The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

LuminariesThe Luminaries
Eleanor Catton

Little, Brown
9780316074315
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize

I’ve woken up around 4am the past couple of nights thinking about this book. My thoughts on it aren’t final but this is a space where conversations happen, and I need to talk.

The Luminaries is an engaging page-turner, a mystery set in a 19th Century New Zealand gold town. It’s a successful pastiche of the Victorian novel, with omniscient narration (informing and withholding from the reader at will; describing the physical appearance and temperament of characters in detail). The Luminaries is also an intellectual feat, due to its engagement with the astrological calendar and with each chapter being half the length of the one previous.

It begins with Walter Moody, interrupting a private meeting of twelve men at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika. He becomes the listener for their combined tale, involving death, gold, prostitution, mistaken identities, shipping crates, opium, and elements that will remain mysterious (due to an implied element of the fantastical) at the book’s end. The second half of the book details events and incidents that have unfolded after the knowledge gained at the Crown meeting, gives us more insight into the peripheral (or ‘planetary’) characters involved, and immerses the reader in the original events, from a different point of view.

I’m a big fan of Catton’s book The Rehearsal and I found The Luminaries a delightful, fast-paced read. Having read her two (very different) books I have so much admiration for Catton’s intellect, ambition, range and depth. The details of Hokitika and the range of fascinating (and often nasty) characters reminded me of watching a season of Deadwood. I wondered if at the end I had read it too quickly, though, as I wasn’t sure whether I’d missed one crucial ‘nugget’ of information, or whether it was supposed to be slightly open-ended; that the reader was supposed to draw their own final conclusion from the information given. I will have to read it again, as I know the whole first section will become richer after the perspectives gained in the rest of the book, particularly regarding Anna Wetherell (of the ‘old profession’) and boy wonder Emery Staines. I think there is also a lot more to think about in regards to the Chinese goldsmith Quee Long.

I’d love to discuss the book, if you’ve read it, but let’s mark any spoilery comments so those yet to experience The Luminaries know to avoid them… And I’m still travelling, so do forgive me if I end up taking a little while to reply.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

physick bookAt the moment I’m reading fiction set in the C19th, but I’m also generally reading historical fiction (particularly books set partly in the present/partly in the past) for research reasons. This one I read as part of a wonderful MOOC I’m doing on historical fiction through the University of Virginia. Any other recommendations are welcome.

Connie is looking for a unique primary source on which to base her PhD research when she is given the task of cleaning out her grandmother’s house. She comes across the name ‘Deliverance Dane’, written on a note curled up in a key in an old bible, and this sets her on paths of historical and personal discovery.

The book is set mainly in the 1990s, in Connie’s time, but also reveals the story of Deliverance Dane, at the time of the Salem witch trials, and tracks the reverberations of accusations of witchcraft through successive generations. The author is concerned with the idea of how real magic was to people in New England, and explores this in a fantastical sense by introducing the possibility of magic in the present.

This is a fun book, in the vein of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (though not as layered as that book). Issues of gender (in relation to the accusation of women as witches) are raised, but never given much depth, as the novel also becomes a typical love story. It’s a page-turner, but the plot developments are often predictable, and while the historical detail is fascinating, it is often inserted into the story rather clumsily. The book is also quite plainly written.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and I’d recommend it as a light (but not too light) read. I’m finding more and more that I enjoy the combination of a female protagonist, historical detail, and a hint of magic. A more successful book containing these elements, in my opinion, is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens.

Dignified survival: Courtney Collins on The Burial

Allen & Unwin
September 2012
9781743311875
(buy paperback, ebook)

When Courtney Collins’ debut novel The Burial landed in my pile last month, it went straight to the top. Set in the early C20th, it’s inspired by the story of Australia’s last bushranger, Jessie Hickman. Jessie has done something she can’t turn back from, and spends the majority of the novel on the run. It’s blood, bone, grit and earth, but peacefulness too—the quiet of the dead; of being underground or being far above the world, far up the side of a mountain. The peace of an unexpected friendship, or for the other characters, a respite from your obligations: a beautiful tattooed woman; a drug haze.

Warren Ellis providing a cover quote for this novel may tell you more than even the quote itself. The Burial slots in nicely with contemporary Aus Gothic works like Chris Womersley’s Bereft, Patrick Holland’s The Mary Smokes Boys and films like The Proposition, while being entirely different; entirely Collins’ own. I asked her a few questions about the novel…

I want to ask first about the tone, and aesthetic, of The Burial. I feel it was important for you to get that right. I see it as Aus Gothic, almost glamorously gritty. Could you tell us a bit about this?

Courtney Collins                                c/o A&U & Lionfish Media

I’ve been interested in the Gothic, more particularly, the Southern Gothic, for a while. Initially, it wasn’t deliberate. Then one day I identified that my all-time favourite writers—Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, Cormac McCarthy, were all writing out of that tradition. So I began to look at why that was drawing me in.

For me, those writers give voice to characters who might be judged at first glance as ‘oppressed’. Often coming from poverty or violence, they don’t necessarily rise above it, as much as continue to move through it in a way that is dignified and surprising. Take the teenage Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, obsessive about music, longing for a piano and practicing for hours and hours a day, or Janie unashamedly sexual and aching for her own fulfilment in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Or John Grady Cole in All The Pretty Horses whose goodness comes from within, not from observing the laws or abiding the strictures of the day. You know, they’re all dancing to their own beat.

So The Burial has all of the tropes of the Southern Gothic—its full of hard-luck and derelict settings, racism and violence. There’s probably a whole thesis in how the Southern Gothic and the Australian Gothic differ (and it’s actually more satisfying to test it out in fiction) but I’ll have a go…

The way I think it is different is the relationship that settlers here have had with the landscape, and perhaps an abiding fear of it. Freud has an essay called ‘The Uncanny’ that describes it well, using the German word ‘unheimlich’, as in how the homely is made to be unhomely.

But I didn’t want to wall myself in with this idea. After all, the landscape invokes awe as much as fear. Besides, the characters are the thing. And they should rip right through it with no regard for the tropes of a genre!

Jessie is certainly ‘dancing to her own beat’ through the narrative, while being plagued by threat and danger. I suppose the term ‘survivor’ is too reductive, as you’ve explained the complexity of these kinds of characters above. But what drew you to her, specifically? How did she form?

In some ways, Jessie came to me fully formed. Jessie Hickman, the woman who inspired the story, was very, very good at escapes and true to form, in writing her there were times I found her illusive, and not wanting to be captured or conjured.

But there was a moment when we collided and in a sense I had to lend this character some of my own flesh and blood. And by that I mean I went through many experiences in my life while I was writing the book considering how Jessie would interpret events but more, how she would feel in this landscape or that and what would keep her spirit so tuned to life and surviving, when all around her, there is death.

Truthfully, when I finished writing the book, I felt bewildered by her absence, after being in her company for so long.

I rarely hear a writer admit that, about becoming attached to their character/s. What about the setting? Have you spent much time in that kind of landscape? And how did you recreate the era?

I’ve spent some proper time in the country. I grew up in a small country town in NSW and then after years of living in cities I began to really yearn for more space, for life in the bush. A lot of the novel was written where I live now, in an old postmaster’s cottage on the Goulburn River in Victoria.

Living here it’s not such a stretch to imagine the world of the novel. We still have to chop wood for fires, try to grow our own food and find ways to manage the isolation of it. It’s not until I drive into Melbourne that I actually notice how dusty and covered with dog hair I am.

Sounds lovely. I love the opening, with Houdini, and how it sits in the back of your mind throughout. A trick, a narrow escape and a gruesome surprise… Can I also ask about the unconventional choice of narrator, who comes in just after this?

When I had my first go at telling this story, I tried to tell it from Jessie’s first person p.o.v. I had her prison mugshot staring down at me and I laboured over the telling for about a year. It didn’t work at all. It was a first drawn out attempt and it was a failure. The reason it failed was because I was trying to put poetry and whimsy into this woman’s mouth yet what I was discovering about her character was that she was a woman of few words. Jessie is all about action. And in ways she was hardened. So to me, the baby was part of that buried self, that innocent trusting self that was so far from the Jessie that we meet. Thinking back, it was my first tingling moment, actually understanding what other writers talk about when they say they ‘discovered the voice’ of their novel. After acknowledging the failure and then pressing on came the voice of the kid. It was an insistent voice and my way of capturing it was to write it and then speak it aloud as the measure. It was a call to its mother. It had to be lyrical. It had to be sweet to the ear.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

20 classics #13: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I haven’t yet reviewed an Australian classic in this series, and The Lifted Brow also asked me to choose one of the Text Classics range to introduce for their October issue. There was a lot I wanted to read on the list so I pretty much chose at random. When the book arrived I baulked at the size of it: almost 1000 finely printed pages. But I do like a challenge.

When was it published?

It was published in three volumes, in 1917, 1925 and 1929 and as a full novel by William Heinemann in 1930. The new Text Classics edition is introduced by Peter Craven.

What’s it about?

The life of the restless Richard Mahony, from the Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s, via many adventures in Australia and abroad, to the latter part of the nineteenth century. It’s also a stunning portrait of a marriage, and an incredibly detailed account of colonial Australia: Ballarat, Melbourne, the bush and the seaside.

Tell us more about the author.

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson was born in 1870 in Melbourne. Her father was a doctor (as is Mahony) and tragedy struck the young, affluent family when he was admitted to Kew mental asylum and died of syphilis when Richardson was nine. Her mother took the children to Maldon where she worked as postmistress. Richardson boarded at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College from age 13 to 17 and the experience formed the basis for her 1910 novel The Getting of Wisdom, the only one of her books that has been faithfully adapted to the screen (by Bruce Beresford in 1977).

Richardson’s family moved to Europe in 1888 where she studied music at the Leipzig Conservatorium (and Maurice Guest is set in Leipzig). In Leipzig she also met John George Robertson, a Scot, who was studying German literature. They married and moved to London in 1903. Richardson only returned to Australia once, to conduct research for Mahony. She died in 1946 in Hastings, East Sussex. Her other works include The Young Cosima (novel), short story collections and a supposedly unreliable autobiography.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Yes. I would not hesitate to tell you that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is a masterpiece, a great novel. Reading it was one of the most fulfilling literary experiences I’ve ever had. This is mainly due to the character of Richard Mahony and his self-induced tribulations, and the intimate details of his marriage to Polly (later known as Mary). But it is also due to the historical aspects: Mahony provides complete immersion in the experience of the past, through the eyes of just a few characters. It’s also an incredibly compassionate novel. I only read afterwards that the character of Mahony was partly inspired by Richardson’s father, and that just broke my heart all over again.

Why is this not as well known or regarded as, say, the work of Patrick White? I was speculating to G, upon finishing, that it may not be well known because it hasn’t been adapted for the screen. And Craven in his introduction, when I read it afterwards, suspects the same. It hasn’t become ‘a shared myth’, he says. I can imagine, given its breadth and depth, it would be very hard to adapt, but a miniseries seems doable. Or maybe it is the sheer size of the novel that puts some people off. Well, don’t let it, I implore you. Indulge.

The novel is so large that the characters become more than complex, they become real. The style is naturalistic, and the characters’ mental states are given as much attention as the surrounding landscape. I found myself exasperated at Richard (as Mary is), for his impractical flightiness, but at the same time I was so fond and forgiving of him. And I related at times to his need for peace, quiet; to not be bothered (and then sided with him, too, in his annoyance at Mary’s complete rationality). The Mahonys are truly both kind-hearted—Mary charitable with her being and her space, to her friends; Mahony a gentle doctor who hesitates to chase up bills, and who often rethinks his first, rash opinions of people—but they also are at times hateful, frayed, even cruel. Mahony is a terrible listener, and unable to adapt to colonial attitudes (holding onto notions of gentlemanliness without realising it sometimes makes him a laughing stock). But then! When they go to England he reacts to their snobbishness. You think it will change him…

Mary slowly becomes perceptive to Richard’s foibles—particularly the ones that get them into trouble—and becomes stronger, and less materially motivated. At the beginning you can see how well they match: it centres around their kindnesses, they way they (attempt to) perceive the good in others (though Mary soon learns that sometimes Richard will maintain a grudge). Mary is more likely to see the ‘good’ and that is where she is kind, whereas Richard will crumble when faced with the ‘weak’. Richardson exquisitely renders a long-term relationship: the way they misinterpret each other and begin to keep secrets, the way they manage each other, sometimes fear each other. The novel is an incredible, humble, love story.

The weirdest thing is, writing this, I simply cannot capture it. You just have to read it. Each revelation of character comes about through sections of the novel that are book length. That makes it sound dreary, but it’s not. There are seeds planted (sometimes in conversations with other characters), events foreshadowed. When you begin reading it, you think it is all about the goldfields, and the men (and it is). But then Polly/Mary and a new cast of characters come along. Way, way down the line there are windfalls and travel and children and tragedy. Each ‘event’ is, as mentioned, a book of its own, so I can only be vague here. The whole that these events add up to is so revealing. As an Australian, too. (Though I think this holds up against European novels set in the 19th Century, is in fact much more accessible than many of them.) I had, for example, never thought very much about the way the gold rush messed up the class system for those who clung to it, fresh from the old country, and what that meant, how confusing it could be for them. More generally there is so much to learn (and so much colour) in regards to colonial Australia and the foundation of Victoria.

But what do I want to talk about? I want to talk about Richard (though I really cannot possibly capture him). He is self-absorbed, he is manic at times—bursting with excitement for an idea, mainly a change—and then he sinks into deep depressions. He is over-sensitive: ‘How strange Richard was… how difficult! First, to be able to forget all about how things stood with him, and then to be twice as upset as other people’. He is definitely fickle, an ‘unpractical old dreamer’ as Mary thinks of him at one stage. He is paranoid and nervous, more so as he gets older. He loves isolation, but becomes bored of that too and surprises Mary (and the reader) with bouts of socialising. He is a skilled doctor, he is curious (a great reader, at one point becoming obsessed with spiritualism: ‘He believed and would continue to believe it impossible wholly to account for life and its phenomena in terms of physiology, chemistry, physics’). He is not humourless but his sensitivity sometimes gets in the way. He is sometimes confused. He is embarrassing to his son, Cuffy. Cuffy is such a surprising and wonderful voice added to the novel in later parts. Cuffy allows the reader to see the relationship of his parents, the places they live, their life and his father from a different angle. The way Richardson writes him captures the wonder and confusion (and temper) of childhood.

I’ll share one longer extract which is revealing of Richard. After a description of travel and all of its difficulties, this is what follows:

Yes! there was always something. He never let himself have any real peace or enjoyment. Or so thought Mary at the time. It was not till afterwards, when he fell to re-living his travels in memory, that she learned how great was the pleasure he had got out of them. Inconveniences and annoyances were by then sunk below the horizon. Above, remained visions of white cities, and slender towers, and vine-clad hills; of olive groves bedded in violets; fine music heard in opera and oratorio; coffee-drinking in shady gardens on the banks of a lake; orchards of pink almond-blossom massed against the misty blue of far mountain valleys.

This gives you an idea of the contradictions within, and the changeability of Richard, and how he values having experienced different things (no matter how troublesome at the time). It also gives you an idea of the rhythm in the prose, and the humour in the novel, too. It is not a solemn affair, even tragic circumstances are often given fresh views (ie. by Cuffy, the son).

And I’ll leave this rather disordered (but honest) blog post here. I hope I have at least inspired you to give The Fortunes of Richard Mahony a go. I certainly would like to add Richardson’s other novels to my collection, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you have anything to say on those also.

What’s next?

I’ve finally started on my first Raymond Chandler novel: The Lady in the Lake.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Parsley and blood: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

April 2012
Random House
9781741668452
(buy paperback, ebook)

I love a good historical novel: the ability to contrast past and present, to be absorbed in a world that’s (mainly) unfamiliar, and to experience vastly different circumstances, pressures, and social customs. Kate Forsyth allows us to taste, smell and feel 16th Century Italy and late 17th Century France in Bitter Greens. What does it feel like, in these eras and places, to sit for an artist, to go hunting, to be locked up with the fleas in the Bastille, to be pregnant? Bitter Greens revolves around three female characters who are, in many ways, restricted, but who celebrate their small freedoms. We have Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a true historical character—one of the first writers of literary fairy tales and historical fiction (much of it written while she was locked-up in a nunnery). She is known as the author of the story ‘Rapunzel’. Besides giving Charlotte-Rose her own narrative, with plenty of sass, intrigue, romance and danger, Forsyth embeds within it a fleshed-out version of Rapunzel, and within that, the story of the witch in that tale.

The Rapunzel story is about a girl called Margharita, who was promised to the witch during desperate circumstances at her birth. The witch and courtesan Selena Leonelli (or ‘La Strega’) comes for her when she is seven years old, renaming her Petrosinella (meaning ‘little parsley’). She puts her in a home until she is old enough be of use to her.

My favourite story was that of Selena, the witch. How does one become so fearful and desperate that they turn to dark magic? And how do they learn it? The ensuing tale is rich, dark and plausible.

Forsyth has obviously conducted much research and, as mentioned, she brings the senses of history to life, the good and the bad (though the bad is often more fun): the stenches, the cold, the blood. One of the main themes is entrapment, particularly for women, but men also suffer duties to parents, royalty and religion. Margharita, thinking about why her parents might have given her away, wonders if being taken in by La Strega were simply another choice (of few): ‘She could have been sent into service, apprenticed to a craftsman, enclosed in a convent or, in time, married—all of these were different types of imprisonment.’ This theme is echoed throughout the book. Charlotte-Rose, for example, is at different times trapped into roles in the court of the French king (due to a lack of funds, her bloodline and her ‘heretical’ Huguenot background): she is thrown into jail, she becomes involved in courtships because the ‘walls’ of marriage may at least allow her time to write, and she is physically locked up in the nunnery: ‘I had thought I could bend the world to my will. I had thought I could break free of society’s narrow grooves, forging a life of my own desire. I had thought I was the navigator of my soul’s journey. I had been wrong.’

Charlotte-Rose begins to work with Sœur Seraphina in the garden at the convent. In one scene the bees in the garden act as a metaphor for the sexual politics of the time. Seraphina has to explain to Charlotte-Rose that there is no ‘king bee’, but a queen, who spends all her life within the hive. Charlotte-Rose is amused: ‘Why, it is said that the beehive is the best example of how a kingdom should be run, with all the workers serving the king. And we’re always [at court] being preached sermons about how His Majesty the King must rule with sweetness and the sting, just like the king bee’.

There are moments of relief, for the three main characters, from their walls: moments of passion, nature, art, songs, secrets and stories. And a bit of magic.

I enjoyed Bitter Greens. I liked how rich (and also fecund) it was. There were a few moments where I had to suspend disbelief, such as when no one notices a particular character is not just ‘getting fat’… but it didn’t matter too much because the central stories are fantastical anyway. The book reminded me a bit of Angela Carter, but otherwise I haven’t read many more like this. Despite the fairly feminine cover I really think this book would be enjoyed by both men and women, just as Forsyth’s fantasy books are. It’s a juicy book that places you in the mind and bodies of these historical (and fictional) women.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Pleasure, memory, decay, and The Stranger’s Child: an interview with Alan Hollinghurst

I had the pleasure of speaking with British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner (for The Line of Beauty) Alan Hollinghurst at his hotel last month in Melbourne, over a pot of tea.

Hollinghurst’s latest novel The Stranger’s Child opens in 1913. The poet Cecil Valance is visiting his Cambridge friend (and secret lover) George Sawle and his family at Two Acres, their home in Stanmore, Middlesex. Cecil writes a poem about Two Acres in George’s sister Daphne’s autograph book. Cecil and the poem go onto have some significance in the war, but it remains ambiguous as to whom the poem is addressed. The novel jumps forward then, throughout the 20th Century, to other people (such as the biographer Paul Bryant) who analyse Cecil Valance, the people who knew him, and the events in the opening chapters of the novel. Daphne Sawle herself writes an account. As Cecil’s biography is honed, the memories of others, and of the reader, become tainted, unfocused, refocused and only sometimes clarified.

It’s a different kind of structure for Hollinghurst, but like all his novels The Stranger’s Child is smart, layered, a little cruel, and such a pleasure to read. In person, Hollinghurst was incredibly charming.

What was the spark for The Stranger’s Child?

Alan Hollinghurst

I never thought about it schematically, but when I finished writing it I realised that The Swimming-pool Library too has, through the diaries, a way of dropping in on earlier episodes of the century. I think my intention here was rather different. The Stranger’s Child doesn’t have any framing narrative. It’s such a common thing in contemporary fiction—I’ve done it myself, really—where someone finds some old letters or something and they’re drawn back to that crucial summer of nineteen-something where their life changed forever. I resisted that kind of model, here. I was keen to show that in each section of the book (although, of course, in later parts of the book Peter is concerned with looking back and finding out what happened) people are self-consciously in the present day—as we all are—with no knowledge of what’s going to come in the future. I don’t think I had an originating spark, but I find material is accumulating in my mind, and in notebooks. Usually, with a book, several different approaches, and areas of interest, begin to suggest a connection.

What’s really interesting about that narrative method is that the reader remembers the events in the earlier chapters (or wants to remember them) in a certain way, just like the characters.

Yes, the whole thing was supposed to be a complicated play on the idea of, well, not only the memory of the characters, but on the memory of the reader as well. The reader will be asking him or herself what they recall of moments which are being scrutinised decades later.

I suppose one of the things that appealed to me about the gappy structure of the book was that I could get the reader sharing in the uncertainty or ignorance of the characters themselves… There’s so little that we know for sure about the lives of those around us, and so much inevitably exists at the level of hearsay or supposition—particularly in people’s private lives. We just don’t know what other people get up to behind closed doors. And I think fiction can too easily give an impression that everything is knowable.

In a way my first book The Swimming-pool Library is like that: there is a big secret which is revealed towards the end and it makes you see everything else in light of that… I don’t think life’s generally like that, so one of the ideas of The Stranger’s Child was to try to create a structure that was more life-like, truer to our own very patchy way of registering and remembering things.

It’s very effective like that, and it’s also quite heartbreaking at times the way, as a reader, you realise how the characters perceive each other. For example, Daphne thinks of George as a cold fish. As a reader, you think: no, he’s not! That must be quite difficult to do, as a writer: to write about those kinds of misconceptions that people have of each other, even after so many years, and being family…

It may have to do with my being an only child. I seem to create sibling relationships in which the siblings don’t really understand—or are very unlike—each other, or perhaps don’t see the ways in which they are, in fact, alike. And they form these impressions of each other. I mean, people do that, don’t they? At some point, they get a sort of fix on somebody; they decide X is a cold fish, as it might be, and it takes a great deal of difficulty to dislodge that notion.

I think it does happen in families very much…

Often in families different members are assigned a role, aren’t they? ‘He’s the musical one’. ‘He’s the sporty one’—that kind of thing—and somehow people get to inhabit those roles to a surprising degree.

You do really capture that solidification of certain preconceptions and roles very well.

Towards the end of The Stranger’s Child Daphne thinks, of the biographer, Peter: ‘he was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories’. Do you see memory as being one of the main themes that you’re writing about?

I think it is. Actually it’s something which struck me much earlier in my life. I remember as a school boy people would say to me: ‘what’s your earliest memory?’ And you were very soon interested in trying to recall what your earliest memory was, as a sort of image… which isn’t actually the memory, it’s an image of the memory. It’s so rare, really—it happens, and it’s always very fascinating when it does—when you remember something completely new that you haven’t remembered before. Often some Proustian thing, like a smell or a taste, suddenly gives you access to a whole dimension that you’ve forgotten.

But generally I think that memory sort of ossifies. In Daphne’s case, she’s often asked to go over the same memories. I wanted it in a way to replicate the moment in the first part of the book where Daphne’s mother is telling the story about when she was on her honeymoon and her newly-wedded husband saw Tennyson on the ferry. She’s slightly drunk and slightly panicking as she’s telling the story because she knows she always follows exactly the same wording. And then she’s aware she misses a bit out. Already her memory of that occasion has become this sort of fixed narration.

I think I just became so fascinated by the whole idea of memoir and what happens when people write them. I think, increasingly, how hopeless a memoir by me would be, you know, because I’ve just forgotten so much.

I find that fascinating, too, and conversations, in memoirs…

Well, exactly.

How do people remember conversations from 20 years ago, or more, let alone last week, you know?

That’s why I have Daphne having her sleepless night towards the end, admitting to herself she more or less made up all the conversations in her own memoirs. I mean, of course she had.

And yet there’s such a line drawn between fiction and nonfiction, for the most part.

Yes, it’s a sort of false distinction. Fiction plays an incalculable element in so much ostensibly factual writing. Certainly memoir and autobiography in a more heightened way than biography, but there are also selective shapings of material by both conscious and unconscious forces in all nonfiction. One’s own life doesn’t naturally have a shape, one is constantly imposing a shape on it; constructing the narrative.

It’s weird because I’ve just been reading Northanger Abbey for the first time and there’s an exact conversation about fiction versus nonfiction.

Oh, is there? Well, I’m not surprised. I mean, Jane Austen knew everything.

On the subject of memory still, too, I guess photographs also potentially create memories or replace them…

I thought at one time I was going to make more use of photographs in the book, but it seemed a little bit tedious describing photographs and asking the reader to imagine them all. Of course, there are some that come out during Paul’s research toward the end. And in one chapter Daphne goes into her bedroom and sees the photograph of her children at Corley Court, and it’s a record of an occasion she can’t remember at all. What she has is the image. Which I hope is a sort of symbol of exactly that process, yes.

I initially became empathetic with Paul, the biographer, but—it’s a bit like with Nick in The Line of Beauty— I didn’t really realise how naive he was, or how much his sort of passion was clouding his judgment (perhaps I’m naive). You have those sorts of characters, and then you have the other sort of characters: people who are quite strong and manipulative, and very aware.

Yes, I think it’s usually the more imaginative characters who are perhaps the more naive ones. Nick’s a clever person in a way; he’s soaked in a rather sophisticated understanding of literature and music and all that, but there’s that thing about the world where he’s still observing and…

And he wants to think well of people…

Yes, and I think he sees the world very much through the lens of his own desires, which people do, and that’s something which has always fascinated me. I suppose in The Swimming-pool Library and my second book The Folding Star, which are both in the first person, the whole story is seen through the eyes of someone with quite strong fantasies, preoccupations and obsessions. Which could colour and distort their judgment in all sorts of ways. I just felt I wanted to get out of the first person trap and I prefer the slight ironic distance you can have with Nick; the whole book is seen from his POV but, nonetheless, one is outside it. And it’s not quite so claustrophobic.

It is nice though to have that kind of intimacy with the character to an extent, because you sort of side with them and then any revelation that they have—it’s like you’re really experiencing it with them.

But it also invites different kinds of irony for the reader, who will be seeing things, as it were, over the narrator’s shoulder.

The dramatic irony. I guess there is the theme, too, running through The Stranger’s Child, of transience: even if it’s all written down, it’s only one person’s account, and it isn’t permanent anyway. This morning when I was thinking about that, the quote from To The Lighthouse came to me: ‘The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare’. I didn’t know if that was something that was important for you to express? But it’s an odd thing to express too, as someone who does write things down…

No, a lot of at least semi-permanent art is about the transience of things. (laughs)

That’s very true, yes.

I think I actually re-read To the Lighthouse before writing this. I remember being fascinated by the time structure of that book and these intense, poetic episodes of time passing… It was a book I did for A-level exams when I was at school. I completely adored it and began a great love affair with Virginia Woolf, which cooled a bit later on. But it’s always fascinating going back and reading with quite different eyes, but with constant stirrings of memory. Beginning a sentence and knowing how it was going to go on. You never know a book as well as one you’ve studied for an exam at that age.

No, that’s true. Frankenstein is mine.

Is that yours? Quite glad that wasn’t mine, in a way. I think To the Lighthouse has been more useful to me that Frankenstein would have been. (laughs) But yes, I think I’ve always been very moved by the sense of the transience of things. From childhood I loved ruined castles and things like that.

That’s one reason I went to Europe. We don’t really have any here…

You don’t really have ruined castles, no. But the romantic enjoyment of decay and melancholy and all that… I’ve always been very suggestible to that kind of thing, and of course I always loved imagining houses in writing. In this case, I had been thinking of having someone reporting at the very end of the book that Corley Court had been burnt to the ground because of one of the boys smoking in the attic or something (laughs heartily) but then I decided not to bother. But I certainly wanted to bring Two Acres—the scene of this concocted English idyll—to ruin. It’s reported in the last bit isn’t it, that it’s been demolished? I mean, that’s quite a fun thing to do if you’ve got a long time span.

Can I ask about literary influences? Henry James is in your work, and poetry plays a part in The Stranger’s Child. Are there particular authors you always go back to? They often have a specific role in the books.

Writers that I’m preoccupied with at any time tend to become reference points in the book which I’m writing. There’s so much I’ve forgotten about The Swimming-pool Library because I haven’t read it for 20 years but of course there’s all the stuff about Ronald Firbank, who is sort of an ongoing preoccupation of mine. And I remember I put in quite a lot of allusions to 18th century poetry—Pope and so on—which seemed to me somehow to resonate with the world of this modern libertine. James obviously came into much clearer focus with The Line of Beauty, which is in many ways a deliberately Jamesian exercise, not only that narrative aspect we were talking about: seeing the whole story through one person’s eyes, but the world…

The character coming into that world…

Yes, and that world itself with its finery, but underlying corruption. It seemed to me analogous to the sorts of worlds that James was writing about, particularly in his later novels, where everything seems sort of glittering and exquisite on the surface, but power has been paid for. It fell into place quite naturally for that book, and with The Stranger’s Child there’s a strong presence of EM Forster, I think, in the first part of the book: that world with Cambridge, the outermost London suburbs, the family with no father but a widowed mother, the naive young girl, and the sort of homoerotic thing going on (obviously more cryptic in Forster). I was very conscious of Forster, and actually tried not to get too Forsterish in the first part of the book, you know, I didn’t want it to be a pastiche. But obviously you have to acknowledge you wouldn’t cross this territory without showing you knew you were doing so.

I’ve still only read one Forster. After reading this I knew I wanted to read more. I’ve seen a film adaptation of Howard’s End

Well the books are very different, Forster has this particular tone of voice (which is not without its irritants, actually). He busies around making cute, undermining sort of remarks about his own characters and so forth, which can be very funny. I’ve actually just come back to him after not having read him for decades. I’m about to write a piece about his journals and diaries which have just been published for the first time. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to go back and look at him again. I’ve nearly finished reading A Passage to India, which I really don’t think I have read since the late ’70s.

That’s the one I’ve read.

I’m terribly impressed by it. I think it’s his finest book but it’s very different from the others, obviously because of the huge difference in the setting, and the thematic scale of the book—which had made it physically much bigger in my memory. I was surprised to find it’s actually only about 300 pages.

So have his diaries never been published?

Forster died in 1970 I think, just after the pivotal not-described event in The Stranger’s Child: the sexual offenses bill to decriminalise homosexuality. Forster, in his nineties, didn’t come out himself but he was immediately outed after he died. Morris, his unpublished gay novel which he’d written in 1914, was immediately published, and then the next year some of his excellent gay-themed short stories were published. PN Furbank, who was much younger but had known Forster in Cambridge, wrote a marvellous biography of him. Then a woman called Wendy Moffat, an American scholar, brought out a book about two years ago and she had access to these diaries, but they’ve never been published. There are three quite substantial volumes. And I haven’t really got around to them yet, I didn’t want to lug them to Australia.

Various writers, certainly of a younger generation than mine, seem to be finding Forster interesting, for example Zadie Smith. Her third novel On Beauty is a sort of remake of Howard’s End, but in a different, complex setting with various allusions and even passages of Forsterish pastiche, and she’s written a lot about Forster.

But poetry, poetry has always been so important to me. Since adolescence I’ve had a love of Tennyson and that’s obviously something which threads through A Stranger’s Child. And the idea of writing about a poet was really appealing to me. The whole world of second-rate, half-forgotten or wholly forgotten poets of that period is something that… well, one feels both the pathos and the comedy of these forgotten reputations.

But then, I love how you capture the generations of kids having to recite them at school after that.

So I obviously borrowed various things from the life and work of Rupert Brooke to construct Cecil. I like Brooke, he wrote these famous war sonnets with almost no experience of combat. And the poems are extremely old-fashioned and rhetorical and do nothing to register the mean kind of warfare that was being experienced… Wilfred Owen, I suppose, actually managed to tackle the subject in a completely new way. Poets like Brooke are enjoyed for a kind of nostalgic glimpse of pre-war England.

Cecil is a great character. He reminded me a little of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited as well, as the seducer.

Yes, thought he’s not quite so sort of passive and hopeless as Sebastian is he?

No, no. (Hollinghurst laughs) A certain amount of your characters are pleasure-seekers, in many ways. Through art, sex… One of the pleasure of reading your books is that they’re written in a way that is conducive to that: they’re a pleasure to read. I don’t know if that’s because they’re a pleasure to write or whether you… I’m sure you spend many hours perfecting the sentences. I don’t think that’s a question…

(He laughs)

They feel like art to experience, that sort of pleasure.

Well, I’m glad. Writing them was a mixed experience really. Writing, of course, has times of great pleasure and excitement, and others of grind and despair. I’ve always been very interested in trying to capture feelings and sensations and often those of a quickly mutating nature. Yes, most people enjoy pleasure, one hopes they enjoy reading about pleasure. Unless it’s too tantalising! You know when everybody’s eating and drinking in a play and you’re longing for it to end so you can go have a meal?

(I laugh) Yes, not too tantalising.

The feeling that I have from your work reminds me a bit of reading Michael Cunningham, the American author. His books have that kind of effect too.

He’s an absolutely wonderful author, and on this sort of subject of feeling and sensation… I quite agree.

Thank you so much, Alan Hollinghurst. 

The Stranger’s Child is published by Picador (buy the Australian paperback or ebook). Also available UK/US.

Between worlds: Dominic Smith on Bright and Distant Shores

 

Allen & Unwin, 9781742374161, 2011
(Aus paperback, ebook + US/Kindle)

Bright and Distant Shores is hugely imaginative historical fiction. It’s set just before the dawn of the 20th century in Chicago and the South Pacific. Owen Graves is sent by Hale Gray, the president of Chicago First Equitable, to collect some ‘special items’ to display on top of the tallest building in the city. Graves is dubious about the morals of the expedition but wants the money so he can finally marry his girlfriend, Adelaide. In Melanesia, a mission houseboy called Argus loses his master, but not his faith. He seeks out his sister and they are soon promised new prospects by the man on a ship from Chicago… This book travelled with me around the globe recently. Back at home I got in touch with its Australian-American author, Dominic Smith.

AM: I was swept up in every element of this vast story – the tensions at sea, Owen and Adelaide’s relationship, Argus caught between worlds, the skyscraper sliding into the ground – and I wondered, was it difficult having so many balls in the air while writing? You draw them all together seamlessly and somehow keep the pace steady throughout.

DS: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled along! Writing this novel was sometimes akin to running between spinning plates, giving them each another nudge as I darted by. I was conscious from the beginning of the scope of the novel and thought about ways to handle all the moving pieces. Some of my favourite literature includes sprawling narratives and plots with many moving parts. I think of Dickens and George Eliot especially… I feel like one of the things I tried to do was to keep the plates spinning. So that meant even when we are at sea it’s worth taking a dramatic pause in the nautical action to check back in with the Chicago characters. It builds more tension – in both the Chicago and Pacific narratives – and allows the narrative to skip through passages of time. It increases the pace. I also tried to create some friction between the interweaving narratives, so that the ideas and predicaments of one storyline might echo with the storyline that is juxtaposed next to it.

It’s set in a fascinating time-period, when all the islands had already been somewhat ‘infected’ by ships of explorers, collectors, naturalists and missionaries and would never be the same again. What was it about this era that drew you in?

The 1890s was a fascinating period for both Chicago and the Pacific. When I was doing research for the novel I was shocked to discover the widespread fear among collectors of the late-19th century that ‘the bathtub had already been drained.’ There was a feeling that it was easier to get good curios in London or New York than in the Pacific islands. That surprised me. So you saw a huge collecting impetus by many museums and private collectors as the new century dawned. They were trying to get the last of the loot. So by 1900 the Pacific was already awash with European white culture; islanders were more likely to want Winchesters, ammunition, and cigarettes, than beads, glass, and ironwork. This is also a time of missionary zeal, when the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics are divvying up the Pacific, sometimes along tribal boundaries. Meanwhile, in Chicago, you have a dozen or so business tycoons who make millions from meatpacking and railways and insurance. They pour much of it into building cultural institutions – libraries, symphonies, museums. Marshall Field, of department store fame, donated $1 million to set up a museum in his name. There was a widespread interest in the exotic and ethnographic after the World’s Fair of 1893. So I was fascinated by how the tribal Pacific and commercial America could intersect in ways that were both strange and compelling. The 1890s, for me, is a crazy mash-up of conflicted ideas and visions.

You capture that mash-up very well! Some of the characters are ‘in between’ the two worlds (the West and the Pacific life), none more so really than Argus. He’s also caught, in a way, between loyalty to Malini, his sister, and to Owen; and between his past and his faith. His character is representative of some of the strongest themes running through the novel, but he’s very empathetic, three dimensional. Could you talk a bit about creating him?

I struggled with Argus and with my own misgivings about trying to represent someone with a tribal background. In the end, I gave myself license to explore his psychology. One of the things that made that easier was to make him a character who is caught between two worlds, between the Euro-Christian way of seeing things and the Melanesian tribal way of seeing things. He – like the writer – feels pulled between these opposite poles. So in some ways I gave Argus my own misgivings; he has to chart those waters on the writer’s behalf. Characters who have inner conflict are dramatically interesting, I think. Argus has a kind of visceral connection to faith; it’s in his blood. He’s also ambitious and wants to explore the world he’s read about at the mission.  So those forces of curiosity, doubt, faith, and ambition ground his character. They pull him into the future but not without uncertainty. That is perhaps one source of empathy for him as a character.

You play with issues of class through the character of Adelaide, and through her relationship with Owen. They are both strong characters: determined, charitable, hard-working. Can you tell us a bit about shaping their relationship? Of course the distance between them does also add great tension to the narrative.

In some ways Adelaide (and Malini) are the moral core to the novel. Argus and Owen are filled with ambition, but they’re also capable of a certain kind of ruthlessness. With the relationship between Owen and Adelaide I was interested in exploring class and privilege, in addition to a love story that would seem of the period and compelling for contemporary readers. Adelaide comes from money but throws herself into charity. Owen comes from poverty and on some level thinks charity is a rich person’s enterprise. So when the voyage comes up – the prospect of bringing back natives to Chicago so that Owen can receive a windfall – there is a real divide wedged into the romance. Owen struggles to reconcile the morality of the Pacific trading scheme with the pragmatic need for money. He slightly resents what he imagines Adelaide – with her blue-blooded philanthropic ways – will think of this equation. I think these are the kinds of issues people deal with in relationships every day. How does one person’s actions reflect on the other? Relationships are evolving narratives and we sometimes want our partners/spouses to add coherence to the story we’re trying to tell the world. So in addition to their obvious admiration for each other, they struggle with how to integrate their pasts. Until Adelaide, Owen has never ordered a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Were classic adventure novels an influence? I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels, and thought perhaps your book has a subtle element of social commentary to it as well? Ambition and wonder are present in your novel – as you’ve mentioned – and on some scale are seen as unrewarding and even destructive. I keep thinking about the ambitious insurance firm building sliding down into the earth…

I certainly thought of Treasure Island and Moby Dick when writing this novel, but also more recent novels, like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. These latter novels showed me it was possible to render a seafaring story in an interesting, nuanced way, while still having fun with the tropes that come with sea voyaging and lore. There is social commentary in Bright and Distant Shores, though I think I’m more interested in paradox than a set of thematic statements. Ambition and wonder abounded in the 1890s, but so did naivete and exploitation. The early insurance companies saw their enterprise as somehow noble and they were paternalistic towards their employees. They had this idea of their clerks never needing to leave the skyscraper – they could get haircuts and eat in the cafeteria and take night school all under one roof. The insurance towers eclipsed the church spire as the tallest point in the city and the tower was seen as a kind of totem, but also a beacon of hope for the populace, with its clock tower a suggestion of life ticking away. This is obviously capitalism on a grand scale, with the delusion of benevolence for an under-insured populace. Corporations often think they have enlightened interests when in fact it’s really about selling insurance or widgets.

Not only is Bright and Distant Shores a ‘ripping’ tale, the writing is delightful. I found myself gasping at certain turns of phrase. And yet it never obstructs the story, it is not showy – just beautiful. Some of the descriptions: ‘spandrels of moonlight’, ‘a crapulous German clipper captain’, and the ‘fusty nooks and fetid warrens below deck’. It makes it such a pleasure to read. How much time do you spend with the book on a sentence level? Does that all come in final drafts, or do you craft the language carefully as you go?

Thanks for those nice comments. I do think a lot about language – it’s what draws me to reading fiction in the first place. I used to write skeletal drafts of things with very little attention to language, and then I would go back and polish things. Now I seem to write very slow and deliberate first drafts. It’s a gamble, because you may end up throwing out much of what you write in a first draft. But I seem to like feeling that a sentence does its job, that it’s more than a place holder, before I move on. I really try to work at the sentence level as I go.

You grew up in Australia but live in the US and have published over there. This is your first novel published through and Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin. How does it feel? Can you tell us a bit about your other works?

It has been very gratifying to publish a novel in Australia and I’m thrilled to have had it shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year and the Vance Palmer Prize. That means a lot to me; it’s a kind of sweet homecoming present. Allen & Unwin have been incredibly attentive. I was back in Australia for a month in June with my family and it was such a treat to share places and memories with them. My first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a historical novel that re-imagined the life of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype who supposedly suffered from mercury poisoning. The second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was a contemporary story and focused on the average son of a genius. It’s a story about a boy who is 15% above average in everything he does. His father, a renowned physicist, is convinced that the son harbors some greatness and desperately tries to uncover it.

Thank you so much, Dominic.

More details about Dominic Smith’s books can be found on his website.