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Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Hewlett-Packard's warranty policy has cost be dear. I purchased my HP a1240a Pavilion desktop computer in December 2005. I thought I got a good deal. How wrong I was.

Yesterday I went to Big W — a discount retail store in Campsie, where I live — and purchased Microsoft's Vista operating system. The pack I bought is the Home Basic upgrade kit. My primary reason is to increase security on my computer.

Windows Vista Home Basic kit next to HP Pavilion desktop computer
Returning home, I placed the DVD in the DVD R/W unit and pushed closed the little drawer. Nothing happened. I consulted the instructions that are included in the pack. Step 2 says you're supposed to see a menu after you insert the DVD. Nope. Nothing.

So I called Microsoft and got through, eventually, to a guy who works (presumably) somewhere in the world. He stepped me through the checking process so that we could identify where the problem was. We decided that the hardware was the problem.

So I telephoned HP. Without going through any process, they decided there was no solution because, they were quick to inform me, my warranty had expired. You only get one year's warranty on this computer hardware.

So I went to Google and typed "computer repair Campsie" into the field and pressed enter. In the sponsored links a link appeared for Geeks2U. I clicked, dialled and told them the problem. Today they arrived and we decided that, yes, the HP DVD drive was the problem.

I'm off to Queensland tomorrow, and Troy told me he would return on the Sunday after I get back home. The visit cost me about $150 and to replace the faulty hardware will be another $180 including the new unit itself.

But I'd rather pay Geeks2U than get the run-around from HP technical support. It's outrageous that HP provides only one year's coverage for its hardware. I also own an HP printer. Well, in future, I'll not be buying any more products from HP.
Features pageThe 'Strewth!' column in The Australian today has had a wardrobe malfunction... As you can see from the image shown here, the header image has gone walkabout and, in the body of the text, formatting tags are visible.

If you want to know what the header normally looks like go to the Web page of the broadsheet. The column appears about half-way down the page.

It's not often that a newspaper will so completely stuff things up, and I thought it was noteworthy. But the truth is that I'm on holidays, and have nothing better to do with my time than to nit-pick.
John Coetzee's new novel, which is planned for release by Harvill in September, is to be entitled Diary of a Bad Year, as I mentioned a few days ago.

More news has come to light now. It is "the story of an eminent, 72-year-old Australian writer who is invited to contribute to a volume entitled Strong Opinions - a platform, of course, for Coetzee to air his views on such issues as the treatment of asylum seekers, Guantanamo Bay and the Middle East".

As many readers will know, Strong Opinions is a volume of non-fiction pieces by Vladimir Nabokov. It was originally published by McGraw-Hill in New York in 1973. My Vintage International edition is dated 1990. It also contains a three-page foreward dated 1973, and signed in Montreux, Switzerland, where he had gone to live following the success of Lolita (he had been living in Ithaca, New York, teaching at Cornell University since 1953).

The volume contains a number of interviews, some letters to editors, and a collection of articles that were first published in various periodicals throughout Nabokov's life. One of them, 'Pounding the Clavichord', which was published originally in The New York Review of Books in 1964, is about the art of translation. Readers may remember that Coetzee's own article about translation (a bit heavy and hard-going) was published originally in Meanjin (in 2005) and then in The Best Australian Essays 2006 (Black Inc.). He also published a piece on translation in an Australian broadsheet, though I forget which one and when.

I wonder if Coetzee is consciously putting himself forward as the grand-old-man of letters in the way that Nabokov did, in his later years. Many people beat a path to the Russian writer's door, as he relaxed in his hotel room overlooking Lake Geneva, like a latter-day Rousseau or Voltaire. Perhaps Adelaide is the new Ithaca. If so, where will Coetzee retire to when the money allows him?

Thanks to Perry at Matilda for the heads-up.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The Conversations at Curlow Creek bookcover; VintageReview: The Conversations at Curlow Creek, David Malouf (1996)

With a measured pace and a poetic turn of phrase, Malouf brings into being a story the relevance of which is not at first clear. Sure, we’re introduced to a number of characters, but what it’s all about — that’s another question. It doesn’t really matter, though. There’s plenty here to satisfy the most demanding reader.

Michael Adair is some sort of government officer, a policeman or soldier, who has been sent out into the New South Wales bush to execute a bushranger who was captured after a long stake-out. He finds Carney in a dirty shed guarded by a bunch of fairly uncouth troopers.

Their harsh conversations contrast sharply with the gentle discussion Adair exchanges with Carney in the little shed near Curlow Creek with its long shelf, hanging spider webs, and overflowing chamber pot.

The book would adapt well to the screen, as it is extremely picturesque. In contrast to the dry, forbidding scrub of the Australian countryside lies the sweet, well-regulated existence Michael led as a child in country Ireland.

He still writes letters to Virgilia, the daughter of his neighbour back home. She lives with her father two miles away from the estate of Mr and Mrs Connellan (Aimee), who adopted Michael after his opera-singer parents were drowned in a shipwreck. As he grows up, he falls in love with Virgilia Fitzgibbon, just as he falls in step with his tutors and gets to know all the best authors of antiquity.

Fergus Connellan, who survives childbirth, is a few years younger than Michael, and fiercely devoted to him, but Michael knows that his own circumstances demand he make something of himself, independent of the estate that Fergus will one day inherit.

We are, of course, in the third decade of the nineteenth century. Imagine the bastard child of Jane Austen and John Banville, and you get some idea of the subject and style of this book.

Michael is a very well-adjusted child, mature beyond his years, who feels ashamed when Mama Aimee hugs him and demands his affection. He knows there is something wrong. Even as a small child, he had smelled something strange when he found himself up close to her body. Her alcoholism continues to disturb him in his teens.

Aimee is not well-adjusted and, having feared for years that Fergus, like her other dead children, would be taken away by the grim reaper if she grew too fond of him, now, when he is thirteen, resents him. He doesn’t like her, either.

Back at Curlow Creek, Adair eats pigeon stew and drinks strong billy tea prepared by the troopers. It is a weakness of the novel that the differences between these young men disappear when we return to them. This is unfortunate, given the care Malouf took at the start of the book to instil individuality into their characters. But we remember Michael’s story, and we possess a strong feeling for him because of the time we have spent with him as a youth.

The dearth of plot in the book is generally a weakness that makes us survive on virtually nothing at all. A man is to be executed, and while the troopers jibe at each other, their superior arrives and talks to the prisoner. On top of that we get a lot of information about the superior’s past life. Half-way through the novel, and that’s it. Very little story development to speak of. Very few clues as to why we spend so much time in Ireland at a time twenty years before the scene that dominates the narrative.

Wikipedia tells us that this scene “takes place in 1827”, but there is very little in the book to indicate the date, or the length of time between the current moment and Adair’s childhood. Another weakness.

Atmosphere is everything, for Malouf, plot almost an irrelevance. But what atmosphere!

As I said, this book should be made into a movie. In one scene, as they sit around the campfire in the darkness, one of the troopers picks up the boiling billy filled with hot tea and swings it round with his arm, three times. To settle the leaves. The horses move around among the trees. They tell stories.

The tenor of those stories contrasts succinctly with Michael’s thoughts. A modern man, raised on utopian notions, he contemplates his existence like a twentieth-century man. He is full of doubt, restless beyond the ken of a nineteenth-century soldier.

But it doesn’t matter. What is important in this book is the poetry. Somehow, out of this strange melange of modernity and olde-world scenes, an image of the colony emerges that is enough to fulfil our expectations. History may not rightly be the province of the novelist, but Malouf has attained a kind of poetic validity in his execution. The raw materials may be contradictory, but no less imperfect is our knowledge of the times he deals with.

In the end this is one man’s vision of another world, and it stands up to scrutiny. Perhaps Malouf’s chosen medium — the novel — rests in an ungainly fashion on the bones of his craft. Perhaps he is, essentially, a poet.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Playing more gamesNorma Khouri, who wrote and published a book that turned out to be a pack of lies, is to be the subject of a film, reports The Australian.

Published in 2003, Forbidden Love eventually sold 500,000 copies and Khouri, when the story broke, was tracked down to a luxurious waterfront home in Queensland. Malcolm Knox, then literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, flew to Chicago to find out more about her. And he did. I don't recall all the details, but the story was pretty sordid.

Now, Sydney-based filmmaker Anna Broinowski, who has made a few controversial pictures in the past, will release Forbidden Lie$, which features Khouri.

Khouri emerges from the film as a shocking liar, a wonderful actor and something of a modern-day siren, able to lure men if not to their deaths, then certainly to their financial ruin with her seductive ways.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

The Ministry of Pain bookcover; SAQIReview: The Ministry of Pain, Dubravka Ugresic (2005)

Born in the same year as I was, Ugresic is my chronological compatriot. As my paternal grandfather emigrated to Australia in 1924, I can also understand, due to the legacy of the stories my father told to me and my brother about his youth, the sense of rootlessness described in this book.

The feeling of closeness that displaced people have when they encounter one another — and they unerringly hone in on each other in the street and in cafes — reminds me of stories that my father used to tell us around the Sunday lunch table, of his father’s chums visiting their house in Melbourne on weekends. “His cronies,” he called them.

Apparently my grandfather was something of a big-wig back home. His father had been the chief of police in Lourenco Marques (the capital of what was then Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique). Unlike Ugresic, he deliberately escaped long before the violence started. But, like her, he often felt ill-at-ease in his new surroundings.

Nevertheless, my grandfather always spoke English at home, and never taught his children how to speak Portuguese. He was a keen assimilationist in an age when there was no such thing as multiculturalism. He tended the gardens of the rich and sold hamburgers to the local cops. He fit in. He worked at it. Occasionally he would blow his top and make a spectacle of himself in the public street.

I also understand something of the dynamics of this book because I lived for nine years in Japan. There, I was definitely the ‘outsider’ (although I never did make a spectacle of myself in the street).

In Holland, where we find ourselves at the beginning of this ‘novel’ (it is mercilessly autobiographical), Tanjica Lucic parts company with her husband, Goran (who is offered a teaching position in Japan), and fortuitously lands a job teaching her native language in the Department of Slavonic Languages at the University of Amsterdam.

Her students, apparently, admire the work of outcast poet Charles Bukowski. (I never knew he was so famous in Europe, but he seems to be very well-known there.) She delineates their outward styles in an effort to accurately depict the harsh and sometimes comical realities of an existence as contingent as theirs. It reminds me of the reminiscences of Nabokov when, in possession of a ‘Nansen’ passport, he lived in Berlin and Paris prior to emigrating to the United States in 1940.

Tanjica asks her students to reminisce in words. The resulting productions catalogue a past life with fondness, with anger, with passion, with regret, with humour. This is very skilfully done, and Ugresic adopts a variety of styles to perform these pastiches. The exercise produces a sampling of treasures, mostly domestic, now consigned to the dustbin of history. They can never return. Tanjica wonders if she is doing the right thing by urging her charges to write in this way.

Ultimately, she follows through with the exercise because it flies in the face of what those societies were, at the time, trying to achieve: a sort of amnesia. So she feels that what the class is getting up to is provocative and anti-establishment. They thumb their noses at the current orthodoxy of the countries they came from: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia.

Returning ‘home’ for a visit, Tanjica stays for a week with her mother in her small apartment. She also visits Goran’s parents, who she calls Mama and Papa. Papa needs a catheter to be permanently inserted in his penis and has taken to verbalising his frustrations (a senior public servant, he spent three years in a prison camp during Tito’s reign before being relegated to teach at a small school), even when noone is in the room.

Dysfunction permeates the scene. Her mother has become diabetic and, worse, resents her daughter’s life in Holland. Only as Tanjica is entering the lift to go down to the cab that is waiting to take her to the airport for her flight back to Amsterdam does her mother finally say ‘I love you’ (in English).

On the aeroplane Tanjica sits next to an architect, also an expatriate (he lives in the United States), with whom she has a disturbing conversation.

The balance of her life deteriorates further when she returns to her life of exile. One of her students has committed suicide in her absence: his father has been brought before the tribunal that is trying war criminals in The Hague. Shame has sent him packing. Literally. He is found at the end of the weekend by his landlady surrounded by seven toy suitcases that are filled with odds and ends, and he is completely naked.

Another student goes with her to The Hague to observe the trial proceedings in person. They are unnerved by the spectacle and leave before the end of the day, stopping off to look at Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl With the Pearl Earring, in a museum. They argue.

Arguments abound. Before leaving for Croatia, Tanjica and her students celebrate her departure at a pub, but after all the songs (one of the boys has brought an accordion that he plays) and the reminiscences, one of them goes off the deep end after reciting a famous Communist-era poem about a German atrocity, smashing his glass with his fist and head-butting the table.

Tanjica muses on how war and the crimes it facilitates affect ordinary people, creates chaos instead of normality. There seems to be no respite from the pain. In this novel, which causes you to fret (there is so much suffering), the invisible threads that connect generations, along which forces tug people this way and that, are made visible. It’s more than just resenting exile (although the ‘Yugos’ make jokes at the expense of their hosts, the Dutch), it is a palpable feeling of injustice that follows individuals across time and across borders.

There is no escaping it. All you can do is cope as best you can. Tanjica copes by, on one occasion, picking up a stranger in a bar. Waking up the next morning, she finds money but no man. Laughing, she remembers that she lives very close to the red-light district.

She also visits her old friend from back home, who is married to Cees, the head of the university department where she works. But Ines’ incessant chatter disgusts her, and Cees has some bad news. It looks like she will be given a full-time job, however, later on in the year, because the government has made the decision to segregate Croat and Serb students at different universities.

Things don’t turn out exactly as planned, however. One of her students, Igor, visits her in her apartment. Another student offers her her rent-assisted apartment, as she has decided to return to Belgrade. Igor out of class is a different person, vindictive and ironic. He desires something that also reflects the damage that the war and displacement have done to him. Tanjica is left stranded, but she seems to get her revenge.

There is no such thing as mercy, no such thing as compassion; there is only forgetting; there is only humiliation and the pain of endless memory. That is the lesson we brought with us from the country we came from, and it is a lesson we have not forgotten. Screaming and shouting are like Pavlov’s bell to us; we are deaf to everything else. Catching the scent of terror is child’s play to us; nothing tickles our nostrils more.

Having survived a year teaching Slavic languages, changed apartments, been assaulted, been patronised, worked as a baby-sitter, Tanjica emerges on the other side with a partner we would never have imagined could live with her. When things get too much, she shoots out of the apartment and heads for the flat Dutch beaches.

There, she screams her curses into the unheeding winds.

I watch them curl into tiny tubes, loop the loop, and nosedive into the wall of water, where they dissolve instantly, like Alka Selzer.

Ugresic has written a hymn to exile. The chords reverberate after we have closed the final page against its brother. There are 254 of them and they flow like a wide river down our mental synapses, into the complex lobes of our brains, and lie there, waiting for a chance to come out. One day we might need them.
The Black Book bookcover; faber and faberReview; The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (2006)

Galip’s wife and cousin Ruya has left him, leaving a nineteen-word note written in green ink. The pen, which he is careful to always leave beside the telephone, is also missing.

He makes up stories to cover for her absence, unable to accept her disappearance as a fait accompli. He is convinced she has run away with someone from her past, possibly her ex-husband. He wanders the streets of Istanbul, Pamuk’s own fateful city, searching for clues.

Interspersed with these detective-like activities are columns written by Galip’s cousin Celal, a journalist. Galip is eager to talk with Celal, who he believes will be able to unravel the puzzle, and help him to find Ruya.

But Celal is also missing and, according to two colleagues Galip meets in his office, in danger of the sack.

The Black Book opens, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in chaos. And as with that other great prose stylist, Toni Morrison, you get the feeling that the writer is telling you less than he knows. The writer holds all the keys. He’s taking his sweet time to tell you the whole story.

Telling stories, or “giving voice to the great mystery” as Pamuk phrases it on page 103 (of a 466-page work), emerges as an ontological imperative that actually gives form to existence. The smallest detail — a damaged, peeling armchair in the dawn-light back streets of the city, a game of hide-and-seek in the dark he used to play with Ruya as a child — everything is equally commensurate with reality. Everything gels in the present moment to form the great ‘now’ of existence.

This is why news, the product of the journalist, and stories, the product of the fiction writer, play such an important part in the novel. As Galip travels through the city, he finds that it is constructing his own story for him. He is being written by the great city on the Bosphorus.

Everyone in the city seems to want to be someone else. This theme is highlighted in a chapter where Galip pays for the services of a prostitute pretending to be a famous Turkish movie actress. In this surreal tableau, Galip plays along, but he can’t really communicate with the actress. And how did Galip talk with his wife, we wonder. He also visits his wife’s ex-husband, an eccentric leftist who was once an activist. In the present moment, this man feels justified by his life of lower-middle-class ease and is happiest, is consciously happy, when he is most like what he seems. Galip, unnerved by his notions, is quick to escape this strange man’s company, emerging at last into the wintry night on the outskirts of the city. This encounter will produce reverberations later on in the story.

A lot happens at night. Scheherazade is invoked frequently in the book. In fact, in one scene, Galip joins a collection of journalists in a bar. They each tell a story, many about love. The succession of stories doesn’t have absolutely to do with the central issue in this book — why did Ruya leave Galip — but the column by Celal that follows seems to point to it. He writes about being yourself. How to be yourself, and not what others want you to be. This seems to be key to solving the riddle of Ruya’s disappearance.

Later, Galip meets a woman who went to school with him and Ruya. Belkis tells him that she had on occasion seen the couple at the Palace Theatre and that she thought that Ruya “could read the secret meanings in faces”. This brief comment chimes with one of the stories told in the bar earlier that day. This, also, will reverberate with later events.

Now we know that Galip is on a quest — to find his wife. Or to find himself. Half-way through the book it is not clear which is the case. Regardless, the strange twists of the plot bring us closer to understanding this city and its inhabitants.

Galip enters into a kind of mania in his attempt to read the secret meanings in faces. Inspired by the new sensations he feels, he continues to pursue his quest, eventually tracking down Celal’s apartment in a building near his own apartment block.

Celal’s columns continue to alternate in the book with the story of Galip’s quest. Now, inside the apartment, Galip reads through all Celal’s past columns and a large collection of other documents, still searching for clues to the location of Ruya. We are suspended in time or, rather, time passes very slowly. And each new day brings a new column by Celal, although no sign has been seen of him for over a week. But Galip will not give up.

His tenacity and the changes in his state of mind that are charted by the narrative establish a dream-like feeling in the tone of the book. This feeling possesses a veracity and calm — a cogent reality — that is in sharp contrast to the complexity of the narrative itself, which is chock-full of interesting events that startle and challenge the reader.

Without wanting to spoil the plot, I can say that there is a mystery that is revealed and it involves a mental state that resembles schizophrenia. Galip is again changed, asserts himself, comes to an understanding with himself and with Celal. But Celal’s world subsequently visits itself on Galip in surprising ways.

Hidden among all the mysteries that Pamuk enumerates is the one that emerges when we pick up a book and read. A defining moment arrives: we are captivated by the weft and weave of the narrative, we feel kinship with the author, we descend the passage to where our brother or sister in spirit is waiting at the door to the other world.

East or West, the door is made of the same material, has a lock and a handle, planks and hinges. Regardless of how forcefully we push it, it opens with identical alacrity. However, the question remains: could this book have been written by a resident of any other city?

At the end of the volume there is a translator's note that states that the original translation by Güneli Gün, brought out in 1994 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York, was "somewhat opaque". This, new translator Maureen Freely says, is due to the agglomerative nature of Turkish (like Japanese).

Saturday, 27 January 2007

John Coetzee's new novel, Diary of a Bad Year, will be published in the U.K. in September by Harvill (an imprint of Random House).

A book of his essays, Inner Workings, will be published on 1 March.

Thanks to Condalmo for the heads-up.
George Grosz, The Writer Max Herrmann-Neisse (1925) — click on the image to view larger version.

The Writer Max Herrmann-Neisse by George Grosz
Sebastian Smee selected this work to accompany his review of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York: Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s.

Herrmann-Neisse's writings were banned in Germany under the Third Reich and his books were burned in 1933.

Grosz arrived in America in 1933 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1938. According to Dialog International "MoMA identifies George Grosz as an American artist in its catalogue".

Reminds me of Nabokov, who arrived in America from Paris in 1940 with the Nazis right on his heels.
Coetzee reviews Mailer's new novel, The Castle in the Forest, in the 15 February issue of The New York Review of Books.

Hitler had neither the historical awareness nor the distance from himself to recognize to what a degree he was in the grip of Romantic great man theory; nor is it likely that, had he recognized it, he would have wanted to shake it off.

Typically for this magazine, Coetzee goes for the long format (5400 words). He goes in deep, from first principles, musing on the nature of evil and the impossibility, for biographers and historians, of reaching the depths of insight that are available to the writer of fiction. Mailer, he says, "has never regarded poetic truth as truth of an inferior variety."

... he has felt free to follow the spirit and the methods of fictional inquiry to gain access to the truth of our times, in an enterprise that may be riskier than the historian's but offers richer rewards.

Thanks to 3 Quarks Daily for the heads-up.

Friday, 26 January 2007

The Service of Clouds bookcover; PicadorReview: The Service of Clouds, Delia Falconer (1997)

The Blue Mountains (west of Sydney). A country apothecary. A ribbon factory. A photographer. Devoid of plot, this book rolls along with the monotony of a Buddhist chant. "It is such a joy to read a novelist who writes with all the precision and exuberance of a poet," writes The Sydney Morning Herald in the back-cover blurb.

But plot cannot reliably be entirely dispensed with. Falconer clearly sees herself as existing firmly in the tradition of Carey and Marquez. She tries hard. Yet we are flung, willy-nilly, from image to image, from sensation to sensation without any story to sustain us in our headlong flight. A relentless series of cogent images berates our lack of sophistication, making us shrink back like some sea creature that sticks to rocks and spurts gouts of brine at the slightest touch.

I felt abandoned by the writer, cast adrift on an ocean of metaphors without a paddle. I read about thirty pages and then gave up, content to consign this 10-year-old effort to the eclectic vagaries of BookMooch.
Photo of Yasin Hayal"Orhan Pamuk, be smart, be smart!"

Shouting these words as he was led into an Istanbul courtroom, Yasin Hayal, the man alleged to have been behind the shooting of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, threw down the gauntlet to Turkish liberals. And to those who wish Turkey to become part of the European Union.

Hayal is "a nationalist militant" according to the story on page 12 of today's The Australian, who was "jailed for bombing a McDonald's restaurant in 2004".

Turkish police have said that Hayal had confessed to recommending the murder of Dink, who was shot last week outside the offices of Agos, the Turkish Armenian newspaper he edited.

I mentioned the story two days ago.

The pressure on the government to readjust its stance on the Armenian genocide is increasing daily. Pressure from figures like Dink and Pamuk will eventually cause a realignment of the official views of Turkey with those held by the rest of Europe. (The rest of Europe?) Thus I prophesy. It won't happen overnight, but there is overwhelming evidence pointing in this direction.
Naomi bookcover; PavanneReview: Naomi, Junichiro Tanizaki (1986)

After finishing this wonderful book, I unwrapped The Sydney Morning Herald and began reading. It wasn't long before I found an echo. On page 2 of the newspaper, I came across a story about The Big Day Out, which is an annual rock concert here that took place this year the day before Australia Day (which is today, in case you're wondering).

The concert has been in the news a lot over the past few days because organisers had initially banned Australian flags, in order to lessen the danger of anti-social events. (You might recall that Australian flags were prominent in last year's Cronulla riots, when thousands of Anglo Australians rampaged through the suburb in retaliation to violence perpetrated by men of Lebanese extraction.)

What caught my attention was this:

Seventeen-year-old Dana Burgess, from Richmond, with a newly purchased flag over her shoulders, said she had not worn a flag before but "as soon as they said they would be banned I started thinking about ways to smuggle them in".

Tanizaki caused shivers on my arms when I read his novel. It is a strange story, a tale of metamorphosis, rebellion, change and fear. It is a love story. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a Pygmalion story.

It is all these things and more. In the 'more' category is the sensation that you are reading about a whole generation of Japanese moving into the modern world. The changes that arrive via Naomi's willful personality rock the foundations of society, it seems.

Joji initially meets Naomi in the Diamond Cafe, where she is working as a serving girl. She is fifteen. He takes an avuncular interest in her. Joji is a traditional man from a rural family who works as an engineer in Tokyo, earning (this is comical) 150 yen a month. He is independent and wishes to take Naomi in. He wishes to mould her to fit an ideal form.

He pays for English lessons and music lessons. They rent an atelier (a split-level house in Omori, a suburb of central Tokyo). They take up dancing lessons together. This is where things start to come unstuck. As Naomi begins to savour her independence, she changes, mutates, morphs and metamorphoses. Joji stumbles in his attempts to keep up: she is not becoming the woman he envisaged.

She makes friends with various men. She and Joji row, he kicks her out, he pines for her, she inches back into his life (being careful to establish her own conditions for cohabitation). Although they are legally married, Joji accepts this weird form of 'friendship' because, simply, he cannot live without her.

Naomi knows this and plays it for all it's worth, coming onto him and repulsing him by turns. From an awkward teenager, she has become a commanding young woman. The five years that account for the bulk of the narrative seem like an eternity. On page 165, the following exchange takes place which sums up, for me, much about the allure of the book:

'You don't mind, do you, if I go upstairs for my things?' the apparition said. Judging from the voice, it was Naomi after all, not a ghost.
  'All right... I don't mind, but...' Clearly I was flustered. I added shrilly, 'How did you open the door?'
  'How? With a key.'
  'But you left your key here.'
  'Oh, I have lots of keys, not just one.' A smile came suddenly to her red lips, and she gave me a look that was both coquettish and derisive. 'I didn't tell you before, but I made lots of keys, so it doesn't bother me if you take one of them.'

So, it's this kind of novel. Small details expand in your mind, adopting larger significance. The pace is just right: intimate and painstaking in one place, brisk and leaping in another.

I will be reading more books by this very talented author, to be sure.

Note that the translation date shown at the beginning of this review relates to a later edition of the book than the original one. This translation, by Anthony Chambers, relates to the Chuo Koran-Sha, Inc. edition of Chijin No Ai, published in 1985. I do not know when the original translation appeared. Considering the fact that there is no proper Tanizaki biography available in English, it is possible that this translation was the first. The book was originally published in 1924 (sometimes it's 1923). Chijin No Ai translates concisely as 'A Fool's Love'.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

BookMooch is the first point of call I approach when I find a title or author I'm interested in. With my Internet Explorer 7 browser open, I click back and forth between the article I'm reading and BookMooch looking for the title I want.

But having mooched several books from people who never respond to my request, I've become more careful about who I mooch from. So after finding the title, I immediately check the person's profile page to see a) if they are willing to send overseas (most books I want are with U.S. residents) and b) if they have logged in recently.

If the answer to (a) is 'No', obviously I can't mooch the title. Frequently, I'll find people who want you to e-mail them before mooching a book. Well, in that case I send off an e-mail and hope for the best.

If the answer to (b) is 'No', I don't mooch the book. Simple as that. There's nothing more annoying than sitting, staring at your pending page wondering why the heck this person isn't checking their damn e-mail.

So I've become a picky, a choosy moocher. A finicky denizen of this little purveyor of fun on the Internet. After all, if mooching isn't fun, why do it?

When I send a book, I generally write up a card, with a nice picture on it, and insert it in behind the cover before posting it. I've had some very nice little acknowledgements of this largesse. (A card only costs a couple of dollars.) Mooching should be fun!

And it is. In fact, I've received four books named in one of my favourite titles of 2006, Robert Boynton's The New New Journalism. And I've got another four books mentioned in that interesting tome on the way.
Junichiro Tanizaki photographJunichiro Tanizaki, whose 1924 novel Naomi I'm currently reading (up to page 117 out of 186), is ill-served by biographers. At least in English.

Eager to find out more about this author, whose The Makioka Sisters (1948) I once started then put down, I searched on Abebooks.com and Amazon.com — to no avail. Gleebooks, my local independent, did a search for me but came up equally bereft of leads. So I telephoned Sydney Uni and spoke to Yasuko at the Department of Japanese and Korean Studies.

There's nothing in English, apparently. I did find some multi-author biographies and one critical monograph. But what I want is a thick, heavy, single-author biography that really gets into the nitty-gritty. Surely there must be something in Japanese that some enterprising translator could bring out in English?

I'll just have to buy a Japanese edition and translate it myself!

As a motto, I may be advised to adopt the word-for-word translation of the book title Chijin no ai (in print translated as Naomi): 'A Fool's Love'.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski died yesterday. He was a very talented Polish journalist who wrote some amazing accounts of events in some pretty far-out places. He was more than just a journalist, however. His writerly techniques have made him famous throughout the world.

As part of both subjects that I studied last semester, we read pieces by Kapuscinski. In Literary Journalism, we read his 'Herodotus and the Art of Noticing'. For Advanced Writing for the Media we read a passage from The Soccer Wars.

In the former piece, he called what he did 'literary reportage'. He thinks that travel writing was the first exponent of reportage: "Not in the sense of a tourist trip or a relaxing outing: rather, travel as a hard, painstaking expedition of discovery requiring substantial preparation, careful planning and research to supplement the traveller's own observations and experiences on the spot."

Herodotus, however, besides being the first reporter, was also the first "globalist". Fully aware of how many cultures there were on Earth, he was eager to become acquainted with all of them. Why? He believed that the best way to learn about your own culture is by familiarizing yourself with others.

There are wise words, and demonstrate Kapuscinski's deep humanism. He went beyond books, however, into global hot-spots. There, he discovered new aspects of himself as well.

Thanks to The Literary Saloon for the heads-up.
SBS logoSBS World News Australia's new format is a hit, with me at least. An hour long instead of half-an-hour, the new format allows the broadcaster to screen deeper, feature-length segments. And by inviting experts into the studio, they are able to hold live interviews, providing more in-depth coverage of topical stories.

The aesthetics are better, too. Especially, the design of the share and exchange rate information makes it easier to read the figures. The old design was very bad indeed, I thought. The set where newscasters Mary Kostakidis (a Sydney Uni arts graduate) and Stan Grant sit features an attractive, diagonal pattern that mimics the station's logo.

Naturally, the Special Broadcasting Service covered the funeral, held today, of Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink. He was gunned down outside his Istanbul office by a 17-year-old unemployed youth from Trebzon. The poor kid's father dobbed him in after having seen footage of his son fleeing the scene of the crime.

Out of sympathy, "[m]ore than 500 members of Sydney's Armenian community have rallied outside [Sydney's] Turkish consulate in protest" reports The Sydney Morning Herald. In Istanbul, "[m]ore than 100,000 people marched in a funeral procession", the newspaper reports.

SBS' coverage featured a U.S. ambassador saying that Dink was a force for reconciliation in Turkey. All the more reason to regret his untimely demise.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Bali: Paradise Lost? bookcover; Pluto PressReview: Bali: Paradise Lost?, Emma Tom (2006)

What can I say?

I only read about twenty pages of this narrative, written (disconcertingly) in the second person. Your attention skitters across the surface of the story, which is structured like thought.

You try to keep up, but your brain dissolves in a primeval ooze of discomfort.

Reading this much of a book and putting it aside is not only disappointing. You feel as though you have polluted a pure concept. Books hold such promise. Unfortunately, life's too short to waste time on things that fail to satisfy, so I have put this one down in favour of Junichiro Tanizaki's 1924 novel Naomi.

Got to keep up the spirits.
Rituals bookcover; The Harvill PressReview: Rituals, Cees Nooteboom (1983)

This book resembles a piece of classical music. It has a symmetry that is pleasing to our senses and variations that are pleasing to our minds. In three movements of varying tempos and timbres we are introduced to a world where people commit acts of faith. But it is a secular faith, one that is devoid of mystical or supernatural elements. The rituals may be as simple as being polite (when young) to your elders, or as complex as suicide.

The opening scherzo is, naturally, brisk and comical. Here, Inni (short for Inigo, after the famous, seventeenth-century English architect) steps into the spotlight. He’s a bit of a dreamer, not overly intelligent, but deeply curious about life. It is 1963. Inni’s foil in this movement is Zita, a young, red-haired chick who has an abortion that she never gets over, completely.

In the middle passage, allegro, we are transported back to 1953. Inni, in his twenties, is introduced by an aunt to Arnold Taads, a misanthrope with a dog who sticks to a rigid timetable. He takes Inni under his wing, organises for Aunt Therese to endow a portion of capital on him. She inducts him into her household and her Catholic religion. There, he meets the joyously sexualised Petra, who fellates him and then sticks out her tongue to show him his semen on its pink surface. Another ritualised act is consummated.

Finally, in the andante we shoot forward to Inni’s early middle age. It is 1973. At 40, Inni is much wiser, more worldly. And he is as keen as ever on the chicks. Still economically independent, he roams the streets of Amsterdam scuffing up experiences. By chance, one day, outside an oriental antiques shop, he bumps into the son of Arnold Taads, Philip Taads — whose mother was, I assume, Indonesian. Philip, following in his father’s footsteps, is a misanthrope.

But there’s a difference. Where Arnold delved into modern philosophy for his spiritual sustenance, Philip dabbles with Eastern mysticism. And being of the generation of highly individualistic souls, he eschews friends for Japanese ceramics. Inni can barely stand him, but is compelled on several occasions to visit his small, walk-up apartment.

At 153 pages, this little book is perfect for an afternoon on the couch, and can be read in one swallow. Highly recommended.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School (a university in New York city) and granddaughter of defunct Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, will publish, this year, a book about Vladimir Nabokov, Imagining Nabokov.

Hmm.

I discovered this little snippet of information while reading page 14 of today's The Australian. Unfortunately, the piece, about the deaths of dictators (spurred by the imminent demise of Fidel Castro), does not appear on the newspaper's Web site. It is available on the Project Syndicate Web site as well as on the Web sites of two other English-language papers: The Korea Herald and Pakistan's Daily Times.

As to the professor's interest in literature... She opens the piece with a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez which, in itself, is ironic considering the friendship that exists between the two celebrities. The author and the politician have been friends for decades.
The New New Thing bookcover; PenguinReview: The New New Thing, Michael Lewis (2000)

Jim Clark is more than a bit of a cowboy. Anarchic (creative, undisciplined) and highly profitable, his enterprises have changed the way the world views technology and, more importantly for such types of people, the way technology is valued.

The deal he cut with venture capitalists for Netscape was seminal. It gave the creator of the idea more return than in any previous IPO. He had learned his lesson well during the launch and operation of Silicon Graphics, his first venture, which pointed out the best way forward.

Microsoft lurks in the background, a highly-disciplined manager of technology although not as creative as many of the smaller outfits based in Silicon Valley, which is located just south of San Francisco. As well as being real, the threat that Microsoft poses to start-ups is palpable in this entertaining account of the fortunes of Jim Clark.

Raised in Plainview, a small town in Texas, Clark left school before matriculating and joined the Navy. There, his mathematical talents were recognised and he went on to earn a PhD. The Geometry Engine, a solid-state chip that he developed during his studies, would be used in the first Silicon Graphics computers.

Lewis charts Clark’s progress in thorough detail, employing a full set of literary techniques. Invited into Clark’s world, he observes Clark’s interactions with key individuals, and sits in on key meetings. He also describes Clark’s extra-professional activities, especially his infatuation with yachts. In fact, it was Clark’s desire to purchase a large yacht that he could subsequently automate, that propelled one of his most successful IPOs. Hungry for cash, in 1995 Clark took Netscape public (read a brief summary of the business).

To get the access he required to write the book, Lewis made himself useful. Having written previously about Wall Street, he was able to be a reliable sounding-board during discussions of Clark’s dealings with investment bankers during the lead-up to the Healtheon IPO. Lewis, who had studied art history at university, also discussed Clark’s intended purchase of $200-million-worth of paintings.

Once he had gained Clark’s confidence (“I make sure my presence isn’t obnoxious to [the subject]”), he took out his notebook.

It starts with a casual conversation—without my taking notes and asking interview-like questions. I don’t even take a notebook. But at some point the notebook comes out, and then it stays out.

He says he never tells the subject how much time he’ll require to research and write the book.

This is a fun book. A lot of fun. If you’re interested in how people become rich and enjoy themselves at the same time, how they motivate themselves to stay interested in their chosen field, you’ll get a lot out of this book. Everyone’s interested in technology, and everyone’s interested in money and success. Combining the two topics in one book makes it hard to resist.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

What It Takes bookcover; Random HouseReview: What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer (1992)

"Understanding the person behind the persona can bring one closer to understanding how they arrived at their political views," [Cramer] said [to Lawrence World-Journal staff writer Sophia Maines].

“When you see how these beliefs came to be, then you can at least understand their politics,” he said.

This is the raison-d’etre of literary journalism. The touchstone of its success is its ability to make us empathise with the subject, and What It Takes, a 1047-page behemoth that required six years to research and write, fulfils the brief.

Cramer is a veteran journalist who “won a Pulitzer prize for international reporting in 1979 for his work for The Philadelphia Inquirer”, according to Maines.

His experience shows. And his professionalism. “Do you consider yourself a ‘literary journalist’?” “No, I’m a smith. I occupy the position in our society that a good wheelwright would have occupied in his. Making wheels is a highly specialized skill. I don’t consider myself to be an artist, I consider myself to be a skilled workman.” This answer to Robert Boynton’s question, published in The New New Journalism, is not uncommon among practitioners of literary journalism. They like to downplay the ‘literary’ in favour of the ‘journalist’ (or, even, ‘reporter’). They like to be humble, take a back seat, let their subjects shine through.

Which is why he wrote the book in the first place. “I wanted to answer a fundamental question I had about American politics. I would watch the candidates on TV and they looked like nobody I knew—and not in a good way. They looked stiff and removed. Rehearsed, although not well-rehearsed. They looked like they were bound up in a million thoughts and doubts.” He wanted to know what happened to the candidates to make them appear like that. On the way to the White House.

Instead of just interviewing the candidates, Cramer hung around (another typical literary-journalistic tactic) assimilating by osmosis the atmosphere of the campaign, the real feeling of the people and events that shaped the trajectory of each candidate.

He didn’t ask any questions.

I’d sit there for the first day, and the second day, and the third day, and on and on. And sooner or later, the candidate is going to get so comfortable with my being there that he will lean over to me after one of the interviews and say, “Damn, I fucked up that agriculture question again.”

And at that moment I’ve moved from my side of the desk to his side of the desk. That’s the judo move I try to pull off: using his power to throw him where I want him to go. I’m always trying to be on his side of the desk. If I come in with my notebook and my list of questions, then I’m just another schmuck with a notebook and questions to be brushed off with the “message of the day,” or whatever form of manipulation is in vogue.

This is a timely reminder of some unpleasant aspects of the relationship between journalists and politicians. John Lloyd, a British journalist, published a book in 2004, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics which “contends that politicians and the media have become locked in a destructive struggle for supremacy”. (Frank Kane reviewed the book for The Guardian.)

The 2700-word feature was published recently in the The Sydney Morning Herald.

… Lloyd believes, in competing against the vast entertainment industry for the public's flickering attention, the media have largely grown indifferent to reporting the complexities and difficulties of policy-making in favour of an eye-catching but adversarial and often contemptuous attitude towards politics. The loser, he says, is democracy.

Lloyd is not the only one to think so. I reported the publication of a similar book, The Worldly Art of Politics, which was edited by two Sydney University academics, in early December.

Getting to the other side of the desk seems like an apposite metaphor for what journalists should be doing in order to prevent a blow-out of the media in the future. If people stop reading newspapers and watching TV, and look to other media for their information, that will be a strong message to practitioners that they are doing it wrong.

Cramer begins his account from ‘the other side of the desk’ by delineating the contours of the early life of each candidate, starting with the two Republicans: George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, both war veterans and talented sportsmen but with broadly different characters and backgrounds.

Bush comes across as a nice guy, although still a player, who values loyalty above all else. A man who always wants to, and is able to, make friends. By the time he is VP, he is sending out 30,000 Xmas cards each year. He wears his background lightly, and never brags about his privileged past or his attainments.

Dole is a driven individual with a broad network of information sources who stays ahead of the game by tapping into all of them at all times. From a lower-middle-class background, he’s always got work to do. Summary: ‘grit’.

Book two is dedicated to introducing to us the Democrat candidates, starting with Gary Hart and continuing with Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden and Dick Gephardt.

Hart, from a Wesleyan-Christian Kansas family, comes across as a humane and intellectual person, a man of ideas. A man who needs time to think, who eschews sound-bite politics in favour of policy.

Dukakis, from a Greek, middle-class, Massachusetts family, is a driven student endowed with a tremendous self-belief. His decision to run for state government reflects his fundamental commitment to effecting valuable change in society.

Biden is a go-getter, a man of infallible assertions, a planner of great imagination who emerges from a tough Catholic background in Delaware.

Gephardt is a brilliant student emerging from a Kansas Nazarene sect, a thoroughly decent fellow who impresses with his intellect.

This is an astonishing book, a must-read for anyone interested in politics. The process of politicking gets a tough rap:

He had to decide, to know, where he wanted to lead the country. There would be no time to do the work, no time to think, in the campaign. Hart knew what the campaign could do to a man. The constant, restless, know-nothing drive that the system now demanded.

The media do no come out well. The scrutiny is relentless, the cynicism deadening.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Gather.com and Borders Books and Music, according to Yahoo! News, have launched a joint venture.

"The power of social networking and social media is changing the way companies interact with their customers," Gather.com CEO Tom Gerace said Tuesday in a statement. "Borders is a brand that appeals to highly educated and highly informed adults who are the core of the Gather.com community."

The online community is located here. According to another story, this time on Yahoo! Finance:

"Conversations about books, music and movies happen every day at work, at home, at dinner parties, and just about everywhere," said Borders Group Chief Executive Officer George Jones. "That's what makes our business so dynamic. Now that we have teamed up with Gather.com, Borders customers will find the best content available online and can use the power of the Gather.com platform to engage in a new level of social interaction on their shared passion for information and entertainment and their experiences with Borders. This is very much aligned with our mission to be a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment throughout the world."

The story was announced on 9 January.
Touchstone Fireside, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, and www.gather.com are running a writing competition based on the popular Australian Idol show, according to a 16 January story in The New Zealand Herald. In the First Chapters Writing Competition, aspiring writers post their work on the Web site, where it is voted on by visitors. The Web site's own notice (posted 10 January) of the event is here.

The winner will be chosen by representatives from Simon & Schuster, Borders bookstores and gather.com, Touchstone Fireside Vice-President Mark Gompertz said.

The winner will receive US$5000 ($7200), a book contract with Touchstone Fireside and distribution by Borders.

Evidently, the organisers believe this will lead to a more marketable product. Presumably, this type of advance screening of material is deemed superior to the work of professional editors and readers.

"This is an experiment on a sort of needle-in-the-haystack approach," [Gompertz] added, noting that the voting public could outdo publishers who have picked "a lot of great stuff and a lot of dross".

On Gather.com the event was announced by member since August 2005 Tom Gerace. It seems as though in order to vote, you must join a group called firstchapters.gather.com. The administrator of the competition first joined on 9 January. So far, there are 62 pages of members of this group. Each page has 20 names on it. That's 1240 members in just over a week! So far, around 200 first chapters have been submitted.

Seems to me it is a mammoth task for any individual, to read all the submissions and vote on them. You wouldn't have much of a social life!

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Lou Reed was interviewed by Tracee Hutchison on tonight's 7.30 Report. I was smiling constantly as I watched this wonderful artist talk about his 1973 show, Berlin, which is being newly staged as part of the Sydney Festival, following its recent debut in New York.

He said being in Sydney reminded him of home — which is, of course, New York — and that the Sydney Festival was on his trip calendar because they had helped to get the show staged in New York last year.

"I love, love them," he said.

When confronted with the adjective 'dark', Reed bridled. "What about Otello?" he asked. "Don't men get jealous?" "Yes, even women," replied Hutchison. "I love you, Tracee," he responded.

This is only an approximate version of the exchange, which will no doubt soon appear on the program's Web site. When you read Reed's conversation, I hope you smile as well. I love to watch him on TV... Satellite of love... bom bom bom... satellite of love... bom bom bom... satellite of love... sa - te - lite - of...

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Fred Nile MLC (member of the Legislative Council — the New South Wales upper house) has damned an exhibition of photographs without having seen them, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. No doubt one of his staffers visited Gosford — about 90 minutes north of Sydney — and gave him more information than he could have gleaned from the reporter, Joanne McCarthy.

In her report, she describes the furore over the exhibition, at a regional gallery.

The photographer, Polixeni Papapetrou, relied on her own, seven-year-old daughter to model for the camera. The report is accompanied by a photo of the curator with fuzzy images of some of the offending photographs in the background. Hence, we can't judge them either. There have been complaints about Bill Henson also.

A Woy Woy mother of an eight-year-old girl said the images "make me uncomfortable". Despite this, she did not agree with removing the photos. "If this photo was in a cafe or a shopping centre that would be wrong but this is an art gallery and it does make you think," she said.

On the same day, in The Australian, there is a story about the rape and murder, by a Palm Island man, of a 14-month-old girl who "had been left with her alleged attacker for only a short while, her mother trusting her new partner while she took a stroll on a still Monday night in Cairns".

Palm Island is a contentious Aboriginal settlement. It has been in the news for years since the death of a man while in police custody.

In a paper that I just found online, Dr Ann Elias, a Sydney University academic, says:

Every attempt to censor the rights of artists to freedom of expression in Australia in the last twenty years, including complaints about the exploitation of adolescents in Bill Henson’s work, the cancellation of Sensation by the Australian National Gallery, the removal of Juan Davilla’s painting Stupid as a Painter from the 1982 Biennale of Sydney by the police after moral outrage at its sexual references, is evidence that contemporary art can be confronting on grounds of sex, religion, gender and race. But it is the negative social and artistic impact of public pressure to make contemporary art conform to conventional public levels of acceptability that motivated film-maker Dennis O’Rourke to state recently that ‘any artist, if they’re not controversial, they’re not doing their job’, and accounts for art critic, Peter Hill, commenting that ‘one of the greatest problems artists face is how to remain subversive while all around them critics, curators and dealers are trying to make them orthodox’.

Having recently visited the Museum of Contemporary Art to view Davila's latest exhibition, and having seen many Henson photographs in major galleries over the years, it would have seemed that this type of censorship was a thing of the past. Apparently not. But without the means to judge, it is difficult to make a call either way.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Boris Pasternak's 1958 Nobel Prize was apparently won with the help of the CIA. It seems that agents boarded an aeroplane that stopped in Malta, located a copy of Doctor Zhivago that was being carried by a passenger, made photographs of the manuscript, and replaced the manuscript. All in two hours, reports Mark Francetti in today's The Australian.

The CIA then published the Russian edition in Europe and the US simultaneously.

Ivan Tolstoy, "a respected Moscow researcher", says the CIA deliberately avoided using paper that could be identified as Western, and chose fonts that were commonly used in Russia. His book about the operation, The Laundered Novel, is now available.

Unfortunately, the Soviet authorities prevented Pasternak from enjoying the fruits of his labour, forcing him to refuse the award.

They also arrested Olga Ivinskaya, who was the inspiration for the character Lara, and charged her with receiving royalties from the novel's publication. She was sentenced to eight years' hard labour in Siberia, and her daughter was sentenced to three.

"My father played no role in the publication of a Russian edition, nor had he any idea of the CIA's interest," said Yevgeny Pasternak, who accepted the Nobel prize on his father's behalf in 1989. "My father never expected to receive the prize.

"Sadly, it brought him a lot of sorrow and suffering."

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Music for Chameleons bookcover; PenguinReview: Music for Chameleons: New Writing, Truman Capote (1980)

In the perfectly-formed stories that open this collection, Capote reveals his artistry in its full splendour: a curved niche filled to overflowing with exotic pleasures. The prologue, however, is a curious concoction that scans over his life’s work with a calm brush. Nary a skeleton emerges from this closet. His “personal problems”? Not a whiff of alcohol or cocaine raises its ugly head in this little whitewash.

Lucky he’s such a good writer. Of course, we wouldn’t be interested in him if it weren’t for the exalted company that he chose to keep! The rich girlfriends. The stylish millionaires. All of the so-called friends who deserted him en masse when he released a few chapters of, what was to be his finest creation, Answered Prayers.

Ingrates.

Lucky he’s such a good writer, or we wouldn’t be able to stand him.

Luck, according to Capote, never entered into it. From the age of eight, he was writing stories. It shows. Short vignettes that gesture to farther shores, such as ‘Mr. Jones’, are bolstered by the effervescent retro-weirdness of ‘A Lamp in the Window’ and the title piece, which consists of a meandering conversation with a romantic septuagenarian in Martinique.

He is on top of his game, even at this late stage. “Locking himself in his First Avenue apartment for days and spending very little time partying or carousing,” says the Wikipedia, “this burst of creativity gave brief hope to those who felt that Capote's addictions were beyond help.” And, of course, they were. But you wouldn’t know it from reading this book.

‘Mojave’ meanders like the Euphrates through dreamless plains and dazzling skies that lower like yellow corn. A deathless story without a plot, a curtain without a stage, a block of ice without a glass to hold it.

The centrepiece in the collection, 'Handcarved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime', is a strange and disturbing set of conversations held with an FBI investigator, Jake Pepper, who is working on a series of murders. He falls in love with a potential victim, with disastrous consequences. The initial meeting with Pepper in "[a] town in a small Western state" is broken by the author's return to New York. Their contacts will be sporadic, and extend over a period of years, as Capote follows the case with his usual insatiable interest. The way it plays out, the abrupt denouement, make this particular crime not just "American" but haunting.

The third section of the collection is made up of a series of non-fictional encounters with people around New York. For me, the most memorable is his day spent following a cleaning lady around her jobs, shrouded in a fog of marijuana smoke. 'A Day's Work' is a satisfying read, as everything Capote produced was. 'Hello Stranger' is especially poignant, and shows Capote at his empathetic best, assuaging the fears of an old friend in a New York restaurant. 'Then It All Came Down' sees Capote once more holed up with a murderer in a San Fransisco prision. 'Derring-do' shows a comical side we seldom see, and recounts a true episode from the writer's life when he was charged with contempt of court for not obeying a summons. Finally, 'Nocturnal Turnings, or How Siamese Twins Have Sex' is a conversation that Capote has with himself. It is whimsical and wise.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Henry Lawson's alternative personae are the subject of The Essay section in today's Spectrum supplement to The Sydney Morning Herald. Pip Wilson, who has self-published a novel about the first decade of last century, focusing on the participation of a coterie of notables in unremembered activities, is its author.

Henry Lawson, of course, is a seminal figure in Australia's cultural history. He is best known for his poetry and short stories about outback squatters and other characters but, says Wilson, that's only half the story. He was a denizen of Sydney for most of his life, and many of the things he got up to were less respectable than we are conventionally led to believe.

Like Revolutionist Lawson and Romeo Lawson, Beggar Lawson and Suicide Lawson have been expunged from the myth and I guess that's why they didn't teach me about him at school. Perhaps we are all more comfortable with it that way.

Our comfort is less important, suggests Wilson, than our awareness. In fact, rehabilitating (in reverse, if you like) the image of Lawson into a type of Romantic, suffering artist would possibly go some way toward making him more palatable to youth, who tend to be fascinated by everything that goes against the grain of social conservatism. The appropriation of Lawson by officials and the canon can only result in fewer people wanting to read him.

If we were told that he was not only a bit of a cad when it came to women, but that he mixed with terrorists, we might find more to celebrate than we currently do. For although he is considered a 'great' of Australian literature, few people actually read him any more.

What caught my interest was his love affair with Dame Mary Gilmore (that strong-faced woman on today's $10 notes) and their link with the anarchist and terrorist bomber Larry Petrie, so I spent the next 18 months pestering librarians and writing a book. What I found staggered me; Lawson has been washed in billy tea and eucalyptus antiseptic, as has the era of his ascendency.

Friday, 12 January 2007

The Master and Margarita bookcover; Everyman's LibraryReview: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)

It seems that Moscow will never be the same after the arrival of the strange professor. Accompanied by his odd companions, he wreaks havoc among the literary and dramatic denizens of the Russian capital with his forceful personality and bullying ways. He turns out to be a magician of tremendous power.

The arbitrary use of power and the suffering of ordinary people are recurrent themes in this extraordinary novel. This may sound quite ordinary as a motif but the effect of Bulgakov’s prose is terrifying. The power relations are also somehow intrinsically connected to the story of Jesus Christ and his committal to die by Pontius Pilate. There is an eerie echo down the ages, of that act and the abuse of power it represents, that is manifest in the professor and his cronies: a strange, thin man and a large, black cat that walks on its hind legs.

Both these familiars are active in exercising the professor’s power, and they appear as if out of thin air, summoned by fate.

At one point a character calls the professor the devil, but he more accurately represents fate, the power of destiny. This power, which exacts its revenge on the unsuspecting, seems to be characterised in this novel. Odd scenes, which are somehow just a little bit wrong, occur again and again. Why they are wrong is not initially evident, but the feeling persists.

Why does the master commit himself to an insane asylum, for example. Why does he deteriorate following the unsuccess of his novel about Pontius Pilate? What is the connection between this novel and the story the professor tells at the beginning of the book?

As the questions accumulate, we work hard to make sense of the fiction, to orient ourselves within the expanding series of strange situations in which feelings of powerlessness emerge on the streets and in the houses of Moscow. And there is a vacuum at the centre of the book that sucks in any meaning, a black hole of pure power, pure fate, that fills us with fear.

Along with the fear, however, we derive a sense of confidence from reading this book. Confidence that we can overcome any obstacle in the real world outside of the fiction. It has something to do with the complete disarray of the plot and an accompanying sensation that there is a guiding hand behind it. A strong secularist spirit saturates the narrative, giving us confidence to face our own fears; like waking up from a nightmare and, realising that although it is not the weekend, we can actually get up out of bed and get on with the day.

This book is a stunning accomplishment achieved in the face of official neglect. Imagine reading a cross between Milton’s Paradise Lost with Wings of Desire with a little Marquez added for zest. The magic never stops. Literally. And figuratively.

Bulgakov’s grasp of his material is mesmerising, his reach astronomical, his compassion unmatched by any author, living or dead. This is a book for the centuries.

As to why Alexander Morozov went berserk in the Bulgakov museum, well, I can only say that this book is designed to affect the nerves. Depending on how literally you read your ecclesiastical history, it could be pretty insulting. For rational beings, however, it is a symphony of compassionate reason. A milestone on the path to enlightenment.

Rest assured that I will be reading more works by this supremely talented writer.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Scene from Der Prozess (1975)
Donald Richie, renowned Nipponophile and book reviewer, has this week reviewed, for a change, a four-volume box set of DVDs in The Japan Times. Odd, since the link to the review sits under the rubric 'Books'. But, since Richie remains the doyen of book reviewers, it must go there, and not under 'Performing Arts' or 'Art'. (Very Japanese — the heirarchy is more important than the content.)

It is both performing art and, clearly, art. I'd not heard before of Shuji Terayama, who died in 1983. So this is an introduction for me to his art (or film).

For those who might wish to sample them, the Ubuweb site contains a large selection of his films.

Terayama's art is compelling and disturbing, but wholly satisfying. The interconnected tableaux lack dialogue, making them readily comprehensible to people from any culture.

Their low production cost is immediately obvious. But they are not less charming for that. In fact no high-end special effects intrude on our contemplation of these interesting and beautiful films.

Each film possesses a unique flavour, attesting to the depth of Terayama's vision. He creates drama with simple images and a basic soundtrack.

I would say that Terayama's art is very Japanese, representing a return to first principles, where we discover the exact weight and meaning of each image.
Pauline W. Chen, "a surgeon specializing in liver transplants" and "[t]he daughter of immigrants from Taiwan", has written a book about her experiences in the operating theatre, which is reviewed by William Grimes in The New York Times. Knopf Publishing Group has released Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality in the U.S. and it's available online, but my local independent doesn't yet carry it.

Medical essays can be very rewarding. The first one that I read, during one of my courses last year, was by Atul Gawande, titled 'Education of a Knife', which appeared in his 2002 collection Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. It brought home to me that surgery is an inexact science where the practitioner may not be as experienced as we might wish. It's a salutory lesson, and the quality of Gawande's writing ensures that it is taken lightly.

Chen's focus, in her new book, appears to be the fact of mortality itself.

She ... laments the lack of training in talking to patients, especially about death. Doctors, like everyone else, avoid the topic. Institutionally, discussions of death are limited to formal inquiries known as morbidity and mortality conferences, in which surgeons analyze recent deaths on the operating table in the hope of learning from them.

Outside the conferences, death is the unwelcome, awkward visitor who stops conversation. Dr. Chen cites a survey showing that one-quarter of oncologists failed to tell their patients that they were suffering from an incurable disease.

It's interesting to note that Gawande is also the child of immigrants, in his case from India. Do Asian genes somehow convey adeptness with words?
Garbiel Garcia Marquez won't publish the second volume of his memoirs because of some bad relationships, says Madrid correspondent Giles Tremlett in The Guardian.

García Marquez, who published a first volume of memoirs four years ago, is resisting writing a second volume, reportedly because he does not want to go into the reasons behind that fight. "I have realised that if I write the second volume, I will have to tell things that I do not want to tell about certain personal relationships that are not at all good," he said in an interview with Spain's La Vanguardia newspaper last year.

This came to light because one of those bad relationships has recovered some amicability. Apparently, Mario Vargas Llosa is to contribute a prologue to a planned second edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. "The agreement comes despite the fact the two have not spoken since they came to blows in a Mexican cinema in 1976."

But it is also reported that the prologue will be taken from a "laudatory" book that Vargas Llosa wrote about Marquez in 1971. So it's not actually new material. It will, however, be new to many readers, especially those living outside the Latin American ambit.

Maybe now that this particular relationship has recovered some proper balance, Marquez will be freed to write the second, much-anticipated volume of memoirs. The first volume ends, readers will remember, when he departs Columbia for Switzerland in, I think, 1954.

Thanks to The Literary Saloon for the heads up.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

My Family is a BBC TV production that screens weekly on the ABC here in Australia. I'm rather partial to its dry humour. Tonight's episode featured a book club. It highlighted some of the enduring commonplaces surrounding books, particularly that reading literature is a women's activity.

In one scene, Susan and her husband Ben are in bed, reading. She's got Cold Mountain while he's reading a Tom Clancy. She asks him what he thought of it and the best he can do is read out some of the blurb on the back cover.

Later, John Griffin, a neighbour, knocks on the door of the Harper's house. He wants Susan to attend a book club. Ben, of course, is not sad to see her go, and she does. When she arrives, they start discussing the book. What did John think of Cold Mountain?

"I wept. I hope you don't think any less of me as a man."

He offers her tea and opens a bottle of champagne. It's soon clear that books are the last thing on his mind. Susan is flabbergasted.

Susan: Was there ever any book club?
John: No.
Susan: Did you even read the book?
John: I saw the film.

Susan is keen to hide John's duplicity from Ben, but eventually Abby spills the beans and he finds out. He turns up at John's house with a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (not to discuss, but to hit John over the head with). As the gags continue, Ben and John realise they both love Tom Clancy.

Ben: Do you like Tom Clancy?
John: Oh... fantastic!
Ben: What about Cold Mountain?
John: Oh, I only bought that to get chicks.

The episode ends with four men sitting on the sofa at Ben and Susan's house discussing Tom Clancy. They love it, and Susan is there as a sort of moderator. For next month's reading, they decide to read the same book again.

It has always seemed so strange to me that reading literature is viewed this way in society at large. Since about the age of twelve, reading has always been as natural as playing sports. I started with Gerald Durrell, Ray Bradbury and a lot of science fiction. But my brother was even more of a reader than I was. He started reading the newspaper at about the age of three, and never looked back. It was his collection of sci-fi that got me going.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Melbourne writer Pamela Bone speaks up for secularism in an opinion piece in today's The Australian. For me, she hits the nail right on its head, when she writes:

Non-religious people are fed up with all the talk about the emptiness, the barrenness and lack of meaning in "secular society". It may surprise religious people to learn that our lives are not empty. Some people might need to believe in an afterlife in order to find meaning in this one; others don't. Some might need to believe in a creator in order to be awed by the majesty of nature; others don't. Some might believe in something higher than themselves and call it God; others believe in something higher than themselves and call it humanity or nature. It makes no difference to how morally they behave. Everything good in religion can be had without religion.

Exactly. Although I normally don't read opinion pieces, seeing that this one was written by a writer, I made a rare exception. While I can't say reading it has changed my way of thinking (since it reflects pretty much what I think anyway) I feel gratified that I'm not the only person with such thoughts. So although it's not an earth-shattering read, it does make good sense.

As she points out, "the fact is that the most peaceful, prosperous and healthy countries in the world, as judged by the UN's annual Human Development Reports, are the least religious".

She also points to a number of books that have been, or are being, published by people who think that religion needs to just back off. In addition to the big-hitter, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, there are:

Atheist Manifesto by French philosopher Michel Onfray; Against Religion by Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki; Have a Nice Doomsday by American writer Nick Guyatt. The one I am most looking forward to is Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

I forsee no need to read any of these myself, as it is a case of preaching to the converted. Nevertheless, I am always angered when books that question religion are banned in some countries, notably in our region in Malaysia, because they are “detrimental to public order” or because they are "deemed to be able to disrupt peace and harmony", as happened recently.

Finally, she talks about the recently-selected leader of the federal Labor Opposition, Kevin Rudd. Rudd is an admitted god-botherer, and has made some statements, notably in The Monthly magazine, to the effect that religion has a place in politics. His example in one piece they published focused on a German priest who spoke up against the Nazi government, and paid for his temerity with his life.

Now although I'm all for speaking up against the Nazis, I see no connection between the case of this priest in Nazi Germany and a politician in twenty-first-century Australia. Two cases could not be more different. It's, frankly, pathetic. A grab for attention that is worthy of the other self-confessed god-botherer politician Tony Abbott (just typing his name makes me angry), who is the federal Liberal health minister.
Pamuk pens his penseesOrhan Pamuk, Nobel prize-winner last year, has been given the opportunity to be a journalist — for a day. The Turkish newspaper Radikal gave the writer front-page control, reports The Guardian.

Pamuk used the opportunity to make some sweeping statements about the treatment the Turkish government metes out to intellectuals, especially those who differ in their ideas from the broadly-held norm.

Novelist and Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk devoted the front page of a major Turkish newspaper on Sunday to the oppression of artists in his native country, fulfilling an old dream of becoming a professional journalist, if only for a day.

And:

Pamuk's cover story criticized the Turkish press and the state for the suppression of free expression in Turkey. His banner headline quoted a 1951 article about the Turkish intellectual Nazim Hikmet, an acclaimed poet and denounced communist who spent many years in prison in Turkey for his leftist affiliations and later died in exile in Moscow. His sorrowful exile from his beloved country inspired many of his best-known poems. The 1951 article had featured Hikmet's photograph along with an encouragement for the Turkish public to recognize him and "spit in his face."

This event demonstrates that the freedoms that are taken for granted in liberal, Western countries like Australia remain aspirations in many nations, even those, like Turkey, which aspire themselves to become more Western.

It's a bit of a joke. Nevertheless, the good that the decision of the Nobel committee has done, still has to mature before all its fruit will be borne.

"This expression ["spit in his face"], which was used beside Nazim Hikmet's picture, summarizes the unchanging position of writers and artists in the eyes of the state and the press," Pamuk's cover story said.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Natascha Kampusch on Austrian TV station ORFGermany-based journalist Allan Hall and fellow journalist Michael Leidig have released the first book about teenage abductee Natascha Kampusch, which I bought at the Angus & Robertson store in Burwood Westfield shopping centre just before Xmas.

Kampusch, it turns out, is very mature and has set limits on what she will disclose to the media. She has refused to reveal any evidence pointing to sexual abuse by Wolfgang Priklopil. Police believe that it did occur, but she won't say. She also refuses to blame her abductor:

"People were shocked that she wept for Priklopil. She wanted to go to his funeral but police would not let her. Instead she lit a candle beside his coffin in the hospital and spent 10 minutes alone with him. She does not totally condemn him. It must be some extreme form of Stockholm Syndrome, the bonding of captor and captive."

This bonding has been mentioned many times in relation to Kampusch and Priklopil. But Hall and Leidig go further, stating that Natascha was, in any case, even before the abduction, an unhappy child.

"She was a latchkey kid, frequently left home alone. She was unhappy, wet her bed, overweight and teased at school.

"If Priklopil knew her before he took her he may have felt he was saving her from a bad life. But she had already built up defences to deal with abuse and in that cellar became more than a match for the non-entity of the man who took her.

"One newspaper described her as 'the hostage from hell'. Priklopil didn't get the pliant little creature he was hoping for in Natascha Kampusch. She wasn't anybody's fool. She emerged from the ordeal alive. He didn't."

She's a survivor. I'm looking forward to reading the book, when I get a chance.

It seems that Kampusch has given two TV interviews: on 6 September and 18 December. ORF, the Austrian TV station that broadcast those interviews, provides information on its Web site about what Natascha is now doing:

She is undergoing a strict physical therapy to treat her joints and muscles, which have suffered greatly during the long years with almost no possibility to move at all. Other experts help her make up the lost time in school - right now she is studying to get her degrees from elementary school and Junior High.

Good luck to her. I hope she does well and gets a good job doing something she can enjoy. Ski instructor? Teacher? TV program host? We'll see.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking bookcover; Alfred A. KnopfReview: The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2006)

Didion is shattered when her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, collapses with a heart attack on 30 December 2003. In true Didion style, she analyses her reactions to this loss, trying to make sense of what appears to be a disaster of epic proportions.

She is also made to struggle with the health problems of their daughter, Quintana, who had pneumonia. Once discharged from the hospital, Qunitana goes with her husband to Los Angeles to recuperate. There, she collapses again, near death.

A bad year, 2004, from Didion's perspective. A terrible year.

In her trademark, crisp, unassailable prose, Didion takes us through the whole process. The 'magical thinking' of the title is her inability to concieve of her husband as being truly gone. She expects him to return at any moment. She muses on the possibility that he knew he was to die. She considers his novels, their arguments, their trips abroad and their movements in the United States throughout a long life of companionability and satisfaction.

Clearly, she loved him. But we wonder how he took to the fact that his wife was far better-known than he. She is a literary superstar while he is . . . a writer who nobody reads. We wonder whether she feels some satisfaction at this. We wonder how well they got on in bed.

Did they have sex for forty years? Was she still in love with him? The level of detail that Didion engages with in this magisterial study of bereavement points to other questions that are left unanswered. Having been told this much, we want to know more.

Was Dunne a decent writer? (I'd never heard of him.) Did they still have sex? (The downfall of many marriages.) But we are not invited in that far. Only thus far, and no further . . .

This is a brave book. It seems to have required a considerable measure of gumption to go even this far. Didion, who has taken so many other aspects of her life and written about them, now takes us into her mind at a time of great stress and weakness. It is almost as if, without writing about it, she couldn't really come to grips with it. There is a philosophical point to be made here, but I lack the requisite vocabulary. Needless to say, Didion emerges as a writer first and foremost, and we are glad she took the plunge.
Reg Mombassa is best known for his graphic designs for the T-shirt manufacturer Mambo. But he has also produced many other paintings, which can be seen at the S. H. Ervin Gallery on Observatory Hill until 25 February.

Of particular interest are his paintings of houses and landscapes, including 'Sunshower' (2003) and 'Treeline with approaching storm, Taree' (1998).

So different from the cartoonish, and highly stylised pictures that he sometimes paints that they seem to be from the brush of an entirely different artist. But his skill is evident in either case. Mombassa is equally at home painting from nature as from his own imagination. In either case, we are presented with credible images that possess an inherent plausibility.

The highly-designed images have tremendous poise and vibrancy. The landscapes have great charm.