Tuesday, November 03, 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


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