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Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988) 511 p.


The first of Carey’s novels I read was True History of the Kelly Gang, which, at the time, I classified as “good but not great,” only to find that it grew on me the more I thought about it afterwards. His first novel, Bliss, I didn’t find particularly compelling, so I’ve skipped over his second novel, Illywhacker, even though I own it. Instead we come to his third book, Oscar and Lucinda, which won him his first Booker Prize and could safely be considered his break-out novel.

An unconventional love story, Oscar and Lucinda is a historical novel set in the mid-19th century, dealing with the lives of Australian heiress Lucinda Leprastier and English reverend Oscar Hopkins. The novel tracks both of their lives from childhood, as they develop the gambling addiction which eventually brings them together, and turns into a bizarre quest to transport a pre-fabricated glass church across four hundred kilometres of Australian bush to a remote coastal town.

Unlike True History of the Kelly Gang, and even unlike Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda has a tone to it which one might describe as “comic.” The characters and locales are simultaneously realistic yet exaggerated. Carey slips in and out of different character’s heads, often in the same paragraph, and less important characters are often portrayed through the lens of some particular social quirk or obsession which colours their reaction towards either Oscar or Lucinda. This reminded me, more than anything else, of the writing style of Terry Pratchett – characters in the 19th century style who range from vain to petty to frightened to Machiavellian. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly very unusual, and can make things difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Carey paints an evocative picture of colonial Sydney – filthy, parochial, sub-tropical, and avaricious, yet the jewel in Australia’s crown and a city unlike anywhere else in the world – which worked quite well for me as I happened to be visiting Sydney while reading the first half.

The other odd thing about Oscar and Lucinda is that, after a relatively light and comical 450 pages – pages dealing with death and disgrace and misfortune, certainly, but still pages narrated in a humourously whimsical manner – the final 50 pages suddenly plunge into dark and terrifying territory indeed. The very final chapter could fairly be described as a horrific nightmare. I mean this in the best possible way; it came completely out of the left field for me, and was stunning and powerful. Perhaps if I’d been sharper I would have noticed the clues scattered along the way. (I did notice a few of them, but misinterpreted them.) The novel begins strangely, narrated by Oscar’s great-granddaughter, who then fades into near-irrelevance. If it had begun more conventionally, or if I’d been paying closer attention, I would have realised Oscar’s fate was spelt out in the novel’s very first paragraph.

Oscar and Lucinda is a good book. It’s a very odd book, a very unique book, because Peter Carey is really a one-of-a-kind writer. That doesn’t necessarily mean I always enjoy the way he writes – there are more than a few places in Oscar and Lucinda where I was bored – but viewed as a whole, this novel is bold, unique and excellent. It contains a number of scenes that will stick in my memory, and the ending is jaw-dropping. Perhaps, in retrospect, Oscar and Lucinda will grow on me as True History of the Kelly Gang did.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1939) 229 p.

This is one of a number of books I picked up years ago at a Readings warehouse sale in the first few weeks I moved to Melbourne, back in the days when I happily accumulated books much faster than I could read them. I stopped and did a tally at the end of 2012 and realised I had more than enough books to last me until the end of 2013, when I theoretically might not be in Melbourne anymore, so I stopped buying them and am now racing against the clock to see if I can finish my stockpile before I get transferred to London. I’d love to own a nice old house one day and start building an endless library, but unfortunately I’m still in my early 20s and need to keep my possessions to a minimum because I’m still at a stage in my life when I’m travelling and wandering about. First world problems.

Anyway. Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a French writer and aviator of the 1920s and 1930s mostly famous in the English-speaking world for his children’s book The Little Prince, which I haven’t read. Wind, Sand and Stars is a memoir of his time as a mail pilot in the 1920s and 1930s, flying from France to the colonies in West Africa and South America.

I was hoping this book would be like Roald Dahl’s awesome 1930s adventure memoir Going Solo, but it’s apples and oranges. Exupery’s writing style is lyrical (sometimes verging on purple prose), and he’s something of a philosopher, deeply wrapped up in the questions of what it means to be alive, what it is to be human, etc. There are a number of dull interludes, especially in the first half of the book, where he’s waffling on through deep layers of metaphor, trying to establish exactly how it feels to be caught up in a certain situation. I didn’t find it particularly readable.

The book is much more compelling in the second half, particularly in the chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand,’ which details his crash in the Sahara Desert during an air race from Paris to Saigon. Exupery and his co-pilot were stranded in the desert for four days and were close to death when they were miraculously rescued by a Bedouin. This fifty-page segment is brilliantly told, charting the decay of Exupery’s optimism, the agony of dehydration, and the slow unravelling of his mind – particularly, the misery of continually hallucinating rescue only to have his hopes dashed. This segment is followed up by his experience in the Spanish Civil War – as a journalist, I think – which is the only thing I’ve read about that war apart from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and like the desert crash it was much more interesting than the first half of the book.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad memoir at all if you’re prepared to put up with some heavy Latin lyricism and the occasional boring philosophical aside.

Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of an oak.

So life goes on. For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin. One by one, our comrades slip away, and deprive us of their shade.

– From “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960) 264 p.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of classic literature novels I need to read, and the reaction I most hate to have when I read them is ambivalence. If they’re amazing, all’s good; if they suck then I can just rant about them and decry their status as icons. When you read the magnum opus of a man considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and your reaction is “Yeah, it was pretty good, I guess,” it’s not easy to review.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a 26-year-old husband, father to a toddler, with another baby on the way. In high school he was a basketball star, a hero, but you get the impression that the big fish in the little pond wasn’t quite talented enough to make it elsewhere, which is why he’s still stuck in his hometown in Pennsylvania working as a kitchen implement salesman. One night his growing anxiety and dissatisfaction with his life reaches breaking point, and he gets in his car and drives away. He finds himself drawn back, though, and the novel covers the next few months of his life as he deals with the consequences of his actions.

I knew before reading this that Rabbit is widely considered one of the most unlikeable protagonists in fiction, and I have to say, I don’t see why. He’s certainly not likeable – he can be self-centred, obnoxious, narcissistic and demanding, not to mention the cowardice of abandoning his wife and child. But the entire point of the book is about human flaws, particularly the flaws of youth – feeling trapped, knowing there could be more out there, wanting to avoid responsibility and run away (though I did find it odd that Rabbit immediately shacks up with another woman). So while he’s not likeable, I didn’t find him unlikeable, either, and I certainly found him sympathetic. I’m actually hard-pressed to think of a fictional protagonist I 100% dislike – or a real-life person, for that matter. Maybe I’m a nice person. Or maybe I’m easily influenced and will throw my sympathies behind whoever the narrator happens to be. David Lurie in Disgrace is also, apparently, a widely disliked figure, but I had no problem sympathising with him. Maybe I’m more capable of analysing a character’s actions and sympathising with their motives than other readers; maybe I’m mature enough to understand why people do things without necessarily condoning them. Or maybe that’s a very condescending thing to say and I’m a narcissist like Rabbit. Who knows? What a world!

Rabbit, Run also feels like a happier book than it should be. Some terrible, terrible things occur – above and beyond what Rabbit does at the beginning – yet Updike’s prose has a way of making every single thing in the universe seem beautiful, from the trees to the flowers down to the clock ticking in a waiting room at a hospital. You know how sometimes you go through your day and feel blah, and other times you’re walking down the street and every puddle, street sign and strange odour seems wonderful and make you happy to be alive? Updike writes a world of the latter, even if it does send him into purple prose territory at times.

I wasn’t blown away by Rabbit, Run the way I was hoping to be, but I did appreciate it and I do think it’s a strong novel that deserves its place in the canon. I’ll be reading Rabbit Redux down the track.

In Front of Your Nose: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters Volume IV by George Orwell (1968) 555 p.

This is the fourth and final volume of George Orwell’s collected letters, essays and reviews, covering the period from 1945 through to Orwell’s death in January 1950 (though the last letter is dated October 1949). There’s much less journalism and opinion in this volume than previous ones; In Front of Your Nose consists largely of letters, which is understandable, since Orwell spent most of this period writing 1984 on a remote Scottish island, or slowly dying of tuberculosis in a hospital bed.

The dominance of letters is probably why I didn’t enjoy this volume as much as the last one; there are some brilliant essays in here, as you would expect from a writer at his peak, but I’d read most of them before in Shooting an Elephant. There was also something actually quite sad about reading the letters Orwell wrote in 1948 and 1949 as he was admitted to hospital; I knew he was headed for a slow and early death, but he didn’t know that, at least not until the end. The very last line in the book, drawn from a “Extracts From a Manuscript Notebook,” is:

At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.

Which was perhaps a reflection on healthy habits and clean living (not that Orwell was in favour of either). He never reached 50, which is a great shame, because society was robbed of his insights into the post-war military-industrial complex, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Thatcherism, and – if we were really lucky – the early 2000s and the Iraq War.
Nevertheless, even dying at a mere 46 years of age, Orwell was easily one of the most important writers of the 20th century. This four-volume set of his collected works is not for everyone, brimming as it is with personal correspondence and reviews of books that have long since vanished, but I greatly enjoyed reading it. I personally rate Orwell’s non-fiction better than his classic novels Animal Farm and 1984, and if you don’t at least read a few of his best essays, you can’t properly claim to have read Orwell.

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June 2013