Earlier this year I was required to re-read a number of books. Re-reading isn’t something I tend to do because I always have a shelf-bending number of unread books awaiting me and, well, life and eyesight is finite. This time I needed to revisit some Modernist texts for a unit I was teaching at a local university. I was unprepared for the subsequent outbreak of nostalgia, triggered by the memories of studying Modernism as a wide-eyed twenty year old. The joy of these recollections was tempered by a more elegiac mood in which I mourned the demise of the expansive liberal arts degree I had enjoyed in the 1980s, a time when an English unit was allocated an entire year, instead of the paltry thirteen weeks it is now.
I grumbled about this phenomenon to the students, many of whom seemed quite happy to be done with Modernism in a mere semester. Undeterred, I exhorted them to read the two (yes, only two) novels set for the course—and to continue beyond this. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway they confidently took to, and most of them enjoyed the book. At the same time, I implored them to read the other novel, James Joyce’s rather heftier Ulysses, a prospect at which many of them baulked. As an attempt to engage them with a shared tale of reading in travail, I related my own experience of reading the novel for the first time. This took place in a wheat sampling hut at a grain receival facility at the tiny town of Doodlakine, two and a half hours east of Perth. Perched several meters above the ground in a tin hut during skin-withering heat, I worked my way through Ulysses over several weeks. My literary wanderings through Dublin were necessarily interrupted by the sampling, weighing and measuring of wheat, all the while trying to avoid dehydration and heat stroke. I like to think of it as a doubly impressive feat of endurance. (For the record, I don’t think my ploy worked. Only a tiny percentage of the students finished Ulysses.)
After handing back the last essays, and tallying up the marks, I rewarded myself with a new book, Maria Takolander’s The Double. This volume of short stories continued my reading induced nostalgia, but in a slightly different way. Takolander’s stories bear titles of well-known works including ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘The War of the Worlds’ and ‘The Three Sisters’. The author takes the title as her launching point, from which she creates her own exquisitely balanced and entirely original narrative. It’s by no means easy reading. I began with ‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’ and the grisly (and gristly) image on the first page almost made me put the book aside:
Dad’s mouth was smeared with blood…He was panting. Mum was looking into her lap, where she was squeezing her left fist with her right hand. I could see the thumb sticking out, flesh hanging off and blood streaming down.
I am, I admit, a cowardly reader. I am still recovering from Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea, and I couldn’t get past page two of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In this case I armed myself with a strong cup of tea and read on. I was rewarded with fluid prose and intriguing plots in the first six stories, but it was ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ which plunged me back into a nostalgic state. While reading Takolander’s story I regressed, not only from my present forty-something self, back to being an uncertain twenty-something arts student, and even beyond to the anxious nail biting teenager who staggered through high school with unfashionable hair (think A Flock of Seagulls’ lead singer, but worse) and a deep desire to never again play team sport or sit in a concreted quadrangle. It was the best of—well, no, it was just the worst of times.
‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ is set in the 1980s, as was my purgatorial high school experience, and her evocation of the molar jangling awkwardness of adolescence is compelling in its verisimilitude. Takolander employs the Oedipus complex as a framework for a deceptively simple plot, but one surrounded by a Grimpen mire of dark possibilities. It is narrated by a character who appears to be somewhere on the Asperger/Autism spectrum, whose mother is severely ill with an eating disorder and whose father inflicts the music of Dire Straits on his already traumatised family (I am still recovering from the spine-numbing dullness of the Brothers in Arms concert in 1985, so I could only sympathise). Despite the grim subject matter, Takolander’s lightness of touch saves the story from being maudlin or didactic, leaving the reader negotiating a beautifully woven tightrope strung between tragedy and comedy.
I have spent most of my reading life consuming novels, yet it is this short story collection that stands out most vividly from what I have read in the last four or five years. Maria Takolander’s re-writing of these seminal titles is indeed worthy of the indulgence of re-reading and I know I will return to these unsettling but elegant stories. Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway on the other hand have been re-shelved with their contemporaries, Howards End, Pilgrimage, Victory and A Passage to India, awaiting their call up to the re-reading ranks, time and eyesight allowing. As for Yukio Mishima, I dispatched him to the second hand shop years ago.
Lynette Field is a Perth-based writer whose poetry has appeared in Australian Book Review. She is currently working on a novel which promises to be far less hefty than Ulysses.
13 Feb 14 at 0:58
After discovering your blog I simply must read Takolander!