Biography

When Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was first published in France in 2004, it created extraordinary interest for at least three reasons. Firstly, there was the story of the survival of the manuscript, preserved in an unopened suitcase for almost sixty years by Némirovsky’s daughters, Elisabeth and Denise, who had assumed that the papers in their possession were personal notes that would be too painful for them to read. Secondly, there was the documentation, provided in Myriam Anissimov’s preface and in a rich appendix, about Némirovsky’s life as an identified foreign Jew under Nazi occupation. Arrested in July 1942, interned in the Pithiviers camp, and deported almost immediately to Auschwitz, she died barely a month after her arrest, even as her husband and friends, ignorant of her fate, tried frenetically to save her. Finally, there was the novel itself, or rather, the two completed sections of what was intended to be a five-part epic narrative: a brilliantly rendered fresco of the French collapse in 1940 and the first years of German occupation, which earned Némirovsky, posthumously, the unparalleled honour of the prestigious Renaudot prize. With the English translation of the novel in 2006, she became an international celebrity. A Némirovsky biography, therefore, could hardly be more timely.

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Gay Bilson reviews 'Edith Wharton' by Hermione Lee

Gay Bilson
Friday, 01 June 2007

I took to Edith Wharton in the late 1970s but don’t remember why. I have never forgotten the name of the heroine of the first of her books that I read: Undine Spragg, all soft promise dashed by that biting surname. This was The Custom of the Country (1913), and I read on: Ethan Frome (1912), Summer (1917), and The Children (1928), for instance. Someone offered me R.W.B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975), and a friend created space on his bookshelf by unloading The Collected Short Stories (edited and introduced by Lewis, who calls himself an ‘addict’). Much later, when the film of The Age of Innocence was released in 1993, I primly chose to read the novel rather than see a version of it. Then I left Edith Wharton, née Jones, born to wealth in 1862 in New York, on the shelf.

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It is now thirty years since James McAuley died, and more has been written about him in that time than about any other Australian poet. Poets are not usually of great biographical importance unless they are also caught up in historical and political events, or are a kind of phenomenon like Byron or Rimbaud. McAuley was not a man of action, but he was associated with a number of events which were significant in Australian development and culture; and a large, some would say inordinate, part of his life and energy went into politics and polemics. He became something of a public figure, and, as he himself recognised, the lives of such figures quickly become public property. Any book about him is bound to be of interest.

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The United Nations’ eighth secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, has just taken over what has been called the world’s worst job. But it is one that attracts fierce, devious and polite competition. Why would anyone seek, for less than $400,000 a year, to be the chief administrative officer of a non-government that cannot govern, a non-corporation that cannot borrow or invest? The UN’s total budget is about the same as the New York City school system, and the secretary-general has to beg 192 national stakeholders for funds even to carry out what they instruct him to do. Who would want to be answerable, as well, to a fifteen-member board, five of whose members use their permanency to frustrate others and advance their own interests, rather than those of the organisation?

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Nicholas Jose reviews 'Another Country' by Nicolas Rothwell

Nicholas Jose
Thursday, 01 March 2007

‘The nearest thing on earth to a Black Australian is a White Australian, and vice versa,’ observed novelist and poet Randolph Stow some years ago. Nicolas Rothwell might have pondered the idea on his more recent wanderings as northern correspondent for the Australian. His north is not simply geographical. It fans south and west from Darwin, and east as far as Arnhem Land. Its core is in the Centre, in the Aboriginal realms of the Western Deserts: not only another country, but also, in the book’s closing phrase, ‘another time’, another dimension to the Australia we think we know. In a tribute to Darwin’s fabled Foreign Correspondents’ Association (whose members are forbidden to file the crocodile stories that southern editors want), Rothwell quotes a Latin motto, ‘Austrem Servamus’ (‘We serve the South’). It’s a droll reminder of how far the correspondent’s words must travel, through a dirty and imperfect lens, to reach from one place to the other. The mediation of numinous, heavy-laden revelations from this remote other country for mainstream consumption elsewhere is the high-wire walk of this book.

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What is a ‘literary life’? The phrase is invitingly open. Some writers seem to live their lives with a studied circumspection, as if creating a work of art. Everything is crafted to present only what the writer wishes to reveal, exactly as in creating a literary work. Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac may seem odd bedfellows, except in this one regard. Oscar’s bon mots and flamboyantly witty social gestures mirror those of his written personae, to the extent that his life is his art and his art is his life, exactly as he almost said. Kerouac’s crucial discovery may have been that getting ‘on the road’ could lead not only to a bestseller that influenced a generation, but that it could also shape the perception of his life, where the public and private became synonymous. All the automatic writing of his letters, the photographs of his circle of friends who also people his books, the laconic interviews, even his brooding, photogenic likeness to James Dean, are an integral part of his literary self-creation, intrinsic with a philosophy of staying in a speeding car and observing life from the fast lane. For both Wilde and Kerouac, ‘style’ is the word that links the literary and the life. However different from each other, both are dramatically self-consistent in lifestyles and literary styles.

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Since the Federal Parliament moved to the house on the hill, the rose garden on the Senate side of the Old Parliament House has been neglected and uncared for. Escapism, from parliament, from Canberra, from the intensity and claustrophobia of being locked up in a remote building, has always been a secret ambition of most politicians during parliamentary sittings. The rose garden used to be a beautiful and tranquil place to enjoy a reflective half-hour. On special days, like the opening of parliament, a military band would play in a marquee, and politicians, parliamentary staff and invited guests would stroll on the lawns, enjoying the music, an atmosphere of easy-going irrelevance, and the roses. It was like a scene from the last days of the Raj, filmed by Bertolucci.

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Teresa Petersen’s study of Christina Stead’s fiction is littered with startling assertions about Stead’s sex life. Petersen suggests that Stead did not actually love her life partner, Bill Blake, in a sexual sense and that a yearning for fatherly love drove her forty-year relationship with him. She maintains that Stead struggled with her own lesbian desires throughout her life, and, unable to come to terms with her homosexuality, recreated herself in her fictional characters. While Petersen stops short of saying that Stead engaged in lesbian relationships, she contends that Stead’s novels are infused with lesbian eroticism in a displacement of Stead’s own desires onto her women characters. If Stead’s life with Bill was so happy, as Stead consistently maintained, why, Petersen asks, didn’t she portray positive heterosexual relationships between men and women?

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Jay Parini intended this collection of critical essays to be a Festschrift for Vidal’s sixty-fifth birthday in 1990. Its lateness may suggest he found some difficulty in obtaining suitable material, and account for the mixed quality of the essays. There is, however, so little available about Vidal that we must be grateful for this collection, which contains previously unpublished material and reprints some essays which would otherwise be difficult to trace.

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Lionel Murphy was a prominent and colourful figure in the ALP renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, and a significant legal intellectual. The extraordinary saga of his final years, when he was hounded by political foes and the press, created a farrago of misunderstanding and innuendo that clouded his reputation. Jenny Hocking has set out to recover Murphy’s public life and to correct the record. Curiously, her emphasis on philosophy and consistency works against the interest of this story: the larrikin edge and the complexity of the man are smoothed away.

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