Reviewing is often linked with criticism and there is an expectation I suppose that reviewers will be critical in the modern sense of the word, picking apart a work for any signs of weakness. But often the best reviews inspire – they aren’t just regurgitated press releases but they make you run out to find a copy of the book in question. Or they make you revisit a work and view it from a new, more sympathetic angle.
I am grateful to Nicolas Rothwell, formerly Northern Territory correspondent for the Australian newspaper, and now its literary editor, for alerting me to John Strehlow’s almost unbelievably unwieldy biography of his missionary grandmother (The Tale of Frieda Keyser Vol 1.). And subsequently Barry Hill’s book Broken Song, on Strehlow’s anthropologist father. Not to mention the extraordinary diaries of Count Harry Kessler, published by Knopf and featuring a figure who seemed to live right in the middle of the whirlpool of pre-World War I European culture. Rothwell draws our attention to books as larger-than-life, impossible constructions, as feats, as vast museums, as preposterous ambitions, and yes in that clichéd phrase, as entries to another world. And to books that have personally moved him and therefore, have the possibility of moving us too. You can’t help catching his enthusiasm.
And Rothwell’s collection of essays Journeys to the Interior includes an inspiring article on Murray Bail’s book on the Australian painter Ian Fairweather, which has prompted me to delve again into Fairweather’s remarkable work and life story.(Fairweather is rather an ironic surname considering he looks like he spent his life battling scouring storms and cracking heat.)
Rothwell’s collection also includes insightful writing on the novel in the Australian setting. Rothwell is suspicious that the novel is not quite right for us – it is too self-contained, and too coherent. The Australian bush is deeper, and more fragmentary, than the novel can contain. Rothwell finds in the bush a religious heart, one better suited to impression – the sideways glance and the fleeting epiphany. I am not sure the bush is there in the consciousness (or subconscious) of us all, as he suggests. After-all, I think many Australians in the city can live quite happily without noticing the bush pressing at the margins, or sprouting in the cracks, as Rothwell does, but he is right to think that the novel finds it hard to grip whatever is present in the Australian landscape, compared to the quaint tamed English countryside, or the grand confidence of the American landscape that sits so comfortably with the sensibility of its people.