Ruminating on the inimitable critic Frank Kermode in 2020, Peter Rose wrote: ‘What we read at difficult times in our lives – plague, insurrection, divorce, major root canal work, etc. – is always telling.’ One year on, our collective difficulties persist (worsen even); many of us find ourselves under lockdown once more, isolated from the world and one another. Yet what we read still matters, offering, as it always has, relief and solace during times of hardship. Fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, is a sort of bracing consolation.
In September 2013, six months after returning to Australia after forty-eight years away, mainly in the United States, I wrote a piece for ABR on being a returning expatriate. Actually, this wasn’t my first piece for the journal (that was a review of a biography of Ryszard Kapuściński seven months earlier), but it was a piece that had particular importance for me. Rereading it recently, I was struck both by the conversational tone, as if I already thought ABR readers were my friends, and by the underlying seriousness of the effort to explain myself. I didn’t write like that for American publications.
I receive my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in May, in the small town of Meaux, mostly notable for producing a luxurious variety of brie. I travel forty minutes from Paris by regional train, watching the city become the banlieue and the banlieue become the countryside, speeding towards something that for five months had felt like an impossibility. Friends in Europe had flown to New York and Kentucky to get their shots while France fumbled its way through the first months of its vaccination campaign. It would probably be quicker for me to fly back to Australia, go through hotel quarantine and get vaccinated there, I thought at the start of the year. I was very wrong.
In Moonland by Miles Allinson
In an ABC interview to promote his previous novel, Fever of Animals (2015), Miles Allinson shares a brief anecdote. When Allinson was aged sixteen or seventeen, a teacher told him that everyone turns conservative eventually. Allinson recalls his repulsion at the notion of this inevitable slide towards orthodoxy. His new novel, In Moonland, feels like a rebuttal. Joe, the narrator of the first part of the book, is caught somewhere between consent and revolt: though ambitious, he feels trapped by the flickering lights of his own computer, by the suburbs, and by his run-of-the-mill job. Orbiting him is a coterie of questions relating to his new status as a father, coupled with one more profoundly unanswerable question: why did his father, Vincent, kill himself? Only some of these questions are answered across a narrative that uses four different perspectives and three different timelines, from the present back to the 1970s and into the near future.
The Oxford Handbook of Dante by Manuele Gragnolati, Elena Lombardi, and Francesca Southerden
With its finely honed critical readings and ‘transversal connections’, The Oxford Handbook of Dante is a timely and masterful collection of forty-four chapters presenting contemporary critical insights from a broad choice of intellectual fields that range from Italian and European perspectives to Anglo-American approaches. Highlighting Dante’s expansive outreach over the centuries, the editors, Manuele Gragnolati, Elena Lombardi, and Francesca Southerden, have assembled an impressive array of scholarly voices whose contributions offer a robust critical collection not exclusively intended for specialist readers.
The Magician by Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín’s eleventh novel, The Magician, is a dramatisation of the life of Thomas Mann. It begins in 1891 with the death of Mann’s father, a successful businessman from the north German city of Lübeck, whose last agonised words to his fifteen-year-old son are, ‘You know nothing.’ It ends in 1950, five years before Mann’s death at the age of eighty, when he returns to Europe after a long period of exile in the United States, by which time he is one of the century’s greatest novelists and a respected public intellectual. Cop that, dad.
Walter Scott at 250: Looking forward by Caroline McCracken-Flesher and Matthew Wickman
Walter Scott, born on 15 August 1771, turns 250 in 2021. This event has been celebrated in Scotland with events such as a ScottFest at ‘Abbotsford’, his home, and a major international conference. But Scott, almost certainly the most popular and widely known author in the world in the nineteenth century, fell disastrously in public and critical esteem, to the point that E.M. Forster, in his influential Aspects of the Novel (1927), could sum him up with the wearily dismissive question ‘Who shall tell us a story?’ and the equally dismissive answer ‘Sir Walter Scott of course’. For Forster, Scott had ‘a trivial mind and a heavy style’.
As the March and April evenings grew hotter, the streets of East Beirut were as empty as our calendars. The grumble of traffic had disappeared. Without the usual smokescreen, the nearby mountains and coastline were visible for weeks. Parks are scarce in Beirut and gardens are private, but this spring, vines and bougainvillea were clambering over the high walls and no one was trimming them. It was possible to take solitary walks and hear birdsong.
Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?: The Dark Emu debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
For anyone who has spent substantial time recording Aboriginal cultural traditions in remote areas of Australia with its most senior living knowledge holders, bestselling writer Bruce Pascoe’s view that Aboriginal people were agriculturalists has never rung true. Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate – co-authored by veteran Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – has already been welcomed by Aboriginal academics Hannah McGlade and Victoria Grieve-Williams, who reject Dark Emu’s hypothesis that their ancestors were farmers (like Pascoe himself).
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s battle for domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
Sealand calls itself a micronation. No one else does. It’s easy to see why: the ‘kingdom’ is little more than a glorified helipad. It rises from the North Sea off the coast of Suffolk like a Greek version of the letter π rendered out of concrete and steel – the sole survivor of a series of Maunsell forts built to shoot down Nazi Kriegsmarine aircraft during World War II. Abandoned by Britain in the 1950s, the fort was hijacked by pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates in the 1960s and renamed the Principality of Sealand. Bates crowned himself ‘prince regent’ and – besides firing warning shots at the Royal Navy and fighting off a coup attempt by German mercenaries – entered into a series of sketchy schemes to stay afloat. One enterprise, launched in 2000 with the help of cypherpunk Ryan Lackey, was for the Bates family to turn Sealand into the world’s first data haven: an unbreakable digital lockbox beyond the clutches of law enforcement agencies and copyright lawyers.
Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki
Noongar and Yawuru poet and academic Elfie Shiosaki writes in the introduction to her new poetry collection, Homecoming, that it is the story of four generations of Noongar women of which she is the sixth. The poems are ‘fragments of many stars’ in her ‘grandmothers’ constellations’. Shiosaki ‘tracks her grandmothers’ stars’ to find her ‘bidi home’. The introduction reads as a beautifully crafted prose poem that contextualises the works that follow.