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Fanning the Flames · Issue #16

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Welcome to the March 2024 issue of issue of Fanning the Flames. We are excited to share what’s been happening at Bonfire HQ. Hope you enjoy and Happy Easter to all!

Image: Talia Lomman

This month’s issue comprises:

1.     Announcements:

Pinter’s Son Jim pre-order available

Hardly Working by Caleb Caudell

Review of Anthology of Australian Verse 2023

Interview with Dean Kalimniou, author of The Librarian of Cappadocia

2. Grendel (1971) by John Gardner: a review by Lucas Smith

3. Only the Educated are Free: by Andrea Jonathan


Pinter’s Son Jim is now available to pre-order. As Henry Lawson’s only foray into writing for the stage, published now for the first time as a stand-alone volume, Pinter’s Son Jim is a unique part of his corpus and a must have for any complete Australiana library. Release date: April 25th. Pre-order here

We are excited to announce that we will publish Caleb Caudell’s debut collection of…well, we’re not sure exactly how to market this one. Non-fiction, essays, memoir, none of these words do it justice, although the material is entirely factual. The working title is that very handy Midwestern stock phrase Hardly Working. I can hear my grandmother calling out to me from inside her house as the clink of the bricks I’m supposedly stacking fall silent: “working hard, or hardly working?” The book chronicles (very) hard-working stiff Caleb’s dead end jobs, collapsing apartments, bodily failures and failed relationships among the cultural ruins of the Rust Belt with all with his trademark humour and determination to avoid comfortable despair. I laughed out loud every few pages. It’s going to be big. Release date: August 2024.

Our Anthology of Australian Verse 2023 was given a very lengthy and thorough review in the March edition of Quadrant (paywalled). Although reviewer Barry Spurr took issue with my (perhaps careless) use of Tennyson as a stand-in for all second-rate 19th century verse in my introduction, we were exceptionally pleased with his concluding remarks:

Bonfire Books are to be congratulated on producing this volume, which displays in rich abundance the intelligence and accomplishment of contemporary Australian poets…One could wish that the book would be set for study in senior high school and undergraduate literature courses…

And finally, in preparation for the publication of The Librarian of Cappadocia in May we briefly interviewed author Dean Kalimniou:

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?

I’m a lawyer by profession, practising in Melbourne. Writing has always been a source of fascination for me, an opportunity to challenge myself and others to think differently, explore new ideas, and develop new modes of expressing what is often ineffable. I have published seven poetry collections, a book of short stories and a children’s book.

Cappadocia is a region with a fascinating history. Can you tell us a bit about it? Do you have roots there and if so how does coming from such a place effect your perspective?

Cappadocia is renowned for its extraordinary landscapes, rich history, and cultural significance. It is famous for its surreal landscape characterized by cone-shaped rock formations, known as fairy chimneys, and intricate cave dwellings carved into the soft volcanic rock. It is a land of fairy-tales, boasting a rich history dating back thousands of years. Inhabited by various civilizations, including the Hittites, Persians, Romans, and Byzantines, each has left their mark on the region through architecture, art, and cultural traditions. Significantly the area is dotted with ancient settlements, churches, monasteries, and underground cities, offering a glimpse into its fascinating past and providing the inspiration for The Librarian of Cappadocia. My ancestors came from a region of Asia Minor to the west of Cappadocia but the Cappadocian Fathers have been influential in shaping my own world view.

The Librarian of Cappadocia is very much a story of a man on a quest. How did the idea originate?

Its genesis was as a bed-time story I told my children around Easter some years ago. I was influenced not only by the fairy-tale nature of the landscape of Cappadocia and its native myths and legends but also by the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the troparion chanted in Orthodox Churches on Great and Holy Tuesday which refers to “not being excluded from the bridal chamber.” The motifs of fear of loss, of having unquestioned and unexamined belief in oneself and the idea contained in Matthew 18 that one must become a child to enter the kingdom of Heaven – all these things informed the development of the story.

What inspires you to write for children?

I believe it is a privilege to write for young readers. To be permitted to inspire and empower them, suggesting to them that anything is possible and encouraging them to dream and create, instilling confidence, resilience and kindness is an opportunity to be cherished. The ability to provide pathways in which readers can escape into worlds old and new as they navigate their own is something I particularly value.

How does Orthodox Christianity influence your work?

Orthodox Christianity has produced a wealth of saints, theologians, and writers whose works continue to inspire literature. Concepts such as faith, redemption, sin, salvation, the struggle between good and evil and the process of examination of oneself in order to know who one truly is, these are all elements dealt with by the fathers of the Orthodox Church that move me profoundly.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently writing another children’s book, this time set in Constantinople, with some rather interesting characters. Theirs will be a journey of discovery and self-realisation.

Image: Talia Lomman

The Librarian of Cappadocia will be released on the 5th of May.

Grendel (1971) by John Gardner

Review by Lucas Smith

Grendel by John Gardner is written as an internal monologue of Grendel, the “God-cursed brute”[1] slain by Beowulf in the oldest known epic of the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition. Novels written from the perspective of a villain or fringe character from classic literature are by now commonplace. Most authors with this impetus conceive of their work as part of some broad project of redress, “recentering” marginalised voices or “subverting” the “hegemony” of the canon. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which focusses on the wife of Rochester, who in Jane Eyre is confined to an attic, is a classic example of this.

While Grendel can be read to some degree in this way, in particular the portrayal of The Shaper—the poet-harpist who conceals the ruthlessness of Hrothgar and his men beneath pleasing melodies and lofty words as he hymns their deeds each night in the mead-hall—Gardner’s ambitions reach beyond such ready-made academic categories, attempting to deepen our delight with Beowulf rather than critiquing it from an arrogant distance. The precise nature of Grendel’s monstrousness is magnified and given a (pseudo)-philosophical underpinning. In fact, it could be argued that rather than subverting, Grendel reinforces the moral worldview and intentions of the Beowulf poet.

Gardner puts a contemporary nihilism into the mind of English literature’s first monster. “The sky ignores me, forever unimpressed,” Grendel says at the book’s opening. “Him too I hate, the same as I hate these brainless budding trees, these brattling birds. Not of course that I fool myself with thoughts that I’m more noble. Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows. (I am neither proud nor ashamed, understand. One more dull victim, leering at seasons that were never meant to be observed.)”

Like a washed-up modern man adrift in the ruins of the past, Grendel is a mystery to himself, a ball of envy and wrath. His mute mother is no help and his isolation from men and animals is complete. Only the haughty and impatient dragon can help him understand his existence. But Grendel remains self-condemned to be what he is, a murderer and destroyer. His body count approaches the triple digits. Some he eats, some he just kills.

Even when Grendel chooses mercy he is self-serving. So obsessed with heroic virtue is Hrothgar’s thane Unferth that he rejoices in the prospect of dying in battle with Grendel, knowing that his reputation for bravery will redound through the ages. After a skirmish Unferth is injured and begs Grendel to finish him off, but will not provide satisfaction. “I laid him at the door of Hrothgar’s meadhall, still asleep, killed the two guards so I wouldn’t be misunderstood, and left.” Even Grendel’s mercy is grandiose, self-serving and vindictive.

Even when Grendel is accurate in his criticism of the hypocrisy of the men of Hereot—his hatred for the Shaper (who it’s implied will tell the story of Beowulf’s triumph when the time comes) and the ridiculous pagan priests who comically misinterpret one of his visitations, even in his insight he cannot see himself, cannot fit himself into a cosmic order. The overarching meaning of Grendel might be that absurdity is monstrous in itself. Grendel’s existentialism is a spiralling, self-referential philosophy with a howling void at its centre. Indeed Gardner has said that he modelled Grendel’s thought patterns on the works of Jean-Paul Sartre.

“My enemies define themselves (as the dragon said) on me. As for myself, I could finish them off in a single night, pull down the great carved beams and crush them in the meadhall, along with their mice, their tankards and potatoes—yet I hold back. I am hardly blind to the absurdity. Form is function. What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?”

Where contemporary literature tends to make evil sympathetic and understandable, even attractive, it is refreshing to see Gardner unveiling for contemporary ears what appears in Beowulf to be dumb impenetrable ancient evil. In his audience with the all-seeing, all-knowing dragon, Grendel is shown emphatically the truth about his existence, the fate of men and the flow of history, but this knowledge is no use to him because it is his heart that is corrupt. His bitter envy of the camaraderie of the human beings, his delusions but above all his self-pity make him contemptible. Even at the foreknown end of the book, as the lifeblood drains from his shoulder, Grendel is unable to admit that he has been bested fairly by a greater and more honourable opponent, insisting, in the book’s final lines, that he has merely, “had an accident.”

John Gardner was also a renowned teacher of fiction and a powerful advocate for its unique purview. I will close this review with a quote from a late 70s interview he gave to the Paris Review:

For me, writers like John O’Hara are interesting only in the way that movies and tv plays are interesting; there is almost nothing in a John O’Hara novel that couldn’t be in the movies just as easily. On the other hand, there is no way an animator, or anyone else, can create an image from Grendel as exciting as the image in the reader’s mind: Grendel is a monster, and living in the first person, because we’re all in some sense monsters, trapped in our own language and habits of emotion. Grendel expresses feelings we all feel—enormous hostility, frustration, disbelief, and so on, so that the reader, projecting his own monster, projects a monster that is, for him, the perfect horror show. There is no way you can do that in television or the movies…”

[1] Beowulf trans. Seamus Heaney, 1999 (Faber & Faber)

Only the Educated Are Free

by Andrea Jonathan

Young people entering the world of higher education are faced with a litany of mixed messages, promises of career success, and outright propaganda by a concert of interested groups including big business, government and the universities themselves. I can only imagine how daunting the task must be for a year twelve student to make this major life decision in an environment where a degree provides little surety of remunerative and stable employment yet guarantees a hefty debt that is indexed at a rate far above average wage increases.

And yet the decision of whether or what to study also goes beyond the financial. Our education system, both in high school and in glossy university brochures, promotes an emotionally compelling and high-minded approach to expensive formalised courses as the path to becoming learned, cultivated and recognised as an accomplished person who can change the world and pursue their dreams.

The phenomenal growth of formal education and their institutions is widely seen as an unmitigated good. It is the path out of poverty, the key to economic growth, the guarantor of an informed voting public, the incubator of groundbreaking research and the place where both young and old can equip themselves with the ever-changing skills that the global economy demands.

Australia’s universities are already some of the largest in the world and are set to continue to grow at a rapid pace. It has become such big business that the federal government is planning to impose a ‘wealth tax’ on the largest universities in order to capture some of their future revenues to compensate for the additional infrastructure that will be required to support a doubling of student numbers. However, during the coronavirus period, universities appealed to the federal government for a bailout due to a collapse in income from foreign students who were unable to complete or continue their studies. According to Salvatore Babones’ AUSTRALIA’S UNIVERSITIES Can They Reform? (Ocean Reeve Publishing, 2021), ‘Australia’s current university financial crisis was caused by a perverse exploitation of international students for their revenue potential (far in excess of the pedagogical goal of increasing classroom diversity) compounded by poorly managed investments that paid off far worse than stock index funds or government bonds’.

Meanwhile reports abound of appalling student experiences at the most highly esteemed sandstone universities, of administrative blunders as elemental as being given the incorrect exam times, wrong assessments, and even being unable to enrol in subjects due to lack of places, causing some students to not be able to complete their degrees. Anecdotally, I have heard of group assignment burdens being shouldered by local students where international students lack the capability or language skills to participate, and disappointments that on-campus life at one of these top-ranked research universities is all but non-existent outside of on-campus college dormitories, which themselves are notorious for social cliques, sexual assault and toxic environments.

Students have admitted to choosing these universities for their research-based rankings, only to learn that these rankings have very little to do with the teaching faculties and the student experience. More from Babones:

‘Non-academics simply do not understand the extent to which research is the currency of academic prestige at both the individual and institutional levels. Most academics at universities teach students because they have to, not because they want to. Professorial recruiting is based almost entirely on research (and research funding) success, with teaching coming into play only as an afterthought.

There is no shortage of baby boomer journalists who will extol the virtues of university education as a ‘great equaliser’ and disruptor of entrenched privilege and reflexively share their own life stories of having proudly transcended their family’s working class or immigrant background after graduating, buying houses in state capitals and becoming a part of the ‘intelligentsia’. These self-flattering autobiographies that masquerade as sincere policy commentary are reminiscent of the prestige that was accorded to up-and-coming Soviet apparatchiks who could claim parents who were farmers or factory workers, as models of the revolution.

This inverted bigotry of class struggle has now been turned back upon many of these baby boomer ‘I used to be a bolshie’ types, whom younger generations now rightly perceive to be the great hoarders of wealth, privilege and political power. These younger generations appear to care little for the humblebrag dinner party-prepared vignettes that these baby boomers may have been first in their family to attend university or were teased in the workplace for their dress or diction. The revolution eats its own.

There is simply too much complexity in the question of the proper role and form of higher education that can be properly answered in the vast majority of columns or policy accords prepared on the subject. In recent decades, university enrolments have exploded, drastically reducing the quality, prestige and career advantage a university degree once conferred. Enrolments for vocational degrees are not calibrated with demand, leaving thousands of new degree holders without secure or paid pathways into their chosen field. Generalist and non-vocational degrees in classic academic subjects such as history or literature, once largely the preserve of those who weren’t necessitous of paid vocations, are now commonly taught to young people who subsequently find themselves in crushing debt and without employment prospects, whilst still not being able to read Greek, Latin, speak a foreign language or having knowledge of the canon.

Pop historians such as Yuval Harari further confound clear thinking about the role and purpose of higher education. In a recent interview Harari claimed that we ‘don’t know’ what skills young people will need in the future economy, owing to the rapid technological changes taking place. Anyone born in the latter half of the 20th century should be able to recognise this line of argument, which is little more than a bad faith attempt to discredit traditional formal education as a relic of a bygone era that is unable to meet the demands of an abstract, self-governing and inevitable future. To quote Tadeusz Zielinksi in Our Debt to Antiquity (Bonfire Books, re-issue 2021):

“But whereas knowledge is forgotten, education is never lost; an educated person, even though he has forgotten all he has learnt, remains an educated person.”

The fact that universities now overwhelmingly offer high school students university places before even having received their results, rather than provoking alarm about undermining the role of high school academic performance, should encourage a view of learning and education for its own sake, rather than for the technocratic and policy goals of self-interested politicians, universities and bureaucrats. Putting intense pressure on young people to cram for tests in order to qualify for an arbitrary and opaque numerical ranking that may entitle them to a university place was never in the spirit of classical education.

Given the demonstrated lack of scruples by university deans, professors and education bureaucrats in orchestrating this fiasco, there is an opportunity to simply deprive the ivory towers and policy wonks of the surplus lifeblood of student enrolment, and student and public monies they so dearly need to remain solvent. It doesn’t take lifelong student debt to read classics, nor to obtain academic instruction in them from qualified and competent teachers.

The dereliction of academe, seduced by lucre and international prestige, as the custodians of knowledge and as the formers of the minds of future generations should be recognised for what it is, and taken into account when considering how best to engage with the education sector over the course of one’s learning journey. Depriving these gatekeepers of their exclusive claims to pedagogy and vocational training is the next logical step in the much vaunted ‘disruption’ of the universities. How this might be approached remains a question to be answered, and one we shall attempt to continue visiting.

Andrea Jonathan

Creative Director, Bonfire Books

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