Against the lush backdrop of 1890s Leipzig, two unhappy lovers destroy each other in spectacular fashion. An emotional train wreck that you can't look away from.
Maurice Guest, an aspiring pianist and dissatisfied teacher, leaves his job in England to study music in Leipzig, Germany. It's the 1890s, and Leipzig is a cultural centre, with ambitious students, musicians and artists swirling around its vibrant conservatoriums and teeming streets. In the midst of this heady environment, bursting with dynamic personalities and outsize egos, Maurice catches a glimpse of Louise Dufrayer, an Australian woman several years his senior. She is not your classic beauty, but nonetheless he becomes obsessed with her. His friend, Madeleine Wade, a struggling student with a practical outlook, knows Louise's backstory and warns him to keep a wide berth. Louise has been carrying on an affair with the brilliant violinist, Schilsky. Schilsky is a complete cad, utterly immoral, and when he dumps Louise and bolts, Maurice begs her to allow him to pick up the pieces.
The two enter into a relationship which is doomed from the start. Louise, with her refined taste in men and music, suffers in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Maurice has his faults too, chiefly an obsessive nature divorced from reality. The two lovers try in their own way to make a go of things, but a sea of personal grievances and dire secrets bubble away underneath, constantly threatening to blow everything up.
Maurice Guest was Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson's first novel, published in 1908. Perhaps its most striking aspect is its modernity. Her frank detailing of the sex lives of Leipzig's cultural elite – the bed hopping, exploitation, sadism and other shennanigans – reads like Freudian case studies. Take away the nineteenth century frocks and furniture and the story could easily take place today. Richardson is a master psychologist and she expertly plays her wide cast of complex characters, elucidating in addictive prose the many troubling layers that make up the human condition. That this drama is sustained so wonderfully for over 600 pages, its interest never flagging, is a testament to Richardson's great powers as a novelist.
With its strong hints of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Maurice Guest is first class stuff. Surely one of the best novels written by an Australian.
Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson. Published by Text. $12.95
Review by Chris Saliba
Randolph Stow's surreal, nostalgic backward glance at childhood during war.
Merry-Go-Round in the Sea opens in 1941. Six-year-old Rob Coram lives in Geraldton, Western Australia, and spends his young days in the company of his aunts, cousins and other family members. It's quite an idyllic life, one at a far remove from all the political trouble brewing in Europe. Rob especially looks up to his older cousin, Rick, who enlists to go to war.
As the years progress, and the Second World War is fought with greater ferocity, Rob's extended family moves further away from the city and townships, finally to Andarra. When the war ends, Rob looks forward to seeing his cousin Rick again. He expects that life will simply pick up from where it has left off. But the centre of gravity has radically changed. Rick was held as a prisoner of war and saw things he cannot forget. He's a changed man and Rob's idealised cousin is now hollowed out, a broken man who can barely take an interest in his own life. Rob sees him disappearing before his very own eyes.
Australian poet and novelist Randolph Stow first published this now acclaimed classic in 1965. It's an incredibly moody, evocative portrait of Australia during the war years. While the novel's poetic style has a timeless quality, it also contains contemporary descriptions of First Australians and outdated attitudes towards women. The book is not in itself sexist or racist, yet faithfully records conversations that were. Stow highlights the irony of Australia's racism:
"It was funny about black ******. They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian."
There's not much plot to go by in all of this, simply page after page of dreamy, hazy descriptions and bland yet strangely surreal conversations between family members. The whole story – all four hundred pages of it – passes like a beautiful, disturbing dream. Stow's skill is such that it is all seamlessly woven together; it doesn't feel so much like a novel, more an hallucinatory experience.
An Australian classic not to be overlooked.
Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, by Randolph Stow. Published by Penguin. $12.99
Review by Chris Saliba
English novelist Edward Carey re-imagines the life of Madame Tussaud.
Written as an autobiography, but reading like a novel, Edward Carey's Little is narrated by Marie Grosholtz, later known to the world as Madame Tussaud. Born in 1761, little Marie finds herself moved to Bern, in Switzerland, at the age of six. Fatherless, she soon loses her mother also. Marie works as a housekeeper for Doctor Curtius, an eccentric man who makes wax replicas of body organs used as public health warnings. On her first night at Doctor Curtius', she sleeps in an eerie room full of lifelike wax lungs, livers and other gruesome body parts. Marie finds an interest in this peculiar art form, learns how to cast wax figures and takes an energetic interest in drawing from life (the novel features illustrations by Carey.)
When Curtius later moves to Paris, little Marie follows. They move in with the cruel Widow Picot, wife of a tailor (she keeps a tailor's dummy with her deceased husband's exact proportions prominently in the house, as a macabre memorial) and her sensitive, weakling son, Edmond. Little Marie and Curtius start up a cabinet of wax figures, featuring the famous and the infamous (murderers and criminals, which thrills the population's ghoulish imagination.) Marie's skill at creating wax heads captures the eye of the brother of the king, and she is invited to live at Versailles. This ten year sojourn ends unhappily when it is discovered that Marie has made wax likenesses – none too flattering, mind you – of the royal family.
Marie returns to civilian life and continues to cast famous wax heads until the Revolution comes, followed by the terror. Life is enormously precarious post Revolution France, but Marie manages to survive. The novel ends with her moving to France, aged forty-two.
There is much to enjoy in this absorbing, historical-fantasy. Ghoulish and Gothic, Little reads for the most part like Dickens, in style and substance (think Little Dorrit.) That's not to say it's a Dickens pastiche, but the influence reverberates pleasantly. The chief charm of the book is how Carey balances fact and fiction. For example the middle section, where Marie lives at Versailles, is spoken of in Madame Tussaud's actual memoirs, although there is no contemporary evidence for this. Carey runs with it, creating a delightfully extravagant narrative of supercilious and eccentric royalty, living in an isolated bubble, a bubble that will later burst quite violently.
A steady stream of historical figures throng Little, from royalty and revolutionaries, to thinkers and radicals. It's the sort of book that will have you reaching for Wikipedia and wanting to read further about the French Revolution. It's hard to say thematically what Little is about. Carey clearly enjoys the subject matter – a young woman making wax heads in revolutionary France – and perhaps finds solace in dolls and replicas, preferring them to humans. Marie confesses herself to be somewhat of an oddball. When she miscarries her first child, she feels it typical of someone like her, not able to bring forth a living child, only one that is lifelike. But if she is an oddball and freak, calmly making wax casts of gruesomely decapitated heads, she is also triumphant, coming to accept herself and her peculiar talent. A final chapter, an afterward of three pages, is written by Madame Tussaud at age eighty-nine, telling the reader that she will never go away.
An odd book about an outsider whose knack for creating lifelike wax figures is perfectly at home in our own image obsessed society.
Little, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
The classic Gothic novel, The Monk, was written by Matthew G. Lewis ( 1775 – 1818) when the author was in his teens. It tells the story of a respected church leader who loses all self control and is tempted by Lucifer.
Ambrosio is a monk noted for his piety and stirring sermons. His close companion at the monastery is a young novice named Rosario. He, too, is renowned for his piety and gentle manner. It is soon revealed, however, that Rosario, who always obscures his face under a cowl, is actually a woman named Matilda. She attempts to seduce Ambrosio, but fails. When told she must leave the monastery, she requests being permitted to take a rose bush as a memento. As Ambrosio's hand reaches to pull out the rose bush as a gift, a deadly snake bites him and leaves him hovering between life and death.
As Ambrosio languishes on his sickbed, Matilda secretly intervenes while he lies unconscious and sucks the poison from his wound. As Ambrosio revives, Matilda falls sick, having consumed the snake's deadly poison. On her deathbed, about to expire, she manages to finally seduce Ambrosio. He unleashes all his ferocious passions, while Matilda is in the process of dying.
Matilda is doomed, or is she? She reveals a secret to Ambrosio: life can mysteriously be restored. She wanders into a cemetery and calls upon Lucifer. The two make a pact and Matilda is saved. But soon Ambrosio, unable to check his desires, is tempted into a world of illicit pleasures superbly organised by the adroit Matilda.
The Monk is a stunning piece of decadence, littered with bold images, lurid scenarios and red hot temptation. The book excels at both titillating and shocking with it presentation of sexual lust - and its high price. Lewis's story also shows how the church's sexual repression can unleash terrible monsters. The overzealous nuns, who take in a young woman who has got herself pregnant out of wedlock, treat her with astonishing cruelty. In many instances it's hard to tell whether Matthew Lewis's aim is to moralise or excite. His muscular prose creates fabulous images. The first appearance of Lucifer is extraordinary:
“He was perfectly naked: A bright Star sparkled upon his forehead; Two crimson wings extended themselves from his shoulders; and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played round his head, formed themselves into a variety of figures, and shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of precious Stones.”
The Marquis de Sade declared himself a fan of The Monk. Its resonant mix of psychology, sex, desire and religion make it a story that sticks deep in the mind and soul. The horror ending, where Lucifer makes his reappearance, is truly frightening.
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis. Published by Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A bizarre love triangle, with a cat as the major pawn.
Shozo is onto his second wife, but his heart really belongs to his cat, the beautiful Lily, with her exquisite tortoiseshell coat. First wife Shinako, who has been pushed out of her marriage in favour of the well-heeled Fukuko, is kicking up a stink. She says she is lonely and wants to take Lily to live with her. Seeing that she has been unfairly abandoned, she feels this is the least that Shozo and Fukuko can do. Shinako's secret plan is that once Lily is ensconced with her, Shozo will want to visit the cat, and hence her. The funny part is, Shinako doesn’t really like the cat, and so the plan is in some ways self-sabotaging. Thrown into this mix of emotional jeopardy is Shozo’s mother, O-rin, who has her own self-interested schemes. Weak and vacillating, Shozo finally succumbs to the pressure to give Lily to Shinako, but soon finds he can’t bear to be parted from his dear cat.
Junichiro Tanizaki published this often hilarious novella in 1936. Not only is it psychologically pitch-perfect in its depiction of a three-way power tussle, with a cat as the trophy, but it also presents a fascinating picture of Japanese society. We learn much about the importance of money and status, how marriages are made and broken, and the superficial nature of many customs. Society makes us put on many masks; Tanizaki takes them off to show our true conniving selves. A Cat, A Man and Two Women is almost a Jane Austen like comedy, where the hypocritical and the venal get their comeuppance.
A sly and piercing comedy that never puts a foot wrong. A rare piece of writing where every page is so good it has to be savored.
A Cat, A Man and Two Women, by Junichiro Tanizaki. Daunt Books. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Yukio Mishima's nihilistic tale of a gang of children and their punishment of an unsuspecting sailor.
Fusako Kuroda is a widowed woman with a 13-year-old son, Noboru. On a ship tour she meets and falls in love with the sailor Ryuji Tsukazaki. Their relationship moves quickly and the two are soon committed to each other. Noboru, Fusako's young boy, looks up to the sailor and is mesmerised by his tales of glory on the seas. It's a mysterious and dangerous world that Ryuji portrays, barely imaginable.
Meanwhile, Noboru has been running with a gang of boys his own age. They are led by “the Chief”, also 13-years old. He is intelligent but nihilistic, obsessed with the idea that life is meaningless and empty. The only way he sees to fill the void is to commit some horrible crime. He leads the group in the killing of a kitten, which he then proceeds to eviscerate, pulling out all the animal's organs. This act is seen as a preparation for worse crimes.
When the Chief learns that Ryuji, the sailor whom the gang has come to idolise as the embodiment of glory, has given up his career at sea to become the domesticated husband of Fusako, he declares that action must be taken. He prepares a sinister thermos of tea and with the assistance of Noboru, the gang lure Ryuji to a dock where something truly horrible is planned.
Yukio Mishima's 1963 novel (translated by John Nathan) is an elegantly written short novel that often shimmers with its luminous and poetic descriptions. Some of the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. The theme of the novel seems to echo the 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb, later used as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope, in which two handsome, educated young men perform a terrible ideological crime. In Mishima's novel, a touch of Lord of the Flies is thrown in, with a gang of children performing the unthinkable. The plot is consummately developed, with an air of tension and unease permeating the text until the reader is shocked by the sudden and horrific denouement.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is dark and disturbing, mixing themes of death, sex, voyeurism and power. A nightmare that lingers uncomfortably on the consciousness.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima. Vintage Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In this Elena Ferrante-like work, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami lays bare women's reproductive and cosmetic options in extraordinary detail.
Breasts and Eggs is Japanese author Mieko Kawakami's first novel to be translated into English. It first appeared as a novella and was later expanded. The book is divided into two parts, with part one the original novella, and the much longer part two the additional material.
The story opens with Natsuko, a novelist suffering writer's block who is receiving a visit from her sister Makiko in her Tokyo apartment. Makiko and her 12-year-old daughter, Midoriko, have come from Osaka, where Natsuko originally grew up. The sisters speak in the local dialect, Osaka-ben, a sassy kind of street talk that dispenses with formalities. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, Kawakami's fast paced conversations read like the sort of thing you'd overhear animated young people speaking.
Makiko and Midoriko – mother and daughter – are experiencing their own personal challenges. Midoriko has gone mute, refusing to speak. We gain insights into her thinking in a series of journal entries. The upshot is she is horrified at the idea of becoming a woman – the bodily changes, the pressure to reproduce - all of it causing revulsion. Meanwhile, Makiko has blithely announced she wants to have breast augmentation. She's casually looking into it and Natsuko is alarmed at all the health risks that go with surgery.
Part two takes place some eight years later. The main themes of part one – the pressure on women to surgically change their bodies, Midoriko's fear at her looming physical maturity – are pretty much dropped. Midoriko now has a boyfriend and Makiko's breast enhancement isn't discussed. Instead, the focus is on Natsuko's body. She wants to have a child and considers using the services of a sperm donor. She doesn't have a partner, nor does she want one, as she finds sex completely unappealing. And so starts a personal journey to find a way to have a baby, without a man being involved.
Breasts and Eggs is fast paced and chatty. Kawakami has a real gift for writing dialogue – often in huge chunks – that is naturalistic and believable. She's clearly a good listener with an ear for verbal ticks and idiosyncrasies. The book's subject matter and style, with its addictive prose, is reminiscent of Elena Ferrante's quartet of Neapolitan novels. Both works investigate in intimate details the lives of women. Kawakami focuses even more strongly on the female body, discussing menstruation and reproduction, among other things, with an unflinching eye.
There are some structural issues with Breasts and Eggs. Part two seems simply bolted onto part one and at 430 pages, the book is long and in parts long-winded. That aside, there is much to enjoy in this surprisingly candid work.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Picador. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A sharply observed satire by young Irish writer Naoise Dolan.
Ava is a 22-year-old Irish foreign worker, teaching English to children in Hong Kong. When she meets Julian, a smart yet obnoxious banker, she moves into his apartment and starts a casual relationship with him. The two often spar on economic and politic issues, Ava playing the deadpan socialist and Julian smug with his capitalist assertions. Ava knows she's somewhat of a hypocrite, living rent free off her banker friend, but she ploughs ahead nonetheless. An emotional spanner is thrown in the works when Ava meets Edith, a young Hong Kong lawyer, and the two start a relationship. Things become increasingly complicated as Ava keeps the true nature of her relationship with Julian secret. When Julian arrives back in Hong Kong after a work jaunt, the manipulative Ava must do some explaining.
Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer and Exciting Times is her debut. Apart from being a compelling portrait of modern day relationships, the novel also provides a razor sharp analysis of money, power and class. Dolan's narrative shimmers brilliantly due to its fierce intelligence, sly humour and ability to illuminate the hidden ways in which power is entrenched. A new voice to watch out for.
Exciting Times, by Naoise Dolan. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. $32.99
A lovesick and desperate young man wanders through the city and meets over 200 people from Melbourne's past.
A young man ponders his future by the Yarra River and decides it's not worth living. Having made the decision to jump in and end it all, he's accosted by Captain Matthew Flinders, the English navigator who was the first to chart much of the coast of Australia. It is the real Flinders, straight out of the history books and now made flesh in contemporary Melbourne. The two strike up a conversation and the young man is suddenly distracted from his immediate woes. They begin to perambulate the city, somewhat like Boswell and Johnson traversed London centuries ago, and make their way through some of Melbourne's smaller lane ways and byways. Each street they enter, the person the street was named after makes an entrance and begins a conversation. Captain Flinders soon falls away, and the young man continues on in a feverish daze through the city's streets, meeting along the way over 200 historical figures - merchants, councilors, publicans, performers, builders, pastoralists and even the odd saint.
The cause of the young man's distress (who narrates the story, although we never learn his name) is Chloe, a barmaid at the Young and Jackson. Having enjoyed a brief, idyllic time together by the beach, he now finds himself estranged from his great love. As he notes of his troubles, “…mine is an extreme case. I measure this whole city by the pain I feel about her – I don’t know if anyone else has ever done such a thing.” Throughout the novel he seeks help for his romantic dilemma from Melbourne's fair and famous, only to receive useless or silly advice.
The young man yearns to find work as a shepherd – surely the simple life will cure his ills – but becomes discombobulated by so many random conversations and finally ends up drunk, staggering into the night. (He meets a succession of publicans who ply him with wine.)
Three Thousand is a self-published novel by writer A.E. Cochrane. A story based on such a conceit shouldn't really work. The whole idea risks getting bogged down in repetitiveness. What holds the book together is the engaging narrator and his lovesick plight, pining for a return to an idyllic past with Chloe the barmaid, a past that may have been experienced more in the imagination than in reality. The book reads like a mix of Voltaire's Candide, with its humorous escapades, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, for its melancholic romanticism (with a hint of the tongue-in-cheek). There's also a touch of Kafka thrown in as the narrator finds himself in a never ending maze, full of bubbleheaded famous people, with seemingly no way out. There is a lot of delightful wit in Cochrane's writing and his prose has an elegant precision, able to capture complex philosophical and religious concepts and render them in simple, often ironic, language.
History buffs will enjoy this clever story about Melbourne's early beginnings; readers of literature will derive much pleasure from the young narrator's personal story of romantic melancholy and bumbling adventure in the city.
Three Thousand, by A.E. Cochrane. Published by Decision Press. $25
Review by Chris Saliba
An ambitious novel about Shakespeare's wife and son from Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell.
William Shakespeare had three children with his wife, Anne (or Agnes, if you go by her father's will) Hathaway. Susanna was born in 1583, followed by the twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Hamnet tragically died at the age of eleven. His cause of death remains unknown. There has been much scholarly speculation about the significance of Shakespeare naming his most famous play Hamlet, as both names were interchangeable in Elizabethan times.
Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell has set herself the ambitious task of trying to recreate Shakespeare's family life and somehow explain his seemingly unorthodox marriage arrangements. The novel has two timelines, moving back and forth between the early 1580s, when Shakespeare was courting Anne Hathaway and 1596, the year Hamnet died. O'Farrell portrays Anne (named Agnes throughout) as a bit of a wild nature woman, making her own medicines and working in her village as a healer of sorts. Shakespeare (he is never named, only referred to as either husband or father) is smitten with the unusual Agnes, someone with an uncanny connection to the natural world.
The couple marry and Agnes soon realises that her husband has a mysterious inner life, a restlessness that seeks the wider world. She urges him to move to London, assuring him that she and the children will follow later. That never happens, although Agnes's husband goes on to have a successful career in the theatre. When tragedy strikes, and Hamnet is seriously ill, the boy's father rushes back from London to see his dying boy.
O'Farrell's novel is primarily about grief and motherhood. Shakespeare appears as a half-formed character, and there is even less of Hamnet. The story centres for the most part around Agnes, her inner life, how she copes with grief and her husband's long stays away from home. For that alone, it makes for an affecting and absorbing novel. The scenes depicting the laying out of Hamnet's body are incredibly moving and the myriad botanical references paint an illuminating picture of Elizabethan rural life, with its mixture of natural science and superstition.
How readers appreciate this novel will depend on how they warm to O'Farrell's depiction of the Shakespeares' married life. William is portrayed as rather callous and inconsiderate of his wife's feelings, someone who puts career ahead of family. Agnes and William seem almost strangers to each other. The historical record shows that Shakespeare spent large parts of the year in London, and the novelist has obviously taken this to mean that as a married couple the Shakespeares weren't close and may indeed have been hostile to each other. Some readers may see this reading of their relationship as lacking in imagination, or too quick to jump to easy assumptions.
An engaging, heartbreaking novel about a mother's loss, but a disappointing portrayal of Shakespeare's marriage.
Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell. Published by Tinder Press. $32.99
North Melbourne Books