Elena Ferrante only had the one. I have at least three.
After, in each case, a long gestation, three stunningly good books were published in 2021/22 by people I know. Great books. Books of consuming interest. Unusual books. In each case, written with a passionate commitment to the task and its outcome. I have the incidental and particular pleasure of listening to the voices of people I know.
They have some things in common.
Each of the three is profoundly ambitious. In each case that ambition has been realised but has also taken the books off into highly individual directions.
Dean’s is probably closest to the mainstream in terms of conception and execution. It is its sensibility that makes it idiosyncratic. Bookclubs of retired academics may take it up with some avidity, but I don’t think the other two are going to get on the lists that circulate of favoured choices. There is a stream, which is not main, for Meredith’s book; but Michael’s book belongs in a special place intire of itselfe.
The last two were both (initially) self-published and so they haven’t been massaged into what might be considered a commercial form by the publication process. They remain exactly as the authors intended them to be, and this is most obvious in their structure. Such dramatic choices as Meredith and Michael have made will unsettle readers whose preference is to remain settled. But all three use structure as a fundamental component of meaning. To create his case Dean imports these stony blocks of investigation and lays them one on top of the other decorated by the remarkable relevance of his own experience. Meredith has her own particular template which imposes some order on a mighty efflorescence. Michael’s book starts with a review of what you’re about to read. Not all books use structure as a fundamental component of meaning, but really good ones make the most of the possibilities allowed by their craft.
All three are built on a mountain of research. They all share a delight in the acquisition and sharing of a fact, part of a fervent need to be comprehensive and accurate in the exploration of their concerns. While they love a fact, each is suspicious to some degree of veridicality, the truth of an utterance, any utterance: Dean because of the partiality of history; Meredith because of the uncertainties implicit in the way life evolves; Michael because this is part of the bim-bam of his story. But they can’t hide it; they do love a fact. And so do I.
None of them are formal or distant narratives. The three books are all-in wrestles with issues which have been bothering these authors for a long time. And the matter in question is profoundly serious: living with nature; accommodating the reality of Australian history; and pain, violence and masculinity with all its kinks.
There is both trauma and release in exposing yourself in this way. I thought of calling it mature writing with an adolescent indifference to self-exposure, hoping that ‘adolescent’ would suggest its freshness and ‘indifference’ would be understood as the carelessness of courage.
Two of these books have had important public recognition, but forget the acclaim. Doesn’t matter. Make your own mind up. Read them. Each of them is a monument to intelligence and craft which can stand confidently secure in their truth to themselves. And, frankly, that is both a) out of the box and b) more than enough.
• • • • • • •
Fifty years ago we were married at Meredith and Gil Freeman’s place in Thornbury. I wanted it to be there because the whole set up — an old private hospital with much treasured blood stains on one wall — was a live example of living with the (very urban just there) land, living sustainably and thinking about what you were up to. And then there was the garden. Meredith had transformed the northern suburbs hydrophobic sands and clay into the richest mulchy loam imaginable. Forget the endless things growing in it, this soil simply bristled with goodness. It made you want to wallow in it. Three Michelin Stars: L’un des meilleurs jardins, vaut le voyage, one of the best gardens, worth the trip, a fact reported in a ‘Women’s Weekly’ of the time.
After decades of helping to improve bits of Merri-bek city (think the rejuvenation of the Merri Creek and its valley, the establishment of CERES) they decided after a slow transition to move full-time to nine acres of land at Kardella in South Gippsland. Before European incursion South Gippsland had thick, remarkable vegetation and forests of giant trees. ‘The Thorpdale Giant’, a eucalyptus regnans or Mountain Ash, measured 115m tip to toe when felled in 1880. This happened 20 minutes drive from the Freeman’s property. However they were moving onto a property which had once been a dairy farm, the side of one of the area’s now bald green hills, and they got about its transformation.
That’s one of the lines to follow in A Garden of Useful Plants. Another is Mem’s ‘bit of an obsession’ with growing food. But it’s not a series of just slightly annoying green yarns. It’s nothing like that at all. It’s a spill of the contents of a very thoughtful person’s mind.
In a very positive and elastic way it might be thought of as an almanac. It is an almanac in that it is structured by season, except because Meredith is writing it they are not European seasons. She has chosen to use the eight seasons of the Kulin Nation. As I write, yesterday was the end of the ‘Hot North Wind and Fish Trap Season’. Today we begin the ‘Eel Harvest and Inter-clan Business Season’. As the moon cycles through its phases that in turn will become the ‘Thunderstorm and Rug-Sewing Season’. (I am pleased to discover that marngrook, a precursor of Aussie Rules, is to be played in the ‘Cold West Wind and Artefact-Making Season’.) Near the beginning of each section are Jim Poulter’s short descriptions of what these seasons entail, often shaped by what’s happening with various plants. Mem’s comfortable and pervasive awareness of the very long term habitation of where she lives thickens everything out.
Like any good almanac this is just one of several organising principles. The sections actually do begin with short essays on elemental features of Place, this place. (Seasons, forest, birds, animals, very small things and so on.) We do find out a bit about what’s going on in the garden seasonally but, like any good almanac, then you shovel in piles of whatever is on or in your mind (along with letting your husband and grand daughter provide very skillful water colour illustrations).
What’s on Meredith’s mind? Well … a lot. And rather than shrinking with age those concerns appear to be expanding and reaching out towards the cosmic. ‘This book sets out to tell two stories, though neither has a proper beginning or end. Both have involved looking beyond familiar ways of thinking about any piece of land and horticulture including gardening … constantly reminding myself that what appear to be bold, narrow lines defining meaning, are really wider belts of vaguer grey, sites for exploration and emergence of new ways of seeing.’ One story is what she (and her species) has learnt about living off this particular piece of land; the other is ‘a kind of chronology of my world “starting” with the big bang but focusing on this piece of land as it is now and the plant and animal communities, including the human community, that I find myself part of.’ This provokes a series of questions which include, for example: given the dramatic changes to this landscape over the last 150 years, what plants should be encouraged to grow here now, to the benefit of both human beings and the environment as a whole?’ Large questions. Huge questions. Seminal questions.
So, not an ordinary gardening book then. Which is not to say you won’t run into some durably grounded advice: Think about water. Keep the ground covered. Replenish the soil immediately an area is emptied. Don’t plant the same crop in the same place twice in succession. Attend to the individual requirements of plants. These are couched (in explanatory paragraphs) as possible rules of thumb in a consideration of whether rules of thumb can ever be helpful or real. In fact one of the cosmic elements of the book is living next to, below, on top of and with constant uncertainty and change. Look smell touch think are the constant implied exhortations.
But she supports this process most effectively. Her essay on ‘Very Small Things’, for example, describes what’s in ‘a teaspoon of good garden soil as measured by microbial geneticists: a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and few dozen nematodes. That’s in one teaspoon. Over an acre, active bacteria alone may have the same mass as two cows’. These startling facts are not left there. We laypersons are helped to imagine this environment and how it works.
‘At the bottom of the soil food web are bacteria and fungi, which are attracted to and eat the substances given off by plant roots, their exudates. These, in turn, are eaten by bigger microbes like some nematodes and protozoa, which are food for bigger nematodes and anthropods. And so on. The materials they don’t use — I hesitate to use the term ‘waste’ — become available to feed the plants. …
‘It’s the plants that are in control of all this activity, most of which takes place in the root zone or rhizosphere within a millimetre or two of the roots, as the energy resulting from photosynthesis in the leaves is used to produce root exudates in the form of carbohydrates and proteins. It’s a shame there aren’t shorter, more memorable English words for these, but they contribute to the picture nonetheless. They feed my imagination as well as each other. I think I can picture what is happening.’ I think I, a neophyte, can too.
Every ten pages or so a sharp little observation has been pulled out. So: ‘A trail of bloodied pure white feathers. All that remains of a goose and the nest she had been sitting on near the boundary fence, under which there is now a hole.’ These might be best understood as short poems.
Sometimes Mem chats away to herself as though we’re on tour but eavesdropping.
From a rumination on Climbing Beans: ‘I’ll call them French beans, though they’re not all French. Another name is green beans, though they’re not all green. They had been cultivated for thousands of years in Central and South America before Columbus brought them to the Mediterranean. They were introduced to France in the late sixteenth century, and it was the French who popularised them — a bit like kiwifruit, an important crop from New Zealand that is actually native to China. … Our borlotti beans are descended from seed given to me twenty years ago by the Greek gardener who sold us the plastic greenhouse … As I have plenty of seed, I always seem to plant them too close together. But the plants at this stage are lush and green with lots of pods already set. It doesn’t matter if they’re not easy to reach … those I can’t reach easily are left to dry on the vine for eating during the winter or planting next season.’
The Purple King need to be picked young. ‘Too young is not really possible; too old is very likely so I don’t risk it.’ The green beans might be either Giant of Stuttgart or Lazy Wife, ‘the latter so named possibly because they bear prolifically or because they’re stringless.’ In either case they are ‘straight and beautiful’. Both varieties have white seed which is hard to tell apart. The Scarlet Runners on the chook shed have their tips trimmed most probably by ringtail possums.
There’s that mood — not everywhere, but often — and it’s deeply seductive because you don’t need to respond, you can just listen (or in this case read) fascinated like listening to anyone who is completely immersed in their subject, but in this case and rather specially, knows what could be interesting about it for others.
Reading it again I am struck by how addictive the book is.
When should you eat a peach? The ‘correct’ name for a plantation of hazel trees is a plat. The significance of including ‘common’ in an animal, plant or insect name; swamp wallabies getting into the chook garden. When to plant carrots and the point of mixing the seed with very dry sand … that’s from just a few pages in the first section. It is a cornucopia without the horn.
The history of propagating (or trying to) mountain pepper; felling giant cyprus trees, up hill; snails having both a penis and a vagina; parsnip seed must be fresh or it won’t germinate; the lure of tangelos; speculation about how to define a garden; the carbon cycle; the creatures the First Fleet brought with it; the Australian ancestry of songbirds; should you prune your tomatoes? … it all just tumbles over itself, all of life, thrillingly full of life. But because of the shortness and precision of the entries it is never distractingly untidy. And everything you realise, every single thing, is related to this block of land.
This is a serious book. Earlier I mentioned that Meredith had set herself some large questions. She would be the first person to say, to insist actually, that she hadn’t answered them decisively. (Drawing the black line.) That’s correct. But sometimes if you throw armfuls of fascinating observations, facts, speculations and enthusiasms at a questing wall you can just stand back in wonder at how many stick, the admirable and stimulating patterns they make and the way their meaning evolves.
This is a great book.
Meredith Freeman (2022) A Garden of Useful Plants: Seasons in the Gippsland Hills Illustrated by Gil and Stella Freeman. Self-published. 338pp. Includes appendices: ‘A Garden Tour’, ‘Australian Native Food Species’, ‘Exotic Fruit and Nut Species, Named Varieties’, ‘Some Birds We Have Seen’ and a very useful ‘shortlist’ of related reading.
BUY IT HERE or chase it down by Googling.
• • • • • • •
I haven’t seen him for a while but Dean lives round the corner. He’s been a fixture in the tangle of acquaintances of my professional life, in my mind still famed at one point for wearing (in his official role as an influential Federal Ministerial Advisor) green shoes. He’s been writing forever, and is exceptionally good at it. Telling Tennant’s Story, though, has been an excavation of his heart as well as his head.
I’ve mentioned his writing skill. He is also a meticulous and tenacious researcher. He has useful connections. He has a keenly-defined and long-developed political sense. Those attributes are all in evidence in the book. But what he’s got that no one else has is that he’s all those things … but from 1952 (aged 10) to 1955 he also lived and went to school in Tennant Creek.
Tennant and its surrounds are not my favourite part of the country. Neither, at the time at least, were they Dean’s. ‘[Fifty years on] I had never been back and never wanted to go back. In fact, I’d wanted not to go back. I didn’t like it when we lived there and ached to leave.’ (His father was the school’s head teacher.) Tennant Creek is about as close as you can get to the absolute geographical centre of the Northern Territory, the part of Australia most densely populated with Aboriginal people. Yet during his time in Tennant they drift past ‘as in a tableau’: a group from the mission coming to the pictures but sitting separately, a shared sports day, shadows playing cards near a humpy in the spinifex on the other side of the Ashendens’ fence. They ‘were very nearly invisible yet somehow always there somewhere: sometimes referred to, even discussed, but never explained.’
This is familiar terrain for white Australians growing up in bush towns. Were there any Aboriginal kids at my school? I would have said no till I started counting them.
‘We’d won the country and then set out to win the story as well. The struggle over what the story would and would not tell was as much a part of the story as the events themselves. By the time I reached Tennant Creek [on the first of a series of return trips] … the story had been added to my list of things to find out about. Eventually, it worked its way to the top.’ That’s the genesis of this book.
The hole to be filled is ‘the other side of the story over which the great Australian silence reigns, the story in short, of the unacknowledged relations between two racial groups within a single field of life.’ Dean has taken this statement made by Bill Stanner in one of his 1968 Boyer lectures as his Pole Star.
He starts his description of the way the silence was constructed in 1860. It could have been earlier, 50 or 60 years earlier, after first contact and probably even before Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson had been shown how to traverse the Blue Mountains. I, too, was transfixed by the early white explorers (how far did they walk?! how long without water?!). If there was a role for a ‘blacktracker’ or a ‘friendly native’, it was always subordinate, but worse, vacant. There was no sense of such people as sentient or of their character, of their will, of their families, habits or lives.
That makes the issue not only one of right or wrong although there’s plenty of that; it means you don’t know what happened. There isn’t a history of any quality. You can’t share. You’re oblivious to the lives of your fellow countrypersons. On the one side there have been various constructions which have had their own purposes; on the other, covering a crucial century, there’s a void. This is the issue that Telling Tennant’s Story is tackling.
For the purposes of the book it was fortuitous that Tennant Creek was where Dean found himself. It’s had it all. The town was initially related to a Station of the Overland Telegraph Line so it has that contact history. The Line’s constructors were careful, sensitive to a degree but not to be distracted from completing their task, and armed. Just north of Tennant an incident at what became known as Attack Creek turned Stuart and his team back (a fact we discover is locally known and celebrated by some) but prompted massive and violent reprisals.
And then Tennant is at the intersection of the Stuart and Barkly Highways, the latter being the major track of the pastoralists who swept west across the grassy tablelands into the Territory from Queensland and almost completely eliminated the peoples living south of the Gulf of Carpentaria with the very bloody assistance of the Queensland Native Police. But this experience is qualified by the fact that the traditional owners, the Warumungu, were also known by their neighbours as bata aurrinia, ‘people who live on hard (infertile) ground’. This might have enabled them to prolong aspects of their conventional lives.
This connects with its identity as the site for a uniquely generous offering of anthropological information (access to 88 ceremonies in a couple of months for example) when such had a slender vogue. Baldwin Spencer, the academic, and Frank Gillen, the postmaster who contributed the term ‘Dreamtime’ to the lexicon, were the recipients, intriguing characters who leap off the page in Dean’s telling.
Thirty years later it was where W.E.H. Stanner was sent to see if the government should constrain the activities of miners (gold, and later copper) to protect the interests of the Warumungu. He described how much life had changed for them in thirty years and how restricted their access had become to their tribal lands. Stanner remained a central figure in trying to build a public understanding of Aboriginal life, perspectives and rights for several decades.
As the area over which the Warumungu had any sort of sway diminished, a mission was established nearby. Children were taken and became part of the Stolen Generation. The Warumungu was among the first groups to launch a claim (which failed in egregious circumstances) under the first Land Rights Act, that of 1976, a legacy of the Whitlam Government.
As Dean notes: ‘By the time I’d made the last of three trips back to Tennant I’d learned that the struggles over whether and how to tell Tennant’s story were for a century and half Australia’s struggles writ small, and intense.’ The stories in this first section are gripping, fascinating, so well told with some, by no means all, leaving you with a nasty taste in your mouth and a bit of acid in the pit of your stomach.
But it’s all there, or at least as much as is possible in the circumstances. You can get a grip on the lenses that were dropped into the optometrist’s tool to change the focus of the public perspective. One example was in the paper today, remembered from a Grade Five reader, a little ditty: ‘We wrought with a will unceasing/ we moulded and fashioned and planned/ and we fought with the black and we blazed the track/ that ye might inherit the land’ (from ‘Pioneers’ by Frank Hudson).
Differently, the anthropological lens, he suggests, ‘helped make an authoritative way for us to see Aboriginal people as the constructors of a rich, complex and in some respects remarkable civilisation, thus tackling both the armchair theorists in Europe who declared that they were biologically primitive and the local hatred and contempt from the violent frontier.’ But at the same time, they ‘provided a way to overlook what had been done and to feel better about what was now theirs [ie ours, the country]. A seductive double: an affecting insight into a world now, sadly, almost gone, together with the scientifically established fact that it was no-one’s fault, really, just the inevitable and irresistible workings of evolution and progress. … Don’t look here. Look over there.’
The inevitable and irresistible workings of evolution and progress produced another revolution dating from around the mid-60s.
The second half of the book is titled ‘The Struggle to Dismantle the Silence’. It refers to and contains evidence of the massive increase of material about, and acknowledgment of, Indigenous experience. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now the AIA and Torres Strait Islander S) was established in 1964. Typical of the times, it didn’t have an Aboriginal member on its board until 1971, a fiendishly slow process of what has been described as ‘Aboriginalisation’, perhaps resolved only in 1992 when Marcia Langton became the first Council Chair to be a woman and Aboriginal. An audit in 2014 confirmed that AIATSIS then held over 6 million feet of film, over 40,000 hours of audio, 12,800 unpublished manuscripts and record series, 653,000 photographs, and 120,000 print and published materials (3,000 of which are rare books) as well as other miscellanea. These numbers would have increased substantially by now; it is a very lively organisation. The book footnotes that nearly 20 years ago Rachel Perkins’ online directory ‘Black Book’ listed more than 2700 Indigenous organisations and individuals working in 95 professions in the arts, media and cultural industries. ‘Thousands of Aboriginal artists, writers, dancers, actors and directors, activists and intellectuals have combined with thousands more non-Indigenous cultural workers to give the Aboriginal world an astonishing prominence.’
But all this stuff fed straight into the context of the ‘history wars’. What had happened was not the struggle to tell the story any more, but to commandeer and reshape it, to get control of it in a field of contestation and to turn it into a political weapon. ‘The Aboriginal people and their relationship with the rest of us had become the sites of proxy political warfare and synthetic emotions’. (He goes on to say ‘but there’s real stuff there too, ranging from just feeling bad (in my case whenever I think about those kids crossing in front of the screen at the Pioneer Picture Theatre) through to how everyone felt when Cathy Freeman won the big race.’ The book is never less than even-handed.)
You might have forgotten about this: Henry Reynolds’ bolts of lightning about the frontier wars, Paul Keating and the Redfern speech, the wrestle over Bicentennial celebrations and histories, Geoffrey Blainey, John Howard and the black armband view of history, Hugh Morgan and the miners, the IPA, Noel Pearson’s interesting political trajectory, and even Keith Windschuttle. It’s all in the book. Go back to it, and marvel. It’s history.
What is our obligation to the past? Every nation’s history can reek of disgrace. Is it better to acknowledge these issues or cover them over and move on? A strong example to think about is the issue of the 19th and early 20th century killings and massacres. The existence of many of these is now firmly established. Were they wars? They weren’t fought with the niceties of the laws of combat, yet the first Geneva Convention was established in 1864 before some of the very worst killings. And if they weren’t wars, were they murder? And if they were murder, who was punished? And how culpable was the Government given that Aboriginal people were supposed to be under its protection? Or are these issues just too problematic to confront?
Being Dean, he doesn’t leave these questions hanging. He deals with them most thoughtfully and suggests good ideas, solid ideas, for action. Don’t preach they begin. No more preaching. ‘What the truth needs is not more “telling” but more comprehension, more absorption and more acting upon. That cannot be done by trying … to convert millions by preaching at them’. Most Australians don’t need conversion he suggests. Most Australians want to see things put right, and you’re wasting your time trying to convert the others. But ‘the fraction of the silence that remains is embedded in rituals and symbols and institutions of memory and commemoration … the barely noticed history curriculum of everyday life, the means by which the past attempts to perpetuate its own account of itself’.
A case in point — the Australian War Memorial, the ‘repository of the soul of the nation’ and its choice of what to display. Currently, Dean asserts, it is telling only part of the truth and ‘sustaining the myth that the white Australia of the War Memorial’s imagining is always and everywhere the goodie’, and its new $500m funding is designed to enhance this view. But more Aboriginal people were killed in the Queensland frontier wars than all Australian casualties of the First World War and considerably more than those of the Second. If this is a war memorial, and it is Australian, … ‘no wars’ (?), as Kevin Rudd said in a speech not long after his Apology, ‘no revolution (?), no bloodshed’ (?) Really? If the AWM is to follow its mission — ‘to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society’ — I’m afraid we need the lot.
‘Truth’ is an increasingly vexed idea. President Trump and his spokespersons made ‘truth’ mean ‘only superficially true; that which is asserted or felt instinctively to be true, with no recourse to facts’, thus ‘truthy’. It is enough to cause people to steer away from talking about the truth and ‘truth-telling’.
Does that matter Dean asks, and bumps off three standard responses. ‘Coming to terms with our unresolved past?’ Nah. What’s that mean? ‘We’ll remain blind to the way others see us.’ Something in that, but down the list a bit. ‘Let’s get it sorted and move on.’ What, and never think about it again? Best We Forget?
He provides two arguments for the pursuit of these particular truths which he finds compelling.
The first, in summary, is that ‘for many Aboriginal people a problem more common, less detectable and as damaging as ‘overt racism’ or ‘discrimination’ or ‘disadvantage’ is having to live with a half-comprehension of who they are and where their circumstances have come from’. As a touchstone think about the work whitefellas put into their family histories, their memoirs, their genealogies, their heritage-ness. I can find a dozen Aboriginal acquaintances who would cheer heartily about that without even having to think about it.
The second is that ‘the pursuit of truthfulness through disciplined enquiry and evidence, tested and contested, rather than through revelation or gut feel or general agreement (or the internet) is foundational’. True. He doesn’t say foundational to what but I would say a civilised society. And not only that, it is enormously satisfying to hunt for and get closer to what actually might be the case. Geoff Blainey says: ‘Both sides deserve blame and praise’. But that’s not it. That’s not it at all. It probably isn’t even secondary. History is not a moral contest. Just tell me what happened. The rest will take care of itself (and probably in exotic and unexpected ways).
And that is the main reason why this is a great book. Dean’s book makes a serious effort to tells us what happened, to him as well as to others. It’s a model of what he is arguing for. It’s sober (and witty), thorough, interesting, comprehensive in scope but rich with case and detail, provocative … but above all, it’s right.
• From a very strong field, Telling Tennant’s Story won the inaugural Australian Political Book of the Year Award (2022).
Dean Ashenden (2022) Telling Tennants’ Story: The strange career of the Great Australian Silence. Collingwood, Black Inc. Strangely also 338pp. 46pp of notes and 26 pp. of bibliography (in fine print) and several very useful maps and photo illustrations.
BUY: Any decent bookshop or wide options on line.
• • • • • • •
Disclosure: Michael is my nephew. In certain lights I can look like an older version of him. When we arrive at Coffee Roasting Warehouse it regularly appears that Wardrobe has issued us with identical instructions. We enjoy a gossip, the same things amuse us, and we share a lot of opinions including about Juan Davila. I hope it’s not presuming too much to say that we have the capacity to console each other. This may need to be borne in mind with relation to what follows.
Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee, who knows a bit about writing, called Michael’s book Grimmish: ‘The strangest book you are likely to read this year’. So let’s take that as our starting point. ‘Strange’ … what does the author have to say?
‘How do you write a book? You have an idea, and it grows or strengthens and doesn’t go away. You do your research, or your imagining, and you construct fences around what will be in the book to demarcate against what will not be in the book. And then you write it, and that is when the problem of structure looms, a glass mountain that defies all attempts at climbing. …
‘In 2021 I published a book, Grimmish. … It is not wilfully strange, but strangeness is what happened when I tried to pitchfork all the material I had assembled into the structure I selected.’
In this essay published in ‘Meanjin’ (Winter, 2022), Michael describes Melville and his Moby Dick in particular as an influence. But not as much as contemporary Australian-Chilean artist Juan Davila.
‘Davila denies himself nothing. He references politics, aesthetics, art history and iconography from different continents and traditions. He pastes newspaper cuttings on the canvas and scars the surface with graffiti. He is a figurative painter of rare skill who surrounds pieces with tattered gingham borders, or undermines them with kitsch frames. He used to hang his paintings in galleries and then work directly on the walls, surrounding these expensive items with rough cartoons, ambiguous smears, abstruse visual jokes.
‘More than any writer, he showed me how I could handle my material in Grimmish. Rather than the conventional novelistic method—a synthesis of all that the author has imagined and researched and theorised, sieved and distilled—I employed a pastiche of Davila’s approach. Hence my book shoehorns in newspaper stories, cultural arcana, stupid jokes, rural horror, grandiloquent expounding on masculinity, and a fragment from a short story I wrote maybe 20 years ago that seemed to fit. I couldn’t settle on an epigraph, so I included dozens: very serious clowns tumbling from a book-sized clown car; footnotes; changes of register; blooms of staccato prose and sweeps of self-conscious legato, trying to mimic the detonations Davila embeds in areas of otherwise lyrical brushwork.’
Mmmm yes, but this is misdirection. It sounds like Grimmish could be a ragtag miscellany. To the contrary. Another read has prompted me to think again about the fastidiousness of the organisation and certainly the creative flair but also the care with which each of the effects is orchestrated.
I think of the book as something like a complex zoetrope. You look through the slits at something which is moving, the same set of concerns, but constantly — at least when you spin it, slowly in this instance — giving you new perspectives.
(To remind you of what a simple zoetrope looks like and does, one illustration. Remember? Your younger self might even have made one.)
Zoetropes can be very complex. Michael’s is considerably more complex than this one. More like this one actually. The seminal point of this slightly dodgy comparison is that still things are brought to life via means which are not obvious or intuitive. They’re constructed and in unexpected ways.
What are the set of concerns? ‘The idea of suffering, the look and pointless parabola of a career fighting for money, exchanging pain for a living wage, meditations on masculinity [and its intimate relationship with these other things], the acceptance of slings and arrows [and how this might refract on these ideas], my lonely brutal samadhi [of a piece with pain, its consequences and management]’.
The ostensible vehicle is Saverio Giannone, born Avellino Italy, 16 March 1881. Fighting sobriquet Joe ‘Iron Man’ Grim/m. 1.7m (5 foot 7). Fought as a middle and welterweight but also against heavyweights. Turned pro 1899. Wikipedia thinks he had 152 fights; BoxRec 179; Michael and the National Advocate 348+. Wikipedia’s record has him 152 fights, 24 wins (10 by KO), 22 draws, 2 no contests and, the point — the proportions will be about right regardless of the quantum — 104 losses. After the first few years he wasn’t fighting to win but to show and prove that even after the heaviest punishment he couldn’t be knocked out. He earned money by being a receptacle for what most of the world would consider extreme pain. In one six-round fight Jack Johnson knocked him down an estimated 17 times. He kept getting up. At the end of the fight Johnson is quoted as saying: ‘I just don’t believe that man is made of flesh and blood.’ True. Okay? True. Grimmish is an (exploded) ‘non-fiction novel’. Okay? True. That’s what it says in the review at the start.
Does it matter if Grim was (ever) a real person or not? Probably not. But what happens in the book after a short stoic hymn to the consequences of violence is that Grim’s reality is established. The story is all there. We’re in the boxing world where someone (Michael probably) can afford to laugh if only inwardly at having produced a sentence like: ‘Grim sent a lightning right into the Cobar Chicken’s tater trap’ and, holding his breath, gritting his teeth as ‘another blow smacks into Grim’s face with a sound like a shovel hitting a watermelon’. It’s not a restful book. This section, more like hyper-active journalism than anything else, sets up Grim’s reality and the reality of what he’s up to. After that you can, and do, forget about it. What? Whether Grim really existed and did what he did. Did he though? Yeeeeeees. Read the book.
The unnamed witness figure shares the narration with Uncle Michael who lives among grand canyons of print and who drinks recurrent flagons of Royal Reserve sherry, a fight fan, who after a particularly violent bout finds himself in Grim’s dressing room washing down his trunk and legs. Subsequently he becomes Grim’s companion in so far as Grim has companions. Is that true? Probably not. Who cares. Get on with the story.
We have described the hittee, but what about the hitter, the administrator of the punishment? When you hit your opponent with everything you’ve got, and he keeps getting up. And again. And Again. What does this mean not just for inflicting further pain, but for your sense of agency, your self concept, … your capacity for compassion? You’re Grim’s opponent. How do you feel? Let’s try, in sequence. Distracted. Puzzled. Puzzled Further. Bemused. Angry. Furious. Livid (a word that appears regularly in the book in both its meanings). Bewildered, then possibly Despairing. Humiliated? As Grim does his post-bout tricks, handstands, dance moves, and shouting from the ropes, ‘I am Joe Grim. I fear no man on earth’, you might wonder who has won.
Foucault: Empathy means that the pain inflicted on a punished person causes pain to the punisher. Were any of his opponents empathic in that sense? Could this even be said to be true? We all know the old saw, this is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you. But in whose hand is the cane?
New slide in the zoetrope. Ah … Jack Johnson v Tommy Burns, ‘unforgivably’ black v white, with all Sydney watching because it would have been too hot to stage in the US, too racially charged. Uncle Michael is sent on a trip to Sydney by a bookie to check the pre-fight form and discovers Grim has been sparring for both men. Grim is able to supply, profitably, the inside that Johnson will win in a canter. Uncle Michael’s written submission is an opportunity for a whirl at youthful, turn of the century consciousness which is deeply engaging.
Enter the goat.
We must keep moving. There are so many more slides. But, enter the goat, the smelly, voluble and very sweary goat, one of a group of three (with Uncle Michael and Grim) apparently marooned in the desert on their way to Perth. This provides an opportunity for some knockabout word play and several rather good shaggy pig stories, good enough to return to without suffering. This is also an opportunity for Grim to suddenly inherit Michael the author’s logophilia and tell one of the several stories of (masculinist?) brutality in the book. It’s the story of Grim’s growth and formation, a revelation rather than an explanation of his very particular attributes, and you will read it, it will come to an end, and you will think, quietly, wow. Gosh. Okay fair enough. At the end of the goat’s story you may be more inclined to think, yuck, phew it’s over, that’s a relief. After which the goat might respond, harden the fuck up.
Another slide, quite a different colour: a very sharp (in the painful sense) and exact description of the experience of waiting with dread for the unpredictable onset of clinical depression. No punches telegraphed here, just the anticipatory terror. Another sort of pain. Acute. But it plays on towards Grim’s later incarceration for mental illness. That doesn’t have to be a connection, but it can.
You’ll be getting the idea by now I hope.
Could Grim have died? Of course he could have. Benny Paret was killed in the ring by Emile Griffith. The history of boxing like other ‘combat’ sports is spattered with deaths. This, Michael suggests, exposes the degree to which spectators are also voyeurs. But what is it to endure pain with its mortal dangers as a choice? What is it to endure the pain of being a largely ignored but compulsive writer as a choice? What sort of pain does that entail, and what does it suggest about the reams of other people who have completely unfulfilled ambitions but who will keep trying like rats (it’d be pigs in this book) on a wheel. It’s lucky we forget pain, not just for the birth rate, but for the way we can disguise its ubiquity.
Grim and crew watch a head-butting competition in the Ladies Lounge of the Norguna Pub (I think) to which they have been transported. Drinkers with improbable names run at short distance towards each other clashing heads. The winner, meaning the survivor, drinks free at the pub for a week.
Several matters arise. Pain and its administration in Grimmish is largely a cooperative venture. It’s what people do to each other, and without thinking about it you might find yourself thinking about that. The film ‘Banshees of Inisherin’, that very neat summation of Irish history as well as human nature, comes to mind. As does the war in Ukraine.
Next, drinking free at the pub for a week is deemed sufficient incentive to become involved in this blood bath. Too far? Too much? Too unfair to the drinkers in country pubs? If you can find room you can think about that too.
Enter Dora from Billinup, a tremendously suitable Western Australian name. You’ll have to know about Concha Michel and Isadora Duncan to be able to visualise her, but she is quickly realised in other ways. You are provided with three versions of her interaction with Grim to produce a compound figure. She is warm and attractive in each. This also allows an opportunity to observe Grim’s rather odd fight preparation: odd to you and I, perhaps not to the initiate. It involves what might appear on second or third glance to be more extravagant pain and this time self-inflicted.
There are several last slides, a wind up phase after the flurry of punches in the middle rounds. Joe is institutionalised in the Claremont Asylum, a harbinger of the way he is to live out his life. We have a tour of his mind some of which is rendered as a version of Jas. H. Duke’s sound poem ‘No no You can’t do that’. He has another fight in Charters Towers against Paddy Regan. We ease our way out of the stadium, breathing hard.
It’s not one for everybody this book, but it is one, a real one.
From a footnote: ‘I once spoke to the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] heavyweight champion1. and suggested that if every person on the planet engaged in a fight to the finish, he would presumably be the winner. … I asked him if that made his head swim. He wasn’t interested. I thought then, and think now, that he was frightened of the isolation. 7.5 billion people behind him and in front of him — what?
1. Knowing the author to have been a former editor of ‘The Fist’, I am inclined to believe this. But I don’t think the Champ was frightened by the prospect of isolation, more just wondering how long he had to put up with dumb questions like this. Great idea though. Commendable. Any title with ‘World’ or ‘Universe’, and most certainly ‘Ultimate’, in it is likely to be problematic.
Two matters. Footnotes in a book, a novel? Not that odd really. Dean’s book has got 46 pages of notes, and whether you stick them at the back of the book or the bottom of a page makes little difference. The footnotes in Grimmish serve the customary purpose of footnotes: bibliographic references which include delightful surprises and indicate a slightly nutty addiction to research and a bad case of bibliophilia; adding enriching detail which nonetheless might forestall the flow of reading for some readers; adding detail that is slightly digressive; adding detail that is wildly digressive but terribly interesting anyway. See eg the Regan story p. 196 in my edition. I was trying to think of a novel with footnotes and couldn’t. But I checked Julian Barnes’ 40 year-old masterpiece Flaubert’s Parrot and there might as well be. He uses everything else.
Secondly, the footnote above is an excellent illustration of what some readers might find distracting/ discomforting about the book: the conjunction of boxing and what we might call philosophy. Actually Barthes, Hazlitt, GB Shaw, Terry Eagleton and Joyce Carol Oates all make their contributions to Grimmish. (The last: ‘If the boxing ring is an altar it is not an altar of sacrifice but one of consecration and redemption. Sometimes.’) There is Norman Mailer’s The Fight, great and as recommended by The Tough Guy Bookclub, but perhaps not for the more fey questions. Donald McRae’s Dark Trade … There would be others, but this is a marriage of soft and hard, maybe even manly and unmanly. (‘I wanted more than anything to grow into a man who could not be hurt by others. Joe Grim was that dream.’ Are you allowed to say that?) This will be enough for some people to reel back in abhorrence from one or the other but especially from their communion. Boxing is not a core subject at the Philosophy Dept of the UofM and, like many such establishments, the Sutton St headquarters of North Melbourne Boxing doesn’t go out of its way to sign up philosophers. Unsettling, if not necessarily strange.
But then, as Paul Smith writes (as quoted in the book) ‘Masculinity isn’t always a pleasant thing to behold, and it’s always difficult, sometimes unpleasant to write about — it’s certainly a difficult thing in just about every respect.’ And one of those respects might be: ‘[There is] something in men, in every millimetre of the world map and every dot on the line of time, desperate to scramble up that hill of pain to see how high they can get.’
Although I’ve made a slanting case for finding one of the book’s aspects as strange, I’m not sure it is a strange book. ‘Strange’ is hardly an unqualified version of praise in any case. A strange book might be otherwise pretty crapulous, or simply strange and nothing else. A book which is both strange and good must have a lot more going for it.
Grimmish is what happens when an author pursues exactly what they think they should, applying every trick at their disposal to pull it off. Rather than strange, Grimmish is deeply individual in its sensibility and combination of interests. I don’t mean just boxing and ‘philosophy’. I include a vivid eye for the idiosyncrasies of humankind and how they play on and off each other. I include a real appreciation and interest in historicity and its potential to help wipe away shadows. I include fishing through the vast oceans of creative and questing culture to see what you can find. I include the rather startling and courageous honesty which is a feature of most of Michael’s public writing on topics of his choice. This is the primary source of the book’s ‘softness’, which is not so much soft as flesh without skin, if not the ultimate reveal then approaching it.
Helen Garner: “Grimmish meets a need I didn’t even know I had. I lurched between bursts of wild laughter, shudders of horror, and gasps of awe at Winkler’s verbal command: the freshness and muscle of his verbs, the unstoppable flow of his images, the bizarre wit of the language of pugilism—and all the while, a moving subterranean glint of strange masculine tenderness.”
Helen knows something about writing too.
• In 2022 Grimmish was one of a short list of five books for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. I didn’t know this — never even considered its possibility — but the long list, short list and winner are decided in the one process on the same day. I think if the judges had had another ten days to think about it, Grimmish would have won. The winner, Bodies of Light, is a very good book but it tails off and you become suspicious of the diminishing authenticity, however well meaning, of the author’s investment. Grimmish is more ambitious, more interesting, more original, and more complete, in its own terms more perfect actually, than any of its competitors. (See also ‘Disclosure’ above.)
But what did I say at the beginning? Forget the acclaim. Doesn’t matter. Make your own mind up. Read them. Brilliant.
Michael Winkler (2021) Grimmish. Self-published I am going to say, although now Tasmanian publishers Puncher & Wattmann send him an occasional sliver of the commercial proceeds. 205pp.
BUY: Amazon, Booktopia, elsewhere on line, and from Michael’s website which as well as more of his writing contains a lot of other interesting responses to Grimmish.