Archive for October, 2018

Vital companions for Austen fans

JANE AUSTEN, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: An Annotated Edition Edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks. Harvard University Press. $54.95.JANE AUSTEN, VOLUME THE FIRSTBodleian Library. $59.95.

Since 2010, beginning with Pride and Prejudice, The Belknap Press of Harvard University has commissioned and published handsome, lavishly illustrated, annotated editions of Jane Austen’s novels. Sense and Sensibility, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, Emerita Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the fourth and latest in the series.

Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s first published novel, although not the first novel she had written. Her excitement on being published is reflected in a letter to her sister Cassandra. ”I am never too busy to think of S and S. I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child.”

Sense and Sensibility is a story of money and marriage and the Dashwood sisters. Marianne, the younger, is emotionally intense and rejects convention. Elinor, the elder, is thoughtful and practical with a concern for propriety and the needs of others. Hence the title. Spack, however, explores in both her introduction and her notes, Austen’s sympathy with both Elinor and Marianne, that they both display ”sense” and ”sensibility” and that as characters they need to learn from each other. As a result, by the end of the novel, despite both experiencing heartbreak and despair, they do find marital security and happiness.

As in all her novels, through her heroines, Austen reveals the social and psychological restrictions on women in her time. For Spack, Sense and Sensibility is ”a story of women and how they make their way in a world where men possess most of the power”.

Spack’s extensive annotations are more a commentary than notes, referring constantly to other Austen novels as well as Austen’s literary contemporaries. Spack comments on the concept of the ”cottage” offered to the Dashwoods by Sir John Middleton, explaining that in Austen’s time ”the term applied to country residences intended for a moderate scale of living but designed to be comfortable and refined”. To support this, Spack uses Robert Southey writing in 1820, who refers to ”a cottage with a double coach house. A cottage of gentility” and then Persuasion, in which Mary and Charles Musgrove live in Uppercross Cottage, which ”had received the improvement of a farm house elevated into a cottage … with its viranda, French windows and other prettiness”.

This annotated edition of Sense and Sensibility is a beautiful book, printed on acid-free, cream vellum paper with generous margins and woven bindings. It is an intelligent and enlightening literary companion, and an essential addition to any serious collection of Jane Austen’s works.

Equally essential is Volume the First, of the juvenilia published in facsimile by the Bodleian Library, giving Austen followers ”a unique opportunity to own a likeness of Jane Austen’s hand in the form of a complete manuscript facsimile”.

In her introduction, Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of Bibliography and Textual Criticism at the University of Oxford, reveals that all three volumes of Jane Austen’s juvenilia were suppressed until the twentieth century, as the Austen family ”seemed reluctant to jeopardise a reputation in realism and naturalism by exposing to view the zany and surreal fiction of the juvenilia” which contains drunkenness, female brawling, murder and sexual impropriety.

From the age of 11, the precocious Jane Austen took delight in cleverly parodying and satirising the literature of her time for her family and friends. For Sutherland, Volume the First ”holds precious clues to how Jane Austen worked” as it shows ”signs of complication through revision and the entry of items over a considerable length of time”. It takes the form of a ”mock book” with a table of contents, titles and chapters and the affectionate dedication of each item to a member of her family by ”the author”.

In A Truth Universally Acknowledged. 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen (Particular Books, 2010), eminent Austen scholar Brian Southam reveals it was his encounter with Volume the Second of the juvenilia in a farmhouse in Kent, in 1960, that changed him from ”dutiful student into Janeite devotee”. The Bodleian Library facsimile of Volume the First may have a similar impact on many readers, as it provides a rare insight into the real mind of a novelist whose reputation has been so carefully shaped by her family.

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Turning pages

Bliss wants to lose her virginity before she leaves college, so she has a one-night stand. Next morning she walks into class and discovers her date is her professor. Shock horror!

This, it seems, is a typical ”new adult” situation. The protagonist is a young woman, usually at college, getting used to leaving home, negotiating education, career choices, and her own sexuality – as one book blurb says, ”trying to figure out how to be a grown up”. Romance looms large and dramatic soap opera-type things happen. It’s not unlike young-adult fiction, but at a later stage of life – and the sex is steamier. Oh, and sometimes they throw in a vampire or zombie apocalypse plot.

Bliss is the heroine in Cora Carmack’s Losing It, which she self-published as an e-book. It was a huge success, and as a result she signed a six-figure, three-book deal with HarperCollins in 2012. The next two titles are Faking It and Finding It.

Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more book genres, along comes new-adult fiction, about characters (usually women) in their early 20s, aimed at readers (usually women) in their early 20s. In just five years or so, it’s taken off; but it’s also being written off.

”There aren’t 25-year-olds walking around saying ‘Where is my literature?’ ” writer and editor David Levithan said in New York recently. ”It’s been a failure. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.”

According to Melbourne writer Jo Case, who reported on the NYC Teen Authors Festival for the Wheeler Centre, Levithan said new adult was the first category of fiction created purely by marketers – adult publishers trying to get a piece of the pie.

Is he right? Levithan is a bestselling and widely respected author of young-adult fiction, and he might well have access to more detailed and more up-to-date information than I have. If so, I’d like to know what it is. Because much of what I read suggests there are indeed 25-year-olds who want their own literature.

True, new adult started out as a publisher-driven genre, and some still view it as merely a marketing scheme. St Martin’s Press coined the term in 2009. The company had noticed that YA fiction had a large adult following, so it sent out a call for fiction that could be marketed and published as ”older YA or new adult”.

But new adult also got its start from writers themselves, especially from independent authors such as Carmack publishing their own e-books.

There’s no doubt readers are out there. There are dedicated websites such as NA Alley, and social networking site Goodreads reports that readers have recommended more than 14,000 new-adult titles. Now established authors such as Meg Cabot have joined the trend.

The genre has attracted its critics. Some are worried about explicit sex in books that might percolate down to younger teens. Booksellers seem to disagree about whether it’s a useful label. Twentysomething writer Lauren Sarner says the label is condescending to readers and authors alike: ”It implies that the books act as training wheels between young adult and adult.”

Inevitably there’s parody.

Blogger Cath Murphy has written a wicked set of rules for writing new-adult fiction, including the hero template: ”He is ripped, he is tattooed. He wears jeans so the female interest can put her fingers in his belt loops and pull them closer. He is manly, yet sensitive.”

But Murphy also enjoys the books as ”rollicking good fun”. And if they hold YA readers as they make the transition to adulthood, who can say that’s bad?

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The question of trust answered by treachery

Trust is a belief, a judgment made with tremendous consequence. Kim Philby was a trusted man, the faith showed in him betrayed. Scores of people died as a result, allied nations fell out and truth was submerged in a snakepit of lies.

But trust is not only the preserve of official secrets and their keepers. Trust is the heart of friendship, and it is here that Ben Macintyre focuses his examination of Philby, the arch Soviet mole deep inside British intelligence. Philby’s gift was to deceive and exploit even those close to him.

The book offers a searing insight into this most notorious traitor, a spy for Russia from the 1930s over almost three decades. Macintyre shows how two friends that Philby duped held him in evident awe – Nicholas Elliott, a fellow MI6 officer in Britain’s secret service, and James Angleton, a protege American based in London during World World II and later a top CIA official.

Both had faith, a kind of blind loyalty born of class assumptions and self-delusion. They knew Philby, so they thought. He was a chap, like them – educated in elite English schools (Elliott went to Eton, Angleton also lived in Britain as a boy), a club man who wore sharp suits and drank prodigiously. The constant reference to British stoicism in the book is almost galling, but as John le Carre notes in a revealing afterword, to describe Elliott’s appearance is to ”invite ridicule”. Such were the times, and it was a wink from the old-boy network that invited each into the shadows.

Macintyre’s pacy narrative shows these men, as the ultimate insiders, dismissed any hint of guile in the search for vindication.

When doubters raised awkward questions – such as why Philby had vacillated in 1944 when a prospective Soviet defector offered evidence of a high-level spy in MI6, only for the Russian turncoat to be caught and executed in Moscow – Elliott and Angleton saw unfair aspersion.

Similarly, it was mere coincidence that secret American-sponsored operations in communist Albania failed time and again in the early days of the Cold War while Philby enjoyed boozy lunches with Angleton in Washington. And Philby’s secret marriage to an Austrian communist revolutionary was excused as nothing more than youthful dalliance.

Even after 1951, when spy hunters in America and Britain implicated Philby as the ”third man” after fellow Soviet agent and British Foreign Office diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to Moscow, Elliott and Angleton remained staunch Philby allies.

Philby was asked to stand aside after the defections, but he himself was protected by the mindset – the ”genuine mental block which stubbornly resisted the belief that respected members of the establishment could do such things”. So impervious was this faith, Philby was again invited to serve in MI6 after Elliott championed his cause. Philby promptly also resumed his other occupation.

Like Burgess and Maclean, Philby attended Cambridge, where he embraced communism but kept his belief submerged. But for all his service to Russia, it was not always requited. His Soviet handlers almost lost their best agent by testing Philby with foolish requests to prove his loyalty, suspecting a British trap. Macintyre neatly captures Russia’s paranoia about an elaborate double-agent ruse, for ”it was surely impossible that men with communist pasts could enter the British secret service so easily, and rise so fast”.

By the early 1960s, even Elliott could no longer deny the evidence. He confronted his friend. A battle of wills ensued in which Elliott sought to hold his anger at betrayal in check, to convince Philby to accept immunity in exchange for a full confession. Philby eventually fled to Moscow – an escape, Macintyre implies persuasively, was courtesy of a deliberate blind eye by MI6 and Elliott rather than Philby’s brilliant tradecraft.

The book might deal with events past, but its lessons are modern. Philby was embedded and cultivated as a Russian spy over decades, recruited early and never wavered. Trust is always tested.

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Sweating on a murder and a new plague

What if an MP, a hedge-fund manager and a cleric opened fire on their neighbours, their fellow commuters and their congregation? What apocalyptic moment would these events portend? What if a virulent virus nicknamed ”the sweats” brought London and other capital cities to a halt, causing chaos in the streets and protracted ”last drinks” in the pubs? What difference would the unlikely death from natural causes of a respected children’s doctor make then?

This is the premise of A Lovely Way to Burn, Scottish writer Louise Welsh’s sixth excursion into crime and first in The Plague Times trilogy. Think P. D. James and The Children of Men.

It’s not the first time a crime writer has crossed into the genre territory of speculative fiction. It is, however, the first time Welsh has introduced a protagonist who is both female and straight – although by the end of former journalist Stevie’s harrowing quest to find out how and why her doctor boyfriend Simon has been killed, she will have hacked off her hair and started wearing his suits. Welsh’s central characters usually experience a profound personal transformation.

The bad haircut and the ill-fitting clothes are the disguise Stevie adopts in an attempt to erase her other identity as the attractive face of an all-night shopping show. The account of Stevie and her friend, Joanie, exchanging double entendres while flirting with the camera over a Dual Action Toaster at six in the morning is both wickedly funny and sad. Stevie suspects Joanie is in revenge mode, casting her former policeman lover as a character in a fantasy toast-fuelled marriage.

Sadder still is the fact that when Joanie succumbs to ”the sweats’, it is her policeman ex who comes briefly to Stevie’s aid, the first of many oddball characters to do so.

For the most part, Stevie is on her own in trying to find how and why Simon died. Given everything else, no one seems to care except those eager to reclaim the incriminating laptop that he has hidden in her flat. We’re talking medical malpractice and big money here.

Case solved, the future looks bleak. Checking her rear-view mirror as she escapes London, Stevie observes: ”It was still dark, but there was a glow on the horizon that might have been the city burning, or a promise of dawn”. It’s the ambivalent ”or” that intrigues and provides the shadow of a sequel. Welsh still has her edge.

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New voices to the fore in medley of short, sharp and sweet bites

It’s not all fiction in the latest Sleepers Almanac. There is a smidgen of poetry – Chloe Wilson’s Trotsky’s Last Words and Jenny Ackland’s The Sweet Spot – and the finely tempered meditative prose of Carol Lefevre’s short essay about a photograph of her as a child; what appears at least to take the form of non-fiction emerges in Pierz Newton-John’s brief record of metaphysical speculations with his brother after their parents’ break up.

The collection has a pleasantly unbuttoned, improvised air: not oppressively definitive, but a medley of things that might appeal. It ranges from a well-known writer such as Kirsten Tranter, at one end, to those who have yet to publish a book at the other, though the emphasis is on the new.

There are some uncategorisable things, close to jokes really, such as Darby Hudson’s 100 Points of ID to Prove I Don’t Exist (”Eating a peanut butter sandwich in the shower and not telling anyone about it [25 points]”) and Gareth Hipwell’s Architecture of Iniquity, a page and a half of dialogue between a boy and his mother about brothels and courthouses: about the latter the boy asks ”What actually happens there?” ”People pay to get screwed.”

Roughly half the stories can be described as in the realist vein, ranging from the Luke Thomas tightly managed Bluetongue to the more expansive shifts in time and place of Mireille Juchau’s Sylvie. Domesticity tends to be the focus, and the politics are sexual, with Michelle Radske overtly canvassing feminist issues (how obliged should women feel to be supportive of one another?) in her Winter Is Cold.

Catherine Cole does, however, invoke refugees, as she has before in work published in the Best Australian Stories anthologies. When we learn that the widowed protagonist of Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz has found a new interest in visiting asylum seekers we half expect the story to take us to Villawood.

Instead, the story makes its points about prejudice and learning to accept the Other in a different, unexpected way.

Outside realism there is Rafael SW’s The Taste of Snow. The science-fiction elements are central and even traditional, in that it deals with a returned astronaut falling prey to a strange disease, and also peripheral, as the story plays out within the relationship between the astronaut and his girlfriend on post-return downtime.

J. Y. L Koh’s Civility Place uses fantasy in a different and more socially conscious way: this story of a corporate lawyer externalises and makes literal the all-consuming nature of the modern workplace. The glass tower is all glass, walls and floors and ”You’ve been told a middle-aged woman was once found wedged in one of the glass ceilings”. When our hero escapes, all the way to Tokyo on a motorbike, he ends up in exactly the same place.

Both the ordinary everyday world and the extraordinary, the bizarre, are the subject of Rihana Ries’ Wide Water, which begins with a mildly unhappy suburban family and ends – shades of Breaking Bad – with a multiple-casualty disaster in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

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