The link below is to an article that takes a look at various modes of transport – planes, trains, ships, etc, and their place in books.
Young people – how they think and feel, how institutions (families, schools, clinics, courts) fail them – are a recurring theme in the books shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.
These six surprising books – four novels, a memoir and a collection of essays – cover subject matter as diverse as grief, loss, history, childhood, and Indigenous resistance. They make risky aesthetic choices. Some feature dazzling experiments with language, structure and form. Despite, or, more likely, because of this, they also have a tight grip on reality.
They are searing and often searching; intent on excavating the “present’s beating heart”. They share an attitude that is daring, sometimes darkly funny, always serious and thoroughly unsentimental. These books are difficult to sum up or pin down. Here is our critical guide to them.
Little Gods, Jenny Ackland
Olive May Lovelock is blessed with the sunny kind of optimism that is typical of an Australian childhood, set against the broad flats of the Mallee. She saves a joey, and tames a raven named Grace. She checks the warm wombs of roadkill for babies. Olive wears an old pair of binoculars around her neck to “see things better”, but life proves deceptive.
There are secrets here. A mother who rarely hugs or pays attention to her daughter, an unmarried sister whose baby is taken away at birth, an uncle who loses his pregnant wife in a car accident.
When Olive finds out she had a baby sister who died – a secret that “everyone knows”, as the local school bully tells her, but nobody is allowed to tell – she is determined to find out what happened. Olive pieces together the answers out of fragments of her own memory, and those of the children around her. But memories are deceptive, “[they] get you where they want you, not the other way around”. The answers prove dark in a way that is breathless, soul-crushing and peculiarly Australian.
The Bridge, Enza Gandolfo
In October 1970, Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge – a “nation building project” that ought to have been a symbol of the brave, bold modern city – collapsed in Australia’s worst industrial accident, leaving 35 workers dead.
The opening pages of Gandolfo’s book conjure the physical terror of that moment, “[…] the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air”, she writes, “bashed by the flying debris; their arms reached for the sides of the girder, for something, but there was nothing”.
In Gandolfo’s imagining, the Westgate Bridge becomes the site of another horror 40 years later. Jo and her best friend, Ashleigh, a granddaughter of one of the Westgate survivors, are on the verge of finishing high school, flush with the future, when their lives are shattered by a car crash – senseless, alcohol-fuelled.
This novel, set among migrant communities in Yarraville in Melbourne’s west, explores how accidents of this magnitude not only waste the lives of those who die, but continue to haunt the living, who must struggle for a lifetime with the weight of trauma. This is a book about guilt, ambiguity and moral culpability. It searches amid half-made lives, misguided dreams and murky realities, asking stern questions about responsibility and remorse.
Pink Mountain on Locus Island, Jamie Marina Lau
Lau’s debut novel is a head trip of a book, filled with the shards of broken sentences. Written in short chapters, it embraces a contemporary reality that veers wildly between boredom and violence, mediated through retro technologies, including grainy VHS videos, and YouTube tutorials. It is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what is believable – whether there is, as Lau writes, any difference between “a false-alarm scream and a death-scream”.
But the book is always emotionally true to the chaotic inner life of its young protagonist, 15-year old Monk, whose world hovers between childhood and adulthood, English and Cantonese, familial neglect and a desperate desire to be noticed.
At one stage, Monk’s father asks, “Would you look away if somebody was forcing you to look at their emotions?” Lau doesn’t give us the chance. She makes sure we look, straight-on.
Monk’s mother is absent in Shanghai, her artist father is addicted to Xanax and alcohol, and she is infatuated with a “messiah” figure named Santa Coy, who ignites all their lives – pulling Monk into a dangerous world of drugs, pushers and parties. Lau’s book captures the voice of its teenage protagonist and a new kind of transcultural millennial life in the digital age.
The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie
Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir tells the story of an estranged daughter’s journey home, when she is summoned to care for a mother with a fractured hip. Vicki’s mother suffers from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness, which has caused her to isolate herself and her husband from the world on their rural property, set in an eerie landscape in a remote region of Alberta, Canada. Vicki’s father suffers from dementia, and Vicki and her sister are convinced their mother has been slowly starving him to death.
Vicki’s mother is clearly unwell, and probably has been for their entire lives. She also possesses extraordinary powers of persuasion, convincing doctors, nurses and, at times, her own ailing husband that she has no daughters, or only one daughter who is dead, or only two daughters who have both disappeared.
Says Vicki: “I have a vision of my mother’s influence making its way through my father’s mind, filling the tiny spaces left by the rounded contours of his brain, solidifying around the synapses until not even his thoughts are his own.”
There are hints here of childhood trauma – reasons for leaving, reasons for not caring, or even trying to care. Vicki’s sister has long ago changed her name because “hearing her childhood name cast her back into the black chasms of before”.
The prose style is numb, clinically distant. It is sometimes difficult to empathise with the detached narrator and the care she cannot – or will not – show. But this is a startling memoir of family damage. We can only guess, “where there is nothing, there must have been pain”.
Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
Kerry Salter enters the pages of Too Much Lip on a stolen Harley Davidson Softail, “a dozen blue eyeballs popping fair outta their moogle heads at the sight of her”, with Kerry – “blackfella du jour” – barely resisting the “urge to elevate both middle fingers as she rode past”.
She has come to say goodbye to her grandfather, Pop Owen, and to say hello to a mother who spends way too much time “on the turps”. This is a book about colonial violence, contemporary state-sponsored violence, diffuse racism, and their relationship to domestic violence, searing child abuse, family dysfunction and intergenerational trauma.
Kerry and her siblings cope in different ways, mostly thorough crime, alcohol and “too much lip”. But when the local mayor, a shady real estate agent whose grandfather terrorised Indigenous people, wants to build a prison on land that has spiritual, cultural and personal significance to Kerry’s family, they pull together and fight to save their river. Resistance for the Salters is less about the Native Title Act, and more about missing sister Donna’s commercial know-how.
Lucashenko’s book is shot through with defiance and anger; present day thefts are offset by the memory of historical ones. Hers is a darkly funny, searingly violent world, in which there are no easy fixes – only hard, complicated truths.
Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin
To say that Maria Tumarkin’s essay collection scrutinises our ideas about “History” and the past is inadequate. This book rips into our pieties, interrogates our easy platitudes, and forces us to see the world – words, things, people, feelings – in new ways. History is exactly the right subject for Tumarkin, because there is no easy forgetting in the world she describes, just as there is seemingly no limit to “how much sorrow and pain about the world a person can carry inside”.
Each essay in the collection takes an axiom about history and tests it against our gritty present day realities. In “History Repeats Itself”, Vanya, a community lawyer, helps young people on a collision course with the criminal justice system “who live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks”. In “Those Who Forget the Past Are Condemned to Re – ”, a child flees a stepfather’s violence only to be returned to a house of blood and broken teeth.
Her essay “Time Heals All Wounds” is a harrowing examination of teenage suicide. One boy writes in a suicide note: “Please do not assume you know why. Even I’m not completely sure.”
Facing all this would not be possible without Tumarkin’s sonorous wisdom; her capacity to turn things, words, people, sentences over on the page to see what they’re made of. Lucid and grave; this book is a revelation.
The winner of the 2019 Stella prize will be announced in Melbourne on April 9.
The link below is to an article that provides a guide for listening to audiobooks via an iPhone.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at how to introduce children to books and getting them into reading.
For more visit:
The Miles Franklin award is famously for “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. That’s a very broad palette, yet for most of the award’s existence — 1957 to the present — it has recognised a rather narrow field of “Australian life”.
The 60 novels honoured to date include 42 written by 28 men, and 18 written by 14 women. Almost to a person, these winning authors are Anglo-Australian. While their narratives cover an impressive range of issues, topics, periods, structure and narrative voice, it is notable that in a country described by our prime minister as “the world’s most successful multicultural society”, the Miles Franklin seems to have remained a bastion of monoculture.
Until recently, that is. Women authors are appearing more frequently – on the shortlists and as prize winners – and the cultural and linguistic heritage of authors is similarly expanding. This year the mix of shortlist authors, and the content of their novels, is impressively diverse.
Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts is explicitly a literary novel, one with no overt plot and really only one voice. The narrator is fastidious to the point of primness, narrow and self-absorbed: a fussy old man who drifts into Grandpa Simpson moments, telling stories that wander from point to point with no apparent destination. Yet this work is also a remarkable account of memory, its fractures, and its fragments. This gives the lie to the narrator’s insistence that he is writing a report, not a novel, and casts a gentle melancholy over the work.
The unnamed narrator seems to have lived a life at arms length, remaining encased in abstractions, neglecting to experience anything at first hand. What I found the most desolate image in the novel is his childhood collection of glass marbles. The material expression of his life’s effort to “recollect” and “preserve” his memories and moods, they are no more than tiny flashes of colour, frozen in their glass bubbles, seeing and saying nothing.
In his sense of colour, and his hankering for the clarity of memory, is the suggestion that he contains within himself another man, one who yearns to feel.
No More Boats
Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats opens in 1967, the year Harold Holt disappeared and, through the magic of narration, incorporates in the opening pages what is yet to come: 2001, the Tampa crisis, the September 11 attacks. In these pages, Antonio, the protagonist, is both young Italian migrant, and the ageing man who has become the face of: “We will decide who comes to this country …”
He and Rose live in Parramatta, where young men like their son Francis are testing out models of masculinity; where young women like their daughter Clare are crafting lives beyond their parents’ oversight; a rich human zoo that provides the stage for a brilliantly observed and sensitively recounted novel illuminating the politics of identity, family, community and nation.
His family are forced to confront the public scandal of Antonio’s xenophobia, to understand why a migrant in a migrant community could be so thoroughly seduced by the violent logic of the hard right. There are no real answers, of course; but beyond the family’s distress and the community’s upheaval is the shadow of two centuries of Australia struggling against “too many boats”.
The Last Garden
Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden is based in a South Australian religious community named – perhaps ironically – Wahrheit. There is little truth here though, and easily as many secrets and violences as are found beyond Wahrheit’s boundaries. These are flushed out by the tragedy that opens the novel, where Matthias Orion, not-fully-committed member of the church, destroys everything he can reach on his property, and slaughters first his wife and then himself.
Their 15-year-old son Benedict arrives home from boarding school to discover this horror; and even as it breaks him, so too it marks the end of the community’s Nebelung, their mythical home. The novel is told through a careful interlacing of Benedict’s and the pastor’s perspectives. The latter fails miserably to care sufficiently for the deeply traumatised Benedict, who after all has become “part of the wound” the community finds itself suffering.
Left largely to himself, and to the horses that escaped his father’s murderous rampage, and to the fox that stands in for that angel of death, Benedict lives with, and like, the animals. In that living he finds a way to recover some sense of self, and to re-enter his community: though whether as messiah or as restored son is uncertain.
The Life to Come
The Life to Come, Michelle de Kretser’s new novel – actually a discontinuous narrative in five sections – offers an insider-outsider view of contemporary Australian society through the shifting focalisations, points of view and voices that comprise the sections. The threads that weave it together are Pippa, a self-satisfied, hyper-performative, not-quite-good-enough novelist, and “real” novelist George Meshaw, who disdains her shallow conceits and her populist writing style.
Pippa is the more visible of the two. She spends much of the novel charming and then disappointing friends, and struggling under the burden of her mother-in-law’s condescension, while always firmly focused on herself. George appears principally through his novels – the last of which, along with Pippa’s last, are tossed in the bin by Pippa’s disenchanted neighbour, who had hoped to find warmth and meaning in these works, but found only words.
While the stories are set in Sydney and in Paris, with references also to Sri Lanka, the twin foci of this novel (for me, at least) are, first, an excoriating critique of Australian colonialist attitudes and politics, and next the burning realisation that – as one character observes – “The only life in which you play a leading role is your own”; we are all merely bit players in the lives of others.
Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is also structured in five discrete sections, the transitions here being characterised by the pulsing of time, rather than the geographical shifts of de Kretser’s work. Storyland starts and ends in the Illawarra region, during the early days of colonisation, where the possibility of trust or friendship between the local Wadi Wadi people and the invading British is constantly thwarted.
The sections between swoop up through the 19th and 20th centuries to a post-apocalypse future, and then cascade down again. Key elements – a river, a cave, a clever man’s axe – appear in each time period, connective tissue that binds them together. Characters too reappear, individuals or their descendants struggling with colonial society and its mores, with missed opportunities for connection, with the collapse of the environment and human society.
I read this novel as a migrant, and as a person of European descent, so I am not well positioned to evaluate the merits of McKinnon’s use of Aboriginal language and representation of the Aboriginal characters, but for me they were both convincing and moving. Story is not politics, but in it we can find ways to review ourselves and our histories, and perhaps begin to find points of conciliation.
Taboo, by Kim Scott, is located squarely in the post-Apology present, when the Australian government can express regret for the Stolen Generations while maintaining the Northern Territory Intervention; and when Aboriginal communities across the country are building new ways to enter the future without deserting the past.
Focalised primarily through the young woman Tilly, daughter of an Aboriginal man who, toward the end of his life, realised the power of language to heal his community’s wounds, it follows the people of Kepalup and their establishment of a Peace Park to settle the ghosts of local Aboriginal people slaughtered by the ancestors of local pastoralists.
Though the novel is necessarily tragic – killings, stolen children, wrecked lives – it also has something generous and pragmatic at its heart. Says Uncle Wilfred of the white community: “Sorry for the history, they say. Know it’s our country, our ancestral country. They’re not gunna give the land back, but know we’re the right people.”
Despite the record of massacre, despite the clumsy interventions by white people – well-meaning but condescending, unaware of how little they know of Noongar culture – the community turns to recovering their language, retelling stories, reclaiming culture, and finding “magic in an empirical age”.
These six novels convincingly meet the criteria of the Miles Franklin, providing accounts of Australian life in all its phrases, in stories of “the highest literary merit” that craft a kaleidoscopic portrait of this society.
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The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday 26th August from 4pm at Deakin Edge, Fed Square.
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…
This line, arguably the most famous in the history of Spanish literature, is the opening of The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first modern novel.
Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, this is the story of Alonso Quijano, a 16th-century Spanish hidalgo, a noble, who is so passionate about reading that he leaves home in search of his own chivalrous adventures. He becomes a knight-errant himself: Don Quixote de la Mancha. By imitating his admired literary heroes, he finds new meaning in his life: aiding damsels in distress, battling giants and righting wrongs… mostly in his own head.
But Don Quixote is much more. It is a book about books, reading, writing, idealism vs. materialism, life … and death. Don Quixote is mad. “His brain’s dried up” due to his reading, and he is unable to separate reality from fiction, a trait that was appreciated at the time as funny. However, Cervantes was also using Don Quixote’s insanity to probe the eternal debate between free will and fate. The misguided hero is actually a man fighting against his own limitations to become who he dreams to be.
Open-minded, well-travelled, and very well-educated, Cervantes was, like Don Quixote himself, an avid reader. He also served the Spanish crown in adventures that he would later include in the novel. After defeating the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Lepanto (and losing the use of his left hand, becoming “the one-handed of Lepanto”), Cervantes was captured and held for ransom in Algiers.
This autobiographical episode and his escape attempts are depicted in “The Captive’s Tale” (in Don Quixote Part I), where the character recalls “a Spanish soldier named something de Saavedra”, referring to Cervantes’s second last name. Years later, back in Spain, he completed Don Quixote in prison, due to irregularities in his accounts while he worked for the government.
Tilting at windmills
In Part I, Quijano with his new name, Don Quixote, gathers other indispensable accessories to any knight-errant: his armour; a horse, Rocinante; and a lady, an unwitting peasant girl he calls Dulcinea of Toboso, in whose name he will perform great deeds of chivalry.
While Don Quixote recovers from a disastrous first campaign as a knight, his close friends, the priest and the barber, decide to examine the books in his library. Their comments about his chivalric books combine literary criticism with a parody of the Inquisition’s practices of burning texts associated with the devil. Although a few volumes are saved (Cervantes’s own La Galatea among them), most books are burned for their responsibility in Don Quixote’s madness.
In Don Quixote’s second expedition, the peasant Sancho Panza joins him as his faithful squire, with the hopes of becoming the governor of his own island one day. The duo diverges in every aspect. Don Quixote is tall and thin, Sancho is short and fat (panza means “pot belly”). Sancho is an illiterate commoner and responds to Don Quixote’s elaborate speeches with popular proverbs. The mismatched couple has remained as a key literary archetype since then.
In perhaps the most famous scene from the novel, Don Quixote sees three windmills as fearful giants that he must combat, which is where the phrase “tilting at windmills” comes from. At the end of Part I, Don Quixote and Sancho are tricked into returning to their village. Sancho has become “quixotized”, now increasingly obsessed with becoming rich by ruling his own island.
Don Quixote was an enormous success, being translated from Spanish into the main European languages and even reaching North America. In 1614 an unknown author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, published an apocryphal second part. Cervantes incorporated this spurious Don Quixote and its characters into his own Part II, adding yet another chapter to the history of modern narrative.
Whereas Part I was a reaction to chivalric romances, Part II is a reaction to Part I. The book is set only one month after Don Quixote and Sancho’s return from their first literary quest, after they are notified that a book retelling their story has been published (Part I).
The rest of Part II operates as a game of mirrors, recalling and rewriting episodes. New characters, such as aristocrats who have also read Part I, use their knowledge to play tricks on Don Quixote and Sancho for their own amusement. Deceived by the rest of the characters, Sancho and a badly wounded Don Quixote finally return again to their village.
After being in bed for several days, Don Quixote’s final hour arrives. He decides to abandon his existence as Don Quixote for good, giving up his literary identity and physically dying. He leaves Sancho – his best and most faithful reader – in tears, and avoids further additions by any future imitators by dying.
The original unreliable narrator
The narrator of Part I’s prologue claims to write a sincere and uncomplicated story. Nothing is further from reality. Distancing himself from textual authority, the narrator declares that he merely compiled a manuscript translated by some Arab historian – an untrustworthy source at the time. The reader has to decide what’s real and what’s not.
Don Quixote is also a book made of preexisting books. Don Quixote is obsessed with chivalric romances, and includes episodes parodying other narrative subgenres such as pastoral romances, picaresque novels and Italian novellas (of which Cervantes himself wrote a few).
Don Quixote’s transformation from nobleman to knight-errant is particularly profound given the events in Europe at the time the novel was published. Spain had been reconquered by Christian royals after centuries of Islamic presence. Social status, ethnicity and religion were seen as determining a person’s future, but Don Quixote defied this. “I know who I am,” he answered roundly to whoever tried to convince him of his
“true” and original identity.
Don Quixote through the ages
In fact, for many critics, the whole history of the novel could justifiably be considered “a variation of the theme of Don Quixote”. Since its early success, there have also been many valuable English translations of the novel. John Rutherford and more recently Edith Grossman have been praised for their versions.
Apart from literature, Don Quixote has inspired many creative works. Based on the episode of the wedding of Camacho in Part II, Marius Petipa choreographed a ballet in 1896. Also created for the stage, Man of La Mancha, the 1960s’ Broadway musical, is one of the most popular reimaginings. In 1992, the State Spanish TV launched a highly successful adaptation of Part I. Terry Gilliam’s much-awaited The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is only the most recent addition to a long list of films inspired by Don Quixote.
More than 400 years after its publication and great success, Don Quixote is widely considered the world’s best book by other celebrated authors. In our own times, full of windmills and giants, Don Quixote’s still-valuable message is that the way we filter reality through any ideology affects our perception of the world.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at annotations.
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Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.
The poem deals with a very short period in the tenth year of the Trojan war. This sometimes surprises modern readers who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan war among their audiences.
The central figure in the Iliad is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.
He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.
The Iliad ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’ camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a Wooden Horse, is not described in the Iliad, although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.
All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the Iliad. The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are – in the Iliad the Trojan war is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.
The many faces of Homer
The Iliad is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.
We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the Odyssey, which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan war, to the island of Ithaca. The Iliad was probably put together around 700 BC, or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (ie “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the Iliad.
Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan war” at the end of the second millennium BC (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.
The Iliad was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early 3rd century BC), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter” – a metre also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, the Roman epic by Virgil). In the Odyssey, a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the Wooden Horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.
The language of the Iliad is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the Iliad.
Death and War
A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.
The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies within the Iliad, and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.
The Iliad also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice within the Iliad itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.
The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.
Postscripts and plagiarists
It was often said that the Iliad was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.
Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, assume the historicity of much of the subject-matter of the Iliad. Likewise, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles”. Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.
In the Roman world, the poet Virgil (70-19BC) set out to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the Aeneid (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
My own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticised in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer”. This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s Iliad cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.
American journalist Hunter S Thompson is a mythical figure, partly by his own design, and partly, perversely, against his wishes. Norman Mailer called him “a legend in successful self-abuse.” Biographer E. Jean Carroll reported Thompson’s daily working regime, which allegedly started at 3pm.
While writing he consumed: Chivas Regal, Dunhills, cocaine, orange juice, marijuana, Heineken, huge helpings of food, LSD, Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, gin and pornographic movies. He then spent some time in the hot tub with champagne and Dove Bars.
Compare this with the drug collection of Raoul Duke, the first person narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971):
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw either and two dozen amyls … The only thing that really worried me was the ether.
The parallels between the Duke persona and Thompson’s own life have led to a conflation of the two. This arises in part from the approach which Thompson made famous: Gonzo journalism.
Far from being an objective observer of the action, the Gonzo journalist becomes a participant in it and reports on it subjectively. Thompson went further: he was often a provocateur. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a fictionalised account of two trips Thompson made with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta from LA to Las Vegas.
It was published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 under the byline of Raoul Duke, but Thompson’s name does appear. Presented with a photo of himself, Duke identifies it as Thompson: a “vicious, crazy kind of person”.
Rather than effacing himself as a chronicler of the scene, Thompson injects himself, via his Duke persona, as a character. Acquaintance Peter Flanders observed:
Hunter was a theatre. He was a roving kind of theatre. He was not just a writer … he was an actor. He was creating his own subject matter.
The aim of Gonzo journalism and other kinds of New Journalism was to write factual reporting that read like fiction. In Thompson’s case, the truth was outrageous, and then it was outrageously embellished by means of fantasy and hallucination.
What is the book about?
“It was time,” says Duke, “for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene.” The novel confronts “the brutish realities of this foul Year of Our Lord, 1971,” when the “whole scene” consisted of the state of America as a nation, the squandered promise of the 1960s counter-culture, and the inadequacies of traditional journalism to cope with the chaos that confronted it.
As a reading experience, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild torpedo ride through some of the strangest scenes in American fact, or American fiction. Or whatever bizarre hybrid of fact and fiction this book represents.
In terms of its plot, the book falls into two halves. In the first, Duke, a journalist, and Doctor Gonzo, his attorney, travel at high speed in a red convertible from LA to Las Vegas so Duke can cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. He fails conspicuously to do so, and they wander in a drug-addled state among the various sensory intensities of Vegas. They behave despicably, “burning the locals, abusing the tourists and terrifying the help.”
They thoroughly trash the hotel room and run up a stupendous room service tab. They destroy the car. They flee before there is a reckoning. Duke, however, encounters a highway patrol officer who interferes with his plans, so he turns back to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He feels it is his obligation to represent the drug culture.
The conference only serves to demonstrate how out of touch law enforcement is. The second half of the book follows much the same trajectory as the first, with the pair compounding their felonies of (statutory) rape, fraud and larceny.
Duke and Doctor Gonzo must be admired for their sheer bravado, if condemned for the political unsoundness of their behaviour. The novel alternates hilarious scenes of madcap knavery with elegiac essays on the lost promise of the 1960s, but it does not become bogged down. This is because of its gleeful, manic energy.
Tom Robbins says:
It lifts you out of your seat when you’re reading it. It’s out of control … in an exhilarating, hallucinatory way.
Anthony Bourdain has said:
Thomson’s wild, hyperbolic prose … showed me not only a whole new way to see and think about things … a whole new way to live. I embraced the doctor wholeheartedly, developing a lifelong love for melodrama, overstatement, lurid imagery and damaged romanticism.
Christopher Lehman-Haupt described the novel’s “mad, corrosive poetry.”
The setting of Las Vegas is exploited for the surreal images it offers, and because the protagonists’ enormities are accepted. As Raoul Duke says: “the mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a really massive crime often slips by unrecognized.”
This might not be as disturbing as it is if the trip to Vegas were not also a quest for the American Dream.
The American Dream
Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s trip is “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Their ostensible mission is covering the Mint 400, but their actual goal is ill defined:
What was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.
Alger was a 19th-century author who typically wrote rags to riches stories; in Vegas, his relevance is about greed as a distinctively American quality. In fact, Duke eventually finds the “main nerve” of the American Dream in the Circus-Circus casino. The owner, who dreamt of running away to join the circus as a child, now has his own circus, and a licence to steal. He, it is said, is the model for the American Dream. If this seems cynical, so it should.
Other references to the contemporary condition of America include discussions of Nixon’s perfidy about the Vietnam War. Of Thompson, the anti-war Democrat Senator George McGovern once said:
Hunter was a patriot… [but] he was not a jingoist. He hated that war in Vietnam with a passion. He hated the hypocrisy of the establishment. Basically, I think he wanted to see this country live up to his ideals. And he wanted us to do better.
One of the things Thompson wanted America to do better was fulfil the promise of the 1960s. Some of the novel’s most trenchant criticisms are levelled at counter-cultural gurus like Timothy Leary who, it seems to Duke, set up new regimes of authoritarianism to replace the old. One of the novel’s most famous passages reveals its bitter nostalgia:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. … It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. …. Our energy would simply prevail. … We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Finally, the novel addresses a contemporary crisis in journalism. Duke starts out full of his professional obligation to “cover the story,” but quickly abandons all pretence. Throughout the narrative, there are traumatic encounters with traditional news coverage, from mendacious TV broadcasts about the war in Laos and Vietnam to newspaper reports on police killing anti-war protesters, to grotesque stories about the consequences of drug taking. “Against this heinous background,” says Duke, “my crimes were pale and meaningless.”
This culminates in a cynical statement at the end:
Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? …The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.
Thompson might proudly have self-identified as a misfit, but he was also a journalist, so this seems a strangely self-castigating statement, until you consider what it was that he did for journalism, which was to redefine it. This is his contribution to the American canon.
Pondering all this in the age of Donald Trump, another of Thompson’s books comes to mind: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which he covered the campaign of the Democratic Party’s nominee McGovern (the Presidential race was eventually won by Richard Nixon). Profoundly critical of the relationship between political processes and the media, this collection of articles again attacks both America and journalism at the same time.
Perhaps it is now, more than ever, that we need Gonzo journalism to help us understand the bizarre nature of US national politics today.