Monday musings on Australian literature: Inga Clendinnen
I cannot let this week pass without adding my voice to the tributes made by my blogger friends to anthropologist-historian Inga Clendinnen (1934-2016), who died last week at the too-young age of 82. It seemed fitting to delay my tribute for a couple of days to make her a Monday Musings topic. Clendinnen deserves no less (says she, applying a gravitas to her Monday Musings that they don’t really warrant!)
Now, I wonder how many of my non-Australian readers have heard of or know much about this rather significant Australian public intellectual? Clendinnen’s first area of speciality – and the subject of her first two books – was the Aztec civilisation. I haven’t read those books. She then wrote another which is on my TBR, Reading the Holocaust (1998). Her next was the first I read, her memoir Tiger’s eye (2000). Critic Morag Fraser described it as follows (the back blurb):
This is a rare book … it is memoir, history, fiction, a documenting of filial gratitude and ingratitude, and a record of the cauldron of a near-fatal illness, all bundled coherently – that’s the miracle – between covers.
The book was inspired by her experience with liver disease (and her ensuing transplant) … but this disease in turn inspired her to contemplate all sorts of things about life – hers and life in general – about the things that interest her, like writing, for a start, and of course about the experience of being seriously ill. (Oh dear, I’ve always wanted to reread this, and am now becoming distracted from the task at hand by dipping into it!) She talks about how writing is her way of understanding herself. Much of what she says is thoughtful, serious, philosophical, but there are also light touches:
Meanwhile, I wrote. I was in a big mixed ward and discovered when I pulled out my writing pad that in such a ward writing is ‘letter-writing’, and therefore a collective activity. Topics and items of local interest were offered by patients and by nursing staff. If I said, defensively, that I was writing stories, passing strangers–chaplains, orderlies, tea-ladies–would stop to empty a bucket of tales about their dogs or their ex-wives over me, or would say that they are writers too, or would be when they could get around to it. When they weren’t too busy living.
I love how she captures that special world that is the hospital.
Anyhow, moving on. The book that really brought her to wider attention in Australia was her multi-award-winning book, Dancing with strangers (2003). In her Introduction she describes it as “a telling of the story when a thousand British men and women, some of them convicts and some of them free, made a settlement on the east coast of Australia … and how they fared with the people they found there.” “A” telling, she writes. I like that. She also explains how she aimed to apply the disciplines of history (which can be “culture-insensitive”) and anthropology (which can be insensitive to “temporal change”) to an analysis of episodes recorded in primary resources in order to understand better what people did and why they did it. In other words, she teases out possible cultural assumptions, expectations, and, even, aspirations which might have underpinned the behaviours and events that have too often been simplified in the historical record we all know.
So, in this history, we have Clendinnen, our historian, saying things like “I think Baneelon believed he had fully instructed Phillip as to what was in store for him”, and
There is another possibility in this hall-of-mirrors world: that Barangaroo’s funeral rites were muted not because of Barangaroo’s social isolation, but because of Baleen’s ongoing ambition to impress the British, in this case with the reverent sedateness of his mourning. After all, he has watched enough British burials.
She concludes by arguing, logically it seems to me, that “to understand history we have to get inside episodes, which means setting ourselves to understand our subjects’ changing motivations and moods in their changing contexts, and to tracing the devious routes by which knowledge was acquired, understood and acted upon.” This is the sort of history I enjoy reading …
Every time, in fact, that I read Clendinnen on history I am mystified all over again about her strong criticism of Kate Grenville’s comments regarding The secret river. I keep thinking I’m missing something. In Dancing with strangers Clendinnen uses her knowledge of culture and human beings to fill gaps or find different explanations for how people behaved which is, in a different but to me related way, what “literary” historical novelists do. We could get caught up in semantics here, in arguing exceptions and rules, and so on, but my feeling (with no evidence I admit) is that Grenville’s over-exuberant-at-the-time way of explaining what she was doing “got up Clendinnen’s nose”. I read (and enjoyed) Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay on “The history question: Who owns the past (QE23)” (2006) and the section in which she discusses novelists and historians is replete with my marginalia! I’ll leave it there!
Finally, the last book of hers that I’ve read is her essay collection, Agamemnon’s kiss (2006). One of the dedicatees is “my unknown [liver] donor, April 1994”. Not surprisingly, the collection includes essays on health, life and death. It also includes writings on reading fiction, writing history, the history wars, the Holocaust. And she writes about other writers, such as Hilary Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald. In the last titular essay, she writes (yet again) about reading and writing. I’ll end with something that I think we’d all agree with:
Rewarding reading is like being luxuriously absorbed in intimate conversation with a person not previously known, but whose words somehow interweave with the lonely interior monologue we conduct inside our heads. In real life we might encounter such a conversation in five, ten or twenty years, or possibly not at all. In a world of libraries and bookshops it is forever at our fingertips …
Vale Inga Clendinnen. Thank you for all your wonderful books, and for the intimate conversations we can now, because of them, continue to have with you.
For tributes from other bloggers, please see