Friday, 28 June 2013

Visiting the novel's location

     Sometimes the setting is so integral to a novel it becomes one of the characters defining the story. In other words, you could not transport the action to another location and still have the same book. Death in Venice comes to mind, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums, Burmese Days and so on. Robert Frost’s poems could not be as effective and moving were they removed from rural life in New England. There are many examples.
     Yet some of the greatest works of literature are not defined by their locale or period. Shakespeare’s plays can and have been performed far from the setting Shakespeare intended. Coriolanus has recently been transferred to the Balkans, Romeo and Juliet to a Miami-resembling Verona Beach. This has not detracted from their universal themes.
     The same is not true though for many a work of literature and the description of the setting leaves as much impression on the reader as the characters or plot.
The Windmills of La Mancha
     Have you ever gone on a pilgrimage to a setting because it came to life so clearly between the pages of a book you just had to see it for yourself? I once travelled through Spain in search of the towns and villages on the plains of La Mancha where Don Quixote is set. The journey turned into something of a wild goose chase through this windswept desert like region as the exact locations Cervantes based his story on had eluded historians for four centuries, and although we visited interesting villages, none of them exuded a romantic aura associated with a chivalrous knight. The town of Villanueva de los Infantes has since been designated as The Place in La Mancha referred to at the start of Cervantes’ novel. It’s an unremarkable birthplace, but perhaps that was Cervantes’ intention suggesting a courageous knight was unlikely to emerge from such a place.
     Unimpressive with harsh environmental conditions, the dry arid plains of La Mancha and their windmills are nevertheless integral to the story and the ride of the delusional Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza through the dusty terrain is what makes the story.
     Sometimes places live up to expectations and sometimes they don’t. Two things drew me to Tasmania last January. One: the incredible art gallery, MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. A limestone cavern filled with spectacular works of art, it is an experience and an education that lives up to expectations. Two: the wild bush setting of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a spectacular journey into primeval Tasmanian forest, that is terrifying, dangerous and impenetrable.
Tasmanian Wilderness
     The setting takes over as character once the expedition to find the Garden of Eden commences. The landscape plays tricks on the characters and does not give up secrets readily. By observing the terrain, the various parties believe they can find a way through the bush by using geology and logical deduction but they become hopelessly lost to the living, breathing power of the remote setting. The English passengers don’t fit into these powerful surroundings and the physical difficulties the parties encounter even contribute to mental breakdown.

     That remote and impenetrable wilderness still exists in vast tracts in southern Tasmania where there are thousands of acres of land without roads and the only access is by foot. The startling thing is, the menace and danger of the English Passengers’ bush setting remains largely unchanged from when the story was set in 1857.

Sidney Nolan's Snake at the Museum of Old and New Art

Friday, 21 June 2013

Place of Many Birds free fiction download this weekend

Place of Many Birds is short literary fiction set in Australia in the aftermath of the wars and in the shadow of the Great Depression through to the 1960s. Themes are family, love and growing up.

It's available for free download this weekend: Saturday 22 June and Sunday 23 June.

If you don't have a kindle, you can easily download a kindle app for use on PCs.

Australian and USA readers:

UK readers:

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

I met the Farangi Girl today

 I met the Farangi Girl today. What a delight she is. Engaging, personable and full of vitality, you’d never guess she was the product of a tumultuous upbringing in pre-revolutionary Iran. 
     Speaking with knowledge, insight and affection for a country most of us know little about, Dartnell conveys an exotic aura of handsome British father, glamorous American mother and unconventional Iranian upbringing.
     Ashley Dartnell’s autobiographical, Farangi Girl, is a deeply personal account of her life and that of her parents and siblings in a foreign land, Farangi being Farsi for foreign. Filled with intimate details of the mother-daughter relationship, bankruptcy, prison and poverty, affairs and neglect, you can’t help wonder how these children emerged from such a childhood to grow up and make successful lives. Their experiences clearly made them strong and Ashley, always trying to prove herself, went on to graduate from Bryn Mawr College, to gain an MBA from Harvard Business School and an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths University.
Ashley with her glamorous but neglectful mother
     No one outside the circle really knows what goes on within a family. So the exposure of her and her brothers’ experiences and the descriptions of family dynamics make heart-rending reading for outsiders, and surely for her family too. When asked how her family reacted to her book, she is candid. At first there were objections as painful memories were raked over, but eventually acceptance of the writer’s desire to write won out and Ashley published her book.
     So how do writers deal with the delicate issue of recounting experiences shared within a family? Do you have a right to use private details of cherished memories or relate events that have long been buried and forgotten for good reason? Disclosure of private facts is tricky territory and needs to be handled carefully and thoughtfully if it is not to end in tears, recriminations or legal issues.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Does a movie ever live up to the book?

    Critics gave the new film of The Great Gatsby luke warm reviews, disappointed it did not capture the essence of this enduringly popular novel. But weren’t they being a little harsh, after all, it would be just about impossible to please the gate-keepers of this classic America novel,sometimes described as the greatest American novel ever written.
     Regarded as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, it embodies the conflicts between the established sources of economic and cultural power and those like Gatsby of humble origins who make good, becoming wealthy and powerful in the process; in other words, it embodies the American dream that anyone can make it against the odds of class, background and old money, an ideal which is the linchpin of American society from its founding days to the present.
Leonardo DiCaprio shines as Jay Gatsby

     Baz Luhrmann’s film captures well the prosperous 1920s era, known for bootlegged liquor, organised crime, the birth of jazz and the garish flapper culture. Fitzgerald’s themes of decadence and idealism are well defined and the film is a sensory feast with glorious settings and costumes which speak clearly of the opulence enjoyed by the wealthy, of which Gatsby so desperately wanted to be a part, to impress and possess the shallow Daisy.
Classic novels set the bar high
     I guess this is where the critics have a point. These in your face sights and sounds get in the way of the audience thinking too hard. They distract in a way that doesn’t happen in the silence of the mind when reading a novel. Reading The Great Gatsby is a cerebral, poetic experience, requiring the use of the intellect, watching the film is not. Fitzgerald’s delicate prose is littered with abstract and indirect subtleties impossible to recreate in film. The language of the movie is blunt and to the point. The vagaries of the novel which require input from the reader are spelled out in the movie so there is no opportunity to participate as you might with the novel.

     Luhrmann could have taken a different approach and exchanged   blatant reality for nuance, but then that’s not what he does best. He doesn’t do subtle. His version is long (142 min) but entertaining and never boring. Could he have kept his trademark shenanigans without losing Fitzgerald’s layers? It would be a fine thing to see Luhrmann exchange style for substance. As it is though, audiences and critics should accept a film will never live up to the novel we place on a pedestal and just enjoy Luhrmann’s artistic style, which does suit the prosperous era in which The Great Gatsby is set.
     To understand just how revered The Great Gatsby is, a first printing of an American first edition, with dust jacket, can be valued at up to US$750,000. Treated almost as holy writ, could any film maker do it justice? Luhrmann was brave to try.