New Books for Summer Reading

Every shirtsleeves critic, every highbrow hack, to use the term which Evelyn Waugh chose to refer to Cyril Connolly, is likely to experience an embarrassment of riches when it comes to recommending books for summer reading. There will be the books he read during the year as a matter of course of writing for a living. The two stand-out books in this category are Be Mine by that master of American fiction Richard Ford, the author of The Sportswriter and Independence Day, the creator of Frank Bascombe who appears in the new book, and there is The Pole by South African-born Australian citizen, the Nobel Prize-winning J.M. Coetzee.

Be Mine presents a septuagenarian Bascombe in the company of his forty-something son who is afflicted with a motor neurone disease. The action of the novel is a matter of how Bascombe is set on looking after his dying boy who is by nature laborious in his facetiousness, a sometime not very skilled ventriloquist who is resolved to play his own role in this all but excruciating endgame and who is also committed together with his father to find such distraction as is available, so that the odd couple wedded unto death make their way to Mount Rushmore where they encounter various familiar and comical types. The logic is of a wholly unusual tragicomedy. Bascombe flirts with women, he takes expert medical advice, he does his best to behave as sanely in terms of his own capacity for appetite and amusement as the situation can sustain. The book is superb and it succeeds, in the face of every possible danger, in not being depressing. 

Peter Craven is a regular contributor.
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The Pole by John Coetzee is the story of a Catalan culture-vulture of a woman who meets a Polish pianist who plays Bach in his own lofty, perhaps inappropriate manner. She initially repudiates his erotic overtures, then succumbs in a limited way only to discover in the last movement that he has written a sequence of sonnets to her which have a dizzying intensity and in turn stir the deepest emotions in her. The Pole is written in Coetzee’s late, blanched manner, austere and minimalist, and is in the tradition he has sustained since Elizabeth Costello and in the Jesus books, though there is a streak of some new colour in this book, a shadow of passionate desire, long suppressed, now animate and operative as a form of activated desolation. Both of these books are masterpieces of a kind.

Then there are the works the hack always has an approximate relation to. There is a new study by Emmett Stinson of Gerald Murnane, who sometimes gets long odds for the Nobel Prize and who was promoted by the literary magazine Scripsi which under my editorship and Michael Heyward’s—now the overlord of Text—erringly and a bit absurdly was accused of inventing the Australian canon. Stinson is oblivious to all this but he is hypersensitive to the fact that Murnane has been written about by Coetzee in the New York Review of Books and that he has been interviewed by the New York Times Book Review. He is in a strenuously enthused way impressed by the very late Murnane and by the work that has been issued since his supposed retirement. He is not only mesmerised by the history of Murnane and rehearses such matters as the fact that Inland (the book Murnane has said was the God-given book) should have nakedly quoted Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and no one including your critic who reviewed the book on its 1980 publication noticed.

Gerald Murnane is a writer of the first rank, a minimalist, a monotonist, a poetic master of subtly layered colour: if you are in doubt that Australia could produce a fictional equivalent to an abstract expressionist like Rothko he is a hell of a wake-up call. In Murnane, Emmett Stinson talks about him in relation to Adorno-like delineations of late style and has the honesty to admit that in fact this would apply to all of Murnane. He also describes Murnane as the finest Australian fiction writer since Christina Stead. If this is true—and it’s hard not to wonder where Patrick White fits into all this—it should be said that any work of Murnane’s makes any of Christina Stead look like Balzac or Dickens on a bright and bustling day. It’s also a judgment that might worry readers of Murray Bail or Peter Carey or (to come from another direction) Madeleine St John or Janette Turner Hospital. And there’s also that dragon at the gates Tim Winton. This is simply to bestir the ghosts of the living.

It’s an oft-attested fact that Gerald Murnane is a passionate admirer of Proust, and 2023 saw the publication of a new translation of Swann’s Way (called a bit quaintly The Swann Way) by a retired Australian professor who is also doing the last volume, Le Temps Retrouvé (Time Regained), of what is to be the Oxford World’s Classic edition of Proust done like the Penguin of twenty years ago by divers hands. Detailed comparison of Brian Nelson’s version with both the original translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff (which T.S. Eliot described mischievously as superior to the “somewhat careless French” of the original) and to the revised versions of Moncrieff by Terence Kilmartin and then D.J. Enright suggests that the Oxford version does not equal them, which is not to say it is negligible. It comes with a very attractive cover from a Monet, good paper and handy notes. 

No novel of the last hundred years has as high a reputation as Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time; “Remembrance of Things Past” as we used to call it), published in the annus mirabilis of 1922 along with The Waste Land and Ulysses.

So if you belong to the by no means small contingent of people who want to read Proust before they die, this is an open invitation to a book which will keep on giving. The Swann Way, translated by Professor Brian Nelson and edited by Professor Adam Watt, incorporates the revisions Jean-Yves Tadié made to the Pléiade edition, but then so did Enright. 

So how do we fare when we read Du Côté de Chez Swann in Brian Nelson’s translation? Are we getting a version of Proust that is discernibly great when we open up the version by this retired professor from Monash? Well, yes. You may prefer “for a long time I used to go to bed early”, perhaps because it’s Moncrieff’s original phrasing and has his natural relaxed swing, the way his massive syntactical edifices of subordinate clauses co-exist with a sort of mellifluous colloquial ease which is not the language of now—not even in the sense that the language of Ulysses is the language of now—but a well-worn later nineteenth-century diction lighted by all our yesterdays. But let’s not blow out Nelson’s candle prematurely. Here’s his opening, the start of his Combray. (Some years ago Penny Hueston described Gerald Murnane as a Proust who had never left Combray.) You could read this Proust and feel you were in more or less safe hands. 

For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle barely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I didn’t have time to think: “I’m falling asleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I’d try to put aside the book I imagined I still had in my hands, and blow out the light; while I was asleep, I’d gone on thinking about what I’d just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather curious turn—it seemed to me that I myself was the subject of the book, whether it was a church, a quartet, or the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would stay with me for a few seconds after I woke; it didn’t offend my reason, but it lay like scales on my eyes and prevented me from realizing that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must do after reincarnation; the subject of the book would detach itself from me, leaving me free to see myself in it or not; and all at once I would regain my sight and realize in amazement that I was surrounded by darkness, which my eyes found pleasant and restful, but my mind perhaps even more so, finding it incomprehensible, without cause, something truly dark.

Kevin Hart is cited somewhere in this volume saying there is no ideal translation and this can be brought home when the standard is very high, as it is in the case of Reformation/Counter Reformation translations of the Bible. For what it’s worth, here is Moncrieff’s opening in his 1920s version:

For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.

Moncrieff wins, I suspect, because of the way he saunters and sparkles. But Nelson will at least bear comparison with Lydia Davis in the Penguin of twenty years ago as well as D.J. Enright’s very accurate revision. 

But the climax of the prelude, the overture of Á la recherche is there with its own force of enchantment in the summation:

And just as in the magic trick where the Japanese have fun filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which, the moment they become wet, begin to stretch and open, assuming different colours and shapes, turning into flowers, houses, human figures, solid and recognizable, so now all the flowers in our garden and in the grounds of Monsieur Swann’s country house, and the water lilies on the Vivonne, and the good folk of the town and their little houses and the church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, all of this took on shape and substance, and emerged, town and countryside alike, from my cup of tea.

This is overwhelmingly recognisable from what we know from the original Moncrieff, from any of his revisions or indeed from the French some of us are lucky enough to have. And that magic is there with a realistic astringency at the climax of Swann in Love: “To think I’ve wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who didn’t really appeal to me, who wasn’t my type!” And perhaps Moncrieff does sound a little dated at this point, “To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!” But then we should allow for the fact that any novel that is not contemporary, and perhaps a few that are, place on us the pressure to translate.

Many of us delight in a new edition of a classic. Some years ago the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translations of the great Russians—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—garnered all sorts of golden opinions from people including Susan Sontag and Dostoevsky’s immensely authoritative biographer Joseph Frank, even though some fraction of us are left puzzled by such verdicts. Is it that the new physically gorgeous editions corresponded to some platonic impression of what a classic is that meant these editions left Constance Garnett with her Victorian confidence or Aylmer Maude (the slightly later Tolstoy that commanded the respect of Doctor Leavis) or the flattened transparency of David Magarshack or the comfortable readability of Rosemary Edmonds were somehow superseded for extra-literary reasons. Well, Dostoevsky is not a stylist and Tolstoy’s style is not supersaturated with literariness. Proust’s decidedly is, though there is also something attractive about this neat 400-page paperback with its good paper and clear notes.

And here is a poignant crystalline moment, elegiac and frosted with melancholy, from the end of Place Names in the new translation.

Alas, in the Avenue des Acacias—the Allée de Myrtes—I did see some of them again, grown old, now no more than terrible shadows of what they had once been, wandering, desperately searching for who knows what in the Virgilian groves. They fled, but I still stood there long after, vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had disappeared. Nature was resuming its reign over the Bois, from which the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Woman had vanished; above the imitation windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the Grand Lac with little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries, one after another, in the tall oaks which, under the druidical crowns and with a Dodonean majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand what a contradiction it is to search in reality for the pictures that reside in our memory, for they would never have the charm bestowed on them by memory itself and from not being perceived through the senses. The reality I’d known no longer existed. It was enough that Madame Swann did not arrive at the same time as before, looking exactly as she had done then, for the whole avenue to be altered completely. The places we’ve known don’t belong only to the world of space in which we situate them for our own convenience. They were only ever a thin slice among contiguous impressions that formed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is only regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.

Proust is of course in the habit of sounding different in the different parts of his book and it is too easy to make him sound like a frozen lake of silvered melancholy. He was also, as Edmund Wilson said, one of the greatest masters of dialogue who ever lived, an immense social comedian and a commander of the miniaturised drama of the everyday. 

The world of fiction doesn’t have a greater representation of a working woman than the housekeeper in Proust, Françoise. Anyone who imagines Proust is a snob should ponder the majesty of the characterisation, which is comparable to the greatest representations of Renaissance royalty. And there’s no reason why the reader who has always meant to read Proust shouldn’t use the publication of Brian Nelson’s translation, even though I sometimes looked at it via the fine recording of the first volume one for Cover to Cover quite a few years ago by the English actor John Rowe of the original Moncrieff translation. The text of what Nelson calls The Swann Way was more stable than that of any of its successors and appeared in 1913 (never mind André Gide—to his everlasting shame and regret recommending to Gallimard that they not publish it). It’s surprising though how close Moncrieff is to his revisers Kilmartin and Enright and indeed much of the time to this new version.

And it’s extraordinary so many years after a first reading how much Proust measures up. The madeleine and the cup of tea and the massive castles of recollection they summon up. The drama of Marcel (as we call him) and his yawning need for his mother’s kiss. His father’s bluff insensitivity to the boy’s neuroticism which his mother and wonderful grandmother are on such guard against indulging. It is a magic lantern world grounded in universal need and it’s also often remarked how much Proust in his first volume introduces the characters who will later loom so large in the book. We are encouraged to believe that the Baron de Charlus is the lover of Swann’s wife, whereas he represents as we discover later one of the grandest and darkest portraits of a gay man in literature (and the model for him is in part Proust, who presents himself as absolutely straight through all his excruciating tangle of infatuate obsession).

Swann’s Way will make clear to you whether you will like Proust, whether you will be able to abide his preciousness, his vast essayistic apparatus of digression, his great passion for the infinite detail of everyday life. There is Aunt Leonie, the bedridden hypochondriac intent on a world of gossip. There are the two refined aunts who think they’re paying Swann a compliment even though what they say is preposterously opaque. There is the sad and sordid saga of Monsieur Vinteuil whose daughter and her girlfriend defile his image even though he will become a figure of veneration (as a great composer) to Swann when he is part of the circle of those astoundingly vulgar highbrows the Verdurins. And then as if with the touch of a magic wand the way Proust changes in the Swann in Love section—beautifully recorded on Caedmon by Ralph Richardson—and it is as if we are back in the world (well almost, not quite) of the nineteenth-century novel of narrative enunciation as Swann finds love, then something desolating through the figure of Odette de Crecy.

There is a strong case for saying that Proust represents the very highest point of the high and mighty achievement of a century ago, however much we honour David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest or his hero Don DeLillo in Underworld or someone like Karl Ove Knausgård. 

Among the deluge of books that came storming in for the primary sale period of the publishing industry there was a popular life of Lawrence of Arabia called just that by the connoisseur of real-life and re-created adventures Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who in the 1960s saw military service in the Dhofar Rebellion for the Sultan of Oman. Fiennes tells the famous story with a lot of narrative clarity, though the enunciation of how Lawrence found himself destroyed and in some sense transfigured by the whipping and rape at the hands of the Turks tends to burn a hole in this sprightly narrative account.

I gave away the only possession which we are all born into the world with—our bodily integrity. It’s an unforgivable matter, an irrecoverable position; and it’s that which has made me forswear decent living and the exercise of my not contemptible wits and talents … It will hang about me while I live and afterwards if our personality survives. Consider wandering among the decent ghosts hereafter, crying “Unclean, unclean!”

At some level Lawrence was a figure who might have found a place in the darker moments of the last volume of Proust’s Time Regained. But we know about the depth of the masochism from the way in which Peter O’Toole indicates what he did enjoy in that astonishing performance in the David Lean film, though we never see him paying to be whipped when he disguised himself as Private Shaw (the name borrowed from his friend and protector George Bernard Shaw). It is shocking to read Fiennes’s account of how he allowed a young boy soldier who had sexually played with one of his fellows to be savagely flogged. There’s something obscene about it because it seems such a betrayal of Lawrence’s palpable and deep-seated homosexuality even if it is at some level congruent with the way his mother treated her illegitimate son.

The myth of Lawrence of Arabia is a thing of wonder as well as a great mystery and something about Ranulph Fiennes’s sunlit clarity of outline makes you wonder if you shouldn’t just go back to Lawrence’s own monumental work Seven Pillars of Wisdom supplemented by the revelations of that supreme Australian investigative journalist Phillip Knightley. Lawrence was devoted to Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur and if ever someone turned himself into a knight with a latter-day tragic destiny, a Lancelot without a Guinevere, it was this strange hero. That there were no Guineveres is clear enough: “I take no pleasure in women. I have never thought twice or even once of the shape of a woman: but men’s bodies, in repose or movement—especially the former, appeal to me directly and very generally.” 

As a stylist, and he was a formidable one, T.E. Lawrence was utterly bejewelled and shimmering. He became the myth of himself through the magic of language. His translation of The Odyssey is verbally iridescent. Max Beerbohm said of it (he would, wouldn’t he), “I would rather have not written it than have taken Damascus.”

After the achievements of Murnane and the all but impossible peaks of Proust, together with the self-lacerations of T.E. Lawrence, it was a relief to stumble on an absolute delight of a low-key book, Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book by Rob Brander, which is by way of being, as the cover says, “everything you need to know about surf, sand and rips”.

Rob Brander is a dazzling guide to everything to do with sea and sand and he has one of those sneaky off-the-cuff modest styles that is just a bit like Geoffrey Blainey’s. He is a collector of sand, with all its variegations, and he keeps them in old spice jars. Here is an example of his bewitching humour:

For many tourists visiting Hawai’i, black sand beaches are quite a novelty and a little jar of the black stuff makes a nice souvenir. What a shame it comes with a curse. Pele, the volcano goddess of Hawai’i, gets upset when people take samples of her lava rocks and black sand away and inflicts a curse of bad luck on them for the rest of their lives. And it’s not just minor nuisance type of bad luck, but the cataclysmic life-altering kind! The curse must have something to it as plenty of Hawaiian visitor centres displays packages of sand mailed back with profuse apologies. However, dig deeper into the story and there is nothing in Hawaiian legend that mentions bad luck associated with rocks and sand. Instead it seems that a modern National Park ranger got tired of people illegally removing things from the National Parks. The story has grown to the point where the “curse” now applies to many other black sand beaches around the world. I must admit that Hawaiian sand makes up some of the centrepieces of my personal collection, but fortunately I was aware of the curse and managed to circumvent it by asking unsuspecting relatives and friends to get the sand for me. Did I tell them about the curse in advance? No. Did they experience bad luck afterwards? Yes!

I have no especial or besotted apprehension of beaches but I read this book aloud to someone who does and it was bewitching to both of us. It is said of Blainey (I knew him as dean of the University of Melbourne Arts Faculty but never saw him lecture) that he would disarm a lecture hall by saying he knew nothing about a subject. The undergraduates downed their pens and sat agog. At the end of the hour they would realise they remembered every point he made. Rob Brander has this sort of mesmerising throwaway charm and bedevilment. I can’t recommend this book too highly. It really will, as so few books do, instruct and delight.

Fiction, of course, lives up to this Horatian ideal with an especial zenith of realisation when it works because it is (at least at its rare best) a symbolic form of truth and it also has the transcendent quality indicated by the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney when he says that poetry nothing affirmeth because it nothing denieth. 

Zadie Smith is a novelist, a fiction maker who is often seen in this category and here’s the opening of her new novel, The Fraud

A filthy boy stood on the doorstep. He might be scrubbed of all that dirt, eventually—but not of so many orange freckles. No more than fourteen, with skinny, unstable legs like a marionette, he kept pitching forward shifting soot into the hall. Still, the woman who’d opened the door—easily amused, susceptible to beauty—found she couldn’t despise him.

“You’re from Tobin’s?” 

“Yes, missus. Here about the ceiling. Fell in, didn’t it?”

“But two men were requested!” 

“All up in London, missus. Tiling. Fearsome amount of tiling needs doing in London, madame …” 

He saw of course that she was an old woman, but she didn’t move or speak like one. A high bosom, handsome, her face had few wrinkles and her hair was black. Above her chin, a half-moon line, turned upside down. Such ambiguities were more than the boy could unravel.

This is a translucent style, very seductive, and the book involves a Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Touchet (suspicious of Dickens) and Andrew Boyle who grew up as a slave in Jamaica, and then there is the fascination of what can be made of the Tichborne case, that weirdest of legal cases that had an Australian connection. History and fiction in dynamic connection. It sounds, doesn’t it, like a winner. The heights of fiction, as the great nineteenth-century novels demonstrate—the Anna Kareninas, the Madame Bovarys—the very greatest fiction we know—Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, say, which Edmund Wilson considered more life-like than any other, Stendhal in The Red and the Black with his extreme elegant terseness, Thackeray in Vanity Fair, Jane Austen in anything, are storytellers in a way Joyce and Proust are not. And so are those looming figures like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark. Someone close to me read The Power and the Glory by Greene recently—the whisky-priest novel (of which there’s a very fine recording by Andrew Sachs)—and thought it was Greene’s central and greatest masterpiece. 

Books, good books, come in every shape and size. Someone has just put under my nose Arabella, a picture book with an elegant rhyming text by Carmel Bird (who was in her time praised by Gerald Murnane) and lovely, beautifully fluent illustrations by Jace Rogers: “Once in a cupboard full of coats and old hats lived the prettiest, sweetest and littlest of cats.” We forget the variousness of good writing. Favel Parrett is a superb fiction writer who has recently produced two children’s books about dingoes, Wandi and Kimmi.

Then we have a concerted attempt to write fiction of the most serious kind and to do so in a different kind of light. Christos Tsiolkas’s new novel The In-Between, about two middle-aged gay men, appears to be in this category. It’s a book that is liable to confound the young as they back away, a bit repulsed by the prospect of having to be brought close up and personal to the sexual intimacies of two blokes too old to be comfortable with such a juvenile word as boyfriend

Tsiolkas became famous for his first book, Loaded, which presented plenty of bathroom gay sex and was subsequently filmed as Head On. But he has in recent years produced a different, more complex and consciously mature fiction full of intricately adult consideration. The Slap presented a group of characters linked by a central dramatic incident and if the telemovie was in some ways superior to the book that was because it was some kind of dramatic masterpiece which was so thoroughly grounded in a pretty masterly work of fiction that transfigured its own soap-like elements.

The In-Between has the breathtaking quality of its realism which is liable—it sounds mad to say so but it’s true—of being embarrassing to young and old. No one likes the idea of thinking of their parents having sex and the idea of mature-age gay sex from the attested master of sexual explicitness, the novelist who does not believe in too much information, is hair-raising. Let’s take a mild paragraph:

Perry is going on a date. The word itself strikes him as ridiculous, inappropriate for a man of his age. But if he were not to call it a date, then what the hell was it? The struggle to find a word that can adequately describe the night’s forthcoming adventure proves a calming diversion.

This is the recurrent rueful tone of The In-Between and the upshot is masterful. A man of Greek background, long absent in Europe and effortlessly sophisticated and smooth, arranges what he calls an assignation with a man of Serbian background who is rough where the other is smooth though he says that he has known he is a homosexual since primary school.

They’re awkward, they’re adult, they’re real. The sophisticated smoothie had a long-term relationship with a Frenchman that ended in treachery in the vicinity of Rouen and there is a comparable horrific relationship on the part of the roughie who also has the complication in his life of a daughter (born to an unfortunate mistake of a marriage) to whom he is absolutely devoted.

The In-Between is a testament to Tsiolkas’s mastery of narrative dislocation. In the scene where the men get together there are bucketloads of sex but it also jumps forward to the shower next morning, then back to something else, all indicated with a double paragraph break: it’s superbly, effortlessly done and Tsiolkas is also—more distractingly—capable of having his roughie in the vicinity of an old woman he knows and reveres suddenly dying. 

The book is at its best when the distinctly contrapuntal voices of the two main characters are heard in dialectic together but it is ambitious and strong at every point. Admittedly the picture sometimes gets crowded with the string of other characters these men are connected with, but this does in its confused and sometimes confusing way have the rattle and the roar of everyday life. The In-Between is a novel by a formidable novelist who has the courage—and the confidence—to be untidy. The upshot is incidentally though not centrally awkward. There are secrets which are withheld and then disclosed in a way that is disconcerting but has its own reward. The quietness of this book and the way it allows for the stabbing poignancy of happenstance create a constant suspense amid the recurrent pleas for forgiveness and indeed for love. 

One could talk endlessly about the contortions and the confusions of Tsiolkas’s very unusual but very impressive book which creates a new narrative idiom out of a not unfamiliar but not much represented human predicament. The In-Between is a book that bristles with the weird intimacy of predicaments we take for granted but are not very keen to imagine. 

Ian Britain’s The Making of Donald Friend is a brave book about the preposterous situation that a significant Australian artist is effectively banned in Australia because of his sexual abuse of young boys in Bali in the 1960s. Britain establishes a world of charm and brilliance including—improbably—an affair with the young, notably straight Peter Finch.

In the midst of all this there is the calm joy of Alex Miller’s A Kind of Confession in which the two-time Miles Franklin winner talks with wit and tact and kindness about the writer’s life and the thoughtful man behind it. A sea of calm intelligence. This is one of those reflective books, sane and mild and self-possessed, which everyone could benefit from reading snippets of over summer:

So after writing my letter to you this morning I went back to Mann’s Faustus and opened it where I’d left a bookmark in it some years ago. Mann was speaking about Chopin’s nocturnes, particularly the C-sharp minor Op 27, no 2. The phrase he uses is “despairing beauty of sound”.

That leaves Chris Hammer’s The Seven. Hammer has an extraordinary following which includes Michael Connolly and the Lord knows who. As tough a judge as the late Peter Pierce was taken with him and so is that fine journalist Tony Wright. 

There is no doubt that Chris Hammer can write as these admirable judges can write but he has built up a reputation as an impressively novelistic crime writer which is comparable to that of the late Peter Temple on a good day: say, in The Broken Shore. The new book The Seven involves the recapitulation of a more than century-old past. Listen to this voice and see if you’re sucked in:

September 1913
My dearest Mother,
So I have arrived and am found acceptable. I believe I detected a sense of relief as I dismounted from my carriage: my clothes respectable, my teeth intact, my hair restrained. Their eyes swept my face, keen to detect any sign of my lineage, pleased when they saw that, like my hair, it is subdued. They complimented me: on my posture, on my diction, on my cleanliness.

It is certainly true that if you can find “trash”—the chosen name for some of us for popular and genre fiction—which is cognate with treasure then you have a world of pleasure before you. Some people find it in vintage Len Deighton, others in the greatest le Carré. Many people will find it in the new John Grisham, The Exchange—the successor to the Tom Cruise vehicle The Firm. There are the grandeurs of Dashiell Hammett, and the beauty of Raymond Chandler’s sentences. I found it when I read the sixteenth-century detective stories of C.J. Sansom, beloved of George Pell. But trash is always a matter of taste except when it turns into art and transfigures itself, as it does in Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs or in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses trilogy. But one of the odd features of this is that the film version tends to be superior: Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, Alec Guinness as Smiley, Richard Burton as Leamas. It would be marvellous to see Sansom’s sceptical humanist detective on screen but Chris Hammer seems to belong to the cinema of the mind. Even the Larry McMurtry films—Paul Newman in Hud, Peter Bogdanovich’s film of The Last Picture Show—transfigure the originals. But let’s not be precious. Innocent readerly pleasure over summer may serve your needs more than Proust or Shakespeare. 

Peter Craven is a Melbourne literary critic. He wrote on George Pell in the March 2023 issue.


3 thoughts on “New Books for Summer Reading

  • exuberan says:

    Recently finished reading ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T E Lawrence, (Lawrence of Arabia). Didnt expect to get too far into it. Ended up devouring it, could not put it down. An amazing chronical of his time in the Middle East.

  • David Isaac says:

    ‘who also has the complication in his life of a daughter (born to an unfortunate mistake of a marriage) to whom he is absolutely devoted.’

    As evidenced by the devotion, to the only part of him which has a chance to survive his death, the mistake would have been if he had devoted himself entirely to a life of sterile sexual debauchery and never been married and engendered a child.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    January 5, 2024
    Why on EARTH did Quadrant publish a piece promoting literature about the sort of perverse immoral lifestyles that Quadrant normally decries? The literary side of this publication seems to be, at times, at odds with the whole philosophy of the rest of it.

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