I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
I love Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and dystopian fiction in general. Plus, the sections of my work-in-progress that people have read have been compared to Brave New World. I thought it was about time I read it (also to make sure I’m not accidentally riffing on it too much).
When was it published?
In 1932. Several years before Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) and in many ways containing more progressive ideas. Huxley wrote to Orwell in 1949, congratulating him on his book, and predicting:
‘Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.’ (via)
What’s it about?
Set in London in the year 2540, children are grown, rather than born, and are conditioned via Pavlovian methods and sleep-learning to be citizens of different castes. The idea is that society will be stable, and that people will be happy. They are essentially free to pursue pleasure through multiple sexual partners, soma (a form of medication/recreation) and ‘feelies’, which are movies with added sensation. The Model T Ford and Sigmund Freud are the fathers of this society. Ford is their God.
Bernard is a bit of an outsider both physically and mentally. He thinks his fellow Alphas are ‘morons’, and he fights internally against his own conditioning. He is able to see that happiness is a construct, and is therefore, of course, not happy. He sees the value in delaying gratification, and in being alone (both blasphemous in this society).
Bernard takes a woman he likes, Lenina, to a Savage Reservation, where they meet a woman from their World who had been lost there, and her son, who has learnt English through Shakespeare and who is curious about this place he’s heard so much about. The second half of the novel then deals with ‘the Savage’ and his encounter with civilisation.
Aldous Huxley was born into an educated family in Surrey, UK in 1894. He was educated at Eton college and was disqualified from service in the WWI due to an illness that left him mostly blind for two to three years. He would struggle with eyesight problems all his life. He studied English literature at Oxford and graduated with first class honours.
Huxley began writing seriously in his 20s. His first published novel was Chrome Yellow in 1921. Brave New World is probably his most famous novel. He moved to Hollywood in 1937 and became interested in Vedanta (and introduced Christopher Isherwood into the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda). He earned a bit of money as a screenwriter, but his synopsis of Alice in Wonderland was rejected by Walt Disney ‘on the grounds that “he could only understand every third word”. (via) Huxley was at the time beginning to experiment with psychedelic drugs as an experiment in the search for enlightenment. I’d like to read that synopsis…
Huxley famously requested and took LSD on his deathbed in 1963. He was 69.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
‘What fun it would be if one didn’t have to think about happiness!’ – World Controller Mustapha Mond
For a book that was apparently completed in just four months, Brave New World is almost shockingly prescient, dealing with issues of consumption, conformity and complacency. The idea that citizens will be conditioned to be able to fulfil themselves through the means available in order to create stability (as opposed to through threat or punishment) is even more relevant today. Other aspects are dated, of course, such as the psychoanalytic overtones, and the hypnopaedic ways of learning. But then again, some people do still buy into ‘subliminal learning’!
The retro-future aspects are still enjoyable, aesthetically, such as the fact there are lift operators, and helicopters are the advanced mode of transport. It’s like seeing the DOS computer systems in Blade Runner. You can’t read a futuristic novel written in the past and not think about what has and hasn’t come to pass, and what might by the date in which it’s set. There is still an environment in 2540, for example, where as any futuristic novel written today would surely grapple with the issue of climate change.
Bernard is a great character, both inside and outside his society – conditioned by it, like everyone else, but also fighting against it. He has a weak personality, and a large ego, and is easily buoyed by popularity and praise in the rare instances it is bestowed upon him. I think readers of the novel over time would have related to his character, particularly in the earlier chapters, when everyone else is loosening up and having a good time and he feels something is a little off. He is painfully aware of himself and the way he’s feeling. He is interested in ideas of the benefits of feeling pain and of delaying gratification – ideas I’m fascinated by in this era of rampant consumerism. Natural human desires have always been ever-renewing, but what happens to us when they can be fulfilled easier and easier? Huxley deals with the way dissatisfaction or boredom might set in with soma, where citizens can take a little drug-holiday. Soma reminds me of both valium and ecstasy. It calms, and it also creates heightened sensation. Bernard is too aware of its effects (but he still uses it). The Savage refuses to use it.
I enjoyed the ideas, too, about the way we are constructed through language – about how powerful language is. In the brave new world, all ‘old’ texts have disappeared, because they are unnecessary and will interfere with the conditioned ideas. A language of worship to a commercial god has replaced them. But the Savage, too, is constructed by words. His ideas about the world come from Shakespeare. He cannot reconcile himself with the (normatised) promiscuity of the world, and repeats phrases like ‘impudent strumpet!’ from Othello. He thinks and speaks in Shakespearian, and so becomes subversive to both his Savage society who do not read in English, and to his mother and civilisation, who are conditioned to think in specific oppositional ways. There is an Oedipal undertone, too, where he tries to kill the man in bed with his mother. His love and disgust for her is then transferred into his love and disgust for Lenina. He does not wish to ‘defile’ her, thought she literally throws herself at him. Conditioned to be sexually open, she doesn’t understand his response at all. The Savage is a tragic character. The greater message, here, I think, is that none of us escape some kind of ‘conditioning’ through language, during our socialisation process.
I was quite disturbed by the Savage’s repulsion of Lenina, though it is justified in the story. I was worried about a parallel message of nostalgia for female chastity and virginity. I suppose Huxley could have wanted to explore these thoughts (as he’s exploring the dangers of excess in general), and that’s also why Linda, the Savage’s mother, is rendered so repulsively (not just to the civilised, but to the reader). Lenina is a character who, if the novel were written now, I believe could have been developed further. Her tiny awakenings were due to the male characters she encountered and her desire for them. She could be more active, now.
I underlined and dog-eared much in Brave New World and I think it’s a novel that will continue to make people think, and definitely to entertain. I forgot to mention that it’s funny – particularly in relation to Bernard. The style is a little all-over-the-place, but it works. It’s a brilliant piece of art.
‘What you need,’ the Savage went on, ‘is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.’
I’m currently reading The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. It’s a big’un so be patient with me.
Have you read Brave New World? What are your thoughts? I have to say that the mood of Nineteen Eighty-Four is quite different. I remember it well: a certain weightiness. Is there a dystopian vision you prefer?
Other People's Words
Apr 26, 2011
Reviewed by Alice Grundy
The cover of Adam Ross’ first novel, Mr Peanut, is swathed in praise from no lesser lights than Stephen King and Michiko Kakutani. The title page features a reproduction of Escher’s ‘Mobius’ flagging the role of the double in the plot. All the signs point towards a serious literary work. One which is dark and twisted.
And Mr Peanut is indeed a disturbing book, opening as it does with a husband – who happens to share my husband’s name – plotting to kill his wife, who happens to share my name. David is a successful games designer, working secretly away on a first-person novel. He’s become tired of his life and is struggling in his relationship with his obese wife. Barely 20 pages in, David is sitting in an interrogation room, the detectives having concluded he’s killed Alice. Not least of their evidence is David’s novel in which the protagonist, David, hires a hitman to murder his wife, Alice.
To further complicate matters, David’s questioner is Sam Sheppard, a fictionalised version of the 20th century American doctor who was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, but was then acquitted after ten years in prison. In Mr Peanut, Sheppard has turned detective and judges David to be ‘Guilty, guilty as sin’.
The middle section of Mr Peanut takes place in 1950s America. It retells the Sam Sheppard story from the perspectives of Marilyn, the murdered wife, Richard, the cleaner and Sheppard himself. Ross’ imagining of this time vibrates with as much energy as the contemporary sections, with added tension generated by our modern imaginings of what kind of life Marilyn could have expected if she’d been born as a bright middle-class woman fifty years later. His characters are people we know; their internal lives are fully formed. Each of them is at the centre of their own universe. The exception to this is Alice who always feels a little under-realised. But perhaps this is intentional given this is a book about marriage, its overwhelming intimacies and irrevocable distances. It seems Alice remains something of a shell because David is never quite able to comprehend all of her.
The novel spirals in on itself, winding tight like a slinky as the final third returns us to David’s meta-fictional project; his novel, and Alice’s remarkable transformation shedding tens of kilos and the days which lead up to her death.
While the plot is twisty and the devices self-proclaiming, I prefer to read an exciting project – a suggestion for the future of the novel – as Ross offers here. For the first time in a while, reading this debut novel made me feel as if I’d struck on something new. Last year, with the release of Franzen’s Freedom and the associated media frenzy over dark-rimmed glasses and Oprah’s Book Club, I was feeling flat about the future of fiction. Certainly Franzen is a master of his craft but I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading him. I didn’t fly through the pages and wish that I could read them again for the first time to feel that shiver of wordy delight. When the world feels as if it’s collapsing, reading needs to feel essential.
At times it does seem as though Ross’ devices are overtaking their characters or that, at other moments, the plot has been over-exposed – perhaps for fear of losing readers in the complexity – and so the images become washed out. But for the most part this is a genuinely scintillating read. It is not only intellectually stimulating but has that special quality, the reason why we still reach out for greatness, of making time seem irrelevant and the world fall away.
There’s a tiny little piece by me up at Capsule today – an online journal for bite-sized lit. It was inspired by a doco I saw on the early career of filmmaker John Waters. It begins:
‘In a cold Baltimore church basement, a vile film flickered over faces. Is it a she? they wondered at the pudgy one, hair pulled back to make room for the skyscraper make-up…’
Read the rest here. Hope you enjoy it.
Just in. The books shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award are:
Of course, the comment has begun (on Twitter) about the fact that there are only three books. Martin Shaw says (@thebooksdesk) ‘A shortlist of 3 becomes a bit of a damning take on the longlist to me – as if the other 6 were just chosen for some local colour!’ I wasn’t at the announcement and the press release hasn’t found it’s way into my inbox yet but Jennifer Byrne from the First Tuesday Book Club (@tuesdaybookclub) tweeted that the judges said, regarding the shortlist of three, ‘they had read lots of books that were not ready for publication and lacked great editing…’ She also reported that the judges said ‘Australian voice’ was the most striking feature of the books nominated.
And of course, they’re all dudes (as in 2009). Roger McDonald and Kim Scott are also former winners.
I haven’t read all three of these, but I’m sure they’re good, quality reads. Chris Womersley’s Bereft certainly is, and I’ll put my money on that. I’m keen to read That Deadman Dance too. But isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice. Sheep stations, war, colonisation. Like I said, I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define ‘Australian life’ – and the longlist certainly does feel a bit like a cop out. When you look at the final three you feel like those other books never had a chance.
I’m sorry this is rough, wanted to get it out quick. I’ll update with some official comments from the judges or links later.
The official comments are up on the Trust website now. See here. The judges say: ‘These shortlisted books have a distinctive, indelible Australian voice. It’s a voice that has nothing to do with reflex nationalism, or jingoism – rather the reverse. The shortlisted books this year are like barometers of the state of our culture: they take the readings, and give them back to us in fiction of extraordinary accomplishment. They force us to look again at ourselves, and to think – hard.’
And here’s some comments on the individual novels:
On Bereft: ‘This is a beautifully written book, spare and compelling. The tragedy and bleakness of the story are, at times, almost unbearable but Womersley’s fine prose and narrative intensity make Bereft unforgettable.’
On That Deadman Dance: ‘That Deadman Dance is alive in the spaces between these two worlds as they collide and collaborate. It tells the story of the rapid destruction of Noongar people and their traditions. At the same time, there is the enchanting possibility of the birth of a new world in the strange song, dance, ceremony and language that are produced by these encounters of very different peoples.’
On When Colts Ran: ‘When Colts Ran, with its cavalcade of flawed, rough cut Australian characters, illustrates poignantly the way the optimism and confidence of rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century slipped away and how family experience, class and social expectation shaped communities. Roger McDonald evokes that world with an inwardness and poetic verve that is extraordinary.’
Other People's Words
Apr 19, 2011
Kill Your Darlings: Issue Four (Aus)
Ed: Rebecca Starford
reviewed by Lisa Down
Call me a philistine, but I wasn’t previously familiar with the Australian quarterly Kill Your Darlings. It means I don’t have a standard by which I can judge this edition but I walked away satisfied that it had provided the ‘fresh, clever writing’ the KYD website describes.
Issue four of Kill Your Darlings devotes space to three pieces of short fiction. Beyond that the focus is on nonfiction including reviews, essays, commentary and an author interview. With no assigned theme the subject matter is diverse, though I did find some common threads.
‘Harvey Street’ by Peggy Frew, ‘Hind’ by Michael Sala and ‘A Clean Kind of Dirt’ by Louise Swinn are stand-alone stories but there is a commonality in how they centre on women who are splintered, restless, and dogged by the past. The Frew and Sala seemed to flow into each other in particular – both possess a lyrical tone and use sublime descriptive language to create the unsettled mood within the headspace of their female protagonists. The simplest of sentences becomes a delight to read as a result, for instance from Frew: ‘I dip my finger in the glass, in the little trail of grit that runs up the side of it’.
‘Harvey Street’ is more of a traditional narrative that benefits from careful structuring, while ‘The Hind’ is less accommodating for the reader, guiding you toward an unexpected climax and leaving you there to glimpse personal implosion: ‘She at last felt her lover who was not her lover… his hand pressed against the mouth of the river exactly where it opened up… as if this was the last part of her that he wanted to see.’
I initially dismissed Swinn’s ‘A Clean Kind of Dirt’, but upon re-reading admit that this was a terrible miscalculation. The story of Carly’s reunion with school friends, complete with partners and an army of children accumulated throughout adulthood, doesn’t read poetically – but for good reason. Carly is dissatisfied and has detached herself from life, more of an observer than an eager partner, mother or friend. The prose is stripped right back to reflect that: ‘Carly began, somewhat halfheartedly, to get people eating. It was something she knew women did.’ The stifling heat of an Australian summer also echoes a suffocated spirit: ‘if you were to stop and stand for a moment, you ran the risk of drying out completely’. It’s thoughtful writing deserving of multiple readings. And isn’t that one of the best things you can say about any piece of writing?
The lead essay by Emily Maguire – an uncomfortable portrait of life for full-time carers – leaves the greatest impression out of the nonfiction. Maguire deftly anchors statistics within the stories of her interview subjects, carers who are ‘exhausted from getting up every two hours throughout the night… exhausted from the stress of considering the wellbeing of another person… without relief.’ Particularly interesting – or perhaps infuriating – is the mention of the gendered nature of care, where the role of carer falls to women within families often as it is considered to ‘come innately’. Maguire handles the issue and her interviewees with care though its overall scope is a little ambitious for the space allowed. It feels as though she has enough content to write a book.
At five pages, Luke Ryan’s ‘Where Have My Ideas Gone?’ is short but sweet. It’s an entertaining piece on the link between boredom and creativity and how we urge the brain into ‘creative flux directed towards… endless stimuli rather than being left to pursue its own ends’. It’s not a new idea, yet it remains an interesting topic to ponder as we continue to accumulate more shiny things to distract and amuse us. Ryan mixes the intellectual with the personal and doesn’t overstay his welcome. And afterward I did attempt to last five minutes without fiddling with my mobile and failed miserably. Don’t judge me; you’re probably reading this on your iPhone.
‘Leaving’ is the promising taste of a memoir-in-progress by Olivia Guntarik, who was a young girl in 1977 when her mother emigrated from Borneo to Australia. The content is already interesting and she has the skill to vividly reconstruct a sense of time, place and environment: ‘The sun is seeping through the leaves, slanting shards of gold… across my body. A breeze pants on my face.’ However, problems arose for me with some of Guntarik’s internal dialogue. It felt disjointed and became a barrier to connecting fully with the overall piece.
Hannah Kent’s interview with author Sally Vickers is perhaps overlong but the line of questioning is excellent, and fully displays Vickers’s intelligence and thoughtfulness as a critically acclaimed writer.
Whether a deliberate move by the editors, another common thread emerges in KYD with analysis of three different but highly exposed figures in literature today. The first is of course Jonathan Franzen. Despite suffering from Franzen Fatigue (that glasses gate episode really did it for me) I have to hand it to Caroline Hamilton, whose piece ‘Jonathan’s Corrections’ avoids adding to the hyena-like frenzy (Franzy?) and instead provides us with a well-researched and fair examination of the man and his motivations. She mentions how he aims ‘to write himself into the role of chronicler of the contemporary American middle class’, to be a ‘reader’s writer’, and his discomfort with the industry of book promotion that destroys the possibility of being the archetypal lone writer.
From one polarising literary darling to another, Bethanie Blanchard in ‘Notes from the Underground’ explains why Bret Easton Ellis’s work fails on film. A PhD candidate on the writer, Blanchard dissects the books and their film adaptations with authority. Her argument rings true for those familiar with his work: that without the dark, spare prose of Ellis, interpretations of his stories ‘merely slide down the surface of the works, conveying only a beautifully glossy vision of 1980s America’. They are shallow, violent and lacking the meaning imprinted by Ellis’s writing. Those who consider him to be a shallow, unnecessarily violent and overrated writer in the first place may not get much out of Blanchard’s essay but admirers should appreciate it.
And then there’s Eat, Pray, Love. I haven’t actually read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller yet, but I’m all for Kate Douglas’ ‘Read, Preach, Defend’, a counter attack to those who have blasted Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve spent many hours defending some of my apparently ‘shameful’ literary favourites and Douglas gamely responds to the critical assaults that it’s anti-feminist, patronising, culturally insensitive, badly written New-Age trash. I don’t know how many new fans she will win on behalf of Ms Gilbert and the way Douglas congratulates her for writing a book with a certain amount of ‘artifice’ is discomfiting, but it defends the right to enjoy whatever writing you want regardless of what the ‘important people’ think.
‘Read, Preach, Defend’ is slotted into the review section of KYD but it feels more like commentary, especially compared to the reviews that go alongside it. Jake Wilson’s review of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer explores the nuance and atmosphere present in much of Polanski’s work without sounding sycophantic. Hannah Kent and Ben Gook review musicians Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine and Darren Liddiard from The Drones respectively. These are both top-notch pieces that aren’t overly critical but create an interesting narrative around these eccentric musical figures, as well as analysing the music itself.
Kill Your Darlings is overall a high-quality Australian journal. It feels plucky, youthful and open to experimentation. Rather than plunge through each piece like I initially did, I advise you to take your time, allowing the individual merits and nuances to show themselves and be appreciated. Well-edited and put together, an undertaking like Kill Your Darlings that provides a platform for writers certainly deserves our wholehearted support.
Note: Kill Your Darlings: Issue Five has also just been released, featuring Matthia Dempsey on Australian bookshops, Emilie Collyer on how alcoholism affects families, Daniel Golding on video games and fiction from Patrick Cullen, Sonja Dechian and Eva Lomski.
Lisa Down works for an online bookseller, which legitimises her joint passion for literature and sitting on Facebook all day.
20 Classics in 2011
Apr 15, 2011
I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
I’d always heard Oscar Wilde was a wit, and the supernatural element of the story appealed to me.
When was it published?
It was first published in 1890, as an issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. A later revised edition was published by Ward, Lock and Company in April 1891. I read Gerard’s Digit Books edition, yellowing pages, blurry typeface and all (pictured). It has no ISBN and no date but is tied in with ‘current film success The Trials of Oscar Wilde’ which came out in 1960. See the front and back cover here. There have, of course, been multiple editions of the book (see Aus, US, UK).
What’s it about?
Basil Hallward, a painter, is infatuated with young beauty Dorian Gray. Basil’s friend Lord Henry Wotton (or ‘Harry’) is introduced to the subject by Basil, and becomes fascinated by the young man himself. The witty and cynical Harry goes on a rant to young Dorian which makes him think about the value of youth and beauty as he has never done so before:
‘You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats… Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed.’
We learn later that Harry will tell all and sundry (good-naturedly) his views on love, life, art and beauty – but this speech has a profound impact on young Dorian Gray when he lays eyes on Basil’s portrait of him. ‘A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognised himself for the first time.’ The full force of Harry’s speech hits him, and in his realisation that he will wither and wrinkle, will lose the golden tinge in his hair, that the ‘scarlet would pass away from his lips’, he feels a sharp and intense pain and he cries that he would give his soul for the chance to be the Dorian in the painting – the one who would be always young.
And after his first unforgivable act – cruelty toward a young woman with whom he had been in love – he sees that his wish might have come true.
Wilde was a flamboyant writer and intellectual; a poet, journalist, essayist and playwright. He was apparently a wonderful conversationalist, possessed of a biting wit. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel. The Importance of Being Earnest, a play, is perhaps his masterpiece. He was born in Dublin, went to University in Dublin then at Oxford, and lived and wrote in London after that. He lectured on aestheticism in America in the 1880s.
He was an aesthete, homosexual (though he did marry, in 1884), and was involved in the decadent movement. Wilde was convicted, in the mid 1890s, of ‘gross indecency’ and sentenced to two years in prison and hard labour. He fled Britain after that, and wrote about his difficult time in prison in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died, after converting to Catholicism, in Paris at the age of forty-six.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
It’s by no means a perfect novel, but it is perfectly enjoyable. There were two aspects I liked best: the challenging engagement (particularly by Lord Wotton) with aspects of art, beauty, aestheticism and decadence; and the aesthetics of the novel itself – the way moments of drama are stylised.
The novel seems to warn against taking ideals of youth and beauty too far, so that they become depraved and soulless. Lord Wotton supposes (though it’s hinted by Hallward that he is being cynical) that beauty does indeed equal goodness. That you can judge a book by its cover, in other words. And Dorian’s story does actually confirm this, because his ‘soul’ in the painting becomes more and more hideous, depending on what nasty things he has been up to. But Dorian is already paying for taking the aforementioned ideals of youth and beauty too far. For believing there is nothing else.
In some way it feels as though Wilde was playing out some of his own internal conflicts though this. He did idealise beauty and decadence. I haven’t read any of his essays so I’m not an expert on his views, but the novel plays out a kind of duplicity: between a view of the value in beauty, and a humorous sending-up of this same view. Was he teasing himself? Was he both the wizened but misguided Lord Wotton, and the enthusiastic but secretly devilish youth Dorian Gray?
As mentioned I also enjoyed the way the dramatic moments of the novel are rendered. The dramatic moments are quite a contrast to the laid-back, observant wit in the dinner party conversations between Wotton, Gray and others. In one:
‘The bright dawn flooded the room, and swept the fantastic shadows into dusky corners, where they lay shuddering. But the strange expression that he had noticed in the face of the portrait seemed to linger there, to be more intensified even. The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.’
These moments of terror and anguish make really fun reading, and reminded me of reading something like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though the other parts of this novel felt more modern.
Speaking of modern, I can’t help but wonder what Wilde would have thought of much of later modernism, or even post-modernism: a (20th Century) modernist novel might not have the same finality, the same dramatic ending, and the reader might also go where Gray secretly goes in the novel. (Most is only alluded to, until we visit an opium den with him). What would Wilde have thought of decadence, or aesthetics, had he lived to see the consumer age? It adds a layer to the reading of this book now, because concepts of ‘beauty’ have truly been warped (eg. consider the role of nature in art, back then). Concepts of youth, however… What would he think of expensive wrinkle creams and extreme cosmetic surgery? If you think about it this way, he was almost writing science fiction. Impossible and misguided goals of everlasting youthfulness, to maintain an appearance of success.
Dorian thinks heavily on the ‘monstrous’ forms of self-denial ‘whose origin was fear’, speaking mainly of religion, and wonders about a new spirituality and a new Hedonism ‘that was to recreate life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism… It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly; yet it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience.’ He goes on, ‘Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they may be.’ So it was to live without consequence, but not necessarily in a materialistic fashion.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
I could just go on quoting this book, and as I write this I see that I got much more out of it than I realised. I haven’t even mentioned the epigrams yet, which preface the novel, chanelling early forms of existentialism in the way they say: there is no meaning (but there is). Here’s a couple that preface the book:
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Here are some of his epigrams online.
I can’t stop:
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Okay Oscar, I get it. Cheers.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
But seriously, despite everything above, read The Picture of Dorian Gray just for the sake of chattering with, nodding along to and arguing with Lord Henry Wotton.
I’ve finally read Brave New World. Maybe next I should tackle a biggie – Moby Dick? Or perhaps some Iris Murdoch, as I’m super curious about her.
Have you read The Picture of Dorian Gray? Are any of the film adaptations good? I’d be keen to read a bio on Oscar Wilde someday too…
Interviews + Profiles
Apr 12, 2011
by Gerard Elson
Read part one here.
Have you tried your hand at prose fiction? Would you ever be interested?
I’d prefer to write fiction than something like 1001 Australian Nights. I’m having the heebs a bit with this book coming out and people reading it!
You don’t mince your words – well, except when you talk in riddles. It’s equal parts abstraction and you callin’ it like you see it.
It’s rooted in real life and there are some very real things in it – things to do with family. I don’t want to be upsetting people and I don’t want to have conflict in my life. The book isn’t out to settle any scores. So I would like to write a fictional book. I’m working on a couple of things. Then I could talk about writing a bit more, rather than my life and other personal things.
How difficult was it when writing 1001 Australian Nights to find the balance between things you felt were important to include, but then not wanting to upset anyone? There are a lot of passages in the book where I found myself thinking, ‘I’m not really sure what he’s talking about here, but I like what I’m reading!’ Which I think is great. It’s much more interesting than reading straight self-canonisation, an accountant’s account of someone’s life.
I think I obscured enough real things. I changed names…
But then when it comes to music and especially the Australian music scene, you’re not afraid to have your say. You’re pretty forthright in saying who you think is maybe a bit sh*t and who’s very underrated. Though not via personal attacks, of course.
I have a real interest in music, so I know things. I might as well have an opinion. I don’t want to waste it just talking about things that are naturally generational. When I was younger, I liked a lot of music by people well older than me. I was never interested, when I was a 14-year-old, in listening to other teenagers. That was the furthest thing from my f*ckin’ mind – who would want to?! That’s become a construct of that Triple J world: adults having a meeting to decide what kids want. Kids want to hear other kids? I think that’s a nutty idea! But in Australia, I don’t want to be attacking people like that. So few people get their music out to the public. As much as I mightn’t like some people, I applaud the fact that they’ve worked somehow to get out to people. I know how hard it is.
But in Australian culture there is the ABC of course. Through the John Howard years, its attitude toward the arts has been fearful: ‘Don’t scare people. The arts are elitist!’ That’s still going on in a way because the ABC has been reduced to news and sports. As a musician, I would like them to lift their game and approach music with the same sophistication they bring to sports. Turn on local ABC and it’s just idiots talking about music as a dead, nostalgic thing. That is, frankly, silly. Then there’s Triple J, which has had to shoulder the load of presenting music nationally in the absence of commercial stations doing anything. So any criticism I would have of Triple J would be balanced by the knowledge that they do a lot nationally with their incredibly strong signal. I go out driving in Australia a lot and the strongest signal is always the horse racing! People love to bet. It’s a reassuring noise.
I grew up on the south coast of NSW in a town called Mollymook, right near Ulladulla—
I love those places. Elderly, retirement areas.
Very much. Picturesque. Becalming. But when you’re a kid, there’s not a whole lot going on for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a surfer.
I don’t think there should be much going on in country Australia. It should be boring!
Well, maybe! A lot of my closest friends hail from similar regions, so there’s certainly something to the idea. It forces you to be inventive – as you talk about in the book – to make your own fun or show a little initiative when it comes to eyeing out interests. So in that sense, Triple J was invaluable for me in those formative years. It was a window to a wider world.
What it gave to country Australia it took away from Sydney, which is oxygen. The Sydney music scene has suffered. What Melbourne has is stations that reflect Melbourne back to itself. Has since the mid- to late-’70s. Sydney hasn’t until recently, with FBI radio et cetera. I’ve learnt it’s a question of geography. Melbourne’s so flat the radio signals go uninterrupted for a long way. In Sydney, it takes so much power to get the signal through the hills.
I’ve just realised that I’ve taken up a great deal more of your time than I’d intended to! I hope we haven’t left any stones unturned.
I just hope people realise [the book] isn’t a nostalgic exercise.
No, that’s what I like about it. It’s very alive and up-to-the-moment.
I quite like the writing in it. It’s loaded with allusions to things. Also, I’m just going out on the campaign trail now. I’ve got an albumcoming out where I’ve re-recorded a lot of my songs from the ’90s.
What inspired that? It’s interesting to note how that’s been birthed concurrent to your writing a memoir.
Basically, a lot of your petty income as a musician is through publishing. Owning the rights to your songs. So I wanted to make my songs live again. Rework and recast them. A lot of my favourite artists did that. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings would always rerecord their old songs. Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. Songs when they get older become different. These ones… the original recordings I quite liked, but my singing was quite uptight. I was uptight because I felt the pressure of people being interested in what I was doing. Before then I was free, doing whatever the f*ck I wanted. But when people became interested, I clammed up. I lost my ability to sing out.
How do you move through that?
You learn not to be so precious. That people like certain things in your songs, so they’re just as much theirs as they are yours. The album is a collection of songs that I’ve always played in my live set. In a way, they’re the songs that I live in for people and the public. I really like them. They live for me and they’ve kind of changed. My current band, the players are so great and I love playing with them. I’ve also grown to love playing the electric guitar. When I started out I was just a wiseguy standing there singing – like a comedian, in a way. I became interested in coming back to the music and playing the guitar as a performer. And electric guitar, because when you play the electric guitar you’re a liar and when you play the acoustic guitar you’re telling the truth! [Laughs] It’s a real rock ‘n’ roll album. I’m very happy with it.
I like that idea very much. I wish more artists would do that. It’s always one of the greatest pleasures of a good live performance: when someone dredges something distant back up from out of the cobwebs and really owns it as the performer they are now.
I’ve done that in small clubs. Taken more of a jazz approach. Take The Living End. If their only experience is playing their songs in the overplayed, vaudeville style of the rock festival, there’s nowhere else for it to go. A lot of my experience of music is the dimensions of it. I’ve played at big festivals and it’s very exciting, but you have to play pretty big. The Rolling Stones have learnt to live within that, with incredible gimmicks and enormous screens. U2 tried to do it. In general, the music is just blown up too big. It’s lost almost everything by that stage. It’s quite small, the experience of being compressed into recordings. But their effect on the listener is enormous. When it’s made bigger like that, the effect is smaller – in my humble opinion!
Gerard Elson is the negligent keeper of the film blog celluloid tongue. Lately, things have seemed pretty sad there. It’s okay though: he’s been busy returning to uni to undertake an Honours degree in Film and Television Studies part-time, as well as working as the DVD buyer at Readings St Kilda. His writing has appeared here and there, and continues to do so.
Interviews + Profiles
Apr 11, 2011
by Gerard Elson
Dave Graney likes his coffee weak and his public spaces swarming. So we meet at Starbucks. It’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but then that’s Graney: never one to play the scummy, hard-worn rock pariah (thank god). He arrives early and I’m embarrassed to be pattering away on my laptop. Gent that he is, Graney doesn’t hold this against me. Once he’s fixed with an oversize cardboard cup of his favourite brew, we take a seat to discuss his new memoir, 1001 Australian Nights. Therein, Graney recounts his small town beginnings in Mt Gambier, SA, and the strange, numinous path he’s charted to arrive as one of the country’s most singular rock performers.
Let’s start with the obvious: what moved you to do this now?
I’ve always been a fan of books written by musicians. Not so much by people writing about music, unless they’re from an earlier period in rock music when writers had more empathy with the players. Now, music magazines have almost disappeared as cultural things, and music writing is in daily papers, which always assume that the audience is not interested or doesn’t know anything. So they’ll write, for instance, ‘Keith Richards, guitarist of the Rolling Stones, a band from outer London formed with Brian Jones in 1962.’ In a rock magazine they’d just say ‘Keith.’ Keith or ‘Keef’ – ‘k,’ double ‘e,’ ‘f.’ It’s a more sophisticated, occult world.
I’ve been getting into reading more online. AV Club has great articles on TV shows and music. It’s just reading online… I haven’t got into the habit of it. I guess that’s where the best stuff is. There are some music things online too, but I think they’ve lost that empathy with the players. Since the punk rock period, it’s all been obsessed with the audience. So I’ve sought out books by people like Wreckless Eric, Eric Goulden. He’s a British musician. Had a magnificent debut single and he’s been a working musician ever since. He wrote a book. It’s very good. Mezz Mezzrow is a white Jewish jazz player. He was Louis Armstrong’s marijuana dealer. He wrote a great book called Really the Blues. Charles Mingus wrote a magnificent book called Beneath the Underdog. And Miles Davis wrote one called Miles. Everything Miles Davis has done is incredibly full of drama and historic interest. So I wanted to write a book just ’cause I like reading things like that and I thought someone else might.
It’s funny doing interviews for the book – and I’m putting out an album too – when I rarely do interviews for my music. Because I’m treated as such an oddity or [an] exotic geezer, a dodgy guy who’s stuck around too long. I don’t think I’ve ever done an interview about music in Australia where it wasn’t almost like I’m on trial, defending myself! I always just want to talk about my songs, playing with my band, what it’s like to play. So I guess the book’s a bit driven by that: just things I’ve never been asked!
I’ve all my life written songs about being a musician and playing. And that’s a post-punk thing, lots of people did it – The Fall, Suicide. Suicide had a song called ‘Fast Money Music.’ The Fall had one called ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man.’ As the years went by, the discussion of music has been reduced to the winners: AC/DC and The Beatles. Anything else is elitist losers! Rap music has a lot of singing about the business and the business of performing. My favourite is Dr Dooom. He’s [an alter-ego of] a fellow called Dr Octagon who’s always hilariously writing about ‘the business’ through his many personas. I f*cking love that! But in rock music it’s really slow. It’s like walking through sludge being in rock music. They go on about Bob Dylan – who’s a very admirable artist – but he’s been repackaged so many times. All they can do is dig up new f*cking recordings of Bob Dylan! So that’s why I wanted to do it. I thought I had things to say. I [think] I come from an interesting background – I come from a blue-collar South Australian world. Most rock music is very middle/upper-class, confident types who always have money from home. I have nothing else to fall back on!
You’ve spent so much of your career writing about life as a performer and exploring the various guises you adopt as a musician, which got me thinking: who wrote the memoir? Was it the performer façade, or Dave Graney when he’s at home? I’m inclined to think it was co-authored: written largely by the showman, but peppered with a few quips and asides, a few instances of piercing insight, from the man behind the leather pants and the pencil moustache.
Thank you for saying that! Sometimes I say when I’m writing I’m performing, when I’m performing I’m writing. Some of my songs I just kind of make up really quickly when I’m on stage gasbagging. So generally music is a constant search for authenticity. In an Australian context, any Australian performer in rock music is wearing a mask: American accent, American music. And wearing a mask is f*cking great ’cause it allows you to say things you can’t normally. But [the downside of that is] people are always saying ‘You’re a fake!’ They’re looking for that. That’s how low the discourse is in rock music generally!
Who was it who said of authenticity – or was it sincerity? – that it’s unarguably the bedrock which all art must be built upon… and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made?
[Laughs] That’s very good! And a lot of great performers like Bob Dylan are fakes. They’re really good at…
Yeah! Just making things up!
Particularly when, like Dylan did, they emerge out of nowhere and you’re left to go, ‘Well, I don’t know that they’re bullsh*tting…’
I love it! There are actual people like Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison – who I love – and Hank Williams that are too good to be true but they are f*cking true! And 2Pac – the incredible life of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G…
How long have you kept tour diaries? They comprise a large part of the latter half of the book.
I only do it specifically for those kind of things. I don’t do it that much. It’s not that interesting. There’s a tour I did with Henry Wagons and that was quite interesting. I was putting [the diary entries] online and taking them off. I kind of worked on them. It was quite good, because Henry and I are different ages but we got on very well. There’s something about us – we probably see a bit of ourselves in each other. So I thought [we were] an interesting couple of characters to write about!
You’ve travelled around a lot, but since moving to Melbourne, you’ve always come back here.
I lived in London from about ’83 to the end of ’88. A year or so between now and then I’ve lived there as well. I really like being in London. It was quite inspiring for me in that time. I’ve got a few friends there. I love the big urban ambience – the filth and the fear and the big crowds of people.
What do you love about that? Is it something which inspires ideas, or do you genuinely love the seed and the scale of it?
I do love that! I’ve walked down Oxford Street around Christmas – they have so many people that they ask people to walk on the left side in order to keep a stream going. It’s just an endless sea of faces. Just being on public transport, on the tube and buses… The intimacy with strangers, and the anonymity, was quite exciting.
The amount of English culture we see [over here] – fashion, films and music… They’re up close in each other’s faces all the time, so they notice little things. Californian culture is much more distant: cars driving past each other; they’re not thrown together so much. In New York things are the same [as in London] I guess. I’ve experienced New York in different eras as well: when it was terrifying in the early ’80s and now it’s kind of a theme park for the rich. Still, it’s quite a beautiful place.
And I’m sure you can still find trouble if you look for it! What about Melbourne though – do you still enjoy it as much as you used to?
I probably like it more. I love the Melbourne music scene. Over the years it’s been shown to me how sophisticated it is compared to Sydney.
Who do you like in the current Melbourne scene?
I love those weirdos like Kes Band and The Ancients. Strange dilettante types like The Sand Pebbles. I love a singer called Jane Dust and the Giant Hoopoes. Lots of things. The jazz players like Mark Fitzgibbon and Henry Manetta and the Trip. There’s lots of older musicians in Melbourne too, which is good. That doesn’t exist in many other cities.
I’ve more-or-less been living in St Kilda since mid last year. I work at Readings on Acland St and the people who come into that shop… Nick Cave was in there over Christmas. Conway Savage shops there regularly. Same with Paul Kelly. Tim Rogers lives up the road.
Oh yeah. There’s still remnants of that kind of bohemian culture around St Kilda.
But obviously it’s changed a lot? Not having grown up in Melbourne, I’m familiar with St Kilda’s reputation as having been an alt-cultural hotbed back in the ’80s. It seems a hell of a lot more gentrified today than what it must have been back when you lot were all kicking about.
In the old days there was no bohemian business [there]. There were two adult bookshops and a normal bookshop and two or three old Jewish places, which were very cheap. Nothing else worked. People kept trying to open businesses but people were so poor, they had no money to spend on anything. This was all through the ’80s. It was very run-down and quite liveable. Lots of people lived there. Where there used to be ten single older men living in rooms in the old mansions there’s now probably one person!
There are a couple of great passages in the book where you recount, in quite vivid detail, some ‘dreams’ that you’ve had. Are you the kind of person who typically remembers your dreams? Or are these really just things which you cooked up in order to address—
I did cook those up! I’m trying to have a go at some characters on the scene and not mention their names.
I did have an inkling. The dream stuff dovetails into the idea of Lovecraft’s Leviathan which you also toy around with. I went back and reread much of the second half of the book last night, and the Leviathan makes a few appearances there. Then this morning, I woke from this weirdly terrifying dream: I was alone out at sea in this rickety skiff with this huge humpback whale powering behind me, surging me further out towards the horizon. Which got me to wondering: does your personal Leviathan have a shape?
Oh, no! I’m referring to death. It’s a Lovecraftian image I’ve subsumed there – the Leviathan walking beside us always.
So it never manifests itself in a discernible shape? I feel like my Leviathan takes shapes.
Mine’s just a big full stop of nothingness! [Laughs] I try not to dwell on it too much. But I’m always reminded that it’s there!
Which is good. I think we need our Leviathans. Keep us on our toes.
Have you read a lot of Lovecraft?
I’ve read a bit of Lovecraft. I like Lovecraft very much.
Someone made a documentary on Lovecraft. It was on last year. Had lots of interviews. Went through his life. People who really liked him, people who’ve parodied him. Because his style can be parodied.
Like any distinct style or voice. Have you ever seen the Lovecraft comic George Kuchar did?
Really? As in [one of] the Kuchar brothers? I’ve seen some of their films.
Yeah. There’s this great documentary on the pair of them coming soon to ACMI which goes into all of this. He fell in with the underground comix scene which was thriving in New York at the time, and a lot of these guys collaborated on a book called Arcade. The documentary details this Lovecraft comic of his, where [Lovecraft is] on his deathbed, haunted by all of the monstrous visions he’s summoned up from the void over the course of his life as a writer.
When did you find an interest in that sort of thing? With the underground comix, were you going into comic shops…?
When I was younger and doing my undergrad in Canberra, I’d actively seek that stuff out.
Our bass player in The Moodists [Chris Walsh] grew up with Tracy Pew [of The Birthday Party]. They were really into underground comix. Especially this character S. Clay Wilson from San Francisco. He had a character called The Checkered Demon. It was just horrible! [Laughs] You’d write to S. Clay Wilson, care of Dick’s Bar, San Francisco. They just loved that. Anything in a bar they loved. Bukowski – they loved him. But they just loved his picture! And of course [there was] Robert Crumb. What a fascinating character. I always see these women walking down the street and I identify them as ‘Crumbs.’ Robert Crumb would like them! [Laughs] In a way, I’m enjoying their physical form, of course, but I’m mainly putting Robert Crumb’s spin on them!
Like a Crumb filter? Wouldn’t that be a great setting on a video editing suite? Instead of the silent movie filter, the R. Crumb rotoscope effect! Whatever you’ve shot becomes rendered with stink lines and pock marks—
You have some skinny supermodel or actress, whose arse swells and her legs become huge muscles!
Are you planning to catch anything at the Kuchars retrospective? I think it would appeal very much to you.
Their movies are so rough!
They almost exclusively make shorts, but George Kuchar did make one feature, which has what I think is one of the greatest titles ever: The Devil’s Cleavage.
Is that like ‘Who cleft the devil’s foot?’ It’s some ancient question like ‘Who tied the Gordian knot?’ I think it might even be in a poem by Ezra Pound. Sh*t – we’re gettin’ high falutin’ here!
That’s good – this is for a literary blog, after all! And on that note, what are you reading at the moment? The book has a lot of references to the literature you grew up loving and still love.
I find it so hard to concentrate on things. I think it’s because of the internet. So I try to force myself to read every day. I’m envious of people who read two or three books a week. There were periods in my life when I was like that. I’m enjoying Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. I’m finding that very inspiring. Clare got me a nice hardback: Selections from 1001 Arabian Nights, which I’ve always loved as an object. [It’s] translated by the explorer Richard Burton. I’m really enjoying the language. I love anything Burton did. I visited his grave in London in the mid ’90s. I’m also reading a biography of the devil. Fascinatingly, I never knew – and I grew up going to church every week – that the devil did not exist in the Old Testament.
Wait – aren’t there mentions of Beelzebub in the Old Testament? Or has it been ‘ret-conned’ as often happens with serialised comic books, where some writer will go ‘Oh, by the way, because it’s convenient and we’ve never actually said otherwise, Spider-Man’s dad was JFK!’ Is that what this book is saying: that the devil was retroactively inserted into the Old Testament once Christianity realised it needed a scapegoat? Or is it saying they just went back and said, ‘See this word here? That means the devil. This person mentioned here? That’s the devil too. He’s He of a Thousand Names!’
Apparently things were so sh*t they had to invent the devil to blame the bad things on in the New Testament! ‘It wasn’t god – it was this other guy!’ So I have that book. But I like to keep reading fiction. I always have tons of paperback pulp things to read from different cities. There’s one from Detroit, Loren D. Estleman, I’ve been meaning to read. ‘Cause Detroit’s a fascinating place. I try to read French because I’ve been trying to understand it for about a decade – well, a bit less. I always love to dip into some French text. I just pick up French things anywhere. Usually historical things are quite interesting and the language isn’t so testing as [it is] if it’s fiction and full of descriptions. I love French poetry, especially Apollinaire. I’ve always got Apollinaire close by. I f*cking love his poetry – he’s like a rapper to me! I love that writing, before and between the wars, French and English writing. I love it.
Part two can be found here.
A review copy of Christopher Currie’s debut novel The Ottoman Motel is sitting neatly in my to-read pile, but the final edition that is officially released on 2 May and is circulating now contains a very special message on the acknowledgements page. Click here to take a look:
But how did it all unfold? I asked Chris and he told me:
‘One of the big things I’ve learnt after getting a publishing deal is how LONG everything takes. The contracts, the rewrites, the re-rewrites, the printing, the waiting… But I had no idea what a real wait was. I figured that you only get one chance for your first book, and first marriage proposal, so why not have both? I wrote and sent off my acknowledgments page on March 1, and had to wait over a month to be able to show it to Leesa. My editor Mandy Brett, and all at Text Publishing were wonderful, rushing the book up to me in time for Leesa’s birthday, so I could propose in style. A ring is one thing to hide, a book is quite another. And, I suppose, the really brave (or stupid) thing was knowing that my proposal would be in print forever, and I would look like a real idiot if it didn’t come off.
We were drinking champagne on a rooftop bar when I produced the book, telling Leesa to read the acknowledgments, and, being the observant person she is, saw the word “marry” straight away. She said “yes, of course I will,” even before I got a chance to show her the ring (here’s another thing: jewellers need to provide you with boxes with apparent hinges: I spent a good minute trying to get the box open under the table) and get down on one knee. I said, “Are you sure?” which is another thing not to say when someone has agreed to marry you, but nonetheless it all worked out for the best. The support I’ve had from my friends, family and booklovers in general has already been amazing.
And now the most sublime moment in my life is preserved in the best way possible. Let’s see you do that, e-books!’
This review first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.
What do we want from a book of poetry? We want each poem to paint a picture, to shake us up a little, and to ultimately reach down inside us and peel something back. Ali Alizadeh’s poems do all of these things. They are stories and they are personal, many of them seethe with rage at the injustices (and also the blandness) found in all corners of the globe. Alizadeh explores his own internal conflict of straddling two worlds and never completely feeling he belongs – in Iran or Australia, or in the places he has visited. He explores the generally paradoxical nature of peace, freedom and choice.
The poems are personal (deeply so) but political, social, philosophical and definitely meaningful. Subjects range from the self, to freedom of speech, the inadequacy of language, environmental destruction, war, childhood, friendship, love – but these distinctions cannot capture the complexity of the poet’s emotion (which is sometimes even a destructive and self-destructive drive). Yet, the poems are simply written: evocative and vivid, with subtext in layers.
The collection makes a perfect companion to Alizadeh’s wonderful biography/history Iran: My Grandfather (Transit Lounge). Alizadeh’s work is important and I’d hope the average reader might pick him up and be enlightened.