Greville St Bookstore

Literature August
August 5, 2009, 1:23 am
Filed under: Literature

David Malouf
Hb $29.95

It’s hard to believe that Ransom is the product of a contemporary consciousness, David Malouf’s language is so perfect and refined it seems to come intact from a far more classical age. He is, of course, reinventing a particular espisode from Homer’s Iliad and the long years of stalled action during the Trojan wars, but his themes are universal and timeless: honour, loyalty, pride, love, loss, grief, men and their infinite capacity for formalising action and emotion. We can easily draw comparison here with any of our modern conflicts; descriptions of the tediousness of endless waiting and the pointlessness of ridiculous protocols.

Malouf’s classical world teeters on the edge of secularity; the gods are still apt to appear as men on earth but belief in their power is waning. Heroic Achilles, in frenzied mourning over the death of his best friend, repeatedly defiles the body of his enemy, Hector, thereby breaking the first law of war, to honour every warrior fallen in battle. The grief of Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy, also unleashes a radical change in thinking, as he comes to realise that his only hope of saving his son’s body from further desecration is an unprecedented action. So Priam sets off, with neither royal retinue nor royal accoutremonts, in the company of Somax, a humble carter, to ransom Hector’s body, and in the process learns something of ‘experienced reality’ and has time to examine the paucity of his actual relationship with his son.

So much sadness and so much beauty. Malouf’s talent and capacity to move us is prodigious.

Steven Carroll
pb $29.99

I was not inspired to read any of the books that form Steven Carroll’s award winning Glenroy trilogy, perhaps because the suburban milieu they celebrate seemed too prosaic, but if The Lost Life is anything to go by I’ll have to reconsider.

How to describe my conversion? Often with literature, as with art, music or film, I will like something because it reminds me of another favourite work. Thus The Lost Life, while retaining it’s own unique voice and position, reminds me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Though that is set in 1962 and The Lost Life in 1934, both have a similar ambiance — both are stories of tentative young lovers, both have a ‘country’ setting, both convey that severely correct British sensibility, and both are set during periods when social interactions, particularly courtship, sex and marriage, were highly ritualised and regulated.

We meet Carroll’s two young lovers, Catherine and Jonathan, on their way to a tryst in the garden of stately mansion, which they imagine to be uninhabited. Afraid of being caught trespassing, they hide when they hear voices and happen to observe a private ceremony performed by two middle-aged people, who turn out to be the celebrated poet, T.S. (‘Tom’) Eliot, and the love of his youth, Emily Hale. What transpires from that fateful conjunction are parallel stories of nostalgic love, thwarted desire, betrayal, moral obligation, memory and meaning.

By incorporating imagery and ideas from Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton, Carroll’s language takes on a poetic rhythm and repetition that allows for a kind of sinking into the intimacies of a slower world and musings on the nature of experience. None could express the overriding theme of The Lost Life better than Eliot himself:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.


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