J.G. Ballard (2009) The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, 1st American Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 978 0 393 07262 4 (hardback).
I went on a road trip through country Victoria last month. In the hamlet of Yarck in the Goulburn Valley, I happened upon a wonderful cottage bookstore called Books at Yarck. It is pretty much every booklover’s wet dream. There is a fine section of literature, an excellent choice of Australiana and some very tasty non-fiction. There is also a wood stove (not in use in February), and a couch.
Oh dear. I promised Pip at Meanjin that I wouldn’t engage in all that hokey ‘look what I picked up at the second-hand bookstore’ malarkey, and I’ve already gone back on my word. The proprietor says he relies on passing trade on the Maroondah Highway, and so now I feel like I need to give Books at Yarck a plug. Do go and visit, and buy a book or two. You never know what you might find.
For example, I happened to pick up a handsome hardback edition of J.G. Ballard’s complete short stories, in marvellous condition, with the dustcover laminated. It’s got all my old favourites: ‘Bilennium’, ‘Vermilion Sands’, ‘Chronopolis’, and ‘Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan’.
Most importantly, the collection contains my favourite of all Ballard’s works, his short story ‘The Voices of Time.’ I first read this story in second year at university, and it literally haunted my dreams at various intervals ever since. Perhaps that’s only fitting. What could be more Ballardian than nightmares? It is set, almost inevitably, in a research institute, in which the biologists are falling victim to a mysterious sleeping sickness. Every night they sleep a little longer, until they lapse into a terminal coma.
The overwhelming theme is entropy. The protagonist, Powers, is a neurosurgeon, who is dying of the sleeping sickness. He is harassed by one of his former patients, Kaldren, who Powers tried to cure by hypothalamic surgery. The procedure was a terrible failure: Kaldren no longer sleeps at all, and is afflicted at intervals by devastating ‘psychic storms’. Elsewhere in the Institute, animals are expressing hidden genes, and extra-terrestrial intelligence has been detected. But the alien signal is just a series of endless countdowns. ‘NGC 9743, somewhere in Canes Venatici,’ Kaldren tells Powers. ‘The big spirals there are breaking up, and they’re saying goodbye.’
For me, ‘The Voices of Time’ is the ultimate distillation of Ballard’s strange genius. It’s a masterpiece of concision and narrative drive; only The Drowned World and his mid-70’s London novels come close. First published in 1960, it feels as fresh and sharp as anything by Iain Banks, China Mieville or Liu Cixin.
Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958) The Leopard, Knopf, New York and Toronto. 978 0 679 40757 7 (hardback).
As a teenager I remember reading about a fellow who read Martin Chuzzlewit each year, every year, supposedly treating the book ‘like an old friend.’ I was doubly horrified at this idea, firstly that someone would want to spend so much of their life reading Martin Chuzzlewit, and secondly that anyone could waste so much of their life re-reading the same work.
Now that I am firmly ensconced in middle age, I see the error of my ways. I, too, am re-reading favourite books, seemingly endlessly, perhaps because I like to luxuriate in their universe, or perhaps simply to reinforce my own literary insecurity.
The Leopard is almost flawless. It is as close as we may ever expect anyone to come to the asymptote of the perfect novel. No other work of fiction fills me with such paradoxical wonder and mystery. Lampedusa’s prose is lapidary, but his staging is exquisite. It is a short book that contains multitudes. The plot moves with devastating economy. Every chapter unfolds in real time over a couple of days, but effortlessly sketches years, if not decades of action. The characters are indelible: not just the titular Prince, but his ne’er-do-well nephew Tancredi, the bourgeois beauty Angelica, the family priest Father Pironne, and the much-loved hound Bendico. The Leopard is pessimistic in its assessment of Italy, but pellucid in its description of the Sicilian countryside and the eternal Mediterranean sea and sun.
I am re-reading it currently in a natty hardback from Knopf, from their Everyman’s Library series. It is a nice size that fits comfortably in the hand. According to his wife Licy, Lampedusa never left the house without a copy of Shakespeare in his bag. You could carry around this little hardback, just like that.
Yiyun Li (2014) Kinder than Solitude, Random House, New York. 978-0812980165 (paperback).
Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude is not a perfect novel; indeed, there are many things wrong with it. But it is an intense and profoundly moving work of fiction. I found it drew me in, in spite of my scepticism.
Li’s best-known work is her novel The Vagrants, which is kitchen-sink realism of almost preternatural poise and possession. Kinder than Solitude is just as dark, but messier and looser, telling a three-protagonist story of Beijing teenagers caught up in a poisoning in the time just after Tiananmen Square.
Critical praise for Li in recent years has been exceptional, and if you first came to her writing with this book you might wonder if she hasn’t been over-hyped. I don’t suppose Li is for everyone. Her plots unwind only slowly, and her prose explodes few pyrotechnics. But there is something about Li’s work that repays a second and third look: the coldness with which she appraises her characters, for instance, and the seamless coherence of her steely worldview. Only a storyteller of supreme self-assurance could proceed with characters this unlikeable. I couldn’t look away.
Barry Lopez (1986/2001) Arctic Dreams: Imagination and desire in a northern landscape, Fist Vintage Books Edition, Random House, New York. 0 375 72748 5 (paperback).
‘For most of my writing life I’ve been driven, like other writers and artists, to explore,’ Barry Lopez has written, and there is no better testament to his extraordinary narrative abilities than Arctic Dreams.
Researched across many years of travelling with scientists and indigenous people in the far north of Canada and Alaska, Arctic Dreams is a paean to a world that is almost gone. Lopez tells, rather than shows. There are long passages devoted to the geography, flora and fauna of the region, including the polar bear, the lemming, the loon and the bowhead whale. Nearly every page contains wonders. We learn of the mythic history of the narwhale, and we discover the fascinating pre-history of Greenland in the time of the Thule civilisation. We think upon the icebergs of Frederic Edwin Church’s painting. There are strange and hypnotic words, like sastrugi (the parallel ice ridges created by prevailing winds) and savssat (a shrinking patch of open water between ice floes, where whales can be trapped). There are moons that don’t set for six days.
But Arctic Dreams isn’t just a catalogue of frozen vistas. It’s a meditation on landscape and memory, and on the nature of human violence and survival. Ultimately, Lopez turns his fascination with the northern landscape into an interrogation of human plunder. ‘The most philosophically troubling issue of our incursion into the New World, I think, grows out of our definition of wealth—the methods of its acquisition and our perception of what sorts of riches can actually be owned and transferred,’ he writes (p. 312).
What every culture must eventually decide, actively debate and decide, is what of all that surrounds it, tangible and intangible, it will dismantle and turn into material wealth. And what of it cultural wealth, from the tradition of finding peace in the vision of an undisturbed hillside to a knowledge of how to finance a corporate merger, it will fight to preserve. (p. 313).
For those who haven’t been introduced to America’s greatest living nature writer, now is as good a time as any to discover him. All natural history is by definition draped in the melancholy of human destruction, but few writers capture the poignant alterity of disappearing habitats in such crisp and limpid tones.
The Arctic of Lopez’ description is vanishing by the month, as the very landscape itself melts away. Read it, and weep.
Ben Eltham is a Melbourne non-fiction writer and academic. He first wrote for Meanjin in 2010.