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 -…