Monday musings on Australian literature: Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022)

Frank Moorhouse was one of the grand old men of Australian literature, so when I learned that he’d died yesterday, I knew I had to change my plan for this week’s Monday Musings to feature him. Wikipedia’s introduction to him gives you a sense why I’ve described him as I have: “He won major Australian national prizes for the short story, the novel, the essay, and for script writing. His work has been published in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States and also translated into German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Serbian, and Swedish”. Today, he is best known for his Edith trilogy – Grand days, Dark palace and Cold light – the middle of which earned him a Miles Franklin award, but his legacy extends deeper than that.

A major legacy

I first became aware of Moorhouse back in 1975 when I was beginning my librarianship career. It was due to a court case known as University of New South Wales v Moorhouse which concerned the use of photocopying machines to photocopy “infringing portions” of a work in copyright. Wikijuris summarises it nicely if you are interested. The High Court unanimously found that, although the copying was done by a student, the Unviersity was liable for “authorising” infringement. It was a groundbreaking case whose legacy continues today.

The Copyright Agency also tells the story. They explain that Moorhouse was determined to achieve “respect and financial recognition for Australian creators”. He gave permission for his book, The Americans’ Baby, “to be used in a copyright test case” which, the Agency says, has ensured that, today, nearly 50 years later, “creators are fairly remunerated for their work in a digital environment that provides millions of students with access to high quality educational material”. Moreover, the case also resulted in a recognition that “an agency would be needed to collect the royalties generated by the copying of materials to distribute payments to creators”. That agency was the Copyright Agency, which was established in May 1974 for this purpose.

You can imagine that this was exciting stuff for a new, philosophically engaged librarian – we wanted to support creators but we also believed in the importance of libraries being able to provide access to the material students needed. Good copyright law should achieve both and here a fair (acceptable) balance has probably been struck – though I’m sure both sides will have arguments for more.

But of course …

For most readers, Moorhouse’s legacy is in his writing. He was born in Nowra, New South Wales, a beautiful spot less than three hours’ drive from where I live. On leaving school, he began work in 1955 with newspapers, first as a copy boy, and then as reporter and editor. His first short story, “The young girl and the American sailor”, was published in Southerly magazine when he was 18 years old, and he went on to be published in some of Australia’s best literary magazines after that.

In the 1970s he became a full-time fiction writer but he also wrote essays, short stories, journalism and film, radio and TV scripts. He was also, with Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, part of the “Sydney Push” (about which I wrote in my review of Richard Appleton’s memoir, Appo.) It was a bohemian, libertarian movement with a strong anti-right wing underpinning. He has led or been heavily involved in many of Australia’s significant writerly organisations, including the Australian Copyright Agency, the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Journalists’ Association. In 1985, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to Australian literature.

Writing about his death in The Guardian, Sian Cain says this about his work:

Moorhouse wrote prolifically and with irreverence and humour of his passions – food, drink, travel, sex and gender. Early in his fiction, and later in his 2005 memoir, Martini, he wrote frankly about his own bisexuality and androgyny. In his writing, he said, he wanted to explore “the idea of intimacy without family – now that procreation is not the only thing that gives sex meaning”.

Tim Barlass wrote something similar in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Moorhouse lived and wrote about the good life – in both senses of the phrase, sometimes paradoxically. With a passion for fine food, cocktails and justice, he fearlessly wrote about the things essential to him.

Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light

If didn’t know all that about Frank Moorhouse, I have only to think back to Edith (particularly to Cold Light which I read after I started blogging) to see how it could be true! Edith, Ambrose and their friends knew how to work and play hard. My review of the novel was a little measured, but it is also one of those books that has remained with me. You never know, when you finish a novel, which ones will hang around in the mind for the long run.

I understand that a biography by Catharine Lumby is coming very soon. Barlass quotes her response to his death:

 “Frank Moorhouse was a literary legend. It was an incredible privilege to have a friendship with him and be his biographer. As always, Frank had to have the last word. I started writing the conclusion to his biography this morning and learnt that he had died.”

I can’t think of a better place to end, except to add that I look forward to her biography of this colourful but serious man. Vale Frank Moorhouse.

My literary week (7), adaptations

With Ma and Pa Gums in the process of selling house and preparing for a downsize move, my time has been taken up with many things besides reading – but I did get out at night in the last week to see a couple of adaptations of novels I’ve enjoyed in the past.

There’s still time … brother

Nevil Shute, On the beachOne of my favourite novelists when I was a teen – when my friends were reading Georgette Heyer – was Nevil Shute. He wrote more than 20 novels, and I sought every one out over a period of years until I’d read them all. His best-known novels are probably No highway, A town like Alice and On the beach, all of which were made into films (as were others too, I know). This post is about the last I mentioned, On the beach, which was his dystopian (or post-apocalyptic) Cold War novel about the end-of-the-world due to nuclear war. Something I didn’t know on my first reading is that on the title page of the first edition are lines from TS Eliot’s poem “The hollow men”. Makes sense, and you can read about it in the Wikipedia article I’ve linked to above.

I hadn’t read Shute for a few decades until the early 2000s when one of my online reading groups decided to read On the beach. How disappointing I found it. The story was still powerful, but the writing seemed so wooden and the characters so stereotyped. I was therefore uncertain about seeing the original Stanley Kramer movie last week, when it was shown at the National Film and Sound Archive as part of its season of atomic age films.

I needn’t have worried. It was great – and must have been a work of passion given how quickly Kramer got onto the story. The novel was published in 1957, and the film released in 1959. The Wikipedia article on the film adaptation provides a useful introduction to the film and discusses where the adaptation departs from the novel. Apparently, Shute was not happy with the changes, but it’s too long since I read the novel for me to comment on that. One of the changes, Wikipedia says, is that the film doesn’t detail who was responsible for the conflagration. There could be various political reasons for this, but it could also be because Kramer had a very clear message he wanted his audience to take home – one that he didn’t want diluted by people thinking it had nothing to do with them. He wanted everyone to take the dangers of nuclear weapons seriously – and wow, did the film make that point …

Towards the end, as the radiation is reaching Melbourne, the film shows crowds of people in a Melbourne street attending a Salvation Army service. Above them is a banner reading “There is still time … brother”, reminding the attendees, of course, that there is still time to “find God”. The final scene of the film shows the same street – now empty of life – and closes on the banner “There is still time … brother”. It floored me. It so neatly, so confrontingly, shifted the meaning from the religious to the political. And, the message (either narrowly or broadly interpreted) is as relevant today as it was then. That’s the scary thing.

From the Cold War to Cold Light

Frank Moorhouse, Cold LightIn the last novel of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy, Cold light (my review), Edith Campbell Berry, star of the League of Nations (well, in her mind), comes to Canberra, hoping to make her mark. It’s fitting, then, that an adaptation – in this case a play not a film – should be made in Canberra. However, it’s a big book – over 700 pages of it – with many themes. Two that grabbed my attention when I read it were the failure of idealism and the challenge of aging, so I wondered what playwright Alana Valentine would choose. The main promo line for the play’s advertising was “How far can a woman of vision go?”, which encompasses I’d say the idealism angle.

It was a daring adaptation, which used song, verse and, occasionally, dance to transition between scenes. The verse was particularly intriguing. It all came from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Rhyme of Joyous Garde and was recited by Edith herself. I grew up with some of Gordon’s more sentimental bush poetry, but I’d never come across this one. However, a Google search uncovered that the whole poem is a soliloquy by Lancelot after Guinevere and Arthur are dead. It’s about heady days, grand passions and big ideals, guilt and regret. I don’t believe it was referred to in the book, so Valentine’s using it reveals her desire to convey those grand but murky themes which closely mirror Edith’s colourful, passionate life.

I’m not going to review the play, as there are links to some excellent reviews on the Street Theatre’s site. I’m just going to comment on what I took away. The overriding theme was Edith’s indefatigable spirit, but another was its exploration of human rights – women’s rights, and freedom of expression, in particular. Edith refers regularly to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Australia helped draft back in 1948, but hadn’t (and still hasn’t) fully enshrined into national law. For Edith, it represents ideals she wants (us all) to live by.

Cold light is set from 1950 to 1974, but the significant thing is that its concerns are still relevant: freedom of expression is being attacked right now; women’s rights are not safe; the nuclear threat is not over; and so on.

At the end of the play – and some of these specific words are in the novel too – Edith says

I have witnessed great events and participated in great events. I have met and talked with fascinating people who have made history. But it is only, here, now that I am in it, however briefly, making history, participating in it. One must give everything to participate. To be in it. So many, so many will want you to observe, to commentate, to support those who are in it. But you must open your palate to the right stuff. You must stare down the world and see it in a clear, cold light … It’s not what the world hands you, but what you try to wrest from it. That is all that is valuable. To act, to speak, to make. To live, to live, to live it. Your allegiance must be to the republic of the mind, not to any country or state… (from Cold light, adapted by Alana Valentine, Currency Press, 2017)

See? Relevant, right now – which made a thoroughly engaging and creatively produced play a meaningful one too.

Cold Light 
Based on the novel by Frank Moorhouse
At the Street Theatre, Canberra, 4-10 March 2017
Script: Alana Valentine
Director: Caroline Stacey
Cast: Sonia Todd, Craig Alexander, Nick Byrne, Gerard Carroll, Tobias Cole and Kiki Skountzos

Do you enjoy adaptations? And if so, do you have any favourites?

Frank Moorhouse, Cold light (Review)

As I reached around the two-thirds point in Frank Moorhouse‘s Cold light, the third tome in his Edith trilogy, I wanted to cry out “Enough already”! It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying (most of) it, and it’s not that it’s a bad book, but it does go on – and on. It’s a book, I think, that could do with a severe prune. But perhaps that’s just li’l ol’ novella loving me talking!

For those not familiar with Frank Moorhouse’s Edith Trilogy, a little summation. The first book, Grand days (1993) sees Edith Campbell Berry join the League of Nations as an enthusiastic, idealistic ingénue. She’s “plucky”, as most reviewers point out, which she needs to be because she wants to change the world. It was, as I recollect, a thoroughly engrossing  a thoughtful insight into Europe at that time. The second book, Dark palace (2000), I haven’t read, though it is in the TBR. Embarrassing eh? It won the Miles Franklin Award after Grand days had been controversially rejected for not being, according to the judges’ interpretation of the award conditions, “Australian enough”. Dark palace chronicles the failure of the League and, with it, of the ideal of internationalism. This ideal, or at least her desire to make the world better, is something that Edith still hankers for at the start of Cold light. Unlike the first two novels, which are set in Europe, Cold light is, until the last few chapters, set in Canberra. That of course gave it added interest for me.

The three novels cover the middle half of the twentieth century – from the early 1920s to the early 1970s – with Cold light “doing” 1950 to 1973. Edith must be in her 40s when the novel opens and is well into her 60s by its close. This can be a challenging time of life for a woman and Frank Moorhouse’s exploration of the issues women face – biologically, socially, and intellectually – is sensitively and authentically done. Edith’s challenges are compounded by the fact that she wants to work – in the public sphere – but in 1950s Australia married women, as she was, were not entitled to work for the government. Edith does manage to get around this in various ways, mostly by being employed under honorariums and the like. Not very satisfactory, but better than nothing.

What I most enjoyed about the novel was its coverage of some of the big issues of its time, particularly in relation to Australia: the planning of Canberra which was still in its infancy, the Cold War and the attempts to ban the Communist Party of Australia, and nuclear energy. One way or another, Edith becomes involved in each of these issues and serves as our guide. I particularly liked the discussions about Canberra and what sort of city it should be. Early in the novel it is described as a “toy city”, a “make-believe city”, an “unfinished city”, “a city that is not a city”. Some of those criticisms still hang over it now, though less so I hope. Certainly, Edith begins to warm to it and enthusiastically works for a few years with the Town Planning section. She initially envisions it as a place of “communal memory”, as “the living memory of the nation”. Fifteen years on, as the will-we-won’t-we-will-we-won’t-we artificial lake is finally “opened”, her thinking has moved on. She would like to see Canberra as a “social laboratory”, which would “try out all sorts of ideas for good living”, and as a “place for citizens to ask questions”. Moorhouse’s thorough research into Canberra’s planning shows through here, as it does in the other topics he covers in the book.

I also enjoyed much of his characterisation. The novel has a large cast of characters, so his list of “Who is who in the book” at the end, with the “real” people asterisked, is very useful. But, beware, because if you read Edith’s entry, you’ll find a potential spoiler. The best drawn characters are the fictional ones: Edith, her cross-dressing “lavender husband” Ambrose, and to a less extent her brother and Communist Party official Frederick, and his girl-friend-partner, Janice, for whom Edith has some confused feelings.

Edith is, of course, the focal character. The novel’s voice is third person subjective, that is, it is told through Edith’s eyes, her perspective. And Moorhouse does it well. Edith’s a living, breathing, believable human being – but there’s just too much of her. We spend too long with her questioning and ruminating on just about everything she confronts. She ponders, and wonders, she asks herself multiple questions – and it is all just too much. And yet, and I know I’m being contradictory, she’s an engaging character. But not “plucky”. Surely that’s a bit twee for a professional woman? I’d use the words resourceful and confident. Even when she doesn’t feel confident, she knows how to put on a show. Despite this, by the book’s end, she wonders if she’s “bungled” her life. She wonders, in fact, for many pages, and asks many questions (have I said that before?) in the process. She tries to recast her life as “a journey” rather than as a failure to achieve goals, which seems fair enough to me. She’s most concerned, at this point, with her personal rather than her professional life, and the fact that she’s had three husbands. Alluding to Othello, she concludes:

She had loved not too wisely, nor too well. But she had tried with all her might.

She sure had.

I also enjoyed the themes of the novel. There are many of them, in fact, but the two that interested me most are the failure of idealism and the challenges of aging. As the book draws to a close she wonders:

Perhaps she was wrong to assume that evolution was moving towards some humanistic paradise.

But she still believes that

Safety lay in candour – the open personality in an open society.

And I love her for it.

Finally, I liked the fact that this novel of uncertainties has a very certain end. Moorhouse was clearly determined to end with a bang, not a whimper. Overall though, I would have like some zing, some wit, or alternatively, something to wrench my guts. Instead, it was just a little too laboured for me to feel the “wow” that I’d hoped for. A good read? Yes. An interesting read? Definitely. But a great read? Not quite.

For a thorough and totally positive review, check out Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

Frank Moorhouse
Cold light
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2011
ISBN: 9781741661262