It is a rare pleasure to hear an author read their work; having unfettered access to their words through the immediacy of voice is a privilege. In this Four for Fifty Reading Session entitled Mining a Life, ‘writing of self’ from different forms was offered up to the public, free of charge.
Anne Kennedy introduced the session, and the challenges inherent in this type of undertaking. Here the writer needs to manage the tensions between introspection and public revelation, and few can ‘successfully shuttle back and forth’.
First up was Catherine Chidgey, reading from Beat of the Pendulum, which she described as a ‘found novel’. For the course of 2016 she recorded snippets of conversation and shaped them into a book. Her confident reading brought life and rhythm to the fragments, and teased the audience with both the playful and the uncomfortable. A fight with her husband is briefly recorded one day; the next entry makes use of phrases from a competitive home renovation reality TV show to speak back to this. ‘We chose to expose the sewage pipes’; ‘They started with good bones but don’t seem to have vision’; ‘It’s a veneer, its faux’.
Durga Chew-Bose, described as part of the feminist vanguard and one who explores the ‘complexity of the millennial experience’, read from her acclaimed collection Too Much and Not in the Mood. Her essay ‘Since Living Alone’ gently swept us away in a flow of visual details, an atmosphere of solitude, the intimacies of self and various other lyrical detours. She took us from the ‘false sense of accomplishment’ of aiding an avocado to ripen overnight, The God Father Two, and meditations on the privacy of kindness to how a pear can deliver purpose. We never quite know how we got there, but we went willingly.
Reading selected poems from three volumes that span fourteen years of her life, New Zealander Anna Livesey’s focused on the domestic: birth, death and parenthood. The ones from her most recent collection Ordinary Time, struck most. Lines like ‘At 3 a.m., bare, shaved, I wanted only my mother’s / hands on me, the dark privacy of the womb restored’ – at once evoke the bonds between generations, the span of a life, and her need to feel her mother’s hands, which we have been told became ‘claw-twists of dementia’ but were once square and brown and taught her to sew.
Finally, Norwegian literary sensation Karl Ove took to the podium to read from the opening of Autumn, the first title in a new series, which unfolds in a series of letters to his unborn child. His reading is commanding and convincing – he inhabits the deceptively simple yet moving words, weaving in threads he will pick up later along the way.
‘Now as I write this you know nothing about the world…and I know nothing about you’. He expresses confidence in her safe arrival and recounts the births of his other children ‘so unalike, each a personality entirely of their own’, concluding that his daughter is already the person she will become. In an effort to show her the world now (the very reason for this book) he describes how he pruned one of the fruit trees in the garden, and so taken with his task, ended up ‘maiming it’. Yet come summer it burst forth in brilliant greens. Gardening has taught him ‘there is no reason to be anxious about anything – life is robust’.
Each of the authors will appear again over the weekend.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson