The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021. And here we are at no. 12. At last!
Tom has left Jack’s (formerly Nosey Alf’s) hut and is making his way to Runymede homestead in the impressive costume with which Jack has supplied him (supplemented by his own glasses and the famous meerschaum pipe).
[previously] I lacked, and knew I lacked, what is known as a ‘presence’. Now however, the high, drab belltopper and long alpaca coat, happily seconded by large, round glasses and a vast and scholarly pipe, seemed to get over [that] difficulty; and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I enjoyed … the consciousness of being well-dressed.
We run into a fellow on a poorly broken horse and Tom discourses, with examples, for a number of pages on the nature of good horsemanship until at last we are able to proceed – to the store, where goods are both kept for the station and sold to travellers. Montgomery, the storekeeper undertook in the last chapter, though I kept it from you, to spread rumours about Tom which Mrs Beaudesert might believe, and so give up her intention of marrying him.
We hear news for the last time of Nosey Alf, headed way north, up the Diamantina Track, into western Queensland.
Montgomery repeats the story Mrs B was intended to overhear (“which is more than I can do”, interpolates Tom). They get into an argument over whether Tom is dishonored or disgraced.
“Poverty, for instance is disgrace without dishonour; Michael-and-George-ship is dishonour without disgrace. In cases like mine, the dishonour lies in the fact, and the disgrace is in the publicity.”
All the men go in to lunch, including two swagman who Tom has previously injured, though neither recognises him, and so he is not called to account. Now he must face Mrs B and enact “the aristocratic man with a past … Such is life, my fellow-mummers – just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity.”
Was I happy to see that ‘THE END’! When this is done, I’m going to go back to reading books, not studying them. But for the nonce, let us go on. We are clear of course that Tom Collins is not Joseph Furphy. John Barnes writes, “In many ways Collins is an exaggerated, ironic self-portrait, in which Furphy regards humorously – and not too severely – the vanity of the “learned bushman. Tom Collins is a role that Furphy assumes, turning his irony against himself.” And further on .. “Furphy planted the clues that enable us to see the truth that Collins misses. As the reader grasps the relationships, the patterns of cause and effect which elude the cock-sure and loquacious narrator, he will come to recognize the cunning of the book’s construction.”
It is clear that in his years in the bush, often alone and reading by the light of his campfire, Furphy read voraciously and widely, though the fact that he carried a pocket Shakespeare wherever he went is evident from his frequent and often obscure quotations. On finally settling down in Shepparton, he began submitting stories to the Bulletin, as did many bushmen/writers. But what he brought to this novel was not just years of reading and bush experience but “also a fascination with the nature of fiction. In his sense of literary tradition and his conscious pursuit of originality, Furphy had no real counterpart …”
Such is Life is a unique work, a landmark in Australian literature, incomprehensible probably to non-Australians, and, outside literary circles at least, still carrying the burden of having originally been lumped in with Bush Realism. It is in fact the first, great work of the Modernist era, and so you will find when you read it.
Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903
FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).
The cover is of the edition I own. A&R Classics is of course an imprint of Angus & Robertson. This edition dates from 1975, reprinted 1978, with a Foreword by John Barnes.
Meerschaum. German for sea foam. A meerschaum pipe is made from the mineral sepiolite sometimes found floating on the Black Sea.
The ideal rider. “… wants – or rather, needs – a skull of best spring steel; a spinal column of standard Lowmoor; limbs of gutta-percha; a hide of vulcanised india-rubber; and the less brains he has, the better … his thinking facilities should be so placed as to be in direct touch with the only thing that concerns him, namely the saddle.” He goes on …
A spill that perils neck or limb, a simple buster is to him, and it is nothing more, paraphrasing Wordsworth’s Peter Bell –
A primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him
And it was nothing more
Michael-and-George-ship. KCMG (knighthood) awarded to colonials for services rendered. “Its possessors were prostituted instruments of British imperialism whose price had been paid in honours and titles.” The Boomerang.
John Barnes (1931- ) Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University, author of The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy (1990)
Irishness. This is a footnote to previous posts really, but in between finishing writing this post and putting it up, I read an essay by Francis Devlin-Glass in the ALS Journal of 30 Sep 2021, ‘Defining the Field of Irish-Australian Literature’:
“Furphy is not only a cornerstone of nineteenth-century Australian literature, but his critique of sectarianism, one of the most urgent cultural issues in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Australia, has not often been marked. It makes him and his Shandyesque manner of narration, unique in Australian fiction, of both cultural and literary interest to a study of Irish-Australian writers. That he is the only Australian writer … alluded to in detail in Finnegans Wake is another curious index of a transnational flow in the Irish direction.”