Xavier Her­bert’s im­mense, in­tense, am­bi­tious, flawed novel still re­tains its bite, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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)

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