Syd­ney Push and fam­ily pull

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

El­egy for Jan, For Wil­liam his lit­er­ary he­roes, Stevens, who worked by day as an in­sur­ance ex­ec­u­tive, Lehmann wisely com­mits to a ca­reer ‘‘un­con­nected with lit­er­a­ture’’ and be­comes a tax­a­tion lawyer.

But while his pro­fes­sional or­bit proves a far cry from the Push, Lehmann’s friend­ships with gi­ants of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture and art, among them Ken­neth Slessor, Patrick White, Ju­dith Wright and painter Charles Blackman, en­dure.

Comic rev­e­la­tions in­clude the fact that Slessor bit­terly hated the mu­sic of Bob Dy­lan and that poet Michael Drans­field mis­used his day job, a position at the tax of­fice, by look­ing up fel­low po­ets’ tax re­turns and quizzing them about their prop­erty hold­ings.

More fas­ci­nat­ing is Lehmann’s ac­count of his friend­ship with Mur­ray, which was clearly a mu­tu­ally ap­pre­cia­tive and pro­duc­tive one for a num­ber of years be­fore even­tu­ally sour­ing; and his en­dur­ing bond with Robert Gray, with whom he edited sev­eral in­flu­en­tial an­tholo­gies that be­came piv­otal shots across the bow in the so-called po­etry wars.

Mer­ci­fully, the in­ternecine squab­bling that pre­oc­cu­pied Aus­tralian po­etry for an in­or­di­nate stretch gets short shrift. Sur­pris­ingly, so too does Lehmann’s ac­count of the break­down of his first mar­riage in the wake of his wife Sally’s ro­mance with the poet Peter Porter, an erst­while friend. He doc­u­ments the events mat­terof-factly, but con­comi­tant emo­tion is muted.

While Lee­ward of­fers im­pres­sion­is­tic ac­counts of the poet’s artis­tic friend­ships, it is not, at heart, a sus­tained reck­on­ing with how and why Lehmann pur­sued a life in po­etry. Rather, the most press­ing ma­te­rial for the poet ap­pears to be his fam­ily his­tory, which oc­cu­pies sig­nif­i­cant swaths of the text.

This pro­duces a some­what lop­sided rhythm, as chap­ters os­cil­late be­tween the fre­netic swirl of artis­tic ac­quain­tances and qui­eter med­i­ta­tions on the lives of Lehmann’s mother, sis­ter, fa­ther and grand­par­ents. He of­fers par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive and mov­ing por­traits of his fa­ther, an au­to­di­dac­tic, en­tre­pre­neur­ial type and an in­vet­er­ate tin­kerer who made a liv­ing tak­ing pic­nick­ers out on his launch in Laven­der Bay, and his sis­ter Diana, who suf­fered from a con­gen­i­tal adrenal con­di­tion that cast a sig­nif­i­cant shadow across her life.

At the cen­tre of it all, how­ever, Lehmann him­self re­mains elu­sive: he sidesteps much of the emo­tional vul­ner­a­bil­ity that is de rigueur in con­tem­po­rary mem­oir, and is seem­ingly a more com­fort­able ob­server of oth­ers than of him­self.

By far the most pow­er­ful pas­sages are Lehmann’s reflections on his early child­hood on

Ge­of­frey Lehmann

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