Help me choose a title for my book

1915 Book Lover photo

I’m currently doing final revisions on my biography before I send it off for the first time. It’s 100,000 words long and twenty chapters – hopefully the first book of three covering Katharine Susannah Prichard’s life. I’m not certain of the title yet so maybe you can help me. Here’s a blurb for the book, to give you a sense of what the title needs to convey:

When Katharine Susannah Prichard’s father killed himself in 1907, her literary career was just starting to bloom. She was twenty-three, and she’d lived her life in the shadow of his depression, hoping for his approval. This biography is the story of Prichard’s restless early life as she overcame the deaths of her father and brother and many years of literary setbacks to break through as a novelist of the Australian land and people. It is also the story of her political transformation, as her quest for the answer to the world’s problems became urgent in the horrors of World War One and she decided that the only solution was revolution. All of it was tangled with her complicated love life, her long affair with an older man, a romance with a playboy activist that left her heartbroken, and finally her marriage to the Victoria Cross winner, Hugo Throssell. Precocious child, governess, journalist, and finally writer this is the engrossing story of one of Australia’s literary greats.

And the nominations for title are, in alphabetical order, with an explanation:

Astir: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard

“Astir” is a word which seems to capture the spirit of Katharine: “in a state of excited movement.” It’s not specific to any one strand of her life, but suggestive of them all. I was drawn to it by this passage from her, which I would use as an epigraph:

[S]o strenuously national is the spirit of today, so lively and vigorous the sense of our growing strength in intellectual and artistic life, that Australian literature is abandoning this “imitativeness,” these swaddling-clothes of its infancy, and adopting the toga virilis of originality. It has reached the adolescent stage—it is astir with great things; growing daily in power and freedom… But no-one has completely expressed the characteristic of our country, life and people. We await transfiguration at the hands of a great writer.
“Australian Literary Tendencies.” International 1, no. 3 (March 1908): 344–45.

Katharine Susannah Prichard: Before She Was Any of Those Things

This title comes from the prologue:

In Australia’s cultural memory, Katharine has become the aging, tenacious communist living in her cabin in the hills of Perth, widow of a Victoria Cross winner, author of Coonardoo. This biography is the story of Katharine before she was any of those things.  If all of these things have antecedents, none of them were as inevitable as they now seem.

Katharine Susannah Prichard: Beginnings (or, Beginnings: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1883-1919)

This title speaks for itself! The plural is important, suggesting the different spheres of life.

A Rough Path: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard

In her grief over her brother killed in the war, Katharine wrote a poem called “For Alan”:

My way is like this way
Which goes through the hills—
A rough path—it seems to ascend, ascend:
But I know it will come to the sea,
And long day end.

It’s an image that conveys the pattern of her early life and would make a good epigraph.

Turning Red: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard

While politics was only one strand of Katharine’s life, it was an important strand and this title conveys the process of transformation.

If this book gets accepted by a publisher, I’m sure they’ll have an opinion on the title. But for the moment, I want to be sure the title captures the attention and respect of whoever is reading the manuscript. Please vote and tell me what you think. I’d also welcome other suggestions (leave a comment) and feedback on the subtitle (“The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard”).

 

 

Thornton McCamish’s Our Man Elsewhere

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For the second year, I’m working on an annual bibliography and introduction to Australian literature with my supervisor and another co-author for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature. My focus is on non-fiction. I was surprised to find that in 2016 there were just five Australian literary biographies published, at least by our reckoning. Three of them came from UWA Publishing; the other two were both about mid-century middlebrow writers – Paul Brickhill (The Great Escape) and Alan Moorehead. The reviews for the biography of Moorehead (1910-1983) – Thornton McCamish’s Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead (Black Inc) were so glowing about the writing itself that I just had to read it, despite barely having heard of Moorehead.

It truly is an excellent biography. It is a biographical quest as McCamish begins by describing the fever of obsession with Moorehead that came over him and asks why Australia’s most famous writer in the US and Britain in the 1960s has been so forgotten fifty years later. Some of the finest reflections on biography occur within biographical quests and McCamish’s were delightful. His account of looking through Moorehead’s papers at the National Library of Australia described my own experiences there so perfectly. In another scene, he captures so well the sense of the past, the thrill, the anxiety, and the prosaic elements of trying to find Moorehead’s house while on holiday in Italy with his wife and small children. Some quotes:

There isn’t much logic to the in-the-footsteps method. My idea was that if I followed the thread linking Moorehead’s words to the places where he wrote them, I might, with some intuitive effort, some narrowing of the eyes, get a fuller imaginative sense of what his world felt like. (124)

It was unsettling to meet the nieces. Years of document-sifting and note-taking hadn’t prepared me for the warmth of living memory. (148)

The photo of Moorehead with Churchill posed a question, one that is implicit in any book about a writer, but which I have managed to ignore till now. Was the life more interesting than the work? Or more specifically: had the life aged better than the books had? (202)

My Moorehead was constructed from the printed word, mostly, and my own preoccupations. But the actual man existed most truly in what people could remember of him; in what remained in fragile containers of memory. (206)

The focus, though, is on Moorehead’s life itself more than McCamish’s quest. McCamish describes the World War Two years in the most detail, the time when Moorehead turned his war journalism into a bestselling trilogy that made his name as a writer. He had a full, exciting life in the decades which followed, and yet McCamish captures so well an ennui always lurking in the background. It is a relatively short biography for an entire life at 351 pages, and the elements not pursued at length are his family and romantic lives. Moorehead’s wife, Lucy, is glimpsed as a fascinating character in her own right – crucial to his success – and we are only given limited insight into her feelings about his constant infidelity and long absences. With their children still alive, it would have been an area McCamish had to tread carefully.

This is a biography which gives a vivid sense of life and culture in the mid-twentieth century. It reflects in an indirect but profound way on what makes life meaningful and how the past is present – or not – today. It didn’t leave me with a strong desire to read Moorehead’s work but it did leave me with a strong desire to read whatever book McCamish writes next.

Crumble, neo-liberalism! Go Jeremy Corbyn!

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There’s hope yet. The surge in the Labour Party vote under Jeremy Corbyn in the British election shows it. He had much of the parliamentary wing of his own party against him, sold on the idea that Labour should accept the gospel of neo-liberalism. He had against him all the money and power of Rupert Murdoch and the corporations that have pushed the Western world into a nasty society of privatisation, insecure employment, and inequality. The Sun newspaper, one of the most read tabloids in Britain, has a picture of him in a garbage bin:

Only a vote for the Conservatives — not Ukip, or any other — will help keep Corbyn and his sinister Marxist gang away from power… The result would be economic collapse and soaring unemployment, inflation, interest rates and home repossessions.

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3748893/the-sun-says-vote-conservative-dont-chuck-britain-corbyn/

On Twitter, the ABC’s Media Watch host, Paul Barry, called Corbyn the Cory Bernardi of the left a couple of days ago. Routinely, “moderate” commentators equate any politicians who reject neo-liberalism – like Bernie Sanders in the US and the Greens in Australia – as extremists, a symptom of a world gone mad as disturbing as Trump. But it is neo-liberalism that has created the troubles we now find ourselves in. It has promised wealth for everyone but it has only privatised everything and widened inequality. In the name of “efficiency” it’s told so many lies to line the pockets of the few. Neo-liberalism has messed up our economy and our society. Now it’s crumbling. The only hope is that in the ruins, social democracy prevails over right-wing populism.

Capote by Gerald Clarke

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Capote

I knew Truman Capote (1924-1984) was a shallow, miserable man, so why did I read his biography? It’s not that I think you should only read the biographies of the virtuous, but I do have an aversion to people who idolise celebrity and lack depth, which would put Capote high on the list of those to avoid. Yet Clarke’s 1988 book is a landmark biography and (speaking of shallow) it was on special on Kindle.

It took Clarke thirteen years to write and it deserves its reputation. It reads so smoothly, so effortlessly in a way which only a great biographer can achieve and only then with much sweat. It follows Capote from his troubled childhood in Alabama and the wounds his selfish parents inflicted on him to his emergence as a literary wunderkind in New York and the successes of his early and mid-career to the tragic descent into writer’s block, alcoholism, and exile from the circles of the wealthy and celebrities he had moved in. It’s a tragedy and it’s told with a restraint, clarity, and insight which make it compelling. Only in the 2010 afterword does Clarke reveals his friendship with Capote during those longs years of decline, something which explains his sympathetic treatment of Capote and credulity toward his stories, even if there’s moments in the narrative where Clarke suggests Capote is making things up.

It’s also a biography built on interviews. Not unsurprisingly, it seems to me that biographers often divide by background – journalists (like Clarke) tend to write biographies about the living or recently dead built on interviews, while historians will tend to write biographies of those longer dead built on archival research. I am a little suspicious of dependency on interviews; I think they still need to be backed by solid archival research. (And in this case, Clarke has definitely done solid archival research as well.) For my own biography, I would like to have a historian’s respect for the archives and a journalist’s hunger for a great story.

Melinda Tognini’s Many Hearts, One Voice: The Story of the War Widows’ Guild in Western Australia

Tognini-Many-Hearts

Melinda Tognini is one of the most generous writers I know – always looking to encourage other writers, to tell other people’s stories, and to begin conversations on her blog. I was thrilled that her book,  Many Hearts, One Voice: The Story of the War Widows’ Guild in Western Australia was finally published in 2015 by Fremantle Press, and embarrassed I am only reviewing it now.

The War Widows’ Guild began after World War Two as women whose husbands had been killed banded together for support and to advocate for recognition and benefits. The surprise for me reading Many Hearts is how hard these women had to fight for those things; I had wrongly assumed the Australian government would have been generous to them without any pressure. Instead, it is only through advocacy – by turns patient and noisy – that they have gained the support they now have. The book weaves the history of the organisation with the life stories of the women who have been a part of it. It places this in a wider historical context, things like the effects on the organisation of shifts in gender roles and society’s values, and new wars from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Reading the book as a pacifist, it serves as a picture of the long shadow war casts over lives, the “many hearts” broken. While I doubt many of the widows share my pacifism, they are more aware than anyone of the cost of war. I was also struck by the significance of ritual for war widows. One of their continuing fights has been for recognition in ceremonies remembering the war dead, especially the opportunity to lay wreaths during these events. It speaks to the way in which, in a largely secular country, remembrance and the Anzac legend function as a civil religion. In such a system, it’s only right that war widows have a place of honour.

I’ve edited several organisational histories, which makes me appreciate even more Melinda’s achievement in Many Hearts. Organisations will tend to require detail (the names of many key players and often repetitive events); encourage cosiness or self-congratulatory anecdotes / memories; and discourage the writer from playing up drama and scandal. Melinda negotiates all these challenges very well within the conventions of the genre to create an engaging narrative. In every respect, it is so well-balanced. Balanced in its mix of the personal, the organisational, and the big picture; balanced in its use of oral history, archival documents, and newspaper reports; and balanced between respectfulness and truthfulness.

The book has been well published by Fremantle Press. Along with many photographs, I appreciate the reproduction of a number of key documents. It brings the reader into the history-writing process, allows them to glimpse the sources.

Many Hearts comes at the right time, when the origins of the organisation are still just within living memory. It is able to preserve the voices and experiences of women which otherwise would have been lost. At a talk Melinda gave at the War Widows’ headquarters, I had a sense of the excitement of the members that their story has been told.

Comic-book biography?

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The Guardian has an interesting article today on the rise of “comic-book biographies”. It notes an important antecedent – Art Spiegelman’s Maus – which I read and enjoyed for a unit I was tutoring last year. That was the story of the author imagining his father’s unimaginable Holocaust story; it had elements of autobiography as well as biography.  This is different – comic-book treatment of key scenes in the lives of famous figures like Einstein. It sounds like a good thing, but more the equivalent of historical fiction than biography-proper. To the extent that the creators have moved beyond the historical evidence to imagine the scene more fully, they are fictionalising. It reminds me of my surprise / irritation that great biographies are often adapted as “biopics” rather than documentaries. I like biopics, but the filmic equivalent of a biography is surely the documentary, with its weaving together of sources rather than the fictionalised illusion of a fully-realised world offered by a feature film.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/05/life-drawing-the-boom-in-comic-book-biographies

Predicting Trump? Louis Esson on the USA in 1917

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I’ve just found a remarkable passage about the USA in a letter from the Australian playwright Louis Essson during his stay in New York to Vance Palmer (both friends of Katharine Susannah Prichard) dated February 16th 1917:

The country is not a democracy at all, but a plutocracy. The president has the power of a Kaiser, and all diplomacy is secret. The people haven’t a say in anything. Politically America is far behind Australia and in reality behind Britain or Germany. If a strong President arose, a Caesar or Cromwell, he could simply keep his position and make himself perpetual dictator. Labour has no strength here. At a recent strike at Bayonne the men were simply shot down, the authorities assisting Rockefeller.

What Esson didn’t foresee was that exactly a century later it hasn’t taken a Caesar or Cromwell but a reality TV star – the PT Barnum of our day – to take the country into apocalyptic times.

Dispelling any smugness I might have about the superior insights of the Australian left in 1917, Esson then veers into appalling racism, quite typical of the time: “Some terrible thing will happen here, which I hope will be spared Australia. I feel sure Australia must be kept white and have severe immigration laws.”

 

Haxby’s Circus: Lisa’s review and origins

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Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers has reviewed  Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel, Haxby’s Circus (1930). It’s a sympathetic and astute review, giving a good sense of its themes and characters.

It comes the same week I’ve been writing about Haxby’s Circus in my biography. In the comments on Lisa’s review, Fay Kennedy mentions the origins of the novel in an incident when Katharine was at her brother’s surgery comforting a trapeze artist with a broken back. She writes about it in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane. The incident was reported in a number of newspaper digitised on Trove, including the last paragraph in this article “District News” Cohuna Farmer’s Weekly (Vic), 23 November 1917, 3:

 

Perrys-circus

It comes right in the middle of the second conscription campaign, and an intense time in Katharine’s life. So much happened in Katharine’s life in 1917 – two deaths, a broken heart, and political development. It’s been a big month trying to cover it all.