Wednesday, 26 September 2012

A difficult young man, by Martin Boyd

Courtesy Sydney University Press
It was a rather unruly discussion when Minervans met this month to discuss the Australian classic, A difficult young man by Martin Boyd. A difficult young man is the second of what is now known as the Langton tetralogy and has an autobiographical element but, as the narrator tells us:
... the reader must take certain wild statements as intended for fun, though they contain an element of truth too subtle to be confined within the limits of accurate definition. One can make exact statements of fact, but not of truth, which is why the scientist is forever inferior to the artist.
Ha, there's a lot packed in there but the main point is that the book contains, we thought, a lot of truths about the Boyd family while the facts of their lives diverge.

Our discussion started with two members talking about their close encounters with the Boyds. One member's father knew Arthur Boyd, Martin's nephew, and could have had a Boyd portrait of her father in the family if only her father had foreseen the future! The other member lived near the Boyds in Melbourne. She was friendly with Martin Boyd's great niece and visited their home. How many degrees of separation do the rest of us get from these!

Most finished the book, and most liked it, but a couple found the style hard-going. We discussed the long rambling sentences and suggested that in some ways the style is "old-fashioned". Yet, many of us also felt the self-analytical, self-deprecating tone had a modern feel. One member liked the fact that the characters felt like real rather than fictional people - they'd come and go in the story like real people she said. Another member felt that the wit, irony and satire reminded her of Jane Austen, even though his narrative voice (first person) and plot (more family saga than romance) are not at all like Austen. Several members spoke of the great descriptions in the novel, such as this description of a young woman:
She spoiled her appearance by a peevish manner, and her exquisite fragility had little correspondence with her inner nature, which was as hard as the enamel on a snuff box.
We liked the satire and Boyd's astute observations about people.

The plot focuses on the eldest brother (well, promoted to eldest after the tragic death of his older brother), Dominic, and is about Guy's attempts to understand him. We felt that while the story is ostensibly about Dominic (loosely based on Merric Boyd), the novel is in many ways about Guy himself. Guy describes a well-to-do family, pre-world war 1, in which paid employment has not been the expected thing. The result is some level of class snobbery, but one borne of their family circumstances than of any active desire to denigrate others. In fact, the family finds itself at the wrong end of snobbery when they spend time in England where they are seen rather as New World upstarts. It was suggested that these books would make a great miniseries, à la Downton Abbey or The Forsyte Saga.

While we didn't spend a lot of time discussing theme (or what the book is about), we did discuss it a little. We felt that one theme was to explain why his family was the way it was. Other themes we noticed included promoting a humane way of viewing the world (one that abhors cruelty like war), and the value of living a creative life. The Boyds have certainly emulated the latter through several generations now. There is also, in the book, a sense of the end of an era - particularly for the leisured class - something that the father, Steven in the book, sees coming but which they are not necessarily well prepared for.

There was much more discussed and quotes shared but the conversation was so animated that I didn't manage to capture anywhere near all the points raised and talked about - so I hope members whose points have not been properly represented here will add them in the comments!

Near the end of the discussion, one member bemoaned the fact that she hadn't heard of this novel before and wondered why, suggesting that Martin Boyd had been overlooked by the Australian literary establishment because of his "English-ness". Others weren't so sure of her thesis, particularly those who had heard of Boyd and his novels. There are so many novels out there, it's not surprising we haven't all heard of them all, even the significant ones! We appreciate the work of publishers like Text bringing these books to the fore again.

And now I will close on a mundane point. Two members read the book in e-versions (one on a Kindle and one using the Book-ish service). Both complained that their books were presented with a skewed chronology: their books went something like chs. 1, 2, 3, 9, 5, 6, 7 ... to the "real" last chapter, followed by ch. 4. How disconcerting. These were not free versions ... seems like rather sloppy quality control to us!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Stasiland by Anna Funder

In the happy and relaxed environment of Janet's lounge recently we discussed the tortuous, weird and scary world of East Germany during the rule by the Stasi, 1949 - 1989, (the secret police of the Communist state).  Overall assessment of the book was admiration for Anna Funder's writing style and also for her ability to honour the stories told to her without introducing her own agenda. Honesty and seediness is present -- it is left to the reader to draw her own conclusions.

It was noticed that most victims were women and mostly men were the perpetrators and Anna Funder managed to interview both, being sensitive and patient and tolerant no matter what was told to her. Truth was stranger than fiction in this time in Germany. The structure of the book is well thought out -- with a mix of victims and 'firm' recruits/employees stories being told. We even hear about how people were recruited and how one independent woman blew her cover at her factory -- if only more had been as brave and intelligent as her ! However not all were treated so kindly.

Some stories stand out, such as Miriam's, which begins and ends the book. 'She could have been responsible for the outbreak of civil war' (page 29) and yet she is willing to tell Anna about her involvement with the Stasi including having to make up stories in order to survive.  There are the people who like to have an authoritarian ruler so they don't have to think and just do their job, it made them feel safe and everyone knew their place eg Hagen Koch.  However even for him the resentment grew and he was able to grab some evidence of the craziness.

We felt amazement that people still could get on with their lives despite the conditions and the lack of information they had to cope with. The story of Julia and her Italian boyfriend is sad in lots of ways and the devastating effect on her, so she couldn't relate to men or authority or commitment later in life. The story of brave Frau Paul and her son removed to West Germany as a tiny baby only to be reunited a long time later with his parents. Frau Paul is keen to tell Anna the story so writes it down for her calling it 'The wall went straight through my heart'. How poignant ! Anna was a very empathetic listener.

 This book is a great read, oral history with great substance.