BOOKS READ JULY 2018
Michael Meehan: Below the Styx, Crows Nest Au, Allen & Unwin, 2010
Fourth book by Australian author Michael Meehan. Sardonic, learned and humorous account of the story of Marten Frobisher, a publisher’s novel spotter, his marriage and the gradual breakdown of his marriage. Entwined with his story is a literary study of some depth.
In one of his final quarrels with his wife Coralie, Martin Frobisher attacks her with an epergne* which features throughout the book! Coralie dies from the attack but, as Frobisher flees from the house having called family and emergency help, it appears a second person was also involved in Coralie’s death.
In prison awaiting trial Frobisher, a would be but unfulfilled and unpublished writer, uses his time to research the complex and tragic life and early death of Marcus Clarke, author of For the Term of His Natural Life. These chapters give a fascinating insight into the character of a man who appears to have worked hard to cover up his true nature and personality and about whom not a huge amount is known in spite of his importance in early Australian literature.
I cannot decide whether Meehan has successfully conjoined the two narratives. As a tract for our times about marriage and modern life in Melbourne it is insightful and entertaining. as a literary and historical study of Clarke it is mostly interesting. As one single novel it is just ok. I suspect if the average punter was not particularly interested in colonial Victorian history and literature the literary research about Clarke would be boring and annoying. 3 stars.
An *Epergne is a type of table centerpiece, usually made of silver, but may be made of any metal or glass or porcelain.
A B Facey: A Fortunate Life, Ringwood Au, Penguin, 1981
Extraordinary story of Bert Facey, born 1894, one of seven children. He died in 1982 at 88 years old. His father left the family to go gold mining in Kalgoorlie and died of typhoid when Bert was 2. His mother took the two eldest children to Perth and basically walked away from the other four leaving them with his grandmother at Barker’s Creek near Castlemaine. When his grandfather died the grandmother took the children to the West to force their mother to take of them but she had married again and was pregnant and could only take his sister Myra. The young children eventually went to live in Kalgoorlie in significant poverty with Aunt Alice, Grandma’s oldest daughter.
Bert never attended school and could not read or write. At eight years of age he went to work and never really returned to the family “home”. He eventually learned to read and write much later in life and kept notebooks of his exceptional life as farmhand, bushman, railway fettler, drover’s assistant, farm manager, well repairer, prize fighter, league footballer, soldier at Gallipoli, tram driver, union organiser and many other roles. If only half this story were true it would be amazing.
To read this book is to have the highest regard for this exceptional man who survived so much, got married and raised his own family. Facey lived through the earliest years of the establishment of the West Australian wheat and farming industry, survived Gallipoli but with permanent injuries, maintained a family through the Depression years and lost one of his sons in the second world war. In later life he became a highly regarded union organiser for the tramways and an exceptional local government planning representative and highly regarded public figure. This book is simply and factually written and more exciting than ten average fiction narratives put together. An ordinary man who really was a truly wonderful Australian. 5 stars.
Alex Miller: Prochownik’s Dream, Crows Nest Au, Allen & Unwin, 2005
I am an unashamed Alex Miller fan and have read the majority of his books so it is difficult for me to write objectively about a literary “idol”. The subject matter of this book, as with the magnificent Autumn Laing, is about art and artists. In this case the epicentre is modern Melbourne which is always particularly interesting for someone who has lived all their life within Melbourne and its outer reaches. The action with one exception, all happens in the artist’s suburban studio and really zeros in on the inner life, thinking and motivation of Toni Powlett preparing to participate in a major show and “coming out” as an artist. Towards the end of the novel he changes his name to Prochownik which was his migrant father’s name, forced to Anglicise it by his boss when he began work in Australia. Toni’s father, though dead for four years, is a constant brooding presence in his painting and thinking. His father is the author of “Prochownik’s Dream”!
A secondary theme and completely intertwined with the inner mind of the artist is his marriage relationship which challenges and yet also completes Powlett’s (Prochownik’s) work as an artist. Miller writes with all his customary depth of human understanding, intimacy and the personal knowing of the thoughtful mind. Some of the most powerful statements of the novel come from the “words” of his now deceased father. Here are a few:
- to dream is to have made sense of one’s life at the end, that is all. (p44)
- the priest’s irrational persistence, a faith that doesn’t ask why, just is (p47)
- for in art, and they all knew this, twas the perfect lie that was generative of the perfect meaning, not the literal truth. There was no place in art for the literal truth. (p114)
- art makes life bearable and the other way around. (p126)
- the purpose of art is to resist the world’s ugliness (p127)
- “the brutality of fact” [a quotation from the artist Francis Bacon) (p154)
- “I should like to understand myself properly before it is too late.” (a quotation from Sartre: Nausea) (p223)
- the artist, [or any one else in my view] is the only one ever to know how great his failure is. Other people see only what he achieves. Not what he has attempted. (p267).
The real power of Alex Miller is his ability, strangely, to force the reader (or this reader) into thinking very deeply about his own mind, life and motivations.
This is intense and engaging writing. I would not put it up there with The Ancestor Game, Autumn Laing, or Journey to the Stone Country, but it is a perceptive and powerful analysis of an artist and a marriage. 4 stars.
Alex Miller: The Tivington Nott, Crows Nest Au., Allen & Unwin, 2005 (1989).
This is Alex Miller’s second novel, first published in the UK in 1989. It is a an autobiographical account of Miller’s life as a labourer in Somerset on the borders of Exmore. Many of Miller’s future skills as a writer about relationships, about feelings, about hopes and dreams, about love and about life and its possibilities are on show here. All the humour, emotion, attachment to environment, deep descriptive power, exceptional ability to lock in the reader to the depth of writing are all present in this early novel.
The key story in this novel is the account af an amazing stag hunt. A nott is a deer (or a sheep or cattle) without antlers or horns. There is an ancient nott in Tivington whose lair is discovered by the author but the nott is not the hero of this story. Only “The Man from Snowy River” could match the account of the exceptional horse Kabara and the elongated day long hunt that involved the horse, the stag and the author. There is humour, tension, exhaustive drama and insightful character analysis. This is a hard to put down account of rural life in Somerset with all the tensions of the English class system in full swing. A powerful and insightful read. 4 stars.
Hilary Mantel: Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir, London, Fourth Estate, 2010 .
Hilary Mantel has mesmerised the world with her account of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell in her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as well as her latest book on the French Revolution, long in the making. This memoir is a book in two parts. The first is a capricious, highly personal and fiercely entertaining account of Mantel’s earliest memories and her childhood up to teenage years. It is difficult to put down with its winsome, funny, mysterious and always heartfelt story of growing up strangely in a house with two fathers!
The second half is a gruelling account of an appalling illness which was untreated and mistreated and misunderstood for the first twenty years of her life. This section is demanding and seemingly endless as doctor after doctor across three continents appears to be powerless to understand the cause of Mantel’s distress. At the same time Mantel manages to write publishable books which will eventually make her a household name. What comes across above all is her indomitable spirit of determination, joy in the darkness and sheer grit in her coming to terms with demons real and imagined. I am an undisputed Mantel fan but I cannot say I enjoyed this book. Part one I loved; Part two I suffered through with her. I am glad she did not give up the fight as she promises to write many more fantastic books and I for one, will read every one of them, God willing! 4 stars.
Tom Wright: What St Paul Really Said, Oxford, Lion, 1997.
One of N T (Tom) Wright’s earlier books, this punchy summary of the theology of Paul the Apostle challenges many long held theological viewpoints on both liberal and conservative fronts. Along with Albert Schweitzer, Wright dismisses the long-held liberal scholastic view that Paul was a Hellenizing Greek who transformed the simple Jewish teaching of Jesus the carpenter into a complex philosophic and completely new religious faith accessible to the Roman world of his day. For Wright, Saul of Tarsus, the zealous hardline Shammaite Pharisee became Paul the Apostle..the equally zealous Jewish missionary teacher who was called personally by Jesus Christ to teach the Jews and especially the Gentiles of his own day that the covenant faith of Abraham was intended all along for the whole world and not just the Jewish nation. It was good news for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
Wright agrees with the epic work of E P Sanders in his magisterial Paul and Palestinian Judaism that Judaism was a faith of “covenant nomism” rather than the traditionally regarded works righteousness, but disagrees with Sanders’ idea that Judaism was preoccupied with “getting in and staying in” heaven. Wright’s most controversial idea, consistently defended in this book and in all his much larger later works is that C1st Judaism was still looking for the fulfilment of God’s promise that their long exile was over. Yes the Jews were back in Israel, but they were held fast under cruel and tyrannical Roman occupation with their freedom to practise their ancient faith constantly under threat and their Temple besmirched with Roman symbols. Wright’s understanding of Paul is that through his road to Damascus vision of Christ’s victory over death in the resurrection God had indeed ended Israel’s exile …that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah promised in the Scriptures but also a radically different Messiah … a Messiah who also fulfilled the mission of the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy (ch 52-3); a Messiah who came for the salvation of the whole world, “while we were yet sinners” not just for the Jews. It was a mission of peace not war; the future of the Temple and its sacrifices were no longer important for Paul because the final sacrifice had already been made by Jesus. There was a new and much more vital mission..to proclaim to the world their true king, KIng Jesus, so that the love and compassion of God could spread through the life and being of the whole creation, not just the Jewish nation in occupied Rome.
Controversially for conservative theologians Wright argues in this book that the proclamation of the kingship of Jesus is indeed the centre of Paul’s theology, not justification by faith as it was understood in particular by Luther. This is argued carefully in chapters 6 and 7 which can still be somewhat dense for readers without a considerable background in New Testament theology.
Equally controversial for conservative readers is Wright’s insistence that the Pauline message of salvation is not about “going to heaven when you die” but rather a vision of a new creation here on earth, transformed by the power and love of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. This renewal is for the whole world not just the personal salvation of individuals. It is a renewal involving turning away from the idolatry of the gods of mammon, sex and power (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche); a turning towards a genuine resurrection and away from new age pantheism and gnostic dualism. A renewal involving holiness as opposed to simply giving in to the secular world order of the morally bankrupt West. A renewal which involves the coherence and wholeness of love against the selfish individualism which dominates today in many societies. A renewal which involves zeal ..zeal for the proclamation of the love of God shown in the Messiah’s death and resurrection; a powerful replacement for the sadness and emptiness of so much modern life.
Wright’s final chapter is a rebuttal of A N Wilson’s controversially brilliant but fundamentally flawed book on Paul published also in 1997… a rebuttal which Wilson today would probably be sympathetic with having in recent years returned to his earlier Christian faith commitment. What St Paul Really Said is not a technical book in terms of being filled with references but there is a very useful list of further books to think about. Wright’s work is filled with dynamism and a breezy energetic argument but still takes a lot of thinking out. It is worth the effort because it brings hope for a new vision of Christian mission in our current world order. It could also spark, or at least encourage, a new dynamic for static parish churches. 5 stars.
Albert Camus: The Outsider. Translated Joseph Laredo: L’ Étranger, Ringwood Au, Penguin, 1983 
Algerian born French Journalist, Existentialist novelist and wartime resistance hero Albert Camus wrote this brief novel in the heat and carnage of World War 11. The central figure Meursalte appears on first reading as almost a shadow man, busy with his unidentified working life in Paris, living on his own in a small apartment with desultory friends and enjoying brief moments of pure and dreamy joy in the quietness of late afternoon Parisian sunshine as he sits on a balcony listening to the late tranquil sounds of a large city quietening down before the evening rush. His one real joy is his passion for his girlfriend, the beautiful Marie Everything changes when his mother, in a nursing home in Algiers dies and he travels to her funeral. His grief which is real is not expressed outwardly and his apparent calm and nonchalant behaviour scandalizes fellow mourners and is noted by the manager of the home. On his return to Paris Meursalt foolishly gets involved in an escapade with one of his desultory friends Raymond which entanglement eventually results in his killing a man on a beach in self defence and his arrest and trial for murder, resulting in a sentence of execution. The heart of the novel is Meursalt’s trial in which his refusal to do anything other than supply simple monosyllabic responses to both his lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge condemn him as a cold-hearted killer with no soul. In a brief essay written in 1955 and included in this edition, Camus explains: Meursalt doesn’t want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened….for me, Meursalt is not a reject, but a poor and naked man, in love with the sun which leaves no shadows. [p118f]. A disturbing and thoughtful book. 5 stars.