Archive

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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The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge & The Invaluable Mystery by Leshia Harford

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October 1987, no. 95

These two very different novels by women provide a wealth of suggestive information about the women’s history being reclaimed and re-established by Australian feminists. They also happen to be intrinsically good novels, accomplished and charming in contrasting ways. Add Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, reprinted in the Virago Modem Classics series, was first serialised in 1883 in The Australasian, published in novel form in 1891, and soon became one of Cambridge’s most popular novels. It draws upon the familiar form of the romance, but it also, in its translation into an Australian setting, illuminates an idiosyncratic colonial grafting onto that form.

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Living with Stress and Anxiety is the title of one of those self-help guides put out by Manchester University Press in its ‘Living With …’ series; Living with Breast Cancer and Mastectomy is another. Living with Literary Theory is not a scheduled volume, I imagine, although some people who work in the lit. crit. business seem to regard literary theory as a prime source of anxiety for which the only remedy is theorectomy. In the decade since Terence Hawkes first taught us how to live with Structuralism and Semiotics (1977), Methuen has succeeded admirably through its expository ‘New Accents’ series (edited by Hawkes) in making it easier for everybody to cope with such anxiety-provoking processes as Lacanian psychoanalysis or Derridean deconstruction; too easy, in the opinion of those who them-selves feel uneasy at the politics of marketing criticism’s nouvelle cuisine as fast-food takeaways, with Methuen playing the role of the big M.

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Many of our strongest writers are also numbered among our most commanding critics; and in some cases – Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, and Eliot – it is not easy to tell whether their greater contribution is to literature or literary criticism. Part of the problem, of course, is that at this high level the distinction tends to break down: criticism becomes literature in its own right and often on its own terms.

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If, as Dr Johnson opined, a lexicographer is a harmless drudge, what does that make a lexicographical reviewer? A potentially harmful drudge perhaps. Who else feels the need to consume a dictionary whole in one indigestible sequence?

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Writing is what I love doing. There is almost nothing like it. Even playing two or three close sets of tennis will not quite compete with having a good poetic theme discover you, and then managing to nut it out, to make it chime like a bell. No wonder the French critics are so fond of talking about the jouissance of a text. When a poetic shape-and-theme I’ve been struggling with comes good, it comes like an express train. And, whether painful or pleasing, writing has become an absolute necessity, so that I grow fretful, grumpy, zany, if I haven’t written anything decent for several days.

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The Lonely Hearts Club by Robin Klein and Max Dann

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August 1987, no, 93

Miracles can still happen. Robin Klein and Max Dann, two of the most popular and successful contemporary children’s authors, have combined forces to write a comedy with a boarding school setting which might, just possibly, start a whole new trend in Australian children’s literature.

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‘The settlement of returned soldiers on cultivable land,’ wrote Ernest Scott in Volume XI of the Official History of Australia in the War 1914–1918 (1936), ‘is one of the most ancient policies of governments after wars.’ Soldier settlement in Australia after World War I is a major instance of a practice dating back as far as Assyria in the thirteenth-century BC. In early twentieth-century Australia, the need to raise an army entirely from volunteers, and the insatiable demands of modern war, made soldier settlement as much an inducement of recruitment as a means of calming things down afterwards, its traditional function.

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About a year ago, when The Woodpecker Toy Fact and Other Stories was just a gleam in its author’s eye, I chanced to hear this very fancifully dressed woman read a story about childhood perception, semantic confusion, and small-town gossip. It was one of those welcome breaks at an academic conference, when we turned our attention from the analysis of art to the thing itself. And it was perhaps the context, along with the exceptional performance of the reader, which made this particular story stand out so vividly. For while it satisfied, they (by then quite desperate) desire to be enthralled by something fictive, it also played up cleverly to the critic in us all.

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Peeling by Grace Bartram

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August 1987, no, 93

Ally is fifty-four when her husband leaves her. Her best friend and her daughter – neither of whom she has ever really talked to before – are each thousands of miles away. She descends rapidly into an undignified breakdown. Retreating from everyone and everything, she grows increasingly fat and fearful. Ally has never been terribly confident in her own identity (‘People tend to look past her, rather than at her. Shop assistants tend to give her bored glazed looks and a sharp “What?”’) and now, unloved and unneeded, she is threatened with disintegration. The woman in the mirror is a stranger, she imagines herself as a white grub that she can make vanish by closing her eyes.

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