Victoria Nugent reviews The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys

The Artist’s Portrait

by Julie Keys

ISBN 9780733640940



The Artist’s Portrait
by Julie Keys, is not an easy novel to categorise. It’s not exactly a page turner but it simmers along with a slow sense of intrigue. It’s not quite a murder mystery, not quite drama, not quite historical fiction. Its switching perspectives and the knowledge that a key protagonist is self-editing her history make it a challenging but rewarding read. Not all is as it seem, facts are not immutable and character motivations are far from clear-cut. The novel is a debut for Keys, a writer from the Illawarra region on the NSW South Coast, who has worked as a tutor, registered nurse, youth worker and clinical trials coordinator before a nasty car accident motivated her to swap her career for full-time writing. Whilst conducting research for a PhD in Creative Arts, Keys has delved into gender and prestige for Australian writers.(1) The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017, under its then-title, Triptych.

The Artist’s Portrait intersects the worlds of aging artist, Muriel Kemp, and nurse, Jane Cooper. The pair meet when Jane, battling late-night nausea and subsequent insomnia takes to pacing the suburban Illawarra streets at dusk in the 1990s. Their first meeting is abrasive and confusing. In Jane’s own words “whatever drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.” (333). In the work, Muriel’s sharpness but also her evasiveness when it comes to questions she doesn’t wish to answer intersect to make her a compelling enigma while Jane herself is somewhat of an every woman, with writing aspirations that set the scene for Muriel to suggest she write her life story.

As Muriel and Jane’s paths continue to intersect, Jane becomes an unwitting but dedicated biographer, soon drawn to know more about Muriel as her own research unearths mysteries around her life and her identity. Newspaper accounts tell her that the artist Muriel Kemp died in 1936 and what’s more, that she was accused of murder. Her art is shrouded with controversy, scandal and harsh criticism and there’s the matter of some paintings that went missing decades ago. The more Jane tries to grasp the truth, the more slippery it becomes. At times the entire narrative seems slippery and hard to keep a handle on, perhaps a reflection on how so much of people’s personal histories are entwined with the teller’s perspective and what they want us to know.

Keys plays carefully with the concept of the unreliable narrator, drip feeding the reader details as the story progresses through the tapes Muriel records for Jane, but never quite lifting the veil to show the full picture. Much like Jane, I found myself being pulled into Muriel’s orbit, trying to puzzle her out. The tale begins in 1914 but much of the main action takes place throughout the 1920s. The depiction of Muriel’s early life in the tenements with its gritty realism brings to mind Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, set in the same slum streets or even Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At 10 Muriel is caught between a childhood playing tag along “Samuel Street, with its scabby terraces of sandstone and weatherboard and iron, and balconies that looked like eyelids slumbering above the backyard patches of dirt”(8) and her first job in an artist’s studio that “stunk of cats, Lysol and turps” (3).

Keys goes on to deftly paint a picture of the 1920s Surry Hills art world so vivid that it is entirely possible for the reader to believe some of the figures she breathes life into once walked the streets of Sydney. This sense of gritty realism is highlighted by faux-quotes about Kemp’s works from authorities such as celebrated artist Norman Lindsay, whose epigraph quote describes Kemp’s paintings as having “the stench of an abattoir; the flesh she depicts is lifeless, barren- a reflection of the artist, no doubt”(1).

The historic sections of the novel are imbued with vivid characters… Muriel’s quick buck-seeking father, established artist Max Jenner with “his rat’s face” (21) and harsh words, Muriel’s artistic rival and fairweather acquaintance Adam Black, her childhood friend Alice Cooney and society darling cum arts patron Claudine Worthington.

The novel abounds with roughness as Muriel spends time around brothels and captures coarser elements of the Surry Hills scene. It is soon clear that the art world disdains her and her works are frequently written off once critics know who painted them. One young artist tells Muriel that she, as a young woman, is “taking up a spot that could be filled by somebody who’s serious about the whole thing”(20) and she baldly states to Alice in the earlier stages of her career that “being good isn’t as important as being noticed”. However, it seems that when Muriel’s work’s are noticed, critics tend to appraise them negatively, with opinions ranging from her pictures being “ vulgar and contemptible”(1) to “the banal”(1). Notably Muriel promises herself at one stage to only paint women, sparking her Working Women series. “It wasn’t something you saw; waitresses, teachers, housewives, nuns, barwomen, shop assistants, nurses, women catching trams, walking, on the back of horses and sitting in traps- hanging out clothes sweeping. There was an abundance of subjects. Women who ran brothels and sly grog shops. I’d paint them all” (59).

Muriel quietly scorns “portraits with women with sugary lips and unshed tears” (23), instead honing in on light and shadows and “dark and violent subjects” (156).

Structurally, the delineation of perspectives becomes less clear as the narrative progresses, just as the murkiness of Muriel’s past seems to grow. Muriel’s voice on the tapes increasingly digresses, telling Jane what to leave out and dodging from one subject to another. At one stage in the book, Jane tells Muriel she’s “not much of a storyteller” (67) and the meandering tale only serves to cement that impression.

Biographer’s notes in italics interspersed throughout the text pulled me out of the narrative flow, reminding me each time of Jane’s own note to herself “do not believe everything Muriel says”(72). The writing itself is peppered with rich descriptions and clever metaphors- Muriel’s injured Nan is “a lump moulded into the rocking chair, her leg raised like a busted snag on a fruit box”(89), while on another page “two crossed branches rubbed together like cicada legs”(170).

In the 1990s narrative strain, Jane is struggling with morning sickness and the life changes wrought by her pregnancy. Throw in the reemergence of a childhood friend, now “tantalising but dangerous”(113) and her own past tragedy and you’ve got a personal history that could easily hold up a plot on its own, but ultimately it pales in comparison to Muriel’s conflicted past. Again the connection between gender and creative work is a significant theme as Muriel warns Jane that “if you were serious about being a writer… you’d get rid of that baby”(42) as they stand on the doorstep of her turps-scented house.

The 1990s setting also works particularly well as the addition of Google or online history archives would change the pattern of Jane’s research significantly. But there are no convenient buttons Jane can press to expedite her fact-finding, helping to keep the pace at a slow simmer throughout, making every big revelation feel precious, even while vital puzzle pieces remain lost.

As the novel progresses, much as a sketch might become a full blown artwork, Muriel fleshes out her past but there are still gaps and uncertainties. There is no deus ex machina here to wrap it all up with a neat bow. A second reading adds further depth but the same puzzles remain. I found myself craving more, thinking of the questions I would have liked to ask Muriel, ultimately leaving a lingering impression. The Artist’s Portrait is a great addition to the Australian literary scene, a quiet, thought-provoking achiever, that doesn’t overstate its case when it comes to gender and creative work, but still manages to say so much.

VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.

Jean-François Vernay reviews On Patrick White by Christos Tsiolkas

On Patrick White

by Christos Tsiolkas

ISBN 9781863959797

Black Inc

Reviewed by Jean-François Vernay

“Perhaps, in spite of Australian critics, writing novels was the only thing I could do with any degree of success, even my half-failures were some justification of an otherwise meaningless life.”
——- Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn 

If one were to pool all the relevant evidence culled from his occasional excoriations of Australian academia, one would soon realise that Patrick White (1912-1990) was hardly ever generous with local researchers, despite the bountiful critical attention he received from them. Entrusting Christos Tsiolkas — a fellow writer outside of the scholarly arena — with the daunting task of reading and writing an appreciation of the entire opus of Australia’s sole Nobel-Prize for Literature therefore comes across as a rather shrewd editorial strategy.

The idea for this third publication in the emergent Black Inc “Writers on Writers” series, was triggered by a haunting question which arose from the Cheltenham Literature Festival audience. Back in 2015, one of the attendees queried: “Christos, what do Australians think of Patrick White these days?” (2). Interestingly, that same question — in a slightly different wording: “Is anyone reading Patrick White nowadays?” — was put to me again and again in 2011 by fellow Australians who were befuddled as to why I would draft an editing project intended to be a tribute to Patrick White and his legacy.

Even more so since the 2006 Wraith Picket hoax, there has always been the sneaking suspicion that Patrick White is a cultural artefact of his time, a précieux wordsmith whose elitism and stylish (yet affected) eloquence would alienate him the support of modern-day publishers, if not a bourgeois intellectual estranged from the bread-and-butter concerns of the working-class people. While there is probably a grit of truth to it all, White remains, very much like Christopher Koch, one of the happy few writers who have successfully passed the duration test — even in the eyes of a skeptical reader such as Tsiolkas, who has grown from a high-schooler’s lukewarm reception to a recent infatuation of White’s literary output.

In keeping with his working-class and Greek origins, Tsiolkas chiefly praises White for pioneering “the migrant’s story” (26), for “creating an immigrant language” (21) through a “symbolic language of terrain and isolation” (37), and sees Manoly Lascaris — White’s lifelong gay partner — as instrumental in shaping White’s singular vision of the world: “It is as an Australian writer — and as an Australian writer seeing both his country and the world partly through Lascaris’s eyes — that he achieves greatness” (23). While this line could be construed as an optimistic overstatement, it is not difficult to perceive in this instance how literature responds to the desire of readers embodied as much in the reader’s horizon of expectations as in the craving need to interpret, itself derived from a need to share one’s emotional response to literary aesthetics. As Wolfgang Iser points out, “Perhaps this is the prime usefulness of literary criticism—it helps to make conscious those aspects of the text which would otherwise remain concealed in the subconscious; it satisfies (or helps to satisfy) our desire to talk about what we have read.”

In this game of literary seduction, what I would term specular desire here combines two fantasising activities: the writer’s desire subtly reflecting the reader’s  through a series of shared interests and the reader’s desire which is being projected onto the writer’s. Thanks to this short monograph, readers of Loaded and Dead Europe (among other titles), who are already cognisant with Tsiolkas’s “erotics of writing”(31), will now also become familiar with his “erotics of reading” (31):

“The miracle of these perfect novels is that, from the opening sentence to the final word, the real world collapses and we are enfolded in a fictional reality that is stronger and more present than our material surroundings. The gift of being enraptured by such novels is that they continue to feed our desire as readers, to keep us hungrily reading, greedily searching for that experience once more.” (31)

A decade ago, Brigid Rooney duly noted the kaleidoscopic attempts at rekindling the literary and cultural importance of Patrick White, building up to the centenary of his birth: Whether Christos Tsiolkas’s On Patrick White partakes of that effort or is simply meant to be read as a deeply affectionate homage paid to the overwhelming importance of a heavyweight literary monster is scarcely relevant. What matters more perhaps is to discern the interplay of influences between these two eminent versatile writers, namely how Tsiolkas’s vision might now affect our reading of White’s œuvre and how White’s œuvre has revealed a new dimension of Tsiolkas’ mind.

Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn (eds.), Patrick White Speaks (Sydney: Primavera Press, 1989), 15.
David Coad & Jean-François Vernay, Patrick White Centenary: A Tribute, CERCLES 26, Special Issue (2012).
For further particulars, see Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016), 203.
JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY’s latest released books are The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2016) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016).

Robert Wood reviews Annihilation of Caste by Ambedkar, introduced by Arundhati Roi

Annihilation of Caste
B.R. Ambedkar

UWA Publishing 

ISBN 9781742588018

Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
When I was living in Chembur (Bombay) in 2016, there was a statue of a portly and bespectacled B. R. Ambedkar at the end of my street. This suggests he has been lionised in India, if not quite canonised, something aided in ‘the West’ by Arundhati Roy’s well-publicised talk ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ that favourably compares Ambedkar to Gandhi. And so, it was with the contour of knowledge that I opened Annihilation of Caste. I do, of course, come from an Indian family and have parents who were born as colonial subjects in occupied Kerala. But our path to liberation was different from the national story, inflected by a regional identity, a Communist atmosphere and a Catholic bent. So what was I to make of the lessons in Annihilation of Caste and what can we learn from them to make sense of contemporary India?

The Annihilation of Caste was a radical work for its time, a critique too of the establishment as it set about decolonising itself. Its central plank revolves around the negative impact of the caste system as it matters for ‘untouchables’ like Ambedkar himself. This was about the liberation from a centuries old social structure that oppressed a huge number of people. Ambedkar highlights one particular case, where Hindus demanded that Balais (‘untouchables’) follow the rules listed below:

Balais must not wear gold-lace-bordered pugrees.
They must not wear dhotis with coloured or fancy borders.
They must convey intimation [=information] of the death of any Hindu to relatives of the deceased—no matter how
far away these relatives may be living.
In all Hindu marriages, Balais must play music before the processions and during the marriage.
Balai women must not wear gold or silver ornaments; they must not wear fancy gowns or jackets.
Balai women must attend all cases of confinement [= childbirth] of Hindu women.
Balais must render services without demanding remuneration, and must accept whatever a Hindu is pleased to
If the Balais do not agree to abide by these terms, they must clear out of the villages.

Having established this as a fact of dalit life, Ambedkar asks a series of rhetorical questions to political-minded Hindus, namely:

Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow a large class of your own countrymen like the untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though class of your own countrymen like the untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public wells? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public streets? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to wear what apparel or ornaments they like? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to eat any food they like?

The effect of this is to pierce the Hindu consciousness, to highlight the inequality through emphasising the basic conditions of India at the time. This political question, or the question of political reform is coupled with social reform and economic reform, thinking through the entirety of Indian society from the perspectives of dalits. For Ambedkar, it is caste that prohibits real progress including the ability to form a truly national society; it is caste that prevents a fellow feeling of social inclusion; caste that inhibits uplift of aboriginal peoples. His ideal social contract is one of true equality and liberty, an India of genuine freedom at all levels of society. To destroy the caste system is possible only with the destruction of the shastras and so Annihilation of Caste ends up being a critique of the holy scriptures of Hinduism itself as well as its material manifestations. This is a critique levelled with passion, logic, panache, flair and evidence. It is written from a truly subaltern perspective and informed by liberalism, freedom and personal experience. Reading Ambedkar today still gives one nerves, hope and possibility.

The caste system is still one of the central aspects of Indian politics, society and economy today. However, and thanks in large part to Ambedkar’s articulation, there is most definitely a self-aware subaltern politics just as there is a broader sectarian/communal question that focuses on religion in general. However, both of these seem to prevent a conversation about gender rather than leading to liberal intersectionalities as they matter in ‘the West’. The true liberation of India must involve the material freedom of women, girls and those who female identify. That is what it is to read Ambedkar now and learn from his example. One can only hope that the opening he makes in the field can lead us away from female infanticide, the negative aspects of the dowry system and towards femme empowerment in the workforce and home as well as making public space safer on the whole. It is not only the annihilation of caste that we seek then but also the annihilation of chauvinism in the 21st century.
ROBERT WOOD grew up in suburban Perth. He has published work in Southerly, Cordite, Jacket2 and other journals. At present he lives at Redgate in Wardandi country and is working on a series of essays.