Apart from being an
the Phil Leask’s novel Olhovsky,
, there are two other reasons why I am here
One is to pay homage to Black Pepper Press - essentially Gail
and Kevin Pearson - a small publisher described by the Herald Sun
one of Australia’s boldest publishers - and a publisher who
approaching its tenth birthday. They have so far published over forty
books including twelve novels.
May they prosper.
The third reason is to do what I can to help a novel avoid the
oblivion that befalls so many novels these days.
We all know that it is a waste of time to ask an author how many
of their book have sold; or how many hours a day they work; or how far
Until this year the best-seller figures in the newspapers were
unreliable and still are not entirely accurate. I will say something
more about that later on.
The figures showed that there were about 200 Australian novels
published this year (plus about 600 overseas novels). You might be
interested in how poetry is going.
The Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry attracted 84 volumes
this year. Again, more than a book of poetry published a week. Praise
the Lord, for we are a poetical nation. Black Pepper runs a strong
That is, the number of novels published has nearly doubled in ten
The new writers are struggling to find any audience to speak to or
offered a bookshop ‘event,’ let alone to find their
The new writers are also struggling to find review space.
I went back to look at the review space that the two national
outlets The Bulletin
and The Australian
gave to books in
1969 (the year
I published my first book).
It is the same amount of space as it is today although the reviews
seemed longer back then.
That is, despite the growth in publishing, review space has not
increased. It has, relative to books published, diminished. Though
there is an impression in the publishing industry that more news space
is given to books - author profiles - if they can
‘make’ news of them.
Novels do not lend themselves to news making.
But perhaps the media are realising that books are
Reviews of course, are also intellectual news. The nonsense we
from some newspaper executives suggesting that reviews don’t
enough advertising to justify more space is a bit like saying that
crime doesn’t bring in any advertising, therefore we are
the coverage of court cases.
Then there is the pressure on bookshops.
Roughly fifty percent of the books you see on display in a
will not sell a copy in that shop. They may sell in other shops and
But in most shops most books are window dressing.
There are more than 9,000 titles on sale in shops at any given
from this year, and for the first time, 5,000 of these are being
tracked by a computerised service called ‘BookTrack
Australia’ owned by
AC Nielsen and Whitaker.
But the pressure in bookshops to accommodate 9,000 titles is
tremendous. It results in short shelf live and a fast turnover of books
on the shelves. This results in less time for browsing and for
word-of-mouth to have an impact.
One of the answers seems for the book sellers to go in two
directions - for there to be more specialised bookshops and bookshops
finely tuned to a readership on one hand and larger mega-stores and
chains such as the American company Borders.
These chains in the UK and US now offer a range of services from
restaurants, bars, music, events, email service, and a huge range of
According to one survey I have read in Atlantic Monthly, and my
experience in the UK and in Washington in the US, these chains are
often very sophisticated in the range of titles they offer and the
level of training of their staff.
They stay open at weekends and late at night and become something
intellectual and social centres. They do not just sell cookbooks and
Now we are all apprehensive about these mega stores.
I am not as frightened of them as I once was but they have
reserved power in terms of display, copies purchased and the stocking
An American writer on a recent trip to the Barnes & Noble
Astor Place, in New York City, did some mental measuring of the
shelving and what it contained. There were, he estimated, approximately
189 feet of biography, 196 feet of philosophy, 168 feet of poetry
‘It’s the most democratic forum, the most
ideas imaginable,’ the historian David McCullough has said.
civilisation has had anything like what we have now.’
Our small independent bookshops are also now an important part of
intellectual life of this country with many organising their events
with authors, publishing newsletters, and running websites.
I also believe - romantically perhaps - that we need to keep
book writing as a vocation. Sure, many good and important books are
written by people who have other jobs. But many of these would prefer
to work solely at book writing and it would be better for us if they
The western societies have believed for centuries that it is
for the culture to have a band of writers unattached to institutions,
independent of the control of the state, and able to command resources
to do their work.
It is not only that we need a band of independent writers but the
in generally represent an independent free speaking and inquiring part
of society - an uninstitutionalised part - separate from the
universities and from the media organisations.
Connected with this idea of a band of independent writers, is the
century notion of art for art’s sake.
Perhaps art for art’s sake is the imaginative equivalent of
science. That is to follow scientific inquiry wherever it may lead.
So with the notion of a clericature of writing, to write what ever
is the spirit dictates to go with the imagination wherever it might
Our literary tradition has maintained that the writer determines
subject and pursues it in his or her own way to the natural conclusion
of the inquiry or the imaginative journey.
They may not even accept the marketplace or book sales, as the
of the success of their mission. And nor does the society. All sorts of
ways – prizes, patronage - have been found to supplement the
place. These supplements are now very much stressed and under resourced.
It is with appropriate readership (not size of readership) which
tradition of writing seeks. And of course, some books remain as a
valued part of the reading life of the society and ultimately go on,
over say a lifetime, to outsell the sometimes ephemeral best-sellers of
Literary authorship is characterised by a special orientation, or
length to the society - different from that of say, journalists or
Literature claims immunity both in expression and conduct because
has the wide ranging role of exploration of the human condition.
The Western literary tradition is sophisticated and is concerned
brilliance and artistry in communication - that is, the use of the
power of language with appropriateness and precision and in a
compelling and entrancing way; it is audacious, not frightened of the
dark places; and uses all the tools of experience in its imaginative
So it has a sense and tradition of serving a higher authority than
laws of the state - say, censorship or defamation.
Censorship is returning to this land. As Brecht said of fascism
bitch is on heat again.’ Unfair to dogs. Unfair to bitches.
Because of the Ken Park banning and the actions of the Jewish
in Victoria to suppress a film at the Underground Film Festival - I was
looking at the writers who have been censored in this country
The following are only some of the writers who have been banned in
Australia because of their perceived threat to society: James Joyce,
D.H.Lawrence, Zola, Maupassant, Balzac, Defoe, Colette, Norman Lindsay,
Aldous Huxley, John Dos Passos, Hermann Broch, Erskine Caldwell,
Radclyffe Hall, J.D. Salinger (Catcher
in the Rye
), Celine, Henry
Miller, Bernard Shaw, Eric Remarque, Johnathon Swift, Max Harris,
Brendan Behan, Walt Whitman, Phillip Roth, Alex Buzo, Frank Hardy,
Frank Moorhouse, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Ian Fleming, John Steinbeck
and Ernest Hemingway.
It is worth recalling that many of these writers were banned in
Australia within the last fifty years.
If you don’t believe the much list check the much longer list
Coleman’s key work Obscenity,
Blasphemy, Sedition: Censorship in
It is hard sometimes not to see the return of censorship as part
wider creep of authoritarism in this country, spawned from the fear and
insecurity of terrorism, but also by political parties which are also
by instinct authoritarian and restrictive, closed and moralistic.
I have in mind interference with the net, the ASIO legislation
especially as it was originally conceived, the strangling of the ABC
and so on.
Australia sadly in its history through most parts of society and
the political parties is instinctively authoritarian kept in check only
by a vigorous intelligentsia. It is again time for us to vigorous in
protecting freedom expression.
Olhovsky, Prince Of
This is Phil Leask’s third novel. The other two were By Way of Water
and The Slow Death of
Phil was born in Brisbane in 1947 and studied at the Universities
Queensland, Tasmania, and Sussex.
He works in urban regeneration in London where he lives.
This is an hypnotic novel set among weird bohemia of contemporary
The narrator Michael is a poet separated from his English wife and
living in Hamburg - he meets Olhovsky of uncertain antecedents and
uncertain personality and is beguiled by him as are others in the novel.
There is a degree of sexual ambiguity in Olhovsky as well which is
I will read a section. This is Olhovsky and Michael, the narrator,
describes him: ‘I look at him with his long black hair and
haunting face and sensual lips. His slim hips and slender legs. I
shudder to see him, I do not say what is clear to me: you are lucky to
be alive Olhovsky... you are lucky you weren’t strangled at
beaten to death by the Mafia in Palazzo...’
And there is Esmerelda almost a female twin of Olhovsky, who also
bewitches the narrator.
Phil Leask’s novel has the same urgent yet languorous
Lawrence Durrell’s Justine
book we all loved and which somehow
influenced us all.
The Indian doctor Urmila. And through their love affairs and life,
Olhovksy weaves his strange sensuality.
I want to read another passage which gives you a taste of the
sensibility of the Phil Leask and the power of his writing. Olhovsky is
telling a story from when he was ten in Odessa. Olhovsky says:
‘In the middle of the meal, the waitress leant over and
hair back off his damp forehead. She smiled into his face. He remembers
staring down the front of her dress with his face almost sinking into
the soft whiteness of her breasts below the redness of her neck. He
could not believe how it made him feel, He could not understand it at
all. And yet he did somehow... His mother and grandmother did not seem
to notice. They were old, their lives were over. They saw nothing, they
cared about no one, they always did the right thing. This , he knew,
might not be the right thing.’
This is a novel deserving of attention.
To quote Arthur Miller’s Death
, ‘Attention must be paid.’
And we launch the wonderful work which is this novel into the
seas of contemporary world, may it discharge its rich cargo in many
As its first reviewer Catherine Ford said in The Age
beautifully poetically strange...’
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author and poet) [Melbourne launch]
The first impression of reading Olhovsky,
Prince of Hamburg
is that it’s a novel about a city, Hamburg. There’s
tradition in European literature particularly of writing about or
encapsulating cities. ...Phil Leask has set himself an enormous
challenge in this book because it’s set in winter in Hamburg
it is also a romantic novel in many ways... But to have a novel which
is entirely set in winter - in a city which I have been to in winter -
there are various shades of grey, and the occasional blue, and what
Phil manages to do is to bring out enormous tonality in the greys and
it is almost a poeticisation of a city which is snow, white, grey,
grey, grey, white, and I think that is quite an achievement...
...In a way you have a cosmopolitan city which was razed in a firestorm
as big as Dresden, now a cosmopolitan meeting point for five
characters. These are all fairly alienated characters but they are
prone to idealisations whether as artists or as people. Olhovsky
himself idealises fatally, in the novel, an Indian woman, and Michael,
the narrator, idealises Olhovsky, though not so fatally, I think. These
idealisations fit into a very romantic view of art - Michael the poet,
perhaps less so the German sculptor, Kerstin, embrace suffering and
art. There’s a yearning, particularly for Michael, the
poet, to be free as an artist and there’s a sense that art is
refuge from life, and this whole idealisation - romantic yearning - is
nicely contrasted with the coldness, the greyness and the hardness, if
not the brutality, of Hamburg in winter, and the Elbe river
takes on romantic overtones at times, at other times it becomes like
Michael, the central character, cannot express love, and
a kind of masochistic streak to that. He says at one stage that
kindness terrifies him. He, as a romantic artist in many ways, tends to
use life as raw material for his art, whereas Olhovsky tends to use
life as raw material for his own life.
Now there are a number of journeys in this novel which I think are very
important. The first is that Michael, who is thoroughly alienated at
the start of the novel and through most of the novel, reaches a state
of lesser alienation - a kind of a stoic stance in the end - and
achieves some kind of fullness.
Olhovsky is a sort of villain figure, he’s the opposite to
artists and there are overtones of The Solid Mandala in this book,
where you have the artist on one hand - the cerebral figure of Michael
- and you have Olhovsky who in another sense is the intuitive operator
who has no awareness of anyone else and their feelings apart from
himself. He finally in the novel escapes from Hamburg to roam
around the world like a Flying Dutchman but he does get his comeuppance
a bit and perhaps there is some journey in his character as well. ...
This novel will give a lot of pleasure... I think it is beautifully
written and the prose transcends the difficult task that Phil has set
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