Richard Freadman

H.G. Wells, in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), describes Henry James as ‘a strange unnatural human being’ who ‘regarded his fellow creatures with a face of distress and a remote effort at intercourse, like some victim of enchantment placed in the centre of an immense bladder’ ...

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On Life-Writing edited by Zachary Leader

by
April 2016, no. 380

Zachary Leader, respected biographer of Kingsley Amis and Saul Bellow, and editor of this volume of commissioned essays, defines life writing as 'a range of writings about lives or parts of lives, or which provide materials out of which lives or parts of lives are composed'. This formulation reflects the book's method, which is to provide a 'sampling' of various per ...

A story called ‘The Burden’, which appears at about the halfway mark of this collection, begins like this: ‘Graham was finding the burden of freedom a little too much for him …’ He is working alone in his room above a Chinese restaurant near the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where he is a visiting Australian Fellow, writing a novel about, it seems, academic life. But the novel isn’t ‘coming along’. He is ‘stuck hopelessly in the middle of a quarrelsome English department meeting from which he couldn’t extricate any of his characters’. He has run out of money and food and is down to his last half gallon of Red Mountain claret. ‘Nothing for it but to do the tourist thing and wander down Telegraph avenue with a camera.’ And so begins his afternoon of boredom, inchoate intentions that evaporate as they arise, and chance meetings. Looking back on it at the end of the day, he decides there was ‘not much to show for it … Or maybe there was something there. He pulled his notebook towards him and began to write, “Graham was finding the burden of freedom a little too much for him …”’

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Herz Bergner arrived in Melbourne in 1938, having left Warsaw after Hitler’s rise to power. Already a published Yiddish short story writer, he joined a group of progressive Yiddish-speaking writers and thinkers who often gathered at the Kadimah Library in Carlton. As information about the Holocaust began to reach these shores, Bergner argued passionately for an increase in European immigration to Australia. He also began work on a novel in Yiddish about a boatload of Jewish refugees (and some others) adrift on the high seas, supposedly destined for Australia.

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In one of these beautifully crafted prose poems, the speaker, recalling his childhood self, says that ‘I was gradually learning my own name, though there are times when the knowledge escapes me still, and another reveals itself’. This suggests complex trajectories of the self in time: self-knowledge comes ‘gradually’, but at times cedes to another, more profound, self-transcending form of knowing. Alex Skovron’s work, which includes four earlier volumes of verse and a novella, often counterposes two dispositions towards the self: a schematising impulse to ‘chart’ the ‘soul’, and a heuristic delight in the liberating processes of self-transcendence. Some of the ‘autographs’ – the accounts and traces of the self – that comprise this volume are of the first kind, others of the second. The book does not so much adjudicate between these kinds as embed them in a loose, fugue-like structure which is rich in delicate shadings, contrasts and variations. The book’s three sections – ‘Dance’, ‘Labyrinth’, and ‘Shadow’ – indicate axes of imaginative exploration rather than lines of narrative progression. Yet, cumulatively, the fifty-six poems in this collection nurture a passion for transcendence and a fear of excessive schematisation, the latter associated in this Jewish writer’s work with fundamentalism and totalitarianism.

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In February 1974, Robert Rose, a twenty-two-year-old Australian Rules footballer and Victorian state cricketer, was involved in a car accident that left him quadriplegic for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. The tragedy received extensive press coverage and struck a chord with many in and beyond the Melbourne sporting community ...

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Samuel Johnson once wilfully said, ‘Sir, we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.’ One can understand Johnson’s sentiment. Talk about will can be interminable. If we feel our will to be free, does it matter if it really is? Right now, I’m willing myself to write this review, instead of having dessert or watching Big Brother (‘Will to Power in Big Brother: Or, Are You Smirking at Me?’ would make an interesting paper). But my will is weak. I’ve just returned from making a cup of tea. Writers – like everybody else – are notoriously good at finding distractions. But what does it mean to say that my will is ‘weak’? How much am I willing my writing of this review, and how much am I forced to write it? Is writing determined by economics (need for money), psychology (desire to see one’s name in print), or class (aspirations learned through upbringing and education)? And yet I’m free, am I not, to pass my own judgment on the book? Sooner or later, we give up and go to the pub with Dr Johnson.

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