Much current debate on crucial issues facing Australia – the economy, race relations, foreign affairs, for example – is conducted in the opinion pages of metropolitan daily newspapers. And ‘opinion’ pages they now are – with a vengeance. It is a symptom of the times that opinion-page editors have less and less recourse to disinterested authorities (do they no longer believe such exist?). Instead they ‘balance’ stakeholders. Mining interest, Monday. Environmental guru, Tuesday. Sometime Labor speechwriter/media apparatchik, Wednesday and sometime Coalition apparatchik/media adviser, Thursday.
There are honourable exceptions, but the trend is marked and makes for a patchwork of vested interest, for low standards of argument and scant regard for evidence. Provocative journalism – maybe. Enlightenment – rarely.
It might have been a circumstance custom-tailored for Morry Schwartz. Schwartz is a publisher with a keen sense of the market and, with his Best Australian Essays series, a shrewd sense of how to regenerate as well as exploit a market. He also has that rare quality in the world of commercial publishing: a demonstrated commitment to the substance, not just the colour and movement, of cultural debate. So it is unsurprising, though gratifying, that he should have made this latest move. With The Australian Quarterly Essay, he has resurrected one of the oldest mediums of political argument: the pamphlet. And precisely at a time when the Internet, with its overburden of un-sifted information, is paling as the fashionable recourse of intellectual choice.
For their first issue, editor Peter Craven and publisher Schwartz have chosen as their writer Robert Manne, an academic perhaps best known for his newspaper opinion pieces, media commentary, books and erstwhile editorship of the sometimes conservative, more recently (post-Manne) radical, left-wing journal Quadrant.
Much current debate on crucial issues facing Australia – the economy, race relations, foreign affairs, for example – is conducted in the opinion pages of metropolitan daily newspapers. And ‘opinion’ pages they now are – with a vengeance. It is a symptom of the times that opinion-page editors have less and less recourse to disinterested authorities ...
A writer leaves you with everything to say. It is in the nature of his medium to start a conversation within you that will not stop until your death …
Conversation is the raison d’être of this monumental monologue. But you might not think so if you read only the reviews. Splenetic, greensick criticism – and there has been plenty of it – insists that what Clive James has built out of a life’s voracious reading and careful noticing – his ‘notes in the margin’ – is a platform for his ego. Not so. But how ruthlessly we skin our own.
Cultural Amnesia, as I read it, is a book of invitation, not dictation. Yes, it is daunting in length and ambition: a digressive, eccentric articulation of a profoundly held credo of humanism (‘our best reason for having minds at all’). It is a prodigious amateur’s scan of the culture and politics of the twentieth century, a century made even more terrible than the calamitous fourteenth, with its plagues and wars, because our modern science and technology enabled mass murder, and because a coincidence of evil gave us human monsters avid in the systematic annihilation of their own kind. And yes, because Clive James writes about what he most loves, hates and fears rather than about his academic or professional specialism (though there is an impressive quantity of the latter in the anatomising of writing and performance), the volume of conversation is sometimes turned up so high you can’t hear your own voice. Verbal shot put takes over from Viennese café conversation. But not for long, and not for keeps. The dominie impulse in Clive James is more the reflex of an impassioned teacher than the edict of a megalomaniac. He wants to show you the whole world, not take it away from you, or take you out of it.
The more I read, the more I succumbed to the tickled reader’s urge to quote –
‘Hang on, listen to this ...’ No adjacent creature – human or animal – escaped. The lorikeet outside the study window clearly wasn’t properly appreciative of the memoirs, or indeed the dancing, of the Maryinsky darling and Diaghilev protégée, Tamara Karsavina, so while I cheered aloud at a heroine given her dues by Clive James tango dancer, the bird merely ruffled his tail feather in a riot that Leon Bakst would have admired – and copied. My husband was more receptive – this time to the insider’s analysis of Tony Curtis’s comic genius (remember his Cary Grant spoof in Some Like It Hot?), of his ‘precise way of pointing a line’. The performer applauding the virtuosity of another performer. In a rueful concluding tribute (which I will not presume to excavate for biographical insight), Clive James honours Tony Curtis thus: ‘Like the eloquent man who gets no points for the poetry he writes because he talks well anyway, Curtis was always underrated for his accomplishment because of his screen presence … however, Curtis, apart from a physical beauty that was built to last, had another gift that was rare and precious. He was a writer’s actor. When he spoke it, the language came alive.’
My response overall was delight – a legitimate response to a work, and an indicative one, but a first response. Rereading demanded more concerted thinking. What to make, for example, of the alphabetical taxonomy of such an immense compendium, in which James’s motley cast of characters butt up against one another without apparent reason. I read the individual sections before tackling the introduction, so Edward Gibbon was succeeded by Terry Gilliam, Montesquieu by Alan Moorehead, Norman Mailer by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Evelyn Waugh by Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Tacitus by Margaret Thatcher, without benefit of explanation. But as James speaks of his ostensible subjects (his writing is so evocative of his vocal rhythm and timing that ‘speaks’ is apt), the connections emerge like new grass, with roots spreading and meshing. Their language, and his language, comes alive, with no Babel about it.
When Miles Davis follows the romance philologist Ernst Robert Curtius, the point of intersection is Thomas Mann, who was criticised by the patriot Curtius for disloyalty to Germany when Mann went into voluntary exile after Hitler came to power. The exile and consequent disconnection from his publishers and German readers cost Mann dearly: the life of art is fragile, even for celebrated artists. Jazz trumpeter Davis, far away and secure, at least in income, is quoted as dismissing his critics like this: ‘If I don’t like what they write, I get into my Ferrari and drive away’.
Of course, it is never that simple, as the artist in James knows. Davis was lucky, as well as immensely talented. Other human beings have not been so lucky. The poet Nadezhda Mandelstam, quoted by James, remarks of the Russian concentration camps, that ‘[c]aution did not help. Only chance could save you.’ And there were things Miles Davis couldn’t or wouldn’t drive away from or save himself from. James quotes Charlie Parker, who would have known, on the artistic cost of Davis’ drug addiction: ‘Anyone who says he is playing better either on tea, the needle, or when he is juiced, is a plain, straight liar.’
Charlie Parker leads us through Miles Davis to F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose drinking abetted the disaster of his marriage and the disintegration of his career. James’s conclusion: that ‘Fitzgerald’s prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment’. In Fitzgerald, literary style and life are tragically, intimately connected.
The detailed argument about such connections, and about the ineffable, indefinable (not necessarily redemptive) nature of genius, in music, in literature, in art, form central concerns of the book. If I sometimes found James’s view of artistic –
shall I call it licence? – too tolerant, too romantic, I would at least have a good fight on my hands were I to argue chapter and verse on particular artists. One of the glories of James’s undertaking is his detail, the depth and familiarity he brings to argument about contentious cases. And contentious many of them are. I want to be there when the French read his onslaught on Jean-Paul Sartre. Not for nothing does the acute and astute J.M. Coetzee weigh his words of printed praise on the book’s cover: ‘Aphoristic and acutely provocative: a crash-course in civilisation.’
A crash-course it is, with fortuitous collisions. I called James’s cast ‘ostensible subjects’, because they are more springboards for reflection than their brief biographical-format treatment promises. But that way Victor Klemperer, indispensable diarist of the life of Dresden Jews before the Final Solution, can drop into the exemplary essay on Montesquieu. Bertolt Brecht can call on the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, and the Jewish Diaspora roam through the entire book.
Sometimes, though, one wants more, or more focus. When James claims, for example, that it is hard to meet the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictat that we should not be seduced by his language, one is inclined to respond that it might be worth a try. James realises that Wittgenstein was one of the most important and influential philosophers, in the analytical tradition, of the twentieth century, but after reading the section devoted to him, one wonders why. Where has the philosophy gone? In English translation, Wittgenstein was a remarkable, sometimes hypnotic writer and aphorist. In German, (and James reads him in German), he was a master. But to laud the hypnotic stylist-philosopher, ‘who matters to the writer’ over the ‘Wittgenstein that matters to the professional philosophers, but they can prove it only to each other’, is to drop the ball.
When James writes, as he does so incisively, about the rhythms or hinges of poetry, or the negatively-capable subtlety of great European criticism, or about the dynamics of American television performance and the component parts of comedy, he is in his element, and can take us with him. Why not allow the philosopher the complexity and recalcitrant difficulty of his own element? That would be better than praise. One thing: about Wittgenstein’s later detachment from everyday life James is right, and his judgment, that ‘the result was a chilling hermeticism in his frame of reference’, is also an index of James’ contrasting and full-blooded critical engagement with his, and our, turbulent times. There is something bracing and hopeful about the way Clive James runs at the world and grabs the mantle of critic as he passes. It is a moral enterprise, James says, one that requires humility, but ‘the kind of humility that needs an air of arrogance to protect its Delphic mission’.
They’ll serve as last words.
Conversation is the raison d’être of this monumental monologue. But you might not think so if you read only the reviews. Splenetic, greensick criticism – and there has been plenty of it – insists that what Clive James has built out of a life’s voracious reading and careful noticing – his ‘notes in the margin’ – is a platform for his ego. Not so. But how ruthlessly we skin our own ...
You can’t escape the black square with the ominous slit: it’s about as familiar and inevitable in Australia as the icon for male or female. Ned’s iron mask now directs you to the National Library’s website of Australian images. There it is, black on red ochre, an importunate camera, staring back as we look through it. It’s modernist, postmodernist, merged into desert art just as surely as Ned has been incorporated into the Dreaming of the Yarralin people of north-western Australia. The black imp of myth and Sidney Nolan’s depiction is now wild and out of control – as unpredictable as a Mimi spirit and about as omnipresent.
I don’t believe Peter Carey set out to tame the mythic Ned Kelly in his True History of the Kelly Gang. True, he gives him back a face, real feet that need real boots, a memorable voice and a familial context. Carey is an unabashed apologist – a romantic apologist what’s more – for Kelly and his clan, but he is also too much the ironist not to be alive to the density and contradictions of the historical record. He seems almost as interested in why Ned Kelly matters to Australia, what he says about what we have been and what we want to believe about ourselves, as he is in revising or revisiting the old story. Or at least that’s the subterranean pulse. The wherefore. But novelists transmute wherefores into story, and Peter Carey, whatever else you might say about him, is a master at telling a tale, and a slave to the imperative. Give him mouldy underfelt and he’ll have you flying to Samarkand.
The tale he tells in True History of the Kelly Gang has a dramatic logic and a necessary economy of means. Carey shapes the story, neatens many (not all) of the ragged edges of the conflicted Kelly history. He explains rather more perhaps than can be explained, even by the now immense historical archive. Carey’s Ned is a boy too attached to his mother. ‘Hubba hubba Mamma is your girl’ is his brother Dan’s drunken taunt. The Oedipal bond is a deft narrative device – it explains some of Ned’s moves. With his mother still imprisoned, Carey’s Ned knows his duty – to get money (the bank robberies), see his mother free, and assume responsibility for the family – to stick around rather than lighting out for the territory.
You can’t escape the black square with the ominous slit: it’s about as familiar and inevitable in Australia as the icon for male or female. Ned’s iron mask now directs you to the National Library’s website of Australian images. There it is, black on red ochre, an importunate camera, staring back as we look through it ...
The poet James McAuley once told a group of Sydney university students – ‘forcefully’, as Geoffrey Lehmann recalls – that poets should have a career unconnected with literature. Lehmann had already imbibed a related injunction from his mother: ‘One day she told me I should become a lawyer and a writer. From the age of twelve I no longer had to think about what I would become.’
The poet James McAuley once told a group of Sydney university students – ‘forcefully’, as Geoffrey Lehmann recalls – that poets should have a career unconnected with literature. Lehmann had already imbibed a related injunction from his mother: ‘One day she told me I should become a lawyer and a writer ...
Man Out of Time (Hachette, reviewed in ABR 9/18) explores a man’s breakdown and its effects on his family. It’s shimmering and sorrowful, and the writing is extraordinary. Too Much Lip (UQP, 10/18) by Melissa Lucashenko is a strong, unflinching novel about homecoming and history. With trademark wit and lucidity, Lucashenko connects the lives of her sharply drawn characters to a dysfunctional national story. Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (Scribe, 5/18), set among working-class lives, considers the collapse of the Westgate Bridge alongside a contemporary tragedy. It’s a moving, unsentimental novel about ethical complexities. Ghachar Ghochar (Faber, 2015) is a disturbing novella by Vivek Shanbhag (translated by Srinath Perur) about an Indian family that becomes wealthy – a gem.Stephanie Bishop’s remarkable novel
Axiomatic (Brow Books, 9/18) and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its aftermath (Granta, 8/18). Tumarkin’s book is breathtaking in its audacity, its deep empathy, and its intellectual rigour. It’s unlike anything I have ever read. The Recovering is a deeply affecting and complex blend of biography and autobiography, drawing intimate and affirming portraits of what it might mean to come back from addiction and illness. My favourite work of fiction was Ceridwen Dovey’s taut and thrilling In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18), which is about trauma and legacy and how we understand the past. It is full of images of tragic beauty.I was most excited by two ambitious and wild books of non-fiction, Maria Tumarkin’s
Towards Light and Other Poems (Puncher & Wattmann, 11/18), achieves a sustained and generous weaving of lyrical intensity with moral engagement. Balanced, focused, elegantly executed, this book shows Day at her best. Simeon Kronenberg’s Distance (Pitt Street Poets), is an impressive first volume. The intimate shaping of the language and the stunning reach into the imagination in a series of historical dramatic monologues makes this book shine. On quite a different emotional register is Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, (Giramondo). Hip, suave, pert, pinpointing, and penetrating, these poems engage with locale in most enterprising ways. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir (Text Publishing, 9/18) is a book to weep over for the tragic lives it skilfully explores.Sarah Day’s eighth collection of poetry,
Sun Music: New and selected poems (Giramondo, 9/18) is a feast. I happily indulged in the old poems, but I gorged on the new. Filled with a plethora of living things – people, insects, animals, birds – these poems are vivid, insightful, and gorgeously poetic. I am a long-time fan of the English novelist Simon Mawer. His latest, Prague Spring (Little, Brown), plunges into the heady days of 1968: the pleasures of new freedoms, the hopes that were brutally crushed, and the politics, both behind the scenes and in the streets. All that you would want from a novel. Jacqueline Kent’s 2001 biography, A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis: A literary life, has been republished by NewSouth (9/18). It’s a terrific history of the Australian book industry, with the narrative pull of a plot-driven novel. Given current trends in publishing, this is a timely and welcome book.Judith Beveridge’s
An Open Book (UQP, 12/18). This broadly chronological reflection on language and experience gives us the familiar observer, watching endlessly for meaning, expressing his findings through direct and sparse lines. For a different reflection on artists and writing, Half the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 (Monash University Publishing, 11/18) by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell recalls the exile of Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Newly recovered photos from James Burke, destined originally for Life, see a Greek idyll marred by jealousy, frustrated ambit-ion, and the world outside. Lovingly researched, carefully constructed, compelling.In The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton, 2018), Pat Barker reworks a strand from The Iliad. Briseis is a prize for invading Greek men. Her story becomes a meditation on the fate of women in war. Barker evokes a world entire from a few lines in Homer and invites us to rethink the original. David Malouf embraces this approach in his last novel, Ransom (Penguin, 2009). In 2018 Malouf returns to his original craft, poetry, with
Dunera Lives: A Visual History (Monash University Publishing, 9/18), by the late, lamented Ken Inglis with Seumas Spark and Jay Winter. It presents a wealth of images of and by the German, mainly Jewish, ‘Dunera Boys’ who were sent from Britain to internment here in 1940. In What the Light Reveals (Transit Lounge), a fictionalised version of the lives of Australian communists David and Bernice Morris, Mick McCoy offers an intriguing Moscow Cold War story (though I’m not sure what I think about finding myself as a character). For another remarkable, non-fiction Cold War story, read Secrets and Truths (CEU Press, 2013), American anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s account of her reactions to the huge surveillance dossier Romanian Securitate kept on her over thirty years, complete with confrontations with informers (most of her Romanian friends) and even former spymasters (who turn out rather likeable, with a methodology resembling that of anthropologists).I loved
The Tall Man: Death and life on Palm Island (2008, 10/18) charts the destructive legacies of colonialism with attention to evidence and historical context, so The Arsonist: A mind on fire (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) documents the tragedy of the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in the La Trobe Valley. Like the best historians, Hooper recognises her complex responsibilities to past and present, to her historical subjects and contemporary readers. The Arsonist is a brilliant and moving book about ecological devastation and social desolation. Samia Khatun’s account of early encounters between Indigenous and Indian peoples in the Australian interior, Australianama: The South Asian odyssey in Australia, (Hurst) is post-colonial history at its best. Opening with the discovery of a Bengali songbook in an outback mosque, Khatun’s book eschews the conventional migrant narrative in favour of a strikingly original perspective on settler colonialism and multiculturalism.Chloe Hooper’s writing is animated by a profoundly humanist impulse and a desire to understand what happened. Just as
Love and Lament: An essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century (Thames & Hudson, 5/18) offers an eclectic overview of how high arts intersected with low arts, one that highlights the heterodox, often highly innovative nature of Australian culture over this period.The most surprising and engaging academic book I read this year was published in December 2017: Jason R. Rudy’s Imagined Homelands: British poetry in the colonies (Johns Hopkins University Press), which describes how canonical English poets were reverentially parodied by nostalgic settlers in Australia, South Africa, and other colonies during the Victorian era. Equally impressive in a scholarly sense is Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing: The speculative origins of U.S. citizenship (Harvard University Press), which traces the retroactive and fluctuating ways in which citizenship has been defined in the United States since the days of the Founding Fathers. And Margaret Plant’s
A Stolen Season (Picador, 4/18) confronts these issues with savage candour and a virtuosic attention to style that directly recalls White’s example. Clive Faust, another octogenarian, has provided a masterfully crafted collection of his life’s work in poetry, Past Futures: Collected poems (Shearsman, 2017). Faust’s writings appear only fugitively in local publications, but they have featured in leading international imprints over many decades. This example of his exquisitely sculpted work demonstrates that success in poetry has little do with conventional notions of a literary career, but is measured by sincere and objective technique.For its empathetic portrayal of the outer-suburban underclass, refugees, Aborigines, and all those excluded by mainstream nationalism, the most pertinent book for 2018 would be Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. In a similar vein, Rodney Hall offers a convincing portrait of the political realities of contemporary Australia, where military spending has spiralled while extremes of income inequality remain unaddressed:
Shell (Scribner, 11/18) uses the half-built Opera House and the Vietnam War as backdrop to a human drama about love, family, commitment, and loss. Two other novels stood out. Gail Jones’s The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing, 4/18) wraps a richly layered family story in an art theft mystery that travels from Western Australia to Sydney and Sicily. Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber) is an on-again, off-again not-quite love story set in contemporary Ireland. Behind the humorously deadpan millennial voice lies astute commentary on class, sexual violence, and other pressing issues.I fell more deeply in love with Sydney’s architectural diva while reading two complementary books. Helen Pitt’s The House: The dramatic story of the Sydney Opera House and the people who made it (Allen & Unwin) is a thoroughly researched, colourful, and often shocking narrative history. Kristina Olsson’s shimmering novel
Kudos (Faber, 8/18). I am, months later, still bereft at the series’ completion. Will Eaves’s Murmur (CB Editions), while not part of a trilogy, is also one of a hat-trick of superb books. Murmur, which is partly inspired by the life of Alan Turing, ambitiously and brilliantly illustrates the relationships between fiction, consciousness, and artificial intelligence. The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – Alison L. Strayer’s compelling translation of Annie Ernaux’s Les Années (2008) – shows why Ernaux has such a high reputation for life writing in France. Lastly, there have been an extraordinary number of terrific collections by Australian poets, but I must mention Jordie Albiston’s Warlines (Hybrid, 11/18). A collection of found poems based on the correspondence of World War I soldiers, Warlines is a masterwork of documentary poetry that is both profoundly moving and intensely crafted.This year, Rachel Cusk’s ‘The Outline Trilogy’ came to a suitably brilliant end with
Click here for what we do (Vagabond, 8/18) is made of four long poems that, taking a walk through the everyday, assemble its weird onrush of habit, newness, news, advertising, commentary, forgetfulness, and changes in weather. They are quick, spare, alert, and companionable. It was fun to discover Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, first printed in 1965, reissued this year with an introduction from Ali Smith (Silver Press). In this, Nell Dunn talks honestly with nine friends – writers, artists, factory workers – about work and sex and love and freedom. Black Inc. this year ended its long-running series Best Australian Poems. But, led by Jacinta Le Plastrier, Australian Poetry has been publishing an impressive, and impressively various, sequence of guest-edited journals and anthologies.Pam Brown’s new poetry collection,
The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House (Bodley Head, 12/18) stands out. Rhodes was speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama; this book is a stark reminder of how the world has changed since Donald Trump’s election. Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., 4/18) is a wonderful account of the discovery of Australia’s Indigenous history, blending archaeology, politics, and landscape. Most powerful of all is Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, 10/18), written from the detention centre on Manus. It should be compulsory reading for every federal politician.Is it a reflection of the times that the books that most impressed me this year are non-fiction? Understandably there has been an outpouring of books about US politics. Of those I read, Ben Rhodes’s
The Long Hangover: Putin’s new Russia and the ghosts of the past (OUP, 4/18) is the best recent book about contemporary Russia. Johannes Due Enstad’s rigorously researched Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile loyalties in World War II (CUP) brings a new complexity to the study of the USSR’s World War II; and Iva Glisic’s The Futurist Files: Avant-garde, politics, and ideology in Russia, 1905–1930 (Northern Illinois University Press) combines the sensibilities of the art historian with the rigour of archive-based political history. It invents a new genre: the political history of radical art. This achievement is all the more impressive, as the author is among the growing number of talented Australian scholars forced to make a living at the margins of an under-funded university sector.My highlights of the year are all first books. Shaun Walker is a reporter with a history degree. His
The Shepherd’s Hut (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18). Winton tells the story in the first-person voice of fifteen-year-old Jaxie, who is on the run as a suspect for the murder of his abusive father. When he finds a protector in dubious circumstances, Jaxie’s capacity to trust is tested to the limit, as is the physical strength needed to survive in a harsh West Australian landscape. A powerful, haunting story. In 2018 it was time to say goodbye to the irreplaceable William Trevor with Last Stories (Viking, 6/18). In a fictional world that is peopled with eccentrics, misfits, and failures, Trevor’s quiet comic sense and his compassion are held in a unique balance. These final stories are elegantly crafted, finely observed, and inventive as always.‘Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,’ remarked Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I was reminded of laconic, unshockable Huck when I read Tim Winton’s
Collected Poems (Black Inc., 12/18). As you might predict, its 736 pages contain some of the best poetry written in this country. A work of comparable interest, if smaller scale, is David Malouf’s collection An Open Book, which maintains an almost airy, late-life suspension throughout. Another likely valediction is Clive James’s The River in the Sky (Picador, 11/18). It’s a phantasmagoric verse memoir, less strictly controlled than his other books produced since a life-threatening diagnosis six years ago. Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is the summation of an exemplary Australian career. Her poems are constructed from finely described details, most of which are tapped into place with simile or metaphor. The most memorable of them involve a rejection of cruelty, whether to humans or animals.This has been a year of summations and farewells in Australian poetry. Four books may be mentioned, the heaviest of which is Les Murray’s new
The Everlasting Sunday (UQP, 4/18) a gorgeously restrained début, in which a house of unwanted boys must survive more than winter’s cruelties. A novel of ice, with a heart of fire. But the year’s clarion call was No Friend But the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani’s inconsolably human account of his inhuman detention on Manus Island – a plea, a poem, and a mighty indictment. As Richard Flanagan insists in his foreword: this is an Australian story, its author ‘A great Australian writer’.As an undergrad – full of pith and vinegar – I dismissed Australian literature as tedious, irrelevant tosh. In my defence, I’d been introduced to Aussie writers at school with all the enthusiasm of a vaccination, a literary inoculation. Rest assured, I’ve since been proved thoroughly and delightfully wrong. 2018 has been a magnificent year for Australian letters. For me, the year’s quiet marvel was Robert Lukins’s
Towards Light and Other Poems, Philip Mead’s intensely honed and intelligent late-modernist re-engagement with the world as experienced in Zanzibar Light (Vagabond Press, 5/18), and the poised tension and verbal control of Misbah Khokhar’s prose poems in Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press).Lisa Bellear once wrote to me in an email, ‘Let’s get busy’ – a call for living life, in conjunction with action, in so many ways. Jen Jewel Brown has done an excellent job compiling much of Bellear’s uncollected poetry in the vital collection Aboriginal Country (UWAP). The emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through. Other remarkable collections of Australian poetry this year include Kent MacCarter’s postmodern tour de force, California Sweet (Five Islands Press), Sarah Day’s striking book of seeing
Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives The Tall Man was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Chloe Hooper has done it with The Arsonist. Hooper creates emotion from fact and recounts the Black Saturday fires with empathy and intelligence. Rachael Brown achieved an Australian first: turning a number one true-crime podcast into a Walkley-shortlisted book. Trace: Who killed Maria James? (Scribe) is a gripping read. And finally, imagine if Harry Potter had been written with a female protagonist? Jessica Townsend has done just that with Wundersmith: The calling of Morrigan Crow (Hachette) The series is a reading gateway drug for the next generation.is intense and provocative, an artful exploration of love and power. It is fiction to devour over the summer break.
Deep Time Dreaming is a beautifully written account of how the archaeological profession came to learn what Indigenous people had long known: that they had lived in this country for aeons. Christina Twomey’s The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia (NewSouth, 8/18) manages to be quietly moving without ever descending into mawkishness. In a highly readable and superbly researched book, Twomey shows how Australian POWs in Japan moved from being an embarrassment on the periphery of Australian consciousness to finding a place near the centre of our collective memory of war.It has been a year dominated by history and non-fiction, even more than is usually the case for me. I enjoyed several, but two stood out. Billy Griffiths’s
Sun Music: New and selected poems was also a highlight. Like Powers, Beveridge has a gift for finding ways to match the natural world in words. I also very much enjoyed Alison Whittaker’s virtuosic collection, Blakwork (Magabala). The way Gomeroi words are always bursting through the English in Blakwork feels more like the future than the past. It’s surely one of the key books in our current Aboriginal literary and linguistic renaissance.Richard Powers’ The Overstory (Norton) was my 2018 fiction highlight. I lost myself in the branches of this big book, in the ideas, the imagery, the eloquence, and the melodrama. I already think of it as a Moby-Dick of trees and, like Moby-Dick, it redeploys a bristling field of natural science for the purposes of an emotionally charged human narrative. Not to mention an environmentally urgent one. Judith Beveridge’s
The Children’s House (Vintage, 10/18) is an exceptional Australian novel about exile, also witnessed by a young and thoughtful woman. Marina’s New York is haunted by the loss of countries – Rwanda, Israel, Ireland, El Salvador. It documents both the brutal severance and the unexpected reconfiguration of community, families, and ideals.Anna Burns’s Milkman (Faber) – winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize – is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Political idealism has rotted into lethal small-scale totalitarianism, coldly observed by a funny, sensible, and relentlessly literary eighteen-year-old girl who is sexually menaced by a senior paramilitary figure. Milkman is fabulously digressive, a brilliant survey of cruelty and coercion. Alice Nelson’s
Look at the Lake (Puncher and Wattmann, 9/18). Brophy spent two years at Mulan, home of the Walmajarri people in the Kimberley, and his wry, beautifully weighted poems quietly diarise an outsider’s observations of community life.In White Houses (Granta), American novelist Amy Bloom inhabits the voice and spikey character of Depression-era journalist Lorena Hickok. Through archival research and vivid reimagining, Bloom offers a remarkable portrait of the not-so-secret love between ‘Hick’ and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Closer to home, David Sornig in Blue Lake (Scribe) also mines the archive, as well as extensive interviews and his own first-hand knowledge, to reconsider the zone west of Melbourne’s CBD that was once fertile wetland and lagoon. Imaginatively constructed and with erudite first-person guidance, this is the kind of riveting non-fiction that deserves the term ‘creative’. Poet Kevin Brophy sensitively explores another geography and body of water in
I read Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull (Allen & Unwin) in one furious day. This dark, sparkling memoir of a young judge’s associate tells how she gradually finds the nerve to report the man who molested her as a child. Lee’s voice is warm and surprising; her writing fizzes with energy, ideas, and great sentences. I also devoured the edition of Freeman’s literary journal (Text Publishing) that is devoted to the theme of power. Exceptional essays include Josephine Rowe’s charged account of her time as a life model, Aminatta Forna on street harassment, and Nicole Im’s exquisite meditation on suicide. The funniest book I read this year was Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Abacus, 2017). It’s rare to laugh out loud while reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Greer’s tale of an almost washed-up novelist nudging fifty is hilarious, touching, and deceptively profound.
Tracker (Giramondo, 1/18) offers rich and complex storytelling, a kaleidoscope of voices that illuminates the remarkable Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth and advances a new model of life writing. Mark McKenna’s Quarterly Essay Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Black Inc.) is a product of decades of deep thinking and a passionate and timely call for a ‘reconciled republic’. Two novels that have impressed me with their radical ecological consciousness are Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (Fourth Estate, 2017) and Richard Powers’ The Overstory. And I enjoyed the late meditations of two great writers: Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye: A thought diary (Faber).Alexis Wright’s
Warlight (Jonathan Cape, 9/18) collect in the dim lights of memory and secrecy as his protagonist traces ‘the obscure rigging of our mother’s life’. Robin Robertson’s The Long Take (Picador) is a marvellous book-length poem mapping a young veteran’s postwar journey in an exhilarating poetics shaped by film noir and jazz. Ceridwen Dovey’s Writers on Writers: On J.M. Coetzee (Black Inc., 11/18) limns desire, abandonment, connection, reading, and writing in an exquisite, layered essay.Throughout Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water (Penguin), the pain of chains ‘someone was made to drag’ is replaced by the ache when ‘love let them be / Unclasped’. Whether her subject is the fight against chemical pollution, slaves’ liberation, or a sorrowful woman visited by angels, Smith’s poems insist on love as cure, solution, and light, as into a room ‘where the drapes / Have been swept back’. The fragmentary revelations and vivid slivers of Michael Ondaatje’s
The Lost Boys (Scribe, 5/18), an engrossing expose of the Robbers Cave experiment, a classic study in social psychology, was also a fine historical recreation.With the best book I read in 2018, I was catching up. Peter Pomerantsev’s travelogue of Russia under Putin, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2014), came out in paperback last year. It covers events from 2006 and 2014, during which the London-based journalist was mostly working as a television producer for Russian entertainment television. It’s like Stasiland adapted in the style of Black Mirror, bleakly hilarious when not downright chilling. An ideal historical companion volume was Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017), a saga of domestic life in a Soviet apartment block before, during, and after the Terror. Gina Perry’s
An Open Book and Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry). Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Rondo (Carcanet) rollicks through time and space in the green fields of his joyous imagination. Here, the first Homo sapiens baby is eyed by bemused hominids, who ponder ‘Was this bod something to do with a future?’ Thirty years ago in I’m Deadly Serious (1988), Wallace-Crabbe pictured cars ‘with hearts in their mouths / as though they had something big to offer knowledge’. Yuval Noah Harari certainly does. His own epic imagination of the human journey through evolutionary time ended on a note of high alarm in Homo Deus (Vintage, 2017). His latest, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Cape), brings his winged vision to subjects ranging from fake news to freedom to humanity’s uncertain future.What a strong year for poetry. I loved the resonant, perceptive lyrics in David Malouf’s
From the avalanche of books trying to make sense of our present moment, I would like to single out two for special mention: Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings: Political correctness and the rise of the Right (Scribe) and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Pantheon). Sparrow’s book is a provocative reading of the culture wars that develops a distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘delegated’ politics. Jacoby’s book takes a longer historical view: it attempts to trace the irrationality of contemporary US culture back to its origins. Along the way, Jacoby develops a stimulating and wide-ranging thesis about why certain forms of unreason should have found such rich soil in the secular democratic republic of the United States. I would also recommend the latest novel by Richard Powers. The Overstory, written with characteristic intelligence, is a rich and satisfying novel that addresses the environmental catastrophe we are creating and challenges us to rethink our place within the natural world.
The Year Everything Changed: 2001 (Vintage, 6/18) is full of exploding memory-bombs for those who were paying attention to the news back then. McGuinness takes that watershed year and interrogates the tripes out of it, her lively intellect playing across the 2001 news calendar like a beam of light. It also reflects the way we all live, with one eye on current affairs and the other on our own intimate and daily experience. At first, the reader may wonder why Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. While it’s witty and warm and full of delightful characters, it seems a little lightweight. But it gathers heft as it goes, with its tale of a lonely gay novelist looking down the double barrels of his fiftieth birthday and his ex-lover’s approaching wedding.Phillipa McGuinness’s
No Friend But the Mountains. Part philosophy, part reportage, part memoir, Boochani’s account of Manus Island lingers in the mind. That it was composed by SMS and WhatsApp messages makes the book, and its author, all the more impressive. Recent policy changes in Canberra suggest the book has even had its intended impact. In the long term, it should also find a lasting place in the canon of prison literature. Novelist Tayari Jones probes the effects of the carceral state on intimate relationships in An American Marriage (Vintage). It’s a stunning portrait of the pressures under which even middle-class African Americans live.The most important book I read this year was Behrouz Boochani’s
Collected Poems squats on my desk like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a handsome volume and a substantial one whose contents are by turns grotesque, elegant, abstruse, innovative in form, conservative in spirit, and often achingly felt. Murray is a difficult poet in many respects, but this grand summa demands awe and admiration. Barry Hill’s Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980–2017 (Monash University Publishing, 5/18), is a compendium of life-work by another commanding figure in Australian literary culture. It reveals the sheer range of Hill’s passions and concerns over time, and it reminds us of the commitment, curiosity, and care he has brought to bear upon each of them. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani may or may not be the best book of the year; it is certainly the most important.There was no competition. Les Murray’s
The Shepherd’s Hut is a tour de force. Winton is one of the few writers I know who could carry off such a sustained vernacular performance. The voice of Jaxie Clackton is utterly authentic (sounds like the Tim Winton I heard twenty-five years ago), and his helter-skelter Bildungsroman is searing and morally confronting. Unforgettable fiction for exactly this moment.Peter Mares has been pricking Australian consciences in his informed, dispassionate way for decades. No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s housing crisis (Text Publishing) is yet another instance of his salutary ability to take a highly politicised issue, examine its details, and provide both a lucid and ethical response and a context that informs, rather than inflames, his general audience – journalism at its very best. Tim Winton’s
The Death of Noah Glass my top novel-reading experience. Also from Text, Nadia Wheatley’s memoir Her Mother’s Daughter: A memoir moved me deeply, recounting the life of a strong woman who found the constraints of domestic life in the postwar years unbearable. To complete a trio of genres, I choose David Malouf’s poetry collection An Open Book. UQP has made a beautiful book to house poems of limpid grace and wise insight.Among this year’s Australian publications, Gail Jones’s mesmerising prose and intricate structuring made
To celebrate the best books of 2018, Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser
Dark Victory opens with a coup: in a deep-etched narrative, joint – and seamless – authors David Marr and Marian Wilkinson make human beings out of the anonymous acronyms of John Howard’s border protection strategy. Explicitly rejecting the gulag language of numbers, of SUNCs in SIEVs (Suspected Unauthorised Non-Citizens in Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels), they begin with people – stirring, then waving. These are men and women with names, professions, histories, family:
[Khodadad] Sarwari, a teacher, sat jammed between his wife, their three children and his brother on the boat’s flimsy upper deck. The family was fleeing the Taliban. So were most of the people on the Palapa.
The effect is sudden and bracing. Here are names, contexts, explanations. These were the kind of people Australians feared so much that they would endorse – even applaud – sending them back out to sea. These were John Howard’s ‘people like that’. In a dramatic and deliberate way, Marr and Wilkinson put flesh on shadows. They make asylum seekers responsive players, not passive victims or malign invaders. ‘Rajab Ali Merzaee, an Afghan medical student, watched two sailors come down to the foot of the stairs. “They were two very strong men. Very lovely, very good persons.”’
On 6 March 1948 – a mere seventy years ago – the paintings that comprise this stellar exhibition of ‘Modern Art’ from St Petersburg’s great cultural repository, the State Hermitage Museum, were condemned in a decree by the Council of Ministers of the USSR as ‘the bourgeois art of Western Europe, bereft of ideas, anti-national, formalist, and of no interest for the progressive education of the Soviet public’ (quoted in the newly published The Collector: The story of Sergei Shchukin and his lost masterpieces by Natalya Semenova with André Delocque [Yale University Press/Footprint, $59 hb].)
The ministers who issued decree number 672 are long forgotten. Not so the canvases of Cézanne, Monet, Sisley, Vuillard, Vlaminck, Matisse, Derain, Rousseau, Redon, Picasso, and Kandinsky, or of the other twenty-five artists whose works, in their fascinating and divergent ways, make this exhibition so compelling. Bereft of ideas? The sixty-five paintings in the Hermitage exhibition are a visual embodiment of the great flux of ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – that pivotal time we still call ‘modern’.
The exhibition itself is a sensuous delight. Turn the corner of one of its rooms and you come face to face with the jewel-like vibrancy of Odilon Redon’s Woman asleep beneath a tree (1900–1). No reproduction could do justice to its pulsating red, mauve, orange, and blue juxtapositions. It is a small painting, but unforgettable. As are the Cézannes in the room before – his still life Fruit (1879–80) with its faceted mountain of a white napkin playing foil to the sprawl of orange citrus, and the monumental energy of his Large pine near Aix-en-Provence (1895–97). The third Cézanne, The Banks of the River Marne (1888) is complemented by AGNSW’s own Banks of the Marne, painted in the same year (not in the exhibition catalogue, but a welcome adjunct). These early rooms of the exhibition – which also show Sisley’s gently vigorous (in the horizontal brushstrokes) Windy day at Veneux (1882), Monet’s Poppy Field (1890–91), and Waterloo Bridge, effect of fog (1903) – would be riches enough for one visit. But this exhibition is not a blockbuster cavalcade of great and famous paintings. It is a thought-provoking window into European art and socio-political history, encapsulated in the story of two extraordinary Russian entrepreneurs, the textile importer Sergei Shchukin and manufacturer Ivan Morozov, and the spectacular collections of the art of their times that they gathered around them.
Two thirds of the paintings in Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage were acquired in France and brought to Russia to be displayed in the grand Moscow houses (palaces) of Shchukin and Morozov. Both astute businessmen (‘Muscovite capitalists’, in the words of decree 672), they had the support and often the active collaboration of their respective siblings. But the two were the prime movers, and it is through their collections, put together over little more than a pressured decade, that one can read the temper of their revolutionary times.
The local critical climate was sometimes receptive, more often vitriolic: Shchukin was deemed mad when he displayed Matisse and dangerous when he took up Picasso. But collecting is a risky enterprise, and Shchukin and Morozov faced more than market fluctuation: they were building their troves of art before and during the 1905 revolution and through family tragedies – deaths, suicides, and separations. Both made arrangements to leave their collections, which they had already turned into museums, to the state, but the precise details of their philanthropy, and their wishes regarding the housing and management of their treasures, were lost in the winds of revolution. The collections were nationalised. Fortunately, the Council of People’s Commissars, in a decree signed by Lenin in 1918, understood rather better than their 1948 counterparts the value of the art they had requisitioned. It was deemed ‘an exceptional collection of European masters, mostly French’ and ‘of major artistic value … for the education of the people’. (Abandon irony all ye who toy with ideologies …)
In the harsh years that followed, the paintings in the collections were variously moved, parcelled out, or stored. Their sale was mooted – revolutions prove expensive in the aftermath. Yet they survived and remained in Russia. In our time, when the blowing up of ancient monuments or the burning down of museums have become barbaric habits, this survival looks almost miraculous. It does attest, however, to the complexity of the twentieth-century Russian experience and to the folly of historical stereotyping and generalisation. The very existence of those works in Moscow in the early 1900s animated the Russian avant-garde. And when, post the ‘thaw’ that followed the 1956 Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, they began to be displayed again, they were as immediate and potent an influence as they had been in 1905, even if few of the artists and enthusiasts who gathered to argue about or take inspiration from them could remember their provenance, or the adventurous Moscow merchants who had poured not just their riches but wholehearted passion into the business of collecting – for themselves and for posterity.
Ivan Morozov’s collection, particularly as represented in this exhibition, focuses on the earlier works of the tumultuous turn-of-the-century period. It seems odd, now, to think of Cézanne as revolutionary, although his influence on the compositional elements of art that followed him are evident in the sublime landscapes: his Large pine near Aix-en-Provence blends block brushstrokes with the linearity of branches. An obsession with the geometry of form is evident even in the graphite and watercolour study of the same subject helpfully included in the catalogue. Picasso and Cubism sound in the wings, and Cézanne’s influence is like a ground bass in the exhibition. The Fauvist exuberance of Maurice de Vlaminck’s View of the Seine (1906), given to Morozov by his Paris Dealer in 1908, has transmuted into a stately Cézanne-inflected landscape (Small town on the Seine, 1909), acquired by Shchukin in 1910.
Sergei Shchukin was an unlikely patron of the arts. He was a third son and, like the Emperor Claudius, a stutterer, at least until his merchant father, with an eye for his most likely successor, had him educated out of his affliction. Shchukin’s sometimes-awkward demeanour and hesitant speech disguised formidable business acumen, and he was a shrewd negotiator. But he was also, in the face of art, a Russian Romantic, completely immersed in the sensory experience. Colour had a profound effect on him. Little wonder Matisse moved him to eloquence: ‘For me Matisse is above all the rest … closest to my heart … His work is a festival of exultant colour.’ There is a poignancy about the one portrait of Shchukin shown in the exhibition. Matisse had been working on a portrait, but all that remains of it is a beautiful sketch – the sittings were broken off when his patron had to rush back to Moscow upon the death of his brother. Shchukin later commissioned the young Norwegian Christian Krohn to paint two portraits. They are both stark and restrained, their roots in Cubism evident. Only the colour – a vibrant pink glowing behind the merchant’s head – hints at Shchukin’s passion and commitment to the art of his time. In this exhibition, shown as the one explosion of colour in a black-and-white photo mock-up of a room in Shchukin’s mansion, it is profoundly moving.
Shchukin’s bravest Matisse commissions, Dance (1909/10) and Music (1910) (nudes, explosive colour), are not shown in this exhibition, but large projections of them get an outing in the accompanying multimedia installation by Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway.
This is, strictly, a Hermitage show, not a retrospective of the Shchukin and Morozov collections, though there is thematic unity in that all the art on show had to run the gauntlet of the twentieth century’s ideological strictures. Kandinsky, who completes the exhibition in a grand symphony of colour, had to have his paintings kept safely out of sight for years. It is a pity that none of his one-time partner Gabriele Münter’s work is not on show as well. The one work by a woman in the exhibition is the splendid Sonia Delauney-Terk’s Prose of the Trans-Siberian Express (1913).
There are many other treasures: Edouard Vuillard’s intimate interiors of children and men and women in a domestic room; André Derain’s various experiments with Fauvist colour and then restrained landscapes; Georges Roualt’s uncompromisingly dark portraits of two prostitutes, Girls (1907), and a peerless Nude boy (1906) by Picasso, among the more Cubists works that the far-sighted Shchukin dared to bring into his home. And there are some dull paintings and some surprises – a Morandi that has been strained through de Chirico, and two Bonnards that only hint at what else he would achieve.
While international politics might make one despair, it is heartening to know that Michael Brand, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is a member of the Hermitage’s international advisory committee and, with the Hermitage, is committed to bringing the intellectual influence as well as the aesthetic pleasures of art to city and regional communities in both countries. Soft diplomacy at its best.
The exhibition catalogue is an education in itself, as well as a visual delight. If you want a Cook’s tour of twentieth-century political history as reflected in art, or in Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, the Nabis, the Symbolists, Cubism, or in any of the other subdivisions of Modernism, this Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage exhibition is an exhilarating place to start.
Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage is being exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 13 October 2018 to 3 March 2019.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund and the ABR Patrons.
Book referred to in this review:
The Collector: The story of Sergei Shchukin and his lost masterpieces
by Natalya Semenova, with André Delocque,
translated by Anthony Roberts
Yale University Press (Footprint), $59.00 hb, 304 pp, 9780300234770
On 6 March 1948 – a mere seventy years ago – the paintings that comprise this stellar exhibition of ‘Modern Art’ from St Petersburg’s great cultural repository, the State Hermitage Museum, were condemned in a decree by the Council of Ministers of the USSR as ‘the bourgeois art of ...
ABR, like many writers and media organisations around the country, worries about the future of independent journalism, especially in this trumpacious age, often so hostile to reason and open commentary. We share many Australians’ concerns about the health and viability of the ABC. The threats are myriad and sustained. Funding cuts (by all regimes), political interference, and daily taunts from News Corp have weakened the organisation. Recently, the Liberal Party’s Federal Council voted to privatise the organisation. This would surely spell the beginning of the end for the national broadcaster.
Auntie is far from perfect (which media organisation is?). Many of us grimace through those comedic Wednesdays; local drama is scarce; and ABC Classic FM is but a shadow of itself: populist, unedifying, and maddeningly nice. But consider what the ABC has contributed to our culture, our educational system, our democracy since 1928, and try to imagine an Australia without Four Corners, Q&A, Background Briefing, Rear Vision, the 7.30 Report, AM and PM, not to mention Geraldine Doogue, Fran Kelly, and good old Jim Maxwell, to name but a few.
We take things for granted in the Lucky Country, but can we really be sure that the ABC will be around in 2028 to celebrate its centenary – searching, unfettered, well resourced? More and more people think not and have begun to lobby government. Major rallies have taken place around the country. In this issue,
Ranald Macdonald (a spokesman for ABC Friends) writes about the present threat. Elsewhere, one hundred writers, artists, commentators, and public figures have signed ABR’s Open Letter supporting the ABC.
The ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, now in its eighth year, is worth a total of $12,500. This year we received about 1,200 entries from thirty-five countries. The judges – Patrick Allington, Michelle Cahill, and Beejay Silcox – longlisted fourteen stories (all of which are listed on our website) before shortlisting three of them: ‘Vasco’ by Claire Aman (NSW), ‘Between the Mountain and the Sea’ by Sharmini Aphrodite (Singapore); and ‘Ruins’ by Madelaine Lucas (NSW/USA). They appear in this issue.
The judges commended three other stories: ‘Joan Mercer’s Fertile Head’ by S.J. Finn (Victoria); ‘Hardflip’ by Mirandi Riwoe (Queensland); and ‘Break Character’ by Chloe Wilson (Victoria). These stories will be published online in coming months.
The judges said this of the overall field: ‘We were privileged to read this teeming, diverse mass of unpublished short fiction from around the world. A number of stories, from the realist to the absurd, captured our attention with their conceptual ambition and original conceits. But the stories that sustained our interest created worlds that felt complete; offered genuine representations of different peoples, places and cultures; celebrated the human spirit, warts and all; were bold and funny, with language that sang; made us think and rethink; and offered endings that shook, surprised or satisfied us.’ (Their remarks on the shortlisted stories will follow in September, with the name of the winner.)
Australian Book Review is a fast-changing and responsive cultural magazine with a growing international profile. The magazine now offers many more features and programs than it did ten years ago – and there are more changes to come.
We love hearing from readers as to what they like about Australian Book Review – whom they enjoy reading; what they would like to see more (or less) of; what concerns them most as engaged readers and citizens. We look forward to hearing from readers of all kinds (ABR subscribers, non-subscribers, website browsers, social media followers, devotees, occasional readers) as to how they rate the magazine and how they think we can improve it. The survey takes about five minutes to complete. Feel free to skip any questions that don’t interest you.
The survey is totally anonymous – unless you want to be in the running for one of two five-year complimentary subscriptions to ABR Online (in which case we will need your name and email address). Click here to take the reader survey.
Stephen Spender once said of a certain antipodean upstart who had just appeared in the vaunted Penguin Modern Poets series: ‘Who is Peter Porter?’ This was in 1962. Although the Brisbane-born poet was in his early thirties and already a prolific poet, he was relatively new to London – where he would continue to live until his death in 2010 – and he was still audibly and complicatedly Australian.
No one ever said of Porter’s great influence, ‘Who is W.H. Auden?’ – certainly not Stephen Spender, who remained captivated by his brilliant contemporary for the rest of his life. Auden, born in 1907, seems to have been famous from the outset. Celebrated while still at Oxford, he was cited in his fellow students’ essays. Grudgingly, F.R. Leavis said, ‘the undergraduate notability became a world figure overnight’. Faber published Auden’s first volume of poems when he was twenty-two, soon after T.S. Eliot had published a play of his in Criterion.
Auden, one of the great disapprovers, objected to lives of artists (‘I do not believe that knowledge of their private lives sheds any significant light upon their works’), but in his case there have been many biographers, including Humphrey Carpenter, Richard Davenport-Hines, and Peter Porter’s Queensland contemporary Charles Osborne. We also have Auden’s silly table-talk, his verbal frothings, his inimitable essays and aphorisms. Peter Porter, reviewing the Davenport-Hines, described Auden as ‘the greatest English (as distinct from English-speaking) poet since Tennyson’.
Early Auden, Later Auden: A critical biography (Princeton University Press [Footprint], $84.99 hb), his latest study, revises and augments those previous editions. Seumas Perry, a professor of English at Oxford University, reviews it brilliantly in LRB (10 May 2018).Auden – unwise in love perhaps – was cannier in his executorial choice. Edward Mendelson was in his twenties when Auden tapped him to be his literary executor. Mendelson, now professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has written extensively about Auden ever since. Key works include the six-volume The Compete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose and those indispensable commentaries, Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999). Mendelson is not done yet.
Perry, who is beginning a life of Auden, is fascinated by his corrugated face, which Auden himself likened to ‘a wedding cake left out in the rain’. (Perry notes that only a poet, only someone ‘rather sad’, would think of leaving a wedding cake out in the rain.) Auden’s visage – possibly the result of a medical condition called Touraine-Solente-Golé syndrome, not to mention a phenomenal addiction to Player’s cigarettes and Benzedrine – attracted the attention of famous sculptors, photographers, and painters. David Hockney, who drew him, quipped, ‘I kept thinking, if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like.’
Meanwhile, Morag Fraser – former editor of Eureka Street, where she often published him – is writing the biography of Peter Porter, whose phenomenal archive now rests in the National Library of Australia. In a country with a sorry dearth of poets’ biographies, what a book this promises to be.
Admirers of Morag Fraser’s artful journalism should not miss her exceptional review of Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ (recently performed by the MSO), which appears in the ABR Arts section of our website.
Entries are now open for the 2019 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. This is the fifteenth time we have offered the Porter Prize. Past winners have included Stephen Edgar, Tracy Ryan, Judith Beveridge, and Michael Farrell (who has a poem in this issue).
The Porter Prize is worth a total of $8,500, and here we thank Morag Fraser and all our ABR Patrons for their support. The winner will receive $5,000; the runner-up, $2,000; the three other shortlisted poets will each receive $500. All five shortlisted poems will appear in the March 2019 issue of ABR.
The judges on this occasion are Judith Bishop (who has won the Prize twice, the only person to do so, yet), Paul Kane, and John Hawke, ABR’s Poetry Editor. Entries close on December 3. For more information about the Porter Prize, including entry guidelines and terms and conditions, please visit our Porter Prize page.
Dilan Gunawardana left ABR at the end of July. Dilan joined us in 2016 as the ABR Editorial Intern and became Deputy Editor (Digital) in 2017. His stamp is all over our website. A popular contributor to ABR Arts, Dilan will continue to write for the magazine.
2018–19 ABR Editorial Internship. Jack Callil has now joined the staff as Assistant Editor. Jack is not the only editor in his family. His great-aunt, Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press and long-time managing director of Chatto & Windus, is one of the most illustrious publishers Australia has produced. Carmen (who was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2017) is our Publisher of the Month.Thanks to everyone who recently applied for the
To celebrate our fortieth birthday and to spread the word about the magazine, we’re partnering with some of Australia’s major bookshops and offering free copies of the magazine to customers who purchase books worth $40 or more. This month our partner is the excellent Avenue Bookstore. Staff there have 500 copies to give away in their three outlets: Albert Park, Elsternwick, and Richmond. Buy the book, then read the review. Be quick though.
ABR salutes the work of our fantastic independent bookshops. More promotions of this kind will follow.
Bell Shakespeare has announced the first of its 2019 productions: Molière’s comedy The Miser, which marks the return of the company’s founder John Bell in the titular role. Bell stepped away from the company in 2015, having created it in 1990. Bell will play the tyrannical penny-pincher Harpagon, a bourgeois deviant prepared to sacrifice everything, whether it be his children or his dignity, to come out on top.
Australian playwright Justin Fleming has been assigned as translator of the Bell Shakespeare adaption, who has worked previously on other well-known Molière satires such as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. Directing The Miser will be Peter Evans, Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, who said the decision to bring back John Bell as Harpagon was ‘too tantalising to resist’. ‘Having the opportunity to invite back our Founding Director to Bell Shakespeare, in a role that will have you laughing in the aisles, if not a little scandalised by the naughtiness of Justin Fleming’s translation, is a pleasure.’
Tickets to The Miser are exclusively available to Bell Shakespeare Members now; they will go on sale to the general public in November 2018.
The Miser will play at Sydney Opera House from 2 March–6 April 2019; Canberra Theatre Centre from 11–20 April 2019; and Arts Centre Melbourne from 25 April–12 May 2019.
Actor Geoffrey Rush has announced that due to medical advice he is withdrawing from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night, where he was set to play the role of Malvolio. ‘I do so with the greatest regret,’ Rush said in a statement. ‘I know that I would not be able to provide the necessary creative spirit and the professional stamina required for the project.’
Brett Sheehy, Artistic Director and CEO of Melbourne Theatre Company, said the company is seeking a replacement.
Twelfth Night will be performed at Melbourne Theatre Company from 12 to 29 December 2018.
Brisbane playwright David Megarrity has won the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2018–19 for his play The Holidays. Selected from over ninety entries, Megarrity’s delicate, family-oriented play was chosen ahead of fellow finalists Hannah Belansky for‘don’t ask what the bird look like’, and Anna Yen for Slow Boat.
‘David Megarrity’s The Holidays is a disarming meditation on mortality and father son relationships,’ said Queensland Theatre Artistic Director Sam Strong. ‘It’s a delicious combination of high-tech ambition and low-fi theatricality. David Megarrity, speaking of his winning work, said, ‘This visual theatre piece combines live performers, projection, audience participation and music to explore the impact of dementia, as experienced by one family, focussing on the connections between son, father and grandfather – told through the eyes of a young person.’
Supporting the ABC; Jolley Prize; W.H. Auden; Morag Fraser's upcoming biography of Peter Porter; The Peter Porter Poetry Prize; ABR in Perth; Free copies of ABR in select bookstores; Dilan Gunawardana leaves ABR; Jack Callil is the new Assistant Editor ...
‘People who don’t like tunes don’t like Berlioz.’ Thus, the late Colin Davis, famed English conductor and Berlioz exponent, said in 2007 about L’Enfance du Christ. Davis, in his wry, gently combative English way, and with a burnished reputation behind him, didn’t have to care about musical fashion or despised tunes: ‘That doesn’t make any difference to me. I love them.’
And so, clearly, does Andrew Davis, that other famed English conductor whose laurels license his program choices – and who surprises us with joy. Under his baton, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave its audience compelling reasons to love Berlioz’s ‘tunes’, and indeed all of this subtle, too rarely heard work (the MSO’s last outing with L’Enfance was in 1969). The 2018 performance was triumphantly coherent and transfixing, with Davis’s command over his resources extending to dramatic blocking – his singers and players moving, entering, and exiting to subtle effect. L’Enfance du Christ is the opposite of ‘stand and deliver’ oratorio, and original in ways that Andrew Davis honours with his dynamic interpretation.
Like so much of Berlioz’s oeuvre, L’Enfance had a complicated history. It was written, piecemeal, over some years, and against a background of personal and political tumult – revolution in his native France, the death of his father, and the alcoholism and illness of his troubled wife and muse, the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. It was conceived, in 1850, as a comic (and splenetic?) repudiation of his critics and the unappreciative audiences who had so often rejected his music. Berlioz wrote it first as an organ piece, called ‘L’Adieu des bergers’, for his friend Joseph-Louis Duc. He then transformed it into the choral work we know as The Shepherds’ Farewell, and had it performed under the name of an ‘obscure’ (and fictitious) seventeenth-century monk called Ducré. (‘I don’t know how they swallowed that, but they did’, observed Colin Davis, 143 years later). Berlioz’s critics were charmed – and fooled. And the composer had the brackish satisfaction of poetic justice.
‘People who don’t like tunes don’t like Berlioz.’ Thus, the late Colin Davis, famed English conductor and Berlioz exponent, said in 2007 about L’Enfance du Christ. Davis, in his wry, gently combative English way, and with a burnished reputation behind him, didn’t have to care about musical fashion or despised tunes: ...
At a recent Passover Seder in Melbourne, I caught the word ‘Gilead’. ‘My favourite book!’ exclaimed the woman opposite me. I was a Catholic guest at a gracious Jewish table, so I whispered my query: ‘Marilynne Robinson’s novel?’ ‘Of course!’ came the emphatic reply. The Seder ritual was suspended for a moment (informality was part of the evening’s graciousness) while people asked about Robinson, about American literature, and what a Calvinist might be.
If I’d had multiples of Robinson’s new book of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, I would have handed them around gratefully, not just for her eloquent explanation of what it means to be a Calvinist in today’s America, but for her profound articulation of what it means to be a writer and an exemplary human being in an age and a country (a world?) where language and truth are daily traduced.
At a recent Passover Seder in Melbourne, I caught the word ‘Gilead’. ‘My favourite book!’ exclaimed the woman opposite me. I was a Catholic guest at a gracious Jewish table, so I whispered my query: ‘Marilynne Robinson’s novel?’ ‘Of course!’ came the emphatic reply. The Seder ritual was suspended for ...