I mooched this because it’s on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s What’s What list, her personal selection of Australian works ‘that, for whatever reason, and almost independently of their writers, are simply scarily, eerily good, that move and startle and resonate and go on resonating, in a way that defies analysis’. It’s a great list, including movies, short poems, a long poem, a biography, short stories, novels … and I’m willing to be guided.
I feel warmly towards Thea Astley because she contributed indirectly to a lovely moment in my family. In the 1970s I heard her tell of a conversation with Patrick White. ‘Thea,’ she wheezed in what we young ones understood to be an impersonation of the Great Man, ‘if you’re going to write about a shit, you have to make him a monumental shit.’ I don’t know what possessed me, but some months later in north Queensland I relayed that line to my parents, in whose presence the word ‘shit’ generally created at best a shocked silence – maybe I thought the highbrow context would excuse the crudity. This time, it provoked my father to a rare moment of reminiscence and the only time I can remember him ‘swearing’ in my mother’s company: ‘When I was at school, the football coach would tell us the day before a big match, “Tonight I want you to have a big shit, and when I say big I mean twice around the pan with a curl on top,”‘ and he cackled like a naughty schoolboy. He was in his sixties, as I am now.
So I was warmly disposed to this book. The warmth soon evaporated: it’s not a book that asks for affection. Yet, oddly enough, an erasure of my first paragraphs is suggestively relevant:
… her personal selection of … Patrick White … I don’t know what possessed … north Queensland … a shocked silence … provoked … reminiscence … ‘swearing’ … in his sixties
That is to say, Patrick White’s magisterial presence is tangible from the opening sentence (‘This world is the unreality, he thinks between smiles and frowns over the letter’); the novel is set in north Queensland, and the main characters are sexagenarians raging, or keeping silent, about horrible events from 2o years earlier.
In the book’s present time, early in the twentieth century, people are returning to a small NQ town for a ‘Back to the Taws’ celebration. One of the returning townsfolk, Dorahy, was the teacher in the one-classroom school in days past when a number of Aboriginal people were murdered – or ‘dispersed’, to use the weasel word of the time. Dorahy was outraged back then, both by the massacre itself, which he had tried to stop, and by the magistrate’s finding that there was insufficient evidence to hold anyone to account. The men responsible for the massacre are now leading citizens gladhanding their way to an election of some sort, and Dorahy is determined to shatter the complacent silence about the past.
The massacre, which occurs at the book’s midpoint, is shockingly real, not with Tarantinesque buckets of blood but with a horrible frozen moment of realisation. The book’s real interest, however, is in how such an event is to be remembered. In a way, it prefigures the History Wars of the John Howard years, though Thea Astley’s imagination wasn’t up to inventing a Keith Windschuttle who would survey the evidence and then deny the history, or a slogan as pernicious as Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’. When the voices that try to recall the history are silenced here, it is with ruthless brutality.
As an honourable attempt to face up squarely to white Australia’s black history, this makes an interesting comparison to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Both books have good whites and bad whites; in both, the bad whites are less well educated, though in Astley’s they are pillars of society where Grenville’s are a ruffianly lot; in both, the good whites who aren’t victimised along with the massacred Aborigines either collude or are ineffectual. Strangely, in Astley’s book, although we are shown the massacre very clearly, all the fuss twenty years later is about the hideous treatment of the one white who actually raised a finger to protect the threatened Aborigines. Perhaps this is a matter of being true to the times – perhaps a hundred or so years ago even people of conscience felt the torture of one white man to be a greater outrage than the massacre of eight Aboriginal men and women. Perhaps it was just not possible to look a genocidal incident full in the face in a novel.1 Or perhaps the chilling effect of the book’s last line is no accident. (Stop reading now if you hate spoilers.) The three men who have sought to reveal the truth from twenty years before are lying outside the town hall, battered, perhaps dead or dying, while ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is being sung inside ‘in nostalgic untruth’, as a deliberate turning of a blind eye to the ugly history:
Full-throatedly, the audience joins in the singing and roars chorus after chorus. ___It has almost forgotten the victims already.
In the immediate moment, ‘the victims’ are the three men. The way I read the phrase, though, it’s a brilliant piece of authorial restraint: the reader is left to ponder the phrase’s wider, deeper reach, with a sickening sense that the narrative voice, too, has ‘almost’ forgotten. It’s the opposite of being lectured at.
—- 1Interestingly enough, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell takes the dislocation a step further, dealing with a massacre by North Queensland Aborigines.
As with every Quarterly Essay, I turned first to the back of this issue for correspondence on the previous one. Timing was unusually poignant in this case: QE38, David Marr’s Power Trip,came out just days before its subject Kevin Rudd was ousted from power; the responses to it here were mostly written when the election campaign of Julia (‘the ouster’) Gillard was foundering, and I read them just after hearing that she will be leading a minority government. There are no fireworks in the correspondence: a couple of journalists add corroborating anecdotes about Rudd’s leadership style (David Marr describes these as symptomatic of ‘a new, and welcome, spirit of indiscretion’; I read them as a bit of a pile-on). Kerryn Goldsworthy deftly despatches whole swathes of attack on the essay and dispenses a little relevant information about literary forms while she’s at it. James Boyce corrects and enriches David Marr’s understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his probable significance for Rudd. In responding, David Marr replies almost entirely to criticisms that were made elsewhere: perhaps it would have been polite to give those critics the right of pre-reply here (he quotes Sylvia Lawson and Allison Broinowski and gives them a one-word reply: rubbish).
From David Marr’s Power Trip to Hugh White’s Power Shift. Appropriate as the title would have been for an essay on the recent election, we have to wait for QE40 for George Megalogenis to give us that (Power Brakes?). This one is about something other than personalities and politics as horse race:
Our leaders, and by extension the rest of us, are assuming that Asia will be transformed economically over the next few decades, but remain unchanged strategically and politically. It is an appealing assumption because the past forty years have been among the best times in Australia’s history, and it has been easy to believe that American power would continue indefinitely to keep Asia peaceful and Australia safe. That has been a cardinal mistake.
Perhaps the assumption is also appealing because its obvious knee-jerk alternative is a revival of Yellow Peril rhetoric. Tomorrow When the War Began (John Marsden’s series of YA novels and now a film based on the first book) demonstrates, incidentally, that the complacency Hugh White sets out to prick hasn’t been absolute, but it does give strength to his arm in seeking to get people to think about Australia’s relationship to China rather than explore violent fantasies, however earnestly packaged.
While Kerryn Goldsworthy says, quite correctly, on page 85 that an essay can be ‘an expedition into the unverifiable: memories; theories; hitherto unexplored veins of subject matter or uninhabited point of view’, this one proceeds with the logical clarity (though not the soul-destroying aridity) of a PowerPoint demonstration. ‘Since 1788,’ he says, stating the obvious but unsettling truth, ‘Australia has always enjoyed a very close and trusting relationship with the world’s strongest power, and we just take that for granted.’ Well, not for much longer – and we need to think about this. The main history of our times, he proposes, may not be in the place that’s getting the most attention:
The day-to-day management of the [US–China] relationship gets a lot of detailed attention, but presidents and other senior figures avoid substantial analysis of America’s long-term intentions towards China. One reason is 9/11. For almost a decade, America’s political leaders have convinced themselves that a small group of fugitives on the run in Pakistan poses a bigger challenge to America’s place in the world than the transformation of the world’s most populous country. Future historians will find that hard to explain.
To be fair to White’s argument, he goes on immediately after this to acknowledge that Barack Obama signalled that the blinkers were coming off after his visit to China in November last year. All the same, Muriel Rukeyser take a bow.
It’s a very interesting essay, which I recommend as an antidote for the personality-preoccupied, narrative-driven writing that accounts for most political commentary in our newspapers these days.
[I posted about this in my old blog in 2008, and am retrieving it to this one because it mentions Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, who died in January, and whose more recent book of essays, Alive, Alive Oh! I plan to blog about soon – JS, 31 March 2019]
As I mentioned last month, I started reading Schulz and Peanuts to check its suitability for a young fan. I’m happy to report that in general it passes with flying colours. A young woman has a termination, and the break-up of ‘Sparky’s’ first marriage is gruelling, but these are both handled with a good bit more tact than you’d find in many YA novels.
Every week, for just months short of 50 years, Charles M Schulz sat at his drawing board to produce six daily strips and a longer Sunday piece. He inked every line himself, and penned in every letter until his final stroke meant that the speech balloons in the very last frames were filled by computer-generated lettering. Peanuts was the most important thing in his life; he hated being away from home, and died the day his last cartoon was published.
This isn’t a tale of heroic physical exploits or grand public gestures, but David Michaelis seems to have interviewed every living soul who had a meaningful connection with his subject, from the psychology student who gave him an impromptu – and effective – counselling session on his agoraphobia at a tennis tournament and never had another conversation with him, to Joyce nee Halvorsen, the main model for Lucy, his first wife and the mother of his many children (one of the best bits of the book could have been titled The First Wife’s Story).
The result is a fascinating, many-faceted portrait of an artist and of a man. Peanuts strips are scattered through the pages, not as decoration but as integral elements of the narrative. Cartooning was not only Schulz’s life work, the fulfilment of a central ambition; it was also, dare I say, a spiritual discipline by which he found perspectives on the difficulties and dilemmas of his life (and the lives around him) that allowed the release of laughter. While Michaelis is very bold (and repetitive) in some of his psychologising, I found his thesis persuasive: that what we common or garden readers received as Schulz’s comic reflections on life in the abstract were often if not always born out of particular moments of pain or joy. Schulz seems to have been an excellent exemplar for Neil Gaiman’s advice on how to deal with trouble: Make good art.
Michaelis places Schulz interestingly in the history of comics – though he barely mentions comic books as opposed to strips, and surely the moral panic in the 1950s epitomised by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (which led to a nun confiscating a Phantom comic from me in Grade Three, and to our teachers’ recommending that we read the boring Catholic comic Topix) had something to do with the runaway success of Schulz’s wholesome creation. It’s surely not entirely coincidence that for a time in the 1940s, before he got his big break, Schulz did lettering for Topix.
[I passed the book on to my young friend, whose mother reports that after dipping into it he said, ‘It’s not all that interesting to me, even if it is to Jonathan. But he reads everything.’ Then, softening the blow, ‘Some of it is pretty good.’]
Place is People is a strange little book, neither an attractive collection of photographs to introduce the suburb to visitors nor a quick historical overview. It’s got elements of both those, but is something more personal and less orderly than either; if it was even more personal, it might have been an extended prose poem, but it isn’t quite that either.
Mary Haire leads walking tours, and the book has something of the serendipitous feel of such tours: here’s a little girl walking to school; let me tell you about a boy that age who went to the same school a hundred years ago. I know more about my suburb’s history having read it; some errors have been corrected, and some tantalising trails laid in my mind: Cardinal Freeman was born here, for instance, and the young woman at the florist’s is a single mother. How can I put those two snippets in the same sentence, you ask? I plead that the book sets a precedent with its gloriously unconcerned potpourri approach to its subject.
Talking at Gleebooks recently, Helen Garner paid tribute to Elmore Leonard’s essay, ‘Ten Rules of Writing‘: she has his sentence, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ on the wall above her desk. In The Spare Room, she has given us a feminine Elmore Leonard story: it’s about the emotional tangles between two women, or at least those tangles provide the language for its telling, but it has the clean lines, the sure forward movement, the lack of hooptedoodle, that give such pleasure in Leonard’s tough-guy narratives from The Tall T to, say, Pagan Babies.
It’s a very quick read, and an intense one. There’s plenty of complexity, some of which I’ve found making itself known to me weeks after finishing the book. For instance, ‘Helen’ the character, who is manifestly a version of Helen the writer, claimed my allegiance and assent to her judgements while I was reading, but has since come to seem much less reliable, much too caught up in her own emotional reactions to be able to give us the full picture (some of which the book gives us in spite of her). It’s a magnificent achievement.
I doubt if David Campbell (1915–1979) is still studied in Eng Lit courses at many Australian unis, but I hope he is fondly remembered and occasionally reread by more than just me. He and Martin Johnston share a posthumous moment in John Forbes’s elegiac ‘Lassù in Cielo’; he cropped up in a footnote in the John Manifold collection I read last month; a recent Poetica featured his correspondence with Douglas Stewart; lines and images from his poems arrive in my mind unbidden from time to time.
Most of the poems in this selection are a strange mixture of the bucolic and the erudite (and just in case I’ve misused those words, I mean rustic and scholarly), and there’s a pleasant music to them. When I read the sequence of twelve twelve-line rhyming poems of ‘Cocky’s Calendar’, I found myself wondering how he managed to pick up his pen again after writing something so wonderful. Back in the early 1970s, in an Aust Lit seminar on this sequence, a student from North America totally didn’t get them: while the rest of us were being drawn into the poetry’s intensely personal relationship with the landscape, he lost patience altogether and said the whole thing read like verse you’d find on a Norman Rockwell calendar. I thought then that he was missing something, and I find I still do. This is the ninth poem, for September:
Now, here and there, against the cold,
The hillsides smoulder into gold
And the stockman riding by
Lifts to the trees a yellow eye.
It's here the couples from the farms
Play in one another's arms
At yes and no – you'd think the trees
Sprang from their felicities.
So may our children grow up strong,
Got while the thrush drew out his song,
And love like you and I when we
Lie beneath the wattle tree.
How about that present tense ‘lie’, eh?
I think the sequence as a whole speaks to me so strongly because of my father. At a family gathering once, another farmer, of a younger generation, said something about the boredom of spending a whole day driving around a paddock in a tractor (this was before the days of air-conditioned tractor cabins and iPods). When my father said mildly that he didn’t get bored, one of my female cousins asked him what he did with his mind when he was out there all day. As he drew breath to answer, my mother came to the rescue by changing the subject (‘Oh Jenny, you know you’ve been asking me about tatting, I have a pattern here I can show you’). Probably to his relief, my father didn’t get to answer the question. I like to think that David Campbell’s contemplative poems, even though his is a sheep property while my father grew sugar cane, provide some version of what my father might have wanted to say back then over tea and scones.
With The Omnivore’s Dilemma I was back to farming, in three categories: industrial, of which I read with a mixture of horror and curiosity; pastoral, which is not synonymous with ‘organic’, but tends to have the virtues claimed for it; and personal, in which the author creates a meal from things he has personally grown, hunted and killed, or foraged. I don’t know that anyone could read this tremendously engaging book without changing the way they think about food. It’s very heartening that it was a New York Times best seller. If you want a quick look at the central part of the book, which deals with ‘intensively managed grazing’ or clever grass farming, here’s a video from Michael Pollan’s recent TED talk:
The book integrates into its narrative any number of lively essays: on the ethics of meat-eating (in which Pollan engages with Peter Singer), the joys of hunting (ditto Ortega y Gasset), attempts at humane design in modern abattoirs (Temple Grandin), the US domestic and international politics of corn (in which he doesn’t discuss the so-called Free Trade Agreements that leave the US free to subsidise its grossly inefficient corn agribusinesses while preventing other nations from continuing with similar protections, but he makes their absurd brutality abundantly clear), on just about anything you can think of that’s related to his central question, ‘What should we have for dinner?’ Some of it is very funny. Some is inspiring. Some horrendous. All of it is engrossing.
I hadn’t read David Campbell’s The Man in the Honeysuckle before. As with Selected Poems, I’m fairly indifferent to the learned bits, mainly translations and imitations from the Russian, but some of the lyrics, especially the Aust Pastoral pieces, are extraordinary. The book was published posthumously, and it’s hard not to read a number of the poems as being poignantly suffused with a sense of death as imminent. ‘Crab’, ‘The Broken Mask’ and the whole ‘With a Blue Dog’ section stand out for me in this first encounter. How’s this:
Wind in Casuarinas
Camped under the she-oaks
With a dog and swag
The woman a white sapling
A straight flame
Blown all ways
And the children off
On their several roads
Lives rounding like river stones
Or washing out in wheel ruts
A high sky over tree and hill
And the clouds taking fire
I am spread out I burn
Yellow and rose – blessing and blest
A still flame in the arms of the she-oaks
Life butting into the world
With five wants and a howl
And shambles out with a blue dog.
I want to put ‘five wants and a howl’ right up there with ‘helpless, naked, piping loud’.
I don’t imagine Elmore Leonard would care much for this Heat. There’s hoptedoodle galore … though generally very high quality hoptedoodle. Ironically, the one article that seem to me to be 90 percent hoptedoodle is by a crime writer whose point seems to be that crime fiction has advantages from being bound to an absence of hoptedoodle (but maybe I was just irritated because her essay on the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction totally ignores the existence of children’s literature and science fiction).
There’s a terrific piece on blogging by Kerryn Goldsworthy, not a hopt or a doodle in sight; a lovely pairing of a story by Eva Sallis (‘Abattoir’) and an essay by Elizabeth Campbell (called ‘Why Little Girls Love Horses’ on the contents page but ‘Envy Worship and Passion’ on its own title page); chiming mentions of the catacombs of Paris, of which I’d never heard, first in one of Jennifer Maiden’s still-intriguing George Jeffreys–Clare Collins poems and then in an engrossing essay by Sarah Knox about researching historical novels, her own and Hilary Mantel’s; and a number of memorable pieces on aspects of migration: Elisabeth Holdsworth’s memoir ‘New Holland’, a short story by Hoa Pham, poems by Ali Alizadeh (on his unborn baby) and Peter Skrzynecki (on his late father). There’s lots more. I’m a happy subscriber.
I understand that it must be a nightmare to copy edit a magazine like this: so many words, so many different voices, so little time. But there are enough lapses to present a significant obstacle to the reader, at least to this one. At one point, havoc is ‘wrecked’; as something wreaks havoc just a few pages later in the same article, it seems likely that the error resulted from an editor’s dependence on a spellchecker rather than ignorance. In the sentence, “The memoir becomes a book about illness to many reviewers; a ‘survivors’ tale; a plumbing of the issue of women’s health, and the continuing masculinist paternalism of the public health system” it looks very much as if the apostrophe after survivors was misunderstood by someone who inserted another before it to make it function as a quote mark; and the comma after health almost derails the sense. I don’t want to go hunting for similar moments, but the erratic comma and absent apostrophe in ‘reconstruction, so redolent of the historian’s duty, and the re-enactors fancy’ just leapt up at me from further down the same page (p 172). This might be just the irritated snitchiness of an underemployed pedant, but in this context it becomes hard to tell if the truly eccentric punctuation in a number of the poems is what the poet intended or the product of editorial inattention.</curmudgeonly grumble>
How could I resist reopening The Branch of Dodona, my only other David Campbell book? This one had pride of place in the bathroom for a week, to allow for contemplative reading in short bursts. Again, it’s his farming poems – in this volume, the ‘Works and Days’ sequence, with its love–hate relationship to sheep – that speak most strongly to me. Even his ‘My Lai’, which I remember him reading at Vietnam Moratorium Readings in another age, works so powerfully because of the farmer-to-peasant solidarity it embodies:
I was milking the cow when a row of tall bamboo Was mowed by rifle fire With my wife and child in the one harvest, And the blue milk spilt and ruined
I’m not sure what the friend had in mind who gave me Diane Athill’s reflections on old age, Somewhere Towards the End, as a present for my 61st birthday. As Ms Athill is almost exactly 30 years older than me and still going strong, I’ll assume she wasn’t hinting it’s time I hang up my spurs.
In terms of my current reading, the book’s matter-of-factness, its almost belligerent steadiness of gaze play as a sober counterpoint to the rage and evasion of The Spare Room: both books generate what Athill calls an ‘addictive excitement of the mind’, and they speak to each other. Ms Athill’s brief reference to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety endorses Sarah Knox’s praise of it in her essay in Heat. The book has in spades a (to me) miraculous quality that I think of as Protestant integrity, a quality also displayed, ineffably, in the manner of my friend J’s leavetaking. I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. She manages to be remarkably cheerful about things usually discussed, if at all, in gloomy mode. One chapter begins, for example (the emphasis is mine):
When you begin discussing old age you come up against reluctance to depress either others or yourself, so you tend to focus on the more agreeable aspects of it: coming to terms with death, the continuing presence of young people, the discovery of new pursuits and so on. But I have to say that a considerable part of my own old time is taken up by doing things or (worse) failing to do things for people older, or if not older, less resistant to age, than myself.
Can’t you just see that paragraph, followed by the word ‘Discuss’, as an exam question on The Spare Room?
An Irish family saga with an unnervingly familiar plot line of a man who dies suddenly leaving his wife and children to deal with financial disasters he has hidden from them, this stars the eminently watchable Dervla Kirwan, and has some beautiful coastal scenery
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway, both hard to tear your eyes away from, have decided their relationship is over but they're still living on the same house because of the pandemic lockdown. And then it turns into a heist movie, or not, or what? It's great fun. It looks as if it was made for home viewing, but I enjoyed it in the cinema, and even i […]
A wonderfully convoluted Scandi policier. A good man finds himself getting more and more deeply enmeshed in criminal acts in the interests of his brother's children. The Norwegians know how to take family dysfunction to a very high degree.
Kate Winslett is terrific as a cop in a small community – she knows the regular offenders, she's blamed when a disappearance remains unsolved, she bridles when someone from the County is brought into help her, her teenage daughter resents her but when she witnesses a crime can talk to the resented county cop. She's as rude as Olive Kitteridge, as […]