review of The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee

An extract from Judith’s A Common Reader, which is available postfree for $10:

Click here to order (for some reason right now the price given on this link is $15. Never fear, you will be charged $10!)

The entire work is a journey into the books of Coetzee and the consequent impact on the author. Or, as Judith put it in flippant moment:

This discursive account of a literary pilgrimage in search of J.M. Coetzee is a remarkable addition to the ‘immersion memoir’ genre, this time not from the American deep south, but from the even deeper south of Australia. The literature of quest arrives in Adelaide, with no rings attached.

Last year I discovered that reading Coetzee is an act of faith. Read confidently and trust. It will all work out in the end. Here, once again, Coetzee is writing about almost everything that matters to him, and one of those things is the telling of stories; humans are the animals which tell their own stories. We all need to create our own stories and having done so are faced with the perpetual need to keep reinventing them to the end of our days. Perhaps this is why we find religions so seductive: written by Masters, the meanings are embodied in the narratives. I have no desire to resist this latest novel by J.M. Coetzee, this parable for Post-Christians.

From the indifferent to the well-disposed, the denizens of the country in which Simon, with small boy David in tow, arrives as a refugee, are curiously bland and passionless, cleansed of memory; the required reinvention of personality has caused a diminution. Although narrated in the third person it is from the viewpoint of Simon that this story is told, a wise choice. Simon is a man of substance in an insubstantial world; he has nothing, but he is something, a man with conviction. He is going to re-unite David with his mother; he goes about this with a dream-like intensity.

There is often an element of enchantment in Coetzee’s novels. Even the most realistic novel is not reality, but an image serving the purpose of the writer. The novelist who eschews this reality and writes a novel which is manifestly fantastic runs the risk of losing meanings unless the inspiration is so deep that the narrative flows from sources so profound as to be atavistic. This happens in The Childhood of Jesus. At times, myth and folk tale tapestry surface moments of some humour. Simon, so prosaic, so worthy, so sure of his own mission, so convinced and so convincing, is frustrated by the quixotic boy, David (not his real name), who knows that he is the third brother. Simon, not altogether patiently, points out that he can never be anything other than a first-born. To Simon this is stubbornness; to the unreal world this indicates Special Needs, a kind of dyslexia with numbers. Coetzee has a lot of fun with numbers, fun in triplicate you might say.

One of the endearing qualities of Coetzee’s work is the respect that is paid to the great writers of our past. Here Cervantes receives due homage. Simon attempts to teach David to read using An Illustrated Children’s Don Quixote. David recognises Don Quixote as one of his own. Simon takes on the role of Sancho, who knows a windmill when he sees one. In another thread in the narrative David is more trickster than saint: he knows about sorceresses, he wants to be a magician, he wants to be invisible. One mentor is Simon, but David is equally susceptible to the miscreant Daga, mercurial, violent, destructive of the social order, contemptuous of the social contract. Daga is one of David’s own, too. Follow this thread to leave the realms of romance for the picaresque, that other great Spanish tradition.

Uneasily, Simon does his best, dutifully, optimistically, to forge on. A motley carload – mother Ines, the son David, the hitchhiker Juan, the dog – driven by Simon, arrives in Estrellita. We are ‘looking for somewhere to stay, to start our new life’. Is this a novel about refugees? Well, yes, but we are all in the same boat.

Brian Brock’s latest book

The evocative cover of Hunter's Place
The evocative cover of Hunter’s Place

In Pioneer Books’ publishing days, the book I had most pleasure in type-setting was one of Brian’s. Good poetry will appeal to the eye, as well as to the ear. I don’t mean that it is the type-setting that makes this appeal, but that it will be inherent in the poetry, the type-setter has no hard job here.

Times change, Pioneer Books with the exception of Judith’s recent forays into writing, has ceased its publishing. The association must still be there if only in memory and history, as Brian asked Monica to speak at the launch of his latest book of poetry. Here is my mother’s address:

Brian Brock Launch 6-3-13

I have known Brian for many years and was privileged, through Pioneer Books, to be involved in the publication of three of his earlier collections of verse. When I asked Brian for some biographical background relevant to his writing, he began by telling me that he was born in the Tumby Bay hospital in 1936, while the king was abdicating and the matron’s cat was giving birth to a litter of kittens. There is no evidence that Brian’s advent into the world activated either of these events. Nevertheless, we are pleased to see that he has long outlived the new king and, presumably, many generations of kittens.

To read, as I did, Brian’s summary of his life experiences is to be entertained; but it is also to be impressed by the variety and extent of those experiences. Whether he is on an orchard in the Riverland, or teaching in Papua or Zambia, or working with University students here in Adelaide, a keen awareness of nature takes over and informs his way of life. As a teacher, he has necessarily touched the lives of many others, imbuing them with his concerns and enthusiasms.

In a world clouded by materialism and cynicism, Brian has retained his sense of humour and his idealism; but even more importantly, he has preserved a sense of wonder for the natural world, and is able to impart this to his readers. His poems have always been suffused with a love of, or should I say a reverence for, the world of nature. The commonplace becomes transformed by the magic of his fascination with his surroundings.

Thus, a ‘battered little feather’ becomes a ‘gift from the gods’, bringing ‘spectral lights’; spiders threads are ‘trapezed between grass stems’; after the bushfire we are made conscious of the ‘smell of moist air on ashes’; the ‘trees on De Salis are sounding, sounding like the sea’; the morning sun turns yellow box leaves into ‘diamond-edged discs’; a ‘day well-spent’ embraces counting kangaroos, fencing, birdwatching, and, climactically, finding Broken Horn and her newborn calf.

Brian transports us into his world and his experiences become ours. It does not matter if we have never been in the environs of Hunter’s Place – Brian takes us there, a sensory journey bathed in the warmth of his affection and the subtlety and gentleness of his humour.

I have much pleasure in sending ‘Hunter’s Place’ out into the world, and it is particularly appropriate that this celebration takes place during Writers’ Week.

I will end by asking Brian to read some of the poems to us, and to talk to us, if he will, about the writing of them.

As befits Monica's first calling of teacher, Brian and Judith pay rapt attention to her words.
As befits Monica’s first calling of teacher, Brian and Judith pay rapt attention to her words.

As I write this post I’m sitting in Geneva, and much as I’m a city girl in my element here, nonetheless, the pictures evoked by Brian’s poems could not fail to make me homesick.

Brian reads from his latest book.
Brian reads from his latest book.

Here is one:


Three fire trucks
backburning from Smith’s Road.
worried by “lights of new suburbs”
flaring over ranges
is genuinely pleased
at D’s gift
a cask of White
to help him through the stress.
We broach it
in his BBQ shelter
on the banks of the Murrumbidgee
near the peregrine’s big pool,
then back off
past roaring “roman candles”
funnelling flame and sparks
into the night sky.

Judith and Monica (right) in the crowd.
Judith and Monica (right) in the crowd.

The book is $20 plus postage and available from Ginninderra Press

‘Reading Hunters’ Place is a beautiful journey, an experiencing of sorts, the way life can be seen as a series of occurrences, interruptions, filled with the activity of daily grind against a rural background filled with its own
surprises and dramas. Whether it’s waking up in fog or mending fences, smelling the coffee or taking that trip up the dirt track into the closest town, every moment is captured with a startling precision. Indeed, the poet is careful and his considerations acknowledge and recognise this wonderful country we live in’ Richard Hillman

Wherein we enter a short story competition…

….and lose. Sigh. But nonetheless, recorded here for posterity is Judith’s entry:


Judith Crabb


I know about writing short stories. It’s like learning to ride a bike. Although it’s not much less than fifty years since I have written one, I haven’t forgotten. A short story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. When I was young, and being creative was something you did in English lessons in school, I interpreted being ‘creative’ as being ‘different’. So I tried out beginning with the end of the story, and ending with the beginning. My creativity was singularly unappreciated. Some of the responses were downright sarcastic.

I also interpreted ‘creative’ to mean fancy words. I had a stock list from which I flavoured my stories, so that the boiled egg of my prose would receive a quick squirt of Worcestershire sauce to liven it up a bit. This did not increase my popularity either. One year my teacher, bleary-eyed, no doubt from the reams of marked stories sitting on her desk, singled me out. I hoped she was about to express awe at the latter-day Katherine Mansfield she had discovered in her class, a pupil of whom she could speak, in her declining years, with pride and reverence. (As she was at least thirty, I didn’t expect that those years were very distant.) ‘Judith,’ she said, ‘if you ever use the word “malevolent” again I shall run screaming into the mulga.’ They may not have been her exact words, but that’s what she meant. I gather that, throughout the term, the word had been sprouting like a pustule on my otherwise unmemorable narrative endeavours.

I can see that this story has begun with digressions. I’m sure that can’t be right. It should begin in suburban Adelaide, in a car park belonging to the Salvation Army. The sheds and bins and fences sport the evidence of aesthetic challenge in the local youth; the Hall itself looks the architectural equivalent of a Big Mac, which is possibly why they leave it alone. I myself, true daughter of Adelaide that I am, prefer my religion with lashings of Gothic Revival, not the dollops of ketchup this building seems to suggest. I would choose to start in more inspiriting surroundings, but I am being as truthful as possible, although everyone knows that that may not make for a good story. Perhaps this is an example of our stories selecting us, not us our stories.

Every week the bitumen of the car park blooms with an unlikely efflorescence of furniture, bric-a-brac, clothing and books. On a hot and gritty day I line up with a cross-section of this Adelaide neighbourhood: Afghans, Africans, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Asians, Europeans, and a sprinkling of the Indigenous, in ages spanning the decades from infants in pushers to retirees on walking frames. In front of me is Wakako from Japan, who emigrated here in 1967, and behind me is a Scot, Lesley, an immigrant of barely eight years’ residence. Australians all, we are here to trawl through the boxes of donated goods. Many of the women are here for clothing, mounded on tarpaulins; many buy for extended family, many to supplement incomes by selling at trash and treasure markets. Technologically savvy young mothers sell on the internet. I come for the books. It is a cheerful place, a shining example of racial harmony if you need one. As we wait, our stories travel across time and place. Have I read Memoirs of a Geisha? Wakako prefers detective books, but she is here primarily for the clothing. We watch the weekly ritual. The trestle goes up, the cash register is positioned, the coffee is served for the volunteers. Let the show begin.

As I leave I catch a glimpse of Wakako holding up a pair of slacks and eyeing them speculatively, her diminutive form rising sprite-like from a sea of clothing. I leave with Youth by J.M. Coetzee. I walk home and, with tea and cake, sit down with the book, but I must not read it, because I find that J.M. Coetzee has also written Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. Begin at the beginning. Next day the local library supplies what I need, and I discover that Boyhood is a kind of template for autobiographical writing, spare in content and unsparing in its analysis of the human condition. But… I discover in it what I believe to be a monstrous mistake! That hero of my childhood, Captain Oates – I can still visualize the Sanitarium swap card of his struggling against the blizzard as he staggers to his doom – is named ‘Titus’ Oates. No! Titus Oates was a foul villain, Lawrence Oates was a noble hero. Both Coetzee and I were children of the Empire (British, of course). Our history was the story of altruistic endeavour, or vile self-serving – it seemed easy once to tell the difference. Why, I ask in the letter I send Coetzee, has he not corrected this egregious error?

In 1958 I airmailed a letter to Enid Blyton. The letter included a subscription for membership of the Famous Five Club. I am still waiting for a reply and especially for the badge which will make me instantly recognisable to all other club members. Since then I have been somewhat reluctant to contact authors. However, most unexpectedly, and to my profound delight, J.M. Coetzee emails a reply: Captain Oates was called ‘Titus’ by his friends (English sense of humour). The other question I ask – Which novel by J.M. Coetzee should I read? – he, perhaps sedulously, but unsurprisingly, avoids answering. And so, at once, I decide to read them all. For someone who numbers among her favourite novels The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables this literary pilgrimage is likely to be a perilous journey. At the very least, it will be another story.

Meet our gang

A bookseller said to me the other day “I am surprised you know so little about bookselling.” I was a bit taken aback, after all, we’ve had a wonderful book business for almost forty years now. It made me think I should introduce our gang to you!

Cathy with a display at The Pash Papers launch

Cathy Well of those that make up Pioneer Books, I am certainly the most insignificant. I’ve been around books all my life, of course, as can’t help but be the case with bibliophile parents. I’m a prolific reader and writer and lots of people love my recommendations for what to read – maybe because I’m a historian, I’m generally thirty years or more behind the times, so I offer suggestions that are very fresh to people who are stuck in the latest book club and book prize lists.

Over the years I’ve collected children’s books, music, chess, bridge, science fiction, mostly in a haphazard way. My shelves at the moment include knitting, cooking, novels and a surprising amount of science, the latter due to a book I’m researching.

The books I’ve written include:

Australian Chess at the Top
(Oaklands Park, SA: Pioneer Books: March 1998)

Fair Play or Foul?: Cheating Scandals in Bridge
(Oaklands Park, SA: Pioneer Books: November 1998)

Maud Jean Franc: A Feminist Response to the Novels
(Oaklands Park, SA: Pioneer Books: February 1996)

I’m working, amongst other projects, on a second edition of my History of Australian Bridge, first published in the early nineties by the ABF.

I do all the internet side of Pioneer Books. If you get an email it’s from me, I maintain our website and database, write our blog.

Judith is our children’s book expert, courtesy of her many years of collecting in this area, which is not to say she doesn’t have vast knowledge of books generally, of course. She’s written various publications including:

Common: A Life Among Secondhand Books
(Oaklands Park South Australia: Pioneer Books: November 2011)

The Password Is Fortitude: An evaluation of some children’s books by Violet Needham

Judith is responsible for what we list, she is our potter-abouter, if you live in Adelaide and are into books, you are bound to see her here and there. If you call us, she might answer or if not, it will be…

Monica, who has done so much in such varied ways to keep Pioneer Books thriving. On top of being accountant and in charge of all the day to day business like posting parcels, collating books, she has had to take over the task of being our number one book packer. Now, if you have ever received a parcel from us, you know what that means. For anybody reading this who hasn’t ever ordered from us – or hasn’t ordered by post – let me quote a few of the many, many compliments we get on our packing:

Very, very well packaged. Most impressed. Matt put that in bold!

Arrived Monday and unpacked by Thursday … terrible joke … but very well packed, so thank-you Roger

My aunt phoned this morning to say that she had received the book and she was very complimentary about the care that had been taken in packaging it. Cliff

The book reached me safe and sound and very well wrapped. Bruce

Just received, today, a beautifully packaged annual, many thanks Mark

They are just a few from the last month or so. I dutifully pass on these messages to Monica who nonetheless remains very modest about her skills in this area.

Mr Pash surrounded by Monica on the right and Cathy on the left. He was thrilled to see his work preserved in such a fantastic book.

Monica, with an Arts degree including literature and French, is a very widely read person and always has an idea for what to read next, as do we all.

Paul Last, but obviously not least, is Paul, who founded the business in the mid-1970s. He died just over two years ago, but it is inevitable that his influence lives on. And I don’t mean just in the legacy of how we pack our books! When I look at areas in which we are especially well-stocked, his particular interests, if not obsessions are so obvious: poetry, drama and theology stand out for me, as well as South Australian works, this latter not surprising given his pioneering research in the area of SA literature.

Paul was a prolific writer as well as collector and seller or books. In the 1960s he wrote poetry, plays and one children’s book. In the 1970s came

A Critical History of South Australian Literature 1836-1930 with subjectively annotated Bibliographies.

Later his passion for football – Australian, of course – became translated into words in print as well. I was so proud to be part of the making of both

The FARMER Files: Ken Farmer – South Australian Football’s Greatest Figure and The Pash Papers, which Bernard Whimpress said was a classic of sporting literature in Australia (I’m sorry, Bernard, I’m paraphrasing you, not having your review in front of me).

The Pash Papers: Book of the Week

Don’t get the idea we spend our whole lives writing. Mostly, we sell secondhand books, but in our spare time, when we aren’t reading, writing is something most of us love doing…I say ‘most’ because actually, as befits the mind of an accountant, I guess, what Monica prefers is to cast her eagle eye over everything the rest of us get up to, she is an ace copy-editor without whose contribution all our books would be so much the poorer.

Common: A Life Among Secondhand Books

A little while ago now, Judith Crabb, who has been with Pioneer Books since the beginning, published a small account of how she got to that point in life.

Those who know Judith are aware that her special area is children’s books. It can be traced back to this moment:

It was not until I entered primary school at the age of seven that I encountered the first book that was to become a life-changing event. It was Friday afternoon and the teacher was closing the week with a chapter from a book. The bell rang and I realised desperately that I had to borrow that book. I rehearsed my arguments. I’d look after the book, I’d bring it back first thing Monday morning, I wouldn’t forget, I promised. I realised in my heart that, had the situation been reversed, I would have said no. The thought of an object of such importance leaving my possession was impossible. And so it began. That afternoon I sat on the kitchen step and read The Enchanted Wood, and my mother, seeing that I could read, walked me down to the Unley Institute the next week, and enrolled me in the library.

Had this event not occurred I suspect my life would have played out in organisations such as Cat Rescue or Lizard Watch or some such. I would have thought that being born human was not what I would have chosen for myself. Already at that early age I leaned towards the semi-feral cats in our backyard who seemed to have more interesting and decidedly more exciting lives than my own. In middle-age I became an Honorary Cat, another story and only tangentially related to the book business, but I have never since that day in 1956 yearned to change my species, although the line ‘I’d rather be a worm in a wild apple than the son of a man’ has a lot going for it.

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