I can’t leave behind my coverage of the 2012 conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) without mentioning the launch of Brigitta Olubas‘s new book on Shirley Hazzard and six of the many other talks that caught my attention.
1. On the Thursday evening of the conference Elizabeth McMahon launched with much praise Brigitta Olubas’s Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist, which is published in the Cambria Australian Literature book series edited by Susan Lever. I’m very excited about this book, the first full critical study of Hazzard’s work. As the Cambria Press website says:
‘Shirley Hazzard is one of Australia’s most significant expatriate authors, and a major international literary figure by any measure. Her work has been extensively and extravagantly praised by writers and reviewers, such a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford: “If there has to be one best writer working in English today it’s Shirley Hazzard.” Similarly, novelist Michael Cunningham: “One of the greatest writers working in English today”, and London Times critic Brian Appleyard “For me, the greatest living writer on goodness and love”.
‘Shirley Hazzard has lived in New York and Capri since 1951. Internationally, she is one of the great writers of movement, passage, transposition and transit. Her novels trace the fate of a series of young expatriate female protagonists in the geographical and emotional vistas opening up after World War II, but before the social upheavals of feminism. They take her readers into moral territory that is at once utterly sure and breached at every turn, with the certainties of romance forms tested by human vulnerability and the often brutal social and political canvas of modern life.’
It’s already received some glowing reviews, including this from Robert Dixon, Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney: ‘This important new book by Brigitta Olubas will transform Australian literary studies by placing the work of an expatriate writer at the centre of the field.’
And this, from Michael Gorra, Professor of English at Smith College: ‘Lucidly written, theoretically sophisticated, and scrupulously researched, Brigitta Olubas’ account of Shirley Hazzard shows us just how this great cosmopolitan novelist has produced a body of work that lies outside and beyond the “terrain of the nation”.’
2. I was fascinated by Robert Clarke‘s paper ‘Journeys to Country: Travelling Home in Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Travel Writing’. He quoted Ruby Langford Ginibi: ‘I wanted to travel back to the country where I was born to find my roots … In our Koori way, we all want to go back to where we came from originally, it is like a magnet that keeps drawing us to the places where we were born to find our extended families. In the past we have been divided by the dominant culture in Australia, and it is a very strong urge that keeps pulling us back to our “real belongin'” places: the mission places or wherever we were born. I needed to go back home, and I guess so do a lot of Kooris like me, to establish our links with our extended families and our past, because that is where the truth is.’
Clarke talked about traumatic landscape: landscape altered by colonial inhabitation and the site of Koori family history and traumas. And about ‘post-traumatic societies’, Dominick LaCapra‘s ‘Trauma, Absence, Loss’ and ‘testimonial reading’, which allows the reader to be unsettled.
3. In his paper on ‘Kim Scott’s Storying’ Martin Renes quoted Scott: ‘the novel is a kind of meeting place in which Australians can renegotiate notions of place’. I really like this idea.
4. Grace Karskens gave a keynote speech on ‘The settler evolution: space, place, memory and the politics of legitimate occupancy’. Her award winning book The Colony: A history of early Sydney, praised for its outstanding sense of place, inspired the 2012 conference theme ‘The Colonies’.
Karskens began by distinguishing between space and place, drawing on feminist geographer Gillian Rose: space is imagined, abstracted; but place refers to particular sites with meanings, particular ecologies, societies, etc.
She conjured the ‘early colony in a nutshell’ as characterised by risk, chance, gambling, making intelligent bets (for profit as much as for escape); with a flipside of resignation to fate, chance.
The Hawkesbury was dubbed ‘the Nile of New South Wales’ and the settlers dreamt of founding a working class Cockaigne, a land of plenty. From 1794 to 1816 the first frontier between the settlers and the local indigenous people was on the Cumberland Plain. By the 1790s the private economy – with a sophisticated and complex monetary system which developed against the intentions of Britain – far outstripped the official economy. The first export industry was sealing. By 1791 the convict transports also went whaling. Within minutes of landing, half the convicts on the First Fleet ran away – 400 of them. With the arrival of free settlers in the 1820s and 30s racial attitudes in Sydney hardened. Indigenous people were pushed to the edges of the settlement and dispossessed.
5. Fiona Morrison gave a funny, fascinating paper on Christina Stead and Katherine Mansfield ‘Modernist/Provincial/Pacific’ – unlikely writers to compare, as she said, but they bear comparison: there are ‘traits of colonial modernity and modernism in both women’. Morrison considered Seven Poor Men of Sydney as Stead’s ‘hinge novel’ – ‘to be Deleuzian for a moment’. Stead uses realism and surrealism, ‘the spoken and surreal modes, which are orchestrated by an overarching discourse of international socialism’. In London Stead was reading Malraux, Gide and the French moderns, as well as Joyce, Lawrence, Mann. She was especially excited by Joyce. Morrison referred to Jane Bennett‘s idea of ‘enchanted materialism’ – and the ‘natural fit’ between the vernacular, surreal and antipodean which distinguish Stead’s work. Morrison said Mansfield’s story ‘The Woman at the Store‘ was her hinge story.
6. Kenneth Stewart drew intriguing and provocative links between Henry Handel Richardson and James Joyce in his paper ‘A Portrait of the Modernist as a Young “Exile”‘, starting with the fact that Joyce ordered Richardson’s translation of Ibsen while living in Trieste in 1916. It’s not known whether or not Joyce read Richardson’s fiction – but it is known that Richardson read Joyce’s and found Ulysses distasteful.
In 1916 Joyce and Richardson were the only authors writing in English who were reading Scandinavian authors. Both writers esteemed Ibsen as a new age modern Genius, using the word ‘genius’ in an almost Romantic way. Both were entranced by the same actress, especially playing Hedda Gabler. Both were children of Dublin. Bloom is a composite of Joyce, his father and Joyce’s authorial imagination. Mahony is a composite of Richardson, her father and her authorial imagination. Both writers read Freud in the original German before he was fashionable. Both revered Flaubert. Both lived in exile.
Conrad had done to adventure fiction what Richardson was doing to genre and boarding school stories (in The Getting of Wisdom), ie reworking the English novel and rewriting its hero.
Mahony’s ultimate ‘no’ to the body is the opposite of Joyce and Bloom’s emphatic ‘yes’. Richardson’s characters work as well as walk; Joyce’s only walk.
7. Rachael Weaver (from a paper she was supposed to give with Ken Gelder, who couldn’t make it) quoted a Melbourne actress (Florence Nunn I think) from the 1910s: ‘If I had to choose a girl who’s as representative of Australia as the Gibson Girl is of America, I think I’d point to the chorus girl’. Her ‘freedom and vitality’ are the national traits of the newly federated Australia. That blew my mind: the chorus girl as representative Australian girl. Very Baz Luhrmann.