Monthly Archives: January 2020

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 Her husband, also a writer, but unpublished, was furious.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.

An Australian beach summer


I’ve always loved summer, but it has an edge now.  I know why that sunset is so orange. For the first time in my life, I think, I heard a forecast of a 35 degree day as being a “bad” day instead of a beautiful day, a stunning day, a fantastic day.  I’ve been down by the beach – a somewhat unprepossessing bayside beach, really – and I’ve been aware of those Australians whose summer holiday dream has become a nightmare, and those whose retreat in the country has been blasted by flame. And it just keeps going on, day after day.

‘It Would be Night in Caracas’ by Karina Sainz Borgo


2019, 223 p. Translated from Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer

Now that the rest of South America seems to be blowing itself up politically, Venezuela has fallen out of the world news a bit. However, given that Nicolás Maduro is still in power and Juan Guaido isn’t, the situation in Venezuela probably remains much as it has been for the last couple of years. Millions of Venezuelans have left their country, driven out by hyperinflation and shortages.

This novel is set in current-day Caracas. A young journalist Adelaida Falcón has just buried her mother, who has died of cancer despite Adelaida spending the last of their money on what turned out to be useless drugs. Adelaida was the only child of a single mother, and the two women were close. As Adelaida packs up her mother’s belongings, her world becomes increasingly small, focussed just on her own apartment building.

However, it is not just the loss of her mother than is driving Adelaida’s isolation within her apartment.  Out on the streets, vigilante gangs, often under the protection of the government, are roaming and shooting. One day she returns home to find that her apartment has been taken over by one of these gangs, headed by the intimidating female gang leader La Mariscala. When she turns to her next door neighbour for help, she finds her neighbour is lying dead in her apartment, presumably through natural causes. Her neighbour’s death provides a way of escaping her increasingly claustrophobic situation. Meanwhile, she is joined by the brother of a university friend, who had been scooped up into the government’s paramilitary scheme to turn protestors into henchmen. His presence is both comforting and dangerous.

This is a very female-driven book. The two women form a family unit, and the now-deceased woman next door is crucial to the plot. Interestingly, the Spanish title of the book translates to “The daughter of the Spanish Woman”, a title which makes more sense once you have read the book. While the male gangs outside are intimidating, it is the women led by La Mariscala who are occupying and violating Adelaida’s home next door, who are the most terrifying. Meanwhile, we have the whole idea of ‘motherland’ and exile.

There are a lot of coincidences in the plot of this book, and it doesn’t do to think about them too much lest the whole scenario fall apart. Instead, I more enjoyed the tension of not knowing whether she was going to escape, especially in the closing pages of the book. Even more, I was interested in (‘enjoyed’ is not the word) the exploration of a society which is breaking down completely, leaving individuals to fend for themselves.  I suspect that the author hasn’t had to imagine too much here, and that she is drawing on her knowledge of current events in Venezuela.  It is poignant and frightening to see a formerly-wealthy country spiralling into collapse and lawlessness. It has made me read the news even more carefully.

I read this book in translation from the Spanish. While reading the book in English, I stopped at the sentence “Only a small difference in sound separates ‘leave’ from ‘live’“. That’s true in English, I thought, but I wondered what the original sentence was, because it doesn’t work in Spanish.  As if she had been reading my thoughts, the translator Elizabeth Bryer wrote a note at the end, explaining that sentence, and how hard she had had to work on it.  The original was “Tan solo una letra separa ‘partir’ de ‘parir'” ( translation: Just a single letter separates “to leave” from “to give birth”) . I think that she did a damned good job finding two English words that evoke the same idea, while having a similar sound – although the connection with motherhood doesn’t come through. Nonetheless, well done that translator!! I bet there were shouts of “Yes!” and high-fives all round when she worked it out.

My rating: 7/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I read a review somewhere (can’t remember where) and I like reading books from Latin America.