Australian Book Review

The French have a term for weighty tomes of scholarship: gros pavés or paving stones. Alexander Mikaberidze has landed his own gros pavé, an extraordinary account of the Napoleonic Wars of 1799–1815 in almost one thousand pages, based on an awe-inspiring knowledge of military and political history and a facility in at least half a dozen languages. The scale of his knowledge is breathtaking.

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Published in May 2021, no. 431

Celestial Tapestry is a gem, indeed, a trove of gems: lavishly illustrated cameos from the science and history of art and mathematics, woven into a narrative about pattern and symmetry. We humans have an innate appreciation of symmetry, judging from 5,000 years of art, architecture, mathematics, and mythical and religious symbolism. After all, symmetry is all around us – in the shapes of our bodies, snowflakes, and seashells, and in the fractal-like branching of twigs and blood vessels. In its abstract, mathematical form, symmetry even underlies our modern theories of fundamental physics.

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Published in March 2021, no. 429

This book addresses one fundamental question: is nationalism a transformative force in politics? Nationalism is usually seen as an offshoot of ‘identity politics’, which in turn is the product of long-term social change, notably access to higher education. Such an analysis can be found in David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The new tribes shaping British politics (2017) and Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford’s Brexitland: Identity, diversity and the reshaping of British politics (2020). There is of course merit to such positions, but it is unusual for any research-based analysis to see nationalism as the driver of political change: it is the symptom rather than the cause.

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Published in March 2021, no. 429

In the aftermath of horrendous acts of lethal violence, such as the murder by Brenton Tarrant of fifty-one people in two Christchurch mosques in 2019, and other vicious acts of torture and sadistic cruelty, it is not at all uncommon for public commentators to invoke the language of evil – that there is evil in our midst. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example of this was George W. Bush’s description of the 9/11 attacks as despicable evil acts that demonstrated the worst of human nature. 

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Twenty-five or thirty years ago, when it was still fashionable to speak of the Great Australian Emptiness, we took this image of the geographical dead heart of Australia as implying a cultural emptiness as well, a suggestion that too little had happened or been made here to give the mind, the civilised mind, anything to hang on to, identify with or make its own.

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Published in November 1997, no. 196

Alastair Blanshard reviews 'The Spartans' by Andrew J. Bayliss

Alastair Blanshard
Monday, 24 August 2020

When the Abbé Michel Fourmont travelled to Sparta in the 1730s, he thought he was going to make his fortune and academic reputation. The depths of Ottoman Greece were largely unknown territory to European travellers at this time. What fabulous discoveries lay in store for him, wondered the Abbé. What treasures had been left behind by this one of the greatest powers that the Greek world had ever known? One can imagine his anguish when, after braving numerous perils to reach Sparta, he discovered that barely anything remained of this great city-state. Indeed, the paucity of material was such that it seems to have driven Fourmont slightly mad. Rather than admit that nothing existed, he invented in his account of Sparta a series of fabulous, non-existent monuments – altars for human sacrifice, elaborate records of treaties between Sparta and Jerusalem, lists of priestesses and kings that stretched back to antiquity. To disguise his act of forgery, lest any later traveller try to find these monuments, he even pretended to have destroyed them, protesting that as a decent Christian he couldn’t allow such pagan works to survive. It would take scholars decades before they could unravel the extent of Fourmont’s deceit.

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The figure of the child stands at both ends of human experience in Shakespeare’s plays. The span between our ‘mewling and puking’ infancy and our ‘second childishness’ of old age runs to little more than a dozen lines in Jacques’s famous ‘seven ages of man’ speech in As You Like It, before we slip into ‘mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ In the intervening years, our identity as children might shift as we undergo rites of passage into adulthood, as our relationships with our own parents evolve or as we become parents ourselves. But the child – the archetype of our essential nature – waits patiently for our return. Even Lear, the grand patriarch who disowns the truth-speaking child of his heart, must be racked on the fiery wheel of experience before he can become the ‘child-changed father’ Cordelia recognises in the end.

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Imagine you’re trying to make sense of the universe five hundred years ago, when astronomers believe there are just seven visible ‘planets’ wandering about the Earth: the sun and moon plus Mercury to Saturn. Intriguingly, there are also seven known metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury. For hundreds of years there have been just seven known ‘planets’ and seven metals. Wouldn’t you be just a little tempted to see more than a coincidence here? Take gold, for example, which ‘does not react with anything in the air or the ground, and so retains its brilliance seemingly forever’: surely its power is similar to that of the ever-shining sun?

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Published in March 2020, no. 419

Ivan Vasilevich Ovchinnikov defected to the Soviet Union in 1958. After three years in West Germany, he had had enough of the West with its hollow promises. He was a farmer’s son, and his family’s property had been confiscated and the family deported as ‘kulaks’ during Stalin’s assault on the Russian village in the early 1930s. Ovchinnikov managed to escape the often deadly exile, obscured his family background, and made a respectable career. Brought up in a children’s home, then trained in a youth army school, the talented youngster eventually entered the élite Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow. In 1955, now an officer and a translator, he was sent to East Berlin as part of the army’s intelligence unit.

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Published in March 2020, no. 419

Paul Giles is a critic for whom it is important where he lives, although not so much in terms of location as of literary and imaginative perspectives. He began as an Americanist literary scholar, in voluntary exile from the United Kingdom, where he was trained, writing about the global remapping of American literature and, more recently, having moved to Australia, about Australasia’s constitution of American literature. He likes redrawing the critical maps of literary study, but also following the reverse and inverted orbits of writers themselves. Part of this impulse includes rethinking the hemispheres. Giles’s book about Australasia and US literature, for example, was titled Antipodean America (ABR, August 2014). If it wasn’t too much of a mouthful, you’d say he was a serial re-territorialiser.

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Published in December 2019, no. 417