essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
I’ve been reading David Marr’s biography of Patrick White (Patrick White, a Life, David Marr, Jonathan Cape 1991) and come up against the paradox of Australian literature. That is, the literature of a country that has no literary tradition but an imported one, and may be creating a bogus tradition of its own with that, mainly English one, as its model. Or creating something genuinely new. Who can say?
White hated Australian society but thought the country the source of his inspiration. Australia, he said, was insular, bigoted, and superficial. Even so, by his presence and influence White created or helped create a vigorous national culture around himself and his friends. I was intrigued to find that Van Morrison told the painter Brett Whiteley that White had been a major influence on him. White was also a link to the rest of the literary world, especially as a Nobel Prize winner – even though that’s just the bureaucracy of literature (Nobel was a war profiteer in armaments as well as a brilliant inventor, and had a lot of guilt to assuage, hence the Prize, now primly academic and sanitised).
I’ve read four of White’s books: Voss (1957), Riders in the Chariot (1961), The Eye of the Storm (1973) and A Fringe of Leaves (1976), and thought them all truly great works of world literature. I don’t think of White together with Banjo Paterson, Kylie Tennant or Peter Carey, but with authors like Tanizaki, Kawabata, Eça de Queirós and the Dostoevsky of Karamazov. I thought what White had to say on Australian literature important, and he introduced some authors I hadn’t previously known. My own experience as a reader of Australian books has been limited, as will appear below.
Marr’s biography grew on me as I read. I don’t like books that consign footnotes to the back of the volume where they are hard to consult and interrupt the flow of reading. I was appalled that Marr referred throughout to characters in White’s fiction by name without giving their context and the book they appeared in. Throughout there were references to people and events that should have been explained (for example would a non Australian reader have known that “the Cross” was the Sydney suburb King’s Cross?). The book begins with a long and confusing family history of the Whites in Australia from early colonial times, and of the families they intermarried with.
Despite these defects, the book I was reminded of in the end was Boswell’s Johnson. For the last six years of his life White worked with Marr. Marr recorded his conversations, read his letters, was introduced to his friends and his enemies, and had his drafts read and criticised by White. There was no veto exercised, only explication given. What emerges is a picture of an honest man. Diogenes would have put out his lantern had he met Patrick White. The man was unhappy, divided, intolerant, opinionated, erudite, spiritual, pugnacious, loyal and devoted. A lot like Samuel Johnson in fact. The book also gives a brilliant portrait of Manoly Lascaris, White’s partner of almost 50 years: a convincing picture, rare in literature, of a really good man.
So what did I find in Marr’s book about Australian literature? Don’t think this essay is a ‘history’ of Australian literature: I’m just comparing some of White’s enthusiasms with the few of my own. Australian literature, I thought, should give insights into human nature discovered through depiction of the environment of Australia, both social and natural. A work needs both the depiction and the insight to be valuable. White mentions the following (among others):
Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) and Flora Eldershaw (1897-1956) wrote as M Barnard Eldershaw. Their first and probably best known novel is A House Is Built (1929). Barnard agreed with White that “it’s dangerous for writers to leave their roots”. Like White she was involved in liberal political causes in a period when Australia had drifted even further to the right than it is today. Barnard admired Miles Franklin and wrote a biography of her, though she thought more of her personality than of her writing – Franklin “displayed little skill in constructing her books, and not much originality in plot”. White admired the two writers’ final book, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow…, first published in its entirety in 1983, mentioning that “It is one of the few mature Australian novels, and at the same time it is of universal interest…It is full of passion and truth”. (Marr, p. 348). Barnard won the Patrick White Award in 1983.
Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) published only one novel and eight short stories, but is regarded as a master of the short story format. Her one collection Bush Studies (1902) was reprinted with extra material as Cobbers in 1917. Baynton was involved in her lifetime in a spurious feud with Henry Lawson about the verisimilitude of their respective depictions of life in the Australian outback. Of the stories White comments, “It is extraordinary the way she tells one so little and one sees everything…She’s a prolonged knife job”. (Marr, p. 480).
Manning Clark (1915-1991) has prompted more people to read the history of Australia than any writer (with the probable exception of Robert Hughes). He is a great artist in prose, and the vociferous criticism of his history from right wing and left wing historians has concentrated on his factual errors, not his style. He is, for much the same reasons, a historian like Livy, though in his later volumes of the History tended to follow the old fashioned example of Carlyle, one of his heroes. Despite his flaws he has the width of vision of a Gibbon. “Manning Clark sent White the first volume of his History of Australia…’I have always tended to be blind to Australian history’, [White] confessed to Clark. But he discovered there one of the few Australian books he could ‘admire without reservation’. He read each of the volumes as they appeared over the next twenty years”. (Marr, p. 480).
David Malouf was born in 1934; he has now settled in Sydney. His first novel, Johnno (1975) was highly praised by White. “‘One of the best books I’ve read by an Australian’…he complimented [Malouf] on finding ‘the only way to write a book about the love of two men for one another’”. (Marr, p. 583). Malouf went on to write An Imaginary Life (1978) and Remembering Babylon (1993) along with other novels, stories, poetry and libretti. The most insightful comments about his work come from himself. “I knew that the world around you is only uninteresting if you can’t see what is really going on. The place you come from is always the most exotic place you’ll ever encounter because it is the only place where you recognise how many secrets and mysteries there are in people’s lives”.
Christina Stead (1902-1983) wrote novels distinguished by a penetrating psychological insight into human nature, some of them autobiographical. She was resident in Europe and America for much of her career and recognised as a major novelist there much earlier than in Australia. Her first book was Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934). Other works included the banned Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) and Dark Places of the Heart (1966). Her major work is considered to be The Man Who Loved Children (1940). “White’s great discovery was Christina Stead and he grew to admire her as ‘one of the most interesting living novelists’. None of her books had the mighty impact of The Man Who Loved Children…but he was elated even by the lesser novels”. (Marr, p. 480)
I’ve never attended a course in Australian Literature. I have no idea of its extent, variety nor trends and influences. Partly because I am Australian. Australia? I’m standing in it (the name of an ABC 1983 satirical revue). So what I know about the subject is largely from what I’ve bumped into. I don’t read poetry and I’m not too interested in theatre, but watch a lot of movies (and used to watch TV). And I read books. So my list is an odd one. But probably as good as yours if you’ve got yours the same way.
Andrew Bovell was born in 1962 and now lives in Adelaide. He wrote the play Speaking in Tongues in 1996 and adapted it as the screenplay Lantana, a 2001 film directed by Ray Lawrence. Lantana is one of Australia’s most successful films, and more importantly, its best. It stars Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey. How can you compare a lantana vine to the human heart?
Charmian Clift (1923-1969) is one of the masters of the essay form. Most of her writing is autobiographical and very personal. One of my favourite authors, I’ve written about her here: https://phillipkay.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/the-novel-as-essay-charmian-clifts-writings.
Miles Franklin (1879-1954) is best known for the novel My Brilliant Career, also a 1979 film directed by Gilliam Armstrong. The novel was published through the support of Henry Lawson. Franklin later wrote a study of Joseph Furphy. The film is a girl’s own romance lent distinction by the acting of Judy Davis, and was very influential at the time of release.
Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) wrote Such Is Life in 1897 and published it 1903. The alleged author, Tom Collins, is as about as reliable as Tristram Shandy, and the book, which relies on irony for much of its humour, is most ironical about him. Furphy is often compared to Mark Twain, but his bush portraits are as genuine as Henry Lawson’s. Labyrinthine, obscure, funny and wise, it’s about Australia; or is it?
Paul Hogan, born 1939, was a well known bridge painter and humorist. His satirical revue ran on Australian TV for 12 years from 1973, and then he wrote, acted in and produced the film Crocodile Dundee in 1986. Audiences for both shows thought he got it right, but in retrospect his work is variable, as could be expected. Still effective in cutting down tall poppies but weak on victims which have proved ephemeral.
Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was famous for The Shock of the New (a 1980 documentary series on modern art) and The Fatal Shore, a 1987 book on the English penal system and its gulag, Australia. The first I don’t know, but the second is the most riveting, horrifying and exact record of Britain’s ineffective 19th century system of dealing with the poverty caused by the Industrial Revolution. Few could be ambivalent about what it meant to be a convict after reading it.
Henry Lawson (1867-1922) wrote haunting short stories which could be about what happened to the survivors of the fatal shore. Famous but defrauded by publishers, Lawson was left in poverty most of his life. He suffered also from deafness and alcoholism. Yet he was a fierce republican, a champion of the little man, and his stories of life in the outback are frequently heartbreaking. One of the greatest of short story writers, with Kipling and Maupassant.
Henry Handel Richardson, real name Ethel Florence Richardson (1870-1946) wrote perhaps the only great Australian novel before Patrick White. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930) is a trilogy that consists of Australia Felix (1917), The Way Home (1925) and Ultima Thule (1929). Like a trilogy by Aeschylus it shows the workings of fate inexorably destroying a man through a fatal flaw in his character. Magnificent writing, profound in its effect.
Kenneth Graham Ross was born 1941 and was the author of Breaker Morant (1978), a play then a film script for the1980 film directed by Bruce Beresford. Part of a self conscious Australian cinema renaissance, the film is a very well acted courtroom drama starring Jack Thompson that questions the morality of imperialism.
There’s obviously a lot more Australian writers. But Richardson, White, and Lawson aren’t a bad place to start an exploration. Could be worse, as they say here.
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