A Beautiful Moment in China

A Beautiful Moment in China
Yes, I look weathered; it had been a long climb. But I was about to reach the Buddhist temple outside of Shao Xing.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Dark Stories but Brilliant Writing

The Midnight Promise, by Zane Lovitt

The protagonist of this book, John Dorn, began his business calling himself a “private inquiry agent” rather than private investigator.  After leaving the police force, you see, he still had some ideals and wanted to distinguish himself from the corrupt and ruthless types he knew in the profession.  The book comprises ten stories, each dealing with a different case, and each case is a step deeper for Dorn into the psychological morass which bottomed only when he made a promise to himself.

It was a long time after he had obtained his licence, Dorn tells us in his prologue: “After I started the drinking and after I was kicked out of my home and after my head got stuck all the way up my arse.  I made my promise in a border town in the middle of nowhere, at what was literally my darkest hour. There was even a clock tower chiming midnight, right at the moment I said the words, if you believe it.”

The promise occurs at the very end of the last story.  Until then we are absorbed in a world where Dorn deals with drug addicts, psychopaths, suicidal teenagers, inter-ethnic violence, feuding porn-store operators and coppers who are burnt-out or corrupt.  He is sometimes willing to take on a case unpaid because he feels sorry for the client.  At other times he isn’t above telling someone he distrusts to “**** off” when they beg his services but plead poverty.  And all the time his own financial status grows more and more dire.

Zane Lovitt lives in Melbourne, Australia.  While several of the stories have been published elsewhere, this is his first book—and what a book it is!

As the narrator John Dorn is both intelligent and reflective, casting a severe light on himself as much as on other people in his dark and gritty world.  While the language can get into the gutter with the characters it can also be original, incisive and vivid.  This is literary detective fiction at its best.

It’s not a “who-dunnit”: the focus is much more on the people than on the crimes in which they are tangled.  Most of them are unlikeable at best.  One exception is Demetri, the lawyer, who is a faithful friend despite all Dorn’s self-absorption, selfishness and cruel ingratitude.  And there is a kernel of decent humanity in the detective himself that eventually manages to realise some of its potential, as the prologue suggests:

“I used to lug my stories around with me like caged birds, screeching and crapping and demanding all my attention.  I dwelt on my stories, which means I dwelt on myself. And sure, everybody does that, but I was the Super Heavyweight Champion.  I was the CEO…And that’s what this is.  This is the tumbling road to a single moment that changed all that.”

The stories are gripping and insightful, even at their ugliest.  I could not stop reading them and I’m glad of the experience.  And I’m glad to know from the prologue that John Dorn came through and healed because of his promise that midnight.

“The promise I made was that I’d never let it become about me.  Or at least, never again.”

The book was published in print by Text Publishing in 2012 and is also available in digital form.  May it be only the first of many by this excellent author.

Monday, 3 September 2012

A Profound Tale for All of Humanity

A Profound Tale for All of Humanity

Dissonance, by Stephen Orr (Wakefield Press)

South Australian author Stephen Orr writes powerful prose with compelling themes.  In this recent novel his main focus is on the psychodynamics of the mother-child relationship as expressed in the effort to make worldly success out of apparently innate talent.  When you find that your child is “gifted” what should be your role in the channelling of the special ability?  When does loving, diligent devotion to your child’s development become tyrannical, smothering abuse?

These questions arose as I read the story of Erwin Hergert and his mother Madge.  At the outset they live in South Australia’s Barossa Valley in a community comprising mostly people descended from the early German colonists.  Erwin’s father is one such.  This part of the narrative is set in the 1930s when the old language and Lutheranism of their ancestors are still very much alive.  Madge’s son is still a baby when she uses her whip to drive his father out of the house and into the shed where he lives until death years later.  Erwin shows exceptional ability as a pianist at an early age and, dissatisfied with the available music teachers, Madge takes on the job herself.  Her dedication is complete, her methodology severe: the cane hovers over the boy’s fingers as he plays, striking when he makes a mistake.  His compulsory practice sessions are long and the schedule unrelenting.  The whip emerges at intervals through the novel—both in Madge’s hands and, later, in her son’s.

Erwin becomes a highly awarded pianist as he grows up.  At Madge’s insistence in 1937 he migrates with her to Germany at the age of fifteen to find the teaching and opportunities that she deems unavailable in Australia.  They both have enough command of Barossa Deutsch to communicate and survive in Germany.  Erwin continues to develop as a musician, forms a close relationship with a local girl, and is eventually swept into the vortex of the Second World War.

Stephen Orr makes a considerable effort to present the social settings of both pre-war South Australia and Nazi Germany; he does so strongly and credibly.  Nevertheless, human relationships are his central concern.  While that between Erwin and Madge dominates, several of their other relationships are explored in considerable depth.

I won’t spoil the story for readers by revealing more.  But be prepared for an emotional ride as you follow Erwin; there are some gut-wrenching episodes, especially in Nazi Germany.  And there are times when we feel elated with the sense of promise only to be cast into sadness as hope is snatched away again. 

This is an utterly absorbing but complex novel that raises some important questions for Australia about such things as the value and nurturing of artistic talent, as well as national identity and culture.  But the novel’s essential focus and appeal transcend nationality and era: Stephen Orr leads us on a journey into the psychological depths of parent-child relations.  Dissonance is thus a profound tale for all of humanity.  You can purchase it in either print or digital form.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

A Novel That Deserves Resurrection

A Novel That Deserves Resurrection
The Garden, by L.A.G. Strong

There are some literary creations buried in the debris of our cultural neglect that are worthy of resurrection.  One of them is by L.A.G. Strong (1896—1958), highly respected during his lifetime as the eclectic author of many novels and collections of stories, poems, essays and other works.  I first fell in love with his writing close to fifty years ago when I picked up a collection of his short stories from my father’s bookshelf.  It was called Travellers, and elementary research on the web tells me that it was published in 1945 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I don’t know where that particular copy is now and it is long since out of print, but I’ll continue to hunt for another.

Nevertheless several of Strong’s novels have lately emerged as e-publications, including The Garden.  I downloaded it recently to my Kindle and now treasure it in my personal list of “Best Ever Written”.  This bitter-sweet tale had me swinging between heart-singing bliss and tearful, desperate grief.

The Garden tells the story of a boy, Dermot, growing up in Britain during the first years of the twentieth century.  His family are very well-off and well-educated.  His Irish mother married an Englishman who is at odds with much of her parents’ and relatives’ outlook on life—especially their religious bent.   Nearly all of the narrative occurs during the Dermot’s summers, which he spends in Ireland with his grandparents (whose garden gives rise to the title) and other relatives.  All is told in the third person but from the boy’s point of view.

There are many reasons why I love The Garden, some personal and some pertaining to Strong’s writing.  Among the latter I'll mention his unpretentiously vivid prose: descriptions of the Irish setting—natural, built and human—are powerful; the characters are diverse but strongly portrayed, especially through dialogue.  (Strong is so good at catching the different accents and speech patterns of the different cultural groups and social strata.)  And this writer has such a wonderful ability to help us experience the world as the boy does.   

Some themes in the novel strike a personal chord with me.  They take the form of several persistent tensions in the story, all felt by Dermot, that made me ache for resolutions.  Always in the background and sometimes emerging centre-stage are the gulfs between Irish and English, between those with religion and those without, between social classes.  How these forces affect Dermot’s personal relationships with individuals who, to me are in themselves loveable, is sometimes heart-breaking.

All this tends to shape Dermot’s sense of identity.  Every year he endures school and life in Plymouth sustained by his memories of Ireland and anticipation of returning there. Eventually he has, in the author’s words, “an Irish memory, quite separate from his English memory. The Irish memory was qualitative.  It had its own time, its own space, its own emotions.”

Through the child's eyes in earlier years, tensions between individuals are implied to the adult reader; as the boy matures we confront them more directly, as he does.  The strains are there in Dermot’s changing relationships with each of his parents, between the parents themselves, and between him and a number of friends and relatives.

But in the face of all this, and despite the many bleaker months of each year spent in England, the richness of his intermittent Irish experience feeds his spirit.  And meanwhile Britain is moving towards war.

Our literary heritage is built upon many beautiful works like The Garden that have been almost forgotten.  We should go back to our cultural roots at times and look for writing that might help us re-discover authorial skills we have lost or provide the insights we need into what it means to be human.  Although it seems now to be deleted from Amazon's list, The Garden is available as an e-book through Bloomsbury Publishing.  I urge you to download and read it.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Writing Fiction about Music

Lately I have been working on fiction in which music is a key player.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!)  Music has certainly been essential to my life—to my very being in fact—from the age of five years and probably earlier.  So, as both a music-maker and music-teacher, I always have something to say about music.  But when it is central to a work of fiction, when I am attempting to help the reader experience through written language the music as made or heard by a character, certain fascinating questions arise.

For example, how can one best describe a melody in writing?  If it were a painting or another item from one of the visual arts there would be an abundance of vocabulary pertaining to subtleties of colour, shape, size, spatial relationships and so on.  True, we have words to describe  volume, pace, pitch, rhythm and other qualities relevant to music.  But, in contrast with writing about a painting, it seems to me that conveying the subtle variations and combinations of these aspects of a melody has an author working furiously to find adequate language.  Our lexicon has far more words and phrases applicable to visual impressions than it has for describing aural impressions.  Roget’s Thesaurus, for instance, has twice as many pages devoted to “Light” as it does to “Sound”.

Let’s come at this from the opposite direction.  I’m not by any means a visual artist but I’m a complete sucker for pictures by the impressionist school, such Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  My special Renoir favourite shows a girl combing her hair.  Click here to see it.  As you contemplate this picture, do you have music playing in your head?  I don’t mean a song—that involves words—but pure music.  I know there are people, musicians or others gifted with a highly developed musical intelligence, who would respond this way. But I wager that aural imagery would be very rare in the responses of most viewers.

My liking for impressionism is also apparent in my musical preferences.  Claude Debussy is probably the best known impressionist composer, so now listen to a piece of his music played here.  As you listen, keep your eyes shut to avoid visual sensations so that you can focus on the sound as much as possible.  What sort of imagery does this music evoke for you?

I have to say that my own response is largely tactile and kinaesthetic: in other words the music prompts me to touch and make muscular movements, because I want to play it with my hands as I listen.  But then I’m a trained pianist, and most people are not.  I suspect that, as you listen to this music of Debussy, most of you find a lot of visual images arising in your mind’s eye.  Did they include, by any chance, something like Renoir’s painting?

Ah yes, you saw the title of the music appear on your screen when you followed the link, didn't you?  In English it is The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.  But had you not known the title before hearing the piece would your mental imagery have been different?

Debussy gave visually loaded titles to some of his best-known and most-loved  works—like Clair de Lune, The Sunken Cathedral, and of course The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.  If Debussy had simply called them Number 1, Number 2 and so on, would they conjure up more or less visual imagery in the minds of listeners?  I suspect that the mental response would be just as visual, although the pictures “seen” by different listeners would vary greatly.

So, as a writer trying to convey the experience of a fictional listener with a layman’s appreciation of music, I may perhaps describe the visual imagery as it arises.  I may also describe the moods or thoughts or memories occurring as a result of the music.  But that is not the same as the music itself.

If the listener is a musician in the audience, the experience will be different.  Musicians tend to analyse the music they hear, perhaps constructing a silent critique of it.  As the writer I may now need to mention some technical terms and concepts essential to a musician’s practice of the art.  Will I need to explain to the reader what I mean by words like modulations, glissando, counterpoint, and modal?  Would this then be a real drag on the narration?

Of course, if my character is the person making the music I may need to convey other things such as some tension or exhilaration felt at specific points in the performance.  The character may be very aware of sensations in her body as it works on the music.  If the performer is in that peculiar state of mind called “the zone”, where she is utterly at one with the music, where the music seems to be occurring of its own accord through the medium of her body—is it even possible to give the reader a sense of such an experience?

Such, then, are my musings as I work on my stories.  So it was opportune that I recently read an outstanding memoir by elite Australian pianist Anna Goldsworthy, which largely concentrates on imparting the experience of making and listening to music.  Have a look at Piano Lessons.  I thoroughly recommend it to you as a brilliant piece of writing.   For a number of reasons it engrossed me and one day I may make it a subject for another post.

I’m keen to read any observations from you about this topic.