December 2006 - January 2007

Arts & Letters

A thinking read

By Peter Craven
The best books for summer

It's always an odd business to work out the vagaries of what anyone might like to read over Christmas and the New Year. Even the gender lines get tricky: not all fiction is simply a woman's domain, and in the area of non-fiction, Antonia Fraser, the woman who can make any stretch of history read like the most rattling of yarns - and who is represented this holiday season with a reissue of Marie Antoinette: A Journey - can give Les Carlyon, with his new book about the killing fields of the Western Front, The Great War, a run for his money. Then again, Carlyon is one of those wizards of chronicling who can make the sorrow and pity of war as compelling as the cavalry charge in a Western, or the horse race where you might lose your shirt.

The Bush Administration is losing more than that in Iraq - not to mention the Iraqis, who have suffered the losses of 9/11 many times over. These considerations shadow the book that everyone will have to take stock of, the one that has been a kind of symbolic trigger to the Republican defeat in the November elections and the longed-for moment of Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Bob Woodward's State of Denial sees the eminent journalist of Watergate uncovering what went wrong in lethal insider detail. He represents Rumsfeld as a man, like le Carré's Smiley, reborn to fight the battles he had thought lost, a man loathed by George Bush Senior as a Machiavellian and a chancer. Woodward gives us the fly-on-the-wall treatment: Rumsfeld in interview refusing to accept responsibility; the president saying he won't give Woodward the heading, "Bush says there were no weapons"; Barbara Bush asking a trusted political insider, "Are we right to be worried about this war?" This is a devastating account by a man who had previously supported the war, and it makes the reader feel that she is really there during the counsels of state.

The Australian non-fiction book that has caused a comparable splash is Chris Masters' Jonestown, with its thoroughgoing, warts-and-all portrait of the shock-jock who wields influence like a cane. The description of Alan Jones in his chalky days, chatting to schoolboys in the middle of the night - and playing favourites to the point where eyebrows rose - is riveting, though it is not a record of misconduct, simply a suggestive indication of the kinds of flaws that would seem to be a precondition for the sort of kingmaker that Jones became. Whether anyone would dig so far into the topic with someone they admired - a Whitlam or a Fraser, say - is an open question, but there's no doubting the forensic brilliance of Masters.

Nothing could be more opposite to Jonestown than the warmth and enthusiasm of Barry Jones in his endearing autobiography, A Thinking Reed. Quizmeister, polymath and, as Tony Staley once said, "minister for scientology", Jones is a kind of village explainer, but his enthusiasms (which are so great that they lead him to reproduce his favourite Old Master paintings in colour, and to quote such poems as Hopkins' ‘The Windhover', while giving the reader his lists of great novels and great pieces of music) are impassioned to the point of eccentricity, which is part of the man's splendour. No one else in Australian politics would quote the literary critic Frank Kermode or the conservative columnist Matthew Paris. No one else would take his title from Pascal or see his proudest moment in his campaign to end capital punishment. You'll be charmed and moved by this book, because Barry Jones has remained the same person as the young boy who saw Sir Isaac Isaacs, then in his nineties, on the tram and in the public library, but was too shy to speak to him, even though he knew he was getting a glimpse of history.

Another memoir likely to captivate is Gore Vidal's Point to Point Navigation, which is the coda to his masterpiece, Palimpsest, and provides further glimpses of this mandarin and myriad writer: his grief at his partner's death; more of ‘the Bird', Tennessee Williams; tales of Italy; his infatuation with the myth of the movies. Vidal is one of the greatest essayists alive, and this latest volume, now that he is back in America and looking towards life's exit sign, will serve as a balm to any mind that can feel the beauty and relaxing flow of such wonderful and recapitulative prose.

If you want a less mannered but nonetheless significant slice of the Hollywood that Vidal was enthralled by, you might try Elizabeth, J Randy Taraborrelli's biography of Elizabeth Taylor, which will tell you who threw the vase at whom on the set of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and whose decision it was to have the film directed by Mike Nicholls.

Oddly enough, one of the best showbiz autobiographies of recent years is Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, by Rupert Everett, which presents (among many things) the famously gay British actor in bed with the likes of Paula Yates and Susan Sarandon, as well as playing up with the boys and saying the odd prayer to the Virgin Mary. Everett is a superb storyteller. It was when he was at the posh Catholic school Ampleforth that he became, together with a fellow luvvy, obsessed with Franco Zeffirelli. The priest who discovered their letters to one "Zefferely" tossed them back, saying only, "Zeffirelli with an i." Much later, Everett meets the great director at a party and thinks he is merely the nearest old leching queen - to his immense chagrin.

Of course, your tastes might run more to cricket. Such books range from basic works by the masters of those who know - as in Ian Chappell's A Golden Age - through stylish savants like Peter Roebuck, who has a new recent history, In It to Win It, to Gideon Haigh. There is a revised version of Haigh's The Summer Game and a new book, Silent Revolutions, on assorted cricket subjects. He is one of those non-fiction authors who writes so well that you have to look at anything he does, whether you're interested in the subject or not.

If you want documentary non-fiction in the presence of artistic titans, together with handsome illustration and expert commentary, you may want to acquire Bert and Ned, in which Patrick McCaughey has collected letters by Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan. The latter writes like the sun coming up in the east. And the same is true, with great tolling bells on, for John Donne, arguably the greatest love poet and the greatest sermoniser in the language. In Donne: The Reformed Soul, John Stubbs gives us the life of the Catholic rake who became an Anglican divine, with plenty of axe-edge conspiracy and papist plotting to fill in the many things we don't know.

All of which brings us to the fiction-makers, the poets, the imaginative writers by whom the language is supposed to live. Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land is the last of the Frank Bascombe novels that began with The Sportswriter, and anyone who reads a few pages of it will realise she is in the hands of a great writer. Ford's sentences gleam and glow as Bascombe attempts to make sense of his life as a real-estate agent, now - the year is 2000 - that he's 55 and coming to grips with a thousand sorrows and jokes in the vicinity of his own prostate cancer.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a heartbreaking novel about the end of all things, in which a man and a little boy, his son, wander through a desolated post-nuclear world where life has turned into the war of all against all, yet the child retains a goodness that humbles his father at every turn. This book has an overpowering poignancy that harrows the soul.

In Martin Amis's House of Meetings, the emotion is complex as we listen to the memories of a black-hearted, highly intelligent narrator, full of subtlety and sensitivity, who was imprisoned in a gulag but violated the woman he loved. This is the finest thing Amis has written since The Information.

Joyce Carol Oates's Black Girl/White Girl is not her best, though it is better than the best books of some good writers. It is set in the aftermath of Watergate at a liberal-arts college for young women, and is concerned with two girls: one black, poor and none too bright, the other the daughter of a rich philanthropic family. In the background, there's yesterday's terrorism: the armed resistance of '60s activism.

Terrorism has, understandably enough, got into the water supply of contemporary fiction, with John Updike writing a highly accomplished jeu d'esprit of a novel, Terrorist, about a young Muslim boy in New York who is recruited to be a suicide bomber. It involves a dazzlingly sophisticated portrait of a very formidable, very dodgy imam. Among Updike's peers, both Philip Roth's Everyman and Nadine Gordimer's Get a Life are, like Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, preoccupied with serious illness. The Roth, with its snarl and its sorrow and its range of feeling, is the better bet.

In the Australian fiction stakes, the spectre of the Booker Prize kicked on the profiles of both Kate Grenville's The Secret River and MJ Hyland's Carry Me Down. Grenville's book is the Aboriginal-settler novel we had to have - liberal, impassioned and careful - but not her finest work. Carry Me Down has Hyland's eloquence and dynamised hysterical rhetoric that shines like a diamond for many.

Richard Flanagan's The Unknown Terrorist is presented almost as a thriller, in airport-fiction prose, with intellectual pretensions and a good deal of left-wing narrowness of vision. Nevertheless, the story it tells - a young woman, a pole-dancer, is hunted as a terror suspect - is rivetingly pertinent and executed with a good deal of vigour, almost in spite of the clumsy prose.

Prose of the highest elegance characterises every word of the stories in David Malouf's Every Move You Make, which is, in its way, about as fine a book of fiction as this country has seen. The story about an old woman in the shadow of Uluru is a masterpiece. Leaner and plainer is Colm Tóibín's Mothers and Sons, in which that lethally quiet Irish writer gives form to the subtleties and shadows of the most basic relationship in the world.

If you want supreme economy of language, of course, you'll go to poetry. Les Murray is one of the reigning masters of English, and The Biplane Houses is yet another of his validations. Seamus Heaney's District and Circle will give everything the admirers of that meditative lyricist could desire, while Craig Sherborne's Necessary Evil presents a shambling, distinctive voice, each poem etched with the force of an indelible memory. For my money, the greatest poet alive is Anne Carson, and her new book Grief Lessons - four translations of plays by Euripides - gives us the voice of one of the Greek giants unadorned, intimate, as if whispered in our ears.

Speaking of ears, there's the talking book to be considered. Naxos is now offering complete versions of both War and Peace and Bleak House, downloadable from their website. Their complete Paradise Lost, read by Anton Lesser, is a joy, because it makes that mighty work so easy to take in. There's also, from Viking, the new translation of Virgil's Aeneid, in a translation by the state-of-the-art Homer man, Robert Fagles, much admired by Barry Jones. It's read aloud by that marvellous actor Simon Callow.

The classical world and the audio world also dominate my trash-book tip for the silly season, Robert Harris's Imperium. Harris set his first hit thriller in Nazi Germany, and in this one has found a world almost as corrupt and horrible: ancient Rome. Imperium has as its hero Cicero no less, supreme orator and courtroom whiz. And if you want to hear this rattling yarn about Pompey and Catiline and co. - a book so well done that Ray Cassin thought it belied Inga Clendinnen's critique of historical fiction in her recent Quarterly Essay - then put on the five-hour audio book read by Oliver Ford-Davies (Sio Bibble from Star Wars) and let his urbane voice unfold for you the snake-pit-and-roaring-lion world of the bloody Romans.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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