An Interview With Anne Blankman, Historical Novelist

I was impressed by Anne Blankman’s debut historical YA novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog, and wondered about the research she’d done for it. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about this.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanCongratulations on your debut novel, Anne. I found Prisoner of Night and Fog to be a thrilling read, but also a fascinating look at one particular period of German history. Why did you choose to set your novel in Munich in 1931?

Thanks so much for having me, Michelle! I’m a huge fan of your Montmaray books, and so pleased to be invited to visit your blog today.

My reasons for setting Prisoner of Night and Fog in Munich were rooted in Hitler’s history. Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Hitler lived in Munich. As my main character, Gretchen, initially has a close friendship with Hitler and has adored him for years, it was necessary that they reside near each other.

As for the year 1931, it was a pivotal time for the Nazis–in the previous year’s elections, they had increased their presence in the Reichstag from 12 to 107 deputies and they were poised to become the most powerful political party in Germany. Hitler was campaigning for the presidency; support for the Nazis was finally spreading throughout the country, instead of remaining localized in Bavaria. Everything hovered on the edge of an abyss–including Gretchen. Like most teenagers, she’s caught between childhood and adulthood, trying to discover who she is and what she believes.

There’s also a certain real-life event that occurs near the book’s end, which necessitated the story’s timeline, but it’s too spoilerish to reveal here to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet.

Can you tell us a bit about your research process? Do you read or speak German? Have you visited Munich or Berlin? Did this help/hinder the process of writing the book?

The research for this book was intense. I felt a responsibility to portray Hitler accurately, not just because he was a real person, but out of respect for his millions of victims. I read everything I could find: biographies, memoirs, psychological profiles, essays, social histories, you name it. I studied Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and his early speeches. Understanding his ideas, and his method of presenting them, was vital. Primary sources, such as maps and photographs, helped me envision the setting. I watched lots of old videos, too, including the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. There are many videos of Hitler on YouTube, as well, and I watched them over and over, studying the way he walked, how he used his hands when he talked, the cadence of his voice. Those are the little details that can make a story come alive.

I taught myself basic German phrases, but not enough to read any of my sources in a language other than English. My editor, Kristin Rens, is not only incredibly talented, but happens to be fluent in German and used to live in Munich. (When I learned this during the submission process, I was very grateful I’d done so much research because Kristin would have easily spotted inaccuracies!) Kristin helped me make sure that my characters sound like native German speakers. For example, in an early draft Gretchen bumps into a man and says, “I’m sorry.” It seemed fine to me, but Kristin explained that Germans would say, “Excuse me,” instead.

One of my favorite research tricks when I’m dealing with a subject I know nothing about, is to read a children’s non-fiction book on the topic. They tend to be written clearly and simply and hit the high points that you need to know. Then you can dig deeper.

When I started researching the history of psychology as background for Prisoner of Night and Fog, I was clueless – I hadn’t even taken the ever-popular Psych 101 course at university. I started by reading Kathleen Krull’s biography of Sigmund Freud. It provided an excellent starting point.

One of the most fascinating aspects of your book is the psychological study of Adolf Hitler and other members of his political organisation, the NSDAP. At one point, a (fictional) British psychoanalyst claims that “the NSDAP leadership seems to contain an extraordinarily high number of mentally diseased men. Narcissists, psychopaths, lovers of violence and death – something about National Socialism appeals to them on an elemental level.” Did you reach any conclusion about Hitler’s personality? Was he evil or mentally ill? Did he genuinely believe in his own ideas or was he simply very good at telling the German people what they wanted to hear, in order to gain power for himself?

Michelle, you’ve hit on one of the most controversial and hotly debated questions surrounding Adolf Hitler! Not even the major Hitler biographers, such as Ian Kershaw, Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Toland, Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest, can agree about Hitler’s personality and his motivations.

When I started my research, though, I knew I’d have to come to my own conclusions about Hitler or I wouldn’t be able to portray him at all. The more I investigated, the more I became convinced that Hitler was deliberately evil. I say “deliberately” because I believe that Hitler understood the consequences of his actions.

For the first twenty-odd years of his life, Hitler was casually anti-Semitic, as many people were during that time. After World War One, he even marched in the funeral procession of Kurt Eisner, a Jewish politician. Then, almost overnight, he started spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric. I suspect that his motives were political and he consciously latched onto the Jews as a convenient scapegoat. By focusing on a common opponent, he could band together his followers and catapult himself into power. In fact, Hitler says as much in Mein Kampf when he writes that a great leader can focus his people’s attention on a common adversary.

Whether the Nazi leadership was mentally ill or not, Hitler and his violent, hate-filled ideology had enormous popular support throughout Germany in the 1930s. Other countries – Britain and Australia, for instance – had their own charismatic Fascist leaders, but these men never gained enough popular support to achieve any significant political power. What was different about the situation in Germany, do you think?

In my opinion, to understand why Nazism was so successful in Germany, you need to go back to World War One. Not only had Germany surrendered, but her leaders had signed the Versailles Treaty, which acknowledged their country’s moral responsibility for the war. The treaty’s conditions were onerous: Germany owed millions in war reparations, lost some of her most fertile land, and had her military capped at a measly 100,000 troops. While the rest of Europe was enjoying the hedonistic, freewheeling 1920s, Germany was trapped in a cycle of dizzying inflation, sky-high unemployment, and skyrocketing crime rates. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Nazi Party surged forward in the polls. People were desperate for change, and Hitler promised to provide it.

The Nazi Party easily could have fallen by the wayside, though, as countless other political organizations did in Germany at this time. The reason why Hitler became so successful is, I think, because he figured out how to reach on people on their most basic level–their faith. He’s known to have that he wanted to appeal to his followers’ emotions, not their intellect.

If you ever watch old Party rallies, you’ll see how eerily they mimic portions of some religious services. The uniforms and pageantry, the flickering torchlight, the shouted liturgical-like responses seem religious. I suspect that Hitler knowingly perverted familiar and beloved elements of the Catholic Mass and Lutheran eucharist. As he wanted people’s unwavering support, he needed them to love him with a deep devotion–as though he were a modern-day savior. It’s incredibly calculated and cruel. And it worked, at least at first.

Prisoner of Night and Fog has a satisfying conclusion, but the story isn’t quite finished yet. Can you tell us anything about the sequel you’re writing?

Ooo, I have to be careful what I say here so I don’t give anything away to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet! Gretchen and Daniel are still the main characters, and there’s plenty of romance, murder, and danger. This time most of the action takes place in Berlin right after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship. Every move Gretchen and Daniel make could be their last, with both the Nazis and the police hot on their trail.

I’ll give you one more hint: Pay attention to everything Hitler says to Gretchen in the first book. His advice becomes crucial for her survival in the sequel.

Many thanks for having me, Michelle! Best wishes for your continued success!

‘Prisoner of Night and Fog’ by Anne Blankman

Complicated Disclaimer: I read this book when it was in copyedited manuscript form. I didn’t know the author, but the book’s editor knows the agent who sold the Montmaray books to Knopf (who is not really ‘my’ American agent, but my Australian publisher’s agent – I did say that this would be a complicated disclaimer). I was asked to read the manuscript so that if I liked it, a quote from me could go on the book jacket. I’ve been asked to do this before, and as always, I made it very clear to the editor that I could only provide a complimentary quote if I loved the manuscript. And this is the first time I’ve actually provided a quote for a book jacket, so there you go.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanPrisoner of Night and Fog is set in Munich in 1931, as Adolf Hitler begins his rise to power. Gretchen is the perfect Aryan girl, having grown up absorbing Nazi ideology. Her father fought alongside Hitler in the trenches of the First World War and then gave up his life to protect Hitler during the failed Nazi Putsch of 1923, so Gretchen has always been a special favourite of Hitler’s. She’s also close to Hitler’s beloved niece Geli, although her best friend is a sweet young woman named Eva Braun who works in the camera shop frequented by Hitler and his associates. It’s true that Gretchen has some difficulties – money has been tight, her mother wants Gretchen to give up her dreams of attending university, her brother Reinhard can behave very strangely sometimes – but she knows everything will be wonderful once the Nazis are in control of the country, especially as Reinhard seems to have found a sense of purpose among the SA Brownshirts. Then a young journalist called Daniel Cohen turns her life upside-down by a) revealing a terrible secret involving her father, and b) being incredibly handsome and clever and kind, even though he’s a Socialist, a sworn enemy of Hitler and, worst of all, a Jew.

Anne Blankman does an excellent job of weaving real historical events and people into a thrilling fictional murder mystery. She’d clearly done a tonne of research, but it didn’t come across as information-dumping to me. There are also detailed author notes at the end of the book, providing background information about the real-life people in the book and including a long bibliography for those who’d like to read more. I found the setting fascinating, but this is also a really engrossing story. Gretchen and Daniel are brave and believable protagonists, and even the minor characters had depth. Gretchen’s mother, for example, is weak-willed and easy to despise, but she’s also shown to be someone forced by circumstances to make some impossible, heartbreaking choices. I can’t truthfully say I ‘enjoyed’ the book, because the events were so horrifying (if it’d been a film, I’d have watched the second half with my fingers over my eyes, shouting things like, “Don’t go into that cellar, Gretchen!” and “Run, Gretchen, RUN!”). This is not a book full of warmth and humour. It’s dark and grim and occasionally shocking in its violence (although this shouldn’t really be surprising, given that most of the characters are Nazis). There is a bit of romance, but mostly the lovers are too busy fleeing murderous thugs to enjoy their developing relationship. It’s difficult to discuss the plot in much detail without providing spoilers, but I will say I found the conclusion satisfying – even though it’s clear the story isn’t quite over, and in fact, the author is working on a sequel. Recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those craving mystery and excitement, and those with an interest in twentieth-century European history.

Read More: An interview with Anne Blankman about the historical background to Prisoner of Night and Fog.

You might also be interested in reading:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley

Bat Babies And Other Minutiae

The book I’m working on now has required a lot of research – far more than for any other book I’ve written. Most of this research was done as part of the planning stages of the book, but there have also been many smaller facts I’ve needed to find out as I’ve been writing. Among the questions I’ve had to ask Google over the past few months are:

- How did the Secret Service agent who uncovered the Great Phenol Plot of 1915 get hold of that incriminating briefcase?
- What do you call those small yellow spongy things made of corn that are used as packing materials for fragile objects?
- What’s the name of the girl in The Scooby Gang who isn’t Velma?
- How many churches in Europe use human skeletons as interior design features?
- Can you actually buy genuine ancient Egyptian faience amulets, and if so, how much would one cost?
- How do you spell the names of those two bumbling detectives in the Tintin books?
- Is the nursery rhyme Ring Around The Rosie really about bubonic plague?
- How many Catholic saints have names starting with the letter ‘v’?
- Why does grapefruit juice interact with some medications?
and
- When did Rembrandt paint The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp?

Quite often, I get a bit distracted. Especially when I encounter photographs like this:

Bat Babies

A crib full of 2-3 week old baby Grey-headed Flying-foxes in care of Wildcare Australia at The Bat Hospital. Creative Commons Licensed image by Wcawikinfo.

I needed to answer a minor question about the feeding habits of flying foxes and ended up reading, um, quite a lot about them. (This may explain why I’m still working on this book, two years after I started it.) But did you know that flying foxes (as these fruit bats are commonly known in Australia, because they look like little winged foxes) don’t have echolocation and instead rely on sight, which is why they have such large eyes! Were you aware that there are more than sixty species of flying foxes, including the big-eared flying fox, the masked flying fox and (my favourite) the spectacled flying fox! Did you realise that these cute furry creatures carry fatal rabies-like viruses including Australian bat lyssavirus, and that some species of megabats have tested positive for Ebola!

Anyway, this is why Memoranda has been a bit quiet lately. However, coming up next week, I do have an interview with historical novelist Anne Blankman and a review of her debut novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog.

In the meantime – look at those bat babies!

(Don’t pretend you didn’t go, “Awww!” when you saw that photo.)

Some Thoughts On Reading

'Reading Woman' by Poul Friis Nybo (1929)

Gwenda Bond has a great post1 on her blog about what she calls “The Reading Police”, in which she says (among other things),

“I have zero patience for reader shaming or for making people feel lesser or unwelcome or clueless because they haven’t read the same things you have from some inevitably problematic canon checklist.”

I don’t like Book Snobs, either. And it was interesting to me that Ms Bond’s post was mostly about Science Fiction/Fantasy, because I’ve found certain fans of that genre to be among the Snobbiest of All Book Snobs2. I recall, for instance, an SFF-loving bookseller throwing a tantrum after a friend said something along the lines of “I’m not sure that’s my kind of book, because I don’t read a lot of fantasy.” Note, the friend had not said, “Fantasy sucks” or “People who like fantasy are idiots”. She had simply expressed an opinion about her reading preferences after being pressured to read a certain book, and in return, she received a blast about how that book WASN’T FANTASY, IT WAS URBAN PARANORMAL, plus a whole lot more, none of which made me want to read the book or ever visit that bookshop.

I think SFF Book Snobbery often comes from defensiveness. If you’ve spent the formative years of your reading life being sneered at for being a nerd and a geek, then it makes a kind of twisted sense that you would seek to exclude others if your club eventually becomes cool and popular (which SFF is, now). So, I do have a bit of sympathy for these people. I have a lot less sympathy for those who believe that only people with PhDs in English Literature, ideally old white male people, are allowed to have opinions about books. I have read a few reviews and articles written by such people lately and they annoyed me. This is why I was happy to read the following in a collection of David Malouf‘s work:

“I would just remind you, as gently as possible in this age of education, that the great books of the world survived into the twentieth century without being institutionalised in literature departments, and that readers got by, till very recently, without being tutored in the handling of a text.
I say this, not to indulge in that popular local sport of academics-bashing, but to suggest that the professional handlers of literature have no special authority in the making or breaking of canons – they are readers like the rest of us – and to claim as well that the only real training we need as readers is got by reading itself.3

I agree that it’s possible to be a thoughtful and critical reader of fiction without having any formal qualifications. But then, my formal study of literature ended in senior high school, so what would I know? Here are the only memories I retain from Mrs Jordan’s Higher School Certificate English class, none of which have much to do with literary theory:

1. Reading Wuthering Heights, at the same time that a particularly annoying ad was being aired on television, in which one sibling locked another out of the bathroom in order to have unhindered access to a certain type of toothpaste. This meant that when our class read Emily Brontë’s famous ghost-knocking-at-the-window scene, it was inevitable that someone would add in a squeaky sibling voice, “Let me in! Let me in! I bet you’re using my Colgate Gel!”, causing every student in the class to fall about laughing, while poor Mrs Jordan wondered what was going on. I have never been able to take Wuthering Heights seriously since that moment, but let’s face it, it’s a ridiculous book. Read Jane Eyre instead.

2. Studying the play Equus, and then Mrs Jordan putting on the R-rated video and saying, “Please don’t tell your parents about this!” Technically, she shouldn’t have been showing us the film because most of us were under eighteen, but believe me, none of our parents would have cared what we were watching. They were just pleased we’d stayed at school till Year Twelve and weren’t out roaming the streets being juvenile delinquents. What I was outraged about was that the film got a Restricted rating due to male nudity and not due to the violence against animals. Because apparently the censors thought Peter Firth’s penis was more horrifying than HORSES GETTING THEIR EYEBALLS SLASHED. I say “apparently” because I couldn’t bring myself to watch the eyeball scene – I got my friends to warn me when it was approaching, then I clapped my hands over my face. (I did watch the nudity. I don’t think that caused me any permanent psychological damage.)

3. Reading Jane Austen’s Emma, at the same time that The Sydney Morning Herald was running a series of articles about the life of a real Year Twelve student named Emma. I should point out that our year was the first to be subjected to a new, ‘improved’ version of the Higher School Certificate, so we were known as the Guinea Pig Year and there was considerable media attention paid to us, or at least to the Year Twelve students who attended exclusive private schools in the posh areas of Sydney and whose parents were doctors or politicians or Sydney Morning Herald columnists. So we spent a year learning about how difficult Real Emma’s life was, having to fit in her private tutoring sessions around debating practice while filling out applications for Oxford and Harvard, not to mention enduring terrible traumas like that awful time the family’s Rolls Royce suffered a flat tyre on the way to the Sydney Opera House where she was due to perform a violin solo . . . I am exaggerating, but not very much. Eventually Real Emma became aware that Year Twelve students in badly-resourced rural state schools (like mine) were less-than-sympathetic about her travails and she wrote an article along the lines of, “Don’t hate me just because I’m so beautiful and intelligent and talented”, which did not improve matters. But, as I said, our class was also reading about Austen’s Emma, who was equally annoying, and the two Emmas merged into one Super Annoying Emma in my mind, and that’s why I decided I hated Jane Austen. (But luckily, a few years after high school, I happened to read Northanger Abbey, which was hilarious, so then I read all the other Austen novels and they were excellent. Except for Mansfield Park, which features a heroine even more annoying than Emma.)

I did spend quite a few English lessons exchanging notes with a friend about Scritti Politti lyrics (that’s literary analysis, right?) and I also spent a lot of time staring out the window, making up stories in my head, which is good training for a future novelist, so I can’t say the classes were a total waste of time. And, despite my lack of literary qualifications, I’ve gone on to read and enjoy and think about a lot of books, and have even written a few of them myself.

So, in conclusion, Book Snobs of the World should just go hang out with Real Emma and Austen Emma, somewhere far, far away from me, and everyone will be much happier.

_____

  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.
  2. The least snobby are probably Young Adult literature readers, possibly because it’s a relatively new category of books, so there isn’t a vast canon. Romance readers are also fairly unsnobby, in my experience, except for the ones who think Real Romance can only be heterosexual, which is just silly.
  3. From ‘The Making of Literature’, the keynote address at the 1986 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which was later published in both Overland and in the book I’m currently reading, David Malouf: Johnno, short stories, poems, essays and interview, edited by James Tulip.

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

‘The Montmaray Journals’ Optioned For Film and Television

I’m happy to announce that the film and television rights to The Montmaray Journals have been optioned by an independent US production company. Here’s a statement from producer Lucy Butler:

Book One: 'A Brief History of Montmaray'

“Roommates Entertainment is excited to have optioned Michelle Cooper’s trilogy of novels entitled ‘The Montmaray Journals’ including ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’, ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’, and ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’. We feel passionately that the journey of the young, soul searching and strong female protagonist, Sophie, forging her way in life in the era of WW2, will not only be dramatic, visual, informational but upmost inspirational, and will be a magnet for the audiences young and old.”

Having a book optioned is merely the first step in what is usually a long and convoluted journey from the page to the big (or small) screen. However, Lucy’s enthusiasm for the Montmaray books and her understanding of their historical and cultural background convinced me that she would be the right person for the job, and I’m hopeful that any film or television series that results will be true to the spirit of the books. I wish the production team all the best as they get started on this project, and I’ll keep you posted about any further developments.

Some Literary Exhibitions

I haven’t actually visited any of these exhibitions (yet), but they sound interesting and they’re all book-related.
'The Oopsatoreum' by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum

Firstly, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has an exhibition to accompany Shaun Tan’s latest picture book, The Oopsatoreum. The book, about one of Australia’s most fearless (fictional) inventors, features actual objects from the Powerhouse collection, which are on display. There’s also “a magic lantern show, a working printing press and three spaces where you can draw, write, make or build”. The exhibition runs until the 6th of October.

A short walk away is the University of Sydney, which is showing a collection of the art of Jeffrey Smart, curated by his friend, the writer David Malouf, and including some of Smart’s final letters. It’s at the University Art Gallery until the 7th of March. While you’re there, pop across the quadrangle to the Nicholson Museum to see the giant LEGO Acropolis and try to spot the little LEGO Agatha Christie in the crowd.

Finally, to Melbourne, where the National Gallery of Victoria has an exhibition of images and garments, entitled Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion, showing until the 2nd of March. Steichen, the chief photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 to 1938, produced portraits of a number of Hollywood stars, including Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, and these are being exhibited alongside Art Deco fashion, including dresses by Chanel and Vionnet. Cool, you say, but what does this have to do with books? Well, among the photographs is his striking 1932 portrait of actress Loretta Young, which featured on the cover of this book:

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American edition

Miscellaneous Memoranda

- I really liked Erin Bow’s suggestion of a SNOT award for books (“given to STORIES NOT to be read ON TRANSIT, the SNOT shall honor and mark books that will make you ugly-cry while on a crowded cross-town bus”). A SNOT sticker would have warned me, for example, against reading Feeling Sorry for Celia on the train to work one morning and thereby saved me a fair amount of embarrassment (because I have not yet learned how to weep in a neat and dignified manner).

- The Guardian recently ran a series of articles on Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, including an amusing one about her incisive parodies of D. H. Lawrence and Mary Webb. There’s also a thoughtful discussion in the comments section of this article about the anti-Semitism in the book (which is definitely there, although I don’t think it’s quite as bad as many other English novels of the time).

- As I’ve been talking about Jane Gardam’s novels lately, here’s an interesting profile of her.

- And here’s yet another article about how mid-list authors are doomed, which I liked because it actually defined the term:

“A ‘mid-list’ author can be described as any author who does well but not spectacularly for a publisher: someone who might be consistently well-reviewed, will even be shortlisted for major prizes, but will not, or has not yet taken off to become a household name.”

So, I guess I might have moved from Emerging Writer to Mid-List Author, although I suspect I’d have an easier time getting my next book published if I was a Debut Author. After all, if publishers know from sad experience that your books do not sell in large (or even moderate) quantities, they are not going to fall over themselves to publish your next work, whereas if you’re completely unknown, there’s always a hope you’ll turn out to be the next J. K. Rowling. Okay, this is getting depressing. I need a squid to cheer me up.

- Today’s squid is from that bastion of scientific accuracy, Popular Science Monthly, circa 1878.

The giant squid, 'Popular Science Monthly, Vol 14,  1878-1879'

My Holiday Reading

I wasn’t supposed to be doing any holiday reading – I was meant to be finishing writing a book – but there’s just something about the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in Australia that forces you to lie about in a hammock, eating grapes and reading novels (and by ‘you’, I mean ‘me’). They were pretty good novels, though, and I guess I could argue that, as a writer, reading novels is an essential part of developing my professional skills. See, I wasn’t lazing about, I was working. Anyway, here’s what I read:

'All Change' by Elizabeth Jane HowardAll Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard was the fifth and final volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, a family saga set around the time of the Second World War. Although I’ve enjoyed this series very much, the fourth volume was the least compelling and I wasn’t sure a fifth novel was really necessary. It seemed to me as though the Cazalets had finally sorted out their lives for good – but no, in this book, everything falls apart, just as it did for a lot of wealthy English families in that post-war decade of upheaval. In All Change, bankruptcy looms for the Cazalets, although I must admit it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for them. The brothers have inherited a thriving timber business and numerous valuable properties from their father, but are too stubborn to accept business advice from their social inferiors (Hugh), too extravagant (Edward) or too indecisive (Rupert) to manage it effectively. Meanwhile, the women succumb to depression, dementia and terminal illnesses, have unhappy affairs and are exhausted by the demands of their badly-behaved children. There’s a whole new generation of characters that had me constantly referring to the family tree in the front of the book and there were quite a few continuity errors (for instance, Simon is described as having a dead twin, when that’s actually Will, who is mostly absent from this book). But I didn’t care! I devoured all six hundred pages in two days, thoroughly engrossed in the Cazalets’ story and sad that this was truly the end, as Elizabeth Jane Howard died last week at the age of ninety. She left behind a number of excellent novels and a lot of devoted fans of her work.

I also read Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, an excellent children’s novel about an orphaned girl sent to live in Brazil in 1910. Among the characters Maia encounters are a stalwart governess with a mysterious past, a travelling troupe of actors, a kindly scientist, a missing heir to an English estate, a Russian count and a couple of evil (but fortunately, incompetent) private investigators. As always with Eva Ibbotson’s books, the heroine is a little too good to be true (beautiful, intelligent, a talented musician, a skilled dancer, friendly and kind to all people and animals, etc), but the story and setting were fascinating and I enjoyed following Maia’s adventures.

'A Long Way From Verona' by Jane GardamHowever, my favourite holiday read would have to be A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam, a brilliant coming-of-age novel set during the Second World War. Jessica is a bright, imaginative, melodramatic twelve-year-old who is utterly tactless and incapable of dissembling, yet convinced that she alone is able to understand others perfectly (meanwhile, wondering why she isn’t more popular at school). She gets into trouble constantly – for handing in a forty-seven-page essay that is not actually about ‘The Best Day of the Summer Holidays’, for eating potato chips on the train in an unladylike fashion, for hiding out in the library and reading ‘unsuitable’ books such as Jude the Obscure – and her idiosyncratic observations of her world are clever and hilarious. Here, for example, is her description of a stranger’s front parlour, in which she and her friends find themselves after a prank goes wrong:

“We tiptoed over it into a fearfully clean front room with the coals arranged on the sticks like a jigsaw, and the arm-chairs made out of brown skin and never sat on, and a terrified-looking plant standing eyes right in the window, wishing it were dead.”

Jessica is told by a visiting author that she is A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT, and although there are moments when her self-confidence falters, she triumphs in the end. I can’t recommend this novel too highly – it’s a work of genius. And it’s the first book I read in 2014, which I think is a GOOD OMEN.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Eight: Kangaroo

Is this book ‘dated‘ or merely peculiar? I certainly spent some time wondering how most modern-day publishers would react if sent a manuscript as rambling and self-indulgent as this one, and its discussions of race and gender definitely reflect common prejudices of the time. On the other hand, there are plenty of books first published in the 1920s that are an easy, enjoyable read, despite containing dated viewpoints. This is not one of them. Here are my thoughts on Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, but first, have a look at the splendid edition I read, courtesy of City of Sydney Libraries:

'Kangaroo' by D. H. Lawrence

It says “AUSTRALIA’S GREAT BOOKS” on the cover, by the way. It’s actually not as old as it looks – this edition was published in 1992 – but it does seem to have reproduced the original typeset pages:

'Kangaroo' Chapter Ten

I’d wanted to read this for a while because I’d heard that it was inspired by D. H. Lawrence’s visit to Australia in the early 1920s and included descriptions of the early Fascist movement in Australia. In these respects, the book lived up to my expectations. The central character, Richard Lovat Somers, does seem to be a portrait of the author himself. Both were writers from working-class English backgrounds who married German women and suffered persecution in Britain during the First World War due to their anti-war stance, and who then travelled the world in a self-imposed exile. Unfortunately, Richard Lovat Somers turns out to be egomaniacal, bombastic and self-pitying, which makes spending four hundred pages in his company a fairly unpleasant experience. He pontificates at length about souls, dark gods, civilisation, sex, women, democracy, socialism, the Australian character and many other subjects in which he is a self-proclaimed expert. He records each passing thought at least five times, in much the same way, on the same page, then says the exact opposite in the next chapter, then changes his mind yet again. He is convinced of his own specialness – he is one of the few men with a soul, you see, so is uniquely qualified to determine what is best for Australia, and the working classes, and humankind.

The plot, such as it is, involves Richard arriving in Sydney and being introduced to ‘Kangaroo’, an aspiring politician who wants to impose his own benevolent brand of dictatorship on Australia. Richard is at first drawn to, then repulsed by, Kangaroo, after which he briefly flirts with a Communist leader whose ideas seem more “logical”. Mostly, though, Richard ponders whether he should devote his amazing intellectual gifts to politics at all, or simply let humankind go to pieces by itself. There is a brief flurry of action when the Fascists clash with the Communists, but this occurs very late in the book. The author does provide this warning to readers:

“Chapter follows chapter, and nothing doing . . .We can’t be at a stretch of tension all the time, like the E string on a fiddle. If you don’t like the novel, don’t read it.”

Unfortunately, this warning doesn’t appear until page 319, which is a bit late for most readers. This is pretty typical of the author’s contempt for the reader, though. Apart from subjecting us to pages and pages of Richard’s preaching and screeds of implausible dialogue between Richard and Kangaroo, Lawrence can’t even be bothered keeping track of character names (Richard, for example, is variously referred to as “Richard”, “Richard Lovat”, “Lovat”, “Lovat Somers” and “Somers”). The author makes other odd naming choices – for example, the town on the south coast of New South Wales where Richard and his wife rent a house is clearly Thirroul, but in this book it’s called ‘Mullumbimby‘. I can understand the author wanting to avoid using the real name of Thirroul, but why choose a name that belongs to a real, well-known and very different inland town in the far north of the state? It’s unnecessarily confusing.

I did love a lot of the beautiful descriptions of the Australian bush and the sea, but there were some puzzling mistakes. For example, he accurately describes a line of bluebottles on the beach, then confidently asserts they are “some sort of little octopus”. No, they’re not. And he describes a “kukooburra” as “a bird like a bunch of old rag, with a small rag of a dark tail, and a fluffy pale top like an owl, and a sort of frill round his neck”. Kookaburras have beautiful blue-edged wings, with tails striped in white, black and chestnut! They don’t look anything like old rags! I feel offended on behalf of the kookaburras of Australia.

It was interesting to read a European perspective of the early days of the Australian Federation and occasionally, Richard’s observations are really funny – for example, when he’s baffled by the way Australians use suit-cases instead of shopping baskets:

“A little girl goes to the dairy for six eggs and half a pound of butter with a small, elegant suit-case. Nay, a child of three toddled with a little six-inch suit-case, containing, as Harriet had occasion to see, two buns, because the suit-case flew open and the two buns rolled out. Australian suit-cases were always flying open, and discharging groceries or a skinned rabbit or three bottles of beer.”

Unfortunately, these sorts of observations are rare. Mostly, Richard is busy having this sort of conversation with Kangaroo:

‘Why,’ [Richard] said, ‘it means an end of us and what we are, in the first place. And then a re-entry into us of the great God, who enters us from below, not from above . . . Not through the spirit. Enters us from the lower self, the dark self, the phallic self, if you like.’
‘Enters us from the phallic self?’ snapped Kangaroo sharply.
‘Sacredly. The god you can never see or visualise, who stands dark on the threshold of the phallic me.’
‘The phallic you, my dear young friend, what is that but love?’
Richard shook his head in silence.
‘No,’ he said, in a slow, remote voice. ‘I know your love, Kangaroo. Working everything from the spirit, from the head. You work the lower self as an instrument of the spirit. Now it is time for the spirit to leave us again; it is time for the Son of Man to depart, and leave us dark, in front of the unspoken God: who is just beyond the dark threshold of the lower self, my lower self. There is a great God on the threshold of my lower self, whom I fear while he is my glory. And the spirit goes out like a spent candle.’
Kangaroo watched with a heavy face like a mask.
‘It is time for the spirit to leave us,’ he murmured in a somnambulist voice. ‘Time for the spirit to leave us.’

As for the dated aspects of this book – well, there are Richard’s 1920s prejudices about “Chinks” and “Japs” and “niggers”. He also declares that women are too emotional and irrational to be able to play any useful part in public life or even participate in serious conversations (which is pretty funny, given Richard’s wild mood swings and vacillating opinions). As offensive and ridiculous as these sections are, I don’t think they’re the main reason modern readers will be put off this novel. They’re more likely to be defeated by the almost non-existent narrative, the rambling, pretentious prose and the irritating main character. I’m quite proud of my self-discipline in finishing this book. Not recommended, except for D. H. Lawrence fans.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome