Between Two Worlds (article for the National Gallery of Victoria magazine)

This is one of the cover articles in the special issue NGV magazine, Jan/Feb 2019, to coincide with the exhibition Escher X Nendo / Between Two Worlds.  The exhibition runs until early April, and is well worth seeing. 

Glenda Guest, author and winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010, takes a journey through the realities and misconceptions of the term ‘magic realism’, and explains why M. C. Escher’s art challenges this genre.

 Magic realism (MR): academics try to contain the term; writers, sometimes erroneously, stretch it as wide as possible; reviewers use it as an escape hatch when they cannot categorise a book that has otherworldly elements.

Different places and different countries have MR literature: some is lush and overflowing with imagery, some is sharp and delineated. Some of these places were colonised (hence the association of MR with postcolonialism) and others are old European countries.

There were, and still are, vast differences of opinion as to what constitutes literary MR. The confusion is partly caused by the term itself: ‘magic’ implies trickery, something otherworldly, fairy-like, none of which the art critic Franz Roh intended when, in 1925, he coined the phrase ‘magic realism’ to describe a new style of German painting. This was also called New Realism, Ideal Realism and Verism, but Roh considered ‘magic realism’ more appropriate because he saw ‘a mystery’ under a realistic surface (this would now, perhaps, be called the sub-text). This mystery was signposted by strange juxtapositions and distorted perspectives that twisted realism and, as in George Groz’s and Otto Dix’s works, for example, indicated the stark reality of life in between-wars Germany.

At this time, there was considerable interaction between the European art and literary worlds and Roh’s two-word description of a German visual art form soon appeared in various literary journals in France and Spain, notably in Massimo Bontempelli’s journal, 900. Other European writers transposed the painterly theory into the literary mode, resulting in literature such as Johan Daisne’s The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short(1947) and making possible Gunter Grass’s criticism of the Second World War with The Tin Drum(1959).

European MR had a different, more cerebral, approach from that of the Latin American mythology and place-centred magical realists, who applied the term to a very different literature. The term ‘magic realism’ travelled from Europe to Latin America by literary traffic between Spain, Italy, France and countries in Latin America, and with Latin American artists as they returned home from Europe during the extended political upheaval of the Spanish Civil War. There were also, as Irene Guenther pointed out in her article ‘Magic realism in the Weimar Republic’ (1995),‘dozens of cultural luminaries … along with various artists and critics [who] found refuge in Mexico … Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela … and through translation and literary appropriation transformed it’.

Then the disagreements began.

In 1949 the Cuban Alejo Carpentier posited that Latin American MR was essentially Baroque in its nature in his essay ‘On the marvellous real in America’, which tied together the landscape, psychology, history and mythology of Latin America into a literary MR.

Angel Flores (Puerto Rico) refuted Carpentier’s definition, declaring that MR originated in the works of European writer Franz Kafka and the artist Giorgio de Chirico, whichthen developed in Latin America through the work of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Luis Leal (Mexico-USA) in 1967 denied Flores’s definition of MR, saying ‘because it seems to me that he includes authors who do not belong to the movement. [Nor was] the movement started by Borges in 1935’. And, ‘In the stories of Borges … the principal trait is the creation of infinite hierarchies. [This does not] permeate works of magical realism, where the principal thing is … the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances’.

Among other characteristics, MR literature of Latin America has the essential defining feature of the extended metaphor that reveals aspects of humanity; for example, in Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude(1967) a river of blood runs across a country from the body of a dying man to his mother in her kitchen – the unseen, emotional ties of blood between mother and son are made visible. Film has it easier in some ways: for instance, in Beasts of the Southern Wild(Benh Zeitlin, 2012)the terrors of a child rampage across the screen in beastly form and disappear when the child is, in her mind, safe.

Borges’s writing is similar to European MR – probably influenced by his years in Europe between the ages of fifteen to twenty-one – rather than the Baroquesque Latin American MR. His stories take the reader into a complex and interconnected world where the human is often overwhelmed and, as with artist M. C. Escher’s work, the reader is confronted by a different view of reality.

Whether through literature or visual art, MR manipulates time and space, and challenges the reader or viewer to consider that reality is but one layer of existence.

 

Book as time machine

When you open a book and start reading are you inviting the people of the book into your home or are you visiting another time and place?

There’s a phenonemon around at the moment that seems to be influencing literature and art that I call BICO groupthink, because of the recent kerfuffle on social media about the words to a song written for a film in 1947—yes, Baby it’s Cold Outside, and groupthink because so many don’t do the intellectual exercise that’s needed before commenting on the lyrics. ‘Rapey’ some say, ‘it should be banned.’ ‘Nonsense’, others say, ‘look at it in context of its time and place: He’s courting, she’s playing coy because at the time that movie (Neptune’s Daughter) was made women were branded as fast and slutty, and lost that precious thing called reputation, if they ‘gave in’ without considerable demur. If she’d wanted to leave, she could have.’ Social approbrium on women’s behaviour then was so different from 2019’s sexual openness it’s unimaginable to some.

There seems to be a trend to shock-horror if a story—written, for example, in the late nineteenth century or mid-2000s—shows attitudes other than ones currently accepted, with little understanding that the book is reflecting the social mores of the time it was written—it is, in fact, showing what life was like then.  If a character uses language that now is called sexist or racist, or is intolerant of the LGBTI community, there is immediate outrage as if history itself should rearrange itself to conform to reflect current social expectations.

My question at the beginning of this page was brought about by an article (posted on a writers’ group page I belong to) from the New York Times, written by Brian Morton. Morton was talking to a student he met:

“The House of Mirth,” which was published in 1905, describes the efforts of a young woman named Lily Bart to find an acceptable husband. The student explained that he had been sailing along until he came to a description of one of Lily’s suitors, Simon Rosedale: ‘a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with … small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.’ At that point, the student said, he lost sympathy not only for Lily, but for the novel as a whole…[Edith] Wharton’s anti-Semitism, the student said, filled him with rage. ‘I don’t want anyone like that in my house,’ he said.”

Morton goes on the discuss books written in previous eras as time machines that take the reader to another time and place so they can experience and understand the society of that time.

So, back to my question in the first paragraph above—do you, like that student, invite another time and place into your home and censor who gets through the door, or do you enter the time machine, leave your expectations and your outrage behind, and live in another world for a while?

Personally, I prefer time travel.

 

 

The writer’s other life

I am so impressed with Nadja, my PR wonder-woman at Text Publishing.  Since publication of A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline, Nadja has arranged, and fielded requests for, author-gigs and radio spots all over Australia. Just  look at this!

In the seven weeks since release, I’ve talked about Cassandra and the writing of her story, and about growing up in the wheat belt of WA, on RN Hub, Books; ABC Sydney Nightlife; ABC Mid-west and wheatbelt (WA) breakfast show; ABC Broken Hill; Radio 3CR (Melbourne, and yet to be aired).  Still to come is a podcast recording.

Author-gigs have been at Candelo Books (Bega NSW); Booktique Merimbula (NSW); Booktique Wangaratta (Victoria).  Still to come are The Turning Page (Springwood, NSW, on April 12th); Paperchain (Manuka, ACT, on April 19th with lovely Nigel Featherstone as my interrogator); an in-conversation, and a panel discussion on memory with  Josephine Wilson and Rose Michael, at Clunes Book Town (Vic) on May 5th and 6th; a guest spot at Griffith Univerity Gold Coast (QLD) at the Small Room; and as guest, with Liz Byrski, at the View Club, Sydney, literary lunch at the end of June.

Certainly not running on the spot, but puffing a bit now and then!

Sometimes you hear of so many problems between a writer and the publisher that one has to wonder why. Does the publishing editor want to make the book their own, with major changes? If so, why was it bought from the writer, who, of course resists. But does the writer resist too hard, not understanding that no work is finished when the publisher buys it, and no matter how good a manuscript is, it can always be made better – which is the job of the editor! It’s all about the work, not about individual egos, and about trust between writer and editor. Break that trust and there’s problems.

My experience with Text Publishing has only been positive, from working with (editor supreme) Elizabeth Cowell, to a superb cover design that opens out into a panorama across the front and back cover pages (thank you Sandy Cull), to getting the book out there so readers know it’s waiting for them –  a big shout-out to Nadja for doing a fantastic job.

 

 

Cassandra Aberline…

Things are gathering speed around me as the launch date of Cassie (way too long to type out every time, and ‘the book’ sounds so impersonal) comes closer.
The Thursday before release I do a pre-recorded interview for Sydney ABC Nightlife, so it’s time to do a bit of prep – so reading the book will be a start!

Then comes the official launch at Candelo Books in Bega. This is a fantastic bookshop. They’ve been in the business for several years now and know their business thoroughly; there are regular events there, and I’m pleased to have Cassie’s launch there. Here is your invitation – just change the venue to any of the below.

invite_Guest_Cassandra Aberline

I’m doing an ‘in conversation’ at Booktique Merimbula, with Gordon Beattie in control of the conversation, on Thursday 22nd February @ 5.30, for anyone in the area then – or if you’re in Wangaratta on March 7th, I’ll be at Booktique, 51 Reid Street, for a really long discussion with Michelle, the owner, who likes to push conversational boundaries.

AND – one that’s always a good time all around – there will be a gig or two at Clunes Book Town on the first weekend in May. If you’ve not been there yet, make a point of going,  not because I’ll be there although it’d be lovely to meet FB friends, but because it’s a unique festival in Australia, and a member of the hard-to-get-into International Organisation of Book Towns.

I’m hoping to be in Springwood soonish, so watch this space, mountain peeps.

 

Old friends: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

I don’t want to say how long ago I read this, but it was before I was twenty and way too young to appreciate the writing or the undertow of the story.  A slightly faulty image stayed with me – probably the only thing that did. I saw Mrs Danvers standing on the broad front steps of the large house, Manderley, watching the narrator’s car drive up that long, overgrown, drive. So much so that the first time I drove down the driveway of Varuna Writers House, where the trees arched into a tunnel,  I expected to see Mrs Danvers waiting for me.

It’s a false image, of course – memory is entirely slippery. She was there, but waiting in the elegant entrance hall with the other staff.

Du Maurier’s landscape is still one of the most memorable things about Rebecca. Who could forget that long bank of huge, blood-red flowered, camellias that the writer used as a forecast of doom, or the enclosed cove with the boathouse where Rebecca conducted herself very badly; so much so that it was the place where she died.

This time, I was still pulled along by the narrative, wanting to know what was really going on under the so-very-English stiff upper lip-ness of both the narrator (who we never really meet except through her own eyes – a brilliant example of focalising the story) and Maxim de Winter, the owner of Manderley and around who the story revolves. I wanted to know why this book, this writer, has been in print for eighty years. Yep – eat your hearts out, writers. Eighty years of continuous publication; the 2003 Virago edition I bought (my original disappeared years ago) has been reprinted twenty-six times to date.

This is a book whose titular character is never seen or heard. She is dead, and we know that from the start. So it’s a mystery, then. A story about who killed her.

That said, it wasn’t that that pulled me along but the superb people who inhabited that closed world of Manderley and the pull of the place itself on them. Manderley is the main character, not the uptight un-named narrator nor Rebecca herself – each of whom are amoral in their own ways.

Then again, it could be the indefinite deferment of knowing who Rebecca was and how and why she died. The story is beautifully paced, and is a masterpiece in its own right.

If you have never read this book, maybe thinking it outdated, or, as I had, read it way back when, put it in your to-read pile. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Editors and writers!

Many people call themselves editors. Some are, some aren’t. Some are wonderful insightful readers who understand nuance; some are egotistical non-humans who want to take your work and make it their own!

I am about to start work on the new book manuscript, known at this stage as A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline (but that may alter as the cover-designer seems to find it  overlong – another discussion point to come). I am fortunate to have the marvellous Elizabeth Cowell as my editor, and that is by a happy accident.

Elizabeth was my editor at Random House for Siddon Rock. Since then she free-lanced for several years and last year took up the post of senior editor at Text Publishing. When the ms for Cassandra went to Text, Elizabeth was the person who received the email. I said to Lyn (my agent) that I wanted to work with Elizabeth again and to accept the offer – so here I am with the book on the publication train chuffing along slowly towards March 2018 when it will reach the bookshops.

Some years ago I gave a workshop to the Society of Editors in Sydney with the aim of making those attending more aware of how writing works, how it is put together, and what is needed by the writer from her editor. (A couple of beginner-editing interns were huffy that they had not been given editing exercises, but that’s another story).

I asked writer friends for their editor-experience here is Anne Deveson’s response:

THE WRITER AND THE EDITOR: A MORALITY PLAY
by Anne Deveson

Act one

I think I’ve sent my new editor a final draft of my book on Resilience.  She  disagrees. She begins our conversation by honking loudly:

Editor:    They said this was a copy edit.
Me:        And?
Editor:   It’s a complete re-write
Me:        Nonsense.

Editor:    Honking turns into hysterical laughter

Me:        (Looking at a manuscript that is so crisscrossed with red and black lines, it looks as if its got the pox) But don’t you like it?
Editor:    (sternly)  That’s irrelevant
Me          Then what’s wrong?
Editor:    All that stuff that’s missing. For example, how did Waldo travel to Zaire from Rwanda, when there   were no planes?
Me:        He drove ( dumdum)
Editor:   How did he know where to go?
Me:        He had a map (double dumdum – and whose book   is this anyway?)

Act two

War is declared.  After two weeks, both sides are exhausted.  The editor wages her battle from Melbourne. I am in Sydney.

One afternoon, I hear the roar and thud of several children in the background. She sounds as if she is about to burst into tears.

The milk of human kindness floods through my veins. I sympathise. I empathise. I apologise for being so prickly and say I am exhausted from finishing the book. Well, almost finishing the book.
She apologises for being so prickly and says she is exhausted from looking after her husband’s children as well as their own, a three months old baby.
We make civilised, even friendly, noises about both wanting the best result. I thank her for being so understanding. She thanks me for the same reason.

Act three
Now I have started to praise and thank her for all her hard work – and I mean it –  she responds with equal generosity. We become good friends. She does a superb job of editing and helps transform a bowl of lumpy  porridge into a magnificent meal.

Moral one: DON’T KILL THE EDITOR. KILL YOUR DARLINGS INSTEAD
Moral two : it’s not just the work you’re dealing with, but the writer (or editor, if you are the writer).

I miss Anne! Her death has left a hole in many people’s lives. The above is so her – she was empathetic and self-denigrating while being a giant among equals (I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and became a friendly acquaintance who had breakfast with her every couple of months).

Back to the editing thing. During the process of getting Siddon Rock to the bookshelves the ms was not only worked on with Elizabeth but it went out to an external editor-reader first (thank you Nadine Davidoff), then, towards the end of the process, to an external proof-reader.

I must say here that I  feel strongly that, like a loved child, once the work has left home the writer becomes professional and views responses to it not as a slur on her integrity or ability but as suggestions to improve the text. I have a file of dead darlings to prove it; words, phrases, sentences that I thought were wonderful but, on reflection, were not quite right for that text at that time.

I take seriously comments and suggestions because they draw attention to how a reader understands the text. Sometimes I change it, sometimes I don’t (no mate, you didn’t read that correctly), but that last proof-reader made me cross and resistant: she changed words, altered the structure of sentences, made derogatory comments none of which added to the meaning or depth of the story.  I choose words very carefully so that the exact meaning is what I want. Someone changing my word to something nearly the same was not only infuriating but highly disrespectful of the text and of the writer. I complained loudly to Elizabeth, who said the all the correct soothing words, and I took not a scrap of notice of the proofer’s anything.

The thing is, she could have told me something significant in there, but the attitude made me not see if there was.   I used, in that workshop, a quote from the writer Tess Brady: ‘Her mistake was to offer solutions, not signposts to places where improvements could be made.’

It is the writer’s responsibility to move the text forward.

It is the editor’s responsibility not to hinder that in any way.

THE END!

 

 

 

 

Old friends: Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.

“and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!”

When I took this skinny book from my shelf, where it was hiding between two rather large and overpowering volumes, I was rather reluctant to revisit it because I, foolishly, had forgotten how carefully each word is placed and how those words combine to take the reader past the depicted world of mundane domesticity into the inner lives of the people.

The blurb, by Don Anderson, on the front cover says it all: ‘Garner is what she has always been – one of the finest, and most modest, of stylists writing in English.’ That was written in 1985, the year of publication, and I dare to say nothing has changed since. Garner is still one of the finest, clearest, writers being published today. There is nothing extraneous; she sees through surfaces to what makes the worlds of her characters tick. In her later writing those characters are real people; see the controversial take on what is or what is not sexual harassment in a university college, in The First Stone, and her  investigations of murder in Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law (2004), and This House of Grief . The story of a murder trial. 

Back to The Children’s Bach.  Short, not sweet but engrossing, Garner paints her characters in small touches; indeed one could say that the whole story is small, being a domestic portrait of ordinary lives changed by one meeting, but the overall is huge. The hinge of the story is a chance meeting in an airport cafe, by two people who had been lovers while at university. The large and loud Dexter is now married with two children, one of whom is autistic. Elizabeth is a presenter on a television show, is separated but has an ongoing relationship because of their teenage daughter (for her). The two families collide and intermingle in various ways.

Garner could be called the Jane Austen of our time in the way the domestic becomes the general, but I won’t do that because I don’t much enjoy Austen (hackles down, please, you fans, there are many of us hiding in the woodwork in fear of our lives if we declare ourselves!), but in her early fiction she does record a certain way of life that was rarely seen in fiction of the time, the inner suburbs of Melbourne that were still daggy and full of university students, ‘hippies’, drugs and rock and roll.  Her first book, Monkey Grip, explored these.

She gave her readers a glimpse of the families also living there in two short stories in one book: Honour and Other People’s Children, and expanded the view  in The Children’s Bach. 

The themes of how to live a life and how difficult it can be are held together by music of all varieties: Athena’s teaching herself piano from the learning book The Children’s Bach, Dexter’s love of classical music and refusal to engage with any other, their daughter’s piano lessons, Philip-the-professional guitarist who tells a student :

‘Listen. I like your song. Look, I’ll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows “It always happens this way” or “I went in with my eyes wide open”. Cut that stuff out. Just leave in the images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don’t chew on it. Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.’  This is, of course, Garner telling her own writing process.

I am pleased with myself for not putting the book back on the shelf, I enjoyed it thoroughly and read it from start to finish in two sessions. It made me remember just how good a writer Garner is and I’ll be revisiting some of her other work in the future.

And this must be one of the best final sentences written: ‘And Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!’  The reader knows that somehow Athena will put everything right, including herself, and can close the book satisfied.

Make the chance to find and read, or re-read, it’s still in print, after 32 years, and available through Goodreads.com