Such is Life (11), 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)
Such is Life (08)
Such is Life (09)
Such is Life (10)

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.

My aid to understanding this month is an essay by Ivor Indyk, Reading Men like Signboards: The Egalitarian Semiotic of Such is Life. You’d think my own Literature degree would have taught me to come up with titles like that. But it must be another step, reserved just for initiates.

Chapter VII, the final chapter, begins with another variation of timeframe, “the routine record of March 9 [1884] is not a desirable text. It would merely call forth from fitting oblivion the lambing-down of two stalwart fencers by a pimply old shanty keeper”. And so Tom settles on March 28,29 for “another glimpse of Alf Jones. Also the peculiar scythe-sweep of my style of narrative will take in rencontre with another person, to whom, in your helpless state as a reader, you have already been introduced” – meaning probably, Andy Glover, the swagman he meets and ‘helps’ prior to the getting naked in the Murray episode, and who was jailed for for the haystack fire actually started by Tom (as a diversion while he stole a pair of _____).

On the evening of the 27th Tom was camped about 30 miles distant from Runymede homestead, which is his destination, but with a “slight” deviation he can call first on Nosey Alf (Jones), an excursion which takes most of the 28th, and which involves stopping for a long conversation with a couple of workers at Patagonia tank; being blown off his horse by a duststorm; rescuing an unnamed swagman from the same storm; and sharing with him his water with “Bligh-like impartiality”;

till, just at that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman to prayer, and the no less faithful sundowner to the station store, I reached my destination.
One glance was enough. Two strange horses were in the paddock; the kerosene tins still stood in the sheltered angle by the chimney, but the flowers were dead; the smooth-trodden radius round the door was no longer swept except by the winds of heaven, and was becoming a midden …

The new occupant is Jack, a sailor who can’t speak without swearing. He replaces Tom’s hat, which had been blown away, with an incongruous bell topper which, with a new jacket, gives Tom an appearance above his station when he subsequently arrives at Runnymede

“Now, if you’d a pair of skylights athort your cutwater, you’d be set up for a professor of phrenology, or doxology, or any other ology,” suggested Jack, with one oath, two unseemly expletives, and two obscenities.

And so an evening passes in conversation. Over the course of 10 or 15 pages we learn the origin of Tom’s meerschaum pipe; Pup insists on being fed; and in the morning Tom heads off for Runymede and the final day of this rambling story.

Ivor Indyk’s thesis is that on publication “Furphy’s bullockies and swagmen were taken to embody the egalitarian ethos considered fundamental to the definition of the Australian character.” Though, far from being ‘Australian’, all of the characters are “English first or Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Chinese, Dutch, German, French or Aboriginal – with each group having its own distinguishing dialect.” Then there are the differences of religion, particularly Protestant/Catholic, and of class, “for Furphy presents sectarianism as an instrument used by the propertied class to divide and conquer the labouring class.”

But following its republication in 1944 the novel’s true value was “seen to reside in its portrayal of the complexity and diversity of life.”

Such is Life explores the limitations of reason and the problems of choice and moral responsibility, it demonstrates the inadequacy of any single framework or set of principles, the uncertainty of knowledge, the futility of human endeavour.

Tom is constantly encountering and relating stories which demonstrate that these diverse men and women, in their movements over this vast and largely empty space, are in fact a community, and that the actions, the choices made by one, have consequences, often unintended and unexpected, for them all.

Furphy uses the unreliability of Tom’s version of events to make us reconsider our interpretation of all events.

What bothers me is the extent to which I rely on the annotations and commentary for explanations of what is going along. Nosey Alf’s back story is in the text, but I’m not sure how aware of it I would have been without assistance. Certainly, by the end of the chapter (and my next and final post) we will know where Nosey Alf is, but who Nosey Alf has been is another story altogether.


lambing down. Defrauding a ‘chequed up’ bushman by keeping him drunk until his funds are exhausted (From helping a ewe to give birth).

Patagonia Tank. “On a well-managed station like Runymede, a tank is, whenever possible, excavated on the margin of a swamp. The clay extracted is formed into a strong wall.” In other words, a dam. When the swamp is full, a portable pumping plant is used to fill the dam.

Bligh-like impartiality. On his long voyage by rowboat after the Mutiny, Bligh divided the dwindling stores with his crew using a set of improvised scales.

that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman to prayer. Sundown

a pair of skylights athort your cutwater. a pair of glasses on your nose. The cutwater is the leading edge or prow of a boat.

Lachlan River. I don’t mention the Lachlan this month but following unseasonal rains it is, this week (ie. in Nov, 2021), in flood upstream, above Forbes. It will be interesting to follow the progress of the flood waters westwards, past Hillston, and to see whether Tom’s prediction comes true, and they flow across the plains south of Menindee and into the Darling

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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).

Ivor Indyk, Reading Men like Signboards: The Egalitarian Semiotic of Such is Life, Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 May 1986

The cover is from one of the many post-copyright versions. Who was behind publisher “Australian Classics” I can’t say – the closest I can get is ‘Modern Publishing Group’ in the 1990s. The photo would appear to be of timber cutters sitting on a giant log, maybe a river red gum (though Google Images would have it that it was a ‘locomotive’).

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19 thoughts on “Such is Life (11), Joseph Furphy

  1. I’m curious why it bothers you that you are relying on the annotations and commentary? Do you feel you should be able to understand it without them? Or are the notes too intrusive somehow? From this side they seem like they have been informative and even enriching for you.

    I know that if I ever get around to reading James Joyce’s Ulysses I will be doing so with as many annotations and notes as I can get my hands on! And it sounds like you’ve gotten so much more out of this story than you might have otherwise.

    You probably already now this but Ivor Indyk is the founding editor of Giramondo Press. I only mention it because I recently had cause to be in touch with Giramondo about a book request and Ivor responded in person. When my colleague saw the name on the email he was very impressed as Ivor was one his highly admired lecturers at Sydney Uni back in the day.

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    • What bothers me I guess, is that the reader has to be nudged to notice the clues that Tom is missing, even, in my case anyway, quite important ones. Furphy had a lot of fun writing this, so though were always going to be subplots that you missed first time round. And it is central to what he was trying to say, that Tom is unreliable, that all story tellers are unreliable. But does the novel overall make sense without annotations? It’s certainly fun to read, exhilarating really to realize how far ahead of the times it was. But my reliance on the annotations has given me doubts.
      Ulysses is much closer to poetry. I’ve read it a couple of times (and I have it on Audible for #3) but without ever giving much thought to its meaning.
      Thanks for that about Ivor Indyk, he probably should be a national treasure

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      • I’m not a fan of books that have excessive annotations to help readers make sense of the novel either. There are some exceptions for me: 1) a book that’s quite old and perhaps the time period is different enough that we need some context for what is proper behavior, the value of money, etc. and 2) an academic text that is trying to be as thorough as possible. When fiction acts like an academic text, I pause to wonder who the author envisioned as the audience. If the book is for a few folks who will understand all the elite references, okay, but I get mad when those kinds of books go out to the general public, people don’t like or respond to them, and the author says they are “misunderstood.”

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      • Melanie. This is similar to the annotated Jane Austen you read, in that the annotations were added later to explain the obscure words and narrative arcs in the text. On its own Such is Life is somewhere between Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake in comprehensibility.

        Who Furphy imagined were his audience is a good question: it certainly can’t have been his (former) fellow bullockies, who were often voracious readers, but not at the level of SIL. So it must have been the well-read, educated middle classes with whom Furphy had never mixed. This partly explains why SIL was initially taken at face value, as just a rambling collection of stories about workers in the bush.

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  2. This made me laugh Bill: “Reading Men like Signboards: The Egalitarian Semiotic of Such is Life. You’d think my own Literature degree would have taught me to come up with titles like that. But it must be another step, reserved just for initiates.”

    I’m glad Brona explained who Ivor Indyk is. I think he surely must be a national treasure.

    I understand your being bothered about the extent to which you’ve relied on annotations and commentary – to a point – because there is the element of its having been written in a different time and context. The question though, which has been sort of discussed here with Melanie, is whether people at the time also needed that help. Then it becomes a matter of Furphy’s intentions, and what people like to read and why. If you want to hear what your contemporary has to say, but your contemporary writes in a style unfamiliar to you, do you give up or do you use help? When an artist paints in a new style – such as the early abstract expressionists – that you can’t understand, do you give up, or do you look at it with the help of guides/interpretations/critics?

    But, another issue here might be the fact that you read it over such a long period of time. You say that “Nosey Alf’s back story is in the text, but I’m not sure how aware of it I would have been without assistance?” I haven’t read the book of course, so I don’t know why you may not have been aware of it, but is it harder to keep track of all the ins and outs of a book like this if you read it over such a period of time?

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    • Furphy is, may I say, very Jane Austian, in that Nosey Alf’s story is carried forward almost entirely without the narrator, Tom, being aware of it. I read very literally and so I tend to see, or in this case, not see, with Tom.

      I’m pretty sure that SIL was first read as readers had been conditioned by Henry Lawson, and by the Bulletin, as a barely connected series of well-told and often amusing yarns. I haven’t tracked the theory, but bearing in mind it was mostly out of print for 40 years, the release of the A&R edition in 1940 something meant that it was read with new eyes by Australian theorists who had been exposed to one or two decades of Modernism, and so they had the framework within which it could be properly valued.

      I agree about new movements in Art/Painting and I think they are generally accompanied by a great deal of theorising over cheap wine that we only get to hear about afterwards.

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      • I have no idea where to start with this – Jane Austen to modernism to art critics and cheap red wine – so I think I’ll go to bed, but leave you with one question. You’ve mentioned a few times that you read “very literally” . What exactly do you mean by that?

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      • When I was a teenager and worked in shearing sheds in the school hols I would listen avidly to the men. But when I retold their stories my parents would always groan. The problem was, and is, that I believe everything.

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    • And you’ve already read my replies. I suspect that titles like The Egalitarian Semiotic of .. are right up your street. If my AWW Gens get too Postmodern I may have to create a few title like that myself. I have Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory and perhaps with some judicious Brion Gysin fold in I could come up with something plausible..

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