Friday, April 26, 2013

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Silent House 
by Orhan Pamuk 

Penguin Books Australia

There were things I had forgotten about Orhan Pamuk. I suspect this forgetting arises from the fact the Turkish novelist is such an elegant writer and heroically bookish figure.

Yet close to the surface of Pamuk's work lie much darker forces such as anger and violence and misery, a deep, shocking, spiritual misery that shakes through everything and inevitably shakes you.
In this misery Pamuk combines the influence of literary forefathers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky (orchestral, even manic depth), Albert Camus (presence with detachment), Vladimir Nabokov (an eerie eye for detail) and Thomas Bernhard (ecstatic diatribes) with the more enraged and forsaken empathy he feels for the dispossessed of the Middle Eastern world and the culture it has spawned, be it Islamic or nationalist in flavour.
Not for nothing does he resort to the phrase "a double soul" when talking of himself, his country, the characters he writes of and even the nature of his novels. A poet of damnation as much as hope, Pamuk is truly a beast in bejewelled skin.

Now 60, the 2006 Nobel laureate retains a boyish look and academic demeanour that appears reassuring in photos. Invariably shown in his magnificent personal library wearing a dark suit and reading glasses, Pamuk emerges as the picture of Enlightenment reason. Sometimes these signature portraits reveal his window view of the Bosphorus and the bridge that unites Asia with Europe. There he sits in Istanbul on the brink of it all.
Pamuk has been more appreciated in the West for his noble gestures as a public intellectual and his melancholy writing style rather than his seething existentialism and ambivalent political rage. The international success of an Ottoman-era fable such as My Name is Red (2001) and a postmodern love story such as The Museum of Innocence (2009) have added to his jewellery-box lustre, as has his grand autobiography of self and place, Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005).
The last has become a go-to text for many who consider visiting that city, though it is in fact the type of travel book that should be read after going there. Moving in either direction it's likely to exhaust readers with its titanic ebb-and-flow of personal memories and historical observations. Yes, it is a wonderful book, but it is no place to start with Pamuk, even if it has strangely confirmed his cultivated image.
If his most beloved works tend towards glitter, gloom and charm, conjuring up the authorial image of an intellectual Gatsby sadly beckoning to us from the Bosphorus, then a novel such as Silent House - now translated into English for the first time - unleashes Pamuk's far more turbulent side. No doubt a part of this lies in the fact he wrote it as a young man.
First published in Turkey in 1983, Silent House is the second novel Pamuk wrote. It is devastating to realise he was only 31 at the time it appeared, and that all the elements of his writing style and vision were already powerfully in place. Any wrong-headed generalisations about his early, untranslated work being little more than a studious mimicry of naturalistic 19th-century novelistic conventions must now be well and truly thrown into the flames.
In structure alone Pamuk makes dazzling use of first person narrative, shifting the perspective between five primary characters who are kaleidoscopically engaged with their past, their dreams and the people around them.
Fatma is a grandmother consumed to the point of dementia by her memories and her vicious disgust for modern life. Recep, her dwarf house-servant, is clear-eyed and passive, profoundly alone. Faruk, Fatma's raki-swilling grandson, is a historian surrendering himself to filicidal dissolution and his failure to tell meaningful stories. Faruk's younger brother Metin is a hard-partying high school student ashamed of his middle-class family's slide into poverty, a fantasist utterly unable to distinguish between the furies of lust and love. Hasan is a former childhood friend of Metin and his sister Nilgun (not given a voice, but the focus of much male projection), a lower-class kid now caught up with right-wing thugs and his own swirling loops of idealism and hatred.
One could compare Silent House with a major contemporary novel such as Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and the American author's attempts to create a socially and politically engaged book of the moment built on a series of intertwined lives and perspectives. Pamuk works with similar intentions, writing and setting his novel during the savage lead-up to a military coup in Turkey in 1980. He does this by oscillating between persuasive naturalism, fits of melodrama and far more experimental writing styles than Franzen ever attempted. The word "genius" escapes the lips, if only in recognition of Pamuk's age when it was published. His second novel!
The subject matter clearly springs from autobiographical experiences: Pamuk's circle of young friends and the indolent summer beach holidays he went on with his family. It gives the writing a dreamily recalled veracity that can turn confronting. That Pamuk chose to zero in on such intimate energy with a political vision in mind and write about it as Turkey was careering towards anarchy, then chose to publish this work during the fragile democratic transition out of military rule in 1983, shows just how bold he was.
With one foot in the West and another in the East, it is no wonder Dostoevsky is frequently cited by Pamuk as one of his most favourite writers. In his 2007 essay collection Other Colours, Pamuk observes that, "The originality of Notes from the Underground issues from the dark space between Dostoevsky's rational mind and his angry heart." He also says that Notes from the Underground is the book where Dostoevsky "finds his true voice", leading him on to his greatest works, Crime and Punishment, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov.
In Silent House it is similarly possible to witness the dark space between Pamuk's rational mind and his angry heart that will eventually find its full, aching dimension in what I believe to be Pamuk's best and bleakest novel, Snow (2004). For those who wish to turn back to Silent House, Pamuk invokes a folk saying in its pages that could serve as a prophecy, as well as a warning to fans of his more aesthetically decorative work: "The tree is bent when it's young."

- Mark Mordue

* First published in The Weekend Australian Review, October 20th 2012  under the title 'Genius in a turbulent dance to the music of Eastern time'.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Listening to 'Chinese Radiation'

Here I am.
Listening to Pere Ubu’s Chinese Radiation.
There we are. There!
Kissing, in bed, naked, young, studying our own feelings, our university,
You wondering what Bob Dylan meant in Desolation Row,
While all I can think about is holding you and Friday night.
Holding you and wanting you to be proud.
The guitar has gone. Now there is a piano and everything is dark.
Is this the same song?
I’m here after the event. Longing myself back inside it.
Hurt as ever by the mystery of being held back.
Hearing the crowd cheer, the sad piano, ‘I saw it coming’.
Do you think memory is a crack in the mind?
Is radiation an emotion beneath our words?
I put a Geiger counter to your heart and call it my hand,
But my technology is simple, like a fat man dreaming he is a bird.
I can’t believe we were so inventive, that we grabbed another world.
Your pink jumper, your mini skirt, your books on Structuralism.
Can I take you out Friday night? Can we go see sounds
That scribble in our head like urgent love. Infection.
Infection gives me wings to be distorted. Help me fall.
Here comes the real world, just like the fat man sings.
I saw the New World, I saw the real world, I saw the big world.

- Mark Mordue

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Moves on Silver: You Am I and the recording of Hourly Daily

Tim Rogers is a white ghost in a window; nothing there but the discernible rub of a bodyshirt in reflected light, and a sweet, croaky voice singing about milk and love. Through the double-plated glass of a recording booth at night, his torso shines. The lead singer and guitarist with You Am I is deep inside, finishing off vocals for the band's next single, 'Mr Milk'. It's a sweet song. Later, Rogers will say: "It was about time. There's always a reticence to do an unabashed love song. I didn't want to do it for ages. But why not sing about things that are real ... or can be?"
Along with You Am I bassist Andy Kent and drummer Russell Hopkinson, Rogers has written and recorded 21 songs so far for a prospective album the band is currently calling Hourly Daily. After working with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo as their producer in New York - both on their 1993 debut Sound As Ever, and this year's Hi Fi Way - You Am I are making this one at home in Sydney, just down the road from Taylor Square and a giant neon sign that says: "Know where you are going."
Third albums always have something big inscribed in their DNA, particularly when you're as widely respected as You Am I. From blistering live shows to ARIA awards, and getting taken on a US tour by "fans" like Soundgarden, You Am I are the feted sons of 1996.
They've picked two producers to work with this time: Wayne Connolly, from Knievel and The Welcome Mat, and Paul McKercher, best known for his work on Triple J's Live In The Studio. Rogers says they did this "to create arguments and violence".
Ostensibly, Metro is here to get the inside story on Hourly Daily. But, when it comes to the crunch, I spend my time in an annexe, blocked out of the studio and You Am I's jumpy privacy. Even when we do talk, their headspace floats through the walls and back to the task at hand. They seem permanently "on".
Coming out of the studio, Rogers presents himself in an eager lanky fever, reaching out elastically to greet me - something about his "skinny arsed", sawn features calling to mind a young Ray Davies or Pete Townshend. Maybe it's the brown corduroys Rogers seems to permanently wear, the band's fondness for side-levers, or their constant allusions to everyone from The Zombies to the Andy Partridge (XTC) biography, but You Am I exude '60s classicism - or what Rogers yearningly calls "simplicity, with a little bit of style".
As a writer, Rogers has become interested in "ordinary situations that can be romantic rather than mundane". In how songs can "make you put on a silly pair of pants, walk a different way, cut your fringe, or just change you. That's brilliant".
He refers to another new song, 'The Count to 4', "about a boy and a girl who get married because there's nothing else to do. I can't believe I wrote a song like that. It's such a Springsteen thing to do". Then he whispers, as if its part of the tragedy, "Nebraska's all right."

Rogers may document the small times, everything from the Courthouse Hotel to fatal kisses, but there's a zing to his hopeless, sometimes bitter-tongued, romanticism. It's called the history of pop music. Rogers is the ultimate fan, with an astounding and encyclopedic knowledge.
"There's nothing better than late at night, writing a song, and thinking: 'Wow, this will be unreal! I can be like Roy Wood when I play this,'" he says, zooming into an air guitar posture. "I just want to make a record I can listen to and love. I want it to be like The Move, The Zombies, Nick Drake. I want it to be an Action record, a Creation record, a Small Faces record. But maybe it won't sound like any of those and I'll just be disappointed. I just don't want to make a typical one.
"We could have invited all our friends in and got really drunk and done Exile On Main Street again," he adds, referring to the famous Stones romp that produced a definitive album. "But we thought we may as well make this an experience for us."
Rogers admits: "We've always been a pretty close unit." Soon though, You Am I will be expanding to a foursome on stage, with the inclusion of guitarist Greg Hitchcock, formerly of The Verys. Yet only six months ago it seemed as if You Am I were falling apart; that Rogers in particular was freaking out about success.
Bassist Andy Kent emphasises: "We shared a room on our last tour of America. We'd travel on the bus together, wait in the band room together, play together, go to a bar and drink together, then go home together and wake up to have breakfast together. It was incredible; it was ...," Kent starts laughing, "preposterous!"
Kent eyes you like he's watching something inside you. It's a typical You Am I trait. That closed ranks quality again, the feeling that outsiders aren't let in easily, even when they want to let you in.
"But the rock can actually save you," Kent says, emphatically, of the great nights on stage. "The thing that has been driving you insane can actually save you. After all the frustration, all of a sudden we're at the bar afterwards with beers grabbing each other," he says, making Viking sounds. "The funny thing is in Sydney when you're not getting on well with someone, you just don't see them for a while. But on the road it's like you have tell them, 'hey we're getting on good again'. You share it."
Interestingly, Kent adds that "silverchair have got a lot to do with taking the heat off us. Australia is a small place for a band to be successful. It's left us a lot freer".
While they mess about with everything from zithers to xylophones and a terrible keyboard sound that Connolly compares to Flash & The Pan, You Am I have also called on the talents of jazz man Jackie Orszaczky to help with brass arrangements. Hopkinson says that "in some songs there's going to be an R'n'B blast of horns, in others that psychedelic lone trumpeter".
Hopkinson talks about "Garry Usher and hot-rod music. He was one of these maverick producers who was looking for the ultimate teen exploitation hit in the '60s. He'd write about hotted-up cars, and get people like Glenn Campbell (then a session musician) to play guitar, and Hal Blaine, the drummer (best known work was with The Beach Boys). It was very naive music in a way," he says.
"Tim has really gotten into all this freak-beat stuff from the '60s, too. Glam rock actually came out of a certain kind of psychedelia from the '60s, but it was a more punky, garage sound. We want to follow that line from the '60s into the '90s, that hippie naivety, but with a real garage rock grunt in it."
Lighting a fag off a toaster, Hopkinson observes that this melting pot attitude was just as true of the black funk master George Clinton. "He was as much into the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes and the MC5 as he was into James Brown and all the Stax stuff."
Warming to his theme, and trying to track it all back onto You Am I's album, Hopkinson proclaims: "It's a revolutionary hippie vibe. Like Chocolate City. Another land. Not a race thing - an attitude thing."
It's not just 'love is all you need', however. You Am I continue to make pop with edges, whether it's in Tim Rogers's stage attitude or in his writing.
Hourly Daily, the provisional title track, is set to piano and cello. It was inspired, says Rogers, "by a couple of specials I saw on Skinheads and the right-wing revival in Europe on the ABC. I started to think how their mums felt," he adds, rushing to a lyrical burst that sounds like someone quietly spitting: 'Does your mum dig your jackboots or does she polish them for you?'"
He admits that success didn't rest well on his shoulders earlier this year. And he talks about doing a tour with Kim Salmon and The Surrealists, and "how Kim pulled me aside to say 'Love it while it is happening!'"
Rogers says Hourly Daily is "pretty much on the same track as the last record, but less self-referential, less woe, less teenage angst. Travelling lots like we have been, just looking out the window of a van, maybe that affects your view. I dunno. The songs seem to be more about what you see rather than how you're feeling.
"There's lots of aggressively played rock 'n' pop on this, but it's more fanciful, more vaudevillian almost. Just trying to give it a jauntiness. Then there's some r-o-c-k.
I'm just trying to write better," Rogers shrugs, finally.
"In a way, to be ill at ease with yourself and what you're doing is a definition of an artist, isn't it? As soon as you've got a pattern set, that's when you're in danger."
Rogers then apologises for the exclusion as he guides me out into the night, but the recording process is private to all of them.
"Studios can do that to you," he says, reaching out affectionately but already running back inside. "You're aware of things when you're putting your moves on silver."
- Mark Mordue
* First published as 'Private Sessions' in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro, Friday December 1, 1995.