Liv­ing dan­ger­ously with the great Aus­tralian novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Ley

THERE is an ap­peal­ing con­cept be­hind The Great Aus­tralian Novel. French lit­er­ary critic Jean-Fran­cois Ver­nay has dis­tilled nearly two cen­turies’ worth of lit­er­ary his­tory into what he char­ac­terises as a ‘‘ cin­e­matic es­say’’.

Be­gin­ning in the early 19th cen­tury, he works his way chrono­log­i­cally through the main de­vel­op­ments in Aus­tralian fic­tion, pe­ri­od­i­cally in­ter­rupt­ing his nar­ra­tive to pro­vide what he de­scribes as ‘‘ close-ups’’, ‘‘ low an­gle shots’’ or ‘‘ panoramic views’’ of key au­thors and texts.

The book can be read as an ac­ces­si­ble in­tro­duc­tory guide and as a con­cise crit­i­cal es­say that out­lines some of the main themes and con­tro­ver­sies that have shaped Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.

Many of the tropes Ver­nay ex­plores are fa­mil­iar, though ac­quire a cer­tain nov­elty by virtue of be­ing rein­ter­preted from the per­spec­tive of a critic who is not Aus­tralian. His study con­sid­ers the mythol­o­gi­sa­tion of the bush, the cul­tural anx­i­eties that ac­com­pa­nied a bur­geon­ing colo­nial lit­er­a­ture, the ten­sions that arose in the mid-20th cen­tury be­tween the com­pet­ing aes­thet­ics of so­cial re­al­ism and mod­ernism, de­pic­tions of sub­ur­bia, the rise of fem­i­nism in the 1970s, in­dige­nous writ­ing and Aus­tralia’s long his­tory of lit­er­ary hoaxes. He also finds room to dis­cuss var­i­ous forms of generic writ­ing, in­clud­ing early colo­nial ro­mances, war nov­els and pulp fic­tion.

In the sec­ond half of the book, Ver­nay teases out a num­ber of ideas that, though not nec­es­sar­ily ground­break­ing, are per­haps less con­ven­tional, less im­me­di­ately associated with the tra­di­tions of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture. In the vogue for what came to be known as grunge fic­tion in the 90s, he sees a par­al­lel with the ‘‘ deca­dent’’ lit­er­a­ture that flour­ished in Europe in the late-19th cen­tury; and the pages in which he dis­cusses some re­cent ex­am­ples of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion and the emer­gence of a dis­tinc­tively Aus­tralian ver­sion of the psy­cho­log­i­cal novel are among the most in­ter­est­ing in the book.

But The Great Aus­tralian Novel, for all its good-hu­moured striv­ing, ul­ti­mately bumps up against its self-im­posed lim­i­ta­tions. In try­ing to cover so much ground in such a short book Ver­nay has set him­self a dif­fi­cult task and, as a re­sult, many of his crit­i­cal sum­ma­tions are rather more cur­sory and vague than one may hope.

He cer­tainly seems to be more at home with re­cent Aus­tralian fic­tion (the nov­els of Christo­pher Koch are par­tic­u­lar favourites) than with some of the ear­lier nov­els he dis­cusses.

Un­for­tu­nately, the text, which has been trans­lated by Marie Ram­s­land, is also in a very poor con­di­tion. The book is pep­pered with ty­pos, sole­cisms and mi­nor fac­tual er­rors. Frank Hardy’s fic­tional pro­tag­o­nist from Power With­out Glory, John West, is said to have been born in Colling­wood rather than Car­ring­bush; Pa­trick White’s The Solid Man­dala is reti­tled The Se­cret Man­dala; Christina Stead leaves Aus­tralia to ‘‘ fol­low [her] part­ner’s ca­reer’’, even though she had not met her hus­band Bill Blake when she set sail for Europe; the re­lease date for the film adap­ta­tion of Koch’s The Year of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ously is given as 1972, six years be­fore the novel was pub­lished; and Of a Boy is said to be Sonya Hart­nett’s first novel (it was her 13th).

More gen­er­ally, the trans­la­tion is in­or­di­nately clumsy: a stum­bling pa­rade of mixed metaphors, awk­ward con­struc­tions and un­for­tu­nate turns of phrase.

Xavier Her­bert’s Capri­cor­nia is said to be notable for its ‘‘ acrid hu­mour’’. White is al­leged to have ‘‘ bor­rowed a new artis­tic thrust with his first novel’’, and it is twice im­plied that the lit­er­ary prize he es­tab­lished to recog­nise un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated Aus­tralian writers is an award for be­ing ne­glected, which is not quite the same thing.

Pu­berty Blues ap­par­ently de­picts ‘‘ the con­sump­tion of il­licit sub­stances and oc­ca­sional sex­ual re­la­tion­ships taken dur­ing chance en­coun­ters’’; while the Re­al­ist Writers Group of the 50s, which in­cluded fig­ures such as Hardy and Over­land found­ing edi­tor Stephen Mur­ray-Smith, is said to have ‘‘ dis­in­te­grated in a geo­graphic ex­plo­sion’’.

The fre­quent in­fe­lic­i­ties of style ex­tend to ba­sic gram­mat­i­cal howlers. In­stead of telling us that 90 per cent of pre-World War II im­mi­grants were Bri­tish, the book in­ad­ver­tently sug­gests that 90 per cent of the Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion ar­rived on our shores.

Later it is im­plied, in a dis­cus­sion of Tim Winton’s fic­tion, that all West Aus­tralians are un­in­formed in­di­vid­u­als who have grown up on the edge of so­ci­ety and feel marginalised, which I sin­cerely hope is not the case.

Lest this be thought of as nit­pick­ing, it should be stressed that the rough and ready trans­la­tion is dam­ag­ing to the book’s crit­i­cal am­bi­tions. It is an in­evitable con­se­quence of a broad sur­vey that in­di­vid­ual au­thors and key works will be ad­dressed only briefly. The need to be con­cise in­creases the need for pre­ci­sion. When the sig­nif­i­cance of a par­tic­u­lar novel must be summed up in a sen­tence or two, a gar­bled gen­er­al­i­sa­tion is of lit­tle use to any­one.

It is a shame that the book has been pub­lished in such a di­shev­elled state be­cause its am­bi­tion is worth­while and Ver­nay’s en­thu­si­asm for his sub­ject is ob­vi­ous. The prob­lems with the text could eas­ily have been avoided if a lit­tle more care had been taken.

As it stands, how­ever, The Great Aus­tralian Novel is less a sweep­ing panorama than an un­tidy book with se­ri­ous short­com­ings, a squan­dered op­por­tu­nity to pro­duce a work that might have been use­ful and en­gag­ing. James Ley is a free­lance critic and mem­ber of the Univer­sity of West­ern Syd­ney Writ­ing and So­ci­ety Re­search Group.

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