In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

September 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Granny's Good Reads

Robert Dessaix, like David Malouf, is a genial writer. He invites you into his company, amazes you with his erudition and disarms you with his humour. The Pleasures of Leisure, his latest book, is indeed a pleasure to read—from its inviting cover to its genial contents. He begins in Darjeeling at the Mayfair, an establishment with hand-embroidered sheets, where he is sitting by a window looking out at the thick fog. Despite the fog his fellow guests busily get on with seeing the sights. This sets him thinking about leisure. Do we, he says, really enjoy our leisure? Don’t we rather put a premium on being busy? Pushed to extremes, isn’t this like opting for enslavement? Why not, for a change, do nothing, or try a bit of people-watching, or go for a walk with no destination in mind? He then invites you to think about the gentle activities of nesting, grooming, gardening and cultivating friendships, and extols the joys of reading, for me the Prince of Pleasures. This is an elegant and amusing book with chapter headings like ‘loafing’, ‘doing nothing’ and ‘non-competitive play and hobbies’. In this last category Dessaix has things like learning Italian, knitting a sweater, or ‘at the fluffier end of the spectrum’, dressing up as a knight or a hobbit or collecting Coca-Cola bottles. 
One time, thinking he was dying, Dessaix treated himself to a first-class plane trip around the world and found himself sitting next to a millionaire who did busywork all the way. The millionaire asked him: ‘What do you do?’ and was greatly nonplussed at the reply: ‘Nothing. I do absolutely nothing.’ A marvellous read.

In 2010 Ailsa Piper, writer, teacher, theatre director and one-time actor, walked 1,300 kilometres across Spain from Granada to Galicia. Her destination was the pilgrimage shrine of St James at Compostela. She partly paid for her walk by offering, for a modest fee, to carry people’s sins in her swag along with her spare socks: ‘the seven deadlies a speciality’. The resulting delightful book Sinning Across Spain brought her plaudits and fan mail. An e-mail from Catholic priest Tony Doherty caught her interest, she replied and an unlikely epistolary friendship was the result. Doherty had himself walked parts of the Camino several times, but he felt that sins were his territory and she was encroaching. Some of their e-mails have been collected in a charming book called The Attachment. At first glance the pair make unlikely friends. Ailsa is a good 26 years younger than Tony, he is a man of faith and she a lapsed Catholic, and she was born on a sheep station in Western Australia while he is a born and bred Sydneysider. But similarities gradually emerged: their liking for the poetry of Mary Oliver, a preference for ritual, a common interest in food and good conversation, and above all a shared sense of humour. During the course of the correspondence each endured a bereavement—he of a much loved brother, she when her beloved husband died suddenly while she was away from home on a writing engagement. They both found the sexual abuse scandal in the church scarifying and sometimes argued over the best way to deal with it. This book made me reflect on the priceless worth of friendship: Ailsa and Tony took the time to stop for each other, look over the fence into each other’s very different worlds and find enrichment in the process. Highly recommended.
I’ve always thought A Change in the Lighting was Amy Witting’s best novel and I am grateful to Text Classics for re-issuing it with a foreword by Ashley Hay. It begins with Ella sitting up in bed watching her husband knot his tie. He calmly announces that they can’t go on like this and that after 32 years of marriage he wants a divorce so that he can marry the young colleague with whom he is having an affair. Ella’s pleasant life in their lovely home, cooking beautiful meals, making lamingtons for charity and being the ideal mother to their three children ends with that knot of hubby’s tie. The best $12.95 I ever spent.

My bedside book this month is Music at Midnight by John Drury, a biography of George Herbert with insightful comments on Herbert’s poems. This is a perfect introduction to a 17th century parson-poet whose verse has never gone out of fashion. An excellent companion-piece to this book would be Ronald Blythe’s Divine Landscapes, provided you can get hold of a second-hand copy. Incidentally, Vikram Seth now owns Herbert’s old rectory at Bemerton.   Sonia   

In Praise of the New

It’s my opinion that being artistic is not a licence for bad behaviour, and the more I read about some artists I like, the less I like them. Augustus John was much lauded in his day, and was indeed a great portrait painter and draughtsman, but he wreaked havoc along the way, leaving a trail of broken hearts and many babies. His first wife, Ida Nettleship, was the daughter of a well known animal painter, John Nettleship, and an artist in her own right. Much to her parents’ chagrin she married Augustus John, and had five sons in quick succession, sadly dying after the birth of the last one. In the meantime her husband had brought a third person into the marriage—Dorelia, an artist’s model and friend of his sister Gwen. The letters in The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John, edited by Michael Holroyd and Rebecca John, describe Ida’s brief life far more vividly than any biography. Obviously they were never meant for publication, and they were letters written over several years, mainly to her friends, her sisters and her mother. Ida had no time for painting, having been so quickly plunged into Bohemian domesticity—but she was a wonderful writer, and she maintained a really absorbing interest in making clothes (her mother having been a very fine dressmaker). Augustus John was in fact very successful early on in his career, and it’s fascinating to read about the financial transactions between the artist and the art buyers. It’s also rather hard to see the appeal of the artist from this distance. This book has been really well edited, with helpful asides by the editors.

, by Goldie Goldbloom, is a novel based on the life of Augustus John’s sister, Gwendolyn Mary John. The facts of her life are woven through this story, which is written in roughly three parts. Gwen John studied at the Slade with Ida Nettleship, and was a very fine artist also. She went to Paris and modelled for, and studied with Rodin, and continued to paint throughout her life, while not exhibiting after 1926, (she died in 1939). Her reputation has grown since her death, but in her life, her career was greatly overshadowed by her brother. Gwen is a work of imagination, it has a dreamlike quality, and it’s quite hard to sort fact from fiction. Gwen did fall in love with Dorelia, just as her brother had done, and the two of them walked across France, intending to reach Rome. But it seems most unlikely that they walked barefooted, stealing clothes from clotheslines en route as they do in Goldbloom’s retelling. Somehow, Dorelia peels off, and Gwen is in Paris, modelling for Rodin, with whom she falls in love with. Again, it’s really hard to see the attraction of the artist, and the torrid interludes between them both seem unlikely and really unseemly. Also, whether Gwen John and her brother had the deeply incestuous relationship that the author describes in detail, is questionable—and it adds to the tiresomely salacious tone of this book. Rodin describes Gwen as ‘anorexic’ as a way of explaining some of her behaviour—she suffers delusions and hallucinations, and she foresees the Holocaust of WW2 by hallucinating Jewish children whom she is convinced are real. Gwen John was a great artist, and she led a truly interesting life, it’s a shame that this books indulges so much in its more prurient aspects. Louise

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