Memoir

A Writer’s Beginnings begins: ‘My mother died today.’ One could be excused for thinking that one was reading not a memoir but a Campus Novel without the ‘p’, an experience that Howard Jacobson will suffer later in this book. Who could read this incipit without hearing the famous beginning: ‘Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.’ Jacobson, on the other hand, knows. He continues: ‘It is 3 May 2020. She is ninety-seven years old.’ I cannot recall whether Albert Camus specifies his protagonist’s mother’s age in L’Étranger (1942). A Camus novel is surely a Campus Novel without the ‘p’, the latter a sub-genre that Jacobson will both live out teaching English at a polytechnic in a defunct football stadium and come to write. Indeed, so insistent is his use of the locution ‘we’ll come to that later’ that one could be excused for thinking prolepsis a Finklerish (see below) rhetorical device. Give Howard Jacobson enough trope and he’ll surely hang himself.

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When Susan Varga made the momentous, long-delayed decision to commit herself to writing, her first task was to write her mother’s story – that of a Holocaust survivor who migrated from Hungary to Australia with her second husband and two daughters in 1948, when Susan was five. That story, which is also one of a complex and difficult relationship between mother and daughter, became the award-winning Heddy and Me (1994). 

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Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested at Tehran International Airport on 12 September 2018 as she prepared to return home to Australia. A lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, she had visited Iran for a seminar on Shia Islam. Her captors were the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the Sepâh, a powerful militia that protects Iran’s Islamic system. She was bundled into a car and driven to a secret location. As interrogations began, she was also served a large piece of chocolate cake. The nature of this first encounter, terrifying and strange, would typify her coming dealings with the Sepâh, an outfit that seemed as haphazard and amateurish as it was menacing.

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In the chaos that opened the Trump administration in 2017, foreign governments were looking for any and all insiders for information. Australia turned to Joe Hockey, who turned to golf. In this very readable account of the former treasurer’s four years in Washington (2016–20), Hockey tells us how he navigated ‘TRUMPAGEDDON’. This is a story replete with funny anecdotes and unsettling observations. Diplomatic leaves the reader convinced that diplomacy is more about art and luck than about science and process. It is also oddly reassuring about the vicissitudes that the Australia–United States relations can weather, even under the most weird leadership.

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Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette (2017–18) starts out funny but then shifts to long, angry monologues that refuse its audience the release of laughter. By breaking the conventional contract between a comedian and her audience, Gadsby rejected her own former practice of turning her traumatic experiences into jokes. Nanette’s international run and subsequent release as a Netflix special spanned the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, which gauged public support for marriage equality, as well as the international #MeToo movement against sexual assault.

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Shortly before Simon Tedeschi’s grandmother, Lucy Gershwin, died sixteen years ago, she recorded a memoir of her wartime years. Gershwin, a Polish Jew, was the only survivor of a family obliterated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Simon Tedeschi’s powerful essay, ‘This woman my grandmother’, reflects on the moment he decided to read her memoirs and encounter the tragic outlines of a life that remains shaded by a reticence typical of her generation.

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A father sits on a couch that is set between the beds of his young sons, who must be eased into sleep with a story. The scene is illuminated by a lamp in the shape of the globe, which is as it should be, for he shows them his world through the simple patterns of these stories: his cherishing of the natural world; his insight into happy reversals of fortune; his humour. The father’s stories are spellbinding, reassuring the children and also their mother, who tells herself that no harm can come to this man in the middle of a tale. She is reminded of the old motif from the Thousand and One Nights, where the storyteller wards off death with a gripping narration.

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In Telling Tennant’s Story, Dean Ashenden gives a lucid, succinct, eminently readable account of the reasons why Australia as a nation continues to struggle with how to acknowledge and move beyond its past. Travelling north to visit Tennant Creek for the first time since leaving it as a boy in 1955, Ashenden is provoked to question the absence of shared histories on the monuments and tourist information boards along the route. Mostly, the signs record pioneer history, from which the Indigenous people are absent. When the Indigenous story is invoked, it records traditional practices and does not mention white people. ‘How did they get from then to now?’ he muses. ‘Just don’t mention the war.’

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It’s always interesting to see biographers decide to turn the spotlight upon themselves, and to ask why. Will it be another case of ‘now it’s my turn’? The need to confess, even to enter into the Land of Too Much Information?

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We all seem to be thinking about grief lately. As Covid keeps many of us away from loved ones and people who are dying or have just expired, how we process death has received a renewed focus. The number of memoirs and guides and stories about grief and loss that have been published in the past two years – over two hundred – is staggering. It is a challenge to write about grief. Every society on earth has its own forms and rituals around grieving, its own texts on what grieving is like. Trying to find something new or original to say is daunting. What we are left with are our own words, our own terrible experiences to put down upon the page.

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