Literary biographies are reputedly more widely read than their subjects’ own works: more people have probably read David Marr’s biography of Patrick White than have tackled The Twyborn Affair or The Aunt’s Story. The same may perhaps can be said for autobiography, and it’s my bet that Geoffrey Dutton’s Out in the Open will attract more attention than, say, his novel, Andy (Flying Low), his collections of poetry, or even his impressive biography of Edward John Eyre.
This is a stylish book, and is rich with illustration which includes material quoted from the work of a whole range of writers as well as colour photographs that call up an immediate sense of place. It is a unique way to an understanding of Australia’s capital cities – historically, geographically, and culturally, and at the same time to an acquaintance with writers whose work is offered in the context of these cities. The material is essentially descriptive. Eclectic in content and often benign, it offers an alternative approach to our history in terms of landscape and literature. It would make an appropriate gift for readers who are curious about Australian literature/landscape and whose present knowledge is limited. It would also be a useful inclusion in familiarisation packages for diplomatic and political representatives from overseas countries.
At various times in its history, the Australian short story has been predictable, as editorial and public appetites have limited experimentation. I am glad to be reading now, when approval can be conferred on collections as different and as variously excellent as Julie Lewis’s The Walls of Jericho and Peter Skrzynecki’s The Wild Dogs. Lewis’s work is more formally experimental than Skrzynecki’s, but both collections offer insight into the social and the literary.
This collection of stories put me off from the first page. In the opening paragraph there is ‘an exuberant kelpie bounding’. The second paragraph outdoes that, presenting seagulls as ‘wheeling and screaming’, in search of ‘a reeking fish head’. We already know that ‘the life was lonely, but it was peaceful’. Clichés enlivened by irony or just some simple surprise of context proves useful tools in the hands of a good writer. But Julie Lewis, on the evidence of Double Exposure, is not a good writer and cliches are offered up to us without any apology. Much of the problem seems to be that she overdoes adjectives and adverbs:
She felt for a pulse. Feeble. She gingerly touched the stubbly cheek It was bruised and there was a gash on the forehead. His clothes, seaman’s wear, were soaked. She studied the unconscious form. He was fairly young, about thirty, she thought. Looked a battler. She smiled ruefully and gently lifted the lock of hair that had fallen across his brow. It was matted with blood. (‘Flotsam’, p 2)