University of Queensland Press

Well I’m damned! Ern Malley of all people! It’s been fifty years since I last laid eyes on him. Seeing him again recalls my vanished youth as nothing else could. Angry Penguins, Cecily Crozier’s valiant Comment magazine, the ‘social realists’ upbraiding everyone like so many Marxist Savonarolas, the Jindyworobakians quarrelling with the ‘cosmopolitans’, the Contemporary Arts Society quarrelling with itself – stirring times! But Ern was the epicentre of our cultural storm in a teacup.

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Connoisseurs of lapidary prose and the fine art of understated narrative are unlikely to enjoy this risky passionate novel. Nor will they enthuse over sentences such as, ‘The agony was so extreme I was numb with it, as if I had fallen into a vat of molten steel and could not immediately feel the enormity of the burn’, or, ‘Flooded with embarrassment, desire, delight, I thought stupidly, no wonder men go so wild over women, no wonder they dream continually of being lapped in that heavenly softness as they go about the hard world.’ However, Rosie Scott has made her own priorities clear in a 1991 essay called ‘Come and see the blood in the streets’.

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These five books are about war and are all written by veteran infantrymen (except Making the Legend), a fact which is quite relevant. The fiction is every bit as gritty as the non-fiction. There’s none of the glamour that popular thrillers attach to war, and there’s none of the abject horror that literature generally attributes to war. Instead, there is what can only be described as honesty. These books are truly about the work of winning wars; not the glory or triumph, but the face-in-the-mud labour of it.

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Usher by Matthew Condon

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September 1991, no. 134

The usher of the book’s title is T. Nelson Downs, long-time resident of Burleigh Heads. (The T. Doesn’t stand for anything; it was a parental whim.) He’s one of those wonderful, original, exasperating people full of impossible ideas (such as marketing gigantic ice sculptures for public occasions using skilled tradesmen brought out especially from Florence).

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The Annotated Such is Life by Joseph Furby & The Life and Opinions of Tom Collins by Julian Croft

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July 1991, no. 132

At last, books about Such is Life and its endearingly attractive, quixotically sophisticated author, Joseph Furphy, are coming out. Three in the last few months is a welcome harvest, certainly a happier response than Furphy got during the prolonged Wilcannia showers of his life.

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There’s something about country towns that makes them peculiarly well suited to being described in short stories. Or is it that short stories are particularly suited to describe life in country towns? Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor wrote about little else, and several Australian writers’ best books have been collections of stories set in country towns: Olga Masters’ A Long Time Dying, for example, and Frank Moorhouse’s The Electrical Experience. Gillian Mears’s Fineflour is a work which may be placed with absolute confidence beside any of those mentioned above.

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In this new book, Beverley Farmer quotes George Steiner: ‘In modernism collage has been the representative device.’ The blurb calls A Body of Water a montage. Well, it’s a difficult book to describe. It’s not a pasting together, there’s no smell of glue about it. Nor is it put together, plonk, thunk, like stones. It’s rather, in her own words, an interweaving.

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Professor Mulvaney’s thematic history of encounters between outsiders and Aboriginal Australians is developed through a discussion of events located in specific places. He has selected places which are in the Register of the National Estate (many of which he initially nominated) or are being considered for inclusion. The places, then, are by definition part of Australia’s cultural heritage, and an important focus of the book is to illuminate some of the types of events which have shaped Australian society.

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Barbara Hanrahan has made her own the ostensibly artless narrative of simple women. Monologue might be a better word than narrative; the idea of a speaking voice is important. ‘I was born in a war, I grew up in a war, and there was war all along’ is how this one begins. It’s the Japanese War in China, the country is occupied, food is short, rice must be queued for. ‘And if the queue didn’t disappear, the Japanese up above would come to the windows and bring out the chamber pots and pour down all their terrible peeing.’ It’s a harsh world to be growing up in, but there’s a matter-of-factness in the way it’s talked about. ‘War’s war forever, until it ends.’ Or starts again. The end of this war is the beginning of the next; the communists come, one kind of oppression replaces another.

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Collected Poems by Charles Buckmaster

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August 1989, no. 113

All poets have two chances of being remembered. A few, the strongest of their age, compose a handful of poems that resist time and indifference. Many more never attain anything like poetic strength, yet their works are preserved because they embody a particular style or period. It is still too early to judge where Charles Buckmaster will be placed in the ranks of Australian literature. Already, though, the process of canonisation has started, and at the very least Buckmaster is likely to be read as an exemplary figure of Australian poetry in the 1960s.

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