Such is Life (04), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)

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 resume near the end of Chapter II with Tom visiting an old friend, Rory O’Halloran and his wife and five year old daughter, Mary, who live in a shepherd’s hut in a remote corner of Willandra Station. Tom spends the evening talking to Rory and Mary – Mrs O’Halloran is taciturn, no doubt unused to company. The next morning he accompanies Rory on his rounds, but the sight of a particular tree recalls to Tom’s mind the traveller he saw resting, and who hadn’t after all come up to the house for tucker.

Suddenly a strange misgiving seized me, and I asked involuntarily, “Do you have many swagmen calling round here?”
“Nat six in the coorse o’ the year, ” replied Rory … [who then relates that someone from the station had told him a couple of weeks ago that there was a man blind with sandy blight, making for Ivanhoe “fur till ketch the coach”]
“A found a swag on the fence a week or ten days ago, an’ a man’s tracks at the tank a couple of days afther; an the swag’s there yit ..”

Of course they find the traveller, under the tree, dead that morning, in sight of safety if he could have seen. “Such is life, and such is death.”

AG Mitchell in Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism (1967) writes –

there is an appalling incongruity between the trivial, light-hearted reason for Collins’ checking his natural impulse to speak to the man, and the consequences of his action …

Such is Life abounds in incidents of this kind, on larger and smaller scales; happenings which not only mock the most careful judgement and patient forethought but which twist themselves into stranger shapes than invention could contrive.

Mitchell argues that the underlying thesis of the novel is, What is the nature of Providence? and that this is a question which Furphy is never able to resolve to his own satisfaction. There are, Mitchell says, four “qualities attributed in literature to the spirit or force sustaining and governing the universe in its relationship to man:
Benevolence, Malevolence, Indifference and ‘Sport'”
And the author “represents all four ideas, either explicitly through one of his characters or implicitly through a series of events seen against a background of individual character, motive, responsibility, intention.”

I make Tom’s account of a few hours in the evening and the following morning sound very straightforward, but in between he’s discussing with us the beauty of Mary’s Celtic features –

Mary O’Halloran was perfect Young-Australian … she was a very creature of the phenomena which had environed her own dawning intelligence. She was a child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees. The long-descended poetry of her nature made the bush vocal with pure gladness of life …

the history of the Celts in Ireland, England and Europe; Rory’s writing – a twenty page treatise titled A Plea for Woman

.. no mere abstract can do justice to the sumptuous phraseology of the work, to its opulence of carefully selected adjective, or to the involved rhetoric which seemed to defeat and set at naught all your petty rules of syntax and prosody.

then there’s Eyre’s expedition along the shores of the Great Australian Bight; American Presidents; the Massacre of Cawnpore; the real location of the garden of Eden. Rory has questions for Tom which he answers off the top of his head: the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (6 miles); Renaissance painters who painted Calgary with a skull at the foot of the Cross (Schoen, Limousin, Durër).

Kerryn Goldsworthy writes in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000) “Such is Life [is a] sprawling, opaque and very funny novel … at once a late experiment in realism and a very early anticipation of postmodern techniques of fragmentation, allusion, pastiche and authorial self-consciousness.”


The next morning – Tom, at the beginning of this chapter, determines to relate the events not of one week, but of one day of each month. But now: “I have already exceeded the limited exactions of my diary record”.

Swagmen – men walking the backblocks looking for, or avoiding, work. Barbara Baynton, often left on her own (as it happens, nearby-ish and at this time) was understandably terrified of them – see her short story, The Chosen Vessel. A swag is a bedroll, maybe containing as well a change of clothes.

Ivanhoe, NSW – is north west of Willandra, so O’Halloran’s hut would have been on the blind swagman’s way. There must have been a coach service from Wilcannia, north of Ivanhoe, to Hay (map) which is due south and probably on to Deniliquin and Echuca. And no, Ivanhoe’s one place I’ve never been and have always wanted to (if only for the romance of the name).

Sport – As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport (King Lear).

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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 book cover at the top is from US publisher Standard Ebooks. Their ebooks are free (here). They say they have made very few changes (eg. Mahomet to Muhammad) but they don’t say if they were working from the “standard” version – Angus & Robertson, 1944 – but from what few checks I made, they appear to be.

Cover image not credited, but appears to be from:
Frederick McCubbin, Down on his Luck, 1889
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia

Such is Life (03), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)

We’re at Chapter II which begins with Tom giving up on his idea of describing minutely every day of one week and instead determining “to pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day for amplification and comment, keeping not too long in one tune, but a snip and away”. This “transports” us to 9th October 1883 and a hundred miles northward, to Willandra Billabong, real black-soil desert country on the middle reaches of the Lachlan River which in dry times peters out and in flood spreads across country as far west as the Darling.

On the verandah of the Willandra Station men’s quarters an argument breaks out as to whether cattle can smell water. This leads of course to a story, in this case of Tom as a bullocky delivering fencing wire to Willandra two years earlier (his bullocks dying of thirst stood next to water without realizing it was there), and on to a second story of meeting an Irish shepherd at that time whom he had previously known when he (Tom) was a settler in northern Victoria, and thence to a considerable digression on the British fomenting trouble between Irish Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers.

Tom determines to call in on the shepherd again on his way northwards and soon he and his horses are fed and he’s ready to depart –

A few minutes afterward, Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down by means of the exercise with which he habitually opened the day’s work. But this was to be expected in the same spirit as the abusive language of a faithful pastor, It was all in the contract. ..I dare say I might have gradually weaned him from his besetting sin, but I didn’t want to be pestered with people borrowing him.

Travelling through “the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub” which he clearly loves, “painted by nature in its Impressionist mood”, he muses on its virgin state “sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal savage” before running into the Irish shepherd, Rory O’Halloran, some miles from his hut. They travel together until a Rory sees some task to be done and sends Tom on ahead.

A half mile or so from the hut Tom espies a traveller resting under a tree. Etiquette stops him from hailing the traveller who would probably prefer to arrive at the hut after dusk when there was no danger of his having to chop the wood in exchange for a feed. But the author wants us to mark that this was a decisive turning point, and then discourses for some pages, citing Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet to make his point, that an option once taken cannot be reversed and will always have unexpected consequences.

Or put it in allegorical form. The misty expanse of Futurity is radiated with divergent lines of rigid steel; and along one of these lines, with diminishing carbon and sighing exhaust, you travel at schedule speed, At each junction, you switch right or left, and on you go still, up or down the way of your own choosing. But there is no stopping or turning back; and until you have passed the current section there is no divergence, except by voluntary catastrophe. Another junction flashes into sight, and again your choice is made; negligently enough, perhaps, but still with a view to what you consider the greatest good, present or prospective.

So Tom goes on, to meet the unwelcoming Mrs O’Halloran and their five year old daughter, Mary whose fate rings down through the novel.


transports you (saving reverence of our ‘birth stain’)” – A small pun on our origins as transported convicts

as far west as the Darling – The Lachlan nominally runs into the Murrumbidgee but this country is very flat.

Willandra – near present-day Hillston, in the middle of this map, and on the road-train route from Melbourne to North Queensland which I know well.

Willandra Station – have I made it clear that in Australia a ‘station’ is a very large grazing property on unimproved country, running sheep or cattle. Squatters are station owners. The state governments at various times – as late as the 1950s – made the squatters give up portions of their land to Settlers, but the squatters generally managed to hang on to the best watering places; and would sometimes put in Dummies to act as settlers on blocks they wished to retain. In passing, this policy of breaking up stations is why the anger of white commentators towards Zimbabwe’s Mugabe was a total confection. Yes, his execution of the policy was corrupt (or corrupted) but it was a policy common in all settler countries.

Tom, a settler – In 1868 Furphy, his father and brother took up land at Sand Hills between Bendigo and Shepparton but Joseph was unable to make a go of it (see Such is Life (01)).

The Irish question – Tom is presumably English Protestant but the Furphys (as was the shepherd) were Irish Catholics, from Tandragee, County Armagh in 1840.

“Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down” – you might recall, Tom’s horse responded to being remounted by bucking.

Tom in his musings “appears to subscribe to the Terra Nullius theory that completely disregards the long history of the country’s Aboriginal inhabitants, but this is at odds” with Furphy’s own published views. (annotation 66:7)

On re-reading, this is a very slow post, and it reflects the book’s slow build up to the underlying dramas. What I have failed to convey is the amusement derived by the reader from the individual stories as Tom wends his discursive way.

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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).

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).

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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)

Such is Life (01), Joseph Furphy

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.

Introduction

Contrary to usage, these memoirs are published, not “in compliance with the entreaties of friends,” but in direct opposition thereto …

SUCH IS LIFE

Chapter 1

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.

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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).

Brona’s AusReading Month 2020

November 2020, which is to say now, is Brona of BronasBooks eighth annual AusReading Month. Hopefully it will also be remembered as the month the USA stepped back from the brink of Fascism and, more cheerfully, it marks 20 years of international cooperation in space with the continuous occupation over that time of the Space Station. (And don’t you think Brona’s map is ‘brave’. Taswegians are vowing vengeance as I write.)

Celebration: What Australian books have I read over the past year? After filling last year’s bingo card. I started the new AusReading year with Banjo Patterson’s An Outback Marriage – “It was as if he gathered up all his knowledge of bush life and carpentered it up into a longer tale than those in his bush verses… The novel is cynical and shallow.” Miles Franklin didn’t like it! Despite the fact that she had been asked for advice during the writing.

During 2019 I featured the work of David Ireland and in December I read his The Flesheaters. Then it was time for wrapping up (Best Reads 2019) and on to Australian Women Writers Gen 3, with one extremely important Australian work in between, Chris Owen’s Every Mother’s Son is Guilty on Aboriginal massacres by police and settlers in northern WA.

The AWW Gen 3 Week summary, with all your contributions, is here. I personally read Exiles at Home, Drusilla Modjeska; and No Roads Go By, Myrtle Rose White. Then back to undirected, all over the place general reading. First, Melbourne arts student Jamie Marina Lau’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island which I greatly enjoyed; my own notes on Daisy Bates, followed by her The Passing of the Aborigines; another Gen 3, Jungfrau by Dymphna Cusack; then right back to Gen 1 with Sisters by Ada Cambridge.

It’s April, Covid-19 has struck, I’m in a motel outside Darwin in quarantine getting lots of reading done, and even a little exercise. I read Virginia Woolf, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, three Willa Cathers and finally Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. I think I’ve moved on to my daughter’s apartment in Darwin when I read the predictably disappointing Bring the Monkey by Miles Franklin, because my next review is of The Black Line which she and I watched together.

I’d forgotten that David Ireland slipped over into 2020 with John ‘Fourtriplezed’ providing a guest review of Bloodfather. Back home, a brief respite from Covid, the 1987 short story collection, The Babe is Wise, then Second Wave in Melbourne and I am back in isolation, seemingly forever, but working, constantly driving backwards, forwards, Melbourne, Perth, though still doing some reading. Marjorie Barnard’s biography of Miles Franklin; Patrick White’s novella collection, The Cockatoos; a bit of recent history, The Hand that Signed the Paper, Helen Demidenko; Choc.Lit for ANZLL’s Indigenous Literature Week, Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss, and also her compilation, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia; two for ANZLL’s Thea Astley Week, Drylands and Collected Stories; a Karenlee Thompson short story, Grace; a bit about Christos Tsiolkas before Melanie (GrabTheLapels) and I buddy read The Slap; a Macedonian novel featuring Miles Franklin (that must count as Australian); Jessica White’s A Curious Intimacy; my son Lou’s review of Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup; Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers; a YA, Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca; and that’s it.

Anticipation: This will be brief. I’m currently reading and will review later this month Melina Marchetta’s not-YA novel The Place on Dalhousie. After that I have hundreds of unread Australians in my TBR including The Cardboard Crown from which I keep getting distracted, but near the top of the list, friends have recently given/loaned me Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe; Bill Green, Small Town Rising; Mudrooroo, Tripping with Jenny; Jean Devanny, Sugar Heaven; Elizabeth Jolley, The Orchard Thieves, An Accommodating Spouse, Lovesong and the memoir, Central Mischief. I also have two Miles Franklin’s to dig up, The Net of Circumstance and Pioneers on Parade as well as all her unpublished/uncollected short works and journalism. If the plague is ever behind us I might shout myself a trip to Sydney and the Mitchell Library.

Promotion: There are two items under this heading. First of course is Australian Women Writers Gen 3, Part II Week on this blog 17-23 Jan, 2021, which is back a little compared with last year but I suspect I’ll be working right up to Christmas so that gives me a few days extra to prepare.

As I wrote last year, Gen 3, 1919-1960, which covers the period from the end of WWI to the beginning of the sixties, is the story of White Australians clustered in a few cities on the arable fringes of a hostile continent. I said there were two main strands to Gen 3, ‘Social Realism’ and ‘Modernism’, but there was a third, ‘Pioneering’ which followed on the Bush Realism of Gen 2 and which emphasised the role of families in the Bush, and therefore of women, as a reaction to the misogyny of the Bulletin’s Lone Hand myth (AKA the Australian Legend).

At the edges of any movement and in this case between Gen 3 and Gen 4 there are always writers on the cusp. I haven’t given enough thought to Gen 4 yet, and you guys might help, but it is in essence those writers we baby boomers began to read as we reached adulthood, corresponding to the revolution in popular music represented by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, musicians born 10 or so years before us, and to Women’s Lib, the pill, de facto marriages, cheap universal tertiary education, the anti-War movement. So, Thea Astley, first novel 1958; Elizabeth Harrower, first novel 1957; and so on through to Helen Garner, first novel 1977. The theoretical background should be post-modernism though I’d be surprised if that was influential in Australia before the 1970s.

I plan to read Kylie Tennant’s Tell Morning This which, speaking of cusps, was published in 1967. But I hope also to get to The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) by Ernestine Hill which I think is central to how Australians saw themselves ‘back then’. Look on the AWW Gen 3 page for authors and the reviews I’ve so far collected.

My second ‘promotion’ is I plan a deep reading of Joseph Furphy’s great work Such is Life, following in the footsteps of Brona (Moby Dick) and Lisa Hill (Finnegan’s Wake), with posts, probably monthly, throughout the year.

I have a 1999 edition annotated by FD Glass, R Eaden, L Hoffman & GW Turner, though unfortunately IMO the annotations take the form of end notes. I’m not sure yet how I’ll break the 7 chapters, 297 pp into 12 sections but I hope that by the end you, and more especially I, have a better understanding of this wonderful, idiosyncratic work.

That’s another year in summary for me. I don’t think I can manage a Bingo card. Thank you Brona, and good luck. From the chatter around it sounds like you already have lots of participants.

BronasBooks: AusReading Month 2020 (register here)

There is a GAN, revisited

Voss

I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

Illustration: Chris Grosz, The Monthly, Sept. 2009

It is not clear even at the distance of more than a century whether Joseph Furphy (1843-1912)  is one of our greatest writers, though he certainly wrote one of our greatest novels, Such is Life (1903) purportedly the memoir of time spent by Tom Collins, a minor NSW government official, with bullock drivers in the Riverina (southern NSW), “a classic which few were to read and no one was ever to establish clearly what it was all about.” (Manning Clark in Furphy’s ADB entry)

I have a first (and only, probably) edition of Miles Franklin’s Joseph Furphy, from now long-gone antiquarian book seller, Magpie’s, in Fremantle, originally belonging to a Paul Le Comte, “member W.A.H.S.” (WA Historical Society?) and including newspaper cuttings and – Emma and Lisa will like this – an information card for Furphy’s burial site in Perth’s Karrakatta Cemetery.

Franklin’s ‘Prefatory Note’ begins –

The time is not yet ripe for a definitive biography of Joseph Furphy. The Australian attitude toward biography opens the case for Mateship versus Modernity, and so far Mateship holds the pass. No frankly searching study of the lives of our prominent personages would be tolerated … because of the still lingering conventions of modesty and reticence by which British middle-class behavior was regulated until inhibition was loosened in the preliminary war of 1914-18.

Jill Roe (2008, p.388) thinks that Franklin is averting to the possibility of an affair between Furphy and Kate Baker (1861-1953), Franklin’s ‘collaborator’ in this work. The married Furphy and Baker, 18 years his junior, met in 1886 when Baker was teaching near Rushworth (in central Victoria). They became lifelong friends. Baker was important in encouraging Furphy to write, and after his death and her early retirement at 52 she did all she could to publicize and safeguard his work (ADB). By 1939, when she spent 5 months in Sydney with Franklin getting this biography underway, Baker was elderly and stone deaf and Franklin largely took over, so that the collaboration consisted of Franklin writing from the material Baker had collected over a lifetime.

Franklin was herself a Furphy fan and she and Furphy had exchanged complimentary letters and subsequently met, in 1904 (see also Such is Life, Abridged!).

It is sometimes stated that this biography won the 1944 Prior Prize, the year the book was published, but in fact Franklin won the 1939 Prior Prize for the essay Who was Joseph Furphy? which she dashed off after Baker had returned to Melbourne, though she shared the £100 with her (Franklin initially came second but the ms which beat her, MH Ellis’ biography of Governor Macquarie*, was belatedly judged to be insufficiently foot-noted).

Franklin begins at interesting point. After a brief ‘Furphian’ digression – one of the features of Such is Life is its flights down side alleys – on the development or otherwise of a distinctly Australian literature, she gives us Kate Baker, newly hatched school teacher, rushing to catch the train, and subsequently a coach and then a spring cart to the home of Isaac Furphy – brother of Joseph – and his family where she is to board for a year, before moving six miles to board another year at the home of Samuel and Mrs Furphy, Joseph’s parents, constantly inundated, by Joseph’s brothers and sisters and their children, by Joseph’s wife Leonie and their children, by everyone around except Joseph whom Kate finally meets only on the day of her departure.

When Joe began to talk he justified himself as the literary prodigy of the family. He was then forty-four, Kate Baker in her twenties.

Joe talked till 1.00 am, and again the following night. Then it was time to leave, and she asked him to visit her and her parents some time in Melbourne.

We then return conventionally to the beginning and Furphy’s surprisingly, almost Austenesque, literary home environment. Of his juvenilia Franklin writes:

A copy of “Childe Booth’s Pilgrimage” has been preserved. It bears traces of easy acquaintance with Scott, Longfellow, Homer, Byron, Burns, Moore and others. Written when the boy was between fourteen and fifteen years of age, it shows him in embryo the Furphy who in 1897 delivered of Such is Life.

Joseph was one of five brothers, and journals were kept by their mother of their writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. The Furphys had come out from Ireland in 1841, were employed and sometimes self-employed in various locations outside of Melbourne, including Kyneton 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, and it is there that Kate Baker came to teach.

Today it is an inspiring sight to gaze from Mount Burramboot over the glowing plains which reach away to the blue distance for leagues on every side. In the foreground Lake Cooper and its satellites glisten like sapphires in a shield.

Joe’s selection lived up to it’s name and after five years he 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 he had a settled home and could begin to write.

His first piece, “The Mythical Sundowner”, appeared in the Bulletin 5 Oct 1889, signed Warrigal Jack, though he later used Tom Collins, a “synonym for idle rumour” (as ‘Furphy’ was to become during WWI).

Over the next decade or so, he was engaged constantly, when he wasn’t working, in reading, writing, and researching, setting tasks for Kate Baker, and corresponding with fellow pedant and polymath William Cathels.

By 1897 he had an ms in want of a publisher. He wrote to the Bulletin seeking advice, and AG Stephens asked him to submit it to them – 1125 hand written pages. Furphy advised Stephens –

The plan of the book is not like any other that I know of – at least, I trust not. Also you will notice that a certain by-play in plot and éclaircissment is hidden from the philosophic narrator, however apparent to the matter of fact reader.

Stephens wrote at length to Furphy setting out in detail the economics of publication. First requirement was a typed copy and Furphy, fearful that a typist would bowdlerize his often profane masterpiece, purchased Shepparton’s third typewriter, taught himself to type, and knocked out a copy in … 12 months!

At his point in the book Franklin reproduces a great deal of (fascinating) correspondence. I find it interesting that both Stephens and Cathels, the first people to read and admire Such is Life, saw it as an idiosyncratic but essentially true-to-life account of Bush life, whereas I see it as one of the great works of Modernism, essentially about writing and language as Picasso’s work is about painting, not funny-looking women.

For three years the Bulletin prevaricated about publishing. It was a fine book, but much too long. They would bear a loss out of the goodness of their hearts. And so on. Furphy finally conceived the idea of excising two strands of the original, which would go on to be books in their own right, the novel Rigby’s Romance and the collection of stories which eventually became The Buln-Buln and the Brolga. Even so, correction, re-typing, illustration, proof reading dragged on through all of 1901 (when Miles Franklin’s own My Brilliant Career stole some of his thunder) and 1902.

Finally, in June 1903 Stephens wrote to Furphy that 2,000 copies had been printed and 500 bound, –

“… the book market is dead, have no hope of selling them for some time… Your whole affair is the curious instance of that dead and gone thing conscience. The book’s so good that it has got itself printed against foreknowledge and predestination absolute that it’ll have a darned slow sale. I mention this as a faint excuse for the shocking delays.”

Such is Life was finally released in August 1903 with an inappropriately floral cover, to mostly good reviews in Australia and adverse in Britain. Sales were poor, around 25 a month, making it impossible for the Bulletin to consider Rigby’s Romance. Furphy wrote a review of his own, concluding –

… the studied inconsecutiveness of the “memoirs” is made to mask coincidence and cross-purposes, sometimes too intricate.

In 1905 Furphy and his wife moved to Perth WA where their children were already established. They lived between the rail line and the sea, Cottesloe or Swanbourne. Between making their homes habitable, and surf bathing, he was fully occupied and after only little more than a decade, his writing career was at an end.

Rigby’s Romance was published in the Barrier Truth (Broken Hill) in 1905-6 and it was 15 years before Kate Baker could arrange to have it published as a book. Furphy died in 1912 without ever returning to see his friends in Melbourne, but maintained an active correspondence.

The last quarter of the biography is an analysis of Furphy’s work, including Miles’ frustration at Furphy’s inadequate depiction of women, ending with a discussion on the relative merits, and fame, of Ulysses, Such is Life and Remembrance of Times Past.

furphy cutting 1

 

Miles Franklin, in association with Kate Barker, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1944.

Shane Maloney, Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy, The Monthly, Sept 2009 (here)

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008

Such is Life is available from Text Classics in print (2013) and e-book.


*M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times – “after a fortnight’s examination, Ida [Leeson, Mitchell Library] declared the work undocumented and full of inaccuracies.” Franklin’s work was “elevated from ‘highly commended’ to first place, with a rider that entry No. 62 would have won had it been fully documented and the references checked.” From the NLA database it appears that Ellis’ work was published in stages from 1942 to 1952, and has since been reprinted.


**Googling ‘Sand Hills Furphy’ brings up directory entries which indicate that the family still farms there; a family reunion on May 25; and a death notice for Joseph’s mother.


furphy cuttings 008

This cutting fortuitously references not just Furphy but Mollie Skinner (see Writing the Boy in the Bush) who might come up again later in AWW Gen 2 Week


AWW Gen 2 Week posts you might have missed –

Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Capel Boake, Whispering Gums

Louise Mack, A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, Nancy Elin

Such is Life, Abridged!

joseph-furphy-logo

The publishing of an abridged version of Such is Life was one of the mini dramas of the 1930’s Australian literary scene. Such is Life –famously of course Ned Kelly’s last words in 1880 – could properly be said to be a fictitious memoir by Joseph Furphy of Tom Collins, bullock driver and autodidact. It is part of Furphy’s genius that Collins is a very unreliable narrator. On publication in 1903 its use of language and discursive form marked as big a step forward for Australian literature as did James Joyce’s Ulysses for English literature 20 years later.

The genesis of the abridged version lay in the scarcities occasioned by the Great Depression and in a feeling in literary circles that Furphy’s masterpiece was falling into neglect. HM Green gives as an example that “[Furphy] was not mentioned in the Australian Encyclopaedia (1925), either individually or even in AT Strong’s article on Australian Literature…”. (p.609/Ch.10)

Apparently the publishers Jonathon Cape obtained permission from Kate Baker, Furphy’s friend and the executor of his estate – Furphy having died in 1912 – for an abridged version for the English market, for which they contracted well known Australian author Vance Palmer, who it seems had had a hand in an earlier version: “A second ‘edition’ [of Such is Life], made up from surplus Bulletin sheets with a new title page and a preface by Vance Palmer was published in 1917, and an abridgement in 1937 in which Nettie Palmer had a major hand.” (The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, 2nd Ed, p.728)

In her diary for June 6th, 1936 Nettie Palmer writes, from Barcelona where she and Vance have taken a cottage for a year:

V. is engaged in preparing an abridged version of ‘Such is Life’ for Cape, a much more delicate business than anyone could have imagined. We had difficulty in getting a copy to bring here, but Henry Handel Richardson willingly lent us the one I’d sent her years ago. I’m afraid that Edward Garnett didn’t realize all the difficulties when he insisted that ‘Such is Life’ should be cut down by 50,000 words if it were to be introduced successfully to English readers. He admires the book, but thinks that parts of it are so local as to be unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t know the period and the background, other parts so wordy they act as a drag on the book.”

Of course, Palmer wasn’t the first to undertake the task of paring down Such is Life. Furphy himself had to remove two semi-autonomous sections from his original ms, which were subsequently published as a novel and a book of short stories in their own right: Rigby’s Romance (1946) and The Buln Buln and the Brolga (1971).*

Miles Franklin had been a supporter of Joseph Furphy since they exchanged fan letters and subsequently met in the early 1900’s. Now approaching the end of her career as a productive novelist she had contacted Kate Baker about collaborating on a Furphy biography. Jill Roe writes:

The long awaited abridgement of Such is Life, purportedly by Vance Palmer (actually by Nettie and their daughter Aileen, though this was not known till much later), appeared in May [1937]. From her earliest encounter with the English publisher Jonathon Cape, Miles had feared the worst, and here it was – to her mind not so much an abridgement as a humourless mutilation of the noble text … Immediately she embarked on an insistent campaign to counteract its impact, with articles of her own and increased pressure on Joseph Furphy’s ‘gallant standard bearer’, Kate Baker… (2008, p.372)

The episode isn’t mentioned in the Paul Brunton Miles Franklin Diaries so let me conclude with extracts from a letter from Miles and a letter from Nettie. First Miles, to Kate Baker, 11th May 1937

Oh, Katy Baker!

When we thought a (not the) fort was gained, to find that it was merely a betrayal and we must to arms once more. …

This is what I expected of Cape. I had a talk with him twice – once in London and once here. He turned down All That Swagger. Don’t tell anyone yet. They wd think it was my jealousy in not being accepted. But I assure you it wasn’t. It was that with my strange penetration I knew at once that he would accept nothing Australian unless the Australianism was extracted, or of the colonial variety tempered to English idea of what it shd be.

And Nettie, to Frank Dalby Davison, 30th June 1937

… what a dear you are to worry about Vance’s feelings. The attack has been rather distorted but it wasn’t unexpected. Vance says he could make out a perfectly good case himself, better than his attackers’ case, against the abridgement. Only what they assume is that he preferred to see the book published in an abridged form, that he invented the notion, and that there were publishers everywhere longing to publish it again in the complete form… It was only after a succession of Australian publishers had refused it that she [Kate Baker] at last wrote to Cape, and asking Vance herself to go ahead.

There’s more. Furphy carries on a running joke (apart from working men quoting Latin) about swearing, as in: ‘“Case of vigilante et (adj.) orate, when a man’s in such a (sheol) of a (adj.) st-nk,” interjected Dixon’. The Palmers apparently replaced all the (adj.)’s with ‘bloody’, destroying the joke. Nettie’s letter goes on:

… People now say that Vance has done two things to the book, abridged it and altered it… The alteration doesn’t extend beyond the deletion of that monotonous jest about swear words … There were no other ‘alterations ‘: Vance valued the book more and more as he worked on it, keeping every turn in the complex plot.

Interesting, if Nettie was the abridger, but beyond the bare assertion, in a number of sources, I didn’t see any evidence. As for the harm done, Angus and Robertson published a complete version in 1944 and Such is Life gradually, finally, became accepted for the great novel it is.


Footnotes: I’m a footnotes fan, they’re sometimes strangely discursive and off-topic and so much easier to follow than endnotes (though I suppose there’s not much difference in a blog-post!).

Such is Life was published by the books division of The Bulletin, under the editorship of AG Stephens. Stephens persuaded Furphy to hive off the other two books but was unable to publish them. Rigby’s Romance ,however, did appear in the Barrier Truth (Broken Hill, NSW) in 1905-6, presumably serialized.

Miles Franklin says, “Kate Baker had Rigby’s Romance abridged and typed from columns of The Barrier Truth… [and] published by the DeGaris Publishing House in book form in 1921” with an introduction by AG Stephens. (1944, p.135)

AustLit are currently engaged in a project to digitise all of Furphy’s work, this will include annotations and correction of the mistakes that have built up ever since Furphy was asked by The Bulletin to type his original handwritten ms. “The fifth module [due in 2016] will deliver a digital edition of the abridged English edition of Such is Life, including an essay on Vance and Nettie Palmer’s role in editing the text for the London publisher Jonathan Cape, particularly the ways in which the original work was changed for English readers of the 1930s”.

See also:
Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy (here)
Roger Osborne, This edition howls to heaven to be withdrawn, ALS Vol.35.1, April 2020 (here)

References:
HM Green, A History of Australian Literature, Vol 1, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1961
Vivian Smith ed., Nettie Palmer, UQP, Brisbane, 1988
Vivian Smith ed., Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1977
The Australian Quarterly, vol.34, No.3 (Sep.,1962), pp 62-71, FH Mares, Such is Life (here)
AustLit, The Joseph Furphy Digital Archive (here)
AustLiteraryStudies, Roger Osborne, The Palmer Abridgement, (here)
Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1944
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
Jill Roe ed., My Congenials, Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters, Vol 1, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1993