TELLING TALES

Ge­of­frey Lehmann savours a mas­ter­ful new col­lec­tion from David Malouf The Com­plete Short Sto­ries By David Malouf Knopf, 508pp, $ 45

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

SOME crit­ics an­a­lyse texts as pure texts, iso­lated from the life and char­ac­ter of the writer, which they re­gard with dis­dain. But re­cal­ci­trant read­ers thirst for in­for­ma­tion about their favourite au­thors. In the case of Shake­speare, the skimpi­ness of the de­tails of his life has driven some to fan­ta­sise that other con­tem­po­raries with more com­pre­hen­sive bi­ogra­phies were Shake­speare.

To un­der­stand Dos­to­evsky’s The Gam­bler you don’t have to know that Dos­to­evsky was a com­pul­sive gam­bler or that the novel was a gam­ble in which he staked his fi­nan­cial liveli­hood on a bet with the pub­lisher that he would fin­ish writ­ing it by a par­tic­u­lar date. Al­though there are ex­cep­tions, at best, bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion usu­ally con­firms rather than il­lu­mi­nates.

It is not easy re­view­ing the work of some­one whom you have known well, which is my po­si­tion with David Malouf. You per­ceive their work through the prism of your per­sonal knowl­edge. So I shall de­clare my hand by start­ing with a cou­ple of vi­gnettes of Malouf, al­though they may not ex­plain why Malouf is able to write David Malouf short sto­ries.

While he was a young teacher in Eng­land, Malouf was stay­ing with a fam­ily who were con­sci­en­tious veg­e­tar­i­ans. Dur­ing his stay with them, he adopted their diet, al­though he was not a veg­e­tar­ian. One day they said, ‘‘ David, don’t you some­times feel like lash­ing out and eat­ing meat? You don’t have to be a veg­e­tar­ian you know.’’ Malouf sur­prised them by say­ing he liked the diet.

At the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val in the early 1970s he sug­gested we visit Moghul An­tiques, a dealer spe­cial­is­ing in an­tiques from the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent. We drove there in my old green Kombi van. When we ar­rived, Malouf showed me a lamp he had al­ready bought, a beau­ti­ful in­verted glass bell, in­cised with clus­ters of grapes and vine leaves. I asked the shop owner if I could buy a sim­i­lar piece and was shown sev­eral that were not sat­is­fac­tory. To my sur­prise, Malouf be­gan to in­sist: ‘‘ Look, you can have mine.’’ For­tu­nately, a lamp was found that I re­ally liked.

Malouf’s The Com­plete Sto­ries , of more than 500 pages, has an open­ness to ex­pe­ri­ence, a Chekho­vian em­pa­thy with other peo­ple that I hope my two vi­gnettes il­lus­trate.

Among the shorter pieces is the very beau­ti­ful and re­strained To­wards Mid­night ( a wo­man un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy who lives alone in a house in Tus­cany is wo­ken by a strange man swim­ming in her pool at night), which is al­most a prose poem, a gem; and stranger fare such as the chilly Night Train­ing . This be­gins with a young man join­ing the univer­sity air squadron who is in­ter­viewed for his med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion nude. Al­though I was not the source for the story I can con­firm the cor­rect­ness of this weird de­tail. Weird­ness is added to weird­ness when the young re­cruit and a co- re­cruit are made to ex­er­cise nude and are in­sulted sev­eral nights a week at an air force camp.

Also among the no­table shorter pieces is the won­der­ful Ev­ery Move You Make ( a wo­man who falls in love with an ec­cen­tric builder), Closer ( nar­rated by 10- year- old Pen­te­costal Amy, whose un­cle has be­come gay and been cast out from the fam­ily, a hi­lar­i­ous, sad and in­spir­ing story as Amy in her mind reaches out for her un­cle) and Sally’s Story , which I was so moved by that I marked it with four ticks in the in­dex.

Sally is a young ac­tor plan­ning to au­di­tion for NIDA. To earn money she be­comes a ‘‘ widow’’ for Amer­i­can sol­diers on leave from Viet­nam and dis­cov­ers that be­ing a ‘‘ widow’’, liv­ing for a week or so with a sol­dier, is far more ex­haust­ing and emo­tion­ally drain­ing than con­ven­tional pros­ti­tu­tion. De­mor­alised, she goes back to her mother in the coun­try for a week or so to re­cu­per­ate. She is healed by an en­counter with a brash young sin­gle fa­ther who has a four- year- old son and one- year- old daugh­ter.

The four- year- old ( a great char­ac­ter, he an­nounces: ‘‘ I’m a chat­ter­box’’) re­minded me of the child nar­ra­tor in the Ter­rence Mal­ick film Days of Heaven . Sally’s Story is per­fect in it­self, but could be the ve­hi­cle for an out­stand­ing film by Mal­ick or Bruce Beres­ford.

There are also longer sto­ries. The Val­ley of La­goons is a clas­sic tale of the ado­les­cent’s pas­sage into man­hood. The Do­mes­tic Can­tata is an af­fec­tion­ate group por­trait and has a

com­poser who in­sists on si­lence from his fam­ily while he is work­ing. His chil­dren point out that the birds make quite a racket. Na­ture, he replies, is dif­fer­ent. Then the youngest de­mands, ‘‘ But what about us? Aren’t we na­ture?’’

Per­haps the high­est point of a book with many high points is the 42- page Great Day , which is an­other ex­tended group por­trait. Like a large in­tri­cate Per­sian car­pet, it ex­plores over 24 hours the in­ter­weav­ing of the lives of 10 or so char­ac­ters. There is the pa­tri­cian Aud­ley who fishes from the rocks wear­ing a suit and tie and has ‘‘ a form of po­lite­ness that at times had an edge of the mur­der­ous. ‘ Your glass is empty,’ he would say to some un­sus­pect­ing guest, lean­ing close and whis­per­ing, full of hos­pitable con­cern, and Angie would shud­der and turn away.’’ As the night ends, Aud­ley’s mildly brain- dam­aged son ad­dresses the uni­verse and re­main­ing guests in an ex­cited mono­logue. En­tirely con­vinc­ing and touch­ing.

Al­though la­belled com­plete, this book does not have all of Malouf’s pub­lished sto­ries. This was a good de­ci­sion. Ev­ery story in this book earns its place, in that it has some de­tails that make it worth pre­serv­ing.

But I found my­self hur­ry­ing through Mrs Porter and the Rock , a rather long and night­mar­ish piece about Alzheimer’s dis­ease. The last story in the book, The Prowler , was too long and didn’t con­vince me, de­spite some good touches. Ditto Jacko’s Reach .

Lone Pine de­scribes the mur­der of a re­tired newsagent and his re­li­gious wife on a car­a­van trip across Aus­tralia. This story is never less than en­gross­ing but in this in­stance Malouf lacks em­pa­thy with his main char­ac­ter who, for ex­am­ple, has used ‘‘ the best se­cu­rity firm in the state’’ to in­stall se­cu­rity lights in their house while they are away. I felt the ref­er­ence to ‘‘ the best se­cu­rity firm’’ was a cheap shot.

Lone Pine is an ex­cep­tion, and what is re­mark­able about this epic col­lec­tion ( to quote the jacket) is Malouf’s af­fec­tion for his char­ac­ters, his open­ness to dif­fer­ent lives and his abil­ity to sus­tain a lyri­cal in­ten­sity through­out a story. Ge­of­frey Lehmann is a poet and chair­man of the Aus­tralian Tax Re­search Foun­da­tion.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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