Time Enough Later by Kylie Tennant


Australian writer, Kathleen ‘Kylie’ Tennant.

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.

Know Them While You Can

Australian writer, Elizabeth Harrower

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


Australian writer, Gerald Murnane

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.

Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Press and Text Publishing .