May 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Trouble: Evolution of a Radical / Selected Writings 1970–2010’ by Kate Jennings

By Carmen Callil

“Don’t look back. You’ll turn into a pillar of shit,” is the opening quip, but this could never happen to Kate Jennings, who is in a sense presenting her autobiography in this trawl of selections from her writing life. Raised on a farm in New South Wales, she was a young, outspoken feminist in the ’70s, one of that generation of women who railed against their mothers, but who, in truth, existed to fulfil their unachievable dreams. Above all, she is a very fine, a beautiful, writer.

From the very first, as in her feminist call to arms ‘The Front Lawn Speech’ at the University of Sydney in 1970, she has been a shaker of her fist at an unjust world – at, for instance, old lefties waffling on about capitalist oppression while ignoring inequality on their doorsteps – as well as a celebrator – as in the final essay here, her paean of praise to the American poet Frederick Seidel. “I am the crocodile of joy, who never lies,” she quotes; Seidel’s lines are actually a perfect description of Jennings herself.

Here is her life told as though “on a high horse, galloping,” through her essays, speeches, journalism, interviews, and through extracts from her novels, short stories and poems. After ten years of fighting the good alternative fight in Sydney, Jennings (by this time an alcoholic) took off for New York in 1979. There she met and married a splendid man who, after ten happy years, developed Alzheimer’s. To pay for his medical treatment, she threw herself into Wall Street and became a speechwriter for its bankers, a pride of men generally described more pejoratively today. Jennings’ brilliant intelligence is at its most superb in her writings about the crash it has gifted to the world; in her novel Moral Hazard she “predicted accurately what has happened in the financial world in the last two years”.

There is much else, too. Australia is central to, and comes alive in, her work: she berates it and celebrates it, keeps a beady eye on it warts and all, and is a master of its skewering, sardonic prose.

Like all the very best books, this one is flawed. There is no index, for a start, but that is the publisher’s fault. To be laid at Jennings’ door is a tendency to be far too hard on herself, and so, on others. A reformed alcoholic, an oft-repeated threnody is the blame she places on Australian society for alcoholism in general and hers in particular. She has taken on the odd Americanism – phrases such as “I’ve been tasked” disturb what is usually a perfect writing style. It was also unwise to include her particularly long account of that exhausted subject, the last American election, couched, unusually for Jennings, in hyperventilating prose: “Obama has an elegance of mind and body rarely, if ever, seen in politics.”

Jennings is catalogued in this book as “Expatriate Author”. Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere. Can one imagine Americans writing of Ernest Hemingway, or the Brits of Auden, thus? Time and place have in no way altered the memories or considerable gifts of this quintessential and superb Australian writer.

Carmen Callil
Carmen Callil is the founder of Virago Press. Her books include Lebanese Washing Stories and Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family & Fatherland.

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