Friday, March 30, 2012

But not only to look at

500 words on My Favourite Novel for The Weekend Australian

I must have been about eighteen when I first opened my parents’ copy of Lucky Jim. Physically it didn’t promise much. It was a liver-spotted Penguin from the 50s or early 60s. Much as I wanted to be the kind of guy who read orange Penguins, I was grimly aware that getting through one could be hard work. (To this day I maintain that Lady Chatterley’s Lover, sodomy or no sodomy, is a surprisingly uncompelling book.)

But on the second page of Lucky Jim I got collared by this description of two men crossing a lawn: “To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act …” But not only to look at. What an exhilarating thing to do to a sentence. Literature had never sounded like that before. Amis was right there in the book with you, twisting his sentences like trick balloons.

One member of the variety act is the book’s hero, Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer at a provincial British university. The other is his boss, Professor Welch, one of the great comic antagonists in fiction. Dixon has five weeks to convince Welch to keep him on the faculty. “Until then he must try to make Welch like him, and one way of doing that was, he supposed, to be present and conscious while Welch talked …” [read more]

Monday, March 26, 2012

The sound of no hands clapping

Richard Flanagan's non-fiction

Nobody would deny that Richard Flanagan is a passionate writer. His new collection of non-fictional prose is full of fire and commitment, all right. But whether Flanagan has the talent to convert passion into literature is the question about his work that won’t go away. Consider a typically cantankerous sentence from the current book. Responding to critics who believe that Australian novelists should “write more about money”, Flanagan says this: “So much offensive idiocy and prescriptive stupidity has not been heard since the days the lecterns of Eastern Europe grew greasy with the nonsense of cultural commissars insisting on how only social realism adequately described socialist reality.”

Look at what passion does to Flanagan’s prose. His language overheats, but it refuses to get especially inventive or evocative. (By what process might one expect “nonsense” to deposit grease on a lectern?) Flanagan’s unfortunate lack of creative resources (wit, irony, pictorial imagination) means that his strong feelings have nowhere to go, except into the making of a crude overstatement that can only alienate an intelligent reader. To suggest that the plight of the contemporary Australian novelist is in any way comparable to the woes of a Soviet-era writer in Eastern Europe is absurd, if not obscene. Indeed, the comparison is so inept that Flanagan destroys his own case: he accidentally reminds you that Australian novelists, when you look at their situation historically, don’t really have much to complain about at all. Thus Flanagan displays his negative gift for rhetoric. When he cranks up his prose to convince you of something, he has an uncanny ability to make you sympathise with the opposite view, even if you didn’t before ... [read more]