Thursday, 26 September 2019

Les Murray and his poetry

This will be a different sort of blog – we all read some Les Murray but not the same material. Also it is not possible to differentiate Les Murray from his poetry. He wrote it all his life and the subjects are his life and his environment.

We began the discussion with his obituaries. He died on 29 April 2019 and there were numerous obituaries in the press. The Economist obituary called him the ‘bard for the left-out’. 

This is a well-written obit and we felt the writer was trying to emulate the poetry of the subject.

Les Murray was a child of very impoverished parents who had settled ‘on’ Bunyah as dairy farmers. The district is inland from Taree, on the mid north coast of New South Wales. His parents were always poor. So his early childhood was hard but the death of his mother when he was 10 made it even harder. His father was not equipped to bring up a child who had different aspirations and ideas from the folk around him. Murray was bullied from a young age due to his physical characteristics and his intelligence. Cecil Murray his father, was a very hard man who had had a difficult childhood himself.

Some years ago a number of members heard Murray read at ANU when he was accompanied by our local poet Geoff Page and were surprised by how ordinary and low key he presented himself. However there was an intensity in his elocution which comes through in many of his poems.

 His religiosity was something that was important to discuss as it affected his life from the time of his marriage to his Catholic wife, Valerie. He had met her at Sydney University and she was ‘saintly’ and kept him for much of his life. She was a teacher and she allowed him to devote himself to his ‘calling’.

According to ‘On Bunyah’ (a small non-fiction collection of his poems) the area he lived in was largely Protestant but in the strictest sense of the Uniting Church (Methodism?) So becoming a Catholic at a fairly young age was a radical step in the 1960s. As an older man he became interested in ‘transcendence in doctrine’ in his search for meaning?

At University, Murray was friendly with the famous intellectuals – Clive James, Germaine Greer and Bob Ellis - although he was only on the edge of that grouping. Murray was not a ‘joiner’ and didn’t want to be part of any group or elite as he always felt on the outer. Girls were attracted to him as he was brainy and had a great presence. But Valerie was different as she was European. She was also very long-suffering we believe.

Murray was rewarded with many prizes for his poetry during his lifetime but was not successful in winning the Nobel in 1994. Murray won a T S Eliot prize and we felt that there were some similarities in their approach to Christianity as they became older and wiser – looking for a similar pathway and a clear doctrine. Murray was not looking at rituals or god though. He was influenced by the English religious poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins. They both had a passion for the natural world and hated the establishment and the elites. Curiously, Murray hated the Australia Council even though he had received grants from them.

Three members had read a very sympathetic biography of Murray entitled Les Murray by Peter Alexander. There were differing opinions on whether this biography was authorized or not.  In this book there is mention of the ongoing guilt Murray felt (for most of his life) because his mother died due to a lack of treatment for a miscarriage. 

This guilt and the lack of love and attention from his father could have ground down a young person but Murray was exceptionally talented. He did however, suffer severe depression sporadically through his life, partially attributable to his early years. These mental problems showed in his treatment of his own children. He and Valerie had 5 children. He also did not relate to other people well and that was partly due to his severely restricted childhood and his school experiences. Possibly also due to autism?

Murray was always a vulnerable person but had amazing survival skills. He was exceptionally talented but also fraught.

He also had a fear of sex due to his mother’s tragic death and his internalising of the reasons for her passing. This wound could never really heal. Many of these vulnerabilities are written about in an article called : Killing the black dog. There is more information about this publication at Black Inc.

We were all impressed to hear that he spoke numerous European languages and actually worked as a translator at ANU for a period after having taught himself these skills. Quite an astonishing talent. (Murray didn’t like Canberra, he found it a boring place.)

One member was reticent to read Murray although she had had the exceptional luck to meet him and have a meal with him. They were both children of dairy farmers so had something in common to talk about. This member found him unpretentious. One other member has a very good friend whose mother had taught Les Murray at school and recognized his talents. She had promoted the radical idea of Murray attending university.

Les Murray has been considered one of Australia’s greatest poets for many years and this shows not only in the number of awards he received but also in the number of poems printed in Australian anthologies. Judith Wright is the only other poet who comes near in quantity of publication.

We read and discussed some of his poems, for example:

She gave me her factual tone,her facial bones, her will,
not her beautiful voice …  (From ‘Weights’ which was written as a memorial to his mother – Miriam Murray 1915-1951)
Archie was a gun to shoot at biplanes
and an uncle I missed meeting …(From 'The blame')
Poor Auntie Mary was dying and frail ……Lived ten more years…From ‘The Iron Kitchens’

(These poems and many more can be found in On Bunyah (Collingwood, Black Inc, 2017).

Another notable poem is ‘Dog, fox, field’. These words were devised to assist teachers in assessing children for school, that is, if they could make a sentence out of them or not.

One member thought a poem called ‘A torturer’s apprentice’ went to the core of what he was trying to say with his poetry. And, unusually this poem has rhyme unlike many of the others we read.

We realised that Murray had many styles and many ways of writing poetry -- from the set stanza to lines with gaps in the middle eg in ‘Layers of Pregnancy’ so it is hard to know if you are reading it correctly. He also used Gaelic at times such as in ‘The Iron Kitchens’ and he also wrote as a cow in one memorable and poignant poem – ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ – ‘All me are standing on feed
All me have just been milked…’

Murray himself felt poets should not be slavish to the norms of poetry. So he wasn’t.

His poetry was the opposite of platitudes – too complex and covering difficult subjects such as dealing with the underdog, the personality most like Murray himself ?

Murray worked as an editor for Quadrant for a time and performed his works overseas. He always had a strong political voice and spoke about the situation of Australia’s First Nation people. He was probably appreciated more overseas than he has been in Australia. We still have some cultural cringe.

This inspired night has encouraged members to research Les Murray and find out about this well known but not well read poet. Everyone had done considerable work to add to our enjoyment and knowledge of Murray. One member even went to the NLA to do her research. It was a learning curve for all of us but well worth the education.

For more information about Les Murray’s life see Manning Community News.

Present : 8 members


Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Enza Gandolfo's The bridge

Our August book was Enza Gandolfo's second novel, The bridge, a powerful book inspired by the 1970 collapse of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge.

The novel is told in two parts - the first surrounding the 1970 bridge collapse, and the second being set in 2009 and telling the story of another tragedy involving the bridge, this time a fatal car-crash in which the young driver survives. Eventually, the two stories are linked.

First impressions


These include two from members who didn't make it to the meeting. Rarely for us, there were no naysayers.
  • enjoyed reading the book but it's very sad; engaged more with the story of Jo, the young car-driver, empathising with her lack of confidence; and
    loved the humanity of the legal aid lawyer.
  • found the story and writing style very engaging.
  • was crying at the end; a really good novel though devastating at times; enjoyed the way it delves into different lives.
  • engaged very quickly with the book; the characters are well-drawn.
  • brilliant book; engaged most with the story of Antonello, the bridge-worker traumatised by his experience of the collapse; loved how he finally came to terms with his trauma, and liked his relationship with his wife; also liked the relationship between Jo's mother and legal aid lawyer Sarah.
  • very powerful novel, particularly as she had a similar experience when young. (She was being driven in a car by a drunk driver who crashed, resulting in the death of one of the passengers. died. We were stunned.) Gandolfo got the grief right, the different ways people respond to grief. 
  • loved it; exquisite and deserving of its Stella Prize shortlisting; engages you immediately; powerful, authentic, empathetic.
  • beautifully crafted novel which presents flawed characters with whom we can engage and empathise; loved the the bridge title because it plays both literally and metaphorically.

See? We were all very impressed.

Rest of the conversation

As often happens when there's no dissension, the conversation was quieter, but we did still find a few things to talk about!

We talked about the writing. We were impressed with how quickly Gandolfo engaged us in the story, and how well constructed the novel is. Gandolfo developed the links between the families well without making it feel contrived. One member commented on the scene where the police wake Mandy up to tell her about the accident (p. 110) and she tries to tell herself it's a dream. Clever, and believable.

We also loved her evocation of place. Melbournites felt she got Melbourne right, particularly the Yarraville area (albeit Yarraville is gentrified and very different now.) This helped the novel's authenticity.

A major strength of the novel is its characters. We all had our favourites, but overall we found the characters believable and relatable, even minor characters like the couple at Port Arlington with whom Jo stays when she runs away.

We all felt sorry for Jo, recognising that there but for the grace of God ... most people get away with their mistakes, but every now and then it all goes awry. We agreed that Jo was not completely to blame, that her mother, the adults at the party, the friends who insisted they stay for one more drink, all had a hand in what happened. Of course, we also accepted that Jo took the wheel and carries the final responsibility.

We thought Jo was a strongly drawn character. We loved her vulnerability, her sense of feeling unloved and of losing her friendship with Ashley as their lives started to diverge. It's classic "teen stuff" but real as well. We felt the description of her not wanting to open her eyes after accident was real. Her rejection of her friends and Ashleigh's boyfriend who tried to contact her was also understandable, but sad.

The other main character is Antonello/Nello who physically survives the bridge crash but suffers PTSD which affects the next decades of his life, his relationship with his gorgeous wife Paolina, and  his whole family. At one point in the novel, he hears his daughter saying to Paolina, "Don't you dare die first and leave us with Dad." Heartbreaking, but understandable given his remoteness. It's not until after Ashleigh's death that he starts to fully realise the choices he's made and their impact. He says:

For years, the most persistent impulse was towards death; a desire to stop living … But life didn’t stop. It went on whether you lived it or not. You have to choose life. This is what he needed to tell them – if you stop living, you may as well die. If you stop living, you aren’t going to be able to love again, and everyone you know will pay for that, everyone.

Nello's wife, Paolina, is the most empathetic person in the families. She grieves her grand-daughter but she also feels for Jo.

Most of us were disappointed in the mothers - in Jo's mother for not being able to reach out to her daughter, and Ashleigh's mother, a high school principal after all, for having no empathy for Jo. And yet, Gandolfo encourages us, with her writing, to understand and not judge these women.

Sarah, the legal aid lawyer, was also mentioned by several of us. She has her own difficult back story, but is committed to social justice and empathetic to Jo's mother Mandy with whom she works to develop a rapport, initially in order to understand Jo more so she can defend her in court. Sarah works hard to be a lawyer with integrity but recognises how easy it is to twist justice:

That was the danger of a good story: you could elicit pity and empathy for even the worst sociopath … Sarah believed telling good stories, the ones people listened to and were swayed by, was a responsibility. It worried her that some people did not take it seriously enough.

One of the novel's themes concerns social mobility, for which the bridge functions as an effective metaphor. Not only do bridges symbolise progress, but Westgate was also going to play a role in reducing class distinction by making it easy for movement in the city. There wasn't necessarily a lot of support for this: "'We don’t want those rich bastards coming over to the west', was the general sentiment". Gandolfo gives wonderful life to the migrant community of the time, conveying the respect that developed between migrants and Australians (as well as the more commonly portrayed antagonism.) We liked Antonello's reciprocated love for his non-migrant boss. As the book progresses, the social mobility often found in migrant families, occurs in Nello's family with his children moving into comfortable middle class lives.

One member commented that the word "love" keeps popping up in the novel, and yet it never feels cloying. Love - parental, marital, between friends - is an important part of the novel, and its resolution. Other themes relate to forgiveness, revenge and responsibility.

We also briefly discussed the ending. We thought the novel finished well, resolving many issues, but realistically. Jo's sentence is right, and she takes the right attitude to it. We see her accepting responsibility and developing resilience.

We agreed that this would be a good book for year 11/12 reading lists. It shows that nice people make mistakes, that bad things can happen to good people. It's a book imbued with a deep understanding of humanity, that forces us to look beneath the surface of people, their actions and feelings.

A member shared an ABC Radio National interview with the author.

Finally, for some light relief, we shared stories about our own kids' brushes with the police, including two called by the police to pick up their inebriated, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-their-mouths teenage daughters from the police station! Amazing how, after all these years together, we can still learn new things about each other!

Present: 6 members

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Anton Chekhov's The lady with the little dog


When organising our meeting schedules, we like to mix it up every now and then. It keeps us fresh and on the ball! And so it was that in July, we did something a little different - a classic short story recommended by a member because it had been referenced in a Quarterly Essay! The short story was Anton Chekhov's classic, "The lady with the little dog", which, as we discovered in our various editions, goes by various names, such as "The lady with the lap dog", "The lady with the dog", "The lady with the pet dog". The Quarterly Essay that inspired our member was Issue 72, published earlier this year, and written by Sebastian Smee. Its title is Net loss: The inner life in the digital age. This was not obligatory reading for the meeting, and there had been an initial mix-up about which work had inspired the Chekhov recommendation, but some did manage to read (or listen to) all or some of it.

Many of us read the Chekhov's story in different editions - including different Penguin editions, and a Pushkin one - which comprised different collections of stories, not to mention different translations.

First impressions

As always we started with some first impressions:

  • Enjoyed Chekhov's writing, particularly his understated style.
  • Found the link with Smee's article concerning the idea of the "self" and how we define the "self" interesting.
  • Read several of the stories, and found many to be funny, about behaving badly; liked the story "Grief"
  • Agreed with the emailed comment by one of the absent members regarding Chekhov's use of irony.
  • Enjoyed the short concise vignettes of Russian life contained in the stories.
  • Not generally a big fan of short stories, but did enjoy these.
  • Enjoyed the Conversations podcast in which Richard Fidler interviewed David Gillespie on "How the iPhone rewrote the teenage brain" (which, in the above-mentioned mix-up, had been initially noted as the work referencing Chekhov!)
  • Read several short stories, and found them good to read in her post-broken limb "drugged state"! Loved how Chekhov gets us immediately into the stories, establishing his characters with just a few words. Enjoyed the humour in "A misfortune", for example.
  • Doesn't really like short stories, but did read this, and watched some of the Russian adaptation of the story via You Tube.
  • Was interested in the idea of the "inner" and "outer" life, as expressed by the character Gurov, and taken up by Smee in his essay.

More discussion

The story concerns an adulterous affair between a 40-year-old man, Gurov, and a younger woman, Anna, who meet while holidaying, without their respective spouses, in Yalta. Given the story was recommended because it had been referenced in an essay about social media and the Internet, one member pointed out how much harder it would have been to have such an affair in the pre-digital age, particularly to continue it after both had returned to their home cities. It would be much easier now, said our member, to organise assignations via social media than it would have been then when letters, for example, could fall into the wrong hands!

We wondered about the significance of the dog, given it plays no significant part in the story. One member suggested it symbolised Gurov becoming her lap dog? That seemed a reasonable idea.

The story is about love, and boredom. Gurov and Anna seek to feel alive, both being dissatisfied with their spouses. Gurov's marriage was an arranged one to someone who sees herself as "a thinking woman" but who "makes love insincerely", while Anna sees her husband as "no more than a lackey" or "flunky" (depending on your translation!). She wants "to live". Gurov initially sees his seduction of and relationship with Anna as a bit of a fling, not expecting to care when she returns home to St Petersburg, but after he returns to Moscow, he realises that he's been touched by her. He finds that his outer life is constraining him, that:

Those pointless business affairs and perpetual conversations – always on the same theme – were commandeering the best part of his time, his best strength, so that in the end there remained only a limited, humdrum life, just trivial nonsense.
At this point, we listened to the opening minutes of the audio version of Smee's essay, which led us to talk about this "inner life", from several angles.

Smee's article is about the incursions of social media into our lives. He starts by suggesting that these apps only know "superficial stuff" about him, that they can't know his "inner life", which leads him to wonder what, in fact, this inner life is - and he turns to a Chekhov quote from his notebooks:
He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth - such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club... his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities - all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. (? translator)
One member asked whether we thought we had "inner lives" to which the majority of us said, yes. We all have inner lives, we thought, and further, we also felt that we can never really understand another person's inner life.

We expect to learn about inner lives in literature. We talked about true cores and sham exteriors. One member liked Smee's discussion that the self exists in relation to others:

... domestic life is like, isn’t it? Inner lives rubbing up against one another, for better or for worse.

And so, of course, we talked about social media apps, and how much they really know about who we are from the information we make available to them (that they gather from us by various, sometimes nefarious, means.) We talked about Smee's question regarding whether we are becoming habituated to providing information about, or creating performances of, ourselves, on social media, and whether this will change, fundamentally, who we are, who our "selves" are.  This led also to some discussion of Gillespie's ideas on how social media is impacting the teenage brain.  One shared some research done in which some participants did not access Facebook for some time, while the others did. The outcome was that those NOT on Facebook were happier because they didn't know what they were missing.

We returned to an issue mentioned during First Impressions, which was whether we like short stories?A couple said they don't particularly because they feel that just when they've got into a story, it's over, although one made some exceptions (like Alice Munro's short stories). Others of us liked them for various reasons: for their ability to encapsulate an idea or feeling succinctly and often with real punch; for the fact that they are easy to slot into busy lives with minimal reading time and yet provide that readerly lift that we all like!

A couple of members would have liked to have talked more about the Smee article, and we thought that, in fact, we could consider scheduling a Quarterly Essay sometime, because they can offer a lot of meat for discussion.

The evening started with a delicious vegan meal cooked and served by member Janet, who is soon to leave us for that state south of us. We'll miss her engaged discussions, but it's never bad to have friends scattered over the continent! Thanks Janet, anyhow, for a lovely treat. It was special.

Present: 7 members (with winter escapees and colds, taking their respective toll)

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Mary McCarthy's The group

Prepared by Sylvia

Mary MacCarthy’s The group  was a controversial novel published in 1963. It was on the American best seller list for almost 2 years according to Wikipedia. Our ‘group’ of 9 older women (older than the characters, that is) mostly enjoyed it and were pleased to either read it again or for the first time.

SPOILER IN THIS PARA - BUT IT IS A CLASSIC!

Mary McCarthy (1912-89) was a Vassar girl who graduated in 1933. She wrote more than 20 books and The group was her fifth. It tells the story of 8 girls who have just graduated from Vassar College in 1933 and are all excited to start their adult lives. It begins with Kay and Harald’s wedding which they all attend. Each girl is discussed for a short period of her life (mostly dealing with their sex lives and their hopes and opportunities) before moving onto another girl. It ends with Kay’s tragic death and her funeral, which the other seven also attend, as does her profligate ex-husband. These girls are dealing with the middle-class problems of their generation – unfaithful men, work, babies, parents. Many of these issues have hardly improved, we felt.

As is our practice, we started with our …

First impressions

  • Read it when I was 13 or 14 and didn’t understand it, but now I do
  • Loved it
  • Characters so precisely done 
  • Some difficult prose and unusual words – needed a dictionary  
  • Loved the stories coming together with the beginning wedding and closing funeral providing the structure
  • Loved the precise grammar
  • Loved the episodic nature of the book showing lives of the women
  • Very modern in style
  • Didn’t expect it to be so witty, even evident in the tragic scenes such as when Kay was being committed to a mental institution by her husband
  • Loved the humour
  • Didn’t mind that there wasn’t a plot – Kay was the linking character throughout the stories
  • Has wonderful characters such as Mrs Davison, and Polly’s father
  • Marvellous novel, thought it would be salacious but it was satiric 
  • A bit tedious but I really liked a few of the characters such as Lakey
  • Some men miss the point in women’s novels, such as Norman Mailer’s criticism of Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s memoirs are good reads too: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, How I Grew, and Intellectual Memoirs .

Characters


The eight women in the group are Kay, Polly, Dottie, Lakey (Elinor), Libby, Pokey (Mary), Priss and Helena. They are based on McCarthy’s own classmates and she claims that she ‘suffered’ for the rest of her life for ‘using’ them. 

These girls were romantic but also naïve.

‘… they had something to contribute to our emergent America …they could see the good that Roosevelt was doing despite what Mother and Dad said;’ (loc 241 in Kindle).

They strove for a path for themselves but sometimes we only see them through their partner’s eyes.

Harald (Kay's husband): an awful character so we loved that he was put in his place at Kay’s funeral. We felt he deserved it. 

Kay: didn’t have talent but she liked to be superior and couldn’t let go. She believed in Harald and thought that he would have a stellar career in theatre. ‘She loved Harald’s risus sardonicus, as Helena Davison’s mother called it.’ (1192 Kindle)

Libby: we felt sorry for Libby when she had an awkward interview with a publisher.  She couldn’t take the hint that she couldn’t write well enough. She was a gossip, and unkind about her friends, such as Dottie, and was also cruel about the lovely Polly. A cold person. We felt she was the shallowest character. However, we were also distressed for her when she was assaulted by a boyfriend. 

Dottie: her deflowering sex scene in chapter 2 caused most of the book's controversy in the 1960s, but was much less shocking when reading it today. McCarthy handles the scene with humour and wit.  

Polly: we all liked Polly best. She is described "a sympathetic soul". We weren't impressed by Polly’s mother offloading her sick and elderly husband onto her daughter, and just sending an occasional box of eggs. 

Lakey: develops confidence in her years in Europe and ‘the group’ also grow to accept her and her evident sexual divergence from them.

Priss: rears a child according to the theories being developed by her paediatrician husband Sloan who uses her as an experiment. We all remembered the horrendous, rigid, methods suggested – only picking up a baby at a set time.

Norine: a Vassar 33 girl too, who is not a part of the group but is friendly with some of them. She is a counterpoint for some of the other characters, such as Kay, and Priss, who discovers their child-rearing practices are diametrically opposed.

We also discussed Helena Davison’s family, particularly Mrs Davison and the butler Hatton who would read the newspaper so he could give the news to Mrs Davison. It reminded one member of passages in Jane Austen.

We discussed how their Vassar education encouraged them to think but society did not allow them to operate as intelligent people. There were a couple of scholarship girls but most of them didn’t have to make a living, so they did volunteer work. Some characters felt that they were ruined by the college education, with Norine saying "our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role". We noted how, in Australia at least, women were often not allowed to work once they were married.  

Were the girls as different from their parents as they had hoped when they left Vassar in 1933? They varied in their politics, some being more Democrat and some more Republican.

The American poet Robert Lowell thought that these Vassar girls were ‘pastoral girls’ and ‘cloistered’. He wrote to Mary McCarthy that 

“we were dependable little machines made to mow the lawn, then suddenly turned out to clear wilderness”. Leave it to the poet to know an elegy when he sees it. Flowers of the culture, these young women, but shot from a gun.’ (Vanity Fair review, 2013)  

Some felt that the main "group" in the book was Polly’s "group" – one of her communities - and that the eight were only the Vassar group when it suited them? Was there a lot of contact outside of the wedding and the funeral? It wasn't completely clear.

Some of the characters exist to be counterpoint to others, like Norine, who isn’t part of the group. This shows how people are multi-faceted.

McCarthy deals with universal themes – jobs, love, marriage - so that although it's an old book now, it doesn't appear dated.

Similarities with other novels


A comparison was made with Edith Wharton who wrote about young women living in New York in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Her young women, like McCarthy's, were striving for satisfying lives but were constricted.

Another member saw a similarity with Frank Moorhouse’s Grand days - the idealism of the Roosevelt days versus the idealism of the creation of the League of Nations.

Other comments


We noted the smoking scenes – even in hospital! So much change in half a century!

One member particularly liked the ‘bagging’ of the Freudian analysis done on Kay. McCarthy was also admitted to hospital by her partner, Edmund Wilson, in a similar way to Kay’s admission. 

Mary McCarthy had a tough childhood living with her grandparents. She developed a close relationship with her female Latin teacher. Mary was an intensely bright girl and tried relentlessly to do well. She was inspired by her teacher to compete and became very driven. (This is shown by her amazing output of novels and of literary criticism). She made money from her novel The Group, and in fact made more money than Norman Mailer, her fierce critic.

In one review McCarthy was praised as an acute novelist, like Doris Lessing, but others criticised the book for not having a plot and attempting too much. 

One reader also commented that the author reminded her of the Australian academic Jill Kerr Conway who worked at Smith College in mid 20th century and wrote the revealing memoir Road from Coorain.

It was recommended that we watch the Mary McCarthy program, Vassar Girl 1933-74 on YouTube.


Present: 9 members

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Sayaka Murata's Convenience store woman

For our May meeting we ventured into rare territory for us - Japanese literature.

The novel, Convenience store woman by Sayaka Murata, is about 36-year-old Keiko Furukura who isn't "normal". Her family worries she will never fit in. However, at 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened convenience store where she finds a comfortable role in undertaking routine daily tasks, but 18 years later, this is not seen as a valid job for a woman of Keiko's now mature age. Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems!

As is our practice, we started with our ...

First impressions

  • Eerie, strange, off-beat and yet flat, took a while to get into the different voice.
  • Started off thinking it was funny, then quirky, then weird and then sad. It offers a reflection of Japanese culture - patriarchal, the pressure on women. It was almost satirical.
  • Quirky, sad. An odd book, didn't know what to make of it.
  • A good thing is that it was short. Didn't really didn't like it, though it had fabulous details about how shops like that work.
  • Not been to Japan, and didn't like it at first, but the confines of the convenience store was fascinating.
  • A flat read, sparse (a bit like Sally Rooney's Normal people), quirky, well-written.
  • About a non-conforming autistic spectrum person. Has been to Japan three times, and while it has a reputation for being conformist, has met varied, interesting people.
  • Interesting read, but wondered whether she was autistic; thought her preference for living in a safe environment was a comment on Japanese society.
  • Loved it, likes this sort of dispassionate tone, which feels a little typical of Japanese literature, reminiscent of works by Murakami, Kirino, Yoshimoto and even Ishiguro. Loved the juggling of the real and the fantastic as though it's all "normal". 
  • Liked this curious little book, but was it a parody about Japanese society? However it had a wider appeal too (from absent member).
  • Loved it, one of the best books we've read this year (from another absent member).

We then explored in more detail some of the issues raised in first impressions.

We talked quite a bit about the character, and whether we empathised with her or not. We talked about rules, and the role rules play in human relationships. We all confront this - being in a new situation and trying to work out the rules by which we need to act. Our convenience store woman, Keiko, had trouble understanding life's rules, but the convenience store's rules were clear for her and enabled her to be "a cog in society".

When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual.
Keiko's behaviour is strange to most people - sometimes even verging on the psychopathic. When a young child she hits another child over the head with a shovel in the school playground, thinking she was doing the right thing to stop a fight; she muses to herself, looking at a sharp kitchen knife, that it would be easy to stop her nephew crying. Many of us wondered whether she was on the autism spectrum. However, while there is a sense that her family wants to "cure" her, there are no references to a particular diagnosis so most of us felt that we should not treat this as critical to our understanding of the book.

The main theme concerns society's pressure for people to conform. This is particularly Japanese, we understand, but we recognised that many cultures, including our own, aren't good at accepting difference. So, when Keiko and ex-convenience store worker, Shiraha, decide to live together - in a convenient, not romantic, relationship - their families and acquaintances are happy, and start assuming their "story" (the story, that is, of the traditional marriage-children-job course of life.)  People/society are happy that they are (seem to be) conforming to the usual story. Keiko is both amused and mystified by this.

It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s convenient having him here. Everyone’s really happy for me. They’re all congratulating me. They’ve all convinced themselves my new situation is great, and they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business. So he’s useful.

However, it is then expected that she will no longer work at the convenience store, and her life starts to disintegrate when she loses her norm!

Shiraha is not an appealing character. Unlike Keiko he has no desire to work - preferring to be "kept" by Keiko. He takes advantage of her need to appear "normal" (even though it satisfies his need for the same) and he excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men (even since the Stone Age). 

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

One member discussed a review which suggested that the book is, in a way, a love story between a convenience store and a woman. Indeed, there are many references in the novel to her "bodily" reaction to the store - "I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response" She suggested that, with our Rocky Horror Picture Show hat on, we can comprehend her feeling comfortable in the store. After all, in modern society, we are seeing all sorts of things, particularly technology, replacing human relationships". While some members thought the story was a sad one, most of us thought it had a happy ending, because Keiko had worked out the right life for her.

We also discussed the idea of ambition. Keiko and Shiraha feel the pressure to have ambition, to progress in their jobs and their lives, but as one of our members who emailed in her comments wrote "There are lots of us who are happy in our lives and don’t have large ambitions." Amen to that!

The book is also about the need to have empathy for people who are different, the need to recognise that people who don't fit the norm are "human" too.

We discussed the unusual style, with one member wondering whether the strange stiltedness was the writing itself or the quality of the translation. Most of us felt it was the writing itself, that Murata intended the strange, flat, stilted style. It is also very funny in places. We all enjoyed the humour.

Overall, it was a book that may have mystified some of us to start with but it stimulated a fascinating, lively discussion about the book and its author, about Japan itself, and about some universal truths as well. Can't ask more than that.

Present: 9 members (plus input from two other members)

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Amor Towles' A gentleman in Moscow

There's nothing like a bit of dissension to liven up a meeting! And so it was that our April meeting of Amor Towles' novel A gentleman in Moscow was a lively one given there were some questions raised amongst the overall positive responses to the book.

The novel spans over three decades, and chronicles the life of the aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov under house arrest in Moscow's grand Metropol Hotel.

First impressions

  • Delightfully written, containing irony delivered with grace and wit rather than with bitterness.
  • Loved it, hilarious and well-written, enjoyed the humour, such as the "wine label" story, so clever.
  • Loved the literary and historical allusions, its description of communist Russia without the horrors, its portrayal of gentle manners, a masterpiece.
  • Read it while travelling to Russia last year, and enjoyed reading it in context. 
  • Enjoyed the hermetic life, though found the idea a bit of a stretch: would Stalin really have let such a person live under house arrest like that.
  • Loved the tone, and how the Count could put a positive spin on the things that happened to him. Liked his optimism and "can do" attitude. Enjoyed the cultural allusions, and the historical setting.
  • Didn't like it, because it's intellectually dishonest; doesn't believe aristocrats thought the way the Count does, and didn't like the references to 21st century corporate language like "facilitate"; was able to go with it as the story of someone forced to live in a grand hotel. (Reminded her of the Grand Budapest Hotel film.)
  • Really enjoyed reading it, but had some disquiet about Towles' intention: why did he write it? Saw it as a construct, rather than something meant to be believable. 
  • Enjoyed the book, and felt that each chapter could be a mini-book.
  • Wondered about Towles intentions, but thought it had lovely Austen-like observation and commentary on human nature.

Our member's concern about the book being "intellectually dishonest" got our discussion off to a strong start. 

Several argued that Towles does reference the "ghastliness" of life at the time. There are references, for example, to starvation, and characters are shown as disappearing (Nina) or suffering (Mishka). One member suggested that the fact that the book doesn't hit its readers with a sledge-hammer makes it more powerful.

It was also suggested that the interest in American culture - including films like Casablanca - is believable, that there was in Stalin's days a gap between public rhetoric and private behaviour. Stalin, for example, loved watching Western films.

Part of our discussion revolved around its form and tone. Is it a realistic book (like Dickens and Tolstoy) or more like an Austen or Henry James book of manners or, even, more of a fable or fairy tale? It does not hang together well as a realistic story, many of us felt, and so should not, perhaps, be judged on the basis of realism.

Our main naysayer raised the issue of the Count's shooting the Hussar and his fleeing to Paris. She felt this held some clue to him and his role. This resulted in our discussing whether the Russian aristocracy had made a practice of visiting Paris, or whether this was something unusual for the Count to have done.

We also spent quite a bit of time discussing the ending - what it meant, whether we liked it, whether it made sense, why the Count would do what he did. How we viewed the ending depended somewhat on how realistic we thought the book was!

We also talked about what we enjoyed about the book: the humour, the easy-reading style, its cleverness (including fun names like Anna Urbanova), the satiric footnotes, the characters, and its depiction of life in a grand hotel.

The Count and manners


We spent some time discussing the Count, and whether he had changed during the course of the novel. Most felt he did, though was it more in degree than substance? One mentioned his discussion of convenience versus inconvenience, and his recognition that inconveniences were more meaningful:

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

Another commented on his momentary slip, resulting in his friends calling him Count Blabbermouth and the Bishop joining the Triumvirate's daily meeting.

We did note that the Count was adaptable, enabling him to make a life for himself in the face of loss of freedom, position and possessions. One member commented on "his unwavering classiness".

Talking about the Count raised the idea of manners, given the Count's focus on good manners. How important are manners, a member asked? What role do manners play in the idea of being "a civilised person"? Good manners, politeness, can be superficial, and divisive, but do they also have a positive role in human relationships? We were amused that the Count's knowledge of and focus on food - how it's cooked, what wine goes with what, etc - closely matches today's foodie trends!

We thought that the book had an element of the comedy-of-manners genre, more than the social realism of Tolstoy and Dickens to whom the Count occasionally refers or alludes.

Towles' intentions


Some members had checked Towles' website where he writes that it was inspired by his noticing during his travels that some people spend long times in grand hotels. Hence he had


the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars.

A member shared Towles' description of the structure of the novel. He says that the book

takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

This aspect of a number of "things" appearing ("people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events"), which all come together to mean something later, is a feature of the novel that one member loved.

Another member shared a quote from the novel that intrigued her. The Count says:
I suddenly understood that this propensity for self-destruction was not an abomination, not something to be ashamed of or abhorred; it was our greatest strength. We turn the gun on ourselves not because we are more indifferent and less cultured than the British, or the French, or the Italians. On the contrary. We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than any of them in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person.

We discussed what we felt this meant. Is he saying that, for Russians, it's their essence, their culture, that is more important than concrete objects? How does this idea fit into the novel's overall theme/meaning?

Whatever Towles' intentions were, we saw several themes, including the ability to adapt to your circumstances, the power of friendship, the dangers of ideology. 

Finally, whatever it was about, the novel proved to be a great one to discuss.


Other works


As often happens during our discussions, other works popped into our minds, including:
  • CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia: because of going through the cupboard
  • George Orwell's Animal farm: its depiction of communism
  • George Orwell's Down and out in Paris and London: his description of hotel kitchens.
  • Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago: its response to the Russian Revolution
  • Death of Stalin film: its evocation of Stalin's death

Present: 10 members (plus some input from an absent member who sent some notes in!)

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This novel was suggested by a couple of members who had either read it or wanted to read it. Marilynne Robinson had been on our reading list for a long time.

Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping was published in 1981. Gilead, her second novel, was published in  2004, and focuses in John Ames. There are 2 others in this series, Lila and Home, which tell the stories, respectively, of Ames' wife and of his friends the Boughtons. In 2005 Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. Robinson has won many awards for her novels and for her many non-fiction writings, and has been honoured by Oxford University as well as by many American Universities.

Gilead is a most unusual novel. It is set in a small town called Gilead in Iowa, USA in 1956. Its format is a long rambling letter by an elderly (late 70s) Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. There are no chapter divisions. He talks about the present, the recent past (how he met his child’s mother), and his friends, especially his near neighbour, Reverend Boughton and his son John (Jack) Ames Boughton. John Ames’ past is included, including stories about his father and grandfather who were also ministers. As the central character is religious by nature, ethical questions pervade the whole novel but there are also discussions of a more simple and domestic feel.  Questions are explored such as ‘what is a good man’ and ‘how can I forgive’.  It is all written in a very calm and introspective way.

Initial responses


  • Hard to get into – rambling and retrospective
  • Liked the rhythm of words – some beautiful prose
  • Family history and US potted history intertwined
  • John Brown in Virginia – still going in the 1950s (see the Wikipedia entry for those of you who know little of this history)
  • Quite enjoyed it
  • Layers of religious ideas – hard to work out what he (ie John Ames) is actually saying
  • Interesting how religion affects families and causes tensions
  • I heard it while driving and liked the voice – sounded very plausible
  • Really liked to hear that the pastor shared struggles and doubts with his religion
  • Two sides of restoring self – forgiving others and stop blaming oneself
  • The theology was too old-fashioned for modern Christian thought
  • Surprised that Ames is not fussed about heaven
  • Slow melancholic novel which I liked – got into the voice
  • Some funny scenes such as the town digging the tunnel for escaping slaves, and then giving the guy another horse when his horse fell into the tunnel
  • Theology went over my head – and an amazing number of religions are mentioned in this novel (why?)
  • Warm hearted novel

Reverend John Ames


We decided that Ames was a good man but flawed. He was deluded in some ways. He was also aware of his limitations. He was very fond of his friend Reverend Boughton.

He was a very generous guy. He gave his money away while he was single for many years after the tragic loss of his first wife and child. He often stated that he was sad he couldn’t give more earthly goods to his second wife and child.

He had a passion for his young wife and not for his first wife which we thought was interesting.  Why was that? Maybe too religious when he was young?

He brought up issues on how to live a good life. Had he been a good man in his seventy plus years. He also wants his son to live a good life and enjoy it. Ames didn’t have much fun.

He often talks about grace and forgiveness. There is also a lot of talk about father and sons and Ames feels lucky that he was able to have a young son at his advanced age. He talks about his own youth and that of his father. He particularly wants his son to know about the trek that Ames and his father went on to find the grave of his grandfather who had walked out of their lives when quite elderly and ended his days in Kansas.

It was fascinating to see that Ames placed very little value on his old sermons even though he had kept them. His wife, Lila, thought they were very special. Was he saying that his life’s work was not important. He was an old fashioned pastor. He accepted the help of the community but also helped them at times, such as fixing a tap. His life’s work was love. One member objected to our acceptance of the character so easily. She thought he was irritating.

The New York Times review of Gilead (28/11/2004) discusses clergymen as characters in novels, the reviewer stating that ‘Robinson’s pastor (is) that most difficult narrator from a novelist’s point of view, a truly good and virtuous man, and occasionally you may wish he possessed a bit more malice…" 

He felt that his son would be in good hands after his death as his wife was fabulous. She had had no education but learnt to live a good live with her elderly husband in the few years they lived together.

As Ames was an elderly dad he did not place restrictions on his son like other parents – such as allowing his son to watch a cartoon on television while Tobias (a friend) had to stay outside.

The book whimpers out at the end with Ames’ quiet death.

John Ames (Jack) Boughton


John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the profligate or prodigal son of his good friend, we decided was a foil for Reverend John Ames. His appearance was a test for the evangelist. He tested Ames’ beliefs and his ability to forgive the young man. When young, Jack had had sex with an underage girl who had become pregnant. He abandoned both the mother and the child and the child died. Ames was challenged to forgive the younger man’s dishonourable actions and stay true to his religion.

We also discussed how the Boughton family had got involved with this poor family abused by their son. Some felt they could have done more for the mother and child.

We admired Lila and were curious about her relationship with Jack. Had she known him when they both lived in St Louis ? If so, what was she doing there ?

Lila was very empathetic with this younger man. Why was she in that town? Many of us were interested to read Lila to find out. (I think she just liked having a young man around to talk to as she was still a young woman?)

Jack Boughton is the prodigal son, and Ames reflects on his brother Edward who also left the small town.  (As an aside, there seems to be a plethora of stories about prodigal sons at the moment, for instance the new film called, Sometimes, always, never.)

Ames forgave Jack but he didn’t really believe it. Jack was a good man and John Ames’ blessing meant something to him near the end of the novel.

The novel explores all these father and son relationships. But Jack also wanted to be forgiven by his father. This didn’t seem to happen.

We also decided that it was a good idea to read Gilead slowly and maybe absorb some of the thoughts or meditations.

We concluded with the idea that we might write a letter to our children? One family recorded their elderly grandmother and the grandchildren really like hearing her stories long after she had passed.

Attendance: 9 members