Monthly Archives: January 2020

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24th January 2020

Malcolm_Turnbull_PEOBackground Briefing (ABC). I’m still cleaning out files from my over-stuffed phone, and I stumbled on Burning Down the House, which was recorded in the wake of Scott Morrison’s overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull – was it only a year and a half ago? (recorded 2 September 2018)  As a Labor/Green voter, there’s a wistful naivete about programs recorded before Labor lost the unloseable election last year. Hugh McKay said that people craved policies that saw them as more than economic units – well, he was wrong there, wasn’t he? Negative gearing and franking credits won the day.

Rear Vision (ABC) We’re fed up to the back teeth in Australia hearing about the Second Amendment every time there’s another gun massacre in the US. But this episode takes a different perspective, by looking at The American Gun Industry historically.  It goes right back to the War of Independence, where it was only the decision by France, Spain and the Netherlands to secretly ship arms to the colonists (as a way of getting back at the British) that made it possible for them to win. The colonists decided never to be at the mercy of international gun manufacturers again, and so the government decided to establish a gun industry. For all the “I’m an individual with a gun” strutting that goes on, 40% of gun sales today go to government contracts rather than individuals. Eventually, the quality and longevity  of the guns produced meant that the industry had to look at building in obsolescence, so that people would keep buying them. The Austrian Glock and the Italian Beretta competed with the US gun companies as well.  Add to that the frisson of fear, especially after Barak Obama became President, and the gun industry and NRA was off and running.

Earshot (ABC)  Where the bloody hell were you is a four-part series, riffing on Our Marketer in Chief,  Scott Morrison’s Tourism Australia advertisement.  Presented by Dee Madigan, who often appears on the Gruen Transfer, this feels as if it should be on television, but the advertisements they feature have embedded themselves so much into our consciousness, you only have to hear the jingle or background music to be able to visualize it.  Episode 1  When Television Arrived in Australia discusses the shift from radio advertising into television, and notes that advertising was an industry that attracted ‘creatives’. Not that there was much creativity for Australian advertisers- they were expected to just mirror American campaigns. Episode 2 When the TV Jingle Reigned Supreme  looks at the ‘golden days’ of the 1970s and 1980s when an Australian voice was finally let loose on the airwaves – not always a good thing!     Episode 3 When TV advertising went mad was about the introduction of market research into the advertising industry, meaning that the marketing strategy came from the ‘strategic plan’ rather than from the creativity of the agency. Episode 4 When the Tobacco Ads Came Down talks about the rise of social advertising by government. There’s a really good, affecting section here about a doctor talking (and weeping) about why he joined BUGA-UP.  It’s an interesting little series if you’re old enough to remember the 60s and 70s, and a bit of a wallow in auditory nostalgia.

Big Ideas (ABC). Two more blasts from the past.  First, a panel discussion at the Perth Writers Festival on 23rd February 2018 featuring Kim Scott and Helen Garner. Called Literature Matters, it was a bit ho-hum really. I think I would have felt a bit cheated if I had attended in person. Another from February 2018 is Angela Merkel- the private person behind the German chancellor is perhaps misnamed, because Merkel’s unofficial American biographer Kati Marton, is having a lot of trouble finding the private person, just as nearly every other biographer has. Still, an interesting podcast.

Backdoor Broadcasting. Another recording of an academic seminar, this time the 2018 Hayes Robinson Lecture presented by Royal Holloway. The speaker is Phillipa Levine, and her talk is titled The Empire Has No Clothes: Nudity and the Imperial Imagination. Obviously a practiced speaker, she presents clearly and without rushing as she traces through attitudes towards nudity as art as distinct from nakedness in depictions of exotic colonies, the use of the ethnographic postcard, and the ‘white slave’, always depicted disrobed but demure amongst those lascivious heathens.  The website has the Powerpoint slides that she is discussing.  Interesting and well presented.

Outlook (BBC) The Black Woman Who Cared for a Clansman. Stephanie Summerville was brought up very differently to the other Afro-American kids in her neighbourhood. Her father wouldn’t let her play, talk and share interests with the other kids, propelling her instead towards a middle-class, intellectual future. But when she dropped out of college, she found herself working as a personal carer. It was her first job, and she needed the job, but then she realized that her patient was a Clansman.

Myths of War (ABC) I recently read Mark Dapin’s book Australia’s Vietnam, where he challenged many of the myths that had grown up about the response to soldiers on their return from Vietnam. In this series, he looks at other myths about Australia’s involvement in war.  In Episode 1 The white feather women and their unwelcome gifts,he looks at those women who supported the war, a group not often embraced by present-day feminists (Judith Smart and Marion Quartly and their work on the National Council of Women and the Australian Womens National League excepted). Episode 2, Gallipoli: ANZAC mis-remembered is a real hum-dinger and very much in the Honest History mode. So many half-truths and transpositions from film (especially Peter Weir’s Gallipoli) that have become embedded in the national imagination. Episode 3 General Sir John Monash: a flattering self-portrait challenges the recent adulation of Sir John Monash and the rather outlandish claims made for his military prowess. Episode 4 Changi and the POWs behind the wire argues that (again, largely through a television program), ‘Changi’ has become short-hand for all POW experience, and that compared with the death marches, it was a relatively self-governing, already-existing prison with little presence of Japanese guards. He is not arguing that there was not atrocity, but it didn’t necessarily happen at Changi.

‘Damascus’ by Christos Tsiolkas

_tsiolkas_ damascus

2019, 440 pages

This book has received a lot of hype and good reviews, but I don’t know if I really like Tsiolkas’ work much. I was lukewarm about The Slap and I was confronted by Dead Europe, which I read before I started blogging.

Damascus is similar to The Slap in that it has interwoven narratives that jump back and forwards in time. At the same time, the sordidness and physicality of the book reminded me of Dead Europe. However, overlaying this is the presence of lots of research – a year’s worth, Tsiolkas claims- that somehow clags up the narrative at the same time as making it visible in your mind’s eye.

The book is told in separate parts, without chapters, although the text is separated by scene break icons.  It’s a hard book to find your way around, and there is no table of contents.  It starts with Saul in 35A.D.; Lydia in Antioch in 57 A.D. (the only female narrator) in a long 86 page chapter titled ‘Hope’); Saul II in 37 AD; Vrasas the prison guard in Rome in 63 A.D. in a Chapter ‘Faith’; Saul III in 45 A.D.; Timothy in Ephesus in 87 A. D. in a chapter titled (you guessed it) ‘Love’; and Saul IV in 57 A. D.  The Saul sections are narrated in the third person present tense; the other sections in the first person present tense.

Tsiolkas captures well the political status (or lack thereof) of the early Christians in a Roman society, and clearly portrays the philosophical/political differences that emerged within the first generations of the dispersed Christian community. Saul, Thomas and Timothy are the main characters, whose relationships were interwoven with doubt, intransigence, Jew/Gentile/Roman hostility, with an undercurrent of mostly repressed homosexuality.  There is a lot of violence in the book, with Roman punishments graphically described, and a lot of mud, shit and blood.

Probably what disappointed me most was the feeling that I was reading a historical fiction from the 1940s or 1950s – think Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe (1942) or Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician from 1958.  Or more recently, perhaps Colleen McCulloch’s First Man in Rome which was as far as I got through her Masters of Rome series before I gave up because of the muddy writing and poor editing. I can’t complain about the editing in Tsiolkas’ book, but there was a dusty, old-fashioned turgidity about this book too, spiced up though it was with the sexuality and physicality that you might expect from a Tsiolkas book.

Frankly, my high expectations were a bit disappointed.

My rating: 7

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

“Darling, I’m going to Charlie: A Memoir” by Maryse Wolinski


2017, translated from French by H. J. Stone, 127 p.

“Darling, I’m going to Charlie” were the last words that Maryse Wolinki’s husband of 47 years, Georges, called out to her as he left for work on 7 January 2015. “Charlie” was Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper for which Georges had worked as a cartoonist for many years.  By lunch time that day, Georges had been killed, along with eleven of his colleagues in a terrorist attack by two gunmen, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi.

In this memoir of their marriage and Georges’ murder, his wife (herself a journalist) goes through that morning almost in slow motion. As readers, we know what is going to happen, and the slow recounting of each step and mis-step is almost excruciating. She is ordered home after the shooting; no-one contacts her; her son-in-law tells her the news by telephone. There is an unreality about the police procedure as it unfolds, all too late.

The book is told very simply, but elegantly. The chapters are short, and there is a restrained rawness about her narrative.

Georges’ and Maryse’s marriage seems very French: separate bedrooms, a lingering sensuality and desire even after 47 years, a rented apartment in Paris with bookshelves and windows over-looking trees, food well-cooked by Georges.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ seven stages of grief are all on display here. She refuses to believe it; she pretends to herself that he is on vacation and will return soon; she wants to detail every event and contingency; and she becomes angry.   She discovers that despite an earlier fire-bombing and threats to the director of publication, there was union pressure to downgrade the security protection of the Charlie Hebdo offices. The first-responding police wore completely inadequate protective gear, and arrived on bicycle. She blames herself for not pressing harder when Georges seemed distracted by the future of the newspaper: did he know about these threats?

The remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo kept on working. The edition published after the massacre was the best-selling ever, and it topped up Charlie Hebdo’s precarious resources. The renewed sales brought their own tensions, though, and the newspaper moved to a new (and I think, admirable) ownership model where 70% of the profits were ploughed back into the paper, and the shareholders had to actually work there. Huge demonstrations were held world-wide, declaring “Je Suis Charlie”.

There is an acceptance at the end, but it’s a slow, draining acceptance.  She draws comfort from the post-it notes her husband had left for her over the years, and pastes them onto a wall. She packs up her husband’s office and donates it to a museum, she ‘moves on’ as the literature would want us to say, not from him, but for him.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.


Movie: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

I don’t think that Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood ever showed on Australian television. It started in 1968, the same time as Sesame Street, which did make it onto Australian screens. I think that perhaps, even then, Mister Rogers would be a little bit too saccharine and preachy for Australian audiences. Where Sesame Street went for cognitive development, Mister Rogers went for emotional and -dare I say it- spiritual development. I don’t know, even now, if I feel particularly comfortable amongst such goodness.

Tom Hanks is absolutely brilliant in this film. Stay for the end and keep watching the credits to see a clip of the real Mister Rogers. And the real life Esquire magazine article mentioned in the film is here – Can You Say …Hero?  It’s a beautiful piece of writing. And the real life author Tom Junod wrote another article recently about him in the Atlantic Magazine, after the film had been made, and it’s almost just as beautiful as the original.

My rating:  4.5 stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9-16 January 2020


The Founding of Australia, 26 January 1788, by Captain Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove. Original oil sketch [1937] by Algernon Talmage R.A. ML 1222.

Rear Vision (ABC) Well, January is Australia Day month, and no doubt we’ll reheat the old argument about the appropriateness of 26 January as our national day.  I’ve got in early by listening to a Rear Vision podcast from 20 January 2019  Sydney: first encounters which looks at the very first months of contact between the First Fleet and the indigenous people they had encountered. The program features top historians, and sheds some interesting perspectives. For example, Captain Cook didn’t encounter any aboriginal people at Sydney Cove when he visited it because it was winter, whereas when Arthur Phillip sailed in with the First Fleet, it was high summer and the place was teeming with people. Well worth a listen.

Shooting the Past. In a strange and gratifying turnabout, most of us know Claire Wright through her books but she’s also a very active media presenter. In Shooting the Past, she takes a photograph and contextualizes it.  In Bones, she takes a picture of a tattooed Richmond footballer, Robert McGie, sitting in the middle of the MCG at the 1973 Grand Final, doing up his shoelaces, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.  You’re not likely to see that today! Sports historian Chris McConville and former ABC Sports Presenter Angela Pippos give their perspectives on the photograph, how football has changed, and the difference that women’s AFL has made.

Outlook (BBC) From Homeless Kid to hero of Africa’s biggest slum (Sept 2019) tells the story of Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera, the slum right in the middle of Nairobi. (When I stayed in Nairobi, it was just a few suburbs across from us.)  Teaching himself to read, and inspired by Martin Luther King, he started a charity Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco). If you look at their website, you can see a video of little-girl’s-eye view of Kibera as she walks to a school provided by Shofco.  The Underground Network saving gay Iraqis (August 2019) tells the story of Majid and Ahlam, whose network originally assisted women facing domestic violence from their husbands, then women endangered by ISIS and eventually gay couples who faced death after being raped by ISIS soldiers (ah, the hypocrisy).

Reith Lectures 2016. In the final lecture of the 2016 series, Culture, Kwame Anthony Appiah challenges the idea of'”Western Culture’ (take that, Ramsay centre!) He argues that the concept of ‘Western Culture’ is a recent one, and that what is perceived as being ‘Western Culture’ incorporates Greek, Roman and Islamic cultures. Taken together, these four lectures have rejected the idea of the 4 Cs ( Creed, Country, Colour and Culture) as being unitary, essential entities, arguing that there is just as much variation within these markers of identity, as between them.


Essay: Whatever Happened to _____?

A LongReads essay, written by an anonymous female author who writes of her own experience when, as a mother/professor/writer, she was about to have her third book published. Her husband, also a writer, but unpublished, was furious.

Through her own story, she explores the professional and domestic forces that result in women writers ‘disappearing’.  Obviously a Room of One’s Own is not enough.

Whatever Happened to ____? Published January 2020.

‘Gratitude’ by Oliver Sacks


2015, 45 p.

There is something that makes you slow down your reading when you realize that the author whose work you hold in your hand has little time left to live. When the author is as much published as Oliver Sacks is, you read with the hollow knowledge that you will not hear this narrative voice, or be drawn into this same narrative world again.

This small, beautifully produced hardback, contains four essays written in the last years of his life – and indeed, the final essay, ‘Sabbath’ was written within weeks of his death from metastasized liver cancer, stemming from a rare melanoma in his eye.  The essays are only about 8 to 10 pages in length, and you could read all four in one sitting if you wanted to. But to read them in a rush would feel somehow irreverent, and lacking in grace.

In ‘Mercury’, he reflects on reaching his 80th year – Mercury being 80 on the Periodic Table, a way of seeing the world that he explained (in rather too much detail, I thought) in ‘Uncle Tungsten’. His regrets at 80? That he had wasted, and continued to waste, so much time; that he spoke only his mother tongue and that he had not travelled and experienced other cultures as widely as he should have. He cited his own father, who lived to 94, who had said that his 80s were the most enjoyable decades of his life. This reminded me of my own father, who died quietly of heart failure two years ago in January.  My father, like Oliver Sack’s father, (and probably Oliver Sacks himself too), had seen it all before and could see the patterns:

One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s life, but others’ too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. (p. 10)

‘My Own Life’ was written in haste after learning that the cancer had metastasized, and after some hesitation, it was published in the New York Times as he entered the surgery that was to give him a few extra healthy months to live. He took the title of his essay from philosopher David Hume, who wrote the original ‘My Own Life’ as he lay mortally ill at 65 years of age. He was particularly struck by Hume’s statement “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present”. Sacks writes that he too feels detached, but not indifferent: instead he feels focussed and that the big problems of the world are now in the hands of another generation. After listing the things he feels gratitude for – for loving and being loved; for received and given in return; for having read, travelled, thought and written, he writes:

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure. (p. 20)

‘My Periodic Table’ is almost a continuation of the opening essay, and his return to his childhood habit of surrounding himself with metals and minerals, “little emblems of eternity” when he felt under stress.

The final essay ‘Sabbath’ is the most ’rounded’ of the essays which, to be honest, feel a little tentative and unfinished. Recalling the Sabbaths of his Orthodox childhood, and the feeling of being embraced by family after finally visiting Israel on a family visit (something he swore he would never do), he found himself “drenched with a wistfulness” for the peace of the Sabbath.  His closing words refer to the Sabbath, not so much as a spiritual or religious practice, but as a sense of completeness and rest. It’s beautiful.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life- achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest. (p. 45)

Rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: An op shop somewhere.  I wonder if the person who bought it, or for whom it was bought, ever read it?

‘Body Tourists’ by Jane Rogers


2019, 240 p.

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, and when I do I prefer that it is ‘human’ science fiction. It was the blurbs on the front of the book from Hilary Mantel and Helen Garner – two writers who do ‘human’ so well – that attracted me to this book, as well as a positive review that I read somewhere.

It is set in 2045, which seems a little too close (or at least, I hope that it’s a little too close: I could well still be alive in 2045, albeit as an old, old woman).  Following the Margaret Atwood dictum in writing The Handmaid’s Tale that her dystopias only include policies and events that had been carried out somewhere in the world at some time, there is much in this 2045 world that is recognizable. Video phones are completely unremarkable; electric cars are likewise;  virtual reality headsets become an addictive past-time;  universal basic income has been introduced but its recipients exiled to large high-rise housing estates. At the same time, there are echoes of other science fiction programs, like the omnipresent deployment of ‘synths’, the same term and function as in the excellent BBC series ‘Humans‘, with one of them even called Gemma (which evoked memories of actress Gemma Chan, who played Anita/Mia).

The jump ahead comes in the scientific experiment of ‘body tourism’. Funded by wealthy benefactor Gudrun this experimental procedure implants the digitally stored memories of people who have been cryogenically frozen immediately on death into young ‘hosts’ who are paid $10,000 to ‘go to sleep’ and vacate their bodies for a fortnight. During that fortnight, the ‘dead’ people can inhabit that body, and revisit their life that has gone on without them.  Fortunately, Jane Rogers doesn’t go into too much detail about how this actually works, because her interest is more in the experience of the people who undertake the experiment, either as ‘body’ or ‘tourist’, rather than the technicalities of the scenario.

The book has chapters told from a range of characters: Paula, who lives on one of the estates and is paid as a ‘body’ along with her boyfriend Ryan; Richard K., an aging rock star who decides to bring his father back; Lindy and Elsa, whose relationship is shattered by an accusation of criminal activity prior to the death; Mary, a highly-religious Ugandan immigrant whose son agrees to ‘loan’ his body. The narrative voice of each character is different enough that they are instantly recognizable: the indifferently-educated voice of Paul from the estates; the ‘Even me’ phrase of Ugandan Mary; the entitled and world weary voice of Richard K. and the educated voice of Elsa, a school principal.  Each of the scenarios throws up its own quandaries; perhaps a few too many for a small book.

This is a grim world, where the rich are able to transcend the dreary lives of the many. Food is manufactured; children are taught by bots who monitor them and provide screen-based information as required; synths take over the mundane jobs. Virtual reality is an inane, addictive escape. Given all this grittiness, the resolution of the book was too neat for me.

This book started off as a radio play on the BBC Dangerous Visions program, which looks quite interesting. With its rotating chapter structure, it would lend itself well to a radio series, and perhaps the need to ‘finish it off’ prompted what was for me an overly optimistic, unsatisfactory ending.

It was only when I looked at the author’s other works that I remembered that I had read and enjoyed Jane Rogers’ Mr Wroe’s Virgins, before I started this blog. The two books, separated by 28 years (!) are quite similar, in that there is a rotating narrative that is shared between people who are victims in an exploitative scheme.  However, where Mr Wroe’s Virgins was based on a real-life historical event, Body Tourists takes us into a future that is rather too recognizable and, fortunately, in the realm of a science-fiction dystopia- for now.

My rating:  8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.



I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 January 2020

RevolutionsPodcast Well, you can wait 10,000 years for the Proletariat to develop their revolutionary consciousness through Workers Education and propaganda, or you can listen their greivances, write them up in a pamphlet and use them to agitate. And that’s just what Lenin and Martov were happy to do in Episode 10.23 On Agitation.  In Episode 10.24 The Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class,Lenin travels overseas to meet the exiled revolutionaries from the 1880s. For a little while he, Plekhanov and Martov are all on the same page- that the revolution in Russia must be led by Russians, not exiles fro outside Russia, and that agitation is the way to go – but this unanimity isn’t going to last.

The Reith Lectures 2016 Okay, so I’m a year or two (or three or four) late. In 2016 Philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah delivered the 2016 lecture series “Mistaken Identities”, with each of the lectures rather neatly starting with “C”. In Creed, he argues that religions have always claimed a stronger authority for their sacred texts than they actually have, and that a religion’s reading of  so-called ‘unchangeable’ scripture changes from time to time, in the light of the present. In Country, he suggests that people sign up to a shared set of beliefs, institutions, procedures and precepts and this (rather than a mythical and romanticized view of nationhood)  is what binds them together.  His Colour lecture was recorded in his birthplace, Ghana, where he tells the story of Anthon Wilhelm Afo Afer, brought to Germany from the Gold Coast as a child in 1707n who became an eminent Enlightenment philosopher. He was a living challenge to the idea of a ‘racial essence’.

The History Listen (ABC) 20 October 2019. Right now Bradley Edwards is facing trial for the Claremont Killings, at least three killings and disappearances that took place in upper class Claremont between 1996-97. This episode Claremont: the murders that rocked Perth is not so much about the current trial, as about the two other men that police thought had committed the crimes. Twice the police thought they had “their man”, only to ruin the lives of innocent men they accused.

Outlook (BBC) 12 September 2019. Another old episode rattling round on my phone.I Raised 1000 Children But Gave My Own Away is about Indian activist Sindhutal Sapkal, who was married off at the age of 10, and at 20 and heavily pregnant, was bashed unconscious by her husband. When she recovered consciousness, she had given birth to a daughter. Escaping her violent marriage, she became aware of hundreds of abandoned children, and took on their care as well. Despite her own feeling of abandonment by her own mother, she enrolled her daughter in a boarding school. There’s a surprising spirit of love and forgiveness here.

Emile-ZolaBirkbeck Institute. You can access seminars recorded by the Birkbeck Institute, and I always enjoy hearing an Aussie accent there.  In this lecture, recorded in November 2017, Alison Moore from Western Sydney University talks on Morbid Love in Late Nineteenth Century France. L’amour morbide – morbid love – was an umbrella term for a number of pathologies including frigidity, inversion, fetishism, nymphomania, sadism and masochism. ‘Morbid love’ was of great interest to psychiatrists, especially in relation to degenerationist thought, and the literary works of writers like Stendhal, Zola and Wilde. By the end of WWI this interest had spread into low/middle-brow culture, and is was no longer of interest to psychiatry.  These lectures are very low-tech and often theoretically complex- a bit like sitting in a seminar where you’re straining to hear the audience questions. Nonetheless, very ‘meaty’.

‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes


2019, 266 p.

Within one page of opening this book, I relaxed into the arms of a master story-teller. There’s that distinctive Julian Barnes voice – intelligent, urbane, confident – and he sustains it the whole way through this rather strange book.

What is it? The publisher’s designation on the back of the book is ‘Biography’, but it’s certainly not a cradle-to-grave biography. It starts with three men travelling to London for some ‘intellectual and decorative shopping’. One was Dr Pozzi, surgeon and gynaecologist, who was the eponymous ‘man in the red coat’ depicted gloriously and yet headless on the beautiful front cover.  The other two men were both homosexual: aesthete Count Robert de Montesquiou who was fictionalized in Huysman’s A Rebours, (Against Nature) and as Baron de Charlus by Marcel Proust; the other Prince Polignac who thinly disguised his homosexuality with a convenient marriage to an American lesbian. From these three men, Barnes spins off into a network of observations and anecdotes about the men and women of the Belle Epoque- that decadent, glorious, gilded period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I. It is not just a French story: instead there are connections with Oscar Wilde, the American painter John Singer Sargant, the pre-Raphaelites, and that divisive event the Dreyfus Affair.  It is a time of travel, duelling, art and gossip, and Barnes skips from one to the other lightly, gathering up the threads of connection and coincidence with an omniscient chuckle.

At the same time, he speaks to us as a biographer and writer.  Montesquiou’s nemesis Jean Lorrain, for example, is “someone you half want to keep out of your book, for fear he might take over too much of it” (p.71). Huysman’s A Rebours, which featured in Oscar Wilde’s trial as a ‘somdomite’ [sic] is an “exotic and wandering text” (p. 96), a description which equally applies to Barnes’ own book.

He writes about the biographer’s craft. He tells us how he came across the Sargent portrait of Pozzi (p. 166); he observes that novelists never ‘study’ a real-life person “with any deliberate attempt to copy and paste them into a novel. The whole process is usually much more passive, sponge-like and haphazard than that” (p. 229).  Sexual gossip is the ultimate unknowable. Why does it fascinate us so much?

What is it about the present that makes it so eager to judge the past? There is always a neuroticism to the present, which believes itself superior to the past but can’t quite get over a nagging anxiety that it might be. And behind this is a further question: what is our authority for judging? We are the present, it is the past: that is usually enough for most of us. And the further the past recedes, the more attractive it becomes to simplify it. However gross our accusation, it never replies, it stays silent. (p. 168)

This might make the book sound very theoretical, but it’s not.  These are just digressions, where Julian Barnes comes on stage. There is a narrative arc to the book, introduced in the opening paragraphs and fulfilled in the closing pages, like the final resolution of a piece of music where the penultimate note has been left hanging.

It is a thing of narrative beauty, and the book itself is of beauty itself too. Its cover is striking, and throughout the text are black and white cards, which were issued as an advertising gimmick and given away with chocolate bars, like cigarette cards or chewing-gum cards. There are full colour plates throughout the text, located right where they belong.  The paper is thick; there is a bookmark sewn in.  It feels like a luxurious coffee-table book, but of course it is far more than that. (It is, however, quite a bargain at less than $40.00 Australian for a hardcover). But -oh- I yearned for an index. I wonder why it doesn’t have one.

In the author’s note at the back, Julian Barnes comes before the curtain, so to speak, to make a political speech about Brexit. That might seem jarring, but it is not.  We have spent over 250 pages reading about a rich culture, where England and France are interwoven, with people shifting effortlessly across the Channel and back again. ‘Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance’ went Dr Pozzi’s maxim, and this whole book is a full-throated rejection of the ignorance that impelled the Leave campaign.  As it happened, I read it in the wake of the eulogies and TV specials on Clive James. I’m reading his Cultural Amnesia, one chapter at a time, as an act of posthumous homage, I suppose.  The two books are very similar: intelligent, irreverent, show-offy and a defence of reading, thinking and talking across cultures.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.