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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Gleeson-White’

SWF LogoIt was a grey, cold and wet start to the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) today, but I kicked it off in great style with ‘The Uncommon Reader’. Tegan Bennett Daylight chaired an engaging panel discussion with respected critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White on what books have inspired them, from their formative years through to their predictions on the classics of tomorrow. I’ll just pick out a few talking points…

There was a discussion about the moment they began to feel like they wanted or needed to reply to books. James said it wasn’t until university that he was taught to read better, at which point he began to be a better reader, or observer, of the world as well. I think this is true of all us readers.

Both Geordie and Jane spoke of the enthusiasm that works such as Wood’s The Broken Estate allowed them to have. Jane said she still reads with a child’s enthusiasm now, something that was evident when she spoke about her favourites.

For James, he wanted to be able to write about things that made him DSC03665 - Harbour Bridge in Mistwant to burst out and say ‘this is bloody good!’. He writes not for academics, but for other readers.

Tegan asked a great question about what are the books that these avid readers return to, time and again. For Geordie, it is V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. From Naipaul, post-colonial literature emerges. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a most ‘writerly’ book, something he leafs through when he feels a little stale.

James also admires Naipaul, noting A House for Mr Biswas as a very funny and poignant work. But for him, ‘the one’ is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a favourite of mine too. It has, he said, the thing so many works of fiction lack: the ideal ending.

Jane gets excited about any new translations of works by Homer and Tolstoy. But the two works she picked out are F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its ‘flawless prose’ (she read a passage of this out, endearingly trying not to cry!), and a favourite of mine: Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (my review).

Thoughts then turned to books and writers of today that will last. Tegan offered Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro. Geordie split the discussion into local and international contexts. For his local, he gave Tim Winton, admiring Winton’s ability to pull off writing that appeals to a wide audience and is also ‘pregnant with intelligence’. He had a smile when saying Stephen Romei had rung him to say the new Winton has just been delivered (expect it on your nearest bookshelf soon! – no title was given). For a global context, he offered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a ‘generational shift’, and praised the first page of Wallace’s unfinished work The Pale King.

James echoed Geordie’s praise of the opening to The Pale King, and agreed with Tim Winton. To that he added his admiration for Peter Carey, saying that while he liked his more recent works, he is eagerly hoping for the next ‘great novel’ from him, something to rival Illywhacker (my review) and Oscar and Lucinda (my review). (Given they are two of my favourite novels, I couldn’t agree more!) He also noted Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel. For his international, he picked out W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (which is featured in Wood’s most recent work of criticism The Fun Stuff and Other Essays). 

For Jane, it is Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the one that ‘knocked her socks off’ recently was Atomised by French author Michel Houellebecq, which had James Wood nodding too. Jane was positively gushing in her praise, and has blogged about Atomised at Bookish Girl.

For all that, the one author not mentioned, but mentioned by an audience member in a question was Jane Austen. Geordie swung this to Tegan, who re-reads every Austen each year, (and is an admirer of Northanger Abbey, whereas Jane Gleeson-White said she’s more a Persuasion fan (as am I).

I left with the feeling that if I had only attended one session at this years’ festival, then this would have been a great one to choose. The reading list alone would keep me going with great reads for a good while. The panel spoke with intelligence, wit, and above all, enthusiasm about the thing that brings us all together: books.

I’ll have more SWF musings over the coming days and weeks.

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A muse on tonight’s talk at the State Library of NSW entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, featuring Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Presented in conjunction with the Stella Literary Prize, there was a lively discussion of several Australian women authors who deserve a wider audience for their work. There couldn’t be two better-placed people to discuss the topic than Jane, blogger at Bookish Girl and author of the very accessible Australian Classics (see my review here), and Geordie, chief literary critic at The Australian and author of the recently published The Burning Library.

Jane aptly started off proceedings by declaring 2012 the year of the woman writer in Australia, with so many awards won by the likes of Anna Funder and Gillian Mears (see my review of Foal’s Bread here). The subsequent discussion touched on the issues of the imbalance of women-to-men in publication and reviewing statistics, and how even some of the published women’s stories in the twentieth century were edited by men for a particular assumed audience, during which the essence or flow had been excised and the story sadly depleted. As a bit of an idealist, I just find this sort of bias mind-bending and terribly sad. Anyway, we soon dived into a discussion of the following authors and their works:

  • Barbara Baynton: short stories, particularly, as Jane noted, the ‘chilling’ The Broken Vessel.
  • Judith Wright: how her second intimate poetry collection ‘Woman to Man’ was not published because it was considered ‘too obstetric’.
  • M Barnard Eldershaw: this was one of Geordie’s picks… or should I say two? -for, as Geordie explained, MBE was actually two women: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both highly intelligent, Geordie explained the cruel curtailing of Barnard’s dreams of taking up a place she won at Oxford by her father. She said, ‘Life is backed up in me for miles and miles’, such a heart-rending expression. Their novel A House is Built was discussed. Set in 1830s Sydney, it is the story of a successful early merchant – and sounds just up my street – expect a review of this soon(ish!). Other works include Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Geordie described how these women authors worked within the masculine rule book of publication, but did so with a very feminine focus as well as a subversive (and therefore much more interesting) streak. They were hugely influential on a certain Patrick White, too. And it wasn’t just their fiction, for they also wrote a lot of critical work, including reviews of the young Christina Stead. Marjorie Barnard went on to write solo; her works include The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories.
  • Henry Handel Richardson: Jane commented that HHR’s Maurice Guest is perhaps her favourite novel by an Australian author (to which she quickly added Voss and Carpentaria!). Her debut novel, it is, in Jane’s words, an ‘overblown, passionate, Wagnerian story. Set in Leipzig, it centres on a love triangle, with poor Maurice the hapless dupe who’s in love with the gifted music student, Louise Dufrayer. For Jane, it shines every bit if not more than HHR’s more recognised ‘Australian’ works The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
  • Christina Stead: Geordie said the neglect shown to HHR’s Maurice Guest applies to all of Christina Stead’s work – cue much nodding of knowledgeable heads in the audience! Jonathan Franzen is not the first to acknowledge Stead as one of the great twentieth century novelists, said Geordie. Many other critics and authors have said much the same thing. Yet still Stead sits in the shadows: she sold 199-odd books in 2008 and was only taught in one Australian University. Why? Is it because of her ‘intelligent ferocity’ an approach she had to life and to writing? Is it because ‘we like our modernism light and our Booker Prize novels well edited? Jane agreed that Stead can be difficult, admitting it had taken her a few attempts to get through The Man who Loved Children, but now adores her. Other titles of Stead’s mentioned included For Love Alone and The Salzburg Tales, a book of short stories.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, and how the Indigenous voices are starting to pick up the stories written in our landscape, by writers such as Alexis Wright (see my review of Carpentaria here) and Kim Scott (see my review of That Deadman Dance here).
  • Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here.
  • Exiles at Home by Drusilla Modjeska was also mentioned as a great way into this world of neglected Australian female authors.

An hour well spent!

It was a shame there weren’t more literature lovers in the audience this evening. I hope there’s a similar session at next year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the topic deserves as wide an audience as the female writers discussed.

In the meantime, there’s so many Australian women authors demanding my attention, it’s hard to know where to start…

Happy reading…

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The Plains by Gerald MurnaneThe Plains by Gerald Murnane is a hallucinatory novella. It is narrated by an unnamed man hailing from the coastal region of Australia who is recounting the time he travelled to the inner plains in order to seek a patron amongst the almost mythical ‘plainsmen’ with the goal of making a film about the plains. The film is to be called The Interior.

It’s a mysterious read, one that draws you into a very interior landscape—a chief concern of Murnane. Indeed, reading the first-person story, one feels that Murnane is talking, and talking as much to himself as the reader. It’s the interior in every sense of the word, and the fact it was part of an intended larger work reinforces this notion: Murnane has pulled the interior out of a greater whole. The filmmaker writes: ‘I had sometimes thought of The Interior as a few scenes from a much longer film that could only be seen from a vantage point that I knew nothing of.’

It’s all so post-modern, no?

For lovers of ‘story’, of plot, of characters with actual names actively engaging with each other using, oh, I don’t know, let’s say dialogue, look elsewhere: this is not the book for you.

It opens with the narrator recounting the day he came to the plains. He describes the gathering of wannabe artists looking for a patron amongst the plainsmen, how they gather in a pub where they are called one-by-one over the course of several days to present their ‘pitch’ as it were. The plainsmen drink themselves into a stupor of sobriety. While our filmmaker waits, he recalls the bizarre conflict between different plainsmen, the Horizonites and the Haremen, and the colours of the two sides, one green-gold, the other blue.

… the whole matter had begun with a cautiously expressed manifesto signed by an obscure group of poets and painters. I did not even know the year … only that it fell during a decade when the artists of the plains were finally refusing to allow the word ‘Australian’ to be applied to themselves or their work.

Is this Murnane thinking of himself? Is he classifying his work? Shaking off the cultural cringe that was still in place in the early 80s? Or is he just a fan of irony given the concern over the hard physical landscape that forms the backdrop to so many of our great Australian novels? I have no answers.

This is what makes The Plains so beguiling. I felt like I was walking through a rather pleasant fog in which I occasionally spotted something concrete, only for it to disappear as soon as I could focus on it. The more I walked toward this something, the further away it seemed, just like will o’ the wisp.

Even the two warring factions acknowledge this ‘haze’ in the plains themselves, with one group saying ‘the zone of haze was as much a part of the plains as any configuration of soil or clouds.’

There are separatists and splinter groups of splinter groups, with the extreme position being to deny the existence of any nation with the name Australia, because ‘the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men.’

A wry humour is never far from present. Once our narrator gets in to see the plainsmen, he finds them having three different conversations at once, each ‘advancing steadily’. Pity the poor wife of ‘2nd Landowner’, for he seems destined to see everything through the prism of bustards, a type of bird than he seems quite enamoured with! This section gives us some of the only dialogue in the book, presented like a farcical play, as they circle around the topic of a classic poem about the plains entitled ‘Parasol at Noon’. The 4th Landowner recalls the scene of a plainsman looking at a girl in the distance with all the paddocks (unsurprisingly) swimming in heat haze. The 6th Landowner says:

That is the only scene as I recall the poem. Two hundred stanzas on a woman seen from a distance. But of course she’s hardly mentioned. It’s the strange twilight around her that matters—the other atmosphere under the parasol.

The 4th Landowner says:

[The poet] asks impossible questions: which light is more real—the harsh sunlight outside or the mild light around the woman? isn’t the sky itself a sort of parasol? why should we think nature is real and things of our making less so?

Later, the 5th Landowner speaks of how he retained a surveyor to map the settled districts of the plains:

When the map is finished I hope to plot the route of a journey of a thousand miles. And when I make that journey I want to see, just once in the distance, some hint of land that could be mine.

There are some quite lyrical moments. Take for instance the musician who developed a composition that tried to find the musical equivalent of his district. When the piece was played by an orchestra, its members were positioned far apart among the audience, and ‘each instrument produced a volume of sound that could be heard only by the few listeners nearest it.’ The audience was free to move around, but they only ever heard snatches of melody, and ‘most heard nothing at all.’

Any of these excerpts could be a summary of The Plains itself. There’s just layer upon layer of the same sort of impossible task of pinning the interior landscape down.

Another intriguing fragment comes after the filmmaker secures a patron and moves out to his palatial digs. There he ensconces himself in a library that sounds every bit as large as the State Library of New South Wales. In a different part of the library is the plainsman’s wife, reading about Time. There is a strange love that develops between her and the filmmaker, or a longing on the part of the filmmaker at least. He wonders how he might communicate with her and derives ever stranger options for doing so. Talking to her seems to be too trite. He must write a book of essays which will then be catalogued as part of the library to which she might one day get around to reading! I could almost feel the touch of Garcia-Marquez here, right up until the moment that nothing actually develops. Gabo would have seen to it that the love played itself out!

In the final scenes the filmmaker’s patron conducts what he calls ‘scenes’(!), in which he arranges people in a landscape in order to take a photograph that others will look at and interpret incorrectly in future years. And what a wonderful final sentence, in which our failed filmmaker grips a camera and asks his patron to take a photo of him looking into darkness. The ultimate ‘fade-to-black’, as it were.

I’m embarrassed to say that I only came upon Gerald Murnane when reading Jane Gleeson–White’s Australian Classics (see my review here). The Plains is one of the 29 novels to make Jane’s 50 classics. I have set myself the task of reading most of the ones that I’ve not yet read, as well as some other classic Australian authors I’ve yet to sample, such as Elizabeth Harrower, and any others I may come across in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library … hence the ‘Australian Classic’ part of the title for this review. Expect to see many more Aussie classics here over the next couple of years. Speaking of which, tomorrow, (Wednesday 5th December), I’m off to a talk at the State Library with Jane Gleeson–White and Geordie Williamson entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, which will cover some of the unsung female authors in the Australian canon.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review of The Plains penned just the other day, which you can read here. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is also a fan.

Me? I can count the books I’ve read twice on one, if not, two hands. The Plains will be one of them. In fact, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever fully leave it behind. I’m still in its pages now, chasing that will o’ the wisp.

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There I was all set to dive into reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell when I picked up Jane Gleeson-White’s lovely Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works. I had planned on perusing the first chapter, each of which is devoted to a musing on one work of our authors (with references to its place in the cannon, other works and a brief author biography), but just kept on reading. Along the way I compared my recollections of past favourites to her thoughts, and added many more to the TBR list. There are also contributions from many writers and other literary and artistic figures, who have provided a lists of their own favourites, many of which seem firm favourites beyond Gleeson-White’s choices.

Having attended a session on Australian Classics at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, I knew that Geordie Williamson’s book entitled The Burning Library is soon to be published, so it seemed like an opportune moment to delve into the literary history of our nation. I’m so glad I did. What’s more, in a moment of pure serendipity, I spied that both Williamson and Gleeson-White are giving a talk at the NSW State Library on Wednesday 5 December, called ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s Forgotten Women Writers’ (see here for more details and reserve your ticket for only $10). I quickly booked my place, certain that there can’t be too many more knowledgeable people to talk on the topic.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of the stories. How she narrowed not just novels, but non-fiction, essay and poetry into a representative fifty is beyond me. Each deserves its place, from Robbery under arms by Rolf Boldrewood, through to Tim Winton’s ubiquitous Cloudstreet. For all the talk of sexual bias that still exists, women have contributed so much to our literary culture, and Gleeson-White does these women proud by lovingly recounting her views of their works (many of course having written numerous works of distinctive pedigree). The past is littered with:

  • pseudonyms, used by both male and female writers too numerous to mention
  • the imprint of authors’ autobiographical details
  • relationships between authors, such as Joan Lindsey marrying a brother of Norman Lindsey, author of The magic pudding.
  • convicts – His natural life by Manning Clarke
  • bush-rangers – Robbery under arms by Boldrewood, Our sunshine by Robert Drewe, True history of the Kelly gang by Peter Carey
  • itinerant folk down on their luck – and many itinerant authors too!
  • girls and boys coming of age, as in Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career, plus others…
  • Indigenous Australians finding their voice
  • explorers disappearing – and not just in White’s Voss … Picnic at hanging rock anyone?!
  • families thrown together (Cloudstreet – in a Lamb and Pickle sandwich!)
  • tragedies, such as Grenville’s Lilian’s story, and others
  • I could go on and on… Seven little Australians, The man who loved children, Grand days, Monkey grip… somebody stop me!

The poetry of Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray, Oodgeroo Noonuccal is celebrated, as are short stories, including Henry Lawson’s The drover’s wife, as well as my favourite ‘long’ story: Storm boy by Colin Thiele. There is room for non-fiction works, such as AB Facey’s A fortunate life and indigenous author Sally Morgan’s My place which focusses on the stolen generation, and The magic pudding children’s book by Norman Lindsey.

It is a wonderful companion to all these works and a must for any lover of Australian fiction. I am now determined to search out Gleeson-White’s other book on global classics (I know it includes Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, so there’ll be at least one I’ve read!). I can’t wait to read that. I also can’t wait to hear Geordie and Jane talk about some of the books I’ve just read about and no-doubt many others, and to hear which books might appear in Geordie Williamson’s fiction-only The burning library. 

In the meantime, I’ve added quite a few of these Aussie classics to my TBR and they’ll feature strongly here over the coming year… I might even include some re-reads of old favourites too. The only difficulty is in deciding which to enjoy first!

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