Four kangaroos recently moved into the paddock that adjoins the house on Peramangk Country in the Adelaide Hills where I live. For weeks I had been conscious of distant gunfire, not the usual firing of the gas guns that wineries use to keep birds off their vines. I concluded that the kangaroos had been driven here by a cull. The goats, Charles and Hamlet, and the sheep, Lauren and Ingrid, who call the paddock home, seemed unperturbed by the roos’ presence. But what, I wondered, did all these animals think about one another? What, indeed, did they think about me?
From the Man’s horse ‘blood[ied] from hip to shoulder’ in Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1890) to the kangaroos drunkenly slaughtered in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), non-human animals have not fared well in Australian literature. Even when, as in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014), the author’s imagination is fully brought to bear on the inner lives of animals, their fate tends towards the Hobbesian – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – reflecting back to us our own often unexamined cruelty. The rare exceptions, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), incorporating a fictionalised series of animal-rights lectures, serve only to point up the rule.
The epigraph from Plato’s Phaedrus cleverly introduces the Socratic dialogue on which David Brooks’s new novel turns. This makes for a brilliant foray into the contradictions at the heart of the truths that both characters are seeking in The Conversation. This question-and-answer exchange is presented as a kind of Scheherazadian dégustation of nar ...
In a 1995 interview for the Paris Review, Ted Hughes was asked if the 1960s boom in translated poetry in the United Kingdom, particularly with series such as the Penguin Modern European Poets, had had an effect on poetry written in English. ‘Has it modified the British tradition!’ he replied. ‘Everything is now completely open, every approach, with infinite possibilities. Obviously the British tradition still exists as a staple of certain historically hard-earned qualities if anybody is still there who knows how to inherit them. Raleigh’s qualities haven’t become irrelevant. When I read Primo Levi’s verse I am reminded of Raleigh. But for young British poets, it’s no longer the only tradition, no longer a tradition closed in on itself and defensive.’
In these litigious days, should I declare a tenuous bias in favour of David Brooks (whom I know not at all)? According to an extensive list of previous publications, which includes poetry, short fiction, essays and one earlier novel, he has devoted several editorial enterprises to the poet A.D. Hope. I too admired Hope, for his passionate admiration for Russian literature, which he sometimes lectured on and which made him a complimentary examiner of my own PhD thesis. Otherwise, the slate is blank: I tried to locate Brooks’s previous novel, The House of Balthus (1995) as preparatory reading for this review, but the local library system could not help.