Harvill Secker

Now over seventy, Benoîte Groult of the fierce name and fiercer disposition, has written a delightful story about sex and desire that is sure to turn heads. Its central character is a woman named George – as in Sand, and she is small and chic like that writer. (If you thought that George Sand was a formidable hulk of a woman with coarse hair and thin lips, this book points out that she was a little woman, with tiny feet, apparently.) The other half of the story is Gavin Lozerech, or at least that’s what he’s called for the purposes of this retelling of their passionate, life-long love affair. George toyed with Kevin, Tugdual and Brian Boru before she chose the pseudonym Gavin, as in the Gawain of the Breton cycle.

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Civilisations by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor

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September 2021, no. 435

Acclaimed as the most original novel of the 2019 rentrée littéraire, and recipient of the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française, Laurent Binet’s most recent book, Civilisations (2019), is a cleverly crafted uchronia, or speculative fiction. The author is inviting us on an epic journey that devises alternative key moments in history, from a Viking tale to an Italian travel diary, and from the Inca chronicles to the capricious destiny of Cervantes. Let the adventure of counterfactuals begin …

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Once, during a teaching exchange in Germany, I found myself learning as much from my students as I was trying to teaching them. This is not unusual. Delivering my thoughts to others, and then having them modified during discussions, helps me to understand what I want to say. By the end of the class, I begin to see what I probably should have known from the start.

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‘Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked ... He had the clear, alluring voice of a doo-wop baritone. Not at all what you would expect.’ The eight short stories in First Person Singular are exactly what a reader has come to expect from Haruki Murakami, a writer with a penchant for neo-surrealism. The parabolic tales in this collection explore the familiar tropes and motifs of his oeuvre, including loneliness, outsiderness, chance encounters, music (classical, jazz and the Beatles), and memories. While Murakami might not be breaking new ground here, it is still a magical experience to return to his whimsical, eccentric, and enigmatic reimagining of Japan.

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How does consciousness, the feeling of what happens, emerge from the object that Tim Parks describes in this engaging book as ‘a gruesome pinkish grey, vaguely intestinal lump’? Is mind identical with brain, is it secreted by it in some fashion, or does it, as some philosophers suggest, mysteriously ‘supervene’ on ...

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A recent exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art included two videos of scenes from modern Japanese life that at first seemed ordinary, even banal. In one, the artist Tabaimo (Ayako Tabata) animates the interior of a train, with views of passing suburbs; in the other, she shows a mansion from a bygone century, opening like a doll’s house to display its plush furnishings. But then things begin to change. Human body parts appear on the train’s luggage racks, an egg on the floor explodes, and the view of the next carriage morphs into a caged prison. Squid-like tentacles penetrate the house, a door opens to reveal a pulsating brain, and a torrent of water pours out. The climax of the train video shows a man lying on the track becoming a red sun on a white screen; the doll’s house one ends with the flood subsiding, and the two halves of the building closing up. The restored street frontage is bland, but no less puzzling.

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Here and Now by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee & Distant Intimacy by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein

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June 2013, no. 352

The recent publication of Willa Cather’s letters caused a stir in the United States. The American author, surprisingly underrated here, had explicitly and repeatedly said she did not want her letters made public. Some believe her wishes should be respected; others say the demands of history are greater than those of a long-dead individual.

This, of course, points to part of the allure of reading the private letters of famous people. Through them, we glimpse multiple facets of personalities that have been airbrushed by publicists: the grumpy and the affectionate, the outrageous and the encouraging, the truly intelligent and the superficially smug. We get flashes of insight into political and artistic decision-making and delicious celebrity gossip. Half of it would be actionable if everyone involved were not already dead.

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A smattering of cultural theory is helpful when reading Gail Jones. The academic bones of her writing always show through the thin padding of her concept-driven stories: deconstructed photography in Sixty Lights (2005), technology and intimacy entwined in Dreams of Speaking (2006). It is more than disconcerting when the narrator of Jones’s third novel, Sorry, starts to interrogate the text with the aplomb of a Cultural Studies postgraduate, especially as the said narrator, Perdita, is a twelve-year-old girl living in Perth, in 1942, curled up in bed with a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ‘Since the first reader is the author,’ Perdita thinks to herself, ‘might there be a channel, somehow, between author and reader, an indefinable intimacy, a secret pact? There are always moments, reading a novel, in which one recognises oneself, or comes across a described detail especially and personally redolent; might there be in this covert world, yet another zone of connection?’

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These writer’s scribblings, handsomely reproduced, cover two distinct periods in Murray Bail’s life: London from 1970 to 1974; and Sydney from 1988 to 2003. The notebooks from the London period, which represent roughly two-thirds of this book, were previously published as Longhand: A Writer’s Notebook (1989). While readers may find some interest in comparing the formative and the mature writer, the older Bail’s reflections on ageing and death represent the most consistently penetrating writing in Notebooks.

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The Child of an Ancient People by Anouar Benmalek (translated by Andrew Riemer)

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March 2004, no. 259

At once extravagant and tightly wrapped, this novel reinforces the view that historical fiction says as much about the present and the future as it does about the past. At the level of history proper, Anouar Benmalek’s vision unites three continents that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, are subject to the depredations of European colonialism and domestic tyranny. At the human level, his fiction is preoccupied with the bodily functions and basic needs of survival: things that never change. The broad, impersonal sweep of world history is made up of the infinitesimally small transactions of the primal scene: copulating, defecating, vomiting, bleeding, all driven by the elemental forces of fear and desire, violence and conscience.

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