Biography

Just over one hundred years ago, Sydney readers were speaking in hushed tones about a shocking new book by a young woman, Zora Cross. A collection of love poems by an unknown would not normally have roused much interest, but because they came from a woman, and were frankly and emphatically erotic, the book was a sensation. It wasn’t, as a Bulletin reviewer said demurely, a set of sonnets to the beloved’s eyebrows. It was ‘well, all of him’. It broke the literary convention that restricted the expression of sexual pleasure to a male lover. Cross took Shakespeare’s sonnets as her inspiration. Her Songs of Love and Life (1917) was a long way from being Shakespearean, but it roused huge admiration. Cross was hailed as a genius, ‘an Australian Sappho’.

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Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. 

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Michael Sharkey reviews 'Henry Lawson: A life' by Colin Roderick

Michael Sharkey
Thursday, 31 October 2019

Henry Lawson’s death prompted a torrent of lamentation and, despite the distaste of academics and critics, the poet was soon enshrined as a National Treasure. Colin Roderick’s biography is a monument of dedication to the poet.

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Richard Holbrooke was a United States diplomat whose career began during the Vietnam War and ended during the one in Afghanistan, and whose life, according to George Packer, spanned the ‘American century’. He was an Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until his sudden death in 2010. For his role in brokering the Dayton Accords in 1995, he was thought by some (not least himself) to have earned the Nobel Peace Prize. He wasn’t awarded it, nor did he achieve his aim of becoming Secretary of State; his was a life that his biographer describes as ‘almost great’.

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century is told through a distinctive narrative voice, not Packer exactly, but a witness to Holbrooke’s story who editorialises freely in the first person. Alternately confiding and grandiloquent, Packer speaks in arresting sentences of a kind one doesn’t usually encounter in biographies of statesmen and diplomats. I happened to read this one on the Fourth of July: ‘We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit.’ As the Afghanistan War lurched towards its eighteenth year and tanks took up their positions in Washington, D.C., for President Trump’s military parade, I thought, have Americans ever been shy about liking firepower?

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A year after her death, Mirka Mora is still regarded as a ‘phenomenon’ in the Melbourne art world, not least for her vibrant personality and provocative behaviour. Now Sabine Cotte, a French-Australian painting conservator, in this modest account of her research into the artist’s methods and materials, offers a new perspective on Mora’s creative process and the significance of her work.

Mora – a creative innovator until her death at the age of ninety – was a dedicated, self-taught artist who studied the Old Masters and refined her painting techniques. She is widely known for her dolls (soft sculptures), her tapestries, and her murals. People who took part in her textile workshops often report that she changed their lives. Her public art is still visible in cafés, bookshops, railway stations, and on St Kilda Pier, guaranteeing her a continuing presence in Melbourne’s cultural and social life.

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Galileo and Kepler went down in history for prising European science from the jaws of medieval mysticism and religion. But where was England’s equivalent? Newton would not make his mark for another century. Surely the free-thinking Elizabethans also had a scientific star?

They did: Thomas Harriot (c.1560–1621). Most of us have never heard of him, for Harriot did not publish his findings. His day job was teaching navigation to Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship captains. Queen Elizabeth’s favourite was intent on colonising North America for the Crown. But it was also down to Harriot’s personality: retiring, cautious, and meticulous.

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Australian classical music. Not quite an oxymoron, but certainly an unfamiliar phrase. Yet Australian literature has been promoted by a battery of university courses overseas, following the beachhead established by Patrick White’s Nobel Prize. Similarly, Australian art has twice had great moments of impact: the Whitechapel exhibition of 1961 for the Nolan–Boyd generation, and now the continuing worldwide interest in Aboriginal art. Our rock stars have repeatedly made worldwide reputations; in classical music, Australian singers have regularly risen to the top. But classical composition has been something else. Apart from the quirky Percy Grainger – deftly working in small forms, sometimes with large resources – no Australian composer has had a significant influence overseas (though Brett Dean is shaping up as a contender). Grainger had to abandon Australia to do so, eventually taking out American citizenship.

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In Israel’s recent election, Benjamin Netanyahu desperately defended his position as Israel’s prime minister, but perhaps also as a free man, because he may soon face trial for corruption charges. As Israelis learn more about his lavish life style, many yearn for the days of David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), whom they recall as an ascetic statesman of vision and integrity. Netanyahu is seen as the opposite of Ben-Gurion.

So mused Israeli historian and journalist Tom Segev, author of this important biography of Israel’s first prime minister, in Haaretz newspaper. But, he added, Netanyahu has in many ways followed in Ben-Gurion’s footsteps, especially in his view that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians can at best be managed, not solved.

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Paul Kildea reviews 'Sontag: Her life' by Benjamin Moser

Paul Kildea
Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Sam Leith, literary editor of Spectator magazine, recently put author Benjamin Moser on the spot. ‘Do you think her work will last?’ he asked, referring to the writings of Susan Sontag, whose biography Moser had not long finished. ‘And if so, which of it?’ Moser dissembled bravely. ‘Well, I hope so ...

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Much has been written on Edna Walling’s gardens, first by herself, later by garden historians, although no detailed account of her early career has been attempted, and less still is generally known of her private life. With a play on Walling to her credit (1987), Sara Hardy presents an account of her private life (1895–1973) and of her early career.

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