Such is Life (02), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)

One of my intentions in doing this slow read is to make the argument that Such is Life is the first major modernist text in Australian and one of the first in World Literature. As seminal in Australian Lit as Ulysses was later to be in English.

The predominant view of Such is Life would have it as Bush Realism, showing us real Aussie bush workmen from the late C19th. Of course it does no such thing – there are not many working men then or now able to converse at length on world affairs, philosophy and literature, in English and in Latin. Furphy’s project in fact was to disrupt the tropes of bush life, the Bulletin version of what it is to be Australian, AND to disrupt the tropes of writing about Australian life.

To further my argument, today I am reading a 2003 essay by Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life . Cowden argues that the 1890s saw the end of Victorian certainties; the rise of Socialism and Feminism (Suffragism); and saw too for the first time the working classes and rural battlers being written about by writers of their own class, writers like Furphy, Henry Lawson and Miles Franklin.

So, when we left Tom he had caught up with some bullocky mates, one of whom was his old schoolmate Steve Thompson. They are discussing where to camp for the night. The Riverina has just returned to drought and the only grass and water has been fenced off by the local landowners who tend to regard bullockies as the enemy rather than as their partners in getting wool to market. The feeling is reciprocated – this is very much a novel of class struggle (see quotes from Cowden below).

It is also a novel of digressions, and most of the plot, such as it is, is carried forward in the yarns the men tell each other, so that characters and episodes rise and fall in importance and often without forewarning.

In this context, some men roll up heading the other way, and of course stop to talk. One of them is Warrigal Alf who is later important (and not to be confused with Nosey Alf), then comes along McNab, a fencing contractor, who talks Tom into trading horses with him. An exchange in which Tom for once comes out on top. The new horse is misleadingly named Cleopatra (hint: it’s not a mare) which “will necessarily play a certain part in these memoirs”.

There is one more point I need to make before we let the teams move on to their camp for the night and that is that most Australians swear almost constantly and Furphy has great fun with this without ever writing an actual swearword. So …

“You got Nosey Alf, an’ Warrigal Alf, an’ (sheol) knows how many other Alfs.”
“I ain’t (adj.) fool enough to believe in curses.”
“Well,” said Price emphatically, and qualifying every word that would bear qualification ..

The Palmers’ abridgement (see below) made the mistake of removing much of the ‘swearing’ and thus much of the humour.

The men break down the fence to the ‘home’ paddock and after a long and philosophical discussion about what makes a gentleman – Willoughby, travelling with them, is an English gentleman entirely without funds (or saleable skills), but a nice bloke – fall asleep under the wagons while the bullocks help themselves to feed and water. In the morning they are roused by a worker from the property and scramble to get their cattle out before the arrival of the foreman; Tom finds Cleopatra likes to buck; a bullock has to be dragged out of the dam; they hitch up and head off; one wagon becomes bogged, is towed out; and then another …

Thirty-six picked bullocks planted their feet and prised, and a hundred and seventy feet of bar chain stretched tense and rigid from the leaders’ yoke to the pole-cap. The wagon crept forward. A low grumble, more a growl than a bellow, passed from beast to beast along the team – sure indication that the wagon wouldn’t stop again if it could be taken through. The off front wheel rose slowly on the harder ground; the off hind wheel rose in its turn; both near wheels ploughed deeper beneath the top-heavy weight of thirty-eight bales –
“She’s over!” thundered Cooper …

The wagon slowly settles on its side and the wool – which goes about six bales to the ton – must be laboriously reloaded by hand. And so we reach the end of Chapter 1, 50pp supported by 36 pages of annotations, so I still have some reading to do!


Such is Life was first published by the new books division of the Bulletin magazine in 1903. It was immediately recognised for the masterpiece it is but gained no great readership. A second edition (using sheets left over from the first) was brought out by Furphy’s literary executor, Kate Baker in 1917 with an Introduction by Vance Palmer. In 1937 Jonathon Cape of London published an abridged version with Vance Palmer named as the ‘editor’ although the actual abridging was done mainly by Nettie Palmer and daughter Aileen (Such is Life, Abridged!). Angus & Robertson then brought out an unabridged version (pictured above) in 1944 and only then was the novel’s future assured. The most recent version apparently is from Text, 2013 (here).

“The opening page of [Such is Life] is thus one which suggests an openness to an exploration of the ‘relation between reading, interpretation and writing’ (Devlin-Glass et.al, 315), which, as other commentators have noted, anticipates the high modernist literature of writers like James Joyce.” Cowden p. 152

“Socialists argued that unemployment, poverty and criminality, were not failings of individual ‘character’, but were a product of the immiseration created by capitalism. In its day this link offered a profound and fundamental challenge to ideas about ‘character’ which were cornerstones of Victorian morality.” ibid p.153

“Furphy clearly saw these acts of sabotage [thefts from landowners] as a form of working class resistance, and hence the newness of his perspective is both literary and political; in a political sense he is trying to work out on an intuitive basis how a different form of morality might operate. In a literary sense he is trying to work out a new way of telling a story that will reflect this” ibid. p.156

50:32 belahs. Bilaar is a Wiradhuri word used for several [types of] trees. Here is it probabably a sheoak (casuarina). There are annotations for everything! I give this one as an example because I have written quite often in the past that there are no Indigenous people in SIL, so one of my tasks over this year is to see how correct that assertion is. I can’t believe there weren’t Indigenous communities along all the rivers. There are now and there were in the 1950s when I was a boy. I must also mention that the rider on Cleopatra when Tom obtained it was an Indigenous man working for McNab.

McNab. The edition I am reading renders this M’Nab, but as with Miles Franklin I am certain this comes from older printing presses not having a raised lower case ‘c’ (and nor does WordPress).

.

Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, first pub. 1903.

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).

Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life, Kunapipi, Vol 25 (2003) (here)

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy (here)
theaustralianlegend, Such is Life, Abridged! (here)

31 thoughts on “Such is Life (02), Joseph Furphy

  1. As if my TBR pile wasn’t already teetering, and now you tempt me with this! Actually, I’m also particularly interested in the way Furphy handled the swearing – “qualifying every word that would bear qualification.” Love it! The subject of my current WIP is a fluent and talented swearer, and I’m spending quite a lot of (happy) time working out how to render it on the page without being tedious.

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    • Of course I would love you to read Such is Life. I could probably even give you a copy, though not the annotated one, sorry. Anyway it’s free on Proj. Gutenberg for you to download to your reader. You might find Furphy’s discussion of swearing in Chapter One quite relevant. Though readers of “I dropped the (adjective)(adjective) ball” might not get the literary reference.

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  2. “The predominant view of Such is Life would have it as Bush Realism, showing us real Aussie bush workmen from the late C19th. Of course it does no such thing – there are not many working men then or now able to converse at length on world affairs, philosophy and literature, in English and in Latin.”

    This reminds me a bit of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, a book I have never managed to make my way through even though I have owned several copies (and keep giving them away to charity shops, and then buying new ones), because it feels unrealistic despite being lauded as such. House painters standing around debating socialism all day – my dad was a builder and although he has many, many opinions about everything, he would never have been able to debate it at length with his colleagues.

    I struggle with modernist writings – I think I’d need to take some classes in order to get the most out of Joyce and Woolf, and probably this too. It’s the stream of consciousness thing, which I also struggle with in contemporary literary fiction. I’m looking forward to what I learn from your slow read of this work, though!

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    • Particularly in our discussions around Modernism and Social Realism in Gen 3 (1919-1960) we’ve been thinking about the question Do writers consciously belong to schools? And of course the majority of them don’t – they just write somewhere between plain journalese and whatever style is current at the moment. But a few, and of course these are the ones we study, do think about how they write and what new things might be done. And at the beginning of the Modernist period these writers were Woolf, Joyce and, I intend to show, Furphy. Though, as he predates the other two, I don’t think he uses stream of consciousness. Now you’ve brought it up I need to look out for it, because It would indicate that writers before Woolf had been beginning to use it as a technique. I’m sure you’ve read Popper in the course of your studies, and Literary Revolutions suddenly come together in much the same way as Scientific.

      I’ve heard of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists but never read it. Now it sounds like I should. From Wiki, I get pub. 1914, so after Such is Life. I wonder if it influenced Down and Out in London and Paris.

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      • I read the RT’d Ps a while ago and LOVED it. I had meant to read it for ages then I was doing a century of books and it was the only one that attracted me published in my start year (I still haven’t done the century!).

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      • You are tempting me too, Bill. I’ve never had much knowledge about this book, so it hasn’t been on my serious radar, just my radar. I like your comment that most writers just write somewhere between journalese and the current style, while some think more consciously about writing and how they might get their messages/stories/whatever across freshly.

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      • It’s the difference between Art and Craft, and the great majority of writers are just competent craftspeople. Though there is also Art/originality in story-telling. My personal preference is for writers who are artists which is why I sometimes have ‘odd’ opinions about writers I do and don’t like.

        I’d probably rather you didn’t form the intention of reading SIL because then you would stop reading my review. But then again, it’s up there with The Pea Pickers, which leads me to wonder is it one of the 150 books/authors ‘Steve’ mentions reading?

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  3. The probability of me ever reading this book is not very high, so I’m enjoying your journey and learning lots to boot. I have become a fan of annotated versions over the years, & I wish The Pea-Pickers had one. I’m researching some of the stuff myself along the way, but it does slow you down.

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    • When you stop enjoying this series you’d better write and let me know – You know, “Bill, you lost me at episode 06. It might be time to stop.” The one annotated work that I can think of that I have is Huck Finn, but yes, more would be great. I have two Pea Pickers – the original Angus & Robertson (hard back WITH dust jacket!) and an Imprint Classics with Intro by Lucy Frost, who seems to be the principal Eve Langley scholar. If you want my advice though, forget the research and just let Langley’s writing flow.

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  4. This sounds fascinating though a heavy read if you have to follow all the annotations. How do they do it – footnotes on the page, a star and a section at the back or no indication of what’s explained and a section at the back?

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    • The annotations are at the end of the book, and while they are numbered there is no indication while you are reading the text that what you are reading has been annotated. So mostly I read a few pages then go and see what the annotations have to say (which style I am imitating in my reviews).

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  5. All those wagons getting stuck: to think that traffic issues have persisted, only their details have changed. I’m trying to think if there’s a parallel to a CanLit classic, and maybe it would be Susannah Moodie’s writing in The Backwoods of Canada and Roughing It in the Bush. She had to write hard because her husband was not very reliable, so she wasn’t exactly a stylist, and of course there’s the whole question of her sense of entitlement coming into a land as part of the colonial force, land which was already inhabited-but her descriptions are clear and her writing definitely gives a sense of what it was like for the English who settled in Canada in the 19th century.

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    • Hi BIP. Luckily I re-read my own reviews and happened to notice I hadn’t replied to you. Abject apologies! Such is Life is, I think, unique. But as you say, there is a class of books written by the early settlers, though Furphy is more of an early truckie. You might take Jack London for instance as both a contemporary and as one of those men/writers who kept moving around.
      An Australian writer similar to Moodie would be Barbara Baynton, and of course across the border (from you) is the wonderful Willa Cather to whom I was introduced a year ago.

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