josh rosner

DOWN THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

In Uncategorized on November 25, 2011 at 9:32 am

Below my review of The Best Australian Essays 2011. My major academic research interest is the essay, going back to Michel de Montaigne and his Essais, and I’m a keen reader of essays. This years collection, as I say in my review, is one of the best ever. The quality of writing is superb and Ramona Koval has done a magnificent job compiling this year’s collection. Koval has now left her position at Radio National hosting the Book Show – amidst accusations and recriminations (I side with Koval!) – and she tells me she is writing her own collection of essays. I look forward to reading, and reviewing, her collection once it is published. Like Koval, I, too, am currently engaged with writing a collection of essays. In my case, they are distinctly in the vein of Montaigne (“I am, myself, the subject of my book,” he wrote) and each about the ensuing two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall and my own relationship to the city. In a few weeks I am off to Berlin for three months, with the ambitious intention of finishing of my collection.

The beauty of the essay, and this collection in particular, is that they can be read at your own leisure. How about read one essay lying in the bath? Or another at the beach? Or on the bus to work? The rewards offered by The Best Australian Essays 2011 are endless.

THE BEST AUSTRALIAN ESSAYS 2011. Edited by Ramona Koval. $29.95

The sixteenth century French statesman, Michel de Montaigne, is credited with inventing the literary form of essay. His stated goal was to describe himself, and others, as frankly as possible. His philosophy was simple: “I am myself the subject of my book.”

Ramona Koval has collected 24 outstanding essays for this year’s ‘The Best Australian Essays’. Of the approach she took to deciding which essays were worthy of publication in this collection, Koval writes in her introduction, “I imagined a journey on the arm of the writer, who calls for me with the suggestion that we take a stroll. We start with an intriguing destination in mind, but on the way we get thrillingly lost. We take the road less travelled, we pause and set ourselves down, I’m shown something I’ve never seen, or shown it in a different light. We emerge at the end of our time together having learned something, been moved, even changed.”

Robert Drewe, author of the prize-winning memoir, The Shark Net, edited The Best Australian Essays 2010 and although some of the same writers appear again this year, the 2011 collection has the edge over last year’s collection, if only for the fragility of life on our planet that is represented this year. Many of this year’s writers spend a great deal of time dissecting and analysing “first and last breaths,” as Koval puts it.

Ramona Koval

Gillian Mears opens this year’s collection with a deeply moving and skilfully crafted essay, Fairy Death, in which she writes about living with, and one day dying of, Multiple Sclerosis. “On a walking frame you become instantly vulnerable to the sympathy of strangers,” she writes. “Kisses of pity not passion suddenly start landing on the top of your head.”

Nicholas Rothwell continues the end-of-life theme with his deeply moving treatise on Aboriginal deaths in the Kimberley and the nature of grief, alcohol and drug abuse, and self-destructive behaviour.

Craig Sherborne’s short, but brilliant, A Handful of Thoughts Before the Dust, offers an interesting take on the choices writers face when deciding what to write about.

If I were forced to choose a single exemplary essay in this collection (no easy task!), I think Richard Flanagan’s It’s Peter Dom would, by a very short margin, win the vote. Flanagan is one of Australia’s best and most prolific crafter-of-sentences. His mastery of the English language never fails to amaze me and in his essay – a profile of the late, brilliant Tasmanian photographer, Peter Dombrovskis which, like much of Flanagan’s work, is really a paean to his beloved Tasmania – Flanagan’s mastery with words is on full display.

Many Tasmanians who knew Peter Dombrovskis will tell you he changed history with a single photograph. His iconic image – Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River – reveals a section of the Franklin River which would have become submerged, hidden from the world forever, had the proposed Franklin Dam gone ahead. The photo is credited with inspiring Bob Hawke to save the Franklin River.

Flanagan’s description of Dombrovskis’s death is an emotional dedication to a friend and a fellow artist. Flanagan writes, “They searched in blizzards for three days. Far below, floodwaters rose and covered the beautiful boulders of the upper Huon Rover. They found him kneeling, looking out to the south-west wildlands. He had been dead for some days, killed by a massive heart attack. As the weather was about to change, Peter had fallen to his knees, bowing before the world he and invited us to love and discover ourselves anew in.”

Writing rarely gets any better. It’s often said of these kinds of collected writings that there is ‘something for everyone’. In the case of The Best Australian Essays 2011, there is everything for everyone.

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