'Best' essays merit book title's reckless superlative

Drusilla Modjeska (Ed.), The Best Australian Essays 2007. Black Inc., 2007, ISBN 9781863954198, RRP $35.00, website

The Best Australian Essays 2007 'The Turning Tide', title of Judith Brett's contribution to this year's The Best Australian Essays, might usefully be taken as a subtitle for the collection as a whole. Implicit throughout many of the pieces, and highlighted explicitly in Modjeska's editorial introduction, is an awareness of a world, and more particularly a nation, at a fragile moment of social and political flux.

In a curious case of synchronicity I find myself writing quite literally on the eve of transition for Australia and her politics; within the next 12 hours the results of Australia's election will be known and a new political era will begin, testing or confirming the concerns and hopes expressed in these essays.

With pieces drawn not merely from authors and essayists, but more broadly from politicians, performers and sociologists, the collection juxtaposes explorations into literary, cultural and personal preoccupations of the past year.

Discussions range from Eros (in John Armstrong's elegant meditations on the darker side of desire) to Thanatos (in Nicholas Rothwell's thoughts on the role of the war correspondent) by way of Carthusian monks, pornography and Hitler.

Personal memoirs, travel-writing, political manifestos, and reviews all share the space, united in rare fashion in literature's generic chameleon: the essay. The form and function of the genre itself is challenged and interrogated, but the exploratory spirit of Montaigne's original 'Essais' — with its etymological origin crucially in 'essayer' — is maintained in the questioning and delicately nuanced approach of pieces such as Gert Reifarth's discussion of the impact of the GDR in fiction and in fact, and Susan Hampton's intensely personal account of the intersection of art and faith.

To seek a cumulative 'statement' therefore about the social and cultural condition of contemporary Australia from this collection is fundamentally to misunderstand the essay form itself. Rather this book gives the impression of undertaking, as Modjeska puts it, a 'vigorous conversation' on the subject, ultimately leaving to readers the task of assembling the conceptual pieces as they choose.

Inevitably in a collection of writings that share a single temporal and cultural moment there are particular seams of thought that run through multiple essays, repeatedly forcing their way to the surface where they reappear at different and unexpected angles. It is these moments of shared substance and overlap that generate the most interesting dialogue, with essays serving to counter or gloss their companions.

Modejska's sensitive editorial influence in ordering the works and dividing them into unobtrusively articulated groups assists such readings greatly. Such a structure makes this a book to read from cover to cover rather than dip into, if the essays are to benefit most from their juxtaposition and yield a properly cumulative impact.

The recurrence of the 'big' issues of politics, religion and sexuality is predictable enough, but particular trends within each do emerge. Questions of surveillance and of the individual's right to privacy dominate essays by Reifarth, Anna Funder, and Clive James. These are all the more flexible in their thoughts for being discussed at a historical and geographical remove from contemporary Australia.

Issues of cultural relativism relating particularly to sexuality and religion engage Don Walker in an evocative travel piece on his experiences in Shiraz, and Anne Manne, whose discussion of feminism and 'raunch culture' strikes a rare strident note in this collection.

Most interesting is the recurrence of the notion of humour, and of an awareness of absurdity in particular as an essential filter through which to think and write, most of all 'in the bleak times', as Modjeska has it.

This humour is exemplified in the 'hilariously transgressive moment' Luke Davies recounts from the austere anti-film Into Great Silence, where the silent order of monks 'ski' down a slope on their shoes, tumbling into a giggling heap at the bottom. It is also present in Gillian Mears' conception of her sufferings as 'Dr Seuss-style' nonsense, and Kim Mahood's approach to race-issues in Australia.

Humour is seen as a positive and enabling force in contemporary critical thinking, rather than being despised as mere levity. It is perhaps inevitably those essays within the collection that deny or suppress this crucial awareness of the absurd that stray into the realm of the dogmatic and self-important.

I must confess to experiencing an instinctive suspicion — the product of years of academic caution where superlatives are concerned — of the term 'best' as applied in the title, The Best Australian Essays 2007, and it does still seem a designation that should provoke and challenge the reader.

Nevertheless I am reminded of the definition proposed in Jane Austen's Persuasion of what constitutes good society — 'The company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation' — and of Mr Eliot's shrewd correction: 'That is not good company, that is the best.'

On such a principle, adopting Modjeska's own metaphor of the book as a literary conversation or conversationalist, the often unexpected arguments and wide-ranging subjects of these essays do indeed seem to merit the reckless superlative of the title.

Alexandra CoghlanAlexandra Coghlan graduated from Oxford University in 2006 with BAs in English Literature and Music, and completed an MPhil in Criticism and Culture at Trinity College, Cambridge. She currently lives in Sydney, where she works as a teacher and freelance journalist prior to returning to Oxford for a DPhil in October 2008.


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