Picador

House of Names is a grim book, as any retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia is bound to be. It is a tale to harrow up your soul, to make your two eyes start from their spheres – or at least, it is until ten pages before the end, when Elektra cracks the book’s first joke and the tone becomes a touch mellower.

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Clive James’s series of memoirs began in 1980 with the Unreliable one. Thirty-five years and four more very funny books later, the Five Lives of Clive have been rounded with a sixth: a slim volume of poems. It is probably also the most reliable, as if, paradoxically, James took more poetic licence when working in prose. The prevailing tone is a long way fro ...

Poetry ‘cannot be an ark to help us survive the flood’, wrote Zbigniew Herbert in 1948: ‘It has to be our daily bread, an article of primary need.’ Nothing could be more truly said of Clive James’s approach to poetry. His latest assemblage of essays, reviews, and miscellanea, collected over the years that straddle his diagnosis of leukemia, feel necessary as oxygen. There is a quiet restlessness too: a sense of sorting papers into some final order.

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The Divine Comedy by Dante, translated by Clive James

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December 2014, no. 367

During a visit to Adelaide in 2013 as a keynote speaker at the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies ‘Re-imagining Italian Studies’ conference, Professor Martin McLaughlin (Agnelli-Serena Professor of Italian Studies and Fellow of Magdalen College) made the following observation about Clive James’s translation of The Divine Comedy

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Already, Anu Singh’s story is grimly familiar. Now free again, just thirty-one, she has entered the popular pantheon of malefactors. Her attractive face appears in the newspapers, taut with self-justification. There is talk of a documentary. Notoriety, even a kind of celebrity – that amoral nirvana – is hers.

If Singh’s deepest motivation f ...

Miriam Sved’s début novel is a structurally innovative portrait of élite Australian football as a juggernaut that leaves lives scrambling and spent in its wake. Its fourteen stories, each told from a different narrative perspective, form a prismatic study of a single season in the lives of Mick Reece and Jake Dooley, two first-year recruits at an unnamed, present-day AFL club. The novel’s true focus, however, is the internal worlds of those around them – parents, older teammates, club staff, self-identified WAGs, supporters, journalists – caught up in the trick of fame which has ensnared these young men.

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What a scandal! The Blessed Virgin sprawled on a bed in the half-dark, dead as a doornail, belly swollen, bare legs sticking out for all the world to see. What could Caravaggio have been thinking of?

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Few first novelists are as assured and articulate as Felicity Volk. She has designed an elemental structure for her story: wind, fire, earth, and water each have a section. Her time frame goes centuries deep, naming ancestors who, in the style of Genesis, begat and begat seven generations, until they reach Persia, an Australian with Arab, European, and British heritage. A thirty-something pathologist, Persia is a modern product of multiculturalism and globalisation, as is the Australian society she encounters on her drive from Canberra to Alice Springs. Her forebears were participants in similar processes.

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The Beloved by Annah Faulkner

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June 2013, no. 352

God gave me polio?’ Taken aback by her grandmother’s bland insistence on unquestioning submission to divine will, the six-year-old child in Annah Faulkner’s novel The Beloved has already started questioning the articles of faith and the assumptions of the adults in her world, in that penetrating way some children have. Clearly she is not going to take to religion. Other early certitudes fall away as she gets older: Father Christmas; her parents’ love for each other; her mother’s understanding of her deepest nature. 

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A novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

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