Brenda Niall

Desmond O’Grady is uniquely placed to interpret Australia for Italians and Italy for Australians. He grew up in suburban Melbourne, but as a journalist, biographer, and writer of fiction he has spent most of his working life in Rome.

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Armed with more than half a century’s worth of knowledge, experience, the fermentation of ideas and approaches in literary history and criticism over that period, and her own formidable reputation as a scholar and teacher of Australian literature, Brenda Niall returns in her latest book to the territory of her earliest ones. In Seven Little Billabongs: The world of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce (1979), Niall broke new ground not just in writing a serious and scholarly full-length treatment of Australian children’s literature, but also in departing from the orthodox biographical tradition of focusing on a single figure.

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When Geraldine Brooks went through her father’s possessions after his death, she found the bundles of letters which prompted her to write Foreign Correspondence. Lawrie Brooks had been in the habit of writing to politicians and intellectuals with ideas and questions, and he had kept all their replies. Each letter, Brooks reflects, is ‘a small piece of the mosaic of his restless mind’. Because her father hoarded his past in photographs and newspaper clippings as well as letters, she had the makings of an intimate portrait of a reserved and unhappy man.

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Just over one hundred years ago, Sydney readers were speaking in hushed tones about a shocking new book by a young woman, Zora Cross. A collection of love poems by an unknown would not normally have roused much interest, but because they came from a woman, and were frankly and emphatically erotic, the book was a sensation. It wasn’t, as a Bulletin reviewer said demurely, a set of sonnets to the beloved’s eyebrows. It was ‘well, all of him’. It broke the literary convention that restricted the expression of sexual pleasure to a male lover. Cross took Shakespeare’s sonnets as her inspiration. Her Songs of Love and Life (1917) was a long way from being Shakespearean, but it roused huge admiration. Cross was hailed as a genius, ‘an Australian Sappho’.

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Unlike an autobiography, which tends to be time-bound and inclusive, the memoir can wander at will in the writer’s past, searching out and shaping an idea of self. Although Geoffrey Blainey’s memoir, Before I Forget, is restricted to the first forty years of his life, its skilfully chosen episodes suggest much more ...

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From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence ... ... (read more)

Biography can be difficult to achieve. There is the balance between too much detail, where one can’t see the wood for the family trees, or not enough, which can be disappointing all round. One also bears in mind possible antipathy: Sigmund Freud, who famously began burning his personal papers at twenty-nine, was dismissive of future chroniclers: ‘As for biographers, I am already looking forward to seeing them go astray.’

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Brenda Niall reviews 'The Great Fire' by Shirley Hazzard

Brenda Niall
Tuesday, 05 March 2019

London seen through a haze of smoke and fire in J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, is the evocative cover image for Shirley Hazzard’s long-awaited novel. The Great Fire comes twenty-three years after Hazzard’s brilliantly composed, witty, and ultimately tragic work ...

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Brenda Niall reviews 'March' by Geraldine Brooks

Brenda Niall
Tuesday, 05 March 2019

Spacious and solidly constructed, the classic nineteenth-century novel invites revisiting. Later writers reconfigure its well-known spaces, change the lighting, summon marginal figures to the centre. Most memorable, perhaps, is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which the first Mrs Rochester ...

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Brenda Niall reviews 'Upstate' by James Wood

Brenda Niall
Thursday, 25 October 2018

Forget the author – it’s the book that matters. That’s sound advice, but there are times when it is hard to follow. James Wood’s Upstate is a testing case. A quietly reflective little novel, elegantly written, with four main characters and a minimal plot, Upstate doesn’t look like a literary time bomb ...

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