My Country review: David Marr’s writing on Australia offers power and poetry

​My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches
​David Marr
​Black Inc., $48

Australia really isn't itself just yet.

For almost half a century as journalist, writer, biographer and public intellectual, David Marr has been watching, noting and writing. Credit:Sahlan Hayes/Fairfax Media

It's a young and forming culture, at once unknown and yet knowable, a thing in the process of creation that in its modern form is still a volume slim enough to enable a close study. It's ancient too: older than time. Both old and becoming. Written and still scratching on the page. The story of Australia is incomplete.

The post-colonial chapters of that tale are a strange combination of awkward anxiety and overconfidence. Our past haunts us, with its lingering motifs of race and racism. Our present is too often sketchily drawn.

Marr’s writing is capable of embracing all manner of subject, tone and style.Credit:[email protected]

Perhaps it's a transitional thing; a growing pain in our long national adolescence. And who knows, one day we might master a sense of national self that doesn't draw its core certainties from jingoistic politicised fabrications and denial of the simple facts of history.

Not yet, though, which makes a clear-eyed study of our times so important: it's hard to imagine that we can truly be ourselves until we more completely know ourselves.

As David Marr wrote in 1997 for The Sydney Morning Herald: "Racism is so subtle that no white Australian can really claim to be untouched by that mix of shame, boredom and fear that has marked white response to black from the start. When we read of terrible things done to Aborigines now and in the past, we try to claim that this was the work of others and in other times. It doesn't work."

For almost half a century as journalist, writer, biographer and public intellectual, Marr has been watching, noting and writing. The summary of this continuing life's work, bound in the 561 pages of My Country, holds an Australian era to the light. It stirs reverie, recognition, anger, joy and awe.

This is a book of power and poetry, an essential documenting of this place and of the people, the ideas, the political and cultural transactions in it.

The scope is broad, a full sweep of time and personality: from Ben Chifley to Malcolm Turnbull, Harry Seidler to Patrick White, race to queer theory. It's significant that these accounts should be gathered: a comprehensive view delivered into a moment too often lost in the constant forgetting of a perpetual present.

We despair of our politics, but reading Marr on the John Howard years recalls the early stages of that decline.

"Of all the gambits used to bully public debate in Howard's Australia, the most effective has been this false model of democracy as a perpetual popularity contest," Marr told the Overland Lecture audience in September 2004, and there's ample evidence of how Howard reshaped the game in Australian politics, with a particular gimlet genius: Howard, Marr decides, had the cold audacity to see Australians not in the way that they like to see themselves, but for what they truly are.

We know all this, we lived through it, and yet it's only in works such as this collected by Marr that we glimpse our totality from the sum of parts. As he points out: "We haven't been hoodwinked. Each step along the way has been reported – perhaps not as thoroughly and passionately as it should have been, but we're not dealing with dark secrets here. We've known what's going on. If we cared, we didn't care enough to stop it."

This book is not all politics of course.

Marr's great gift is the breadth of his interests and cultural understanding. He knows the shaping influence of the literary imagination and treasures the likes of David Malouf and, of course, Patrick White; writers whose words, as much as the grasping platitudes of political actors, shape the deeper corners of the national soul.

Perhaps the most lingeringly beautiful piece in this collection is the essay Patrick White: The Final Chapter, work done for The Monthly in early 2008. The essay begins with the death of White's long-term partner, Manoly Lascaris, winds back to White's own passing, rummages through his papers, reflects on his genius, before fetching up with the late Lascaris. No description of it could do the structural delicacy and rhythm of this essay justice. It is a masterful work.

And that is what shines through in My Country: Marr is an exceptional writer, one capable of embracing all manner of subject, tone and style while exercising a writerly voice at once varied and recognisable, one able to present all the genuine emotional and tonal inflections of speech. It may range from outrage, to jubilation, to sober consideration, to the constrained disciplines of reportage, but it is recognisably drawn from the one heart, mind and pen. That is a consummate authorial skill.

For all its parading of our faults and foibles, this is an optimistic work. "Here is a last truth about this place," Marr writes in the happy wake of the same-sex marriage vote, "we always come good in the end."

Jonathan Green is the editor of Meanjin.

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