Monday musings on Australian literature: 1950s prose-poets criticised

Randolph Stow, To the islandsSerendipitously, while trawling Trove for something else recently, I came across a fascinating article in the Tribune about the winners of the first two Miles Franklin Awards. The article was written by Jack Beasley in July 1959, and the two winners were Patrick White’s Voss (1957), and Randolph Stow’s To the islands (1958), two books which are now regarded as significant Australian classics. Jack Beasley wouldn’t have agreed!

So, who was Jack Beasley? Born in 1921, he was interested in the arts, was closely associated with the Australasian Book Society, and at one stage had his own publishing company. He wrote several books, including a memoir and a couple of books on Katharine Susannah Prichard. He was also a member, for many years, of the Communist Party of Australia. The Tribune, for those of you who don’t know, was the Party’s official newspaper. This background is relevant to his criticism of White and Stow’s wins.

Patrick White, VossHe commences his article by stating that Randolph Stow’s winning the award has created quite a lot of discussion, particularly since it followed Patrick White’s winning for Voss the year before:

The two authors are the leading exponents of the so-called “prose-poetry” school, very fashionable today in literary circles attached to the big publishing houses.

He quotes Sidney J. Baker, whom he describes as a Sydney Morning Herald authority. Baker

regards their work as a “new type, of novel … distinguished by strength and sincerity and blowing away traditional debris like a cool wind after sizzling heat.” It should be added that among the “traditional debris” blown away are the traditions for which Miles Franklin herself so firmly stood.

Hmm, so the award should only be for writers who write in the same style as Miles Franklin?

Anyhow, Beasley writes that Franklin “believed that literature drew its ideas from life and attachment to native soil, and she wrote with a vigorous, entertaining prose”:

Her major work, ‘”All That Swagger” is notable for Danny Delacy and his “brave Joanna,” Irish immigrants who go through life undaunted by its buffetings and rejoicing in its happinesses.

In sorry contrast are the morbid heroes of Messrs. White and Stow, who flee from life and society in search of some individual haven.

To Beasley, prose-poetry “is a fad of style, a pretentious juggling of words and grammar”. He quotes from both White and Stow to prove his point, and then argues that while this “obscure” style is new in Australia, it “emerged many years ago in bourgeois culture”. He names “Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf and the extreme case, Gertrude Stein” as exponents of the style.

“Individual haven” and “Bourgeois culture” give away his leanings. He discusses To the islands:

According to some reviewers, “To the Islands” shows a warm sympathy for the Aborigines. This is partly true, but an even warmer sympathy is shown for the missionaries and whatever might be the personal motivation of individual missionaries, history has shown that the missions have played their part in the destruction of tribal life and the continuing ordeal of the Aboriginal people.

This is of course true, but what becomes increasingly clear is that Beasley’s main criticism is in fact less the style than the content of White and Stow’s work. The criticism focuses very much on the fact that their focus is the “individual” which is not part of Communist ethos. He describes White and Stow as being “closely bound to the capitalist class”, and writes that their protagonists, Voss and Heriot,

are nothing more than the bourgeois intellectuals, or more correctly a personification of the crisis of the intellectuals, desperately reaching for a sanctuary. They feel the sands shifting beneath them but are still unable because of their individualism to accept the new ideas that are emerging.

He believes intellectuals need to grasp new ways of thinking:

Only by coming to the working class and taking their part in the struggles led by this class for a better life, only by ceasing to believe in the omniscience of the lonely individual and learning in life of the inexhaustible strength of collective ideas, can the intellectuals have a future.

The socialist countries show again and again that there is no hostile contradiction there between the intellectuals and the proletariat and the Australian workers have always welcomed those who joined their cause.

Only at the end of his article does he return, somewhat off-handedly, to the style issue:

It is not suggested that Miles Franklin would have supported all of the views stated above [that is, his political views], but both the misanthropic themes and the literary quality of the two prizewinners are at variance with her view of life and literary standard.

It might have ended there but, intriguingly, a few weeks later, a letter in response appeared in the same paper – by author Alan Marshall. He thought the article was the “best analysis” he’d read of this new trend, but he takes issue with a couple of points. One is Beasley’s generalisation about “intellectuals”, his tarring them all with the same brush, but the other is his use of the term of “prose poets”.

Marshall writes:

What is wrong with prose poetry? The works of Katharine Prichard are full of it; Turgenev was a master at it; Gorky often delighted in it; Sholokhov’s works feature it. It can lift prose to its highest level and be an inspiration to mankind. In the hands of the writers I have mentioned it not only appeals to the highest emotions but to the reason as well.

Patrick White and Stow are not Prose Poets.

They are obscurantists juggling words to obscure sense in an effort, to create a sense of profundity. They believe readers have little faith in their judgement; that readers praise what they cannot understand for fear of being regarded as incapable of appreciating good writing.

Ouch … “obscurantists”, not “prose poets”.

I’m leaving it here. I’m sharing this because I like hearing the arguments and ideas of another time, and testing them against our own (with the benefit of time). Marshall’s criticism of authors writing obscurely to create profundity is often trotted out. But, clearly, his and Beasley’s assessments of White and Stow have not stood the test of time, thank goodness.

My literary week (12), some art, a film, and an unseen play

Much as I’d like to, I don’t have time to write full posts on the three “events” I’m writing about today, but I do want to at least document them. I don’t, in fact, document every film, show or exhibition I attend but I have particular reasons, which will hopefully become obvious, for wanting to share these three.

MoMA at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria)

For a very exciting reason – Mr Gums and my becoming grandparents for the first time – we made a flying trip to Melbourne last weekend, and, as we couldn’t spend all our time gazing at the adorable newborn, we took ourselves off to the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria during our long weekend. Titled MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, it comprises a selection of MoMa’s world-famous collection. About 200 pieces the website says. The works are organised pretty traditionally – that is, in chronological order, but within this order there are themes, mostly relating to specific art movements, such as Cubism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and so on. The website says that “the exhibition traces the development of art and design from late-nineteenth-century urban and industrial transformation, through to the digital and global present.” It’s an inspiring exhibition, but like all such big, dense, exhibitions, we had tired by the end, despite breaking for lunch in the middle – so my concentration, not to mention my feet, did start to fail, affecting what I remember.

Anyhow, the exhibition opens with a wall comprising a work each by van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat, who, the audioguide explained, are deemed to mark the beginning of modern art.

Salvador Dali, The persistence of memory, 1931

So, what did I enjoy? Of course, I liked seeing famous works by well-known artists, such as Dali’s “The persistence of memory” (the famous melting/dripping clocks painting). Who knew it was so small? Well, you do know it, if you read the small print in art books, but you don’t tend to remember that – at least I don’t always. It’s only seeing the work itself that makes this stick. This is partly what makes going to exhibitions so worthwhile. I also enjoyed seeing lesser known works by well-known artists, and works by artists I barely know or didn’t, until last weekend, know at all! And, I appreciated the inclusion of women artists, such as photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) who was apparently looked at askance for photographing machines.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle wheel, 1951 (original was 1913)

There is so much more I could say, but, this being a litblog primarily, I’m going to end on one idea that particularly tickled me. Early in the exhibition is a work by Marcel Duchamp, the originator not only of Dada but of the art of “readymades“. The audioguide argued that one of Duchamp’s contributions to modern art was the idea that a work of art is not complete until it is joined with the viewer’s perception and questions (even if, the guide said, that question is, “is this art?”) This got me thinking once again about reading, and the fact that a book has as many meanings as it has readers, because each of us brings our own perspectives to it. An old hat idea, now, I guess, but I liked that Duchamp’s ideas resonated for me beyond the visual arts.

Gurrumul (Cinema Nova, Carlton)

Another exciting event in our lives – one still to come – is that in a few days we’ll be heading off to Australia’s Top End, to tour Arnhem Land and then spend a few additional days in Darwin. I can’t wait for the warmth – nor to experience Arnhem Land which has been on my must-visit list for some time now. Luckily for us, two friends have just returned from the same tour, and they advised us, in preparation, to see three films: Ten canoes (which we’ve seen before, but looked at again, via DVD last week), and two recent documentaries Gurrumul and West wind: Djalu’s legacy.

Gurrumul Yunupingu

Dr G Yunupingu @ Fremantle Park (17/4/2011), By Stuart Sevastos, using CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately we’ve missed West Wind on the cinema circuit, and it’s not available on DVD until later this year, but Gurrumul is still screening. So another time-filling activity for us in Melbourne was to see it at the Cinema Nova in Carlton. For those of you who don’t know, the film is about the recently deceased indigenous Australian musician, Dr G Yunipingu (the name used for him since his death in respect of indigenous Australian funerary practices. Permission was given, by Yunipingu himself the film says, for the film to be released, despite another indigenous practice of not showing images of deceased persons for some time after their deaths.)

Dr G Yunupingu was born on Elcho Island, in Arnhem Land, and was discovered early in his life to be blind. He taught himself to play music, and was clearly gifted – though it was his voice (“the voice of an angel” some said) that really captured attention. He wrote his own songs, which he sang mostly in language. The film chronicles, primarily, his musical life, but given his close connection to his culture, that couldn’t be done without reference to his family and culture.

It’s a traditional documentary, style-wise, but it’s the content, the subject himself, that makes this such a moving film. I was quite wrung out by the end – and not only because it had been an emotional couple of weeks leading up to it. One of the issues underpinning the film is an age-old story for indigenous people – the challenge of moving between two opposing cultures. It was a challenge that brought indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira, undone in the end. Dr G Yunupingu managed it better overall – partly because of his own sense of self and strong attachment to his country and culture, but partly also because his non-indigenous mentors had learnt from history and were respectful of Yunupingu’s wishes. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t tense times! The film will, I’m sure, enhance our Arnhem Land trip – but it’s worth seeing regardless.

Tourmaline (The Street Theatre)

Randolph Stow, TourmalineAnd, well, this last stop in today’s post is exciting too – but disappointing also, as I will be missing it. Yes, I am concluding this post by discussing something that not only have I not seen, but won’t be seeing either. I have a very good reason though for this strange behaviour, and it’s that the production, an adaptation of Randolph Stow’s novel Tourmaline, was written by Emma Gibson, one of the bloggers I mentored in last year’s Litbloggers of the Future program. Emma, in fact, wrote a guest post for this blog on Stow and the novel.

It is part of a double bill of adaptations of sci-fi-futuristic texts, the other being HG Wells’ War of the worlds. In her guest post, Emma said that the book has been described as an “ecological allegory”. This would slot nicely into Emma’s main interest, at present anyhow, which is writing about place. According to the promotions, the adaptations are made for radio – which is great to see in itself – but are being performed on stage at the Street Theatre. I am so sorry that I will be missing it – but I wish playwright Emma, and The Street, the best success with it.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea (#BookReview)

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the seaRandolph Stow is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for the longest time – since, would you believe, the 1970s? Embarrassing, really, given his significance. My plan had always been to read his Miles Franklin award-winning novel To the islands first. However, the first I actually bought was The merry-go-round in the sea – back in 2009 when it was re-released as a $10 Penguin classic. It’s taken me until now to read it – and I read it with my reading group, which made it an extra special experience.

BEWARE SPOILERS, albeit this is a classic with minimal plot so, you know …

The merry-go-round in the sea was Stow’s fourth novel, published in 1965 when he was 30 years old. It has a strong autobiographical basis, but is, by definition, fiction. It is essentially a coming-of-age story about a young Western Australian boy, Rob, who, like Stow, was born in Geraldton in 1935. It covers eight years of his life from 1941, when his favourite cousin, the 21-year-old Rick, leaves to fight in World War 2, to 1949, when Rob is 14-years-old and the now-returned Rick is about to leave again, this time to live in London. The plot is not a particularly dramatic one, but rather a lot happens nonetheless.

It all starts in 1941 with Rob and his family moving (“evacuating” is the strange word his mother uses) to a family station in the country, due to fears of Japanese invasion. There Rob enjoys the life of a “bush kid” and is unhappy to find, upon his return to town, that he is really a “townie”. Meanwhile, Rick is at war, ending up a POW on the Thai-Burma railway. His experience is told in three or four brief but vivid digressions from the narrative’s main focus on Rob’s life. We are told enough to prepare us for a changed Rick on his return. In the second part of the novel, the focus is on Rob’s growing up, on his gradual loss of childish innocence, and on Rick’s struggles to come to terms with his life after his experience of war. Nothing is the same for Rick, and Rob worries about his idol.

Now, this is a 400-page novel (in my edition, anyhow) and can be discussed from multiple perspectives, so I’m going to hone in on a couple that most interested me.

One of these is heralded by the book’s structure, by the fact that, although the protagonist, the person through whom we “see” most of the book, is young Rob, the book’s two parts are named for Rick, “1 Rick Away 1941-1945”, and “2 Rick Home 1945-1949.” Superficially, this can be explained by the fact that Rick is a major focus of Rob’s interest. However, I’d argue there’s something more here, that these two characters represent conflicting forces – a duality – within Randolph Stow himself, one being his love of place, of the land and country he grew up in, and the other being his discomfort with that same place and his need to get away, which indeed he did. This duality was, as I recollect, discussed by Gabrielle Carey in her book Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family (my review).

So … through Rob’s third person eyes, Stow writes gloriously, authentically, about Geraldton and the surrounding areas in which he grew up. The language is lyrical, poetic, conveying an emotional intensity in addition to pure description:

By rock pools and creeks the delicate-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold-dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

There’s repetition of colours, plants, and landforms, but rather than becoming tedious they convey a deep familiarity with and love of place – and make the novel sing.

However, through Rick’s eyes – albeit eyes damaged by his war experience – we see a more conflicted, and arguably more adult, understanding of this place. At the end, he explains his decision to leave to Rob:

‘Look, kid,’ Rick said, ‘I’ve outgrown you…


‘I can’t stand,’ Rick said, ‘this – ah, this arrogant, mediocrity. The shoddiness and wowserism and the smug wild-boyos in the bars. And the unspeakable bloody boredom of being in a country that keeps up a sort of chorus. Relax, mate, relax, don’t make the place too hot. Relax, you bastard, before you get clobbered.’

Stow wasn’t the only intellectual to leave Australia in the 1960s. Others include Germaine Greer, Clive Robertson, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes.

My other issue is trickier to discuss: it concerns Stow’s references to Indigenous people in the novel. It’s complicated to tease out, and to do so properly would require a re-read, but I can’t leave the novel without saying something about it, given our heightened awareness these days. As I’ve already said, the book was written in 1965 about the 1940s. In 1957, Stow had spent three months as a storeman at the Forrest River Aboriginal mission in the Kimberleys. His biographer, Suzanne Falkiner, argued (on ABC RN Late Night Live) that this experience created some conflict for him:

‘[His family] had achieved a lot: they had been colonists in America, in the West Indies, the earliest settlers in that region of Australia,’ she says. ‘But as he grew older and as he got to know Aborigines, having worked in the Forrest River mission, I think the conflict became a real source of pain for him.’

I believe that Stow tried to convey some of this in The merry-go-round in the sea. Several times, Rob quotes his family’s racist attitudes, including here:

Rob did not mind the blackn*****s, some of the older ones he rather admired. But his mother was furious because Nan [Rob’s sister] was sitting next to a blackn****r in school. ‘They’re dirty,’ said his mother. ‘They all have bugs in their hair.’

It was funny about blackn*****s. They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian. His world was not one world.*

In other parts of the novel, he describes seeing Aboriginal art in caves, and ponders the people who made them. Not all are so sensitive or interested, however. When he’s taunted at school with having “n****r blood”, he reacts defensively, but when he’s a little older, and schoolfreinds once again express racist attitudes, he responds:

‘I like them,’ the boy said, ‘There’s some nice boong kids at school.’

A poor choice of words, but at least Rob stands up for his beliefs. If we take Rob as Stow’s mouthpiece, then it’s pretty clear that Stow is conveying in this novel some disquiet about prevailing attitudes to Australia’s Indigenous people.

There is so much more to explore in this book – including the motif of the merry-go-round itself. As a young boy Rob had been shattered by the discovery of “time and change”, leading him to cling to the idea of a merry-go-round, which revolves and revolves around a solid centre, his family, never changing. By the end, however, with Rick about to leave, he realises that this too is illusion, that the world is not quite as he’d seen it. A bittersweet ending – one that must come to us all at some time!

Several bloggers have posted on this novel in the last few years, including Lisa (ANZ Litlovers) and Kim (Reading Matters), and offer additional perspectives to mine.

Randolph Stow
The merry-go-round in the sea
Camberwell: Penguin Books, 2009
ISBN: 9780143202745

* I have blanked out this word to, hopefully, deflect the wrong sort of “hits” on this blog.

Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangers (#BookReview)

Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangersEmma’s guest Monday Musings post last week on Randolph Stow provided the impetus for me to finally retrieve Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family from my TBR pile. I’ve been wanting to read it for the longest time, but … well, those of you with big TBRs will understand.

Moving among strangers, whose title comes from a line in Stow’s novel The girl green as elderflower, is an unusual book. It’s partly a biography of Stow, and partly a memoir of Carey and her family, but Carey wouldn’t call it either. She says in her prologue:

… this book is not a biography. Neither is it a work of literary analysis or scholarly enquiry. It is more like a ‘mostly private letter’, to use Stow’s phrase, written out of curiosity, and tenderness towards a man whom I have come to think of as an almost-relative, a dear friend of my mother’s, and the ideal literary mentor.

It all started when, as her mother was dying in 2009, Carey wrote to Stow in England letting him know of her mother’s condition. It was his response, which came four days after her mother’s death, which set Carey off. She’d known there’d been a connection, of course, but she didn’t know much about it. Stow wrote that Joan’s letters from London, when he was a schoolboy and undergraduate, “were like a window on the world”. Why, Carey wondered, did her mother correspond “with a young man, an adolescent, thirteen years her junior, who wasn’t even a relation?” This question is never properly answered in the book, not because there’s something salacious to discover (in case you were wondering), but because some connections made in life don’t have explanations beyond the fact that they occur. If that makes sense.

So, as the book progresses, Carey follows a Stow trail, “like a groupie”. She interrogates his novels and other writings, and reactions to them. She reads the letters Stow wrote to members of her and his family. And she visits the places in England where Stow had lived and meets some of the people who knew him there. One of the main strands in her story concerns Stow’s unease with Australia – with his feeling rejected by Australia and/or his rejecting Australia. There is no answer to this question either, but Carey’s exploration of the issue is enlightening (particularly given all those other Australian intellectuals who left in the 1960s – some well known like Germaine Greer and Clive James, others less so like Jill Ker Conway and Ray Mathew. Each story is different but there is probably a thread that links them too?)

There are many angles, in fact, from which I could write on this engaging but slippery book. There’s Carey’s sharing of her own history – the loss of her mother, her tricky relationship with her sister, the death by suicide of her father, and so on. There’s the form of the work and how it fits into what seems to be a new breed of biography-memoirs that is popping up. And of course, there’s Stow, himself. He comes across as an elusive character, and that’s probably because he was. When she, having made connection with him, enthusiastically tries to engage him, by correspondence, in a literary discussion about his and her mutual interest in James Joyce, he shuts her down, albeit politely, explaining that he was “old and ailing” which, in fact, he was. He died the next year.

This doesn’t deter her – for which we should be grateful because although the book is not, as she forewarns us, a biography, we do, nonetheless gain insight into Stow. She paints a picture, in the end, of a man at odds with the country in which he was born though exactly why is hard to say. Did he reject Australia – with its “depressing tolerance, even worship, of the second-rate” (his words) – or did Australia reject him with its inability to understand his work. Australian critics, apparently, panned his novel Tourmaline, for example, rejecting its combination of “fable and poetry” with “realism”. A later critic, Carey says, notes that Tourmaline represented a change, a move away from “bush realism … towards something more experimental”. However, at the time, as is so often the case with innovative creators, this was not recognised and Stow’s “too truthful, too confrontational of conventional attitudes” novel was not appreciated in his own country. Stow felt the rejection.

But, Carey is wary of coming to conclusions, as she constantly reminds us. At one point, when she has questions and no answers, she tells us that given there’s no one alive to tell her “the real story”, she “can only imagine”, but a page or two later, she says

But I could be wrong. Being wrong, I realised, is how I’ve spent most of my life: misinterpreting, misunderstanding, misjudging, miscommunication. Words slip and slide, as T.S Eliot said, or as Stow put it, ‘words can’t cope’.

A strange thing for a writer to say, perhaps? And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps, it’s something only a writer could say?

You are probably getting the gist now of this unusual book – and hopefully, realising what a delightful, engrossing and stimulating read it is. It is not a long book, and is therefore not comprehensive. If you want, for example, to read about the Stow book I know best, his first Miles Franklin winner, To the islands, you won’t find it here. What you will find though is an intelligent analysis of Stow the man and of his work. You will also gain, or, at least I did, some insights into literary Australia of the mid to late twentieth century – not a list of luminaries, or even a history, but a sense of the life and times, and of how one particular writer did (or didn’t) navigate it.

Near the end, Carey returns to a theme she introduced earlier in the book, that of twinning or duality of perspectives. She concludes that, in the Essex pub where she met people who had known Stow in the latter years of his life, she found “twin versions” of him, one “content in his lifestyle, in his aloneness, who was self-sufficient and independent” and one “who was uncomfortable in his own skin, internally and perpetually in conflict over his sexuality, his nationality and his identity.”

If you are interested in Stow, in Australian literary history more broadly, and/or in Carey herself, this is a book for you.

aww2017 badgeGabrielle Carey
Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family
St Lucia: UQP, 2013
ISBN: 9780702249921

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from ACT Lit-blogger Emma Gibson

With the ACT Lit-bloggers of the Future program in its closing months, I thought it would be lovely for you to hear directly from Emma and Angharad via a guest post, and they both agreed. First up is Emma  – and she chose to write about …

The great Australian writer you’ve (possibly) never heard of: Randolph Stow and Tourmaline

The sun is close here. If you look at Tourmaline, shade your eyes. It is a town of corrugated iron, and in the heat the corrugations shimmer and twine, strangely immaterial. This is hard to watch, and the glare of the stony ground is cruel.  The road ends here. – The Law, Tourmaline

Randolph Stow, TourmalineI was returning to Australia after two years of self-imposed exile when I first stumbled upon Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline.

It was July and I was spending a month writing poetry at an artist residency in Cadiz, Spain, an ancient city the shape of a fist that juts out into the Atlantic. I had chosen the location because it was almost as close to the antipodes as I could get – the actual antipodean point to Canberra is in the ocean – and because I’d spent my last two summers in Scotland or Iceland and wanted a taste of warmth before returning to Australia in August. I had forgotten heat. I was to discover that I did not miss it.

I did miss Australia, as reading Tourmaline made me realise. I read it twice in that month, hiding away from the afternoon sun, because the images it conjured up were so strong, even though it was not a part of Australia I knew.

Far from civilisation, the town of Tourmaline was once a prosperous gold mining settlement in Western Australia, where its potential for riches saw it imagined as having streets pathed with the very gold taken from the earth. It was, as Gabrielle Carey describes in her introduction to the new edition of the novel, ‘a colonisers fantasy’ until the gold was exhausted, and so too the water.

The book is narrated by the Law, the ageing sheriff of the town who lives in the crumbling gaol tower and fears his irrelevance. Now, he is little more than a bystander, who has appointed himself as the memory keeper for the town. It is his testament we read, although it may not be reliable, as his recollections are tinted by nostalgia, memories of rains that the younger generation have never known.

I have seen rain in Tourmaline. Can you believe that? How can you? You have not seen that green, that green like burning, that covers all the stones on the red earth, and glows, gently, upward, till the grey-green leaves of the myall are drab no longer, but green as the grass, washed in reflected light.

Stow writes in his author’s note that the novel is to be imagined as taking place in the future.

Something has happened in the outside world, something that has changed civilisation forever. The town’s war memorial plays host to an annual event that bears resemblance to an ANZAC day service, where the Law delivers the same sermon each year. Outside, where “wild beasts are loose upon the world”, Tourmaline has been forgotten in its isolation, thought long-buried by the drifting red sands that claimed the nearby settlement of Lacey’s Find. No one comes to Tourmaline, and no one in recent memory has left; those who did leave never returned. The exception is the monthly supply truck, and its arrivals are a town event.

Among those assembled for the truck one month are town publican Kestrel, Deborah, his young Aboriginal de facto, Deborah’s adopted parents, Mary and Tom, who run the town’s only store and Byrne, the acne-scarred drunk troubadour and Kestrel’s cousin. As well as the supplies, they are delivered a near-dead man, found fifty miles down the road. Deborah, Mary and Byrne nurse the man back to health. When the stranger recovers, he introduces himself as Michael Random and claims to be a diviner. In his promise of water and gold for the town, he becomes a messiah for the people of Tourmaline – but is Random’s promise of salvation as much of a mirage as water in the desert?

Tourmaline was Randolph Stow’s fourth novel, published in 1963. Stow was a prodigious writer. By the time he was 30, he has published two poetry collections and five novels, as well as working at an Aboriginal community in the Kimberly, as an assistant anthropologist on the Trobriand Islands, and stints as an academic.

But it’s likely that Randolph Stow is the great Australian writer you’ve never heard of. I had never heard of Stow until I found Tourmaline, and as I raved about it to friends over the ensuing months, they hadn’t either, except for one who recalled reading The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea as a student in Geraldton, where the book is set. I became obsessed with learning more about the man and his life.

Stow won the Patrick White Award and the Miles Franklin Award, as well as a fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts (which he later terminated in a letter to Gough Whitlam). He was a contemporary of Patrick White’s and mates with Sidney Nolan, who designed some of the covers for his books.

Yet he is described as ‘the least visible figure of that great twentieth-century triumvirate of Australian novelists whose other members are Patrick White and Christina Stead’.

I wonder why this is. While it’s likely more complex, there are two reason I can see. One is that his work could be considered difficult. While others were writing social realism, Stow was instead interested in the symbolic, drawing on Taoism spiritualism in Tourmaline, which has been described as an ecological allegory. Patrick White himself professed that Tourmaline had “Come to grief in a lush labyrinth of poetic prose.” (Quoted by Bruce Bennet in Westerly 55:2, p. 152).

The other is that Stow himself was elusive. Always a solitary figure who had struggled with mental health issues and alcohol, he spent long periods travelling in the 1960s and then settled in England. Perhaps, in this exile to the home of his ancestors, was a reflection of a theme apparent in his work, of the tension around colonial identity and the impact of European settlement on Indigenous Australians.

After leaving Australia, Stow published few books, and over time, disappeared from our literary consciousness. When Stow died in 2010, most of his books were out of print in Australia – a forgotten relic like Tourmaline, perhaps, already thought long buried. But unlike his narrator in the novel, Stow need not fear lapsing into irrelevance. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in his novels and poetry.

In 2015, Text republished five of Stow’s novels as part of its Text Classics series. Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, was published in 2014 and Suzanne Falkiner’s comprehensive biography, Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow, followed in 2016.

I hope then, that Stow’s work will find new readers.


About Emma Gibson

Emma is a writer and performance-maker here in Canberra. She’s particularly interested in writing about place (which of course appeals to me), and is currently studying a Masters of Creative Writing (Place Writing) with Manchester Metropolitan University.

Emma has written plays, some performed locally, such as Johnny Castellano is mine (Canberra Youth Theatre/Street Theatre), The Pyjama Girl (HotHouse Theatre), and Widowbird (The Street Theatre), and others performed internationally, including War Stories (24:7 Festival, Re:Play, Greater Manchester Fringe, Buxton Fringe), and Bloodletting (Bread and Roses Theatre, London).

Emma also writes prose, and has had short pieces published in the Skagastrond ReviewSeizure, and Iceview. She has created a site-specific poetry installation in Spain, helped run an artist residency in Iceland, and made an audio walking tour around Garema Place for Canberra’s You Are Here Festival.

Her posts for the ACT Lit-bloggers program can be found here on the Capital Letters blog.

Thanks, Emma, for this first piece on Stow in my blog. I appreciate it! And now, Emma and I would love to hear what you know or love about Randolph Stow …