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  • At the Limit of Literature
  • Nicholas Jose
The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Peter Pierce, ed. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. x + 612. $180.00 (cloth).


What, if anything, is Australian literature? That this question can be asked, still and again, as happens directly and indirectly through this welcome new collective history, is less a matter of regret than a tribute of sorts to the Australian propensity for keeping apart from conventional categorisations. I’m not sure if this happens from Australia, looking out, or to Australia, looking in. Most likely it’s a combination of both internal pressures and external arrangements, as some of the “history of the book”—of reading, writing and publishing—in Australia details here. Re-definition of, or escape from, boundaries has been a shaping force in Australian literature since the first boatloads of convicts and settlers arrived in Sydney with a printing press in 1788 (as Elizabeth Webby reminds us in her chapter on “The beginnings of literature in colonial Australia”), until today, when boatloads of would-be refugees— from Afghanistan, from Sri Lanka, poets and journalists among them perhaps—are pushed back to sea. The convict and colonial confine is resisted in actuality, and in imaginative transposition and impersonation, linguistic promiscuity and genre-busting. As Tanya Dalziell writes about colonial fiction in her chapter “No place for a book?,” two projectsin- process intersected during the nineteenth century: “the shaping of an idea of ‘fiction’ [ . . . ] and the making of ‘Australia’” (113).1 That convolution of community (or, less comfortably, nation) and literature has continued, even as authors from Australia routinely disavow any Australianness, or seek to transcend that part of their biography through art and internationalism.

The poet John Kinsella uses the term “international regionalism” for the positive potential of this double position. In a big-picture chapter called “Groups and mavericks” that is one of the best things in this multi-authored volume, he links the anxiety around definition to perceptions of Australia as “quarantined space,” an insular exceptionalism that, for better and worse, maps the “reiteration of uniqueness and separateness [End Page 935] [that] still underlies much Australian writing.” “It seeks to set itself apart,” Kinsella claims (473). Yet in setting itself apart, it is set apart by others, falling below the horizon line.2 In the new domain of world literature—transnational, global Anglophone—Australia barely rates a mention (in Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters [1999; English translation 2004], for instance, or David Damrosch’s What is World Literature? [2003]) As the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature amply shows, however, the body of Australian material, variously constructed, is a fascinating case of what might be called “literature at the limit of world-literature,” to adapt a phrase from Ranajit Guha.3

As editor of the Cambridge History of Australian Literature, Peter Pierce brings to the task a lifetime’s participation in and advocacy for the field. Along with important scholarly work on a wide range of topics—lost children, Australians at war—and authors —notably Thomas Keneally —he has produced a literary guide to Australia for the general reader, and written and reviewed regularly for the mainstream press. During his professional career he must have watched as Australian literary studies modulated from the consensually celebrated achievements of a generation ago (around the time of the 1988 bicentenary of British invasion/settlement) to its more devolved and perplexed state today. The history he has compiled is not primarily a chronicle of authors and texts, so much as an argument for the existence of that larger thing, Australian literature, which connects writers, books and readers in a cultural and social space. Thus the history moves through a series of temporal, spatial and generic excursions, horizontal rather than vertical, in a quite equable gathering of diverse approaches and interests across its span of two hundred years or more. The end effect is of a three-dimensional edifice, and this is Pierce’s great achievement. “Authoritative judgments [are] less enticing and true to the history of this literature than provisional ones,” he writes as he goes on to outline a structure that works chronologically in three parts—the colonial...


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