Monthly Archives: June 2020

Margaret Simons’s Cry Me a River

Margaret Simons, Cry Me a River: The tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay 77, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78)

I came to this Quarterly Essay with dramatic images in my mind: outraged farmers making a bonfire of the newly published guide to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in 2010; millions of dead fish near the Menindee Lakes the summer before last; die-back by the Murray and great stretches of parched river-bed in the Darling. There was also video, of water flowing down the Darling in February and finally reaching the Murray in May, for the first time in two years.

This Quarterly Essay was written before and during the fires that ended 2019 and began 2020. As Margaret Simons was finishing it there was rain over most of the Murray–Darling Basin and the renewed flow of the Darling was approaching Burke. The political environment was also shifting: in February David Littleproud was replaced as the relevant Federal minister by Keith Pitt.

The Murray–Darling river system covers more than a million square kilometres. It’s one of the largest drainage areas in the world. It’s of huge cultural significance to First Nations peoples. A huge amount of Australia’s food is produced by farmers who use water from the Murray–Darling to irrigate their crops. More than three million people rely on it for their drinking water. ‘But,’ Simons writes,

we are all in trouble. Over the latter part of the last century, it became clear that the river system was at breaking point. It could die. All that went with it – money, livelihoods, sense of nation – was at risk.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was developed by the Commonwealth government as ‘the first attempt to manage the Basin as a whole, and to make its use sustainable’.

The Plan is beset by what one man calls ‘politics gone feral’: the Commonwealth vs the states, state vs state (New South Wales being the stand-out non-cooperation), Barnaby Joyce, the National Party vs the Hunters and Fishers while Labor, after initially making progress, is missing in action, bureaucracy vs the people on the ground, cotton growers vs family farms, almonds vs everything else, upstream irrigators vs downstream irrigators, environmental scientists vs vested interests, accusations of theft and corruption, ‘pervasive lack of trust in governments of all complexions’, the South Australian Royal Commission giving everyone ‘a terrible pasting’. There is an alarming degree mutual incomprehension between people who live in the large cities of the south-east and those who live and work on the land.

Margaret Simons went on a road trip through all this with the aim of putting flesh on the bones of the abstract arguments. She interviewed people who were keen to have their point of view herd, and people who didn’t believe a journalist would ever represent them accurately. At one point, a companion asked her which of her interviewees would be most unhappy with the essay:

 I replied that I thought everyone would be unhappy. That is the nature of the issue, of the failure of governance, dating back more than a century, that the Murray-Darling Basin represents.

I hope she’s wrong. Many voices are heard through this essay, from Badger Bates, a Barkandji elder, to Philip Glyde, one of the bureaucrats most responsible for the implementation of the Plan. Simons doesn’t pretend to the ‘he said she said’ brand of journalistic objectivity, but she leaves room for the reader’s judgements. The result isn’t a coherent argument, but the picture that emerges is that the difficulties caused by drought have been made worse, to the point of calamity, by mismanagement and poor governance, by making water into a commodity to be traded. At the same time, she makes clear the size and complexity of the challenge of bringing the river system back from the brink.

In the last couple of pages, Simons talks about climate change. She met only one denier, she said, but when she raised the subject with farmers, mostly the response was ‘a million-mile stare’. Reading the essay I could feel my own million-mile stare coming on: if the challenge of saving one river system from devastation under capitalism and electoral democracy is so overwhelming, what will it take to stave off the impending multi-faceted disaster from climate change?

And on that note, I turned to the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78 (itself about another climate change pressure point, Australia’s coal addiction).

With the exception of an academic whose scholarly critics were given voce in the essay, and the acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the correspondents confirm my sense that the essay presents a dependable account of the situation. A number of them expand on the theme of climate change. Some discuss the way Covid-19 changes the context by making it more problematic to import food, at least in the short run. A number of people who feature in the essay spell out their arguments more fully. Maybe I can finish by quoting the final paragraphs from Maryanne Slattery, who was a director of the Murray–Darling for more than decade, then senior water researcher for the Australia Institute, and now a director of an independent water consultancy:

The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exist. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. Covid-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.

If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-put regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.

May this essay be widely read as a substantial contribution to public debate that doesn’t fall into for-the-Plan/against-the-Plan and other binaries.


Cry Me a River is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain (University of Queensland Press 2020)

There are precious few books set in North Queensland. This is one. Its first epigraph is a quote from Taam Sze Pui, whose Innisfail department store, known as See Poy’s, was still going strong in my 1950s childhood, dominating the street corner opposite the gate to King George V Memorial Park. In honour of that epigraph, I’ve just retrieved from oblivion a couple of earlier posts that referred to Taam Sze Pui, here and here. It reads:

To search for gold was like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea.

So Mirandi Riwoe had me at the epigraph. She kept me with her story-telling. A young Chinese woman Ying and her brother Lai Yue have come to the Palmer River goldfields in North Queensland in the mid 19th century, intending to return home when they have accumulated enough wealth to save their mother from poverty and buy their siblings back from servitude. Their story unfolds in triplets, each comprising a chapter from Ying’s point of view, a second from Lai Yue’s, and a third from the point of view of Meriem, a young white woman who is the maid to a sex worker in Maytown, a settlement close to the goldfield.

The book is firmly within an Australian tradition. There are echoes of Henry Handel Richardson in the descriptions of goldfields hardships; of Joseph Furphy in the woman disguised as a boy to survive in the harsh male world; of Henry Lawson in the man going quietly desperately mad in a lonely shepherd’s hut; of Barbara Baynton in the brutal violence endured by Meriem’s employer. But that tradition expands before our eyes as Chinese characters take centre stage, dealing with harsh oppression as well as the generally harsh conditions, escaping into an opium haze, negotiating issues around language and names (‘Jimmy’ or ‘Wui Hing’), reaching tentatively and sometimes tenderly across the racial divide, communing with the ghosts of those left behind, balancing the yearning for home against the appeal of the freedoms in the new land.

The Chinese characters are not absolved of complicity in the violent dispossession of First Nations people, and I was relieved when the possibility of romance was raised only to be sorrowfully dismissed. The story moves along so smoothly that you hardly notice how much of this is new in an Australian historical novel, and how much you trust that it’s underpinned by solid research.

Thanks, Mirandi Riwoe, for adding so elegantly to the slender stock of books about the place I came from.


Stone Sky Gold Mountain is the eleventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

SWF 2020, Post 3

The Sydney Writers’ Festival 2020 didn’t happen, but it’s still going. I’ve now listened to five more sessions about books that I haven’t read: rich conversations between authors none of whose books I’ve read (though I have read shorter pieces by some of them), sometimes about other authors whose books I haven’t read.

Philippe Sands: The Ratline 27 May

Otto von Wächter was one of Nazi Germany’s mass murderers. In 1945 he disappeared from public view and turned up dead in a Roman hospital four and a half years later. Philippe Sands, barrister and author of other books about Nazi leaders, gained possession of a huge trove of the papers of von Wächter and his wife Charlotte, and set about rediscovering the story of this almost forgotten Nazi. He produced a podcast and radio series and now a book: The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive.

This is a terrific conversation between Sands and SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen. Because of his access to private papers – given to him by von Wächter’s son Horst – Sands has been able to give an account of Wächter’s personal life and relationships.

At the end of the conversation, Janice Petersen asked why he thinks there is such a continuing interest in the Nazis. He confirmed her premise: if you put the word ‘Nazi’ in a book’s title or subtitle, he said, its sales in the UK increase by 50 percent, though it’s probably not the same in other parts of the world, including the US.

For the British in part it’s a reminder of what is seen as a glorious episode, the vanquishing of evil, and it is also the fact that the people we are dealing with were highly educated, highly cultured, highly intelligent, highly organised and they left behind a wealth of detail. …
I think what’s different in this case is Charlotte. Charlotte is the beating heart of this story because Otto was not alone, Otto had a close, loving, dutiful, intelligent, articulate, literate wife who recorded the totality and so we’re able to get another perspective, and that enables us to think a little bit more about the question, ‘How is it possible?’ and the related question that any reasonable person might ask themselves, ‘Could I do it?’ …
In our own countries, we cross lines. In Britain as in Australia, the treatment of refugees and of certain minorities is a very very big issue. Some of the conditions, for example, in which women refugees are being held in Britain and of course the treatment in Australia of the refugee community, parts of it, parking them on faraway islands, raise very serious questions. It raises to my mind a most serious question which is evoked indirectly in The Ratline, ‘What happens when we commit ourselves as a society to cross a line?’ The lesson of Otto Wächter is that once you’ve crossed one line it becomes a lot easier to cross another line. …


James Bradley: Ghost Species 1 June

I hope to read one of James Bradley’s books one day. But as I’ve heard quite a lot of him on the radio recently, I skipped through this conversation with Cassie McCullagh of ABC Radio’s The Bookshelf about his most recent book, Ghost Species, in which there is a project to resurrect extinct species, including Neanderthal humans. In my skipping, I heard some fascinating tidbits, including this about the role of CliFi, as someone is calling fiction about climate change:

We inhabit this weird space where we know what’s going on but we don’t let ourselves know.
One of the things fiction can do is let you sit in that space for a while and let you actually let go of having to keep that other stuff at bay. You can encounter your anxieties, think about them. …
One of the things that fiction helps people do is to find their way to a space of acceptance, that space of recognising the reality of things, which seems to me to be a good place to get to, because if people get there then we can start having honest conversations about where we are.


Cassandra Pybus: Truganini 3 June

Truganini is on my TBR shelf. This is a brilliant conversation about it. Its by Cassandra Pybus, white historian, whose family ‘owned’ land on Bruny Island, Truganini’s country, land that Truganini visited often in her last years. By all accounts, including the account given in this podcast, Her book reclaims Truganini’s memory from the prevailing image of her as the archetypical victim of colonial violence, ‘the last Tasmanian’, and presents her as a woman who was never colonised, who was resourceful and strategic and ultimately in important ways successful.

Here she talks with, Jakelin Troy, a Ngarigu woman from south-eastern Australia and professor the University of Sydney, who clearly loves the book, and loves that Cassandra Pybus has written it:

For me, as an Aboriginal woman, it’s so important to have this story told, and by somebody who is an expert at interrogating the historical record but who can bring out the reality of the story. It’s obviously something that has become part of your own story. I love when you say that Truganini inhabits you now. I’m sure that’s what she intended to do by continuing to walk across your family’s country, which was her family’s country. She was making the point, I’m sure she was making the point, that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.


Kay Kerr: Please Don’t Hug Me 3 June

This is a conversation between two neurodivergent women from southern Queensland, both of whom have young-adult novels appearing at about the time of the conversation. The focus is on Kay Kerr’s epistolary novel Please Don’t Hug Me, but there is frequent reference to Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley, her interlocutor.

Both women are smart, charming and have interesting things to say, especially about autism and prevalent misconceptions about people living with autism.

If this had been a live event, I would have been hoping someone would ask about ‘own voices’, a term they used to describe their books. The term is close to self-explanatory, and I’d heard it vaguely in the past, but it sounded as if there was history attached to it. I the absence of a Q&A session, I went online, and found that #OwnVoices is a hashtag originated in 2015 by Dutch writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy novels, Corinne Duyvis (a longish interview with her about the hashtag is at this link).

A quick look around Young Adult publishers’ sites shows that the hashtag has taken off, and though sometimes used as a weapon by call-out warriors, it represents a powerful movement to recognise that the best people to write about a marginalised group are those who experience that marginalisation. Both participants in this conversation are #ownvoices authors about characters on the autism spectrum.


Eimear McBride: Strange Hotel 9 Jun, 2020

I heard Eimear McBride read, beautifully, from her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing at the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Here she talks to Heather Rose (whose books are on my TBR list) abut her third novel, Strange Hotel. I enjoyed the conversation. Unlike A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the new novel is punctuated conventionally, but the author says she doesn’t think it’s any easier to understand (she’s a big fan of Joyce and Beckett). She read an excerpt, which was beautifully written, but – and this says more about me than her – it’s a scene where the protagonist is in a hotel in Auckland, and thinks of herself as being at the very edge of the earth, about to go over the edge. This raised my antipodean hackles. I was reminded of a British writer who visited my student household in the early 1970s and treated us to a stoned fantasy about how the edge of the world lay just outside the heads of Sydney Harbour. Too easy, and too unaware of the audience.


Coming when I’ve listened to them: Bob Brown and some interesting-sounding genre fiction, but still no books I’ve read.

My Brilliant Friend at the Book Group

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions 2012)
Elena Ferrante, L’amica geniale (e-book, Edizioni e/o 2011)

Before the Book Group meeting: This month’s Chooser nominated My Brilliant Friend in response to an interest in translation expressed at our last meeting (about Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk, blog post here). Given the years of buzz about Elena Ferrante and her series The Neapolitan Novels, it’s amazing that none of us had read this until now. This was a chance to find out what the fuss was about.

As I imagine everyone knows, this is the story of the friendship between two girls in a poor neighbourhood of Naples, starting when they are both in the first year of primary school and ending at the marriage of one of them. Though there is a kind of resolution at the end, this is clearly the first instalment of a long story, and a brief prologue in which the sixty-something narrator speaks to the forty-year-old son of her friend offers tantalising hints about where the narrative will go.

The narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter. Her friend is Lila Cerullo, whose father is a shoe repairer. From the beginning, Lila is unpredictable, moody, a little dangerous, and, well, brilliant. Elena is more conventional, is in awe of Lila, and is also, in a more socially-approved way, brilliant. They both do well at school, until Lila drops out because she is needed at home, but then it turns out that Lila is keeping up with what Elena is learning by borrowing books from a library: she gives Elena hints about how to translate from Greek that help her excel in the classroom.

Elena is constantly in competition with Lila, now happy to know she is ahead of her (in schoolwork, in having her periods), now wretched when Lila excels (in her grasp of school subjects she is learning from books, in her attractiveness to men). It’s a striking rendition of a friendship that includes intense affection, resentment, irritation, envy and devotion.

The social environment of post-war Naples is graphically realised. Though the city is on the coast, the little girls have never seen the sea, and when they decide to go there the adventure comes to nothing. There’s a marvellous scene when a group of teenagers decide to visit a posh part of town, and it’s like being on another planet. In the coming of age process, Elena gradually learns about history – about Fascism, the war and war profiteering. At the very end of the novel, she’s sixteen years old and realises that if she starts to read newspapers and journals, beyond the novels that are all she has read until then, she will learn about how the world works.

I enjoyed the novel, but am successfully quelling any urge to get hold of the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name / Storia del nuovo cognome.

I bought a digital copy in the original Italian, so as to put at least some attention to the translation.

My high school Latin teacher once wrote ‘Good attempt’ on a translation of mine, and then was at pains to explain that this was high praise. All anyone can do is attempt to translate: it’s impossible to find an exact equivalent in one language for something written in another. ‘Traduttore traditore,’ he said, ‘Translator, traitor.’ I can’t comment on the accuracy of Ann Goldstein’s translation. I can see that her frequent run-on sentences are faithful to the original, for example, but I have no idea whether they are as irritating in Italian as they are in English.

One thing that snagged my attention is the title. In Italian it’s L’amica geniale, literally The brilliant friend. Why the change from the to my, I wondered, especially as the only time the phrase occurs in the book it’s used by Lila to describe the narrator. The Italian title leaves room for either of the friends to be the brilliant one. The English, sadly in my opinion, removes any ambiguity.

The other thing that struck me is a kind of clunkiness in the English –adverbs in an unusual order, and other places where the language doesn’t feel like that of a native English speaker. I was surprised to discover not only that Ann Goldstein is an English speaker, but that she learned Italian as an adult and works for The New Yorker, which is notoriously sticklerish for correct American English usage.

Look at this, the death of Don Achille, who was a kind of Godfather figure to the neighbourhood:

He was in the kitchen, and had just opened the window to let in the rain-freshened air. He had got up from bed to do so, interrupting his nap. He had on worn blue pajamas, and on his feet only socks of a yellowish color, blackened at the heels. As soon as he opened the window a gust of rain struck his face and someone plunged a knife into the right side of his neck, halfway between the jaw and the clavicle.

(Page 83)

Something about that last sentence felt awkward and anticlimactic on first reading. I read on, of course, but some corner of my mind marked the place. Just now, I looked up the Italian:

Era in cucina, aveva appena aperto la finestra per far entrare l’aria fresca della poggia. S’era alzato dal letto apposta, interrompendo la controra. Indossava un pigiama celeste molto usurato, ai piedi aveva solo calzini d’un colore gialliccio annerito ai calcagni. Appena aprì la finestra gli arrivò in faccia uno sbuffo di poggia e sul late destro del collo, proprio a mezza strada tra la mandibola e la clavicola, un colpo di coltello.

The first two sentences are straightforward (though ‘had on worn blue pyjamas’ is clumsy – why not ‘was wearing threadbare pyjamas’?). They establish a mundane domestic setting for the shock that is to come. But then the translation makes three choices in the final sentence that diminish that shock. First, why translate clavicola with the technical ‘clavicle’ rather than the everyday ‘collarbone’, especially when, thankfully, mandibola becomes ‘jaw’ rather than ‘mandible’? Second, the Italian language’s flexibility with word order allows the action to become apparent only in the last three words of the sentence (colpo di cotello = ‘knife-blow’), an effect lost in translation. Third, while the structure of the Italian sentence pairs the knife-blow with the gust of rain – so two things came at Don Achille through the window, one mundane and the other deadly – the English introduces ‘someone’ and ruins the parallel. Something like this would be truer to the original:

As soon as he opened the window, there came a gust of rain to his face, and to the right side of his neck, halfway between jaw and collarbone, a knife-blow.

My impression is that a lot of the translation is like that: sometimes keeping too close to the Italian rather than using a more natural English equivalent, sometimes departing too far from the Italian and losing rhetorical or dramatic effects.

I’m starting to sound like Brother Gerard, my Latin and French teacher from nearly 60 years ago. So, even though I cherish his memory, I guess that means it’s time to stop.

After the meeting: There was a brief online debate about whether we should meet in person or on screens, Screens won out, for now.

My NBN connection isn’t robust enough for zoom meeting in the evening, and I ended up joining the meeting on my phone. Next time I’ll do it on the computer using the phone’s hotspot to connect, but this time that didn’t want to work either, so I spent the two hours squinting at four faces at a time out of the eleven participants, and I expect my hand-held image wobbled annoyingly. But I won’t complain about zoom: it brought us the lovely moment when one chap said he had a son and a daughter, and a young face joined his on the screen, saying ‘I’m the daughter!’

Most of the chaps, many sporting scrappy Corona beards, loved the book. My complaints about clunkiness and quibbles about the translation were mostly received without sympathy. The simple solution to discontent with translation from Italian, I was told, was not to know Italian.

I was the second least enthusiastic. The least enthusiastic remained silent for a long time, and then, when prompted, said he had only kept reading out of love for the rest of us. He also said that as he listened to the discussion, he could see why he should have enjoyed the book, which is pretty much how I felt. I enjoyed it, but I never got invested in it. Others got really involved: remembering the politics of their own childhood communities, reflecting on male violence, recalling their own visits to Naples, being swept along by the story and experiencing shocks of recognition, even – at least one chap said – falling in love with Lila.

More than one had started reading the second book, and next meeting’s Chooser said he’ll be nominating the fourth book. I’m hoping it was a joke-threat.

Lisa Gorton’s Empirical

Lisa Gorton, Empirical (Giramondo 2019)

This is a book in two sections. The first, shorter section. ‘Empirical’, consists of eight poems related to Melbourne’s Royal Park. The second, ‘Crystal Palace’, deals with works of art – the Aphrodite of Melos/Venus de Milo, poems by Rimbaud and Coleridge.

A disclaimer: I’m not a critic. If you want to read a discussion of this book by someone who understands contemporary poetics, I recommend Michael Farrell’s flashily academic review in the Sydney Review of Books (link here) or David McCooey’s in ABR (link here), which is accessible in full only to subscribers.

The first seven poems, ‘Empirical’ I to VII, are deeply rooted in a particular place. The first poem (which you can read here) begins with a description:

A factory, the train line curving off
to cross the motorway – between them this
falling away of ground – two or three acres
where for years the council trucks
brought building rubble – mounds of shattered concrete,
brick shards, piping, steel mesh heaped here
where grass succeeds itself and flowering weeds

The poem’s speaker walks into ‘the wreckage’, and the reader, this one at least, is right there with her. Then the perspective shifts, as I read it, to the speaker’s subjectivity: she is transported to a place from her early life, perhaps a kind of template of place:

and it is the first place, place itself
grown inward to my sight, along the side of the house,
in the playground where dry ground
slants to the fence

And now I start to have trouble following. The weeds ‘have made for me a heraldry of my forgetting’, perhaps like the smell of the madeleine dipped in tilleul for Proust,

__________________________ and set me here
in its abyss giving the bright scenes place –
which is to say I have not seen it yet

This isn’t difficulty for its own sake, but a struggle to articulate what is happening for the speaker: the first thirteen lines have established the physical reality of the place, but all she can actually see is what she brings to it, so it becomes impossible to see in its own right. That’s a familiar line of reasoning among philosophers of epistemology, but here it’s not so much a line of reasoning as a description, even an enactment, of a mental process. Then the speaker takes a leap to imagine what it is that she cannot see. The place, the poem ends, is

__________________________ to itself a storm
perpetually in the front of light –

I can’t paraphrase that, and I don’t think I’m meant to. It’s reaching for something that can’t quite be said. The dash at the end suggests to me that the poem hasn’t so much finished as gone as far as it can go and then stopped.

Each of the seven ‘Empirical’ poems begins similarly with physical description, and ends similarly with a non-conclusive dash, with a similar play between what the place is in and of itself on the one hand, and what the observer/poet/artist can make of it on the other.

The eighth poem, ‘Royal Park’, begins with an echo of the start of the first poem:

A factory, the train line curving off to cross the motorway –

The reader realises, if she, or he, hasn’t already read the cover blurb, that the ‘two or three acres’ of the first seven poems is Melbourne’s Royal Park, or at least part of it.

This is a longer poem, which I found completely engrossing. It tells the history of that piece of ground, beginning with Batman and ‘what he called his treaty’. It consists mainly of a kind of collage of quotes – what the academics ‘bricolage’. A list of sources in a note up the back takes four pages: archival documents, paintings, maps, newspaper stories, learned articles. The park has been the site of a zoo, an orphanage and truant school combined, a quarantine station, a digging ground for beginners in geology, an exhibition ground for the ‘Centennial Exhibition’, a military camp, a rifle range, a Military Mental Hospital, a public recreation area. And for each of these incarnations there’s colour and movement.

In an author’s note that the publisher enclosed with my review copy, Lisa Gorton writes:

I was provoked by a statement in a heritage assessment of Royal Park that Andrew Long and Associates carried out for the government, in preparation for the East-West Link: ‘This location would not appear to have been of great likely attraction to Aboriginal past populations given its distance to local watercourses.’ This claim seemed to me to epitomise how a manufactured landscape can conceal the history of country. The ground now named Royal Park opened out alongside the Moonee Moonee chain of ponds … The dark and remarkable history of this patch of ground set up a drama of surface and depth, remembering and forgetting.’

The poem doesn’t presume to speak of or for the Aboriginal people whose country this is. It’s a colonial history of that patch of ground. It’s a mighty act of reclaiming collective memory.

In the second part of the book, the longest poem ‘Life Writing’, subtitled ‘Of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan‘, does bricolage on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his poem ‘Kubla Khan’, the historical Kublai Khan, and a constellation of related subjects. It’s likewise full of bright colour and engaging movement, though possibly because it doesn’t have the chronological through-line of ‘Royal Park’, I fond I got lost a number of times.

I am in awe of Lisa Gorton’s erudition and her ability to put words together. I’m grateful for the moments of deep pleasure I’ve found in this book.


Empirical is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing, for which I am grateful.

Proust Progress Report 10:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve now been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for ten months. One unexpected feature of this project is that Proust and this work keep turning up elsewhere. It’s happened least twice this month.

First, on a recent episode of the ABC’s Conversations podcast, the guest Maira Kalman told Sarah Kanowski about a ‘Proust group’ – eight people who read the whole of ‘Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time‘ over seven years, a year for each volume. They read 50 pages a month, and met monthly to discuss and read aloud to each other:

It put the world in order in all of its madness, and such beauty that it was incomprehensible.

The group has moved on to other things, but will return to Proust because ‘it’s not a good thing not to have him in your life’. You can listen to the whole Conversation at this link (the Proust discussion is at about 2:30 minutes).

Then, in the latest season of the US policier Bosch, the Haitian crime boss is seen reading a suspiciously slender hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu emblazoned on its cover.

I’m reading quite a bit faster than Ms Kalman’s group, though I’m evidently enjoying it a lot less than them. And since I read it in the morning before getting out of bed, I don’t get to flaunt it as a sign that I’m more than just another evil thug.

There’s still a lot about the politics of salons, dinners and at-homes, still a lot about unconventional sexual practices, which I’ve just realised might be meant to be read with an ooh-la-la inflexion, still a lot of laboriously explained wordplay, still a lot of rhapsodic descriptions of scenery. There’s also still a lot that’s left brilliantly unsaid, much silliness, an occasional flash of self-mockery, and then observation that cuts right to the reader’s heart.

There are shocking moments, too. For example, in the middle of some gossip about the aggressively vulgar Mme Verdurin there’s this, about a Princess who had taken up her cause with people of high society (le monde):

Elle avait même prononcé son nom au cours d’une visite de condoléances qu’elle avait faite à Mme Swann après la mort du mari de celle-ci, et lui avait demandé si elle les connaissait. 

She had even mentioned her name [that is, Mme Verdurin’s name] in the course of a visit of condolence which she had paid to Mme. Swann after the death of her husband, and had asked whether she knew them [the Verdurins]. 

Unless I’ve missed something, that throwaway line is the first – and, so far, the only – mention of the death of Swann, who has been so significant in the narrator’s life and whose mortal illness has been achingly observed earlier in the book. Blink and you miss it.

And then, in the midst of an interminable recount of a dinner party, where conversations overlap and intersect like in an Altman movie, the narrator will rhapsodise about a beautiful sunset, will take a letter from his pocket and criticise the quirks of its writer, of will plunge without warning into melancholy reflections on lost loves of youth, like this one which reminds us sharply that the narrator is in terrible health, looking back at the events he describes, and also reminds us of his frankness about sexual maters (sorry, it’s a bit long):

On peut quelquefois retrouver un être, mais non abolir le temps. Tout cela jusqu’au jour imprévu et triste comme une nuit d’hiver, où on ne cherche plus cette jeune fille-là, ni aucune autre, où trouver vous effraierait même. Car on ne se sent plus assez d’attraits pour plaire, ni de force pour aimer. Non pas bien entendu qu’on soit, au sens propre du mot, impuissant. Et quant à aimer, on aimerait plus que jamais. Mais on sent que c’est une trop grande entreprise pour le peu de forces qu’on garde. Le repos éternel a déjà mis des intervalles où l’on ne peut sortir, ni parler. Mettre un pied sur la marche qu’il faut, c’est une réussite comme de ne pas manquer le saut périlleux. Être vu dans cet état par une jeune fille qu’on aime, même si l’on a gardé son visage et tous ses cheveux blonds de jeune homme ! On ne peut plus assumer la fatigue de se mettre au pas de la jeunesse. Tant pis si le désir charnel redouble au lieu de s’amortir ! On fait venir pour lui une femme à qui l’on ne se souciera pas de plaire, qui ne partagera qu’un soir votre couche et qu’on ne reverra jamais.

(page 1422)

 We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time. And so on until the unforeseen day, gloomy as a winter night, when we no longer seek for that girl, or for any other, when to find her would actually frighten us. For we no longer feel that we have sufficient attraction to appeal to her, or strength to love her. Not, of course, that we are, in the strict sense of the word, impotent. And as for loving, we should love her more than ever. But we feel that it is too big an undertaking for the little strength that we have left. Eternal rest has already fixed intervals where we can neither make a move or speak. To set a foot on the necessary step is an achievement like not missing the perilous leap. To be seen in such a state by a girl we love, even if we have kept the features and all the golden locks of our youth! We can no longer undertake the strain of keeping pace with youth. All the worse if our carnal desire increases instead of failing! We procure for it a woman whom we need make no effort to attract, who will share our couch for one night only and whom we shall never see again.

I’m finally just gong with the flow as I read this book, and just today realised that I look forward to my daily 20 minutes or so. I’ve also started looking up some of the unfamiliar words. Sometimes it turns out that the general meaning had been obvious even if the English word hadn’t leapt to mind; at other times, the dictionary translation of a word is no help at all. When aa boy is described as coqueluche de toutes les dames, I could tell from the context that it meant he was the darling of all the ladies, which sure enough is how Moncrieff translates it. But the dictionary tells me that coqueluche is whooping cough. I do my best attempt at a Gallic shrug and read on.

Other times, the dictionary is more fun. As in these from the last week or so, pretty much all in the context of a Thursday evening chez Mme Verdurin:

  • gourgandine hussy
  • gredin crook, wrongdoer
  • astucieusement slickly, diplomatically
  • escarmouche skirmish
  • débandade stampede

That’s it until next month.

SWF 2020, Post 2

The Sydney Writers’ Festival, cancelled in deference to Covid-19, has gone virtual and is appearing in as a series of podcasts. This is my second post about it: five sessions I’ve listened to since 9 May (when I posted my first report, here). With any luck I’ll post about future sessions with shorter intervening intervals.

This time: five books that I haven’t read, all by authors none of whose books I’ve read talking to and sometimes about other authors whose books I haven’t read. So I’ve been learning a lot

Sophie Hardcastle: Below Deck 12 May 2020

Sophie Hardcastle talks to journalist and feminist commentator Georgie Dent about her novel Below Deck. She wrote it, she explains, in her time as a visiting scholar at Oxford University, where in her weekly meetings with her tutor she read to him from the work in progress. She reads to us at the start of the session, and to judge from that short and beautifully-written passage it wears its academic genesis very lightly. Nor does it show traces of what she says later in the session were its beginnings as a facebook status.

The key incident in the book is a rape at sea, and the podcast includes there’s a nuanced conversation about consent, sexual assault and #MeToo. An unexpected bonus is a fascinating chat about synaesthesia, a condition (or should that be superpower) shared by Hardcastle and her novel’s protagonist, in which a person sees sounds, numbers and other non-visual things as colours.

My favourite moment is this exchange, soon after the 30:40 mark, about a terrible relationship in the book:

Georgie Dent: Obviously I can’t ask you, but was it difficult to find inspiration for that relationship?
(Sounds that can probably be best described as snigger-snorting.)
Sophie Hardcastle: No.
Georgie Dent: That’s what I thought when I was reading it.


Intan Paramaditha: The Wandering 13 May 2020

Shirley Le from Western Sydney, who is working on her first novel, chats with Intan Paramaditha, Indonesian and currently living in Sydney, author of The Wandering, which is described on the Festival website as ‘a choose-your-own-adventure story’. The conversation feels intimate in a way that would have been hard to achieve on a stage in front of hundreds of mostly white festival-goers, and ranged widely – tips from a more-experienced to a less-experienced writer; the idea that the category of travel writing looks very different if you think of it as including Behrouz Bouchani’s No Friend but the Mountain as well as the usual books by white men and Eat Pray Love; brief but fascinating notes on the translation process (in this case the translator, Stephen J Epstein, worked closely with the author and the translation has some significant differences from the original); and much more.

I haven’t been a fan of the choose-your-own-adventure genre, which emerged when my sons were in the target audience, but it sounds as if in The Wandering it becomes a powerful – and also entertaining – way to embody stark contrasts between different modes of travel (as in tourism at one extreme and flight from threatened death at the other).

If this had been a live session, perhaps someone would have asked if either of the speakers had read Michelle De Kretser’s monumental novel Questions of Travel (my blog post here), which tackles similar issues, in a more conventional manner.


Ellen van Neerven: Throat May 19, 2020

Throat is second poetry collection from Mununjali Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven. In this podcast she talks with poet Tessa Rose. van Neerven reads her homage to a Brisbane suburban shopping centre, ‘Chermy’. The poem is a beauty, filled with affection for the place, family lore, and an occasional ember burst of long-range history. It’s a ‘page poem’ rather than spoken word, and you can read it in full on the Overland website, here, but I’m infinitely glad I first encountered it in this beautiful reading. van Neerven’s account of how she wrote it – interviewing elder relatives so that it became a social poem – is wonderful.

There’s a lot more to the conversation: the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art commissions poets to write poems inspired by their exhibits; though still relatively young, van Neerven works as a teacher and mentor and feels like ‘an emerging Auntie slash Uncle’; van Neerven speaks of young people and elders as both having a kind of wisdom that people in between may lack through being caught up in the day-to-day; a visit to Germany enriched van Neerven’s understanding of colonialism; there are many ‘Queensland Blackfeller’ artists who inspire the poet; and the process by which the book came together is described in an illuminating way. It’s now on my To Be Read list.


Richard Cooke: On Robyn Davidson May 20, 2020

Robyn Davidson is known almost entirely for her 1980 book Tracks, which told of her trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in 1977 at the age of 27 with only camels for company. Self-described fan Richard Cooke sets out to expand her image in the latest title in Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series of books. In this conversation with Michaela Kalowski, he observes that in his case it could have been called the Non-writers on Non-writers series, given that Davidson hasn’t exactly been prolific. Nevertheless, he makes some big claims for Davidson’s status as an Australian writer.

It turns out that this session is the middle of a trio about travel writing. I would love to have seen Richard Cooke on a panel with Intan Paramaditha and Liam Pieper, with the brilliant Roanna Gonsalves as moderator.


Liam Pieper: Sweetness and Light May 25, 2020

This is the third session in the trio about travel writing. Liam Pieper is a white man whose novel, Sweetness and Light, involves a white Australian man and a white US woman in India. There is no elephant in the room, as Roanna Gonsalves names the obvious with characteristic acuteness and generosity right at the outset:

As an Indian Australian I am particularly interested in that version of India and Indianness as experienced by white people that you render on the page in a very interesting way in Sweet ness and Light. In some ways the book may be read as part of a long tradition of white people, including many white Australians whose names we shall not name here, of writing about finding themselves or losing themselves in India or saving Indians with no mention of the crucial work being done by Indians on the ground already, or of using India as a backdrop for coming to terms with their own frailty or … India as a catalyst for their true natures being validated or confirmed

What follows is a wonderful conversation. I love the moment where the speakers find common ground: neither can swim, and both have experienced the humiliation of being an adult in a swimming class with seven year olds.


I’m still missing the milling crowds, the glare from the Harbour at Walsh Bay, the celebrity spotting and eavesdropping, the queuing for muffins and hot drinks, the odd poetry readings that almost certainly won’t make it onto the podcast program, and all that. But this is turning out to be a terrific Festival.

I didn’t go to the Vigil today …

I didn’t go to the Black Lives Matter vigil in Sydney today.

It was a dilemma. especially after the government took the matter to the High Court and the vigil was declared illegal, I felt a huge moral pressure to turn up. But I’m 73 and asthmatic, and I couldn’t see myself maintaining proper physical distancing in a potential crowd of 10 thousand that wasn’t allowed to spill out into the street.

So I wore black, I’m putting up this blog post, and I’ll make a donation to one of the campaigns of families of people who have died in police custody. (You can see a list of families here. It’s part of an excellent resource document prepared by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition with links to further reading and ideas for taking action.)

I also went with the Emerging Artist on a kind of pilgrimage. This year being the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first landing in Australia, we went to La Perouse on the northern side of Botany Bay to see if we could find the place where Aboriginal people and allies gathered in April 1970 while Cook’s landing was being re-enacted at Kurnell on the southern side. We didn’t know each other fifty years ago, but we were both there.

I have two clear memories of the event. First, many people wore white headbands inscribed with the names of First Nations who had suffered at the hands and weapons of the invaders; one white man, whom I knew by sight, wore a headband marked ‘Hypocrite’, which I took to be an acknowledgement of his uneasy self-doubt – was he there just to assuage his own guilt? Maybe, I remember thinking at the time, but how could you choose to be anywhere else?

The other memory is hearing Kath Walker, later to be known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, reading her poem ‘Dreamtime’. You can read the whole poem here. It begins

Here, at the invaders talk-talk place,
We, who are the strangers now,
Come with sorrow in our hearts.
The Bora Ring, the Corroborees,
The sacred ceremonies,
Have all gone, all gone,
Turned to dust on the land,
That once was ours.

The lines that struck me, carried on the wind to where I was at the very back of the crowd, and are central to my memory of that day, which were these:

The legends tell us,
When our race dies,
So too, dies the land.

That’s 50 years ago. Today we didn’t find the place where that ceremony happened, but though the land is suffering from the effects of colonisation and climate change, it is still alive and beautiful. So are its first peoples.

I did find some photographs at the State Library website, here.

Added later: Here with the Emerging Artist’s permission, is her painting from a photo she took on the day as people were coming back from having placed wreaths in the water. Recognisable in the foreground are Pastor Doug Nichols, Faith Bandler and John Newfong:

Still Mourning, April 27 1970, Penny Ryan 2019