Diana Blackwood’s “Chaconne” and Christina Stead’s “For Love Alone”

Diana Blackwood’s excellent debut novel “Chaconne” explores the inner life of a young Australian woman, Eleanor Weston, on an odyssey to Europe. Eleanor’s ambition is to achieve her hopes and dreams in a life shared with a French boyfriend she met in Sydney. Eleanor is intelligent, intellectual, passionate, and of course, idealistic and naive.

chaconneausWhile the novel is set mostly in France and Germany, there is no mistaking Eleanor’s Australian identity in her response to her experiences as a “colonial” exploring Europe in the 1980’s. In terms of Australian novels, Eleanor’s struggle for “freedom” reminds me of Teresa Hawkins in Christina Stead’s classic novel, “For Love Alone” (1) published in 1944. Teresa, another Sydney girl, falls in love with her tutor who sails off to London to seek his fortune. She follows him there, and learns the hard way that he is not the man she thought he was. The experience of a colonial’s “return” is again used as a moral landscape for self exploration. Christina Stead, though, takes the further step of exploring what can happen even after the heroine chooses the right person, demonstrating that the search for love is only part of the journey. The way in which Eleanor Weston’s inner life is portrayed in “Chaconne” is particularly interesting. She is passionate about music, and constantly reflects on her new environment, and her family, including the father who departed when she was young, and her mother’s efforts to remake her life.

Eleanor’s point of view prevails in every chapter, brought to life in the third person, rather than first person, but using “free indirect style” to achieve a sense of being inside the protagonist’s head, a device apparently invented by Jane Austen. Austen’s novel “Emma”, says John Mullan (2), “bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind,” in a major innovation which came to be called “free indirect style”:

“It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first- person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.”

Diana Blackwood employs free indirect style to full effect in “Chaconne”. It enables her to achieve a strong sense of Eleanor’s courage and integrity, while allowing us an ironic view of her naivety and pedantry. Eleanour corrects the grammar of people around her, including native speakers of English. She also occupies some high moral ground, for example in the areas of vegetarianism and opposition to violence, and much else. She is never short of an opinion, nor backwards in expressing it (including an hilarious put-down of her French boyfriend’s supercilious bourgeois mother).

Sometimes, however, Eleanor tolerates behaviour she should walk away from if she was going to be true to her principles, such as bullying by domineering partners. And while she is aware of her own privileged life, she allows herself to feel contempt for the poor lurking in the shadows of the cities she inhabits, and is far too judgemental about her mother. All of which makes Eleanor a more than credible character in the novel.

Like Emma Woodhouse and Teresa Hawkins, Eleanor Weston has a good heart, and the reader continues to cheer her on to the end of the novel, where nothing much is resolved, except that we gain a sense of her renewed determination to be herself. And much of this sense is achieved by the skilful employment of the free indirect style which gave Emma and Teresa such a rounded existence. To sum up, Diana Blackwood has managed to make a witty contribution to a long line of novels exploring the coming of age theme as well as an original take on the “young Aussie in Europe” experience.

Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, Australia (2017)
ISBN 9781925272611
See it on Goodreads here
(1) Christina Stead, “For Love Alone.” Miegunyah Modern Library (2011). First published in the USA in 1944.
(2) John Mullan, “How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction.” The Guardian, 5 December 2015.

Authors and Critics

“Sean Penn’s debut novel – repellent and stupid on so many levels” 

Sian Cain, 29 March, 2018, The Guardian

“The Oscar-winning actor’s first foray into fiction, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, has met with derision online. But how bad can it be?… Penn doesn’t just swing and miss with his ambitious vocabulary; he swings and cracks a hole in reality as we know it, leaving us all unsure of the concept of a good sentence, how a novel should be structured and generally what makes sense any more…”


 Excerpts from “What the Cult of Knausgaard Tells Us About Critical Bias” 

by Becca Rothfeld, 28 April, 2015 


“[Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle] … the book is worse than dull — it’s also insultingly self-indulgent… I suspect that so many critics have worshipped at the altar of Knausgaard because there’s something very enviable about his unshakable belief in his own value…

…the privilege of writing about oneself — of passing one’s vanity off as profundity — is reserved almost exclusively for male authors. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: the likes of Knausgaard and Henry Miller get to prance around with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, looking tortured and feeling congratulatory, because they’re men, and male sentimentality is “honest” and “vulnerable,” never whiny and egotistical…

… the very format of My Struggle remains a testament to his unshakable faith in his own significance.”

Read the whole article by Becca Rothfeld here

“Insults, barbs and put downs, all in a day’s work for a book reviewer”

by D.J. Taylor, 14 December, 2016


“For the critic, even the critic of the latest B-plus-level novel, has two audiences: readers who want something to entertain them for the next couple of evenings, and that much more exacting long-term judge, posterity. It was Orwell, again, who pointed out that to do their job properly book reviewers need a spring balance simultaneously capable of weighing an elephant and a flea: some delicate mechanism that will enable them to advertise the true merits of a work that may capture the public imagination for a fortnight and gesture at the row of timeless classics that lie on the shelf behind it.”



Some Comments on “The Stolen Bicycle”, by Wu Ming-Yi

sbicycleThe opening line to Wu Ming-Yi’s novel “The Stolen Bicycle” reads: “I must describe that morning for you, because every time something is described anew it becomes meaningful anew.”

Finding new meaning is exactly what the novel sets out to do, and not only through “description”, but by exploring the lives of the protagonist’s family and friends, from childhood onwards. Wu then unveils aspects of the culture of his homeland as his characters are embroiled in events in Taiwan’s turbulent history, such as occupation by the Japanese.

The stories at the heart of the novel are allowed to emerge through observation of the many lives encountered by the protagonist in his manic search for classic bicycles, in particular a bike that once belonged to his father, who disappeared many years ago. While searching for bicycles may sound pedestrian, somehow it is a theme that leads to all sorts of adventures of discovery and encounters with a large cast of eccentrics.

The tone of the writing is both intimate and sweeping in scope, and the overall effect is deeply satisfying.

(First published by Rye Field Publishing Co., Taipei, in 2015. Published in English in 2017 by The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne. Translated by Darryl Sterk)

“Arthur and George” – an exotic novel by Julian Barnes

“Arthur and George” (published in 2005) is an example of what could be called Julian Arthur&George-newLBarnes’ “exotic” novels, as against his “suburban” ones.

His exotic novels, like “The Noise of Time” (about the famous Russian composer Shostakovich trying to survive as an artist in Soviet Russia) and “Flaubert’s Parrot” (an English doctor in France searching for a stuffed parrot supposedly once owned by Flaubert), seem more inspired and intense than the ones I would label “suburban”.

The “exotic-ness” in the three novels mentioned is derived from a foreign character (that is, a protagonist who is not Anglo-Saxon), and/or a setting somewhere abroad that is not England, and has some element of fame attached to it. For example, a famous author, a famous composer, a famous legal case.

By “suburban” I mean that novels like “Metroland”, “Before She Met Me”, and “The Sense of an Ending” feel weighed down by the tedium of suburbia experienced by the protagonists, a feeling that saturates the point of view of the narrator. Suburbia is something that you escape from, with a bit of luck, or at least manage to view from a distance, as if through the wrong end of a telescope.

And so “Arthur and George”,  although on the face of it an historical novel set in  nineteenth century rural England, is in fact a psychological study of a notorious criminal case in which George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian lawyer, is wrongfully imprisoned. George is assisted by Arthur to obtain justice in the face of racial prejudice and police corruption. The identity of Arthur is only revealed well into the book, and he turns out to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels.

The two characters stand in opposition to each other. George is a highly intelligent but eccentric and isolated man, a victim of racism. Arthur is rich and famous, with Sherlock Holmes one of the best known characters in English fiction.

Foreignness and fame both abound in this novel, and although it is set in England, it is quite “exotic” in the sense I have suggested.

The personalities of the two protagonists are finely etched, with irony and humour. And Julian Barnes allows both protagonists equal exposure, not relying on Arthur Conan Doyle’s fame to drive the narrative. In fact, Arthur is given a warts-and-all portrait in the novel, while George’s experience as a member of a racial minority who is raised in England, and regards himself as English, is tellingly depicted.

Overall, “Arthur and George” is an engrossing and disturbing account of racism causing severe injustice. The novel also manages to be witty and entertaining, despite the grim realities of the story. It was televised in 2015 in the UK, with Arsher Ali and Martin Clunes in the main roles.