Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading Australian literature
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!