Such is Life (08), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.

We’re up to Chapter V, nominally January 9th, 1884, but more accurately, Jan 8-10. It’s dry, mid-summer of course, feed is short and Tom’s two horses are skin and bones. Ch. V contains a significant moment in the overall novel – when some of the men we have met before are sitting round a campfire swapping yarns – so what I plan to do is discuss the men gathering, and then dispersing the following morning, this month, and then the campfire and the yarns next month. So this may be the last month without spoilers.

Tom in his peregrinations has returned to Mondunbarra, the station Warrigal Alf was camped on in the last chapter. Alf has presumably gone off with the squatter Stewart. Tom has business with the managing partner, Smythe, who is “away in Melbourne”, so he leaves the paperwork with Smythe’s younger brother, Bert and makes preparations to depart. Bert directs him to camp in a paddock which Tom finds in the morning is completely devoid of grass.

I found myself slowly approached by a Chinaman on a roan horse. And though it is impossible to recognise any individual Chow, I fancied that this unit bore something more than a racial resemblance to the one from whom I had recovered Alf’s bullocks. Moreover he was riding the same horse.

The Chinese boundary rider, who has adopted the name Paul because he is a Christian, declines to drink tea with Tom but tells him of a well grassed paddock some miles off, and thence Tom makes his way. He has barely settled down and lit his pipe when he is accosted by a familiar voice, and is joined by his old mate Steve Thompson.

Daylight had now melted into soft, shadowless moonlight; and the place was no longer solitary. Dozens of cattle were scattered round, harvesting the fine crop of grass; and Thompson with his two confederates joined me … Before the first match was struck, a sound of subdued voices behind us notified the coming of two more interlopers.

And later they are joined by another – “Seems like as if people couldn’t fine a bit o’ grass without the whole (adj) country jumpin’ it”.

They wake to find they have all been the victims of a carefully executed sting. Smythe, not in Melbourne at all, has had his stockmen lure the bullockies into camping on his land; all of their cattle and horses, “254 head of overworked and underfed beasts”, have been rounded up before dawn and been driven back to the station yards and impounded. Working out who owns, and owes, what takes all morning, till at last there are only 10 bullocks left. “How many bullocks are you working?” Smythe asks Bob, his last ‘customer’. “Well, I’m workin’ ten, but …”. “No buts … Take your ten and GO!” So Bob takes his eight and the two Mondunbarra bullocks that have got in amongst them, and the score is counted, by everyone in the know, as even.


The annotations don’t have a lot to tell us this chapter but I have a paper about Furphy and racism from the Australian Literary Studies Journal by Frances Devlin-Glass, one of the annotators, titled “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”.

“Furphy’s positions on the Aboriginal and Chinese questions were a debating point within the editorial group and we were aware the we were disturbed by them. In the brief space afforded by the convention of annotations, we had argued that, though he certainly subscribed to the social Darwinist and left-leaning socialist views of his time in his attitudes to Chinese, he was by contrast with many of his contemporaries, a moderate.” She claims that Furphy’s ‘anxiety’ on the subject of race frequently manifests as humour and irony.

While Furphy’s work may be read as a “call to nationhood, to one (white and assimilationist) nation,”…”to stress this hegemonic aspect of the work is to overlook the relish Furphy clearly took in nationally and ethnically marked diversity and ethnology. This is most obviously apparent in the care with which he represents dialects and accents.”

Devlin-Glass says that “Furphy anticipated the modernist .. preoccupations with irony, point of view and unreliable narrators” which makes it difficult to apply to him all the opinions expressed by Tom, especially as the most frequent subject of his (Tom’s) “sardonic wit and satiric reduction” is his own countrymen.

It is important, both with the novel a a whole, and in relation to this issue, that what Tom says and what is actually happening are often quite different. Tom says in the quote above that he doesn’t recognise the ‘Chow’, but one of the ‘mysteries’ threaded through the novel comes about because there is also a European he repeatedly fails to recognise. Further, when Tom speaks pidgin to “Paul” Sam Young – which I don’t quote – the Chinese man is happy to insult him straight back; and later they have an exchange in which Tom acknowledges the cleverness of the sting and Paul accepts that he will one day be stung in turn.

What Devlin-Glass is saying, and I agree, is that while there is some racism, there is no racial animosity. Furphy, she says, engages in “an ironic dismantling of racial prejudice”; his work demonstrating, whatever Tom says, that it is the class system, squatter vs worker, which is the real concern of European and Chinese workers alike. 

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 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).

Frances Devlin-Glass, “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”, Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 November 2000.

This month’s cover is from Perry Middlemiss’s Australian Literature blog. He implies it is from the Angus & Robertson 1956 edition (I have previously used the cover of A&R’s ‘original’ 1944 edition). Middlemiss discusses Such is Life here. I disagree that Tom Collins is Furphy’s pen name, it’s the name of the fictional biography’s protagonist. Though that’s probably just a quibble and Furphy did use Collins as a pen name for some of his Bulletin short stories.

Middlemiss, whom I haven’t come across before, describes his Aust.Lit. project here. He also reviews classic SF. How good is that!

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Next. Such is Life (09) >

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16 thoughts on “Such is Life (08), Joseph Furphy

    • I’m reading a book by a Japanese woman in the US who says the same thing – that Americans saw her as generically Asian, but couldn’t tell one from another.

      But it is also an important plot point later that Tom is better at recognising horses than he is people.

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  1. Perry Middlemiss was hugely involved in updating Aus Lit on Wikipedia around the time I was. If I remember correctly, he set up a lot of basic articles for Miles Franklin Award winners. They didn’t have much detail but it got them there ready for others to fill out.

    And, yes, he’s also big into SF as I remember, but I sort of lost track of him in recent years. His blog was great though as he had so much on Australian literature there. I think he’s Melbourne based.

    And that’s about all I can commit to on this post at the moment!

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  2. There have been hungry four-leggeds in my Alistair MacLeod stories too. That must have been such a constant reminder of tough times, even when one’s own hunger was hard to bear. It’s interesting. There’s been a sting in my contemporary reading lately, too, but I can’t say where, because it would spoil the whole book. Great theme, though. Raises so many questions!

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    • Droughts are a constant theme in both Australian Literature and Australian newspapers, though for the newspaper readers it generally just means they can’t water their lawns. The idea that much of the problem we ascribe to drought would be better ascribed to overstocking/overcropping is rarely mentioned.

      Thank you for commenting, there are a whole string ahead of me, which I love of course. But when I wrote to you it was not because you weren’t commenting but because I wasn’t – and am still not – being notified of your posts. I am very glad to see you are still writing them and are not, as I feared, in a hiatus. As soon as I can, I will unfollow and re-follow you and see if notifications resume.

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