Friday, 6 March 2015

Tiger tiger burning bright

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is a very clever first novel and a real page turner.

However there are lots of questions arising from this story many of which we couldn't answer during our very pleasant evening discussing it. We also tried to answer some online questions from the Penguin website which was a first for our group.

Basically the story is about Ruth, a lady in her seventies living independently in her own home, probably on the south coast and beginning to contend with mental issues associated with getting older. The appearance of the tiger is a 'mechanism' for showing Ruth's stress levels. Also her early swearing is indicative of a problem for this well brought up woman. She is after all a daughter of a missionary doctor who would not have sworn at all during her early life.

Early on in the novel a carer appears in the guise of Frida and the story takes off. Some of us were suspicious of Frida from this moment on while others were not so quick to judge. We were all aware that there were 'age' issues for Ruth from the beginning. The author jumps into the story immediately showing how vulnerable Ruth is and how lacking in assistance and family companionship. One of her sons living in New Zealand is an early character but is totally devoid of real input into the life of his mother from such a distance. A phone call is hardly sufficient for an old lady's welfare. We felt he should have done more.

So much occurs in Ruth's head that the boundaries of real and imagined are difficult to work out. About half way through the book Frida starts to make extra demands and it is also the time when Ruth's friend Richard starts to dominate her thinking.

Ruth's house is also important. Is it a prison or a sanctuary? This is a hard question as we don't know what is happening exactly. Was Ruth locked in or was she bananas? This is shown particularly when Ruth thinks Frida has locked her in.

The landscape is an important factor in Ruth's life as she is so isolated from friends and family -- but enjoys the view when she can and expects others to enjoy it. Many of us felt we knew parts of the coast where the story could be set.

How much can Ruth rely on Frida? Very little we decided but Ruth is not really given the opportunity to think the situation through until it is too late. We also agreed that the story is typical of what can really happen to the elderly.

Frida shows that she is lacking in compassion although she is somewhat sympathetic at times -- for example, washing Ruth's hair before Richard visits. We thought Frida probably had narcissistic personality disorder.

Does the tiger 'prefigure' the future guests? Frida and Richard? I don't think so as it is more to show how Ruth is feeling at the time when these people are about to intrude into her life.

We saw similarities in the novel --  The life of Pi -- Richard Parker is the name of the tiger! In this earlier novel the tiger is a presence -- with a love/hate relationship with the main character. Both this character and Ruth try hard to 'survive' the tiger.

Was Frida's hairstyle changes indicative of anything? Could it be part of the conspiracy?  Or was it innocent? Frida's appearance as a partly Maori woman -- certainly a person from the Islands was a happy co-incidence as far as Ruth was concerned as it brought back happy memories for her. It also reinforced her desire to see her first 'love' -- the young doctor Richard. Some of us didn't like the young Richard finding him insipid and lacking humility. For instance, he showed very Protestant values in not liking Ruth's father's washing of feet on Good Friday. He also thought he could do a lot of good with the Indian women but we didn't hear any more about that.

We felt that Ruth's current relationship with Richard was overall positive for her and it was a great pity that his letters were not delivered to her. She was greatly cheated of a good old age with him if Frida hadn't intervened.

We also discussed the ending --  Frida is an unusual character in that she is not only guilt ridden by her behaviour to Ruth but she does something about it.

Did Frida leave Ruth in the tiger trap? How could she do this after being her carer?  The clever writing leaves the reader undecided whether it is Ruth who is unclear about her position; or whether Frida was planning that Ruth would be OK.  Did Ruth die of exposure? Was Frida a victim? She was George's victim but she did have a choice whereas Ruth did not have a choice. Frida was a 'con artist'. Why did the bank allow Ruth's money be taken out by someone else ?  

The book is exquisitely crafted and really makes you feel what it must be like to have some level of dementia. Fiona McFarlane is very clever using the third person subjective.

How did we come to read it? Sue had heard that it was awarded great accolades so it was worthy of our attention. We agreed it was very worthy. It also brought up memories of another novel about old age -- Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith.

Friday, 30 January 2015

My crime, your punishment?

Crime and punishment

Our first reading group for 2015, and I had persuaded our group to read Crime and Punishment over summer, and to discuss! A select group met, with a number having read it as young adults at University, and others reading for the first time, with one keen member re-reading it and another deciding to read The Idiot instead. Those who had read it in their youth were quite affected by it, with the re reader declaring it did not quite have the same emotional impact for her as a later reader.

It was written in 1866, the year after Alice in Wonderland was written, and the same year as Dickens' last book, Our Mutual Friend. It was written in 12 parts in a magazine. 

I reported that I related Raskolnikov to my experience with psychosis and schizophrenia, with many similar symptoms displayed, including: Impulsiveness, delusion, paranoia, disorganisation, passive aggressive, self centred, unable to manage money. We agreed though that mental illness was not Dostoevsky's intention in writing the book, but the  book is described as a psychological drama, as it describes the action quite often from inside the head of the main character, describing his mood changes, uncertainties and irrational behaviour. 

We discussed the significance of the Superman idea, where there are those in the world to whom normal mores do not apply, and who can exert their superiority by their power over others, including the ultimate power, to murder others of less value. This was Raskolnikov's avowed reason for murdering the old pawnbroker, and he compared himself with Napoleon and others. However is Dostoevsky supporting this idea? Perhaps as the consequences of Raskolnikov's action unfolds, we see the flaws in this ideology. He was punished ultimately after he finally confessed, and then finally came to repent in the epilogue, under the influence of the saintly Sonia. Another reader suggested that his punishment was also in evidence throughout the book, as he was racked with anxiety, and fear of being uncovered, while still maintaining he was quite justified in the murder.

We compared Dostoevsky with Dickens, seeing them both as writing on a large scale, with a complex intertwining of characters, focussing on the lower classes, and revealing a lot about the social ills of the time. Dostoevsky wrote at a time when the impact of the emancipation of the serfs, flooding into the cities, but often living in great poverty was being felt. The impact of alcoholism was also clearly revealed through the Marmeladov family, where the father had been sacked twice from a well paid position, leaving his family in poverty, and forcing his daughter to become a prostitute. There was some debate about whether Dostoevsky was writing about the social times, and trying to raise awareness of some of the inequities and suffering of those who fall into poverty. He had a strong focus on ideas, and discussion about morals and religious ideas. 

We talked about Dostoevsky's portrayal of women, and his use of the saintly whore (Sonia), and the sacrificing sister and mother, whose role seems to be to take care of Raskolnikov as the son in the family.

Did we empathise with Raskolnikov? Most of us not totally. We are inside his head, and we see his mood changes, and his frailty, and his generosity. However in the end the murder served to alienate us as readers, and some of us were not convinced by his speedy redemption at the end. One member compared him with Macbeth, as he unravels following the murder.

The use of religious metaphors and the significance of religion in the book was shown as important, and in the end the hero is redeemed by the love of a good woman, and finally repents. However, the sense of nihilism, the chaos in society, the superman ideology indicate Dostoevsky was very affected by ideologies running at the time, including Darwinism and capitalism, which were challenging the dominance of religion. Dostoevsky was a Russian Orthodox, and in one of his later books: The Brothers Karamazov, he explores a range of religious questions, and seems in favour of Courts run by the Church rather than the state.

We looked at some of the challenges of the language, often in keeping track of the names, and their derivative forms. We also compared translations of the books we had, some reading the traditional translation by Constance Garnett, and others quite modern translations, which may have given the text more flow in reading, but in the sample we looked at did not greatly vary many of the words used. 

So most members were pleased to have read this significant work from world literature, even though we could spend a lifetime unravelling the many aspects of this great novel. Thanks Minerva members for indulging me, as I now continue my reading of The Brothers Karamazov! And there's much I have left out, so happy to take other input!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Eimear McBride's A girl is a half-formed thing

Courtesy; Faber and Faber
Eimear McBride's girl might be half-formed but Minerva's discussion of this challenging book sure wasn't. It. Was. A. Lively. Discussion. Read on as I "trup trup" through it ...

Around the table

As we sometimes do, we went around the table asking Minervans for their overall impression or response. Listen in to what we said:

  • I recommended it because I heard the author interviewed and she sounded interesting, but I couldn't finish it.
  • I loved this book. I loved how the style and the language mirrored the girl's emotions. I cried.
  • It's the worst book I've ever read. I saw it as "verbal impressionism".
  • It was challenging to read but the style was interesting. I felt if I stopped to analyse what I was reading I'd lose it. It was painful, gorgeous, tenderly done but I wasn't sure about maintaining that style all the way through.
  • It was tough going but the style was interesting. Is there an Irish story that isn't tragic?
  • I couldn't read it but I read a few reviews.
  • This is how traumatised people think and talk. I think the language did develop, did become more coherent.

  • Then the discussion proper

    The round-table was then followed by a pretty unformed free-for-all discussion that your correspondent found hard to capture but will give it her best shot. This means I'll be grabbing the scattered ideas which I jotted down as I was engaging in the discussion myself and will try to form it into some sort of whole!

    The book, for anyone who hasn't read it, is about a highly religious mother, her son and the younger daughter. The novel opens with the son, a toddler, afflicted with a brain tumour from which he recovers, only just, and which leaves him with some brain damage:
    There's good news and bad news. It's shrunk. He's saved. He's not. He'll never be.
    But, of course, it returns.

    We saw the book as a classic Irish story about victims and suffering. It depicts the tensions involved in practising strict Catholicism, in trying to meet expectations, but all of it little tempered by love. It describes, one member said, faith practised without love.

    In this environment is the girl - loving her brother, loving her mother, but too often pushed aside by the mother's pain and focus on the son. As she hits puberty she is abused - raped - by an uncle and learns to use sex, first as power over others and later as punishment for herself. She is, we agreed, complicit in her own decline, letting it happen when she could have made - but with whose guidance? - other choices. Sex is her mechanism of self-harm, of replacing emotional pain. One member suggested that the only thing that can soothe a human being is another human being, but soothing human beings were in short supply in this book.

    We discussed the topsy-turvy nature of parental relationships in the book, in which children were expected to soothe the parent rather than vice-versa. In an early scene, the brother and sister tenderly place soup outside their mother's door after she'd physically abused them for not meeting their grandfather's religious expectations. (Who's fault was that, the reader asks!). One member felt that it was very likely that the mother had also been expected to soothe her father.

    The girl then is not the only "half-formed" thing in the book. We felt, in fact, that no-one in the book is fully-formed in the sense of being "mature" human beings in control of themselves. One member also wondered whether the sibling love could be seen as half-formed, unable to fully develop due to the tensions in the family and the restrictions caused by the boy's tumour and the repressive religious environment. 

    The mother does not come off well in the novel. She's more harsh than loving to her daughter - though there are moments of tenderness. She is not a good role model, evoking suffering rather than coping. However, many of us felt for the mother - abandoned by her husband who couldn't handle his son's situation: "I'd give my eyes to fix him but. The heart cannot be wrung and wrung". She deserved some sympathy. And, as one member said, the story is told through the daughter's eyes. We do not get the mother's perspective.

    So, the novel is painful to read - emotional, confronting, raw - but its language also makes it difficult to read. It is this that, primarily, defeated those who didn't finish it. McBride has said in interviews that she was inspired by James Joyce, which shows in the novel, though it's by no means a copy. The story is told first person through the daughter. It rarely follows the rules of grammar, nor of syntax. The language is fragmented - and becomes more so when the girl is distressed. There are new words, and old words used differently, and a lot of allusions, including to beautiful prayers (or novenas). Those who read it agreed that you had to go with the flow, not stop to try to understand every word. 

    There are rewards though for those who persevered. There is humour, such as some of the scenes at the grandfather's wake, and some gorgeous or pointed descriptions, such as this of the grandfather (again), "a right hook of a look in his eye all the time". A loving grandfather? Not so much! Not, that is, if you don't meet his strict expectations. No "forward rolls in a skirt" allowed! For one member, the beauty of the book is that this language contains the stress, the emotions. There's no mediating narratorial voice here - the feelings are right there in the language. Here she is, returning to college in the city, having seen the impact of the now-grown brother's brain damage:
    I make off from it. I make my escape. Leave you cough it up fight it out amongst yourselves. Get away from it oh god. And don't. No. Answer the calls. Fill my ear up. Fill my mouth instead. Man drink do what you like to me. I am safe. I am free. In my own way I am but it weighs me, beats me when I'm not doing the rounds. Split and splatter my heart head. So I get cold in the mouth on answering her bring bring. 
    So what, some asked, did we learn from the book? Well, there's the visceral understanding of the drive to self-harm, self-abuse, for one. There's also the beautiful tenderness in the sibling relationship.  And there's seeing a writer use language so differently and with such skill. All in all a powerful story, even if it's one that most wouldn't care to repeat!

    Tuesday, 25 November 2014

    5-word Reviews from 2008's books

    Here are some of the 5-word reviews we prepared for our 2008 Xmas do - drafted way back then but forgot to publish it!

    Great expectations

    • This classic fufills them all
    • All that and plenty more
    • And they are certainly fulfilled

    On Chesil Beach

    • Poignantly observed young sex foundering
    • Gritty and isolated, cold book

    The diving bell and the butterfly

    • A blink says it all
    • Be moved by his immobility

    The book thief

    • Let it steal your heart


    • Take one, you'll need it
    • Surprisingly good read, not frothy
    • But we are left breathless

    Thursday, 30 October 2014

    Clare Wright's The forgotten rebels of Eureka

    October's meeting was more adventurous than usual with a last minute venue failure that saw us, adaptable like the women of Eureka, retiring to Tilley's Cafe in Lyneham. We settled into a capacious booth, purchased the necessary comestibles, and hunkered down to a good old round table discussion of this month's book, Clare Wright's Stella Prize winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka. We discovered that while Victorians had studied this event in some depth throughout their education, those of us from other states had studied it more cursorily, mostly in primary school, so our memories and knowledge were not necessarily strong.

    Our reading and her writing

    We started by discussing the different experience of reading history versus historical fiction. We've read several historical fiction novels over the years, including Eleanor Catton's The luminaries (of which we were reminded as it is set in the goldfields of New Zealand in the same period) and Hilary Mantel's two Cromwell novels. Members were aware of having to consciously change their mindset from reading a story framed around a defined set of characters to a book in which multiple people appear who may or may not carry through to the end of the book. The opening chapters of Wright's book introduces a large number of people and some worried about managing to remember them all. The need to remember a lot of "stuff" was what turned some off history at school! Others decided to go with the flow, and focus on the "story" or thesis Wright was presenting. We'll remember what we can, we thought - and, there was always the extensive index to refer to if needed.

    We liked the expressiveness of Wright's writing, such as this description of George Black:
    Black represented diggers who would no longer submit to tyranny; men who were desperate to asset their legitimacy after months of humiliation. The new codes smacked up against the old like waves against a cliff face. (p. 398)
    Her writing beautifully captures life on the diggings. We felt we were there - living in tents in the cold, the wet, and the dusty dry. In addition to expanding our understanding of the Eureka Stockade, we saw the book as good social history. Our members in the medical professions were particularly impressed by the realistic (and horrifying) description of childbirth in those times.

    One member commented on the new (old) words Wright used, and liked the fact that she often explained their meaning and derivations. "Masher" is one example:
    But at night, some men cast off their utilitarian duds and slipped into evening clothes: black pants, white shirt, a red sash, patent leather boots and a black plush hat. John Deegan describes such men as swells or mashers, and says they took their sartorial cues from the Californians in their midst. The outmoded term masher is a real gem. It derives from the Romani gypsy word masha, meaning to entice, allure, delude or fascinate, and was originally used in the theatre, although it is unclear who these diggers were setting out to delude. (p. 256)
    However, we did have some concerns about the writing. We felt that at times Wright resorts to clichéd or "slogan" type writing. One example concerns the police on the goldfields. She writes:
    The Victorian Government paid peanuts and got the inevitable monkeys". (p. 218) 
    This comment irritated at least one member as a cheap shot. Although pay is often a valid concern, the real issue, she argued, usually involves factors like training, leadership and the appropriate support. Wright frequently uses throwaway lines - like "sometimes no news is the best news" - and aphorisms. Sometimes they work, but other times we felt they impeded real communication.

    It's a long book and is sometimes repetitive. For example, Wright tells us several times that Jane and Stephen Cuming named their daughter Martineau for "women's rights campaigner, Harriet Martineau". Repetition can be useful to ensure readers get a point, but we didn't feel that this point was germane to Wright's main argument.

    Good history

    We felt the book exemplified well-written history. We appreciated Wright's evocative, narrative-oriented style and felt that she was targeting a general audience. One member commented on the Chapter titles - such as "The winter of their discontent" and "Parting with my sex" - describing them as "hip" and sometimes "raunchy". Her aim, we thought, was to enliven history as well as to present a new way of looking at things. We liked that the work is carefully footnoted, but that it's presented in a way that did not obstruct our reading. In other words, the evidence is there if the reader wants it.

    Our member who had taught history her youth, admired Wright's good historical practice in the book, which involved always starting from the primary sources. When these sources are contradictory, Wright makes this clear, as she does in her reporting of the Bentleys and the fire that destroyed their hotel. We liked Wright's effective use of statistics to support her arguments. The book draws constantly on letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and Wright regularly quotes directly from these sources, identifying them through italics.

    Wright also looks at the wider global environment and how actions in other parts of the world may have played a role in what happened at Eureka, such as the Chartists, the 1848 revolutions, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's stand with other women at Seneca Falls in 1851. She provided evidence in most of these to show a direct relationship between them and people on the Ballarat goldfields.

    However, several members said that Wright "lost me" when she gave the full moon, and the likelihood that women were ovulating, as a reason for why many men left the stockade on the fateful night! This pushed the group's credulity a little too far but was, most agreed, the only point where a conclusion wasn't effectively supported by good historical evidence (albeit Wright gave reasons for her theory).

    Wright's thesis

    We, of course, discussed Wright's thesis which involves demonstrating that women were there on the fields and they played a significant role in the Stockade (and all that led up to it). Wright's purpose, in other words, was to uncover the role of women and to give them a presence. This means that the book is not a comprehensive history of Eureka - but the title tells us that.

    Wright is strong in her opinions, but we didn't see that as a negative. It's time, after all, that women's stories are told, and it's clear from her analysis that women were involved in the goldfields at all levels, besides the traditional domestic sphere. Some worked as diggers, some ran businesses which essentially supported their families while their husbands looked for the elusive strike. Many chronicled their experiences, either privately in letters and diaries or more publicly through newspaper articles and poetry. Wright names many women - such as the doctor-cum-digger-cum-doctor's wife Martha Clendinning, the poet Ellen Young, the publican Catherine Bentley, to name just a few. Their stories are fascinating.

    We also touched on other ideas and themes Wright explores, including:
    • the philosophical difference between the British and their belief in law and order for the common good, and the Americans with their focus on individualism.
    • the fact that, unlike the Californian goldfields, women were actively encouraged to go to Ballarat (for their civilising influence!)
    • the idea that the Eureka rebellion was primarily a young people's movement, with most of the activists being 35 years or younger
    • the presence of indigenous people and their relationship with the diggers (though this wasn't fully developed, as it was not her focus)
    We considered the term "digger" and whether there is a direct connection between its use for miners and its adoption in the First World War as a slang term for Australian soldiers. We felt that it probably did, both in terms of resenting inappropriate authority and belief in mateship and equality.

    Finally, some wondered whether Wright had another, agenda in the book. Was she making a plea for a new Australian flag. We all agreed that Australia's flag is unfinished business.

    Thursday, 2 October 2014

    Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north

    We have had a lot of very lively discussions this year - perhaps we always do! Regardless, our discussion of Richard Flanagan's Booker Prize shortlisted novel about the Thai-Burma Railway, The narrow road to the deep north, was another such discussion. I hope my report does it justice: there were so many conversations going on that it was a challenge to get all the ideas down! One member wondered whether Flanagan was emulating Patrick White with the "bigness" of the themes - love, war, mateship - and another suggested that it was reminiscent, in concept if not style, of the big 19th century novels with its multiple themes and many characters. Whatever it is, we all agreed that it was a good read.

    This is not to say that we didn't have questions. We started by discussing its style and structure. Why, some wondered, did Flanagan time-shift so frequently, particularly in the beginning - before we'd worked out who everyone was. Others suggested that this is part of how we tell stories, that we often, in reality, don't tell stories in a simple linear fashion, but digress, jump forward and backwards in time as we try to explain not only what happened but why. Nonetheless, this structure did make it a complex read and most of us felt it could bear reading again in order to make sure we really did get all the connections between characters and events. A couple of members wondered whether it is a little "too" big, perhaps a little "over-stated", to win the Booker. Some thought the bush-fire scene pushed their credibility somewhat, reminding them of what they didn't like about Flanagan's The unknown terrorist.

    Although it is written in third person, many felt it read a bit like a first-person novel. This could be because Flanagan uses a subjective (rather than omnipotent) third person voice. He also shifts the point-of-view between characters' "heads", making us feel we were "with" Dorrigo, Nakamura, Amy, etc.

    We were interested in Flanagan's sources for the novel: Weary Dunlop's diaries, the knowledge and experience of Flanagan's POW father, Flanagan's trips to the site of the railway and to Japan. Flanagan has written about writing the novel, about how he'd been writing it for 12 years and had tried several different approaches before finally settling on "a love story", with a focus on the doctor in the POW camp. This doctor is not, he says, his father.

    We thought the novel was well constructed - and enjoyed the parallels and paradoxes he uses to tell the story. We could see them - such as Amy being told by her husband that Dorrigo had died, and Dorrigo being told by his fiancé that Amy had died; the paralleling of Dorrigo who led the prisoners with Nakamura who ran the POW camp - but they didn't feel contrived.

    "Powerful descriptions" (Minervan)

    We all enjoyed Flanagan's writing. One member loved his description of dust motes in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy:
    He pulled out a book here and there, but what kept catching his attention were the diagonal tunnels of sunlight rolling in through the dormer windows. All around him dust motes rose and fell, shimmering, quivering in those shafts of roiling light ...
    She was also deeply moved by the post-war scene in Hobart in which several of the ex-POWs end up spending an evening, eating and drinking with Nikitaris, the Greek owner of the fish shop that they had, the previous night, damaged in order to free fish imprisoned in a tank. A lovely scene about human connection and understanding.

    Another member was moved by the profound ideas - and insights - Flanagan expresses about/into the relationships between men and women, particularly in terms of the meaning of intimacy, and of what love really is.

    We discussed characterisation, and how well Flanagan individualises the different soldiers by their coping mechanisms - Darky Gardiner's choosing to look for the positive, Rooster McNiece's memorising Mein Kampf, Jimmy Bigelow's cheery "Rightio" and bugle playing. The Japanese are similarly individuated, such as Nakamura by his lice and desperation for shabu, and Colonel Kota by his fascination with necks. Later, post-war, we recognise Kota before he is named because he touches a character's neck.

    We liked that Dorrigo is a complex, and paradoxical character. A strong leader in war and in crisis (as shown in a bushfire scene), he was also weak in allowing himself to go ahead with a marriage to a woman he knew he didn't love. Flanagan writes that "for the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty".

    "A world of struggle" (Issa, cited in the novel)

    Flanagan beautifully demonstrates the illogicality of the inhumane treatment of the prisoners, that is, the fact that not caring for the welfare of the prisoners meant more would die which meant there would be fewer to work on the railway. But, Flanagan also shows very clearly the very different mindsets of the western versus Japanese soldiers. The Japanese didn't treat their own soldiers well, beating them severely for even minor failings, so their treatment of prisoners was not, to them, particularly cruel. We liked that Flanagan was prepared to understand the cultural differences that resulted in the Japanese soldiers behaving as they did.

    One member suggested Flanagan was making a point about the sublimation of one into many. For the POWs, identifying as a group gave them strength, despite the tragedies and deaths of many individuals. As Dorrigo considers (Book 3, ch 5):
    For if the living let go of the dead their own life ceases to matter. The fact of their own survival somehow demands that they are one, now and forever.

    The Japanese, on the other hand, sublimated their individuality to the orders of the Emperor: it was only as part of that whole that they had meaning and honour. The honour of serving the emperor and their country, enabled them to justify horrendous cruelty to the POW’s. She wondered whether at the bottom of great heroism and great cruelty lies this notion of sublimating your individuality for the sake of the greater group.

    We were intrigued by how an unpleasant truth can damage a relationship. In his post-war life, Nakamura works with Dr Sato who admits that during the war he'd taken part in vivisection experiments. After this confession, their previously amicable relationship gradually, though not dramatically, fades away. Nakamura, troubled, starts to find Sato "who had formerly seemed such an interesting and genial companion - somehow dull and tedious". It's interesting that he's not repelled, he understands Satos' drive to do his duty, but he just loses interest in the man!

    We also discussed the inequitable treatment of "war criminals" - of how the Korean guard, Goanna, was hanged, while many of the commanders were not charged. This we understood was largely due to General Macarthur's reconstruction policy and his desire to keep Japan strong. Flanagan makes points like these by showing, rather than by lecturing, to the reader.

    "Love letter to literature" (Romy Ash's review in The Guardian)

    A member read out parts of Ash's review in which she said the novel has a second love story - that of literature. We liked the haiku that Flanagan commences each "book" with. (Note: the e-version called the sections "books", but the print version didn't number or name them at all.)

    Flanagan establishes both Dorrigo and the two most senior Japanese officers, Nakamura and Kota, as lovers of traditional/classical poetry. For Dorrigo, this includes Catullus, Dante and, particularly, Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses". For the Japanese soldiers, it's the traditional haiku poets like Bashō. The novel's title, in fact, comes from Bashō's haibun, The narrow road to the deep north.

    Ash writes that the novel "does turn on the power of a poem or letter". Ella's letter, for example, tells Dorrigo that Amy was dead, which has a major impact on the course of his life.

    There is a moving scene in which the bodies of prisoners who've died from cholera are being burnt on a pyre, along with their possessions. POW Bonox Baker suggests that the sketchbook of a prisoner not be burnt because it contains an important record of their experience so "the world would know". Dorrigo is not convinced, and quotes a Kipling poem about forgetting. Bonox replies:
    A poem is not a law. It's not fate, Sir.
    No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.
    We didn't explore this idea in detail - because we were running out of time! - but we did like Flanagan's use of haiku, and other poetry, to link experiences/characters in the book, to draw parallels between Australian and Japanese lives. We also discussed how elusive haiku can be, how we feel that as soon as we catch a glimmer of meaning, it disappears again.

    Finally, we talked a little about the "memory industry" to which Flanagan refers a few times in the book. Several of us have certain reservations about how it's been playing out in Australia over the last decade or so, as it seems, does Flanagan. Yet we all enjoyed his contribution to it with this book! Just goes to show the power of literature!

    Tuesday, 2 September 2014

    Memoirs of a dutiful daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

    We had a lively and at times nostalgic discussion about Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter, published in 1959. It is a dense read and cannot be quickly read.

    Three of us had previously read this book whilst in our twenties and reminded the group that it was the first in a series of four written by de Beauvoir during her fifties.  Did we enjoy it differently now from when we were younger ?  Who can say ? We are such different people.  But this time we  appreciated her writing on friendships and relationships with close relatives (especially our mothers and fathers).  One member studied French literature at university and this book influenced her to read major French authors such as Proust.

    Simone’s life from birth to early twenties is ‘given’ to the reader in great detail, lots of incidents, emotions and inner most thoughts are revealed  – for instance discussion in great depth of her feelings and thoughts as a very young child.  One member thought this was too precocious for a young child but others disagreed and noted that she was an exceptional and observant child.  She ‘liked reality’ and she was generally a happy person.  She did have some very dark religious times when she was twelve to fourteen though. Was she writing it for herself or for readers ?  She let ‘it’ all out we concluded.

    Her relationship with her father and mother was discussed in some detail -- her father loved her and she him but as she grew up he had less hold on her especially as he drifted away from the family emotionally.  His failed career helped lead to his depression so he was not able to provide for his daughters  adequately and he felt they would never marry as they were not beautiful.  We all appreciated her description of her inner life during her teenage-hood.  

    Another interesting facet of de Beauvoir’s character was her love for all things French.  Is it a characteristic of being French ? Or was it common in the early part of the twentieth century ? 

    In discussing Sartre and his role in de Beauvoir’s life we noted her confession of remorse for not having had children. (She is tantalizingly brief about her relationship with him even though she discusses in great depth her other boy friends and lovers.) Her role as a teacher was enjoyed and she was a mentor to her students but that was a still a poor substitute for motherhood she realised later.

    One member had thought of writing her own autobiography. She even came up with numerous titles. Another member could relate to de Beauvoir’s Catholic upbringing as she had ‘suffered’ and endured similarly.   

    The most insightful perception of this autobiography came from our Whispering Gums member who commented that this book reads like a novel with tragic tales for the two people who are most important in the life of the young Simone de Beauvoir. These characters are her childhood sweetheart, Jacques and her school friend Zaza.  Zaza’s life is not only a tragedy for being too dutiful to her mother’s wishes, she is also an alternative reality for Simone.

    In contrast to being truly dutiful, Simone rejected religion and became an atheist but she also experimented on the edge of danger morally whilst a young teenager. She was very lucky that nothing terrible happened.  It was a way of escaping her ‘prison’. She was naïve but was trying to kick free of her childhood.  She felt she was invincible as many young people do. As she didn’t have brothers, her parents didn't give her any sense of inferiority. See Hazel Rowley’s biography, Tête-à-tête, for further information on her life.

    Other interesting topics this discussion raised were about biographies and their truthfulness and also the date of the first autobiography?  The term ‘autobiography’ was coined in 1797 by William Taylor who thought it was rather ‘pedantic’ but the form dates from ancient times according to the Wiki.

    De Beauvoir’s biography is very self-reflective and honest and you really get to know her. We also appreciated her descriptions and responses to landscape. Her language is clear and expressive.

    This autobiography is magnificent – my comment – one of our best reads. It has also stood the test of time. It is definitely a book to recommend.