“STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.

The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.

Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:

“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”

Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.

“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”

Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.

“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”

The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.

“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”

And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:

In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.

A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.

“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”

Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:

“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”

As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.

“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”

The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.

To end, what else?

43 thoughts on ““STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

  1. I too was moved by Abramovic’s event, and the encounter with her ex-husband. I had not heard about tMoML but will definitely getting a copy – thanks so much for the review. TNWoT sounds extremely brutal, but I am keen to push myself towards literature that my instincts tell me to avoid, so will add this to the TBR list too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad my recommendations didn’t fall flat!

    I could watch videos of The Artist is Present on loop – they’re so weirdly mesmerizing. Have you seen the one where Ulay sits? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLbFugaFyAA As part of my counselling study, we spend a lot of time dissecting presence and congruence and silence, and during all of those discussions I keep thinking about Marina. An extraordinary project.

    In regards to TNWOT, all of the women had experienced things that had been in the Australian news within the few years before the book was published. It was easy to recognise the particular cases and Wood was unapologetic about that – the sad fact is that although readers in Australia could identify the particulars, I bet you could also come up with similar examples in the UK. And someone in the US could do the same. And so on and so on… Anyway, one day when we have that gin and tonic IRL and discuss books, the first thing on the agenda will be the ENDING of TNWOT – I’m sure you had lots of thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your recommendations never fall flat, which is why so much of my TBR is due to you 🙂

      I haven’t seen that clip, I think I may fall down a The Artist is Present YouTube hole for a considerable time… Silence is incredibly powerful, and a difficult thing at times. I’m not a counsellor (I’m considering training in the next few years) but I work in a therapeutic setting and silence is something I’ve felt more comfortable with as I’ve got more confident in what I’m doing. It’s so interesting how lack of noise can have just as many layers, textures and meaning as speech.

      Sadly, although the examples in TNWOT weren’t specific to the UK, I can all too easily come up with similar examples, which is a bleak thought. I think the ending will take us through several G&Ts – it absolutely floored me!

      Thank you for putting 2 such brilliantly written, powerful books on my radar 🙂

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      • Thank you *blushes*

        The Artist is Present is a great hole to fall down – so weirdly relaxing watching the clips. Once you’re done with that, find the doco about her Great Wall of China piece with Ulay – it’s bananas (I’m sure it’s on YouTube). For some reason, I watched it with my 13yo – he didn’t know the outcome and when the doco finished after about an hour he just looked at me with a look of “Whaaaaaat?!” 😀

        One of the most important things I’ve learnt about silence (in a counselling setting) is to fight the urge when you’re about to say something and instead, count to five in your head. I do it regularly and those seconds feel eternal but every single time, it’s that moment when the client says something new or has a breakthrough. It’s the best bit of advice I’ve been given – so simple, so valuable and, as you said, highlights the ‘textures’ of silence.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Both of your Stella Prize picks sound amazing. And I don’t remember hearing any grumbling about their worthiness, which I can’t say about the Booker prize winners. Or some of the others.
    So far, I haven’t seen either of them around here, but I will be keeping my eye out. One of these days…

    Liked by 1 person

    • They really are great novels, and great reads – you’re right, they don’t fall foul of that worthiness complaint that often gets made about the Booker winners.

      I had The Museum of Modern Love shipped from Australia (in those heady days before my book buying ban!) and it was very quick. Just saying…. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The video of Abramovic is fascinating. It’s such a simple thing, isn’t it, on one level to sit opposite someone and look into their eyes. And yet … I always think eye contact on the tube is interesting, that unspoken dance. I will let you look at me while I look away and then I will look at you etc…etc When there’s no space looking directly at someone can feel like an act of aggression.I remember enjoying looking at Tilda Swinton asleep in a glass tank many years ago. It was lovely but she had her eyes firmly closed!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a brilliant piece of work because it is so simple and the effect is so powerful. Yes, eye contact on the tube is fascinating – Dara O’Briain does a funny piece about refusing to turn to face the doors in a lift and instead looking inwards and making eye contact with everyone – it would be so disconcerting if someone actually did that 😀 I wanted to see that Tilda Swinton piece but I wasn’t in London at the right time. I think she was probably right to keep her eyes shut!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, one of my favourite movie scenes of all time! Scottish Ballet did a production of Streetcar a few years ago and I, and the rest of the audience, were thrilled that they kept “Stella! Stella!” in – it wouldn’t have been the same without it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The Natural Way of Things is one of my all time favourite novels. I consider Charlotte Wood to be some kind of demi-god after reading that. The Stella Prize list is always something special and I love the way every year it’s marketed in such an accessible and unpretentious way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s so incredibly powerful, it’s definitely worthy of all accolades. I agree, The Stella Prize seems to take a different approach and it really pays off. It doesn’t alienate readers, which you’d think would always be the point but which other prizes seem to forget!

      Liked by 1 person

    • It really is so powerful. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. I’m very glad to be contributing to the TBR piles, as it helps redress the balance with my own teetering stack, which has been added to by so many great bloggers 🙂

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  7. Both of these sound extraordinary. I’ve been really moved by the clips I’ve seen of this art work, so the book sounds intriguing. I can see why you wished you’d read it last though, The natural way of things sounds utterly terrifying!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The Natural Way of Things sounds terrifying and instantly made me remember the short but powerful debut novel of Douglas Kennedy called The Dead Heart, it was a book club choice years ago when it first came out and very much like this premise except that its a young man who is picked up by a women, so a kind of reversal of what this novel depicts and ironically written by a man – I wonder if that says anything about people’s perceptions?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Man alive they sound good, and heavy! I’d never usually pick up TNWOT but the premise sounds fascinating, I want to see how it’s constructed.

    The Simpsons episode with Streetcar and Marge as Blanche and Flanders as Stanley (??) means whenever someone shouts ‘Stella’ I hear Homer outside the theatre shouting ‘Marge!’. It’s a curse.

    Liked by 1 person

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