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mercredi 19 mai 2010

Opinion: Panorama du roman australien

Jean-François Vernay, Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours 1831-2007, Paris, Hermann, 2009 (Collection savoir lettres).

Reviewed by Michael Nelson.

Jean-François Vernay’s survey of Australian novels from 1831 to 2007 is directed to the French reading public where an interest in Australian literature has been stimulated by a number of successful translations and by international awards to Australian authors. Vernay is a resident of New Caledonia, a multicultural community which shares some of the characteristics of its mainland neighbour, including a convict heritage and a complex history of settlement. With this background Vernay is sensitive to certain recurrent themes in Australian literature. He names these themes in his prologue as quest, conquest, isolation, the alien land, Australia as prison and paradise.

Fear and fascination with a hostile country which swallows up its settlers, contrasted with attempts to force the land into a European mould, are characteristic themes of the early novels. The first novels deal with Australia’s beginnings as a penal colony and with the gold rush which ended the convict phase of settlement. While most of the colonial population had settled in coastal cities, writers of the late nineteenth century were more interested in the inland. They created an image of the typical Australian as the bushman, actively promoted by the Sydney Bulletin together with the slogan “Australia for the White Man”. As the geographic isolation of Australia was progressively overcome by technological developments starting with undersea cables and fast ships and ending with jet planes and the internet, so Australian literature became more international and closely linked to overseas movements. Hence in the final chapters Vernay outlines a literature which is multicultural, postcolonial, postmodern and substantially urban.

While Vernay’s procedure is substantially chronological, he uses a cinematic technique to pause and focus on certain key works and authors. Thus a page each in the first chapter is devoted to three novelists whose works come to terms with the convict period, the gold rush and the lawlessness of the early colonial period (Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood and Catherine Helen Spence). In the period of intense agricultural development after the gold rush, writers created the myth of the Australian outback and of the allegedly archetypical Australian “mate”, “digger” and “larrikin”, based on sundowners, drovers, swaggies and fossickers, as well as the “cocky farmer” on his selection as a contrast to the colonial landed gentry and “squatters” (Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Joseph Furphy and Miles Franklin are given as examples of these trends). Fascination with the bush, the outback and the desert continues into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the addition of writings by Aboriginals (examples of later “bush” writers: Katherine Susannah Prichard, Xavier Herbert, Arthur Upfield , Alexis Wright, and, with individual novels having an outback or Aboriginal background, Patrick White and Thomas Keneally).

Vernay’s four chapters on the twentieth century (plus the first years of the next) are divided as follows, including snapshots of the authors he sees as typical of each period:

1901-1950: The ebb and flow of history: between detachment and engagement (Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Leonard Mann, the socialist realist writers, Martin Boyd).

1951-1965: Exploitations and manipulations of reality (novels of World War II, Patrick White, Randolph Stow, George Johnston, also the production by Australian writers of successful “pulp” novels).

1966-1980: Literature of minorities in the cosmopolitan era (Christopher Koch, Thomas Keneally, David Ireland , and a notable group of women writers including Thea Astley, Helen Garner followed in the 1980s by Olga Masters and Elizabeth Jolley.

1981-2007: Postmodernism and new trends (Gerald Murnane, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Brian Castro, Kate Grenville, Christos Tsiolkas, Janette Turner Hospital, David Malouf and writing by Aboriginal authors).

This division into periods does not work out exactly since the careers of many of these writers cover several decades. As Vernay points out, the First World War was an important caesura in Australian society, ending the buoyant confidence of the Federation period. It was followed by the economic downturn after the war in the twenties and the Depression of the thirties. As in other countries these gloomy years produced a number of historical novels (because the writers looked back to better days? Or because the past was thought to be a key to modern problems?). Australian examples of historical novels are Henry Handel Richardson’s trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land, Miles Franklin’s Old Blastus Bandicoot and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

The Australian experience of Second World War, particularly the New Guinea campaign but also the sufferings of prisoners of war, is reflected in a number of novels mostly published after 1950 (Jon Cleary, Randolph Stow, Russell Braddon). The immediate post-war years were a time of confusion and uncertainty, contrasting with the aggressive certainty of the Communist unionists and their writers (Frank Hardy, Dorothy Hewitt, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Judah Waten). But the work of these politicized realists seemed threadbare in comparison with the international modernism of the 1950s, which furthermore was a time of renewed self-confidence, massive immigration and belief in scientific and industrial progress – reflected in the end of post-war austerity and the defeat of the Labor government’s program of nationalization.

The work of Patrick White shows the difficulty of periodizing Australian literature as it spans all four of Vernay’s twentieth-century chapters (first novel in 1939, last works in the 1980s). White is, says Vernay, profoundly Australian in spirit yet he is Australia’s most international writer with close affinities to modernists like Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Patrick White in 1973 was the beginning of international recognition of Australian literature, but also followed increased appreciation of Australian writers within Australia through the Miles Franklin Award (established 1957) and the first Chair of Australian Literature (1962). (It might also be mentioned that changes in secondary school English syllabuses such as the NSW Wyndham scheme of the 1960s placed more emphasis on Australian literature. Whereas the long-term Prime Minister Menzies had emphasized the British cultural heritage, his successors Gorton and Whitlam were nationalists and promoted the Australian film and literary industries with grants).

Before Patrick White few Australian novels were successful in the United Kingdom, though most were published there. The most successful Australian writer overseas (if one excepts writers of pulp and detective fiction) was Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). In the last third of the twentieth century a new generation of Australian writers gained recognition not only in the UK but also in the USA and continental Europe. International prizes rewarded the achievements of Thomas Keneally (Booker 1982), David Malouf (Commonwealth Writers’Prize 1991), Peter Carey (Booker 1998 and 2001) and M.J. Hyland (Hawthornden 2007).

Vernay has written previously about Christopher Koch and Peter Carey, who are clearly his favourites among contemporary novelists. Christopher Koch’s internationally successful The Year of Living Dangerously and the later Highways to a War reflect the greater concern with Australia’s Asian neighbours in the later twentieth century. The earlier novel, although treating themes of ambiguous Australian identity in the two central characters Billy Kwan and Guy Hamilton, was not eligible for the Miles Franklin award, the terms of which were devised in a less cosmopolitan and multicultural era. This omission was corrected in 1985 when Koch received the Miles Franklin Award for his subtle novel The Doubleman. Peter Carey appeals to Vernay for the same reason as Koch: they are versatile writers who are able to blend realism with imaginativeness, indeed surrealism. Carey’s style is marked by originality, truculence and the exploitation of the bizarre and the sordid. He does not hesitate to distort historical facts to create a new and disconcerting fictional world (Illywhacker, The True History of the Kelly Gang). Vernay notes that Carey is unusual among Australian writers in being able to live from the proceeds of his novels – most writers live on grants, journalistic activity or academic teaching. The print run of Australian novels is usually small by international standards.

Public appreciation of Australian fiction has been greatly enhanced by film versions. It was fortunate for the novelists that Australia and New Zealand have produced some talented film makers, encouraged by the initiatives introduced by the Gorton government following Canadian and German models. The successful film version of He He does notHe

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) directed by Peter Weir made Koch’s novel known to an international audience (incidentally, after the crew was expelled from their Asian location, a drainage canal in the Sydney suburb of Glebe was turned into an Indonesian slum, to the accompaniment of complaints from the neighbours). Two notable films were adapted from Carey’s novels: Bliss (director Ray Lawrence) and Oscar and Lucinda (director Gillian Armstrong). A number of films have been based on books reflecting the Aboriginal experience: Vernay names The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (from Keneally’s novel, director Fred Schepisi), The Fringe Dwellers (from Nene Gare, director Bruce Beresford) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (from a story by Dorris Pilkington, director Philip Noyce). Film adaptations not only help sales of the original books, but encourage schools to set the novels as examination texts.

Probably the most successful adaptation of an Australian writer’s book is Spielberg’s version of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (renamed Schindler’s List). A chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor inspired Keneally to follow up the story of Schindler. Keneally had established his reputation in the 1960s with Australian-themed novels such as Bring Larks and Heroes and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, although he had already ventured into a European theme with Gossip from the Forest.

Vernay also appreciates some the less commercial writers of recent years. He is intrigued by “grunge literature” which seems to him to revive something of the French decadent literature of the 1880s with its ennui, egocentrism and disenchantment, and the atmosphere of pessimism and boredom. Escaping into drugs and promiscuity, grappling with sexual deviance, grunge presents a bleak picture of the Australian urban and suburban world. Unfortunately, with the exception of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip and perhaps Christos Tsiolkas’s The Jesus Man, the quality of the writing is disappointing. The same problem of somewhat amateurish style also bedevils the worthy attempts at writing by Aborigines, and in some cases the authenticity of these works can be called into question.

Authenticity has always been a problem in Australian literature. In the course of Vernay’s history there are examples of works claiming to be by convicts who were not, by bushrangers who were not, novels by women claiming to be men (Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson), by whites claiming to be aborigines, poems by bushmen who lived substantially in the city, poems ascribed to an imaginary poet and more recently allegedly authentic accounts of overseas events by women who invented them. Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake plays with the idea of literary fraud. It is of course a fact that fiction is essentially a deception practiced on the reader who usually is willing to accept or ignore the hoax.

In accordance with modern literary critical trends Vernay gives substantial space to woman novelists throughout his period. He gives a positive assessment of some early women writers like Caroline Leakey, Rosa Praed, Ida Cambridge and Catherine Henry Spence, often dismissed casually by earlier literary historians. However it is only with more recent, less inhibited women writers like Kathy Lette, Kate Grenville and Helen Garner that some themes can be depicted more frankly. Many early women writers felt obliged to hide under a male pseudonym, thus preventing their female characters from speaking in their own voice.

Will Vernay’s book promote the Australian novel in France? The French reader might be disappointed that the Panorama does not give a list of Australian novels translated into French, although one can deduce occasionally from a French title that a translation is available. This reviewer has looked at what is available from Amazon France (not necessarily in print, sometimes second-hand only). A very popular Australian writer on this basis is clearly Tim Winton (eleven translated titles including Cloudstreet and most or all of them seem to be in print). Patrick White has about the same number of titles but most of these are out of print. Colleen McCullough has approximately 16 titles in translation; about half of these are from the Roman series, apparently popular in France. Keneally has only three but this includes the best seller Schindler’s List. David Malouf and Peter Carey have four titles, Christopher Koch three, Richard Flanagan two and Kate Grenville one. Amazon France can supply many more Australian novels in the original language, but the average French reader, even with good English, is more likely to prefer a translation. Literary translation is not well paid and is often undertaken out of enthusiasm for a particular author as well as on commercial grounds. Here one also sees the value of a popular film for encouraging the production of a translation (e.g. translations of Schindler’s List and The Year of Living Dangerously).


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