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Shannon Burns

Few authors summon the various modes of irony to better purpose than J.M. Coetzee. Typically, before Coetzee gives a reading, the audience can safely suppose that they are in for a good laugh, the odd squirm and cringe, and at least one moment of bewilderment. But there are exceptions to this general rule, and the several hundred people who gathered to hear Coetzee read last week, on a balmy Tuesday evening in Adelaide, were fortunate to witness an atypical performance by the Nobel laureate.

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Each fiction in this small but handsome volume emerges from an interesting, perhaps even ‘transitional’ phase in J.M. Coetzee’s writing life: between the publication of Disgrace (1999) and Slow Man (2005); before and after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. The first story in the collection also predates Coetzee’s move to Adelaide in 2002, as does, presumably, the composition of the second (whose protagonist laments the corporatisation of rural South Africa, declaring, ‘I want nothing to do with it’); the third story was presented and published as Coetzee’s Nobel Lecture.

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Since the publication of Tamarisk Row (1974), Gerald Murnane has continued to shape his own peculiar literary landscape. With The Plains (1982), he perfected the novelistic expression of his style; since then Murnane has concentrated on hybrid forms better suited to his purposes. Landscape with Landscape (1985), Velvet Waters (1990), and A History of Books (2012) are high points of this phase, but his newest fiction, A Million Windows, is in every part their equal.

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Kafka by Reiner Stach & Kafka by Reiner Stach

April 2014, no. 360
Franz Kafka lived in Prague in the early part of the twentieth century, during a period of considerable turmoil. Before succumbing to laryngeal tuberculosis aged forty, he witnessed the disintegration of an empire and the subsequent formation of a republic. Kafka also endured the administrative and domestic realities of a world war and was among millions of Europeans infected with Spanish flu. He barely survived the latter, and while Europe’s political convulsions certainly left their mark on the man, most efforts to bring Kafka’s fiction and life into an explanative relation have failed. Perhaps only Elias Canetti’s slim monograph on Kafka’s letters to Felice, Kafka’s Other Trial (1974), stands as the exception. ... (read more)

Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters, translated by Andrew Brown

November 2013, no. 356

By what right, and in accordance with what set of social conditions or teleological commitments, ideologies, cultural and biographical conventions, and in whose name might one begin to speak of, formulate, detail, or analyse the life of Jackie aka ‘Jacques’ Derrida?


Unlike Hawthorne: A Life (2003), Brenda Wineapple’s penetrating and engaging biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne’s Habitations, is a work of literary criticism informed by a narrow but fascinating range of biographical details and sources. These details support Robert Milder’s construction of an author ‘divided’ by contradictory drives that remained unresolved in Hawthorne’s fiction and life.\

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According to D.T. Max, ‘At the time of his tragic death by suicide in September 2008, David Foster Wallace was the foremost writer of his generation, the one who had forged the newest path and from whom the others, directly or indirectly, took their cues.’ Indeed, for someone desperate to escape the confines of self and wary of literary celebrity, Wallace endured more than his share of hype and admiration. This paradox is unsurprising when we consider Wallace’s repeated depictions of bleak coincidence in his fiction. Early in Infinite Jest (1996), footballer Orin Incandenza – the elder brother of physically deformed Mario and hyper-intelligent Hal – suffers a nightmare of being smothered by his mother’s disembodied head; when Orin wakes, his latest ‘Subject’ (sexual conquest) is watching a documentary about schizophrenia. Mediated by Orin, the voice-over describes its subject:

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I nitially banned in Australia, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is Philip Roth’s early, bestselling, satirical tour de force. Alexander Portnoy addresses a long monologue to his analyst, Dr Spielvogel. Among other things, the monologue tackles Portnoy’s erotic and ethical shortcomings, lingering in particular over his father’s familial and economic emasculation, his mother’s overbearing cleanliness and affection, his fraught relationship to Jewishness, and a selection of doomed love interests. Portnoy’s Complaint is by turns comedic, tragic, confronting, illuminating, anguished, and jubilant.

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Colin McCahon was a prominent late-modernist New Zealand painter who temporarily disappeared while visiting the Sydney Botanic Gardens on 11 and 12 April 1984. As Martin Edmond relates, ‘Colin went off to the toilet but didn’t return’, and subsequently ‘spent 28 hours lost on the streets of Sydney’. When discovered, ‘he could not say who he was, carried no identification and seemed disoriented’. This largely speechless disorientation persisted until McCahon’s death.

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