Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

Why you should read the world’s longest novel

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)

Mr Norrell … stood on the lawn and stared up at stars he had never seen before. He did not feel as though he were inside a Pillar of Darkness in the middle of Yorkshire; he felt more as if the rest of the world had fallen away and he and Strange were left alone upon a solitary island or promontory. The idea distressed him a great deal less than one might have supposed. He had never much cared for the world and he bore its loss philosophically.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Simply the… biggest. Cool cover, huh?

Since How to Cure a Bibliomaniac ended I’m not blogging every book I read, but after the sheer length of time I spent reading this I felt it only right that I should receive a medal, I mean give it an entry.

I should probably acknowledge though that it is not quite the world’s longest novel. My now finely honed collection (one set of shelves! Woo! And, er, one crateful standing in front of it) still contains one longer, Isobelle Carmody’s doorstop The Stone Key which lords it over Clarke’s 800-odd page tone with a whopping 1000 pages. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is also nearly 800, though a shade shorter than Clarke’s.

I know I’m harping on about how long this is, but frankly, there was a (now) amusing period in which I was convinced that no matter how many 15-minute blocs I dedicated, it grew gleefully a few pages longer each night while I slept and kept me stuck interminably at 200 pages in. I kept dropping it with a thud on my knees and saying tragically to the Ministry of an evening, “THIS BOOK IS SO BLOODY LONG.” Not helpful was the limited time I had to give, maybe 15-30 minutes each night, so it sure did take a while to read.

OK, enough on the form, here is content.

It is 1806. The heyday of English magic is widely regarded as over. Several hundred years has passed since the time England’s magician King and his numerous magician subjects who mingled matter-of-factly with regular folk. The door between Faerie and England once lay wide open and English roads tangled with fairy roads leading to weird and sometimes terrifying places. Now magic has become an area of historical and theoretical study rather than a practical profession and any man who calls himself magician is in fact a theologian.

Imagine the surprise and delight of this theological society and of society at large when they uncover in the Yorkshire countryside one man who is truly a real live magician, with a spectacular library of rare and long-forgotten magical books, who proves his talents in spectacular fashion then travels to London to lay his gifts at the feet of the government and generally be adored. This is Gilbert Norrell and quickly he is famous.

But Norrell is also mean-spirited and possessive. He wants to be the only magician in England and he certainly doesn’t want to share his priceless library. With the help of his servants he tricks and bullies anyone else who might like to give magic a go into giving it up before they have fairly started, outsmarting them into signing contracts saying that they will cease and desist, even convincing the government to outlaw the hocus-pocus-sellers on the street corners and run them out of town. He does all this despite the knowledge none of them pose any sort of real competition.

But the younger, more charming and far more adventurous Jonathan Strange slips through the net and disarms him. Against all odds he becomes Norrell’s pupil. Together they serve the government in matters at home and abroad – Strange travels with the army in the Napoleonic wars for several years, moving the countryside about to confuse the enemy, creating illusions to frighten the other soldiers. They prove themselves indispensable to the government and the people. Norrell even lets Strange read one or two of his books and they get on all right for a while.

But Strange is a strong and opinionated pupil, wanting to throw wide open the doors between the ancient magical world and the modern one and summon all kinds of magic and magical creatures – not just the ones sanctioned by Norrell. Master and pupil, once friends and colleagues, become bitter enemies.

But when Norrell is tempted into an act of magic, an impressive but foolish and ignorant feat in an attempt to stop death snatching away love, he unleashes an evil that will have consequences for him, for Strange – for the whole of England and beyond.

You think I have gone on too long like a modern movie trailer and told you the whole story, so there’s no point shelling out $20 to go to the cinema. But in fact I have just outlined the introductory premise. You’re only a few hundred pages in. Ha! No spoilers here.

This is a thoroughly English book and I mean that in a most complimentary way. It is almost Dickensian, full of detail and a definite comedy of manners. It is, as I have mentioned, also set in the 1800s, featuring cameos from Lord Byron, Napoleon and Wellington, with much chronicling of earlier centuries through extensive footnoting.

Despite knowing it is fiction, my hatred of pre-1900s history discovered in high school and strengthened in university extends into historical fiction. So I find it a hard slog to read what feels like a history, no matter how convincingly and deliberately this format is used, when I have been banking on straight fantasy. I have to force myself to read the footnotes despite an abominable temptation to skip them and in some cases my reading of them is shamefully close to skimming. But I read them all and so should you. You’ll need them.

To be brutally honest, and I concede this could be the hater in me talking, I think this novel need not go quite so far into the Napoleonic wars as involving Jonathan Strange. It feels somewhat like a sidebar, one that just goes for too long. You could probably cut out a good 200 pages and make them a spin-off novel, which makes me sound terribly Grinchy. In fairness, perhaps someone who likes historical fiction and has more than 15 minutes a night up their sleeve will probably lap it up. Perhaps the book is to be applauded for keeping someone like me involved enough to keep going in the first place.

But wait! What light through yonder window breaks? About halfway through, on a rainy weekend day I am able to settle in for a few hours, I begin to appreciate the fullness of the portraits of Norrell and Strange, and the depth of the tale, so tightly packed with asides and footnotes and backgrounders, now slowly unfurling, its darkness gathering.

And it bewitches me. The central trunk supporting its many branches, many leaves, is a story of love and risk, of an otherworldly danger that lies in wait for people to stumble into its trap – and pay the ultimate price. As widely as the net is cast across the real world and the magical one always just beneath, it is this central story, this central danger that finally gives it urgency, a sense of what is at stake.

Quite after I have stopped expecting it, compulsion floods in. At last I feel that glorious feeling, the one I live for, of being glued to a lovely fat novel.

This is a truly outstanding book, the more so because it is Clarke’s first – according to Wikipedia she took 10 years to write it and this surprises me not a whit. It nearly took me 10 to read it. (only kidding, I’ll stop).

Approaching the end I am savouring each page, gleefully anticipating each twist, acknowledging that every little note sounded, every scene drawn has had its place as this violent and utterly fantastic adventure hurtles to its conclusion.

“Closing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell after 800 pages, my only regret was that it wasn’t twice the length,” Neil Gaiman wrote in his review.

A bit masochistic of him, perhaps, but I think we all get the point now. Go read it.

Postscript: oooooh. Have just seen this has been made THIS year into a BBC miniseries with an IMDB rating of 8.4. I knew I was right to read this book 11 years after its publication… 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 23: Boating for Beginners (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)

Books left: 3. Weeks left: 6 (just keep swimming).

‘I’d rather play Battleships but we haven’t any graph paper, have we?’
They hadn’t, and so they were forced to talk about the Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not you should write books which clearly fixed themselves into time or books which flouted the usual notion of time in order to clear the mind of arbitrary divisions.

boating for beginners

I revere many novelists, but it’s fair to say there are some for whom my feelings run deepest.

They include Peter Carey. Carol Shields. Lucy Maud Montgomery (shush). Isobelle Carmody. John Marsden. Tim Winton. John Wyndham.

And Jeanette Winterson.

My affair with Winterson (and it seems entirely appropriate to describe reading her books as such) began during my English degree with The Passion. This novel was assigned for a unit on postmodern narratives, but don’t hold that against it.

I’ve actually only read a couple more of her works since then, but this was enough to make Winterson one of the authors to make the most lasting impressions on me.

Long after the details of The Passion‘s alluring stories of labyrinthine Venice have faded, I remember how arrestingly its language and characters hit me, the pull of its mystery.

Winterson’s writing is sensual, thematically complex and unexpected. Her power of invention is so dazzling it seems inadequate to term it imagination or originality. Her creativity is not about novelty, charming though her novelties are; it is about what they ultimately serve to reveal, the truths about how people think and what they desire.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Is it any wonder I haven’t picked up one for so long? After uni, I craved meat and potatoes reading for several years, hence my impressive mental crime novel catalogue. And sometimes you just get out of the habit of wanting to be really moved, really unsettled. You just think… I’ve had a long day at work. I need some simple entertainment.

This sort of thinking has resulted in me hoarding several unread Wintersons for more than several years, so I thought it time to see if we still clicked, or whether my love was one best left in the past.

So I open the book and the storm hits.

Boating for Beginners, which I shamelessly chose because it was short, features a romance author called Bunny Mix, a God made of animated ice-cream and Noah, who created that God in a culinary accident.

They are pretending to make a blockbuster film, but they are actually planning to wreak havoc, destroy the world and rewrite history.

Unless, as synchronised swimmer-turned-transsexual potter Marlene says, a group of girls succeed in making “one heroic attempt at foiling that cosmic dessert and the little chocolate button that created him.”

‘I like reading books,’ insisted Marlene, ‘but I’m more concerned with how to get rid of the cellulite on my thighs. I mean, there’s plenty of books around but I’ve only got this one body.
‘Art shows us how to transcend the purely physical,’ said Gloria loftily.
‘Yes, but Art won’t get rid of my cellulite, will it?’
‘Art will show you how to put your cellulite in perspective,’ replied Gloria, wondering for a moment who was feeding her her lines.
‘I don’t want to put it in perspective,’ Marlene tried to be patient. ‘I want to get rid of it.”

Boating for Beginners turns out to be what the author herself described as a “comic book with pictures”, a laugh-out loud alternative to the Biblical flood myth, and a gimlet-eyed look at why people react to the story so powerfully.

I need not have feared it too smart to be fun. This story about people believing any story put to them, and creating their own histories, is wonderfully, confidently absurd.

I have decided to keep my pile of unread Wintersons and be less shy about dipping into it next time. Winterson is by no means a one-trick pony. She sparkles – and surprises – every time and deserves to be read now, not kept for another day.

We’re back on, in other words.

Keep or kill? In my new tradition (I am learning from this project) I am going to pass this on along with my other already-read Winterson titles. But I’m keeping those yet unread and I’m keeping The Passion.

 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 20: Noah’s Ark (Barbara Trapido, 1984)

Books left: 6. Weeks left: 10 (home stretch!)

IMAG0637It may well be that somewhere there is a book lover who only cares about the actual content of the books and not about how they look.

 

 

I am not that one.

Part of why I turned into this raging pathological bibliomaniac in the first place is because I love the whole package of a book. I love how the judicious choice of jacket quotes on a really attractive and striking and original and appropriate cover design can combine to scream at the susceptible bibliophile PICK ME UP AND RAVISH, I MEAN READ, ME. GO ON, DO ME UNTIL I’M IN TATTERS.

I love how the collaboration between a literary and a visual art can collide in a way that communicates something entirely new and individual about the contents of the book. And when they get shabby and crinkly and old, I love that too. I love yellowed pages and cardboard covers weathered with a series of fine lines, just like an ageing face, and ones bearing illustrations so reminiscent of their era in their designs and their fonts that they are attractive just like a fifties pin-up. Such books age beautifully, like Jessica Lang, or a nice bottle of red.

A good book with a bad cover is like an important news story without a photograph or with a boring headline. It’s a shame and a waste because ain’t nobody going to read it.

I’ve loved Barbara Trapido since I was a whippersnapper but the only reason I knew to collect her titles is because I happened to read The Travelling Hornplayer when I was aforementioned whippersnapper and the Matriarch and I both read all the same books. This stage of my life followed the stage in which all my books were about ponies and improbably fun English boarding schools.

So it’s lucky I stumbled across Trapido then through the Matriarch, because I certainly wouldn’t pick up one of these books today based on their covers. Just look at those covers. They look as though the publisher’s ten-year-old offspring thought it was a great idea and no one else in the meeting dared to disagree. The colours are ugly and clashing, the drawings unappealing, the font horrendous. The designs are eyesores, to my mind.

IMAG0638

 

Some more of my Trapido titles, still with rather bad covers.

 

 

Now I’ve eaten up half my word count with a rant I’ll make the review short and sweet.

This is essentially the story of the unlikely marriage of an odd couple – but an oddly perfect one.

But Trapido is a surprising author. One moment you think of her as like a nanny who talks a lot about gender roles and the next she reveals herself as a titillating storyteller who conjures up a superlatively immediate romance, complete with the c-word and plenty of orgasms.

Her dialogue and general prose is constantly gigglesome. You are always smiling to yourself, but it’s too hard to pick a bit to read aloud to someone to share the pleasure because you need the effect of reading the sentence before that bit and the sentence after that bit and before you know it you have read out loud a whole four pages and the Ministry has fallen asleep.

Any Trapido is a great suggestion for book club: short enough that those members who balk at a book over 200 pages will not be frightened, and so easy and fun everyone will finish it for once and you can discuss the ending without anyone saying they don’t want any spoilers because they only have a “few chapters to go”. It is intelligent and literary enough to feel like you are reading literary fiction worthy of a book club and with a few discussion points, but it is close enough to general fiction that there will be no disagreements about what something Meant, and the discussion will soon end in you all quaffing more wine and gargling more cheese (as Bridget Jones would say) and saying how great the choice was and then turning to mindless gossip.

You’d have to be made of stone not to enjoy this. It’s effortless, sexy and relentlessly funny. I dragged out the last few pages, not wanting it to end, and felt all disgruntled for at least two days that I couldn’t read it any more but had to pick something else.

Keep or kill? This one is a win for the Project. I have now read all of the titles of Trapido’s I own and have pictured (except Juggling, the one with the dreadful watercolour, or whatever it is, of clowns, or whatever they are.) So I’ll keep that one to read and get rid of the rest, because let’s face it, these are not collectable editions. It’s hardly a set of matching Ian Rankins, for instance. Hurrah! Another pile bites the dust.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 14: Under a Glass Bell (Anais Nin, 1948)

Books left: 12. Weeks left: 19 (lucky I’m dreadful at maths, otherwise I might be intimidated).

I was not moving any more with my feet. The cave was no longer an endless route opening before me. It was a wooden, fur-lined crib, swinging. When I ceased stepping firmly, counting my steps, when I ceased feeling the walls around me with fingers twisted like roots, seeking nourishment, the labyrinthian walk became enlarged, the silence became airy, the fur disintegrated, and I walked into a white city. 

Stack of Anais Nin titles.

Surely, is fine to have two editions of Delta of Venus.

I confess to a largely irrational hatred of short stories, so it is testament to the worthiness of this project that I am digging this out this book and asking myself why I have carried it about for nigh on 10 years without reading it. As it’s more than 60 years old itself, I can’t really say, “but it’s so hot right now.”

It’s the lure of the Nin, I suppose; I have read her novel A Spy in the House of Love, her erotic fiction in Delta of Venus (which I have a gorgeous edition of, illustrated by Judy Chicago, as well as a paperback – surely, not overkill) as well as her chronicle Henry and June, about Nin’s dangerous liaisons with Henry Miller and his wife June Mansfield.

But no matter what the author’s credentials I always feel as though short stories end, usually abruptly, just when you are becoming interested and moreover, in ways that inevitably feel like sly jokes. I freely admit that the short story is deservedly regarded as an art form and my preference is purely personal, and potentially showing up a control freak, but there it is – I like a story with meat on its bones with a beginning and an end that occurs in a designated place – i.e., the end of the volume. Even short stories related through character, location or theme, such as those featuring in Tim Winton’s The Turning, are not really my cup of tea.

When you read a decent God-fearing novel, it quite properly ends when the pages do – and so when I read this slim volume, I find myself compulsively checking how many pages each story has before I start it, so I’m not caught by surprise. It turns out many of these tales are just a handful of pages.

But in the interests of the project I push on. I find vignettes with the mad beauty and frightfulness of dreams, recorded in a prose so phantasmagorical it is more like poetry – and I read it like poetry, not bothering to slow or stop at things I don’t understand, forgetting everything the moment I have read it, lulled by the illusory babble.

This is not erotic fiction, but it is no less sensuous than Nin’s erotic works.

Keep or cast off? I’ll let this one go. It’s not something I will press upon others – anyone who wants to know about Anais Nin already does, I figure – but that doesn’t mean I’ll let go of either copy of Delta of Venus. You can’t make me. Oh, there’s Smaug again.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 9: An Artist of the Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986)

 

Books remaining: 17. Weeks left to read them: 32 (surely doable).

 The best things … are put together of a night and vanish with the morning.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 9: An Artist of the Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986)

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 9: An Artist of the Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986)

Amid the debris of postwar Japan, over two years between 1948 and 1950, Masuji Ono is spending his retirement navigating his youngest daughter’s lengthy and delicate marriage negotiations.

Engulfed by memories of war and the choices it led him to make, the ageing artist worries that the mistakes of the not-at-all distant past will jeopardise his family’s future.

I prepared myself for something dense and literary. I thought it might take weeks to get through this slim 200-page volume (Mrs Dalloway, anyone?) but was surprised to realise that despite nothing particularly exciting happening, just a little seed of a mystery kept me curious enough to polish it off in two days.

Masuji’s frequent digressions into the world of his memories continually interrupt the details of unfolding events.

He checks himself constantly, almost apologetically, drawing back to the tale at hand, leaving the reader to ponder the connections between these memories and the present. We don’t know what Masuji has done, or whether we are simply attaching too much significance to the wanderings of an old man.

There is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them.

This story’s simplicity belies the complicated darkness of the subjects at its core – war, what men will do in the name of country and the reverberations of these actions across generations to come.

A gentle humour lightens it, particularly in the passages involving Masuji’s headstrong grandson Ichiro and Masuji’s indulgent humouring of him. These breaks strengthen the sense of family bonds that are all Masuji has left in an otherwise empty life and alleviate the alienation a reader might feel towards a character who is otherwise remote. The growing sense that some ominous revelation is imminent keeps you reading, worried for this gentle protagonist and his tiny family.

The writing, refined and careful, fits so nicely into my preconceptions of Japanese culture that I am surprised to read that Ishiguro came to Britain when he was five years old and lives in London.

Sparsely elegant prose evokes the disarray of not only the world Masuji lives in, but increasingly, the disturbed peace of his mind.

If you were to come out of Mrs Kawakami’s as the darkness was setting in, you might feel compelled to pause a moment and gaze at that wasted expanse before you. You might still be able to make out through the gloom those heaps of broken brick and timber, and perhaps here and there, pieces of piping protruding from the ground like weeds. Then as you walked on past more heaps of rubble, numerous small puddles would gleam a moment as they caught in the lamplight.

And if on reaching the foot of the hill which climbs up to my house, if you pause at the Bridge of Hesitation and look back towards the remains of our old pleasure district, if the sun has not yet set completely, you may see the line of old telegraph poles – still without wires to connect them – disappearing into the gloom down the route you have just come. And you may be able to make out the dark clusters of birds perched uncomfortably on the tops of the poles, as though awaiting the wires along which they once lined the sky.

By contrast, he creates a sense of powerful nostalgia the world Masuji once lived in, which he and his fellow art students strived to capture for their teacher.

We lived throughout those years almost entirely in accordance with his values and lifestyle, and this entailed spending much time exploring the city’s ‘floating world’ – the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings. I always feel a certain nostalgia now in recalling the city centre as it was in those days; the streets were not so filled with the noise of traffic, and the factories had yet to take the fragrance of seasonal blossoms from the night air.

Moments of wisdom seem the more precious for being unadorned.

My mother fell silent for some moments. Then she said: ‘When you are young, there are many things which appear dull and lifeless. But as you get older, you will find these are the very things that are most important to you.’

There is no flashy revelation in this book, only a sense of acceptance, and its quiet finish left me reflective.

I highly recommend it and will keep an eye out for The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s most famous work, which won the 1989 Booker prize. It’s also a rather-good-looking movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

This book, incidentally, was on the 1986 Booker shortlist and won Whitbread Book of the Year, so is not to be sniffed at.

Keep or kill? Alas, though, I must be harsh, and so I will pass this on to illuminate someone else’s life (ideally).

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 6: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer, 2005)

Books remaining: 20. Weeks remaining to read them: 40 (argh! Get a move on, lassie. Actually, I blame Umberto Eco). 

“Hilarious!” he said. “It is! I never heard from her again! Oh, well! So many people enter and leave your life! Hundreds of thousands of people! You have to leave the door open so they can come in! But it also means you have to let them go!”

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer (COVER)

Oskar’s Dad, Thomas, died in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Nearly two years later, Oskar, his mum and his grandma are trying to work out how to live without Thomas.

Oskar finds that his dad left behind a mystery. And he decides he must solve it, no matter how long that might take.

 

 

From a giant, lovely tangle of words emerges the inner world of Oskar, one of the best-rendered children I have come across in a work of literature. I’m reminded of Arundhati Roy’s classic The God of Small Things, Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood and, more recently, Emma Donoghue’s Room.

Oscar's business card.

Hire this boy.

 

But Oskar is very much his own self, and is quite capable of standing alone, as his business card attests.

 

 

 

 

 

Oskar meets many people on his quest, which takes him across the whole of New York. He sees and hears the private stories of these people’s own losses, obsessions and inexplicable commitments.

My boots were so heavy I was glad there was a column underneath us. How could such a lonely person have been living so close to me my whole life? If I had known, I would have gone up to keep him company. Or I would have made some jewelry for him. Or told him hilarious jokes. Or given him a private tambourine concert. 

It made me start to wonder whether there were other people so lonely so close. I thought about “Eleanor Rigby”. It’s true, where do they all come from? And where do they all belong?

Safran uses special effects: illustration, some inventive punctuation and conversational styles, and other visual devices that rather defy description. But none of it feels contrived, pretentious or pointless. It feels like I am getting a closer look into Oskar’s world and the way he processes information. And the way he processes loss.

Because above all, this is a story about grief – grief, and the guilt that slinks in alongside it. It is about the people left behind, trying to make a new space for loves that will last forever, but that have changed into something invisible. It is about how we try to hold on and how we have to let go.

“Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little while longer.” “But won’t you always be close to him?” I knew the truth. “No.”

This book is 341 pages long. By 305 I was weeping like a baby. I kept it up until the last page, and then for a few more minutes after that. Any book that makes that happen, and still not get called depressing, is special. This book is a heady jumble of ideas, it is funny and illuminating. It charms and puzzles and delights.
I felt as though it understood me and helped me understand myself. It will make your eyes hot and your throat tight. It will remind you of everyone you ever lost. But it’s worth it.

Keep or not? I’ll keep it for the moment, but only so that I can give it to someone who is interested.

Postscript: The Ministry and I tried to watch the film of this a year or two ago. We found it disappointingly mediocre and turned it off after half an hour. I might have another burl at it now, though, not because I think I’ll like it better, but it’s fun watching stories you’ve read come to life, even if they don’t do it the way you wanted.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 5: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Umberto Eco, 2004; translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock)

Books remaining: 21. Weeks remaining: 43.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – Umberto Eco

Memory can also be beautiful …

Someone said that it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original. 

 

I had a false start with E.

 

 

 

There were only three author choices, Anne Enright (The Gathering), Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) or Umberto Eco (a choice of The Name of the Rose, Foucalt’s Pendulum or The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

 

The Gathering - Anne Enright

Nah

Enright’s The Gathering appealed so little I might just get rid of it now.

Can’t be bothered with another multigenerational family epic right now, even if it did win the 2007 Man Booker prize.

See? I am improving!

 

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

A sure bet?

So I chose Eggers. A colleague loved it. The title intrigued. The blurb was mysterious.

But I saw after the first chapter that it featured a dying parent. I have an unerring talent in picking picking books and movies unwitting that they are about about death, cancer and infirmity. These are very uncomfortable, making me weep immoderately.

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius back cover

Thanks for the warning, jerks!

 

This time, I got to the mother spitting green sputum into a towel and signed off, despite Eggers’ beguiling writing.

Sputum warnings should be included on the cover.

 

 

 

 

 

The Name of the Rose

Failed

Foucalt's Pendulum

Even more failed

That left Eco. Felt ashamed because owned three and had not read any. I tried the Rose and Pendulum years ago. Doubtless because they made me use my brain, I speedily gave up on each.

 

 

I thought third time had to be a charm – and, truly, I was charmed upon beginning The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Antiquarian book dealer Yambo wakes up in hospital rendered amnesiac by some kind of illness. He doesn’t remember his life or his wife, who eventually gets to take him back to their Milan home to recover.

He does remember, in detail, his lifetime collection of quotes about fog – yep, 150 pages of literary quotations on fog. He doesn’t know why any longer, obviously, but he has always been obsessed with fog.

Much like the one now enshrouding his memory, the uni student inside me murmurs.

Yambo tries to find reasons for his obsession, but his encounters with people and places he once knew provoke no recognition, save for the odd “mysterious flame” that flares at the sight of an object or the sound of some words.

It begins as a book with a mystery at its heart, drenched in literary allusion, but by no means inaccessible, lit on every page by an easy wit and simplicity.

Then Yambo travels to the country to stay in the old family home he grew up in during WWII, hoping that if he goes through every box, touches every toy, and reads every book he did as a boy, he will rediscover the secret of who he is.

As we travel with him through this illustrated novel, we see pages upon pages of pictures –book and comic covers, magazine and record covers, song lyrics, quotations, advertisements. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the mind, in which Eco explores the visual nature of memory.

Illustrations in Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana“I’ll remember the photo from now on, but not them.”

“Who knows how many times over the past thirty years you were reminded of them because you kept seeing this photo? You can’t think of memory as a warehouse where you deposit past events and retrieve them later just as they were when you put them there.”

 

Things slow right down when Yambo starts reliving Fascist Italy in painful detail, down to every nationalist song lyric and propagandised comic book. Rich illustrations evoke a vanished world in almost dismaying detail.

Illustrations in Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen LoanaThe memory of one day blurs into the next. I know only that I was reading in a wild, disorderly fashion. I did not read everything word for word. Some books and magazines I skimmed as though I was flying over a landscape.

Meanwhile, I felt seriously bogged down, rather than anything remotely like flying.

 

If not for the Project I would have abandoned the thing altogether. The endless recitations of plots of long-dead adventure serials left me cold. Like Yambo, I got sick of skim-reading song lyrics, book plots and comic titles assembled in such volume. I would challenge anyone to actually read every one of those lyrics, and can only hope that I was only supposed, like Yambo, just to scan them in the vain hope they would end up meaning something.

In any case, it was undeniable that there in Solara every word gave rise to another. Would I be able to climb back up that chain to the final word? What would it be? “I”?

Looking back I wonder if this was Eco’s aim – to show Yambo’s sense of overwhelm and frustration at the pointless drudgery of such an exercise, and to make the reader wonder with him whether a human being can ever be entirely encapsulated in images and words.

I said to myself: Yambo, your memory is made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages. Maybe someday someone invent an electronic contraption allowing people to travel by computer along all the pages ever written, from the beginning of the world until today, and to pass from one to the other with the touch of a finger, without knowing any longer where or who they are, and then everyone will be like you.

Yambo finally makes a discovery, and his quest to rediscover the memory underlying it all inches forward. There is exquisite philosophy here, and suspense – but by now only my body was still curled up with the book. My mind was already straying back to the shelf. I forced myself to finish it but when I did, felt nothing but profound relief.

I did get a cool quote that made me think of my Curing project, though:

“I have so many books. Sorry, we do.” 

“Five thousand here. And there’s always some imbecile who comes over and says, how many books do you have, have you read them all?” 

“And what do I say?”

“Usually you say: not one, why else would I be keeping them here? Do you by chance keep tins of meat after you’ve emptied them? As for the five thousand I’ve already read, I gave them away to prisons and hospitals. And the imbecile reels.”

Keep or let go? Let go. Both pictures and ideas are beautiful, and a book can be great without ever making you warm and fuzzy, but I have no-one I would want to lend this to. Purely as a collector’s item, it will give someone browsing in an opportunity shop a thrill.

If only I knew someone who needed the ultimate collection of literary quotes about fog, or someone with a passion for fascist Italian history – everyone’s favourite dinner party guest.

Perhaps it is telling that if I actually met someone who told me they enjoyed brushing up on fascist history and collecting fog quotes, I might run away before even thinking to say “hey I have just the book for you”.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 4: Grace (Robert Drewe, 2005)

Grace, by Robert Drewe

Grace, by Robert Drewe

Books read: 4/26. Weeks remaining: 47

I got this one lining my nest because Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net was a classic that everybody except me, it seemed, had read. True to bibliomaniac form, I got them both, and still haven’t read the The Shark Net.

In my defence, I also love good Australian literary fiction, which I thought this was bound to be, and I love crime thrillers, and was tantalised by the idea of a book straddling these genres.

So that’s why I have it, but clearly it all wasn’t enough to make me actually read it. All these years later I was drawn to it over the other “D” potentials (the shortlist having comprised Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick and Daphne du Maurier) because it was set in the Kimberley region of WA. Having just spent my honeymoon in the region, this is the closest I can get – at present – to going back there.

The tale is of 29-year-old Grace, named for her archaeologist father’s famous discovery of a gracile skeleton in the Kimberley desert before her birth. Grace is a film reviewer in Sydney, but when a stalker tears apart her relationship, her job and finally threatens her safety, she flees to the remote Kimberley and becomes a crocodile park worker and nature tour conductor.

Her life, as she slowly learns to appreciate it afresh, is once again complicated, this time by the appearance of a refugee. Police failed to round him up after a cyclone facilitated a mass regional detention centre breakout, and he is nearly out of strength from wandering in the outback.

The two try to help each other as the authorities – and Grace’s stalker – close in.

With my lit-fic-crime-thriller comes a healthy and interesting, if unexpected, dose of subjects including beach worms, archaeology, anthropology, history, crocodiles, Aboriginal rituals surrounding the dead, refugee politics, erotomania and film theory. It was clear the author possesses the wide knowledge born of boundless curiosity (and undoubtedly, meticulous research). But it is not immediately clear what the connection between all of these concepts is.

At least part of an answer hits me, though, after an exchange between Grace and her fugitive friend.

“… there were schools of prehistoric fish swimming right where we are now.”

“I would rather hear about crocodiles.”

“ ‘The crocodile kills hungry. It also kills not hungry.’ That’s an Aboriginal saying.”

“It will attack you whether it’s hungry or not?”

“If it’s in the mood. If it’s hungry, of course. If it’s not hungry it might kill you anyway and store you in its larder for later. Or kill you just because it feels like it, because you’re in its territory. Maybe it’s nesting. There’s a famous one that attacks outboard motors – tries to chew them up. It thinks their noise is the courtship bellowing of another male.”

“What else?”

“They like to kill each other, too. The big ones like to eat the smaller ones; the females like to kill the other females – they’re very intolerant animals.”

This is a story of the hunted. Although, in a place like the Kimberley, Grace and the nameless refugee are surrounded by natural predators, they run from their own kind. Even the gracile skeleton for which Grace was named bears the marks of an inexplicably violent burial ritual.

Grace takes tourists on a walk to see turtles laying eggs and, maddened by goannas preying on the vulnerable eggs, the group beats a goanna to death.

In this climate the nights were far busier and more bloodthirsty than the days. Every morning showed evidence of tiny murders. The scuffle marks, the pile of chest feathers, the ball of bloodstained fluff.

After the constant sense of imminent terror Drewe builds, the end, when it comes, is a surprise and a relief.

This novel is confidently written, periodically funny, and seemingly effortless in its style and poise. I am remotivated to read The Shark Net. So I’m calling that success.

Keep or let go? If you love it, let it go. Must practise this. Grace will be a good read for whoever picks it up off that bus stop bench.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen, 2001)

The Corrections

The Corrections

 

The Corrections has sat on my bookshelf for five or six years now, and even five years ago it was a while since it had been the New Great American Novel.

 

 

 

The prospect of a trip to Mauritius in not-quite-swimming weather made me determined to read one of the fattest, most promising novels on my shelf, one I’d been Intending to Get To  for a Long Time, and The Corrections fit the bill nicely.

For those, like me, who have been living under a rock (until I actually got to the land of sea and sun I hadn’t so much as read the blurb on the back cover, having picked this up on reputation alone) this is the story of Enid and her family.

Enid and Alfred’s kids are grown up and far-flung from their Midwest family home. The family’s decidedly not close-knit, but as Parkinson’s disintegrates the man who was once Alfred, Enid embarks on a mission to bring everyone together for One Last Family Christmas.

I get up to here on the blurb before getting a sinking feeling, having fresh knowledge of how a family Christmas, once gone, won’t ever be the same again. I seem to have a positive talent for choosing books and movies that have barbs like this in the tail these days, catching me unawares and prompting spontaneous fits of eye leakage.

But I decided to soldier on and by golly, I’m glad I did.

This funny, irritating, absorbing book has a crack at dissecting all the human experiences closest to the bone – family, marriage, anger, ritual and the way our brains make sense of it all.

With a sprawling, segueing structure and suspended realities sewn into the narrative – including, but not limited to, Alfred’s flights of demented fancy – the story races towards the crucial Yuletide.

I didn’t quite finish it in Mauritius – it’s a fat one – but though progress slowed once I was back home, it was not because of a dull moment. This book doesn’t have any dull moments.

For a novel that is all about the ending it is constantly building towards, there is quite a bit riding on how things turn out.

Thankfully, this ending was not sentimental or simple or soft – it was everything its characters and readers warranted and deserved.

I felt unsettled but deeply satisfied by it, and had to sit for those long, reverberating moments you experience at the end of a really good read.

And I can pretty much guarantee that just about anyone with a skerrick of lit-love would too.

On this note, lit-lovers, pick up a copy of Franzen’s essays, How to be Alone – an exquisitely written collection of illuminating ideas.