|Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews|
MacMillan, (Sept 2002) 229 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36372 7
There was once a tradition that when a cabinet maker finished his apprenticeship, he'd make a miniature chest, or cabinet, as a gift for his master.
So, begins Drusilla Modjeska in her introduction to this small collection of her essays. But although the idea for this book was conceived with this pattern in mind, Modjeska soon found that the art of writing did not lend itself to imitation in miniature. For one thing, her "masters" were too many and too diverse, ranging from Christina Stead, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Eleanor Dark and Dorothy Green, to editors like George Munster and Hillary McPhee. So, what was planned as a simple collection of pieces drawn from a career in writing, turned into a re-assessment and re-interpretation of some of those pieces. "There's a lot I'd say now that I wouldn't say then," Modjeska notes, and she chose these pieces accordingly, changing some and adding to others.
As always, her writing is a pleasure to read. Most of the essays in the book are diverse and interesting: a mixture of memoir, literary criticism, biography, autobiography, art appreciation, and comment on the Australian literary scene seasoned with a little politics. The final two essays in the book, however, are much more serious and challenging. They are more densely argued, very much more political and controversial, and they are suited more to the arena of academic literary debate that to a general readership. This is not criticism. Rather, it is a warning to those who might expect to read all of this book as they did Poppy or The Orchard, neither of which were predictable, straightforward narratives, but both of which were works of imagination with no overt reference to current Australian politics or literary issues.
"Memoir Australia" and "The Present in Fiction," however, deal with issues such as Prime Minister John Howard's refusal to apologize to the Aboriginal people of Australia, and his handling of immigration issues. They also deal with the relationship between fiction and fact, meaning and life. Big issues, with serious implications, discussed from a very Australian perspective. Interesting, but not easy reading.
In the end, those who already know Modjeska's work will enjoy these essays as much for her usual skill in sharing her enthusiasm for literature and art as for the more personal and passionate views she expresses about the country in which she chooses to live and work. Newcomers to her work will appreciate her intelligent and forthright approach and may well be inspired to read more of her work.