Tim Winton is one of my favourite Australian writers. He writes strong, muscular prose – his writing is very physical – and because his writing is pared down, it works at a straightforward and powerful level.
Breath is about two boys who catch the surfing bug. Winton captures the breathless rough and tumble of 12 year olds, living in a small, boring Australian town near the coast – you’re THERE, with every page you turn. It’s a coming of age novel that moves from surfing Nirvana, into sexual adventure, the repercussions of which morph into a lifetime of adult struggle.
I’m forever reading respectful praise of Hemingway’s writing – how unadorned it is. I’m no Hemingway fan, all that macho posturing leaves me stone cold, whereas Winton, equally unadorned, delivers breathtaking novels, every time. To me he’s the Australian colossus – telling it like it is, with memorable characters, and landscapes that dance before your very eyes.
I wish I could write like Winton does! If you’ve never tried his books, do yourself a favour and read Breath. I’ve read it twice, and am quite sure I shall read it again in a year or two.
I had to read this novel in little sips, due to its ponderous, ornate style. In short, it tells the tale of Miss Frieda Wroth who is engaged to be the typewriter to the novelist Mr Henry James, at his home in Rye, on the coast. The year is 1907. The typewriter was viewed as a newfangled thing, ditto the young women who went out and earned their living, whether by typing or other means. Shock/horror. Frieda typed on a Remington typewriter, as did I, in my first job in 1959 in a positively Dickensian lawyer’s office in Bulawayo. Any firm that is called Calderwood, Bryce Hendrie, Smith & Abercrombie belongs in the pages of Dickens, not in central Africa!
The Remingtons were solid metal beasts that left the typists’ fingers aching with the physical effort of striking hard at the unyielding metal keys. People have no idea how lucky they are these days with touch-screen typing and ergonomically designed desktop keyboards.
But I digress. I don’t know enough about Henry James and his work to say whether Michiel Heyns wrote the novel in a parody of James’ style, or whether he wrote it as a homage to the Master. All I know is the slow, ponderous elegance of the narrative took a lot of getting used to, as did the florid words like ‘lucubrations’ and ‘disquisition’. When the reader has to scurry off to the dictionary every page or two, it makes for a lengthy reading process. Fortunately the novel was not that long.
Having read the novel I have no desire to try any of Henry James work in the original. I have a vague recollection of trying to read one of James’ novels (possibly The Bostonians ? I forget now) and abandoning it around page five as being altogether too high flown and tedious. It must be said that Michiel Heyns interjected quite a lot of humour into the narrative, for which I was thankful, but it was humour of a quiet sort. Understated is the word I am hunting for.
Accustomed as I am to the modern novel which generally moves along at a brisk pace (I’m thinking of Australian Tim Winton’s superb, pared down style) these quasi-Edwardian novels are not for me. And I was taken aback to see the excruciatingly meticulous notes MH adds to the end of the novel, rectifying with scrupulous care details of Henry James’ life & times that he, Heyns, had fictionalised. The back cover informed me that MH was until recently Professor of English at Stellenbosch University, so I suppose it is academic good manners to do this sort of thing.