When I read a description of The Three Princes of Serendip on Gert Loveday’s blog, I immediately felt anxious. Here was an ancient story that began with a missing camel. My new novel, Through a Camel’s Eye, due for release next year by Sydney-based publisher For Pity Sake, and up to the proof-reading stage, begins in exactly the same way. What if I had somehow, without remembering or realizing, absorbed the whole plot and transferred it to modern times, to the small town of Queenscliff close to where I live?
The camel in the old Persian tale is a native, as are the three young men who notice his tracks and cleverly deduce (in Sherlock Holmes fashion) all kinds of facts about him. My camel is an exotic and enchanting creature, at least he is to me. As I read on, I was relieved to find many other differences as well.
So I don’t have to face the ignominy of having pinched my plot. But the word ‘serendipity’, which Horace Walpole coined, using The Three Princes of Serendip as an example, is relevant to my story, and accurately conveys the way my protagonist goes about his detective work.
Chris Blackie, senior constable at the generally quiet Queenscliff police station, stumbles on an important clue while looking for camel tracks in the sandhills. His methods of deduction and inference, and those of his assistant, Anthea, fall well within the ‘serendip’ tradition. The clue discovered in the sandhills starts them off on the search for a missing woman.
‘..they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of..’ Walpole says, referring to the princes in a letter to Horace Mann.
I discovered that the Serendip (an old name for Sri Lanka) story is one of those that fairy-tale scholar Marina Warner describes as having ‘seven league boots’; that is, they can be found all over the world. In India, the tale involves an elephant, while in Palestine and Arabia it’s usually a camel that has disappeared. Walpole substitutes a mule, perhaps because mules were more familiar to him.
In cultures where tracking is not only an important, but an essential skill, it’s no surprise that such stories abound. I wish I could find an Aboriginal one to include here. Never mind, I’ll just keep looking and maybe…
Reading Paul Ruffin’s collection, Jesus in the Mist, reminded me of the stories I’ve written over the years ‘from the edge of childhood’ – stories where the protagonist, a girl or boy, stands with one foot on the shifting soil of childhood, mind filled with a mixture of the fantastical and grimly real, while another foot stretches out across the huge crevasse of puberty.
It’s a subject that draws many writers, of course, but there was something in Ruffin’s stories that I recognised instantly. In ‘Time of the Panther’ a fifteen year old boy is set a challenge by his grandfather. The boy scoffs at the annual re-appearance of a panther, in whom the old men of the district believe. They tell stories about him on the porch of the only store, and around the stove in winter. The boy’s grandfather orders him to cross woods and a meadow in the middle of the night, places where the panther’s tracks were last seen.
The meaning of this story can’t be conveyed by an outline. Like the best short stories, its mysteries deepen the more you read. The clash between old wisdom and new knowledge can’t be reconciled; the best you can hope for is that the image will hold, and that the rhythm will not break.
In ‘The Well’, the task his grandfather sets the protagonist is the apparently simple one of cleaning a well. ‘In Search of the Tightrope Walker’ is about a man’s quest to find a girl he saw walking a tightrope in a carnival when he was a boy.
‘Oh Lord, how he remembered her skinny little body so tightly bound by the silken silver outfit she wore that every bone stood out, ribs and pelvis and vertebrae and high on her back the nubs of her sprouting wings…
Septembers the carnival came to the little Mississippi town near where he lived, as surely as football seasons, welcomed with an almost frenzy by the kids who were still too young to be swept up in the sweat and agony and glory of the gridiron. And even more the country kids who rode their bikes down dusty backroads to the glitter and the glare, then back out under the eery light of the moon or simple stars, penniless, with the sticky sweet of cotton candy still clinging to their faces and the throb of the midway dancing from ear to ear.’
In ‘The Queen’ it’s an old man’s youthful dream of building a ship and sailing away that become the centre-piece, while his children mock him and call him senile.
I think that, in my own stories on the theme, I’ve been groping my way towards something like this – an image comes to me, and a person uncertainly straddled between past and future, and I have to find a way to test their resilience.
Of course, Paul Ruffin’s stories don’t just deal with young people on the brink of becoming adults; they cover many other subjects as well. Ruffin’s sixth collection, ‘The Time the Waters Rose’ and Stories of the Gulf Coast will be published by the University of South Carolina Press later this year. He is Professor of English at Texas State University, 2009 Texas State Poet Laureate and publisher of The Texas Review. An interesting article about Ruffin’s books, and his work as a publisher and teacher can be found in the Huffington Post.
My review of The Landing was published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. It’s Johnson’s eighth novel and a fine one.
As usual, I’m not going to repeat the points I make in my review here, on this blog, but add a bit of musing round the edges that I didn’t have space for in 700 words.
This time my musing is about catalogues and lists. Johnson has several of them, mainly of the beauties around the lake where her protagonist, Jonathan Lott, has his holiday house. I came across her first one with a sense of recognition.
Why do authors make lists? Obviously they do so for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones, it seems to me, is that by adding up and counting you, the author that is, can put off getting to the end. Enumeration can delay having to face what happens when you run out of items.
This is most apparent when the author, or character through whom she or he is speaking, knows that fear, or worse, the terror of complete disintegration, hides beneath, or in the middle of, the list.
The critic Ivor Indyk put it this way – and I’m paraphrasing, I don’t recall his exact words – when it comes to lists, he said, the real question is knowing when to stop.
That’s one function of lists in literature, as I see them. Another is the more fundamental and primitive urge to name. You name the things around you, and go on naming them, in an act of bearing witness that you hope will carry meaning in addition to the name.
‘Glory be to God for dappled things,’ says Gerard Manley Hopkins in Pied Beauty, and then goes on to list them, with joy, wonder, and thanks-giving.
And then there’s Proust, the acme and pinnacle of list-makers, who does all of the above.
My review of Stephanie Bishop’s second novel, The Other Side of the World was published in the Fairfax newspapers this weekend. Bishop was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel The Singing.
This second one – and the other side of the world is Australia, viewed from the northern hemisphere, mainly England – tells the story of a young couple who emigrate to Fremantle in the 1960s.
I won’t repeat the points I make in my review, except to say that The Other Side of the World is an accomplished, moving novel. Instead I’m adding a few thoughts about historical fiction and contemporary writing styles, which I didn’t have the space to mention in my 700 word review.
It’s commonplace to say that historical fiction has enjoyed a renaissance in the last couple of decades, and that this includes works set in the distant, as well as the more recent past – a category that includes Stephanie Bishop.
Bishop’s intimacy with her characters, and the thin membrane which separates their inner lives from the physical worlds around them, works admirably for the story that she has to tell. She says in her acknowledgements that the novel was inspired by the migration of her grandparents. Bishop can draw on universal themes of exile and displacement without having to confront the thorny problems an author faces when dealing with historical events that are widely known, and people who are part of general, that is more than family, history.
Bishop’s up-close-and-personal way of writing has become very familiar to me in recent years as a reviewer and a reader – so much so that deviations from it are unusual. An interesting example is Emily Bitto’s The Strays, which won the 2015 Stella prize. Many reviews have been written of The Strays, most of them highly favourable, and the novel, in my opinion, has much to recommend it. But it popped up in a facebook discussion recently where questions were raised about book’s glittering, imagistic surface compared with the depth and solidity of historical events that took place during the time that the novel covers, events such as the Great Depression, which are not so much engaged with as part of the author’s project, as occasionally referred to.
I’m not putting any of this forward as a way of criticising Bishop, but I do believe there are issues peculiar to historical fiction, matters which ought not to be overlooked, though they often are. These include how to create the resonance of time passing – often a long time – between the characters and events of the novel and the author’s and reader’s present; and how to bring the past to life without pretending, or encouraging the reader to pretend, because she or he feels so ‘close’ to the characters, that it is, necessarily, anything like the world we live in today.
I do admire the versatility of authors who straddle different modes of writing which, taken at face value, might seem to clash with one another. And I admire particularly, since this is my own weakness – strength? – those who produce both literary and crime fiction. Some, like George Johnston, did it to make money. Who remembers Johnston these days for the five detective novels he wrote under the pseudonym Shane Martin? Others write crime fiction as a collaborative effort, for example John Clanchy and Mark Henshaw. Still others split their writing selves into disparate parts, John Banville writing crime as Benjamin Black, for instance.
I wonder how they feel about it, whether it’s easy for them to put on a different hat. It’s not just easy for me; it’s delightful. I wonder whether choosing a playful pseudonym helps. (Shane was George Johnston’s sister and Martin his son.) I’ve never felt the need for a pen name, just as I’ve never felt the need to invent place names for my settings.
Which brings me to my latest – the start of a sea-change mystery series set mainly in Queenscliff on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. The first book is called Through A Camel’s Eye and I’ve had such fun with it! It’s to be published by For Pity Sake in April 2016. You can read a full synopsis on the sea change mystery page, under Fiction. Suffice to say here that it starts with the theft of a camel, and moves on to a missing tourist ….
Thanks to the incomparable Scarlett Rugers for the cover design.
My review of Crow Mellow was published in the Fairfax Press today.
The back cover blurb consists of two sentences. ‘This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.’
While only the name of the writer, Julian Davies, appears on the front cover, Phil Day’s drawings are an essential part of the reading experience, and so I think it’s fitting to include both names in the title of this post.
Most often, the drawings surround the text; sometimes an illustration occupies a whole page, and half of the adjoining one, so that the words are nestled within it. Of course, this kind of reading experience is familiar to us from children’s picture books.
Day’s drawings are often ironic, sharp, and poke fun at themselves as well as the fictional characters they depict. Since I’m writing this post on January 10, 2015, I can’t help being aware that any cartoon or satirical illustration has acquired a whole new depth of resonance this week, and will probably retain it for quite a long time to come.
Who is being satirised in Crow Mellow? As I say in my review, it’s a bunch of people staying in a rich man’s country house. Crow Mellow is modelled on Aldous Huxley’s debut novel, Crome Yellow, published in 1921. Davies’ protagonist echoes Huxley’s – an aspiring writer beset by self-doubt. In both books, the wealthy host is writing a family history. There is a beautiful young woman with whom the protagonist is in love, and a bitter, wordy individual, who acts as a kind of chorus, in the tragic sense, to the mostly frivolous proceedings.
In an interview with Sally Pryor, Julian Davies talks about writing and publishing these days, and in particular Finlay Lloyd, which he established as a non-profit publishing venture in 2005, initially as a partnership with four people.
‘”The thing I realised is what a hidebound set of conventions book publishing is bound by, and literary people don’t even think about it,” (Davies) says. “And sadly, often literary people aren’t very visual and most books are horribly over-designed. Even the better publishers, the books are so covered with gumph because everyone’s so scared of their book not selling. They cover it and smother it, and there’s no room for designers to really design.”‘
‘By the time Davies had become fed up with mainstream publishers, Phil Day and his then-partner were already producing handmade books in small editions as Finlay Press in Braidwood. With Davies, they decided to start publishing books together, and their great friend, the artist Robin Wallace-Crabbe, was also keen to be involved. But eventually Day and his partner split up, Wallace-Crabbe drifted away from the process, leaving Day and Davis to their own joyful devices.’
Pryor’s interview is informative and interesting, well worth reading in its entirety. As is Crow Mellow. I’m just sorry I’m not clever enough to be able to scan a double page of the story, plus illustrations, for this post.
Nancy Christie is the founder of Celebrate Short Fiction Day – a day, (the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere), for sharing short stories and enjoying them. I was so taken with the idea of short fiction day that I read Nancy Christies’s collection, Travelling Left of Centre and Other Stories.
The stories in Nancy Christie’s collection are vivid and compelling. The protagonist often finds her or himself in a trap – an impossible relationship, where the only way out is through violence to another, or oneself. In other stories, an event from childhood rears up to ambush the main character. Sometimes these characters are unable to distinguish between the fantasies they have created – for comfort, as an emotional shield – and the world of everyday reality to which they are compelled to return.
In the title story, a mother remarks to her pregnant daughter that, ‘on the highway of life’ she was ‘always travelling left of centre’ – a dreamer who kept dreaming, but never quite achieved her modest hopes, and meanwhile made herself an easy prey. It’s a description that fits most of Christie’s protagonists.
The stand-out stories for me were ‘The Shop on the Square’ where a young man walks into danger out of the hot Mexican sun, seeking only a cool place to lie down; The Sugar Bowl’ where the central image – beautiful, fragile and mysterious – says a great deal about the girl who owns it; and ‘Misconnections’, where the failure of machines is linked to emotional failure that can’t be put right.
In ‘The Storyteller’, a kind woman, who is not allowed to go on telling stories to sick children, does her best to let them down gently. In ‘Anything Can Happen’ a woman’s careful routines crack wide open. Christie’s stories chart the emotional chasms that open up under deceptive everyday surfaces, and pay tribute to the damaged human beings who must cope with them. A memorable collection.
“The winter solstice marks both the start of winter and the shortest day of the year. So why not take advantage of the long winter night to curl up with a good short story?” ~ Nancy Christie, founder of Celebrate Short Fiction Day.
I’ve only just discovered Celebrate Short Fiction Day – a little late, since the solstice has just passed – and on the wrong side of the world, of course, for the shortest day! But why not make the summer solstice an occasion for celebrating short stories too?
I love short stories, and refuse to see them as the poor relative of the novel. So why not mark this solstice, or look forward to the next one, by curling up on a beach with a good collection, or share a much-loved story with a friend?
My two favourite story collections for 2014 are Australian Love Stories published by Inkerman & Blunt, and The Trouble With Flying, published by Margaret River Press. I’d also like to mention two wonderful bloggers who value short stories, Whispering Gums, who reviewed both these collections, and Charles May, whose Reading The Short Story is both an education and delight.
Thanks to Pixel Hall Press for drawing my attention to this wonderful opportunity for celebrating short fiction.
Pixel Hall Press is certainly doing its bit to keep the form alive, as shown in this quote from their website:
‘When we established our PHP Shorts imprint, we predicted, “The market for short stories and novellas is about to experience a renaissance, spurred in part by the proliferation of smartphones, eReaders and tablets. The length of a story is becoming irrelevant. All that matters is that it’s a great story that captures the readers’ interest and imagination.” Whether readers choose to enjoy it on an e-reader or prefer the tactile pleasure of turning the pages, the result is the same: a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction from reading a complete, beautifully crafted story in one sitting.’
Let’s hope that, by the next solstice, we’ll have a Celebrate Short Fiction Day in the southern as well as the northern hemisphere!
My review of Window Gods was published in the Fairfax press today. Though on the surface, and at the start, it appears to be a straightforward ‘novel of manners’, Window Gods turns out to be a surprising, many-layered book.
There’s a lot about art and artists – visual, literary, botanical - here’s a quote that has stayed with me and that I didn’t have the space to include in my review:
‘…the hypothesis with which the artist is stuck is the lifelong nub against which talent writhes like a cat possessed. You have to stick with the nub despite fashion and fortune – or never produce a body of work. Too bad if your idea is bad or infantile, or proves to be a cul de sac or something that happens before its time. Art is a never-ending fascination with perception. It’s facile to say all people are artists; artists are those who embrace the nub and never give it up.’
I’ve just come across a brilliant prose poem, ‘The Ships’ by Constantine Cavafy. Judging by the number of English translations on the official Cavafy website, the work is well known, but I’m glad to have found it, if a trifle later in life!
This photograph of the poet dates from around 1900.
‘From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it. The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods…’ More
The prose poem is a wonderful evocation of the imagination as a ship and well worth reading in its entirety.
Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived most of his life in Alexandria and whose poetry went largely unrecognised in Greece during his lifetime. One of his best known poems is Waiting For The Barbarians.