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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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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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Another fabulous day by the harbour for Friday at the SWF.  A brief muse on today’s sessions…

I started the day by going to the very interesting session ‘Book Design: The Story from Back to Front’ which celebrated the work of the designers of the books we love, featuring Stephen Banham, Hugh Ford, Melanie Feddersen, and facilitated by Zoe Sadokierski.  I’ll just pick out a couple of short points made…

I think Melanie Feddersen is my kind of book designer.  She related the charming story of how, from an early age, when she bought a new book she would write in it what she did that day and why she had bought that particular book.  Working as a freelance designer, Feddersen talked about her experience developing the design of a YA novel she worked on, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley.  For us fiction lovers, this was particularly interesting.  She explained where she got ideas from, starting with the publisher’s brief, reading the manuscript itself, and taking visual and textual clues from every part of her life.  She showed examples of the early design of the book cover, how a searchlight shining on a girl’s face worked with the book’s mood and themes of teenage ‘searching’.  A design was approved but then she was asked to change it!  The publisher wanted something more to do with graffiti in the cover.  Back to the drawing board – and she came up with the design shown in the photo to the left here – what a fantastic design(!) – working-in the graffiti can and spraying words.  Brilliant!  She then showed international versions of Graffiti Moon’s cover – there was such a wide range if interpretations and designs it often looked like a totally different book.  It’s rare that one design is used in a different territory.

Banham, a graphic designer / typographer, talked about the way everything is changing in design of books.  He explained the way he had approached a recent graphic design book not from the angle of the front-to-back cover design, but from the angle of how the design would appear as an ‘app’ on someone’s smart phone / tablet / web-site.  Increasingly, readers are buying electronic copies and this sense of ‘branding’ is very important, something that can translate across electronic mediums.  Font types are chosen only if they are a web font.

My second session was ‘The Sweep of Narrative’: Elliot Perlman talking about his novel The Street Sweeper, which deals with the holocaust, and race relations in America.  Perlman was very engaging, telling the story of the development of the novel, which commenced with a question that needed answering.  An oral history was recorded post-war Europe with Jewish survivors of the holocaust by psychologist David Boder.  When he had interviewed over 100, he was heard on the voice record he was making (which had a huge historical significance of its own), saying, ‘Who is going to sit in judgement over this [holocaust]?’  There was a pause and then he said, ‘Who is going to stand in judgement over my work?’  Perlman wondered why this man should have any guilt over what he was doing / had done, and knew that the answer to that question would become the subject of his work.  It took him six years to research and write, and he relayed how he hand interviewed hospital janitors, historians at Columbia University, African Americans, and students (now aged 80 or so) of Boder himself – a huge amount of work.  He also met the last living survivor of the group of Jewish prisoners who were tasked under the threat of death with the horrific task of undressing the bodies of Jews gassed in Auschwitz.  This man’s story became a character in the book.  Wonderful anecdotes of a book that has gotten rave reviews and is on my shelf as I type!

The third session of the day was ‘Classic’ – a discussion of Australian literary classics with Kate Grenville, Thomas Keneally, (both featured in Text Publishing’s new ‘Text Classics’ range of books), as well as Geordie Williamson and Text’s Michael Heyward.  First of all, full marks to Text Publishing for producing the Text Classic series http://textclassics.com.au/ , bringing back into print many books that should be read – one of which, Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is on my TBR.

There was a lot of discussion about how some things have changed in the Australian ‘canon’ – the fact that we have one for starters – and perhaps, how some other things might still need changing.  Keneally spoke about early Australian influences being Patrick White (Riders in the Chariot in particular), as well as poets Kenneth Slessor and Douglas Stewart.  He wanted to continue their work, joking about ‘the arrogance of young writers is breathtaking’(!).  He lamented the economic fundamentalism in publishing, how nowadays the poor editor has to not just get the book ready for publication but then get it by the corporate gatekeepers in Sales and Marketing.  As for more recent classics, he pointed to one of my favourites, Peter Carey’s Illwhacker (see my review).

For Grenville, growing up, writers were ‘dead white British males’.  Henry Lawson was as good as it got, though she also read Riders in the Chariot and although she was too young to understand it fully, she knew it was ‘something extraordinary’.  She also loved The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, another in the Text Classics series, as well as Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes – cue much communal love!  She spoke about how we are so ‘prize’ focussed when all books are part of what she likened to a forest ecosystem.  ‘There are giant oaks and there is moss and mushroom’, but every one is part of the system and need each other.

Following on from this wonderful analogy, and perhaps the best thing said in this session, was Geordie Williamson’s approach to thinking about the relationships between books, how the ‘density of the links is our culture’.  What a great summation.  He said we need to clear a cultural space around books – and gave the example of how the classic Careful He Might Hear You, by Sumner Locke Elliot, sold tens of thousands of copies in Germany, but before it won the Miles Franklin in 1963, had only sold 7 copies in Australia!  There was a lot of discussion about the role of improving education both in school and university level.  Geordie Williamson said that undergraduates and postgraduates are not obliged to read actual texts!  But all agreed that there is a real appetite for Australian writing as show in the success of someone like Tim Winton.  A good, fun session… many books added to the TBR – too many to list here!  BTW: Geordie Williamson is writing a book about the Australian canon, to be published later this year, entitled The Burning Library, so stay tuned for that.

That’s it for Day 2.  FYI: Radio National has SWF highlight programmes on both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, plus additional programming across the next three days.

Join the SWF discussion on twitter @: #SWF2012.

Bring on Saturday!

D.

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The third book of my Sydney triptych, Sydney by Delia Falconer is a delightfully produced little non-fiction hardback, part of a series on Australian cities.  Other titles in the series include: In Search of Hobart by Peter Timms with an introduction by Robert Dessaix; and Brisbane by Matthew Condon.  Forthcoming books include Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham; Perth by Wendy Were; and Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy. 

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival where I attended a session titled ‘The Fascinator’ – Gail Jones, Ashley Hay and Delia Falconer spoke of their love of Sydney and the peculiar sense of ghosting and time slippage that occurs here.  The moderator of that discussion, Jill Eddington, commented that she thought the three books – two fiction, one non-fiction – ‘speak to each other’ much in the same vein.  And she was right.  Reading them back-to-back-to-back I really saw the thread of time slippage and ghosting.  Admittedly, it’s hard not to.  Sydney is structured into ‘themes’: Ghosting, Dreaming, Living, Sweating, Showing Off.  Each theme is divided into various entries which cover historical facts, myths, autobiography and personal viewpoints.  What is provided therein is a rich vein of thoughts and conclusions on what this harbour city is all about. 

There is a section of Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells quoted inside the cover and Slessor is mentioned several times throughout the book.  Also, the great story of eccentric Reverend Frank Cash who produced a book as an ode to the building of the Harbour Bridge is detailed.  Cash was mentioned in Hay’s novel The Body in the Clouds.  About ghosting Falconer writes [p21]: “There is a sense that everything has an extra layer of reflection, of slip beneath the surface.” 

The book is very reminiscent in size, cover design, and look and feel to Peter Carey’s ode to the harbour city, entitled Thirty Days in Sydney, which is a wonderful book.  Thirty Days was supposed to be the first in a series of travel books on global cities by authors, but I don’t know whether any others were published.  Carey chose to show the history and character of Sydney by a series of interconnected short stories based around his own search for the truth of the city in coming back to it from his home in New York. 

I enjoyed reading Sydney.  It’s always nice to unearth new stories about the history and personality of the city in which you live.  I’ve always considered myself very lucky to have been born and raised in Sydney and am grateful that I can still call it home.  It’s hard to pick out a favourite anecdote from so many that Falconer has provided.  There are stories about aboriginal peoples of Sydney, the first fleeters, and various colourful identities in the guise of the city’s underbelly.  There are sad stories of murders and odd deaths.  There is partying and glitz, the height of the 1980s reflected in none other than Geoffrey Edleston’s pink Lamborghini and purchase of the Sydney Swans.  There is corruption and vice.  There is the Cronulla riots.  There is the celebration of many immigrants, including the great life (and funeral to match) of a Chinese man named Mei Quong Tart who established the many successful Victorian-era tea houses across the city and who would go around dressed in a Scottish kilt and quote Scottish poetry. 

There are many literary references too.  Patrick White, Ruth Park, Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and others are discussed in terms of their relationship with Sydney and how the city influenced their work.  These sorts of insights are a treasure trove for us lovers of literature – and Sydney literature particularly.  For instance, Stead’s childhood in Watson’s Bay, (her house there has been in the news of late owing to the renovations the current owner plans to make), was the basis for her 1944 novel For Love Alone.  Park’s novel, The Harp in the South was very much based on her own experiences of grinding poverty. 

There are many anecdotes that sum up the city quite well.  One of these is Falconer’s love (and my own) for the way in which, on the Millennium Eve harbour fireworks, the word Eternity was emblazoned across the bridge.  The word is synonymous with Sydney and with another of our eccentrics, Arthur Stace, who used to chalk the word in lovely copperplate script on street corners across town very early in the mornings over the course of some 35 years in the middle of the 20th century.  It was a masterstroke, something that Carey also paid tribute to in Thirty Days.  Falconer provides the following additional anecdote: in 2001 the Sydney Council under then mayor Frank Sartor copyrighted Stace’s symbol under trademark law.  Imagine that – a symbol of freedom and joy now constricted by the bounds of licensing laws, safe for official use!  How’s that for irony?  How’s that for Sydney?  

Sydney by Delia Falconer

New South

2010

ISBN: 9781921410925

258 pages (plus additional extensive acknowledgements)

Source: purchased at SWF 2011

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Yesterday I popped into the Mitchell Library to see the truly wonderful One Hundred exhibition, celebrating one hundred years of the library in one hundred objects.  The exhibit displays books, diaries, letters, maps, paintings, etchings, drawings, photos, and other objects d’art. 

For book lovers there are, naturally, numerous highlights.  There is the ‘pitch’ letter that Miles Franklin wrote to Angus and Robertson along with her manuscript for My Brilliant Career – which was rejected!  The letter is fascinating; self-deprecating and unsure – she calls her story “My Brilliant(?) Career”.  The letter was subsequently annotated by George Robertson, who noted the decision to reject the manuscript was taken whilst he was away! 

There is the journal of George Augustus Robinson, otherwise known as The Conciliator, whom Richard Flanagan fictionalises as The Protector in his novel Wanting (which was ironically my last read & review).  There is an early draft of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, written in very attractive longhand.  There is Patrick White’s Nobel Prize diploma and medal.  There is Donald Horne’s personal copy of The Lucky Country and Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner which was originally Six Pickles before she added a seventh and renamed it.  There is Banjo Patterson’s original Man from Snowy River, which can also be heard spoken by Jack Thompson, and Hnery Lawson’s While the Billy Boils

Architecture is also represented, with Joern Utzon’s original 1962 sketches for the Sydney Opera House and Glenn Murcutt’s drawings for his famed Magney House, amongst others.

This being Australia, there are the journals of several explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt – the inspiration for Patrick White’s Voss – gold explorer Harold Lasseter’s diary, found on his person after his death, and the journals of Wentworth and Lawson detailing their expedition across the Blue Mountains. 

There is John Gould’s The Birds of Australia, 1840-48, a mammoth tome of some 600 hand-coloured lithographs – no wonder it took so long to produce! – in which the larrikin kookaburra is known rather plainly as the Fawn-breasted Kingfisher

But some of the older exhibits yield real fascination – take for instance a letter to Giuliano de Medici by Andrea Corsalii written in c.1516, in which there is the first known drawing of the Southern Cross constellation by a European.  And the diary of Archibald Barwick, a WWI digger, who served Gallipoli and the Western Front, who writes on the 25th of April 1915: “Bullets hurt when they hit you”; he also talks of fear, of the thought of wanting out of it all but not wanting to leave your ‘mates’ behind. 

There is Sir Joseph Banks’ Endeavour journal, 1768-1771, a journal of the First Fleet, and early letters home – by Arthur Phillip and convict Mary Reibey – to England from the settlement at Port Jackson, which became Sydney, although as records show, Phillip was going to call it Albion, before Sydney was chosen.  Also present are some very interesting artefacts dealing with aboriginal issues, including a painted proclamation in Tasmania from around 1830 that tried to depict the sought after equal treatment of black and whites – and the punishment for killing – not through the usual dense words, but through pictures. 

The list goes on.  Indeed, the exhibition is so extensive that to take it in in one visit was too much.  But that’s fine with me – it means I have the perfect excuse to go back and see it again.  It’s free too, so there’s really no excuse for not seeing a magnificent exposition of unique items that display the history of Australia, in all of its forms, both triumphant and tragic. 

The only drawback is the website, which gives you a taste of the exhibit, but is very slow to navigate – you need to scroll (s-l-o-w-l-y) through all objects to get to one you want more information on, and when you return to this menu after looking at one object, you have to start from scratch again – very annoying!  There should be a page from which all items readily accessible.  What’s worse is there’s hardly any information on the items themselves, just a very short 10-20-odd second sound-bite – some of which seemed to have been cut off mid-stream – it’s not nearly enough and poorly done.  Of course, the real pleasure is seeing them with your own eyes, though for interstate and overseas visitors, the website should be better. 

The Dilettante’s Rating:

Exhibition: 5/5

Website: 1/5

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The Lost (1970) Booker Prize Shortlist has been announced.  The six books are:

The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden (Virago)
Troubles by J G Farrell (Phoenix)
The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard (Virago)
Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (Arrow)
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (Penguin)
The Vivisector by Patrick White (Vintage)

So Patrick White is still in the running with The Vivisector.  I mused on the irony of his inclusion on the long list because he had refused to be shortlisted for the Booker for The Twyborn Affair in 1979, saying that it should be won by someone young.  (The double irony of this is that the winner was Penelope Fitzgerald, who was just four years younger than he was!). 

And Shirley Hazard, who was born in Australia, is also still in there with a chance for The Bay of Noon

There is no role for the judges from here.  It is up to the public to vote for their favourite on the Man Booker website

It will be interesting to see how this democratic experiment works…!  

The D

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A few years back when The Dilettante was living in London I read an article by Neil Griffiths entitled ‘Top Ten Books about Outsiders’.  Included on his list were some obvious choices – Salinger’s ubiquitous The Catcher in the Rye – with the model of adolescent angst: Holden Caulfield, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – which gives us two outsiders in Jane and Rochester, and The Stranger – or The Outsider – by Albert Camus.  The list also included Colin Wilson’s aptly titled The Outsider, and books on Beethoven and Jackson Pollock.  Remembering Babylon by David Malouf would sit comfortably on such an esteemed list.  Set in the mid-1840’s, it is the story of Gemmy Fairley, a boy washed ashore on the north Queensland coast at the age of 13 who is found and raised by a local clan of Aboriginals for 16 years until he tries to re-enter a nascent white settlement.  It is thus a story of a boy who is an outsider twice – first amongst the blacks, and then doubly-so when he enters the lives of the McIvor children: Janet and Meg and their cousin Lachlan who are the first to find him, cornering him atop a fence as their dog snaps at his alien heels.  It is this image of Gemmy – tottering above them as if fixed in mid air that is set in the minds of the children, particularly the eldest Janet, an image to which she returns to later in life with Lachlan, as they look back on the time spent with Gemmy in their midst.

This intersection of black and white Australia is of course nothing new in Australian literary fiction.  Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) comes to mind, particularly given its plot of a white woman, Ellen Roxburgh, the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of Queensland, who is taken in by the local aboriginals who are also harbouring an escaped convict. Ellen eventually returns to the coastal fringe and re-enters white settlement, albeit much altered.  More recently, we have had Kate Grenville’s much acclaimed The Secret River, and there are numerous other examples of the black-white ‘collision’.  Remembering Babylon is a gem, short yet profound – a significant imagining of the ‘outsider’ in Australian terms.

Malouf’s prose is achingly beautiful throughout; his depiction of a variety of scenes, from rural Australian bush to the cobbled streets of London and a variety of social interactions, are detailed and pitch-perfect.  There are moments of such lucid beauty that you wish the story never ends.  Examples abound.  The haunting description of Gemmy washed ashore into the world of the aboriginals at the age of thirteen is both raw and beautiful – the aboriginals encounter him as a mystery; in time, it is a tale they tell as if it were a dreamtime story and had happened “ages ago, in a time beyond all memory, and to someone else.  How, when they found him he had been half-child, half-seacalf, his hair swarming with spirits in the shape of tiny phosphorescent crabs, his mouth stopped with coral; how, ash-pale and ghostly in his little white shirt, that long ago had rotted like a caul, he had risen up in the firelight and danced, and changed before their eyes from a sea-creature into a skinny human child.”  Yet despite him quickly attaching himself to the mob, they accept him “guardedly; in the droll, half-apprehensive way that is proper to an in-between creature.”  He has to fight for things.  His life is now defined by separation, and whilst he spends years with the aboriginals, we move quickly to the time he enters the white settlement, where he runs into the McIvor children’s company: “He was running to prove that all that separated him from them was the ground that could be covered.  He gave no consideration to what might happen when he arrived.”  The notion that ‘ground’ is all that separates Gemmy and the white settlers – or is all that separates any of us – is a painful irony, for there is always the ‘separation’ that exists between the members of a community and the outsiders who come into its midst, a separation that becomes all to clear to Gemmy with time.

We are soon witness to the white settlers’ fear of what Gemmy represents – the fear of being overrun by the blacks, for it had happened down at “Comet River – nineteen souls.”  It is the fear of the bogeyman come to life; Gemmy’s smell and movement are, for the community, reminders of this threat.  We see through their eyes their ‘horror’ of a face-to-face encounter with an aboriginal man, this ‘visible darkness’:

you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is that you may never get back.

And so Gemmy inhabits the space between two peoples, neither one nor the other:

It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly, and the encounter was an embrace.

There is a split in views as to how to deal with the perceived threat – with many favouring killing the aboriginals, whilst others favour a ‘softer’ approach of assimilation in which they envision them becoming de-facto slaves tending their crops on their plantations.  Gemmy quickly becomes aware of the hardline settlers’ real intentions – the hidden malice in their queries of him regarding his past life with the blacks, and gives them misleading information on the blacks’ numbers and whereabouts.  Gemmy’s fear and guardedness only serves to confirm the suspicions of the white men.  Even Mr Frazer, the settlement’s minister, whom Gemmy befriends and escorts on his ‘Botanising’ excursions, is held at arm’s-length.  Gemmy shows him plants the aboriginals use for food which Mr Frazer neatly draws in his book, and whilst Gemmy sees the black men in the trees and acknowledges them and their ‘claim’ so they let the two men pass, he does not tell Mr Frazer of their presence.  Malouf beautifully describes how the aboriginals would see these two white men: Gemmy would “have a clear light around him like the line that contained Mr Frazer’s drawings.  It came from the energy set off where his spirit touched the spirits he was moving through” whereas “all they would see of Mr Frazer was what the land itself saw: a shape, thin, featureless, that interposed itself a moment, like a mist or cloud, before the land blazed out in its full strength again and the shadow was gone, as if, in the long history of the place, it was too slight to endure, or had never been.”

Gemmy finds his way into the hearts of the McIvors.  He has been taken in by them, and sleeps in a lean-to set against their house.  He is particularly close to the precocious Lachlan, who has grand schemes of future expeditions he will undertake in order to find Leichhardt’s bones, and how he would take Gemmy with him and insist on having both their names inscribed on any monument subsequently erected in his honour.  But for Lachlan’s uncle – and the girls’ father – Jock McIvor, Gemmy’s presence is a fraught one.  He comes under pressure from concerned neighbours; in their eyes he has begun to “lose that magic quality”.  But outwardly he protects Gemmy: “Little defensive spikes and spurs appeared in him that surprised the others and increased a suspicion that they might somehow have been mistaken in him.”  Jock feels this scrutiny acutely.  His wife, Ellen, doesn’t escape either – the women with their afternoon darning sessions, “all barbed concern.”  Did she “really let him chop wood for her? Actually let him lose with an axe?”  Ellen feels enraged with their barbs, and yet, even for her: “there were nights, lying stiffly in the dark, hands clenched at her side, heart thumping, when she did not feel sure.”  Doubts reign supreme.

SPOILER ALERT:

Slowly, Gemmy becomes aware that he can no longer live in the settlement, even after moving in with Mrs Hutchence who lives on the road out of town.  This is the setting for some wonderful scenes of afternoon tea with Mrs Hutchence, the school teacher Mr Abbot, the McIvor girls and Gemmy, Leona – who lives with Mrs Hutchence – and Hec Gosper, one of the villagers.  The interplay between characters is superb.  Mrs Hutchence also introduces Janet McIvor to the world of bees and beekeeping.  We are witness to a beautiful scene of the bees from Janet’s point of view, and we see the bees as a metaphor for the aboriginals in a way too, for Mrs Hutchence and the hives “which looked so closed and quiet under the trees but were filled with such fierce activity – another life, quite independent of their human one, but organised, purposeful, and involving so many complex rituals.  She loved the way, while you were dealing with them, you had to submit to their side of things”.  Soon after, it is the sound of the bees and the making of honey which Malouf delightfully explores, culminating in the event that is the making of Janet.

Gemmy, though, living in a small room in Hutchence house, sees his separation grow larger.  He is separated from Lachlan and the division between them grows.  He feels his tale, which was dictated by Mr Frazer to Mr Abbot and written down on seven pieces of paper soon after he had arrived in the settlement, has begun to steal his spirit, and he sets out to find the pages again, to reclaim them and his spirit.  It is here we are reminded of his separation once again, for the mean-spirited Mr Abbot gives him seven pieces of paper which have school-children’s scribbles on them rather than his own story.  Being illiterate, Gemmy takes these with him into the bush thinking they are his story, where, in the first rain storm he soon encounters, the words upon them turn into wash and run off the page and they soon turn into pulp and dissolve in his hands, much as Gemmy has dissolved back into the bush himself.

The final chapter sees us transported years into the future, during the first world war, where the estranged Lachlan, now a minister in the government, and Janet, who has become a nun, are re-united because of a humorous scandal based on letters that Janet has sent a priest, written in the code of beekeeping which are misconstrued as the encoded work of a German spy.  It is once again proof that a sense of misguided panic and ignorance pursues many human encounters, be they the intersection of black and white, or the keeping of bees.  It is in this re-uniting that Lachlan and Janet recall the influence Gemmy has had on them.  For Lachlan, who has spent many years working on the coastal highway, it was the long search for Gemmy, and how he decided on one of these explorations that he had found his bones alongside seven or eight others, victims of a ‘dispersal’ – “too slight an affair to be called a massacre” and one the newspapers didn’t pick up; but now he realises he can’t tie Gemmy up like a loose end, for he had “touched off in them … (something) they were still living”, and would end “only when they were ended, and maybe not even then.”  For Janet, she is still fixated on the day that Gemmy first came to them, and the moment he had “hung there against the pulsing sky as if undecided as yet which way to move, upward in flight into the sun or, as some imbalance in its own body, its heart perhaps, drew it, or the earth, or the power of their gazing, downward to where they stood rooted”, and while he was up there on the fence, she realises that she has “never seen anyone clearer in all my life.  All that he was.  All.”  It is this moment of Gemmy held against the sky that they will both return to: “and stand side by side looking up at the figure outlined there against a streaming sky.  Still balanced.  For a last moment held still by their gaze, their solemn and fearful attention, at the one clear point, till this last, where they were inextricably joined and would always be.”

For me, this is perhaps where the book could have ended, two pages from its actual end.  It is my only ultra slight quibble and one that is eclipsed perhaps by Janet’s moving prayer on the final page where she asks: “Let none be left in the dark or out of mind, on this night, now, in this corner of the world or any other, at this hour, in the middle of this war…” for: “As we approach prayer.  As we approach knowledge.  As we approach one another.”  It is a prayer we might all share in our reflection on the intersection of black and white, of the treatment of outsiders, a prayer that goes beyond our remote borders, one that travels to the heart of all divisions, and how we might overcome them.

One other point worth noting is the beautiful cover art on this Vintage Classics edition.  It depicts, in a blue-porcelain-style ink, a scene of the established family of blue birds, the adults protecting their young, from a sole swooping orange-brown bird who, like Gemmy, is stuck their in mid-air, an outsider, attempting entry into a life once his that is now alien and unavailable.  It is the perfect cover art for this story, delicate, thoughtful and poignant; it makes a mockery of the often glib approach assumed by other covers.  Remembering Babylon is a book you want to hold in your hands and admire, literally, from cover to cover.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Vintage Classics (Australia)

ISBN: 9781741667684

182 pages

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