My second Melbourne Writers Festival event was another TV show, this time the filming of the ABC’s popular First Tuesday Book Club, screening next Tuesday on 1 September (look out for me in the front row clapping and laughing on cue).
There was a palpable sense of excitement from the mostly middle-aged women as we were led onto the red-draped set and into our seats. In case you were wondering, the books in the background are fake and the shelves I really think are the IKEA Expedit range that I have in my house!
The session began with petite host Jennifer Byrne giving us a megawatt smile and introducing her co-hosts Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger, along with the week’s special guests: British author, essayist, librettist and critic Philip Hensher; and Australian author, the bard of Brunswick, Shane Maloney.
The tone of the show was an stimulating debate amongst friends. There was an easy-going banter between the panellists as they discussed their different viewpoints on Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and the classic The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. [Spoiler alert] The former was a duo of traveller’s tales, two novellas which were very different but came as a pair. Opinion was divided on whether it was an enjoyable book or not. Marieke felt that the main character was repulsive, the sex scenes grubby and the whole exercise frustrating, uncomfortable and pointless. The other panellists found the limpid and drifting main character intriguing, the ambiguity teasing and they interpreted a deeper meaning in the book – the idea that life was happening elsewhere, that a part of the human condition is that there is always a chance of salvation in our meaningless lives but the tragedy is that we may not recognise it. As such, the book was a study in indignity, shame and loss of self.
The panel was much more in agreement about the magnificent writing in The Leopard, a history of the downfall of the Italian aristocracy after the unification of Italy in the 1860s. The initial discussion was about the central role of food which had everyone in the audience salivating (in fact, Shane had served the timbale (macaroni pie) described in the book in another Melbourne Writers Festival session). Then they moved into a general discussion of the elegiac tone and the beautiful melancholy of the text, quoting scenes which they considered to have unforgettable power. I came away inspired to read it, so the book club achieved its aim.
If you want to get a jump ahead, next month they’ll be discussing Sarah Waters‘ The Little Stranger, and John Fante’s Ask the Dust.