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Peter Rose

Sunrise West by Jacob G. Rosenberg

October 2007, no. 295

Gunther Grass, in his suave and controversial memoirs, Peeling the Onion (Harvill Secker, 2007, trans. Michael Henry Heim), rehearses many of the modern autobiographer’s qualms about the biddability of memory. Grass, with his long history of attacking other Germans’ wartime activities while concealing his own service in the Tenth SS Armoured Division, has every incentive to question the memoirist’s primary tool. ‘When pestered with questions,’ Grass writes, ‘memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is seldom unambiguous and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised.’ Changing metaphors, Grass contends with memory’s caprices and slippages: ‘Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.’

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Listen, Lesbia!
Surely you can hear.
Shake off that silly hangover
while I part the curtains
just slightly.


It is rare in Australia for a literary biographer, even one of distinction, to write at book length about her intellectual formation and biographical pursuits. A country so demonstrably forgetful of its best poetry and fiction is unlikely to foster a literature of this burgeoning genre, still emerging from its decorous constraints. Elsewhere, we have Richard Holmes’s seminal Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic biographer (1995) and Leon Edel’s Bloomsbury: A house of lions (1979), but Australian examples are few. So it is good to have Brenda Niall’s lucid account of her gradual transformation from academic to biographer.

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Thirty years have passed since Richard Ellmann’s magisterial New Oxford Book of American Verse: a hard act to follow. Now David Lehman – poet and founder of the Best American Poetry series – has produced a successor. It is even longer than the Ellmann, and similarly generous in its individual choices. There is no stinting here, no mark of the tyranny of permissions that blights so many anthologies. Walt Whitman gets seventy poems; Emily Dickinson (who published a handful in her lifetime) has forty-three, including the cautionary ‘Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man’.

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Things I Didn’t Know by Robert Hughes & North Face of Soho by Clive James

December 2006–January 2007, no. 287

In the early 1980s, Clive James met William Shawn – at the Algonquin, of course. Shawn, the long-time editor of the New Yorker, invited James to become the magazine’s television critic. James, though awed by the offer, quickly said no, perhaps the first time this had happened to Shawn since World War II, he speculates in North Face of Soho, the fourth volume of his Unreliable Memoirs. Had James accepted, his life would have been very different, and this ‘brilliant bunch of guys’ (as the magazine later dubbed him) might still be in New York. But his wife’s work was in Cambridge, and he knew America wouldn’t suit him, or rather, might suit him too well. (‘America appealed too much to my sweet tooth.’)

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As with all forms of Australian cultural activity, it would be easy to inflate local critical endeavour (its novelty, its scintillations, its martial tendencies) and to forget that the history of acerbity is longer than that of our peppy federation. Hundreds of years before Hal Porter carved up Patrick White, critics were pillorying artists with a deftness and wit that can surprise modern readers. Samuel Johnson said, ‘If bad writers were to pass without reprehension, what should restrain them?’ Even a writer as famously suave and tempered as Henry James did not hesitate to wound. Reviewing Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps in 1865, he wrote: ‘It has been a melancholy task to read this book; and it is a still more melancholy one to write about it.’ Ten years later, George Bernard Shaw began writing the theatre and music journalism that would forever change criticism, and forever change the public’s perception of criticism’s freedom and indispensability. Open any of Shaw’s pages from the next seventy-five years and you will find passages that present-day editors would clamour to publish. Try, ‘I have no idea of the age at which Grieg perpetrated this tissue of puerilities; but if he was a day over eighteen the exploit is beyond excuse.’

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for Bryan Ennis

‘To in the destructive element immerse’

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ABR readers may be more familiar with Louis Kahan’s illustrations for Clem Christesen’s Meanjin or with his portrait of Patrick White (which won the Archibald Prize in 1965) than with his sketches of musicians, but this stylish book from Macmillan Art Publishing reveals not just the fluidity of Kahan’s style but also his passion for music and music-makers. And what a range of artists he could draw on (mostly at rehearsals) during the second half of his life. Present-day concert-goers, inured to leaner rostrums resulting from high fees and a faded currency, will marvel at the list of luminaries who performed here during the three decades after the war. There is Claudio Arrau (1947), grave and poetic; Otto Klemperer (1950), Olympian, bespectacled; a young Lorin Maazel (1961), gaunt and driven like a Schiele self-portrait; Luciano Pavarotti (1965) before the years of glory and girth; and Marian Anderson (1971), mighty in her sensible hat.

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for Craig Sherborne


‘Grief wrongs us so.’

                                                  Douglas Dunn

To the sea we bear our fathers in state –

or what they’ve done to them: the square conversions.

Surf mild as receding tides,

we slump in dunes with our burdens,

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My theme is the mixed and contentious business of reviewing: its influence, its limitations, its present condition in what we like to call our literary culture. I will largely confine my remarks to the literary pages of our newspapers and magazines. I don’t propose to comment on the learned journals – or criticism at monograph length issuing from the academy. (Not, sadly, that there is much of that kind of publishing in Australia these days.)

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