Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (3)

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

Back in August I wrote two posts (here and here) about the National Library of Australia’s conference, Writing the Australian landscape. At the time I said that I would provide a link when the talks became available on-line.

Well, they apparently went on-line a month or so ago and the NLA very kindly tweeted the fact to me. However, I was overseas at the time and having a semi-break from constant on-line connection – and have consequently only caught up with the tweet now. Better late than never eh?

So, if you are still interested in checking out any of the wonderful talks I discussed in my posts, here is the link.

As you may remember from my posts, I found it all excellent, but if I had to recommend some to you, these would be the ones:

  • Murray Bail‘s keynote address on day 1, which was provocative about what he sees as our (Australian) need to define ourselves by our landscape. He concluded by asking readers to be “explorers” and open to new ways of writing, to not expect “landscape” to be the way into Australianness.
  • Bill Gammage‘s keynote address on day 2, which was provocative in a different way, arguing that there is a progression from notions of “landscape” and “place” to “country” which, in indigenous terms, is synonymous with “culture”. He argued that we still “view” the land as outsiders, rather than seeking to relate to it in a more spiritual, organic way, and challenged us to be willing to learn from indigenous Australians.
  • Jeanine Leane’s paper which, among other things, confronted us with our (that is, white/non-indigenous) preconceived notions about what we define as Australian classics. Now I have the paper I can quote directly. It was powerful. She said:

Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.

It is very hard, Leane showed us, to step outside our own world-view … but that’s why we read, talk about reading, and listen to readers and writers isn’t it? I certainly found my world-view shifting as we went through the weekend. How do I, as a non-indigenous Australian, need and want to relate to this land I also call home. It would be presumptuous to try to relate to it as an indigenous person does. But we are lucky here to have people with such a deep knowledge of and relationship with the land. We can learn a lot from them: practical things about how to care for the land, and, perhaps more importantly, what a true relationship with the land really means and the responsibility accompanying that.

Anyhow, I’m very glad to be able to share the link to the papers, and would love to hear from you if you do read any of them.

6 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (3)

  1. Thanks for the link! I will definitely be checking them out though it will probably be awhile as I am swamped with my historical fiction mooc and TS Eliot at the moment. If only we could switch time off for a little while so we can fit everything in!

  2. I’ve read the Bail and the Gammage.

    Gammage presents himself solidly; Bail makes one of those arguments that feels as if it deserves to be right, because it’s so neat, binary, and punitive — that authors in the Old World don’t think they need to write about landscape because it’s so familiar, and writers in the New World do, because they’re not comfortable — but his examples are dishonest: he cherrypicks and evades. Proust may have spent more time describing architecture and fashion than landscape (and if you count flowers as part of the landscape then this gets very dubious. Proust will talk your ear off about flowers — and come to think of it, why does Bail think that “architecture” is not part of the French landscape when the country views in Temps Perdu often have church spires in them; the author even explicitly connects the two: “invariably the charm of all the fancies which the thought of cathedrals used to inspire in me, the charm of the hills and valleys of the Ile de France and of the plains of Normandy …”?) but it is wrong to suggest that he didn’t need to think about it because it was too taken-for-granted — not when the first volume of the Temps Perdu is named after a country walk (the way by Swann’s), not when the network of country paths returns at the end of the story and comes to represent one of the book’s guiding ideas, not when so much weight is being placed on specific places visited at specific times (the beach in the second book), and not when he describes the countryside with such attention and love:

    “The ‘Méséglise way’ with its lilacs, its hawthorns, its cornflowers, its poppies, its apple-trees, the ‘Guermantes way’ with its river full of tadpoles, its water-lilies, and its buttercups have constituted for me for all time the picture of the land in which I fain would pass my life, in which my only requirements are that I may go out fishing, drift idly in a boat, see the ruins of a gothic fortress in the grass, and find hidden among the cornfields — as Saint-André-des-Champs lay hidden — an old church, monumental, rustic, and yellow like a mill-stone; and the cornflowers, the hawthorns, the apple-trees which I may happen, when I go walking, to encounter in the fields, because they are situated at the same depth, on the level of my past life, at once establish contact with my heart.” (Moncrieff translation.)

    “[T]he smallest detail of either of them appeared to me a precious thing,” he writes in Swann’s Way, referring to those country walks.

    And it is not honest to cite Austen if you’re not going to grapple with the obvious counterexamples: Hardy and the Brontes, or, in the twentieth century, D.H. Lawrence, Cowper Powys, the British landscape-mystics (who were numerous and whose existence is an assault upon his point), the whole genre of nature writers that began with Gilbert White and still publishes today in the form of Mabey and Macfarlane and others — Bail has given us no hard evidence to support the idea that Old World writers abandon or downplay landscape and New World writers hug it to their bosoms. It seems I only post on your blog to argue things, I know, but it frustrates me: if he was going to touch on these things then why couldn’t he have driven deeper, acknowledged that Old World authors do indeed write about nature, and gone into detail about the differences? That would have been a solid talk. Now I wonder what to make of those moments in his lecture when he touches directly on Australia, because the New World/Old World parts look so much like wishful thinking tricked out with skimp. Should I regard the Australian parts in the same way, or do I take it for granted that he’s skimpy in one area but solid in the other? I don’t know.

    • Oh never apologise for coming here to argue, DKS. I love that you do. I take you point about the Bail paper … it’s provocative but more loosely argued, a little more over the place. He apparently struggled with even agreeing to do the address.

      You make some good arguments but I’m grappling with what I think Bail meant, and that is how the landscape is used in the writings. He’s suggesting that Australians use landscape to define who we as Australians are. I don’t think that that is how Hardy uses landscape, or the Brontes. Both of these use nature to represent something wild and uncivilised – but more in a Romantic metaphoric/symbolic sense regarding things like fate, or passions run (perhaps unnaturally or too naturally?) amok. The Australian landscape could be seen to be similarly wild and uncivilised but I think he’s saying it’s used to define us, not to tell stories about humanity. Is any of this making sense? We probably need him to expand his ideas more to be really sure. (I’m afraid, says she guiltily, I can’t comment on Proust BUT I am finally reading Stead. For love alone. Am impressed with her language, even in the first few chapters. Powerful use of words and their ambiguous, ironic potential.)

      • The how is the subject I wish he’d gone into. Landscape is wild in Hardy and the Brontes but that wildness is in the characters: it is in them as Britons, and it attaches them to that landscape. It is their wildness, as inhabitants of that island. The past is a note that Hardy keeps hitting, and it is specifically a British past.

        “Not a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green “ridgeway”—the Ickneild Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.” (from Jude the Obscure)

        You can find passages like that all over his work. (“Neglected and overgrown” — old Britain is being lost, the people are losing themselves, they are neglecting their land, they are transforming themselves without care.) He expresses himself with ideas that could have come straight from Ruskin (eg: in the same book he describes an old “original church” replaced by “a tall new building of modern Gothic design, unfamiliar to English eyes”). Ruskin was a favourite of Proust’s as well.

        Ruskin believed that landscape and character and architecture should all marry intimately: he absolutely believed that a people should be shaped by their landscape. The book I’ve been reading, his Poetry of Architecture, is a treatise on the kinds of buildings that people in each country need to inhabit if they’re going to seem properly rooted to their place. An Italian can live in a villa, but villas in the British countryside — no. The land is wrong. The people are wrong. So I think that landscape as an expression of — I’m not going to speak for Germany and Hungary and other parts of Europe — but in the case of Britain I think that writers have been using landscape to define and explain Britishness for a very long time. They still do it today (example: Geoffrey Hill).

        Stead’s ace.

        • She certainly is ace, I agree DKS … the writing is delicious and, although the time period could date it – society has moved on rather, it feels very modern. You can see Stead champing at the bit!

          That’s a great great from Hardy. I have done a little thinking about Ruskin and 18th-19th century landscape in recent months via my Jane Austen group. You argue well – and I take your point that architecture could be included in “landscape”. Definitions are tricky. Does landscape include the sea/ocean?

          I’d love Bail to explore his ideas more, before I discard them though. Something clearly bothers him – which is clear from his work – and I’d like to understand more. I sense that we as a nation are still struggling to define ourselves – and that may be the difference. The British do it “knowing” who and what they are. And Bail thinks that Americans – with books like Augie March – have reached that point. But I think he is suggesting that here landscape is used as a “crutch” that prevents us from exploring more deeply, more complexly. I do sense, right now in many quarters here, a jockeying between white and indigenous experience of the landscape/of country and an anxiety about finding a way through it – particularly when you add in the recent immigrant experience too.

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