The Sunflower Sets

on Thursday, August 30, 2012
In a couple of days Sunflower Bookshop, one of my favourite places to hang out, will be closing its doors for the last time. To me, Sunflower has always felt like a cultural and literary home. It represented everything that's great about independent book selling - thoughtful buying, dependable recommendations, a welcoming ambience and, most of all, truly wonderful staff. In the confines of a relatively small space, Zev and Margaret managed to create a massive local hub of literary life. Authors and readers alike could often be found wandering around, perusing the shelves, talking with one another like old friends. I couldn't begin to count the hours I spent there just chewing the fat with whoever was willing to put up with my diatribes. Best of all, the staff really cared about the customers. They got to know their tastes, listened to concerns, were happy to take recommendations as well as give them. When I won The Age competition they proudly stuck the story up on the wall, directly opposite their shrine of Elliot Perlman clippings. A year on, it's still there.

Thankfully all is not lost. For those not yet in the know, the space has been bought by one of my other favourite lit-hubs, The Avenue Bookstore and will be reopening under that moniker in just over a month. As sad as I am to lose Sunflower, I am relieved that it has been acquired by the only shop that can do the area justice. If you are not already an Avenue devotee, I urge you to give them your full support when they open their doors in Glenhuntly Road. There's a reason they consistently win the Best Independent Bookstore at the Australian Booksellers Association Awards. From what I understand, Chris and his fantastic team will be bringing The Avenue vibe to Elsternwick but maintaining the Jewish connection of Sunflower. To my mind, it's win win.

I am told that Sunflower will stay open on Saturday with a mix of current staff and some new faces from The Avenue, so if you haven't had your chance to say goodbye and would also like the opportunity to meet Chris I recommend you get down there. I'm sure you will realise straight away that your reading future is in very safe hands.

And so it is with the odd combination of a heavy heart and great excitement that I say farewell to one of the greatest independent bookstores ever to grace our fine city. Thanks to all those, past and present - Zev, Margaret, Faye, Steven (apparently my mortal enemy), Dierdre, Vivienne, Elissa, Maya, Michelle and all the other wonderful people - who have graced its carpeted (and, after the flood, wooden) floors. I am indebted to you for more than I can express here and wish you only amazing things in your futures. At last you can read for pleasure. Enjoy!

Mea Culpa: In Drndic's Defence

on Wednesday, August 29, 2012
When I sit down to write a review, I don't for a second imagine that the authors of those books read or care about what I write. Indeed last weekend, at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, I opined the vacuum in which we bloggers exist. We struggle to find readers at all, let alone people at the coal face of making literature. So it was both gratifying and, dare I say, awe inspiring to find among this morning's crop of emails one from Dasa Drndic, author of Trieste. You might recall that in my review I discussed the controversy regarding accusations of plagiarism that have been levelled against her. I tried to grapple with the question of whether (or how much) this lessened the value of what is, undoubtedly, an incredible book. After considerable consternation, I concluded that it didn't matter all that much. Trieste was just as glorious a novel whether or not some of it had been appropriated. Nevertheless, Dasa Drndic wanted to set me straight and I am very glad she did. I was wrong and failed to do her justice.

I won't attempt to paraphrase her. Rather you should read the email for yourself. In a world where online spats between reviewers and writers have become disturbingly commonplace, I think Drndic's email exemplifies the way in which an author who disagrees with a review ought to engage with its writer. I commend Dasa Drndic for her grace and, moreover, thank her for her interest.

Dasa Drndic calling. Thank you for understanding my book.

Before I say something about the supposed plagiarism of "Trieste", here is an excerpt from the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo on Gabriel García Márquez winning the lawsuit for a similar "accusation":

" While Márquez has long admitted his book was inspired by Palencia's family history and the murder of Chimento, the author argued that the names and the rest of the book's plot were the fruits of his own imagination." (Similar case with "Trieste", except that I use historical documents, photographs, parts from trials of accused WW II criminals, none of which have anything to do with THE FAMILY whose story I have allegedly "copied")

"In its ruling on Tuesday, the court agreed. 'Hundreds of literary, artistic, and cinematographic works have had as their central story facts from real life, which have been adapted to the creator's perspective, without this being an impediment to [the author's right] to claim economic rights over them.'(In "my case" no one demanded any economic rights, but rather moral satisfaction, which both pleased and distressed me.)

"The court also dismissed Palencia's demand to be credited as a co-author. 'Mr Miguel Reyes Palencia could never have told the story as the writer Gabriel García Márquez did, and could never have employed the literary language that was actually used. The work is characterised by its originality.'

Speaking to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Márquez's lawyer, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, celebrated the verdict.

'This ruling is important, because it helps enhance the central thesis, which is valid for literature and art in general, that what matters is the way it presents an object of reality, not reality itself. It's like a woman who poses for a painter [but] then demands half the copyright. She owns her body but the work itself belongs to the painter,' he said."

Some of the facts on which my 480 page novel is based I found on the web in the form of a 16 page linear presentation of events connected to the experiences of a certain family during WW II. There was no copyright restriction to this material, which, by the way, this whole copyright business, will hopefully one day be transformed into a copyleft strategy. When the book went into print I did not think it necessary to mention this fact, but the following editions will carry an explanatory note which will hopefully make THE FAMILY feel better.

Palimpsests, fragments (remember Walter Benjamin), quotations - are the core of modern and post-modern literature. Or, shall we, perhaps, dive more fervently into the pond of flat, linear, saccharine prose and poetry, into shallow constructions called fiction, into fast and easy reading, so compatible with fast eating and fast sexing. And slower and slower thinking.

à la vôtre!

And so I now recommend Trieste without any reservation. It is, to my mind, the standard bearer for post-survivor Holocaust literature and deserves to be read by anyone who cares about humanity, history or reading.

A New Age Dawns

on Monday, August 20, 2012
Having won the thing last year, I figure I ought to spruik The Age Short Story Competition 2012 which has just started accepting entries.

When the whole Gina Rinehart shitstorm was raging, I was worried that the comp might have gone the way of the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, but thankfully my fears have turned out to be unfounded and it's back for another round. Entries close on September 28, so get your pens to the paper (or start polishing up some of your favourite oldies) now. You can check out all the details here.

Microviews Vol. 17: Yu, Drndic, Claudel

on Friday, August 17, 2012
Sorry Please Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu
The moment I put down Yu's debut novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, I was so eager to read more from him that I hunted down an old hardcover of his first short story collection, Third Class Superhero, and paid some exorbitant price to have it shipped to my door via express post. Unfortunately, I was bitterly disappointed. It had all the mathematical geekery of the novel but none of the humour. When I saw that his next book would be another collection, I was in two minds. Perhaps he had learnt from How To Live... and would pull out bite sized pieces of everything that made that book so great. Or maybe he would just disappear up the black hole of his arse again. Thankfully, for the most part, he has done the former. Sorry Please Thank You is an excellent chaser, full of wonderful moments of physics-based, hyper intelligent hilarity (with a heart). Highlights include Standard Loneliness Package, in which emotions are outsourced to Indian call centres, Note To Self, where Yu converses with his multiple selves from parallel universes, Yeoman, in which the protagonist joins a space exploration team only to discover that every person who has held the position before him has died an absurd death (in fact it is part of the job description) and Adult Contemporary, a story about literally buying the life you think you want to lead. Sorry Please Thank You is not without its duds, but if you've been hanging out for another dose of Yu's quirky sensibility you won't be disappointed by it.

Trieste by Dasa Drndic
Well here's one hell of a conundrum. Trieste is, without a doubt, the best book I've read this year. It has also become apparent (and subsequently admitted) that some of it was plagiarised from the memoir of an Italian Jewish woman who survived the little known San Sabba concentration camp. The novel, inasmuch as it is one, is a breathtaking examination of an often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust. Starting in almost Thomas Mann style - an old woman sitting alone, surrounded by old photos, awaiting the arrival of a son she hasn't seen in sixty years - Trieste quickly descends into a bleak, unrelenting and obsessive account of complicity, fear and loss. I'm not sure where the plagiarism ends and Drndic's 'imagination' begins, but the story of Haya Tedeschi's relationship with the Nazi monster Kurt Franz and the confiscation of their son as part of the Lebernsborn program is both harrowing and tragic. Yet, it is the structure of the book that lifts it above most other great Holocaust literature. Drndic draws on photographs, maps, Nazi documents and transcripts from the Nuremberg trials, seamlessly weaving them into the narrative. At times, the documentary elements are used to staggering effect. One chapter is just a list of the nine thousand Italian Jews killed during the war. To her credit, this multiplicity of devices works well; there is a strange poetry to their points of collision. Irrespective of the plagiarism controversy, Trieste is a book that demands attention. It will leave you emotionally and intellectually spent, but as the fog clears you will come to appreciate that you have been in the presence of true brilliance.

CORRECTION: The author contacted me to point out a number of issues with this review. You can read her entire message here. Just to say that the allegation of plagiarism has quite flimsy foundations. To the extent that any true story has been used as inspiration (a very common occurrence in literature), it does not amount to anything untoward. I now happily fall on my sword and unequivocally label Trieste a masterpiece.

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel
Any author that self-consciously tries to emulate the great Franz Kafka is bound to fail. Only one person ever did Kafka and that was Kafka. Alas, they keep trying and, I'm afraid to say, the author of one of my favourite novels of all time has fallen victim to - if I might borrow from Achmat Dangor - Kafka's Curse. The Investigation concerns an unnamed man - The Investigator - who turns up in an unnamed place - The Town - to investigate a series of suicides at some unnamed company - um, The Enterprise. You get the point. He is thwarted at every turn by a series of similarly unnamed characters, all identified only by their function. Shades of Beckett bounce around the narrative, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the actual investigation is very much playing second fiddle to a weird existential circle jerk (assuming one person can constitute a circle). It kind of makes for enjoyable frippery, but take away the smoke and mirrors and all we are left with is unsatisfying pastiche.

Steppin' Out On A Slow Canoe

on Monday, August 13, 2012
If you're in Melbourne and looking for something to do this Friday night, come and support independent Australian writing at the Slow Canoe Reading in Abbotsford. It's a great monthly affair, having hosted a slew of exciting local writerly peeps, and this time round will be the scene of my second-ever public reading. I haven't decided whether to air a new story or a segment from my book, but either way it'll be something totally new and exclusive to the night. Hope to see you there!!