BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2020

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: Volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,  Trans. with Introduction and Notes, James Grieve, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (orig.1919)

In Volume 2 of Proust’s epic seven volume In Search of Lost Time, our narrator leaves childhood behind and is a teenager in love with every pretty girl who comes his way. The two key relationships are with Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette and takes place in Combray. The he second is the elusive Albertine and takes place at a seaside holiday resort Balbec where the narrator’s escort is his grandmother. 

The complexities, embarrassments and misunderstandings of young love are all in play here and at the writing is engaging and provocative with the narrator’s gauche mistakes and overweening self-congratulation both entrancing and amazing the reader.  Along with “young girls in flower” we are introduced to some of the narrator’s male friends including the elegant Robert de Saint Loupe, the Jewish uptight and scheming genius Bloch, the landscape painter Elstir, and the writer Bergotte who appears to be a combination of Anatole France and John Ruskin.

Alongside the narrative of the narrator’s search for young love comes much deeply thoughtful commentary on art, literature, architecture, politics, sailing, philosophy and much else besides. At these points the reader can be distracted as Proust happily reverts from the first person to the third and as a “commentator on all the above themes” appears to be an unknown source of knowledge of artists and other ideas that appear to be well beyond even  the precocious and highly intelligent seventeen something year old narrator, ( Proust never reveals the age of his protagonist, enabling him the freedom to have things both ways!) This unresolved tension is a challenge for the reader who has to decide whether he is reading a love story or a lecture.

There are memorable thoughts and ideas on many of these pages and the reader is compelled to reflect on the vagaries of love of course, as well as changing life circumstances, life and death, common-sense and common kindness and self-knowledge. The honesty of “yawning all the way through the composition of a masterpiece (p.389); the recognition of complete egoism on p431; the discovery that Wisdom cannot be inherited, one must recover it for oneself on p.443; the realisation that we are inescapably alone in the world (p485) and finally and sadly, the conclusion that the best of things was not up to much! in resigning us to death. ((p.525).  We may or may not agree with Proust on these things but his powerful writing forces us to examine the questions. 

James Grieve’s translation is elegant, clear and very readable and his introduction and notes are first class. This is my second volume of Proust’s masterpiece and I am looking forward at the moment to the next volume.  5 stars.

Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague,  London, Fourth Estate, 2001. 

GERALDINE BROOKS
YEAR OF WONDERS Geraldine Brooks’ first fictional novel

Australian born, now living in the USA, Geraldine Brooks has worked as a foreign correspondent around the world including six years in Islamic nations.  Year of Wonders was her first fictional novel and became an international success followed by many other impressive novels including Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord. 

The Novel is based around the 1665-66 bubonic plague outbreak in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The Anglican rector the Revd William Mompesson persuaded the whole village to lock themselves away from the rest of England with food and other requirements left at the edge of the village courtesy of the Earl of Chatsworth. This was an act of extraordinary generosity on behalf of the village and the death toll was vast.  When you drive in Derbyshire today you can still see the sign to Eyam, called “the plague village’.

Brooks has fictionalised many of the historic characters in her novel and introduced completely fictional characters and events in telling a gruelling narrative of the drawn out plague and its horrendous death-toll.  Anna Frith emerges as a patient, forgiving, and rather startling heroine and carries the story line of the novel, somehow managing to avoid the plague herself while supporting many others. The parallel with Camus’ famous novel The Plague is strong in the sense that, in both novels, the priest, while having some redeeming features, ends up badly (Paneloux in The Plague and Mompellion in Year of Wonders. 

Brooks’ historical research is impressive delving into lead mining in the area, C17th knowledge of witchcraft, herbal remedies and prevailing theological views of both Anglicans and non-Conformists.  It was an interesting novel to read during the Covid19 crisis here in Victoria and around the world. Although our scientific knowledge has been extended in giant steps since the C17th the world can still be brought to its knees by natural forces at present outside our ability to control. One potential weakness of the book in my view was the rather artificially contrived conclusion to 

Brooks is an amazing story-teller and this novel leaves a deep imprint on the mind.  5  stars.

Gustave Klimt Paintings and Drawings
Gustave Klimt
Tobias G. Natter, Editor of Taschen Book Gustave Klimt

Ed. Tobias G. Natter: Gustav Klimt: Drawings and  Paintings, Cologne, Taschen, 2012  

Mysterious and controversial Austrian artist Gustav Klimt comes to life in this gorgeously illustrated Taschen book which contains high quality presentations of nearly all of Klimt’s paintings and drawings.  Never married, Klimt fathered fourteen children from various lovers, had a long standing deep friendship with fashion designer Emilie Flöge,  moved through the classical mode to the avant-garde and became perhaps Austria’s finest artist along with his protege Egon Schiele. 

Klimt’s “golden period “ paintings including the The Kiss and his portrait of Vienna society lady Adele Bloch-Bauer stolen by the Nazis from the Altmann family and celebrated in the film Stealing Klimt, have been sold for some of the highest prices in the higher echelons of the art world.

Klimt’s portrait prortrayals of women range from the intensely accurate to the wildly erotic and aroused both outrage and esteem in equal quantities.  His landscapes with a strong impressionist influence are mesmerising and irresistable. Klimt was a secretive person in relation to  his own philosophy and central ideas but his paintings and drawings highlight the glory, fragility and  ultimately the tragedy of life from the hopes of new life to his unremitting and searing portrayals of old age and depression. 

Natter’s editorship includes essays from many thoughtful artists and critics, many  photographs of Klimt’s artistic and personal life, and a detailed biography and bibliography. As with all Taschen books, this book is itself an impressive work of art.  5 stars Tobias G Natter

Natasha Moore, with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh,   For the Love of God + – : How the Church is BETTER + WORSE than you ever imagined, p/b, Sydney, Centre For Public Christianity, 2019  (2020 Winner,  Australian Christian Book of the Year). 

Natasha Moore authored For The Love of God together with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh. This book won the award for the best religious book of 2020

This is one of the most tiring and uncomfortable, yet rewarding books I have ever read! But don’t let me put you off having a crack. It is tiring and uncomfortable because in several chapters the writer describes in withering detail some of the church’s most evil and shameful events and movements.  It is rewarding because of its stories of the impact of some exceptional Christian individuals, movements and historical impacts.

As for the worst of the church, we are all aware of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Papal indulgences, witch hunting,  wars of religion and child abuse in the modern church. We may be less familiar with the horrendous auto-da-fé and the abuses of the Jubilee year in the C14th. What we are probably not ready for is the relentless and detailed description of these horrors perpetrated and authorised by the church. This book never at any stage seeks to minimise these horrors. The writers do however reduce the scandal by detailed analysis which shows that millions more folk were killed and maimed by world wars, violent regimes and governments that regularly murdered and tortured their own people. The “religious wars” chapter is particularly enlightening to non-historians in showing that the issues were largely about territory and influence and that Catholics and Protestants fought as much together against foes as against each other.

As for the best of the church the book is demanding because the defence of the good achieved by the church has been based on actual live interviews with extensive quotations from some of the most influential and sharply minded philosophers, writers, theologians and researchers operating across the world’s cultural scene and major universities today. These include Karen Armstrong, Markus Brockmuehl, John Harris, David Bentley Hart, Edwin Judge, Marilynne Robinson, Rodney Stark, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, Nicholas Wolterstorff and many more too numerous to name. All of these folk write carefully and thoughtfully. You cannot take shortcuts through their contributions. 

There are powerful and honest insights and stories about the Christian heroes of massive social change including the Knights Hospitaller, William Wilberforce,  

Luther, Tyndale, Bonhoeffer, the amazing  William Carey and his friends in Serampore India, Father Damien of the Molokai leprosy centre in Hawaii, Lord Shaftesbury, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King and many others.  In addition the role of Christian faith in relation to the “invention of charity”, the “invention of  humility”, the genesis of human rights, the importance of the “image of God” and the notion of a just war all receive careful and thoughtful analysis.

The appendices include a good section of Jesus’ words from the New Testament, a full  list of interviewees and a detailed index. I can see why this book won the 2020 award. It is brave, honest, deeply challenging and in the end powerfully encouraging. There is a film and a video series if you prefer! This book would be marvellous for a thinking Parish study group but not for faint hearts. 5 stars

Clive James: Collected Poems, 1958 – 2015: London, Picador, 2016  

Clive James
Collected Poems of Clive James

Clive James was a remarkable polymath, with varying degrees of fluency in seven languages..English, Italian, Japanese, Russian, French, German and Spanish.  His erudition and vast reading across the Western intellectual tradition and his skills in literary criticism, classical literature, poetry and literature review were substantial and included, late in life, a well regarded translation from the Italian of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. 

James’ professional interests included expertise in fields as varied as bike and formula 1 racing, music, drama, comedy and television and radio production and presentation. His television and radio interviews and analysis of culture were often extraordinarily funny. 

 Born in Australia, he lived most of his time in Britain but regularly visited Australia. He has degrees from both Sydney and Cambridge universities. James was a heavy drinker and smoker for much of his long life.

Collected Poems was assembled by himself and does not include a number of his longer poems. The poetry is varied, engaging and often complex with literary, classical and other allusions abounding. Luckily for the reader this collection contains detailed notes at the rear with  many explanations of his more scholarly and obscure references.

  His themes vary widely and he has an interest in interested people including many fellow poets.  He writes about Johnny Weissmuller, James Joyce, P.G. Burnam, Egon Friedell, Arthur Stace (the “eternity “ man, Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. Poets he wrote about include Philip Larkin, Auden, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Donne, Shelley, Robert Lowell, R S Thomas, e.e.Cummings, Les Murray, Byron, Yeats, Ian Hamilton, Peter Porter, Whitman, amongst others.

Overriding themes in James’ poetry include a variety of Australian people and scenes , beautiful women and a large number of poems about his own impending death including remorse about his failure to live a more healthy life as well as remorse about relationships. I enjoyed reading these poems and gaining some understanding of the life, fears and skill of this man’s very full and long life. 4 stars.

BOOKS READ AUGUST 2020

Heather Rose: Bruny, p/b, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2019

HEATHER ROSE

New novel by prize-winning Tasmanian author Heather Rose who did well with The Museum of Modern Love in 2017. Bruny is  set on Bruny Island  in South east Tasmania in a future time not far from the present. The plot involves the political tangle and controversial manoeuvring by various parties  involved in a $2 billion joint national and state venture to build a bridge between the Tasmanian mainland and Bruny Island, taking the place of the small ferry system currently operating. Heather Rose’s style mixes thinly veiled satire with enough sense of down to earth reality that makes the unlikely plot at least worth consideration if not believable

The key player, Astrid Coleman is a former Tasmanian of a powerful political family, now living in New York and working as a trouble shooter for the United Nations as well as covertly for the CIA. Coleman is persuaded by her father, JC, who happens to be the Premier of Tasmania, to return to Tasmania and do damage control after a terrorist attack damaged half the bridge at near completion stage.  The Premier wanted a quick fix in time for the next election and needed his daughter  on hand.  A controversial new law had just been passed allowing a significant force of Chinese labour to assist with the rebuild along with Australian workmen and the State had used Chinese belt and road money to help finance the scheme.

The novel has a vast array of involved participants including political figures on the left and right, greenies and nimbys, engineers, the bridge designer, the site foreman, anti bridge pressure groups of various types,  a Buddhist religious centre, Chinese heavy weight politicians, ASIO agents and other key operatives for various pressure groups.  The plot is tangled and a list up front of some of the key participants would have made reading easier to follow. Many issues of current Australian life style and policy  as well as political division are on display and the serious issue of Chinese investment in large tracts of Australian land and significant Australian business operations is at the centre of the book’s argument. Coleman herself is an interesting character..highly trained, disappointed in love, torn between New York and home at the same time as delivering on a highly paid commitment  but coming up against personal values and ideals that could be trashed by her efforts. 

For me this novel started very slowly and with some fairly banal overviews of the Australian political scene which seem to come from an unseen author rather than any of the characters. The plot does take hold however and builds a credible head of steam. The climactic final events build to a  powerful and thought provoking crescendo  but then the novelist seems to have had trouble wrapping things up and the story line wanders along at a very gentle pace it would seem for not much reason and too much repetition.  Like all taut thrillers some of the helpful coincidental events in the closing stages were unlikely and weakened one’s faith in the narrative. 3 stars.

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight, p/b, London, Vintage, 2019  

MICHAEL ONDAATJE

Michael Ondaatje came to everyone’s attention through the dramatic film version of his fourth novel  The English Patient.  Ondaatje is Sri Lankan born and living in Canada and has written novels, a large amount of poetry and a non-fiction work on editing film. His eighth novel, Warlight, is a masterfully constructed puzzle based around the twilight world of post world war 2 intelligence.  The story line is held together by Nathaniel, the youngest child of two British intelligence agents who basically left their children to the care of boarding schools and assorted characters of varying character including the faithful but mysterious Moth and the greyhound faker Darter.

Whist their parents maintained their secret and dangerous lives mostly in still violent and confused postwar Europe, Nathaniel and Rachel had to bring themselves up rather rapidly in this arcane and sometimes violent gathering of virtual strangers who regularly appeared in their home.   The other two key characters are the hard to know Balzac loving mother Rose Wiliams  (code name Viola amongst others) and the equally mysterious thatcher, broadcasting naturalist, cathedral climber and intelligence agent Marsh Felon The intelligence agent Father is written out of the novel very early at work somewhere in Asia.

This is less a “spy” adventure story but rather a story of children in search of parenting  (and in search of their parents)  whose characters were formed by a motley collection of adults on the edge of society whom their mother had organised to keep tabs on her children. There is humour, grave danger, and intriguing character portraits here a plenty. 

Ondaatje writes with a learned delicacy and as one reviewer commented, writing that is “rare and beautiful” and gently guides the reader through a mysterious half-lit world of underground London and the rank confusion that inevitably followed a bombed and impoverished post war city.  

Ondaatje’s historical and  war research is deep and meticulous as shown by his acknowledgements at the end of the novel. There are literary references to Thomas Hardy, Lorca, A E Housman, Kilvert’s amazing rural diary and a host of other writers less known to me but these references are not intrusive and a simply part of the flow of consciousness that surrounds and finally consumes the reader as we struggle to put all the pieces together. Even so there are surprises. I really enjoyed this novel. I learned much about immediate postwar London and its underbelly and about the sort of people who make useful intelligent agents. Above all I felt at all times that I was in the hands of a master story-teller. I now want to read all Ondaatje’s other books!  5 stars.

Lou Klepac: Russell Drysdale: 1912-1981, h/b, Revised Edition,  London, Murdoch, 2009 (1983)   

LOU KLEPAK

RUSSELL DRYSDALE

 

Born in England but from childhood living and growing up in Australia Russell Drysdale is arguably the first Australian artist to bring Australian art to the world (with a little help from Kenneth Clark who organised Drysdale’s first London exhibition).  In my limited experience of reading about artists Drysdale is rare in not starting off his painting career starving in a garrett or relying on wealthy patrons. Drysdale’s grandfather and father had sugar interests in Queensland and owned a large farming property at Boxwood Park, north of Albury. Drysdale was educated at Geelong Grammar where his exceptional skill in drawing was quickly recognized. He initially intended to join the family business but was encouraged to consider being an artist and joined the fledgling art school in Melbourne run by George Bell, who became a lifelong friend and supporter.

Lou Klepac, an art historian, has produced a detailed and well documented account of Drysdale’s complex life and character and this large scale second edition contains 170 high quality full page colour reproductions of Drysdale’s paintings and a large number of drawings as well as many helpful photographs. Drysdale did not produce a vast number of paintings and the majority of his works are in private hands including his most famous works such as The Cricketers, West Wyalong, Old Larsen and Man with a Galah and many others. Handicapped by major defective sight in one eye Drysdale was unable to enlist in WW11 and continued to paint including many wartime studies of soldiers on leave in lonely railway stations.

Drysdale travelled widely from an early age in Europe, USA and many times across and around Australia.  In Europe he was influenced by the French modernists and was caught up in the art culture wars of Australia in the 1950s and 60’s where  gallery administrators and many of the public struggled with the question what makes a “picture”. Drysdale did not paint easily or quickly. He had periods of not painting at all, sometimes lasting over two years and he was his own greatest critic, destroying and painting over many of his own paintings.  He held only 11 major exhibitions and one retrospective and was always struggling to meet deadlines and create the required number of paintings. He loved to talk and discuss with friends and family and developed a passion for Australian geology, the outback and its people, vast expanses and wild life.    

This book dramatically illustrates the extraordinary gift of Drysdale’s ability to interpret the beauty, trauma, humour, ancient lineage and terrifying mystery and yet joy of the Australian outback, its peoples ,and especially its indigenous community and their ageing locations surrounding the very limited edges of civilisation.  The art is bewitching and engulfing and repays careful study. Perspective, colour, loneliness, and staunch courage and determination appear in painting after painting.  Looking at Drysdale’s work is a spiritual experience although he was not a religious man. His personal life was tragic losing both his much loved but troubled son and his wife of longstanding to suicide but he recovered to be happily married again to the widow of a good friend. 

I am glad to have “got to know” this reticent but exceptionally talented man who paved the way for so many to follow. 5 stars.  

John G. Niehardt: Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition, p/b, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2014 (1932)   

Black Elk Speaks: Revised Edition.

Portrait of Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1863 – 1950), 1880s. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

John G Neihardt

American poet, philosopher, historian, journalist,and religious visionary John G. Neihardt was born in 1881 at the end of white American settlement of the Western plains. As his writing career developed he became deeply involved in the story of the gradual resettlement of the native plains Indians into ever decreasingly sized reservations and the concomitant assault on their populations, languages, freedom and spiritual beliefs.  In the course of his research , he came to form a deep relationship with Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1860-1950),  who as a young boy was an observer at the battle of Little Big Horn (General Custer’s last stand),  was second cousin to indomitable Sioux/Lakota war leader Crazy Horse and present and fought at the massacre of women and children at Wounded Knee. As a young boy Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) was swept up by a powerful spiritual vision which transformed his life with its calling to him to lead his nation into a period of intense struggle, opposition and challenge. 

Black Elk had never told anyone of this vision, inside or outside of his own people but sensed a similar visionary spirit in Niehardt after the two met.  In an intense period of four weeks and after an “initiatory ceremony” for Niehardt, marking him as a faithful holy man and friend to the Oglala, he communicated his life story to Niehardt. The story  included the complex uninterpreted vision and both the vision and the life story were carefully transcribed in shorthand by Niehardt’s wife Enid and eventually put into writing by NIehardt as “Black Elk Speaks” published in 1932. One curious factor linking the two men is that Niehardt was brought up as a committed Protestant Christian believer and Black Elk himself converted to Roman Catholicism in later life. These factors do not significantly influence the narrative although there are occasional hints linking Black Elk’s vision of the sixth grandfather with the Messiah.

A major interpretive challenge of the original published version of Black Elk Speaks is that Niehardt already had a deeply researched knowledge of the Oglala Lakota spiritual understanding. When the shorthand transcript is compared with NIehardt’s final version it is clear that Niehardt has “filled in some gaps” with his own spiritual understanding and substantial poetic gifts. It is sometimes difficult to determine which is Black Elk writing and which is Niehardt. This was made crystal clear by the publication in 1984 of Enid’s original transcript by Raymond DeMaillie which was called The Sixth Grandfather, omitting all NIehardt’s additions. 

This new 2014 edition of Black Elk Speaks solves this problem by the inclusion of an introductory essay by Harvard historian of Native American, Philip J. Deloria and a set of detailed footnotes by Raymond DeMaillie which clearly shows Niehardt’s additions by footnotes to the original transcript and also clears up some of Niehardt’s mistranslations of Lakota words. 

A further aid to understanding Black Elk’s vision in this version is the inclusion of 30 full colour plates of drawings by Lakota artist Standing Bear, a close friend of Black Elk which were in the original text and are now held in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri. In addition there is a helpful list of translations of Lakota words used in the text. 

 Two further useful essays are included in this volume: Lori Utecht, Director of the Niehardt Centre has written a useful essay describing the depth of NIehardt’s knowledge of and research into the literature of the settlement of the Western plains. Alexei N. Petrie has contributed an essay on Niehardt’s extensive work beyond Black Elk and his numerous academic awards and honours which help us to understand the depth of his contribution to American social history including his work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At a time when the USA is in turmoil over its race relationships with its Black population it is sad to read these accounts of the Indian wars and the gradual subjugation of proud plains Indian civilizations. These essays also give us pause in Australia as we read more carefully into the records and history of our own occupation of Native Australian territory.   I found this story to be deeply moving with images that remain in the mind long after reading.  5 stars.