In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

November 2017

 - Wednesday, November 01, 2017

In Praise of the New 

Last month I spent a blissful week on the west coast of Ireland, staying in an old granite house at the end of a small town, on the beautiful Ring of Kerry. I had already started to read Niall William’s History of Rain, so when I returned to dry old NSW, I positively jumped on it with renewed enthusiasm. Set in Co. Clare, in a town called Faha on the banks of the Shannon, it’s an elegy to rain, and to the river and the fish that swim in it. Narrated by a bedbound girl call Ruth Swain, who slowly unwinds the history of her family, with an undercurrent of the books she is reading as a homage to her poet father, Virgil Swain. Reading is a legacy in the family, and the books themselves surround her in her attic room, in the boatlike bed that her father built her. Tragedy and misfortune could overwhelm the family, but somehow Ruth continues her vocation of reading, and through that finds meaning. If this makes the book seem overly serious, it’s not—it’s humorous and insightful, with a genuine sense of place and people.Before I went to Ireland, I was in London for a week. Having not been back there since I was five, I was somewhat overwhelmed by it. We walked all day, and read all night. I was reading the last three books of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Much of this extraordinary work is set in London, pre-War and post-War, and the author captures that time vividly. Nick Jenkins, possibly literature’s least self referential narrator, is a thinly disguised version of the author, and the novels’ over 300 characters are nearly all based on people Anthony Powell knew. I’ve read these books many times, and I enjoy them more with each reading. Books give us different things at different times of our lives, and these 12 books respond particularly well to rereading. I’m really looking forward to Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell: A Life, and I can recommend her Invitation to the Dance: A Handbook to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, a most useful companion for anyone embarking on the twelve books. Louise


It can truly be said that nothing has become Clive James’s life so much as his unhurried leaving of it. Since receiving his death sentence six years ago he has gone on writing with grace and humour and with a new poetic intensity. In 2015 he published as his ‘final’ book of poems Sentenced to Death, but death has surprisingly given him extra time and his new collection,
Injury Time, contains some of his best poems to date. In Night Walker’s Song he marvels: How strange, that now my strength is sunk so low, / My powers of handicraft have reached their height, / Starting new poems even in the night…  He describes getting up in the night, going wearily downstairs and writing until dawn, just because there’s a new poem demanding to be written. He writes in rueful humour about The Himalayan slog upstairs to bed—/ Placing my feet so carefully I seem / To tread on rolling logs, and there I dream / I come back down next morning, still not dead.  There are tender poems about his mother and the granddaughter who sits beside him giggling at Fawlty Towers on the TV. My favourites are The Gardener in White, This Coming Winter, Visitation of the Dove, Panis Angelicus and the final poem This Being Done, which ends with these lines: The morning comes, and through the spread of snow / In candy-coloured coats the children go. / Listen awhile and you can hear them grow. James admits that it is now an effort to write short lyric poems because they require such concentration and therefore an energy which he has only in short supply. He writes in such an easy conversational style that the poems look deceptively simple, but he always displays superb craftsmanship, with each line burnished to perfection. The first poem in the book is titled Return of the Kogarah Kid—when, he says, he is ‘burned and poured into a jar’ he will return to the city of his birth. It’s sad to think of this brilliant wordsmith being one day silenced, but the poems—his nightingales—will stay with us. For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
Richard Ford’s latest book Between Them is a moving portrait of his parents.  Best known for his Frank Bascombe novels, Ford says that a writer’s life is spent in ‘noticing and being a witness’. This book consists of two essays, one on his father Parker, the second on his mother Edna. Both came from the American rural south with not much money or education. Edna’s mother had given birth to her when only fourteen and later tried to pass her off as her sister. Edna’s happiest days were her school days at a convent, cut short when her stepfather insisted on her getting a job. Parker, who had a job as a travelling salesman for the Faultless Starch Company, married Edna and took her travelling with him until Richard was born—after which Edna and child stayed put while Parker travelled during the week and spent weekends at home. Ford says that giving an account of his father was difficult: not only did he see much less of him than of his mother but he died suddenly when Ford was only 16. Edna died in 1981 but Ford senses that she felt that her life was somehow over when Parker died. In an afterword Ford cites Auden’s La Musée des Beaux Arts, a poem about Brueghel’s painting depicting Icarus tumbling into the sea while some ploughmen labouring nearby take not a scrap of notice. Ford says the picture expresses what he regards as an enduring truth: the world doesn’t take much notice of us. This consideration, he says, has been a crucial urge for most of what he’s written over fifty years and has inspired this small book about his parents, just to show that their lives mattered. A real gem, this one.
Joseph Kanon is a publisher turned novelist who has the knack of writing superior spy novels which are also commercially successful. Defectors, his latest, is a bobby dazzler. In 1949 Frank Weeks, accompanied by wife Joanna, defects to the Soviet Union. In 1961 Frank finishes his memoirs with KGB approval and his publisher brother Simon is invited to Russia for three weeks to oversee publication. Simon still has a tendresse for Joanna and in any case longs to see his brother again, so he accepts the invitation and goes to Russia. The story concerns what happens next. Explosive to say the least.

My best books for 2017 are The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, The Pleasures of Leisure by Robert Dessaix, The Attachment by Ailsa Piper and Tony Doherty, and Anna Krien’s Quarterly Essay The Long Goodbye about coal, coral and the climate deadlock.  Sonia