Up from Under

John Bayley

  • The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories edited by Murray Bail
    Faber, 413 pp, £12.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 571 15083 7

A famous passage in Henry James’s Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne laments the absence for the writer in America of every relation and institution which made writing socially viable – an army and a navy and a church and a court, and classes and village squires and evening parties. James’s view of the materials available to the writer may strike us today as somewhat old-fashioned and unenterprising, but there is a basic shrewdness in what he says. Without the ‘density of felt life’ which the artist almost involuntarily was vouchsafed in these materials he is thrown back on his own resources and ideas – his own emptiness, as it were. Hawthorne peopled that emptiness with symbolic situations from the New England past, but he could not get very far along that road. Conrad had the luck to possess a ready-made ‘dense’ world in a ship and its crew, from which he could later colonise and create land life. But the problem as James had perceived it did not go away.

Indeed it increased and spread. There is a sense in which we are all today in the situation which James more than a hundred years ago saw as peculiarly American. The institutions he wrote by have faded and dissolved, become redundant or ridiculous. Dickens and Trollope depended on a solid system for their caricatures of it, and such caricatures would have no bite or relevance today. ‘Realism’ itself has become farcical, a mere means of proclaiming the nature of a text. In run-of-the-mill novels the dense domestic scene has degenerated into empty propaganda for this or that way of life – the last resort of the artist without a true subject.

In Australia, realism – what Patrick White, condemning the national literature in 1958, called the ‘dreary dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’– was the obvious method, because anything else would have seemed fancy: and White himself was one of the very few writers down under who could be fanciful by nature, without giving any impression of self-consciousness. But in fact realism in the usual sense was not what anyone produced, for Australian writing took everything for granted – the empty country, the dust, the trees, the urban scene above all – because taking things for granted is the stance of the ordinary man, and homo australis took pride in being super-ordinary. As Zola and Balzac reveal, realism was the child of romanticism, and revelled precisely in James’s ‘density of felt life’ – all the objects and rites and fashions of bourgeois life basking in monstrous perspective. Australian writers could never see their continent like that, or in any way resembling it – in fact, they have never wanted to see it at all. Seeing it was left to Lawrence in Kangaroo, which generous Aussies will tell you is the best thing ever written about Australia, but which would never have been written by a native.

The result is that these Australian short stories are not ‘Australian’ at all. As Murray Bail remarks in his extremely penetrating introduction, ‘the freshness in this recent Australian fiction is due to the writers’ acceptance of place – they could forget all about that.’ They could forget writing about Australia, abandoning the whole fascination, which James had felt so strongly, in writing about this scene or that: American, English, Continental. Murray Bail truly says that many of these stories are no longer set in Australia, ‘or in any recognisable place at all’. Even the idiom is not really recognisable, except where it is used self-consciously, and that only occurs, oddly enough, in the two stories by Patrick White himself, ‘Clay’ and ‘Down at the Dump’.

All good stories have an understory, which suggests in a sense their true subject, and although ‘Clay’ does not quite come off, it is an imaginative effort, the only one of its kind in the book, to portray a local experience of alienation. Clay is born funny – that is to say, he is an imaginative child, whose mother, and later on his wife, involuntarily produce in him symptoms of schizophrenia, and then of suicidal insanity. He meets Marj, his wife, at the local cleaner’s, to which he has been sent by his mother with a costume spotted by tomato sauce.

  ‘Ready tomorrow,’ she said.

  ‘Go on!’

  ‘Why not?’ the girl replied. ‘We are a One-day.’

  But flat and absent she sounded.

  Then Clay did not know why but asked: ‘You’ve got something on your mind.’

  She said: ‘It’s only that the sink got blocked yesterday evening.’

  It sounded so horribly gray, and she looking out with that expression of permanence. Then at once he knew he had been right, and that the girl at the dry cleaner’s had something of his mother: it was the core of permanence. Then Clay grew excited.

The awkwardly overdone obviousness of effect, like the sink reference, slides into something more subtly and deliberately blank. ‘We are a One-day’ could be heard in any cleaner’s where English is the language: there is an encompassing flatness in it which removes any suggestion of local speech, and conveys whereabouts by means of absence. Even the Irishism of ‘she looking out with that expression of permanence’ has got lost, worn into a mere wisp of reference. James Joyce used banality in Dubliners (‘Lily the caretaker’s daughter was literally run off her feet’) to convey by paradox a vivid and meticulous precision, a groundwork of humour – and nothing is more precise than humour. Patrick White uses it for the opposite effect. When Marj says, ‘When I have a home of my own I will turn out the lounge Fridays,’ that is what is meant, and no more. The writing does not invite our comment: ‘there was no necessity to answer.’ But the sense of lack there makes the story come to grief on its ‘positive’ side: in Clay’s delusions, and his attempts to write in a kind of counter-style to express his lost imagination. The theme there seems already too well-worked. White’s collection of 1964, The Burnt Ones, is none the less remarkable, and something esoteric in his stories does have the effect of making them seem more Australian than those of the other writers in this anthology.

Murray Bail notes the original importance of anecdote (‘It would be hard to imagine another country built upon so many hard-luck stories’), and the tendency to suppose that ‘out there’ was where the stories were. Out there were the funny people. ‘Everyone has a black-sheep uncle somewhere with a slightly wrecked face who can tell a good story.’ There was usually a touch of Irish, and of facile sentiment bred by the very hardness and emptiness of the bush; and like the west Tasmanian jungle the tales were not so much tall as horizontal. Henry Lawson, who died in 1922, became the doyen of the story business, and his walrus-moustached face even appears on the Australian ten-dollar note. As Murray Bail observes, can there be another country which has placed a short-story writer ‘on the pedestal of a banknote’?

The bush anecdote was in a sense a blind alley, although an enormously popular one. In a short literary history, the number of newspaper and magazine tales was out of all proportion to the population, the stories published in the 1940s reaching epidemic proportions, like the great rabbit plagues which chewed up the grazing land. The editor dryly observes that ‘a literary myxomatosis’ set in a decade or so later, when writers suddenly realised that almost all Australians lived in towns anyway, and had less rural experience than the Europeans or even the British. That was the beginning of disidentification, and almost all the stories in this book recognise it in one way or another. Most, like the examples by Helen Garner, David Brooks, Peter Carey, Joan London, Kate Grenville, are admirably achieved on this basis, the authors all born in the Forties or Fifties; and the names indicate that the newer European immigrants have not yet found a voice in their new language. Particularly memorable is Beverley Farmer’s ‘A Man in the Laundrette’, in which whereabouts is as immaterial as in Kafka – it could as easily be in Australia as it is in fact in America – and yet is dwelt on with a kind of rich claustrophobia which gives expression to every new town on the wide Pacific rim or further out still.

Such stories here – and there are good ones by slightly older writers, such as Elizabeth Jolley, Olga Masters, Judah Waten – bring out something important in the nature of the form. It can carry an immense charge of social implication provided this remains immanent and tacit, visible only in the perspective and depth. Any attempt to make play with it, as the novel can do, usually kills the short story dead. A partial exception is Judah Waten’s moving ‘Mother’, about an immigrant Jewish family from Russian Poland, and the attempts the mother makes, getting her small son to interpret for her, to hold on to the idea of culture by listening to records in gramophone stores and even by sneaking unauthorised into university labs or lectures. This is the only story which makes a critical point – that Australia kills both cultural and political idealism – and it is significant that the point falls flat though the story remains moving. Most of these stories take it for granted, like the country itself. As in linguistics, in which Antipodeans excel, it is taken for granted that people, like language, go their own way, and that it is no good imposing on them the idea of what is ‘correct’ or desirable. In a hopeful new land the boy’s mother feels a bitter sorrow that he is already growing up to be mindless and cheerful and cricket-minded, the old Europe’s hopes for mankind’s future quite beside the point.

Many of these stories have the impenetrability of Kipling’s ‘Mrs Bathhurst’, a tale told at the tip of South Africa, featuring a small hotel in New Zealand and Vancouver Island and the far-flung British Navy and an express arriving at Paddington Station. Its density of implication is about the depersonalisation of distance, and the difficulty of discovering what has happened to people, and how they behaved, and what, if anything, they thought. Almost all good short stories have a similar unexpressed social dimension. It is a curious thought that one of the most famous of all, Chekhov’s ‘Lady with the Dog’ could only have taken place as it did where it did, although it seems universal in what it tells and means. Yet Gurov and the lady would have had no story at another time and in another country.

The same could be said of Christina Stead’s masterpiece of a story, ‘A Harmless Affair’. Although Christina Stead went to New York, and her story is about a New York situation, it has none of the faux-naif cosmetic glibness associated with American stories of that time and place. It has an Australian directness, coupled with the most adroit acceptance of a Greenwich Village social situation; and the combination is both moving and bizarre. The woman in the story falls in love with a fatal young man, which does not disturb her sound marriage but deploys an exceptionally unpretentious and intense awareness of what it is like to be both happily married and wildly in love. Everything depends on that New York pre-war feeling and time: but the style is imported, and the effect, as in ‘Lady with the Dog’, is both local and universalised.

Style, or expression, is important here. I doubt whether in any other kind of English than Australian the sentence could be written: ‘She hastened out of her coat and hat, did not look at any of them when she came in, but began pulling corks and so on.’ It is as far removed as possible from Joyce’s ‘scrupulous meanness’, but has the same masterly authority in the story’s context. On the other hand, the same sort of idiom can be used to sound distinctly exotic, as in Marjorie Barnard’s ‘The Persimmon Tree’, first published in 1943 at a time when, as Murray Bail remarks, ‘story collections in print in Australia would probably exceed those in England by British writers.’ ‘The Persimmon Tree’, the opening story in the anthology, is very slight, but curiously memorable: about two women who have taken flats ‘in a quiet blind street, lined with English trees’, and who occasionally see each other but never speak. It contains a lesbian and a voyeur element, with its roots probably way back in Mrs Dalloway and Katherine Mansfield, but the sense of separateness and loneliness it brings is all its own, like the singular portrait of gentility and madness which Hal Porter got into his story ‘Gretel’.