Good books and bad

I can’t go on without a book to read, and generally I’ve got two on the go, and sometimes three. That’s become more difficult since the dollars have become tight, and so I visit the library sometimes, and when I buy books it’s never, ever for full price – I won’t pay more than ten bucks, because more than that will blow the budget completely.

The other week I attended a closing down sale of a city bookshop where the books were selling for $5 each. Feeling bold, I picked up a few for a rainy day. I’ve worked my way through them now and opened the last of the books this week.

I had bought Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow on the back of a very good collection of short stories I’d read of his (The Pacific and Other Stories), and on the basis that at nearly 700 pages long it presented good value. Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the glowing reviews, I found it a stinker.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. I read those great stories, but I’d also picked up another short story collection of his and ditched it halfway. Likewise I’d suffered through Winter’s Tale, which was much too fantastic for my tastes. On top of that Helprin is a particular type of writer, the type I can tolerate in small doses, but certainly not in a novel.

He’s a wordy writer, but many of the words are pretty and put together well. That probably explains why this book is near 700 pages – if I wrote it it would be half the length. Give Hemingway a crack and it would be a crisp 220 pages. I’d much prefer the Hemingway version, without the posturing and eulogising. I’m not the sort of reader that has that sort of patience – my eyes skip forward.

I had a go. I read maybe 70 pages, at which point I realised I couldn’t abide the main character, and the writer was giving me the shits too. For some reason I was reminded of Ayn Rand. Helprin is a conservative and there’s a fair bit of that attitude in his writing. Harry, the leading character, embodied that – a kind of idealised noble American type with pure conservative values. He was the instrument that Helprin used to espouse a worldview that in large part is at odds with mine (though I’m sympathetic to some – I agree, ‘intellectuals’ should get out more, but regardless what they add to the world is inestimable: ideas count).

Ayn Rand was like that. I only ever read The Fountainhead, and couldn’t get enough of it. I was young and impressionable then. I remember reading it on the tram. The purity of Howard Roarke seduced me. I’d gone through a phase of reading Sartre and Camus and amid all that this lobbed. I was oblivious of the politics then. I read it as the tale of one man striving with (in hindsight) a fanatically single-minded purpose against a world of mediocre men and ideas. There seemed something admirable in that. Such purity. I can believe it even now, in small doses, until I remember that there is little place for the less capable, less individualistic, in this philosophy.

So, I put Helprin aside and picked up another book in its stead.

I’ve begun packing, ready for my move. As I was doing that I put aside a couple of books I came across, thinking I might read them again. One of them was George Johnston’s classic, My Brother Jack.

I first read this for high school English, many years ago – in fact the paperback I’m reading now is the very same copy from then, with the Sidney Nolan painting on the cover. Open it up and there’s my name inscribed in my junior hand, in class 3H.

I liked the book back then, and at some later date I read it again, but not now for about 25 years. The other night I began to read it once more, and fell into it with joy.

This is real writing, great writing. And Jack, the eponymous brother, is one of those classic Australian characters you know and love. He’s a larrikin, with a bit of the lair in him, but with his own code and a scrupulous honesty and decency. He’s the sort of character so many great Australian tales revolve around. He’s the sort who has made our history, tough and funny, willing and honest.

The story is told by his brother in the first person, but Jack in a way is the real hero of it. David, the narrator, is the sensitive soul who grows up to become a writer. In his youth he lived in the shadow of Jack, who stood up to the world with a bluff honesty that Davy never could. There’s recognition of this through the story, but told after the fact. Jack stays on in Australia, representative perhaps of old ways and unsophisticated truths. He remains steadfast, but quaintly tragic, while Davy thrives as an author and goes out into the sophisticated world. He knows a kind of success, but Jack is always there in his mind and in his memory, a kind of exemplar.

Reading it again all these years later I appreciate things now I never did as a teenager. The story is set in Melbourne beginning after the end of WW1. Johnston writes vividly of Melbourne, much of it long gone, but of a lot of it still recognisable. There are place names and localities that as an adult nearly a hundred years later I know so well now. There’s a sense of a palimpsest, which is really what history is – an overlay of events and people on places we all know. Reading I feel a kind of reverse nostalgia, and wish I could have been there to see the Melbourne he describes, knowing what it has become.

I’m only halfway through, but loving it. Every Australian should read it, and certainly every Melburnian.


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