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James Ley

James Ley

James Ley is an essayist and literary critic who lives in Melbourne. A former Editor of Sydney Review of Books, he has been a regular contributor to ABR since 2003.

James Ley reviews 'The Living Sea of Waking Dreams' by Richard Flanagan

November 2020, no. 426 22 October 2020
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams begins, self-consciously, at the limits of language. Its opening pages are rendered in a prose style that is fragmented and contorted. Sentences break down, run into each other. Syntax is twisted into odd shapes that call into question the very possibility of meaning. Words seem to arrive pre-estranged by semantic satiation in a way that evokes Gertrude Stein or Sam ... (read more)

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

June 2009, no. 312 01 June 2009
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 ... (read more)

James Ley reviews 'Every Move You Make' by David Malouf

October 2006, no. 285 01 October 2006
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 pas ... (read more)

'A curse on art, a curse on society: Government contempt for the ABC, the arts, and the academy' by James Ley

August 2020, no. 423 24 July 2020
It is curious the way certain books can insinuate themselves into your consciousness. I am not necessarily talking about favourite books, or formative ones that evoke a particular time and place, but those stray books that seem to have been acquired almost inadvertently (all bibliophiles possess such volumes, I’m sure), and taken up without any particular expectations, books that have something ... (read more)

James Ley reviews 'On Evil' by Terry Eagleton

October 2010, no. 325 01 October 2010
One of the more robust responses to what has come to be called the New Atheism has been that of the influential literary critic Terry Eagleton. He weighed into the argument early with an aggressive and widely cited critique of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) in the London Review of Books, in which he charged Dawkins with theological ignorance. He extended his argument in a series of le ... (read more)

James Ley reviews 'The Trials of Portnoy: How Penguin brought down Australia’s censorship system' by Patrick Mullins

June–July 2020, no. 422 26 May 2020
Listen to this review read by the author.  Okay, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country. For a start, we have this profoundly stupid and deeply irritating myth that we’re all irreverent freedom-loving larrikins and easygoing egalitarians, when it is painfully obvious that we have long been a nation of prudes and wowsers, that our collective psyche has been warped by what Patric ... (read more)

James Ley reviews 'The Ghost Writer' by John Harwood

April 2004, no. 260 01 April 2004
There is a species of Victorian mystery story that is as pure an expression of nineteenth-century rationalism as you are likely to find. A strange event occurs which, at first glance, appears to admit no rational explanation; by the end of the story, it is revealed to have a logical explanation after all. Thus foolish superstition is banished by the pure light of reason. But there is another side ... (read more)

'"How small the light of home": Andrew McGahan and the politics of guilt' by James Ley

April 2006, no. 280 30 October 2019
Andrew McGahan’s first novel, Praise (1992), concludes with its narrator, Gordon Buchanan, deciding – perhaps accepting is a better word – that he will live a life of contemplation. This final revelation is significantly ambivalent. The unresponsive persona Gordon has assumed throughout the novel is something of an affectation. On one level, he is playing the stereotypical role of the inarti ... (read more)

James Ley reviews 'The Slap' by Christos Tsiolkas

November 2008, no. 306 01 November 2008
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. Like much of his work, it is fired ... (read more)

James Ley reviews 'The Death of Jesus' by J.M. Coetzee

October 2019, no. 415 25 September 2019
It is commonly accepted that the modern European novel begins with Don Quixote. Lionel Trilling went so far as to claim that the entire history of the modern novel could be interpreted as variations on themes set out in Cervantes’s great originating work. And the quality that is usually taken to mark Don Quixote as ‘modern’ is its irony. It is a fiction about fiction. The new sensibility it ... (read more)