The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

I never met Agnes Nieuwen­huizen but I val­ued her work as a writer and critic, her life-chang­ing ded­i­ca­tion to chil­dren’s and young adult lit­er­a­ture, her pas­sion for the un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated art of trans­la­tion, and her sense of hu­mour. Nieuwen­huizen, 78, died sud­denly from an aor­tic dis­sec­tion on Septem­ber 14. She lived, with her hus­band John, a re­spected trans­la­tor, in Wood­end, Vic­to­ria. She is sur­vived by two adult chil­dren, Max and Jackie, and six grand­chil­dren, and by lots and lots of other kids who owe her a debt. She helped them dis­cover books. Sadly, her el­dest child, John, a pub­lisher and former di­rec­tor of the Mel­bourne Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, died in 2006, from the same heart prob­lem that has now claimed his mother.

I made con­tact with Agnes in 2010, when I was ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian Lit­er­ary Re­view. She started writ­ing re­views for me, oc­ca­sion­ally on chil­dren’s and YA books but usu­ally on adult lit­er­a­ture. I still re­mem­ber one of her first , be­cause it is a per­cep­tive, em­pa­thetic piece of writ­ing and be­cause both books and both au­thors re­main im­por­tant to me: Bereft by Chris Womer­s­ley and Traitor by Stephen Dais­ley.

So Agnes and I had a lit­er­ary friend­ship, a won­der­ful turn of phrase I have bor­rowed from Julian Barnes, who uses it on this page to de­scribe his re­la­tion­ship with Pierre Ry­ck­mans.

I hope “Agnes and I” is gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect. I’m go­ing to re­mem­ber Agnes here to­day by quot­ing from a few of her emails to me over the years. “Re your re­quest for an­noy­ing gram­mat­i­cal er­rors,” she said af­ter I wrote a col­umn on the topic.

“My cur­rent pet hate is the mis­use of me/I. BE­TWEEN YOU AND I ... HE PAID JOHN AND I WELL … etc etc. GRRR! Is this one bat­tle we have lost, like the reg­u­lar use of DISINTERESTED for UNINTERESTED? I’m frus­trated by peo­ple say­ing: ‘But does it mat­ter?’ Do you think it does? Am I a pedant? And couldn’t agree more about er­rant apos­tro­phes.”

A pedant? No. Some­one who cared about lan­guage (she was flu­ent in three)? Yes.

The sad­dest and yet finest email I re­ceived from Agnes was the last one, which ar­rived the day af­ter she died. At first I was pleased to re­ceive it, as I as­sumed it would con­tain the re­view she owed me, one I wanted to run this week­end. But while the email came from Agnes Ni­uewen­huizen it was writ­ten by her hus­band.

John told me that Agnes had died un­ex­pect­edly dur­ing the night. He added that, only hours ear­lier, “she told me the re­view of A Fuhrer for a Fa­ther was com­plete and she was go­ing to cut 100 words out of it the fol­low­ing day be­fore send­ing it to you”. He had at­tached the re­view, for me “to do with as you wish”. He said Agnes greatly val­ued be­ing asked to write re­views for this news­pa­per. I re­turn the feel­ing.

There is some­thing noble about this brief email ex­change, some­thing I think per­haps is spe­cial to the gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralians now in their 70s and 80s. A cour­tesy, a ci­vil­ity, a thought­ful­ness, and a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity at a time when such a small re­spon­si­bil­ity could be al­lowed to slide. I have run Agnes’s fi­nal re­view here to­day, and I did not cut the ex­tra 100 words. I re­gret they are the last ones I will have.

Agnes’s par­ents were Hun­gar­ian. She was born in Iran and the fam­ily em­i­grated to Aus­tralia in 1978. She worked as a high school teacher and it was in this role that she started work­ing to lift na­tional at­ten­tion to­wards writ­ing for chil­dren and young adults. In 1991 she es­tab­lished the Youth Lit­er­a­ture Project at Writ­ers Vic­to­ria. Eight years later this de­vel­oped into the Cen­tre for Youth Lit­er­a­ture at the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria. Her books in­clude the bench­mark 2007 com­pi­la­tion Right Book, Right Time: 500 Great Reads for Teenagers.

In 1994 she re­ceived the Drom­keen Medal for her con­tri­bu­tion to Aus­tralian chil­dren’s and YA lit­er­a­ture. Pre­vi­ous and sub­se­quent re­cip­i­ents in­clude Mau­rice Saxby, Pa­tri­cia Wright­son, Mem Fox, Colin Thiel, Graeme Base, Ivan Southall, Ruth Park, Shaun Tan and Andy Grif­fiths.

Agnes was a critic who liked to be in­vig­o­rated by books from near and far. When I asked her late last year to re­view a mem­oir by Les Mur­ray’s wife Valerie, she agreed, but added: “A friend ob­served that I seemed to be ‘the mem­oir queen’! Happy to re­view them but wouldn’t mind some va­ri­ety if any­thing suit­able ap­pears.” I was tempted to send her an­other mem­oir. I think she would have ap­pre­ci­ated the joke. But I didn’t. Agnes said she was keen to read Mar­garet Drab­ble’s then new novel, The Dark Flood Rises. “She is ex­actly the same age as me and I have loved her books that seem to doc­u­ment my life.”

Speak­ing of cel­e­brated in­ter­na­tional nov­el­ists, Agnes said my “won­der­ful and gutsy” (thank you!) in­ter­view with Richard Ford this year took her back to her first book, No Kid­ding, a col­lec­tion of in­ter­views with a dozen Aus­tralian YA writ­ers. “I well re­call the few writ­ers who were pre­pared to ar­gue about al­most every word and es­pe­cially, as Ford was, about my in­ter­pre­ta­tions. This was be­fore we had a com­puter and I couldn’t type so my ever will­ing John re­typed sev­eral hand­writ­ten ver­sions. One writer ac­tu­ally cut and pasted what I thought was the fi­nal ver­sion!” She ended with that cour­tesy I have men­tioned. While she ad­mired how I ar­gued a bit with Ford, her plan for the week­end was to go out and buy his book.

That sym­pa­thetic open-mind­ed­ness, that abil­ity to see both sides of a story and to un­der­stand an au­thor’s in­vest­ment, was char­ac­ter­is­tic of her re­views. Sub­mit­ting a re­view of a fic­tion-non­fic­tion col­lec­tion by an Aus­tralian writer, she said: “I’ve pos­si­bly been a bit gen­er­ous … He does whinge a lot. Clearly feels hard done by but I’d rather err this way given his ob­vi­ously tough road.” At a time when one of the most cov­eted lit­er­ary awards in Bri­tain is the Hatchet Job of the Year, that old­fash­ioned mag­na­nim­ity is to be cher­ished.

Agnes some­times sug­gested a book I had not fac­tored in. I al­ways lis­tened. A Horse Walks into a Bar, by Is­raeli writer David Gross­man, is a re­cent ex­am­ple. “Many thanks for giv­ing me the op­por­tu­nity to re­view this,” she said. “To my shame I had never read Gross­man, a griev­ous over­sight I am about to rec­tify. It’s a spe­cial book and do­ing the re­view has en­cour­aged me to do quite a bit of re­search. Some­thing I al­ways en­joy.” The thank you, again, should go to the re­viewer, not the ed­i­tor. Her re­view was so good I put it on the open­ing pages.

Agnes said the book, trans­lated from He­brew, also made her think about the need to draw at­ten­tion to lit­er­ary trans­la­tion. She said this coun­try had no­table trans­la­tors, “though they gar­ner lit­tle at­ten­tion and gain less and less work in Aus­tralia. It al­ways puzzles me that for such a suc­cess­ful mul­ti­cul­tural na­tion, with many so­phis­ti­cated read­ers, we ig­nore this field.”

Agnes liked it when I men­tioned, or wrote about, my son, who is now 12. She gen­er­ously sug­gested books he might like. When we read Homer’s The Odyssey dur­ing a Clas­sics Il­lus­trated phase, she made con­tact. “In case your 11yo lad might be in­ter­ested we have bought a truly gor­geous retelling, by the al­ways won­der­ful Gil­lian Cross, of The Iliad for our 11yo grand­son. A beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated and gen­er­ally lovely book.” Syd and I bought a copy, and we agreed.

A fi­nal trib­ute: Agnes sent in her re­views be­fore or by dead­line and at the agreed word count. For that alone she de­serves a plaque on the Syd­ney Writ­ers Walk at Cir­cu­lar Quay.

Agnes Nieuwen­huizen at the Cen­tre for Youth Lit­er­a­ture in 1999

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