Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2022

Sensational Snippets: Late Journals, by Antigone Kefala

How should one review a published version of a writer’s journal?

I’ve been pondering this since I started reading the Late Journals of Antigone Kefala, an Australian writer of Greek-Romanian heritage who writes in both Greek and English. Born in 1935 in Romania to Greek parents, she and her family lived in Greece and New Zealand before migrating to Australia in 1960.  Over her lifetime she has published poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays and journals.  This journal is said to be her last.

This is the description from the back cover:

Late Journals completes a trilogy of works in which Kefala develops and expands her range as a memoirist, beginning with Summer Visit (2003), and followed by Sydney Journals (2008), both published by Giramondo. Kefala is not alone in writing in the journal form – Beverley Farmer and Helen Garner are notable contemporaries – but she is remarkable for the poetic resonance and intellectual significance she imparts to her observations. Feeling acutely her position as an outsider, because of her migrant background, she nevertheless expresses a strong sense of community with the writers, artists and thinkers who share her situation, or have influenced her work. The journals abound in portraits and tributes, reflections on art and life, and wonderful descriptions of places and landscapes, which give full reign to her imagination, and her ability to express the vitality and strangeness of the life around her.

But how to review it?

It’s a journal, and even though it may have been written with an eye to publication and edited so that we read a polished product, it’s still Kefala’s personal reflections, in fragments.  How can we ‘judge well’, as Angela Bennie says a reviewer should? There is artistry in the prose, and there are insights that are memorable, but I can’t capture this in the form of reviews that I usually write.

Late Journals includes interesting fragments about Kefala’s rich cultural life in Sydney, her musings on mortality and the loss of friends, and commentary on current affairs (though not the banality of politics).  A scholarly reader would probably draw on themes and issues from previous works, and identify continuities and departures in this one.  But I am not a scholarly reader, and I’ve never read Kefala before.  It seems to me that the flavour of this work is best captured by sharing some of the fragments that resonated with me…

The fragments that most often meant more to me, were those that referred to what I found familiar (e.g. about Beethoven’s music or Anna Akhmatova’s poetry), or were opinions that I found intriguing, whether I agreed with them or not.

After a dance performance at the Sydney Opera House:

A clean, muscular performance, interesting dissonant music, the woman dancer very beautiful. More like acrobats. (p.3)

On reading an unnamed new book:

The poems, as if constantly saying something, yet an empty sort of phenomenon, like an artificial essence they put into drinks to make people want to drink more, but which leaves them empty. (p.5)

On reading an unnamed magazine featuring an unnamed writer describing difficulties with writing.

He was describing his efforts to become part of the Australian scene after he migrated here with his parents, by trying to mirror Aboriginal writing and approaches, to be told off by an Aboriginal writer with whom he shared a platform at a reading.

I thought last night — a deeper alienation than mine.

In my case neither mirroring nor mimesis, from when we left Romania, and even before that, I was aware that I was trespassing on someone else’s territory.  Constantly trying not to venture on their patch, appropriate, trying to define my limits, my territory, mostly inwardly, my experience, finding a language for it.

In spite of the intellectual gloss of the paper, nothing but inner desperation. (p.7)

An entry for June in Journal 1 about computers offering new communications, contact with the world, more information and making friends with the world makes me wonder what year she wrote this.  The underlining in the excerpt below is mine, and I’m wondering if she’s taking a long view, or is (like some older people) commenting on innovations that have not been ‘new’ for a while now:

A new method of running away from oneself, listening less and less to oneself, everything finally simulated. (p.13)

This alienation from the digital world worsens in August, when she understood from a friend no longer writing letters to her, that she had gone on FACEBOOK, wrote impressions of her travels, performances she had seen… amazing how people responded…

We are being forgotten in favour of FACEBOOK, TWITTER… Everyone is going public.  Conversations with the world!  While the intimate exchange is ignored. (p.17)

Another expression of disappointment in contemporary life:

Reading a small biography of [Grace] Cossington-Smith.  The phenomenon of someone of such calibre working for so long unrecognised, till she is almost eighty.  An old story.

While everyone now thinks that they can pick up a genius at first glance.  As Pat used to tell me, that if my painter friends are not making it, it is because they are no good, because now, everyone is on the lookout for talent.

But the question remains, they may be on the lookout, but WHAT ARE THEY CAPABLE OF SEEING? (p.21)

And this one:

The literary scene, as the sports scene and so on, seems to be dominated by a few names, as if written by adolescents who can only remember one name, more names in a scene impossible to sustain. (p.148)

And this, a conversation with ‘Elizabeth’ in Journal IV about her omission from the PEN Macquarie Anthology:

‘Are you in it?’

‘No, I don’t think so.  They have not asked for permission.’

They should have waited for her to die and then take her out, she has been in every anthology published so far. (p.101)

And then, a poignant entry in Journal VI:

Looking at the latest Companion to Australian Literature — we appear in a subsection called ETHNIC MINORITY WRITING. After so many years of writing here we are still totally outside the whole scene.  Not only Ethnic, but Minority as well — a double blow… (p.147)

In 2021 UWAP published a critical study called Antigone Kefala, New Australian Modernities, edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas.  The book description reveals Kefala as a cultural visionary:

Antigone Kefala is one of the most significant of the Australian writers who have come from elsewhere; it would be difficult to overstate the significance of her life and work in the culture of this nation. Over the last half-century, her poetry and prose have reshaped and expanded Australian literature and prompted us to re-examine its premises and capacities. From the force of her poetic imagery and the cadences of her phrases and her sentences to the large philosophical and historical questions she poses and to which she responds, Kefala has generated in her writing new ways of living in time, place and language. Across six collections of poetry and five prose works, themselves comprising fiction, non-fiction, essays and diaries, she has mapped the experience of exile and alienation alongside the creativity of a relentless reconstitution of self. Kefala is also a cultural visionary. From her rapturous account of Sydney as the place of her arrival in 1959, to her role in developing diverse writing cultures at the Australia Council, to the account of her own writing life amongst a community of friends and artists in Sydney Journals (2008), she has reimagined the ways we live and write in Australia.

It sounds as if it would be rather interesting to read about her role in developing diverse writing cultures…

Author: Antigone Kefala
Title: Late Journals
Cover image by Eleni Nakopoulos
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781925818970, pbk., 162 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

 


Responses

  1. I have a Cambridge companion to hand, from the year 2000. None of the essays is titled ETHNIC MINORITY WRITING, but perhaps a later edition. We think we’re multicultural and we keep proving we’re not.

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    • I was going to check mine, (the Oxford) but it’s too old. (1985, my father gave it to me.) It does seem strange to partition off part of a Companion like that, but maybe the intention was to celebrate it?

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