James Ley

A New Literary History of America edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

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March 2010, no. 319

Cynthia Ozick’s most recent collection of criticism, The Din in the Head (2006), contains a brief but engaging essay called ‘Highbrow Blues’. It begins with her musing about a gaffe made by Jonathan Franzen following the publication of The Corrections (2002). Oprah Winfrey had selected Franzen’s novel for her televised book club, which was popular enough to turn any work she chose into a bestseller, but Franzen was uncomfortable with her program’s folksiness. He felt that the club’s reputation for featuring works of middlebrow fiction did not fit with his literary ambitions and that an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show was not likely to enhance his credibility. ‘I feel,’ he explained, ‘like I’m solidly in the high-art literary tradition.’ Brickbats flew from all directions. But why, wonders Ozick, did Franzen’s remark seem so jejune?

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The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. 1: 1929–1940 edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck

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June 2009, no. 312

The play that made Samuel Beckett famous, Waiting for Godot (1953), must be the most unlikely box-office success in theatre history. Its upending of dramatic expectations – its bathetic preferencing of repetition over development, tedium over excitement – is an act of aesthetic brutalism as outrageous in its way as Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ four decades earlier. Yet its depiction of two grubby tramps waiting interminably for someone who never shows up has become a definitive representation of humankind’s state of metaphysical suspension. Life is a conceptual joke: we wait for an explanation that will never be given, beholden to someone or something that, if it is not nothing, might as well be nothing.

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The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

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November 2008, no. 306

In early 2018, Christos Tsiolkas published a long essay as part of a series commissioned by the Sydney branch of PEN, an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression. ‘Tolerance’, which appeared in Tolerance, Prejudice and Fear (2008), is an interesting document, not least for the way it highlights how compelling yet exasperating a writer Tsiolkas can be.

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Breath by Tim Winton

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May 2008, no. 301

One of the intriguing things about Breath, Tim Winton’s first novel in seven years, is that it has a number of affinities with his very first book, An Open Swimmer (1982). Both are coming-of-age novels that attempt to capture some of the confusion and melancholy of youth ...

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Those who would have us believe that William Shakespeare was not the author of the poems and plays that bear his name – J. Thomas Looney and Sherwood Silliman come to mind – like to encourage the idea that almost nothing is known about his life. In fact, we have quite a lot of information about Shakespeare’s life, career and the cultural environment in which he wrote. What we do lack is any direct testimony from the man himself. His opinions are lost to us. There are no letters or journals that might illuminate his private thoughts and feelings. The basic facts of Shakespeare’s life (1564–1616) are largely set out in official documents recording births, deaths, marriages and legal transactions. If we must inquire into the nature of his personal relationships, the options are either to try and extrapolate his views from his poetry and dramatic works (an impossibly compromised practice), or else turn to circumstantial evidence and weigh up possibilities.

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Real what?

Dear Editor,

I have followed with interest the dispute between John Carmody and James Ley that proceeded the latter’s exceptionally sensible and even-handed review (March 2007) in which Mr Ley criticised those who maintain the divide between high and popular culture.

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In Doubling The Point (1992), one of J.M. Coetzee’s earlier collections of criticism, there is a long, closely argued essay titled ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’. It has a more scholarly flavour than much of Coetzee’s subsequent non-fiction – collected in Stranger Shores (2001) and his latest volume, Inner Workings – but it is a characteristically lucid piece of analysis that throws an interesting light on his ideas about the imperatives of writing.

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The title of Richard J. Lane’s guidebook contains a small allusion to the changes that have occurred in literary studies over the past half-century. There was a time when universities trained critics; these days, everyone is a theorist.

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David Malouf’s fiction has been justly celebrated for its veracity. His prose, at once lyrical and precise, has an extraordinary capacity to evoke what a character in an early story called the ‘grainy reality’ of life. For Malouf, small concrete details convey a profound understanding of the defining power of memory. He has a strong sense of the way the most mundane object can embody the past, how its shape or texture can send us back to a specific time and place and mood, just as Proust summons a flood of memory from the aroma of a madeleine dipped in tea. This tangible quality to memory is essential to our sense of self. The prisoners of war in The Great World (1990), for example, cling to their memories as a bulwark against the potentially overwhelming horror of their experiences. They treasure anything, however small, that provides a physical link with home, knowing that these relics help them to reconstruct the past and thus retain a grip on their identity and their sanity.

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Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

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October 2005, no. 275

Slow Man begins with an accident. Paul Rayment is cycling along an Adelaide street when he is struck by a car. When he emerges from a daze of doctors and painkillers, he discovers his life has been transformed by this random event. His crushed leg is amputated above the knee. From now on, he will ...

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