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