Archive

Reliable Essays by Clive James & Even As We Speak by Clive James

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October 2001, no. 235

Clive James needs no introduction, though he asked Julian Barnes to provide one for Reliable Essays, a selection from three decades of James’s literary journalism made by his publisher, Peter Straus. The Kid from Kogarah is, as The New Yorker once famously observed, ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’ ...

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Selling books is a difficult business. Publishing, too. Booksellers and publishers need courage and imagination. A book about a contemporary Federal politician with the adjective ‘new’ in the title displays both these qualities. Tony Blair may have got away with ‘New Labour’ in Britain. In Australia, a large part of the disenchantment with politics and politicians stems from the feeling that, apart from the fresh face of Natasha Stott-Despoja, there’s nothing new around; no new ideas, no articulated vision of where the country might be in ten or twenty years’ time, nothing inspirational. Perhaps something might emerge before the next election. But no one’s holding their breath. All the signs, surveys, focus groups, radio talk-backs, flirtations with maverick independents show that Australians are looking for something better from Canberra. And they have vestigial hope. So the word ‘new’ in the title is not so stupid after all. It’s based on the theory that hope usually triumphs over experience. People might buy the book hoping for the revelation of a ‘new Liberal’.

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By and Large by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

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September 2001, no. 234

Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s new book, By and Large, is, despite its hundred pages, a thinner book than most of his recent volumes. The familiar features are there: a baroque and intense intellectual ambit combined with playfulness; a deep love of the sharp ‘thinginess’ of the world combined with a love of the expressiveness of the words we use to contain it; and, last but far from least, enjoyable phrasemaking. It is just that, in By and Large, the reader’s pleasure seems more attenuated.

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For some of us, it is hard to believe that Neil Finn is on the verge of middle age. Recruited in 1977 by his older brother Tim to replace Phil Judd in Split Enz, Neil first entered public consciousness as a teenager who apparently had never before played electric guitar. Within two years, he was the lead vocal on ‘I Got You’, the song that propelled Split Enz to the top of the charts not just in Australasia but in Britain, too. Significantly for a band that had relied on Tim as the songwriter, it was Neil’s song. In the twenty-one years since then, Neil has fashioned a reputation as a master of conventional popular songcraft, chiefly through the post-Split Enz trio, Crowded House, and, more recently, as a solo artist.

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This is not an easy book to read. It is crammed full of ideas, literary and musical allusions, and theories about law and justice. The author’s basic thesis – that law is a concept imperfectly realised, continuously reinterpreted, and always in flux – is not really controversial in legal circles in Australia today, let alone novel. The most influential legal scholar in Australia’s history, Professor Julius Stone, taught that simple truth to generations of law students in Sydney between the 1940s and the 1980s. Now, Desmond Manderson is the first director of the Julius Stone Institute for Jurisprudence at Stone’s old law school at the University of Sydney. He has taken up Stone’s grand theme, adding some fresh insights of his own. He has done so in this handsome book, beautifully published by the University of California Press. And there is much that is good and useful in it. But his gems are sometimes maddeningly hidden in a torrent of words that succeed in obscuring the ideas the author wants to get over to the reader.

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One of the benefits of a Collected is that it places individual poems within the context of the poet’s whole oeuvre, with often dramatic consequences for their interpretation. When Leonie Kramer brought out David Campbell’s Collected Poems in 1989, more than half of the volume was made up of poems written in the last decade of the poet’s life ...

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Any book documenting the life and work of a famous artist invariably paints a picture of an era. This autobiography by the outstanding Australian contralto Lauris Elms is no exception. The postwar years in Australia saw the emergence of so many talented young singers that one can’t help but label that period a ‘golden age’. At a time when many of them, almost by necessity, departed for Europe or the UK, their combined successes on the world opera stage never ceases to amaze. An enviable standard was set which has been maintained to this day, even if the individual successes are not quite so spectacular.

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My first thought on seeing the title was that Delaware Carpenter, the loveable ‘Professor’ in An Accommodating Spouse (1999) had made a comeback. While An Accommodating Spouse had a predominantly humorous tone, this new novel is serious. On one level, An Innocent Gentleman is a Bildungsroman for a married couple in which both need to be shaken out of their arrested development. All the usual ingredients are there: a father–son and mother–daughter conflict, an avuncular friend, an epiphanous journey from the provinces to a great city, a clash of cultures, illicit sex, the discovery of a Lebenslüge against the backdrop of World War II (the result of England’s Lebenslüge) and optimistic closure as a relationship is redefined. On another level, the novel continues to explore a familiar Jolleyesque motif: the Oedipal father–daughter and daughter–mother relationships, illustrated by the Persephone and Electra conflicts, respectively. In Jolley’s novel Foxybaby (1985), Miss Peycroft advises the novelist Miss Porch: ‘and for heaven’s sake don’t lose sight of the Oedipus and Electra complexes.’ Well, Jolley never did. They are thematic concerns in Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1983), where the middle-aged Mr Frome marries the big-breasted Gwenda who is all of sixteen; in The Sugar Mother (1988), where Leila, another voluptuous teenager, is sold by her mother to the elderly and childless professor Edwin as a surrogate mother; and, most importantly, in My Father’s Moon (1989), which constructs a most complex Oedipal scenario that has the central character, Vera, seduce her (surrogate) father and betray her mother. In this new novel, however, those two complexes exist outside the narrative and refer to Jolley’s own troubled relationship with her mother and father.

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This is one of the most satisfying and fascinating monographs on an Australian artist that I have read. Only Franz Philipp’s monograph on Arthur Boyd can be compared to it, and for quite other reasons. Catalano, lucidly and meticulously, unravels the complex physical and intellectual life of Rick Amor from the time of his boyhood. He discloses how Amor’s paintings depend on his ability to make his past the vehicle and inspiration of his creative achievements. It is a reflexive art embodying the omnipresent power of a memory touched with a redolent melancholy. His past is revealed as a strange presence that is not to be found in the work, in my experience, of any other Australian artist.


 

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Aged twenty-two, I set out for Mexico, with, like Rousseau in Italy, a ‘heart full of young desires, alluring hopes and brilliant prospects’. I was determined to leave the confines of the sleepy metropolis that is Canberra, much as Isabella Bird, though infinitely more adventurous and literate, desired to escape her cloistered Victorian world. This ‘inner compulsion’, as Robyn Davidson describes it in her introduction to The Picador Book of Journeys (something her own books attest to powerfully), is a factor which gives travelogues ‘the power to reconnect us with the essential’. And if, by essential, one means illuminating the human condition in the way that any literature worth the name achieves, Davidson’s anthology gives us a sizeable sample.

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