WWII

The heroine of All That I Am reflects that an author’s published books ‘preserve the fossil imprint on the world of that particular soul at that particular time’. In her début novel – based on real characters and events – acclaimed non-fiction author Anna Funder (Stasiland, 2003) has preserved the imprint of a particular group of souls at a vitally important historical moment. A beautifully executed blend of historical fiction and psychological thriller, it follows the lives of a London-based network of activist refugees from Hitler’s Germany.

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At the beginning of Steven Carroll’s new novel, Spirit of Progress, Michael stands on a platform of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris. Readers of Carroll’s ‘Glenroy’ trilogy will remember that Michael is Vic and Rita’s son – a boy who grew up with an unblinking grasp of his parents’ fractured marriage and who learned early to fend for himself. Now a man, Michael observes the foreign trains and reminisces about his father’s love of engine driving. He realises then that his home suburb ‘will always claim him’ and that he has ‘a whole world inside his head … complete and vast, going about its daily life, constantly moving as if alive and still evolving’ (ellipsis in original).

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Would it be indulgent to invoke Leonard Cohen? It’s just that his song ‘Take This Waltz’, which begins ‘Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women’, brings to mind that city’s fin-de-siècle world. In a liquescent poetic mosaic of shoulders and thighs, lilies, hyacinths, moonshine, and dew, I see the women as if painted by Gustav Klimt – portraitist, libertine – someone who ‘climbs to your picture with a garland of freshly cut tears’. And Cohen’s Kafkaesque ‘lobby with nine hundred windows’ stirs up images of Vienna as a city of windows, of watching and being watched.

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Witnesses to War, an ambitious book, is part of a larger project by the C.E.W. Bean Foundation to commemorate the work of Australian war correspondents. Fay Anderson and Richard Trembath, setting out to document the performance of Australian war correspondents, have tackled complex material. They deal with an enormous cast of characters and various interwoven themes, including the struggle against military censorship, how journalists have observed their duty to neutral coverage (or not), and the changing technology of reporting war – from sending stories by carrier pigeon or steamship in World War I to today’s live telecasts by journalists direct from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book fills an important gap. Until now, Phillip Knightley’s more general work, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker (1975, 2004), has served as the final authority in this field. Knightley is a patron of the Foundation and an important influence.

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Empires are out of fashion. The idea of one people ruling over another has had its day. The mention of any empire – with the possible exception of the Roman one, for which people still have a certain fondness – will almost invariably meet with deprecating comments, even derision ...

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In retrospect, it seems hard to explain the widespread influence of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. When he died at the age of one hundred in 2009, the New York Times said in its obituary that he was ‘the French anthropologist whose revolutionary studies of what was once called “primitive man” transformed Western understanding of the nature of culture, custom and civilization’. It was a typically inflated assessment. Not so Patrick Wilcken’s excellent biography of Lévi-Strauss, which brings into sharp focus the extremely idiosyncratic nature of his oeuvre, while at the same time showing how it managed to catch a post-World War II Modernist wave of popularity. When the intellectual surf rolled out again later in the century, Lévi-Strauss was left standing alone, but by then that was exactly how he liked it.

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