VIC contributor

Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and history by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall

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December 2020, no. 427

Forty years ago, François Furet outraged the French historical establishment by proclaiming that ‘the French Revolution is over’, launching a blistering critique of the Marxist categories and politics of university historians, many of them still members of the Communist Party he had abandoned in 1959. By the time of the bicentenary in 1989, historians were in bitter dispute over the meaning and legacy of the Revolution. In that year, Patrice Gueniffey completed his doctorate under Furet at the prestigious research school the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He remains at that institution today, Furet’s most famous disciple and a celebrated historian in his own right.

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In 1795, Friedrich Schiller wrote: ‘So long as we were mere children of nature, we were both happy and perfect; we have become free, and have lost both.’ For Schiller, it was the poet’s task to ‘lead mankind … onward’ to a reunification with nature, and thereby with the self. Central to Romantic thought, reimaginings like Schiller’s of Christian allegory, in which (European) humans’ division from a utopian natural world suggests the biblical fall, strike a chord in our own time of unfolding environmental catastrophe. Against such an unfolding, three new Australian books of poetry explore the contemporary relationship of subject to place.

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There has as yet been no comprehensive critical study of the poets associated with the ‘Generation of ’68’, of whom Martin Johnston was perhaps the most naturally gifted and certainly the most intellectually expansive representative. This is because the project of these poets, to fully incorporate the stylistic innovations of modernist poetics and its development in postwar American models within local practice, is still ongoing. If we examine only those poets gathered in the 1979 New Australian Poetry anthology – in which Johnston’s lengthy experiment in parataxis, ‘The Blood Aquarium’, appears as a signature work – we find major authors even today in the process of developing their practice.

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Kate Mildenhall’s confronting new novel, The Mother Fault, is set in an alarming near-future Australia. Climate change has left refugees ‘marking trails like new currents on the maps as they swarm to higher, cooler ground’. Sea levels have risen, species have died out, farmlands have been contaminated, and meat is a luxury. Unprecedented bushfires occur regularly; technology and surveillance are ubiquitous, with bulbous cameras hanging ‘like oddly uniform fruit bats from the streetlights’. The media is controlled, and Australian citizens are microchipped and monitored by a totalitarian government known as ‘the Department’. The ‘Dob in Disunity’ app offers ‘gamified’ rewards to informants (‘Even kids could join in the fun!’), while troublemakers can be relocated to ‘BestLife’ housing estates where the reality is far from the Instagram hashtag. Reflecting on the events that led to this, protagonist Mim notes that the world ‘shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed in the beginning.’

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In Western culture’s calendar year, is there some hidden fifth season, and if there is, what is it? The main character of Philip Salom’s fifth novel, a writer called Jack, asks himself near the end of the book whether the fifth season might be ‘Time, which holds the seasons together’, or perhaps the fifth season is simply ‘the Unknown’. Jack is preoccupied with the lost: with those people whose bodies are found but never identified, or those who, suffering amnesia, can’t be identified, but who need ‘to find their proper location in the story. In the seasons. A lost person must be allowed other dimensions.’

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When Shirley Hazzard was invited to give the 1984 Boyer Lectures, it was an astonishing break in tradition. Her twenty-three predecessors included only one woman, Dame Roma Mitchell, a supreme court justice who was later governor of South Australia. Except for architect and writer Robin Boyd, and poet and Bulletin editor Douglas Stewart, Hazzard was the only creative artist on the list. All her predecessors were well known for their public contributions to Australian life.

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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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Geoff Goodfellow is best known as a poet. Out of Copley Street, his first non-verse publication, chronicles his working-class coming of age in Adelaide’s inner-northern suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s.

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The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel & Philanthropy by Paul Vallely

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December 2020, no. 427

Save the Children in Stockholm wanted to highlight the unfair distribution of global wealth, so it invented an online game called The Lottery of Life. This invited Swedes to a website to spin the wheel of chance. If you were born again tomorrow, where would you appear?

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It is not surprising that a book on the politicisation of intelligence in Australia should begin and end by referring to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For many Australians, that episode will long remain the classic example of the misuse of intelligence for partisan political purposes, in sharp contrast to the ideal that intelligence analysts should speak truth to power, giving policymakers their unvarnished assessments, rather than telling them what they want to hear.

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