Monday, 24 September 2012

Event: Elliot Perlman Book Club Visit

Elliot Perlman, Australian barrister and author of three novels and one short story collection, affectionately calls Shearer’s Bookshop his second home, although he lives in Melbourne.

On this, his third visit since October 2011, he enthralled Shearer’s book club members for over an hour and a half with an intimate round-table discussion of his works - focusing mainly on his book of short stories, The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, named for one of the stories within the collection.

Perlman admitted that it was short stories which launched his literary career. After winning The Age Short Story Award in 1994 for The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, another of the short stories he was writing kept growing to become his first novel, Three Dollars, which was published in 1998. This in turn, was produced as a film in 2005, directed by Robert Connolly, and starring David Wenham and Frances O'Connor.

His collection of short stories was published in 1999. Perlman refers to this volume as the “little brother or sister” often overshadowed by the three big novels (Three Dollars, Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Street Sweeper). In most countries the first story in the collection is “Your niece’s speech night”, but in the USA it opens with “Good morning, again”, a shorter, more concrete story which has proved very popular with the American readers.

Elliot admitted that much of his writing has a melancholy tone. He had toyed with the idea of naming his volume of short stories, Men Who Fail, but this would discount those male characters who do make a final heroic act of love, which the other characters in the stories are either oblivious to, or who, tragically, come to realise too late.

Perlman is most concerned with the Shakespearean idea of never giving a character a bad line. He aims to portray even the “baddies” in a rounded way, providing them with redeeming characteristics rather than presenting them as only black or white.  He is concerned with the themes of politics and culture and especially condemns the current love affair of governments to an economic rationalism that is destroying the humanity of ordinary people when they are confronted with “un(der)employment” and its consequent poverty.

This theme is beautifully portrayed in the first story of the collection, “Your niece’s speech night” where the male character is aware of the soul-destroying task that his girlfriend is undertaking in his workplace, and he wants to offer her a gift of love to sustain her when she, herself, becomes aware of what she has done.

Perlman also beautifully and powerfully portrays his interest in the theme of culture in “I was only in a childish way connected to the established order”.  Here, he juxtaposes a lover of poetry in Australia, where poetry is considered to be so lowly a profession that a man could die of starvation should he wish to write it, with the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, where in the totalitarian Stalinist regime, poetry was considered so powerful, a poet could be killed for writing it.  

These themes stem in part from his family background of Eastern European Jewish descent (Russia and Poland) but he is quick to discount any direct autobiographical link to the final story in the collection, “A tale in two cities”. It is the longest in the collection and is practically a novella.  This story describes the humiliations endured by Jews living in Communist Russia and then of those experienced in Australia once they have been relocated. It reads as a tantalizing precursor to The Street Sweeper - his highly acclaimed novel published in 2011.

Perlman admits that he is unable to write with the descriptive poetic style that is currently popular in literary fiction, so he turns to one of his favourite authors, Graham Greene, as inspiration.  He describes Greene as "a master of beautifully crisp, clean and spare prose". Perlman’s stories are all the more poignant because of his choice of understated spare prose.

Perlman explained that the best part of writing was speaking directly to people who had come to meet him and ask questions. Although, as a political writer he has endured the criticisms of those who oppose his views, he has avoided being the recipient of trolls as he does not participate in social media at all. He does not have a Twitter account, nor is he on Facebook, or have a Blog. He prefers to protect the mystery of the author.  He reflected on how today’s parents are the first generation to have to deal with their children using (and perhaps abusing) the internet.  And he is interested in what humanity will learn from this over time.

We thank Elliot Perlman for a most illuminating evening, for his candour and generosity and for his bravery in portraying the political issues which need to be aired and discussed by our community. We look forward to further hearing his views on Q&A tonight!

Q&A: Tonight ABC1 9.35pm

- Jane

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