Don Anderson

Kate Grenville’s new novel, her first in almost a decade, is dedicated to ‘all those whose stories have been silenced’, for which, as its ‘memoirist’–narrator heroine is Elizabeth Macarthur, we might read ‘women’. Did she – wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in early Sydney – write what Grenville’s publishers call ‘a shockingly frank secret memoir’? In her ‘Editor’s Note’, Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of there being discovered in the ceiling of a historic Parramatta house under renovation a long-hidden box containing that memoir. In an ‘Author’s Note’ at the book’s end, we are assured that ‘No, there was no box of secrets found in the roof of Elizabeth Farm. I didn’t [as she claimed at the beginning, in her Editor’s Note] transcribe and edit what you’ve just read. I wrote it.’ Perhaps those who thought otherwise failed to observe the book’s epigraph from Elizabeth Macarthur – ‘Do not believe too quickly’ – though whether those words were inscribed by the historic Elizabeth or by Grenville’s fictional one may be a matter for discussion. Apropos of previous books, Grenville the novelist has had disputes with historians about matters of fiction and fact.

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In or about that annus mirabilis 1968, Philip Roberts – academic, musician, poet and founder in 1970 of the poetry imprint Island Press – delivered a conference paper entitled ‘Physician Heal Thyself’, which considered eminent poets who had also been medical practitioners. (Roberts had gone from Canada to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to study medicine, but in a Pauline moment switched to Arts.) He spoke of William Carlos Williams, Miroslav Holub, and Boris Pasternak, among others. The climax of his paper was his consideration of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, which he claimed had as its raison d’être nothing more or less than to serve as a vehicle for Zhivago’s poetry, which appears, if memory serves correctly, as an appendix. The tail well and truly wagged the tale.

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The Body in the Clouds, Ashley Hay’s scintillating and accomplished first novel, is in fact her fifth book, its predecessors all being non-fiction. There was the Lord Byron book, The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron (2000), Gum: The story of eucalypts and their champions (2002), Herbarium (2004) and Museum: The Macleays, their collections and the search for order (2007).

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From August 1978 through January 1979 I read the complete fiction of Christina Stead, as well as those of her critical writings I could locate. A writing career of more than forty years consumed by a voracious reader in six months! I trust that I was as scrupulous and sympathetic a reader as Christina Stead is an ethically and technically scrupulous, sympathetic novelist.

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Richard Ford, born in 1944, is a North American novelist, short story writer, and anthologist of considerable distinction. His recurring character Frank Bascombe – The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), The Lay of the Land (2006), Let Me Be Frank with You (2014) – is a commanding figure of American letters to rank with John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, each a protagonist used by his creator over several novels as a litmus test of his contemporaries and their not always united states.

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Don Anderson reviews 'Expressway' edited by Helen Daniel

Don Anderson
Wednesday, 25 March 2020

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then Helen Daniel came up with a wonderful recipe indeed. Invite thirty-odd prominent Australian fiction writers to respond to Jeffrey Smart’s 1962 oil-on-plywood painting, Cahill Expressway, hung in the National Gallery of Victoria. Some declined, but twenty-nine accepted, and Helen Daniel can take great pride and satisfaction in regarding herself as a ‘privileged host’ indeed. This is truly a magic pudding of a book.

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Don Anderson reviews 'Before I Wake' by John Scott

Don Anderson
Friday, 07 February 2020

A masculine reader, one assumes. From that (limited) point of view, John Scott writes the most erotic prose in the country. Linda Jaivin is ham-fisted by comparison. We are talking about a textual sexuality, the kind practised so exquisitely by David Brooks in The House of Balthus. We are talking about a sexuality that may, perhaps, be possible only in language. As Helen Gamer observes in her review of John Hughes film of Scott’s novel What I Have Written: ‘I must state a painful fact; sex in a book is sexier than sex on a screen.’ (The Independent, June 1996). I must state a further painful fact: bodies get in the way. Not of sex; not of lovemaking; but of the erotic. The body trammels the imagination.

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Don Anderson reviews 'I'm Dying Laughing' by Christina Stead

Don Anderson
Friday, 07 February 2020

There has been altogether too much talk recently about literature and bliss, and not enough about sadness. Think of the gloom that descends when you have read all the works of a beloved author, and no fresh fields and pastures new remain. Years ago, I suffered this depression after reading all the works of William Faulkner. There was a brief respite when Flags in the Dust, an ur-version of Sartoris, appeared, but brief it was.

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Just before the publication of her novel Dark Places in 1994, Kate Grenville said that she was thinking about her next book, ‘a heart-warming old-fashioned love story’. Well, The Idea of Perfection – and isn’t that what all love stories are about? – is that love story, though it warms both heart and head, for the bliss it affords is not so much visceral as aesthetic, even architectural.

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'History always emphasises terminal events,’ Albert Speer observed bitterly to his American interrogators just after the end of the war, according to Antony Beevor in Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (2002). Few events in recent history were more terminal than the Holocaust, it might be urged. Yet the singularity of that ‘terminus’ has been questioned in recent years ... 

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