The Vogel: what’s age got to do with it?

Most writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday. As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”. At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

4857101224_614d21aecdMost writers will admit they’d never get anything done without the pressure of a good deadline. And for unpublished writers there’s no bigger deadline on the Australian publishing calendar than that of the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award.

To be clear, the big day is not the June deadline when the call for entries closes each year, but the deadline that comes only once in a lifetime on the eve of a writer’s 35th birthday.

As the clock strikes midnight on this inauspicious day, unpublished writers graduate from “young and unpublished” to officially “old and unpublished”.

At least that’s the message the Vogel Award – which comes with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Allen & Unwin – delivers when it bars writers 35 and up from entering the competition.

Happily that’s not something Paul D. Carter needs to worry about now that John Birmingham has declared Carter’s novel, Eleven Seasons, this year’s Vogel winner. Although at 32 years of age, he must have felt his “authorial clock” ticking.

Fortunately an author’s clock is a social contruction, not a deadline set in DNA. Literature is one of the few arts in which its practitioners regularly improve with age, and it’s also one of the few to permit a late beginning.

Annie Proulx – of Shipping News fame – was 57 when her first novel, Postcards, came out in 1992. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was 66. David Malouf was 44 when Johnno appeared in 1975, although he was a published poet by that time.

Other late bloomers include Anthony Burgess, 39, for Time for a Tiger (A Clockwork Orange appeared when he was 45); William Burroughs, 39, for Junky; and Henry Miller, 44, for Tropic of Cancer. Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, at 51 years of age.

And so the list of great authors who would have been unable to satisfy the Vogel’s eligibility requirements (era and citizenship notwithstanding) goes on.

To be fair, a good number of Australia’s leading novelists did manage to meet the deadline and kick-start their career with a Vogel win: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Mandy Sayer, Andrew McGahan, to name just a few.

And two of Australia’s greatest novelists, Patrick White and Christina Stead, both would have been contenders for a Vogel win (had it existed in their time), with their first novels appearing at ages 27 and 32 respectively.

The problem with the Vogel age-limit is not that it’s ageist, but that it’s arbitrary. And that’s what makes it meaningless.

Why 35? The cut-off in the early years of the award was 30, but it was raised in 1982, presumably to attract better quality entries. But why didn’t the executors raise the cut-off to, say, 34 years?

Or perhaps 36 so that this year’s shortlisted writer, Clare Carlin – who has since turned 35 – could have been eligible to enter in 2013. A manuscript, if it’s any good, doesn’t it become irrelevant overnight.

The Vogel is the 1980 brainchild of Niels Stevns, the owner of Vogel’s Bread in Australia, who had a passion for literature. Since he put up the idea and the money, he rightly got to decide the rules.

(Conceivably a benefactor could establish an award for writers whose last names start with F, and if it’s not our money at stake we’d all have to live with the idiosyncrasy.)

But if the intent behind the Vogel is to grant aspiring authors entry into the publishing industry, then a 51-year-old writer (the age of the Marquis de Sade when he published his infamous first novel, Justine) is just as in need of assistance as a 31-year-old.

The rules of the Vogel have changed over the years: due dates, prize money, number of judges, publishing schedules and so on. Why not keep spirit of the prize by retaining the criterion that a writer be unpublished, but cross out the barrier of age?

There’s a famous anecdote – possibly apocryphal – that has Canadian author Margaret Atwood at a cocktail party. A brain surgeon tells her he’s going to write a novel when he retires.

“That’s interesting,” Atwood is purported to say, “when I retire I’m going to take up brain surgery.”

Atwood’s point is that writing a novel is a specialty art that requires skill and years of training to perfect. Good novels rarely just appear but are earned by hard work over a long period of time.

But what the anecdote fails to acknowledge is that most of us are more skilled with a keyboard than a scalpel – and a good story can be told at any age.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Michael ondaatje: a lion at the cat’s table

Review of The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

In English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it. But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner.

ondaatjeIn English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it.

But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner. In politics and business, the cat’s table is reserved for the office that exists but has lost the authority to act. It is also the title of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel.

The Cat’s Table opens in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was formerly known) in the early 1950s with an eleven-year-old boy boarding the Oronsay, a liner bound for England. At mealtimes he sits at Table 76 – “the least privileged place” in the dining hall – with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and an eccentric array of adults: among them a frequently tanked pianist who teaches the boys dirty lyrics; a botanist who tends an Ayurvedic garden in the ship’s hold; and a quirky spinster who consumes crime novels and houses pigeons in her jacket.

While the doyens of the Captain’s table “constantly toast one another’s significance,” the boy learns that all that is interesting happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. “It would always be strangers,” the adult narrator reflects, “at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.”

Seemingly The Cat’s Table courts a biographical reading: both the author and the narrator are named Michael, both were born in Colombo in 1943, both emigrate from Ceylon to England in 1954, both relocate to Canada as young men, and both become feted writers. In his “Author’s Note”, however, Ondaatje insists his “imagined rendering” is fiction, not memoir. It is an unnecessary disclosure: anyone familiar with Ondaatje’s oeuvre will know his project has long been to dissolve the boundaries of fact and fiction. But given the felonious events that transpire on board the Oronsay – sorcery, larceny, murder and more – perhaps a distinction was thought legally prudent.

Whether the author and the narrator share an antipathy toward authority or not, Ondaatje has been dining at the Captain’s table since his second novel, The English Patient, won the Booker Prize in 1992. Or more precisely, given the cinematic prejudices of our age, Ondaatje was ushered into literary “significance” four years later when Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation by the same name won nine Oscars, two Golden Globes and six BAFTAs.

The skyrocketing effect Minghella’s English Patient had on Ondaatje’s career cannot be overstated. The film became compulsory viewing for the fashion set, stimulating the book’s sales in excess of two million copies worldwide. Both the book and the film, Ondaatje muses in a 1997 interview, acquired “a slightly sacred fog” in the public imagination.

Not surprisingly The English Patient also became a target for satire. Shortly after the film’s release a popular Seinfeld episode pilloried its worthiness, deeming people who didn’t like the movie – as Elaine didn’t – “flinty hearted” and “untrustworthy.” For her aesthetic insurrection Elaine is punished with a trip to Tunisia (the filming location of The English Patient) where she must live in a cave in order to save her job. Similarly in Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Damned (2011), hell is a place where The English Patient plays on eternal loop.

But before afflictions of fame, Ondaatje enjoyed the relative obscurity afforded a poet. Beginning with The Dainty Monsters in 1967, Ondaatje has published a total of eleven books of poetry, earning him the steady admiration of critics and a select but ardent trove of readers. In 1991 The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems assembled twenty-five years of Ondaatje’s greatest lyric poems in a tour de force: the title poem – “The Cinnamon Peeler” – which would surely stand among the best erotic love poems in English, as well as the much anthologized “To a Sad Daughter”, “White Dwarfs”, “Last Ink” and the extraordinary elegies for his mother and father, “Light” and “Letters & Other Worlds”, to name a small handful.

Ondaatje’s poetry – like his novels – often intersects with history. His second book, an imagistic suite of poems entitled The Man with Seven Toes, was inspired by Sidney Nolan’s Mrs Fraser series of paintings (1947-57) and Colin MacInnes’s brief account of Eliza Fraser’s fascinating but tragic life: shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in 1836, she was captured by aborigines and rescued by David Bracewell, a convict whom she betrays upon arriving in civilization. (Fraser is also the subject of Patrick White’s 1976 novel, A Fringe of Leaves.)

But Ondaatje’s career wasn’t underway until his second book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) – a grab bag of poems, prose, photographs and fictional news stories about sociopathic William “the Kid” Bonney and his gang of killers – fell into the wrong hands.

“The ex-Prime Minister [of Canada] John Diefenbaker was essentially out of a job, but he was a very cantankerous, wonderful old demagogue,” Ondaatje recalls in a 1997 interview. “He read the book, and he just hated it. So he called all the cameras in for a news conference, and he said, ‘This is disgusting!’ There was a picture of me on the front page of the newspaper.

“Only about eight people had bought the book, so it was quite sweet in some way for him to read it,” Ondaatje laughs. “I wasn’t so upset by him disliking the book, but it put me into a tailspin about being semi-known. Even on a small scale, it was difficult not to be self-conscious about being a writer.”

Ondaatje’s early style is challenging but the effects are stunning. Ever evading a master narrative, he tells stories through pieces of song, faded photographs, snatches of conversation. The pieces don’t always meet at the edges, sometimes they overlap, and it’s left to the reader to make the meaning and provide the glue. Ondaatje’s writing never seems to move in straight lines. As Pico Iyer says, “It circles and slants and echoes and returns.”

In 1970 Ondaatje published a monograph on fellow Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen. The two writers share more than an emotional climate – a moody often erotic reverence for violence and beauty – they feed from the same lexicon of wounds, scars, madness, dreams, broken glass, bones, chaos, and kindnesses. Ondaatje offers a description of Cohen’s künstlerroman, The Favorite Game, that could easily serve as an artistic statement for his own practice:

“It has the effectiveness of a long prose poem,” he writes, “with each scene emerging as a potent and enigmatic sketch, rather than a full blown detailed narrative. As in a poem, the silences and spaces, what is left unsaid, are essential to the mood of the book.”

Ondaatje’s novels would, in time, surpass his mentor’s in ambition, sophistication and reach. Alongside The Man with Seven Toes and Billy the Kid, his poetic novel-of-sorts, Coming Through Slaughter – a jazzy, syncopated riff on the short, mad life of legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden – all stand as amphibious texts bridging Ondaatje’s poetry and prose.

In 1982 Ondaatje’s masterwork in prose appeared in the form of a memoir, Running in the Family, which chronicles his return to Sri Lanka to grapple with the lives of his parents: his father, Mervyn Ondaatje, was a tea and rubber-plantation superintendent afflicted with alcoholism; and his mother, Doris Gratiaen, a part-time radical dancer inspired by Isadora Duncan. Both were prominent inhabitants of what once comprised Ceylon’s flamboyant if frivolous colonial society. Ondaatje writes:

I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.

Despite his earlier prose works, Ondaatje calls In the Skin of the Lion (1987) his “first novel”. It is also one of his best. Set in Toronto in the 1920s and 30s it imagines the lives of the Macedonian immigrant community who built the city’s bridges and waterworks. Ondaatje’s attentiveness to beauty, despair, and lives lost to official history builds a searing narrative even as its language and circular structures pull its telling towards poetry.

Increasingly since The English Patient, Ondaatje’s novels have become less experimental, the shifts in perspective less dramatic, the language more denotative. Anil’s Ghost (2000) follows the life of Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan and forensic anthropologist, working as a Human Rights investigator during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Divisadero (2007) divides its attention between a family in 1970s California and an author in pre-World War I southern France. Both novels are skillfully drawn but neither quite manage the magic of his earlier works.

And so it is with his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table. Ondaatje’s preoccupations and signatory motifs are present in abundance: dogs, thieves, acrobats, tapestries, wounds, dreams, jazz, and poetry. And his eye for the cinematic moment still pulls off a splendid stillness. Each morning of the 21-day passage, the boys wake at dawn to spy on an Australian roller skater who races the perimeter of the deck and showers fully clothed: “When she left we followed her footprints”, the narrator confesses, “which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them”.

A study of one’s childhood is not uncommon in late-career writers. Perhaps having lost much of his childhood to the desperate antics of his parents, Ondaatje is compelled to return to the puzzle of his early years. If Tolstoy, Conrad and Coetzee had not pre-empted him, he says, he would have called his novel Youth.

Yet in stripping back the sophistication of his narrator’s voice to accommodate a child’s perspective, Ondaatje has deprived The Cat’s Table of the force of language that largely carried his earlier works. And in attempting a more straightforward telling, he has exposed his inherent weaknesses with narrative. One wishes he’d held his nerve and stuck to his earlier rhythms that, while difficult, were dazzling.

Ondaatje admits he doesn’t remember the day in 1954 that he arrived as an unaccompanied minor in the port of London. In his novel, he imagines Michael is met by his mother but he’s not sure he will recognize her face. He is wearing his first pair of long trousers, socks, and a thin cotton shirt. “You must be cold, Michael,” his mother says, pulling him to her. He can see part of the world to the side of her, the figures rushing past barely aware of him in his mother’s arms, the borrowed suitcase with all he owned beside him.

A reluctant guest or not, Ondaatje has earned his place at the Captain’s table – if not for this novel alone, but for what came before it, and for what we hope might follow.

Originally published under the title ‘The Cat’s Table’. Rev. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Australian Literary Review (October 2011): 23.

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2006

It should cause no surprise that Judith Beveridge, the editor of the fourth collection in our Best Australian Poetry series, has produced such a satisfying and stimulating selection. Those two adjectives accurately summarise the effect of her own work which has grown steadily in public esteem to the point where she can now be seen as one of Australia’s leading poets.

Guest Editor: Judith BeveridgeGuest editor: Judith Beveridge 
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

It should cause no surprise that Judith Beveridge, the editor of the fourth collection in our Best Australian Poetry series, has produced such a satisfying and stimulating selection. Those two adjectives accurately summarise the effect of her own work which has grown steadily in public esteem to the point where she can now be seen as one of Australia’s leading poets. She has searched, as she tells us in her introduction, for poems in which the poets have won a battle with language rather than simply exploited comfortable idioms or, as she puts it, have ‘sat back on their comfortable haunches and written from facility or clannish pride’.

As a result this anthology has a high percentage of poems which are at first reading puzzling but which are attractive enough to lure the reader into the kind of deeper engagement that rewards us with rich responses. And as a result of this there is a high percentage of memorable poems here. Sometimes our initial puzzlement derives from an uncertainty as to what the poem is doing, how it is approaching its subject. The first and last poems of the book are examples of this. Robert Adamson’s ‘A Visitation’, describes with deceptive simplicity how, after a forty-year hiatus, the poet once again sees a yellow-footed rock wallaby: this time, one which has survived a Sydney bush fire. And we are not sure whether we are reading about an image that represents those humans who have been damaged by the intensity of exposure to the gods – what Patrick White, borrowing from Greek culture, called ‘The Burnt Ones’ – or whether we are seeing what is, for the poet, a bearer of revelation, a reminder to someone who has left childhood far behind, of  the overwhelming wildness of the natural world. And ‘I giorni della merla’, (the days of the blackbird) by Simon West – the poem with which Beveridge’s selection concludes – is also about visitations.

Here January’s blackbirds promise some kind of revelation but withhold themselves. Those who with tired stares ‘await the wasn’t of a century’ – a beautiful phrase – know the bird only as a shape in their minds.

This is also an anthology of mysterious narratives; a genre that emerges every so often in Beveridge’s own work. They can be surreal/symbolic stories like Peter Rose’s ‘Beach Burial’, Alex Skovron’s ‘Sorcery’, Kathleen Stewart’s ‘How I Got Away’ or Barbara Temperton’s ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife’ (a very Beveridgean poem). Equally they can be fairly straightforward narrations of what would be, to most of us, a surreal reality: Philip Salom’s ‘Sections from the Man with a Shattered World’ describes the psychic fate of an actual Russian soldier who lost the left side of his brain, and Lesley Walter’s ‘Hyphenated Lives’ tells the true and remarkable story of a pair of Siamese twins who produced a total of twenty-one children. All in all, Beveridge has done what we want our guest editors to do: to produce a selection which reflects its editor’s tastes and obsessions (this book is full of moons and horses) and yet have a coherent position on the question of what good poems in Australia should do. The result is one of the liveliest gatherings of Australian poetry we have read.

On a less happy note, last year was marked by extensive depredations by the Angel of Death among Australian poets. Tasmanian writers Barney Roberts, Jenny Boult and Margaret Scott all passed away. Margaret Scott’s work has been celebrated recently in an excellent article by Ruth Blair, ‘Finding Home: The Poetry of Margaret Scott’ (Australian Literary Studies 22.2), which shows how Scott’s migrant experience (she moved to Australia from England in 1959) forms a subtle framework that can be seen to encompass all her thematic material: in particular, the idea of home, which in all its guises is a recurrent focus in her poems. Scott published five books of poetry including a Collected Poems in 2000 (Montpelier).

Two Melbournian poets, Philip Martin and Shelton Lea, also passed away. The former after a long and debilitating illness; the latter after a long and lively life. Philip Martin’s Voice Unaccompanied, though a late first book, has many virtues and is one of those books which looks better as time goes on. Shelton Lea is still remembered in Queensland for a tempestuous visit in 1974. It produced a book in the Makar Press, Gargoyle Poets series called Chockablock with Dawn and one of the editors still has a chapbook of his in which Lea inscribed ‘Thanks for the American Dollar Kid’ in remembrance of overseas currency used to buy it (he hadn’t the courage to refuse). But Michael Sharkey in his memoir in Overland, No 180 speaks of their long relationship and writes so eloquently that it is impossible not to believe his account of Shelton Lea as someone who had the least sense of imposition, the surest sense that people would see a charitable act required doing and would do it. I think he had the least malicious intentions of anyone I’ve met. His self-deprecation was boundless, his awareness that he was putting on an act so surely judged (‘How was I, brudder?’; ‘Could you believe that?’) that it was impossible to begrudge him anything.

A final victim was the Canberra poet, Michael Thwaites who, between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-six worked for Australia’s security intelligence organization (ASIO). He went on to publish five collections of poetry but is best known for the story in which ASIO’s director-general, Charles Spry, recruited him saying, ‘You write poetry, I know. Much of the job will just be hard methodical work but imagination is also needed. I believe you could make a valuable contribution’, thereby establishing the possibility of a new kind of social relevance for poetry in Australia.