- Remembering David Parker (1943–2015)
- mary besemeres
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My earliest memory of David Parker is of a lecture he gave in 1990, my first year at the Australian National University, on English poet Edward Thomas’s four-stanza poem “Adlestrop.” The poem is about being made to stop and listen, deeply, which seems apt when remembering the effect of David as a teacher, supervisor, and mentor. The train the poet is travelling on halts at the humbly named country station of the title; no one boards or leaves, apparently nothing happens. But his eye is drawn by the “willow, willow-herbs and grass” outside to the “haycocks” “no whit less still and lonely fair / Than the high cloudlets in the sky.” In the final stanza perception shifts from the visible to an expanding aural landscape: “And for that minute, a blackbird sang / Close by, and round him, mistier, / Farther and farther, all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.” In his classes, quietly and compellingly like Thomas’s poem, David would get us to listen out for tone of voice—a character’s, a narrator’s—and to respond to it as articulately as we could, without reducing it in the process. For David there was an ethics to reading literature, which was grounded in this question of a text’s address to the reader and the [End Page 479] reader’s response—something very like what Mikhail Bakhtin called otvetstvennost’, “answerability.”
As a teacher, David was always teasing out the underlying, deep-level thinking, at once ethical and aesthetic, that structured writers’ imagined worlds, fictional and/or autobiographical. His lectures on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in his wonderful modernism course showed how these novels were engaged in a complex “transvaluation” of their authors’ childhoods and native societies, even as they lyrically evoked them. I first encountered auto/biography studies in his Fourth Year Honours course on Australian autobiography, which featured the novels Johnno by David Malouf and The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow alongside more recognizable “autobiographies” as different (however) as Jill Ker Conway’s The Road to Coorain and Barbara Hanrahan’s The Scent of Eucalyptus. I had never studied autobiography before, and in four years I had managed to avoid Australian literature almost entirely. The course was a revelation, and it prompted me to embark on a PhD project on “language memoir,” in Alice Kaplan’s term, the touchstone text being Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation. I doubt a first quidditch ride could give a greater sense of élan than I experienced—thanks to David—encountering books by John Eakin, Sidonie Smith, Tom Couser, the journals Biography and a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, Margaretta Jolly’s Encyclopedia of Life Writing, and at IABA conferences, papers by the likes of Jay Prosser, Tim Dow Adams and Julie Rak. The spirit of mutual encouragement that pervaded IABA gatherings was deeply disarming; I could never quite get over the fact that key figures in the field like John Eakin and Susanna Egan were so warm and so open.
David was a remarkably dialogic supervisor; open-minded, intellectually generous, ready, if the case was presented strongly enough, to be convinced otherwise even on a long-held view. He was patient with and deftly defusing of student agonizing over writing (“the only bad draft is an unwritten one”); preternaturally discerning about when it was time to stop reading; eagle-eyed about what would count towards my argument, and what would not.
I know he was an equally enabling supervisor to many others at the ANU, in life writing notably Rosamund Dalziell and Susan Tridgell, both of whose work he valued highly and from each of whom he clearly felt he had learnt a great deal. With Ros he co-edited the important volume Shame and the Modern Self. With Susan he formed a vibrant ethics reading group open to postgraduates and lecturers, in which Winifred Lamb, Simon Haines, Sarah Bachelard, Andrew Gleeson, and...