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Delicious descriptions: Kate Llewellyn on Aussie authors

June 25, 2015

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstSince I couldn’t cover everything in my review of Kate Llewellyn’s lettersFirst things first, edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, I decided that a follow-up Delicious Descriptions on a specific aspect of the book, her discussion of her reading, would be in order. I’m making the assumption that, like me, you’re interested in what writers think about the work of other writers.

Llewellyn mentions many writers – poets and novelists – in her letters, and is generally positive. I can’t (and shouldn’t) share them all, of course, so have selected a few that particularly interested me.

Christina Stead

I was tickled to find myself reading Llewellyn’s letters in which she was reading Christina Stead’s. It twas in a letter dated 19 June 1992, so I think she was reading R.G. Geering’s Christina Stead, a life in letters, which was published in 1991/1992. Llewellyn writes – all the three-dot sets are hers (and not my ellipses):

I have three books, Angela Carter’s last … and C. Stead’s Letters … really, a wonderful book … she is a wizard … so queer, mad, right, sweet, hopeless … not unlike Jean Rhys in some ways … you know, the hopeless, feckless, blighted genius who good things avoid in spite of her almost starving … but gracious, always gracious … a bed-sitter, no money … Basically, Christina is a woman who married her father and who was mad, mad as you know, who had a funny kind of genius to boot … cruel to women … feminist and scathing of that same thing … fawning to men in a way that is quite painful to read in the letters … but generous, encyclopaedic, lusty and full of paradoxes … her husband Bill Blake was in the fur business for a time … can you believe it … and she left money to the conservation foundation … plus had a white ermine coat … Basically, Bill was a wonderful loving brilliant man whose books did not sell and who had a wife and child for thirty years of their life (his and Christina’s) together while she longed to marry … sound familiar …

Well, that’s rather a breathless flow, but it captures quite a lot about what Llewellyn gleaned about Stead from the letters, about Llewellyn’s reaction to that, and about Llewellyn herself. In another letter, in 1993, she comments on a negative drawing of Stead in The Australian which described Stead as “monstrum extremum”. Llewellyn’s response to that was a “4,000 word piece on Stead and the way Australia treats its artists”. Go Llewellyn, eh?

Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press)

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press)

Llewellyn clearly admires Jolley, as I do. On 3 July 1992, she writes:

I read Cabin Fever at 3am and felt like you … I like this strange book … I wrack my brains to trace how it is done … but I am lost … I need a writing class … I long for one …

Besides the fact that she so loved a Jolley book, I was fascinated to read about a writer admiring another writer so much she wanted to do a writing class to improve her own writing. It reminded me that we never stop learning or wanting to hone our skills.

Robert Drewe

I haven’t reviewed Drewe here, though I have a book of his short stories next to my bed, The body surfers, that I love. I like his writing, but I was fascinated by the strength of Llewellyn’s comment (in a letter on 7 July 1992):

I am reading R. Drewe’s A Cry in the Jungle Bar (Picador). I am not mad about this book but will read anything of his to see how he arrived at Our Sunshine … We had a talk at the book fair and I told him how sorry I was he did not get any of the prizes (the Banjo was announced that day) for Our Sunshine. He said he needed the money … When he is dead the country with laud him to the skies and sell his book by the thousands and make a film of it and maybe his son will benefit … but until then, it is slim pickings for him.

Our Sunshine is Drewe’s novel about Ned Kelly, and is a book I’m keen to read. The 2003 Ned Kelly film was based on it, but it wasn’t exactly an adaptation. Anyhow, here again is the issue of writers struggling to survive. I know there are those who are uncomfortable about literary awards but they clearly have practical value to many writers.

Marion Halligan

Halligan is the recipient of some of the letters in the book, including the one I’m going to quote from, written on 5 August 1992. Halligan also wrote the Foreword to the book. I tell you this, because it suggests a relationship between the two. I don’t, however, think this undermines the validity of Llewellyn’s admiration of Halligan’s writing. In this letter she talks of Lover’s knots, which was my first Halligan (and which inspired me to read more):

Really, Marion, you know I admire your writing because the thing has a will of its own … […] … because long before I ever met you, I said so in print … and you just get a firmer and firmer grip on your style and wide range … no, range wider and wider … also your quite encyclopaedic knowledge is impressive, but not just that, as that would be a bore if it was only that, but it is illuminating and lovely to read and I learn and that’s a real pleasure … mictouricious (?) or some such word … from micturition … the verb to pee … no micturate is the verb I suppose … I barely went to school and it constantly shows … music and spelling were on the days I didn’t go.

How better to end this post than on praise of our wonderful local writer, Halligan, that is written with such generosity and self-deprecating humour. I’m sure you can see why I enjoyed reading this book.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2015 11:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing those, they are really wonderful. I love how she uses the ellipses, they give her letters a breathless full steam ahead quality that is really endearing.

    • June 26, 2015 8:03 am

      They do, don’t they, Stefanie. You can feel her enthusiasm or energy or mile-a-minute mind in it.

  2. June 27, 2015 2:57 am

    Elizabeth Jolley and Robert Drewe are two of my favourite authors in the whole world. Their writing is excellent (EJ unique I believe). I think about their themes and characters often and gratefully. Yet I found them both in Sydney charity shops – though have made sure to buy new since..

    • June 27, 2015 9:24 am

      Thanks for commenting Carol, and welcome. I love that you love Jolley. She’s a favourite of mine. In some senses she reminds me of Jane Austen, though she is more interior. It’s her clear, unflinching eye on human behaviour that reminds me.

      I haven’t read enough Drewe but what I have I am drawn to. Need to read more of him.

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