Essay collection

Frank Bongiorno reviews 'Watsonia: A writing life' by Don Watson

Frank Bongiorno
Wednesday, 25 November 2020

In the frantic days after the recent US presidential election, Donald Trump’s team – led by his attorney Rudy Giuliani – held a media conference in a suburban Philadelphia carpark. The establishment that formed the backdrop to this unusual performance is called Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Neighbouring businesses included a crematorium and an adult entertainment store (soon translated on social media into a ‘dildo shop’). At the time of writing, the explanation for how this had happened is still not forthcoming, but most commentators assumed a mix-up with one of the city’s major hotels, also called Four Seasons.

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That old rhyme sits unpondered in the memory of every woman or man who grew up to speak English or chant it in the many incantatory rituals of childhood. It is locked in there, partnered with the rhythmic thud of a skipping rope and spirals drawn on your palm to test endurance, in the exquisite torture test that was part primitive ordeal, part initiation into a social community that had its mysteries and its taboos and its transgressions. Children move naturally in this world of internalised rhythms, of things unexplained, of enigma and excitement.

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In the early 1970s, Patrick White began to achieve a new public identity. His support for the fight to save Centennial Park from Olympic developers, his endorsement of the Whitlam government, and, of course, his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 transformed a writer aiming ‘to people the Australian emptiness in the only way I am able’ into a personality able to persuade (and irritate) merely by his presence. The outsider suddenly became an insider – in 1973 he was ‘unanimously chosen’ as Australian of the Year – and, to his mingled dismay and delight, he discovered that Australia was already peopled.

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Geoffrey Dutton reviews 'A Body of Water' by Beverley Farmer

Geoffrey Dutton
Monday, 16 November 2020

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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In 1977, in three consecutive issues, the New Yorker published Hannah Arendt’s ‘Thinking’. Each part was called an ‘article’, a strangely modest, journalistic word in the face of the length of each part of the essay and the profound subject. Thirty-two years ago, the magazine showed curmudgeonly modesty: writers were named in small print at the foot of each ‘piece’, there was never, god forbid, a sub-editor’s catch-all under the title, no short biographies of the writers were printed, and there were never, ever, visual illustrations or photographs to accompany the text. The issue in which the first of Arendt’s ‘articles’ appeared included poetry by Mark Strand; the long book review was by George Steiner; Pauline Kael was the film reviewer; there were four Saul Steinberg drawings; and Andrew Porter reported on classical music. The list of names we revere could go on.

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The task of reading these three books together provided more than I was anticipating. Their perspectives of decades of Australian society and writing practices cover the past, the personal and the politics. The writers come from three different generations (born 1903, 1923, 1940), and represent particular writing intentions or schools, certainly different genres. The connecting thread, probably the only one, is that each of the books is written form such a particularised stance. Each is written in the first person, and flirts to varying degrees with the confessional mode. The tensions between restraint and letting it all hang out, what gets said and what comes out in the not-saying, interested me.

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The world evoked by British nature writer and historian Helen Macdonald in her new collection of essays is haunted by no end of unsettling and shrouded presences. The sight of a flock of starlings gives her a shiver of fear. Why? Because in her imagination the flock connects with a mass of refugees. The sight of falcon eggs in an incubator makes her unaccountably upset. Then she remembers that she, too, as a very premature baby, was once kept alive in just such a box. And on it goes.

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The cultural critic, poet, and musician Wayne Koestenbaum is pooped. He is ready for his writing to assume its ‘corpse pose’, to expire and become obsolete. Over the course of a thirty-year writing career marked by a lively enthusiasm for culture and celebrity, the author has often shown his attraction to acts of disappearance – his admiration, for example, of artists who retire relatively young (e.g. Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot, or poets Arthur Rimbaud and pre-comeback George Oppen). Perhaps more compelling to Koestenbaum, though, are those cultural figures who retire into careers; those who make work of indolence.

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On the July afternoon when I first read Intimations, novelist and prolific essayist Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Melbourne registered its highest number of Covid-19 cases – 484 positives, with two deaths. Since then the daily tolls have risen alarmingly. Midway through the city’s second week of Lockdown 2.0, there is a nebulous feeling of dispiritedness. We mark time as belonging to a pre-Covid era or the present reality. Within the present there exist further subdivisions of pasts and presents marked by social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, hopefulness.

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