Reasons I Won't Be Coming

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"The nine smart, thoughtful stories in this collection explore the complex worlds of lovers, poets, lawyers, immigrants, students, and murderers. They tell of corporate betrayals and lost opportunities, and the hopes, fears, and vagaries of desire." A man wakes to find himself in conversation with an ex-lover while a new and younger woman lies naked asleep beside him in "Good Morning Again." A marriage on the brink of extinction is seen through the eyes of a child obsessed with prehistoric reptiles in "In the Time of the Dinosaur," and in the
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The Reasons I Won't Be Coming

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Overview

"The nine smart, thoughtful stories in this collection explore the complex worlds of lovers, poets, lawyers, immigrants, students, and murderers. They tell of corporate betrayals and lost opportunities, and the hopes, fears, and vagaries of desire." A man wakes to find himself in conversation with an ex-lover while a new and younger woman lies naked asleep beside him in "Good Morning Again." A marriage on the brink of extinction is seen through the eyes of a child obsessed with prehistoric reptiles in "In the Time of the Dinosaur," and in the title story a public servant in the death throes of the twentieth century fails to realize his every certainty is about to be washed away by a tidal wave of change. The law figures in two stories - "Manslaughter," an account of murder in suburbia, and "The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine," which chronicles a lawyer's illicit romantic obsession, drawing parallels between pleadings at law and pleadings in love. In "I Was Only In a Childish Way Connected to the Established Order," a failed poet - sustained only by the voice of the celebrated Russian poet Osip Mandelstam - achieves an improbable heroism during an episode of madness and violence, and a young contemporary Job struggles with his family's past and his precarious future in "Spitalnic's Last Year." The final novella-length story, "A Tale in Two Cities," tells the heart-wrenching story of a Russian Jewish family amid the anti-Semitism of Brezhnev's Moscow and their ongoing vulnerability in the West.
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Editorial Reviews

John McNally
Elliot Perlman's new book, The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, isn't so much a collection of stories as a collection of narrators. Well, okay, it is a collection of stories, too -- there are nine here, some quite short, some novella-length -- but the voices are what make a lasting impression.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Perlman's bestseller Seven Types of Ambiguity was published in December of last year; this set of nine stories, first published in Perlman's native Australia in 2000, works the peripheries of similar territory and reads like a very successful set of outtakes and trial runs. The coldly luminous opener, "Good Morning, Again," perfectly captures the rueful, moment-by-moment disappointment of waking up after an empty liaison that follows an intense relationship. In "Manslaughter," Perlman, who is a barrister, uses a jury's own observations of one another to mercilessly send up the deliberative process (or decided lack thereof). The chirpy, inarticulate legalese a probate lawyer uses to voice his despair at the loss of his daughter (and then his wife) is rendered dead-on, as is the corporate-speak a spurned lover resorts to in a letter-never-sent-style monologue. A drawn-out story of a mad poet's minor redemption falls flat, as does a grotesque featuring a young, unloved student named Spitalnic, who literally has a hole in his heart. But "A Tale in Two Cities," the final novella charting the limits of Jewish emigr resilience, is Perlman in full: mystery, tight dialogue, layers of irony. At his best, Perlman makes false reasoning testify eloquently. (Dec. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From fairly brief impressionistic vignettes to longer family histories, this story collection showcases the talents of young, Australian-born Perlman (Seven Types of Ambiguity). In the longest tale, a young woman relates her Jewish family's emigration/escape from Russia during the Brehznev years and the beginnings of a new life in Australia. The young woman, Rose, and her strong-willed mother are able to adapt, the father and brother can't, and the brother moves out on his own before vanishing suddenly. Rose then hires a private investigator and tracks him down as the story takes improbable and sometimes humorous twists leading to a highly dramatic climax. Another longer story, "Manslaughter," depicts a criminal trial from the perspective of the victim's widow, who discovers a side of her husband she never knew as the events leading up to the crime are divulged. The touching story "I Was Only in a Childish Way Connected to the Established Order" tells how a poet suffering a mental breakdown relates everything in his own life to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and his tragic life and death under Stalin. Expansively written with admirable control and generous detail, this is an excellent collection and is highly recommended for fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.]-Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A richly varied collection of nine stories, first published in 2000, from the Australian barrister and author whose 2004 novel Seven Types of Ambiguity was a major critical success. Perlman's brisk staccato prose works to fine effect in several intense monologues, including one unnamed narrator's rueful farewell to his former lover following a night's lovemaking with a nubile "new friend" ("Good Morning, Again"); another's bitter lament to the former coworker who had only toyed with his obsessive affections ("Your Niece's Speech Night"); and a probate lawyer's passionate objections (in the story "The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine") expressed to the woman he had impregnated, lost to her husband and now importunes in the language he knows best ("Look at the effect of the breach. . . . There is damage"). The law also figures in "Manslaughter," an insistently readable (though somewhat diffuse) omniscient account of a murder trial involving two suburban families. But there are more strings than these to Perlman's bow. A schoolboy's fascination with prehistoric reptiles comments mordantly on the dwindling chances for survival of his parents' shaky marriage ("In the Time of the Dinosaur"). An emotionally fragile poet who's no match for his down-to-earth wife finds both intellectual comfort and the ironic realization of his destiny in the life and words of persecuted Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam ("I Was Only in a Childish Way Connected to the Established Order"). And Perlman mines pure narrative gold from the theme of anti-Semitism-in a black-comic portrayal of a forlorn contemporary Job ("Spitalnic's Last Year"), and in the brilliant concluding novella "A Tale in Two Cities." This wrenchingstory, set in Moscow and Melbourne, traces an expatriate Russian Jewish family's "eternal vulnerability" to government persecution, culture shock and drug addiction, discovering hope when grieving Holocaust victims summon the strength to aid another scattered, shattered family. Provocative and powerful fiction from one of the best new writers on the international scene.
From the Publisher
"Invigorating stories...enlived by Perlman's intelligence, verbal engergy, and mischevious wit." - Entertainment Weekly
"By turns hilarious and heartbreaking...Stunning...Brilliant." - Newsday
"Fans of Perlman's grapplings with both the minutiae and the sweeping 'big questions' of modern life won't be disappointed." - Elle
"Perlman writes fiction with muscle." - People
"The nine tales here don't just suggest an emerging voice, they show it well developed, stretching and flexing...Marvelously realized, evocative and utterly original." - New York Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571196999
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 3/1/1901

Meet the Author

Elliot Perlman was born in Australia. He is the author of the short-story collection The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, which won the Betty Trask Award (UK) and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Book of the Year Award. Riverhead Books will publish this collection in 2005.


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Read an Excerpt

I WAS ONLY IN A CHILDISH WAY CONNECTED TO THE ESTABLISHED ORDERMadeline, my wife, never used to wear a watch. She does now,I am told. For a long time, in a very inexact way, I had kepttime for her. There was the time before we were married andthe time after. There was the time before I was hospitalized and thetime after. There was the time she needed me and the time after. Andthere is now.
I am not well and I make no bones about it. It is largely a psychologicaldisorder, but only the most obvious of its manifestations haveever led me to hospital. These flights of fancy, as Madeline initiallywished them to be known, are actually psychotic episodes. But theseare just its most extreme symptoms. It is more than the sum of these.It is there all the time and no one knows what it is, a disease so new,so rare, that they haven’t developed a classification for it. They hadone briefly but the condition mutated beyond human understanding, beyond recognition. My work is said to compound the malady. I am,by profession, a poet.
When I cry I suck on my front teeth and purse my lips involuntarilyas though in anticipation of an onslaught of kisses. I never realizedthat I did this, never even suspected it. It is a mannerism justshort of a tick and it belongs to me. There is a rhythm to it and I rockslightly in time with the pursing of my lips. I do this all in time. Thisrhythm is a matter of instinct with me. I am a poet.
How does that happen? In spite of everything, how does one becomea poet? The term has become derogatory. How did that happen? It all happened before Madeline’s father died. These days people assume,if ever they give it any thought, that poets must be inept,glassy-eyed people who, tyrannized by their own private internal anarchy,ramblingly conjure instant affect. But that, of course, is a stereotype.And it all starts way before this.
You are born. You remember nothing of it but get told at selectedintervals that yours was a traumatic birth. The nature of the traumadoes not really matter. What matters is that you are told about it atan early age. It quickly assumes a tremendous significance in yourown private mythology. You visualize it in gray or sepia as a scenefrom a prewar newsreel. As you grow up you use it to explain otherwiseinexplicable and unjust events. It is why you cannot perform certaintasks as well as other people, or at all. It is why your mother wasthis or that way with you.
You read, not just well, but powerfully.
You do just well enough at school for your distraction from whatother people are interested in to be encouraged once, briefly, by asympathetic teacher who, by the time you timorously graduate, hasleft the school and cannot be reached.
You read more.
You get a clerical job and study literature and history or philosophy,classics or art history at night. At work you meet an attractiveyoung woman from the country. You flatter her. She flatters you. You write a poem about her. You tell her it is your first but it is not. It isactually just the first poem you have ever shown anyone. She is yourfirst, the first to see it. But the poem is not your first. The others, theearlier ones, were naïve, derivative and masterfully bad. This one, too,is bad, but you show it to her because otherwise, without it, in its absence,you are a clerk. It works and you are a poet.
You spend time together. You take each other to art galleries andmuseums. You teach her and then recite in unison the opening to“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky.

You get promoted. There are more art galleries. She gets promoted.There are more museums. You drink strong coffee, almost professionally,in the inner city area. She encourages you to submit the poemabout her for publication. She tells you she has never met anyone whowrote poetry. You suspect that it is just that she has never met anyonewho admitted it. You think everyone writes poetry. The poem abouther is published. You share a kind of delight.
You meet other people who have published poetry. You take her totheir poetry readings. The two of you drink coffee with them after theirreadings. You get promoted again. She knits you a jumper. You meether parents during a weekend at their cattle farm in the country. Onestill night you tell her about your traumatic birth. You get married.
You are married. She gets promoted. You write a volume containingmany poems. Two of them are published. She gets promoted.There are more museums. She gets pregnant. You write some poemsabout it. She takes maternity leave but not before being promotedagain. A child is born. In many senses he is yours. Andy. You writePoems for Andy.
Andy grows to learn Christmas carols, and when he is old enoughto sing them, you change the lyrics outrageously. You change their meaning. You take away their meaning. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeerhad a very shiny name. It is a game. It delights him. It is the lasttime you remember delighting him. She gets promoted.
You take him to museums. You write a poem about museums,about taking your son to museums, about the ways in which museumsrecord time. You used to go there with your wife. Later she sendsyou there with her son. He continues growing. “What are you feedinghim?” colleagues ask at work Christmas parties. Too big for yourknee, you recite to him across a room: Twinkle twinkle little bat! How Iwonder what you’re at! Up above the world you fly, Like a tea tray in the sky.Too big for Lewis Carroll, there is so little in him that resembles you.Your parents die. It affects you more than certain acquaintances thinkit should. She gets promoted.
Your son grows. Up, up and away! He plays different games. Hegrows more like his mother, at least more like her than like you. Theyshare a certain closeness you attribute to the famed bond betweenmothers and sons and also to your traumatic birth. She tells you shedoes not want any more children. You write a poem about this. It ispublished in Meanjin. It is anthologized. The anthology becomes aprescribed text for secondary students. Of the six years your son spendsat secondary school, fifty minutes are devoted to poetry. The anthologyis for a moment in your son’s hands. One book between two. It isan austerity measure. He does not see you waiting in the table of contents.They read Kipling. At work you are made redundant. Still notold, you read ever more. She gets promoted.
Your wife’s father dies and bequeaths her the farm. She resignswith a large payout. Your son leaves home. You and she return to herroots to run a cattle farm. She tells you it might be good for you. Youare so pleased to hear that she wants it to be good for you that you donot question the move. You know nothing about farming or cattlebut you can write poetry anywhere, if indeed you can write it at all.You picture a new rural phase with rural themes. Wordsworth meetsTed Hughes and Les Murray. You aim to keep in touch with the literary community through the membership of committees. You plan tobe a literary agitator. You will write angry but witty pieces denouncinggovernment funding cuts to the Arts. “Your Tiny Handout Is Frozen.”
The year that Madeline and I moved to Mansfield was the year thatAndy and one of his friends bought a four-wheel drive to take aroundAustralia. He was by then already a big and practical young man,good with his hands. All the girls liked him. He had not wanted togo on to university. He did not have any plans for the year after thefour-wheel-drive trip. He told me this quietly as we shared a cup oftea on the verandah the day he drove up to Mansfield to say good-bye.It was, I thought, a defining moment in his development, and it occurredto me that it should have been acknowledged with some sortof going-away party. But we were new to the area and, other than thepeople Madeline knew from her youth, we did not know anyone to invite.He would have hated the idea anyway. He spoke quietly in a low,soothing, anxiety-free voice. He did not read. I thought that maybehe would when he got older. He could do everything else. He had declinedseveral offers to play a number of sports at a professional level.Madeline and I were so proud of him, so proud of his balance. I suspectthat he already thought I was mad.
Mansfield was settled in the 1870s and soon became home to familiesof Irish and Scots settlers. Madeline’s family, of Scottish descent,had been there for generations. “The best ones had packed up andleft,” she had always been told. They were farming people. Madelinehad been the first to move down to Melbourne, but her father’s deathand my unemployment convinced her that it was time to return. Herchildhood, or what I knew of it, had not been an unhappy one. Thewhole Shire, and not just her father’s property, was full of memoriesfor her, memories, and roads not taken.
By the early nineteenth century the first European explorers hadfound the soil to be rich. There was an abundance of grass, excellent for grazing cattle or sheep. (Our neighbor grazed sheep.) But even sothere was initially some reluctance to settle it. Perhaps it was the influentialopinion of the then Surveyor-General of New South Wales,who described much of the region as “utterly useless for every purposeof civilized man.” Madeline said time stands still in Mansfield. Herfamily was born and died there, so it had not stood still for them.Something I refrained from pointing out. Andy and I had only beenthere once.
Madeline’s father had employed a young, newly married neighborof his to assist him with the running of the farm, and on our arrivalMadeline and I immediately appointed him manager of the farm. Herfather had needed only his physical assistance, but I needed a fulltimetutor. His name was Neil Mahoney. In his early thirties, he wasthe youngest of a large family, large enough to spare him from workinghis parents’ property. His wife was almost ten years younger thanhim and, within a year of his becoming our manager, was expectingtheir second child. Madeline had heard that it had been difficult forNeil to find a wife because the Mahoneys had too many sons for theiracreage. It was said they would overgraze. Two older Mahoney boyshad left Mansfield for Melbourne only to return, having been unableeither to find or hold on to jobs. Now they were both married and, togetherwith Neil’s father and an older sister’s husband, they all workedthe Mahoney farm.
Neil was patient with me, patient in his explanations and hisdemonstrations. In return I was honest with him. I told him I was apoet who had tried to support himself and his family as a clerk. I wasalso an occasional essayist, I told him. (This was not completely untrue.I had written one unpublished essay titled “Critical Theory as aMetaphor for Illness.”) I tried to be unafraid of my mistakes or at leastfaithful to them. I had never been a farmer before and was not meantto know the things he was teaching me. But despite this I still had tofight the feeling that he thought I was a fool. He watched me.
It was not anything that he said, but I felt a little uncomfortable with him. It was an unease that never really disappeared completely.Each time I felt uncomfortable in my role as a farmer, I would forcemyself to write something, even if it was just a letter to a newspaper.I composed verse in my head while examining the fences with Neil orhay feeding the cattle during winter. I learned that, despite the rain,it was too cold and dark in the winter for the grass to grow. Weneeded the grass to grow to feed the cattle to support ourselves. Neilworried about the weather and the grass all the time, but I never did.After all, if the grass did not grow, no one could fairly blame me.Madeline could not blame me. I did not think she could blame me.
She found in me something to blame when I returned from thetown one day with three kittens. They were a gift for her. I hadbought them from the younger sister of the bored and sullen teenagegirl with scrambled-egg hair who worked at the Welcome Mart.Where the older girl at the Welcome Mart had made a weapon of heradolescence, the younger girl had not yet given up on adults andwould talk with them in the street. She would even offer them herkittens for sale.
“People don’t keep kittens in the country—not here,” Madelinetold me when I surprised her with them in a canvas bag the younggirl had thrown in at no extra cost.
I thought she might warm to them if I left her alone with them. Inthe shed I found Neil cleaning a rifle. He seemed to know what he wasdoing, yet again. I knocked tentatively in order not to surprise him.
“Is that your gun, Neil?”
“No, it’s yours. It was your father-in-law’s.”
“What do we need a gun for?”
“For killing things.” He looked up at me.
“Like what?”
“Animals that need to be put down . . . cattle . . . all sorts of things.You just never know.”
There was so much I did not know. What I knew was of no use tothe people around me. Perhaps it was of no use to anyone. And I did not really know it. It was more that I had heard it. Lines, words,snatches of poems, came to me and then from me. I was merely a conduitfor them. What did they have to do with me? Mostly they werenot even my lines. I could be in a field and suddenly I would be unableto rid myself of Eliot or Wordsworth or Shakespeare. Increasingly,however, it was something from the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam.His lines, more than any, got me through the day. They hummed tome. Eventually I could not get rid of them.

If you are voluntary, they let you keep your own clothes. This was themost obvious difference between the first and the second time. Anotherwas that I did not know how I got there the first time. I wasthere when I woke up. I was lying on a bed with tubular steel railingaround it. My pajamas, the sheets and the pillow cases were a standardblue, all with a Department of Health logo on them. The bednext to me was unmade. The mattress was covered in vinyl and hadbrass eyelets over which there was a thin metal gauze. Two beds downfrom me a man lay on his front, trying to fit all of his face on the Departmentof Health logo on his pillowcase. He wore blue pajamas too.We were not voluntary.
I tried to remember how I got there but could not. I had been inthe car with Madeline. She was driving. It was a long drive. We weregoing to Lake Eildon. The kittens slept huddled together in the backseat.Madeline turned off the radio after we had driven a short distance.I noticed she was not in her usual sloppy slacks but was insteadwearing a dress. I remember she was wearing a brooch.
“Why do you have your good clothes on?”
She shrugged and kept her eyes on the road.
“I had an uncle who used to tell us, ‘Always wear your worstclothes.’”
“Why?” she asked without looking at me, still with her eyes onthe road.
“You have more of them. ‘Don’t be tempted into wearing yourbest clothes,’ he’d say. ‘Save them for a better occasion. If ever you findyourself wearing your best clothes, it means you’ve admitted to yourselfthat it’s never going to get any better than this.’ They buried himin his best clothes.”
“That’s not true,” Madeline said, both hands on the wheel.
“No, it is. I had an uncle and . . . he’s . . . he’s dead now. . . . Butit’s like the title of that book by Yevtushenko, prose, not poetry, Don’tDie Before Your Death. Yevtushenko’s telling us to wear our best clothesbefore it’s too late. He’s got a remarkable spirit, that man. I met him,you know, in Melbourne.”
“I know.”
“Few years ago now. Told a great story. Well, more than one, butthis one concerned a poor Russian peasant who tried to save what littlemoney he had by training his horse to eat less and less each week.With every week the peasant fed his horse a little less than the previousweek.
“One day, his neighbor noticed him putting a piece of stringaround the horse’s stomach.
“‘What are you doing?’ he asked the poor peasant.
“‘I am training my horse not to eat so much, to work on less andless food.’
“‘That’s madness! Both of you will come to a sorry end,’ the neighborreplied.
“‘You think so. Look at this,’ the peasant said, removing the stringfrom around the horse. ‘This is where the two sides of the string usedto meet around his waist, and now—look!’ he said, letting the surplusstring dangle in the breeze before adding with pride, ‘And he stillworks!’
“The peasant continued cutting back his horse’s food. Each weekthe peasant boasted to his neighbor about the savings he had made onhis horse’s food that week, and each week the neighbor continued towarn him of his, the horse’s and his family’s imminent demise if the peasant persisted in his folly. One day, the peasant approached theneighbor with more string than ever suspended from his sausage fingersdangling in the breeze. He cried out triumphantly to his neighbor,‘Still working, and this week I gave him no food!’
“With the money he had saved on the horse’s feed, he drankthroughout the night, celebrating. When he woke the next morning,the horse was dead. Two weeks later the Revolution came to the villagewhere the peasant lived, horseless, with his family beside hisneighbor and his family and their healthy horse. When the revolutionariesgot to the peasant’s house, they found him shouting at hiswife, a knife in the hand where once the string had been, his childrencowering in the corner. They had first seen the neighbor next doorwith his wife, children and his horse, and now they saw poverty anddesperation in the peasant’s home.
“‘Did the bourgeois kulak next door reduce you to this, Comrade?’they asked the peasant.
“‘Yes,’ the frightened peasant answered. ‘Yes, he always mockedme, said I was crazy and that I would have a miserable end.’
“The neighbor was immediately arrested for being a bourgeois kulak,dragged out of his house and shot in front of his wife and children.Immediately after the execution the peasant was given his deadneighbor’s horse.
“The peasant was of course overjoyed, falling over himself to praisethe revolutionaries. He quickly had his children singing revolutionarysongs and before too long was himself a member of the Party. Suchwas his zeal and his genuine peasant origins that he was taken to thecapital and paraded as a fine example of the modern citizen, an agrarianpeasant who had seen the virtue of the Revolution.
“He became well known throughout the Party and was rewardedwith higher and higher appointments until finally he was appointedcommissar in charge of literature. One of his duties was the allocationof grants and stipends to poets and prose writers. It was said that for years he could be heard exclaiming in drunken exaltation down thecorridors, ‘Still working, and this week I gave him nothing!’”
Madeline had her eyes on the road. The trees were rushing past.We were nearing the lake.
“That’s not true,” she said.
“Well, it’s a story but—”
“Yevtushenko never told you that story.”
“No, well, he didn’t tell it directly to me but—”
“How can you lie like that?”
“Oh, Maddy . . . It’s a . . . it’s a story.”
“You lie to yourself.”
“Maddy, let’s not argue.”
But we did. She did. She shouted at me in an increasingly shrillvoice. She sounded hysterical. I heard her but could not make out herwords. It reminded me of birds in the country first thing in the morning.She drove faster and shouted louder till neither of us could seethe trees for the wood. There was not a trace of the young woman forwhom I had written that poem so long ago. The person in the driver’sseat would have been unrecognizable to that young woman. We hadcome so far, too far and I, wanting to go back, began reciting:

“Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky.”

But she did not join in as she once had.

“Let us go then, you and I . . .”

“Shut up.”
I began repeating it.

“Let us go then, you and I . . .”

Nothing.

“Let us go then, you and I . . .”

She stopped the car abruptly so that it jerked forward after the enginehad stopped. We were as close to the lake as the car could go.Madeline leant over to the backseat, opened the mouth of the emptycanvas bag with an outward stretch of one hand and scooped up thekittens with her other hand. She moved so quickly. The side of herbody touched my face. I could suddenly smell the perfume she usedto wear so long ago. She was wearing it again. She handed me the canvasbag with the kittens inside and reached over me to unlock the passengerdoor. Then she spoke.
“So go, then.”
“What?”
“Put them out of our misery.” She pointed to the lake.
“In the lake?”
“Drown them.”
“Oh no, no, Maddy. I can’t.”
“It’s best,” she said, leaning over me and opening the door. “I can’tkeep them and they won’t survive out here.”
“I can’t. Maddy, I can’t.”
The kittens mewed from inside the bag.
“Will you go!” she shouted, pushing me out of the car.
I fell out of the car, standing only to trip over a fallen branch. Thekittens spilled out of the bag, scurrying in different directions. I triedto catch them, grabbing hold of one at the expense of the other two,going after another and losing the first. Madeline shouted somethingbut I could not make it out. Very quickly I had lost all three kittens.They ran and I ran. I ran and ran. Towards the lake. I heard the carpull away. The kittens were gone and so was Madeline. All I couldhear was the sound of myself: my breathing, running, heaving. There was dirt in my mouth. I had fallen, cut my leg, a ridiculous man facedownin the dirt beside Lake Eildon, crying to myself.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.

The sweet features of my personal failings, once just hinted at, hadgrown too pronounced for her.
Was she crying, too, in the car? Now I am sure that she was not.But, waking tranquilized in someone else’s pajamas in the permanentlymakeshift psych ward of that tiny hospital, I still had not realized, despitewhat had just happened, the extent of her contempt for me.

From the outside the building is spacious; yet, from the inside, thewalls creep up on you. They crept up on me. So did Hugh Brasnett.Hugh’s bed was two away from mine. He was the young man, notmuch older than Andy, whom I had seen earlier lying on his front tryingto fit his face on the Department of Health logo on the pillowcase.
“Who is Mandelstam?”
“What?”
“Who is Mandelstam?” he repeated.
“Mandelstam was a Russian poet. Why do you ask me that?”
Was? Is he dead?”
“Yes. Why?”
“You were calling for him.”
“When?”
“Before. When you came in. Before they gave you a shot.”
“Who gave me a shot?”
“She did,” Hugh said, pointing at a young woman I had to leanforward to see out of the doorway. Her name was Sarah. She was a nurse and I learned later the younger sister of Neil Mahoney’s wife. Ifa field mouse could be an attractive young woman, it would look likeSarah.
“He’s awake now,” Hugh called.
She put down whatever she was carrying and came to sit down onmy bed.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Okay. A little—”
“Confused?”
“Well, yes, but I was going to say . . . embarrassed.”
“Who’s Mandelstam?” Hugh interrupted.
“You’re Madeline’s husband, aren’t you?”
“Yes.”
“My brother-in-law, Neil, is her manager.”
Her manager?”“I’m sorry. I thought . . . Wasn’t it Madeline’s family’s property?”
“Yes. That it was. That it is.”
“Who the fuck was Mandelstam?”
Hugh was so bored that interrupting us seemed the best thing onoffer. So I found myself in the psych ward of a tiny rural hospitaltelling a disturbed but not unintelligent young country boy aboutthe life and times of Osip Mandelstam. And Sarah, whom I had expectedto leave us, stayed where she was and listened.
“Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was born in Russia, of Jewish parents,in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Educated in St.Petersburg, he had the misfortune of being unable to do anything atall with himself except write some of the finest poetry his country andperhaps the world has ever known.”
“Why is that a misfortune?” Hugh asked.
“Because Mandelstam was writing in a place that valued poetry somuch that a poet could be arrested for a single poem. Many lesserpoets were arrested, exiled and sometimes killed for their writing,even the ones who made a religion of attempting to curry favor with the regime. And Mandelstam was temperamentally incapable of thissort of thing.

“I was only in a childish way connected to the establishedorder;
I was terrified of oysters and glanced distrustfully atguardsmen;
And not a grain of my soul owes anything to that worldof power,
However much I was tortured trying to be someone else.”

“That was beautiful,” Sarah said.
“How do you remember it?” asked Hugh.
“I’m . . . a poet,” I said, and then, turning to Sarah, “If you’reNeil’s sister-in-law, you would probably know that I’m not a farmer.”Sarah smiled uncomfortably.
“We’ve never had a poet here, have we, Hugh?”
“Really,” I said, looking around at the blue, pink and green pastelssurrounding me. “That is surprising.”
“What happened to Mandelstam?” Hugh asked.
“He recited a certain poem, an epigram, privately, in front of fivepeople whom he must have regarded as his friends, and the rest is, asthey say, history.”
“What happened?”
“It is said he was in Pasternak’s apartment, Boris Pasternak, whowrote Doctor Zhivago. He was there one night. Mandelstam, bravely orfoolishly, depending on your point of view, recited a very short poemwhich sealed his fate. It’s hard to believe he didn’t know the dangerhe was putting himself into, and yet, if he did know, it is even harderto understand why he did it. But one night, in May 1934 I think itwas, after he had been laughing and talking for hours with his wifeand their friend, the poet Anna Akhmatova, and an irritating translator,a pesky hanger-on, there came a knock at the front door of the Mandelstams’ apartment. It was by then one o’clock in the morning,and before opening the door his wife announced quietly, ‘They’vecome for Osip.’ They had been expecting this.
“The men of the secret police always wore the same civilian overcoatsso that people were never in any doubt as to who they were. Perhaps thiswas the intention. That night there was no doubt who they were. Therewere no introductions, not even a cursory check to see if this was theMandelstams’ apartment. With a practiced skill they quickly went pasthis wife without touching her, and suddenly Mandelstam’s tiny apartmentwas filled with men in overcoats checking their identity papersand efficiently frisking them for concealed weapons.
“Of course, Mandelstam had no weapons. He was a poet. He onlyhad words, and after showing him a search warrant the secret policewent tearing through their drawers, looking for Mandelstam’s words.One of the policemen took time out from the search to advise thecivilians not to smoke so much, producing a box of hard candy fromthe pocket of his uniform trousers and offering them some.
“The search continued all night. The secret police, the NKVD, asthey were called, made two piles of Mandelstam’s papers, one on achair, one on the floor. When the translator, like a frightened primaryschoolstudent, asked permission to go to the toilet, they contemptuouslylet him go home. Without any particular malice they keptwalking over the papers they threw on the floor. The sun had alreadyrisen by the time they left the apartment. They took only forty or sosheets of paper—and Mandelstam—with them.”
“Why were they contemptuous of the translator?” Hugh asked.“He was an informer sent there to make sure the other three didn’tdestroy any manuscripts before the knock on the door. The NKVDalways had contempt for their stooges.”
“But . . . who was Nadia?” Sarah asked in the voice of a child, as ifembarrassed by her need to know.
“Nadia? I didn’t say anything about Nadia.”
“You did before,” Hugh said. “When you were out of it.”
“Who was Nadia?” Sarah repeated.
“Nadia is the name Mandelstam called his wife, Nadezhda. Whatdid I say about her?”
The two of them looked at each other.
“What kind of woman was Nadia?” Sarah asked.
My mouth was dry. This impromptu lecture on Russian literaturewas even more bizarre than the events leading up to my hospitalization.I thought for a long while about Mandelstam’s Nadia.
“Her every thought was about him. If not for her, we would notknow him. She saved his manuscripts. She wrote letters to him whenhe was imprisoned, letters she knew he had little chance of receiving.But she wrote them anyway. She would have known they were beatinghim, starving him, freezing him, but still she wrote to him. She wrote,You came to me every night in my sleep, and I kept asking what had happened,but you did not reply. That was in the last letter she ever wrote to him.”
None of us spoke. It was left to someone else to break the silence.
From another room someone looking for assistance called, “Excuseme.” Sarah stood and straightened herself up before leaving the room.
“Do you think . . . you’re Mandelstam? Is that it?” Hugh asked.
“No. I don’t think I’m Mandelstam. That would be too easy forthem, Hugh. I’m not Mandelstam. I don’t think I have his talent, hisfeeling for language. I don’t live in his times. I don’t have his life. Idon’t have his . . .”
Sarah came back in. There was someone to see me. It was Andy. Hetook a couple of tentative steps. I watched him see me there for thefirst time. He moved his sunglasses and car keys from one hand tothe other.
“This is my son, Andy.”
Hugh looked at Andy and Andy looked at Hugh. I wondered whatwas uppermost in my son’s mind. Was it the humiliation of seeing hisfather in a psychiatric ward? Or was he thinking that Hugh and I had already had a conversation that transcended any he and I had everhad? If he was thinking this, he was right. But whatever he wasthinking, he nodded politely to Hugh, told me he would be waitingat reception and then left me to change back into my dirt-riddenclothes in front of Hugh.
Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that so many of her contemporaries,whether they had been imprisoned themselves or not, were extremelywell “prison-trained.” They knew instinctively how to seize what shecalled “the last chance of being heard.” Hugh went back to the Departmentof Health logo on his pillow until I had my pants on, but then,when he turned his attention back to me, I could see that he was sad,sadder than he had been throughout his introduction to Mandelstam.
“I think I might like to be a poet. What do you think?” he askedme quietly.
“I think you’re well on your way,” I said as we shook hands. As Iwalked out I heard him begin the poet’s business of keeping himselfcompany: “I was only in a childish way connected to the establishedorder.” He said it quietly. There was no one else there.
Sarah and Andy were deep in conversation as they walked towardsthe gates, and I, not wanting to add to the wretchedness of the circumstancesof their meeting, lagged behind them. A slightly older,slightly attractive, slightly qualified young field mouse of a womanhad to explain to a strong and unpretentious young man from out oftown that she did not really understand what his father was doing inthe dirt beside Lake Eildon or why he cried without shame in betweenlengthy monologues about a Russian poet and his wife. All she couldtell him is that his father could go. Andy and I said good-bye to her.Then he turned and thanked her. When he put his hand on my back,new tears came to me, small ones suggesting that I might be all right.He still had the four-wheel drive and he opened the door for me.
“Are you right to go, then, Dad?”
“‘Let us go then, you and I . . .’”

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Table of Contents

Good morning, again 1
In the time of the dinosaur 9
Your niece's speech night 21
The reasons I won't be coming 49
Manslaughter 61
The Hong Kong fir doctrine 109
I was only in a childish way connected to the established order 125
Spitalnic's last year 163
A tale in two cities : 1. Moscow 195
A tale in two cities : 2. Melbourne 235
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    SOMEWHAT ENTERTAINING

    This compilation of short stories is sure to affect you. Basically, the author works to leave a mark on your psyche...as in his other works. Somewhat depressing, some stories thought provoking, all about the struggles the characters have with life. None are happy nor at all optimistic. I was happy to be finished with this book - I never leave a book unread so I had to force myself to finish the last story as painful as it was. This author is very, very talented but I do NOT recommend any of his writings to anyone who is at all depressed, saddened, or lacking hope!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2007

    Outstanding

    I bought this book because I was attracted to the book cover and title, not knowing that the content of this book offers so much more. The author's prose are genius. It got straight to the mark - the human heart! Never judge a book only by its cover.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 28, 2011

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    Posted November 19, 2009

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    Posted October 25, 2010

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    Posted June 8, 2009

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