From a Melbourne author’s second novel (shortlisted for the 2023 Age Book of the Year) to a 19th century Austrian poet’s only novel. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.

Tim is reading…
Paul Dalgarno (to name just one)

Paul Dalgarno’s A Country of Eternal Light impresses again and again. 

I’ve always liked and admired and sought to learn from those authors whose writing seems to contain the whole story – if not in every sentence, then in each finely constructed and crafted paragraph. Details and narrative, sensuality, emotion and texture almost collapse upon themselves like an imploding universe, then to announce themselves renewed in the next paragraph.

I think it was in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, where his stated objective was that the reader could open the book anywhere and start there, that excited my imagination. A Country of Eternal Light achieves that free-form structural feat. Each time I read, I feel I’m wandering through a gallery containing intensely moving vignettes of normal life that could have been shaped and crafted by Fabergé. We all have favourite writers, whom our reading of seems to create new patterns in our creative minds as we dive into literature wide-eyed and excited. For me, Milan Kundera, Jeanette Winterson, Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels are the writers who stand out as having this ability to conjure that miracle which is probably poetry, and I’m happy to add Paul Dalgarno to that list.   

As I try to learn what that mysterious alchemical substance at the heart of writing is, I experiment and guess that poetry is a hummingbird hovering alongside and within the flower of possibility of a piece of writing, shaping and reworking a text so that it is less square. But poetry is also the cow in a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon playing a prank on a human by ringing their doorbell then resuming their place chewing grass on the lawn. To the human’s bemusement when they open the door there’s nobody there. Poetry has its own story and flow and sense of time and is fiercely independent but now and then it allows us a glimpse of what it is that it does. Something along the lines of the CGI in Christopher Nolan’s film Inception is the first visual that springs to mind, but on a more personal level, it feels like the pleasure of having a thought and not feeling any pressure to write that thought down.    

I’ve also recently reread the opening four ‘Orphan X’ thrillers by Gregg Hurwitz that a customer put me onto a few years ago, for no other reason than that I enjoy them and the sense of cosmic justice they contain. My current ferry read is Michael Connelly’s The Concrete Blonde. I’m also rereading Cixin Liu’s amazing sci-fi trilogy that begins with The Three Body Problem and eagerly look forward to the TV production that’s being made by the team who put ‘Game of Thrones’ onto our screens. This is another case of customer suggestions leading me towards books that become instant favourites, so thanks for that.

In my own research I’m reading a recent-ish biography of the painter Piet Mondrian by Hans Janssen; a history of the early days in the careers of The Marx Brothers Four of the Three Musketeers by Robert S Bader that is so detailed it’s an absurdist wonder in itself; Volume One of a history of the American Labor Movement by Philip S Foner that I picked up down at Thames Street Wharf (so thanks to the person who left Vols 1 and 2 there); and continue to transcribe from Richard Sennett’s The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities as an exercise that feels worthwhile.

Kate is reading…
Rilke’s only novel

I picked up the curiously titled The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge about six years ago, just as I was about to uproot myself and move interstate. In that move, many things fell by the wayside or got forgotten or lost – one being that slim little green book, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel.

A book unfinished isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it can be a good thing, if that specific story doesn’t exert any magnetic power on you to turn the next page. Life really is too short to grind away at books that bore (the fallacy of sunk cost, in all its variations, can be an unspeakably tragic time-waster).

However, The Notebooks wasn’t such a book. Having initially read only twenty pages or so, I began again, and swirled into the sometimes obscure and often rapturous pedigree of Rilke’s prose. The work is the invented diaries of the titular character, Brigge, who as a still-young man, is undergoing some kind of existential crisis, alone in the city of Paris. Increasingly, we slip back in time to scenes from his childhood – of his imperious father and ailing mother, and the unnerving afflictions which set his life apart.

Some of Rilke’s sentences lose me; some thrill me. I submitted two to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘One Great Sentence’ section in their Booklist newsletter (a good one for readers! #unpaidpromo), and one happened to get featured. Here are both (one follows on from the next):

The fear that a small thread of wool sticking out of the hem of the blanket might be hard, hard and sharp as a needle; the fear that this little button on my nightshirt might be larger than my head, large and heavy; the fear that this crumb of bread, falling right now from the bed, might be glass when it hits the floor, and smash, and the oppressive worry that, when it does, everything will be shattered, everything, for ever; the fear that the edge of a torn-open letter might be something forbidden which no one shoud see, something indescribably precious for which no place in the room is safe enough; the fear that if I fell asleep, I might swallow that lump of coal in front of the stove; the fear that some number might start growing inside my brain, till there is is not enough space for it in me; the fear that what I am lying on might be granite, grey granite; the fear that I might scream, and people would come running and gather at my door and force it open; the fear that I might betray myself and speak of everything I am afraid of; and the fear that I might not be able to say anything, because it is all beyond saying – and the other fears… the fears. I prayed to have my childhood, and it has come back again, and I sense that it is as heavy a burden as it was then, and that growing older has served no purpose at all.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

See what I mean? Quite extraordinary.

Another book, which I have just cracked open: Raised by Wolves by Jess Ho. We had Jess at an author event last year, and they were probably (definitely) the coolest person we’ve had behind the mic in my opinion. As I’m not too far in, I’ll leave talking about it till next month. So far though? Love.