Contents indexed selectively.
'Epic of Gilgamesh” is Google’s answer to “what is the oldest known literature”. Unknown scribes in the city of Ur picked the poem out in cuneiform letters some 4500 years ago. These clay tablets preserved an older oral tradition, but that part of the story is usually left out. Instead, the Mesopotamian epic fits easily into that cartoonish diagram of the Ascent of Man, where civilisation means writing, a sequence of metals and a procession of capitals: Memphis, Babylon, Athens, Rome.
'Compare this lineage to the ceremonial songs of Aboriginal Australia. Their absolute vintage is unknowable, but the best estimates run to at least 12,000 years old. At this distance in time, the study of literature needs not just linguists but geologists. There are songlines that accurately describe landscape features (like now-disappeared islands) from the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Their provenance may stretch even further back, all the way into the last ice age. They are also alive. The last person to hear Epic of Gilgamesh declaimed in her native culture died millennia ago. Songlines that may have been born 30,000 years ago are being sung right now.' (Introduction)
'Writing biography,” as Judith Brett confides in the opening pages of The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text; $49.99), “is an invasive business, and perilous”. Sifting through the “surviving evidence” for “plausible paths”, the challenges are daunting: separating myth from fact, establishing intimacy and retaining distance, liberating and controlling the subject’s voice, being fearless in judgement while maintaining fairness and compassion, embroidering the private and public lives, retrieving life both as it was lived (a phantom) and as it was remembered - and, finally, deciding whether or not to break free from the tidal force of chronology. There are as many ways to write biography as there are to live.' (Introduction)
'Coetzee the critic is every bit as good as Coetzee the novelist,” the Irish Times said of his third essay collection back in 2001. For Late Essays: 2006-201/7 (Knopf Australia; $29.99), his fifth, his publishers use the blurb again, and no one should argue with the praise.' (Introduction)
'Depending on your vintage, Robert Drewe is best known for his memoir The Shark Net, his debut novel, The Savage Crows, his widely studied short stories, or because his Our Sunshine became the Heath Ledger vehicle Ned Kelly. It seems fitting that Ernest Hemingway is name-checked twice in Drewe’s latest novel, Whipbird. “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand,” Hemingway once wrote in Esquire, and throughout his career, Drewe has unfailingly taken this on.' (Introduction)