Such is Life (12), 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)
Such is Life (11)

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. And here we are at no. 12. At last!

Tom has left Jack’s (formerly Nosey Alf’s) hut and is making his way to Runymede homestead in the impressive costume with which Jack has supplied him (supplemented by his own glasses and the famous meerschaum pipe).

[previously] I lacked, and knew I lacked, what is known as a ‘presence’. Now however, the high, drab belltopper and long alpaca coat, happily seconded by large, round glasses and a vast and scholarly pipe, seemed to get over [that] difficulty; and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I enjoyed … the consciousness of being well-dressed.

We run into a fellow on a poorly broken horse and Tom discourses, with examples, for a number of pages on the nature of good horsemanship until at last we are able to proceed – to the store, where goods are both kept for the station and sold to travellers. Montgomery, the storekeeper undertook in the last chapter, though I kept it from you, to spread rumours about Tom which Mrs Beaudesert might believe, and so give up her intention of marrying him.

We hear news for the last time of Nosey Alf, headed way north, up the Diamantina Track, into western Queensland.

Montgomery repeats the story Mrs B was intended to overhear (“which is more than I can do”, interpolates Tom). They get into an argument over whether Tom is dishonored or disgraced.

“Poverty, for instance is disgrace without dishonour; Michael-and-George-ship is dishonour without disgrace. In cases like mine, the dishonour lies in the fact, and the disgrace is in the publicity.”

All the men go in to lunch, including two swagman who Tom has previously injured, though neither recognises him, and so he is not called to account. Now he must face Mrs B and enact “the aristocratic man with a past … Such is life, my fellow-mummers – just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity.”

THE END

Was I happy to see that ‘THE END’! When this is done, I’m going to go back to reading books, not studying them. But for the nonce, let us go on. We are clear of course that Tom Collins is not Joseph Furphy. John Barnes writes, “In many ways Collins is an exaggerated, ironic self-portrait, in which Furphy regards humorously – and not too severely – the vanity of the “learned bushman. Tom Collins is a role that Furphy assumes, turning his irony against himself.” And further on .. “Furphy planted the clues that enable us to see the truth that Collins misses. As the reader grasps the relationships, the patterns of cause and effect which elude the cock-sure and loquacious narrator, he will come to recognize the cunning of the book’s construction.”

It is clear that in his years in the bush, often alone and reading by the light of his campfire, Furphy read voraciously and widely, though the fact that he carried a pocket Shakespeare wherever he went is evident from his frequent and often obscure quotations. On finally settling down in Shepparton, he began submitting stories to the Bulletin, as did many bushmen/writers. But what he brought to this novel was not just years of reading and bush experience but “also a fascination with the nature of fiction. In his sense of literary tradition and his conscious pursuit of originality, Furphy had no real counterpart …”

Such is Life is a unique work, a landmark in Australian literature, incomprehensible probably to non-Australians, and, outside literary circles at least, still carrying the burden of having originally been lumped in with Bush Realism. It is in fact the first, great work of the Modernist era, and so you will find when you read it.

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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).

The cover is of the edition I own. A&R Classics is of course an imprint of Angus & Robertson. This edition dates from 1975, reprinted 1978, with a Foreword by John Barnes.


Meerschaum. German for sea foam. A meerschaum pipe is made from the mineral sepiolite sometimes found floating on the Black Sea.

The ideal rider. “… wants  – or rather, needs – a skull of best spring steel; a spinal column of standard Lowmoor; limbs of gutta-percha; a hide of vulcanised india-rubber; and the less brains he has, the better … his thinking facilities should be so placed as to be in direct touch with the only thing that concerns him, namely the saddle.” He goes on …

A spill that perils neck or limb, a simple buster is to him, and it is nothing more, paraphrasing Wordsworth’s Peter Bell
A primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him
And it was nothing more

Michael-and-George-ship. KCMG (knighthood) awarded to colonials for services rendered. “Its possessors were prostituted instruments of British imperialism whose price had been paid in honours and titles.” The Boomerang.

John Barnes (1931- ) Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University, author of The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy (1990)

Irishness. This is a footnote to previous posts really, but in between finishing writing this post and putting it up, I read an essay by Francis Devlin-Glass in the ALS Journal of 30 Sep 2021, ‘Defining the Field of Irish-Australian Literature’:

“Furphy is not only a cornerstone of nineteenth-century Australian literature, but his critique of sectarianism, one of the most urgent cultural issues in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Australia, has not often been marked. It makes him and his Shandyesque manner of narration, unique in Australian fiction, of both cultural and literary interest to a study of Irish-Australian writers. That he is the only Australian writer … alluded to in detail in Finnegans Wake is another curious index of a transnational flow in the Irish direction.”

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< Previous. Such is Life (11)

21 thoughts on “Such is Life (12), Joseph Furphy

  1. Thank you for your discourses on Such is Life! I’ve nearly finished reading the annotated edit; on chapter 11, momentum slowing, a little tired of long digressions. But I do find it a fascinating and unique fiction, and will soon write a modest review of it. And I appreciate the way you have placed it in the context of Australian and European fiction and thought.

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    • Please put a link in comments here when you do write a review. The annotations slow you down a fair bit, I think, and only a few of them advance your understanding of the story. Still, I have enjoyed pulling all that reading together, though heaven only knows what I’ve missed – it’s a novel academics seem to enjoy writing about. It’s a shame that Furphy never received the prominence nor the even credit for originality afforded to Woolf, Joyce, and Lawrence.

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      • I admit I skip quite a few of the comments in the annotations, just as I skip some of the digressions! Yes, I agree, he is no more difficult to read than Woolf or Joyce or some of the others considered greats.

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      • I appreciate when a book is famous enough that there are several annotated versions to choose from. I don’t want the editor’s thoughts on what’s happening, I want context or an explanation for a phrase no longer used, and that’s about it.

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      • Most of the annotations for Such is Life are explanations of geography, obscure terminology and quotations (often misquotations), but there is also some discussion of the the story being ‘told’ by what Tom misses.

        I’ve largely given up reading Forewords and Introductions because I find they intrude on my own ideas, but I’m forever reading commentary later on, I guess I just need to let the Text sit on its own for a while. This exercise with SIL felt more like writing a thesis than reading a book.

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  2. Bill, I honestly can’t remember if I’ve told you before that I took a class on Modernism when I was in grad school. Either I’m not paying attention or I forgot, but I didn’t realize Such is Life was a book of Modernism. The hard thing, for me, about Modernism novels in the U.S. is they are largely about war, men, men cheating on women while they’re away at war, patriotism. I wonder if Australian Modernism is a bit more varied, but in my class I felt like I learned that when men mention “the good old days,” this is the time period they’re fantasizing about. Men felt brave, useful, appreciated, and controlled all aspects of women’s lives.

    This is a side note, but yesterday Nick and I were talking about the memoir The Egg and I. I had described to him how funny it is and how I would like to read it to him. Currently, I’m reading to him another Betty MacDonald memoir, Anybody Can Do Anything. It begins with Betty packing up her kids, leaving a note on the table, and fleeing her (first) husband. After, we learn they had almost no contact, and he never saw those children. Nick was so mad that this could happen, that the father could just be abandoned like that. The conversation turned, however, to how in 1934 (Modernism!) women couldn’t sit down and have a reasonable conversation about unhappiness, lack of fulfillment, divorce, etc. A man could hobble his wife if he knew what she was planning involved leaving him.

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    • First, Betty MacDonald. I think mum had Anybody can do Anything – more than 50 years ago now! But I’m glad I introduced you to The Egg and I. Divorce was much harder back then – we got ‘no fault’ divorce in the 1970s – so women basically had to ‘disappear’ and of course they took the children (and I think men who say they want custody of the children quite often just want to punish their wives -a sweeping generalisation, I know).

      As for your view of Modernism, I guess it gets back to Dos Passos again. I’m more or less tied up next year, fully committed anyway, but the year after I might make a bit of a project of USA which I haven’t read since university. Modernism in my mind, through writers like Woolf, Joyce, Sackville-West, Lawrence and in Australia, Eleanor Dark and of course Furphy, write about everyday things, often seemingly with no object in mind, just the writing itself.

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      • Re family law, yes! My husband and I separated in 1972. He threatened me with murder and suicide if I took our three young daughters from him. The upshot was he abducted them to USA and I was separated from them for the rest of their childhood. It took me nearly two years to get access to them. It’s a tortured tale, told in my memoir, recently published: A Practice of Loss: Memoir of an Abandoning Mother. See my website, memoryandyou.org

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      • I know that it was also common for a widowed father to give his kids to relatives or even orphanages if his wife passed away and he didn’t or couldn’t get remarried right away. So, it makes sense to me that MacDonald took her children with her.

        I don’t agree with your comment about men wanting custody to punish ex-wives, but I do know it’s complicated. For instance, I’ve known guys who say they want more custody time with their children if they’re going to pay child support. It turns children into a commodity, which is disgusting.

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  3. I have really enjoyed your posts about Such is Life, even though I can’t quite see myself ever reading it – I’ve still never made it through anything by Woolf apart from A Room of One’s Own, and no Joyce at all – I think perhaps Modernism isn’t for me, at least not without taking a class to help me understand it. But I have enjoyed reading all the discussion in comments, which seems like a reflection of how the work touches on so many areas of life – as I guess all the best fiction does, really.

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    • Thank you Lou. I find that ‘extreme’ modernism is like poetry, the words just flow over you. Capturing meaning from that flow is of course the difficult part. Furphy’s writing was not so polished as Woolf’s, but probably had more layers of meaning, to someone with Furphy’s knowledge of the bush anyway.

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  4. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts even though I haven’t really understood a lot and would not really grasp the book. One thing which did leap out at me this time is that a friend of mine lives on Beaudesert Road!!

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      • I’ve misrepresented myself there, obviously I am cool with reading about all sorts of different cultures to my own, but the level of detail you present here is a bit beyond me, and i wouldn’t find that and all the resonances in the book. I think that’s what I’m trying to say, anyway!

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  5. I laughed at your expression of relief in seeing THE END. It is an undertaking to so seriously consider a text that is important and only sometimes entertaining or, even, interesting. Even if it doesn’t feel tremendously rewarding right now, I bet you’ll find that it resonates with other Australian reads in the years to come, in ways that might be hard to predict, and you’ll have a bunch of tiny aha moments that make reading it worthwhile in the end.

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    • I was glad to get to the end!
      Such is Life has always resonated because of truck driving/stopping for a yarn and because of passing through that geography, in life (work) and in literature. The last book I read (for the AWW site) was letters from a station in the 1860s and lots of that was similar.
      It’s sad though that one doesn’t really see any literary resonances. Vance Palmer, whom I don’t rate, was the writer most likely to attempt to write in the style of – I should force myself to read some of his novels.

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