Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Books read in January 2014

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in January 2014. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

The Muddle-Headed Wombat – Ruth Park & Noela Young (illust.) (4.7)
This Australian children’s classic is an utterly delightful tale of a wombat and his adventures with Mouse and Tabby, his second-best friend. They go to school, visit the circus, have holidays by the sea and build a treehouse that collapses in a storm. Frequent squabbles punctuate their escapades, as they have many differences, but they always make up as they realise the value of friendship.

Wombat is muddle-headed because he is a Wombat. He mixes up words and can’t count past four – “He runs out of paws, that’s the trouble” – but he likes to be helpful although his favoured solution to a problem is to sit on things. Similar to Pooh Bear he is not bright although he has inimitable logic, such as when he eats a packet of chalk but not the green because “it might taste like spinach and I don’t like spinach.” He is good at digging and seeing in the dark and is very loyal and loves his friends, which in turn makes him loveable.

Mouse is fastidious and house proud, always cleaning things, preparing meals (pancakes for Tabby; snails for Wombat; and mosquitoes for itself) and polishing its spectacles. Mouse is also sentimental and cares for things and people, particularly the grey tabby cat whom it adopts because “He was skinny and miserable and he had a peaky little face with big ears. He wore a bright red bow tie, but anyone could see it hadn’t been washed and ironed for weeks.”

Like many cats, Tabby is vain and thinks he is handsome, while he also claims to be frail and delicate, mainly to get out of hard work. He is very good at building things, however, such as a caravan and a treehouse and is also remarkably resilient, surviving being sucked into a carpet cleaner, dropped from a great height while performing as a puppet, and accidentally shaken into a stream, not to mention being sat on by Wombat.

Noela Young’s charming illustrations add to the humour of the stories and caricature the animals highlighting their best and worst traits. They regard themselves as a family and they constantly attempt to adapt to living with each other while retaining their individuality. The tales are equally diverting and reassuring and were loved by both the adults and the children at holiday story-time.

The Voyage – Murray Bail (3)
Murray Bail is a fan of the experimental novel. Some may call it modernism; others stream-of-consciousness; still others pretentious nonsense. The eponymous voyage is the journey taken by ship of Frank Delage on his return from Vienna to Sydney. He travels to Old Europe to seduce the musical community with his new piano, which has a radically clear sound, but he fails to generate much interest.

An appallingly bad salesman or promoter, he blames others for his shortcomings even though he achieves an introduction to a modern composer through a rich and influential couple (the Schallas). He falls for the mother, Amalia, but returns to Sydney with the daughter, Elisabeth. The trip from the New World to the Old and back again proves ultimately meaningless, as his influence is superficial and his piano sinks without trace.

On the ship, Delage talks to the other passengers and hears their stories, while reminiscing about his own experiences. These stories overlap and interweave, often in the space of a sentence. An absence of chapters, paragraphs that extend over several pages, and constant switches in time can become wearisome.

Delage imagines that the problem is with Vienna, which he accuses of being stuffy and resistant to change, rather than his piano and he wonders frequently why he didn’t try Berlin instead. It’s not that he prefers anywhere else: he is equally scathing of Perth, “which has a history of visitors setting foot on the place and immediately wanting to turn around, a reaction which continues to this day” and Sydney, where he attacks the architecture of the iconic Opera House. 

In fact, it is difficult to find anything that Delage does like in this whingeing barrage of bitterness. Everything is linked in his mind, which flits about with the attention span of a flea. He has an opinion on everything, although it is rarely a positive one. From central heating to diplomats, he barely has a good word to say about anyone or anything. He even criticises smiles, which are insincere and “have no meaning”.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that Bail fears he has been treated unfairly by critics, as he reserves his strongest vitriol for this profession. He (or his central character; the constant asides are inseparable from authorial intrusion) claims that modern novels display a lack of invention and are “more and more an author’s reaction to nearby events, a display of true feeling.” He tells the reader, “We should not be disapproving of repetition... It is necessary”. 

It may be necessary, but it isn’t necessarily interesting. With his interconnections, he sees music as an analogy for literature – exactly what he accuses critics of doing. “All art, he said, including the playing of pianos, was imperfect... As listeners, we actually want an imperfect result. It is human, and therefore closer to human understanding. Otherwise, it is beyond understanding.” Not so. I understand this; I just don’t like it.

The Rover – Aphra Benn (3.5)
Set in Naples in the world of carnivals, masquerades, fantastic costumes, fights in the dark, disguises, and mistaken identity this seventeenth century comedy would provide a real stage spectacle. Otherwise known as The Banish’d Cavaliers, the play contains all the characters, staged fights, lack of didactic politics and witty dialogue to suit the Reformation times. Aphra Behn famously worked as a spy for Charles II but turned to playwriting when she lost her income as he refused to pay her income. 

The rules of morality are different in Naples from in England, which is fortunate as the play is largely about sexual encounters, with a few racist stereotypes thrown in. The eponymous rover, Willmore, has been away at sea and is very horny now that he is on terra firma. ‘I’m glad to meet you again in a warm climate where the kind sun has its godlike power still over the wine and women. Love and mirth are my business in Naples.’

The play is full of flirtation, jealousy, wit, affection, and humour in drunkenness that deflates high-blown romance. There are many pairs of lovers, contrasting their attitudes and finding it difficult to remain true to each other for the duration of the play. Some of the elements of intrigue and farce, however, are difficult for the modern reader to enjoy – often they seem merely means of obtaining plot complication and irrelevant spectacular effects – and the suggestions of rape and sexual violence and simply unacceptable to today’s audiences.

Circle Mirror Transformation – Annie Baker (3.7)
This fairly straight-forward play is set over the space of a summer in a windowless dance studio with a wall of mirrors. The five characters are taking adult creative drama classes complete with all the usual warm-up exercises, focus games, and word associations. As they tell stories about themselves and explain other people’s narratives they get to know each other as the audience does. 

Marty (55) is the teacher; James (60) is her husband; Schultz (48 – separated from his wife) is interested in Theresa (35) who does hula-hooping; Lauren (16) is obsessed by her mobile and hasn’t paid for the class; she has ambitions to be a star and is disturbed by the seeming irrelevance of the acting exercises.

When the characters are encouraged to air a secret in front of the group without consequences, some big themes emerge. Each person writes down their ‘confession’ and puts it into the hat, where someone else withdraws it and reads it aloud. We learn these players are troubled by addiction, abuse, love, fear and vanity. Their gestures are mirrored and repeated back to them until they become transformed, and the exercise of meeting yourself in ten years time is revealing. The play is not earth-shattering, but it is entertaining.

The Death of King Arthur – Peter Ackroyd (3.8)
Peter Ackroyd presents a modern translation of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in which he promises to cut out the boring and repetitious bits while including all the adventures and personalities. Much of the narrative is told with a deadpan delivery, but there are a couple of lyrical passages between the spear shattering and beheadings.

Having read many novels, treatises, and suppositions about King Arthur (and having written my own university dissertation on the continuing effect of the Arthurian legends on contemporary literature), I am always struck by how little this source material is actually about Arthur, himself. There is far more about Lancelot (and his perfidious relationship with Guinevere) and the other chivalrous pair of lovers, Tristam and Isolde, whose story accounts for over a quarter of the book. 

A further quarter of the book is taken up with the Quest for the Holy Grail, an adventure that does not include Arthur, although it does ultimately destroy his kingdom. The knights ride through the kingdom looking for adventures, a bit like the Famous Five but with more beheadings. Although Arthur gets the title credit, Tristam and Lancelot may be the exemplary knights of the tale.

This quest emphasises purity at all costs, and purity seems to mean avoiding women who are sorceresses, temptresses, treacherous and riddled with sin. Lancelot is given no more than a tantalising glimpse of the Grail because he is impure and loves Guinevere. Ackroyd remains coy as to what physicality their affection assumes. “Lancelot and Guinevere were together again. Whether they engaged in any of the sports of love, I cannot say. I do not like to mention such matters. I can assure you of one thing. Love in those days was quite a different game.”

Already weakened by Quest for Holy Grail, Camelot is destroyed by the factions for and against Lancelot and Guinevere. Arthur grieves for his loss of friendship with Lancelot, whom he loves more than his wife, a consideration that proves tricky for many of modern sensibilities. “It is strange that I feel the loss of my knights more than the loss of my queen. Queens can be replaced. But how can I find again such a noble company as that of the Round Table?”

Despite his general lack of action and his reliance upon others, Arthur is still a powerful symbol of a bygone era, largely due to Malory’s testament. “King Arthur may simply be a figment of the national imagination. Yet it is still a remarkable tribute to Malory’s inventive genius that Arthur, and the Round Table, have found a secure and permanent place in the affections of the English speaking people.”

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