Re­vis­it­ing Malouf’s Michelan­gelo moment

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief lit­er­ary critic.

HOW cu­ri­ous that a novel as con­cerned with haunt­ing as Har­land’s Half Acre should be sum­moned back from the pur­ga­tory of the pub­lisher’s back­list, where so many works lan­guish un­read, mere shades in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion.

David Malouf’s fifth novel has never been out of print, but through time it has en­tered a kind of af­ter­life. A phrase here, a line there, a clutch of im­ages: for most, only a bare out­line of the book re­mains lodged in the frontal lobes.

Yet this newly pub­lished, lightly re­vised edi­tion of the work proves to be no dusty revenant. It brings the whole nar­ra­tive of the 1984 work blaz­ing back to life. To read Har­land’s Half Acre is to have your sense of the quiet am­bi­tion, in­tel­li­gence and im­mac­u­late po­etry that char­ac­terise Malouf’s writ­ing re­newed. Here is a mar­ble fault­less­ness, with the an­i­mal warmth of a liv­ing thing.

Con­sider one moment early in the nar­ra­tive when the young Frank Har­land — a fu­ture artist of ge­nius grow­ing up on a hard­scrab­ble small­hold­ing in south­ern Queens­land in the years af­ter World War I — col­lects hen eggs as part of his daily round. They are ob­jects whose for­mal per­fec­tion is not marred but some­how aug­mented, quick­ened into life, by the chook shit with which they are smeared. The im­age may be mod­est and earthy but it cap­tures some­thing about the au­thor’s ap­proach.

It is sur­pris­ing to learn Malouf’s res­o­lutely lo­cal novel takes its source ma­te­rial from off­shore. A brief af­ter­word writ­ten for this edi­tion ex­plains the work was con­ceived in Italy, when the au­thor hap­pened on a mono­graph that men­tioned the Re­nais­sance poly­math Michelan­gelo’s fam­ily life — a pa­thetic, de­mand­ing fa­ther; a large fam­ily to sup­port — as an il­lu­mi­nat­ing as­pect of the artist’s life and work. Malouf ap­pro­pri­ated this psy­cho­log­i­cal dy­namic and shaped it into one of the best por­traits of an artist our lit­er­a­ture has pro­duced; a work to stand be­side Pa­trick White’s The Vivi­sec­tor of 1970.

Frank Har­land is born into a poverty all the harder to bear for be­ing only two gen­er­a­tions re­moved from rel­a­tive wealth and gen­til­ity. The Har­land fam­ily once had sub­stan­tial pas­toral hold­ings in Queens­land, later drunk and gam­bled away. Frank’s fa­ther, Clem, is a charm­ing ego­tist and a weak­ling, a man whose power arises from its worldly re­lin­quish­ment, from the elo­quence with which he weaves a mythol­ogy out of his fail­ures and flaws.

Frank is one of two sons from his fa­ther’s first mar­riage. His mother dies shortly af­ter giv­ing birth to his younger brother, when Frank is two. Frank is sent away for some years to live with an un­cle and aunt, and it is this early sev­er­ance that para­dox­i­cally con­firms in him an abid­ing con­nec­tion with his brother and, later, his half-brothers. Even as boy he grasps that the re­spon­si­bil­ity for shield­ing the Har­lands from the world will fall to him.

It will sur­prise no one fa­mil­iar with Malouf’s writ­ing that he is at his best when de­scrib­ing the pro­cesses of artis­tic cre­ation. The au­thor’s de­scrip­tion of Frank’s first glim­mer­ings of vo­ca­tion while draw­ing is so good that it de­mands quo­ta­tion:

The page was trans­formed. Where the soft lead bit into pa­per, the pa­per re­sisted at first, then yielded, enough for the pres­sure-point to make a dent, and for the dent to fill with minute crum­blings. It looked like a full stop, but was in fact an open­ing from which the lovely grey-black graphite flowed out.

‘‘ He sat very still and con­tem­plated what was be­fore him,’’ the pas­sage con­cludes: ‘‘ It seemed to him that he had un­der­stood some­thing im­por­tant; that his hand, al­most with­out him, had made a great dis­cov­ery.’’

The nar­ra­tive run­ning from this in­sight stretches like a long, al­beit of­ten-in­ter­rupted, line through the artist’s sub­se­quent ca­reer, as Frank’s life in­ter­sects with a pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal

up­heaval and so­cial change, both do­mes­ti­cally and in the great world be­yond.

We fol­low him through his ap­pren­tice­ship as a news­pa­per il­lus­tra­tor in Bris­bane and the long, lean years of the De­pres­sion — when it is only the mod­est sale of his paint­ings that gets the Har­land fam­ily through (Malouf traces Frank’s shift­ing re­la­tions with them with ele­gant thrift, em­bed­ding let­ters to sib­lings and oth­ers in the text) — and then to the first stir­rings of fame, when he is dis­cov­ered by the novel’s sec­ond nar­ra­tor in a jerry-built stu­dio on a pier off Gold Coast’s Broad­wa­ter.

Phil Ver­non is a child of the mid­dle class whose early and sym­pa­thetic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Frank for a few years dur­ing World War II —- a pe­riod when the painter be­comes a friend of the Ver­non fam­ily — is a mys­tery that will take him a life­time to de­code. A watch­ful, pas­sive, in­tel­li­gent boy, Phil’s first-per­son per­spec­tive adds a nec­es­sary sec­ond di­men­sion to the au­thor’s por­trait. It is he who draws the nar­ra­tive through the post-war years and the emer­gence of the very dif­fer­ent coun­try we in­habit to­day.

Read­ers of Malouf’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal

12 Ed­mond­stone Street will note im­me­di­ately Phil’s nar­ra­tion in­cor­po­rates de­tails from the au­thor’s life ex­pe­ri­ence. In­deed, as Malouf’s near-co­eval, Phil brings to bear a minutely de­tailed knowl­edge of peo­ple and place, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 1940s and 50s — the years of his child­hood and youth in the novel.

The vivid de­scrip­tions of South Bris­bane scat­tered about th­ese pages, and the per­cep­tive ac­count he gives of his large fam­ily and their cir­cles com­plex domestic cir­cum­stance — his sym­pa­thetic yet dis­pas­sion­ate in­sights into their var­i­ous men­tal and emo­tional states, their com­plex in­te­ri­or­ity — can only be de­scribed as Prous­tian. Here is Phil on a reg­u­lar din­ner guest, Miss Minchin, who had done mis­sion­ary work with the abo­rig­ines and

‘‘ had seen a child taken by a croc­o­dile once off a tar­tan blan­ket, while they were hav­ing tea on a lawn’’:

She re­counted this tragedy, and oth­ers, in a small flat rather man­nish voice and with so lit­tle emo­tion that she might have had a lit­tle ma­chine tucked away un­der her scarf at her throat to save the trou­ble of telling the sto­ries her­self, they were so un­re­mark­able.

But it is Frank Har­land to whom Phil Ver­non is fi­nally drawn, through ties of affin­ity that the boy, and later the man, can hardly ex­plain to him­self. It is through his eyes we watch Har­land’s tri­umphant emer­gence as a na­tional fig­ure. But we also wit­ness how the artist’s de­ter­mi­na­tion and fierce as­ceti­cism first alien­ates and then ul­ti­mately de­stroys those fam­ily bonds he worked so hard to pre­serve. Har­land’s fi­nal years are spent in iso­la­tion and re­treat from the world, with­out a younger heir to whom to be­queath his works.

This sounds the stuff of tragedy, and partly it is. Yet out of all of the sad­ness and be­trayal that mark Har­land’s life comes a vast tranche of art­works — enough pa­per and can­vas to cover a half acre. This ter­ri­tory was not vi­o­lently ap­pro­pri­ated, as the Har­lands’ orig­i­nal hold­ings were, rather, won through the artist’s own quasi-de­monic agency. His vi­sion­ary land­scapes and por­traits de­scribe a dif­fer­ent kind of own­er­ship: a more pro­vi­sional yet richer means of in­hab­it­ing the land.

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