The Invention of Everyday Life cover Nicolette Stasko
The Invention of Everyday Life
Nicolette Stasko

as graceful and compelling as Woolf’s early 20th-century experiment with consciousness
Stella Clarke, The Australian
Stasko has a gift for imbuing ordinary lives with compelling strangeness
Cameron Woodhead, The Age
You don’t read The Invention of Everyday Life - you experience it, one exquisite moment at a time.
Dominique Wilson, Wet Ink
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Book Description

The eyes of Dr Bob Wood are two metres high and follow you wherever you walk in the main street of Dockside.

The Invention of Everyday Life is a sparkling novel of observation. There is no central character and barely any speech or dialogue. It is a group portrait with persons, locales, fruits, creatures, vegetations and sand. We meet Mrs Caminiti the only female butcher, the photographer dreaming of a lost Prague, the six year old prodigy who speaks solely in mathematical formulae, Zoltan Blum the sad drycleaner, Ivanka a young girl fascinated by the lives of the saints.

The canvas shifts through the ravages of time in human life and its environs. The Invention of Everyday Life reveals a community: unpretentious, tinged with sadness and Stasko’s great feel for beauty in the natural world. It inveigles us like a Cup-goer’s fascinator. It dazzles because it floodlights the ordinary.

Her control, both emotional and poetic, is awesome... a triumph of critical and creative distance from the autobiographical self.

Don Anderson, The Sydney Morning Herald

ISBN 9781876044565
Published 2007
184 pgs
The Invention of Everyday Life book sample

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I    Water Views

Geography I    3
The Surgery    4
Water Views    5
The Lovers    7
Trawling    9
Mercy    11
The Eyes of Dr Bob    13
The Female Butcher    14
Skyline with Chimneys    16
The Photographer    18
A Window    19
Point of View    21
Monsoon    23
Shoes    25
The Coming of Artichokes    27
Portrait of Vincenzo d’Orti    28
Lives of the Saints    29
Rosettas    31
Like Many    33
Eggshells    35
Such is the Weather    36

II    Interior With Eggplants

The Catch    39
Shells    40
The Jacaranda Bird    42
Interior with Eggplants    44
Things        46
The Wardrobe    48
Meat Carriers    50
The Blue Bucket    51
Umbrellas    53
Weaving    54
A Little Piece    56
Those Shining Knives    57
Heat    59
Flotsam, or Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder    61
Roses of Saint Alban’s    62
The End of Summer    63
At the Greengrocers    64
The Story So Far    66

III    New Wine

Fig Trees at Sunset    69
Afternoon    71
The Worm Diggers    73
Diary    75
New Wine    76
Still Life with Jars    78
Letters    79
Sincere Dry Cleaning    81
Light    83
Full Moon in Autumn    84
Toes    86
Flowers    87
Stepping into a Crowd    88
A Greater Place    89
A Plot    91
Construction    93
Pesto    94
Glasses of Water    96

IV    The Language of Birds

Confession    99
Blind Faith    100
Chairs Not Talking to Each Other    101
Knitting    102
Soap    104
Dreaming    106
Inheritance    108
Waiting    110
Street Scene    112
The Language of Birds    113
Numbers    115
Handkerchiefs    117
The Poet    118
Insomnia    120
The Death of Ivanka Rizzo    121
Rain    122
Geography II    123
Sophia    125
Construction II    127
Abundance    129
Waiting II    130

V    Swept Away

Swept Away    133
Man with Sunflowers    135
The Wedding    136
With Love all Things are Possible    137
The Crystal Palace    139
Asparagus    141
The Watcher    143
Deconstruction    145
The Wardrobe II    147
Council Work    149
Red Poinsettias    150
Unknown Man in a Crowd    153
Shifting    154
An Ordinary Sunset    156
The Schoolyard    158
Tomatoes    159
The Sermon    161
An Ending?    163

Epilogue    167

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Between Virtue and Innocence (excerpt)
On prose poetry, tableau and imagistic fiction
Adam Geczy (artist and poet)
Cordite, No. 6 and No. 7, 2000

“Its art is not only in what is observed but the skill with which the entire book is assembled, like installing a large photographic suite in a difficult, demanding, at times inhospitable exhibition space.”
On The Invention of Everyday Life

...Why there is such a dearth of support for prose poems, poetic fragments and tableau fiction in Australia is perhaps best approached with a statement about the beginnings of visual art in this country. Bernard Smith opens the first major study of Australian art, Place, Taste and Tradition, with ‘In older countries art has usually been, at its beginnings, the handmaiden of religion, but in Australia it first waited upon science’. An analogous observation might be made of Australian writing. It is remarkable that our earliest poetry is dominated by narrative verse with a strong leaning toward quickly cultivating a folkloric tradition. Romanticism had made of folklore artistic content as the Graeco-Roman myths; by appealing to local lore, the poet was able to stress his tie with his immediate place, and the continuity of his voice to that of the many, which folklore, as an inheritance of illiterate groups, enshrined. Hence, with the aim of fostering a language which could be shared, epic and lyric on one hand, the radicality of prosodic poetry on the other hand, had no place. And it is only in the last twenty or so years that the greater urbanised reading public do not feel the same urgency as before in having to read about the country which it does not and is indeed disinclined to inhabit. Nevertheless the comfort of reading about one’s place - instating a history and making up for lost time, has left a vast hole in Australia’s artistic habits which are loath to nurture this form except in literary journals and quarterlies. For the genre of the fragment is not necessarily experimental in the use of the term to mean opaque writing for specialists, though it is branded as such, despite the continental tradition of this approach and continued use of this form by eminent exponents such as Deguy and Ashbery, and by many younger poets in Germany where formal lines are increasingly, as Baudelaire had wished, suppler.

I will end with a recent work by Nicolette Stasko who, with David Brooks and Gail Jones, is among the leaders of this form in Australia. In all three writers the debt to Continental Romanticism leading up to Symbolism is well evident. All have a strong tendency toward the visual and in some cases, the oneiric, yet there is a notable development in the visual referent for all three writers in that, while all three appear to be deeply moved and influenced by all forms of painting as well as the decorative arts, there is now the overwhelming presence of photography, as if they had kept the form and genre up-to-date since the end of the nineteenth century. It is a presence ubiquitous not exclusive to this form: John Ashbery’s extraordinary Three Poems are more like poetico-philosophic ruminations, fluctuating between declamation and mellifluous inner mumbling, and Deguy works more with the tension between the concrete force of words and sounds and their meaning as the successor to the examples of Mallarme, Jacob and Apollinaire.

Contrastingly, once the cover of Stasko’s most recent book, The Invention of Everyday Life is closed, and one looks up from the words, one feels as if one has just ‘read’ a photo-essay. It is a Spleen de Paris but anonymously suburban and without the spleen. It is a prose composition of a female flaneur (though her protagonist is in fact male) in what could be any Australian city, and her mundane - prosaic - observations are about whatever one goes about in living; living at its most elementary: walking, shopping, staring out the window, passing people on a bench; what occurs when one passes someone more than once, and so on. Its art is not only in what is observed but the skill with which the entire book is assembled, like installing a large photographic suite in a difficult, demanding, at times inhospitable exhibition space.

The preface bears this out. It tells of a mildly strange and solitary woman photographer. It is as if the author’s verbal visions are what is lasting of what the author herself saw as lasting, the eccentric photographer’s pictures, plastered randomly in the dusty window of her ‘modest studio’. The author/narrator is ‘intrigued’ and follows her, first unobtrusively then to encounter friendship. He is given a keepsake before her death. Shortly afterward the narrator convinces the photographer’s sister, arguing to her that they will only sit around and deteriorate, to surrender the copious, disordered remainder of the photographs - ‘It was difficult to believe that anyone could have produced an enormous quantity of work that, from what I could tell, nobody had ever seen.’ The reader of course never sees them and the author professes to inhabit them, colonising them verbally, travelling through them as a guide and the fragmentary character of the rest is revealed to any sensitive reader:

The narrative, if it can be called that, better a constellation or archipelago, describes a double search. The first, the narrator’s self-assertion within a sphere of existence which is largely inconsequential; the other a hypothetical tracery of hunches and suppositions based on a medium which is of her own; to make relevant, to consummate perhaps, the images which would have been discarded or would have moulded away, or if preserved, whose meanings would have dissipated as all precise meanings do. Stasko’s narrator’s effort of twofold restitution does not, she/he knows, restore anything. The success of the book is, paradoxically, to register the opposite. Exploring the small moments through and between these photographs, as he jitters between a morass of partial records, petrified moments, the minor and paltry deaths which are photographs, the narrator intercalates into them his own transient (verbal) records only to confirm - despite this twofold gesture of preservation - that there is still alienating chaos in the midst of order-making art. Art may be order prized from chaos - maybe. The terse and nimble violence of the fragment is a concession to the order which art must have but, by ripping it slightly apart, it leaves room for instability and with it, a dangerous liveliness.

Samples from The Invention of Everyday Life by Nicolette Stasko

A Plot

The novelist is feeling pleased. Having altered somewhat its original emphasis, his novel is going well for a change. It is now mainly about a young woman who becomes a recluse after her lover kills himself in her beauty salon because she wants to break off their seven-year relationship.

In fact the young man is only seriously wounded and in critical condition for a while, but eventually recovers. It is the well-known heart surgeon who is going to operate who is the one actually shot and killed, in a suburb not far away. A different surgeon, soon to be equally famous, performs the successful operation.

The young man’s family, having never liked his girlfriend, have ‘a change of heart’, so to speak, and relent in their opposition to the marriage. Long, emotional discussions follow between the mothers, apologies, gifts are exchanged. The engagement is announced and a trousseau planned. The Castel d’Oro is booked for the reception. Soon a little van with tablecloths and bed linen piled in the back begins to appear weekly in front of the young woman’s mother’s house. There is an engagement party with truckloads of food and drink and a bazoukia band so loud that the police are called by a distant neighbour who must not know the situation.

At the wedding the bridesmaids will all wear pale blue and the groom will wear a red carnation like a bullet hole over his heart.”

Portrait of Vincenzo d’Orti

Vincenzo d’Orti is a man who smells. Day in, day out, waking or sleeping his nostrils register the world and convey it to his simple brain. Like many, Vincenzo moves between thinking his life a torment and thinking it a joy.

Outside his house grows a mean, gnarled lemon tree—unusual, because lemons grow well in Half Moon Bay. The fruit is a dirty yellow colour, not much larger than golf balls and just as hard. There are almost no leaves. While Vincenzo’s wife complains bitterly about the lemons, he is grateful that there is one less smell to torment or gladden him.

Spring is always the worst. The first delivery of mangoes, as the truck rolls down the highway from Queensland—the smell reaching him from as far away as Werris Creek—soon mingles with the tomatoes and flowers and onions in the huge produce market in the centre of the city, a terrible cacophony of odours! Rotten fruit, rat filth, chickens.

Vincenzo often joins his neighbours on the surgery porch hoping for some relief, not unlike that prescribed for hay fever. But aside from breathing continually through his mouth, which of course cannot be healthy, swathing his nostrils in scented cloths, or wearing an oxygen mask, there is nothing that can be done for him. And he suffers.”

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Mundane Ascends to Poetic Perfection
The Invention of Everyday Life

Stella Clarke
The Australian, 19 July 2008

Despite appearances, poets have scored from Sydney writer Nicolette Stasko’s defection into prose fiction. So have readers. Stasko has published several critically acclaimed volumes of poems since her 1992 award-winning collection, Abundance. Contemporary poets often feel relegated to a struggling niche market: their works languish in an arcane zone, the haunt of small publishers and literary magazines, excess to the concerns of the common reader.

This is a pity for Stasko’s beautiful writing, since she celebrates precisely what is common; she finds ecstasy in the familiar.

In The Invention of Everyday Life, she shifts her perceptions into prose and manages to achieve an even more candid celebration of the prosaic. She also pulls prose back towards poetry, covers the rift between them and extends the possibilities of prose.

Stasko is a poet of the mundane in the same way as Jan Vermeer was a painter of domesticity. She meets 19th-century painter Jean-Francois Millet’s definition of art, imbuing the commonplace with the feeling of the sublime.

Though her sensibility is often redolent of artistic tradition, her stylistic achievements are contemporary. The refreshing of perception was a founding tenet of modernist art, and this is also a mark of her success.

Yet Stasko’s revelations are managed with subtlety; she startles without strain or affectation. Hers is a calm intervention in the quotidian, a strangely peaceful awakening.

The contents of the book read like a volume of poetry, but The Invention of Everyday Life is an inventory of prose fragments. It seems to turn on meanings from the root word, invent, asserting the artist’s impulse not only to create but also, more humbly, to record. It is a collage of observations made from a flaneur-like perspective. Small, evanescent pieces of lives gesture at the submerged complexity of existence in the fictional town of Dockside, and at the water’s edge of Half Moon Bay.

The novella opens by mapping the geography of Dockside, a peninsula split by a busy road, an axis of noise and pounding onrush. The highway is briefly intersected by the flight of a spur-winged plover, which models Stasko’s informing inspiration. Everyday life is reinvented in the idea that every country, city and suburb is laced with unmapped, domestic, human, non-human and elemental geographies and topographies. The poet invites us to note the most transient signs of life, of unseen tracks and working.

Many and various citizens of Dockside, with their private concerns, move temporarily into and out of focus: a butcher, a dry-cleaner, a photographer, an old Greek housewife, a man with no memory, a mother, a dying girl. Not far away tiny, diaphanous sea creatures drift, ants travel through dirt and birds make journeys.

People cook, rest, love, hope, wait, dream, breastfeed, grow old, or fill their homes with shells from the bay. In ‘Interior with Eggplants,’ there is a tableau that recalls Henri Matisse’s Still Life with Sleeping Woman: a woman slumps on her kitchen table, saddened and exhausted by the vegetables’ perfection.

Small things are cherished, seeds are planted. Stasko records such things as light and shade on eggshell or wood, the texture of wrapped soap.

Tellingly, a solitary novelist wonders how he might escape the constraints of plot and write about happiness and ordinary things.

These fragments are not poems. Words are stilled into units of logic, into sentences, rather than allowed to float and turn in space, shooting out semiotic impulses like slivers of light. They are not corralled into narrative, however, but work like poems, inviting contemplation, generating their own significance.

Stasko’s Dockside is like the central London of Virginia Woolf
s Mrs Dalloway, a net holding myriad private moments. At one point in Woolf’s novel, an aeroplane unites the attentions of unconnected characters when it bursts from clouds above the metropolis. Consciously or not, this is echoed in Stasko’s Half Moon Bay. Here, however, few stop to look up when a plane passes overhead, though the saw and roar of the engines is deafening. For Stasko, it seems, it is not social convention that weighs oppressively on the delicate webbing of private experience (as it was for Woolf), but the relentless, blunting mechanical clamour of urban existence.

Stasko demonstrates an ego-shucking shift. Readers can do more than survive without story and character; they can thrive. As a poet, she makes a refreshingly unconventional novelist. Hers is not an anthropocentric vision and, goodness knows, ecologically speaking, it’s time to get away from that.

She once wrote a nonfiction study of lives of oysters; here, jellyfish multiply and drift amid pollution and plastic bags, water-birds continue their delicate choreography. Exquisite natural miracles emerge despite the barrage of commerce and brutal roar of traffic on Dockside’s central highway that bookends the novella.

Vegetation and fecundity adorn Stasko’s inventory. She was born in the US, the daughter of Polish and Hungarian immigrants. She migrated to Australia, settling for a while in different cities. She is familiar with displacement. Her treatment of garden food feels like an extension of roots. Her vision is civilised and culturally rhizomic. The growing of zucchini and asparagus in Dockside serves an almost atavistic purpose. There is a bottling of sun-fed fruits.

Preparations for winter include making salsa pomodoro, salting chillies and covering artichokes. Basil makes a meticulous transit from garden to pesto; all this in the shadow of massive semitrailers pulling into petrol stations.

Her melodic focus on herbs, preserves and shaded, sacred interiors feels like an archaic European idyll, smuggled in as an antidote to asphalt and cacophonous trucking.

The music of The Invention of Everyday Life lies in this perverse retrieval of numinous domestic minutiae from the indifferent, rapacious jaws of today.

Despite our mania for more and faster cars and roads, in this respect we may have peaked. We possibly face a fuel-starved future, where we may be forced to pull over and watch the tumbleweed. Viewed within that frame, Stasko’s slow poetics are an early liberation and a preparation. In any case, her invention of everyday life is as graceful and compelling as Woolf’s early 20th-century experiment with consciousness.

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The Invention of Everyday Life
Dominique Wilson
Wet Ink, Issue 10, Autumn 2008

In New notes on E. Poe [1859], Baudelaire wrote: ‘An artist is an artist only because of his exquisite sense of beauty, a sense which shows him intoxicating pleasures, but which at the same time implies and contains an equally exquisite sense of all deformities and all disproportions! Baudelaire could have been writing about Stasko.

Set in the township of Dockside on Half Moon Bay, The Invention of Everyday Life transcends the geographical, creating instead distinct canvases where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

There are no central characters, no plot as such, and only minimal dialogue. Rather there are scenes - sketches - as if the reader has meandered, at random and unseen, into houses, shops, along the seawall and through streets and alleys:

Six pelicans fly slowly in circles high above Half Moon Bay. On Garfield Street a barber in his tiny shop carefully sweeps up the hair of his last customer in anticipation of the next. Three blocks away a large ginger cat cleans itself on the sunny ledge of a brick wall, wary of the dog sleeping next door. On the shelves of the supermarket, packets of flour wait to become new bread.

Stasko’s images border on the mundane, yet display an acute understanding of human condition - in their very simplicity, the inhabitants of Dockside become intriguing: Elini, who sleeps naked on hot afternoons dreaming of her death, old Gladys Johnson, who considers encroaching blindness almost a blessing, and Ivanka, whose death brings a wave of fanaticism sweeping over the parish. Some characters appear but once, others reappear, interact, or simply themselves become the observers.

Although this is Stasko’s first fiction, she has published a number of collections of poetry, winning the Anne Elder Award, and being short-listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Prize, the Dame Mary Gilmore Award and the National Book Awards. Her understanding of the form is revealed in her controlled, unpretentious prose, which nevertheless reflects a keen eye and finely tuned sense of beauty: ‘Slowly turning as if alive, bottles idle in the shallows - fat green or brown blowfish dancing on their tails’.

You don’t read The Invention of Everyday Life - you experience it, one exquisite moment at a time.

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Ebb and flow of everday life made new
Emily Maguire (author)
The Canberra Times, 8 December 2007

Reading a metafictional novel can be like working at a cryptic crossword. The cheeky winks and word play are good fun but in the end it’s all just so much diversion. At their best, however, such novels work to expand our understanding...

Acclaimed poet Nicolette Stasko’s The Invention of Everyday Life could be read as an answer to Macauley’s questions [see review of Wayne Macauley
s Caravan Story, Canberra Times, 8 December 2007]. The point of literature, one feels after reading this hypnotically lovely book, is not to impart information - something of which we already have so much - but to discover new truths about familiar things.

Billed by the publisher as a novel, The Invention of Everyday Life is so different in form and content to most of its category that it could reasonably be called an anti-novel. There are characters but no protagonist. Things happen but there is no plot. The setting is vividly described, but this is not a book about a specific place. What we have are glimpses of lives and experiences presented without an authorial or narrative filter to tell us what to think of it all.

There is one small, classically metafictional touch: a novelist ‘wonders why it is so difficult to write about happiness, the ordinary things’. He wishes there was a way to fit into his novel ‘the people who pass by - the dogwalkers and runners, old men and children, benchsitters and birdfeeders’ but, tellingly, ‘the plot will not let him’.

Stasko, unlike her fictional novelist, chooses the passers-by and the ordinary things over the plot. The book is made up of scores of vignettes and sketches, each lasting fewer than two pages, many focused on the natural or man-made features of the town rather than human action. All describe the stuff of everyday life in an extraordinary way.

‘Shoes’, for example, is a contemplation of the origin and meaning of ‘two bags full of men’s shoes - hot old or throwaway but quite respectably heeled and soled’ found on a park bench. ‘Knitting’ shows us an old disabled woman who thinks of how her ‘feet, horny and gristled as salt. meat, rubbed together in clean starched sheets with a papery sound, are still capable of making her sigh in the bed at night’.

The many small moments of wonder and beauty, the glancing portraits of individuals, the haunting moments of lonely contemplation, have an accumulative effect on the reader. Rather than following one or two characters on a specific journey, as in more traditionally structured fictions, the reader is drawn into the ebb and flow of an ordinary, community. We may think this town and its inhabitants are familiar, but Stasko’s tiny, perfect revelations make us view them - and therefore ourselves - anew.

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The Invention of Everyday Life
The Age Book of the Week
Cameron Woodhead
The Age, 20 October 2007

Not far into her debut novel, you can tell Nicolette Stasko is a poet of some calibre. The Invention of Everyday Life has none of the characteristics of a traditional novel. There’s no central character, the dialogue is sparse. Rather, like the sea that frames it, this is an immersing fiction that ebbs and surges through a community of characters. Stasko has a gift for imbuing ordinary lives with compelling strangeness: there’s a female butcher, a young maths prodigy, a girl fascinated by the lives of the saints. The novel, if that’s what it is, flits between them at tangents, held together by arresting natural imagery and, more generally, prose that is cadenced and lyrical, yet flensed of the pretension that sometimes accompanies those qualities. For all its dream-like fluidity, there are islands in Stasko’s book that create a starkly familiar sense of place.

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Stasko biography
Stasko, The Weight of Irises
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