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Australian Literature

The more I think about it the more I am convinced that Ken Goodwin must have found this a brute of a book to write. Not that difficulties are apparent in the writing. Far from it. It is simply that, in looking at it from a reviewer’s point of view, I am increasingly aware of the constraints under that the author must have suffered while managing to produce a book which the general reader and the interested undergraduate will find both interesting and useful.

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The Australian Stage edited by Harold Love & Reverses by Marcus Clarke, edited by Dennis Davison

May 1986, no. 80

The Australian Stage represents an interesting intersection between the academic world and the creative arts, between the long perspective of the historian, and the ephemerality of theatre performances. Its methodology is academic; it proceeds from an examination of documents, of written records of an art form only one aspect of which we think of as being written, the actual texts of plays. However, these are not the documents in question (although some bibliographical information about the plays is also included); rather it is the responses to performances, particularly reviews, written reminiscences, playbills, newspaper reports, which provide, collectively, the material for a historical survey of theatre in Australia.

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The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature edited by William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews

December 1985–January 1986, no. 77

This is a splendid book, by far the most important of the recent OUP contributions to the study of Australian literature. Everything that you ever wanted to know about Australian Literature. Comprehensive (amazingly), consistently lively, up to date, as far as I can judge, accurate.

I have played the usual reviewers’ game for a book like this – trying to ...

Long term readers of Thea Astley have come to expect novels and short stories of finely tuned social satire which have increasingly employed Astley’s individual idiom: a richly textured and often baroque language of compressed meaning, of striking and original metaphor, of the incisively apt phrase which encapsulates character.

Her satiric themes have almost always focused on Australian society or that of the Pacific region – that ‘tropic cliché’ which she identified in her Herbert Blaiklock Memorial Lecture – ‘Being a Queenslander: A Form of’ Literary and Geographical Conceit’.

The favoured Astley microcosm is an enclosed or isolated community, the small northern town of many of her novels, or the tropic aeland of A Boat Load of Home Folk and her latest novel Beachmasters. Within this environment she is apt to place an isolated and vulnerable individual – perhaps an adolescent like Vinny Lalor of A Descant for Gossips or Gavi Salway of Beachmasters – who must, under the pressure of the social dialectic, learn the complexity of human response.

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While the reading of a book has become a solitary matter, its interpretation remains a convivial task which must be performed anew for each new reader, new age, and new country. The business of criticism is to help us in this task, and from a multitude of judgements to further our understanding of an author’s words for our time.  The critic is therefore involved not only with books, but through them with the cultural problems of his society. Critical debates thus become debates about major social issues.

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Normally, Australia’s Writers could be expected to attract the special attention of critics. However, by sensible use of his preface and the quality of his book’s contents, Graeme Kinross Smith has minimised the possibility of adverse comment. Carefully, he sets out the guidelines adopted for the fifty­four essays that range from two to ten pages each, starting with Captain Arthur Phillip and closing with Rosemary Dobson. Stressing ‘the distinctive and fascinating’ tradition of Australian literature and the book’s purpose in giving an insight into that tradition, Graeme Kinross Smith writes:

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The title of David Malouf’s novel, An Imaginary Life, must be read three ways. Most obviously, the novel is an imaginative recreation of the last years of the life of the Roman poet, Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid), who was exiled to a village on the Black Sea by the Emperor Augustus in the last century BCE. The life is imaginary because it imagines – most successfully – the circumstances of this exile.

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