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Australian Literature

Near the end of this biography of Frank Moorhouse, author Catharine Lumby tells a story that will strike retrospective fear into the heart of any male reader who has ever climbed a tree. Watching an outdoor ceremony in which a cohort of Cub Scouts was being initiated into the Boy Scout troop to which he belonged himself, and having climbed a tree to get a better view, the young Moorhouse ‘slipped, and he slid a couple of metres down the trunk of the tree with his legs wrapped around it. He came to rest on a jagged branch, his crotch caught in the fork.’

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In Brief - September 2007

by Janet Upcher, Andrew Burns & Steve Gome
September 2007, no. 294

In Brief - September 2007.

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A suitable motto for any prospective compiler of a large-scale history of a national literature might be ‘No Place for a Nervous Editor’ (to adapt the title of Lucy Frost’s study of nineteenth-century women’s journals). A few of the portentous questions for this imagined figure include: how is ‘literature’ to be conceptualised at the beginning of the twenty-first century (witness the Balkan culture war that followed the publication of the estimably inclusive Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, 2009); how to balance the different needs and competencies of readers – students at tertiary and secondary level, academic specialists from various disciplines, a diverse non-Australian audience; how to choose contributors who combine scholarly authority with an ability to write jargon-free language for a diverse readership; how to construct a book that will satisfy both the searcher for information about a particular book or topic and the (probably rare) reader who wants to proceed from cover to cover? 

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The Giraffe's Uncle by Les Robinson & My Love Must Wait by Ernestine Hill

by
December 2002-January 2003, no. 247

As HarperCollins continues to release this welcome series of Australian reissues, it’s especially pleasing to see them including less well-known, even long-forgotten, titles. While I had read none of these latest offerings, I did at least know something about three of the authors. Les Robinson, however, was almost a complete mystery. ‘Almost’ because I had a vague memory of one of his stories being included in an anthology I once lectured on. Obviously, it did not impress me enough to seek out more of his work. Nor would it have been easy to find, since, unlike the other three titles, The Giraffe’s Uncle had never been reissued since its first printing, in 1933, by the Macquarie Head Press, a firm now as forgotten as the books it published.

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This publication (BAL) represents the first section of a general bibliography, which the general editors describe as one of the major projects of the Bibliography of Australia Project (BALP) of the National Key Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. It includes, as a lengthy appendix, Kerry White’s bibliography of Australian Children’s Books 1989–2000 A–E.

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At a time when critics are becoming increasingly interested in Australia’s war literature, Robin Gerster turns to it for an understanding of how national legends are created and perpetuated.

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One Crowded Hour by Tim Bowden & We Have No Dreaming by Ronald McKie

by
July 1988, no. 102

If your interest in Australian literature predates its current flavour-of-the-month status, no doubt there exists, somewhere in your dinner-party repertoire, a screechingly funny reminiscence from the long ago, that winds up with some pompous professor of literature, or some arrogant publishing mogul, delivering the punchline, ‘Australian literature? Guffaw guffaw. I didn’t know there was any’.

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I was thinking a while back about some of the ways novels begin; not just the famous ones – ‘Happy families are alike’ etc, ‘Call me Ishmael’, ‘Unemployed at last’ – but also some contemporary examples. If I had read Michael Wilding’s National Treasure at that time, I would have conscripted it immediately: ‘Plant slipped down lower in his car seat as the man down the street was beaten up.’ Resounding first sentences often create the problem of where and how to proceed. Wilding manages very well: ‘He was quite a young man being beaten up, and the men beating him up were quite young too. So was Plant for that matter. Young. This was a young country. A young culture.’ These few lines signal quite a lot about how things are to unfold: the blandly matter-of-fact nature of the observation, so at odds with the nastiness of what is being observed; the non sequiturs breaking wildly beyond the apparent bounds of the narrative; and that isolated word ‘Young’, with its insistence, its tinge of impatience lest an obvious point be missed. My little burst of close critical reading is intended to foreshadow that among National Treasure’s various treasures is some wonderful writing.

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I realise it is a stretch, but imagine The Da Vinci Code with brains. No, that’s not fair: it obviously takes brains of a kind to top best-seller lists for several years. So try thinking of how a serious intellect, as distinct from a facility for page-turning compulsiveness, might have gone to work on it. Such effort won’t tell you all you need to know about Matt Rubinstein’s new novel, but A Little Rain on Thursday is inter alia about old manuscripts, church history, subterranean chambers, Templars and libraries – and it is compulsive reading.

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The Gospel of Gods And Crocodiles rewrites the boys’ own adventure tale of the nineteenth century. In an intertextual gesture, R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) is the favourite book of one of Elizabeth Stead’s main characters. The thrill of conquest and the titillation of cannibal atrocities typical of Ballantyne’s imperialist fiction are thus replaced by a humanitarian concern with competing foundational myths and the clash of cultures. Stead’s narrative opens, like Genesis I, with the creation stories: the moon and crocodile legends of the unnamed coral island, situated ‘two degrees below the equator’. The arrival of white missionaries brings the attempt by the newcomers to overwrite this indigenous mythology with the Christian message. With this comes the inevitable introduction of Western ways.

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