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Nicholas Birns

Disquiet by Julia Leigh

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May 2008, no. 301

Julia Leigh rose to prominence at the end of the 1990s, when Australian literature was experiencing the best and worst of times. Though the 1990s were not the ‘low dishonest decade’ that the post-9/11 allegorical reading of W.H. Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ implied, this characterisation was apt where Australian literature, or at least its worldwide reception, was concerned. Relentless hype tended to drive out literary factors altogether, even as Australian novels reached audiences they had never before attained. As a young, gifted writer with a sharp, fresh style, Leigh could have easily followed up the success of the The Hunter (1999) by writing a middlebrow-pleasing mega-blockbuster. Instead, she has produced a very short but demanding work that is both compelling and highbrow. Disquiet is an even better book than The Hunter – less formulaic, operating on the level of touch as well as trope, and furiously part of the twenty-first century.

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TROVE CURTAILED

Dear Editor,

As President of the Australian Historical Association, on 2 March I sent the following letter to the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP, Prime Minister of Australia, (and copied it to the Hon. Bill Shorten MP, Leader of the Opposition; Senator the Hon. Mitch Fifield, Minister for the Arts; and the Hon. Mark Dreyfus QC, MP, Shadow Minister for ...

A polyphony of voices in Antipodes offers readers a textured view of literature from Australia and New Zealand. Contributors to this biannual journal are Australianists from all over the world. This globalisation is perhaps best evidenced by the inclusion of critics from Portugal, Slovenia, Lebanon, and Austria, writing incisively about Gail Jones, Indigenous poetry, Australian Lebanese writers, and German translations of Aboriginal literature. Stephen Mansfield’s melismatic double feature on fathers and masculinity in John Hughes’s The Idea of Home (2004) is a highlight, but his interview with Hughes suffers from being conducted via email, while Jean-François Vernay’s interview with Sallie Muirden is a fascinating and unconstrained discussion of writing. Mark Larrimore’s essay on teaching ‘Aboriginal Australian Religion in an American Liberal Arts College’ is another example of the way Antipodes offers more than standard critiques on literature.

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Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature was founded in 1987 as the journal of the American Association of Australian Literary Studies, itself founded the previous year. Both institutions are products of the Hawke era, when the still-simmering question of Australian identity and the Australian film boom of the early 1980s created an ideal state for Australians to be interested in (and to help fund) US literary culture’s own nascent interest in Australia.

From the beginning, it had no problem attracting prestigious contributors. A.D. Hope, Peter Carey, Les Murray, Thea Astley, Rosemary Dobson, and Mudrooroo were all featured in early issues. Even Patrick White consented to be profiled, though not formally interviewed, by our gentlemanly founding fiction editor, Ray Willbanks. Paul Kane, our poetry editor, has always made sure we are vitally engaged with the best and most exciting Australian verse. The journal continues to publish biannually, with most space devoted to refereed academic essays, but also including fiction, poetry, book reviews and the most recent addition – creative non-fiction, a hybrid genre in which regular contributors such as Ouyang Yu, Elizabeth Bernays, and the ‘Trans-Tasman’ figure Stephen Oliver have excelled.

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The latest Antipodes opens with Katherine Bode’s provocative discussion of Roger McDonald’s The Ballad of Desmond Kale. Dissecting McDonald’s ‘fantasy of an all-white, all-male Australian society’, Bode’s essay also criticises Inga Clendinnen for exempting McDonald’s novel from her much-aired arguments against historical fiction. Bernadette Brennan draws on Maurice Blanchot to explore ‘the ungraspable experience of death’ evoked in works by Alex Miller and Noel Rowe, and Lyn McCredden has philosopher René Girard in mind when revisiting the familiar territory of the Lindy Chamberlain case and the ‘rituals of perpetual scapegoating’. Helen Gildfind ‘meets’ Janet Frame through Frame’s autobiographies, and reflects on the ‘reader’s power to decide the autobiographical status of a text’. The result is interestingly self-reflexive, but some readers might prefer more Frame and less Gildfind.

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Another poet might invoke Edmund Burke’s famous treatise on the Sublime and the Beautiful as a piece of phraseology or a pleasing adornment, but with John Kinsella, such a title is dead serious. Elliot Perlman’s superb novel Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) ingeniously makes the reader think of William Empson’s, and the idea of plural signification it evokes, but not instantly to reread it. Kinsella’s use of Burke’s title prompts one to reread the original – ideally, in a Kinsellan métier, on the internet, late at night. Additionally, the ‘shades’ in Kinsella’s title is an important supplement – shades as variations, colourings, but also shadows, undertones.

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A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 edited by Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer

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February 2008, no. 298

When G.B. Barton presented his two works concerning the literary history of New South Wales to the Paris Exhibition of 1866, he hoped that they would enable readers ‘to form an exact idea of the progress, extent and prospects of literary enterprise among us’. The words are succinct, unobjectionable, and their sentiments influenced much of the literary history of the next century, much as the productions of that time were usually annals rather than analysis. Barton’s civic-minded project linked the maturing of Australian literature with its political culture. Implicit in his endeavour, though numerous others would use the metaphor outright, was the notion of ‘coming-of-age’. This chimera had as long a life as the search for the Great Australian Novel.

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A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 edited by Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer

by
February 2008, no. 298

When G.B. Barton presented his two works concerning the literary history of New South Wales to the Paris Exhibition of 1866, he hoped that they would enable readers ‘to form an exact idea of the progress, extent and prospects of literary enterprise among us’. The words are succinct, unobjectionable, and their sentiments influenced much of the literary history of the next century, much as the productions of that time were usually annals rather than analysis. Barton’s civic-minded project linked the maturing of Australian literature with its political culture. Implicit in his endeavour, though numerous others would use the metaphor outright, was the notion of ‘coming-of-age’. This chimera had as long a life as the search for the Great Australian Novel.

... (read more)

Antipodes, vol. 21, no. 1, 2007 edited by Nicholas Birns & Southerly, vol. 67, no. 1-2, 2007 edited by David Brooks and Noel Rowe

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November 2007, no. 296

This volume of Southerly, combining the first two issues for 2007, is a celebration of Elizabeth Webby’s contribution to Australian literature. Noel Rowe and Bernadette Brennan, the editors principally responsible for this issue, describe it as ‘a tribute to a brilliant career’. There are contributions from academic colleagues, generations of poets and writers of short fiction, and a number of ex-students, many of whom ‘have gone on to distinguished academic careers’.

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Barry Hill’s latest collection is both delightful and substantive. Australia has a minority tradition of the urbane, exuberant, even bouncy poet – Andrew Sant, Peter Porter. It is a constant in American poetry – early John Hollander, Frederick Feirstein, L. E. Sissman, John Frederick Nims, X.J. Kennedy – with the difference that, as the above examples show, urbanity in the United States would be less romantic and would have rejected romanticism outright, severed, as it were, Ezra Pound’s famous pact with Walt Whitman.

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