If you live in Melbourne I’ve heard, you must have an AFL (Australian Football League or Aussie Rules) football team. There are those who tell me they survive without it, but if you are new to Melbourne it probably helps your integration to take an interest. Consequently, when Son Gums chose Melbourne for his home in 2009, he decided he’d better choose a team. He did. I, though, had managed to remain an AFL-virgin until this weekend when Mr Gums and I agreed to accompany him to a game. (After all, I dragged him along to lots of “experiences” when he was young. It’s only fair, I thought, that I should give him the same respect I demanded of him!) I’m glad I did, not just because it is part of local culture but because I found it more interesting (for several reasons) than I expected … And, anyhow, now I can tick it off my list.
It also got me thinking about representations of the game in Aussie literature. There are a lot of references to AFL in Aussie popular culture, as Wikipedia tells us, but I thought I’d just list a few that I’ve experienced. Here goes:
- Barry Oakley’s A salute to the great Macarthy (1970). I was young when I read this novel so I remember little, but it did also become a movie, in 1975, during the 1970s Australian film renaissance. It’s about the “kidnapping” of a young local footballer, Macarthy, by the South Melbourne Football Club.
- David Williamson’s The club (1977) is more memorable. A play by one of Australia’s best-known and most popular playwrights, it deals with politics in the administration of a club. Collingwood was apparently its inspiration, though it is not named in the play. It too was made into a movie – in 1980. The plot commences with a coach contracting a young player who does not, initially anyhow, perform well. Cracks and jealousies start to show …
- Mike Brady’s “Up there Cazaly” (1979) is a popular song. Perhaps a stretch for inclusion here but I think there’s an argument for allowing song, as a form of verse or poetry, to be discussed in this forum. Whether you like football or not, whether you are into popular song or not, chances are you’ve heard this song if you’re Australia. According to Wikipedia, it’s named for an Australian rules football catchphrase that was used by St Kilda teammates when they wanted early 20th century St Kilda and South Melbourne great Roy Cazaly to hit the ball clear. Long before it became a song it was used by Aussie soldiers during World War II. I didn’t know that before!
- Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons (2012) won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by an author under 35 years old. It’s a coming-of-age story about a teenager and the role football and family play in his development in 1980s-90s Melbourne. Tensions develop when the teenager’s mother doesn’t share his obsession with the game! (I’ve lied somewhat in including this one. I haven’t read it, but I remember its winning the award. It intrigued me.)
- Anna Krien’s Night games (2013) is the only work I’ve reviewed here. Best described as narrative-non-fiction it explores football culture in relation to sex, power and women via the actual trial of a young footballer accused of rape. A powerful book, it resonates wider than football in terms of its analysis of celebrity, sex and the meaning of consent, but AFL football and the way it deals with gender is its core.
What is interesting about these works is the light they shine on Australian masculinity. Except for the rah-rah nature of “Up there Cazaly”, which was intended as a promotional song, the works I’ve named pose questions about masculinity as depicted in the world of football. There is a lot that is good about team sport, and football (all codes, I suspect) can provide a supportive network for (sometimes vulnerable) young men. Michael Sollis and the Griffyns showed this for Rugby League in their Dirty Red Digger performance, and the American TV series Friday Night Lights showed something similar for American football. But what bothers me is that, handled poorly, football can also bring out the worst in men. It can over-emphasise competitiveness to the point that winning overrides being fair and just, and it can value, and consequently promote, machismo over sensitivity and empathy. As a topic for literature, then, it has plenty of meat. I’m not surprised that writers have chosen to write about it. Do you read literature with sport as its theme? If so, do you have favourites?
There are several reasons why now seemed an opportune time to write my first Library of America (LOA) post for 2015. The first reason is obvious. It’s June and I haven’t featured one yet. The second is because my last post was on music, so writing about an article by American composer Virgil Thomson seemed apposite. The third reason relates to an interesting comment Thomson makes about reviewing, recalling my recent post on the AustLit anthology of criticism.
And then there’s reason why this article, published by LOA back in February, initially attracted my attention. It’s because of Virgil Thomson himself. I first heard of him back in the 1970s as the composer of two beautiful American government sponsored documentaries, The plow that broke the plains (1936) and The river (1938), made by filmmaker Pare Lorents. I won’t reminisce about this now, but I enjoy noting these connections we make over our lives.
In my post on the Austlist anthology of criticism, I quoted the editors as defining criticism as “interpretation”, something they differentiated from “reviews” which they saw as focusing on “evaluation”. In LOA’s introductory notes to Thomson’s piece, they quote Thomson’s explanation as to why, as music critic and editor for the New York Herald Tribune, he only used composers and performers as reviewers. He said:
It’s a writing job, but the subject is music and you’ve got to know a good deal about the subject in order to be believable. In order to be a reviewer, you have to forget whether you liked it or not and tell your reader what it was like.
Hmmm … a rose by any other name, eh? What Thomson calls “reviewing” is what the anthology editors call “criticism”. Whatever name we give it, I realise that I tend to prefer reviews/criticism that focus on analysing what the work is like, what makes it tick, more than whether the reviewer liked it. “Liking” is such a subjective thing and can depend so much on one’s experiences, preferences, personality even, whereas describing “what it was like” involves knowledge of the art form, the ability to “see” it in context, to understand how it does what it does, and to describe, perhaps, what it “means”. This is not to say that “liking” isn’t important, but that it is not necessarily the most important aspect – for me anyhow.
So, then, Thomson’s “Taste in Music”. He starts by differentiating taste “for” music, which he sees as the ability to enjoy music, pretty much indiscriminately, and taste “in” music, which involves liking certain kinds of music over others. He then discusses admiration versus liking, suggesting that “there are often striking contradictions between what musical people admire and what they like”. Admiration is about “reason” while “liking is an inspiration”. You can’t alter “liking”, he says, “by any act of will”. But “it will frequently alter itself … without warning”. I think we have all experienced that! Loving something, and then suddenly tiring of it, growing out of it perhaps.
Thomson’s main argument is that “development of taste” is not the main objective of music education, that the important thing is “understanding, that whole paraphernalia of analysis and synthesis whereby a piece is broken down into its component details, mastered, restored to integrity, and possessed”. This is true of literature too. How often have you heard people say that studying literature put them off reading, or off the classics. And yet, pulling apart books is the only way you learn to understand them, what makes them tick. Thomson goes on:
Persons unprepared by training to roam the world of music in freedom but who enjoy music and wish to increase that enjoyment are constantly searching for a key, a passport that will hasten their progress. There is none, really, except study.
Oh dear, he’s right, I know he is. And this is why I constantly say that my reports of Griffyn Ensemble concerts do not constitute reviews. They are reports of what I enjoyed, and what I made of the performance. I do not have the skills or training to review music.
Thomson also discusses the familiar versus unfamiliar in music. He writes that “the too old, the too new, the in-any-way strange, we resist simply because we do not know how to take them on”. We enjoy the familiar, he says, and this leads toward “a timid conservatism with regard to unfamiliar music”. He writes that:
The lay public will try anything, but it will be disappointed, on first hearing, in anything it has no method for remembering. We like the idea of being musically progressive, because progress is one of our national ideals; but we do not always know how to conduct a progress.
This is probably true of the new in all of the arts, don’t you think? “To hear music correctly”, he wrote, to “know one’s mind”, we need to be able to “hear patterns in sound”. This is what I feel about all music, but particularly new, unfamiliar work. I might sense patterns but on one hearing, and with almost no musical training, I don’t feel capable of “reviewing” it, of understanding let alone explaining what makes it tick, the same way I can, for example, with a novel. I am experienced at looking for patterns in literature, but not so for music. Thomson suggests that the untrained will “rarely know the difference between their tastes and their opinions”. Hmm … probably true.
His next point is that while professional musicians express “responsible opinions” based on knowledge, it is “lay opinion” which creates the “modes or fashions in consumption that make up the history of taste”. Interesting. He admits that knowledgeable persons play some role in developing these “fashions” but that they can’t force the public to like what it doesn’t want. He argues that creators cannot behave freely with trendy music. You can’t tinker with what people like. For this reason, he says, unsuccessful or unfashionable music “is sometimes the best music, the freest, the most original”.
What I most enjoyed about Thomson’s essay, though, is that he doesn’t lay down the law. He knows music, like all arts I’d say, is a slippery beast. There “is no rule” that can’t be broken. He writes that:
Those who think themselves most individual in their likings are most easily trapped by the appeal of chic, since chic is no more than the ability to accept trends in fashion with grace, to vary them ever so slightly, to follow a movement under the sincere illusion that one is being oneself.
He then has a dig at intellectuals. “You can always sell to the world of learning” he says, “acquaintance with that which it does not know”!
In other words, the only real answer to understanding and appreciating music, is “labor, much study, and inveterate wariness [because] the pleasures of taste, at best, are transitory”. “Nobody”, he says, “professional or layman, can be sure that what he finds beautiful this year may not be just another piece of music to him next.”
So, having logically argued the meaning of responsible reviewing and the importance of understanding music, Thomson concludes that in the end “the pleasures of taste … are transitory”. The best we can do, he says, is consult our appetite about what we consume and after consuming it “argue about the thing interminably” with all our friends. On that basis, I think, the important thing is to enjoy what we read, hear or see, and when we write about it to be clear about the basis on which we are writing. Our readers can then assess our opinion on the basis of what they understand to be our background, knowledge and prejudices. What do you think?
“Taste in music”
First published: In The musical scene, 1945.
Available: Online at the Library of America
The time has come, I think, to talk about disclosures. I have been blogging for just over six years now, mostly on literature but also, occasionally, on other cultural experiences – including the Griffyn Ensemble. The thing is that Canberra is a small place and we who move around it start to get to know each other. This is not unusual, but it does complicate the issue of reviewing/blogging. I’ve attended seminars and/or read discussions on reviewing “in a small world”. How do you be “objective” (not that we can ever be totally objective) when there’s been personal contact? And yet, how many literary reviewers in Australia do not know, have not met, the writers they review? Similarly, for music reviewers, or theatre reviewers? Few, I’d say, once they’ve been in the game for a while and are reviewing people who’ve also been in the game for a while.
So, what does this mean? To what degree are “reviews” invalidated by such connections? To date I have disclosed when I have received books for review, but what other disclosures should be made? I’d love to know what you think. Meanwhile, I will say that Mr Gums and I identify as Griffyn Ensemble supporters. We like what they do and would love others to enjoy them too. This, I think, you need to know.
Now that’s off my chest, let’s get to the latest concert, Northern Lights. It was unusual for the Griffyns in that it comprised one piece, albeit encompassing 14 movements, composed by their musical director Michael Sollis. As Sollis explained to us at the beginning, it was his response to Estonian composer Urmas Sisask’s piano piece Southern Sky. The Griffyns had performed Sollis’ arrangement of this, with narration by astronomer Fred Watson, in the Mt Stromlo observatory ruin in 2012, reprised in 2013. That concert too comprised one multi-movement piece. To compose his “response”, Sollis visited the Arctic Circle with Fred Watson in November 2014.
Now, here’s where I want to reiterate the comment I made regarding rereading in my recent review of Peter Carey’s Amnesia. The same goes, surely, for other art forms. Consequently, when Northern Lights finished I knew I’d love to hear it again because there was a lot going on: I know I’ve missed some musical connections and relationships, and some finer points of the story being told. But, I did enjoy it. Let me set the scene …
The performance took place in semi-darkness in the James O. Fairfax theatre at the National Gallery of Australia. We were given a glossy program booklet which featured photographs taken by Sollis on his tour, one photograph for each movement. It was a bit of a challenge to follow the program in the semi-dark but I managed pretty well. In his introduction, Sollis told us that, while Watson’s tour focused on the northern lights, he was aware of other lights too – particularly the long twilights – and that he wanted to capture this fuller experience in his piece. The semi-dark ambience, with occasional soft changes in light levels, was intended to convey some of this. I rather liked the dark – it certainly helped keep our focus on the music and the musicians for a start!
In keeping with the Griffyn Ensemble’s style, this was more performance than pure concert. Sollis incorporated both science and myth into his work, by paralleling a scientific narration by Fred Watson (via recording) with a Snow-White-like-fairy-story-cum-norse-myth about a young girl who, cursed, is banished from the sunny sky to a dark earth where the sun can’t reach. She must find the sun to break the curse. Consequently, the culmination of Northern Lights was not “The Aurora” (Movement 12), but “Celestial Sunlight” (Movement 15*). The story takes place over 24 hours, with the times marked against the movements in the program (except for the first and last movement).
Now the music. I guess you would broadly define it as modern or contemporary classical – but, before you think it, this does not mean it was discordant or inaccessible. It wasn’t traditional by any means in form or sound, but it was evocative music, impressionistic even, if I dare invoke that term.
The ensemble, in its current line-up, has been together for around 18 months now and they look comfortable together. It’s an unusual grouping of instruments but for the audience, or me at least, it provides some exciting opportunities to hear different combinations of sounds. In Northern Lights, Sollis pushed the instruments, including Susan Ellis’ voice, to convey a range of moods and sensations. We heard whales singing, water dropping, ice creaking, particles popping; we sensed the melancholy of the long nights and the joy of the aurora.
I can’t possibly talk about all 14 movements, so I’ll just mention a few highlights which I hope I’ve remembered correctly. In “Amnesia near a Stream” (2) played by the full ensemble, I particularly enjoyed the swelling sounds of Laura Tanata’s harp to evoke dawn or, at least, the awakening of the girl sent to earth. I also loved the harp’s gentle repetitive phrases in “Goodnight Aurora” (14), but in other movements this traditionally angelic instrument surprised us with more grating sounds. There was a lovely, melodic, singing folk-like tune, reminding me somehow of the American west, from Chris Stone’s violin in “Under Ground” (8). This piece was accompanied by some beautiful percussive effects from Holly Downes’ double bass. “Floating” (9) featured Susan Ellis, with eerie echo, and the violin. Ellis also moved us with what must surely have been challenging high humming in “Emerging Dots of White” (7). Kiri Sollis was kept busy playing piccolo, flute and alto flute (thought not all at once!) In “Excited Particles Flying High” (11) the piccolo shone as the excitement built. The sound of sheets of paper vibrating and crackling at the end of this movement was wonderfully effective. Through all this Sollis was busy conducting (with his body or eyes), attending to the mixing in of the spoken word components, or playing his guitar or mandolin.
The overriding questions are, I suppose, how well did the science work with the fairy story, and does the music hang together as a whole work. I can’t answer that on one performance, but I certainly came away feeling I’d once again experienced excellent musicians playing music that engaged both my brain and my spirit. What more can you ask, really?
Ensemble: Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flutes), Chris Stone (violin), Laura Tanata (harp), Michael Sollis (director/composer plus plucked strings).
* Although the last movement was no. 15, there were only 14 movements, as there was no no. 13 – a nod, presumably, to superstition and perhaps to the mystical aspects of the journey we were taken on.
I’ve written about AustLit several times before, including their BlackWords and World War 1 in Australian Literary Culture projects. Today, I thought I’d highlight their AustLit Anthology of Criticism which was published online in 2010. AustLit, as I’ve mentioned before, is primarily a subscription service, but not all of the content is behind their paywall. Of course, I only discuss freely available content. What would be the point otherwise!
The AustLit Anthology of Criticism was funded by AustLit and the University of Queensland to be “a resource for students and their teachers at secondary and lower tertiary levels”. It contains 18 writers who, on first look, seem an eclectic bunch, with well-known people like Peter Carey, Les Murray, Patrick White, Tim Winton and Judith Wright represented alongside the less widely known like, say, Jack Davis, Michael Gow or Hannie Rayson. The choice of writers, editors Leigh Dale and Linda Hale say, “took into account [those] whose work was currently being studied in the senior secondary school English curriculum in all Australian States and Territories”.
The anthology contains a link to a brief biography for each author on the AustLit Database, followed by a small list of selected articles with links to the online content itself. The chosen articles are “criticism”, which the editors describe as “interpretation” and to be differentiated from “reviews” which they define as focusing more on “evaluation”. These “critical” articles they link to in their anthology can, they say, represent opposing points of view, and mostly come from academic or literary journals like Australian Literary Culture, Australasian Drama Studies, Southerly, and Westerly, or collections of critical essays. For novelists and playwrights, they have mostly chosen one work, but for poets, the articles can deal with a wider body of their work.
So, for Peter Carey, the book chosen is True history of the Kelly Gang, for Patrick White it’s Fringe of leaves, and for Tim Winton it’s Cloudstreet. Interestingly, for David Malouf several of his works are covered including Fly away Peter, Child’s play and Remembering Babylon. I’ve read four of these six novels, but all before I started blogging. They would all have something to offer students studying them.
I’m interested, though, in what the selection says about what is (or was around 2010) being studied in schools and early tertiary courses around Australia. Only 5 (Dorothy Hewett, Sally Morgan, Hannie Rayson, Henry Handel Richardson and Judith Wright) of the 18 writers are women, and only two (Jack Davis and Sally Morgan) have indigenous background. All, except for the indigenous writers, are Anglo-Australian. These 18 aren’t the only writers being studied, of course, but from the editors’ point of view they are 18 of the most universally studied ones. Hmmm, I say, this probably means they are representative of the whole.
And that’s all I’m going to say now. Regardless of this bias, it looks to be a useful resource and one I’ll return to if I read any of the works they cover. I do like to read good criticism. Do you have favourite sources you go to for criticism versus review?
One of the pleasures in reading Peter Carey’s Amnesia comes from his language, so I do want to share examples of that, but first I want to say something about the style and structure because I didn’t get to discuss it in my review. One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the book is that it’s disjointed. Some really like the beginning but then find they lose interest. I didn’t find this, but it’s interesting because there is something about the structure of the book that might create this response.
Amnesia is divided into two very distinct parts. Part 1 is told first person in Felix’s voice. It’s here that the story is set up. We learn about the Angel Worm, we learn a little about the four main characters, and Felix starts to realise the import of the challenge he’s been set. Part 2, the longest part, is told third person as Felix, first in a primitive shack on the Hawkesbury River and then in a motel in Katoomba, listens to tapes in which Celine and Gaby tell their stories while he tries to fashion it all into a book. Carey switches between telling us what Felix is thinking, experiencing or up to, and letting us hear Celine and Gaby on their lives and how Gaby turned into the “hacktivist” she is. There is no set pattern to the switching between these three lives, so the reader does need to pay attention, but overall I found the transitions clear.
Why did Carey change to third person voice in Part 2? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s to reflect that Felix is not master of his own fate, that he is the pawn, or client, of those who are moving him around, just as Australia is a “client state” of the USA. Is this too fanciful? Or, is it to do with the fact that the novel is not just about politics, but also about storytelling, about whose version is most real, most relevant, to be trusted? Who is editing whom, we wonder? Felix editing Celine and Gaby’s stories, or the mysterious publisher editing Felix’s version of the story? As we are told in the last few pages:
As always, the omniscient narrator had a very wobbly grasp of what was happening.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I must say that without a re-read, I will admit to also having a wobbly grasp of some of the novel’s finer points, but I believe I got the gist.
Anyhow, I wanted to share some of Carey’s writing with you, but what? As I look through the book, I find so many parts that I loved. Some work best if you know Melbourne, others if you know the political situation, and still others if you know the plot. This one though might work. It’s a description of Coburg, the working class suburb in which Gaby’s father buys a house, to her mother’s dismay:
The street had a snotty name but the trees were weedy, starved of love, survivors with hessian bandages. Gaby was shocked by the cracks in the concrete, the lonely quiet, the little houses shrunk inside their borders, alone, disconnected. They saw a malevolent cluster of boys like rats with mullets, operating on a Datsun 240Z, roaring, revving, sending oily smoke across the intersection. One lay on the mudguard, deep into the engine, his plumber’s crack shining at the sky.
This is a little – and comparatively straight – example, but I like it.
Somewhere sometime ago I read that serious reviewers should read the book they are reviewing at least twice. I think this is good advice, but I admit that with so many books I want to read I rarely follow it. Peter Carey’s latest novel Amnesia is one that well warrants rereading. It assaults you with ideas and action that aren’t easily assimilated on the first read. However, time marches on, so to write this review I am going (or, to be honest, I’m choosing) to rely on the notes I took, supported by a quick flick through. Please read my review in this light!
Amnesia is a satire, and satires can be pretty tricky to read. They’re slippery. They can be funny, but not necessarily. They tend to be about ideas or issues, so their characters are created to serve that end and may not be fully developed or particularly sympathetic. This can make satires tricky to engage with, particularly if you’re the sort of reader who loves to engage with characters. Amnesia presents the reader with some of these challenges. It’s a romp, a thriller, a drama – but in the end it’s all about activism, cyber security and journalism, about politics and the relationship between Australia and the United States of America. I enjoyed it, though the pace was so cracking at times I found it hard to keep up.
The novel starts with a worm, the Angel Worm, which infects the computer control systems of Australian prisons, releasing their locks. Because Australian prison security was designed by American corporations, the worm also infected nearly 5,000 American prisons. Prisoners of all sorts, including asylum seekers, were freed. The U.S. is not amused. As the story breaks, our protagonist, Australia’s self-described “sole remaining left-wing journalist” Felix Moore, is being tried in court for defamation. He’s “grateful for a story big enough to push me off the front pages”. Unfortunately, in the sort of irony typical of satire, he soon finds himself out of the frying pan and into the fire, because, of course, the parents of one of the Worm’s creators are old university friends, Sando Quinn and his wife Celine.
So here’s the set up. Felix is destitute. His book is to be pulped, and his wife has kicked him out. To his rescue comes another old university friend, Woody Townes, who pays him a lot of money to write a book about worm-creator Gaby. Felix soon learns though that this book is not going to be his book expressing the truth as he discovers it, but a book that says … well, let’s just say that here the adventure, romp, thriller, drama, whatever you want to call it, begins.
What then is being satirised? Let’s start with the four main characters, Felix, Sando, Celine and Woody. They met as students at Monash University and became friends. They were radicals and activists who believed they could change the world. They organised marches and protests, they voted in Whitlam and the Labour Government, and they were affronted and angry by Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975. But, who are they now? One of Carey’s targets is this: what happens when radicals grow up? Woody turns capitalist property developer with hints of something worse; Sando is a politician who tries to keep the faith but discovers the compromises he has (or wants) to make; actor Celine sees herself as Bohemian but becomes seduced by the “finer” things in life and doesn’t want to mix with the working class; and journalist Felix sees himself as the tell-it-all saviour but recognises that in the process he has “become an awful creature”. It’s not a pretty picture.
Underlying this is a thread exploring Australia’s relationship with the USA. There’s the Battle of Brisbane (a two-day fight and riot between American soldiers and locals during World War 2), discussion of US involvement in Whitlam’s dismissal, and, fictionally, fears of what might happen if the US extradited Gaby. (Julian Assange anyone?) Early in the novel, Felix agrees that Woody has a point regarding the extradition risk:
Everything we knew from life suggested that America would do what it liked and Australia would behave like the client state it always was.
Carey also satirises journalism, particularly the sort that prides itself on exposés in search of the truth. Felix becomes the pawn in a game to produce a story that suits the person who gains control of him – by whatever method they can, by money, say, or by abduction. Woody suggests at one stage that Felix make things up to put Gaby in a positive light, but Felix, who believes there’s “no such thing as objective journalism” argues that this doesn’t equate with making things up! Through the course of the book Felix moves (or, more correctly, is moved through mysterious mechanisms) from a classy high-rise in Melbourne, to a remote primitive shack on the Hawkesbury River, and thence to a motel room in the Blue Mountains. All the while he doggedly listens to tapes of mother, Celine, and daughter, Gaby, talking, talking, talking.
Their story of life in Melbourne, from when Gaby was born, significantly on 11 November 1975, is great reading. Melbourne-born Carey knows the city and captures its life, rhythms, and diversity beautifully. The writing is gorgeously descriptive at times, and often funny, but can also be biting.
I think, too, that there’s an element of Carey sending himself up. I’m not suggesting, despite some obvious similarities between character Felix and creator Carey, that Amnesia is intended in any way to be autobiographical. But, in several of the references to writers and writing, I detect digs at some of the criticisms that have been levelled against him. How about, for example, Felix’s comment at the end that:
For the crime of expressing pleasure that my book would be available to future generations, I was judged not only immoral but vain and preening …
Oh Peter, I thought!
To conclude, though, what is all this satire for? Well, the title says it. There’s a reason Gaby was born on the day of the dismissal, and that she becomes the next generation of activists (or hacktivists) – and the reason is that Carey does not want us to forget. He wants us to “maintain the rage”*, to remain aware and vigilant of what is happening, and of whose fingers are in which pie. It’s not subtle, but then what satire is, and it perhaps tries to pack too much in, but it is both an entertaining and a provocative read. I’d be more than happy to read it again.
Hamish Hamilton, 2014
* I drafted my review and then trawled the net, and what did I find but an interview with Carey in The Australian that says just this. I didn’t steal it, promise!
I am currently reading a book of selected letters, First things first, by Australian poet Kate Llewellyn. I’m loving it, so I thought that as a precursor to my review (which is a way off yet as I’ve only read a third), I’d do a Monday Musings on the published letters and diaries of Australian writers. Hmm, not “the” so much as “some”, I should say. And, I should also say that I haven’t read many.
But, I do enjoy reading letters and diaries. It comes, I think, of being a reader who reads more for character than plot. I have written several posts on Jane Austen’s letters which my local group read in sections over a few years. (My posts are listed under Jane Austen on my Author Index page). They were published after Austen’s death. Reading Lewellyn’s letters, I’m aware that she’s alive, and that many of her recipients still are too. It’s a brave thing, I think, to let these “private” communications be shared. Nettie Palmer prepared the extracts from her journal for publication, and recognised the challenges of publishing something that was initially intended only for herself. She says:
Many of the people mentioned in these pages are no longer alive, and as I could not ask all for consent to use their words or letters, I have not asked any. If my friends should think I have taken liberty with them … well, I should be sorry. They will believe nothing here was set down in malice, much in love and gratitude.
Most of the books I’ve listed, though, were published after the author’s death.
As I researched today’s post, I came across the Australian Government’s website on Australian literature. They mention the published letters of Gwen Harwood, which I will include in my little select list below. They include this description of her letters:
Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet.
I’m not sure all collections of letters or diaries provide the story of the making of the writer involved, but they must give some insight into the person, their personality, interests, likes, loves and frustrations. So, here is a selection of published letters and diaries by Australian writers, ordered alphabetically by the name of the writer.
- Franklin, Miles: The diaries of Miles Franklin, edited by Paul Brunton (2004). These diaries cover the period 1932 to 1954, and is enlightening about Australia’s literary life at the times. I’ve only dipped into it (oops) while doing other research, and look forward to reading more. Here, to give a taste, is an honest Franklin on Dame Mary Gilmore in 1947: “I called on Mary Gilmore. She is increasingly apocryphal in her assertions. Very against the British — an old snake really, seeing the way she touted for a British title …”
- Harwood, Gwen: A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995, edited by Gregory Kratzmann (2001). See the quote above!
- Llewellyn, Kate: First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn, 1977-2004, edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill (2015). This is a lively, personal account of Llewellyn’s life, from what I’ve read so far. And it shows me the resilience you need to be a writer, given the very uncertain financial situation writers often find themselves in.
- Palmer, Nettie: Nettie Palmer: her private journal ‘Fourteen years’, poems, reviews and literary essays (1988), edited by Vivian Smith. This is, really, an anthology, of various of Nettie Palmer’s writings, but it starts with Fourteen years which comprises extracts from Palmer’s journal from 1925 to 1936 and which was first published in Meanjin in 1948. Palmer prepared it for publication, and Smith writes in the introduction that, in arranging it, “notions of symmetry and design were of more importance to Nettie Palmer than an exact pocket diary account of those days”. So, perhaps, a diary that isn’t quite a diary?
- Palmer, Vance and Nettie: Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer 1915-1963, edited by Vivian Smith (1977). This is a selection of the “copious” letters the Palmers wrote to many people, including aspiring and established writers. The inside cover says that the “selection reveals the breadth of the Palmers’ interests and the generosity of their concern for young writers’ struggles, for the plight of Spain in the 1930s, for the problems of bringing up children, earning a living, and facing two world wars. The span of their letters provides an informed and lively perspective on this century. Through these day-to-day responses runs a constant theme: the need for Australians to assume a responsible national stance in politics, in public affairs and in the Palmers’ own profession, literature. They lament, in an entirely modern voice, the inconsecutive* nature of Australian culture, the derivative admirations of academics and the public, and the philistinism evident in so much of our national life”.
- Wright, Judith: With love and fury: Selected letters of Judith Wright, edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney (2006). This collection includes her 1945-46 correspondence with Jack McKinney, who became her husband, and with Queensland poet, Jack Blight. Co-editor and coincidentally Wright’s daughter, Meredith McKinney, says that the letters with Blight “constitute a running commentary on the Australian literary scene as well as what she was reading and thinking about poetry and writing in general”. Wright was an activist for the environment and indigenous rights, among other social issues, so her letters are sure to be enlightening.
I’ll leave it here, but have you noticed something? With the exception of Vance Palmer, these all belong to women. It’s easy to suggest that letter writing and journal-keeping have traditionally been the realm of women, but there have been men too, like Samuel Pepys, of course. I did look for diaries and letters by men but with little success. I’m hoping they do exist and that some readers here will tell me about them. Regardless, I’d love to know if you, too, enjoy reading writers’ letters and journals.
* I have no idea what this word means and wonder if it’s a typo – I quoted it from the National Library’s Catalogue quoting the book’s inside cover.