Landscape With Landscape, Gerald Murnane

14086457571.jpg

I am, or was until now, a Gerald Murnane virgin. I had read none of his works nor knew anything about him except, from the colour supplements last year, that he had retired to the Wimmera, to a small town in wheat farm country west of St Arnaud, Vic and something, something, horse racing, something (I’ll look up a link when I’m done  … here).

Now, I know a little more. Murnane is a Melburnian, half a generation older than me and, on the basis of this book, a fine, literary writer,

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in Melbourne, Australia. He spent part of his childhood in country districts of Victoria, returned to Melbourne in 1949 and has lived there ever since [up to 1987 anyway, when this thumbnail appeared in Landscape With Landscape].

The thematically connected stories of this book are of a young Melbourne man, sexually immature and awkward, coming of age in the late 1950s, itself a sexually immature and awkward time in suburban Australia.  The young man in this book devises scenarios in his head, plays out meetings before they take place, builds a whole imagined life around a glance or a chance sighting. I feel for him intensely. His awkwardness, the rehearsed meetings, his holding back from ‘real-life’ interaction are mine too.

The stories ostensibly concern his approaching, or not approaching, women. In some of them he meets a woman and marries her, but this woman, his wife, is rarely the point of the story, she is there, perhaps as a marker of his manhood, but playing very little part in his life, in the important part of his life, his imagination. More importantly, the stories are a writer practising his craft, effectively telling the same coming of age story six times from six different perspectives; a cycle, each story referencing the next, and the last the first; and at the same time developing and discussing the theories of his craft.

This was a time when people married young, my own parents, who married in 1950 were 23 and 18. Murnane – or the young man who is his surrogate in these stories – finds himself, positions himself, as the heavy drinking loner bachelor in the lounge rooms of his married friends, until he too has an (unnamed) wife. But his principal life – we might say the life he is reduced to rationalising as his principal life by his failure to make meaningful contact with eligible women – is in the space between himself and the Other.

At some time in my imagined future I would have wanted to see my landscape as a private place marked off from all others: a place that distinguished me as surely as a pattern of freckles could distinguish a woman.

There was such a place, although I did not recognise it for some years afterwards. By then it seemed less a landscape than the ending of the only fiction I could write. It was the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me. [Landscape With Freckled Woman].

He imagines an Australian landscape that has him leaning on a bar in far north Qld, drinking beer (which he is forcing himself to like), a romantic, Kerouac-ian wanderer. He tells this dream to Carolyn, a kindergarten teacher with a Morris Minor, but after four dates with lots of kissing he still hasn’t put his hand on her breast. She tells him she has been sleeping with a married man and he throws her over. His friend, Durkin starts taking her out, sleeping with her, discussing him with her, her with him. Durkin and Carolyn marry, still he remains in Melbourne, getting married himself, visiting them, drinking. Carolyn exposes her breast to him to breastfeed her third child, surely a sign. Durkin and Carolyn move north. To Grafton in northern NSW. Twenty years have passed. Carolyn leaves Durkin, moves north again, to Brisbane. Carolyn’s single, waiting for him, for them both to enter the landscape of his dreams, the far north… [Sipping the Essence]

In another story, he is a descendant of the utopian New Australia settlement in Paraguay, looking for other Australians amongst the Paraguayans, but afraid of course to approach them directly and ask; an extended metaphor for his search for like-minded people in Melbourne suburbia.

I was never sure what value to attach to what Paraguayans called the emotions. (How much, for example, of what I felt for my wife and children was truly derived from my Australianness and how much was derived from my being exposed all my life to overly demonstrative Paraguayans?)

His son, who is far more important to him than his daughter, becomes seriously ill and must be entrusted to Paraguayan doctors. During the long night watches he demonstrates to  hospital staff his seriousness, his separateness. [The Battle of Acosta Nu].

In A Quieter Place than Clun Murnane attempts and largely fails to meet women – he describes his pick-up technique as: “Sometimes I did go [to parties], and sat drinking in a corner, hoping some perceptive young woman would notice about me the faint aureole from my fiery pattern of nerves.”

The Clun of the title is from a poem by AE Housman – “‘Tis a long way further than Knighton/A quieter place than Clun” – with which he becomes obsessed, imagining that his literary landscape must be coloured the brilliant green of southern England.

But in Charlie Alcock’s Cock, it is the spaces between things, the ‘gaps’ in reality, that form his landscape. At first he thinks he’ll find another way into reality from under the lemon tree in his aunt’s Hawthorn back yard where he and his younger cousin compare cocks, while he wishes he knew more about his older girl cousins. Over half a lifetime, the cousin becomes a priest and then a marriage counsellor, while he (Murnane) gets to 30, marries a nice, young Catholic girl, has children, decides to leave.

Now I knew that those dark spaces were part of myself. They were a huge projection of some intricate pattern behind my eyes, and it would be my life’s work to explore those dark spaces and to interpret the pattern that gave rise to them. The dazzled and half-blind people of Melbourne’s suburbs would lose sight of me.

Finally, and still sabotaging himself (his fictional self, how he was in ‘real’ life of course I cannot say) with drink, he attends a party in the hills north east of Melbourne, in the house of a successful artist (painter) who has become his friend, who pairs him off with a blonde to whom he is able to declaim the latest iterations of his theory of writing, but of course with whom he fails to go home.

She … asks me to tell her more about myself. I tell her I am a writer, but one whose best work is still unpublished. I say my writing is too complex to talk about. I write fiction in order to discover the pattern of myself and my life. At first sight, a piece of my fiction might seem to describe only a few figures in a landscape; but on closer inspection it reveals extraordinary depths – another dimension perhaps. If she read my fiction closely, I tell her, she would seem to be stepping inside a painting of a landscape with one or more figures and walking back as far as the furthest painted detail and then seeing still further off other landscapes rising to view [Landscape With Artist].

Elsewhere he writes he would “devise a new form of prose fiction – neither short story nor novel -with a shape to match the pattern of my life” and that, I guess, explains why he has chosen this form for this book. And yes, I’m embarrassed; Landscape With Landscape is brilliant and I should have read it years ago.

 

Gerald Murnane, Landscape With Landscape, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987. Cover painting Contemplating the Faithful by Neil Malone

See also these posts on Murnane:
Lisa, ANZLL, the first two are stories from Landscape With Landscape (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen

9781921520402.jpg

Leonard Cohen music would seem to be an acquired taste. A weekend in 1970 at a mate’s beach house in Barwon Heads listening to his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen left me cold, but by the time the kids were teenagers we played Leonard Cohen cassettes all the time on long trips, and I’ve since been to a couple of concerts. So yes, belatedly, I’m a fan.

Cohen (1934-2016) apparently took up song-writing/singing in the late seventies because he wasn’t making a living as a novelist/poet.  Beautiful Losers (1966) was his second novel, written while he was living in Hydra (on arrival, Cohen boarded for a while with Charmian Clift and George Johnson, before buying his own house). In researching this, I read that his famous song (aren’t they all) Bird on a Wire was also written in Hydra after the advent of electricity on the island brought electricity wires past his bedroom window.

His writing is probably also an acquired taste, and is variously described as post-modern and experimental. Cohen is a decade too young to be considered a member of the Beat Generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs etc.) but they were probably an influence, and Wikipedia says, ‘During the 1960s, he was a fringe figure in Andy Warhol‘s “Factory” crowd,’ maybe after this novel was written, but it gives an idea of where his head was at. A blurb mentions James Joyce and Henry Miller, but that would be a given for any serious writer of Cohen’s generation, and doesn’t mean he should be considered alongside them.

The story of the novel is of the narrator dealing with the deaths of Edith, his young wife, and of F., his lifelong best friend (who was both his lover and, as it turns out, his wife’s lover), while researching the life Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-1680?), a Christian, native American, Mohawk of the A—– tribe at the time of the French occupation of Quebec.

Some of the, thankfully short, chapters are prayers, like this …

O God, Your Morning Is Perfect. People Are Alive In Your World. I Can Hear The Little Children In The Elevator. The Airplane Is Flying Through The Original Blue Air. Mouths Are Eating Breakfast. The Radio Is Filled With Electricity. The Trees Are Excellent. You Are Listening To The Voices Of The Faithless Who Tarry On The Bridge Of Spikes….

Others are rehashings of his conversations with F.:

– Did she like it?

– No.

– Really?

– Yes, she liked it. How anxious you are to be deceived!

– F., I could kill you for what you’ve done. Courts would forgive me.

– You’ve done enough killing for one night.

– Get off our bed! Our bed! This was our bed!

Catherine’s story proceeds in fits and starts, transcribed from missionary documents, or straight from the inside of his head:

– Your toes are cold, Catherine. I’ll have to rub them between my palms.

– Yes! …

The priest breathed heavily on her tiny brown toes. What a lovely little cushion her big toe had. The bottoms of her five toes looked like the faces of small children sleeping tucked up under a blanket up to their chins. He started to kiss them goodnight.

F. is an archetype of male success: he manipulates markets to achieve wealth; he follows up the ads on the backs of boyhood comics and develops a Charles Atlas body; he is a member of parliament. Every woman he wants, he has. Even when he is dead, all his possessions bequeathed to ‘I’, he is mysterious and powerful, a martyr of the separatist movement maybe.

The stories of Catherine Tekakwitha, a virgin in the midst of the orgies of her people and the depredations of the Jesuits, and Edith, the lover, separately, of two men, converge. The second half of the book degenerates into an account of the beatification of Catherine through extreme mortification of the flesh; degenerates as F. degenerates and dies “in a padded cell, his brain rotted from too much dirty sex”; becomes a letter written by F. while having sex with a nurse, an account of the act of terrorism – blowing up a statue of Queen Victoria – that got him committed, and of the last four years of the life of St Catherine.

I was your adventure and you were my adventure. I was your journey and you were my journey, and Edith was our holy star. This letter rises out of our love like the sparks between dueling swords …

Soap made from human fat, and a waiter who by implication is Hitler – “spent some time before the full-length mirror playing with his mustache and slanting his hair across his forehead in just the way he liked” – make a regrettable appearance, as does an old man having/wanting sex with boys (William Burroughs, or at least the characters in his books, was likewise fond of sex with “rent boys”. Back then before it ‘became’ paedophilia).

The novel ends with “Book III, Beautiful Losers, An epilogue in the third person” which one might hope makes sense of what has preceded. It doesn’t.

 

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers, first pub. 1966. This ed. Text Publishing, 2006


My brother in law, coincidentally, has sent me a link to a recording of a song he wrote in tribute to Cohen: So Long Leonard (words: W. Green/music: A. Luke) by Allan Luke, Americana music from Saint Lucia, Qld, AU on ReverbNation (here).

I put up lots of photos of Hydra, including Leonard Cohen’s house and the cafe where he first met Clift and Johnson, on Facebook, although they’re back a bit in the feed by now.

Travels in Greece, Charmian Clift

WP_20170327_002.jpg

Charmian Clift (1920-1969) was a well-loved writer, though more by women than by men probably, famously married to journalist/author George Johnson (1912-1970). The two met at The Argus in Melbourne in 1946 when Clift was a fledgling reporter and Johnson was an editor and renowned war correspondent. They began an affair, for which they were sacked – mostly because Johnson was already married but also, I think, because they were not discreet.

They moved to Sydney, Johnson secured a divorce, they married, and they began co-writing novels, winning a prize with High Valley in 1948. Next stop was London in 1951 after Johnson obtained a prestigious position there with Associated Newspapers. But after only a few years they moved again, to Greece, with the intention of living as cheaply as they could, as full time writers of fiction.

Clift and Johnson were ten years in Greece, one year on the island of Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast, the remainder on Hydra where they used all their savings to purchase a house. They had two children, a boy and a girl, Martin and Shane, born in Sydney, and another son born on Hydra. Clift wrote about living on Kalymnos in Mermaid Singing (1958) and about their first year in Hydra in Peel Me a Lotus (1959). Travels in Greece (1995) is a combination of the two.

Johnson had had little early success as a novelist, tending to rush his writing, and was probably happy to co-write with Clift, to take advantage of her greater attention to style and detail, although he continued also to produce novels on his own, finally achieving critical and financial success only after the end of their time on Hydra, with the fictionalised account of his boyhood, My Brother Jack (1964). Johnson, followed later by Clift and the children, then moved back to Australia. Clift was a script writer on the ABC TV series of My Brother Jack which aired in 1965, and began writing columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, soon achieving a large following.

In 1969 Clift, who like Johnson, had a drinking problem, suicided with an overdose of pills. Johnson’s entry in the ADB (here) says that Clift may have feared what Johnson might reveal in the second part of his fictionalised biography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) which came out a month later. This implies firstly that Clift had something to fear, presumably Johnson’s jealousy of her real or imagined affairs on Hydra, and secondly that she had not seen any earlier drafts of Johnson’s novel, which you would think unlikely, given their former collaboration.


At this point it occurs to me that the subjects of this and my previous review both died by suicide. If you are thinking along the same lines then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. I had a shot at it myself, as a young man, when my first marriage failed, and as it happens I was found and resuscitated. I have since had occasion at different times to rely on family, friends, workmates and counsellors, and they have all helped.*


Clift and Johnson’s time-out began on an impulse. They had often talked, when “outside in the Bayswater Road the night was the colour of a guernsey cow, and on the pavements the leaves lay in a sad yellow pulp”, about chucking in the London grind and moving to an island:

Perhaps if that very day we had not met, by accident, a friend newly returned from Greece who had asked me to come into the BBC to hear a radio feature he had made on the sponge-diving island of Kalymnos …

It burst like a star, so simple and brilliant and beautiful that for the moment we could only stare at each other in wonder. Why the devil shouldn’t we just go?

So we did.

We had no means of communication other than sign language, and we had a bank account that didn’t bear thinking about. Still, we thought we might be able to last for a year if we managed very carefully and stayed healthy. We had for some years published a novel every year or so, not very successfully, but we thought that it might be just possible to live by our writing when our capital ran out.

Clift’s writing is straightforward and clear, bringing to life the people they live amongst, and mixing in lots of geographical and historical background. Her own family we don’t get to know so well. George it seems is generally upstairs typing while Clift gets on with the shopping and cleaning, or he’s with her down at the local bar, and the kids are off playing. I enjoyed both accounts, but the first, Mermaid Singing, more than the second, Peel Me a Lotus. The former has a friendlier feel, as Charmian and the islanders, with the utmost goodwill, learn to understand each other and become friends. So much so that, at the end of the book, it comes as a bit of a surprise when they decide to move on.

Surprisingly, disappointingly, there is nothing at all about Clift’s and Johnson’s collaborative writing, or indeed about Clift’s life as a writer, at all. From that point of view, Park and Niland’s lightly fictionalised account of their first year together as struggling writers in Sydney, at about the same time, The Drums Go Bang (my review), is both more informative and more entertaining.

The people of Kalymnos are friendly, but seemingly without personal boundaries, living as they do (did!) in houses with a single bedroom and one sleeping platform for maybe 10 people. Locals wander in and out of the Clift/Johnson house at will, all the family’s activities are observed by hordes of children, it is not possible to walk anywhere alone, without people making it their business to be your company.

Peel Me a Lotus begins with Charmian pregnant with their third child – only ever called ‘baby’, as far as I can tell – on Hydra, having purchased a two storey house from the many empty since the glory days of the previous century, but waiting for the interminable renovations to be completed before moving in, and waiting desperately for the return of the only half-way competent ‘midwife’, before giving birth.

This book is more concerned with the activities of the other expats – not Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t arrive on Hydra until not long before the Clift/Johnsons leave – though George and Charmian still have friends in the local community. Clift is concerned that the charm of the island is being lost as it becomes a summer holiday destination for Athenians, as well as the latest resort for the usual suspects attempting to live cheap.

For it is now apparent that the yearly passage of the smart, penniless, immoral, clever young people – Creon’s ‘bums and perverts’ – has had its inevitable effect. This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many little Mediterranean ports ‘discovered ‘ by the creative poor… We are watching the island in the process of becoming chic.

You will be pleased to hear that ex-Mrs Legend and I found, and the Greeks we spoke to agreed, that Hydra is probably still the least spoiled of the tourist islands. Perhaps the town, pop. 3,000, is too small to ever become a major tourist destination. Hope so!

These are interesting and well-written books with just one discordant note. Lisa at ANZLL in a recent review (here) on Clift’s newspaper columns published as a collection of essays after her death as Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (1990) said that Clift had disappointingly expressed the view that she had left school at fourteen because there was nothing they could teach her that would be “of the slightest use”. It was obviously a view she held seriously, leaving her children to the vagaries of Greek village school education, in fact, on the evidence of this book, not paying them much attention at all.

WP_20170420_036.jpg
Hydra, 2017. I believe the cave where Clift and her kids swam is just outside this photo, to the right

Charmian Clift, Travels in Greece, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1995. Previously published as Mermaid Singing (1958) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959)


I’m now home after a marvellous trip, my first and only probably. On the evidence of this past month, if I were to spend that ‘mythical’ year in Europe it would be in Paris, where I could pick up the language, where there is so much to do, and from where the whole of Europe is accessible by Fast Train network. Returning to earth, I have a couple of books left to review, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers written while he was living in Hydra; and Cave of Silence (2013) by Kostas Krommydas, recommended to me by a friendly lady bookseller on Santorini.


*Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78

Existentialism, Sartre

921601

Sartre, Iris Murdoch
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, Thomas R Flynn

Existentialism is commonly associated with Left-Bank Parisian cafes and the ‘family’ of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) who gathered there in the years immediately following the liberation of Paris at end of World War II… The mood is one of enthusiasm, creativity, anguished self-analysis, and freedom – always freedom. (Flynn)

These two books are only short, not taking up much room in my backpack, and I thought, rightly as it turned out, that I might at last have the leisure to both read and think about them as I was training and boating around southern Europe. To say that I understood them however, and particularly Iris Murdoch’s dense 1953 account of Sartre’s early writing, would be an overstatement.

I first came to Existentialism when I lost my licence (for speeding in a heavy vehicle) and returned to uni for a year of Arts in 1971, and it subsequently became an important part of my opposition to conscription and the Viet Nam War.

I was impressed by Sartre’s credo – Existence precedes Essence, by his work as a novelist, and by his commitment to Revolution. For a number of years I carried a battered copy of his opus, Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943) with me in the truck, a copy which went missing with many of my ‘political’ books when my son was a teenager, and which I saw maybe ten years ago, on the shelves of one of his friends. When I chipped him about this he said, “Oh yeah, there’s a few of your books in a box out the back.” But that’s as close as I ever got to recovering them.

English philosopher and author Iris Murdoch’s book was the first monograph on Sartre in English (Wiki). Sartre’s writing is notoriously difficult but a beginning to comprehending it might lie in Murdoch’s description of his discursive method of argument. Sartre believes (you can take as read in all that follows, “in my limited understanding”) that you can never know yourself fully through self-reflection, but that, if you are honest with yourself, then each iteration of reflection results in improvement.

According to Murdoch, Sartre is an unwilling solipsist. He wishes to believe in the Other, indeed he imagines himself the unwilling object of the Other’s gaze, but is unable to determine what, or even if, the Other is thinking. And this leads us to ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Good Faith involves constant reflection, to refine our understanding and therefore, our behaviour. Bad Faith consequently, involves a lack of reflection, an acceptance of ourselves as we imagine we are seen by others.

Being and Nothingness is apparently just a (very) extensive rendition of Sartre’s reflections, psychoanalysis as metaphysics according to Murdoch, in which successive iterations progress his arguments (and our understanding, to the extent that we can follow him). Likewise, Flynn’s much later ‘Very Short Introduction’ describes how Sartre’s political thinking was progressed both by reflection and by his better understanding of the external, “real” world, as he got older.

Sartre comes to politics from two points of view. Partly he approaches it as a philosophical solution to a solipsistic dilemma. Partly he meets it as the practical concern of a Western democrat. Sartre has in himself both the intense egocentric conception of personal life and the pragmatic utilitarian view of politics which most western people keep as two separate notions in their head… (Murdoch)

Sartre’s writings were initially concerned with his theories of self, and were very much derived from intense and continuous self analysis. However the War, and in particular of course, the fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940, brought home to him the need to engage with politics. The pivotal position of the Communists in the Resistance, and his own distaste for the bourgeoisie, made them first port-of-call, but he soon found both their totalitarianism and their insistence on historical determinism at odds with his insistence on freedom, and so moved on.

As Sartre’s politics moved increasingly towards the Left, he separated himself from former friends whose political development moved in the opposite direction [referring to Camus and Merleau-Ponty]. By the time of the student revolt of 1968, Sartre was associating with the so-called French ‘Maoists’, who had little to do with China but a great deal to do with such classical anarchist ideals as ‘direct democracy’. (Flynn)

I recommend Flynn as a very clear account of existentialism and its grounding in European philosophy from the ancient Greeks onwards, whereas Murdoch’s book is more one of one philosopher engaging with another, contemporaneously, only a few years after the War, which is to say, at a time when Sartre’s politics and European philosophy were going through some big changes. Flynn goes on to discuss Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism which movements seem to me, to the very limited extent I understand them at all, to both involve a great deal of sloppy thinking, and to have been appropriated by the Right to justify their aversion to truth speaking.

Murdoch and Flynn both see as important Sartre’s What is Literature? (1948) in which he writes, “Though literature is one thing and morality another, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative.” Sartre attempts, unconvincingly, to demonstrate that it is the writer’s intrinsic duty to advance the cause of freedom, and proposes a distinction between Poetry and Prose in which the latter is ‘instrumental’, committed to the alleviation of suffering, whereas Poetry, like Music, is non-instrumental, art-for-art’s-sake. A distinction which I think even he was forced subsequently to disown.

You will have to read Flynn for yourself if you are interested in other authors, first amongst them Camus, who advanced existentialism in their writing, but I will say a little about de Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner for life both personally and intellectually. De Beauvoir, a prolific writer, was probably ahead of Sartre in her understanding of the individual as a member of society. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949) contains the line, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” meaning, I gather, that a woman begins with certain sexual apparatus, but that society imposes on her the condition of ‘being a woman’.

This leads us back to the famous “Existence precedes Essence”, which comes from a 1945 lecture, ‘Is Existentialism a Humanism?’. Sartre and his philosophy were atheist, so there was no obvious basis for acting morally. Sartre claimed that this freedom from doctrine was itself the basis for moral action, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’, not just for himself, but for every member of society. And by “Existence precedes Essence” he meant that every moment of every day we must choose, that our ‘essence’ is what we make of our ‘existence’, and that further, almost the worst choice we can make is to not choose, to be ‘in bad faith’, to abrogate our freedom, to allow our existence to be what others choose it to be.

And that is the basis of my objection to conscription in the Viet Nam War years: that my fellow 20 year olds failed to choose freedom; that they allowed society to choose for them to be soldiers; that they allowed themselves to be used to kill Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians, who were fighting for nothing more than their own right to make their own choices.

Paola (19)

Iris Murdoch, Sartre, first pub. 1953, my edition (not pictured above) Fontana, 1967
Thomas R Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, Oxford, 2006


I’ve been reading Charmian Clift’s Travels in Greece, a combo of Mermaid Singing and Peel Me a Lotus, but have spent too many lotus-eating days myself on Greek islands and so am behind with my review. Luckily I had Sartre ready, and, touch wood, I’ll put up Clift this time next week.

The Breaker, Kit Denton

s-l225.jpg
Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant in the 1980 Bruce Beresford movie ‘The Breaker’

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was a disagreeable man, and The Breaker (1973) is a disagreeable book. It seems to me author Kit Denton has gone out of his way to provide a textbook case of all the worst elements of the ‘Australian Legend’ – misogyny, violence and drunkenness, not to mention bush doggerel and militarism.

The Breaker purports to be a ‘life’ of Breaker Morant. The author writes ‘Before you begin’:

There was a Breaker Morant. He lived his life in the times and company of many of the people mentioned in this story, and he went through much of the action in these pages. I had hoped to write a true history … but the obduracy of the British Government in refusing to release a number of essential documents has made this impossible… I’ve departed from history only when the facts weren’t discoverable or when I felt it was necessary in the interests of a good story.

This is the weakness of historical fiction – if the author admits some of the claims in his book are false then we have no way of knowing which claims are true.

According to Denton, Harry Morant (1864-1902) was born into the English gentry, his father an Admiral with an estate near Exeter. Morant followed his father into the Royal Navy, rising quickly from midshipman to Lieutenant, but at about the age of 19 left the navy in disgrace, secretly recovered some belongings from the family home, and emigrated to Australia (Wikipedia says all of this false, a story made up by Morant to obscure his more humble origins).

In Australia he teamed up with Irishman Paddy Magee – indeed they formed one of those indissoluble mateship bonds which are staples of the Legend – to roam inland eastern Australia for the next 17 years as itinerant drovers. Harry turned out to be an exceptional horseman, hence his nickname, able to put on and off his upper class persona as the company required, and a notorious pants man – Paddy holding the horses while Harry screwed anything in skirts.

Early in the novel he stays for some time at the property of Robert Lenehan, with of course a bedroom in the main house while Paddy waits in the men’s quarters, romancing Lenehan’s niece Julia until, believing they are about to announce their engagement, she begins sleeping with him. When next we hear of Julia, she is married to someone else, with a son named Harry, and Harry is far, far away.

No mention, more’s the pity, amongst all the roaming and womanising, of Daisy Bates, briefly Harry’s wife according to Susanna de Vries in Desert Queen (2008).

Having established that Harry is a devil with the women, handy with his fists (and boots), and a very heavy drinker, on top of his all-round skills as a horseman, it comes out that he is also a ‘poet’, with a ballad, The Brigalow Brigade, published in the Bulletin. It begins (if you can stand it), “There’s a band of decent fellows/on a cattle-run outback –“. How ‘decent’ may be judged from this verse:

The Brigalow Brigade are
Fastidious in their taste
In the matter of a maiden
And the inches of her waist;
She must be sweet and tender
And her eyes a decent shade …
Then her ma may safely send her
To the Brigalow Brigade.

In 1900 Paddy and Harry acquire a small property near Renmark in South Australia. Having ridden his previous good horse to death, Harry leaves Paddy there with his current favourite, Harlequin, and goes down to Adelaide to enlist in the Second South Australian Yeomanry (mounted rifles) to fight for Queen and Empire in the Boer War.

We move to South Africa and over the period of a year or so we establish – in line with that version of the Legend which began when the Bulletin’s ‘Lone Hand’ was incorporated into CEW Bean’s (and Keith Murdoch’s) ‘Brave Anzacs’ – that the British general staff are incompetent, that the Guards and Hussars charging uphill on horseback into machine gun fire are brave but stupid, and that Australian irregulars are impossible to direct but are nevertheless highly effective soldiers. Oh, and that the Boers are tricky and immoral but, individually at least, are all rugged individualists like ourselves.

Harry moves up from private to corporal to sergeant, serving mostly as a despatch rider. Then, when his unit is due to return to Australia, he transfers to Baden-Powell’s Transvaal Constabulary with the rank of Lieutenant, before sailing to England on leave. In England he is improbably accepted back into the bosom of his family, begins a round of social engagements, meets, begins sleeping with, and becomes secretly engaged to Margaret Hunt, and bosom buddies with her brother Percy, a captain in the Hussars. When Kitchener calls for volunteers for a ‘guerilla’ force to take the war up to the Boers, Harry and Percy return to South Africa and join a 200 man unit, The Bushveldt Carbineers, under the command of Robert Lehman (Yes, the same Lehman, now a major, who apparently bears no grudge for the deflowering and abandonment of his niece).

As you no doubt know – Spoiler Alert – Harry ends up, with 3 fellow officers in the BVC, being charged with murder. Denton is, if not dishonest, at least partisan, in his treatment of the events leading up to the charges and describes the actions which give rise to them entirely from the point of view of the defendants –

A Lutheran travelling pastor, who had been stopped by a squad being led by Morant, is later found dead; an 11 year old boy shoots an Australian soldier in defence of a cart load of guns, is shot and killed in turn, and his body is carried by Morant into a Boer church, during a service, and dropped onto a table being used as an altar; Percy Hunt is shot during a night attack on a Boer position and is subsequently found dead, his naked body mutilated. Some days later an ‘idiot’ is stopped and found to be wearing Hunt’s clothes, an enraged Morant puts him up against a tree, puts a gun in his hand to provide a figleaf for his actions, and shoots him dead.

Even by Denton’s account, the last was clearly murder and so Morant was rightly convicted. The three charged with him may have been unlucky, it’s hard to tell. And yes the hypocrisy of the British, busy with their own war crimes, clearing the countryside of inhabitants and inventing the concentration camp, was monumental.

This book was written during the Vietnam War and it is impossible not to draw some parallels between Harry Morant and Lt Paul Calley of My Lai massacre fame. Denton’s thesis could be taken to be that troops operating ‘at large’ as the BVC did, and as was common in Vietnam, are forced into difficult ethical decisions; that their actions are justified by their operating outside the ‘normal’ rules of engagement. Calley too was found guilty – but was later pardoned by President Nixon.

Conscription and the Vietnam War led to militarism becoming unfashionable, and to returned soldiers feeling unloved. 1973  was the first year of the Whitlam Labor government, too early to say that prevailing  anti-war sentiments were waning; but if not the book then perhaps the movie in 1980 along with Roger McDonald’s 1915 which came out in 1979 and became a popular tv series in 1982, mark the beginning of a (regrettable) return-to-normal for Australian patriotism.

 

Kit Denton, The Breaker, A&R, Sydney, 1973. Audio version Bolinda Classics, 1997, read by Terence Donovan

See also: Review by Lisa at ANZLL here

The Nightmarkets, Alan Wearne

nightMarketsTH.jpg
Cover illustration by Noela Hills

In my one school year in Melbourne, fourth form at Blackburn South High, Alan Wearne was a couple of years ahead of me and I was friends with his brother. He went on to Monash and I, via yet another bush high school (thanks Dad), to Melbourne. But I saw him around occasionally, the last time in ’74 or ’75 when I offered to give him a lift in my old truck to a poetry conference in Brisbane. He politely declined, the organisers had given him a return air ticket.

The Nightmarkets (1986) is a longish, 300pp, verse novel. I’ve read it a few times since it came out, not because I like poetry, which I don’t, but because it feels so intensely familiar. Wearne writes, not of Melbourne, but of the suburbs he knows so well – Blackburn, Burwood, Brunswick, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, and these are my suburbs too. Blackburn South was an endless expanse of three and four bedroom boxes with red tile roofs when we were growing up. From our new house we could look across the apple orchards, long gone now, to Channel O on Springvale Rd, while the Wearnes lived in a slightly older part of the suburb near the shops on Canterbury Rd. I earned pocket money at Pentland’s newsagency and some freezing mornings would have to get on my bike to deliver their paper. Just this week Mum has moved to a retirement village only a couple of hundred yards up the road.

The novel covers the period 1965-1982, and centres on the state election campaign of 1982 won by the John Cain-led Labor party, presaging Bob Hawke’s federal election win the following year. The central character, the Alan Wearne figure, is Ian Metcalfe. His older brother Robert, who was jailed for two years at the end of the 60s as a draft resister, is a Labor candidate. We get the story partly from Ian and partly from other principal characters, over the course of 10 sections. For most of the period 1969-75 I was in Melbourne, in the inner suburbs, in the anti-war movement, and this all feels very personal.

Briefly, Ian’s ex-girlfriend Sue becomes the lover of an older, old-money type, federal MP, John McTaggart, with a property out Mt Macedon way, who wants to form a new political party (yes, like Don Chipp’s Democrats, or if you’re a real politics wonk, like Gordon Barton‘s Australia Party). Sue introduces Ian, who’s doing not much, to McTaggart who commissions him to check out a murder which might be political, at a South Melbourne brothel. Ian promptly falls in love with Terri, a prostitute. Meanwhile Robert works stolidly towards getting elected.

Wearne’s poetry is both vernacular and (loosely!) contained within formal structures of rhyme and rhythm. I was a maths/science student with next to no Eng.Lit. education so more than that I cannot say. The opening lines are typical (Ian, 1980):

With your chaotic indecision, visiting mother can be a problem:
‘Hi, Mum.’ ‘Hi Ian.’ If you glower, she’s anxious not to pile up the home truths
(you’re the touchy one). She’s careful and cares, hope you exercise, the job situation improves,
hopes you’re sleeping well, eating well. ‘For dinner, Ian, or just lobbing in?’
She uses your terms, smiling about it, maybe to tease you.

The introductory section sets the scene – Robert’s jailing, Ian discovering sex, the rise and fall of Gough:

I was still with Allison, working in a bookshop.
Its phone rang. My mother screeched, ‘Gough’s got the sack!’
and hung up. Stockbrokers sprawled saturated in bubbly. ‘That big bastard’s off my back,’

Into the Fraser years Ian smokes dope and puts out a poetry magazine, The Hummer. The section ends: “… But this far into my ranting is quite enough,/ Please meet my first lover, still my closest friend, Sue Dobson.”

Back from an ‘over-planned’ trip to England, Sue stays with Ian and Allison – “someone had been having fun – nice to know/ an old boyfriend had settled… Told them this./ She trumped: ‘Great to get along with Ian’s old fucks.’” After an affair with a lead guitarist, she works on The Hummer, then as a freelance, writes a newspaper profile on McTaggart, starts sleeping with him, is surprised as it develops into a relationship, takes him home to meet Dad, in Florizel St (Burwood). Ian and Allison part, Ian “opting for minimal loft living, presumed celibacy.”

Ian learns about Sue and McTaggart from Allison on Christmas eve, goes out to his brother’s for Christmas lunch “back in Blackburn, where everyone lived when we were young”, spends the rest of the day with the old gang from The Hummer at Sue’s. “She cornered me: Well, your turn to be warned. John wants to meet you.” The next morning McTaggart wakes Ian from his hangover, “’I’m shouting lunch at Lulus. Ever been? Expensive, yes, but certainly not stuffy; / you’d hate my club.’” He wants Ian to look into an upmarket brothel, Crystal Palace, where a prostitute has been murdered who might have been gathering dirt on her clientele –“medicine, the judiciary, even certain police, politicians …”

‘It is bizarre, I understand.’ You, I thought, you: want: me: to: but he
proposed a four-figure sum
(of a middling bracket), to get doubled when I returned with facts …

He starts meeting/paying for Terri during the day, tells her he’s a researcher. She calls him professor, or sometimes, darls. Can’t meet her ‘outside’, she has a boyfriend, Ross, who’s sort of a dealer.

We hear from Robert, on a road trip to a Labor conference in Adelaide, from Ian again and then Terri. The plot takes a holiday but the text, the poetry, carries you on, as we get deeper into the characters. Terri and Ross bump into Ian a couple of times in inner suburban pubs, then Ross away in Thailand, Ian persuades Terri to come home with him.

I know: getting involved with a client might give commonsense the shove,
was breaking that first parlour law. But, I thought, Terri, now’s
the time you’ve had enough of rules. Outside your job the only powers
that ought to be are yours. You like him and want him. What’s that prove?

Ross comes home. Crystal Palace is not as exclusive as it used to be. Terri thinks she’ll go with Ross, next time he goes away. Sue’s turn, she meets McTaggart’s ex, is told she has a predecessor, McTaggart’s PA, Veronica Lim. “Really? Another thing that everybody knew, I didn’t know?” She takes a break:

and wouldn’t I crawl the clichéd mile
of broken glass to view the leader and his shy if warm smile
swap for the grin of some sexist smarty:
‘Sue, haven’t I said we’ve affirmative action right through our party?’
Oh, shuddup: ‘That’s just an equal balance of pricks to cunts
for you. Huh? And don’t look so damn hurt.’

We hear from John: “Your photographer having sprained something, you arrived alone: smallish, your hair brushed back and held with a light thin scarf, a broadcast of fading freckles, a mouth that knew it could pout.” And from his mother, the usual landed ‘gentry’/private school back story. Ian wraps up. “It’s ending. Her Ross has returned. ‘My opponent’ goes too far,/ but my rival, anyway has returned.” Still, he sees her again.

In Blackburn, “through gravel-edged Myrtle Grove, Acacia Avenue. How quiet and private/ it seems going on back to my brother’s or mother’s”, the election rolls to its inevitable (happy) conclusion.

The subscript to the title reads ‘This book should become a classic of our literature’. It hasn’t and I don’t suppose it will, but it’s certainly one of my favourites, and I recommend it to all Melburnians (Sydneyites wouldn’t get it).

 

Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986

see also:
Alan Wearne online (here)
SMH review, Peter Craven, 23 March, 2013 (here)
Pulping our Poetry, The Australian, 7 July, 2007 (here)

True Country, Kim Scott

9781921361524.jpg

I have been reading Kim Scott backwards, starting with That Deadman Dance (2010) and ending up here at his first, True Country (1993). With Benang (1999) and Kayang and Me (2005) – I haven’t read Lost (2006) – this is a fine body of work. The seven year gap back to Scott’s last work is to be filled later this year apparently with a new novel, Taboo which, according to the author, might be about a community reconnecting to its ancestral heritage, seeking healing.

Now that I have reached the beginning, it is apparent that over the course of his career as a writer Scott has been ‘growing into his skin’. Benang and Kayang and Me were accounts of his journey to document his roots as a Noongar man; and That Deadman Dance was a powerful imagining of a specific and very short time after first contact in WA when the locals, Scott’s Noongar people, held the upper hand. True Country is the story of a young man with some Indigenous heritage, who has been brought up ‘white’, feeling his way as a teacher in an Aboriginal community up north, feeling his way from idealism to a realistic appraisal of the dysfunction of a community in which the old ways are lost and the new ways are not taking, feeling his way towards beginning to internalise his own indigenous-ness.

The quality of Scott’s writing is high, as we now expect – descriptive, poetic, original – and the story is told in a number of voices. First and omniscient is a voice which might be the voice of the community:

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

And it is a beautiful place, this place, Call it our country, our country all ‘round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall…

Welcome to you.

Then there is Billy, just arrived to teach the secondary students with wife Liz. Billy’s narration starts out as first person but slides into third person, signifying maybe, his being outside himself, observing, as the community sucks him in. Other voices, Aboriginal, chime in through short chapters and notes.

The novel takes us through one school year, through the seasons of Australia’s tropical north – Wet, Dry, Wet – with little episodes, closely told, reminiscent, in style, of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976). There is no plot, or not at least until you look back and see what has changed.

The story’s fictional township, Karnama, is on the Kimberley coast of northern Western Australia, and consists of a Catholic mission, a government school and an Aboriginal community. So the whites are priests and nuns, another couple with an 8yo son who are also newly arrived teachers, a handyman, and a manager and a young, single woman employed by the community. Police and doctors might fly in from Derby, but are not part of the story.

Interestingly, Liz as a character is only lightly sketched, we see her pale skin and red hair but rarely hear her voice. Scott’s work is always autobiographical and I wonder if he has/had a wife he didn’t want to offend. Jasmine, the single woman, is a bomb waiting to go off, until she makes her choice late in the year. Gerrard, the manager is venal, profiteering from his position, and the other teacher couple are anxious, fearful, educating their son at home by school of the air, not allowing him to mix with the locals. But none of the whites is really observed in any depth, except Billy. This is his novel and he is most interested in his interactions with his pupils and their families.

But Who’s Tellin’ this Story?

That short teacher bloke, he bit like us, but –he Nyungar or what? Look at him, he could be. Why’s he wanna know things? He get to school proper early anyway, sun-up even …

Dry season: early morning cool, and I left the first footprints in the dew on the lawn.

The switching back and forth of the voices serves to integrate us, the reader, into the community, stops us identifying wholly with Billy.

Fatima, on older woman, tells stories which Billy transcribes from his tape recorder and reads back to his class. This is an oral culture, and even while the children are being criticised for their failure to learn from books, they are able to quote great chunks of the videos they watched the previous night. But Billy loses interest in collecting stories, why?

Gabriella is local girl made good, a uni student down south who comes back periodically to observe. Beatrice, initially bright and helpful, falls apart, is passed from doctor to doctor in Darwin and Perth, maybe she has offended the gods. Deslie, one of the older boys, is cheerful and willing but a petrol sniffer. Francis, held back by poor eyesight and broken glasses, meets a sad end.

The men, Milton, Alphonse, Raphael, Sebastian show Billy around. Billy comes back from Derby with a ute and a tinny, spends his spare time on the river fishing for barramundi. There are not many vehicles and wherever they go there are people piled in the back, tourists too if the bus is broken down.

The children are touchy feely and dismissive of boundaries. Billy and Liz accept this, sometimes of course grudgingly, but often with pleasure:

One hot afternoon Billy, Liz, the high school kids, they all went for a swim …  The group moved in two major clusters, divided according to sex. The girls grouped around Liz and Jasmine, with Jasmine the main focus … They laughed, they shrieked, they studied her earrings and hair. They asked the two women about boyfriends, husbands. ‘Mr Storey [Billy] hit you ever? What he like when he drunk?’ … The girls held their guests’ hands and put their arms around their shoulders…

Imagine, again, seeing all this from above … The kids are mostly tight in around those teachers. Black skin looks good in the sun, shiny. Then nearly at High Diving, the kids break away and start to race to the river. They shed clothes on the run. They dive. They spear the water…

As we progress, the mood gets darker, Billy and Liz feel their openness is being taken advantage of. Karnama is a, theoretically, dry community but the whites drink and are observed drinking. The mail plane brings in alcohol. Builders working on new housing don’t employ locals, live in a men’s camp, drink and are visited by the women. Raphael is a bad drunk, beats his wives. The wives seek refuge with Billy and Liz.

A trip to Broome goes badly. The year draws to an end.

True Country is a stunningly well written book and I hope I have given you some sense of that, but it is also a brave book. Kim Scott, through Billy, confronts his fears and prejudices, the packs of half wild dogs which protect each house, the violence, the lack of purpose and the squalor. And, somehow, at the end he finds himself beginning to belong: “See? Now it is done. Now you know. True Country… We are serious. We are grinning. Welcome to you.”

 

Kim Scott, True Country, Fremantle Press, Perth, 1993

See also:
Kim Scott, Benang, 1999 (Review)
Kim Scott & Hazel Brown, Kayang and Me, 2005 (Review)
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, 2010 (Review)