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Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Aquarium at Night – by Robert Drewe – from the collection: The Rip

Prison Cell on Robin Island SA by Sebastiaan Jonker

Prison Cell on Robin Island SA by Sebastiaan Jonker

I feel Robert Drewe should be more famous than he is. Perhaps not quite Peter Carrey famous, but at least he should be more well recognised around the world than he currently seems to be. When it comes to my favourite Australian short story writer, he probably even nudges ahead of Cate Kennedy, whom I write about quite a bit on this blog. I would say there might be a gender bias there in my selecting Drewe ahead of Kennedy. I am a man (despite my girlish name), and Drewe’s main characters are mostly men, therefore, I find the characters more relatable for me (I realise this reasoning is unenlightened).

The Aquarium at Night: that’s what the main character, Dyson thinks the prison he is in looks like. He is in England, having been caught entering the country with 4 ectasy tablets he’d forgotten about in his surf bag. He is waiting for the authorities to work out if they want to charge him with trafficking or possession, a time consuming process. In B-wing, he uses his two hours of free time each day to attend a writing class. At night, in his cell, he writes down memories from his boyhood growing up on the Australian coast.

Oswald, a long-term convicted murderer, keeps peace in the writing class. When Oswald is transferred to a medium security prison however, some gang members come in and make trouble for class. Dyson confronts them and tells them to get out. He knows by doing so, he will have to watch his every move for the rest of his time in prison, but he has weighed it up, and realised, the class means more to him than the risks he will now face.

Robert Drewe stories speak of Australia’s love of the water. Australia is an island nation, and the coast plays a symbolic role, if not literal role in many of his character’s lives. In his collection, The Rip, each of the 13 stories has an aspect of water, or the ocean as a major theme. This theme tends to hold true in Drewe’s other story collections as well.

Most writers seem to return again and again to a particular theme. In it, they wrestle with a concept that they can never truly capture. Each story is another attempt at reaching some sort of definitive explanation, but there concept is mercurial. Just as Annie Proulx returns again and again to the setting of ranch life in Wyoming, Drewe keeps returning to the coast. He’s attempts at trying to capture it are exquisite.

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Posted by on June 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The Thrill of the Grass – by W.P. Kinsella – from the collection: The Thrill of the Grass

empty baseball field by Timothy Vollmer

empty baseball field by Timothy Vollmer

1981. The narrator informs us the baseball players are on strike. The stadiums stand empty. The narrator manages to pick the lock of his local stadium and goes in to relive a lifetime of memories about the game. He recalls a time when the fields were covered in real grass and not the synthetic turf the owners now employ.

The man keeps returning to the stadium night after night. He decides to cut out a square of the synthetic turf and replace it with a square of grass from his own garden. He then goes on to enlist other true, old time baseball fans to join him in replacing the turf with real grass, a square at a time. Soon, an army of old men are working through the nights to restore the field before the baseball players return.

Kinsella’s prose is some of the most beautiful I have read. I know not everyone is a baseball fan, but Kinsella uses baseball as a metaphor of something ‘good’ and ‘wholesome’ in life. His baseball at its heart is always pure. Even though it can be corrupted by external factors, true fans can always restore it to its rightful status.

That’s what Kinsella writes about, but how he writes his stories is something else. Something magical. Here are a few phrases from the story.

‘The night is clear and cotton warm.’

‘…a square of sod, the grass smooth and pure, cool as a swatch of satin, fragile as baby’s hair.’

‘each sprinkler will sizzle like frying onions as it wheels, a silver sparkler in the moonlight.’

‘squares of sod, moist as chocolate cake, green with icing.’

I could go on, but then I’d basically be reprinting the whole story here. Reading Kinsella is a rare, glorious treat.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Le Kepi – by Colette – Translated from the French by Antonia White

Legion Etrangere by Kasia_jat

Legion Etrangere by Kasia_jat (the men are wearing Kepis)

The kids today may think they’re breaking new ground with internet dating, but the concept of meeting someone you haven’t met before has been happening from at least when Colette was a young woman in 1898.

Before I start talking about this story, I’ll tell you first up that a kepi is a type of peaked cap often worn by the French army, so this story for those unfamiliar with French could be called alternatively, but most definitely unromantically as ‘the peaked cap.’

Colette inserts herself into the story as a young woman who makes friends with Marco, a woman in her forties, who has been abandoned by her husband and makes her living translating documents for 1 sou (1 penny) a line. A third friend of theirs, over for dinner one night, suggests for a joke that they reply to a lonely hearts type ad in the local newspaper. The three decide to write a letter and the writer of the best will win a big box of Gianduju Kohler – the nutty kind (the equivalent would be chocolate brownies, I think).

They duly write their letters and Marco’s is deemed the best, so continuing the joke, they send it. The next week, reading the lonely hearts column they see a new ad placed by the original man imploring the writer of the letter to write again. The three dismiss it as a joke, but several weeks later, Marco reveals she has been writing back and forwards with the man, who is a lieutenant in the army.

He is young, 25 to Marco’s 46. He comes to Paris and visits her. Meanwhile, Marco’s ex-husband, who has travelled to America, feels sorry for her and starts sending her cheques. It seems Marco’s general unhappiness and poverty allowed her to be superficially beautiful. As she starts becoming happy with her new romance, and with regular money coming in, she begins to put on weight, which makes her breasts sag and her age show. The romance ends when she puts on the Lieutenant’s kepi and strikes a raffish pose which only serves to show the ravages of age on her. The next things she knows, the lieutenant tells her he is going to be posted to Morocco (a lie); their relationship ends a few weeks later. Marco returns to her unhappiness.

Colette is an amazing writer, and once more a big thanks to Peta from petameyer.com for lending me the collection. Colette was about fifty years ahead of her time in the portrayl of non-stereotypical women’s relationships. In another of her stories I read, Bella Vista, she looks at the lesbian relationship between two women in their fifties who run a motel together.

Colette inserts herself as a major character in the stories, though always as an observer: the drama revolves around other people. I have heard that the Colette that appears in the stories is almost a fictional rendering of the author. True, there are autobiographical details, such as the presence of her husband at the time, Willy (Henry Gauthiers Villars) but the character of Colette is a construct, like the Bukowski that appears in Charles Bukowski’s stories.

Colette tends to avoid the political in her short stories and focuses on human relationships. She seems an excellent reader of people and has both an innate and scholarly interest in human nature. Great stuff.

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Colette