Recently I was alarmed by an article in The New Yorker (October 20 2014) entitled No Time for Lies: rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower by my favourite literary critic, James Woods. It was not the title that alarmed me, it was the opening line of Wood’s article:
“The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney … “
What!? Who!? I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower, much to my shame, and the fact that she was still alive added, curiously, to the urgency to find out more.
Several of her novels were published in the 1950’s but she withdrew her last novel, In Certain Circles, in 1971 on the death of her mother. She was “frozen” by her loss, besides, as she says, I was “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” How quickly readers forget: by the 1990’s all of her work was out of print.
Then in 2012 Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston of Text Publishing ‘re-discovered’ her and began re-publishing her work, The Watch Tower (1966), considered by some to be her greatest novel; “Down in the City” (1958), her first work; then The Long Prospect (1958), her second; followed by The Catherine Wheel (1960); and then Heyward managed to persuade her to let him have In Certain Circles (1960), completing the re-issue of her entire work. To this collection Text added, in 2015, a small collection of short fiction, A Few Days in the Country and other Stories, which includes the story, Alice, published in The New Yorker in 2015.
“Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished,” writes Wood and although he admits her themes are somewhat repetitive (a young girl bends to coercion and cruelty in a stifling and misogynist era) “her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And … her prose is full of variety.”
“I want to argue that Elizabeth Harrower is on a par with Patrick White and Christina Stead, who would be on anybody’s list of postwar literature giants in Australia.” Michael Heyward, Text Publishing.
The Watch Tower “reminded me of Zola in its unflinching depiction of two sisters entangled with a moody, violent man … It is a brilliant achievement.” Michael Dirda, Washington Post.
“I seized on Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, originally published in 1966. What a discovery! Harrower’s voice in this book is disconcerting at first: almost fatigued, as though she knows that everything to come is fated to be so and there’s little to do but tell the story.” Nicole Rudnick, managing editor, The Paris Review.
“The writing is just fantastic. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of her before,” Irish writer Eimear McBride told The Guardian. “Australians have their F Scott Fitzgerald in Elizabeth Harrower.”
Elizabeth Harrower was born in 1928: know her while you can.
Elizabeth Harrower is published by Text Publishing
I recently set aside prejudices and inaction and knuckled-down and worked out how to use twitter; but, someone said, you’re a bit late, as usual, twitter’s on the way out. Is it? Anyway, I find it very useful. I follow all the literary magazines I can’t afford to subscribe to and whenever I get a tweet that interests me I click on the link and there is the article in full. Magic! This happened recently when I got a tweet from The Paris Review (despite its name it comes out of New York) about Gerald Murnane. I know that name, I thought. Why do I know that name?
He too is a mostly unknown Australian writer (although that is quickly changing) who lives in Goroke, a small Wimmera town in the west of the Australian state of Victoria.
Paul Genoni, Associate Professor, Faculty of Media, Society and Culture at Curtin University, Melbourne said in his 2014 review of Murnane’s The Plains (1982) that the opening could very well be the best in Australian literature:
“Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.
“My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.”
And here is Gurnane’s opening line from his latest work, Border Districts (2016),
“Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.”
The first, “I kept my eyes open”; the second, “I resolved to guard my eyes…” Seeing or not-seeing is a recurring theme in Murnane’s work.
“Murnane’s work has always been a world in which what we see never exists in isolation, so that its reality is only fully understood in relation to what the writing tells us we cannot see.” Will Heyward, writer and editor, New York.
Gerald Murnane won the Patrick White Award in 1999; the Melbourne Prize for Literature, 2009; and the Adelaide Festival 2010 Award for Innovation in Writing. His work has been translated into Swedish and Italian.
“The Australian Gerald Murnane, a genius on the level of Beckett, is known in Australia and Sweden but almost nowhere else.” – Teju Cole, an American writer of Nigerian parentage. He is currently the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.
“Murnane is a careful stylist and a slyly comic writer with large ideas. I know it’s the antipodes, but it’s hard to fathom why he isn’t a little better known here [the USA].” American critic and scholar, Robyn Creswell who joined the Comparative Literature Department at Yale in 2014.
“If you want the supreme triumph of Murnane’s method read Inland (1988), which he has admitted is the God-given book, a work that dazzles the mind with its grandeur and touches the heart with a great wave of feeling and brings to the point of maximum reality the grave and soulful preoccupations that run through every bit of fiction Murnane has ever written.” Peter Craven, Sydney Morning Herald, June 2014.
There are rumours that Murnane has never been in an airplane; he hasn’t watched a movie in decades; keeps meticulous files on his everyday life; and that Border Districts will be his last work of fiction.
Gerald Murnane was born in 1939: know him while you can.