Some brief notes on Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears (Allen and Unwin, 2021), Bernadette Brennan’s excellent, fast paced biography of Australian writer Gillian Mears (1964-2017):Continue reading
Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild by Dylan Hyde (Fremantle Press 2019)
What a labour of love Dylan Hyde’s Art Was Their Weapon is. The interviews for this history of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild in the 1930s go right back to 1993. Many of the key players from the guild were still alive then, and lucid. None of them are still with us today, and so in his extensive interviews, Hyde has preserved the voices of a generation of radicals and a fascinating milieu. Continue reading
I spent my childhood, from ages two to fifteen, in Collie and it seems like a dream. I’m not really in touch with anyone who lives there and I’ve only returned a handful of times. The rest of my family lives only fifty kilometres west in Bunbury, but there’s no passing through Collie; it’s not on the way to anything else. It’s a coal mining town in a valley, surrounded by bush on all sides. Continue reading
James Atlas The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (Scribner, 2017, 400pp)
I’m drawn to biography’s sweet melancholy about mortality and recovering fragments of the past. Biographer James Atlas’s excellent memoir The Shadow in the Garden captures the mood I feel about biography. Continue reading
Kenneth (Seaforth) Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It is a beautiful prose-poem, a novel about adolescence which amazed me again and again with its evocation of states of mind and the experience of landscape. It tells of a year in the life of fourteen-year-old Charlie Fox, as he begins at a boarding school in Perth, with interludes at his mother’s farm in the South-West where he falls in love with a neighbour’s visiting niece. It’s shocking to read in 2019, with the sexual assault of Charlie by the other students as a hazing ritual in the novel’s opening and the grooming by a paedophile teacher presented as a normal part of school life. Continue reading
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.
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