The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

bins and eBay shopfronts, li­brary stacks and the fur­ther reaches of friends’ book­shelves. Up un­til re­cent months, when works by Patrick White and Christina Stead were reis­sued, and Text Pub­lish­ing launched its Clas­sics se­ries, many of the works it ex­am­ined were out of print. Only a few are taught in univer­sity cour­ses to­day, and even those ap­pear only spo­rad­i­cally. Sev­eral authors in The Burn­ing Li­brary were not even in­cluded in the Mac­quarie PEN An­thol­ogy of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture, that most re­cent and com­pre­hen­sive ac­count of our lit­er­ary his­tory to date.

Col­lec­tively, though, these fig­ures ap­prox­i­mate a tradition, al­beit an odd one. In his 1944 lec­ture What is a Clas­sic?, T. S. Eliot sug­gested that ear­lier pe­ri­ods of a lit­er­a­ture’s de­vel­op­ment tend to be char­ac­terised by monotony and ec­cen­tric­ity: its prod­ucts are mo­not­o­nous be­cause the full re­sources of the lan­guage are yet to be de­ployed, and ec­cen­tric be­cause no cen­tral community of taste yet ex­ists to sta­bilise and ren­der more sub­tle the dis­tinc­tions be­tween in­di­vid­ual styles.

If the authors in The Burn­ing Li­brary could be linked by one qual­ity, it would be ec­cen­tric­ity. Dal Stivens leaps to mind, with his Miles Franklin-win­ning novel of 1970, A Horse of Air. What be­gins as an ur­bane satire, con­cern­ing the quest of a Sydney play­boy and am­a­teur nat­u­ral­ist to find the rare night par­rot, leads read­ers into the deep heart of the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent and an­other world en­tirely.

Con­sider the vast cho­rus of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck and the im­pec­ca­ble lit­tle etude that is Amy Wit­ting’s I for Iso­bel. Com­pare those in­ter­minable nar­ra­tive ex­pan­sions in Xavier Her­bert’s Poor Fel­low My Coun­try with the minute fret­work of The Watch Tower by El­iz­a­beth Har­rower. Each text op­er­ates at max­i­mal dis­tance from the oth­ers: they defy easy col­la­tion, and only in their in­sis­tent in­de­pen­dence of vi­sion and voice are they of a kind. Per­haps it is this wrong-box qual­ity that has counted against their in­clu­sion un­der what Roland Barthes called the ‘‘ oblig­a­tory rubrics’’ of the academy.

An­other affin­ity may be found in the way in which each at­tends to place. The works in The Burn­ing Li­brary sum­mon their sto­ries from all man­ner of sources, off­shore or nearby. For some, like Patrick White, it was para­dox­i­cally a long so­journ far away that con­cen­trated the land­scapes of home in the imag­i­na­tion — Happy Val­ley, his first novel, set in the high coun­try south of Canberra, was writ­ten in a Lon­don flat.

For Christina Stead, Martin Boyd and other ex­pa­tri­ate authors, sense of place is the shadow cast by them dur­ing their trav­els. You can feel the ge­o­graphic schizophre­nia in Martin Boyd’s Lang­ton Quar­tet, with mem­o­ries of Westhill, the An­glo-Aus­tralian Lang­ton fam­ily’s prop­erty out­side of Mel­bourne, trem­bling be­hind de­scrip­tions of Water­park, their Wilt­shire es­tate. The erased Aus­tralian set­ting of The Man Who Loved Chil­dren shows through its pub­lished Amer­i­can ver­sion like a palimpsest. Im­pec­ca­bly re­gional writ­ers such as Thea Ast­ley, Xavier Her­bert and Ger­ald Mur­nane re-cre­ate their re­spec­tive fic­tional manors so suc­cess­fully that read­ers be­come vi­car­i­ous lo­cals. Yet these are mi­lieus that con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary com­men­tary in Aus- tralia tends to snub, in favour ur­ban and subur­ban nar­ra­tives.

There is much to jus­tify re­newed at­ten­tion to the authors in The Burn­ing Li­brary: as mod­els of style and form; as doc­u­ments of hon­esty and in­tegrity to bal­ance against the in­cor­ri­gi­ble bull­shit of po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive; as car­ri­ers of knowl­edge about peo­ple, a liv­ing gallery of Aus­tralian selves; and, at their best, as ves­sels of a beauty and strange­ness that eludes any fi­nal, fixed mean­ing that might be turned to ide­ol­ogy’s ends yet which gives plea­sure to those who en­gage with read­ing as the joy, en­tire in it­self, of one mind meet­ing an­other.

I sym­pa­thise with those en­gaged with the new sit­u­a­tion of lit­er­a­ture in Aus­tralia. To edit, pub­lish, teach, read and ar­gue the mer­its of books by our emerg­ing voices is a wor­thy and dif­fi­cult task in it­self, and it is the na­ture of lit­er­a­ture to be un­der threat, wher­ever it hails from and ir­re­spec­tive of its mer­its. How­ever, the sev­er­ing of past and present, ur­ban and ru­ral, coast and in­land, does vi­o­lence to our lit­er­a­ture in all its it­er­a­tions.

It is per­fectly pos­si­ble to ques­tion the ex­is­tence of a par­tic­u­lar thing called Ozlit, or to sug­gest that it is a tem­po­rary con­struc­tion, well past its sell-by date. But it is im­pos­si­ble to fully ex­punge the places and peo­ples these older works sum­mon into be­ing. To damn lit­er­a­ture that emerges from a ru­ral tradition, for ex­am­ple, or dates from an era that pre­cedes


ex­plic­itly the open­ing of this coun­try to a wider plu­ral­ity of cul­tures, or which is writ­ten from a per­spec­tive that strikes us as po­lit­i­cally ret­ro­grade, is to blindly damn much im­por­tant and in­ci­sive writ­ing along with clap­trap that any sen­si­ble reader can spot from miles away.

This is not a con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ment. At a mo­ment when var­i­ous en­ti­ties seek, with more eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal clout than ever be­fore, to en­close, de­spoil or oth­er­wise ex­ploit the empty spa­ces that such books once in­hab­ited and de­scribed, our need to keep these works alive in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion — to care­fully at­tend to the in­for­ma­tion about place en­coded within them — be­comes not a dusty obli­ga­tion but a charged duty.

De­spite the ar­gu­ments mounted against Ozlit in its ear­lier guise of cul­tural na­tion­al­ism, many authors continue to be­lieve in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture; as do li­brar­i­ans, Miles Franklin judges, Aus­tralia Coun­cil nabobs, and even those who write news­pa­per book re­views. They rightly in­tuit that we can­not continue to view the texts of our lit­er­ary tradition as ob­jects with built-in ob­so­les­cence.

The works cel­e­brated in The Burn­ing Li­brary are not matches to be struck, with writerly tal­ent briefly flar­ing in a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere be­fore dy­ing away. Rather they are ex­am­ples of what Wal­ter Ben­jamin, the Ger­man-Jewish critic, thought that last­ing works — clas­sics, in other words — should be. They are slow-burn­ing fuses. Their ig­ni­tion is long, and over time they throw off new mean­ings like sparks. These are not writ­ers gone cold in the grate. They are works that still glow hard to­day.

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