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.


Sylvia Lawson, 20 April 1989

Fervently hoping to be proved wrong, I think this marvellous book is all too likely to be denied the reception and the uses it deserves. Two things especially stand in its way: the celebrity status of the author, and the apparent transparency of her style, which might easily deceive you into believing the work a far less literary object than it is. And there are baying voices along its path; most current feminist writing is either highly academic and philosophically separatist, or else purplish commercial-confessional; on both registers, this specimen of personal history is decisively at odds, open, generous, crazily compendious as it is. There is another danger; I shall come to it later.


Sylvia Lawson, 24 November 1988

The book’s title mocks the author’s own position. It comes from a newspaper column of 1985 in which he attacked what he saw as ‘the retreat from politics’ into nihilistic spectatorship, and thus passivity. ‘Games with shadows and changing reflections threaten the citizen’s most elementary weapon of self-defence: memory.’ Acutely and characteristically, he links passivity to unemployment, and the argument moves off from the dubious ‘politics of spectacle’ into the world Ascherson so insistently dissects, the one in which most people are without power, where social participation is not a right but a privilege. But then, by using the phrase as title, he implicitly turns part of the attack on himself and his kind. This isn’t self-deprecation, rather a stubborn stoicism which seems to mean: take it or leave it, this is all I can do. It asks us to think about the apparent political impotence of mere writers and readers; if writing and reading are all we can do, we must either gamble on their validity or surrender.


Sylvia Lawson, 18 February 1988

Australia, n. A country lying in the South Sea, whose industrial and commercial development has been unspeakably retarded by an unfortunate dispute among geographers as to whether it is a continent or an island.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Stalemate beneath the dense sky of moratorium agreements: the best we can hope for Europe ... But there is no escape route in sight. You feel...



8 April 1993

I thank C.J.H. O’Brien (Letters, 8 July) for explaining the Australian electoral system to readers who didn’t know that in this country voting is compulsory. I didn’t use the space of my Sydney Diary for that information; I needed it to communicate the crucial issues of the March federal election to an audience which had been misled by sections of the British press into believing...

Humble Pie

3 December 1992

On Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, I wrote (LRB, 3 December 1992): ‘There’s an argument that her use of the Hegelian-Sartrean framework can be seen as something much more than the often-alleged discipleship; she took it up vigorously and inventively for her own polemic.’ ‘Argument’ was printed as ‘agreement’. There’s no agreement on the point at all. Some...

Cheer up, Clive

18 February 1988

SIR: I write first to correct a mis-statement of mine. Writing of Australians: A Historical Library (LRB, 18 February), I said that Aboriginal scholars had walked out of a planning conference in 1981; this came from seemingly reliable hearsay. But in fact they didn’t: there was a considerable argument on the writing of black Australian history, and they stayed for it. An all-Aboriginal volume...

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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