Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, 2015

Grief is the thing with feathers is a sad, funny and singular novella in riposte to Emily Dickinson. It’s told from three perspectives: two young brothers speaking as one voice the Boys, their Dad and the Crow- imaginary?- who arrives at their London flat as they mourn their abruptly dead mother and wife after “the friends and family who had been hanging around being kind had gone home to their own lives.” Why a crow? Well, Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar who was “obsessing about this thing just when the greatest tragedy of my life occurred. These were factual yearnings. It was bitterly wonderful.” Porter switches between the three voices in prose poems that tell a story of grief not literal but true. As one of the boys recalls as an adult “I fondly remember family holidays with an imaginary crow, and …it could have been anything, could have gone any way, but something more or less healthy happened. We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we wave at crows. It’s not that weird.

The unnamed Boys’ and their Dad’s grief and the memories it gives way to are interspersed with Crow’s primordial and vulgar self- in his own words he is “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.” This makes for an interesting mix of tones- sorrowful one moment, awfully, wincingly funny the next- and helps Porter avoid mawkishness. I found his style clear, vivid and original. Two images I especially liked were Dad remembering “being scared that something must, surely, go wrong, if we were this happy, her and me, in the early days, when our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes.” and Crow observing that “human children after serious quantities of sugar” are “uncannily like blood-drunk fox cubs. 

Porter has a gift for aposite details.  The Boys bicker and misbehave but they also try to keep their Mum alive by messing up the bathroom, mocking their Dad and telling stories. Dad despairs that “She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm.) And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday. I will stop finding her hairs. I will stop hearing her breathing.“. Crow makes a list of things that do and do not scare him- scarecrows do not!

A short but memorable debut, authentic, emotional and enjoyable.

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Bartleby the scrivener by Herman Melville, 1853

In a fit of back-to-work doldrums, I picked up this slender novella which was my first time reading Melville. And what a time it was! Narrated by an unnamed lawyer and set in his Wall Street Office, Bartleby concerns “a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw or heard of.” On his third day of employment Bartleby does something outré: when asked to help his boss compare an original document to its copy, he mildly and firmly declines with the famous words “I would prefer not to.” Subsequent events are only stranger.

What stood out for me while reading Bartleby was the voice, which is orotund as befits a lawyer and often very funny. You can sense the fun Melville had with language in the narrator’s descriptions of himself:

“I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor, a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor’s good opinion.”

and his scrivener Nippers, who:

“Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sizes, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting-paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk:-then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted anything, it was to be rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.”

The writing throughout is as enjoyable and memorable.

Of course, the question hovering over the tremendous pleasure of reading this novella is: What is it about? It made me think of a Studs Terkel quote:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

It also encourages me to try Moby Dick.

Other reviews:

The Golden Age by Joan London, 2014

I have been fortunate to while away the last days of 2014 with a subtle and unsentimental novel: Joan London’s The Golden Age. Centred around a children’s polio convalescent home of the same name in 1950’s Perth, London tells the stories of patients Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs and their adolescent love affair alongside those of the other children, their parents and the home’s staff.

Frank initially feels “like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home.” With time though “it was a cheerful place. The children were no longer sick, but in need of help to find their way back into the world…The children enjoyed the benevolence of the attention. Here, they were not a worry or a burden to make their mothers sigh with weariness. They felt different – exclusive, like a family”.

London’s writing is clear and vivid and she has a knack for concise vignettes, be it Frank and his Jewish parents Ida and Meyer’s memories of wartime Hungary or Elsa’s childhood by the beach, and telling details, for example a boy’s father who “had eyes for nobody else…his eyes flickered in the effort of concentration on anyone but Sullivan”. She makes the plague of polio, for most of my generation something relegated to history, a live and terrible thing. You learn individual children’s onset stories, feel the pain and exhaustion of physical therapy, the joy of an outing, the consolations of games, poetry, music and each other. London’s ability to convey each character’s inner life is remarkable.

For example, seven-year old Albert Sutton “lying in bed, thought he would make a bolt for it. Now that he’d seen Lizzie and all his brothers at the concert, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer. The missing was worse than being sick. It filled his head, made him stupid, he couldn’t learn, couldn’t even speak. Deep down,all through himself, he knew that only when he went home would he get better. All he wanted was to open the front door and hear them say, ‘Allo! ‘Ere’s our Albert! He’d planned to run away many times: how he would take a bottle of water, maybe an apple and a warm jumper. But tonight as he lay in the dark, a quiet voice told him: Go now. If he took his wheelchair and followed the railway line, he knew he would find his way. At least he no longer wore splints. Just go, said the voice.”

The Golden Age is one of the highlights of my reading year, an evocative and emotive recreation of a bygone era which shows “the beauty that was there” and reminds us that “Polio is like love…Years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.” I succumbed to its spell and would rank London’s writing alongside two of my favourite authors, David Malouf and Alice Munro.  I look forward to reading London’s two earlier novels and short story collections and am interested to hear from anyone who already has.

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Literary links

Having recently changed jobs, I happily have much more time to read so have decided to resume blogging here. My immediate reading plans include plenty of  Chinese fiction and non-fiction in preparation for my trip there in October; the Miles Franklin shortlist and the next two volumes of Trollope’s Palliser novels, namely Phineas Finn and The Eustace Diamonds.

As I’m only halfway through Peter Hessler’s River town: two years on the Yangtze, I thought I’d share the best literary links I’ve found this week in the hope you find them as interesting as I do:

  •  Haaretz has a fascinating article about the lives and work of authors whose work was banned and burnt by the Nazis.
  • Continuing with the theme of moral courage, Sheila O’Malley reviews Booker’s Place. I’ll be looking out for this documentary about African-American waiter Booker Wright, who simply told the truth about his life in the Jim Crow South and suffered for it.
  • Xujun Eberlein’s joint review of Mao’s Great Famine : The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 and Tombstone in the Los Angeles Review of Books is a masterly look at two accounts of the Great Famine. Grim but essential reading.
  • The New York Times explains the US Justice Department vs. Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster case and why it’s important.
  • Sticking with e-books, the Review of Australian Fiction is a new online venture enabling you to read a story from one established and one up-and-coming Aussie author a fortnight for a bargain price. I find this is a good way to expand my reading horizons and a lifesaver when, book finished, I need something to read on the train home. Geordie Williamson shares his thoughts on it here.
  • I’m also loving the Library of America’s free weekly short story. Some favourites: classic Dashiell Hammett; Bettye Rice Hughes’ tour of the South shortly after bus segregation is banned and Henry James’ account of visiting an English workhouse.
  • Speaking of the Great Man- Selling Henry James by Joseph Epstein is pure pleasure.
  • The Atlantic recommends Aussie crime fiction- here here!
  • A new review by James Wood is a must read, doubly so when it’s of Hilary Mantel.
  • Lastly, this bookworm’s paradise is now on my must visit list.

Happy browsing!

Authors’ Ghosts by Muriel Spark

I think that authors’ ghosts creep back
Nightly to haunt the sleeping shelves
And find the books they wrote.
Those authors put final, semi-final touches,
Sometimes whole paragraphs.

Whole pages are added, re-written, revised,
So deeply by night those authors employ
Themselves with those old books of theirs.

How otherwise
Explain the fact that maybe after years
have passed, the reader
Picks up the book – But was it like that?
I don’t remember this . . . Where
Did this ending come from?
I recall quite another.

Oh yes, it has been tampered with
No doubt about it –
The author’s very touch is here, there and there,
Where it wasn’t before, and
What’s more, something’s missing –
I could have sworn . . .

–  From All the Poems by Muriel Spark, 2004; inspired by the recent (wonderful!) Muriel Spark Week

In memory of Wisława Szymborska, 1923-2012

A Contribution to Statistics by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh

Out of a hundred people

those who always know better
— fifty-two

doubting every step
— nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
— as high as forty-nine,

always good
because they can’t be otherwise
— four, well maybe five,

able to admire without envy
— eighteen,

suffering illusions
induced by fleeting youth
— sixty, give or take a few,

not to be taken lightly
— forty and four,

living in constant fear
of someone or something
— seventy-seven,

capable of happiness
— twenty-something tops,

harmless singly, savage in crowds
— half at least,

when forced by circumstances
— better not to know
even ballpark figures,

wise after the fact
— just a couple more
than wise before it,

taking only things from life
— thirty
(I wish I were wrong),

hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
— eighty-three
sooner or later,

— thirty-five, which is a lot,

and understanding
— three,

worthy of compassion
— ninety-nine,

— a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.