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Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in England, 1911

August 19, 2014

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I’ve devoted a few Monday Musings recently to Australian writers in the first few decades of the twentieth century. I expect to do a few more in coming months, as I’m enjoying the research. Today, I’m drawing from a report of a talk given by Barbara Baynton in Sydney in 1911 to the Writers and Artists Union. The article, titled “England and the Australian writer: Barbara Baynton’s experience” appeared in a column in The Argus titled Page Twenty-One, written by arts journalist Norman Lilley (d. 1941).

Barbara Baynton will be well-known to readers of this blog as over the last year I’ve separately reviewed the short stories in her collection, Bush Studies. This book was published in England, after she had not been able to get it published in Sydney. However, as she explains in her talk, it’s not easy …

English publishers

Baynton told her audience that she’d explored many avenues in her search for a publisher – the English Society of Authors, the London-based Agent-General of New South Wales, publishers themselves, and, by accident, a man reading for a publisher. It was this man, Edward Garnett, who, in the end, read her work, liked it, and submitted it to Duckworths. Along her journey though, she was offered money by a publisher for one short story only; was told by another, Heinemanns, that it didn’t “touch short stories”; and was asked for “absurd sums” by others to cover the printing and distribution of her book. As I read all this, I wondered how much has changed!

Lilley comments that Baynton found “Literature … to be a costly pastime – that is, legitimate literature as distinct from sensational novel writing.” The latter, he says, could be made to pay “if you could catch the vogue and tickle the popular taste”.

The English mind

Baynton clearly spent some time discussing what English readers would read. Lilley reports:

Englishmen were not interested in Australia; they knew nothing about it, and did not want to learn. They regarded it as a land of strange contradictions, where the birds did not sing* and the flowers had no smell, and the trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; and nothing could persuade them that eucalyptus was not our national scent. They might read about the adventures of an Englishman in Australia; but they declined to take any interest in the country itself.

Baynton said, he reports, that “you cannot score a popular success with serious matter”. Again, one wonders how much, really, has changed – in terms of reading tastes, not in terms of interest in Australia, I mean.

Anyhow, Baynton apparently went on to say that writers who included “plenty about princesses and earls and gilded palaces” did sell! She gave popular English writer Marie Corelli as an example of this sort of writing. I discovered a brief paragraph about Corelli written in 1904 in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. The writer reports on one Rev. R. Eyton, of Bathurst, who, apparently said that “children were left with the minds utterly untrained, and no wonder that their literary zest is satisfied with writers like Marie Corelli. They never have had a chance to judge between literature and trash, which is certainly rough on the lady whose books have such a vogue.”

Baynton also mentioned Australian-born English writer HB Marriott Watson. She said he had been a great literary success, but that “the better written his books were the worse they paid. To make a commercial success he had to be frankly sensational”.

Baynton, you can see, was not afraid to express her opinions! In fact, she also mentioned Conan Doyle who made “₤2000 a year or more out of fiction that was not literature at all”! The most successful Australian writer, financially speaking, was Albert Dorrington, but his work “was not legitimate literature”.

Unfortunately, Baynton also referred to what we know as “the cultural cringe”. Lilley reports that “she was ashamed to say that a great part of general public here seemed to think you must have the English hallmark, and that the Australian was of no value”. Interestingly, she also said that America was interested in Australia, that “American magazines would take what the English publishers rejected as ‘peculiar'; and so the Americans encouraged clever writers”.


Baynton’s talk was, as I indicated in the first paragraph, given to a union audience and so union issues, particularly in terms of remuneration for writers, were touched on. She gave examples of payments writers could receive in different countries and from different publishers. She mentioned that the people “who made the largest incomes out of literature were the middlemen – the agents”. She said that England badly needed a writers’ union.

Unionism, Baynton preached to the converted, “was wanted in the literary profession: to force prices up – to make the rich papers pay decent rates for writers’ brains”. She argued that shareholders, like herself, should receive smaller dividends so that the men and women who did the work could be properly paid. Good for her.

Russian writing (and the English mind, again)

At the same meeting, Lilley reports, Dora Montefiore, the English-born Australian writer and founder in 1891 (according to Debra Adelaide’s Australian Women Writers: A bibliographic guide) of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, also spoke on writing and publishing in London. She gave the example of trying to find a publisher for a translation of some Maxim Gorky stories. Montefiore, according to Lilley, said that:

a very wide circle of readers had not been expected for them, as the English mind, being the very reverse of introspective, could not easily understand the psychology of the Russian mind, and was consequently prone to call such work as Gorky’s morbid**. The English made mistakes, promptly forget them, and went on again; they disliked exceedingly thinking about them, or dwelling on any process of thought. The Russian was the reverse of this …

If you are English and reading this blog, what do you think … about then, and now.

The moral

Lilley concludes his report with

The moral that Australian writers should stay in their own country, and by uniting should make conditions good enough for the best of talent, seemed obvious.

* They clearly hadn’t heard the Australian magpie!

** Coincidentally, you may remember that I reported in my Monday Musings on Baynton that she’d been likened to Gorky for her grim realism.

Brooke Davis, Lost & found (Review)

August 18, 2014

DavisLostFoundHachetteI must say that my antennae go up when I hear a book being touted as a publishing sensation even before it is published, as Brooke Davis’ recently published debut novel Lost & found, was. What does that mean? That it was the subject of a mega-dollar bidding war like, say, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites? Well, not necessarily, but Davis’ novel, according to, was “one of the hit titles at the 2014 London Book Fair and has since gone on to sell into 25 territories”. The question is, does it live up to this, hmm, hoop-la?

You’re all going to die (Millie)

I’ll start by saying that this “sensation” comes dressed as a light book and is, in fact, an easy and delightful read, but it also offers something more, content-wise and stylistically. For those of you who haven’t heard, the novel was inspired by Davis’s grief over the sudden death of her mother in a freak accident in 2006, and was written for her doctorate at Curtin University. It tells the story of three characters: seven-year-old Millie whose father has died and whose mother subsequently abandoned her in a department store; 87-year-old Karl whose wife has died and who has escaped the nursing home to which his son had abandoned him; and 82-year-old Agatha who hasn’t left her house since her husband died seven years ago, and who fills her day shouting insults at passersby. Three lost characters who come together, looking, though not initially consciously, to understand the old question: what is life about, or, more specifically, how do you live life when it is defined by loss, or even, as Agatha wonders, wouldn’t it be better to never care for anyone?

At the end of my edition is a short version of an article titled “Relearning the world” that Davis wrote about grief.  If you have experienced the terrible grief of sudden or before-its-time loss, you will relate to much of what she writes. She talks of the moment when the loss becomes real (a moment I vividly remember in my own life), and of “feeling outside of everything and looking in” (another sensation I remember). She talks of theories of grief, like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s, and how it makes sense because “we like order”. “Isn’t that”, she asks, “why we like narrative?”. But, she says, there’s been a backlash against the compartmentalisation of grief towards a recognition of “the disorder of grief”. Grief, she has learnt, is part of everything she says and does, all that she is. It is never resolved.

We’re just living, Derek (Karl)

This all sounds pretty heavy, albeit sensibly heavy. Davis book, however, is quite the opposite. The narrative line owes something to the picaresque novel, and the linear but choppy structure supports this form. The main body of the story concerns a rather wild and wacky journey the three characters take, some of it on the Indian Pacific train, to help Millie find her mother. As befitting the picaresque, they meet various colourful characters along the way, such as Stella the bus driver and Derek the train conductor. As the journey progresses, the adventures and mischief get sillier and sillier, and less and less “real”. But then, this isn’t a realistic novel. In fact, it is quite slapstick, which is not my favourite form of humour. However, Davis makes it work, pretty well anyhow, because we are invested in her characters by then. We want them to find what they are looking for – or something equally worthwhile.

Old is not a choice (Agatha)

Davis also makes it work because of the voice. Using third person, it’s fresh, and direct, and authentically captures the perspectives of a curious young child, a loving old man, and a grumpy old woman. It might be a “light” novel, but it’s not a prosaic or formulaic one. Each character is associated with various “things” or “recurring behaviours”. Just Millie writes “In here Mum” messages whenever she goes to a new place so her Mum can find her. Karl the Touch Typist, who had deeply loved his wife Evie, carries around Manny the store mannequin, with which he had helped Millie escape the authorities in a department store and which is mistaken for a sex doll by some of the people he meets. Agatha Pantha, a closed-off woman who had not been a kind wife, has her Age Book, in which she obsessively records her day in third person. Some of the character “associations” might, depending on your point of view, be a little overdone, just as the slapstick, depending on your tolerance, may be pushed a little too far. Overall though, I found Davis’ characterisation effective and engaging.

All this is supported by the narrative, which is moved along through delightful language, from the zippy dialogue to tight descriptions that nail with their acuity.

Here, for example, is Agatha trying to explain to Millie why at seven she can’t start a family:

You can’t get pregnant.
Why not?
You have to get your! Your! Agatha gulps. Your monthly womanly visitor!
Are they from the government?
Good God, no!
Where from then?
They’re not from anywhere!
Why are they called visitors, then?
That’s just what we say!
Agatha sighs loudly. Okay, I give up! Someone from the government comes to your house and makes you a woman!
Millie eyes the breastfeeding mum, and leans in close to Agatha. Will they bring me boobs too? she whispers. Because I’m not going to take them.

And here is Millie’s view on dates on gravestones:

The start date and the end date are always the important bits on the gravestones, written in big letters. The dash in between is always so small you can barely see it. Surely the dash should be big and bright and amazing, or not, depending on how you had lived. Surely the dash should show how this Dead Thing had lived.

Besides the loss-grief theme, Lost & found is about many things – loneliness, love, friendship and caring, and, above all, about taking risks because this is your life. It’s not a challenging novel, as it wears its heart on its sleeves, but it is lively, inventive and wise. It will be very interesting to see what Davis does next.

awwchallenge2014Brooke Davis
Lost & found
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2014
ISBN: 9780733632754

(Review copy courtesy Hachette Australia)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women writers, 1930s

August 11, 2014

In July I wrote two posts based on Nettie Palmer’s 1920s assessment of great Australian novels. In 1935, another Australian novelist, Zora Cross, wrote an article about Australian women novelists and poets. I enjoy reading these contemporary perspectives, and I think some of you are interested too … do let me know if you aren’t.

I’ve said it before I think, and that is that there were two flowerings of Australian women’s writing in the twentieth century, one in the 1920s-40s and the other in the 1970s-80s. It’s a bit early to tell but I’m wondering whether we are experiencing another one now. Let’s hope so – not at the expense of our male writers, but recognised and read, alongside the men.

I don’t know Zora Cross (1890-1964) as well as I know Nettie (and Vance) Palmer, but she was a recognised novelist, poet and journalist in her day. Her aim in her article, published the Sydney Morning Herald in 1935, was to demonstrate the strength of women’s writing. She starts by naming writers who, at that time, had been writing for twenty years or more – writers still known to us (Miles Franklin and Mary Gilmore), and those far less known, if not pretty much forgotten (Louise Mack, Ada Holman and Dora Wilcox). The only one I know of these last three is Louise Mack – as she is in my TBR pile. Cross then mentions younger writers, of whom only one, Katherine Susannah Prichard, is well-known to me. The others are Dulcie Deamer, Vera Dwyer, Ella McFadyen and Nina Murdoch. When I read these lists, I wonder which of today’s writers readers a century from now will know. Sometimes I wish I did believe in eternal life – or, reincarnation!

Like Palmer, Cross uses headings in her article, so I will again follow.

Success abroad

Nettie Palmer, ten years earlier, also talked about writers succeeding abroad, but Cross writes of two different sorts of successes. One is that achieved by writers who started writing “at home” and then move abroad. She names several, again mostly not well-known now – Helen Simpson, Alice Grant Rosman, Dorothy Cottrell – and one completely unknown to me, and about whom some quick Google searching has revealed nothing, Daniel Hamlyn. Hamlyn, she says, won The Bulletin’s second novel competition, the first one having been jointly won by Katherine Susannah Prichard and M. Barnard Eldershaw. I think I’ll need to actually go to a Library and research The Bulletin to discover more about her! Cross doesn’t mention Christina Stead, but as Stead only published her first book in 1934, that’s not surprising.

The other “success abroad” Cross mentions is that achieved by those who hadn’t left home. One of the most interesting of these is, she says, Eleanor Dark. She does, however, name several others, all unknown to me, so I’ll just mention a couple which stand out because of her comments. One is Georgia Rivers whose novel, The difficult art about a young girl growing up, “is a most unusual book”. She doesn’t elaborate, but this has piqued my interest. Another is Jessie Urquhart who, she says, “will not, I think, do her best work until, like Alice Grant Rosman, she  relinquishes journalism for fiction”. An intriguing comment from a novelist-poet-journalist! It would be interesting to know whether Urquhart needed her journalistic work to survive. The last one I want to mention is Mary Mitchell who achieved London success with the wonderfully titled Warning to wantons. Cross tells us that this book is not Australian so “of little importance to us here. She could write, I’m sure, a good Australian society novel, for which there is a waiting public.” I hadn’t realised until this point that her article is not just about Australian women writers, but about Australian women writers writing about Australia.

Literary competitions

Here Cross mentions Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (aka M. Barnard Eldershaw), and another writer I don’t know, Velia Ercole, as writers brought to notice through winning competitions. But, as Palmer did (though under her “abroad” category), Cross focuses her attention here to Henry Handel Richardson who, she says, was introduced to Australia by Nettie Palmer.

Cross, like Palmer, praises Richardson, saying that few “have equalled her in style and form of production”. She says that fame finally came with the last book in her Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy, Ultima Thule, which she describes as “lucid and sincere”. Nonetheless, she does suggest that “there are faults to be found from an Australian point of view” with the novel, “but few with the presentation of it”. She’s not clear about what these faults are, though suggests that many may “question the worth” of such a detailed look at “a failure’s life”.

Ethel Turner

Cross’s last heading is devoted to Ethel Turner, whose juvenilia I plan to review later this year and who is famous for her novel Seven little Australians. Cross again shows that her interest here is writing about Australia when she says:

Too much stress cannot be laid on the fact that Ethel Turner, from the moment she opened the door of an Australian house and showed the world what we were really like, has been a guiding star for the best. She has not been able to give us adults as real as children but the germ is there.

But, the cultural cringe is strong, Cross implies, when she says that Australians do not recognise that Turner’s children are as immortal as Alice [in Wonderland] and much more real than Anne of Green Gables. Fighting words, eh! She names writers who have followed Turner, including Mary Grant Bruce whose juvenilia I reviewed earlier this year.


This is not one of Cross’s headings, but after her discussion of Turner she writes a few paragraphs about other writers and writing. She refers to “imaginative women writers [who] are immersed in journalism”, playwrights, and women who write humorously, such as Miss Lloyd and her book Susan’s little sins. Couldn’t resist mentioning that one!

She then writes, curiously, that:

All of our women writers are well read, none very keen about sport, though golf and tennis and sometimes dancing play a part in their leisure moments. All are earnest, sincere workers.

I wonder why she felt the need to say all this? Anyhow, she follows this by saying she has left one writer to last, Mary Gilmore “whose hobby may well be ‘the finding of new writers'”. Dame Mary Gilmore wrote poetry and prose, though Cross, rightly, believed that it’s for her poetry that she’ll most be remembered.

And here, I’ll conclude with her conclusion because – well, see what you think:

Our women aim at truth in writing just as the men do: and this is characteristically Australian. We do not need to read Russian literature to inspire us to realism. Our country, born of suffering and hardship, has shaped our character, and out of it is coming a literature entirely different from any other. Women are doing their share in the building up of this national literature just as they did their share towards the making and shaping of the nation itself.

So there!

Delicious descriptions: Some thoughts on Ouyang Yu’s language

August 10, 2014

I didn’t get around, in my recent review of Ouyang Yu’s novel Diary of a naked official, to discussing his language, so couldn’t resist another post.

As you would expect in an erotic novel, particularly one framed as a diary, the language is rife with obvious – and consciously so on the part of our narrator – sexual references and innuendo. It is, to put it baldly, in your face. Yet there are, also, some subtle undercurrents. I’ve chosen one excerpt to illustrate some features of the language. Reading it will also give you a feeling for the tone, which is, among other things, conversational, self-confident and unashamed. At one point, Shi Ma (the narrator) describes his diary as “the only confessional” that he can have in a world where there are “no priests of any religious or religious denominations worth my trust and confidence”, but from my understanding of the word “confession” I’d read this as irony.

Names are an issue in the book – as you might expect in a diary. Shi Ma uses initials for most of the significant people in his life: W is Wife and D is Daughter, for example. The women he “loves” tend to be anonymous or go by aliases, which are often flower names, such as Acacia, Daffodil, Goldenrod and Nasturtium. Some characters though have more ordinary names. Consider this:

However passionate and deep one’s love is, it tends to peter out like a brisk fire that burns with passion and heat, only to burn itself out at the end of the day. Peter – what a name in association with the phrase ‘peter out’ – had an affair with Third, the third daughter in her family, a pretty girl who did frames for his paintings, but had to marry a Singaporean woman when he went to Sydney. Third fought tooth and claw to stop him from marrying and going. According to Sam, Third threatened suicide but didn’t; instead, she left scratch marks all over Peter’s back, traces of love when gone, turned sour and resentful.

Love seems to have two faces, one loving, the other hating. Sue is a typical example. Like the name ‘Peter’, this name is portentous. I would run miles away from any woman by that name because who knows if she is not going to Sue you one day? In fact, when a girl I loved reported that her name was ‘Sue’, I said: It’s not a name you should have. I’d much prefer you call yourself ‘Su’ or ‘Soo’. In fact, Soo with two holes in it is infinitely preferable to Sue with a ‘u’. She seemed to like it and said: I’ll think about it.

Besides including an example of the book’s sexually explicit language, this excerpt also addresses two of the novel’s concerns – love and power. Shi Ma discusses “love” endlessly, all the while behaving in an exploitative and generally loveless manner. He is obsessed with sex but desires love, and seems unable to reconcile the two in any meaningful way. Power, on the other hand – who has it, how it is used, what effect it can or does have – is one of the undercurrents of the novel. Ouyang Yu reveals a world in which power, particularly between the genders, is a complex business (with business being perhaps the operative word!) Women in his novel do wield some power, but whether that power is to their (or anyone’s) benefit is a question Yu leaves for the reader to consider.

Ouyang Yu, Diary of a naked official (Review)

August 9, 2014
Ouyang Yu, Diary of a Naked Official

Courtesy: Transit Lounge

When I was offered Chinese-born Australian writer Ouyang Yu’s latest novel Diary of a naked official to review, I was warned that it is rather graphic. And so it turned out to be, but, not having read Ouyang Yu before, I did want to give it a go. The accompanying publicity sheet describes it as “Ouyang Yu’s most commercial novel to date – erotic fiction set in contemporary China”. So now you, my blog readers, have also been warned.

Where to start? Perhaps with the title. Not being an expert on Chinese culture, I wouldn’t have fully understood the title if it hadn’t been for the back cover. It explains that “naked official” is a recognised term in China describing men who locate their wives and children overseas, where they also deposit all their money. The men remain in China “naked” and, in this case at least, “totally free” to indulge in whatever they desire – which brings me to the subject matter of this novel …

The main part of the novel comprises diary entries written by our naked official (who may be named Shi Ma and so that’s what I’ll call him) over a period of three months*. In it he details a life driven by satisfying carnal pleasures with no desire (ha) to rein them in. He is so focused on “enjoying” other women – young, beautiful ones – through pretty much any act you could imagine and then some, that he has no time or energy for intimacy with his wife, who does not move to Australia until halfway through the novel. “Sex”, he says early in his diary, is “a keyword of our times, it is like a poisoned liquid that seeps into the minds of everyone, including women”. (Including women, eh! How gender plays out in the novel, in fact, could occupy a whole post).

Framing the diary is the encompassing conceit that the story is presented to us by a writer, who is probably Chinese-Australian and who had found the diary on a USB stick left on a Melbourne train. He decides to present it in its entirety “with a bit of editing here and there, just to make it less offensive to the middle-class sensitivities in this country”. He warns his readers, just as I have, to be prepared for an assault on their “moral values”.

As you have probably gathered by now, this is a clever, complex and rather slippery book. I say slippery because it looks like it’s a critique (or satire) of modern China, of a world where obsession with sex and fast adoption of capitalism collide, and where increasing independence for women sees “concubine” become “working girl” with different expectations. But, when you comprehend that the character “publishing” this diary is based in Australia – and that writer-translator Ouyang Yu spends his life between Australia and China – you see that this is no simple tale. This is not to suggest that the book is autobiographical but rather that, through these layers, Yu plays with our minds, and forces us to recognise that Australia and China have more in common than we may think.

The layers are complicated further by the fact that Shi Ma himself works in a publishing house. His job is to recommend works to his boss, B, for publication. B, though, rarely agrees with him. Our narrator says:

But it is books that speak the honest truth to a hurting degree that are denied the chance of publication because the comfort zone is outstepped and our core values are challenged.

And so, Shi Ma, whose life of self-centred debauchery alienates us, also draws us in with his desire to publish difficult or confronting works. Publishing now, he says, “is dictated by MM, money and market through B, Banker of Books”. At one point, he considers whether a particular erotic book

might be considered for publication if not recommended outright. In today’s China, things are much more confronting, and much more physically permissive than a decade or so back as it is good for the economy … Still, I am not sure because B may object on the basis of market and censorship.

Censorship in China is one issue, but western readers are only too aware that publishing in so-called “free” countries is by no means free of the impact of the market. Shi Ma is pretty devastating in his comment on publishing:

In the scheme of things, an excellent book, by the time it is edited and published, becomes a good book, and a good book, a so-so book. It is amazing how a so-so book can sell, such as the one penned by the guy called Hung Heavens, but I have ceased to be amazed by the mediocrities as the world is made for them, books written by the mediocre for the mediocre, like common food, eaten only to be shat.

In another interesting layer, Shi Ma is given the job of assessing applications for “self-funded poetry”. Ouyang Yu, himself, is a poet and clearly knows only too well how difficult it is to get poetry published.

I have, I know, digressed somewhat, because the examination of publishing is only one aspect of this novel, and I probably haven’t given you much sense of its actual narrative. The novel does have a story, albeit a flimsy one based around sexual exploits. There are recurring characters, including the aforementioned B, a mother and daughter with whom Shi Ma has a complicated relationship, his friend Sam, and various working girls. However, while Shi Ma, himself, does develop to some degree – becoming “absolutely bored with a multitudinous accumulation of bodies” – none of the other characters are “developed” or even “rounded” in the usual way of fiction, because this is not a traditional novel. It is, rather, what I’d call an “ideas novel” that explores not only what is happening in modern China but also, more generally, what a sex-focussed, market-driven world looks like. And it ain’t pretty. Human relationships and original artistic expression are measured by money, and such values as love and morality are degraded in the wake.

Diary of a naked official is a book that shocks and appalls, but that can also surprise and even make us laugh. In it, Ouyang Yu, unlike B, is not afraid to expose “the night in our hearts”. Shi Ma is not a sympathetic character and yet, at times, he makes sense. There are no easy answers, and this book certainly doesn’t provide any. It does, however, ask some very pointed questions.

Ouyang Yu
Diary of a naked official
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2014
ISBN: 9781921924705

(Review copy supplied by Transit Lounge)

* In an interview I heard with Ouyang Yu, he pointed out that the diary starts on 4 June (the Tiananmen Square date) and ends on 11 September (9-11 in other words). More layers, you see …

Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award

August 4, 2014

I have mentioned the National Biography Award before, but have never dedicated a post to it. Since this Monday musings coincides with the announcement of the 2014 award, I thought it would be a good time to write a little about this award.

The National Biography Award was initially endowed by Geoffrey Cains, with support a little later by Michael Crouch, and is managed by the State Library of NSW. Its aim, says its website, is “to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography, and to promote public interest in these genres”.  As of 2013, the winner receives $25,000, with each shortlisted book receiving $1,000. I like the fact that more and more awards are providing a monetary prize for the shortlisted works. Associated with the award, since 2003, has been an annual lecture on the subject of life-writing. The list of lectures, and papers if available, can be found on the State Library of NSW’s website.

The shortlist for 2014 was:

  • Alison Alexander, The ambitions of Jane Franklin

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

    Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin (Allen & Unwin). This one intrigues me as Lady Jane Franklin, about whom I’ve written before, was one of those amazing 19th century woman who came to my attention through contemporary novels, including Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Andrea Barrett’s The voyage of the Narwhal, and a book of poetry titled Jane, Lady Franklin by Tasmanian Adrienne Eberhard. The biography is subtitled, Victorian lady adventurer. I don’t know Alexander, but she is apparently a Tasmanian historian.

  • Steve Bisley’s Stillways: A memoir (HarperCollins Publishers). Steve Bisley is an Australian actor and this book, the website says, is “a classic memoir of an Australian childhood in the sixties”. That in itself gives it some appeal to me.
  • Janet Butler’s Kitty’s war (University of Queensland Press). This one is on my TBR. It is based on the war diaries of World War 1 army nurse Sister Kit McNaughton. In 2013 it won the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australia. Butler works in the History department at La Trobe University.
  • John Cantwell & Greg Bearup’s Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror (Melbourne University Publishing). Cantwell was a Major-General in the army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended up with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has written this with Walkley Award winning journalist, Greg Bearup.
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Publishing). Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick lived in the Russia during the Cold War, while researching for her doctoral thesis. She apparently felt at home in Russia, but, as a foreigner, was always seen by Soviet authorities as potentially a spy. The book explores this part of her life. Fitzpatrick is regarded as an expert in the field of Soviet/modern Russian history.
  • Gideon Haigh’s On Warne (Penguin Australia). Australians will know immediately the subject of this biography, the flamboyant, controversial but highly-talented cricketer Shane Warne. Gideon Haigh is a journalist who has written several well-regarded and award-winning books on sport, media and the automotive industry (among other topics).

All books I’d willingly read … though Alexander’s and Butler’s would be my top priority.

And the winner is: Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin! Now I really do want to read this book … It was a little tricky to find who won via a normal Google search several hours after the announcement, so I turned to Twitter and there it was (of course). Will it be reported on Australian television news tonight? I wonder!

Anyhow, once I knew the winner, I was able to search on that and found a Sydney Morning Herald article which quotes chair of the judging panel (and a previous winner), Jacqueline Kent, as praising the book for its detailed portrayal of a “highly intelligent, vital and strong-minded woman” She said that “This is a biography that drew on a huge amount of research but is also very light on its feet”. Apparently Franklin, according to the Herald, had left behind “8 million words in journals and correspondence”. Alexander is reported as saying that the biography would have been impossible without a “Find” key to search documents. Isn’t modern technology grand – though the “find” function can’t completely replace in-depth reading during which you can find all those wonderful serendipitous details that make research such fun.

The meeting of art and literature, at the Singapore Art Museum

August 2, 2014

SAM ExteriorMr Gums and I have had a busy few months, with, unusually for us, two overseas trips in less than four months. Both were family-inspired: Canada in April-May to visit our daughter, and then last week Koh Samui to help Mr Gums’ sister and husband celebrate their 40th anniversary. We decided to spend a few days en route to Samui in Singapore. What an interesting place it is. Although, technically, a new country which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, it has a much longer history, dating back to the second century. What we know as “modern” Singapore, though, began when the British, via Sir Stamford Raffles, established a trading post on the island in 1819. We didn’t see anywhere near enough but we tasted its variety –  including my topic for this post, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

SAM is housed in a gracious old 19th century missionary school building – the St Joseph’s Institution run by La Salle Brothers.  The building was constructed in stages, from 1855 to completion in the early twentieth century. It was acquired for the museum in 1992. SAM describes itself as having “one of the world’s largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art”.

The current major exhibition, which will run for a year, is Medium at Large: Shapeshifting materials and methods on contemporary art. SAM explains that it

explores the idea of medium in contemporary art, probing some of the most fundamental and pressing questions of art – its making, and also our experience, encounter and understanding of it.

It’s the sort of exhibition I enjoy – modern, confronting and/or provocative, with useful interpretive signage. Of course, I enjoy the famous, classic galleries like the Louvre or Prado, just as I like to read classic novels, but I also enjoy seeing what contemporary artists are doing and thinking. I loved the concept behind this exhibition. In our increasingly fluid, interactive, interdisciplinary world, a focus on how art is made and how re relate to it, seems very relevant.

The exhibition comprises 32 artworks and apparently draws mainly from the museum’s permanent collection, but it also “includes loans and commissions from Singaporean, Southeast Asia, and Asian artists”. We are seeing more Asian artists here in Australia, but it’s exciting to visit Asian galleries where we can see art and artists less familiar to western gallery-goers. And so, we saw two portraits made using live bullets on sandpaper (by Filipino artist Alvin Zafra), and a sculpture made with human hair (Dutch-born Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma’s Shaggy). We saw works that play with medium and form, such as an oil painting overlaid with a video projection (Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka’s He was a good man), a distressingly mesmerising video of a woman dancing on butter captured also in still photographs (Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s Exegie – Butter Dance), and another video in which a taut rope springs and snaps through architectural spaces (Singaporean Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Space Drawing 5). Our minds were challenged by a video installation called The Cloud of Unknowing (by another Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen) in which various residents in an apartment complex experience some sort of epiphany or understanding of something mystical. Some of the works, including this last one, have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

RenatoOraro's Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

Renato Orara’s Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

But, since this is primarily a litblog, I’ll finish with two works that incorporate books. The first one is, in fact, the first work that confronted us in the exhibition, Filipino Renato Orara’s* Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403). It comprises a lamb cutlet, finely drawn in ballpoint pen on a page of the Bible, a page from Job. Since Job is primarily about how humans can comprehend why an all-powerful God lets good people suffer, the piece raises all sorts of questions about “the lamb of God”, about sacrifice. The label suggests other tensions too, such as between word and image, between open/public (when the book is open) and hidden/private (when the book is closed), and, through imposing what is essentially a chop on the Bible, between the sacred and profane. I would add another tension – that between wonder at the delicacy of the execution of the image and feeling “gross” from seeing a lump of fatty meat on the Bible. A surprising work that stays with you.

Part of Titarubi's Shadow of surrender (2013)

Part of Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender (2013)

The other work, Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender, comprises multiple components in a large space. I could not quite fit it all into my photo but it contains large, open, blank books on benches, with chairs, and with big charcoal drawings of trees on the walls. It was commissioned for the Indonesian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. It’s a complex work, with additional layers of meaning contained in the knowledge that the wood used in the furniture comes from colonial-era railroad tracks. The pieces are burnt, which apparently references the charcoal the artist’s mother cooked with, but which also links to the charcoal tree drawings. And, of course, trees provide the paper and wood used for books and furniture, suggesting a cycle of life theme too. The label refers to the fact that the books are empty implying a “tabula rasa” and the idea that it is time to re-write history or re-learn lessons, and thus develop anew leaving past colonial constructs.  An article about the Biennale on Titarubi’s website says that in this work he links “sakti” (‘divine energy”) “to both education and the environment, to knowledge and the natural world”. Another powerful and emotive piece, as you can see.

SAM was our last “sight” in Singapore and rounded off our visit very nicely!

* While researching where Orara was from, I discovered an article about artists using ballpoint pens. It starts with: “Accessible and affordable, the ballpoint pen has become the medium of choice for artists to make obsessive abstractions, extreme drawings, and playful riffs on venerated ink traditions”.


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