Xavier Herbert’s immense, intense, ambitious, flawed novel still retains its bite, writes
AN ‘‘Australian classic’’, wrote Randolph Stow in The Times Literary Supplement, ‘‘perhaps THE Australian classic’’. The year was 1976, and the work that elicited the accolade was Xavier Herbert’s immense, Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning novel Poor Fellow My Country.
Track down the original review, however, and you will find this affirmative vote comes only after a thousand-odd words of deadly accurate critique on Stow’s part. Early on he suggests Herbert’s novel is delirious with speechifying. And he describes the plot — for lack of a better term to describe an incorrigible digressiveness that renders the novel (at 850,000 words, a third longer than War and Peace, and second in length only to Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novel of letters Clarissa) — as complex in excess of narrative need.
Stow charitably regards the book’s politics as confused, considers its psychology dubious and its characterisation weak. He makes Herbert’s novel sound closer to Wilbur Smith than to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in almost every sense but page length, before swerving back to praise.
The enduring mystery of Poor Fellow My Country lies here, in the gap between the flaws of the work and the visionary grandeur others have discovered in it. Surely the least-read major novel in Ozlit, it nonetheless inspires love in the few who meet its challenge. For every dozen souls who side with Barry Humphries in believing the book would better be called Poor Fellow My Reader, there is a solitary fan who spends a year luxuriating in the epic and feels that every student in the country should be given time out to do the same.
Whatever the arguments of these opposing camps, there is a single scandal associated with the work: for a quarter of a century it has been out of print. Now HarperCollins has republished the novel under the imprint of legendary Australian publishers Angus & Robertson — a paper brick in a pretty dust wrapper — to mark the 40th anniversary of its publication. Its return obliges us to grapple once again with the difficult inheritance Herbert bequeathed us. We have to answer the question: why bother with an interminable novel written by a ruthless sociopath known to his enemies and supporters alike as ‘‘Australia prolix’’?
The first thing that strikes the reader is the ambition and scope of the undertaking. Herbert spent nine years from 1965 turning the abandoned fragment of a work called Yellow Fellow into a completed immensity. Its cast includes 70 major characters and the novel’s canvas covers swaths of Australia’s Top End and elsewhere. Into its pages are poured the memories of Herbert’s years spent in Darwin, as well as the knowledge and experiences accumulated throughout a long and peripatetic life.
The result is a picture of mid-20th-century Australia drawn on a 1:1 scale. Anthropologists, stockmen, pearlers, politicians, bush doctors, publicans, soldiers and goldminers: an entire masculine typology is fleshed out, and not just the European side of the national ledger. Herbert concentrates heavily on Aboriginal Australia; he reveres the seamless integration of humans with place that distinguishes the continent’s original inhabitants. His various white fictional proxies struggle to overcome a sense of alienation from country. They suffer a sense of perceptual impoverishment, aware of a world of Poor Fellow My Country By Xavier Herbert With a new introduction by Russell McDougall Angus & Robertson Australian Classics, 1472pp, $49.99 (HB)