Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s difficult novels

A week or so ago I wrote a post about reading difficult novels. As I researched that post, I came across many lists of difficult novels, including the one I included at the end of the post. The interesting thing is that none of the lists I saw included any Australian novels, and yet they included novels from most of the other continents. Do we not have any, or, more likely, are we just not on the world literature radar enough? Anyhow, I thought I’d get the ball rolling and suggest a few possibilities:

  • Patrick White’s Voss. It’s logical to start with White, because, currently, he’s Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature. (I’ll do the rest alphabetically!).I’m not sure that Voss is his most difficult novel, but it depends on your definition of difficult. White’s prose is dense, with complex sentence structures and intense, but vivid imagery. Many readers find Voss particularly hard to read, though, because of the spiritual communion between Voss in the desert and Laura in the city. However, it appealed to my teenage sense of romance and resulted in my falling love with White.
  • Thea Astley’s Drylands. I’ve read quite a few Astleys. After all, she’s one of my favourite writers. She has a reputation for being difficult, with her earliest novels being particularly so, but I’ve chosen her last because of its form and its sense of desperation. Writer Mandy Sayer, an admirer like me, agrees that she is not “an easy read”, saying that she is “at once poetic, quirky, and literary”. Her imagery can be over the top, and she doesn’t shy from exploring our brutality, but she has such a heart. Every Australian should read her.
  • Peter Carey’s Illywhacker. Carey is hard to pin down, as his books vary so greatly. It’s one of the reasons I like him. You never know what you are going to get, from the at times surreal, to something like True history of the Kelly gang with its 19th century vernacular, unpolished grammar and largely absent punctuation, to the complexly structured like Parrot and Olivier in America (my review) and The chemistry of tears (my review). I’ve chosen Illywhacker, not because it’s regarded as his hardest but because I haven’t read it (yet).
  • JM Coetzee’s Diary of a bad year (my review). Coetzee, in this book and its predecessor Elizabeth Costello, pushes the envelope in terms of “the novel”. Some argued that Elizabeth Costello was more a series of lectures than a novel. Diary of a bad year presents readers with a very specific challenge. How do you read it, with its three (two to begin with) concurrent strands running across the top, middle and bottom of the page? Do you read one strand and then come back and read the next? Or do you try to read them concurrently? This is one of those books that is a challenge to read for its unusual structure and for the interplay between ideas and story that the reader needs to tease out.
  • Gerald Murnane’s The plains (my review). As blogger M. Sarki has written, “There is nothing but difficulty in reading a book written by Gerald Murnane.  But the reading gives me an enormous amount of pleasure…”. Murnane is one of our most innovative writers. He’s a challenge to read – where am I?, what is he saying? – but there’s exhilaration in that. I need to read more of him.

I think five is probably a good start, particularly given I’ve rambled on about each one. Other writers well worth considering if you are looking for “difficult” Australian literature include Rodney Hall, Thomas Keneally (his early works), David Malouf, Frank Moorhouse, Christos Tsiolkas. Not all works by these writers are “difficult” but many are recognised to be so.

I’ve read works by each of the writers I’ve named, but I’m sure other Aussies could name some favourite writers and “difficult” novels too. Has anyone read, for example, Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Let’s get our Aussies out there!

39 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s difficult novels

  1. Of course I had to add every one of those books to my TBR list! Some of them will be easier to acquire than others, so thank goodness for interlibrary loan! And for the record, you are evil 😉

    • Oh, Jessica, I think you did, but I put it aside until I read her and then forgot! I recognise the opening paragraph. I loved For love alone. How could I have not mentioned Stead in my post … Several in my reading group didn’t finish her.

      • Oh that makes me feel better! I was feeling terrible for not being a good reader, esp when she is one of our literary greats whom I ought to study to be a good writer. However I persevered with all my White novels and loved them, and I also appreciated Murnane. Parts of his novels still stay with me, though he is confounding.

        • Oh Jessica you should never feel you’re a terrible reader! You know that! 🙂 I think we all have books we consider difficult, that others don’t, and vice versa. I know what you mean about Murnane. His prose is mesmerising even if confounding at times, as you say. His brain works in mysterious ways.

    • Thanks Karen Lee. Yes they all do have different reasons but I decided not to be so mechanistic as to match them to my schema! I haven’t read it, but my sense is that Dead Europe would be regarded by many as “difficult”. He has said it was the one where he tried to take risks with his writing. have you read it?

  2. Hi, Sue, Illywhacker is one of my all-time favourites. It’s a wild rollercoaster but it’s not that difficult. You’ll love it, I reckon. Voss has such a reputation I was scared of reading it for years, but when I did I really enjoyed it, (and as a fan of magical realism, I found the desert connection between Voss and Laura fabulous!). I agree with Murnane, and was going to mention Stead but Jessica beat me to it. I suppose some people find both Alexis Wright and Kim Scott difficult. That Deadman Dance could fit into your list, but I loved that too, and didn’t find it as hard as some people did. I can’t think of any others, but am enjoying the conversation. Cheers, John

    • Yes, thanks for those suggestions John. I must read Illywhacker. I’m glad people are coming up with ideas … as I hoped. Wright and Scott and good suggestions too. Voss was, as I think I’ve said, my first White. I read it before I heard he was difficult – I suspect being told something is difficult, even if one likes a challenge, can sometimes be off-putting. We might still want to read it, but we feel we have to find the right time for the concentration we think we are going to need!

  3. Hi Sue, Morris Lurie is an interesting Australian writer that some find difficult because of his unique use of language. John Bryson writes: ‘Lurie is the best writer of the circumfluent sentence of anyone, anywhere, anytime’. Have a look some time.

  4. Some of my friends find Tim Winton difficult, because he ‘so depressing’. I loved Thea Astley’s novels and didn’t find them difficult. I enjoy J M Coetzee, but agree his books can be difficult to read. Murnane is a challenge to read, and for me not as rewarding as Patrick White or Christina Stead. However, the most difficult Australian novel I have read is Gould’s book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, but is now one of my favourite Australian novels. I must try to find Prelude to Christopher.

    • Thankyou for adding Flanagan’s Gould, Meg. You mentioned it in your previous comment and I dang forgot! I was under pressure yesterday with entertaining and trying to finish The luminaries for reading group today that I forgot to go back and check the comments on that post. Silly me! Just as well I’m doing this for fun and am not being marked on my thoroughness! I remember finding Gould a bit of a challenge but I loved it for the language, but particularly for the tone. It’s a wonderful read. I now have an audiobook version of it that I want to listen to sometime.

      I wondered about Winton, but I just couldn’t make him difficult – but you are right, some do find his subject matter difficult, in the misery/depressing sense.

  5. I wonder if we might add David Foster to that list – certainly very challenging! Of Thea Astley’s novels I found The Acolyte to be a difficult but rewarding read.

    • Oh yes, of course you can Graeme. He is gap in my Aussie reading that I must rectify. I’ve read quite a lot of Astley, but she was pretty prolific wasn’t she? I haven’t read The acolyte.

  6. Years ago I read a thought-provoking essay by American critic Wyatt Mason, where he argued that great literary style is a matter of bones, not flesh. It’s not surface elaboration that matters, but whether the structure on which the surface lies is strong. I often think about this, and in a discussion of ‘difficult’ novels – Australian or otherwise – it seems to sum up my approach. A novel becomes difficult for me when I lose the connection between the surface and the depths of meaning that surface ought to be reflecting, or illuminating. It’s then I begin to wonder if it’s worth persevering with the book.

    • That’s an interesting perspective Dorothy. I’m always interested in the bones – in the structure – as it often does “inform” the meaning in some way. So, your comment makes sense, though I’d never really thought of it in that way before. I am now thinking about this very thing with The luminaries.

    • Ah yes, Castro too, thanks RJ … why are our difficult writers not known outside Australia! It says something doesn’t it about how low on the radar we really are. We are coming up with a list of inventive writers.

  7. I have to admit I tried to read a Thea Astley and gave up and put her on the “do not ever attempt to read again” list. Oh dear, not sure if that is the right thing to do! I have Carpentaria by Alexis Wright in my tbr but keep getting put off as it is meant to be a difficult read.

    • Which Astley, do you remember Sharkell? Coda could be a good one to start with. It’s short and one of her more straightforward ones without lacking her acerbic tongue. As I recollect, its opening lines are “I’m losing my nouns…”. The main character is an older woman …

      • It was A Kindness Cup. Did you read that one? I can’t remember much about it other than the fact that I didn’t make it past a few pages, which is very unusual for me as I will usually give a book around 50 to 100 pages before I give up on them.

        • Oh yes, that was my first and I loved it – sorry! It’s a pretty powerful one about white-indigenous relations in a country town. It does start off very densely as I recollect. Do try Coda one day, says she bossily!

  8. Interesting discussion! I agree re White, Stead and Carey, though did not find Astley as challenging. I have just finished The Sooterkin by Tom Gilling and was surprised by the low ratings it had received on goodreads. I think it is because it is a difficult novel despite being only 200 pages. It has multiple points of view, a distractible narrative and a lot of incidental characters. I really enjoyed it however!

    • Oh good for you Senga. Most people find Astley hard, though I think her books vary a bit. I love her. I haven’t heard of Tom GIlling (so will have to check him out), but it’s interesting how short books can often be difficult.

  9. I haven’t read The Luminaries. I keep coming across comments that put me off – of course that’s no excuse. Castro is a good example of what I was trying to describe. The surface of his prose is fluid and constantly shifting, but so are the underlying meanings too. I know this is deliberate, but still…

  10. I know she’s from NZ, but I found Eleanor Catton “The Luminaries” painful in the extreme, which is why I didn’t review it for Books Now! Overlong, I found its structure got in the way of a clear read and I confess having to go back and forth trying to figure out who did what to whom. Although impressive in scope and history, it reeked of pretentiousness. I also struggle with Patrick White, although I persevere and hope something will click one day….

    • Oh thanks Dina … I’m just writing my review of The luminaries now. Will post it tonight or tomorrow, but I do know what you are saying. I didn’t find it painful in the extreme, but I’m not sure the structure added a lot to the meaning except perhaps one point but I’m still sorting my ideas out.

  11. Voss is my favourite book! And yet I haven’t read the others except a brief read of Thea Astley most probably at the wrong time. I must find some more of her books. I’m keen to read Prelude to Christopher too. And I confess I found I couldn’t let go enough to appreciate Carpentaria recently – think I must take it away with me and not read at the end of the day. I could sense it was a beautiful body of work, but just couldn’t let it seep in properly.
    Some of Christina Stead’s work could be called ‘difficult’, or even Shirley Hazzard’s, but they are not impenetrable at all – just lively sluicing language and shivering themes!

    • Yes, you’re right, Catherine, I should have included Stead in my post. No idea why she slipped my mind. I think Carpentaria does need a fresh early in the day brain. I wonder whether that was part of my problem with The luminaries. I read a lot of it late at night, after the Australian Open tennis matches!

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