20 July, 2009

'Turner's Paintbox' - Paul Morgan

Novels based around the life and works of a renowned artist can go one of two ways: either the story unravelling as the reader learns about the influences and motivations of artistic genius; or the reader discovers how much the author knows about their chosen subject, without it doing too much to enhance the story.

Richard Flanagan's Wanting achieves the former as it interlaces the late years of Charles Dickens with the establishment of the Van Diemen's Land penal colony (an unexpected link, but one that works). Paul Morgan's Turner's Paintbox achieves the latter. It is more in the vein of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, which was littered with references to classical musicians and interpretations of scores: the characters' differing interpretations sometimes served a point; the same could not be said for his obsession with antique furniture.

Morgan's protagonist is Gerald, an art dealer who began his career at the National Gallery of NSW cataloguing an exhibition featuring the works of J.M.W. Turner found in Australia. Morgan explores episodes of Turner's life sporadically throughout the novel. Initially, the two townscapes - modern Sydney and Victorian London - are contrasted, a juxtaposition soon overtaken by the enormous gulf between Gerald and his new lover, Julia.

The Turner episodes, however, are fragmented and within them the narrative tone changes notably. This is inevitable as they move the story from first to third person narration, but the voice presented is a didactic one, telling the reader things about Turner, rather than developing him as a character who could then counterpoint or reflect what is unfolding in the Sydney storyline.

Morgan's style is often overwrought, invoking similes for description when character action could have served the same purpose. Out walking one morning Gerald notes that '[t]he path materialised in front of me like a ghostly rug, and I could hear the water splashing with gentle phosphoresence'. Hearing phospherence? A pretty turn of phrase, but one that doesn't bear much scrutiny.

It's tough to like Gerald: he's pretentious, arrogant, self-absorbed and borderline unfaithful. At a gallery in New York, Gerald mentions Frech artist Jean Cocteau, to which Julia replies with a reference to Jacques Costeau. Gerald notes, 'I smiled at her confusion of Costeau's name but said nothing'. Is this a character note - another reason to dislike - or Morgan revealing more of his own knowledge?

Gerald considers a fling while away from Julia in London. He resists, but toys with regret, and is buoyed in his decision by the realisation that he didn't find the lady so attractive after all. When he discovers that Julia did have a fling while he was gone, he is disgusted, and ends the relevant chapter saying, 'I discovered the splinter of ice inside my heart...and with a raised eyebrow and icy silences...I began to bend Julia to my will'.

Presenting a narrator with double standards is fine, though a little unsavoury, but there's no counterpoint, no repercussion to that action to let the audience believe that Gerald (or Morgan) grew as a character because of it. Maybe he truly doesn't see the hyprocrisy of it. Gerald does reveal some of our less-admirable relationship traits, but again, without an impartial narrator - as a first person novel we hear only Gerald's perspective - no third party is present to moderate the message Morgan might be presenting.

I'm intrigued, too, by the gender roles in the novel. Imagine if the last line of that chapter had one extra letter, making it Julian, not Julia, and our author was Paula Morgan. To be successful, with that kind of 'domineering' female protagonist, the book would have to be written and classified as a Gemmellesque sex piece. Something about literary marketing and readers' tastes says unlikeable, unfair, irrascible male characters are acceptable. Women too often have to be downtrodden or grotesquely exaggerated to take centre stage.

11 July, 2009

'Revolutionary Road' - Richard Yates

To read Revolutionary Road is to be reminded that brilliance as a writer does not guarantee longevity. Yates' novel is a splendid one, yet it was out of print before Sam Mendes adapted it, and cast his glowing wife Kate Winslet as the acerbic April Wheeler, a woman who procures a drastic end to her angered marriage to Frank.

This is not April's story, however. This is the story of a man trapped into the social expectations of the affluent, post-war America of the fifties. The Wheelers' revolution is to decide to move to Paris where, more shockingly, April will be the main money-earner as Frank endeavours to determine what it is he wants to do with his intelligence, and his good fortune to have been born that most wonderful of things, a man (a title both bestowed on and withdrawn from him by April).

The backgrounds of both characters tell us that they have never been offered, or felt comfortable offering, unmitigated love. Their marriage, while initially affectionate and passionate, is a practical thing. The great, unspoken fear many of us harbour comes true for them, as they grow to hate exactly the aspects of one another that originally drew them together.

Both the Wheelers and their neighbours the Campbells have children, but they are mainly silenced within the story. Shep Campbell at one point walks through his house and is 'halfway across the living room before he realised he had four sons'. Procreation has its own associations with both the genders: a man is emasculated if he cannot bear children; a woman is too often limited by her ability to do so. Both these social constructs are played out in April and Frank's relationships to their children in the novel.

Yates demonstrates an extraordinary connection to words. On just the fifth page, I knew how rewarding this book would be when he described the atmosphere of the amateur dramatics rehearsals April attended:

At first their reheasals had been held on Saturdays -- always, it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white, the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shrivelled snow.

The language is very much that of a certain style of American literature, where characters drawl things like 'Well, I guess that really is a whole lotta nonsense', with the last word pronounced with equal stress on each syllable. It is Gatsbyesque, but the mirror here is in front of more prosaic social issues: how and where we live, where and why we work, whether or not we love those we have chosen to share our lives with. It indirectly questions what America gained in coming out the 'victor' from its role in the great wars, and how it has squandered it - topics that still resonate, and will continue to for some time.

05 July, 2009

The Breakfast Club

206 St Georges Road, Northcote; 0418 379 911

It's amazing what a cafe can do in a small space to sate suburbanites. Amazing too just how many gorgeous sets of retro crockery are around for said cafes to utilise to good effect.

This tiny cafe, tucked away amidst flats, houses and the odd shop on St Georges Rd could one day be as definitive as its namesake film. There may only be three or four tables inside, but the menu makes up for the lack of seating choice.

For breakfast, try the Cinna: how about stewed fruits mixed with yoghurt, served up with souvenir teaspoon in a glass bowl for ladling over cinnamon toast. Or if you want the savoury side of things, try more make-your-own-fun with sourdough, avocado, delightful pesto, wonderful persian feta and cherry toms. Oh the combinations! Pesto + feta, avocado + tomato, or all four slathered in appropriate proportions.

Cafe Supreme supplies the coffee and the Club make it well. It's worth ordering tea though, just to see what special pot it will come out in.

I returned not long after our first visit as I just couldn't get the idea of their Banarama dish out of my head: sourdough toast with cream cheese, banana, cinnamon, honey and if you fancy (and why wouldn't you?) Nutella. I thought this serve would be way beyond my capacities, but I was wrong. I could have gone another slice. My only criticism is that is was a bit light on with the honey, but no such problems with the spreadable chocolate. SG went the Nana Date on this occasion: date and banana bread that comes out dense and dark, but sits light and sweet on the tummy.

Lomond Hotel

225 Nicholson St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 1752

It's amazing what can hide behind the walls of a corner pub. You might wonder on occasion if the Lomond Hotel is still open - it doesn't flaunt itself and neither does the clientele.

When you do step inside, however, there's something of a tardis effect. To one side is a linen-and-silver-cutlery restaurant with a high-end menu. Through another door is a room with bar at one end and stage at the other, the latter occupied several times a week with bands of the blues, roots or Celtic variety.

Round the back is a gaming room and further round again is a lighter space that could be a living room with the added advantage of delivered food.

It's good food, too, and shows the same diversity as the venue. A small blackboard spruiks pub snacks like a toasted sandwich for a fiver (spot on mid-afternoon with a pot of Fat Yak). The larger blackboard stretches through starters, vegetarian options, mains and pub favourites. So there's fish and chips, but also sweet potato fritters; Thai curry as well as bangers and mash.

SG and I both went the red meat option. For him, scotch fillet with herbed butter, chips and salad. For me, beef fillet on mash with quince jus and rocket and parmesan salad. Not at all what I'd expected from a unpretentious pub at the end of a tram route and across from a burger joint. The meat on both dishes was cared for - juicy, pink, succulent. The quince jus was the perfect complement, the peppery, lightly dressed salad providing contrast.

Staff were friendly and the patrons look so comfortable they may well have bar stools and frequent visits from performing bands in their own homes. If you ever find yourself at the end of the 96 tram route, at least there's a good way to pass some time while waiting for the next southbound.