Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Tours of the house of representatives and the senate in both the old and new parliament houses are free and frequent. But the capacity of the guides is not ideal. At least the rooms were cool, the mercury on the three days of our trip pushing 35 degrees Celcius.

Luckily the trip to Canberra is nowadays about 3 hours long -- the entire length of road is dual carriageway -- so with an air-conditioned cabin, not only does this mean that safety is assured and speed is guaranteed, it also means that you can travel in comfort and not for long.

The split road has meant that the speed limit is uniformly 110 kilometres per hour. Beware the return, however, as most people seem to do this right at the end of the alloted time: Monday evening.

When we arrived it was Saturday afternoon, Australia Day. Fireworks organised by authorites took place at Commonwealth Park, fronting Lake Burley Griffin, with the National Library and the High Court visible on the far shore.

The National Gallery, placed beside the latter building, was not visible from the dark water's verge. But the vertical water fountain, switched on for the final five minutes of the pyrotechnical display, added character and charm to the brilliant, bright lights.

I will go into my misgivings about the tours now, if you don't mind.

Both guides seemed overly proud of our heritage, crassly triumphant, even smug. "This is the only democracy to have been founded without bloodshed," crowed one. My own ideas about nationhood make this kind of statement impossible to stomach. What about the Commonwealth of the 1640s and 1650s? I thought.

Hardly half an hour later, the guide in the new building told us the reason why the Speaker is always accompanied down the stairs of the chamber by colleagues toward the high-backed chair situated at the rear of the green room. The tradition embodied in this charade -- once upon a time being Speaker was extremely perilous -- and in others (the Queen is only allowed into the Reps by invitation due to Charles I's ambush of five members in 1642), negates the primitive demarcation within the tonic date of 1788, which blinds us to everything that came before it.

The history of England is just as much ours as it is the Brits'. The guides pointed to tradition a dozen times each, yet questioned they will unhesitatingly disallow our debt to England.

A similarly blinkered view is held by the staff of the wonderful National Film and Sound Archive, housed in a lovely, stipped classical fabric near the ANU. One showed us footage of the signing of federation documents, in Centennial Park, on 9 May 1901. The gaudy costumes worn by the onlookers became a matter of fun.

But without such due process Australia would never have been allowed to become independent. It is within the traditions embodied in pomp and circumstance that we continue to see ourselves as masters of our own destiny.

The orthodoxies of the inner-urban elites are a hindrance to full comprehension of Australia's role in the world. It is time for the sorrowful protests of Modernist artists, poets, and writers to be cast aside and replaced with something wiser and more aspiring.

As I said during a book launch near the end of last year: "The standard post-colonial narrative is no longer useful. In fact, it is positively dangerous."

Apart from anything else, the woman taking us through the new parliament building said that Luke Hansard was the first parliamentary reporter!! I took her aside at the end of the tour and gave her the good oil. But it is a feather in a gale of mediocrity.

If the gatekeepers are semi ignorant, what hope do the vast bulk of Australians have, to keep informed and become enlightened?

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Richard Flanagan, the fiery Tasmanian novelist, has penned a superb piece that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday ('Love of art will stop the advancing barbarians').

It contains strong opinions and ends, with a flourish, with poetry. But it also contains truths we are in danger of forgetting in our endless race for lucre.

[A]rtists and the art they make exist in opposition, speaking to those things that we need as individuals but which seemingly threaten us as societies: truth, freedom, non-conformity, desire...

"Art is, of course, a guarantee of nothing. Nor is love."

Flanagan is a leading intellectual in Australia. His most recent book is a roman engage in a long tradition practiced in Europe from earliest times.

Curiously, Flanagan quotes Napoleon in the piece. This suggests, to me, the idea that modernism was a European import, beginning in France. This further suggests that the Romantic project, which reached its apogee in the nineteenth century, may be reemerging as a cultural engine.

Certainly, Flanagan's suggestion that love and art provide easy avenues for (a) transgression and (b) innovation (the two are usually found together) is valid. But I went further, on the same day, in an email to a friend, and before I had read Flanagan's article:

Like culture itself, the erotic moment creates, by dint of the interplay of aspirational personas, loci of transgression. Many denigrate their high-wound tenor but we see daily that common alternatives are not acceptable in a free society.

And, further:

We also see that people always in every country and in every year, seek out their liberating miasma:

We know that culture is the most plastic agent of human activity. The Tale of Genji, the first ‘novel’, was written in the 11th century by a Japanese noblewoman but that country would require another 800 years to even be able to supply clean drinking water and sufficient food to feed its large population.

Even in the most sophisticated polities, culture provides avenues that can lead to valid innovation. In the 19th century, in Britain, the aspirations of a religious minority contributed to a mini-reformation that happily reveals a remarkable tergiversation of tropes. Here, the classical narrative of freedom that had belonged to the Protestant faction for centuries was effortlessly appropriated by the Catholic faction, leading to practical refinement of manners.

Many of the early fans of Wordsworth were young Catholic priests busy establishing themselves following the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. We see here, as in the case of Blake’s first groupies (young, fundamentalist Christians), that a repressed minority can contribute, through a valid aesthetic response to perceived injustices within the supposedly enlightened main-stream, to profound changes in society.

Flanagan's piece ends, in a sentence of such delicate rage, with a series of metaphors that link immediately to his recent book (The Unknown Terrorist, 2007). It is fantastic!

The empire's prefects and satraps take counsel only from the abacus, call on the flagellator to restore order, and cannot understand why the barbarians are advancing.


Sunday, 13 January 2008

Sidney Nolan Retrospective, Art Gallery of NSW

Curator Barry Pearce admits up-front in the video blurb on the dedicated website that most people will immediately recognise the 'First Kelly Series' as most representative of Nolan. He goes on to remark that these paintings represent only a small parcel of the artist's entire corpus of work.

In fact, the 'First Kelly Series' is, indeed, remarkable. This is immediately obvious when you walk a little further through the many rooms set aside for the exhibition, and come across the 'Second Kelly Series', painted maybe a decade later, when the artist was around 40 years old.

In this series, Nolan is trying to accomplish something far more difficult, and he draws on European modernism (particularly Francis Bacon). But the result is not as satisfying as the first series, painted when he was about 30 years old. This may be, however, merely an example of the truth that people only recognise what they already know.

The website contains an interesting little video by Edmund Capon in which he testifies to a firm belief that Nolan is the first truly Australian painter. This is a bold claim. But Capon possesses sufficient gravitas to make it stick. Which is a pity. The canonisation of Nolan, for the exhibition visitor, starts inside the small screening room, where a 12-minute video plays on a loop to a soundtrack of vanila 'classical' music.

The music is a screen, a layer of meaning that adds nothing to the visitor's understanding of why, for example, the young Nolan felt authorised to depart from established forms (one painting in the 'First Kelly Series' quotes fulsomely from the Australian Impressionists and is, in fact, a dud). A member of the Melbourne intelligentsia, Nolan was notably inspired, at an early age, by the French ninteenth-century poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Most people will not know Rimbaud from a lump of soap, but they will perceive the classical music as denoting 'quality', and the juxtaposition, made here, between the elegant kitsch of the eighteenth-century soundtrack and the vicious clarity of Rimbaud, cannot be a fillip for Pearce. He should know better.

Nolan painted a portrait of Rimbaud as a twentysomething and revisited the theme as a mature man. The words of the bard continued to hold value for him. But the curator ignores this fact, knowing that a tall poppy like Rimbaud would be unacceptable as an aesthetic mascot for a presumably down-to-earth painter we must (must!) herald as a uniquely Australian exponent of the great European traditon of oil painting.

He would have been better-off using some Snoop Dog or Frank Zappa for the video backing. The exhibition even contains original editions of the Ern Malley works!

But Nolan is bigger than Pearce even if some of his aspirations are decidedly colonial. If he felt so strongly about the Australian bush, for example, why did he set up his later-years studio on the banks of the Thames?

The pic included here is one of the later works, and demonstrates the huge energy of the older artist. Without doubt these later works are superior even to the 'First Kelly Series' and the pity is that nobody (myself included) has ever seen them before.

Like Donald Friend, whose wonderful domestic still-lifes of later years are completely unknown, Nolan achieved a clarity and richness of vision that eschewed the pat nationalism of the overrated 'First Kelley Series', in these fantastic late works. The shame is that they will never achieve the renown of the work of his first majority.

In addition, he painted some rather marvellous chinoiseries that Capon, as an admitted fan of Asian art, should do more to promote.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Review: After Dark, Haruki Murakami (2007)

A year ago, an interview with Murakami appeared in a major Japanese newspaper. In it the great writer spoke about his translation of The Great Gatsby. "[T]he Great Depression ... [was] a dark age in contrast to the flashy '20s. Fitzgerald matured as a writer as America did as a society. Both became introspective, and they had to mature in their own ways."

The new novel demonstrates that Murakami has matured. It is significant that he has started to look for new models, and even more significant that he should find one in Nabokov. In After Dark we frequently come across an authorial trope, a piece of meta-narrative architecture with which the writer dispenses, with a casual flick of the hand, with any requirement for a fictional character to be present in order for the reader to see an event unfold.

The metaphor is a camera, perhaps a hand-held one. With it, he pans in and out while letting us view scenes in this world and in the other, parallel world where the souls of the living resolve our dilemmas, much in the same way as, in the pre-Reformation age, Englishmen and -women bound to write a final will and testament, would request that songs be sung for their souls, trapped in the hereafter.

In Nabokov's underappreciated Laughter in the Dark the writer uses a flying eye to swiftly leave one scene up, up, up into the empyrean before descending down, down, down to let us view a car racing along a mountain road. An accident is about to occur and we, the readers, are privileged by our witnessing.

But Murakami has done more to make me think of his reference to Fitzgerald. The previous book (Kafka By the Shore) was too forceful, too didactic, too plain in conception (though complex in execution). Prior to that we had Sputnik Sweetheart, a novel not quite complete, with a denouement meant to be sad but which somehow failed to achieve that elusive emotion.

In the new novel the romance between Takahashi and Mari evolves as quietly as a foetus, ensconced in its mother's womb: all the cells twin in silence like the birth of an idea (Shakespeare: "The wish is the father of the idea").

This romance succeeds because it is truly about love (erotic love) whereas in Sputnik Sweetheart the affection between the girl who disappears on the Greek island and the young man, is more like friendship.

Of course, there is more to After Dark than this. Of tonic moment is the ambiguity possessed by Shirakawa, the computer technician who has beaten a Chinese prostitute not because of the money or out of sadistic delight, but because he "had to do it". Shirakawa is a truly modern hero and I don't think we have seen his like before.

I very much enjoyed the Cohen brothers' new movie No Country for Old Men, with its fabulously precise and relentless villain Anton Chigurh (played by the talented Javier Bardem), but in Shirakawa Murakami has devised an even more interesting villain: an everyman, a cypher, a hero for the post-industrial age.

After Dark opens with casual violence but closes with the twitch of a young woman's mouth as she lies asleep in something resembling a coma. This twitch is the sign that Murakami has survived the darkness.

"I'm just sketching what I saw in the darkness," said Murakami in a November 2006 interview with Nick Jones of The Prague Post. "Sometimes it's fun, [but] sometimes it's dangerous, so I have to protect myself. That's why I'm running every day. You have to be physically strong to survive that darkness."

In the previous two novels he barely survived. Now, older, tougher and wiser, he streaks out the far end of the tunnel that connects the world he routinely inhabits with the other one: the one inhabited by the rest of mankind.

Highly recommended.

Monday, 7 January 2008

In Memoriam A. H. H., Alfred Tennyson, winter 1833.

Tennyson's poem is quoted for a few lines that are memorable in their compact relevance. Especially the lines about it being better to have loved, and lost, than never to have loved at all. There's also the line about nature "red in tooth and claw" used to highlight the massive impact, on the popular psyche, of Darwinian theory.

Darwin's The Origin Of Species appeared in 1859 but poets such as George Crabbe were writing about the likelihood of evolution thirty years earlier. My edition of Crabbe is nasty (CUP Poets in Brief series, 1933) and doesn't come close to providing the detail he deserves.

But Tennyson's meandering poem resembles nothing so much as The Task by William Cowper, who set about writing it at the behest of a lady of his acquaintance who touched him.

Like the 1758 poem, In Memoriam is episodic. There is no central thread, as the author of the Wikipedia article suggests ("The death of Hallam, and Tennyson's attempts to cope with this, remain the strand that ties all these together."). Nothing could be further from the truth.

The poem is, however, animated by a feeling of intense love for the dead subject, who "helped Tennyson through the difficult period following publication of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830 and who worked over the new volume for 1832."

"He was friend, critic, and philosopher to a sometimes confused and lonely poet who desperately needed the guidance, warmth, and compassion Hallam freely offered," writes Robert W. Hill, Jr, editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Tennyson's Poetry.

The potential stored in the relationship erupted in the poem but the tone is very uneven. It is all good stuff, or most of it at least. There are some rough patches where the poet marshalls his resources. But the more natural passages are delightful.

The verse is generally highly compact and satisfying, and provides the kind of idiom the Romantics preferred: intimate, observant of the world, high-wrought, and tentative in its logic.

I read the poem last week while waiting for a friend. The location was Bar Piccolo in Kings Cross. The place has been open for 50 years and they sell chinotto in addition to reasonable coffee. Unfortunately, the waiter spilled my second cup, largely destroying the book. Many pages are now stuck together.

I'll have to buy another edition.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Review: Atonement, dir. Joe Wright (2007; based on Ian McEwan's 2001 novel)

The film is at least half an hour too long and the second half is slow. The link between the war and what happened in the "enormous Victorian Gothic mansion" when Briony (the real star of the film, its hero and driving force) is 13 years old, is adeptly held until the stupid scene when Robbie Turner (James McEvoy) witnesses an atrocity.

The field under the fruit trees is covered with the corpses of dead schoolchildren. This sounds good and can be thought to link in nicely with the event that caused Robbie's trauma in the first place: Briony's dobbing him in to the police after the rape that followed the disappearance of the two little boys (Jackson and Pierrot Quincey).

But it doesn't work and just comes across as a pat canard launched at the German army, as if the exhortation not to forget were more important than the rhythm of McEwan's wonderful story. It should not be, as this horrid betrayal of the writer's artistic achievement shows. The heavy tear that swarms down Robbie's cheek on his discovery puts a dampener on the rest of the movie.

The real outstander for me was Benedict Camberbatch (who plays the dastardly Paul Marshall, the chocolate manufacturer), who appeared most recently in the wonderful Amazing Grace (where he memorably played William Pitt the Younger). His lascivious restraint is riveting; you can almost feel him undress the fey (but slightly vulgar) Lola Quincey (Juno Temple).

Romola Garai (who was also good in Amazing Grace and splendid in Angel) plays (very well) Briony at 18 years. She is in a hospital. But the scene where she comforts the dying Frenchman is nowhere near as good here, as it was in the book. There, you feel tremendous fear and revulsion as the man's bandage is wound off his shattered skull. Here, it looks like a side-show curiosity.

The contents of Robbie's lustful letter, too, are handled here differently. They are far more visible. This caused guffaws in the theatre (Bondi Junction Greater Union).

This theatre is in the splendid Westfield complex, newly rebuilt. As a boy, I went often to shop and socialise at the Junction. This new structure, however, reminds me more than anything of the opulent shopping centres found in swish Tokyo suburbs. I think there is nothing like it anywhere else in Australia.

Tickets can be purchased at the sort of video terminals found near airport check-in counters. But if you use a machine to buy tickets, they cost more; ours were $16 each.

Joe Wright also worked with Keira Knightley (who plays Cecilia Tallis, Briony's elder sister) on the very good Pride and Prjudice, In fact, she is more suited to this role, in a film set in Britain in 1935. As a slender beauty of the Regency period (1811 - 1820), she seems a bit glabrous.

Atonement can be considered a revenge fantasy. But it's not the revenge of Cecilia and Robbie that's important. These two hot bods reminded me of nothing else more than Van and Ada in Nabokov's 1969 blockbuster (actually his highest achievement, the kind of novel only a successful writer at the very top of his game can bring off), Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.

In that book, the underdog sister (Lucette) commits suicide by jumping off a cruise ship's deck into the ocean because Van ignores her, and spurns her love. Here, it is the underdog sister who prevails (Vanessa Redgrave plays the older Briony, shown being interviewed for a TV show following the publication of her 22nd novel).

Art triumphs over physical passion. McEwan celebrates Nabokov's vision 32 years after the fact. It is fitting that Juno Temple has red hair. Lucette had it too.