Wednesday, March 26, 2008


We go under dark stars
and call it a long night.
We go under dark stars
and say the moon is bright.

We go under dark stars
to find a sleep that’s light.
We go under dark stars
into rain that’s made of glass.

We go under dark stars
on a road that’s shining black.
We go under dark stars,
they’re in our eyes, they burn our heart.

- Mark Mordue

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach

by Ian McEwan
(Jonathan Cape, 166pp, Hardback)

“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 only 166 pages. The year is 1962 and the newlyweds are Edward and Florence, names that reek of an old world the ‘60s will 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 quintessentially British tone befitting the time in which it 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 each of their eyes.

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 rationalizations and self deceptions we all succumb too, the shifts in perception that show what changeable and unpredictable beings we can be to ourselves, let alone one another, in situations of great emotional uncertainty. In doing so the book takes us deeper and 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, however, 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 tell you more than this without giving away the plot to 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 will they fuck and how it will it 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, of course, has always been a political writer, as demonstrated in works as varied as his film script for The Ploughman’s Lunch (1985), 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 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 rather than ivory tower accomplishments alone.

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 on 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 or common in their intensities. And yet the same neo-Gothic traits of lives lived in secret and looming darkness infects all his works with elements of threat and fear.

When Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam it was criticized as a lightweight work in a darker and more confronting career, little more than a tightly plotted entertainment satirizing the self-interest of the times. Though done with the intention to amuse, the schematic tightness that can sometimes undermine a McEwan novel – the feeling of being introduced to a character via a resume of attributes and background information, the sleek convenience of circumstance and chance in his narrative engines – was so on display it left many readers empty by the time of Amsterdam’s somewhat vaudeville conclusion.

The general feeling was that McEwan had won the Booker for Amsterdam as compensation for missing out the previous year with what is still widely regarded as his masterpiece, Enduring Love (1997). Amsterdam remains a slight, if witheringly humorous work when compared to the larger novels he has written since then like Saturday, where the same schematic attributes are used and then usurped to create momentum and suspense.

This particular attribute of tension and surprise in McEwan’s work should be noted, as anyone who has read the home invasion scene in Saturday, or his justly celebrated portrayal of a ballooning accident in Enduring Love will attest. On Chesil Beach similarly depends upon this to sustain your agonised involvement to the end, to keep you taking part in what might be described as a terrible closeness.

Like Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach has arrived as an extremely short work in the wake of a set of major novels, in this case Saturday and Atonement (2001). In its depth and resonance, however, On Chesil Beach is far more serious than its thinness might suggest, 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 by so-called ordinary troubles. 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

* An edited version of thsi reviews was first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books on April 6th 2007

Monday, March 10, 2008

Life During Wartime

At night I am afraid. The planes loom overhead and I hear them coming in close to land. We’re on the flight path and sometimes it feels as if I can almost touch their bellies.

As I lay there in my bed in the dark I hear them in the last rush of the day, one, then another, then another, trying to beat the noise curfew at 10.30pm. The mail plane is the last and the loudest of them all, rumbling with its load like something from a World War Two movie. It sounds so primitive, so old.

My eyes are closed as I try to turn myself from them towards sleep, but I see these planes in my mind’s eye surging down from the sky, bursting through the walls, splitting everything apart, destroying my home, my family, nothing but flames and volume and cries.

I open my eyes and feel my heart beating in my chest.

I’m scared and nothing is happening. The world is quiet.

I don’t know many people who do not admit to this fear once they get talking, this fear of the sky and the planes above them. One day, the aircraft drone, a bad thing might happen again.

I get this feeling on trains too. This fear of anybody Middle Eastern looking with a bag.

My three-year-old son is beside me and I wonder if I should leave the train carriage as a man with a beard and an Arabic novel enters and sits? If my fears of being irrational, racist, whatever, are useless to spend time second-guessing? Get out of there. Save your child. Forget your ego, your philosophy, your morals, your frigging manners. They don’t count.

I know I am not the only one who thinks this way on trains. I teach writing and my students sometimes show me essays about this fear and others. It is common now: planes, trains, bombs, the little clouds in our hearts that mushroom up out of nowhere.

I see the images on a news website that accompanies my email address. The ones that talk about the war on terror and the threats we have received, the arrests, the plots that been foiled for now.

I see the images of soldiers, backlit and poised, kneeling with hi-tech weaponry. The images of protectors in balaclavas dropping like Spiderman from the high heels of our glass skyscrapers. The images of the men who will save us from whatever it is. The heat seeking cameras, the aerial views at night, the surveillance grain, the auras that are strangely ectoplasmic, even spiritual.

This does not make me feel safe. This does not make me feel ‘good’. They mostly look like men in a Hollywood movie that does not seem quite real.

You see, we know the real story already and where it lurks. We know that there are other men out there with nothing more than suits and knives and something in their backpacks. Alone, with a watch and a mobile phone: three or four of them dotted around the city, maybe five - maybe just one.


Our cities are on terror alert. Should I catch the train? What can I really do lying in bed listening to these sounds from the sky? But wait for it.

The other day something weird happened to me. On a train, middle of the day, this guy sitting there, legs apart - an attitude - fondling a very sharp tomahawk, stroking the blade. It was a homemade implement. The handle had a sharp edge, so it that it doubled as a dagger. Yes, he looked Middle Eastern. Was he terrorist? No. Of course not. I knew that even then. Just a nut case or someone going somewhere to do something horrible. We got off at the same station, no on else but me and him a step or two behind me on the stairs, my heart racing like all hell. I pretended to go to the ticket box and ask about a weekly pass. When I saw he had gone I told the man behind the counter what had happened, but he didn’t really know what to do. The guy wasn’t on the train anymore. He’d gone.

When I got home I rang the police. They took the details. I gave them a thorough description. But would they have found him? Where did he go? What did he do? I doubt anyone knows.

Be alert, not alarmed, the slogan says. Dial this number. (What number? Do you remember it? Does anyone?). Our leader casts out the warnings, our cities were/are threatened, we got ‘them’ this time.

And yet the law is threatened too as our civil liberties are eroded. But civil liberties are more than just laws, they’re feelings too, don’t you see? Feelings about how we move and relate. About a society that is open not closed. Confident not frightened.

Shoot to kill? Well the only one I know of who got shot in that kind of scenario was an innocent man in London after the event had been and gone. Haven’t the police enough powers already? Haven’t they got enough? Is the man who got shot here dangerous, or just another man who got shot? Is it right for a supposedly ‘just’ society to imprison men without charging them, to imprison them and crush them in chambers of isolation that goes against the grain of anything remotely decent?

Sometimes though I walk the streets and think about my children and how anybody who would hurt a child has already abrogated their humanity. How anybody who is willing to kill children should be exterminated. Come near my child and I will kill you, I think. No hesitation, no regrets. It gets so intense I can almost taste the blood in my mouth, feel the desire to hit someone and hurt them.

Maybe this is the war on civilisation at the heart of what terror is. This hatred that rises in me as easy as a breeze, that makes me want to annihilate them all. I can’t even get to grips with it in the end. My freedom of speech on this matter is now an act of sedition against whatever I used to dream of, what I used to think of as the best of me. I don’t even know what is right anymore.

- Mark Mordue

*Story written some time in 2005/06. Never published. The market for menace and moral ambiguity in writing is more limited in the media, where positive messages or outcomes or identities are almost invariably preferred. No troubling dreams allowed into the ether, no destabilizing strangeness.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
By Azar Nafisi
Hodder, 347pp, $32.95

We were in a hotel in Esfehan. As my partner removed her scarf and let loose her hair, she felt an awkwardness run through the people in the room, as if she needed to clothe herself again. The moment hit us like a strange blow.

Barely a month in Iran and we had come to such feelings. Women moved in dark flocks, covered from head to toe in their black chadors, many held by the teeth as their wearers struggled with shopping or children or an unpredictable breeze that might reveal an illegal strand of hair.

When the literature professor Azar Nafisi returned to Iran in 1979, she refused to bow to this new law of "modesty" and lost her teaching position at the University of Tehran. The Iran she knew was crumbling with the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the imposition of sharia law, which included the compulsory chador, the reduction in the marriageable age for women from 18 to nine, and the introduction of stoning for adulterers and prostitutes. To be with a male who was not your husband or relative became a crime. The books Nafisi taught would be banned, along with Western music and the sound of a woman singing.

Initially, Nafisi retreated: into the privacy of her home; into a chador so ridiculously large she could withdraw her hands into it and disappear; and into the secret world of books and reading. Her ultimate protest was a seemingly tiny act that grew out of this love of literature. She formed a women's book group in a country where books and ideas can put you in prison.

As a literary critic, she is an exquisite guide to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald and P.D. James, among others, connecting them to the lives of women under the regime. Humbert Humbert's theft of Lolita's identity is, for example, paralleled to Khomeini's regime and its abuse of women. Nafisi likens living in Iran to "having sex with a man you loathe".

It's a raw moment in a predominantly subtle and tender work that mixes memoir, history, literary criticism and the latent elements of political thriller. Nafisi maintains an elegant wall of privacy that breaks only partially, notably in regard to the man to whom she refers - somewhat cloyingly - as "my magician", an anonymous mentor who offers a romantic presence lacking in Nafisi's life with her husband.

Denial lies at the core of this book. Nafisi's story of a young woman returning from holidays in Syria, where she felt the wind in her hair for the first time, only to cover up in Iran again, is full of unspeakable heartache and anger.

Not all this pain is the product of a repressive regime, of course, even if a hideous marriage between the public and the personal is always at play: "'The Islamic Republic has coarsened my taste in colours,' Manna said, fingering the discarded leaves of her roses. 'I want to wear outrageous colours, like shocking pink or tomato red. I feel too greedy for colours to see them in carefully chosen words of poetry."' At this stage, Nafisi observes, with casual lucidity: "Manna was one of those people who would experience ecstasy but not happiness."

Perceptions like this glitter throughout Reading Lolita in Tehran. If there's a fault, it's in Nafisi's cooling personal qualities (which must be part of her defence mechanisms) compared with her passions for the page, along with an overly fluid structure that sometimes loses individual characters in the more vivid blend of ideas and incidents.

Perhaps Nafisi summarises this problem when she writes of how there is "a term in Persian, 'the patient stone' ... used in times of anxiety and turbulence. Supposedly, a person pours out all his troubles and woes into the stone. It will listen and absorb his pains and secrets, and this way he will be cured. Sometimes the stone can no longer endure its burdens and then it bursts."

- Mark Mordue

* This review was first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books on November 22, 2003.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Nick Cave Let's Love In

I did the following interview with Nick Cave over the phone in 1994 for the now defunct Juice Magazine in Australia. He was just about to release Let Love In, still one of my favourite records by him. Given Cave's recent revival of form with his Grinderman project and the way it seems to have energised his newest record Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! with The Bad Seeds, I thought it was well worth revisiting Let Love In era Nick Cave. Let Love In is full of vitality, even joy - or at least wild humour - in a typically skewed and erotically dark Nick Cave way. Our conversation about the record and life in general was free and easy, almost careless at times. I'd been up all night before we spoke and was basically in a don't-give-a-fuck-who-I-am-talking-to-or-what-I-say mood, without wanting that to seem like I was being unfriendly or that I was unprepared. I've seen this interview get posted around the net a bit and my interviewing 'style' get criticized. But I know Cave and I had fun talking. Sometimes it just rolls off the tongue...

Mordue: Could you describe for us a favourite walk you take in Sao Paolo, Brazil?

Cave: Well, I make my favourite walk daily. Which is up to my local bar. Out the door, up the street, past the junkyard where the chickens and the old junkyard dog sits. And up a steep hill to my favourite bar, SanPedro's. There's this giant barman there who is the fattest guy I've ever seen. He is constantly described by locals as a huge woman, but he's a man with a moustache. He looks more like a giant baby to me. I sit there and read, drink, and contemplate the meaning of life. Then I walk back down.

M: So what were you reading at the time of Let Love In? I was wondering about literary influences on the lyrics.

C: I draw influences from everywhere, in terms of a line that will excite me - and maybe a song will develop out of it. It can often come from the worst airport novel you could ever find. It doesn't necessarily have tobe good literature to be inspiring. I couldn't tell you what I was reading at the time. I read three, four books a week.

M: 'Let Love In' is a very positive and celebratory statement.

C: It's supposed to be. There isn't much irony in it, although people have expressed that interpretation of the title. It's the idea of letting love in and experiencing what love has to give. It's not necessarily allgood - but it's all worthwhile.

M: What about the lines in the first single, Do you Love Me? "I stacked all accomplishments beside her/Yet they seemed so obsolete and small."

C: Yet I seemed so obsolete and small... Well, I feel that way. That's a very personal song, actually. It's a nice line, I think.

M: Later you say, "Do you love me?/Like I love you?" I think when two people are trying to get along, in a way they are trying to make love be the same. But that is the big miscommunication.

C: Yeah, yeah, that sounds okay. (Laughs) I was really going to try not to go into what the songs are about. I did that with Henry's Dream and I always regretted it.

M: How come?

C: I think it demystifies everything. It's like an actor talking about his role in a film. If he does a good job of acting it, you don't need him sitting there on some entertainment program talking about what his character is supposed to be. I always find that immensely irritating. I just didn't want to have to spell out the songs, that's all I'm trying to say.

M: I'm not necessarily asking that of you. I'm just interested in using them as points to leap off into discussion. Jangling Jack really jumped out at me as the album's sing-a-long track.

C: That was written very quickly. And I hope it sounds like it. It's about an Englishman going to America and getting shot. It's my little ode to America. I deliberately wanted it to be as throwaway and as short as possible. So the only way I could record the song was if I could make it in under three minutes. We had to pare it down and down and down. It's about two minutes, fifty. It's just a hateful little track about a certain aspect of America which disgusts me.

M: In Jangling Jack I also got an impression of you hating a man being cool and excessively confident.

C: Well Jangling Jack isn't the object of hatred in it. It's the guy who kills him actually... It's just a quick, throwaway song.

M: Loverman was the other song that I got into. When my friend and I were listening to it, he described it as 'a real togs-off rock & roll song'.

C: (Laughs) I don't know about a 'togs-off rock & roll song'. Very briefly, it's about a guy or person destroyed by his life, feeling that he can become something if he is rejuvenated by the object of his desire. It'sa flailing mess of a song. And of course he can't be.

M: So you don't think a woman can redeem a lost man?

C: (Laughs) I think it's a myth, but who knows?

M: I like the incantation at the end: "I am what I am what I am..." It reminded me of some cartoon character.

C: I think it's Popeye: "I am what I am what I am".

M: I love the simplicity of the opening to She's Nobody's Baby Now, where you talk about trying to "unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Saviour". It made me wonder about the first time you had a notion of what Jesus was in your life? And then maybe you rejected that in your upbringing?

C: You want me to talk about that?

M: Yeah, if you could.

C: Well, the line is in a verse in which someone is trying to work outwhy he isn't with a woman anymore. But at some point along the way I had some vague religious notions about things. I still read the Bible a lot.And I still think that Jesus Christ is an extremely enigmatic and exciting figure. But I can't really get my teeth around the resurrection and thevirgin birth. I mean, I just can't believe that. I look at him objectively these days.

M: So you don't find yourself becoming more religious?

C: I don't find myself becoming religious at all.

M: A song that made me laugh was Lay Me Low, about when you die. And the cavalcade of cars and the six page feature articles that will be written. It made me wonder if you ever fantasised about having one of your songs played at your own funeral?

C: No, I don't. I've never thought about it.

M: Never thought about a song in particular? Or never thought about dying?

C: I've thought about dying. Everyone has thought about dying! But no, I haven't made a list of songs I want played at my funeral. I haven't written all my good songs yet, so that would be a bit premature. I'm not planning on dying in the near future.

M: Is Let Love In a breakthrough for you?

C: Every record has its difficulties. Mostly for me it's in the actual writing of the songs, and this was equally difficult. There was as much panic and fear that I wouldn't have it done as there was with any other record. But once the songs were recorded it fell together so easily. And I believe that is because we worked with people we knew, and who understood our work. Especially Tony Cohen, the guy who produced it with me. We knew that we were doing something that was going to be good. Right from the early stages, the foundations of the record were really strong. We didn't relax at any point, but we could play around with stuff a lot more. And it was a lot more of a creative experience than the last one (Henry's Dream).

M: Tony Cohen must be amazingly talented - producing the Cruel Sea's The Honeymoon is Over, Dave Graney's Night of the Wolverine, and now this. He apparently brings out the best in people.

C: He has an understanding. He knows what to do, and gets on with it. And he's great with sounds. He enjoys making offensive records, I think. He just enjoys it. It's not a job to him.

M: There's a real energy to this record, more so than for a long time. I wonder if you wanted to come out towards your audience more, and seduce them, invite them in at the same time? Some of your records aren't easy to approach, but there's something inviting and playable about Let Love In.

C: With Henry's Dream I wanted to make an incredibly aggressive record with acoustic instruments - a raw, nasty record. And it isn't that. It's basically a rock record - and not much more - and that's not what I wanted to make at all. Let Love In has a wide range of song styles, there isn't such a concrete idea about it. The songs are joined very close together lyrically. But musically it's quite diverse.

M: Have you gone through times when you've thought, "Is my talent slipping? Are things falling apart? Do I have the strength to be the kindof performer that I used to be?" And with these questions, were you looking to refocus your power with Let Love In?

C: I've always gone through that feeling. I've always been in a panic about these issues. Right from The Birthday Party. I used to approach each record with a great fear - that it wouldn't be accomplished enough or whatever. And it continues. It's always very difficult for me to write songs, and I don't expect that will ever change.

M: Why is it so difficult? The image, in spite of the songs having their work, is that they do pour out.

C: Or fall out of the sky? Well, they don't. It takes me ages, months, to write a song. Occasionally I get what I describe as 'given' a song, where you just suddenly find you've written a song and you don't knowhow or where it comes from, but it sounds okay. Normally, songs take a very long time to write, and a lot of consideration. With the artwork for this record, behind the actual lyrics I've tried to put various pages from the working process of the songs. They're like a backdrop to each lyric, showing how much writing goes on. Some of them have ten, twenty verses, to end up being a three verse song. I'm always very finicky about that side of things. Probably too finicky. I guess that's a strength and a weakness at the same time.

M: There is such a thing as letting your conversational expression tell the story that needs to be told, and forgetting about the style or technique.

C: Yeah. I Let Love In is like that. And Red Right Hand was almost completely improvised at the moment of actually singing it. But the other ones, like the two Do You Love Me’s took ages to write. I don't think any one song is better than the other. I just think you have to get to a point, one way or another.

M: Currently I'm perfecting hunching over at the right moment on Loverman and singing along to it, or doing "Do-da-de-doo" down the street to Jangling Jack. I really do love this record, I think it's a beauty.

C: I love it too. I'm really very happy with it. I've survived in Sao Paolo for two months now. Usually by the end of the first month, because I just sit here and do nothing really, I'm champing at the bit to get out and start working again. Which is a basic panic thing that I get into. But here I am, sitting back with this, because I feel like I've really done something worthwhile with this record.

- Mark Mordue