The Essential Paradise Lost by John Carey

 

The Essential Paradise Lost - John Carey

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It is tempting to damn a writer who dares to publish just the interesting bits of any classic piece of literature. One would have thought that Paradise Lost is a work beyond the savagery of the vandal’s pen, to gut Milton’s great work seems sacrilegious, something that is just not done. Some will not like it but that is what a highly regarded Oxford don has, in fact, done.

John Carey’s The Essential Paradise Lost will stand or fall according to the story’s comprehensiveness and the accuracy of Carey’s telling.  Since Paradise Lost may be unfamiliar to some readers, I should explain that it was a huge undertaking that concerned heavenly and earthly beings and the interactions between them; its author John Milton used conventions such as epic similes, catalogues of people and places, and invocations to a muse; and he introduced themes, – war, nationalism, empire, and stories of origin – that are common to epics.

Grasping what Milton was about requires the reader to commit to new ways of looking at old ideas, to understand that, whatever ‘heroism’ meant before Milton, Paradise Lost saw a reconfiguring of the old model and a redefinition of the new. With Shelley and the Romantic school of literature, some scholars identify Satan as the hero. Others, appalled at that notion, vehemently point to the debilitation in Satan’s appearance from blustering bully in Pandemonium to the hugely diminished creature, a serpent, at the ejection from the Garden of Eden. Some of these critics suggest the Son of God as the hero or, since Milton calls him into question, others argue that the most likely hero is Adam. They see that Adam resembles Aeneas in many respects: he is the father of a new race, responsible for founding a civilization on earth. But unlike Aeneas, Adam’s primary heroic act is not heroic at all: it is the first act of disobedience. The American historian Stanley Fish maintains that Milton deliberately lets Satan seduce not only Adam and Eve, but the reader as well. Fish writes, “The reading experience becomes the felt measure of man’s loss” as the reader is first seduced by Satan’s powerful and impressive logic, then slowly realizes that the logic is in fact twisted and nonsensical (Surprised by Sin 39). The reader emerges from the experience renewed with a greater sense of faith, which is the ultimate goal of the poem.

Readers should know that Milton’s God is invisible and omnipresent, a being who cannot be considered an individual so much as an existence. Everything relating to God in Paradise Lost should be understood as a kind of metaphor, a device used to place the divine in human terms (PL 3.62). To the modern reader, this God is morally repellent, cruel, angry, vengeful, and praise-hungry. He is in fact what Milton considered the biblical God to be.

In Paradise Lost, Adam eats the fruit of knowledge two hundred fourteen lines after Eve. Milton imagines an intervening mental strife unequalled in the history of the world as Adam comes to choose love and death over rational knowledge of God. The Adam of Genesis sins against God after Eve gives him the apple; the Adam of Paradise Lost sins against God not because of what Eve gives him, but because of what he needs of her. Adam’s progression from loneliness, to inseparable devotion to a single partner, to his choice of Eve over God, is a theme that Milton develops throughout his major poetic works.

Milton emphasizes that the Tree of Knowledge raises questions about the different types of knowledge that exist before and after the fall. Before the fall Adam and Eve have instant knowledge of everything they can name, and are simultaneously too pure to know unhappiness or recognize evil when they see it. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they lose the capacity to attain intuitive knowledge. Because they are more removed from God, they cannot learn in the same way they once did.

Nothing less than the creation and ordering of the universe defines the scope of Paradise Lost. The epic explores its cosmological theme in theoretical discussions between Adam and Raphael and in the narrator’s descriptions and metaphors. Further, Milton imagines Satan surveying the universe in an expedition of discovery through a new world in his fall from Heaven and his passage through Chaos to Earth. Adam tries to understand the earth’s physical place in the universe and its associated ontological and theological value as the home of man.

So, how has John Carey’s The Essential Paradise Lost handled this vast undertaking?

The book consists of a very valuable introductory chapter that links Milton the man with Milton the poet, highlights the reasons why the God of Paradise Lost is so fierce and vengeful, and explains that it is OK for the reader to feel a grudging admiration for Satan and his crew. The body of the work is made up of linked passages from the original text. In an Afterword Carey shows that the Son of Man as depicted in Milton’s poem is something of a milksop. Rather than express his great love for mankind, “the Son mostly expresses …obsequiousness towards and congratulations of his Father. Even when he volunteers to die for Mankind the level of discourse is that of a legal agreement” (The John Milton Reading Room, 232). It soon becomes clear that Carey is alert to Milton’s major discourses viz. that the deities of Milton’s creation are not the deities we worship today.

Book I in The Essential Paradise Lost has missed nothing of the major happenings. Milton’s purpose in writing his great poem “to justify the ways of God to men” (30) is given its proper importance and Satan has been banished to everlasting darkness. He has been conquered – he just doesn’t know it yet. He hauls himself free and will hear no talk of defeat. It is through his iron will that his followers divest themselves of the lake of fire. ‘Satan as hero’ is the theme here, although we have not fleshed out what heroism is. Carey’s approach is to make a statement that is a connecting link between two quotations from Milton, but with such care that the text that remains, knits seamlessly. Inspired by their ‘dread Lord’ and hurling their threats at heaven, Satan’s warriors build their palace Pandemonium. A short passage from Milton sets the scene leading into Book II where a solemn Council debates the issues. Moloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub offer their views, but it is Satan who takes upon himself the task of searching for a new world.

The exploration of the terrain of hell is conducted in Satan’s absence and, since it is peripheral to the main thread, Carey allots it only a dozen lines (Book II, 630 – 642). The emphasis swings immediately to the journey of Satan, and after a careful explanation of a bridging part of the text, Carey takes up the story from line 910 where Chaos gives Satan directions through the darkness to the light (while we readers enter Book III).

Milton’s address to ‘light’ and his lament for his blindness open Book III. The scene changes to Heaven where God proceeds to tell the Son what the future holds. In turn the Son offers self-sacrifice and the heavenly horde, suitably scripted by God, all adore him. We, as readers, are treated to large slabs of very readable Milton. Here lies the strength of John Carey. He has the pen and the sword, the former to link together the passages that are highly significant, the latter to slice away the peripheral text that might enrich the original verse but is not requisite to a clear understanding of the main text. Carey’s editing is inspired. It is as important to know when to withhold the blade as when to use it. Thus the magnificent Book IX is only lightly edited and Milton’s voice is heard heralding the slither of the snake and the descent into mortality of mankind.

There are vandals and there are vandals. Some excise and expose to view, their purpose honourable and offering a validity against which it is difficult to argue. Others simply despoil for some grubby reason – spite, profit, envy, and the like. John Carey belongs to the former crew. Erudite and complete master of his subject John Carey thoroughly vandalises Paradise Lost.

When you consider that Milton’s great poem is twelve books in length and is written in a style that was virtually unknown to seventeenth century, let alone twenty-first century, readers, a work that is read by academics and virtually nobody else, the alternatives are clear cut. Let the work drop out of sight entirely as though it had never been written, or make some attempt to bring it before the educated non-academic reader of serious literature. Carey has made his choice and I think it a good one.

The Essential Paradise Lost

(2017)

By John Carey

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 978-0-571-32855-0

256pp; $24.87

 

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (trans. and edited) by Jack Zipes

bookjacket

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Reading The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (hereafter Grimm’s Tales) for the first time is an insight into a world readers really knew nothing about. Brought up on the tales from childhood most people gave no thought to the possibility that the material being promoted as Grimm’s Fairy Tales was a heavily sanitized account. Most did not know that there was more than one version. With the release of the Zipes edition scholars have an intriguing means of measuring the effects of creeping censorship over a lengthy period of 200 years.

Jack Zipes assures the readers of his introduction that the Grimm brothers believed that “the most natural and pure forms of culture” (xxv) were linguistic in origin and were to be found in a “Volk culture that emanated organically from people’s experiences and bound the people together” (xxv). They took the view that the origins of literature based on tales, legends, myths and pagan beliefs could be safeguarded if literary historians preserved the pure sources of modern literature which they would find in the oral traditions of the language.

This raises the issue of the marked changes that Wilhelm Grimm introduced into the raw material that he and his brother Jacob had amassed. Editing the material to meet changing conventions is hardly preservation. The tales were mostly contributed by others and collated by the Grimm brothers. It was if some open-mouthed entity sucked in the contributions of the German people and laid them at the feet of the Brothers Grimm, who then assembled them into the 1812 and later the 1815 collections. With the withdrawal of Jacob to other tasks the way was clear for Wilhelm to tinker.

Having read the original Grimm’s Tales (as defined above) the reader can only marvel at the simplicity and freshness of the entries, each trimmed back into bare narrative, and each reflecting an unsophisticated society that has long gone. Who knew what a Rapunzel was? Only someone whose livelihood was the soil, perhaps? What child of our own era would ever think that a prince visiting Rapunzel might have hanky-panky in mind or, conversely, what teller of the original tale would think that not an inevitable consequence?  A tale that was contributed 200 years ago by uneducated people would be told in a direct, in-your-face manner. The witch in Hansel and Gretel was attempting to murder the children. It was fitting that an eye for an eye system of judgment would consign the witch to the oven and think no more about the matter.

The modern version of Cinderella is a very interesting one because it is simpler than the 1812 edition. It bucks the trend. In the original the ugly sisters carry out surgery on their feet and fit the glass slipper. The dumbest prince in all creation accepts each of them as his bride until a flock of pigeons directs him away from the miscreants to everlasting love with the girl from the cinders.

Simple, direct, and forceful are epithets that spring to mind when perusing this gem of a book. Naked self-interest, greed, right vs wrong – there is no confusion about what is valued in this new Jack Zipes edition. A major component of its success is the artwork that accompanies the tales. Stark black and white illustrations support and inform a spare, bold text. It is as though readers observe a series of cut-outs so pared back is the illustrative material. “A mosaic of precious small pieces, each one glinting with its own color and character, glass and crystalline, but somehow hard, unyielding” was how Marina Warner of the New York Review of Books described the artwork supporting this selection. I could not have put it better.

The book is a worthy edition to display on the shelves because not only is it a very handsome publication but it also contains a scholarly reference section that has not yet been mentioned. I am thinking of two contributions in particular viz the List of Contributors and Informants and the Notes to volumes 1 and 2.

The List is a comprehensive document, a typical entry being that assigned to Dorothea Viehmann (1755 – 1815), wife of a village tailor in Zwehren near Kassel. The Grimms considered her to be the exemplary “peasant” storyteller. Another is that of Paul Wigand (1786 – 1866), close friend of the Brothers Grimm, who studied with them in Kassel. Aside from “The Three Spinners”, Wigand contributed nineteen legends to the Grimms’ Deutsche Sagen (1816 – 1818). Some entries are brief but each is an acknowledgment of that contribution’s importance. Three and a half pages are given over to the List.

The Notes to Volumes I and II begin on page 479 and continue to page 516. They are extremely informative and are models of clarity. The Note on The Frog King or Iron Henry is a typical example. The Note introduces the topic and goes on: “There is a handwritten moralistic version that predates the 1812 story and can be found in the Olenberg manuscript of 1810. It was changed and edited by Wilhelm Grimm for the first edition of 1812. The Grimms considered this tale to be one of the oldest and most beautiful in German-speaking regions” (479). It was often given the title of “Iron Henry”. Explanations within the Note occupy another half a page of fine detail.

Grimm’s Tales is a book that nobody saw coming. At first one is tempted to argue that the book was never needed, but a close reading negates that view. The amount of research that this edition will spawn is but one measure of the value of the edition. This is an unexpected, but thrilling, addition to the oral tradition.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

(2014)

Edited by Jack Zipes

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-17322-1

519pp (plus a huge introductory segment)

$26.58

 

The Mouth that Roared by Les Twentyman with Robert Hillman

the-mouth-that-roared-fntcov-v4

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Les Twentyman and Robert Hillman, separately leaders in their respective fields, together have produced one of the great biographies of the twenty-first century. This is Les Twentyman’s own story – the unassuming hero of the down-and-outs whose lives are suddenly changed by the interjection of a down-to-earth personality into their weary lives, a man with a no-nonsense, non-judgmental way of getting things done.

This is an uplifting book. It’s a book that makes its readers fiercely proud to be Australian but also guilty that perhaps they could have given more to the desperate and the needy. Within the pages of this book are many tales and numerous anecdotes. There is the simple slip of the tongue when an Acting MC introduced Les Twentyman as “the Virgin of the Year for 2006” (250) and the story of the dreadful measures meted out by the IRA and the Protestant hitmen in Northern Ireland.

The stories are good for a laugh or a cry but there is something much more important being told in this book. For this is a history of a movement that has gone by many names not least being its current designation of Les Twentyman Foundation. The name is singularly appropriate because it focuses attention on the man who has given his all to look after addicts, drunks and at risk children for over fifty years. There is no glamour in this work. Paramedics given the job of cleaning up after users of ice and heroin will attest to that. It is basic, it is smelly, it is dirty and it is vitally important.

Les Twentyman – the mouth that roared – is a very vocal youth outreach worker and humanitarian who has campaigned since the early 1980s on issues ranging from homelessness, drug abuse, prison reform and social welfare. He has been recognized for his work by federal, state and local identities and for his big, generous heart by the ordinary man in the street. But little more than lip service has been paid to the approaches to human fallibility that he advocates relentlessly. As readers make their way through the book the very saneness of Twentyman’s arguments beat them about the head and they come to understand the frustration the man feels when his thoughts are met by government inaction.

Because he is so understanding of human frailty and so unassuming, Twentyman is the person others go to when episodes escalate to that savage line between frustration and madness. Called in by school principals, policemen, and other social workers Twentyman has experienced the lot. He has been a solitary mourner at the unmarked grave of countless young people who have OD’d or suicided. He has taught in schools where the school bus was forbidden for use in transporting students to training at a swimming pool because it was needed for some obscure religious purpose. Controversially, he has called kids “human dustbins” because the school tuck-shop fare was of such very low quality, and the children were required to buy it.

There is a story that Les Twentyman tells in some detail that must send a shiver down every reader’s spine. Two teenage girls are preparing a meal together. One is using a meat cleaver to cut up vegetables that the other girl has purchased from a supermarket. The girl with the cleaver notices that there are no sprouts, wants to know why, doesn’t accept the excuse she hears, and attacks her friend with the cleaver. Twentyman explains that growing up is a group effort and if there is no opportunity to interact and relax within a group, tensions run high. If a girl has gone for four days without drugs, if she has no group to chill out with, then nerves are raw and the action with the meat cleaver is almost predictable. Kids need other kids in a safe environment where they can unwind from the pressure cooker existence they currently lead. Twentyman wants “programs that make kids think of membership in a gang as a poor alternative. It’s not rocket science. Open doors for kids, and a good number will walk through” (136).

Twentyman reserves his most potent virulence for the television crews that make the less advantaged the targets of mainstream community wrath. He instances the television coverage of the Paxton children as a particular instance of social cruelty. His other significant target is the politicians or high profile community members who want to lock-up ‘his people’ or ‘send them back to where they came from’. Shortsighted and cruel, these people, in Twentyman’s view, prey on the vulnerable for their own instant gratification, but fail to realise that their attacks force their targets to join a gang for protection.

This book is a major fight against stupidity. It uses Les Twentyman’s life story as a vehicle to highlight the terrible circumstances that many of our citizens meet each day. It gives hope because the Les Twentyman Foundation is becoming better known and supported. It also presents the chagrin that comes from knowing what governments should be doing and what citizens should be clamouring for, but are not.

A tremendously important memoir that all Australians should read.

The Mouth that Roared

(2017)

By Les Twentyman with Robert Hillman

Wild Dingo Press

ISBN: 978-0-9873813-6-1

$29.95; 284pp

 

ADMISSIONS: a life in brain surgery by Henry Marsh

Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley

 

As a follow on from his successful book Do No Harm Henry Marsh, the author of ADMISSIONS: a life in brain surgery weaves his wealth of experiences and roles as a doctor, neurosurgeon and colleague as well as son, husband and father into a series of fascinating snapshots into his life. Via memories and reflections of poignant occasions, overseas trips and personal details we are taken through detailed accounts of professional case histories intertwined with his personal and emotional journeys in an interesting and thought provoking narrative.

Initially, I interpreted the title of the book as a reference to admission of patients in his clinical role as a doctor but then realised he is also cleverly using it to refer to his own intimate admissions. Using the term in this revealing sense he is brutally honest in telling us about insights into his own personality and character and in particular, what he considers to be his shortcomings in the diverse roles he has been assigned or assumed in his life. Regarding his relationship with his parents he tells us ‘I was not a good son. I exploited their love, although their love was certainly the principal source of my feeling of self-importance, something which has been both a strength and a weakness throughout my life’.

Organising his thoughts and writing into twelve convenient chapters that tell a story in a compartmentalised way he approaches the end of his life and career as doctor in philosophical mode. As with many doctors he uses the experiences and lessons learnt from his former patients and jokes that his suicide kit is his most precious possession. As he contemplates his encroaching age he has no illusions about end of life choices but senses that hope of a future  is something we all cling to even when dying. However, he feels the place where most of us will die – a busy hospital ward – is not necessarily conducive to conversations about hope.

Chapters which discuss his clinical work in the UK show a real frustration with how the NHS (National Health Service) is evolving and he cites several examples of rampant bureaucracy to illustrate his thoughts. In fact his exasperation with current NHS systems is given as the reason why he decides to resign from his London hospital post. He discusses and compares his work in a first world country with that he undertakes in two low income countries – Nepal and Ukraine.  Different cultural norms and approaches in the field of medicine used in these countries are related using painful and often difficult case descriptions. The inherent difficulties and complications of practising brain surgery in any country make us reflect on the enormous talent and intricacy required of the job.

Alongside the love of his pioneering and professional role Henry describes himself as someone who greatly loves DIY and his ability to create, repair and build using his extensive collection of power tools to improve and renovate his homes. He describes the current restoration of his cottage, which he is doing himself, as a constant source of satisfaction.

At times harrowing, sombre and thought provoking this book explores a profession that many of us are fortunate enough not to have personally experienced or thought about. In the discussion of a multitude of medical cases in different countries, intertwined with more personal introspection, we realise that science has not yet solved many of the issues in the world of neurosurgery. Despite this we are given hope in the knowledge that there are teams of very hard working and dedicated professionals out there.

ADMISSIONS: a life in brain surgery

(2017)

By Henry Marsh

Orion Publishing Group

ISBN: 9781409166788

UK: £16.99; 271pp

A Crime in the Family by Sacha Batthyany

 

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

“It was the massacre of 180 Jews that brought me closer to my family”

The last few days of the Second World War were congested with events that have become synonymous with human suffering and destruction. Gratuitous violence by retreating German troops, Adolf Hitler’s suicide, liberation of death camps and Russian occupation of Eastern Europe, were just a few. The war took lives and changed other lives forever. A war’s end diaspora occurred in those times – German soldiers fled retribution, released prisoners returned to their old homes or were forced to seek new ones.

One aristocratic family fled from Austria to Switzerland before the Russians seized their land. He was a Hungarian Count and she a German heiress, one of the world’s richest women.  Later they were joined by the man’s brother, his wife and son. The son grew up in Switzerland and in 1973 his wife gave birth to Sacha Batthyány.

Fast forward 45 years and Sacha is handed a news report. By then he is a successful and accomplished journalist and editor of a reputable Swiss daily. He is also an academic and is used to investigating stories and seeking truth. The report contends that in 1945, his great aunt, the German heiress Margit Thyssen-Bornemisza, Countess of Batthyány, had thrown a party at her Austrian castle. During the party some of the German military guests had wandered down the hill and executed 180 Jewish people, a scant 3 days before the end of the war.

Sacha asks his colleague “Und was hat das mit mir zu tun?” (And what does this have to do with me?). Perhaps this is a justifiable response to what would have been a shocking accusation. His Aunt was not a blood relation of his and was German by birth; and the (alleged) events took place more than 60 years before.

To his credit, Sacha appears to have been the one person in the family to ask more questions. He embarked on a seven year search, taking him across three continents and culminating in a book with the ironic title “Und was hat das mit mir zu tun?”.  The translated version “A Crime in the Family” was published the following year.

His search for truth is beset with untrustworthy sources and few surviving witnesses.  Who can he believe – the much-revised diaries of a deceased grandmother, the facial expressions of a taciturn father, the incomplete records of an aborted murder trial, unreliable newspaper reports, the fading and selective memories of distant relatives, or the dim recollections of an elderly Auschwitz survivor? The detail of these events 70 years in the past is scant – eyewitnesses have remained silent or are no longer alive – in some cases meeting suspicious fates before they could give evidence against the perpetrators.

The book cannot settle the facts of the massacre, particularly in relation to any involvement of Aunt Margit or Uncle Ivan. No conclusive evidence is presented for Margit actually shooting any of the 180. Neither is she exonerated by her great-nephew:

“Aunt Margit did not stand in the cold at midnight beside the pit where the naked men and women were kneeling in a row. She was laughing and dancing as their emaciated bodies fell into the ground”

Sacha’s inquiries about the mass executions leads to many other stories that have a direct connection to his forebears.   He follows the trail to his Grandfather’s ten year post war imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag. His father is persuaded to come and his unexpected reactions to the investigations are insightfully observed by his son.

The story which eventually is central to the book begins with two young girls who play together in a Hungarian village. One is his grandmother Maritta and the other is a Jew named Agnes. The invasion by Germany late in the war sees the girls parted for ever. They may not be close friends, but events unfold that lead to Maritta witnessing a terrible crime that has a profound effect on Agnes’ family.  The story of Agnes is perhaps the most poignant in the book and results, in the present day, in a moral dilemma for Sacha and Agnes’ daughters.

“Agnes had seen Auschwitz, the ovens, she had faced Mengele on the ramp – that’s enough for one human life. Why, at the age of nearly ninety, should she be given the news” [of her parents’ death].

In seeking truth, he realises that he has also become the holder of truth.

The diaries of Maritta and Agnes are extensively quoted and carefully juxtaposed by the author. These are perhaps the most riveting part of the whole book, with their eye witness accounts of such risky times. The fate of both women is in the balance – one held as a holocaust prisoner by Germany and the other hiding in Budapest as the Russians invade and over 160,000 are killed. The sense of imminent danger is palpable and so is the relief. Agnes wrote “Until the morning came when no-one woke us. For the first time in months, there was only silence”.

The author’s tone is moderate and self-reflective, but never strident. The historic events in the book, the skilled writing style and structure, make for a compelling experience. The structure in particular – though complex and occasionally confusing – creates a sense of the author’s own journey with all of its attendant questions, uncertainties and even fear.

“How many people are there in the world whose lives might be different if my grandmother’s parents had helped them?”

“And what about all the people of Budapest who watched the Jews of Budapest – women, children, the old – chained together by handcuffs as they fell into the ice-cold Danube?”

After many such rhetorical questions, Sacha is prepared to admit to a personal shortcoming:

“I opened my notebook ……and wrote ‘Could you have done it – could you have hidden Jews?’ And under it the answer. ‘No’”

Is it reasonable to distrust the author’s motives and conclusions about his family’s involvement? As a descendant of this aristocratic lineage, is this just hand wringing or, worse, a further attempt at cover up – at least in the case of Aunt Margit and Uncle Ivan? I read with doubts along these lines and rejected both questions. He has published against the will of at least some family members and a number of his conclusions – even with limited information – are prejudicial to the family.

The author makes no pretence that he has written an historical tome. It is very much a personal journey with a strong sense of a journalist’s eye for a thought-provoking story. Even the author’s frequent introspection and therapy sessions eventually transform from intrusive to valuable.

The stories of his Grandmother, Grandfather, Great Aunt and most of all, Agnes, underpin the moral power of this book.  The capriciousness of life or death under the Nazis and Russians and their systematic and random acts of violence are still chilling to a reader in modern times. This book has helped me to better understand the fear of the victims and know that the suffering they faced should never be permitted to recur.

A Crime in the Family

(2017)

By Sacha Batthyány

Translation by Anthea Bell

Quercus

ISBN: 9781786480576

220 pp; £13.99 (paperback)

Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

 

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre we meet Edward Fairfax Rochester one January afternoon when his horse slips on ice and its rider is thrown. Rescued by the governess Jane Eyre, he becomes known for his brooding, taciturn manner while the story unfolds. In Mr Rochester, Sarah Shoemaker has given us an imaginative construction of the man’s life in the years preceding that tumble on the ice.

To write a story that will mesh seamlessly with Charlotte Bronte’s famous work takes a lot of courage and an equal amount of gall. It is not just a nineteenth century idiom that has to be mastered but also Bronte’s own style. Yet Sarah Shoemaker has succeeded and the world now has a story that is the equal of the Bronte creation. Think about that for a moment and consider what a breathtaking achievement that really is.

In Shoemaker’s fertile brain Rochester is a young boy whose father and older brother do nothing to show any love for him. At eight he is sent away to be educated in a thoroughly creative way by Mr Lincoln. Here he meets Touch, a young boy who leaves a lasting impression and Carrots, whose later life reveals his noble roots. After Lincoln, Rochester is sent to work in a mill and some years later is told that he must make his way to Jamaica and make a life for himself there. While living on this island Rochester meets the exotic but unstable Bertha Antoinette Mason and goes through a form of marriage service with her. Returning to England on the death of his father Rochester and his ‘mad’ wife inhabit Thornfield Hall where Bertha is confined. It is soon after this that Rochester meets the far from exotic Jane Eyre.

In substance Shoemaker’s story is a very feasible lead in to the Bronte classic. There is nothing in the content of Jane Eyre that was not explained by Shoemaker’s imaginative creation.  However, nothing in Bronte’s original jarred as much as the downright foolish antics Shoemaker’s Rochester indulged in as he attempted to woo the hand of the governess. I found that while Chapter 14 and nearby chapters did follow the original text, the Shoemaker version lacked the magnificent prose of the earlier chapters. The gypsy in particular tried my patience severely. The fine touch of Charlotte Bronte was lacking. Jane Eyre, the governess, was ready to believe in Rochester’s love for her as a woman, while I saw a childish fool heavily in love with himself.

But the two creations – Rochester as a boy and a mature young man on the one hand and Rochester in the role of suitor – are not mildly different but cataclysmically so. The initial two thirds of the book is told in convincing, enjoyable and stirring prose that never lets the reader down. It is faultlessly written and has a narrative that is convincing and bold. By contrast, the latter part of the book is inadequate.

The characters inhabiting Rochester’s childhood are warm and generous caricatures. With the exception of Rochester’s father and elder brother, who are rotten to the core villains, they do no harm, each in his or her own way contributing values to the young boy that will stand him in good stead. Mr Lincoln is clearly well versed in the ‘doing rather than telling’ school of learning and his immersion method of teaching a foreign language works well with Rochester. Mr Wilson, the mill owner, is vastly different except in the area of knowledge of his trade. In this he is as knowledgeable as Lincoln is in educating young men.

Rochester’s father is a character not often seen in fiction. Opinions of him vary reader by reader and according to how far into the book readers have progressed. His reasons for making over land in Jamaica are not as the reader might suspect. He is an interesting psychological study. Obviously a self-made man he yet is content to demand virtually nothing from his elder son except that he enjoy the unearned life of a lord. His hatred of his younger son borders on the pathological, but no reason is revealed.

Wisely, Shoemaker stays away from a detailed analysis of Jane Eyre. This is Emily Bronte’s territory. Jane Eyre has to be part of Rochester’s story. Her character, indeed her impact on the flow of the Shoemaker creation, are muted.

My enjoyment of this novel cannot be severed from my admiration for the courage it took to create a childhood and young adult history of such a well-known character. While envious of Sarah Shoemaker’s success, I am with C. J. Dennis. I, too, dips me lid!

Thoroughly recommended! A great read!

Mr Rochester

(2017)

By Sarah Shoemaker

Headline/Hachette UK

ISBN: 978-1-4722-4894-7

$32.99; 465pp

 

The Beachcomber’s Wife by Adrian Mitchell

The Beachcomber's Wife

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

An elderly deaf woman is alone on Dunk Island, North Queensland.  It is 1923, her husband has just died, and she has no means of contacting the main land.   She waits for three days before a passing boat comes to her aid.   This is fact.

The woman is Bertha Banfield, her husband, Edmund Banfield, was a writer and journalist.  After almost working himself to death as a reporter and political and environmental activist, he relocated to Dunk Island to live and write books about the solitary life at the behest of nature, one of which was Confessions of a Beachcomber.  This was in the spirit of his hero Henry Thoreau, who in the mid nineteenth century built a cabin in the woods on his friend’s estate in Concord, Massachusetts, and wrote Waldon; or, Life in the Woods.

However, Mr. Banfield wasn’t exactly solitary since Dunk Island was home to a few Indigenous clans; his wife was also busily setting up home in their little cottage not far from the beach.   Whereas Banfield made comment on the indigenous folk, his wife remained unacknowledged in his celebrated books of the time, not even in the form of a dedication; this would have been to keep up with the solitary image no doubt.

Time takes its revenge – Bertha is vindicated in The Beachcomber’s Wife.      Adrian Mitchell comes to the rescue and gives Bertha a voice.  Man-alone, surviving in nature is a familiar type, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s work to Bear Grylls (solitary man in the wild with camera crew).  A wife living with, and her perspective on, solitary man in nature definitely adds a refreshingly new trope to this genre.

The basis for Mitchell’s narrative is gleaned from Banfield’s writing, and then re-imagined as historical fiction.  Edmund becomes Edward and through Bertha’s point of view we learn about their life together and the inconsistent behaviour of her husband.

Mitchell writes in the first person, a soliloquy of thoughts that move seamlessly between Bertha’s current predicament, keeping an insect free vigil over a dead body, to recounting their individual and joint history; she evaluates her life with the beachcomber.  The narrative begins immediately after Edwards’s death; his wife has built three signal fires on the beach and she waits for a passing boat.

Nothing.  Nothing and nobody.  …  Today the sea, the sky, the light, have been moody and anxious.  As have I.  As am I.

The weather does a lot of work in this novel, setting and matching mood, as does everything in the environment, all described in Mitchell’s wonderful prose.

 This entire beach is made of dead coral ground up fine, and crushed shells, and I am sitting on death.  Stranded.

As she waits on the beach, stoking the signal fires, she remembers their first day landing at that spot.  Her thoughts waft gently from topic to topic, past and present.   Over the three days she covers her start in life, her mother in Liverpool, England, her one other love who died at sea.  She thinks about her courtship with Edward, his early life, failing health, and his passionate obsessions, and she remembers the terrifying cyclones.   During a near-death incident at sea, she was there, helping him survive, but never mentioned when he wrote of the incident, although the dog was featured.

It seems life with Edward was difficult.  He was a man who valued his own opinions, not only discounting other ideas, but also becoming irate when an opposing view was expressed.  She learnt to keep her own peace but wondered who was really the deaf one in the partnership.  Her deafness was a problem everywhere else but the island, which made island living attractive for her.

 I disliked having to sit in a room full of lumpy tiresome women,  …  laughing and joking with each other, and showing their gums – like so many cannibals at a picnic.

In the voice of Bertha, Michell makes some thoughtful comments about deafness:

 What I found was that I seemed to be living more and more inside a kind of envelope, the equivalent in sound of a darkening room.

Another interesting point made is how time melts away; the only division being night or day, the day of the week or month immaterial.   Robyn Davidson, of Tracks fame, also noted the changing nature of time as she crossed Australia in the company of four camels and a dog.  Time, for Robyn, became a calm undifferentiated blur.

This narrative is imaginative and beautifully told by Adrian Mitchell. He has an extensive writing pedigree, after retiring from an academic career at the University of Sydney, he remained as an honorary research associate in the Department of English.   He has since published five books, featuring people and communities that deserve to be remembered.   He has given voice to the forgotten.   I cannot wait to read Plein Airs and Graces an earlier novel that was short-listed in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

When reading The Beachcomber’s Wife I couldn’t help wondering how Bertha might feel. If I were she I’d be delighted.   But, would she resent words being put in her mouth?  It would be interesting to talk to Bertha; I do wish she had written a diary.  I also worried about what she would do when death had been organised – would she stay on the island alone?

Maybe I got over-involved.   But that’s the power of Mitchell’s writing.

The Beachcomber’s Wife

(2017)

By Adrian Mitchell

Wakefield Press

ISBN; 978 1 74305 455 0 (paperback)

175pp; $24.95

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

 

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

A building, the people who live in it, a society anxious about immigration and unemployment, and the over arching summer heat of Paris.   Such are the elements of Fran Cooper’s first novel, These Dividing Walls, successfully fusing character study and commentary on current social problems in Europe.

Fran Cooper seems well placed to write of Paris as she lived there for three years writing a PhD, before that reading English at Cambridge, and Art History at The Courtauld Institute of Art in the heart of London.  She now works in a curatorial department of a museum in London.   These credentials suggest that the reader is in capable hands, and they are. Moreover, Fran Cooper has an elegant prose style that makes this novel a most enjoyable read.

The old building, number thirty-seven, stands in an unfashionable corner of Paris.

… always a little behind the times, a little outside its time, … on a street with forgotten flowers in its name …

The building is a mixture of apartments and attic studios; it is like an old character as much as the setting for the novel.  Its history hangs around the inhabitants as invisible scenery. Some have been there so long that they seem woven into the fabric; one has her childhood memories locked into it, and others are newly arrived, not yet attuned to its charm.  A collage of characters in separate spaces, divided by secrets, grief and loss, rage and madness. Some meet and love, others hide and hate.   There is Anaïs, a young mother, like others, struggling with the loss of happier, easier, independent days and with three young children; César, a bitter banker recently made redundant, who has become embroiled in something beyond his comprehension and comfort; the nocturnal hairdresser; the mysterious tenant only Anais sees.

The lives of Cooper’s characters are subtly nuanced as they react to personal problems and complex societal issues.  The heat is stretching over Paris, pressing down, invading spaces, and eroding personal and communal senses.  It is into this scene that Edward, young and lost in grief, arrives from England.  Invited, by his friend Emilie, to stay in her aunt’s attic studio, where charming Aunt Frédérique, who intermittently runs a bookshop, invites him to tea.

She asks him about his life

Now it is his turn to obfuscate, to look beyond the deep pile of the sofa and the piles of books to see his own ghosts taking shape.

A young Muslim couple, soon to have a baby, leases an empty apartment.  A meeting is held to discuss this ‘problem’. Some are vehemently opposed, others outraged by small-minded attitudes.  Opinions are sought from individual members.

Absolutely fine by me.  There are plenty of annoying people in this building already, and it’s got nothing to do with their religion.

Edward roams Paris and meets Charlotte and her friends, who are discussing how they might oppose political right wing groups.

Amorphous groups sitting hunched outside cafés, immersed in clouds of cigarette smoke and liberal outrage.

There is a violent riot in Paris; the residents of number thirty-seven pull together to protect an injured friend.  Closer connections are attempted between people who have only been acquaintances for many years.

Proximity does not invite closeness, and all the years of polite bonjours and waving at each other across the courtyard have really served to demarcate their own space, not invite the other in.  It crowds around them now; the weight of friendship that might have been.

The narrative has twists that surprise, but the main effect is to evoke compassion and understanding for its cast of characters.  Cooper elegantly illustrates personality, life experience and social position of each character in a multiplicity of nuances, fusing individual lives to broader social issues.  The political is no longer abstract.  Loss and grief; losing independence, a job, a close relative, is potently personal.   But, as Frédérique says to Edward, Paris should be about joy, and it is there to find.  It can be found in broken lives.

This novel is well written; it is a pleasure to read. Locating a copy and looking out for Fran Cooper’s future work are both highly recommended.

These Dividing Walls

(2017)

By Fran Cooper

Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Australia

ISBN 978-1-473-64154-9

248pp

$32.99

EBook

ISBN 978-1-473-64155-6

New York Nights by C.J. Duggan

 

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

New York Nights is reminiscent of a sexy fairy tale – with complications – a fun romantic comedy; it is the latest story in C.J. Duggan’s the ‘Heart of the City’ series.

Now I was worried.  From the moment Dr Liebenberg had spoken of helping with a ‘situation’ it was obvious that I was signing up for something strange.  What was this place on Lafayette?  If I woke in a bathtub of ice without my kidneys, I was going to be seriously pissed.

Sarah Williams has taken the plunge into the big world away from Australia.  On a recommendation from her previous employer, Sarah lands a job as an au pair in New York.   Yes, New York!  How lucky is she?   Well, as it turns out, her luck is in a variable state.   Sarah has to deal with the Worthington Family.

Her first introduction to the rich and powerful world of the Worthington is an interview with the ice-maiden matriarch, Penny Worthington and her daughter Emily, ice maiden in training.   Sarah is told, bluntly, that she must do as told, ask no questions and sign a non-disclosure form.  It isn’t going well until daughter Nikki turns up, she represents the human side of the Worthington clan.  Sadly, it isn’t Nikki who needs an au pair; rather it is the moody, troubled Ben Worthington.   Ben is the Worthington eldest son and heir, a wifeless architect with an adorable baby, and, as they say, drop-dead-gorgeous.   But he is also remote, rude, and occasionally thoughtful, in unpredictable turns.  His life is lived in a shroud of secrecy and grief. Outspoken Sarah loves baby Grace but living on the edge of this dysfunctional family becomes a multifaceted problem, especially when errant youngest son Alistair turns up.

Sarah’s is from a working-class Australian family, she knows how to ‘tough-it-out’ when faced with a challenge, but baby Gracie has not caught-on to the art of sleeping; sleep deprivation, the cruelest of tortures, is weakening Sarah’s resolve.   To complicate matters she finds herself falling in love, or is it lust?    She’s too tired to know.

The New York setting is a highlight of the novel; even in her exhausted state Sarah manages to do some sightseeing.   This is an exotic and exciting city for a country girl.  The reader enjoys accompanying her around Tiffany & Co., Central Park, the Village and Washington Square.  Duggan makes it live; the reader senses Sarah’s joy.

It is also through Sarah’s perspective that the reader accesses the Worthington characters; consequently they feel stiff, distant, their motivations and thoughts are sketchy, unsurprisingly since Sarah is groping for the truth.  She is always uncertain about these people, especially when she is ushered into the presence of patriarchal Mr. Worthington.

I walked tentatively toward the lounge.  The only sign of life was a puff of smoke billowing from a wing chair  . . . It was then I heard laughter – no, it was more like a dark chuckle – and I thought that maybe I had entered a vampire’s lair, and I was on the menu.

New York Nights is the second book in the ‘Heart of the City’ series by C.J. Duggan and her twelfth novel.  An Australian author whose writing career started with a self-published e-novel, The Boys of Summer, in 2012; the summer series sold 300,000 e-books.  Signed by Hachette in 2015 she published Paradise City and Paradise Road.  Duggan’s books are in the ‘new-adult’ genre. This category caters for ages between 18-25, but is considered to be a ‘cross-over’ category, also appealing to adult readership.  The genre can be defined by focal points of higher education and career choices, leaving home, fear of failure, empowerment, developing sexuality and gaining more mature perspectives.  Sex and sexuality features heavily, consequently, the genre has been criticized as over-sexualized versions of young adult fiction.  The young adult grouping covers readership between the ages of 12-18.   The distinction between the two genres is important as it gives instant insight to the suitability of the contents for potential readers and buyers.

New York Nights is a light, fun read, perfect for a bubble bath with a drink of choice.  It is reminiscent of a Cinderella fairy tale; only Cinderella is having serious doubts about the handsome prince.

One thing is irrefutable – this genre in the hands of this author is a huge publishing success.

New York Nights

(2017)

By C.J. Duggan

Hachette Australia

IBSN 978-0-7336-3664-6

279pp; $17.99

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm trans & edited by Jack Zipes

bookjacket

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Reading The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (hereafter Grimm’s Tales) for the first time supplies an insight into a hitherto undiscovered world. Brought up from childhood to enjoy Grimm’s Fairy Tales most people gave no thought to the possibility that what they were reading was heavily sanitized. Most did not know that there was more than one version. For the ordinary reader the release of the Zipes edition has shattered a squeaky clean image, while researchers find themselves with an intriguing means of measuring the effects of creeping censorship over a lengthy period of 200 years.

In a comprehensive, scholarly Introduction, Jack Zipes assures readers that the Grimm brothers believed that “the most natural and pure forms of culture” (xxv) were linguistic in origin and were to be found in a “Volk culture that emanated organically from people’s experiences and bound the people together” (xxv). They took the view that the origins of literature based on tales, legends, myths and pagan beliefs could be safeguarded if literary historians preserved the pure sources of modern literature. These they would find in the oral traditions of the language.

This raises the issue of the marked changes that Wilhelm Grimm introduced into the raw material that he and his brother Jacob had amassed. The tales were mostly contributed by others and collated by the Grimm brothers. Editing the material to meet changing conventions is hardly the preservation model alluded to in the preceding paragraph. Having accepted the contributions of the German people, the Brothers Grimm assembled the 1812 and later the 1815 collections. With the withdrawal of Jacob to other tasks the way was clear for Wilhelm to tinker.

The original Grimm’s Tales (as defined above) treat the reader to an unforgettable display of simplicity and freshness, each entry trimmed back into bare narrative, and each reflecting an unsophisticated society that has long gone. Who knew what a Rapunzel was? Only someone whose livelihood was the soil, perhaps? What child of our own era would ever think that a prince visiting Rapunzel might have hanky-panky in mind or, conversely, what teller of the original tale would think that not an inevitable consequence?  It is likely that any tale that was contributed 200 years ago by uneducated people would be told in a direct, in-your-face manner. The witch in Hansel and Gretel was attempting to murder the children. It was fitting that an eye for an eye system of judgment would consign the witch to the oven and think no more about the matter.

The modern version of Cinderella is a very interesting one because it is simpler than the 1812 edition. It bucks the trend. In the original the ugly sisters carry out surgery on their feet and fit the glass slipper. The dumbest prince in all creation accepts each of them as his bride until a flock of pigeons directs him away from the miscreants to everlasting love with the girl from the cinders. The story of The Golden Key (471) is completely within the spirit of the book as well as being a lot of fun.

Simple, direct, and forceful are epithets that spring to mind when perusing this gem of a book. Naked self-interest, greed, right vs wrong – there is no confusion about what is valued in this new Jack Zipes edition. A major component of its success is the artwork that accompanies the tales. Stark black and white illustrations support and inform a spare, bold text. It is as though readers observe a series of cut-outs so pared back is the illustrative material. “A mosaic of precious small pieces, each one glinting with its own color and character, glass and crystalline, but somehow hard, unyielding” was how Marina Warner of the New York Review of Books described the artwork supporting this selection. I could not have put it better.

The book is a worthy edition to display on the shelves because not only is it a very handsome publication but it also contains a scholarly reference section that has not yet been mentioned. I am thinking of two contributions in particular viz the List of Contributors and Informants and the Notes to volumes 1 and 2.

The List is a comprehensive document, a typical entry being that assigned to Dorothea Viehmann (1755 – 1815), wife of a village tailor in Zwehren near Kassel. The Grimms considered her to be the exemplary “peasant” storyteller. Another is that of Paul Wigand (1786 – 1866), close friend of the Brothers Grimm, who studied with them in Kassel. Aside from “The Three Spinners”, Wigand contributed nineteen legends to the Grimms’ Deutsche Sagen (1816 – 1818). Some entries are brief but each is an acknowledgment of that contribution’s importance. Three and a half pages are given over to the List.

The Notes to Volumes I and II begin on page 479 and continue to page 516. They are extremely informative and are models of clarity. The Note on The Frog King or Iron Henry is a typical example. The Note introduces the topic and goes on: “There is a handwritten moralistic version that predates the 1812 story and can be found in the Olenberg manuscript of 1810. It was changed and edited by Wilhelm Grimm for the first edition of 1812. The Grimms considered this tale to be one of the oldest and most beautiful in German-speaking regions” (479). It was often given the title of “Iron Henry”. Explanations within the Note occupy another half a page of fine detail.

Grimm’s Tales is a book that nobody saw coming. At first one is tempted to argue that the book was never needed, but a close reading negates that view. The amount of research that this edition will spawn is but one measure of the value of the edition. This is an unexpected, but thrilling, addition to the oral tradition.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

(2014)

Edited by Jack Zipes

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-17322-1

519pp (plus a huge introductory segment)

$26.58