Every au­thor who has put the Aus­tralian land­scape in their work owes a debt to an English­man, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

DH Lawrence dis­em­barked at Fre­man­tle, to­gether with his Ger­man-born wife, Frieda, on May 4, 1922, af­ter a 10-day voy­age across the In­dian Ocean from Cey­lon. He was just 36 and his most en­dur­ing works were al­ready be­hind him: he had only eight years left to live.

The pair were no­mads once more, in ex­ile from Eng­land, with­out a home. A long pe­riod of tor­ren­tial cre­ativ­ity, in which Lawrence was able to write sev­eral nov­els and a set of short sto­ries as well as po­etry and travel sketches, had just come to an end. Fierce con­tro­versy had greeted the pub­li­ca­tion of a book he set great store by, Women in Love. He had tried re­peat­edly to start work on a new novel, and stalled. He needed a re­treat, a place to write in si­lence.

Ac­cord­ingly, he had ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to Taos, New Mex­ico, where the heiress Ma­bel Dodge Sterne had of­fered him a house on her es­tate. Aus­tralia was a way-stage for the Lawrences on their long round-the-world jour­ney, noth­ing more: the des­ti­na­tion of the first ship they could find leav­ing Colombo port.

Things went smoothly on ar­rival. A woman who had be­friended the cou­ple aboard the ship found them lodg­ings at a guest­house high up in the Perth Hills. It was a quiet, lonely land­scape. Lawrence was struck. He had never seen such coun­try. His re­ac­tions are de­scribed in his most in­can­ta­tory prose early in the first chap­ter of Kan­ga­roo: The vast, un­in­hab­ited land fright­ened him. It seemed so hoary and lost, so un­ap­proach­able. The sky was pure, crys­tal pure and blue, of a lovely pale blue colour: the air was won­der­ful, new and un­breathed: and there were great dis­tances. But the bush, the grey, charred bush. It scared him … It was so phan­tom-like, so ghostly, with its tall pale trees and many dead trees, like corpses, partly charred by bush fires: and then the fo­liage so dark, like grey-green iron. And then it was so deathly still. Even the few birds seemed to be swamped in si­lence. Wait­ing, wait­ing — the bush seemed to be hoar­ily wait­ing. And he could not pen­e­trate into its se­cret.

He re­solves to plunge in, and walk out alone by the light of the full moon. How still the land­scape seemed. No life, not a sin­gle sign of life: Yet some­thing. Some­thing big and aware and hid­den! He walked on, had walked a mile or so into the bush, and had just come to a clump of tall, nude, dead trees shin­ing al­most phosphorescent with the moon, when the ter­ror of the bush over­came him. He had looked so long at the vivid moon, with­out think­ing. And now, there was some­thing among the trees, and his hair be­gan to stir with ter­ror, on his head. There was a pres­ence. It must be the spirit of the place, he de­cides, a watch­ing spirit that could have reached out ‘‘a long black arm and gripped him’’ — but it was wait­ing, ‘‘bid­ing its time with a ter­ri­ble age­less watch­ful­ness, wait­ing for a far-off end, watch­ing the myr­iad in­trud­ing white men’’.

This is one of the more ex­tra­or­di­nary pas­sages in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, and one that re­pays close at­ten­tion. A mere week af­ter his ar­rival, Lawrence had not only seen and felt the bush in all its po­tency, he had tuned him­self to its in­ner wave­lengths, he had caught some­thing of its essence, and had also caught what lay be­yond him: the time­less, Abo­rig­i­nal ele­ment in the coun­try — some­thing very few main­stream Aus­tralians of a lit­er­ary bent dared ap­pre­ci­ate or con­front in those days, nearly a cen­tury ago.

There are sev­eral pas­sages of this kind spread through Kan­ga­roo — great res­o­nant chords that punc­tu­ate and shape the nar­ra­tive. What, though, is the na­ture of that nar­ra­tive, a book of hun­dreds of pages thrown off at white heat in just over a month of writ­ing while Lawrence was im­mured with Frieda in their east­coast hide­away at Thirroul, south of Syd­ney?

What is Kan­ga­roo, ex­actly? A con­ven­tional novel, as it was badged on pub­li­ca­tion? An ill- dis­guised piece of me­moir? A study of po­lit­i­cal ideas and charisma? An out­sider’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a strange new coun­try?

All these things, in vary­ing de­grees, of course, and all run to­gether — but above ev­ery­thing it is a work of grand, heroic cast, among the most mar­vel­lous and most in­fu­ri­at­ing of all Aus­tralian ‘‘clas­sics’’, a tale that peers deep into the con­ti­nent’s heart.

The plot is quickly sum­marised: in­deed, it is of­ten only lightly, glanc­ingly sketched in, and rou­tinely in­ter­rupted by long, di­gres­sive mus­ings, vast is­lands of free as­so­ci­a­tion, with gram­mar and syn­tax fray­ing away.

Lawrence’s cen­tral char­ac­ter and fic­tive al­ter ego, Richard Lo­vatt Somers, is a writer: a man of philo­soph­i­cal in­cli­na­tions who has given up on old, de­cayed Europe, rav­aged and de­stroyed as it is in the wake of the Great War, and seeks in­spi­ra­tion in a new coun­try. Somers makes his way; he forms friend­ships. Soon he finds him­self en­meshed in the de­bates and con­tentions of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics. His neigh­bour in­tro­duces him to a new move­ment backed by war veter­ans dis­en­chanted with the con­di­tion of Aus­tralia.

This move­ment, from to­day’s van­tage point, ap­pears to have dis­tinctly fascis­tic ac­cents — the mass of or­di­nary men re­quire strong lead­er­ship; a cri­sis and chal­lenge from the ‘‘red’’ left im­pends — but Lawrence was in fact writ­ing be­fore Mus­solini’s March on Rome, and in

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