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 life, Remembering 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.
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.
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015