My housemate posted them to me on Monday, we’ll see when they arrive.

My bed-time reading is The Solid Mandala, by Patrick White. I don’t like White much, on the whole, but I feel obliged to get to know his work better (he’s Australia’s only Nobel laureate). I forced myself through Tree of Man aged sixteen, and have never recovered. That said, I read Riders in the Chariot around the same time, over a breathless Easter weekend (appropriately), and just adored it. More recently I read Voss and enjoyed that in a way. So. There’s hope yet. Last night I gave up on everything and buried myself in The Absolute Sandman, which I had rather extravagantly bought for the lovie’s birthday a few months back. You can’t beat fantasy, in the end… And pictures. Pictures are nice.

October 5, 2007 at 1:40 pm 2 comments

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living

This was fun. Very raunchy, which other reviews of this title seem to ignore. To begin with I thought it was science fiction: the ‘better farming train’ makes its way through 1930’s Australia, laden with scientific experts to teach the farmers how to grow more wheat and their wives how to have more, and fatter, babies. But apparently there really was one. You can read about it in an interview with the author, Carrie Tiffany. There’s a quirkiness about the book and a naivety about the narrator which is quite charming. The events of the story are actually quite tragic, but the lightness of the writing ensures that it isn’t depressing. It’s set in Australia with flashbacks to Yorkshire. Curiously, I read it on a train in Yorkshire. A strange and delightful read.

September 30, 2007 at 5:28 pm 3 comments

More on Midnite

I just finished it. This is seriously the funniest book I can ever remember reading. I bet the neighbours could hear me laughing through the walls. It’s about Midnite’s adventures as a bushranger, and then some other (typically Australian) things, but I don’t want to give you any more details so as not to spoil the pleasure of reading it for yourself. It’s just so funny and so warm-hearted, I’ve never read anything that’s left me feeling so happy.

I have been trying to read this book for years. A good friend of mine in Adelaide, who put me on to Randolph Stow in the first place, told me she’d lend it to me. But just then her son (who was my age and whom she was rather hoping I’d take a shine to, but we were both too shy) returned from teaching English in Japan. Not only that, but he was terribly sick with some fluey thing, and it was the time of the SARS outbreak, so he was whisked off to hospital as his plane landed and put into quarantine. To cheer him up, my friend lent him Midnite instead. Which is all well and good, except that because he’d touched it while he was quarantined it had to be destroyed!

The next encounter I had with Midnite was in Canberra earlier this year. I was trawling through the manuscripts of National Library, looking for stuff to help with my Phd. Going through the boxes of Randolph Stow manuscripts, I found an original copy of Midnite, written on a typewriter, with little notes scribbled all over it. Incredible. I read a few pages, but there were other, more pressing things to look at.

The past couple of months, I’ve been reading everything by and about Randolph Stow I could get my hands on. But the library didn’t appear to have a copy of Midnite. It wasn’t shelved with his other books, and when you type the title into the catalogue, it doesn’t come up. Haha, but it was hiding there after all! I typed ‘Randolph Stow’ into the keyword search, and there it was, buried in the ‘Stack English’ movable shelves in a deep and remote corner of the library. Only it wasn’t. I looked for it twice, and it wasn’t there – the books stopped way before its call number. I nearly gave up. But third time lucky, and there it was! I don’t know if some industrious librarian replaced a whole half-cabinet of books overnight, or if I have selective blindness. Libraries are mysterious places.

But I found it, and I read it, and now I’m smiling my head off. The man is a genius.

September 22, 2007 at 9:28 pm 2 comments

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