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Monday musings on Australian literature: Tasma (aka Jessie Couvreur)

January 15, 2018

Tasma, c. 1890. (Public Domain, from the State Library of Victoria, via Wikipedia)

This week Bill (of The Australian Legend) is running an Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week, through which he plans to highlight Australian women writers from our first generation of writers, which he defines as “those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century.” These women, several of whom I read before blogging, include Louisa Atkinson, Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Catherine Helen Spence, and Tasma. I have written about some of these writers before, particularly Louisa Atkinson and Ada Cambridge, so today I’ve decided to highlight Bill’s week by writing on another, Tasma, whose book Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill I’ve promised to contribute to his project.

Who was Tasma?

Born Jessie Huybers in London in 1848, Tasma (as she later styled herself) came to Hobart, Australia, with her parents in 1852. Her family was apparently among the more prominent in Hobart, with their friends including successful author Louisa Meredith (1812-1895) and her husband Charles. In 1867 Tasma married the 25-year-old Charles Fraser moving to Melbourne with him. However, the marriage was troubled and Tasma returned to Hobart in 1872, leaving her debt-ridden husband behind. The following year she sailed to England with her mother and youngest siblings, and spent the next couple of years soaking up European culture with her family. Returning to Melbourne and her husband in 1875, she discovered that he’d had a child with a servant. With divorce, particularly initiated by women, rare, they remained married but lived mostly separate lives.

She started writing in 1877, taking the pseudonym Tasma to honour the colony of her youth, and in 1878 her first articles were published. In 1879 she returned to Europe with her mother and some siblings, determined to earn her living as a writer. This also marked the final break with Charles, and they were divorced in 1883.

And here I’ll quote biographer Patricia Clarke (see below):

Tasma’s life deserves to be much better known, and not only because of her now almost forgotten fame as a novelist. Just as interesting and more gender-defying, she was also an acclaimed public lecturer in Europe, and a foreign correspondent for the London Times, both roles that contradicted the perception of women as solely home­bound. In her personal life also, Tasma defied all the stereotypes of the nineteenth-century woman by separating from, and divorcing, her first husband.

DPAC’s article (see below) describes her as “a celebrity lecturer” on the “geography, history, industries, culture and social progress of Australia” and says that her lectures were reported in French, Belgian and other newspapers. She met the eminent and more compatible, albeit significantly older, Auguste Couvreur in 1881, and married him in 1885, but before that, writes Clarke:

For six years before her second marriage, Tasma lived the life of a ‘New Woman’, the independent woman then beginning to appear both in real life and in fiction. From her base in Paris she earned her own living and was involved in the radical issues of the day. An interviewer wrote, ‘She was not a woman to hide the light of her militant radicalism under a bushel. When pressed to talk about her method of writing, she spoke instead of the latest developments in collectivism, and made an impassioned plea for the poor’.

Sadly, Jessie Couvreur died in 1897 of coronary heart disease, just before her 49th birthday. Way too young for someone who clearly gave a lot to her times.

What did she write?

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper's HillDuring her life, Tasma wrote, according to the DPAC article, 7 novels, 20 short stories (several set in Tasmania) and over 36 articles on a variety of subjects. Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, her first novel, was published in 1889, and her last, A fiery ordeal, was published, posthumously, in 1897, the year she died.

In her chapter in Debra Adelaide’s A bright and fiery troop, Margaret Harris quotes 20th century poet and novelist Winifred Birkett’s claiming Tasma as Australian

… in spite of her Dutch-French parentage, English birth, Belgian marriage, and long continental residence and professional career! She has been called by people who cannot get away from systems of category and comparison, “the Australian Jane Austen” and “the Australian George Eliot”, but without bringing her under the patent of any other writer’s name we may remember her simply as the “Tasma” of her own titling, and Australian enough by such an implication.

Interesting! Of course, I did my own bit of research in Trove and found some similar references from her 19th century contemporaries. One article in Tasmanian News (11 August 1892) reported on an interview conducted for a “Celebrity at Home” column in The World journal, writing that “Her interviewer credits her with much of the spirit of Thackeray and George Eliot, which, in combination with marked originality, is the secret of her success.” And an article from the year before in Tasmania’s Mercury (21 January 1891) writes that

The favourite Christmas book of 1888 [Uncle Piper] went through three editions before January, 1890. The success of her last two works has been equally marked, and Mr. Edmund Yates, the most competent of judges, regards her as a story writer of extraordinary power. “Uncle Piper” may very likely live as long as “Charles O’Malley,” and it is not impossible that one of “Tasma’s” literary efforts in the Chaussée de Vleugrat [sic] may yet attain the immortality of “Villette.”

Tasma, The penance of Portia JamesStrong praise, eh! I’ve only read 20% (on my Kindle) of Uncle Piper to date, and, while the style owes more to late Victorian than to Jane Austen’s Regency/Georgian era, I can see the comparison in some of the cheekiness I’m reading. To see Eliot, Thackeray and/or Bronte, I think I’ll need to read more!

I won’t say more about her writing, except to share a comment made by Clarke regarding her descent into obscurity:

The usual explanation for her obscurity is that, like other Australian women writers who wrote about love, marriage and domestic relationships and whose main characters were women, her reputation has been overtaken and submerged by the Bulletin school of almost exclusively male writers who emerged in the 1890s. These writers glorified the traditions of mateship and the bush to establish what came to be seen as the authentic picture of Australia. Perhaps Tasma’s later obscurity was influenced by the fact that she died at a relatively young age, that for the second half of her life she lived in Europe, and that she had no direct descendants to keep her memory alive. Other nineteenth-century Australian women writers, such as Ada Cambridge and Rosa Praed, lived much longer, the former in Australia and survived by children, but this has not saved them from a similar, if perhaps less marked, obscurity.

If you’d like to know more, check out the sources below and/or watch for my post later this week …

Sources

Beilby, Raymond. ‘Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1969.

Clarke, Patricia. ‘In the steps of Rosa Praed and Tasma: Biographical details: A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Patricia Clarke‘, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1993

‘Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Also available in the original form at Trove, titled “The late ‘Tasma’ Courvreur”, The Mercury, 27 October 1897.

Harris, Margaret. ‘The writing of Tasma, the work of Jessie Couvreur’, in A bright and fiery troop (ed. by Debra Adelaide), Ringwood, Penguin Books, 1988.

‘Tasma (Jessie Couvreur nee Huybers)’, in Signifiant Tasmanian Women, Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPAC) (Tasmania). (Entry based on Patricia Clarke’s Tasma: The life of Jessie Couvreur, 1994)

Jenny Ackland, The secret son (#BookReview)

January 14, 2018

Jenny Ackland, The secret sonMelbourne-based author Jenny Ackland has tried something rather audacious in her debut novel, The Secret Son. Instead of following the autobiographical route that many first novelists do, she has leapt right in and tackled, albeit from left field, one of Australia’s most controversial legends, Ned Kelly. But, here’s the rub: it’s not exactly about Ned Kelly. It’s far more complex than that.

The secret son spans more than a century, from the 1880s to 1990 and beyond. It is set in both Turkey and Australia, and it weaves two stories. One concerns the 19th-century-born James who ends up living in Turkey, having gone to fight at Gallipoli in 1915, and the other tells of Cem, a 23-year-old Turkish-Australian man who is related to the village where James had lived and who travels there in 1990, ostensibly to learn about his heritage and identity. These two men – James/Jim and Cem/”Jem” – work subtly as foils or parallels for each other. James is intelligent, gentle and hardworking, but somewhat passive. He imagines who his father might have been, what sort of man he was. Cem, on the other hand, is young, directionless, well-meaning but rather self-centred. Turkish taxi-driver, Ibrahim, pins his uncertainty immediately, telling him:

You must know who you are and what man you want to become.

What sort of man he wants to become is something Cem struggles with, making this, partly but by no means primarily, a coming-of-age novel.

This brings me to one of the delights in reading this book, which is Ackland’s depiction of life in the Turkish village she calls Hayat (Turkish, she says, for “heart”). It reminded me of some books I read years ago, such as Beverley Farmer’s stories set in a Greek village. Farmer had married a Greek man and lived for some time in Greece, which explained her convincing insight into village life and relationships. Ackland’s depictions were similarly convincing, so I wanted to know how she’d done it. I found the answer in an ABC Books and Arts interview with her. She too had travelled to Turkey, married a Turkish man, spent time there as a bride and young mother. With this knowledge and experience, and an ability to individuate characters, Ackland creates a world that engaged me.

But now you are probably wondering how Ned Kelly fits into all this. It has to do with a historian named Harry whom Cem meets on the plane. Harry has a theory that Ned Kelly had a secret son who fought at Gallipoli and ended up staying in Turkey. His quest is to prove this theory and, in one of those coincidences that all travellers know about, the village where he believes this son went to is the same one that Cem’s family was from. So the scene is set – but the story that unfolds has less to do with Ned Kelly than with families and secrets, paying debts, and growing up.

I started this post by saying that Ackland has been audacious in this, her debut novel, and I implied that it was because of the Ned Kelly plotline. However, her audaciousness extends beyond this. It’s in the novel’s complex structure, too, in the way she weaves the two men’s stories, to-ing and fro-ing in time. It’s in the recurring motifs like bees and honey, tea and sugar, and woven rugs, that she uses to help keep us grounded. And it’s particularly in the change of voice between the more traditional third person voice used for most of the story to first person for the perspective of Berna, who is the village’s wise woman-cum-fortune-teller. Berna also happens to be Cem’s grandmother and James’ daughter, which effectively connects the two story lines. (The family relationships in this book are, I must say, complicated, and require an attentive reader to keep track!)

Anyhow, Berna provides the main link in the novel’s second plot which is about the “debt” Cem discovers he is expected to pay for something his grandfather Ahmet had done long before he’d left the village for Australia. This plotline exposes dissension in the village, and through it Ackland explores ideas about love and loyalty, truth and lies, revenge and forgiveness, not to mention the application of wisdom versus tradition. As the novel progresses, more of the “truth” about what happened comes out, and the plot thickens as we wonder what will be asked of Cem and what he will do in response. Meanwhile, the Ned Kelly storyline weaves its own path between James, Harry, and the village with the help of a woman pilot called Linda. While complex, it’s sensitively done, with, in the end, enough resolution to be satisfying without being too neat and implausible.

There are many angles from which this book can be talked about, besides those I’ve mentioned. There’s a father-son theme, a cheeky metafictional theme about a book called The secret son, Cem’s family experience in Australia as a child of immigrants, and gender. There’s also the idea of debts due by later generations, which Berna argues is not valid, but which her brother Mehmet supports. It’s relevant, I think, that Berna has the last word in the novel.

Early on Berna tells us that “truth” is not the be-all, that sometimes “life is better with surprises in the recipe”. She’s a wise woman, and this, The secret son, is a wise book. It might be a debut novel, and it might push its readers to keep up at times, but the ideas it explores, and its tolerant, generous treatment of its flawed characters, are those of a humane writer.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was impressed by the book too.

AWW Badge 2018Jenny Ackland
The secret son
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015
327pp.
ISBN: 9781925266160

Carson McCullers, Home for Christmas (#Review)

January 12, 2018
Carson McCullers, 1959

Carson McCullers, 1959 (photo by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you will guess from the title of this Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, I meant to post on it closer to Christmas Day than I have in fact achieved. I chose it for two reasons – firstly the obvious seasonal one, and secondly because my first Carson McCullers post was an unusual piece and perhaps not completely reflective of the writer she was. Her story “Home before Christmas”, while nothing like her best-known novels, does get us a bit closer to them.

First, though, some background. LOA’s notes tell us that the story, written in 1949, was the first of a few essays McCullers wrote for magazines like Mademoiselle and Redbook. McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, says, according to LOA, that “even as a preschooler Carson would be asked what she wanted and the answer was, ‘I want book—lots of books, Mama’.” I suspect many of you reading this will say the same about yourselves. I know I would!

LOA shares a couple of other stories about the adult Carson and gift-giving – including one that resulted in such a kerfuffle that someone was written out of a will, and another involving Truman Capote. However, they take us further away from the point of THIS story.

“Home for Christmas” was apparently commissioned by Mademoiselle for its 1949 Christmas issue, and was published alongside pieces by food writer MFK Fisher and novelist Jessamyn West (whom I plan to cover here one day via the Library of America). LOA chose to share McCullers’ piece this last Christmas because 2017 was the centenary of McCullers birth.

Now I said in my opening paragraph that this story, although nothing like her best-known novels, does connect us a little with them. Firstly, an autobiographical piece, it describes life in a southern family, but more significantly, like The member of the wedding, it is seen through a child’s eye. It is not like her novels in the sense that it is not Gothic, and nor does it deal in any major way with the loneliness or “outsiderness” that I remember from her oeuvre – though there is a touch of melancholy in it, all the same.

In some ways, it’s a traditional story about childhood yearning for Christmas. It begins in August with our young first person narrator, that is, Carson, pondering Christmas, and it concludes, just after Christmas, with her yearning for the next Christmas. In between, we hear about the buying of Christmas presents, the cooking of Christmas food, and how Christmas day itself was spent. But, there is also a little unifying theme running through this – the “mystery of Time”.

In the second paragraph, it is August and our narrator is up a tree thinking:

I did not want to talk with my brother. I was experiencing the first wonder about the mystery of Time. Here I was, on this August afternoon, in the tree-house, in the burnt, jaded yard, sick and tired of all our summer ways. (I had read Little Women for the second time, Hans Brinker and the Silver SkatesLittle Men, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. I had read movie magazines and even tried to read love stories in the Woman’s Home Companion—I was so sick of everything.) How could it be that I was I and now was now when in four months it would be Christmas, wintertime, cold weather, twilight and the glory of the Christmas tree? I puzzled about the now and later and rubbed the inside of my elbow until there was a little roll of dirt between my forefinger and thumb. Would the now I of the tree-house and the August afternoon be the same I of winter, firelight and the Christmas tree? I wondered.

You can see biographer Carr’s point about books can’t you? Anyhow, again, I suspect many of us have pondered Time in this way. McCullers doesn’t labour the point but it pops up a few more times in the article,  including the notion of time behaving differently for different people. “How”, she writes, “could it be that when she [her sister] opened her eyes it would be Christmas while I lay awake in the dark for hours and hours? The time was the same for both of us, and yet not at all the same.” There’s also a delightful little – almost throwaway – line about how her father would manipulate the clocks to enable them to get up early on Christmas morning but not too early for the parents.

“Home before Christmas” is not a particularly deep story/article, but then as an article for a Christmas edition of a magazine, it probably wasn’t meant to be. It is, however, an enjoyable read and, while presumably part of that bread-and-butter work that writers do to survive, it also provides some insight into a significant writer of, and from, America’s south.

Carson McCullers
“Home for Christmas”
First published: Mademoiselle, December 1949
Available: Online at the Library of America

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some New Releases in 2018

January 8, 2018

This, you may be pleased to know, is the last of my set of end-of-year-beginning-of-year posts. And, as is obvious from the post title, it’s about books that will be published this year. As in previous years, I’ll just be sharing a selection of those that interest me (though listing them doesn’t mean that I expect to read them all, just that they interest me!!) A quick scan of last year’s list shows that I read about 20% of what I listed, though a few more are on the TBR pile, so you never know.

My list, as in previous years, is mostly drawn from Jane Sullivan’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald. And, because this is a Monday musings on Australian literature post, my list will focus on Australian authors – and will be listed alphabetically by author.

Fiction

  • Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods (Allen & Unwin, April)
  • Stephanie Bishop’s Man out of time (Hachette, September)
  • Ceridwen Dovey’s In the garden of the fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, March)
  • Justine Ettler’s Bohemia Beach (Transit Lounge, April). I admit that I hadn’t even heard of her until Bill (The Australian Legend) posted on her recently.
  • Rodney Hall’s A stolen season (Pan Macmillan, April)
  • Rosalie Ham’s The year of the farmer (Pan Macmillan, no date but later in the year)
  • Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass (Text, April). I have yet to read Jones. Maybe this will be it.
  • Thomas Keneally’s Two old men dying (Vintage, October) seems to be inspired by Mungo Man, whose story I’ve researched in the past.
  • Eleanor Limprecht’s The passengers (Allen & Unwin, March) which interests me given I enjoyed her historical novel, Long Bay (my review)
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (UQP, August) which I’d love to read, as I’ve reviewed short stories and essays by her here, but not a novel.
  • Kristina Olsson’s Shell (Scribner, October)
  • Avan Judd Stallard’s Spinifex and sunflowers (Fremantle Press, February) is inspired by the author’s experience while working in a refugee detention centre.
  • Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut (Hamish Hamilton, March) apparently has “an anti-hero who will break your heart”.

Short stories

Yes, I know these are fiction too, but they deserve a special section!

  • Robert Drewe’s The true colour of the sea (Hamish Hamilton, September). Another Drewe book title inspired by the sea, like The bodysurfers, The drowner, The rip and Sharknet!
  • Anna Krien’s Act of grace (Black Inc, September) is a debut collection from an established non-fiction writer whom I’ve reviewed here a few times.
  • Gerald Murnane’s collection of short fiction from the last 30 years (Giramondo, April): I’ve reviewed a couple of his works to date.

Non-fiction

Sullivan provides a rather long list of new non-fiction books, including several memoirs, so I’m going to be very selective here (which will give away my interests – but you know them already so it won’t really surprise you!)

  • Behrouz Boochani’s Manus (Pan Macmillan, June): memoir by journalist and detained asylum seeker, written on a smuggled cell phone
  • Danielle Clode’s The wasp and the orchid (Pan Macmillan, April): biography of Australian naturalist Edith Coleman
  • Anita Heiss’s Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc, April): an essay anthology
  • Kon Karapanagiotidis’ The Power of Hope (HarperCollins, July)refugee memoir by the founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
  • Hung Lee’s The Crappiest Refugee (Affirm Press, March): memoir by comedian, the title clearly satirising Anh Do’s 2010 memoir, The happiest refugee!
  • Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world: biography by the delightful blogger MST (Adventures in Biography) whom I met early-ish in this book’s journey. Check out her blog for the fascinating story of its genesis
  • Anne Summers’ Becoming (Allen & Unwin, no date): memoir by one of Australia’s best-known feminists
  • Gillian Triggs’ Speaking up (UQP, October): memoir
  • Majok Tulba’s When elephants fight (Hamish Hamilton, August): memoir, by Sudanese refugee, a follow-up to his Beneath the darkening sky
  • Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (Brow Books, May): described as “part-cultural history, part-essay, and part-memoir [on] how we look at the past”
  • Fiona Wright’s second essay collection (Giramondo, September), which I look forward to, having liked her Small acts of disappearance in 2016.

Do you actively look out for coming releases, or just wait until they appear and you read or hear about them?

Six degrees of separation, FROM The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency TO …

January 6, 2018

It’s a new year and I’ve committed, for the moment at least, to continuing with the Six Degrees meme which is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). For details about the meme, please click the link on Kate’s blog-name. Meanwhile, on with the challenge. This month we start with a book that I have, in fact, read, Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – and, as always, I’ve read all the linked books too, though some before I started blogging.

Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective AgencyMost of you will know that light, crime books are not my usual fare. However, there was a time when reading the latest book from this series was something my parents, mother-in-law, husband and I did on our annual coast holiday. When those holidays ceased, somehow the impetus to read the books ceased too. While it lasted, though, it was a lot of fun to share a reading interest, and ponder the warmth and practical problem-solving of Precious Ramotswe.

Catherine McNamara, PeltFor my first link, I’m going with a book by another non-African writer setting stories there, Catherine McNamara’s Pelt and other stories (my review). McNamara is an Australian expat writer currently living, I believe, in Italy, but she also lived and worked for some time in Africa. Several stories in this collection, as the cover might suggest, are set in Africa, particularly West Africa. But they are definitely not warm and fuzzy like McCall Smith’s Botswanan set stories!

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apartAnd since we rarely visit Africa here, let’s stay there for the next link, and look at Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart (my review), a classic that I finally managed to read in 2016. It’s set in a small village in Nigeria, and deals with the impact of change in Africa – the missionaries, colonialism – by presenting a variety of reactions and behaviours. He shows western colonialism to be arrogant and oblivious to the culture being overtaken, but also sees aspects of African culture which made it vulnerable.

Marie Munkara, Every secret thingMy next link takes us from Africa to Australia, but stays with the idea of missionaries and their role in the colonialism project. The book is Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing (my review). She uses humour to explore her theme, telling stories in which the Bush Mob use every bit of ingenuity they can muster to resist the incursion into their life and culture by the Mission Mob. As with Things fall apart the power imbalance is too strong, but the Bush Mob manages nonetheless to strike some blows for its side.

Eimear McBride, A girl is a half-formed thingAt this point I had a few options for linking, including staying with the colonialism theme in Australia, and I was highly tempted. However, I suddenly realised that my previous two books had “thing” or “things” in the title, and that I’ve read another book whose title includes this word, Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing (my review). It had to be – not only because it was an irresistible connection but because it enabled me to shift gear for this link, and thus the next one. 

Anos Irani, The parcelIf you’ve read McBride’s book, you will know it is a tough read about a young girl who feels alone and unsupported in her family, for understandable reasons – but she doesn’t deserve what happens to her. It reminded me of a book I read this year which had a similar gut-wrenching impact on me, and whose protagonist, while different, feels unsupported by her family and, increasingly, an outsider within her community. The book is Anosh Irani’s The parcel (my review) about the transgendered Madhu in Mumbai’s red-light district.

Tony Birch, Ghost riverFor my last link, I’m sticking with the idea of outsiders, and returning to an indigenous Australian writer. The book is Tony Birch’s Ghost River (my review). It tells of the friendship between two young boys, Ren and Sonny, and their involvement with a group of homeless men living by the river and about to be “dispossessed” of their spot by plans to build a freeway. These men, though, are not the only outsiders in the book. Sonny, who is from a disadvantaged background, is also an outsider. Birch demonstrates that once you are an outsider, everything is just that much harder. It’s a double whammy.

So, this month we’ve travelled from Africa to Australia, then popped over to Ireland before returning to Australia via India. Our writers, though, have been even more multicultural – two indigenous Australian writers, an Indian-born Canadian writer, an expat-Australian writer living in Italy, an Irish writer born in England, and an African writer. What a fascinating bunch, eh?

And now, have you read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? And whether or not you have, what would you link to? 

Bruce Beresford, The best film I never made (#BookReview)

January 5, 2018

Bruce Beresford, The best film I never madeBruce Beresford, author of The best film I never made, is of special interest to me for a couple of reasons, besides the fact that I’ve enjoyed many of his films over the years. One is that after a few years of taking (or, perhaps, “dragging” is more accurate) our then young son to various classic movie “experiences”, like, say, a silent movie accompanied by live theatre organ, we finally hit pay dirt with Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant. He loved it, and I’d say his love of film was born then. The other is that I’ve known for some time that Beresford has wanted to film his old university friend Madeleine St John’s novel The women in black (my review). I want to see that film! According to the brief bio opposite the title page, it is being made now. At last!

All this is to explain why I was keen to read Bruce Beresford’s collection of stories when I saw it appear in Text Publishing’s New Releases list. But, what does “collection of stories” mean in the context of non-fiction? These are not essays or even newspaper columns that have been published before, and, disappointingly, there’s no Introduction, Author’s Note or Afterword providing context. There is, though, in that aforementioned brief bio, the address for his website, and there I found a tab called “Articles”. So this is where they are published? Yes, some anyhow, including some in an earlier form, but not all. However, from this, and from their personal, rather chatty style, I’d liken these articles to blog posts, which in his case comprise musings on things relating to his film and opera directing career and his related cultural interests.

The best film I never made, then, is a collection of these blogpost-cum-stories, organised for the book into four parts: I Family, Journeys, Memories; II Making and Not Making Movies; III Behind the Screen; IV Operas, Painters, Writers. The stories are all dated, ranging from 2004 to 2017. Some have brief updates at the end. The 2010 piece on Jeffrey Smart, “Smart lessons”, for example, has a final annotation noting that Smart died in 2013. The stories are not presented chronologically.

And now, because this is not a book with a narrative structure that can be spoiled – though there is some logic nonetheless to the order – I’m going straight to the end. You’ll guess why when I tell you that the title of the last article is “Australian literature and film”, but that literature connection is not the only reason. Other reasons are that it provides a good introduction to the style and tone of the whole, and also to the way he imparts his experience and understanding of filmmaking.

The main point of this last article is to discuss the idea, put forward he says by the press, that “Australian films would benefit if more adaptations were made from acclaimed literary works. Comparisons are inevitably made with foreign films, particularly English and American …” Commenting that he can understand why writer-directors might want to tell their own stories, he admits that probably a majority of English-language films are adaptations of novels but suggests that many of these would be from popular fiction rather than “literary successes”. He unpicks why:

Many novels are famous for their prose style, various colourful characters, their themes and so on: factors which can obscure the fact that other useful ingredients – a coherent plot for example – may be absent. In film, most of the characteristics that distinguish a literary work – such as a striking prose style – are stripped away and this can reveal the lack of a well-constructed story, or convincing dialogue, and be fatal to the effectiveness of the film.

He then provides examples of English and American adaptations, about which, of course, every reader-filmgoer will have different opinions – but I think his principle stands. He comments for example about the difficult of transferring “the satire and dry cynicism” of Waugh to film, and says Patrick White is notoriously difficult “because his novels like Conrad’s, are psychological studies, intense and profound, and not easy to transfer to a film script”. (Interestingly, though, he suggests that Happy Valley, which I’ve reviewed, could be a good candidate because of its “more conventional narrative”.) Filmmakers do better he argues “to adapt novels which rely on a few strong characters and a compelling narrative” like, for example, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in fright (albeit “won no literary prizes”).

So, this article demonstrates Beresford’s grasp of filmmaking, which, unsurprisingly, runs throughout the book, but it also exemplifies his tone and style, including his willingness to share his own prejudices. He’s not a fan of Tim Winton, for example, describing his books “as bargain-basement Patrick White: stylistically derivative, they are far more savage, full of unpleasant characters, and weakly plotted”. And Christina Stead, he says, is “a turgid writer, in my worthless opinion”. This possibly false but not pompous self-deprecation is another feature of his tone. In the same paragraph as the Stead comment, he writes that he’d filmed Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, but that “critics did not share my admiration for the result”! (Other films of his, he agrees, aren’t the best.)

And finally, this chapter also reveals his ability to “tell-all” without being gossipy. He suggests that another reason why classic novels aren’t adapted in Australia (as they are in England) is that they are just not well-known, “certainly the word of their excellence has not reached all of those in charge of making financial decisions.” (The challenge of financing films is a theme running through the book, in fact.) Beresford wrote, he tells us, an adaptation of Henry Handel Richardson’s epic, The fortunes of Richard Mahony. He says he hadn’t expected potential investors to have read it, but he “did at least expect them to have heard of it – and her. But this was not the case.” Oh dear! He backs up this example of philistinism with another:

when I was planning a film about Mahler, a Hollywood executive said, ‘What I can’t understand is why you would want to make a film about a nonentity.’ I said  nothing, but perhaps should have told him that one of the most gifted composers of all time could not accurately be described as a ‘nonentity’ – except by someone of overwhelming stupidity.

To his credit, Beresford does not name this person of “overwhelming stupidity”.

If you’ve enjoyed my discussion of this article, then you are likely to enjoy the book. I loved his discussion of the filmic qualities of the artist Caravaggio, and of his friendship with luminaries like Barry Humphries, Clive James, and the late Jeffrey Smart. His Behind the Scenes section provides fascinating insight into the role of cinematographers, composers and designers in the filmmaking process. And so on.

However, because this is a book of collected articles written over a decade or more, there is the occasional repetition, particularly in the first section about his personal life. And, he does come across somewhat as an unreconstructed male. There are several references to his chasing, or his friends’ marrying, beautiful women, which focus I find out-of-date (but that’s just my worthless opinion!)

The best film I never made is an enjoyable book. It’s more chatty and informative than reflective, but if you have followed Bruce Beresford’s films over the years – including Breaker MorantDriving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Black Robe, Mao’s Last Dancer – and you are interested in the practice of filmmaking and in the arts more generally, this book has a lot to offer. And makes, methinks, a good summer read.

Bruce Beresford
The best film I never made, and other stories about a life in the arts
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
281pp.
ISBN: 9781925603101

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Blogging highlights for 2017

January 3, 2018

Now for the last of my year-end trifecta (the others being my Australian Women Writers’ Challenge wrap-up and Reading highlights posts). I don’t know how much this one interests others, but I like to document trends on my blog for my own record. I won’t be offended if you don’t read this, as if I’d know!

Top posts for 2017

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Change has been slowly happening in my top posts – though a few usual suspects, like Virginia Woolf’s short story “The mark on the wall“, remain there. Last year, an Aussie book, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites, finally topped the list, but this year that changed again. Here’s my Top Ten, by number of hits:

Now some basic analysis. Firstly, four Australian posts (plus, again, the Awards page) appear in the Top Ten, one more than last year. Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones dropped to 12th position, while Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” regained its Top Ten position, and has been joined by another of her short stories from Bush Studies. (I’d love to know whether Bush Studies features high in the lists of other Aussie bloggers who have reviewed it.) Meanwhile, Red Dog just keeps on keeping on.

As I noted last year, short stories and essays (Wharton, Woolf, Baynton and Muir) dominate the top ten. This must surely be because they are set texts. I have a pretty good feeling that Red Dog is too!

AS Patric, Black rock white cityMy most popular 2017-written post – ranking 48th – was, as happened last year, for an Australian work, this time AS Patrić’s Black rock white city. (Last year, though, the top ranking post written that year was 66th in the list). The next 2017-written post, ranking 58th, was for another Australian work, Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly. And to complete the top three, coming in at 71, was an English classic, Graham Greene’s Travels with my aunt. A rather eclectic trio, which appeals to me.

For the Monday Musings fans amongst you, my most popular Monday Musings posts were: Novels set in Sydney (posted November 2015); White writers on indigenous Australians (posted February 2014); Australian Gothic (19th century) (posted December 2012).

Finally, last year, I noted that there was a surprising post in my Top Ten, What do you say when you order food at a restaurant (posted three years ago in November 2014). Ranking 8th last year, it climbed to the top this year, just pipping Edith Wharton at the post (overtaking her in the last throes of December). Most intriguing.

Random blogging stats

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra (surely public domain!)

I always share some of the searches that find my blog, so here’s a selection of this year’s:

  • several searches included the words “analysis” or “reading guide” or, in one case, “reading guide answers”, such as the adventure of the german student reading guide answers
  • searches such as say please when you make an order and can i get or can i have for ordering food: you know, now, what post they retrieve
  • several searches seemed concerned with whether Jane Austen’s writing is progressive or conservative, such as, is emma by jane austen conservatove [sic] as the ending; how is the ending of emma by jane austen not conservative; progressive plot pride and prejudice; jane austen’s conservatism and progressivism related to pride and prejudice. Homework questions perhaps?
  • if im white can i write about aboriginals: regular readers here will know why this one found me
  • musings on the famous novel: this one picks up several of my Monday Musings posts
  • which journal is favourite in literature: what do you think?

I didn’t unearth any really strange searches this year, which could be partly due to the fact that the majority of search terms are no longer revealed to us … but I do miss the weird and wonderful ones!

Other stats that tell the story of my year. I wrote around the same number of posts as last year, averaging 13 posts per month, but traffic to my blog increased by nearly 10%. While numbers are not my  prime goal, and are not something I specifically focus on building, it’s nonetheless gratifying to think that the hours spent writing posts are not just for me.

My blog visitors came from 178 countries (6 more than last year). Australia, the USA, and Britain again filled the top three slots, with India edging out Canada for fourth this year, thanks partly perhaps to the lovely Deepika! My most active commenters (based on the last 1000 comments, says WordPress) were Lisa (ANZLitLovers), Bill (The Australian Legend), Deepika (New Fractured Light), Meg, Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes) and Guy (His Futile Preoccupations). A big thanks to them, and to everyone who reads and/or comments on my blog. Whether or not you comment, it is a joy to share books and reading with you.

Challenges, memes and other things

As I wrote in my AWW Challenge wrap up, I will participate again this year. (Here’s the Sign Up page).

I have now been doing the #sixdegreesofseparation meme, run by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest), for just over a year. I enjoy the challenge of completing these posts and that it results in my thinking again about the books I’ve read. I’ll continue with this one. I did, occasionally, do other memes during the year, which can be seen at this “memes” category link.

My biggest highlight of the year though was mentoring two litbloggers in the new ACT Litbloggers of the Future initiative, sponsored by the ACT Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia. Emma Gibson (see her guest post), Angharad Lodwick (see her blog) and I met several times to talk blogging, literature and ACT literary culture – and had great fun doing so. We wrapped it up at the end of the year at a meeting with Nigel Featherstone (ACT Writers Centre) and Kathryn Favelle (NLA), and agreed that while there are things we could improve if the program runs again, it did achieve its main goal of helping “to stoke cultural conversations in the ACT”. And that, really, is what it’s all about, isn’t it.

Wrapping up my wrap-ups …

To conclude, a big thanks to everyone who read, commented on and/or “liked” my blog last year – and thanks to all the other wonderful bloggers out there, even though I don’t always manage to visit everyone as much as I’d like. While some people find the Internet and Social Media cruel and unwelcoming, that’s not what I find in our litblogging corner of cyberspace, proving that technology isn’t inherently bad for you. And so, I wish you all happy reading in 2018, and hope to see you again at your place or mine!

Finally, a big thanks to the authors who write the books, and to the publishers and booksellers who get the books out there. May 2018 be a great one for you (us) all.