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
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
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
Before Patrick White few Australian novels were successful in the
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
Public appreciation of Australian fiction has been greatly enhanced by film versions. It was fortunate for the novelists that
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
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