Tag Archives: Random House

The Golden Age Joan London Review by Julie Maclean

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Speak to anyone of school age in the fifties and they may recall hearing or chanting cruel names and running a mile from the callipers of polio survivors. London’s latest novel is a poignant and important story set in a convalescent home for victims of the disease after WWII when Australia was thronging with new arrivals and refugees from Europe.

This book is strong on place but especially on people; their inner lives and anxieties around separation and containment. London knows people, their motivations and disappointments and she knows of their resilience and ability to adapt. ‘The Golden Age’ is written in elegant and confident prose with the added bonus, to me, of it being about an aspiring poet, Frank.

‘Meyer knew Frank loved him intensely. As Ida did. As had his parents and his brothers and his one poor little sister, Roszi, and his friends, nearly all of whom, had died in the war. Wherever he went he carried their love around with him, their mysterious, unasked-for gift, like a bundle on a stick over his shoulder.

He sometimes thought he only loved properly in retrospect.

He’s often wondered whether he has a cooler temperament than others, and that was why he had survived.’

Ida and Meyer Gold are Hungarian Jews fleeing Hitler’s gas chambers, seeking a new beginning in the strange, empty city that is Perth in the fifties. They have brought their precious only son Frank with them. Themes of attachment and containment rub up against those of dislocation and freedom  as in life when it is so difficult to know how much freedom is too much, how tightly should we hold and be held. These delicious notions of Melanie Klein and Winnicott infuse the story.

Whilst there is melancholy and a sense of loss when Sullivan the real poet and inspiration, loses his fragile grasp on life and where relationships and marriages are put to the test, London never sinks to the maudlin or sentimental.

In Perth, Ida, the mother has lost her core strength and has trouble connecting at any level. Her future as a concert pianist is never to be realised, and Meyer as a romantic and something of a leader is relegated to driving a truck. The only glimmer of hope is in their only child, thirteen year-old Frank in this dust bowl of a place where nobody walks after dinner, nobody sits and drinks on the verandah and where they find themselves in a dead city in need of character, habitation and love.

And then Frank is stricken with the polio virus and a lengthy stint at the convalescent home called, ‘The Golden Age’, a name typical of that era of optimism and hope over death and deprivation. The action is centred around the home which is ironically illuminated by factory lights at night, showing the city in its manufacturing heyday.

London’s style is tender and objective and does not shout for attention, but is surprising in the terrain that it covers, from rape in war to European cake-making and yet the narrative is uncluttered. There is no moral judgement, no hint of the salacious when we read of Meyer’s peccadilloes, his physical attraction to Penny and her casual encounters with other men. There is pathos in the description of Frank and Elsa trying to connect in a dimension beyond the platonic and horror when the sunny, loving atmosphere of the home, where patients are treated with kindness and compassion, is suddenly compromised and the magical spell broken.

The story is full of love in all manifestations; love of country, fellow creatures, familial love and romantic love. And while the power of the first love is a key element and could have taken over the main plot, London uses restraint in maintaining focus on sub plots and vignettes that show on the one hand our need to be free, on the other, our need for containment.

London shows the power of the survival instinct and the strength of the human spirit, the nuances that make us human both disappointingly and gloriously real. Meyer and his predilection for romance outside the marriage can be forgiven so easily.The cake that appears at Ida’s concert recital is as good as any in Vienna. The Golds and post- colonial Australia were becoming. They were forging a new way to be.

The sense of place is strong and significant but is not overwritten. We are transported to war ravaged Budapest then to the Australian desert, inhospitable and remote. Yet time allows adjustment to the most challenging situations. Humans adapt like animals to new surroundings. Nowhere is this more strikingly displayed than in the scene when the black stallion gallops out of the desert with his thirsty mares demanding a drink, and being turned away. But people are London’s primary focus.

This novel made me cry on a few occasions because London makes the characters and situations so universal and a reminder of how much we struggle for life, meaning and belonging, and of how randomly tragedy and horror can strike at the heart of a country and its people.

The Golden Age deserves the accolades. It provides an important glimpse into our relatively unexplored social history. Its subtleties demand reflection. Its unadorned, gentle rhythm and style can lull the reader into thinking that this is a simple tale. Don’t be fooled. The History syllabus would be richer for texts like this to encourage research, debate and tolerance. This is a story for our times without a skerrick of the didactic. It is a thoroughly human, glowing and golden story. I loved it.

Review What Days are For by Robert Dessaix

I’d like to thank Random House for inviting me to review Robert Dessaix’s latest memoir.

Dessaix

I came face to face with Robert Dessaix in the early nineties when he came to speak to us about ‘Night Letters.’ What he had to say was engaging (more European than Australian in directness and flair) and witty in a candid, self-deprecating way. He reminded me of nobody else.

Conversational and derisory, this latest memoir is both playful and reflective. It’s a style relished by keen readers of his works. Each of the thirteen chapters is assigned a day of the week, playing into the title and line of Larkin’s poem ‘Days’ and tracking his recovery after a massive heart attack. When a semblance of rational thought returns it ignites ideas of the spiritual.

What, he muses, have his days been for? What and who has he loved – and why?

On the third day, Wednesday (Chapter 3), he rises again, and whether this is fact or fiction it is such a delicious nod to the Bible for a writer like Dessaix. He is thinking of things spiritual, after all, as he regains consciousness, at the same time grooming us for one of his customary forays into a foreign land,

..in my case there is usually a kind of Shinto side of travel. Although I know nothing about Shinto.’

Of course, he knows a lot about Shinto when he goes on to talk about his ‘torii’ as his front door where his ‘sando’ begins, but undercuts this knowledge in self-parody.

‘(goodness me, I nearly said ‘spiritual’)…restoration.’

Dessaix mentions that some people find him ‘pompous’ and suffering from ‘rigorous snobbishness.’ This might be evident in lines like…

‘…India is awash with comfortably-off Westerners decked out in crumpled dhotis and shalwar kameezes like down-and-out Bollywood extras, ecstatically pretending to be what they patently are not.’

Observations like this, and there are many, could just as easily be seen as funny, even hilarious and true. They certainly represent one side of Dessaix’s writing prowess. He seems to take great delight in creating these tableaux in which he pokes fun at Asian spirituality, bureaucratic torpor and veiled criminality (the light-fingered magician). Later, you can feel him squirming when he receives ‘a poem about a goddess’ from his friend, Prakash, then renders the situation humorous in the act of it being ‘emailed.’ This juxtaposition of the exotic against the pedestrian makes for entertaining reading and while he is often blunt he is never cruel, recognising folly as necessarily or inherently human, perhaps.

Occasionally, we are yanked from Dessaix’s meanderings and dumped back, unceremoniously, to his hospital ward where the inmates smell ‘strongly of takeaway’ and are glued nightly to Channel 7 punctuating the air with,

                           Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!

At quieter times the language is pared back as he considers the big questions.

‘I can feel my old eagerness to learn more and more about love falling away.’

And ….’there must be good ways, and also how to die, what days are for, in other words, when you’re old and death is in the offing.’

These moments are well placed in the narrative and give the text gravitas which balances the more Baroque aspects of his writing.

In an interview with Gail Bell in ‘The Monthly’ in 2012 he says of his own writing,

Anyone who reads a large number of my books gets used to this kind of spiralling shape, and so I just take my time, and I just spiral around. I try to mention the main things I want to talk about in the first chapter, and then I spiral and come around and talk about them from a different angle again later. That’s what I’m doing.

There is more than spiralling around going on in this memoir. A linear narrative is played out at two levels below the circuitous.There is a chronological path as we witness Dessaix’s recovery in days and chapters and, alondside the anticipation of opening night of his first play, and which he will undoubtedly miss. The presence of the play adds another stratum to his story where it’s hard not to think of Shakespeare’s ‘Tomorrow’ speech and man who struts and frets. Through clever segues between one vignette and another Dessaix shifts cannily from death to life.

Along the way we are in the august company of Jane Austen, Francis Bacon, Dario Fo, Alan Bennett, Samuel Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Voltaire and Turgenev, often in quotes or scenes from their works which convey a point and add yet another layer to his embroidered text.

Taking his title from a Larkin poem, which means he was actually reading a Larkin poem, I was curious to read in this memoir that he states he does not like poetry, so little moves him. Given his breadth of reading this is hard to believe. He certainly writes poetry because every word, every phrase has been carefully crafted to maximum effect and frequently an elegant symmetry.

from glowing nub to glowing nub, joining what’s Western about me to what is Eastern…’

Over the course of thirteen days/chapters  we travel with Dessaix outwardly to India then back in time back to his childhood, always the return to his enduring relationship with Peter. In this way the memoir functions as a tribute to the longevity of this union while pondering spirituality, love, infatuation, intimacy and what matters in the end.

What matters to Dessaix in the face of death comes back to simple things expressed in prose which can teeter on the sentimental, but juxtaposed against the down-to-earth is reined in, giving the reader time to pause for breath.

‘I smell rain. I smell wet wool. I open my eyes, It’s Peter. He’s back. My continuance. My wholeness. His happiness at being here again fills the room. ….
‘You flew again,’ I say

‘And what about the dog?’”

This is the kind of memoir that speaks to me; exotic yet familiar, colourful, philosophical and ultimately life-affirming.