There is a GAN, revisited

Voss

I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

39 thoughts on “There is a GAN, revisited

    • Steger included both Flanagan’s The Long Road and Winton’s Cloudstreet, both novels for which I have a hearty dislike I’m afraid. Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was groundbreaking but I (almost alone) thought The Weekend was ordinary. Even if they were good stories well told I don’t think any of them have the substance of greatness.

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      • One of my Jane Austen group members – and her whole bookgroup she tells me – didn’t like The weekend, and they, I think, were all IN the age group (whereas I’m SO-O-O much younger, haha.)

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      • I don’t think it’s automatically wrong to say you don’t enjoy domestic fiction anymore than I enjoy war fiction or action novels. I think the issue is when people imply that all fiction written by women is domestic fiction; therein lies the problem.

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  1. Fascinating stuff, and all books I’ve not read apart from the Miles Franklin! I read Tsialkos’ “The Slap” when it was really trendy and found it very meh, all the voices of the different narrators sounding exactly the same, so I’ve not bothered with any others of his.

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  2. I attempted to read Cloudstreet when it first came out but had not lived in Australia long enough (from USA) to appreciate Australian humour and nuances. Now 32 yrs later I find I get much more out of Aus literature. I have a lot of catching up to do. However I finally did read Cloudstreet and loved it. I guess it depends on when one reads books as to how they jmpact….or not.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed Cloudstreet, I’m afraid I did not. I’m also glad we’re Australianizing you, maybe after another 32 years I’ll persuade you to read (and enjoy) Such is Life.

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  3. I’m pleased to see that I’ve read all of them except an Australian girl, and I can’t say that I’m much tempted. I’d say turf her out and add Flanagan… he is belongs in that company.
    *wink* You’d still be able to keep your gender balance, eh?

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    • I was pleased that my ten came out naturally with a balance between men and woman authors. Turfing out Catherine Martin would take away my only representative of a whole school of C19th writing. Given how much you enjoyed Catherine Helen Spence I think it would be easier for me to persuade you to like Martin than for you to persuade me to like Flanagan.

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  4. I think you are very brave to attempt to list a GAN, but I’m glad you do. I’d have Voss on mine. I like the other Whites I’ve read – including the one people seem to love the best The tree of man – but I think Voss is magnificent.

    I am also glad you mention, even if you don’t include, Oscar and Lucinda. It’s a long time since I read it, but when people talk GAN it always pops into my head.

    I notice that you never seem to mention David Malouf? Do you not like him?

    And, you know, there’s always Thea Astley – but which one? Drylands?!!

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    • Not brave, foolhardy, which if I were to ramp it up to another level, might lead to the ten most overrated Australian novels, in which I would include The Tree of Man – Patrick and Manny on their outer-suburban hobby farm somehow the pinnacle of a century of writing about the Australian bush.

      I should read Oscar and Lucinda again (after 30 odd years) and try and rate Carey properly – I dislike all his later work but I was a fan in the early days. I am not however a Malouf fan. Fly Away Peter was important but Conversations at Curlew Creek really put me off.

      Astley is certainly important, if only for her subject matter. I’d say A Kindness Cup, but I still have a lot of her work to read.

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      • Oh but Bill, you perhaps aren’t going to like this but I see Langley in Astley … in the exuberance of their writing, not in subject matter.

        Why don’t you like The conversations at Curlew Creek? I remember finding it mesmerising, and have often wanted to reread it. That and Remembering Babylon.

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  5. Liz, I’m going to have to read The Slap. My favourite Tsialkos is his first, Loaded which is an Australian Trainspotting. If I was going to set one of my list for you to read, I think it would be The Pea Pickers which I am sure you would like.

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    • The Slap has been on my TBR for ages. It sounds good, and I really like the conversation that will surely ensue in my head. We have all sorts of thoughts in the U.S. about who can hit kids and why. Race, location, age, these are all factors in whether we feel hitting is appropriate (FYI, I firmly believe you never hit anyone unless they are attacking you).

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      • The Slap wouldn’t get a review at Grab the Lapels, though, because the author identifies as male. I would likely write up something short on Goodreads. What do you think about that? Or I could write something that you included in your review, a sort of guest post.

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      • Guest post is great idea! I’d put up twin posts or a joint post depending on how many words you give me. That would also take the pressure off if I was running late – for some reason I have been getting lots of work since Covid. It might be that there are fewer drivers willing to run to Melbourne, though I don’t see much evidence of that.

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      • Maybe more drivers don’t want to do the COVID test every time they cross the dang border. I’m seeing if my library still has The Slap. I tried to see if the e-book is ready to check out, but it says, “Availability can’t be retrieved for this title.” I contacted the library to make sure the license on this book is still good and am waiting to hear back.

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      • Okay, they wrote back and The Slap should be ready to read. There may be a problem with the website, but the app that allows me to download the books is good. I have a few buddy reads lined up, so the earliest I could start this is September 12th. At almost 500 pages, it would take me…about a week to finish?

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  6. Have you read much James Joyce? I took an undergrad course in which half the semester was devoted to Joyce and the other to Roddy Doyle. I have to say I found Joyce insufferable, possibly because the professor kept telling us how amazing the Irishman’s writing is instead of letting us debate the stories we read.

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    • Everything except Finnegan’s Wake I think. I even have an interesting early version of Portrait of an Artist. Ulysses is clearly the greatest English language novel. I’m sorry you had a poor teacher – he probably loved the book too much and struggled to get it across.

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      • When professors love a book too much, they don’t leave much room for their students to have differing opinions, and when someone says this is their favorite short story ever and I’m supposed to say something about it….whew! That’s a lot of pressure to do an assignment just to please someone — which is, of course, not how college is supposed to work.

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      • I’d probably have made a bad professor, enthusiastic about books my pupils didn’t like and/or understand. Though I’m not sure I would have given them bad marks for arguing with me, but maybe for not caring.

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    • I read Ulysses as an undergraduate too, and when I read it before the start of the year, I thought it was awful. Awful, awful, awful. And then, o such good luck! I had a brilliant tutor who taught us how to read it, and I’ve read it three times since and each time I love it more.
      So much depends on the teachers we have…

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      • Oooh, lucky! My professor claimed that “The Dead” was the best short story written, ever, period. Well, what on earth can a person write about it when she’s 20 when her professor’s already got his mind made up? About 15 years later I read an article about the significance of “The Dead” and what made it so stunning, and what the author argued really made sense, thus I enjoyed the story that much more.

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  7. All I can say to that GTL is that when I was at school, in a Catholic convent, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for St Thomas More’s stand against Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt. I thought it was crap, and I still do. Instead of being a martyr, he could have gone to France, with his family, and been a powerful advocate against Henry there. I risked saying so in my essay, and to my surprise got very high marks for it, presumably because I argued my case well.
    When we’re young we often overlook the fact that people correcting the same old ideas over and over again in student essays, are delighted to find a different PoV.

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  8. I love that you’ve revisited this topic. To me, the GAN (American or Australian!) is a deeply personal question. I really enjoyed reading about what you kept and what you threw away from your list. This must have been a challenging post to write! I assume you’ve read all these books? Are these listed in any particular order for your preference?

    Also, I’m unfamiliar with how the GAN is discussed in Australia. Are there national perspectives on this?

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    • The idea of the Great Australian Novel is not discussed much any more – the newspaper article I cited is probably an outlier – though of course every serious writer aspires to write it. I imagine Voss by Patrick White tops most people’s list. Such is Life is largely unread and its importance at the beginning of Modernism underappreciated. The Swan Book and Benang are truly great books, both Indigenous, poetic, majestic and should be much more appreciated on the world stage than they are, up there with Gabriel García Márquez for instance.

      The others are personal choices but their place is worth arguing for, against nonsense books like Cloudstreet for instance which is “everyone’s” favourite.

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      • Good point. The Great [Insert Country Here] Novel is not discussed much anywhere, honestly. I wonder if the internet age has caused this transition — there are so many other forms of art and media we can focus on. Why just limit ourselves to the novel? But many do aspire to write it. How many people become authors because they want to be the next Hemmingway or Shakespeare or Bronte? Many.

        I love the personal touch. To me, there never will be a Great Novel for any country, or the world, solely because reading is such a personal experience. No one can tell me that The Catcher in the Rye is the Great American Novel because I don’t really connect with it.

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      • Jackie, you have inspired me to address your comment about The Catcher in the Rye. A review is coming. I wonder what the Great American Painting is? Something by Jackson Pollock? American Gothic? (I’m pretty ignorant). The Great American Movie is undoubtedly Terrence Mallick’s Badlands, though I will accept arguments for Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

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  9. I loved reading your thoughts on how you’ve elected to (and considered but dismissed the idea of ) changing the list when it came to specific titles/authors. This is something I’ve been working on for the past few months in terms of how I would draft something like this for Canadian and indigenous writers in these parts. I read The Swan Book last year for Lisa’s indigenous writers event – what a strange and wondrous book. I also really enjoyed Carpentaria (maybe even more in some ways, but I also read the book aloud which made me pay a very particular kind of attention and that makes it stand out in my memory too). The Slap is a book that I’ve been long wanting to read as well, but I don’t know how quickly I can access a print copy from the library, if you and Melanie would be game for a third reader?

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    • First, please do join in if you can (with The Slap). I am of course quite cavalier when it comes to expressing opinions, but the things that influence me are not totally subjective I hope. They might be: innovation in writing but also in subject matter; the ability to write well (fluently?); depth and perceptiveness of character analysis; maybe story, but that is a distant fourth. I’m really glad you appreciated The Swan Book. I agree about Carpentaria – it was almost the first Indigenous book I read (as an audiobook in my general listening maybe 5 years ago) and I completely misunderstood it. I read it as a white writer giving into the fashion for magic realism. Sue/WG set me right and got me to read Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance – which is more straightforward than Benang – and from there I was hooked. I’ve since re-listened to Carpentaria and loved it. Yes, poetic language cries out to be read aloud.

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