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SPOTLIGHT: Ruth Quibell & Damon Young talk Favourite Books

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I have great pleasure today in hosting two amazing writers and thinkers on the blog today. Dr Ruth Quibell is a sociologist who writes articles for publications such as The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Dr Damon Young is a philosopher whose most recent book Philosopher in the Garden was one of my favourite non-fiction books of the year. They also happen to be married to each other.

Today they get together to talk about some of their favourite books. We are in for a treat!


The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir
The Laughing Man by Victor Hugo
Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Bloomsbury Lions by Leon Edel
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Ruth: When we first knew each other, one of the things I liked about you was seeing the books on your literature shelf. Seeing we'd read some of the same things, or you had books I wanted to read. It gave me a sense of your inner life - what I couldn't see but knew would have to be there for you to have read such things. We could converse about characters, motivations, in a way we don't share with most other people. And that's just deepened the more books we've shared.

The Blood of Others comes from this early time. It's interwoven with making choices about who I would be, and coming up against someone who already was who they were.

Damon: Yes, that's right. There was often a double discovery. I'd be entering into Beauvoir's world of wartime Paris, and the existential drama of commitment and sacrifice. But I'd also be encountering your psyche; ideas and emotions that were invisible in the office. At that time, you seemed a little paralysed, to be honest. The Blood of Others was freeing somehow. (So liberating, it's now lost.)

Ruth: Yes, it was The Blood of Others that made the biggest impact on me. I was befuddled by my PhD at the time, scared and wary of committing to anything significant. I have to admit I'm hazy on the story details now, but I remember the female protagonist's shift in character. She becomes a character: less self-absorbed, more courageous with convictions. A literary parallel, perhaps?

Damon: Yes, as in The Golden Bowl: it's quite overwhelming, actually. Seeing an 'I' become.

Ruth: Speaking of which, The Laughing Man comes from that intense time just before we became parents, some seven years later. The tragic story seemed to help me come to terms with the enormity of what we were doing. The leap into the unknown. I finished it in a flood of tears the day before Nikos was born.

Damon: I also cried. Bloody Victor Hugo. I remember the final scene: the wolf, Homo, howling with grief into the black Thames. It's a manipulative book, but I didn't feel coerced. It got to me because it portrayed my ambivalence: full of love, but vulnerable. Pregnancy and parenthood made everything more raw.

Ruth: Report to Greco was not long after. It's the first book that had me writing down passages for their beauty. His London park bench descriptions of German bombers so far from the kindly birds Leonardo imagined.

Damon: He is so over-the-top, Kazantzakis -- but somehow he is sincere and not hokey. But there must be more to this than style?

Ruth: For me it is the permission to be sincere, and the sense of life as something great and wonderful to be experienced without trepidation.

Damon: Yes, that's it: there's a kind of nihilism (from Buddhism), but no cynicism. It's enlivening.

Ruth: Hemingway's A Moveable Feast wasn't so moving, but it made a literary impact. He's an economical yarn-spinner. I can't help liking him. This is one of the books I read during a month-long illness. I don't quite believe him but I loved his account of travelling through France with F Scott Fitzgerald. And I learnt a lot from his observations and his cool, restrained style. I wanted to read this again but you urged me not to. Why?

Damon: Good question. I can't remember, but it might've been the danger of his style. Hemingway can be a fantastic remedy for purple prose -- I used him to undo the damage done to my writing by Henry James' Victorian meanderings. But he can also suck you into a pretentious terseness, which hides literary cowardice behind false simplicity. Instead of daring to be 'literary', you play it safe. But I suspect I'm more vulnerable to this than you. Perhaps I just thought you needed to read something new,  rather than turning back to something familiar? This was years ago, I'm afraid...

Ruth: The Bloomsbury group have often been helpful for us. I read Edel's Bloomsbury Lions after you, when Sophia (our second child) was around 10 months. I'd just finished up the final hectic year of a Research Fellowship, with a toddler and new baby, and was wondering what to do next. This is when I started reading biographies, partly out of curiosity, partly because I wanted to see a whole narrative. I was so much in the chaotic midst of my own! Reading Edel reminded me that no one really knows how it will all play out, but that keeping on working, making, doing - in various forms - is crucial, rather than drifting.

Damon: That book was impressive: great storytelling about the Bloomsbury mob. It took me out of the suburbs, out of kindergarten pickup and chit-chat, and kept up a connection with literary and intellectual ambition.  It was also a testament to their devotion to work. This is something I've discovered in so many biographies: Henry James, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Voltaire, Colette. They just bloody laboured, day after day. After all the anguish and grief and illness and hunger, the work remains.

Having said this, so many had no children (or were very distant parents): their days and psyches were freer. You and I have few well-known precedents!

Ruth: I'm always surprised at the absence of children. But it's hard not to envy the amount of undivided work time that Virginia and Leonard had at their disposal. And servants to clean and bring meals too. This surely justifies having a dishwasher. 

Damon: Mrs. Dalloway said she would wash the dishes herself...

Ruth: There are also reassuring surprises for anyone trying to make ends meet while working creatively. For instance, it was years before Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell made any decent money from writing or art!

Damon: I agree, but I'm also wary of this. It can be consoling to believe that, some day, real money will arrive. But these writers are remembered partly for their unusual success. Even Henry James, who was always worried about money, drove his pen to a handsome bourgeois lifestyle. We, on the other hand, might publish many good books and essays, and be living like students forever.

Ruth: I think I'm resigned to that. Mostly...

On a lighter note, Ex Libris, is a good illustration of the writing craft. The essay on combining libraries was something we'd navigated too.

Damon: We're still doing it, in this conversation! What I enjoy about Fadiman is how she takes notice: the impression of patience she gives, even when writing about caffeinated jitters. She's not just rushing by, oblivious. This is something that drew me to you: your interest in small details, particularly things. You notice colours, textures, shapes. (But not humans. Funny sociologist.) And, yes, as an essayist she's very fine. I use her to teach economy to writing students: just how much of a world can be suggested in a few lines.

Ruth: It's also the honest, small details about her own relationships and fairly trivial worries of daily life: her daughter hanging out at the mall, her son chewing gum, frozen sushi in the suburbs.

Damon: Yes, it brings us into a recognisable world of intimacy, but with some freshness -- familiar but not hackneyed.

Ruth: Swimming Home is the most recent book we've both read. It's like nothing else. I can't imagine finding another book like it. Hard, crisp, human. I wasn't quite strong enough for it, but it's one I'm relieved and glad to have shared.

Damon: I was relieved, knowing you 'got' it. I had recommended it to others, and they weren't moved. So seeing you gutted by Levy's prose and psychological analyses was like a quiet renewal of the marriage vows. As if you were saying: 'We're in this together.'

PS: from Kate

I so want to have you both over for dinner so I can join the conversation! I'm ashamed to say that I've only read one of these books (Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast) but I've just bought Report to Greco and I'm thinking about Bloomsbury Lions and Ex Libris too. 

Thanks so much for letting us eavesdrop on you!

BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Garden by Damon Young

Monday, December 16, 2013

Title: Philosophy In The Garden
Author: Damon Young
Publisher: Melbourne University Press 
Age Group & Genre: Non-Fiction for Adults/Philosophy
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth 

The Blurb:
Why did Marcel Proust have bonsai beside his bed? What was Jane Austen doing, coveting an apricot? How was Friedrich Nietzsche inspired by his ‘thought tree'?

In Philosophy in the Garden, Damon Young explores one of literature's most intimate relationships: authors and their gardens. For some, the garden provided a retreat from workaday labour; for others, solitude's quiet counsel. For all, it played a philosophical role: giving their ideas a new life. 

Philosophy in the Garden reveals the profound thoughts discovered in parks, backyards and pot-plants. It does not provide tips for mowing overgrown cooch grass, or mulching a dry Japanese maple. It is a philosophical companion to the garden's labours and joys. 

What I Thought: 
I have always been interested in philosophy and have tried my hand at reading books on the subject over the years, usually to find myself baffled and even, if I’m to be truthful, a little humiliated. Why can’t anyone ever express themselves a little more clearly?  I’d think. Is it them or is it me?

Nonetheless, I continue to be interested in ideas. I am also utterly fascinated by the lives – both inner and outer – of writers and creative artists.

Plus, of course, I love gardens. I spend a little bit of time in my own garden nearly every day. I love to see things I have grown and cared for flourish, I love the sense of creating order out of chaos, and I have a transcendental longing for beauty. 

So the title of Damon Young’s new book ‘Philosophy in the Garden’ caught my eye as soon as it was released. I read it slowly – one chapter every few days or so, whilst reading other novels in between. I found it utterly engaging and most illuminating. 

Damon is Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and has written a number of books that bring together philosophical ideas with popular culture. His style is very readable and full of wit and personality. For example, he describes Aristotle has being known for his ‘schmick wardrobe and bling.’ Reading his work is like hanging out in a bar late at night, drinking cosmopolitans, and arguing about whether God really exists or whether He (She? It?) is just a fictive construct created to fulfil an existential human longing (whilst trying not to slur the word ‘existential’ too much). 

The premise of the book is very simple. Damon has examined, in a series of short and lively essays, the lives of half-a-dozen authors in relation to their garden (or lack of garden) with a particular focus on their philosophies. I was very familiar with some of the writers’ work (Jane Austen, George Orwell, Emily Dickinson), had tried and failed to read some of the others (Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre) and had never heard of one (Nikos Kazantzakis). 

Each chapter was full of illuminations and insights. I knew Jane Austen loved her garden but did not realise that her writing suffered when she was away from it. I was particularly enamoured of one of Damon’s points in this essay, regarding the scene in ‘Pride & Prejudice’ in which Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time (as Damon says, this scene is ‘known across the civilised world as the home of Colin Firth’s wet shirt’). This is the one scene in P&P that I have never liked, because I thought it made Elizabeth seem to start liking Darcy more because of the wealth of his possessions. However, Damon interprets the scene a little differently. The garden reflects Darcy’s soul – beautiful, ordered, tasteful, and serene. ‘She had never seen,’ Austen wrote, ‘a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste.’ Damon goes on to show how this ordered and serene approach to gardening reflected Jane Austen’s own life and philosophy, and so not only made me see one of my favourite authors more clearly, but has deepened my love for one of my all-time favourite books. This is a true gift … and Damon repeated this revelation for me in the chapter on Emily Dickinson, quite possibly the poet I love the most. 

I also learnt a great deal.

I did not know Proust kept bonsai by his bed, or that Friedrich Nietzsche lived in a ménage a trois (this was one chapter when I’d have liked to have had a whole lot more details!) I also had never understood Nietzschean philosophy before and now I feel as if I could, with a little more reading and thinking. In fact, I went and googled Nietzsche, and spent a few hours reading up on him. 

I also discovered a new author, one of the greatest gifts anyone can give me.

I had never heard of Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the authors Damon examines, but just listen to this:

‘Words! Words! There is no other salvation! I have nothing in my power but twenty-four little lead soldiers. I will mobilise. I will raise an army.’

It’s something I could have written myself, so exactly does it express my own evangelist love of words and books. I am now searching out the work of Kazantzakis, so look forward to some more raving on him in the future.

Thank you, Damon!

Damon’s blog 


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