52 Weeks of Literature, Week Five: “A Fringe of Leaves” by Patrick White


Representative excerpt: “The blood was running warm and sticky over her hands. Round the mouth, and on one smeared temple, more transparent than she had ever seen it, flies were crowding in black clots, greedy for the least speck of crimson before the sun dried the virtue out of it.” (p. 240)

The title, A Fringe of Leaves, refers—we learn over halfway through the book—to the vine-like cord that Ellen Roxburgh ties around herself to keep hold of the one piece of “civilization” (in the narrow sense that she would likely use that broad word) that she has left—her wedding ring. This scene of despondence comes around the time when the novel transitions, abruptly yet smoothly, from what is essentially an old-fashioned post-Regency tale moved to penal-colonial Australia to a white-knuckle survival tale full of murder, rape and cannibalism. It is the novel’s strength that this transition is not so much one between genres (the prose style remains consistent) as it is simply one between places. The British decorum of the mansions and ships dotting the edges of Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania today) collapses rapidly in the interior, from where the Aborigines brood at the white marauders who will soon take over the continent and subject their persons and cultures to genocide. Roxburgh’s fringe of leaves is of course a symbol of the tenuous border between these two spheres, at once linking and dividing them. It is nature dwarfing the Western ideals of “order” and “progress” while the British and the first white Australians struggle to contort it so as to shelter and uphold them. But were the British ever truly distinct from the Aborigines?—by which I ask, are we ever much more than reflections of the primal, the instinctive, the animal? So much of us remains governed by biological principles—the need for sex from our beloveds and from others, the need to propagate the human race and feed (perhaps breastfeed) our offspring, the ridiculous need for power and hierarchy. These impulses fuel and underscore the British characters just as much as they do the Aboriginal tribes who rival them. They are different civilizations with identical skeletons.

Inspired by the true story of Eliza Fraser—the namesake of Fraser Island—A Fringe of Leaves was Patrick White’s first novel after his Nobel triumph, and it is astonishing for displaying both honesty and respect in its treatment of Australian Aborigines. The novel’s first half is a patient, almost plot-less account of the visit that Roxburgh and her husband Austin pay to her brother-in-law Garnet in Tasmania. The thematic concerns seem typically domestic for a novel of the period: Ellen’s previous life as a rustic Cornishwoman, the shift her personality took when she married Austin and moved up a class, her multiple stillbirths, Austin’s poor health, Ellen’s curious relation with Garnet, etc. Aware that the narrative would not remain in this register forever (the genre switch is foreshadowed, rather too neatly, in the first chapter), I was anxious about whether the portrayal of the Aborigines would be archaic in the worst possible sense, even while I was admiring White’s prose—which can seem florid and austere at first, but which I adapted to as I went along. This story is a slow, slow burn. White makes the reader spend time in this world and learn about it. Then, out of nowhere, he hurls a shipwreck at us, and from that point forward—well, all I really have to say is: whoa. The body count ramps up, and the author gutsily explodes the entire literary world he put so much effort into constructing. That takes Nobel-caliber talent to pull off, and White pulls it off. The tension arises not from the Aborigines themselves, but from the animosity between the whites and the natives, which is stewed in imperialism and the language barrier. The indigenous tribe here is brutal and ruthless, but it is not a racist caricature; one gets the sense that White did his homework and studied the culture. Critically, the Aborigines make an effort to integrate Roxburgh into their culture and push her to forfeit her class privilege, challenging and changing her in the process.

I could gripe about some wheel spinning in the first half, the implausibility of Ellen’s schizophrenic code switches between her contemporary RP self and her Cornish adolescent self, the cramming of a few too many new characters into the dénouement, and the handful of blunt, cruddy character names (Miss Scrimshaw, Jack Chance, et al). Screw all that. This is the first novel I read this year that I can recommend with any degree of enthusiasm. (Last Words from Montmartre, I recommend with caution and measurement. Don’t read it if you’re depressed.) The prose and the shift into high-gear survival mode make the slow burn more than worth it. Ellen’s odyssey with the Aborigines and her escape from them—which is not without assistance, from a surprising ally—is in itself a tour de force, a single hundred-page chapter, perfectly paced and sustained, never once plodding nor moving in haste. I kept on wondering whether I as an author would have Ellen stay with the tribe even longer, or if I would increase the tempo and skip over some of the more extraneous details. I then realized that my uneasy alternating between those two opposites meant that the narrative’s timing was solid and benefited the book. Patrick White is widely considered the greatest Australian author. I used to approach his dense, viscous texts with trepidation, but now that I’ve pushed myself through and been rewarded by A Fringe of Leaves, I am eager to dig into the rest of his oeuvre.

Grade: A

What’s Next: I’ll review A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tomorrow, and Anna Seghers’ Transit shortly thereafter.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Five: “A Fringe of Leaves” by Patrick White

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nineteen: “Lore”

Two days after watching Aguirre—a German film made on the outside, I felt vindicated in watching Lore—a German film made by an outsider, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland. It’s refreshing to have an outside commentary; an exclusively local perspective risks too much bias. Lore takes as its subject the Holocaust, with which modern-day Germany is still wrangling, and the Allies’ subsequent denazification of the nation, which is rarely studied. There are some perceptions of the Holocaust as an isolated, uncanny outburst of psychopathy, and others of it as a careful exploitation of military industry to facilitate genocide, with much historical precedent. The latter has more truth to it than the former. Lore takes an even more daring—and, in my mind, more accurate—point-of-view: that most Germans of the era were enamored with and confident in Nazism to the extent that they adored Hitler and were willing to trust his prejudice against the Jews, the Roma and the rest, and to ignore if not support whatever he was up to with them. Crucial to this portrayal of modern history’s greatest catastrophe is the focus on children who grew up knowing and cherishing only Nazism, and who faced a most agonizing coming-of-age in the years following World War Two.

The English word “lore” refers to fictive legend, oral education, myth of perhaps national proportion, hereditary distortion. The pun is valid, but the title Lore is really a German female name (pronounced like “Laura”) belonging to the protagonist, played with neither fear nor flaw by Saskia Rosendahl. The film introduces her taking a bath in her spacious Black Forest home, counting along as her little sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) plays hopscotch outside. There is a playful naïveté to Lore’s youth, but also a classically paradoxical sexual component. The film makes no secret of Lore’s beauty; the sight of her rising from the bathtub and moving to the window has a troubling allure, erotic but not vulgar. You can tell that this is a feminine perspective in how it uses the female body and sex to gain attention, not to titillate but rather to perturb and provoke thought—for Lore is foremost a beauty in the Aryan sense. There’s a term out there called “body fascism,” which I find redundant. Nazism at its core was always about the perfection of the Nordic anatomy—its physique and its genes—and the ugliness of all other figures, and it was as much about the propagation of the Aryan race as it was about wiping out Judaism. You don’t believe me? Do some research on Lebensborn and Leni Riefenstahl.

Shortland has thus made a very moral, very ingenious choice in making Lore’s coming-of-age tale a mainly sexual one, and in challenging her adolescent romanticizing of Nazism with a mature erotic conflict. Abandoned by their parents, she, Liesel and their little twin brothers Günther and Jürgen (André Frid and Mika Seidel) flee Allied persecution and head north on foot to Jutland, to their grandmother’s house. They obtain a guide through the wilderness in Thomas (Kai Malina, subtle and unsentimental), a Jew and a concentration camp escapee who knows a thing or two about survival. The sexual attraction between Lore and Thomas—buttressed by them being young and alone in the middle of rural Bavaria—is underscored by their sociopolitical and racial convictions. Lore’s taunting of Thomas’ Judaism comes off less as genuine Nazism than as a girl in a schoolyard feigning open disgust at a boy she’s crushing on, so as not to embarrass herself in front of her chums, or maybe so as to deploy a half-sane reverse psychology. Meanwhile, the kids take a liking to Thomas and decide not to take his merciful assistance of them for granted. They are still quite young, open to influence and to new horizons, not as hardened to right-wing philosophy and urban creature comforts as Lore is. The film reminded me of another Australian film, Walkabout, in which a teen girl and her little brother are stranded in the Outback and depend on an Aborigine youth to survive. There is a sexual interest between the Aborigine and the girl that goes unfulfilled because of cultural disassociation, and the boy has less difficulty adapting to the desert than his sister. But that film is overrated, ruined by a style-over-substance approach and lazy characterizations. Lore is a massive improvement.

I’m slowly putting together a long-form literary project—a satire that plays on the sexual connotation of Nazism—and Lore was an invaluable source of research, but besides that, it’s great art. We pity the title character for her constricted worldview, but we understand that she must go through hell if she is to be saved from it. Several passages stand out in her journey: her pawning of gewgaws for food; her and Thomas’ intense, multi-dimensional encounter with a predatory oarsman; her obsession with a figurine of a deer, a classic symbol of innocence lost (recall Bambi, made in 1942); her tragic run-in with Soviet soldiers; her unspoken reaction to a stunning revelation about Thomas. Denazification is seen taking shape at intermittent moments. The Allies post photos of Jewish mass graves across the countryside for all to see, and German bit roles debate whether they are authentic. At that, bear in mind: if the Nazis did hate the Jews so much, wouldn’t genocide be a logical conclusion? Did they not? Was it not? Bravely, Lore makes no blunt effort to condemn Nazism. That is the right approach. There are no clichés, no platitudes, no judgments, no maudlin manipulations. The film trusts its images to speak for themselves, and the audience to have the moral aptitude to recognize that Lore’s half-assed Nazism holds no water against her childish, even primal, emotional and physical reliance on Thomas. Shortland has only one other film to her credit: Somersault. I am now quite eager to see it. Of all the films I will have watched this month, Lore will likely go down as my favorite.

Grade: A+

To Do: No longer any use bothering to predict what I’m going to do tomorrow, since at the rate I’m going, if I say I’ll do it tomorrow, I probably won’t. All things considered, Lore was a strong enough film to earn its own entry. I owe my readers reviews of Memories of Underdevelopment, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums and Nostalghia. On that note, I’m off to watch Eternity and a Day.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Nineteen: “Lore”

31 Days of Cinema, Day One: “The Rover”

For a description of my “31 Days of Cinema” challenge, as well as the complete list of films I’ll be watching for it, click here. I was toying with WordPress and by accident made it a page instead of a post, so it won’t show up on the blog feed, but it’s online.

I said Monday I expected to start off my month-of-July “31 Days of Cinema” challenge with a bang. To the extent that I did, it was a very muted bang that quickly settled into a brooding slow burn. The Rover, Australian auteur David Michôd’s (I do admire the Francophone touch of the circumflex above the “o”) follow-up to Animal Kingdom, is a minimalist post-apocalyptic eulogy where the first film felt like the second half of an epic Jacobean bloodbath. Not that I prefer one over the other. That said, I do think Kingdom has the edge, but Rover is far from a sophomore slump, and I can confirm that its opening is a solid hook. It’s one decade after an unspecified “collapse.” A man whom the credits name Eric (Guy Pearce) pulls his car up to an Asian karaoke bar, walks in and orders a drink. Three robbers (one of whom is the versatile Scoot McNairy, here underused) are on his route, fleeing a crime scene where they wrongly think one of their own, Rey (Robert Pattinson), was killed. Things go haywire, their wagon overturns, and they jack Eric’s newer, cleaner ride. Eric gets their wagon starting up again and pursues them. The longish car chase that results is focused more on strategy than on momentum, and this gives insights into character that lesser action porn would have abandoned, and prepares viewers for the tone of all to follow.

By chance, Rey—a man-child of sorts—encounters Eric driving his posse’s wagon, and Eric takes him hostage and uses him to track down his car and its thieves, one of whom (McNairy) is Rey’s brother. (Why is Eric’s car so valuable to him? It’s not for me to answer that question.) The setup of the caustic, duty-bound loner and his wayward but charming prisoner—two men separated by personality and hierarchy, who ultimately grow to bond and learn from each other—was a cliché well before we knew what Stockholm syndrome was. Granted, the two lead actors make the most of it and turn it into art—and for those of you who demean Pattinson for his franchise work, let me remind you that there are plenty of actors who started with artsy stuff, did some time with the industry’s “tent poles,” and went back to “art” with none of their credit lost. Just because Pattinson began with Harry Potter and Twilight doesn’t mean he can’t tango with indie juggernauts such as Pearce and McNairy; he can, and Rover is proof. Much of minimalism relies on acting and imagery that can evoke the poetry of what’s there: a madam who offers Eric “boys…[with skin] soft, like the inside of your arm” and fingers her wrist; a column of crucifixes on the roadside; cages full of dogs at a motel; a food store owner who forces Eric at gunpoint to buy from him; and a dwarf selling guns and playing mahjongg. Pattinson does match those evocations.

Rover’s theme is the dilemma of how to honor the dead—in particular, the dead whose deaths you feel, or are, responsible for. Eric is a cruel man, more so than an antihero, yet his cruelty emerges more from economy and a warring mentality than from evil, and Pearce’s grit and magnetism make him riveting. Eric kills plenty, yet he shows as much esteem and ritual as he can for his victims (he makes as much clear in a moving campfire scene with Rey), and he longs for the karmic justice that he knows he deserves. One would think an apocalypse ought to provide that readily. Here, it hasn’t, there is no catharsis, and that totality of deprivation—which comes with the nagging sense that Eric’s punishment is not only to live in despair, but to have to kill more—might be the film’s greatest strength. That, and Antony Partos’ music, which matches the film’s simmering tension and imploded Sisyphean vibes like a twin. If there’s another weakness I haven’t yet mentioned, it’s Natasha Braier’s photography, which is haggard when it should be taut and pensive, and which doesn’t do much with its narrow color palette and the graceful set pieces it just happens to capture. Oh, and there’s also that one abrupt soundtrack selection so jarring, I had to stop my video and exit full screen mode to see if a pop-up ad had opened. Then, I thought the particular audio recording was screwed up. But no, IMDB says the song is meant to be in the film, even if Michôd ought to have cut it. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you hear it. Man, that came out of nowhere.

Grade: B+

Tomorrow: we head to Russia to see who’s been diagnosed with The Asthenic Syndrome.

31 Days of Cinema, Day One: “The Rover”