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His large blunt hands roved the staggered spines. Passed over several old Penguins -- mystery stroies in their fading green and white covers -- hesitated on a small thick copy of Devil on Two Sticks, perhaps a hundred years old. He pulled it out, turned the pages idly. Le Sage, William Tegg & Co., Cheapside, flyleaf missing. He replaced it beside the varnished volume of Swinburne. Decided that after all he would not read tonight.
From Hook's Mountain by James McQueen, Chapter 1 (1982)
You notice that Mrs. Praed knows her art. She can place a thing before you so that you can see it. She is not alone in that. Australia is fertile in writers whose books are faithful mirrors of the life of the country and of its history. The materials were surprisingly rich, both in quality and in mass, and Marcus Clarke, Rolph Boldrewood, Gordon, Kendall, and the others, have built out of them a brilliant and vigorousliterature, and one which must endure. Materials --there is no end to them! Why, a literature might be made out of the aboriginal all by himself, his character and ways are so freckled with varieties -- varieties not staled by familiarity, but new to us. You do not need to invent any picturesquenesses; whatever you want in that line he can furnish you; and they will not be fancies and doubtful, but realities and authentic. In his history, as preserved by the white man's official records, he is everything - -everything that a human creature can be. He covers the entire ground. He is a coward -- there are a thousand facts to prove it. He is brave -- there are a thousand facts to prove it. He is treacherous -- oh, beyond imagination! he is faithful, loyal, true -- the white man's records supply you with a harvest of instances of it that are noble, worshipful, and pathetically beautiful. He kills the starving stranger who comes begging for food and shelter there is proof of it. He succors, and feeds, and guides to safety, to-day, the lost stranger who fired on him only yesterday -- there is proof of it. He takes his reluctant bride by force, he courts her with a club, then loves her faithfully through a long life -- it is of record. He gathers to himself another wife by the same processes, beats and bangs her as a daily diversion, and by and by
lays down his life in defending her from some outside harm -- it is of record. He will face a hundred hostiles to rescue one of his children, and will kill another of his children because the family is large enough without it. His delicate stomach turns, at certain details of the white man's food; but he likes over-ripe fish, and brazed dog, and cat, and rat, and will eat his own uncle with relish. He is a sociable animal, yet he turns aside and hides behind his shield when his mother-in-law goes by. He is childishly afraid of ghosts and other trivialities that menace his soul, but dread of physical pain is a weakness which he is not acquainted with. He knows all the great and many of the little constellations, and has names for them; he has a symbol-writing by means of which he can convey messages far and wide among the tribes; he has a correct eye for form and expression, and draws a good picture; he can track a fugitive by delicate traces which the white man's eye cannot discern, and by methods which the finest white intelligence cannot master; he makes a missile which science itself cannot duplicate without the model -- if with it; a missile whose secret baffled and defeated the searchings and theorizings of the white mathematicians for seventy years; and by an art all his own he performs miracles with it which the white man cannot approach untaught, nor parallel after teaching. Within certain limits this savage's intellect is the alertest and the brightest known to history or tradition; and yet the poor creature was never able to invent a counting system that would reach above five, nor a vessel that he could boil water in. He is the prize-curiosity of all the races. To all intents and purposes he is dead -- in the body; but he has features that will live in literature.
From Following the Equator by Mark Twain, Chapter XXII (1897)
We changed cars. This was at Albury. And it was there, I think, that the growing day and the early sun exposed the distant range called the Blue Mountains. Accurately named. "My word!" as the Australians say, but it was a stunning color, that blue. Deep, strong, rich, exquisite; towering and majestic masses of blue--a softly luminous blue, a smouldering blue, as if vaguely lit by fires within. It extinguished the blue of the sky--made it pallid and unwholesome, whitey and washed-out. A wonderful color--just divine.
A resident told me that those were not mountains; he said they were rabbit-piles. And explained that long exposure and the over-ripe condition of the rabbits was what made them look so blue. This man may have been right, but much reading of books of travel has made me distrustful of gratis information furnished by unofficial residents of a country. The facts which such people give to travelers are usually erroneous, and often intemperately so. The rabbit-plague has indeed been very bad in Australia, and it could account for one mountain, but not for a mountain range, it seems to me. It is too large an order.
From Following the Equator by Mark Twain, Chapter XIV
- How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard, p3
- The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry, pp xxii-xxiii
JANUARY 20, 1836.
A long day's ride to Bathurst. Before joining the high road we followed a mere path through the forest; and the country, with the exception of a few squatters' huts, was very solitary. We experienced this day the sirocco-like wind of Australia, which comes from the parched deserts of the interior. Clouds of dust were travelling in every direction; and the wind felt as if it had passed over a fire. I afterwards heard that the thermometer out of doors had stood at 119 degrees, and in a closed room at 96 degrees. In the afternoon we came in view of the downs of Bathurst. These undulating but nearly smooth plains are very remarkable in this country, from being absolutely destitute of trees. They support only a thin brown pasture. We rode some miles over this country, and then reached the township of Bathurst, seated in the middle of what may be called either a very broad valley, or narrow plain. I was told at Sydney not to form too bad an opinion of Australia by judging of the country from the roadside, nor too good a one from Bathurst; in this latter respect I did not feel myself in the least danger of being prejudiced. The season, it must be owned, had been one of great drought, and the country did not wear a favourable aspect; although I understand it was incomparably worse two or three months before. The secret of the rapidly growing prosperity of Bathurst is that the brown pasture which appears to the stranger's eye so wretched is excellent for sheep-grazing. The town stands at the height of 2200 feet above the sea, on the banks of the Macquarie: this is one of the rivers flowing into the vast and scarcely known interior. The line of watershed which divides the inland streams from those on the coast, has a height of about 3000 feet, and runs in a north and south direction at the distance of from eighty to a hundred miles from the seaside. The Macquarie figures in the map as a respectable river, and it is the largest of those draining this part of the watershed; yet to my surprise I found it a mere chain of ponds, separated from each other by spaces almost dry. Generally a small stream is running; and sometimes there are high and impetuous floods. Scanty as the supply of the water is throughout this district, it becomes still scantier further inland.
From The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin [whose birth day occurred 200 years ago today]
Arthur Stace found the right word. This elusive homeless man mystified Sydneysiders for decades by writing the perfect word wherever he could. Eternity. The perfect word, his gift to a young city perched on the edge of an ancient continent, came to him like a ringing call one day when he was in a church. He said the word was the only one that got the message across, that made people stop and think. It was still there, on the headstone of his grave, as I had discovered when we visited Waverley cemetery. Arthur Stace was almost illiterate and yet he achieved literary perfection. Eternity contained everything he needed to say. In one word he had written an entire poem, an unforgettable one. He chalked it on the footpaths and hoardings of the city over fifty times a day for thirty years. As you would, having found the perfect word.
From The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide, pp 144-145
The pleasure, so exquisite as to be almost pain, which I derived from the books, and especially the Australian poets, is beyond description. In the narrow peasant life of Possum Gully I had been deprived of companionship with people of refinement and education who would talk of the things I loved; but, at last here was congeniality, here was companionship.
The weird witchery of mighty bush, the breath of wide sunlit plains, the sound of camp-bells and jingle of hobble chains, floating on the soft twilight breezes, had come to these men and had written a tale on their hearts as had been written on mine. The glory of the starlit heavens, the mighty wonder of the sea, and the majesty of thunder had come home to them, and the breathless fulness of the sunset hour had whispered of something more than the humour of tomorrow's weather. The wind and rain had a voice which spoke to Kendall, and he too had endured the misery of lack of companionship. Gordon, with his sad, sad humanism and bitter disappointment, held out his hand and took me with him. The regret of it all was I could never meet them -- Byron, Thackeray, Dickens, Longfellow, Gordon, Kendall, the men I loved, all were dead; but, blissful thought! Caine, Paterson, and Lawson were still living, breathing human beings--two of them actually countrymen, fellow Australians!
I pored with renewed zeal over the terse realism and pathos of Lawson, and enjoyed Paterson's redolence of the rollicking side of the wholesome life beneath these sunny skies, which he depicted with grand touches of power flashing here and there. I learnt them by heart, and in that gloriously blue receptacle, by and by, where many pleasant youthful dreams are stowed, I put the hope that one day I would clasp hands with them, and feel and know the unspeakable comfort and heart-rest of congenial companionship.
- My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Angus & Robertson 1986 edition, p52
After my father died, my mother became gradually more boldly explorative; she opened books that she had been forbidden to touch, sought out those marked specifically as his own. Because we were stranded together, and because I stuttered, we read. There is no refuge so private, no asylum more sane. There is no facility of voices captured elsewhere so entire and so marvellous. My tongue was lumpish and fixed, but in reading, silent reading, there was a release, a flight, a wheeling off into the blue spaces of exclamatory experience, diffuse and improbably, gloriously homeless. All that was solid melted into air, all that was air reshaped, and gained plausibility.
- Sorry by Gail Jones, Vintage edition, 2007, page 31
It's odd to find characters in a science-fiction novel repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction. I can only suppose that Jeanette Winterson is trying to keep her credits as a "literary" writer even as she openly commits genre. Surely she's noticed that everybody is writing science fiction now? Formerly deep-dyed realists are producing novels so full of the tropes and fixtures and plotlines of science fiction that only the snarling tricephalic dogs who guard the Canon of Literature can tell the difference. I certainly can't. Why bother? I am bothered, though, by the curious ingratitude of authors who exploit a common fund of imagery while pretending to have nothing to do with the fellow-authors who created it and left it open to all who want to use it. A little return generosity would hardly come amiss.
- Ursula K Le Guin in a review of The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson for "The Guardian".
"Reading Shelley, you can see that in the last of his few allotted years he had saturated his rhythmic sense with the forms of Dante and Petrarch. He doesn't echo their meanings: he echoes their structures. Similarly, Racine absorbed the structures of Latin poetry; and it is a nice question whether he is closer to Catullus, some of whose lines he mirrors property for property, than to Virgil, whom he does not materially transpose so much as imitate in his pulse and balance. These sonic templates, as they might be called, are transferable through time even when an instigator is unknown to a beneficiary. Dante gets effects from Virgil that Virgil got from Homer, but if we didn't know that Virgil had come in between, we would have to swear that Dante knew the Homeric poems intimately, whereas he couldn't, in fact, read them. It is doubtful whether poets, in order to know each other at this level, need to set out to memorize poems. The memorizing comes automatically with the intensity of engagement. And so, ideally, it ought to do with all of us. We memorize something because we can't help it, and the thing we memorise was written with that result in mind. Poetry is written the way it is in order to be remembered."
- Clive James, "Gianfranco Contini", Cultural Amnesia
A bad habit has developed in some discussions of Australian literature -- the reduction of writers to a supposedly representative handful who are then meant to stand in for the many. Subtle readings that bring out the complexity and breadth of Australian writing are not helped by this kind of simplification, and someone from another planet, or the United Kingdom, might get the idea that Australian poetry was restricted to a choice between two or three somewhat self-serving aesthetic billabongs. Professor Geoffrey Blainey's well-known formulation that Australian history and culture had been formed under the pall of "the tyranny of distance" had its literary equivalent in the strangely disjunct yoking of cosmopolitan yearnings and parochial machinations. With a smallish readership, and when some of the poets concerned also reviewed, the resulting attempts at creating instant canons of the various orthodoxies were probably inevitable.
- Peter Nicholson, Gwen Harwood
"Our so-called conservatives, who have cut all ties to their own intellectual moorings, now espouse policies and personalities that would get them laughed out of Periclean Athens. The few conservatives still able to hold up one end of a Socratic dialogue are those in the ostracized libertarian wing -- interestingly enough, a group with a disproportionately high representation among fans of speculative fiction.
"The less politicized majority, who perhaps would like to draw inspiration from this story without glossing over the crazy and defective aspects of Spartan society, have turned, in droves, to a film from the alternative cultural universe of fantasy and science fiction. Styled and informed by pulp novels, comic books, video games and Asian martial arts flicks, science fiction eats this kind of material up, and expresses it in ways that look impossibly weird to people who aren't used to it.
"Lack of critical respect means nothing to sci-fi's creators and fans. They made peace with their own dorkiness long ago."
- Neal Stephenson, from a review of the film "300". I suspect the "sci-fi" is from the sub-editor not Stephenson.
Alice felt depressed. After this, she thought, she would visit a bookshop. Her tastes in knowledge garnering were irredeemably old-fashioned. She loved the feel of books, their integrity as objects. The wing-plan of them, the scent and the warmth of paper. She loved the relative stiffness of the cover and the sentience of settled print. Random flicking of pages, inscription, dog-ears. She loved -- though it was a sin -- to see books left open upside down, their bird shape accentuated in the keeping of a page. She loved those images of the Annunciation in which the Virgin rests her index finger on a page of her book, retaining her place during Gabriel's visit. Or the mortuary statues in European churches, that have dukes and bishops sleeping in death on the pillow of an open book. She loved second-hand bookshops for their presumption that any tatty volume mattered, and new bookshops, for their signs and neat rows of books, waiting to be opened for the very first time. Inherited books. Books as gifts. Books as objects flung across the room in a lover's argument. Books (this most of all) taken into the warm sexual space of the bed, held upon the lap, entered like another body, companionable, close, interconnecting with innermost things. Those bed books that chart the route between waking and sleeping, that are a venture of almost hypnagogic power. Those enticements. Adventures. Corridors of words. Capsules. Secrets.
From Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones, pp 136-137
"What is the measure of success? It rather depends upon which side of the artistic scales you choose to put your weight, although, in truth, the measures all tend to blend together at some point, complementing one another. From the writer's perspective, was the book one of which to be proud? Did it achieve what the writer set out to do artistically? (A third question, albeit one that can't be answered immediately after publication, is one of influence. There are a great many influential books that may not have sold in huge quantities, but affected the way that others viewed literature, or even the way that subsequent writers approached their work. In musical terms, it was said that only a handful of people bought copies of the Velvet Underground's first album, but all of them went out and formed bands afterward . . . )"
From the "and
another thing..." weblog, by John Connolly
Still, when it comes to the state of the novel, to the future of the novel, I feel rather optimistic. Numbers don't count where books are concerned, for there is only one reader, each and every time only one reader. That explains the particular power of the novel and why, in my opinion, it will never die as a form. Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.
- Paul Auster, writing about what he does in the Guardian, originally delivered as his acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters, Spain's premier literary honour, which he received last month.
It's all to do with the ubiquity of Markets. Everything, I've been told by a young writer who'd been to the UEA writing club (sorry school) and published one book, has to be judged by its market value. Books too. If it doesn't sell, it's not what's wanted. I don't know how anyone other than an accountant (and a illiterate accountant at that) could believe that. In any case, publishers have to pay to get books on to bookshop tables and prefer to spend their marketing money on surefire bestsellers, so how are people to see new books that don't have decent marketing budgets? Remember browsing? When you wandered around a bookshop and found out what had been published that month by picking up the books on the table and looking at them? Bookshops were pleased to display interesting as well as popular fiction. And remember when writing mattered enough to be regarded as worth subsidising through best sellers rather than racking up profits because shareholders had to have their dividends? Perhaps you don't. Anyway, once publishers were part of the literary world rather than subsidiaries of vast money making concerns. That meant that writers didn't get vast advances, but they were encouraged to work at their craft and given time to develop. I don't think that is happening very much now. Young writers and established writers get dumped when their sales figures drop or don't live up to expectations.
So in the world of books as well as everywhere else, capitalism has triumphed. And don't believe what they say about all worthwhile writers seeing the light of day. People who are not deeply concerned with good writing don't necessarily recognise it, or simply reject it as unsellable. They're looking for something else. And that's what they find, and what readers get.
A personal library is an X-ray of the owner's soul. It offers keys to a particular temperament, an intellectual disposition, a way of being in the world. Even how the books are arranged on the shelves deserves notice, even reflection. There is probably no such thing as complete chaos in such arrangements.
From "Other People's Books" by Jay Parini, The Chronicle Review
From time to time I wrapped myself in threadbare blankets and tried to write something into the quarto-sized notebook I'd purchased to contain my new novel, but the results were as indecipherable as a blind man's version of Cyrillic, scratched in blue pen on feint-lined pages. I tried to find the long-lost rhythm of storytelling but it was completely out of me, if I'd ever even had it. My only company through this illness was desire, long suppressed and denied.
From Candle Life by Venero Armanno, p40
I'm a collector. A collector is driven by other things. Collecting is a form of knowledge which allows a closer representation of the dead than history or narrative. It may be an obsession and a fickle one at that. For me though, it's an exact science because we are dealing with objects and not abstractions, and like most sciences, the collection of objects provides arbitrary closure, physical results -- shapes, odours, touch -- in order to claim authority. For example, a book entombs its time. This thin volume of poetry printed in Paris with a few specks of tobacco leaf pressed near the spine or the Gitanes cigarette packet with someone's initials scrawled over the blue figure of a gypsy woman, have more than smoking in common. History has missed a vital clue: the dead are gypsies. Still active, they flutter here and there, moths before the famles. With their painted fingernails they pull out cigarettes, underscore lines of poetry. They've left us these signs. Signs which make us what we are. You simply have to know how to collect them. You have to know the detours; that the whole idea of any story, like existence itself, is beside the point.
From The Garden Book by Brian Castro, pages 6-7
There was another mode of composition, very much slower and more painful, in which she strove to capture the essence of certain events, real or imagined, as precisely as she could, and here she felt she might one day acquire a very different sort of facility, if only she could stumble upon some great conception, something that would absolutely distinguish her work from that of hundreds of authors whose novels crammed the circulating libraries and bookstalls and joustled one another for notice in the pages of the reviews. At least half a dozen times she had launched herself with high hopes into "Chapter One", and felt her tale to be well under way, only to see a darkness fall across the page, blighting her carefully wrought sentences until her characters lay down, as it were, at the side of the road and simply refused to go on. And then persons from Porlock, usually in the form of her mother, would call just as she saw her way out of the difficulty. There were certain pages, composed almost as if from dictation, with which she was entirely satisfied, but they seemed like the work of another person altogether, and remained in any case unfinished. No; the life of an author was certainly not an
From The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, pp257-258
Anton Kleist was a lover of books. His love for them was as much a sensual thing as intellectual. He liked their appearance on shelves, the texture of leather bindings against his palms. When he opened a book he waited to savour the rich smell of paper and age before turning his mind to the contents. Sometimes he would lift it close to his face, drinking in the smell of it as if there were no need to read the words at all. Even with new books there was an enjoyable sense of anticipation when he held one in his hands. He was the sort of man who shouldn't have dealt in books. 'They don't let alcoholics run hotels,' his wife had said, though even as she said it she knew it wasn't true.
From Soundings by Liam Davison, p27
"The notion that communication can occur by way of black squiggles marching across flat surfaces is, when you look at it, very odd indeed, especially when face-to-face, body-to-body communication is, as we know from sad experience, a long way short of perfect. Even instrumental exchanges with the person sitting opposite at breakfast is often more than we can manage. However we may deceive ourselves in moments of intimacy, 'the other' begins at the skin."
From "Agamemnon's Kiss" by Inga Clendinnen, first published in The Best Australian Essays 1998.
"This first stage of the mythological journey -- which we have designated the 'call to adventure' -- signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom, underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight."
- The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, p58
"There are three principal sources of interest in narrative: suspense, mystery and irony. Suspense raises the question: what will happen? Mystery raises the question: why did it happen? When the reader knows the answers to the questions but the characters do not, irony is generated."
- After Baktin: Essays in Fiction and Criticism by David Lodge
"This is an example of one of the ways in which the adventure can begin. A blunder -- apparently the merest chance -- reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood. As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep -- as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny."
- The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, p51
"I have never really got used to being on this earth. Sometimes I think our presence here is due to a cosmic blunder, that we were meant for another planet altogether, with other arrangements, and other laws, and other, grimmer skies. I try to imagine it, our true place, off on the far side of the galaxy, whirling and whirling. And the ones who were meant for here, are they out there, baffled and homesick, like us? No, they would have become extinct long ago. How could they survive, these gentle earthlings, in a world that was made to contain us."
- The Book of Evidence
I lifted this quote from the middle of an interview with John Banville that TEV is running over on his weblog. Go read it. Banville is on this year's Booker shortlist.
Most reviews in major newspapers and magazines get 1,000 words at most, and with such little space there's barely enough room to discuss a book's merits, let alone get into remarkably complex subjects like the psychology of writing. It's best just to leave that stuff out because all you'll be able to do is toss off half-assed thoughts that divert from the substance of the review: discussing the book under consideration. Who cares if it's less lively that way? That's not what book reviews are for.
Basically, if you want lively book talk, then you go to blogs. If you haven't noticed, we stock pretty well in half-assed thoughts, grandiose statements, and liveliness. Those are the sort of the things that we can get away with because this is a much more conversational, low-key medium. Book reviews are a very different entity, and I think some liveliness should be sacrificed in order to say something more well-argued.
- Scott Esposito, on his weblog Conversational Reading
"It is nonsense to think of fiction as a hierarchy. There are no sound reasons (known to me) for arguing that fiction is, so to speak, a tower block, with the 'best' at the top and the 'trash' at the bottom. (Guess where romance is normally placed in this hierarchical view.)
"Au contraire. Fiction is best viewed as a spectrum rather than a hierarchy. Or, to continue the building analogy, as a street with many bookshops, each of which specialises in one particular genre. Each of these shops has an identical real-estate value. There ain't no prime sites."
Don't you just love it when journalists pontificate on the subject of science fiction and/or fantasy: "Read any good novels lately? Read any bad novels lately? My guess is that if you've read anything, for pleasure or interest, it hasn't been fiction. Book sales of fiction, particularly literary fiction, are down. By fiction I don't mean fantasy, as in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, I mean a story about our lives created from an author's imagination." Susan Mitchell in "Australian Financial Review", 19-20 March.
By way of explaining my position on this, it is noted that Susanna Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, has been nominated for Best Novel in this year's Hugo Awards, and it was Longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize; and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which made the 2004 Man Booker Shortlist, has also been nominated for this year's Nebula Awards. But then, if it's good it can't be science fiction by definition, can it?
If you believe some people, sf is just space octopusses and ray guns. This wasn't true in the 1950s, so I can't see how it might be relevant now.
[Thanks to Damian Warman and Dave Langford's Ansible 213 for this quote.]
"It's a truism almost embarrassing to repeat that a particular government might find it suitable to have an enemy-in-the-midst, more imagined than real, whom they can point out to the populace as the threat. And from that threat, only this party, this view of the polity they manage, can save the innocent sleep of the citizenry."
- The Tyrant's Novel, 2003, p1