Adam Cullen (1965-2012) was a controversial Australian artist who destroyed himself with alcohol and drugs. Six years ago, Cullen asked nineteen year-old journalist Erik Jensen to live with him for a year to write his biography. Last year, the book appeared – Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, a story in which life and death do seem to have equal weight. Continue reading
On Saturday, I heard Joanna Rakoff talking on a panel at the Perth Writers’ Festival called “No Limits” with Hannie Rayson and Ros Thomas. Ostensibly, they were discussing the question “when it comes to writing about yourself, are some things off limits?”. Yet the compere declared at the beginning he wouldn’t ask the authors what they had left out of their books, as obviously they wouldn’t want to tell us. Continue reading
I’ve just been to a Perth Writers’ Festival talk by two biographers, Hamish McDonald and Madonna King. The conversation around the process of biography was interesting. McDonald’s latest book, War of Words is the biography of a Japanese-raised European, Charles Bavier, born in 1888, while King’s is a biography of Australian politician, Joe Hockey. They are both journalists, but King’s book seemed particularly a work of journalism from the way she spoke about it. She interviewed three hundred people and wrote it intensively, seven days a week, over the course of a year. McDonald started his in 1982, when there were still were people alive who knew Bavier well, but it is inevitably a historical enterprise. Despite this, he said at one point that he wasn’t pretending his was a footnoted history. In the literal sense this is completely true – indeed it is not referenced at all (there is a bibliography), which seems a terrible lack to me. I may be an unusual reader, but footnotes reveal much about method, and can be fascinating to me. But he also meant it in another sense – his insertion of several scenes of reconstructions, where he imagines what Bavier was doing during historical events McDonald knew he experienced. Continue reading
Just released this month is a biography of the neglected Western Australian writer, Gerald Glaskin; it’s called Dare Me!, written by John Burbidge and published by Monash. Glaskin wrote one of Australia’s first openly gay novels; he died in 2000 in his seventies.
I’ve just read the opening chapter ahead of hearing Burbidge speak at the Perth Writers Festival. It’s very good. Instead of more typical openings, Burbidge calls the chapter “My Beautiful Beach” and relates several incidents from Glaskin’s life relating to his beloved Perth beaches. He would see the pine trees of Cottesloe coming home from abroad; he would body surf there, only to suffer an accident which would mar the rest of his years; he was to be charged with exposing himself on a Scarborough Beach, an incident which revealed much about his forceful character and the Perth of the 1960s; his grandmother was to let him live in her Safety Bay cottage for six months, where he wrote his first novel, which went on to considerable success. It’s a bold move; in the opening chapter, we already have the contours of his entire life laid out; we know that he will not be able to match his early successes, we know of his bitterness and his charms, we know something of his death in March 2000. It works, and it is all the more remarkable that it’s the biographer’s first biography.
Tonight I attended the Perth Writers Festival opening address from novelist Lionel Shriver on Literature and Religion. I have long wanted to hear more about Shriver’s thoughts on religion, knowing that she is an atheist with a father who is a prominent theologian.
I had imagined she had at least had a period of belief in her childhood and youth only to reject it; but by her own account, she never believed. She began questioning Christianity by the age of eight and at thirteen had to be pulled (by her hair, she adds) to church.
For her, religious belief is incomprehensible, and that has why she has almost never written about it. (Her one sympathetic religious character, the elderly Gabriel in So Much For All That, loses his faith in God over the course of the novel.) While I feel atheism makes far more sense to me than to most people of faith (as in, I get why people are atheists), her lack of any belief in the possibility of God ever is a little incomprehensible to me, especially when she was brought up in a home steeped with God-talk.
She remarked at one point that religion takes away the ambiguity of the world, the mystery of existence, which is one of the pleasures of life. Of course, faith should have its own mystery and ambiguity. And her atheism could be seen to lack these qualities.
Shriver disproves a theory I’ve harboured in my mind: that it’s unintelligent fundamentalism which produces atheist children; her parents are both intelligent, engaged people, with, she says, high IQs. The moderate Presbyterian faith they brought her up in was not a fundamentalist one.
I was unsurprised by Shriver’s stridency against religion. Her writing is always strident, always serious (even when it’s trying not to be), and often didactic. She was all these things tonight. She also lived up to the strengths of her fiction – insightful and even generous as she spoke of the common ground she has defined between the way her father has lived his life and the way she’s lived hers.