In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

June 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, May 31, 2017
The gossip and myth surrounding Heide, in Melbourne, belie its true significance in the Australian modern art scene. It’s true, it was a hotbed of passions and betrayals, and the setting of a famous, and still surprising, ménage à trois, but it was always far more than the sum of its parts. Modern Love: The Lives of John and Sunday Reed by Kendrah Morgan and Lesley Harding is a thorough and compelling account of the lives of both the Reeds, and the life they led with many of Australia’s most influential artists. They disliked being known as benefactors, but they were extremely generous—with a more or less open cheque book policy for many of their friends. On more than one occasion they bought a house for a friend in need. They collected modern art avidly, and yet they lived in an environment that harked back to another time. From this distance it seems like a rural, artistic idyll, and yet we all know there’s no such thing in real life. Well, there might be, but Heide could clearly be as fraught as anywhere. There is the most tremendous sense of loss in their story—both of the Reeds seemed shattered when Sunday’s lover, Sidney Nolan, flew the nest—and much ugliness followed, partly regarding the ownership of paintings. Sunday never really recovered from the break with Nolan, and despite living a full life for many more decades, it was tinged with sadness. Modern Love could be seen as a cautionary tale, many tragedies took place within and without Heide, but the authors have suspended judgement, and have created a vivid story about two forward thinkers, who both lived in the way they wanted and created a beautiful legacy.

Loss is a central theme in Colm Tóibín’s brilliant new book, The House of Names. Set in ancient Greece, he bases his new novel on the legend of Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, mother of the doomed Iphigenia, prickly Electra, and Orestes, her only son. It’s a slim book, almost compressed in size, and yet broad in narrative—it spans several decades, across a wide kingdom, redolent with many unthinkable cruelties and betrayals. The murderous Clytemnestra achieves revenge, when her husband has just one leg in the bathtub, and she in turn is part of Orestes’ revenge, and so it goes. The eponymous house of names, is somewhere on the lonely, war ravaged coast, where Orestes and his friends Mitros and Leander take refuge after they run away after they are captured. It offers a pleasant respite for both the boys, and the reader, from the murderous adults in the palace, and it is the place where their friendship is formed. Despite Colm Tóibín’s calm, plain-speaking language, he has created another book full of extraordinary detail, deep mystery and recognisable humanity—Leander leans against a wall in the corridor (and there are many of those) while he listens to Orestes speak, the shade of Clytemnestra hears the muffled beating of swan feathers when she recalls her own mother (Leda)—these are the evocative images that make this book so very appealing. Louise

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