Oct 30, 2012

A drawing a day: The Burning Library speaks

The drawing: Geordie Williamson, readhead.

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher

As we all scramble to learn an Asian language (so boatpeople can understand us when we shout: Go Back to Where Your Language Came From!, or is it that we only learn the languages of those who don’t need refuge here?) … sorry, where were we?

Yes, even as the rest of us are picking up new tongues, the intrepid Geordie Williamson, chief litcrit of the Oz (winner of the Pascall Prize for Criticism) is speaking about his new book, The Burning Library, which recovers and reintroduces our own lost and neglected storytellers and stories. I mulched a phrase a few weeks ago about this Wildeanly careless misplacement: “It’s as if non-indigenous Australians are casually discarding our dreaming as we roll on into the future.” In The Burning Library, Geordie has made a great effort to hose down the flames and reclaim the dreams.

The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found reads closely the best works of a list of writers whose names are at once strangely familiar and yet obscure, like people with whom we have lost touch but once had a great intimacy with us — Xavier Herbert, M. Barnard Eldershaw (actually a pair of women), Jessica Anderson, Sumner Locke Elliott, Olga Masters, Amy Witting, Elizabeth Harrower, Randolph Stow, David Ireland et al.

Apart from the deep reading of the works, Williamson often makes this kind of delightful intuitive connection — of Christina Stead: “I’d like to think Stead’s lifelong insomnia during decades spent in Europe, Britain and the US was the psychic residue of an identification with her country of birth, wide awake on the other side of the globe.”

The piece on Patrick White embeds one of Geordie’s key points; explaining in part “the posthumous collapse in White’s standing.” It’s not a new thought but it’s a theme in the book and a notion he challenges vigorously:

No intellectual undertaking in this country has come under more sophisticated or sustained attack in the years since White’s death than that of a national canon. That there is a collection of works of enduring literary worth that constitute a summa of who we are as a culture has been attacked, and eventually demolished. Hierarchy is embedded in the very structure of the canon, runs one powerful argument. So what looks like an uncontroversial list of ‘great’ writers, designed to be taught in schools and universities, and to be kept on the bedside at home, is in fact an instrument of social control. In this view canons reinforce the established order (in terms of class, race or gender) and work to restrict diversity.

Geordie speaks on two public occassions in Melbourne this week and later this month in Sydney with Drusilla Modjeska. On Thursday 1 Nov, he is at Melbourne Uni from 2:15–4pm as part of Haplax (that sterling literary initiative by MU students); and later that evening at the Wheeler Centre at 6:15–7:15pm where he will be interviewed by RN’s Sarah L’Estrange: free, book here.


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