Sylvia Lawson

Sylvia Lawson is the author of How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia.

The headline news around the South-East Asian crescent after last month’s Australian Federal Election was ‘Hanson Loses Seat.’ For the South China Morning Post, the Straits Time and the Nation in Bangkok, it seemed that Pauline Hanson, the red-haired maverick of the populist Right, was all that mattered about Australia. Ratih Hardjono, who works from Melbourne for Jakarta’s daily Kompas, led with John Howard’s win and the election-night speech in which he promised, hand on heart, a new commitment to Aboriginal reconciliation. Hardjono also wanted Indonesians to learn something about the democratic process from Australia: compulsory voting, the distribution of preferences to candidates who get less than 50 per cent of the primary vote, the hectic dramas of late-night scrutineering. Like David Malouf, who has spoken of Australian election days as unacknowledged national carnivals, Hardjono enjoys them hugely. Better than most in early October, she also knew that there’s worse than Pauline Hanson.

Diary: In Sydney

Sylvia Lawson, 8 April 1993

In Manufacturing Consent, the brilliant Canadian documentary about Noam Chomsky and the American media, one troubled citizen asks the literal hero whether he thinks there might come a day when ‘we could again be proud of our country’. He answers: ‘It depends what you mean by your country.’ Quite. No nationalist, I am tempted today to feel proud of my country; but by that I mean the 50-plus per cent of it which, on 13 March, delivered a magnificently thunderous No to the Thatcher-Reaganite dinosaurs and voted to hang on to what we’ve got of social democracy.

All in the Family

Sylvia Lawson, 3 December 1992

On these two sacred monsters, the tally of evidence is still incomplete: there’s another volume of the translation of Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres to come, and Quintin Hoare has translated only two-thirds of the Lettres à Sartre. But you could already tabulate the chronologies into a glorious, full-colour-coded spreadsheet jigsaw, mapping the stories from the Sartre biographies (Annie Cohen-Solal, John Gerassi, Ronald Hayman) over those from the Beauvoir biographies (Deirdre Bair – very much the best; Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, Margaret Crosland). Check those against the crucial four volumes of Beauvoir’s memoirs, those translated as The Prime of Life, Force of Circumstance, All Said and Done and Adieux: A farewell to Sartre. Crosscheck against the documentary scripts, the recorded conversations and these letters, not forgetting to decode the pseudonyms in Lettres au Castor – here the surname Kosakiewicz becomes ‘Zazoulich’, ‘Tania’ means Wanda, ‘Louise Vedrine’ the turbulent Bianca Bienenfeld. Some foundation or other will undoubtedly fund further research into the files of Les Temps modernes and the Ohio State Nelson Algren archive.’

Bags and Iron

Sylvia Lawson, 15 August 1991

Gossip makes the world go round, and we always want the stories of the gods. So biography prospers, and whatever’s between its covers, the big one is always a glossy commodity, further upmarket than most fiction. The hype for this one was noisy and predictable: excerpts, interviews and even reviews focusing on homosexual love-lives, Patrick White’s awful temper, and the detective-biographer’s own gripping adventures getting hold of 2500 letters. A magazine cover shows the author, companion and dog arranged in a pastoral trio in the Fifties. Towards an Australian Bloomsbury? There has to be more going on. It’s not enough to confirm the greatness of greatness; we want to know our business with the dead.

Sickness and Salvation

Sylvia Lawson, 31 August 1989

Each of these polemical books considers health and illness in recent Western history. Each moves in to large areas of disputation and advertisement, involving sections of the medical and paramedical professions, the academy and the media, with populations of patients, families, commentators and consumers. Each is launched against beliefs and ways of speaking seen to be retrograde and damaging; each communicates a broadly progressive politics and brings to bear long-developed skills in argument and writing. Their concerns intersect; at several points, the arguments are similar.

Bullshit and Beyond

Clive James, 18 February 1988

In its short history, Australia has weathered several storms. By world standards they were minor, but at home they loomed large. The First World War was a rude awakening; the Great Depression hit...

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