Sunday 24 February 2013

The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard (1980)

Shirley Hazzard is one of those writers who can skirt the borders of literary pretension and get away with it due to her beautiful writing style and her subtle skill with narrative form. Hazzard also has a splendid way of making an obtuse plot inviting, making The Transit of Venus a master class of highly literate writing that even those who feel most comfortable with so called genre novels can easily read and enjoy.

Hazzard is an Australian ex-pat who left the country in 1947 at the age of sixteen and as far as I can ascertain has never returned. She began the life of a writer in the early 1960’s when she submitted a short story that she’d written for her own enjoyment to The New Yorker and it was published. Since then there has been short story collections, non-fiction and four novels. Although Hazzard is not prolific, there was a gap of twenty-three years between Transit and The Great Fire (2003); she makes up for it with her sheer class.

The Transit of Venus is, on the surface, a story about two orphaned Australian sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, who end up living in 1950’s England. The narrative takes place over four decades and follows their lives and, most significantly, their relationships. Love, with all its triumphs and tragedies, is central to the novel. Caroline has many suitors but it is her unrequited relationship with the long-suffering Astronomer Edmund Tice that gives the novel romantic tension. Using the actual transit of Venus as an analogy for the vagaries of romance, Hazzard milks it for all it’s worth. She suggests that like trying to observe the transit of Venus, you need to be in the right place at the right time to succeed romantically.

Thematically The Transit of Venus tackles not just the nature of love, but also gender politics, class, wartime morality and personal duplicity. One of the strengths of the novel is Hazzard’s skill in bringing the time period of the 1950’s to the 1980’s alive. The narrative is a superb blend of the personal and the historical, each complimenting the other. There’s a great sequence in which she describes a multitude of women across 1950’s London waking up and preparing them-selves for a day’s work. These women represent the vanguard of working women who weren’t going to waste the gender gains of WWII.

Hazzard’s pose is dazzling, sophisticated and beautiful, allowing a special kind of engagement between the reader and the narrative to develop. At times I felt enraptured by her writing and as the novel unfolded the strength and subtlety of the plot became readily apparent. Hazzard also drops a few strong hints about how the novel ends early on and if you pay attention you will understand the ending, otherwise you may be in for a re-read.

Hazzard’s characters have a certain cold complexity, particularly Caroline, who maneuvers through her relationships with a subtle cold detachment. Caroline’s sister, Grace, mostly serves to underline the gender trap of domesticity, although she does take the lead in a section filled with frustrated romantic yearnings. Her husband, Christian Thrale, represents middle-class public servant small-mindedness, something Hazzard herself was familiar with having worked for the United Nations.

I first read this novel way back in 1994 for a university unit on Australian literature and it really opened my eyes to the possibilities of highly literate fiction. My prior reading habits mainly included cult novels and science fiction. Hazzard, with one novel, inspired me to move outside my comfort zone and for that I’m grateful. Recently I read an interview with Hazzard in the Guardian from 2006 and I realized that my conversion was no coincidence. She has this to say about literature:

"The idea that somebody has expressed something, in a supreme way, that it can be expressed; this is, I think, an enormous feature of literature. I feel that people are more unhappy, in an unrealised way, for not having these things in their lives: not being able to express something, or to profit from somebody else having expressed it. It can be anything but it's always, if it's supreme, an exaltation."

To me this perfectly sums up just why fiction is just as important, if not more so, than non-fiction when it comes to guiding us through this weird universe we find ourselves in. Read The Transit of Venus and you’ll find out just why.

Sunday 10 February 2013

No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church – Robert Dean Lurie (2009)

No Certainty Attached is written by long time fan musician and writer Robert Dean Lurie, who in 1990 at the tender age of 16 saw The Church live on a tour of the U.S. Thirteen years later Lurie contacted Kilbey to ask if he’d be involved with this biography and to Lurie’s surprise he said yes. Fittingly the biography begins with some words from Steve Kilbey himself:

Lurie attempts to come to some kinda understanding of my paradox. That is, I can be so nice, or I can be not so nice and hardly anything in the middle. And it’s funny that Lurie puts the boot in at the end and he reckons that the fambly manne (sic) thing is an act, and my everyman pose is faux, and really I’m the same old prick, and Rob, you’ve hit the nail on the head, actually…

As a long time fan of both The Church and Kilbey’s solo music, the question of whether Steve Kilbey is the same old prick is something I do not particularly care about (as interesting as that is). For me the music is the main consideration and I consider The Church to be one of greatest Australian bands of any era. What the above quote reveals is that No Certainty Attached is not one of those sycophantic and superficial biographies. The fact that Kilbey’s ego is not pandered to and that Lurie himself is part of the story makes No Certainty Attached one of the most enjoyable music biographies I’ve read for a long time.

It’s easy to warm to Lurie, his writing style is unpretentiously affable and over the course of the book his relationship with Kilbey and The Church progresses to the level of friendship. Lurie’s life is very much tied up with Kilbey in terms of being a source of inspiration and ongoing fascination. Lurie recounts his first meeting with Kilbey in 1998 as a support for a solo gig, a meeting that provided him both disillusionment and a certain level of fulfillment. The book contains several interludes in which Lurie ponders the ambiguous boundaries between fandom and his burgeoning relationship with Kilbey. Bravely Lurie recounts how during one of their interviews for the book Kilbey openly tests him for evidence of sycophancy; a test that Lurie fails, much to Kilbey’s displeasure. But Lurie later admits that it taught him a valuable lesson.

Although Lurie’s presence in the book is welcome, it’s Kilbey’s story and the history of the band that makes the book an essential read for Kilbey/Church fans. There’s the usual childhood background, with Kilbey emigrating with his parents from the UK in 1957, eventually settling in Canberra. Steve Kilbey the child was a Doctor Who fan and as Lurie notes was, for better or worse, a smaller version of his adult self. Kilbey became a reluctant teenager, recalling that he was disappointed when he realized that his childhood had ended. Lurie notes that as a teenager Kilbey dated a girl that he was attracted to because she looked like Roger Waters circa the 1971 Meddle album. Hilariously he couldn’t understand why this didn’t go down well. Recollections like these give the biography a welcome level of charm and warmth.

Steve Kilbey's girlfriend in high school

The tale of how The Church came together as a band is a fascinating one. Lurie does a fine job recounting the history of The Church, but one of the best things about the book was that I found out about Kilbey’s many obscure side projects that ran parallel with both the Church and his solo career. It’s possible I could be spending a lot of money online searching out these records. Kilbey’s career is like a labyrinth with many rooms containing obscure treasures.

No Certainty Attached also contains a few revelations; including that incredulously the first lineup of the band included a guy who bullied Kilbey in high school – Nick Ward. Lurie’s interviews with Ward reveal that twenty or so years later he probably would still be bullying Kilbey had he stayed in the band. What is it about drummers? I was also amazed to learn that Kilbey endured a ten-year heroin addiction, which began post Gold Afternoon Fix (1990) - naughty Steve, but I’m glad he survived to tell the tale.

Lurie’s serpentine tale of strife, inspiration, failure and musical brilliance ends in 2006, where again he meets with Kilbey on tour. The meeting is friendly and you can detect that fambly man vibe between them. At the end of the book Kilbey has the final word in a hilarious stream of consciousness via his blog in which he refers to Lurie as having been “…some seriously uptight fanboy” and how he divested himself of that and wrote “a good book”. Kilbey is correct and Lurie should update it soon as The Church released one of their best albums in 2009 (Untitled #23) and are still touring to this day. I advise Church fans to read this book, but no doubt many have already. Also check out Kilbey's interesting blog...