Saturday, March 29, 2008

Barbara Jefferis Award, continued; Aust Lit; the lives of animals; various other stuff

The Barbara Jefferis Award, discussed in the post before last in the context of a rave about Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog, was in the event won by poet Rhyll McMaster for her first novel Feather Man. Which is indeed a fine book, as I've said at some length already here, and which certainly addresses, directly and on a literal level, the empowerment of girls and women.

But.

I don't know, maybe Michelle is one of those writers, like Elliot Perlman, whose work violently divides those who read it. (Perlman, whose very very long and very very detailed novel Seven Types of Ambiguity was treated to an absolute stinker of a review by Peter Craven of the kind Craven had hitherto reserved for Simon During's book about Patrick White, is regarded -- mainly on the strength of this novel -- by the French in particular not only as a very important Australian writer but as a very important writer, period. Other critical responses were dotted all along the spectrum between these two positions. Perlman's book has a dog in it, too; his name is Empson, which is one of the things that enraged Craven.)

Or maybe people think if there's an animal in the title it can't be a serious book. If so, this is sad, for there is a time-honoured and honourable tradition in Australian literature of writing about animals and putting them in your title. A quick trawl through the colourful history of the Australian short story yields the following by-no-means-exhaustive list of titles: 'The Dog', 'The Cow', 'The Bull Calf', 'The Jackass', 'The Dingo', 'The Donkey', 'The Ant-Lion', 'The Galah', 'The Pelican', 'The Seahawk', Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo', 'The White Turkey', 'The Grey Kangaroo', 'The Grey Horse', 'The Black Mare', 'Wild Red Horses', 'The Red Bullock', 'The Red 'Roo', 'The Rainbow Bird', 'The Powerful Owl', 'Singing Birds', 'The Woodpecker Toy Fact', 'The Three-Legged Bitch', 'The Loaded Dog', 'The New Australian Dog', 'Thylacine', 'Serpents', 'Snakes', 'A Snake Down Under', 'The Turtles' Graveyard', 'Goldfish', 'The Mullet', 'The Snoring Cod', 'Getting to the Pig', 'The Woman Who Wasn't Allowed to Keep Cats', 'My Bird', 'His Dog', 'Hawkins's Pigs', 'John Gilbert's Dog', and 'Nobody's Kelpie'.

Perhaps some people may think The Lost Dog "about" (and only about) a dog, and "therefore" can't be Art. Perhaps some people may have forgotten the extraordinary power of the animal symbolism in the work some of the 20th century's great writers -- Lawrence's foxes and horses, Woolf's spaniel, Hemingway's bulls and fish, Les Murray's magical animal poems, Coetzee's dogs and frogs and other critters of all kinds and the absolutely deadly serious life philosophy behind his representations of animals and our relations with them.

For we are lucky enough to have in Australia not just one but two truly great thinkers and writers who can elevate these matters to a place where no intelligent reader can ignore the dilemmas they represent even with respect to that most alien of creatures, the bat: Coetzee as a man who fearlessly follows a trail of logic with no failure of nerve and arrives at a radical point of understanding, Murray from a point of view profoundly spiritual, a conception of being and presence arrived at via Catholicism, observation and imagination all at once. Here is Coetzee's tough nut (an old bat, even) Elizabeth Costello, in full flight, on bats and being:

What is it like to be a bat? Before we can answer such a question, [philosopher Thomas] Nagel suggests, we need to be able to experience bat life through the sense modalities of a bat. But he is wrong; or at least he is sending us down a false trail. To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. Bat being in the first case, human being in the second, maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.


Now if one were not aware that Les Murray had written 'Presence: Translations From the Natural World' some years earlier than this, his bat-poem would seem for all the world like a direct response, or amplification, of it, as though in conversation with Coetzee which for all I know he has been, in fact it seems very likely. I wish I'd been there.

Bats' Ultrasound

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening's a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O'er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row wry -- aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.


Cross-posted at Australian Literature Diary

11 comments:

Pen said...

I'm firmly of the opinion that Michelle de Kretser should win the Booker Prize anyway. I love her writing, and spent many of my best years as a bookseller sputtering with fury at book groups who would not purchase her novels.

Before I realised they didn't read any novels anyway.

meli said...

Maybe that's the problem with a prize that has criteria as to what the novels are supposed to be doing - you're never sure if the best novel has won, or just the novel that best fits the criteria.

I found your discussion of animals absolutely fascinating btw. (Needless to say that Murray poem is one of my favourite in all the world.) There's an 'Antipodean Animals' conference in London in a couple of months and I'm giving a paper on medieval antipodean animals in Murray and Webb. And the professor of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Literature at Leeds is working on postcolonial animals, too.

genevieve said...

Glad you have the news on this, PC - the ASA website is a bit slow off the mark, as are the ABC ( is it in the papers? doesn't seem to be online).
Thanks.
I did think of Ted Hughes to add to those writers you mention, too.

Ampersand Duck said...

This is a ripper of a post, thank you. I so wish you'd been my lecturer at uni, rather than the macho schmuckiness I was given.

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget that Sonya Hartnett seems to include at least one dog in each of her novels, and Craven is rather smitten with her work - most of it anyway.

Perry Middlemiss

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh, Perry, thank you, I'd forgotten about Sonya. Of whom I too am a huge fan. Sonya is a fantastic writer about animals.

Pen, I'm not sure Michelle's work is quite appropriate for book groups, however much I'm sure the sales would be welcome. She is a very, very intellectually sophisticated writer. I don't mean 'difficult' in the way that, say, Brian Castro and David Foster are difficult, but her work rewards -- not demands, but definitely rewards -- some in-depth knowledge of issues literary at a fairly high level.

Genevieve, I was thinking of Hughes too, while I was musing on these matters. Did he ever write about bats?

Ms Duck, what a very chuffed-making compliment that is. Thank you.

Meli, I would love to read your paper. Also, if you run into the lovely Angela Smith from Stirling there, do give her my love.

ocky said...

The scene in Coetzee's Disgrace where Lurie is disposing of the dead dogs is one of the most strangely affecting and humane bits of writing I've come across in years.

Craven was enraged by a dog called Empson? If I ever have a big droopy labrador, I'd call him Harold Bloom.

genevieve said...

Hughes may have been interested in bats at some time or other, but my Selected Poems of 1981 doesn't give any indication that is the case. Nor does Birthday Letters.
He did, however, write about gnats and rats, and plenty of birds of course. The gnat poem does make quite a strong case for a pretty serious kind of insect:

"And their mummy faces will never be used
Their little bearded faces
Weaving and bobbing on the nothing
Shaken in the air, shaken, shaken,
And their feet dangling like the feet of victims

O little Hasids
Ridden to death by your own bodies,
Riding your bodies to death,
You are the angels of the only heaven!

And God is an almighty Gnat!"

fifi said...

I went out immediately to buy The Lost Dog.
After reading this,who wouldn't? Anyway, I loved the Rose Grower.
Sadly, the little independent bookstore has closed so I had to go to A&R, thinking to self that they probably wouldn't have it, so I asked the girl at the counter.

We went off in search, and indeed, there it was. She presented it to me with a flourish and said, you know, this is such a lovely cover, I knew we had it, I saw when it came in and remembered it!

At which I told her that I "sort of know who created that lovely cover."

And last night I just fell right into it. So all happy.

btw, that dog called Empson enraged me also, but I actually liked Perlman's book very much.

Thanks for alerting me to this excellent book.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed there is an Antipodean Animal conference in London 7-8 July 2008 at King's College London, convened by me. Have some excellent speakers lined up and (I hope) an open discussion of a classic episode of Skippy. The end of cfp was theoretically 31 March but I will still consider abstracts sent Ian Henderson; see Menzies Centre for Australian Studies King's College London website

Pavlov's Cat said...

I once wrote a parody of Skippy to be performed by my gang at the Adelaide Girls' High Matric Camp in 1970. "What's that you say, Skip? A three-year-old girl with red hair and a slight squint has fallen down the mine shaft quarter of a mile east of the old McBushie place and broken her left wrist in two places?" (All said with exaggerated diction and broad Australian vowels).