To celebrate the year’s memorable plays, films, concerts, operas, ballets, and exhibitions, we invited twenty-six critics and arts professionals to nominate some personal favourites.
While the original production of Saul (ABR Arts, 3/17), directed by Barrie Kosky, was made in Europe, this version included several Australian singers, a local chorus, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Christopher Purves in the lead role was superb.
I include David Hockney: Current (NGV) for a number of reasons. While I constantly advocate appropriate support for living artists in all genres, the visual art ‘contemporary’ bandwagon begs interrogation. Hockney said, ‘All art is contemporary, if it’s alive: and if it’s not alive, what’s the point of it?’ I’d argue that there’s as much alive in old stuff as there is in the new – and as much corpsed and pointless in the new as in the old.
Confessing bias (I was the MC and performed in it), I mention The Coming Back Out Ball (Melbourne Town Hall) not for the night itself, which was a moving hoot, but for the three-year project. Tristan is a terrific creator/performer but this work showed his dedication to the social issues facing elderly LGBTIQ people, and showcased the special ability of the arts to bring hard societal material into a joyous and celebratory space.
In a strong year for theatre, Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica (ABR Arts, 3/17) stood out. Kip Williams’s production matched the scale and sweep of Kirkwood’s enthralling play. Banished from the Opera House, Opera Australia presented two works in concert form. Nicole Car and Étienne Dupuis made an exciting pair of protagonists in Massenet’s Thaïs (ABR Arts, 7/17). Good though the much-heralded Jonas Kaufmann was as the eponymous Parsifal, the performance (ABR Arts 8/17) was dominated by Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz. Best of all was the sound of the Opera Australia Orchestra, finally liberated from underneath the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.
Terence Davies’ biopic of Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion (ABR Arts, 6/17) could have been a sombre affair, but Davies and the magnificent Cynthia Nixon found the humour and resilience in the belle of Amherst.
I’ve been brooding all year on the metaphors in Dmitry Krymov’s Opus 7 (Perth Festival). The production was a requiem for lives obliterated by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Puppetry, mime, dance, string, cardboard, and buckets of black paint constructed an immersive journey underpinned by the swagger and pathos of Shostakovich’s music. Lost & Found’s innovative Trouble in Tahiti was similarly provocative, presented so physically and emotionally close to the audience that the work took on an uncomfortable personal resonance. The opera was set in a home in Perth’s affluent western suburbs, where Bernstein’s critique of consumerism and silver screens couldn’t have been clearer to the audience watching with voyeuristic fascination from the patio. In contrast, the rippling energy of WA Opera’s The Merry Widow was sheer fun. A young, versatile cast premièred Graham Murphy’s beautiful, dance-infused production where every act was a party fizzing with romance and comedy.
The best local features I saw this year were comedies, not a genre we do well often. But Pork Pie, a remake of Kiwi classic Goodbye Pork Pie (1981), directed by the son of the original film’s director, and Ali’s Wedding, directed by tyro Jeffrey Walker, were confident exceptions, deftly made charmers bursting with colour and a very Antipodean strain of self-importance-busting humour. In terms of international fare, the most affecting film I saw was Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants). Set in Paris, it’s the story of a heart transplant seen from every angle: from the point of view of the donor and his grieving parents, the recipient and her frightened sons, and the hospital staff who trundle between them. It features the scene of the year, in which three teenage boys go surfing: a hypnotic symphony of music and image that rousingly celebrates a life being lived joyously, shortly before it’s snuffed out.
There were many memorable performances by jazz and improvising musicians throughout 2017. Two that stood out incorporated strong visual and theatrical elements. Pianist and composer Erik Griswold partnered with the Australian Art Orchestra and visiting musicians from China and Singapore to perform his extended suite Water Pushes Sand at Jazzlab. The dramatic work, which features both traditional Sichuan melodies and jazz improvisation, was highlighted by Zheng Sheng Li’s startling ‘face changing’ dance. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons’s The Usefulness of Art (ABR Arts, 8/17), performed by a large ensemble at fortyfivedownstairs, similarly incorporated theatrical costume and design to heighten the power of this impassioned music. The Melbourne International Jazz Festival (ABR Arts, 6/17) was distinguished by the first Australian appearance by pianist Carla Bley, who, aged eighty-one, demonstrated why she is considered one of jazz’s finest composers.
In a year that included many films, I continue to be haunted by Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, an excoriating vision of contemporary Russia. Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (ABR Arts, 9/17), confirmed that the writer’s words remain as powerful today as when first published.
Robin Campillo’s BPM – an urgent recreation of AIDS activism in Paris during the early 1990s – felt resonant and still timely. BPM won the Grand Prix and the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but seemed to fly under the radar at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Other MIFF highlights included Maud Alpi’s Still Life and Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, two experimental documentaries that investigate how we confront – or fail to confront – killing on an industrial scale. The former film is set inside a slaughterhouse; the latter takes Holocaust tourism as its subject. On a lighter note, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen was a cut above the usual coming-of-age dramedy. Kelly Reichardt’s acutely observed Certain Women and Barry Jenkins’s exquisite Moonlight (ABR Arts, 1/17) both reached local screens at last; two gifted directors, two contemporary masterpieces.
I didn’t expect much from Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise (Sydney Festival), but was deeply moved by the evidence of his burgeoning talent. He was a real artist – obsessed and hard-working. Had he not been executed, he might have become a very good one. Also in the festival, Mary Finsterer’s Biographica was full of fine music. The actor protagonist was distracting – shouting to be heard above the singers of Sydney Chamber Opera and players of Ensemble Offspring – so I blotted him out. As a result, I can’t tell you exactly what the opera was about, but it sounded magnificent.
At WOMADelaide, The Manganiyar Classroom called to me across a crowded park. I knew nothing about it in advance, but couldn’t move until it was over. I live in the country with a seven-year-old daughter, so don’t get too much. Together, we saw Disney’s Moana at the Bowral Empire. It’s rather good. To get the full effect, watch it in a cinema next to a child trembling with excitement.
Coincidentally, Austria provided my two most thrilling opera experiences in 2017. The Landestheater Linz’s staging of Hindemith’s Die Harmonie der Welt vindicated a great rarity by this now sadly unfashionable composer. The hit of the Salzburg Festival was the artist–director William Kentridge’s staging of Wozzeck, an unusually satisfying realisation of Berg’s masterpiece. Several of the best concerts in Britain this year have often come courtesy of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the new music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Her free-thinking flair makes her the most exciting thing to have happened to the CBSO since Simon Rattle.
While not wanting to appear unserious about my work, I cheerfully admit to planning reviewing trips around art exhibitions. My most memorable show away from this year’s international blockbusters was at Bucharest’s National Gallery, where its brilliantly curated exploration of Romanian socialist realist art – Art for the People? 1948–1965 – proved fascinating to someone interested in Balkan culture.
Pride of place goes to Brett Dean’s Hamlet (ABR Arts, 6/17), which premièred at Glyndebourne with an all-Australian creative team. A taut, musically mesmerising version of this highly challenging play makes it one of the most significant new operas in recent years. For my second choice I conflate two recent London productions: Girl from the North Country and Woyzeck in Winter (ABR Arts, 9/17). The first incorporates lesser-known songs from Bob Dylan into a searing melodrama by Conor McPherson, while Woyzeck, adapted and directed by Conall Morrison, conflates the play with Schubert’s Winterreise. Both extend the boundaries of the so-called ‘jukebox musical’, fusing Steinbeck with Brecht.
Finally, a Sydney production (Hayes Theatre Co) of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, directed by Dean Bryant, gives a welcome outing to this neglected work. A cast of young singers led by David Campbell provided an evening of unfailing energy and vivid characterisation. The performance I saw was coloured by the Las Vegas shootings a few days before. America and its guns – nothing changes!
Men in a state of meltdown dominate my two top dance shows this year: The Winter’s Tale, from London’s Royal Ballet, at QPAC (ABR Arts, 7/17); and Cockfight, by Joshua Thomson, Gavin Webber, and tiny Gold Coast company The Farm, at Dance Massive, Melbourne. Created by British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot, Winter’s Tale is the best dance drama to appear here in decades. Edward Watson, as the deranged Leontes, King of Sicilia, led a superlative cast in a strange story of deranged jealousy, brutal injustice, and gentle redemption. Cockfight is a hyper-kinetic contact improvisation work about a dysfunctional manager (Webber), who taunts and nearly kills a younger, smarter job applicant (Thomson) in a battle of wit and will. Seduction, lies, threats, and rage take dangerous flight across a sterile office. Each object, especially the phone cord, becomes a weapon as they fight for supremacy. Too brutal to watch, too funny to miss, this was Aussie Grand Guignol at its best.
Beyond Caravaggio at London’s National Gallery was impressive but also slightly oppressive. Stepping from this gloomy world into the blazing Australian and southern French sunshine of the Australia’s Impressionists (National Gallery) showing at the same time made a strong impression.
Back in Perth, the highlight of PIAF’s Beethoven and Beyond, with the LA-based Calder Quartet, was Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, with local clarinettist Ashley Smith: a performance characterised by subtle and exquisite balance and phrasing, with Smith’s floating, plangent tone and deeply expressive playing matched by the Calder’s unerring instinct for light and shade. I enjoyed Terence Davies’ masterful biopic of Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, Lost and Found’s innovative, witty production of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, mounted in a private home, and a sublime Mahler Fifth from WASO under chief conductor Asher Fisch, who, it appears, can do no wrong.
I Am Not Your Negro is the work of art to heed in 2017. Directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film is artfully compiled – a model documentary. But it is James Baldwin – that mobile face and inimitable voice – who is the compelling, prophetic presence, as provocative and unanswerable now as he was when he uttered these confronting words: ‘The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. And it’s not a pretty picture.’
Baltimore offers guided tours of The Wire’s bleak territory, but its Museum of Art revealed another side of this intriguing, evolving city when it mounted a grand comparative exhibition of works by Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn (many of the Matisses came into the Museum’s collection courtesy of Baltimore’s redoubtable and philanthropic Cone Sisters). The art was breathtaking, and the documentation – encompassing both artists’ lifelong shuttle between representation and abstraction, and the subtlety of Matisse’s influence on the Californian – a curatorial triumph.
Two highlights came from the same genre: opera, presented by different companies. Neither work was staged, thus the artistic impression was entirely musical. In June, Pelléas et Mélisande (ABR Arts, 6/17) by Claude Debussy was performed in Sydney for the first time since 1998. At the helm of the SSO, Charles Dutoit led a mostly native French-speaking cast with restrained passion and boundless sensitivity. Debussy’s opera was much influenced by Wagner’s music dramas, so it was fitting that the latter composer’s Parsifal made a long-awaited return to the Opera House. Pinchas Steinberg conducted the excellent cast, where primus inter pares Kwangchul Youn’s mesmerising performance stood out in the role of Gurnemanz as much as Jonas Kaufmann’s singing of the eponymous hero.
A final memorable experience came from Tokyo, where András Schiff (who will visit Australia in October 2018) offered a thought-provoking and terrific juxtaposition of the penultimate sonatas of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven (ABR Arts, 3/17).
With the closure of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Opera Australia grasped the opportunity to present opera in different venues across Sydney. One of these experiences was a concert presentation of Wagner’s Parsifal. It was a treat to see the Opera Australia Orchestra (usually hidden in the pit) shine on the stage of the Concert Hall.
Every five years the German town of Kassel is transformed into a magnet for lovers of contemporary art. At documenta 14, founded after World War II as a way to enable artists to join and express a voice to help rebuild a nation, it is exciting to see Australian artists on an international stage. This year, three Australians were represented: Gordon Hookey, Dale Harding, and Bonita Ely, all presenting large scale work that drew on narratives involving displacement, ecological destruction, and oral traditions of Aboriginal communities.
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s major 2017 production, Bennelong, by Stephen Page took the company to a new level – compelling and captivating with beautiful movement, dance, design, and a wonderful score by Steve Francis.
After Nina Stemme’s and Stuart Skelton’s heart-stopping performance of Tristan und Isolde with the TSO in Hobart (ABR Arts, 11/16), concert opera performances were again high points of this year. Opera Australia’s Parsifal was glorious, but OA’s concert version of Thaïs was delightful in a different way, with the energetic young singers Nicole Car and Étienne Depuis clearly enjoying singing Massenet’s melodic music together in the warm atmosphere of the Sydney Town Hall.
I saw two exceptional theatre productions: first, Bell Shakespeare’s thrilling interpretation of Richard 3 (ABR Arts, 3/17), with Kate Mulvany; second, New Theatre’s revival of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous. The young performers of this play, especially Julia Christensen in the lead, found both the poetry and political power in Hewett’s classic. It was an intelligent and engaging production. If only more people had known about it.
Apart from Malthouse Theatre’s sensitive but radical production of Michael Gow’s Away (ABR Arts, 2/17) and some magnificent local choreography in Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C, this year’s best work came from sublime interpretations of major international work. Kate Mulvany was so poised and savage, so damaged and damaging as Richard III for Bell Shakespeare that she seemed born for the role. It was the most impressive performance of the year.
MTC’s production of Annie Baker’s John (ABR Arts, 2/17) was perfect; complex and meticulous, it used its cultural specificity to universal effect, and contained riveting performances from Helen Morse and Melita Jurišić. Sarah Goodes has quickly established herself as one of the country’s finest directors.
Gary Abrahams’s extraordinary rendition of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at fortyfivedownstairs, with Morse joining a stellar ensemble, was so compassionate, so articulate, it seemed like a totally contemporary play. Galvanising and angry, it was theatre as a monumental political act.
Two near-perfect performances: one an opera, one by an opera singer led 2017. Listening to brilliant bass Ferruccio Furlanetto singing Russian songs by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky in the glorious acoustic of the Melbourne Recital Centre in October was like watching a Ferrari in a go-kart rink: far too much power for the arena, with a purring richness that was seldom extended, but the interest was in the incredible delicacy and control, the fine tunings and shadings, the intimacy, the emotional conviction. Opera Australia’s concert performance of Parsifal, with superstars Jonas Kaufman and Michelle deYoung, and another massive bass in Kwangchul Youn, was mesmerising. Honourable mentions go to Victorian Opera’s beautifully crafted and performed production of Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen (ABR Arts, 6/17), Opera Australia’s ambitious and deeply satisfying account of Szymanowski’s King Roger (ABR Arts, 1/17), and the MSO’s concert performance of Massenet’s lyrical opera Thaïs (ABR Arts, 8/17), with Erin Wall in the title role.
It’s a large claim, but I suspect that Simon Phillips’s production of Macbeth (ABR Arts, 6/17) is the best I have ever seen. In a contemporary military setting, it never struck a jarring note as it melded two eras. Without interval, it made remorseless the rise and tragic fall of its eponym.
So many films clamour for mention that it is hard to limit my choice to three. In the part-Australian feature, Lion (ABR Arts, 1/17) first-time director Garth Davis showed himself admirably versatile as well as compassionate in dealing first with the child’s agonising loss and then in rendering the decent feelings of the foster parents without descending into sentimentality. Loving, the UK/US drama of interracial marriage and its ensuing legal struggles, was note-perfect in its retelling of a poignant, ultimately triumphant, real-life story. As for ‘real-life’, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a stunning recreation of this ‘finest hour’ in all its chaos and courage.
Nothing quite matched Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s phenomenal 2016 Messiaen recital (absurdly overlooked in the Helpmann Awards) or the TSO’s Tristan und Isolde concert, with Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme, but there were some memorable performances. Two Hamlets I saw in June couldn’t have been more different: Brett Dean’s brilliant new opera at Glyndebourne, with an exceptional cast of singers, many of whom will return for the Adelaide Festival. Then came Robert Icke’s version of the play, with Andrew Scott’s searching, mystified prince cogitating his way through the soliloquys.
I relished Kip Williams’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine (ABR Arts, 7/17), brilliantly mounted, hilarious in places, and featuring a memorable performance from Heather Mitchell.
And films? Sally Hawkins deserves an Oscar for her role as the eccentric painter Maud Lewis in Aisling Walsh’s underrated Maudie: physical acting at its best. James Baldwin, in the superbly edited documentary I Am Not Your Negro, makes present-day orators look like pygmies. Baldwin’s message, fifty years on, remains incensingly topical.
At the Edinburgh International Festival, I heard an unforgettable concert performance of Die Walküre, with a superb line-up of singers, including Bryn Terfel, Christine Goerke, Simon O’Neill, Amber Wagner, and Karen Cargill, plus the Royal Scottish Orchestra under Andrew Davis. A week or so later, Opera Australia came up with a magnificent concert Parsifal, with Jonas Kaufmann, Michelle deYoung, Michael Honeyman, Warwick Fyfe, the mighty Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, and the Opera orchestra and chorus under Pinchas Steinberg. If anything, this was musically finer than the Edinburgh performance, the half dozen Sydney Flower Maidens easily outsinging their eight Scottish Valkyrie sisters.
Other unforgettable events were the Brisbane season of the Royal Ballet and the open-air gala in Cairns; Daniil Trifonov’s dazzling solo recital at Angel Place; the ACO’s concert with the spotlight on Sätü Vanska, Timo-Veikko Valve, and Glenn Christensen; the Adelaide Festival trifecta of Glyndebourne’s smashing Saul, the third and by far the finest incarnation of The Secret River, and Lars Eidinger’s in your face Richard III. The once-great Adelaide Festival had finally its mojo back.
In March I wrote, ‘Three of the most memorable musical experiences of my life have happened in Adelaide: Elke Neidhardt’s production of Wagner’s Ring, the State Opera of South Australia’s Cloudstreet, and now the Armfield–Healy Adelaide Festival’s offering of Barrie Kosky’s Saul.’ Meanwhile, in Sydney, independent theatre has been spectacular, with Siren Theatre’s The Trouble With Harry, and Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous. Musical theatre hub Hayes Theatre Co thrilled with Paul Capsis in Cabaret, Virginia Gay in Calamity Jane, and Emma Matthews in Melba. The rise of Red Line at the Old Fitz continued; outstanding were Doubt: A Parable, the beautiful 4:48 Psychosis, a new work from Louis Nowra: This Much Is True (ABR Arts, 7/17), and a breakout performance from Gabrielle Scawthorn in The Village Bike. Women dominated the landscape: Kate Mulvany as Richard 3, Genevieve Lemon in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Helen Thomson in Hir, and Heather Mitchell in Cloud Nine.
Like almost everyone who saw it, I was blown away by Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s Saul, the Barrie Kosky-directed centrepiece of this year’s Adelaide Festival. The return of Adelaide’s prodigal son did not disappoint, proving a feast for all the senses. Also in this year’s Festival was Wot? No Fish!! (ABR Arts, 3/17), as intimate as Saul was epic. Based around sketches made by his great-uncle, a working-class East End Jew, British writer–performer Danny Braverman’s simply and sparklingly adumbrated family history moved me deeply. Mr Burns, a co-production by STCSA and Belvoir, brought American playwright Anne Washburn’s 2012 post-apocalyptic play, ostensibly about The Simpsons, to vivid life in a production directed by Imara Savage. I must mention Lucy Kirkwood, the young British playwright whose uncommonly ambitious dramas The Children and Chimerica I was fortunate enough to see in London and Sydney respectively. I’m excited about MTC’s production of The Children next year.
Fred Williams in the You Yangs (ABR Arts, 10/17), at the Geelong Gallery, was a model exhibition of one of Australia’s greatest artists. A judicious and thoughtfully displayed selection of just over sixty works – oil paintings, prints, gouaches – highlighted his best work from the 1960s.
Opera Australia’s concert performance of Parsifal, with a superb cast under the impressive baton of Pinchas Steinberg, was electrifying and showed how well Wagner’s music dramas present in the concert hall. Angela Hewitt (ABR Arts, 5/17) was in dazzling form during her Musica Viva tour, with intelligent, balanced programs including works by Scarlatti, Ravel, and Chabrier, as well as the obligatory Bach: this time, selected partitas.
For various reasons, Melbourne Lyric Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) was one of my highlights of the year. As I wrote at the time, ‘the work itself is hard-edged – in soap-opera terms, more pumice stone than Palmolive. Accordingly, it duly received a swift and sinewy performance, keenly driven by [artistic director] Pat Miller, who conducted from the keyboard.’
The National Gallery of Victoria’s monumental exhibition of almost 180 works by Katsushika Hokusai elevated him far above his self-deprecatory summary, ‘Old man mad about drawing’. In fact, the exhibition made one as eternally grateful to the NGV’s Felton Bequest as it did for the eternally fecund genius of Hokusai. Thanks to Alfred Felton (old man mad about art?), a woodblock print of Hokusai’s most famous work, The great wave off Kanagawa 1830–34 has been in the Gallery’s possession for 108 years.
Whilst there have been many pleasures this year in music, film, and opera, there were three pieces of standout Australian theatre, all conceptually large and all produced by the STC. Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine were both directed by Kip Williams. The other was a memorable revival of Neil Armfield’s production of Andrew Bovell’s The Secret River at the Adelaide Festival. The Secret River and Chimerica had substantial casts, all too rare on the Australian mainstage in today’s straitened times for the arts. Both were cinematic in their sweep, superbly acted and designed, and hauntingly dramatic. Cloud Nine, one of Churchill’s greatest works, is another reminder as to why she is one of the theatre’s true creative imaginations and a leader. Each play is relevant to today’s polemics on human rights, diversity, and reconciliation. We have much reason to be thankful to Williams, Armfield, their casts and creative teams for making theatre that matters.
Another major personal moment was the Sam Mendes’s London production of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman – a cast of twenty-one in an intimate but sweeping piece which was emotionally and politically shattering.
Thirty years ago I saw Anthony Sher play Richard III. It was a memorable portrayal, one which became the Richard for me. When I read that Bell Shakespeare had cast a woman in the role, I was, frankly, appalled, dismissing it as part of the current trend of having female actors play Shakespeare’s major male roles. How wrong I was. It was a superb production. Kate Mulvany’s Richard was utterly compelling and showed him as wily and evil as well as humorous and seductive. Mulvany played the king in a way that revealed nuances of his character I’d never seen before. One of Bell Shakespeare’s best.
It’s a risky business revisiting old loves. In April, Patti Smith, performed the songs from Horses, her best-known album, originally released in 1975. By the end of the first song, I was on my feet, seized by the familiar music and Smith’s irresistible performance, and so I remained until the music died away. Patti Smith is seventy, she’s still creating, and she is magnificent. At home I dusted off my LP and prolonged the pleasure.
To celebrate the year’s memorable plays, films, concerts, operas, ballets, and exhibitions, we invited twenty-six critics and arts professionals to nominate some personal favourites.
Bill Gammage, in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (2011), shows fire being deployed across the continent with a complexity and skill ‘greater than anything modern Australia has imagined’. He explains why colonists spoke of a land like ‘a gentleman’s park, an inhabited and improved country’. Controlled fire created a ‘mosaic of grass and tree’, of ‘springs, soaks, caches and wetlands’ that channelled, persuaded, and lured prey in predictable ways. Thus Indigenous cultures enabled abundance, and ‘voluminous and intricate’ spiritual and creative practice.
My nominated book is The Night Country (1971), by American anthropologist Loren Eiseley. I first encountered Eiseley’s essays in the early 1980s and was transfixed by his capacity to combine the personal, the psychological, the metaphoric, the poetic, and the scientific in prose of imaginative reach and literary beauty. His essay ‘The Creature from the Marsh’, in which he ponders the footprint of a transitional form of human, only to realise that it belongs to him, locates our flawed and aspirational species at the heart of the natural world.
Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918), written and illustrated by May Gibbs, helped form my childhood notions of the environment. Perhaps there are two reasons. First, Gibbs proposed a connected, self-sustaining world of plants and animals in which humans played a rare but destructive role. Secondly, the book conveyed the idea that the bush harbours wonderful secrets, often on a minute level; one should tread lightly and listen.
The Death of a Wombat (1972), Ivan Smith’s genre-defying work, emerged from an award-winning 1959 ABC radio program by Smith; Wren Books approached Clifton Pugh to provide illustrations for the book. My great-grandmother gave me a copy for Christmas when I was six years old. I was enthralled by the vulnerable beauty of its outback, and distressed at the human carelessness behind the cataclysmic bushfire that inevitably, agonisingly, claimed so many animals’ lives.
‘Now I am terrified at the earth!’ wrote Walt Whitman. ‘It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.’ These lines, dear to gardeners everywhere, appear in ‘This Compost’, a homily to nature’s capacity for regeneration. Whitman’s attentiveness to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world is a constant inspiration. The cities, as much as the forests and prairies, fuelled his environmental curiosity. ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ is a poem that grows inside you, rocking gently to the tidal flows that underlie the daily commute.
It was certainly the books of childhood that germinated my interest in the natural world. But one book stands out: W.J. Dakin’s Australian Seashores, posthumously published in 1952, updated by Isobel Bennett and Elizabeth Pope. For forty years this book has directed my steps along Australia’s coasts, encouraged my first forays into biology, shaped my studies, and inspired my writing every page remains a fascinating dip into a world that lies beneath our feet.
There aren’t many books that I can honestly say have changed my life, but Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) is one of them. Its luminous prose and hushed reverence for the landscape embody an understanding not just that there are other ways of imagining a landscape and our relationship to it, but of the fact that attentiveness to the particular is an ethical act in itself. It’s an extraordinary, beautiful, transformative book and one I continue to value immensely.
Lately, there has been a wonderful rush of books connecting the old concerns of the Green movement with everything else important to humanity, from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the climate (2014) to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable (2017). But note especially Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ (2015), where questions of environmental damage and social justice are stitched together with geniune awe and, I think, perfect economy.
My tipping point was This Overheating World, an edition of Granta edited by Bill McKibben in 2003. Published fourteen years after ‘The End of Nature’, McKibben’s own first mighty global warming article, it embedded this issue in my sense of the world particularly pieces by Philip Marsden and Matthew Hart, and McKibben’s introduction. Fourteen years later again, the sorrow and frustration in that introduction remain shockingly germane. ‘Hardly anyone has fear in their guts,’ McKibben wrote. In some places that’s so, even now, as the planet gets hotter and hotter.
A lightbulb moment of discovery came with Tom Griffiths’s Hunters and Collectors: The antiquarian imagination in Australia (1996). It’s a brilliant, labyrinthine, landmark book about how Australians imagined and created their histories both human and environmental. Chapter Twelve takes readers into wilderness landscapes and reveals them to be peopled, and storied, after all. Why do conservation campaigns so often deny the intimate relationships between humans and the non-human world? Tom’s phrase ‘bleeding sepia into green’ has stayed with me.
In Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (2009), the wild child story pivots around questions of what it means to accept and be accepted by strange others. It navigates the collapse of human care and being, and its replacement by a different, more-than-human, culture and ecology of care and identity, deep in the heart of a heartless city. Dog Boy is an inspirational compass for relocating ourselves in a world of social and environmental unknown unknowns.
Patsy Cameron’s Grease and Ochre: The blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier (2011) changed how I saw the Bass Strait islands and how I wrote my last book. Her work taught me that the islands were not just a place where her Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestors ‘survived’ due to the early nineteenth-century sealing trade. The environment’s ‘remoteness and wild beauty’, its seasons and resources, shaped the coming together of European and Aboriginal cultures to create a ‘new lifeworld and a new people’.
Barbara York Main’s Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) is a natural history of a small section of remnant bushland in the Western Australian wheatbelt. An eminent zoologist, known for her ground-breaking work on trapdoor spiders, York Main is also a gifted prose stylist possibly the one who comes closest in Australia to the belletristic tradition of American nature writing (Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard).
‘Somehow it seems sufficient,’ A.R. Ammons once wrote, ‘to see and hear whatever coming and going is losing the self to the victory of stones and trees.’ I think of those lines when I read Judith Beveridge’s inimitable poetry. Beveridge shows us that finding a precise, unflinching language for the natural world and the human place within it can be a profound, reverential, and philosophical act. I especially love her pelagic volume Storm and Honey (2009).
When I first read Stephen Muecke, Paddy Roe, and Krim Benterrak’s Reading the Country: Introduction to nomadology in 1984, the year of publication, it was a revelation, introducing me to the idea that landscape could speak. What you had to do was learn to listen to it.
When my brother, an intense naturalist from the age of six, received Vincent Serventy’s book Dryandra: The story of an Australian forest (1970) for his birthday, I couldn’t wait to read it. It made an impression on me, and its passion for place and the natural world stayed with me. In my late twenties, for three years, I lived on and off next to Dryandra Forest with my brother. His knowledge of the forest was broad. We often walked through its south-eastern outskirts, talking of the Serventy book. I couldn’t engage with the many birds, echidnas, kangaroos, and even numbats without being aware of the book’s knowledge. The book that stopped a bauxite mine activist environmental literature at its best!
I read Eric Rolls’s A Million Wild Acres (1981) soon after I returned from my first trip to Europe. It seemed to encapsulate all that is wonderful, earthy, feral, and unruly about my country. Animals, plants, and insects share the stage with humans in this democratic, ecological, cross-cultural saga of life in the Pilliga forest of northern New South Wales. Rolls was a farmer, poet, fisherman, and historian with a lust for life and a deep sense of wonder about the land he farmed. He enchants the landscape and its creatures with exact, spellbinding stories. It is nature writing with a distinctive, compelling Australian accent.
To complement our coverage of new books on the subject, we invited a number of writers, scholars, and environmentalists to nominate the books that have had the greatest effect on them from an environmental point of view.
I’m fresh from Hannah Kent’s compelling, humane, and utterly convincing The Good People (Picador, 10/16). Kent completely inhabits her material. In this single nineteenth–century Irish valley, she has created a whole world – indeed, a whole cosmology – that we struggle to break free from at the end of the book. The folded landscape, the terrifyingly precarious lives (especially of women), the honest engagement with folk wisdom, the cold – is it too early to think of a Kentland?
I also recently read Tara June Winch’s After the Carnage (UQP, 9/16), a remarkable collection of stories roughly a decade after her knockout début, Swallow The Air (2006). Startling without being showy, various but not tricksy, moving, fresh, and beautiful – an extremely potent voice ready to roar.
Ben Ball is Publishing Director, Penguin Books Australia.
I’m fresh from Hannah Kent’s compelling, humane, and utterly convincing The Good People (Picador, 10/16). Kent completely inhabits her material. In this single nineteenth ...
Originally published in German, Albrecht Dümling’s The Vanished Musicians: Jewish refugees in Australia (Peter Lang), a fascinating compendium of Jewish musicians who found refuge in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, is now available in Australian Diana K. Weekes’s excellent translation.
Kevin Windle, Elena Govor, and Alexander Massov’s From St Petersburg to Port Jackson: Russian travellers’ tales of Australia 1807–1912 (Australian Scholarly Publishing) is a treasure trove for anyone with a weakness for ship’s captains’ and spunky young Russian ladies’ impressions of our native land. It was a Russian ship that in 1814 brought the news of Napoleon’s defeat to Sydney.
Next is David Brophy’s Uyghur Nation: Reform and revolution on the Russia-China frontier (Harvard University Press). If you have ever wondered who the Uyghurs are, Brophy, who teaches at the University of Sydney, is the man to go to.
The Great Departure: Mass migration from Eastern Europe and the making of the Free World (W.W. Norton), by Tara Zahra, is a ‘must read’ for history buffs as well as migration scholars.
Four books stood out for me this year. David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting: Historical memory and its ironies (Yale University Press, reviewed in ABR 6/16) makes a startling argument: that cultivating historical memory, especially in the political realm, may do more harm than good.
American writer Shadi Hamid’s controversial Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world (St Martin’s Press) examines how the difficulty of reconciling secularism and Islam not only makes integration tricky for Muslims in the West, but perpetuates sectarian war within the religion.
When Breath Becomes Air (Bodley Head), by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who chronicled his own death from cancer, is simply extraordinary: humane, poetic, moving, and enlightening. And Sebastian Smee – The Australian’s former art critic, now with the Boston Globe – has written a riveting study, The Art of Rivalry: Four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in modern art (Text Publishing, 11/16), the title of which says it all.
I’m not sure any book I’ve read this year has affected me as much as Annie Proulx’s monumental account of the human and environmental catastrophe of North America’s forests, Barkskins (Fourth Estate, 8/16). While it isn’t without its faults, in particular its desire to include everything, that same encyclopedic impulse and sense of incoherent grief lends it extraordinary power and breadth, and makes it necessary reading for anybody interested in the environment.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall (Vintage) is also encyclopedic, albeit in a personal sense, and manages the not inconsiderable trick of being both scarifyingly funny and deeply moving (how many other writers are likely to describe getting drunk and throwing up in Björk’s toilet?).
Finally, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog (Scribe, 5/16). Like all her novels, it explores the often unarticulated complexities of the intersection of the personal and the political with exquisite grace and intelligence.
It’s been a magnificent year for books by Australian women, but I won’t discuss some of the books that I would normally be celebrating, since I’m reading them for the Stella Prize. Among books by men, one stands out: Anthony Macris’s explosively funny Inexperience (UWA Publishing, 12/16). The first part is a sequence of stories describing the quickly deflating love affair of a pair of Australians seeing Europe, and each other, in the absence of love and wonder. Macris charts the hyper-aware thoughts of his decent, stricken narrator, flying home amid dreams of garbage and his mother. Other more comical stories chase obsessions into sad or ridiculous conclusions. Macris is a sincere and sensationally good writer.
I’ve been in the United States this year, so my reading has a distinctly American ‘flavor’. Assuming the country still exists by the time this goes to print (I write on election eve), here are my picks. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 3, 1926–1929 (Cambridge University Press, 8/16) is a superb contribution to a first-rate series, showing Hemingway up close as he becomes a major writer.
It was a treat to have our greatest television critic, Clive James, return to his beat with the excellent and enjoyable Play All: A bingewatcher’s notebook (Yale University Press, 11/16).
Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right (Scribe, 10/16) is surely one of the most important political books of the decade, vital for understanding America’s hyper-partisan politics.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 12/16) – the first American Booker-winner – is currently whizbanging about my head: a stunning satire that leaves no third-rail untouched.
My favourite work of fiction in this year was Georgia Blain’s lush and loss-ridden Between a Wolf and a Dog. It’s a novel about the ways in which we hurt each other, or are hurt by the world, yet it is hopeful and redemptive in the small moments and minute joys that it charts.
In non-fiction, I loved Catriona Menzies-Pike’s The Long Run (Simon & Schuster, 4/16) for its fascinating exploration of women’s bodies in sport and in public, and the delicious humour it directs at runners as a species.
As for poetry, Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food (UQP, 12/16) delighted me with its emotional heft, its sustaining interest in community and love, and the sparse balance of its lyricism and language.
Two of our finest writers on place – Nicolas Rothwell (Quicksilver, Text Publishing, 12/16) and Kim Mahood (Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories, Scribe, 9/16) – demonstrate why it is impossible to understand Australia without venturing into the interior and far reaches of the continent. Divining the sacred, Rothwell moves effortlessly from Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia to the Pilbara, while Mahood returns to the Tanami, the country that has shaped so much of her artistic and literary practice.
In The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their craft (Black Inc., 8/16), Tom Griffiths, one of our most acclaimed historians of place, turns his eye to his ‘favourite’ historians and writers, distilling the essence of good history and subtly revealing why the discipline’s limitations are also its greatest source of strength.
Finally, two outstanding examples of biographical writing: Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry and Robert Forster’s Grant & I (Hamish Hamilton, 11/16).
This year I was taken by Michelle Cahill’s new collection of poems, The Herring Lass (ARC Publications), a characteristically restless migration across continents and vast bodies of water, fearlessly interrogating dynamics of power and subjugation in both human and animal worlds; Cahill’s collection strikes against the tyranny of the ‘desiccating colonies’ with a supple intellect and graceful musicality.
I was impressed by Dan Disney’s witty, erudite, quickfire either, Orpheus (UWA Publishing). Disney’s inventive takes on the villanelle, held in playful conversation with poets and philosophers, turn the well-worn form (in one instance, quite literally) on its head.
Further afield, I loved Ottessa Moshfegh’s début novel, Eileen (Vintage), mordant psychological thriller in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it is one of the most gripping and disturbing novels I’ve read in years.
Jordie Albiston’s, Jack & Mollie (& Her) (UQP, 5/16) ticks the three essential boxes for a verse novel: it tells a gripping story, it has well fleshed-out characters, and the poetry demands a second reading. It is a book for dog lovers (Jack and Mollie are canine characters), as well as readers interested in the boss dog – Albiston’s expressive rendering of the black dog.
In Mothering Sunday (Scribner), Graham Swift is at his best. This short, perfectly structured novel tells of an orphan housemaid, her lover, and a day of illuminating bliss. Told from a single point of view, the narrative moves with musical ease between the past, the present, and the unfolding future.
Iris Murdoch’s letters, Living on Paper, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (Chatto & Windus) reveal the philosopher, novelist, and lover in her own uncompromising words. What a woman. What a life.
The great gift this year was Mick: A life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 3/16) by Suzanne Falkiner, which provides the material for a new look at this much-loved writer. Falkiner recovers Stow from the archive, including his own wonderful correspondence, and travels in his footsteps from Geraldton to Harwich and all the way to the Trobriand Islands. She is good on settings, knowing how someone can be out of place where they are most at home, and writes about his loyalties and antipathies with empathy and a dry wit that Stow would surely have appreciated.
Julia Leigh, by contrast, is both hunter and hunted in Avalanche (Hamish Hamilton, 8/16), as she, the woman in the text, pursues a child through IVF. Funny and unflinching, this self-fictionalising prose does just what its title suggests.
It has of course been an extraordinary year globally in politics, with Brexit, Trump, and the rise of insurgent movements of the right and left across the democratic world. Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism (Stanford University Press) offers an extraordinarily prescient account of these developments with a sweeping narrative encompassing global developments.
Fellow expat Australian Saul Newman’s Post-anarchism (Polity) also offers a notable take on contemporary politics, albeit one framed in terms of the shortcomings of democratic politics itself.
I enjoyed Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn: A very unlikely coup (Biteback Publishing, 11/16), not least for the insights it offers into one of the stranger phenomena of the year: the takeover of the British Labour Party by a hard-left fringe that had for decades made little headway within or without the party. Strange days in contemporary democratic politics; but each of these books has way offered some illumination to those curious to understand the key trends and tendencies of our times.
A few years ago I commended The Gorgeous Nothings (2013), the first full-colour facsimile publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems scribbled on the backs of envelopes. So it’s possibly cheating to now put forward Envelope Poems (New Directions), a petit curation of these same poems, which, in Susan Howe’s words, seem to ‘arrive as if by telepathic electricity and connect without connectives’. It’s too ravishing to ignore. In the corner of one large envelope Dickinson wrote: ‘Excuse / Emily and / her Atoms / the North / Star is / of small / fabric but it / implies / much / presides / yet.’
Equally a work of art is Melissa Ashley’s début novel, The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), about Elizabeth Gould, who created more than 650 hand-coloured lithographs for The Birds of Australia and other publications.
Turning to living poets, I was especially taken with Liam Ferney’s Content (Hunter Publishing), which I regard as a genuine knockout.
Philippe Sands’s East West Street: On the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ABR, 10/16) is a gripping account of genocide and international justice, mixing the personal and political with rare balance. It also makes a startling companion to Despina Stratigakos’s Hitler at Home (Yale University Press), a fine and original study of Hitler’s carefully crafted domesticity.
With his novel about euthanasia, The Easy Way Out (Hachette, 9/16), Steven Amsterdam cements his place as one of Australia’s best contemporary novelists. The opening scene is excruciating.
Gillian Mears’s The Cat with the Coloured Tail (Walker Books Australia) enthralled my daughters and me. It’s an odd, pensive, beautiful parable for children, and a fine last work by a wonderful Australian writer.
My picks this year illustrate the pleasure that writing can give to its readers. There are very few writers whose personal essays seem to deepen and widen on a second or even a third or fourth read, but Helen Garner is one of them. Her style is inimitable, for while its elegance is undeniable, its essence is pre-verbal, grounded in her intense and unique ways of looking and seeing. Everywhere I Look (Text Publishing, 5/16) seems the ideal title for her 2016 essay collection.
Sticking with women writers from post-colonial countries, I’d also nominate Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, a very funny novel called Hag-Seed: The Tempest retold (Hogarth, 11/16), which is another joy to read. Exuberant, witty, and deeply humane, it reflects Atwood’s mercurial mind and intellectual depth. It is also a very clever exercise in the reading and re-reading of Shakespeare, something that may never get old.
In Music and Freedom (Vintage, 8/16), Zoë Morrison begins with wisps of piano, all those black notes guiding hands, the act of learning and playing. When it enters, the counter-melody is violent and sad, a choice that reverberates in this memorable début novel.
John Murphy’s biography of H.V. Evatt (NewSouth, 11/16) has tragedy, too, if self-inflicted. Murphy gives us a driven man without humour, sophisticated and naïve, a blunt force who achieves much but ends up bewildered and frustrated.
The study of character flows through the fourteen portraits offered in Tom Griffiths’s The Art of Time Travel. Griffiths evokes a conversation across generations about the nature of scholarship and experience. Always generous, if sometimes gently disappointed, this is a meditation on Australian intellectual history to savour.
Shivaun Plozza is a fresh new voice in Young Adult fiction, and her angry heroine Frankie (Penguin, 6/16) is an engaging rebel with a definite cause. The racy, first-person narration shows a keen understanding of contemporary teenagers, and humour is found in the unlikeliest of situations.
Children love Leigh Hobbs’s Mr Chicken wherever he goes, but I especially treasure Mr Chicken Arriva a Roma (Allen & Unwin) because the Australian Children’s Laureate takes him to my favourite city in the world – and to Via Margutta, where I once lived.
A big hooray for the return of Stella Montgomery, Judith Rossell’s plucky little orphan from Withering-by-Sea (2014), now banished by her awful aunts to Wormwood Mire (ABC Books), a mouldering old family mansion full of dark secrets where she is to live with her two odd cousins and their governess. Thrills, chills, and magic – what’s not to enjoy?
Helen Garner’s collection Everywhere I Look was a pure delight. It showcases Garner’s distinctive voice and her take on the world around her. Her view on things is unpredictable, distinctive, and original.
Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things (Fourth Estate) examines the killing of a young American woman in South Africa by a mob just before the fall of apartheid. Van der Leun finds the killers of Amy Biehl and over four years dissects the case and in doing so exposes the hopes and failings of modern South Africa.
Music and Freedom by Zoë Morrison, a novel about domestic violence, is this year’s best début.
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race (Hachette, 10/16) should be read by every Australian. It lays bare our attitudes to race.
The book that will stay with me well beyond this year is Universal Man: The seven lives of John Maynard Keynes by the historian Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, 12/15). His stunning success is in assembling seven different narratives of the legendary economist who turns out to be so very much more than this mere title. It travels similar ground to the classic Skidelsky biography but summarises the incomparable, diverse skills of this British polymath. Above all, he reminds us of the incomparable importance of persuasion, as a key skill that should exist in every reformer’s quiver. Oh, how needed right now.
I would recommend Madeline Gleeson’s Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru (NewSouth, 8/16), not because it makes pleasant reading, but because it comprehensively documents a reality we must face. Together with the Guardian’s Nauru Files and Four Corner’s ‘Forgotten Children’ exposé, Offshore leaves Australian citizens with nowhere to hide from the crimes committed in our name.
My favourite Australian novel of 2016 was Jacinta Halloran’s elegant and engaging The Science of Appearances (Scribe, 11/16). I suggest it as an antidote to the horrors catalogued in Offshore, because it celebrates those things that make for a flourishing human life: the love of family, a connection to place, and a feeling of belonging, intimacy, sex, art, science, human endeavour, a sense of purpose, hope in the future, and the capacity for moral judgement.
Two dark novels about claustrophobic worlds and captured characters impressed me this year. Charlotte Wood’s dystopian vision of the logical consequence of a misogynistic society, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 11/15), took me into a penal colony for young women who had proved an inconvenience to powerful men, and then went further: into what happens when your dreams die. It’s a surreal exploration of the way mind, body, and soul can transcend fetters.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Text Publishing) is a portrait of another closed society, a remote crofting village in nineteenth-century Scotland, and a shocking and seemingly inexplicable act of murder by a teenage villager. Accounts, witness reports, and a trial, all set down as in an authentic case, gradually reveal a truth that is chilling yet inevitable: the power of a feudal system that supports petty tyrants, stereotypes its criminals, and grinds down its victims.
The Romanovs, 1613–1918 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 9/16), Simon Sebag Montefiore’s exhaustive trawl through 300 years of Russian family tsardom, is gripping and often astonishing. The whole shebang is typified by Montefiore’s opening words: ‘It was hard to be a tsar. Russia is not an easy country to rule.’
The Long Weekend: Life in the English country house 1918–1939 (Cape), by Adrian Tinniswood, is a gloriously witty Wodehousian account – the stuff of magnificence and madness. For example, this brilliant solution to rewiring an eighteenth-century ballroom without ruining the décor: drop a dead rabbit through the floorboards at one end; at the other, pop in a ferret with the cable round its neck. Voila! Light!
Barry Jones’s The Shock of Recognition is a masterly distillation of the music and literature that has enthralled Australia’s favourite polymath. It’s almost as good as talking with him in person.
I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a collection of poetry as much as Sharon Olds’s Odes (Picador), with all its wit and inventiveness. The contents page alone is a delight (‘Ode to the Clitoris’, ‘Ode to My Fat’, ‘Sexist Ode’, ‘Spoon Ode’). For all their elegiac weight, these poems are joyful and life-affirming, without sentimentality.
Faber cannily avoids calling Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (3/16) poetry, but it owes much to poetry – to Emily Dickinson for the title, and to Ted Hughes for Crow, the oversized bird who helps the book’s grieving family. Porter’s début is a funny, moving, highly original meditation on loss.
Although I have work in both anthologies, I must mention Writing to the Wire (UWA Publishing), poems on (and sometimes by) asylum seekers, and Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter). Each anthology shows Australian poetry to be the urgent, diverse, and engaged thing it is.
A dystopic fable reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s darkest imaginings, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things expands perspectives of the war between men and women, and of what might motivate people who participate – willingly or coerced – in that war. Beyond the horror is a carefully crafted, beautifully observed account of friendship and perseverance.
Any collection of old and new is likely to have rough edges which, if handled well, enchant the reader. This is the case with John Foulcher’s 101 Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 6/16), thirty years’ worth of poems, which are marked by his characteristic gentle wit, close observation, and narrative edge.
I have been a sucker for poetry/photo combos since I read Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes’s Remains of Elmet, and PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy’s The Hollow of the Hand (Bloomsbury) gives them a run for their money. Few songwriters write convincing poetry, but Harvey does, and powerfully.
Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A history of the centuries-long argument over what makes living things tick (University of Chicago Press) is a major work of intellectual history tracing arguments about mind and matter from Descartes onwards.
Less consistent but intermittently brilliant is Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press), which discusses connections between human and non-human creatures in the contemporary epoch.
American writer Mary Gaitskill’s first novel in ten years, The Mare (Serpent’s Tail), also addresses human–animal relations. Although occasionally awkward, it is a rich and stylistically ambitious work.
A collection of essays edited by William Coleman, Only in Australia: The history, politics, and economics of Australian exceptionalism (Oxford University Press), makes timely points about how Australian myths of ‘mateship’ have modulated into bureaucratic idealisations of ‘computing technology ... and the recurrent catastrophic consequences of that misplaced faith’.
J.M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus (Text Publishing, 10/16) is the continuation of a masterpiece that is breathtaking and enthralling in its strangeness.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) is an astonishing and poignant account of the love of two men, written in a window-pane prose that recalls Tolstoy’s.
The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 6: 1932–1933 (Faber) covers the terrible years of Tom’s abandonment of Viv and what provoked him to leave her, but it also includes innumerable instances of his kindness, disregard for convention, and capacity to see the tears in things for others as much as for himself : an unexpected revelation of a book.
The second volume of Charles Moore’s life of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography (Allen Lane), provides us with an absolute steadiness of hand, the kind of wholly credible portrait of the Iron Lady who did as much to shape the world we live in as anyone.
Seamus Heaney’s slightly stilted translation of Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Faber) and Clive James’s nominal versification of his thoughts about Proust (Gate of Lilacs: A verse commentary on Proust [Picador]) are reminders of the world elsewhere in literature, in which all our reading must take its place.
Robert Harris’s Conclave (Hutchinson), full of the white and black smoke of papal election, was the thriller that topped the highbrow trash stakes.
Two of the great contemporary writers, Helen Garner and Tim Winton, published volumes of essays and occasional pieces this year. These work partly as memoir, appealing to our desire to know about the life that feeds into the writing. Garner’s Everywhere I Look is a generous collection of pitch-perfect sketches and reviews, each one taking us with her as she looks, really looks, at the world around her and registers her response to it.
The pieces in Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain (Hamish Hamilton, 12/16) range from a chilling evocation of male adolescence in the title story, through accounts of his love for the sea and its creatures, to his hard-hitting attack on Australia’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers, ‘Stones for Bread’.
My third choice of new books, Edmund Gordon’s excellent The Invention of Angela Carter: A biography (Chatto & Windus), has sent me back to re-read that incomparable fabulist’s books.
I have been eagerly awaiting Kim Mahood’s next book because I loved her Craft for a Dry Lake (2000). Position Doubtful is entrancing and different; it is poetic, gritty, confronting, and inspiring all at once, and offers a rare and valuable window onto Aboriginal Australia.
Another book not to be missed is Mark McKenna’s From the Edge: Australia’s lost histories (Miegunyah), which is a series of deep explorations into places of encounter between Aborigines and settlers. It is riveting scholarly storytelling.
In the same class is Peter McPhee’s Liberty or Death: The French Revolution (Yale University Press, 9/16). And for a distillation of wisdom about Australian cities and the people who imagined their possibilities, you can’t go past Graeme Davison’s City Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia (NewSouth, 11/16).
Many engaging books of poetry were published in 2016. The following are characterised by conspicuously individual poetic voices at a time when so much free verse poetry can sound alike. New Zealand poet Tusiata Avia’s feisty Fale Aitu | Spirit House (Victoria University Press) reveals how the personal and the political may be combined in trenchant and uplifting poetry that is also sometimes lyrical.
Have Been and Are (GloriaSMH Press) continues Brook Emery’s exploration of a personal metaphysics of landscape and self in poems that are simultaneously beguiling, worldly, unworldly, and allusive.
John Kinsella’s Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador) encapsulates much of the best of thirty years of his obsessive and protean poetry, which has the environment and its degradations at its restless centre.
Susan Varga’s Rupture: Poems 2012–15 (UWA Publishing, 10/16) is not always technically sophisticated, yet it speaks with a persuasive truthfulness of difficult personal circumstances, allowing the reader wide spaces in which to travel, move, and think.
Kim Mahood spent much of her childhood on a cattle station in the Tanami Desert. In Position Doubtful, she records her experience of returning after a gap of years to that place and working as an artist with its traditional owners. Though written with the immediacy of a journal, this is a sustained meditation on different ways of mapping place. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes grumpy, sometimes elegiac, but always frank, Position Doubtful ranges across the wide meaning of country, extending past landscape into story, family, history, politics, geology, art, memory, and belonging. It is a vivid and memorable book.
Tom Griffiths’s The Art of Time Travel is a powerful meditation on the nature of historical enquiry by one of our leading historians. Its appearance was especially timely in a year that saw the passing of Inga Clendinnen and John Mulvaney, who both feature prominently in its pages.
The year saw many accounts of recent Australian politics, from Niki Savva’s blistering The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government (Scribe, 6/16) to Sarah Ferguson’s elegant The Killing Season Uncut (Melbourne University Press, 8/16), a disturbing account of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd era and the making of a television documentary on it. But my personal favourite was Brad Norington’s Planet Jackson: Power, greed and unions (Melbourne University Press). A veteran journalist, Norington shows that he understands precisely what is at stake in union corruption: the betrayal of workers and, via those unions’ influence on the Labor Party, the government of us all.
If there are rules for memoirists, two outstanding recent memoirs probably break most of them. Michael Wilding in his marvellous Growing Wild (Arcadia, 8/16) wittily undermines the idea that memory will serve by doubting the accuracy of many of his recollections then casting doubt on his doubts with veritable riffs of rhythmically incisive detail.
Tim Winton’s Island Home: A landscape memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 11/15) is a Wordsworthian and Blakean engagement with nature as a living, shaping force. Through observation and experience of the clamorous, mysterious world of natura naturans, Winton obliquely tracks some of the paths of his own life.
Two other writers who excitingly and confidently challenge the boundaries of their genre are Shirley Hazzard (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected essays, Columbia University Press, 5/16) and Graeme Davison (City Dreamers). In both, as in Wilding and Winton, erudition and intelligence are sharpened and enlivened by wit, eloquence, and daring.
It’s been a great year for books that offer a personal perspective on our shared experience as Australians. Drusilla Modjeska’s Second Half First (Knopf, 11/15) and Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look present some of their most thoughtful work. Frank Bongiorno’s The Eighties: The decade that transformed Australia (Black Inc.) wittily reminds us of the ambiguities of a time usually depicted in a rosy glow. Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful probes through layers of understanding of the people and land where she was born, across the Tanami Desert to the East Kimberley; it is rich with insights delivered with sensitivity and honesty.
For sheer reading pleasure, though, I recommend Idle Talk: Gwen Harwood letters 1960–64 edited by Alison Hoddinott (Brandl & Schlesinger) where Harwood amuses her friend (and us) with the vicissitudes of 1960s suburban life in Hobart.
I’ve particularly enjoyed this year The Art of Time Travel, Tom Griffiths’s beautifully pondered account of the work of fourteen Australian historians; and, from the other side of the world, a pair of absorbing biographies: Richard Davenport-Hines’s Universal Man: The seven lives of John Maynard Keynes and Hugh Purcell’s A Very Private Celebrity: The nine lives of John Freeman (The Robson Press). That’s sixteen lives for the two Englishmen, if you take the titles literally – almost as many as cats are traditionally granted – but both men, as these authors show, were indeed quite brilliantly diverse in their talents, aspirations, and achievements, and their life stories are hard to put down.
Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton) is the first novel in a proposed series of four. It is about the edges of life and what can be said without words, the language of cow parsley and silence, love, transposition, borders, and translation. It extends strands of Smith’s short stories in Public Library and Other Stories (2015), about reading, anagrams, and etymology, and enacts a poetics of the digressive and layered, the fructive and petalled.
Judith Wright’s Collected Poems (Fourth Estate) is an updated collection of the poet’s work with a beautiful celebratory essay by John Kinsella.
Then Come Back: The lost Neruda poems (Copper Canyon Press) is a bilingual edition of poems discovered in 2014, translated by Forrest Gander with an exactitude that itself interrogates the art and limits of translation.
Nigerian-born Timothy Ogene’s Descent and Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions) examines love, doubt, solitude and migration in attentive, luminous poems.
I particularly admired Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians (Text Publishing), which is an urgent, semi-Dostoevskian story of brokenness, sexual awakening, perversion, and (partial) redemption, written in a lively, Joycean style. McBride’s uncompromising first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Text Publishing) set the bar formidably high, but The Lesser Bohemians doesn’t disappoint.
It’s been a great year for the shorter forms of Australian fiction. Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers (Black Inc., 8/16) is an elegantly constructed, knowing, and funny collection of invented biographical profiles of Australian literary figures. O’Neill blends satire, formal playfulness, and pathos with rare skill.
Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo, 12/16) is a high-literary, reflexive, empathetic, and diverse assortment of outward-looking fictions that pack a punch, and Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 8/16) is uniquely surreal, entertaining, and sometimes dazzling.
It has been a rich year for fiction, but the book which stands out most for me is a biography. Suzanne Falkiner’s Mick is a beautiful and detailed examination of Randolph Stow’s life, supported by a wealth of research. This is a work which not only feels overdue, but is touching in its intimacy.
More playfully, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers collates (hilarious) fictional biographies to form a larger narrative, probing the idiosyncrasies of both Australian literary culture and the biographical genre. Read side-by-side, these two works seem to push at what biography might be – one in a positive sense, the other through the ridiculous, with a marvellous sense of fun.
These three books were balm in a year pocked by venality and a narcissistic degradation of language. Powerful words, flowing from writers whose depth of experience is matched by their integrity and frankness.
The essays in Tom Griffith’s The Art of Time Travel, about his fellow Australian historians, many of them women, is a revelatory and reconciliatory sweep of a landscape too often obscured by academic infighting. A stylish joy to read.
Imagine an Australian politician game enough to utter these words: ‘Music ... is an epiphany, a sudden exposure to the numinous.’ Barry Jones is game – always has been. The tour of his musical and literary milestones in The Shock of Recognition: The books and music that have inspired me (Allen & Unwin) is as beguiling for its self-revelation as for its extraordinary erudition.
Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain roots you to the spot, forces you to ask questions – about yourself, about the way we live. Sinewy and lyrical by turns, Winton’s is an authentic Australian voice to trumpet to a world audience.
In my early twenties, enthralled by the work of Paul Bowles, I began to use the intrepid author’s philosophy of travel as a guide for my reading life. Bowles wanted each place he visited to be new and unexpected. I want books to usher me into unforeseen regions, writers who allow me to think and feel more deeply. The Mozambican novelist Paulina Chiziane surprised and left me in awe with The First Wife: A tale of polygamy (Archipelago Books).
With grace, humour, and a story that feels absolutely necessary, Brett Pierce’s memoir, Beyond the Vapour Trail (Transit Lounge), confronts us with the life and work of an international aid worker.
Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on art, sex, and the mind (Sceptre) offers a continuing education, while Annie Dillard – marvel and unclassifiable gem – reveals how the everyday can astonish in her selected essays, The Abundance (Canongate, 9/16).
The High Places by Fiona McFarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 1/16) does indeed take us to high and strange places with perfectly tuned prose and a deeply intelligent sensibility. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities is a slippery and subversive collection that made me laugh aloud as it sank a knife into contemporary Australia. I laughed along with Ryan O’Neill too, in Their Brilliant Careers, a romp through a fictional literary history of Australia where the familiar is twisted into the ridiculous. The Rules of Backyard Cricket (Text Publishing, 10/16) by Jock Serong, while classified as ‘crime’, is a compelling literary novel dissecting toxic sporting culture and its fallout.
Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue (Pan Macmillan) is a deeply moving love letter to books and words and a landmark in contemporary Australian Young Adult literature for being both highly readable and literary, as well as for its ability to convince any reader that books really do matter.
In After the Carnage (UQP, 9/16), Tara June Winch reveals her trademark capacity to depict ordinary lives. Winch demonstrates that sparse, succinct language can be used to conjure memorable images that stay inside your head long afterwards.
Four books where my pleasure was pretty much unalloyed were Gate of Lilacs by Clive James, The Fox Petition by Jennifer Maiden (Giramondo, 4/16), 101 Poems by John Foulcher, and Jack & Mollie (& Her) by Jordie Albiston. James’s blank verse Gate of Lilacs may well persuade those who abandoned À la recherche du temps perdu to persevere. Maiden’s latest collection addressing recent political history is remarkable for the intensity and complexity of its moral vision. Foulcher’s 101 Poems is a timely opportunity to sample the achievement of this sometimes underestimated poet. Albiston’s Jack & Mollie (& Her) is not a strangely written account of a depressed female poet’s relationship with her two dogs: it is an important and affecting book by a leading Australian poet.
Originally published in German, Albrecht Dümling’s The Vanished Musicians: Jewish refugees in Australia (Peter Lang), a fascinating compendium of Jewish musicians who found refuge in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, is now available in Australian Diana K. Weekes’s excellent translation ...
For the eleventh year in a row, we seek entries in the Calibre Essay Prize – the country’s premier prize for an unpublished non-fiction essay. Calibre is now worth a total of $7,500. The winner will receive $5,000; the runner-up, $2,500. Both essays will appear in ABR. Once again, Calibre is open to anyone writing in English around the world. We recommend the quick, inexpensive online entry system. Guidelines and the entry form are available on our website. Entries will close on 15 March 2017.
All previous Calibre-winning essays are available online, including Michael Winkler’s ‘The Great Red Whale’, which has just been reproduced in The Best Australian Essays 2016, edited by Geordie Williamson. These essays have contributed to a major rejuvenation of the essay form. As always, we thank Colin Golvan QC (Chair of ABR) for his generous support for Calibre.
It’s a heady time for anthology fetishists and a propitious one for Australian poets, with several anthologies appearing in recent weeks. Poets always crave a guernsey in Black Inc.’s The Best Australian Poems, and this year Sarah Holland-Batt (winner of the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry) has chosen works by 108 poets, including (drum roll) a dozen that were first published by ABR. Many of these appeared in our online national project, States of Poetry.
Acts of anthologising are ambitious (risky, some might say). There is a particularly expansive new volume from Puncher & Wattmann: Contemporary Australian Poetry, edited by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson, and David Musgrave. There are 239 poets and more than 500 poems. The publisher makes considerable claims for our national poetry: ‘While no one was looking, our poetry has become too large for the space set aside for it, too important to be quiet, and too insistent to be ignored. It has evolved into one of our country’s greatest cultural achievements.’
Launching the book in Sydney, David Malouf said: ‘Poetry really is, at the moment, the most flourishing of the literary arts in Australia: much more interesting and much more sure of itself, it seems to me, than the novel or any kind of prose.’
Other anthologies worth noting are Bonny Cassidy and Jessica L. Wilkinson’s Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter Publishers), John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan’s The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, and Jamie Grant’s 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know (Hardie Grant Books).
Canadian poet, novelist, and singer–songwriter Leonard Cohen died on 7 November at the age of eighty-two. A revered musical figure, he was best known for exploring themes of religion, politics, and personal relationships through his spoken-word styled song.
Cohen lived for many years on the ‘amphitheatric’ island of Hydra. He crops up in Paul Genoni’s article ('Hydra as intimate theatre'), part of the circle of artists and expatriates that surrounded Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift on the Greek island. Cohen described the ‘glorious setting at Hydra’ as a youthful idyll: ‘Everybody was beautiful and young and full of talent and covered with a gold dust.’ It was there that he met one of his many paramours, Marianne Ihlen, who was once prophetically told that she was ‘going to meet a man who speaks with a tongue of gold’.
Clearly, after the egregious US presidential election, we can now dub this The Age of Scorn. How fitting it was to receive a publication titled Scorn: The wittiest and wickedest insults in human history (Profile Books, $24.99 hb, 9781781257296). Matthew Parris, the editor, once served as a British MP, so he should know a thing or two about vituperation.
All our favourites are there, including Gore Vidal on Ronald Reagan (‘A triumph of the embalmer’s art’), Tom Lehrer on Dr Kissinger (‘Satire died the day they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize. There are no jokes left after that’), and Nancy on Ronald Reagan (‘He doesn’t make snap decisions but he doesn’t overthink either’). The aperçus of Donald Trump are not represented, but, following his elevation to the (do not adjust your set) White House, we can doubtless look forward to an appendix in the next edition.
Australia, as in most British anthologies, is poorly represented, but at least Lady Diana visited the place and dispensed loving cheer to a one-armed man: ‘My, you must have fun chasing the soap around the bath.’
As ever, Aristophanes should have the last word: ‘Under every stone lurks a politician.’
Flinders University has published a bumper November issue of its free online journal Transnational Literature. The current issue contains essays, reviews, stories, and poetry dealing with themes of cross-cultural interaction from sixty residents of fifteen countries. Gillian Dooley is the general editor, and its book reviews editor is Patrick Allington. Contributors to this issue include David Adès, Claire Gaskin, and Satendra Nandan.
We love hearing from our readers, and surveys help us to improve the magazine and to augment its appeal to new readers and advertisers. This month we’re conducting a new online survey aimed at gaining a more accurate profile of our readers. This survey will be totally anonymous – unless you wish to be in the running for one of our juicy prizes (in which case we will need your name and email address). The survey is now available on our website.
There’s still time to give a friend a six-month subscription to ABR (print or online). New and renewing subscribers can do so up until 31 December. You can qualify for this special offer by renewing your current subscription even before it is due to lapse. Why not introduce a young reader or writer to ABR?
To highlight Australian Book Review’s arts coverage and to celebrate some of the year’s memorable concerts, operas, films, ballets, plays, and art exhibitions, we invited a group of critics and arts professionals to nominate some favourites.
Creeping nationalism has been one of the more depressing aspects of 2016, but at least most leading opera houses are opening their artistic borders rather than shutting them. My year of highlights began and ended with two striking examples of this, with Polish National Opera inviting an outsider (David Pountney) to direct Stanisław Moniuszko’s Haunted Manor for the first time and the Hungarian State Opera doing the same with Zoltán Kodály’s Spinning Room (Michał Znaniecki). In between, the first production at Covent Garden of George Enescu’s Oedipe (by the Catalan collective La fura dels baus) represented a turning point for this Romanian masterpiece. Happily, this year has also seemed to bring more productions of Bohuslav Martinů’s operas outside the Czech lands than ever before. The only setback for Czech music I heard was Simon Rattle’s patronisingly distorted performances of Anton Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms – one of the year’s turkeys.
The most memorable concerts were more intimate affairs at the Wigmore Hall: the Heath Quartet’s sensational Bartók cycle at the Wigmore Hall and an evening of Beethoven songs with baritone Matthias Goerne and period-pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. Beethoven really created the first song cycle in An die ferne Geliebte, but few performers show how, in addition to his longing for ‘the distant beloved’, the call of the mountains and meadows echo his Pastoral Symphony.
Orava Quartet played the Shostakovich String Quartet No 8 in the BBC Proms salon series at Melbourne Recital Centre. These young men are the real deal, and they performed the work with all the intensity it deserves. We’re used to seeing this work played so well by other vigorous quartets such as Brodsky and Kronos, but Orava are the next generation and it’s so good to see a young Australian quartet taking its music so seriously.
There is a unique collaboration between Gavin Webber (dancer, choreographer co-founder of contemporary dance company The Farm) and Kayah Guenther, a young man who has Downs Syndrome. With a highly respectful approach, of the kind that Back to Back Theatre exemplifies, this is tough and uncompromising dance in which no quarter is given. Both dancers give their all in a highly physical exchange. When Kayah steps forward and says, haltingly, ‘When I dance I feel strong. I am a strong man’, there’s not a dry eye in the house. You’ll have to travel far to see the next performance – at the Puerto de Ideas in Valparaiso, Chile in November 2016.
Shifting Sands was a large-scale community event for Bleach on the Gold Coast. Directed with characteristic authenticity and flair by Donna Jackson, the event combined paddle-boarders, oral history, local Indigenous people, the Queensland Ballet, synchronised swimmers, and some cool music to document the life and times of the beloved Currumbin Estuary. Held at dusk, it was a beautiful work which celebrated a place and its people with grace, fun, and awe: an object lesson in terrific community process resulting in an excellent end-product.
2016 was not, for me, a stellar year for new Australian theatre. My highlights were international – the deeply moving non-professional cast of 600 Highwaymen’s wordless The Record at OzAsia – and musical: Robyn Archer’s fierce and funny Brecht/Weill revue, Dancing on the Volcano, at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival; the State Opera of South Australia’s production of George Palmer’s Cloudstreet (Arts Update, 5/16); and James Morrison in concert with his youthful big band, the prodigiously swinging Academy Jazz Orchestra.
Neil Armfield’s King Lear at Sydney Theatre Company, with Geoffrey Rush masterful in the title role, did not disappoint (Arts Update, 11/15). I had looked forward to Machu Picchu at State Theatre Company of South Australia, but its reteaming of director Geordie Brookman and playwright Sue Smith from 2014’s superb Kryptonite did not see lightning strike twice. But let’s face it – most everyone had their work cut out for them in what was a bleak year to be an artist in this country.
Northern hemisphere choreographers dominated the 2016 Australian dance calendar, beginning with the Pina Bausch Company’s Nelken (Carnations) at the Adelaide Festival (Arts Update, 3/16), and Spanish-born Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris for Sydney Dance Company.
The Australian Ballet presented short works by three of the world’s most illustrious artists – William Forsythe, Jiři Kylián, and Christopher Wheeldon – but memories of these were but all but eradicated by John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, created for the Hamburg Ballet, which he has directed for forty years (Arts Update, 9/16). Nijinsky is a monumental experience for dancers, musicians, and audiences alike, as it delves into the fantasies and psychotic episodes through which the greatest Russian dancer of his day recounted his glamorous career and his decline into madness. Rarely have the dancers of The Australian Ballet been so drilled and galvanised, dancing beyond their experience into such contrasting worlds of war and terror, as well as the beauty and sexually ambiguous ethos of the Ballets Russes.
On a much smaller scale, existentialism, absence, and longing have fueled Rafael Bonachela’s recent works for Sydney Dance Company, nowhere better than this year’s Lux Tenebris. Nick Wales’s dense, moody score underpins the vital ways Bonachela has begun to complicate his stage pictures. Lux Tenebris was as exhilarating as it was emotionally commanding, and the dancers of Sydney Dance Company, who always look wonderful under Bonachela’s direction, revealed themselves as heroes of a completely different class.
In cinemas, ‘live’ screenings from the Royal Ballet delivered treasures in spades: revivals of two Frederick Ashton choreographies: Rhapsody and Le Deux Pigeons; and a new Frankenstein by Liam Scarlett, whose A Midsummer Night’s Dream was sold-out hit for Queensland Ballet in April (Arts Update, 4/16). The Australian Ballet has announced it will screen its Sleeping Beauty (Arts Update, 9/16) in 2017, but it will need to find more talented, local choreographers if it wants to show new, home-grown product to the world at large.
The Brisbane Baroque festival may have ended chaotically with stories of unpaid artists, but it included several excellent concerts and its imported production of Handel’s Agrippina was an undoubted highlight, fully deserving the several Helpmann awards that came its way. Laurence Dale’s witty production played up the black comedy of Grimani’s libretto, and the cast was uniformly excellent.
An equally excellent cast, combined with Kip William’s compelling production, made STC’s version of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (Arts Update, 6/16) an unforgettable experience. Sunset Song was quintessential Terence Davies, long, slow, beautiful, and ultimately extraordinarily moving (Arts Update, 9/16).
It was good to welcome back to the stage two splendid performers, Keith Robinson at Belvoir and Marta Dusseldorp at Griffin, though it is to be hoped that the next project Dusseldorp takes on is worthier of her talent than Benedict Andrews’s wilfully obscure, overheated melodrama Gloria.
One of the most memorable performances I saw this year was at a half-full theatrette in Brunswick – the Mechanics Institute – where André De Vanny was doing Swansong, the award-winning dramatic monologue by Irish actor and writer Conor McDermottroe. It was an absolute tour de force, but one that got lost in the mad ruck of this year’s Fringe Festival.
This year I decided to forswear all theatre presented at both the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Malthouse, the idea being that occasional abstinence works as a cure against the creep of cynicism. I did, however, break my pledge in order to see the adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock directed by Matthew Lutton (Arts Update, 3/16), a gothic nightmare which I enjoyed immensely. I was also very impressed with director Tanya Gerstle’s production of Mill on the Floss at Theatre Works (Arts Update, 8/16): a powerful ensemble piece with a provoking feminist theme.
Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony holds a special place in my life. As a tuba student at the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne in the early 1980s, the Resurrection Symphony was the ambitious 1985 repertoire for the Conservatorium orchestra. Fast forward about six years and I was working in a management role at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra when the late Stuart Challender embarked on a memorable cycle of symphonies as part of his tenure as Chief Conductor of the SSO. It was therefore very special to return to the mighty Sydney Town Hall and hear that work with the current Chief Conductor, David Robertson, on a Sunday afternoon in July.
In contrast, I was honoured to step into the world of central Australian artists at the Annual ‘Desert Mob’ Exhibition, Symposium, and Market Place at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs. The gathering puts a spotlight on and brings together a showcase of artists from the thirty-nine Indigenous arts centres across central Australia. There are very few experiences that mix a gathering of artists and art lovers who can meet, talk, and learn about the culture of this stunning region, as well as presenting an opportunity to purchase a valuable piece of work at the market place.
2016 seems to have been a Così fan tutte year throughout the world, but the Opera Australia production by David McVicar was the highlight. This most difficult opera to bring off successfully was given a searching, elegant, vocally resplendent, and ultimately moving series of performances in Sydney (Arts Update, 7/16). A production of the Mozart opera at the Vienna Volksoper drew on an imaginative concept: staging it as a student rehearsal of the opera, but ultimately failed to deliver, abandoning the concept during the first half (Arts Update, 7/16). My musical highlight was the performance of Schubert’s masterpiece, Die Winterreise, performed by Matthias Goerne, with projections by William Kentridge, as part of the Sydney Festival in January (Arts Update, 1/16). It was stunning both musically and visually.
I loved German writer-director Maren Ade’s epic and comic Toni Erdmann, which I saw at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Ade lets the relationship between a father and his adult daughter play out in awkward, hilarious, often protracted detail, in a work that seems excessive and perfectly balanced, brutal and generous at the same time. I would also single out MIFF’s program Gaining Ground, consisting of six films directed by women in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s, ranging from the deadpan comedy of Elaine May’s A New Leaf to the feminist near-future uprising of Lizzie Borden’s Born In Flames. Curation at its best.
Dancers feel vibrations through a sprung floor. Orchestral musicians too: double basses sawing away on a decent stage, say. This same visceral sensation was there in Opera Queensland’s Snow White, where Silvia Colloca as the Queen lay on the ground wailing like a singer in a Fado tavern, the sound cutting through us all, the show cumulatively reeling us in. Writer Tim Dunlop would approve, for in his book Why the Future is Workless he ring-fences artists from the enormous changes taking place in the way we work. In punchy, elegant prose he writes optimistically of shifting practices and priorities – if only we can all get our heads around it.
Liza Lim’s opera Tree of Codes, based on the cut-out book by Jonathan Safran Foer and premièred in Cologne, is a virtuosic, mesmerising exploration of memory and time, of colour and sound, simultaneously a challenge to the genre and a pretty good roadmap. We need to hear her more.
My highlight of the Sydney Festival was an utterly compelling performance of Dusapin’s ‘O Mensch!’ cycle by baritone Mitch Reilly and pianist Jack Symonds. Beautifully lit and directed, this Sydney Chamber Opera production turned the work into an expressionist monodrama.
The new Verbrugghen Ensemble under John Lynch gave a stunning rendition of a radically downsized Fourth Symphony by Mahler, which revealed fresh aspects of an old favourite. Continuing the Mahler theme, the in-form Sydney Symphony Orchestra delivered a monumental Resurrection Symphony with David Robertson on the podium in Sydney Town Hall.
Within the world of opera, the Met broadcast of Strauss’s Elektra showcased a fabulous cast of singers headed by Nina Stemme in the final production of the late Patrice Chéreau: an effectively minimalist staging which humanised the monstrous characters. At home, George Petean was outstanding in the title role of Opera Australia’s Simon Boccanegra, and Nicole Car and Anna Dowsley shone in David McVicar’s stylish production of Così fan tutte.
For 2017, Jonas Kaufmann in OA’s concert performance of Parsifal, and Martha Argerich’s belated Australian début with SSO are unmissable.
In what has been an often-rewarding year for cinema, Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, for my money, just pips at the post such strong competitors as Brooklyn (Arts Update, 2/16), the tonally perfect adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, and Simon Stone’s daring relocation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to a modern-day rundown setting in rural Australia: The Daughter (Arts Update, 3/16). Davies sets his film in pre-Great War Aberdeenshire. With his wonderful flair for evoking time and place, he chronicles the life of a teenage girl as she copes with a puritanical father, a bullied mother who dies too early, and a husband who will be traumatised by his wartime experiences. This may sound gloomy, but the overall effect is both elegiac and quietly hopeful.
Two theatrical experiences stand out. The Bell Shakespeare’s Othello achieved that rare melding of the poetic and the conversational among its uniformly fine cast (Arts Update, 7/16). At fortyfivedownstairs, Wit was a stark and confronting study of a woman dying from ovarian cancer, played with lacerating lack of compromise – and, indeed, with wit – by Jane Montgomery Griffiths.
On television, I hugely admired The Night Of (HBO, Arts Update, 9/16), The Kettering Incident (Foxtel, Arts Update 9/16), and Stranger Things (Netflix), whose child actors – particularly Millie Bobby Brown – gave wonderful performances.
My theatrical performance of the year is called ASSSSCAT. I know it sounds odd, but in American comedy circles ASSSSCAT has the canonical ring of Bell Shakespeare or Monty Python. It is the flagship improvisational comedy show of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a theatre responsible for a staggering array of talent – Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, and Zach Galifianakis, to name a few. Every Sunday night in Hollywood, film and television actors come together to improvise a comedy on stage. It is, consistently, brilliant – with a full-house shouting laughter at a show that crackles with wit, has a polish you would expect from scripted comedy, and the intellectual sparkle of a cast composing lines as they deliver them in bravura comic performances. ASSSSCAT is truly exhilarating theatre.
Arts Update 7/16) and New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Arts Update, 10/16) – offered refreshing and innovative takes on their subjects. Degas was curated by former Louvre Director Henri Loyrette and showed the full range of this most creative and inventive of artists, from his student work to the late paintings, and included his remarkable photography and a fine selection of sculpture. New Objectivity – expertly curated by Stephanie Barron – presented a brilliant and at times confronting thematic display of paintings, prints, books, photographs, and film from the Weimar era.Two major exhibitions – Degas: A New Vision (National Gallery of Victoria,
Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Melbourne recital of Olivier Messiaen’s majestic cycle for solo piano, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, was one of the great concerts, amply justifying its 2016 Helpmann Award for Best Individual Classical Performance (Arts Update, 3/16). Aimard enthralled the audience with his artistry and technical mastery of this keyboard marathon.
Several productions confirmed Sydney Theatre Company’s status as the country’s pre-eminent theatre company, notwithstanding regime change and the abrupt ouster of its new artistic director, Jonathan Church. Two productions stood out: King Lear, still running in the New Year. Directed by Neil Armfield and starring Geoffrey Rush, this was a loss-filled and nihilistic Lear, one that eschewed grandiloquence. The STC complemented the world-wide Arthur Miller revival with an inspired production of All My Sons. Director Kip Williams drew consummate performances from his players.
Bravo to the MSO for programming Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Arts Update, 8/16), not heard in Melbourne since 1971. Hard-pressed choristers and soloists may not lament its infrequency, but Andrew Davis (more galvanic than usual) led a revelatory performance of the Mass.
Few present will ever forget Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Virtuosic in the extreme, this was a mesmeric performance that somehow transcended pianism.
Mariusz Treliński’s new production of Tristan und Isolde, at the Metropolitan Opera, was similarly unforgettable (Arts Update, 9/16). Nina Stemme confirmed her ranking as one of the finest singers of the age, Stuart Skelton was consummate, and Simon Rattle drew great playing from the Met’s phenomenal orchestra.
Australian Chamber Orchestra’s performance featuring the magnificent Russian-born, Vienna-based pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja was one of unalloyed pleasures of a year packed with peerless pianism. Grandest of grandes dames of the piano, Leonskaja’s matchless Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, the so-called Jeunehomme, was flanked by elegant arrangements by Timo-Veikko Valve of the sextet from Capriccio and Beethoven’s late quartet Opus 127. This was programming at its best, and under guest leader Roman Simovic the ACO seemed to find new energy, new tonal colours.
Two opera productions stood out for me, David McVicar’s wholly satisfying and delicious take on Così fan tutte for Opera Australia and (interest declared but quality attested to by four Helpmann Awards) Brisbane Baroque’s Agrippina.
The most inspiring highlight of 2016 was the Australian Youth Orchestra’s marvellous concert in August, conducted by Manfred Honeck (Arts Update, 8/16). Normally, the AYO gives its Australian concerts before its international tour – but, for a change, this one, in Hamer Hall, occurred just after the orchestra returned from Europe and China. Therefore, the repertoire (an explosive showpiece from Carl Vine; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G; Mahler’s First Symphony) was well and truly played in. Honeck is a great conductor, but also a fine teacher. The travelling pianist, Hélène Grimaud, was utterly at home in the Ravel.
I was away for Opera Australia’s autumn season and, at this writing, the revival of the Melbourne Ring has yet to be forged. But I took particular joy from Victorian Opera and Circus Oz’s Laughter & Tears, which imaginatively paired Pagliacci with a delightful commedia dell’arte pasticcio. Praise, too, to Melbourne Lyric Opera’s adventurous performance of Malcolm Williamson’s 1963 opera Our Man in Havana (Arts Update, 9/16).
Easily the most spectacular film event of 2016 was the Jerry Lewis retrospective at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the most valuable tribute to a single director MIFF has mounted for many years. (The only thing missing was the man himself.) Lewis’s violently coloured, emotionally fractured slapstick comedies still have the power to divide audiences, but those who see him as a chauvinist dinosaur need to look again: his Jekyll and Hyde variant The Nutty Professor (1963) now plays like a ruthless satire on the twenty-first century men’s movement, suggesting that inside every mild-mannered nerd is a raging misogynist trying to get out.
Claims that television has taken over from cinema as a serious artform are premature, to say the least. Still, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul and Louis CK’s internet experiment Horace and Pete were as engrossing and formally inventive as any of the new films I saw on the big screen this year.
One of the best nights I’ve ever spent in the theatre was in New York with this year’s stunning revival by London’s Young Vic Company of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Mark Strong was breathtakingly fine in the lead; he was surrounded by a super-strong ensemble. I also loved Stephen Karam’s play The Humans, with a brilliant Jayne Houdyshell.
This year I have watched eighty-four films! Two I loved are Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster and Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic, Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen in career-best performances respectively.
I was fortunate enough to see Nina Stemme, possibly the finest Strauss soprano at present, in a new Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera with Waltraud Meier as Klytemnestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a posthumous production by Patrice Chéreau. Simply riveting, such as come seldom in a lifetime.
In the same musical stratosphere was French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus at the Melbourne Recital Centre: refined spirituality, deeply moving.
I must also mention Opera Australia’s Luisa Miller in Melbourne (Arts Update, 2/16) and Così fan tutte in Sydney, both with the stunning Nicole Car, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven festival of all five piano concertos over four concerts, with British pianist Paul Lewis bordering on the miraculous.
Coming up: Opera Australia’s Ring in November and December.
To highlight Australian Book Review’s arts coverage and to celebrate some of the year’s memorable concerts, operas, films, ballets, plays, and art exhibitions, we invited a group of critics and arts professionals to nominate some favourites.
ABR'S NEW PARTNERSHIP WITH MONASH UNIVERSITY
Australian Book Review is delighted to announce a major new partnership with Monash University.
This alliance between ABR and the internationally renowned Group of Eight university augurs well for students, scholars, writers, and readers. The magazine will be active on campus, leading workshops, commissioning new writers (academics and students), and presenting collaborative events.
Australian Book Review was founded in 1961, the year in which Monash University's began to accept students at its Clayton campus. This alliance complements ABR's close ties with the higher education sector.
Professor Rae Frances, Dean of Arts at Monash University, welcomed the new agreement: 'Monash University is very excited about our partnership with one of Australia's leading cultural magazines. We share ABR's commitment to excellence and originality and a belief in the critical importance of the Arts. Together we can provide wonderful opportunities for our staff and students and make a major contribution to the country's cultural life.'
Peter Rose, Editor of ABR, commented: 'This partnership with one of Australia's great universities is a terrific development for ABR. Although the magazine is rather smaller, to say the least, many of our goals and creative programs chime with those of the University – an international outlook, an enduring commitment to scholarship, and ideas aplenty. ABR looks forward to a massive injection of new talent and energy from our colleagues at Monash.'
GEORDIE WILLIAMSON TO PICADOR
ABR reader surveys (more of which anon) reveal that Geordie Williamson is one of our most popular and respected contributors. Geordie, who published his first review in ABR back in 2001, is a past winner of the Pascall Prize and the influential chief critic of The Australian. He also edited The Best Australian Essays 2015 (Black Inc.). He is the author of The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found (Text, 2011) and a forthcoming history of his Scottish family, Lairds of Rapa Nui
Geordie Williamson, in a real boost for Australian publishing, has been appointed publisher of Pan Macmillan's Picador imprint. He begins work this month. He told Advances: 'For me at least, the role of Picador publisher is something like being hired as chief taster at the chocolate factory. It has an illustrious history as an imprint both here and overseas, and hopefully - given the depth of talent coming through the ranks of contemporary writing in Australia - one with an illustrious future, too. I feel excited about the task ahead.'
When the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize closed in mid-April we had received about 1,350 entries, our biggest field to date – not surprising, given that total prize money has increased from $8,000 to $12,500, thanks to the generosity of ABR Patron Ian Dickson.
Pleasingly, thirty per cent of entries came from overseas: writers in a total of thirty-eight countries entered the Jolley.
Now our three judges – Amy Baillieu, Maxine Beneba Clarke, and David Whish-Wilson – will be kept busy reading all these stories and shortlisting three of them. The shortlist will appear in our August issue, and a special guest will name the overall winner at a special ceremony on Saturday, 27 August, at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
ABR always enjoys partnering with fortyfivedownstairs, that admirable, valiant not-for-profit theatre and gallery at (yes) 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. This year, with fortyfivedownstairs and Hill of Content Bookshop, ABR will co-present three 'Shorts@45' in which major and emerging writers will read from their new fiction or non-fiction releases. First up are Arnold Zable and Rod Jones on Monday, 6 June. These are ticketed events. To book please call fortyfivedownstairs (not ABR) on (03) 9662 9966 or visit their website.
Why is bad singing so funny? Is it vaudeville or a case of Schadenfreude? Curiously, we have two new films about the egregious soprano par excellence, Florence Foster Jenkins (who died soon after giving a disastrous recital in Carnegie Hall in 1944). The first – Marguerite, directed by Xavier Giannoli – screened during the recent French Film Festival and is not to be missed. Arts Update hasn't laughed so hard since it read public defences of Tony Abbott's intervention in the Prime Minister's Literary Awards in 2014. Now, directed by Stephen Frears, the great Meryl Streep plays the grande dame in Florence Foster Jenkins. Arts Update regular Ian Dickson's review will appear on its release in early May.
Courtesy of Entertainment One, we have ten double passes for new or renewing print or online subscribers to Florence Foster Jenkins. We also have ten double passes to Mia Madre (Palace Films), directed by Nanni Moretti, which also opens on May 5.
We love hearing from readers as to what they like about Australian Book Review – whom they enjoy reading; what they would like to see more (or less) of. Please complete our reader survey and help us to go on improving the magazine. The survey takes about five minutes to complete. Feel free to skip any questions. The survey is totally anonymous – unless you want to be in the running for one of two five-year complimentary subscriptions to ABR Online (in which case we will need your name and email address).
PAST MATTERS AT MONTSALVAT
Celebrate Australian indigenous culture and literature at the Past Matters festival (May 6-7). Montsalvat and the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group again invite you to join a gathering of some of Australia's best writers and thinkers as they explore Australia's indigenous past and give voice to its present. Speakers include Alexis Wright, Alex Miller, Jack Waterford, Tom Griffiths, Campbell Thomson, and Neika Lehman.
In the opening night event, presented in conjunction with Australian Book Review, Miles Franklin Award-winner Alexis Wright will be in conversation with Jack Waterford, former Editor and Editor-at-large of The Canberra Times, onetime Freedom Rider, and one of Australia's finest journalist-commentators on indigenous affairs. They will be joined by poet and land-rights activist-lawyer, Campbell Thomson (shortlisted in the 2016 Peter Porter Prize) and a panel of writers and journalists.
GIDEON HAIGH IN DUNOLLY
Bendigo Writers Festival and Victoria Law Foundation present 'An Afternoon with Gideon Haigh' in the Court House at Dunolly Historic Precinct on Sunday 22 May, 2016. Join Haigh as he discusses his new book, Certain Admissions, which tells the story of the scandalous 1959 Melbourne murder trial of the dashing but erratic John Kerr.
Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines into fierce yet darkly witty poetry. This is a book that takes corrupt law, peels away sentiment, and uncovers possible truths. It is a surprisingly fresh volume drawn from Maiden's obsessive themes – she is our great poet of humanity. In Sarah Holland-Batt's The Hazards (University of Queensland Press, reviewed in ABR, 10/15), from 'the promise of Berlin' to the 'mosquito net latitudes' there is style and fashion to relish, but under the skin of these poems we experience metaphors of the world's suffering. It is an exciting second book. Martin Harrison's posthumous Happiness (UWA Publishing, 12/15) is a triumph. Classical and romantic simultaneously, this is a book of love poetry and more by a philosopher of language, with 'a new vowelled, strict vocabulary drawn from air'. Harrison has enriched our world with this gift of a book.
Partly because of my interest in the high-level supporters of political leaders, but mostly because it is so well researched and written, I was fascinated by historian Sheila Fitzpatrick's On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (Melbourne University Press). In a solid year for Australian fiction, the novel that most endures for me – at this early stage – is Amanda Lohrey's subtle and funny A Short History of Richard Kline (Black Inc., 3/15), with a nod to A.S. Patrić's Black Rock White City (Transit Lounge). Amongst a strengthening field of Australian literary magazines (strengthening, at least, in terms of quality), I most enjoyed the illustrated short story magazine The Canary Press (edited by Robert Skinner). Issue 7 was symptomatic of the magazine's qualities, featuring writers living and dead, Australian and foreign – with Lally Katz's witty and disturbing script, 'The Apocalypse Bear – Part 1', a standout.
It has been a brilliant year for Australian poets. Sarah Holland-Batt's 'O California', first published in the New Yorker, was a glistering introduction to her second book, The Hazards. This dark rhapsody on the menace of future threat is an exhilarating read. Lucy Dougan's creation of a female sublime in her exploration of the matrilineal line in The Guardians (Giramondo, 10/15) is a powerful poetic narrative of survival. 'Tiles', a poem read by Peter Rose at his book launch in July, was a profound and haunting way into his book The Subject of Feeling (UWAP). It is an extraordinary book, juxtaposing gorgeous elegies with poems of biting wit. Finally, poet and scholar Lisa Gorton's first novel, The Life of Houses (Giramondo, 6/15), is one of the most finely crafted Australian novels of the last decade. Its sumptuous descriptions, and the imposing mother–daughter dyad at the centre of the narrative, take your breath away.
Per Petterson, the Norwegian writer, is one of my favourites. His novels, gently paced and spare on plot, never fail to satisfy. This year I was rewarded with his latest book, I Refuse (Vintage). The story engages with themes common to Petterson's work; family, intergenerational tensions, flawed memory, and a yearning for love. The ending of the novel, delivered with subtlety, is remarkable and haunting. The Visiting Privilege, the new and collected stories of Joy Williams is my book of the year. Williams for too long hovered in the shadows of her contemporaries of the North American 'dirty realism' school of the 1980s. The first story, 'Taking Care', was enough to remind me that she is a great storyteller. Jedediah Purdy's After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard) presents an intelligent and active discussion as to how we must deal with climate change.
Although I am deep in their midst as I write, it is safe to say that Elena Ferrante's astonishing Neapolitan Quartet will end up being one of my most remarkable reading experiences this year, distinguished not just by their uncompromising moral intelligence and psychological sophistication but by their sheer ferocity and almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict. Marlon James's Man Booker Prize-winning A Short History of Seven Killings (Oneworld) is similarly astonishing, a bravura feat of technical daring and historical reimagination of remarkable virtuosity and ambition. Closer to home, I was enormously impressed by Mireille Juchau's haunting exploration of an ecologically fraying world, The World Without Us (Bloomsbury, 9/15), and by Tegan Bennett Daylight's finely wrought scenes from the world of late adolescence and early adulthood, in Six Bedrooms (Vintage, 12/15).
The most captivating and impactful novels I have read this year are Eka Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound (Text Publishing) and Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, 11/15). The first is a ghost-filled, vastly populated, and rollicking contemporary mythic tale, in the spirit of Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, but funnier, and a touch less lyrical. The latter is provocative, formally impressive, brutally precise, and topical. Wood's bleak portrayal of gender relations is limiting in some ways, but a nightmare has its own logic, and this makes for gripping reading. On the non-fiction front, Jonathan Bate's comprehensive and even-handed biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life (HarperCollins) is outstanding, and I admired The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (Harvill Secker), in which Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee address diverse but connected subjects – including memory construction, the psychological underpinnings of Australian politics, and literature – with purposeful intelligence.
I loved Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow (Fourth Estate), a brilliantly observed, dry-witted début short story collection that echoes Lorrie Moore and Nora Ephron, with its intimate accounts of relationships under threat. Hanya Yanagihara took the oft-used 'New York college friendship through the decades' story into new territory in A Little Life (Picador), a tale of horrific abuse and extraordinary friendship that is both life-affirming and devastating. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is one of those novels that does everything right, all at once: gorgeous writing about people, place, grief, loss, and our changing environment. Juchau balances all these elements perfectly, raising questions rather than proposing answers to the big themes she explores. I have long been a fan of Tegan Bennett Daylight's short stories, and her spiky, perceptive, engrossing new collection, Six Bedrooms, was a book I wanted to reread immediately.
Illuminating non-fiction in 2015 included Klaus Neumann's essential Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees (Black Inc.), an overdue history which explodes many myths, including amnesiac assumptions about left–right attitudes to migrant intake, which run insistently through the most contentious topic of political debate today. David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House) is both fascinatingly discursive and very lively, a survey of the past which contains lessons for government and citizens now and implicit warnings for the future. Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (John Murray) is not only a wonderful read, beautifully written in a finely produced book that's a delight to handle, but brings to life a hugely influential explorer and naturalist who is inexplicably little known in the Anglophone world.
Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things is a novel of mythological force with the heat of a Grimm's fairy tale. A group of ten women is chosen, it seems, for no other reason than that their sexual power, or sexual abuse, threatens to bring 'important' men down: the football groupie, the politician's mistress, other iconic 'sluts', thrown into a rural camp run by men enduring conditions barely better than those of the women they are brutalising. Do the women save themselves or wait to be saved? Do they work together or turn on one another? There are echoes of Lord of the Flies and also of the Australian film Journey Among Women. Colm Tóibín's new novel, Nora Webster (Picador), set in Ireland in the late 1960s, is a profound study of a woman struggling to maintain her sense of self and keep her family going after the unexpected death of her husband. The backdrop to Nora's struggles is inevitably political, but she remains the novel's gentle star.
'When I was travelling in this state, so many days felt strangely brittle, saturated, super-real,' writes poet Fiona Wright in her first book of prose. In the ten exquisite essays that make up Small Acts of Disappearance (Giramondo), Wright investigates the 'states' – psychic, physical, emotional, existential – that underpin her perilous decade-long entanglement with an eating disorder. The writing is anything but brittle, though the depth of Wright's insights into the pathology of her compulsions makes the book feel saturated, super-real, and at times hallucinatory. Small Acts overflows with quiet self-compassion. It is, in a rare literal sense, a diamond of a book – each essay being a surface capable of reflecting back to us our own complex relations with the fragility of self-identity. None of this would work well in the hands of a less assured writer; Wright feels like a direct heir of Kathleen Norris (Dakota: a Spiritual Geography) and Annie Dillard.
Emily Bitto's The Strays (Affirm Press, 5/14) is a confident and engaging début novel, trading in the ambiguities of a self-conscious artistic world. The Strays richly merits its 2015 Stella Prize. A great literary biography should be celebrated, and Robert Crawford's Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land (Jonathan Cape, 12/15) is superb – detailed but always driving forward, incisive about the poems but equally interested in the life informing the art. Matthew Condon's All Fall Down (UQP, 11/15) completes an important trilogy on recent Queensland history. Condon's prose conveys the urgency of journalism, if now distilled by distance. Despite the years, the magnitude of corruption, and its reach across police and politics, continues to astonish.
Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (Text, 11/15) – was for me, as evidently for many, the outstanding literary event of the year: a powerful story of female friendship rooted in the poverty of postwar Naples, and subtly overshadowed, as the years pass, by loss, mystery, and moral ambiguity. Tony Judt's When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995–2010 (Penguin Press), a superb collection of late essays brought together by Judt's widow, Jennifer Homans, is a further reminder of the courage and humanity of this lucid thinker, who died, far too young, in 2010. Admirers of Kevin Hart's latest impressive collection of new and selected poems, Wild Track (University of Notre Dame Press, 9/15), may also enjoy Alan Gould's The Poets' Stairwell (Black Pepper, 6/15), a witty and lightly fictionalised account of the two poets in their youth at large in Europe.
It has been another strong year in Australian poetry and several new books have impressed and delighted me. I shall mention only two. First, The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt, a charged and effortlessly imaginative evocation and intermingling of the world around us and the world within. The other is the, sadly, posthumous collection by Martin Harrison, Happiness, in which he displays again his astonishing capacity to see into landscape from the widest panorama to the most minute detail, coloured now by love and grief. A book that has enthralled me is Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 6/15) by Robert Macfarlane, 'about the power of language to shape our sense of place', indeed to help us to see it. Each chapter is followed by a wonderful glossary of words for features of landscape in regional varieties of English, Gaelic, Welsh, and others.
During World War II, Banjo Paterson wrote a poem of sentiment and fresh nationalism as the new nation's soldiers sailed to war. In We're all Australians Now (HarperCollins) author and artist Mark Wilson has given those words not just pages of almost unbearable beauty, but a counterpoint to Patterson's simplistic viewpoint. I cry each time I read this book, but then I read it, slowly, once again. In The Peony Lantern by Frances Watts (Angus and Robertson), a nineteenth-century Japanese village girl becomes a lady-in-waiting at a samurai mansion. Her life, and Japan itself, are on the brink of change. Lyrical, fascinating and compelling.
Memorable books for me this year have included poet Lisa Gorton's subtle and disquieting novel, The Life of Houses, and actor Magda Szubanski's memoir (or, as she calls it, 'family saga'), Reckoning (Text), which is thought-provoking, intelligent, beautifully written, and at once heartbreaking and very funny. But my vote for the book of the year would have to go to Charlotte Wood's brilliant and terrifying novel The Natural Way of Things: fuelled by rage and resistance, the novel is a study in power, a tale of misogyny, a meditation on survival, an only semi-abstract portrait of contemporary Australian life, and a reminder of what fiction at its best can do and be.
Three books with a transformative sense of the past have filled my thoughts this year: Tracy Ryan's eighth poetry collection, Hoard (Whitmore Press), T.G.H. Strehlow's 1969 memoir Journey to Horseshoe Bend (republished by Giramondo), and Verso's selection of Walter Benjamin's jottings, drafts, and collected curios in Walter Benjamin's Archive (edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, and Erdmut Wizisla; translated by Esther Leslie). Ryan's poems about Ireland's peat bogs and hoards are spare, sensuous, and haunting, touchstones for writing about place and language. Journey to Horseshoe Bend remembers the author's father, Pastor Carl Strehlow, who ran the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg. It records his last journey, desperately ill, tied to a chair and dragged by donkey wagon along the dry bed of the Finke River, in forlorn hope of reaching medical help in time. But this is also an account of the desert and its sacred places, colonial outposts, massacres, battles, and negotiations. Strehlow leaves a complicated legacy, and this book enriches it. Verso's selection from Benjamin's archive includes photographs of the children's toys he collected, postcards, and records of his son's sayings; it offers a domestic and intimate perspective on his essays and Arcades project.
Any new book by Barry Hill is an event, and Peacemongers (UQP) is especially intriguing: a meditative, playful, and profound prose poem about war and peace, a long book that rewards immersion. As an El Niño summer approaches, I returned to Robert Kenny's moving tragi-comedy about his experience of Black Saturday, Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir (UWAP, 12/13). Noel Pearson's A Rightful Place (Black Inc.) is a significant statement from a great Australian, as is Tim Flannery's Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis (Text, 10/15). I found Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (Faber, 4/15) a wonderfully mysterious novel and an unusual love story. And don't miss Robert Seethaler's elegiac A Whole Life (Picador) for its lean, powerful prose, and elemental portrait of one man's life in the Austrian Alps.
Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus (1980) was perhaps the novel I enjoyed most this year. Why can't all novels be like this, I remember thinking, a brisker Virginia Woolf: so prismatically clever about the two sisters, London and New York, the passing of time and the passing of life, marriage and spinsterhood, living in sin and attempted adultery, middle-class security and hand-to-mouth, children and none. In poetry, I'm glad that a selection of Philip Hodgins's poems, First Light, has appeared in the United States (George Braziller): never sweet, but sustaining in their harshness. 'The farmer knows that it was useless to call the vet. / So does the vet. / But there are some rituals / that must be carried through.'
Reading Merritt Tierce's bold, scorchingly powerful début, Love Me Back (Anchor Books), I was reminded of Muriel Rukeyser's claim that the world would split open if a woman told the truth about her life. Set in the world of Dallas steakhouses and hospitality workers, Love Me Back's disaffected protagonist Marie is laceratingly candid about womanhood, sexuality, and the dark side of desire. Similarly poised on the sharp edge between adolescence and adulthood, Colin Barrett's stylish stories in Young Skins (Vintage) navigate the rough and tumble troubles of early adulthood in small town Ireland; Barrett's prose is electrifying. In poetry, Sujata Bhatt's Poppies in Translation (Carcanet) is stunning; her bright, saturated poems are a wide-ranging compendium of language, history, place, and politics. Closer to home, I loved David Brooks's Open House (UQP); a tough intellect resides in Brooks's deceptively clean, airy lines. And Robert Adamson's Net Needle (Black Inc., 12/15) is masterful: rereading it is a pleasure 'sweet / as torn basil'.
Andy Jackson goes from strength to strength, and Immune Systems (Transit Lounge, 12/15) displayed once again his ability to see clearly and to write poetry with compassion and rigour about the world around him, in this case India, and as always his own physical universe, making each line count. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things, its young women snatched from 'moral' danger into physical captivity and degradation, never falls into the dystopic trap of fetishing horror. She balances the beauty of language and construction with the horror of what they describe, leaving at the end a caught breath that takes a long time to let out. Jon Ronson, in So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Picador), writes with humour and compassion of internet shaming and public disgrace, does the victims (and even perpetrators) justice, and, that vanishingly rare thing, can actually carry an argument through a whole book.
There have been many fine volumes of poetry in English over the last twelve months, and the three mentioned here are part of a long list. Each collection is starkly different from the others, and each collection challenges the mode of its own writing, which is for me important – that is, there is an awareness of the conditions of writing and presentation. Ouyang Yu's work continues to astonish me with its shifts and range, and Fainting with Freedom (Five Islands Press) is among his finest work. Lucy Dougan's The Guardians reaches deep into the fragility of being and comes out with verve and strength, without ever wavering from a tough and taut literary sensibility, and Paul Muldoon's One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Faber), opening with a stunning elegy for Seamus Heaney, continues his undoing of what English language is. The most intelligent novel I have read in a long time is Lisa Gorton's The Life of Houses, which configures and reconfigures its own spatiality over and over.
Les Murray's latest collection, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc., 5/15) continues his linguistic and anthropological study of Australian life. This year, I also was taken with Sarah Holland-Batt's dazzling new collection of poems, The Hazards, in which she continues her project to ransack the OED, Peter Rose's smart and happily gin-soaked The Subject of Feeling, and Robert Adamson's Net Needle, which casts a numinous light on his childhood growing up on the Hawkesbury River. Further afield, and following up on his sensational bestseller Eunoia, avant-garde Canadian poet Christian Bök has come up with The Xenotext: Book I (Coach House Books), an 'infernal grimoire' that offers a primer in genetics as it visits the orphic idylls of Virgil: 'Come with me' ends his apocalyptic poem 'The Late Heavy Bombardment'; 'Let me show you how to break my heart.'
In a standout year for the publishing of contemporary Australian poetry, Martin Harrison's Happiness does the most a book of poems can do: it helps us to live. In Harrison's hierarchy, that means to love, deeply, self, other, world. These poems, also elegiac, glow with light and breath. Magus, and poems of a late master practising, virtually faultlessly, his mastery. It is a poise which also sweeps across Alan Loney's Crankhandle (Cordite, 8/15). The book is really a single sustained poem, learned, vanguardist, the senses also bent, caringly, to philosophy and the natural world. How difficult it is to make poems hilarious, but that is the punch, acerbic, of the Catullus suite in Peter Rose's The Subject of Feeling – LOL. Preceding this suite, in haute relief, are deeply moving poems, also masterful, in poems about loss, memory, intimacy, and love, also familial.
The great fiction discovery for me this year was the German author Jenny Erpenbeck, whose novel The End of Days (New Directions) is simply extraordinary. There were, however, two local non-fiction works that I believe are not only timely and significant, but might also be read fruitfully in tandem. The first is Australia's Second Chance (Hamish Hamilton) by George Megalogenis. Beginning with the First Fleet, Megalogenis considers the different waves of immigration that have shaped Australia and, with characteristic lucidity, analyses the connection between the nation's prosperity and its tendency at different times either to embrace or resist migrants. Megalogenis's briskly argued book is well complemented by Klaus Neumann's Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees. Neumann's soberly written history, which extends from Federation through to the 1970s, examines the ways in which Australian governments have reacted to the global issues created by those fleeing war and persecution, and in doing so it provides an invaluable perspective on the divisive politics of the present.
Andrew Ford's meditation on 'the primitive' in music, Earth Dances (Black Inc.), moves brilliantly across centuries and styles with Ford's characteristic wit, flair, and authority. His single paragraph on Chet Baker's singing is a miniature masterpiece. Ford is also an exceptional composer and broadcaster; what have we done to deserve him? Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) is an original account of racism in contemporary America. Mixing prose poetry, images, and the essay form, Rankine ranges from Serena Williams to the Jena Six in her powerful critique of American racial politics. In the year Adam Goodes was shamefully hounded out of Australian Rules football, there is much Australian readers can take from Citizen. Meanwhile, Ali Smith's How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) demonstrates that formally experimental fiction can encapsulate great joy, empathy, and imaginative seriousness. When will Smith win the Booker?
The book that has drawn me back again and again this year is US novelist James Salter's memoir Burning the Days: Recollection (1997). Salter, who died in June, aged ninety, only gained widespread recognition towards the end of his life. His prose is so finely wrought and the architecture of his storytelling so intricately constructed that I constantly found myself rereading the book in awe of his skill. There is not a sentence out of place. Closer to home, two biographies – Brenda Niall's Mannix (Text, 4/15) and Karen Lamb's Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather (UQP, 9/15) – stood out for their ability to wear exhaustive research lightly and bring their elusive subjects to life. Finally, I was won over by John Blay's rare and beautifully crafted On Track (NewSouth, 10/15) which tells the story of his search for the Bundian Way, the traditional Aboriginal pathway from the Kosciuszko high country to Twofold Bay on the far south coast of New South Wales.
My bedside table is stacked with old comedy – Alan Coren, P.G. Wodehouse – but my three favourites of 2015 are much to do with loss. Clive James's Latest Readings (Yale) is a witty, wide-ranging, and poignant series of essays on the books he is enjoying. James is candid about his mortality, and his great passion for literature flames the harder for it. Murray Middleton's When There's Nowhere Else to Run (Allen & Unwin, 8/15), the Vogel's Award-winning collection of short stories, conveys raw and broken characters in tight, smooth prose. And Jonathan Bate's masterful biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life argues convincingly that Hughes was defined, both personally and poetically, by his love and grief for Sylvia Plath. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, was defined more by purple socks and flung bread-rolls. So it's to him that I return.
My favorite three novels all explore the intertwined identities of society and the individual: the Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter, translated by Angela Rodel) tells of a boy suffering from universal empathy and feeling the sorrow of the world in himself. The Mexican Guadalupe Nettel's The Body Where I Was Born (Seven Stories Press, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein) is the fictional memoir of a woman who refuses to submit to what the world sees as her infirmity. Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us was a revelation, a masterly story involving the refuge of silence, the fate of bees, and the shadows of old sins. The most important non-fiction book was by the American Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), a fierce denunciation of racism arguing that prejudice creates the concept of race, and not the other way round.
Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976–1995 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 5/14) is a fascinating, endearing meeting of two brilliant, maverick minds. Medlin's wit and Furphy-like evocations of the Australian bush and Murdoch's loving encounter with Australian vernacular ('Dearest Brian, dear mate') mixed with her philosophical digressions are a sublime, offbeat treat. Vincent O'Sullivan's Being Here: Selected Poems (Victoria University Press) traces his poetic growth through works that simply get better and better. Whether it is the easy demotic of 'The Butcher Papers' or the delicacy of 'Secular Thoughts' – 'the fire / leaps on itself, the shaded / lamp brims its chaste corner' – O'Sullivan's intellectual range, inventiveness, and command of tone and register are superb. Tim Winton's Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 11/15) is a terrific book – technically, a daring experiment with the genre; artistically, a passionate, Wordsworthian engagement with Nature, indigeneity, and the nature of things.
Two recent novels I want to read again. In Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín tests the limits of understatement. The death of her husband doesn't ennoble Nora Webster, nor does it destroy her. The effects of grief are traced with self-effacing candour by a writer at the height of his powers. Like the provincial Ireland of Tóibín's novel, the setting and the viewpoint of Joan London's The Golden Age (Vintage, 9/14) sound limiting. In a Perth hospital, Frank (Ferenc), an adolescent who is recovering from polio, falls in love with another patient, Elsa. Events conspire to separate the two, who are destined to lead quite different lives. London's artistic triumph is to suggest the shaping force of time and place on Frank and Elsa. In this unsentimental coming-of-age novel, postwar displacements cast shadows on two families without extinguishing the light.
This year's reading has been thrilling, disturbing, and deeply reassuring. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things knocked me sideways with its fury and gradual revelation of beauty and transformation. Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić showed me a different Melbourne of Balkan refugees and working class life. I wept at the end of Marilynne Robinson's Lila (12/14), another of her luminous, wise, compelling studies of the human condition. At the other end of the spectrum The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim (Penguin, translated by Jonathan Wright) exposes the destruction of both Iraq and the psyche of its people in surreal, violent, terrifying stories that read like lucid nightmares.
While Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith's memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf) explores 'collisions with the world's solid fist', its lyrical chapters are as much about creativity and grace as about the violence they defy. And while Smith captures awakenings – of social awareness and creativity – in the first four decades of her life, Drusilla Modjeska's Second Half First (Knopf, 11/15) begins with her fortieth birthday and explores the decades since, with memory's dynamics, questions of art, form, and women's lives at its lucent centre. Like Smith, Lisa Gorton is an acclaimed poet with a remarkable new work of prose. The Life of Houses is dazzling and distinctive, phrase by phrase. And (my friend) Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us is a resonant, wise and achingly beautiful novel about loss, continuance, and the imagination.
In On Brunswick Ground (Transit Lounge), Catherine de Saint Phalle writes with a grace of style and searing authority about the way Melbournians live now. Here, steeped in the intimacies and desires of a community, she proves herself an engaged and engaging novelist we can't afford to ignore. Bob Shacochis's massive literary spy thriller The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Grove Press) stalks the murkiest realms of the twentieth century. With its deserved comparisons to the work of Graham Greene and John le Carré, Shacochis's novel provides great challenges and endless rewards and stands in stark contrast to Kent Haruf's spare Our Souls at Night (Picador). A warm and sincere examination of the sanctuary of friendship, it's one of the most beautiful novels this reader has ever encountered. And don't forget to place the inimitable Rebecca Solnit's essay collection Men Explain Things to Me (Granta) in the stocking of every man for a better tomorrow.
It is a sign of these murky times for books and the written word that my book of the year is a work of loving enthusiasm and selfless devotion, rather than a knowing, self-conscious product by some member of the knowledge class. Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, by Clinton Walker (Verse Chorus Press) is a re-edition of a masterwork first published fifteen years ago, but expanded and reconceived so thoroughly as to be something new: an account of vernacular Aboriginal creativity in mid-century Australia, the influences it soaked up and the impact it made – a back channel history worth more than a thousand academic sociologies. Roger Knox, Bobby McLeod, Vic Simms: these are the heroes of its pages: 'Where the crows flies backwards' is its central song, an anthem that defines both an era and a state of mind. What more can a book do than bring you back the past and make it real – especially a past you never knew?
Australian publishers increasingly take on short story collections these days, and among recent volumes I especially admired Danielle Wood's Mothers Grimm (Allen & Unwin), a brilliant and coruscating set of stories on motherhood, where magic works with malice – no happy endings here. On a related theme, Ali Smith's novel How to Be Both is an extraordinary double narrative of a contemporary teenage girl mourning her mother's death and the invented biography of an Italian Renaissance painter: it bends genre and gender, and blends past and present.
If there were an award for Best Family Book, Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay (Hodder) would surely win. The Cornwallis family relocating to a small Cornish town take on disasters and mysteries, school bullies and even a chicken-stealing 'jagular' in a story rich in love and laughter, including a poignant subplot about a trio of cousins who lived in the house a hundred years ago. Twelve-year-old Binny is an endearing heroine. I adored this book. For older readers, Vikki Wakefield in Inbetween Days (Text) proves again that she's the mistress of YA twisted relationships and disturbed characters, all memorable, all sketched with compassion, wit and insight, the adults as well as teens. One of the best of the 'Gallipoli' books is One Minute's Silence (Allen & Unwin) by David Metzenthen and Michael Camilleri: a classroom of bored Year Twelve students catapulted into the action on those hellish slopes in 1915.
It's become quite the thing to write about mothers of yesteryear, whether in fiction or memoir: to tease out notions of good and bad mothering, the almost unbelievable constraints and pressures those mothers were often subjected to, the lingering effects on later generations, and the role that fathers did or didn't play. It can be a hard subject to write about without descending into sentimentality, indignation, melodrama, or utter gloom. Three Australian books hit the right nuanced note for me: Rod Jones's novel The Mothers (Text, 6/15), a wrenching saga of four generations of women and what they were denied; Kate Grenville's story of her mother, One Life (Text, 4/15), an inspiring tale of making the best of very limited opportunities, whether professional or personal; and Stephanie Bishop's quietly devastating novel The Other Side of the World (Hachette, 9/15), which gave me the most exquisite sense of slow suffocation. Lest we forget.
British historian Peter H. Hansen spoke to my weakness for expeditionary adventure. Ever alert to the cultural meanings of our relationship with mountains, The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Harvard) roves the great ranges, from Mont Blanc to Everest. If Hansen led me upwards, anthropologist Melinda Hinkson took me outwards to the Tanami Desert. Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life through the Prism of Drawing (Aboriginal Studies Press) is both a beautiful art book and a personal, highly perceptive account of Warlpiri culture, where pencil and crayon drawings, commissioned by anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt in the 1950s, become mnemonic stimuli for Aboriginal people today. A 'huge sunlit series / of changing moods' is evoked by the final poems of Martin Harrison who died in 2014. An elegiac record of the love and loss that coloured the poet's last years, Happiness is another stimulus to memory, majestic in its capacity to listen and observe.
Two books I read this year seem like unexpected companion pieces: the Italian Elena Ferrante's novel Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and Drusilla Modjeska's memoir Second Half First. Ferrante's novel is the third in a series about a compulsive and uneasy friendship between two poor and clever women. One is a publicly acknowledged writer, the other is her critic, her inspiration, her adversary and her guide. Modjeska's memoir charts the politics and friendships, the writing and thinking, of the later part of her life. Both books register the great exchanges that are possible between life and literature. Both are intense and accomplished explorations of writing, politics, sexuality, friendship, and cities.
Walking: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press, 5/14) contains old favourites and adds to them new poems in Kevin Brophy's signature voice: gentle, slightly mournful, threaded through with humour. I thought I had read every 'take' on the Holocaust, but Ramona Koval adds something fresh with Bloodhound: Searching for My Father (Text, 5/15): the drive to find a more appealing lineage; a rebuilding after the disaster, perhaps. Ross Gibson's poetry is marked by the numinous, then undercut by the quotidian, the earthy. Stone Grown Cold (Cordite, 8/15), a mix of prose poems, lyrics, lists, and fragmentary images, reflects a different way of seeing. A companion piece to the disturbing and engaging Life after Life, Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins (Penguin) has a more elegiac note, and is a lovely essay on grace in the face of disappointment, damage, and death.
Irish author Paul Murray received mixed reviews for his most recent novel, The Mark and the Void (Hamish Hamilton). Yet the man is clearly a genius – smart, funny, profound, ludicrously modest – and the flaws in his story about the Irish experience of the GFC and its fallout are par for the course when you're venturing to wring human drama from investment banking. It made me laugh, ponder, and despair.
It should be taken as no commentary on contemporary Oz Lit that I choose Text's fistful of Randolph Stow reissues for my local favourite(s) during 2015. Their appearance reminds us that a gentle, wise, wounded, and immensely talented poet in prose once lived among us. If you haven't read Visitants, do so: it is the dark heart of Stow's oeuvre. But make sure you read The Girl Green as Elderflower alongside – that pendant work has a bucolic sweetness to balance against the former's bitter taste.
Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines
To highlight Australian Book Review's arts coverage and to celebrate some of the year's memorable concerts, operas, films, ballets, plays, and exhibitions, we invited a group of critics and arts professionals to nominate their favourites – and to nominate one production they are looking forward to in 2016. (We indicate which works were reviewed in Arts Update.)
I'll begin with Bleach* Festival's The Inaugural Annual Dance Affair and TIDE (forty-eight hours on a sand bar), by Gold Coast's resident contemporary dance company, The Farm. Then, Brink's beautiful Aspirations of Daise Morrow (Arts Update) – purely Australian, elevated by Patrick White – a quartet of actors intertwined with the Zephyr Quartet. Melbourne Festival/ANAM's Quartetthaus and astonishing Bartók, Secull House, and Richard Tognetti on Haydn: all at close quarters. Finally, the core quartet in Toni Morrison and Peter Sellars's Desdemona (Arts Update). Epic narrative exquisitely delivered.
The one play I regret not writing about this year was Dream Home, Melbourne playwright Emilie Collyer's surreal, bitterly funny skewering of the Great Australian Dream of home ownership. Subsequent productions may find this near-faultless indie première a hard act to follow.
My highpoint of Adelaide's festival season was UK performance artist Bryony Kimmings's Fake It 'Til You Make It. Exploring depression in men through the lens of her partner's experience of it, Fake It effectively streamlined Kimmings's stylistic eclecticism in what seemed a joyous reinvigoration of the confessional performance art genre. Adelaide was also lucky to have hosted PP/VT (Performance Presence/Video Time), a survey of past and present Australian performance artists at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation. A surging international interest in experience-orientated art made the exhibition a timely and illuminating exercise.
Technically, Neil Armfield's King Lear at Sydney Theatre Company – with Geoffrey Rush in the title role – is happening this year but, as I won't get to see it until January, it's my nomination for the show I'm most looking forward to seeing in 2016.
In a reversal of last year's dominance by Melbourne's independent theatre sector, this year saw the re-emergence of the major companies; the behemoths can still produce electrifying art. Opera Australia gave us grand spectacle as political intrigue with Elijah Moshinsky's chilling production of Verdi's Don Carlos (Arts Update). It married epic reach with spiritual intensity and contained several unforgettable images.
Malthouse Theatre, in a co-production with STC, brought us Caryl Churchill's ingenious treatise on modern human interaction, Love and Information. Exploring the sometimes seismic chasms between our words, it was a dazzling example of content dictating form. Alison Whyte, as a prehistoric museum exhibit, was the funniest thing on stage all year.
Finally, MTC's production of Simon Stephens's Birdland was an unmitigated triumph. In what was surely the performance of the year, Mark Leonard Winter sucked the oxygen out of the auditorium as a petulant rock star in free fall.
If he manages to find a theatrical language for the quivering sensuality and the stony implacability at the heart of the horror, Matthew Lutton's 2016 production of Picnic at Hanging Rock for Malthouse should prove irresistible.
It is always refreshing when dance dares to be political. Lina Limosani is a fearless choreographer who calls her timely Dystopia, created for gifted final-year students at the Victorian College of the Arts, a '"genre mash-up" of tragi-comedy, contemporary dance and slapstick'. It is riotously black and impeccably paced as it moves towards a cyclone of rage launched on a bunch of wickedly ostentatious, born-to-rule fashionistas by a desperate underclass they have exploited for ages.
Driven by more personal forms of anger and ferocity is Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow, for The Australian Ballet, with an enveloping, post-Stockhausen score by Berlin-based group 48nord. Made up of dazzlingly articulated and ever-changing groupings, this is Harbour's most inventive and polished choreography to date.
Diana Doherty and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra's engrossing performance of the Concerto for oboe and small orchestra (1956) by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, was, intellectually and aesthetically, the most perfect performance of my year. Given that its 1956 world première was played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and its Czech oboist, Jiří Tancibudek, who commissioned it, why is this masterpiece so rarely played in Australia?
And the most interesting work for 2016? A Midsummer Night's Dream by Liam Scarlett, Artist in Residence at The Royal Ballet, a co-production by Queensland Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Malthouse Theatre's Antigone, directed by Adena Jacobs, was a fascinating experience: I'm not sure I moved for the duration of the show. Here the power of the state over the human body was brutally drawn. Featuring stellar performances and a stunning, physically palpable sound design from Jethro Woodward, it's one of the few times in the theatre that I've felt genuine terror creep up my spine.
The MTC's production of British playwright Simon Stephens's Birdland, a dark parable about celebrity and the neo-liberal self, was theatre at its most exhilarating. At the centre of Leticia Cáceres's bold, intelligent direction was an icily mercurial performance from Mark Leonard Winter as an amoral rock star, backed by a pitch-perfect ensemble cast.
The opening scene of Barrie Kosky's remarkable new staging of Handel's 1738 oratorio Saul at this year's Glyndebourne Festival signals an immediate intent. With its hyper-realistic, Ron Mueck-like severed Goliath's head in front of a crowded banquet table of vivid, painterly opulence, it cried out, 'Hi, my name's Barrie and you're never going to forget this show!' Surging between fantastically exuberant and touchingly intimate yet always entertaining, the stellar cast led by baritone Christopher Purves's biting beauty in the title role was matched for pulsating élan by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ivor Bolton.
Wuppertal, Germany, is arguably best-known for its iconic suspension railway and for being the home of Pina Bausch's Dance Theatre. Since her death in 2009, the company has continued exclusively to honour the legacy of Bausch's extraordinary body of work – until September 2015, when the company commissioned three New Works. The first-ever work not conceived by Pina Bausch to be danced by the company was the enigmatically beautiful Somewhat still when seen from above by emerging British choreographer Theo Clinkard. Clinkard acknowledges the artistic provenance of the huge personalities he is working with, but in the subtlest and tenderest of ways coaxes new connections and possibilities of expression from them. It is fitting that, in a piece that is in some ways about the sheer hard work involved in the creative process, he also shines a telling light on the backstage crew of this great company.
The year may not be quite over, but it would be difficult to imagine that it will produce any theatre that could better the Sydney Theatre Company's magnificent Endgame (Arts Update). Andrew Upton's production, Nick Schlieper's set and lighting design and the supporting cast were all superb; but it was Hugo Weaving's outstanding Hamm that made this one for the ages.
It is good to see that there have been several successful Australian operas of late, and Fly Away Peter (Arts Update) is definitely one of them. Elliott Gyger and Pierce Wilcox have made a powerful lyrical work out of David Malouf's novella and they were well served by Imara Savage's production and a talented cast and crew.
The Greek Festival of Sydney's celebration of Mikis Theodorakis' ninetieth birthday took the form of a performance of his vast choral work Axion Esti that was stirring and deeply moving.
Robert MacPherson: A Painter's Reach (Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art): a decade after the last survey, this intelligent interpretation of MacPherson's inventive, rigorous, playful painting was sheer delight.
Reparative Aesthetics: Rosângela Rennó and Fiona Pardington (University of Sydney Gallery): a poignant pairing of artists from Brazil and New Zealand by art historian Susan Best, in a model of curatorial decisiveness.
Internationally, it was a line-call between Okwui Enwezor's pugnacious All the World's Futures at the Biennale of Venice and Carolyn Christov-Barkargiev's lyrical Istanbul Biennial, Tuzlu Su/Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms. Saltwater wins for its exquisite hardcover catalogue, a wonderful compendium of essays, texts and artists' drawings.
In 2016: 20th Biennale of Sydney (15 March–5 June 2016). Since 1973 the Biennale has made an incalculable contribution to Australian cultural life. The focus on the rich performative strands in contemporary art promises to be fresh and exciting.
In midwinter, Austrian bass-baritone Florian Boesch and Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau performed Schubert's three great song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Die Winterreise, over three consecutive nights, in perfect ensemble (Arts Update). It's late spring now, yet whole phrases, cadences, and crystalline variations still haunt me. It's Schubert, of course – his incomparable lieder etch so deeply. But this performance, not uncontroversial, was also indelible – and fresh. Over the three intense nights I learned much I thought I knew already – about music's way of distilling profound emotion. This was Schubert for a new generation. Unforgettable.
Equally memorable was Loin des hommes (Far from Men), David Oelhoffen's Algerian civil war film, based on Albert Camus's L'Hôte (The Guest). Viggo Mortensen's hypnotic performance had its perfect foil in Reda Kateb's role as his Arab prisoner. And the cinematography was breathtaking.
In 2016 I look forward to seeing (not live, alas) the Met's latest production of Berg's Lulu, with sets by the extraordinary William Kentridge.
Dance Massive again provided a host of highlights, but among the many exciting festival premières it was Anouk van Dijk's Depth of Field that left the strongest impression. Lit by a perfect Melbourne sunset, this enthralling outdoor event brought something unexpected and joyful into the peak-hour world: a real, if momentary, urban transformation.
Heading back inside the theatre, I was dazzled by the wonderful Malthouse/STC quick-change production of Caryl Churchill's Love and Information. Nothing was wanting in director Kip Williams's interpretation of one of the great plays of the twenty-first century, which included riveting performances from the likes of Zahra Newman and Alison Whyte.
Finally, I was deeply moved by composer Elliott Gyger's adaption of Fly Away Peter, the David Malouf classic about World War I. With unstinting energy and imagination, Gyger has given powerful new form to the troubled lyricism of Malouf's tale of savagery and innocence.
And next year? I'm looking forward to seeing another classic Australian novel transformed for the stage – Picnic at Hanging Rock at Black Swan and Malthouse.
I loved The Tempest (Arts Update), produced by Bell Shakespeare, particularly its wonderful farewell speeches, in this case offered on behalf of the bard as well as the retiring director John Bell and presented with grace and beguiling charm – 'Let your indulgence set me free.' I also admired Love and Information by Caryl Churchill, which reminded all fortunate enough to see it of the great energy and excitement a live cast can bring to the telling of simple and yet occasionally majestic stories about ordinary lives.
As for music, garlands for the piano recital of Garrick Ohlsson at the Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the Great Performers Series. Ohlsson is a performer of interesting contrasts – a big man with a subtle touch. And a special bouquet for the Tord Gustavsen trio at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (Arts Update). Gustavsen captures with confiding intimacy the complex rhythms of his improvised music – otherwise described as 'the slow burn'.
Next year I am looking forward to being surprised and enthralled by a gem or two from somewhere along the magic Sturt Street corridor.
When Katherine Mansfield was dying of tuberculosis, she visited Gurdjieff's controversial Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau; her desperate search for a cure forms one thread in the rich and complex world of Alma De Groen's play The Rivers of China (Arts Update), which also involves a futuristic plot where women have all the power, and where a man wakes up in hospital after a mysterious accident, convinced that he is Mansfield. The play, first seen in 1987, was finally revived at Melbourne's Theatre Works earlier this year by Don't Look Away.
Benjamin Britten's enormous, moving War Requiem with the MSO and tenor Ian Bostridge was profound and superb at Melbourne's Recital Centre in June (Arts Update).
In another of the city's temples of culture, the NGV, Heartlands and Headwaters, the magnificent exhibition of John Wolseley's meditations on wetlands and climate change, was a celebration of one of the country's greatest painters and an extraordinary bravura performance in the art of watercolour on a giant scale.
The Whitney Museum of American Art has transformed itself by moving, daringly, from its Marcel Breuer fastness on Madison Avenue to Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District at the foot of the Highline. Between the Hudson and the City, Renzo Piano has given them an astute and brilliant new museum. They opened with six floors of their collection, titled America Is Hard to See. The Whitney strives always to show American art as an extension and reflection of American life. They succeeded.
MoMA's Picasso Sculpture is the most original as well as the most comprehensive account of the Magus in three dimensions. He stopped and started in sculpture, but remained the alchemist turning base materials – wire, string, cardboard, scraps of wood, kitchen utensils, toys, wing nuts – into astonishing works of art.
Jan Senbergs's 2016 retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria will surprise everyone.
Though there were several engagingly humane Australian films – Last Cab to Darwin and Holding the Man (Arts Update) among them – three British films stay most tenaciously with me. In Mr Turner, director Mike Leigh, taking leave of the contemporary world he has often compellingly surveyed, turns his gaze on the great nineteenth-century artist. Its Turneresque opening image, with Timothy Spall's Turner silhouetted on the horizon, suggests that we may never come to know him in full.
Enthralled by my recent first reading of Vera Brittain's heartfelt memoir, Testament of Youth, I was prepared to be dissatisfied with the new film version. But this screen account of a lost generation during and after World War I rendered its essential concerns – pacifism, feminism – with poignant acuity, and in Alicia Vikander's Vera, a great writer is fittingly memorialised.
The National Theatre's production of London Road has been made into a film, moving fluidly through the lives of those affected by the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich, 2006. This may seem unlikely material for a musical, but the way it makes music from the banalities of everyday anxieties is a breakthrough for the genre.
Of the many wonderful performances I have seen this year, these three really stood out in spades. The Australian String Quartet with Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey playing Mendelssohn's Cello Concerto at the Dunkeld Festival was absolutely stunning. Both the Quartet and Pieter Wispelwey, playing Guadagnini matched instruments (his was made in 1760), produced the most beautiful tone in a salon the perfect size for chamber playing. Wispelwey's musicality and playing is unmatched by any cellist I have ever heard, and over the last seventy-five years I have heard most of the famous cellists. It was an amazing performance.
Melbourne Opera's production of Donizetti's great opera Maria Stuarda (Arts Update) was a standout; it showed how beautiful the bel canto style of singing is. Two great international sopranos Rosamund Illing and Elena Xanthoudakis sang the roles of Elizabeth and Mary, Henry Choo was in fine tenor voice as Leicester. Hearing it in English added to the impact: the audience could understand the abuse the two queens hurled at each other in Act Two. The singing was of the highest standard, and the experienced maestro Richard Divall held it all together, with the orchestra playing better than ever before. It was an unforgettable performance, one that other opera companies could well try to match.
In The Australian Ballet's production of Frederick Ashton's The Dream, the dancing, costumes and sets were of the greatest beauty. It is a lovely ballet at the best of times, and this time it really shone. Chengwu Guo was Puck, with thrilling elevation and finesse; Oberon was danced by Kevin Jackson, who partnered Madeleine Eastoe as Titania. Their partnering is legendary, and as this was Madeleine's final ballet before retiring, it gave an extra lustre to their pas de deux. Frederick Ashton's choreography is as fresh and delightful as ever, and it was an electrifying and enormously satisfying performance by the best dancers.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra's Reflections on Gallipoli (Arts Update) program brought together the talents of Richard Tognetti, deviser Nigel Jamieson, and director Neil Armfield, drawing upon Australian, English, and Turkish music and combining stark photographic images of the horrific battlefield with moving readings by actors Yalin Ozucelik and Nathaniel Dean. Eschewing any nationalistic heroics, it was harrowing, yet, in the music of lament, still offered the salve of beauty.
The operatic event of the year for me was the Victorian Opera's stunning concert performance of Bellini's I Puritani (Arts Update), with conductor Richard Mills, Orchestra Victoria, and an excellent cast led by the superb duo of soprano Jessica Pratt and tenor Celso Andres Albelo Hernandez. Bel canto singing of this calibre is all too rare.
I look forward to hearing Pratt in the 2016 Victorian Opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor, the role which has established her reputation in Europe.
As for films, one could hardly go past David Oelhoffen's Far from Men, with marvellously matched performances from Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb. Set at the beginning of the Algerian war in a landscape of desolate beauty, it provides a lesson in the art of story-telling – unhurried, searching, cumulative in its effect.
Timidity among programmers has long deprived local audiences of the works of Anton Bruckner. Hats off to the Australian World Orchestra (in its third formation) for giving us the Eighth Symphony (Arts Update). Simon Rattle, though clearly ill like his wife, Magdalena Kožená (who withdrew after the Sydney concerts), led a shattering performance – proof, if we needed it, that this is one of the greatest of all symphonies.
Director David McVicar has done much to raise standards at Opera Australia in recent years. Sandwiched between his two new Mozarts came his elegant production of Gounod's Faust (Arts Update). I saw this in London eleven years ago, with the starriest of casts (Gheorghiu, Alagna, Terfel, Keenlyside, Koch), but the February opening night in Sydney was even better, with sensational performances from Michael Fabiano and Nicole Car as Faust and Marguerite.
The Melbourne Recital Centre has transformed musical life in Melbourne. Of the many fine pianists who have played in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Paul Lewis has made the deepest impression with a series of Schubert concerts, and, more recently, a Beethoven–Brahms program for Musica Viva. The incomparable Opus 111 sonata capped a performance of the greatest refinement.
Looking ahead, the Met's new Tristan und Isolde beckons in September, with the mighty Nina Stemme and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton singing the role of Tristan for the first time. In the coup of the year, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra will present these two great Wagnerians in a concert with excerpts from Tristan und Isolde in November 2016.
2015 was the Year of Women, marked by superlative writing and mesmerising performances. First came a welcome revival at Red Stitch of Annie Baker's The Flick (Arts Update). Baker's pared-back script managed to be moving, funny, tender, bleak, and hopeful at the same time. Superlative performances by Ngaire Dawn Fair, Ben Prendergast, and Kevin Hofbauer, along with Nadia Tass's sure-footed direction, made this a welcome return season.
Stand-outs in MTC's Neon season of new, experimental Australian drama included Patricia Cornelius's visceral portrayal of brutalised women, SHIT and Elbow Room's We Get It. Here, writer Marcel Dorney and his feisty troupe of actresses used the framework of a crass TV game show to showcase the dark underbelly of stardom. Fast-paced, witty, and searingly raw, the play combined satire and bitter comedy to underpin the female struggle to reach the top in a man's world.
At Malthouse Theatre, Caryl Churchill's Love and Information tore across the stage at breakneck speed. A cast of eight embodied more than 100 characters in a series of random vignettes. And anyone who saw Maria Mercedes perform as Maria Callas in fortyfivedownstairs' Master Class (Arts Update) was treated to an acting class in masterful technique. Ladies, take a bow!
The musical highlight of 2015 was the intense and rewarding Schubertiade with Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Melbourne Recital Centre in early July. The performances of Die schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Die Winterreise were peerless, with immaculate singing and playing.
Later in the year, two operas caught my imagination. Stella, by G.W. Marshall-Hall, received its first full staging since 1912. Melbourne's Lyric Opera should be praised for exhuming this neglected and significant piece of urban romanticism. The Melbourne Festival should likewise be commended for its co-commissioning of The Rabbits (Arts Update), by composer Kate Miller-Heidke and librettist Lally Katz – a charming, lucid, and ultimately dark work inspired by Shaun Tan and John Marsden's children's book.
The Australian Youth Orchestra also shone brightly in 2015 with its concert of Debussy and Mahler under the expert tutelage of the English conductor Mark Elder.
In 2016? Der Ring, of course.
Australia gets more music festivals every year, and most of them suffer from an oversaturation of offerings. But two festivals in 2015 encouraged me to absorb live music as nourishment rather than distraction. Pitched as a 'festival of the ecstatic', the inaugural Supersense program spanned Melbourne's Arts Centre and Hamer Hall. In a matter of hours I got to see Marc Ribot's rambunctious finger-picking, Chris Abrahams's wraithlike piano layering, and Gurrumul's reworked gospel standards, among other highlights. More ambitious by comparison, Ballarat's Festival of Slow Music (Arts Update) spanned nine days and ranged from marathon all-night stands to child-friendly sets in museums and gardens. The programming was kaleidoscopic in genre and impressively international for a budding festival in regional Victoria.
As nice as it is to slow down, though, Melbourne synth-punk quartet Ausmuteants delivered my favourite performance of 2015 with a brashly accelerated set opening for Regurgitator at the Prince Bandroom.
My most anticipated tour of 2016 comes courtesy of US indie rock band Waxahatchee, an unfiltered emotional outlet for songwriter Katie Crutchfield.
It's a rare experience to attend an arts festival in an Australian capital city and be offered works from our geographical region animating the threads of tradition and innovation that often have a more pronounced tension in non-Western cultures. Darwin is most likely the only contender for such programming in their annual arts festival. Outstanding works at Darwin in 2015 under Andrew Ross's direction were Prison Songs, a stage work adapted from the SBS documentary about Berrimah Prison in Darwin, starring the peerless Ernie Dingo and Shellie Morris, full of humour and piercing pain. Cry Jailolo is an exquisite, eerily beautiful dance work by Indonesian choreographer Eko Supriyanto, working with untrained young men from a 'tropical paradise' community being ravaged by ecological degradation. It also travelled to Adelaide for the OzAsia festival. I was pleased to be able to attend a one-off performance, The Food of Love, by Indonesian singer and ethnomusicologist Ubiet with Brisbane-based musical wonders Topology (the festival's resident music group), involving song cycles from poems by, among others, Randolph Stow set to music by Robert Davidson.
Next year I am particularly looking forward to the first work by Force Majeure's new artistic director, Danielle Micich, a Perth choreographer I have admired for years.
2015 was memorable for so many things that selection is painful. In January there was the sublime miniature Kiss & Cry at Carriageworks for the Sydney Festival, created by Jaco Van Dormael and Michèle Anne De Mey and the Charleroi Danses company. In this absorbing, wholly satisfying production we had a living fairy tale cum dream narrative. In a glorious original amalgam – which united video, the intimacy of a radio play, and a magic lantern show – a beautiful, fragile, exquisitely moving theatre piece unfurled before our eyes where the wonder of theatre, imagination and virtuosic execution by masterful performers united, as if alchemy truly lived.
Neil Armfield's film of Tommy Murphy's superb screenplay based on Timothy Conigrave's Holding the Man held me spellbound in laughter, tears, and heartfelt solidarity with the courage of the storytelling about the passionate romance between Conigrave and John Caleo. This was cinema to make one burst with pride on every level – performances, cinematography, editing, design, music, writing and, above all, consummate direction.
There were many remarkable music pleasures in this year, especially the recent Musica Viva recital by piano virtuoso Paul Lewis (a musician's musician) of a really demanding display program of Beethoven (Opus 109 and 111) and Brahms (Ballades, Opus 10 and Intermezzi opus 117). It was the type of deep, thoughtful rendition of a fine program that reminds one as to the necessity of live concert experience. As did Richard Tognetti's ACO Gallipoli program in April – mesmerisingly good.
In the next twelve months I intend to celebrate with Ensemble Offspring (and their dynamic artistic directors, Damien Ricketson and Claire Edwardes) their inspiring twenty-year commitment to contemporary music generally and to the music of this land especially. Bravi, bravissimi!
This year's best films demand to be seen several times over. George Miller's spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road (Arts Update) moves so fast that one viewing is hardly enough to register all the details of its intricately grotesque fantasy universe, imagined from the ground up by the most gifted of all Australian filmmakers. Hou Hsiao-hsien's enigmatic The Assassin is a very different kind of 'action' movie, but one that likewise reduces conventional exposition to a minimum, keeping us alert to the slightest breath of wind in between the rare moments of swift, decisive violence. Even after three viewings I would struggle to summarise the plot of Paul Thomas Anderson's shaggy-dog comedy-mystery Inherent Vice, based on the equally convoluted novel by Thomas Pynchon. But narrative is incidental to the film's pleasures, which centre on colour, framing, rhythm, and a cast of eccentrics led by Joaquin Phoenix as a perpetually stoned private eye.
In 2016, I'm especially looking forward to the return of Twin Peaks. A soap opera like no other, it has influenced practically all ambitious television made since.
Last month in Melbourne, a group of book reviewers and literary editors took part in a conference organised by Monash University’s Centre for the Book. There were more than thirty short papers, or ‘provocations’, as they were styled. Our Editor lamented the low or non-payment of some reviewers (especially younger ones) and announced a major new campaign to further increase payments to ABR contributors. Much good came from Critical Matters: Book Reviewing Now. Book reviewers are a non-organised, often isolated class: Critical Matters pointed the way to a more united cohort. Hearteningly, the mood was invigorating – not rueful or defensive. To complement this symposium, we invited a number of the participants, and others, to respond to this question: ‘What single development would most improve the Australian critical culture?’