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Jonathan Cape

The morning ABC radio program AM is not a book program. But occasionally we’re pleased to take the opportunity to broadcast the story of a new book, particularly when it comments on Australian public affairs. When John Pilger’s A Secret Country was published, AM ran an interview with the author which was unusually long for us, some five or six minutes. The response was remarkable. In my two years as presenter of the program, I can’t recall as much listener interest in any item, judging by the number of telephone enquiries about the book we received in subsequent days.

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Brilliant Creatures is not so much a novel – a first novel, as the title page coyly points out – as it is a presentation pack. The text itself is bookended by an introduction at the front, and a set of extensive, very boring notes and index at the back. A set of notes and an index for a novel, a first novel? Yep. Clive James has heard of Nabokov and Pale Fire. He has also, as the four-page introduction makes clear, heard of his ‘illustrious ancestor Henry’: of Gide, Montaigne, Sterne, Peacock, Firbank, Trollope, Joyce, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche.

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Douglas Stewart has pointed out that James Joyce and Henry Lawson, opposites in art, and living at opposite ends of the earth, once wrote the same story and, each in his own way, made a masterpiece of it. The funeral of Dignam in Ulysses is the same story as Lawson’s ‘The Union Buries Its Dead’. In ‘Dublin and the Bush’ (The Flesh and the Spirit) he persuasively developed this argument.

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