Book-nerd fantasty come true!

At a wedding on a lake near Nakenstorf in north-east Germany, I was talking with a guest from Berlin. I had to see B-movie, about Berlin in the 1980s, he said. I enthused about his compatriot, author Jenny Erpenbeck; he typed her name into his phone. We talked politics, economics – it was one of those conversations that are a joy wherever they venture.

Later, he found me and handed over a pen and paper: what were the five novels I thought everyone should read? Swoon! I hadn’t realised that request right there was a secret fantasy until I was living it.

We ended up narrowing it down not to what I thought others should read (blergh) but to my five favourite Australian works of fiction. Of course, even wording it this way, I had to balance which works might be representative for an international audience with availability of work outside Australia and what constitutes ‘fiction’ (for one of the titles, in particular). This is what I came up with, presented here in alphabetical order:

  • Benang, Kim Scott
  • Dog Boy, Eva Hornug
  • House of Exile, Evelyn Juers
  • Look Who’s Morphing, Tom Cho
  • The Plains, Gerald Murnane

Looking over the list now, I’m not sure that I’d change it, though I’m still wrestling with a few close contenders. It’s idiosyncratic, and by living authors only, but I like it this way.

See what you come up with when limiting the list to five for a hypothetical international reader – not so easy, is it?

On another note in case you’re interested, I’ve put some pics from a recent writing residency in Saint Petersburg up on my new site x

The first thing I did when…

Signs-Preceding-the-End-of-the-World_CMYK-SMALL-300x460I finished Lisa Dillman’s translation of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World was flip right back to read it again. It’s the best work of fiction I’ve read this year.

A taste:

She looked out at the country mushrooming on the other side of the glass. She knew what it contained, its colors, the penury and the opulence, hazy memories of a less cynical time, villages emptied of men. But on contemplating the tense stillness of the night, the darkness dotted here and there with sparks, on sensing that insidious silence, she wondered, vaguely, what the hell might be festering out there: what grows and what rots when you’re looking the other way. p. 33

There is one short passage on same-sex marriage that seemed out of place but, other than that, this is a perfect book; it says so much in such a short space and in such a feisty, immediate way. I’m in love with the gutsy adolescent protagonist, whose journey across the border to rescue her brother is so now and so mythic at once.

You can get a copy (and support an amazing small publisher) here.

‘Rewilding our language of landscape’

You might remember I wrote a blog post on Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways where I got ridiculously excited about that book’s glossary. Well, now McFarlane has written an article for The Guardian about exactly what in that glossary thrilled me: a lexicon of landscape. Highly recommended for word/nature nerds. It begins like so:

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

Read the rest.

One note: meuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”. Something like this is what I needed last week, hiking in Tasmania’s The Walls of Jerusalem with J, when we found, time and again, we were at a loss to describe phenomena in the landscape. (There, the word I needed was for the gaps through low-lying prickle bushes forged by Bennett’s wallabies, a sub-species of the red-necked wallaby.) Here is the one photo I could take with my about-to-die phone:

Walls of Jerusalem

Greg Dening on hindsight and imagination

We know from our living experience that our present moments—this moment—has all the possibilities of the future still in it. None of us prescribes the reality we live in. None of us controls the consequences of our actions. None of us can predict with absolute certainty anybody else’s reaction to the simplest gesture, the clearest sign, the most definite word. But we have to cope with these ambivalences, interpreting these never-ending possibilities. Hindsight, on the other hand, reduces all possibilities in the past to one. Hindsight leaches out not all our uncertainties, but all the past’s uncertainties. Hindsight closes down our imagination. In hindsight we do not see the past as it actually was, only as it would have been if all its uncertainties were taken away. Hindsight freezes the frame of every picture of the past. Hindsight removes all the processes of living. Makes the past our puppet.

Our imagination, to see the past as it actually was, has to return to the past its own present, with all the possibilities of its future still in it, with all its uncertainties, will all its inconsequentialities. Imagination restores independence to the past by showing how partially it can be know. Imagination humbles the author in any of us to accept what we cannot know or cannot say.

— pp. 210–211, ‘Empowering Imaginations’ in Readings/Writings, Greg Dening.

New website & a (sort of) farewell

This post isn’t easy to write, but being honest is the least I can do for those who have dropped by this blog for time to time or have read it regularly (if you fall into one of those categories of people, thank you).

Here’s the thing: I don’t want this space to turn into somewhere I post pieces of news dressed up as blog content . Last year, those kinds of posts were becoming more frequent — not necessarily because there was more news, I hasten to add, but because my loyalty to the blog was waning, and my enthusiasm for the weekly posting routine was ebbing away. But I’ve noticed the pattern and this is me saying, A-ha, I see you and now that I do, no more.

So, here it is: this blog is not far away from its fifth birthday, but before that happens I’m going to let it quietly settle into the happy swamp of internet oblivion. There will still be occasional posts when the urge strikes, but I will no longer be holding to the once-a-week regularity.

I have created a website for future pieces of news, as well as extracts from published work — — and, because of this, won’t post news here. What I will continue to post here, intermittently, is thoughts on books, films and theatre. I know not as many people will see them — how quickly the page views drop away when we don’t post regularly (and fair enough, too) — but I like the idea of still being able to voice something urgent into the ether, even if that voice is a whisper picked up on a coded frequency by only the most dedicated of ham-radio operators in south Siberia.

Some statistics for those of you who like your info in numbers: this is the 190th post, and there have been 335 comments. (If you’re like me, you’ll think, A number! Interesting! Not sure what that means…)

Thank you for reading. Thanks for your patience with my oftentimes long-winded posts. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts in the comments. You’ve made me feel very welcome in the blogosphere and I wouldn’t change the hours spent blogging for anything (numbers people: that’s 756 hours, I estimate, which equates to about 1 month of those almost 5 years).

What will I be doing with the approximately 4 hours per week? Working to save for an adventure set to start mid-year. Writing. More writing. Translating. More details on all of that over at the other site soon.

Recent essay collection reads: some extracts

Greg Dening’s Readings/Writings

A half-price MUP sale and my temporary book-buying ban takes leave of me. I first encountered Dening’s beach crossing metaphor in his final book, and it has stayed with me, as has the memory of slow absorption (because this is what the book demands — no skimming, no gobbling).

I had crossed a beach and found what all beach-crossers find, my own otherness. […] Gossip had it that Gauguin was Tohotaua’s lover. That is not what Tohotaua would have called him. Because of who she was she would have called him pekio, secondary husband, a man who had feminised himself, exchanged his male tapu status, so that he could have access to a powerful woman. […] We have to wonder if Gauguin knew how liminal he was and whether his ego would have allowed him to cross his beach so far. (‘Pego‘s Grave’)

‘Seeing’, wrote William Herschel, the maker of the telescopes they were using, ‘is in some respect an art which must be learnt’. […] Wickedness and knowledge have a long association, of course, in Judaeo-Christian mythological traditions. It was eating of the Tree of Knowledge that began all our troubles. There is a special sort of wickedness that comes from travelling, though. It is the wickedness of knowing that things can be otherwise. (‘Fetching Facts’)

I have only begun to read it tonight, and already such encounters.

Adrienne Rich’s Arts of the Possible

This book, secondhand, newly given to me, tied up in green string, another that I have started only tonight.

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In its foreword: ‘This book is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold’.

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table

The following is from ‘Carbon’, a perfect blend of playful and profound, all delivered with such lightness of touch.

The carbon atom described has already been part of limestone, heated in a kiln, issued through a chimney, caught by the wind, breathed in by a falcon, dissolved in sea water, borne by the wind along a row of vines, nailed to a leaf by the rays of the sun, turned into wine, drunk, dragged by the bloodstream to a muscle fiber in the thigh, released, trapped in a cedar, eaten by a woodworm that transforms into a moth and dies, carried by the wind three times around the world.

Some gems from this part: ‘In this downward course, which leads to equilibrium and thus death, life draws a bend and nests in it’. And, ‘the small cadaver lies in the undergrowth of the woods, it is emptied of its fluids, but the chitin carapace resists for a long time, almost indestructible. The snow and sun return above it without injuring it: it is buried by the dead leaves and the loam, it has become a slough, a ‘thing’, but the death of atoms, unlike ours, is never irrevocable. Here are at work the omnipresent, untiring and invisible gravediggers of the undergrowth, the microorganisms of the humus. The carapace, with its eyes by now blind, has slowly disintegrated, and the ex-drinker, ex-cedar, ex-wood worm has once again taken wing.’

But what I keep returning to is the end — of the essay, but also of the essay collection:

It is possible to demonstrate that this completely arbitrary story is nevertheless true. I could tell innumerable other stories, and they would all be true: all literally true, in the nature of the transitions, in their order and data. The number of atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story coincides with any capriciously invented story. I could recount an endless number of stories about carbon atoms that become colors or perfumes in flowers; of others which, from tiny algae to small crustaceans to fish, gradually return as carbon dioxide to the waters of the sea, in a perpetual, frightening round-dance of life and death, in which every devourer is immediately devoured; of others which instead attain a decorous semi-entity in the yellowed pages of some archival document, or the canvas of a famous painter; or those to which fell the privilege of forming part of a grain of pollen and left their fossil imprint in the rocks for our curiosity; of others still that descended to become part of the mysterious shape-messengers of the human seed, and participated in the subtle process of division, duplication, and fusion from which each of us is born. Instead, I will tell you just one more story, the most secret, and I will tell it with the humility and restraint of him who knows from the start that his theme is desperate, his means feeble, and the trade of clothing facts in words is bound by its very nature to fail.

It is again among us, in a glass of milk. It is inserted in a very complex, long chain, yet such that almost all of its links are acceptable to the human body. It is swallowed, and since every living structure harbors a savage distrust towards every contribution of any material of living origin, the chain is meticulously broken apart and the fragments, one by one, are accepted or rejected. One, the one that concerns us, crosses the intestinal threshold and enters the bloodstream: it migrates, knocks at the door of a nerve cell, enters, and supplants the carbon which was part of it. This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of the me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.

And one more essay that I must point you to, if you haven’t already seen it: ‘The Boat‘.

Update 03/02/15 4 pm: Just wanted to add this essaying with light: ‘Sleep because‘ — glorious.

Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Life Adrift

9781603841986Graham Sanders’s 2011 translation of this memoir (previous translations were called ‘Six Records of a Floating Life’) is a gem. Its author, a Qing dynasty private secretary, was born in 1763, and the book was first published in 1877, after the unfinished manuscript (it includes only four of the titular six records) was discovered in a secondhand bookstore in Suzhou.

Shen Fu calls himself a scholar but, like his father, he failed the civil service examinations, and much of the pathos of the memoir comes from the tension between the life of leisure that he and his wife wish to lead and what they must forego in order to afford it — their literary drinking games, for example, mean they have to pawn their belongings to buy wine, and sometimes they wear such threadbare clothing or scruffy shoes that they don’t think it respectful to call on friends at their workplaces.

Relationships, whether with family members, friends, sworn siblings, potential lovers, community members or monks, are portrayed in all their nuance and social intricacy, but it’s the relationship between Shen Fu and his wife that is most remarkable and moving. In fact, Six Records is in large part a depiction of the deep love and intimacy between Shen Fu and the intelligent, talented, hardworking and forbearing Yun, whom Shen Fu mourns after her death, possibly from ovarian cancer, at only forty-one years of age. Shen Fu’s relationship with Yun makes him something of a feminist for his time; it is intriguing to see their anguish over some gender-based social mores and their attempts to circumnavigate them. It was with great delight that I reached page 59 before it became apparent that the couple did have children — such is Shen Fu’s devotion to narrating his life with Yun.

In his introduction, Sanders beautifully describes the highly innovative narrative structure of ‘layering episodic narratives atop one another’:

Each record starts and ends at a different point in his life, yet they all overlap significantly in the time they cover. The narratives proceed chronologically put at different paces, expanding and contracting the time of narration at different points in the plot […] The individual records work together to produce a multilayered collage of Shen Fu’s memories; the very structure of the book mimics the shape and behavior of human memory itself. Our memories are selective, inconsistent, recursive, colored by mood; we both recall and forget as a way of finding reasons and patterns in the welter of chaotic particulars and emotional associations that are left behind in the wake of our daily experiences.

I’ve fallen in love with the representations of Shen Fu and Yun as they live on, centuries after their mortal selves have turned to dust. It’s been something of a tendency of late: last month I fell in love with Ibn Fadlan after reading his tenth-century account of travelling 4,000 kilometres from Baghdad to visit the Bulgar khan on the Volga River in present-day Russia. Also, Six Records is one of those books whose footnotes nudge you onto other intriguing books and details that exquisitely expand your frame of reference.

Sanders’s translation brings you so close to Shen Fu that his delight in his soul mate is your own, his heartbreak, yours too.