Bring Up The Bodies

Posted May 30, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: Book reviews

I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, her sequel to Wolf Hall and continuation of a life of Thomas Cromwell.

In the first book she took us from the fall of Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey – which, in theory, should also have taken Cromwell in its wake – through his ascension to the role of Master Secretary to the King. The novel was nothing short of a bravura performance, a realisation of the man from a very intimate point, as if Mantel was sitting, not in the normal close personal voice on the shoulder of the man, but actually behind his eyes, seeing what he saw at the same time as miraculously maintaining enough distance to describe him. So close, however, that she does not have room to judge him, so close that we, being in there with her, all of us readers, the world over, crowded in there in Cromwell’s head, looking out, we see the world through his lens. It is not such a bad place to be. Cromwell is an entertaining host, learned in language and art, interested in everything from brick making to the psychology of Dukes. He has a modern view of the world, the State, as well as an extraordinary history, having risen to this great height from being the son of a blacksmith.

In the second book Mantel is in exactly the same place. Cromwell, however, is in an even more complex situation than when he was separating England from the Church of Rome so that Henry could escape his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Now Henry is bored with Anne Boleyn, who he took in Katherine’s place as Queen. He has his eye on young Jane Seymour. The marriage, Henry believes, must have been false (Anne had used witchery on him) and he needs Cromwell to find him a way out of it, and Cromwell, acutely aware of how Wolsey was brought down for not achieving the King’s wishes, has to be the agent of his release.

There are a thousand other concerns also in Cromwell’s mind. He has his several houses to keep and to alter, the young men he is, in turn, monitoring, the dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersal of the funds to oversee, the ill and possibly dying Katherine to keep an eye on, the relations between England and both the French and the Emperor, spies against him and for him, the jealousy and hatred of those born to privilege to deal with. Amid all this, and much more (the loss of his wife and two daughters that occurred at the end of volume one, the gathering to himself of immense wealth), he sets out to do the King’s will. He does it with coldness and clarity and not a little viciousness and what is extraordinary is that we do it with him, sitting there in his mind. Mantel, our guide, our gracious host in this place, inviting us to watch. See this: see how when the King falls from his horse while riding in the lists and everyone thinks he is dead, Cromwell, in those brief terrifying moments, lines up all the consequences of this sudden change of fortune – the different families and factions queueing up to take power, the gossamer thread upon which his own head, all his wealth and prestige, rests. See how when the King sucks back breath into his lungs and sits up the world is no longer the same. See how when, shortly after, Anne miscarries, becomes, no longer, the vessel of a possible heir, she really has to go and the way to do that is to dream up a charge of treason enacted through adultery. See how simple it is to set up, how expertly Cromwell strips away the esteem, the wealth, the illusions of those powerful men he would destroy along with her. Suddenly Cromwell’s mind, pace all that brilliance, is no longer such a pleasant place to sit within. And yet that is where we are. His mind is ours.

This novel is a definition of all that literature can be, that it desires to reach, but so rarely can. It offers the possibility of knowing another man as oneself and liking it just as ill when the curtains are down and all is revealed. Here is writing that, while it might describe what seems to be another time, in truth speaks of what it is to be human. It is long, ruminative, reflective. It’s slow at the start, but it needs to be while we become accustomed to those long lists of names of the individuals involved (complicated because they have both titles and names; so that Henry Fitzroy, for example, the King’s bastard son, can be at times, Richmond, Henry or Fitzroy) but it intensifies as it progresses reaching a remarkable and sustained pitch. I did not want it to end. I wanted to begin again at the beginning as soon as I was finished. I wanted to understand how it might be possible to be King Henry VIII and to murder one’s wives and yet live on, choose another wife while blaming the last for her own fate; at the same moment as I was experiencing what it means to be Cromwell, and liking that even less.


Queensland Premier’s Now Defunct Literary Awards

Posted April 6, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: current affairs

In 2004 the manuscript of my novel An Accidental Terrorist won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an emerging author. I was then, by definition, completely unknown (as opposed to being, now, simply unknown) I certainly had never had a novel accepted for publication.

The novel – about a young man who gets caught up in a plan to sabotage woodchipping machinery in the forests of south coast of NSW – had already taken three years to write, but after receiving the award it required most of another one to complete. This was because the award was not simply monetary, it came with funding to work with a professional editor (Julia Stiles). The published novel (UQP) went on to win the award for best first novel in the NSW Premier’s Awards, the following year.

Professionally, then, receiving the award was an extraordinary opportunity, not simply to get a contract, but also to develop my writing skills with an editor. Financially it was delightful, $20 000 from the first award, $5000 from the second one, then royalties from sales of another $10 000 (winning awards boosts sales of literary fiction), making a total of $35 000. Not bad really, until you reckon it up over four years. Then the hourly rate comes in at $4.21 before tax.

The real value, though, was not monetary (but then no-one, or very few people, write novels for money, most people write them because they are driven to it, because, poor sods, some character flaw makes them believe they have something to say that other people want to hear) the real value, to me, was the recognition that my writing had some worth. It gave me enormous encouragement, enough to go on and write another couple of novels.

There was, however, I believe, a larger value to the State itself. Queensland is so young. It is only just beginning to emerge as a sophisticated place which can afford not simply to pull millions of tonnes of coal and ore from the ground, but to invest some of the wealth gained from these actions in the education of its populace. Historically this state, and I’m not just talking about the Joe Bjelke-Petersen days here, has not demonstrated itself a repository of culture – back in the mid-nineteenth century, just for example, when the rest of the world had abolished slavery, Queenslanders made up new laws so as to continue the practice. In those days they called it black-birding.

Queensland, until twenty, twenty-five years ago was viewed, Australia wide, as the nation’s slightly dumb cousin. In the last couple of decades, through practical policy but also through symbolic gestures like the building of the new GOMA and State Library buildings, and these literary awards, we’ve managed to stand up as equally civilised, proud of the beauty of our landscapes, proud of what we can do as a people. Mr Newman’s action is just as symbolic, in the other direction. It tells the world that Queenslanders have no time for the finer things in life.

Writers tell stories about the culture they live in. They describe who we are to ourselves, they offer us, literally, self-reflection, an opportunity to see who we are and thus the ability to decide if we like the way we are behaving.

A decision like this tells writers that the government doesn’t care what they do. That the government is only interested in the money. That they are happy to take the GST on books but not to invest any of that back in those who are the cornerstone of the industry.

And make no mistake; it’s only the beginning.



Five Easy Pieces

Posted January 7, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: Book reviews, current affairs

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Several articles and posts have piqued my curiosity over the last few months and what I thought to do, as part of an end of year review, is to give a brief rundown of what excited me about them and then see if there is a connecting theme or narrative. Right at the end I’ll give the links.

The first was a review in the NYRB by the wonderfully named Freeman Dyson of a book by someone called David Deutsch. The book is called The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, and Dyson, in his essay about it and its ideas, gave a quote from the seventeenth century British ‘prophet of modern science’ Francis Bacon to illustrate a point: ‘If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.’ Bacon was talking about the use of the scientific method as a means to understand the world around us, as opposed to that which had been used for the previous few hundred centuries, which was to start from a religious perspective. It was an extremely radical viewpoint at the time but is now taken as the norm. It is, though, I believe, still a confronting and fascinating prospect, to begin in doubt and to bear it patiently.

The essay, following the book, focuses on the problems we face as human beings, that we have faced and always will. Here is Dyson on Deutsch:

‘Deutsch sums up human destiny in two statements that he displays as inscriptions carved in stone, “problems are inevitable” and “problems are soluble.” … These statements apply to all aspects of human activity, to ethics and law and religion as well as to art and science. In every area, from pure mathematics and logic to war and peace, there are no final solutions and no final impossibilities. He identifies the spark of insight which gave us a clear view of our infinite future, with the beginning of the British Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. He makes a sharp distinction between the British Enlightenment and the Continental Enlightenment, which arose at the same time in France.

Both enlightenments began with the insight that problems are soluble. Both of them engaged the most brilliant minds of that age in the solution of practical problems. They diverged because many thinkers of the Continental Enlightenment believed that problems could be finally solved by utopian revolutions, while the British believed that problems were inevitable. According to Deutsch, Francis Bacon transformed the world when he took the long view foreseeing an infinite process of problem-solving guided by unpredictable successes and failures.’

Dyson goes on to reject the notion of the British as the better agents in Deutsch’s version of history as rubbish, that the Chinese and the Ancient Greeks thought similar things. I, however, was very taken by this moment of divergence between those who thought things could be solved once and for all by getting government right, and those who recognised the constant nature of the challenge… I don’t care which country or group of individuals it was, I’m simply interested to note the schism and the costs which have been associated with taking each path.

The second piece comes from the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, with a transcript of him talking to The Edge, about Infinite Stupidity.

Pagel is interested in culture. In this piece he gives a quick run down of the history of evolution from the formation of the planet until now, noting that it wasn’t until humans made the genetic change from Neanderthals to the present homo sapiens that we developed the skill of social learning: Read the rest of this post »

Best fiction, non-fiction and television for 2011

Posted January 4, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: Book reviews, Film reviews

I’m going to do my best ofs in two parts, the first, this one, is about books and television, the second one, which will, in the strange world of blogs, be above this one, discusses several posts I’ve come across during the year that have fired up my mind.

Best novel: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. No competition. It’s a novel told in, if I recall correctly, twenty-three parts, each of which functions as a short story, each one told from a different perspective, jumping forwards and backwards through time, creating, piece by piece, a world that is larger than its parts. I don’t normally like this sort of thing. The change in perspective, I find, has a tendency to rob the reader of their ability to connect with any given character, but Egan does something (I’m not sure what, but I want to find out) so that, rather than getting a fragmented collection of stories, we get an overlap that pierces to the core of both the characters’, and our own, lives. An exceeding beautiful book.

A safe choice you might say, in that it won the Pulitzer, but sometimes the prize givers get it right, as they did, I believe, with Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. I was reading some quite heavy non-fiction and came to this slim novel as a palate cleanser. What a delight it proved to be, the narrator winding us back down through the past, finding different meanings and interpretations with each turn of the staircase. It seems barely possible to have squeezed so much into so few words and yet have it feel clear and concise.

Several other books deserve mention. Organising and interviewing for Outspoken I have to read a lot of books during the year in a way that I have not been accustomed to, sometimes three or four novels by one person (previously I’ve allowed books to come to me, as it were, now I have lists). I particularly enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Run. In this novel, Patchett stays with an event for a remarkable amount of time, she uses a single incident to introduce and develop a rich cast of characters, promiscuously shifting perspective between them, and yet, like Egan above, giving them all lives I found myself caring about. Patchett was, by the way, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever encountered, never mind having the pleasure of sharing a stage with. I also read a lot of Alex Miller and can recommend Journey to the Stone Country and Autumn Laing, his new novel. Further afield I loved Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petersen, set in the mountains on the border between Norway and Sweden, as well as Mortals, by Norman Rush. Talk about richness and density of prose and staying in a scene, milking every last drop from it. A remarkable novel indeed, set in Africa.

Non-fiction: I can’t really separate out one and say it’s the best. I’ve recently read the first two volumes of Thomas Keneally’s The Australians, a very different way of relating history. I’ve heard it said that it’s a novelist’s view and this might be the case but many historians try to weave a narrative through the events they describe. Keneally spends time with individuals, not necessarily the Great Men, and through their stories hopes to illustrate the development of the nation. I found it fascinating, but the two books together, at 967 pages, are a big read and they’re heavy, too, to hold up in bed at night. A good argument for the ebook, although the hardbacks are very handsome. I was very taken by The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Mark Rowlands, and the last book from Tony Judt, that great historian of our time, Ill Fares the Land. Somewhere in there I managed Life by Keith Richards and friend, which also presents a stark picture of our time, or his time in the early years of the Rolling Stones. Beside my bed right now are two other non-fiction works, impatiently waiting for me to finish Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm (struggling a bit here Patrick, sorry, these long diversions into punctuation-less prose make me drop off to sleep): How to Live, about the life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell and The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, in which he discusses how and why violence has declined. I’ll drink to that.

Television series also deserve a mention. The longer series give writers and directors an opportunity to develop character in a way that is novelistic, but also its own form. I watched several this year: Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, (Peter Brandt Nielsen) that dark tale from Copenhagen with the wonderful Sofie Grabol as the detective lead, although surely almost equally important was Bjarne Hendriksen as the brooding father.

Taken with the female detective lead and wanting to practice my French I also went over to look Engrenages, or Spiral, (Guy-Patrick Sainderichin and Alexandra Clert) but while loving Caroline Proust’s fiery detective I was put off by the crimes on which it focused. The French seem to love the gritty reality of violence, they relish bringing the camera in close on the dismembered bodies. Across the Atlantic there were two very different shows: Treme, Series Two, from David Simon, which I think was better than series one. One of the things I love about this drama is that it’s not interested in violence as a plot driver, the concern is music in its many and varied forms. Lastly can I recommend Community Series One and Two, (Dan Harmon). Fifty half hour sit-com shows of tremendous energy and humour starring Joel McHale and Danny Pudi. I came to these full of cynicism about American humour and found myself laughing out loud, delighting in the freshness of their approach. I particularly recommend the episodes about playing pool and the first series paintball.

Spangled drongos

Posted December 31, 2011 by Steven Lang
Categories: Landscape, photos

Tags: , ,

Writing today is interrupted by a family of spangled drongos in the bunya pine next to the studio. The parents have raised three young in a nest about a hundred metres away but this is the first time I’ve seen the babies out and about. They perch on the horizontal branches waiting to be fed.

Every time one of the parents comes in sight all three shake their wings and call out in their infectious chatter, ‘Pick me, pick me.’ The tireless red-eyed adults with their wonderful swooping fish-tails (the babies have yet to develop either of these) regurgitate whatever insect they’ve caught into the waiting mouths.

These birds are the most delightful of our summer residents. They appear around the beginning of October, having made the extraordinary journey from Papua New Guinea, and stay until late March when they return north. Their call is unique, a sort of stone rattling laugh, occasionally tinged with a melodious metallic quality reminiscent of something Telstra might produce deep in a copper wire. Today, however, the mother is producing a single repetitive high note that I’ve never attributed to her before, telling her children to sit still and behave and that the man on the studio veranda with the camera is okay, even if he is a man.

The bunya trees, by the way, are carrying more fruit than I’ve ever seen. One of them has forty or fifty of the large nut clusters in its top branches. Rarely has there been a season as rich as this, the trees have a vibrancy that delights the eye, the birds, insects, plants all sing of the fecundity and generosity of life from the first glimmer of dawn till dusk.

Russell Hoban

Posted December 15, 2011 by Steven Lang
Categories: Book reviews, current affairs

Tags: , , , ,

News today that one of my favourite authors, Russell Hoban, has died at the age of 86, in London.

Hoban wrote many novels and children’s books, but the one I like best of all is Pilgermann, which he published in 1983. I have reread it countless times and it refuses to age, partly, I suppose, because it is an allegorical novel that follows the adventure of a Jew who, having got caught up in a pogrom because he was conducting an illicit affair with Sophia, a merchant’s wife, is castrated by the mob and left to die. While lying in the dirt he has a vision of Christ who instructs him to journey to Jerusalem, and it is the story of this voyage, and what happens when he gets to Antioch, that are the subject of the novel, a marvellous, witty and deeply profound meditation on Judaism, Christianity and Islam at the time of the Crusades, which includes, amongst other characters, the wonderful Bembel Rudzuk and Pilgermann’s own Death, a ribald figure who accompanies him for part of the journey.

Hoban was most famous for his chidren’s novel, The Mouse and His Child, and the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker – the latter an extraordinary achievement written in a language Hoban made up specifically for the novel, a possible future English which has its own rhythm and cadence.

He has never stopped writing but I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with many of his more recent books. It was the ones I’ve mentioned as well as The Lion of Boaz Jaquin and Jaquin Boaz, and Kleinzeit which managed to enter the deepest parts of my psyche with their peculiar mythic style, as if they were no more than descriptions of other worlds that did, or had, or would exist, whose reputation had come down to us by word of mouth. My gratitude to Russell Hoban is immense.

How we got here and how to get out before it gets worse

Posted December 15, 2011 by Steven Lang
Categories: current affairs

A fascinating article here on the causes of our present economic malaise written by Joseph E Stiglitz, which I found through 3QuarksDaily, a site I visit regularly and also highly recommend for the intelligence of its links. The article suggests that there are striking parallels between where we are and the Great Depression of the ’30s, which might not seem such an original idea except that Stiglitz believes the Depression was not caused by a banking failure but by the changes to employment wrought when the agriculture sector no longer needed 25% of the workforce to produce food. The banking crisis sat on top of that in the same way that this banking crisis sits on top of the increased production attained by mechanisation and globalisation. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist, also offers some solutions – borrowing to invest in infrastructure and education.  The piece originally appeared in Vanity Fair.

%d bloggers like this: