Lyn Williams, Geoffrey Blainey, Stephen Edgar, Judith Armstrong, Susan Magarey, John Carmody

 

Fred Williams and Arnold Shore
Dear Editor,

Felicity St John Moore, in her review (November 2010) of Arnold Shore: Pioneer Modernist, by Rob Haysom, makes the Modernist connection between the work of Arnold Shore’s ‘scrubby river bank’ landscapes and Fred Williams’s ‘sapling forest fence-like landscapes’, his Sherbrooke Forest series 1959–62, ‘which laid the foundations of his mature style’. She writes also of the personal relationship between the two.

There is no doubt both artists worked from these principles (Fred was a Bell School student 1946–49); Fred knew and respected Shore’s work. Although the Melbourne art world was small by today’s standards and Shore, The Age critic, reviewed his early exhibitions, Fred did not know the man well.

Felicity’s ‘proof’ of their relationship is based on the connection between their work, on their ‘similar temperaments’, and on the fact that they were neighbours in Chrystobel Crescent, Hawthorn. She gives no dates in this regard. Fred and I lived in the coach-house at 45 Chrystobel Crescent for eleven months, from November 1962 until 27 September 1963. During that time, Fred painted his first You Yangs series (aerial views of the landscape, not the earlier Sherbrooke Forest series). He exhibited the first at the inaugural Georges Prize, 8 May 1963, and, subsequently, a group in the Rubenstein Scholarship exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (9 July 1963). This was the series that brought him his first serious public recognition.

Fred’s 1963 diary records the names of many visitors and outings that year. Although Felicity refers to ‘walks and talks’ with Arnold Shore, there is no mention of him in the diary. My only personal recollection is of a laneway chat between the two late one morning a short time before Arnold Shore died on 22 May 1963.

‘Proof’ lies in research, not guesswork.

Lyn Williams, South Yarra, Vic.

 

Unchanged mind

Dear Editor,

Richard Broinowski suggests (Letters, November 2010) that if I read Graham Freudenberg’s stimulating book Churchill and Australia, it would change my mind about the causes of Australia’s wartime plight in 1941–42. I reviewed the book at length in ABR two years ago (December 2008–January 2009), but it didn’t change my mind.

Geoffrey Blainey, East Melbourne, Vic.

 

Wrong statue

Dear Editor,

May I offer a minor correction to Peter Craven’s letter (Letters, November 2010). He wrote: ‘It was Bartók, I think, who remarked that no one ever erected a statue in honour of a critic.’ It was actually Sibelius.

Stephen Edgar, Carlingford, NSW

 

Missing the point

Dear Editor,

Peter Craven’s letter did nothing to shake my opinion that criticism need not be a secondary exercise. Sibelius’s remark that no statue had ever been erected to a critic is hardly an argument; as a Central European, he would have been familiar with Pushkin’s famous line about memorials ‘not made with hands’. Why is the phrase not applicable to, say, the body of critical assessment that made film critic Pauline Kael famous in her time? The fact that she never made a film or that the experience of reading her is not the same as going to a movie is beside the point.

Mr Craven’s distortion of my reference to Geoffrey Hartman seems like a wilful misreading of what I said, in line with his determination to turn the issue into a competition: Johnson’s Life of Milton not as good as Paradise Lost, Nabokov on Gogol not on a par with his own novels, etc. But this is again to miss the point. The question is not one of selective, if not odious, comparisons, but of whether criticism does or does not qualify as a creative art form. Some biographies, some histories, some essays do, while some novels, poems, and plays simply fail.

To take just two examples: Peter Brooks, a brilliantly creative critic, has in his Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984) written an elegantly profound essay on narrative, which deals not with any specific novel (although he alludes to Tristram Shandy and Balzac), but with the light that Freud’s essay ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ throws on plot – ‘a kind of arabesque or squiggle towards the end’, which is death/closure. This essay does everything we might ask of fiction. It has a point of view, characters, a line of development, its own peripeteia, climax, and dénouement; it holds the reader in suspense, tells us something startlingly new, expands our understanding of human nature, informs, charms, satisfies. It is quite as memorable as Lolita.

More recently, an essay by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books (5 August 2010) took my breath away with a three-page review of Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. The crucial thing about this piece is that its author did not read the novel as a committed Carey fan, but found himself liking it ‘more and more as [he] came to know it better’. His study of it is forensic, speculative, wide-ranging, witty – altogether an admirable and thrilling exercise.

I could take issue with some of Mr Craven’s ‘other matters’, such as his claim that he was only saying that ‘some books are better than others’ (would he have needed to do that?) rather than declaring that ‘Relativism’ was a fashionable but poisonous attack on the ranking that is his special province. But let me finish on a more conciliatory note.

Much, no doubt the bulk of, critical writing is parasitic on creative fiction, just as ninety-nine per cent of film reviewing depends on there being films to review. But the fact that Halley’s comet only appears once every seventy-five or seventy-six years does not mean it does not exist. Criticism that successfully aspires to be art is encountered more often than that.

Judith Armstrong, North Carlton, Vic.

 

Spence unbridled

Dear Editor,

It was a great pleasure to read Helen Thomson’s enthusiastic review of the new edition of Unbridling the Tongues of Women: A Biography of Catherine Helen Spence (September 2010). It was generous of Dr Thomson also to pay attention to an earlier publication, Ever Yours, C.H. Spence (Wakefield Press, 2005), which includes Catherine Spence’s last work, An Autobiography, annotated by yet another Spence scholar, Barbara Wall. But Helen expresses great distress at having learned, from this publication, not only of the existence of Catherine Spence’s diary for 1894, but also of its anonymous owners’ refusal to allow anyone else to see it, or to make it public. I write, now, to relieve this distress.

After Ever Yours had been published, a representative of the State Library of South Australia visited the owners of the diary in Brisbane, and, with the resources of the library at his command, was able to be far more persuasive than I could ever have been. The State Library has purchased this treasure and it now lives in the Library in Adelaide. Better still, Barbara Wall has transcribed it and annotated it, in the process correcting mistakes that I had made in the version published in Ever Yours, and filling in gaps that I had left. And – the final step that we have been endeavouring to take – that text will appear on Wakefield Press’s website some time early in 2011, making it available to scholars everywhere.

I could not refer to the last stages of these arrangements in the new introduction to Unbridling the Tongues of Women, because they were still in process and the outcome uncertain. It is with great delight, therefore, that I can tell Helen Thomson – and everyone else in the world wishing to read about Catherine Spence’s adventures – of this final achievement.

Susan Magarey, Kent Town, SA

 

Sheer hyperbole

Dear Editor,

Both the first sentence of Neal Blewett’s review of three recent books on Kevin Rudd and the headline to his piece are sheer hyperbole (September 2010). Even allowing the legitimacy of metaphor in a literary publication, the use of the word ‘assassination’ is absurd.

The fact is that the former prime minister was not providing leadership and that his government was facing a serious defeat: his replacement was essential, and that imperative had been obvious to any serious political observer for at least two months. That neither David Marr nor, it seems, Dr Blewett saw that reality is no justification for dressing it up in terms of Shakespearian tragedy, which, plainly, it was not. It was just pragmatic politics.

The rest of the review is characterised by sagacity and the author’s depth of political experience. Even so, I suspect that in dismissing what he sees as Nicholas Stuart’s animus towards Rudd, Blewett seriously underestimates the broader extent of the enduring hostility of those who have worked with Rudd over the years – part of which, with such an ‘essentially friendless’ man, was his alleged disposition to white-ant his ALP colleagues in the interests of his own advancement. Blewett does not mention that reality, as he likewise does not highlight the apparent superiority with which Julia Gillard conducted cabinet meetings as well as ‘ploughing through’ paperwork. Perhaps, too, he overvalues the extent to which Rudd, in Marr’s words, taught himself to be a politician and, therefore, the ‘potency’ of the Rudd ‘electoral machine’. It is closer to the truth to argue that the country yearned to rid itself of John Howard in 2004 but, in what was essentially a binary choice, and faced with Mark Latham as the ALP alternative, gritted its teeth and, with bad grace, voted back the ‘devil they knew’.

Nevertheless, the three books under review are all, obviously, of considerable significance – with, doubtless, many more to follow – and Dr Blewett was an experienced and elegant choice as reviewer.

John Carmody, Roseville, NSW

 

 

CONTENTS: DECEMBER 2010–JANUARY 2011

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