Biography and Memoirs

Those who would have us believe that William Shakespeare was not the author of the poems and plays that bear his name – J. Thomas Looney and Sherwood Silliman come to mind – like to encourage the idea that almost nothing is known about his life. In fact, we have quite a lot of information about Shakespeare’s life, career and the cultural environment in which he wrote. What we do lack is any direct testimony from the man himself. His opinions are lost to us. There are no letters or journals that might illuminate his private thoughts and feelings. The basic facts of Shakespeare’s life (1564–1616) are largely set out in official documents recording births, deaths, marriages and legal transactions. If we must inquire into the nature of his personal relationships, the options are either to try and extrapolate his views from his poetry and dramatic works (an impossibly compromised practice), or else turn to circumstantial evidence and weigh up possibilities.

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Gay Bilson reviews 'Muck' by Craig Sherborne

Gay Bilson
Monday, 01 October 2007

If the central, not-made-much-of miracle in Craig Sherborne’s remarkable memoir Hoi Polloi (2005) is the disappearance of the narrator’s childhood stutter after a blow to the head, then the equivalent motif in Muck, Hoi Polloi’s equally fine sequel, is his voice.

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Peter Rose reviews 'Sunrise West' by Jacob G. Rosenberg

Peter Rose
Monday, 01 October 2007

Gunther Grass, in his suave and controversial memoirs, Peeling the Onion (Harvill Secker, 2007, trans. Michael Henry Heim), rehearses many of the modern autobiographer’s qualms about the biddability of memory. Grass, with his long history of attacking other Germans’ wartime activities while concealing his own service in the Tenth SS Armoured Division, has every incentive to question the memoirist’s primary tool. ‘When pestered with questions,’ Grass writes, ‘memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is seldom unambiguous and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised.’ Changing metaphors, Grass contends with memory’s caprices and slippages: ‘Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.’

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Jaynie Anderson reviews 'Albert Tucker' by Gavin Fry

Jaynie Anderson
Monday, 01 October 2007

Handsomely illustrated, beautifully produced and authoritatively written, Gavin Fry’s monograph on Albert Tucker aims to establish him as an important artist within the Australian twentieth-century canon. Fry begins his introduction with the statement that Tucker ‘was a man who inspired strong feelings and his work likewise required the viewer to make a stand. Many found his work difficult, some even repellent, but the artist and his art demanded attention. Equally gifted as a painter, and possibly more so as a draughtsman than his contemporaries Nolan, Boyd and Perceval, Tucker belongs with this élite who revolutionised Australian painting in Melbourne in the 1940s.’ But is this really so? Was Tucker really so much better than his contemporaries, or even as good as them?

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One of the hazards of election years these days is the quickie biography of the latest Opposition leader. As Simon Crean missed out on an election, so he missed out on a quickie. On the other hand, in 2004 his successor Mark Latham scored two – or three if we include Michael Duffy’s comparative study of the two political bruisers Latham and Abbott. Not that it did Latham, or probably the reputation of the authors, much good.

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At about the time that he was preparing the final drafts of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot was preoccupied by a separate, but no less overwhelming question: when to sell his shares in the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company. In October 1922, the month the poem was published in the periodical he edited, the Criterion, Eliot wrote to his brother, Henry: ‘For myself, the important point is that Hydraulic should rise and give me an opportunity to sell when Sterling is low: it looks as if Sterling might fall a few points before very long. Do you think that Hydraulic will continue to pay dividends for the next year or so?’

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When Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was first published in France in 2004, it created extraordinary interest for at least three reasons. Firstly, there was the story of the survival of the manuscript, preserved in an unopened suitcase for almost sixty years by Némirovsky’s daughters, Elisabeth and Denise, who had assumed that the papers in their possession were personal notes that would be too painful for them to read. Secondly, there was the documentation, provided in Myriam Anissimov’s preface and in a rich appendix, about Némirovsky’s life as an identified foreign Jew under Nazi occupation. Arrested in July 1942, interned in the Pithiviers camp, and deported almost immediately to Auschwitz, she died barely a month after her arrest, even as her husband and friends, ignorant of her fate, tried frenetically to save her. Finally, there was the novel itself, or rather, the two completed sections of what was intended to be a five-part epic narrative: a brilliantly rendered fresco of the French collapse in 1940 and the first years of German occupation, which earned Némirovsky, posthumously, the unparalleled honour of the prestigious Renaudot prize. With the English translation of the novel in 2006, she became an international celebrity. A Némirovsky biography, therefore, could hardly be more timely.

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Gay Bilson reviews 'Edith Wharton' by Hermione Lee

Gay Bilson
Friday, 01 June 2007

I took to Edith Wharton in the late 1970s but don’t remember why. I have never forgotten the name of the heroine of the first of her books that I read: Undine Spragg, all soft promise dashed by that biting surname. This was The Custom of the Country (1913), and I read on: Ethan Frome (1912), Summer (1917), and The Children (1928), for instance. Someone offered me R.W.B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975), and a friend created space on his bookshelf by unloading The Collected Short Stories (edited and introduced by Lewis, who calls himself an ‘addict’). Much later, when the film of The Age of Innocence was released in 1993, I primly chose to read the novel rather than see a version of it. Then I left Edith Wharton, née Jones, born to wealth in 1862 in New York, on the shelf.

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It is now thirty years since James McAuley died, and more has been written about him in that time than about any other Australian poet. Poets are not usually of great biographical importance unless they are also caught up in historical and political events, or are a kind of phenomenon like Byron or Rimbaud. McAuley was not a man of action, but he was associated with a number of events which were significant in Australian development and culture; and a large, some would say inordinate, part of his life and energy went into politics and polemics. He became something of a public figure, and, as he himself recognised, the lives of such figures quickly become public property. Any book about him is bound to be of interest.

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The United Nations’ eighth secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, has just taken over what has been called the world’s worst job. But it is one that attracts fierce, devious and polite competition. Why would anyone seek, for less than $400,000 a year, to be the chief administrative officer of a non-government that cannot govern, a non-corporation that cannot borrow or invest? The UN’s total budget is about the same as the New York City school system, and the secretary-general has to beg 192 national stakeholders for funds even to carry out what they instruct him to do. Who would want to be answerable, as well, to a fifteen-member board, five of whose members use their permanency to frustrate others and advance their own interests, rather than those of the organisation?

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