Archive for the ‘June’ Category

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ANRC 16: Guest blogger Lee on Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings

June 6, 2016

When I was a kid, Jamaica was a place where they played cricket with a cavalier attitude.

A few years later and it was the source of “the reggae music”. Of course it was happening when I was a kid, but who could find it in Bendigo in the early ‘70s, or even on radio.

james-coverBob Marley and the Wailers were my introduction to reggae, later I would find there were many others, but Marley has been described as the first Third World superstar, and few would argue.

As a cadet journalist at the Bendigo Advertiser in 1976 I remember being aware of his being shot in December.

The shooting, its lead up and aftermath provide the starting point for Marlon James’s novel.

Fair warning, the only place Bob Marley is mentioned by name is on the back cover of my edition. For James’s novel he is the Singer.

This is a grim and gritty tale of a Third World country where power resides in the shadows and its protagonists are blunt instruments to achieve their ends.

The multi-strand narrative, its scope and voices put it in league with such novels as Don Delillo’s Underworld, American Tabloid, by James Ellroy, and Richard Price’s Clockers, but by the end the prevailing mood cleaves more tightly with Nelson Algren’s bleak Never Come Morning. For every Singer who climbs out of the ghetto, there are so many more who ensure that not only do they not escape, they provide the means of enslavement of others.

James uses many voices to reveal his story, each individual offering windows to actions and motives that might or might not be relevant to the central story.

A word here for the reader, his use of patois can at times be impenetrable, but stick with it. Word is Brief History of Seven Killings is being made into a TV series, so subtitles might help.

For the first four parts, the tale is told in turn by the protagonists. There is dialogue, but only told from the point of view of the narrator of the part.

And those narrators include gang bosses, underbosses, kids who do their bidding, a groupie, an American music journalist, CIA and ex-CIA operatives, a revolutionary, politicians – almost anyone, except the Singer, who is present as the shooting victim, to be observed and to observe justice being meted out later.

One of the towering achievements is to give each a distinctive voice, vocabulary and personality through their voices. James helpfully provides a list at the start that proves helpful in keeping track of the players.

The Jamaica depicted here is a short distance from cricket’s Sabina Park but a long way for those living in these ghettos, fictional suburbs about where Trench Town is situated.

The gang territories are marked out and woe betide the member who transgresses. Copenhagen City is the domain of Papa-Lo and his lieutenant Josey Wales, Shotta Sherrif rules the Eight Lanes and there are various sub-gangs in this corrugated iron landscape. Of course, it can be worse, that would be the Garbagelands.

Politics is central to the story and largely irrelevant to the foot soldiers. The gangs are allied with the JLP or PNP, but when gang members are sent out to do the bosses’ and their bosses’ bidding, it is for short-term reward, drugs usually, not ideology.

The CIA has raised its presence, fearful Jamaica will become another domino just over the horizon from the United States, while the revolutionary is happy to provide hardware to help the communist cause, or any cause that will pay his price.

It then later moves to the criminal enterprises of the Jamaicans in New York, ideology well and truly in the rear view mirror.

The narratives continue, though the contributors dwindle in number, mostly because they die, and never happily or of old age.

In the author’s note at the end there is a warning to his mother about a section, now whether it is because the violence steps up or the gay sex is moot. Both serve to advance the story and are in context, so hopefully Marlon’s mum understood.

If this all seems a little vague the main concern is that a wrong word here or there could so easily spoil what is a great read.

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In which Netty reads Houellebeq’s Atomised and wonders what’s French for “not my cup of tea” …

July 29, 2015

So when you think about France, what comes to mind? For me, it’s the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, jaunty berets, the River Seine, Champagne, cheese, the Champs D’Elysee … so basically, landmarks and the culinary. All the usual clichés.

Not necessarily someone you'd expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with ...

Not necessarily someone you’d expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with …

Andy says it was his idea to read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, but I do recall I was equally enthusiastic – the French author having been reasonably high up my to-read list for a while now. (It’s a pretty long list.) I was under the impression – not incorrect – that he was the enfant terrible of modern literature in that country; to my mind a French version of, say, Will Self. Or Chuck Palahniuk. I was sort of right – Houellebecq, to this reader, lacks the dark, sly wit and audacious verve, respectively, of the former pair.

Or maybe’s it my old bete noir – the whole “lost in translation” thing (for the record, Atomised was translated by Irishman Frank Wynne, who shared the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with Houellebecq for this work.)

But I suspect not. Because there is something else that springs to mind when one thinks about all things Francophile – and that is Satre-styled existentialism. There’s more than a bit of that going on in these pages. But, you know, they’re French. It’s in their DNA, non?

Actually, Sartre has been tossed around by Andy and me as a possible ANRC candidate for a few years now. He usually ends up getting rejected – by me – on the grounds that it’ll be too hard. I attempted to read Nausea at high school but gave up. Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d tried to read it in English (boom! tish!)

OK, so we’ve established Andy didn’t like the book, and didn’t even hate it enough to like it. You can read his hilarious put-down here. As for me, I wouldn’t say I particularly liked it either – I found it quite dark, unremittingly bleak, incorporating an extremely pessimistic world view and devoid of hope for mankind in the future. Now, that is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me – after all, I am a HUGE fan of The Cure – but this novel left me feeling a bit depressed. For about a nanosecond – I’ve always been a glass half-full kinda gal. But if you’re not, either don’t read it, or up your Xanax prescription before you do. Which does kind of defeat the purpose.

Interestingly, Houellebeq’s mother Lucie Ceccaldi, from whom he is estranged, published her own book in 2008 (Atomised, his second novel, was published in 2001) to publicly correct perceived wrongs in the latter about the character she believes to be based on herself.

It appears she’s not off target on that assumption. Because Houellebeq has not only given one of his two main protagonists his name, he has also given the character his own back story. And in Atomised, the mother “character” (who shares Houellebeq’s mother’s surname) does not come out of things smelling like les fleurs, to put it mildly. In fact, she’s a selfish, pleasure-seeking narcissist only too keen to offload her two young sons in pursuit of her own desires. Houellebeq skewers 1960s hippie culture, its forebears and its offspring at every given opportunity throughout these pages. Some people go to a shrink to sort out the mess of their upbringing; others air their family’s dirty laundry among the pages of a book. No prizes for guessing into which camp the Ceccaldi/Houellebeqs fall …

Back to the book then. It is essentially the story of two half-brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clement, set against the backdrop of the mid-to-late 20th century, and then, in the epilogue, casting forward into the future. As the novel opens, Michel, a fortysomething molecular biologist at the forefront of his field, is having something of a mid-life crisis, so he takes a year off his position to “think”. His older half-brother Bruno (they share the same mother), a divorced ex-schoolteacher, is also in the throes of a mid-life crisis, one which he is handling in the more traditional way.

The brothers, both of whom were brought up by their respective grandmothers – Michel by his paternal grandmother, Bruno by his maternal grandmother – do not meet until it is engineered by their parents when the boys are in their mid-teens. Extremely different in personality, theirs is an uneasy, yet consistent brotherly relationship.

Neither man has a successful personal life. Michel is essentially asexual, not having lost his virginity until his 30s, despite having had a great, largely one-sided, unconsummated teenage love affair with Annabelle, who reappears in his adult life. Bruno, meanwhile, is a sex-obsessed libertine who rarely has his interest reciprocated, despite the number of new-age sex camps he attends – until he meets his match in Christiane. But by this advanced stage of the book, the reader can guess – correctly, and I don’t think that’s a spoiler – that there can be no happy endings for these characters.

Late in the novel one character tells Michel: “In the end, life breaks your heart. Doesn’t matter how brave you are, or how reserved, or how much you’ve developed a sense of humour … there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. You might say, after that, there’s only death”. And therein lies the raison d’etre of this novel: essentially, that life is fucked, people are fucked, and we’re all going to die. That’s it – it’s a joke without a punchline.

I don’t know – call me a perpetual optimist, but I prefer at least a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Then, as Andy points out, Atomised gets all weird and meta and futuristic and science fiction-ey, and the reader learns the truth about Michel’s life’s work in molecular biology and where science may eventually lead the human race.

Look, I’m sure this book is someone’s idea of fun, to quote the aforementioned Will Self, but it wasn’t mine. But, you know, whateves. Books can be a crap shoot sometimes. C’est la vie.

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In which Netty tries to come to grips with Babel-17 – and the whole sci-fi genre in general …

July 1, 2015

Well, obviously this wasn’t my choice. I say obviously, because as regular readers (all three of ‘em! Haven’t made that joke for a while now!) know, Andy is the one who does regular laps of the sci-fi pool, while I merely sit on the side and occasionally dip my toe in the water.  

A late 1980s artist's impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later ...

A late 1980s artist’s impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later …

Although I must say that at the behest of my blogging partner-in-crime, I am a lot more comfortable with this genre than I used to be. I may have even been mildly enthusiastic when he suggested American author Samuel R. Delaney (He’s gay! He’s black! He writes sci-fi! His best book is 900 pages long! Errrr …)

Actually, we could have read Dahlgren (the aforementioned book), but instead we settled on Babel-17 – a shorter and sweeter option at 192 pages. My copy is part of the well-regarded Gollancz SF Masterworks series, which publishes reissues of “important” (I don’t know who judges what makes the cut) sci-fi books from 1950 onwards. I reckon I’ve read about half a dozen of these now; I have even enjoyed them. Which just goes to show, you can’t always judge a genre by its cover …

I am probably more sympathetic towards Babel-17 than Andy, maybe because my expectations aren’t that high. Which is not to say it’s a bad book – it’s not, and I note that it won the prestigious Nebula Award (for best sci-fi novel of the year, that year being 1966, in this case). However …

It took me a while to get into the swing of reading sci-fi, but what I found helped immeasurably was not attempting to try and understand everything that is going on. Sometimes you’ve just got to let the words wash over you. Well, that was the key for me, at any rate. That, and suspending one’s sense of (dis)belief. 

The timeframe of Babel-17 is unspecified, but presumably it is set several centuries from now. There’s a 20-year-long intergalactic war going on between the Alliance and the Invaders. The Alliance have been intercepting communications from the enemy that they believe to be a code, which keep cropping up before major, catastrophic accidents believed to actually be incidents of sabotage. They solicit the services of a galaxy-famous poet and linguist specialist Rydra Wong, who soon ascertains that the dispatches are in fact a language, dubbed Babel-17 (geddit?)

Here’s where things get a bit complicated – the whole novel is based on a non-linguistic concept known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “that language actively shapes perception and mental processes” (I am quoting here from Adam Roberts’ introduction to my copy of the novel). The character of Wong, who speaks multiple earth and extraterrestrial languages, also displays telepathic tendencies; she becomes a conduit for Babel-17, which takes over the minds of its users, as she deciphers it.

Oh, I should also mention that Wong, as well as being a famous poet, is also astonishingly beautiful and an experienced space captain. And she’s only 26. And therein lies one of my big problems with this genre – or my scant acquaintance with it – the portrayal of female characters.  

I mean, kudos to Delaney for making his main character a female captain, putting her in charge of a largely male crew, and sending her out on a space mission to grapple with the various conundrums surrounding the mind-bending Babel-17, and in the process somehow managing to bring an end to the crippling interstellar conflict (which is all-too-neatly resolved and packaged up by the novel’s end, another major quibble of mine). Oh, and during the journey she also finds love with a rival who may or may not be the real enemy. I mean, really? Now, I might be a cynic and/or a pedant, but I would have expected a bit more than a white-picket-fence ending for our brave heroine.

Maybe I’m reading (boom! tish!) too much into it. Maybe I should accept the (many) plot improbabilities and just go with the flow. Because Babel-17 is first and foremost an entertaining romp with some fantastically fun characters. The night Wong spends in Transport town with an out-of-his-depth customs officer while she is assembling her crew is riotous. Later, a touching camaraderie develops between the crew, who have unwittingly co-opted the services of an onboard saboteur who not only threatens the mission but could also cost them their lives. On face value this is a journey that is not going to end well. But then – oh. I already pre-empted that, didn’t I? Dang. 

The problem, as far as I can see it, is that sci-fi (like heavy metal) is a prejudged genre like no other. The people who say they “hate” sci-fi (and I used to be one of those people) are unlikely to have read much of it, or maybe even any at all. And herein lies its issue as far as attracting new readers. I can say with confidence that were it not for Andy’s influence, I would not have read any sci-fi. But I am pleased that I did. I reckon it makes us a little less ignorant and a little more likely to give thought to what lies beyond both space and time. And that can only be a good thing.

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Bad Behavior – Andy gets down and dirty with Mary Gaitskill

July 20, 2014

“Hate” may be too strong a word for Netty’s reaction to these stories. “Contempt” probably isn’t. She certainly didn’t like them, did she? I didn’t like them so much I’ve already ordered in Gaitskill’s other two collections of stories (she is not widely available in Australia). I don’t think I’d heard of the writer before Netty mentioned her late last year. I’m quite glad she got the name wrong.

This is the first image that comes up when you google "bad behavior"

This is the first image that comes up when you google “bad behavior”

On one level Netty’s criticisms have some grounds – the stories are autobiographical and self-indulgent, the woman in most if not all of them is essentially a version of Gaitskill, and some of  what she experiences and does is duplicated in a story here and a story there. I suppose I can understand why someone might find these things irritating. I didn’t. I loved it.

Maybe I’m reading something into these stories that isn’t there, or maybe Netty missed it, or maybe Netty didn’t miss it, maybe it’s there and she detected it and it annoyed here even more. But there’s an irony at work in most of these stories, a self-deprecatory distance that compensates for the stories’ self-indulgence. Yes, Mary says, I’m writing about myself. But god, was I a prat or what? If these stories are, for the most part, autobiographical, I don’t think Gaitskill necessarily has that much time for herself as she recounts the situations in which she has found herself in the past. That might be too strong. There is authorial empathy, but also disdain.

The snatch of WH Auden (Auden’s snatch! Ooh err vicar!) that opens Bad Behavior is a tad beguiling. September 1, 1939 was the day Germany invaded Poland and is generally regarded as the day World War II began. Mingling words like “conventions” and “furniture” and “home” with words like “conspire” and “fort” suggests, to me at least, conflict on the home front – the battle of the sexes, perhaps? – while “lost in a haunted wood” perfectly conjures New York’s “blackboard jungle” (sans teachers, natch). “Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good” arguably describes every character in this collection.

"I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs."

“I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs.”

Not all of the stories impressed equally; among my favourites would be A Romantic Weekend, which is a truly hilarious account of complete breakdown in communication between a woman who thinks she is a masochist but probably just feels a bit sorry for herself and a man who thinks he’s a sadist and probably is, but is also a total dick. They get to a point late in the story where they begin to understand each other, and then, by story’s end, are pretty much back exactly where they started. The two most explicit sex-work stories, Something Nice and Trying to Be, were also favourites (prostituion may be mentioned in a couple of other stories, but in these two it’s central). Something Nice is written from a male perspective, as is the first story, Daisy’s Valentine, which is good but not as impressive. This shift of perspective adds another level to the collection, and the final scene of Something Nice is fabulous. Secretary is also memorable, as is Heaven, the final story, and I disagree with Netty about that story’s final scene – it’s actually wonderful and heartbreaking, given what’s come before.

In among the occasionally sado-masochistic sex, and the more often run-of-the-mill sex, the booze and the drugs, the wannabe writers, the prostitution, the most horrible workplaces, the mostly horrible parties, the mostly horrible apartments, the mostly horrible people, there’s another dominant theme in at least a couple of stories: the alienated best friend. Clearly during her first years in New York Gaitskill’s friendships were occasionally fraught. Perhaps the friendships referenced in Bad Behavior boil down to just the one, or maybe Mary was a tad contrary and alienated a bunch of people. Either way, it’s almost as obvious a motif in the collection as sex work.

I will acknowledge there are a couple of factors that might cloud my judgment of these stories. The first is that they are all very New York, a city I’ve never visited, a city I must. must visit sometime soon. I don’t know why I’m so goddamned obsessed with it but I am. And obviously I’ll be disappointed as all fuck when I finally get there, because it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, but get there I must. These stories are set in a New York I suspect no longer exists – written in the 70s, I believe, published in the 80s. Doesn’t matter. I want.

The other factor is that the stories I write myself, and very occasionally manage to get published, are autobiographical and self-indulgent and quite often rather filthy and at least (I hope) slightly ironic and self-deprecating. So I guess, you know, Gaitskill might’ve struck a chord of some sort, on that level. Although mine are all waaaaay shorter, and not remotely as good.

In closing, I would like to inform the woman on the front cover of my edition, and also Netty’s: That is not how you plank. If you want an exercise that hits your abs, kindly refer to a workout manual. Thank you.

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A Severed Head – Andy and Aunty Iris have a naughty night in

July 14, 2014

A Severed Head, published in 1961, is one of Iris Murdoch’s most popular novels – understandably. It’s about sex, it’s very funny, it’s clever, it’s about sex, it’s satirical and farcical and very funny, it’s brilliantly constructed… did I mention it’s about sex?

a-severed-headMartin Lynch-Gibbon (snorkle), 41, is married to the slightly older Antonia, and having an apparently carefree affair with the much younger Georgie. Antonia is in therapy with the slightly older (than her) American, Palmer Anderson, a very good friend of Martin’s. Martin finds the whole therapy thing slightly frivolous, but accepts his wife seems to find some benefit in it. Martin heads home from a pre-Christmas romp with Georgie, expecting to spend a perfectly average evening with Antonia, only to be told – by Antonia – that she is in love with Palmer, has been having an affair with Palmer for some time, and wants a divorce.

I won’t give much more away that that. There are a couple of other characters in the mix – Martin’s brother Alexander, a sculptor, whose studio features a likeness of Antonia as well as an unfinished head – and Palmer’s half-sister Honor. Between them, these six characters – Martin, Georgie, Antonia, Palmer, Honor and Alexander – weave a wondrous, ridiculous erotic pastiche. While these six do not partake of same-sex activities among themselves they do talk about it a bit, and Martin’s two lesbian secretaries are probably in the only stable relationship in the entire book.

A Severed Head is widely regarded as a “harbinger” of the sexual revolution of the 60s. I’m not convinced by this. Most of the novel’s characters are middle-aged, for a start, while the supposed revolution of the 60s was driven by “the youth”. They’re mostly also terribly middle-class, and terribly fond of the trappings of a middle-class existence; these are exactly the things the 60s – supposedly – rejected.

One aspect, and a hilarious one, that perhaps does presage the sexual revolution is the insistence, on Antonia and Palmer’s part, that Martin be, not only not angry with them, but happy that they have found happiness, and continue to be a part of their lives. And they, of course, will be happy for him, whenever he finds happiness … Wherever he finds it. This fuggly cuddly nonsense does strike me as terribly 60s, and it is terribly, hysterically well done. Antonia and Palmer are at their obnoxious best in these scenes.

The “severed head” of the novel’s title is referenced a couple of times in the book – Alexander has a couple of heads in his studio, and towards the novel’s end Honor – a professor of anthropology – discusses the severed heads of “savage” tribes around the world. Perhaps I’m a bit obsessed, but the only severed head I could think of as I read this book was the severed head of the cuckolded husband – Martin, who, psychically at least, has had his dick cut off.

This leads me to one of the few aspects of the novel that bothered me. Martin is described early on, by Honor, as a violent man. Martin doesn’t seem too unhappy about this. While there are far too many violent men around in 2014 I’m not sure there are that many educated, middle-class, middle-aged run-of-the-mill chaps out there who’d be happy to hear a woman tell them they are violent. Before Honor says this to Martin he has already threatened to break his wife’s neck. After she says it he violently assaults three people – two of them women. There is no suggestion the last three events deserve the attention of the police, and as Martin threatens to break Antonia’s neck he jokes he’d probably only get a few years in jail for it if he did. The women take Martin’s violence in their stride, although both are obviously unimpressed. I think Murdoch is probably very subtly critiquing this behaviour; it’s kind of tragic that, at the beginning of the decade that supposedly liberated us all (ha, ha ha…) she felt the need to be so subtle.

This is a weakness, for me. The other is that, towards the end, the bed-jumping becomes too ridiculous. And that’s me, talking in 2014, about a novel that was published in 1961. It works as comedy, but it doesn’t work as literature, and Murdoch was writing a comic, literary novel. She succeeds on one level, and fails – though only just – on another, The Bell is definitely a superior novel, as possibly is Under the Net, and certainly The Black Prince,

A Severed Head is hugely enjoyable, and you should totally read it, but – despite what they say – it’s not Murdoch’s best novel.

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A Childhood – And yet again Andy heads South, this time with Harry

July 8, 2013

The first line of Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table:

“From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.”

The first line of Harry Crews’ A Childhood:

“My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.”

I’ve never been a fan of the idea that first lines are utterly vital, although I admit I try, when writing fiction, to make sure that the first line of anything I might write is at the very least not too boring. But I don’t think anyone could disagree that these are pretty amazing ways to open anything – story, novel, memoir, whatever. And as different as they are they share a little in common – Frame’s “memories of truths” have something in common with Crews’ memory of his daddy, built as it is not on his own memories but on stories he’s been told. And Frame’s Third Place – death – bears comparison to Crews’ knowledge of his father, based on stories that might be described as mythic. Catching the clap off a Native American chick and losing a ball as a result while building a highway through the mangroves swamps of Florida? OK look, maybe we have different ideas about “mythic”.

crewsA Childhood is a very different book to Frame’s autobiography. For a start, it’s not an autobiography – it’s essentially a memoir of Crews from just before he turns five through to six, maybe a little older. It’s subtitled The biography of a place, but even this seems a stretch, although the landscape of Bacon County, Georgia, features prominently.

This is not to take anything away from Crews’ memoir. He and Frame leave me slightly bewildered by the detail of their memories of their childhoods (I lived in Northern Ireland from ages 3 to 7, during the absolute worst of the Troubles, and while I have many, many vivid recollections of that time I doubt there’s enough to fill a book). But there is certainly plenty of detail, by turns bewitching (almost literally, in one or two cases), repugnant, enchanting, often amusing – and always enthralling.

Crews is incredibly generous. His father died when he was a baby and his mother quickly remarried, to his father’s brother – his uncle, who had to divorce his wife to do so. Crews did not realise the man he called “daddy” was not his daddy until he was almost six, under pretty appalling circumstances. There was alcoholism, there was violence – most of it booze-fuelled, though not all – there was painfully grinding poverty. But there was also joy, sometimes in the strangest of places – the slaughtering and butchering of a pig, for example, is one of the most weirdly entrancing things I’ve read in a while. (Netty had a problem with this bit. No doubt she’ll tell you about it.) He has two bouts of serious illness as a young child; in the latter case in particular the ignorance of those around him makes a bad situation much worse, and in both cases his parents are tolerant of rather too much faith-based nonsense. But you never get the sense that Crews blames them. Overwhelmingly you get the sense that he felt loved, and decades later, as he wrote this memoir, he still valued that.

Violence inhabits a bizarre place in Crews’ memoir, and theremight be something here that at least partly explains the culture of violence in the States today that leaves most of the world shaking its head. There is little violence in Frame’s autobiography and most of it is institutionalised. But here’s Crews, talking about Bacon County: “Men killed other men oftentimes not because there had been some offense that merited death, but simply because there had been an offense, any offense.” Dogs and fences, Crews says, were as much a reason to kill as anything else. Obviously the NRA has plenty to answer for, but I wonder how much this cavalier, almost dismissive attitude towards killing another human being explains some of what we see far too often in the US today.

Sex also inhabits a pretty surreal niche here. I’ve read about sex games in prepubescent kids, of course, although I have little recollection of taking part in anything like that myself. (Although there was this one time in my first year in primary school in Northern Ireland when I ran around the playground trying to tear the knickers off all the little girls. I guess the shame of it maybe turned me gay. Or not. Whatever.) But what’s depicted here – little boys lining up their sisters, or the sisters of other little boys, so that yet other little boys can git theirselves some – wow. Around the age of six or seven I remember coming to a vague understanding of what then I probably would’ve described as naughtiness, or dirtiness. But rutting away at the crotch of a little girl? Um, maybe not.

A Childhood was not the Crews book Netty and I were supposed to read this year – A Feast of Snakes was abandoned because Netty doesn’t like snakes. We then settled on buying the Crews Reader and reading The Gypsy’s Curse – which ironically is the only piece of this volume Netty hasn’t read. I am glad we accidentally ended up choosing A Childhood for the blog though, because, apart from the fact that it dovetails nicely with Frame, it really is a wonderful read.

And I’ve got the rest of the Reader to go.

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An Angel at my Table – Andy has a cup of tea with Janet

June 30, 2013

Ah yeah. Janet Frame. She was that crazy Kiwi bitch who just missed out on a lobotomy cos some doctor realised she could write good. Yep. Her. She’s awesome, they reckon.

Isn’t she just.

Most people will realise this. Janet Frame’s autobiography is made up of three volumes – To the Is-Land, An Angel at my Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City. In the late ’80s Jane Campion made a TV series that was repackaged as a film, screened at Cannes, and won the Silver Lion. People cheered. People cried. People loved it.

I’m guessing Campion looked at the three titles of Frame’s biographies and settled on the only one that worked for a movie.

I like To the Is-Land as a title. Who didn’t mispronounce island as a kid? And who can’t embrace the idea of misinterpreting the concept of “is-landness” as being the idea of being, and thus making a story of childhood a journey towards being the adult we are to become? This is an outrageous misrepresentation of what Frame meant by the title of her first volume, I suspect, but it was something like that.

And The Envoy from Mirror City? The mirror city, our lives re-imagined through the prism of the envoy, the envoy being our imagination. Or something like that. Actually, again, I have almost certainly misinterpreted Frame. But there you go.

But still. As good as To the Is-land and The Envoy from Mirror City might be as potential titles, with as much subtext as they may be laden, a film with those titles? Maybe not. An Angel at my Table? That works. Everybody can imagine an angel sitting at a table with them. Even if you don’t believe in angels.

There’s just the slight problem that I have no idea what Frame intended with that title. Thanks to Campion’s film it’s how Frame’s combined autobiography has come to be known. But what it means – Gone. I’m sure she did write about it at some stage…

an-angel-at-my-tableCentral to that second volume is Frame’s misdiagnosed schizophrenia. Notoriously, she spent eight years in and out of mental institutions and was subjected to elecroshock therapy on countless occasions, the effects of which destroyed much of her memory of those years – although she remembers the point at which her doctor informs her her collection of short stories has won an award, enough to convince him the lobotomy she’s scheduled for is inappropriate.

Also central to that second volume, if two things can be central to a book, is Frame’s growing maturity as a writer. She had started writing during the first volume, which is the story of her childhood before leaving home for college. But An Angel at my Table is the volume in which A) she goes “mad”, and B) her writing gets serious .

Her “madness”, incidentally, seems to have been how people interpreted her shyness, and her awkwardness in the presence of others and her comfort with her own company, and her oddness. How many of us, I wonder, would end up lobotomised because we were shy and awkward and odd and happy to sit by ourselves with a book?

The first volume is a wondrous depiction of an oft-uprooted childhood. There were a number of homes in Frame’s early life. There was poverty, too, and the shame of poverty, and the shame of childhood – she is forced to give up a friend, at one stage, in circumstances for which neither Janet nor her friend are to blame. Her older sister drowns. She oscillates between hating school and loving it (or at least bits of it). Her older brother has a fit and is diagnosed epileptic. This is perhaps grimmer than many Depression era childhoods – and yet it’s shot through with a strange light, or lightness, perhaps. There is an almost surreal detachment at work – Frame emotionally involves her readers in her story, while at the same time, inexplicably, removing herself from that emotional involvement. Got no idea what I mean? Fair enough.

The final volume is my favourite, and for selfish reasons. In it Frame recalls her time in Europe – London mostly, but on the continent as well. She spent seven years away from New Zealand. I spent a third of that away from Australia, almost forty years after her; her London was still dragging itself out of the rubble of the Second World War, my London was prepping itself to throw off more than a decade of joyless Tory rule. Nevertheless, reading about her time in the city, as well as her time on Ibiza – then a backwater, today a glitzy hellhole  – and in the mountains of Spain, still struggling with the horror of the Civil War – all of this is glorious. Her adoption of a life as a “serious” writer, the realisation that schizophrenia is non-existent, her acquaintance with the slightly rather Patrick and her eventual estrangement from him, her love affairs in Ibiza and Spain, her weirdly triumphant return to New Zealand – all of this made The Envoy from Mirror City more compulsive, for me, than the earlier volumes.

This book is amazing. The writing is bewitching, and yet sometimes, somehow, alienating. It’s as easy to read as a fairytale and then inexplicably almost impenetrable. It’s beautiful and strange and wonderful, and I’ll be reading more of Janet Frame soon. Guaranteed.