Morning arrives at Salamanca. Shed No. 1, Salamanca Place. May 2012.
Two books this week, both Australian.
The first is Helen Garner’s odd short novel-plus-two-short-story collection from 1992, Cosmo Cosmolino. Set in Jeff Kennett’s Melbourne, the chaotic communes and share-houses of the 1970s now contain bitter middle-aged people, uncomfortable in the individualistic and capitalist world they find themselves in. Drifting in and out are younger transients less tolerant of the collective temperament of the 70s. It is a tricky book, quite bleak, but never completely without hope.
It’s not perfect by any stretch, but as a capture of a specific time and place that now seems long ago (despite being only twenty years old), it does a very nice job. Recommended.
Second up is a book that was a real revelation to me. At the time of its release – 1976 - The Glass Canoe by David Ireland was a Miles Franklin Award-winner and widely acclaimed. Time though seems to have diminished the esteem in which Ireland’s work is held, to the extent that his name sparks only mild recognition among readers today.
Reading the book today, I can see why people prefer to avoid thinking about Ireland’s vision of Australia. This is a book infused with class, filled with ideas seemingly unfashionable to today’s audience. However, this is class without ideological rigidity, expressed in more expressionist tones rather than social realism.
This is an incredibly vivid, brutal book. Yet it constantly astounds the reader with scenes of real lyrical beauty. He does so with a great deal of honesty about a side of Australia that rarely features in our popular notion of ourselves. There is no political correctness in the depictions of men, booze, language and attitude. What makes all this even more startling is the stylistic expression: brief vignettes that experiment with form and narrative structure.
The introduction to this most recent edition (released only a couple of months ago after spending a few decades out of print) sums it up nicely:
It's art, not entertainment; action, not plot. It's the lurking dark beast of fear and beauty at the core of Australian life. It is all we know, and all we seek to put behind us, and all the literary world has struggled to evade and overcome.I agree with this, which is itself a sad indictment of modern publishing. The Glass Canoe is the least judgmental of books. It depicts horror and beauty. It casts the world of rootin’ and fightin’ every Saturday night into poetry and records it for prosperity.
It is almost unthinkable that a modern publisher would dare to send The Glass Canoe, stuffed as it is with words of sexism, with prejudice and with brutal, escalating unending violence, out into the world of literary festivals and promotion tours.
What I like most about it is the attempt to give literary voice to a certain tribe of Australians. A tribe in a certain time and place that is oft denied or overlooked. Alky Jack – the homeless drunkard with a Socialist heart - lectures the bar,
‘Never be ashamed of being an Australian,’ he'd say. ‘There's plenty just as bad as us in the world.’ ‘Anything can happen. We started off in chains, we do our best when we're not pushed, we pay back a good turn, say no to authority and upstarts, we're casual, we like makeshift things, we're ingenious, practical, self-reliant, good in emergencies, think we're as good as anyone in the world, and always sympathise with the underdog.’Ireland captures this view, allows the reader to savour it, and subverts it straight away. There is love and irony in almost every word, and for those of us with some experience of the Australia captured in the book it's hard not to feel that there is something of Australia is in your hands. Perhaps it’s an old Australia, an Australia that we might well like to see the back of (although if you know anything of the drinking culture in this country I wouldn’t be certain of writing the obituary just yet).
This book will not be to everyone’s taste. The casual sexism and racism will deter many, to their loss. I couldn’t recommend it more highly myself.