The outsider

Not for the Faint-hearted, Kevin Rudd, Macmillan

The title refers not to the task of reading the book, but to the business of politics. Politics may take courage, but it also involves vanity, charm, ruthlessness, a sense of humour, a thick skin, high ideals and low tactics. All of these are on display here. The media tends to portray politicians as one-dimensional. Rudd’s memoir is an argument for politicians – or at least some including this one – as complex human beings.

What makes the book is that Rudd clearly enjoyed revealing himself (at length). And here are all the things Australians have loved and hated about Rudd – his ego, his frankness, his long-windedness, his cringe-worthy ockerisms, his cringe-worthy sentiment, his intellect, his self-deprecating humour. Some journalists have labelled Rudd a Jekyll and Hyde character, but like most of us, he is simply multi-dimensional – acting differently in different situations, containing good and bad, saint and sinner.

Although he argues for the worth of political life, his career makes you wonder at times why he persevered (though he boasts of being tenacious). In politics he was something of an outsider, on many fronts – a Queenslander, a progressive of the centre, not a player in the Labor factions, a self-described nerd, a former career diplomat and public servant rather than a career politician. And a Christian in a party that often sees Christians as conservatives and sometime hypocrites.

His faith is of particular interest. Catholic as a child, he is dismayed at the brutality of his Catholic education. In the fervour of youth he saw himself as a Marxist and atheist. While at university he flirted with evangelical certainty and stumbled into a Chinese church, which stimulated his faith and his love of Chinese language and culture.

Early on in the book he establishes, articulately and passionately, the grounds for his faith, with an eye on the compatibility of faith and intellect, as well as, for him, the compatibility of Christianity and progressive politics, which, at its best, seeks to make change rather than keep the status quo, the latter being, he argues, the raison d’etre of conservatives. And he makes a compelling argument for this. Of course the book will seem self-serving, but it is also an explanation as to why someone would take on the fraught business of politics, besides, and perhaps along with, the egoistic reasons.

(Originally reviewed for Journey magazine.)


Coloured glass

The latest novel from legendary Australian writer Gerald Murnane, Border Districts (Giramondo), is a strange, enticing semi-autobiographical piece that makes observation rather than plot prominent. Semi-autobiographical not only in the details of the narrator’s life, but in the way it describes the art of observation, which is the author’s craft. In summary the book doesn’t amount to much, but it is the writing itself that makes an impression. A writer, retired to the west of the Wimmera (as has Murnane), seemingly in an effort to keep his memories in order, makes notes of his earlier life, including his Catholic education. As with Murnane’s other work, light is prominent. The book is centred on the theme of light and how it plays in coloured glass. The sentences have a precise, almost obsessive quality, reminiscent of travel narratives or journal entries from a hundred years ago, with the writer constantly spiralling back over previous ground in order to clarify and re-emphasise. There seems to be a concerted effort from the narrator to get the narrative just right, I suppose in the sense that we all go over memories, not just to recover, but to polish and set at the right angle. And of course there is a metaphor here not only for the author’s craft of illumination, but also for the light of truth, the pursuit of which happens not only in literature, but in religion and philosophy.

Happy to be hitched

Mrs Luther and Her sisters: Women in the Reformation, Derek Wilson, Lion

We don’t have a huge amount of historical material on Katie Luther, even though Martin Luther is one of history’s most documented figures. So Katie becomes, for Derek Wilson, a point of entry into the world of Reformation women, and what changes in society they drove and encountered. And in compilation there is a surprising amount of material. In both quantity and quality, women contributed, and, unsurprisingly, received both praise and blame for doing so.

The first significant change to the life of women occurred with the dismantling in the north of Europe of the monastic system. For some, this was a loss, as women who previously found stability and community in the cloister were now forced out into the world where women where dependent on men and destitution loomed.

For other women, being forced into the convent was the problem, and escape brought new freedoms. Not only this, but Luther insisted that the work of childrearing, the education of children, and the ups and down of marital life were all part of God’s plan, holy in his sight, and not a lesser activity compared to the supplications and midnight masses of nuns and monks sequestered away from the corrupted world of the everyday. So nuns embraced with gusto tis new life, and were happy to be hitched, often to former monks, in fairly arbitrary fashion. (Katie Luther was one of the more recalcitrantly choosy ones.)

This is one of the Reformation’s most enduring legacies, beyond arguments over free will and God’s grace which now mystify many in the modern world. It remains in our attitudes to both the individual and the family, within the church epitomised by the phrase ‘the priesthood of all believers’, though there will always remain within the church a tendency to view ordination as something conferring a more exalted status.  Beyond the church, there remains an emphasis on the sanctity of the family, and the ability of the individual of any rank to make meaningful contributions to society.

As many have pointed out, and as Andrew Petegree does at length in his Brand Luther, the new printing presses were indispensable for the promulgation of the new Lutheran faith, and ironically, nuns picked up the new teachings, first by being educated and literate, and secondly by getting their hands on the newly printed material. In the wider community, literate women, encouraged by the Reformers, read and attempted to understand the Bible for themselves. An incredulous European visitor commented on the tendency of English women to take notes during sermons and then discuss theology afterwards.

Some even dared to teach men. Luther was magnanimous in praise of his wife’s business acumen, and probably well aware of his own propensity to destitution were it not for the management of his wife. But his praise ended at the edge of the realms of philosophical discussion, and he thought women’s attempts at teaching and preaching ‘foolishness’. As is often noted, Luther was a radical spiritually, and a conservative socially. Actually, this may not be quite right. Luther simply was concerned about the breakdown of society, led, as he well knew, by his break from Rome, and he was at pains to suppress revolutionary ideas. In the radical wing of the Reformation they weren’t so reticent, and there was a perceived logic between equality of the sexes regarding salvation and equality of the sexes regarding spreading the Gospel by print and mouth.

Threatened men, even among the radicals, argued from the Bible that women should not teach men. The women countered by arguing this did not apply to widows, or by quoting scripture that the Gospel must be preached wherever possible and that they must obey God, not men. Then, as now, the place of women in churches was debated fiercely. Unlike today, martyrdom was often the result. To adapt a phrase from the French Revolution, it was the liberty to preach the Gospel or death.

Gold serif

Well, the Kevin Rudd memoir is here, and the first thing I noticed is the obligatory gold serif title, reserved for sportspeople and politicians. This book actually looks more sporting memoir than political memoir. The design people at Macmillan must have spent a good twenty seconds or so thinking about this cover. Anyway, that’s the bad news. The good news is, Rudd’s book has welcoming heft. Unlike some politicians who seem to want to just get something out there, Rudd seems to have enjoyed writing this, if length is an indication. And it is only volume one. He says in the prologue that practical considerations got in the way of keeping his story to one volume, and by this we assume he means his long-windedness. The title (‘Not for the Faint Hearted’) refers to politics, but it could be a warning to the casual reader beginning its 600 pages. (Though this is not a bad thing. A political memoir needs to read well in both style and content, and at least here the signs are that both the tale and the telling are good.) In this perhaps he is emulating Henry Kissinger, whose three volumes of memoir came in at well over three thousand pages (and only covered his years in the service of presidents Nixon and Ford). That’s not the only comparison. Kissinger and Rudd are both academically minded, interested in and have experience in diplomacy and world affairs, particularly China. While leaning towards the progressive side of politics they both aroused suspicion that they were secretly conservatives. They are both gregarious, with a sense of humour, but also harbor a darker, Machiavellian side. They both have egos, can be histrionic or amiable, depending on mood. This is nothing unusual. Politicians are usually complex people. In Rudd’s case, it looks like all his complexities, good and bad, are on display in his new book.



Nixon’s image

Richard Nixon: The Life, John Farrell, Scribe.

Richard Nixon remains fascinating, an introvert in an extrovert’s game. He once said that politics would be fine if one didn’t have to deal with people. As has been well documented (ironically), his social awkwardness and fear of confrontation created an insular, secretive culture in the White House – a hothouse which created distortions, subterfuge, a siege mentality, and an environment where sores could fester (which even loyal staff readily admitted) and which eventually brought him down.

Many noticed Nixon’s amorality, a tendency to put votes over principles. Although he did more than most US presidents for the environment, race relations and, especially, the thawing of Cold War hostilities, these things seem to have been pursued not for their own sake, but for the sake of Nixon’s image, and to get ahead of real and imagined enemies. He was not a hard-line conservative, but was happy to steal liberal policies if they showed up his opponents. Of course, many darker things were done for the same reasons.

His victory over the communist spy Alger Hiss seemed to be as much about embarrassing the East Coast establishment. He brooded long over slights originating in snobbery. John F Kennedy remarked nastily that Nixon had ‘no class’. But part of the so-called Georgetown set’s antipathy towards Nixon was due to Nixon’s oddness. After-all, Kissinger was no landed gentry, but charmed the dinner party circuit with his wit. In Nixon they perhaps sensed duplicity, and the coldness on both sides was mutually reinforcing. JFK, again, said that Nixon could never be himself. JFK felt entitled to leadership. Nixon acted as if he was sneaking in the back door. He either felt he didn’t belong, or felt that others felt he didn’t belong. Nixon didn’t like the soul-searching of self-analysis, but one can see why he was fodder for journalists and biographers with a taste for psychology.

It is easy to forget that Nixon had little experience in governing, but was a career politician. His work in the law probably entrenched his combative tendencies. He ran for governor but lost, and although he was vice president, that role is famously ceremonial. Eisenhower shut him out of much of the decision making process, while expecting him to campaign for him (which Nixon was good at). Once Nixon became president the campaigning didn’t really stop. And as Nixon himself noted, he also couldn’t stop plotting against his enemies, seemingly unable to enjoy having finally made it. Kissinger, Haldeman and others on his staff noted that Nixon couldn’t enjoy success, usually turning darkly to how any successes wouldn’t be credited to him properly by the press, who he hated, and who hated him.

Though he thought of himself as unusually calm under pressure, he was also at times unhinged, not helped by his notoriously low tolerance of alcohol, and the uppers and downers he was prescribed, which only exacerbated the effects of any alcohol. He also suffered from chronic sleeplessness, which fuelled his brooding over slights and plots for revenge.

John Farrell’s new biography aims to be the definitive biography, but there is no such thing, because of Nixon’s complexities, and the differing opinions he inspires. One journalist wrote at the time of Watergate that Nixon will be ‘forever a mystery’. But Farrell tells the story well, partly because he makes use of new material that, among other things, shows just how Machiavellian Nixon was, and, in particular, dredges up evidence to confirm that Nixon’s behaviour during the 1968 election campaign, where he secretly communicated with the South Vietnamese in order to undermine Lyndon Johnson and the VP and Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, was indeed treasonable.

The lot of the child

In Between Them (Bloomsbury), a joint biography of his parents, Richard Ford says that his mother told him it is what we do in life, not what we think about it, that matters. Yet in this book and the Bascombe novels for which he is famous it is what Ford thinks and writes about a series of otherwise unremarkable events that makes his art. Much of his writing is disguised philosophy – a philosophy of the everyday. The commendable side of this is that he thinks, and proves, that everyday life is worth writing about. There is a kind of power, he writes, in ‘normal life’, evident in the fact that during hospitalisation or grief over a loved one we are keen to get back to it.

His novels aim for a measure of verisimilitude – a book such as Canada begins in first person narrative and reads like a biography – so this real-life biography seems a perfect step for Ford. Ford’s bringing to life of characters consists not in describing remarkable deeds, but in creating memorable characters and imagining what they might have been thinking.

Ford is both loving and detached about his parents in his observation that they lived for the moment and didn’t analyse. But he also sees insularity and a lack of imagination there and he constantly wonders how his arrival changed this. He describes an easy, peripatetic lifestyle, necessitated and facilitated by his father’s job as a travelling salesman (a perhaps iconic American life) that changed to a suburban settling-down once the realities of raising a baby on the road sunk in.

He perceptively and respectfully admits there is much about our parents’ lives that we know little about, and decides that is the lot of the child, who needs to acknowledge that their relationship with their parents is not the sum of their parents’ lives. Yet he also notes that our parents provide us with a link to a lost world, that generations are the links in a chain of history, that when we maintain our relationships with our parents, we necessarily connect ourselves to their parents, and so forth.


The Dream-Child’s Progress & Other Essays, David Bentley Hart, Angelico Press

The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics, David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans

David Bentley Hart is the finest of contemporary Christian writers and the release of not one but two collections of his writing is a cause for celebration. His prose is exuberant, and his thought is borne on the wings of Minerva’s Owl and the Spirit’s Dove.

He admits to a fondness for the obscure term (a random sampling turns up ‘submontane’, ‘lambency’, ‘aglae’ and ‘nitid’), but insists it is for the sake of precision and not (only) showing off. He is exacting, but entertaining – witty, dauntingly widely read, scathing. With mock gravity he announces that ‘grammatical laxity’ is the start of the slippery slope to societal anarchy. His verbosity rises with the degree of passion, of which there is plenty.

He has the same attitude to content as to delivery, and castigates the theologically imprecise and badly oriented. His elucidatory qualities mean he is devastating on why a book or train of thought is deficient. And there is an especial pleasure in reading an essay and then a follow up essay on why he first said what he did, or didn’t say what he is alleged to have said, and why his accuser is an ignorant so-and-so.

He slips easy categorisation. Just when you have him pegged as a conservative (he writes for First Things) and orthodox (small and big O) he will argue for universal salvation or rip into capitalism or decry the conflation of ‘America’ with ‘Christianity’. He turns lazy, received wisdom on its head.

The Dream-Child’s Progress, which takes its title from a piece on Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll (above), contains book reviews and other short pieces. The Hidden and the Manifest is on another level entirely, with thickets of, as the subtitle says, theology and metaphysics that are probably only to be negotiated by those readers with confidence, but it is not without his usual flair and gusto.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church.)