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House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones (2008) 328 p.

This is the third and final book in the Howl trilogy, though it was written in 2008, a full eighteen years since Castle In The Air. House of Many Ways again takes us to a new location with new characters: the vaguely Mitteleuropan country of High Norland, and the young girl Charmain, who has been roped into housesitting her wizard uncle’s house while he goes away for medical treatment.

This is the only book in the series where I didn’t already know the plot, since I’d seen the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle and read Castle In The Air in primary school. Unfortunately I think it’s a bit of a step down from the first two books. There’s a lot of domestic slapstick comedy going on, with bursting water pipes and clueless children and a feud with the kobold servants. There’s not so much actual adventure and excitement, and the serious plot which does eventually develop is dealt with in a pretty perfunctory manner. Although come to think of it, that was the case in the first two books, so maybe nostalgia made me happily overlook it? I’ll have to try some more of Jones’ fiction to get a better idea. House of Many Ways was a bit of a lacklustre ending to a trilogy, and didn’t leave me with much to say about it.

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves (1929) 360 p.

In the preface to the 1957 edition of Goodbye To All That, the poet Robert Graves describes this memoir as his “bitter leave-taking of England,” a phrase which now pops up in pretty much any discussion about it. It follows his early life in an English public school, his time as an officer on the Western Front in World War I, and his life as a veteran studying at Oxford and later teaching at a university in Cairo.

The World War I section comprises the vast majority of the book, with his life’s other experiences bookending it as though they’re mere afterthoughts; although I suppose being a war veteran might be very much like that. Graves’ memoir is clear, unsentimental and quite reserved; he doesn’t openly analyse the politics behind it or discuss to any great extent the feelings and motives of himself or his fellow soldiers. It has a bit of a stiff upper lip feeling to it. You can nevertheless feel the resentment simmering below the surface, particularly when he deals with jingoism on the home front or his incompetent and arrogant superior officers (at one point, after reporting on a particularly bloody battle while his CO eats a beef dinner in his dugout, Graves is reprimanded for allowing his company’s uniform standards to slip).

The emotionally distant nature of the account means you have to do a lot of reading between the lines. Graves seems to possess strange, conflicting feelings of disgust with England and the home front and a bitter attitude to the war itself, and yet also a burning desire to return to the trenches. It’s exactly the same sort of feeling expressed by Siegfried Sassoon in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of fictionalised historical novels, which is no coincidence, since Graves and Sassoon were close friends and Sassoon appears often in Goodbye To All That; in fact, the military tribunal convened to judge Sassoon for his open letter denouncing the war at the beginning of Regeneration is told here from the perspective of Graves, who was instrumental in influencing the panel to have Sassoon sent to a mental hospital rather than a prison. It’s quite odd reading about the same character in both fiction and non-fiction, but also very interesting. (Similarly, in his later time at Oxford he’s chums with Lawrence of Arabia.)

I thought I might be tired of stories about World War I in the same way that I’m tired of stories about World War II, but what I found so compelling about Graves’ dispassionate account was the close, first-hand account of day to day life in the trenches: the logistics, the geography, the little details and trivia, like how the soldiers would heat the water for their tea by firing off hundreds of rounds from the machine guns at nothing in particular, how generally despised the avaricious French locals were by the English troops, and some very shocking details about war crimes. (In particular, I have no doubt that most Australians would stubbornly and stupidly refuse to believe an account Graves gives of an Australian soldier who boasts of having murdered captured Germans; nationalism and othering is as strong today as it ever was.) There are details about the shoddiness of their gas masks, long accounts of stratagems during particular battles, descriptions of the experience of crawling across no man’s land at night – for a direct account of life in the trenches, this is really solid stuff.

And it’s also, as any honest account of World War I should be, a testament to the sheer revolting loss of it all. There’s a particularly sombre moment as Graves and his wife go bicycling through southern England a few years after the end of the war:

We rode across Salisbury Plain in the moonlight, passing Stonehenge, and several deserted army camps which had an even more ghostly look. They could provide accommodation for a million men; the number of men killed in the British and Overseas Forces during the war.

The total number of soldiers killed on all sides was 10 million; add civilians, and the death toll rises to 17 million. That’s a genocide, a holocaust. Imagine how many artists and inventors and entrepreneurs and leaders and thinkers and statesmen and writers the world was robbed of; how many minds, how many individual worlds, we lost to that pointless, useless, meaningless war.

For some time now – or perhaps since the war itself, judging from Graves’ account – we have sanctified the “fallen” soldiers of WWI. (I hate the euphemism “fallen.” They were gassed, shot, bayoneted in the stomach, buried alive in mud from collapsing trenches, had their throats cut by German patrols after being wounded in no man’s land, died of septicaemia, burned alive in airplane crashes, committed trauma-induced suicide, and on and on and on.) The war itself has become aestheticised – the poppy, in particular, is a pretty flower that has come to muffle grisly realities. The problem begins when we (the civilians) demand to consider Our Lads as heroes rather than victims. This feeds into the same glorification of violence and combat that led in the first place to the mass enlistment of young men who had no idea what they were getting themselves in for. It still leads to kids enlisting for our endless string of wars in the Middle East today. It’s the same base notion that leads to young, Western Muslim men absconding to join Islamic State.

After the war Graves is asked to speak at a commemoration ceremony, and this is one of those few passages in which we glimpse his inner anger:

[The rector] suggested that I should read war-poems. But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who died, destroyed as it were by the fall of the Tower of Siloam, were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future. Though the Church party, apart from the liberal-minded rector, professed to be scandalised, the ex-servicemen had not been too well-treated on their return, and liked to be told they stood on equal terms with the glorious dead.

In the 21st century, far more US soldiers commit suicide than die in combat, and very few Americans know that. It’s easier and neater and more reassuring for us to venerate the dead rather than to grapple with (and pay for) the mental health issues of the living – let alone question why we did this to them at all. In the centenary of World War I, Goodbye To All That remains an important and valuable book.

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett (1987) 288 p.
Discworld #3 (Witches #1)

equal rites

I had dim memories of this one, just as I did of The Light Fantastic. I remembered it being slightly better than the first two, but still weaker than the next book, Mort, which I’ve always held in my memory as the first properly good Discworld book. I recalled that it introduced Granny Weatherwax, one of the series’ strongest characters, but that she was a sort of proto-version of herself who didn’t live up to later standards, and that it wasn’t really a proper Witches book.

Equal Rites begins with a wizard walking through the rain in the remote Ramtop Mountains, heading for a tiny village clinging to a ravine in the middle of nowhere. He knows that he is going to die, and he wants to pass his staff on to a newborn wizard – the eighth son of an eighth son. He finds the village smithy, where the blacksmith’s wife is in labour upstairs, and as the child is brought down he guides its hand to the staff before expiring. The only problem is that the baby turns out to be a girl – and as everybody knows, women can’t be wizards.

The first act of the book is the part I remembered best, and that’s probably because it’s the best. Eskarina Smith grows up under the watchful eye of Granny Weatherwax, the village witch, who is mistrustful of wizard magic and determined to ensure that Eskarina doesn’t become a wizard. As she grows older and begins showing signs of latent magic ability, Granny tries to steer her towards becoming a witch instead, and takes the girl under her wing. Esk moves into Granny’s cottage and begins learning the craft of magic, in a section of the novel very reminiscent of the early parts of Usrula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. Esk learns, of course, that being a witch involves very little actual magic, but an awful lot of herbology, fieldcraft, woodland lore and what Granny calls “headology,” which is to say, giving people the impression that you’re a witch; a psychological placebo. “Most people don’t set foot outside their own heads much,” Granny says.

Headology is a core part of Granny’s act, and the word will come up a lot in the later Witches books. I was honestly surprised to see it crop up so early. It’s a brewing indication of what would later become a more general theme of Pratchett’s: his fascination with the power of belief, which he writes about in arenas ranging from religion (Small Gods) to the rule of law (Jingo) to fiat currency (Making Money). Granny, too, is a far more fully-developed character in this novel than I recall her being. Obviously this is her first novel, and Pratchett improves as a writer, and all characters should grow in any case, but I had no problem seeing her as fundamentally the same Granny Weatherwax of the later novels: not necessarily intelligent in all things, but with a wise and powerful mind.

“If you can’t learn to ride an elephant, you can at least learn to ride a horse.”
“What’s an elephant?”
“A kind of badger,” said Granny. She hadn’t maintained forest-credibility for forty years by ever admitting ignorance.

It’s for that reason that I feel happy classifying this as the first Witches novel, rather than a standalone. Nanny Ogg and Magrat aren’t here, but Granny is, and she’s a far more substantive character than Esk, whom we never see again.

Equal Rites does stumble a bit after the enjoyable first act, however. Esk’s latent wizard magic is so strong that Granny has no choice but to take her to Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork for tutelage, before she hurts herself or others, and so Pratchett gets a bit of quick and aimless world-building in along the road to the city. The third act takes place in and around the university itself, where another talented young wizard is accidentally breaching the boundaries of time and space, exposing the Discworld to the Dungeon Dimensions.

This is the second Discworld book in a row to be built around the menace of the Dungeon Dimensions – the ugly plane of reality full of lurking Lovecraftian horrors, drawn to magic, constantly trying to break into the Discworld. I’d honestly forgotten how much they featured, and how much of a contrast they are to Pratchett’s later human villains. They are, of course, quite boring, and a climax built around them is always bound to involve of a lot of pokey-jiggery and hand-waving magical solutions. They’re an unavoidable reminder that this is still early Discworld and still fundamentally a satire of pulp fantasy, rather than the broader fiction the series will later become. Unfortunately, if I recall correctly, there’s at least two more novels to come that are built around them.

On the whole, though, Equal Rites is a good book. It’s still lacking a certain spark, but it’s a better novel than The Colour of Magic or The Light Fantastic. Next up is the first Death novel, Mort – and if memory serves, it’s quite a good one.

Discworld Reread Index

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) 209 p.

This book is a self-indulgent piece of shit.

Stream-of-consciousness is a literary technique pioneered by the modernists of the early 20th century, probably most well-known for its use in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was well aware of what stream-of-consciousness writing was, and wasn’t particularly inclined to seek it out, and unfortunately I didn’t realise Virginia Woolf – one of those authors who Must Be Read, one of those members of the Esteemed Literary Canon – was also a practitioner.

Woolf is apparently considered one of the less intense purveyors of stream-of-consciousness; an easier introduction, if you will, to the more difficult works of Joyce or Proust. If that’s the case, I can only imagine what those monsters subject you to. To The Lighthouse is an excruciatingly, eye-wateringly tedious voyage through the thoughts of a bunch of people on the Isle of Skye in Scotland before and after the First World War. I read that on Wikipedia – if that information is in the text I must have missed it, probably because it was difficult to stop my eyes from glazing over and my thoughts from wandering away every seven or eight words.

The modernists thought traditional literature was dead. They thought the traditional structure of fiction had nothing left to say, that it was useless, that it needed to be reinvigorated. They were deeply wrong, but their effete, self-important legacy left this ugly scar upon the world: stream-of-consciousness novels which read like nonsense poetry, the mind flitting from one subject to another, the reader subjected to a dreamlike state of free association, unable to discern between real actions and dialogues or the thoughts, fantasies and anxieties of whoever happens to be narrator halfway through any given sentence (because, yes, they change without warning). I could tell this was a rubbish book 30 pages in, and for the rest of it I just sort of let the words rush past me like rain on a window: distant and inconsequential, though nowhere near as pleasant.

I’ll concede that To The Lighthouse is a lighter read than what I’ve flicked through of Ulysses, and that if you were really dedicated you could sit down and focus on every sentence, and properly try to understand what Woolf was trying to communicate to you. I just can’t imagine why you would. When I read a classic work of literature and dislike it, or even hate it, I often feel compelled to concede that it’s just my opinion, and that it probably has objective literary merit, since everybody else over the past century seems to love it. Not this time. History is wrong; To The Lighthouse is pure garbage.

A Month in The Country by J.L. Carr (1980) 85 p.

Taking place in and around the fictional Yorkshire village of Oxgodby in the summer of 1920, A Month in the Country is narrated by Tom Birkin, a survivor of the Western Front who has been hired to restore a wall painting in the village church. The novella is narrated from a point far in the future, when he is looking back on his time in Oxgodby with fondness and nostalgia, recognising it as the time when he began to heal from the trauma of war.

It’s a good book. One of those short, excellent little pieces of fiction which you’d never nominate as one of the century’s greatest novels or anything, but which is sort of perfect in and of itself. Carr paints such a vivid picture of the English summer that Tom’s time in Oxgodby almost feels like a memory of your own: sleeping on a camp bed in a church belfry, undertaking an enjoyable and fulfilling long-term project, and not really having anything else to worry about for the immediate future.

A Month in the Country is the kind of classic novella you can see being assigned for high school study, because it’s so short and so rich in symbolism, much like The Great Gatsby. Also like The Great Gatsby, it’s a mistake to assign it to high school students, because it deals with things like regret and the impermanence of time, which high school students are too young to relate to. Fortunately, A Month in the Country touches on a good deal of other things as well – art, religion, love, and the nature of happiness. A really good little book.

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey (1994) 422 p.

If the varied works of Peter Carey have a unifying thread, it’s his fascination with what it means to be Australian, and Australia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Illywhacker, his second novel, was the first to thoroughly explore this theme, covering three generations of an Australian family across the 20th century, their country in thrall first to the British and later to the Americans. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, written a few years after Carey moved permanently to New York, explores this relationship through the use of two invented countries: Efica, a French-settled collection of subtropical islands with a population of three million, and Voorstand, an enormous, continent-sized superpower originally settled by the Dutch.

Tristan Smith is born in Chemin Rouge, the capital of Efica, to Felicity Smith, the founder and operator of a left-wing theatre and acting troupe. His father may be any one of her three lovers: Vincent, a business magnate, Wally, the theatre’s producer, and Bill, one of the young actors. Unfortunately for him, Tristan is born a deformed cripple with mangled legs and not enough skin across his face, and the novel follows his difficult life in Efica and later Voorstand.

Tristan is the novel’s narrator (an oddly omniscient one, not unlike Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda) and he addresses his story to a hypothetical reader in Voorstand, admitting that this is “the periphery shouting at the centre.” Later, when he arrives in Voorstand as an adult and is dismayed by how the dirty and decrepit cities do not match up to his expectations, he explains to the reader why this upsets him: “Madam, Meneer, you are part of our hearts in a way you could not dream.” The novel is littered with Tristan’s patient explanations to the Voorstand reader about just how important Voorstand is to the rest of the world, in subtle ways they may not grasp.

This is not unique to Australia, of course. People in countries all over the world, these days, grow up on a diet of American culture. You feel you know the place well before you ever go there, and you know much, much more about America than Americans know about wherever you’re from. (This is also true of Australia looking up to the United Kingdom, and perhaps New Zealand looking up to Australia.) It’s not a negative thing, it’s just very interesting, and odd in the sense that Americans themselves can never experience it, because no country’s culture is more pervasive than their own.

Passive cultural domination is one thing; aggressive political and military domination is quite another. The caves in Efica’s southern islands are threaded with Voorstandish naval navigation cable; their northern islands contain toxic waste dumps from Voorstand’s nuclear plants; and when Tristan’s mother runs for office and looks set to claim a victory for her left-wing party, the Voorstandish intelligence agencies become increasingly, horrifyingly hostile. This segment of the book is based in part on Peter Carey’s long-standing belief (which he explores more thoroughly in his 2014 novel Amnesia) that the CIA played in active role in the dismissal of Australia’s left-wing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. This belief is of dubious merit, in my opinion, but no matter; one does not need to look far to find the long arm of American interests meddling in the governments of minor countries all over the globe, all over history. The useful thing about using allegorical countries is that they can stand in for many real countries, and indeed Carey has spoken about how The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith was received in different countries:

INTERVIEWER: As you write in Tristan Smith, again addressing Voorstand, “You stand with your hand over your heart when the Great Song is played. You daily watch new images of your armies in the vids and the zines.”

CAREY: When I read that line to a Canadian audience, I can feel them ‘get’ the line. I mean, they understand about the big country and the little country and they know which is which. Yet I have sometimes been surprised to discover American readers who never saw any connection between Voorstand and the United States. I suppose that one of the things about false consciousness is not having self-perception.

Carey spends a lot of time developing this alternate little world dominated by Voorstand – a world in which he can naturally never mention America or Australia, nor any part of the New World at all, but in which Europe and Africa and Asia still exist. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is full of footnotes, asides, maps, and references to fictional books and documentaries, all in an attempt to build a sense of verisimilitude for these made-up nations; for Efica with its history of dyeing and convict settlements, for Voorstand with its unsettling Disney-esque religion and the great entertainment of the Sirkus. Carey also invents hundreds of slang words derived from French and Dutch, used in dialogue throughout and filling a glossary appendix. Whether this worldbuilding succeeds or not is largely a matter of opinion. Personally I thought he scraped through.

The novel is then, unfortunately, let down by its own plot. It creaks along well enough for the first half, carried by the reader’s expectation that this will all build to something. The second half becomes something of a shaggy dog story – and not in a good way like Illywhacker. Carey lost my attention about two thirds of the way through and never regained it. His prose here also seems to lack something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Perhaps it’s so caught up in servicing the fictional world that it doesn’t strike the level of wry clarity I’ve come to expect from him. It feels a lot more like one of his bizarre short stories than one of his great novels.

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is undeniably an ambitious book. It’s big, it’s bold, it makes an audacious and unapologetic demand for your suspension of disbelief. I can understand why Carey wrote it and why some people would love it. But for me, although it strikes some interesting notes (mostly because I’m Australian) it’s ultimately a failure. Carey is one of my favourite writers, but I found this to be his least interesting novel since Bliss.

His next two are Jack Maggs and True History of The Kelly Gang, both of which I’ve already read, so next up is either his non-fiction book 30 Days In Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account or his 2003 novel My Life As A Fake.

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July 2015