Tag Archives: Frank Moorhouse

Southerly 74/2

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 74 No 2 2014: Australian Dreams 1

southerly-74-2When Dorothea Mackellar was living in England a little over a century ago, she dreamed – and versified – about a sunburnt country, rugged mountain ranges and sweeping plains. Times have changed. When David Brooks sent out an invitation for an issue of Southerly on Australian dreams, he wrote of ‘a mounting dismay and shame at seeing the cruel place we’ve become’, and though in his editorial he protests that he doesn’t want to deliver a jeremiad, that editorial will do the job until an actual jeremiad comes along.

So there’s not a lot of singing about the wide brown land here.

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Timor Dreaming’, about a friend who was killed in the East Timor massacre of 1976, pokes at the open wound of the Australian government’s silence then and its bullying more recently. JH Crone’s three-part ‘Elegy to Giants’ mourns Australians killed in the Bali bombing while ambivalently celebrating their ‘binge Bintang, root, vomit’ lifestyle (and in the third part, a jarringly unrhymed parody of CJ Dennis identifies them as descendants of Dennis’s Ginger Mick).

Jim Everett, a plangermairreener man of the First Nations of north-east Tasmania, refuses to identify as an Australian citizen in a fiercely polemical article, ‘Savage Nation: First Nations’ Philosophy and Sovereignty’. Mudrooroo Nyoongah, citizen of the world, faces old age, illness and the prospect of death in two powerful lyrics, ‘Wisps of Delightful Desire’ and ‘Old Fella Poem’.

Joshua Mostafa’s ‘Against Progress: Dreams, Nightmares, and the Meaning of Abbott’ probes the state of the Australian political culture (don’t be put off by its citing of a contemporary French philosopher, which often foreshadows pages of heavily academic prose, but not here): crudely summarised, he argues that public debate is too often limited to a contest between those who play on people’s fears and those who play on the fear of having one’s fears played on.

A number of the poems could have been written in direct response to David Brooks’ Claytons-jeremiad, touching on asylum seekers’ deaths at sea, environmental degradation and the parlous state of currently existing democracy. The poems that resonated with me most strongly, though, didn’t have an obvious connection to the theme: travellers’ tales from Laurie Duggan – ‘A short history of France’ and ‘New York Notes’ (not the only travellers’ tales by any means); a snowy expatriate winter from Kevin Hart – ‘February’; and a long piece by Sian Ellett, ‘Chopin & Friedric’, in which the top part of each page has a slam poem by a teenager with multiple sclerosis while at the bottom his mother gives her point of view.

The closest thing to a good old-fashioned bush yarn is Frank Moorhouse’s ‘I, initiation’, which starts out, ‘At the age of eight as a cub scout, with a never before experienced delight, I cooked and ate my first lamb chop barbecued on a green forked stick at my first camp fire in the bush,’ and goes on to talk about his regular eight-day solitary sojourns in the bush. But we are taken way out of our – and his – comfort zone with the story of an accident involving his scrotum and the years of psychoanalysis that followed. The closest thing to a good old Aussie family story, and the piece if fiction that most wrung my withers, is Cecelia Harris’s ‘All That is Left Behind’, a father–daughter story that is full of snow rather than sunburn.

Michelle Borzi’s ‘David Malouf, Earth Hour‘ provides what I’m always hoping for when I read literary criticism. She quotes generously, and helps us see the poetry with fresh eyes.

There are signs that some items were written – and edited – in haste. It’s hard to take seriously an article about Gough Whitlam that misspells Malcolm Fraser’s surname and the name of the Labor Party (especially given that Southerly follows US spelling conventions elsewhere). A reference in one article led to a critical response to the piece it was supposed to refer me to. One story ends so abruptly that one wonders if a couple of pages have dropped off or, more likely, it’s an undeclared excerpt from a longer work. And, fascinating though it is, I do wonder if Frank Moorhouse mightn’t have put his memoir through another draft to take some of the awkwardness out of his discussion of Aboriginal initiation ceremonies and the TMI discussion of his therapy.

Evidently a further Australian Dreams issue is in the pipeline. Good!

SWF 2012: The Weekend

First, a photo from Friday night. This is Tamar Chnorhokian, who read first in Moving People. That’s not a sponsor’s logo in the background, the story was set in a supermarket. You can see what I mean about the performers having nowhere to hide.

And now a sprint through my crowded weekend. My only serious queuing experience of the Festival was for the 11.30 session of What Would Edith Do? on Saturday – I got there before the previous session finished and so was comfortably towards the front of the queue. Edith Campbell Berry, the main character in Frank Moorhouse’s Dark PalaceGrand Days and Cold Light, may not have seized my imagination, perhaps because I haven’t read the first two books, but she has clearly been important to many people. I went to this hoping to find out what I’ve been missing and I got what I was after. Emily Maguire, novelist, discovered Edith in her late teenage years as a model of how it might be possible to live – rising to challenges and living nervously out of one’s depth rather than settling for the life mapped out by social expectations. She said there had been a number of times when she had actually asked herself the WWED question. Sadly, she deemed only one of them suitable for public exposure, but as it involved being invited to speak at a function in North Vietnam when she actually had no idea of the purpose of the function or who the Party functionaries thought she was, it was a perfectly satisfactory anecdote. The other panellists, journalists Annabel Crabb and Cynthia Banham, had come to the character later in life, but managed to convey the appeal. I realised that Cold Light is all aftermath: a woman who has lived daringly and intelligently, challenged convention in her private life and made a contribution on the world stage, returns to Australia in the 1950s where there is no place for such a woman and lives on scraps for the rest of her life. For those who have seen Edith riding around Geneva in a cowgirl suit or (is this really what they said?) stroking Anthony Eden’s head in her lap, the third trilogy is heartbreaking. Frank Moorhouse wasn’t there, but the best line of the session was his. He had told Annabel Crabb that one of the advantages of having spent 20 years with a single character was that she can now do her own PR and he doesn’t even have to turn up.

National Treasures was another poetry session that wasn’t quite what I had read the advertising to mean. I thought the participants – Mark Tredinnick, Vivian Smith and Judith Beveridge – were going to talk about Australian poetry they treasured, and read some to us, plus some of their own. What we got was excellent, but it wasn’t that: Judith Beveridge stayed firmly in the chair role, and the others talked of their own writing careers, and read from their work. When he was 15,  in the 1940s, Vivian S had sent off poems to The Bulletin, then pretty much the only place that published poetry in Australia. He received encouraging responses from the literary editor, Douglas Stewart, advising him to ditch the archaic poeticisms and recommending that he read contemporary poets such as T S Eliot. Decades later, Mark T was similarly advised by critic Jim Tulip, but the poets he recommended were William Carlos Williams, Robert Gray and Vivian Smith.

Tasmanian Aborigines was next, in which Lyndall Ryan talked to Ann Curthoys about her new book, a rewrite of her 1981 book on the same subject. Inevitably, the session involved a revisiting of the so-called History Wars: Keith Windschuttle had singled Professor Ryan’s 1981 book out for his accusation that lefty historians had fabricated evidence of massacre and his claim that in fact the original inhabitants of this country had just faded away when the Europeans arrived, possibly because of their inherent weaknesses. Windschuttle has been thoroughly discredited as a historian, of course, but it was interesting to hear Ryan’s take on the episode now. Asked what difference his intervention had made to our general understanding of Australian history, she said that paradoxically he had driven her and other back to interrogate their sources more thoroughly, and where in her first book she had focused on Aboriginal resistance, she had now looked at ‘settler activism’ and found that the evidence indicates that the violence of the frontier was much worse than historians had previously understood. Massacre, for instance, looms much larger in the new book than it did in the original.

Anne Curthoys was warm and personal as her interlocutor. She opened with a wonderful quote to the effect that in order to write history, one needs to have a deep commitment to the subject that relates to some great love or business in the present, and asked Lyndall Ryan what this love or business was in her case. But Professor Ryan was not to be seduced away from her calm, scholarly demeanour, and answered in terms of the breakthroughs in research since 1981. The question in my mind, which I didn’t get to ask, was along the same lines: as a white Australian, uncovering the evidence of terrible things done by your own forebears, how do you keep your composure, or if (as I think would be desirable) you lose your composure how do you keep your scholarly integrity? I guess I’ll just leave that one hanging.

Then I was back to the sun-filled Bangarra Mezzanine for Poetry Australia with Robert Gray, Rhyll McMaster, Tricia Dearborn, Geoffrey Lehmann – and the unfulfilled promise of Robert Adamson. It was a dazzling session – the sun was low over the Harbour and from where I was sitting it was impossible to look directly at whoever was at the lectern. Speaking less literally, it was okay. Each of the four poets read from their own work – some startling eroticism from Tricia Dearborn (I mean that in a good way), two poems from Rhyll McMaster that had me reaching for my pen to write down brilliant lines I knew I’d forget, in a scribble I now can’t read – her new book, Late Night Shopping, is now on my To Buy list. Geoffrey Lehmann read ‘Parenthood’, which begins ‘I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation /  Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small / Warm urine splatter on the asphalt’, and lives up to the promise of it opening. Almost as if in direct reference to Ali Alizadeh’s scathing Overland review of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, Robert Gray read a number of John Shaw Neilson’s limericks.
In the short Q&A, someone did tactfully name the elephant in the room. A bookseller from Perth, she said that the anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 was selling brilliantly. But, she said, she didn’t understand how a fine poet such as Fay Zwicky hadn’t made the cut. Ali Alizadeh, John Tranter, Peter Minter and other fierce critics of the anthology might have asked the same question but added a hundred names and whole classes of poetry, and gone on to challenge the inclusion of limericks. Here it was a genuine question rather than an attack. It seems to me that what was missing in the selection process was the intervention of someone who knew the field  and could veto the editors’ eccentricities. I can see why it would be hard to resist modifying the general perception of John Shaw Neilson by including a swag of limericks, or to include 14 poems by ‘Bellerive’, whose poems never even made it to the literary pages of the Bulletin of his time. But that’s when an authority figure needs to step in and rap someone over the knuckles.

Oh my paws and whiskers, across the road again to see Hilary Mantel on a huge screen in the Sydney Theatre talking about Bring Up the Bodies. What can I say? She was magnificent, and I’ve now got the book on my iPad. A friend of mine couldn’t read Wolf Hall, because he couldn’t tell who was being talked about a lot of the time – the book would say ‘he’ and expect you to know it was Thomas Cromwell. Evidently a lot of people had the same difficulty, because this new book says ‘he (Cromwell)’. As Michael Cathcart, interviewing Ms Mantell from our stage, said, you can almost hear the author saying, ‘Is that clear enough for you?’

[Added on Wednesday: The Literary Dilettante has an excellent account of this conversation here.]

Gluttons for punishment, we rushed from the theatre and drove to Marrickville for an evening of youthful cabaret/burlesque, which might have been on a different planet, but that’s another story altogether.

On Sunday, I only managed one event, The Oskar Schindler of Asia? in which Robin de Crespigny (pronounced Crepny) and former people-smuggler Ali al Jenabi conversed with ABC’s Heather Ewart (who is much smaller in person than she seems on the TV screen). This was 2012’s equivalent of last year’s conversation with David Hicks. Like Hicks, Ali al Jenabi is being treated unjustly by the Australian government. Although the title of the session is a quote from the judge who tried him for the crime of people smuggling, the government is so committed to the demonising term ‘people smuggler’ or at least so terrified of being attacked by the snarling Tony Abbott  if they are seen to be soft on such people, that al Jenabi, who seems to be a perfectly decent man who has endured terrible things, remains on a bridging visa pending deportation, even while all his family are now Australian residents.

It was a great Festival. Now I have to get back to work.

Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light

Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light (Vintage 2011)

This book came highly recommended by what seemed like the whole world, and I can see what people admire, even enjoy about it.

It’s a rare thing, a novel whose main character lives consciously and deliberately as part of the great historical narrative of her time. Edith Campbell Berry engages with ideas, faces political realities, and tries to wield influence to make things better. In the first chapters she has returned to Australia in the early 1950s. She has a hand in the design of Canberra – in fact, her intervention seems to be crucial to the decision to go ahead with Walter and Marion Griffin’s plan for a lake. Through her brother and his partner she is a close-up witness to the Communist Party’s response to Bob Menzies’ failed attempt to ban it, and then to Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the invasion of Hungary. She dines at Menzies’ table, and chats with Whitlam soon after his election in 1972. She works with the International Atomic Energy Agency and is again close to the action when secrets about the English atomic tests in Western Australia leak out. At her death she is a special envoy in the Middle East for the Whitlam government.

But Edith is no cardboard cutout. Through all these years, she has to contend with assumptions that women’s place is not among those wielding power. Failing to gain official positions, she bluffs her way past public service obstacles and procedures, works her connections, takes advantage of gossip that she is some kind of spy. Her sexual experiences, and sexual might-have-beens, are unconventional and complex. Possibly the most attractive thing about the writing is the sense that Frank Moorhouse is discovering things about her as the novel progresses. Ambrose, Edith’s husband at the start of the book and the love of her life, is a transvestite, and I couldn’t resist the notion that this is a metaphor for the way the author slips into Edith’s skin and clothes – including on occasion her underclothes. Be that as it may, there’s a strong sense of Edith as someone Frank admires and loves, someone who exists independently of him. I didn’t need to be told that there was a real woman somewhere in the background (as Frank told Stephen McCarty at Ubud and on Slow TV a while back – it’s towards the end of the clip). It does feel at the end of the book that one has read the story of a life lived for its own sake and not to enact a writer’s world view. That’s really something.

But, you know, I can’t say I enjoyed the book. It’s the third volume of a trilogy and maybe I should have read the other two books first. As it was, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of recapping, an awful lot of ‘As you know, Bob’. I expect that if I’d read the other books, these would have been less irritating, and I might have had greater tolerance for Edith’s frequent ruminations because of a clearer sense of them perhaps as charting her mental journey. She ruminates on on her ideal capital city, on the nature of love, on the lessons to be learned from the League of Nations. I’ve got nothing against ruminations, but I couldn’t find anything wise, witty or provocative in Edith’s – I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored in a book that I still wanted to keep reading.

And then there was the sense that Moorhouse had done a huge amount of research and couldn’t bear to let some of it go even though it didn’t quite serve the story. I’ve got nothing against info dumps: my love of Neal Stephenson is partly due to the way he drops in great wads of information, and if Barbara Hambly’s Free Man of Color groans under the weight of her research into the New Orleans society of its time, it is the groaning of a table laden for a feast. But for whatever reason – perhaps because Moorhouse often presents his information as a character’s reveries or as even less plausible conversations – I wondered if the Readers Digest Condensed Version might be a better book. There’s an extremely poignant moment a bit past the novel’s midpoint, where Edith and Ambrose have parted, perhaps forever. And just as she – and the reader – have a moment to absorb the full import of the event, along comes this conversation with her driver:

‘How long will it take the Major to reach London?’ he asked, making conversation.
‘About fifty hours, plus the time from Canberra to Sydney.’
‘Many stops?’
‘Darwin – Singapore – Calcutta– Karachi – Cairo – Rome. I’d rather not talk, Theo.’
‘Of course, ma’am.’

Your mileage may differ, and I hope it does, but for me that was a case Frank the Irritating Researcher interrupting Frank the Passionate Story-teller. When Edith returned to her reverie, the moment for this reader had been lost.

I didn’t hate the book. I did learn from it. I do admire it. I’m glad I read it. It was a slog.