Tag Archives: Clive James

Clive’s Dante’s Heaven

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Three: Heaven, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214I was about 12 when I first met the notion that heaven might be boring. I sneaked the Collected Plays of  George Bernard Shaw from the good china cabinet1 to read Pygmalion, and progressed by way of Saint Joan (including its wonderful Preface) to Man and Superman before it occurred to my parents that Shaw might not be terribly age-appropriate. When a character in that last play (Don Juan, maybe?) argued that hell was preferable to heaven, my orthodox Catholic faith was robust enough to dismiss him as silly, but the fact that I remember it indicates that the idea struck a chord.

I mention this early adventure in transgressive reading because I suspect that if I’d read Dante’s Heaven at that age I wouldn’t have dismissed the idea so easily: Dante’s heaven, at least in Clive James’s translation, is boring. It’s like a prison where the lights are never turned off, except the inhabitants won’t shut up about how happy they are.

In an exhilarating passage at the end of Canto 22, Dante looks down from his vantage point near Gemini in the zodiac and sees the earth:

______ And this paltry world we prize,
This little threshing floor where we have been
Always so fierce, was made plain from its hills
To river mouths, while I was wheeling there
With those eternal Twins. They turn like mills,
And I with them, the universe laid bare.

The thing is, quite a bit of Heaven is preoccupied with just the kind of paltry fierceness that is put in perspective here, and I confess to not finding the subjects of that fierceness all that interesting. I can appreciate Dante’s magisterial erudition and his brilliant poetic skill (as filtered through Clive James’s translation). I have some grasp of the magnitude of his task – creating a literary Italian language, combining classical and Christian frames of reference, wrestling mediaeval scholastic philosophy and theology into elegant verse, exploring the relationship of earthly and divine love, inveighing against corruption in his contemporary church, giving lessons in church and secular history (some of which, impressive though it is, I wouldn’t want unleashed on the young without health warnings), writing fierce political polemic (and putting it in the mouths of blissful souls in heaven), combining elaborate doctrine with ecstatic visionary experience (though it looks to me as if the visionary experience is a laborious, almost geometric construct rather than the report of an actual vision, as in mystics like Julian of Norwich), all while spinning a yarn with enough fantastical invention to keep the less committed punters happy. The book would obviously reward extended study, but reading it as I did with minimal recourse to commentary was all too often like visiting a museum.

Beatrice has replaced Virgil as Dante’s guide. She’s a lot prettier (her eyes become more ineffably beautiful with each new level of heaven, culminating in Canto 30 in a breathtakingly wonderful declaration of the inadequacy of Dante’s words to describe them) but she’s also much more long-winded, and claims God’s authority for everything she says, not exactly a recipe for lively conversation. I imagine her lectures – and those of other garrulous blissful souls – were serious fun for Dante’s contemporaries, as poetic renderings of cool philosophy or science are these days; off the top of my head I think of Kathryn Lomer on sunflowers or Jennifer Maiden on the uses of liquid nitrogen. But 700 years later, these lectures are mostly to be endured rather than enjoyed, and where they are not politically barbed they are almost unbearably abstract.

Clive James’s introduction anticipates this response: ‘What kind of story,’ he asks, ‘has all the action in the first third [that is, in Hell], and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters?’ He answers his own question:

But the Divine Comedy isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated at the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on.

If that’s so, this translation is – perhaps inevitably – an honourable failure. I’m grateful to James for opting for readability, I love his mastery of the quatrain form, and I read whole passages aloud to my dog as we walked around Marrickville, just for the pleasure of hearing them, but suspect his awareness of his own mortality may have led him to rush things at times. I’m probably not the first to note that at 10:188-189 he has Christ adoring the Church, an error that wouldn’t have survived a Beta reader process.2

I did attempt to deal with my general discontent by paying close attention to a couple of the annoying passages. Here’s one (James 13:69–84; Dante 13:52–66):

———————————Of all truths, this is chief:
That which dies not and that which dies are there
As nothing but the splendour of our Sire’s
Idea, which, loving, he begets. Because
That living light – which, streaming from the fires
Of its bright source, is never, as it pours,
Detached from its first well, nor from the love
Which, with those two, makes three – collects its beams
Through its own goodness, mirrored there above
In nine angelic orders, without seams
Stitched into one forever, it descends
To earthly potencies from act to act,
Becoming such that all things have their ends
In brief contingency, the fleeting fact –
Things generated with, or without, seed –
Produced by movements of the heavens.

If that takes some untangling, it’s partly because Clive James has twisted the language a little to make it rhyme and scan. I looked up the original, and found that the phrase ‘Of all truths, this is chief’ isn’t in Dante, and seems to be there to rhyme with ‘belief’ a few lines earlier; where James has one long, convoluted sentence, ‘Because … heavens’, Dante has two; the confusing stitching metaphor is James’s. But the difficulty is mainly because (I think) the passage deals in mediaeval theology about the Holy Trinity and the nature of Creation. It may have been demanding on Dante’s contemporaries but for us (and I include people like me who have actually studied a bit of Scholastic philosophy), without serious study it will remain incomprehensible, and frankly I don’t care enough to find out. Whatever pizzazz it once had is pretty dead, at least to me. And that’s true of too much of the book as a whole.

The next book I plan to read is Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a translation of The Iliad that leaves out most of the original. Maybe someone should do something of the kind with Dante.
—–
1 We didn’t have a lot of books in my childhood home, and only one or two were kept in the china cabinet – whether because they were particularly precious or to keep them away from young eyes I don’t know.

2 Clive James: ‘the Church, the Bride of Christ, will sing / Matins to its dear bridegroom, that he may /Adore her’. Dante: ‘la sposa di Dio surge / a mattinar lo sposo perché l’ami’. With my limited Italian, I read that literally as ‘the bride of Christ rises to sing matins to the groom because she loves him’. James seems to have been momentarily distracted from the meaning by the need to make his lines scan.

Clive’s Dante’s Purgatory

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Two: Purgatory, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214The devil gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, and the Inferno gets the best press in The Divine Comedy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything at all about Purgatorio, so as I began reading it, I was wondering if an obscure sense of duty was a good enough reason to keep going. Was I hoping for any reward beyond being able to say I’d read it?

It turns out I enjoyed it a lot. Partly I think that was because of a weird sense of privilege. Thanks to my pre–Vatican Two Catholic childhood and a young adulthood in a religious order just as things were changing, much of the theology that underpins the Purgatory is as familiar to me as gum trees. I didn’t need footnotes to explain the idea of the living praying for the dead ‘that they may be loosed from their sins': we offered up our family Rosary each evening ‘for the Pope the poor, the sick, the dying, the suffering souls in Purgatory, for Aunty Hilda and Uncle Jack’s souls’. I recognised most of the Latin hymns that are sung in Purgatory, and can still hum a few bars of some of them. I have a passing acquaintance with the Thomistic philosophy that Virgil explains to Dante, most notably in Canto 17, where the notion contention that all virtue and all sin come from love might otherwise sound like intellectual play for its own sake. Even some fragments of the pervasive Church history/gossip rings a bell. What’s more, thanks to my parents giving me Kingsley’s Heroes and my membership of the Argonauts Club (I was Lebedos 5), not to mention 5 years studying Latin at school and university, not all of the classical allusions pass me by (though, for example, I hadn’t heard the rumours that Julius Caesar was gay until I read Canto 26).

I feel like a privileged dinosaur.

All the same, I confess to reading pages at a time enjoying the verse, the surface level of the narrative, and the imagery, but not having a clue what it all meant. In particular there’s an elaborate procession in the Garden of Eden in the last couple of Cantos, in which various maidens, mythological beasts, birds, trees and vehicles are clearly intended to carry allegorical meanings. Even Clive James’s kind practice of incorporating an occasional explanatory phrase into the text, and Dante himself explicating some of it left me bewildered. At base, for all my familiarity with elements of it, I found this a deeply alien text. To read it properly – to understand it – would take a lot of study, and I guess I’m lazy enough to be content with what I’ve got.

Plot summary (don’t read if you’re worried about spoilers): Guided by the great Roman poet, Virgil, Dante continues his exploration of the afterlife . He climbs the seven circles of Purgatory, each circle inhabited by the souls of dead people expiating one of the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, avarice. At the start Dante has seven Ps branded on his forehead by the touch of an angel’s wing, one of which disappears with each level passed. Virgil and Dante are joined by the poet Statius, whose time in Purgatory is up, but who elects to spend time talking shop with Virgil rather than rushing off to heaven. Finally, they reach a version of the Garden of Eden where the aforementioned allegorical procession happens, Virgil says he can go no further, and Dante’s great love, Beatrice, gives him a piece of her mind. Led by maiden named Matilda, Dante and Statius head for the mountain of heaven under a sky full of stars.

A nice bit of the translation: At the end of Canto 22, in the circle where souls of gluttons are suffering, Clive James has:

As beautiful as gold was the First Age:
Hunger made acorns tasty, thirst made sweet
Nectar of every brook, so you can gauge
How satisfied the Baptist was to eat
The locust and sip honey. Every page
About this in the Gospel shows, therefore,
His greatness and his glory. Less is more.

That sent me hunting the original of those last four lines, which I found at Canto 22, lines 151–154:

Mele e locuste furon le vivande
che nodriro il Batista nel diserto;
per ch’elli è glorioso e tanto grande
quanto per lo Vangelio v’è aperto.

(Honey and locusts were the aliments
That fed the Baptist in the wilderness;
Whence he is glorious, and so magnified
As by the Evangel is revealed to you.)

So James isn’t the most subservient of translators, and isn’t above inserting little anachronisms like ‘Less is more’. Purists would probably object, but it keeps his readers on our toes, and deters us from thinking we’ve actually read the original.

The best bit: I knew that Beatrice replaces Virgil as Dante’s guide in Heaven, because Virgil, having died before Christ, is stuck in Limbo. But I was quite unprepared for the intensity of the scene where Dante and Beatrice meet in Canto 30. She is the great love of his life, and he knows that it is thanks to her that he is being taken on this grand tour of the afterlife. She turns up at a moment when I was feeling that Clive James and I were doing our best to get through some impenetrable mediaeval allegorising with the least possible pain – and everything changes. Dante is thrilled to see her. But instead of embracing him warmly and joyously, she goes for him:

Yet royally, like one with the design
Of holding back the heat her words might mean
While speaking, said this: ‘Look. Look at me well,
For I am Beatrice indeed. How do
You dare approach this mountain. Can you tell?
For man is happy here, yet here are you.’

He responds incoherently, provoking her to increasingly vehement reproach for having fallen away from the paths of virtue after her death. It’s electrifying, and it feels as if all the preceding theology and inventiveness and sheer genius creation exist as scaffolding for this moment when Dante (and Clive James?) writes with authentic passion about the experience of being found deeply wanting by the woman he loves.

There are lots of other good bits, but that’s the one that takes the cake for me.

PS: I’ve just seen that this is my 777th post on this blog – very appropriate, I thought, as I’m about to head off to Heaven.

Clive’s Dante’s Hell

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book One: Hell, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214My rudimentary Italian isn’t up to reading the Divine Comedy in the original. I have started out on a couple of translations, Dorothy Sayers’ being the one I remember, but each time after a couple of pages it started to feel pointless: I mean, he’s in a wood, when a leopard blocks his path, or maybe it’s a wolf, a lion and a leopard, and the evening star rises, then Virgil appears – as they say on the Internet, WTF! Apart from my ignorance of 13th Century Italian terms of reference, it was clear the prose translations were missing something crucial. I haven’t had any more joy with verse translations, in spite of having been fascinated by terza rima, the Divine Comedy‘s verse form, since I read John Manifold’s ‘The Tomb of Lt John Learmonth, AIF’ as a teenager. So it’s no small thing when I say that Clive James’s version, in rhyming quatrains, is readable. The narrative hums along, the action is mostly clear, and even some of the references are glossed (that leopard, for example, seems much less arbitrary thanks to a little parenthesis: ‘was this the leopard, Lechery?’).

One other thing helped me approach the book as something other than an exhibit in the Travelling Museum of Great Literature. I’d heard the late Peter Porter in one of his turbo-charged radio conversations with Clive James describe Dante’s Inferno as repellent because of its mean-spirited punitiveness. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘so I don’t have to read it on bended knee.’ That and the romantic circumstances of the translation: Clive James’s wife is a leading Dante scholar; he has terminal cancer and they are estranged; it’s hard not to see this huge labour as a deathbed love offering.

So, the book itself? Dante is having a midlife crisis when the Roman poet Virgil appears and takes him on a tour of the mediaeval Christian afterlife (for reasons that remain obscure to me, but that’s just quibbling). The tour takes 100 cantos, of which the set-up takes one and Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in that order take 33 each. I intend to read the whole work, but I expect I’ll have different responses to each of the books, so Hell has its own blog entry.

As I said, the narrative hums along, with so much ingenious, graphically-described hideous suffering it’s surprising a video game hasn’t been made of it. There are lots of allusions, to Classical mythology, to the politics of Dante’s time and place, to Italian history, to Arthurian legend, to scandals in the Papacy. No doubt if you knew your Guelphs from your Ghibellines and your Boniface from your Celestine you’d get more out of the poem than I did, and I can see how someone could devote their professional life to studying it. But for instance, I’ve read Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, and know that Dante’s journey into hell refers to the section where Aeneas, like Odysseus in the Odyssey, visits the Underworld and has the shades of the dead speak to him. But knowing this doesn’t make all that much difference to how the story works.

Deeper levels of meaning resonate, of course. I dare to disagree with Peter Porter. Rather than being mean-spirited and punitive, I read Dante as challenging the orthodox doctrine of eternal damnation: over and again, his character feels pity for the suffering souls he encounters, which creates an undertow of implication that God is less compassionate than humans. I have no idea of course if such a challenge was in Dante’s mind, but there’s definitely a tension between an emerging humanist sensibility and a mediaeval doctrinal view. The mixture of classical and Christian references is another marker of that tension.

Less portentously, there’s a strong element of crowd-pleasing satire. Public figures who lied or murdered or allowed evil to triumph by standing by and doing nothing are all punished in gruesomely appropriate ways (and forget what I just said about compassion). Splitters are split; muckrakers drown permanently in muck; and so on. The idea of eternal damnation may be abhorrent to a modern sensibility – I remember fondly the Marist Brother who said to us in 1969, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the church, but I don’t have to believe that any human has ever been sent there by a merciful God’. Even in my traditional Catholic childhood we were told that none of us could know if any individual had been damned: even Judas may have repented as the rope tightened around his neck. But as I read Dante via James, atavistic vengeful impulses surfaced: I wondered what punishment should be meted out to those Labor Party MPs who undermined Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and so gave the government of Australia to the current ruthless gang, and I wondered about the immortal souls of ostentatiously Christian political leaders who equivocate and plunder and gloss over deaths that happen on their watch. Satirists these days can do little more than mock and reproach: Dante could threaten the objects of his rage with eternal suffering.

Now, having passed through the knot at the centre of the earth and climbed back up to see the stars again, it’s time to move on. I’ll write again after Purgatory

NSWPLA and NSWPHA Dinner

I didn’t expect to attend a NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner this year. For a while back there it looked as if the awards might go the way of the Queensland equivalent, but the Liberal Party-approved panel’s unpublished report must have come down in favour of continuation, because here they were again last night, six months late, run by the State Library rather than the Arts NSW, charging $200 [but see Judith Ridge’s comment] for a book to be considered, and sharing the evening with the History Awards, but alive and kicking. And pretty special for me, because I got to go as my niece’s date, my niece being Edwina Shaw, whose novel Thrill Seekers was shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.

The dinner was held in the magnificent reading room of the Mitchell Library. Not everyone approved of the venue – I was in the Research Library in the morning when a woman complained very loudly that she had driven the four hours from Ulladulla only to find the Mitchell’s doors were closed for the day so it could be converted into a banquet hall. She must have been placated somehow because she stopped yelling, but there were other problems. None of the shortlisted books were on sale – Gleebooks had a table at this event for years [but see Judith Ridge’s comment], but the Library has its own shop, but it wasn’t about to stay open late just for us. And library acoustics aren’t designed for such carryings-on: the reverberation in the vast, high-ceilinged room made a lot of what was said at the mike unintelligible at the back of the room. But those are quibbles. It’s a great room with happy memories for a good proportion of the guests.

Aunty Norma Ingram welcomed us to country, inviting us all to become custodians of the land.

Peter Berner was the MC. he did OK, but organisers please note: the MC of an event like this needs to be literate enough to pronounce Christina Stead’s surname correctly.

The Premier didn’t show up. Perhaps he was put off by the chance of unpleasantness in response to his current attack on arts education. The awards were presented by a trio of Ministers, one of whom read out a message from the Premier saying, among other things, that art in all its forms is essential to our society’s wellbeing. But this was a night for celebrating the bits that aren’t under threat, not for rudely calling on people to put their money where their mouths are.

The Special Award, sometimes known as the kiss of death because of the fate met by many of its recipients soon after the award, went to Clive James – whose elegant acceptance speech read to us by Stephen Romei necessarily referred to his possibly imminent death. He spoke of his affection for New South Wales, of his young sense that Kogarah was the Paris of South Sydney, and his regret that he is very unlikely ever to visit here again. He also said some modest things about what he hoped he had contributed.

After a starter of oyster, scampi tail and ocean trout, the history awards:

NSW Community and Regional History Award: Deborah Beck, Set in Stone: A History of the Cellblock Theatre
The writer told us that the book started life as a Master’s thesis, and paid brief homage to the hundreds of women who were incarcerated in early colonial times in the Cellblock Theatre, now part of the National Art School.

Multimedia History Prize: Catherine Freyne and Phillip Ulman,  Tit for Tat: The Story of Sandra Willson
This was an ABC Radio National Hindsight program about a woman who killed her abusive husband and received  lot of media – and wall art – attention some decades back. Phillip Ulmnan stood silently beside Catherine Ulman, who urged those of us who enjoyed programs like Hindsight to write objecting to the recent cuts.

Young People’s History Prize: Stephanie Owen Reeder, Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea
This book won against much publicised Ahn Do on being a refugee (The Little Refugee) and much revered Nadia Wheatley on more than a hundred Indigenous childhoods (Playground). It not only tells the story of young Grace Bussell’s heroic rescue of shipwreck survivors but, according to the evening’s program, it introduces young readers to the ‘basic precepts of historical scholarship’. It also looks like fun.

General History Prize: Tim Bonyhady, Good Living Street: The Fortunes of My Viennese Family
A member my book group rhapsodised about this book recently, comparing it favourably to The Hare with Amber Eyes. It’s a family history, and in accepting the award Bonyhady told us it had been a big week for his family because the lives of his two young relatives with disabilities would be greatly improved by teh National Disability Insurance Scheme introduced by the Gillard government this week.

Australian History Prize: Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal People and the Australian Nation
This looks like another one for the To Be Read pile. Russell McGregor acknowledged Henry Reynolds and Tim Rowse as mentors.

After a break for the entrée, a creation in watermelon, bocconcini and tapenade, it was on to the literary awards:

The Community Relations Commission Award: Tim Bonyhady was called to the podium again for Good Living Street, but he’d given his speech, and just thanked everyone, looking slightly stunned.

The newly named Nick Enright Prize for Drama was shared between Vanessa Bates for Porn.Cake. and Joanna Murray-Smith for The Gift. Perhaps this made up to some extent for the prize not having been given two years ago.
Joanna Murray-Smith said she learned her sense of structure from the Henry Lawson stories her father read to her at bedtime. As her father was Stephen Murray-Smith, founding editor of Overland, she thereby managed to accept the government’s money while politely distancing herself from its politics. She lamented that her play hadn’t been seen in Sydney and struck an odd note by suggesting that the Mitchell Library and a similarly impressive building in Melbourne may have been the beginning of the Sydney–Melbourne rivalry: I wonder if any Sydney writers accepting awards in Melbourne feel similarly compelled to compete. Vanessa Bates couldn’t be here, so her husband accepted her award, with his smart phone videoing everything, perhaps sending it all to her live.

The also newly named Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting (and I pause to applaud this conservative government for honouring an old Communist in this way): Peter Duncan, Rake (Episode 1): R v Murray
Peter Duncan gets my Speech of the Night Award. He began by telling the junior minister who gave him the award that he was disappointed nit to be receiving it from Barry O’Farrell himself, because he had wanted to congratulate Barry on the way his haircut had improved since winning the election. At that point we all became aware that Peter Duncan’s haircut bears a strong resemblance to the Premier’s as it once was. He then moved on to congratulate the Premier for instituting a careful reassessment of the Literary Awards and deciding to persevere with them. He expressed his deep appreciation of this support for the arts. (No one shouted anything about TAFE art education from the floor. See note above about this being an evening to celebrate the bits that aren’t under threat.)

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: Kate Constable, Crow Country (Allen & Unwin)
I hadn’t read anything on this shortlist, I’m embarrassed to confess. It looks like a good book, a time-slip exploration of Australian history.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: Penni Russon, Only Ever Always (Allen & Unwin)
Again, I hadn’t read any of the shortlist. But Bill Condon and Ursula Dubosarsky were on it, so this must be pretty good! Penni Russon’s brief speech referred to the famous esprit de corps of Young Adult writers: ‘You guys are my people.’

There was break for the main course to be served, and for about half the audience go wander and schmooze. I had the duck, the two vegetarians on our table were served a very fancy looking construction, only a little late. Then onward ever onward.

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Gig Ryan, New and Selected Poems
Again, I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted books, but wasn’t surprised that Gig Ryan won, as this is something of a retrospective collection. She speaks rapidly and her speech was completely unintelligible from where I was  sitting (like some of her poetry). However, someone tweeted a comment that got laughs from the front of the room:
tweet

The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction: Mark McKenna, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark
Another lefty takes the government’s money, and a good thing too.

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Rohan Wilson, The Roving Party (Allen & Unwin)
I know nothing about this book. Rohan Wilson is in Japan just now. His agent told us that when she asked him for an acceptance speech ‘just in case’, he emailed back, ‘No way I’ll win – look at the calibre of the others.’ The three writers on my table who were in competition with him seemed to think it was a fine that it had won:

Favel Parrett and Edwina Shaw respond to not winning the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

Favel Parrett and Edwina Shaw respond to not winning the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction was almost an anti-climax. It went to Kim Scott for That Deadman Dance. We had a small bet going on my table, and I won hundred of cents. Kim Scott’s agent accepted on his behalf.

There was dessert, layered chocolate and coffee cake, then:

The People’s Choice Award, for which voting finished the night before, went to Gail Jones for Five Bells. She was astonished, genuinely I think, and touched that her book about Sydney as an outsider should be acknowledged like this. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m also a bit astonished, because what I have read of her prose is not an easy read.

Book of the Year: Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance. No surprise there!

No surprise, either, that the award to Clive James overshadowed all the others in the newspaper reports.

I believe that the judging panel for next years literary awards has had its first meeting. The dinner will move back to the Monday of the week of the Writers’ Festival, where it belongs.

Added later: Edwina has blogged about the evening.

Overland 204

Jeff Sparrow, editor, Overland 204, Spring 2011

At a time where the terms of Australian political debate are set by the self-styled ‘centre-right’ Australian to the extent that vehemently anti-Communist Robert Manne is seen as left wing, everyone who’s more socialist than Ghengis Khan should subscribe to Overland. It has been appearing regularly for more than 50 years as a journal of ‘progressive culture’, unashamedly of the left from its beginnings, creating a space where dissenting voices can be heard (arguing with each other as often as not), and staying for the most part readable by people (like me) who wouldn’t know Althusser from a hole in the ground. Unlike the Australian, it has no Rupert Murdoch to prop it up. You can read most of every issue online. The point of subscribing is to help sustain it.

In this issue, in no particular order:

  • ‘The birthday boy’, a short story from an early Overland updated and retold in sequential art (ie, as a comic) by Bruce Mutard. While the story here stands on its own merits, I’d love to read the original, by Gwen Kelly, so as to follow the process involved in the updating (who were the 1955 equivalents of 2011’s Sudanese students, for instance?). I couldn’t find it on the Web. Maybe I’ll make a trip to the State Library …
  • John Martinkus, in ‘Kidnapped in Iraq, attacked in Australia’, tells the story of his capture and release by Iraqi insurgents in 2004 and the attacks on him by the then Foreign Minister and rightwing ‘journalists’. There’s nothing new here – I wrote to Alexander Downer’s office at the time and received a boilerplate reply – but it’s very good to be reminded of this shameful moment just now when Downer has been on the TV denouncing David Hicks again and one of the ‘journalists’ has been wailing about free speech after being held to account by a court
  • an interview with Afghani heroine Malalai Joya. I was glad to read this after attending a crowded meeting in Marrickville Town Hall where the acoustics and sight lines made her incomprehensible and invisible to me. The interview gives a sharp alternative to the mainstream media’s version of what’s happening in Afghanistan and it’s a great companion piece to Sally Neighbours’ lucid ‘How We Lost the War: Afghanistan a Decade on from September 11‘ in the September Monthly
  • some splendid, almost Swiftian sarcasm from Jennifer Mills in ‘How to write about Aboriginal Australia‘: ‘First, be white. If you are Aboriginal, you can certainly speak on behalf of every Aboriginal person in Australia, but it is best to get a white person to write down what they think you should be saying.’
  • Andy Worthington’s When America changed forever and Richard Seymour’s What was that all about? reflecting on the damage done to democracy in the USA and its allies by the ‘war on terror’
  • Reading coffee‘, a short story by Anthony Panegyres that reminds us of anti-Greek violence in Western Australia during the First World War (and is also a good oogie boogie yarn)
  • Ellena Savage’s ‘My flesh turned to stone‘, which I may have misunderstood (it quotes Lacan, and refers at one point to gender-based torture, which may or may not be how the academies nowadays refer to torture of women), but seems to be putting the eminently sensible proposition that terrible experiences have lasting after-effects on individuals and communities, and expecting people to just get over them isn’t realistic
  • A number of poems, coralled off together in a section up the back, printed in white on pale green, which is either a cunning way of making us read the poems slowly or a case of a designer for whom readability isn’t a priority. The ones that spoke most to me are Jill Jones’s ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline‘ and John Leonard’s ‘After Rain‘. Jill Jones discusses the former on her blog here. You may have to be fascinated by swallows to enjoy the latter – which is very short – as much as I did, but who isn’t fascinated by swallows?
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s ‘A one-man writer’s festival’, a hatchet job on Clive James’s poetic aspirations. I found myself asking why. The poor bloke’s got cancer. Leave him alone.

I didn’t read everything, which is pretty much a hallmark of the journal-reading experience. You can skip things because of an annoying turn of phrase on the first page (as in a reference to Sydney’s western suburbs as perceived as ‘some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale’ – Annandale! I doubt if that would have got past the editors in a Sydney-based journal). You might be put off because something looks too abstract, or promises a detailed discussion of a book you plan to read. Or you might be pre-emptively bored by anything about publishing in the digital age, even while admitting the subject is important.

I read this Overland in a grumpy post-operative state. And enjoyed it.

Preincarnate

Shaun Micallef, Preincarnate: A novella (Hardie Grant 2010)

Shaun Micallef is a comedian who affects a kind of supercilious gaucherie, a little like Stephen Fry without the erudition or the authentic blue-ribbon class credentials. I’ve mainly seen him on television, and been amused, though not enough to make me watch  Talkin Bout Your Generation, the TV game show he MCs, unless by accident.

This book was a Christmas present from a friend who doesn’t watch a lot of television and was enticed by the stylishly witty cover. I gladly accepted it as a challenge to my prejudices. Sadly, I gave up a third of the way through, my prejudices unallayed. There’s quite an interesting plot involving time travel, culminating (I peeked at the last couple of pages) in logically determined absurdities redolent of the climactic scenes of excellent farces. My problem was that the writing was constantly striving to be ‘funny’, interrupting itself with strenuous jokeiness or sketch-comedy interludes. For example, in a seventeenth century context:

Moray wore a parrot hidden under his vest during all his subsequent meetings with the Dutch émigré , and every conversation recorded by the parrot was later transcribed. It was an arduous process. The parrot had a learning difficulty and Moray would often have to trick Leeuwenhoeck into repeating entire conversations, sometimes fifteen or twenty times. eventually, enough evidence was amassed to establish a prima facie case.

It goes on with the parrot shooting himself out of guilt, and none of it moving the plot forward perceptibly. Funny, if you’re in the mood. Otherwise annoying.

Clive James doesn’t like to be thought of a comedian, and has said so in a number of places, including in an interview with Peter Thompson on ABC TV’s Talking Heads:

I’m not really a comedian and I don’t even tell jokes. If I do anything funny it’s because I’ve expressed something real in a very short space. The result is, if you make an article interesting enough on that level … So you’re saying something complex but some of it comes out funny, and you get this reputation as a comedian, then journalistically these two reputations get in each other’s road. ‘He can’t be serious because he’s funny,’ ‘He can’t be funny because he’s serious.’

I hope I’m wrong, but it looks to me as if Shaun Micallef has bought into that journalistic dichotomy, and opted for funniness at the expense of all else.

Adamson’s best of 2009

Robert Adamson, The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc 2009)

This is an excellent anthology. In fact, in the context of previous years’ round-ups, both from Black Inc and UQP, it’s a strong contender for Best of the Best. It includes a wonderful range of poetic styles and modes and subjects – incomprehensible post-modern stuff, impassioned story-telling, linguistic virtuosity, delicate lyric. There’s Clive James‘s assured iambic pentameter, Pam Brown‘s asthmatically short lines, Ali Cobby Eckermann‘s lines you might need to know didgeridoo breathing to recite adequately. In the introduction, Robert Adamson talks about his solution to the difficulty of reducing his short list to fit the space available – he persuaded Black Inc to give him more space. I’m glad he did, and that he kept commentary, analysis and explanation to a bare minimum. He does offer this gem of commentary:

People ask me, why are so many bird poems being written and published? I have a theory: we miss having poets among us who can imagine that a soul can ‘clap its hands and sing, and louder sing’, that we need to acknowledge visitations by intense psychological presences, and that birds are the closes things we have, more or less, to angels.

Perhaps that’s mainly a clue as to how to read his own poems, but it’s an interesting general thought as well.

I’m not going to try to name the poems I liked best.  My copy has far too many page-corners turned down for that.

As I was reading this anthology, my Art-Student Companion, as part of her preparation for an assignment on Australian Federation, was reading The Sentimental Nation by John Hirst, and kept regaling me with interesting bits about the major role poetry played – poetry, he says, is ‘the best guide to the ideas and ideals that inspired the movement’ for Federation, and again: ‘The nation was born in a festival of poetry.’ Well, even though poetry festivals rarely make the news pages these days, to judge by this book poems are still looking for words for what inspires and ails us as a nation and a species. But now, instead of writing bush ballads or ponderous and forgettable sonnets, they tell about Iraq, global warming, the ills of capitalism, but they tell it slant. There are any number of examples, but I’ll just mention Luke Davies’ ‘Maldon, 991 AD’ which ends:

oooooooooooo I felt an outsider
to laughter. Out there the Vikings sang,
that was more like it, something eerie
to get spooked about, distracted by:
and the world so tenderly
unveiling its final unveiling.

I was also struck by the sense of community among the poets, particularly as shown in the number of poems honouring those who have died: Dorothy Porter (‘Word‘ by Martin Harrison), but also John Forbes (‘Letter to John Forbes‘ by Laurie Duggan, Jan McKemmish (Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow‘), Francis Webb (‘Reading Francis Webb‘, by Philip Salom [the link is to a PDF]) and Bruce Beaver (a couple of mentions, but mainly Peter Rose’s beautiful imitation, ‘Morbid Transfers‘).

Buying this book in March felt a little bit silly, like buying hot cross buns in July, but it turns out it’s not a seasonal thing at all. It’s an anthology that I’m sure I’ll go back to.

Footnote: One of my wise younger relatives recently chided me for reading while walking: ‘It’s as bad as walking around with those things in your ears, Jonathan,’ she said (by which you can she’s not so very young). ‘You have to let the world in.’ She may be right in general. But sometimes reading while walking is a way of letting in both world and poetry. The other morning I was throwing the ball for Nessie at the bottom of the hill and noticed that the longish grass was pearled with dew so that previous walkers both human and canine had left tracks of darker green, and the rosellas wouldn’t shut about something. I realised it must have rained quietly in the night. The next words I read were these, from Sarah Day’s ‘A Dry Winter: Some Observations About Rain‘:

… an elemental transition from dry to damp.
Listen, you can hardly hear its outward breath

on the tin roof. In the morning,
grass and earth are wet and everything

but the mercuric globe in the nasturtium leaf
is translucent.

I don’t know anything about nasturtiums, but the rest could have been a condensation from my surroundings. (The whole poem is lovely, by the way.)

Added later: Tara Mokhtari on the Overland blog has a completely different view. She does identify herself as a ‘shunned poet’.