Friday, 23 March 2018 14:02

Letters to the Editor - April 2018

Flouting Christian principles

ABR Mar2018 Cover 175Dear Editor,
Paul Collins’s essay ‘God and Caesar in Australia: The Close Nexus between Government and Catholicism’ (ABR, March 2018) was a brilliant piece. What I found most interesting was the huge gap between the teachings of Jesus on human behaviour – compassion, tolerance, love, concern for others, empathy – and the apparent abandonment of such principles by the so-called Christian Right in our parliament. Its approach to the marriage equality issue and the bill led by the courageous Senator Dean Smith seemed to flout all Christian principles. The same situation appears to be so in the United States, How can such contradictory attitudes be deemed Christian?

John Miller, Toorak, Vic.

Trivialising the tale

Dear Editor,
Saul Bellow says somewhere that in fiction sentences should be ‘charged’ – something should quietly beat through them. When you begin reading, this is what you should listen for: imaginative confidence, a sense of sureness. This applies to historical fiction as much as any other. You don’t ask, ‘Is this true to history?’ You ask, ‘Is this true to itself?’ Luke Slattery’s Mrs M is imaginatively true from beginning to end.

Mrs M SlatteryReading Gillian Dooley’s review of Mrs M, I felt as if it were an account of a different novel altogether (ABR, March 2018). Her criticisms are mostly of the pernickety kind, although she conflates them into a vaguely defined sense of disapproval. What I found astonishing was her reluctance to convey to your readers any of the novel’s finer qualities: its energy, its humour, its visual sensitivity, and the achievement of conveying, in a first-person narration, the interior life and adventures of an intelligent and spirited woman of the early nineteenth century. I felt, from the very first pages of Mrs M, a sense of authorial authority.

Dooley provides only two fragmentary quotes, out of context, and they are used – rather clumsily – to scorn the novel. I suspect that her decision not to quote any longer passages was part of a general reluctance to give the book its due. I should add that she never gives an adequate account of the story – the essential matter of the novel – which is the political drama that Macquarie provoked when he insisted that former convicts were the equal of free settlers and that the penal colony at Sydney Cove should become an elegant Georgian town. As a result, she not only diminishes the novel’s stylistic achievements, she trivialises the story itself. The novel deserved better.

Barry Oakley, Wentworth Falls, NSW

Thuggish methods

Dear Editor,
I will believe that the Chinese employ thuggish methods abroad when they have their Marines in Darwin, conduct exercises with our Navy, mandate our military purchases, and exclude Australians from listening posts at Pine Gap and the North West Cape. The rivalry between US and Chinese investors is commercial; only the PR has a different complexion.

David Fitzpatrick (online comment)

Tim Rowse

Indigenous Australians RowseDear Editor,
I’m surprised that Philip Jones was impressed by, and seemingly convinced of, the validity of Tim Rowse’s argument that institutionalisation ‘ensur[ed] the survival’ of Australia’s Indigenous population (ABR, March 2018). Isn’t this just another way of saying ‘at least European invaders didn’t massacre them all’? The reviewer also comments, with apparent disapproval, that ‘For some historians, an appreciation of the actual damage done to Aboriginal people by colonialism can cause bias to affect their work’. I would think that the most objective historians should be rightly concerned about ‘actual damage done to Aboriginal people by colonialism’, and that acknowledging that damage should not draw a charge of bias. I’m afraid I disagree with your reviewer. Rowse’s work sounds very much like an apologist interpretation of colonial policies, at least from this review of it.

Claire Rhoden (online comment)


BeowulfDear Editor,
Bruce Moore, in his review of the new edition of Beowulf, has offered a good review and a useful discussion of translation issues (ABR, March 2018). It would be interesting to know the extent of translator Stephen Mitchell’s knowledge of Old English. Given the wide linguistic range of his other translations (Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese), one wonders how much he himself draws on the work of others, or whether he is one of those impressive intellects skilled in many languages. I agree with Bruce Moore that the Beowulf translations of Michael J. Alexander and Seamus Heaney stand out, but even better is Alexander’s Penguin Glossed Text of the poem where readers (with a fair amount of work) can find their way into the original – Old English text on the left hand page, glossary on the right. Sydney University taught me Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English in the 1960s. Happily, I see it is still teaching others the same.

Robert Wills (online comment)

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    Comments from John Miller, Barry Oakley, Davd Fitzpatrick, Claire Rhoden, and Robert Wills.

'Mrs M’ is the second wife of Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821. Luke Slattery explains in his Author’s Note the impulse behind his novel – Elizabeth Macquarie’s voice coming to him, romantically, in a dream. It was not quite unprompted. He had been visiting her home territory in the Hebrides, having already written a short book about the Macquaries’ last years in New South Wales (The First Dismissal [2014]). But this book is different; and it is Slattery’s first novel.

Mrs M is an ‘imagined history’, but a skeleton of historical fact is fleshed out in it, with a few inconvenient ribs missing, and some joints slightly realigned. The Dromedary, the ship on which the Macquaries travelled to New South Wales, was not a convict ship, with or without a certain convict architect aboard. Slattery’s Elizabeth suffers from unfruitful pregnancies, as the historical woman did, but Slattery dispenses with the son she actually did bear, along with the real-life architect Francis Greenway’s wife. His Elizabeth is a woman of decided opinions and strong feelings who has grown up solitary and proud as a member of the Campbell clan. She is ruled not so much by social constraints and mores as by her own system of alliances: loyalties she has formed based on deliberate choices she has made.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'Mrs M: An imagined history' by Luke Slattery
  • Contents Category Fiction
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    'Mrs M’ is the second wife of Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821. Luke Slattery explains in his Author’s Note the impulse behind his novel – Elizabeth Macquarie’s voice coming to him, romantically, in a dream. It was not quite unprompted. He had been visiting her home territory in ...

  • Book Title Mrs M
  • Book Author Luke Slattery
  • Book Subtitle An imagined history
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Fourth Estate, $29.99 hb, 314 pp, 9780732271817

In ‘Birthday Poem at Thirty’, a young David Malouf considers his place in the scheme of things as dawn breaks over an unnamed and unlovely ‘northern town’. The poet, who seems dislodged from home, regards himself with a dry eye – ‘no visible scars / no medals’ – and wonders where he will go from here, and how far. ‘Far indeed’, is the answer life offers fifty years later. The scars are a private matter but there are literary medals enough for this eighty-one-year-old ‘smiling public man’. The most elusive prize of all – a Nobel laurel – perhaps awaits Malouf. He would not be undeserving.

The Brisbane-born writer has continued to write poetry, but it is the novels that have brought him international renown. The core Australian tales – among them Johnno, Conversations at Curlow Creek, Fly Away Peter, Harland’s Half Acre, Remembering Babylon – may even have helped to forge, after Joyce’s injunction, ‘the uncreated conscience’ of his race, or at least the male portion of it. Malouf’s abiding theme – the refractions of nature and culture through the conundrum of masculine identity – is one of the great Australian stories.

Random House has of late been hoovering up his ephemeral non-fiction for more permanent life between hard covers. Being There, third in the series, is focused on art, music, and architecture. Its first section includes short studies, addresses, and meditations, while the second pulls together two libretti, Voss and Mer de Glace, and a version of Hippolytus by Euripides.

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  • Custom Article Title Luke Slattery reviews 'Being There' by David Malouf
  • Contents Category Essays
  • Book Title Being There
  • Book Author David Malouf
  • Book Subtitle Book 3
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  • Biblio Knopf, $29.99 hb, 353 pp, 9780857987211

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