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.
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.
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.
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
Novels about biographers form a rich subgenre of twentieth and twenty-first century fiction. Henry James’ Aspern Papers (1888) is one of the earliest; A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) is another landmark. I wrote about the subgenre for my creative writing dissertation to accompany my own unpublished attempt, “The Remains” (earlier title “Immortalities”). It was this project that made me decide I wanted to be a biographer myself. Usually, biographer novels take on the form of a quest – the quest for truth of the subject’s life, often involving the recovery of lost letters or diaries. Australia has its own examples of the genre, including Louis Nowra’s Ice (2008 – Lisa’s review and mine) and Virginia Duigan’s The Biographer (2008). In her second novel, The Biographer’s Lover (Black Inc, 2018), Ruby Murray has created a compelling Australian biographical quest narrative that works within many of the conventions of the subgenre while adding its own rich elements.
Francis Wilson, Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Bloomsbury, 2016) 397 pages.
The English essayist Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) was an infuriating person to know. Frances Wilson tells of how he might drop in on a person for a meal and still be at the table the next morning; he could then become a semi-invited or uninvited lodger for months. He would fill up rooms or houses he rented with books and papers, neglect to pay the rent, and then flee to a new lodging, leaving behind many of his possessions. He was, famously, an opium addict (author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater), and obsessed with William Wordsworth; his discipleship of the great Romantic poet turned to an intense disenchantment. It’s not a ‘journey into hell’ as the reviewer-quote on the front suggests, but it is a journey into the life and pain of an addict, and one who seems peculiarly contemporary. Continue reading
I’m drawn, of course, to the three little free libraries in my neighbourhood. They’re waterproof cabinets in public places filled with books; anyone can come and take one with the hope they’ll leave one too. There’s one in my local park, just a hundred metres from my house, and it gives me an extra thing to look forward to when I take Thomas to the playground there. I’m always hoping to find a book I would love to read, and I’m pleased when I have a good book to leave, but as much as these things, I’m also ready to be intrigued and horrified by the books I would never read and the things they say about local reading habits and the economics of free things.
Saturday 10am #8
Tracy Ryan’s fifth novel, We Are Not Most People (Transit Lounge, 2018), is a moving story of two misfits, Kurt and Terry, and their May-September marriage, set in Perth over the 1960s to the 1990s. Tracy is a friend, so I can’t pretend to write dispassionately, but I think it a superb novel. Continue reading
Saturday 10am #5
The free books shelf at the front of my library is filled with donated books which haven’t made the cut for the booksale we run. It throws up hidden gems and many ghastly paperbacks, and some which are both, like the two at the top published by American company Collier in 1980. They are not only easily the worst of the many covers I’ve seen for C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia – they are possibly the worst covers (or the best bad covers) I’ve ever seen. The pictures look like the work of an average high school art student obsessed with swords and sorcery. The design looks suspiciously similar to the early covers of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which Bantam had started publishing with massive sales in 1979. The inside text, for reasons unknown, has slightly clumsily redrawn versions of Pauline Baynes’s charming 1950s line drawings from the original edition. Continue reading
Autobiography is an impossible genre. Memoir is easier – the writer is allowed to present an aspect of their life, to create a story out of one of its strands or seasons. Autobiography has to try to include them all. The desire to remember and record names, dates, and places is in the tension with the need to craft a narrative. And different phases of life require quite different types of writing which might not go together. The problems of autobiography are on show in Justina Williams’ Anger and Love (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993), but it’s an important, fascinating text. Continue reading