Friday, August 28, 2009

Northern southern southern northern Southern Gothic: Rachel Ward's Beautiful Kate


American writer Newton Thornburg's 1982 novel Beautiful Kate is set during a cold winter on the outskirts of Chicago, where a once-prosperous family farm has been swallowed up by suburban development and all the farm land sold, the family in decline in a way that manifests in that classic trope of inward-turning decay, incest.

In Rachel Ward's film version there are similarities and differences: the setting is now the forbidding beauty of the Flinders Ranges, in South Australia's rain-deprived north, where the dominant spatial note is not increased urban crowding but overwhelming isolation. But the story is essentially the same and in some respects follows the novel closely, including the chronological jumps that Thornburg thought might cause trouble for any writer wanting to adapt it for the screen.

Perhaps because it's the story of a family, it has translated with surprising ease from the chilly north of the US to the dry, hot north of South Australia. The Kendall family, once comprising patriarch Bruce, his wife and the four kids, now exists only as a fragment: the dying Bruce ('congestive heart disease'), played in a bravura performance by Bryan Brown, and the dutiful youngest daughter Sally, played in a most beautifully understated and quiet way by Rachel Griffiths, are all that's left in the decaying farmhouse.

Sally keeps Bruce clean and fed and the farmhouse in some sort of order before trundling off to her day job with the Aboriginal community. The really lovely thing about Griffiths' character is the sense that she's happy to be this person. Wears old no-nonsense jarmies, loves her job, loves her dad, gets on with it.

So when her big brother Ned, a more than usually tortured-looking Ben Mendelsohn, arrives at the farm after a twenty-year absence to say goodbye to his dying father, she looks uncomplicatedly delighted to see him and he looks at her as though she's the only real person he's seen for a very long time.

The other siblings, we slowly learn, are dead. Something happened twenty years ago to Cliff and Kate, and now there is only photography and memory. The family's been clinically, even symmetrically, cut in half like the carcase of a beast; the barn is full of junk; the dam is empty.

You sort out your thoughts about movies, I find, while the credits are rolling. What an excellent movie, does a lot of new things, super-dramatic subject matter handled with delicate thoughtfulness. Screenplay by Ward, wow, that is the first Australian movie I have ever seen whose dialogue does not at any point let it down, and it took a British aristocrat to write it, what's that about, Ward's a very experienced actor, rare for screenwriters, she knows what words will work in the mouth. Ooh look, music by Tex Perkins, might have known. God the Flinders are unearthly and gorgeous and terrifying. Wasn't Rachel Griffiths excellent, actually Griffiths and Brown and Mendelsohn were all brilliant, who would have thought they would look so convincingly, when you put them together, as though they were all related. Got rural South Australian life visually down to the tiniest details of light along verandas, no romanticisation, no gross grot either. Southern Gothic but which kind, not McCullers, certainly not Flannery O'Connor, maybe a bit Welty, oh right, Faulkner. Lovely incidental unobtrusive symbolism, the patriarch with his congested heart, the screen door, the now-empty dam, blighted, revealing its history, the junk and mire beneath the smooth surface of water no longer available for playing in, playing games with your drunk teenage brother, on the farm, in the dark, all that sexual energy and burgeoning life and nowhere to put it, nowhere for it to go.

'... a homeless man reading under a streetlight ...'

Jessica at the Meanjin blog Spike has a great post up today on the Benjamin Andrew Footpath Library, a scheme established in 2003 by Sarah Garrett for distributing books to people living in hostels and on the street. So far the library operates only in Sydney and Melbourne but Garrett hopes it will eventually be set up in every Australian capital city. The Footpath Library website is here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Peter Temple's new book ...

... is under embargo until September 28, so although I have an advance copy I'm really not supposed to talk about it. It's called Truth and it's a sequel to The Broken Shore. Cashin's in it, but only (as far as I can tell from a quick flip) marginally, with flashes back to what happened to him. Dove's in it. Villani's in it front and centre.

At a glance its style looks even more compressed and elliptical than last time; Temple is the kind of writer who makes extensive demands on the reader's intelligence and no concessions to any momentary lapse of concentration. His writing reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett's and the way that she, too, cavalierly leaves vast tracts of information unexpressed and unexplained, and makes the sorts of jokes that depend largely on what is not said, making you howl with laughter but only after a longish internal silence while you work it out. Reading them both is a sort of chairbound steeplechase, a series of wild attempts to get to the next paragraph with your understanding fully intact. The epigraph is a haunting, abstract scrap of Rilke:

But because truly, being here is so much; because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sydney, and other stuff

Wow, a two-week hiatus. I don't think I've not-blogged for that long since I started in October 2005. For some reason this time of year, anything between August and November, always seems busier than usual. Spent a week and a half attending all-day Arts SA meetings and doing my real job at night before leaving for three days in Sydney last week for the launch of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (UPDATE: Angela from Literary Minded, who I see shares my taste in images and the placement of images, went to the Melbourne launch a few days later), thus:

Thursday, June 30, 11 am: sample Adelaide Airport long-term car park. Discover walk from farthest reaches of car park to shuttle bus slightly longer than bus ride to Virgin terminal and daily rates add up to exactly two taxi fares between my place and the airport. Write experience off to experience.

1.30 pm: hear slightly panicked air crew member come on, somewhere over the Hay Plains, and ask if there is a medical practitioner on board and would the rest of us please stay in our seats. It's times like this I'm glad I'm not a doctor, and that Virgin Blue offers only Mr, Mrs and Ms as choice of honorific when booking one's flight, the old days of being asked 'Miss or Mrs?' and enjoying replying 'Dr' being mostly gone and a good thing too; 20 years ago, having habitually done this with Qantas and the dead-and-gone Ansett, I used to worry occasionally that I'd be called upon to perform an emergency tracheotomy with a biro and a coathanger at 30,000 feet and have to explain that I couldn't, but if they needed an impromptu history of the Australian short story or an emergency fisking of a Clive James poem then I was indeed their woman.

2.30 pm: arrive Sydney, where the sky is a flawless blue, literally and metaphorically. Whenever the cab pulls out of that airport drive and into the sunshine made lacy through the subtropical vegetation, I can actually physically feel my heart lift. Never having managed to get a job in Sydney (applied for three, shortlisted for all of them, didn't get any of them, message in there somewhere) is the single biggest regret of my life, which is saying a great deal.

5 pm: arrive Admiralty House for the launch of the anthology by the Governor-General. Mill around on footpath in growing crowd that, by the time the uniformed dudes on the gate start ticking off our names and letting us in, includes David Malouf, Drusilla Modjeska, Peter Rose, and about twenty people I used to teach, research and/or go to conferences with, including former longtime Melbourne U colleague Prof Chris Wallace-Crabbe and the lovely Prof David Carter from U of Q, formerly a Melbourne boy, whom I haven't seen for many years.

5.30 pm: have surreptitious look around and confirm that I have dressed appropriately for the occasion. Just as well.

6 pm approx: listen to the Governor-General make her nicely personal and informal speech. Listen to David Malouf read his lovely poem Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian, in which the body addresses the departing soul at the moment of death, and which begins with the Emperor Hadrian's own actual words, which are, naturally, in Latin.

Wonder how long it's been since the sound of Latin poetry being read has been heard in Admiralty House or indeed anywhere else in Australia.

Wonder what degree of mischievousness informed David's decision to choose for this occasion a poem about death.

Am flooded by a sudden awareness of the history of this spot, and wonder about past ceremonies here and their participants' private thoughts as the sun set outside with ludicrous magnificence, then as now.

Reflect that the last time Australian literature got this much attention at this level of politics must have been the 1957 occasion, of which there is a photograph in the David Marr biography (an except from which is also included in the anthology), on which Patrick White was presented with the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award by the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, with the Leader of the Opposition in attendance and looking on.

Wonder if current PM has been presented with a complimentary copy. Think must remember to suggest it. (Discover later that he apparently got the No. 1 copy of the signed and numbered Collectors' Edition. Hope he dips into it from time to time. Have my own collectors' copy, courtesy of Allen & Unwin, which I hardly dare take out of its box.)

7 pm approx: Mill about some more, as various sweet and discreet boys weave through the crowd bearing crystal jugs full of liquid rubies that turn out to be iced white rum with cranberry juice. Watch William Yang, whose writing is featured in the anthology, taking photos (the pic in that link will give you a good idea of what the gathering was like). Reflect that what I should really do is get out my iPhone and take a photo of William Yang taking photos. Many photos being taken, as you can see in this nice (though not by William Yang: see below) shot of SMH literary editor Susan Wyndham and me.

Photograph by Sam Begg

Note the way our drinks are colour co-ordinated with my necklace and Susan's shawl.

Friday, July 31, 9.30 am: arrive at ABC studios in Sydney, half an hour early because (a) nervous and (b) have forgotten that in Sydney if you want a cab you simply step out into the street and hold your hand up, and one will pull over. Do 40-minute live-to-air segment on anthology for Radio National Book Show, being interviewed by Ramona Koval with fellow editor Nicole Moore and Sydney U Professor of Australian Lit Robert Dixon. This goes much better than I was expecting it to.

Friday 4.30 pm: meet up in Gleebooks with the lovely Viv aka Tigtog from Hoyden About Town, whom I have not previously actually met, and add her to my ever-growing collection of bloggers I've met in person. Decide we will go next door to soi-disant 'Chocolateria' (and so it proves to be, with a vengeance) and have a hot chocolate: thick hot chocky with chili and cinnamon, oh my goodness.

We have barely sat down when in come a couple of literary types I know, closely followed by two young women whom Viv knows and introduces to me as Wildly Parenthetical and Zero at the Bone. I thought this sort of thing only happened in Adelaide but clearly not.

Friday 6.30 pm: second and more informal, though still very structured, launch of anthology upstairs at Gleebooks. This includes wonderful readings by featured authors, and as Michael Gow reads a speech from Away and Michelle de Kretser a passage from The Hamilton Case, I remember very clearly why I chose those passages to put into the book.

Friday 8.30 pm: arrive at a most lovely restaurant in Rose Bay with my dear friend L who has come up to attend the one-day symposium the following day that has been arranged around the anthology launch. We have a quiet mates' catchup while we savour our duck and spinach, and look out at the festively-lit ferries crossing the harbour and the white birds swooping through the pools of light outside.

Saturday, August 1, 10 am: start of all-day symposium at the beautiful State Library of NSW, where I look around and regret for the millionth time my ongoing failure to score a job in Sydney. The symposium is programmed around the anthology and titled 'Australian Literary Futures'. My session is the one after morning tea, where the editorial team lines up on one side and, on the other, the country's two Professors of Australian literature, Robert Dixon and Philip Mead, plus co-editor of Southerly and immediate past president of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Elizabeth McMahon. They ask us questions and we do our best to answer them. This session also goes much better than I was expecting it to, and everybody on the panel and in the audience seems to enjoy it.

Saturday 2 pm: Professor Ivor Indyk of UWS, holder of the Whitlam Chair in Writing and Society and a living national treasure to all who value Aust Lit, which makes this moment worse, gets up to speak in the session on 'Australian literature on the international stage' and shatters the good feeling that has prevailed in the room thus far by getting quite emotional about his view that there are not enough migrant writers represented in the anthology. For some reason I am reminded of the sight of Our Gough fifteen years ago as he launched the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature by making a speech in which he pointed out all the errors he'd found in it so far.

Given how conscious I was of this 'migrant writing' issue in my role as section editor, and how hard I and the other section editors worked to do it justice among the many other claims on tight space in the book, this accusation makes me cross -- cross enough to count a few stats, later after I get home, and ascertain that just in my own section (fiction and drama since 1950), ten writers out of 48 (ie more than 20%) were not born in Australia; eleven came from partly or wholly non-anglophone backgrounds; and thirteen of these stories or extracts specifically and directly address (and were carefully and deliberately chosen so to do) some aspect of the migrant experience.

In his address to the symposium Ivor acknowledges some of these, but argues item by item that each is somehow not legitimate, or not good enough. Or something. Can't quite follow his reasoning here. His real beef appears to be that none of his particular five favourite migrant writers -- two fiction writers who would have been my responsibility, and three poets who would have been that of my fellow-editor David McCooey, between us responsible for the period 1950 to the present -- are in the anthology.

All five are European. The many included writers with their roots in Asian countries, including a number of first-generation immigrants, have scarcely been mentioned; nor is there any acknowledgement of the entries by Elizabeth Jolley and J. M. Coetzee, both brought up in bilingual households in other countries and both adult emigrants to Australia. Can't help thinking Ivor has a few blind spots of his own. One of the poets he names as an 'omission' is someone David simply thinks isn't very good. One of the novelists he names is someone whose one novel available in English, a translation from her original Italian, I found unpleasantly hysterical and practically unreadable.

Saturday 4 pm: David McCooey and I have an extremely lively conversation in the cab we share to the airport.

Saturday 8 pm: Arrive home where am greeted ecstatically by cats behaving like dogs. This is quite new; usually they punish me for going away by doing that cat ignoring thing.

Saturday 8.05 pm Crack spine of first of four books that must be read and reviewed by Wednesday. Thank God and my editor that a couple of them are very short. Unlike this post.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat