Shorter Lives cover

Shortlist year: 2021

Shortlist category: Poetry

Published by: Puncher & Wattmann


John A. Scott's Shorter Lives burrows below the received biographies of seven Modernist artists/writers to disinter the various secrets that arguably underpin, explain and give force to their work. Employing a blend of innovative sonnet-sequences and prose poems these new 'histories' break from existing biographies, offering alternative facts and believable untruths, to become a probing of Modernity itself. 'While brilliant throughout, Scott is at his best when considering the depravities and excesses of the male artistic ego, and the corresponding traumas it inflicts on the lives of the female artists, writers and muses within its orbit.' (Sarah Holland-Batt, Weekend Australian).

About the author

 John A Scott

John A Scott

John A. Scott's works have been translated and published internationally. He has won the Victorian Premier's Prize for both poetry 'St Clair: Three Narratives' and fiction 'What I Have Written'. His numerous shortlistings include the Miles Franklin Award for both 'Before I Wake' (1997), and 'The Architect' (2002). Scott won the 2013 Peter Porter Poetry Prize; and his prose poem, 'Picasso' (which forms part of 'Shorter Lives'), received the 2014 David Harold Tribe Award. His major experimental novel, 'N', (2020) was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Prize and was one of The Guardian's Books of the Year.

Judges’ comments

In this highly original and extraordinary book, Scott explores the bizarre lives of some of the pivotal figures of early modernism in literature and art, such as Rimbaud, Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), Mina Loy, André Breton, Picasso. We do not expect poetry on the epic scale which Scott employs here in long bursts of language which become highly expressive, because of their epic quality. Although epic, not a word is wasted. Scott is always detached and in control, and his language sharp, but the emotion is at times overwhelming. He alternates between passages of prose poetry and 14-line unrhymed stanzas to propel his narratives forward. He uniquely selects a small coruscating detail to illuminate an entire, usually tragic, life. Mina Loy starts out as the young beautiful sex-priestess of the Futurists. By the end of her life, she is silly, garrulous, loveable, the ageing coquette. Most of the lives are factual. Only André Breton in Melbourne in 1942 is a hilarious and sublime counter-factual which lifts off the page in an amazing flight of fantasy. The grimmest life is Picasso's, a terrible #MeToo story of abusing women, which begins with his uncle breathing cigar smoke into the newborn Picasso, and ends with Picasso dying, having shrunk into a 'brown wrinkled manikin drowsy in his cot', as Don Salvador's smoke is finally expelled.