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)