Archive

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are both mythical figures. They are also a mythical couple, a symbol of lifelong intellectual and personal commitment to each other and to commonly espoused causes. Of the two, Beauvoir is probably the more widely read today, because of her foundational role in the development of feminism, and the relative accessibility of her writing. In comparison, Sartre’s work, with the exception of his elegantly self-mocking autobiography, Les Mots (1966), is more difficult. His opus is as eclectic as it is voluminous – covering philosophy, prose fiction, theatre, political essays and literary criticism – and it is often dense. With Beauvoir, the reader is always in the presence of a person; with Sartre, we witness above all a mind at work, a brilliant intelligence grappling with whatever problem or issue it has decided to take on. In both cases, their work had a profound impact, mirroring and inspiring fundamental changes in thought and mores. Sartre and Beauvoir shared a philosophy – which went, somewhat loosely, under the name of existentialism – that held that human individuals and societies had the capacity to determine their own destiny, free of the weight of history and tradition. In the wake of World War II, and in the context of the ideological stalemate and nuclear threats of the Cold War, this philosophy of possibility and freedom offered an alternative to the ambient pessimism. It promised not passive resistance but transformative action by and for a humanity willing to create its own future.

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Judith Armstrong reviews 'Grace' by Robert Drewe

Judith Armstrong
Friday, 11 October 2019

The scope of this novel could hardly be more ambitious. It ranges from the landing ten thousand years ago of prehistoric men in primitive rafts on the shores of what would one day be known as the Kimberley, to the apparition of a young asylum seeker off a leaky, sinking boat in roughly the same locality during the present inhospitable times. In other words, it meets the challenge of major issues both immemorial and contemporary.

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In a recent feature article in the Guardian Review, William Boyd proposed a new system for the classification of short stories. He constructed seven stringently categorical descriptions and ended his article with a somewhat predictable – that is to say, canonical – list of ‘ten truly great stories’, among which were James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Spring at Fialta’ and Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’. Most of the writers cited were male, and the classifications were confident demarcations in terms of genre and mode (‘modernist’, ‘biographical’). It is difficult to know, and no doubt presumptuous to speculate, what Boyd would make of Frank Moorhouse’s edited collection The Best Australian Stories 2004. Garnering them ‘at large’ by advertisement and word of mouth, Moorhouse received one thousand stories, from which he selected ‘intriguing and venturesome’ texts, many of which display ‘innovations’ of form. Of the twenty-seven included, six are by first-time published writers and twenty are by women. This is thus an open, heterodox and explorative volume, unlike its four predecessors in this series in reach and inclusiveness. It is also, perhaps, more uneven in quality: a few stories in this selection are rather slight; and the decision to include two stories by two of the writers may seem problematic, given the large number of submissions and the fact that the editor claims there were fifty works fine enough to warrant publication. A character in one of the stories favourably esteems the fiction of Frank Moorhouse over that of David Malouf: this too may be regarded as a partisan inclusion.

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Selling books is a difficult business. Publishing, too. Booksellers and publishers need courage and imagination. A book about a contemporary Federal politician with the adjective ‘new’ in the title displays both these qualities. Tony Blair may have got away with ‘New Labour’ in Britain. In Australia, a large part of the disenchantment with politics and politicians stems from the feeling that, apart from the fresh face of Natasha Stott-Despoja, there’s nothing new around; no new ideas, no articulated vision of where the country might be in ten or twenty years’ time, nothing inspirational. Perhaps something might emerge before the next election. But no one’s holding their breath. All the signs, surveys, focus groups, radio talk-backs, flirtations with maverick independents show that Australians are looking for something better from Canberra. And they have vestigial hope. So the word ‘new’ in the title is not so stupid after all. It’s based on the theory that hope usually triumphs over experience. People might buy the book hoping for the revelation of a ‘new Liberal’.

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Geordie Williamson reviews 'Wanting' by Richard Flanagan

Geordie Williamson
Wednesday, 09 October 2019

For the inhabitants of mainland Australia, ‘history’ is often complicated by the sheer fact of geography. Instead of one central node, European colonisation expanded from multiple centres, each isolated in space and founded on differing socio-political premises over staggered periods of time, and each with populations too various in background to allow much in the way of agreement about some völkisch collective past.

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At last, books about Such is Life and its endearingly attractive, quixotically sophisticated author, Joseph Furphy, are coming out. Three in the last few months is a welcome harvest, certainly a happier response than Furphy got during the prolonged Wilcannia showers of his life.

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Elizabeth Jolley reviews 'Dancing on Coral' by Glenda Adams

Elizabeth Jolley
Monday, 07 October 2019

A mixture of courage and an innocent hopefulness seem to be the necessary ingredients for finding rewards and compensations during the painful searching after self-knowledge. Lark Watter, the student daughter of Henry and Mrs Watter, embarks, as so many do, on the voyage of self-discovery.

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Karen Lamb reviews 'Theft: A love story' by Peter Carey

Karen Lamb
Monday, 07 October 2019

Sometimes the best place to get a true picture of what Peter Carey is really thinking about his writing is in the international press coverage, in the slipstream of a book’s reception, when he is at least partly preoccupied with the next writing challenge. At such times, Carey’s sensitivities are vulnerable to exposure, as they were in an interview with Robert Birnbaum in an American regional newspaper after he won his second Booker Prize, for True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). Carey is speaking about readers and reviewers (whom he reluctantly acknowledges are also readers). Australian reviewers, he explains to his interviewer, are usually just journalists and therefore subject to literalness and plot summary, an approach that doesn’t work with his fiction.

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Margaret John reviews 'The Doubleman' by C.J Koch

Margaret John
Monday, 07 October 2019

C.J. Koch in this powerful and evocative novel, The Double Man, has applied a psychoanalytic model of human personality to fairytales and the fantastical world of myth: the pursuit of illusion as reality. Its ingenious double life is that of a modern-day fairy tale coupled with the face of 1960s man, paralysed with the despair of his era: its inability to cope with the breakdown of shared values and beliefs. Richard Miller is both the prince of the archetypal fairytale and the prototype of modern man trying to create a private reality out of ancestral beliefs. The Double Man recalls W.B. Yeats’s dread of the ‘rough beast…its hour come round at last’, and the warnings of Goethe who foresaw a time of such chaos: when odd spiritual leaders would emerge and man would turn full circle to find popular truth in ancient myths and legends.

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Peter Carey’s first novel, Bliss, will be self-recommending to all admirers of his astonishing short stories. The Fat Man in History and the even better War Crimes mark Carey as the most genuinely original of our storytellers – a fabulist and, in some corners of his imagination, a surrealist of disturbing power. Part of his achievement and, arguably, a sign of his freshness of vision is that his fictions manage so adroitly to slip through the critic’s webs of explication. They tend to resist any simple yielding up of their inner meaning at the same time as they touch the nerves of our general experience and social fears. The central figures of his narratives are typically trapped in the labyrinths of their obsessions or delusions, they are solitaries, often, like the fat men in the title story, both victims and perpetrators of their condition.

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