Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on David Malouf

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

A couple of weeks ago I published the first of a number of posts which I’m planning to write using Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors as starting point. That post was on the first interview in the book, Robert Dessaix. I decided that my second post would be on one of my favourite Aussie writers – you could call him one of our grand men of letters – David Malouf. And then last week I heard that Malouf had won the 2016 Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature – for his 55 years (55 years!) in literature. A most apposite coincidence!

The impressive thing about Malouf is that he has written in multiple forms – novels, short stories, poetry, essays, memoir and even libretti – and he has been critically acclaimed in all. Most of his work that I’ve read, I read before I started blogging, though I did review his latest novel, Ransom, here. It was published in 2009. Since then he has primarily published poetry, essays and short stories.

I haven’t read all of Malouf’s novels, but I’ve read a good number, starting with his first autobiographical novel, Johnno. It’s set in Brisbane where he grew up (and where my Mum spent her youth after moving there when she was 5, and where I spent 6 years of my childhood!), though his youth – incorporating World War II – is well before mine. To say that I enjoyed the book would be an understatement.

However, my favourite two of his are Fly away Peter (which I often buy for or recommend to people asking about Australian literature) and The conversations at Curlow Creek. This latter, for some reason, gets less press than most of his other novels. I’ve also read An imaginary lifeRemembering Babylon and, of course, Ransom. In other words, I’ve read his first three novels and his last three (to date), but not the three in the middle!

Now Marfording’s interview. She starts by asking him about awards, of which he has won many. I liked his response that

it’s more important to be on the shortlist in some ways because who then comes out of the shortlist as the winner is a bit of a lottery.

Of course, the money attached to prizes is very useful – it often means the ability to keep on writing – but in terms of what awards mean, Malouf makes an important point.

She then talks about translation, because Malouf’s books have been well-received overseas and many have been translated into multiple languages. Malouf’s response gets to the heart, really, of my concern about reading books in translation:

And really, what the translator is doing is not just carrying the book over from one language to another, but recreating that book in another language.

Re-creating, yes. Still, it’s better than his books not being available to others at all.

She asks him about Patrick White. I found his answers again spot on in terms of my understanding of White’s place in our literary culture. He says that White achieved two things that have paved the way for writers after him. One is that White showed that “an Australian life could be of significance” and not just in Australia but more generally. The other is that

he made it possible for you to write a novel in which the major interest was the interior, not really on action, but on what was going on in people’s heads.

David Malouf reading Ransom

Malouf reading Ransom, National Library of Australia, August 2009

And this is exactly how much of Malouf’s fiction reads. The conversations … for example is about the conversations that occur between a military officer and an arrested bushranger who is to be executed in the morning. It’s about the connections made between the captor’s reflections on his own life and the condemned man’s concerns about death, God and forgiveness. It is such a quiet, mesmerising and deeply humane book.

Marfording and Malouf talk about Ransom, his latest book at the time of the interview, and his writing style and practice. They also talk about his main themes. Marfording suggests that “being an outsider – a foreigner or someone in exile” is one, and that family is another. Malouf says that

family is the first little society, a little mirror of society … but family is also reflective of the larger society we live in, and then families are – as far as I have observed – the greatest repository of secrets, and secrets are always what writers are interested in.

Secrets. Yes, I can see what he means.

A theme that I see in his work relates to travel and transition – again, like outsiders and secrets, not unusual for a writer! He starts his essay “The traveller’s tale” (originally published in 1992) with “One of the first stories we tell is the story about leaving home”, and argues that:

The story moves us so deeply because it touches our lives at the two extremes of our experience, the moment when we leave our mother’s body and the moment when we must leave our own, but it speaks as well for the daily business of going out into the world – to hunt or on a war party or simply to see what is there – and then the return to the homeland or hearth.

Our two men – the policeman and the bushranger – in The conversations … travelled to Australia from Ireland, then find themselves, in the 1820s, at a critical point in both their lives. Priam travels with Somax to Achilles’ camp in Ransom on an inspired errand. The characters in Fly away Peter go overseas to take part in World War 1, and one doesn’t return. In Remembering Babylon, a young British cabin boy lands in the far north of Australia and is taken in by Aboriginal people, and doesn’t return to the European world until 16 years later. In Malouf’s very first novel Johnno, the narrator returns home to bury his father, and in the process remembers, and reconsiders, his youth and his childhood friend Johnno. And so on … Malouf himself has lived overseas for large “chunks” of his life. He is clearly very familiar with what it means to move to-and-fro between “home” and new places – physically, spiritually and psychologically.

Whenever I think of Malouf, I feel a sense of well-being, because I know I can trust that whatever he says or writes will be considered, humane, and well-worth giving time to.

Annette Marfording
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015
ISBN: 9781329142473

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. You can purchase the book from its distributor,


22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on David Malouf

  1. Great piece 🙂 I saw Malouf last year at the MWF, and he was excellent. I’ve only read ‘Remembering Babylon’, but if I ever do get around to reading any Aussie books again (!), he’ll be near the top of my list 😉

  2. I’ve always had difficulty liking David Malouf. I accept that Fly Away Peter was important in getting Australians to recognise the awfulness of the Great War and the Western Front in particular. It’s a long time since I read Johnno, but I found The Conversations at Curlow Creek essentially dishonest – dishonest in its treatment of the British occupation of Ireland and disingenuous in its treatment of the British occupation of Australia which in Malouf’s eyes appears to involve an almost complete absence of Aboriginals.

    • Interesting comment Bill. Sounds like I should read Malouf and Conversations again! I guess I see him as far more an “interior” writer, the opposite, perhaps of Thea Astley for whom exterior conditions are crucial.

      Have you read Remembering Babylon … There he certainly recognises indigenous people.

  3. David was one of my teachers at Sydney in 1966 – that’s 50 years ago of those 55! Such a beautifully written review yet again, WG! I am writing from the Dallas-Fort Worth region of the south central US. Empire of the Summer Moon (Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most Powerful Indian tribe in American history – published in 2010 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize I came across in a small Museum at the Stockyards Exchange in North Fort Worth. And the Book of Mormon I was given – touchingly so – by the 10-year old son of a cousin when we visited for dinner two days ago. And arriving in my Kindle reader app in my iPad this morning – the two latest books (One and Two) from Lian HEARN in the Shikanoko series: Emperor of the Eight Islands. Liam HEARN is the pen-name for her books set in a magical Japanese past of Gillian RUBINSTEIN.

    • Lovely to hear from you Jim. Dallas-Fort Worth? Did you do that direct flight? I like Texas but haven’t been to that corner. Been through El Paso to Big Bend and over to Galveston, to Houston and over to Austin and San Antonio and up to Carlsbad Caverns. All very memorable.

      Sounds like you have some good reading going there.

      How wonderful to have the memory of being taught by him. Seems like several of our writers started out as teachers – Malouf, Murnane, Astley – for a start. Not surprising really.

  4. Thanks so much whispering gums! I haven’t read Malouf and you have sparked my interest. Your review reminds me of what is so wrong with the modern mindfulness craze, that, whilst it might be good for people to stop ruminating, some ruminating is necessary, some processing of the going forth and the coming home and the transitions you speak of, is a vital part of life and of literature as it reflects life.

    • Yes, good point Moira about ruminating.

      I think the modern mindfulness craze suffers from what happens way too often with good ideas – indiscriminatory application. That is, people take on an idea and then apply it willy-nilly across the board without thought about where and how it is applicable.

  5. This is an excellent post, Sue 🙂

    I’ve just read Harland’s Half Acre and absolutely loved it; it actually reminded me of Patrick White.

    I’m a big fan of Fly Away Peter — such a gorgeous and emotionally moving book — and The Great World is in my all-time Top 40! I’ve also read Remembering Babylon, but I need to read more by him.

    I’m so thrilled to hear he’s won the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. Well deserved! *shakes pom poms*

    • Thanks kimbofo. I must read Harland’s half acre and The great world. I went to a literary lunch for the latter but for some reason haven’t yet read it. It got rather mixed reviews I seem to remember.

      And yes, that award is so deserved.

  6. I’m a great admirer of David Malouf. I wrote to him many years ago when I was an aspiring writer and he responded with an inspirational hand written letter. You could say that I’m a fan for life.

        • He is such an intelligent and impressive novelist….I haven’t read enough of him. Have read Remembering Babylon and An Imaginary Life. I have a copy of Conversations/Curlow Creek. Might that be his best? I also have a book of his short stories, have you read any of these?

        • Hard to say which is his best, Ian. In terms of awards, Remembering Babylon might be the best. Given wadholloway’s comment, you might have a different opinion to me on Conversations if you get to read it.

          For some reason, though I like short stories and have a collection of his here, I don’t think I’ve read any of his. Not that I can recollect. A joy awaiting me I think.

  7. Those comments make the book all the more intriguing! I will need to raid the IMBS (it must be somewhere) pile!

  8. Pingback: Remembering Babylon, David Malouf | theaustralianlegend

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