Monash contributor

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Lauren Elkin

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December 2021, no. 438

‘I loathe romans à clef as much as I loathe fictionalised biographies,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir (1908–76). For this reason, the novel and the memoir were her preferred genres, even though the boundaries between the two were frequently blurred, a distinction that Beauvoir insisted must be maintained: fiction has ‘only very dubious connections with truth’. While Beauvoir was adamant that her fictional women protagonists are ‘not her’ in any recognisable sense, she conceded that characters may resemble living models. The most famous example is Lewis in The Mandarins (1954), loosely based on Nelson Algren, the American writer and Beauvoir’s lover for some twenty years. It may be loose, but the resemblance was enough for Algren to take his revenge by panning subsequent American editions of Beauvoir’s work. Even memoir has a very particular relationship to reality for Beauvoir. The writer of the memoir is not the same as the subject: the future, she notes in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), ‘would turn me into another being, someone who would still be, and yet no longer seem, myself’.

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After Lockdown: A metamorphosis by Bruno Latour, translated by Julie Rose

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December 2021, no. 438

Bruno Latour’s new book, After Lockdown: A metamorphosis, is so engaging from the first that one feels obliged to begin just where he does: with an arresting portrait of a man who wakes from a long sleep to find that everything, save the moon and its indifferent rotations, makes him uneasy. Everywhere he sees reminders of the lost innocence of the Anthropocene. The sun brings to mind global warming; the trees, deforestation; the rain, drought. Nothing in the landscape offers solace. Pollution has left its mark everywhere, and he feels vaguely responsible for it all. And now, to top it off, the very breath that sustains his life carries the risk of premature death. How many of his neighbours might he infect (or be infected by) amid the vapour trails of his evening walk? Nature, it seems, is having its revenge, and the ‘in-out-in’ of lockdown threatens to become interminable.

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Pride of Place describes in detail a selection of the outstanding collection of Australian books, paintings, photographs, and prints that Russell and Mabel Grimwade donated to the University of Melbourne. The main focus is on Russell, but they were clearly a team with shared interests in Australian native trees and plants and the European history of Australia.

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Animal by Lisa Taddeo

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August 2021, no. 434

In the prologue to her first book, Three Women (2019), a work of non-fiction exploring the structures and expressions of desire, Lisa Taddeo writes that she had not initially intended to focus on women. ‘I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men. Their yearnings. The way they could overturn an empire for a girl on bended knee.’ It was not until she began interviewing her subjects that she noticed that, while the stories of men all seemed to adhere to the same pattern, women’s stories were tantalisingly oblique; when a woman spoke of desiring a man, it was almost never (or never just) the man himself that she wanted. At first, the question that Three Women poses is: Why do these women desire the men that they do? But the further Taddeo delves inside the lives of her case studies (Maggie, the abused teenager; Lina, the woman in a loveless marriage; Sloane, the pariah of her community), the more the question becomes: Why, after everything that men have done to them, do women continue to desire men at all? 

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One of my favourite characterisations of the short story comes, unsurprisingly, from Jorge Luis Borges. In a 1982 interview with Fernando Sorrentino, Borges attributes the short story’s strength to its economy; to its muscular form, trimmed of all fat. A three-hundred-page novel, he says, ‘necessarily contains a certain amount of padding, pages whose only purpose is to connect one part of the novel to the other. In a short story, on the other hand, it is possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or – at the very least – to appear to be essential.’ One might say the same about a good anthology: there is no space for filler, no room for error; every story must be essential, or – at the very least – must appear to be essential.

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In Second Place, the narrator, M, reminisces about the time she invited the artist L to stay on her remote property ‘on the marsh’. Fifteen years earlier in Paris, a painting of L’s on a poster advertising a major retrospective of his art had spoken to M of ‘absolute freedom’. She was then ‘a young mother on the brink of rebellion’. The night before she had allowed a famous writer – ‘an egotist, permanently drunk on his own importance’ – to string her along and then dump her unceremoniously once he decided she wasn’t worth the risk. Viewing L’s paintings in the gallery the next morning, M had felt herself ‘falling out of the frame’ of her own life and ‘became distinct from it’.

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The convict Thomas Brooks was transported to Sydney in 1818. He had been sentenced to seven years but would serve twenty-seven, with stints in some of Australia’s most brutal penal settlements. His life became a cycle of escape attempts, recapture, and punishment. Each grab for freedom made his chains heavier, the floggings ever more severe. Eventually the penal system broke him, his spirit and will to escape crushed. When Brooks was finally released, he went bush, content to live in a humpy, drink, and ponder his past. He wondered how Britain could see fit to abolish slavery and yet maintain the convict system. ‘For our slavery there was no balm. Those who believed in the freedom of men had cast us out; and those who were incapable of reflection must have seen the impassable gulph between the stains of our bondage and the free position of honest liberty.’

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It is well known that Charles Dickens draws an analogy between the novelist as creator and the Creator of the cosmos: ‘I think the business of art is to lay all [the] ground carefully, but with the care that conceals itself – to show, by a backward light, what everything has been working to – but only to suggest, until the fulfilment comes. These are the ways of Providence, of which ways, all art is but a little imitation.’ However, it is not generally recognised that Dickens supported this analogy with a deep knowledge of the Bible. Instead, the thinking that permeates his works is often seen as a facet of secular humanism. John Ruskin, for example, commented that for Dickens Christmas meant no more than ‘mistletoe and pudding – neither resurrection from the dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds’.

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Leadership by Don Russell & A Decade of Drift by Martin Parkinson

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July 2021, no. 433

In 1958, the Australian political scientist A.F. Davies (1924–87) published Australian Democracy: An introduction to the political system, one of the first postwar attempts to combine institutional description with comment on the patterns of political culture. It introduced a provocative assertion: Australians have ‘a characteristic talent for bureaucracy’. Disdaining the myth of Australians as shaped by the initiative and improvisation of our bush heritage (Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend was published in the same year), Davies argued:

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Following 200 pages of at times harrowing detail in which former Labor MP Kate Ellis outlines the extent of the sexist and misogynist behaviour she endured as a member of the Australian Parliament, she asks herself: ‘Is it worth the hard days, the unnecessary crap?’ ‘Yes’, she replies. ‘Every. Single. Second. No question.’

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