Friday, 30 March 2012

The long and winding road*

I love a story that takes me on a journey.  It doesn’t matter if it’s literally a journey as in The Road or metaphorically like Great Expectations, as long as I go somewhere.

The book I’m reading right now, doesn’t do journeys. Granted, I’m only halfway through it but I’m bored. Bored.  I’m not going to divulge the name of the book or who it’s by because one of my pet hates is readers and writers who rubbish authors.   I have to tell you, also, that this book is currently on the short list for the Miles Franklin Award, so I am in no position to be critical of it. (As an aside, it worries me that there are books on the MF list that I do not like. Anyone else feel this way?)  Anyway, this book is just not for me; it’s lyrical and descriptive but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere although the blurb on the back tells me that it should be going somewhere. 

I’ve been thinking of how best to describe the kind of book that enthralls me from the first sentence and I think it’s got to do with the promise of a journey, and then the setting about of fulfilling that promise fairly early on in the piece. I’ve qualified that because it’s no good promising something, and then not delivering.  Or promising something, but dithering over it until Christmas.

I wondered if there was a book where procrastination took place, but I still enjoyed the read – I wasn’t bored – and I came up with one: 

Andrew McGahan’s 1988.  McGahan’s novel sets out, interestingly, promising both a literal and a metaphorical journey.  The main character, Gordon, a young man with little prospects and little get up and go I have to say, heads to far north Queensland on a road trip to take care of a weather station. Once he reaches the weather station, the metaphorical journey begins. Well, I think it does. I loved this book. Some of my classmates – we had to read it for uni – would disagree. They said to me, “Why do you love it? Please explain. Nothing happens.”  While it’s true that to a certain extent nothing happens, what enthralled me was Gordon’s response to his isolation and his boredom. It’s sordid and nasty and strangely compelling but then Gordon, in contrast to his boring name, is an intriguing character. Somehow, I empathized with him, and I wondered if it was my own experience of youth that bonded me to him.  Here are a couple of lines from the middle of the book to think about:

They forgot about me again. I pulled on my beer.
I felt stupid. Slow. After an hour the beer was all gone.

While I don't think I would have turned out to be a Gordon, certainly the potential to do so was there. 

My conclusion? That your own life experience informs your response to and reading of literature.  

And now, with an appreciation that there will be other readers who will find it a joy -- just not me -- I am going to put aside the book that is on the Miles Franklin list, and pick up another. I think it's The Elegance of the Hedgehog that awaits me but I may also dip into Before I go to Sleep again because I inhaled it the first time.

*Compliments to The Beatles  

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Snow falling

I threatened recently to write about snow, so here I am.

This came about because I was in Europe in February and it snowed, a magical, happy experience. It was all the more unique because it began at midnight, like a fairy story. The loved one and I were on our way to the U-bahn in Berlin, Karl Marx Platz to be exact – what we were doing there at midnight is a whole other story – but light flakes drifted from a black sky and it was icy underfoot. By the time we caught the train and emerged from the underground on the other side, the snow lay several centimetres thick. And nobody else had walked in it.  It was white and virgin, and as pure as the driven snow. (I’ve never understood that expression, now I do.) It was very quiet. And very cold. The snow crunched under my boots, and the air crackled in my lungs when I breathed in.

Friends had been asking me why it was I went to Europe in winter – because this is the second time I’ve gone in winter and they’re starting to think there’s something wrong with me. The answer is logical. Why do British people travel to Australia in the summer? They do it because they don’t get enough sun over there. And they do it because it’s different.  It’s the same for me.  I do it because I don’t get enough winter over here. Our winter, in the tropics, is hardly a winter at all, and we certainly don’t get any snow. For me, a European winter is a whole other experience and if there’s a chance to rug up and put on my winter woolies and wear boots and scarves, I’m your man. Or, in this case, woman.

Something else to remember is that there are far less tourists in Europe in the middle of winter. There, I’ve said that quietly. Don’t spread it around.  

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, who's Norwegian in case you were thinking Swedish, is a wonderful book I read last month.  I've reviewed it for The Writing Bar, the blog of the Sydney Writers' Centre, and you can read the review here. 

I've been thinking on and off about Per Petterson's style, or his style in this particular work. Out Stealing Horses is narrated by an older man called Trond, a man with the ability to transform small moments into meaningful ones. He also specialises in sentences of considerable length, but then there'll be a short one to stop you in your tracks. Or it'll be the other way around. I'd like to quote from the book but I'd much rather I intrigued you enough to make you go off and read the entire book for yourself.

I was thinking about this transforming of the mundane into something significant, and I thought about experimenting with it.  So I wrote something.  I called it Out Getting Paint for want of a better title, and I've pasted it below.  Enjoy!

Out Getting Paint 

The hardware store is one of those old-fashioned kinds: a small shop with narrow aisles and everything squeezed in. Every available space taken up. Rows upon rows of drill bits are arranged in ascending order of size. On one wall, locks and latches gleam dully in the morning light. Beach umbrellas are heaped against one another. There are tubes of glue. Pots of putty. Brightly-coloured plastic buckets hanging from the ceiling. The wooden edge of a barbeque juts painfully into my hip as I attempt to get past. I turn down an aisle, bump into another customer and we slip by one another wordlessly, with downcast eyes, as if we were in church and it was wrong to talk. The feeling of reverence in a hardware store is tangible.

I stand for a long time and look at paint. That’s what I’m here for after all. Not simple things like nails and a hammer. Paint. Which is a mystery to me. There are some things in life I do not trust and paint is one of them.
The assistant, a man who looks as if he should be heaving sides of pork in an abattoir, hands me a flimsy leaflet containing colours and names. Ironstone Cloud, Thelma Bay, Mushroom Idyll. I could be reading a poem. I study the colours. Try to find something that approximates what I want while the big man tells me what he knows of paint, how it’s fickle and never quite what it seems, and I wonder whether he’s talking about paint or somebody I once loved. Then he leaves me to make a choice.

In the end, and it takes me some time, I choose something called Blue Fog. I stand and wait. I wait and I watch him while he adds the pigment and the tin is jammed into a vice and churned for some time and with some violence and I begin to understand paint a little.
I carry the tin out to the car with both hands, like a prize, and pass a tradesman and filled with the flutter of hope I smile at him, and he smiles back but I think it is because I am a woman carrying a paint tin. When I reach home I go out to the back deck and place the tin on the table on old newspaper sheets and using a screwdriver for leverage I remove the lid. I peer into the depths. The colour seems richer and heavier than what I wanted, and I start to feel foolish.  Using a thin dry stick I give it a stir and it is the texture of thick custard, surprisingly resistant but also smooth and slick and aloof in a way that custard can never be. I pour off a quantity into a well-washed dog food can and replace the lid, pressing it down with a firm hand and giving it a whack with the screwdriver’s handle and denting the metal with some satisfaction on my part.
            The paint brush is one made from camel hair with the density of a thousand hairs per square inch. I run the top of my hand over its bristles and it feels good. Trustworthy. The ladder to the roof leans against the wall. The sky is dark blue and a tuft of sheep’s wool scuds across its surface. All that remains is for me to return to the house to have a long drink of water, letting it run straight from the tap into my mouth, and find my hat and my sunglasses, and then I place the paint on the top rung and brush in hand I mount the ladder.           


Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Postcard from Prague

Narrow cobbled streets, uneven in places. Dark, stained buildings. A sense of history. I walked to the hilltop, gazed down on a feeble sun, and a drifting low mist. Bridges over the grey river. A high-walled, forbidding castle on my right, and the elegant soaring spires of the cathedral. Then suddenly – not a Crusader on horseback – but a skateboarder with red sneakers hurtling over the embankment.