Geoffrey Dutton

Geoff Dutton was a man-of-letters who for many years made (with Max Harris) Adelaide seem one of the lively centres of Australian literary culture. One thinks of him in association with the magazines Angry Penguins, Australian Letters, and the original Australian Book Review, not to mention the inauguration of an Australian publication list for Penguin Books, and then, when that soured, the setting up of Sun Books, one of the most innovative of Australian publishing ventures at that time – which was in the difficult slough period of the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s.

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This amazing novel comes in two parts, a 431-page prose Saga, and a 123 page verse Ballad. The whole is held together by a Narrator, who tells the Saga as a gloss on the Ballad, which he found in an old bike shed in an abandoned mailbag. The ballad was written by Orion the Poet, a young man called Timothy Papadirnitriou ...

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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.

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In 1956, A Book of Australian Verse, edited by Judith Wright, was published by Oxford University Press. Her choice of her own poems included ‘Bullocky’ and a couple of others, the over-anthologising of which, at the expense of her other work, was later understandably to provoke her exasperation.

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The faded but still brave word ‘grand’ in the title of Frank Moorhouse’s new novel gives a signal from another age, the 1920s, when after the war-to-end-all-wars there were grand ideals and grand hotels. It is also fitting that the League of Nations, the setting for the book, should in the 1920s have had its headquarters in Geneva in a former luxury hotel, while its own rather unfortunately named Palais was being built.

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Geoffrey Dutton will not concentrate. Information relevant to his subject reminds him of other titbits, as in this cascade of irrelevancies:

McKee Wright deserves the credit for having first published Slessor, and he published a remarkable number of women poets. However, some of his favourites amongst the latter might have been better left in obscurity. Marie E.J. Pitt, for example, in the issue for 10 July 1919:

Oh, take me, take me, little wind that blows
Ere the young moon
Blossoms in heaven like a mystic rose,
And the stars swoon
Down languorous aisles of Night’s enchanted noon!

(‘Noon’ for ‘midnight’, incidentally, is the old usage sanctified by Tennyson: ‘Night hath climbed her peak of highest noon.’)

For a biography of Slessor, Dutton should have made the first comma a full stop, unless the point was to let us know that Dutton knows his Tennyson.

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In this new book, Beverley Farmer quotes George Steiner: ‘In modernism collage has been the representative device.’ The blurb calls A Body of Water a montage. Well, it’s a difficult book to describe. It’s not a pasting together, there’s no smell of glue about it. Nor is it put together, plonk, thunk, like stones. It’s rather, in her own words, an interweaving.

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Are you (as I am) conscious of suffering from what they call the postmodern condition? You know, the spiritual and moral void within commodity culture, the isolation of individualism, the lack of meaning and all that. Since reading this book, I have begun to think that we should all spend time in Sparkes Creek. Havelock Ellis, who became the great British psychologist of sex, went there over a hundred years ago, as a boy of nineteen:

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Dear Madam,

I don’t usually believe in responding to reviews, but Kenneth Gelder’s review (ABR June 87) of The Illustrated Treasury of Australian Stories, which I edited, raises a few points which are worth a reply.

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In this volume, a valued literary companion of long standing has been stripped of two-thirds of its substance, all of its footnotes and bibliography, even acknowledgments; and the remnant, daubed with illustrations, comes out dressed for a different marketplace.

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