Amy Witting’s first novel wasn’t published until 1977, when she was 59 years old, which is why she appeared in my late bloomers post a few years ago. She went on to publish five more novels after that – two of which I read and enjoyed long before blogging – and she was an accomplished short story writer and poet.
An interesting piece of Witting trivia is that in the 1960s she taught at the same high school in Sydney as Thea Astley, who was a few years younger. Astley encouraged her to submit a short story to the New Yorker, which duly published it. Wikipedia tells us that Australian poet Kenneth Slessor once said “tell that women I’ll publish any word she writes”. And critic Peter Craven argues that her form of realism wasn’t really accepted by the reading public until Helen Garner appeared on the scene.
All this is to say that although Witting has never had the level of recognition enjoyed by writers like Astley, Jolley and Garner, she was well-regarded in literary circles, and is being brought to our notice again through Text Classics. This year they added three of her books – The visit (her first), A change in the lighting (which my reading group did back in the 1990s), and Selected stories – to their list. Discussing the publication of her stories, they said they could not include them all as they wanted to keep the book to a manageable size. However, as a little tempter, they decided to publish one of her stories, “Afterplay”, online, describing it as “a bite-sized taste of Witting’s short-form genius”. This has given me a wonderful opportunity to include her on my blog – and with a story you can read too. Win-win, as they say!
“Afterplay” provides an excellent introduction to Witting’s writing for a number of reasons. It’s a good example of the realism which Peter Craven sees as her métier; it exemplifies her spare, direct style; and its subject matter reflects her main writing interest, relationship-focused stories in domestic settings. It is also, at less than 1,500 words, a short short-story, and, according to Text, demonstrates “Witting’s masterly economy”.
“Afterplay” focuses on “two young women”, Judith and Geraldine, and their response to Geraldine’s break-up with Ken ten days previously. The problem is that her way of breaking up was to walk out leaving a note on the kitchen table, and he, not expecting this to happen, wants to talk to her. Judith thinks Geraldine should, but Geraldine is resisting all his attempts to contact her, telling Judith that she “can’t stand confrontation. Never could.”
The thing about this story, which is told third person, is the way Witting subtly shifts perspective between the two women, and only gives us Ken’s perspective through Judith reporting a phone conversation as it takes place. There is also a little back story about Geraldine’s previous relationship which seems to have ended with, or just before, the man’s death (by suicide is the implication). The effect of all this is to keep the reader a little uncertain, a little off-balance. We are not given the full picture from any of the perspectives, so our antennae keep pointing in different directions as we try to work out where our sympathies should lie. In the end, I think, my sympathy went mostly to the poor friend caught in the middle!
There’s some cheeky humour here – including little innuendoes about sex as a sport. Ken was “proficient at all sports, never missed a goal”, and of course the title “afterplay” brings to mind “foreplay” (which was not, apparently, Ken’s forte, albeit he’s “a sweet-tempered man”.) However, there is one awkward part where Geraldine tells Judith some things about the break-up that she surely already knows. You could argue, perhaps, that at times like these people do tell and retell their experiences, but it did feel a little clumsy.
Regardless, “Afterplay” is a beautifully crafted little (in size, not in value) story. But, don’t take my word for it. At only 1500 words and available on-line, how about you read it too – and let me know what you think.
First published (I think): Quadrant 39 (5), May 1995
Available online at Text Publishing.
30 thoughts on “Amy Witting, Afterplay (#Review)”
Born Joan FRASER – she married Les LEVICK – her pseudonym/nom-de-plume was Amy WITTING (never to be un-witting) and her son Greg married one of my 2nd cousins. Yes, I know – that’s pretty far removed – but in any event – the knowledge led me to her books – especially I for Isobel (1990) and Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop (1999). It’s great – as always WG to read your reviews – but especially this one!
Thanks Jim. I pondered talking about her pseudonym/s in my second para, but decided I’d save that for a bigger post on her one day, but I’m glad you’ve shared the “unwitting” bit. It’s lovely isn’t it. I’ve read I for Isobel and A change in the lighting. Must get at least one novel onto this blog, but at least I now have here here on a short story.
Anyhow, glad as always that you’ve got something out of my post!
It’s a funny little story when you think that she was 70 something when she wrote it. I thought it started off a bit stilted and then got going. I enjoyed the end. I enjoyed the sly digs at Ken.
(On a different subject altogether, my new JA bio is by Elizabeth Jenkins, 1973)
Thanks for that, Bill. Hope you’d remember. I haven’t read that one, but it is pretty well-regarded. I’ll be interested in your comments when you get to tread it. (Tomorrow – oops today – is her birthday, and my JA group is off to lunch. We always co-celebrate her birthday and Christmas but this year it actually will be her birthday, which is nice).
I’m glad you liked the story. It’s so tight – nothing superfluous – and the digs are great aren’t they. But, Geraldine doesn’t quite get off scott-free does she – she’s a bit of a coward. As for Witting’s age, I think it just goes to show (as with Elizabeth Jolley) that little old ladies shouldn’t be underestimated!)
I enjoyed the story, the digs and thought the title was brilliant. Though a very short story, it is able to give different perspectives with some amusing lines.
Thanks Meg. I’m so glad people are reading and enjoying it. I love the cheekiness – the humour, the clear-eyed humanity – in the story.
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It is wonderful that the publisher has put the beautiful ‘Afterplay’ online. Even traditional publishers are embracing the idea that online publishing has a valid place beside the usual shelves in bookshops and supermarkets. Amy Witting is a treasure. And when the paperback of the collected stories is but a bundle of yellowing pages in a remote second-hand bookshop, readers may be able to go online and and revel in a bit of afterplay.
Exactly Carmel. I was thrilled to discover that Text had done this… By accident really. (Of course if Text collapses hopefully NLA has archived their sites. Electronic stuff can be lost too.
The challenge for publishers though I think is that there are still a lot of readers who prefer print. Lisa and I both read ebooks in desperation but really don’t like then a lot, though they have their place.
Too true, we don’t like ’em. I started building my home library precisely because I feared that one day there would be nothing but eBooks and I feel ‘safe’ now because I have at least 5 years supply of real books if things go badly.
But *gasp* I had missed the release of A Change in the Lighting. I’ve just ordered it now:)
OH good Lisa … I have my Mum’s print copy from her downsizing (as the original copy I read was one my reading group got from the CAE reading group service) and I’m tempted to read it again.
(Your building your own library because you feared running out of print books made me laugh – but I understand too.)
Well, we were renovating, and the architect … um … noticed that we had a few books, and he said I needed a library to put them in! He was right, but he didn’t make it big enough. We need a second storey so that we can have a branch library upstairs…
Haha, the problem faced by libraries everywhere, eh? You extend or you weed or both!
I love paper object books and I hoard thousands of them. But when I travelled recently from the country to the city by train to read a story to an audience, I found it very pleasant to be able to carry my text just in my phone.
I know what you mean Carmel, though for things like that I prefer the iPad to the phone. Just that bit bigger and easier to read.
I think Amy Witting is marvellous. I’ll look for the collection.
Good idea, Guy. Glad you like her. Those “old” women, eh!!
What did I just read, WG! That story was just about 1500-words long? Gosh! I loved it. Thank you for sharing. I liked how the friend was clear-headed, how she stayed with Geraldine although her patience was tested. In some way, I thought if Geraldine’s ego would be wounded to know that Ken didn’t call her to ask her to come back, but to pose his question on the refrigerator. That move, his subtle acceptance to the note that Geraldine left on the table, made me laugh, and made me feel for Geraldine who was not happy with the man. Geraldine can’t confront, I understand. But even Ken seems to just up the game by simply asking about the refrigerator. I enjoy the story, WG. I will look out for Amy Witting’s books. 🙂
Thanks Deepika. I’m so glad you took the time – as others have – to read the story. I love your analysis. I particularly liked the friend too who felt exasperated but also tender to her friend. So real.
Great story, succinct but creates a whole world. I’ll look for more.
Thanks Anna. I’m so glad I’ve tempted several people to read it. You are right about its creating a whole world in such a short space. That’s a great short story for you isn’t it – the world’s there, but just the right hint of nuances to consider.
I was fortunate enough to be taught by both Thea Astley (Mrs Gregson to us) and Amy Witting (Mrs Levick) at Cheltenham Girls High School. Thea Astley taught me Honours-level English, and Amy Witting taught me French, both for the old Leaving Certificate. We knew that Mrs Gregson was a well-known novelist, but Mrs Levick’s incarnation as Amy Witting was a surprise to me many years afterwards, when she emerged as a notable writer.
Oh, how lucky is that Ros. Thanks so much for sharing this. I was up the road a bit at Hornsby Girls High School but we didn’t have Thea Astley or Amy Witting there!
Currently reading A Change in the Lighting. Witting is my fav. Aussie author, I think. At least so far, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface.
Oh great Guy. That was the first of hers I read, but it was back in the 1980s as I recollect. She’s a great writer isn’t she – and she taught at the same school at Thea Astley (or vice versa, as I believe she was the older of the two).
She’s fantastic. Wish there were more books…
Yes, it’s a shame she got started so late isn’t it.
But perhaps she comes to the books w more wisdom. If you like Amy Witting then you’d like … (is there a fill-in the blank?)
Good point, Guy, re wisdom. Hmmm, is that a rhetorical question? I think Astley, particularly Coda. Carmel Bird. From a little earlier, I’d say Elizabeth von Arnim. I’m thinking writers who have a whip-smart cheekiness to them.
I’ve read a couple from Astley but not that one. TX.