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Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra - both come out winning.

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra – both come out winning.

One anthology (two anthologies)

It’s beautiful in design, it feels good, actually it feels perfect – how it all holds together in colour and shape and form and texture.  A glistening cover, inside the gorgeous black and white and sometimes sepia images, and thoughtfully composed essays and short stories and poems and memoir from some of Australia’s best writers – Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Alan Gould, Susan Hampton et al.  It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly constructed object.  Which is utterly apt for an anthology with Canberra as the theme.  Meanjin should be congratulated for getting together this particular edition, and the context couldn’t be more fitting – Australia’s national capital turns 100 this year.  And for having the guts to do it: across this crusty, leathery old country of ours there isn’t much love for the little southern city, and, rather predictably, there’s a persuasive view that nothing much happens there beyond political and public-sector hot air, and, so the story goes, there’s nothing much of literary note either, which is, of course, complete bollocks.  There’s another anthology about Canberra out at the moment, The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press; editor Irma Gold), and that more than proves the point.

City living

I lived in the ACT for the best part of 25 years, from 1987 to 2010, and these days I’m only an hour away.  I moved to Canberra from Sydney by choice, to go to university and start my adult life.  However, university wasn’t the real reason: it was about escaping a city that had leached into my bloodlines (I have ancestral connections to that part of the world dating back to 1797) but had also overwhelmed me with its hedonism and dark heart; moreover, it was about putting myself in an environment which I believed would open me out so that, at last, I might be properly alive.  I knew little about Canberra beyond what I’d gleaned from a handful of trips to visit family friends, but I knew it was different in look and feel to anywhere else I’d been.  Even as a child I understood the territory to be fresh and forward-thinking, and this appealed to someone who was born and bred amongst the well-heeled conservatism of one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, and I had the sense that a new way of being in the world was required.

Much of this Canberra edition of Meanjin focuses on built form and town-planning, which is both unsurprising and perfectly reasonable for a city famous for being designed from the ground up.  And it was certainly a resonating experience to undertake my first degree, landscape architecture, in a place where landscape and architecture are so important.  However, these things are not what I enjoyed the most; these things are not what have ultimately made me remember my time in Canberra with great fondness, often love.  In Canberra I discovered who I was, I met people, I fell in love.  Critically, it seemed – and still seems – a place where pre-judgement isn’t the preferred modus operandi.  Is there really much difference between getting drunk or getting stoned?  Do we wish to demonise people who sell sex and people who pay for sex?  For some years now, Canberra – the society of 380,000 people, not the hollow, hill-top political machine – has been asking the question about whether or not marriage is about gender.  And isn’t it time that the nation stood on its own two feet and became a republic?

Town living

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Almost three years I moved out of Canberra into neighbouring regional New South Wales.  Why?  Cheaper housing – most writers can’t afford big-city mortgages, even the rent.  And I appreciate small-town life.  And old stuff.  Canberra has a rich heritage – Aboriginal, natural, and built – but it’s not the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  And I’m a big fan of the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  So these days I live in my little old 1895-era cottage called Leitrim, and I spend my weekends patching up cracks that keep appearing in the walls and I collect firewood for a fire on these cold, damp nights, and I’m as happy as Julia Gillard on a Sunday arvo sitting on the couch in her jim-jams with a glass of red while watching Bruce Willis bash it up in Die Hard.  I love walking down to the mainstreet to visit the post office, which is a truly spectacular late nineteenth-century marvel, and doing a few transactions in a bank where the people know my name, before wandering home through  hidden laneways.  When Goulburn’s good, she’s heart-stopping spectacular.

The future

But still I visit Canberra regularly, weekly in fact, and a hump-day highlight is careering through the rolling back-road Southern Tableland landscape, listening to music (the latest Frightened Rabbit has been getting a good run, which make me laugh in this context – the road’s awash with roadkill) and when I cross the border into the ACT it’s always a joy, a hopeful joy.  Because to me that’s what Canberra is about: the future, and how we can craft it anyway we like, even as a society we can do this.  We can honour the past, live in the Brindabella-boundary present – if you’ve never been around to see snow on those ranges then you’re missing the quintessential south-east Australian experience – but keep eyes open to move forward.  It’s this youthfulness that I admire about Canberra – how my own youth once became a kind of ‘manhood’, whatever that is – and the unashamed optimism.  And the fact that many of my friends still live there.

And that perfection might not be so unattainable afterall.

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The Canberra Times reviews 'I'm Ready Now' - wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

The Canberra Times reviews ‘I’m Ready Now’ – wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

Beneath everything that’s been going on – finding a way of paying the bills, covering the cracks that have been appearing in the walls, the death of a divisive UK matriarch, the barrage of daily emails, dodging kangaroos – there’s been a simmering story: how is I’m Ready Now faring in the rapidly shrinking world of literary reviews?

For an excellent but sobering analysis of the current book-review situation in Australia have a read of ‘Parallel Fates’ by Sybil Nolan and Matthew Ricketson, which was recently published in the new and much-needed Sydney Review of Books.  I’m just eternally grateful that I’m Ready Now, a story about two difficult people making difficult decisions, a novella by a regional writer and published by an independent press, has managed to be reviewed at all, first in BMA Magazine, then Whispering Gums, and now The Canberra Times.

As ‘Parallel Fates’ makes clear, book reviews are extraordinarily important: they provide a thoughtful, dispassionate and contextual critique of a writer’s work; they offer advice and feedback to a publisher; and they help connect books with readers.  Without book reviews, especially the articulate, erudite and fearless kind, there can be no viable literary culture – writing is as much about response and contribution as it is about creation.  They can also help to toughen writers, who are, no doubt, innately sensitive souls, and they help to educate readers, encouraging the broadening of interests.  The book pages, however, particularly those in the mainstream press, appear to be dwindling.

But what of the review in The Canberra Times – is it any good?

Well, it does have this to say:

Writing novellas might seem a little anachronistic or studied, a bit like playing the harp, say, reading Henry James, or listening to LPs. In Featherstone’s hands, though, the novella form becomes an opportunity for concise, intense, concentrated emotion. For him, 156 pages are plenty to introduce plot twists, to give characters depth and feeling, to juxtapose emotions, and to colour his settings with textured, intriguing detail (Mark Thomas)

Which is very generous and resulted in the drinking of wine.  Lots of wine.  Far too much.  And a hangover the size of a bastard country.

In other I’m Ready Now news, Blemish Books has produced a podcast of me reading a short (3-minute) extract, there’s an interview I did with ArtSound FM, and if you’re in a book club you may be interested in the reading notes that have recently been made available and the associated discount offer.  So the good ship I’m Ready Now, skippered by the tireless Blemish folk, keeps sailing despite some challenging seas, and here’s hoping that the wind remains in the sails for a little while longer.

As always, thanks to everyone who’s said a kind and supportive word – I appreciate it very much.

Milan Kundera: the unbearable search for a decent coffee

Milan Kundera: the unbearable lightness of having drunk far too much coffee.

‘Novel = heightened story.’ (Philip Larkin in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1941)

‘There are four ‘appeals’ of the novel: (1) the appeal of play; (2) the appeal of dream; (2) the appeal of thought; (4) the appeal of time.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality-level.  In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author for not giving us enough – the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.  Yet we would not dream of accusing Sebold or Woolf or Roth – none of whom is especially interested in creating character in the solid, old-fashioned nineteenth-century sense – of letting us down in this way, because they have so finely tutored us in their own conventions, their own expansive limitations, to be satisfied with just what they give us.’  (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2008)

‘If it is the job of the novelist in part to document an era, to define what is ‘novel’ about their time and to interpret in new ways that which they see, then it makes sense that the best novels are the ones that work hardest at tearing up the foundations of the world as we know it, shifting away from convention, spotlighting the marginalised, and imagining and re-imagining this life and the world.’  (Slightly paraphrased from a review titled ‘Unpicking the Universe’ by Louise Swinn, Overland Issue 189, 2007)

‘[Here are the] inviolable standards: (1) a writer must give the maximum amount of information about a character: about his physical experience, his way of speaking and behaving; (2) he must let the reader know a character’s past, because that is where the motives are present and the behaviours are born; and (3) the character must have complete independence; that is to say , the author with his own considerations must disappear so as not to disturb the reader who wants to give himself over to illusion, and take fiction for reality.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, 1986)

‘Literature that’s worth reading should tell you something that you didn’t know, and at the same time make that knowledge indispensable.’  (Dorothy Johnston in The Canberra Times, 19 July, 2008)

‘Novels are always about time.’  (Margaret Atwood)

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