Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Watch Tower - Elizabeth Harrower (1966)

Just who is Elizabeth Harrower? Only one of Australia’s great lost writers. The publication of The Watch Tower would be her last and she eventually gave up writing altogether, despite the likes of Patrick White and Sidney and Cynthia Nolan urging her to keep writing. White believed that Harrower should have won the Miles Franklin Award and in hindsight he was undoubtedly right. Whilst it is fortunate that Text Publishing has included her novels in their quest to make available long out of print Australian literature, I do wonder how the average reader would handle The Watch Tower, which is one of the most psychologically intense novels’ I have ever read.

It is the character of Felix Shaw that makes The Watch Tower an almost unbearable psychological horror story. Felix Shaw is one of the most complete sociopaths in literature.  Laura and Claire Vaisey are teenage sisters who are abandoned by their narcissistic mother and left to the devices of Shaw, who marries Laura and takes control of their lives. Shaw’s sociopathic nature brings an almost unbearable tension to the novel that never goes away. There is a core of misogyny within Shaw and also hints of repressed homosexuality in his dealings with younger men.

With Laura Vaisey Harrower has drawn a disturbing and realistic portrait of a victim. Laura seems, from the beginning, ripe for exploitation. Her mother takes advantage of her pliable nature, squashes most attempts at independence and is more concerned about playing bridge than the welfare of her daughters. The psychological implications of victimhood are brilliantly realised as Laura starts to become more like Felix, which is one of the most disturbing aspects of the novel.

Harrower’s prose style is eloquent and poised, although often her turn of phrase is such that you need to reread passages, which is a small hindrance considering the quality of her prose. Harrower doesn’t experiment with form as such, but she uses shifting points of view expertly to give the reader contrasting perspectives of the psychological horror that is unfolding. On occasions we are privy to the neighbours point of view, then sometimes Felix himself, but mostly Claire who is the one stuck in the middle and is emotionally manipulated by both Felix and Laura.

One of the great aspects of The Watch Tower is that the ending is not predictable. The novel appears to be heading toward one of several highly possible outcomes, but Harrower sidesteps cliche and the reader is left with very mixed emotions, not to mention being totally drained. Almost everything is perfect about The Watch Tower. The characters are fully realised, in particular Felix Shaw and Claire Vaisey. The prose is superb, as is the depiction of the Sydney suburbs and the harbour beyond, of which we only get glimpses. Finally there is the all too accurate portrayal of women’s compromised lives in the mid twentieth century. It’s time to give Harrower the attention she deserves and although I couldn’t truthfully say that I’d recommend The Watch Tower, in terms of art holding up a mirror to the darkness in life it is essential reading. Ultimately the question of whether to read the novel or not is a matter of can you deal with the sociopathic nightmare that is Felix Shaw? 

Sunday 23 February 2014

16th Century Book That Can Be Read Six Different Ways

I saw this this 16th century book that can be read six different ways on a tumblr and I just had blog it. It is a truly beautiful book from the high middle ages. Here's the information that came with it and some more pictures - enjoy:

"A few months ago, we showed you a dos-à-dos book—one with a hard back that forms the front of another book. This rare book owned by the National Library of Sweden is even more complex. Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University, says that this book is actually six books that are each opened differently. Each book opens and closes with a little clasp.

All of the books are devotional texts printed in Germany in the 1550s through 1570s, including a copy of Martin Luther’s widely-read The Shorter Catechism.The book is currently owned by the National Swedish Library and resides in Stockholm, among the Royal Library’s archives. Only for advanced readers, advanced readers with low attentions spans."


Pic: Stockholm, Royal Library. See the full image gallery here.

Friday 14 February 2014

The Einstein Intersection - Samuel R. Delany (1967)

Samuel Delany’s Nebula Award winning novel from 1967 has one of the best titles in science fiction. Delany is quite a character, a black American homosexual, a professor of english since 1975; a critic, editor and winner of the Nebula Award four times and the Hugo Award twice. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren is recognized as one of the most complex and difficult science fiction novel’s in the genre’s history. Unsurprisingly The Einstein Intersection transcends perceived pulp limitations of science fiction with the kind of themes and metaphorical layering usually found in literary fiction; exploring the nature of mythology, discrimination and identity.

The Einstein Intersection is a wild mythologically inspired psychedelic ride into Earth’s deep future. Humanity has left for the stars, leaving behind vestiges of their civilization, both ancient and advanced, for an array of weird lifeforms to pick through. The principle protagonist is Lo Lobey, an Orpheus type character who is also the most human-like of the various lifeforms. Lo Lobey is an engaging first person narrator who wields a sword that doubles as a flute whilst he navigates the wonders and dangers of a radioactively transformed Earth. In his village he is given the title of Lo because of his genetic advantage of being humanoid and functional, compared to those who reside in the kage, an enclosure housing those who, due to the radiation, are less genetically fortunate. Much like Orpheus, Lo Lobey charms with his musical skills and embarks on a quest. In Lo Lobey’s case it is to rescue his beloved Friza from a colourful character called Kid Death. Lo Lobey’s fighting skills with his musical blade come to the fore during one of the novel’s most inspired sequences in which he battles with a giant creature that resembles a Minotaur in mysterious underground ruins.

Throughout the novel the sense of surreal adventure is palpable. Delany’s clipped prose is highly visual without being excessively descriptive. Earth’s far future landscape, the underground ruins and Lo Lobey’s travels with dragon herders whilst on his quest are all rendered beautifully. The narrative pace is well balanced, never resting too long or burdened by over explaining. Delany’s characters are vivid and authentic, despite their alien weirdness. Spider, the seven foot red skinned, four handed dragon herder is particularly charismatic; as is Kid Death, who appears on and off with dangerous impetuosity throughout the narrative. 

For such short novel (a novella really), The Einstein Intersection packs a literary punch. Delany indulges himself in some metafiction, inserting his own musings about writing the novel and his travels in Europe into the quotes that begin each chapter. Fortunately rather than being pretentious it’s a gambit that actually pays off. It is unclear just how the Greek myths that litter the narrative fit into Delany’s overall vision, however they are powerfully rendered. Much clearer are the analogies for the racism and perhaps homophobia that Delany would have been exposed to growing up in mid twentieth century America. The writhing marginalized genetic freaks who inhabit the kages provide some sharp social commentary to balance out the speculative flourishes.

The Einstein Intersection is an excellent science fiction novel and if the rest of his work is of a similar vein then Delany is up there with some of the past’s greatest science fiction writers. I’ll be hunting down his books in dusty second hand book stores run by ancient curmudgeons (much like this one). As for the title? Delany does reveal its meaning and it is intriguing enough to encourage some research. It’s exactly what you want from a science fiction novel, it both stimulates your imagination and your intellect. If I had a beard like Delany’s I would be stroking it thoughtfully right now.