An Embarrassment of Schnitzels: Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2016

on Monday, May 16, 2016
Not sure how two years passed me by but I'm thrilled to say that once again I'm part of the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival this coming week. What started as a bit of a pipe dream around the now-Director's kitchen table exploded into a veritable feast of literary goodness back in 2014. We didn't know what to expect but the massive crowds and rave reviews spoke for themselves - our mix of international and local authors, Jewish and non-Jewish, writing on topics of what I came to realise might have had a Jewish flavour but were of universal interest and relevance, seemed to strike a very loud chord.

It was always intended that the festival would be a once-every-two-years affair but we didn't take the off-year lying down. Two wonderful events - a night with David Mendelssohn in conversation with James Ley and Theatrics (a series of dramatic adaptation of great Jewish short stories) - helped satiate the appetite for literary nourishment that we'd worked up for ourselves. And, of course, we kicked off this year with the fabulous Simon Sebag Montefiore (in conjunction with our friends at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation). Now comes Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2016, with its programme packed with even more awesomeness. There are so many session highlights that it'd be an injustice to select only a few but you can check out the entire program and buy your tickets at the MJWF website. I can, however, tell you that we have Israeli rising star Nir Baram, New York favourite Jami Attenberg, intellectual force of nature Elana Sztockman, translator-extraordinaire Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi fame) as well as local stars Arnold Zable, Gail Jones, Joan London, Mireille Juchau, Peter Singer, Alan Finkel and many, many more.

I'm excited to be doing two sessions. The first is called "The H Word" and will be looking at the future of Holocaust writing in a post-survivor world. I'll be moderating a rather formidable panel that includes Nir Baram, Mireille Juchau and Kate Forsyth. Eeeep.

For the second, I will stepping outside my comfort zone in a session called "The Necessary Jewish Poet", where five writers/entertainers/luminaries (and me) have been asked to select and speak about a poet who means something to them. Other than myself, the session features Robert Richter QC, Alex Skovron, Andrea Goldsmith and Evelyn Krape. I have chosen the very obscure Czech poet and mystic Georg Mordechai Langer who, among many claims to (now forgotten) fame, was Kafka's Hebrew teacher. Why I chose him, though... well, you'll have to wait and see (or hear).

I'll also be on The Books and Arts Show on ABC Radio National with Michael Cathcart tomorrow morning (Tuesday, May 17) so that's another tick off the bucket list! If you miss it, you'll be able to catch the podcast here.

The festival kicks off this Saturday night, May 21st, with a Gala Opening Night featuring Nir Baram, Jami Attenberg, Lally Katz, Alan Gold, Gary Abrahams, Grace Halphen, Nadine Davidoff, Lior and more. Be sure to head to the website and buy your tickets ASAP to both the Gala and whatever sessions you wish to attend because they are selling faster than bad semi-erotic S&M fiction!

A Voice in The Dark: Text of Launch Speech for In The Shadows of Memory

on Sunday, April 17, 2016
After a month hidden away at a writers' retreat, I resurfaced today to launch a fantastic book at the Jewish Museum of Australia. Okay, so it isn't a novel but it is on a topic that is very close to my heart. About two hundred people rocked up to watch it all go down and I've had a fair few requests to post my little spiel online somewhere. I figure this is as good a place as any. Sorry it's quite a bit longer than my usual yackathons but here goes!

In The Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation (edited by Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein and David Slucki)
Sunday April 27 2016
Jewish Museum of Australia

What does it mean to carry the torch of memory?

How do we continue to bear witness when those who were there have all gone?

How do we heal so that inherited trauma and post memory do not come to define who we are while, at the same time, honour the suffering of those we loved, those we lost and those we never got the opportunity to know?

For the past few years I have been grappling with these questions as I seek to learn and write about the stories my grandparents could not bring themselves to tell. It is, I’m sure, a common challenge for those of us in the third generation. How do we make sense of our family history – with the benefit of time and distance - whether we heard it first hand, read it in a memoir, learnt it in whispered snippets or, as was my experience, read about it in a newspaper article years after they had died, when it was too late to ask questions?

As members of the third generation we are in an historically unique position. But for a few exceptions, we are the last ones that will know survivors. We are the bridge, we are the candle. It is both an honour and, I dare say, a burden. Our relationship with the Holocaust raises new, often difficult questions. Why then, have we shied away from discussing them?

When I first heard about In The Shadows of Memory, I realized, somewhat surprisingly, that the conversation had not yet been had in any meaningful way. There were, of course, cultural touchstones – works like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love or, more recently The Replacement Life by Boris Fischman. But we had not yet shifted the lens of intellectual scrutiny from the first and second generations to our own. In The Shadows of Memory is, to my mind, the watershed moment for talking about and coming to understand the multiverse that is the Third Generation.

The breadth of what lies between the covers of this book is extraordinary. That the editors – Esther, Jordana and David – chose not fix it to any discipline but, rather, opened it to the many ways the third generation might seek to understand not only the Holocaust but their very identities makes this much more than you might expect. As they rightly note, it is much harder to characterize the third generation as some kind of homogenous group than those who preceded them. They incorporate “a whole array of religious, ethnic, political, national, sexual and gender identities”. And so we read pieces from all of these perspectives, whether it be a young Australian human rights lawyer reverse engineering her family history, a study of post memory and its effects on masculinity, a Romani scholar and musician interrogating the silences of her people’s Holocaust experience through song or the fieldwork of a young Jewish German anthropologist seeking to reconcile her national and religious identities.

In The Shadow of Memory also does not shy away from asking the difficult questions. What right do we have to tell the stories that our survivor grandparents did not want to be told? How do we share the trauma with other survivor groups who suffered – the Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, political prisoners, the disabled – to give their experiences legitimacy and meaning in more than just a tokenistic way? Can we find it within ourselves to sympathise with the other third generations – the grandchildren of perpetrators and those who were displaced in the creation of the State of Israel? And, of course, what active duties fall upon us to give meaning to the phrase Never Again?

What really sets this book apart, though, what makes it essential reading, is its deep humanity. Never before have I read an academic collection that eschews the rigid conventions of its form and allows us instead to view the writers at their most personal, their most vulnerable and their most fierce. These are not merely intellectual studies but vehicles for searing self-examination. That such a variety of great minds have dug deep into their personal histories and then turned their intellectual skills to examining what they found is not only fascinating but, also, intensely moving.

In The Shadows of Memory is, however, only the beginning of the conversation. It raises just as many questions as it might answer and, I have little doubt, will be the book to which countless writers, thinkers and casual readers will be turning long into the future. On a personal note, it really got me thinking about the role of the creative artist in perpetuating memory. Heeding Adorno’s famous clarion call, Jonathan Safran Foer is said to have stumbled, unsure of whether it was proper to imagine the Holocaust in fiction. I too struggle with this question – what is there left to say when there are so many iconic memoirs and novels by those who experienced it first hand? Who owns memory? How do we properly confront the taboos of Holocaust representation in respectful but fearless ways? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but in continuing on my quest I know that this book will remain an invaluable resource for thought and self-reflection.

As someone who devoured this book with a profound sense of appreciation and admiration, I would like to congratulate Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein and David Slucki as well as all of the contributing authors and, to officially launch this wonderful, essential book - In The Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation.

That One Post In Which I Totally Lost My Shit and Fanboyed All Over The Place

on Wednesday, March 2, 2016
I tend not to live by mottos but if there's one to which I do subscribe it's this: Never meet your heroes because, more often than not, you will be crushingly disappointed. It's something that has, in my experience, been proven right time and time again. Back when I was schlepping around the world screaming into a rubber chicken (strapped to a microphone, I swear), I had the fantastically good fortune to meet and play with many people I had worshipped from afar. I wish I hadn't. The vast majority of them were arseholes. So it was with great trepidation that I went to see Jesse Ball, two time winner of Bait For Bookworms Book of the Year, speak tonight at The School of Life in my hometown of Melbourne.

Regular readers of this blog are well familiar with my almost religious fanaticism when it comes to Ball. Since his first novel, Samedi The Deafness, I have been entirely entranced by his ability to create believable otherworlds that mimic our own but cause us to reconsider reality as we experience it. Naturally, I was overjoyed to discover recently that he would be Australia and, as something of a bonus, was going to be speaking five minutes from where I live. I bought a ticket. In a Ballian (is that even a term?) world I would have bought several, so I could attend on multiple competing planes.

As it turned out, one proved sufficient to experience an entertaining and intellectually challenging discussion on social conformity. Myke Bartlett did a great job of teasing out some complex ideas without ever letting it disappear into an ether of pretentiousness. The discussion flew by, I got to ask a wanky question in garbled form and then came the moment of truth. I went up to introduce myself, knowing the bubble might well burst and... Jesse was absolutely lovely. Yes, I found myself chatting to a long time hero without being disillusioned in the slightest. What an absolute honour and delight it was. Jesse made his way to the signing desk where I unloaded my tote bag of books. All ten of them. I didn't want to push my luck. I said I'd pick only three. He laughed and signed them all. Then we chatted about Kobo Abe. Bliss.

Ok, so I realise I've just been totally fanboying here but I couldn't let it go by without mention. Perhaps, I'd have been better off simply posting this:

Lucid dreams, y'all.

Microviews Vol. 58: More Words From The Weird

on Monday, February 29, 2016
How To Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Here's something I thought I'd never say: Jesse Ball has written a relatively conventional story. Yes, five novels (plus apocrypha) into a truly extraordinary career and he has deigned to leave the singular world of his own making and grace us on earth with his presence for the sixth. That isn't to say that How To Set A Fire and Why is a 'normal' book by any stretch of the imagination, only that it unfolds in a world that the reader will recognise. All the more so if you're a fan of counter cultural film classics like Heathers, Gummo, SFW or pretty much anything made by Todd Solondz. Once again Ball gives us a young female protagonist, though Lucia is about as different from The Curfew's Molly as you could possibly get. She is, in many ways, your typical fucked-up teen. Father: gone. Mother: vegetating in a home, staring into the distance, her mind obliterated by early onset Alzheimers. School: A bust - she was kicked out of the last one and hates the new place. To top it off, she lives with her aunt, a loving but seemingly desiccated crone. Oh, and she is obsessed with fire. It's something with which I could instantly relate. What kid doesn't go through that stage? But Lucia takes it to a new level. Her father's Zippo is a thing to worship, to fight over, to connect her with the world. A few weeks into the school year and she learns of an underground arson club. It may or may not be legit but it's something she wants to join. From there the trajectory is set. She rattles it all off in short, sharp chapters that guarantee a good pace for the plethora of typical teen shenanigans built into the narrative: family drama, friends and frenemies, sexual exploration and exploitation, the desperate need for acceptance into something. Unfortunately, Lucia's circular obsessions border on painful at times and while I get the need to fill out her world, I couldn't help but feel she was overplayed. It seems to me that How To Set A Fire And Why is ultimately about "belonging". Jesse Ball uses this damaged teen to explore much bigger themes of fitting in and finding your place in the world. There is a noticeable irony, perhaps intentional, that this should be the book that sees him dabble with literary convention. He too is having a go at "fitting in". The novel builds toward the inevitable great arson moment, the point at which Lucia will set the fire that will destroy the world she despises, allowing her to leave her past behind and start anew. We all know it can't go well. Ball, however, leaves the ending open. There is every chance that this book is a declarative statement about his own endeavours: he simply doesn't belong in our formulaic, trope-laden literary world. He is, after all, the king of "the other", the prophet of the imaginative apocalypse. Hopefully, he will now return to those creative dreamscapes to which we acolytes have built our shrines. It would be a shame to have to set them on fire.
3.5 Out of 5 Kindling Sticks

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
Pity the poor brainiacs slaving away in their labs when a certain patent clerk happened upon his theory of relativity. All the more so if any one of them similarly formulated the theory but was beaten to the punch on having it published. So begins John Wray's intellectual supernova of a novel, The Lost Time Accidents. Told as a confession of sorts - a 'reckoning' - by the great grandson of Ottokar Gottfriedens Toula, professional pickler and amateur physicist, this weighty brick (in both the literal and metaphorical senses) will bend your mind in so many different ways that you'll be lucky to come out of it without your head pounding. From the cafes of Vienna to the crowded streets of New York City, Wray takes in the best and worst the 20th century threw at us and makes a rich stew of complex ideas and hilarious set pieces with a whole bunch of pointed satirical barbs. There's so much to be said about this book but I'll try limit myself to a few very notable points. First up, the obvious: The Lost Time Accidents is a pretty unsubtle satire on the Church of Scientology. Here, the narrator's father, Orson Card Tolliver, is a D-Grade sci-fi writer whose unremarkable output becomes the basis for a batshit crazy cult, The Church of Synchronicity. Next up, some historical appropriation: the narrator is taken in by his twin aunts, eccentric New York socialites who become battier as the days go by until they are locked up in their apartment surrounded by the junk they've hoarded. Collyer brothers anyone? Then there's the references to any number of classic pulp sci-fi novels (hell, the dad's name is a play on Orson Scott Card). Not to mention the quite brilliant interweaving of an Holocaust subplot that is as morally challenging as it is harrowing. Uncle Waldemar, after whom our narrator is named, was a Nazi war criminal known as the Timekeeper of Czas, who tested his various theories about time on Jews and other prisoners in the camp. Needless to say, he killed a good many of them. His legacy would be problem enough for any grand-nephew, but it's all the more troubling because it's quite apparent that he is able to move through time and hide away in the present. Or perhaps young Waldy is Great Uncle Waldemar reincarnated. To some degree, The Lost Time Accidents can be read as a companion piece to another extraordinary novel, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Just replace comic books with theoretical physics. Like Chabon, the depth and breadth of Wray's book is nothing short of astounding. In telling the story of four generations of a broken family, and positing it all on a non-linear plane, he is able to challenge many of our assumptions about ourselves and the weight of history as it presses upon our shoulders. It is also damn funny and you will often smirk when he sticks it to some some very recognisable targets. I suspect it's the kind of book that rewards multiple reading and, if it weren't so long, I'd probably give it a go. Or maybe, in a parallel universe, I already have. Thankfully, in another, I will have the pleasure of reading it for the first time.
4.5 Out Of 5 Black Holes

The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
Some books simply defy categorisation. Sure, there are thematic or conceptual touchstones, but the particular mix is so beguiling, so confounding that you just have to give yourself over to its singularity. The Children's Home is one of those books. A few pages in and I was wondering, "What the fuck is this?" Strange kids turn up at the secluded, fortified mansion of Morgan, a disfigured hermit. No reason is given for their appearance. No explanation is given as to who Morgan is or what he is doing in the house. The children are tended to by Engel, a warm but mysterious housekeeper, who takes each one in without question. Soon enough the house overflows with kids, like some forgotten Victorian orphanage. Then there's the stuff about the intricate, anatomically-correct wax figures. Yikes. As I tumbled down the cliff of incomprehension I grasped out frantically for twigs of familiarity. Is it a classic gothic? A horror story, perhaps? Might it be something Hitchcock would had written before palming it off to M. Night Shyamalan? But I sensed an eerie tinge of Children of the Corn in there too, not to mention JG Ballard's unsettling novella, Running Wild. Gaston Leroux gets a look in too, with Morgan's obvious likeness to the Phantom of the Opera (the novel, not the musical). To be fair, Lambert does lace the tale with allusions to what's going on. The hermit is an ostracised member of the ruling family. There is some kind of terrible war being waged outside the walls of the house, rendering it the last oasis of serenity and, perhaps, salvation. The kids... ah... nope. Nothing. About halfway through, when government agents arrived to investigate the children's presence, I decided to just give up on my pathetic attempts to pigeonhole the book and commit myself to its world. With the agents banging on the door, the kids disappear. A sympathetic doctor, who visits Morgan and tends to his and the children's needs, tricks the agents into leaving but they soon return and a tense showdown ensues at the end of which one little girl is taken away. To save her, Morgan must venture outside the gates, into the ravaged land, and face down his sister. Lambert remains aloof on what it all might mean, except for one passage that suggests an anchor in time - World War 2 - and the tragic fate of many children in the Holocaust. That said, almost every other identifying factor points to some near-future dystopia so it's hard to ever feel you've quite got the grasp of what's happening. The Children's Home is a dark yet wholly enthralling novel. I doubt I'll read anything quite like it again this year but that's ok; I can only cope with the ghosts of so many children if I wish to remain sane.
4.5 Out of 5 Spectral Diapers

Microviews Vol. 57: A Word From The Weird

on Sunday, February 28, 2016
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
A strange boy comes running down a hill into the nearby village to report that his father has just killed his mother. So begins China Miéville's unsettling but almost hypnotic new novella, This Census-Taker. A search party is mobilised and an investigation of sorts is carried out. The mother is indeed missing but there is nothing to suggest foul play. It's hard to tell whether this is Miéville's Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Nighttime; has the boy misinterpreted his mother's desertion or did something more sinister actually happen? It is quickly apparent that the villagers don't want to upset the boy's father. He is the maker of keys, talismans that promise the fulfilment of their deepest desires. But he may also be a killer. If only they could penetrate the great chasm in the mountains where the boy says he throws the bodies. The whole thing comes to nought and the investigations abates until, one day, a census taker appears and takes the boy on as an apprentice. At which point it gets weird. Some readers (and critics) have been panning the book for its obtuseness and seeming lack of direction. I really don't get their gripe. Sure, it unfolds like the incantations of a fever dream, but This Census-Taker is Miéville at his genre-defying best.
4 Out Of 5 Shifting Realities

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
In what I can only interpret as a sly dig at David Foster Wallace and his massive masterpiece Infinite Jest, Álvaro Enrigue opens his something-resembling-a-novel with the assertion that no great books have been written about tennis. The instant tethering of the two writers is fitting - Sudden Death is the kind of formality-averse, scattered intellectual mindfuck you'd expect from the late, great master of meta fiction. In as much as there is a story, it revolves around a 16th century tennis match between a poet and artist (you don't discover their identities until very late in the book), the result of which will determine the fate of Europe. The narrative is nominal - we get the occasional description of a point as it is played. Bets are placed, balls are thwacked into... well... balls. You get the drift. The rest of the book is an historical exposition of European conquest, especially as it stretched to and destroyed Enrigue's homeland, Mexico, interspersed with factoids, tidbits and correspondence about tennis. Central to it all is Enrigue's hilarious concoction of a set of tennis balls made from the locks shorn from Ann Boleyn's head before her execution. It is all delivered with po-faced seriousness, making it quite the romp to read. A completely original, confounding and exhilarating experience.
4 Out of 5 Djokovics

When The Professor Got Stuck In The Snow by Dan Rhodes
Dan Rhodes sure has a thing for sacred cows. Particularly, he likes to slaughter them, mince them and serve them up as hamburgers of hilarity to his quite sizeable cult following. I've long had a thing for his brand of Grade A prissy patty and am always eager to see quite how far he is willing to push his luck. If we're to believe the hype, his latest novel is the one that finally crossed the line. No publisher was willing to touch it with a ten foot pole for fear of the ensuing lawsuits. And this from people who were happy to publish books about shitting as performance art. Alas, this time he picked on too precious a subject - the cult of Richard Dawkins. In what probably seemed like a funny idea at the time, Rhodes's latest book dumps an insufferably prattish Dawkins - brimming with pomposity, arrogance, stupidity and self-righteousness - in a country town full of devout Christians when a massive snow storm cuts off the road to Upper Bottom (get it? Ha ha. Snore.) where he is scheduled to give a speech. A few chortle-worthy gags gets things off to a good start (the continuous confusion of Dawkins and Stephen Hawking is a particular delight) but any mirthful warmth soon freezes over as the tale drags on in repetitive and not overly exciting fashion. A battle of nitwits ensues; the professor and the local vicar have it out over the dinner table, giving Rhodes a chance to lambaste both sides of the science/religion debate for their respective idiocies. It's all a mild distraction and might have made for a good short story but at novel length it very much overstays its welcome. There is a small chance this went unpublished for the reasons Rhodes would have us believe but I suspect there is a much more prosaic reason: it just isn't very good. Certainly not of the usual brilliance of this literary jester.
2.5 Out Of 5 Neanderthals

The Mockingbird Silenced, The Pendulum Stilled: A Short Tribute to Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

on Saturday, February 20, 2016
Sad news this morning. Harper Lee has died. Of course, my initial inclination was to give in to my rant reflex, mount the soapbox and let rip on the exploitation of modern literature's second greatest hermit. I suspect I'll still get the chance sometime soon. Death has removed the last bump in the road to publication of other early works. Last I heard, some short stories and novellas were in the offing. Thankfully, a lovely walk along the beach with my dog gave me a chance to settle my nerves and, instead, try to think of a fitting tribute to so singular an author. I'm sure many detailed and insightful tributes will be penned over the next few days but I want to leave it at this: Harper Lee wrote the perfect novel. Very few authors can boast such an amazing feat. That it was the only one she willingly published in her lifetime (I'm going to ignore last year's crass exercise in commercialism) makes it all the more remarkable. So brilliant was To Kill A Mockingbird that it also stands as the only great novel to be adapted into a great film.

I thought I could simply leave it at that. Then, as I sat down to write this, I learned of the death of another of my literary heroes. Umberto Eco also died today. And while he may not be in the perfect novel club he came pretty darn close twice. The Name of The Rose and Foucault's Pendulum are novels of immense depth and intellectual acuity. Oh, and they're bloody fun reads to boot. Like Lee, Eco added to our understanding of the world. He wielded his pen as a weapon of morality, integrity and goodness. He challenged us to think harder, to further our philosophical horizons. His body of work across genres - be it novels, works of philosophy, literary theory or semiotics - knows no equal. How he never won the Nobel Prize is beyond me and, to be frank, lessens its worth rather than Eco's.

It is fitting that we lost these two literary giants on the same day. To my mind they were bookends to the writing experience. Their output, on opposite ends of the numerical spectrum, achieved the same thing: they bettered our lives. And for that we should be thankful. Harper Lee and Umberto Eco will both be missed. More importantly, they will both, for many years to come, be read.

Red Thunder: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

on Saturday, February 6, 2016
For a short while Martin Amis was obsessed with Soviet Russia. It was a weird dalliance for such an establishment kind of guy and one that he got quite the shellacking over. Now I'm as big a fan of Amis as the next guy that doesn't utterly despise him, but I have to concede that Koba The Dread was a very strange book and would have been remembered as one of his most misguided had it not been immediately followed by the awful stinker that was Yellow Dog. Such a dismal failure (though he still says it's the favourite of his novels - nice trolling, Marty) saw him flee in some kind of self-imposed exile where I'm sure he had plenty of time to ruminate on his Stalin fetish and come back with the massively underrated House of Meetings. I'm not convinced I'll ever understand that period Amis but I'm pretty glad he went through it. House of Meetings is one his best works.

Ten years after Amis's literary rehabilitation, another great establishment writer, Julian Barnes, has thrown his seeds into the fertile ground of Red Russia. Thankfully, the result is less Koba than House of Meetings, and perhaps better than both. Like the Booker-winning Sense of an Ending and Barnes's beautiful memoir of loss (and ballooning) Levels of Life, The Noise of Time is a slim book. Don't be fooled by its brevity, though. It is a book of big ideas and immense heart. Indeed, it might be Barnes's most philosophical work since Flaubert's Parrot or my favourite, England England. Like Amis before him, Barnes uses the context of Soviet Russia to consider the greater meaning of art, especially when played out against the kind of regime intent on defining its edges. And also like Amis, he does so through the prism of a love triangle. But whereas House of Meetings deals with two brothers and the woman they both love, the threesome in Barnes's novel is more esoteric: the individual, the Party and Art. His vehicle for exploring it is Dmitri Shostakovich, the celebrated composer who fell in and out of favour with Stalin and then, following the dictator's death, was rehabilitated only to find himself a pawn in Krushchev's equally disturbing 'new world'. The story is played out in three "conversations with Power": times Shostakovich is called before the party and destroyed in all but body. We first meet him amidst a squall of denunciations where those who once openly supported him are searching for new and original ways to slag him off. Next we follow his forced appearances in America where he sacrifices his integrity and dignity reading pre-written speeches denouncing Igor Stravinsky and other 'formalistic' composers. The third meeting shows that later life offers little reprieve - Shostakovich is railroaded by the cultural despot Pyotr Pospelov to accept Krushchev's "offer" to take up the position of General Secretary of the Composer's Union.

For Barnes's purpose, Shostakovich is the perfect subject. Few people were strapped to the Party rollercoaster quite like he was. Barnes does a wonderful job of conveying the sheer terror of life under Stalin; the image of Shostakovich spending his nights by the elevator waiting for the secret police to come and arrest him is truly heartbreaking as are the scenes of him on the propaganda tour of America where he is smugly challenged by Nicolas Nabokov. It is an exercise in forced self-loathing. Each question makes Barnes's tragic hero that little bit smaller. It is painful to witness, but oddly edifying when rendered in such perfect sentences.

The Noise of Time is a complex meditation on the collision of Art and Power by one of our greatest living (and deepest thinking) writers. As he quite correctly suggests, we can only truly understand art when it is threatened. I could pick out a whole bunch of passages to illustrate the beauty of his thinking. But it is the one from which the novel gets its title that I think sums it up best:

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art's sake: it exists for people's sake. But which people, and who defines them?

Who, indeed.

The Summer Slingshot

on Tuesday, February 2, 2016
A mere four days ago I was bemoaning the lack of interesting new releases. A mere dribble - China Mieville and Garth Greenwell - to satiate my appetite. Well, what a difference a week makes! I'm reminded of that old Road Runner cartoon where Wile E. Coyote sets up a giant slingshot. Suddenly my shelf is looking pretty damn exciting. Check out what's wedged between the cast iron poodles.

Forget everything I said last post (except how awesome the Greenwell book is). I've got me some books to catch...

The Mirror, Smeared: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs To You

on Saturday, January 30, 2016
With February fast approaching, I was overcome by an uneasy feeling that I was about to fail the Reading Game of Life having not yet read a single book published in 2016. Never mind that I have read twelve other books thus far. If I didn't get my hands on a book from this year stat, I'd not only have to live with the shame but, moreover, the formatting of my reading spreadsheet would be irredeemably skewed, thus messing horribly with my OCD aesthetic sensibilities. There was, of course, an added problem. January is a wasteland when it comes to new releases. Even more so in Australia. A quick scan of the release schedule showed only one book of immediate interest, China Mieville's This Census Taker. I ordered it, hoping it would arrive in mailbox before I nicked off to Tasmania for a week. Well, you know what they say about best laid plans... Sitting at the airport I resigned myself to two very disappointing imminent realities. Firstly, I'd have to buy an e-book. I vomited a little in my mouth - mostly bile - then forced it back down the gullet. It's not like anyone would ever find out. Secondly, I was going to choose a book that I knew absolutely nothing about. The obsessive curating of my reading experience would be thrown to the wind. Bookworm don't play that game. Unless, of course, we reach Literary Defcon 5. Yes, it was that bad!

Scrolling through the Kindle new releases (I reset my location to the USA because there wasn't a single interesting book among the local ones) I happened upon Garth Greenwell's debut (assuming you don't count his small indie press novella) What Belongs To You. I don't know what it is that drew me to it. I toyed with several other contenders but I kept going back until I realised I was wholly captivated by the idea of this book. I hadn't even read the blurb - it just had a mesmerising aura. Odd, I know.

That the book should have had such a mysterious allure turned out to be fitting. What Belongs To You is an intense examination of desire, particularly the way in which we sacrifice what we know to be right, sensible or safe when the sexual tidal wave hits. The novel kicks off with a lesson in uncontrolled lust - the unnamed narrator is visiting the National Museum of Culture in Sofia when he goes to the toilets and meets a young hustler called Mitko. Money is exchanged and they disappear into a cubicle. What might seem tawdry or lascivious is rendered quite the opposite thanks to Greenwell's perfect prose. It is a homoerotic pressure cooker of a scene, even if the sex itself is cheap and nasty. The deed is done and the narrator returns home to his job as an English teacher. Life continues as normal for a short while until he feels the need to see Mitko again. And so he returns to the Museum. The wiry rent boy becomes his drug. Their relationship deepens - it is more than desire, it is desperation - but it masquerades as friendship. Mitko, for his part, abuses the situation. He weasels his way into the narrator's life, turning up at his door, fucking him senseless, knowing he won't be turned away. The addiction is all-consuming even when the narrator watches Mitko set up liaisons with other clients on his computer. And then, like many addictions, it is done. The narrator sees Mitko for what he is - an opportunist and a user - and cuts off the financial flow. The relationship has lasted two months.

I'm guessing that the story up to there is Greenwell's previously published novella, Mitko. Here, it is only Part One of three. Part Two is a claustrophobic, Thomas Bernhard-like, bush bash through the narrator's sexual awakening. There are no paragraph breaks. There is only sparse punctuation. There is little room to breathe. It is the verbal manifestation of young lust. We find ourselves back in the narrator's teen years; he is in love with his neighbour but has to negotiate the watchful sexuality policing of his parents. It all comes to a head one night when the two boys end up in bed together. It doesn't go well. The narrator has learnt the hard way about love. It is intense, it is awkward and it fucking hurts.

Flash forward to Part Three. Happily ensconced in a relationship, the narrator is shocked when Mitko shows up at his door again - two years after their arrangement ended - to announce that he has tested positive for syphilis. He needs money for treatment. The flames of desire explode from the embers in a storm of passion, pity and raw sexual energy. Whatever his boyfriend might offer - stability, love, depth - turns to ash when held up to Mitko's inferno. Greenwell here posits a very perceptive but painfully unkind view of human sexuality - our willingness to knowingly act to our own detriment for an immediate thrill. He is, of course, right. The thrill is crack, it is heroin. Taste it and you can't turn back. It will eventually destroy you.

Despite its rawness, its confronting sex scenes and its uncompromising penetration (pun only semi-intended) of the darker human heart, What Belongs To You is actually quite a tender novel. It is about what stands in place of love for the lonely and dispossessed. Above all else, the narrator wants to be needed in the way he comes to need Mitko. He wants their relationship to be something more than a financial transaction, even if he must give in to delusion to make it so. Greenwell's warm and supple touch strikes a perfect balance in his exploration of the competing facets of his narrator's fractured soul. In so doing, he draws out universals that transcend the easily dismissible context of the action. It is far too easy to pass off the more disturbing elements in the novel as particular to the gay beat scene. You would, of course, be wrong. It would be tantamount to denial. What Belongs To You is a well-polished mirror in which we can all see our deepest sexual selves. That is, if we dare to look.

An extraordinary novel to start the year.

The Dignity of Dependence: The Door by Magda Szabó

on Saturday, January 16, 2016
As I trawled my way through the multitude of Best of 2015 lists, one book stood out above all others as a strange, if not totally misplaced, inclusion. Not that I knew anything substantive about Magda Szabó's classic novel The Door. It's just that, for a book that was just named one of the five best novels of the year by The New York Times, it was kind of old. First published in her native Hungary in 1987, it came out in English translation back in 1995. A decade later it came out again in England with a new translation. It is this latter version that has recently resurfaced, with a new jacket, and from a new publisher, New York Review of Books as part of their Classics series. All very odd. It smelt to me of nepotism; a peculiar tilt from one august publication to what, in many ways, is its sister. Then word began to leak, nay burst, out of the book's true magnificence. Suffice to say I was intrigued. I bought the book. Three pages in and I was completely converted.

In what is a brilliant framing device, Szabó instantly wrong foots the reader. We are told at the outset the narrator has killed her maid. There is a slight, dare I say it, Stephen King sense of foreboding, a creepy Misery vibe that made me expect a book akin to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Single White Female. I was ready for that kind of book. After the confronting prelude, Szabó steps off the accelerator and we are introduced to the struggling writer, Magda, who has just been politically rehabilitated in post-War Hungary. Living with her husband, the two of them busy with work, she has recently moved into a new apartment and needs help with its upkeep. She asks around until a friend recommends a particular lady in the neighbourhood, the mysterious but extremely hard working Emerence. So begins a unique and intense relationship, one that hinges on interdependence, perhaps even love (of the plutonic kind), but is damned to end in tragedy.

Emerence is one of the great enigmas of European literature. She is brash, uncouth, anti-religious and aggressive. She speaks her mind and takes control of the apartment like it is hers to rule. She is also intensely private - there is a clear demarcation between her work and personal lives. In Magda's house, everything is Emerence's business. She is mortally offended when secrets are kept from her. Infinitely greater, however, is the offence she takes when Magda asks about her life. Rumours abound in the neighbourhood but it is hard to know what to believe. Whatever the truth, those on the street rely on her - she sweeps everyone's snow and keeps the sidewalks clean. She silently takes it upon herself to do the kind of things most people feel are beneath them. Along with two of her elderly friends, each part crone, part saviour (the three of them locked in some sort of struggle for dominance), she has established herself as a crucial cog in the machine of neighbourhood life.

The relationship between Emerence and Magda comes to a head when Magda's husband falls gravely ill. Emerence, it transpires, is her lifeline, helping her through the emotional strain but also picking up the physical slack. As he recovers, Emerence encourages Magda to get a dog which she does. The dog cares little for Magda and bonds with Emerence who ignores the name the couple have given him in favour of, quite humorously, Viola. The dog becomes a kind of glue between them and they become what you might call friends. Indeed, the trust increases to the point of Emerence allowing Magda into her home, a privilege never before afforded to anyone else. Inside we catch a glimpse of the real Magda, a woman of so many contrasting colours that it is hard to know what to make of her. Her house is filled with the stolen belongings of a wealthy Jewish family that was shipped off to concentration camp and killed. But we also know that she has saved a baby girl from the Nazis. Then she hid various people - victims, perpetrators, communists and such. She is a storm of moral ambiguity. When Magda leaves, the door is closed on our understanding of her friend and their relationship is left to track along at a slow, if steady, pace while the creeping dread of a fate foreshadowed continues to build. If only I could work out what would bring me there.

It is the greatest strength of the book that I had completely misread it. When the tide turns it opens into the most profound examination of dignity that I can remember reading. Emerence stops turning up for work. She won't answer her door. Speaking through the crack she is clearly sick. Her voice is hoarse and her breath choked with phlegm. Magda tricks her in to opening up whereupon she is grabbed by the public health officials and taken to hospital. Stepping inside for the second time, Magda finds the place turned to a rubbish tip filled with rot and mould and excrement. It is condemned. Visiting her sick friend in hospital, she is forced to lie - to say the house is just as Emerence left it. It is the start of a complete, tragic unravelling that you must read to truly appreciate.

The Door is a novel of exceptional beauty, with a depth of human understanding usually reserved for only the greatest of writers. Having only read one of her books, I am led to suspect that Magda Szabó was one of them. That she is little known outside Hungary speaks volumes of the intellectual poverty of the English speaking literary world. I am told there will be another of her novels published this year. I, for one, cannot wait. Indeed, I suspect that I have found the final member of a Hungarian Holy Trinity that otherwise consists of László Krasznahorkai and Ágota Kristóff. Yes, she is that good.