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Amethysts and Emeralds by Daniel King in review

Daniel King is the author of award-winning prose fiction, some of which is collected in Memento Mori from Interactive Press, but he’s a critically-acclaimed poet too. His latest collection, Amethysts and Emeralds, features “58+1” poems, some of which first appeared internationally in the likes of The London Magazine, Pennsylvania Literary Journal and Poetry Salzburg Review. Domestically, King’s poem “King Henry X” won the 2017 FourW Award for Best Poem. The poems range in form from free verse to villanelle and sonnet, and cover a vast intellectual and spiritual territory. Fourteen of the poems concern Kalki, “the tenth and final avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu (the Preserver), incarnating this time and forever together with Shiva (the Destroyer)” (ix), and others address Christian and Ancient Greek mythology.

King’s work is dense with allusions and will reward careful reading and re-reading, but a number of poems and images caught my eye during my first foray. In “Io”, I enjoyed images such as of “The Ionian Sea!/The dark night cliffs, the lines of waves/Like sentences in some mysterious calligraphy,/Delimited by distant future Italy” (14) whereas, in “Narcissus”, “My tears, a line of tiny spheres, are like an ellipsis,/Pointing to my omissions;/Their ripples form the circles of a target/At which I never aimed” (19). In “Cadmium”, the spectre of WWII is invoked alongside Greek mythology: “Ensnared by Ares — but what was not, in Fascist 1941?/The regents with their razor-wire regalia;/The salinelle of stinking plasma:/The fount of propaganda my protective coating could not reach,/Nor my poison” (23).

Of the poems concerning Hinduism, “Sonnet for Kalki” is among my favourites, and begins: “A rider of the white-horse waves, I came/To surf. My wild blond hair is matted like Shiva’s./I wander continents for men to tame/And men to love” (p 49). In “Sonnet for the Watchers”, an astronomical perspective is provided: “The galaxies now asterisks, footnotes,/The stratosphere’s long lockstep learned by rote” (22). Amethysts and Emeralds closes with “Hymn to Kalki”: “Spirit and Christ, Great Kalki, we hail you as one born of/the Ocean/And we worship you our way, Lord:/Your infinite time-line, crafted by Kalra, and your three-/circled crown, your journey from the stars” (71).

I enjoyed those poems that were on astronomical themes, such as “Ixion”: “Borne on the gusts of planetary rust,/We surely can engender life among the dark brass-/coloured stars,/Semi-bestial though its early stages may be,/If we seduce the air and rape the rocks./It’s not too late to leave a sewer world:” (26). “Alpha Crucis” (the brightest star in the Southern Cross) contains stanzas of beauty and wisdom such as “The Logos is regained as a bright flux,/A still, white diamond that never dies./With the Diamond the sky instructs/The Greeks with tropes, with semiotic conduct” (37). In a different mode again is the award-winning “King Henry X”, which ends: “For Roland Barthes to the White Tower came/To write Morte D’Author, explorer-entwined/So home rule’s peacock-coloured skies proclaim/The Word, and King and INRI X the same” (61).

As perceptive readers will no doubt appreciate, Daniel King is a poet of great intelligence and spiritual feeling. Amethysts and Emeralds is a formidable and insightful collection and well worth your close attention.

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Little Russia

Over the past month or so, I’ve been gorging myself on nineteenth and twentieth century ‘Russian’ literature – the inverted commas are because many of these authors are Ukrainian. I first encountered the term ‘Little Russia’ in the work of Nikolai Gogol, an amazing and amusing writer who needs little introduction. Gogol was born in a village in central Ukraine in 1809, but made his name in St Petersburg. I’ve read his short stories – the less famous Ukrainian Tales and more famous Petersburg Tales – as well as his novel Dead Souls, surmising that Gogol considered the ‘Little Russia’ of that time (present day Ukraine) to be part of the wider Russian Empire of the Tsars.

Nikolai Gogol

I’m a fan of Gogol, but my favourite ‘Russian’ of all was born about eighty years later, in 1891. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s superlative The Master and Margarita in 2014, and thereafter practically all of his work (novels, stories, plays, letters and a couple of biographies). Born in Kiev, Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard powerfully illustrates the tug of war between Germany and Russia during the First World War, with Kiev as ground zero. Ironically, the play Bulgakov wrote based on this (“The Day of the Turbins”) proved immensely popular with Russian theatre-goers, famously including Stalin himself, in the early Soviet period. Bulgakov never returned to Kiev and died in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded again.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Another great ‘Russian’ writer, possibly the most important of them all, is Vasily Grossman. Born in the town of Berdichev in Central Ukraine in 1905, and of Jewish ancestry, Grossman made a name for himself during the Second World War as a journalist with the Red Army. Present at Stalingrad, Kursk and the ruins of Treblinka, Grossman’s war correspondence is of immense historical as well as literary significance. His great novel, Life and Fate, was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 and only published long after his death, and his other late novel Everything Flows casts its gaze over another holocaust, the Soviet-engineered ‘Holodomor’ or Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. This topic is also covered extremely movingly in Andrey Platonov’s play “Fourteen Little Red Huts”.

Vasily Grossman

Soviet repression and the Holodomor seems to offer some explanation as to why the Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to a greater extent than other occupied peoples post-1941, a topic which is discussed extensively in the biography of Grossman I’m currently reading, The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. This was a point of contention for the Soviet authorities, seeking to downplay both the Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, which led to hundreds of thousands of Jews being murdered in the Ukraine alone, including Grossman’s mother. Fast forward to the present day and the Ukraine is subject to yet another tug of war, this time between Russia and the West. It’s a topic discussed in the works of ‘Ukrainian’ writer Andrey Kurkov, born in St Petersburg in 1961 but a longtime resident of Kiev and a Ukrainian citizen. I’d read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin previously but not his account of the recent ructions in this region, Ukraine Diaries, which covers a period of unrest in 2013-14 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea region.

Andrey Kurkov

Here in Australia, far from the region in question, our media offers a very simplistic analysis of the struggle (basically, pro-Westerners = good, Putin = bad), but I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as an independent Ukraine, and will there be one in the future? Am I interested in Russian literature, or Ukrainian? I’m aware that the phrase ‘Little Russia’ is considered an outmoded and even pejorative term nowadays, but it does offer outsiders a historical context. Will the Ukraine eventually fragment into a pro-Russian east and pro-Western West, with Kiev as the geopolitical point of fracture, as Kurkov seems to prophesy? Bulgakov depicted Kiev in 1918 being constantly captured and re-captured by opposing forces. A hundred years later, how much has changed?

 

William Gay’s Stoneburner in review

April 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Stoneburner+cover+black+sides.jpg

William Gay has two new novels out this year, which is a little strange since he died in 2012, but the life of William Gay was nothing if not strange. I first read him around the time of his death, happening upon copies of his novels The Long Home and Provinces of Night in a discount store in my hometown. I enjoyed those enough to send away for a copy of what I believe to be his best novel, Twilight, and an obscure little collection called Wittgenstein’s Lolita. Then in Sydney I found a copy of the superlative collection I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, and I’d read just about the complete published works of William Gay.

Turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg.

After Gay’s death, I turned up snippets on the internet about at least two other unpublished novels. The Lost Country had supposedly been coming out for years, and here was this other thing called Little Sister, Death that was to be published by Dzanc. The book came out in 2015 and I duly read it, thinking it interesting but below the standard of his best work, and I thought that would be it.

Nope. Still more iceberg.

Soon, I started reading about another unpublished novel, Stoneburner, that was to be released by newly-formed Anomolaic Press. For this, artist Paul Nitsche designed the cover based on one of Gay’s paintings. Like Harry Crews said, a man’s gotta have a little enthusiasm, and so I’m probably about the first person in Australia to read William Gay’s ‘film noir on paper.’

Stoneburner as a physical object is exceptional. It’s a handsome hardbacked volume with a cover painting that would have fit perfectly on Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Better yet, there’s a long essay on the author’s life and writing by J. M. White, who edited the volume and, as we learn in his piece, much more besides. I recall that White also wrote a piece on Gay in Wittgenstein’s Lolita, so I wasn’t surprised to find his words here.

This is where it gets really strange, and where the life of William Gay resembles not so much the life of a venerated Southern author but that of one of the characters in a Samuel Beckett play. So it seems that, at the time of his death, the author’s manuscripts and papers were in a state of disrepair. To put it mildly. White managed to track down a massive amount of material in the musty attics of various relatives, and then set about the gargantuan task of putting it in order. You’ll have to read White’s piece for the details, but suffice to say that it was a labour of love for which William Gay aficionados worldwide, including this one, will be forever grateful.

If that isn’t enough, turns out there’s even more unpublished material. Not only Little Sister, Death. Not only Stoneburner. Not just the forthcoming The Lost Country. Apparently there’s at least one more collection of short stories and a fourth posthumous novel, Fugitives of the Heart. Looks like William Gay’s going to have an literary afterlife more along the lines of a Franz Kafka. In White’s piece, I also learned that Gay wrote Stoneburner decades ago, but decided not to offer it for publication due to the release of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. And thus the manuscript sat collecting dust for at least another decade.

To the novel itself, then. Stoneburner is typical of Gay’s work in that it initially features a ‘bad man’, in this case the ageing tough-guy Frank ‘Cap’ Holder, and a much younger man, the unhinged Thibodeux. The novel is split into two parts: the first narrated in the third person by Thibodeux, and the second by his fellow Vietnam vet Stoneburner. There’s always a beautiful young vixen in these kind of stories, and here it’s Cathy Meecham, whom Thibodeux learns has ‘GOOD PUSSY’ via toilet graffiti. This first section reminds me strongly of Larry Brown’s work, especially Father and Son, although Gay’s novel was possibly written before Brown quit the fire department of Oxford, Mississippi. Set in 1974, the first part of the novel is a good ol’ yarn about drug deals gone wrong (nearly as wrong as in No Country for Old Men), cars skidding down embankments, young love, shotguns and drunken violence.

Unfortunately, Stoneburner loses its way somewhat in the second part. Narrated in the first person by Stoneburner, whom we learn fought in Vietnam with Thibodeux, the story meanders around for a good fifty pages or more before finally kicking up a gear toward the end. There’s a lot of beautiful writing along the way, perhaps not as refined as in Gay’s other published novels, but that’s to be expected of a work that it seems he never even had typed, let alone submitted to a publisher. I suspect that this may also be why Dzanc passed on Stoneburner despite committing to publish two other posthumous works, but let that not dissuade you. J. M. White and the team at Anomolaic Press have done a service to literature in bringing Stoneburner to life.

Fugitives of the Heart next?

The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

April 23, 2018 Leave a comment

For the last few years I’ve been reading twentieth century Russian authors, my favourite being Mikhail Bulgakov, so it was only natural that I’d make it to Vasily Grossman and his epic Life and Fate eventually. Grossman published stories and a few novels under the Soviet regime, but became increasingly upset by the atrocities he saw during WWII. Present at the Battle of Stalingrad, Grossman was one of the first outsiders to see the hell the Nazis had created in their extermination camps, doubly or triply confronting for him as he was Jewish himself and his mother had been murdered by the Nazis. He wrote about this in “The Hell of Treblinka”, which was used in the Nuremberg Trials to prosecute the perpetrators of those foul acts.

The first of Grossman’s books I read also happened to be his last, written shortly before he died of cancer in 1964. This is a wry, meditative piece suffused with acute observations of ordinary people and ruminations on life and death. It’s a great introduction to Grossman, a taster before you tackle the main courses in the same way that A Country Doctor’s Notebook is an excellent place to start with Bulgakov before you attempt The Master and Margarita. One chapter is an amazing piece on Grossman’s sense that he was about to die that night – he was only out by a few months.

The Road is a collection of short stories and essays, including “The Hell of Treblinka”. Perhaps not as endearing as An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s nevertheless a good introduction to Grossman and his thoughts.

Life and Fate is Grossman’s opus, supposedly the Soviet War and Peace. At 850+ pages, it’s a daunting but rewarding read. Disjointed and unruly in places owing to the fact that Grossman was never permitted to publish it during his lifetime (his book having been “arrested”), Life and Fate follows a large cast of characters, many of whom are related to each other by birth or marriage, in and around Stalingrad at the time of the German invasion and subsequent eviction. What stands out here is Grossman’s simple, decent humanism, profoundly in opposition to the heartless barbarities of the Soviet state. It’s a document on the history of a time and place, and also a reluctant critique and denunciation of Socialism. Grossman was a Soviet man in a way that Bulgakov never was, but his faith in the regime couldn’t survive the many atrocities he witnessed. The purges of 1937, the callous disregard for human life in defence of the homeland and the increasing Antisemitism of the Soviet state put paid to that. The chapters on the Nazi extermination camps are the best I’ve read aside from Elie Wiesel’s Night.

A book I haven’t got to yet is Everything Flows, written after Life and Fate but also denied publication. Other than An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s Grossman’s last book.

Another book I’m yet to read but eager to get my teeth into is A Writer at War, a collection of Grossman’s writings during the war. I’m curious as to what degree of overlap there is between this and The Road. I’ve also heard that a number of the events in Life and Fate are based on real events described here.

And finally there’s The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, a biography by John and Carol Garrand. Ordinarily, when approaching a writer of this stature, I like to read a biography early on, but it looks like in Grossman’s case I may come to the biography last.

So, in summary, Vasily Grossman is simply one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and crucial to any understanding of the Soviet State. Go read him.

A Decade of Reading: 2008-2017

December 15, 2017 Leave a comment

‘To-Read’ shelf late 2016

I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I started cataloging my reading journey. Ten years later and I’ve just ticked over 800 books read in that time, a whopping 137 of those this year. At the start of 2008 I was twenty-six years old, two years into my teaching career, with a wife and two infant children. Although I had won writing awards as a teenager, I didn’t have a single publishing credit to my name as an adult. I read 59 books that year, including a dozen or so titles by Philip K. Dick, which I was reading and reviewing at the time. To this day, my ‘Philip K. Dick – The Top Ten SF Novels’ blog post draws the most traffic hereabouts, and by a wide margin. These reviews were later collected in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83. Another book that heavily influenced me in 2008 was Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, which inspired me to write my dystopian novels Yellowcake Springs and Yellowcake Summer.

Cruising for Crews

In those days I was still reading a fair bit of science fiction, as I had done as a youth, but the genre’s influence on me was already waning. In 2009 I discovered two authors who would have a profound influence on my reading and writing, Raymond Chandler and Harry Crews. Not only did I read everything I could lay my hands on by those two, but I began to love crime fiction and Southern Gothic more broadly. I only read 47 books in 2009 but in doing so I discovered a number of authors I’d grow to love, not only Chandler and Crews but also Alan Warner, Ken Kalfus and Pat Barker. I continued ploughing through these authors long into 2010 and 2011, adding Irvine Welsh and J. M. Coetzee into the mix.

My daughter Ella at one of my book launches in 2011

In 2012 I suddenly had a use for audiobooks as I was commuting 90 minutes each way into Perth every day. I heard Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a book that would become very dear to me, that way, alongside titles by the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, China Mieville and Boris Pasternak. In 2012 I discovered a number of new authors I adore to this day, namely Megan Abbott, William Gay and Daniel Woodrell. I gobbled them, one and all.

Not ’till the red fog rises

In 2013 I discovered yet more crime authors I’d come to appreciate in Peter Temple, David Whish-Wilson and Derek Raymond. I also read the criminally-underappreciated Zoe Heller’s three novels and the stories of Raymond Carver. 2014 was the first year I cracked the ton and this included a bevy of authors new to me in Mikhail Bulgakov, Haruki Murakami and Larry Brown. I also re-read most of M. John Harrison and an awful lot more besides.

Big Jim

2015 was the year of Jim Thompson, an author I was wildly enthusiastic about. I also discovered Christopher Isherwood, James Sallis and I read a lot of Cormac McCarthy. In 2016 I dipped below 100 again, 77 to be precise, and this included a lot more James Sallis and Richard Flanagan. On my honeymoon in Tasmania late in the year I was determined to read titles by local authors, which I ended up very much enjoying.

Map of Tassie

Which brings us to 2017: the year my reading went into overdrive. I only know of a couple of people who are likely to read more than 137 books in a calendar year (actually, at the time of this writing, it’s only 11.5 months) and this is by far the most I’ve ever read: 33,000+ pages according to Goodreads, or nearly 100 pages per day. This colossal figure has been swelled by my reading virtually the entirety of authors such as David Goodis, James M. Cain, John Fante, his son Dan Fante and Patricia Highsmith. Add to that a truckload of other books by the likes of Charles Bukowski, Vasily Grossman, Dorothy Hughes, Gerald Kersh, Horace McCoy, Hubert Selby and Charles Willeford and you begin to get the idea. There’s a lot of Americans on this list, most of them crime authors, but I love the Russians too (not only Grossman and Bulgakov, but also Andrei Platonov).

At Dome in Hobart, not far from the outstanding Cracked and Spineless.

Looking back over these 800 titles over 10 years, my only regret is that only 21.4% (171) were by women. Partly this is because of the genres I tend to find myself in, partly it’s because female authors rarely seem to produce the sheer volume of titles their male counterparts churn out, and partly it’s simply my failure to find female authors I love in sufficient quantity. There are plenty of women writers I enjoy, especially Megan Abbott, Patricia Highsmith, Pat Barker and more recently Dorothy Hughes, but doesn’t add up to anything like 50% of my reading. Thus my pledge for the next ten years is to significantly raise this percentage, at the very least to more than 30%

In terms of what else I’ll be reading next, I’m looking forward to getting into the works of Don Carpenter and continuing my reading of Charles Willeford. I’m also looking forward to reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Jane Harper’s The Dry. Right now I have about 25 books on the To-Read shelf. As per usual, most of it is American, most of it crime fiction, and most of it by men. But I am and remain open to suggestions.

Here’s to another 800 or more books on the menu over the next decade!

You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

You Should Come With Me Now is M. John Harrison’s latest collection of weird tales from Comma Press, who kindly provided me with a copy for review.  Harrison stands alone, in my mind at least, as the only author I can think of who started in science fiction, transformed into a literary author, and then transformed back. More importantly, he’s one of the greatest British authors of the post-war period. I’ve been reading him for close to twenty years now, since I discovered his Viriconium series in the Millennium Fantasy Masterworks series circa 2000. Even then he was straddling genres, as he also had The Centauri Device in the Science Fiction Masterworks. I liked those, but I loved his literary novels and especially Climbers best of all. Harrison returned to SF with Light and its sequels Nova Swing and Empty Space (this last volume is one of the more baroque and difficult texts I’ve encountered in any genre). There were short fiction collections along the way in The Ice Monkey and Travel Arrangements. Harrison has been at it for all of fifty years, and on the basis of the current volume he hasn’t lost the knack for creating unsettling tales that are at once exotic and homely.

These stories are uncompromising, however. Many are filled with strange architecture, strange oddments and stranger motivations. No one is ever particularly happy in an M. John Harrison story and there’s rarely anything like a happy ending on offer. This isn’t a criticism, more a warning: don’t expect any answers. Some of these stories are set in the land of Autotelia, which seems to exist partly in our world (you can fly there from London). Others remind me of the earlier Viriconium stories. There are a number of flash fiction stories on offer, none of which I bonded with particularly, as well as pieces that remind me of J. G. Ballard’s ‘condensed novels’ in The Atrocity Exhibition (the final imaginary review in ‘Imaginary Reviews’ is of ‘The Last Fish’, which is more than a little Ballardian). My favourite pieces tended to be those that were longer and more human, some of which are set in entirely in our world. This is my way of saying that I still prefer the M. John Harrison of Climbers to that of Empty Space.

‘Cicisbeo’ is an engaging domestic story of a kind that Harrison has been writing for decades, a sort of low-key love triangle that reminds me of Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors’. In ‘Yummie’, a man wakes from heart surgery to find that he’s being shadowed by a creature that offers obscure advice and no one else can see. ‘Dog People’ is an off-beat romance of the strangest variety, featuring the aggressive Myra, the ugliest woman our protagonist has ever seen (it doesn’t take long for them to start fucking, however). My favourite story was ‘Entertaining Angels Unawares’, written in the mode of M. John Harrison’s I like best, in a similar vein to The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. Here you’ll find a dilapidated church undergoing renovation, a persistent dream of chopping people’s heads off with an enormous sword (‘biggest fucker you’ve ever seen’) and gobbo (‘a kind of grout made from mud and goat-hair’). Many of the varied offerings in You Should Come With Me Now are too elliptical for dullards like myself to fully comprehend, but it’s a book of magic and perverse humour nonetheless.

Nightmare Alley vs Nightmare Alley

October 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a lot of classic noir fiction in recent times, as well as watching a host of noir films of the 1940s and 50s. I hadn’t heard of William Lindsay Gresham or his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley until I picked up a copy of the Pocket Essentials guide to Noir Fiction, which has put me onto a number of obscure but worthy authors. The novel was an instant success at the time of publication and was turned into a 1947 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Instead of reading the book first and then watching the film, I had a notion to sample them side by side, watching ten minutes or so of the film and then reading a chapter or two. This worked fine for a while, except that the film ran out long before the novel. I enjoyed both, but neither are without flaws.

Tyrone Power stars as Stan “The Great Stanton” Carlilse, who starts in a local carny before deciding to try for the big-time spook racket. Power puts in a wonderful performance as the amoral confidence trickster, and he’s ably supported by Joan Blondell as the aging Zeena, also pictured here. The film also features Colleen Gray as the young starlet Molly and, my favourite, Mike Makurzi as strongman Bruno. I thought Makurzi seemed familiar – turns out he’s another strongman character in Night and the City, which is possibly my absolute favourite of the forty or so noir fictions I’ve seen. The film fascinates early on but to my mind bogs down a little in the second half as Stan perpetrates his various cons. Presumably to keep the censors happy, the film stresses the NON-religious nature of Stan’s schemes, a point of clear divergence from the novel, and there’s even a sloppy happy ending. Good, but not ideal.

The novel is a different beast altogether, far coarser and for the time far more shocking. None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming characteristics, certainly not Stan, and there’s no hint of a happy ending. Again I found certain chapters overly long or tangential, but certain passages and chapters were among the best I’ve ever read. Some are desperately bleak:

“How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and walked back into the darkness of their blind groping.”

There’s a chapter about midway through the book where Stan goes back home to visit his dying father, whom he hasn’t seen in decades, that is to my mind one of the most perfect pieces of work imaginable. The rest is a bit up and down, and it does help to have seen the film (which definitely smooths out the complexity), but it’s a worthwhile read overall. Gresham only wrote one other novel, Limbo Tower, which is apparently bleaker still. Penniless, he killed himself in 1962.