October 27, 2012 12:00AM
Ramona Koval takes us on intriguing journeys, not only through books but also via meetings with authors, travel and her work at the ABC. Picture: Houspian Arsineh Source: The Australian
FROM Text Publishing come two complementary books that celebrate how reading can be an essential enrichment of our lives.
Yet the tones of voice of Ramona Koval’s By the Book and Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library are utterly different. Each subtitle is revealing. Koval promises, ambitiously, A Reader’s Guide to Life. Williamson declares trenchantly that we can expect challenging news of Our Great Novelists Lost and Found.
Koval offers an occasionally melancholy, but always lively, widely informed and inquisitive account of the extent to which a life ought in part to be lived through and defined by books. Indeed, this was a significant element in her professional life, as the long-time presenter of The Book Show on ABC Radio National.
The world of books also provides Williamson with a living, as chief literary critic for this newspaper. His mission in The Burning Library is a fiercely combative one. On the one hand, this is a jeremiad (a favoured word of his) against the betrayal of Australian literature from within our universities; on the other, a recuperation (another word, less fortunate, that he likes) of novelists whom he believes to be among the finest who have written in, and of, Australia, but whose reputations have faded or been sullied.
Of these two passionate, if disparate, projects that illuminate the literary scene in Australia, Williamson’s is the more agonised and urgent as it commands attention and invites dispute. Koval’s approach is milder, one that is imbued with a generous sense of how much literature there is to commend and recommend. She does not defend an embattled canon or tradition, as Williamson does. Instead, Koval shares “the authors that have written themselves into her life”.
What she has read becomes a vibrant, alternative calendar of her days. We begin with the child of Holocaust survivors, living with her parents in a tiny flat in Melbourne’s St Kilda. Readers who, like Koval, were born in the 1950s will share a familiar journey, from Little Golden Books to Enid Blyton (without apology), to Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the series of school readers.
Koval is also sensible of not having read “all the books for kids” – no CS Lewis, nor Tolkien, nor The Wind in the Willows – no matter how avidly she raided the shelves of the Camberwell Mobile Library.
Books for adults came her way. Improbably, she persuaded her mother (a woman notably more liberal about her daughter’s reading than her social life) to buy her a copy of the Kama Sutra. On another occasion, though, she witnessed a terrifying fight between her parents after her father showed her a magazine with photographs of the slaughtered of Auschwitz.
For Koval, reading was never innocuous. Her mother, “a polyglot who spoke to me in broken English”, collaborated in Koval’s quests as a reader, and read voraciously herself. The book’s opening image is of her rapt in a book, “lost to us”. Before the age of 50, she was truly lost. Koval gives us fragments of her parents’ unhappy marriage, down to the father’s desertion for another woman as her mother was dying of leukaemia.
By the Book takes us on intriguing journeys not only through books, but to meetings with authors (Grace Paley in New York is a highlight), travels to wilder reaches of the world – New Guinea, north Queensland – and, almost foreordained, to the work that so fulfilled her at the ABC.
There are meditations on “reading the right book at the right time”, on “reading while travelling” and “reading for money, reading for love”. The excitement with which Koval still approaches each new book, plunging in “head first, heart deep”, furnishes the last words of this urbane and enlightening work of her own.
Koval ends with a miscellaneous book list, as does Williamson in The Burning Library, although his is described as “more of a mental map than a strict, scholarly account of my reading”. He includes, as well, “an idiosyncratic checklist of other Australian books, a kind of alternative study”.
In doing so, he relaxes from the intensity that has sustained close and partisan readings of 15 20th-century Australian authors of fiction (the tally includes the collaboration known as M. Barnard Eldershaw).
First there is his introduction, whose opening sentence is a taste of the memorable starts that herald each section of the book: “For a long time there was so such thing as Australian literature.” Then, he argues, there was: for a half century from the publication in 1938 of Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia. Now, “Ozlit is dead” and the universities, principally, are to blame.
This complaint, by now well known, is nonetheless in need of constant (if despairing) restatement: “universities have ceased to preserve the best of our writing for future generations”; they have “adopted an entrepreneurialism that was inimical to their historical function of disinterested inquiry”.
Williamson blames the rise of theory for relegating Australian literature in importance, for deriding the notion of a canon of its greatest works. Thanks to cultural studies, he remarks acidly, you may “study Jackie Collins’s The Stud at Melbourne University, but nothing by Randolph Stow”. For once Williamson errs on the side of politeness. Some of those who teach literature in our universities know little of any of it. They are suspicious and antagonistic to shield their ignorance.
Williamson’s undertaking, however, is a positive one, “an attempt to reconstitute a lost backstory of our literature”. The figures he has chosen “approximate a tradition, albeit a weird one”. They are marked by “eccentricity”; are all committed to reckonings of place; are “carriers of knowledge about people, a vivid gallery of Australian selves”.
Williamson almost proclaims the return of radical nationalism as the strain that ought to be regarded as dominant in Australian literature. This may explain the signal omissions of two expatriates. There is neither a chapter on Martin Boyd, an acclaimed Australian novelist as recently as the 1970s, whose reputation has fallen more swiftly and further than anyone’s, nor one on Henry Handel Richardson.
If Boyd is neither taught nor read, that is not yet Richardson’s fate. (On the other hand, Williamson is keenly aware of how many important works of our literature can be neither taught nor read, for they are long out of print.)
Instead of these two, he turns first to another pair: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, once successful and experimental literary collaborators, if now nearly forgotten. With them, Williamson contends, “a proto-feminist self-consciousness began to colour representations of the Australian past”. As often in The Burning Library, Williamson proffers unexpected and illuminating comparisons. He likens Barnard and Eldershaw to such other “writers who stand against the virulent strains of the modern” as the English “psychogeographer” Iain Sinclair and the French novelist Michel Houellebecq. That’s good company.
Later he compares Dal Stivens with Joseph Furphy: both were “backblock moralists, instinctive democrats and autodidacts”. This is in the cause of a nearly successful attempt to rehabilitate Stivens for the present time.
Throughout, Williamson writes pungently: of Herbert that “his learning was limited, his narcissism legendary and his willingness to court controversy unmatched”, while Christina Stead’s prose style was “endlessly self-replenishing, exorbitantly in excess of requirements”. Sumner Locke Elliott was “born into melodrama as some are born into poverty”. With Jessica Anderson (and others in mind), Williamson says that “the whittling away of a writer’s reputation is always a surprising and somewhat melancholy process”.
Thus The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2010) is regularly arraigned by Williamson for its sins of omission, notably of David Ireland. The rise of neoliberalism, Williamson judges (apart from Ireland’s “dreary litany of porn and misogyny”), has led to the eclipse of this “eulogist of a vanquished tribe”, the urban proletariat of Ireland’s two great novels, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe.
In Williamson’s view, neoliberal ideology has not only despoiled whole universities but also claimed incidental victims such as Ireland. The case is put cogently, daring disagreement, as is always his way. Courtesies are observed for authors, for instance three of the women writers on whom he concentrates: the late-developing careers of Amy Witting and Olga Masters, the self-truncated one of Elizabeth Harrower (who is also a favourite of Koval).
Not much courtesy is spared for those who are paid to profess literature, but who instead betray it. Williamson’s writing belongs to a great tradition of Australian literary criticism from outside the academy (think of AA Phillips, Vance and Nettie Palmer, and John Manifold, among many). It is just such a standpoint that will enrage those whom he has exposed in The Burning Library. They may yet lack the power to erase from memory and present delight the authors of whom he has written in this brilliant, unobliged and provoking work.
The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found
By Geordie Williamson
Text Publishing, 224pp, $32.99
By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life
By Ramona Koval
Text Publishing, 250pp, $32.99 (hb)
Peter Pierce edited the Cambridge History of Australian Literature.