I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
You don’t HAVE to read Mermaid Singing, the first of Clift’s memoirs about living on a Greek island in the 1950s, in order to understand what’s going on here; not least because they’ve moved islands, so it’s a whole new crowd of people. But I think it helps, because you come with a sense of what Clift and her husband George Johnston have already experienced, why they left London, and thus can better appreciate their experiences.
Like Mermaid Singing, this is a “domesticity in the exotic” story – Clift and her family living now on Hydra, a small, largely poor Greek island, on the cusp on becoming A Destination for the Artistic, the Beautiful, and the Hangers-On. Clift and her husband/collaborator have bought a house, which brings with it large dollops of angst: partly because of the never-ending requirement for repairs, on a budget that’s basically nonexistent; and partly because now they are settled, they are halfway back to being bourgeois, and many of their fellow Artistic Types can’t figure out if they’re jealous or derisive. Both, it seems.
Unlike Mermaid Singing, Clift is much more ambivalent here about the whole experience: both her own experience, and what island life is like. While in the first she and George are actively writing a novel together about the sponge divers, here she seems to be entirely consumed with looking after the house and the children – indeed, she is hugely pregnant as the book opens, an experience which understandably consumes a significant part of her mind and time. George gets to clatter away at the typewriters, but Clift is busy buying food, making dinner, caring for the baby and the other two children, and so on. Sometimes she seems content with this, and at other times deeply frustrated, worried she is merging into that always-has-been, always-will-be experience of motherhood that she sees all around her. So… a fairly familiar experience, no doubt, for many women who find motherhood a time of personal conflict.
Island life bounces between the seeming idyllic – the beach swim every afternoon, cheap and bountiful food, glorious landscape, interesting if infuriating neighbours (usually it’s the foreigners who are infuriating) – and its opposite. There’s hardly any water to be had in summer. Many people’s health is poor, there are huge prowling alley cats, rubbish is dumped directly into the harbour and no one knows where the sewers drain. Clift doesn’t shy away from the negatives, and also makes little effort to reconcile the two extremes; it’s the reality of life, after all.
A lot of time is spent talking about the other foreigners, for whom she uses pseudonyms, and it’s probably a good thing she did. Having read the introduction, though, it seems their identities are – were? – no secret; Henry and Ursula are Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia. Clift presents the various non-Greeks as looking for inspiration or pretending to do so, living dissolutely because they can afford to; some of them are getting allowances from parents, for instance, so they barely even need to dabble in their art. Not so for Clift and Johnston, who are trying to eke out a living on royalties. I don’t even want to look up Hydra today, for fear it’s exactly as Clift prophesied – fancy tourist hotels for the Beautiful People – which may or may not have had positive benefits for the people whose ancestors initially colonised the place.
In some ways I can’t believe this book is more than 60 years old. Parts of it show what feels like a very modern sensibility, while other bits are clearly products of the 1950s. It’s gorgeously, evocatively, provocatively written and I hope lots of people get to read it.
It really annoys me when people say ‘this book isn’t what I expected’ and then write a negative review as if it’s the books fault that the reader had the wrong impression.
This book isn’t what I expected.
My review isn’t a negative one, but I do want to explain what I expected, in case others are similarly misled.
I thought this book was predominantly about words, and lost words, and gendered language. I expected the narrative to be driven by words and for them to be centre stage, or that they would somehow frame the narrative.
Books, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, are indeed important to the story. But words do not drive or frame the narrative. Esme, the main character, grows up around the men compiling the OED and herself becomes involved in that; she does find and compile ‘lost words’, in the varied senses of that phrase. The story, though, is the story of Esme as a young white English woman at the turn of the 20th century, and her experiences: with the OED, of sexism, of the women’s suffrage movement, of loss and love and friendship. She uses the words she finds to help navigate the world; she learns words from people of different classes in an effort to validate the existence of all words; and sometimes, of course, words are useless. Contrary to my expectations, words are secondary to the biography of Esme.
Having said all of that, this is a lovely novel. Williams writes beautifully, she does use the idea of words as gendered in interesting and meaningful ways, and Esme is of course living in a fascinating era. I wasn’t expecting the suffrage issue to be as significant as it turned out to be: I already know a lot about this as an issue, but for someone coming to it with little knowledge, this is a pretty great introduction to the actions (and words) of the suffragettes, and those who were opposed to their means.
You might notice that I don’t read a whole lot of realist fiction. When I do, I want it to do something interesting and clever and make me think. I have thought about gendered language, and about the gatekeepers of knowledge and language, so for me the ideas weren’t brand new. They are, though, presented in a deeply engaging manner, with neat intersections between ideas and with sympathy for different perspectives. I really enjoyed it.
I had thought that I liked travel memoirs. And I do – I can enjoy a good ‘and then we went here and experienced that’ story. But I’ve eventually realised that what I really enjoy is what I choose to call ‘domesticity in the exotic’. Exotic is a loaded word, but I use it here to evoke a sense of difference that I don’t think ‘foreign’ really captures; and I’m just as including a Brazilian or Nigerian writing about moving to Melbourne as I am a Londoner moving to Provence (I think Romulus, My Father arguably fits neatly into my category).
Before A Year in Provence or Under a Tuscan Sun came Mermaid Singing, by Australian Charmian Clift.
I read this book thanks to NetGalley. I’m incredibly pleased that it’s been republished.
Its most obvious parallel is My Family and Other Animals, and the rest of the Corfu Trilogy. Indeed, they were originally published in the same year, 1956. But ‘parallel’ is right: they seem to start similarly and go in the same direction – family moves impetuously to Greek island, experiences with Greek locals don’t always go as expected, genteel poverty etc – but they are fundamentally separated stories. Where My Family is written two decades after the events, Mermaid is contemporaneous. Where Durrell was the spoilt youngest son of the family and was off having adventures and occasionally going to school, Clift is a writer and a mother and a wife; while she has adventures, they’re not the focus, because she has the cares and concerns of an adult: both for her own family and the way she views the people around them.
My Family is a fond recollection of a childhood dream, /something something the world before World War 2 blah blah. Mermaid Singing is part ‘domesticity in the exotic’, but also a rumination on the hardship of Kalymnos life, and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950s trying to forge and continue a career alongside motherhood.
Clift writes beautifully, and evocatively. Kalymnos is an island that largely relies on about 10% of its population going out on sponge-diving expeditions for 7 months of the year – a dangerous occupation and one that’s bringing back less revenue as, in the 50s, artificial sponges are taking over the market. It’s also an island still, in Clift’s experience, in the grip of patriarchal attitudes (and Clift herself is part of this as she notes she has no right to comment on whether someone has beaten his wife at the end of a drunken week). The whole reason for moving here is for Clift and her husband to collaborate on their third novel, this one to be about the sponge-divers. And they do manage to do this, in between drinking a lot of retzina and being closely observed by all their neighbours and seemingly endless rounds of engagements and baptisms.
This is no day-by-day account of life. Like A Year in Provence it follows a year, observing the changes to life as the seasons come and go. Clift observes moments: a friend giving birth, experiences in the taverna, the experiences of her two children during Carnival…. As a gifted writer, she uses these moments to reflect on life itself – and death; and she conjures a wondrous view of Kalymnos. Is this likely to reflect the lives of the people who lived there their whole lives? Perhaps not. Perhaps they would recognise some aspect of their lives but be confused by an emphasis or examination. It does seem like a genuine reflection of Clift’s experience – an an ex-pat Australian, a writer, a woman who didn’t quite fit the expected mould of womanhood on the island.
I’m inspired to buy this in hard copy if I come across it.
I received this book from the publisher at no cost, via NetGalley.
If you have read any of Simon R Green’s Nightsider books, or his Hawk and Fisher, then you already have a sense of what this book is like. Whether you enjoy that or not is a different matter – Green has a definite style, and it’s on display here. (There’s a level to which it’s true of the Deathstalker books, too, although they have a whole other thing going on as well.)
Green’s style happens to work very well for me, as a rule, now that I know what to expect. Witty banter, cheerful playing with tropes, a courteous if shallow nod to the notion of substance, with a narrative that’s mostly flash and style in a “I’m fabulous and loving it” way. It’s not quite textual candy floss – there’s a bit more substance than that – but maybe it’s… candied peanuts. Tasty, some nutrition, pretty sweet, and even I can’t eat toooo many of them at a time. But I love it when I do have them. (And some people hate them.)
This book is a heist story and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Characters literally call it a heist and the section headings do too. So you know what you’re getting, and it delivers. The first part, therefore, is getting the team together, which is often my favourite part of such stories. Our narrator is now called Gideon Sable – we don’t know who he used to be. His first recruit is Annie Anybody, master of disguise (who, I now realise, is therefore much like Face in the A-Team) who is also Sable’s ex, which of course is going to lead to some tension. Then there’s a Ghost – who is actually a ghost; the Damned (… who, I now realise, is something like BA… in the A-Team…), who is damned for a dreadful misdeed but is spending his remaining time on earth killing bad people just to stick it to Hell; and Johnny Wilde (…who is… a lot… like Murdoch…), aka the Wild Card, who does terrifying things to reality.
(I’ll just stop here and think about the A-Team similarity. Sable doesn’t smoke a cigar and there’s no tanks; I don’t think this is actually deliberate. It’s just that those tropes – disguise, muscle, the spanner in the works – are exactly that; tropes, and useful ones at that.)
Team gets together, team plans heist, team attempts heist, hijinks ensue. The fun thing with a relatively standard narrative is knowing what to expect, AND the ways the author gets to spin expectations – and with Green, have fun and do ridiculous things along the way. Because, as this is Green, it is of course no ordinary setting: this is the magical side of London (a well-traveled path, I know), which means objects that defy reality and people with terrifying abilities and a ball point pen that can stop time (only briefly though).
This is a fun book. At times silly, always fast-paced, it’s also short at about 160 pages in my e-copy – so there’s no mucking around.
Sometimes I make myself feel guilty about my book choices. Occasionally it’s the actual type of book – although that’s less common since I taught myself to (generally) not be embarrassed about romance fiction. More often these days it’s about re-reading. Because how can I consider re-reading when there are books I own that I haven’t read yet??
2020 involved both a fair bit of guilt and a fair bit of “need comfort, shuddup brain”. I got to December and really wanted to read a certain trilogy but realised I had already comfort-re-read it that year. I found something else that was reassuring to read instead.
This post is brought to you because I just finished re-reading the Ancillary trilogy by Ann Leckie. It was the fifth time I had read Ancillar Justice, and the fourth time for Ancillary Sword and Mercy. (I seem to have not read Sword when it first came out, or something??) And there are still things that I had forgotten – details that delighted me again – and bits that I had forgotten. And along with all of that, the magnificent reasons why we – I – re-read: the comfort of knowing that the writing will be good. That (in this instance) things will work out ok, despite the dramatic and serious problems. That even though I’ve forgotten details, I know in the back of my head these are books that I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy. I inhaled them, once again.
The fact that Breq refers to everyone as “she” because there’s no gendering in her language struck me again, not least because I remember it being one of the big issues everyone brought up eight years ago when it was published; this sort of recursive thinking is also part of the reason for why re-reading is fun – you get to reflect on your initial reflections and see how things have changed. I admit, I did once again find myself sometimes wondering about the gender of different characters, just like every other time, and then reminding myself that the point is it literally doesn’t matter. I was also massively struck, once again, by the imperialism and colonialism aspects – Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire now contributes to the dialogue on this issue in fascinating ways that I still haven’t sat down to fully analyse.
The part that got me more this time is the delightful almost-domestic aspects that contrast spectacularly with the empire-threatening aspects. Breq and Seivarden’s relationship – its development, its purpose, the difficulty both of them have with it; relationships between crew and ship; and the actual familial relationships too. I find I am becoming more interested in exploring ‘found family’ in fiction, and I’m intrigued to realise how often this is part of the narratives I already enjoy.
This will not be the last time I read this trilogy and I am almost excited for future-me that I get to come back again.
(After finishing Mercy I then spent about an hour and a half faffing around trying to figure out what to do next because my brain really wanted to start re-reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, and I felt too guilty to consider it. Then I finally gave in. And Ninefox Gambit is just mad, wonderful, brilliance (and I had completely forgotten how it opens). )
I read a very abridged version of Beowulf ages ago. I’ve watched that appalling Christoper Lambert film, because Christoper Lambert, but I haven’t seen the Angelina Jolie one. And most recently I read The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley and fell madly in love with it (it’s roughly a modern imagining of the poem).
Then I heard Headley had done a translation of Beowulf. And then I listened to The Writer and the Critic talk about both Headley books, and they reminded me to buy the translation. Of course, after watching The Dig, it was finally time to read it.
What an absolute joy.
The best way to give you a sense of how Headley has approached the translation is to use the example that a lot of people have pointed to, and with good reason: her translation of Hwaet. This word has been translated several dozen different ways over the years. It’s kind of a placeholder “pay attention!” word; I use ‘so’ and ‘all right’. You might use ‘look’, or archaically ‘lo’, or ‘behold’. Headley? Oh, she uses “Bro”.
Translation is always of its time, even if you’re trying to be anachronistically archaic. Headley has fully embraced the fact that this was published just into the 21st century, so there’s supermodern language – stan and swole and hashtag: blessed – that sometimes feels startling but always appropriate. Simultaneously, she has totally gone in for the ideas of rhythm and rhyme and alliteration found in the original:
The nails were notorious, hard as though
smith-forged, and the heathen’s hand
was callused as a carpenter’s, weathered
by work and warring (lines 985-88).
The above paragraph, by the way, is indicative of the fact that reading the Introduction to this book is highly recommended. You could, of course, go straight into the poem – of course you could. For me, though, knowing about Headley’s approach to the whole concept of translating this thousand-year-old poem, how she considered language and the gendered problems with considering Grendel’s mother, deepened my appreciation for her word choices and the entire enterprise.
The poem Beowulf centres, mostly, on the hero Beowulf, who slays the “monster” Grendel, and Grendel’s mother when she seeks vengeance… and he then goes on to be king for decades (that bit’s largely skipped over in the poem), before battling a dragon when he’s too old for that kind of shit. So in a sense it’s a heroic poem. On the podcast Backlist, though, the claim was made that it’s the original horror story too – Grendel coming in the night to kill men in their sleep, and no one can stop him. There’s also the aspect that it’s a meditation on the notion of kingship, and heroism, and masculinity… honestly there’s a reason that there are many dozens of translations and endless journal articles. There’s a lot to talk about.
I’m not a massive reader of poetry, so if you’re put off by the poetry I would say this one is worth a go. The ideas, the language – it’s just enchanting. And I would also recommend doing it the way I did: give yourself a couple of hours and read the whole thing straight through. You get into a rhythm with the language, you get into the zone of the Danes and Geats being all macho, and you follow the thread of Beowulf from hero to death.
I’m so glad Headley was convinced to do this.
Every now and then I fall into reading one of those stranger-in-a-strange-land books, where some person goes to live in a foreign-to-them country and has amusing experiences. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about this genre – although I’ve never read one that goes out of its way to exoticise the locals, there’s still a potential voyeurism or paternalism that makes me wary. However, I truly loved Under the Tuscan Sun, and Driving Over Lemons was also a delight. The thing that makes me a bit less uncomfortable about these is that they’re white Brits or Americans moving to Europe… which somehow feels less likely to be fraught than, say, a white Brit or American moving to Thailand, or Nigeria. In my mind, that seems much more likely to go difficult places.
Anyway: when I came across A Year in Provence in a secondhand shop I couldn’t remember if I’d read it – surely I had! it’s a classic! – and then I read the first bit and realised nope, never have. Thus, bought.
And it is a delight. I can see why it’s become such a popular book (although I am deeply unconvinced about watching it as a tv show). The style – that Mayle goes through a calendar year, basically following the rhythms of the seasons and how that affects the way farmers, in particular, live – is deeply affective. Yes, there are bits where Mayle is getting amusement out of locals’ quirks; it never feels to me that it’s malicious, and I hope that’s not just me being naive (although that’s possible). It is, of course, a deeply romantic view of living a provincial life. Part of this is the time in which it’s written – the late 1980s – and that feels like (is, I think) a completely different world. And partly this is Mayle’s love letter to his experiences. He doesn’t completely sugarcoat his life – the exigencies of getting labourers to finish their work sounds excruciating – but the humour and general love of life that he exudes makes reading about it just a dream. Also ohmygoodness the FOOD.
I didn’t know there was a sequel, until I found it, soon after reading the first. It’s different in style – I guess repeating the calendar idea wouldn’t have worked. Basically the first thing he opens with here is the fact that the first book made him famous, to the point where strangers would turn up at his door demanding an autograph – and in some cases just wander into his house. Who does that?! I quite liked that he reflected on the consequences of his work – makes it seem more real, in some ways. Again, there’s a lot about food, and that’s completely fine with me. There’s a lot about the house, and local experiences. It’s… cosy. Delightfully cosy. And it makes me wonder whether anything like this life still exists in Provence; my guess is no. Maybe other parts of France?
Living like Mayle is, of course, a fairly affluent choice; most of his neighbours are farmers, working very hard for their bread, while (if you’re being mean) Mayle is a dilettante gentleman-farmer doing whatever he likes. But if you read this as a semi-fantasy, which I think is how I approached it, they’re lovely books. I understand there’s a third book, too; one day I’ll find it.
Many years ago I randomly came across a book by Tim Severin – I think it was either his Jason or his Ulysses voyage. I was immediately in love: this was a man who takes a mythical journey, makes a ship according to what can be understood of the shipbuilding techniques from the time of the myth, and then sets out to recreate said journey. His point being to see what’s feasible, and to investigate to what extent aspects of the original journey can be matched up to what can be seen today (where ‘today’ is the 1970s, mostly).
Ever since that first encounter, I have sporadically checked secondhand shops to find more Tim Severin books like that first one. I’ve found a few – one of his first travelogues is following the tracks of Marco Polo by motorbike, undertaken long enough ago that he was able to get through Afghanistan but not into China. And just this year I finally came across The Brendan Voyage.
I had never heard of St Brendan and the stories about him and a few monks going to sea in a leather boat (a currach), and visiting various islands, on a voyage lasting months – in the 6th century AD. Severin does a good job of recounting the key points of the story, to give an indication of what he’s trying to emulate.
The first step must be to make the boat, and that in itself is a feat: he literally wants to go sailing in the Atlantic in a boat basically made of leather. Wooden struts, yes, but the hull just… cured leather. Before any construction, therefore, there’s research into what sort of leather and how it can work. Honestly I loved the story of the voyage, but I also really enjoyed the story of just finding the people to make the boat in the first place.
Clearly, the boat is eventually constructed, and the small crew sets out. And here I really appreciated Severin’s skill as a narrator: he doesn’t try to give a day-by-day account, when that’s not necessary. Instead, he gives a great sense of the overall vibe of the thing, and it’s genuinely gripping. After all, the boat is tiny, and we are talking the Atlantic here. As with the Jason and Ulysses stories, Severin is interested to see whether their journey can match up some of the odder, more mythical aspects of the Brendan story, and in many instances I think he makes a fair case. There is no doubt that the achievements of that little boat are remarkable – and show what could have been done by an even more experienced crew, back in the day.
I have no idea why I bought this book, or when. I assume that I thought it was mostly about Lenin, and how he got to the point in April 1917 that he arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd and revved up the Bolsheviks to commit further revolution.
It does have that. But a lot of the book is about the development of revolutionary sentiment more broadly in Europe in the 19th century… or the consequences of revolution… actually, thinking back, it’s a bit confused. And apparently it’s a great classic, which… I am unconvinced by. Maybe I’m out of the appropriate context to really appreciate it.
Turns out the book was written in 1940, which is all sorts of interesting given that it’s by an American, during World War 2 (although before American involvement), and before the Cold War. This date also means the style is not quite what I am used to, and therefore not always enjoyable or easy to read. And there are some seriously cringeworthy aspects too, like Wilson’s insistence on attributing certain things to a stereotyped national character, in both appearance and personality. And the worst times he does this are in relation to Jewish people – Marx, and Trotsky. I found it deeply distasteful; I can’t imagine what it would be like as, you know, a Jewish reader. (Well, I can; if you are Jewish, probably don’t read this.)
The first part of the book focuses on some French authors, the only one of whom I’ve heard of is Michelet. It examines their attitudes towards the French Revolution and suggests the ways that the 19th century changes how many French regarded their first revolution. I’m really not sure what the whole point of this section was, in retrospect. It was interesting to learn that attitudes changed, but I don’t really see how this led to the development of socialism. This development is the focus of the middle half, and was genuinely interesting – I think socialism is one of the most interesting of political ideologies and the different ways people have thought about it and considered its real-world application is fascinating. There is, of course, a significant amount of space devoted to Marx and Engels. I actually knew very little about the two men and their working relationship so that aspect was revelatory – Engels compelled to work as a bourgeois manager basically to support Marx! Marx a deeply unpleasant fellow (this does not surprise me)! I started getting my hopes up that Wilson wold give me a good overview of Marx&Engels’ communism; and while I do now understand the issue of dialectic materialism (… well, ish), without a more thorough grounding in Hegel I’m still in the dark about some of the finer points. As are most people, I think. Possibly including Marx.
The final section of the book is about Lenin and Trotsky (Ulyanov and Bronstein). I don’t know too much about the early lives of the men, so that biographical aspect was again quite interesting. Wilson was surprisingly favourable towards Lenin – the introduction to the book makes excuses for this, pointing out Wilson’s lack of access to sources given when he was writing, and providing some examples of Lenin being a right horror, as balance. I did not, in the end, feel like I got much more of a grasp of Lenin and Trotsky’s politics, which is interesting to reflect on.
I think I’m ok with having read this, having already read a lot around both the French and Russian Revolutions. I won’t be recommending it to anyone, though, except for historical reasons – that is, understanding what someone in 1940 thought about it all.
My mum picks such interesting books for me! I hadn’t heard of this before it arrived for my birthday; I had heard of Turner and Richardson but knew nothing about them – I’ve never read anything by any of these women.
Before talking about the great things, there were two things that disappointed me deeply about this book, and they’re both factual errors that really don’t have a connection to the histories themselves but are nonetheless troubling. I can only hope they’re both editorial mistakes. One: in speaking of the English suffragette movement, Niall mentions “Adela Pankhurst and her daughters”. This should be Emmeline – Adela is one of the daughters. Adela was the one who ended up in Australia, so I guess this is an understandable mistake. However, in speaking of Australian suffrage, Niall gives 1908 as the year in which (white, which is also not stressed) Australian women gained the right to vote; it was actually 1902. Like I said, superficially small errors, but pretty significant for the history suffrage.
The book is set up as biographies – primarily literary biographies – of the four women. As individuals their lives are all quite fascinating: Baynton is probably my favourite, although the one I would be least likely to befriend; for instance, she was annoyed at her third husband for refusing the crown of Albania (there’s a whole story about why taking it would have been a dreadful idea). All four of them dealt with a variety of hardships – some particular to their era, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while others are all too familiar (family hardship, women ignored, the difficulty of being paid as a writer…). Niall writes engagingly and seems to have done spectacular archival research to dig up letters and diaries to get into the mindsets of these very different women.
Turner wanted to be taken seriously as a writer; Seven Little Australians was a money-making machine and she ended up being pigeonholed as a children’s writer (so familiar for too many women). I’d never realised that this book has an urban setting and just how remarkable this was for its time, when Australia was so much about the bush, thank you Banjo and Henry (whom Turner knew). Conversely, Baynton wrote about the bush – but in almost vicious terms; the one story I really want to read was throwing Henry Lawson’s story “The Drover’s Wife” under a bus. Henry Handel Richardson was considered for a Nobel Prize, and also wrote urban stories – and wasn’t especially interested in being considered a particularly “Australian” author, which was intriguing for the time. And Palmer was, for her time, a leading critic and champion of Australian authors – not a leading female critic, but leading critic, period.
My mum knows me well: this books fits within Joanna Russ’ campaign for women to know their literary ancestry – to remember that there have been women writing before them, that we do have a history to be proud of. Australian literature’s history isn’t all bush ballads, or the agony of Patrick White. It’s also the story of girls at private schools, kids in crappy inner-city suburbs, and epic ‘European’ novels. These writers need to be reclaimed as an important part of our heritage.