As usual, I am reading three or four, maybe five books at once. I am halfway through Irene Nemirovksy’s Fire in the Blood, translated from the French in 2007, but written in the early 1940s before Irene Nemirovsky was deported to Auschwitz where she died at the hands of the Nazis in 1942. Only two hand-written pages of this novel were thought to exist, saved by her daughter who fled after her mother’s arrest. Recently, a copy of the whole novel was uncovered in the Nemirovsky archive at the Ardenne Abbey in Brittany. Nemirovsky had given her manuscript to her editor for safekeeping before she was taken, and they were preserved in this archive.
Fire in the Blood is beautifully and simply narrated by Monsieur Sylvestre, a man old enough to have lost the fire in his blood, but intelligent enough to see that fire working among the characters in and around an isolated farming village in the region of Burgundy. Coolly, he watches how infatuation, love, venality, beauty, greed and death can bring people to be consumed by that fire in their blood. I can’t say fully what it is he witnesses because for me the novel is still building towards its climax. Barely 70 pages in, and more than halfway through this short novel, I feel just like one of those villagers. I feel I understand them and I care about their fates. This book is near-perfect in the tone it finds for the telling of its story.
Just finished: Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. This is a memoir that is also a stand-up comedy routine. There are laugh-out-loud moments that are not really jokes, but situations that expose Australia and Australians to themselves. Anh Do’s story of his family purchasing a boat that left Vietnam after the war, of the pirates that ripped motors from the boats and belongings from the people, and then his account of the poverty, the hard work, occasional racism, friendships, business success and failure, and his education. This makes for one of those stories that we as Australians can somehow feel blessed to have made possible, warts and all. His more personal accounts of troubles with his father and his pursuit of the woman he loves, are touching and honest.
I am just beginning on Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. At nearly a thousand pages, it is a brick, and a strong argument for e-books. I am intending to re-read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels and stories as I work my way through this biography, so it is a project as much as it is a book to read. By the end of this year I hope to be living again inside the head of Dostoevsky. The last time I felt I was inside his mind, I was a teenager, four and a bit decades ago. In the early years of his life, Fyodor found freedom, contact with ordinary people, a feel for nature, and an escape from the demands of his emotionally erratic father on summer excursions with his mother to a farm that was purchased for no good business reason by the family. Strangely, and similarly, Ahn Do writes keenly about the way his own life opened up when his family bought a small farm (a duck farm) outside Sydney, near the sea.
I am just beginning, as well, A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell, a novel of the sea and of Africa. Like many of Mankell’s novels the prose is workmanlike (though I am depending on translations so perhaps I am not really referring to Mankell) but the heart in the writing is unmistakably alive and large. The novel begins with the harsh, poverty-ridden life of Hanna Lundmark (a part of the novel that reminds me of the life described in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites) who becomes a woman of no beauty and no particularly attractive qualities. That she marries early in the novel, and then almost immediately loses her husband at sea throws her life in a direction that, I expect, will open aspects of Africa and its moral dilemmas for me, the willing reader.
These are some of the books occupying me just now (apart from the purely academic), without mentioning other marvellous books of poetry I’ve read already this year (collections by Peter Bakowski, Tom Petsinis, Peter Boyle and Jane Williams) and other novels that have kept the bedside light burning beyond reason: Stoner by John Williams, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, Coal Creek by Alex Miller and The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower.
Kevin Brophy is the author of thirteen books of poetry, fiction and essays. His latest book is Walking: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press). He teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.