Monday, November 25, 2013

High Tide: Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach

"They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy."
So Ian McEwan begins his latest novel, a short but highly charged work of fewer than 180 pages. The year is 1962 and the newlyweds are Edward and Florence, names that reek of an old world the '60s would soon transform.
When the book opens they are being served dinner in their hotel room on the Dorset coast of England by two trussed-up local lads who seem as awkward with the occasion as they are. In the distance the waves of Chesil Beach can be heard breaking, a sound of "gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against the pebbles".
Initially, McEwan's writing is restrained and formal, a quint- essentially British tone befitting the time in which it is set. One thinks of old BBC radio plays and "hears" the story being told. It would be easy to mistake this as tame fare indeed but for a sly humour and confidence percolating beneath McEwan's voice:
"This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a glazed cherry ... It would not have crossed Edward's mind to have ordered a red."
McEwan's intent, however, is not drawing room comedy. Ominous descriptive traces like the "hissing against the pebbles" and far rawer feelings are pulsing within a few pages. The internal mechanics of the book quickly reveal themselves as we discover who Edward and Florence are (he an aspiring historian, she a young violinist), diving into their thought patterns and family memories, reliving the romance between them and returning to the events of the wedding night as seen through the eyes of each.
Virtually everything that happens in On Chesil Beach occurs during this one evening and the tidal intensity, the back and forth between Edward and Florence, is palpable as it leads us down, finally, to the beach itself and the book's climactic scene.
McEwan exposes the rationalisations and self-deceptions we all succumb to in situations of great emotional uncertainty, the shifts in perception that show what changeable and unpredictable beings we can be to ourselves, let alone one another. In doing so, the book takes us deeper into two people's lives, counter-pointing the tensions of the present with the great backwash of their past and the surging of a future neither can fully see.

As the extent of Florence's fear of sex becomes clear - "her whole being was in revolt against the prospect of entanglement and flesh ... sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but the price she must pay for it" - we are clued into Edward's long-standing awareness of her repressive personality. Florence's genuinely loving affection, along with her passion for playing the violin, has allowed him to deceive himself of what must be "her richly sexual nature" and what he mistakes for simple shyness. Florence, of course, is at pains to make it seem this way. Edward, not entirely insensitive to these tensions and resistances, tries to be understanding, to take their wedding night slowly. By the time she is moaning in disgust at his touch he is interpreting it as the sound of ecstasy.
It's hard to say more without giving away the plot of this slender book. Suffice to say the emotions and ideas are profound in what might seem like the narrowest of circumstances. And though the focus remains overwhelmingly intimate - newlyweds in a hotel bedroom, mutual concerns about when they will have sex and how it will go - McEwan summons up the Cold War atmosphere with textures like the wireless playing downstairs, from where Edward hears the word "Berlin" and to where Florence wishes she could flee, "to pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on their floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned seriously into the news, into the gale of history".

McEwan has always been a political writer, as demonstrated in works as varied as his film script for The Ploughman's Lunch (1983), a critique of life in Thatcher's Britain, or his last brilliant novel, Saturday (2005), an attempt to grapple with the nature of violence and human connectedness in a post-September 11, 2001, world. His reflections in The Guardian on the events of September 11 still stand out among the best things written at the time. Whether penning an elegy for a deceased author like Saul Bellow or speaking with deep ambivalence about the Iraq War, he remains committed to the engaged notion of a public intellectual.
And yet there's a provocative, almost mathematical coolness to his writing that undercuts the comforting status of a literary good guy.
His debut collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), opened with the tale of a boy telling you, in a bemused tone, how he raped his sister. McEwan's ability to evoke the psychotic pull of a murderer in The Comfort of Strangers (1981) or a stalker's obsession in Enduring Love (1997) similarly displayed his taste for evil and violence in ways that appeared irresistible, almost mystical.
This interest in the sexually aberrant, the bizarre and the psychologically unsettling led to McEwan being nicknamed Ian Macabre early in his career. Over time McEwan's books have become less overtly strange (one of his most acclaimed short stories, Solid Geometry, deals with a man who discovers how to fold his wife up like a piece of paper and make her disappear) and more everyday in their intensities. And yet the same neo-gothic traits of lives lived in secret and looming darkness infect all his works with threat and fear.
When McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam it was largely seen as a lightweight work in his career, a tightly plotted entertainment. On Chesil Beach is similarly short, but far more serious, harking back to the compressed nature of his early and most haunting short stories, as well as McEwan's long-running interest in the random and banal ways ordinary lives can be shattered.
It is proof that no life is completely private or shut off from the world, that we can be victims of ourselves and, if we're unlucky, our historical moment, too.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books, April 6 2007

+ Photo of Ian McEwan taken at Paris Book Fair, 2011. Accessed via Wikipedia Commons. Image made by The Supermat -

Monday, October 28, 2013

Paul Kelly: One Day at a Time

Paul Kelly's back in town. I meet him at a King's Cross hotel where his daughter, Madeleine, is turning her slice of cheese into a jigsaw puzzle that makes sense only to her.
On his new album, Deeper Water, Kelly has named a song after her. The chorus? "Madeleine - you never let me sleep." Fathers everywhere will empathise.
While the four-year-old tugs persistently at his hand, Kelly's two-year-old daughter, Memphis, is in another room recovering from carpet burns to the face after she dived off a hotel lounge headfirst onto the floor.
Actor Kaarin Fairfax is, meanwhile, seeing an old friend, the portrait photographer Wendy McDougall, out the door. Kelly met Fairfax in 1988 when she starred in Sam Shepard's Lie Of The Mind. "We were just hanging at the bar," Kelly recalls, throwing the memory to Fairfax like an old joke.
The pair married in 1993. With two young children and stretches of time in Los Angeles - where Kelly has been based kick-starting an American career - Kaarin Fairfax hasn't had much time for acting. That's changing now the family is back in Australia.
"I did Correlli," Fairfax says, acting tough, pushing words out the side of her mouth, "playing a criminal's goil-friend."
At the centre of all this, Paul Kelly just hangs back quietly. Despite the hyperactivity, it's clear his family life protects him - that Kelly pulls it around him like a warm blanket. Seeing him on the couch with Madeleine when I arrive, he's oddly calm, oddly vulnerable.
As he will say later, when discussing his returns to Australia after overseas jaunts: "I like to come home. It's OK here."
Kelly's manager, Rob Barnham, starts ticking off the day's media itinerary with Kelly. I'm tagging along for the afternoon to get a closer look at one of Australia's favourite songmen.
Late last year Kelly toured Europe and America and he's playing at home this month. In typical Kelly fashion, the songs from Deeper Water have become part of our lives.
"That's why you write songs," Kelly says, as if it's nothing special and certainly obvious. "You want them to be in people's lives."
With the Helen Demidenko/Darville controversy still percolating, Kelly's eager to say The Hand That Signed The Paper “is good writing. But all the Jews in the book are communists. So it's bad history." It's a crucial distinction for Kelly, whose poet of the common man credentials are built on both good writing and accuracy - whether it be something as subtly textured and local as allusions to "a Silvertop" taxi (‘To Her Door’) or Randwick bells (‘Randwick Bells’), or a turning point in the history of the land rights movement (‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’).
"I've always liked concrete writing with pictures and details," says Kelly with relish. "Chuck Berry was a great example of that. I'm very conscious of it. I wanted to map where I came from the way Chuck Berry mapped out America."

Dressed in a brown bomber jacket with a blue T-shirt and jeans, Kelly's hair is close and short. I'm sure he has dressed this way for ages, rock 'n' roll basic, nothing too flash. As he says of writing: "Simple is always best."
But the 40-year-old seems slimmer than a year ago, somehow sharper than the sated, middle-aged bloke who last toured. Wanted Man, from 1994, was a critical low point for Kelly. Despite some great live shows, the album sounded like a songwriter falling off the face of American FM rock with a dull thud. Was the guy losing his touch, or getting soft because of family life and success?
Ask Kelly about Wanted Man's artistic failure, ask him about Deeper Water and its profound return to form - his best form ever - ask him if he sees Deeper Water as more coherent, more feeling on every front, and he just shrugs his shoulders.
"My friends like this record better," he finally admits, under pressure. "It's more of a band record I think." Then he laughs. "All my records feel like they're scraped together. Deeper Water is just what I did this year."
Rather than shy or aloof, Kelly's just a quiet guy. Stillness is one of his most potent qualities. It makes him easy company. Strong company, too.
Back when he was the socket-eyed, leather jacketed poet of the early '80s Melbourne music scene with his band The Dots, that stillness simmered with self-destructiveness.
Listen to Post, his stark account of heroin use, inner-city relationships and people dying, hear ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’, and you'll get something of the world he left behind when he came to Sydney to live for a few years.
Kelly prefaced his book of lyrics, (called Lyrics) with a quote from Chekov: "I don't have what you would call a philosophy or coherent world view, so I shall limit myself to describing how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die and speak."
On Deeper Water parenthood is Kelly's dominating theme. But Kelly's propensity for mawkishness is absent, and his spare eye never lets the colloquial slide into cliché. Deeper Water's take on family, growing older and love also has a dark edge to it, something in the territory around the songs, that gives the album an unusual intensity and warmth.
Kelly weighs up what I'm trying to say with that observation, weighs it quite considerably.
"I have a pretty good life now," he finally sighs. "But it ... feels like it's endangered. Or precious, or fragile - maybe that's what I'm trying to say. Maybe it's to do with having children or something but, as a parent, you have to be prepared for disaster."
He starts to talk about his song ‘Gathering Storm’. "It sounds like someone waiting for a lover. What was at the back of my mind when I wrote it was a parent worrying about a child. And how there's so much ... a lot of danger."
If Kelly deals with parenthood and the powerfully related theme of mortality in songs like ‘Deeper Water’ and ‘Gathering Storm’, he also deals with sex with unusual rawness and heart. His song ‘Blush’ exalts to the summer beach lyric: "When we kiss she tastes so salty/On her cheek and her neck/I can't wait till I get with her/So I can kiss her salty breasts."
"It's really hard to write about good sex or write straightforwardly about sex without being banal about it," he says. Citing Motown music, Kelly adds "the great thing about a lot of soul music is that they wrote about sex and joy really well. Whereas the singer-songwriter tradition is about things that went wrong, the complications and the unrequited."
He shakes his head. "When I was last in America I was listening to modern r'n'b, urban radio. They played rap, hip-hop and they'll have balladry, but horrible songs all about sex and "doing it', and always the singers doing vocal gymnastics that are very explicit and ... well, just horrible."
At Soundcom, an organisation responsible for Ansett's in-flight music as well as in-store sounds for the likes of Just Jeans and Woolworths, Kelly's asked to play a couple of songs, and it turns into a free concert for the staff, who file in smiling, waiting nervously for him to begin. The intimacy in the small conference room between Kelly's performance and this audience of 20 is absurdly reverent and close.
He chooses ‘Blush’, then ‘Queen Stone’, a thinly disguised paean to heroin, the dark muse, written by his old guitarist Maurice Frawley. Then he follows with ‘Difficult Woman’, which he wrote for Renee Geyer - "I got my hands full with a difficult woman."
Overall it's a sweet, gently intense effort. Everybody claps, absolutely beams appreciation. The love is palpable. Kelly puts his guitar down, embarrassed. "If I'd known you were all coming I'd have practised more."
Outside, in the daylight, Kelly says the experience was "a bit strange". He seems quite rattled, then he laughs. "During the last song I suddenly got a flash of one of those Elvis Presley movies." I tell him about a saying I heard at a party a few months ago. "Scratch an Adelaide person, find an Elvis." Kelly snorts, keeps laughing to himself, then finally says between fits of chuckling: "I'm from Adelaide, you know."

- Mark Mordue

* Story first published as ‘Poet of the Common Man’ in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro, January 12, 1996.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Learn to Fly

Burn the birds
Burn them now
Use our fire, breath fear on their wings.
We gulp down lies and simplifications
Like petrol
Spit it out. Circus jerks.
“Here we are now, entertain us.”
My vote for you protects my perks:
Islamic racists loving mini-skirts.
Burn the birds
Let’s wipe the sky with tongues of flame
Keep them out. The old, the young, the lame.
We love a sun-fun country
A lad of chefs and sushi trains.
To many fuckers, too many fish with feathers.
Call the monk. Club and crucifix.
Burn the birds. They have no name.
Perks. Jerks. Soon we’ll all be running
Bad weather is coming.
Hide the money from our children.
Down in Antarctica among the last stones
Someone called The Leader can explain
Why it was we ate tomorrow.
Bird bones in our throats. No brains.

- Mark Mordue

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"What will survive of us is love": Isabel Fonseca's Attachment

It's 10am in Primrose Hill, London. The author Isabel Fonseca sits in her kitchen, "tanking up on coffee". An American by birth and a New Yorker at heart, she says, "I can't believe I've lived in England for over 25 years or whatever it is. It's payment for my sins. Or maybe I just forgot to leave."
Her tone has a throwaway flash to it; just joking, right? Fonseca corrects me immediately. "I'm not, you know."
Why such resentment towards her adopted home? After all, England made her, so to speak. From a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Oxford to her role as an assistant editor at The Times Literary Supplement and the publication of Bury Me Standing in 1995, a non-fiction study of the gypsies of Eastern Europe.
That book involved five years of participatory journalism, living and breathing her subjects' lives from Albania to Estonia. Upon publication Salman Rushdie called it "a revelation: a hidden world"; Edward W. Said praised its "profound sympathy and brilliant insight".
In the meantime, Fonseca was making other news over her affair with Martin Amis. She had already picked up the nickname "Funseeker" on the London social circuit, as well as a slew of admirers that purportedly included John Malkovich, Clive James, Bill Buford and, yes, Salman Rushdie.
Men fairly wilted before Fonseca and to this day, at age 46, there is not an article on the internet from The Sunday Times to W Magazine that does not still remark upon her beauty. A formidably intelligent brunette, her dark looks reflected the heritage of her Uruguayan father, a highly regarded sculptor, and her Jewish American mother, a painter and heiress to the Welch grape juice family-company fortune.
Amis would eventually leave his first wife, Antonia Phillips, and their two sons; get a hotshot American agent, a seriously big American publishing deal and even get his teeth fixed. Fonseca was the scarlet woman behind this scandalous Americanisation of a British icon, a cliche that ignored Amis's long-running transatlantic obsessions, not to mention the fact Phillips was an American academic. Fonseca and Amis would go on to marry in 1998 and now have two daughters, Fernanda, 11, and Clio, 9.
When I ask Fonseca about her antipathy to England, she's quick to refine it into something more good-natured: "Oh it's all right. London's just too expensive to be loveable … Actually we just spent a few years living in South America. And it was wonderful, charming, heaven. But I don't mind being in the wrong place. I think for a writer being in the wrong place is often a very good thing."
Back in 2004 Fonseca and family decamped to Uruguay for 2½years in the wake of her father's death. There Fonseca attempted to write and then abandoned a major non-fiction work on her extended family. During that time she turned to "what was, I thought, a short story at first" before it evolved into the highly intimate book she now calls Attachment.
Attachment is not only Fonseca's debut novel it is her first major work since Bury Me Standing. In it she quotes these crucial, if ambiguous words from Philip Larkin's An Arundel Tomb: "What will survive of us is love."
Like the Larkin poem, Attachment takes a somewhat anti-romantic view of romance, before leaving us with a bittersweet and defiantly fragile ending. The book's central character is Jean Hubbard, a syndicated American health columnist married to a high-achieving British advertising executive called Mark. Mark is described as "six feet four in bare feet and striking with his grayed hair swept back, wind-eroded dune grass above the expanding beach of his face". This alone sounds like an awfully good depiction of Amis with a height boost, not to mention a more commercialised slant on his and Fonseca's literary preoccupations.
Like Fonseca, Hubbard has a background that includes having once worked as a paralegal for the summer in New York; she similarly buys pot as a teenager in Washington Square; studies at Oxford; is shadowed by a brother who has died tragically young; deals with a father who is critically ill; and copes with the unexpected appearance of a young woman who might be her husband's daughter (Amis discovered he had an unknown daughter called Delilah Seale in 1997). That the opening of Attachment is set on the imaginary island of St Jacques - supposedly located somewhere near Mauritius, but also a hot, exotic place not unlike Uruguay - brings it even closer to home.
When Attachment begins, Hubbard discovers a sexually provocative letter that leads her to a secret email link and an affair her husband has been having. To find out more about it Hubbard begins writing to "Giovanna" as if she were her husband. This incites Hubbard to abandon herself to a night of infidelity back in London, and to later flirt with an old lover in New York while her father hovers on the critical list in hospital. "Everything was sullied and she was rotting from within," Hubbard reflects as she delves into a world of internet affairs and online pornography. Later, as she embraces a path of disillusionment to license her own betrayals, she admits "this was the consequence she most feared: her own revulsion for her world, for all that she had. Auto-eviction."
Britain is already abuzz with Attachment as an adulterous and confessional insight into a less-than-happy marriage - as well as the critical complications of dealing with a work that may or may not be a roman-a-clef. Attachment is a novel of great promise but it ebbs and flows in its intensity according to the proximity one feels between the author and her "truths". In short, the things Fonseca seems to have experienced are powerfully evoked; the things she appears to have imagined feel forced or contrived.
Fonseca runs a nice line in self-deprecating humour and frankness. But in the course of an hour's conversation she puts herself to the test of her own thinking repeatedly and seems to find herself wanting. Talking on the phone there's that strange, floating sense you have not so much entered her home as her headspace: an inner world so thoughtful and honest it can leave you feeling cowardly by comparison.
"There's a long period of merger in the beginning of any relationship," Fonseca says. "Then with children you sense you have to keep a united front. My daughters are nine and 11 now. Old enough to get your space back a little. You see that you still have a long way to go - I hope! That I'm only halfway … But you also ask, 'Is that it?' Not as a matter of complaint, more as a matter of stupefaction." Fonseca almost laughs. "Here I am, I've made babies, but who am I now that I am on my own again?"
She's adamant "adultery is not the subject of Attachment, but ageing is. There's this disappointment about your decrepitude, this realisation you are going to die which you have never quite accepted. Adolescence and middle-age actually share a lot of parallels. The unease about the body and the sexual awareness that's associated with it, only you have this death awareness that gives it a particular pungency in middle age. Things like the way your parents suddenly demand your attention with their mental or physical fragility or both; or something as simple as the way your children won't do what they're told any more."
Coincidentally Bury Me Standing and Attachment both resound with a quest for home. "Whenever you write it is to investigate some anxiety. Writing about the gypsies there was some public anxiety with identity. Fiction is more about scratching about in a silent anxiety. And your sense of identity often relates to what home means, I guess. I didn't set out to do that. But I see now there's a lot of homesickness in the story [of Attachment] … Maybe it's a cliche of fiction that the past is another country. But this nostalgia for the time before is so often identified with place as much as time."
"You know I still go to New York about four times a year for various reasons. One of the real, but less legitimate reasons I do it is you can imagine life before it happened to you, when things could have gone 19 different ways. I think that's why I'm lucky to be a writer. Because you can think about and write about such things, just to see how you feel."

-                  -  Mark Mordue

·                  *  First published as ‘Well written in the Wrong Place’,
    Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, June 14, 2008