The title of Paddy O’Reilly’s latest collection of short stories, Peripheral vision, comes from the story “Restraints”, in which the narrator, standing in a robotics lab where things have gone awry, says:
… and I caught again a flicker in my peripheral vision.
It’s a good title for the book because the stories are about people or events that happen to the side of “ordinary” life, however we might frame that. (I don’t talk enough about titles in my reviews, but they are important.) O’Reilly’s characters vary greatly – in gender and age. Short story writers, I’ve noticed, pay little attention to the criticism novelists often face regarding the voice they write in, like, can a man write a woman, can an anglo-Australian write an indigenous or immigrant person, and so on. Short story writers frequently range far and wide in the voices they write in. As I was reading this collection, I found myself thinking about short story writers, and what writing short stories might mean to them. While some people see short stories as a training ground for the “real” thing, novels, the writers themselves, I suspect, see them as a form in which they can let their imaginations fly. They can try being anyone or anything, anywhere, and are less likely to be taken to task for it. Certainly, in Peripheral vision, O’Reilly’s characters range from a teenage schoolgirl to a homeless man, from a twenty-something brother to a ten-year-old step-daughter, from a Filipino man to a young Australian teacher in Japan.
There are 18 stories in this collection, of which 12 have been published before. I had in fact read two of them: “The salesman”, a powerful and confronting story that I reviewed here as an individual story, and “Serenity prayer”, which was published under the title “Reality TV” in Angela Meyer’s The great unknown (my review). Another story also underwent a title change, from “Friday nights” to “Territory”. Titles! Clearly important. Well, I presume these title changes are O’Reilly’s and that she thought the same story presented in a different collection would work better under a different title. “Reality TV”, for example, is a straightforward descriptive title, with a little hint of irony, for an anthology about inexplicable things. “Serenity prayer” is a more subtle title encouraging multiple readings, particularly if you consider the ways in which this prayer is, and has been, used. This story, about a publicly betrayed wife, gets you in, and then, at the end, makes you wonder.
Simplistically speaking, the stories can be divided into two types, plot-driven and character-driven. “Territory” is a fairly traditional plot-driven story about a group of six girls out on the town on a Friday night, but, there are clues that there’s something more going on. For one, there’s the way they dress:
That was the one thing you might question about us. Other girls who went out in a group looked more alike. Arty types with arty types; girls who knew how to pick up wearing the uniform of short hip-hugging skirt, skyscraper heels, mascara and lipstick … We were a mixed-up crowd …
Then there’s the reference to a seventh girl, Suze, and the suggestion that everything might be alright now she’s been accepted into medical studies. Gradually hint upon hint is dropped suggesting that these girls aren’t just out for a good time. A very effective story. “Serenity prayer”, mentioned above, is another with a strong plot line. “One good thing”, one of the longer but still nicely sustained stories, is about the friendship between two school girls, and a violent act that occurs during a holiday visit. Its resolution, as in most of the stories, is open, leaving us to consider the short and long-term ramifications of such acts. Each of these explores a core idea – but sharing that idea could spoil the plot, so I’ll leave it here.
I can though talk about the ideas underpinning the character-focused stories. “Caramels”, for example, is about a homeless man. The ideas underpinning it relate to pride and dignity. It has a story of course, describing his life, but in these character-focused stories, plot is not the driving force. “After the Goths” is about a young twenty-four-year-old man working through guilt about something that happened in his teens. It makes him behave meanly to his older brother but, in a nice touch, his brother doesn’t rise to the occasion. Not everything, O’Reilly knows, has to be high drama to be interesting.
Other stories are perhaps better described as slice-of-life. “Deja vu”, set in a small town in France known for its medicinal hot springs, is one. It’s about the relationships. There’s Anthony with unexplained concerns of his own, who meets an older couple and finds himself drawn into their company against his will, as can happen when you travel. And there’s the older couple, comprising a whining dissatisfied wife and a long-suffering husband. It’s, partly anyhow, about the accommodations you make. Martin “had never been able to speak rudely to anyone” and George, the husband, seems to do a good job of accommodating his wife. The language here is delicious. The whining wife’s “mouth held the shape of a drawstring purse”. A little later, “her lips grew tighter, as if someone had pulled the drawstring”.
There’s wry humour in some of the stories, like “Breaking up” and “The word”, and a couple of the stories, “Procession” and “Restraints”, tip, intriguingly, into the speculative genre. In all, though, O’Reilly presents humans facing challenging situations – some violent, some threatening or risky, and others confusing or unsettling. Whatever it is, she rarely fully resolves the tension, leaving it instead to the reader to think about the morality, the values, the accommodations at play. This can be disconcerting if you like closure. But I like it, not only because closure can be boring and, frankly, not realistic, but also because it means you can read the stories again and again, and come to a slightly different conclusion or, should I say, understanding, each time.
Peripheral vision is exciting to read. Each story is so different that I was driven on to the next one, wondering what I’d find there. What I invariably found was a new world with another challenge to my way of seeing. I wonder what her peripheral vision will pick up next.
(Review copy supplied by UQP)
The first thing to say about Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 Whitbread award-winning novel The buddha of suburbia is that it’s pretty funny. It’s a comic satire – over-the-top at times, confronting at others. It has its dark moments, but it’s also brash, irreverent and ultimately warm-hearted towards its tangled band of not always admirable but mostly very human characters. I’ve come late to this book, and only read it now because my reading group decided to align one of our books with ABC RN’s bookclub, which this year is featuring novels from the subcontinent. Kureishi’s book was one of the few we hadn’t read, so it got the guernsey.
It’s a coming-of-age novel about Karim, who is seventeen years old at the start and the son of a Pakistani/Muslim father from Bombay and an English mother. He lives in the suburbs south of London, a place populated, in his eyes, by “the miserable undead”. He wants to live “intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs”. The dreams of a young man which, of course, run counter to everything his parents would wish for – except that his parents aren’t watching. His father leaves his mother early in the novel to pursue his own mid-life crisis enlightenment as a “buddha” dispensing wisdom to other suburbanites, while his mother sinks into her misery and her bed. And so the scene is set …
This is a rather raunchy, bawdy read in which characters push the sexual envelope with little concern for consequences. They engage in all sorts of sex for all sorts of reasons that represent a broad spectrum of human experience and behaviour, some loving, some brutal, some exploratory, some exploitative. The novel is set in early to mid 1970s England, before AIDS, at the dawn of punk, and just before Thatcher’s England (1979 to 1990). This could date it, but I don’t think it does, because its concerns remain relevant today: racism, multiculturalism, the stereotyping of “other”, materialism versus the search for meaning, the role of the arts in our lives, and of course, given the title, the urban-suburban divide.
So, what happens? Both a lot, and not much, in that this is a character and ideas-driven novel rather than a plot-driven one. Told first person by Karim, the novel has two parts – “In the suburbs” followed by “In the city”. In the first part Karim talks of his life in the suburbs, of his friends and family, and describes the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father moves in with the lively go-get-’em Eva. It’s a life characterised by racism:
The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.
Aspirations are low, and education is not seen as being useful:
This was the English passion, not for self-improvement or culture or wit, but for DIY, Do It Yourself, for bigger and better houses with more mod cons, the painstaking accumulation of comfort and, with it, status – the concrete display of earned cash.
The city, on the other hand, is a place where you can remake yourself. It seemed, to Karim, like “a house with five thousand rooms, all different”, far from the stultifying dullness of the ‘burbs. But the dichotomy is not as simple as it sounds. Having moved to the city, like his father and Eva, Karim continues to return to the suburbs to see friends and family. He experiences warmth and support there, while the city, where “the piss-heads, bums, derelicts and dealers shouted and looked for fights” can intimidate him.
Nonetheless, once in the city, Karim does start to remake himself – as an actor. But, as elsewhere in the novel, there’s a sting in the tail. The first role Karim is offered is Mowgli in The jungle book. He does well, and his white family and friends praise him, but his honest, feisty childhood friend Jamila sees it differently:
‘And it was disgusting, the accent and the shit you had smeared over you. You were just pandering to prejudices …’.
Karim, who has, earlier and somewhat defensively, described himself as “beige”, moves on to another theatre group where he is chosen because he is “black”:
‘We need someone from your own background,’ he said. ‘Someone black.’
‘Yeah?’ I didn’t know anyone black, though I’d been at school with a Nigerian.
I think you’ve got the drift now. The humour is sharp, with stereotypes being subverted, twisted or just plain skewered. The book is full of witty asides, clever but insightful quips, and some downright absurd situations. There’s tenderness too. I loved the “heart-ambulance”, in the form of a sister and brother-in-law arriving to take Karim’s mother home with them when her heart is broken.
There’s a fascinating subplot involving Jamila and the marriage arranged for her by her father, Anwar. She accedes, but when her husband, the physically disabled hapless but kind-hearted Changez arrives, she lays down the rules for their so-called marriage, and then sets about reinventing herself – in the suburbs – as a strong, independent, liberated woman.
I said at the beginning that this is a coming-of-age novel, but it’s more than that. It’s about transformation and shape-shifting for people of all ages. The only character among the central group, who is unable to accept the challenge of change, is Jamila’s father Anwar, and his ending is not a positive one. By contrast, his friend, Karim’s father, seeks enlightenment. He wants to be something more than a Civil Service clerk who will never be promoted above an Englishman. So, he sets himself up as a “buddha”, a “visionary” who will provide wisdom from the east. I loved the multiple satire here – the joke of suburbanites seeking wisdom from a so-called eastern mystic, and the subversive idea of a Pakistani Muslim setting himself up as that mystic, a buddha.
The novel is about other things too, such as the arts and culture, and the possibility they offer for salvation. While Karim develops a career as an actor, working out how he can or should use his “culture” to further his goals, his friend Charlie reinvents himself as punk star, Charlie Hero. Like Karim, though for different reasons, he discovers it’s not all as straightforward as he thought.
It’s also about love – romantic love, sexual love, parental love, and the love between friends. All the characters seek it, though not all find it. And underpinning all this is the “immigrant condition”, and the idea that, perhaps, “the immigrant is the Everyman of the twentieth century”.
But, in the end, what it’s really about is the desire for a meaningful life and, without giving away details, I think it’s fair to say that most of Kureishi’s characters achieve this, albeit somewhat messily. That said, I can’t help thinking that Karim’s conclusion that “I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn’t always be that way” has an ironic edge.
The buddha of suburbia
London: Faber and Faber, 1990
ISBN: 9780571249398 (epub edition, 2008)
Blogger Michelle (Adventures in Biography) posted last week on a presentation by literary agent, Mary Cunnane, at the HARDCOPY writers’ workshop she attended here in Canberra. Answering a question about narrative non-fiction, Cunnane apparently said “I do wonder, for example, why there isn’t more really good nature writing in Australia”. Quite coincidentally, last week another blogger, Stefanie (So Many Books), asked her readers for recommendations for “good nature books”. Both these posts got me thinking about nature writing in Australia. We have such varied landscapes not to mention interesting flora and fauna, that you would think examples of nature writing would roll off our tongues – but it doesn’t seem to.
What is “nature writing”?
Let’s start with Wikipedia which offers a definition, albeit an unsourced one. Nature writing, it says, “is nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment”. I must admit that when I think of “nature writing” my mind immediately leaps to the strong tradition from Stefanie’s home, the USA, with non-fiction authors like Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, John Muir ( “A wind-storm in the forests”) and Mary Austin (“The scavengers” and “The land”). These writers focus very closely on landscape and the nature within it.
Cunnane, as far as I know, didn’t elaborate her understanding of “nature writing”, but Stefanie did, taking a broad view:
It might be a science-y book on moss or a sociology/psychology/philosophy kind of book on coping with climate change or a travel through the jungle/desert/forest/arctic sort of book or it could be about a cabin on a pond and planting beans and watching ants or about a garden or a farm … Something to take my mind outdoors while my body is stuck indoors.
Looking a little further … Last year, I wrote a Monday Musings about Australia’s relatively new Nature Writing Prize. This essay prize has been described as being about “relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape” or for writing that “demonstrates a deep appreciation of Australia’s magnificent landscapes”. The sponsor, the Nature Conservancy, calls it the genre of “writing of place”. “Place” seems to me to be a little broader than nature, but presumably the entrants know what the prize is looking for.
Briefly researching this topic, I came across an article Charlotte Wood wrote in 2004 on an anthology edited by Mark Tredinnick and titled A place on earth: An anthology of nature writing From North America and Australia. Tredinnick, Wood says, wanted to kickstart a new genre, “an Australian ‘literature of place'”! There’s that word “place” again. Wood discusses form and content, starting with the idea that the essay is a natural fit “with this subject matter”. But, not all writers in the anthology agree. Eric Rolls sees no reason why the “essay should be considered the most suitable form for writing about place”, and Patrice Newell, whose farm-memoir The olive grove I read before blogging, says “I’m simply a story-teller. I tell stories about our family, our farm, the flora and fauna, our river, our olive grove”. She refers to the issue of place saying:
There’s a lot of talk about ‘place’ but every place is a place. A tram is a place as crowded with memories as passengers. I’m troubled that ‘place’ is becoming a descriptive term for somewhere in the natural world. It can be too precious.
I’m with Newell. Conceptually, place can include nature, but I don’t think it’s useful as a synonym.
All of this confirms for me that “nature writing” is a rather broad church: it can be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, but its focus must be nature and the environment.
Nature writing in Australia
Wood, in her article cited above, quotes essayist Peter Hay as agreeing that an Australian tradition of nature writing has been lacking, though he says that poetry is an exception. He’s right. Many of the early ballads focused closely on the interaction of humans with nature, and then there are those poets he names, like Henry Kendall and Judith Wright. He also says that “Australian fictionalists [a new word for me!] have always unselfconsciously written of the natural world”. In other words, he says, we haven’t “neglected the natural world in our writing”, we just don’t have a “literary genre specifically devoted to these themes as there is in North America”.
And so, while the names of Australian nature writers don’t jump immediately into my head, as they do when I think of the USA, it doesn’t take long for some to float to the surface. How about the two Tims – Flannery and Winton – for example? Tim Flannery’s books on palaeontology and climate – such as The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, and The weather makers: The history and future impact of climate change – are obvious. In much of Tim Winton’s fiction, the environment is almost a character itself. Breath, The turning and Dirt Music are three examples, but landscape is critical to most of his books. Winton has written non-fiction about the environment too, including Land’s edge and Down to earth. Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus is an obvious contender with its specific focus on gum trees.
What about those “farm books” which explore human interaction with the landscape? Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living and Mateship with birds (my review), Andrew McGahan’s White earth, Gillian Mears’ Foals’ bread (my review), Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review) and Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my review) are all good examples.
And then, of course, there’s the relationship of indigenous Australians with the land, or country. Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review) and Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) jump immediately to mind, but much indigenous literature encompasses relationship with and responsibility for country.
Wood’s article raises another aspect of nature writing – “eco-activism”. She feared, she said, that this would be the main thrust of the anthology – but it wasn’t so. However, Tredinnick does admit there’s a connection between “creating a literature of place and creating a practical sympathy for the land”. Some writers are conscious of this connection, while others aren’t, but the contributors to the anthology agreed that such writing is not about “preaching”, but about “showing”, about creating the “sympathy” Tredinnick talks about. Anna Krein’s investigative, analytical Into the woods (my review) about the forestry conflict in Tasmania and her quarterly essay about our relationship with animals, Us and them: On the importance of animals (my review), are conscious exemplars of this aspect: they actively grapple with ecological/enviromental issues.
I’ve barely introduced the subject, but it has confirmed for me that while Australia may not have an easily definable tradition of “nature writing”, nature and landscape are integral to our literature, across forms and genres. So, let’s end with the opening of one of Judith Wright’s most famous poems:
South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
(from Judith Wright’s “South of my days” at PoemHunter)
What does nature writing mean to you? And, does it interest you?
Having attended Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography lecture at the National Library of Australia last week, I was thrilled to see another event come up this week. It was billed as an author talk with Kate Llewellyn, and with Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus who edited First things first, the collection of Llewellyn’s letters which I reviewed a few months ago. They also discussed Llewellyn’s most recent “journal”, A fig at the gate. In the end, it was Llewellyn who did most of the talking, but that didn’t matter – sorry Barbara and Ruth – because she was the main one we’d all come to see.
I’m not going summarise the whole talk, but just share a few ideas that interested or, in some cases, tickled me. Llewellyn is an engaging speaker.
On letters and letter writing
Naturally some of the discussion focused on letters. Llewellyn explained that the letters included in First things first were held in the ADFA library collection, and that they’d been acquired from the recipients of her letters. She doesn’t keep copies of letters she writes, she said, horrified that we might think she did. In fact, she’d rather recipients of her letters would destroy them! However, she sang the praises of the American ADFA librarian who initiated the project of collecting the papers of Australian poets.
Llewellyn confirmed that she did not censor Bacchus and Hill’s choice of letters. She trusted them not to include anything that would do her harm. Some names, though, have been changed to avoid hurting people. Don’t believe everything you read, she said! There is artifice at work, even here. The project had some specific principles, including that the focus would be letters to other writers or artists, and not family.
Llewellyn was asked about her current letter writing activity, but she said that she rarely writes letters now because of emails. She only writes now when “something means a lot” and she wants to share it. She sees letters as capturing the important things in life.
She likes to write by hand, so her books are written that way. She believes that the hand-to-brain sensibility is different to the hand-to-machine one, and that she doesn’t have “ardour”, an important quality for her, when using a machine.
The letters in her books, like A fig at the gate, are made up, she said. For example, the letters to her daughter are a device to enable her to talk about her relationship with her daughter, and about Australia.
I found all this fascinating because I have read and discussed Jane Austen’s letters with my local Jane Austen group, looking at how or whether they could contribute to our understanding of her times and her novels. And then, this month, we discussed how Austen used letters in her novels – to develop character (the writer’s and/or the recipient’s), to progress the plot, and to provide information and solve mysteries.
The writer-reader relationship
Llewellyn talked about the complex relationship between reader and writer, particularly highly autobiographical writers like her. A fig at the gate is true, she said, because she is writing to a reader with whom she shares a trust. It is her pact with the reader that what she writes is true. However, a problem arises when readers think they know her. They mix up life with art. There’s no winning in this she said. After all, she has done it: she has created the relationship, she has made that sacred writer’s pact to not lie, to not betray the reader. However, some readers misunderstand the protocol, they forget that the meeting is one of writer-reader, not of friends. That’s when, she says, she uses her umbrella to create a physical barrier!
Llewellyn shared a few amusing stories. One concerned being asked why she had titled her last book A fig at the gate. Because, she said, there’s a fig at my gate. But why call the book that, the reader apparently persisted. At this point Llewellyn said she had to admit that some things just aren’t deep! (She admitted, though, that she often does think metaphorically.) She also talked about the origin of the book. Now in her 70s, she wanted to write about ageing but believed that would not sell, so she decided to write a book whose “flesh would be the garden, but the bones would be ageing”.
Weather, the great story of life
I can’t remember how this topic came up, but it tickled me immensely because I have been sharing a weekly snail-mail correspondence with a wonderful American friend for over 20 years. Writing about the weather has become a bit of a running joke between us. We try to hold off for at least a couple of paragraphs and then admit we can’t hold out any longer! The weather will out.
Anyhow, Llewellyn’s story relates to meeting an English-born lecturer, who was her lover at the time, for lunch, and he started to talk about the weather. She thought that was boring and that maybe he wasn’t for her, but he told her that the English love the weather. He taught her, she said, that the weather is a good subject. (Of course, anyone who has read a good symbolic Shakespearean storm, for example, knows that.)
There was another lovely connection here for me because I had just finished, the day before, Karen Lamb’s biography Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (my review) whose title comes from Astley’s idea of weather as representing the highs and lows, the fluctuations in life.
To recap: Lessons learned
- Don’t believe everything you read.
- Don’t confuse life with art. Art – even autobiographical art – is artifice.
- Respect the writer-reader protocol.
- And, most importantly, the weather is a perfectly fine topic to write (or talk) about!
Llewellyn concluded by reading aloud her clever, funny, wicked poem, “The breast”. Do read it online if you don’t know it.
One of the threads that runs through Karen Lamb’s biography, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, is Astley’s ongoing frustration about her work not being appreciated or recognised. On the face of it, this seems neurotic or, perhaps, paranoid. After all, she was the first writer to win the Miles Franklin Award four times, a feat only equalled to date by Tim Winton, and she won pretty well every other major Australian literary award including the Christina Stead Award for Fiction and The Age Book of the Year Award. Yet, as I have often mentioned on this blog, I would agree that she is under-appreciated. Indeed, winning the Patrick White Award when she was 64 and had published 11 of her 16 books somewhat supports her case. It is awarded to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has “not received due recognition”. Lamb quotes her as saying “Ya know what it’s for, it’s for people who fail”! Not quite, if you look at the list of winners, but …
“a writer’s writer”
Why is this? Well, part of it could be gender-based. Astley’s satire and, yes, ferocity were not the fare “expected” of a woman. And part could be because, as author Matthew Condon put it, she’s a “writer’s writer”. This means, I’d say, that she doesn’t pull any punches to prettify her feelings and attitudes, her language is complex and imagistic, her works don’t necessarily neatly fit traditional forms, and she doesn’t dumb down. (It helps to have a dictionary nearby when you read her). But, she is so worth the effort, because she can move you to laughter or tears or just plain anger and shock with her way of expressing the world she saw. You may have heard her four ages of women – “bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden” (Coda) – but what about her description of time as “the great heel”?
“My novels are 90% ME”
Let’s now, though, get to the biography. Why do we read author biographies? Why not just read – and re-read – more of their works? Is it simply a voyeuristic activity or can biographies add something of value to our understanding? And if the latter, what sort of understanding? Is it valid to try to understand an author’s works though his or her life, or, vice versa, to understand the life through the works*? These can be minefields for literary biographers, but they’re minefields Lamb has stepped lightly across. Astley’s statement that “My novels are 90% ME” helped, yet the question is still valid.
How has Lamb done it? For a start, she doesn’t attempt any pop psychology. She presents the story of Astley’s life, noting points of interest, of stress and tension – such as her very strict Catholic upbringing – but she doesn’t labour the point. She lets the reader make most of the assumptions or connections. Similarly, she situates the works in Astley’s time-line, describing what was going on at the time and drawing out themes and concerns – such as those of the outcast and misfit – that recur in her novels. She tracks changes in Astley’s thinking, such as her complex attitude to gender and feminism, through both her life and her work. Astley’s early works from the 1950s and 60s, for example, were mostly written from a male or “neuter” perspective, but later in her career, as times changed, she shifted to a female point of view.
Lamb tells the story, like most biographies, in a generally chronological manner. The book is logically organised into four parts – youth, early career, middle career, and later career – with gorgeously evocative chapter titles most of which come from Thea’s own words. Chapter 2, for example, is “Suspected of reading” from Beachmasters, and Chapter 9’s “I merely crave an intelligent buddy” is from a letter. Underpinning this chronology are recurring themes, including her anxieties about critical recognition and her ongoing battle with publishers to get a fair deal for literary writing; her awareness of her “difficult” style; her persistent focus on and interest in outsiders and misfits, gender, and male-female relationships; her smoking; her long, complicated but loving marriage; and what Lamb describes as her “twin modes of existence”, that is, her adoption of an insider-outsider role or persona. As the book progresses, all these appear and reappear, creating a coherent picture of Astley as a complex, idiosyncratic, frequently funny and often irascible, but oh so very human person.
I was, naturally, interested to read about Astley’s life. I loved that Lamb confirmed the Astley I thought I knew, while filling in the gaps and the backstory that helped me understand her better. I was thrilled, for example, to discover that Astley loved Gerard Manley Hopkins. That made complete sense, considering her style, but how I wish my love of Hopkins had the same effect on me! Anyhow, I was also, of course, keen to read about the writing and the publishing, about the works and how they fitted into her life. Lamb met this intelligently, slotting the works into the chronology, and explaining salient points, as relevant, about what inspired them, who edited and published them, what the critical response was, how they relate to her oeuvre, and so on. I’ll be returning to these – via the thorough index – as and when I read and/or re-read her works.
“It can be lonely at the bottom”
So far I have written mostly, as I should, about the biography itself, but, before I finish, I do want to shine a light a little more specifically on Astley and her work. One of the recurrent issues in Lamb’s book is Astley’s ongoing concern, mentioned earlier, regarding her lack of, or mixed, critical reception. Lamb suggests that, partly to defend herself from critics but partly also because it was how she wrote, Astley described herself as “intensely interested in style”, the subtext being that style was more important to her than plot. In this, Lamb suggests, she was like Patrick White and Randolph Stow. She could be hard on herself, saying early in her career that
It’s a fearful thing to have de luxe standards and be limited by technique and self. I know the country I want to explore but I only seem able to chart its coasts.
Yet she didn’t take (negative) criticism well. This is interesting, given she often opened herself up to it. Perhaps it is partly because she didn’t feel understood. It’s difficult to accept criticism when the basis of that criticism misses the mark, as it often did. Astley, for example, experimented with style and form throughout, but not everyone appreciated that. However, it is also very likely that gender played a role. In 1981 she wrote:
Perhaps it is because I am a woman – and no reviewer, especially a male one, can believe for a split infinitive of a second that irony or a sense of comedy or the grotesque in a woman is activated by anything but the nutrients derived from ‘backyard malice’ … the Salem judgement comes into play and the lady writer is more certainly for burning.
The other point I want to make relates to her themes. Lamb argues that Astley consistently explored outsiders and misfits, and ideas about gender, and male-female relationships, particularly in relation to power and responsibility. Her subject matter may have changed from her early treatment of “teachers, small towns and islands”, and then of suburban life, to wider social concerns about justice, development and indigenous dispossession, but her “obsessions” persisted. I think, as does Lamb, that by the end she’d come full circle, but to a more sophisticated expression, from the lonely, isolated teacher in 1958’s A girl with a monkey to a despairing Janet writing for the last reader in 1999’s Drylands. Such an impressive, tightly focused but never boring oeuvre.
I could say the same about this biography. At just over 300 pages (excluding the end-matter), it manages to be both extensive and intensive. It is tightly focused but never feels like a mere recording of facts. It is honest and affectionate but not hagiographic. It portrays that paradox typical of creators, the self-protective writer who lays herself bare. And it demonstrates that Astley’s concerns are as relevant today as they were when she died in 2004. Lamb’s biography goes some way towards according Astley the recognition she wanted and deserved. May it be just the start.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) would agree.
(Review copy supplied by UQP)
* Carol Shields’ biography of Jane Austen is an interesting example, because it’s a case of a novelist writing about a novelist about whom little is known. Shields was upfront about using Austen’s work to fill in the gaps. It worked because she was honest about what she was doing.
Given that a literary biography won the National Biography Award this year, that I’ve recently posted Musings on literary autobiographies/memories, and that my next review will be for a literary biography, it seemed high time that I devoted a Monday Musings to the form, don’t you think?
Biographies make up a pretty small proportion of my reading diet, and when I do read them I tend to prefer literary biographies – for obvious reasons. I can, though, be persuaded to read others if the subject is really of interest to me and/or the biographer is one I admire. An example of such a book I’ve reviewed here is Hazel Rowley’s wonderful Franklin and Eleanor.
Do you read biographies? If so, why do you read them? I have, at times, worried that my interest is voyeuristic. I have felt uncertain about whether I’d be better to focus my attention on reading more of authors’ works than biographies about them? And yet, biography is, I think, a serious literary form in its own right. Indeed, at the Australian National University, there is the National Centre of Biography, about which I’ve written before. Its role, to summarise greatly, is to foster and encourage expert and innovative biographical writing in Australia. This, together with the fact that significant institutions like the National Library of Australia with its Seymour Biography Lecture and the State Library of New South Wales with its National Biography Award, suggests that I should worry no more.
What makes a good literary biography? Well, I know what I look for: well-researched (with foot-notes/end-notes), an intelligent but readable style, honest rather than hagiographic (or its opposite!) tone, and an analytical approach to the writer’s work situating it within the writer’s life and times. I also like it when the biographer engages the reader in the form of the biography, in the challenges they may have confronted, in how and why they chose the approach they did.
So, here I’ll list a few Australian literary biographies, that I’ve read or would like to, in alphabetical order, as libraries do it, by the subject. Inclusion here does not mean they are all the best of the form, but simply that they represent a variety in style and subject.
- Jennifer Walker’s Elizabeth of the German Garden: A literary journey (2013). A recent addition to my TBR, I’m very keen to read this biography of the not-so-well-known Australian-born writer, Elizabeth von Arnim. I’ve read several of her works – fiction and non-fiction – and love her writing. (As an aside, given recent discussions on this blog regarding memoirs, she’s another author who has played with the memoir form in her writing.)
- Karen Lamb’s Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (2015). This is the book I am just finishing now and will review in the next few days.
- Philip Butterss’ An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of CJ Dennis (2014) (my review). This year’s National Biography Award winner. The judges wrote that it’s “meticulously researched”, “fluent in style”, and that it “provides an illuminating analysis of the oeuvre, and its spinoffs, for which Dennis was famous and, briefly, rich”.
- Brenda Niall’s True north: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (2012) (my review). This is, really, more than a traditional literary biography. Elizabeth was an artist, and the two were daughters of a pioneering cattle family. I enjoyed it, but it suffered, perhaps, from the breadth of its focus.
- Jill Roe’e Stella Miles Franklin: A biography (2008). This is a biography that I should read, given the importance of its subject to Australian literature and given the reputation of the biography itself. I can, though, suggest you check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review.
- Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John (2013). (my review). St John is not regarded as “high” Australian literature – nor is Mary Durack, for that matter – but she was the first female Australian writer to be nominated for the Booker Prize and, like the Duracks, came from a family which had a public profile.
- Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead: A life (1993). Rowley was regarded as one of Australia’s best biographers until she died too young, in her 60th year, in 2011. Her subjects included the French couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and American writer, Richard Wright. Her biography of Stead was universally praised, with, for example, critic Michael Upchurch at the New York Review of Books describing it as “everything a literary biography should be”. He wrote: “It’s a model of clarity. Ms. Rowley’s shrewd selectivity and handling of anecdote makes the book compellingly readable”.
- David Marr’s Patrick White: A life (1991). Another biography I should read, but it’s a big tome, so will need time. Well-reviewed when it came out, it’s still the authoritative biography of Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in literature.
In 2010, journalist Gideon Haigh wrote an article titled “Sleaze-hounds and artist on oath: The state of Australian biography” in Kill Your Darlings. He bemoaned the scarcity of Australian biography “of quality”. I’d certainly agree that we’d like more good biographies. He suggested various reasons for the dearth, including that it “could be as simple as that there are easier ways to earn a living, and that living in the shadow of a subject for the years required to craft something really worthwhile involves a determination and a humility no longer common among those with writing aspirations”. I’m not sure I like the dig about “humility” but it is clear to me that writing a comprehensive, thoughtful biography is a huge task, one that takes not months but years, and that requires extensive research that must be expensive (even in today’s more digitally accessible world). I don’t know how well supported the endeavour is.
Do you have any thoughts or preferences about biographies?
One of the best parts of living in Canberra – and there are many best parts, despite what the politicians and media seem to say! – is that we have the National Library of Australia. It presents many literary events each year, to which I only ever manage to make a few. Some of them I’ve written about here, some not – but I am going to share the latest, Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture.
The Seymour Biography Lecture, endowed by the Seymours in 2005, is an annual lecture devoted to life writing. The inaugural lecture was given by one of Australia’s most respected biographers, Brenda Niall. Later speakers have included Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska. Initially hosted by the Humanities Research Centre‘s Biography Institute, it was transferred to the National Library in 2010. When I saw that Robert Drewe was to give this year’s lecture, I had to go. While I haven’t reviewed Drewe here yet, I have mentioned him a few times, and have read some of his work in the past. He has written novels, short stories, essays and memoir. The shark net, his first memoir, was adapted to a well-regarded miniseries in 2003, and his second, Montebello, was published in 2012. (I mentioned these in my recent Monday Musings on literary autobiographies.)
The lecture will I’m sure, like those before it, be made available via the Seymour Biography page (link above), but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me.
Memoir, or autobiography?
Drewe talked about how memoir is viewed, the fact that some see it as self-absorption or as narcissistic, about revenge or self-justification. He quoted American critic William Gass (author of Autobiography in the age of narcissism) who attacked memoir for being about self-absorption. He ridiculed the genre: “Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy!” Hmm, I have friends who don’t like memoir for this very reason.
Drewe gave a brief history of memoir – particularly memoir as confession, or redemption – through the writings of St. Augustine who made memoir, he said, an interior exercise, and Rousseau who moved the confession or memoir into the literary arena. He told us that Patrick White described his Flaws in the glass as not a memoir but a “self-portrait in sketches”! Flaws, Drewe said, is regularly criticised. English critic, Richard Davenport-Hines, for example, wrote that White’s “spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s”.
Memoirs, Drewe, said – looking at works like St Augustine’s – predated autobiographies. He defined the two forms as follows: memoirs are written from a life, while autobiographies are of a life. The change in preposition here is significant. As Gore Vidal would describe it, memoirs are about memory, while autobiography and biography are about history. In a memoir, a writer can take a memory and describe or expand it to tell a story about his/her life or experiences. Facts can be played with in order to find the emotional truths. Autobiography on the other hand – despite George Bernard Shaw’s “All autobiographies are lies… deliberate lies” – are expected to be factual.
Drewe told us that Sigmund Freud, when asked to write about his life, refused, arguing that it would be a reckless project. To tell his complete life would require so much discretion, it would be an exercise in mendacity. No wonder that, as Drewe told us, 99% of memoirists wait until their parents have died. Oh dear! I do hope my writing-oriented children are among this 99%! We did our best!
All this might sound dry and boring, but Drewe’s presentation was entertaining. He told us that when he thinks of autobiography he thinks of Father’s Day – and sports (particularly cricket) and political autobiographies. He regaled us with the punning titles of cricket autobiographies, such as At the close of play; Over to me; Time to declare (two in fact); Over but not out; and No boundaries.
Before we had a chance to call him sexist, Drewe said that Mother’s Day made him think of WOTOs, that is, Women Overcoming the Odds, like, you know, widowed women running a cattle station in the outback, or a woman sailing solo around the world or saving an endangered animal!
Drewe returned several times in his talk to the issue of “facts” versus “truths”. He quoted Louise Adler who commissions political autobiographies for Melbourne University Press, including Mark Latham’s The Latham Diaries, Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and Malcolm Fraser’s The Political Memoirs. Politicians have a good memory for insults and slights. Being memoirs, they are not necessarily verifiably factual. However, Adler, Drewe said, argues that their unreliability makes them riveting reading. They may be myopic, partisan, but they deliver riches. Drewe didn’t say this, but I’ll add that this requires a certain level of sophistication in the readers, that is, we readers need to understand the memoir genre and read with that understanding. I have no problem with that!
There is, however, what he called “the veracity squad”. These include the righteous readers or burgeoning historians – his descriptions – who are pedantic about facts. They don’t believe, for example, that you can remember dialogue from a family Christmas dinner twenty years ago and so they discount works that include such content. They wouldn’t approve, also, of crafting a particular person into a standout character.
Around here, Drewe referred to his first memoir, The shark net. He said he decided not to focus on the ego, but on the serial murderer with whom his family had contact, Eric Edgar Cooke. It’s basically factual he said, but he did imagine a couple of scenes – that is, he “fictionalized fact” – because he wanted to show Cooke as a human being.
I recently posted a review of Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen. She tells us, in the Epilogue, that she’d initially written the story as a novel but her editor, I believe, suggested it would be better as a memoir. Drewe said in his lecture that “some stories are best kept true, some best as fiction”. The challenge is to decide which form is best. Some writers don’t make the right decision and find themselves in a literary furore, such as Norma Khouri with her fake memoir, Forbidden love. A more complex situation is Helen Demidenko with her fiction, The hand that signed the paper, which she falsely claimed was autobiographical. What both these writers failed to realise is that the first rule of memoir is that you shouldn’t lie!
Memoirs named by Drewe
During his lecture, Drewe identified a number of memoirs, some of which I’ll share as we all like lists:
Top selling Australian memoirs
- Clive James, Unreliable memoirs
- Albert Facey, A fortunate life
- Errol Flynn, My wicked, wicked ways
- Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, memory (in my TBR)
- Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (read before blogging)
- Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (read before blogging)
- Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl (read before blogging)
- Sally Morgan’s My place (read before blogging)
Towards the end of the lecture, Drewe referred to an article titled “Reflection and retrospection” by American critic Phillip Lopate. It commences:
In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.
Makes sense to me …