A key moment in the history of Australian literary biography was a panel on biography at the 1988 Adelaide Writers’ Week. On the panel were Australians Brian Matthews and Drusilla Modjeska and Britons Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion. Glendinning was already an established traditional literary biographer; Matthews had just published the postmodern Louisa and Modjeska was about to publish the hybrid fiction/biography of her mother, Poppy. In 1996 Graeme Turner used the panel as a starting point for exploring the state of Australian literary biography in his essay “Reviving the Author”. The Southern Review collected the papers in one of the more substantial statements on biography in Australia. Now Drusilla Modjeska has returned to that panel and her dislike of Glendinning’s approach to biography in her memoir (out last month), Second Half First. At the time, Modjeska made the comment the Australian biographers (well, particularly her and Matthews) were interested in exploring the lives of those not usually considered worthy subjects for a biography. “How extraordinary,” Glendinning said, apparently condescendingly. Continue reading
I’m reading through twenty-six years of weekly letters from Katharine Susannah to her son, Ric Throssell. There’s thousands of pages of handwriting to decipher, and if I did nothing else for a whole day’s work, it would take two days to get through one year. I have made it from 1943 to the end of 1947 in the first few weeks of the endeavour. With so much of her correspondence lost or destroyed, these letters are Katharine at her most revealing. Continue reading
(This is the second of four in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)
Biographer-in-Perth: I felt I could perceive your struggle to know what to do with the anger and bitterness in Gerald Glaskin’s personality. Did you find it difficult trying to keep on the right side of all the people you’d interviewed, and their varying opinions of him?
John Burbidge: I sometimes wonder if I gave undue emphasis to Glaskin’s more negative traits, but having talked with dozens of people and read hundreds of letters (his and others), I found it was something that came through very strongly and repeatedly, so I couldn’t ignore it.
One early reader of the manuscript and a close friend of Glaskin’s thought I had overplayed this aspect of his personality, at the expense of his more endearing and positive qualities. I took this advice to heart and tried to ensure that I presented a fair and balanced appraisal of the man. (I later deleted an entire chapter because it was essentially just another example of his belligerent nature, so it seemed redundant.) At the same time, I did not wish to downplay something that seemed to be a critical factor in answering a primary question of this biography, namely, what contributed to Glaskin’s poor reception as a writer in his home country?
During interviews, naturally I tried to remain impartial and let people say what they wanted, regardless of whether it was pro or con Glaskin. I had no axe to grind or theory to prove, but was simply trying to paint the most honest and comprehensive portrait of the man and his work that I could. One way I attempted to do this was to reach out to a broad cross-section of people who knew him in various capacities and at different times in his life, then put together the pieces of the puzzle as they revealed themselves. Most people came across as honest and upfront, but I sensed a few held back from revealing aspects of Glaskin’s life they didn’t wish me to know about. I accepted that as one of the limitations of interviewing and trusted that further research would help fill in the blanks, which it usually did.
When I came across the paradigm of ‘Glaskinitis’, I felt it was a breakthrough because it not only confirmed what I had perceived from many other sources but it put Glaskin’s more antagonistic traits in the wider context of a family behavioural pattern.
Part 3 tomorrow: The Works and the Life.