Archive | April, 2012

Finola Moorhead Remember the Tarantella Primavera Press 1987

23 Apr

Finola Moorhead Remember the Tarantella Primavera Press 1987. First Published in P76 Issue 5, 1991

NOTE: Remember the Tarantella rereleased in a new edition by Spinifex Press in 2011 with a new Afterword.

Finola Moorhead’s Remember the Tarantella attracted some interest when it first appeared towards the end of 1987. It was briefly reviewed in a number of the major papers and was the subject of a number of lengthier articles in a handful of journals. It did not, however, go on to be nominated for any of the major awards, or indeed attract the sort of attention that Kate Grenville’s Joan Makes History received during the bicentennial year.

The failure of Moorhead’s novel to attract major critical attention says much about the current state of publishing and criticism in Australia. Remember the Tarantella is one of the few major Australian novels of the past decade. But while the Australian publishing industry continually trumpeted its own praise while at the same time at threatening to devour itself in a frenzy of takeovers and buybacks, it was left to a Primavera Press, a relatively small publisher, to pick up and run with Remember the Tarantella. Primavera did an admirable job launching the book, and they probably did as much as they could to promote it. The fact remains, however, that for a book by a small publisher to gain the important column centimetres in the major Saturday book pages, the book has to be extraordinarily good – or the publishers have to rely on the old girl/boy networks.

The reviews that did appear seemed somewhat guarded in their response. One had the feeling that while they recognised the importance of Moorhead’s novel they also felt that there was something about it that pushed it off to one side of the mainstream.

What was it then that led to this undercurrent of ‘unease’ among ‘serious’ reviewers. The answer, I believe, can be found in the opening of Moorhead’s ‘Author’s Notes’ to Remember the Tarantella.

“Perhaps Remember the Tarantella started with Christina Stead’s challenge to me – it’s very difficult to make an interesting novel with no men in it.”

While much has been made of the ‘success’ women writers have ‘enjoyed’ in Australia over the past decade or so, there still remains a number of institutionalised barriers to certain   kinds  of  womens’ writing. The literary mainstream has long used literary genres as a tool to defend ‘literary standards’. If something can be pushed into a category such as ‘community writing’ or ‘Black writing’ then it ceases to be a threat to ‘real’ literature. It can be examined in terms of its own genre which, it is understood, is inferior to real literature. Such a response is not of course, always conscious and it would appear that it has, to an extent been part of the baggage that many   reviewers   have brought to Moorhead’s novel.   Overall,   critics in Australia have appeared reluctant to see Remember the Tarantella as part of the mainstream of Australian writing. Rather, they  have   argued, its complexity and scope  make   it   one  of  the major achievements of the women’s writing movement in Australia. Such mariginalisation is unfortunate because,  by marginalising some of the more dynamic forms of contemporary writing, these critics eventually marginalise literature itself.

Remember the Tarantella is a great, swirling novel. Like the dance from which it takes its name it seems, at first, to be out of control rushing back and forth, spinning wildly, even somersaulting. But all these movements are part of an overall pattern, the steps of the dance, and in the same way that the movement of a dance may be unintelligible if you are in the midst of it, Remember the Tarantella demands  that you step back and ponder the structure of the dance/novel.

Moorhead hints at one pattern in her ‘Author’s notes’. Besides men in fiction Moorhead also discussed mathematics with Stead and as a result there is the “daring to make a novel out of geometry”. In fact according to the author, the first draft “was a series of diagrams and nouns. No sentences”. This geometry provides the novel with its structural depth, it also sets up an almost unconscious rhythm to the narrative. The novel concludes with a highly structured dance which brings together a number of structural features of the novel. The 26 women in the dance are identified by letters of the alphabet. There are also  26 major characters in the novel – from Arachane through to Zono. The dance itself is highly structured. It forms geometric shapes which dissolve and reform. One feels that there are many years of research in front academics in relating the structure of this final dance to the overall structure of the novel.

There are also other structural elements running through the novel. The alphabet is obviously central to the work , as is numerology and astrology. There is also an international network of women which provides numerous anchoring points for the narrative. Each woman in the novel affects every other woman in the novel. The result is that Remember the Tarantella becomes a highly structured network of crisscrossing webs.

In the end we are left with what Moorhead has called ‘everywoman’ – the 26 different women, different aspects of the ‘everywoman’, united in their network yet often contradictory, even hostile. This web or network, is the dance, the tarantella the collective memory that can only be realised by bringing the 26 women together in the final dance.

But while the structure of Remember the Tarantella is no doubt challenging, its strength lies in the number of ways in which the novel can be read. While it is easy to become overwhelmed by the swirling structure – caught in the web if you like – it is also possible to read Moorhead’s novel as a vivid representation of the lifestyle of 26 different women during the early eighties.

Moorhead’s novel then, is a major achievement by anyone’s standards. Its expansive scope and its complex yet intricate structure sets it apart from much of the more mundane mainstream literary activity in Australia during the late eighties. It is to be hoped that the next few years will see it receive the recognition it deserves – both in Australia and overseas.

– Mark Roberts

Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant misunderstood.

22 Apr

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Presented by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre (May 1986). Reviewed by Mark Roberts. Published in Tribune No 2423, May 1986.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder’s prolific output during his brief career meant that sometimes his work was, of necessity, written rather quickly. This is particularly true of his plays and, while most of the rough edges can be ironed out during rehearsals, it helps if the director and cast are sympathetic to Fassbinder and understand the issues he returned to again and again in his work.

Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case with the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The play revolves around notions of personal power based on class and economic distinctions. Essential to Fassbinder’s notion of power is love, which he once said is “the most effective form of social repression”.

Petra Von Kant is a successful, divorced fashion designer. She has an assistant Marlene (Marta Kiec-Gubala). who is silent throughout the entire play. Marlene is treated with incredible coldness by Petra but, nonetheless, is essential to her success.

Petra is introduced to, and initiates a relationship with Karin (Andrea Moor) a young model who has recently returned to Germany after traveling to Australia.

At the centre of the production’s failure is the character of Petra. Director and translator. Mark Gaal, seems to have attempted to make her a reflection of Fassbinder’s own life, so there is a concentration upon her self-indulgence and self-destructiveness.

The result is that Petra seems to be distanced from the principal concerns of the play. Karin is also far too obvious. The essential points are made, but they would have been far more effective if they had been a little more subtle.

In the final instance, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is extremely frustrating. The heavy-handed nature of the direction and the over-acting of the major characters means that Fassbinder’s major concerns are pushed aside.

Blair by John A. Scott

11 Apr

John A. Scott, Blair. McPhee Gribble/Penguin 1988. First published in LINQ Vol 16. No3. 1988

While St Clair firmly established John A. Scott’s credentials as one of Australia’s leading poets, it is not widely known that he began his writing career as a television comedy writer. Blair, Scott’s first novel, shows, that despite six books of poetry and a teaching position in Canberra, he has not lost his ear for comedy.

Blair, above everything else, is a very funny book. The main charac­ter, Eric Blair (as in George Orwell), is a middle aged British academic-in-exile who is teaching at a small institution in Melbourne called the Centre for Human Achievement. Blair stumbles from the one comic situation to the next, at times taking on the dimensions of a tragic ‘anti-hero’, and at other times becoming more like a one man slap-stick comedy show.

While Blair can turn a simple procedure, such as lighting a match or answering the telephone, into a comic epic, he does have weightier matters on his mind. Blair is searching for love, or at least for another sexual encounter, and he believes he has found it in the person of Julia Brouwer. Having once been married and having “misplaced” his wife in the second year of their marriage — “as with a necessary text for an impending tutorial tossed upon his desk, she simply disappeared from view” — Blair is sadly out of practice in matters sexual. His pursuit of Julia leads him to a screening of Murnau’s Dracula which ends in chaos, a frantic attempt to hide from a colleague in a sex shop and numerous discussions of the Elizabethan and Metaphysical poets with his beloved.

At the same time as he is running after Julia, Blair is also running from his mother. Having managed to ship her back to Britain fourteen years before, she is showing increasing signs of wanting to return to Melbourne. To add to his problem Blair is also having disturbing dreams which involve chopping his mother into small pieces and hiding her in a suitcase.

What makes Blair more than just a funny story is the often complex way in which different incidents are linked together by the narrative. Blair’s dreams about cutting his mother up, for example, are recalled when he quotes Freud from memory, “every dream reveals itself as a physical structure which has meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life ….*’ Blair’s mother is recalled once again in a tutorial on D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. When Blair, confronted with the tutorial’s complete ignorance of the novel, attempts to start a discussion on the notion of the “crippled hero”, one feels that the term could apply as much to Blair as it does to Paul Morel.

The Sons and Lovers incident illustrates one of Blair’s strengths. It is easy to feel that, because of the interconnected nature of much of the narrative, there must be a ‘deeper’ level to the novel. There is, for example, the mother/son/lover triangle. There is also the significance of the names that Scott has chosen for his characters. Eric Blair, for example, suggests Orwell, and Julia was the main female character in Nineteen Eighty Four. Other names also have an air of significance about them. Colonel Proctor, the arch-royalist with a love of artificial limbs; and his children, Hymen Proctor, a gay photographer “so named by his mother out of her initial deep respect for marriage”, Celica Proctor and “little Sarah Proctor”. Then there is Blair’s ex-wife, Felicity Greenwood, his colleague at the Centre for Human Achievement, E.G. Brodly, the “greatest living poet”, Edward Finchley and Blair’s ex-student, Fabian Purvis.

But it is difficult to know how seriously Scott intends us to take all this. A small group of Melbourne intellectuals and writers will, no doubt, recognise themselves and their friends/enemies in Blair and perhaps the characters’ names and a number of the incidents in the novel will take on deeper significance. For the rest of us, the novel becomes something of a satiric game. Scott has, for example, given the reader all sorts of clues to find what is, ultimately, useless information. At the beginning of the novel we are told that “little Sarah was now half her half-brother’s age. Eight years ago she was half the age of her half-sister who, twenty-two years ago was half the age of their half brother.” In order to make it easier Scott tells us later in the novel that “little Sarah” is nineteen. By which time, of course, we already have a good idea of the Proctor children’s’ approximate ages.

But Scott’s playfulness, ultimately, has a satiric bite to it. Anyone who has spent anytime at all at a CAE or university will recognise the attitude behind the statement made by the head of Literary Studies at the Centre for Human Achievement when he tells Blair and Brodly that a philosophy lecturer is not having his contract renewed: “Should’ve worked harder on tenure. Wasted too much time in the classroom.” Blair, Brodly and the rest of the Centre for Human Achievement, it seems, would feel perfectly at home on the campus of just about any tertiary institution in Australia.

While Blair may not be ‘great literature’ it is, nevertheless, a very entertaining and humorous read. Be careful, however, reading it on public transport. Private laughter in public places can be quite emba­rrassing.

Literary Magazines Turn Full Circle at Word Festival (1989)

2 Apr

‘Literary Magazines Turn Full Circle at Word Festival’. Published in Issue 1 of Editions: The New Monthly Australian Review of Books, August 1989

Collected Works Bookshop as it is now.

Tom Shapcott, speaking at the Australian National Word Festival in Canberra earlier this year, claimed that a major concern facing the Literature Board (apparently now renamed the Literature ‘Unit’) when funding literary magazines was knowing when to ‘kill’ a magazine off. Although Shapcott was referring to the larger literary magazines which have become dependent on their annual injec­tion of Australia Council funds to keep afloat, such a comment coming from the director of the Literature Board must have been greeted with some irony by those in the audience who have been involved in the production of a small magazine and whose major concern was how to keep a magazine ‘alive’.

The literary magazine debate at the 1989 Festival had indeed come full circle. Four years ago editors of small magazines virtually invaded the 1985 Festival. They held a meeting with the Literature Board (which included both funded and non-fund­ed magazines), ran their own very popular session at the Festival and sold small press publications in direct competition to the Co­op Bookshop stand.

In the months leading up to the 1985 Festival a group of predominately Sydney editors had attempted to create an Australia-wide lobby group of magazine edi­tors and workers and small publishers. This group, known as Small Magazines And Presses (SMAP), did have some early successes. A number of articles on small literary presses appeared in the arts pages of the major dailies and the ABC radio pro­gram Books and Writing produced a special report on small presses. In Sydney Neil Whitfield, former editor of Neos (a maga­zine devoted to publishing creative writing by writers under 25) set up a small press stand at Harkers Bookshop in Glebe.

Shortly before SMAP took off in Sydney, Collected Works Bookshop opened in Melbourne. Collected Works attempted not only to be a small press bookshop but also to distribute Australian and international small press publications. Although not directly related to SMAP it is possible to see Collected Works as port of a ‘small press push’ in the early to mid eight­ies. A push which, for a while, seemed as though it was going to force the literary establishment to take notice.

Despite promising so much at the 1985 Word Festival SMAP eventually died a slow death. The problems that plague editors of small magazines were compounded with SMAP. The main movers behind SMAP were magazine editors who suddenly found themselves not only juggling employment commitments, editing, funding, producing and distributing a small literary magazine but also attempting to set up an Australia-wide lobby group of small presses and even examining proposals for a national small press distribution network. In retrospect it is not a surprise that SMAP collapsed, but that it got so far along the track, with virtu­ally no support from the federal or state arts bodies, before the wheels fell off.

So, was it worthwhile? Well there were some spin-offs. Contacts were made, a net­work was set up between magazine editors in different regions and, for a period, liter­ary magazines and journals gained at least a little of the literary spotlight. SMAP also kept careful records and if, in the future, small magazines and presses are in a posi­tion to lobby collectively for a better deal from the literary establishment, much of the groundwork will already have been done.

The whole area of small cultural maga­zines is, with a few exceptions, is virtually ignored by the major newspapers and radio programs which claim to have a cultural bent. SMAP attempted to change this, and for a short while perhaps it did. Even when the literary or cultural establishment does make a concerted effort to acknowledge the existence of literary journals, it is generally a very blinkered, conservative acknowl­edgement. A good example of this occurred a number of years ago when Books and writing introduced a regular literary maga­zine segment. Almost exclusively the reviewer concentrated on the established, Literature Board funded magazines like Meanjin, Island, Quadrant and Overland.

Over the coming months in EDITIONS I will attempt to do something quite differ­ent. To fully appreciate the importance of small magazines and publishing, one has to look beyond the established magazines to the diversity that exists across the whole range of literary and cultural publishing. So while I will be following the creative and critical writing appearing in the major jour­nals, I will also be searching out the innova­tive, outrageous or merely interesting among the smaller, and often more vibrant, magazines. At the same time I intend to highlight the politics of small press publish­ing and to look back at some of the more influential literary magazines of the past twenty years in an attempt to understand the context in which contemporary maga­zines are operating today.

While Harkers Bookshop closed some years ago Collected Works Bookshop is still going strong in Melbourne. After a number of moves they are now on the 1st Floor of the Flinders Way Arcade, 238 Flinders Lane Melbourne 3000 (03 654 8873).

Mark Roberts is an editor of P76 magazine and has had wide experience in small press publishing. He will be writing a regular col­umn on small presses and magazines for EDITIONS.


Please note that the address and contact details in the above article date from 1989. COLLECTED WORKS BOOKSHOP is still going strong some 22 years later. It is now at Nicholas Building, Level 1, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000. Phone 03  396548873. It is on Facebook at