RIP Sue Townsend; Adrian Mole as the Rabbit Angstrom of Britain

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I’m sad to read of the death of British writer Sue Townsend at 68. I’ve read all the Adrian Mole novels but for the Lost Diaries and love the wry commentary on British society and current affairs from the Falklands War in 1981 in the first novel through to the Iraq War in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and beyond. I felt like the series would go on forever.

Comic writing feels more immune to death. It seems to have already faced up to mortality, and got over it. But Adrian Mole was always getting older; she probably would have even killed him off soon, which I would have found unbearable. There was always a sadness reading about him in his mediocrity. It produces the humour, but it also touches a nerve: everyone thinks they’re special, everyone wants their own specialness recognised. We laugh at Adrian because we can see himself more clearly than he can. But can we see ourselves?

The novels Adrian Mole made me think of are Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Updike’s Rabbit novels are not primarily comic, but they are quite funny; more importantly, they explore the shifts in America over decades through the eyes of an everyman. (Updike did kill Rabbit off before dying a little prematurely himself.) The comparison to Holden Caulfield is a little more obvious, but an interesting one, because Holden is the adolescent we know is special, and it lends his plight a particular kind of poignance. What Townsend makes us realise is that there can be a different kind of poignance in the everyman.

I was meaning to pay tribute to Townsend, and there I am writing about Adrian Mole. I hope she understands. It sounds like she had a hard life, and her humour came out of dark places.

 

So Paul de Man was a fraud and there’s more to literature than lit theory: thanks a lot, postmodernism

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In year ten, my English teacher told me about deconstruction. Or at least he tried to; I didn’t get it. He said I should study at Murdoch – they taught lit theory. It was the mid-nineties. I followed his advice a few years later, and found myself plunged into the epistemological crisis of postmodernism. ‘Was there a meaning in this text?’ My lecturers said there were many; it depended on the reader. (There’s some truth in that, as far as it goes.) I spent a year or two quixotically fighting for the idea of a literary canon, and siding with the one brave resistor, Professor Frodsham. After that, I learned to love postmodernism; I liked confounding the other Christians on campus by insisting it was the way forward.

It feels, looking back, that there truly was an impoverishment in my English major. The impoverishment was the divorce of literature from history, from the social and cultural and biographical backdrop from which works emerge.

It would seem today that the tide has turned on lit theory as the primary approach to literature. The new interest in reception history has reconnected the text to history, but now with a new interest in the readers of texts which postmodernism helped us find.

The new biography of the literary theorist, Paul De Man, is attracting much attention. A hero of my undergrad lecturers is now denounced as a fraud:

Barish, like others before her, proposes a link between his negation of history and his career of deception, between his denial of the continuity of the self and his suppression of his own past… between his insistence that the written or spoken word never tells anything about the intention of its originator and his assumption of a new identity. This is certainly plausible, but I would also like to suggest a different kind of continuity between de Man’s mode of operation as a literary theorist and his mode of operation as a con man. It has to do with his style. In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.

This final comment rings true for a number of the theorists I read. Being older now, I’m no longer bound to an absolute position on anything, even postmodernism. It has its important insights; but, of course, it wasn’t the final word. And sometimes it was the emperor’s new clothes. It excites me, now, to reconnect literature to history, to believe in the possibility of recovering the past, however imperfectly. And this is why my next book is to be a biography of a writer.

Burying Uncle Philip

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Today we buried Uncle Philip at the Harvey Lawn Cemetery. It would be hard to say where his home was; he moved around a lot. I think he did live in Harvey a short time, at some stage. He died in Bunbury, but that’s mainly because the hospital was there. It often happened that he would get upset at his neighbours and move to a different town. He was probably autistic, and he liked his routines and his own company. Philip loved not horses (as his name means) but dogs, and he didn’t like being around people.

At other funerals, it seems wrong that the person himself is not there. But for Phil, his absence seemed appropriate; he didn’t turn up to social events. I should have appreciated how significant it was the times I saw him at his brothers’ weddings, at his dad’s 70th birthday, at a couple of Christmases. These wouldn’t have been easy appearances for him.

His middle name comes from his grandfather, an architect of some note in Perth who raised his family in a beautiful house on the foreshore at South Perth. I wonder what the architect would have made of his grandson living much of his life as part of the welfare underclass in WA? If the wealthy are not often a single generation from destitution, they can easily be two generations away from it.

All the time I knew him, Phil struggled with his weight. It pains me that my first memory of him was asking him, when I was about five, ‘Why are you fat?’ Dad took me aside and said that was not something you asked someone. I didn’t understand. Philip was a shy, sensitive man, and I hope he forgot or forgave me.

He didn’t want to hear about God. I’m not sure whether that was out of incredulity or a sense that this is not a world with much good news in it. I cannot fathom a God who would, in an afterlife, deepen and perpetuate the miseries of those who have suffered in this life, confirming their despair that life was hopeless. Weren’t Jesus’ great warnings about reversals of fortune? The mighty laid low, not the lowly laid lower?

I think Philip Alexander Winning (1953-2014) should appear somewhere on the internet, if only here, on this blog. He loved his dogs, each of them his companion for a decade or so of his life; their names were Sam, Barney, Pippa, and Toby. A photo of Toby went down into the grave with him. He liked camping with his brother, he liked walking the dog on the beach, and he liked doing his own thing in his own way.

‘You came like the stars’ far light, already out’: a review of Tracy Ryan’s Unearthed

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Tracy Ryan, Unearthed (Fremantle Press, 2013)

Margaret Atwood once said, “A divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there’s less of you.” I’ve always imagined this to be true, but my friend Tracy Ryan’s collection of poetry, Unearthed, depicts divorce not as an amputation but a haunting. In the first section of the collection, “Karlsruhe”, a series of connected poems follow a narrative of remembering. After fighting vivid dreams for two years, the narrator looks up her former husband only to discover he died two years ago. ‘You came like news on ships in former times / or like the stars’ far light, already out.’ (We know instantly when the famous die; but it is the unfamous people we were once close to who stop existing without us knowing, and that is a difficult thing.) The haunting, of course, is intensified.

A highlight to the book is the breadth of allusion and the appreciation of unusual words, an education for the reader worn lightly; I have learned new words like ‘aestivation’ (an animal’s state of dormancy) which illuminate love and loss in new ways.

The process of remembering and the sense of haunting is evoked not just by allusion to a wide range of literature, but also the new ways of relating to the past which technology brings. I like the poem “Dural Way” in which the narrator ‘stalks’ her own past on Google Street View and ‘what was unique, generic / into the garden once hidden / any browser may look / but hindsight is mine / alone.’

Then there are the memories around objects, something which has always fascinated me. In “Offertory”, there are ‘tomb objects’ which have survived the late lover, a hole-punch, a blue stapler, which are ‘small unexploded ordnance’. In “The Pawned Wedding Ring”, the narrator contemplates the fate of the eponymous ring, its history since.

Loss, of course, comes in many guises, and the section of the book is entitled “Other Elegy”, extending from elegy for lost friends to elegies for nature and finishing with a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Requiem for a Woman Friend”.

This is poetry that could draw in even those unaccustomed to poetry, accessible yet still with the density and surprises of language which makes poetry poetry.

The Hannah Arendt film: an undramatic misfire

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Hannah Arendt is a misfire of a film, an unfortunate squandering of so much dramatic potential. It tells the story of philosopher Arendt’s controversial reportage on the Eichmann trial of 1961, and her insistence that he was simply a mediocre man, following orders and unable to ‘think’ for himself. The subplot concerns her affair and troubled relationship with Nazi-sympathiser, the philosopher Heidegger. In both cases, the drama is lost in a series of flat, over-talky scenes. The Heidegger subplot needed far more development; but even the main plot does not become clear until the halfway mark. Throughout, the audience was tittering uneasily at some of the dialogue which (awkwardly) approached humour, because it just didn’t know how to take scenes which lacked both drama and comedy. The plot feels muddy, with developments that seem like they will be significant only to fizzle out. It’s a great pity, as the themes are worthy and the story significant.

KSP’s Black Opal: a saint and a singer in a utopia under threat

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Katharine Susannah Prichard’s third published novel, Black Opal (1921), is set in the opal mining settlement of Fallen Star Ridge. It has two significant plot strands: the Ridge’s pure, beautiful Sophie coming into womanhood and torn between three men; and the attempt of an American to buy out the individual miners and commercialise operations.

Perhaps the truer title would be Fallen Star Ridge, as the novel is focused on the opal mining community itself as an ideal. Between the publication of her first novel, The Pioneers, and this one, KSP had committed to communism, and the influence is evident. In chapter VIII of part I, the narrative stops and KSP paints a picture of the workers’ utopia the settlement represents.

Ridge miners find happiness in the sense of being free men. They are satisfied in their own minds that it is not good for a man to work all day at any mechanical toil; to use himself, or allow anyone else to use him, like a working bullock. A man must have to time to think, leisure to enjoy being alive, they say.  (64-5)

To a man, Ridge miners have decided against allowing any wealthy man, or body of wealthy men forming themselves into a company, to buy up the mines, put the men on a weekly wage, and work them, as the opal blocks at Chalk Cliffs had been worked. (65)

The utopia is threatened first by missing opals (who stole from their brother?) and then an attempt by the American, John Armitage, to buy up the mines. As a kind of utopia, it is rendered convincingly, a plausible depiction of how people might have led a  co-operative existence a century ago in rural Australia.

Central to the utopia is Michael, a saintly autodidact who looks after the needy in the community and quietly dispenses wisdom. I can’t help wondering if KSP imagined a similar role for herself, if she was to ever find herself living within a workers’ community; she must have often wondered how to reconcile her bookishness with her commitment to the working class. The workers of the Ridge are not the anti-intellectuals one might assume:

Ridge folk were proud of Michael’s books, and strangers who saw his miscellaneous collection – mostly of cheap editions, old school books, and shilling, sixpenny, and penny publications of literary masterpieces, poetry, and works on industrial and religious subjects – did not wonder that it impressed Ridge folk; or that Michael’s knowledge of the world and affairs was so extensive. He had tracts, leaflets, and small books on almost every subject under the sun. (9)

At the beginning of the novel, Michael makes a promise to Sophie’s dying mother that he will make sure she does not leave the safety of the Ridge for the evils of the world beyond it. Trying to keep this promise is nearly his undoing; it is to no avail – Sophie leaves, which is nearly her undoing.

Spoilers Ahead Continue reading

Thirty-three

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In the late nineties I was obsessed with The Smashing Pumpkins. (So was everyone, but not many like me – I lived by their songs, lodged as they were in my adolescent soul.) I have liked their hopeful-but-melancholic song “Thirty Three” since that time.

Tomorrow’s just an excuse away
So I pull my collar up and face the cold, on my own
The earth laughs beneath my heavy feet
At the blasphemy in my old jangly walk

Lately I have had this theory he must have been writing about turning thirty-three. It all seemed so true in my head. I was to finally understand the mood of the song, having reached his age. But I had it wrong. I just checked; Billy Corgan was born in 1967, making him just 28 when the album was released. These days, obscure song titles don’t seem as clever to me as they did back then.

Anyway, I don’t have to face the cold on my own, that’s not what thirty-three is about. That’s what being sixteen was for.

Jarvis Cocker of Pulp certainly wrote about being thirty-three, there’s no misinterpreting him in “Dishes”, his song about having the same initials as Jesus:

A man told me to beware of 33.
He said, “It was not an easy time for me” but I’ll get through even though
I’ve got no miracles to show you.

It wasn’t an easy time for Jesus, obviously, it being his last year on Earth. For several years I’ve thought that I’m not that old, given I was younger than Jesus. This defence is no longer open to me.

I have a lot of things I want to do this year. I feel like shouting Miss Brodie style, “I’m in my prime!”. Trying to enjoy it while I can.