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)

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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Tiger’s Eye by Inga Clendinnen

by
April 2000, no. 219

Ten years ago, when she was in her early fifties, Inga Clendinnen fell ill with a disease of the liver that would have killed her if transplant surgery had not improved in time to save her life. In hospital she began to write, as much to hold herself together as for any other reason. Without a trace of self-pity she tells of the frightening first symptoms of her illness, its diagnosis and the initial gloomy prognosis, her times in hospitals, her responses to the hospital, to other patients and to that special group of ‘comrades’ who have suffered the same illness and its awesome treatment.

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The Holocaust is a subject which numbs the mind and petrifies the soul. This is the point at which Inga Clendinnen starts her remarkable set of essays about it. The Holocaust is a Gorgon and the only way to destroy it, Perseus-like, is to hold it’s image on the screen of the shield and stare back. The historian of The Aztecs, this remarkable woman who has always attended to the inflections of human pain, says at the outset that extreme suffering should be paid attention. She has lived in interesting times without partaking of the horror and this is her amends. This remarkable exercise in metahistory, this sustained meditation about the nature of historiography – an essay in which criticism and representation keep coming together and breaking apart – began with Clendinnen’s sense of the inadequacy of her own response to the Demidenko controversy and it ends, not inappropriately, with a discussion of the relative claims of literature and historical writing in the face of the Holocaust Medusa.

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Several books could and doubtless will be written to explore the sociological and psychological puzzles attending Helen Darville’ s remarkable masquerade. Robert Manne has no interest in the motivations of Helen Darville. His concerns are cultural and political, and therefore focus on the fictional character, Helen Demidenko: on her writings and statements, and on the responses of Australian intellectuals to those writings and statements during her brief life from 1992 to late August, 1995.

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Dear Editor,

Dr Jenna Mead claims, among other things in her most recent attempt to discredit The First Stone, that I have ‘invented dialogue’ and written ‘hypothetical meetings with imaginary characters’. All the conversations and encounters in the book are documented in detailed, scrupulous notes. This includes my account of a telephone conversation between Dr Mead and me, which she would perhaps prefer to think of as a figment of my ‘merciless imagination. If only Dr Mead were an imaginary character – but it would strain the ingenuity of a better writer than I am, to have dreamt her up.

Helen Garner, Elizabeth Bay NSW

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