Tag Archives: death

To the Islands: Randolph Stow

Randolph Stow’s novel To The Islands takes a look at the corrosive impact of colonialism through, aging, bitter missionary, Stephen Heriot, who has spent decades managing a Christian mission for ‘Indigent people’–the indigent people in this instance being Aborigines. When the novel opens, Heriot wakes up in his corrugated iron hut with its grass thatched roof. His books, detritus of his education and a reminder of his long distance past, are literally falling apart.

On the shelves of the rough bookcase, Heriot’s learning was mouldering away, in Oxford Books of this and that, and old-fashioned dictionaries, all showing more or less the visitations of insects and mildew.

There’s a symbolic significance to the books, for their decay matches Heriot’s decline. Physically, he’s aged and no longer accomplish the things he used to do, while mentally, he’s bitter, and he’s lost his sense of purpose. His wife died at the mission decades earlier, and now he’s facing the thought that he wasted his life. There’s the implicit idea that this once powerful man is in shambles. Looking in his broken mirror, “he saw himself as a great red cliff, rising from the rocks of his own ruin.”

How does a man grow old who has made no investment in the future, without wife or child, without refuge for his heart beyond the work that becomes too much for him?

Most of the other white men on the mission, in this “goldfish-bowl of existence,” are looking forward to Heriot leaving, and some think he’s gone “troppo.”  In many ways, Heriot is an embarrassment because he represents the old ways of handling the aborigines, and everyone would rather forget the past. While one character defends Heriot, placing him in the context of his times, Father Way says, ” a man who goes round spreading civilization with a stock whip gets no admiration from me.”   Heriot has requested a replacement from the regional council, but he receives a letter saying that he must remain as there is as yet no suitable candidate. And this brings in yet another idea–that Heriot, in his youth, had enough fervor, sense of purpose, or belief in his ‘mission,’ and that he was willing to sacrifice his entire life for what he believed in. Yet there’s no one to replace him; no one else has that sense of commitment.

to the islands

What drives people to leave their homes and take jobs in the remote area of Australia under such harsh, unforgiving conditions? Well religion explains some of it but there’s a also an excellent nurse who failed medical school; she’s “perhaps a fanatic of sorts, like a nun,” and a young teacher who “never intended to be involved. But the country had taken him in.” Bottom line these white workers are all driven by something to stay at the mission, but the reasons Heriot came to the mission are now absent. He’s been there too long. He’s ill and he suspects he’s dying.

Stow gives us a strong sense of life at the mission –both good and bad (with its pervasive attitudes towards the aborigines as ‘childlike’ or indigent).  A crisis erupts with the arrival of Rex, a man Heriot loathes, who’s a subversive influence on some of the younger residents of the mission. This beautifully written novel tackles huge themes of Shakespearean proportions through the story of the bitter aging missionary and his relationship with Rex. The mission has been existence for decades, and while the older residents seem more comfortable with the “indigents’ allowance,” there’s the idea, running under the surface of the story, that this system is inherently unhealthy, unproductive, and corrosive for all involved. With Rex’s unsettling presence, the established order of life at the mission is challenged.

Heriot watched the old women, across the grass at the meathouse, and thought of misery and hopelessness, of the wretched tribe of indigents. But it is their choice, their own choice…

Randolph Stow published  To the Islands when he was 22 years old. He’d worked for a period at an Anglican-run mission, and in the preface of my copy, he explains some of the changes he made from the original edition. Although the story addresses the cost of colonialism and the inherent wisdom of supporting a native population on an undignified subsistence way of life,  this isn’t a story about race as much as it’s a tragic tale of how we battle ourselves and our impulses.

Review copy.

 

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More Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

German Literature month co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy continues, and after getting annoyed about one part of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, here’s a post regarding a wonderful quote. This passage is spoken by Ottilie–a veritable saint of a girl. In the novel, Ottilie leaves boarding school and comes to live with her guardian, Charlotte and Charlotte’s husband, Eduard. Charlotte and Eduard are middle-aged and this is the second marriage for each of them as they were both ‘strongly encouraged’ to marry others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who conveniently died. Charlotte also married, and after she was left a widow, she and Eduard finally married. A dream come true? Well it didn’t last long, and after Ottilie enters the picture, Eduard falls in love with Ottilie. Not only does this shatter any notion of domestic happiness Eduard  shared with Charlotte, but the situation also creates no small amount of awkwardness.

Anyway, according to the intro, Goethe married his long-time lover Christiane Vulpius in 1806 after living together for over 18 years. Goethe was 57, Christiane was 41, and they had 5 children together. Why did Goethe marry Christiane at this point? Translator R.J. Hollingdale argues that the marriage was generated by “new affection” for Christiane. She had bravely faced off marauding French soldiers after the battle of Jena. Goethe’s house was invaded, and Goethe was “saved from a manhandling” only by the efforts of Christiane. 5 days later Goethe married her.

Is this a happy ending?

During the winter of 1807-8, Hollingdale tells us that Goethe fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl, Minna Herzlieb. This resulted in a contest of duelling poets: Goethe vs. Zacharias Werner, another poet who also loved Minna. Elective Affinities was published in 1809, and since it features an older married man who falls head-over-heels in love with a teenager, well it’s not difficult to see auto-biographical elements in the novel. And perhaps this explains why Goethe’s characterisation of Ottilie is idealised. So idealised, in fact, that at one point she ‘stars’ as the Virgin Mary–glowing face an’ all–in a tableaux designed for entertainment.

So here’s Ottilie, offered to us as an impossibly saintly young woman, wise beyond her years, industrious, graceful, kind, sweet, and yet also still living with Eduard (well he’s packed his bags and left at this point) and Charlotte–whose marriage is now wrecked. This is one of her journal entries written partly as a result of Charlotte’s decision to ‘improve’ the churchyard and partly due to an evening spent with an architect:

There are many kinds of memorial and memento which bring us closer to those who are far away and those who have departed, but none is more meaningful than the portrait. There is something exciting about being with a much-loved portrait, even if it is not a good likeness, just as there is sometimes something exciting about arguing with a friend. You have the pleasant feeling that you are divided, and yet can never be separated.

Sometimes you are with a real person in the same way as you are with a portrait. He does not have to speak, or look at you, or concern himself with you at all: you see him and feel what he means to you, indeed he can even come to mean more to you, without his doing anything about it, without his realizing in any way that his relationship with you is merely that of a portrait.

You are never satisfied with a portrait of people you know; which is why I have always felt sorry for portrait painters. You rarely ask the impossible, but that is what you ask of them. They are supposed to incorporate into their portrait everyone’s feelings towards the subject, everyone’s likes and dislikes; they are supposed to show, not merely how they see a particular person, but how everyone would see him. I am not surprised when such artists gradually grow insensitive, indifferent and self-willed. This would itself be a matter of indifference if it did not mean one would have to go without the likenesses of so many dearly-loved people.

It is indeed true: the architect’s collection of weapons and ancient utensils, which were, together with the body, covered with great mounds of earth and rock, testifies to us how vain is man’s provision for his personality after death. And how inconsistent we are! The architect admits he has himself opened these graves of our ancestors, and yet he continues to occupy himself with monuments for our prosperity.

But why take it all so seriously?Is everything we do done for eternity? Do we not dress in the morning so as to undress again at night? Do we not travel in order to return? And why should we not wish to repose beside our own people, even if it is only for a hundred years?

When you see all the gravestones which have sunk down and been worn away by the feet of the churchgoers, and even that the churches themselves have collapsed over their own tombs, you can still think of life after death as a second life, which you enter into as a portrait or an inscription, and in which you remain longer than you do in your actual living life. But sooner or later this portrait, this second existence, is also extinguished. And over men, so over memorials time will not let itself be deprived of its rights.

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The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

American crime author James Sallis is slated to cull a new slew of fans thanks to the upcoming release of the film, Drive , based on a novel of the same name. Sallis is best known for his Lew Griffin series novels, but Sallis’s latest,  The Killer is Dying is a stand-alone novel. The story is set in Phoenix, Arizona and focuses on three seemingly very different characters: Christian, a freelance contract killer, Sayles a middle-aged, depressed Phoenix detective, and Jimmie Kostof, a teenager who’s been abandoned by his parents. Ultimately A Killer is Dying is not about the solution of a crime, but the unsolved mysteries of life and the abyss of loneliness, death and despair we all face.

Christian, who advertises his services by placing and responding to ads in various known mercenary magazines, is in Phoenix to kill John Rankin, a pedestrian character who seems unlikely to offend anyone. Christian finds himself wondering why a man like  Rankin ends up at the wrong end of paid hit:

How this man could possibly be of such concern as to bring someone to engage his services, Christian can’t imagine–a nondescript office-dweller at a nondescript accounting firm in a featureless city where everything is dun-colored.

None of that is any concern of his. Interesting though that he thinks it.

Christian stalks his prey in order to stage the hit, but someone else gets there first. But there’s a problem; Rankin isn’t dead. He’s only wounded, and with cops sniffing around the crime, Christian should move on but he doesn’t.  To complicate matters, Christian, a papertrail “ghost”  who has left no traceable evidence of his existence on the planet, is dying, and he knows he has very little time left. So why spend what’s left on the Rankin hit? Is he motivated by professional pride, curiosity, a desire to finish what he started, or is there something deeper going on? 

Sayles and his partner, Graves begin investigating the shooting, and in another story thread, Jimmie, a teen abandoned by both of his parents, struggles to survive by trading items over the internet in order to raise a little cash. Jimmie is increasingly drawn to a blog site to read the mysterious comments of someone called Traveler. Jimmie has begun to experience intense and violent dreams–clips from the life of the hired contract killer, Christian:

Jimmie tried to remember if he had ever dreamed as someone else. Others in dreams changed, sure, the walk-ons, the companions, but weren’t people always themselves in their dreams?

We see clips from Christian’s earlier life, a strangely detached childhood and a violent stint in prison. Christian recalls some of the hits he made and the mysteries of the lives he brutally took. Similarly, Sayles recalls some of the crimes he’s covered in his career, the bodies of victims whose lives are violently interrupted and extinguished:

What you wound up remembering, what kept coming back to you, were not the whacked-out, bizarre crimes, the hatchet murders, the double homicides, bunco and bank jobs, but simple things. The look in a father’s eyes when you told him that his son had been killed while buying a Pepsi at the AM/PM on the corner. The trumpet case that had sprung open when its owner got shot in a drive-by, and you stood there noticing the way the bell of the horn was crumpled in on itself. The half-finished castle of building blocks in an abused child’s room. The suicide letter of words and phrases cut and pasted from favorite books, a crazy quilt of fonts and sizes, the books themselves put back in their places on the shelves.

These three characters, the contract killer, the cop and the abandoned teen,  physically connect in only the vaguest ways–one character will enter the screen as another leaves, or perhaps one character will pass another with just the barest acknowledgment, and yet the three men–all at different phases of their lives are inexplicably intertwined. Just as Jimmie has Christian’s dreams, there’s the idea of parallel lives crisscrossing through space with occasional moments that overlap. These metaphysical aspects of the novel (the shared dreams, collective unconscious, the comments by Traveler) serve to deepen the book’s sense of mystery and connection between the characters.

The novel goes back and forth between its three main characters. Jimmie struggles with loneliness, Christian digs into the truth behind the Rankin shooting, and Sayles, whose bleak home life includes a dying wife, can’t get the Rankin shooting out of his head. Perhaps Sayles’ fascination with the Rankin case is a much-needed distraction from his personal life, or perhaps he connects with Christian in ways he doesn’t understand.

A great deal of the novel maintains a dreamlike quality when describing the passage of everyday life:

He watched a bus disgorge its load of the last night folk heading home and replace them with those just beginning their day, wondering how many of them might be thinking about their lives , where they’d wound up, where they’d began, the curves and crooks and bland mystery of it all, all these Jonahs.

And again:

A bus comes by, one of those segmented doubles that looks like a worm. Space for, what, a hundred people within? With maybe a dozen heads afloat in the windows. Its sides bear banner ads for action movies and portraits of  local newscasters with too many teeth. He watches the bus work its cautious way around a corner.

Beautifully written, the novel maintains an almost dream-like pacing, and yet the novel itself is tightly-written–racking in at just 232 pages.  Not a word seems to be wasted, and although the book covers some emotionally devastating territory, Sallis’s tale is restrained and eloquent, and yet at the same time strangely disturbing.

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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The Pornographer by John McGahern

“The nothing that we always learn when we sink to learn something of ourselves or life from a poor other–our own shameful shallowness.”

Kevin has been raving about the merits of Irish author John McGahern with such conviction that I could no longer stand the suspense, so I broke down and tried a novel for myself. The Pornographer appealed to me–no doubt because my mind is in the gutter, but there’s another reason too. I knew a pornographer. Before you get any big ideas, I’ll amend that. I knew the brother of a pornographer. He started off with the usual plans to take the literary world by storm but ended up writing smut under a false name and lying about his profession. So with this image in mind, I bought a copy of McGahern’s novel.

The pornographer under scrutiny is Michael, a thirty-year-old Irishman who juggles his fictional creations with an ugly, troubled reality. When the book begins, he’s on his way to visit his dying aunt in hospital. Cyril, the aunt’s drunken and selfish husband, refuses to visit, so the emotionally draining task falls to Michael and occasionally his aunt’s brother joins him. In a great deal of pain and suspicious of the pills given to her, Michael’s aunt turns instead to the bottles of brandy smuggled in by her dutiful nephew. The depressing visit to the hospital is fraught with awkward moments as both Michael and his uncle keep up the pretense that his aunt looks good and that she’s on the road to recovery, but after they leave his uncle breaks down:

He was diminished and silent as he came out, the raincoat over his arm, and as soon as we got a little way down the tarmacadam from the hospital he put his huge fists to his face and turned away. When I saw the body convulse with sobbing I moved across the road out of way of the traffic and started to move a white lawnblock about on the grass with my shoe as I waited.

 There’s the sense that Michael’s life is in limbo. He’s still wounded from a broken love affair, lives in a small flat, and writes pornography built around the sexual escapades of balding Colonel Grimshaw and Mavis–a pair of fictional lovers whose energetic, creative, and numerous encounters are devoid of complications. A few passages reveal the gymnastic couplings of the middle-aged Casanova–a tireless man capable of endless erections and Mavis–a goer who’s always up for the next orgy

Michael’s drab personal life is in complete contrast to his pornographic stories–there’s no sex for one thing, but that all changes when he meets a thirty-eight-year-old spinster named Josephine. Although they have nothing in common, they begin a sexual relationship based on need and loneliness. Michael is brutally honest from the beginning, and he makes it clear that the relationship is not about love. He intends to keep the relationship uncomplicated–a replica of the sort of frequent copulation enjoyed by Grimshaw and Mavis, but when Josephine gets pregnant, she begins to demand more.

It’s easy to see this complication headed full speed at Michael, and yet he didn’t see it coming. Or did he choose to keep his head in the sand at a crucial moment? Michael believes in being brutally, stubbornly honest and not giving any cheap promises. Is he naive to think that Josephine will respond to that? Or is this drama the same age-old scenario played out millions of times in millions of ways between countless couples?

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the untroubled couplings that take place between the fictional couple–Grimshaw and Mavis and the flesh-and-blood Michael and Josephine. I suspect that readers will draw their own moral conclusions from Michael’s dilemma. And it is a horrible dilemma. As events unfold, I felt pity for Josephine (and part of that pity is founded in her desperation and need), but I could also hear the trap slowly closing around Michael’s life.

Michael isn’t embarrassed about telling people about his dilemma, and some of the novel’s dry humour comes from Michael’s boss, Maloney, who finds it all very funny:

You’ve behaved stupidly, even by your own admission. You’ve got this woman in a frightful mess. In your conceit you refuse to marry her though she is a beauty, a far cry from your own appearance. And your bad behaviour and general situation is making us feel good. It’s making us all feel very good.

How?

How can you ask such a question? Your behaviour has dropped the moral averages to zero overnight. It makes some of our own reprehensible past acts practically beatific. We’re disgusted with you.

The Pornographer deals smoothly with some big issues: death & responsibility. Michael behaves impeccably towards his aunt and in his tender treatment we see that he’s the most responsible male in his family. The novel takes that issue of responsibility and then asks at what point should an individual subsume himself to his responsibilities?

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Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

“Look, I’m not the sort who goes around shagging willy-nilly like that.”

After finishing The Tartar Steppe, I needed a complete change of pace–preferably something funny. I stood there staring at my overcrowded shelves and then I saw Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean. I’d bought this book after reading a glowing review of Dean’s latest book, The Old Romantic at A Common Reader. The cover looked promising–two deck chairs (not exactly positioned to indicate compatibility) on the beach. Surely I told myself, Becoming Strangers would be light and funny, right?

Becoming Strangers has its light, funny sections (mostly mined from scenes of marriage and adultery), but it’s also about death and dying. The first few pages reveal Jan–a Belgium man in his 50s whose six-year battle with cancer has reached its final lap. He’s been told it’s inoperable (it has spread to his liver and pancreas), and that nothing more can be done. In a sombre scene, his two adult sons arrive with tickets for Jan and his wife, Annemieke to an expensive, Caribbean resort. “This was going to be their last holiday.” That simple short sentence made a depressing impact, and on that note, I went to bed.

Well so much for light and funny.

The next day brought a flush of optimism and the memory of how much Tom at A Common Reader enjoyed Dean’s other novel, so I picked up Becoming Strangers once again and was very glad I did. Dean’s novel is funny, yet sad & serious–a powerful combination which offers an unusual look at marriage’s till-death-do-us-part phase.

The main character is Jan–a man whose life hasn’t been easy for the past few years, but there’s one thing that’s served him well through illness and operation after operation, and that’s his belief that “good manners” go a long way. He treats everyone with the same degree of courtesy–from his appalling wife, Annemieke, to his concerned doctors and his dutiful sons–they all get the same treatment. This polite distancing is how Jan deals with his imminent death, but no one seems to notice that this is Jan’s coping mechanism–a buoy that enables him to float (with the help of morphine) through the last few months.

Unfortunately Jan isn’t treated with the same courtesy he extends to others. The main culprit here is Annemieke–a woman who at 49 is bursting with life and health and who is fed up with waiting for her husband to die. She’s also desperate to not appear to be her age, and that includes some outrageously funny and obnoxious sexual behaviour. Normally, a “last holiday” would be filled with poignancy and sadness, but when Jan and Annemieke land at the resort, she hits the ground running:

“She was going to have a holiday that suited her. She would make the most of the spa. Her own health deserved some attention. Hadn’t the doctors said that it’s often the carer’s well-being that gets completely neglected.”

 Annemieke has no intention of wasting time hanging out with Jan, and his feeble attempts to go sightseeing are met with nimble avoidance:

“I thought we might make an excursion, he said pleasantly. We could hire a car. Have a look round the island.”

“I’m not a sightseer, Jan,” she said, “as you know.”

She gave herself a good wash; she wanted to feel just right when she lay down on that massage couch. These indulgences were fraught in so many ways. Money and time ticking away while you tried to feel good. An indifferent masseur or beautician, an unpleasant manner, a painfully deep rub or treatment, thin towels, or the sight of herself, under bright lights in a full-length mirror–any of these could ruin it.

He was standing when she left.

“We might have lunch together” he said.

“You look after yourself, I shouldn’t want to hold you up.”

Annemieke, on a mission to prove her sexual attractiveness, prowls around the resort, and when she’s not milking her husband’s illness for sympathy, she’s showing off her breasts as often as possible. She strikes up an acquaintance with a couple of Americans, Jason and Missy while Jan is drawn to an elderly British couple, George and his wife Dorothy. Jan and George, bound to lives they don’t quite connect with, form an unlikely relationship:

“She wasn’t keen to come, the missus,” he admitted to Jan. “She’s a stay-at-home sort. She’s sitting in the room now. Blimey, we might as well be at home. She’s got her book and a cup of tea, she’s all right. I’ve always had to drag her along with me to whatever we did. She wasn’t always a homebody but she’s got worse lately, likes to sit on her arse all day; thinking she says she is, or reading,”  he raised his eyebrows and sighed. “Always seems as if she’s on the same page.”

“I suppose my wife feels the same way about me,” Jan said, finishing his drink.

“Oh yes?”

“Sure. I also like my own company.”

“I’m not sure that’s the case with the old girl. Sometimes it’s hard to get through to someone even if you’ve known them your whole life. The years seem to make it harder, as a matter of fact. Like you’ve found thousands of ways to get around them, detours, you know, road closed, follow diversion. Do you know what I mean?”

There are so many wonderful scenes in this book, and I can’t describe them all, but my favourite section occurs when Annemieke goes off with Jason and Missy on a yacht while Jan leaves with George & Dorothy, and fellow guests Laurie and born-again christian Bill Moloney. Jan’s wonderful day is contrasted with Annemieke’s experience listening to Jason waffle on with his obsession: locking people up.

 Another marvellous aspect of the novel is its characters. One of my favourites is poor beleaguered resort manager (“Total Experience Manager”), Steve Burns. While Jan opts to maintain his relationships through polite, distanced behaviour, Steve is forced to wear the same polite mask with the guests. He’s forced to walk a very thin line between keeping the guests happy and keeping his job, and the pushy American guest, Jason, treats Burns with scorn at every opportunity. As events at the resort play out, and the behaviour of the guests degenerates, Steve, who isn’t particularly likeable, finds his job increasingly difficult and repugnant at times with this load of holidaymakers:

Burns felt like a fruit, handing out leaflets, drawing pencilled circles on maps, reminding the punters of the Saturday night events they left the hotel. He’d spotted two women of a more mature persuasion, ‘Silvers’ as they called them in the business, passing comment on him from their huddled position in two cane armchairs, looking at him over their fishing expedition leaflets. He’d asked if he could help them and heard snorts of laughter as he’d walked away. He’d fucking sashayed, he was sure of it, it was the trousers, and then he’d turned around like some Butlin’s poof and told them off with a very camp, ‘now, now ladies, none of that. it was a loathsome business at times.

Holidays are peculiar things. So much is invested in making them a good experience and holidaymakers are supposed to go home with good memories along with the customary souvenirs. Holidays also have a way of highlighting problems in relationships–after all, some relationships are unravelling and forced intimacy isn’t going to help. Becoming Strangers explores the forced interactions, the relationships which grow from proximity, and the behaviour of the guests who feel unleashed far from home.

Some people may not enjoy this novel. There’s no resolution and the plot tosses together some elements that are not ‘handled’ in a traditional way–more power to Louise Dean, I say.  The sharp inner dialogues blend well with the outward behaviour of these diverse characters and the roles they’ve long tired of.

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