WRIT­ING WELL

In Amer­i­can scholar Ni­cholas Birns, Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture has found a com­mit­ted and hon­est um­pire, writes Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Cel­e­brated scholar Erich Auer­bach be­lieved a na­tion’s lit­er­a­ture was not a friv­o­lous ad­junct to the state but its foun­da­tional fact, its an­i­mat­ing prin­ci­ple. In an es­say only re­cently re­dis­cov­ered and pub­lished in English 70 years af­ter its com­po­si­tion, the Ger­man-Jewish philol­o­gist out­lines a cu­ri­ous the­sis. He ar­gues that the po­etry — in the ar­chaic sense of the word, re­fer­ring to a pe­riod when po­etry was the dom­i­nant lit­er­ary mode — of a par­tic­u­lar peo­ple is a record of and tes­ta­ment to their grow­ing into con­scious­ness.

The lit­er­a­ture of a na­tion is, then, the song of that old, tribal com­ing-to-be re­tooled for a world of sov­er­eign states, one that no­tates col­lec­tive char­ac­ter and even ges­tures to­wards na­tional des­tiny.

This is how Ger­many welded it­self from a patch­work of war­ring prin­ci­pal­i­ties: by re­course to Schiller and Goethe. This is how Eng­land was in­vented by Shake­speare, Span­ish be­came known as “the lan­guage of Cer­vantes”, and Wal­ter Scott and Robert Burns cre­ated Scot­land’s sense of it­self as a na­tion apart. And just as Scott re­turned to dis­tant his­tor­i­cal events to re­viv­ify mod­ern Scot­land, Auer­bach be­lieved that when civil dis­cord or in­va­sion or some other phe­nom­e­non im­peded the or­ganic growth of a na­tional lit­er­a­ture, a re­turn to well­springs — that is ear­lier, canon­i­cal works — might help restart the process.

This may sound a lit­tle volkisch to Aus­tralian ears. Cer­tainly the idea of an Aus­tralian na­tional lit­er­a­ture has taken some knocks in re­cent decades. There are those on the political Left who re­gard canons such as th­ese as the os­si­fied re­mains of world views that no longer re­flect con­tem­po­rary cir­cum­stances and ar­range­ments; they are clubs de­signed to ex­clude. Mean­while, the cul­ture-war­rior Right pays lip ser­vice to the same canon while dis­man­tling the in­fra­struc­ture that helps build and sus­tain it. It is a de­bate long de­scended into trench warfare and so re­quir­ing an out­side ar­bi­tra­tor. In Ni­cholas Birns, we have thank­fully found a good and hon­est um­pire.

Birns is a pro­fes­sor of English at The New School in New York. He is also that rarest of aca­demic birds: an Amer­i­can scholar with a spe­cial in­ter­est in Aus­tralian writ­ing. He has been editor of An­tipodes, the US jour­nal of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, since 2001, and has pub­lished widely on Ozlit sub­jects since the early 1990s.

His read­ing is broad and catholic, his judg­ments shrewd yet gen­er­ous, and his ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tions nu­anced. And in Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture: A World Not Yet Dead, he as­sem­bles a se­ries of sub­stan­tial es­says that at­tempt a sur­vey of the field of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, past and present.

“This book,” he be­gins, “is largely con­cerned with the eco­nomic phi­los­o­phy of ne­olib­er­al­ism.” Though he is not blind to the ad­van­tages ne­olib­er­al­ism brings — cul­tural di­ver­sity, free cir­cu­la­tion of goods and ideas, greater op­por­tu­ni­ties for choice — he none­the­less is wary of any sys­tem that places such utopian con­fi­dence Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture: A World Not Yet Dead By Ni­cholas Birns Syd­ney Univer­sity Press, 252pp, $30 in the pow­ers of the mar­ket. He is keen to dis­avow the “sen­ti­men­tal pes­simism” Amer­i­can scholar Stephen Green­blatt sees col­laps­ing “ev­ery­thing into a global vi­sion of dom­i­na­tion and sub­jec­tion”. Birns writes: But, like all pe­ri­ods of his­tory, the cur­rent one in­volves forms of in­jus­tice and dogma that writ­ers must defy, evade or cir­cum­vent … This era’s writ­ers have a unique chal­lenge, and this book tells the story of how, in Aus­tralia, they have re­sponded to this chal­lenge.

What links the dis­parate cast of po­ets and writ­ers in th­ese pages, from arch-for­mal­ists such as AD Hope to wild post­colo­nial orig­i­nals such as Alexis Wright, is that their work rep­re­sents a counter-nar­ra­tive to what Birns re­gards as the to­tal­is­ing ten­den­cies of ne­olib­er­al­ism. Their works sug­gest there are ways of re­spond­ing to place, or form­ing com­mu­ni­ties and re­la­tion­ships, or judg­ing value that evade the one­size-fits-all ap­proach of the mar­ket.

Most of all, the in­cor­ri­gi­bly plu­ral na­ture of Aus­tralian lit­er­ary prac­tice, the in­sta­bil­ity of its canon in re­la­tion to those An­glo­sphere mono­liths the US and Bri­tain, means the rank­ings are looser, the com­peti­tors more dis­persed (and, more re­cently, di­verse). The ba­nal di­chotomy of win­ner and loser that passes for com­pe­ti­tion in con­tem­po­rary con­trast.

So it is a lib­eral, loose-limbed, messy democ­racy of voices that Birns sum­mons up — from the old-school modernism of Christina Stead to the con­tem­po­rary eco­log­i­cal poet­ics of John Kin­sella, from Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s The Slap to Thea Ast­ley’s It’s Rain­ing in Mango. He fol­lows a sub­tle read­ing of El­iz­a­beth Har­rower’s slen­der oeu­vre with a chap­ter con­sid­er­ing the length of Aus­tralian nov­els in re­la­tion to their na­tional and in­ter­na­tional re­cep­tion, then fur­nishes the reader with a trip­tych of pieces on “ran­cour”, “ide­al­ism” and “con­cern” re­spec­tively as they play out in var­i­ous Aus­tralian texts.

His in­sights are in­formed by psy­cho­an­a­lytic the­ory, post-Marx­ist eco­nom­ics, new his­tori­cism and a dozen other the­o­ret­i­cal rubrics. Yet his prose is or­derly, his turn of phrase of­ten el­e­gant: he em­ploys the­ory where it is help­ful but main­tains a stub­bornly hu­man­is­tic en­thu­si­asm for the al­ter­na­tive worlds he en­ters as a reader.

And what he finds there is an evo­lu­tion, from the post­war wel­fare state to our hy­per­tro­phied con­sumer cul­ture, that has de­manded dif­fer­ent strate­gies in cri­tique. Alex Hope’s po­etry “had an an­i­mus against mod­ern in­no­va­tion”, loathed

so­ci­ety

feels

im­pov­er­ished by

A scene from the TV adap­ta­tion of Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s

novel The Slap

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