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,


Monday musings on Australian literature: ABR’s first laureate

While I was gallivanting in the northern hemisphere in April, ABR (the Australian Book Review) announced its first ever laureate. I missed it at the time, but heard of it soon after my return, and am now sharing it with you. For most Aussie readers, though, it’s probably a bit old hat!

ABR’s concept of a laureate is somewhat different to, say, Britain’s poet laureate who is called upon to produce poetry for special occasions. ABR’s idea, says editor Peter Rose, is “to highlight the work of our greatest writers”. However, the laureate will have one job, and that is to nominate (and possibly mentor) a “laureate’s fellow”, a younger writer who will receive $5000 to support “a work of poetry, fiction, memoir or criticism” that will be published in ABR.

So, who is ABR’s first laureate? Rose said that deciding the first laureate was easy – David Malouf. With David Malouf turning 80 this year, it seemed obvious, he said, to mark his many achievements. Makes good sense to me, particularly given the breadth and depth of those achievements. But, I’ve already written about Malouf turning 80, so won’t repeat what I said then.

However, to commemorate Malouf’s laureateship (is that a word?), ABC Radio’s Mark Colvin conducted a brief interview with Malouf for PM  Colvin asked him a few well-targeted questions concerning the development of Australian literature. Malouf was his usual thoughtful, measured self – and made his usual sense. He talked of the change in Australian literature from the 1980s to now, suggesting that in the 1980s and 90s, defining our identity, our Australian-ness “was a big thing … I think writers themselves had a more self-conscious notion of their Australian-ness and what the particular subject matter of Australia might be. I think that moment has more or less passed”. In response to Colvin’s question regarding why that might be, he said:

I think the question of Australian identity has become much more open and flexible and more complex. I think younger writers don’t necessarily think of themselves as being Australian writers; they really want to be global writers or international writers. But you know, like all writers, the thing that they are aware of is that you’re a writer for yourself. It’s something very, very personal.

And I think we’ve reached the kind of sophistication when we think about Australian-ness to understand, which I think is absolutely true, that for anybody who is writing and has grown up in Australia with Australian language and Australian education and Australian interests, your Australian-ness is something you can pretty well take for granted. You don’t have to work on it.

I think he he’s right – and it is probably part of the natural maturation of a nation. It’s perhaps a bit like moving from adolescence to adulthood in that we are becoming comfortable in our own skins. This is not to say that we won’t continue to write about some of the issues that define us, issues like our indigenous/colonial/settler history, or our physical distance from much of the world (which might be mitigated somewhat by technology but not completely – the kilometres are still there). But it does suggest that we are less likely to fuss about who we are, to feel that we have to explain or justify ourselves. Books like Malouf’s own Ransom (my review) is a perfect example – an Australian writing about classical Greeks (as he did earlier about ancient Romans in An imaginary life).

If Malouf is right and we do, and can, take our Australian-ness for granted, what does this mean for our interpretation of the Miles Franklin Award’s stipulation that the winner must be about “Australian Life in any of its phases”? How do we interpret that in 21st century Australia? In other words, what does an “indigenous literature” (Franklin’s words) look like in a mature nation?

Anyhow, the other main question Colvin asked him concerned the difficulty of being a writer today and the future of the novel. Malouf said that, while there may be some questions regarding the impact of new formats like reading on a screen,

my belief would be that there will always be readers because I think reading is for some people something they can’t do without. It’s a bread and butter matter, it’s an addiction. And I think those people will go on reading. I think they’ve always been a fairly small number; I think they’ve always been pretty much the same number.

So I’m optimistic really about the survival of the novel and the survival of the reader.

His final point – and it’s a writer’s point – was that “the question really would be about what happens to publishing rather than what happens to writing.” Once a writer, always a writer, obviously!


David Malouf turns 80

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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Five fascinating fictional fathers

This week’s Monday musings has a personal, sentimental, genesis. Last Friday, my 91-year-old father underwent his third major abdominal surgery in 6 years. It’s a big ask for an older body but he’s hanging in there. My parents, not surprisingly I suppose, were instrumental in my becoming a reader. My mother introduced me to Jane Austen. My father would let me bring my “28 books” (why I thought there were 28 is lost in my childhood haze) to him in bed in the morning so he could read them aloud to me. It was also he who introduced me, through reading aloud again, to Banjo Paterson‘s ballads. I have a lot to thank my parents for – and my being a reader is one of them.

All this got me to thinking of fathers in literature, and particularly Australian literature. There are a lot of men – yes, really! – in Australian fiction, but how often, I wondered, is their role as fathers a feature of the writing? As it turns out, it’s more common than I thought, but I’ll just share five here.

Elizabeth Jolley‘s My father’s moon (1989)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy and, while it is really about Vera and her challenge to find a place in the adult world, the support provided by her father is critical in her life … and Jolley writes of it beautifully:

He always told me when I had to leave for school, every term when I wept because I did not want to leave, he told me that if I looked at the moon, wherever I was, I was seeing the same moon that he was looking at, ‘And because of this’, he said, ‘you must know that I am not very far away. You must never feel lonely,’ he said. He said the moon would never be extinguished. Sometimes, he said, it was not possible to see the moon, but it was always there. He said he liked to think of it as his.

Murray Bail‘s Eucalyptus (1998)

Eucalyptus is one of my favourite books. The writing is gorgeous and it explores fatherhood from a surprising angle – for a modern novel. It is in fact a rather traditional fairy story, with a modern twist. The father in Eucalyptus sets a task for his daughter’s wooers – they must be able to identify every eucalypt tree on the property in order to win her hand, but this modern father finds that managing his daughter’s future is not quite as easy as he thought. She might in fact want a say in it.

Joan London‘s The good parents (2008)

Joan London targets, among other things, the whole issue of parenthood by exploring three generations or so of parents and children. The central family is Jacob and Toni, with their two children, and Jacob is given reasonable “airplay” in his own right as he contemplates his missing daughter and his role as her parent, and along the way his relationship with his mother, Arlene. He wonders, as many parents do at some stage, whether the choices he made for his and his family’s life were the best ones for his children.

Steve Toltz‘s A fraction of the whole (2008)

The father-son relationship is the central idea of Steve Toltz’s big, loose, baggy monster of a novel as it explores Jasper’s rather typical desire to not be his father, the free-thinking-out-there Martin. After a rather wild ride in which Jasper learns many important things, he realises that he will never be his father, that he is the sum of more than one part.

David Malouf‘s Ransom (2010)

And then there’s Ransom, Malouf’s reimagining of Priam’s approach to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son Hector in order to give him a proper burial. The book has larger themes – about daring to dream, about humility, about the power of compassion, to name a couple – but at the heart of it is the love of a father for his son. Without that, there would be no book and we would have missed another beautiful read from Malouf.

This is a pretty quick introduction to some views on fathers in recent Australian literature, because my time right now is otherwise engaged – but I’d love to hear if you have favourite literary fathers. Who are they, and why do you like them?

David Malouf, Ransom

David Malouf reading Ransom

Malouf reading Ransom, National Library of Australia, August 2009

Words are powerful. They too can be the agents of what is new, of what is conceivable and can be thought and let loose on the world. (p. 61)

Is risk-taking only the province of the young? Do desperate times call for desperate measures? Or, more to the point, can the impossible be made possible? These are some of the questions that form the core of David Malouf’s most recent novel, Ransom.

WARNING: Spoiler if you don’t know the Iliad!

Ransom, as I wrote in my post last year, is Malouf’s re-visioning of the section of the Iliad (from Books 16-24) which chronicles Patroclus’ death at the hands of the Trojans, Achilles’ revenge killing of the Trojan prince Hector and his subsequent abuse of Hector’s body, and Priam’s visiting Achilles to ask for his son’s body back. Malouf says that he wanted to suggest a new kind of human, non-heroic consciousness, by re-visioning how Priam does this through deciding “do something extraordinary” (Malouf’s words). As Priam discusses with his wife Hecuba

I believe … that the thing that is needed to cut this knot we are all tied up in is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new. (p. 58)


there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course. (p. 61)

Ah, I thought, here is going to be Malouf’s vision (or recipe even) for our conflict ridden times. He wants to show, through Priam’s desire to do “something impossible. Something new” that  there is another way of managing conflict. But sadly, that is not what he is about. Sure, Priam does do something audacious – he enters Achilles’ compound as an ordinary man on a plain mule-driven cart driven by an even more ordinary man, the humble carter, Somax. But, I was disappointed, because after a lovely interval of humanity the story plays out as it always does with Achilles dying, and Priam being brutally killed by Achilles’ son. What I hoped Malouf was setting me up for wasn’t his goal at all. It was something both bigger and smaller. Smaller because he is not (really) making a political statement for our times, and bigger because he re-visions the story as one of humans rather than of heroes, and as one in which humans can be self-directed rather than at the whim of the gods. There is some irony here though because, as well as being accompanied by the humble Somax, he is for a while escorted by the god Hermes who facilitates their entry into Achilles’ compound. I did wonder about the meaning of this unlikely trio – common man, king, god – but it is in the original and so is not really part of a new message. That said, this is, as I am sure you are starting to realise, quite a complex book despite its small size – and I am only going to touch the surface here.

Some of the loveliest parts of the book are in fact the most human ones, such as the conversation Priam has with Hecuba when he reveals his idea, and Priam’s journey with Somax in which he learns to enjoy ordinary human (as against royal) pleasures. (“It had done him good, all that, body and spirit both”).

In the end after a beautifully rendered meeting with the conflicted Achilles, Priam achieves his goal and brings Hector’s body back for burial. It is a triumph of his vision, but

It is only a provisional triumph, of course; the gods are not to be trusted when they tilt the balance momentarily in your behaviour. And what sort of triumph is it to be bringing home the body of a son? But he has done something for which he will be remembered for as long as such stories are told …

Yes, he is “a man remade” because he has done a “deed that till now was never attempted”. Achilles too has been transformed (at least for a while): he is “visited by a lightness that is both new and a return”. But, and unfortunately there is a but, the story plays out as it always has…

So, what is it all about – besides, that is, the underlying themes relating to fathers and sons, grief, will versus fate, and humanity versus the gods? Perhaps it is simply this, that you can dare to try the impossible, and you can triumph. How big that triumph is, how long it lasts, is perhaps not the right question. The right question is the original one, “Dare I dream, and dare I do it?” It is also about the power of stories. Priam’s action will now be remembered “for as long as such stories are told”, while his killer, Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, is not so lucky. The murder is a messy one and so “for him … however the story is told and elaborated, the raw shame of it will be with him now till his last breath”.

David Malouf Ransom

UK edition cover (Used by permission of the Random House Group)

In its rather ironic and paradoxical way, then, Ransom is redemptive … and is beautiful for all that. And yet, I do have this little nagging feeling that I’d have liked it to have been a little more. I did in fact want a recipe for our times, a suggestion that we can move our humanity forwards!

David Malouf
North Sydney: Knopf, 2009
ISBN: 9781741668377

Breakfast with David, Malouf that is

Malouf reading from Ransom, National Library of Australia, 16 August 2009

Malouf reading from Ransom, National Library of Australia, 16 August 2009

“Exploring in the dark” is how David Malouf frames the process of writing. In other words, writing, he says, brings out what is within the writer but is not fully understood until the writing starts. Furthering this notion, he quoted Herman Hesse as saying that a writer needs to be “a sleepwalker with the absolute assurance that he will put his foot down in the right place”. These were the first thoughts David Malouf shared with us, this morning, at the National Library of Australia’s last Books with Breakfast event of the year. He was in conversation with academic Brigid Rooney.

This is the second time my friend and I have attended a David Malouf literary event, the first being in 1990 when The great world came out. Admittedly that was a bigger event but we both felt that he was more relaxed today. I guess that’s not surprising given nearly 20 years of literary events have passed since then.

The focus of the conversation was, not surprisingly, Malouf’s most recent book, Ransom, which essentially recounts the last 24 hours of Achilles’ and Priam’s lives at Troy. Malouf explained his fascination with Troy, from his first introduction to the story in 1943 when he was 9 years old, through a poem he wrote around 1969/1970 called “Episode from an Early War”, to this latest novel of his, Ransom. Explaining his obsession, he talked about Troy being a city under siege waiting for war, and how Brisbane had felt the same in 1943; and about the 1960s being a period of maximum anxiety about nuclear war, and how Troy reminds us of the destruction of a civilisation. He sees Troy as an important part of our cultural inheritance and as emblematic of many of the things that confront us today – particularly in relation to war and its victims.

The discussion returned several times during the conversation to writing and storytelling, things of major concern to Malouf and about which he is wonderfully eloquent. He recounted Henry James’ description of “experience” as being “threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness”. Henry James also said that “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost”. Similarly, Malouf said that he sees our consciousness as “whole”, by which he means “all our experience is always with us”. Writing, he said, is about making connections in our experience and is “an extraordinary illustration of how our consciousness works”.

At one point in the morning, he discussed his book An imaginary life, which explores the exile of the Roman poet Ovid. He said it initially puzzled people as to why an Australian would write such a book, and that it was not really comprehended until European commentators started noticing that it dealt with the issue of “living at the centre versus living at the edge”. Just as the exiled Ovid was “living at the edge”, so do we in the New World. This recognition, he said, helped readers see it as a book that was indeed about and relevant to Australia.

Towards the end, the conversation returned to Ransom…but as I have only read 20 pages (after all, while I wasn’t concerned about spoilers, I didn’t want to go to the event completely unprepared) I will save discussing those comments until I review the book (probably next year the rate I’m going!) The event concluded with Malouf giving a brief reading from the book. Rather tellingly – and perhaps cheekily – he chose a section that ended with the words:

This old fellow, like most storytellers, is a stealer of other men’s tales, of other men’s lives.

Would that I could be such a stealer!