If, like me, Alan Collins is one of those writer’s who has slipped under your radar, then A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other Stories is a terrific place to get to know him. But be sure to follow it up with Alva’s Boy – check out Lisa Hill’s review.
As I read some of the stories in this anthology I easily imagined myself sharing a glass of wine and a few tall stories with a writer who Arnold Zable describes in his introduction to this posthumously published work (Collins shrugged his mortal skin in 2008) as a “classic Australian yarn spinner”.
His mastery of the metaphor and skilful use of the simile are evident in every tale:
An engine that “continues to sputter on independently [is] like an aged person to whom no-one ever listens” (2). When sugar ants converge where a glass of iced drink had stood, they “matched themselves to the moist circle like a living necklace” (125) and the surface of sliced black bread is “as smooth and as cold as a corpse” (129). In ‘A Friend in Need’, we meet the wheelchair-bound Gail who’s face has the “blandness of practised concealment”, yet “the history of her illness was written around her eyes in long creases like a dry river delta (157).
In ‘My War’, the narrator – “a Jewboy living in Bondi” surviving on his wits – apologises at the outset “for not spending the war years living on turnips, being concealed in an attic or cellar” (41) reminding me of the stereotypical relationship between Jewish children of a certain era and their parents. As it happened, those spot-on familial relationships are not a part of Collins’ own canvas: his mother died in childbirth and he spent much of his childhood in charitable institutions.
I imagined the young Alan Collins in the character of Jules in ‘That your Boy?’ Here is a young boy who one might expect would be angry with a mother who died and left him lonely within his relationship with his father. We’d be unsurprised to see the young Jules furious with his father for sending him away from what could have been an idyllic life in the country to a welfare establishment in Sydney. He could have been forgiven for feeling bitterness toward the woman who showed him affection but then turned her back. Instead, Jules places blame on the “dud Japanese shell” (173) that landed on a Bondi Street and spooked his father into fleeing. My heart ached for him.
Collins’ sense of humour appears both subtly and in laugh out loud passages. In the title story, for example, the narrator (one assumes Collins himself as it was incorporated into his memoir Alva’s Boy) reads what he believes to be a ship’s name on its stern and after spending his schooldays asking kids at school if they arrived on the ‘Pas op de Schroeven’, discovers (at age thirty-five) that the words painted on the ship meant “Beware of the propellers”. Equally funny is the “reffo kids” responses. It’s a great comedy of errors. (33)
The Showcase story for me is ‘The Value of a Nail’. I deliberately choose the word ‘showcase’ because in it we see the fabulous traits that Collins brought to the table as a writer: a razor-sharp observance of human nature; an ability to seamlessly meld fiction and memoir in order to turn a spotlight on subjects as varied as Jewish history, social injustices and the Australian working class; and a talent for describing physical surrounds with metaphor and simile. All of that wrapped up in a deliciously wicked sense of humour makes for a fantastic read.
‘The Value of a Nail’ opens thus:
The gentiles, Ernst felt sure, were born with a hammer and nails in their hand. He didn’t mean that irreverently, he told himself. It was just that they always seemed to be, as his neighbour put it, “knocking up a chook-house, a dog kennel or a set of shelves”, all those Saturday afternoon jobs that set the street ringing with the sounds of hammering, sawing and nailing. (136)
I read ‘The Value of a Nail’ as a study on the various coteries to which we feel we belong and our understanding of how we each fit into both the dominant culture of our surrounds and the culture with which we frame our natural inclinations.
Ernst is a man who finds himself disorientated and displaced after moving from the known and knowable St Kilda – with its regularly attended synagogue, kosher delis and Jewish friends – to Melbourne’s outer suburbs.
Playing hooky from the synagogue one Saturday morning, Ernst finds himself in a hardware shop surrounded by the mysterious paraphernalia of the weekend handyman and he covets the folded rulers tucked in the side-pockets of the Australian men’s overalls, seeing the rulers as status symbols.
I instantly recognize these Aussie blokes who “stroked unshaven chins and talked knowingly to men in dustcoats with measuring tapes clipped to their belts” (137) and empathised with Ernst’s desire to be allowed entry to their clique.
He works hard to build book shelves and puts up a plethora of hooks, before designing and crafting a beautiful kidney-shaped coffee table and is pleased to be treated with a degree of respect by the man in the dustcoat at the hardware store. After deciding to host their inner-city friends (Viennese sophisticates as Ernst’s wife thinks of them) for a Sunday afternoon get-together, Ernst is bursting with anxiety and pride over his home improvements.
Lotte and Leo arrive in a cloud of perfume and pipe-smoke with a bounty of “the exotic cakes that grew in St Kilda” (143) but Leo shatters Ernst’s pride with his unflattering review of the shelving and meticulously crafted table.
In just nine pages, Collins has shown us the sense of ourselves that comes from the groups we feel we belong in and those we wish to belong to. He teaches us something of the Jewish culture and the Australian way of life and, after a roller-coaster-ride of emotions, we can sympathise with Ernst as he is left to take comfort from the carpenters’ rule folded in his pocket.
There is something to like in every story in A Thousand Nights at the Ritz, and there is much to ponder. Every time I see one of those folding carpenters’ rules, I will probably ponder how far I have come, how long it has taken me to get here and what my place is in the community in which I live.
Collins, Alan. A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other stories, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne. 2010.
This review is also published at ANZ LitLovers