Brian Castro

Lucien Gracq, the hero of Brian Castro’s verse novel Blindness and Rage, wishes to be a writer, though he has written only love letters to women, which achieved tragicomic results, or none at all. When Gracq retires from his job as a town planner in Adelaide, it seems he will have the time and freedom to write the epic he has dreamed of, but he is diagnos ...

The authors of the stories in Breaking Beauty are graduates of the University of Adelaide, which Brian Castro (a professor there) reminds us in his introduction is ‘the first and best creative writing college in the country’. However, as an advertisement for creative writing at Adelaide University, this collection has limited success. While the contributors’ biographical notes are impressive – most have published a book, and there are winners of major national awards – the quality of the stories is uneven. J.M. Coetzee’s testimonial points to this with his focus on ‘the best of the writers in this collection [who] take us outside our comfortable selves’. Indeed, some of the best – like Stefan Laszczuk’s ‘The Window Winder’ with its image of decapitated heads kissing, Sean Williams’s ‘The Beholders’ as a clever Twilight Zone-esque tale of aesthetics, and Katherine Arguile’s beautiful ‘Wabi Sabi’ with its magical realist components – are masterful explorations of the uncanny.

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At the age of fourteen, Brendan Costa, not Brian Castro, visits a fortune teller. The Witch predicts a fortunate life, though one afflicted by a lack of awareness that may lead to loss of control and possible disaster. Castro is warning the reader to pay attention or lose the plot.

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Living as a displaced person in Berlin during the early 1930s was no picnic, especially if you happened to have a Jewish wife. This was the situation Vladimir Nabokov found himself in, so it is hardly surprising that at one point he considered emigrating to Australia. Had he done so, how different would our literature look today? Perhaps we would have more novels like Brian Castro’s latest, for The Bath Fugues is so stylish, cosmopolitan, sinister and funny that it could justly be called Nabokovian in its lineage. This is not so much a departure for Castro as an amplification. His narrators have always been a slippery bunch and his prose invariably lavish, but rarely has his tone been as darkly comic as it is in this new novel.

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For there is always going on within us a process of formulation and interpretation whose subject matter is our own selves.

These words appear towards the end of Erich Auerbach’s study of representation in Western literature, Mimesis. First published in 1946, the book has become a classic of twentieth-century literary criticism, but is almost as famous for the circumstances under which it was composed as for its content. It was written between 1942 and 1945 in Istanbul, where Auerbach, a German Jew, was living in exile.

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If we lived in the kind of country – and there are some – where people not only chose their presidents but chose as leaders poets, philosophers and novelists, a new novel by Brian Castro would be a sensation, even a political event. Students would be hawking pirated copies, queues would form outside bookshops, long debates would steam up the coffee shops, and the magazines would be full of it. Alas, China and Australia from the 1930s to the 1960s, where Castro takes us in memory, were not such places then any more than they are now.

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The Australian literary scene has always been more depressing that it is lively, especially when critics and writers are quick to display their battle scars in public places where oftentimes the debate hardly rises above fawning or fighting. The walking wounded are encouraged to endure. This is about the only encouragement extant. I remember the Simpson episode, not O.J. but Bart, who arrived in Australia for a kick up the bum. Perhaps the emulation of Britain has reached such an unconscious proportion that no ground can be explored beyond the grid bounded by Grub Street and Fleet Street, where youngsters need to be caned for reasons more prurient than wise, and where small ponds become the breeding pools for goldfish pretending to be piranhas dishing up more of the same stew. Thus, British writing, apart from its internationalists, hath come to this sad pass. Or where, given the brashness of being itself a young nation unused to finesse, Australia’s grand ideals end up as populist opinion – a talkback republic of letters irrelevant to its real enemies.

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Drift by Brian Castro

by
July 1994, no. 162

You can’t help wondering which came first for Brian Castro – the theme/structure of his new novel or the M. C. Escher woodcut reproduced on its cover. It doesn’t seem possible that such an organic match should be fortuitous, although one of Escher’s soubriquets is ‘the poet of the impossible’, and among writers Castro is a prime candidate to share the title. Now that it has been drawn to my attention it is also of course obvious that the seaside hotel in After China was built to Escher specifications.

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Wolves and goats. The goats represent the ego. They control time, represent culture, continuity, the status quo. They live in the grandfather clock that is at once history and the records of the psychoanalyst. The wolves are the id, the unconscious, desire. They are also reason, and they triumph over time. The Wolf-Man led Freud to his understanding of the war of the id on the ego. Freud identified as neurotics those who, unable to live with the war, regress to the instinctive, the primitive, the animal.

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In last month’s Telecom Australian Voices essay, Robert Dessaix discussed the ways in which multiculturalism divides up the Australian literary scene, concluding that “in a word, it’s time our multicultural professionals stopped marginalising multicultural writers”. The response of Sneja Gunew, who was quoted in that essay, is printed in its entirety here, along with other letters prompted by the essay.

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