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Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading Australian literature

April 27, 2015

Reading Australian Literature is a lecture series inaugurated at the University of Sydney last year by its School of Letters, Arts and Media. The idea is for writers to talk about a literary text that means something to them. Here is how the website describes it:

Writers’ festivals and other popular forums invite writers to talk about their own work and creative practices. But what might they have to say about the books that excite their imaginations? There are few opportunities for writers to substantially engage with literature in the public sphere.

Reading Australian Literature is a series in which acclaimed Australian writers reflect on the Australian books they value. In a thoughtful and engaging public lecture, each writer will discuss a favourite Australian literary text. What has led them to these books? What do they find remarkable about them? Have these encounters with Australian books left an imprint on the speakers’ own writing?

As far as I can gather there were three lectures last year, and they plan four this year. Because I love hearing authors talk about writing and writers, I thought I’d share with you the writers and their chosen texts to date in the series:

  • Michelle de Kretser: Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the river. De Kretser, whose Questions of travel I reviewed a couple of years ago, likes this novel, which I read and loved many years ago, because it’s “one of the great novels of place”.
  • Drusilla Modjeska: Randolph Stow’s Visitants. Modjeska chose this “underrated” novel set in the Trobriand Islands because it “remains unsurpassed in outside fiction of our complex near-neighbour”.
  • Fiona McFarlane: Patrick White’s The aunt’s story. McFarlane, whose The night guest I reviewed recently, said that White’s novel “produces a bodily reaction” in her. She reacts to it, she said, “with a kind of horrified, delighted rapture.”
  • Charlotte Wood: Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus. Wood describes Hazzard’s novel, which I have also read, but a long time ago, “as a novel I could return to for the rest my life, each time finding a new experience within its pages.” An edited version of Wood’s lecture can be found online at the Sydney Review of Books. Wood writes here that the novel is “concerned with much deeper moral courage than that required simply to love”. She also sees it as being about self-sovereignty. In my reading notes, I wrote that it’s about the discrepancy between who we might be and who we are, about the failure of many of us to be the best we can because we let ourselves be distracted by superficial concerns.
  • Delia Falconer: Christina Stead’s Seven poor men of Sydney (lecture scheduled for 21 April). Falconer, whose The service of clouds I’ve read, again long before blogging, says she’s come to this book late. She loves its evocation of Sydney in the 1920s’s, but also says she’s impressed by “the intensity of Stead’s artistic vision”. She plans to argue “against the accepted view that this is an uneven book marred by the excesses of a first-time author” because she sees “the astonishing maturity and political sophistication of her use of form”.

How difficult it must be for these authors to choose just one literary work to talk about, but these particular choices are fascinating – not just for the books they’ve chosen but for the reasons they’ve chosen them. Those reasons tell as a lot about their interests as readers and writers. Drusilla Modjeska’s focus on “outside” fiction and Michelle de Kretser’s on place, for example, make sense if you know the sorts of things they write.

Intriguing all the authors so far have been women. It would be good to see male writers in the last two planned for this year.

Just a little post this week, but I thought this lecture series was worth sharing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the lectures are published online by the organisers, in either oral or written form. What a missed opportunity!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2015 3:01 am

    What a great lecture series! I love it too when authors talk about books they like, they always seem to find details I overlook and then of course they bring that writer perspective which is also fascinating.

    • April 28, 2015 11:50 am

      Yes, that’s what I love too Stefanie – hearing the way writers read books. Their perspective can be very different can’t it, just like a museum curator’s reaction to a museum exhibition can be very different to a “normal” museum goer’s response.

  2. Meg permalink
    April 28, 2015 7:57 am

    What a great and captivating series it will be. It is a pity that they are not on line, but can see many reasons why they are not. I love hearing other people responses to books they have read, especially the Australian ones.

    • April 28, 2015 11:51 am

      Thanks Meg … yes, I can too, and I wonder whether they are available online internally for Sydney Uni members. I would be a real pity if they hadn’t recorded the talks and/or obtained printed copies. Maybe they’ll publish them, when they have a few, in an anthology? Wouldn’t that be great.

  3. April 28, 2015 12:14 pm

    How interesting that the five authors so far are all women and that three of the texts are by women writers.

    • April 28, 2015 3:49 pm

      Hi Judith, yes I wondered about that too. have male authors been approached and not been interested? We’ll have to see. And as for their choices, yes, I thought that was interesting too – and their choices, Modjeska, Hazzard and Stead, all have gravitas and are well worthy of being chosen.

      • ian darling permalink
        April 28, 2015 6:52 pm

        A fascinating series of lectures. It is such a simple but effective idea and it must encourage readers to look up the books. I remember that Randolph Stowe novel which was in british paperback in the 1980s I think – it is a really excellent novel.

        • April 28, 2015 7:25 pm

          It’s a great idea isn’t it Ian, and at four this year, shouldn’t be too difficult to organise. I hope they get good audiences. I haven’t read Visitants but its subject sounds like something still worth reading today.

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