Peter Pierce on two lit­er­a­ture lovers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Peter Pierce

The Burn­ing Li­brary: Our Great Nov­el­ists Lost and Found By Ge­ordie Wil­liamson Text Pub­lish­ing, 224pp, $32.99

By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life By Ra­mona Ko­val Text Pub­lish­ing, 250pp, $32.99 (HB)


FROM Text Pub­lish­ing come two com­ple­men­tary books that cel­e­brate how read­ing can be an es­sen­tial en­rich­ment of our lives. Yet the tones of voice of Ra­mona Ko­val’s By the Book and Ge­ordie Wil­liamson’s The Burn­ing Li­brary are ut­terly dif­fer­ent. Each sub­ti­tle is re­veal­ing. Ko­val prom­ises, am­bi­tiously, A Reader’s Guide to Life. Wil­liamson de­clares tren­chantly that we can ex­pect chal­leng­ing news of Our Great Nov­el­ists Lost and Found.

Ko­val of­fers an oc­ca­sion­ally melan­choly, but al­ways lively, widely in­formed and in­quis­i­tive ac­count of the ex­tent to which a life ought in part to be lived through and de­fined by books. In­deed, this was a sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ment in her pro­fes­sional life, as the long-time pre­sen­ter of The Book Show on ABC Ra­dio Na­tional.

The world of books also pro­vides Wil­liamson with a liv­ing, as chief lit­er­ary critic for this news­pa­per. His mis­sion in The Burn­ing Li­brary is a fiercely com­bat­ive one. On the one hand, this is a jeremiad (a favoured word of his) against the be­trayal of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture from within our uni­ver­si­ties; on the other, a re­cu­per­a­tion (an­other word, less for­tu­nate, that he likes) of nov­el­ists whom he be­lieves to be among the finest who have writ­ten in, and of, Aus­tralia, but whose rep­u­ta­tions have faded or been sul­lied.

Of these two pas­sion­ate, if dis­parate, projects that il­lu­mi­nate the lit­er­ary scene in Aus­tralia, Wil­liamson’s is the more ag­o­nised and ur­gent as it com­mands at­ten­tion and in­vites dis­pute. Ko­val’s ap­proach is milder, one that is im­bued with a gen­er­ous sense of how much lit­er­a­ture there is to com­mend and rec­om­mend. She does not de­fend an em­bat­tled canon or tradition, as Wil­liamson does. In­stead, Ko­val shares ‘‘ the authors that have writ­ten them­selves into her life’’.

What she has read be­comes a vi­brant, al­ter­na­tive cal­en­dar of her days. We be­gin with the child of Holo­caust sur­vivors, liv­ing with her par­ents in a tiny flat in Mel­bourne’s St Kilda. Read­ers who, like Ko­val, were born in the 1950s will share a fa­mil­iar jour­ney, from Lit­tle Golden Books to Enid Blyton (with­out apol­ogy), to Os­car Wilde’s The Happy Prince, the sto­ries of Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen and the se­ries of school read­ers.

Ko­val is also sen­si­ble of not hav­ing read ‘‘ all the books for kids’’ — no CS Lewis, nor Tolkien, nor The Wind in the Wil­lows — no mat­ter how avidly she raided the shelves of the Cam­ber­well Mo­bile Li­brary.

Books for adults came her way. Im­prob­a­bly, she per­suaded her mother (a woman no­tably more lib­eral about her daugh­ter’s read­ing than her so­cial life) to buy her a copy of the Kama Su­tra. On an­other oc­ca­sion, though, she wit­nessed a ter­ri­fy­ing fight be­tween her par­ents af­ter her fa­ther showed her a mag­a­zine with pho­to­graphs of the slaugh­tered of Auschwitz.

For Ko­val, read­ing was never in­nocu­ous. Her mother, ‘‘ a poly­glot who spoke to me in bro­ken English’’, col­lab­o­rated in Ko­val’s quests as a reader, and read vo­ra­ciously her­self. The book’s open­ing im­age is of her rapt in a book, ‘‘ lost to us’’. Be­fore the age of 50, she was truly lost. Ko­val gives us frag­ments of her par­ents’ un­happy mar­riage, down to the fa­ther’s de­ser­tion for an­other woman as her mother was dy­ing of leukaemia.

By the Book takes us on in­trigu­ing jour­neys not only through books, but to meet­ings with authors (Grace Pa­ley in New York is a high­light), trav­els to wilder reaches of the world — New Guinea, north Queens­land — and, al­most fore­or­dained, to the work that so ful­filled her at the ABC.

There are med­i­ta­tions on ‘‘ read­ing the right book at the right time’’, on ‘‘ read­ing while trav­el­ling’’ and ‘‘ read­ing for money, read­ing for love’’. The ex­cite­ment with which Ko­val still ap­proaches each new book, plung­ing in ‘‘ head first, heart deep’’, fur­nishes the last words of this ur­bane and en­light­en­ing work of her own.

Ko­val ends with a mis­cel­la­neous book list, as does Wil­liamson in The Burn­ing Li­brary, al­though his is de­scribed as ‘‘ more of a men­tal map than a strict, schol­arly ac­count of my read­ing’’. He in­cludes, as well, ‘‘ an idio­syn­cratic check­list of other Aus­tralian books, a kind of al­ter­na­tive study’’.

In do­ing so, he re­laxes from the in­ten­sity that has sus­tained close and par­ti­san read­ings of 15 20th-cen­tury Aus­tralian authors of fic­tion (the tally in­cludes the col­lab­o­ra­tion known as M. Barnard Elder­shaw).

First there is his in­tro­duc­tion, whose open­ing sen­tence is a taste of the mem­o­rable starts that her­ald each sec­tion of the book: ‘‘ For a long time there was so such thing as Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.’’ Then, he ar­gues, there was: for a half cen­tury from the pub­li­ca­tion in 1938 of Xavier Her­bert’s Capricornia. Now, ‘‘ Ozlit is dead’’ and the uni­ver­si­ties, prin­ci­pally, are to blame.

This com­plaint, by now well known, is nonethe­less in need of con­stant (if de­s­pair­ing) re­state­ment: ‘‘ uni­ver­si­ties have ceased to pre­serve the best of our writ­ing for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions’’; they have ‘‘ adopted an en­trepreneuri­al­ism that was in­im­i­cal to their his­tor­i­cal func­tion of dis­in­ter­ested in­quiry’’.

Wil­liamson blames the rise of the­ory for rel­e­gat­ing Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture in im­por­tance, for de­rid­ing the no­tion of a canon of its great­est works. Thanks to cul­tural stud­ies, he re­marks acidly, you may ‘‘ study Jackie Collins’s The Stud at Mel­bourne Univer­sity, but noth­ing by Ran­dolph Stow’’. For once Wil­liamson errs on the side of po­lite­ness. Some of those who teach lit­er­a­ture in our uni­ver­si­ties know lit­tle of any of it. They are sus­pi­cious and an­tag­o­nis­tic to shield their ig­no­rance.

Wil­liamson’s undertaking, how­ever, is a pos­i­tive one, ‘‘ an at­tempt to re­con­sti­tute a lost back­story of our lit­er­a­ture’’. The fig­ures he has cho­sen ‘‘ ap­prox­i­mate a tradition, al­beit a weird one’’. They are marked by ‘‘ ec­cen­tric­ity’’; are all com­mit­ted to reck­on­ings of place; are ‘‘ car­ri­ers of knowl­edge about peo­ple, a vivid gallery of Aus­tralian selves’’.

Wil­liamson al­most pro­claims the re­turn of rad­i­cal na­tion­al­ism as the strain that ought to be re­garded as dom­i­nant in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture. This may ex­plain the sig­nal omis­sions of two ex­pa­tri­ates. There is nei­ther a chap­ter on Martin Boyd, an ac­claimed Aus­tralian nov­el­ist as re­cently as the 1970s, whose rep­u­ta­tion has fallen more swiftly and fur­ther than any­one’s, nor one on Henry Han­del Richard­son.

If Boyd is nei­ther taught nor read, that is not yet Richard­son’s fate. (On the other hand, Wil­liamson is keenly aware of how many im­por­tant works of our lit­er­a­ture can be

nei­ther taught nor read, for they are long out of print.)

In­stead of these two, he turns first to an­other pair: Mar­jorie Barnard and Flora Elder­shaw, once suc­cess­ful and ex­per­i­men­tal lit­er­ary col­lab­o­ra­tors, if now nearly for­got­ten. With them, Wil­liamson con­tends, ‘‘ a proto-fem­i­nist self-con­scious­ness be­gan to colour rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Aus­tralian past’’. As of­ten in The Burn­ing Li­brary, Wil­liamson prof­fers un­ex­pected and il­lu­mi­nat­ing com­par­isons. He likens Barnard and Elder­shaw to such other ‘‘ writ­ers who stand against the vir­u­lent strains of the mod­ern’’ as the English ‘‘ psy­cho­geog­ra­pher’’ Iain Sin­clair and the French nov­el­ist Michel Houelle­becq. That’s good com­pany.

Later he com­pares Dal Stivens with Joseph Fur­phy: both were ‘‘ back­block moral­ists, in­stinc­tive democrats and au­to­di­dacts’’. This is in the cause of a nearly suc­cess­ful at­tempt to re­ha­bil­i­tate Stivens for the present time.

Throughout, Wil­liamson writes pun­gently: of Her­bert that ‘‘ his learn­ing was lim­ited, his nar­cis­sism leg­endary and his will­ing­ness to court con­tro­versy un­matched’’, while Christina Stead’s prose style was ‘‘ end­lessly self-re­plen­ish­ing, ex­or­bi­tantly in ex­cess of re­quire­ments’’. Sumner Locke El­liott was ‘‘ born into melo­drama as some are born into poverty’’. With Jes­sica An­der­son (and oth­ers in mind), Wil­liamson says that ‘‘ the whit­tling away of a writer’s rep­u­ta­tion is al­ways a sur­pris­ing and some­what melan­choly process’’.

Thus The Mac­quarie PEN An­thol­ogy of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture (2010) is reg­u­larly ar­raigned by Wil­liamson for its sins of omis­sion, no­tably of David Ire­land. The rise of ne­olib­er­al­ism, Wil­liamson judges (apart

from Ire­land’s ‘‘ dreary litany of porn and misog­yny’’), has led to the eclipse of this

‘‘ eu­lo­gist of a van­quished tribe’’, the ur­ban pro­le­tariat of Ire­land’s two great nov­els, The Un­known In­dus­trial Pris­oner and The Glass Ca­noe.

In Wil­liamson’s view, ne­olib­eral ide­ol­ogy has not only de­spoiled whole uni­ver­si­ties but also claimed in­ci­den­tal vic­tims such as Ire­land. The case is put co­gently, dar­ing dis­agree­ment, as is al­ways his way. Cour­te­sies are ob­served for authors, for in­stance three of the women writ­ers on whom he con­cen­trates: the late-de­vel­op­ing ca­reers of Amy Wit­ting and Olga Masters, the self­trun­cated one of El­iz­a­beth Har­rower (who is also a favourite of Ko­val).

Not much cour­tesy is spared for those who are paid to pro­fess lit­er­a­ture, but who in­stead be­tray it. Wil­liamson’s writ­ing be­longs to a great tradition of Aus­tralian lit­er­ary criticism from out­side the academy (think of AA Phillips, Vance and Net­tie Palmer, and John Man­i­fold, among many). It is just such a stand­point that will en­rage those whom he

has ex­posed in The Burn­ing Li­brary. They may yet lack the power to erase from mem­ory and present de­light the authors of whom he has writ­ten in this bril­liant, un­obliged and pro­vok­ing work.

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