Thursday, March 15, 2007

Remembering Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley, who died in mid-February after a long illness, corresponded with my Austrian friends the Wimmers, Adi and Irene, from the time she met Adi in Perth in 1989 until she became incapable of writing letters, in 2002. Adi, who has taught Australian literature and film at the University of Klagenfurt in the Austrian province of Carinthia for many years, has kindly provided his own memoir of Elizabeth for me to post here.

I met Elizabeth in March of 1989 in her Claremont home, as part of an “orientation tour” of Australia’s most important universities, funded by the (then) generous Australia Council. Somehow we hit it off straight away, and I was allowed a second audience two days later when she showed me round the campus of Curtin University. I remember her appearance the same way as Helen Garner does: she was dressed in simple, unfashionable clothes, and wore good sensible shoes over sensible stockings. I liked her for that.

We talked about Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke, two of our favourite authors; I told her there was a glorious “Rilke path” running atop the cliff to the east of Duino, overlooking the Adriatic, where Rilke had spent three years at the expense of the castle’s owner, the Count of “Torre e Tasso.” “Ah nice” was her standard reply to me enthusing the beauty of the site. I asked her about Vienna, one of the locations in her hilarious novel Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, and although she knew Vienna slightly she told me she had made up most of the locations as they appear in the novel.

At the end of my visit she asked me where I would travel next. “Ayer’s Rock” I said, not knowing the name Uluru at that time. “You’ll need a bush hat” she proclaimed and disappeared upstairs, returning in a minute with a sand-coloured hat with a floppy brim. Can you imagine my delight? At my request she signed it with a felt pen. I usually wear that hat when I do my gardening, another interest we shared.

From 1989 to 2002 we conducted a correspondence; she also exchanged letters with my wife Irene. Elizabeth was interested in our descriptions of the aftermath of Nazism in Austria, which unlike Germany had got away with sweeping its involvement with Nazism under the carpet, at least until the Waldheim scam.

She also took a keen interest in my research about Jewish exiles, and wrote movingly how her father between 1933 and 1939 had so often put up Jewish refugees fresh off the boat. She had mixed feelings about these visitors; while she understood that they were deserving of support, she also resented that when she came home from school (Sibford, a Quaker boarding school) she had to kip on the living room settee, as her own bedroom was usually occupied. Once such a refugee walked off with her father’s greatcoat, an episode that must have firmly stuck in her mind because she told me that story twice.

Not long after the publication in 2001 of her last novel An Innocent Gentleman, to my growing consternation, her handwriting became unsure, then frail. The lines would begin to dance on the page, and she made spelling errors. Or she added '(spelling?)', like that, in parenthesis. With hindsight, I realize what agonies she must have experienced at the time. Here she was, one of the cultural treasures of her country, a writer with a wheelbarrow full of medals and awards, and she was losing control over her most precious tool, the English language.

There was quite a flurry of letters in that year, as if she had a premonition the time for letters was fast running out, letters in which she would often repeat a narrative of the previous one. But on the other hand, she also told me a very touching and new story, how her mother Grete had quite recklessly ruined the peace of Christmas Eve (it must have been that of 1939 or 1940) with bitter recriminations because upon getting home from her shift at the hospital, she had dared run a bath for herself to get the hospital smells out of her hair. Mother had expected her to join in the singing of Austrian carols under the already candle-lit Christmas tree, and not even Elizabeth’s conciliatory Quaker father was able to calm down his irate wife.

She had an incredibly hard life in the decade 1939-1949, how hard only a few people know, and they are very protective. The full story has never been told.

Elizabeth’s last letter started with the words, “Dear Franz.” I stared at the page and knew we were going to lose her.

Adi Wimmer

Monday, March 12, 2007

New prize on the horizon (with the inevitable segue to Patrick White)

Susan Wyndham at Undercover has some advance knowledge of a new Australian literary prize to be announced at the end of this month.

If it's as lucrative as the Miles Franklin and its terms 'are likely to be inspiring to some but also controversial', then it should get a lot of press when the official announcement is made on March 31. What the 'controversial terms' part suggests to me is that the prize may favour a particular demographic. The young? The female? The gay or lesbian? The *gasps, makes sign of cross* multicultural?

If that's the case, here in the land of literary hoaxes, such a substantial offering will no doubt attract people out to make some sort of point. I know other countries have literary hoaxes too, but it seems to me that what with Ern Malley, Gwen Harwood, Helen Demidenko, Paul Radley, Wanda Koolmatrie, Wraith Picket and that's just off the top of my head, we are punching well above our weight.

I've been on a few judging panels for literary prizes over the last decade or two, and in that capacity have kept an increasingly jaded and suspicious eye out for anything that looks as though it could be a hoax. Most of these things are perpetrated by people out to either get around the terms of the prize in order to (a) win it (Paul Radley's uncle wrote the book he won the Vogel with), (b) fight skirmishes in ideological/aesthetic flame wars (Ern Malley), or (c) (closely related to (b)) make various ideological/political points (Demidenko, Koolmatrie, Harwood, Picket. Spot the real person in that list).

The 'Gotcha!' impulse behind this kind of thing has always struck me as a bit of a double-edged sword. If the motivations of the people behind the Wraith Picket/Patrick White hoax (and I still think that if they were going with anagrams then they should have called him Keith Crapwit) had been different, they could have spun that puppy 180 degrees and said 'Look: no fewer than twelve literary experts have said this guy isn't any good. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate him. Perhaps his work was mediocre all along.'

Not that I would ever claim such a thing myself, believing as I do that literary value is not absolute, and belonging as I do to the generation for whom Patrick White's work was a major formative experience, for whom his literary gifts are self-evident, and for whom his ideological freight was and is a great deal less simple and more radical than was claimed in Simon During's correct-line little book. But it's something that they could, if they'd been on the other side of the culture wars, have very easily done.

As it is, the conservative hoaxers seem to have shot themselves in the foot. What they wanted was to cause further damage to all those naughty lefties who are trying to destroy "our" heritage by not teaching Australian literature in "our" universities. (Which is, of course, factually quite wrong, as with the claims from other conservative culture warriors that "the feminists" have been silent on the subject of repellent fundamentalist-Islamic practices and beliefs regarding women. When in doubt, make stuff up.)

What they have created instead, quite unintentionally I'm sure, is a new upsurge of interest in White himself: there's now a blog devoted specifically to an online Patrick White reading group, an upcoming conference devoted specifically to his work and reputation, and an all-day event at the National Library, where Friday March 30th will be Patrick White Day.

But creating this new wave of interest in a writer who was an acknowledged homosexual and whose work introduced the country's fiction readers to new ways of thinking about Aborginal Australia, about class relations, about multicultural issues long before that was what they were called, and about autonomous, unforgettable female characters at the centre of a story (Theodora Goodman, Laura Trevelyan, Elizabeth Hunter, Ellen Roxburgh ... the list goes on) may not have been quite what the conservative elements had in mind when they set out to humiliate the contemporary literary left and score points in the culture wars.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Let's just try that again

Oh dear, look at this poor shockingly neglected blog.

For some reason, posting about things literary on a separate blog got much harder after the Google/Blogger upgrade made it impossible to keep this blog completely separate from Pavlov's Cat. That and the flat-strap workload since Boxing Day have kept me away from here, but I'm going to have one more go at keeping this as a separate reading/writing blog, rather than merging it with PC completely.

I wouldn't want the people who are only here because they're interested in literature to have to wade through all the other stuff at PC (photos of cats peeking up out of shopping bags or sound asleep on piano stools in front of the opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata, long raves about movies, bits of song lyrics, short raves about the lies of politicians, recipes for gingerbread, polemic, garden photos, cultural analysis, smart-arsed remarks about Ralph Fiennes, Peter Garrett, Dolce e Gabbana and so on, tales of What I Did on My Holidays, hymns of praise to the ripeness of the tomatoes, and various other such grab-baggy threads and patches as daily life is made of) just to get to the bits about books and writing. So I will try to write here regularly at least once a week.

Let us begin, then, with the ongoing task for which I've been trying to get into a method and a rhythm (though perhaps not the rhythm method -- productivity is the goal here) of reading four novels a week to write short reviews of them for the Sydney Morning Herald. I've been doing this job since Boxing Day and it is, as I was warned by my editor, gruelling -- especially as it would be suicidal to give up any of my other gigs, even if I wanted to -- but it is also quite exhilarating.

There's the excitement of finding unfamiliar writers whose work I really like, the discipline of reading the occasional book I hate and then writing a fair review of it in 180 words, the sanity-enhancing requirement of the routine necessary to meet a regular deadline, and the pleasure of being able to pass on the books when I finish them to people I know will really appreciate them.

(I'm trying to remember when it was that I stopped collecting and hoarding books and began to do desperate, frequent culls in order not to get pushed out of my own house by the encroaching piles. Probably about 1990.)

But the best thing about this gig is the astonishing breadth of subject matter and material in the books that arrive at my door. In only two months of doing this job I've read books set in France, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Botswana, Nepal and Wales; in Beijing, New York, Canberra, Oslo, London and Vienna; in 19th-century Louisiana, 1940s East Germany, the Arctic in the 17th century, and in various fantasy worlds both futuristic and medieval-derived.

I've read novels translated from the Norwegian, the Spanish, the Danish and the Dutch. I've read crime fiction, romance, fantasy, chick-lit, high-lit, low-lit, lit lite, and lit extremely heavy. I thought I knew a fair bit about fiction, but it turns out I only knew a fair bit about the fiction I knew a fair bit about.

People who don't "get" fiction no doubt think that it teaches you nothing. But I know a hell of a lot more than I did eight weeks ago about Cuban refugees to New Jersey in the 1960s; about the state of Christiana (old name for Oslo) in the late 19th century and the fact that the Missing Link between Crime and Punishment and The Trial is Knut Hamsun's Hunger; about the forced evacuation -- Die Flucht, 'the Flight' -- by the Russian Army of twelve million East Germans in 1945; about the Sri Lankan civil war and the methods and motives of the Tamil Tigers; about class tensions in the town of Syracuse in upstate New York; about octopusesque corruption in contemporary Beijing ...

You get the picture.

During my life as an academic, fiction was what I mostly taught and a lot of it was 19th-century fiction at that, so reading two, sometimes three novels a week, some of which were six or seven hundred pages long, was the norm -- and as all academics know, reading or re-reading the things you have to teach is the most pleasant part of the work and is merely the tip of the iceberg.

So by comparison, this job is heaven. Occasionally when I'm whingeing about my Wednesday deadline, my best mate reminds me that what I do for a living is read stories, at home, and, more often than not, lying down on the sofa.

It's a hard life, but somebody's got to do it.