Andrew Riemer

Passions have always run high in the Wagner dynasty. Richard, the patriarch, waged a lifelong battle to impose his vision of a purified German art – freed of decadent foreign influences – on a sceptical, at times overtly hostile, culture. His great-grandson Gottfried, who bears a striking physical resemblance to his forebear, is equally dedicated to his mission in life: to alert the world to the intrinsic evil and pernicious influence of Wagner’s works. The cost has been considerable. As he recounts in his obsessive autobiography, The Wagner Legacy (Sanctuary Publishing, 1998 and 2000), he has been disowned by his father, Wolfgang (who has been sole Director of the Bayreuth Festival since 1966), reviled by Wagner enthusiasts in Europe and America, denied every opportunity of working in theatres and opera houses, slandered and even hounded, on occasions, by death threats. Yet, in circumstances where others might have been tempted to throw in the towel, he continues to roam the world, delivering lectures, participating in seminars and discussion- groups with a single-minded aim – to atone for the great evil his family unleashed from their stronghold in the pleasant, nondescript little town of Bayreuth, where the faithful gather each summer to worship the Master, and perhaps to remember the Master’s greatest disciple, the Führer, the intimate friend of Winifred Wagner, Gottfried’s grandmother.

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The Child of an Ancient People by Anouar Benmalek (translated by Andrew Riemer)

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March 2004, no. 259

At once extravagant and tightly wrapped, this novel reinforces the view that historical fiction says as much about the present and the future as it does about the past. At the level of history proper, Anouar Benmalek’s vision unites three continents that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, are subject to the depredations of European colonialism and domestic tyranny. At the human level, his fiction is preoccupied with the bodily functions and basic needs of survival: things that never change. The broad, impersonal sweep of world history is made up of the infinitesimally small transactions of the primal scene: copulating, defecating, vomiting, bleeding, all driven by the elemental forces of fear and desire, violence and conscience.

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You tend to notice things when away from home. For instance, I have always been struck by how many people on trains and buses in Paris have their noses buries in books. So when I spent a couple of weeks there in March, I tried as often as decently possible to sneak a look at what Parisians were reading.

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I was tempted to do a wicked thing when writing about Between the Fish and the Mud Cake: to take its subjects and describe my experiences with them. So I would tell you all about my lunch with Georges Perec at the French Embassy in Canberra. What he said, and I said, and the ambassador said, and what I made of it all. The book mentions touring with Carmel Bird; I could describe my friendship with her. But Andrew Riemer is not that sort of reviewer, and his book is much too interesting in itself to be one-upped like that.

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Anyone can write a book, a cynic once remarked, but bringing off the second is a devil of a task. Most novelists at the outset of their careers would agree, I think – especially these days when a market-driven publishing industry often demands that authors of successful first novels should come up with more of the same ASAP.

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The Oxford Literary History of Australia edited by Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Strauss

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October 1998, no. 205

The index to this literary history lists four references – one neutral, three critical – to Leonie Kramer as the editor of the 1981 The Oxford History of Australian Literature and one each to the publication itself, to Adrian Mitchell, who was responsible for the survey of fiction, and to Vivian Smith as the author of the section on poetry – there is no reference to Terry Sturm, who wrote on drama. None of the sixteen critics and scholars who contributed to the new survey engages in any significant manner with the aims and aspirations of that publication, even ‘though it is acknowledged in the Introduction – together with the work of H.M. Green, Cecil Hadgraft, Geoffrey Dutton, G.A. Wilkes, Ken Goodwin, Laurie Hergenhan, Bob Hodge, and Vijay Mishra – as providing ‘frameworks and a background of references’. The implication seems to be not so much that The Oxford History of Australian Literature reflects an unjustifiably conservative view of national literature – a complaint that arose almost as soon as it was published – but that its methods, ideals, and emphases are irrelevant to the literary culture of the late nineties.

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In retrospect it’s not surprising that Andrew Riemer wrote so insightfully about Shakespeare’s comedies. Those green worlds of transformation are expressive of longing and nostalgia, of social order being restored through the acceptance and reconciliation of opposing forces. That the brute, material world is partly dealt with through nostalgia, fantasy and parody is an idée fixe of Riemer’s elegantly written autobiographical books.

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Veronica Brady is a highly respected critic with long and distinguished experience in the academic and literary worlds. She understands as well as anyone, I am sure, the mysterious workings of the imagination – how a feeling, an image or an impression may strike a spark capable of igniting a flame that fuses often contradictory thoughts and experiences into the ‘little room’ of a memorable poem. So it must have been a deliberate, though to my mind regrettable, decision that made her concentrate on Judith Wright’s life as a conservationist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights almost to the exclusion of everything else – poetry included – in this ample and painstaking biography.

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John Docker

Mark Davis’ Voltairean Gangland is one of those rare books that prise open a space for revaluation of the direction of a culture. Like The Dunciad’s evocation of the Grub Street hacks of its time, Gangland exposes tentacular networks of chummy patronage, mutual puffery, and cultural power. Gangland is especially enjoyable on the clown-like behaviour of the ex-Scripsi diaspora – in a curious sexual division of labour, a B-team of male critics, captained by the felicitously named P. Craven, has successfully promoted a coterie of writers like Jolley, Garner, and Modjeska. Compared to those I analyse in Australian Cultural Elites (1974) and In A Critical Condition (1984), this new élite is the most intellectually thin in Australian cultural history. Assisted by a passive, grovelling middle-class readership, it both creates such writers as canonical and then tries desperately to shield their texts from critique and challenge.

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Firing by Ninette Dutton

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May 1995, no. 170

A friend of mine remembers a reception during an Adelaide Festival of the Arts. It was a large gathering: visiting musicians, singers, actors and writers, members of the Adelaide establishment, people from the university. The hosts were Ninette and Geoffrey Dutton. My friend, a visitor from Sydney, was struck by the Duttons’ confidence and sophistication. They were a handsome couple, she recalls, entirely at ease with the famous people who had come to the Festival from many parts of the world.

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