Category: Australia Page 1 of 3

Simon Sellars: Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe

The latest addition to my website is Simon SellarsApplied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe. This novel is an example of theory-fiction, in that it is written as a novel, indeed, is a novel, but, at the same time, as the title tells us, is something of a critique or study of the work of J G Ballard. The narrator is clearly based, at least in part, on the author. He is an Australian man who struggles to find where he is going but then discovers Ballard. While studying him for a Ph.D., what is more important for this work is that he continues to find examples of Ballardianisms in his life. Ballard’s view of the world helps him understand the world he lives in, whether it is in Melbourne with its various problems, or other parts of the world he visits, often as a travel guide writer. Sellars skilfully integrates the Ballard view with virtually everything the narrator does, sees or thinks. It helps to have read Ballard to fully appreciate this novel but even if you have not, you can still enjoy it.

Thea Astley: Drylands


The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s Drylands, her last novel written when she was seventy-four. It is a bitter novel, whose main theme is how standards have fallen in Australia, with rampart sexism and brutality towards women, racism, corrupt politicians, wanton vandalism, the loss of a reading culture and a hard life for the poor, the aborigines and half-castes, the unconventional and women. Janet Deakin, a widow, who runs the local newsagent’s in the remote and small town of Drylands, has decided to write a book called A Book for the World’s Last Reader, which is the subtitle of Astley’s novel. We follow the stories of people in Drylands, particularly the ordinary people who are struggling to cope. Women are routinely beaten and abused. The young people tend to be rude and violent. Men, when they are not abusing women, are drinking and watching sports on TV. People’s dreams are shattered by life, by circumstances and by the cruelty of others. It is not a pretty picture and a sad legacy for Astley to leave.

Thea Astley: Coda


The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s Coda. This novel is an affectionate tale about an Australian woman, Kathleen, who is getting older and dementia and incontinence are creeping on. Despite this she keeps on going, despite the fact that she gets lost or locked into shops or galleries. We follow her life: marriage to Ronald, just demobbed after the end of the war, in thrall to his father and having to run his father’s store in first in Queensland and then, after the death of his father, running the store in Honiara, Solomon Islands. Ronald cannot cope and the family moves back to Queensland, where Ronald soon dies of cancer. Kathleen brings up her two children, Brian (known as Brain) and Shamrock, both of whom do badly at school though, seemingly, make quite good marriages, even if Kathleen does not take to their respective spouses. Neither of them but particularly her daughter, Shamrock, married to a rich Member of Parliament/property developer, is particularly helpful to their mother in old age. However, it may be the end of her life and she may forget everything, but Kathleen is determined to keep going and keep going she does.

Thea Astley: Beachmasters


The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s Beachmasters. This book is set on the fictitious Pacific island of Kristi but is clearly based on what used to be the New Hebrides and is now Vanuatu. It tells the story of a somewhat ramshackle rebellion against the joint colonial powers, the British and the French, though the island of Kristi is occupied by the British. The rebellion is led by a half-caste and Astley clearly feels sympathy for both the natives and half-castes who have been exploited by the colonisers and who feel powerless. She mocks both colonial powers in the form of their representatives but also mildly mocks the rebellion. The rebels forewarn the people the day before, by knocking on their doors and telling them to stay inside the next day. One man is killed, though it is not clear how but most of the rebellion involves violence against property rather than against people. They even stop for lunch. The leader, Tommy Narota, is something of an opportunist and, while he clearly favours rebellion, he also seems just to want to show off. We know, from the beginning of the book, that his rebellion will fail and that he will be sent to prison for seven years. The book jumps around bit and while Astley clearly makes her point against colonialism, it does not always work as a novel.

Thea Astley: An Item from the Late News


The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s An Item from the Late News. This is another first-class novel from Astley on the theme of the different outsider arriving in a closed, small community and not fitting in. The outsider is known only as Wafer (we learn that his real name is Lionel). He saw his father killed by a doodlebug during World War II in London and since then he has had a mortal fear of The Bomb. He has come to the remote Queensland town of Allbut in order to build the perfect bomb shelter, which he sets out to do. But he does not fit in. He is friendly towards the despised aborigines, he is helpful to strangers and does not really drink. He even becomes close with other outsiders, Smiler Colley and his thirteen year old daughter and Moon, who may be from Louisiana and who is a fossicker, i.e someone who indulges in amateur and often illegal gem hunting. It is Moon that recognises the gemstone that Wafer has found as a valuable corundum and he wants to know where he found it. Wafer can neither remember nor does he even care. However, the rest of the townsfolk, who want to revive the town, a former successful mining town, are determined that Wafer should show them where he found it. The story is narrated by a wayward young woman, Gabby Jerrold, and we know from very early on in the book that this is not going to turn out well. Astley gives us a first-class novel on the outsider vs the community theme.

Thea Astley: The Well Dressed Explorer


The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s The Well Dressed Explorer. The eponymous well-dressed explorer is George Brewster who, when a young teenager falls in love with Nita. Nita is happy to play along but also wants to enjoy herself and not just with George. He hovers around her, returning even when his family move, but she will not be tied down. He gradually makes his name in the newspaper business, ending up in Sydney. Nita actually suggests marriage but he has no money so she goes off and marries someone else. It is no consolation to George that she is not faithful to her husband. In a fit of pique, he contacts one of the bridesmaids and, in no time at all, has married her. However, George is a thoroughly self-centred man and is continually unfaithful to Alice, his wife, as well as being unfaithful to his various mistresses. He drifts through life, drinking and chasing women or, rather, loving being adored by women, and not really achieving much in his career, where he seems to be rather mediocre. Even his daughter eventually comes to despise him. Though this book won won the Miles Franklin Award in 1962, it did not really work for me, as George Brewster was actually rather a dull character while, at the same time, being too much like too many people both in fiction and real life.

Thea Astley: A Kindness Cup


The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s A Kindness Cup. Astley deals directly with violence in this novel. The story tells of a group of white vigilantes in the early part of the last century who set out to teach a band of aborigines a lesson (nominally for stealing a baby, which they almost certainly did not do) and end up killing seven of them, including a woman. There is an inquiry but it is a mere formality and leads only to a mild reprimand. Some people in the town were and are very much opposed to these vigilantes but seem helpless against them. Twenty years later the town is celebrating a jubilee and one of the men opposing the vigilantes, a teacher called Tom Dorahy, returns to the town he had left, with the express intention of bringing the massacre up and seeking justice and/or revenge. He tries to gain the support of the others who were sympathetic but they are not too enthusiastic and are no match for the strong and still violent vigilantes. It is a strong message from Astley about how the good people are too weak or too afraid to confront such violence and how most of the town’s inhabitants want to pretend it never happened, put it all behind them and carry on with their lives.

Thea Astley: The Acolyte


The latest addition to my website is Thea Astley‘s The Acolyte. This novel is now out of print in the UK and US, which is a shame, as it is an excellent novel about both an artist who is thoroughly self-centred and a man who has no sense of purpose and worth, who becomes the acolyte of the artist. The artist is Jack Holberg, a blind musician, who starts out as a performer but becomes a celebrated composer. The acolyte is Paul Vesper, a man from a middle-class family, who has no idea what he wants in life or what career to follow. He drifts into engineering, almost drifts out of his studies, but carries on and gets a job, at which he is clearly not happy and which he eventually leaves for good. All the while he and we are following the rise of Jack Holberg, a man who uses his blindness, both to attract women – he takes Hilda, who was seemingly engaged to Vesper, and uses her as he uses everyone else – and to control and abuse others. Despite this, Paul hangs on, aware that he is merely a follower, perhaps, as someone calls him, Holberg’s eunuch. Astley tells her story very well, with a good supporting cast, also caught up in the Holberg sphere.

Gerald Murnane: The Plains


The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s The Plains. This a superb novel from Murnane, best described as a fable, about the huge central area of Australia called The Plains, which seems to be run by some very rich and powerful barons who seem to be combination of Texan cattle barons and European feudal lords. What distinguishes them from the cattle barons is that their main interests seem to be intellectual pursuits. The story is narrated by a filmmaker who wants to do what no-one else seems to have done – make a film which is set in the Plains. To do so, he has to wait in the bar where there are other supplicants, waiting to sell their products – mainly coats of arms and religion – to the barons, who are on one of their regular visits to town, where they drink and eat and talk and listen to people like our narrator. We learn something of the history of this group and their intellectual pursuits. Our narrator does manage to persuade one of the barons to take him on (as Director of Film Projects) and spends the next ten years in this remote palace with a sumptuous library, struggling with the issue that Murnane seems to have struggled with, namely, how can you capture a point of view of someone else on film or elsewhere, as we all look at things differently. What makes this book is the often almost otherworldly view of these strange barons and their arcane intellectual pursuits and how they are seen by an outsider. The book has been hailed as an Australian classic and it is easy to see why, as it is a thoroughly original work.

Gerald Murnane: A Million Windows


The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s A Million Windows. This novel(?) follows on from Barley Patch, in that it is as much about writing a novel as a novel. We are presented with a narrator who, he tells us, is not the author, though the distinction seems to me, at least, to be somewhat fine, though Murnane insists that the the discerning reader, a concept he uses frequently, will be well aware of the distinction. We get more excerpts from his life, some of which we have already seen in his previous books, as well as his comments on how and why he (and others) write. He is quite dogmatic in his views on literature, damning Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller) and, with it, all what he calls self-referential literature, i.e what we now call metafiction, as well as criticising writers such as García Márquez, Grass, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy though he does like Henry James. He also condemns cinema – he rarely goes anymore – for having had a negative effect on prose fiction, writers’ guides, the unreliable narrator and, indeed, any literary approach which is not his. He does raise some interesting points about character, point of view and author-reader trust which, while I may not always agree with him, are certainly worthwhile starting points for a discussion about what prose fiction is, shoud be, can be and should not be. Overall, however, I got the impression that there is only one way to write a novel – his way – and no other way can be tolerated. Maybe, this is an old man’s novel – he was seventy-five when this book was published – and he is now too stuck in his ways. And, maybe, for a writer to be truly great, he has to plough his own furrow, ignoring and even despising other approaches but I think, for the ordinary reader, which I certainly consider myself to be, a more open mind to prose fiction is called for.

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