When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in 2015, the response in the Anglophone world was general bewilderment. Who was she? The response in Russia was the opposite: intense, personal, targeted. Alexievich wasn’t a real writer, detractors said; she had only won the Nobel because the West loves critics of Putin.
Alexievich is kind of a journalist, kind of a social historian. What makes her work different, and important, is that she collects the voices of real people, collates them, and redistributes them, without imposing narrative or explanation. Even biographical information is scant. There is enough to give the speaker authority, but not enough to construe character or personality.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Miriam Cosic reviews 'The Unwomanly Face of War' by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
- Contents Category History
Custom Highlight Text
When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in 2015, the response in the Anglophone world was general bewilderment. Who was she? The response in Russia was the opposite: intense, personal, targeted. Alexievich wasn’t a real writer, detractors said; she had only won the Nobel because the West loves critics of Putin ...
- Book Title The Unwomanly Face of War
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Penguin Classics, $29.99 pb, 372 pp, 9780141983523
A rich vein of political writing runs through Australian fiction. From the early days of socialist realism, through the anti-colonialism of both black and white writers, to tough explorations of identity politics today, we have struggled with concepts of justice and equality since Federation.
The rejection of asylum seekers who arrive by a certain means of transport is the latest topic to galvanise fiction and non-fiction writers. In non-fiction, books have included many accounts of individuals’ perilous journeys fleeing repression and physical horror, historical surveys, and political analyses. In fiction, a monotone has arisen, though specific instances can be marvellous: a melange of sympathy towards refugees; anger with the ungenerosity of those refusing them; and a slightly patronising take on exotic otherness among Australian-born writers; and an explanatory focus on otherness by migrants, often romanticised, as they work to raise both consciousness and acceptance among old Australians.
Jock Serong has tried something different in his new novel, On the Java Ridge. It is ambitiously written in three concurrent, interleaving parts, with three protagonists: a nine-year-old Hazara girl, Roya, who has fled Afghanistan with her pregnant mother and is attempting the last crossing from Indonesia to Australia in a smuggler’s boat; a feisty counter-cultural Aussie, Isi Natoli; and Cassius Calvert, the Australian minister for ‘Border Integrity’.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Miriam Cosic reviews 'On the Java Ridge' by Jock Serong
- Contents Category Fiction
Custom Highlight Text
A rich vein of political writing runs through Australian fiction. From the early days of socialist realism, through the anti-colonialism of both black and white writers, to tough explorations of identity politics today, we have struggled with concepts of justice and equality since Federation ...
- Book Title On the Java Ridge
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 312 pp, 9781925498394
It has been widely accepted that the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles led directly to the rise of National Socialism in Germany and to the horrors of World War II. The punitive effects on the German economy, the affront to German honour, and the unleashing of decadence and nihilism in its wake led to the appeal of extreme nationalism and the call for revenge.
From the end of World War I, powerful voices in the British establishment reinforced this view. Maynard Keynes and Harold Nicolson, junior delegates at the Paris Peace Conference, were among them. Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), which he later recanted, was a polemic against the injustice of the settlement. He condemned the ‘web of Jesuit exegesis’ spun by the most ‘hypocritical draughtsmen’, and referred to ‘imbecile greed’. Most famously, he called it a ‘Carthaginian peace’, a reference to the brutal peace Rome exacted from Carthage, including mass executions, sale into slavery, and wholesale destruction of property, at the end of the Punic Wars in the second century BCE. Keynes hopped into the efforts of Billy Hughes, too, the Australian prime minister whose influence at Versailles is rarely grasped here, and who furiously opposed the Americans and argued forcefully for the interests of the British dominions.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Miriam Cosic reviews 'A Perfidious Distortion of History: The Versailles Peace Treaty and the success of the Nazis' by Jürgen Tampke
- Contents Category History
- Book Title A Perfidious Distortion of History
- Book Subtitle The Versailles Peace Treaty and the success of the Nazis
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Scribe, $45 hb, 325 pp, 978192521944
Originally published in German, Albrecht Dümling’s The Vanished Musicians: Jewish refugees in Australia (Peter Lang), a fascinating compendium of Jewish musicians who found refuge in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, is now available in Australian Diana K. Weekes’s excellent translation.
Kevin Windle, Elena Govor, and Alexander Massov’s From St Petersburg to Port Jackson: Russian travellers’ tales of Australia 1807–1912 (Australian Scholarly Publishing) is a treasure trove for anyone with a weakness for ship’s captains’ and spunky young Russian ladies’ impressions of our native land. It was a Russian ship that in 1814 brought the news of Napoleon’s defeat to Sydney.
Next is David Brophy’s Uyghur Nation: Reform and revolution on the Russia-China frontier (Harvard University Press). If you have ever wondered who the Uyghurs are, Brophy, who teaches at the University of Sydney, is the man to go to.
The Great Departure: Mass migration from Eastern Europe and the making of the Free World (W.W. Norton), by Tara Zahra, is a ‘must read’ for history buffs as well as migration scholars.
Four books stood out for me this year. David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting: Historical memory and its ironies (Yale University Press, reviewed in ABR 6/16) makes a startling argument: that cultivating historical memory, especially in the political realm, may do more harm than good.
American writer Shadi Hamid’s controversial Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world (St Martin’s Press) examines how the difficulty of reconciling secularism and Islam not only makes integration tricky for Muslims in the West, but perpetuates sectarian war within the religion.
When Breath Becomes Air (Bodley Head), by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who chronicled his own death from cancer, is simply extraordinary: humane, poetic, moving, and enlightening. And Sebastian Smee – The Australian’s former art critic, now with the Boston Globe – has written a riveting study, The Art of Rivalry: Four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in modern art (Text Publishing, 11/16), the title of which says it all.
I’m not sure any book I’ve read this year has affected me as much as Annie Proulx’s monumental account of the human and environmental catastrophe of North America’s forests, Barkskins (Fourth Estate, 8/16). While it isn’t without its faults, in particular its desire to include everything, that same encyclopedic impulse and sense of incoherent grief lends it extraordinary power and breadth, and makes it necessary reading for anybody interested in the environment.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall (Vintage) is also encyclopedic, albeit in a personal sense, and manages the not inconsiderable trick of being both scarifyingly funny and deeply moving (how many other writers are likely to describe getting drunk and throwing up in Björk’s toilet?).
Finally, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog (Scribe, 5/16). Like all her novels, it explores the often unarticulated complexities of the intersection of the personal and the political with exquisite grace and intelligence.
It’s been a magnificent year for books by Australian women, but I won’t discuss some of the books that I would normally be celebrating, since I’m reading them for the Stella Prize. Among books by men, one stands out: Anthony Macris’s explosively funny Inexperience (UWA Publishing, 12/16). The first part is a sequence of stories describing the quickly deflating love affair of a pair of Australians seeing Europe, and each other, in the absence of love and wonder. Macris charts the hyper-aware thoughts of his decent, stricken narrator, flying home amid dreams of garbage and his mother. Other more comical stories chase obsessions into sad or ridiculous conclusions. Macris is a sincere and sensationally good writer.
I’ve been in the United States this year, so my reading has a distinctly American ‘flavor’. Assuming the country still exists by the time this goes to print (I write on election eve), here are my picks. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 3, 1926–1929 (Cambridge University Press, 8/16) is a superb contribution to a first-rate series, showing Hemingway up close as he becomes a major writer.
It was a treat to have our greatest television critic, Clive James, return to his beat with the excellent and enjoyable Play All: A bingewatcher’s notebook (Yale University Press, 11/16).
Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right (Scribe, 10/16) is surely one of the most important political books of the decade, vital for understanding America’s hyper-partisan politics.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 12/16) – the first American Booker-winner – is currently whizbanging about my head: a stunning satire that leaves no third-rail untouched.
My favourite work of fiction in this year was Georgia Blain’s lush and loss-ridden Between a Wolf and a Dog. It’s a novel about the ways in which we hurt each other, or are hurt by the world, yet it is hopeful and redemptive in the small moments and minute joys that it charts.
In non-fiction, I loved Catriona Menzies-Pike’s The Long Run (Simon & Schuster, 4/16) for its fascinating exploration of women’s bodies in sport and in public, and the delicious humour it directs at runners as a species.
As for poetry, Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food (UQP, 12/16) delighted me with its emotional heft, its sustaining interest in community and love, and the sparse balance of its lyricism and language.
Two of our finest writers on place – Nicolas Rothwell (Quicksilver, Text Publishing, 12/16) and Kim Mahood (Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories, Scribe, 9/16) – demonstrate why it is impossible to understand Australia without venturing into the interior and far reaches of the continent. Divining the sacred, Rothwell moves effortlessly from Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia to the Pilbara, while Mahood returns to the Tanami, the country that has shaped so much of her artistic and literary practice.
In The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their craft (Black Inc., 8/16), Tom Griffiths, one of our most acclaimed historians of place, turns his eye to his ‘favourite’ historians and writers, distilling the essence of good history and subtly revealing why the discipline’s limitations are also its greatest source of strength.
Finally, two outstanding examples of biographical writing: Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry and Robert Forster’s Grant & I (Hamish Hamilton, 11/16).
This year I was taken by Michelle Cahill’s new collection of poems, The Herring Lass (ARC Publications), a characteristically restless migration across continents and vast bodies of water, fearlessly interrogating dynamics of power and subjugation in both human and animal worlds; Cahill’s collection strikes against the tyranny of the ‘desiccating colonies’ with a supple intellect and graceful musicality.
I was impressed by Dan Disney’s witty, erudite, quickfire either, Orpheus (UWA Publishing). Disney’s inventive takes on the villanelle, held in playful conversation with poets and philosophers, turn the well-worn form (in one instance, quite literally) on its head.
Further afield, I loved Ottessa Moshfegh’s début novel, Eileen (Vintage), mordant psychological thriller in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it is one of the most gripping and disturbing novels I’ve read in years.
Jordie Albiston’s, Jack & Mollie (& Her) (UQP, 5/16) ticks the three essential boxes for a verse novel: it tells a gripping story, it has well fleshed-out characters, and the poetry demands a second reading. It is a book for dog lovers (Jack and Mollie are canine characters), as well as readers interested in the boss dog – Albiston’s expressive rendering of the black dog.
In Mothering Sunday (Scribner), Graham Swift is at his best. This short, perfectly structured novel tells of an orphan housemaid, her lover, and a day of illuminating bliss. Told from a single point of view, the narrative moves with musical ease between the past, the present, and the unfolding future.
Iris Murdoch’s letters, Living on Paper, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (Chatto & Windus) reveal the philosopher, novelist, and lover in her own uncompromising words. What a woman. What a life.
The great gift this year was Mick: A life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 3/16) by Suzanne Falkiner, which provides the material for a new look at this much-loved writer. Falkiner recovers Stow from the archive, including his own wonderful correspondence, and travels in his footsteps from Geraldton to Harwich and all the way to the Trobriand Islands. She is good on settings, knowing how someone can be out of place where they are most at home, and writes about his loyalties and antipathies with empathy and a dry wit that Stow would surely have appreciated.
Julia Leigh, by contrast, is both hunter and hunted in Avalanche (Hamish Hamilton, 8/16), as she, the woman in the text, pursues a child through IVF. Funny and unflinching, this self-fictionalising prose does just what its title suggests.
It has of course been an extraordinary year globally in politics, with Brexit, Trump, and the rise of insurgent movements of the right and left across the democratic world. Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism (Stanford University Press) offers an extraordinarily prescient account of these developments with a sweeping narrative encompassing global developments.
Fellow expat Australian Saul Newman’s Post-anarchism (Polity) also offers a notable take on contemporary politics, albeit one framed in terms of the shortcomings of democratic politics itself.
I enjoyed Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn: A very unlikely coup (Biteback Publishing, 11/16), not least for the insights it offers into one of the stranger phenomena of the year: the takeover of the British Labour Party by a hard-left fringe that had for decades made little headway within or without the party. Strange days in contemporary democratic politics; but each of these books has way offered some illumination to those curious to understand the key trends and tendencies of our times.
A few years ago I commended The Gorgeous Nothings (2013), the first full-colour facsimile publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems scribbled on the backs of envelopes. So it’s possibly cheating to now put forward Envelope Poems (New Directions), a petit curation of these same poems, which, in Susan Howe’s words, seem to ‘arrive as if by telepathic electricity and connect without connectives’. It’s too ravishing to ignore. In the corner of one large envelope Dickinson wrote: ‘Excuse / Emily and / her Atoms / the North / Star is / of small / fabric but it / implies / much / presides / yet.’
Equally a work of art is Melissa Ashley’s début novel, The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), about Elizabeth Gould, who created more than 650 hand-coloured lithographs for The Birds of Australia and other publications.
Turning to living poets, I was especially taken with Liam Ferney’s Content (Hunter Publishing), which I regard as a genuine knockout.
Philippe Sands’s East West Street: On the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ABR, 10/16) is a gripping account of genocide and international justice, mixing the personal and political with rare balance. It also makes a startling companion to Despina Stratigakos’s Hitler at Home (Yale University Press), a fine and original study of Hitler’s carefully crafted domesticity.
With his novel about euthanasia, The Easy Way Out (Hachette, 9/16), Steven Amsterdam cements his place as one of Australia’s best contemporary novelists. The opening scene is excruciating.
Gillian Mears’s The Cat with the Coloured Tail (Walker Books Australia) enthralled my daughters and me. It’s an odd, pensive, beautiful parable for children, and a fine last work by a wonderful Australian writer.
My picks this year illustrate the pleasure that writing can give to its readers. There are very few writers whose personal essays seem to deepen and widen on a second or even a third or fourth read, but Helen Garner is one of them. Her style is inimitable, for while its elegance is undeniable, its essence is pre-verbal, grounded in her intense and unique ways of looking and seeing. Everywhere I Look (Text Publishing, 5/16) seems the ideal title for her 2016 essay collection.
Sticking with women writers from post-colonial countries, I’d also nominate Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, a very funny novel called Hag-Seed: The Tempest retold (Hogarth, 11/16), which is another joy to read. Exuberant, witty, and deeply humane, it reflects Atwood’s mercurial mind and intellectual depth. It is also a very clever exercise in the reading and re-reading of Shakespeare, something that may never get old.
In Music and Freedom (Vintage, 8/16), Zoë Morrison begins with wisps of piano, all those black notes guiding hands, the act of learning and playing. When it enters, the counter-melody is violent and sad, a choice that reverberates in this memorable début novel.
John Murphy’s biography of H.V. Evatt (NewSouth, 11/16) has tragedy, too, if self-inflicted. Murphy gives us a driven man without humour, sophisticated and naïve, a blunt force who achieves much but ends up bewildered and frustrated.
The study of character flows through the fourteen portraits offered in Tom Griffiths’s The Art of Time Travel. Griffiths evokes a conversation across generations about the nature of scholarship and experience. Always generous, if sometimes gently disappointed, this is a meditation on Australian intellectual history to savour.
Shivaun Plozza is a fresh new voice in Young Adult fiction, and her angry heroine Frankie (Penguin, 6/16) is an engaging rebel with a definite cause. The racy, first-person narration shows a keen understanding of contemporary teenagers, and humour is found in the unlikeliest of situations.
Children love Leigh Hobbs’s Mr Chicken wherever he goes, but I especially treasure Mr Chicken Arriva a Roma (Allen & Unwin) because the Australian Children’s Laureate takes him to my favourite city in the world – and to Via Margutta, where I once lived.
A big hooray for the return of Stella Montgomery, Judith Rossell’s plucky little orphan from Withering-by-Sea (2014), now banished by her awful aunts to Wormwood Mire (ABC Books), a mouldering old family mansion full of dark secrets where she is to live with her two odd cousins and their governess. Thrills, chills, and magic – what’s not to enjoy?
Helen Garner’s collection Everywhere I Look was a pure delight. It showcases Garner’s distinctive voice and her take on the world around her. Her view on things is unpredictable, distinctive, and original.
Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things (Fourth Estate) examines the killing of a young American woman in South Africa by a mob just before the fall of apartheid. Van der Leun finds the killers of Amy Biehl and over four years dissects the case and in doing so exposes the hopes and failings of modern South Africa.
Music and Freedom by Zoë Morrison, a novel about domestic violence, is this year’s best début.
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race (Hachette, 10/16) should be read by every Australian. It lays bare our attitudes to race.
The book that will stay with me well beyond this year is Universal Man: The seven lives of John Maynard Keynes by the historian Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, 12/15). His stunning success is in assembling seven different narratives of the legendary economist who turns out to be so very much more than this mere title. It travels similar ground to the classic Skidelsky biography but summarises the incomparable, diverse skills of this British polymath. Above all, he reminds us of the incomparable importance of persuasion, as a key skill that should exist in every reformer’s quiver. Oh, how needed right now.
I would recommend Madeline Gleeson’s Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru (NewSouth, 8/16), not because it makes pleasant reading, but because it comprehensively documents a reality we must face. Together with the Guardian’s Nauru Files and Four Corner’s ‘Forgotten Children’ exposé, Offshore leaves Australian citizens with nowhere to hide from the crimes committed in our name.
My favourite Australian novel of 2016 was Jacinta Halloran’s elegant and engaging The Science of Appearances (Scribe, 11/16). I suggest it as an antidote to the horrors catalogued in Offshore, because it celebrates those things that make for a flourishing human life: the love of family, a connection to place, and a feeling of belonging, intimacy, sex, art, science, human endeavour, a sense of purpose, hope in the future, and the capacity for moral judgement.
Two dark novels about claustrophobic worlds and captured characters impressed me this year. Charlotte Wood’s dystopian vision of the logical consequence of a misogynistic society, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 11/15), took me into a penal colony for young women who had proved an inconvenience to powerful men, and then went further: into what happens when your dreams die. It’s a surreal exploration of the way mind, body, and soul can transcend fetters.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Text Publishing) is a portrait of another closed society, a remote crofting village in nineteenth-century Scotland, and a shocking and seemingly inexplicable act of murder by a teenage villager. Accounts, witness reports, and a trial, all set down as in an authentic case, gradually reveal a truth that is chilling yet inevitable: the power of a feudal system that supports petty tyrants, stereotypes its criminals, and grinds down its victims.
The Romanovs, 1613–1918 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 9/16), Simon Sebag Montefiore’s exhaustive trawl through 300 years of Russian family tsardom, is gripping and often astonishing. The whole shebang is typified by Montefiore’s opening words: ‘It was hard to be a tsar. Russia is not an easy country to rule.’
The Long Weekend: Life in the English country house 1918–1939 (Cape), by Adrian Tinniswood, is a gloriously witty Wodehousian account – the stuff of magnificence and madness. For example, this brilliant solution to rewiring an eighteenth-century ballroom without ruining the décor: drop a dead rabbit through the floorboards at one end; at the other, pop in a ferret with the cable round its neck. Voila! Light!
Barry Jones’s The Shock of Recognition is a masterly distillation of the music and literature that has enthralled Australia’s favourite polymath. It’s almost as good as talking with him in person.
I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a collection of poetry as much as Sharon Olds’s Odes (Picador), with all its wit and inventiveness. The contents page alone is a delight (‘Ode to the Clitoris’, ‘Ode to My Fat’, ‘Sexist Ode’, ‘Spoon Ode’). For all their elegiac weight, these poems are joyful and life-affirming, without sentimentality.
Faber cannily avoids calling Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (3/16) poetry, but it owes much to poetry – to Emily Dickinson for the title, and to Ted Hughes for Crow, the oversized bird who helps the book’s grieving family. Porter’s début is a funny, moving, highly original meditation on loss.
Although I have work in both anthologies, I must mention Writing to the Wire (UWA Publishing), poems on (and sometimes by) asylum seekers, and Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter). Each anthology shows Australian poetry to be the urgent, diverse, and engaged thing it is.
A dystopic fable reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s darkest imaginings, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things expands perspectives of the war between men and women, and of what might motivate people who participate – willingly or coerced – in that war. Beyond the horror is a carefully crafted, beautifully observed account of friendship and perseverance.
Any collection of old and new is likely to have rough edges which, if handled well, enchant the reader. This is the case with John Foulcher’s 101 Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 6/16), thirty years’ worth of poems, which are marked by his characteristic gentle wit, close observation, and narrative edge.
I have been a sucker for poetry/photo combos since I read Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes’s Remains of Elmet, and PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy’s The Hollow of the Hand (Bloomsbury) gives them a run for their money. Few songwriters write convincing poetry, but Harvey does, and powerfully.
Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A history of the centuries-long argument over what makes living things tick (University of Chicago Press) is a major work of intellectual history tracing arguments about mind and matter from Descartes onwards.
Less consistent but intermittently brilliant is Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press), which discusses connections between human and non-human creatures in the contemporary epoch.
American writer Mary Gaitskill’s first novel in ten years, The Mare (Serpent’s Tail), also addresses human–animal relations. Although occasionally awkward, it is a rich and stylistically ambitious work.
A collection of essays edited by William Coleman, Only in Australia: The history, politics, and economics of Australian exceptionalism (Oxford University Press), makes timely points about how Australian myths of ‘mateship’ have modulated into bureaucratic idealisations of ‘computing technology ... and the recurrent catastrophic consequences of that misplaced faith’.
J.M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus (Text Publishing, 10/16) is the continuation of a masterpiece that is breathtaking and enthralling in its strangeness.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) is an astonishing and poignant account of the love of two men, written in a window-pane prose that recalls Tolstoy’s.
The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 6: 1932–1933 (Faber) covers the terrible years of Tom’s abandonment of Viv and what provoked him to leave her, but it also includes innumerable instances of his kindness, disregard for convention, and capacity to see the tears in things for others as much as for himself : an unexpected revelation of a book.
The second volume of Charles Moore’s life of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography (Allen Lane), provides us with an absolute steadiness of hand, the kind of wholly credible portrait of the Iron Lady who did as much to shape the world we live in as anyone.
Seamus Heaney’s slightly stilted translation of Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Faber) and Clive James’s nominal versification of his thoughts about Proust (Gate of Lilacs: A verse commentary on Proust [Picador]) are reminders of the world elsewhere in literature, in which all our reading must take its place.
Robert Harris’s Conclave (Hutchinson), full of the white and black smoke of papal election, was the thriller that topped the highbrow trash stakes.
Two of the great contemporary writers, Helen Garner and Tim Winton, published volumes of essays and occasional pieces this year. These work partly as memoir, appealing to our desire to know about the life that feeds into the writing. Garner’s Everywhere I Look is a generous collection of pitch-perfect sketches and reviews, each one taking us with her as she looks, really looks, at the world around her and registers her response to it.
The pieces in Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain (Hamish Hamilton, 12/16) range from a chilling evocation of male adolescence in the title story, through accounts of his love for the sea and its creatures, to his hard-hitting attack on Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers, ‘Stones for Bread’.
My third choice of new books, Edmund Gordon’s excellent The Invention of Angela Carter: A biography (Chatto & Windus), has sent me back to re-read that incomparable fabulist’s books.
I have been eagerly awaiting Kim Mahood’s next book because I loved her Craft for a Dry Lake (2000). Position Doubtful is entrancing and different; it is poetic, gritty, confronting, and inspiring all at once, and offers a rare and valuable window onto Aboriginal Australia.
Another book not to be missed is Mark McKenna’s From the Edge: Australia’s lost histories (Miegunyah), which is a series of deep explorations into places of encounter between Aborigines and settlers. It is riveting scholarly storytelling.
In the same class is Peter McPhee’s Liberty or Death: The French Revolution (Yale University Press, 9/16). And for a distillation of wisdom about Australian cities and the people who imagined their possibilities, you can’t go past Graeme Davison’s City Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia (NewSouth, 11/16).
Many engaging books of poetry were published in 2016. The following are characterised by conspicuously individual poetic voices at a time when so much free verse poetry can sound alike. New Zealand poet Tusiata Avia’s feisty Fale Aitu | Spirit House (Victoria University Press) reveals how the personal and the political may be combined in trenchant and uplifting poetry that is also sometimes lyrical.
Have Been and Are (GloriaSMH Press) continues Brook Emery’s exploration of a personal metaphysics of landscape and self in poems that are simultaneously beguiling, worldly, unworldly, and allusive.
John Kinsella’s Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador) encapsulates much of the best of thirty years of his obsessive and protean poetry, which has the environment and its degradations at its restless centre.
Susan Varga’s Rupture: Poems 2012–15 (UWA Publishing, 10/16) is not always technically sophisticated, yet it speaks with a persuasive truthfulness of difficult personal circumstances, allowing the reader wide spaces in which to travel, move, and think.
Kim Mahood spent much of her childhood on a cattle station in the Tanami Desert. In Position Doubtful, she records her experience of returning after a gap of years to that place and working as an artist with its traditional owners. Though written with the immediacy of a journal, this is a sustained meditation on different ways of mapping place. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes grumpy, sometimes elegiac, but always frank, Position Doubtful ranges across the wide meaning of country, extending past landscape into story, family, history, politics, geology, art, memory, and belonging. It is a vivid and memorable book.
Tom Griffiths’s The Art of Time Travel is a powerful meditation on the nature of historical enquiry by one of our leading historians. Its appearance was especially timely in a year that saw the passing of Inga Clendinnen and John Mulvaney, who both feature prominently in its pages.
The year saw many accounts of recent Australian politics, from Niki Savva’s blistering The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government (Scribe, 6/16) to Sarah Ferguson’s elegant The Killing Season Uncut (Melbourne University Press, 8/16), a disturbing account of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd era and the making of a television documentary on it. But my personal favourite was Brad Norington’s Planet Jackson: Power, greed and unions (Melbourne University Press). A veteran journalist, Norington shows that he understands precisely what is at stake in union corruption: the betrayal of workers and, via those unions’ influence on the Labor Party, the government of us all.
If there are rules for memoirists, two outstanding recent memoirs probably break most of them. Michael Wilding in his marvellous Growing Wild (Arcadia, 8/16) wittily undermines the idea that memory will serve by doubting the accuracy of many of his recollections then casting doubt on his doubts with veritable riffs of rhythmically incisive detail.
Tim Winton’s Island Home: A landscape memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 11/15) is a Wordsworthian and Blakean engagement with nature as a living, shaping force. Through observation and experience of the clamorous, mysterious world of natura naturans, Winton obliquely tracks some of the paths of his own life.
Two other writers who excitingly and confidently challenge the boundaries of their genre are Shirley Hazzard (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected essays, Columbia University Press, 5/16) and Graeme Davison (City Dreamers). In both, as in Wilding and Winton, erudition and intelligence are sharpened and enlivened by wit, eloquence, and daring.
It’s been a great year for books that offer a personal perspective on our shared experience as Australians. Drusilla Modjeska’s Second Half First (Knopf, 11/15) and Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look present some of their most thoughtful work. Frank Bongiorno’s The Eighties: The decade that transformed Australia (Black Inc.) wittily reminds us of the ambiguities of a time usually depicted in a rosy glow. Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful probes through layers of understanding of the people and land where she was born, across the Tanami Desert to the East Kimberley; it is rich with insights delivered with sensitivity and honesty.
For sheer reading pleasure, though, I recommend Idle Talk: Gwen Harwood letters 1960–64 edited by Alison Hoddinott (Brandl & Schlesinger) where Harwood amuses her friend (and us) with the vicissitudes of 1960s suburban life in Hobart.
I’ve particularly enjoyed this year The Art of Time Travel, Tom Griffiths’s beautifully pondered account of the work of fourteen Australian historians; and, from the other side of the world, a pair of absorbing biographies: Richard Davenport-Hines’s Universal Man: The seven lives of John Maynard Keynes and Hugh Purcell’s A Very Private Celebrity: The nine lives of John Freeman (The Robson Press). That’s sixteen lives for the two Englishmen, if you take the titles literally – almost as many as cats are traditionally granted – but both men, as these authors show, were indeed quite brilliantly diverse in their talents, aspirations, and achievements, and their life stories are hard to put down.
Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton) is the first novel in a proposed series of four. It is about the edges of life and what can be said without words, the language of cow parsley and silence, love, transposition, borders, and translation. It extends strands of Smith’s short stories in Public Library and Other Stories (2015), about reading, anagrams, and etymology, and enacts a poetics of the digressive and layered, the fructive and petalled.
Judith Wright’s Collected Poems (Fourth Estate) is an updated collection of the poet’s work with a beautiful celebratory essay by John Kinsella.
Then Come Back: The lost Neruda poems (Copper Canyon Press) is a bilingual edition of poems discovered in 2014, translated by Forrest Gander with an exactitude that itself interrogates the art and limits of translation.
Nigerian-born Timothy Ogene’s Descent and Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions) examines love, doubt, solitude and migration in attentive, luminous poems.
I particularly admired Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians (Text Publishing), which is an urgent, semi-Dostoevskian story of brokenness, sexual awakening, perversion, and (partial) redemption, written in a lively, Joycean style. McBride’s uncompromising first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Text Publishing) set the bar formidably high, but The Lesser Bohemians doesn’t disappoint.
It’s been a great year for the shorter forms of Australian fiction. Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers (Black Inc., 8/16) is an elegantly constructed, knowing, and funny collection of invented biographical profiles of Australian literary figures. O’Neill blends satire, formal playfulness, and pathos with rare skill.
Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo, 12/16) is a high-literary, reflexive, empathetic, and diverse assortment of outward-looking fictions that pack a punch, and Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 8/16) is uniquely surreal, entertaining, and sometimes dazzling.
It has been a rich year for fiction, but the book which stands out most for me is a biography. Suzanne Falkiner’s Mick is a beautiful and detailed examination of Randolph Stow’s life, supported by a wealth of research. This is a work which not only feels overdue, but is touching in its intimacy.
More playfully, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers collates (hilarious) fictional biographies to form a larger narrative, probing the idiosyncrasies of both Australian literary culture and the biographical genre. Read side-by-side, these two works seem to push at what biography might be – one in a positive sense, the other through the ridiculous, with a marvellous sense of fun.
These three books were balm in a year pocked by venality and a narcissistic degradation of language. Powerful words, flowing from writers whose depth of experience is matched by their integrity and frankness.
The essays in Tom Griffith’s The Art of Time Travel, about his fellow Australian historians, many of them women, is a revelatory and reconciliatory sweep of a landscape too often obscured by academic infighting. A stylish joy to read.
Imagine an Australian politician game enough to utter these words: ‘Music ... is an epiphany, a sudden exposure to the numinous.’ Barry Jones is game – always has been. The tour of his musical and literary milestones in The Shock of Recognition: The books and music that have inspired me (Allen & Unwin) is as beguiling for its self-revelation as for its extraordinary erudition.
Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain roots you to the spot, forces you to ask questions – about yourself, about the way we live. Sinewy and lyrical by turns, Winton’s is an authentic Australian voice to trumpet to a world audience.
In my early twenties, enthralled by the work of Paul Bowles, I began to use the intrepid author’s philosophy of travel as a guide for my reading life. Bowles wanted each place he visited to be new and unexpected. I want books to usher me into unforeseen regions, writers who allow me to think and feel more deeply. The Mozambican novelist Paulina Chiziane surprised and left me in awe with The First Wife: A tale of polygamy (Archipelago Books).
With grace, humour, and a story that feels absolutely necessary, Brett Pierce’s memoir, Beyond the Vapour Trail (Transit Lounge), confronts us with the life and work of an international aid worker.
Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on art, sex, and the mind (Sceptre) offers a continuing education, while Annie Dillard – marvel and unclassifiable gem – reveals how the everyday can astonish in her selected essays, The Abundance (Canongate, 9/16).
The High Places by Fiona McFarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 1/16) does indeed take us to high and strange places with perfectly tuned prose and a deeply intelligent sensibility. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities is a slippery and subversive collection that made me laugh aloud as it sank a knife into contemporary Australia. I laughed along with Ryan O’Neill too, in Their Brilliant Careers, a romp through a fictional literary history of Australia where the familiar is twisted into the ridiculous. The Rules of Backyard Cricket (Text Publishing, 10/16) by Jock Serong, while classified as ‘crime’, is a compelling literary novel dissecting toxic sporting culture and its fallout.
Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue (Pan Macmillan) is a deeply moving love letter to books and words and a landmark in contemporary Australian Young Adult literature for being both highly readable and literary, as well as for its ability to convince any reader that books really do matter.
In After the Carnage (UQP, 9/16), Tara June Winch reveals her trademark capacity to depict ordinary lives. Winch demonstrates that sparse, succinct language can be used to conjure memorable images that stay inside your head long afterwards.
Four books where my pleasure was pretty much unalloyed were Gate of Lilacs by Clive James, The Fox Petition by Jennifer Maiden (Giramondo, 4/16), 101 Poems by John Foulcher, and Jack & Mollie (& Her) by Jordie Albiston. James’s blank verse Gate of Lilacs may well persuade those who abandoned À la recherche du temps perdu to persevere. Maiden’s latest collection addressing recent political history is remarkable for the intensity and complexity of its moral vision. Foulcher’s 101 Poems is a timely opportunity to sample the achievement of this sometimes underestimated poet. Albiston’s Jack & Mollie (& Her) is not a strangely written account of a depressed female poet’s relationship with her two dogs: it is an important and affecting book by a leading Australian poet.
- Free Article Yes
- Custom Article Title Books of the Year 2016
- Contents Category Books of the Year
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Originally published in German, Albrecht Dümling’s The Vanished Musicians: Jewish refugees in Australia (Peter Lang), a fascinating compendium of Jewish musicians who found refuge in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, is now available in Australian Diana K. Weekes’s excellent translation ...
It seems a particularly masculine take on the processes of art to examine the way rivalry spurs on creativity and conceptual development. Yet this is not the book the Boston Globe’s art critic, Sebastian Smee, has set out to write. ‘[The] idea of rivalry it presents is not the macho cliché of sworn enemies, bitter competitors, and stubborn grudge-holders slugging it out for artistic and worldly supremacy,’ he writes in his introduction to The Art of Rivalry. ‘Instead, it is a book about yielding, intimacy, and openness to influence.’
Smee has nonetheless chosen some pretty macho subjects among the four pairs he considers: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon; Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas; Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso; Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. So sensational were some aspects of their lives – including priapism, suppressed homosexuality, masochism and sadism, glorified paedophilia, alcoholism, mental illness, narcissism, intense personal and professional jealousies, and more that Smee’s text veers towards tabloid in content. So fine are his writing and his critical perceptions, however, that his book is an important one. General readers will certainly find it fascinating, and art historians too might find priceless new nuggets in it.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Miriam Cosic reviews 'The Art of Rivalry: Four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in modern art' by Sebastian Smee
- Contents Category Art
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It seems a particularly masculine take on the processes of art to examine the way rivalry spurs on creativity and conceptual development. Yet this is not the book the Boston Globe’s ...
- Book Title The Art of Rivalry
- Book Subtitle Four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in modern art
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Text Publishing, $34.99 pb, 416 pp, 9781925240351
There is a point of view that says we shouldn't humanise a tyrant such as Adolf Hitler since that reduces the symbolism, the power of his name as a synonym for pure evil, and can lead to excuses and to relativism. Another argument holds that we must understand the psychology and sociology of the individual's rise to power if we are to recognise, and prevent, such developments in the future. The former position is a quasi-religious juxtaposition of good and evil, often held, understandably, by historians of the Holocaust. The latter is the more disinterestedly scholarly and pragmatic approach to political history.
Despite the millions of words written about him since his death by suicide on 30 April 1945, and the ubiquity of imagery spread by everyone from historians to neo-Nazis to pop culture, few comprehensive biographies have been written about Hitler. Read Ian Kershaw's magisterial work (1991) and Joachim Fest's more psychological take (1974) for a thorough overview of the man and his times. Experts add Konrad Heiden and Alan Bullock. These authors' works offer not only multiple perspectives but points of view from the 1930s onwards. Given that Hitler died seventy-one years ago, is there any need to revisit his life?
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- Custom Article Title Miriam Cosic reviews 'Hitler: A biography, volume I: Ascent, 1889–1939' by Volker Ullrich and translated by Jefferson Chase
- Contents Category Biography
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There is a point of view that says we shouldn't humanise a tyrant such as Adolf Hitler since that reduces the symbolism, the power of his name as a synonym for pure evil, and can lead to ...
- Book Title Hitler: A Biography
- Book Subtitle Volume I: Ascent, 1889–1939
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Bodley Head, $59.99 pb, 998 pp, 9781847922861
Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines into fierce yet darkly witty poetry. This is a book that takes corrupt law, peels away sentiment, and uncovers possible truths. It is a surprisingly fresh volume drawn from Maiden's obsessive themes – she is our great poet of humanity. In Sarah Holland-Batt's The Hazards (University of Queensland Press, reviewed in ABR, 10/15), from 'the promise of Berlin' to the 'mosquito net latitudes' there is style and fashion to relish, but under the skin of these poems we experience metaphors of the world's suffering. It is an exciting second book. Martin Harrison's posthumous Happiness (UWA Publishing, 12/15) is a triumph. Classical and romantic simultaneously, this is a book of love poetry and more by a philosopher of language, with 'a new vowelled, strict vocabulary drawn from air'. Harrison has enriched our world with this gift of a book.
Partly because of my interest in the high-level supporters of political leaders, but mostly because it is so well researched and written, I was fascinated by historian Sheila Fitzpatrick's On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (Melbourne University Press). In a solid year for Australian fiction, the novel that most endures for me – at this early stage – is Amanda Lohrey's subtle and funny A Short History of Richard Kline (Black Inc., 3/15), with a nod to A.S. Patrić's Black Rock White City (Transit Lounge). Amongst a strengthening field of Australian literary magazines (strengthening, at least, in terms of quality), I most enjoyed the illustrated short story magazine The Canary Press (edited by Robert Skinner). Issue 7 was symptomatic of the magazine's qualities, featuring writers living and dead, Australian and foreign – with Lally Katz's witty and disturbing script, 'The Apocalypse Bear – Part 1', a standout.
It has been a brilliant year for Australian poets. Sarah Holland-Batt's 'O California', first published in the New Yorker, was a glistering introduction to her second book, The Hazards. This dark rhapsody on the menace of future threat is an exhilarating read. Lucy Dougan's creation of a female sublime in her exploration of the matrilineal line in The Guardians (Giramondo, 10/15) is a powerful poetic narrative of survival. 'Tiles', a poem read by Peter Rose at his book launch in July, was a profound and haunting way into his book The Subject of Feeling (UWAP). It is an extraordinary book, juxtaposing gorgeous elegies with poems of biting wit. Finally, poet and scholar Lisa Gorton's first novel, The Life of Houses (Giramondo, 6/15), is one of the most finely crafted Australian novels of the last decade. Its sumptuous descriptions, and the imposing mother–daughter dyad at the centre of the narrative, take your breath away.
Per Petterson, the Norwegian writer, is one of my favourites. His novels, gently paced and spare on plot, never fail to satisfy. This year I was rewarded with his latest book, I Refuse (Vintage). The story engages with themes common to Petterson's work; family, intergenerational tensions, flawed memory, and a yearning for love. The ending of the novel, delivered with subtlety, is remarkable and haunting. The Visiting Privilege, the new and collected stories of Joy Williams is my book of the year. Williams for too long hovered in the shadows of her contemporaries of the North American 'dirty realism' school of the 1980s. The first story, 'Taking Care', was enough to remind me that she is a great storyteller. Jedediah Purdy's After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard) presents an intelligent and active discussion as to how we must deal with climate change.
Although I am deep in their midst as I write, it is safe to say that Elena Ferrante's astonishing Neapolitan Quartet will end up being one of my most remarkable reading experiences this year, distinguished not just by their uncompromising moral intelligence and psychological sophistication but by their sheer ferocity and almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict. Marlon James's Man Booker Prize-winning A Short History of Seven Killings (Oneworld) is similarly astonishing, a bravura feat of technical daring and historical reimagination of remarkable virtuosity and ambition. Closer to home, I was enormously impressed by Mireille Juchau's haunting exploration of an ecologically fraying world, The World Without Us (Bloomsbury, 9/15), and by Tegan Bennett Daylight's finely wrought scenes from the world of late adolescence and early adulthood, in Six Bedrooms (Vintage, 12/15).
The most captivating and impactful novels I have read this year are Eka Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound (Text Publishing) and Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 11/15). The first is a ghost-filled, vastly populated, and rollicking contemporary mythic tale, in the spirit of Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, but funnier, and a touch less lyrical. The latter is provocative, formally impressive, brutally precise, and topical. Wood's bleak portrayal of gender relations is limiting in some ways, but a nightmare has its own logic, and this makes for gripping reading. On the non-fiction front, Jonathan Bate's comprehensive and even-handed biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life (HarperCollins) is outstanding, and I admired The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (Harvill Secker), in which Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee address diverse but connected subjects – including memory construction, the psychological underpinnings of Australian politics, and literature – with purposeful intelligence.
I loved Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow (Fourth Estate), a brilliantly observed, dry-witted début short story collection that echoes Lorrie Moore and Nora Ephron, with its intimate accounts of relationships under threat. Hanya Yanagihara took the oft-used 'New York college friendship through the decades' story into new territory in A Little Life (Picador), a tale of horrific abuse and extraordinary friendship that is both life-affirming and devastating. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is one of those novels that does everything right, all at once: gorgeous writing about people, place, grief, loss, and our changing environment. Juchau balances all these elements perfectly, raising questions rather than proposing answers to the big themes she explores. I have long been a fan of Tegan Bennett Daylight's short stories, and her spiky, perceptive, engrossing new collection, Six Bedrooms, was a book I wanted to reread immediately.
Illuminating non-fiction in 2015 included Klaus Neumann's essential Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees (Black Inc.), an overdue history which explodes many myths, including amnesiac assumptions about left–right attitudes to migrant intake, which run insistently through the most contentious topic of political debate today. David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House) is both fascinatingly discursive and very lively, a survey of the past which contains lessons for government and citizens now and implicit warnings for the future. Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (John Murray) is not only a wonderful read, beautifully written in a finely produced book that's a delight to handle, but brings to life a hugely influential explorer and naturalist who is inexplicably little known in the Anglophone world.
Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things is a novel of mythological force with the heat of a Grimm's fairy tale. A group of ten women is chosen, it seems, for no other reason than that their sexual power, or sexual abuse, threatens to bring 'important' men down: the football groupie, the politician's mistress, other iconic 'sluts', thrown into a rural camp run by men enduring conditions barely better than those of the women they are brutalising. Do the women save themselves or wait to be saved? Do they work together or turn on one another? There are echoes of Lord of the Flies and also of the Australian film Journey Among Women. Colm Tóibín's new novel, Nora Webster (Picador), set in Ireland in the late 1960s, is a profound study of a woman struggling to maintain her sense of self and keep her family going after the unexpected death of her husband. The backdrop to Nora's struggles is inevitably political, but she remains the novel's gentle star.
'When I was travelling in this state, so many days felt strangely brittle, saturated, super-real,' writes poet Fiona Wright in her first book of prose. In the ten exquisite essays that make up Small Acts of Disappearance (Giramondo), Wright investigates the 'states' – psychic, physical, emotional, existential – that underpin her perilous decade-long entanglement with an eating disorder. The writing is anything but brittle, though the depth of Wright's insights into the pathology of her compulsions makes the book feel saturated, super-real, and at times hallucinatory. Small Acts overflows with quiet self-compassion. It is, in a rare literal sense, a diamond of a book – each essay being a surface capable of reflecting back to us our own complex relations with the fragility of self-identity. None of this would work well in the hands of a less assured writer; Wright feels like a direct heir of Kathleen Norris (Dakota: a Spiritual Geography) and Annie Dillard.
Emily Bitto's The Strays (Affirm Press, 5/14) is a confident and engaging début novel, trading in the ambiguities of a self-conscious artistic world. The Strays richly merits its 2015 Stella Prize. A great literary biography should be celebrated, and Robert Crawford's Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land (Jonathan Cape, 12/15) is superb – detailed but always driving forward, incisive about the poems but equally interested in the life informing the art. Matthew Condon's All Fall Down (UQP, 11/15) completes an important trilogy on recent Queensland history. Condon's prose conveys the urgency of journalism, if now distilled by distance. Despite the years, the magnitude of corruption, and its reach across police and politics, continues to astonish.
Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (Text, 11/15) – was for me, as evidently for many, the outstanding literary event of the year: a powerful story of female friendship rooted in the poverty of postwar Naples, and subtly overshadowed, as the years pass, by loss, mystery, and moral ambiguity. Tony Judt's When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995–2010 (Penguin Press), a superb collection of late essays brought together by Judt's widow, Jennifer Homans, is a further reminder of the courage and humanity of this lucid thinker, who died, far too young, in 2010. Admirers of Kevin Hart's latest impressive collection of new and selected poems, Wild Track (University of Notre Dame Press, 9/15), may also enjoy Alan Gould's The Poets' Stairwell (Black Pepper, 6/15), a witty and lightly fictionalised account of the two poets in their youth at large in Europe.
It has been another strong year in Australian poetry and several new books have impressed and delighted me. I shall mention only two. First, The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt, a charged and effortlessly imaginative evocation and intermingling of the world around us and the world within. The other is the, sadly, posthumous collection by Martin Harrison, Happiness, in which he displays again his astonishing capacity to see into landscape from the widest panorama to the most minute detail, coloured now by love and grief. A book that has enthralled me is Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 6/15) by Robert Macfarlane, 'about the power of language to shape our sense of place', indeed to help us to see it. Each chapter is followed by a wonderful glossary of words for features of landscape in regional varieties of English, Gaelic, Welsh, and others.
During World War II, Banjo Paterson wrote a poem of sentiment and fresh nationalism as the new nation's soldiers sailed to war. In We're all Australians Now (HarperCollins) author and artist Mark Wilson has given those words not just pages of almost unbearable beauty, but a counterpoint to Patterson's simplistic viewpoint. I cry each time I read this book, but then I read it, slowly, once again. In The Peony Lantern by Frances Watts (Angus and Robertson), a nineteenth-century Japanese village girl becomes a lady-in-waiting at a samurai mansion. Her life, and Japan itself, are on the brink of change. Lyrical, fascinating and compelling.
Memorable books for me this year have included poet Lisa Gorton's subtle and disquieting novel, The Life of Houses, and actor Magda Szubanski's memoir (or, as she calls it, 'family saga'), Reckoning (Text), which is thought-provoking, intelligent, beautifully written, and at once heartbreaking and very funny. But my vote for the book of the year would have to go to Charlotte Wood's brilliant and terrifying novel The Natural Way of Things: fuelled by rage and resistance, the novel is a study in power, a tale of misogyny, a meditation on survival, an only semi-abstract portrait of contemporary Australian life, and a reminder of what fiction at its best can do and be.
Three books with a transformative sense of the past have filled my thoughts this year: Tracy Ryan's eighth poetry collection, Hoard (Whitmore Press), T.G.H. Strehlow's 1969 memoir Journey to Horseshoe Bend (republished by Giramondo), and Verso's selection of Walter Benjamin's jottings, drafts, and collected curios in Walter Benjamin's Archive (edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, and Erdmut Wizisla; translated by Esther Leslie). Ryan's poems about Ireland's peat bogs and hoards are spare, sensuous, and haunting, touchstones for writing about place and language. Journey to Horseshoe Bend remembers the author's father, Pastor Carl Strehlow, who ran the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg. It records his last journey, desperately ill, tied to a chair and dragged by donkey wagon along the dry bed of the Finke River, in forlorn hope of reaching medical help in time. But this is also an account of the desert and its sacred places, colonial outposts, massacres, battles, and negotiations. Strehlow leaves a complicated legacy, and this book enriches it. Verso's selection from Benjamin's archive includes photographs of the children's toys he collected, postcards, and records of his son's sayings; it offers a domestic and intimate perspective on his essays and Arcades project.
Any new book by Barry Hill is an event, and Peacemongers (UQP) is especially intriguing: a meditative, playful, and profound prose poem about war and peace, a long book that rewards immersion. As an El Niño summer approaches, I returned to Robert Kenny's moving tragi-comedy about his experience of Black Saturday, Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir (UWAP, 12/13). Noel Pearson's A Rightful Place (Black Inc.) is a significant statement from a great Australian, as is Tim Flannery's Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis (Text, 10/15). I found Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (Faber, 4/15) a wonderfully mysterious novel and an unusual love story. And don't miss Robert Seethaler's elegiac A Whole Life (Picador) for its lean, powerful prose, and elemental portrait of one man's life in the Austrian Alps.
Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus (1980) was perhaps the novel I enjoyed most this year. Why can't all novels be like this, I remember thinking, a brisker Virginia Woolf: so prismatically clever about the two sisters, London and New York, the passing of time and the passing of life, marriage and spinsterhood, living in sin and attempted adultery, middle-class security and hand-to-mouth, children and none. In poetry, I'm glad that a selection of Philip Hodgins's poems, First Light, has appeared in the United States (George Braziller): never sweet, but sustaining in their harshness. 'The farmer knows that it was useless to call the vet. / So does the vet. / But there are some rituals / that must be carried through.'
Reading Merritt Tierce's bold, scorchingly powerful début, Love Me Back (Anchor Books), I was reminded of Muriel Rukeyser's claim that the world would split open if a woman told the truth about her life. Set in the world of Dallas steakhouses and hospitality workers, Love Me Back's disaffected protagonist Marie is laceratingly candid about womanhood, sexuality, and the dark side of desire. Similarly poised on the sharp edge between adolescence and adulthood, Colin Barrett's stylish stories in Young Skins (Vintage) navigate the rough and tumble troubles of early adulthood in small town Ireland; Barrett's prose is electrifying. In poetry, Sujata Bhatt's Poppies in Translation (Carcanet) is stunning; her bright, saturated poems are a wide-ranging compendium of language, history, place, and politics. Closer to home, I loved David Brooks's Open House (UQP); a tough intellect resides in Brooks's deceptively clean, airy lines. And Robert Adamson's Net Needle (Black Inc., 12/15) is masterful: rereading it is a pleasure 'sweet / as torn basil'.
Andy Jackson goes from strength to strength, and Immune Systems (Transit Lounge, 12/15) displayed once again his ability to see clearly and to write poetry with compassion and rigour about the world around him, in this case India, and as always his own physical universe, making each line count. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things, its young women snatched from 'moral' danger into physical captivity and degradation, never falls into the dystopic trap of fetishing horror. She balances the beauty of language and construction with the horror of what they describe, leaving at the end a caught breath that takes a long time to let out. Jon Ronson, in So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Picador), writes with humour and compassion of internet shaming and public disgrace, does the victims (and even perpetrators) justice, and, that vanishingly rare thing, can actually carry an argument through a whole book.
There have been many fine volumes of poetry in English over the last twelve months, and the three mentioned here are part of a long list. Each collection is starkly different from the others, and each collection challenges the mode of its own writing, which is for me important – that is, there is an awareness of the conditions of writing and presentation. Ouyang Yu's work continues to astonish me with its shifts and range, and Fainting with Freedom (Five Islands Press) is among his finest work. Lucy Dougan's The Guardians reaches deep into the fragility of being and comes out with verve and strength, without ever wavering from a tough and taut literary sensibility, and Paul Muldoon's One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber), opening with a stunning elegy for Seamus Heaney, continues his undoing of what English language is. The most intelligent novel I have read in a long time is Lisa Gorton's The Life of Houses, which configures and reconfigures its own spatiality over and over.
Les Murray's latest collection, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc., 5/15) continues his linguistic and anthropological study of Australian life. This year, I also was taken with Sarah Holland-Batt's dazzling new collection of poems, The Hazards, in which she continues her project to ransack the OED, Peter Rose's smart and happily gin-soaked The Subject of Feeling, and Robert Adamson's Net Needle, which casts a numinous light on his childhood growing up on the Hawkesbury River. Further afield, and following up on his sensational bestseller Eunoia, avant-garde Canadian poet Christian Bök has come up with The Xenotext: Book I (Coach House Books), an 'infernal grimoire' that offers a primer in genetics as it visits the orphic idylls of Virgil: 'Come with me' ends his apocalyptic poem 'The Late Heavy Bombardment'; 'Let me show you how to break my heart.'
Jacinta Le Plastrier
In a standout year for the publishing of contemporary Australian poetry, Martin Harrison's Happiness does the most a book of poems can do: it helps us to live. In Harrison's hierarchy, that means to love, deeply, self, other, world. These poems, also elegiac, glow with light and breath. Magus, and poems of a late master practising, virtually faultlessly, his mastery. It is a poise which also sweeps across Alan Loney's Crankhandle (Cordite, 8/15). The book is really a single sustained poem, learned, vanguardist, the senses also bent, caringly, to philosophy and the natural world. How difficult it is to make poems hilarious, but that is the punch, acerbic, of the Catullus suite in Peter Rose's The Subject of Feeling – LOL. Preceding this suite, in haute relief, are deeply moving poems, also masterful, in poems about loss, memory, intimacy, and love, also familial.
The great fiction discovery for me this year was the German author Jenny Erpenbeck, whose novel The End of Days (New Directions) is simply extraordinary. There were, however, two local non-fiction works that I believe are not only timely and significant, but might also be read fruitfully in tandem. The first is Australia's Second Chance (Hamish Hamilton) by George Megalogenis. Beginning with the First Fleet, Megalogenis considers the different waves of immigration that have shaped Australia and, with characteristic lucidity, analyses the connection between the nation's prosperity and its tendency at different times either to embrace or resist migrants. Megalogenis's briskly argued book is well complemented by Klaus Neumann's Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees. Neumann's soberly written history, which extends from Federation through to the 1970s, examines the ways in which Australian governments have reacted to the global issues created by those fleeing war and persecution, and in doing so it provides an invaluable perspective on the divisive politics of the present.
Andrew Ford's meditation on 'the primitive' in music, Earth Dances (Black Inc.), moves brilliantly across centuries and styles with Ford's characteristic wit, flair, and authority. His single paragraph on Chet Baker's singing is a miniature masterpiece. Ford is also an exceptional composer and broadcaster; what have we done to deserve him? Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) is an original account of racism in contemporary America. Mixing prose poetry, images, and the essay form, Rankine ranges from Serena Williams to the Jena Six in her powerful critique of American racial politics. In the year Adam Goodes was shamefully hounded out of Australian Rules football, there is much Australian readers can take from Citizen. Meanwhile, Ali Smith's How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) demonstrates that formally experimental fiction can encapsulate great joy, empathy, and imaginative seriousness. When will Smith win the Booker?
The book that has drawn me back again and again this year is US novelist James Salter's memoir Burning the Days: Recollection (1997). Salter, who died in June, aged ninety, only gained widespread recognition towards the end of his life. His prose is so finely wrought and the architecture of his storytelling so intricately constructed that I constantly found myself rereading the book in awe of his skill. There is not a sentence out of place. Closer to home, two biographies – Brenda Niall's Mannix (Text, 4/15) and Karen Lamb's Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather (UQP, 9/15) – stood out for their ability to wear exhaustive research lightly and bring their elusive subjects to life. Finally, I was won over by John Blay's rare and beautifully crafted On Track (NewSouth, 10/15) which tells the story of his search for the Bundian Way, the traditional Aboriginal pathway from the Kosciuszko high country to Twofold Bay on the far south coast of New South Wales.
My bedside table is stacked with old comedy – Alan Coren, P.G. Wodehouse – but my three favourites of 2015 are much to do with loss. Clive James's Latest Readings (Yale) is a witty, wide-ranging, and poignant series of essays on the books he is enjoying. James is candid about his mortality, and his great passion for literature flames the harder for it. Murray Middleton's When There's Nowhere Else to Run (Allen & Unwin, 8/15), the Vogel's Award-winning collection of short stories, conveys raw and broken characters in tight, smooth prose. And Jonathan Bate's masterful biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life argues convincingly that Hughes was defined, both personally and poetically, by his love and grief for Sylvia Plath. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, was defined more by purple socks and flung bread-rolls. So it's to him that I return.
My favorite three novels all explore the intertwined identities of society and the individual: the Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter, translated by Angela Rodel) tells of a boy suffering from universal empathy and feeling the sorrow of the world in himself. The Mexican Guadalupe Nettel's The Body Where I Was Born (Seven Stories Press, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein) is the fictional memoir of a woman who refuses to submit to what the world sees as her infirmity. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us was a revelation, a masterly story involving the refuge of silence, the fate of bees, and the shadows of old sins. The most important non-fiction book was by the American Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), a fierce denunciation of racism arguing that prejudice creates the concept of race, and not the other way round.
Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976–1995 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 5/14) is a fascinating, endearing meeting of two brilliant, maverick minds. Medlin's wit and Furphy-like evocations of the Australian bush and Murdoch's loving encounter with Australian vernacular ('Dearest Brian, dear mate') mixed with her philosophical digressions are a sublime, offbeat treat. Vincent O'Sullivan's Being Here: Selected Poems (Victoria University Press) traces his poetic growth through works that simply get better and better. Whether it is the easy demotic of 'The Butcher Papers' or the delicacy of 'Secular Thoughts' – 'the fire / leaps on itself, the shaded / lamp brims its chaste corner' – O'Sullivan's intellectual range, inventiveness, and command of tone and register are superb. Tim Winton's Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 11/15) is a terrific book – technically, a daring experiment with the genre; artistically, a passionate, Wordsworthian engagement with Nature, indigeneity, and the nature of things.
Two recent novels I want to read again. In Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín tests the limits of understatement. The death of her husband doesn't ennoble Nora Webster, nor does it destroy her. The effects of grief are traced with self-effacing candour by a writer at the height of his powers. Like the provincial Ireland of Tóibín's novel, the setting and the viewpoint of Joan London's The Golden Age (Vintage, 9/14) sound limiting. In a Perth hospital, Frank (Ferenc), an adolescent who is recovering from polio, falls in love with another patient, Elsa. Events conspire to separate the two, who are destined to lead quite different lives. London's artistic triumph is to suggest the shaping force of time and place on Frank and Elsa. In this unsentimental coming-of-age novel, postwar displacements cast shadows on two families without extinguishing the light.
This year's reading has been thrilling, disturbing, and deeply reassuring. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things knocked me sideways with its fury and gradual revelation of beauty and transformation. Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić showed me a different Melbourne of Balkan refugees and working class life. I wept at the end of Marilynne Robinson's Lila (12/14), another of her luminous, wise, compelling studies of the human condition. At the other end of the spectrum The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim (Penguin, translated by Jonathan Wright) exposes the destruction of both Iraq and the psyche of its people in surreal, violent, terrifying stories that read like lucid nightmares.
While Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith's memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf) explores 'collisions with the world's solid fist', its lyrical chapters are as much about creativity and grace as about the violence they defy. And while Smith captures awakenings – of social awareness and creativity – in the first four decades of her life, Drusilla Modjeska's Second Half First (Knopf, 11/15) begins with her fortieth birthday and explores the decades since, with memory's dynamics, questions of art, form, and women's lives at its lucent centre. Like Smith, Lisa Gorton is an acclaimed poet with a remarkable new work of prose. The Life of Houses is dazzling and distinctive, phrase by phrase. And (my friend) Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is a resonant, wise and achingly beautiful novel about loss, continuance, and the imagination.
In On Brunswick Ground (Transit Lounge), Catherine de Saint Phalle writes with a grace of style and searing authority about the way Melbournians live now. Here, steeped in the intimacies and desires of a community, she proves herself an engaged and engaging novelist we can't afford to ignore. Bob Shacochis's massive literary spy thriller The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Grove Press) stalks the murkiest realms of the twentieth century. With its deserved comparisons to the work of Graham Greene and John le Carré, Shacochis's novel provides great challenges and endless rewards and stands in stark contrast to Kent Haruf's spare Our Souls at Night (Picador). A warm and sincere examination of the sanctuary of friendship, it's one of the most beautiful novels this reader has ever encountered. And don't forget to place the inimitable Rebecca Solnit's essay collection Men Explain Things to Me (Granta) in the stocking of every man for a better tomorrow.
It is a sign of these murky times for books and the written word that my book of the year is a work of loving enthusiasm and selfless devotion, rather than a knowing, self-conscious product by some member of the knowledge class. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, by Clinton Walker (Verse Chorus Press) is a re-edition of a masterwork first published fifteen years ago, but expanded and reconceived so thoroughly as to be something new: an account of vernacular Aboriginal creativity in mid-century Australia, the influences it soaked up and the impact it made – a back channel history worth more than a thousand academic sociologies. Roger Knox, Bobby McLeod, Vic Simms: these are the heroes of its pages: 'Where the crows flies backwards' is its central song, an anthem that defines both an era and a state of mind. What more can a book do than bring you back the past and make it real – especially a past you never knew?
Australian publishers increasingly take on short story collections these days, and among recent volumes I especially admired Danielle Wood's Mothers Grimm (Allen & Unwin), a brilliant and coruscating set of stories on motherhood, where magic works with malice – no happy endings here. On a related theme, Ali Smith's novel How to Be Both is an extraordinary double narrative of a contemporary teenage girl mourning her mother's death and the invented biography of an Italian Renaissance painter: it bends genre and gender, and blends past and present.
If there were an award for Best Family Book, Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay (Hodder) would surely win. The Cornwallis family relocating to a small Cornish town take on disasters and mysteries, school bullies and even a chicken-stealing 'jagular' in a story rich in love and laughter, including a poignant subplot about a trio of cousins who lived in the house a hundred years ago. Twelve-year-old Binny is an endearing heroine. I adored this book. For older readers, Vikki Wakefield in Inbetween Days (Text) proves again that she's the mistress of YA twisted relationships and disturbed characters, all memorable, all sketched with compassion, wit and insight, the adults as well as teens. One of the best of the 'Gallipoli' books is One Minute's Silence (Allen & Unwin) by David Metzenthen and Michael Camilleri: a classroom of bored Year Twelve students catapulted into the action on those hellish slopes in 1915.
It's become quite the thing to write about mothers of yesteryear, whether in fiction or memoir: to tease out notions of good and bad mothering, the almost unbelievable constraints and pressures those mothers were often subjected to, the lingering effects on later generations, and the role that fathers did or didn't play. It can be a hard subject to write about without descending into sentimentality, indignation, melodrama, or utter gloom. Three Australian books hit the right nuanced note for me: Rod Jones's novel The Mothers (Text, 6/15), a wrenching saga of four generations of women and what they were denied; Kate Grenville's story of her mother, One Life (Text, 4/15), an inspiring tale of making the best of very limited opportunities, whether professional or personal; and Stephanie Bishop's quietly devastating novel The Other Side of the World (Hachette, 9/15), which gave me the most exquisite sense of slow suffocation. Lest we forget.
British historian Peter H. Hansen spoke to my weakness for expeditionary adventure. Ever alert to the cultural meanings of our relationship with mountains, The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Harvard) roves the great ranges, from Mont Blanc to Everest. If Hansen led me upwards, anthropologist Melinda Hinkson took me outwards to the Tanami Desert. Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life through the Prism of Drawing (Aboriginal Studies Press) is both a beautiful art book and a personal, highly perceptive account of Warlpiri culture, where pencil and crayon drawings, commissioned by anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt in the 1950s, become mnemonic stimuli for Aboriginal people today. A 'huge sunlit series / of changing moods' is evoked by the final poems of Martin Harrison who died in 2014. An elegiac record of the love and loss that coloured the poet's last years, Happiness is another stimulus to memory, majestic in its capacity to listen and observe.
Two books I read this year seem like unexpected companion pieces: the Italian Elena Ferrante's novel Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and Drusilla Modjeska's memoir Second Half First. Ferrante's novel is the third in a series about a compulsive and uneasy friendship between two poor and clever women. One is a publicly acknowledged writer, the other is her critic, her inspiration, her adversary and her guide. Modjeska's memoir charts the politics and friendships, the writing and thinking, of the later part of her life. Both books register the great exchanges that are possible between life and literature. Both are intense and accomplished explorations of writing, politics, sexuality, friendship, and cities.
Walking: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press, 5/14) contains old favourites and adds to them new poems in Kevin Brophy's signature voice: gentle, slightly mournful, threaded through with humour. I thought I had read every 'take' on the Holocaust, but Ramona Koval adds something fresh with Bloodhound: Searching for My Father (Text, 5/15): the drive to find a more appealing lineage; a rebuilding after the disaster, perhaps. Ross Gibson's poetry is marked by the numinous, then undercut by the quotidian, the earthy. Stone Grown Cold (Cordite, 8/15), a mix of prose poems, lyrics, lists, and fragmentary images, reflects a different way of seeing. A companion piece to the disturbing and engaging Life after Life, Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins (Penguin) has a more elegiac note, and is a lovely essay on grace in the face of disappointment, damage, and death.
Irish author Paul Murray received mixed reviews for his most recent novel, The Mark and the Void (Hamish Hamilton). Yet the man is clearly a genius – smart, funny, profound, ludicrously modest – and the flaws in his story about the Irish experience of the GFC and its fallout are par for the course when you're venturing to wring human drama from investment banking. It made me laugh, ponder, and despair.
It should be taken as no commentary on contemporary Oz Lit that I choose Text's fistful of Randolph Stow reissues for my local favourite(s) during 2015. Their appearance reminds us that a gentle, wise, wounded, and immensely talented poet in prose once lived among us. If you haven't read Visitants, do so: it is the dark heart of Stow's oeuvre. But make sure you read The Girl Green as Elderflower alongside – that pendant work has a bucolic sweetness to balance against the former's bitter taste.
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- Custom Article Title Books of the Year 2015
- Contents Category Books of the Year
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Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines
When Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was published in 1970, it created a sensation. Within six months, it had almost sold out its second print run and had been translated into eight languages. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the influence of which critics see in Greer’s book, had come out in France in 1949. The Feminine Mystique, by American psychologist Betty Friedan, had been published in 1963 and was credited with sparking feminism’s second wave. Sexual Politics, a radical literary critique of masculine portrayal of women by another American, Kate Millett, also came out in 1970.
The Female Eunuch, however, was unique. It was a mixture of scholarship, stream of consciousness, and fiery populist polemic, peppered with statistics and quotations from classic literature, fitfully footnoted and full of shocking language. Thin on theory, it was a passionate and frequently self-contradictory call to arms. Greer did not advocate equality with men, but liberty for all. She thought as little of women alienated by patriarchy as she did of the men who profited from it: even a little less, perhaps, because men’s grip on ascendancy was at least self-serving. Indeed, some feminists criticised the book as misogynistic. Greer was seen as a child of privilege who admired men more than women, perhaps the legacy of her relationship with her own parents – an absent father, an abusive mother – who figure in frequent personal references in the book.
Many women, however, credited The Female Eunuch with giving them insight into their own lives that empowered and changed them forever. It described women’s subjective experience of a world in which men’s experience was set as the objective benchmark. It described women’s bodies, not as objects of male voyeurism, but as they felt from the inside. That included subjects that ‘nice’ women did not mention, such as menstruation, hormonal changes, pregnancy, menopause, sexual arousal, and orgasm. She also drilled deep into the mythologies of romance and marriage and motherhood, and the way women were conditioned from infancy to serve men within those socially and legally sanctioned institutions. Sex roles were not biological, she maintained, but man-made, and made so cleverly that women came to believe they desired their own repression.
‘Many women ... credited The Female Eunuch with giving them insight into their own lives that empowered and changed them forever’
In her foreword to the twenty-first anniversary edition, Greer acknowledged the changes that had occurred in women’s lives in the intervening years, the ‘many new breeds of women upon the earth’, from female bodybuilders and marathon runners to female army officers to women who write unsparingly about their own sex lives. She wrote about the ubiquity of women’s magazines talking frankly about sex, the widespread availability of contraception and a new recognition of geriatric sex. ‘What more could women want?’ she asked rhetorically, and replied: ‘Freedom, that’s what. Freedom from being the thing looked at rather than the person looking back. Freedom from self-consciousness.’ Freedom from constraining clothes, from the duty to stimulate jaded male palates, and much more. Decades later, into the twenty-first century, the rise of slut culture and the pornification of women’s fashions and behaviour, almost, it would seem, as a backlash against the second wave of feminism her book exemplified, is proving her right. Even formal structural change, such as equal rights legislation, has not guaranteed improvement. In 2015, the Australian Government announced that the gender pay gap had risen to 18.8 per cent, up from previous lows of fifteen per cent.
Greer was born in Melbourne in January 1939 and educated at the Star of the Sea convent school in the bayside suburb of Gardenvale. She earned her first degree in English and French at Melbourne University, her masters on the poet Byron at Sydney, and her PhD, on love and marriage in Shakespeare, at Cambridge. She pursued extracurricular interests: in Sydney, she was a member of the libertine Sydney Push; in Cambridge she joined the Footlights theatre group. She wrote for the notoriously satirical Sydney magazine Oz, and was a co-founder and editor of the Amsterdam-based pro-pornography paper, Suck. She was photographed naked for the cover of Oz, which annoyed some feminists. They may not have realised, however, that she had struck an agreement that the male editors should also pose nude, but they reneged: a comment on sexual double standards, even among radicals, in itself.
The Female Eunuch was published while Greer was a lecturer in English literature at Warwick University, where she is still emeritus professor in English Literature and Comparative Studies. It was her first book and catapulted her into celebrity. It is unorthodox in structure: divided into four parts, called Body, Soul, Love, and Hate, and each part divided into very specificsubsections such as Bones, Curves, and Hair, for example, in Body, and Altruism, Egotism, and Obsession in Love. On many of the pages, black-bordered boxes contain quotes spanning centuries of mostly masculine views of women, which form a kind of running slide show alongside her text. Some are beyond ghastly, such as Baudelaire’s post-coital description of the ‘gluey-sided leather bag of pus’ beside him; a few are sympathetic, such as Engels’s description of the modern family, based on ‘the open or concealed slavery of the wife’.
In her introductory Summary, Greer flags her direction. The ambitions of the old suffragettes, who won women the vote and entry into professions in the earlier twentieth-century, were too limited, she suggests: ‘The genteel middle-class ladies clamoured for reform, now ungenteel middle-class women are calling for liberation.’ She also flags her Marxism. While the suffragettes had faith in the existing political system and merely demanded admittance to it, the New Left, the ‘forcing house’ of many political movements including second-wave feminism, demands much more: the coming of the classless society and the withering of the state. Not for her Betty Friedan’s reformist National Organization for Women in the United States. Greer wants every woman to revolt. She expected the strongest criticism to come from ‘my sisters of the left’ she writes, ‘because of my fantasy that it might be possible to leap the steps of revolution and arrive somehow at liberty and communism without strategy or revolutionary discipline. But if women are the true proletariat [an unattributed reference to Engels] the truly oppressed majority, the revolution can only be drawn nearer by their withdrawal of support for the capitalist system.’ She is referring specifically to the withdrawal of (under)paid labour in industry, but also, tangentially, in the home.
‘She thought as little of women alienated by patriarchy as she did of the men who profited from it: even a little less, perhaps, because men’s grip on ascendancy was at least self-serving’
Greer begins The Female Eunuch with Body, she writes, in order to establish with certainty the degree of inferiority and natural dependence of women. She doesn’t hark back to some fabled golden age, but spends chapters outlining the reality of women’s lives that has always existed. Nor does she extol any notion of sisterhood: the women she describes are competitive with each other. In fact she finds little to laud in femininity at all, even while she is demanding the elevation of the feminine.
Few cultural figures escape her critique since they have built the terrain women must negotiate. While she praises Maslow for being able to see the feminine in his ‘self-actualising’ personalities, she hops into Freud for his whole castration construct. She provides a gloss on his explanation of ‘woman’: ‘(D)uring the necessary interval between maturity and mating, she expresses her sexuality in passive fantasies; only when impregnated is she completed, for the child signifies her lost genital and her achievement, the fantasies fade, the masochism-narcissism is replaced by energy in the protection and socialization of the child.’ Greer continues: ‘It is quite a neat description of an existing mechanism, and it has proved seductive even to female theorists, who did not dare to counterpoise their subjective experience against what seemed to be objective fact. Besides, it had a moral weight.’
And yet, Greer herself approaches Freudian terminology in her definition of the female ‘eunuch’ as a woman separated from her libido and from natural desire, fattened and made docile like a castrated animal, and deprived of any capacity for action. A key difference, of course, is that Freud thought he was describing essence, while Greer is describing social conditioning. This is why revolution, not reform, is required. Women have to cast off their conditioning in its entirety: the power imbalance of subordination to men, but also the internalised self-loathing that is assuaged and hidden by all the paraphernalia of patriarchal capitalism designed to enhance women’s objectified beauty and emotional quiescence: make-up, distorting clothing, feminine hygiene products, inescapable imprisonment in stifling marriages, sexual competitiveness among themselves and – something she underlines repeatedly – increasing and increasingly unnecessary consumerism.
The gloves really come off in the final section, Hate. No one, neither men nor women, she makes the reader realise, is happy in the existing system. ‘Women have very little idea how much men hate them,’ is her startling first line. She writes of boys and girls in an average English industrial town: the boys scoring sexual favours wherever they can and despising the girls who give them what they want. ‘They do not think more highly of the unavailable girls, for they find in such exclusivity only the desire to strike a harder bargain: these are the bitches, the others are the slags. A man is bound to end up with one or the other. Marriage is viewed with fatalism, soon you are sure to find yourself screwed permanently into the system, working in a dead-end job to keep a fading woman and her noisy children in inadequate accommodation in a dull town for the term of your natural life.’
What Greer imagines as possible is exploratory and rather wild. She throws open windows rather than seriously outlining possibilities: few of her suggestions are practicable or even significant. Perhaps women could live and raise their children together, somewhere pleasant like the rolling landscapes of Italy, with local people to tend house and garden. (She doesn’t say whether those local people would be liberated too.) Women should taste their own menstrual blood, in order to overcome inculcated disgust for their own bodies: after all no-one thinks twice about sucking a bleeding lip or finger. As Linda Colley wrote in the London Review of Books in 1999: ‘Properly and historically understood, Greer is not primarily a feminist. More than anything else, she should be viewed as a utopian.’
The Female Eunuch is of its time in substance and style: slogans like ‘Right on!’ are amusingly anachronistic now. Greer recommends cooperatives and cooperative actions but, ever the intellectual, she also sees hippies as ‘limp’. Read as a document of its time, however, The Female Eunuch provides an illuminating benchmark. It is remarkable to realise how far women have come in the West in those scant forty-five years. But it is also remarkable to remember how unrealistically optimistic feminists were in the 1970s. They believed that wholesale change to the sexual organisation of Western society would come soon, and via women seizing political and economic power not merely by men ceding it. Greer could not have predicted the collapse of manufacturing in the West, which has lost many working-class women steady jobs; nor could she have foreseen the demise of unionism and the rise of zero-hours contract labour. And she certainly couldn’t have predicted the recent turn in women’s fashion – the ultra-high heels, the ultra-revealing clothing, the Brazilian waxes, the emaciation – which has weakened women physically and made them even more complicit in their own sexual objectification. Greer would have hoped her exposure of the truths about women’s subjugation would have hastened its end.
Some of her ideas are still shocking today, for the wrong reasons. She blames domestic violence for example, on the women who suffer it and lets the men off easily: ‘The degree of inebriation which is bitterly upbraided by women is so slight that it may be all but imperceptible. Much of the violence which drinking men wreak upon their women is provoked by their voiced or unvoiced reproaches.’ She discusses frigidity as a punishing expression of resentment that wives mete out to husbands. And the worst part is the circle of emotional dysfunction it creates in men: they feel both bestial and grateful when they are grudgingly allowed sex. Hypochondria is another expression of resentment, ‘often motivated by continual reproach and not organic at all’. In many places she seems to understand how men tick, but believes that few other women – ordinary women – do. She, by contrast, understands and even in places sympathises with masculinity and, as an extraordinary woman, can rise above its demands.
The Female Eunuch was written, in fact, by an extraordinary woman and it remains a landmark text. A seminal feminist work, it is also an important historical record of a period of dramatic social, political, and economic change.
Colley, Linda. ‘Stubble and Breath’, London Review of Books, 15 July, 1999
Cusk, Rachel. ‘The Female Eunuch, 40 years on’, The Guardian, 20 November, 2010.
Diamond, Arlyn. ‘Elizabeth Janeway and Germaine Greer’, The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 13, No. 1/2, Woman: An Issue (Winter–Spring, 1972).
Fogarty, Michael P. Review of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan; Patriarchal Attitudes by Eva Figes; The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer; Sexual Politics by Kate Millet; Woman’s Estate by Juliet Mitchell; Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement by Robin Morgan; Voices from Women’s Liberation by Leslie B. Tanner, International Review of Vol. 19, No. 1, The Education of Women (1973).
Nowra, Louis. ‘The Better Self? Germaine Greer and “The Female Eunuch”’, The Monthly, March, 2010.
Presser, Harriet B. ‘Feminism and the Status of Women’, Family Planning Perspectives Vol. 4, No. 2 (April, 1972).
- Free Article Yes
- Custom Article Title Reading Australia: 'The Female Eunuch' by Germaine Greer
- Contents Category Commentary
Last month in Melbourne, a group of book reviewers and literary editors took part in a conference organised by Monash University’s Centre for the Book. There were more than thirty short papers, or ‘provocations’, as they were styled. Our Editor lamented the low or non-payment of some reviewers (especially younger ones) and announced a major new campaign to further increase payments to ABR contributors. Much good came from Critical Matters: Book Reviewing Now. Book reviewers are a non-organised, often isolated class: Critical Matters pointed the way to a more united cohort. Hearteningly, the mood was invigorating – not rueful or defensive. To complement this symposium, we invited a number of the participants, and others, to respond to this question: ‘What single development would most improve the Australian critical culture?’
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- Custom Article Title Book reviewing and its provocateurs: 'What single development would most improve the Australian critical culture?'
- Contents Category Literary Studies
In the current fad for omnibus histories of absolutely everything, designed to replace ancient metaphysics, perhaps, or answer some marketing brainwave, no one has succeeded in quite the way Christine Kenneally has. She approaches her task with a very specific enquiry: what is the interplay between genetics and human history? Searching for an answer, she uncovers worlds within worlds.
Kenneally brings the old nurture–nature debate into updated focus. Now that we have mapped the human genome and can test genetically for almost everything, what does this add to our understanding of ourselves – as individuals, as members of community, and as a species? Genetics has had an unpleasant intellectual history in racial supremacy theories, but in Kenneally’s hands it becomes something open-ended and expansive. Our common humanity trumps any attempt to divide us biologically, ethnically, politically, or by religion. In fact, DNA testing opens up many more questions than it closes down, and definitive answers about the genetic constitution of humanity – or anything else for that matter – are way off in the future.
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- Custom Article Title Miriam Cosic reviews 'The Invisible History of the Human Race' by Christine Kenneally
- Contents Category Science
- Book Title The Invisible History of the Human Race
- Book Subtitle How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Black Inc., $29.99 pb, 355 pp, 9781863957038