FOR EACH NEW AUTHOR LIONISED BY LITERATURE DEPARTMENTS, SOME OLDER VOICE WAS SET ASIDE
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.