Revisiting Malouf’s Michelangelo moment
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.