Author, Book review, Maggie Nelson, Melville House, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Argonauts’ by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Melville House UK; 192 pages; 2016.

In the past 12 months I’ve read a dozen memoirs, more than the previous five years put together. Into this recent feast of life stories comes Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the most intriguing and “unclassifiable” forms of the genre I’ve ever read.

Part autobiography, part academic treatise on gender and identity, part exploration of motherhood and marriage, part examination of what it is to be a writer, it wavers between deeply personal self-confession-come-love-story and textbook dry discourse.

I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it, other than it made me think about issues I’ve not really considered before.

Deeply cerebral read

Nelson is a poet, critic and non-fiction author. Her Wikipedia page describes her as “a genre-busting writer defying classification, working in autobiography, art criticism, theory, scholarship and poetry”.  All those types of writing are apparent in this book, which makes for a deeply cerebral read even if it occasionally feels unfocused (by which I mean that I often wondered where the text was headed; the narrative thread seems inconsistent to me).

The book’s central theme is gender and identity, based primarily on Nelson’s own relationship — she married the artist Harry Dodge, who was born female but identifies as being “fluidly gendered”. (Part-way through the book we are introduced to the gruesome detail of Dodge’s double mastectomy.) As Nelson explains, not everyone, even transgendered people, want to be boxed off as male or female.

How to explain—“ trans” may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes (“ born in the wrong body,” necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some—but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, “transitioning” may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others—like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T—it doesn’t? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK—desirable, even (e.g., “gender hackers”)—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that much of the book focuses on the use of words and their meanings, presumably because pronouns, by their very definition, box people off into male or female.

Birth and death

Another strong theme running throughout the book is Nelson’s experience of motherhood — the difficulties associated with mothering a step-child (Dodge has a son from a previous relationship) and her decision to have a child of her own and the complications associated with getting pregnant. Her disappointment of giving birth to a boy when she’d hoped for a girl makes for uncomfortable reading, but I found her story of giving birth intertwined with the story of her mother-in-law’s death deeply moving. The juxtaposition of the two sure things we have no real control over is nicely done: raw, heartfelt and honest.

And I loved the way she describes what it feels like to fall in love with Dodge, the magic and shock of it.

You’ve punctured my solitude, I told you.

And ditto for the way in which she describes the ethical dilemmas associated with writing about people you know.

I try to listen, try to focus on his generosity in letting me write about him at all. He is, after all, a very private person, who has told me more than once that being with me is like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.

But for all the book’s strengths, the prose style sometimes seems a little too knowing and “prickly”.

And for a book that’s very much about inclusiveness, it feels quite exclusive and elite. The text is cluttered with the names of American academics and critical theorists, people I’ve never heard of, which is fine, but if you’re not familiar with gender politics and LGBT studies (I’m not) it makes for difficult reading. It doesn’t help that The Argonauts lacks a bibliography, so unless you’re wedded to Wikipedia and Google to look things up as you read, much of it will simply go over the top of your head.

Finally, if you’re thinking about reading this book, can I suggest you steer away from the Kindle version: the formatting is dreadful. As soon as you make the font size bigger, half the text falls off the page. Go for the print edition if you can.

Australia, Author, Book review, Mark Tedeschi, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Simon & Schuster Australia, true crime

‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster Australia; 368 pages; 2012.

Issues around what it is to be transgender seem to be prominent in the media at the moment, not least because The Danish Girl, which is loosely based on the life of artist Einar Wegener who became the first man ever to be transformed surgically into a woman, has been nominated for several Oscars. Wegener, who changed her name to Lili Elbe, underwent the first of four sex reassignment operations in 1930, the news of which scandalised Germany, where the surgery was carried out, and her native Denmark.

But a decade earlier, on the other side of the planet, Eugenia Falleni scandalised Australia when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him!

Mark Tedeschi’s Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage charts the life of Eugenia Falleni in forensic detail, including her troubled childhood in New Zealand, her new life in Australia (where she reinvented herself as a Scotsman called Harry Crawford), Harry’s first marriage in middle-age to Annie (whom he was later accused of murdering), his second marriage to Lizzie, and then the murder trial which scandalised the nation.

The book is divided into three parts: the first is a fictionalised account of Eugenia’s life — based on historical facts gleaned from newspaper reports, public records, court transcripts and interviews with relevant people — from childhood to arrest by the police more than 40 years later; the second is an in-depth account of her criminal trial and the reaction of the public and the world at large; and the third looks at Eugenia’s incarceration and subsequent release and the terrible price she paid for her crime.

An incredible life

In his introduction, the author, who is a QC and prominent crown prosecutor in Sydney, states:

Eugenia’s story can be a valuable lesson for us today: as an account of how the law can be misguided and unsympathetic; as an illustration of the dangerous agitation that can be whipped up in the public by the media with a salacious story to sell; and as a lesson in the persuasive power of fallacious science.

But it’s also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct.

From very early on it was clear that Eugenia did not fit in. She came from a large Italian family — they immigrated to New Zealand when she was two years old — and failed to live up to her conservative father’s expectations: that women should marry and have children. In her late teens, she would secretly dress as a man and go off to do “men’s work” (driving a horse and cart or working as a bricklayer), before coming home and dressing as a woman again. But while she managed to keep this secret from her father, he wasn’t happy about her tom boy ways at home, and when she was 19, he forced her into a marriage to an Italian man in a bid to make her “normal”. It didn’t work out — surprise, surprise — and only strengthened Eugenia’s resolve to live her life the way she wanted:

At this traumatic stage in her life, Eugenia decided that her true identity was as a male. All the years of struggle finally convinced her that she had been born into a body of the wrong gender. She only felt comfortable when she put on men’s clothing. She only felt normal and authentic when she adopted the walk and talk of a man. She was happiest when she was in men’s company and doing the kind of hard manual work that only they were permitted to do. She was most at home in a pub with the rough, working-class men of Wellington, drinking pints of beer and smoking cigarettes. Her irrepressible need to live life as a male was not something she chose, but was rather an imperative of her real, underlying self. Most of her life thus far had been spent resisting her inner voice, which had been crying out for recognition, and trying to conform to her family’s expectations, but eventually the emotional price of living a monstrous lie was too high and she bowed to the inevitable.

But life as a man was not as easy as she had hoped and within a short space of time her true identity was exposed and her family disowned her. She tried to secure employment as a male using various pseudonyms, but was charged with vagrancy — “the simplest charge that the police could bring against someone who was desperately trying to lead life as a member of the opposite sex” — several times.

Eventually, in 1896, at the age of 21, she got a job as a merchant seaman using the name Eugene. But just 18 months later, on a Norwegian ship bound for Australia, the captain discovered her secret and brutally raped her. She was forced to disembark at Newcastle, on the northern coast of NSW, where she had the captain’s baby — a daughter called Josephine— who was farmed out to an Italian couple known by her family back in Wellington. This left her free to resume life as a man, and “rebranding” herself as Scotsman Harry Crawford, she headed to Sydney, where she successfully maintained this identify for the next 22 years.

Trial of the century

The nub of this book is not so much Eugenia’s life as a transsexual but the deed which threw her whole life — and “masquerade” — into the public spotlight: the murder of her first wife, Annie, in a secluded picnic spot on the Eight-Hour Day long weekend of September 1917.  The couple had been happily married for four years and had led a satisfactory sex life (Annie did not know that Harry used a wooden dildo strapped to his body to penetrate her), but some eight months earlier Annie had discovered Harry’s true identity and was living with him only to save face. The planned picnic was supposedly a chance for both of them to discuss how to end their relationship without causing a scandal.

What ensued, however, wasn’t what either of them planned. Annie never came home, and Harry fled the scene, sold up all his belongings and moved out of town. He later remarried a middle-aged spinster called Lizzie, but his past soon came catching up with him and he was arrested and charged with Annie’s murder two-and-a-half years after the fact.

The second part of the book charts the ups and downs of the court case in all its soporific glory using court transcripts, newspaper reports and other public records. But Tedeschi is a kind and patient guide, often putting court proceedings into context and explaining how the law worked then compared with the way it does now.

He suggests that the bizarre facts of the case would have been well out of most juror’s comprehension, especially as “some of them would only have had two or three years of secondary schooling, so their scientific knowledge would be limited to basic facts like the boiling point of water or the names of the eight planets of the solar system”.

He shows how Eugenia Falleni was “sent to trial against a background of highly prejudicial press coverage” and was “represented by a barrister who was out of his depth in a trial for a murder that may never have happened”.

Gender issues

He is also very good at highlighting the way in which gender issues were not properly understood at the time and how “sexual inversion” was a relatively new concept formulated by British sexologist, physician, psychologist and social reformer Havelock Ellis:

Unusually for his day, Ellis did not characterise sexual inversion as a disease, or immoral, or a crime. He defined sexual inversion as ‘sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality towards persons of the same sex’. He believed it to be an innate reversal of the normal gender traits, so that male inverts were, to some degree, inclined to traditionally female pursuits and dress, and vice versa. With its emphasis on gender role reversal, the theory of sexual inversion incorporated some concepts of transgender sexuality. There was no separate concept of transsexualism.

And yet the press, which headlined Eugenia’s trial as the “man-woman case” and revelled in all the sordid details of her life as a “sexual fraud”, whipped up the idea that Eugenia was a threat to the moral fabric of society.

The trial of Eugenia Falleni in 1920 should be viewed as the single most important criminal case in those 175 years [since the first Crown Prosecutor was appointed]. Its prominence is not because of any lasting effect that the trial had on the law or the administration of criminal justice, but rather because of the multitude of legal and social issues that Eugenia Falleni’s life and trial throw up for us to consider, so that we can use them as a yardstick to ask ourselves what we have learned and how far we have progressed since then.

A compelling read

If you’ve made it this far into my review (possibly the longest one I’ve ever written), let me apologise for taking up so much of your time. But this book covers so many interesting issues — about gender identity, social and cultural history, criminality, the justice system, the press, family relationships and sex  — that it’s hard to cover it all adequately.

Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is a compelling read, but it’s not without its faults. There are too many passive sentences, for a start, and sometimes the narrative loses momentum as Tedeschi gets bogged down in detail. And the use of the term “Scotchman” grated — it should, of course, be Scotsman — though I’m told that’s the term that was used at the time.

But I guess this isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. As a piece of narrative non-fiction and true crime it is very good; as an exploration of transgender issues it is superb.

Finally, despite Eugenia Falleni’s tragic and harrowing tale, it somehow seems very fitting that St Eugenia “has been recognised by the modern-day LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities as an example of a transgender saint”.

This is my eighth book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

UK and US readers can buy this book in ebook format only. But check second-hand sources, such as Abebooks, for paperback copies.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Jeffrey Eugenides, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 529 pages; 2003.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest book has received rave reviews, been an international bestseller and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And no wonder — it is BRILLIANT. Middlesex is wholly original and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Just look at the opening line:

I was  born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

How could you not be intrigued?

The narrator, Calliope Helen Stephanides, tells an amazingly entertaining story, tracing not only her own incredible history but that of her entire family’s, beginning with her emigre grandparents, who have their own secrets to keep. By unravelling this secret, Cal is able to understand who she is and where she comes from.

This illuminating book not only explores the notions of sex and gender identity, but what it is to be a Greek-American in a racially-troubled society (a large portion of the story is set during the times leading up to and surrounding the race riots of 1967).

All in all this is a wry, humorous, moving, exhilarating and fascinating read. And it will do wonders for raising awareness of those born with this surprisingly common but largely hidden genetic mutation now referred to as “intersex”.

Eugenides is definitely giving American darling Jonathan Franzen a run for his money!