Sunday, July 25, 2010


One of the many lovely things about reading fiction for a living is that it tends to make you an armchair (time-)traveller. Just in the last few weeks I've read books set in the 1990s, the 1970s, the 1950s and the 1760s; books set in Scotland, Leningrad, Berlin and Buenos Aires, the Netherlands, the English Midlands, Chennai, Chicago and country Victoria, just off the top of my head.

Many of the novels I read for review are partly or wholly set in times and places of brutal regimes. One juxtaposes 1970s Argentina with the German Democratic Republic (so-called) of the same era. Another is set in Leningrad in 1952, where survivors of the wartime Siege of Leningrad are now living under Stalin, speaking in whispers, fearing their neighbours, watching their own every move. A third is partly set in India, where everything that happens is immediately politicised and a herpetologist knows better than to try to find out who it was, knowing that he would come home that night exhausted and therefore not thinking or moving quickly, who left a deadly snake in a basket on his verandah.

So every time I see people snarling and squabbling over Rudd v Gillard, or even over Gillard v Abbott, much less get irresistibly drawn into said squabbling myself, I think of a phrase that has been much in my thoughts ever since I first came across it, one that has had a calming effect on many occasions and has reminded me again and again how extraordinarily useful and powerful a psychoanalytic angle can be in explaining our behaviour to ourselves: 'the narcissism of small differences'.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stage and screen

Two wonderfully engaging pieces of critical writing I've seen lately are reminding me that there's a form of cultural commentary that isn't reviewing, isn't academic or avant-garde, isn't straight-up feature journalism and isn't really an essay either. It's written for a general readership of whom it is required only that they care about the subject matter and can follow a complex sentence, and it's written in a space, and in an amount of space, that gives the writers a bit of room to move, to amplify and stretch.

The first is a piece in today's Australian Literary Review by Peter Craven about the filming of Patrick White's 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm. Craven and I do not see eye to eye on many things, never have and no doubt never will, and there are half a dozen things in this piece that I would argue the toss about, especially in his reading of the novel. But as an informative and atmospheric take on the filming process, especially if one loves this novel and has waited many years for someone to make a movie of it, this article takes a lot of beating, and makes me look forward to the film, which for a while I feared might be a dog but it's looking more hopeful since this morning when I read this.

Have a look in particular at that illustrative still, which shows what a stroke of genius it was to cast Judy Davis as Charlotte Rampling's daughter: not only do they have disconcertingly similar bone structure and colouring, but they also have similar default expressions, that look of a sardonic feral cat who knows something you don't.

The other, earlier piece, also courtesy of The Australian, is quite similar in conception: theatre critic John McCallum's really lovely piece from a week and a bit back about Robyn Nevin and William Hurt in rehearsal for the STC's production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

McCallum is one of those theatre critics who can say something useful and illuminating even in the ridiculously small space so often allotted to theatre criticism and without ever falling into cliche, but he's at his best in these longer pieces where (as with the Craven article) straight-up information is amplified into an atmospheric and ruminative piece of writing. McCallum is the more intellectually disciplined and the (much) less magisterially opinionated of the two, but what often comes through in his work, without any self-indulgence and sometimes apparently in spite of himself, is his own feeling about the material -- not just the play, I mean, but the actors, the ideas, the situation, the whole enchilada. In this case, he seems half bemused and half enchanted.