If you were paying attention, you might have noticed I plan to slow read the annotated Such is Life over the course of 2021. Such is Life, which is the first great modernist classic of Australian Literature, was published, by the Bulletin, after a long struggle, in 1903. I have written about it previously in Such is Life, Abridged! (here) and in Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin (here).
Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) was born near Yarra Glen, Victoria, the second of five brothers. Miles Franklin describes an almost Austen-esqe home environment of shared reading and writing with mother keeping journals of the boys’ writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. In 1852 the family moved to Kyneton (90 km north of Melbourne on the road to Bendigo) where Joseph went to school. In 1868 they took up land, “Sand Hills”, around Lake Cooper (map) in the names of Samuel (senior), Joseph and Isaac, building themselves homes which survived into the 1950s.
At Glenlyon he met Leonie Selina Germain, of French descent. They were married at Christchurch, Daylesford, on 27 May 1867; Leonie was 16. His wife was to remain an enigma to him and a mystery to both her contemporaries and to later observers of the human scene.ADB, Manning Clark
After five years Joe gave up, rented nearby while he tried a bit of gold prospecting, then with a wagon and bullocks, he uprooted his tiny, French wife and their children to follow him as a bullocky through the backblocks of NSW. His oldest son Felix, not a budding writer, who had command of Furphy’s second wagon wrote to his grandfather in 1883 –
“I have no books hear but the third book and the story of the too dogs and father reads nothing but shakspere everybody carries books but they are yellow novels …”.
Older brother John, a blacksmith, had in the meanwhile set up the famous Furphy Foundry in Shepparton. When Joseph’s enterprise failed, due to drought and disease in the cattle, Leonie wrote home for help and a position was made for Joseph at the foundry. At last, around 1887, already in his forties, Furphy had a settled home and could begin to write. Still it took him till 1897 to write up his great work and another six years of typing, cutting and emendations to get it published.
Contrary to usage, these memoirs are published, not “in compliance with the entreaties of friends,” but in direct opposition thereto …
SUCH IS LIFE
Unemployed at last! …
… Whilst a peculiar defect – which I scarcely like to call an oversight in mental construction – shuts me from the flowery pathway of the romancer, a co-ordinate requital endows me, I trust, with the more sterling, if less ornamental qualities of the chronicler.
And so we are underway with the fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, “a Government official, of the ninth class; paid rather according to my grade than my merit… Candidly, I was only a Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector..” Having chosen at random from his 22 Lett’s Pocket Diaries, he plans to give us a record of the week beginning Sunday, the 9th of September, 1883, as an example of his life.
The fore part of the day was altogether devoid of interest or event. Overhead, the sun blazing wastefully and thanklessly through a rarefied atmosphere; underfoot, the hot, black clay, thirsting for spring rain, and bare except for inedible roley-poleys, coarse tussocks, and the woody stubble of close-eaten salt bush; between sky and earth, a solitary wayfarer, wisely lapt in philosophic torpor. Ten yards behind the grey saddle horse follows a black pack-horse, lightly loaded; and three yards behind the pack-horse ambles listlessly a tall, slate-coloured kangaroo dog, furnished with the usual poison muzzle …
… the level black-soil plains of the Riverina Proper … away beyond the horizon, southward still, the geodesic curve carries that monotony across the zone of salt-bush, myall, and swamp box; across the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee, and on to the Victorian border – say, two hundred and fifty miles.
… and against the background of a pine-ridge, a mile ahead, I saw some wool teams.
There were five bullock teams with wagons loaded with bales of wool, bound for the river port of Echuca on the Murray River which marks the Victoria/NSW border – Steve Thompson’s twenty; Cooper’s eighteen; Dixon’s eighteen; and Price’s two teams of fourteen. Collins, knowing Thompson, Dixon and Price settles down with them and joins their consultations. The bullockies’ pressing need is to settle somewhere for the evening where their cattle can get feed and water, and where they won’t be chased off by the actual owner of the paddock they choose to camp on.
The annotations are endnotes, with no indication in the text that there is one, so that you must read the front and the back of the book at the same time, for text and annotation to match.
Such is Life The thematic phrase which gives the book its title did not originate with Ned Kelly, though the belief that he used it at his hanging explains its currency in Australia. It is at least as old as WJ Temple, 1796: “This interruption is very teasing; but such is Life”.
Kangaroo dog. A greyhound-deerhound cross
Riverina Proper ‘This central point of the universe’. In the C19th the term applied to all southern NSW north of the Murray, east of the Darling and west of the Great Divide.
Pine Ridge We are out on the Hay plains, whose almost perfectly flatness, hence ‘the geodesic curve’ of the horizon, is broken in places by lines of sandhills bound by the Australian cypress pine.
FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).