As you may have seen yesterday, the first half of my day at the Melbourne Writers Festival ended on a bit of a sour note, but after a couple of sandwiches and a walk in the unseasonal sunshine, it was time to get back into the thick of things – and luckily the next session was much more to my liking 🙂
After a couple of low-key events in the ACMI Cube, it was upstairs to Cinema 1 for the main session of the day, an audience with well-known Australian writer Gerald Murnane. Moderator Antoni Jach introduced Murnane with a string of superlatives, including “…our best bet for a Nobel prize in the next ten years or so…”, all of which are probably true. Of course, what he didn’t say was that Murnane is the grumpy old man of Australian literature and with him you never know what you’re going to get. Happily for us in the audience, today was a good day 🙂
Ostensibly, the writer was there to discuss his latest novel, A Million Windows, but this was a fairly free-range session with the discussion wandering throughout his career (although the one book I have read, The Plains – review pending – wasn’t mentioned). In fact, there were several mentions of two books which haven’t even been published yet – one a treatise on horse-racing (which Murnane thought was non-fiction until his publisher told him otherwise), the other (Border Districts) a book he wants to be his last (which is why it won’t be published until he’s sure he’s done with writing).
While some interesting things were said about his approach to writing, particularly in talking of his debut work, Tamarisk Row, with his unconventional style and lengthy, overwhelming sentences, the main thing I got from the session was the way in which an accomplished writer with a distinguished background had everyone in the palm of his hand, despite the fact that he doesn’t really like this kind of thing (at the end he quipped that we were lucky as we might be the last ones to ever see him do a festival session!).
Murnane is funny and irascible, prone to wandering off on tangents (Jach was well aware that his role was to allow the writer as much range as he wished) and always ready with a good yarn. At one point he brought out an essay from his university time so that we could hear the lecturer’s comments bemoaning his lack of understanding of morality in literature. At which point he claimed that he still has no idea what she was talking about – but it never stopped him writing all his books…
He’s also very good for quotations, and I wasn’t the only one in the audience scribbling away furiously to get his one-liners down on paper. For example, on being free from the early pressure to make his work ‘publishable’: “I’m almost in the position where I can insult readers now.” Or on being a fairly normal bloke when out in the community and not writing: “I didn’t see any need to grow a beard or wear a beret – apologies to those who do.” Or on his failure to become a poet, a disarming “I gave it away”, an Australianism for giving something up…
There’s too much to discuss here, whether it’s his liking for a sympathetic narrator in the vein of Hardy or Trollope, or his dislike of dialogue (which he says conceals more than it reveals), but I definitely came out of the session wanting to read more of his work, which can only be a good thing. Mention was made of his appearance in the Music & Literature magazine, and that’s something I’d like to have a look at – first, though, I want to try some more of his books 🙂
Murnane was always going to be a hard act to follow, but the last session of the day was entertaining nonetheless. It was back to the Cube for the second of the City-to-City talks, and this time Nic Low was chatting to Liliy Yulianti Farid and Ahmad Fuadi about Jakarta. Fortunately, both are fairly fluent in English, which avoided the embarrassment of the earlier Shanghai session…
The two writers talked about the disproportionate influence the capital has on Indonesian culture (apparently 80% of national book sales are in the Jakarta region), a fact which is merely a reflection of the same trend in all walks of Indonesian life. Where in China, for example, Beijing and Shanghai are competitors, Jakarta is in a league of its own, and people from the provinces are well aware that they have to make the move there one day if they want to become a success.
However, things are changing, and both writers talked about the role they play in making things happen. Fuadi briefly mentioned Bali’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, including (I think…) some visits to Australia by Indonesian writers, and after I asked the pair about the apparent lack of Indonesian fiction in translation, Farid outlined her work with the Lontar Foundation and the Inside Indonesia magazine. Indonesia is also guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair next year, so the government is now putting a lot more energy (and money!) into getting Indonesian fiction into English and German. Hopefully, there’ll be a few new authors for us to discover over the coming years 🙂
And that’s all for 2014! I greatly enjoyed my busy day
in out of the sun at the festival, but I wouldn’t say I’m completely happy with the whole event. The City-to-City sessions weren’t really what I expected, focusing more on general information than on the literary side of the cities (although the two Indonesian writers did speak about this a little more during the question time), and the Shanghai session was only saved by the humour of Ouyang Yu.
The main issue I have, though, is that as far as translated fiction goes this was pretty much it. The whole festival runs for eleven days, but if you’re looking for non-Anglophone writers, you’re out of luck, and I think that for a multicultural city like Melbourne, it’s a bit of a shambles really. Here’s hoping that next year the organisers decide that overseas writers can be found outside the UK and the US and that there’ll be a few big names on the programme.
I’m not holding my breath, though…