On being in Surry Hills yesterday and finding Nick Jose’s anthology remaindered

First The Trinity Bar: pork spare ribs – apologies to some folk further down this post – to die for! (I guess people have died on account of pork over the years…)

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On the way to the pub I deviated to the Bargain Book Basement at Central Station. Look what I found, here seen at the coffee shop on the way back to Central after the pub.

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That’s the US edition. In July 2009 I wrote:

In today’s Australian Nicholas Jose has an article about the new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. A companion, the excellent Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, has already been published.

… But what is Australian literature anyway? If it seems a dumb question, the answer is not as obvious as it may appear. Does a piece of writing have to be about Australia to qualify, or is it enough if it is written by an Australian, or someone who was in Australia some of the time? Can fantasy or science fiction be Australian if it is written by an Australian but set in another world?

My answer would be yes, potentially, but it helps to be able to point to something Australian, however elusive. Nikki Gemmell’s novel The Bride Stripped Bare is an interesting case. First published by Anonymous in 2003, it was no surprise when the author was revealed as Australian.

There’s a giveaway when the heroine escapes the London cold for Morocco and the sun heats her up in a way she seems to know from some other life … down under.

And how do we define literature? Does genre writing such as romance and crime fiction count, and what about history writing or the speeches of (some) politicians? Again my answer would be yes, potentially, depending on what’s happening in the language, the ideas, the literary imagination of those writers, and what effect their words have on us as readers.

The terms Australian and literature are a potent but unstable combination, invoked in lofty charters and fierce debate…

There’s a touching scene in Alien Son, Judah Waten’s 1952 memoir in which the boy’s mother, a migrant to Melbourne from Odessa, wanting a "musical education" for her kids, takes them to listen to records at a friend’s house. The music "sounded far away and thin, like the voice of a ventriloquist mimicking far-off musical instruments". They go to a music shop where the mother asks the salesman to play records to the embarrassed children — Caruso, Chaliapin, "whole symphonies and concertos" — until the manager asks if she ever intends to buy one.

The son must translate his mother’s reply about her children’s "right to music and culture and in fact the rights of all men": "Just because we are poor must we cease our striving?"

The striving of many people such as Waten’s mother, and Waten himself, as a writer, has given Australia an extraordinary culture, including a great body of literature, transformed from distant mimicry into something of our own, something to share, to argue with, to extend and pass on.

I cherish in all the arts a space for Australian voices – even if it is just to remind ourselves that we are not, after all, Americans.  Winking smile   This is not jingoism. Arts that can show us who and where we are with conviction and authenticity (old-fashioned words I know) are to be cherished, and the paradox is that it is often those works from other countries and cultures which are most “local” that move us most. So rather than being the literary equivalent of McDonalds, works like The Great Gatsby or even To Kill a Mockingbird speak to us of – and beyond – a locale they so wonderfully evoke.

I guess I will be able to learn more of the Macquarie anthology; I’ll be dining at M’s on Sunday and Nicholas Jose will be the guest of honour.

I followed that up here: Last night: Oz Lit, refugees and other matters.  “No, I can’t say what was said because any detail is embargoed until the official launch later this week, but I can tell you it is big (around 1,500 pages) and anyone interested in Australian Literature will want one. There may be some surprises.” William Yang was there that night and one of the surprises is that William is in the anthology!

Hard to believe that two years have gone by! Strange too to find (after searching the libraries at Surry Hills and Wollongong and never snaffling a copy to borrow) that the US edition (Norton 2009) is now in the remainder shop!

Our good luck though. Buy it of you can. It is so good!

Last night SBS presented the first episode of Channel Four’s The Bible: A History. Very little about the first episode on Genesis and creation, presented by novelist Howard Jacobson, really surprised me and I am afraid he will have pleased no one. I couldn’t help reflecting on what twaddle F R Leavis represented – I was taught by one of Leavis’s most ardent disciples, Sam Goldberg, and Jacobson by the man himself. Jacobson reflects in that in Howard Jacobson on being taught by FR Leavis.

Upon being nervously greeted by me, he suggested I go into the porter’s lodge and make myself known. Thereafter, in the week before term began, I continued to run into him, by the gates. I summoned the courage to tell him I was rereading The Dunciad and enjoying it. He looked, I thought, disapprovingly at me. The following day I told him I had finished rereading The Dunciad but had not in the end, enjoyed it all that much.

He still looked disapprovingly at me. He was not, I realised, going to be easy to please.

The next week term began in earnest and a person not at all like the person I’d been talking to turned up and distributed practical criticism sheets. If this was Dr Leavis, then who had I been discussing The Dunciad with? I discovered, in due course, that it was a college porter, I believe called Tony.

You don’t forget a mistake like that. I felt a fool the whole time I was there. But I felt a fraud, too…

The true frauds were probably the dons…

That aside, I am looking forward to the next episode where…

War correspondent Rageh Omaar, who was brought up as a Muslim, examines Abraham, one of the most revered patriarchs of both the Jewish and Christian Bible and of the Muslim Holy Qur’an.

According to all three faiths, he was the first man to worship one God – and one God alone – and all three religions claim him as an ancestor.

He’s often cited by world statesman as a unifying figure for all the three religions, yet today many of the ‘children of Abraham’ are locked in conflict.

Omaar travels to Israel, the West Bank and Iraq to investigate the story of Abraham, and ask whether his legacy is a source of great division or if the great patriarch holds the key to peace and reconciliation.

Been rereading Exodus myself lately. It is a highly unlikely story and in many respects a thoroughly immoral one. God is more than a bit of a psychopath in it – but you often find that in The Scriptures, the Koran no more than the Bible as any objective reader of either will very quickly find. (For the purpose I commend in the case of The Bible the Contemporary English Version from the American Bible Society, which reads very easily and at the same time defamilarises the text – an essential aid to objective reading.) But one thing I share with Jacobson is a love of uncertainty and paradox, so I can also see that it is a highly significant archetypal narrative of liberation – a use to which Black Americans especially applied themselves in their rhetoric of liberation down to and including Martin Luther King. Let my people go! Oh yes!

From a purely historical perspective of course the Exodus didn’t really happen, nor did the conquest of Canaan. But then neither did the saga of Abraham as told in the Jewish and Christian traditions and retold from Ishmael’s perspective in the Muslim tradition. Myth. But not therefore insignificant.

See also:

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