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In which Netty discovers that detective fiction is a genre worth solving after all …

November 9, 2014

I’ve never been a big fan of crime fiction, for no particular reason other than I guess I just prefer other genres. And what I have read has, interestingly (or maybe not), mostly been Antipodean – Peter Corris (Cliff Hardy), Shane Maloney (Murray Whelan), Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher), Peter Temple (Jack Irish). Nothing wrong with that list!

harvest-coverDashiell Hammett – an early-to-mid 20th-century American writer of whom I had only fleetingly heard – was Andy’s choice, and one with which I was happy to go along. And I’m glad that I did – Hammett’s debut novel Red Harvest is imminently readable, well-plotted and paced, well-characterised and well-written, and I really did quite enjoy it. Even though I possibly won’t read another Hammett book – and there’s not that many of them (only five published between 1929 and 1934 – starting with Red Harvest, and most notably including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man – but numerous short stories that span four decades) – I have no qualms about having read this one.

If this all sounds like a big “but”, it is – hence my need to qualify it. I daresay at the end of year when I do my “best-of” list, Red Harvest will be bringing up the rear for no other reason than I will have better liked other books I read. And that’s obviously not the fault of this novel, more just down to my personal preferences. If you are yet to read my blogging partner Andy’s take on Red Harvest, I advise you do so (right here) – ultimately I feel it will offer a more inclusive take.

Hammett’s life itself is interesting enough to warrant a book – in fact, it has, a couple, and a movie or two to boot as well. He worked as a detective prior to enlisting in the army and serving in World Wars I and II, working in advertising, then becoming a writer, and a political activist – which lead to a brief period of incarceration in the early 1950s, when American paranoia was at its peak. Tuberculosis contracted during WWI plagued him for most of his adult life, but lung cancer claimed his life in 1961, when he was 66.

Wikipedia tells me Hammett’s unnamed narrator, referred to only as the Continental Op and a recurring character throughout his fiction, is based on the author’s own experiences as an operative in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Butte, Montana, in the mid-1910s to early 1920s; the same source says the labour dispute depicted in Red Harvest is based on a miners’ strike there in 1920. So Hammett knows his stuff, but most evocative for me was his portrayal of 1920s small-town America, post-war but pre-Depression. I have always been a sucker for such settings, and that probably will be what stays with me long after the plot is banished to the back of the memory banks.

The plot. Righto, then. The Continental Op , who works for a detective agency in San Francisco, is summoned to the city of Personville (presumably in the American Midwest and nicknamed “Poisonville” by its residents) by Donald Willsson, the publisher of its local newspaper the Herald. Donald is also the son of city overlord Elihu, who owns said newspaper, runs Personville Mining Corporation and the First National Bank, and has his fingers in every other pie in town and possibly the state. But a miners’ strike some years previously was broken by Elihu’s hired thugs who subsequently overtook the city, existing uneasily in rival gangs.

After Donald’s murder (this is not a spoiler – it happens on page four!), the Continental Op ends up in the wily old Elihu’s employ, with the dual task of solving his son’s homicide and cleaning up the town in the process – no mean task with its cast of crooked characters, all of whom have a beef with one another and are not immune to subterfuge and backstabbing, sometimes literally!

It’s a thankless task, even with Elihu’s $10,000 cheque behind it, as the death count continues to mount, leaving very few still standing in the final pages. As a weary Op notes late in the novel, “It’s this damn town. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me”, while lamenting that his boss back in San Francisco will “boil me in oil if he ever finds out what I’ve been doing”.

Now to the quibbles, again qualified as they may be. Perhaps it is due to my lack of familiarisation with this genre, but in Hammett’s depiction of a corrupt town basically at war with itself, with a large roll-call of characters, I found I too easily lost track of which minor character was doing what, and to whom; who was his friend, who was his foe – so intricate and multi-stranded is the fabric of this novel (which, I hasten to add, is but a mere 215 pages in my edition).

Perhaps it was the fact I read the book over the course of two (rather busy) weeks, when I should have – and easily could have – read it in one or two sittings. I shamefacedly admit I was about a quarter of the way through when I realised one character – who is referred to by both his name and nickname – was in fact not two separate people. D’oh!

But again, as I have said from the onset, these are my shortcomings and should not be read as a detraction. So by all means, read Red Harvest, especially if you are a fan of crime fiction, but even if you aren’t. When Andy and I caught up to chat about it, I opined that perhaps I spent so much time immersed in “difficult” books, I was left unnecessarily bewildered by their more straightforward counterparts.

Mea culpa. Perhaps.

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Red Harvest – Andy doesn’t mind getting a bit hard-boiled

November 4, 2014

Genre fiction can be a problem for a long-term lover of reading. As a kid I loved genre – scifi mostly, but also The Hardy Boys and those Adventure things Willard (not Vincent) Price wrote. And the first “adult” novel I remember reading (and thinking, “This is an adult novel”), was The Day of the Jackal. But then you hit your late teens and early twenties and you think you’re too smart for genre anything, and you stop watching Doctor Who, which is actually pretty easy because it’s not on the telly anymore and anyway it was awful after Peter Davison left, you give all your Agatha Christie novels to the op shop…

As an adult, of course, if you keep reading, you realise that genre fiction is still awesome, when it’s well done, anyway – and in fact you wonder, sometimes, if “genre” is the basis of all literature, and all storytelling, ever.

These are some of the things that occurred to me as I was reading and after I’d finished Red Harvest.

hammettHaving done a modicum of research about Dashiell Hammett since finishing Red Harvest I realise there is even more about this writer to enamour me – his left-wing activism, his relationship with Lillian Hellman, what they went through during the McCarthy obscenities,, his service during the first and second world wars, her alleged dishonesty, according to some, about pretty much everything – Hammett and Hellman and their relationship and the epoch they inhabited – this deserves excavating. Who’s got a shovel?

Red Harvest was published in 1929 and predates the Depression by months. I wonder whether it deserves to be analysed properly next to The Great Gatsby (it probably has, and I just don’t know about it). In Gatsby Fitzgerald, without actually knowing it, obviously, predicted the Depression, but a few years earlier. Hammett doesn’t predict the Depression. He just presents a microcosm of corrupt, capitalist, small-town America (read: America) and he laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

Red Harvest is a cynical, witty book. It’s also, as you’d expect from a work of genre fiction, utterly involving. Sure, it’s not convincing at every turn but it’s convincing enough – and there is one point, about two-thirds through I think, that turns the whole story on its head in a way that tells me Hammett, hard-boiled spinner of genre nonsense, knew exactly what he was doing. Fitzgerald gave his unreliable narrator a name. Hammett didn’t, but he’s almost as unreliable – withholding information from the reader on a number of occasions, allowing the reader to think that maybe he’s a murderer himself. There plenty of clever sleight-of-hand storytelling on show here.

Character might not be Hammett’s strong suit – there are a bare handful of very well-drawn and developed characters here, and quite a few who are mostly cardboard cutouts. This didn’t bother me too much – it is genre fiction, after all – but Netty might have more to say about that.

Fitzgerald and Hammett don’t have much in common, except writing around the same time. Fitzgerald is the better writer, but Hammett has been mostly, and unfairly, ignored because he was a genre writer, and perhaps because he was a commie. Earlier this year, after reading Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, I immediately ordered (and have since read) her other two collections of short stories. I’ve already downloaded (for 99 cents) a collection of Hammett’s short stories. Enjoyed Red Harvest? Just a bit.

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In which Netty peers over the Wall into Stasiland …

October 25, 2014
The view from West Berlin, circa 1986

The view from West Berlin, circa 1986

“The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose … (but) the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next.”

So writes Australian Anna Funder in the opening chapter of her 2002 non-fiction work Stasiland. It is an account of life in East Germany, behind the infamous Berlin Wall, in the latter half of the 20th century – after the end of World War II in 1945 and before the Wall was brought down in 1989, the Communist regime was uprooted, and Western democracy ushered in.

Having learned German – to the bemusement of her family – as a schoolgirl, Funder lived in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, in her early 20s. She first visited East Germany in 1987, and again in 1994 – five years after the fall of the Wall. She returned two years later, got a job in the television industry and started to collect the stories that would eventually make up Stasiland – the personal accounts of East Germans who stood up to regime, and/or were wrongfully imprisoned.

Funder examines both sides of life in East Germany under Communism and the Stasi, its notorious Ministry for State Security – from the viewpoints of its citizens and those who worked for the Stasi both officially and unofficially, whom she enlists from placing personal advertisements. And the latter was many – the country was teeming with Stasi agents and their informers. Funder is scathing in her assessment: “These obedient grey men doing it with their underpaid informers … seem at once more stupid and more sinister. Betrayal clearly has its own reward … and this regime used it as fuel.”

The book’s seeds were sown from the story of Miriam Weber, which Funder had first heard on her 1994 visit, and whose biography bookends Stasiland. In 1968, aged just 16, Miriam became an “enemy of the state” after she and a girlfriend distributed leaflets protesting against the police reaction to the Leipzig demonstrations, triggered by the demolition of a church and the next generation questioning its parents’ blind adherence to Communism. After being detained and interrogated, Miriam attempted, on New Year’s Eve of that year, to go over the Wall – and almost made it. Her failure resulted in further detainment, torture and eventual imprisonment.

After her release, Miriam was courted by sports teacher Charlie Weber, whom she eventually married. But Charlie, too, invoked the ire of the Stasi, was put under surveillance and eventually arrested and placed in a remand cell, where he ostensibly committed suicide and his funeral took place under the organisation’s foreboding shadow. Two decades later and Miriam was still trying to piece together the real story of what happened to her husband, of whom – if anyone – lay in his coffin. It is truly heartbreaking, but Miriam’s resilience shines like a beacon despite the obvious psychological damage she has endured.

Sadly but unsurprisingly there are stories like this everywhere in the old German Democratic Republic, some sitting right under Funder’s nose – such as her landlady Julia, whose slightly eccentric tics belie a history of petty injustices incurred by the state. A straight-A, multi-lingual student whose innocent relationship with an Italian man piqued the interest of the Stasi, she was consequently and repeatedly denied the opportunity to work in a country where officially there was no unemployment, and was continually under surveillance, effectively an exile in her own homeland, where she refused to join the informer ranks and was accordingly punished for doing so.

The Stasi was chillingly effective in severe psychological debasement and also a dab hand in the physical department. There is the unbelievably appalling case of Sigrid Paul and her son Torsten, whose breech birth was badly handled and whose ill health eventually forced doctors to spirit him across the border, where he remained in hospital for the next five years, basically brought up by nurses, whilst his parents were sequestered behind the Wall. Sigrid and her husband’s desperate plan to defect, with the help of a network of students who provided a safe passage across the border, was repeatedly thwarted. And Sigrid eventually made the heartrending decision not to betray the students at the expense of seeing her son, but was still imprisoned and shockingly, persistently tortured. You will find it almost impossible to believe that one human being can do such things to another – especially in the name of the state.

Like her countrywoman Helen Garner, Funder excels in this type of first-person reportage, removed only a few degrees from the “gonzo” style of journalism pioneered by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and his ilk. She emits a remarkable degree of humanity and empathy in the retelling of these tales, many of them so horrific and inhumane, nightmare Orwellian tales that are tragically all too true.

Remarkably, in the late 1990s and very early 2000s – barely a decade after the destruction of the Wall – Funder finds there is a certain amount of nostalgia amongst some East Berliners for the Stasi era. As several note, life under capitalism has more than its share of challenges – amongst them housing, food, social security, health. Time might not heal all wounds, but it does taint memories, and can skew a past viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

Stasiland is an important, must-read book, for no other reason than it is vital that we keep these atrocious stories alive in the hope that we, mankind, never repeats them. Although I fear that in a world that descends further into chaos with every passing day, this might prove a moot point. But I hope not – and the survival of hope is the overarching message behind Stasiland. We ignore it at our own peril.

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Stasiland – Andy’s Berlin obsession detains him once again

October 21, 2014

When it comes to cities I’ve not visited that I want to visit New York trumps Berlin, but only just. In fact I have visited Berlin, once, sort of – I was on some dodgy semi-independent bus toury thing of Europe, Eurobus I think it was called, in the mid-nineties – independent in that you could choose where you wanted to stay and how long, semi-independent in that you could only go to the cities on the bus route. Berlin was towards the end of that route and I was uncertain about how much money I had left (this predates being able to check your bank balance from your sonic, sorry smartphone), and I assumed Berlin would be pricey, so having spent quite a few days in dirt-cheap Prague and Budapest I decided to give presumably outrageously expensive Berlin a miss. The bus drove through Berlin, , I looked out the window, we went on to Hamburg and I found an ATM that could give me a bank balance. My UK tax return had come through, and there was five thousand bucks in my account, and I could have spent days in Berlin, after all.

Oh well.

At that stage my fascination with Berlin was fuelled by my knowledge of the Weimar Republic and my reading of Christopher Isherwood. Pretty much everything I have learned about Berlin since has stoked my desire to visit that city. Anna Funder’s Stasiland stoked quite a bit more.

stasilandNetty wanted to read this. I wasn’t keen. I’m not sure why, although I guess maybe as an old if marginally reformed leftie I was expecting “everything about everything that the commies tried to do in the twentieth century was totally awful”. I wasn’t expecting nuance, slightly jaded sympathy for the aims of the communism, a preparedness to hear the voices of those who were determined to (mostly delusionally) defend the police state they helped maintain. But surprisingly Funder supplied pretty much all of those things.

Funder – who visited Germany, as recorded here anyway, just months before me – gets the profound decency of what communism was trying to achieve. She also gets the horror of the lengths communists were prepared to go to get there. The laughable adherence of the men (and they are all men, I think) who worked for the Stasi to the principles they were trained to uphold cannot stand the horror of what was inflicted on those (in Funder’s account, mostly women) who were found by the state to be in breach of its ideals.

There is commentary from Funder, of course, but it is measured and balanced. Mostly she is happy to simply allow those she interviewed to tell their stories. While it’s often grim reading there is plenty of (mostly dark) humour, especially in some of the system built-in idiocies.

East Germany did not kill people in the way Stalin’s Russia, or even Lenin’s Russia, did. But it killed people, and some of those stories are told here. It also blighted people’s lives, in unbelievable ways. And all in pursuit of a vision of society that was never going to be fulfilled. What’s particularly fascinating about Funder’s book is that it tells a story of a very specific society, constructed it seems almost overnight, that differed vastly from what it replaced – and which disappeared after less than half a century. Some of the people Funder interviewed may well be dead by now.

They’re horrified when people say it, but fundamentalists of all stripes – Muslim. Christian, Jew Nazi Fascist Commie Khmer Rough – have the same thing in common: the perfection of the human being. In godspeak perfection is unachievable, because “mankind” is stained forever by sin, but we’re expected to strive towards those unattainable ideals that god set us and (in its more extreme versions) kill those who transgress them: in the political fundamentalisms the belief is that perfection is actually achievable, here and now. East Germany was one of so many tragic failed experiments on that road.

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In which Netty goes into the past to see the future – and why you need to read Don DeLillo’s Mao II right now

October 2, 2014

cover-maoiiWow. Just … wow.

Sometimes I wonder, as I make my way through Don DeLillo’s back catalogue, if the man isn’t half-clairvoyant. His 10th novel Mao II, published in 1992, is so eerily prescient of what is making headlines today – some 22 years later – that reading it feels almost like a warning sign (cue Talking Heads’ David Byrne, all the way back in 1978, singing: “Hear my voice, it’s saying something and it’s not very nice”.)

So, Don, about the numbers for this week’s lotto draw …

But seriously, this is the book they should shoot into space, so that long after we are gone, many, many light years later, some alien life form will stumble upon it and go, “Aha. We get it. That’s why they’re not around any more.”

Mao II – named after American pop artist Andy Warhol’s famous mass-produced silkscreen print of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which appears and recurs as a motif throughout the novel – is also a literature teacher’s wet dream. It’s a compact guide to the modern global world, chock-full of contemporary themes and mores, name-checking the major events of the late 20th century, from mass Moonie weddings to the Hillsborough football tragedy to the death and funeral of Iran leader the Ayatollah Khomeini. The book’s prologue ends with the sentence, “The future belongs to crowds”, and it is its overarching theme – from the safety and sanctity of the crowd, to its potential for mayhem and absolute disaster.

The main character is a man who wants nothing whatsoever to do with crowds – and to that end has become a virtual recluse. Bill Gray is a sixtysomething novelist in the Salinger/Pynchon mode – many years ago he wrote a couple of books that became touchstones for a generation, and the fact that he has disappeared off the radar, not releasing any new material since, just makes him more of a magnet for the people he most wishes to eschew.

Scott, the personal assistant who has lived with Bill for eight years, is one such tenacious fan who seeks out his literary hero and manages to secure a position in Bill’s life and home in upstate New York. He lives there with his girlfriend Karen, who, in the book’s prologue, is one of the 13,000 brides being married at Yankee Stadium under the banner of the Unification Church. After being captured and deprogrammed by her family, she escapes and is later found by Scott wandering the streets of a small town in Kansas. While Scott oversees Bill’s archives, deals with his fan mail and proofreads his new work, Karen keeps house and surreptitiously sleeps with Bill – which, bizarrely, seems to receive Scott’s tacit approval.

In anticipation of the release of a new novel, Bill agrees to be photographed by New York snapper Brita Nilsson, who has devoted her life’s work to taking pictures of famous and important writers. It will be the first new photos of Bill published in three decades. Afterwards, Bill goes to New York City to meet with his long-time publisher Charlie Everson, who, in addition to pressing Bill about his new work, tells him about a Swiss UN worker and poet who is being held hostage by a terrorist organisation in Beirut. Charlie, who also chairs a “high-minded committee on free expression”, has concocted a plan where Bill will appear at a press conference in London and read from the poet’s work before he is released. “Your group gets press, their new group gets press, the young man is sprung from his basement room, the journalists get a story,” Bill deadpans.

Without informing Scott, Bill jets off to London for the press conference, but bomb threats – and then an explosion on a London street – delay the event. Charlie and Bill meet with George Haddad, a representative of the Beirut group who later tracks down Bill and talks him into going to Athens, then Beirut, to negotiate the poet’s release without his publisher’s knowledge or intervention. Bill opines that novelists and terrorists are playing “a zero-sum game”. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” he says. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

Bill continues: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” When George chips in that terrorists are “the only possible heroes for our time”, Bill vehemently disagrees: “It’s pure myth, the terrorist as solitary outlaw. These groups are backed by repressive governments … they carry the old wild-eyed vision, total destruction and total order.”

Later, the photographer Brita, working as a freelancer, accepts an assignment in war-torn Beirut to take pictures of the organisation’s leader Abu Rashid, who says to her: “I will tell you why we put Westerners in locked rooms. So we don’t have to look at them. They remind us of the way we tried to mimic the West … which you now see exploded all around you.” And this: “Terror is what we use to give our people their place in the world … terror makes the new world possible.”

Read those words, written in 1992, and tell me you don’t have the chill of recognition. These scenarios, these words, could have been ripped out of yesterday’s newspapers. And, as has been said before, many times throughout the years, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

You need to read this book. Right now. It won’t always be a pleasant experience, and you won’t always enjoy it, but you will come away with the feeling that you can make just a little more sense of this convoluted, fucked-up, loony-toons crazy world we have created and continue to hone.

Wow. Just … wow.

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The Nice and the Good – Andy and Iris go to Smuggler’s Top

September 24, 2014

“I am sunk in the wreck of myself, thought Theo. I live in myself like a mouse inside a ruin. I am huge, sprawling, corrupt and empty. The mouse moves, the ruin moulders. This is all.”

Well, look, I’m pretty sure we all felt that way the time we read our last Famous Five novel.

The Nice and the goodThe Blyton reference is slight. Iris Murdoch’s 1968 novel The Nice and the Good is set, mostly, by the sea (more about that in a bit). There’s a smuggler’s cave in there, not a smuggler’s top, but you get the connection. And there’s a mystery to solve – a murder mystery (did the Famous Five ever do murder mysteries, or was that a bit too Adults Only?), and a murder mystery embroidered with Satanic rituals and bureaucratic weirdness – Actually it’s not a murder mystery, it’s a suicide mystery – but then maybe it is a murder mystery – but then -

You get where I’m going, hopefully.

There is bureaucracy, anyway, and not all of it’s confined to the office. There is a Big House in the Country story, there is mystery and there is metaphysics – although, as the aforequoted Theo says, “All metaphysics is devilish, devilish.” Was this the view of Murdoch, novelist and philosopher? Or was it perhaps the view of Murdoch the one, but not the other?

No idea. Soz.

The Nice and the Good’s main character, essentially, is John Ducane. A middle-aged, middle-class bureaucrat, probably an atheist, certainly an agnostic, but with a strange Calvinist twist to his morality. He seems to believe in an ethics that is above the realm of existence, without actually believing in realms of any sort. He likes women, his age and younger, but he also likes his butler, although he is offended – deeply – by suggestions he might be “queer”. He is regarded by his friends, many of whom he congregates with at a family home on the coast, as a supreme moral arbiter. Except he’s not, and when he’s honest with himself he knows that. He’s called upon by his boss, who is also the owner of that coastal family home, to investigate a suicide by a bureaucratic odd bod who turns out to have had a side line in strange, demonic rituals, involving prostitutes and – er – pigeons.

Like A Severed Head before it, The Nice and the Good is regarded by many critics as one of Murdoch’s explorations of “the ’60s” and, like A Severed Head, I don’t swallow it. Buy it. Sorry. The Nice and the Good involves a crew as bourgeois if not more so than A Severed Head, and what they get up to is timid in comparison to what I am led to believe was par for the course in that Mythical Decade. Murdoch does, though, touch on (sorry!) gay sexuality in an interesting way, tangentially perhaps, but it’s there. At the end of chapter three Ducane feels, “not for the first time, a distinct impulse to lay his hand upon” his butler’s shoulder as they drive home. At the end of chapter 16 he just does it. “He even shifted it a little so that his fingers curved gently, without gripping, over the bone of the shoulder. The contact brought to Ducane the intense and immediate comfort which it now seemed to him he had been seeking for all day.” Ducane’s butler, for his part, “gazed impassively straight ahead.”

In the previous chapter something similar happens to the aforequoted Theo, “uncle” to the precocious Edward and Henrietta who read like the precursors to a couple of especially obnoxious Blyton characters. Theo spends all of chapter 15 philosophising with his friend Willy, a survivor of the Holocaust, and this is the chapter from which the “devilish” quote comes. Willy lives in a shack up the back of the country house’s garden, and is impotent (well…). A discussion about forgiveness and absolution towards the chapter’s end culminates as “Theo leaned down, until his brow was touching” Willy’s “silky white hair. He closed his eyes and let his arms slide forward over Willy’s shoulders to receive the comfort he had come to receive, the close caressing pressure of Willy’s hands upon his.”

Theo, it transpires, is definitely gay, and this is at the heart of his tragedy. Ducane almost certainly isn’t, although I suspect Murdoch was writing about him within a ’60s context where sexuality, to the more enlightened, was more fluid than most of us now understand it scientifically to be. These are not remotely important elements of the book but, me being a poof and all, they intrigue me.

The sea is almost a character itself in this book, as the Thames was in Under the Net and as the lake by the convent was in The Bell. I don’t remember there being an especially significant body of water in A Severed Head, but I might be wrong. The next Murdoch novel I’m planning to read is The Sea, The Sea. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about bodies of water after that.

Metaphysical discussions about this novel focus on the title, and the idea that “the nice” refers to sex, and “the good” refers to decency – well, that’s my word – but let’s say. living ethically. Ducane is a man who can get sex, or at least physical intimacy, but who also struggles to understand how he should behave in a moral sense. Most of the other characters don’t quite engage on the ethical level in quite the same way – Octavian and Kate, for example, owners of the country house and, initially, by Murdoch’s clever sleight of hand, the book’s moral centre, are actually kind of appalling, if slightly likable, human beings. The last chapter, though, seems to me perhaps a key to what Murdoch is saying.

It begins with sated teenage lust, and progresses through late middle-age compromise, early middle-age happiness (or possibly compromise), the hint of cross-generational sexual happiness, discussion of a divorced couple’s reconciliation, Theo’s remembrance of a boy he knew in India, when he was a boy himself; and finally Henrietta and Edward, brother and sister, fantasising about the flying saucer they bragged of in chapter two. “They never spoke when the saucer was present.” Murdoch’s depiction of the children and the flying saucer in the final scene is perfect. The flying saucer’s “real”, and the children really see it. And then: “Hand in hand the children began to run homeward through the soft warm drizzle.”

So, to outrageously misrepresent Ms Murdoch, is her final scene suggesting that the search for “ethics” is as meaningless as the search for flying saucers? That yes, we can all see them, if we want to, but they don’t actually exist? That the desire to understand the “nice” and the “good” and the difference between them is in fact “devilish, devilish”?

I don’t actually think so. The conclusion of this novel led me to think Murdoch was leaning towards a Buddhist understanding of morality.. But I’m probably wrong with that, too. What is more important than all that nonsense is that this is an awesome novel. The Bell is probably better, but only just. The Nice and the Good is terrific.

Although yes. I do realise I may have sprinkled some spoilers, here and there. Sorry about that.

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The Songlines – Bruce and Andy aren’t quite in tune

September 19, 2014

“They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.”

songlinesSpoiler: That’s the last line of The Songlines. It’s not really a spoiler, but there are three dying Aboriginal guys on the last page of the book. You don’t find out about them until the last chapter so I’m not really spoiling anything. Among the countless stretches of Chatwin’s writing that impressed me, though, these final words, a magic combination of brevity and poetry, left me dumbstruck. You just don’t expect to find non-fiction this wondrous.

I put the book down, I swigged my beer, I picked up my iPad, and I wiki’d The Songlines. Arguably a bad move. Because apparently, as Netty mentioned, The Songlines isn’t non-fiction. It’s a combination of fiction and reportage. I’m not quite sure what that even means. I mean, as someone who has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and a reporter for some of that time, I think I know what reportage is. And as someone who has been writing stories since he could pick up a crayon I think I know what fiction is. And as a reader of fiction I think I know what autobiographical fiction is, and historical fiction, too. Contemporary fiction that involves current circumstances? Sure. Combinations of all of the above? OK.

But a book that presents itself as the record of a man who spends a significant amount of time in the Outback, among the Outback;s indigenous peoples, with many of those people’s friends and some of their enemies, that turns out to be partly fictitious? Err…

I could do my research. I am sure there are websites out there that sort out exactly what is reportage here and what is fiction. But I haven’t done my research. And I’m not saying The Songlines is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a pretty awesome book, actually. It’s just that it’s not what I thought it was. And if Netty is right, and you find it in the fiction section at bookshops, then perhaps what I thought it was is not what it was intended to be. (I found it in the fiction section of a secondhand bookshop, and simply assumed the staff at said secondhand bookshop were a bit shit at their jobs.)

There are so many people in this book, so many situations, to cherish. Arkady, the “Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals”, first and foremost. Or Enid Lacey, the hard-nosed, canny owner of an Alice bookshop, broker of indigenous artists; or Dan Flynn, Aboriginal apostate from the Benedictine brotherhood. There’s the unpleasantness of Chatwin’s visit to the Katherine pub, an unappetising desert fry-up with a crazed old commie; and a couple of quite funny scenes, one in which an Aboriginal painter calls out a dealer on the money she’s paying him, as opposed to what she’s selling for in Adelaide, and another where Bruce is taken on a kangaroo hunt, and yet another, where he goes for a not terribly successful mountain walk.

And this is all fascinating, and enthralling, and beautifully written – my god, he could write – but how much of it is true? And how much of it did Chatwin make up? I get, I really do, that there is a school of thought that says that questiojn is irrelevant. Hey, I’ve read The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I get metafiction. I get post-modernism. I don’t agree, not remotely, with post-modernism’s philosophical underpinnings. But I get it.

Would that have been Chatwin’s excuse? There is no intellectual or philosophical distinction between fiction and non-fiction, therefore why should I make the distinction in my writing? Maybe. All I can say is a writer I was initially enamoured of is now I writer for whom I have a little suspicion. I was going to read something more of his in the very near future. I’m not so sure now.

PS: I read a big chunk of this in Vietnam, including the notebook sections, towards the end – and, like Netty, while I enjoyed them, I wonder if they needed to be edited back a bit. Anyhoo: In the notebook extracts that follow Chapter 31 Chatwin recounts a 1971 London dinner party attended by a “very tall American” who was on his way back to the US after a “fact-finding” mission in Vietnam that had included a bombing raid over Hanoi. “The North Vietnamese have lost between a half and a third of a generation of their young fighting men,” the very tall American smugly drawls at the dinner table, ” … which is why we anticipate a military victory, in Vietnam, in the course of 1972.” I’m not sure how Chatwin saw this relating to his narrative, or his thesis about human evolution and language and song. But I do know I have never visited a country as vibrant, a people as determined not just to make a go of it but to take that go into the stratosphere, as Vietnam. And so, verily, I say unto thee, O very tall American: Fuck You. Fuck You All All Your Kind.

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