My first response to seeing the chapter headings in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library, Our Great Novelists Lost and Found was, ‘Oh good, I’ve read most of these authors!’ That’s not as facile as it sounds, because it means that since I agree with Geordie Williamson’s choices about these being wonderful authors who shouldn’t be forgotten, I can trust his opinion on the ones I don’t know and get hold of a copy of them quick smart!
I’m one of the ordinary readers that Geordie Williamson hopes will rescue our collective Australian literary achievement from oblivion. His cogent argument is that our education institutions have all but abandoned teaching Australian literature, and that some of our best, most brilliant writers are all but forgotten,their backlists abandoned by publishers. Well, The Burning Library is an excellent introduction to some of these authors, and it belongs on the bookshelves of every booklover in the nation.
Now this is not the sort of book you read all in one go. This is the sort of book that someone who loves you gives you for Christmas, and you read the introduction during the hazy days thereafter. The introduction is provocative, and you spend those idle days alternately agreeing sagely with his trenchant criticisms of the parlous state of Australian literature - and mentally composing erudite rejoinders to some of his more contentious propositions …
For example, Williamson claims that Australian Literature flowered briefly for only about 50 years in the 20th century and then died. He dates its birth with Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia in 1938 so his cut-off point would be at about 1990, after which, he says, that although literature in Australia still exists, it is ‘quite a different beast’.
Novels are still being written here, poems composed, memoirs penned – some every bit as good or better than their predecessors – but they no longer fit under the umbrella of cultural nationalism. They are aesthetic isolates, severed from place and pitched at a fragmented and distracted audience. As an idea, an aspiration, an infrastructure for literary endeavour, a collective investigation of our presence on this ancient continent, Ozlit, as it came to be known, is dead. (p. 1)
Well of course I don’t agree with that, and this blog is a testament to my belief that contemporary Australian authors are still writing a body of distinctive Australian literature. Click on the Australian literary fiction category in the RHS menu – that’s my rebuttal, ok?
Anyway, having made your way through The Burning Library’s introduction, admiring Williamson’s passion and scholarship as you go, you then dip into the book chapter by chapter. Of course you read the authors you know first. Geordie Williamson is the winner of the Pascal Prize for Critical Writing and he’s a top literary critic, of course you want to know what he says about the books you’ve read and loved. For me, these are
I’ve read Capricornia (see my review), and I have Poor Fellow My Country on my Miles Franklin winners TBR. Yes, he is ’voluminous, incorrigibly didactic and often contradictory’ (p. 39) but I loved Capricornia for its vivid characterisation, its evocation of Australian bush life, and (like Williamson) for the way Herbert respects the world view of indigenous Australians.
I’ve read The Man Who Loved Children (see my review) and The Little Hotel (see my review). For Love Alone is lurking in the TBR. Now I must find what Williamson says is her ‘only novel with wholly Australian subject-matter’, (p. 48) which is Seven Poor Men of Sydney and her first novel, The Salzburg Tales.
Williamson says that efforts by academics in our universities to break the [Australian national] canon in the name of greater inclusiveness and democracy have damaged the author who justified that canon’s existence more than any other. (p. 78). The extent to which White’s reputation has been trashed in his own country could be seen when a bunch of publishers recently rejected the Chapter Three of The Eye of the Storm as unpublishable. Well, if you read this blog regularly you know that I am an unabashed fan of Patrick White. I’ve just reviewed Happy Valley, but I’ve also reviewed The Twyborn Affair, (here) The Solid Mandala (here), and The Eye of the Storm (here). Voss is probably my longest review ever and it gets an extraordinary number of hits (4125 as of today, second only to *sigh* The Slap), so despite the gloomy prognostications, some people must indeed still be reading it.
In the days before this blog I read A Fringe of Leaves and The Vivisector. On my TBR, I have The Hanging Garden, Riders in the Chariot, The Living and the Dead, The Burnt Ones, Flaws in the Glass, The Cockatoos and of course David Marr’s biography too. This is not quite enough to last me into my old age but I am sanguine about re-reading anything PW wrote (not least because – like James Joyce’s Ulysses, I get more out of them every time I re-read them.)
I’ve only reviewed Tirra Lirra by the River on this blog but I read The Commandant ages ago and I have The Impersonators on my Miles Franklin Winners TBR… Now I must find An Ordinary Lunacy too. It was Anderson’s first novel, and I love to read these first novels – the title is intriguing, to say the least. Anderson is, as Williamson says, a genius at creating ‘a rich and various cast of female characters (her blokes, neither rich nor various, are almost always hapless or cruel) whose common feature is a provisional sense of self’. (p. 89) I think that it’s that provisional sense of self that enables so many readers to engage with her novels. Many of us have taken that journey too.
Sumner Locke Elliot: Years ago – long before I kept even a reading journal – I read Careful He Might Hear You when it won the Miles Franklin – but I’ve got Water Under the Bridge on the TBR too. It was the inclusion of this author that made me notice who’s not included. I liked Careful He Might Hear You – it was a popular Miles Franklin winner – and Williamson makes a convincing case for Elliot (including high praise from Patrick White for Eden’s Lost) but I am curious about why he is listed and David Malouf is not. Malouf gets a mention every now and again, but he doesn’t merit a chapter. Nor does Elizabeth Jolley, which is strange. Rodney Hall or David Foster aren’t included either, but while I suspect that they belong in this distinct tradition, I haven’t read enough of their work to know for sure, not yet.
Amy Witting: I for Isobel is reviewed here on this blog, and I thought I had read everything else as well: Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop, Maria’s War and After Cynthia – but Williamson tells me there is The Visit to chase up, citing Barry Oakley’s praise likening it to Chekhov.
Olga Masters: Amy’s Children (see my review) is a wonderful book. Sue from Whispering Gums found Loving Daughters for me in an Op Shop, and I found The Home Girls at Brotherhood Books. This is the one, Williamson tells me that was Masters’ first book, published when she was 63, beginning a literary career that was to last only six years because she died of a brain tumour in 1986. (Elsewhere he notes the number of ‘late blooming’ female authors, the subject of one of Sue’s musings at Whispering Gums not so long ago.) ‘The collective lesson’ he says, of Masters’ fiction is the suggestion that ‘passion or violence need not be external, a matter of the public or the political, but may be internalised instead – lodged deep in the human heart’. (p 127) This is certainly true of Amy in Amy’s Children and her reaction to her own daughter Kathleen when she threatens to disrupt her mother’s plans.
As of this week, I just happen to be listening to an audio book Keneally’s first novel The Place at Whitton (1964) and it’s fascinating. I don’t think he could write a novel set in a religious community in the same way these days, not with all the tragedy associated with child abuse scandals. My first Keneally was The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, (which I re-read not so long ago, (see my review); and then I read Schindler’s Ark a.k.a. Schindler’s List (which won the Booker in 1982); The Tyrant’s Novel (before I started this blog) and the audio book The Widow and Her Hero (see my review). I’ve read and reviewed the first of his Miles Franklin winners, Bring Larks and Heroes, (the novel for which Williamson says Robert Hughes owes an unacknowledged debt for its influence on The Fatal Shore) but I haven’t yet read Three Cheers for the Paraclete. These novels represent, Williamson says, Keneally’s early peak in his career, but I’ve also got some later works: The Great Shame, The People’s Train and Family Madness on the TBR. These are IMO more popular works and less literary, written in what Williamson calls ‘the knockabout fluency and swiftness of his later style’. As you can see in my review I too was surprised by the resemblance to the style of Patrick White in Bring Larks and Heroes. I’m very interested in finding more of these early works.
I discovered Randolph Stow when I began reading my way through the Miles Franklin winners – he won it for To the Islands in the second year of the award when he was only 22 (see my review). I was enchanted by Merry-go-round in the Sea (see my review) but as you can see from my review I was less keen on Tourmaline. Williamson analyses Tourmaline in some detail so The Burning Library is worth having for this reason alone, and I really like his statement that in Stow, ‘as in no other non-indigenous writer in our literature, landscape and mindscape are one’ (p 183) because this is so true of To The Islands. There is also some illuminating detail about Stow’s life which is fascinating to read.
And finally Gerald Murnane.
I love reading Gerald Murnane. Alas, Williamson begins with some references to popular culture the relevance of which remains elusive, and I suspect that some readers may not find his recommendation appealing. That would be a shame, but I know as well as Geordie Williamson does that it’s not easy to write anything that will persuade some readers to sample the delights of Murnane’s books. For what it’s worth, I recommend starting with Tamarisk Row (see my recent review), and then trying The Plains, Inland and the recent History of Books. (You can see my blundering reviews of these here, here and here). Barley Patch is waiting patiently on my TBR. (As with my Patrick White collection, I like to ‘save up’ my Murnanes).
So, what does Geordie Williamson recommend next for me to discover? Well, there’s:
Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw:
I have Marjorie Barnard’s bio of Miles Franklin, but that’s all.
He won the Miles Franklin for A Horse of Air, but I haven’t found an affordable copy despite a serious hunt for it.
I have both his Miles Franklin winners on the TBR: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and A Woman of the Future. I’ll get to them soon, I promise.
I know nothing at all about Elizabeth Harrower …
but I soon will because the ANZ LitLovers Book group has chosen The Watch Tower for its 2013 schedule, and thanks to Text Classics, it’s sitting on my bedside table! (In the meantime, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums). (Update 9.3.13: The Watch Tower is superb, and on the strength of that I’ve just bought The Long Prospect (Text Classics). See my review).
Lest Geordie Williamson be cross with me for turning his excellent book into a mere list, I hasten to add that I list them here only that you might start the hunt to source them. My collection, inadequate as it is, has taken years to assemble. My advice is to list them on your wishlist at GoodReads, download the app into your mobile phone, and head for the OpShops, the scruffy old ones that haven’t digitised their books for sale. These books are worth the hunt: as Williamson says, they form a ‘tradition, albeit a weird one’ ‘linked by eccentricity’ – which is probably why I like it.
And in the meantime, read The Burning Library!
BTW There are also terrific line drawings of the authors by W.H. Chong at the start of each chapter.
Update Feb 4 2013: Ouch! There’s a rather scathing review of The Burning Library from Bernadette Brennan at the ABR, but you can only access it if you are a subscriber.
Update Jun 16 2013 You can also read Kerryn Goldsworthy’s defence of the university’s role in all this at the Sydney Review.
Author: Geordie Williamson
Title: The Burning Library, Our Great Novelists Lost and Found
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Fishpond: The Burning Library