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Inga Clendinnen

It is wonderful to immerse oneself for days in the precise, elegant, passionate words of historian Inga Clendinnen (1934–2016), as this welcome collection of her writings enables one to do. Clendinnen’s distinctive voice comes through: warm, confidential, witty, and driven by a fierce intelligence. All her major writings are here – essays, articles, lectures, memoirs, and extracts from her books – deftly selected by James Boyce, a historian thirty years younger than Clendinnen and himself a highly original thinker and writer. As Boyce observes in his perceptive introduction, ‘Clendinnen’s subject was nothing less than human consciousness.’

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An occasion like this teaches us that we each have our own Helen Daniel. I met my Helen nearly ten years ago, appropriately through writing. I had written a book on the Aztecs of Mexico. It was primarily an academic book, but because it was published by a university press with a branch here, and because Aztecs are Aztecs, it was widely reviewed in this country. The material was esoteric and its interpretation involved some complicated talk about theoretical issues in anthropology and history, so I was relieved when the local reviews were kind. Nevertheless, I read them with mixed feelings: how was it possible for people to understand the same printed pages so variously?

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Inga Clendinnen, who died in Melbourne on 8 September 2016, was an historian whose primary research interest was the exploration of the social conditions of extreme violence in different periods and societies. She was born Inga Vivienne Jewell, the youngest of four children, in Geelong in 1934. Her father had a cabinet and furniture workshop, the income of which he ...

News from the Editor's Desk in the October issue of Australian Book Review.

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Most editors look forwards, not back. We have to: there are pages to fill, readers to court, deadlines to meet. But publication of a 300th issue of a literary review invites retrospection, if not undue nostalgia... ... (read more)

It is surely impossible to read a new work of Australian historical fiction without doing so through the lens of Inga Clendinnen’s much-discussed essay The History Question (2006). One of Clendinnen’s arguments is against claims for the superiority of fiction over history because the former brings the past to life through imaginative empathy, allowing readers to ‘get inside the experience’, while history is merely a desiccated ‘world of facts’. Clendinnen also sets out the differences she sees between fiction and history, which are standing on either side of a ‘ravine’. In her response to correspondence in the following Quarterly Essay, she expressed her position concisely: ‘Fiction carries us deeply, effortlessly into imagined individual subjectivities. History is the sustained attempt to penetrate the minds and experiences of actual others.’

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Agamemnon’s Kiss by Inga Clendinnen & Quarterly Essay 23 by Inga Clendinnen

November 2006, no. 286

Inga Clendinnen came rather late to Michel de Montaigne, the man she acknowledges as ‘the Father of the Essay’. When the professional historian began reading the great amateur, she did so, Clendinnen admits, ‘in that luxurious mood of piety lace-edged with boredom with which we read the lesser classics’. The boredom quickly dissipated as the writer in Clendinnen met a master: ‘It is hard to explain what makes his essays so enchanting, but I think it is the lithe, athletic movement of a naturally intrepid mind.’

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ABR goes to London

Hot on the heels of our inaugural ABR Forum in Canberra on March 28, when a capacity audience attended the session on life-writing at the National Library, ABR will host its first event in London on Tuesday, June 8. Peter Rose and Morag Fraser will present an evening of readings and ideas, with special appearances by Clive James and Peter Porter. We’re delighted to be able to present this special event in association with the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Kings College London. The event will run from 6 to 8 p.m. Bookings are essential: please direct them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. ABR has many subscribers and supporters in the UK; we look forward to meeting them – and to reaching new ones.

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Anyone who heard Inga Clendinnen’s 1999 Boyer Lectures or who has listened to her in any other way will hear her voice clearly in this book: contemplative, reflective, warm, gently paced. Dancing with Strangers seems to have been written as if it were meant to be read aloud. It reaches out to its listeners ...

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About a decade ago, I picked up a book because I liked the cover: bleak street, stark buildings, empty sky, a robed man, his back turned, in the distance; in the foreground, a woman in a burka looking to the left at something we can’t see. When the blurb promised me ‘a Middle Eastern Turn of the Screw, with an insidious power to grip’, I bought it. It gripped. In fact, it scared the living bejesus out of me. That was my introduction to Hilary Mantel’s writings. Since then, I have read nearly everything she has published.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) is about a sensible young couple who, after years of humanitarian work in Africa, decide to go to Saudi Arabia to repair their fortunes. The husband will work on a seductively extravagant building project; the wife will read, write and relax in their pleasant, if mildly claustrophobic, apartment. Then small things begin to go wrong.

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