Living dangerously with the great Australian novel
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.