Tuesday 21 February 2012

Bill Campbell Book Shop – Fremantle

I remember the first time I stumbled across this secondhand bookstore. Not being a resident of Perth’s port city – Fremantle, I didn’t really know that it existed. Situated down an old street in Fremantle that still retains all the old buildings from the port’s early history, the shop exudes the ample charm of the past.

The shop front provides a clear view inside, allowing you to see books lined up on their wooden shelves, in particular a whole section of vintage Penguins. Old packing cases full of books sit on either side of the front door, offering specials. The shop itself is very well set up, with glass cabinets containing rare and valuable books and clearly labeled sections for genres like science fiction, crime, literature and non-fiction of all kinds.

The literature section contains some top quality authors, which is complemented by the vintage Penguin section in the same area. If you are seriously into literature then this is the place to come. Being Fremantle there is a great maritime and local history section. The shop also offers a superb philosophy section for those who are looking for existential guidance (that’s me by the way). Children and parents don’t miss out either, with a great section of quality kids and YA books.

The shop offers some specialist areas, with a collection of first editions that are stored upstairs and can be viewed on request. For those with a fetish for a book with a particular cover or rare edition then you are well looked after in this shop. There is also a collection of leather bound Folio Society books, something I’ve never seen before. They are particularly beautiful and some are by authors of renown, like Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, whilst others are more exotic and obscure. When I was last there in January I was very tempted by these books and will probably escort my wallet in there one day soon and buy some of them.

I had a pleasant chat with the owner  - Bill Campbell. He’s been trading at this shop for seven years and loves being in the book business. He was very friendly and gladly showed me around his shop and revealed his extensive knowledge about the second-hand book business. If you venture down to his shop don’t hesitate to ask for a bit of advice.

The shop is situated at 48 High St Fremantle. Give Bill a call on 9336 3060.

Check it out!

Monday 13 February 2012

The Man Who Loved Children – Christina Stead (1940)

It is perhaps an unfortunate fact that dysfunction often makes for a great reading experience. Other peoples’ pain, when portrayed in literature, creates tragedy and compelling drama. Few books I’ve read come close to the portrayal of familial dysfunction found within the pages of The Man Who Loved Children. Christina Stead, who was born in Australia, based The Man Who Loved Children on her childhood. Her father was David Stead, a renowned Australian naturalist. If Stead’s childhood was even remotely like the one portrayed in this remarkable book then I’m amazed that she survived. But survive she did, until the age of 81, after having lived most of her life away from Australia in Europe and the USA.

Jonathan Franzen wrote the introduction in the most recent edition of The Man Who Loved Children. He both champions the novel and also laments its relative obscurity, pointing out that it is much easier to read than the likes of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The novel is certainly easier to deal with than the highly allusive Ulysses, however it does offer its own particular version of the ‘difficult novel’ and challenges the readers’ endurance and patience.

The Man Who Loved Children centres on the Pollit family, husband and wife – Sam and Henrietta (Henny) and their six children, including the fourteen year old Louisa. Sam is a total egotist and thoroughly narcissistic and the family serves as a means to confirm his existence as what he refers to as the great I-am. Sam insinuates himself into every aspect of his children’s lives, giving them no sense of freedom or individuality. Louisa, being the eldest, is the most rebellious amongst the children. She often tries to put Sam in his place intellectually but Sam is such a narcissist that no other views can gain traction.

Whilst Sam is an egoistical force of nature Henny is a damaged figure, worn down by successive pregnancies and Sam’s dysfunctions, in particular his ceaseless opinionated chatter. They are so estranged that at the beginning of the novel they have barely spoken to each other directly for two years. The children are given the task of messengers between the two warring adults. Henny is frustrated and angry, which often culminates in bouts of vitriolic rage against Sam and the children, particularly the fat and clumsy Louisa. Henny at first elicits sympathy from the reader, but as the novel progresses her character becomes a grotesque and unlikable figure.

The Man Who Loved Children is not particularly plot driven; instead there is a slow inexorable journey to a terrible climax. During most of its 514 pages the novel focuses on the mad world of the Pollit family, with occasional diversions like when Sam travels to Asia for work purposes. There is very little interior monologue as most of the time the characters display their thoughts and feelings by what they say and do. The main character that Stead allows some interior life is Louisa, who increasingly tries to escape the influence of her crazy family. The other children remain peripheral figures, mainly defined by their relationship with their parents.

The prose is heavy with dialogue, perhaps too much so, although this allows the manic and desperate energy of the Pollit family to be fully conveyed. Sam overflows with words, producing dubious tales based on his own peculiar world-view. He has many pet names for his children, such as Womey, Megalops and Bluebeak (a name for Louisa at one stage, although he normally calls her Looloo). Sam is both cruel and manipulative toward his children but is at other times supportive and proud, creating moral ambiguity. It is Henny that sarcastically refers to him as the man who loves children, viewing it as a source of pain rather than something to celebrate.

Stead’s style is unique, at least in comparison to other literature I’ve read. To read it means that you are drawn so thoroughly into the Pollit’s world that at the end you wonder just where you have been. Somewhere particularly disturbing is perhaps the natural conclusion, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. The dysfunctions and ructions that seethe throughout the book make for an outrageous kind of voyeurism. Both Sam and Henny compete for the reader’s attention as the most compelling adult character. A Feminist perspective may call for the demonisation of Sam, however Henny’s character outdoes Sam in terms of sheer unhinged behavior and in some ways she seems to relish the role of victim hood. Franzen comments in his forward that he is amazed that The Man Who Loved Children is not included as a part of every women’s-studies curriculum in universities. Perhaps it is because the novel is more about human monstrousness rather than the flaws displayed by either sex.

Although set in 1930’s Washington in America, Stead’s tale of a dysfunctional family is a universal one. The pathos of Henny’s inescapable trap and the bittersweet triumph of Louisa’s escape connect with the reader in compelling ways. The final 100 pages or so are brilliantly written, involving Sam’s mad scheme to extract oil from a marlin by boiling it for hours overnight in the laundry tub. Sam expects that the oil will be a panacea for the family’s physical ills and as a means to fuel various machines around the poverty stricken house. Meanwhile a storm brews both literally and metaphorically as the narrative leads to climatic scenes that are both inevitable and shocking. 

Considering that The Man Who Loved Children provides such an intense and challenging reading experience I pondered over the question of whether such a novel can be enjoyable or worthwhile. Does great literature need to be enjoyable? One would expect the answer to be yes, however I’m not so sure about that. An enjoyable reading experience is not a guarantee of a unique or worthwhile experience. As in everyday life it’s often the difficult experiences that reward us the most. The Man Who Loved Children is the literary equivalent of having a difficult year and coming out the other end with the benefit of experience and insight, but at the same time hoping that you will never have that experience again.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell (1936)

George Orwell needs no introduction. Even the least literary amongst us would be aware of Orwell due to the hugely significant novels 1984 (1949) and Animal Farm (1945). The concept of ‘Big Brother’ is all-pervasive and many other Orwellian phrases and notions are commonplace, such as ‘newspeak’, ‘thought police’ and ‘doublethink’. Apparently the above two books combined have sold more copies than any other two books by any other author. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell’s third published book, is one of his lesser-known works but does have some themes in common with the rest of his oeuvre.

Like 1984 and Animal Farm, Keep the Aspidistra Flying has a social conscience and a political message. Orwell, who was a democratic socialist, used the novel as a vehicle to critique capitalism. Orwell’s protagonist - Gordon Comstock, works in a bookstore and spends his spare time writing poetry and cursing capitalism, so much so that he enjoys imagining a war and bombs falling on the streets of London. As the novel is set (and written) in the 1930’s these images are very chilling. Orwell certainly saw the fascist writing on the wall.

Comstock is a stubborn and pathetic character but is nonetheless a rebel with a cause. When he’s not trying to write his mediocre poetry he’s thinking about money - how money dominates everything when you do have it, but also when you try and deny its power and importance. This is the central irony within the novel and it is illustrated throughout in various ways. Comstock doesn’t have money as a result of leaving a promising job as a copywriter in an advertising firm to earn below par wages at the bookstore. The tone of the book is decidedly bleak mainly due to Comstock’s unending gripes against capitalism. This has a tendency to wear down the reader and there is a feeling that Orwell is overdoing it a bit. The first third of the book contains descriptions of his miserable life having to refuse invitations to the pub because he can’t afford it and the farce of having to sneak cups of tea in his bed-sit because his draconian landlady forbids it.

The oppressive tone is relieved somewhat by Comstock’s interactions with his girlfriend – Rosemary, who he met while working at the advertising agency. However even these interactions are blighted by Comstock’s poverty and his refusal to borrow money. Rosemary loves him but refuses to sleep with him, leaving him in an even more frustrated state. Such is his rebellion against capitalism he’d rather suffer like this than sacrifice his life to a ‘good job’, a family and the traditional aspidistra plant on the windowsill. Typically Comstock’s family just cannot understand his stubbornness in this matter. Ironically neither can Comstock’s mentor and supporter – Ravelston, who publishes poetry in his socialist magazine, aptly titled – Antichrist. Ravelston acts as a counterpart to Comstock, underlying the inherent contradictions and ironies that manifest when individuals who live in a capitalist society try to live life outside its boundaries. Ravelston is a wealthy man of leisure who runs his socialist magazine out of a well meaning but misguided attempt to make a difference. Despite this he still has a mistress, lives in a comfortable flat and dines at the finest restaurants. These contradictions and the awkward interactions between the two give the narrative substance.

The romance between Rosemary and Comstock also serves to illustrate money’s insidious hold over people’s lives. Pathos ensues when they go on trip to the countryside. Comstock is determined to pay for everything himself and due to circumstances it all comes undone. Even his attempts to seduce Rosemary are doomed to failure in part due to his financial situation. Things get worse when Comstock finally earns some real money from selling a poem. Instead of being sensible with the money it goes straight to his poverty stricken head and he blows it all on a night on the town which ends in drunken disaster. This section of the book is the most engaging and effective. Orwell displays the corrupting influence of money and underlines it with the resultant bathos suffered by Comstock. From here the novel veers into painful territory before some kind of redemption results. Meanwhile the reader is under no illusion as to what Orwell’s message is.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is autobiographical in nature. Orwell spent time living in poverty in the poorest sections of London. The novel contains simple yet powerful descriptions of life in London post Great Depression and are no doubt based on his experiences living and moving amongst the poorer classes. Some of his experiences were documented in his famous book - Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Orwell also worked in a bookstore called Booklovers Corner in Hampstead, resulting in the essay – Bookshop Memories (1936). The character of Ravelston is based on a wealthy socialist - Sir Richard Rees, a great friend of Orwell’s who made Orwell his protégé and published his short works.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a challenging novel to read, not because it is impenetrable or mediocre but because of its oppressive realism and the unrelenting neurotic nature of the protagonist.  Orwell illustrates the impossible task of living outside of the capitalist system whilst living within that same society only too well. Like Rosemary the reader becomes frustrated with Comstock’s obstinate nature and the hopelessness of his situation. For me this was contrasted with actually identifying with Comstock on personal level, which perhaps made him a far more sympathetic character in my eyes. Other readers may find the bleak tone and the central theme of the book too difficult to relate to. Even so Keep the Aspidistra Flying is certainly worthy of attention, although it does not have the same impact and importance of his most significant works, 1984 and Animal Farm.