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Nicholas Jose

‘Unerring muse that makes the casual perfect’: Robert Lowell’s compliment to his friend Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind as I read Helen Garner. She is another artist who reveres the casual for its power to disrupt and illuminate. Nothing is ever really casual for her, but rather becomes part of a perfection that she resists at the same time. The ordinary in these diaries – the daily, the diurnal, the stumbled-upon, the breathing in and out – is turned into something else through the writer’s extraordinary craft.

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The China Journals: Ideology and intrigue in the 1960s by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

by
November 2020, no. 426

When the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) invited Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, to visit China in 1965, he jumped at the chance. It was a decision that all parties concerned came to regret. The eminent historian had a terrible time in China, ‘that land of bigots and parrots’. He didn’t meet the right people. He found no intellectual equals. The interpreters and guides assigned to the group weren’t up to the job. He nicknamed them Cement-head, Duckbottom, Smooth-face, and the Presbyterian.

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In his searching introduction to this immense volume, the editor, Harvard scholar David Der-Wei Wang, refers to the ‘architectonics of temporalities’ by which the project re-maps and re-chronicles Chinese literary history. A New Literary History of Modern China follows the model of the provocatively kaleidoscopic slice ...

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To celebrate the best books of 2017 Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser, Susan Wyndham, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Jane Sullivan, Tom Griffiths, Mark Edele, and Brenda Niall.

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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 ...

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'Bobbin Up was written in 1958 during eight weeks of the coldest Sydney winter on record', recalled Dorothy Hewett in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics reprint of her ...

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The world we live in provides us with a great deal of information that is not really intended to inform. We must be informed, for example, that a phone call is being recorded for training purposes. Thus language becomes an accessory to the black arts of spin, propaganda, manipulation and arse-covering. Words are twisted and violated, making it difficult to recover the meanings, the distinctions, that we need. What was clear becomes murky, while murkiness is hidden behind a veneer of false clarity. Protean language becomes complicit in the world’s nefarious purposes. 

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‘The nearest thing on earth to a Black Australian is a White Australian, and vice versa,’ observed novelist and poet Randolph Stow some years ago. Nicolas Rothwell might have pondered the idea on his more recent wanderings as northern correspondent for the Australian. His north is not simply geographical. It fans south and west from Darwin, and east as far as Arnhem Land. Its core is in the Centre, in the Aboriginal realms of the Western Deserts: not only another country, but also, in the book’s closing phrase, ‘another time’, another dimension to the Australia we think we know. In a tribute to Darwin’s fabled Foreign Correspondents’ Association (whose members are forbidden to file the crocodile stories that southern editors want), Rothwell quotes a Latin motto, ‘Austrem Servamus’ (‘We serve the South’). It’s a droll reminder of how far the correspondent’s words must travel, through a dirty and imperfect lens, to reach from one place to the other. The mediation of numinous, heavy-laden revelations from this remote other country for mainstream consumption elsewhere is the high-wire walk of this book.

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How good is Shaw Neilson? The question has hung around ever since A.G. Stephens, publishing the poet’s first book, Heart of Spring, in 1919, prefaced it with comparisons to Shakespeare and Blake and declared this unknown to be the ‘first of Australian poets’. The claim provoked competitive jealousies in a possessive, parochial literary world and reviewers responded by insinuating doubts. The question remains: is Neilson the greatest Australian poet? For those who want literature to be a horse race, it is unsatisfactory that there is no declared winner, brandishing medal and loot. Neilson loved horses but he disliked the hold that the sporting mentality had over his fellow Australians – especially men. Yet like most writers he was anxious about his standing and, in his perfectionist’s concern to put his best foot forward, he probably contributed to his readers’ uncertainties. Difficulties with his singularity as a poet were compounded by Neilson’s circumstances, particularly the bad eyesight that made him dependent on others in preparing final versions of his work. That was part of a more general dependency on editors, critics, and supporters who had their own ideas of where they wanted to take him

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This is, above all else, a timely novel. In an afterword describing the Beijing massacre, Nicholas Jose explains that he wrote Avenue of Eternal Peace in 1987. The novel ends with the growing push for democracy, with crowds milling in Tiananmen Square, and with a sense that change might be possible, if precarious. The afterword details the end of such hopes. Jose’s novel therefore has a strange air of elatedness surrounding it. On the one hand it offers a very rare example of contemporary Australian fiction confronting China. The fact that the map of history it stems from has changed so dramatically adds an extra fillip to the reader’s vicarious experience of the ‘new’ China, and especially of Australia’s increasingly blasé encounter with China – up until the recent repression. Perhaps it now stands as a testament to what might have been.

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