Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

Book cover for Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally

Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally is the second I’ve read in Black Inc’s Writers on writers series, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) being the first. As I wrote in that post, the series involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. Hmm … the way Keneally inspired and influenced Grant is not perhaps what the series editors envisaged, but certainly his essay meets some of the other goals: it is “provocative” and it absolutely starts “a fresh conversation between past and present.”

Most Australians will know immediately why Grant chose Keneally, but for everyone else, it’s this. In 1972, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was published. It is historical fiction based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Indigenous man who was executed in 1901 for murdering a white family. Keneally is on record as saying he was wrong to have written the book from an Indigenous person’s perspective, but he did, and the book is out there (along with its film adaptation by Fred Schepisi).

That’s Keneally, but what about Stan Grant? Of Wiradjuri and Irish heritage, he is no stranger to this blog. He’s an erudite, thoughtful man, always worth listening to, but, here’s the thing. I find it difficult, with this book, to be a white Australian discussing a First Nations Australian writing about a white Australian who wrote a novel about a First Nations Australian. The politics are just so complicated. I’ll do my best, but will just focus on a few ideas. At 86 pages it is a short piece so, if you are interested, I recommend you read it yourself.

If you have ever listened to Grant, you will know that his thinking is deeply informed by history and philosophy, and so it is here. He is also palpably angry, and pulls no punches. He writes, just over half way through the essay that

This entire essay is about writing back to the white gaze. I need to write back to the white author who would steal my soul. I must prove I exist before I can exist.

Grant starts his essay by reminding us of Australia’s history and how “in a generation or two, my people were nearly extinguished.” He introduces us to Jimmy Governor, who was executed just three weeks after Federation. Jimmy becomes the lynchpin for his argument, because he, “that grotesque murderer”, is also, says Grant, “the memory of a wound. He is a scar on our history that runs like a fault line between black and white.” He is “a spectre that will not let us bury our history.”

The problem is, argues Grant, that the real Jimmy is nothing like Keneally’s Jimmie:

Keneally’s caricature of a self-loathing Jim­mie Blacksmith is a lost opportunity to explore the complex ways that Aboriginal people … were pushing against a white world that would not accept them for who they were; that would not see them as equal; that, in truth, would not see them as human.

But, of course Keneally’s novel is historical fiction, and, historical fiction, as most of us realise, says as much about the time it was written as about the time in which it is set. In Keneally’s case, The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written in 1972, a particular time in Australian history, Grant recognises, “a time of anti-Vietnam protests, the election of the Whitlam government and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy”. Grant continues:

Keneally was writing a protest story for a protest era; he needed Jimmie Blacksmith to be the freedom fighter that Jimmy Governor never was. Jimmy was a man who wanted respect. He bridled against injustice, yes, but this was a crime of anger, not an act of war.

Grant though wants something more. He wants exploration and understanding of how history, how Australia, has negated First Nations Australians’ very beings. He refers to Jacques Derrida’s coinage of

‘hauntology’, to describe how the traces of our past – our ghosts – throw shadows on our world.

Grant believes that “the West thinks it can vanquish history; that the past can be entombed”. I don’t personally ascribe to that. It’s not rational, to me. But I can see how the course of Western “progress” does in fact manifest that way of seeing, and it leaves people – like First Nations Australians – in its wake. This, really, is the theme of Grant’s essay.

However, at times Grant lost me. He says Christos Tsiolkas is “copping out” when he says that it is not for white Australians to write “a foundation story for the first peoples of this country”. Grant suggests Tsiolkas can, and that he could “look to the First Peoples to enter our tradition; to understand that story and his place in it before he writes a single word about what it is to be an ‘Australian'”.

I’m uncertain about how a white Australian can do this right now, but that is probably my lack of imagination. Regardless, I feel that Grant is refusing to recognise the respect behind Tsiolkas’ statement. It’s a respect many of us feel when we contemplate writing about First Nations Australians. We don’t want to presume we know what we can never understand. Grant says it himself, late in the book:

No one who has not lived through our interminable loss could capture what it is to be Indigenous in Australia.

In the last part of the essay, Grant discusses other Australian writers. Besides Tsiolkas, these include Patrick White, Joan Lindsay, Randolph Stowe, from the past, and contemporary Indigenous writers like Tara June Winch and Bruce Pascoe. His thoughts are often surprising. He clearly approves Eleanor Dark who “knew that blackness hovers over everything that is written in this country”.

The final part of essay reads like a manifesto. Grant states exactly what he will and won’t do and be. But, he also says he is glad Keneally wrote his book because it has stayed with him for forty years. In it, he felt “the weight of my history”. The results weren’t always positive, but the book has, I think he’s saying, kept him thinking.

And he says this:

Like me, Thomas Keneally made his own pilgrimage to the old Darlinghurst Gaol. Standing near where the real Jimmy Governor was hanged, he said he was sorry for “assuming an aboriginal voice”. He should have sought permission, he said. “We can enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off, as long as we don’t loot and plunder,” he said. I don’t think we can police our imaginations. I don’t think we need to ask permission. Australian writers have never done this and, frankly, I see them in my country more clearly because of it. It is like the debate about Australia Day; why move the date if it will only hide the truth.

I will leave you with that.

(My third post for Lisa’s 2021 ILW Week.)

Stan Grant
On Thomas Keneally: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2021
90pp.
ISBN: 9781760642327

Erik Jensen, On Kate Jennings (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

It took Kate Jennings’ death for me to finally pick up one of Black Inc’s Writers on writers books, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings. The series, says Black Inc, involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. It continues, “Provocative and crisp, these books start a fresh conversation between past and present, shed new light on the craft of writing, and introduce some intriguing and talented authors and their work.” Let’s see how Erik Jensen goes!

But, who is Erik Jensen? Most of the series’ writers are well-known, such as Alice Pung, Stan Grant, Michelle de Kretser and Nam Le, but a couple are less so. Jensen is a Walkley award-winning Australian journalist and author. He’s probably best known for being a founder, and still editor, of The Saturday Paper. However, in 2014, he also wrote a biography, Acute misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen. It won a NIB Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Literary Awards’ Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-fiction. As you’d expect for this series, then, he has some cred.

However, his writing seems to be primarily non-fiction, so why Kate Jennings? Fortunately, he answers that in the opening paragraphs:

I had looked up Kate because I was a fan of her essays – pieces about her life, mostly, ruthless in their precision.

In the next paragraph, he launches without warning into describing the opening of Snake (my review), Jennings’ autobiographical novel. You have to be familiar with Jennings and Snake to get what’s going on here, but it’s unlikely you’d be reading this, I think, if you weren’t. What follows is an introduction to Kate Jennings, realised through interweaving the content and trajectory of this novel with his interviews and communications with Jennings and, occasionally, others.

I was moved by the insights, and impressed by the richness of the portrait Jensen achieves in around 100 small-book pages. He is clearly very fond of Jennings. Indeed, he concludes his essay with

This essay is for Kate Jennings. It is a love letter to her work and to the life that produced it. As a friend and a writer, I am grateful for both. More than anything, I want to thank Kate for the generosity she has shown – in agreeing to this essay, in being so open with the material, and in how with her own work she has shown me what to do.

However, Snake is a tough book. It portrays a dysfunctional family, with a difficult and self-centred mother. Jennings tells Jensen, “I was so very lonely. And at the mercy of my mother.” To his credit, Jensen also talks to Jennings’ brother, Dare, whose perspective on the family is very different. Dare, writes Jensen, “remembers the same mother Kate does, although he remembers her differently. They had a very different relationship. It was warm, close.” Dare supports Kate, but his experience of the family was different. He was the adored son.

This brings me to that whole issue of autobiographical fiction, which is Jennings’ forte (much like her friend, Helen Garner’s.) Jensen writes that “Kate writes close to life. Not completely close, she says. She does make up things. ‘I round the corners,’ she says, ‘and make the really ghastly stuff a little better.’” She writes to work out what she thinks. She also says that “the emotions were autobiographical but not necessarily the story“. This is a significant distinction, and serves as a reminder that fiction needs to be “true” but should not be read as “factual”.

Much of this wasn’t particularly new to me, given I’ve read both Snake and her fragmented biography, Trouble. However, Jensen value adds. For example, he writes that he sees Snake as “the Great Australian novel”. He gives it to people inscribing it as such. One recipient was Ian Donaldson, a former professor of English at Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. Jensen shares Donaldson’s reaction:

‘The great Australian novel?’ he writes the next morning. ‘Yes, I’d agree, it certainly warrants that sort of ranking, though that phrase as conventionally used conjures up a kind of laborious realism which Snake so spectacularly lacks. I loved its spareness, its brevity, its ability – like the creature it mimics – to strike without warning then vanish without trace.’

You can see why I like Snake too – its spareness! I was interested in Johnson’s comment that a GAN “conventionally … conjures up a kind of laborious realism”. Do you agree? Anyhow, Snake, “a poet’s novel” as Jensen calls it, is not that.

After spending some time on the content of the novel, Jensen also discusses its path to publication (including the rejections) and its reception. Australian reviewer Elizabeth Riddell was not particularly impressed, but in North America, Carol Shields (in The New York Times) and the Publisher’s Weekly, were highly positive. Yet, the novel was soon “lost”, or, as Jennings put it, “pretty well ignored”, largely she felt due to the feminists who “couldn’t accept the treatment she gave her mother”. Seven years later, however, it was re-released, with the Age describing it as “probably the most accomplished, realistic novel about bush life to be produced in the past decade”.

Jennings shares much of her life with Jensen, including her challenges with alcohol and depression, and her loving marriage to Bob Cato. The result is a picture of someone who was both “obstinate and fragile”, as Jensen writes in his The Saturday Paper obituary (8 May 2021), who had great successes but also faced tough challenges, and who was, above all, an uncompromising and stylish writer.

In other words, through exploring Snake, from multiple perspectives, supported by critical truths about Jennings’ life, Jensen does meet Black Inc’s stated aims. It’s intelligent and compelling. I have now bought another in the series.

Erik Jensen,
On Kate Jennings: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2017
112pp.
ISBN: 9781925435818

Willa Cather, When I knew Stephen Crane

American author Stephen Crane in 1899

Stephen Crane, 1899 (Photographer unknown; Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia)

I haven’t reviewed a Library of America offering for a while and so have decided it’s time I dipped again into its offerings. Willa Cather‘s essay/journalistic piece “When I knew Stephen Crane”, which they published last month, appealed to me because of a couple of synchronicities. One is that Lisa of ANZLitLovers reviewed Crane’s The red badge of courage a few days ago, reminding me that I have yet to read Crane. The other is a little more obscure. Colleen of Bookphilia wrote a post earlier this week in which she complained about Anthony Trollope‘s admission that he would, in order to meet a deadline, submit work that he believed was not very good. The synchronicity is that in her essay Cather writes that Crane

gave me to understand that he led a double literary life; writing in the first place the matter that pleased himself, and doing it very well; in the second place, any sort of stuff that would sell. And he remarked that his poor was just as bad as it could possibly be …

Not having read Crane, I don’t know whether he really did present poor stuff, but Colleen, I suspect, would not be impressed with this admission!

“When I knew Stephen Crane” was first published in 1900, two weeks after Crane’s death. It documents 21-year-old Cather’s meeting with 23-year-old Crane in 1895 at the offices of the Nebraska State Journal not long after the journal had published The red badge of courage. The introductory notes state that she changed some facts and suggests she did this “to foretell his tragic fate and to reflect [her] own interest in writing and literature”. I can believe this may be the case as the article is peppered with foreshadowings of his early death. Nonetheless, the notes argue that her report “sounds authentic”.

Certainly, she doesn’t try to present him in a heroic light. She describes him as “thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt and unshaven … His grey clothes were much the worse for wear … He wore a flannel shirt and a slovenly apology for a necktie.” He had, in other words, “a disreputable appearance”. She writes that she had read and helped edit, for the journal, The red badge of courage:

… the grammatical construction of the story was so faulty that the managing editor had several times called on me to edit the copy. In this way I had read it very carefully, and through the careless sentence structure I saw the wonder of that remarkable performance.

She writes eloquently of her moment of revelation from Crane, saying that

The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention … It selects its listeners wilfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour.

Hmm … I think there’s a lot of truth in this, at least in my experience as a giver and receiver of such “messages”. Anyhow, Cather, on a night when “the white, western moonlight threw sharp, blue shadows below us”, felt lucky to have had such a moment with Crane, one in which he talks about his craft, “his slow method of composition”. He tells her that while The red badge of courage had been written in 9 days, he had been unconsciously working on it throughout his boyhood. He also tells her that it would be months after he got an idea for a story before he’d feel able to write it:

‘The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever’, he remarked.

Cather also briefly refutes the criticism by some that Crane is “the reporter in fiction”, arguing that his newspaper account of a shipwreck he’d experienced was “lifeless” but his “literary product” (“The open boat”) was “unsurpassed in its vividness and constructive perfection”.

She concludes the article on a somewhat sentimental note which is not surprising given its publication so soon after his death … but even this sentimentality is expressed in the robust language that we know Cather for:

He drank life to the lees, but at the banquet table where other men took their ease and jested over their wine, he stood a dark and silent figure, sombre as Poe himself, not wishing to be understood …

It is for Cather’s own writing and her insights into character, as much as for what I learnt about Crane, that I enjoyed reading this offering from LOA. I will still, however, read Crane one day.

Rudyard Kipling, An interview with Mark Twain

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling, somewhat older than 23! (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

How could I resist reading this offering from the Library of America, featuring as it does two giants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Both are writers I know well in a superficial way: I’ve really read only a little of their works. This essay, I thought, presented an interesting opportunity to get to know them from a different perspective.

“An interview with Mark Twain” was published in 1890, the year after Kipling, then 23 years old and on his overseas tour to Europe and the USA, interviewed the great man. Twain was 54, and staying in Elmira, NY, at the time. We know from the opening lines that Kipling idolises Twain:

You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V.C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain … Understand clearly that I do not despise you, indeed I don’t. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward …

Clearly this is going to be a positively reported interview! The essay starts though, rather humorously, with the challenges Kipling faced in locating Clemens (as he was known) but, one-third of the way into the essay, we finally meet Twain who, despite his grey hair (that “was an accident of the most trivial”) looked “quite young”.

Kipling’s next comment rather continues his hero-worship – and reflects the way many of we readers think when we think of our favourite writers:

Reading his books, I had striven to get an idea of his personality, and all my preconceived notions were wrong and beneath the reality. Blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face to face with a revered writer.

You might think, from all this, that the rest of the interview will be rather hagiographic, with Kipling hanging on Twain’s every words. But, while there is an element of that, Kipling is delightfully self-conscious and there is a lovely sense of like minds engaging. Kipling reports on a conversation that ranges over a number of issues, including copyright, about which Twain has strong feelings, believing that a writer (and his heirs) should maintain control over “the work of his brains” (Kipling’s words) in much the same way as you might own “real estate” (Twain’s analogy). If you search the Internet, you will find a number of references to Mark Twain and copyright. As an (ex) librarian/archivist, I have a complicated relationship with copyright. I believe in abiding by it, I believe that creators need recompense for their work and that copyright is one way they can ensure that, but I also like people to be able to access the works they wish. According to my Internet research, Twain did not seek perpetual copyright, but enough to protect/provide for his immediate heirs. That sounds fair enough to me. And, it sounded fair enough to Kipling, though he was a little tongue-in-cheek in reporting that he saw Twain’s point, because he follows it up with “When the old lion roars, the young whelps growl. I growled assentingly”.

[If you are interested in copyright in the USA, check this timeline prepared by the Association of Research Libraries.]

Anyhow, they move on to discuss Twain’s books, and the possibility of a sequel to Tom Sawyer. Twain, teasingly, suggests that he hasn’t decided, that he could “make him rise to great honour and go to Congress” or he could “hang him”! This was too much for Kipling who says “I lost my reverence completely” arguing that Sawyer “was real”. Ah, fiction and reality I thought! This essay is speaking to me again.

Twain replies that Sawyer “is real … he’s all the boys that I have known or recollect” but then goes on to say that:

Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically, according to the joggle, turn out a rip of an angel.

He calls this Kismet, and asks whether Kipling agrees. Kipling does to a degree, but suggests that Sawyer isn’t Twain’s property any more, “he belongs to us”. Hmmm…I’m not sure that this is the aspect of “reality” in fiction that interests me, but the discussion (which is not reported further) is interesting, if only because it reflects topics that engaged these two writers.

They they go on to discuss “truth and the like in literature” but the discussion focuses more on autobiography and Twain’s view that no matter how much an autobiographer may lie about him/herself, the “truth” will out. Ain’t that the truth! All of us writing blogs give ourselves away, regardless, I think, of how we may try to “present” ourselves… But, I think I’ll move on from this possibly murky mire!

And then, in a fascinating little discussion of novel-reading comes this point which may interest we bloggers. It’s about assessing novels. Twain says:

You see … every man has his private opinion about a book. But that is my private opinion. If I had lived in the beginning of things, I should have looked around the township to see what popular opinion thought of the murder of Abel before I openly condemned Cain. I should have had my private opinion, of course, but I shouldn’t have expressed it until I had felt the way.

Is he saying what I think he’s saying? A little later in the essay, and on a slightly different topic, Kipling says “and I am still wondering if he meant what he said”! Knowing a little of Twain, I must admit I’m wondering what was “true” in his comments, and what wasn’t … so much of his “truth” is behind rather than in his words.

Twain goes on to talk about fiction and fact, implying that he prefers the latter, that he doesn’t “care for fiction”. He then gives this advice which I love:

“Get your facts first, and” – the voice dies away to an almost inaudible drone – “then you can distort ’em as much as you please”.

I can’t think of a better point upon which to close this post … but, by way of conclusion, I found at The Huffington Post this comment made by Twain, many years later, about the meeting:

I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before–though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would. . . . He was a stranger to me and to all the world, and remained so for twelve months, then he became suddenly known, and universally known.