The letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer

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I really like Nettie and Vance Palmer, the Australian literary power couple of the first half of the twentieth century. (And lifelong friends with Katharine Susannah Prichard.) Last year I read both volumes of their published letters – a tiny fraction of the massive archive in the National Library. I was too busy to review the first (old) collection but my review of the new collection of love letters, edited by Deborah Jordan, is now up on the Westerly website.

Katharine Susannah Prichard and David Helfgott: fundraiser this Friday

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In March 1966, Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote to her son, ‘I had a wonderful night this week. My young friend, David Helfgott came to dinner – and played to me all the evening… To have so much glorious music – Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt all to myself. It was almost too much. I felt quite drunk with it. But the young man himself is so modest & simple, although well informed about literature & art – discusses with me all the questions of political importance in our time.’ Continue reading

Gold and Wildflowers

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I had a good research day yesterday, after several grey ones.  This month I’ve jumped forward in my biography from 1933 (leaving Katharine’s trip to the Soviet Union unfinished) to 1941. The Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference is in Perth in July and I’ve been working on a paper to fit the theme of “Dirt” – “Katharine Susannah Prichard Underground: Ten Weeks in Kalgoorlie, 1941”. I finally submitted the abstract yesterday: Continue reading

Biography of a year

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Bill Goldstein The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017).

There’s so much potential in biographies of a year. I have one in mind for my next project, a somewhat random choice of a year in the life of a particular city through the eyes of a range of diarists, some famous some not. But in The World Broke in Two, Bill Goldstein sets the bar high for what makes a year worthy of a biography. And I suspect publishers require a very strong pitch for why a year matters enough for a book. His contention is that 1922 was a landmark year in English-language literature, the year modernism changed everything. As such, the book traces the literary breakthroughs of Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway), E.M. Forster (A Passage to India), T.S. Eliot (“The Waste Land”) and D.H. Lawrence (Kangaroo – the case is less compelling here, but he was also made infamous when Women in Love was tried for obscenity in the USA). It was a remarkable year, though in my opinion arguing a thesis breeds hyperbole; as Goldstein makes clear, all of these writers are responding to James Joyce and Marcel Proust. But that is a quibble; this is a superb biography, a compelling narrative which succeeds in identifying small, telling details and larger arcs in the lives of its subjects. Forster and Eliot visit and correspond with Woolf, bringing three of them together, while Lawrence is an outlier, outside their literary circle and travelling to Ceylon, Australia, and the USA, but providing an interesting contrast. Each of their stories is interesting – and Forster’s particularly moving, as he travels to Egypt for a sojourn with his lover only to find him terminally ill. My understanding of “The Waste Land”, a poem I love, has also been much enriched. In focusing on a year, a different pace, closer to a novel is possible, especially in Goldstein’s capable hands.

KSP’s The Pioneers reviewed on ANZ Litlovers

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Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers has reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first novel The Pioneers as part of Australian Women Writers Generation 2 week, co-ordinated by Bill at The Australian Legend.  Lisa quite rightly points to the influence of the romance genre on it and the silence on Aboriginal issues, especially as the South Gippsland area saw significant massacres. Perceptively, she writes, ‘So while the story does feature the obligatory bushfire, clearing of the land, home-building and the planting of subsistence crops, plus a proud declaration that It’s all ours, this land about here, the focus of KSP’s theme is redemption and the creation of a new society in which there were second chances for people who had fallen foul of unjust laws.’ It’s an interesting book for a number of reasons, from its depiction of colonial Australia to the developing voice of Katharine at the beginning of her career. It probably sold more copies than any other in Katharine’s lifetime but does not have the enduring literary interest of her best work.  The Pioneers was the first book I read as I contemplated taking up the KSP biography back in January 2014; I wrote about it here and here.

 

 

Writings as buildings

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Re-reading my 2018 diary, I found this from July.

Rejoinder to recent thoughts on the impermanence of writing. A helpful metaphor for writings is buildings. There are many buildings which last a century or two, are tended and lived in by people who want to see them remain standing. And that is one of the great aims for a writer, to have a book still read a century or two after it is written. There are only a few outstanding buildings preserved for many centuries, buildings which have acquired a sense of awe and prestige. But at the other end there are many other buildings. Perhaps most blogging is like building a cubby house for kids to enjoy for anything from a day to a few years; or perhaps it’s like putting up a tent for a week at a caravan park. It has its purpose, we need these temporary shelters and we live in them a time – but there’s no handwringing about their temporariness. And then the average suburban house is something like most books people write. Shiny and good looking for a time when it’s built, but it looks dated one or two decades later. It stays standing for thirty or forty years, and then it’s knocked over when someone wants the block for something else.

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris

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Years ago in her story “Paris Bled into the Ocean” Western Australian writer Amanda Curtin fictionalised a legend about the artist Kathleen O’Connor throwing her own paintings into the sea at Fremantle when she couldn’t pay the import duty on them. Fremantle Press suggested she write a book about O’Connor and for it, Curtin has turned from fiction to biography. O’Connor (1876-1968) is a difficult subject. She was a private person, revealing little of her inner or personal life in the papers she left behind. The recollections of those who knew her best suggest she was a mystery to them, too. In these cases, writing a subject’s life as a biographical quest—as Curtin has done—is often the best choice. Curtin walks in O’Connor’s footsteps, from New Zealand where she was born, to Perth where her father, the famous engineer killed himself in 1902, and to Paris, her spiritual and artistic home. ‘I am looking for Kate in this place where she was born. There may be little, or nothing, to find but I have come to believe that people leave traces of themselves in the places they inhabit; that they can carry those places with them forever. It’s a familiar method of research for me—an alchemy of the physical and the instinctual.’ (22) Curtin is unintrusive, alluding to echoes of O’Connor’s life in her own but never taking the focus away from O’Connor and the quest for traces of her. Continue reading