Tag Archives: David Malouf

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

SWF: My Day 2

Thursday morning in Marrickville the air was grey with smoke – someone was burning off. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay, the air was clearer but there was still plenty of grey, this time on people’s heads and faces, though the festival goers aren’t as homogeneously 60+ as on weekdays in previous years.

If I had to name a theme common to the five sessions I attended today, I’d say it was intergenerational respect and co-operation.

At 10 o’clock Zelda la Grange discussed her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela, steered deftly by veteran interlocutor David Leser.

As an ‘apolitical’ young Afrikaner who absolutely supported apartheid, la Grange accidentally found herself working for President Nelson Mandela, the man she had seen as her people’s greatest enemy. She told us of her first meeting with him in her early 20s: where she had expected hostility she not only  found a warm handclasp and interested questions about her life, but he spoke to her in Aftikaans, the language of the people who had gaoled him for decades. She burst into tears. He put his free hand in her shoulder and said, ‘Relax, you’re overreacting.’

Over the following weeks and then years, she heard more of his story, shed more tears and felt the bubble of white privilege that had kept her world narrow dissolving. She became his private secretary and, as he grew old and frail, his protector. She said he worked on her heart every day. She called him by the Swahili (I think) word for granddad. He rechristened her Zeldiña.

Since his death in 2013, she treasures their great non-romantic love, and sees it as her mission to keep alive his legacy of respect in public life.

Then on to a spectacular queue for Climate: Knowledge and Hope featuring scientists Tim Flannery and Peter Doherty, wrangled by Bianca Nogrady.

Flannery’s most recent book, Atmosphere of Hope, was written last August, when it seemed Paris would lead to good things. It did produce an agreement, but things are less obviously hopeful now, with news of record temperature increases. Doherty’s is The Knowledge Wars, which I gleaned is about current attacks on scientific knowledge on a number of fronts, beginning perhaps with climate change but extending to areas like vaccination.

Faced with the dire reality of climate change, these two men of a certain age remain ebullient. When Nogrady ventured that hope has a passivity to it – we just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best – Flannery apologised to his mainly older audience and said that many young people, scientists and activists, are less prone to despair than their elders, but see the situation as a challenge which they set about vigorously meeting. Doherty echoed that view.

My other heartening take-home from this session was that where The Australian and the rest of the denialist and reactionary Murdoch press have been very influential on the rest of the media, that dominance is now being challenged by The Conversation, a much more reality based publication which presents the work of academics online in readable form. He urged us to subscribe at theconversation.com/au.

1:30-2:30 pm: NSW Premier’s Awards: Meet the Writers: I was initially disappointed that only two of the NSWPLA winners were on the podium with ‘senior judge’ Ross Grayson Bell, but when the two are Magda Szubanski and Alice Pung less is more.

Both women are daughters of immigrant fathers who experienced major traumas in their home countries – Poland under the Nazis and Cambodia under Pol Pot respectively. Both have written about their fathers, Magda in Reckoning, her award-winner, and Alice in her earlier memoir My Father’s Daughter. Though Alice spoke a little about her award-winner, Laurinda, most of the conversation revolved around their points of similarity. In both their families, the traumatic experiences of the parents weren’t passed over in silence to protect the children, but were told, often enough, as funny stories or adventures. Alice in particular now finds herself wondering about the wisdom of advice from teachers not to tell students too much detail about the terrible ordeals described in her books.

Neither writer referred to our current government’s cruelty to asylum seekers and refugees or to Peter Dutton’s recent disparagement of some as ‘illiterate and innumerate’. They didn’t have to. This was pointedly so when someone asked Alice Pung how her mother responded to her memoir: ‘My mother’s illiterate. She said she’ll wait for the movie.’

3:00-4:00 pm: Paul Muldoon talked with David Malouf for a wonderfully loose, lucid hour, about the way a poem is a process of discovery for the poet, and for the reader. Apparently distracted by the sounds outside the cavernous room, Muldoon drew our attention to the rhythmic creaking of the wharf’s posts and a distant pneumatic drill then, as if drawing his ideas from these ambient sounds, talked about the dual activity of the poet – construction worker/ maker/ makar, and explorer/ troubadour/ trovatore. The two poets, like the two scientists and the two daughters earlier, had a wonderful rapport. Each time the conversation threatened to slacken, David Malouf (who had introduced himself here as a reader) asked the poet if he would read to us. The poems he chose for us were ‘Hedgehog‘, written when he was a teenager, and ‘Pelt’ from his most recent book. Interestingly, far from patronising his sixteen-year-old self, Paul Muldoon was in awe of him.

4:30-5:30 pm: Tammy and Lesley Williams, Murri mother and daughter who collaborated on the book Not Just Black and White, were brilliant. Lesley led a successful campaign to reclaim wages withheld by the Queensland government from Aboriginal workers last century. She wanted to write a book about it but was daunted by the task as she’d left school at the end of primary school, and also had trouble believing anyone would be interested. Tammy, then a teenager in school, now a successful barrister and Queensland’s Commissioner for Children, helped with both problems. She taped her mother’s spoken account and transcribed it. Just as importantly, she constantly reassured her mother that the story was worth telling. This book tells their story in the form of a conversation.

In question time a young woman thanked the writers because, even though her grandmother had received only $4000 in acknowledgement of a lifetime’s work, the payment made a huge difference.

I had a personal connection too, but not one I wanted to inflict on that gathering. As a white child in north Queensland in the 1950s I was completely unaware that most Aboriginal people were living ‘under the Act’. I don’t know if the Aboriginal couple who worked for my parents, the man with my father on the farm and the woman with my mother a day a week in the house, were subject to the same covert exploitation as Lesley Williams discovered. My ignorance  is given extra point as their names were Charlie and Pearl Williams (always Mr and Mrs Williams to us kids). I’m ashamed, but hugely grateful to these Williamses for their generosity and valour in putting the story out here for all of us. I’ve bought the book.

End of my Festival day. [Wipes sweat from brow]

David Malouf’s First Place

David Malouf, A First Place (Knopf 2014)

dmfpThere isn’t just one Australian story. Even as a child I had my doubts about grand unifying versions of what it is to be Australian. Even though my family were white and English-speaking, and enjoyed meat pies and Vegemite as much as anyone, we lived in coastal north Queensland, where Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘land of sweeping plains’ might as well have been on another planet. The much talked-about monoculture of Australia before the 1950s may have been a reality in Sydney, but my grandfather, a magistrate in Queensland in the 30s and 40s, learned Italian in order to deal with the people who appeared before him and my sugar-farmer father played poker with a Greek and a Korean, and placed bets with a Chinese SP bookie.

David Malouf hails from Brisbane, which we in Innisfail referred to as ‘Down South’ or even ‘The Big Smoke’, but the essays and occasional writings collected in  A First Place provide eloquent solace to my inner tropical child. This is from ‘A First Place’, a lecture from 1984:

We have tended, when thinking as ‘Australians’, to turn away from difference, even to assume that difference does not exist, and fix our attention on what is common to us; to assume that some general quality of Australianness exists, a national identity that derives from our history in the place and from the place itself. But Australians have had different histories. The states have produces very different social forms, different political forms as well, and so far as landscape and climate are concerned, Australia is not one place

Following his own advice Malouf writes beautifully in that lecture and throughout the book about his home city of Brisbane, about Queensland architecture, both domestic and public, about his culturally diverse family (‘My Multicultural Life’, also written in 1984, and ‘As Happy as This’ written for a collection of family memoirs a decade later, are joys to read), about the Bicentenary, Anzac Day, the Republican movement. He is always urbane, humane, nuanced, always drawing on a deep and broad knowledge of Western art and literature.

In 1988 he wrote a piece on the Bicentenary for the Age, ‘Putting Ourselves on the Map’. Like many of us, he was uneasy at the fanfare and pomp, but he was able to get past bald political catch-cries, writing that

this celebration of a great event goes against the grain with me because it goes against the grain of our real experience as Australians. Anniversaries are not what this particular enterprise is about. The anniversaries of the real events that made us, the millions of small ones – axe blows, blows with the pick and crowbar, childbirths, first cries, the squeak of chalk across a blackboard – do not need celebrating, or are celebrated already, by repetition each day. This particular event [the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’] is too ambiguous – and its repetition in fancy dress is ridiculous. It is too blackened with sorrow for some of us … and with shame for the rest: too loaded with despair, courage, the slow triumph of surviving and creating, for its re-enactment to be any more than a tawdry farce.

The longest piece in the book at 110 pages is ‘A Spirit of Play’, which comprises Malouf’s 1998 Boyer Lectures, a masterly meditation on ‘The Making of Australian Consciousness’. In these essays Malouf brings a poet’s sensibility to a subject we’re used to hearing about from journalistsor politicians. He draws on deep knowledge of history, poetry, architecture, to tell a story that is at once his own and persuasively ours.

It’s interesting to think about who that ‘ours’ refers to: it shifts around, sometimes seeming to exclude, for example, Aboriginal people, or Communists, or committed homophobes, but these exclusions aren’t rigid. Roughly speaking, ‘we’ are people who participate in mainstream Australian culture. What Malouf has to say about an audience is relevant:

An audience comes together of its own volition, unlike a rally, for example, where there is always some element of compulsion, if only a moral one of commitment or duty. An audience simply appears, as the 700 000 or so people do who turn out each year for the gay Mardi Gras procession in Sydney. They have no reason for being there other than interest, curiosity, pleasure, and they are an audience, not simply a crowd; an audience that has been created and shaped by the society it draws from, and in which the faculty of watching, listening and judging has been to an extraordinary degree sharpened.

He has more to say about that particular audience, but I think it’s fair to say that his general notion of an audience relates in some way to the ‘us’ he talks about in these essays: ‘we’ are the people who of our own volition do our watching, listening and judging in this society, and also our creating, living and relating to one another. Both the people who wrapped themselves in the flag at Cronulla ten years ago (nearly a decade after these lectures were given) and the people attacked by them are part of ‘us’, though each might not be part of some accounts of who ‘we’ are. Malouf certainly doesn’t deny the existence of brutality and narrowness in our history: his account of the 1950s as on the one hand ‘comfortable, secure, cosy’ and on the other mean-spirited, defensive, embattled ‘against life itself’ is brilliant, and then followed up by his compassionate account of the series of blows that closed down the open-hearted confidence of the start of the century – which I will leave you to read. (It turns out the original lectures are still online at the ABC’s website. The description of the 50s is in the fifth lecture, ‘The Orphan in the Pacific‘.)

There’s a lot more. These essays were written over three decades for vastly different readers and audiences. They build on each other, occasionally almost contradict each other, rarely outright repeat each other. They don’t demand that the reader agree with them, but ask us to engage thoughtfully, and often to have another look at received ways of seeing the world. Taken together, they are a beautiful example of what Malouf calls ‘the real work of culture’:

This business of making accessible the richness of the world we are in, of bringing density to ordinary, day-to-day living in a place, is the real work of culture. It is a matter for the most part of enriching our consciousness – in both senses of that word: increasing our awareness of what exists around us, making it register on our senses in the most vivid way, but also of taking all that into our consciousness and of giving it a second life there so that we possess the world we inhabit imaginatively as well as in fact.

As a bookish child in north Queensland, I felt the absence of that work, perhaps not acutely but as a dragging background ache. Seeing  cane-cutters on stage in The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll when I was nine was a revelation, though even then the North was a long way from the real, felt action of the play. David Malouf’s essays are a wonderful gift to that child, who is still here, hoping to have density brought to his life in that place.

I read A First Place in August last year. I think I’ve delayed blogging about it because I didn’t want to be finished with it. It’s been sitting on my desk, like a talisman. It’s been good to go back to it to write this. I will go back to it again.

2015 favourites

Each December we – that is, me and the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student – compile a list of our favourite books and films of the year. We’ve been caught this year with minimal internet coverage (and maximal sun, sand, beach, bush and rain, especially rain) so we’re running a bit late.

Three movies made both our top five lists:

ToYTestament of Youth (directed by James Kent), from Vera Brittain’s memoir, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi: A World War One film in the year when idealising  Gallipoli  was big in the headlines, it doesn’t focus on the battlefield but on the effects of the war on the combatants and their families and loved ones. It makes a powerful pacifist argument.

Meet the Patels (Geeta Pavel, Ravi Patel 2014): We saw this at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it’s a very funny documentary about match-making among first generation Americans of Indian heritage. It’s really about intergenerational relationships. The EA says it’s a must-see for every parent.

hnmmHe Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim 2015): Another documentary, this one could be seen as hagiographic, but Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable young woman. I loved the way she spoke with the absolutism of teenagehood from a position of influence to tell the president of Nigeria to do his job and ensure the safety of the girls abducted by Boko Haram.

The Emerging Artist’s other two:

selmaSelma (Ava DuVernay 2015): A flawed movie, but it conveyed the experience of ordinary people taking part in Civil Rights marches. The leadership of the march across the bridge was particularly interesting: how to think strategically, resisting the push to be seen to take ‘decisive action’. The filmmakers weren’t given permission to use Martin Luther King Jr’s actual speeches, but the ones written for the film caught his style brilliantly.

 The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse 2015): The humour, the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of it. Kate Winslett was marvellous. So was Hugo Weaving. In fact, there were no weak performances.

My other two:

 Ex Machina (Alex Garland 2015): The thing that stays in my mind is the image of the artificially intelligent creations – a fabulous effect where we see the cogs and wheels whirring away inside what is otherwise a human head. The story worked very well too.

ffm Far from Men (David Oelhoffen 2014): Apart from enjoying the easy irony that there were only men in most of the film (should it have been called Far from Other Men?), I was transfixed by this slow, beautiful film of a pied noir (Algeria-born white Frenchman) escorting an Arab prisoner through the austerely photogenic Atlas Mountains.

The EA’s top five books:

The EA’s reading year was bookended by titles that brought home the harshness of the oppression of gay men and lesbians, even in times and places where one might think it was comparatively mild. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals with novelist E M Forster’s agonising life in the closet, and the part of Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, that tells the story of her coming out is genuinely harrowing.

But those books are in addition to her actual top five. Here are those, with her comments:

1846145066Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: This is a bracing book that everyone needs to read. We all know about climate change in a general way, and we know that powerful vested interests fight attempts to respond effectively. Naomi Klein gives detail and challenges us not to look away.

iocJean Michel Guenassia,  The Incorrigible Optimists Club: A novel about Soviet bloc refugees in Paris at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, this includes a coming of age story.

1743319118Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands: Excellent memoir of a 50s childhood. Buff Ward’s father was prominent left wing historian Russel Ward, so the domestic story includes elements of red-baiting. But the real power of the story is in her mother’s intensifying irrationality and the family’s attempts to deal with it.

1408703483Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: The birth of liberalism without the US-style individualism. This is not a travel book. It’s very accessible, thoroughly researched history that compelled at least one person to read big chunks aloud to her partner. The history of Europe looks different after reading this .

9781742232430Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya: Vivien Johnson has been involved with the Western Desert artists for decades. An earlier book told the story of the great Papunya Tula artists. This book tells the story of Papunya itself, especially after many of those artists left. Art is still being made there, by a new generation, mostly women.

My top five books:

I read at least 12 books in 2015 that did what you always hope a book will do: delighted, excited or enlightened me, changed the way I felt and/or thought about the world. I whittled the list down to five by selecting only books that touched my life in explicit ways. Here they are i order of reading:

1781251088John Cornwell, The Dark Box (2014): A history of the rite of Confession in the Catholic Church. The confessional was a big part of my childhood. I’ve dined out on a story of going to confession with Brisbane’s Archbishop Duhig when I was about thirteen. He asked in a booming voice that I was sure could be heard by everyone in the cathedral outside, ‘Would these sins of impurity have been alone or with others?’ Cornwall’s book felt like a very personal unpicking of that moment and the whole cloth it was spun from.

1555976905Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). What can I say? I’m white. In laying out the way a word or phrase between friends or strangers can disrupt day-to-day life, so that the ugly history of racism makes itself painfully present, and linking those moments to the public humiliations of Serena Williams and the violent deaths of so many young African-American men, the book is a tremendously generous gift. It and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me share this generosity of spirit.

dmfpDavid Malouf, A First Place (2015): I haven’t blogged yet about this collection of David Malouf’s essays. It feels personal to me because David lectured me at university, but also because he is a Queenslander, and these essays explore what that means. Even though he is from what we in north Queensland used to call ‘Down South’, these essays fill a void I felt as a child – I was a big reader, but the world I read about in books only ever reflected the physical world I lived in as an exotic place.

talking-to-my-countryStan Grant, Talking to My Country (2016): I was privileged to read this ahead of publication. Stan Grant is a distinguished Australian TV journalist. This book, part memoir, part essay, gives a vivid account of growing up Aboriginal. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as the result of generations of pain inflicted by colonisation refusing to stay at bay.

The-Fox-PetitionJennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (2015): I love this book in all sorts of ways. I love the way the image of the fox recurs – a literal fox, a fox as in Japanese folk lore, Whig politician Charles Fox. I love the chatty voice, and Jennifer Maiden’s trademark linebreaks after the first word of a sentence. I love the argumentativeness. I love the playful, almost silly, resuscitation of the distinguished dead to confront those who claim to be inspired by them. I love the way Jennifer Maiden makes poetry from the television news the way some poets do from flowers.

And now, on to 2016! I’m already about eight books behind in my blogging.

David Malouf’s Being There

David Malouf, Being There (Knopf 2014)

1btDavid Malouf could write about the phone book in a way that held his readers rapt. He is a master of what Steven Pinker  (borrowing from Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner) calls the classic style: his readers are invited into conversation with him as he shows us something about the world. He is a brilliant, warm, generous conversationalist; the ‘something’ in this book is the world of art.

Being There is the third collection of Malouf’s writing published by Knopf in 2014 to mark his 80th birthday. Almost half of it is devoted to essays (including reviews, lectures, one-off newspaper columns and catalogue essays) on other people’s creations. Parts II consists of the librettos of two operas, Voss and Mer de Glace. Part III is a playscript, a ‘free version’ of  Euripides’ Hippolytus.

A strong theme in the first part is the importance of our physical presence to the appreciation and enjoyment of art. Malouf articulates this theme most clearly in the 1989 essay that lends its title to the collection. Referring to orchestral music, he writes that after being ‘in love with the perfection of a great performance on record’ we have come back to ‘gloomy old covert halls’, to

share as fellow citizens an experience that is only available on the big city, as unique a product of our civilisation as the skyscraper or the cantilever bridge. An orchestra, in the person of its conductor and each of its ninety to 120 players, performing one of the great works of our heritage, making music, but in an environment that has not been bled of all those elements of noise out of which organised sound arose – the street noises we have just stepped away from, voices in the foyer, the whispers and shuffling before the conductor is quite ready, the slight disturbance of the air that is created by 2000 men and women breathing, even the occasional cough; that substratum of undifferentiated sound against which made music has to assert itself, and against which we bring ourselves to attention. Somehow, to experience the fulness of what music offers we have to be there. Presence is everything.

I love that. My most enjoyable night ever at the opera (not that I’ve been to the opera all that often) is a far cry the one Malouf describes, but I think he would have enjoyed it. It wasn’t in ‘the big city’, but in the Innisfail Shire Hall on a sweltering tropical night in the 1970s. All the windows of the hall were open, so the street noises, though distant, weren’t left behind; and the air in the hall was more than slightly disturbed by hundreds of fans wielded by audience members, who weren’t above an occasional comment. I don’t think anyone considered the performance to be perfection. The costumes looked as if they’d been scrounged from the combined storage rooms of every choral society in north Queensland, and the cast had a similar catch-as-catch-can feel. But from the Grand March from Aida that began proceedings to the final moments of the main event, Bizet’s Carmen, it was exhilarating. It was impossible not to be aware of the physicality of the event – David Malouf’s word ‘presence’ is right on the button.

The sixteen essays of Part I give accounts of Malouf’s presence at, among other places, a ‘happening’ in London in 1965, Barrie Kosky’s much-derided 1995 production of Nabucco (which he defends brilliantly), the Sydney Opera House (‘a single building … providing a city almost overnight with what it lacked, a defining centre’). He responds to the work of architect Glen Murcutt, photographer Bill Henson (long before Kevin Rudd pronounced his work ‘absolutely revolting’), painter William Robinson, and others. He is always interesting.

I haven’t seen Voss or Mer de Glace, and unsurprisingly found the librettos pretty inscrutable. I say ‘unsurprisingly’, because essays in the first part of the book have prepared the ground. Part of Malouf’s point about the importance of presence is the idea that a play, an opera or a piece of music is more than its script or libretto. In ‘Opera’ (1988), he writes:

That what is sung in opera shares with speech the use of words ought not to confuse us into believing that what the music expresses is what is in the words. The music has a drama and a purpose of its own. What it gives voice to, beyond mere social exchange or the expression of highly charged particular emotions – devotion, doubt, desire, jealousy, pity, anger, resolution, triumph, grief – is the spirit in action.

The Hippolytus, commissioned by the Bell Shakespeare Company and first performed in 2002, is a wonderful read, and for my money is a standing reproach to the domesticated versions of the Greeks that have been appearing on Sydney stages in the last few years. I’m sorry to have missed the production – maybe I can live in hope of a revival.

I met David Malouf in the street recently, and he referred to himself as ‘very old’. May we all age so gracefully, and so creatively.

Are rules really like bread, meant to be broken?

At the end of my last post, after whingeing about things that slipped past the copy editor, I said I was reaching for ‘a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf’ as an antidote. I’ll write about the collection – Being There – in good time, but right now I want to share a lovely bit of rule-smashing from ‘Questions on the Way to an Exhibition’ on page 77. The subject is what happens when we encounter a work of art, whether it’s a piece of sculpture, a poem, a play or novel, a music or dance performance:

Our spirit soars. We are enlightened, made lighter. The old distinction between body and spirit is resolved in us, and at the same time, in losing ourselves so completely in what is outside us, we feel the resolving of a second distinction – between subject and object, I and the world.

That I couldn’t be me, no matter what the syntactical rule says. The I has to be a subject or the whole sentence loses its meaning. The terrible thought struck me that maybe a similar thing is happening when people say ‘between you and I’: the sense is that the person speaking is a subject, not an object. And then comes the dread possibility that I will never again be able to correct, or even secretly curl my lip at, someone who says ‘between you and I’.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 1

I arrived at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed something else in honour of a member of a media dynasty) yesterday morning without a lot of time to spare before my first event at this year’s Writers’ Festival.  In the absence of electronic ticketing I had a whole swag of cardboard to collect and the foyer was jam packed with milling sex- and septuagenarians. Luckily the system was working smoothly and within minutes I was settled in my seat next to a couple of women who had come down from Brisbane for the Festival, and for Vivid (which starts tonight).

11:30 Writers on Writers: Malouf and Mendelsohn on the Classics (click for the podcast)
Daniel Mendelsohn, memoirist and literary critic from the USA, was in conversation with David Malouf. They spent minimal time praising each other’s writing – Mendelsohn reviewed Malouf’s Ransom very positively in, I think, the New Yorker. They launched straight into stories of how they first became interested in classical culture – that is, the culture of ancient Greek and Rome. Mendelsohn, master of the witty remark, quoted John Winkler (I think): ‘What’s not to love about the Greeks? Naked statues and bad behaviour!’ They were both drawn to Greek culture when young as an alternative to the ones they were brought up in. The classics allowed exploration of aspects of existence that were forbidden in their own cultures – including but not limited to sex, and, as David Malouf put it, ‘the flesh as a good place’.

There was a seamless shift from their early attraction to classical images and stories to their serious engagement with the same as adults. Mendelsohn is a classicist, and Malouf put a case for polytheism as a sophisticated way of thinking about the world, certainly more interesting than the worship of what William Blake called Nobodaddy.

I hope that some of our current adapters of ancient drama for the Australian stage get to hear this conversation. Both men agreed that it is a mistake to strip away all the things that make the Greek characters different from us. Mendelsohn described a Medea in which the lead character was pretty much a New York housewife on the edge of a nervous breakdown. This, he said, completely missed the point of Euripedes’ play: that Medea was a granddaughter of the Sun, possessed of uncanny powers, and the Greek male audience would have been afraid of her because she was a woman who acted like a man – that is, destroyed her enemies. To make the play a domestic drama about a pill-popping neurotic is to drain it of its power. Likewise, they talked about how most modern adaptations take the Chorus out – but to do that is to radically change the nature of the play. Among other things, the Chorus underlines the nature of those plays as concerned with public events. In ancient Greece, you could never be alone. That may be why Achilles is so hard to grasp: he had almost figured out how to be an individual, and everyone freaked out because no one had ever tried that before.

There was a lot more: western poetry owes a huge debt to Ovid, the first flâneur; drama owes a similar debt to Aeschylus, who was the first to have woman characters give voice rage against the state of things, a tradition that led directly to Ibsen and Tennessee Williams; balance is central to ancient Greek culture (what is the Bacchae about if not the importance of stopping at three drinks?). Mendelsohn mentioned Edith Hamilton a number of times: I’m guessing she introduced generations of US children to the myths of ancient Greece and Rome – the way the Queensland School Reader did for David Malouf (and me), and the Argonauts Club for many of us as well. Oh, and my parents gave me a copy of Kingsley’s heroes when I was about ten.

Then out into brilliant sunshine and more milling bodies, to catch  a bus home. Back into the city in the evening, to the fabulous Eternity Theatre, where I met up with a number of friends for:

6.00 Readings of Matchbox Theatre
Michael Frayn, every inch the British literary gent, explained that while writing his many plays, novels etc, he also writes tiny plays that just accumulate in his files with nowhere to go. His wife, without consulting him, suggested to his publisher that these little doodles could’ve gathered into an anthology. The publisher agreed, and the book exists. It probably helped that his wife is the brilliant biographer Claire Tomalin.

Frayn then left the stage to four actors who read no fewer than eleven of these plays: a David Attenborough account of the shy species of scene changers that lurk in the theatre; a mobile phone conversation between two people who turn out to be in the same supermarket; an irritable dialogue between tomb sculptures that could have been inspired by Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’; a torturer-tortured Pinter parody.

It was all good clean fun. Which is more than I can say for the Wok On Inn where we had a quick and unpleasant dinner before getting back to the Eternity for:

8.00 Dalloway
A bravura one woman performance by British actor Rebecca Vaughan of an adaptation by Elton Townend Jones of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. My companions enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I responded to it as an actorly reading of the novel, which just made me want to read the novel itself without abridgement and without someone else’s insistent emotions being imposed on it. Others saw it as an engaging theatrical rendition of the substance of the novel.

And so home to the lonely dog.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night, 2015

The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards were presented last night at the State Library. At one stage I thought I might be able to go as a handbag, but it turned out handbags had to pay their own way, so you won’t see a pic of me in cocktail attire on Twitter. But speaking of Twitter, it’s now possible to participate in such events by proxy and non-simultaneously. Here’s my version of the evening.

The earliest interesting tweet was from someone worrying about the dress code. I could have told her not to worry. This is an event for writers, and though some of the pics that began to appear at hashtag  at about 6 o’clock were decidedly glam, there were plenty to put the worrier’s mind at ease.

Uncle Allan Madden did the welcome to Country, playwright Ross Mueller delivered the Address (in which, as well as saying some wise things about the arts he made an AFL joke or two and commented, amicably I hope, on recent events to do with literary awards in Queensland), Acting Premier and Arts Minister Troy Brampton spoke briefly, so did Richard Neville the Mitchell Librarian, and the show was on the road.

John George Ajaka, NSW Minister for Multiculturalism, announced the winner of the biennial Prize for Translation and the inaugural NSW Early Career Translator Prize. Brian Nelson won the former, and Lilit Zelukin the latter. Few if any other literary awards include prizes for translation, so these are a win for all translators.

Multicultural NSW Award. I saw Donna Abela’s Jump for Jordan at the Griffin Theatre Company last year with the wonderful Alice Ansara, and would have been happy to see it win. The winner, Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond, is a book I hope to read.

Of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting shortlist I’d only seen Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts, featuring Hunter Page-Lochard’s terrifying performance of a young man on the edge of self-destruction, at Belvoir. The smart money was on Tom Wright’s Black Diggers, about World War One’s Aboriginal soldiers. The smart money had it right.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was taken out by The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. I’m glad on two counts: it’s good to see a genre piece being gonged, and this film in particular has been much more honoured abroad than at home. Jennifer Kent’s acceptance remarks were recorded on Twitter as mentioning the joys of libraries.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature was shared by Tamsin Janu’s Figgy in the World and Catherine Norton’s Crossing, both published by Scholastic Omnibus.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature went to The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty, who shared some letters from her readers..

(At about this point in the evening, the ABC Book Club’s Twitter account decided that the embargo was lifted and revealed the remaining winners. This would have been the moment to lay bets on David Williamson.)

The favourite for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry was surely David Malouf’s  Earth Hour, which happens to be the only shortlisted book I’d read. It won. David was described on Twitter as ‘wonderful’, ‘amazing’ and an ‘Australian icon’. A text sent to me from the room described him as ‘ever gracious and lovely’.

How do people possibly choose among the range of books shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction? Intimate memoir, passionate court reporting, grand history, cultural essays: it’s a lot harder than apples vs oranges. However, choose the judges did, and gave the gong to Don Watson’s The Bush. In accepting the prize he said, no doubt with his usual gloomy demeanour: ‘You need encouragement when you’re young, but also when you’re old.’

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: I’ve just finished reading Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs (blog post to come after the book group meets) and was backing it to win. The actual winner, An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, is a worthy recipient of whom I am a fan, though I expect the judges did some soul searching when they realised he was the only white man on the shortlist. Omar Musa congratulated Luke on Twitter within minutes.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, generally regarded as the big prize of the night, went to The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw, who compared writing a novel to running a marathon.

The special award was given to David Williamson. The State Library’s tweeter described his work as laconic. Is that the sound of pedants writhing? Laconic or not, the tall man is giving his prize money to the Ensemble Theatre to ensure the production of new Australian work. [Later: My mistake. The tweet in question said iconic, not laconic. I’m not sure how DW is iconic, but that description fits him better than the other.]

The book of the year went to Don Watson for The Bush, who Twitter said was dumbstruck.

Voting for the People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels – so Helen Garner and Biff Ward aren’t in the running – closes at midnight on Thursday. The prize will be announced on Friday.

So there you have it. Congratulations all round. People in the room acknowledged the Auslan signers. I acknowledge the tweeters. It was almost like being there.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.