Brandl & Schlesinger

‘When I was three days old, a nurse … stole me from the obstetrics ward … and raised me as her own,’ the voice of Nella Gilbert Pine tells us in the compelling opening of Joyce Kornblatt’s fifth novel, Mother Tongue. This is a moving contemplation on core elements of human experience: the complex connections between mothers and daughters, what it means to love and be loved. It is also an exploration of the ripple effects of trauma, those shocking events that ‘explode’ in the unsuspecting hand, leaving trails of harm far into the future.

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Grandmothers edited by Helen Elliott & A Lasting Conversation: Stories on ageing edited by Dr Susan Ogle and Melanie Joosten

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June–July 2020, no. 422

Grandmothers are not what they used to be, as Elizabeth Jolley once said of custard tarts. It’s a point made by several contributors to Helen Elliott’s lively and thoughtfully curated collection of essays on the subject, Grandmothers, and it partly explains why these two books are not as similar as you might expect.

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From the Man’s horse ‘blood[ied] from hip to shoulder’ in Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1890) to the kangaroos drunkenly slaughtered in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), non-human animals have not fared well in Australian literature. Even when, as in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014), the author’s imagination is fully brought to bear on the inner lives of animals, their fate tends towards the Hobbesian – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – reflecting back to us our own often unexamined cruelty. The rare exceptions, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), incorporating a fictionalised series of animal-rights lectures, serve only to point up the rule.

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Broadly speaking, there are two types of epitaphs: those formulated by loved ones to describe the living qualities of the interred; and those that would presume to speak from the grave. Writers, ever reluctant to pass up a blank page – even if it is a tombstone – are disproportionate constituents of the latter ...

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Southerly, Vol. 70, No. 1 edited by David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon

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September 2010, no. 324

In a 1995 interview for the Paris Review, Ted Hughes was asked if the 1960s boom in translated poetry in the United Kingdom, particularly with series such as the Penguin Modern European Poets, had had an effect on poetry written in English. ‘Has it modified the British tradition!’ he replied. ‘Everything is now completely open, every approach, with infinite possibilities. Obviously the British tradition still exists as a staple of certain historically hard-earned qualities if anybody is still there who knows how to inherit them. Raleigh’s qualities haven’t become irrelevant. When I read Primo Levi’s verse I am reminded of Raleigh. But for young British poets, it’s no longer the only tradition, no longer a tradition closed in on itself and defensive.’

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Sunrise West by Jacob G. Rosenberg

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October 2007, no. 295

Gunther Grass, in his suave and controversial memoirs, Peeling the Onion (Harvill Secker, 2007, trans. Michael Henry Heim), rehearses many of the modern autobiographer’s qualms about the biddability of memory. Grass, with his long history of attacking other Germans’ wartime activities while concealing his own service in the Tenth SS Armoured Division, has every incentive to question the memoirist’s primary tool. ‘When pestered with questions,’ Grass writes, ‘memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is seldom unambiguous and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised.’ Changing metaphors, Grass contends with memory’s caprices and slippages: ‘Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.’

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When Prince Hamlet cried ‘The play’s the thing’, he was about to use a performance of The Mousetrap to demonstrate a point central to his purpose: he intended to ‘catch the conscience of the king’. Nearly 400 years later, British playwright David Hare endorsed and expanded Hamlet’s utilitarian approach, writing: ‘Indeed, if you want to understand the social history of Britain since the war, then your time will be better spent studying the plays of the period … than by looking at any comparable documentary source.’

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East of Time by Jacob G. Rosenberg

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September 2005, no. 274

Most of a lifetime ago, I read of an exhibit at the Bell Telephone headquarters. It consisted of a box from which, at the turning of a switch, a hand emerged. The hand turned off the switch and returned to its box. If this struck me as sinister, it was because the gambit seemed emblematic of human perversity – of a proneness to self-annulment ...

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The Singing by Stephanie Bishop & The Patron Saint Of Eels by Gregory Day

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August 2005, no. 273

The Singing is the inaugural publication in the Varuna Firsts series, a collaboration between the Varuna Writers’ House and Brandl & Schlesinger. Both should be applauded for bringing a distinctive new voice into Australian writing; not to mention the honour due to the prodigious talent of Stephanie Bishop herself. Bishop has written a haunting novel with a seemingly simple story: love gone awry. A woman runs into an ex-lover on the street (neither protagonist is named), and this meeting throws her back into the story of their past. The two narratives – her solitary life now and the tale, mainly, of the relationship’s end – run in parallel. The novel’s energy, however, is ruminative rather than linear, circling around the nature of their love, pressing at the bruises left by its collapse.

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‘Some meteorites make it to the surface simply because they’re so small that they literally float to the ground. There are thousands of these interplanetary particles in the room you’re in now, stuck to your clothes, in your hair, everywhere.’ This startling piece of information introduces Aileen Kelly’s ‘Notes from the Planet’s Edge’ in her new book, City and Stranger (Five Islands Press, $16.95 pb, 88pp), whose cover features Russell Drysdale’s iconic image of Woman in a Landscape. This bushwoman, then, is stuck with interplanetary particles or, as Kelly puts it, ‘the invisible sift of space’. Drysdale’s woman is transformed from the Australian legend in the dirt-coloured smock, wearing those oddly impractical white shoes, into a figure framed by an immense and moving universe. We look for this in poetry – the breaking of frames, the pleasure of surprise and discovery, and the contest between language and experience.

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