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Richard Freadman

H.G. Wells, in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), describes Henry James as ‘a strange unnatural human being’ who ‘regarded his fellow creatures with a face of distress and a remote effort at intercourse, like some victim of enchantment placed in the centre of an immense bladder’ ...

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On Life-Writing edited by Zachary Leader

April 2016, no. 380

Zachary Leader, respected biographer of Kingsley Amis and Saul Bellow, and editor of this volume of commissioned essays, defines life writing as 'a range of writings about lives or parts of lives, or which provide materials out of which lives or parts of lives are composed'. This formulation reflects the book's method, which is to provide a 'sampling' of various per ...

A story called ‘The Burden’, which appears at about the halfway mark of this collection, begins like this: ‘Graham was finding the burden of freedom a little too much for him …’ He is working alone in his room above a Chinese restaurant near the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where he is a visiting Australian Fellow, writing a novel about, it seems, academic life. But the novel isn’t ‘coming along’. He is ‘stuck hopelessly in the middle of a quarrelsome English department meeting from which he couldn’t extricate any of his characters’. He has run out of money and food and is down to his last half gallon of Red Mountain claret. ‘Nothing for it but to do the tourist thing and wander down Telegraph avenue with a camera.’ And so begins his afternoon of boredom, inchoate intentions that evaporate as they arise, and chance meetings. Looking back on it at the end of the day, he decides there was ‘not much to show for it … Or maybe there was something there. He pulled his notebook towards him and began to write, “Graham was finding the burden of freedom a little too much for him …”’

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Herz Bergner arrived in Melbourne in 1938, having left Warsaw after Hitler’s rise to power. Already a published Yiddish short story writer, he joined a group of progressive Yiddish-speaking writers and thinkers who often gathered at the Kadimah Library in Carlton. As information about the Holocaust began to reach these shores, Bergner argued passionately for an increase in European immigration to Australia. He also began work on a novel in Yiddish about a boatload of Jewish refugees (and some others) adrift on the high seas, supposedly destined for Australia.

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Jacob Rosenberg completed the manuscript of The Hollow Tree shortly before his death in October 2008. Born in Lodz in 1922, he lived there until he was deported to Auschwitz, where he lost his entire immediate family. He was later a prisoner in the Woflsburg and Ebensee concentration camps. In 1948 he and his wife, Esther, emigrated to Australia, where they raised a family and built a successful clothing business.

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In one of these beautifully crafted prose poems, the speaker, recalling his childhood self, says that ‘I was gradually learning my own name, though there are times when the knowledge escapes me still, and another reveals itself’. This suggests complex trajectories of the self in time: self-knowledge comes ‘gradually’, but at times cedes to another, more profound, self-transcending form of knowing. Alex Skovron’s work, which includes four earlier volumes of verse and a novella, often counterposes two dispositions towards the self: a schematising impulse to ‘chart’ the ‘soul’, and a heuristic delight in the liberating processes of self-transcendence. Some of the ‘autographs’ – the accounts and traces of the self – that comprise this volume are of the first kind, others of the second. The book does not so much adjudicate between these kinds as embed them in a loose, fugue-like structure which is rich in delicate shadings, contrasts and variations. The book’s three sections – ‘Dance’, ‘Labyrinth’, and ‘Shadow’ – indicate axes of imaginative exploration rather than lines of narrative progression. Yet, cumulatively, the fifty-six poems in this collection nurture a passion for transcendence and a fear of excessive schematisation, the latter associated in this Jewish writer’s work with fundamentalism and totalitarianism.

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In one of the most haunting phrases contained in Inside Outside (1992), the Australian Jewish autobiographer Andrew Riemer comments on the persistent sense of loss that still shapes him, many years after his entry to Australia as a child immigrant. He writes, ‘exile seals your eyes, allowing you to see only what your longings and your sense of loss will permit’. Earlier, Riemer reflects on his longing for a vanished world, ‘a country of the mind, fashioned from powerful longings and fantasies’. With the undercutting of his own position, so characteristic of his writing, he writes: ‘Perhaps I am merely describing the human condition. I have come to learn that this sense of displacement, of not belonging ... is shared by many …’ And yet, he adds, the experience of migration ‘brings that predicament into sharper focus than might otherwise be the case’.

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Literature is rich in ethical implication, but do we incur ethical responsibilities when we write about it? Arguably we do. Literary authors seek to convey something to others, and to convey it in literary form. Perhaps, then, our accounts of literature should respect its literary qualities, not least when we bring literature into interdisciplinary contact with other discourses? ... (read more)

Richard Freadman’s first work intended for a non-academic readership is, in his own words, ‘the Son’s Book of the Father’ and thus belongs to a venerable genre. Freadman, whose contribution to our understanding of autobiography has been acute, is well qualified to draw on this tradition in portraying his own father and analysing their relationship. Along the way, he discusses memoirists such as John Stuart Mill, Edmund Gosse and Henry James.

Shadow of Doubt: My Father and Myself can’t have been an easy book to write. Few family memoirs are, if their authors are honest about their families and themselves. Freadman knows that autobiography is a ‘chancy recollective escapade’. ‘My father,’ he writes, ‘was an extremely, an impressively complex man, and there is no single “key” to a life like this.’

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In February 1974, Robert Rose, a twenty-two-year-old Australian Rules footballer and Victorian state cricketer, was involved in a car accident that left him quadriplegic for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. The tragedy received extensive press coverage and struck a chord with many in and beyond the Melbourne sporting community ...

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