James Bradley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Now in its 37th year, Vo­gel’s Lit­er­ary Award has be­come an in­sti­tu­tion. Awarded to an un­pub­lished man­u­script by a writer un­der 35, it has helped launch the ca­reers of au­thors such as Tim Win­ton, Kate Grenville, An­drew McGa­han and Gil­lian Mears. It has de­liv­ered a lit­er­ary scan­dal in the shape of Helen Darville/Demi­denko. And it has of­fered a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow to the trans­for­ma­tion of Aus­tralian cul­ture and so­ci­ety across the past four decades.

Although sev­eral re­cent win­ners have been highly orig­i­nal in their con­cep­tion, there’s little doubt this year’s, Marija Peri­cic’s The Lost Pages, is strik­ingly so, tak­ing the friend­ship be­tween Franz Kafka and his friend and edi­tor Max Brod and trans­form­ing it into a nar­ra­tive that is de­lib­er­ately Kafkaesque.

The story of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two men is well known. The dy­ing Kafka in­structed Brod to burn un­read “ev­ery­thing I leave be­hind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, let­ters (my own and oth­ers’), sketches and so on”. Brod re­fused, later declar­ing Kafka “should have ap­pointed another ex­ecu­tor if he had been ab­so­lutely and fi­nally de­ter­mined that his in­struc­tions should stand”.

He in­stead sets about re­vis­ing his friend’s re­main­ing work, the pub­li­ca­tion of which ce­mented Kafka’s rep­u­ta­tion as one of the ge­niuses of 20th-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture.

Peri­cic’s novel does not so much insert it­self into the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two men as The Lost Pages By Marija Peri­cic Allen & Un­win, 269pp, $29.99 Clos­ing Down By Sally Ab­bott Ha­chette, 282pp, $29.99 reimag­ine it whole­sale. Pur­port­ing to be a sec­tion of Brod’s mem­oir as­sem­bled from hand­writ­ten notes in ex­er­cise books, pho­to­graphs and doc­u­ments, it ar­rives gar­landed with all the ap­pa­ra­tus of schol­arly study: edi­tor’s notes and af­ter­word, foot­notes, in­serted words and sen­tences where wa­ter dam­age has made the orig­i­nal il­leg­i­ble. It re­counts the ap­pear­ance of Kafka in Brod’s life and the con­se­quent dis­or­der and con­fu­sion that cre­ates.

The ver­sion of events pre­sented in the novel di­verges from the ac­cepted ac­count in many re­spects (not least in chronol­ogy: although the The Aus­tralian/ Kafka’s iden­tity map­ping on to nu­mer­ous po­ten­tial sub­jects. Even Brod, with his twisted legs and spine, finds oth­ers be­com­ing con­fused about his iden­tity, mis­taken not just for Franz but for his own dead brother.

Although Peri­cic writes with ad­mirable clar­ity and con­sid­er­able en­ergy, at a line-by-line level the novel only in­ter­mit­tently cap­tures the sheer strange­ness of Kafka’s fic­tion, its apho­ris­tic bril­liance and pe­cu­liar com­bi­na­tion of pre­ci­sion and in­de­ter­mi­nacy. Yet de­spite that The Lost Pages is a strik­ingly as­sured and won­der­fully orig­i­nal per­for­mance. For as Brod’s frus­tra­tion and de­spair grow ever more in­tense the fas­ci­na­tion with ob­ses­sion and iden­tity, dou­bling and im­pos­tors, ac­quires real charge, pro­vok­ing larger ques­tions about the na­ture of lit­er­ary iden­tity, fic­tion and fic­tion­al­ity, and fi­nally — and most sat­is­fy­ingly — the fic­tion­al­ity of author­ship it­self.

The Richell Prize was es­tab­lished in 2014 in mem­ory of Ha­chette pub­lisher Matt Richell, who died in a surf­ing ac­ci­dent that year. Like the Vo­gel it is aimed at emerg­ing writ­ers, with two dif­fer­ences: first, there’s no age limit; sec­ond, the writer must be un­pub­lished. The award teams win­ning writ­ers with pro­fes­sional men­tors be­fore edit­ing and pub­li­ca­tion.

Sally Ab­bott’s Clos­ing Down is the first Richell win­ner. Set a few decades from now, the novel takes place in a world in up­heaval, its bor­ders and sys­tems de­ranged by cli­mate change and geopo­lit­i­cal tur­moil.

The ex­act na­ture of much of this tur­moil is

Vo­gel’s Lit­er­ary Award win­ner Marija Peri­cic

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