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en­joys an en­gag­ing guide to Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture Aus­tralian Clas­sics: 50 Great Books By Jane Glee­son- White Allen & Un­win, 342pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ker­ryn Goldswor­thy

ISET out to write Aus­tralian Clas­sics with a sim­ple in­ten­tion,’’ Jane Glee­son- White says in her in­tro­duc­tion. She wanted, she says, ‘‘ to make a book on Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture as there are books on Aus­tralian art. I wanted to cre­ate a book that would give a broad over­view of Aus­tralia’s writ­ing and in­tro­duce some of its key writ­ers to a wide au­di­ence.’’

Aus­tralian Clas­sics is quite an un­usual book: it’s not an an­thol­ogy but a thor­ough read­ers’ guide, a kind of pho­to­graphic neg­a­tive of an an­thol­ogy. In this fol­low- up to her 2005 Clas­sics: Books for Life , Glee­son- White has cho­sen an Aus­tralian list of 50 great books ( al­though this sub­head­ing is im­me­di­ately prob­lem­atic, as some of her cho­sen books are sin­gle po­ems and oth­ers are in­di­vid­ual short sto­ries) that she thinks will pro­vide this over­view.

On each of the 50 works cho­sen, she writes a short, lu­cid, in­for­ma­tive es­say, plus 10 ex­tra such es­says on var­i­ous back­ground top­ics and is­sues, such as the Ern Mal­ley af­fair, the Syd­ney Push and the glory days of The Bul­letin in the late 19th cen­tury. She pro­vides sim­ple, clearly put plot sum­maries, bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion about the au­thors and in­ter­est­ing scraps of anec­dote and in­for­ma­tion.

This kind of thing is sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult to write and make in­ter­est­ing — or, some­times, even to make co­her­ent — and it’s to her great credit that she has made this book so easy and en­gag­ing to read.

There are many read­ers who will im­me­di­ately take is­sue with the term clas­sics and there are good in­tel­lec­tual rea­sons for that: the canon­is­ing im­pulse, while ir­re­sistible, is of­ten blind to its own in­ter­nalised val­ues, and a critic claim­ing clas­sic sta­tus for this or that book will of­ten sim­ply be un­con­sciously re­pro­duc­ing their own ed­u­ca­tional his­tory, which of course is also true of those who scorn all such ven­tures.

In any case, this book was writ­ten less as an in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise than as a prag­matic one, an ex­er­cise in pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion for the com­mon reader, those loyal book buy­ing, read­ing group join­ing, writ­ers fes­ti­val go­ing pun­ters who are the lifeblood of roy­alty state­ments ev­ery­where, and who want a quick, read­able guide to Aus­tralian lit­er­ary his­tory. I’m guess­ing it will also be a god­send for teach­ers and for in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors with a lit­er­ary bent.

Then there’s the mean­ing of clas­sic it­self and the ques­tion of how to de­cide what makes one. Sales fig­ures? Pub­lish­ing his­tory? Pres­ence on school and univer­sity cur­ricu­lums? Tran­scen­dence of lit­er­ary and crit­i­cal fash­ion? Or sim­ply pass­ing the so- called and much- vaunted test of time? No­body could deny a place on this list for books and sto­ries such as My Bril­liant Ca­reer , The Drover’s Wife , The Lucky Coun­try or The Man Who Loved Chil­dren , but Glee­son- White’s list also in­cludes sev­eral far more per­sonal and less well- known choices, in­clud­ing Eve Lan­g­ley’s The Pea Pick­ers , Christo­pher Bren­nan’s Lilith , and Arthur Mai­ley’s 10 for 66 and All That .

But a book re­view prob­a­bly isn’t the place for th­ese dis­cus­sions, and in any case Glee­son- White has made it clear in pub­lic state­ments, as well as in the way she has put this book to­gether, that she un­der­stands the ar­gu­ments about this kind of list- mak­ing ex­er­cise. It’s some­thing that all teach­ers and an­thol­o­gists of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture have wres­tled with: the prob­lem of com­pil­ing a read­ing list or other col­lec­tion of ma­te­rial that does not im­plic­itly claim to be an im­per­sonal, au­thor­i­ta­tive sum­mary of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, and that does not nec­es­sar­ily ex­clude from con­sid­er­a­tion ev­ery­thing that you have been obliged to leave out.

Glee­son- White deals with this prob­lem of im­plicit ex­clu­sion very clev­erly: she has asked 38 peo­ple noted for their var­i­ous con­tri­bu­tions to con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture to list their 10 favourite Aus­tralian books and th­ese lists are in­ter­spersed with Glee­son- White’s short es­says on her cho­sen 50. The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of this is a gen­uinely broad and in­clu­sive list of Aus­tralian lit­er­ary texts of all kinds, act­ing as a cor­rec­tive to the idea that there’s some kind of of­fi­cial top 50 and em­pha­sis­ing the per­sonal and sub­jec­tive na­ture of ev­ery­body’s choices, in­clud­ing Glee­son- White’s.

So what emerges is a kind of list and coun­terlist. Many of the ex­tra con­trib­u­tors in­clude Henry Han­del Richard­son’s The For­tunes of Richard Ma­hony among their 10 choices, but Glee­son- White’s Richard­son pick is The Get­ting of Wis­dom ; the most pop­u­lar He­len Gar­ner choice among the ex­tra con­trib­u­tors is The Chil­dren’s Bach , but Glee­son- White’s choice is Mon­key Grip .

I wouldn’t hes­i­tate to rec­om­mend this book to some­one who wanted a crash course in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, but there’s also more to it than that. Glee­son- White’s ear­li­est choice is Adam Lind­say Gor­don’s The Sick Stock­rider ( 1869), a poem I thought I knew well, and in her ac­count of Gor­don and his poem she tells a won­der­ful story about what he was like. Caught in a storm and shel­ter­ing un­der a tree with a friend while they waited for the storm to pass, Gor­don re­cited all the storm po­etry he knew, con­clud­ing with the en­tire tem­pest scene from King Lear . This story, which I’d never heard or read be­fore, plus the in­clu­sion on the list of The Sick Stock­rider , which I once knew by heart, sent me back to have an­other look: first at the poem, then at Gor­don’s work and life in gen­eral, and fi­nally at the won­der­ful an­thol­ogy Aus­tralian Bush Bal­lads that Douglas Ste­wart and Nancy Keesing

com­piled in 1955. Here I re­dis­cov­ered Henry Law­son’s , which, I’m slightly em­bar­rassed to re­port, still makes me cry.

clearly has its uses not only for begin­ners but also for those who al­ready know the field.

Glee­son- White also has in­cluded non­fic­tion and chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture in her list; among her 50 cho­sen clas­sics there are 10 po­ems, three chil­dren’s books, two short sto­ries and six books of gener­i­cally as­sorted non­fic­tion. She has opted to in­clude only one work for each au­thor, which must have been dif­fi­cult; any­one try­ing to com­pile a sim­i­lar list would prob­a­bly be hard put to choose just the one Pa­trick White novel, for a start, es­pe­cially since ev­ery­one has a dif­fer­ent favourite and since favourite doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily equate to clas­sic. In her in­tro­duc­tion, GleesonWhite ad­dresses this dis­tinc­tion briefly, but only to col­lapse it, re­fer­ring to the hard­est task of all: choos­ing 50 Aus­tralian books that would both re­flect some gen­er­ally recog­nised set of Aus­tralian clas­sics, as well as my own idio­syn­cratic lit­er­ary tastes’’. Glee­son- White’s White choice, for in­stance, is

, which I would agree prob­a­bly has the best claim to clas­sic sta­tus, but my favourite among White’s works is . Critic

Aus­tralian Clas­sics

Voss

Bal­lad of the Drover

‘‘

Rid­ers in the Char­iot Peter Craven, one of the peo­ple asked for a list of 10 favourites, in­cludes all of White ex­cept

. Be­cause the in­di­vid­ual lists of 10 ap­par­ently were in­tended to be of favourites rather than clas­sics, this has opened the way for some idio­syn­cratic and quirky choices. Th­ese ex­tra con­trib­u­tors in­clude not only writ­ers — Gar­ner, Frank Moor­house, Gideon Haigh, Les Murray and many oth­ers — but pub­lish­ers, crit­ics, jour­nal­ists, aca­demics, artists and film­mak­ers. There’s a par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing con­tri­bu­tion from aca­demic Mar­garet Har­ris, who pro­vides some de­tailed com­men­tary on her choices, as does writer and pub­lisher So­phie Cun­ning­ham. Film pro­ducer Mar­garet Fink likes au­to­bi­ogra­phies, Moor­house and Louis Nowra both in­clude Watkin Tench’s

Solid Man­dala

A Com­plete Ac­count of the Set­tle­ment at Port Jack­son

The Chaser’s War on Ev­ery­thing

, Andrew Hansen from lists two nov­els each by Thea Ast­ley and White, artist Jef­frey Smart is a big Richard­son fan, Har­ris lists Drusilla Mod­jeska’s ground­break­ing

and Emily Maguire likes David Marr’s .

It’s the in­evitable fate of any­one who com­piles any kind of an­thol­ogy or list of choices to be im­me­di­ately be­sieged by pro­test­ers and ob­jec­tors vin­sky’s Lunch

Pa­trick White: A Life

The

Stra- shout­ing But what about X, Y and Z?’’ So, in that vein, I’d per­haps ask why there’s no drama; surely there is room on a list of 50 for at least Ray Lawler’s , if not also Alan Sey­mour’s , David Wil­liamson’s and Jack Hib­berd’s .

If one of the cri­te­ria for clas­sic is pop­u­lar­ity and sales fig­ures, where are, say, Nevil Shute’s

, Colleen McCul­lough’s and John O’Grady’s I’m not ar­gu­ing that any of th­ese should have been on the list, only point­ing out that cer­tain cat­e­gories of writ­ing are in­evitably ren­dered in­vis­i­ble by ex­er­cises such as this.

In her in­tro­duc­tion Glee­son- White gives an en­dear­ingly per­sonal and au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count of her ex­pe­ri­ence of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, one that seems de­signed to get read­ers mus­ing about their com­pa­ra­ble ex­pe­ri­ences. And of course the se­lec­tion of 50 clas­sics and the smaller in­di­vid­ual lists of favourites will also im­me­di­ately have read­ers work­ing on their lists, if only in their heads. This book isn’t just a handy guide to Aus­tralian writ­ers, it’s also highly con­ducive to in­tro­spec­tion and rem­i­nis­cence in its Aus­tralian read­ers.

‘‘ Sum­mer of the Sev­en­teenth Doll The One Day of the Year

Don’s Party A Stretch of the Imag­i­na­tion Town Like Alice Thorn Birds Weird Mob? A The They’re a

The last word: Clock­wise from far left, top, Thea Ast­ley, Pa­trick White, Colleen McCul­lough, Watkin Tench, Drusilla Mod­jeska, Henry Han­del Richard­son, He­len Gar­ner, Adam Lind­say Gor­don, Les Murray

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