At the moment I’m working on the 2018 bibliography of Australian literature for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature with my co-authors Van Ikin and Margaret Stevenson (previous year’s here – but alas it’s paywalled). It has led me to discover some Australian literary biographies I missed, including four from Australian Scholarly Publishing. Together with Monash University Publishing, they are holding up the genre! Generously defined, there were eight Australian literary biographies in 2018 by my count – up from previous years. I feel very remiss for having only read one so far. Continue reading
What a character Kylie Tennant was. Her strength and distinctiveness leap out from the pages of Jane Grant’s biography, right from the opening where she walks 500 miles at age twenty during the Depression to visit her university friend Lewis Rodd. Impulsively, they marry. Continue reading
I’ve just finished reading Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), a novel still fresh and intriguing 114 years later. It covers a few years in the life of Sybylla, a determined young woman trying to break free of the restraints of poverty and the expectations of marriage in rural New South Wales during the drought of the 1890s . Jill Roe writes, “It was undoubtedly the literary event of 1901, the only significant Australian novel in the year of Federation; and by now it is more or less recognised that in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, feminism and nationalism went together as radical forces.” (Stella Miles Franklin, epub edn, 133) Continue reading
Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Other times, she is a ghost in all the things I read: I know the people I’m reading about knew her. I know that if the “camera” panned just a little to the left or a little to the right, or if it moved back to take in the whole scene, Alice would be there.
Before I started writing a biography, I wrote a novel about biographers. (It’s how I do things – I imagine them, and then I become them.) I’m revising it at the moment, and I added those sentences to it the other day. I’m reminded of them reading Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson. Hilda was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best friend; they lived next door to each other as children. The few surviving letters between them show an intimate friendship. Katharine is not exactly a ghost in this dual biography of Hilda and her first husband, Louis; rather, she is one of the major characters. But, naturally, she is out of focus. She is there to help us understand Louis and Hilda better. And I’m so glad for the existence of this and other works evoking the same world Katharine was moving through. Continue reading
Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North has immense scope. Perhaps some readers will avoid it, thinking it a war novel, but it is actually a novel about all of life. At its centre – literally and metaphorically – is a lengthy account of the characters’ lives and deaths on the Burma Railway during World War Two, but it extends before and after that period to show the full impact of war. One of its significant achievements is to show how living and dying in a prisoner of war camp is an intensification of the drives and dilemmas all of us live with.
Appropriately, in telling of torture, starvation and cruelty, it’s a brutal novel. The novel’s brutality means it earns its kindnesses and moments of love so much more than other novels. One particular scene shines with love, and that is the generous hospitality of the Greek fish and chip shop owner; to describe it would give too much away, when I do hope you read it. In the world of this novel, it’s these moments of light which are the best one can hope for in life.
Despite its brutality, it’s also a novel of compassion, and an important source of this are the convincing chapters from the point of view of Japanese officers and a Korean guard who were overseeing the camp. Flanagan performs a remarkable feat of empathy to make their worldview and behaviour explicable, to give us a sense of what it might have been like to have been inside their minds, and in this to re-humanise them and remind us that we may not have been as heroic as we think in the same circumstances.
It is a narrative unusually driven by co-incidence. I think it works; it reinforces the novel’s random universe. While the co-incidences often drive the plot forward, it’s not in a convenient way. Instead, the co-incidences make the characters think there must be some meaning when there is not. Dorrigo happens to run into Amy in the bookshop, before he knows that she’s the new wife of his uncle. It helps draw them into an affair this time, but the next time he runs into her by chance, giving an opportunity to resolve so much, nothing is resolved. Instead, the cruelty of life is reinforced.
It’s a powerful novel, and I found it compulsive, if not brilliant. Why do I feel it falls short of brilliance? Perhaps it takes on more than it can accomplish in its length, and its attempt to convey the whole course of so many characters’ lives means none of them are conveyed fully enough. Even with Dorrigo Evans, I felt I was only beginning to see him fully painted when the novel ended. But that’s an initial judgement – I may need to let the dust settle on this one.
I’ve come late to Kate Grenville’s acclaimed 2006 novel, The Secret River, but just ahead of the renewed attention which will accompany the screening of ABC’s two-part mini-series adaptation next year.
William Thornhill, the protagonist, struggles in grinding poverty in the London at the turn of the nineteenth century, working as a boatman on the Thames and sometimes stealing cargo to make ends meet. Transported as a convict to New South Wales with his wife Sal, he gains his freedom and carves out a new life, obsessed with owning and cultivating his own patch of land on the Hawkesbury River. His desire for that land contends against Sal’s competing desire to return to England and the presence of the Aborigines, semi-dispossessed, but refusing to leave. The logic of plot demands that if he is to get what he wants, he must pay a price. The tension with the Aborigines culminates in a massacre by the whites of the men, women and children of the Aboriginal camp. One white pays with his life, but the price for Thornhill is different. His price is the nagging guilt he must live with for the rest of his life, and the loss of relationship with his son, his old friend, and the surviving Aborigine he once had an uneasy understanding with. He becomes a rich, successful man in the aftermath of the massacre and builds a great house over the cave paintings. “Sometimes, sitting in the parlour in the red velvet armchair, Thornhill thought of it underneath him, clear and sharp on the rock. He knew it was there, and his children might remember, but his children’s children would walk about on the floorboards and never know what was beneath their feet.” (316)
Of course, the irony is that even though his children’s children became good at forgetting, we who are several more generations down the line are finally remembering the price, the secret history of our colonisation, our acts of dispossessing and murder. The Secret River is a very intentional act of remembering, or imagining where there are gaps in memory. It made me see colonisation in a newly vivid light, no longer in abstractions or statistics. It is a worthy, important novel for that reason, but perhaps it’s also part of what prevents it from being a masterpiece, it being too consciously a moral novel, constrained by what it is trying to say.
Some miscellaneous thoughts:
- The early section in London had me feeling the desired sympathy for the terrible of the working class in that time; but later a nagging question as to whether it was as unrelentingly impossible for most people as that – in this case, there are a Dickensian number of tragedies which befall them.
- A compelling aspect of the novel is the way the Thornhills, having been oppressed, seize the opportunity to become oppressors, lording it over convict labourers and, ultimately, being willing to kill Aborigines.
- There are patches of startling, beautiful prose, and yet only patches; from (my hazy, nine-year old) memory her earlier novel Idea of Perfection, was more consistently beautifully written.
- The showdown between Sal’s desire to return to London and Thornhill’s desire to stay is built up expertly, yet its resolution is unconvincing. She just drops it, in the end, after hearing the Aborigines “won’t be a problem” any longer – yet the presence of Aborigines wasn’t the driving force.
The Roaring Nineties (1946) is the first volume of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s magnum opus, her goldfields trilogy. She spent a decade on the trilogy, regarding it as her finest achievement, and was deeply hurt by the mixed reception she received from critics (especially for the third volume, Winged Seeds). The trilogy is an epic telling the story of the Western Australian goldfields from the discovery of gold and spanning the decades which followed.
The novel is haunted by the presence of displaced and mistreated Aborigines, and begins with a short, violent story of an abduction of two Aboriginal women by prospectors before gold had even been discovered. It is Prichard at her finest, writing in spare and evocative prose. It is a remarkable reorientation of her novel, throwing off-balance this story of whites and their gold; today it would almost be expected, but in 1946 it shows historical insight ahead of its time. From here, the novel tells of the initial gold rush in the 1890s and the establishment of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie Boulder. Prichard brings the dust, tents, excitement, and desperation alive in a way that historical studies cannot do. She researched this novel thoroughly and it shows; sometimes to the detriment of narrative, but mostly to help her create an authentic story. The historical background is never far from the story, forming a spine which moves the story along through a series of incidents, with a large cast of characters moving on and off the stage. It is Sally Gough who is closest to a protagonist, as she makes a living running a boarding house to compensate for her ineffectual aristocratic gambler of a husband, Morrie. The struggle between them is an ongoing aspect of the plot, as he gradually accepts her egalitarian ethos, both in class and gender terms. Sally’s insistence that she and Morrie should not elevate themselves above the others contrasts with Alf and Laura’s move up the class rankings, as mining becomes commercialised and Alf betrays his prospector roots to become a mine manager. The class struggle of the alluvial prospectors against the mining companies and the political establishment occupies much of the last third of book, and is the least engaging, often losing sight of the characters.
The novel is, rather loosely, a frame narrative, with the whole novel presented as the yarns of prospector Dinny Quinn about the early days of the goldfields. This device is used frequently in the early chapters, peters out, and is then revived toward the end of the book. Dinny is rarely central to the action, more an observer who knows all the characters.
Having read about some of the reception history of The Roaring Nineties, and the critical preoccupation of the time with rating it against and comparing it with her earlier work, what surprised me most about the novel is how very typically Prichardian it is. This novel has elements of almost all of her previous novels; it seems far less of a departure than Coonardoo or Intimate Strangers were. The foundation and growth of a community echoes The Pioneers. The depiction of the prospectors with their strong code of ethics (such as “roll ups” where disputes are settled) and their struggle against big companies is similar to the concerns of Black Opal. The mistreatment of Aboriginal women as temporary sexual partners brings Coonardoo to mind. The struggle of Sally Gough for her right to earn money and define herself apart from her husband echoes Haxby’s Circus and Intimate Strangers.
Tracy Ryan Claustrophobia (Transit Lounge, 2014)
My friend Tracy Ryan’s new novel, Claustrophobia, was published recently by Transit Lounge. Set in Perth, it’s a literary thriller about a woman’s obsession with her husband, Derrick’s ex-lover, Kathleen. The claustrophobia of the title is an apt description of the feel of the novel. We’re constrained within the narrative viewpoint of Pen and her narrow, obsessive world. Her marriage is claustrophobic, too, the jealousies and social isolation fueling her behavior. The clichés in which Pen talks and coats her world hint at a darker side constrained within, and it’s this side of her which is gradually revealed.
Pacing is important to the thriller, and in this novel it’s just right, building up tension slowly and, for the reader, unbearably, knowing something must break. The plot opens with an inciting incident of Pen uncovering an undelivered letter from Derrick to Kathleen, and deciding to open it and read it. From here, this initial decision to keep a secret in her marriage in retaliation snowballs expertly with each chapter.
I’m left at the end unsure of how to judge the characters; this ambiguity is probably part of the novel’s psychological accomplishment. Pen is an unsettling protagonist to live with for 240 pages. The positive spin on her provided by one of the other characters is that she’s intelligent and passionate, but crippled by low self-esteem. Yet as with people in real life, the characters around her don’t know the level of neurosis and obsession percolating behind her façade. Derrick, her husband, truly is too controlling, and can be seen to have helped cause Pen’s madness; yet he is a somewhat more balanced and grounded person than Pen. Kathleen is the most sympathetic of the major characters, an articulate and generous academic who lives life to the full—and yet has her own obsessiveness which emerges late in the novel.
The novel evokes Perth so very well, from suburban life in the hills, to the hallways and cafes of UWA, as well as the bush town of Pemberton. There are too few novels set in Perth, and this one is convincingly grounded in it. It’s possible to loosely associate it with the crime genre, and suggest that with the work of David Whish-Wilson and Felicity Young it begins to map out Perth as an increasingly plausible setting for crime fiction.
On the subject of genre, the characters discuss the novels of Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon, perhaps a case of the novel wearing its influences proudly. These are the right reference points for a contemporary novel in the tradition of these two writers, with the fresh setting of Perth.
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists / Jane Rawson (Transit Lounge, 2013)
Wrong Turn is set on the streets of a semi-post-apocalyptic Melbourne in 2030. Climate change has displaced many and made life difficult for those eking out an existence under the glare of the sun in a world with little water and many ways to die. The main character is Caddy, a thirty-three year old aspiring writer who does what she can (including casual prostitution) to eat and drink. The early chapters of her wheeling and dealing in errands and squabbles over five dollars as she sits in a hot bar sparring with the bartender reminded me of the feel of Thomas Disch’s 334 and some of Philip K. Dick’s work (besides the mindbending which everyone focuses on, PKD was a chronicler of the little person surviving the future). Rawson has brought to life the underclass of the near future, with its mix of boredom and menace.
To do this as successfully as she has would have been plenty enough to accomplish in a novel, but Rawson attempts much, much more. Without losing its tethering in this ruined Melbourne, the focus begins to turn to the characters Caddy is writing about, two orphaned teenagers attempting to travel through every twenty-five foot square of the USA, a task that will take them ninety years at their current pace. (I love a quixotic project like this; there is a whole other novel worthy of Paul Auster or George Perec here.) Without giving away too many of the twists, the novel shifts into the territory of writer-meets-characters and the Gap, a meta-realm which could have come from a Stephen King novel. For my taste, it’s territory which has already been overexplored, but Rawson’s take on it is quite fresh.
Wrong Turn is a distinctly Australian novel, compelling as a portrait of life as climate change hits and of the petty concerns, dreams, losses and consolations that make up the fabric of existence, as through the eyes of Caddy, a winsome character. The author blogs here; you can read her reflections on the writing life, including her work-in-progress, a non-fiction guide to surviving climate change.
Brian Matthews, Louisa (Melbourne: McPhee, 1987)
Louisa is both an anguished reflection on biography and its problems and the story of the life of Louisa Lawson, mother of the more famous Henry, but a significant Australian literary figure herself, as editor of a woman’s journal, Dawn, and as poet and suffragette.
Frustrated not only by the gaps in the record but also by the inherent limits of biography as a genre, Matthews interrupts what is often a conventional (but good) biographical narrative with an alternative text, the reflections of ‘Owen Stevens’, Matthews’ alternative self:
Owen Stevens, the biographer’s untrammelled self, will say, do, essay and gainsay all those things that formal scholarship cannot condone and which life, unrounded by a style-sheet, uncompleted and unexplained by footnotes, is teeming.
The ‘alternative text’ also contains experiments in form, such as a short story imagining a woman from the 1970s returning to Louisa’s past, and a music-hall drama to convey Louisa in ways conventional biography would not allow.
I have no doubt Matthews expected or even courted controversy, and he did get it. The book sits as the new far end of a spectrum. It has not been taken up as the new way of writing biography, nor was it expected to. But it does demand fruitful reflection from biographers, scholars and readers on just what is permissible and what is desirable in biography.
In a sense, it is a book which wears its postmodernism loudly and, although it has aged well, it still feels to belong to the milieu when the postmodern was still shiny, exciting and the way forward. Today, nearly thirty years on, my feeling is that the biographer is able to wear the influence of postmodern more quietly. Some of the question and objections ‘Owen Stevens’ raises, some of his speculations, could be integrated with the primary narrative – they don’t need to be exiled and, by extension, highlighted.
The relegation of consideration of sources to some brief notes at the end is a strange move. Surely the whole point of the alternative text is to draw some attention to the scaffolding, to the process of arriving at the settled narrative of a biography. Footnotes are a good place to provide the reader with some awareness of the process.
In How to do Biography (Harvard University Press, 2008), Nigel Hamilton argues that it is only when there is an authoritative biography of a subject already published that a biographer is free to be experimental. Louisa Lawson did not have such a biography in 1987, as far as I know, and no doubt this added to some of the criticism Matthews received. On the other hand, the biography was praised as well, and for good reasons.