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All passion in the end enslaves you, and if I felt in bondage to Bach and music at that time, it was because I still had doubts about my ability to make beautiful music each time I decided to play.

(taken from ‘bach (pau) in love’ by Subhas Jaireth)

I am sick and tired of hearing about the ‘death of the short story’. To my mind short fiction is in very rude health, having already colonised the virtual plains of the internet years before the lumbering novel woke up to the danger posed to the physical book by online writing. The e-book  represents an opportunity for poets and authors to be more radical, to present their ideas in a new, novel format that does not carry the same expectations as the physical novel.

Etchings, published by Ilura Press, is an excellent showcase for up-and-coming writers and artists. Like many anthologies it does not limit itself to a certain genre, but it also pieces on art, photography, interviews and book reviews. Seeing as the cover image for this issue is Adam Elliott‘s Mary and Max, I will lead off with Janelle Moran’s interview with the film-maker. It treats not only of Elliott’s career as a storyteller/animator/director (he pauses to query how exactly he should describe himself given his many roles), but of the processes involved in launching a career as an independent in today’s film industry, as well as his pride for Melbourne and its artistic reputation. The interview itself is a very insightful and enjoyable one, as the subject gives very generous material, explaining that he looks forward to interviews as a form of ‘free therapy’.

For the most part Etchings showcases poems and short fiction from a range of international authors. Subhas Jaireth’s tale, quoted from above, is a delicate and sensitive investigation of mortality and artistic legacy, with the life of Bach becoming a fascination for two men. Kafkaesque by Nora Nadjarian is itself both a pastiche of Franz Kafka’s paranoiac Freudian fiction, as well as a short mediatation on his literary legacy. I have always hated the adjective ‘kafkaesque’, which brings to mind a Robert Crumb drawing of tourists in Prague wearing t-shirts with a profile of Kafka on them. Yet Najarian’s choice of title is perfect:

The man said: Let me tell you this. I am the reincarnation of Franz Kafka.

I believed him because his ears were pointed and his voice was melancholy.

Simonne Michelle-Wells presents a story on body dismorphia, Catching the Drops, which explores not only the suffering caused by the condition, but the degrees of deceit routinely employed against family members. The story ends on a surprisingly surreal note more in common with horror fiction. It Could Have Been Any Party by Amelia Schmidt also mines tropes of body horror, reminiscent of Brian Yuzna’s Society, or William Gibson‘s The Belonging Kind.  Alice Godwin’s The Apothecary is more magic realism than horror, but excels at achieving a surreal sense of disturbance. Out of the stories on offer, Godwin’s is my pick of the bunch.

toy heart charnel house by Autumn Christian is both fantastical and melancholic, describing a family wracked by the suicide of a child in a futuristic setting. A process known as ‘reconstruction’, has been invented, designed to help the grieving process by rendering the personalities of the dead into a artificial body construct. This of course only introduces more problems:

One of my co-workers told me once that there’s this syndrome where people think members of their family are being replaced by impostors. It’s called Capgras syndrome. Ever since we started reconstructing people, the frequency has skyrocketed.

What does that mean.

It means nobody is really who we think they are, and we know it.

The poetry collected here is also notable for the delicate imagery on show. Kevin O’Cuinn’s Untitled #11 describes the creeping dischord that can enter into relationships, with little resentments building into a divide between partners. He ends a description of an uneasy night spent in bed with the image:

a today will

appear in the window

like an uninvited guest

Anthony Noack’s Milk is beautifully understated and unpretentious in its sense of wonder. It made my wife smile when I read it out, so thank you Mr Noack.

Etchings is an excellent series, a welcome showcase for some excellent writers and artists and comes strongly recommended. With thanks to Ilura Press for my review copy.

Last week the official trailer for Keneth Brannagh’s Thor was released (click here for a gander).

Personally I am looking forward to this one. Yes it’s another comic book movie. Yes, Marvel Studios are shoving the story into some kind of shared continuity along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man to build anticipation for the planned Joss Whedon Avengers picture. I do not really mind all this as Brannagh has nailed one aspect of Marvel’s Thor and that is the paradoxically futuristic vistas of the city of Asgard from Norse mythology envisioned by Jack Kirby. Paradoxical as Stan Lee set the comical precedent of having Asgardians speak in a bizarre, faux-Shakespearean version of English, yet they reside in a cloud-borne metropolis that outstrips Fritz Lang.

What disappointed me the most about the recent Thor relaunch by J. Michael Straczynski was that Kirby’s vision of Asgard was completely lost, with the Norse deities cleaving more to Stan Lee’s anachronistic medieval type. This much-praised take on Thor, to my mind, mislaid much of the original storyline’s appeal. Kirby had a recurring notion that gods worshipped by man were in fact a higher form of alien life, an idea he made more explicit with his Fourth World/Eternals books later on. He avoided a simple repeat of Chariots of the Gods by having familiar gods, such as Thor and Loki, be at once technologically advanced aliens who appeared to humans as ancient warriors.

It is an entertaining conceit and one which Kieron Gillen appears to be returning to in this collection. The story follows Straczynski’s recent departure from the book and so at present Thor is in exile from Asgard for murder; Balder the Brave has taken his place as ruler; and Asgard itself is stranded on Earth, no longer seperated from Midgard.

As such the Norse gods are vulnerable and supervillain Doctor Doom has decided to exploit their weakness by kidnapping and experimenting on Asgardians to learn the secrets of their power. The gods have recently been guests of his nation of Latveria, thanks to the trickery of Loki, which explains the title. Doom would be a modern day Prometheus, steal the power of the gods themselves and elevate himself above them using only his intelligence and reason.

When the gullible yet noble Balder, who is beginning to realize just how much he has been manipulated by Loki, attempts to lead an attack on Doom’s fortress he is faced with a horrific sight. Former comrades and loved ones taken by Doom, twisted and corrupted into new cybernetic bodies, utterly brainwashed. The Asgardians are forced to fight against these tortured creatures, with the tide of battle finally turning upon Thor’s arrival. Unfortunately Doom has anticipated this also and has discovered the secrets of Asgardian technology such as the Destroyer.

It is of course no coincidence that the same alien weapon features so prominently in the movie trailer linked to above, with Marvel ramping up the release of Thor titles in advance of the movie’s release.  I am grateful to see such welcome synergy between the two mediums, as too often in the past Marvel Comics has dropped the ball in terms of capitalizing upon the films success. How many Blade books were sold after Stephen Norrington‘s box office hit?

Thankfully Gillen is not just writing a tie-in book. His story mixes elements of tragedy and some very decent character development. Balder’s insecurities about leading in his brother’s stead are well-realized and the script even allows the constant betrayals of Loki to be seen in perspective. He is the master of deceit after all, the most famous ‘trickster god’, who is capable of winning the trust of even his most fierce enemies.

However, it is of course Doom who steals the show, refusing to accept the superiority of gods themselves. He finds the very idea of a god insulting and demonstrates a degree of malevolent sadism in the treatment of his Asgardian prisoners.

I am happy to see such an epic tone return to the Thor franchise, which has recently become too enamored of the cliched ‘gods with feet of clay’, story conceit. A return to Kirby high fantasy and science fiction would be welcome.

He came to acting with the Irish city boy’s instinctive aversion to the Method’s open, emotional display based on affective memory. He mistrusted any director who would probe and pry too much behind the hard-earned facade, instinctively more comfortable with Kuleshov’s dictum that “people performing organized, efficient work appear best on the screen.”

Growing up Burt Lancaster represented for me the values of Old Hollywood royalty, an impression formed after I first saw childhood favourites such as Tough Guys and Trapeze. Here was an actor with all the physical traits of a American celebrity – bronzed, bright blue eyes,with an athletic build and a ready smile – with an evident intelligence and grace in his manner. I knew very little about him, but I had inherited a sort of awe for the man from my parents.

As it turns out, Kate Buford’s biography describes how he was a producer of independent film Marty starring Ernest Borgnine. That was a movie my dad would often talk about, so I feel an even greater affection for the actor/producer than I did before.

Of Scotch-Irish stock, with his grandfather traveling to the States from Ulster, Lancaster was born in New York’s East Harlem. As such he grew up with Jewish and Italian-American children of immigrants. The values and cultural influences of that early time would stay with him for the rest of his life. I was confused at first as to why Buford mentioned his film with Viconti, The Leopard,  so regularly in the early passages of this book, until she reveals that his performance in that film was the culmination of that childhood heritage. The film casts a New York Mick as an Italian aristocrat without any hints of an imbalance. It was the role Lancaster was born to play.

The other great influence on the actor’s career was his entering into the life of a circus acrobat, along with his long-time friend Nick Cuccia. There he discovered a talent for the trapeze and a discipline that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. The young, bookish boy with a slight frame had grown into a tall, muscular performer, with a domineering voice that could bellow from the centre of a stage just as well as ply his audience with a coaxing Irish charm.

Lancaster’s discovery and rapid elevation into the craft of acting, following his return from America’s World War II campaign in Italy, was notable not only for the speed of his ascent, but his desire to control his newfound career. From early on, the ambitious autodidact paid close attention to every aspect of business on film sets, quickly developing his own opinions on how things should be done, before forming a partnership Harold Hecht to produce films, with Hecht-Lancaster becoming a mini-studio in their own right, winning Oscars for films such as Marty. Lancaster’s ability to capitalize on his celebrity by making a studio picture to pay off bills before jumping at another personally chosen independent project set the tone for indie cinema auteurs in the future, such as John Cassavetes or Steven Soderbergh.

With fame came of course inevitable temptations. In this regard Burt Lancaster was no trail-blazer, his wife Norma raising an ever increasing family of children while he philandered with co-stars. His decent family man image and fame was also at risk due to his association with suspected communists and radicals during the HUAC Senate hearings. Lancaster, Buford notes, was no communist, but carried with him the values of loyalty to friends that he had learned in New York’s East Side. The despised liberalism of his associations was more evidence of survival traits he had learned growing up.

What is remarkable about Lancaster’s career is the way in which he weathered such controversies, including chinese whispers about his own sexuality, to sustain a very successful film career. Until ill-health robbed him of the ability to do so, he continued to appear in films well into his old age, include well-known hits such as Local Hero and Field of Dreams. Despite his much-feared explosive temper, he was also noted to be quite humble in taking credit for the advantages of his fame, unlike his self-proclaimed ‘buddy’, Kirk Douglas. Lancaster’s involvement in political fundraising went mostly unremarked upon, with the exception of prominent AIDS awareness ads in the 80s.

Buford’s book is a fitting celebration of a remarkable period in Hollywood history. Recommended for the eager cineastes out there.

In my memory my life at Hailsham falls into two distinct chunks: this last era, and everything that came before. The earlier years – the ones I’ve just been telling you about – they tend to blur into each other as a kind of golden time, and when I think about them at all, even the not-so-great things, I can’t help feeling a sort of glow. But those last years feel different. They weren’t unhappy exactly – I’ve got plenty of memories I treasure from them – but they were more serious, and in some ways darker.

I noticed that this book is soon to be released as a film starring Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield – the future Spider-Man – and current It girl of the moment Carey Mulligan. A warning to those who are curious – do not view the trailer if you haven’t read the book. It basically spoils the whole plot.

This is a great shame, as so much of the enjoyment of reading Ishiguro’s novel comes from having the plot unveiled in a non-linear fashion before the reader. It is written in such a curious, teasing style that to open the first page with even a broad understanding of what is to follow risks spoiling the experience of reading it entirely.

With that in mind I will attempt to tread carefully here.

(I have just rewatched the trailer myself – dear god, they even include the last scene from the novel!)

Hailsham is a special school for special children. Boarding at the institution from an early age, the boys and girls in attendance are educated in a broad array of subjects, as well as encouraged to engage in sport and the arts. Their instructors are known as guardians and the children under their care grow to adolescence with little experience of the outside world.

Kathy H was a student at Hailsham many years ago. Now she enjoys reminiscing on her experiences growing up at the school, narrating the events that led to her becoming a carer, her profession for over eleven years. She recalls the growing friendship she shared with a boy and a girl, Tommy and Ruth and the complicated love triangle that followed them from Hailsham, her passion for Tommy unfulfilled for many years.

Ruth was always an imaginative, attention seeking girl, prone to inventing secrets to share with a select number of friends. Kathy is eager to become her confidante, but finds it difficult as her inquisitive nature has a habit of revealing the lies her friend is compelled to tell their peers. Tommy is mocked and bullied by the other boys for fits of rage that he flies into whenever he feels tricked or alienated. Eventually a new guardian at Hailsham, a Lucy Wainwright, manages to cure Tommy of his anger. However, her compassion only spurs on the curiousity of the three children as to the purpose of the ‘special school’.

Certain words and phrases begin to be repeated within their hearing as they grow older, such as ‘carer’, ‘possibles’, ‘completed’, that are never properly explained. Strangely, despite their ignorance of the meaning behind these words, the repetition alone allows a certain familiarity with the expressions to grow, so  that most of the students are never really all that curious about finding out what lies behind them.

Of course when the truth is revealed it is too late.

The story’s setting is Britain in the 1990s, but despite appearances by Oxfam stores for example, this is not our world. Kathy is not only an unreliable narrator, she is a frustrating. At least at first. The impression I had reading the book was that I was listening to the reminiscences of an elderly person who was not only senile, but desperate to hide secrets from their past from me. By the story’s conclusion, however, Ishiguro has revealed an entirely different reason for the importance of memory in Kathy’s life, as well as the nature of her recollections.

The title itself is drawn from a pop song that Kathy had a tape recording of. During the course of the novel her precious tape vanishes, only to reappear later at a significant point in the narrative. It becomes a delightful leitmotif for the themes of the novel, the meaning of the song’s lyrics, which is to say Kathy’s impression of their meaning, holding the secret behind the plot. The idyllic descriptions of Hailsham slowly reveal a sinister undercurrent, that drags the characters to an inevitable ending.

Heart-breaking, poignant and brilliantly studied.

“Traction-engines!” he said with evident loathing. “I saw one scratching itself at the back of a haystack. I thoroughly barked at it.”

“They should be barked at,” I said, as politely as I could.

“Most certainly,” said the Dean. “If things like that got to think they could go where they liked without any kind of protest, we should very soon have them everywhere.”

On my first flight home from Australia I took Lord Dunsany’s novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter to read on the plane. Until today it was the only other book by the author that I had read and to my mind, is one of the most perfectly written fairy tales ever published. Written with an extraordinary visual detail and a gentle good humour, it cheered me up immensely.

I am happy to say that this second visit to the fiction of Lord Dunsany was equally satisfying.

Our narrator chances upon an eccentric Dean whose views on the transubstantiation of the soul capture his attention. As they discuss such matters over a few glasses of Tokay, the elderly gent suddenly takes a turn and begins to speak of events that occurred before he was born. His listener is astonished, as the degree of detail employed by the Dean seems beyond the capacity of a drunkard’s imagination. If anything the man sitting beside him appears refreshed and quick-witted, speaking fondly of the good old days. When he used to be a dog!

Slowly the story’s narrator becomes convinced that the Dean has access to memories from a former life, but he is frustrated by the drip of information he is able to wrangle during these strange drinking sessions. He learns how dogs relate to one another and view the ways of their Masters, the joys of the hunt and the pleasure taken in teasing pigs (barking “Pig! Pig! Pig!” really annoys them). Strangely the Dean mentions romance, but avoids discussing it directly. His fascinated drinking companion sets about attempting to rigorously extract as much information as he can, even to the point of measuring how many glasses of Tokay it takes to transport this man of God back in time.

This is a wittily written and amusing little fable. The Dean’s experiences raise a veil on the mysteries of Oriental theories of reincarnation for the narrator. In many ways the book teases the reader with its notions on religion. Is it arguing that the Christian church is too removed from debating questions of spirituality? Or is it proposing a stronger relationship between Eastern and Western varieties of faith? The appearance of a Maharajah sadly fails to bring any more clarity to the protagonist’s questions relating to his unusual friend. Unfortunately he is more interested in polo than the mysteries of the soul.

The dog’s life, it would seem, is the good life and the Dean (speaking as a dog) even argues that the British industrial revolution has taken too great a toll on the English countryside. There is a rich nostalgia on show for the Victorian era here, one that speaks more to the values of the author than anything else. This is still a story written with great verve and warm wit that argues the greatest thing you will ever learn is –

“Never trust a teetotaller, or a man who wears elastic-sided boots.”

A film adaptation was released in 2008 starring Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. My edition of the novel also includes the screenplay by Alan Sharp and a series of set photos from the filming.

When and why did a man lose the faculty of change? Was it some point in the dying of the mind and body.  A hardening of the nervous system. He practiced keeping his mind agile. Daily he made himself think thought he had not thought before. He forced himself to consider the worst. He practiced considering the opposite. He tried always to imagine at least two other possible ways of doing something. He fed his mind with maxims and precepts – the how-to-do-it manual of the mind.

It is funny how things come full circle. I spent a lot of time in video stores when I was a kid, gazing at the cover art and reading the blurbs of 18s movies that I was forbidden from watching. My knowledge of the Nightmare on Elm Street series was based entirely on the summaries on the back of the video cassette boxes, until I turned twenty-four. One video I remember gazing at was The Coca-Cola Kid. An Australian film starring Eric Roberts, it grabbed the eye courtesy of its title and use of the Coke logo. I was a kid, any hint of sugar sent me into a frenzy. I never saw the film and in fact had long forgotten about it.

Now I discover that this novel, which actually is set along the New South Wales southerly coast, where I am currently staying, was the basis for The Coca-Cola Kid and its author, Frank Moorhouse, wrote the script. The connection to my current home and the memories it recalls to me of my childhood, strike me as a curiously remote form of synchronicity. It is also appropriate, given that this is a book about memory and the changes in one man’s life.

The story itself concerns itself with George McDowell, a local businessman who likes to hold himself to strong principles, in business and in life. He even changes his name in middle age, adding the prefix of ‘T’, to make himself seem more regal. After a trip to America with his father he becomes fascinated with Rotary, its focus on morality married with commerce inspiring him to pursue the founding of a chapter on the South Coast.

Fancying himself a man of science, an individualist and a forward-thinker, McDowell believes in living according to a set number of moral precepts. Having focused so much on his career, bound up with his notions of being a man of good standing within the community, he has sacrificed friendship and the love of his family. His relationship with his wife is coolly formal and his daughter has embraced a bohemian lifestyle, indulging in drugs and sex. McDowell cannot comprehend how his daughter Terri has become so estranged from him, blaming the influence of ‘city life’, which he holds accountable for other problems such as overpopulation and trade unionism.

Then a young man from the Coke Company named Becker arrives in town to investigate McDowell’s operation. He also encounters Terri and is quickly enwrapped in their strained familial relationship. Becker represents a form of future that does not fit within McDowell’s orderly vision of a world ruled by rational men of business like himself. His daughter’s rebellion is similarly a reaction to his pedantic moral philosophy. Having spent his life attempting to realize the future, McDowell finds himself an old man, left behind by modernity.

Moorhouse tells his story in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out of McDowell’s life. We are privy to his thoughts and experiences throughout, with his inability to realize how little others think of him turning this into a curiously private tragedy. I also got a quiet thrill out of the mentions of Bulli and Wollongong. We visit several periods in McDowell’s career, from the inspirational 1920’s right up until after his death in the 1970’s, with Terri now accompanying a film crew looking to interview Australian men who lived during these periods.

This serves as a commentary by Moorhouse on the make-up of twentieth century Australians, with a particular focus on the influence of American culture and capitalism. It turns out this is one of a number of books by the writer, referred to as ‘discontinuous narratives’, with the various characters reappearing in each of the stories, collectively sharing an overarching thematic narrative.

It is a curious experiment and after I have concluded my little reading experiment, I can see myself tracking down the rest of this series.

One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.

Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.

The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.

We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.

Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.

The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.

So why do I find this such a trite book?

In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.

This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.

This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.

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