What can you do with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play full of murder, mutilation, and rape, culminating in a mother eating a pie filled with her sons’ ground-up body parts? For centuries it was dismissed as the early aberration of a genius, a sop to the bloodthirst of Elizabethan audiences (the play may have been performed as early as 1590). Since Julie Taymor’s film Titus (1999), it has become a testing piece for directors, some of whom consider its violence particularly relevant to our times.
In Adena Jacobs, Bell Shakespeare has found a director with the courage to mould the play to a new vision, one that explores the monstrous nature of the human body and the fearful power of parents over children. In 2018, for the Sydney Chamber Opera, Jacobs directed The Howling Girls, a libretto-free opera based on reports of the uncontrollable screaming of five women after the 9/11 crisis in the United States. Eugyeene Teh designed that opera and works again with Jacobs to create the projections, soundscape, and imagery for a confronting series of tableaux drawn from Shakespeare’s play. Jacobs has also directed productions of Oedipus Rex and The Bacchae and what she called ‘a theatrical poem’ version of Frank Wedekind’s Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls for her company Fraught Outfit. This version of Titus Andronicus might also be called a theatrical poem, probing the imagery of the play rather than its savage action, so that Shakespeare seems more like Euripides than a Renaissance writer.
Each tableau/scene is given a surtitle. The first is ‘The Mother’. Titus Andronicus, played by an androgynous Jane Montgomery Griffiths, stands tall in a long skirt among a group of child effigies, while Melita Jurisic as Tamora, the defeated leader of the Goths, cowers in a corner. Titus is both grieving mother – twenty-one of his twenty-five sons killed in battle – and punitive father. He soon sacrifices one of Tamora’s sons and impulsively strikes down another of his own for daring to contradict him. The second tableau, ‘The Snuff Film: Lavinia's Rape and Mutilation’ thankfully shifts the most violent acts out of sight in a child’s cubby house where Lavinia, in a red riding hood, is dragged by the masked sons of Tamora. In ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, she appears wrapped in plastic and strapped to a hospital gurney with a cone-shaped mask covering her face, while Titus and his brother Marcus (played by Josh Price) declaim about honour and justice. The victim, Titus’s only daughter, must be silent while projections behind the scene imply the dreadful nature of her wounds as blood pours from a mouth, over and over again. ‘The Baby’ focuses on the birth of Aaron and Tamora’s baby, which is delivered to Aaron by a crone (Catherine Văn-Davies in a grotesque rubber mask), who later performs an anti-erotic striptease revealing her vagina as the source of a wad of indeterminate detritus. By the end of the play, we’ve seen Titus and Saturninus knocking over child effigies with bowling balls, a baby threatened with hanging, and, of course, the enacting of Tamora eating her sons’ bodies.
Here, gender is arbitrary. The crop-haired Montgomery Griffiths wears prosthetic breasts, which are later peeled away to reveal her real breasts; one of her bare legs is buckled into a leather brace, suggesting Titus’s warrior role. The silent Lavinia (played by Jayna Patel), deliberately unsexualised, wears what looks like a hospital uniform. The crone delivers Aaron’s baby from a prosthetic womb that is later strapped on by Aaron, its father, played by a woman. Tamora’s sons appear to be children behind those masks, rather than grown men who can rape and murder. The only adherence to the particular indications of the text is the choice of Tariro Mavondo to play Aaron, the manipulative blackamoor. This gives the play’s references to black devils a racist resonance.
The projections at the back show close-up images of the skin of various actors from cameras positioned on the stage, the gaping of bloody mouths, and the explorations of an endoscopy camera. At various points, actors are smeared with shit, bloodstained urine, and blood. The abject nature of the human body is inescapable. All the while there is a humming soundscape behind the action.
Shakespeare’s play might well have been lost behind this bombardment of imagery but for the magnificent presence of Montgomery Griffiths, who delivers every line with intelligence and clarity. She has such authority on stage that she commands attention through all the distractions of visual and sound projections, even when her voice must compete with other sounds. It is a joy to watch such a confident performer of Shakespeare’s verse.
What can it all mean? The stylised nature of this production mutes the violence of the play. Its monstrosity lies in the vulnerable human body rather than in the rapid disposal of individual characters. Their moral states are hardly an issue in a play whose main characters seem bereft of humanity, so this production’s refusal to invite sympathy for any character appears totally appropriate. Here we see no explicit rapes or murders, no trunkless heads or disgusting cannibal pies. The grotesquerie is all within the body, with its pink and bloody interior, its bleeding stumps or haggard faces. These de-eroticised bodies have a frightening quality, partly because of their clinical distance from individualised human beings. When Chiron and Demetrius, known as Rapine and Murder by the end of the play, are no more than figures in rubbery masks, somehow eating them is no longer horrific. Lavinia, Titus’s only daughter – the last surviving victim – is dispatched in a casual gesture at the end. After all, she was only another body to be disposed of.
In her director’s note, Jacobs links the gruesome elements of Titus Andronicus to those of fairy stories, suggesting that these stories teach children that violence and pain are inevitable features of human life. The nightmare quality of what she presents on stage, then, might be seen as an exposure of our deepest fears: for children, the threat of parental cruelty; for adults, the fear of the fragility of our bodies.
See this production of Titus Andronicus if only for Montgomery Griffiths’ performance. But don’t take the children.
Titus Andronicus is being performed by Bell Shakespeare at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, from 27 August to 27 September 2019. Performance attended: 30 August.
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What can you do with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play full of murder, mutilation, and rape, culminating in a mother eating a pie filled with her sons’ ground-up body parts? For centuries it was dismissed as the early aberration of a genius, a sop to the bloodthirst of Elizabethan audiences ...
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Anyone with an interest in Australia’s drama history is likely to have some curiosity about Oriel Gray’s play The Torrents, joint winner of a Playwright Advisory Board prize in 1955 alongside Ray Lawler’s ground-breaking Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Unlike Lawler’s play, it was not performed at the time. According to the current producers, it has had only one other professional production before this current version by Black Swan Theatre in Perth, which has reached Sydney after seasons in Perth and Brisbane.
The company is conscious of its role in rehabilitating a piece of drama history, with Gray’s name in pink neon lights in front of the curtain. Before the play begins, Celia Pacquola, in her familiar stand-up comedian role, fills in the background for the audience. While Gray’s play languished unperformed, Lawler’s play has been taught in schools and universities for decades, with some dynamic revivals and the addition of two more plays by Lawler to make it a trilogy.
Such a comparison hardly helps Gray’s play, which, even in 1955, must have been out of kilter with the Zeitgeist.
It is a light-hearted imagining of life in a 1890s goldfields town in Western Australia where the gold is running out and new measures – the piping of water for agriculture – are needed for its survival. For the present, there is wealth enough for the local newspaper to thrive and dominate town politics, but its editor, Rufus Torrent, needs to embrace the modern world of the 1890s if the town and his paper are to survive. The agent of change turns out to be a young woman journalist, J.G. Milford, who has been employed by the editor’s son Ben to shake things up.
In this production, the old guard all have accents from the Old Country, with Tony Cogin (Rufus), Geoff Kelso (Christie), and Sam Longley (Jock) wielding Irish and Scots brogue, while the younger generation – Ben, Jenny Milford, the copy boy Bernie, the water engineer Kingsley, and the local beauty, Gwynne – speak as modern Australians and clearly belong to a less rigid future. The humour derived from the newspaper staff is laboured, with Christie delivering a series of British empire riffs that may indicate something about 1950s comedy but fall flat for a contemporary audience. On opening night, the audience responded more to the bits of business about hat and cane-throwing, or the tall Longley’s struggle to get through doors than to the dialogue. Humour is notoriously bound by time.
It is down to the charming Celia Pacquola as Jenny the woman journalist, and Gareth Davies, as Ben to carry the play. Even a talented actor like Steve Rodgers as the blustery nouveau-riche John Mason can do little to help them. Pacquola’s role has similarities with Nat, the part she plays in the television comedy Utopia, where her good sense and evident competence serve as a sane reference point for the audience. Here, she is the voice of the playwright, explaining the New Woman and converting Gwynne to the cause of woman’s independence; she is the adviser to both senior and junior Torrents, winning Rufus over to new causes with her rational arguments and setting Ben on the path to a productive working life. More fantastic to any woman who has found herself an unwanted arrival in a male-dominated office, she is soon loved by everyone.
The play presents little in the way of genuine dramatic conflict or narrative development. It depends on its lovable and eccentric characters for its rather dated humour. Perhaps, if Gray had been party to a series of productions she might have had the opportunity to develop the play into something more able to withstand changing tastes. One can imagine it diverting audiences at the New Theatre in the 1960s or providing fun to high-school performers, but it has little to offer adult audiences familiar with the sophistication of television drama.
That, of course, was the other development that obscured Gray’s play. In 1956, television broadcasting began in Australia, offering viewers a new world of realist drama. It is satisfying to know that Gray quickly adapted to this situation, with six of her plays produced in the ABC’s Playhouse theatre in the 1960s, including The Brass Guitar, Burst of Summer, Wall to Wall, and Drive a Hard Bargain. A quick consultation of Leslie Rees’s The Making of Australian Drama reveals that a production of The Torrents was shown on the ABC in the early 1970s. Interested drama scholars can find these scripts in the National Archives; the ABC probably has a black-and-white video stashed away somewhere. Yes, The Torrents was professionally produced for television decades ago, and undoubtedly found a bigger audience than it will today. Gray forged a career as a writer for Bellbird, Rush, and other television series. The lamentations about her lost career, then, are somewhat misplaced and more revealing of the studied refusal of Australia’s theatre historians to acknowledge television drama than of Gray’s fate.
The Torrents, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company, continues at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until 24 August 2019. Performance attended: July 20.
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Anyone with an interest in Australia’s drama history is likely to have some curiosity about Oriel Gray’s play The Torrents, joint winner of a Playwright Advisory Board prize in 1955 alongside Ray Lawler’s ground-breaking Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Unlike Lawler’s play, it was not performed at the time...
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Anyone who saw Neil Armfield’s production of David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the Seymour Centre back in 2005 would surely look forward to a new collaboration between the director and author with keen anticipation. Stuff Happens was largely verbatim theatre, with actors speaking the words of the main political players during the invasion of Iraq as Hare imagined Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and others revealing the deceit of the hidden ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Many in the audiences for that play had marched in protest at the invasion, and Hare confirmed how right we were. Hare’s latest political play, I’m Not Running, opened at the National Theatre in London at the beginning of October, with Armfield as director and his old Belvoir Street collaborator, Ralph Myers as set designer.
As it happened, on 20 October 2018, London saw its largest demonstration since the Iraq war, this time a protest against the plan to leave the European Union and the shemozzle of deals and counter-deals that have ensued. On the way to London, my train carriage stopped opposite a shrine to the Labour MP Jo Cox on Batley station – a reminder that this has not been simply an argument of ideas. But I’m Not Running makes only tangential reference to Brexit; it is directed at Labour Party politics and the monolithic way that party organisations promote insiders and control policy. Hare seems to be deploring the way that ‘professional’ politicians from the legal and union ranks keep talented people with a range of experience away from positions of power. The main conflict in the play is between a doctor – angry at the closing of hospitals and who has entered politics as an independent – and her old friend and lover, a lawyer from a prominent Labour family rising through the Party ranks with an awareness of the compromises necessary for government.
So the play turns away from the realities of current power, with a Tory government led by a woman prime minister and a desperately divided British society, to concentrate on the condition of the British Labour Party. In performance, it contracts further to examine one woman and her relationships with her former lover, her mother, and her faithful supporter. The play represents the public world through a frame of press conferences and projected television interviews while confining the drama to a series of domestic scenes – almost all two-handers – in which the woman politician argues with, or confronts, one of the other characters.
The essentially domestic level of the drama is out of kilter with the scale of the vast Lyttelton Theatre stage. Ralph Myers solves the problem by creating a revolving white box, open on two sides, that variously becomes a student bedroom, a hospital ward, a kitchen, a parliamentary office, and so on. The actors are miked to reach beyond this box to the audience and to match the sounds of the projected interviews and the journalists’ questions. They all work hard with dialogue often clichéd and sometimes silly.
Siân Brooke as Pauline, the independent politician, delivers feminist platitudes with conviction and even manages to get laughs from some obvious throwaways. But she is forced to create the conflict in every scene as she argues with lover, mother, political activists – even fellow hospital workers. Many of these scenes are crudely expository and most are too long.
On the surface, Hare appears to be on the side of the single-issue politician and her commitment to the National Health system, but he does her (and women politicians) no favours by saddling her with the sentimental position, constantly falling back on her emotions to make her case, even expressing her contrary individualism by smoking (a doctor campaigning on public health issues!). Jack, the Millibandish Labour politician, makes all the rational cases for broad politics over single issues, except for an implausible recourse to sexual vanity near the end. Pauline says, ‘The two most powerful words in the English language: hospital closures.’ Apparently, the lies about NHS funding did influence the Brexit vote. Surely, though, many in the audience will understand Jack’s argument for health care rationalisation. Jack says, ‘The Labour Party isn’t interested in winning votes’, and gets a good laugh, but that is also patently untrue.
Like so many politicians, the play is long-winded and full of slogans, but Hare’s commitment to political ideas makes it stimulating and interesting. He reveals his own sentimentality about the Labour Party as he turns away from the current political crises created by the Tories. An Australian may notice the mirror image on the right of our political world, with the success of our own populist Pauline and Julie Bishop’s dry comment about the Liberals’ inability to ‘find’ a competent woman to lead it. But that needs another play.
In the foyer before the play, patrons could be heard grumbling about the nearly three hours they were expected to sit in the theatre, but most seemed content with the engaging performances by the end. Perhaps, like the Brexit situation, there were aspects of it that an Australian simply could not fathom.
I’m Not Running, directed by Neil Armfield and written by David Hare, is being performed at the National Theatre (Lyttelton) in London from 9 October 2018 to 31 January 2019. Performance attended: October 23.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund and the ABR Patrons.
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Anyone who saw Neil Armfield’s production of David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the Seymour Centre back in 2005 would surely look forward to a new collaboration between the director and author with keen anticipation. Stuff Happens was largely verbatim theatre, with actors speaking the words ...
- Review Rating 3.0
With The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), Richard Flanagan became Australia’s third winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction, leading many people to pick up his novels for the first time and to look for some critical support in reading them. After my own review of the novel in SRB, I was bailed up by friends – many of whom had read it in book groups – to report on lively disagreements (often with my review). Apart from reviews, there were a few articles scattered in academic journals but no easily accessible, book-length study. So this new collection of essays on his work, edited by Robert Dixon, is a welcome addition to the ongoing discussion of our latest literary superstar.
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With The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), Richard Flanagan became Australia’s third winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction, leading many people to pick up his novels for the first time and to look for some critical support in reading them ...
- Book Title Richard Flanagan
- Book Subtitle New critical essays
- Author Type Editor
- Biblio Sydney University Press $40 pb, 219 pp, 9781743325827
Antony and Cleopatra (first performed circa 1607) is one of Shakespeare’s most poetic plays, full of imagery of exotic Egypt with its crocodiles and serpents, its River Nile and, of course, Enobarbus’s extravagant speech describing Antony’s first sighting of its queen: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/ Burned on the water ...’ It also has one of the strongest and most demanding parts for a woman to play: Cleopatra, with her emotional storms and teasing wit, ‘her infinite variety’ of moods.
Last year, Bell Shakespeare presented two brilliant productions – Richard 3 and The Merchant of Venice – building anticipation for its new season. Perhaps resting a little on his laurels, director Peter Evans has decided to give Antony and Cleopatra a similar treatment to Richard III, with a single contemporary set and actors in modern dress. There is no attempt to depict Alexandria or Rome, nor any suggestion of an ancient world. Instead, the audience is confronted with an oval stage area surrounded by two sets of transparent muslin curtains. We seem to be looking into one of those bland hotel function rooms where everything is grey or beige, with the odd pinkish highlight. A middle-aged couple embraces on a lounge chair, perhaps conducting one of those dismal hotel room affairs. They are Antony and Cleopatra. They speak of their love, and the curtains are drawn back so that the audience can see their faces and the colourless world they live in.
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Antony and Cleopatra (first performed circa 1607) is one of Shakespeare’s most poetic plays, full of imagery of exotic Egypt with its crocodiles and serpents, its River Nile and, of course, Enobarbus’s extravagant speech describing Antony’s first sighting of its queen: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/ Burned on ...
- Review Rating 3.0
With a regular stream of vulgar tweets from President Trump and a tsunami of sexual harassment charges against prominent men, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the nasty side of masculine privilege in our current world. The narcissistic man who manipulates others to satisfy his sense of power has become a recognised figure in public life. Craig Sherborne’s Off the Record is a satire that relies on reader outrage at such behaviour, but it is hard to avoid a sense that he has been unlucky with the timing of this novel. There are times when the large-scale absurdities of the real world can make a satire look tame. The fictional world Sherborne creates is a kind of petty provincial version of the masculine privilege and bullying behaviour we see in the daily news feed.
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With a regular stream of vulgar tweets from President Trump and a tsunami of sexual harassment charges against prominent men, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the nasty side of masculine privilege in our current world. The narcissistic man who manipulates others to satisfy his sense of power has become a recognised ...
- Book Title Off the Record
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 293 pp, 9781925603248
On Monday night I attended a performance of the Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty where the audience gasped in wonder as the curtains parted on the final act: three massive chandeliers were lit then raised above a cream and gold confection of a set which put Versailles to shame. On Thursday night, I was at Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical where the sets and costumes are bright and garish, adding a satiric commentary of their own to the show’s cheerfully vulgar view of contemporary Australia. Gabriela Tylesova designed the sets and costumes for both productions – from Aurora’s wedding to Muriel’s wedding – with equal flair. The talent has gathered around Muriel’s Wedding.
At its centre is Simon Phillips, who must be one of the most gifted directors of musical comedy and comic opera in the world. He can find wit and good-natured humour in the strangest places, and brings out the best in every production he touches (look out for his production of The Turk in Italy in AO’s 2018 season). He has gathered a brilliant team of creators around him, not just Tylesova but P.J. Hogan to adapt his original script, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, and Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall to write the music and lyrics for new songs. This is no jukebox musical but a wonderfully original creation.
To fans of the 1994 film, a musical comedy Muriel’s Wedding may have always looked like a winner. The main questions were how the story would hold up after more than twenty years, and whether anyone could write popular music that might stand alongside the greatest hits of ABBA. The answers are clear. Hogan has revised his screenplay to create a tighter, fast-moving story that appears to be more relevant to the social media, mobile phone, ‘married at first sight’ world of the present than it was in the 1990s. Even more impressively, Miller-Heidke and Nuttall have managed to write songs that invoke contemporary popular music, taking their cues not only from ABBA but from a range of current popular styles, adapting to each character and dramatic moment. They are tuneful and catchy; some of them, such as the more reflective ‘Strangely Perfect Stranger’ or Muriel’s eulogy for her mother, quite beautiful. Others, like ‘Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked’, sung by the Porpoise Spit girls with their devices in hand, or the chorus rendition of ‘Sydney’, are superbly witty.
We are engaged from the moment a lone surfer in bright board shorts appears on stage to sing to us about the perfection of life in Porpoise Spit. He is joined by an energetic chorus who manage to maintain their zest through a series of character and costume changes right through the show. The couch potatoes at the Heslop house sing cheerily enough about their moronic lives, in contrast to the bright harmonic chirping of the bitchy girls of Porpoise Spit, led by Christie Whelan-Browne as Tania Degano. Muriel, the hapless, clueless, thieving dreamer, appears in the form of Maggie McKenna with a winning smile. Who could not love her, despite her stupidity and adolescent dreams?
The production hilariously incorporates ABBA into the show by transforming them into guardian angels, appearing in white satin and sequins to console Muriel at her darkest moments and, with a credible acknowledgment of generational change, to act as her mother’s source of comfort, too. These theatrical elements are so right they make the film look like a trial run for the story’s full emergence on stage. In the theatre all the absurdities of Muriel’s story can be presented with economy – songs fill out the background and emotion; Battling Bill Heslop’s development plans are presented as ludicrous models on a table (a high-rise building like a half-peeled banana); Sydney, its underworld and bridal shops, can be celebrated with theatrical excess (a mighty Harbour Bridge overhead, a revolving shop-window for the frocks).
Just at the point when it might become too implausible – Muriel’s discovery of a handsome young swimmer as a marriage partner – the show diverts our attention with one of its most brilliant effects, as the chorus becomes a row of swimmers on the blocks across the back of the stage. When the pace and mood drops, as it must when Rhonda moves to a wheelchair and the Heslop family disintegrates, it is not long before Muriel’s eulogy song for her mother brings it to a new level.
Gary Sweet, Justine Clarke (yes, she is now old enough to play Muriel’s mother), and Helen Dallimore provide solid support as they demonstrate the failures of the last generation, but the show belongs to the young performers, the versatile dancers and singers, including the comic turns of Ben Bennett as Muriel’s parking inspector admirer, and Madeleine Jones as her saviour, Rhonda Epinstall. The songs, and the energetic performance of them, leave the audience bouncing with pleasure.
What can it all mean given the recent endorsement of marriage equality by Australian voters? Perhaps it is a celebration of Australian tolerance and the right of anyone to get married, though friendship wins out in the end. If there is a message, it is to enjoy yourself, but not be mean about it. The show enacts this commitment by its generous gift of music, fun and humour.
Muriel’s Wedding (Sydney Theatre Company/Global Creatures) continues at The Roslyn Packer Theatre until 27 January 2018. Performance attended: 23 November 2017.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.
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On Monday night I attended a performance of the Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty where the audience gasped in wonder as the curtains parted on the final act: three massive chandeliers were lit then raised above a cream and gold confection of a set which put Versailles to shame. On Thursday night, I was at Muriel’s ...
- Review Rating 5.0
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 ...
In her new biography, Sylvia Martin tells us that Aileen Palmer wanted to be remembered as a poet. Until now, she has been best known as the elder daughter of Vance and Nettie Palmer, those beacons of Australian literature who devoted their lives to developing our literary culture. Aileen, with her sister Helen, carefully preserved the legacy of her parents, ensuring that their papers were deposited in the National Library of Australia. These papers, with their voluminous correspondence with other Australian writers, have proved an invaluable source for any scholar working on Australian literary history, particularly biographers. Aileen also left her own unpublished manuscripts, her fragments of autobiography, her diaries and poems in her parents' archives. Perhaps she hoped that a biographer like Martin would come along to make a narrative from them.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Susan Lever reviews 'Ink in Her Veins: The troubled life of Aileen Palmer' by Sylvia Martin
- Contents Category Biography
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In her new biography, Sylvia Martin tells us that Aileen Palmer wanted to be remembered as a poet. Until now, she has been best known as the elder daughter of Vance ...
- Book Title ink in Her Veins
- Book Subtitle The troubled life of Aileen Palmer
- Author Type Author
- Biblio UWA Publishing $29.99 pb, 350 pp, 9781742588254
From time to time, Australian literature has been fortunate enough to attract the enthusiasm of international critics, from C. Hartley Grattan in the 1920s to Paul Giles, who compared Australian and American literature in his scholarly Antipodean America (2013). Nicholas Birns, a New York academic, tells us that he first encountered Australian writing back in the 1980s and has been a member of the American Association of Australasian Literary Studies since then, including a long period as editor of its journal, Antipodes. In 2014 he spent six months in Australia, reading widely and talking to writers and critics. His resulting study of contemporary Australian literature is more the record of a personal encounter with Australian writing than a scholarly reference book.
The subtitle may be disconcerting: 'A World Not Yet Dead' implies a world that is soon to be dead, possibly already moribund. But the implication is intended to go the other way, as a comment on the deadness of prevailing values outside literature. Birns frames his discussion as a critique of neo-liberalism, a term not much used in Australia, perhaps because liberalism has such a range of meanings and ambiguities. He suggests that it is a synonym for what Australians call economic rationalism – simply put, the valuing of all human effort in terms of money and profit, success and failure. It is a surprise to read literary criticism that invokes Thomas Piketty on the growing inequality in the world, but that is part of the idiosyncratic and personal nature of this book. Birns argues that writing – particularly contemporary Australian writing – is one of the last bulwarks against neo-liberal dominance. Imaginative writing, exemplified by the fiction and poetry he discusses, offers ways to 'conceive life differently than merely valuing one another by our financial conditions'.
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- Custom Article Title Susan Lever reviews 'Contemporary Australian Literature' by Nicholas Birns
- Contents Category Literary Studies
- Book Title Contemporary Australian Literature
- Book Subtitle A World Not Yet Dead
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Sydney University Press, $30 pb, 280 pp, 9781743324363