Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from Victoria

Coat of Arms of Victoria (Australia)

Victoria's Coat of Arms (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Over the course of these Monday musings have been occasional posts on writers from specific geographic locations in Australia – but I have not done our two most populous regions, the states of Victoria and New South Wales. The time has come to confront there two – and so, today, I present you Victoria.

Now Victoria is a special state – not only does Mr Gums Jr live there, but its capital Melbourne was the second city to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature! That’s a pretty impressive achievement. I have written some literary road posts on Victoria, which have mostly focused on writers and works from the past, so in this post I will, as I have done in other regional posts, list (in no particular order) five of my favourite current writers from Victoria – some were born there, some migrated there.

Helen Garner

Garner is one of our most controversial writers – and has been, really, since the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip, which some critics argued was simply her writing her own life. They meant by this that it had no creative merit, no literary value. This didn’t deter our Helen though, and she has gone on to become one of our significant writers – of both fiction and non-fiction. She has also written some successful screenplays. She writes about relationships and the things that cause disconnects between people, no matter how much they wish it might not be so. As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t always agree with Garner, but I am always happy to read her because the woman has style. I’ve read too many of hers to list here, but if you’d like a recommendation, please ask!

Elliot Perlman

You may not have heard of Perlman, particularly if you are not Australian, because he is not particularly prolific. The first novel of his that I read was the multiple point of view Seven types of ambiguity (which makes a sly reference to literary theorist William Empson‘s book of the same name). It’s a good, thoughtful book about love and obsession, and the ambiguities therein! I then read Three dollars which explores the question of what happens “when bad things happen to good people” and how consumerism challenges (compromises) our values. It was adapted for film, starring the gorgeous David Wenham (aka Diver Dan if you are a Sea Change fan). Both these novels are set in Melbourne. According to Wikipedia he has a third novel out this year.

Arnold Zable

If you have been reading this blog recently, Arnold Zable will need no introduction. His focus is human rights, with a particular interest in the migrant experience. I’ve read two of his novels – Cafe Scheherazade and The sea of many returns – and will happily read more. His prose is lovely, his attitude warm and generous. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, Violin lessons.

Beverley Farmer

I’m going to throw in a somewhat forgotten, I think, writer here. Way back in 1988 when my reading group started, we focussed on Australian writers, particularly Australian women writers. One of those was Beverley Farmer. We read her collection of short stories Milk and not long after I also read her second collection of short stories, Home time. Both these were published in the 1980s. She has also written novels, and one of those writers’ notebooks, A body of water, in which she documented her ideas and thoughts over a year, the books she was reading, the people she met. I was drawn to her because of the evocative way she conveyed her experience of being a young Australian wife in a Greek village. Like Perlman, she’s not prolific, but in 2009 she was awarded the Patrick White Award (for writers who “have made a substantial contribution to Australian literature but … may not have received adequate recognition for their work”) which says something about the quality of her work.

Peter Carey

I’ll conclude on another controversial writer. People, it seems, either love him or hate him – and I fall more in the first camp. He is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice. I have by no means read all of his books but I like the fact that he takes risks in his writing. I think his Oscar and Lucinda is a worthy contender for the Great Australian Novel (should we take that notion seriously). His True history of the Kelly Gang makes a significant contribution to the Ned Kelly myth by attempting to tell the story in Kelly’s voice. It is not all “true” in the factual sense, but it contains a “truth” that Carey thought worth exploring. His most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in Americatook more risks – in voice and subject matter. Carey, as many of you will know, now lives in New York, but he was born in Victoria – and that’s good enough for this post!

So there you are, five Victorian writers. Now’s your chance to tell me what Victorian writers you like – or simply whether the writers I’ve listed here interest you.

40 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from Victoria

  1. Well, I know four of the five very well 😉

    I am currently reading a review copy of Elliot Perlman’s latest novel, ‘The Street Sweeper’ (I’ve had a very fortunate couple of weeks!) – a little slow to start, but it’s getting more interesting now.

    By the way, my review of ‘Violin Lessons’ is out on my blog – well worth reading (the book, not the review!).

    • Thanks Tony — I know which one you are this time! have you read the other Perlmans? And which one don’t you know – I’m guessing it’s Farmer.

      I’ll check out your review of the Zable.

      • Yes, I have ‘Seven Types…’ and ‘Three Dollars’ at home (both read several times), and I read and reviewed the short-story collection earlier this year. I’ve loved everything so far, so we’ll have to see how this one pans out…

        …and yes, Farmer is the only one I have yet to encounter 🙂

        • I guessed it would be Farmer … I recommend (obviously!) that you look her out some time. As for Perlman, I’d love to read his short stories one day. Just need to find the time!

  2. Anyone who isn’t a SeaChange fan should just stop being so silly. 😛 Also, I’m fascinated right now my imagining if Mr Gums Jr’s name actually was Mr Gum’s name, Jr. That would be so weird.

  3. Five interesting choices there Sue. I’m of course most familiar with Helen Garner and Peter Carey- although I haven’t read all of their work by any stretch. I do feel somewhat ashamed at never having read Oscar and Lucinda. I’ve heard of the other three, but haven’t read any of their work. As a coincidence I blogged a new to me Victorian children’s author this morning- Martine Murray. Tomorrow I’m just about to launch into The Slap- by yet another Victorian author.

    • Oh, I’m so behind in children’s authors. I’ve never heard of Martine Murray … is she a new author? I’ll try to get over to your review to find out. Oh, and you should read Oscar and Lucinda. I’d rather like to read it again, actually.

  4. I’ve got Seven types of ambiguity on my TBR pile. I didn’t know Perlman was Australian. I’ve heard lots of good things about the book. I think I have to find what pile it is in and move up to the top of the read soon pile!

    • I’m surprised, speaking as an Australian in the US, how easy it is to find Perlman in this country. I walk into a library in Nevada– there he is. I walk into a secondhand bookshop in Arizona — there he is. The man’s like some sort of literary rash.

      • Actually, now you both (Stefanie and DKS) mention it, I remember that around the online bookgroup traps I’ve seen several mentions in America of Seven types of ambiguity — with usually positive responses. I wonder why that book? Clearly the published must have put some effort into that one.

        • Curious. I recall the book getting lots of press in the big book review papers. It also had a really interesting striped cover that was quite eyecatching that began a mini-trend in cover design for short time.

  5. I’m Canadian and a little embarrassed to admit that I really don’t know Australian authors at all (one of the reasons I’ve subscribed to your blog posts). I H AVE read Oscar & Lucinda and thought it brilliant. So – I actually would like a recommendation of what book(s) of Helen Garner’s I should read.


    • Oh good, Debbie … I must say I like Canadian literature of which I’ve read a smattering – particularly Atwood and Munro but also Davies, Findlay, Richler and others. I have a few more on my TBR … I think there’s some similarity between our two countries that makes our works appeal to each other but perhaps I’m being a bit simplistic.

      As for Garner, I’ve reviewed 3 of her books on this blog (you can see them on the Index:Authors page) but I’ve read others too. I think The children’s Bach (which I’ve reviewed here is a good one to start with), and for short stories Postcards from Surfers is a great intro. I haven’t, funnily enough, read Monkey Grip, but you probably wouldn’t go astray with that one either. The spare room is a good example of her fearlessness and her willingness to tackle hard personal issues – it’s about a dying friend and is close to her own experience with a friend. She does tend a lot to draw closely from life, something she makes no apologies for.

      Her non-fiction book The first stone is worth a read. It was VERY controversial at the time and I must say I was one of the ones who disagreed with her take. It’s about a sexual harassment case in a university college. Joe Cinque’s consolation is another non-fiction book of hers – again I have problems with her particular response/take but it’s a great, engrossing read.

      • I’m so very disappointed….the library systems for the ENTIRE PROVINCE of Nova Scotia have only Spare Room and The First Stone. The Children’s Bach is available on Alibris, Amazon & eBay but start at about $25 with shipping…..

        It sounds as if CanLit is more widely available in Australia, than vice-versa. I’m NOT a fan of Atwood but love Davies, Richler, Findlay & Munroe, as well as Carol Shields (!), Margaret Laurence (!!) and Guy Vanderhaege.

        Thanks for the advice on Garner – I’ll start with the two available and go from there.I’m loving learning about Australian authors.

        • Good for you Debbie. I liked The spare room … so I’ll be interested in what you think. If you like her and would like The children’s Bach I could look for a second hand copy here — it’s a novella so would be cheap to post.

          I forgot Carol Shields … yes I like her too. And I’ve wanted to read Laurence’s The stone angel for a long time. Haven’t heard of Vanderhaege. So many writers eh?

          Yes, Canadian literature is fairly well available here … though my Richler was given to me in an Australian Youth Hostel (way way back when) by a Canadian traveller. But Atwood, Shields, Munro in particular are pretty easy to get here. Some of the others I ordered from Amazon though Davis is fairly well known here. Another I like – well I’ve read one – is Alistair McLeod (I think I’ve remembered correctly? His book set in Nova Scotia?) Nova Scotia is a pretty province – I’ve been there once, though mainly in Halifax.

  6. To hear Elliot Perlman, Sunflower Bookshop in Elsternwick is running this event if anyone’s interested.

    Tuesday 25th October at 7.30 pm
    We’re very excited to welcome ELLIOT PERLMAN who will be discussing his new book THE STREET SWEEPER with us. Bookings essential, contact 9523 6405 or

  7. I’m so very disappointed….the library systems for the ENTIRE PROVINCE of Nova Scotia have only Spare Room and The First Stone. The Children’s Bach is available on Alibris, Amazon & eBay but start at about $25 with shipping…..

    It sounds as if CanLit is more widely available in Australia, than vice-versa. I’m NOT a fan of Atwood but love Davies, Richler, Findlay & Munroe, as well as Carol Shields (!), Margaret Laurence (!!) and Guy Vanderhaege.

    Thanks for the advice on Garner – I’ll start with the two available and go from there.I’m loving learning about Australian authors.

  8. I’ m not sure if these two authors quite count: M.J. Hyland who did spend her teenage and early adult life here and Steven Amsterdam who now resides in Melbourne. And somebody above mentioned Christos Tsiolkas too. And I think Chloe Hooper still lives here? I think olde Melbourne town is quite spoiled for choice!

    • Thanks Mae for joining in … Hyland is great though I’m finding it a bit hard to call her Australian, let along Victorian. And I haven’t read Amsterdam of Hooper so am glad you mentioned them. As for Tsiolkas, I meant to say in response to Louise that he was on my shortlist but as I’ve only read one of his books I decided to list five for whom I’ve read more. He is though an important current Melbourne writer isn’t he? Oh, and you are somewhat spoiled for choice.

  9. I just realised that technically I come from Victoria! And I remember Helen Garner was born in Geelong which is where my Dad was working at the time. I just have to work harder with my writing. I loved Perlman’s first book and would read anything by him. I’m curious about the Joe Cinque book because I just read about it and the case seems beyond belief. Haven’t heard of Arnold Zable so must investigate. Enjoying your blog!!

    • Oh, are you Catherine. Joe Cinque is a great book to get your teeth into, so much to think about including the tricky issue regarding “duty of care”. Garner writes it beautifully but is a little blinkered at times … nonetheless, what happened to Joe should not happen to anyone. Having experienced living in other parts of the world, you’d probably love Zable. (And so glad you’re enjoying my blog – thanks).

  10. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: September 29, 2011 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  11. Another one: Joseph Furphy, born in Yerang. That wonderful unmapped moment in Such is Life, when you realise that the first-person narrator is actually an idiot, and then the pleasure of waiting for the author to crack a smile and give the game away — and he never does.

    • Oh yes, DKS, there were so many from the past that I decided to stick with living writers. Didn’t CJ Dennis spend much of his time in Melbourne, though I think he wasn’t born there? And Fergus Hume, one of whose books I’ll be reading and reviewing soon, ended up there too (from England). To my shame, I haven’t yet read Such is life but your comment above has certainly invited me to.

      • I saw you had, but I thought I’d throw in a corpse. Didn’t know that about Dennis, but — all right, I’ve checked and so he did. He worked there for a while, then he bought a country property out at Toolangi in 1915, and if he’d still been there in 2009 he would have been fried out by the big bushfire. There you go, I learn something new every day.

  12. I am not familiar with these other authors mentioned but I am great fan of Peter Carey. I’ve read four of his novels and my favourites were Oscar and Lucinda and My Life as a Fake.
    I must say, I never really liked Theft all that much.
    Have you seen the movie of O & L?
    Oh, Cate Blanchett is the PERFECT Lucinda. My copy of Parrot and Olivier was lost in the mail. I must re-order it!
    Vive l’ Australie!

    • Oh good, another fan. I also enjoyed My life as a fake, but I haven’t yet read Theft. Somehow I missed the film of O&L. I think I had lots on at the time. Should really get it now. I can imagine Cate Blanchett would be great in that role.

    • Oh dear Tom … I think you’ve been quiet too long! I’ve been so busy with hospitalised parents over the last couple of months that I hadn’t looked at my spam list. In an idle moment today I checked and, blow me down, there were about five comments from you listed as Spam, including this rather plaintive one! You have now been resurrected and hopefully will not be sent to spam again. I wonder why it did that?

    • Lots of literary events I reckon Kinna … but Lisa could tell us! They have the Wheeler Centre to foster literary “action” … I think it was established as part of their campaign to become a City of Literature.

  13. The last Glenroy book has one of the most grinningly straight-faced literary nods I’ve seen for a while — the reader already knows that the author likes Proust, and then one of the main characters acquires a girlfriend, who is, literally, a Madeleine.

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