Charlotte Wood, Stone Yard Devotional

Charlotte Wood, Stone Yard Devotional. Sceptre, 2023 

I posted four years ago on Australian author Charlotte Wood’s previous novel, The Weekend (link HERE). The producer of the BBC World Service programme World Book Club contacted me to invite me (with others from around the world) to pose some questions to Charlotte during the recording of an interview/phone-in on that novel. The programme was broadcast on 11 April (link HERE), and it’s well worth listening to on the BBC website: Charlotte gives engaging and thoughtful insights into her creative processes.

I referred in my post on The Weekend to the barbed revelations spliced with wit and humour in her narrative; Stone Yard Devotional has a more meditative, reflective tone. It’s a very different reading experience, rewarding and deeply moving.

The unnamed narrator tries a weekend retreat at a rural Australian abbey inhabited by nuns and a few oblates (a word she is unfamiliar with at first, and I had to look it up to remind myself) and itinerant visitors. Soon afterwards, for reasons that are only obliquely presented, she decides to become a permanent resident. I say that because she’s a lapsed Catholic, and views the rituals, prayers and worship of the nuns with a dispassionate, unbeliever’s detachment and scepticism. Her presence there has more to do it seems with the desire (as another character puts it) to become invisible to the outside world. It’s a kind of spiritual and emotional cleansing, perhaps.

There are various references to her life in that outside world. There are passing references to a man who was probably her husband or partner. She was an activist in that worldly life for an ecological organisation. Her commitment to green causes and reverence for all living things were formed, we learn at various points in the narrative, from the influence of her mother. She was an eco-warrior before this became fashionable, and was viewed with suspicion by her contemporaries because of it.

Most of the narrative consists of diary-like first-person reflections on the protagonist’s past experience. She tells of shameful incidents in which she played an ignoble role while at her Catholic girls’ school (and afterwards). One of the targets of the schoolgirls’ cruelty plays a key part in the story that unfolds during this abbey retreat.

She’s also frank and honest about her previous thoughtless acts of racism and other kinds prejudiced behaviour. Such attitudes were shamefully prevalent not so long ago, and it’s salutary to be reminded that they haven’t completely gone away.

Other events in her past drift by like linked short stories. Wood’s prose is a pleasure to read: it’s deceptively simple and lucid, yet conveys depths of feeling and reflection that other more wordy writers fail to pull off. Reading this novel is like being given direct access to the innermost thoughts of a troubled woman. She has an excruciating sense of guilt and contrition at some of her actions in the past.

Forgiveness becomes a central theme: the desire for absolution that she finds beyond the capacity of any formal religious intervention, but is possibly available to those who submit themselves to a different, personal kind of disciplined, solitary contemplation, confession and reflection.

Redemption and forgiveness do possibly emerge for her in powerful, sensitively handled scenes in which she interacts with a former victim of her unreflecting cruelty. What is forgiveness, and why is it sought and given?

 A kind of peace is painfully achieved as she writes the confessional that forms this narrative.

Mrs TD read this novel after me, and also found it quietly moving, but she didn’t care for the sections about a plague of mice, and especially the part played by the nuns’ chickens in attempting to control the mouse population.

My thanks to Cornwall library service for providing this book.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020. First published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2019

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick… WB Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

During this pandemic it’s become apparent that there aren’t many terms for people in the final years of their lives that don’t sound patronising or demeaning: the elderly (like the infirm: a category of useless outsiders, surplus to societal requirements). Older people. Older than normal people, is the implication.

Older women in fiction are even scarcer than the men. They often serve as slightly comical or absurd, often acidic commentators on the antics of the more interesting younger people around them – like the battleaxe in Downton Abbey whose name I forget, or the dowagers in Victorian novels who view the perceived shortcomings of the ‘girls’ of marriageable age in their social circles with disapproval.

Fiction writers tend to be more interested in younger people – those who are still useful to society, of breeding age or raising their young, holding down jobs and contributing to the economy – or, if they’re not, finding ways of dealing with this. They have agency.

There are notable exceptions to this tendency. Elizabeth Taylor, more recently, Elizabeth Strout. I’m sure you can think of many more. Devon-based blogger Caroline focuses (among other subjects) on older women in fiction in her Bookword blog (link HERE), and is doing her bit to shift the balance in our perception of this demographic.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend front coverI was inspired to read Australian author Charlotte Wood’s recent novel The Weekend by a review at Lisa Hill’s ANZ Litlovers blog last December (link HERE) and a follow-up post in May 2020, about the Yarra Yarra writers festival (link HERE). Like a less sentimental Golden Girls, it deals with the bonds and tensions between three women in their early seventies. She does this with frankness, insight and quite a bit of humour. She doesn’t idealise these women: they’re all flawed in their own ways. But they’re all interesting, vulnerable and utterly convincing as characters.

Every Christmas they would gather at the beach house of Sylvie and her partner Gail. This year it’s different – Sylvie has died earlier that year, and Gail has cleared out their city house and gone to Ireland, and invited Jude, Adele and Wendy to do the same for the beach house, taking anything they want to keep for themselves. Sylvie’s death prompts intimations of mortality and decline in all of them.

Fissures in the three women’s friendship appear right from the start. Even though they’ve been close for decades and know each other better than their own siblings, ‘strange caverns of distance between them’ are revealed.

Jude, an elegant ex-restaurateur, is judgemental, bossy and spiky. She’s been conducting an affair with a married man for forty years, and there’s little sign he’ll ever commit to her.

Adele is an actor noted for her glamour rather than her talent, and the acting parts have dried up along with her looks. She’s become desperate to revive her career, and begins to humiliate herself as the weekend proceeds. Some of these scenes are almost painful to read.

Wendy is an intellectual, a published feminist. She’s also adrift, having lost her much-loved husband, and her direction and purpose in life. Much to the annoyance of Jude, she’s brought along her incontinent, bewildered old dog Finn, whose dementia foreshadows perhaps the fate of these women. Jude insists he stays outside the house, convinced he’ll soil the expensive white sofa she’d given to Sylvie, and is intolerant of his senility.

This hostility reflects the occasional attitude of much of wider society towards older people in the community. They’re an embarrassment, and best kept out of sight. The kindest thing, Jude believes, would be to put the old dog out of his misery. Why don’t we do this for people, is the inference she’d probably not acknowledge.

There’s not much in the way of plot, although it’s not surprising that startling secrets spill out that threaten the fragile equilibrium of this friendship. It’s unclear until the end whether life-affirming connections that hold the women together will prevail against the rifts that open up between them, or whether their weekend will end in acrimony and disaster.

I realise I may have made The Weekend sound a bit depressing – it isn’t. There’s some cracking dialogue and wit in the narrative, and the prose is unfussy and sprightly. Right at the start, when Jude is thinking about her lover’s unsuccessful attempt to elicit her sympathy for a relative of his who’s died (she feels more inclined to spit on the floor than to hug him), she admonishes herself not to be so ‘hard on people’. Then:

Jude hated other candles being lit next to the one she secretly thought of as Sylvie’s, in the cathedral she had stolen into once or twice. Sometimes she blew the other candles out.

I like the way Wood has Jude ‘steal’ into the cathedral, and vindictively blow out the other candles – she doesn’t even seem to have lit one for Sylvie herself! Her acerbity conceals an almost-lost capacity for affection.

Later, Adele reflects painfully on the way that Jude would never praise her acting performances or the plays she appeared in. Instead she ‘demolished the various elements’ of the production, because:

Jude was like a reverse Midas, walking through your life pointing at the things you cherished, one, two, three, and at her touch each one turned to shit.

It was said of Jude she ‘didn’t have friends, she had subordinates.’ But that was when she was younger, Jude has begun to realise. Now she has nothing except her part-time, absent lover.

None of this is spelt out; my extracts indicate how Wood carefully presents the minds of her characters in turn through free indirect thought, with all their evasions and elisions, as they contemplate the actions of others and their own inconsistencies.

Wood’s capacity to splice barbed revelation with humour is one of the highlights of this novel. Like the moment where Wendy looks at Sylvie’s (probably unread) copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She recalls how they all liked talking about death when they were younger, especially Jude:

Back then Jude talked about her image of death; a white, curved place of stillness and a kind of holy silence. She made it sound like the damned Guggenheim.

Wendy goes on to think of her unsympathetic daughter’s friend, who’d set herself up as ‘an end-of-life doula’:

What’s that, Wendy had said, palliative care without the qualifications?

Hadn’t this woman heard of feminism, she wonders. She can be spiky too.  And of course she’s also pondering the way her own feminist career has run its course – she’s becoming another ‘paltry thing’. But all of these women are finding ways for their souls to ‘clap hands and sing’ – and refuse to slouch into senility.

 

 

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.

Gerald Murnane, ‘Inland’: interior wanderings

 

Cover of the edition reviewed here; from the Faber and Faber website.

Cover of the edition reviewed here; from the Faber and Faber website.

Dalkey Archive Press reissued Gerald Murnane’s novel Inland in 2012.  It was first published in 1988.  The edition I just finished reading is the Faber paperback published in 1990.

Murnane was born in Coburg, Melbourne in 1939, and has rarely left his home state in Australia.  He briefly trained for the Catholic priesthood, and idiosyncratic, Irish-tainted Australian Catholicism – its doctrine, rituals, calendar and trappings – features centrally in this novel.   Although he relinquished his faith,  acts of penance for and feelings of guilt about sexuality are a central theme in his fiction.  His other preoccupations, he’s said, are topographical: ‘landscapes and geography, looking at things from a distance, desiring objects of love from far off’.

I didn’t initially find it a particularly gripping read.  Interesting, occasionally deeply moving and beautiful, but it’s very slow-burning.  Nothing much happens; it’s another of the metafictional, plotless, loosely structured novels that I seem to gravitate towards at the moment.  (I had to read Salinger straight after finishing Inland for a fix of more traditional narrative fiction.)

There’s a telling, enigmatic line of Paul Eluard’s in the novel: ‘There is another world but it is in this one’.  Timorous about travelling in the geographical, outer, ‘real’ world, Murnane turns inwards, to the existential hinterland of a narrator who is never named (‘I have kept my own name well away from these pages’, he says), and his thoughts, feelings and experiences, though meticulously recorded, are not, he insists, autobiographical.  Nevertheless, what he produced in this novel is closer to fictionalised autobiographical essay than to the genre of novel.  This is an existential mapping of the emotional and artistic associations that spring to the mind of his narrator when he contemplates images recollected in tranquillity.

Photo of Murnane from the blog of Jim Murdoch

Photo of Murnane from the blog of Jim Murdoch

The first section of the novel consists of 44 pages narrated by a Hungarian landowner, writing from his manor-house in a village he prefers not to name, ‘near the town of Kunmadaras, in Szolnok County’ on the grasslands of ‘the great Alfold’.  He says he’s writing in ‘heavy-hearted Magyar’ (this section sometimes reads like a parody of Hungarian authors like Marai), and the ‘heaviness’ he feels pressing on him comes from ‘all the words I have still not written.  And the heaviness pressing on me is what first urged me to write’.  This patterned repetition of key phrases and clauses with its almost incantatory rhythms is his modus operandi throughout the novel.  It often soars beautifully, but the looping reflexivity takes some getting used to:

I will try for your sake, reader, to distinguish between what I see and what I remember and what I dream of myself seeing or remembering.

He explains that he writes for his editor, a former lover possibly, who was born between the rivers Sio and Sarviz in the plains of Transdanubia, called the Puszta in Hungarian. She has gone to Tripp County, South Dakota, on the Great Plain of America, to a town called Ideal, ‘a little east of Dog Ear Creek’ (if these names are real they’re wonderfully evoked) and home of the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies.  Her name, he says, is Anne Kristaly, and she is married to Gunnar T. Gunnarsen.  They are scientists at this Institute; she is the director of the Bureau for the Exchange of Data on Grasslands and Prairies.

Prairie, Victoria (near Bendigo). Wikimedia Commons

Prairie, Victoria (near Bendigo). Wikimedia Commons

She has ambitions to become editor of its journal, appropriately called ‘Hinterland’.  He goes on to say, in typically gnomic deadpan prose, that he has never met this man OR his wife, ‘my editor and translator’.  He dreams of her in this institute with a name that echoes that of one of Murnane’s main influences, another writer of metafictions, Italo Calvino.  He thinks of writing pages about his own grasslands for her, but imagines her jealous husband intercepting his parcel of papers and telling her he’s dead.  This would appear to be an image of what Murnane is doing while writing Inland: pages that will be read by readers maybe during Murnane’s life but also after his death:

The man is the only person inside the circle of the horizon.  He stares across the veldt or the steppes or the pampas and prepares to think of himself as quite alone.  But he cannot think of himself and the grass around his knees and the clouds over his head and nothing more.  He thinks of himself talking or writing to a young woman…He thinks of himself telling the young woman that he thinks of her telling him she thinks of a man such as himself whenever she sits at her desk and thinks of the grasslands of the world.

When the narrator says he’s died and become a ghost, the novel’s central theme is revealed.

Abruptly on page 45 a new narrator takes over.  This one also lives between two rivers: the Hopkins and Russells Creek, but he relates memories (or are these dreams, too?) of himself aged twelve living in Bendigo and other places in poor suburbs of Melbourne.

I am not sorry for you, reader, if you think of me as deceiving you.  I can hardly forget the trick that you played on me.  You allowed me to believe for a long time that I was writing to a young woman I called my editor.  Safe in the depths of your glass-walled Institute, you even had me addressing you as reader and friend.  Now you still read and I still write but neither of us will trust the other.

Dream, memory, trust.

Trust me or not, reader (he goes on), but whatever I write about myself having done, I will always write about places…I will match landscape with landscape.

He sees himself standing in his grandmother’s white stone house, where he used to spend his childhood summers.  There aged twelve he learned that:

no thing in the world is one thing; that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things.  I learned to find a queer pleasure in staring at a thing and dreaming of how many things it might be.

This becomes a refrain through the rest of the novel: ‘Each place is more than one place’…’It becomes harder and harder to write about things dreamed of by the young man I had dreamed of becoming’…’You may well suspect me of having changed the names of streams only to confuse you…But if I do not write what I am about to write, reader, these pages will be endless’.

The long second part of the novel deals with the narrator’s love for a ‘girl from Bendigo Street’.  He calls her his girlfriend.  It’s a poignant love-letter to her; it’s a reflection on the lost opportunity (in this sense it puts me in mind of Le Grand Meaulnes) and what J.M. Coetzee perceptively calls an elusive act of atonement.  This part of the novel is more ambitious and engaging than the first, as it loops, repeats and teases.  As he dreams and remembers his childhood days between the ‘Moonee Ponds and the Merri’, cycles of the Catholic calendar, naive tinkering with religious terminology (he merges ‘Paraclete’ with ‘parakeet’ in his mind), verses from the bible and the image of the fig tree turning green recur like hallucinations.  ‘Each person is more than one person’.

When the words I quoted earlier from Eluard appear on page101, they spark off another incantation:

The other world, in other words, is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books.  If you or I, reader, happen to glimpse part of that world drifting past, as it were, it is because we have seen or dreamed of ourselves seeing for a moment as a narrator or a character in a book sees or dreams of seeing.

I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in modern, non-traditional fiction.  It’s

Marcel Proust (Wikimedia Commons)

Marcel Proust (Wikimedia Commons)

difficult not to find the enigmatic passages such as those I’ve quoted here mysteriously compelling.  Like the novels of Murnane’s heroes – Proust, Calvino, Emily Bronte, Hardy – Murnane deals with the concepts of loss, memory and resurrection.  As I finish this piece I’m inclined to suggest that it needs reading more than once.  It lingers in my memory like a fugue, and I feel that my initial muted response was perhaps a consequence of not tuning in to the strange music of Inland first time round.  Near the novel’s end the narrator tells of his first hearing of a piece of classical music:

Near the end of that music I heard a pause.  The solemn themes of the music paused for a moment.  Just before the clouds of music had drifted overall the sky and just before the four winds whistled and the last struggle began, I heard the pause of the summer that seemed nigh.

These ‘solemn themes’, he says, are not, ‘by now’, themes but ‘men and women, and when they pause for the last time they look over their shoulders.’  He returns to the frequently invoked biblical image of the resurrection of Christ represented as the fig tree turning from grey to green:

For an absurd moment within that moment, the listener or the reader dares to suppose that this after all is the last theme: this and not the other is the end; the green has outlasted the grey; the grey has been covered over at last by the green.

Cover of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of 'Inland' (from their website)

Cover of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of ‘Inland’ (from their website)

The novel ends in a graveyard where he ponders mutability, mortality and what might have been.  The closing words, fittingly, are taken from the ending of Wuthering Heights.  I’ve come to realise, as I re-read the final pages of Inland, that it is an extraordinary work of high seriousness and profound beauty.  One just has to learn to read it as a meditation on the relationship between reading, writing and existing in world of duality:

Today while I write on this last page, I am still thinking of the young woman.  Today, however, I am sure the young woman is still alive.  I am sure the young woman is still alive while I am dead.  Today I am dead but the young woman remains alive in order to go on reading what I would never write.