Continuing last week’s 1965 theme, this post discusses two articles on two Aussie writers who published books that year. I chose them because I think they are instructive examples of book reviewing.
Thomas Keneally, born in 1935, is a prolific Australian author with a long (and still continuing) career. He was shortlisted for the Booker prize four times between 1972 and 1982, one of which he won, and he was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin three times between 1967 and 2003, two of which he won. These were for seven different books! That’s impressive. However, the book reviewed by Maurice Dunlevey in The Canberra Times in 1965 was not one of these. It was for his second novel, The fear.
The reviewer was Maurice Dunlevy and he compares Keneally’s book with Things as they are by American author, Paul Horgan. Both, he said, were about the loss of innocence in boyhood, and both were true to this type of writing. They were also, he continued, “similar in that they deal with Catholic boyhood. That, however, is where the similarity ends.”
Horgan is successful, handling the subject “with a sensitivity surprising from a writer best known for fat volumes of historical fiction and a Pulitzer Prizewinning history”:
Horgan knows exactly what his subject is and he deals with it imaginatively and economically.
In contrast, he describes Keneally’s book as
a novel in search of a subject. Keneally doesn’t know where he is going and his characters don’t know where to take him.
The only imagination displayed in this book is that reportorial kind we expect from the great Australian tradition, the novel written under a coolibah tree.
He then goes on to (vividly) explain this tradition: it requires that
the coolibah tree should be accurately described, branch by bloody branch. The novelist must be there, on the flamin’ spot, mate, so that he can report on the tree and the nearby jumbuck with photo-graphic accuracy.
Anyone who has read ten Australian novels has read seven that were written under this realistic coolibah tree with a thumbnail dipped in the tar of experience.
The problem is that these novels are not “illuminated by imagination; they are enchained, bolted, riveted to experience — the novelist’s own actual physical experience.” These authors, in other words, focus so much on writing about things they have experienced that they are not, in fact, “writing a novel but filing a fact-filled feature story”.
Then he says something that regular readers know would interest me:
But facts are facts and truth often has nothing to do with them. Truth in literature is usually born of the imagination. It is possible that it has some relationship with facts, with hard-earned experience, but it never slavishly follows their dictates.
Events, he continues, don’t just “fall” into the necessary literary form; “they don’t impart their significance to us simply because we record them accurately.” They need to be “moulded in a unique, personal vision”.
Unfortunately, Keneally does too much reporting of events, it seems. There is no “vision of the world”, “no sense of direction, no consistent subject or theme”, just “the reporter’s eye for inconsequential detail”. Dunlevy’s assessment is that The fear reads more like “a collection of notes for a novel, perhaps fragments of an autobiography”.
I don’t know what Keneally thought at the time, but I do know that he can be reflective, rather than defensive, about his earlier work. Sydney Morning Herald literary editor, Susan Wyndham, wrote in 2013 that Keneally has described The fear “dismissively as the obligatory account of a novelist’s childhood.” (Interestingly he republished/rewrote it in 1989 as By the line.)
Novelist Nancy Cato was one of the writers that last week’s Soviet author, Daniil Granin, met. The Canberra Times article, I read, is by John Graham, who reviews her latest novel, North-west by south. I chose this article for Graham’s thoughtful commentary on Cato. He starts by calling her “a curious phenomenon in Australian literature, a feminist without a formed social outlook.”
He compares her with her more literary contemporaries — Eleanor Dark, Kylie Tennant, Eve Langley and Dorothy Hewett. He says they
have all expressed definite views on society through their novels. Mostly, they are militant socialist rather than purely feminist ideas, a tradition of political awareness handed down to them by Mary Gilmore and Katherine Susannah Pritchard.
But, he says, Cato has never
been drawn into this dynasty. She is closer to the individuality of Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson in her poetry, much more aggressively feminist in her novels.
However, he continues, she never fully developed her feminism “in the social sense”, and consciously kept away from “political awareness”. Delie in her Murray River trilogy has the pioneering spirit that comes from one side of Australia’s “feminist tradition”, he writes, but she doesn’t have the social viewpoint that might have made her “a memorable figure”. (Little did he know that actor Sigrid Thornton would make her memorable via the TV miniseries, All the rivers run, in 1983!)
Seriously, though, he continues to say that Cato “has found a welcome new theme in the historical novel”, Lady Franklin, about whom I’ve written here before. Graham suggests that Franklin suits Cato much better than Delie:
Lady Franklin’s feminism is of the same activist variety, but much more capable of development through her position as a Governor’s wife. She also has the virtue of reality, a considerable advantage for a writer with limited powers of character development.
Oh dear, that’s a backhander isn’t it! Anyhow, he goes on to detail how Cato makes a better fist of this protagonist in terms of feminism, and says that
Miss Cato handles all these subtleties with impressive dexterity, indicating a considerable technical development since she laid Delie to rest.
It’s not perfect, though, because Cato “has still not controlled her tendency, to rush from one event to another without pausing for significance”. He gives examples, such as her handling of Mathinna, the indigenous girl adopted by the Franklins. He feels that Cato became “so enmeshed in the historical details that the book is not satisfactory either as a character study of an unusual woman or as an examination of Franklin’s governorship”. Handling their historical research is, of course, a common challenge for historical fiction writers.
Graham details other gaps, suggesting for example that Lady Franklin and her husband’s efforts “to better the conditions of the convicts and to solve the problem of the disappearing Aborigines are treated so scantily that they might better have been eliminated altogether”. This aspect of the Franklins’ lives is a tricky topic that many have tried since Cato (and I list some of them in my post linked above.)
However, he also has positive things to say, calling it Nancy Cato’s “best novel so far” and suggesting it “indicates a direction in which a writer of her talents and limitations might develop further”. It’s the sort of review a writer may or may not like, but it’s clear, detailed and respectful.
So, I hope you’ve enjoyed these little dips into 1965 Australia via its newspapers. I have!