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John Kinsella on the Power of Poetry

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Western Australian poet John Kinsella is currently co-editor of Stand (UK), international editor of The Kenyon Review (USA), consultant editor to Westerly (Western Australia) and correspondent for Overland (Victoria), all of which, you would think, would keep him rather busy.  But he still finds time to write essays, such as his recent piece, "Vermin: A Notebook", for the Poetry Foundation.

Driving down to the city this morning, we saw five or six emus crossing the road in an area of national park where I hadn't seen emus before--not once in a lifetime of driving that way. It was a remarkable and invigorating sight as they plunged into the wandoo woodlands of Western Australia, negotiating their way through the spiky hakeas and parrot bush.
On a personal level, it came as a kind of foil for the weekend-that-was--a complex amalgamation of environmental affirmation and also witnessing of horrific environmental crime. The sort of experience that leaves you wondering if any form of environmental activism has any chance of succeeding, yet nonetheless also convinced that there is no choice about acts of resistance. Without them, the environment has no chance.

And writing a statement like this is part of a process of creating poems that hopefully resonate in different ways and in different contexts, and extend what is a particularly local debate into the wider dialogue of which, sadly, it is also part. The compulsion to witness in poetry, the desire to overcome a feeling of crushing failure, and the need to create a cautionary tale that is more than propaganda--all this goes hand-in-hand with a volatility and (maybe overly) emotional reaction to the situations as they happen.

The History of Virago

Carmen Callil provides a potted history, in "The Guardian", of the gestation and birth of Virago, the British feminist publishing house with the distinctive green covers.

In the publishing world of the 60s and 70s, women rarely had the opportunity to choose which books to publish, and paperback lists, particularly, reflected this. But now the choice of novels was mine. It was common to think of the literary tradition that runs from Jane Austen through Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Pym as a clever and witty women's view of a small domestic world. This was not a ghetto we accepted. The female tradition included writers of vast ambition and great achievement: mistresses of comedy, drama, storytelling, of the domestic world we knew and loved. I saw a large world, not a small canvas, with all of human life on display, a great library of women's fiction, marginalised, silenced, out of print and unavailable. Such writing has always been part of women's history. We despised the concepts of "woman novelist", and "female imagination", so often used to dismiss books we cherished.

Richard Flanagan on Tasmania

Novelist Richard Flanagan is certainly not going to endear himself to the Government of Tasmania with his recent article, "Battle Cry for Tasmania", published last week in "The Mercury" newspaper. There does seem to be something smelly about politics in that state.

There is a sickness at the heart of Tasmania and it is time all Tasmanians demanded of their political representatives that it end. For the future of Tasmania we must walk together, Labor, Liberal and Green, we must cease to be frightened, to be silent, and we must begin to speak out in our workplaces, our homes, our cafes, clubs and pubs -- for a Tasmania no longer weary and sad with the hate and the division that benefits only those richest and most powerful, for a Tasmania of hope and unity. I believe in the decency and goodness of ordinary Tasmanians.
And, in the middle of all that, he calls for the removal of the current Premier. Politicians in Tasmania may not
like Flanagan, but, somehow, I don't think that bothers him. Tasmanians should consider themselves lucky they have someone like him on their side. They may not believe that now, but they will in the future.

Richard Flanagan on Tasmanian History

Richard Flanagan recently launched the history Van Diemen's Land by James Boyce. An edited version of the speech has now been published in "The Sydney Morning Herald".

How good it feels to read a history that is not politics, but an act of enquiry applying intellect, empathy and a fresh curiosity. We have possibilities in Australia with our unique land, with our indigenous people, with our own particular response to our world, that suggest our future might still be worth dreaming. This is a history that will be challenged, rebutted, and shown to be wrong in various places. All works of largeness and innovation invite such a fate. But its generosity of spirit exploring the possibilities of what we once were suggests all that we might yet be. It is the most significant colonial history since The Fatal Shore. If it is not as rollicking a read as Hughes' masterpiece, it is perhaps more original.
High praise indeed.

Peter Carey Has a Day Off

Writing in "The Financial Times", Peter Carey describes a day in his life, a day without writing. He calls it a

Today, on this New York morning, lying in bed, listening to the shower -- today I will permit myself to take a holiday from writing. I will freely and happily give February and March to publicity for my novel His Illegal Self. The next novel, the so-called work-in-progress, can be set aside. Instead I will dine with journalists. I will tour Britain, the US and Australia and I will not resent publicity. I will not write. And I will be very pleased.
Later in the day he gets his website up and running, only to find he's ranked by Google at "the back of the bus, on page eight, the 85th Peter Carey site." But he's worried that "Apart from the estate agent in San Diego, all these Peter Careys appear to be me, they have my birth date and have written my books. In the past I was careless of them. They bred like rabbits. I was never ever so vulgar as to Google my own name, though I was pleased to hear that they were there but now I see they are clearly arrayed against me." Not at all Peter. My "Peter Carey" website ranks second purely due to its longevity I suspect. I'd be quite happy to change places, so long as I stayed on the first page, as I never intended that webpage to subsume your author identity. I notice, today, that Carey's official website has moved up to 14th on the Google list: 14 with a bullet. Won't be long before it hits number 1 I suspect.

Adib Khan on the Ubud Literary Festival

Adib Khan, author of Spiral Road, published in 2007 by HarperCollins, writes of his experiences at the Ubud Literary Festival in Bali for "The Daily Star".

Swimming, sampling Balinese cuisine, sight-seeing and shopping, the first few days were truly blissful. But it was all too good to be true. The migrant syndrome caught up with me. Ian Britten, who was born in India, chaired my next session on the meaning of home. I always struggle with the topic. Embedded deep in the recesses of memory, there are houses and segments of my life in Purana Paltan, Khawja Divan, Rankin Street, Tejgaon, Minto Road, Maghbazaar, Shantinagar, Hathkhola, Wari and Dhanmondi. We were nomads, moving every few years from one rented accommodation to another until my parents were able to afford their own house. And now, after all these years, I am still not settled in one place. My wife and I live in Ballarat for the first few days of the week and then we spend some quality time living in Melbourne, a city we both love for its ambience and cultural diversity. Home has a multiplicity of meaning. 'I am a part of all that I have met,' says Tennyson's Ulysses. It sums me up. On the same panel was Kiran Desai. It was interesting to hear about her twin existence in New York and New Delhi. Will she ever settle in one place? Some day, maybe ... Place polygamy ensures that migrants are lost souls, not only drifting between the past and present, but often between cities. We are restless creatures, never quite content with where we are.

I think we managed to confuse some in the audience that day.

Which is just as it should be - better an audience leaves a literary festival session confused but interested, rather than entertained but uninvolved.

Richard Flanagan on the Love of Art

Richard Flanagan extols the virtues of a love of art.

All great art is amoral. It offers neither guidance on how to live, nor wisdom on how to reconcile with this world. It simply takes us into the chaotic soul of things, reminding us of the full possibilities of this life. Art is the closest thing we have to holding on to that inner spirit world that we feel always to be on the verge of vanishing and which we recall only as the vaguest of sensations: the touch of a loved one, the shadow of a forgotten tree, the sound of a parent crying.

Sophie Gee on Film Adaptations

Sophie Gee, currently assistant professor of English at Princeton University and author of The Scandal of the Season, discusses "Popular Adaptations of Classic Literature" in "The New York Times".

Mass-market adaptations make Great Books go bad. Or so conventional wisdom would have it. But every so often, plundering and pillaging a canonical text for the sake of entertainment gives it the kiss of life. Take "Beowulf" and "Paradise Lost." The unpalatable truth is that both originals are now virtually unreadable. "Beowulf" is written in Old English, an inflected Germanic tongue that looks a lot less like our language than one would hope. As for Milton's epic, it's in "normal" English, but its blank verse is so densely learned, so syntactically complicated and philosophically obscure, that it's almost never read outside college courses. Even Samuel Johnson, writing 100 years after Milton, said: "'Paradise Lost' is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is."
[If you have trouble accessing this article you will probably have to login to the paper's website. Visit BugMeNot for a user name and password.]

Germaine Greer on Greek Myths

"The Guardian" newspaper is running a series of articles about Greek myths. Germaine Greer provides the Foreword to the series about the Power of Love.

Love, for the ancients, was the force that made happen everything that did happen. Every movement was prompted by desire. Nowadays when an apple falls to earth we call the force that sent it gravity, without registering the truth that gravity is just another name for attraction. The god of love is the oldest of the gods because he is the force without which the gods could not have come into being.

Tim Flannery Review

Tim Flannery reviews Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, by Bjorn Lomborg, in "The Washington Post".

Bjorn Lomborg is a Danish statistician and darling of those who believe that markets should not be regulated and that concerns about the environment are overblown. He is articulate, certain in his opinions and well informed on the statistical minutiae of the topics he investigates. Indeed, so compelling and entertaining are the grains of truth that adorn his latest book, Cool It, that you are certain to hear them soon in dinner table conversation. But is this book, as its subtitle proclaims, really an acceptable "guide to global warming"?
As you might expect, Flannery
thinks not.

Germaine Greer on Anne Hathaway

Germaine Greer's next book will be titled Shakespeare's Wife and will be published in September. We can probably assume, though it isn't exactly stated, that the piece published in "The Guardian" over the weekend is an excerpt.

Greer makes one interesting point I hadn't come across before:

By the 1580s, people who couldn't read were sensible of a spiritual as well as a social disadvantage, because they were barred from direct access to the word of God. In the winter, when there was little or no work for children in the fields, even the humblest farming villages set up dame schools, where girls were taught to read and sew, boys to read, write and cast accounts. Reading was essential if a woman was to follow her daily devotions; sewing provided for her and her family. In Shakespeare's plays we encounter men who cannot read, but never women.

Germaine Greer on The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Germaine Greer looks back at 1978, the year a guest at her house in Tuscany left behind a copy of The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. It was to become the "best bad book" she ever read.

Peter Carey, and How He Got There

Peter Carey discusses his journey from the wilds of Bacchus Marsh, just outside Melbourne, to New York in an article titled "A New York Writer's Catch-22". Basically he says that he was probably fortunate in that he was nurtured in his early writing years by the Australian publishing industry, and wasn't cast aside after a couple of low-selling books, as happens to so many authors these days.

Tom Keneally on How Schindler's Ark Started

As we have mentioned a few times over the past few weeks, Tom Keneally's Booker Prize winning novel, Schindler's Ark, is the subject of "The Guardian's" Book Club for this month. In the weekend editon of the paper Keneally writes about the genesis of the novel, and attempts to answer a question that runs to the heart of the effect literature has on people.

The final question is this, and it's a universal one: by writing about the Holocaust, or the Armenian massacres, or the Irish famine, and trying to get to the truth of them, are you encouraging extremist actions by Israeli hardliners, say, or the Armenian Brotherhood, or the IRA? By writing about the Holocaust does one signify a lack of sympathy for the Palestinians? By writing a history of the transportation of Irish politicals to Australia, as I did in a book named The Great Shame, does one whistle up hardcore hatred in Ulster?

Of course not, I would argue. In situations where old injustices have been addressed, people are reconciled with history enough to confront it. In situations where justice still does not run, it's the system, not the historians, who create conflict."

Clive James on Humanism

In an edited extract from his latest essay collection, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James ponders the triumph of humanism.

The ideologists thought they understood history. They thought history had a shape, a predictable outcome, a direction that could be joined. They were wrong. Some were intellectuals who shamed themselves and their calling by bringing superior mental powers to the defence of misbegotten political systems that were already known to be dispensing agony to the helpless. The way to avoid the same error now is not through understanding less. It can only be through understanding more. The getting of wisdom is a hard road. Most of us are not equipped by nature to travel it at high speed, and some of us must crawl like babies. Our chafed hands and knees can easily make us wonder if the journey is worth it... The world is turning into one big liberal democracy anyway. Terrorism will punch angry holes in it, but in the long run nothing will stop the planetary transformation. Even if armed with a secondhand atomic bomb, an obscurantist can do nothing for the poor. Most of the poverty on Earth is caused by the number of people being born who would ordinarily never have been conceived. Prosperity gave them life. All too frequently the life seems not worth living, but when we cry out at the injustice we are asking for more democracy, not less.
James always reads better to me when he takes the high overview - when he gets down to the nitty-gritty level he loses me.

Clive James on Crime

In his effort to cover all forms of cultural experience, Clive James has taken a look at crime fiction in an article in the "New Yorker". It's a strange beast of a thing - starting by slagging off Henry James as being a tad lacking on the story and plot front, then running a rule over a variety of fictional detectives, from Rankin's Rebus, to Leon's Commissario Brunetti, Dibdin's Inspector Zen, and Mankell's Wallander. He praises and criticises by turns and, just when you think he's about to say something sensible, he comes up with this: "No matter how carefully depicted, whether by the omniscient author or by themselves looking at length into their shaving mirrors, these maverick detectives are too consistent to be true characters." And then he turns back to James where "The real adventure, less gripping but far more memorable, is waiting to begin again.." Which proves, yet again, that most critics don't understand the need for a balanced diet - whether it be food or fiction.

[Thanks to Peter at the "Detectives Beyond Borders" weblog for the link.]

Germaine Greer on Frankenstein

Germaine Greer, in "The Guardian", gets stuck into an upcoming book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, which is published in the US next month. "The latest sensation to galvanise the torpid lit-hist-crit establishment is the 'discovery' by market research analyst John Lauritsen that Mary Shelley did not write Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (to give the novel its full title)." As Greer puts it, "The logic goes something like this: Frankenstein is a masterpiece; masterpieces are not written by self-educated girls and therefore Frankenstein cannot have been written by Mary Shelley. If Frankenstein is not a masterpiece, the thesis collapses." And then goes on to show that: "The driving impulse of this incoherent tale is a nameless female dread, the dread of gestating a monster. Monsters are not simply grossly deformed foetuses. Every mass murderer, every serial killer, the most sadistic paedophile has a mother, who cannot disown him."

Greer's conclusion is that Frankenstein is not a masterpiece, that it could only have been written by a young, inexperienced novelist, and that the author had to be Mary Shelley. Simple really.

Simone de Beauvoir and Brazil

You'll remember that in late 2005 Hazel Rowley published her book, Tête-À-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, on the relationship between the two major French writers. One of the unresolved questions in that book related to the identity of a young woman that the two met on their travels in Brazil in 1960. On the publication of her book in Brazil, Rowley receives a request for an interview and is reminded of the forgotten Brazilian woman. How she came to investigate the woman's identity is the subject of an article in "Bookforum" magazine.

David Malouf and Architecture

"The Australian" newspaper has published an extract from David Malouf's introductory essay to Glenn Murcutt, Architect, by Kenneth Frampton and others. "My interest in Glenn Murcutt is personal. I happen to have grown up in the sort of one-storeyed, open-verandaed weatherboard house on stumps that so many of his houses look to as a native prototype."

David Malouf on Patrick White

David Malouf has another look at the work of Patrick White in the "Times Literary Supplement".

[Thanks to The Literary Saloon at the Complete Review for the link.]

David Malouf Essay

The "Globe and Mail" out of Canada reports as follows:

"Dialogue on Democracy: The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lectures, edited by Rudyard Griffiths, Penguin Canada, 205 pages, $24

"The annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture -- established by John Ralston Saul in 2000 -- has become a national symposium for smart Canadians to reflect on the history and future of our democracy. This collection of six lectures includes essays by Ralston Saul, Alain Dubuc, Georges Erasmus, Beverley McLachlin, Louise Arbour and Australian novelist David Malouf on responsible government, nationalism, aboriginal values, human rights and the distinctively Canadian response to our differences."

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks continues her fascination with Little Women with an article in "The Guardian" about the author's father. "Louisa May Alcott's father has been dismissed as a parasite who lived off his daughter's earnings. But, writes Pulitzer-prizewinning novelist Geraldine Brooks, Bronson Alcott was a loving father and visionary educationalist. His reputation was unfairly sullied by a disastrous attempt to set up a commune with 'Arcadian fanatics'. "

Geraldine Brooks with Richard and Judy

Geraldine Brooks was selected for the UK's Richard and Judy Book Club (think Oprah for the effect of the sales-boost) and was at the awards dinner recently. She has written up her view of the proceedings for "The Times". "For a novelist, being selected for Richard and Judy's book club is a bit like being Adam on the Sistine Ceiling: touched by the finger of God." But not in the nuddie one hopes.

"When a Scorpion Meets a Scorpion" by Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers and Director of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, reviews the following books for the "New York Review of Books": Life in the Undergrowth by David Attenborough, The Smaller Majority: The Hidden World of the Animals that Dominate the Tropics by Piotr Naskrecki, and Locust: The Devasting Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier by Jeffrey A. Lockwood.

"By the late twentieth century fascination with the minuscule had begun to pall, and now it takes an exceptional book indeed to reawaken our interest. Thankfully, in David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth, Piotr Naskrecki's The Smaller Majority, and Jeffrey Lockwood's Locust we find three works that do so."

[Update: I got a bit confused earlier and listed "Richard" Attenborough rather than "David" as the author of one book under review. This was pointed out by an anonymous commenter who stated: "Life in the Undergrowth by Richard Attenborough. That would be the grubs of Hollywood. It's Dave, not Dicky, but you already knew that." It's the
Oscar season that's to blame, I reckon.]

By and About Australians

Germaine Greer writes about the late Betty Friedan in "The Betty I Knew" in "The Guardian".

Also in "the Guardian", DBC Pierre is profiled on the eve of the publication of his new novel Ludmila's Broken English.

Helen Brown in "The Telegraph" reviews Kate Grenville's The Secret River.

Clive James and Sludge Fiction

In the "Times Literary Supplement", Clive James reminisces about his early reading habits, from Erle Stanley Gardner to Capt. W. E. Johns, from Ellery Queen to Leslie Charteris, from Ian Fleming to Arthur Conan Doyle. "It was my third year at Sydney Technical High School, and our English class was being taken by a history teacher while our regular teacher was away ill. Though he conspicuously wore the first Hush Puppies I had ever seen, I can't remember the history teacher's name. But I can still remember everything he said. To keep us in order, he had been asking us what we read at home. I said that I had been reading the collected works of Erle Stanley Gardner. He said there was nothing wrong with that, but that the whole secret with what he called sludge fiction was to enjoy it while you built up the habit of reading, and then move on to something hard. The very idea that there might be something interesting further up the road had not occurred to me before that day."

There's a lot to be said for this approach to beginning a reading career. It really doesn't matter what is read so long as something is. I was continually told off in my youth by teachers and those who didn't read, that comics and science fiction would never lead to anything. That was partly true. I didn't end up doing anything professionally with either genre but I'm still here reading and I doubt if they are.

[Thanks to Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind for the link.]

Murray Bail Considers European vs Anglo-American Novels

Murray Bail, author of Eucaluptus, ponders the differences between European novels in translation, and their Anglo-American cousins. "When first opening a work in translation there is an extra feeling of anticipation. The reader here is allowed to enter a strange area of the world, where people are similar yet appear to behave differently, and all in a foreign tongue. Mystery has to be interesting. Other questions can come later."

I'm always curious as to whether I'm actually getting a taste of the original author's voice or just a version of the translator's. Occasionally it is possible to read novels in translation by one author, over a short period, which have been translated by different people. I've done this recently with Henning Mankell and his Kurt Wallander novels from Sweden: Faceless Killers was translated by Steven T. Murray, The Dogs of Riga by Laurie Thompson, and One Step Behind by Ebba Seberberg. Of these I'd say that The Dogs of Riga reads flat, as if the translation didn't work as well as the other two. And yet, Thompson also translated another of Menkell's novels, The Return of the Dancing Master, which I thought was excellent, and which did not feature Wallander. So what does that tell me? Not a lot I suspect. There are just too many factors at play affecting the final outcome of the novel to be able to determine which has the greatest influence.

Now that does not mean to imply that we should neglect novels in translation. On the contrary, we should seek them out for their strangeness. As Bail puts it: "European literature is recognisably different from English-English or American-English. For one thing, it is much less saddled with the good sense of Protestant empiricism that brings with it the decencies, along with a certain plainness. It has been explained how this rarefied commonsense is behind the solid foundations of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, in verifiable results in medicine and engineering, in law and the stability of institutions; and in the novel it has resulted in a stubborn underlying realism." Which might be making too wide a generalisation.

I'm sure there are European novels we do not get to see that are full to the brim with stubborn realism. And by the same token it seems hard to describe the work of, say, J.G. Ballard as dropping into the same slot. But this is picking nits. Bail's premise is that we should all read more translated works. And it's hard to argue with that.

[Thanks to Conversational Reading for the notice.]

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