VIC contributor

Jeremy D. Popkin, a historian at the University of Kentucky, fittingly begins his account of the French Revolution with a printer in Lexington enthusing in late 1793 about the ideals of the Revolution of 1789 in his Kentucky Almanac. The printer’s geographic distance from the events in Paris meant that his idealistic vision of the Revolution coincided with its most violent and repressive period in 1793–94, later dubbed ‘the Reign of Terror’. This juxtaposition of 1789 and 1793 is useful for Popkin to make his key point that, ‘despite its shortcomings, however, the French Revolution remains a vital part of the heritage of democracy’.

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Body Count by Paddy Manning & Fire by Stephen J. Pyne

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October 2020, no. 425

Last spring, as the harbingers of a dangerous season converged into a chorus of forewarning, I decided it might be a good idea to keep a diary of the period now known as ‘Black Summer’. The diary starts in September with landscapes burning in southern Queensland and Brazil. Three hundred thousand people rally across Australia, calling for action on climate change. I attend a forum of emergency managers where, during a discussion about warning systems, a senior fire manager declares: ‘We need to tell the public we cannot help them in the ways they expect, but we’re never going to tell them.’ Next week, Greg Mullins, the former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, comments on ABC radio, ‘We’re going to have fires that I can’t comprehend.’ Federal politicians assure the nation that we are resilient.

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Melburnians above a certain age will remember Coles in Bourke Street. Unknown to most of them, it stood on the site of another Coles, Cole’s Book Arcade, for half a century probably the most famous shop in Australia. Its founder, Edward William Cole, is now the subject of an engaging biography by Richard Broinowski.

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While on the campaign trail against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump appeared to deviate from a scripted speech he was delivering in Dimondale, Michigan. What followed was remarkable: ‘At the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over ninety-five per cent of the African-American vote. I promise you.’ Undaunted by six decades of black voting behaviour and his own poor standing with African-Americans, not to mention the fact that he had yet to defeat Clinton, Trump promised a ‘new deal for black America’ that would spark a decisive black shift to the Republican Party. African-Americans had long been the nation’s most partisan racial group: since 1964, no Republican presidential candidate had won more than thirteen per cent of the black vote, and no Democrat less than eighty-two per cent. Yet Trump, a man with a long and divisive racial history, vowed that he would soon rival Barack Obama for electoral appeal among African-Americans.

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Pale ankles in the mountains, divergences
on a quarry. We are witness to it
land and witness to it
some fact of further summer
or things a truck driver might say ...

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Max by Alex Miller

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October 2020, no. 425

When Alex Miller first thought of writing about Max Blatt, he imagined a celebration of his life. But would Max have wanted that? He was a melancholy, chainsmoking European migrant, quiet and self-effacing, who claimed nothing for himself except defeat and futility.

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Eddie Jaku looks out benevolently from his memoir’s cover, signs of living etched across his face. The dapper centenarian displays another mark, one distinctly at odds with his beatific expression and the title’s claim: the tattoo on his forearm from Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Less discernible is the badge affixed to his lapel bearing the Hebrew word zachor; ‘remember’. The Happiest Man on Earth blazes with the pursuit of memory, of bearing witness, but it is also determinedly oriented towards the future, its dedication inscribed to ‘future generations’.

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These three Young Adult novels differ wildly in tone, execution – even their grasp on reality. Georgina Young’s début novel, Loner (Text Publishing, $24.99 pb, 256 pp), won the Text Prize for an unpublished Young Adult manuscript in 2019, and was a deserving winner. Text has decided to market it as adult fiction, but it works well as a crossover novel. Her protagonist, twenty-year-old Lona (does not sound like loner!).

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In perhaps the most tender story in this textured, interconnected collection, an adolescent son spends the summer sunbathing in the backyard and sneaking glances at the paperboy while his working-class, stay-at-home father, who reads detective fiction and likes to ‘figure things out before the endings’, gently attempts to make it known to his son that he can tell him anything.

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The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis, translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux

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October 2020, no. 425

From the moment one reads that this book is dedicated ‘To the worm that first gnawed at the cold flesh of my cadaver’, it is clear that The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, first published in Rio de Janeiro in 1881, is a novel like few others.

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