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Gideon Haigh on Doc Evatt

George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain is on face value about as far removed from the idiosyncratic brilliance of that tour de force Lincoln in the Bardo as could be imagined. It’s full of fiction, but not his, rather short stories of 19th century Russian Masters, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol. And Saunders shares with us the joy of teaching the art of fiction from his decades of teaching writing at Syracuse, using these stories to show how it’s done by the best. Apart from a chance to re-read some of the best short fiction written, the wonder of A Swim in the Pond is the forensic intelligence on show in Saunders’ exquisitely close reading of ‘the Masters’ at work. An intriguing look at how great works of literature might have been written.

I have been a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri since her brilliant Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer about twenty years ago. Her newest fiction, Whereabouts is a curious beast—an almost novella length series of vignettes through the eyes of an intensely internally focused narrator. We know little about her, other than that she is a University teacher in her 40s—not a lot of facts about her, or the people who pass through her life in these brief chapters. Lahiri is an exceptionally perceptive writer, and a background which has Indian heritage and a couple of decades in New England before her recent ‘settling’ in Italy gives her a deft and sure sense of outsider perspective. It gives her writing an originality, here sharpened by the startling fact that she has written in Italian, her third language, and then translated herself into English. That of itself doesn’t make it any more worth reading; in fact her rather abstract conjectures about the characters her narrator confronts in Whereabouts are what I found intensely interesting.  

On a different tack entirely, I’d recommend the latest offering of the brilliantly eclectic Gideon Haigh: The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent. There have been plenty of biographies of Evatt, but Haigh’s approach is a new one. He gives us a fascinating perspective on how our High Court, indeed how our legal system, operated in its first half century, through the activities of Evatt, its youngest ever appointee. He was a remarkable jurist, and Haigh’s attention to his ‘dissenting’ judgements give us a rich insight into Evatt’s extraordinary legal intelligence and breadth of understanding, The significance of his contribution to a genuine humanising of laws around negligence, for instance, can’t be overstated. The Brilliant Boy was a fascinating discovery for me.