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Clark, Axel (1943–2001)

by Livio Dobrez

Axel Clark, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1990

Axel Clark, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1990

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an11678176

Axel's old parodic humour, volume set on high, will no longer be heard in the corridors of the A. D. Hope building. Nor will the quieter voice of the failing man of recent years, commenting on enduring values ("Richardson's work does matter, doesn't it?") or on the decline of an education system dominated by market considerations ("You can't run a university for profit'').

Born of Manning and Dymphna Clark in the war years, Axel just lived to see the new millennium and long enough to make an enormous number of friends in very varied fields of life.

He emerged with an Honours degree in English from the University of Melbourne in 1965, was awarded an MA from the University of Sydney in 1971 and a PhD from the same University in 1979.

In 1980 he published his authoritative biography of Christopher Brennan, which resulted in an invitation to lecture on the subject to the Australian Literature class at the ANU.

By 1981 Axel was tutoring in the ANU Department of English. That lasted only into 1982, but by 1985 English made one of its memorably unanimous decisions and from 1986 Axel had a permanent Lectureship post, which became a Senior Lectureship in 1991. In the two decades of his association with the ANU, Axel worked for the Australian National Dictionary Project (characteristically absorbed in reading texts for their intrinsic interest when he should have been word-spotting).

His research focused on Henry Handel Richardson, generating a first volume of her biography in 1990 and a second in 2001.

This work nicely complements Dorothy Green's critical study, though it remains incomplete. Given Axel's long battle with his illness and his regular major operations, it is astonishing that any of this writing was carried out at all, not least the miraculous volume two, launched in Canberra weeks before Axel's death.

Axel will be remembered by scholars of Australian literature and missed by friends, colleagues and students, many of whom attended the celebration of his life following the funeral at St Stephen's, Newtown, a church which, as the Reverend Meadows pointed out (possibly overstating the case), Axel "seldom" attended. At St Stephen's I found myself facing a text which read "Behold I come quickly!". We had been waiting for Axel's end for many years, but when it came it did so suddenly, taking us all by surprise. English at the ANU won't be the same again. Our hearts go out to Alison Clark and the children, Anna, Solly and Tom, as well as to Axel's sister and brothers.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Livio Dobrez, 'Clark, Axel (1943–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 October 2020.

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