Here I stand: David Marr’s Seymour Biography Lecture

This week Mr Gums and I went to our second Seymour Biography Lecture, an annual lecture devoted to life-writing which was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. Our first, last year, was given by Robert Drewe who discussed memoir as a form of life-writing that is differentiated from but as valid as autobiography. It was a wonderful lecture, so we were keen to attend this year’s, and particularly when David Marr was announced as the speaker.

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, as you may know, is one of Australia’s most recognisable contemporary public intellectuals. He wrote a biography of controversial politician and Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick (Barwick) and the multi-award-winning biography Patrick White: A life. In recent years he has written several biographical essays for the Quarterly Essay: on John Howard (2007), Kevin Rudd (2010), Tony Abbott (2012), George Pell (2013), and Bill Shorten (2015). The National Library of Australia’s Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich said, when introducing him, that these essays represent “a new form of biography”. That sounded interesting, but it turned out not to be the subject of his lecture. Oh well … a topic for another day, perhaps?

At this point David Marr got up to speak … I’ve seen him many times on television, but I greatly enjoyed seeing him in person. He has a lovely, natural speaking style – articulate, but informally formal if that makes sense. He started by saying how good it was to be giving a lecture in someone’s name, not in their memory but in their presence! (The Seymours were in the audience).

What’s the story?

Marr commenced by describing how he was called to Patrick White’s place in 1988 during one of White’s “near-death” experiences. When he got there, other family and friends were already there, waiting for the ambulance. Eventually, Wendy the ambo arrived, walked in, and asked, very appropriately Marr said, “What’s the story?” As it turned out White lived through more episodes like this, before dying in 1990. He told us all this, not so much because it was an interesting story, but to make the point that although he was present at these occasions, and although he wrote about them in his White biography, we will not find him there. That is, he did not put himself in the room with the others. In fact, he did not put himself in the book anywhere (although he admitted, slyly, that of course he is everywhere in the book – the words, the judgements, are his).

Marr then gave us his rules for biographers, but I’m afraid I only got four of the five down. They are:

  • The voice of the subject must be clear;
  • The biography must not “muck around with time”;
  • The biographer must spare the reader his/her “homework”; and
  • The biographer must stay out of the life.

This last “rule” would be the theme of his lecture …

Be an invisible biographer

Before exploring this, however, Marr said that it is the biographer’s truth that everybody’s life is open to writing about, that no-one owns his/her life. True, yes, he said, but “mighty obstacles can be put in your way”. Subjects can:

  • Stop their friends talking to you
  • Block access to their papers
  • Withhold copyright consent. He expanded here on family ownership of copyright, and the typical family view that “what’s hidden in life must be hidden in death”. (Hence, methought, sisters like Cassandra Austen destroy precious letters!)
  • Place a curse on their biographers. Here he mentioned Greek poet, Cavafy, who wrote “From all I did and all I said/Let no one try to find out who I was” (“Hidden things”). Cavafy also said that sometimes it is better to wait, that some things cannot be understood until time has passed.

Marr said he feared every one of these obstructions when he approached White – particularly the curses! But the timing was right for White, and Marr’s biography project was, amazingly, accepted. Marr described his aims as absolutely conventional: “I was  born in Pymble after all,” he said! They included finding out who White was, where his books came from, his impact on the world and world’s on him, and so on. But White – the irascible White – saw it quite differently. He saw it as his “last reckoning”, his last chance to see where all his life passions had ended up, his last chance to see which of his many and diverse arrows had hit their mark.

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers” and “they also bugger around with time”. For example, the biographer may write about being in Greece researching the subject’s life while simultaneously describing the subject’s life in that place in some time past. Biographers can also, inappropriately in Marr’s view, foreshadow aspects of the subject’s life, as in “that was the last time X ever went to Y”. He argued that it is the great drama of our lives that we don’t know what is going to happen. Great biographers make the future unknown, he said. Even though we usually know the fate of the subject, a good biographer can make it a surprise.

He gave examples of visible biographers that he doesn’t like, but admitted that rules can be broken. The “quest biography” is, for example, suitable for the life of a fraud. And there are cases where the biographer has “absolutely earned the right” to be in the biography, the perfect example being Boswell in his Life of Johnson. Boswell’s world was Johnson. He spent twenty years talking, living, arguing with Johnson. Do the work, said Marr, put in the years, and deal with yourself as ruthlessly as Boswell does!

David Marr, Power TripThen Marr admitted that he has broken his own rule – when there’s been a purpose for him to be there in the work. His Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is an example. He told of dining with Rudd who, late in the meal, asked Marr what his essay was about. When Marr told him, Rudd lost his temper, in a very controlled way. He was “astonishingly eloquent”, Marr said, speaking from his “angry heart” and Marr had to be there to be able to describe the experience.

So, there are no rules, but overall he’d like to see an end to biographers in the text. They should be in the shadows, “manipulating everything”, and saving their stories about themselves and their research for writers’ festivals and, when they’re old, for lectures!


We had about 15 to 20 minutes of Q&A but some of the questions, interesting though they were, ranged wider than the focus of Marr’s lecture, so I’ll keep this brief.

  • How do you choose who to write about? Marr chose White because he read something contradictory about White’s parents. White had always said that they did not want him to be a writer, but then Marr read somewhere that White’s parents had bankrolled a publishing project on the condition they published a book of White’s poems. He wrote his Barwick biography because he was enraged by what Barwick was getting away with. He’s an explainer he said, rather than a creator.
  • Do you as a biographer ever withhold information? Yes, said Marr. There are some private matters that have no place in biography. His deal with Patrick White, he hastened to say, was that it was his (i.e. Marr’) book and he would write what he wanted to write. Any information he withheld, then, was withheld because it was not, in his opinion, essential to our understanding of White. Legal issues, too, can sometimes result in information being omitted, as has happened with his various Quarterly Essays on contemporary politicians.

During the book signing at the end of the evening, Marr commented that his was “a craft lecture”, meaning I suppose that it wasn’t a theoretical or philosophical one on the form and its meaning. Well, “craft” it may have been but I enjoy hearing from writers about their craft and, anyhow, amongst the “craft”, as you can probably tell, we got a bit of theory and philosophy too. Another wonderful Seymour lecture, with another thoughtful, inspiring writer.

Finlay Lloyd: Celebrating 10 Years of Publishing

This weekend I attended a delightful event run by the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. It was an afternoon of author readings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of independent small publisher Finlay Lloyd, which is based in Braidwood, about an hour’s drive from here. It is run by two men, author Julian Davies and artist Phil Day.

Julian Davies em-ceed the event. He described Finlay Lloyd as a non-profit publisher, and said he is often told by other small publishers that they can be that without trying! Ouch! The press is, he said, a quixotic venture, established because many writers were finding it hard to be published by increasingly bottom-line focused publishers. Once, he said, publishers took risks but they now tend to be overly market driven. The press was also established in response to threats about the death of the printed book. For Finlay Lloyd, the book as an artefact is important as well as the content. I can attest to that. Their books have a lovely edge, even the little flsmalls.

Then the main part of the afternoon started, with the format being Davies introducing the writer, asking one question, followed by the writer reading an excerpt. It went for about an hour and a half. My post is rather long – despite my only quoting from one writer – but my headings will enable you to skim and skip if you desire.

Alan Gould and The seaglass spiral (bought at the event)

Davies’ question for Gould was about what he expected of the publisher-author relationship. Gould, whose The Lakewoman I’ve reviewed here, was the perfect choice to be first because he epitomises the reasons behind Finlay Lloyd’s establishment. He had expected it to be hard, he said, to find a publisher for his first couple of books but he then thought an author-publisher relationship would develop. That didn’t happen, so almost every novel of his has had a different publisher.

He introduced his novel, The seaglass spiral, by describing himself as a character novelist. He read from the beginning and a small except from Chapter 10. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There was a fellow called Ralf Sebright. He was decent enough, glad for the most part to be alive, and despite being able to swim, he had just sunk beneath the Pacific Ocean for the second time. Odd to think this about this plight really, that a lineage going back to the first caves of kinship might imminently be pinched off. For Ralf had arrived at a moment when he realised his existence might be in trouble.

In short, he was drowning.

And here are the last few sentences of his first excerpt:

Ralf observed the dominant emotion of drowning was not fear. It was guilt. He also noted that, even when a person says impossible he does not stop imagining deliverance.

Gould told us to remember that word “impossible”. It’s important in the book he said. I’m intrigued. Since I had frequently fondled this gorgeous-looking book when it first came out but had resisted the temptation given my bulging TBR pile, this time I gave in to temptation. See what an author reading can do!

Phillip Stamatellis and Growing up cafe (my review)

To first-time author Stamatellis, Davies posed a question about what the editing process had meant to him. Stamatellis responded that, given the book grew out of scattered pieces of writing he’d been doing, structure was the important thing he’d learnt. Haha, I thought! Here is a sentence from my review: “Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly”! Structure is indeed important to this book.

StamatellisGrowingFinlayLloydHe also commented on Davies’ obsession with commas, to which Davies interjected with the fact that John Clanchy says he doesn’t use commas enough! This reminded me of my 12 year-old-daughter, as she was then, arguing over a comma with her school principal, who was editing a little book for the school. The principal won but, some months later, she said to me, “you know, Hannah was right about that comma”!

Anyhow, Stamatellis read the first “story” in his book in which he describes a typical cafe scene – the cafe, being, as Davies said, the book’s main character.

Camel Bird and Fair game (my review)

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Introducing Bird, Davies proposed that the current discourse in our society is polarising, but Bird’s book, Fair game, he said, digresses and weaves, telling the story of Tasmania through her personal reflections. Bird agreed with this assessment, saying that “the digressive form is native to me.” And I love this form as I wrote in my review: “I love reading this sort of writing – it’s a challenge, a puzzle. Can I follow the author’s mind?” Oh, and Bird also said it was a wonderful experience to be edited by Julian.

Bird gave a wonderfully expressive reading. She loves being a little cheeky, as I also wrote in my review, and is clearly able to do that in person and well as in print!

Wayne Strudwick and The dark days of Matty Lang (bought at the event)

You meet authors in strange places, it seems. Davies met Strudwick through the latter peering into his eyes. Strudwick, you see, is an optometrist but, Davies soon learnt, also writes – and this led to the publication of Strudwick’s story, The dark days of Matty Lang, in the first series of flsmalls.

Given this story is set in a country town, Davies asked Strudwick about his interest in such towns. He responded that in these towns, everyone knows everyone else, which can be comforting but also claustrophobic. Traumas, he said, go through the whole community. His story is about a trauma, and the reading intrigued me, so I bought it too!

Bidda Jones and Backlash (my review)

Bidda Jones is Davies’ partner so the question was obvious: how did she find working on a book together. Jones explained that she’s a scientist not a writer. She did the book, she said, “through gritted teeth” and was very glad when it was over! But, she’s also glad, I believe, the story is documented.

Jones read an excerpt from the book describing how she and Lyn White took their research and footage to the ABC, but she also told us that already the book has been attacked in parliament. So, I went looking and found the speech by National Party Senator Barry O’Sullivan. My oh my! He name-calls, and he makes false statements about what the book does or doesn’t cover. But the clincher is that he concludes his speech not on proving that the government has made advancements in live export animal welfare but by attacking Jones and the RSPCA – attack after all being the best form of defence – for not focusing their effort on domestic pets and animals (as if they don’t do that too!), which he argued are the RSPCA’s “core and fundamental issues”. In fact, the RSPCA’s mission is broad: to “To prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection”. It’s hard to take such a speech seriously.

Paul McDermott and Fragments of the hole (my review)

McDermottFragmentsFinlayMcDermott’s book is heavily illustrated with his drawings, so Davies’ question to him related to the process of working with Finlay Lloyd’s Phil Day. McDermott, who attended the Canberra School of Art, told us that he is always writing little stories and making drawings and sketches. He described how creatively Day had used his drawings, making selections from what was apparently a big bundle, sometimes upending them, sometimes using only part of them.

McDermott, also an expressive reader of course, read the second part of his story “The boy and the goat” but I certainly won’t share that because it included the wonderful last line of the story. I loved this little book, but was a little disconcerted when, on having a copy of his book signed for a friend, he told me that he’d only seen one review of the book and the reviewer said it wasn’t for children, but it is he said! Hmmm, I thought, I reviewed his book. Was that I? I didn’t ‘fess up, because I couldn’t remember, but checked when I got home and it was. In my defence, though, I did qualify it by saying it wasn’t for “(most) children”. Oh dear.

Meredith McKinney and Mori Ogai’s The wild goose (on my TBR)

Fiction, non-fiction, essays, and even commissioned translations, Finlay Lloyd does it all. Davies talked about how, as he and McKinney were working on this Japanese classic, they compared three translations of this Japanese classic from 1959, the 1990s, and Meredith’s 2010s. He enjoyed their discussions about Japanese language and the decisions that have to be made in translating it.

But, his question for McKinney was why she chose this particular novel (novella, really). It’s because, she said, she’s interested in pre-western-influenced Japanese literature. Davies commented that he liked the sympathy Ogai shows to his minor characters, and McKinney agreed saying that he exhibits tenderness for everybody. I’ve had this book on my TBR for a couple of years, and it’s time I read another Japanese novel, so I really need to find time to read it.

Julian Davies and Crow mellow (my review)

Julian Davies, Crow mellow Book cover

The event ended with Davies’ own book, Crow mellow, which was illustrated by Phil Day. He said he gave Phil Day complete free rein and he enjoyed seeing Day’s illustrations come through as he was writing it. While I love art, my main focus tends to be text, but it was hard not to notice Day’s illustrations wandering as they do all through the text. In my review I commented that they provided “whimsical and sometimes very pointed satirical commentary on the text”.

Davies read a scene in which two young women talk about sex. I remember the scene well. Its illustrations are a hoot, and it ties neatly, satirically, to the novel’s epigraph (from American author, James Salter) that “the new hunger was for sex”.

And on that, the event closed … I, and a few I spoke to, thought the format worked very well. I was only sorry that, due to other commitments, I wasn’t able to hang around for long afterwards.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Save Trove

I don’t make a practice of discussing politics in my blog, though regular readers are sure to have picked up my pro-social-justice values (which is why I love writers like, say, Thea Astley). My reason for being politics-lite here is that politics is a divisive game, and my aim here is to be inclusive. However, I do want to write briefly today about a very specific political issue likely to affect Australian, and in fact international, researchers. I’m talking about the significant cuts being made to Australia’s major national cultural institutions like the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive.

Trove Search PageThose of you who read my Monday Musings series will know that one of the resources I use regularly – particularly for the more historical posts – is the National Library of Australia’s Trove service. Trove provides access to a wide variety of collections from libraries, museums, archives and other research institutions around Australia. It combines traditional book catalogue information with digital content, including digitised Australian newspapers dating back to the early 1800s.

Search on a name or topic – like say, Miles Franklin – and if you don’t filter the search in advance, it will return resources in any form for which material is held, including books, photos, newspapers, diaries, music, maps, websites, government gazette announcements. And it’s free – well, the search is, and around a third of the content is freely available. According to Mike Jones and Deb Verhoeven in The Conversation, Trove contained, at the end of February,

information on over 374,419,217* books, articles, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives, datasets and more, expressing the extraordinarily rich history of Australian culture.

Trove can be used by anyone, anywhere – academics, authors, local and family historians, and so on. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article looked at the Twitter hashtag #fundtrove, and quoted some of the tweets, such as this from author Kaz Cooke

Without Trove I couldn’t be writing this novel about the imagined lives of real 19th Century Australian vaudevillians#fundtrove.

Academics similarly tweeted the importance of Trove to their research projects. One, Evan Smith, wrote he couldn’t have done his research project on “public order policing in the ACT” without it, and historian Alicia Cerreto posted that “@TroveAustralia changed the ways that we historians can tell the stories of Australia. It is a critical resource”. At a time when interest in history appears to be booming – just look at all the history-focused TV shows and non-fiction books proliferating at present – reducing this service seems like madness.

In 2011, Trove was awarded the Excellence in eGovernment and the Service Delivery Category awards at the Australian Government’s ICT Awards. It has also been recognised internationally as a leader “in facilitating public access to documentary heritage”.  The Canberra Times recently reported that

Australian Research Council laureate fellow and professor of history at Griffith University, Mark Finnane, said Trove brought Australia “great credit” internationally and no other service compared.

“It’s really a world-leading innovation, in the way it ties collections together,” he said. “[We] can’t afford to be without this tool.”

As a free-discovery-cum-content-aggregation service, Trove, says The Conversation (cited above), simplifies the work of researchers by reducing the time they need to spend tracking down relevant information. It improves their efficiency in other words. It’s all the more ironic, then, that it’s the current Federal government’s decision to apply their so-called “efficiency dividend” to cultural institutions which threatens Trove’s continuation. How silly is that!

PS: For more on the #fundtrove campaign, check out Blogger Tim Sherratt lists what we can do, and is updating his post as more information appears.

* Trove itself claimed on 14 March to have over 474,674,488 resources. On this link, you can also see a list of all the organisations whose resources are included in the service.

Author Talk with Kate Llewellyn, Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstHaving attended Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography lecture at the National Library of Australia last week, I was thrilled to see another event come up this week. It was billed as an author talk with Kate Llewellyn, and with Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus who edited First things first, the collection of Llewellyn’s letters which I reviewed a few months ago. They also discussed Llewellyn’s most recent “journal”, A fig at the gate. In the end, it was Llewellyn who did most of the talking, but that didn’t matter – sorry Barbara and Ruth – because she was the main one we’d all come to see.

I’m not going summarise the whole talk, but just share a few ideas that interested or, in some cases, tickled me. Llewellyn is an engaging speaker.

On letters and letter writing

Naturally some of the discussion focused on letters. Llewellyn explained that the letters included in First things first were held in the ADFA library collection, and that they’d been acquired from the recipients of her letters.  She doesn’t keep copies of letters she writes, she said, horrified that we might think she did. In fact, she’d rather recipients of her letters would destroy them! However, she sang the praises of the American ADFA librarian who initiated the project of collecting the papers of Australian poets.

Llewellyn confirmed that she did not censor Bacchus and Hill’s choice of letters. She trusted them not to include anything that would do her harm. Some names, though, have been changed to avoid hurting people. Don’t believe everything you read, she said! There is artifice at work, even here. The project had some specific principles, including that the focus would be letters to other writers or artists, and not family.

Austen's desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @

Llewellyn was asked about her current letter writing activity, but she said that she rarely writes letters now because of emails. She only writes now when “something means a lot” and she wants to share it. She sees letters as capturing the important things in life.

She likes to write by hand, so her books are written that way. She believes that the hand-to-brain sensibility is different to the hand-to-machine one, and that she doesn’t have “ardour”, an important quality for her, when using a machine.

The letters in her books, like A fig at the gate, are made up, she said. For example, the letters to her daughter are a device to enable her to talk about her relationship with her daughter, and about Australia.

I found all this fascinating because I have read and discussed Jane Austen’s letters with my local Jane Austen group, looking at how or whether they could contribute to our understanding of her times and her novels. And then, this month, we discussed how Austen used letters in her novels – to develop character (the writer’s and/or the recipient’s), to progress the plot, and to provide information and solve mysteries.

The writer-reader relationship

Llewellyn talked about the complex relationship between reader and writer, particularly highly autobiographical writers like her. A fig at the gate is true, she said, because she is writing to a reader with whom she shares a trust. It is her pact with the reader that what she writes is true.  However, a problem arises when readers think they know her. They mix up life with art. There’s no winning in this she said. After all, she has done it: she has created the relationship, she has made that sacred writer’s pact to not lie, to not betray the reader. However, some readers misunderstand the protocol, they forget that the meeting is one of writer-reader, not of friends. That’s when, she says, she uses her umbrella to create a physical barrier!

Llewellyn shared a few amusing stories. One concerned being asked why she had titled her last book A fig at the gate. Because, she said, there’s a fig at my gate. But why call the book that, the reader apparently persisted. At this point Llewellyn said she had to admit that some things just aren’t deep! (She admitted, though, that she often does think metaphorically.) She also talked about the origin of the book. Now in her 70s, she wanted to write about ageing but believed that would not sell, so she decided to write a book whose “flesh would be the garden, but the bones would be ageing”.

Weather, the great story of life

I can’t remember how this topic came up, but it tickled me immensely because I have been sharing a weekly snail-mail correspondence with a wonderful American friend for over 20 years. Writing about the weather has become a bit of a running joke between us. We try to hold off for at least a couple of paragraphs and then admit we can’t hold out any longer! The weather will out.

Anyhow, Llewellyn’s story relates to meeting an English-born lecturer, who was her lover at the time, for lunch, and he started to talk about the weather. She thought that was boring and that maybe he wasn’t for her, but he told her that the English love the weather. He taught her, she said, that the weather is a good subject. (Of course, anyone who has read a good symbolic Shakespearean storm, for example, knows that.)

There was another lovely connection here for me because I had just finished, the day before, Karen Lamb’s biography Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (my review) whose title comes from Astley’s idea of weather as representing the highs and lows, the fluctuations in life.

To recap: Lessons learned

  • Don’t believe everything you read.
  • Don’t confuse life with art. Art – even autobiographical art – is artifice.
  • Respect the writer-reader protocol.
  • And, most importantly, the weather is a perfectly fine topic to write (or talk) about!

Llewellyn concluded by reading aloud her clever, funny, wicked poem, “The breast”. Do read it online if you don’t know it.

Who me?: Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture

One of the best parts of living in Canberra – and there are many best parts, despite what the politicians and media seem to say! – is that we have the National Library of Australia. It presents many literary events each year, to which I only ever manage to make a few. Some of them I’ve written about here, some not – but I am going to share the latest, Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture.

Robert Drewe, Shark netThe Seymour Biography Lecture, endowed by the Seymours in 2005, is an annual lecture devoted to life writing. The inaugural lecture was given by one of Australia’s most respected biographers, Brenda Niall. Later speakers have included Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska. Initially hosted by the Humanities Research Centre‘s Biography Institute, it was transferred to the National Library in 2010. When I saw that Robert Drewe was to give this year’s lecture, I had to go. While I haven’t reviewed Drewe here yet, I have mentioned him a few times, and have read some of his work in the past. He has written novels, short stories, essays and memoir. The shark net, his first memoir, was adapted to a well-regarded miniseries in 2003, and his second, Montebello, was published in 2012. (I mentioned these in my recent Monday Musings on literary autobiographies.)

The lecture will I’m sure, like those before it, be made available via the Seymour Biography page (link above), but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me.

Memoir, or autobiography?

Drewe talked about how memoir is viewed, the fact that some see it as self-absorption or as narcissistic, about revenge or self-justification. He quoted American critic William Gass (author of Autobiography in the age of narcissism) who attacked memoir for being about self-absorption. Gass ridiculed the genre: “Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy!” Hmm, I have friends who don’t like memoir for this very reason.

Drewe gave a brief history of memoir – particularly memoir as confession, or redemption – through the writings of St. Augustine who made memoir, he said, an interior exercise, and Rousseau who moved the confession or memoir into the literary arena. He told us that Patrick White described his Flaws in the glass as not a memoir but a “self-portrait in sketches”! Flaws, Drewe said, is regularly criticised. English critic, Richard Davenport-Hines, for example, wrote that White’s “spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s”.

Memoirs, Drewe said – looking at works like St Augustine’s – predated autobiographies. He defined the two forms as follows: memoirs are written from a life, while autobiographies are of a life. The change in preposition here is significant. As Gore Vidal would describe it, memoirs are about memory, while autobiography and biography are about history. In a memoir, a writer can take a memory and describe or expand it to tell a story about his/her life or experiences. Facts can be played with in order to find the emotional truths. Autobiography on the other hand – despite George Bernard Shaw’s “All autobiographies are lies… deliberate lies” – are expected to be factual.

Drewe told us that Sigmund Freud, when asked to write about his life, refused, arguing that it would be a reckless project. To tell his complete life would require so much discretion, it would be an exercise in mendacity. No wonder that, as Drewe told us, 99% of memoirists wait until their parents have died. Oh dear! I do hope my writing-oriented children are among this 99%! We did our best!

All this might sound dry and boring, but Drewe’s presentation was entertaining. He told us that when he thinks of autobiography he thinks of Father’s Day – and sports (particularly cricket) and political autobiographies. He regaled us with the punning titles of cricket autobiographies, such as At the close of playOver to meTime to declare (two in fact); Over but not out; and No boundaries. 

Before we had a chance to call him sexist, Drewe said that Mother’s Day made him think of WOTOs, that is, Women Overcoming the Odds, like, you know, widowed women running a cattle station in the outback, or a woman sailing solo around the world or saving an endangered animal!

Drewe returned several times in his talk to the issue of “facts” versus “truths”. He quoted Louise Adler who commissions political autobiographies for Melbourne University Press, including Mark Latham’s The Latham Diaries, Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and Malcolm Fraser’s The Political Memoirs. Politicians have a good memory for insults and slights. Being memoirs, they are not necessarily verifiably factual. However, Adler, Drewe said, argues that their unreliability makes them riveting reading. They may be myopic, partisan, but they deliver riches. Drewe didn’t say this, but I’ll add that this requires a certain level of sophistication in the readers, that is, we readers need to understand the memoir genre and read with that understanding. I have no problem with that!

There is, however, what he called “the veracity squad”. These include the righteous readers or burgeoning historians – his descriptions – who are pedantic about facts. They don’t believe, for example, that you can remember dialogue from a family Christmas dinner twenty years ago and so they discount works that include such content. They wouldn’t approve, also, of crafting a particular person into a standout character.

Around here, Drewe referred to his first memoir, The shark net. He said he decided not to focus on the ego, but on the serial murderer with whom his family had contact, Eric Edgar Cooke. It’s basically factual he said, but he did imagine a couple of scenes – that is, he “fictionalized fact” – because he wanted to show Cooke as a human being.

I recently posted a review of Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen. She tells us, in the Epilogue, that she’d initially written the story as a novel but her editor, I believe, suggested it would be better as a memoir. Drewe said in his lecture that “some stories are best kept true, some best as fiction”. The challenge is to decide which form is best. Some writers don’t make the right decision and find themselves in a literary furore, such as Norma Khouri with her fake memoir, Forbidden love. A more complex situation is Helen Demidenko with her fiction, The hand that signed the paper, which she falsely claimed was autobiographical. What both these writers failed to realise is that the first rule of memoir is that you shouldn’t lie!

Memoirs named by Drewe

During his lecture, Drewe identified a number of memoirs, some of which I’ll share as we all like lists:

Top selling Australian memoirs

  • Clive James, Unreliable memoirs
  • Albert Facey, A fortunate life
  • Errol Flynn, My wicked, wicked ways

Other memoirs

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, memory (in my TBR)
  • Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (read before blogging)
  • Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (read before blogging)
  • Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl (read before blogging)
  • Sally Morgan’s My place (read before blogging)

So …

Towards the end of the lecture, Drewe referred to an article titled “Reflection and retrospection” by American critic Phillip Lopate. It commences:

In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.

Makes sense to me …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Gap-filling and Wish-lists

Are you a book collector? If so, it probably means you have a wish list of books you want, like Pam at Travellin’ Penguin who lives in Tasmania and collects vintage Penguins or Lisa at ANZLitLovers who collects first edition Miles Franklin Award Winners. Pam lists what she has and what she’s looking for on her blog – categorised under the various Penguin categories, such as Main Series Penguins, that she collects. It’s a hobby and Pam and Lisa clearly enjoy the hunt.

But for some collectors it’s more than a hobby, it’s their mandate. I’m talking of course about cultural collecting institutions – and a critical one here in Australia from a literary point of view is the National Library of Australia. Like most collectors, they have a wish-list which they very sensibly post on their website. Of course, I’ve looked to see if I have anything they want but, I’m not a rare books collector, so it doesn’t look like it. I found it interesting, however, and thought you might too. Here are their categories:

Australiana to 1900

Included here are two books by Rosa Praed, whose The bond of wedlock I read before blogging. One is The brother of the shadow: a mystery of today, and was published in 1886. The other is The Right Honourable: a romance of society and politics, also published in 1886. It’s described as being by Justin McCarthy and Mrs Campbell-Praed (aka Rosa Praed).

Two other books caught my eye. The first one is Limitation of offspring: being the substance of a lecture delivered in the North Melbourne Town Hall, and elsewhere, to large audiences of women only (1893) by someone called Mrs B Smyth. I wonder who she is and what she was telling the women in her audiences. The other is The Parent’s assistant, or, Stories for children (1796) by Maria Edgeworth. Now, Edgeworth is English and never came to Australia, and the book was published in London just 8 years after the British settled in Australia. Why, I wonder, is this particular book on the wish-list under Australiana, which is about books published (or printed) in and/or about Australia? There must be an Australian connection, but it’s not clear from the list.

Australiana 1901-1950

National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, viewed from Commonwealth Park on the opposite side of Lake Burley Griffin

There are three more Rosa Praeds in this list: The ghost, by Rosa Praed, published in 1903;  The Insane root: a romance of a strange country, by Mrs. Campbell Praed (without the hyphen!), published in 1902; and Stubble before the wind, published in 1908, but with no author identified until you click the link and find, yes, the hyphen-less Mrs Campbell Praed again.

Other books caught my attention, too, but I’ll name just one: Australskem bushi. Upravil a prelozil, by Stepan von Kotze, published in Prague in 1921. The State Library of NSW has a copy. Trove’s listing describes it as “a Czech children’s book about the Australian Outback with particular emphasis on Queensland”, making it a good example of collecting books published “about” Australia. I’d love to know what a Czech writer said about the Australian outback in the 1920s.

Australiana 1951-2005

I suspect that the Library has more gaps than the ten listed here, but what is listed makes interesting reading. No Rosa Praed this time as she died in 1935!

As before, the list is varied giving a sense of the breadth of the Library’s collection. For example, it includes Belly flop by contemporary writer Morris Gleitzman. This surprised me, as I’d have expected that the Library would have all of Gleitzman’s books – until I read on. What they are looking for is specifically the children’s large print edition published in England in 2005.

Other works on the list include those by government bodies or small organisations rather than mainstream publishers, such as The application of a drought index system to Australian bushfire control, by A.G. McArthur, published by the Forestry and Timber Bureau in 1966; Back to the best interests of the child: towards a rebuttable presumption of joing [sic] custody, a paper, published by the Child Support Action Group in Adelaide in 1995; and John Perceval: Williamstown and other images, published by Adelaide’s The Galleries in 1989.

Australian printed music

The Library has a large collection of printed music but, as with books, there are gaps. They say “If you can find any of the items listed below, you could help us by donating them to the Library or simply letting us know of their whereabouts”. The list includes works dating back to the 1820s. One that caught my eye, though, is a little closer to home: Canberra fanfare, by Malcolm Williamson and believed to have been published in London around 1973.


The Library doesn’t list titles here but refers to their “search and rescue campaign” that was launched in 2008 by Australian Newspaper Plan (ANPlan) libraries. They make the point that newspapers aren’t wanted only for the news but for “stories of their times, through ads, photographs, and even their design”. As an occasional user of the Library’s digitised newspaper project for Monday Musings, I know exactly what they mean!

Magazines and journals

Magazines, like newspapers and books, are provided to the library under legal deposit regulations, but, they say, gaps still occur. They list a number of these serial publications, identifying their missing issues.


I love that the Library collects this aspect of our lives. There’s no list here, not surprisingly, but a description of the sorts of menus they want, which ranges widely – including from restaurants, airlines, ships and special occasions. I have the menu from my graduation. I love to look at it – to see the sort of food we thought was special way back then, and how much we paid for it, as well as to remember a special occasion. One day I plan to offer it to the Library!

I wonder how frequently items on the list are found? Have you seen lists like this on the sites of other cultural collecting institutions?


Winter Solstice: New Lights and Dark Chords

While Hobartians are enjoying a full-on festival – Dark Mofo – to celebrate the Winter Solstice, we here in the national capital have had our little celebration. Or, at least, Mr Gums and I attended one. There might be others going on that I know nothing about.

Winter Solstice: New Lights and Dark Chords was, hmmm, what exactly was it? Well, it was a program inspired by the solstice that combined story, poetry, astronomy and music to explore our responses to light and darkness. It was held at the National Library of Australia. Their promotion described it as follows:

White like black, like light and like darkness, connect literature, music, art, spirituality and science. Cultures around the world have been observing the winter solstice for thousands of years. Join us to celebrate the universal wonders of light and dark and their resonances through contemporary art, music and poetry …

That’s pretty much what it was … and this is how it went.

We arrived and entered the atmospherically darkened theatre before start time to find flautist Kiri Sollis and harpist Laura Tanata of the Griffyn Ensemble playing the opening movements of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s moody, atmospheric Good Night (which I have heard them perform before). It was a moving opening, spoiled only by two women talking rather loudly, completely oblivious it seemed to the quiet, expressive performance going on in front of them.

The program then officially opened with a video “welcome to country” from Paul House. It was a longer “welcome” than we usually hear but I appreciated the exhortation for us to follow the law of the country which includes to “honour all people and parts of country, respect everything living and growing”. Should be simple, eh?

This was followed by our MC for the evening, actor Rhys Muldoon, reading a brief poem titled “Sunset” written by John Kinsella for the Luminous World exhibition currently running at the Library. Muldoon then introduced us to the aforementioned Paul House who told us the local indigenous story of the Seven Ice Maidens who, he said, are also known as Pleiades. It’s a creation story about ice and snow that integrated perfectly with the program and marked, I think, an important step on our reconciliation journey, at least in terms of my experience of such events.

House was followed by Helen Carroll, the curator of the “Luminous World – Contemporary art from the Wesfarmers Collection” exhibition currently at the National Library. Wesfarmers is a Western Australian corporation that has been collecting Australian (and now New Zealand) art for over three decades. Luminous World is a travelling exhibition of photos, painting and sculpture that has been formed around one idea – light. Carroll then showed several of her favourite pieces from the collection – such as David Stephenson’s intriguing “Star Drawing” photos, Gretchen Albrecht’s abstract expressionist “Sherbert Sky”, Howard Taylor’s austere “Bushfire Sun”, and Rosalie Gascoigne’s dramatic “Hung Fire”. Another was indigenous artist Timothy Cook’s yam dreaming painting “Kulama”. What did that have to do with the theme I wondered? But Carroll explained that it depicts the orange light around the moon which indicates that the yams are ready to eat. Carroll ended with two beautiful photographs by Bill Henson, the last being of Sardinia which perfectly conveyed, she said, “the poetry of light”. You can check out the exhibition online. Fremantle Press has produced a book of the exhibition, which includes the art works, essays and John Kinsella’s poetry.


Analemma pattern in the sky (Courtesy: jailbird, using CC-BY-SA-2.0-de, via Wikipedia)

Next up was probably for me the most surprising – as in surprisingly interesting – part of the evening, astronomer and photographer David Malin who presented a talk titled “Casting light on the solstice: the stars as clock, calendar and compass”. I say surprising because I find astronomy beautiful but, like geology, mind-boggling.  Malin explained the science of the “solstice” and introduced me to the concept of the “analemma“, which is most commonly used for the curve that describes the Sun’s apparent motion, observed from a fixed position on the Earth (Wikipedia). He accompanied his talk with the first successful photo of an analemma taken by Dennis Di Cicco in 1978/9. I found it all beautiful and fascinating. Of course, this may not be new to you all, but for me it was a case of “you learn something new every day”!

Malin’s talk was followed by the Griffyn Ensemble performing the last movement of “Good Night”, with soprano Susan Ellis and the rest of the ensemble on percussion joining Kiri and Laura. You can hear another version of this piece, with piano instead of harp, online.

Muldoon returned with another poem by Kinsella, titled “The Universe”. I loved the line “When we are made, unmade, remade” for reminding us that we and the universe are never static. He then concluded the program with a well-known but apposite quote by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross:

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.

It was the perfect end to an enjoyably varied and nicely structured program – except that wasn’t quite the end, because we all filed out of the theatre and up to the National Library’s foyer, with its famous stained-glass windows, to partake of canapés and a choice of drinks, including ice wine*, mulled wine, hot apple cider. We went home warmed and enlightened!

* Coincidentally, I only discovered ice wine last month when we visited Canada’s best-known producer of ice wine, Pillitteri Estates Winery.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

This weekend just gone I had the privilege – well, I paid to go, but still it was a privilege – to attend a conference at the National Library of Australia titled Writing the Australian landscape. You can see why I had to go … wild brumbies couldn’t keep me away.

But if, perchance, the topic hadn’t attracted me, the line-up of speakers sure would have. They included:

There wasn’t a boring one among them. (The full list of speakers, and chairs, is available online) Kudos to the National Library* for putting together an excellent program and to the speakers who had all taken the topic seriously and offered much for the audience to think about. I think I can speak for all who attended when I say that we laughed, cried and winced (though perhaps not always at the same things.)

All that’s by way of introduction. Now I’d better do the hard yakka and share some thoughts and ideas, but that’s not going to be easy.

I’ll start with a little manifesto, if I can call it that. The way I see it, to be a white (non-indigenous) Australian today is to feel a little uncomfortable. Many of us love being Australian, love the land or country we call home, and yet are aware of the cost to others of our being here, of the dispossession we brought to others. But, we can’t be ashamed of being western**. That’s our heritage, that’s what informed our thought processes. However, we can be ashamed of assuming that others think the way we do and, worse, of assuming that others want to think the way we do (or be the way we are). My – our – challenge is to be open to other ways of thinking, to respect them and to learn what we can from them. While almost all the conference speakers were non-indigenous, there was a lot of goodwill amongst the speakers and the audience in the room, a lot of willingness to open our eyes. Please read my notes on the conference with this in mind.

Why write (about) the landscape?

And so, I really do have to start now. The conference got off to a rather provocative start with Miles Franklin award-winning author Murray Bail giving the Kenneth Binns lecture. Speaking from his western-writer standpoint, Bail was concerned that we were even having the conversation. Other western literatures, he argued, are not preoccupied as we are with landscape and, related to that in his mind, with national distinctiveness. Did Tolstoy, he asked, worry about his “Russianness”? No, he said, we read Tolstoy for the moral questions he explores, to learn how to live, be happy, be wise. For Bail, landscape is a New World concern, which that quintessential New World country the USA has now shaken.

Bail suggested that only when we are at ease with ourselves will our need to discuss place (or landscape) fall away. I found this a fascinating idea and will be thinking about it for a long time:

  • Is our fascination with landscape a bad thing?
  • Is our landscape so different, so forbidding, that it will always play on us? (But then, aren’t other landscapes, such as the Siberian desert forbidding?).
  • Does our particular history of occupation and dispossession mean that place and landscape will for a long time yet be a fraught issue?
  • Will the fact that for indigenous Australians morality is tied to the land, to country, mean that considering landscape will always be part of our literature?

What does (the) landscape mean?

Historian Bill Gammage gave the keynote address on the second day. His focus was very much on indigenous relationship to land, to country, which is the subject of his most recent multiple award-winning book The biggest estate on earth. His argument was that “country” is not about nature (about landscape) but about culture, and that non-indigenous Australians could learn a lot about our country by learning from indigenous Australians what they know and are able, within their laws, to tell us. I loved his glass-half-full statement that the point is not how much knowledge indigenous Australians have lost but how much they still know. Gammage, like Bail, recognised we are challenged by our landscape, but his conclusion was not that we should aim to stop writing about it but How long must we continue to write our landscape as outsiders?

I will share more from the weekend – including Jeanine Leane’s powerful paper – but for now these two keynote papers nicely encapsulate the weekend in which we explored the progression from Landscape to Place to Country to Culture.

* I understand audio and printed versions of the talks will be available on the NLA’s website. I’ll provide a link when they become available.

** * Yes, I know, not all non-indigenous Australians are western but I’m using this partly by way of comparison, and partly because it’s my heritage. And yes, we can be ashamed of things westerners have done but not, I think, of being who we are.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Helen Garner on writing about self

I have mentioned Helen Garner several times in this blog, and the word I tend to use about her is “honest”. Her fiction is very much about “self”. And in her non-fiction that I’ve read – Joe Cinque’s consolation and The first stone – her “self” is an integral part. She is not what you’d call an objective writer. In fact, in a talk she gave in 2001 at the National Library of Australia’s conference titled “The Secret Self: Exploring Biography and Autobiography” someone who writes “helplessly about the intimate”.

This started with her first novel, Monkey Grip, which, though published to general overall acclaim, did attract some demurrers who argued that all she’d done was publish her diaries. That was in 1977. In her address at the National Library conference she spoke of how she’d been initially defensive about these criticisms but that in the succeeding years she’d thought about it and would now “come clean” because that’s exactly what she’d done. She’d cut out the boring bits, written bridging passages and changed names. And, she said, there’s craft in all that. “Why the sneer?” she asked,

…as if it were lazy. As if no work were involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative; no ear for the music of human speech; no portrayal of the physical world; no free movement back and forth in time; no leaping between inner and outer; no examination of motive; no imaginative use of language.

Sounds like a novelist’s manifesto to me! Anyhow, she goes on to say that she wrote it because she’s not such a narcissist as to believe that her story was so “hermetically enclosed in a bubble of self” that it could offer no value to anyone else. She’s talking, of course, about some level of universality.

Further, she says, when writing (whether from a diary or not), she has to find a persona … and it is different for every work. These personas may draw from her life but they are not identical with her. She cannot write until she finds this persona. (An aside. I love hearing from authors about what they need to get started. Australian young adult writer John Marsden says he must find “the voice”. Australian children’s writer, Paul Jennings, said he started with a “what if?”. Alan Gould about whom I posted recently starts with a sentence – which may or may not be the first in the book – and Helen Garner needs her persona.)

Garner’s persona, she admits, usually draws from herself, from “the intimate”. This inevitably results in some level of self-exposure, which, given our interdependent lives, can’t help but involve others. And so she has struck a deal with herself:

… if I’m rough on myself, it frees me to be rough on others as well. I stress the unappealing, mean, aggressive, unglamorous aspects of myself as a way of lessening my anxiety about portraying other people as they strike me.

She certainly keeps to her deal … and it often gets her into trouble, in both her fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel The spare room is a raw exploration of a friendship between two women, one of whom is dying of cancer but refuses to accept it. The main character, the one not dying and who is challenged by her friend’s attitudes and demands, is called Helen! Life and art are very close in this book it seems, but she knows what she is doing. Her ethical challenge is about the “other” people in her life who get pulled into her exploration of “the intimate”. She says:

Writing, it seems, like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without damage.

Some time ago I reviewed a short story titled “The young painters” by Nicole Krauss. In it she explores the impact of writing from other people’s stories, and presents her case:

In the publicity interviews I gave, I emphasized that the book was fiction and professed my frustration with journalists and readers alike who insist on reading novels as the autobiographies of their authors, as if there were not such thing as the writer’s imagination …

Helen Garner has no real answer to the problems she poses (any more than Krauss’s fictional character does in the short story), except to say that

… if I can write well enough, rigorously and imaginatively enough, readers will be carried through the superficial levels of perviness and urged into the depths of themselves. I hope we can meet and know each other there further down, where each of us connects with every other person who has ever been loved, hurt and been wounded …

In other words, she’s looking for readers who can tell the difference between fiction and reality. This may not, I suspect, reassure all those close to her who may not want their lives to be caught up in such a risky writer-reader venture but, theoretically, I like what she says and the honesty with which she says it. I’d love to have been in the audience that day to hear the Q and As.

Monday musings on Australian literature: My literary home, more or less

Once again Mr Gums and I have left daughter and dog at home in order to hit the road – well, in this case, the skies as by the time this is published we will be in Hong Kong. My posting and commenting will consequently somewhat sporadic for the next week…and so I decided to make this Monday musings a simple one.

National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, viewed from Commonwealth Park on the opposite side of Lake Burley Griffin

Now, my real literary home is, as for most of us I expect, my childhood. That is where my love of reading started. I cannot remember a time without books. My parents read, and encouraged reading. Books were my favourite presents. For me, this all translated into choosing librarianship for my career, and this brings me to this post. I count myself lucky that my first professional job as a librarian was at the National Library of Australia. Eventually, the section I worked with separated and became a new institution. Since its work was where my heart lay, I went with it.

However, I have stayed close to the Library: I’m a “Friend” and, since taking early retirement a few years ago, I visit there regularly to read and research, attend seminars, visit the bookshop and exhibitions, and meet friends for lunch. I have heard many Australian writers speak there – including David Malouf, John Marsden, JM Coetzee, Geraldine Brooks, Janette Turner Hospital – and have seen some doing research there – including Kate Grenville.

Being our National Library, it is of course home to many of Australia’s most famous literary manuscripts – too numerous to mention here, but a fairly recent coup was the believed-to-have-been-destroyed papers of Patrick White. It is also where, due to legal deposit, you should be able to see any book published in Australia. A great resource!

The National Library has been one of the world’s forerunners in using and managing the digital domain. Here are some of its major projects:

  • Pandora, the Australian web archive, was among the first attempts in the world to archive online information. It was established in 1996.
  • Picture Australia is a federated search project providing access to image collections from institutions all over Australia. It was established in 1998.
  • Newspaper Digitisation Project, to which I referred in last week’s Monday musings, is a project to digitise, using OCR technology, Australia’s early newspapers up to 1954. Since OCR technology – particularly when used on old newsprint with old printing technologies – results in a lot of “errors”, the National Library invites users to edit the articles. Anytime I use it, I do my correcting bit on the articles I find. The top user-corrector, recorded on the project’s home page, has now made nearly 560,000 corrections. 560,000!! Now, that’s a lot of participatory value the Library has harnessed.
  • Trove is the Library’s latest big project and enables users to search “the deep web” for material relating to Australia and Australians. It uses modern search technologies to point to related material, to enable users to manage the information they find and contribute their own content, and to encourage users to actively engage with the library and each other through forums.

And there’s much more besides … but I’ll leave it here and let you explore my literary home through the links above while I explore Hong Kong …