What do we talk about when we talk about history? This is a question that Anna Clark has devoted her career to answering. She has followed the conversations Australians have about history into museums and universities – The History Wars (2003) and Australian History Now! (2013) – and classrooms and staffrooms – Teaching the Nation (2006) and History's Children (2008). With Private Lives, Public History, she has turned her mind to the broader Australian public. She searches out 'ordinary' Australians – the 'working families', 'taxpayers', and 'battlers' who live out in 'lawnmower land' – to ask them what they think of Australian history.
But who are ordinary Australians? Who are the people over whom the history wars were fought? Clark's 'Mr Everyman' is made up of 100 interviewees, mostly women, from five communities that 'broadly reflect the geographical, cultural and socio-economic diversity of Australia': Marrickville, Chatswood, Brimbank, Rockhampton, and Derby. The interviews were conducted in small groups and one-on-ones. Clark laments that the rich sensory experience of these sessions is missing in the book: 'How to transcribe the loud crack of a tinnie during my visit to the Derby Bowling Club?'
Have the French thought themselves to death? This is the question that Sudhir Hazareesingh poses in this erudite and stimulating book. His concluding chapter is a piece of diplomatic fence-sitting, but, notwithstanding the claim of the subtitle's affection, much of the analysis points to a national culture in terminal decline, inward-looking, nostalgic for past glories, anxious for its future, and stuck with entrenched thinking patterns that no longer offer purchase on innovation or renewal.
A self-confessed Francophile of Mauritian background, Hazareesingh divides his time between Paris and Oxford, and has authored prize-winning books on two of the grandes figures of modern France – Napoleon and de Gaulle. His new project is a sweeping four-century history of the thinkers and ideas that he argues have given France its distinctiveness and have underpinned its (now much diminished) prestige and influence in world affairs.
Jennifer Down's first novel, Our Magic Hour, is notable for its stylistic individuality. The novel's opening is disorientating at first: Audrey wears a shirt whose 'sleeves swallowed her hands'; spaghetti bolognese 'spatters' on a stove; a football match 'bellows' from a television. This is an object-rich terrain, in which the details provide cues to interpreting the fictional world.
Audrey, Katy, and Adam were friends in high school – their bond was close, even claustrophobic: they shared beds and their conversations were frank, at times needful. As the narrative begins, Katy has taken her own life, and Audrey and Adam are grieving. When Audrey receives the news, Katy's coat is still draped over a chair in Audrey's kitchen, 'an exoskeleton left behind'. Audrey's mostly happy relationship with Nick is fraying; Adam keeps 'getting scared of everything'.
For fifty years after his death, the works of the most influential English-language poet of the twentieth century were unavailable in a scholarly edition. Moreover, Collected Poems, 1909–1962, arranged by T.S. Eliot himself and published in 1963, contained a number of widely recognised textual errors. The publication of The Poems of T.S. Eliot edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, brings this absurd situation to an end. The new edition is the most complete version of the Eliot corpus yet assembled: it begins with the 1963 Collected Poems; incorporates Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939); folds in Ricks's edition of Eliot's juvenilia and ephemera, Inventions of the March Hare (1996); and adds scores of previously uncollected poems along the way. (Offering an exact number is difficult insofar as these additional poems range from poem sequences to two-line fragments; suffice it to say, the contents lists seventy-eight previously unpublished titles.) All of these are accompanied by an overawing editorial commentary and a textual history which, as a proportion of the material in this edition, dwarf the poems themselves. An edition like this is necessarily the servant of two masters: general readers and specialist scholars will come to it with differing needs and expectations. The Poems splits the difference by providing a more comprehensive textual history than ordinary readers will use, and a more didactic commentary than scholars will need.
As he reminds his readers on numerous occasions in The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, Harold Bloom is now well into his eighties. He has spent a lifetime teaching and writing about literature at Yale University, where he has long claimed to constitute a 'department of one'. The claim is part lament, part affectation, part boast. But it is true enough that Bloom is an uncommon critic. His achievements include developing theories of literary influence, creativity, and canonisation that are so obviously extensions of his aesthetic preferences that he regularly abandons the pretence that they are anything else. He writes of his devotion to literature as if it were a private religion and a source of solace, interrupting his exegeses to garland works that embody his ideal of greatness, or to reminisce about reading them for the first time, or to comment on their enduring personal appeal. He holds a 'firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir'. In a passage that characterises literary criticism as a form of projection, he remarks: 'I believe there is no critical method except yourself.'
The line is a sly rewriting of T.S. Eliot's assertion that the only method is to be 'very intelligent'. And like Eliot's maxim, it is more of a rhetorical flourish than an applicable formula. (I mean, it's not exactly a helpful observation, is it?) It does, however, raise a number of pertinent questions about Bloom's thinking and what exactly we are to make of the elaborate architecture of his literary theories.
Publisher’s superlatives aside, Tony Birch’s return to short-form writing is an event to be celebrated. Following on from his Miles Franklin short-listed Blood (2011) and his two earlier collections, Shadowboxing (2006) and Father’s Day (2009), The Promise is a collection of twelve short stories united by Birch’s characteristic wit, matter-of-factness, and charm. In many respects, each of the stories in The Promise is an exploration of how the processes of age, attrition, and heartbreak wear away the rougher edges of his characters, though clearly it is what remains that interests Birch: that ember of humanity impermeable to cynicism and the vagaries of fate.
Throughout the stories, Birch writes with an assuredness that conceals the evident craft of the pieces, from the beguiling opening lines, to the often acute descriptive language, for example in ‘The Ghost of Hank Williams’, where the ‘scratches of white-hot lightning’ that mark the sky are linked to the second story in the collection that might also be read as a ghost story, ‘The Promise’, where a ‘death-rattle wind’ contributes to the piece’s air of hypnagogic reverie. Because of the economy of Birch’s style, images are crucial to the success of his writing. Often they suggest moments of absurdity or unexpected turns, such as the sensual pleasure experienced while eating a ‘fat olive’, or the image of two men, a cat, and a dog floating in a car on a river. They act as grace notes or suggest deeper mysteries, or indeed function as turning points. And yet, even in their absurdity, such images appear familiar to the point of intimacy, lingering in the reader’s mind.
It is Birch’s obvious affection for his characters that comes through most strongly in this collection. While it is true that the main impetus of these stories rarely involves the dramatics of a sudden transformation, brought about by a violent event, or even a moment of sudden insight, one central tension common to many of the characters, particularly where a failed relationship is at the story’s emotional core, is that more is demanded of them than they are able to give, and it is this deficit that brings change into their world. Birch’s younger male characters, immediately recognisable and authentic with their clipped voices and quick wit, are knocked off balance by the inevitable and casual mistakes of youth. With his adult male characters, who generally appear to yearn for the pleasant equilibrium of inertia, it is precisely the desire to live a good and simple life that makes them paradoxically vulnerable to the decisions made by others. It is women who perceive the male characters more clearly than they do themselves, wise to their various weaknesses and clear in their knowledge that, despite their age, these men are still boys at heart. Notwithstanding the pressures of life, what is endearing about all of Birch’s male characters is that they haven’t had the life squashed out of them.
‘Birch’s younger male characters, immediately recognisable and authentic with their clipped voices and quick wit, are knocked off balance by the inevitable and casual mistakes of youth.’
Dealing by turns with heartbreak, grief, the mysteries of adolescence, anger, and loneliness, these are lives of quiet desperation illuminated by resilience, resourcefulness, but particularly humour and pathos. The strong sense begins to accumulate that some characters’ lack of awareness is in fact an understandable shield against the harsher realities of life. ‘Your life lacks perception,’ the worldly waitress in ‘The Lovers’ tells the young protagonist, who stubbornly chooses to believe in the possibility of romantic love. The narrator of ‘China’, Cal, a tough young man made vulnerable by love, searches for the imagined traces of his runaway girlfriend in the tracks by the side of a road. Similarly, in ‘Refuge of Sinners’, a grieving father, reading for traces in the world around him of his dead child, ‘examines a smudged Vegemite fingerprint on a kitchen door’ and wonders if it belongs to his son. This beautiful story reads like a prayer for absolution for an unnamed guilt, which is nothing other than taking on the ordinary but enormous responsibility of being a father. In the absence of the loved one, the world left behind is charged and mysterious, and when he sits, the narrator feels ‘the full weight of [his] body’.
In ‘After Rachel’, the narrator, bereft after his lover has abandoned him and alone in a house whose ‘loneliness’ can be physically heard, attempts to retrace the symptoms of his lover’s redacted reasoning, to little effect. This character’s honesty is endearing. After a confrontation, he ‘skulked away, embarrassed, and didn’t stop walking the streets until I suddenly realised that I’d managed to get myself lost’. He finds solace, not in the bottle, or in his cigarettes, but in the gifts of an odd stranger. ‘I unscrewed the top of the jar, reached in, took out an olive and rested it on my tongue. It tasted warm and fresh. I bit into it. The olive contained many flavours. But most of all it tasted – not like the sea – but of the sea. I ate a second olive, followed quickly by a third.’ It’s a small and quiet moment in the story, but what ensues conforms to the perfect and peculiar logic that illuminates so many of the stories in this terrific collection.
David Whish-Wilson reviews Tony Birch’s new collection of twelve short stories which display his characteristic humour, laconicism and charm.