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mardi 24 mai 2011

"The Great Australian Novel - A Panorama" reviewed by Peter Pierce


Peter Pierce, “Spotlight on the Literary Bunyip”, The Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 21-22/05/2011, p.35

A respectful French academic has cast a cinematic eye over Australian fiction.

In 1868, John William De Forest coined the term “The great American Novel.” This was, perhaps, a move of cultural reconstruction hard on the end of the Civil War. The hope he expressed that one day such a creature as the great American novel might appear in the US ignored the great novels already written there – by Hawthorne and Melville.
Speaking on behalf of his national literature, A.D. Hope averred that “the bunyip of Australian literature is the mythical beast the great Australian novel”, thus reducing the notion to hearsay and comedy. Nowadays the term is rarely used. A score of our novels could contest for the honorific. Nevertheless, it has resurfaced in an enterprising book by the New Caledonia-based French academic Jean-François Vernay, The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama.
Already the author of a monograph on Christopher Koch, Water From the Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch (2007), Vernay follows other French scholars of our literature such as Xavier Pons and Chantal Kwast-Greff. The French version (2009) of his latest work was plainly called Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours. Vernay explains that he “set out to inform the French reader of a literature that was still relatively unknown despite the efforts of a few publishing houses in France.”
The notion of the great Australian novel scarcely features in his work whose direction is indicated instead by the subtitle A Panorama. Vernay’s method is cinematic, so that within an orderly chronological narrative, he intersperses close-ups of individual authors and books, low-angle shots of novels or novelists who dominate the landscape, and panoramic views of themes of the career of an important author (for instance, literature of the convict system; Christina Stead).
The question of what is “Australian” about our literature is sensibly handled by reference to the flexible definition in D.R. Burns’s underrated The Directions of Australian Fiction: 1920-74 (1975) “tied in some ways …to things Australian”. Vernay also follows Burns as that now scarce specimen, the author of a single volume literary history, albeit one restricted to the novel. Having signalled what he regards as “iconic themes” – the quest, conquest, voyage, geography, topography, isolation, The Antipodes, abundance, religion, disappearance – Vernay briskly gets on with his analytical survey. There is a stock coverage of the colonial period, from Savery’s Quintus Servinton (1831) to Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life (1874) – The latter is suggestively titled La justice des hommes in its French translation – and of what he calls the “emergence of a national consciousness” between 1875 and 1900.
We hear a more distinctive, original, indeed an outsider’s voice once Vernay reaches the 20th century. Covering its first half, he notes a double antinomy…detachment, by authors writing behind pseudonyms or living elsewhere as expatriates, in contrast to engagement expressed as a neo-nationalist or populist trend”. He is judicious on such communist writers as Frank Hardy – “docile, yet faithful authors who carried out the dogma to the letter” – and on Colin Johnson’s usurping of an Aboriginal identity, which led to his being “incorrectly hallowed” by some critics still. Vernay considers Koch “largely ignored by critics [though not by him] as a result to his strong opposition to university orthodoxy”. He also reclaims forgotten works and authors, among them Kerryn Higg’s All That False Instruction: A Novel of Lesbian Love (originally published in 1975 under the pseudonym Elizabeth Riley).
The final chapter Postmodernism and New Tendencies (1981 Onwards), which encompasses one third of the book, shows Vernay at his most daring. He judges freely: Gerald Murnane “wrote novels that are true static odysseys of conscience with almost no action”; Michael Wilding is “the Australian David Lodge”. There is a perceptive commentary on novels about psychoanalysis by Carmel Bird, Brian Castro, Peter Goldsworthy and others, but under the contentious rubric of the disintegration of the family at the end of the 1960s. The agent? “Feminism exposed serious family secrets: paedophilia, violence in marriages, family dramas, incest and so on.” Helen Garner is intriguingly viewed as the precursor of grunge fiction seen in turn as the “expression of a fin-de-siècle mentality”.
The French theorist in Vernay leads him to coin the term “esperectomic” for the fiction of L.A. McCann, M.J Hyland, and James Bradley (combining the French word for hope with the Greek for excision). On the other hand, his conclusion sees the return of the repressed – the organic metaphor as literary historical explanation – “the Australian novel, young and vigorous, is prospering in fresh soil and is in full bloom”. That is not the panorama we have been given. Vernay reveals a more vexed, complex, less benign condition in our fiction. Perhaps his remark is best regarded as a graceful gesture from a respectful, inquisitive, penetrating observer of our literature from the outside.

Peter PIERCE.

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