Monthly Archives: December 2009

I hope he’s now working on Exodus

R Crumb, The Book of Genesis Illustrated (Jonathan Cape 2009)

On the dust-jacket flap (yes, I read it in hardback, it was a Christmas present) we’re told that Crumb originally intended to do a ‘take-off of Adam and Eve’, but found himself so fascinated by the thing itself that the project transformed into this – a comic version of the whole book of Genesis, ‘NOTHING LEFT OUT!’ Being a bit slow on the uptake, I was still expecting that somehow this would be a crude and raunchy telling, a version for the irreligious.

Nup! It’s a straight graphic-novelisation. Admittedly, Crumb doesn’t shy away from the text’s abundant sex, violence and general skullduggery, but he doesn’t linger on it or portray it in lascivious detail. In fact, he has a couple of pages of lucid notes up the back proposing explanations for some of the more puzzlingly lurid behaviour of Abraham and Isaac, some of them drawing on feminist biblical scholarship (yes, that’s right, the creator of Fritz the Cat reads and refers his readers to feminist biblical scholarship).

My elder son, who is shamefully ill-informed about the foundational Judaeo-Christian texts, read the first few pages, and for the first time was full of questions about matters Biblical. I imagine some religious people might find the book a bit confronting, but if they were honest they would probably admit to finding it confronting even without Crumb’s contribution.

Arty sunny afternoon

Confounding the predictions, yesterday gave us deep blue skies all day. Two loads of washing dried on the line, the goldfish glowed in the murk of our little pond, and P and I took the light rail to Pyrmont and walked to the MCA.

There was a charge for Danish–Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson on the third floor, and a friend had been pretty lukewarm about him, so we decided to save our money (unusual for this time of year, I know) and visit it some other day. But the first, second and fourth floors fabulous enough.

The first and second are exhibiting a recent gift from Ann Lewis, an art collector so famous that even I had heard of her. It was wonderful to see shimmering works by Utopian ladies Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre, among other Aboriginal artists, displayed in the company of US big names Rauschenberg and Klippel  – Gloria Petyarre’s canvas filled with shimmering silver leaves is the single image that most grabbed me. There’s a little room of lovely photographs by Jon Lewis. Any relation? Well, yes, if the handwritten ‘For Annie (Grannie)’ written in the bottom border of one image means what it appears to.

Half of the fourth floor is given over to Forbidden, ‘the first in-depth solo exhibition’ of Fiona Foley’s work . Now, I am often impressed, bemused, amused or depressed by contemporary art, but I don’t often have a strong head-and-heart response. I did have to this exhibition. For example, the word Dispersal in big, chunky shiny aluminium letters, of which the initial D bristles with .303 bullets is a lot more than a clever reminder of the hideous use of that word in our colonial history. It stands next to a spiral of flour about three metres across, that needs constant attention from an attendant to maintain its crisp shape; the flour turns out to be part of an installation ‘Land Deal’, in which other objects representing those John Batman used to ‘buy’ the land where Melbourne was built hang on the wall. Nearby hangs a row of blankets, each inscribed with a single word, that conjure the experiences of Aboriginal women under colonialism. Elsewhere Foley places herself in photographs with titles like ‘Native Blood’ and ‘Modern Nomad’, that refer strongly to nineteenth century anthropological images. Evidently, earlier exhibitions have had titles like ‘Lick my black art’. Ok, lick it and weep.

The rest of the floor showcases new acquisitions. There’s a cute hologram that was popular with the very young (and others, including me), which could have been titled ‘Ghost Train’, but instead is called ‘You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally’. Danie Mellor made the cut with a sculpture that includes a shiny, mosaic kangaroo and a lifelike sulphur-crested cockatoo. I loved a video piece by Grant Stevens, in which an account of a dream is projected onto a wall in a way that controls the speed at which the viewer reads (or fails to read, because the pace picks up enormously in the middle).

Then we walked back to Pyrmont along the Hungry Mile, trying to figure out Paul Keating’s proposal for Barangaroo, and home to find the washing dry on the line.

SOS from three worlds

Murray Leinster, SOS from Three Worlds: Super-Medic for Interstellar Catastrophes (Ace Books 1966)

This book contains three stories in which interstellar medic Calhoun and his cute furry alien sidekick Murgatroyd visit farflung planets and foil evil or foolish plots involving major medical crises. They are straightforward space adventures with a touch of comedy and just enough space-tech stuff to reassure. The story is the thing. I suspect they’re the kind of stories that were killed by television, supplanted in the lives of young readers by the likes of Star Trek and Doctor Who. I mourn their passing.

According to the blurb, Murray Leinster (real name Will F Jenkins) had been writing science fiction since the early 1920s, and his work had appeared in many magazines, ‘both slick and pulp’. There are signs that he wrote quickly and was paid per word, but he wrote well, with a spring in the step. This little bit of technical writing from the first paragraph of the first story (variations on which recur regularly) is an accurate indication of the narrative’s cheerful engagement with technical matters:

The Med Ship did something equivalent to making  a hole, crawling into it, and then pulling it in after itself. In fact, it went into overdrive.

On the basis of the cover and the blurb, I was expecting a museum piece, but actually the book is great fun. My sorrow at its being out of print since 1966 was mollified when I discovered that Leinster wrote a total of eight Super-Medic stories, and in 2001 all eight were collected into an omnibus, Med Ship, edited by Eric Flint. There are lots of bits of Calhoun and Murgatroyd online if you want a taste.

Obligatory seasonal post

I jumped the gun with my Tim Minchin post, and now I’m left feeling that if I don’t say something here about the last couple of days my silence will be eloquent with a meaning I have no intention of conveying. So here you go, my seasonal post.

A number of people whom I respect and like have taken up anti-Christmas positions. It’s not just that they hate Christmas. They believe that the only people who should celebrate it are practising Christians, that the rest of us are just being suckered in by capitalism to perform environmentally, socially, politically and/or spiritually repugnant acts, that we’re also playing into a sidelining, or worse, of people who come from non-Christian religious and cultural traditions.

I respectfully take a different view. (So do my Jewish next door neighbours, but that’s another story.)It’s not just that Christmas is (in this hemisphere) a summer solstice festival, or – like the current incarnation of Australia Day – that any public holiday is cause for celebration. Christmas, in my atheistic mind, is specifically about something real and humanly central.

When walking the dog on Friday morning, I tried to think why it mattered to me. I decided, with striking lack of originality, that at the heart of Christmas is an image of a newborn child, the idea that the birth of a child is a cosmic event. That’s something that has meaning for me. I remember in the middle of all the intense emotion around my own first baby’s birth having a sense of having engaged with a deep mystery, and the phrase in my head that expressed it, ‘Unto us a child is born.’ That is to say, all the singing and talking and reading about the Manger etc in my childhood had been laying down templates, had been a kind of preparation for parenthood.

If your birthday is the day when you are celebrated just for having been born, Christmas is the day when we, or at least I, do that for all of us. It’s a time for celebrating the fact that we were all babies once, for acknowledging our shared humanity (‘goodwill to all’), our connection with each other – friends and family, mainly, but also strangers walking their dogs and, for people more civic minded than I am, the homeless and potential recipients of  Oxfam goats.

That’s it. Happy Christmas!

My ruminations did move on, to wondering if this emphasis on the child is particular to the Christian tradition. It occurred to me that Eid l-’Aḍḥā, described by one of the participants in Bankstown Pressure Cooks as being about ‘the sacrifice of the sheep’, is connected. There’s no cute baby, but the event being celebrated is the angel’s intervention in Ibrahim/Abraham’s sacrifice of  his son (Isaac in the Hebrew Bible, Ishmael in the Holy Koran), and directing him to sacrifice a sheep instead. I think of this story as a record of the moment in the history of the Semitic peoples when human sacrifice came to an end. Obviously I don’t have any of the insider’s grasp of the emotional meaning of the Eid, but it seems a fair enough speculation that it too is about a joyful honouring of the human.

Belatedly, Happy Eid!

Any thoughts on other traditions, anyone?

Recent journals (2) – Overland 197

Jeff Sparrow (ed), Overland issue 197 (OL Society December 2009)

overland 197I initially intended to write a single post about the three journals that arrived in my letterbox this month, but after rabbiting on about Heat at such length I decided I’d better split them up.

In a world where passionate anti-Communist Robert Manne  has been described as a preeminent lefty, there’s clearly a crying need for Overland, whose Communist Party origins flutter from its masthead in the slogan, ‘Progressive Culture since 1954’ (and smirk on the back cover in a quote from The Australian describing it as ‘loopy-Left’). Even before the recent online Subscriberthon I’d been thinking of subscribing – I loved (and blogged about) the biography of Guido Baracchi, Communism: a Love Story, written by current editor, Jeff Sparrow, and I have been a freeloader (ie, online reader) for some time.

After the mainly elevated austerity of Heat, Overland‘s direct speech is refreshing. You won’t find essays here that begin as dauntingly as ‘It was while reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s monumental study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, that I fell into an “epileptiform” state’ or ‘I have long associated landscape with passion and solace, and with the urge to record it’. Instead, we get ‘Last Sunday I went to church to be with my father, to say goodbye,’ or ‘Sometimes in life you get lucky.’ Not that the Overland pieces lack heft. The former introduces ‘My Father’s Body‘, Francesca Rendle-Short’s moving and, for my money, profound essay on her relationship with her father who has Alzheimer’s. The latter leads in to Fiona Capp’s ‘The Lost Garden‘, an extract from her My Blood’s Country, which promises to demonstrate Judith Wright’s continuing relevance (‘These hills and valleys were – not mine, but me …’).

There is some engaging fiction, some punchy argument (a trenchant go at Nick Cave, who is a closed book to me so I don’t mind one way or the other), short reviews, engaging essays (Sophie Cunningham, just popping over from Meanjin, visits the drains of Melbourne; Thomas Rye visits an island in Arnhem Land), a swathe of poems. There’s nothing I recognise as loopy-Left, though there are two very interesting articles – one on Ruddism and the other on education as export and its relationship to border control –  written in learned-Left language that makes for hard going (‘The CFMEU and other Left trade unionists wish to increase control of the borders of their labour markets at the point of intersection with the borders of the nation, and definitions of “Australians”‘).

The whole content is available online. I’ve linked to the articles I particularly liked.
I’ve been lamenting the frequent copy-edit and/or proofing mistakes in Heat for a while. I kept my carping eye peeled for Overland as well. Interestingly enough, although Overland doesn’t include a credit for a copy editor (as Heat does), it doesn’t have anything like the same incidence of irritating and sometimes perplexing mis-edits and typos. There is a spot where lay and laid are used in place of lie and lay , but as this happens consistently over a number of paragraphs I’m willing to put it down to a difference of opinion (in which, of course, they are completely wrong!) rather than sloppiness or ignorance.

Armantrout on the trot

Rae Armantrout , Up to Speed (Wesleyan University Press 2004)

As I was reading this book on the way to the Fish Markets this morning (Christmas Eve), a friend called from where she was supervising her dog in the Harbour: ‘what are you reading?’

‘Mostly incomprehensible poetry,’ I called back. ‘But she’s just described time as

a ghostly appendage
of uncertain length.’    [from ‘In Time’]

‘Hm,’ said my friend, ‘that’s pretty nice,’ and we returned to our dogs.

There’s not a lot more I want to say, except that there are many lovely moments in these 80 pages, and a lot of stuff that I don’t get (but I don’t necessarily need to). Possibly my favourite lines, from ‘Another Sense’:

I don’t mind
I’m in hell

I can learn it
again and again.

Agitator and Regurgitator

Weeks ago we left Nessie alone in the house longer than she was happy about, and her good leather lead that had cost us $75 or so to buy and another $20 or so to repair when she’s bitten through it on a previous occasion, was reachable. We came home to find an awful lot of the lead had vanished. This time it was beyond repair, and we now have a cheaper and we hope less edible replacement. Yesterday – after 17 days in which I had marvelled at the efficiency of the canine digestive system as Nessie filled plastic bag after plastic bag with rich, unleathery fecal matter – we found on side path half a dozen inch-long pieces of leather in a shallow pool of digestive foam, back from a place where it’s too dark to read. The foam had dried off by the time I took this photo, for your edification:

But storing strips of leather somewhere inside them isn’t the only cute trick dogs are capable of. Nessie’s little friend Oscar has discovered our back yard pond and has had a marvellous time swimming round in it, churning up the sediment, totally disrupting the irises’ equilibrium, and possibly even scaring the living daylights out of our incredibly self-reliant fish. Here he is, turning what had been a pleasant pool into a wallow.

See! Dogs are so much more fun than cats.

Shuttling wind

I’m genuinely sorry that Quadrant‘s Literature Board grant has been cut. Quadrant is one of a tiny handful of publications that has actually paid me money for stuff I’ve written. But Keith Windschuttle doesn’t do anything for his reputation, such as it is, for distinguishing between verifiable fact and self-serving opinion or even pure invention when he asserts, ‘This Literature Board has made a patently political decision.’ He characterises Meanjin, Overland and Australian Book Review as ‘overtly left-wing publications’ and asserts that they carry only a fraction of Quadrant‘s literary content.

Well, Meanjin and Overland may come out less frequently than Quadrant, and Overland may be described in the pages of The Australian as loony left. But for what it’s worth, I think Windschuttle is blowing smoke. I’m most of the way through the current Overland, and at a rough count I’d say all but 10 of its 104 pages are taken  up with literary content, as opposed to roughly a third of the 96-page issue of Quadrant I have to hand (March 2007). If Quadrant comes out twice as often as Overland, that suggests something like 64 pages of literary content to Overland‘s 90. Of course, it depends what you call literary: I’m including an analysis of the art of computer games in one publication and some intensely political book reviews in the other. Also of course, 90/64 is still a fraction, so Windschuttle’s assertion may still be literally correct. It’s been a while since I read an issue of Meanjin. I had a look at a copy in Gleebooks the other day and was deterred from buying it by the sheer number of words: tiny type and hundreds of pages. Good luck to them whose eyes are up to  it, I thought. Windschuttle’s claim looks even less plausible there.

As for the overtly left-wing qualities, I would have thought that Overland‘s left perspective was at least as unwelcome in Kevin Rudd’s parlour as Quadrant‘s right. Overland published Germaine Greer’s intemperate criticism of Rudd earlier this year, and the current issue’s one piece of political commentary, Guy Rundle’s ‘When the rubric hits the Rudd’ (terrible title), includes this:

Ruddism is a mode of post-social democratic labour adapted to Australian conditions and history, one that displays no real interest in challenging an atomised neoliberal social order and must therefore explore increasingly specific coercive measures in the management of a population.

Yes, Keith, one can just see Kevin on the phone to his minions at the Australia Council: ‘Send that man a pile of gold.’

Recent journals (1) – Heat 21

Ivor Indyk (ed), Heat 21: Without a paddle (Giramondo December 2009)

Some of the reasons why you should subscribe to Heat, or at least read it:

1. Worthiness. Your money and attention help to sustain cosmopolitan Australian literary culture.

2. Self-protection. Extracts from works in progress allow you to prejudge the finished work. I’ve decided to avoid a significant number of award winning books on the basis of such advance warnings, and I’m likely to steer clear of one or two foreshadowed in this issue. The poetry provides a similar warning function: poetry is so much a matter of taste, and journals like Heat can play the crucial role of taster. And there are the critical pieces: on the strength of Kate Lilley’s detailed exposition of Susan Howe’s The Midnight, I won’t go looking for it any time soon (far too rich and recondite for my thin blood); Peter Craven’s critical review has put me right off Brian Matthews’s biography of Manning Clark. But it hasn’t enamoured me of Peter Craven: he’s bracingly forthright in his judgements, and even when he’s completely wrong-headed he provokes interesting conversations, but he comes across as too full of himself and too pugnacious for me to actively seek him out.

3. Titillation. Then there are the poems and extracts from works in progress that have the opposite effect. Poems from, among others, Pam Brown, Ken Bolton, Chris Price make me want more.

4. Education. In this issue, Josiane Behmoiras embeds an introduction to the work of Paul Virilio, a cutting edge French thinker, in an account of her recent trip to France (complete with implied travel advisories on the stench of urine by the Seine and problems with Australian Visa cards on the Metro); where her discussion of his work descends from glorious abstraction, it seems to be arrive at important conclusions about how we should live, very close to those of Bill McKibben’s much less abstruse Deep Economy.

The four-colour section in the middle introduces us to the  painter Jon Campbell, and offers us a hand in understanding why we should be interested in his work.

5. Base pleasure. Maybe this is only for people who are or have ever been editors, but Heat can be counted on for regular hits of the sour pleasure of Other People’s Gaffes. The best one in this issue occurs in a poem: ‘a woman rides a / pink vesper that you could / park anywhere’. I’m reasonably sure the poet had a chic little Vespa scooter in mind rather than an evening star blazing to the kerb in the sky.

6. More substantial pleasure. This is of course the real reason for reading Heat at all.

Here, Jena Woodhouse interviews Michael Hofmann, poet and translator, and though her introductory paragraphs use rude words like polytropic, once we get to Hofmann himself the prose becomes a joy to read.

Luke Carman’s three prose pieces gathered under the title ‘The Easy Interactions of an Elegant Young Man’ have a wonderful, disturbingly comic cumulative effect. Part way through the second I realised I saw him read similar work at the Sydney Writer’s Festival earlier this year, and described his reading as rapidfire and surreal. It works that way on the page as well.

And then there’s James Ley’s ‘A Degree of Insanity’, a straightforward, intelligent essay on Samuel Johnson that is splendid in itself, not least because it quotes generously from Johnson’s sonorous prose. Its appearance in this journal gives added pleasure, as it seems to send ricochets out, pinging off the rest of the content. Peter Craven, for example, drops a couple of Johnson’s famous quips into his argument for no apparent reason other than to establish his own gravitas. The notion, from Johnson’s Rasselas, that ‘all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity’ bounces prettily off the mild derangement of Luke Carman’s pieces and some of the poetry. The excitement surrounding literary journals in eighteenth century London sparks reflections about the role of their descendants in our time, Heat among them.

Next:  Overland issue 197.

More proof that sexism is rife in the land

Even though there’s a certain amount of merriment in the media just about every time Senator Steve Fielding opens his mouth, the response to him has been positively respectful compared to what would have happened if he had been a woman.

Where’s the drag queen equivalent of Pauline Pantsdown – Steve Feeldong? Where are the catchcry equivalents of ‘Please Explain!’ – ‘My vote does count,’ say, or ‘I don’t know about that in detail’? Where’s the spoof site to match the now apparently defunct

I’m not pleading for the poor senator to be subjected to degrading personal insult, but don’t you think it’s interesting?