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andrew riemer : between the fish and the mudcake


It was more than a bit of a challenge when I was requested to write  a review of a book written by an eminent and esteemed critic, academic, best selling author and a person who is the Sydney Morning Herald chief book reviewer. The gentleman is Andrew Riemer, the book Between The Fish and The Mudcake.

In his book, Riemer reminiscences about well known literary figures; there are food references and destinations mentioned. It is part memoir, history lesson, political piece, travelogue and social commentary.

Between the Fish and the Mudcake begins by discussing Patrick White whom he meets at a dinner party in Sydney in 1966 and who undergoes Riemer’s astute character observations  and analysis of his personality. “We see him driven into precisely the taciturn hostility, thinly disguised beneath a veneer of politeness…”

Riemer continues, “ Patrick White had huge imaginative capacities, (he was) an eccentric and a visionary…” He also writes about “White’s cosmopolitan sensibility and about the bonds that tied him firmly to the great traditions of the European novel- Dostoyesvsky, Tolstoy and Thomas Mann…like those great writers he was tormented by the paradox of human life, how he recognised the terrible but also beautiful ambiguity at the heart of each of us.”

Reimer writes that White was, “anxious too, to register his capacity to hate, as is evident in his acid portraits of the smug, the self-satisfied, the hypocritical and the devious.”

Moving forward some ten years later to Bayreuth at a Richard Wagner festival, Riemer writes that he felt that the  hugely anti-semitic composer had “evil at the heart of his music.”

Riemer waxes lyrical at a Shakespeare conference whilst visiting Stratford Upon Avon, “The rhythms of the seasons, the flowers blooming in fields and gardens, the birds circling in the summer sky, or the patterns of frost on bare winter branches, the remnants of ancient folklore, still living forces in hamlets and villages, the rituals of fairs and taverns…were signs of a living Shakespeare.”

Georges Perec was an “author of ingenious language games and puzzles” who Riemer was intrigued by.  Perec is best known for his book Life A User’s Manual. Coincidences happened  in Paris and Riemer felt a strong connection to Perec in terms of their shared, troubled past.

In 1993 Reimer visited Ballarat on a writer’s tour and at a literary dinner he observed that the organisers showed a “dedication or perhaps obsession in what they were doing.”

Recounting his observations whilst travelling is a recurrent theme in the book. Whilst in Prague Riemer observes people from the vantage point of cafes.  In Budapest at a pub he writes that the Irish stew was served with paprika.

Riemer writes about the totalitarian ideology and the work of Hungarian writer- Peter Nadas. Riemer writes that , “The notion of the individual disappears, as indeed does the possibility of self knowledge. Not only do you have constantly to show a masked face to the world-your own self image is masked, obscured, you live out a lie…”

Rieimer’s writing is definitely fuel for the mind. Between The Fish and The Mudcake is published by Allen and Unwin.


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