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!