The Story of a New Name

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 8.58.43 PMElena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Book Two: The Neopolitan Novels
Text Publishing Melbourne Australia (2012), 2015

All through the reading of this book I was struck with an unrelenting and repetitious questioning of the identity of the possible Lila in my own life. Is she the great friend I had who never let me down but for whom I had such high hopes? Each of which were never actualised but rather exposed as superfluous in contrast to the deep reality of her daily life? Or rather is she found in anyone for whom we have respect? Then, is it Lenù herself which is the real Lila? Never fully realising her own strengths and living in the imperturbable shadow of a creation of her own imagination. But as a I read on, I became more and more convinced that neither Lila nor Lenù can represent one single person, they are only real in the reflection which they project on one another. Lila would be nothing without the weight placed on her by the fatal expectations of her friend Lenù. Just the same as Lenu is nothing but that which she has built from her own enforced comparison with Lila. It is not a question of them needing one another, rather that they simply do not exist as separate entities.

The Trouble With Harry

the-trouble-with-harry-940x528-no-textThe Trouble with Harry
Reginald Theatre – The Seymour Centre
16 Feb – 03 Mar
Tickets: $42/$36
http://www.seymourcentre.com/events/event/the-trouble-with-harry/

So you’ve seen Moonlight, and now you need to see The Trouble with Harry. As much as Moonlight is the story of nuanced and sensual masculinity, Lachlan Philpott’s play The Trouble with Harry, currently showing at The Seymour Centre, is a telling portrayal of fluid identity and the movement between genders. Based on the real life events of Eugene Fallini (Wikipedia doesn’t even come close to doing her any justice) Philpott’s retelling is more mystery than history in this classic Australian story. Staged in the precocious Reginald Theatre right at the bottom of The Seymour Centre, producer and director Kate Gaul has hoisted this play onto the shores of an intimate landscape. The actors move freely within the confines of a tiered wooden stage, and give the illusion of being shipwrecked upon their own lives. Two lovers irrevocably intertwined, Harry Crawford (Jodie Le Vesconte) and his wife Annie Birkett (Jane Phegan) dance in unison towards their mutual demise where lies, fear and condemnation plague and eventually destroy them. To the sounds of an almost cinematic musical score, we see unfold at once the story of two lovers, their family and the people who watch them. The Trouble with Harry is a contemporary commentary on the vicious nature of rumor and the power of assumption, themes especially valid in today’s post-truth world.

Slaughterhouse-Five

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-8-01-55-pmKurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Vintage, London 2000

I thought Slaughterhouse-Five was a completely different book. I imagined that it would be a coming of age tale in a time of war, centered around five young lives and their discovery of a run-down slaughterhouse somewhere in Middle America. I imagined a scene where a dominant child takes to the emotional and even physical torture of another, whilst the others standby as onlookers. I imagined an allegory of war and of the wild and inhumane acts that people perform upon one another.

In many ways this picture is not wrong, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is not so different from my own. It is the story of horror and dread and inexplicable madness. It is also ominous for the greater part of the novel, a quality I saw inherent to my own fantasised version. However, it also tells of the circularity of life and the ever existing movement of life and death. I did not imagine my children of the slaughterhouse to engage so profoundly with the nonexistence of life in a universe where no one really dies: and so on… ad infinitum.

Billy’s idiot-savant approach to life recalls that of Dostoyevski’s Myshkin, and causes the story to unfurl in a manner similar to his unending stream of flashbacks and episodes of time and space travel. There is really no beginning to this story which starts by letting us know exactly how it will end, so that the ending never actually happens. It is as though with each step forward we take two steps back, further into the depths of Billy’s plundered mind.

I don’t know where I got the notion of another entirely different Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps it was from a cover I had once seen, on which five small children could be seen dancing infront of a red barn. Often with a book of such renown and popularity, the contents are often obscured and influenced prior to any reading. This was certainly the case for myself, I couldn’t help but think of Billy as any one of my invented slaughterhouse children, at once tormentor and tormented. In such a way, it is certainly a book to add to The Brief History of Books that do not Exist

Junky

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-9-01-11-pmJunky
William S. Burroughs
Penguin Books, 2009 (1953)

Junky as a title is misleading, for this is not the story of a man, a junky; but rather the story of Junk.

It is no surprise that I approached this book with the idea of an autobiography in the style of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. Junky‘s reputation certainly precedes it and having the advantage of over 60 years of fascinated readers, along with its place as a Penguin favourite, meant that I had heard more than a few opinions on its content.

However, Burroughs himself has no intention of fooling us, and makes sure to teach us right from the outset that:

Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life. (xxviii)

What is to come is no raucous trip through the ungrowth of a deep and mesmerizing world of addiction and inhibition, rather it’s the simple but solid fact that junk takes no prisoners. There is no one behind the junky and there is no story about the life behind the junk. All that we see is the stark image of the opiate: how it consumes, empties and retains the user.

None of what Bill does throughout the book has any meaning, nor does it give us any clues as to what motivates his story. The void is filled only by the Junk and its overwhelming power of effacement. Supposedly Bill has a wife and numerous sexual exploits occur, but these are all peripheral, they only exist by virtue of their coming into contact with Junk.

There is one point, towards the end, at which another spectre is given the chance to emerge. Given no name and defined as ‘neither a user nor a seller’, this is something worse than the junky and calls for one of the most descriptive and graphic portrayals in the book:

So this man walks around in the place where he once exercised his obsolete and unthinkable trade. But he is unperturbed. His eyes are black with an insect’s unseeing calm. He looks as if he nourished himself on honey and Levantine syrups that he sucks up through a sort of proboscis. 

What is his lost trade? Definitely of a servant class and something to do with the dead, though he is not an embalmer. Perhaps he stores something in his body – a substance to prolong life – of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialised as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function. (112)

What we see here is the description of a being no longer useful as seen through the lens Junk. The Junk has now assumed the role of narrator and tells of a horrible creature now devoid of any value through an absence of usefulness. It doesn’t crave the drug nor even try to control it in the way the Law might, it is a parasite of the ultimate order and now abhorred.

In comparison the junky is painted as a pleasing and degenerative soul for whom a passion for Junk is justifiable and even encouraged. In many ways the junky is simply another form of organic matter waiting to be consumed:

We are turning into plants. (147)

At first difficult to understand and even frustrating, Junky soon shows itself as but another rhythm of life, ebbing onwards at a slow and dull beat.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-27-29-pmThe Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery (2006)

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Gallic Books, 2008

The Elegance of the Hedgehog only really starts in Chapter Two of Summer Rain: The Great Work of Making Meaning. All that I read up until that point, excluding some mild philosophical insights, was a litany of self aggrandising and cerebral insecurities.

Finally, there is a lovely point on page 174 where Renée’s past is slowly and sensitively revealed in an anecdote of a little glass globe which held all of her possible hopes and dreams. All of which had been locked away for too long.

Unfortunately for the book and my impressions of Renée, the indefatigable stereotype of the disgruntled and uneducated concierge persists rather too long. Admittedly the book seems to be set in a different time, so some of the of the cultural and class bigotries were still pertinent, and certainly are still applicable today. However, I found it so incredibly difficult to reconcile Renée’s new found confidence with the down trodden perspective which seems to have blighted her whole life:

“I am not accustomed to such a relationship with the world; it seems to me that he views it with indulgence and curiosity, whereas the other human beings I know display with wariness and kindness (Manuela), ingenuity and kindness (Olympe) or arrogance and cruelty (everyone else).” p.225

I was really put off by this almost fetishisation of orientalism and who calls people human beings? Of course the latter could simply be an error of translation; this book was so popular that I was even ignorant as to it being written originally in French. For the former, however, there seems to be no justification. The lack of self-awareness paired with an inept smugness and superiority towards others in the world was really unfortunate and certainly broke any feelings of sympathy for the characters:

“What would I do if I were Colombe Josse, a young student at the École Normale with all my future before me? I would dedicate myself to the progress of Humanity, to resolving issues that are crucial for the survival, well-being and elevation of mankind, to the fate of Beauty in the world, or to the just crusade for philosophical authenticity.” p.248

Admittedly at this point I was convinced that the book was a scathing criticism on the failures of naivety, or at least an ironic account of a misguided save the world impetus common to many failed literary heros. The only reason I moved away from such a view was that things started slowly to get better. To get richer, to get fuller and to get much more interesting.

I think that instead of following the method of simplicity which builds into dimension in the development of her characters, Barbery decided on the something like the opposite. The characters are immediately so self-assured with their own superiority that they only grow into three dimensional individuals by virtue of their relationships with other people. Even though their personal foundations are vapid and ultimately vain, once they come together, the softer more human aspects of their personalities are free to emerge.

It is only at the point when Paloma and Renée start to recognise one another on an existential level that some truly redemptive moments are given the room to evolve: “You have found a good hiding place.” (p.241) These sweet uncalculated moments are a significant commentary on the fallibility and ignorance of intelligence. Which is what I believe Barbery was ultimately aiming for. Finally, although there is no comparison with another well known work of philosophical fiction; Sophie’s World, there are some absolutely heartrending moments in the book, which do much to make up for the beginning.

Omon Ra

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-12-37-02-pmOmon Ra
Victor Pelevin
New Directions Paperbook 851, USA, 1998
Translated by Andrew Bromfield 1994

Omon Ra was written by Russian author Victor Pelevin and tells the surreal history of “the heroes of the Soviet Cosmos“. Given to me by my good friend Jemima for my birthday it was clear from the very outset that she has a very good understanding of exactly the kind of literature which would grasp my attention. Russian, surreal, unclear and allegorical: Omon Ra is many things which I look for in a great book.

In addition to being comical, the book opens with the family history and childhood development of the young protagonist, fittingly called Omon. We are immediately invited into his family with a poignant discussion on the significance of his name. This intimacy remains with us for the rest of the story. Omon comes to life in ways which are not possible for the other characters. Often more archetypical than three dimensional, they are however only ever the more interesting because of it.

What happens is for each reader to figure out for themselves, however I had a strong sense of the duality of life and a greater appreciation for the possibility of parallel worlds living alongside each other in alternate realities. Pelevin draws significantly from the traditions of surreal renditions of the Soviet period, and as Omon plunges deeper and deeper into the fallacies set out in front of him the true monstrosity of this world is revealed. Pathos is the only word which feels at all fitting for an account of my sentiments at the conclusion of Omon’s story. Filled with uncertainty and a distinct sense of disappointment the ending is certainly an allegory of Soviet Russia.