Sue at Whispering Gums has given a great overview of David Marr’s Seymour lecture, “Here I stand”. He focused on the biographer’s craft, and he said so many things of great relevance to me, but I’ll just engage this comment:
Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with [Patrick] White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers”
I love biographical quests; they’re how I came to biography. For my Master’s thesis , I wrote a biographical quest novel (“The Remains”) and a dissertation on aspects of the genre, including the influence of its non-fiction counterparts. From AJA Symons Quest for Corvo to Laura Sewell Matter’s “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – and not forgetting Martin Edmonds Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which I’ve just started – I’ve encountered some superb non-fiction biographical quests. Continue reading
In the textual equivalent of a late-night junk food binge, after baby Thomas woke me when I’d just got to sleep at 10pm, I bought Niki Savva’s Road to Ruin: how Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government on my Kindle. (I’d resisting doing so for a couple of weeks – I have much more important things to read, like Suzanne Falkiner’s 900 page Stow biography!) I have been ashamedly engrossed in reading about just how dysfunctional the Abbott government was, and Savva’s source-gathering is impressive, but it’s a badly written book. David Marr drew me into polit-lit, and I stupidly assumed that it would tend to be written as well as he writes. Instead, I suspect he’s the high watermark and most of the genre has little literary merit. In this case, the narrative is shambolic, jumping all over the place without the sense of quiet control and ordering the best non-fiction writers show. It’s also repetitive and veers between a journalistic style and chatty, cringing prose. But I grant it had to be written in a hurry and it’s horribly fascinating.
I’ve finished listening to the audio version of David Marr’s The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell during night-feeds of my nine-week old son, a slightly surreal and disturbing companion at 2:30am each morning. It’s the original Quarterly Essay edition of 2013; the print version of this edition is 124 pages, while the expanded 2014 edition is 210 pages. Continue reading
The metal bust of Mary Durack used to greet me each day at the entry to the Battye Collection during my year working at the State Library of WA in 2007. I saw it again yesterday, a couple of days after finishing Brenda Niall’s True North: The Story of Elizabeth and Mary Durack (Text, 2012). Busts make the people of the past seem so distant, but one of the achievements of this biography to make the Duracks feel quite alive again for a time. Continue reading