Sunday, December 31, 2006

Crime: Hannibal Rising and The Naming of the Dead

Well, the Thomas Harris was disappointing and the Ian Rankin wasn't.

I've always loved Harris's imagination and the dense weave of his dark materials, but Hannibal Rising, if you wanted to get harsh about it, is somehow simultaneously over the top and thin, and sloppy and hysterical with it.

I still like the idea of a contemporary personality with its roots in the Second World War, though. Apart from anything else it turns on the thesis that we are shaped largely by our times and cannot be extracted from them. I think it's Anthony Lane, in that great piece Laura linked to in the comments on the Dec 12 post, who makes the point that quite a lot of people got out of WW2 without turning into cannibals and murderers, but Harris knows that perfectly well and there's another character in the novel who's been equally exposed to unimaginable horror, the wildly exotic Japanese step-auntie, yet who seems relatively psychologically undamaged. Nature and nurture are duelling banjos, as any sibling knows.

And the book does have one moment, not to be giving away the plot or anything, that does resonate deeply with the Hannibal character as conceived and written in the earlier books: the idea that once a taboo is broken it cannot be unbroken, and the break releases the breaker into a kind of nightmare freedom where anything is permitted. Harris wisely does not go on about this even as much as I just have in that last sentence. He just shows you and lets you work it out.

The new Ian Rankin, I'm glad to say, is not one of the Organised Crime and Corruption at the Top ones that I've always found relatively boring just because I'm so much more interested in serious loonies than I am in boys' toys and games. The Naming of the Dead does in fact have both organised crime and corruption at the top in it -- Rebus's old nemesis Morris Gerald Cafferty features prominently, and Rankin even seems to be taking a leaf out of Harris's book (as it were) by lightly playing up the similarity of mind between criminal and detective, a la Sherlock Holmes's last stand at the Reichenbach Falls -- but the (really excellent) plot turns on a single deranged person, and the way that people can get caught up and woven into other people's nets.

And as Rebus ages you can see more and more clearly how Rankin got to be where he is, because he's now well into that thing that all the really good crime writers with one major sleuthy character do: they progress the life story of their detective figure through the self-contained events of each novel, and one of the great pleasures of reading the books is to watch the writers working along the two axes at once.

(Val McDiarmid's brilliant turn in The Last Temptation with Tony Hill and Carol Jordan's everlasting UST -- to make Carol as sexually damaged as Tony and prolong the agony for another God-knows-how-long -- is a case in point. Apparently there's a new Tony Hill novel due in September. They'd better get on with it before they get too old to care.)

Rebus, however, is now cruising for the end of his working life. Watch Siobhan. I always thought it was a crying shame that P.D. James let her Cordelia Gray character slide in favour of concentrating on the increasingly smug and annoying Adam Dalgliesh, and I hope that Rankin won't make the same kind of decision.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Patrick White to Father Christmas, December 1918

[Spacing, punctuation and spelling are sic, assuming, as one safely can, that David Marr's Random House edition of White's letters is to be trusted.]

Lulworth, December 1918
Dear Father Xmas.
Will yoy please bring me
a pistol, a mouth organ
a violin
a butterfly net
Robinson Cruso
History of Australia [NB -- he was six]
Some marbles.
a little mouse what runs
across the room
I hope you do not
think I am too greedy
but I want the
things badly

your loving

[Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla]

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Quick bedside table reading pile IQ test

Which of these is most unlike the others?

a) Ian Rankin, The Naming of the Dead
b) Nicholas Jose, Original Face
c) Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her
d) Thomas Harris, Hannibal Rising
e) Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Re-thinking the fugitive phenomenon

It turns out that this blog was well-named, I think. 'A fugitive phenomenon' was what Nicholas Jose called Australian literature in his essay on it for Australian Book Review last year (November 2005), and so, for me, here, it seems to have proved.

It's not that I've lost interest in blogging, quite the reverse; I never feel short of things to say over at Pavlov's Cat, and have a blogroll as long as your arm of people I check up on regularly, sometimes daily. And it's not that I've lost interest in Aust Lit; quite the reverse, again.

One problem is that most of the projects in which one gets involved are to some extent confidential, and you don't get to my my age without learning the value of discretion -- as well as, God knows, the price of indiscretion.

If one is reviewing a book, say, then it would be naff in the extreme to talk about the book en blog before the review that was commissioned and paid for by somebody else has actually appeared in whatever that publication was. If one is involved in an evolving team project then its details are likely to be confidential for excellent legal and other reasons. If one has just spent an hour on the phone to one of one's littery mates and caught up on a raft of gossip, most of it is the kind of stuff you don't want to be spreading around in public.

And if some scandal or kerfuffle or beat-up erupts, such as the Rosemary Neill piece in the the Weekend before last's Australian about the alleged disappearance of Aust Lit in the universities, then chances are one knows many of the players and has some inside knowledge of what the history of Aust Lit has been over the last few decades (ie its entire life as a university discipline) in particular universities.

No, between them the laws of libel and the fear of embarrassing or hurting one's friends and colleagues leave me with nowhere near as much to say on this topic as I thought I would have. Not publicly, anyway. And when it comes to pure information and summary on the subject, Perry at Matilda was already doing a fabulous job of this nearly a year before I ever took up blogging at all.

So it may be time to broaden my horizons: to keep the Australian accent, but use it to chat about books-and-writing issues in a more general way. For instance: did you know there's a new Thomas Harris out? Hannibal Rising is the back-story: how Hannibal Lecter got to be like that.

I come from a generation of people who were shaped by the Second World War in the sense that one way or another it brought our parents together or determined their circumstances and circumscribed their lives. Even in Australia this was true, and most Australians who were born between 1940 and 1960 have their own parents/war story to tell. But for the children of Europe, before, during and after the war, their lives were wrought and blighted in a way no safe Australian can well imagine; this is at the heart of Elizabeth Holdsworth's essay 'An die Nachgeborenen: for those who come after', which has just won Australian Book Review's inaugural Calibre Prize for essay writing.

And it's the wartime horrors of this European background that Harris uses for his famous cannibal. Hints and memories that appeared in Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, have been fleshed out (sorry) and brought to the foreground as, this time, the main event. I haven't actually read this book properly yet, but I've flicked through and can see where it's going. I think Harris is an underrated writer and I'm looking forward to this one, not just to be creeped out (crept out?), which I always enjoy (and yes I know it isn't nice), but also to appreciate his considerable storytelling technique and style.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Bottom line

As so often, I am again indebted to that amazing chronicler and conduit of useful information, Perry Middlemiss at Matilda -- this time for pointing me in the direction of Adelaide crime writer Kirsty Brooks's blog. Here's a quotation from it: something that ought to be written, in letters of fire, on all the forms that aspiring students of Creative Writing fill in when they're applying to get into the courses.

You fall down but you pick yourself up again. In this field, your success is never guaranteed, but your love of it should be, you should love reading and writing and if you love something, no doubt you’ll be happy to do it a great deal, and to sacrifice many other things for it.


I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often
I will post to this blog more often

Monday, October 30, 2006

ABR, another taking-off litblog

After a tentative start, Australian Book Review has revamped its blog and is now functioning as a comments-enabled team effort. It's already shaping up as a lively and eclectic space, and if editor Peter Rose keeps up that level of reportage will soon turn into an alpha source of inside information and goss. To say nothing of raising -- and re-drawing -- the literary profile of Adders, which would be all to the good.

Beattie's Book Blog

NZ bookperson Graham Beattie is someone I know because we were once on a literary-prize-judging panel in Auckland, his home city, where he took us out to a wonderful dinner at a harbourside restaurant. He's just sent me the URL of his brand-new blog, which is here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

This (among other reasons) is why I've always liked reading David Malouf

Because every now and then -- as here, in 'Mrs Porter and the Rock' from his new book Every Move You Make -- you come across something like this:

'She had never fathomed what men were really up to, what they wanted. What it was they were asking for, but never openly, and when they didn't get it, brooded and fretted over and clenched their jaws and inwardly went dark ...'


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Broken Shore, encore une fois

Peter Temple's The Broken Shore was published last year to rave reviews, including mine for the SMH, and it's just won the Colin Roderick Award for 2005. This award is given by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies at James Cook University for the best Australian book, in any genre, published in the previous calendar year: The Broken Shore won out over, among other shortlisted things, Kate Grenville's The Secret River and Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers.

As I can no longer find my review online, I reproduce it here in an attempt to lure anyone who hasn't read this book yet to do so at the first opportunity.

Synchronistically, if that is a word, this news comes within days of my stumbling over another rave review of Temple, this time of Identity Theory which I haven't read, at the blog Head Butler, where Jesse Kornbluth says this. But in the meantime, here's mine from last year:

The Broken Shore
By Peter Temple
Text Publishing, 320pp, $29.95

Detective Senior Sergeant Joe Cashin, badly damaged in the line of duty, has been seconded to a job in the relative quiet of his childhood home town on the southern coast of Victoria. When he isn’t walking his two black standard poodles through the countryside or trying to find a comfortable position for his damaged body in a chair or on the floor while he listens to opera, Cashin spends his non-work time planning the rebuilding of the ancestral ruin in which he lives.

But then a highly respected and well-heeled local is found dead in his own home, and the body shows the marks of torture. The evidence points to three Aboriginal boys from the local community, but it soon starts to look as if there might be quite a different story behind this murder.

It’s hard to know where to start praising this book. Plot, style, setting and characters are all startlingly good, and even lovers of crime fiction will recognise that Temple has taken his writing beyond the usual boundaries of that admirable genre, though it still follows the mainstream conventions. There’s the idiosyncratic detective, a troubled loner with signature tastes in music, alcohol and/or books. There’s the tight plot full of red herrings and false trails, and the deft interweaving of a romance sub-plot involving a suitably foxy heroine. And there are some very, very horrible moments as the action unfolds.

Temple’s greatest gift is for the creation of his characters: their back-stories are sketched in with great economy and clarity, their general cast of mind is conveyed through small details, and their motivations are revealed detail by small detail. But most of all, Temple has an astonishing skill in conveying the feeling between his characters: the slow accretions of trust, the red haze of hatred, the fine strands of hostility in the weave of desire. When this book is made into a movie – and it will be – the real test for the actors will be in the two-handed scenes where they have to play off each other, because the emotional currents running between the various characters are so deep and strong as to be almost visible.

Temple has an acute ear for the speech patterns of a certain kind of Australian man. Although the story is not actually told in the first person, we see events from Cashin’s point of view so the style tends to be that of the character’s own very Australian inner voice, laconic to the point of occasional incomprehensibility, its humour deadpan and drier than a chip. When Cashin and his colleague Dove notice a bit of casual private-schoolboy bullying as they pass in the street – itself a briefly eloquent counterpoint to the wasted lives of the Aboriginal boys – Dove says ‘Year ten mugging class. Been out on a prac.’

There’s also plenty of action, much of it gruesome, some of it comic. There are remarkable evocations of landscape and cityscape, in which recognisable parts of Australia melt imperceptibly into fictional ones: Temple’s Melbourne is half invented, half real, as though you could turn down an alley off Lygon Street and suddenly find yourself in one of his plots. There are also some spectacular set pieces; the scene in the abandoned theatre is brilliant and chilling, a passage of suspense and horror that’s played out in silence and leaves much of the worst to the reader’s imagination.

The subject matter combines two of the most dark and dangerous undercurrents in contemporary Australian society: the status and treatment of the Aboriginal population, and the emergence of long-buried stories of institutional sexual abuse. Temple writes about these things with enough insight and passion to make the reader ask exactly where the boundary lies between genre fiction and ‘serious’ literary fiction. The Broken Shore is one of those watershed books that make you re-think your ideas about reading.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Anybody here under 30 and doing postgrad work in Aust Hist or Lit?

If you are, you might be interested in this email I've just had from Peter Kirkpatrick, president of ASAL:

Dear members and friends of ASAL,

Norman McCann Summer Scholarships in Australian History and Literature: National Library of Australia

Applications close: 30 September 2006

Gianoula Burns Tel: (02) 6262 1232 or

Scholars are invited to undertake six weeks of research, from 2 January
2007, using the National Library's Australian history and literature

Generously supported by the McCann family in memory of former National
Library Council member Norman McCann, the scholarship is open to Australian
tertiary students under the age of 30 who have completed their first degree,
and have commenced or are interested in postgraduate studies.

Successful applicants will come from the disciplines of Australian history,
literature, librarianship, archives administration or museum studies.

Information and application forms here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Second First Tuesday Book Club

Two programs in, and so far this lively bit of Tuesday night teeve on Our ABC is still working. I'm trying to work out what it has that makes it different from earlier TV arts chat shows which have nearly all been excruciating to some degree or another. Here are the three things I've come up with so far: no gimmicks, ruthless editing, and Jennifer Byrne.

Byrne was great tonight. She was funny, she was smart, she kept everybody more or less on track without being in the least a bossy cow (this is no mean feat; I could never manage it in tutorials), and she is an extremely experienced TV person who knows what works and why. Being married to Andrew Denton must help a lot, I should think, but Byrne goes further back with TV even than she does with Denton and I am sure they bounce ideas off each other about how best to use the medium. Having said all that, my favourite moment tonight was when she lost patience with all the others, who were humming and hawing about Dava Sobel's Longitude not being enough of a rattling good yarn, and said 'Well, I think you're all fools!'

The editing was obtrusive in that the jerkiness of the conversation was quite obvious and the continuity was pretty nonexistent; the discontinuity, if you will. But at least it got rid of (this much was clear) a lot of waffle and left only the most lively bits of the conversation safe from the cutting-room floor.

The two surviving panelists from last month's four were Jason Steger and Marieke Hardy, aka Ms Fits; Peter Cundall and Jacki Weaver had been replaced by Pru Goward and John Safran. I wonder what the rationale is; is it two out and two new ones in per show? Did Cundall and Weaver (by far the best last month, I thought) only ever sign up for one show? Surely they can't have been got rid of after the fact; they were both great.

Tonight Jason Steger loked far more relaxed and comfortable (as it were) in front of the camera, and what he has to say is always interesting and articulate. Hardy was good, and looked gorgeous (this is important; it's television, after all). I thought she was being a bit wilfully dopey about Longitude, but what she had to say about The Shadow of the Wind was great. Pru Goward was all right but managed to get in an obligatory, and really silly, disparaging remark about 'left-wingers', apropos the admittedly shocking revelation that Gunter Grass was in his youth a member of the Waffen-SS. And John Safran ...

Yes. Well.

It'll be interesting to see who they get for the first Tuesday in October. It would be really good to see someone up there who can match Byrne for intelligence, intellectual sophistication, performance chops and passion, because nobody has come close so far. Louise Adler? Robyn Archer? David Marr?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Get your head around this if you can

A quick email check has just turned up a press release from the Australian Society of Authors:


The Australian Society of Authors (ASA), the principal advocate for the professional and artistic interests of Australian authors, has condemned the recent decision of the Wollongong Mall management to ban readings in the Mall by poets from the South Coast Writers’ Centre during National Poetry Week.

According to Mall management, poetry reading cannot have any political or religious content. Without such a guarantee, management refused to allow the proposed readings to go ahead. This is despite the fact that the Mall management allows Christmas carols to be performed, as well as the occasional political protest. The “seditious intent” of poetry though seems too much for Wollongong Mall.

ASA Executive Director Dr Jeremy Fisher said: “These sorts of decisions highlight the problems caused by the sedition provisions of the Government’s anti-terrorist laws. Administrators of public property feel it is safer to totally prohibit public performance rather than risk anti-government comments being made. This of course is exactly what sedition laws are designed to do — stifle public debate.”

Significantly, Mall policy on this issue was amended and ratified in November 2005, at the same time the anti-terrorist measures were being pushed through Federal Parliament.

The South Coast writers have not been deterred by the Mall management’s actions, however. A protest reading, featuring political and religious poems, is planned to be held in Wollongong on 6 September. The ASA urges all authors to support the right of South Coast poets to read their works untrammelled in public.

Dr Jeremy Fisher
Executive Director
Australian Society of Authors
PO Box 1566 Strawberry Hills NSW 2016
+61 (0)2 9318 0877 Fax: +61 (0)2 9318 0530
0438 318 673

So richly ripe is this ruling for mockery that I scarcely know where to start, but perhaps I had better not start at all; poking fun at it on a blog is probably seditious as well.

This kind of bureaucratic interference is on a par with the role of the hapless Detective Vogelsang in the unfolding of the Ern Malley affair, and suggests the same degree of incomprehension. You have to wonder what on earth they think they mean by 'politics' and 'religion'. What poem -- indeed, what human utterance -- is not to some degree or another, if only by the power of omission, shot through and through with either politics or religion, or with both?

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

See you, Jim

Yesterday while in the middle of a mammoth clean-up, I came across an invitation to the farewell lunch in Sydney that his mates at The Australian were having for its former literary editor James Hall ('Jim in person but never in print') on the occasion of his retirement.

This invitation was two years old, but something had made me keep it -- possibly the lovely little drawing of a small dog alone on a stage, watching the curtain come down. I assumed this was a reference to the haunting and quite brilliant essay Jim wrote a few years ago while on holidays in Italy, about a stray dog that had adopted him and was following him around. Looking at the invitation, I recalled the essay clearly, and wondered whether he'd gone travelling again since he retired.

So it was quite a shock, a few hours later, to open The Australian and see that he had died of a heart attack in the middle of a tennis match. He was only 71. I wrote book reviews for him for several years and he was, like most other literary editors I've known, a pleasure to work for and with: thoughtful about his commissions, open to suggestion, tolerant of my occasional errors and screw-ups and apologetic about his own.

The obituary yesterday mentioned that at the very moment his heart attacked him, he was in the process of hitting a, if not the, winning stroke in the tennis match. I hope this wasn't poetic license; it does seem like a good way to go. And I hope he meets up with that Italian hound again, somewhere in the life to come.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Patrick White Corner

'How do you make your money, Tib?' Miss Slattery asked, picking at the mink coverlet.

'I am Hoongahrian,' he said. 'It come to me over ze telephown.'

Presently Szabo Tibor announced he was on his way to inspect several properties he owned around the city.

He had given her a key, at least, so that she might come and go.

'And have you had keys cut,' she asked, 'for all these other women, for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, in all these other flats?'

How he laughed.

'At least a real Witz! An Australian Witz!' he said on going.

It seemed no time before he returned.

'Faht,' he said, 'you are still here?'

'I am the passive type,' she replied.

Indeed, she was so passive she had practically set in her own flesh beneath that glass conscience of a ceiling. Although a mild evening was ready to soothe, she shivered for her more than nakedness. When she stuck her head out of the window, there were the rhinestones of Sydney glittering on the neck of darkness. But it was a splendour she saw could only dissolve.

'You Austrahlian girls,' observed Tibby Szabo, 'ven you are not all gickle, you are all cry.'

'Yes,' she said. 'I know,' she said, 'it makes things difficult. To be Australian.'

-- 'Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover', The Burnt Ones, 1964

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Get your oven-fresh Aust Lit news here

Australian Book Review now, as of yesterday, has a blog!

And from it, I have learned that First Tuesday Book Club has decided to replace one of their two projected books for next month's discussion, Helen Garner's The First Stone, with something else.

On the whole, I think this is just as well, as I think it would have dominated discussion to the point of obliterating comment on any other aspect of the program. Blogospheric discussion of the first episode over the last week has inevitably centred on Garner and TFS, and I am still as astonished as I was when it was first published in 1995 to see the bile still being poured over Garner by people who are still proud to say they have not actually read the book.

Many of these are people who would rightly scorn to write 'I know this is true, because my friend told me' in a scholarly footnote, so why they think it is okay to argue this way elsewhere is one of the mysteries of life.

No matter what one's position, it is intellectually indefensible to trash a book that one has not read.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Things I would have blogged about here by now if I'd had the chance

1) Kate Grenville reading and talking about The Secret River at the University of Adelaide the Friday before last

2) The ABC's First Tuesday Book Club

3) John Kinsella's wonderful gossipy memoir, Fast, Loose Beginnings: a memoir of intoxications

4) More Patrick White

It won't heppen overnight. But it wull heppen.*

* Ancient Rachel Hunter joke

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Gospel According to St Patrick

Laura has a new post over at Sarsaparilla making the excellent point that instead of huffing and faffing about the Patrick White sting in Saturday's Australian (of which I've been doing more than my fair share), lovers of White should instead put our literary money where our mouths are and go back to the important stuff, viz White's novels themselves. Laura has proposed a Patrick White Reading Circle and has already been overwhelmed by expressions of interest.

I feel sufficiently inspired by this to join in her Take Back the White movement and start a Patrick White Corner here, a small regular space for the old curmudgeon's own unique voice. Here, then, is the reading for today, from the source of the original hoax, The Eye of the Storm. I don't quite know why I remember this bit so clearly, but my guess is that most women, at least -- and I mean women of any age, in any time -- will shiver at it just a little.

'After receiving her mother's cheque Dorothy had considered splurging some of it on an important dress: an armature to intimidate any possible adversary, and to warn off what could be worse, an importunate admirer. But on sending for a statement almost immediately after paying the money into the bank, she thought she could not bring herself to reduce such a lovely round sum; she would make do with her trusty Patou black, enlivened with a jewel or two ...

On the night, then, it was the Patou black, of such an urbane simplicity it had often ended by scaring the scornful into a bewildered reassessment of their own canons of taste. And the diamonds; everyone must bow to those: their fire too unequivocally real, their setting a collusion between class and aesthetics. These were some of the jewels the colonial girl had been clever enough to prise out of her husband's family by knowing too much. If they had been more than a paltry fraction of the realisable de Lascabanes assets, and if she had not detested all forms of thuggery, Dorothy Hunter might have seen herself as a kind of female Ned Kelly.

She was standing at the dressing-table mirror massaging the lobes of her ears before loading them with moody de Lascanbanes pearls encrusted with minor de Lascabanes diamonds. The earrings made her suffer regularly, but it was all in the game ...'

Saturday, July 15, 2006

CHAPTER THREE ... in which St Patrick buys the How-To book

Where to begin an analysis, a commentary, or even just an incredulous expostulation in response to this?

For those who haven't already read the original paper article or the cut-down online version, here's the cartoon version: in imitation of a similar British hoax involving V.S. Naipaul, someone from The Australian -- possibly Jennifer Sexton, author of the article, who does not say who set this sting up -- sent Chapter 3 of Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm to twelve Australian publishers and agents, changing the names of the characters, re-titling the novel The Eye of the Cyclone (oh, dear; surely they could have been a bit witty about it, at least) and submitting the MS under a name manifestly not a real one, but an anagram of PATRICK WHITE.

('Wraith Picket', forsooth; why didn't they just call him Keith Crapwit and be done with it?)

Two publishers/agents have not yet replied, after three months, and the other ten all turned it down. Some suggested that St Patrick should read David Lodge's How-To book, and others that he should join a writers' centre. (He would have abominated how-to books and writers' centres.)

The chapter in question was one of the least typical bits, and I'm sorry to say probably one of the least successful bits, of White's writing that I can think of, short of his first two novels Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead, in which he was merely clearing his throat.

The offending chapter is smack in the middle of the action, jumps around chronologically, and, most atypically for White, is pretty much all narrated in free indirect discourse, reflecting the thought processes of the deeply awful character and the kind of language he would use.

I can't work out which is the worst:

(a) the bad faith of the entrapment, the smugness of its aftermath, and the shabby (and incoherent, as Jeff Sparrow points out in this excellent piece) reactionary agenda behind the exercise,

(b) the failure of the agents and publishers' readers who rejected the chapter to recognise either the actual novel or, at the very least, White's unique, highly spottable style, and the incontrovertible evidence it provides that people getting jobs in Australian publishing houses have clearly not seen fit to make it their business to read a little Australian writing, or

(c) the unambiguously, unashamedly and exclusively commercial agenda behind some of the rejections.

I could just cry. And I would, if this episode were not, in its own toxic way, so funny. Not one person or organisation comes out of this particularly well, except perhaps Michael Heyward from Text (no surprises there; Heyward has been one of the class acts of Australian publishing for twenty years), who expressed concern that it had happened and the opinion that publishers needed to be kept on their toes -- unlike everyone else quoted, who toughed it out so brazenly they would have made Pats and Eddie proud.

And maybe Patrick White himself, of course. And he, poor old poppet, is past caring. Or so one hopes.

UPDATE: More at Larvatus Prodeo.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

In memory of Lisa Bellear, 'not one for the easy road'

Aboriginal poet, photographer, activist, scholar and all-round comedian Lisa Bellear died in her sleep at home last week, of as-yet-unknown causes.

Lisa was a Goernpil/Noonuccal woman from Stradbroke Island in Queensland, living and working in Melbourne. She was 45.

She was one of the funniest people I've ever met. She was a wonderful advocate for Aboriginal causes. She was outspoken, energetic, brave, and a joy to be around.

Here's a poem of Lisa's that I've borrowed from scepticlawyer's blog.

Hanover Street Brunswick 3056
(On a bright sunny afternoon)

Cruisin' - on my way with a keen
sense of purpose: milk (full cream),
toasting bread, cigarettes, papers
...a woman's day

Sensor rays connect with a thirty
centimetre 'white' child who sits
joyously on a three-wheeled
plastic bike

I feel safe enough to share
my smile

As we check each other over
with carefree knowing smiles -
his parents raise their heads
through the pruned rose bush

In twenty years time will
he remember this warrior woman?
I wonder

For more on Lisa, in an Age article from two years ago, go here.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

John Kinsella and the Parliament of the Birds

I've just sent off a review piece on John Kinsella's last two books, The New Arcadia and America, to the Australian. Still thinking hard about the first one, which is an elaborate, focused, politicised portrait of Kinsella's home landscapes in the WA wheat belt.

One thing that struck and kept striking me about this book-length and formally elaborate, playful, engaged and enraged poem is the way it speaks to Les Murray's work without any sense of competitiveness, imitation or regrettable boyo muscling-up. I have no idea what relations are like between Kinsella and Murray but despite their political differences (not as huge, if their work is anything to go by, as some imagine, and certainly neither of them toes anybody else's party line) I bet they understand each other's work very well.

The New Arcadia is divided into five 'acts' each of which begins with a 'drive'. It's the same drive five times, at different times on different days in different moods: a meditation on being in and moving through a landscape. One of my favourite things about it is the birds. Kensella is armpit-deep in eco-politics and that's one of the bases of his vision here.

Where I'm living, in an old suburb of Adelaide that's fairly near the sea, one of the joys of the last eight and a half years has been the daily communing with assorted birds: blackbirds, rainbow lorikeets, musk lorikeets, sparrows, honey-eaters, pigeons, willy wagtails, magpies and crows are birds I see at least one of every day. Sometimes I wake to the crooning and burbling of next door's chooks; some days I see a seagull; and occasionally, bizarrely, I happen to look up and see a pelican ponderously riding some sky current or other, like an angel in a painting. But Kinsella's avian landscape puts this modest suburban flock to shame, and I like this poem and its ideological underpinnings so much, here's a tribute to him and his birds: a list of every feathered creature in the poem, and some of their best moments.



In the corner paddock, four species of birds
congregate -- if not interacting
then scanning spaces between others'
courses: insect-hunting heron

knifing random lines between scattered
pink and grey galahs, magpie larks
stressing laws of genre, place, and limits,
and the crow watching acutely:




... there was a species
of bird high in the salmon gum
that no longer exists,




Three white-faced herons arrive this morning,
the extinct volcano weathered down to the emollient
of mist and oil of eucalypt, spiralling
on to the limbs of their roosting tree, body fed
on soakage and samphire, their deep-throated croak
the result of scandal or espionage, swaying
as the dregs of the front stir the mist and gently
whip the leaves, but never at risk
of unseating.




But now I will you tell a wondrous thing:
As long as I lay in that swooning,
Me thought I wist what the birds meant,
And what they said, and what was their intent
And of their speech I hadde good knowing.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The voice of the past: God and grammar

A few years ago, David Marr gave a public lecture, 'The Role of the Writer in John Howard's Australia', expressing his earnest wish that more Australian novelists would write fiction about the conditions and the values of contemporary Australian life; that they would engage more directly with its daily texture and its political questions, and the way that the latter shape the former.

Where, he more or less asked, was the Australian Coetzee or McEwan? (Of course Coetzee is the Australian Coetzee now, but I don't think Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man were quite what Marr had in mind either.)

In the last decade or so there have been several good novels of the kind Marr meant: Amanda Lohrey's Camille's Bread and Elliot Perlman's Three Dollars are the first that come to mind. Such historical novels as Moorhouse's Grand Days and Kate Grenville's The Secret River are also profoundly political, but I think Marr meant something more specific, something more like the direct critique that realism can deliver: something with a narrower gap, if you like, between the metonymic and the mimetic.

The discussions about art and politics and propaganda have been had to death, in great detail and at high levels of complexity, and people are never going to agree about them. But having read first The Secret River and then James Bradley's The Resurrectionist over the last half-year or so (and before I go on, both books are recommended; this is a quibble. A biggish one, but no more), I've been thinking about a more specific question raised by the writing of historical fiction.

Isabel Wyly was penniless orphan when she emigrated alone, at 18, from Dublin to Adelaide in 1851. Writing to her sister-in-law Matilda back in Dublin on July 2, 1856, she began her final paragraph like this (all errors are sic):

'Bein limited to time, as the Mail starts tomorrow, I must bring thiss cribble to a conclution, leeving you and your deer little ones to the care of Him who will never forsake, tho all friends may. He will never if we do not forsake Him, and if it should Please Him that we should not meet agen in this World may we all meet in the next where all truble shall be at an end ...'

That is the authentic voice of the mid-nineteenth century. You can hear it in endless diaries and letters. Isabel may not be able to spell 'dear', but she knows it's 'care of Him who will never forsake', not 'care of He who will never forsake'; and she believes utterly in God as the moral, spiritual, even emotional centre of the world in which she finds herself.

How then is a contemporary novelist, unarmed either with Christian faith as a matter of course or with a thorough grounding in grammar at an early age, ever properly to replicate an individual voice from the past?

Kate Grenville wisely avoids first-person narration; her story is mainly channelled through the POV of her hero, and 'free indirect discourse' -- third-person narration, but seen through his 'thoughts' -- is her chosen narrative mode. She uses phrasing that delicately suggests and echoes, without attempting to ventriloquise, the speech patterns of the period.

James Bradley takes on the far more difficult task of creating period speech and thought patterns in the first-person narration of his protagonist Gabriel Swift. This book has some very good things about it, and the school-of-anatomy and grave-robbing stuff is absolutely gripping, but the narrative voice is an inexact, over-insistent pastiche of 'the past' in its rhythms and usages, and Bradley lost my readerly suspended disbelief with Gabriel's very first ungrammatical pronoun. No young man in London in 1826 who was sufficiently well-educated to speak in Gabriel's mannered and articulate voice would have said 'a habit which will often bring Robert and I to tears of hilarity', or 'knowing it was her of whom we spoke'.

Bradley dismisses the question of religion very early on when the master anatomist dismisses it as 'superstition' and claims 'We are men of science'. God barely rates a mention from then on. It might be a neat bit of authorial problem-solving but it would never, ever have happened. Unbelievers there were many and their numbers rose as the century wore on, but faith and the loss of it were always an issue to be taken seriously; you simply cannot extricate your subjectivity from your times (which is the one thing that made me uneasy about Gail Jones's 19th century heroine in Sixty Lights and the ease with which she negotiates illicit pregnancy and single motherhood).

I'm not sure whether Grenville's hero concerns himself with God at any point either, but I don't remember any instance of it except perhaps briefly in passing, and a remark about the way God seems, to a small ragged London boy, 'foreign as a fish'.

Yet Christianity was the linchpin of (western) people's lives pre-20th century in a way it's almost impossible to imagine now. Religion trumps romantic love at the turning point of Jane Eyre, itself written at the hinge of the 19th century and again in first-person narration: the moment when Jane, having discovered that Rochester is married to the mad Bertha, resolves to resist becoming his mistress and to tear herself away from him and from Thornfield:

'I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man ... Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.'

Melbourne historian Greg Dening, reviewing Roger McDonald's Mr Darwin's Shooter on the radio a few years ago while I was struggling myself with ludicrous efforts to write good fiction about 19th century characters, said something I've never forgotten about the difficulties of attempting any kind of historical accuracy. Authenticity is, by definition, unrecoverable: the past really is another country and they really do do things differently there, and some things about it and them are forever made strange and mysterious by distance. 'The past,' said Dening, 'is more than just us dressed up in funny clothes and speaking funny speak.'

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Requesting the pleasure

I got my invitation in the mail the other day to the Miles Franklin Award presentation dinner thingy. When I say 'invitation' what I mean is that I was being invited to pay them $90. This is actually not a ripoff as the one I went to in 2004 was a truly excellent affair in the way of food, wine and guest speaker: Cate Blanchett on Australian women artists, and I'm here to tell you the woman has a lovely brain as well as looking like, well, that -- lit up from inside by some magical, milk-white candle -- and she made a really excellent speech before going home early to breast-feed. Watching her deep in conversation with David Marr was quite an experience.

If I were in Sydney or if the dinner were being held here I would probably stump up and trot along, as prize nights always provide an excellent anthropological study. Watching the behaviour of shortlisted writers -- and their partners; sometimes especially their partners -- is cruel but highly entertaining. It's not the 90 bucks I mind so much as the plane fare halfway across the country.

And if I were a betting woman I'd be in a bit of a state; Kate Grenville has to be the favourite, but without going too much into who thinks what about whom, I can picture some strong resistance from at least one of the judges. To my shame I've not yet read all the shortlisted books so can't give a personal favourite, but if Grenville doesn't get it then it could be Brian Castro's year.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

More on writing

Over at the new Australian lit/culture/media blog Sarsaparilla, where Laura from Sills Bend has gathered together a team of us to blog the night away about all things antipodean or loosely related thereto, Wendy James has just posted a lovely quotation from Nabokov about the relationship between writer and reader. The post is headed 'Writers on Writing', which immediately reminded me of my own all-time favourite such book, The Eye of the Story by that incomparable chronicler of the American South, Eudora Welty.

I wrote my PhD thesis, back in the mists of time, on the representation of place in Australian fiction, so Welty's classic essay 'Place in Fiction' (1956), which appears in this book, was already familiar to me. But in it I found an image I had forgotten, and which I still think, even after all that has been said by critics and theorists over the last fifty years about fiction and representation and writing, is one of the best and most useful things about writing fiction that I have ever seen or heard anyone say:

'Some of us grew up with the china night-light, the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment. The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. A lamp I knew of was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London, and you could go beautifully to sleep by it. The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. Seeing that these inner and outer surfaces do lie so close together and so implicit in each other, the wonder is that human life so often separates them, or appears to, and it takes a good novel to put them back together.

The good novel should be steadily alight, revealing. ... The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author's head and animated the whole of his work.'

Friday, May 26, 2006

But will it make me a Better Person?

When I was an undergraduate, those who were teaching me literature and imparting their conviction (as was fashionable at the time) that literature made one a better person were not leading by example. We were being exposed to the beautiful thoughts and carefully teased-out, finely-spun observations of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster and Katherine Mansfield, of Chekhov and Tolstoy and George Eliot, and it was supposed that we would absorb by a process of osmosis their finely wrought moral sensibilities.

Two things immediately became clear: (1) that the departmental Woolf-worshippers, Forster-favourers and Tolstoy touts imparting these views included among their number several people who habitually indulged in some of the pettiest, shabbiest behaviour I have ever seen before or since, and (2) that Virginia Woolf, God love her and her genius, was a Grade-A bitch, and Katherine Mansfield made her look like a beginner. I didn't mind their bitchery at all, not least because it was of the finest, but I wasn't under any illusions about either of them, or about the morally elevating effect that their work was allegedly going to have on me.

It was only years later when I came to read around in theories of narratology that I understood all this a little better. The notion of the 'implied author' is a useful one: it's what might be called the writer's best self, her wisest, her most adult, her most knowing and self-knowing self. In fiction or poetry the 'person who is speaking' just is not the same as that flawed being who ignores the dishes, fobs off her editors and creditors, loses patience with her elderly father, and swears at the person ringing from the call centre in Mumbai. None of this stuff makes its way to the pristine page: the implied author is a construct, a sort of distillation of all the best (and only the best) stuff that the writer has to say.

So it was a bit odd to be driving down Grand Junction Road on a Friday morning listening on the radio to the writer Aleksandar Hemon talking to Ramona Koval from the Sydney Writers' Festival about whether literature in particular and art in general were morally uplifting, for I've never been able to see how it could be or why it should be asked to carry so unreal and unreasonable a burden. No matter how many languages are spoken or instruments played, no matter how many books are read or operas attended, people will find a way of rationalising, and then doing, whatever it is that they want to do. They will find a way, as Hemon pointed out, to send you to Auschwitz or Birkenau even while they listen to Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Literature can't make you a better person. But one thing it can do, if you ask it to, is get you through life's worst moments in slightly better shape than you might otherwise have managed -- either by giving you words to express the horror, or giving you consoling or diverting images, as on the pre-dawn drive I took some years ago to the hospital where my mother had just died, when a huge golden harvest moon hung on the horizon and lit the road for me all the way; there was time to dredge up at least twenty unforgettable literary moons, from the portent of a deadly storm in 'The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens' to Jane Eyre's mystical communion with her own dead mother, via the stern imparted wisdom of the moon through her bedroom window, to the darkness and mystery of the moonlit Sydney Harbour where Joe Lynch lies drowned in Five Bells: 'Deep and dissolving verticals of light / Ferry the falls of moonshine down.'

Hilary McPhee, talking about literature at a writers' festival some time in the 1980's, said 'We read books in order to find ideas about ways to live our lives', and this seems to me to be a more modest, a more accurate and a more realistic claim. I have learned over decades from books and poems how better to deal with family conflict, with hard decisions, with love gone bad, with anger, despair and death. Reading literature hasn't made me a better person, but it has made me much readier for anything, good or bad, than I would ever otherwise have been.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dulcet But Creepy

I've just been watching DBC Pierre on Denton. (I'm not sure DBCP qualifies as 'Australian literature', actually. Denton, as the son of novelist Kit Denton and himself a prolific writer if not strictly of 'literature', is probably a more legitimate topic for this purist blog.)

DBCP has an extraordinarily beautiful voice. He also has some gripping tales to tell -- tales of exotic places, larger-than-life characters, extreme experiences and shady deals. That is, he is formidably equipped as a fiction writer.

But I found his performance deeply disturbing and weird. If the cats brought him inside, I think I would put him back out in the garden.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Miles Franklin update

The shortlist as just announced is exactly the same as the one I hypothesised below, earlier today.

Nobody's gonna believe I didn't know. But as one of the judges who bailed a couple of years ago under interesting circumstances, I'm one of the last people likely to have been in the loop.

The three big names were predictable enough. There's a huge buzz around Carrie Tiffany because of her recent nomination for the Orange Prize, and Brenda Walker's work has been consistently excellent (and consistently undervalued) since she first began publishing fiction.

But I'm still a bit startled.

Miles Franklin shortlist due today

Here at high noon precisely, I can't find any online sign so far that the Miles Franklin shortlist has been announced yet, but it's expected before the end of the day. The length of the shortlist varies from year to year, but for what it's worth here's my prediction of what will survive from the longlist (see March 19 post) onto the shortlist. NB these are not necessarily personal favourites, just the things I think will make it:

Brian Castro, The Garden Book
Kate Grenville, The Secret River
Roger McDonald, The Ballad of Desmond Kale
Carrie Tiffany, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living
Brenda Walker, The Wing of Night

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Volcano

One item in the big pile of work I've just finished (hence no blogging for while now) is the review of a new novel by Venero Armanno, Candle Life. That's still under embargo, but while I'm thinking about it let me recommend his last novel, The Volcano, to anyone who hasn't read it. This book seemed to get the critical response it deserved only in Armanno's home state of Queensland, where it won the Premier's Prize in its year.

All of the major literary prizes have different chronological catchment areas so it's not easy to work out which would have been eligible for what in which year, but if my calculations are correct, The Volcano would have been up against some stiff competition for the 2002 Miles Franklin award -- Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish, Joan London's Gilgamesh and the winner, Tim Winton's Dirt Music, among others.

But I'm still very surprised that it didn't even make the shortlist. It deserves higher status as a contemporary classic: a rich, broad, deep, impassioned, rumbustious novel with overtones and undertones of magic realism firmly anchored (sorry, mixed metaphor, pah) in social and world history, with a wonderful cast of characters and a hero both lovable and memorable.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

This Writing Life

The question people seem to want to ask writers is about what the life is like. If it's not nine to five, then when and how and according to what schedule does one work? Does one sit staring at the keyboard waiting for the Muse to descend? Inspiration or perspiration? Where do you get your ideas from? And so on.

Interestingly this sort of questioning does seem to have died down a bit over the last ten or fifteen years though. Me, I think it's computers. The romance of the quill pen and the attic starvation routine is comprehensively over. Everyone uses computers for all kinds of things, and that fact has demystified the whole Being a Writer schtick quite a lot. From the inside, it was never mystified in the first place; just hardscrabble bouncing from one gig to another, providing of course that you're lucky enough to be getting enough work to live on in the first place.

So, MY DAY: Having got home last night from participating in a forum about writing just in time to watch House, I then did a couple of hours on some examining of dissertations in Gastronomy, results urgently needed by the university, before I went to bed. Up this morning to try to finish the last of said dissertations (marks, at least; the reports will have to wait) before going off to teach a 90-minute master class to the group who formed the hard core of the forum audience last night.

Between getting home from that mid-afternoon and going out again tonight to a review a play (theatre 29 km from my house; the review will have to be written and filed before I go to bed, and I don't expect to be home much before eleven) I need to start working on the two book reviews, one of which is due on April 1, the other already overdue. Tomorrow I will work on the book reviews and the examiners' reports, stopping only for a working lunch with the editor of a magazine to which I contribute.

Some time in there I expect to get an email from the person working on the grant application for a big project I'm involved in to say that my contribution to the application isn't good enough and could I please make it bigger and better. Tomorrow I also need to do a bit of creative banking, as some of the work I've not yet been paid for was done and dusted as long ago as the beginning of February.

From where I'm standing, the writer's life is one in which no books get written. You're too busy making a living.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

On Literary Prizes

Recently I had an email from a US blogger asking me a very interesting question about prizes: he wanted to know whether I thought the (Man) Booker prize had ever gone to the wrong book.

I checked out available lists of shortlists and winners and was ashamed to discover that I hadn't read a large enough proportion of them to be able to give a meaningful answer to his question. My excuse is that when one reads for a living, one's reading, while reasonably voluminous, is of necessity shockingly skewed.

All I could say for sure was that there were a handful of winners I thought would have deserved the prize no matter what the competition was: Coetzee for Disgrace, Byatt for Possession, Pat Barker for The Ghost Road, Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things and Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Day. Even that list is a tad meaningless, as there are many other winners I've not read. (Which of these Titans woud be the über-winner? Could such a choice be made, and if it could, could it possibly mean anything?)

Readers get passionate and writers get vulnerable whenever the topic of prizes comes up. People on judging committees stare at each other in wide-eyed, jaw-dropped disbelief, unable to process whatever mad opinions they have just heard coming out of each others' mouths. Writers who get shortlisted and then don't win are unable to keep up the exultation of getting shortlisted and instead just sulk because someone else beat them.

(Amusingly, sometimes their partners sulk vicariously; you can tell a great deal about what drives a writer's relationship with his or her partner by watching the partner's behaviour on prize nights.)

Are literary prizes a good thing or not? The same arguments tend to get trotted out and rehashed over and over, and I'm usually quite up to arguing sincerely on both sides of the issue. Yes, prizes are bad because they encourage the idea of competition in art (corruptive) as well as the idea that it's possible to come up with an evaluative hierarchy and say with conviction 'This book is better than that book', an activity I dislike. But on the other hand, no, prizes are not a bad thing, because they mean money for writers. Can't go past that one.

What brought all this on, of course, apart from the email from the US blogger, was the announcement last week of Kate Grenville's Commonwealth Writers' Prize win for The Secret River, closely followed by the announcement of this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist. Grenville is on that list as well, and has to be the front runner. Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose seemed genuinely startled, when I saw him last week, to find his novel A Case of Knives on the same longlist, which was one of the most endearingly modest moments I've ever seen from any writer I've ever met.

Potentially controversial choices from this longlist include Peter Temple's The Broken Shore, which is brilliantly written borderline generic 'crime', and Christos Tsiolkas's Dead Europe, which has made some rational grown-up men and women grind their teeth and/or throw up -- a new and colourful addition, in the critics' lexicon, to the more usual 'I laughed, I cried.'

This was Kate Grenville's competition for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize:

Regional shortlist (South East Asia and the South Pacific)

March by Geraldine Brooks
Grace by Robert Drewe
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer
Blindsight by Maurice Gee
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Surrender by Sonia Hartnett
Sandstone by Stephen Lacey
The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald
The Marsh Birds by Eva Sallis
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Regional winners

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The Sun by NIght by Benjamin Kwakye
Alligator by Lisa Moore

And here's the Miles Franklin longlist:

Anne Bartlett, Knitting
Brian Castro, The Garden Book
Kate Grenville, The Secret River
Steven Lang, An Accidental Terrorist
Roger McDonald, The Ballad of Desmond Kale
Alex Miller, Prochownik's Dream
Joanna Murray-Smith, Sunnyside
Peter Rose, A Case of Knives
Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe
Peter Temple, The Broken Shore
Carrie Tiffany, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living
Brenda Walker, The Wing of Night

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Writers' Week Wrap

While it's always lovely to have the literary world turn up in one's home town -- cheaper, too -- there is one major drawback: constantly having to choose between two parallel sessions, both of which you want to go to, is par for the course at any writers' festival, but that's exacerbated by the fact that in your home town, real life goes on. The house and the family and other aspects of daily life continue to need your attention on a daily basis: the cats, the plumbing, the convalescent sister, and of course the small matter of making a living.

And one or other of these things meant I missed hearing a number of Australian writers that I really wanted to hear: Malcolm Knox, Marion Halligan, David Malouf and Sonia Hartnett, for a start. I also shamefully didn't make it to the special citizenship ceremony for J.M. Coetzee that was held on the Monday morning.

But I did hear Delia Falconer read beautifully from The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers and answer a more than usually interesting series of questions from the audience. I heard Helen Garner talking about what it's like to re-take-up fencing in middle age: 'I learned to fight with a sword.' I heard Peter Goldsworthy read poems I've always liked, and Nick Jose talk so engagingly about his new novel Original Face that I'm now several chapters into it and bloody good it is too.

Fiction writer, poet, essayist, biographer and historian Barry Hill, newly returned from six months in the Whiting Studio in Rome with his wife Rose Bygrave of Goanna Band fame, came over from Victoria just to be in the audience and to see South Australian friends; while people are still talking about Hill's Broken Song, and while he began to collect prizes for his next book, The Enduring Rip, before the prizes for Broken Song had quite dried up, he's now well into his next project -- a collection of poems on the paintings of Lucien Freud -- as well as the two after that, one of which involves Japan and the other one opera. (It's exhausting just to listen to this kind of thing; it makes you want to take up making embroidered pot-holders and never write another word.)

Other random impressions and sightings: Dutch journalist, novelist and screenwriter Tim Krabbé is very funny, Canberra fiction writer Dorothy Johnston is very smart, novelist and essayist Marion Halligan worries more than she needs to about the reviews of her books, historian Stuart Macintyre looks fitter and saner than any Dean of an Arts Faculty has a right to look in 2006, novelist James Bradley's new novel The Resurrectionist looks black but riveting, ABR editor Peter Rose goes right on working at cafe tables even when at writers' festivals, Robert Fisk has a bloody enormous Adelaide fan base, and UK poet Simon Armitage and NSW nonfiction writer John Hughes are both extremely cute.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Writers' Week: 'Look out'

British journalist Robert Fisk, the West's chief witness to the current state of the Middle East, gave the Writers' Week lecture on Wednesday afternoon to a crowd that spread in every direction as far as the tent could reach, with the numbers actually under the shelter of the tent replicated again to its west, south and east by people spilling over onto the Parade Ground lawns, up the slope to the back wall of Government House, and back as far as the book tent.

Describing some of the things he has been witness to, his voice broke several times. I was going to say he lost his composure, but actually, composure and Robert Fisk are two. As anyone who has heard him on Late Night Live will know, he is a man who can talk over the top of Phillip Adams. He has a loud, carrying voice with UK vowels underlying an international sort of accent-absence; you notice not the phonemes but the tone, and the tone is urgent bordering on hectoring. Some of the things he has seen are horrible beyond imagination, and he appears to be a man in urgent need of a longish rest.His sympathies are with the Middle East, his images graphic, and his message about the future grim: 'Look out.'

More on Writers' Week

Have been too busy going to WW to blog about it in instalments as I had hoped to do. If one is a home-town littery person but with no actual book out, one is likely to find oneself chairing sessions and that is how I spent Tuesday -- Minette Walters in the morning and Helen Garner in the afternoon both said they would rather do their Meet the Author sessions as a conversation than as a presentation, so there was a bit of preparation to be done, making sure one did not run out of probing questions.

Actually, I hate probing questions, at least in this context. Most writers have done nothing to deserve to be probed, which in any case I had no desire to do; nor was there any need, since it's a defining characteristic of writers that they do actually want to talk. What seems to me a very masculinist (and rampant, heh) aspect of (radio and TV at least) journalism culture at the moment is some odd notion that an interview is a contest, and that a good journalist will win it at any cost and make his or her subject look as silly and evil in the process as possible, using any means including bullying, misrepresentation, constant interruption and/or naked pig-rudeness in order to do so.

Fortunately none of these was appropriate either to Walters or to Garner, who were both generous and forthcoming in their answers to questions. Walters inserted a soft layer of English good manners between herself and my questions and so was utterly charming but not entirely direct; Garner was more forthcoming and hurled herself head-on at whatever she was asked, including an audience question at the end when a woman got up and said 'I told my friend's daughter I was coming to see you and she said ERGH, I HATE Helen Garner!'

Garner was flawlessly courteous in the face of this, as it seemed to me, breathtakingly rude and ill-willed intervention. It wasn't even brave; the woman expressed her hostility while directing it through two layers of indirectness ('my friend's daughter'), pinning the source of the bad feeling on an absent young woman so people wouldn't react with hostility to her personally, and smiling as she said it -- a classic deflector of others' responses to whatever dreadful thing is coming out of one's own smiling mouth.

But even without that, it seemed to me an appalling thing to pin down a stranger, and a guest, in front of a large crowd with a remark like that, and put to her in a position where she is obliged to respond with courtesy when clearly the more appropriate response is a smack upside the head -- regardless of where one stands on the whole First Stone question. Or stood. It is, as Garner pointed out, over ten years since that book came out. Much has changed.

Anyway. More later, when I get back from today's last-day sessions.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Adelaide Writers' Week, Days 1 and 2

The weather yesterday on Sunday (here it is the afternoon of Day Three, so I am already two days behind) was just a touch too hot and glittery to be celestial on the first day of Adelaide Writers' Week, but the palm trees in the peaceful Pioneer Women's Gardens suited the temperature and softened the precarious knowledge you always have in Adelaide that you are on the edge of the desert. Publishers Random House were giving out free fans, sitting around by the basketful on the counters of the sauna-like bookshop tent.

Suspicious as always of blinding charm, I passed on Vikram Seth, the crowd for whose talk stretched right up the slope and braved the excessive sun, in favour of a chair in the shade at the back of the comparatively modest but still healthy crowd that turned out for the wonderful Val McDermid.

She was very funny and sensible, chatting (in the world's most beautiful accent, softened Scottish, and a resonant alto-chorister's voice) about her theory that writing crime fiction, with all its blood, gore and aberrant psychology, makes crime writers psychologically very healthy, having let out all the murky stuff and purged it on the page.

When asked a question about the screen adaptations of her books, she said she was glad to have retained a right of veto which meant she could prevent them from killing off Carol Jordan's cat Nelson. She said she'd told them: "You can pretend he's dead and then bring him back triumphantly at the end if you like, but you can't possibly kill off that cat for good. It's the ony functional relationship the woman has."

Under the trees at the tables where people come and go and little groups constantly form, shape-shift and break up as the day wears on, David Malouf ate a salad with lentils in it, talked in a measured way about the history wars, and firmly deflected conversation from himself. Peter Goldsworthy sat under a tree in what I think was an akubra, looking uncharacteristically fragile and quiet despite the rave reviews he's been getting for the stage version of Honk if You are Jesus.

Andrew Taylor (the Australian poet not the British (?) crime (?) writer) was looking fit and exuberant, three years on after a very nasty brush with mortality. Gerard Windsor sat in the shade with Marion Halligan and her sister Rosie Fitzgibbon (ex-UQP) and watched the world go by.

At the Festival Awards presentation in the afternoon, Gail Jones looked exquisite and sharp in a black-and-tealy-blue outfit that did amazing things with and for her own colouring, but seemed a bit remote and distracted as she accepted her festival Award for Sixty Lights and then the overall SA Premier's Award for the same book. Mandy Sayer accepted her non-fiction award for Velocity looking and sounding more upbeat and jumpy in a wonderful hat, and dedicated the award to her late mother.

On Day Two, this time in perfect weather, Gerard Windsor rounded up a bunch of slightly unruly panel participants on the subject of 'Who Needs to Know?', where Sandy McCutcheon talked about the pain of writing memoir, how he would sit at his desk and cry as he wrote, and Helen Garner said 'Memoir? I'm like that when I'm writing a film review!'

Editor Peter Rose and guest editor Luke Morgan launched the latest issue of Australian Book Review, focusing on visual arts criticism, and were joined onstage by novelist James Bradley, the chairman of Copyright Agency Limited, to announce a new essay prize, the Calibre prize, to be administered by ABR and funded by CAL.

And I got to hear Vikram Seth after all, as I was driving home mid-afternoon and he came into the local ABC radio studios, hobbling from freshly-diagnosed gout ('Too much Barossa Valley red wine') to chat with Carol Whitelock and read from Two Lives, which I won't say anything about here except to recommend it as one of the important books about what the 20th century did to the people who lived through it. I think Seth's charm must be located somewhere at the intersection of evasiveness and vulnerability. He was chatting away about his gout and about his horror at the doctor's ban on drinking -- he needed to drink the lovely wine, he said, to help him get through the intensities of being a writer at an event like this, chatting with ardent fans and signing books and putting himself on the line in interviews and so on.

And yet, at the same time, there was a kind of Teflon-like aura, a sense that he was spinning an invisible layer of protective coating around himself that no weapon, question or fragment of someone else's charm could ever penetrate. He was the absolute opposite in this respect of someone like Helen Garner or the UK poet Simon Armitage, both of whom seemed wholly open and fearlessly out there, on the line.

... to be continued ...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Visitors welcome, do come in

Evidence of various strange kinds pops up from time to time, sometimes in the most unexpected places, that people have visited this blog accidentally or otherwise.

So, if you're out there, do please leave a paw print -- check in to the comments box (no trace of your identity or email address will be visible if you just sign in as Anonymous, although it would be nice to know who you are, and I don't mean to encourage psycho flamers or anything) and say what's on your mind. I'm assuming only people with some interest in Aust Lit are likely to end up here, either via Google or some other way, so you're more likely than not to have some opinion to express.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In conversation

Now that Australian Book Review has extended its reach to Adelaide, where it has established a sort of home-away-from-home base at Flinders University, its regular literary events are becoming a feature here as well as in Melbourne and elsewhere. I'm just back from one such event, in the pretty Radford Auditorium at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where an audience that included J. M Coetzee heard Craig Sherborne 'in conversation' with fellow-poet-and-memoirist and ABR editor Peter Rose, talking mostly about Sherborne's 2005 memoir Hoi Polloi.

This was a relaxed and quite revealing conversation between friends who have known each other well for years. It's a scenario that can sometimes backfire quite badly, as in this situation it's very easy to make the audience feel excluded altogether, but both Sherborne and Rose kept the audience included in their eye-lines and in their questions and answers without letting the whole thing get too stilted.

Eavesdropping on punters as is my wont at this kind of gig, I overheard the people next to me -- clearly strangers to each other -- strike up a conversation, while we were waiting for the event to start, about how wonderful it was to be able to come to this kind of thing, how much they were looking forward to Writers' Week, how wonderful they thought the Adelaide Festival of Ideas always was and how astonishing it was that so far these events were still free.

Memo to self: find out exactly where the money comes from. I know it comes from a number of places (state government, publishers, Literature Board) but am terminally vague on details and percentages.

In the meantime, the most interesting thread to emerge from the discussion was the issue of authenticity and ethics. If you write nonfiction, what are your obligations to the people you write about and to the people who read what you write? Was Sherborne, in an account of his childhood that has been described as 'searing', motivated at least partly by anger and revenge? Did Peter Rose know for sure how his brother Robert saw his situation, or was he just speculating? What about James Frey's fraudulent A Million Little Pieces?

The key to these issues lay, I thought, in a phrase that Sherborne used during the discussion: 'in good faith'. I think this is a criterion you could apply to any of the 'fraud' literary scandals of recent times. James Frey was not writing in good faith, and neither was, say, Helen Demidenko/Darville. But if Sherborne's portrait of his parents was harsh or Rose's of his brother somehow distorted or incomplete, clearly neither was setting out with any intent to deceive, nor to settle scores.

Obviously whether a writer is writing 'in good faith' is something you can't measure or, in the end, say for sure. But it's as good a focal point as any for these kinds of discussions about authority, authenticity and truth, where there is inevitably more than one issue at stake.

And in the case of Frey, it seems to me that his single biggest crime in the eyes of those who have reviled him has been making a fool of Oprah. So here's a reading group discussion question: is that a bad thing?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Back from the abyss

Appearances to the contrary, I have not abandoned this blog. It's just that very little happens in the Aust Lit world over the Christmas/New Year break. But it's time to start sorting out one's working life v. one's Arts Festival program on a detailed daily basis (I have already made one bad double-booked blue here) and that means getting organised for Adelaide Writers' Week.

The Australian names I have ticked on the program as absolute must-sees include Robert Drewe, Delia Falconer, Helen Garner and Gail Jones, all of whom are Not From Here (which means I rarely get to see or hear them), and are not only exceptional writers but can be absolutely 100% counted on in any given public forum to have prepared carefully, to engage fully with whatever panel they're on and whoever is interviewing them, and to be interesting and civil no matter how brutal the hecklers or the weather.

Gail Jones has a new novel, Dreams of Speaking, that I think is even better than Sixty Lights. It's due out in February, so it will be particularly interesting to hear her talk about -- and, one hopes, read from -- that.

My deplorably predictable picks of the OS guests include Margaret Drabble, Val McDermid, Vikram Seth, Minette Walters and Simon Winchester, but that says more about my patchy knowledge than it does about the others on the list. What's happened at every writers' festival I've ever been to is that some totally unexpected star emerges and charms everybody. In 2000 it was US writer and academic Michael Ignatieff, now in politics, about whom there was a huge buzz by the end of the week.

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Minette Walters' Devil's Feather and it's reminding me why I stopped reading her stuff: while brilliant, it is too deeply creepy and weird to read for unadulterated pleasure. I managed to finished American Psycho -- yay me -- so can claim a reasonably strong stomach, but Walters is a much more sophisticated manipulator than Easton Ellis of narrative pace and of psychological extremes. Too often her message, or one of her messages, is that there is simply no place to hide, and this just is not something that I wish to know.

Often the first week of March in Adelaide is summer's last gasp, and since Writers' Week is still held at an outside venue, it can get pretty brutal. But it's never as bad as what usually happens at the Melbourne Writers' Festival*, with the August ice and sleet pelting down outside the Malthouse and five thousand people huddling in the indoor space, shouting at each other in order to be heard, pushing each other out of the way in the staircase queues and stinking of wet wool. True, the Adelaide punters tend to smell of wine and sweat by the end of a brutal day -- but at least we're outside.

*Note position of apostrophe. Robert Dessaix was once seen to look up from a program on which was written 'Melbourne Writer's Festival' and inquire gently 'Who is this lucky writer?'

Image from here, where there's also a full list of guests.