Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Gerald Murnane's The plains

Courtesy: Text Publishing
Gerald Murnane's The plains was a fascinating novel for we Minervans to finish our reading year on. It was our third Text Classics book of the year, though we enjoyed looking at the wide range of editions the members who attended the meeting had read.

I use "fascinating" somewhat loosely because most of us found it a challenging read, with some of us enjoying it more than others. One member said that she felt she wasn't getting anywhere, like she "was wading through treacle"! Another said it was "mercifully short"! One member had read several reviews but found they did not really explain the book any more to her. We agreed that that's probably because it's an elusive book and one that's not easy to explain ... which may in fact be part of Murnane's intention.

So, I won't really try to explain it except to say that it's told first person by a narrator who, at the beginning, is a young man who travels to the plains with the intention of making a film about them and the plainspeople. The plains are not defined in specific detail other than being, perhaps, Other Australia. (They are probably inspired, though, by the plains of northwest Victoria). The rest of the novel (novella?) comprises this character's discussions, meditations, ruminations on life among the plains people, mostly from the home of the landowner who has become his patron. The novel starts:
Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.
Our discussion started with one member suggesting that the novel felt a bit like academic life. She elaborated by saying that it's about a group of people beavering away in their own arbitrarily defined worlds with their own set of assumptions. These people pursue their ideas in their own way, and follow and follow and follow those ideas, not worrying if along the way the ideas they are pursuing become disconnected from life. The obscure wars between Horizonites and Haremen seemed also to fit in with this idea. How many obscure academic disputes - wars even - have happened over the centuries?

One member in particular found it a frustrating read and was infuriated by the secondary role women play in the novel, stating that this dated the novel. She also felt that its focus on wealthy landowners dated it. Others argued that it's a timeless, mythical sort of book and that therefore these things that might bother them in a realistic novel did not bother them here.

What made the book hardest to read, we felt, is the fact that it has no real characterisation or plot, making it quite an alternative sort of literature. This reminded us of Samuel Beckett - and one reader said that her introduction by the American poet, Zawacki, noted that Murnane is closest to writers like Proust, Beckett, and Kafka. The scene in the pub where the artists are waiting to be called into their interviews with the landowners was somewhat reminiscent, a member said, of the characters waiting for the trial in Kafka.

We talked about the beauty of the sentences. Many were long, and some were hard to grasp, but they were generally beautifully formed and lovely to read. It was suggested that you could take almost any sentence and have a philosophical discussion about it. Some felt the first part of the three-part book was the easiest to read and comprehend, while others found the last two parts more readable. Some of us found the book funny, and at times satiric or ironic. It seems often to deal in paradoxes. We wondered whether Murnane is also a poet, as the writing feels a bit like poetry, particularly in the abstract way it explores ideas.

We discussed the idea that our reaction to this book says perhaps more about us as readers than about the book - an interesting idea to contemplate because perhaps, more than most books we've read, this book made us think about the reading process and what we like and don't like, what we look for. We learnt a little more about each other as readers as a result!

As to what the book is about, we threw up many ideas, such as:
  • Time, and how we understand time.
  • Possibilities and not wanting to achieve them or pin them down but rather to always have them ahead, undefined and unresolved. 
  • The idea of secret lives happening, of culture going on elsewhere that we know nothing about.
  • History and the desire to make sense of records from the past that might in fact be quite arbitrary.
Another issue we explored was whether we might be able to draw any conclusions from when it was written. It was published in 1982, the Fraser era, a pre-modern (our current modern anyhow!) Australia when, although we were highly urbanised, we still had a sense of being defined by the bush, by the interior. One member saw shades of Patrick White's Voss in the sense of looking inwards, though said they are very different books. Another said it felt a little like Cormac McCarthy's Blood meridian and the mythic sense he conveys with larger than life characters, though again said they are very different books.

Finally we discussed the fact that the narrator plans to make a film - though he never does. We considered Australian films like The proposition and The tracker (in which the characters aren't named). These films focus somewhat on how we deal with landscape, with place. We wondered whether Murnane is creating in this novel a filmic view of ourselves, a chimera perhaps? There's a sense of exploring the nexus between illusion and reality and not being sure, or not wanting to define, where one ends and the other begins. Without giving anything away, the novel closes on an image of the narrator with his "eye pressed against the lens" of his camera. One member thought was a perfect image - in and, perhaps, for the book.

Please, Minervans, add your comments below because this was a hard discussion to write up!

Monday, 5 November 2012

The street sweeper by Elliot Perlman

This month everybody who read this book liked (or loved) it and those still reading wanted to finish it. However, the contrived nature of the story spoilt it for some people.

This novel shows the importance of history and telling stories -- 'tell everyone what happened here ' is the main refrain through the story.  Dr Adam Zignelik, one of the main characters gives a lecture to his students at Columbia University early in the novel which is pivotal to the story. The lecture's topic is 'What is History ?'  Is something told to you, true or false and how much information do you need to know to be able to tell the difference ? We envied those students ! Can we use history to predict the future ?

The refrain is about the holocaust and what happened to the millions of Jews in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. It is truly shocking in the graphic scenes !

The story of a death camp is told by a survivor, Henryk Mandelbrot, who was forced to work for the Nazis in the Sonderkommando. This factual 'tale' is told to poor Lamont Williams, the street sweeper and ex-con and 'innocent' main character. At the same time there is the fascinating and factual life of Dr Border (David Boder in real life), another University professor, who visited the death camps and concentration camps just after the War, capturing the stories of the survivors. Concurrently we hear about Adam Zignelik's life, an Australian/American intellectual, experiencing his own problems and getting involved with Dr Border's research.

It was felt that the characters were totally real and we loved Lamont -- he was such a battler. We also loved the scene where Lamont's cousin's daughter, Sonia is accused by her Mum, Michelle of saying the  'n' word.  Charlie, Michelle's husband is studying 'reconstruction' -- in other words, post civil war reconstruction (late 19th century) -- which was crucial in leading to the Civil Rights movement. He was an academic caught up in research and had little family life or even time for his friends, such as Adam. Was Adam clinically depressed ? Or was he just a wimp about his life with Diana, fathering a child and his career prospects ?

This novel is a great mixture of the real with the imagined 'history' and this lead to a discussion on history and imagination and how Kate Grenville was controversial in her depiction of early Sydney and the lives of the convicts. Likewise 'appropriation' could also be considered an issue in this novel -- we didn't really answer this -- Kate Grenville for instance, didn't tell her story from the Indigenous view point.  'The Street Sweeper' is such an amazing combination of stories about Jewish people and factual world history interwoven with the exploits of African Americans, real and fictional,  in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The resistance movement in the concentration camp surprised and horrified us, particularly for Rosa.  The Jewish Union officials were true to type -- their love of chicken soup was a slightly comic scene in amongst the seriousness.

Perlman's message is about every action having a consequence and life is about making ethical choices and how we must take small steps --realising that there are many dimensions to a problem.  Perlman engages us in narrating these stories -- third person narration most often with a melancholic tone throughout. A complex book which was apparently panned by 'The Guardian'. In our opinion it was a great novel -- certainly the best for the year so far.