I started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, but put that aside to read this, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. I was reminded of the similarity in both books of the rigid fathers, each obsessed with Christianity and its dictates so wholly against human biology, psychology, and behaviour bringing pain to their families and perpetuating ignorance of human nature. It reinforced my belief that it is not the religion itself that breeds such misguided fervour and obedience to unshakable rules of behaviour and social relationships but the administrators of religions, who have been for millennia, men, and who for the most part have been, by their own dictates, denied many of the human emotions and subsequent relationships that they have tried so hard to mould. Men have a lot to answer for.
Salt Creek (2015) is the story of fifteen year old Hester Finch, and her large family, down on their luck in 1855, who are forced to abandon their relatively comfortable existence in Adelaide and move to a scrap of land in the remote South Australian south east bordering the Coorong: a long narrow lake, one of many lakes at the mouth of the Murray River. Lording over this family is Stanton Finch, a failed dreamer and ever hopeful, but inadequate, business man whose financial failings have forced the move. He is a devout Christian and, of course, runs his life and dealings with an indefatigable belief that god is on and at his side and a man whose good intentions are forged by a religion so irrevocably in an English manner that it seems almost incomprehensible that this religion, that Stanton Finch wants to implant onto the land and the people he inhabits, was founded in poverty, heat and dust by a poor Judean carpenter with lofty ambitions for his neighbours. Such a craftsman has more in common with the natives of Salt Creek than the white Englishmen who deem to claim him as theirs.
Life is hard, and his wife, Bridget, feels like a rib in her heart, the family’s fall from society. Her husband, thinking he was doing her a favour managed to retain two of her prized possessions: a chaise lounge and piano. But they fit uncomfortably in the shabbily built wattle and daub house her husband has built and she is reminded daily of their fall as she has to sweep and clutter around such out-of-placed furniture.
Being a good Christian man, Stanton Finch, tries to deal fairly with the local Ngarrindjeri people but his understanding is tainted by white civilisations’s attitudes coloured by ignorance of what is ‘right’, ‘natural’, and in god’s image. A young Ngarrindjeri boy called Tully, joins the family but not because of Mr Finch’s civilising influences, no mater how much the man would like to claim, but because of the boy’s innate intelligence and courage. There is a bible in the house but also a book by Charles Darwin, brought into the house by Fred Finch, a younger son, a sensitive artist and naturalist who sketches Tully as a young man sitting in a chair by the wood stove reading Darwin: an memorable and apt image of the traditional and modern that lies at the heart of the novel.
Hester, tall, independent, and competent is the book’s first-person narrator and its moral backbone; Adelaide, Addy, her younger sister is the tear-away and at the centre of the moral dilemma of the clash of cultures. There is humour, love, tragedy and the tension between god, family, and safety.
The writing is accomplished, impressive, and moving. Highly recommended.
One day I will leave here, and it will not be with another man or because of a man … How could I respect such a person … It was as if he had been wounded and I was nothing but salt.
Here is Lucy Treloar talking about Salt Creek, writing from landscape, literary prizes, and reading from the text.
I have had a checkered reading of Patrick White: I started The Tree of Man (published in 1955) when I was too young to appreciate it, so stopped; I started The Twyborn Affair (1979) but, not long in, threw the thing against the wall – I don’t remember why; and in 2011 I read A Fringe of Leaves (1976) several times – for academic purposes – and loved it! It was his first novel after the Nobel Prize and the pressure must have been immense.
The title comes from A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (31):
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
In 1957 Patrick White wrote in a letter, “I felt the life was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged.”
“I wanted to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time, I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally my own life since my return” … to Australia in 1948.
He uses the word ‘poetry’ in both these quotes. If you see this word on the cover, or more usually on the back-cover, of any book it usually means ‘literary’, ‘difficult’ and such a book won’t be found in an airport bookshop. It is, apart from anything else, informative.
The Tree of Man is about life. Stan Parker, a young ordinary man, (Life had not yet operated on his face) marries Amy, a young orphan (…had not yet felt affection for any human being) and takes her to live with him in a rough hut he has built on a plot of rough inherited land in the bush. What happens to them is the plot. What they feel, and usually don’t understand, and the discovery of meanings, insights, and poetry is the narrative and far more important; the description is the place and what it does to them, and the dialogue is how we get to know, and feel for, all the characters. These are the elements of a novel: narrative, description, and dialogue. And in the first two is where the poetry is.
Early in the book, after a devastating flood Amy Parker takes in a stranded boy, assumed an orphan. During the boy’s first night with the Parkers, she finds the lad late at night sitting by the fireplace looking at the dying fire through a piece of red glass:
‘What are you doing here?’ the child asked.
‘Why,’ she said, ‘I live here. This is my house.’
But her skin was cold. She was uncertain of her furniture.
That last line of two short sentences is an example of literariness. The link between her last spoken line, This is my house and the next line of prose, But her skin was cold is not linear. There is a knowledge gap. And there is another, bigger, gap between that line and the next, seemingly strange one, She was uncertain of her furniture. What has to happen here is for the reader to fill in those gaps. This reader filled in that the child was warm but she wasn’t, so at a disadvantage; the child had control here, and she, not much more than a child herself, was intimidated by him. The second larger gap I filled in with an even stronger feeling of inadequacy: she knew nothing about anything, not even her furniture, which suddenly seemed irrelevant to her, as if she had no say in it; again like a child.
The child was looking at her hand. It was lying with some lost purpose along his arm. She still had to learn the words that she might speak.
This is what literary fiction does: the thought processes are not linear so requiring the reader to use their intuition, experience, and self-trust. What the writer meant by all of this is irrelevant – they’ve either moved on to their next book, or are dead – it’s in the realm of the reader, always, and what the reader thinks is correct.
This is an Everyman story of how people behave based on their own wishes and desires and to each other, the poetic majesty of living, loving, and making a life for themselves out of the scrubby wilderness but without any of the words necessary to express such feelings and mysteries. They talk to each other as uneducated country people do while the narrator reveals everything else.
Like all readers, we make a pact with writers to accept their omnipotence and let them lead us blindly along the tracks, twists, and turns of the narrative, no matter how ordinary the action is. The ‘novel’ is in the narrative. If you pick up a Patrick White novel and open it this is what you have to do. This is where the pleasure is.
Along the way, in the narrative, not in the dialogue, there can be incredible wisdom.
But he respected and accepted her mysteries as she could never respect and accept his.
This is profound. In one short sentence White encapsulates the essence of male-female relations that lie at the heart of countless novels, films, musicals, and, indeed, relations between the sexes for centuries, as in the song, Marry the Man Today, from the 1950’s musical Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.
Marry the man today Rather than sigh in sorrow Marry the man today And change his ways tomorrow.
As a literary work about the essence of mankind such pronouncements are the result of his intention: to discover the ‘poetry’ of human existence. His sentence instantly paints that archetypical relationship in which the husband unquestionably, but usually because he just wants peace between them, follows the tenants of his married life as stipulated by his wife, but she is forever ‘nagging’ him to change his ways. During this scene where White uncovers such universal truths the pair are talking about selling a calf: he thinks they have too many, she thinks the heifer, she calls her Nancy, will fret; she worries about their daughter who has cried over the extraction of a splinter under her fingernail, he thinks she’s doing fine if that’s all she has to worry about. Character based dialogue, simple and personal, but the wisdom and truth is in the literary narrative with language that the uneducated characters of their own story would never use.
His simplicity had not yet received that final clarity and strength which can acknowledge the immensity of belief. So instead of praying he went into a café and ordered a plate of food.
What people mean when they say ‘I believe…’ is often ‘I believe in the believing’. Believing comes with ritual, mannerisms, uniforms, social contact, expectations, and the resulting satisfaction. People pray without a sense of who they are praying to. They believe in the action of praying. It’s comforting. It’s doing something. Something that many people would approve of, and is therefore satisfying; like ordering a plate of food, which, realistically, is far more comforting because it actually arrives.
The narrative follows the couple, their two children, Ray, who doesn’t turn out well, and Thelma, who marries a solicitor and has the opportunity to wear furs and crocodile skin shoes and so she has the excuse to look down on her parents. Stan and Amy Parker have two grandchildren and it’s possible they might like to make things right with the children and the children’s children; but it’s too late: it’s not their call any more. They missed it, and it’s inferred that the next generation, as parents, will do no better.
White explores the dichotomy of parental love and how we have no control over it: you love them as kids but maybe not as adults. They grow-up and grow-away. Even the people with we live with for decades we learn to take for granted. So when the grandson comes in wet from a storm …
The old woman began to remember her husband whom she had forgotten. She forgot him now for whole days.
White started out to find the poetry in life, instead he found the truth.
These stories are masterful, enlightening, moving, shocking, blasphemous, erotic, breath-taking, and scary: some of the best I’ve ever read. They are so good, they could render a yearning writer silent.
The opening, and title, story sets the bar. A group of young Australian professionals, close friends, at a deliberately over-indulgent dinner party thrown to celebrate an important new editing job in San Francisco for one of their number is destroyed by another: his ego, self-importance, and jealousy – he wanted the job – combine with a silly game to allow him to dominate the room and shatter these long-time university-born relationships forever. The story has a tricky structure: a story-telling within the story, and set-up information is economic enough not to turn you off or lead you to wonder where it’s going, but detailed enough that you understand what’s happening. Tsiolkas also tells the story from a more recent time reminiscing about a lost past, lost friendships, and lost innocence. This creates an expectation that the point is big: it is, even though on the surface it’s a bunch of mates boozing, snorting, talking, and toking at, and after, a dinner party. Thinking back on the story a day later some of the necessary plot-points seem over-stretched but at the time nothing jarred. There is nothing for the reader to do except go along with it. This, I believe, is a sign of a good writer: the reader will believe whatever is thrown at them even if, on reflection, some things are a little bumpy; but in the moment, while reading it, the reader is completely in the thrall of the writer, ready for anything. It’s what a reader – well, this reader – craves.
“The title story of Merciless Gods is stunning and should be read by everyone in the country who cares about fiction. It is worth the price of the book alone.” Sydney Morning Herald
Saturn Return is about dying. And grief.
When the door finally opens again, Barney rushes out sobbing and falls on me. I hold him tight. It is not as if he his crying exactly; rather, sorrow is pouring out of him, from every heaving breath, from every lacerating tear. The warm lounge room is suddenly freezing and the only heat comes from where our bodies touch. I strengthen my hold on him. I’m scared that if I let go,not only the room, not only this city, but the whole world will go cold forever.
I cried. Not bad for a story of twelve and a half pages.
Tsiolkas has never shied away from writing about sex, particularly in its extremes. His novels Loaded (1995) and Dead Europe (2005) are testament to that. There are stories here that may curl your toes; this book may not be a good idea as a Christmas present for Gran.
The Slap (2008) was his breakout hit; publication in Europe and around the world set him up as one of Australia’s premier writers. However, he had already established a small group of fans in Australia with challenging works like, Loaded, – adapted for the screen in 1998 as Head On – Dead Europe – which some considered the best book of 2005 – and The Jesus Man (1999). The television series of The Slap (2011) in Australia and the US version (2015) consolidated his reputation and broadened his readership. His 2013 novel, Barracuda, was also adapted for television in 2016.
I am ashamed to admit that it took an American literary critic, James Wood, in a long, detailed, and inclusive article in The New Yorker dated October 20 2014 to inform me of an Australian writer who is not only still alive, but has always lived in Sydney in a suburb next to a suburb where I lived for twenty-five years. I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower; and as if to make up for lost time, or as an urging to put things right, I found a book of hers, this book in the Text edition, praised by the New Yorker for re-discovering her, in a second-hand book shop on the little tropical island in Indonesia where I live. But to rub salt into the wound of my ignorance, when I mentioned her to my book-loving sister in the Barossa Valley Sis said, “Oh, yes! I read her years ago.”
Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928, spent her childhood in industrial Newcastle, New South Wales, north of Sydney, but lived in London from 1951 to 1959 where she wrote her first two novels, Down in the City (1957) and this one, The Long Prospect (1958); the latter was highly thought of by Christine Stead, a champion of Harrower’s work. When she returned to Sydney she worked in publishing and wrote three more books, The Catherine Wheel (1960), The Watch Tower (1966), considered her best, and In Certain Circles, which she withdrew from publication, sent it to the National Library and gave up writing. It was finally published in 2014 when Michael Heyward of Text Publishing re-discovered her and ultimately re-issued all her work. In 2015, a collection of stories, A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories was published.
Her major themes are somewhat repetitive: a naïve woman, or women, trapped in their parochial and/or stifling circumstances come under the spell of a bully, usually a man, but in The Long Prospect, a woman: Mrs Lilian Hulme is particularly unpleasant, manipulative, and selfish, especially to her granddaughter, Emily.
Harrower’s women characters can be adequately summed up by this, said about Paula, Lilian’s daughter and Emily’s neglectful mother: “And there, in the city, as far as one could tell, she had been content in her own quiet humourless way to sit with the resignation of a decoy duck in a fun-fair allowing things – life in this instance – to be thrown at her.”
Men were hated, described as old women or letches, but useful to humiliate. Girls thought they drowned little girls in sacks or pursued them through mulberry bushes, wanted more than they could get, had slippery hands and shiny foreheads, slapped other men on the back for just being men and trying to get what they wanted which was always what they couldn’t have.
“… she hates all men. So do I, so do you, eh, Thea? Still you’ve got to have some around.”
Yet women read magazines of true love stories where heroines, after much trouble, get the men they want, but such men never seem to be anywhere around where such women readers live; and others read real-life murder stories where men are fiends on the prowl just waiting for a young girl to be left alone when they leap through carelessly closed windows and do what everyone knows men do. All this causes little girls to dream that they are orphans or that their mothers are not theirs, especially when those mothers return from partying having left little girls all alone and frightened; those little girls run back up to bed and listen to giggles and someone being sick and it is all normal again and nothing is ever said: bad mothers know nothing of little girl’s fears and if they did, so what, it had happened to them, and they turned out alright, didn’t they?
And on these men and women, lay an attitude of “humourless endurance” which “had been imposed on most by parents like themselves, surroundings of monotonous ugliness, participation in wars the young could not remember, and by a brief education delivered with so little relevance to circumstance and ability as to be incomprehensible.” And where female friendships, at best, are full of nothing but silent, sad contempt interspersed with moments of need disguised as affection.
Lilian – “dyed blonde hair and grey eyes” stated at her friend Billie – “dyed black hair and great cow eyes.” So ageing, they thought.
Such is the social landscape of Harrower’s characters in the late 1950’s Australia. In the muddle of all this Emily Lawrence grows up and one Christmas holidays she turns twelve and “made capable of objectivity. Overnight she had become all-seeing and all wise … which she incredibly, sometimes shockingly, and often to the dismay of her heart, knew what was true and what was not.”
Then Lilian takes in a boarder, Max. He not only looks at Emily, he sees her, “No one ever looked as if they saw her” and what excited her most was not all his books, or the gramophone, although that was indeed exciting, but that she was “conscious of his unconsciousness of her…and felt a small physical reaction on her spine to the suddenly strange, living humanity of the man…” In a world of men who had no control over their vices, tobacco, alcohol, pride, and the pity of women, here was a man who talked to her as if she was a grown-up and “she knew she would always have to be what he expected her to be.” Was it possible that there was such a thing as a good man?
The adults thought he taught Emily “high-falutin’ rubbish,” but “he was deep; he could do all that without looking silly or soft.” Max is indeed a very different kind of man. Can a genuine friendship between a grown man and a twelve-year old girl flourish in an atmosphere of gossip, small-mindedness, and stifling conformity?
Harrower is a master of language sometimes surprises you with her choice of words:
“His physical presence among them was a phenomenon, to which they accustomed themselves with the ease of savages”.
“The mild flowery smell preceded her into Max’s room, beginning another day in which he would be.” But her choice is always apt and enlightening.
There is little free indirect discourse (sometimes called close writing) here: the prose seldom reflects the language that each character would use – Emily sounds much older than she is, more like the narrator; but this was written in the 50s where such techniques were only sparsely used, but are now a common factor in contemporary fiction. However, The Long Prospect is still an effective portrayal of the narrow minded 50s of semi-urban Australia; no wonder most intelligent and ambitious people, like Harrower, left for London where civilisation and creativity dwelt, and a chance to be someone other than the person one was born as.
The Long Prospect is an intriguing read and recommended as an important work from an important ‘re-discovered’ Australian writer.
You can purchase the eBook through iBooks here or the paper book here from Text Publishing.
It is not all that long ago, 1994, that Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days was disqualified from the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary prize because it was not Australian enough (he won the prize for its sequel Dark Palace (2000), which contains one scene set in Australia); apparently Australian literary sentiment has grown up since then, thank god – although the real problem lies from the rules of eligibility for the Prize . Here now is an Australian author, Hannah Kent, whose debut novel, Burial Rites (2013) was set in Iceland and now her second, The Good People, is set in Ireland: and still not a gum tree in sight. The only thing Australian about this book is its author; but that’s all that is needed, and rightly so, to herald Kent as a new, rising, and shining voice in Australian literature.
Kent paints time, place, and character through dialogue. The time is 1825 in rural, south-west Ireland where the Catholic Church is as powerful as ever but also where old Irish superstition and language is still rife and useful. All of this is established through how the characters talk: here a man comes to seek council from Nance Roche about his troubling dreams. Nance Roche is a wise woman who lives alone in a windowless, mud hut near the wood and who is said to have ‘the knowledge’.
‘Faith, what does it matter? I’d best be on my way.’
‘Sure, Peter, Go on home.’
He helped Nance to her feet and waited as she used the tongs to pluck a coal from the fire, dipping it, hissing, in her water bucket to cool. She dried the dead ember on her skirt, spat on the ground and passed it to him. ‘You’ll see no púca tonight. God save you on the road.’
Peter put it into his pocket with a curt nod. ‘Bless you, Nance Roche. You’re a good living woman, no matter what the new priest says.’
Here archaic English (“Faith, what does it matter?”), old Irish (púca means ghost) and Catholic salutation (”God save you on the road.”) all create the world of this novel: illustrative, complex, colourful, informative, and believable. The last because of Kent’s success at creating verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. You do not need to look up the meaning of púca; nor do you need to research the veracity of the use of the word ‘faith’ as an exultation in nineteenth century south-west rural Ireland; nor that the possession of a cool coal from the hearth of a bean feasa living in a mud-hut will soothe one’s dreams. As quickly as you read the lines the reader accepts this created truth because of the trust we readers place in the creator of such truth; when the real truth is that we are sitting in our reading chair scanning and finding shared meaning from little dark marks on a pale background. All hail our imagination and those that tickle it!
Kent has done her publisher proud: produced a novel with all the qualities of her first that prompted her global success and her publisher’s trust in her in the first place (it’s rumoured her earnings from rights, foreign publishers and the like, was $1 million); mid-nineteenth century far-western Europe in a valley of poverty, crime, women, faith, and fear, but with such differences that make it fresh and new, in tone, theme, crime, spine, and ending.
This is a story of three women: a new and bitter widow, Nora; a servant girl, Mary; and a feared and revered loner, Nance Roach; unwedded, unbedded, and therefore considered unworldly, but ironically, powerful despite the “fear of any woman who was not tethered to man or hearth.” In a society of family and neighbourily trust, tension and anger can boil quickly if livelihood is threatened: if cow’s milk is without butter, if a hen’s egg is yolk-less, or if a man falls suddenly dead, the inhabitants clutch at reasons, causes – be it four crows seen huddled together at a crossroads; lights seen bobbing on a fairy mound; or a cretinous child thrust on a widow who has no means to support it.
This is what happens to Nora whose motherless and afflicted grandchild is suddenly handed to her but who firmly believes it is the mischievous fairies, The Good People, who have taken her Micheál and left her one of their own. Her attempts to return the fairy to its own kind and see the safe return of her grandson is what propels the narrative to its tragic finale.
The belief systems, be it Christian or fairydom, give meaning to these ignorant people; the world is mysterious and explanations are needed for everything that ties them down, keeps them safe, or lifts them up. They need these causes of things to be certainties to allow them to get on with their poor and mundane lives; to keep planting their potatoes, milking their skinny cows, and harvesting turf to heat their hovels because their only other choice is to take to the road: the worst of outcomes.
Some readers have found the book depressing; yes, the story is sad, but the writing is evocative and succeeds is creating a vanished world, surreal almost, for the reader to get lost in so when the world of this valley is pushed into a civilized courtroom the reader too is confronted by the complexities and necessities of belief, survival, and what is true, good, and right.
I urge you to read this book. You can find it here.
There are many Australian writers that seem to have been forgotten: Miles Franklin, Christina Stead, Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Henry Handle Richardson, Ruth Park, and Kylie Tennant (Thank god Elizabeth Harrower has been resurrected from obscurity by Text Publishing).
Kylie Tennant (1912 – 1988) was hailed in 1935 as the new star of the Australian social-realist tradition with the publication of her first novel Tiburon, a three-pronged story of a small mid-west New South Wales country town and its life and loses. This was followed in 1939 with Foveaux, which translated the themes of Tiburon to the inner-city suburb of fictitious Forveau, identifiable as the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. Her reputation peaked in 1941 with the publication of her best known work, The Battlers, which deals with the itinerant unemployed who tramp the back-roads of the countryside when war breaks out in Europe in 1939. It also secured her an international reputation and is still her best-known work among Australians. A television series of Ride on Stranger (1943), her fourth novel, in 1979, starring Noni Hazlehurst and Liddy Clark, sparked a brief revival but unfortunately Kylie Tennant has slipped from the literary landscape.
Her third novel, Time Enough Later (1942), is a departure, in that it is more light-hearted – almost (but not quite) a comedy – than her first three novels which were a serious look at the working underclass, but also a continuation of her development as a writer as it is the first to feature an independent woman and her unconventional choices, a theme she continues and masters in the novel that followed, Ride on Stranger.
Time Enough Later is a light, slip of a story of a young girl’s discovery of an agreeable alternative to men: agriculture. Bessie Drew grows up in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern. She is “unfashionably wholesome, sensible, and unselfconscious.” Her squabbling family, especially her hard-done-by mother and alcohol and temper ridden father, force her to set her feet on a different path to an unknown but adventurous future. She forms a tenuous relationship – part amorous, part professional – with a cad of a man, Maurice Wainwright: a theatrical, selfish, ego-maniac; a con-man who has a talent for photography, sets up a studio with Bessie’s self-sacrificing help, and establishes a reasonable living and reputation but without the work-ethic to make it a continuing success. Into Wainwright’s coterie of Bohemians, performers, and socialists comes Esther, a free-thinking loner who lives in the country and continually urges Bessie to come and see her place. This she finally does to house-sit for Esther as she travels on one of her botanical/zoological expeditions. Bessie takes the whinging and whining Maurice with her and all is set for what we would call in times between then and now, a ‘dirty weekend’. The seduction is a failure – a “disconcerting mixture” of Maurice’s self-possession; the normalities of the rural night – strange noises from out of the quiet, moths the size of dinner-plates, and a lumpy bed; and Bessie’s “unconventional matter-of-factness which strikes her would-be lover as exasperating stolidity”. But it’s Bessie’s plain-speaking that undermines Maurice and precipitates the slow and floppy end to their ‘affair’.
“I don’t see what you’re getting so mad about,” Bessie went on patiently. “If a thing doesn’t work, what’s the use of wasting time on it? Here’s twice we’ve had this hoo-doo on us. And it just looks like the idea is no good … Don’t think I’m not fond of you. But it just seems a waste of time getting all stirred up when it’s just as easy not to get stirred up.”
But what does grab city-raised Bessie’s interest is the countryside. Her eyes are opened to a possibility, and a place, that had never occurred to her. She had always thought of Esther as a “lonely and disappointed woman who put her passion into a wild hermitage, wilfully withdrawing into the desert.
Yet here was the desert flowering like paradise in a glory of red and gold. The trees, the earth, the smell of the leaves, stirred Bessie as none of Maurice’s ideas, none of his talk about beauty and art had done. This place talked a language of long thirst and survival, of struggle and rain and the bite of weather. Something in her knew this language; and the old restlessness clamoured as it had never done before – not Archer Street, not the studio – this place.”
Margaret Dick in her slight 1966 volume, The Novels of Kylie Tennant, almost apologises for the slapstick, the humour, and the ‘lightness’ of the theme, as if such novelistic considerations are beneath Tennant’s talent. However the success of Time Enough Later lies in the novelist’s expert handling of these difficult, and unlikely scenarios. It’s not easy making a believable failure of a sexual seduction by a selfish roué; nor is it a mere trifle to make the offerings of a rural existence, toil and thin-reward, a believable alternative for a young girl from a society which has already set her future: a future she sees as aprons, children, and the gray, grime, and gossip of Redfern. Tennant’s descriptive passages of the rural setting, nature, a threatening bushfire, and the simple rewards of husbanding chickens and ducks, rhubarb and radishes are beautiful, alive and even tantalising. You can well understand, and believe, Bessie’s attraction to such things. Light the story may be but the writing is assured, entertaining, and masterful.
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.
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.