Literary Studies

Critic of the Month with Paul Giles

Australian Book Review
Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Besides a capacity to write well, critics need to be well-informed. I sometimes get exasperated by reviewers without sufficient expertise in the topics they are considering. On the other hand, academic pedantry can also be off-putting, particularly when couched in a clunky style. In general, I’ve found the most memorable pieces to be those which say something about the reviewer as well as the author under review, like portraits which work through a kind of double vision, offering insights into the painter as well as the sitter. There was a very good essay on Les Murray by J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books a few years ago which had this double-edged quality.

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André Gide, when asked who was the greatest French poet, is said to have replied ‘Victor Hugo, alas’, and many readers have responded in similar fashion to William Faulkner’s place in the history of the American novel. Werner Sollors, the eminent Harvard scholar of American Literature, unambiguously described Faulkner in 2003 as ‘ultimately the most significant American novelist of the [twentieth] century’, a judgement echoed in this book by Michael Gorra, who calls him ‘the most important American novelist of the twentieth century’. But Faulkner’s marked proclivity for both stylistic excess and thematic incoherence has always made him a difficult author to appreciate and study. Hence Gorra’s The Saddest Words, a judicious and measured blend of biography, contextual history, and travelogue, performs a signal service in making this complicated author more accessible to a wider reading public.

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Professor Hassall’s study of Randolph Stow is indeed a strange country. A text which sets out to establish Stow as ‘a more important writer than is generally recognized’ and to show that his ‘best work bears comparison with Patrick White’s’ promises an intellectual engagement with either critics or the text or both which would lead to reassessment of Stow’s work. It appears that these are Aunt Sally’s – although Professor Leonie Kramer, who is presented as one of Stow’s ‘sterner “realist” critics’, can hardly be seen as such an aunt. Hassall puts her up but barely touches her, leaving the counterargument to Dorothy Green. Perhaps he’s being gentlemanly. However, to quote a paragraph from Green which asserts that ‘One of the greatest weaknesses of Australian criticism has always been its refusal to take religious ideas seriously’ is to take advantage of the lady. Hassall needs to fight his own battle against Leonie Kramer’s judgement of Stow’s work as being ‘quasi-religious’ and misguidedly experimental.

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‘Those bastards at Oxford,’ Barry Andrews fulminated ten years ago (he had in mind one or two in particular) ‘are trying to make us cut 200,000 words from the book!’ The ‘book’ was the first edition of the estimable The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. The ‘bastards’ had miscounted and the text survived more or less in full. Now, nine years after its first publication, the Companion has appeared in a revised edition with an extra 200,000 words, not there by way of compensation, but rather to cope with the brilliantly successful publicity campaign for Australian writing during the last decade. Bill Wilde and Joy Hooton remain as editors, Barry having died in 1987.

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This is a remarkable book – not so much for its subject matter as for the intensity of the passionate involvement of one writer with another. From the beginning, it is clear that this is not a conventional biography or book of criticism. A.N. Wilson approaches Charles Dickens through seven different mysteries about his life. The principal one, which underlies the whole book, is the mystery of what makes Dickens such an utterly compelling writer.

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Australian Literary Studies is a journal of the old school, independent of the international academic publishers that have absorbed so many others, and difficult to obtain for casual reading. It has maintained a solid reputation among scholars. From the evidence presented here, it is easy to see why.

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The Well in the Shadow, whose title is drawn from Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929), is an unconventional book, shaped entirely by Chester Eagle’s idiosyncratic responses to certain writers and their work. Eagle’s engagement with, and enthusiasm for, the texts he considers are undeniable. So too is his close knowledge of the books and writers discussed. The range of subjects is broad and reasonably inclusive, but I did wonder, given the book’s subtitle, about the absence of well-known writers such as Peter Carey, Tim Winton, David Malouf, and Christina Stead. Nonetheless, the choice is diverse.

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‘There was a man who loved islands. He was born on one, but it didn’t suit him, as there were too many other people on it, besides himself.’ So begins D.H. Lawrence’s bleak little fable ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’. Lawrence’s islander wants control, sole possession, mastery of people and place. When his first island, fertile and beautiful, fails him because of the vast expense of making it perfect, he moves to a smaller one where, without love or desire, he drifts into marriage and fatherhood. Again he escapes. On the third and final island – a barren rock – his total isolation brings madness and death. The moral is clear. Lawrence thought of community as essential; without it we cannot be human.

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When William Blake wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’, he meant the details: their ability to evoke entire universes. So did Aldous Huxley when, experimenting with mescaline, he discovered ‘the miracle … of naked existence’ in a vase of flowers. More recently, Jenny Odell’s bestseller How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy (2019) made a case for rejecting productivity in favour of active attention to the world around us.  

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In his description of the verse novel as ‘the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them’, Michael Symmons Roberts emphasises the form’s sometimes disjunctive use of literary techniques commonly associated with poetry and prose fiction. While the verse novel has gained popularity since the 1980s, many of its features may be traced to epic poems such The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad, and the long narrative poems of the Romantic and Victorian periods. The form was established by Alexander Pushkin’s nineteenth-century verse novel Eugene Onegin, which was divided into stanzas; however, the definition and key features of the verse novel are still hotly debated.

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