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David Malouf turns 80

March 20, 2014

I’m not in the habit of celebrating authors’ special birthdays, but David Malouf is a very special Aussie author – and he turns 80 today. Some have suggested over the years that he would be a worthy Nobel Laureate – and I’d agree. He is quite the Renaissance man in the breadth of his interests and intelligence.

David Malouf reading Ransom

Malouf reading Ransom, National Library of Australia, August 2009

So who is he? I suspect that many non-Australian readers may not have heard of him. He is a novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer and, even, librettist. He has won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Remembering Babylon, the Miles Franklin Award for The great world, the Australia-Asia Literary Award, the Pascall Prize for critical writing, and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He gave the annual Boyer Lectures in 1998, and in 2004 he was the guest lecturer for Canada’s La Fontaine-Baldwin Symposium. His speech there dealt with an issue he often returns to, that of national identity, particularly in settler societies like Australia and Canada.

I have read several works by Malouf – Johnno (his autobiographical novel), An imaginary lifeFly away Peter (one of my favourite novellas and one of my “go-to” novels when I’m asked to recommend an Aussie book), Remembering Babylon, Conversations at Curlow Creek and Ransom (my review). I have his Complete short stories on my TBR pile. And I have seen him live – once at a breakfast reading of his novel Ransom, and once when I brazenly marched up to him* when he was sitting on a sofa in the National Library foyer to tell him I loved his work! So, yes, you could say I’m a fan.

Malouf has sometimes been described as an expatriate Australian writer because he spent many of his early adult years overseas, in England and particularly Tuscany. However, he is now based primarily in Sydney. In the interview broadcast today on ABC Radio National, he indicated that he did not see himself as an expatriate or exiled writer but that, if I remember correctly, the distance and isolation gave him space to think and write. In fact, in an interview included in the book, David Malouf (UQP, 1990), he said:

When I was living in England, Australia did become much clearer to me […] In some ways – well, I think I said it somewhere in Johnno – I really had never left Australia. And I found that I could be a long way from the actual experience – I mean, a long way in time, but often a long way in place as well – before I could work out what it all meant. I think I’m very slow about things like that.

I should be so slow!

Two books have been published this year to commemorate his 80th birthday. One is a new collection of poetry, Earth Hour, published by the University of Queensland Press. Hmm, this one is a new collection so is perhaps not so much a commemoration of as coincidental with his becoming an octogenarian! The other, though, is more commemorative I believe. It’s a collection of essays, A first place, published by Random House. It contains previously published or presented essays and lectures from the last three decades. The title story “A first place”, for example, was the Blacklock Lecture delivered at the Sydney University in 1984.

Introducing this collection, he writes:

Poems, novels, short stories, as works of imagination, are written out of inner necessity; they come to us out of who-knows-where, choosing their own time and having no existence until they are there on the page. They are entirely personal. […] The pieces in this collection are of another kind altogether and have a different source. They were from the beginning someone else’s idea; I wrote them on invitation, or at someone else’s suggestion. […] These pieces of writing are personal in that they have their basis in personal experience and represent personal opinions, but their purpose was from the beginning public; they belong to that part of my life that is conscious and considered rather than dreamily obscure until it demands to be expressed …

I love the way he clearly articulates the genesis of these different types of writing. I suspect it’s similar for most writers who cross the fictional-nonfictional line, but his way of expressing it – the “conscious and considered” versus “the dreamily obscure” – is beautiful. I look forward to reading these essays, which I have just this day downloaded to my Kindle. That “buy with one-click” on Amazon is a dangerous thing!

Anyhow, happy birthday to David. May he write many more of his beautiful, thoughtful books.

* I have only done this twice to an author – that is, walked up to them in an informal situation and imposed myself on their private space. I did it on the understanding that authors appreciate feedback from readers. I hope that’s right! On both occasions I said a sentence or two and then departed their space.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2014 9:40 pm

    An Imaginary Life must surely be one of my favourite books and to think my copy was borrowed and never came home..

    I’m very daunted by authors but I did bundle up to Simon Van Booy who was at a reading I did in December – I had been enjoying his non-fiction book on the plane!

    • March 20, 2014 9:55 pm

      But, you’re an author, Catherine! You’re not allowed to be daunted! I must read An imaginary life again. It’s my least favourite of those I’ve read but I think that’s because of where my life/head was at the time. Everyone else in my reading group (for which I read it) loved it. As I recollect I was over-extended at the time and just didn’t really read it properly.

      • March 21, 2014 10:12 am

        Can I just chime in here and say, Catherine, that I loved An Imaginary Life. Lovely writing, acute observation of the world and relationships, and such a clever , unobtrusive study of the ways we use language to communicate experience. And I loved that it was historical fiction that described the ‘ordinary’ people without continual reference to kings and queens in order to create a narrative. Well worth a second read, I think, WG. And it’s not too long!

        • March 21, 2014 11:28 am

          Thanks Robyn … yes, I’ve been aware for some time that I should give this another try. I really was out of it when I read it, I know. I certainly appreciate “ordinary people” historical fiction. I think I felt I needed to “know” Ovid – Roman classics and classical/ancient history are not my forte – and that probably made me anxious.

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    March 20, 2014 10:20 pm

    Many happy returns to David! In my 3rd Year at Sydney he was one of my lecturers – I was 18 becoming 19 – departing a fundamentalist Protestant sect – beginning to understand the literature I was reading – and so connecting more with the world – with which that narrow religious viewpoint had told me I was to have no truck! Interesting and unsettling time. And David MALOUF – I recall his gentle reading voice. And WG – d’accord re Fly Away Peter.
    pp.132, 133: “She watched the waves build, hang and fall, one after the other in decades, in centuries, all morning and on into the early afternoon; and was preparing, wearily, to gather up her equipment and start back – had risen in fact, and shouldered the tripod, when she saw something amazing.
    A youth was walking – no, running, on the water. Moving fast over the surface. Hanging delicately balanced there with his arms raised and his knees slightly bent as if upheld by invisible strings. She had seen nothing like it. He rode rapidly towards her; then, on the crest of the wave, sharply outlined against the sky, went down fast into the darkening hollow, fell, and she saw a kind of plank flash in the sunlight and go flying up behind him.
    She stood there. Fascinated. The youth, retrieving the board among the flurry of white in the shallows, knelt upon it and began paddling out against the waves. Far out, a mere dot on the sunlit water, where the waves gathered and began, she saw him paddle again, then miraculously rise, moving faster now, and the whole performance was repeated: the balance, the still dancing in the surface, the brief etching of his body against the sky at the very moment, on the wave’s lip, when he would slide into its hollows and fall.”

    Such beautifully lyrical writing about surfing I have never before nor since read anywhere.

    • March 20, 2014 11:10 pm

      Thanks Jim … he is such a gentle man in all senses of the word I think. I like to avoid using the description “lyrical writing” because it can be so cliched, but it’s hard to think of anything else when describing his writing isn’t it?

      • March 27, 2014 1:36 am

        Like very dreamy singing, yes. Remembering Babylon is the Malouf I love, though the last chapter scratches at me. I think it’s there for the theme and not for the rhythm. (The book goes down and lands gently in the second-final chapter, then the final chapter hoists it up on a skyhook and dangles it past its use-by date while Thoughts are being worked out.)

        • March 27, 2014 8:10 am

          Oh, Pykk … I’ll now have to read it again to see what you mean … It’s been a long time.

  3. March 21, 2014 1:17 am

    Happy birthday to David Malouf! I loved Fly Away Peter and I will always be grateful for that gift 🙂 I was just thinking the other day about how I might be able to fit Ransom into my reading pile. Very bold of you to approach him in public. I don’t think I’d be able to get up the nerve!

    • March 21, 2014 4:25 am

      So glad you liked that book Stefanie. Given your interest in the classics AND that it’s is short, I reckon you should aim to celebrate Malouf’s birthday this year by reading Ransom this year!

      As for getting up the nerve, it really was only because I’d read that authors (a big generalisation I know) appreciate positive response (like any of us do, I suppose). And I really did only walk up, say two sentences and walk away, as I was most anxious about intruding on his space. He seemed to be sitting there waiting for someone. The first author I did this with was Kate Grenville and she seemed really chuffed whereas Malouf is such a dignified man (not that Grenville doesn’t have dignity), that I’m not so sure about whether he appreciated it or not.

  4. March 21, 2014 1:23 am

    And Happy Birthday to Mr. Malouf from across the pond where yes some of us have heard of you and are fans. I think I’ve read 4 of Malouf’s novels and thoroughly enjoyed 3. (I perhaps wasn’t in the mood for the fourth.)

    • March 21, 2014 4:26 am

      Which was the one you (possibly) weren’t in the mood for, Bekah?

      • March 21, 2014 4:39 am

        Fly Away Peter got a bit too graphic about war casualties for my tastes, at least at the time. Still, I rated it an 8.5. My favorite of the ones I’ve read is probably a tie between Ransom and Remembering Babylon.
        http://beckylindroos.wordpress.com/062013-2/fly-away-peter/

        • March 21, 2014 5:32 am

          Ah yes, I remember now. Interesting response because it’s the favourite of many people. I remember the war aspect being terribly sad, but I most remember the beauty of his writing and of the friendship that developed between the three main characters, and the overlay of “class” in our so-called classless society. Remembering Babylon is another of people’s favourites. For me though another favourite is The conversations at Curlow Creek. For some reason that one grabbed me too, though it is mentioned less by people than are the ones we’ve mentioned.

  5. March 21, 2014 1:53 am

    I have his Fly Away Peter on the shelf not yet read….

  6. March 21, 2014 5:08 am

    You did your brazen march-up all wrong for this day and age. Unless you took a selfie with him and posted it on instagram with twenty hashtags, it doesn’t count. 😉

    PS I think I’ve fallen in love with David Malouf purely from those two quotes.

    • March 21, 2014 5:34 am

      Good one Hannah … I hadn’t thought of that in terms of how people might approach “celebs” today … just as well it was before all that. It was in the time of mobile phones but I think before the prevalence of smart phones. (Certainly before I had one).

  7. March 21, 2014 8:23 am

    He really is something … And so not in your face !

    • March 21, 2014 9:24 am

      Yes, MR, that’s a good way of describing him. A gentle, thoughtful, respectful man.

  8. March 21, 2014 9:35 am

    I heard the ABC radio national interview with him yesterday morning. It was really interesting. I’m glad they did it. I was in Coles in Hobart one day and Robert Dessaix was picking out yogurt and I handed the container to him. Strawberry. He seemed to like it. I love his books too and was quite pleased with myself. Ha ha ha.

    • March 21, 2014 11:02 am

      Oh that’s too funny Pam. You’re contact was helpful! I must read more Dessaix too. An interesting man.

  9. March 21, 2014 10:44 am

    Thanks for the reminder and the following discussions. Time to go and start some re-reading.

    • March 21, 2014 11:24 am

      Exactly, lazy coffees. Though I’m going to read some of the essays I think — when I travel this year.

  10. March 21, 2014 11:46 am

    Australian Book Review are hosting an evening with this great writer on 23 April at Federation Square. There are still tickets left: a free event. Check ABR’s website for details.

    • March 21, 2014 12:08 pm

      Thanks for letting us know that, Dina! Melbournites take note. He’s well worth seeing.

  11. March 21, 2014 1:51 pm

    So glad to read your post on David Malouf. ‘Fly Away Peter’ (perhaps less well known than some others?) is a personal favourite – also two I don’t think you mention – ‘The Great World’ and his memoir of growing up in Queensland – ’12 Edmonstone Street’. A friend gave me this last and I’ve treasured it ever since.

    • March 21, 2014 3:06 pm

      Thanks Dorothy … The great world had mixed reviews as I recollect so have never acquired it, but as the Miles Franklin winner and with your recommendation, I will think about it. I do have 12 Edmonstone St and am keen to get to it. I won’t say how long I’ve had it!

  12. March 21, 2014 2:12 pm

    i heard most of the ABC interview and comments yesterday, and both An Imaginary Life and Ransom are among my favourite Australian novels.

    • March 21, 2014 3:09 pm

      It was a good program wasn’t it crlbth59? Ransom is beautiful too I agree. But why does no one ever mention The conversations at Curlow Creek? Seems like I’m the only one to love it!

  13. March 21, 2014 4:28 pm

    Great post, Sue. I can’t believe I’ve only read ‘Remembering Babylon’, (which I enjoyed a lot). I’ve now added Fly Away Peter to the TBR! Cheers, John.

    • March 21, 2014 4:32 pm

      Funny, John, about the odd gaps in our reading isn’t it? I think Fly away Peter is the best next choice … but there’s a whole treasure of reading awaiting you (and me, as I haven’t read all of his and am keen to re-read others).

  14. March 30, 2014 3:29 am

    It jumps forward in time. Two of the characters who were alive in the earlier time talk about their memories. Now the book has a few more ideas in it, but as far as the rhythm of the story is concerned it’s as if he’d put an extra chapter at the end of Imaginary Life with the wild boy chatting to a tree. “Ovid! Oh gees, yeah, I remember him. Top bloke.”

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