Archive

This year’s annual conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature was held in mid-July at James Cook University in Townsville, to which some two hundred delegates flocked to soak up ideas, information, sunshine, and the odd ale. Everybody had a good time except possibly the indefatigable organisers, Tony Hassall, Robert Dixon, and Stephen Torre, who, if they were not too exhausted to enjoy themselves, ought to have been. In general, the relaxed and benign atmosphere one has come to know and love at ASAL conferences prevailed.

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This book can read at times as though it were Les Murray’s revenge on Australian poetry. Of course, no anthology will please all of the people all of the time, but this one does not so much seem to represent any consistent view of what significant poems have been written in this country as Murray’s own projections about the kinds of poetry which ought to have been written here. The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse is quirky and opinionated, very ambitious in the ground it wants to cover, and yet ultimately hamstrung in its assemblage. It amounts to a quixotic attempt to see Australian poetry as a massively unified body of work, and Murray has played fast and loose with the material that was before him in order to reveal this unity.

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Yacker by Candida Baker & Rooms of Their Own by Jennifer Ellison

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July 1986, no. 82

Why do we like interviews so much? There must be a reason. Maybe it’s the lure – too often, alas, as in lurid – of confession: the ‘X Reveals All’ syndrome that deceives the mind into thinking it has always wanted to know what it is (finally) about to be told; or the more elevated sense of privilege and honour felt by those in whom such truths are confided.

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‘We assume, of course, that we are masters and not servants of facts,’ observes T.S. Eliot in an early essay, ‘and that we know that the discovery of Shakespeare’s laundry bills would not be of much use to us’. The sentence continues, still flickering between amusement and seriousness, futility of the research which has discovered them, in the possibility that some genius will appear who knows of a use to which to put them’. If he had lived a decade or so longer, Eliot may have smiled to hear of the furore which attended the publication of Nietzsche’s unpublished manuscripts, including his laundry bills. And while he may not have been entirely amused by Jacques Derrida’s essay, Éperons, partly prompted by this publication, Eliot would doubtless have agreed with one of the theoretical points that was made: it is impossible to tell for sure which of an author’s writings do not belong to his or her oeuvre.

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Historians of the left have frequently adopted a highly sceptical, if not outright hostile, stance towards that pursuit of working-class interests through parliamentary politics which resulted in some form of ‘welfare state’ in most western industrial democracies. Historical interpretation has tended to polarise. On the one hand, liberal scholars have heralded the progress of governments towards active provision of an assured basic standard of living for those least advantaged in a capitalist society. On the other, a handful of socialist and Marxist scholars has discovered merely the minimal concessions of a bourgeois state to dampen the zeal of radicals, for fear of threatening disruptive social conflict; the reforms themselves were partial, inadequate, and a prop to the essentially conservative interests of the state, rather than a genuine modification of the body politic in the interests of the working-class.

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The Australian Year looks like the dreaded coffee table book, yet another gloss on the national ‘identity’, backed by Esso, and fit for export only. Certainly, the cover picture of parroty water gives that impression, as do many familiar ones inside, though the main photographer, Peter Solness, does turn in some good homely details as well. Generally, the photographs stand like an avenue of plane trees, their density and hues changing with the seasons of Les Murray’s fully ripened, free-ranging text – which meets the high expectations we might be forgiven for holding when a major Australian poet, a well-versed country boy and populist by persuasion, an erudite and vernacular singer of the old and new, writes a book on a phenomenon as democratically inclusive and resonant as the seasons.

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Kylie Tennant hasn’t taken the task of telling the story of her life seriously – and that is one of the real pleasures of this rough and ready autobiography. Her ten novels and many short stories, as well as being piercingly accurate social documentaries, are carefully constructed to work as good yarns should. But Tennant’s autobiography is not well put together. It reads as if she is nattering with a friend and laughing at herself a lot. She rambles a bit, avoids any semblance of self-analysis, is engagingly matter-of-fact about her achievements and her failings.

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The usual incumbent of this space is, as it were, being spelled. Meanwhile, the view from the other side of the bookshop counter is cheery. The debate about whether too much is being published and whether women writers are getting more of the discrimination than they are positively entitled to has flitted across the pages of the Bulletin and the National Times, with John Hanrahan, formerly an assistant editor and acting editor of this magazine, providing insight and balance.

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Memoirs of Many in One by Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray (edited by Patrick White)

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July 1986, no. 82

Patrick White is a downy old bird. He has always shown remarkable ability to keep up with the game, even to keep ahead of it. Whether the game is currently being called Modernism, or Postmodernism, or some other ismatic title, he can handle it as a writer and still be himself. From The Aunt’s Story to The Twyborn Affair, he has displayed this ability to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, to go in with the ferrets and also come out with the rabbits. In other words, of all Australian writers he most convincingly builds a bridge between what critics ask for and what readers want.

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The everlasting dance of sounds and feelings and colours, the taste and scent of life, comes to us in its most explicit form in words. Even when Proust’s famous Madeleine led him back through its scents and associations in search of a time that was lost, he followed its tracks through words that brought back the images of the past and tied them down into clear grammatical patterns of form and relationship. Because language teaches us how to think and feel and see it is always political. The speaker and the writer impose on us patterns which either reinforce or subvert established power. It is no accident that a failed conservative businessman and politician has been able to recover his fortunes by writing a political thriller, or that Mrs Thatcher has now engaged him on the task of selling her politics of destruction to a wary electorate. The words create the reality.

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