Ausatralian fiction has developed a power that reverses the cultural cringeby Kate Kellaway / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
English literature has been a mixed blessing for Australia. In his essay "Made in England," David Malouf, one of Australia’s most distinguished novelists, argues that from the early decades of the 19th century onwards, there was an imbalance between Australia and England. Australians found their country "thin and insubstantial" and English books were partly to blame. Australians were most likely to read literature set in England – with the belief that "what happened in books was the way life really was" and because there were "no real books that were Australian," Australia became an absence, a "not here."
When Peter Conrad (currently an English don at Christ Church, Oxford) left Tasmania in the 1950s, he was in flight from this literary emptiness. In his tea chest were English books that were his "entitlement to a place in an imaginary England, where I had actually been living ever since I learned to read." He goes further than Malouf – in mixed tribute and grumble – "It was English literature that alienated me from Australia."
If Conrad were growing up in Australia today, his trunk would be full of Australian novels – if he needed to pack at all. In the last 50 years, Australian literature has become a force to be reckoned with; now it is the motherland’s turn to feel insecure. Australian novelists are outwriting us, they tweak the Booker prize out of our hands (Peter Carey has won it twice, Thomas Keneally once, Tim Winton has been shortlisted twice and 2003’s winner, DBC Pierre, is Australian by birth). And there is a flotilla of younger Antipodean writers coming on stream: Kate Grenville (winner of the 2001 Orange prize) and Elliot Perlman (my own nominee for the future) among them. None of these show any lingering deference to England. If writing novels were a sport, the winning side would be Australian.
I’ve been backing the Australian side for as long as I can remember. My parents grew up in Melbourne but moved to London before I was born. I have never lived there, but – in a reverse process to the one Conrad describes – have emigrated there through fiction. It is through reading that I have seen Australia’s blue-green landscapes, its silver eucalyptus, its red rocks. The first Australian book I sampled was Norman Lindsay’s children’s book The Magic Pudding (1918), a classic of uncompromisingly Australian character – direct, entertaining and outlandish. It is about two desperados in the bush, a penguin and a violent bloke called Bill, and a third character, a dapper koala named Bunyip Bluegum. This crew are proud possessors of a "cut n’ come again" pudding (a bad tempered character that endlessly replenishes itself). There is nothing cute or diminutive here. This is a book about survival in an empty and almost lawless landscape (a theme elaborated in so much adult Australian fiction).
The Magic Pudding was recently served up in a literary poll run by the Australian Society of Authors that asked members to nominate their 40 favourite Australian works. Pudding came in at seven. The list had several perverse omissions (notably Les Murray, one of the greatest living poets, and Thomas Keneally). The Sydney Morning Post was pardonably lukewarm about Tim Winton basking at number one with Cloudstreet – a salt of the earth novel about community; but incorrectly gloomy about Winton’s position at four with Dirt Music, a beautiful novel [see Winton’s short story, page 60]. It was revealing to read that Winton himself selected Patrick White’s The Tree of Man as one of his favourite Australian novels (others agreed: White was one place ahead of Pudding at six).
The Tree of Man ought to be at number one. It is the most influential Australian novel ever written: a generic book. White – who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1973 – was educated at Cheltenham College and King’s College, Cambridge and spent many years living in London (perhaps the physical distance from his subject brought him closer to it). His novels did more than describe the landscape – for readers like me, they were Australia. His particular genius was to make his characters belong to their setting – not as easy as it might sound. For one of the questions facing all white Australian writers concerns their provisional relationship with the land: in what way does a white Australian belong to Australia? Many Australian novels are like complicated love letters to the landscape.
Re-reading The Tree of Man was a shock, a taste to be reacquired. At first, it seemed fastidiously overwritten, arch and dated (it was first published in 1955). There were affectations and linguistic misadventures. But by the end I could see again how the prodigality of the writing serves its subject. White’s over-articulacy is put movingly to the service of the almost wordless settlers, Stan Parker and his wife, Amy. And there is something remarkable about the stoicism of his narrative. White presents ordinary events: an unelaborate wedding, a storm, the death of a cow with extraordinary intensity. Each small drama has significance in this frightening Australian Eden.
In Australian literature, the smallest details matter most. When Amy Parker marries, she is given a silver nutmeg grater as a wedding present. She has no use for it, but thinks it "the loveliest thing she has ever seen." It is the only ornament she owns. I was reminded of Amy’s nutmeg grater by Peter Conrad’s description of the time he sorted through his parents’ home in Tasmania after their deaths. There is only one object he wants to keep: a defunct salt and pepper dispenser, a souvenir of Sydney. Both White and Conrad choose a small ornament to stand out in relief against a peculiarly Australian emptiness.
White’s successor as a novelist is Tim Winton. Like White, he writes about common people in an extraordinary landscape. Unlike White, Winton writes about landscape in a wilfully undercultivated style. There is much raw and incomprehensible (even with my Australian roots) dialogue: duco, hot-rudder, dobber. White seeks to master the bush with his prose; Winton shows this to be risky and vainglorious. When (in Dirt Music) Lu Fox goes on a lonely white man’s walkabout, he sees the bush with direct intensity. If there is romance, it is of a dangerous kind. "The world is holy? Maybe so. But it has teeth too. How often has he felt that bite in a slamming gust of wind."
For Australian writers, the landscape is never there merely to be admired. Peter Carey, the most gifted of all contemporary Australian novelists, often makes Australian landscape adversarial. In True History of the Kelly Gang, Ned Kelly relates: "Here we cut down through the bush into the Wombat Ranges and slowed our pace considerably as the horses was tired and the bush v. dense there was more and more wild ravines the mighty white gums they was saplings when Jesus were a boy."
Landscape is the biggest character in Australian fiction – and Australia no country for miniaturists. It is dominated by male writers with big ideas. White, Winton and Peter Carey all lean towards the big picture – and this trio top my own chart of Australian literature. But none of these writers is more ambitious than Richard Flanagan, whose savage novel Gould’s Book of Fish, about the life of a convict artist, became a cult read in the US. On its publication, Flanagan told me that he had supposed it to be too "idiosyncratic and Australian" to travel. But he writes as if he had something to prove, and his buried message is: success is defined in recognition beyond Australia.
According to Malouf, if Australians behave as if they have something to prove, it is because they do. He suggests that Australians have historically reacted to the English in three ways: imitatively, contemptuously and competitively. The third option was to settle "for what we were; always with a certain awareness of their [English people’s] scrutiny and their eagerness to criticise, but in the determination to do better than they had done." This competition depended upon English attention: "we needed our awareness of their scrutiny to keep ourselves up to the mark." Malouf is writing about Australians generally – but what he says is as true of Australia’s writers.
The relationship – literary and actual – between England and Australia remains touchy. I once met an academic from Melbourne University who shocked me with his dismissive attitude to English literature as a whole – seeing it off with a sniff, as if even Shakespeare were some insignificant wallflower at a much bolder and more relevant Australian party. This inferiority/superiority complex still persists in some quarters. The academic’s promotion of Australia made Australia suddenly seem a little country.
This defensive quality can get into the writing itself. Winton in particular – via his characters – recoils from anything that might be construed as precious, pretentious or showy – a literary inverted snobbery. There is much at stake here: a need central to Australian literature to settle the difference between inauthenticity and art.
Carey is obsessed with this too. His skill in True History of the Kelly Gang is in employing a vocabulary Ned Kelly would probably not have used. There is a metaphorical eloquence that has to be carefully monitored if it is not to seem inauthentic. And in his brilliant, under-praised My Life as a Fake, he goes further, showing that authenticity is never a straightforward matter. The book was inspired by the Ern Malley affair. Malley was a non-existent Australian poet, dreamed up by two hoaxers, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, in the 1940s. They fooled the editor of the literary magazine Angry Penguins, who believed Malley was a genius. (Australia has always been vulnerable to hoaxers. In the 1970s, B Wongar – enthusiastically taken up by Jonathan Cape in London – posed as an Aboriginal writer, to great acclaim. He was in fact Sreten Bozic from Yugoslavia. His cover was blown in 1981).
Authenticity is of particular consequence to Australian writers. It is a matter of urgency that Australian national literature has its own voice – not a derivative or borrowed accent.
Keneally’s latest novel, out in February in Britain, also seeks to unravel questions of artistic authenticity. The Tyrant’s Novel is set in an imaginary totalitarian state where the tyrant requires the novelist/narrator to write a propagandist book – the opposite of everything in which he believes. It is a bracing work; Keneally writes to discover how far a good man may be pushed to betray his own beliefs when his life is at stake.
In My Life as a Fake and The Tyrant’s Novel, Keneally and Carey tease us with the unattainability of a smoothly perfect work of art. Patrick White called his autobiography Flaws in the Glass, an admission perhaps that the best writing, even if it is Australian, must – like an impractical nutmeg grater or defective salt and pepper dispenser – have its imperfections.