“They let you dream/Just to watch ’em shatter/You’re just a step/On the boss-man’s ladder” (Dolly Parton, 9 to 5)

I’ve not done too badly with contributing to November’s plethora of reading events, despite my snail-like reading speed. Unfortunately I’m not going to manage a #MARM post, but I did find a short novel by an Australian author to squeeze in, so here on the final day of the month is my hastily written contribution to AusReadingMonth hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. At 204 pages it is just a teeny bit too long to count for #NovNov though…

I went into Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett (1958) with quite low expectations, set by the author herself 😀 In her introduction to my 1985 VMC edition, she explains “looking back on the 36-year-old Communist who wrote Bobbin Up, I am embarrassed by at her proselytising, stubborn blindness, this Antipodean Alice in Wonderland who had a protracted love affair with an idealised working class.”

However, she also acknowledges: “Sometimes sentimental, sometimes didactic, sometimes clumsy and overwritten Bobbin Up was the work of a still young writer struggling to find her own style and voice. Its form, which was criticised at the time as too episodic, seems to me to suit the subject perfectly”

As a middle-class woman who chose to work in a factory and then write about it, I was put in mind of Nell Dunn.  While both authors are open to accusations of class tourism and exploitation, I think they wrote with the best of intentions, attempting to shine a light on ignored and marginalised female workers. The novels are sixty or so years old, and these days we understand allyship differently.

These disclaimers out the way, I really enjoyed Bobbin Up. I thought it was stronger than Hewett suggested and was a compassionate portrait of the lives of women on low incomes in 1950s Sydney. Although she sets in the fictional Jumbuck Woollen Mills, the frequent references to songs playing on the radio and the sputnik gliding overhead root it firmly in a specific time.

Hewett captures the work environment in broad strokes before focussing in on particular workers:

“Women came in from everywhere, laughing and chiacking down the long, slippery aisles between the rovers, spinners, and winders. Relief healed their aching backs, relief loosened their tongues, they ran and pushed and scurried, jamming into the washroom, five minutes to change and scrub up and catch the bus to Redfern, Marrickville, Paddo, Woollahra and all points north, south, east and west.”

Their lives are hard and the women’s bodies are broken by tough, unrelenting work.

“Violet McHendry, forty-five, sharped tongued, hard as nails, was always fighting a losing battle with life in the grey, warped, weatherboard semi in Maddox Lane. But she still kept, until the day she died over her washtubs, ten years later, that peculiar girlishness, that grace of face and voice, that has nothing to do with time.”

The best time they can hope for is when they are young, still fit and might have some energy to enjoy the times when they’re not at work.

“[Beth] passed proudly and yet compassionately, conscious of her youth and motherhood. The old men stared after her, jealous of the radiance they could never share again, loafing on borrowed time, unwanted, under the dapple of poplar trees.”

There is domestic violence, self-medicating with alcohol, sixteen-year-olds being told they’ll be raped if they ‘lead men on’. But also some tender relationships, resilience and hope.

“Upstairs Lil had a view. Across the crooked slate and corrugated iron roofs of Waterloo and Redfern the Housing Commission flats stood out like a dream of luxury amidst green lawns. The sunlight slanted golden against their solid brick walls, a rainbow of mist from their water sprinklers circled them with enchantment.”

For Nell, the committed communist (presumably based on Hewitt, and she does seem to make her the most self-critical character), the hope is for a better society:

“Everything fell into place like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and the best part of it was she knew she had always been right. There was something more than the narrow, bitter, cranky world she’d been reared in. There was another world to be built, here on earth, based on the kind of brotherhood and selflessness and energy she’d seen displayed long ago in the strike in the textile mills.”

I do agree with Hewett that Bobbin Up is somewhat overwritten and clunky in places, but it wasn’t particularly torturous. Amidst the bleak subject matter, it balanced the story somewhat, without obscuring the difficulties the women face.

“You could never be lonely in Waterloo, always conscious of the myriad lives woven and interwoven with your own, breathing, battling, loving, fighting, suffering in the stifling summer dusk.”

To end, a song about the charms of women who work in factories:

“A tree’s wood is also its memoir.” (Hope Jahren)

This week I’m joining in with Nonfiction November hosted by What’s Nonfiction. Despite not being a big non-fiction reader, I’ve been inspired by the month long event and also by Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and BookishBeck. So I’m reading some short nonfiction to take part in both at once 😊

I’ve really enjoyed the novels by Deborah Levy that I’ve read: Swimming Home and Hot Milk. The first two volumes of her ‘living autobiography’ have been languishing in the TBR, so I’m grateful these two reading events prompted me to pick them up.

The first volume, Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013, 163 pages) is a response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write, using the same headings (political purpose/historical impulse/sheer egoism/aesthetic enthusiasm). However, I think it’s also very much in conversation with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, as Levy considers what it means to be a professional writer for women in the twenty-first century.

“A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.”

Yet the ‘living autobiography’ is written in the midst of events, without the distance of hindsight. This means the writing has an immediacy and is highly engaging, but there is also the discipline and consideration that comes from Levy being such a highly skilled writer.

The two sections that bookend the essay see Levy in Majorca at a time when she is deeply unhappy, finding herself crying on escalators. She escapes to Palma to think about her life, and also her art and the influence of other female artists. With Zofia Kalinska she observes:

“Content should be bigger than form – yes, but that was a subversive note to a writer like myself, who had always experimented with form, but it is the wrong note for a writer who has never experimented with form.”

While Things I Don’t Want to Know doesn’t follow a usual form for essay or memoir – it’s non-linear, never sets out a clearly-stated argument and hops between memories and broader observations – the content does remain bigger than form, because Levy’s observations are so sharp and her memories clear-sighted and unsentimental.

If I’m making this sound very heavy then I’m doing Levy a disservice, because she is humorous and has a wonderfully light touch. For example, she repeatedly returns to Duras in her artistic considerations, but wonders:

“Was Marguerite Duras suggesting that women are not so much a dark continent as a well-lit suburb?”

There is a strong feminist sensibility that runs throughout Things I Don’t Want to Know. In responding to Orwell, Levy highlights the very different experience of trying to work alongside the particular expectations and responsibilities faced by many women.

“We were to be Strong Modern Women while be subjected to all kinds of humiliations, both economic and domestic. If we felt guilty about everything most of the time, we were not sure what it was we had actually done wrong.”

In the Historical Impulse section, Levy reflects on her childhood in South Africa, where her father was imprisoned for being part of the African National Congress. As a child much of what is happening goes over her head though she also picks up on plenty; I found her portrait of her godmother’s daughter (who has to hide her relationship with her Indian boyfriend) very affecting:

“Melissa was the first person in my life who had encouraged me to speak up. With her blue painted-on eyes and blonde beehive that was nearly as tall as I was, she was spirited and brave and making the best of her lot. I couldn’t hear her but I knew her words were to do with saying things out loud, owning up to the things I wished for, being in the world and not being defeated by it.”

In the Sheer Egoism section, Levy moves to England with her family, and starts scribbling on paper napkins in cafes, not sure what she is doing but certain she has to write.

“Writing made me feel wiser than I actually was. Wise and sad. That was what I thought writers should be. I was sad anyway, much sadder than the sentences I wrote. I was a sad girl impersonating a sad girl.”

The Cost of Living sees Levy leaving her marriage and moving into a flat with her daughters. We learn very little about her husband or her marriage – which I was quite happy about – and instead Levy takes us with her as she considers what she wants from life and how she wants to live.

“Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want.”

The flat is not glamorous – visitors are creeped out by the communal areas Levy nicknames The Corridors of Love. She buys some plants, fixes her own plumbing, and works to her own hours.

“After all the heavy lifting, it was shock to be figuring out how to land the cadence of one single sentence”

Levy does not give the impression of being happy – she is grieving the breakdown of her marriage and she is very aware that she has not taken the easy choice – but she is living authentically. It is more sustainable and rewarding than fleeting happiness.

“To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom – it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.”

The strong themes of feminism, womanhood and the life of a writer established in Things I Don’t Want to Know continue through this volume. Levy has left behind the roles of Wife and Homemaker. She remains a mother but her children are older and don’t need her quite as they did.

“It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end. Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century.”

Levy is a daughter and the section about her mother dying is very moving. She is also a friend and therefore not alone: her friend Celia helps her by providing the writing shed where her late husband (the poet Adrian Mitchell) used to work. Levy writes there trying to stay warm and listening to apples thud onto the roof.

At no point is The Cost of Living didactic. Levy doesn’t suggest for one moment that anyone should make the same choices she has. The title is literal and metaphorical: she has to work to earn money as this is a very real concern, but simultaneously to feel she is truly living there has been the cost of her marriage. All choices bring associated costs.

But with the right choices those costs are price worth paying. Levy is living her truth, has friends and fun, and she finds great meaning in her work:

“It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance.”

I really loved both these volumes. Levy is so wise, funny and readable. She is never boring or pedestrian. The interesting choices she has made in life are reflected in the engaging choices she makes with her writing. I’m looking forward to reading the third volume of these memoirs, Real Estate, which was published this year.

To end, a song about a woman assessing her life choices:

“Vienna is just the best place to be.” (Conchita Wurst)

It’s November, so ‘tis the season of many wonderful reading events. Margaret Atwood Reading Month is being hosted by Buried in Print; What’s Nonfiction is hosting Nonfiction November; AusReading Month is being hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. I’m hoping to join in with them all, but I doubt I’ll be able to because my reading and blog writing is still positively sloth-like.

However, with this post I’m managing to contribute to Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and BookishBeck; and German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy  Siddal, and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. And I’m only cheating slightly by counting the same book for both 😀

Week 1 for German Literature Month is focussed on writing from or set in Austria, so I’ve picked two novels by Austrian authors who have also set their stories in Austria.

Firstly, The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (2012, trans. Charlotte Collins 2016) which at 234 pages is a short novel but a wee bit long to count for #NovNov. Set in 1937, teenage Franz leaves his lakeside home for the hustle and bustle of Vienna:

“the noise – there was an incessant roaring in the air, an incomprehensible jumble of sounds, tones and rhythms that peeled away, flowed into each other, drowned each other out, shouted, bellowed over each other. And the light. Everywhere a flickering, a sparkling, flashing and shining: windows, mirrors, advertising signs, flagpoles, belt buckles, spectacle lenses.”

He has a job as an assistant to old friend of his mother’s, working in the tobacconist’s shop. His boss Otto is non-smoker with a rather unique approach to his job:

“Reading newspapers was the only important, the only meaningful and relevant part of being a tobacconist; furthermore if you didn’t read newspapers it meant the you weren’t a tobacconist”

Despite this unpromising start, Franz’s horizons begin to widen. The newspapers give him a burgeoning political awareness, and the vibrant city offers opportunities for romance. Even the shop stock suggests vistas unknown:

“Each brand had its own particular smell, yet they all had this in common: they bore within them the aroma of a world beyond the tobacconist’s, Währingerstrasse, the city of Vienna, beyond even this country and the whole wide continent.”

Franz is a sweet and endearing character, but not sentimentalised or idealised. His earnestness and energy can be somewhat tiresome, if entirely believable. He even tests the patience of his most famous customer:

“Freud sighed. For a fraction of a second he considered yielding to the sense of anger that was welling up deep inside, and stubbing out his Hoyo on the brow of this impertinent country lad. He decided against it and puffed smoke rings into the air instead.”

I’m not usually a fan of fictionalised real people, but the friendship between the eminent psychoanalyst and the young Franz is subtly evoked and not remotely heavy-handed. Seethaler doesn’t try and shoehorn in loads of Freudian references to demonstrate how much research he’s done; Freud is shown as an aging man and very vulnerable as a Jewish person amongst the escalating political situation in Austria.

“the colossal difference between their ages automatically established the distance Freud found agreeable and which was, indeed, the thing that made close contact with the majority of his fellow humans tolerable”

The focus is primarily on Franz as he ricochets around the city, falling in and out of love, writing to his mother and growing up, all while Nazism tightens its hold. The insidious nature of this is brilliantly done through incidental details:

“In front of the town hall, children and youths were gathering in small groups. They were hanging around on corners, standing arm in arm, blocking the pavements or running across the square, laughing and shouting, waving hats and swastika flags.”

Until suddenly it’s not incidental anymore. Violence explodes, Franz has to deal with the Gestapo, people disappear, and Freud is persuaded to leave his home forever…

The Tobacconist is a tragedy that never portrays itself as such. It tells a deeply ordinary story – despite the famous person in its midst – and uses the reader’s knowledge of history to fill in the gaps. It’s a brilliant technique, because it takes a protagonist we all recognise, having all been teenagers discovering a wider world at some point, and places him inescapably within the brutality of a genocide, making historical events resonate on a personal level.

There is an ambiguity to the ending of The Tobacconist which rather than being frustrating I thought entirely apt. Under a brutal regime, so often people have to live with not knowing.

“For it was well known that waiting and seeing was always the best, perhaps even the only way to let various troubles of the times flow past and leave you unscathed.

Secondly, I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, (1933, trans. Ignat Avsey 2013) which in my Pushkin Press edition is 203 pages but they are not standard size, and when it was published in a Pushkin Vertigo edition it was 160 pages, so counts for Novellas in November – hooray!

A disclaimer to start, because although I enjoyed I Was Jack Mortimer a great deal, I thought the fundamental premise was completely silly.

Spooner is a young cab driver who at the start of the novel is stalking a young woman – so far, so yuck. Then a man gets into his cab, but by the end of the journey the passenger has been shot dead, without Spooner hearing or seeing a single thing.

“Spooner stood in the middle of the room, and the events of the past minutes raced through his mind, like short, randomly edited film clips; the dead man, the speeding cars, the news stand, the dead man, the carriageway, the blood, the dead man, the streets, the dead man.”

What would you do? I think almost entirely everyone would go to the police. But this wouldn’t make much of a thriller, as the police would take the story out of your hands and you’d have to go back to smoking with the other cabbies, boring them with the story, and being creepy towards women.

So instead, for reasons best known to himself, Spooner disposes of the body and starts to inveigle himself into the man’s life.

“he was pretty sure that as soon as the crime was discovered it’d be put at his door, so that in the end he began to feel as though he had in fact perpetrated it himself. And had he really been the murderer, in all probability he wouldn’t have been behaving any differently from the way he was now.”

I Was Jack Mortimer is a really enjoyable thriller, if you can get past the unbelievable set-up of Spooner’s decision-making. I just put that element to one side and allowed the pacy writing to carry me along as Spooner gets increasingly out of his depth. The 1930s and the city of Vienna are beautifully evoked with a wonderful sense of time and place.

The trouble with writing about thrillers is that you can say practically nothing for fear of spoilers. What I will say is that towards the end Spooner has the following epiphany:

“All I needed to do was go to the police and report I had a dead person in the car and didn’t know who shot him, and in the end they’d have had to believe me and I’d have been released. Instead, I’ve done just the opposite and have landed myself in no end of a mess.”

Well, quite.

“One doesn’t step into anyone’s life, not even a dead man’s, without having to live it to the end.”

To end, I tried to find a trailer for one of the film adaptations of I Was Jack Mortimer, but failed. So instead a chance for me to totally indulge myself with the trailer for my most favouritest-ever film, which is set in post-war Vienna: