Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary autobiographies

I’ve written Monday Musings on autobiographies and memoirs by indigenous Australians, and I’ve reviewed biographies of Australian writers, like Mary Durack and Madeleine St John. However, I haven’t written about what we might call literary autobiographies, that is, autobiographies by authors. So, today’s the day. I have read several literary autobiographies, but few since I started blogging. Being a reader, I’m interested in writers’ autobiographies or memoirs – because I’m interested in writers, and because, rightly or wrongly, I expect a good writer to be able to write a good autobiography (however we define “good”!)  There are, as I’m sure you know some famous/popular/well-regarded author autobiographies, such as Nabokov’s Speak, memory, but of course here I’m focussing on Australians.

I’m not going to get into the why and wherefores of writing autobiography or analyse how useful or relevant they might be to understanding a particular writer’s works.I’m just going to list – alphabetically by author – a few that I’ve either read, dipped into, or would like to read.

Robert Drewe’s The shark net (2000) and Montebello: A memoir (2012). I haven’t read The shark net, though it’s on my TBR. However, I did see the 2003 television miniseries. For those of you who don’t know, this is quite different to the usual writer’s growing up story. Drewe grew up in Perth in the 1950s and 1960s when the serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was creating havoc with the locals’ sense of security. “The murders immediately changed the spirit of the place”, he writes. Drewe knew this man, and knew one of his victims. He wrote this memoir “to try to make sense of this time and place”. I haven’t heard much about Montebello, but Drewe is a significant Australian writer.

David Malouf reading Ransom

Malouf reading Ransom, National Library of Australia, August 2009

David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone St (1985) is a very short book, running to just 134 pages. 12 Edmonstone Street is the address of the Brisbane house he grew up in, but this is not your typical autobiography starting with “I was born in …”. Instead, it discusses selected places in his life, starting with that childhood home. I enjoyed his description of that home, of its weatherboard construction with verandahs. His father, he writes, wanted something more modern, something permanent, like brick.

As for verandahs. Well, their evocation of the raised tent flap gives the game away completely. They are a formal confession that you are just one step up from nomads.

So of course, as soon as he could, he closed it in.

This is a thoughtful, meditative – Malouf-like – book.

Ruth Park’s A fence around the cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993) are more traditional autobiographies, but they are not ordinary. I read them both when they came out and loved them – as much as I loved Park’s books, like her Harp in the South trilogy. A fence around the cuckoo won the Age Book of the Year Non-fiction Award in 1992.

Together, the two books are great reads about life in New Zealand and Australia in the early to mid twentieth century. They also provide wonderful insight into the writer she was to become, and tell the story of one of Australia’s most famous literary couples, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland. Here she is on an early contact with Niland (when she was still in New Zealand and he in Australia). He sent, she writes

a stately and respectful letter, carefully written in the sender’s amazing handwriting, and really got up my nose. The writer seemed to think I was some powerful editorial person, capable of assisting him to sell his stories in New Zealand. … I banged off a letter on my three-decker monster, saying that I was but a lowly copyholder with no efficacy or charisma whatsoever, and if he offered to sell my stories in Australia it might be more to the point. Reading his letter now, it is a marvel that the future father of my children did not take a terminal huff and go off and father someone else’s. However, he was choked off for months, much to my relief.

Hal Porter’s The watcher on the cast-iron balcony (1963) is the first of several memoirs written by Porter. It is regarded as an Australian classic, and covers his growing up years. Porter, however, has a reputation for an interest in paedophilia, which has resulted in some different “readings” of this book. Not having read it or any of Porter’s work, I’m afraid I can’t comment.

Patrick White’s Flaws in the glass (1981) is on my TBR. I dip into it frequently when I’m thinking about White, but have not managed to find time to read it from cover to cover. I should though, because every time I dip into it, I find something well worth my dip! For example, he comments frequently on his homosexuality, reflecting particularly on what it means for him and his art. Here is one:

Indeed, ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, who are unequivocally male or female – and Professor Leonie Kramer*. I would not trade my halfway house, frail though it be, for any of the entrenchments of those who like to think themselves unequivocal.


Where I have gone wrong in life is in believing that total sincerity is compatible with human intercourse. Manoly [White’s longterm partner], I think, believes that sincerity must yield to circumstance, without necessarily becoming tainted with cynicism. His sense of reality is governed by a pureness of heart which I lack. My pursuit of that razor-bald truth has made me a slasher.

The New York Times Book Review is quoted on my back cover saying that it is “as absorbing an autobiography as has been written by a novelist this century”. Oh dear, I really should read it. Wish I could emulate Stefanie of So Many Books who consistently has five, six or more books simultaneously on the go.

* An Australian academic whom White disdained and called “Killer Kramer”. This singling out of her here is typical of White’s bite.


Do you have favourite literary autobiographies?

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary autobiographies

    • Oh yes, Guy, I have no illusions about selectivity. Biographies are too, except the selection is made by someone else.

      You have to read autobiographies with that thought in mind. What is the writer wanting to convey about themselves. Also, what have they remembered or misremembered. I think that in most case though a sense of their personality will come through.

  1. LOL I am guilt-stricken that I haven’t yet Flaws in the Glass yet either!
    I love literary biographies – and evidently so do lots of other people – I made a list of them at goodreads’ Listopia and (I just looked) it’s gone from the 18 books that I started it with, to 252!
    But I haven’t read so many literary autobiographies. Is it a bit cheeky to add An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame to your list? After all, NZ is only just across the ditch…

  2. Can a memoir be considered an autobiography because I think Tiger’s Eye by Inga Clendinnen is an excellent read. Another good Australian autobiography is Child of the Hurricane by Katharine Susannah Prichard. I also enjoyed the Hal Porter books and Ruth Park books you mentioned.

    • Yes, Meg, I’m happy to include memoirs in the group. Some of those I listed would be more memoir.

      Prichard … Yes, I’ve come across that one. I’ve heard of it but not seen it. It’s one I’ll be looking out for.

      Clendinnen’s book is a good example … I didn’t consider it because I was focussing on fiction writers, but Clendinnen’s is a good example of a memoir written by great writers in other fields. In fact, perhaps I could do that topic one day! Donald Horne, Manning Clarke … Hmm, you’ve inspired me.

  3. Glad to see 12 Edmonstone Street on your list. I love that book! I don’t have an all-out favourite, but I recently read ‘Myself When Young’ by Henry Handel Richardson, which is remarkable for how much it leaves out…

    • Thanks Dorothy. Malouf is such a lovely writer, it’s hard not to like anything he’s written I think!

      I hadn’t heard of the HHR book …is it remarkable in a good or bad way for what it hasn’t said?

  4. I’ve said before I prefer The Drums Go Bang by Park and Niland to the other Ruth Park autobiographies. And the worst memoir by any writer must be Childhood at Brindabella by Miles Franklin, she was so cute. Not!
    Also guilty on Flaws in the Glass front, it sits forlorn and unread of all my Patrick Whites.

    • Thanks Bill. I had heard of Drums Go bang, but not read it. Will look out for it. And I’d heard of the Franklin one too, but it’s never sounded a must read, though the Brindabella location is appealing.

      How interesting that so many of us haven’t read Flaws … Every time I dip into it I feel inspired, but then put it down for the current read.

  5. I read Ruth Park’s Harp in the South Trilogy over the first few months of this year and have vowed to read everything that she has ever written – what an amazing writer! So, I will look out for her autobiography. I have the Malouf on my shelf but haven’t got to it yet. I love his writing too! My favourite recent Australian memoir has to be “Madness: A Memoir” by Kate Richards. I think I might have mentioned her to you before but it keeps resounding in my head, it was so powerful and vivid.

    • Thanks Sharkell … Glad you’ve fallen for Park. Her Miles Franklin winner Swords and crowns and rings is a great read too.

      Yes, I need to read Madness. I didn’t of course include it here because she’s not a novelist, but we have had a few great memoirs published here recently haven’t we.

  6. Ah yes, wadholloway, The Drums Go Bang – an entertaining recounting of Park and Niland’s family life. Also shows how much easier a career is for a male author who has a wife than for a female author who doesn’t!

    • LL I take your point, but I got the impression that Park and Niland had a marriage of equals. The woman of that time who backed off from the possibility of a glittering career, in my opinion, was Nettie Palmer.

      • I did have it WG but I think it has fallen victim to downsizing my bookshelves.
        I’m not sure, wadholloway, that it was entirely a marriage of equals: I remember in one of the biographies Park recounting that while Niland typed at the kitchen table she typed sitting on the side of their bed – a small thing but telling, don’t you think?

        • I’m not a Ruth Park fan but I’ll look again and see what I think. For WG – sorry to keep you up on WA time but this is a great topic. I’ve thought of one maybe two more, X. Herbert, Disturbing Element which I really liked and Nettie Palmer’s diaries edited by Vivian someone (sorry, I’m not home).

        • Oh no worries, Bill. I love it when people get involved in conversation. I hadn’t heard of Herbert’s book, but I do have Palmer’s diaries in e-format. The book is by Vivian Smith. I’ve discussed diaries in a separate Monday Musings but of course they are relevant here.

  7. heh, the first step of sliding down the slope is to wish you could have multiple books on the go 😉 A nice list. I do enjoy novelists and poets writing about themselves, you get excellent writing and a glimpse inside their lives.

  8. Pingback: The Drums Go Bang, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland | theaustralianlegend

  9. Pingback: TBR Blowout! | theaustralianlegend

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