After reading three pieces about choosing to read exclusively books by a certain kind of writer for a whole year – only books by women (Lilit Marcus in Flavorwire and Diane Shipley on Marcus in the Guardian) and only books by writers of colour (Sunili Govinnage in the Guardian), I thought I’d write here about my decision to read in 2014 only books about a certain kind of subject: the relationship between people and land.
This is partly related to my PhD dissertation, which is on Country in the novels of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott. I’ve written a little about this in my review of Wright’s latest novel The Swan Book in the Sydney Review of Books, and in an essay on Wright’s Carpentaria and Scott’s That Deadman Dance in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.
It’s also related to the concluding chapters of Double Entry and current attempts by accountants and others to give monetary value to nature – which they’re calling ‘natural capital’ – and to nature’s work, or ‘ecosystem services’. I’ve written about this here.
But it was environmentalist Anna Rose who clarified my thinking on this subject when she said: the most important relationships for writers in the 21st century are not between people but between people and the land. I scribbled this down when I heard Rose speak brilliantly (as ever) at the conference ‘Writing the Australian Landscape’ at the National Library of Australia last year, but it doesn’t appear in the transcript of her talk, so maybe I dreamt it. Her talk is worth reading anyway: Solastalgia, extreme weather and the writer’s role in a climate changed.
So, as I said in my last post, I’m reading (halfway through) Natural Capitalism, which is dense, full of mind blowing stats (I love stats) and fascinating.
And I’ve just started Jim Crace’s Harvest, set in medieval England, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. It opens:
Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who’ve not been up to mischief in the dark. Our land is topped and tailed with flames. Beyond the frontier ditches of our fields and in the shelter of our woods, on common ground, where yesterday there wasn’t anyone who could give rise to smoke, some newcomers, by the lustre of an obliging reapers’ moon, have put up their hut – four rough and ready walls, a bit of roof – and lit the more outlying of these fires. Their fire is damp. They will have thrown on wet greenery in order to produce the blackest plume, and thereby not be missed by us. It rises in a column that hardly bends or thins until it clears the canopies. It says, New neighbours have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.
But it is the second twist of grey that calls us close, that has us rushing early from our homes on this rest day towards Master Kent’s house …
I realise that the next two ‘classics’ I’ll be writing about here – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then Knut Hamsun’s Pan – are also centrally about the relationship between humans and land. And wonder if all novels are actually about this relationship.
Certainly the organisers of a conference in April 2014 called ‘Land and the Novel‘ think so. They – Vincent Pecora, Scott Black and Jeremy Rosen – write:
The history of the novel is in some ways a history of how populations left the land, and their political-theological connections to it, behind – or at least tried to. The novel never really left its chthonic roots behind, however. Like the ancient Greek tragedies, novels from Defoe and Scott on continually recalled those putatively archaic ties to land – both the soil itself and sovereign territory – even as they became the surest signs of an urban and urbane modernity. Instead, it is the critical tradition that seems to have overlooked these traces in the dust …
So, happy new year! And next up, the contentious Heart of Darkness.