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, 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.