Friday, November 28, 2008

Hard to believe now

And as if the subject of the previous post were not enough gobsmackery from the headlines for one day, here's another: Rolf Harris telling Aboriginal people they need to get over themselves. The context: his attempts, decent in themselves if largely failed, to erase from recordings the verse of 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport' that goes 'Let me Abos go loose, Bruce, let me Abos go loose / They're of no further use, Bruce, so let me Abos go loose.'

I am old enough to remember when this was universally regarded as funny. By 'universally' I mean, of course, 'by white Australians'. (Compare and contrast with Barry Humphries' brilliant and savage line about the word 'Moomba': 'It's an Aboriginal word for "Let's get together and have fun". They didn't need it any more.') The real point of even mentioning this unpleasant little lyrics-based episode in Australia's cultural history is to express my admiration for the headline on this item, the best headline I've seen for quite a while, courtesy of some inspired sub at the Sydney Morning Herald: Cut the Bigoted Verse, Perce.

Even so, it was quite a contrast to the event I was at last night: a brilliant lecture on 'The Many Futures of Our Digital Lives' by Adelaide's newest Thinker in Residence, anthropologist Genevieve Bell. The event began with a Welcome to Country by Kaurna elder Auntie Josie Agius, who after demonstrating her expertise in bending the mics down to her diminutive level, lifted her head and ringingly addressed the audience in Language. We were smack in the middle of Kaurna land and you could practically see the shimmering electric line connecting the words to the ground.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And here's a book to buy/read

Not that I've read it yet; I'm not even sure it's in the shops. But it's being launched in Melbourne on November 11, and here's the (much more than usually thoughtful and substantial) blurb:

By Christos Tsiolkas
Category: Literary Fiction
Published by Allen & Unwin 7 November 2008, RRP $32.95 Tpb

At a suburban barbecue, a man slaps a child who is not his own. For those who witness the incident, the consequences have reverberations that will affect all their lives, splintering families and friendships. What unfolds is a powerful, haunting novel about love, sex and marriage, parenting and children, and the fury and intensity - all the passions and conflicting beliefs - that family can arouse. Told from the perspective of eight people present at the barbeque, the slap and its consequences force them all to question their own families and the way they live, their expectations, beliefs and desires.

Christos Tsiolkas is a writer who loves to take on taboos, and believes his writing to be a form of activism. His work is often controversial, but it engages with and challenges the reader in a way they WANT to be challenged, forcing them to see a new perspective.

In The Slap, Tsiolkas dissects what “middle class” means in Australia now, and questions their aspirations and fears in this post-feminist, post-political, post-multicultural era. What are the responsibilities of parenthood? What are the limits in relationships between adults and youth? Is a slap ever forgiveable? What future are contemporary families creating?

Tsiolkas's writing gets up people's noses and shocks them badly, but he's an excellent writer and a passionate thinker, and this book sounds like a ripper. As someone with no kids I've often found myself on very shaky ground with OP's: the kind of behaviour that one parent has thanked me for ('It's such a relief that you have your own relationship with him and deal with him directly and don't expect me to do it or implicate me'), another parent has reacted to with suppressed outrage and sarcasm ('Rebuke administered?' Translation: 'That's quite enough from you, how dare you not let my child get away with being outrageously rude to you!')

Both of these women were close friends. It mattered, quite a lot. I'm a big fan of Helen Garner's novella Other People's Children, which examines similar dilemmas at the height of the 'alternative' age, and it looks as though Tsiolkas is picking that baton up from the same Melbourne backyards in which Garner put it down, though from a very different personal perspective, and a generation later.

UPDATE (with props to Mindy who called it to my attention): there's a cracker of a review by Tsiolkas's fellow-novelist Gerard Windsor, an excellent read in itself, here.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

New books

Amanda Lohrey's Vertigo, newly out, is one of those beautiful little hardback novellas where the design of the book-as-object seems entirely of a piece with the writing. Lohrey seems more and more to be formally separating out the writing of fiction and non-fiction, and finely negotiating the nature of ideology and its manifestations in each.

Like her two previous novels, this one is about a couple: here it's a pair of relatively young tree-changers (tree and sea, actually), both with the kind of working life you can pack up with your laptop as long as you're going somewhere that has broadband. They quickly realise that they need to change the shape of their own sense-of-self to adapt to a different kind of place: the house, the landscape, the geography, the town and the dangers are all different. I've reviewed this for the October issue of Australian Book Review.

Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant comes out in October and I'm halfway through it for a review for the Age. Like her last, The Secret River, it's set in the early years of the settlement of New South Wales and it revisits the subject of contact history and conflict. Grenville found the material for this one while researching The Secret River and in some ways it seems like a part of the same project, material not so much rehashed as approached from a different set of angles.

This historical novel is based on a number of real people and its climactic episode is an unspeakable punitive expedition -- also historically documented; it took place in 1790 -- on which the men in the party are given hatchets to remove the heads of Aboriginal 'offenders' and sacks in which to bring back the heads. There's an easily recognisable fictional portrait of Watkin Tench, and the main character is also based on a real person, a mathematician and astronomer called Lieutenant William Dawes, whose diaries Grenville discovered in her research for The Secret River.

(Five-Greats Grandpa Marine Private Thomas Chipp, who arrived in the First Fleet and served in Tench's company, appears to have gone to Norfolk Island in October and thus been spared the possibility of being ordered to go on this murderous expedition, but it's not beyond doubt.)

Although I haven't yet read them, I've also been intrigued by descriptions of the two books that won the inaugural Prime Minister's Literary Awards, The Zookeeper's War by Stephen Conte and Ochre and Rust: artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers by Philip Jones. Intrigued enough, in fact, to plan to go out and buy them both; it would be particularly interesting to read the Jones in tandem with the Grenville. From all accounts, the judges seem to have made a couple of inspired choices; among other things there's a lovely balance, no doubt serendipitous, between an anthropologist examining the very objects that symbolise the complex beginnings of post-settlement Australia, relics at the heart of contact, and a novelist with the confidence to branch out beyond the 'Australianness' boundaries that for various reasons still make themselves felt in the writing of Australian fiction.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I could be making a fortune

I predicted in that last post two days ago that Steve Carroll would win the Miles Franklin Award and I have just discovered that he did.

*Does Grace's "I told you so" dance from Will & Grace*

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

2008 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Without Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog on the shortlist I've kind of lost interest in and therefore track of the Miles this year, but have been reminded today that the dinner at which the announcement will be made (by Geoffrey Rush, I believe) is on Thursday night.

There's a shortlist of five -- Gail Jones' Sorry, Steven Carroll's The Time We Have Taken, David Brooks' The Fern Tattoo, Alex Miller's Landscape of Farewell and Rodney Hall's Love Without Hope. I'm tipping Carroll.

Monday, June 16, 2008

So you want to be a book editor?

If you want to be a book editor then one of your jobs will be fact-checking. This includes making sure the writer has not misspelled any proper names, including place names.

For example, 'sienna' is the clay pigment used in oil paints; the colour comes in two varieties, raw and burnt. It is not the name of the beautiful walled city in Tuscany where they make panforte and have the annual medieval horse race. That is called Siena. (NB neither of these is to be confused with senna, which is a naturally-occuring laxative.)

Similarly, the boot-shaped peninsula in South Australia is called Yorke Peninsula, not York Peninsular. 'Peninsular' is an adjective, meaning 'peninsula-like'. Cape York Peninsula, without an 'e', is the big pointy one in Queensland.

These errors should not have made it past a first read-through by the author, much less all the way through successive MS drafts and proofs re-read by the author and two different editors into a finished book and a Penguin book at that.

It is your particularly bad luck if they happen to be two of the book reviewer's favourite places on the entire planet. And I'm only on page 125 out of 450; who knows what sloppy horrors are yet to come.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Australian Book Review: reviewing competition

Press release from ABR:

2008 ABR Reviewing Competition – entries close 30 June

It's on again – the 2008 ABR Reviewing Competition – and the first prize is now worth $1000!

First prize: $1000 and publication of the review in ABR and at least two future commissions
Second prize: $250
Third prize: a set of Black Inc. books, valued at $200

All reviewers are eligible – including past and present ABR contributors. This competition is a particularly good opportunity for younger and emerging writers and students who wish to establish a career in reviewing.

All categories of books are eligible, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s and young adult books. Reviews should be 800 words. The book being reviewed must have been published since January 2006. Please click here for full details in the entry form.

Entries close 30 June 2008. Winners will be announced in the October 2008 issue of ABR.

Please pass this on to interested colleagues and students.

For further information, e-mail:; telephone (03) 9429 6700 or visit the ABR website:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Absolutely revolting!

In an article in last Saturday's Australian, Beth Driscoll reminds us that the Prime Minister will be the final arbiter of his new and lucrative prizes for literature. The man who thinks Bill Henson's beautiful, powerful, emotive photographs 'absolutely revolting' will be having the last word on which books represent the country's best literature.

The judging panels -- Peter Pierce, John Marsden and Margaret Throsby for fiction, Sally Morgan, John Doyle and Hilary Charlesworth for non-fiction -- were, if their response to this news was anything to go by, invited to be judges without being told that their decisions would be subject to Prime Ministerial approval and/or veto, and were apparently not told until after they had already accepted and could not get out of it without looking bad from a number of angles.

That was a piece of appallingly bad management on the part of the administrators. And while one understands why the PM might want to have a say about the winner of a prize with his name on it, the inclusion of this very unusual and highly contentious condition suggests to me that whoever was developing this project behind the scenes knew less about literary prizes and the administration thereof than was required not to stuff it up before it had even got off the ground.

Pierce and Marsden voiced their disquiet at the time. Think how much worse they must be feeling about it now that we have so much more precise an indication of the Prime Minister's taste and discernment when it comes to judging the arts. What a good thing Vladimir Nabokov doesn't qualify for this prize, what with being Russian, not to mention dead. Clearly he wouldn't stand a chance.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat

Saturday, May 24, 2008

On reading The Spare Room, part 1: Friendship

NOTE: this isn't a 'book review'. Nor is it 'literary criticism', within the meaning of the act. It's a blog post. (Warning: a long one.) It's also the first of a planned several posts about this book, talking about one thing at a time. There is a highly specific and quite long set of (mostly unspoken) conventions in the writing of book reviews, and another, surprisingly different, set in the writing of literary criticism. But blogging is an activity and a medium, not a literary genre, and it does not require those conventions to be kept. So here are some non-reviewy, non-criticismy thoughts on The Spare Room and some of the things it's about.

But first, a plot summary:

The narrator Helen, who is a writer (yes yes, more about this later), lives alone in a settled, domestic way next door to her daughter and the daughter's family in a Melbourne suburb. Helen is preparing the spare room for the arrival of Nicola, her friend of fifteen years. Nicola is dying of cancer, but is convinced that her life can be saved by a Melbourne clinic offering 'alternative' treatments that will be fiendishly expensive. Nicola has asked if she can stay with Helen for three weeks while she has the treatments.

Nicola is ill enough to need close attention and periodically intense, full-on nursing, but is still convinced that the clinic's treatment will cure her. In the course of her stay, Helen becomes more and more enraged: by Nicola's behaviour; by the behaviour of the people at the clinic (and by extension the clinic's disgraceful ripoff behaviour, and by further extension all exploitative quackery, and by even further extension all exploitation of other people's weaknesses); by Nicola's impending death (and by extension death in general); and, finally, by her own rage.

Helen's own rage enrages her, and dismays and weakens her. 'The one thing I was sure of,' she thinks later, remembering the afternoon before Nicola was due to fly home to Sydney and back into the care of her long-suffering niece Iris, 'was that if I did not get Nicola out of my house tomorrow I would slide into a lime-pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me, leaving nothing but a strew of pale bones on a landscape of sand.'

Finally the treatment ends and Nicola goes home to Sydney, not a moment too soon for all concerned; Helen is left not only exhausted but also bewildered and appalled by the feelings that the visit has brought to the surface in her, and the gap between the ideal and the real on several fronts.


This whole novel rests on what's actually a highly unusual set of circumstances. People with stage four cancer are usually not well enough to travel alone, much less to invite themselves to stay with a friend in another city, or to want to do so. Everything that happens in this novel happens because the dying Nicola is in profound denial about her condition.

She is, of course, not well enough to travel alone either, and goes into a state of near-collapse in the airport after what is, for the well, an easy hour-long flight from Sydney to Melbourne. The reason, we discover later, is that she has had, just before her trip, one of the ridiculous-quackery Vitamin C treatments ("High dosage Vitamin C will kill off lumps of cancer -- most doctors don't know this stuff") to which she knows she always has an extreme reaction.

One of the most distressing moments in the book (and there are many) occurs at this point, where the narrator Helen is forced to choose, in a public place, between the distress of a dear friend who is too weak to stand up and the distress of a five-year-old granddaughter:

Nicola couldn't sit up straight ... she was shuddering from head to foot like someone who has been out beyond the break too long in winter surf.

'Bessie,' I said, 'Listen to me, sweetheart. See that lady over there, behind the counter? Past the toilets? I want you to walk up to her and tell her we need a wheelchair. Right away. Will you be a big girl and do that?'

She stared at me. 'What if they don't have wheelchairs in airports?'

'Bess. I need you to help us.'

Nicola turned on her a smile that would once have been beautiful and warm, but was now a rictus.

'But I don't want to go without you,' said Bessie on a high note.

'All right. You stay here with Nicola, and I'll go.'

'Nanna.' She gripped me with both hands.

'We have to get a wheelchair. Go to that lady and ask her. Otherwise I don't know how we'll get out of here.'

I pushed her away from me. She set out along the carpeted hall with stiff, formal steps. I saw her rise on to her toes and try to show herself above the counter's edge.

This is maybe the first moment of rage, though it's not spelled out. Garner has always left spaces in her writing for the reader to come in and feel whatever he or she might feel, to think whatever he or she might think. One of the things that may well be happening for a reader -- certainly for this reader -- here, between the lines of dialogue and its frightful airport silences (for many is the silent moment of horrible dawning realisation that has taken place in an airport lounge) is rage with an adult for allowing the development of a situation in which a child must be pushed to her limits.

A similar moment occurs again when Bessie comes next door into her grandmother's house, where she has never been unwelcome, to do her flamenco dance for her Nanna and her Nanna's friend, and she's a few steps in when they notice her nose is running:

'Oh shit.' Nicola got off the stool and backed away. 'I'm sorry, darling, but you can't come in here with a cold. I've got no resistance left. Helen, you'll have to send her home.' She shuffled as fast as she could down the hall into the spare room, and pulled the door shut behind her.

I picked up a pencil and took a breath to start explaining cell counts and immune systems, but Bessie didn't ask. She stood in the centre of the room with her arms dangling. Her face was blank.

The rage isn't simple and isn't always about Nicola; sometimes it even goes in the opposite direction and manifests as ferocious protectiveness. 'I thought, I will kill anyone who hurts you. I will tear them limb from limb. I will make them wish they had never been born. Almighty God, I thought, to whom all hearts are open.' In a most Garner-like way, she doesn't tell you for what purpose God is being invoked in this prayer, so I looked it up: it's Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. In this context that unspoken plea is very ambiguous indeed.

Friendship can be far more durable than marriage, and can sometimes involve feelings quite as complex and as strong, but it isn't a relationship that was meant to withstand living in the same house, as everyone who has spent time in shared households knows. This is not to say that no friendship survives it, only that it can be very testing, and the longer the stay the harder the test, even when you are both young and well and have no close family, much less when you are both of an age to be grandparents.

In the flash-forwards at the end of the novel, Helen demonstrates how much easier it is, by comparison, to take it in turns with others to help Nicola through the last stages of her life, and to stay in loving, sardonically realistic postcard-and-email contact with her when they are in different cities: 'I would write to her on a postcard: "I miss you. I'm bored. I'd rather be scrubbing shit off Iris's bathroom tiles."' It's the unrelenting domestic proximity to Nicola and her deluded self-(mis)management that stretches the friendship to its limits, not least because Nicola's delusional state means she needs constant monitoring, chauffeuring and nursing, sometimes all three at once.

We conduct our friendships in accordance with some internalised ideal of what friendship is; and we judge our friends and ourselves by the same ideal. But it doesn't get tested in this kind of extreme way very often. There are probably far more one-off acts of demented bravery or sacrifice performed in the name of friendship than there are protracted episodes of steady, grinding endurance, where our life's work is hijacked, our granddaughters dismayed, our washing machines given a serious workout and our patience worn so thin you could read the paper through it.

Friends make room for each other in their lives, especially when one of them is in desperate need of help, but there will always be strong competing claims. Those sorts of moment-by-moment and inch-by-inch negotiations are the lifeblood of fiction: the way we endlessly shift, this way and that, between the people in our lives, between love and responsibility, between inclination and obligation, making room here, cutting corners there, making unsatisfactory compromises and horrible painful decisions that please no-one.

One thing this book brings out very strongly is the difference between the physical demands of carer-duty -- Helen carries these out gladly, even when they become heavy, as she has always known she would -- and the far more onerous and treacherous burden of one's own feelings about the caree, about her behaviour and her situation.

As so often in her work, Garner sets this conflict up in such a way as to evoke from readers their own similar experiences (like feeling your brain blow up as you stand by in the role of officially designated carer to someone who has been told they must not be left alone after surgery or treatment; say, the sister who reverts to ancient childhood patterns of sibling-rivalry strategies even when drugged to the eyeballs and unable to walk straight, or to the friend, also still full of drugs, who point-blank refuses do any of the things she's been told by the doctor that she must do. Ahem.)

And everyone who's done it knows that the wet sheets and vomit bowls are the least of it, that they are, indeed, nothing: it's the rage, and the helplessness of the rage, in both carer and caree. If you are sick and helpless, you hate the dependence and lash out (though Nicola is not like this; indeed, her sense of entitlement is one of the things that brings this character so vividly to life, though she has moments -- which, again most readers will recognise from their own lives -- of saying with a kind of noble woundedness whenever the carer's exasperation shows, 'No no, this is too hard for you, I'll go and stay in a hotel.'). But as a carer, you cannot yell at a sick person and you feel monstrous if you do. They are already suffering enough, and they will probably cry. And that will make you want to shoot yourself.

You do these things for family because you are, at the deepest level, stuck with them, as they with you. Robert Dessaix, in his review of The Spare Room for The Monthly in April, was harsh in a glancing way about what he sees as the book's implication that if Nicola had got married and had a proper family she wouldn't need to be impinging on someone else's.

But I see it more as a tension that is there in almost everyone's life: the dues to family are monumental and non-negotiable, while those to friends have invisible, expanding boundaries, 'like gold to airy thinness beat'. The boundaries might go on stretching forever. Or not.

Next -- Part 2: FAITH

Friday, May 23, 2008

When dogs go missing

Apropos the recent posts here on Michelle de Kretser's novel The Lost Dog, someone at Club Troppo's Missing Link observed the other day that 'cats were always going to favour novels where dogs go missing'.

And how true it is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NSW Premier's Literary Awards: The Lost Dog gets (some of) its deserts

Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog has won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the Book of the Year Award in the 2008 NSW Premier's Literary Awards. I'm hoping this will be just the first of many. Previous raves about this book are here and here. Thanks to Ampersand Duck for this news.

Monday, May 19, 2008

David Marr on the Patrick White papers

For anyone who's not seen it yet, David Marr's lovely piece on the recently-unearthed Patrick White letters and manuscripts is now up at The Monthly's website, here. Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose interviewed Marr about these discoveries during Adelaide Writers' Week where Marr was his usual urbane and entertaining self, so I'd heard some of this material before, but it's enlightening to read it again at leisure.

One of the issues it raises for me is the question of an unfinished manuscript called The Hanging Garden, which White put aside to work on something else some time in the early 1980s and never got back to. Marr says this manuscript may in future be published but I'm not sure I want to see it; there is something quite violent about being wrenched away from a novel in the middle, especially when you know there is no end. And in these days of fanfic I bet a number of people would have a go at finishing it, which would be more than some of us could bear. If it must be done at all then I propose it be done by a committee made up of all those who have in their time presented a Patrick White parody on Parody Night at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature's annual conference. We would be each other's sternest critics.

Also for those who missed it last time (as I did), here's David Malouf's 'reappraisal' of White in the TLS at the beginning of last year.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Breath, by Tim Winton, and the May issue of Australian Book Review

My review for The Australian of Tim Winton's Breath is here. I've been interested to note that more than one person has picked me up on my mention of Winton's Christianity, as though that were somehow unusual or odd, but I can't imagine how it would be possible to review his work without mentioning it: it is the world view from which his work proceeds, and it would be an impoverished, misshapen commentary that didn't at least acknowledge it.

James Ley, a critic I have come to admire more and more for the unerring way he can remain engaging and lucid while working with abstruse ideas, not to mention his willingness to lay about him with the jawbone of an ass if he thinks the occasion demands it, has reviewed this novel at more length in Australian Book Review, where with the extra space he has been able to write more reflectively; the image I have is of spreading ripples in a pond. There's never space for that kind of leisurely expansion of ideas in newspaper reviewing, though I was very glad to have a 12-1400 word limit, rather than the more usual 8-900, for my own review. One paragraph of James's in particular is a wonderful encapsulation of what's going on in Winton's writing generally, and pinpoints what he sees as a mismatch of content and mode:

What distinguishes Winton's recent work from a number of other writers with metaphysical leanings -- Flannery O'Connor, say, or Cormac McCarthy -- is that it does not try to evoke a palpable sense of evil ... characters are sometimes damaged and violent, but not irredeemably bad. "People are fools," observes Pikelet [the narrator-hero], "not monsters." This empathy can be double-edged when it is combined with Winton's visionary instincts. There is a generous humanity, an exultation of the ordinary, informing the celebratory domestic scenes of Cloudstreet ... But it is also why a self-consciously dark book like The Turning can seem dour and mean rather than tragic. Its air of fatalism appears confected and tendentious, because Winton is a high symbolist working in a realist mode. [My emphasis.] The same element that elevates his best writing can encumber it: meaning is forced upon his characters whether they like it or not.

Now that bolded clause is the most insightful thing I have ever read about Winton's work and it explains to me exactly why I have never been fully comfortable with it. I would have paid the cover price of ABR to read that paragraph alone. As it is, there is some fabulous other stuff in this particularly good (and, if I am not mistaken, unusually fat) May issue, beginning with a review essay by J.M. Coetzee on Fredric Jameson's The Modernist Papers that asks what is for those of us who have spent a goodly part of our lives in university English departments -- and that includes Jameson, Coetzee and me -- a very scary question:

... it is not hard to come up with materialist explanations ... for why there should have been a shake-up in literary fashion in and after the 1960s. What is not so obvious, what we need the assistance of the historian to understand, is why departments of English, in which overwhelmingly monoglot bodies of students gathered to read products of fancy written in their mother tongue, were ever called on to act as an accrediting agency for entry into the middle class.

Why indeed, she asked as she mentally rewrote a bit of her hypothetical autobiography. There's also an insightful and fair-minded but intermittently tart review of Helen Garner's The Spare Room by ABR editor Peter Rose (full text online at that ABR link), and a review of the Tony-Jones-edited collection The Best Australian Political Writing 2008. Other highlights include reviews of Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds' Drawing the Global Colour Line, which is one of the few books I've bought in the last few weeks, of Joan London's new novel The Good Parents (also fully readable online), and of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by one of my favourite bloggers, the brilliant New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.

There's also a lengthy continuation in the letters page of an increasingly unseemly wrangle between rival biographers and their supporters over whether or not Martin Boyd's death was suicide. Given that most people die of being themselves in any case, surely the line -- that distinction between suicide and whatever the other thing is -- is often greyer and fuzzier than most people are prepared to admit in any case. Martin Boyd was a unique figure in Australian literary history and part of a unique family in its cultural history, and the manner of his death is not one of the important things about his life. Let him rest in peace.

Monday, April 14, 2008

New Chair in Australian Literature at UWA

I should think the former Prime Minister will be spitting chips that the new government is smoothly taking the credit for the new Chair in Australian Literature, rumours of which began blowing in the wind in the second half of last year after a campaign waged mainly in The Australian about the perceived decline in Australian studies, particularly Australian literature, in universities. If I have understood the sequence of events correctly, this all started with John Howard's nationalist agenda and now the Rudd/Gillard team has scooped it up and run with it. Neat.

Much talk about the 'death of Australian literature' was generated and much was made, during this campaign, of the fact that with the retirement of Professor Peter Pierce from his chair at James Cook University, Australia was left with 'only one' dedicated Chair of Australian Literature, as though there had once been many such Chairs but the numbers had been steadily dropping off for years, as with an endangered species. Those in the field, however, knew that until the original appointment of Professor Pierce, there had only ever been one to begin with: the Chair of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, formerly held by Professors Leonie Kramer, GA Wilkes and the redoubtable Elizabeth Webby, and currently by Robert Dixon.

In fact, Australian Literature is a relatively new discipline, established in universities only tentatively in the late 1960s, by the stalwart likes of Vincent Buckley and Chris Wallace-Crabbe at the University of Melbourne and Brian Elliott at the University of Adelaide, after years of sneering resistance by the exiled English or Australian Anglophile academics who dominated Australian university English departments at the time, clutching their well-thumbed copies of Leavis and Lawrence. ("Aw-stralian Littah-rachoor? That's an oxymoron, haw haw.") The Association for the Study of Australian Literature -- still going strong, I'm glad to say -- wasn't even founded until 1978; before that there hadn't really been enough people teaching it to justify the establishment of a professional body.

Australian universities were invited to compete for the establishment of this new Chair and a number of proposals were submitted, but the University of Western Australia was the unanimous choice.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Barbara Jefferis Award, continued; Aust Lit; the lives of animals; various other stuff

The Barbara Jefferis Award, discussed in the post before last in the context of a rave about Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog, was in the event won by poet Rhyll McMaster for her first novel Feather Man. Which is indeed a fine book, as I've said at some length already here, and which certainly addresses, directly and on a literal level, the empowerment of girls and women.


I don't know, maybe Michelle is one of those writers, like Elliot Perlman, whose work violently divides those who read it. (Perlman, whose very very long and very very detailed novel Seven Types of Ambiguity was treated to an absolute stinker of a review by Peter Craven of the kind Craven had hitherto reserved for Simon During's book about Patrick White, is regarded -- mainly on the strength of this novel -- by the French in particular not only as a very important Australian writer but as a very important writer, period. Other critical responses were dotted all along the spectrum between these two positions. Perlman's book has a dog in it, too; his name is Empson, which is one of the things that enraged Craven.)

Or maybe people think if there's an animal in the title it can't be a serious book. If so, this is sad, for there is a time-honoured and honourable tradition in Australian literature of writing about animals and putting them in your title. A quick trawl through the colourful history of the Australian short story yields the following by-no-means-exhaustive list of titles: 'The Dog', 'The Cow', 'The Bull Calf', 'The Jackass', 'The Dingo', 'The Donkey', 'The Ant-Lion', 'The Galah', 'The Pelican', 'The Seahawk', Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo', 'The White Turkey', 'The Grey Kangaroo', 'The Grey Horse', 'The Black Mare', 'Wild Red Horses', 'The Red Bullock', 'The Red 'Roo', 'The Rainbow Bird', 'The Powerful Owl', 'Singing Birds', 'The Woodpecker Toy Fact', 'The Three-Legged Bitch', 'The Loaded Dog', 'The New Australian Dog', 'Thylacine', 'Serpents', 'Snakes', 'A Snake Down Under', 'The Turtles' Graveyard', 'Goldfish', 'The Mullet', 'The Snoring Cod', 'Getting to the Pig', 'The Woman Who Wasn't Allowed to Keep Cats', 'My Bird', 'His Dog', 'Hawkins's Pigs', 'John Gilbert's Dog', and 'Nobody's Kelpie'.

Perhaps some people may think The Lost Dog "about" (and only about) a dog, and "therefore" can't be Art. Perhaps some people may have forgotten the extraordinary power of the animal symbolism in the work some of the 20th century's great writers -- Lawrence's foxes and horses, Woolf's spaniel, Hemingway's bulls and fish, Les Murray's magical animal poems, Coetzee's dogs and frogs and other critters of all kinds and the absolutely deadly serious life philosophy behind his representations of animals and our relations with them.

For we are lucky enough to have in Australia not just one but two truly great thinkers and writers who can elevate these matters to a place where no intelligent reader can ignore the dilemmas they represent even with respect to that most alien of creatures, the bat: Coetzee as a man who fearlessly follows a trail of logic with no failure of nerve and arrives at a radical point of understanding, Murray from a point of view profoundly spiritual, a conception of being and presence arrived at via Catholicism, observation and imagination all at once. Here is Coetzee's tough nut (an old bat, even) Elizabeth Costello, in full flight, on bats and being:

What is it like to be a bat? Before we can answer such a question, [philosopher Thomas] Nagel suggests, we need to be able to experience bat life through the sense modalities of a bat. But he is wrong; or at least he is sending us down a false trail. To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. Bat being in the first case, human being in the second, maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.

Now if one were not aware that Les Murray had written 'Presence: Translations From the Natural World' some years earlier than this, his bat-poem would seem for all the world like a direct response, or amplification, of it, as though in conversation with Coetzee which for all I know he has been, in fact it seems very likely. I wish I'd been there.

Bats' Ultrasound

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening's a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O'er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row wry -- aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat

Carn Michelle

I see from the current Sydney PEN newsletter that Michelle de Kretser's novel The Lost Dog has been shortlisted for the inaugural Barbara Jefferis Award, and the winner will be announced tomorrow.

(This is the prize that caused such a fuss last year when first announced, mainly because it's for women writers only. [UPDATE: My bad, my very bad, for this is completely wrong: it is open to novelists of either or indeed any sex whose book represents women and girls in a positive light; see comments thread.] Oh noes! What about Teh Menz Liberation, huh? Huh? Etc.)

As you can see if you read the link, this is a very handsome prize. Quite apart from the $35,000, there is the warm glow of winning an award named in honour and memory of a woman who contributed so much for so long to Australian literature -- and associated also with her husband John Hinde, long-standing and much-loved ABC film critic, whose will provided for the establishment of the award in his wife's name.

Peace and all to the current Miles Franklin judges, some of whom are mates of mine, but it's a matter of absolute gobsmackedness to me that The Lost Dog didn't even make the longlist for the 2008 Miles F award. It fits the award's criteria (which de Kretser's previous novel, The Hamilton Case, did not), and it's one of the best Australian novels I've read not just over the last year but for a very long time. I've got nothing against the other books that made the Miles F longlist; I just think The Lost Dog is better than most if not all of them -- for all kinds of reasons, but mostly, I think, for its delicate balance of intellectual sophistication and genuine, intense, beautifully realised feeling. That, and the fact that by about three pages in you find yourself thinking 'Oh my, this book was written by a grown-up.'

This is the review of it that I wrote last year for the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Lost Dog
By Michelle de Kretser
Allen & Unwin, 364 pp, $35 (hb)

Tom Loxley is on a kind of rural retreat when his beloved dog goes missing in the bush. Over the course of the story his search for the dog is interspersed with episodes of back-story: the story of his early childhood in India, his cramped teenage years in Australia, his unlucky and thwarted parents, and most of all his strange, tender relationship with the mysterious Nelly Zhang.

Tom is an academic working on a book about Henry James; he has anchored his racially complicated heritage in English literature. This novel is haunted by James in all kinds of ways, not least by a preoccupation with the idea of haunting itself, as well by the idea of yearning. On the surface Tom’s yearning is for the lost dog, and for the beloved who refuses to become a lover, but these things are situational and remediable; what can’t be changed is Tom’s family history and geography, the complex fate of the post-colonial.

This book is so engaging and thought-provoking, and its subject matter so substantial, that the reader notices only in passing how funny it is. At one point Tom goes to ask the neighbour Corrigan to keep an eye out for the dog, whereupon the narrator produces a sentence worthy of Patrick White: ‘When the Australian desire to provide assistance meshed with the Australian dread of appearing unmanly, it produced the bluff menace that was Mick Corrigan’s default setting.’

Michelle de Kretser is one of those rare writers whose work balances substance with style. Her writing is very witty, but it also goes deep, informed at every point by a benign and far-reaching intelligence. She is still winning prizes for her 2003 novel The Hamilton Case and she is certain to win a few more for The Lost Dog. Publishers Allen and Unwin have shown their faith in her by publishing this novel as a beautifully-designed hardback.

But I only had a 320-word space and they're meant to be brief, lively, accessible shorts; if you want a good, serious, insightful, detailed critical response, go and have a read of James Ley's full-length review in the Age. (Whenever I hear someone say 'Oh but Peter Craven is the best critic in the country', I have a little smile to myself, because while there are things about Craven's writing (not his criticism, so much) that I do admire very much, it's quite obvious to me that the best critic in the country is in fact James Ley.)

And just as an added bonus, that beautiful cover and design are courtesy of the lovely and talented Ampersand Duck. What more could any reader possibly want? Here is A. Duck's fabulous post about working on this novel; give yourself time (a cup of coffee, say) to read and savour this lovely detailed post.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat