Frederick Reiken on Winton, Munro, Berger

Why is that no one has ever heard of the 1992 novel Cloudstreet by Australian writer Tim Winton?

Lyrical and compassionate, with moments of subtle, radiant magic, this big, rollicking, deeply felt book tells the story of two families who co-inhabit a large house in the coastal town of Perth, Western Australia.

The sense of place is exquisite, with a landscape that comes to seem as palpable as the characters.

It is one of my favorite novels of all time.

Winton has won every Australian award there is, and his follow-up to Cloudstreet, a solid but far less ambitious book entitled The Riders, was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1995.

His novels sell like crazy in other countries, but here they barely stay in print. George Stade, reviewing The Riders for the New York Times Book Review in 1995, stated that he did not believe that we are "ready" for Tim Winton in this country, though he didn't really manage to explain why.

Winton followed The Riders with a children's book called Blueback, a fablistic tale about a boy's friendship with a giant grouper, which, charming as it was, was not exactly a career move.

But I offer this as an even greater incentive to explore his work the fact that Winton seems a writer of rare authenticity, lacking pretense or preoccupation with self-promotion. I first heard of him because I attended a reading at UC Irvine while I was in graduate school.

It was one of those readings that no one bothered to publicize, so at the last minute the reading series organizer raced around the English and Comp. Lit. building begging everyone she encountered in the hallways to fill the twenty empty chairs.

Winton didn't seem fazed, though he did give one of the most uninspired readings I've ever heard.

Admittedly, I didn't buy the book until two years later, when I found it remaindered, though I subsequently returned to the store and bought ten more remaindered copies, which I distributed among relatives and friends.

Since then I have been buying up used copies, as publisher Graywolf managed to let the book go out of print in record time.

Two years ago I learned that fellow Australian Jane Campion optioned the Cloudstreet film rights and that around the same time Geoffrey Rush optioned The Riders, so perhaps Hollywood will resurrect Tim Winton, though I doubt it.

In the meantime, pick up Cloudstreet, no matter how hard you have to search (or write me and I'll send you one of my copies).

A second book on my list of lesser-known literary marvels is by Alice Munro, who certainly is not a writer who has been quietly overlooked.

Yet while everyone and their cousin is busy selecting "Meneseteung" or "Friend of My Youth" for their latest Best Since the Big Bang anthology, it seems that these days no ever mentions The Beggar Maid (1977), a book of interconnected stories that is also one of my all-time favorites.

The ten stories span the life of protagonist Rose, who starts out as a young girl in a poor small town in rural Ontario and, following a failed marriage and the loss of custody of her daughter, goes on to achieve her own equivocal success, first as a television talk show host and then as an actress, despite never coming to terms with or else precisely because she has never come to terms with -- any sense of her own identity (the book was originally published under the title Who Do You Think You Are?)

The psychological precision is unnerving and the arc of Rose's transformations no less than masterful, but what is most unsettling about this book is the manner in which Munro, within and between stories, has crafted an entirely nonlinear tapestry of a narrative that, by using the interconnected story technique, sustains a laser-like focus even as she jumps at will between the different contexts and time frames of Rose's life.

Munro has practically invented her own novelistic form in The Beggar Maid, and overall the book is simply a wonder.

Finally, I mention the British author and art critic John Berger and will boldly recommend exploring his entire body of work.

You can usually find at least a dozen books by Berger in any bookstore.

They range from his 1972 Booker Prize-winning novel, G., to his most recent novel, King, neither of which I loved.

What I have loved are the following: the story cycle "The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol" in the collection Pig Earth; the long title story of the collection Once in Europa; the novel To the Wedding; the essays "That Which is Held," "Ape Theatre," and "Lost Off Cape Wrath" in Keeping a Rendezvous; the essay "Appearances" in Another Way of Telling; and the essay "The White Bird" in The Sense of Sight.

I'd recommend starting out with the book Ways of Seeing, a series of essays that grew out of a BBC series and has become a staple in many art history 101 classes.

It introduces some of Berger's major themes and concerns, and if you like it you can go on to another book.

Perhaps my favorite of his works is his meditation on time and space and art and love and death and absence, entitled And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos.

While the poems interspersed within this 100-page volume are a bit didactic, his analytical musings on the "work" of van Gogh's art, the "labor" of poetry, and the non-Euclidean time dimensions we inhabit daily are sublime. Here is one of my favorite passages, about the fundamentally human problem of absence:

The visible implies an eye.

It is the stuff of the relation between seen and seer.

Yet the seer, when human, is conscious of what his eye cannot and will never see because of time and distance.

The visible both includes him (because he sees) and excludes him (because he is not omnipresent).

The visible consists for him of the seen which, even when it is threatening, confirm his existence.

To this human ambiguity of the visible one then has to add the visual experience of absence, whereby we no longer see what we saw.

We face a disappearance.

And a struggle ensues to prevent what has disappeared, what has become invisible, falling into the negation of the unseen, defying our existence.

Thus, the visible produces faith in the reality of the invisible and provokes the development of an inner eye which retains and assembles and arranges, as if in an interior, as if what has been seen may be forever partly protected against the ambush of space, which is absence.

Thirty years ago or so, Berger was perhaps the most important art critic in Europe.

He now resides and works in a small peasant village in the French Alps, living among the people he has championed in many of his books. As for why he hasn't won a Nobel Prize, your guess is as good as mine.

I suspect it has something to do with his Marxist political leanings, which show up regularly in his work, often quietly, as he's analyzing, say, the manner in which authenticity depends on remaining faithful to the fundamental ambiguity of experience.

But whether your politics match or not, Berger's concerns are so multidimensional that there's no way to pigeonhole his arguments.

He is a writer of unclassifiable innovation.