Worlds apart: Win­ton’s vi­sions, sa­cred and pro­fane

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Ley

Tim Win­ton: Crit­i­cal Es­says Edited by Lyn McCred­den and Nathanael O’Reilly UWA Pub­lish­ing, 342pp, $34.99 ED­I­TORS Lyn McCred­den and Nathanael O’Reilly be­gin Tim Win­ton: Crit­i­cal Es­says with a forth­right and timely de­fence of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. Its pur­pose, they ar­gue, is ‘‘to con­trib­ute to cul­tural de­bates, to re­flect on both the in­di­vid­ual work and on the state of the cul­ture in which the lit­er­ary work par­tic­i­pates’’. They go on to pro­pose that there is par­tic­u­lar value in ap­ply­ing crit­i­cal scru­tiny to the fic­tion of Tim Win­ton be­cause it is ‘‘lit­er­ary and popular, and there­fore a re­mark­able barom­e­ter of Aus­tralian cul­ture’’.

Based on th­ese cri­te­ria, this book is a sig­nif­i­cant vol­ume, though I am not con­vinced the barom­e­ter metaphor is en­tirely apt. In fact, the

Septem­ber 6-7, 2014 col­lec­tive achieve­ment of th­ese es­says is to sug­gest some­thing like the op­po­site propo­si­tion. There can be lit­tle doubt that Win­ton’s pop­u­lar­ity says some­thing about the kind of na­tion we imag­ine our­selves to be, but as with any artist of con­se­quence it is his sin­gu­lar­ity that com­mands our at­ten­tion, and one of the ef­fects of bring­ing to­gether a range of crit­i­cal views is to draw out his ob­ses­sions and idio­syn­cra­sies.

It de­pends on how one chooses to de­fine ‘‘Aus­tralian cul­ture’’, of course, but Win­ton is ar­guably more in­ter­est­ing for the ways in which he is out of step or at odds with the so­ci­ety he de­picts than for his abil­ity to cap­ture the zeit­geist. He has al­ways been a de­ter­minedly parochial writer, his fic­tion rarely ven­tur­ing beyond the south­west­ern cor­ner of the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent and, at his best, he ex­em­pli­fies the virtues of such a con­cen­trated fo­cus. His fic­tion is no­table for the hu­mane sym­pa­thy it ex­tends to its dam­aged char­ac­ters, its will­ing­ness to dig­nify lives that oth­er­wise may be deemed mar­ginal or in­con­se­quen­tial, as well as its dark view of con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety, which is de­plored for its clam­our, ra­pac­ity and de­struc­tive­ness.

Tim Win­ton: Crit­i­cal Es­says — which is, rather sur­pris­ingly, the first such col­lec­tion to have ap­peared in more than two decades (Richard Ros­siter and Lyn Ja­cobs’s Read­ing Tim Win­ton was pub­lished in 1993) — in­cludes con­tri­bu­tions from Aus­tralian and over­seas schol­ars. They roam widely across Win­ton’s sub­stan­tial oeu­vre, in­ter­pret­ing his fic­tion from a va­ri­ety of in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tives. Th­ese range from con­sid­er­a­tions of some of its in­ti­mate themes to es­says that re­flect on its his­tor­i­cal, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

Michael Grif­fith reads the ghost story el­e­ment in Cloud­street as the thread con­nect­ing the novel’s do­mes­tic drama to the his­tor­i­cal fact of Abo­rig­i­nal dis­pos­ses­sion; Sissy Helff moves beyond a na­tion­al­is­tic frame­work to ex­am­ine what she calls the ‘‘tran­scul­tural’’ as­pects of Win­ton’s work; while Ni­cholas Birns in­ter­prets Breath as a novel that re­sists the util­i­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy of ne­olib­er­al­ism.

The vol­ume also in­cludes some as­tute for­mal anal­y­sis, no­tably Bill Ashcroft’s dis­cus­sion of the sig­nif­i­cance of wa­ter as a re­cur­ring sym­bol in Win­ton’s fic­tion and (the book’s high­light) Fiona Mor­ri­son’s foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion of the way Cloud­street uses the ver­nac­u­lar and sub­tle ma­nip­u­la­tions of point of view to great ex­pres­sive ef­fect.

The stan­dard of the in­di­vid­ual es­says is gen­er­ally high, though some­what vari­able. Some con­trib­u­tors have prose styles that may char­i­ta­bly be de­scribed as in­el­e­gant. As a whole, how­ever, the vol­ume suc­ceeds in draw­ing out the mul­ti­fac­eted qual­ity of Win­ton’s fic­tion and high­lights the com­plex­ity of some of the con­tentious is­sues it raises.

Sev­eral es­says, for ex­am­ple —


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