Biography

To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

... (read more)

Geordie Williamson reviews 'Tom Stoppard: A life' by Hermione Lee

Geordie Williamson
Wednesday, 25 November 2020

A tantalising ‘what if?’ emerges from the opening chapters of Hermione Lee’s immense, intricately researched life of Tom Stoppard. On the day in 1939 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, the future playwright’s assimilated Jewish parents were obliged to flee the Moravian town where they lived. They made it to Singapore, only to endure Japanese invasion soon afterward. Stoppard’s mother, Martha, had to move again, and swiftly, with her two sons while her beloved husband, Eugen, a doctor, remained behind to aid with civilian defence. His evacuation ship was destroyed, and he was lost, presumably drowned, a little later. But when Stoppard’s mother boarded her own ship, earlier in 1941, she thought it was headed for Australia. Only later did she learn that India was their destination.

... (read more)

One of the frustrating things about being a historian is the number of times you are told by others that surely everything in your specialty must already have been ‘done’. After so many decades or centuries, what more could there possibly be to discover? One of the answers is that what interests scholars, and what topics are considered worthy of examination, changes over time. This explains how ‘new’ material – often sitting in the archives for centuries – comes to light. It also explains why women have not always made the cut, a problem compounded, as recent Twitter discussions have highlighted, by how often research about women by female scholars still goes unpublished.

... (read more)

Brian Toohey reviews 'Keating: A biography' by Edna Carew

Brian Toohey
Monday, 23 November 2020

This book has drawn comment from press gallery journalists that the author’s background as a finance writer has led to weaknesses in its political analysis. The political sections, however, strike this reader as every bit up to the standard of the press gallery contributions on the subject, and, indeed, add some useful detail on Paul Keating’s early years, which were devoted with such unswerving dedication to entering parliament at the age of twenty-five. Both the gallery and Carew agree that Keating is an outstanding politician and enormously successful treasurer. While it is not always fair to lament that a book is different from the one you might have preferred to read – the author’s task is hard enough as it is – I would have hoped that the economic issues would have been explored with a much broader brush.

... (read more)

Professor Hassall’s study of Randolph Stow is indeed a strange country. A text which sets out to establish Stow as ‘a more important writer than is generally recognized’ and to show that his ‘best work bears comparison with Patrick White’s’ promises an intellectual engagement with either critics or the text or both which would lead to reassessment of Stow’s work. It appears that these are Aunt Sally’s – although Professor Leonie Kramer, who is presented as one of Stow’s ‘sterner “realist” critics’, can hardly be seen as such an aunt. Hassall puts her up but barely touches her, leaving the counterargument to Dorothy Green. Perhaps he’s being gentlemanly. However, to quote a paragraph from Green which asserts that ‘One of the greatest weaknesses of Australian criticism has always been its refusal to take religious ideas seriously’ is to take advantage of the lady. Hassall needs to fight his own battle against Leonie Kramer’s judgement of Stow’s work as being ‘quasi-religious’ and misguidedly experimental.

... (read more)

Brian McFarlane reviews 'Martin Boyd: A life' by Brenda Niall

Brian McFarlane
Thursday, 19 November 2020

When Martin Boyd returned to Australia in 1948 after twenty-seven years in England, he set about restoring the Grange, the derelict former home of his mother’s family, the à Becketts. He had been disappointed to find how little known his novels were in Australia and he had difficulty in re-establishing himself with the Boyd family. Nevertheless he persevered with his impulsive scheme until he could draw ‘the curtains at night in the little sitting room ... [and] indulge the illusion of being in an English manor house.’ Among the à Beckett portraits and eighteenth-century furniture were his nephew Arthur’s biblical frescoes. In trying to be an English squire in the Australian countryside, surrounded by the artefacts of two continents and centuries, Boyd presents the image of a man who never quite found himself wholly at home anywhere.

... (read more)

John Gorton reviews 'Six Prime Ministers' by Alexander Downer

John Gorton
Thursday, 19 November 2020

Sir Alexander Downer (1910–81) was a man of great courtesy, absolute integrity, honesty in reporting the things be observed. I think that these attributes are all self-evident in the book he has written about six Australian prime ministers. Also apparent was, I believe, a too subservient attitude to a Britain which was disappearing and changing throughout his life. After all, the concept of the Queen as the Queen of Australia – instead of the Queen of Britain or the Commonwealth – received acceptance only after World War II, which incidentally was a war that Alec Downer saw out living in the hell of Changi Prison Camp.

... (read more)

What might pique the interest of even the most casual observer, consumer or critic of country music, popular culture or celebrity, or all three, is the title of Jeff Apter’s ‘unauthorised’ biography, Fortunate Son: The Unlikely Rise of Keith Urban. The commercially catchy title parallels and mimics the musical style of its famous subject, while also striking an odd, even humorous note in its backhanded recognition of ‘our Keith’s’ American success. That Apter also markets his biography as ‘unauthorised’ provides another selling point. Knowing that the book is not commissioned by Urban suggests that it may deliver an edgy ‘tell all’ account of Nicole Kidman’s husband. One might be forgiven for thinking that such a work will take risks, since it is under no obligation to provide a flattering portrayal of its subject. It doesn’t. In fact, its very lack of risk is clear even without undertaking a close reading.

... (read more)

Theatregoers with long memories may well hug to themselves the ‘golden years’ of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s tenancy of the Russell Street Theatre in the 1960s, a time in which plays as varied as Hochhuth’s The Representative, Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s infallible matinee version of Henry James’s The Heiress, and many others jostled for attention. It was the time when an actor called Clive Winmill stepped on stage in the swinging London comedy The Knack and, instead of saying his lines, treated the audience to a passionate anti-Vietnam involvement speech. It was a time when the provocative new and the venerated classic made equal claims on a theatrical ensemble which achieved real importance in Melbourne’s cultural life.

... (read more)

Jay Thompson reviews 'Kylie Tennant: A life' by Jane Grant

Jay Daniel Thompson
Thursday, 12 November 2020

In a 1985 interview, Kylie Tennant was quoted as saying: ‘I … don’t know how people get on who haven’t been raised in a battling Australian family.’ Jane Grant expands upon this image of Tennant as a quintessential ‘Aussie battler’ in her biography of the acclaimed novelist. Kylie Tennant: A life is relatively brief, yet it provides a remarkable insight into the pressures (societal and otherwise) that informed Tennant’s politics and prose.

... (read more)