Wednesday, May 20, 2015

More Literary Luminaries – David Mitchell & Jonathan Lethem at The Edge

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David Mitchell with Suzanne Donisthorpe – Deakin Edge 19/5/15

When David Mitchell last visited Melbourne in May 2011, a big crowd turned out to see him at the Athenaeum Theatre. The venue this time was Deakin Edge at Federation Square, a modern and edgy space – a startling contrast to the old fashioned charms of the Athenaeum -  but an equally large number of fans were present last night.

I managed to get a seat in the front row, as is my wont with music shows, i.e. my favourite spot to be. So my view was unimpeded.  I took along the Canon G16 this time and shot some decent photos.
David Mitchell bounced onto the stage greeting the audience with a friendly hello as he took his seat. The topic of discussion was of course his latest novel The Bone Clocks, a mind teaser of a novel that involves several different narratives like his earlier novel Cloud Atlas. The Bone Clocks however has a central character, Holly Sykes, who appears peripherally in the various other character’s stories. There is a supernatural thread running through the novel, and indeed there’s a terrific supernatural battle towards the end. The prose is dazzling and pleasurable to read.

It was an engrossing conversation and David Mitchell presents as charming and unaffected, funny as well.  It was thrilling to be present in person at the event, seeing one of my favourite writers in the flesh again.

There was some discussion about whether Mitchell is writing an “uber” novel as in each of his books characters from previous books reappear. There is a scholarly work entitled  A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell by Patrick O’Donnell, a study of all David Mitchell’s fiction up to The Bone Clocks which explores this idea. I have a copy of it, which I have yet to read in full. It’s somewhat abstruse and hard to read, I must admit, but I’ll persevere with it when I run out of more engaging reading matter.

The video of the interview with David Mitchell is now available on the Wheeler Centre website:

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David Mitchell reading from The Bone Clocks –note: the protrusion on David’s lip is the remote mike.

I had taken along a big bag of books – it weighed a ton –  with five Mitchell novels and some of my collection of Jonathan Lethem novels.

One of the disadvantages of sitting in the front row, is getting out of the venue quickly enough to get a forward spot in the book signing queue.  It was a long queue and moved fairly slowly, but after hanging on for at least half an hour, I was able to get the rest of my David Mitchell collection signed, and express my appreciation for the care he takes in creating beautiful sentences, which was something he talked about in the session.

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Jonathan Lethem & Chloe Hooper - Deakin Edge 19/5/15

It would have been a perfect occasion seeing just David Mitchell, but Jonathan Lethem was the icing on the cake.

His latest novel is Dissident Gardens, a “multigenerational saga of revolutionaries and activists, the civil rights movement and the counterculture, from the 1930s Communists to the 2010s Occupy movement, and is mostly set in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens and in Greenwich Village” from Wikipedia.

I recently read this novel and identified with the period and its leftist sympathies. It took me back to my revolutionary days in the 1960s and 70s.

The two leading characters are Rose Zimmer and her daughter Miriam and their strong personalities are portrayed vividly, Rose in particular.  Jonathan Lethem said in the discussion that Rose was based on his Communist grandmother and Miriam on his activist mother, who died when he was 13 years old.

His novel The Fortress of Solitude is semi autobiographical, set as it is in Brooklyn, where Jonathan Lethem lived as a child.

He had an unconventional bohemian childhood and originally wanted to be an artist like his father. However, from an early age he steeped himself in counterculture falling in love with books and music of all genres, and spent 12 years working in second hand bookstores whilst writing his early novels. He said he loved old battered second hand books and unfashionable writers of whom nobody, these days, has heard.  

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Jonathan Lethem reading an excerpt from Dissident Gardens

Not as many people attended the Jonathan Lethem event, so the signing queue was shorter. Jonathan was friendly and pleasant in person, and obligingly signed the six novels I’d brought along, remarking on my old paperback copies of his first two books. He’d be pleased to know that three of the novels I took along were second hand copies.

A video of Jonathan Lethem's interview is also available on the Wheeler Centre website.

The four literary events that I have attended in the last week, were all different and interesting, from the old school literati of Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn, to the young bloods of the Internet age  in the persons of David Mitchell and Jonathan Lethem, they were more than worth the cost of entry.

I hope to attend more in the future.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Warm Glow of Literary Lights

Last night I attended the first of the literary events I had booked for at the Wheeler Centre, that being the double header of married literary lights Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn.

They are now both 81 years old, but they certainly don’t look it nor had their mental acuity been tempered by age. Both events were interesting in different ways.

Claire Tomalin is a noted biographer of such literary figures as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. She created a storm of controversy when she revealed in her biography of Dickens, that he had long term mistress, for whom he abandoned his wife and children. Claire Tomalin also wrote a biography – The Invisible Woman - of said mistress, Ellen Ternan,  a young actress, who by all accounts led a very interesting life, ending up, after Dickens death, as a respectable woman, managing to keep her relationship with Dickens and her previous less than respectable life a secret until her death.

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Claire Tomalin was interviewed by local writer Toni Jordon and spoke at length about her life and works.

She wrote her first book, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft in her late thirties, her life up to that time being busily filled with her career as Literary Editor for New Statesman and The Sunday Times as well as bringing up her children.

The Wollstonecraft biography was a great success and won the Whitbread Book Award in 1974. I have a copy of the hardcover, but it is not the first edition, which according to Claire Tomalin, was a small issue. My copy is the second edition published in 1975. However I did take it along last night and got it signed by the author.

A somewhat out of focus Claire Tomalin signing books.

The discussion evolved into the question of how Claire Tomalin chooses her biographical subjects. She remarked that in the process of researching and writing a biography she felt as if she was obliged to live their life and she was attracted to subjects that she could love. Her emotional engagement with her biographical subjects was profound and she admitted to weeping when she wrote of their deaths. She makes a point of literally walking in her subjects shoes, traversing on foot the locations in which they lived their lives.

Her favourites, she stated were Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Pepys.

It was an engrossing hour of conversation and I was delighted to have been present for it.

The event was pretty well booked out and was held at the Wheeler Centre in the former Barry Hall in the South Wing of the State Library in Little Lonsdale Street. The audience was mostly in the older age group, though I did spot a few young faces.

The Michael Frayn event was a completely different kettle of fish. He was introduced by Chris Mead , the Literary Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, so his emphasis was more on Michael Frayn’s theatrical creations, though the acclaimed literary light is noted for his journalism , novels and screen writing as well as his dramatic works. His segment was titled “How To Begin”, so Michael Frayn began by talking for at least twenty minutes on how he came to a writing career.

Also out of focus, Michael Frayn speaking on the podium.

He was a humorous and entertaining speaker, having a fine sense of irony and an appreciation for the ridiculous things life throws up, relating several stories where he was the butt of the joke.

This year, 2015, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of his first novel The Tin Men, and he has 10 other novels to his credit. His plays include Copenhagen, Democracy and Noises Off.

He didn’t start to write for the theatre until the 1970s, eschewing the literary form out of prejudice caused by a rejection of his first attempt at theatre in his University days. 

I notice on the Wheeler Centre website that events are recorded for posterity, so you can view some past events about a month after they occurred, should you be interested in checking them out.

It was a chilly day yesterday, Melbourne shivering under an early onset of winter, so it was good to venture out and bask in the warm glow of literature. It’s a pity my photos didn’t turn out well, but I was nervous about taking photos in the venue, so the two photos above are sneak shots hastily snapped on my smallest and not very good camera.

Next Tuesday I am looking forward to seeing the David Mitchell - Jonathan Lethem double header at Deakin Edge in Federation Square.

The horse racing scene is rather dull in Melbourne at the moment with the Group 1 action happening in Adelaide this weekend and in Brisbane throughout late May and June, but I have booked for several concerts over the coming months, the first being Iris Dement on 28 May.

I’m particularly delighted that my favourite artist Ryan Adams is coming in July. Both his Melbourne shows have already sold out, but I managed to get tickets for both nights.

I’ve got winter covered, entertainment wise at least.