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
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
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
The twelve-year journey to publication is over for my fellow biographer-blogger Michelle Scott Tucker – her book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World, is out. It’s an impressive debut, telling the life of a key Australian colonist as a compulsive story and handling adeptly the gaps in the archive and the jagged edges of an ambitious woman married to a difficult, impulsive man. In 1789, aged in her early twenties, Elizabeth left Britain for the fledgling New South Wales colony with her officer-husband, John, on the Second Fleet. She lived the rest of her long life in New South Wales, conscious of her position as one of the first ‘ladies’ in a convict colony and determinedly steering her family’s wool-growing business to success, despite John’s appalling feuds and vendettas which sabotaged their efforts.
Melbourne writer Robert Lukins’ debut, The Everlasting Sunday (UQP, 2018), is an elegant novel about seventeen-year-old Radford’s time at a home for troubled boys in England over the Big Freeze of 1962-1963. He finds friendship and brotherhood there among the other boys and their admired but mysterious mentor, Teddy, as the life of the home begins to fall apart. The novel is cinematic in its sumptuous visual narration, which is in tension with its careful avoidance of explanations. Even when we’re inside the head of Radford, we only see glimpses. This restraint gives the novel some of its distinctive tone; it is beautifully written. Perhaps its flipside is that the more dramatic events of the narrative took me too much by surprise – was the narrative working with a different logic to what I was used to, was it the fault of a somewhat lazy reader (quite likely), or could it have been strengthened by some foreshadowing or other changes? Setting the novel over the big freeze was a superb choice with its symbolic resonances and the way it gives a timeframe, a clock ticking over the course of the freeze as the characters – and the reader – wait for the inevitable thawing. It doesn’t read like a first novel and it’s probably not; ‘assured writing’ Lucy Treloar claims on the cover, and I agree. It’s also wise and haunting. I came to this novel through Lukins’ inspired Twitter presence; it’s not necessarily the tone or type of novel I expected from his tweets, but it’s every bit as good as I hoped.
I reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo back in 2014 and stand by most of my comments. I’ve just finished re-reading it, and want to add some further thoughts.
It’s inevitable that literature is read in terms of its social relevance, praised or blamed for its handling of issues that matter to us as a society now. It’s one of the functions of literature, and it’s a significant one, but it shouldn’t be the only one. It’s a two-edged sword, of course. When Coonardoo was serialised in the The Bulletin in 1928, some readers wrote in angrily about the fact it depicted miscegenation between whites and Aboriginals. (This is an oft-repeated statement; if I get time I’d like to get behind it and see if these and other negative reactions are preserved in the archives anywhere – certainly not in KSP’s papers.) Later, Coonardoo was praised for its progressiveness in representing Aboriginal characters more fully. Continue reading