Saturday, November 14, 2009

'We must sit down and work'

If you have 25 minutes to watch it, this is just lovely: two of the most elegant and eloquent women I know, Helen Garner and Anna Goldsworthy, at the launch of Anna's memoir Piano Lessons at Janet Clarke Hall where Anna is Artist-in Residence. Watch the whole thing if you possibly can; after Anna speaks, she plays a Chopin nocturne and then there's a quick snippet of her teacher, the extraordinary Eleanora Sivan. The heckling baby you can hear is Anna's son Reuben, born last summer.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

The price of books: on the one hand this and on the other hand that, and anyway, nobody really knows

In the wake of the federal government's decision the day before yesterday to reject the Productivity Commission's recommendation on Australian books and maintain the status quo on parallel importation, there's a fair amount of passionate discussion around -- here, for example -- about whether or not it was a good decision.

The free marketeers are really going to town on it, apparently unable to see it as anything but a straightforward market issue -- books as pure commodity, as in 'I'm not giving you a book for Christmas, you've already got a book'. Most of their arguments are based on the unspoken assumption that the producer/consumer relationship is at once symbiotic and fundamentally adversarial in literature (as it truly is in so many other activities), something they would know to be far from the truth if they had enough interest in literature to hang about at a few writers' festivals and observe the behaviour of the crowds.

I've always had a lot of respect for Allan Fels, but if he has anywhere actually addressed the concerns of those who feared damage and loss to Australian literary cultures, subcultures, infrastructures, practitioners and readers, instead of just saying the same thing over and over again, then I have yet to see it.

The free-market types are scornfully trashing the articles, essays, explanations and submissions from authors and publishers (including this particularly lucid piece by Text publisher Michael Heyward) as mere expressions of self-interest and therefore to be ignored. But whatever self-interest might have been involved (as if it were necessarily desirable, or even possible, to be both knowledgable and neutral on such a matter), these literary types addressed a broad range of concerns and explored various intricacies: of national and international publishing; of publishing contracts; and of the probable effects of the proposed changes on the ability of Australian writers to make a living -- and on the probable survival, or not, of the Australian literary culture that so many people have worked so hard for so long to establish, maintain and expand.

Since reading, writing, teaching, scholarship, reviewing, editing, interviewing, anthologising, prize-judging, blogging and what-all else inside said literary culture have been my life's work, I did have and still do have just a bit of a stake in whether or not, in literature as in so much else, the local and the national get subsumed in the global and every aspect of Australian history, landscape, cityscape, vernacular and regional variation disappears from our literature in an attempt to compete in the global market.

(I myself, for example, am working on a pitch to publishers involving the tale of a teenage sparkly vampire from Rivendell who finds an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed with mysterious mathematical formulae, wedged into a secret panel at the back of the wardrobe in the Master of Ormond College's bedroom, which is guarded by a T. Rex and an albino hippogriff called Layla, creatures past which she manages to slip with the combined aid of Heathcliff, Mr Darcy and Captain Jack Sparrow. Wish me luck.)

Anyway, such were the arguments of authors and publishers and they looked pretty reasonable to me. Among the submissions to the Commission I can see the names of at least 40 writers, booksellers, publishers and agents I've known and respected for decades -- Frank Moorhouse's submission is worth reading for its own sake just as an exceptional piece of writing -- but then I read this most excellent blog post by that most excellent blogger Bernice Balconey, who has written several subsequent posts on the subject, and is an energetic participant in the discussion at Larvatus Prodeo linked to above; Bernice's original post was the first argument for change I'd read from someone with insider knowledge of the Australian book industry and it is still the most persuasive. Some of her points have been convincingly answered by various commentators but the one I can't go past is her summary point: 'the cat is out of the bag. The consumer exists in a truly global market'. Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for metaphors about cats and bags. There are some things there I don't agree with and others I wish I didn't agree with but Bernice very clearly knows whereof she speaks and as a blogger and commenter over the years she has given me every reason to trust her judgement, especially in such matters as this.

So once I'd read Bernice's post I gave up any ambition to take up a position on this. There are too many variables and too many unknowns, and the issues are too numerous and too complex and in some cases too self-contradictory, and there are too many possible computations and permutations and too many things have been brought into the argument, things that may or may not turn out to be relevant -- though I was struck by the clarity of two very different points made today on Crikey in a piece by one Michael R. James:
E-books. Utterly irrelevant to the argument, even if the statements about them being the death of printed books within the decade may come true. So what? Let’s pre-emptively destroy our local publishing industry before e-books do?

Copyright territoriality. Abolishing the PIR abolishes this. Australia would be removing it unilaterally while the UK and the USA have absolutely no intention of removing theirs. [My emphasis.] As bloggers have shown, [Guy] Rundle’s argument about Eire and earlier ones about New Zealand actually demonstrate the opposite: i.e. the loss of any publishing industry in countries that remove all restrictions.

As James suggests, many of the arguments being made on both sides are to do with the unforeseeable changes in the technology -- imagine yourself in 1985 trying to explain to someone else what a Kindle was. But the only thing in the whole tangled web of argument that seems even remotely clear is that nobody really knows what will happen, or would have happened, either way.

Even the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (among other things), Craig Emerson, who was behind the push to lift the restrictions, admits (all quotations from here) that
The Productivity Commission report acknowledged that removing these restrictions would adversely affect Australian authors, publishers and culture.

He also went on to say
The Commission recommended extra budgetary funding of authors and publishers to compensate them for this loss.

Yeah, yeah. Show us the money, Craig. Core promise, is it?

And furthermore,
The Government has decided not to commit to a new spending program for Australian authors and publishers. The Australian book printing and publishing industries will need to respond to the increasing competition from imports without relying on additional government assistance.

So yah boo sucks to you, eh? This sounds like a totally empty retro-threat to me -- "We'll say we were going to, although we didn't tell you that, but now we're not, so you've bitten off your noses to spite your faces. Or maybe not. You'll never know now, will you, so nyerdy nyer." This particular dummy spit looks to me like the words of a man whose ego has been bruised by the failure of his pet proposal to get up.

It's bizarre to see the free-market types joining forces with consumer advocates like Fels (apparently not an advocate of consumers of Australian books) while sneeringly dismissing the other side as 'economically illiterate', a phrase many of them are using to mean 'they don't share my world view, which is, of course, the only possible one'.

In my own case, why yes, it is indeed perfectly true that I know next to nothing about economics, having, like most people, spent my adult life studying and practising other things. And that is why I have refrained from forming, much less expressing, an opinion. What a shame those who know nothing about literature don't think they need to take the same precautions. The culturally illiterate blithely using a metaphor about reading skills to diss their perceived opponents is a very neat irony, the more so since -- being fundamentally uninterested in literature and its effects -- they're not equipped to notice it.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Code for 'We don't care'

When I first saw this article about Publishers Weekly and its all-male-author Best Books of 2009 (ah yes, it's that time of year again), it took me a minute to work out the title: 'Why Weren't Any Women Invited to Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast?' I'd always thought 'wienie' as in 'wiener' as in 'frankfurter' was spelt with an 'ie' not an 'ee', and it's not clear whether 'weenie' is used here as a variant or a disparaging pun (though I'd like to think the latter), but either way it is, in this context, American for what we in Australia call a sausage fest. Boys' Own, if you like.

It was only yesterday that I was looking around the nation's various literary-cultural-political mags, blogs and websites and noticing with growing dismay that the general ratio of male to female writers represented -- both the people writing for the journals and blogs and magazines and the people being written about -- seems to have nose-dived*, even just since the beginning of this year, back to the good old days where 'male' meant the norm and 'female' meant some lesser variant; yet again I was reminded of the great Simone de Beauvoir, than whom nobody has ever described this phenomenon better. 'There are two kinds of people: human beings and women.'

And it was only last night that an otherwise apparently intelligent commenter on a literary blog referred disparagingly to 'the worst kind of 80s PC', apparently meaning that all that silly nonsense about considering the presence in the world of female people and black people and gay people that we used to have to bend the knee to is merely a memory of a now-despised fad , like satin jumpsuits and big hair, and it's über-cool in 2009 to have sunk right back into our straight white male supremacist good ole boy ways, as into a comfy yet manly chair, clutching the remote in one hand and a stubby in the other. (I'm sorry, I would have liked to have put that another way.)

And then up will go the passionate cry of 'But never mind all this gender nonsense, isn't it just about literary merit??', and back will echo faintly for the nine millionth time from a chorus of exhausted feminists that 'literary merit' is not an exact science, but is rather assessed by the values of the dominant culture, and if the dominant culture is a sausage fest, then, well, you know.

(Though one must look on the bright side: that list of ten books by blokes may ignore the fact that Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro have both had books out this year, but at least it doesn't include the most overrated writer and sausage fest ornament of the 20th century, Philip Roth.)

I wrote here earlier this year about how gobsmacking it was that the Miles Franklin Literary Award judges didn't notice that they'd come up with an all-male shortlist in a year when there were at least five realistic female contenders for the prize, and apparently this kind of 'human beings and women' thinking is once more rife in the US as well. After pondering last night with such disquiet on the turn things seemed to be taking, I wasn't as surprised as I wish I had been this morning to see a feminist Facebook Friend linking that post about the Publishers Weekly list. Here's that post's hook, a line strongly recommended as the default comeback next time some bloke -- or rogue girl trawling for the boys' approval -- accuses you dismissively of being 'just PC':

So is the flipside here that including women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that.

* It is however a relief to see that the November issue of Australian Book Review, which arrived today and which I just finished reading, does honourably buck this trend a bit: writers/reviewers include an Alison, an Andrea, a Belinda, a Claudia, a Gay, a Jacqueline, a Jane, two Judiths, two Kates, a Kylie, a Melinda, a Rosaleen (the lead article), a Sarah and a Stephanie, while the written-about include an Anna, an Emily, a Jan, a Jeanette, a Jenny, a Jeri, a Mandy and a Ruth.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Prime Minister's Literary Awards winners ...

... were announced yesterday. Evelyn Juers' House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann shared the nonfiction prize with Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake's Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the Question of Racial Equality, while Nam Le's The Boat, to no-one's surprise despite the quality of the shortlist, won the fiction prize outright.

There's something unusually coherent about this set of winners; together, qua winners, they have about them the feel of a viewpoint new in Australian literary prizegiving, a strong whiff of post-nationalist awareness. Drawing the Global Colour Line is, as its title suggests, global in the scope of its analysis, while The Boat has been widely praised for its cosmopolitanism and its range, containing stories set in several countries. House of Exile is a 'group biography' of author and activist Heinrich Mann, his partner Nelly Kroeger and their several overlapping circles of acquaintances and friends, including Virginia Woolf (about whom there are some beautiful and surprising stories) and Heinrich's brother Thomas Mann, who despised and looked down on Nelly as a schreckliche Trulle which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

So congrats to the 2009 nonfiction judges Phillip Adams, Peter Rose and Joan Beaumont, and fiction judges Peter Pierce, Lyn Gallacher and John Hay, for taking the long, broad view of what, within its official brief, an Australian literary award might encompass. Especially a Prime Minister's literary award, the judging process for which one might have expected to be somehow more rah-rah but is glad it wasn't. This is not for a moment to disparage more nationally focused awards, which have an important place, but only to be pleased that there's also room for books like these to rise to the top of the pile.

I've owned all three for yonks but to my shame haven't read any of them yet, except for Nam Le's story 'Halflead Bay' for a review of Mandy Sayer's anthology The Australian Long Story. It's not quite a question of not having the time. It's more that books of this quality demand an answering quality of mind in their readers, a sharpness of focus and subtlety of attention that it can be very hard to bring to non-work reading when reading is what you do for a living. Because you need to be in a particularly alert and receptive state of mind to do any of these books proper justice as reading-for-pleasure.

'This new work took on fresh urgency with the consolidation of Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s and the pitiless application of eugenic principles and racial technologies -- many of which had been rehearsed under colonial regimes -- in the heartland of Europe, the results of which were to finally scarify the conscience of the world.'

'Keep a straight back, Mrs Sasaki says. Wipe the floor with your spirit.'

'But the party was in full swing, the atmosphere rippling with anecdotes and laughter, so much so that a button popped off the decolletage of Nelly's red velvet dress to reveal the splendid contours of her lacy bra. I like to think that the little red velvet button described a perfect arc across the table and landed right on top of Thomas Mann's Charlotte surprise.'

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Kiss

Last night I went to the premiere screening of a new short film by young local filmmakers Sonya Humphrey (producer) and Ashlee Page (writer-director). Adelaide's Mercury Cinema was filled to capacity, no mean feat at 6.30 on a warm Tuesday evening, by a crowd that included some well-known faces.

The film is an adaptation of Peter Goldsworthy's short story of the same name, 'The Kiss', a story I know very well because I chose it to include in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aust Lit and have therefore read it about eleven times, if you count repeated proofreadings. Not to be giving away the whole plot, but it's a chilling tale in which two teenage boys, the worse for drink, decide to go for a swim in an isolated underground tank and realise only after they have jumped in that the water level is too low for them to be able to reach the ladder.

Considering that in Page's screenplay the characters are girls instead of boys, which you'd think was a pretty substantial change and a most disconcerting one at first, the film is actually one of the closest and cleverest adaptations of a piece of fiction that I think I've ever seen. Page gets a couple of extraordinary performances out of her two young actors, and a lot of mileage out of the look of rural Australia at night, simultaneously sinister and glorious.

What I've always admired most about Peter Goldsworthy's work (NB if you're wondering, he may or may not be a distant cousin, so this is nepotism five times removed if it is nepotism at all), in any genre, is his ruthlessness in following the logic of the body to its often bitter end; to me at least, all of his best work is firmly grounded in his experience as a GP over several decades, pitting the detailed abstractions of moral dilemmas against the stark, simple, unrelenting clarity of the body and its processes and frailties. The film is very faithful to this particular take on the mind-body problem. One of the most interesting things about watching it was that although I was all too familiar with the story's events and therefore knew what was coming, I still felt chilled and wired by it -- tense muscles, racing heart -- which makes you wonder about the nature of suspense. Another kind of mind-body problem.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Friday, October 9, 2009

Brother, sisters and anthologies: oh the irony

So when I got home this afternoon from fifteen rounds with a sibling -- the ferocious upfront one, all teeth and claws all the time, and no backing down until one of you dies -- so stratospherically stressed out that my eyeballs and teeth were aching and there was a strange metallic taste in my mouth that no amount of medicinal chocolate would shift, I found two things in the mail.

One was a copy, kindly sent by Allen & Unwin, of Charlotte Wood's new themed anthology of specially-commissioned stories by Australian writers about siblings, entitled Brothers and Sisters. The other was my copy of the current Australian Book Review, in which critic Peter Craven continues his attack on the team of scholars of Australian literature (of which he is not one) who edited the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, including moi, that he began in his magisterially and savagely opinionated review of the anthology in the previous issue.

I've been a fan of Charlotte Wood's since I read her novel The Children, in which she shows great interest in the sibling dynamic and great skill in representing it, an impression further borne out by the brilliant, funny, moving introduction to this new book. And after reading the ABR correspondence pages I'm considering the possibility that one way to understand the shifting, endlessly complex dynamics of the literary scene and all its tortured interrelationships is to think of it in terms of sibling relations, where the keynote is intensity for better or worse, and where endless fights for territory, dominance, independence, sentimental vases and Mummy and Daddy's approval all take place in the hothouse arena of shared interests and common experience.

At the very least, I find that thinking about these things anthropologically and psychoanalytically helps me to get some distance on them, to back away from the rage. It's that or the bottle shop, and I have too much work to do tonight for the bottle shop to be an option. Besides, I want to be fully alert when Germaine takes on Planet Janet on Q&A.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

... and a bad bad review ...

There are four kinds of book review. There's the good good review, which is both favourable about its subject and skilfully, knowledgeably written on the basis of a careful, thorough reading of the book in question. There's the good bad review, which is well executed in all respects but unfavourable. There's the bad good review, which is favourable but a bad example of the book review genre.

(There are many ways of badly writing a review: not reading the book properly, making opinionated and magisterial assertions instead of properly arguing your case, getting your facts wrong because you haven't actually read the book, pushing your own pet writers and ideas at the expense of the book you're supposed to be reviewing, blowing your own trumpet about your own achievements, not distinguishing between your personal opinions and the actual facts, making wildly offensive statements, and so on and so forth.)

And finally there's the bad bad review, which is ... Well, you know.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a forum at the University of Sydney on the subject of book reviewing. Allotted a generous amount of time for my talk, I needed to come up with an infinitely expandable structure for it, something with a strong backbone that I could sketch out and then amplify here and there, both at the keyboard and then again, if called for, on my feet.

In the end, I came up with a way of doing it that meant I had a single central line of argument and organising principle: the text of the talk was a heavily annotated list of the people and entities to whom/which I believe a book reviewer has a responsibility. It was a list whose length surprised even me (for over the decades I have given these matters a great deal of thought), as I thought about just how many people and things I have at the back of my mind, or even halfway to the front, whenever I review a book. The list looked something like this:

1) To the readers of the review, to

(i) describe the book accurately,
(ii) tell the truth as you see it, and
(iii) provide entertainment and useful information.

2) To the potential readers of the book (some overlap there, obvs),

(i) not to mislead them about its contents, and
(ii) to save them $30+ if that's what you think.

3) To the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of the book,

(i) to read the book carefully and comment on it thoughtfully,
(ii) not to misrepresent it, and
(iii) not to say anything that will actually make them want to slash their wrists.

4) To the literary editor who saw fit to commission the review from you, to

(i) justify her or his faith in your (suit)ability and expertise,
(ii) write to the word length you were given,
(iii) provide clean copy in the requested format (e.g. not phone it in, say) and
(iv) provide said copy on or before the deadline you were given.

5) To the publication for which you are writing,

(i) to pay attention to its house style,
(ii) to fit in with its general editorial approach and standard of writing,
(iii) not to write anything that will either require extensive and expensive legalling, or, in the absence of said legalling, get the publication sued, and
(ii) not to compromise, or indeed trash, its reputation.

6) To the people who are paying you to do a decent job of work, to be worthy of your hire.

7) To the literary culture in particular and indeed to the culture in general, to make a worthy contribution to it and not demean or devalue it by adding junk rather than good useful stuff.

8) To yourself,

(i) to maintain your standards, not just professional but also moral (say, turning down editorial requests to review books by friends, rivals, enemies or old lovers),
(ii) to refuse to say anything you don't mean, and
(iii) not to make yourself look like a wanker or a dickhead, or both. 'Both' is possible but not attractive.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Monday, September 7, 2009

And a new art form emerges: the YouTube trailer/preview of the novel

Sent off my review of Andrew McGahan's new novel Wonders of a Godless World this morning to Australian Book Review, in whose October issue it will appear. One is not supposed to talk in advance about novels whose embargo dates are still three weeks away, so I'm not going to -- but do watch this strangely beautiful little animation, which appears to have been done by the same person who did the cover, one James Gulliver Hancock (check out the weight-lifting lorikeet).

When I found this the other day I thought it was a one-off, but a quick Google confirms that these book trailers are everywhere.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New books: Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath

In tomorrow's Australian Literary Review I have a piece reviewing four new (or, in one case, newish) Australian novels. They only have two things in common really -- they're all intensely region-specific, and they're all by women. Of the four, it's Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath that I confidently expect to turn up regularly in the longlists and shortlists of next year's literary awards.

Kennedy is an experienced and much-admired writer of short stories but this is her first novel, and of course inevitably someone has asked her about what far too many people see as the 'advance' from the short story to the novel, as if, in moving from the former to the latter, one had succeeded in one's OWLs and was now tackling one's NEWTs. Kennedy's answer to this, as quoted in the detailed, engaging interview that the SMH's Susan Wyndham published last weekend, appearing also in her Undercover blog, is maybe the best riposte to this short-story v. novel thing that I've ever seen in the whole thirtysomething years I've been being annoyed by it:

"I heard someone once say, 'You must feel different now that you've moved to the big pool from the toddler pool,' " she says of her change of form. "I quite bridled at this because I don't think the short story is a toddler pool. In a way it is more like the beautiful diving pool - it's not the shallow pool, it's the smaller pool that takes a lot of practice to do the one entry perfectly."

'The beautiful diving pool' -- how Katherine Mansfield would have loved that. And Chekhov, Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Alice Munro and who-all else.

The novel is reviewed in the new issue of Australian Book Review by Jo Case, who kind of likes it but says it's hard to get carried away by the plot because you're too aware of the structure. I can't agree with this. What I kept thinking was that the structure was intensely cinematic and was carrying me around the circuits of feeling among the characters while at the same time moving them and the action forwards. Topspin, as it were.

There are three main characters: the dizty leftover hippie Sandy, 45, henna'd devotee of decaf and hand-turned coffee mugs, still bravely making jewellery and selling it at a market stall in between massages and earnest conversations; Sandy's former partner Rich, a restless, rootless middle-aged man with a ponytail, a string of dead-end jobs and a long-held but never-realised ambition to be a successful professional photographer; and their daughter Sophie, fifteen, sullen, watchful, clever, tagged 'emo goth', whose father scarpered when she was a baby and therefore knows her not at all.

Both Sandy and Rich, even now, live in the faded glory of the high point of their lives: participation in the Franklin River Blockade 25 years earlier, a story to which Sophie has been subjected over and over while, she thinks bitterly, other kids got the Three Bears. (There's a stern message here for Boomers endlessly reliving their illusory glory days, though frankly all the Boomers I know, including me, are all too aware that the glory days were actually not all that glorious and are firmly focused on the present: on our financial survival in interesting times, on the longueurs and woes of our young adult children and our aged parents, and on our own increasingly unreliable and wonky bodies as bits and parts of them play up and wear out one by inexorable one. Types like Rich and Sandy are by no means unknown, but they're not typical, either.)

Anyway, the plot gets into second gear on Sophie's fifteenth birthday, when Rich rings her to wish her a happy birthday and suggests that he take her on a Tasmanian wilderness hike and bonding exercise on Cradle Mountain. Off they go to catch their plane to Hobart: third gear. But then things start to go wrong. Vroom.

From this point the narrative alternates between scenes of Rich and Sophie on the hiker trail and scenes of Sandy first at Mandala Holistic Wellness Centre and then, very worried after Rich and Sophie turn out not to be on their scheduled return flight, back at her own house surrounded by well-meaning alternative-living friends who keep trying to give her back rubs, read her tarot cards and help her think positive thoughts. Running in tandem with these changes of scene and the increasing tension and suspense they generate is the increasing subtlety with which everyone has begun to see everyone else: all three have been seeing each other in the light of cliché and caricature, and Kennedy manages very expertly the small shifts by which the characters begin to see each other as human beings with unexpected or hitherto unnoticed strengths and complexities.

In some ways Kennedy is working the same territory as Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap: contemporary domestic realism focusing on parenting and on conflicting cultural values. But there's less cultural diversity, fewer characters, less sex, more social history, and a better plot.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Northern southern southern northern Southern Gothic: Rachel Ward's Beautiful Kate


American writer Newton Thornburg's 1982 novel Beautiful Kate is set during a cold winter on the outskirts of Chicago, where a once-prosperous family farm has been swallowed up by suburban development and all the farm land sold, the family in decline in a way that manifests in that classic trope of inward-turning decay, incest.

In Rachel Ward's film version there are similarities and differences: the setting is now the forbidding beauty of the Flinders Ranges, in South Australia's rain-deprived north, where the dominant spatial note is not increased urban crowding but overwhelming isolation. But the story is essentially the same and in some respects follows the novel closely, including the chronological jumps that Thornburg thought might cause trouble for any writer wanting to adapt it for the screen.

Perhaps because it's the story of a family, it has translated with surprising ease from the chilly north of the US to the dry, hot north of South Australia. The Kendall family, once comprising patriarch Bruce, his wife and the four kids, now exists only as a fragment: the dying Bruce ('congestive heart disease'), played in a bravura performance by Bryan Brown, and the dutiful youngest daughter Sally, played in a most beautifully understated and quiet way by Rachel Griffiths, are all that's left in the decaying farmhouse.

Sally keeps Bruce clean and fed and the farmhouse in some sort of order before trundling off to her day job with the Aboriginal community. The really lovely thing about Griffiths' character is the sense that she's happy to be this person. Wears old no-nonsense jarmies, loves her job, loves her dad, gets on with it.

So when her big brother Ned, a more than usually tortured-looking Ben Mendelsohn, arrives at the farm after a twenty-year absence to say goodbye to his dying father, she looks uncomplicatedly delighted to see him and he looks at her as though she's the only real person he's seen for a very long time.

The other siblings, we slowly learn, are dead. Something happened twenty years ago to Cliff and Kate, and now there is only photography and memory. The family's been clinically, even symmetrically, cut in half like the carcase of a beast; the barn is full of junk; the dam is empty.

You sort out your thoughts about movies, I find, while the credits are rolling. What an excellent movie, does a lot of new things, super-dramatic subject matter handled with delicate thoughtfulness. Screenplay by Ward, wow, that is the first Australian movie I have ever seen whose dialogue does not at any point let it down, and it took a British aristocrat to write it, what's that about, Ward's a very experienced actor, rare for screenwriters, she knows what words will work in the mouth. Ooh look, music by Tex Perkins, might have known. God the Flinders are unearthly and gorgeous and terrifying. Wasn't Rachel Griffiths excellent, actually Griffiths and Brown and Mendelsohn were all brilliant, who would have thought they would look so convincingly, when you put them together, as though they were all related. Got rural South Australian life visually down to the tiniest details of light along verandas, no romanticisation, no gross grot either. Southern Gothic but which kind, not McCullers, certainly not Flannery O'Connor, maybe a bit Welty, oh right, Faulkner. Lovely incidental unobtrusive symbolism, the patriarch with his congested heart, the screen door, the now-empty dam, blighted, revealing its history, the junk and mire beneath the smooth surface of water no longer available for playing in, playing games with your drunk teenage brother, on the farm, in the dark, all that sexual energy and burgeoning life and nowhere to put it, nowhere for it to go.

'... a homeless man reading under a streetlight ...'

Jessica at the Meanjin blog Spike has a great post up today on the Benjamin Andrew Footpath Library, a scheme established in 2003 by Sarah Garrett for distributing books to people living in hostels and on the street. So far the library operates only in Sydney and Melbourne but Garrett hopes it will eventually be set up in every Australian capital city. The Footpath Library website is here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Peter Temple's new book ...

... is under embargo until September 28, so although I have an advance copy I'm really not supposed to talk about it. It's called Truth and it's a sequel to The Broken Shore. Cashin's in it, but only (as far as I can tell from a quick flip) marginally, with flashes back to what happened to him. Dove's in it. Villani's in it front and centre.

At a glance its style looks even more compressed and elliptical than last time; Temple is the kind of writer who makes extensive demands on the reader's intelligence and no concessions to any momentary lapse of concentration. His writing reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett's and the way that she, too, cavalierly leaves vast tracts of information unexpressed and unexplained, and makes the sorts of jokes that depend largely on what is not said, making you howl with laughter but only after a longish internal silence while you work it out. Reading them both is a sort of chairbound steeplechase, a series of wild attempts to get to the next paragraph with your understanding fully intact. The epigraph is a haunting, abstract scrap of Rilke:

But because truly, being here is so much; because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sydney, and other stuff

Wow, a two-week hiatus. I don't think I've not-blogged for that long since I started in October 2005. For some reason this time of year, anything between August and November, always seems busier than usual. Spent a week and a half attending all-day Arts SA meetings and doing my real job at night before leaving for three days in Sydney last week for the launch of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (UPDATE: Angela from Literary Minded, who I see shares my taste in images and the placement of images, went to the Melbourne launch a few days later), thus:

Thursday, June 30, 11 am: sample Adelaide Airport long-term car park. Discover walk from farthest reaches of car park to shuttle bus slightly longer than bus ride to Virgin terminal and daily rates add up to exactly two taxi fares between my place and the airport. Write experience off to experience.

1.30 pm: hear slightly panicked air crew member come on, somewhere over the Hay Plains, and ask if there is a medical practitioner on board and would the rest of us please stay in our seats. It's times like this I'm glad I'm not a doctor, and that Virgin Blue offers only Mr, Mrs and Ms as choice of honorific when booking one's flight, the old days of being asked 'Miss or Mrs?' and enjoying replying 'Dr' being mostly gone and a good thing too; 20 years ago, having habitually done this with Qantas and the dead-and-gone Ansett, I used to worry occasionally that I'd be called upon to perform an emergency tracheotomy with a biro and a coathanger at 30,000 feet and have to explain that I couldn't, but if they needed an impromptu history of the Australian short story or an emergency fisking of a Clive James poem then I was indeed their woman.

2.30 pm: arrive Sydney, where the sky is a flawless blue, literally and metaphorically. Whenever the cab pulls out of that airport drive and into the sunshine made lacy through the subtropical vegetation, I can actually physically feel my heart lift. Never having managed to get a job in Sydney (applied for three, shortlisted for all of them, didn't get any of them, message in there somewhere) is the single biggest regret of my life, which is saying a great deal.

5 pm: arrive Admiralty House for the launch of the anthology by the Governor-General. Mill around on footpath in growing crowd that, by the time the uniformed dudes on the gate start ticking off our names and letting us in, includes David Malouf, Drusilla Modjeska, Peter Rose, and about twenty people I used to teach, research and/or go to conferences with, including former longtime Melbourne U colleague Prof Chris Wallace-Crabbe and the lovely Prof David Carter from U of Q, formerly a Melbourne boy, whom I haven't seen for many years.

5.30 pm: have surreptitious look around and confirm that I have dressed appropriately for the occasion. Just as well.

6 pm approx: listen to the Governor-General make her nicely personal and informal speech. Listen to David Malouf read his lovely poem Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian, in which the body addresses the departing soul at the moment of death, and which begins with the Emperor Hadrian's own actual words, which are, naturally, in Latin.

Wonder how long it's been since the sound of Latin poetry being read has been heard in Admiralty House or indeed anywhere else in Australia.

Wonder what degree of mischievousness informed David's decision to choose for this occasion a poem about death.

Am flooded by a sudden awareness of the history of this spot, and wonder about past ceremonies here and their participants' private thoughts as the sun set outside with ludicrous magnificence, then as now.

Reflect that the last time Australian literature got this much attention at this level of politics must have been the 1957 occasion, of which there is a photograph in the David Marr biography (an except from which is also included in the anthology), on which Patrick White was presented with the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award by the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, with the Leader of the Opposition in attendance and looking on.

Wonder if current PM has been presented with a complimentary copy. Think must remember to suggest it. (Discover later that he apparently got the No. 1 copy of the signed and numbered Collectors' Edition. Hope he dips into it from time to time. Have my own collectors' copy, courtesy of Allen & Unwin, which I hardly dare take out of its box.)

7 pm approx: Mill about some more, as various sweet and discreet boys weave through the crowd bearing crystal jugs full of liquid rubies that turn out to be iced white rum with cranberry juice. Watch William Yang, whose writing is featured in the anthology, taking photos (the pic in that link will give you a good idea of what the gathering was like). Reflect that what I should really do is get out my iPhone and take a photo of William Yang taking photos. Many photos being taken, as you can see in this nice (though not by William Yang: see below) shot of SMH literary editor Susan Wyndham and me.

Photograph by Sam Begg

Note the way our drinks are colour co-ordinated with my necklace and Susan's shawl.

Friday, July 31, 9.30 am: arrive at ABC studios in Sydney, half an hour early because (a) nervous and (b) have forgotten that in Sydney if you want a cab you simply step out into the street and hold your hand up, and one will pull over. Do 40-minute live-to-air segment on anthology for Radio National Book Show, being interviewed by Ramona Koval with fellow editor Nicole Moore and Sydney U Professor of Australian Lit Robert Dixon. This goes much better than I was expecting it to.

Friday 4.30 pm: meet up in Gleebooks with the lovely Viv aka Tigtog from Hoyden About Town, whom I have not previously actually met, and add her to my ever-growing collection of bloggers I've met in person. Decide we will go next door to soi-disant 'Chocolateria' (and so it proves to be, with a vengeance) and have a hot chocolate: thick hot chocky with chili and cinnamon, oh my goodness.

We have barely sat down when in come a couple of literary types I know, closely followed by two young women whom Viv knows and introduces to me as Wildly Parenthetical and Zero at the Bone. I thought this sort of thing only happened in Adelaide but clearly not.

Friday 6.30 pm: second and more informal, though still very structured, launch of anthology upstairs at Gleebooks. This includes wonderful readings by featured authors, and as Michael Gow reads a speech from Away and Michelle de Kretser a passage from The Hamilton Case, I remember very clearly why I chose those passages to put into the book.

Friday 8.30 pm: arrive at a most lovely restaurant in Rose Bay with my dear friend L who has come up to attend the one-day symposium the following day that has been arranged around the anthology launch. We have a quiet mates' catchup while we savour our duck and spinach, and look out at the festively-lit ferries crossing the harbour and the white birds swooping through the pools of light outside.

Saturday, August 1, 10 am: start of all-day symposium at the beautiful State Library of NSW, where I look around and regret for the millionth time my ongoing failure to score a job in Sydney. The symposium is programmed around the anthology and titled 'Australian Literary Futures'. My session is the one after morning tea, where the editorial team lines up on one side and, on the other, the country's two Professors of Australian literature, Robert Dixon and Philip Mead, plus co-editor of Southerly and immediate past president of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Elizabeth McMahon. They ask us questions and we do our best to answer them. This session also goes much better than I was expecting it to, and everybody on the panel and in the audience seems to enjoy it.

Saturday 2 pm: Professor Ivor Indyk of UWS, holder of the Whitlam Chair in Writing and Society and a living national treasure to all who value Aust Lit, which makes this moment worse, gets up to speak in the session on 'Australian literature on the international stage' and shatters the good feeling that has prevailed in the room thus far by getting quite emotional about his view that there are not enough migrant writers represented in the anthology. For some reason I am reminded of the sight of Our Gough fifteen years ago as he launched the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature by making a speech in which he pointed out all the errors he'd found in it so far.

Given how conscious I was of this 'migrant writing' issue in my role as section editor, and how hard I and the other section editors worked to do it justice among the many other claims on tight space in the book, this accusation makes me cross -- cross enough to count a few stats, later after I get home, and ascertain that just in my own section (fiction and drama since 1950), ten writers out of 48 (ie more than 20%) were not born in Australia; eleven came from partly or wholly non-anglophone backgrounds; and thirteen of these stories or extracts specifically and directly address (and were carefully and deliberately chosen so to do) some aspect of the migrant experience.

In his address to the symposium Ivor acknowledges some of these, but argues item by item that each is somehow not legitimate, or not good enough. Or something. Can't quite follow his reasoning here. His real beef appears to be that none of his particular five favourite migrant writers -- two fiction writers who would have been my responsibility, and three poets who would have been that of my fellow-editor David McCooey, between us responsible for the period 1950 to the present -- are in the anthology.

All five are European. The many included writers with their roots in Asian countries, including a number of first-generation immigrants, have scarcely been mentioned; nor is there any acknowledgement of the entries by Elizabeth Jolley and J. M. Coetzee, both brought up in bilingual households in other countries and both adult emigrants to Australia. Can't help thinking Ivor has a few blind spots of his own. One of the poets he names as an 'omission' is someone David simply thinks isn't very good. One of the novelists he names is someone whose one novel available in English, a translation from her original Italian, I found unpleasantly hysterical and practically unreadable.

Saturday 4 pm: David McCooey and I have an extremely lively conversation in the cab we share to the airport.

Saturday 8 pm: Arrive home where am greeted ecstatically by cats behaving like dogs. This is quite new; usually they punish me for going away by doing that cat ignoring thing.

Saturday 8.05 pm Crack spine of first of four books that must be read and reviewed by Wednesday. Thank God and my editor that a couple of them are very short. Unlike this post.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Biblical world view legitimised: Australian feminist icon turns in grave

What with first the longlist and then the shortlist, I'm not really all that surprised that the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award has been won by what was by far the safer choice of the two front runners, a novel in which a bitter, twisted woman called Eva (geddit? geddit?) corrupts the young hero, takes away his innocence and warps his psyche for life with her nasty dangerous bent sick non-missionary sexing-on ways. She robs our hero of Paradise, that's what she does; she pushes him into his fall from grace.

Because, as we all know, that's what women do. The Bible tells us so.

I reviewed Tim Winton's Breath for the Oz and I bent over backwards, to the point of indecency really and no it's not something you'd like to see, to be fair. I have great respect for Winton's considerable fiction-writing skills, and I wouldn't like to seem to be dissing the people who like his work. Yes it's a 'good novel', no argument there from me. But. But. Butbutbut.

It's completely incredible to me that in 2009 there are still people who don't get this, but looking at comments around the blog and MSM literary traps there clearly are, so let me spell it out once more:

It's not just some simple-minded essentialist thing about equal numbers of men and women. It's not a case to be met with 'We don't need feminism any more because we're equal now' (I assume this lot are actually unconscious, or trapped in a big plastic bubble, or living in some parallel universe like the Magic Faraway Tree). It's not about 'But can't they just be chosen on literary merit?', a common bleat that begs the question of what literary merit is, whose values infuse it, whether it can ever be objective or absolute, who decides what it is, and what sorts of values have dominated literature and the judgement of literature and the formation of its canons for centuries. A quick read of A Room of One's Own is all that's needed for answers to most of these questions.

No, it's this: that the masculine world view is still the norm, the feminine world view a lesser variant; that the masculine representation of women is still accepted as the truth, while female resistance to that representation is seen as some kind of wilful rebellion; that masculine values are still (mis)taken as universal values, and feminine ones seen as aberrant and unimportant in the world. Simone de Beauvoir still puts it best, even after all this time. 'There are two types of people in this world: human beings and women.'

And spare a thought for the dedicated, hardworking feminist Miles Franklin, who scrimped and saved and ran herself short to amass the capital for the establishment of this prize in the 1950s. In her name, let me record here that in the chronological catchment area for this prize, the following excellent novels, most of which have won at least one major literary prize, were published (NB Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog was eligible last year, not this year, but likewise came nowhere):

The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
Vertigo by Amanda Lohrey
The Good Parents by Joan London

All were eligible for the prize, within the terms of Franklin's will: of 'the highest literary merit', and dealing with 'Australian life in any of its phases'.

None of them even made the longlist.

Yes, as anyone who's ever been on one knows, the judging panels for prizes of all kinds are weird beasts, and their ways are a mystery even to themselves. Goddess knows I know that this is true.

But still. But. Butbutbut.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Monday, June 15, 2009

Teaching writing

Some important aspects of the craft can be taught, but the art of writing must be taught in the same way that art is taught in art school, and music in music school. Nobody would dare turn up to the door of a music school saying ’I’d like to be a guitarist, but I don’t have a guitar, I don’t have time to practice, and I don’t listen to music’, but people do that in writing courses.

From here, a long and detailed interview with novelist M. J. Hyland and a great read.

*The title I've given this post has reminded me of a particularly fraught staff meeting in my former workplace, where we were hammering out, at glacial speed and temperature, all the new subjects that were to be taught the following year, all aspects of all of which had to be subjected to the democratic process and agreed upon unanimously before proceeding. We spent at least three hours on the title of a new first-year subject that eventually sported the title 'Reading Writing', and then moved on to the question of a title for another new subject about literature and religion. Quoth the then head of department: 'Well, if we're going with the double gerunds, how about 'Seeing Believing'?

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On editing

I started this post two days ago and have been dithering about putting it up ever since, but I've counted no fewer than five articles and posts online today on the subject so I might as well toss in my two cents -- Ed.

The new editor of The Monthly started work yesterday. 23-year-old Ben Naparstek, who first offered publisher Morry Schwartz his services as editor when he was eighteen, doesn't seem from my idly curious and fairly desultory Googling to be the kind of chap who thinks he needs any luck, nor indeed the kind who will be too bruised to cope with whatever eventuates, but I wish it to him anyway. If Duke University Press is publishing a book called The Jacqueline Rose Reader co-edited by Naparstek and Justin Clemens, then there is no question but that he is every bit as brilliant as people are saying.

Still, for the peculiar job of magazine editor, at least of this or any national and/or culturally-based mag, not even brilliance will always get you over the line. Schwartz's remark that he himself was 23 when he started his own business was touching but not entirely to the point. Different skills are required. As an editor -- at least of a magazine like this -- you need to have very broadly based general knowledge in order to save your contributors from making ridiculous or expensive mistakes (including an eye for what might be against the law), and you need to be able to communicate tactfully but effectively both with your editorial board and with your contributors, many of whom (in both groups) are delicate flowers.

And both of these things can be acquired only by glacially slow accretions, through experience of the kinds it's very difficult to just target and then go out and get. When, for example, a past-it politician and author of a dull, dud book asks you on television whether you will publish an essay by him, your mad debating skillz and general chutzpah should easily get you through that quagmire of a moment, but the only thing that will get you unscathed through its aftermath, whatever that might prove to be, is life experience.

A number of commentators appear to think that it is somehow the Monthly editor's job to 'stand up to' editorial board chair and heavy-on contributor Robert Manne and publisher Morry Schwartz, something to do with a vague notion of editorial independence. I don't think people have thought this through, quite. Unless her or his magazine is a declared organ of either, an editor needs to be independent of (a) corrupt financial interests and of (b) the state, both for obvious reasons. But in the case of The Monthly, as Morry Schwartz has recently had cause to point out, it's his mag and the editor is his employee. If people don't like a magazine, they are entirely free not to read it. Critique the content qua content by all means, but criticising an editor for lack of 'independence' on a project like this doesn't really make much sense, and indicates a lack of understanding about what an editorial board is for.

That said, it's clear from recent events at The Monthly that the new editor is going to have to fight very hard for things that he wants but that Schwartz and/or Manne are less enthused about. He's also going to have to make allowance for commissions that have been put in place without his knowledge -- and nothing screws up the pre-planning of an issue quite like a long, topical piece by a big name that you didn't know was in the pipeline. In general he's going to have to keep one eye in the mirror, through the doorway and over his shoulder while focusing the other on the four issues that must be thought about simultaneously (the one about to go to press, the one you're in the process of marking up, the one you've mostly commissioned, and the one whose contents are in the planning stages) when running a monthly magazine.

The other place I think the new editor might run into some trouble -- as most editors do anyway, but extreme youth can only exacerbate it -- is with contributors and their contributions. Most writers are fairly highly literate, strangely enough, with decades' worth of experience in working, as professional readers and writers, with language and ideas. And most writers' attitude to being edited approximates something the late great Angela Carter once said about it: 'As if one would not have written it that way in the first place, if that was what one had wanted to say.'

So my very first thought -- as so often -- on hearing of Naparstek's appointment was of a passage in my perhaps all-time favourite ever book. I found it immediately to quote here because it's flagged with a yellow sticky and identified by pencil marks. The pencil marks date from 1968, when I was fifteen, so anyone thinking I'm being anti-yoof here can think again. To me, at fifteen, this passage was both a warning and a reassurance. The intervening decades have borne out its truth and wisdom.

There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can't teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically -- she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. ... And then ... she can go on living -- not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She ... continues henceforth under the guise of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense ... and now she has the seventh one -- knowledge of the world.

The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy -- this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognised without a cry. We only carry on ... riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do. ...

Guenever was twenty-two as she sat at her petit point and thought of Lancelot. She was not half-way to her coffin, not ill even, and she only had six senses. It is difficult to imagine her.

Yes. Yes it is. I'm sure we all wish we could be 23 again, except somehow magically armed with the knowledge of the world that we have so slowly and painfully acquired since. Being 23 has all the myriad advantages of being bright of eye, bushy of tail, and young enough still to believe that the world is one's oyster, and contains a pearl.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A note on Australian cinema

Neil Cross's novel Burial (which is neither Australian nor cinema, but bear with me) made me feel sick for the same reasons some of the Barbara Vine ones do and it was not a good thing to be reading in the same 24 hours as watching Wolf Creek, about which I kept thinking the allusions to Picnic at Hanging Rock were very well and subtly done, not least the riveting presence of John Jarratt in two movies over 30 years apart. That thought was a kind of distancing/defence mechanism, I think. Thank God I watched it on commercial TV with ads to break it up or my heart would have given out.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The chalice from the palace has the pellet with the poison

For a raft of reasons, some of them going back many years, I have been following the saga of (ex-) editor Sally Warhaft's precipitate departure last week from The Monthly -- most recently in a piece by regular Monthly contributor Gideon Haigh in today's Age -- with feelings not so much mixed as puréed. Let us say that I can see both sides of this story, and that I would very strongly recommend that the urgers on the sidelines saying 'Oh, it's only a storm in a teacup' (or saying anything else, really) when they don't actually have a clue what happened should treat themselves to a nice hot cup of STFU.

But two phrases keep running through my mind: there's the old maxim 'Least said, soonest mended' (the only person who appears to be paying any attention to this one is Warhaft herself, and more power to her, especially since she is apparently being ambushed at her own house by bottom-feeding paparazzi, among other things); and then there's that potent phrase 'poisoned chalice'. Whoever succeeds Warhaft in that editor's chair is going to have to be very flexible, very grown-up and very laid-back. And only one of these things makes for good editorship.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Miles Franklin and the Mystery of Talent, or, Don't Mention the War

Because I am supposed to be a grown-up, and because I made a promise, I'm not buying into the question of the literary stag night 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award all-male shortlist beyond offering the odd brief neutral fact in other people's comments threads, and observing here, because I really cannot help myself, that if what spokesjudge Morag Fraser says is true and the judges did not realise what they had done until their shortlist was already set in stone, then the gender-blindness we thought we had diagnosed and exposed by about 1985 is actually still as bad as it ever was, even at these upper levels of cultural and intellectual endeavour.

But otherwise the howling restraint is making my ears bleed, so here by way of self-distraction is a little material on a related question: not what makes a good book, but what makes a good writer, since they are frequently not the same thing. Being a good writer is a non-negotiable condition of producing a good book, but by no means guarantees it.

I've read three books since Tuesday. All of them have been the author's first book of fiction: An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, and John the Revelator by Peter Murphy. Here in that order is a sample from each, demonstrating that when somebody's a good writer it does actually leap off the page at you and grab you round the neck, and that writing talent lies as much in the quality of pre-verbal observation as it does in what ends up on the page.

Jennet loved her husband, she liked and she disliked him, and she hated him as well.

She thinks that merely by being forceful and independent she can make a decent life, but that just isn't true -- life is tended and weeded and watered, is created out of effort, and is made from other materials than oneself.

Rows of stalls and tables laden with cheap jewellery, gimcrack stuff, necklaces and rings and charms and amulets and stones. Caravans with signs in the windows advertising Tarot and palm and crystal-ball readings. I counted my money and went up the steps to one of the caravans and knocked on the open door. A woman in a baggy jumper and a pair of sweatpants was watching a portable television blaring some sort of game show. She turned the sound down and waved a hand at an armchair beside a flimsy table.
'Fiver for your palm, tenner for the cards,' she said.
I gave her a tenner. She donned a pair of glasses and took my hand and pulled my fingers apart and peered at the lines. Her head jerked up. She stared at my face.
'Out,' she said.
'Out.' She pushed the tenner across the table. 'And take your money with you.'
I stood and stammered, but she reached for the sweeping brush. I backed out the doorway and stumbled down the steps and into the night. The door slammed and the blinds came down. The funfair whirled around me.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A find

I'd not heard of Maria Quinn before her first novel The Gene Thieves turned up chez moi for review, but I spent the first hour of this morning reading the first 50 pages of it while my coffee went cold and I've sure as hell heard of her now. Go check out that link, if you haven't already.

I usually read a little faster than that, but it's small print (= more words per page. You'd be amazed, if you ever get down to actually counting them, which most people have no reason to do, at the variation in number of words per page from book to book), and I needed to read some passages twice in order to make sure I fully understood what was going on.

In this job I read a lot of genre fiction and the awful truth is that I prefer some genres to others, with crime of the variety that Val McDermid's Tony Hill calls 'messy heads' a long way up the top of the list. If spec fic and fantasy come lower down, it's partly because you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. The facts that (a) with these genres the central idea is often valued way above fiction-writing skills, and (b) both genres have a large and hungry readership (read: 'market') means that a lot of what gets published in these genres is virtually unreadable to someone outside the fan base. And many novels in both these genres are reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's (now that's what I call a novelist) Frederica Potter and her reader's reports for the publisher in Babel Tower: 'It is a curiously vacant work, whose driving force appears paradoxically to be the desire to create and people an imaginary world.'

Many fans of fantasy and spec fic are understandably defensive about these tastes so I hope they are still with me thus far, because the corollary is that when novels in these genres are good, they're very very good and some of them are mind-bogglingly fabulous, in both senses of that word. (Please note that by 'good' in this instance I mean 'couldn't put it down and neither could most other people', so let's not get into dreary backlash quibbles about Harry Potter and so on.)

This particular futuristic novel rises above the pack partly because of the many long, fat, juicy, healthy roots it has in the fertile soil of the present. Much, indeed most, of the science and technology is already with us, as are many of the ethical concerns and the directions in which they seem to be going. There's a magnificent imagining of a not-too-distantly-future Sydney featuring among other things a 'vertical sky garden' that produces fruit and veg for self-sustainability, a taken-for-granted reliance on geothermal energy among other kinds, and this particularly fabulous idea:
Years before, over a million ceramic tiles were overlaid with transparent photovoltaic cells, painstakingly matched to the profile of the unique originals on the amazing pre-cast concrete 'sails' of the roof. Jørn Utzon's masterpiece now powered much of the city that worshipped it.

Memo to HarperCollinsPublishers: Maria Quinn has an excellent website (see above). Why is it not mentioned in the media release?

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Literary prizes revisited: a simple case of misidentification

Thanks to some up-to-the-minute Facebooking by Judith Ridge of Misrule, I have just seen the shortlist for the 2009 NSW Premier's Prize for Fiction, the Christina Stead Award. It consists of five of the six books I predicted, utterly wrongly, would make the shortlist of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, plus one extra: Helen Garner's The Spare Room, Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, Julia Leigh's Disquiet, Joan London's The Good Parents, Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole and Tim Winton's Breath. The one I did not predict is the Julia Leigh; the one I was wrong about in the other direction was Murray Bail's The Pages.

I feel that at least a little of my shattered cred has been restored. They were the right books -- I merely backed them for the wrong prize. Hmf, details.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Monday, March 23, 2009

In which ThirdCat's book is launched

Finally at 2 am this yesterday morning I put this book down, about half-finished in one hit, and went to bed, but I didn't want to.

It's the story of two women, loosely and obliquely connected through family ties, and their complicated relationship with the South Australian town -- regional and industrial -- to which they are very attached, but which they fear may be making their children sick. It's a poet's novel, but it's also an activist's one.

Longtime readers of ThirdCat's blogs, especially the unique and wonderful 'blogopera' Adelaide Sprawls, will be familiar with her style and technique: restrained, almost minimalist, but with a turn of phrase and of observation that nails something you sort of already knew but would never have thought of putting quite like that.

They will be familiar, too, with her subject matter: the lives, circumstances and feelings of 'ordinary people' and all the stuff that seethes under the surface of their days and the physical objects and actions of daily life, the tea-making, the hair-washing and the car-fixing; the unresolved tensions, the suppressed exclamations, the half-understood feelings, the quality and complexity of emotional responses and transactions, the tiny fluctuations of feeling between people, the mysteries that reside in what is not said.

... she had not needed a card to know who the roses were from. But she didn't know what they meant.

Even going over the words they had said on the phone she couldn't work it out. They could mean sorry or I miss you or goodbye, because in the end she had pushed him to say, I will get over you, if that's what you make me do.

(Recycling disclosure: I have said some of this about Tracy's writing before, and it will look familiar to her if not to anyone else.) It's all there in Black Dust Dancing, though less concentrated and intense, making more room, as is proper in a novel, for the story and the setting.

So this afternoon at Sturt Street Primary School, icon and symbol of all that is best in the history of South Australian education and school to both of Tracy's boys, an assortment of family, friends and fans assembled to celebrate her achievement, buy her novel, and queue up to get her to sign it,

and then to see it officially launched by Adelaide's Sheridan Stewart, artist, comedian, radio presenter and MC of the comedy show Titters, which featured Tracy in her other life as a standup comedian and which was practically booked out for the duration of the Adelaide Fringe.

(Sheridan Stewart attended by Wakefield Press publisher Michael Bollen, behind whose left hip you can just see a bottle of the fabled Fox Creek Verdelho.)

Sheridan made a funny, warm speech but was upstaged by Tracy's boys, who came purposefully up to the bar behind her and fetched a cup of what was probably apple juice, but looked a lot like white wine, each, and melted back into the crowd, to its general appreciation. Tracy then made an excellent thank-you speech,

dividing the thankees into thoughtful categories instead of naming names, which is always a minefield.

Before and after the ceremonials I had a nice talk with the lovely Deborah from In A Strange Land and met her beautiful daughters.

Tracy and the boys and the mister have to fly back to Abu Dhabi tomorrow morning. I'm guessing she might try to have a bit of a nap on the plane.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Miles Franklin longlist: how wrong can you be?

Well. There goes my cred.

Utterly contrary to my predictions -- and my confidently nominated winner hasn't even made the longlist -- here is the actual longlist for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award:

Breath - Tim Winton
A Fraction Of The Whole - Steve Toltz
The Devil's Eye - Ian Townsend
Ice - Louis Nowra
Addition - Toni Jordan
Fugitive Blue - Clare Thomas
One Foot Wrong - Sofie Laguna
The Pages - Murray Bail
The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas
Wanting - Richard Flanagan

More in a bit.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's that time of year again

Over at Matilda, Perry Middlemiss has compiled a list of eligible and likely contenders for this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award. The longlist will be announced tomorrow. The shortlist is usually announced in late April and the winner some time in June.

Emboldened by past successes, I'm going to have another go and predict a longlist, a shortlist and a winner. Please note that these are not necessarily my picks -- I've read fewer than half of these books -- but rather my very early predictions based on what I know, think, feel or guess about the books, the writers, the judges, the prize and the general tenor of the times.

Naturally, I reserve the right to change my mind.

I think that there will be a longlist of between ten and twelve, chosen from among the following novels:

The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide
The Pages by Murray Bail
His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
The Biographer by Virginia Duigan
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
Addition by Toni Jordan
The Good Parents by Joan London
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Breath by Tim Winton

I predict a shortlist of six:

The Pages
The Spare Room
The Lieutenant
The Good Parents
A Fraction of the Whole

(with the possible, but unlikely, substitution of The Slap for The Lieutenant

And a winner:

Joan London's The Good Parents

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Illustration, obfuscation

This post began life as a comment on this post over at Helen's Cast Iron Balcony, but once I'd violated the three-paragraph comment rule I decided to bring it over here. There are, at last sighting, no comments yet on Helen's post. My guess is that we're all too horrified to speak.

In brief, Helen links to two recent newspaper articles by conservative antifeminist Miranda Devine and shows the two really vile caricatures of women that were drawn to illustrate these articles. In her post, Helen asks among other things whether the writer has any influence in what the illustrator draws.

I've had two experiences of what might loosely be called the opposite. The first occurred in 1983 when I edited a book of Australian short stories that included far more than the (then) usual number of stories by women, as well as stories about cities and migrants, and focused, in the detailed introduction that I wrote, on the traditional idea of the 'Australian' as a white Anglo-Celtic bushman or Anzac being something we needed to move on from. I was then horrified to discover that the publisher had chosen, for the cover of this anthology, the Tom Roberts painting 'The Breakaway', which shows an apparently white Anglo-Celtic male on a horse chasing a sheep with a lot of native trees in the background.

When I brought this up with the publisher he literally did not understand my point (it was 1983) and just kept saying over and over 'But it's very Australian, and it will sell the book because it's an image that people will recognise.' If I'd been older and more experienced I would have tried harder to explain how his response was exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, and was trying, in terms of cultural stereotypes, to move beyond, but I still don't think I would have won. (I love that painting, which didn't help.)

Two years later I wrote a conference paper on media and other cultural representations of Lindy Chamberlain (who was still in jail at the time) that got picked up by one of the dailies for the weekend features and given to an artist to illustrate. I certainly had no say in the illustration and I assume this is the norm, at least with newspapers where there simply isn't time for such consultation.

The illustration, which I didn't see till the paper came out, exemplified all the sexist media habits and assumptions that I was attempting, in the article, to deconstruct and undermine. It was a head-and-shoulders caricature of Chamberlain looking bloated, ugly and malevolent, wearing a lurid orange tent-like dress patterned in ironic little hearts. It's possible that it was a kind of meta-comment, but frankly I doubt it.

Now I was, and remain, a fan of the artist in question as a usual thing, but this particular drawing was unfunny as a caricature, unsuccessful as a portrait, and -- most importantly -- wildly misleading as an illustration of the text that it was supposed to be derived from. To this day I don't know whether he and/or the dude from the publishing house were either just so impermeable to feminist ideas that they were incapable of processing what I was saying, or whether their responses constituted active (conscious or subconscious) resistance to what I was saying, attempts to use their images to undermine my words.

'Illustrate': to illuminate, clarify or shed light on, to add lustre. The drawings shown at Helen's post certainly illuminate and clarify Devine's meaning and line of argument in both cases. But sometimes illustration can, in defiance of its name, be used to obfuscate: to conceal, confuse, darken, cover up.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Friday, January 30, 2009

What's the difference between Australian literature and a woolly mammoth?

Peter Carey has a really excellent, impassioned piece in today's Age on what the elimination of territorial copyright will mean for Australian writers and writing, here.

I am reminded of a passage in Other People's Words, the memoir of former Australian publisher, general enabler and all-round legend Hilary McPhee of McPhee Gribble as was, who apprehensively noted the straws in the wind back in 2001. If the reader will forgive a bit of egregious self-quoting, here's a summary from my review of the book for Australian Book Review:
... she deploys single, sharply focused images as motifs to link up different epochs in her life and different eras of cultural history, motifs positioned in the text both to herald and to echo its central concerns and themes ... there are the immigrant children at primary school in the late 1940s, 'the boys with their straight backs and red cheeks and the girls in full skirts and wooden clogs' being encouraged to sing and dance in national dress for their classmates -- an image in sharp contrast to the flattening-out of cultural differences that she finds herself fighting against forty years later.

And her image for that erosion of local difference in writing, the effect she fears globalisation has already begun to have on literature, is the glittering annual party thrown by the publishing giant Bertelsmann at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair: 'And the food tastes of nothing at all.'

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Quadrant and Wimminz: lies, damned lies, and statistics

In the wake of the Windschuttle hoax there's been a lot of discussion around the online traps, in the course of which I observed as part of an argument about something else that Quadrant was not a particularly woman-friendly space.

Along with other people who have been familiar with Quadrant for decades, I should have though this observation on a par with 'The sky is blue' or '2+2=4', but of course there was angry reaction from the sorts of people one expects to react angrily to any mention of gender whatever, a phenomenon fascinating in itself.

One of these people worked himself up into such a monumental tis-was that one would think he had been personally insulted, though he has no visible connection with Quadrant apart from reading it. So much so, in fact, that he could have done (as we all so often could in life) with a gentle reminder that this was not all about him.

Then, in the course of a discussion with a far more reasonable chap whose interest is in statistics rather than in defending Quadrant, I discovered that Quadrant does in fact publish more poems and fiction by women than I would have expected, although the same names recur again and again even within single issues, and I retracted accordingly. The reasonable statistics chap used a comparison with Meanjin to make his point, saying that in the respective current issues of Meanjin and Quadrant there were more poems by women in the latter than in the former, which was true.

In the course of this exercise I spent a bit of time at the home pages of the respective magazines, and it gave me an idea: each mag has a 'current issue' page listing all contributors, and it was reasonable to expect that other magazines would as well. So here are some numbers I gathered, as at last night, from the 'current issue' pages of Australian magazines -- monthly, quarterly, bi-annual -- that are partly or wholly literary in content.

In one or two cases there was one name on the page whose gender could not be determined by even the most assiduous Googling -- but no more than one, which is nowhere near enough to skew the order in which the mag titles appear here. Each contributor has been counted only once, though occasionally the same name appears twice or more. Let me repeat that these numbers are based on the contributor names listed in the magazines' own online home pages, on the evening of 12 January 2008 2009.

(*Sighs and reflects that one always does this at least once in the first week or two*.)

Please note that this does not claim to be an exhaustive list of magazines.

The numbers show the ratio MEN:WOMEN. I offer them in a spirit of scientific curiosity, without comment.






MEANJIN: 23:16





Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Friday, January 9, 2009

A very long post about Charmian Clift

Over at Pea Soup, Suse has a lovely holiday post including a snap of her summer reading, Nadia Wheatley's superb biography of Charmian Clift.

I reviewed this book for ABR, along with a couple of reissued volumes of Clift's writing, back in 2001. Because I am currently too mired in work to blog properly and because I quite like this review and because Suse's post has reminded me that I think everybody should read Clift's writing and Wheatley's biography, here it is again.

No Comfort in the Stars

'At night,' wrote Charmian Clift one summer in the late 1950s on the Greek island of Hydra where she lived with her husband and children, where the harbour village had been invaded by summer tourists, where teams of local Greek matrons invaded the kitchen in relays to monitor the foreign woman's housework and mothering techniques, where the water supply was rapidly drying up, where she and her husband George Johnston worked too hard and worried too much about the inadequate royalty cheques that continued to fail to arrive — `At night,' she wrote,
the water slides over your body warm and silky, a mysterious element, unresistant, flowing, yet incredibly buoyant. In the dark you slip through it, unquestionably accepting the night's mood of grace and silence, a little drugged with wine, a little spellbound with the night, your body mysterious and pale and silent in the mysterious water, and at your slowly moving feet and hands streaming trails of phosphorescence, like streaming trails of stars. Still streaming stars you climb the dark ladder to the dark rock, shaking showers of stars from your very fingertips, most marvellously and mysteriously renewed and whole again.
`Pagan' was one of Clift's husband's favourite words for her, and one of her favourite words for herself. But it was precisely her own passionate capacity for nature-worship that made her such an empathetic observer of Christianity as practised in Greece. Transcendence and ecstasy were real things for her and, when she uses words like marvel and mystery, that is exactly what she means. `In the strange, still world of hot noontime,' she had written on Kalymnos three years before,
the burning grey beach is deserted, and the sea is still … Brilliant against the dazzling stairs a barefooted woman climbs slowly up from the sea, her head erect under a pile of black and crimson rugs … Without lifting my eyes I can look directly at the gilded cross surmounting the green dome of Agios Nikolas. The sound of chanting that wells up with the wide ascending stair seems inevitable, a vocal utterance of worship to the source of this pure incandescence that is pouring down on the world — Be still and know that I am God! The fringed brazen standards, the spindly black-ribboned cross are molten gold, drawn to the source of light, defying gravity, flowing up the cracked concrete steps.
Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959) are Clift's two `Greece' books, generic hybrids somewhere between `travel' and `autobiography'. She wrote them in time stolen from her duties and pleasures as the mother of three small children and the junior partner in the marital, collaborative writing team. These two books have now been published together to form one of two companion volumes to Nadia Wheatley's biography. The other, Selected Essays, contains an assortment of Clift's columns and articles written between the family's return from Greece in 1964 and her death five years later. Most of them first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, where her weekly column rapidly acquired cult status. In choosing eighty from Clift's 225 published essays, Wheatley has tried, she says, `to give a representative sample of her concerns and interests'.

This must have been more easily said than done, for Clift writes about everything from conscription and the Vietnam War and the shabbiness of the education system and the repressive and sexist liquor licensing laws (she was passionately opposed to all these things) to the sight of her old friend Sidney Nolan unpacking paintings he hadn't seen for years:
I had one of those strange flashbacks that everyone has some time, to a hot, dusty, workaday street in the Piraeus in 1959. There was a big trench dug in the street, and shovels leaning everywhere, and out of the trench … came an archaic Apollo, lost for two thousand years.

It wasn't Apollo who came out of those wraps, though, but Sergeant Kennedy, dead at Stringybark Creek. Mr Nolan looked surprised, as though that wasn't what he had expected. He said the pink hill had got a lot pinker in the twenty-one years since he'd seen the painting last. He ran his fingers exploratively over Sergeant Kennedy's spilt blood and suddenly grinned and said `Still fresh'.
Reading these essays, it's easy to see why Clift became a cult figure. The chatty, charming and sometimes slightly dippy persona distracts attention just enough from the steely intelligence, the sophisticated sentence structure and the passion for causes that characterise these pieces but might otherwise have rather alarmed her readers.

As it was, she showed them that it was possible to be properly `womanly' and at the same time to care passionately about things beyond your house, beyond your city, beyond your borders, and not just to care but to do something. In an era that hadn't yet thought too much about these things, her columns demonstrated that a woman, even a comfortable Australian woman hedged about by the legal, social and cultural restrictions of her time, could and should be an active citizen of the world.

Towards the end of Nadia Wheatley's massive and complex biography, she comments on the critical response to Garry Kinnane's George Johnston: A Biography (1986):
A tendency to retell the myth would emerge in reviews of Kinnane's book, in which the subject under review would by and large be the life of Johnston and Clift, rather than an assessment of the biographer's presentation of it.
Wheatley is referring here to the accumulation of sensational stories that grew up around Johnston and Clift; her comment is part of a larger argument about the way that media representations of them have always tended to focus on the sensational material at the expense of their achievements as writers, helping to produce and prolong the `myth' to which the title of her biography refers.

And it's clear, though she doesn't spell it out, that Wheatley fears not only a similar reception for her own book, but — even worse and even more ironically — that it might have the opposite effect to the demythologising one she has worked for two decades to produce: that it might precipitate yet another round of rehashed tutting in reviews and articles, a further reinforcement of the myth.

As a reviewer of this book and a reader who honours the gifts of both Clift and Wheatley, I am determined not to fall into this trap. Unfortunately, the sensational material needs to be sketched in order for the story to make sense, so let's get it over with. Clift was a beautiful young woman who in 1946 began a scandalous affair with her journalist colleague George Johnston — an older man with a wife and child — which resulted in their joint departure from the staff of the Melbourne Argus (later The Age). Four years earlier and long before she met Johnston, Clift had already, at nineteen, given birth to an illegitimate daughter who had been adopted out. Clift and Johnston married and left Australia; they were away, living mainly in Greece, for ten years, during which time Johnston was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would finally kill him in 1970.

They wrote a number of books, some collaboratively and some individually; they had three children; they were often desperately worried about money; and progressively wilder stories came drifting back to Australia with returning travellers about the marriage disintegrating in a fog of alcohol and infidelity.

They returned to Australia in 1964, partly to capitalise on the runaway success of Johnston's novel My Brother Jack. With Johnston critically ill and in hospital for long stretches of time, Clift was obliged to run the household on her own and largely to support the family; for four years, she wrote a weekly column which rapidly acquired a huge readership and generated a flood of fan (and, occasionally, hate) mail. On 8 July 1969, at the end of a day of heavy drinking and bitter argument with her sick husband, Clift took an overdose of his sleeping pills and died at the age of forty-five.

Wheatley evokes the complexity of Clift's character with the care of a mosaicist, and often with much the same technique: she builds up a portrait partly by amassing and arranging fragments of testimony in patterns of complement and contrast. `I mean,' says a female colleague from her days at the Argus, `every man who looked at Charmian just, you know, wanted to go to bed with her. You didn't put it like that in 1946, but that's how it was.' The ABC's Storry Walton, who worked with her on the production of the 1965 television series of My Brother Jack, said: `Had she lived longer, Charmian Clift would have been one of the best screenwriters that Australia has ever produced.' And Leonard Cohen's memory of the Johnstons on Hydra in the late 1950s, when he was a poverty-stricken and unknown young poet, places Clift somewhere different again from these extremes of siren and genius:
They had a larger-than-life, a mythical quality. They drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more and they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration. They had guts.
Their `mythical quality', however, was something at which they both worked quite hard, for both Johnstons were self-mythologisers from childhood. Clift wrote and rewrote an idealised version of her childhood all her life: the story of the wild little girl running free on the beach at Kiama, her small home town on the south coast of New South Wales. Johnston's myth of self is the Golden Boy of My Brother Jack, the oppressed child from a shabby suburban Melbourne house who became the glamorous, much-travelled war correspondent. They both kept the habit of incessantly rewriting the stories of their own and each other's lives and selves. They dramatised what was already dramatic, romanticised what was already romantic, and edited out the bits that didn't fit the stories they wanted to believe about themselves.

And it's this dense accumulation of different versions — and the multiple Clift-masks those versions produce — with which Wheatley has to deal, quite as much as with the periodic waves of sensationalising media interest. The prefatory Author's Note is itself an intriguing piece of intellectual autobiography that could easily have been three times as long as it is, and still have done this already excellent biography nothing but more good; but, as Wheatley explains in it, she was determined to keep herself off the pages of the book as much as she could.

This biography has been a long time in the writing; after its genesis in Wheatley's partnership with the Johnstons' older son Martin, with whom she lived for seven years, there were numerous setbacks, dramas and unexpected developments. One can only guess how Wheatley felt (for she honourably does not say) when Clift's first child, the adopted Suzanne Chick, discovered her birth-mother's identity and decided that she wanted to write a book about Clift herself; Chick's Searching for Charmian was published in 1994, predictably provoking another round of tutting in the press.

Wheatley is a trained historian and an award-winning writer for children, which means, among other things, that this book is both eminently readable and exhaustively researched. She makes no rhetorical fuss about her own politics beyond stating what they are in the Author's Note and making the occasional quiet point in the course of the story. She explains her position and her methodology in a way that reveals just how much intellectual sophistication went into the decision to write a traditional biography with an invisible narrator and a straightforwardly linear chronology, a `sober accumulation of information'. Her Author's Note manages to indicate the complexity of her position while remaining lucid, modest and brief. The book glows in a subdued way with the intelligence and style of its author quite as much as with those of its subject; the writing itself is as finely crafted as Clift's own.

The final section, the fifteen-page Epilogue, is a brilliant feat of lucidity and compression: Wheatley sums up the stages of the `myth', managing neither to shy away from nor to be judgmental about the fact that Clift herself was the myth's first and most ardent architect, beginning with the idealisation of her childhood. One of the things Wheatley has had to struggle with in the task she has set herself of disentangling myth from fact is that most of the myth is factual; it's not a simple case of, to pinch an image from Peel Me a Lotus, `sorting through the lentils for the stones and black beetles that always make up a quarter of the weight'.

But the thing she's stuck with, the thing that will not go away, is that Clift's whole being — the things she said, the things she did, the way she looked, the effect she had on other people — lent itself irresistibly to myth-making. What else are you to make, after all, of a child in small-town Australia in the middle of the Depression who would go down to the rockpools at night while her father and brother fished, take off all her clothes, lie down in the water under the clear night sky and `starbake in the confident expectation that she would turn silver'? The starbaking ritual, says Wheatley:
expressed the sense of being at one with the universe, which was part of Charmian Clift's own pantheistic religion of childhood: throughout her life she would remain to some extent a spiritual mystic, who worshipped the elements of the landscape around her.
I remembered this passage when I came to read Peel Me a Lotus, where Clift records that in March 1956, heavily pregnant with what almost everyone assumes is her third but is in fact her fourth child (and how haunted a woman like Clift, or indeed any woman, would have been by her absent first-born), wide awake in the middle of a Mediterranean spring night, she finds herself back under the stars:
My face is cold turned up to the cold stars. Inexorable and orderly they move across heaven, star beyond star, nebula beyond nebula, universe beyond universe, wheeling through a loneliness that is inconceivable. Almost I can feel this planet wheeling too, spinning through its own sphere … There's no comfort in the stars. Only darkness beyond darkness, mystery beyond mystery, loneliness beyond loneliness. Wrapped in its own darkness and mystery and loneliness the child in my body turns, as though to remind me of mysteries closer to hand. And I go spinning on through space ...

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat