Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

There were two liv­ing cer­tain­ties dur­ing my re­cent time off: one, that I would not win Lotto; two, that I would not read a word of Elena Fer­rante’s Neapoli­tan Quar­tet. Both were con­trary to my wishes, but that’s how it turned out. In­deed I read lit­tle while on leave, which I sup­pose makes sense if you con­sider a hol­i­day to be a break from what you do for work. How­ever, one book that did make it off the to-read pile was John Wil­liams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which I liked a lot. My 2014 Vin­tage Clas­sics edi­tion has blurbs by Ian McEwan, Ju­lian Barnes, Bret Eas­ton El­lis and our own Richard Flana­gan (“As if Chekhov awoke in the mid-west, mid-cen­tury and wrote one of the great Amer­i­can nov­els”) — but it’s ac­tor Tom Hanks who cuts to the chase in de­scrib­ing the story: “It’s sim­ply a novel about a guy who goes to col­lege and be­comes a teacher.’’ The guy is Wil­liam Stoner, who in 1910, aged 19, leaves the fam­ily farm to at­tend the Univer­sity of Mis­souri and dis­cov­ers his call­ing in the world of lit­er­a­ture, study­ing it and teach­ing it. There’s not a lot of ac­tion in the novel — Stoner avoids both world wars; he mar­ries young and later has a great love af­fair; he has the same job for more than half a cen­tury; he is in­volved in one se­ri­ous aca­demic stoush (his an­tag­o­nist, Hollis Lo­max, is a mar­vel­lous char­ac­ter) — but Wil­liams uses the quiet story of one fairly or­di­nary if ob­sti­nate man to show the depth of what it is to be hu­man. Wil­liams’s prose is di­rect and clear; he writes with ten­der­ness and I would de­scribe the over­all ef­fect as melan­choly rather than sad. Though the pas­sage where Stoner thinks about his par­ents, hav­ing buried his mother not long af­ter his father, is on the glass-half-empty side: “they would be­come a mean­ing­less part of that stub­born earth to which they had long ago given them­selves”. You could see Stoner’s life as one of dis­ap­point­ment, and hold him to ac­count for a cer­tain timid­ity. Or you could see it as a life of un­ex­pected tri­umph, and re­spect the choices he makes. Ei­ther way, I think that emerg­ing critic Hanks is around the money in say­ing “it’s one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing things that you’ve ever come across’’. The book I was most re­minded of, in that way that one work will re­call an­other, some­times for no ob­vi­ous rea­son, was F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s Ten­der is the Night, which is my favourite of his nov­els. I con­fess that one rea­son Stoner lan­guished so long on the to-read pile was the ti­tle. Though in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t a “stoner” story, it still put me off. I sus­pect this is ir­ra­tionally linked to my deep dis­like of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, which I think is one of the most over­rated films, un­less at the time I hap­pen to be think­ing in­stead about The Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion or Truly Madly Deeply ... but let’s not go there. I do pay at­ten­tion to ti­tles, how­ever, and am eas­ily de­terred, which prob­a­bly isn’t fair. Any­thing with a fruit or veg­etable in it, for ex­am­ple, re­ceives short shrift, es­pe­cially if com­bined with an anony­mous ar­ti­san and an ex­otic lo­ca­tion. The Lonely Pas­sion of the Av­o­cado Pit­ter of Patag­o­nia, that sort of thing. I’m also sur­prised when books turn up with ti­tles that have been used be­fore. Why Philip Salom’s new novel (which I hear is ex­cel­lent) is called Wait­ing when in not too dis­tant mem­ory Ha Jin won a Na­tional Book Award for a novel of that name is the sort of ques­tion I ponder. As I do sim­i­lar­i­ties in book cov­ers. Pic­tured below are the cov­ers of The One-in-a-Mil­lion Boy by Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Mon­ica Wood, due for re­lease in April, and Graeme Sim­sion's run­away best­seller The Rosie Pro­ject, first pub­lished in 2013. Look­ing at th­ese side by side makes me feel nos­tal­gic: as a kid I used to love those spot-the-dif­fer­ence puz­zles, in the old Aus­tralasian Post I think. Con­grat­u­la­tions to the writ­ers longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize for women’s lit­er­a­ture, which is worth $50,000 to the win­ner. The 16 books in con­tention are: The Women’s Pages by De­bra Ade­laide, The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop, Pan­thers and the Mu­seum of Fire by Jen Craig, Six Bed­rooms by Te­gan Ben­nett Day­light, Hope Farm by Peggy Frew, A Few Days in the Coun­try by El­iz­a­beth Har­rower, A Guide to Ber­lin by Gail Jones, The World With­out Us by Mireille Juchau, A Short His­tory of Richard Kline by Amanda Lohrey, An­chor Point by Alice Robin­son, The Nat­u­ral Way of Things by Char­lotte Wood and Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance: Es­says on Hunger by Fiona Wright. So, 15 works of fic­tion and one col­lec­tion of per­sonal es­says. The next step is the short­list, due to be an­nounced on March 10. “A writer can only hope to cre­ate a sense of his sub­ject by ac­cu­mu­lat­ing their ges­tures; he has to trust that with his en­cir­cling im­agery, if it’s in­sis­tent enough, the dead will ap­pear for a mo­ment, like a glim­mer on the waves.’’ So writes Syd­ney poet Robert Gray in the in­tro­duc­tion to The Land I Came Through Last, his award­win­ning mem­oir of his child­hood, with its fo­cus on his com­plex father, a man who read the Latin po­ets (and much else), was vain and con­ceited but full of “self-dis­taste’’ (his son’s pre­cise de­scrip­tion), who had a weak­ness for drink but be­lieved he “could never be called a drunk­ard while ever his shoes were clean’’.

On page 26 to­day we have pub­lished a long poem by Gray, one that makes me think of that “glim­mer on the waves’’. Far be it for me to say what The Lat­ter Days (or any poem for that mat­ter) is about, but I think it’s fair to say it com­bines frag­ments from Vir­gil’s Aeneid, mem­o­ries of a father and the poet’s more present thoughts, in­clud­ing of death and the dead. There are many pas­sages and phrases that I en­joy in the poem but my favourite — and here I may be bi­ased — is the im­age of the “porce­lain claw” of the father’s dis­dain. And then this thing of beauty: the poet, so wounded as a boy by his father’s cut­ting re­marks, com­ment­ing that later “when I came to un­der­stand it, / I would have car­ried him on my back, / out of his ru­ins”. I sup­pose that may be an al­lu­sion to Ae­neas car­ry­ing his father An­chises from the sack of Troy, but, wow, who has not been there? Juan Thomp­son, the only son of Hunter S. Thomp­son, sounds like he has. In one of those not un­com­mon coin­ci­dences, the day af­ter I re­vis­ited Gray’s mem­oir I read an in­ter­view in The Times with Thomp­son, who has just pub­lished a mem­oir about his fa­mous father, Sto­ries I Tell My­self: Grow­ing Up With Hunter S. Thomp­son. Based on the in­ter­view I sus­pect the book will be de­press­ing read­ing at times. You won­der why any par­ent would be so un­kind to their child. But Juan Thomp­son, too, seems to have come to a fuller un­der­stand­ing of his father’s be­hav­iour. His thoughts on the best ap­proach to writ­ing the mem­oir pro­vide our quote of the week: “Some of it isn’t pretty, and I’d think, ‘Would Hunter want me to talk about this?’ And I had a re­ally strong feel­ing: just tell the truth. I re­ally think he would have been dis­ap­pointed if I had ex­cluded the neg­a­tives. He would have said: ‘What the hell are you do­ing?’ ’’

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