Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Nomad

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s convert-like zeal is both disturbing and delusional, writes Hilary McPhee…

Nomad: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations By Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fourth Estate, $35.00

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has brains and beauty and is a gift to those of us who like our prejudices confirmed. In Australia, where she returns regularly to promote her books, she reinforces our idea of the Muslim world as monolithic, mediaeval and dangerous. Islam is all bad, religion is the problem, Allah is the villain. The West is better in every respect. These days she proclaims the American way with stars in her eyes.

Hirsi Ali’s early life was difficult and spent on the move between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Had she grown up elsewhere – in parts of the Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Teheran perhaps – she might have been able to give us a more complex and sympathetic picture of the Muslim world, but I suspect not. As each of us is shaped by family and culture, it was her dysfunctional family that formed her, and gave her the courage and impetus to escape – a harsh mother she despised, an educated politicized father she idealized until ‘he fell back into a trance of submission to Allah’, a younger sister she had hopes for but who married and retreated from the life being offered in Europe.

Hirsi Ali’s story is extraordinary and her books, mixtures of memoir and analysis wearing their dramatic single-word titles like brand names, are highly popular throughout the West. A Muslim apostate is both consolation and vindication in uncertain times.

Infidel told the story of her family and her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, how she learnt the ropes of the welfare system and the workforce, before gaining a university education. How she became a member of the Dutch Parliament, worked with immigrant women, scripted the film Submission, of Koranic verses projected onto a naked woman’s body, a provocation for which the producer, Theo van Gogh, was murdered and she received death threats. From then on she was provided bodyguards by the Dutch Government until a political furore over her citizenship status caused her to leave Holland for the States. In 2006 she accepted a job with the ultra-conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which had provided much of the rationale for military intervention in Iraq and for rebuilding the image of Israel in the world through a conservative alliance with America. Nomad is dedicated to the Past President, Chris DeMuth, ‘my surrogate abeh’ (father). Hirsi Ali describes this time as her intellectual coming-of-age. With her now private bodyguards, she travels the US and those parts of the world that welcome her message, lecturing on the evils of Islam and explaining her remedies, scornful of more than a billion and a half Muslims. After Allah, Muslim women receive most of the blame – childlike, unable to manage money, trapped in their marriages, pouring their frustration into damaging their daughters.

We are never reminded that more than 50 countries from Indonesia to Iran through Africa and the Middle East have Muslim majorities and vastly different cultures and histories. A perspective on the role played by poverty, illiteracy and rural conservatism is missing. Pre-Islamic cultures don’t rate a mention.

The books aren’t much good. Infidel, ghostwritten in Dutch and published in English translation in 2007, came at the right time and sold hugely. Nomad is a rather awkward retelling of her story through the lens of imagined contact, mainly by telephone, with her sister and her dying father, her hated mother and her dead grandmother. Framed by a chapter called A Letter to My Grandmother and an epilogue called A Letter to My Unborn Daughter, are large chunks of rather out-of-date polemic echoing Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington. The old ‘clash of civilizations’ gets a rerun.

Her targets are predictable. Multiculturalism is dismissed as utopian, producing victims and welfare dependence. Feminists are naive for suggesting that many women in the West are also manipulated, complicit, objectified. Germaine Greer cops it for cultural relativism; Tariq Ramadan for being Tariq Ramadan.

There’s a depressing absence of hope or empathy. Micro-financing which has for years been targeting women and helping them out of poverty doesn’t rate a mention; nor does the improved literacy figures in some Islamic countries; nor the belated but massive investment in education in some rich Arab countries. The growing numbers of modern Muslim women in public life and scholars reinterpreting the Koran and Shar’ia, described recently by Isobel Coleman in Paradise Beneath Her Feet, do not fit her thesis and are ignored.

Hirsi Ali has now joined the ranks of celebrity atheists. Richard Dawkins calls her a major hero of our times; Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens speak of her beauty and tiny wrists. The latter is in a state of adoration: ‘For me the three most beautiful words in the emerging language of secular resistance to tyranny are Ayaan Hirsi Ali’. I wonder what they make of one of the ‘remedies’ in Nomad that Muslims would be better off being Christian and that the Vatican joins the campaign to save Muslims from themselves.

There is something disturbing and slightly delusional here, the zeal of the convert protecting herself from facing the consequences of her own actions and theories, perhaps. The cult that surrounds Hirsi Ali could engulf her. She’s a one-woman band against her own culture, a hero to herself as well to the men who worship her. I can’t help but fear for her.

Yann Martel – Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil By Yann Martel, Text Publishing, $32.95

In a small room as white and brightly lit as an operating theatre, an antlered creature stands at bay, a beautiful commodity, a thing. Encrusted with large balls of acrylic and tiny crystal beads, it sparkles like a prize from a rich person’s treasure trove, a vision of the future. Not until you stand close and peer deep into the acrylic lenses at the magnified whorls of delicate brown and gingery hair does the taxidermied elk beneath reveal itself.

This statement about manmade annihilation, by Japanese sculptor, Kohei Nawa, in Brisbane’s APT6 , is all the more powerful, it seems to me, because we have to do the work ourselves. He does with optics and silence what Yan Martel’s new novel seeks to do with words. Beatrice and Virgil, with its multiple vantage points, is a novel as much about the struggle to find the right words as it is about their meanings, words for the desperately difficult task, beset by taboos, which Martel embarks on knowing full well the risks.

Beatrice and Virgil has two central animal characters who died a long time ago and two human characters both called Henry. One is a failed author who dazzled the world with his last novel which, like Yann Martel’s extraordinary Life of Pi, sold trillions of copies, won the Booker and was translated into many languages.

This was, in retrospect anyway, no surprise. What could be more exotic and reassuring than the terrifying predicament of a Pondicherry zookeeper’s 16 yearold son bobbing in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat held safe by his love of God (Pi is a Hindu convert to both Christianity and Islam) and his empathy with animals. In the boat with him is a 450 pound Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, and for a while, until they are eaten, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg and a female orangutan.

With Faith and Science on board, the reader is secure, lulled by a seductive storyteller and fabulist. Yann Martel has a boundless imagination and an astonishing way with words, taking the novel where it has never been before. Life of Pi became beloved of book groups and ordinary readers everywhere.

But he must be a publisher’s nightmare, this Yann Martel, this author who made them bucket loads of money the first time round in 2001 and, for a young author, has taken rather a long time to complete this second book. In the meantime he has been a thorn in the side of Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, sending him every fortnight since March 2007 a book he should read. This admirable cultural activism has never been acknowledged by Harper – although President Obama, after reading a Life of Pi recently with his daughter, wrote him a perfect note – ‘a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of story-telling.’ Beatrice and Virgil is not a lovely book, nor does it have the simple trajectory of story-telling we crave from best-selling authors. Martel’s imagination is as rich as ever, but this is a bleak cold intellectual world, riddled with symbolism and anecdotes about deliberate and considered killing by human hand. The author’s quandaries, normally concealed from the reader, are revealed – the blockage in the brain, the knot which must be unravelled word by painful word.

Martel starts with the most commonplace of writerly predicaments – an idea which fails to take flight and will not until it is assumes a life of its own. Henry’s long-awaited next book was to be about the Holocaust, packaged as a ‘flip book’ bound so the reader could start at either end and read through to the middle then start over again, reversing the order or not at will, through lies to truth, through imagination to reason, through fact to fiction. Henry loved this friendly format, believing it to be inspired, certain it would shatter the taboo of making Holocaust fiction.

Instead his publishers invite him to a posh lunch where his editors, his agent, and an expert historian are gathered to reject the conceit of the flip book – a marketing nightmare, commercial suicide. The taboo is only tangentially addressed as each asks the crushing question, What is your book about? – which Henry, of course, cannot answer.

So, after five years work, with an unpublishable book and a failed idea on his hands, Henry abandons writing and decides to concentrate on life. He keeps busy doing pleasant things. He and his wife move house and have two children. He takes up music again, joins a respected amateur theatre group, acquires shares in a chocolateria, adopts a kitten and a puppy. He lives as if his days on this earth are numbered. But sometimes in the middle of the night he opens the file of his precious book and aches for the old creative joy through which the truth can be uncovered. Writing is understanding, a way to discover what he thinks.

One day a large envelope from an unknown source assumed to be a fan of the best seller arrives at the theatre. Inside is a little known story by Gustave Flaubert, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, about the routine killing of wild animals on a grand scale, plus a fragment of a play, clearly a work-in-progress, in which two characters named Beatrice and Virgil are tenderly discussing pears. Virgil knows what a pear looks like, how it tastes and smells, but Beatrice does not. In the envelope too is a note from someone also called Henry asking for help at an address in a dingy part of town unfamiliar to Henry, the stuck author.

This turns out to be Oktapi Taxidermy, a complete, one-stop taxidermy store, with tigers and reptiles, stuffed birds, colonies of tortoises and fish, and all the paraphernalia of the taxidermist’s craft, the sinks, the knives, the smells, the rolled up hides and piles of tusks, the horns, the skulls. Oktapi Taxidermy proclaims itself as employing ‘professional natural history preparators, masters in all the techniques and materials needed to build any habitat setting you might desire in which to display your mounted animal.’

The book’s two non-human characters in the taxidermy store are Virgil, a red howler monkey sitting lightly on the back of a donkey named Beatrice. As if listening intently to Virgil, Beatrice’s head is partly turned with one ear swiveled towards him – presumably the better to hear a description of the beauty of pears.

Henry the taxidermist, a grim remote figure, wants help with words. For a stalled writer infinitely curious about the world he has entered, this is a simple enough task. He eagerly sets about exploring the right adjectives to describe Virgil’s lustrous chestnut fur and long tail as dextrous as a hand. Much more problematic is how to describe the horrifying howl of the monkey recorded forty years before in the upper reaches of the Amazon jungle. At home Henry plays the old tape over and over, filling his head and his house with the distressing howling roar which barely hints at reality, ‘but ultimately there is only the thing itself, in its raw purity. Hearing is believing.’

Eventually it is revealed that the taxidermist is writing a play in two acts. ‘A 20th century Shirt’ is a dark allegory of a European country, written on the shape of a striped shirt which reminds Henry of the Holocaust. Everything reminds Henry of the Holocaust, his wife says furiously. But the taxidermist, when asked what his play is about, responds fiercely ‘It’s about them, the animals that are two-thirds dead, two thirds of all animals have been exterminated, wiped out forever.’

The taxidermist, a craftsman who renders dead animals suitable for the collections of ordinary people to embellish their lives, merely wanted ‘to see if something could be said once the irreplaceable had been done. That is why I became a taxidermist,’ he says, ‘to bear witness.’ Henry’s loathing of his alter ego grows. He understands why all the animals in the showroom are so still; it was dread in the presence of the taxidermist. The Flaubert short story, he now understands, offers redemption without remorse.

In the end all that remains is a bloodied and crumpled piece of paper which provides the clue for his first piece of fiction writing in years. Games for Gustav poses thirteen impossible questions, each as unthinkable as the last. ‘Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter’s head?’ The novel sometimes staggers under its weight of symbolism, showing all the signs of a writer’s struggle to bring into focus the compulsion to kill and the capacity to feel nothing – the abomination which Beatrice and Virgil call the Horrors, plural.

It’s structure is bizarre and exhausting, but probably the only one which would serve for Martel. He quotes large chunks of Flaubert, provides fragments of the taxidermist’s play, Henry’s attempts at definition. Gustave’s dreadful ‘novel’ at the end has its origins in the vast archive of the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to its elimination in 1943 after the Ghetto Uprising – Martel uses lens upon lens, the focus changing all the time.

There is no consolation. God is missing. Science is there only in the service of taxidermy. Beatrice and Virgil have been dead for thirty years. Genocide and species extermination require human agency. We invented them, and the deeper we face them the more inextricable our complicity becomes. And so we find ourselves precipitated into the land-mined territory of moral equivalence by a novel which will infuriate those who see anti-Semitism and obscenity in any attempt to unpack certain words and meanings, any attempt to confront and dismantle the taboo. Words are a central part of the problem, creating a shadow world, relentless, chilling, banal, fearful, a chronicle of human failure – a writer’s failure – a failure, which in the end, is inevitable and may be irreparable.

Beatrice and Virgil is a weird brave looping book which does not pull punches. I can’t stop thinking about it. It is remains to be seen if it too has what it takes to become the darling of book groups around the world. If it does, then Martel’s achievement will be even more remarkable than before – a sure sign that he has tapped into the depth of desire out there to grapple with the unspeakable horrors of our times.

Deep Listening – three novels by M. J. Hyland

MJ Hyland This is How, Text Publishing (2009) How the Light Gets In (2003), Carry me Down (2006)

I have women friends who say they cannot finish MJ Hyland because she cuts so close to the bone. The blind spots and casual cruelties of her families we can recognize, the unwitting neglect that only shows up when the damage is done. Our anxiety is that we have failed to hear the coded cry for help, have stood by and watched husbands, sons of damaged fathers, cut their sons down to size, that we’ve mothered too much or not enough.

In Hyland’s world where unconditional love is a dream of bliss and other kinds of love cannot be counted on, the consolations, such as they are, seem infinitesimal – but they are there. There are acts of kindness, understanding, even intervention – from a school teacher who applauds a child’s imagination, or an elderly staff officer who wants everyone to have a second chance, or a friend who writes that she believes in you – but other people can’t mend what is broken, they die, or go away into their own lives.

In her remarkably assured and critically acclaimed first novel, How the Light Gets in (2003), the narrator is a clever sixteen year old girl who writes dazzling letters and seeks the meanings of words. Lou Connor is an Australian exchange student given into the charge of a picture-book perfect American family so unlike her own foul-mouthed mob in the housing commission flat in Sydney that she has to make herself up with lies. For Lou ‘parents’ and ‘family’ are slippery concepts which she can’t get a grip on.

Her host family is well-meaning, determined to love Lou for the year she is with them unaware that she intends never to go home and to find herself a place where she ‘could be treated with the same kind of unreserved love dished out by intelligent and warm parents to a beautiful first child’. Instead she finds herself in a household stuffed with righteousness and dented morals, where the fifteen year old son masturbates against her in the dark, the thirteen year old daughter dobs her for smoking and drinking gin, and the awful host mother, Margaret, annihilates the girl with her no nonsense nakedness and the kind of open-heartedness which is no such thing.

Only Henry, the almost albino host father, has an inkling of Lou’s complexity and ‘sheer humanity’ – but can’t or won’t intervene to save her when her drinking and occasional drug-taking land her in bleak ’secure accommodation’ run by US Immigration. Here Lou has her one experience of the kind of love she craves with Lishny, another clever sixteen year old, who is about to be taken into police custody for child murder. At what they know will be their only time together, the two sit on the floor eating chocolate cake and talking about books then shut their eyes and fantasise about a big bed in an uncle’s mansion where they will fall asleep, wake up holding each other, as though they have done this for a very long time.

Carry Me Down appeared three years later, was shortlisted for the Booker, and attracted great praise and more comparisons – with Salinger and Faulkner and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time. This time Hyland takes us inside the head of pubescent eleven year old John Egan, a gangly young giant whose only way of containing his anxieties as he blunders against his parent’s disintegrating marriage is to believe himself to be a human lie detector bound for the pages of the Guiness Book of Records.

The one moment of real equanimity in the novel happens on the first page. John is sitting with his parents at the kitchen table. It is a dark Sunday in winter. ‘The pantry is full. From time to time we stop reading and talk. It is a good mood, as though we are one person reading one book – not three people apart and alone. These kinds of days are the perfect ones.’

But that day ends with the first lie. His father, to see what the boy is made of, bashes his half-drowned kittens against the edge of the bath, while his son watches and vomits. His father denies he feels anything but John knows he is lying.

The flattened prose carries all the horror and sadness of an emotionally inept family but we are no more able than John, the human lie detector, to apportion blame, or understand what is really going, or take comfort in familiar therapeutic constructs. The family and his school are worried by the boy’s growth spurts and early puberty and try to get him to talk about what is happening to him ‘down below’. John can’t, of course, but nor can anyone else. This is sixties working-class Ireland, with gangs on the prowl and the poor in overcrowded high rise flats. Catholicism doesn’t help. The schoolmaster who punishes a bully by holding her face in a fire-bucket until she wets her pants is one of the few people perceptive enough to know something of John’s suffering.

Contemporary stereotypes of abuse are useless. This is a family that reads books and makes jokes and cuddles and strokes each other’s hair. John loves his mother and watches her all the time. She doesn’t repulse him when he leans across the table to touch her tongue. ‘Your tongue is cold,’ says John. ‘A strange pair,’ says his father watching them.

With the father withdrawing into his own misery and deceit, the boy shares his mother’s bed, trying to protect her from the half truths and obfuscations that are crowding in on them, hating her torn nightdress, her grey and greasy hair, wanting to save her, to hear her breath, to help her to sleep.

‘Come and sit with me,’ she says. ‘I feel shattered. I’m in pieces.’ She lies on her back. I get on the bed and lie next to her. She is quiet and her breathing is soft.’

Hyland is an astonishing writer who has honed her skills through three novels almost to a vanishing point. There is an absence of writerliness and detectable narrative manipulations. No masterly unravelling of traumatic contingencies in the manner of Ian McEwan, no dazzling riffs on the world outside the window, just spare prose in the voices of her damaged souls, inarticulate, needy, often obtuse, sometimes excruciatingly self aware.

Re-reading all three novels in chronological order, there is a progression and a trajectory – a steady moving beyond story-telling to what I can only call a state of deep listening, like love. Only Alice Munro does something similar to MJ Hyland, it seems to me, effortlessly conjuring closed worlds through revelatory detail and perfect pitch, the all-knowing creator never there on the page. Even the titles of her novels, like sky writing, are perfect for the moment of recognition they give you before they dissolve into air.

Her new book, This is how, is pared to the bone, relentless, heart-breaking – an immersion in another human being’s life that feels like a gift.

Patrick Oxtoby, an awkward and mildly dysfunctional young motor mechanic, plagued by ‘social nerves’, lies to protect himself from scrutiny, though people, especially women, like him better when he doesn’t. His girlfriend has ditched him because he can’t express his emotions. ‘The thing is I didn’t have that many’ and he’d believed they were happy. ‘She slept behind me with her hand on my chest, and I thought we would always sleep like this. She said she liked it.’

Patrick leaves his claustrophobic home and the mockery of the father, ‘whose nipples show through his white work shirt’, who always encouraged him one minute and teased him the next. It’s not as if Patrick doesn’t love his mother, not as if she doesn’t love him, her youngest son ‘who came along rather unexpectedly seven years after two miscarriages, but not unwelcome, of course not unwelcome’. But only his grandmother opened her arms to the boy when he discovered the bliss of dismantling and reassembling his bike: ‘Dear Patrick, you have found the thing you love to do’. Two weeks later she drops dead and his rage and the pains in his shoulders begin.

By moving into a room in a seaside boarding house with home-cooked meals and a warm-hearted landlady, and his red toolkit safely stashed under his bed, he plans a new life. The toolkit, with its ball peen hammer, its adjustable spanner, socket set, pliers and all the rest of it, lovingly assembled over five years, is pivotal, embodying his family’s disappointment that their son ‘isn’t using his brains’ and his pride in his considerable skills as a motor mechanic.

But his ease is fragile and evaporates when his mother, in ‘her dress like a bus seat cover, the same ugly thing she wears all year’, arrives at the boarding house to make sure he is all right. He tries to fob her off and get her out of the place but he knows ‘she is thinking her son’s a liar when she’s gone and provoked the lie in the first place’. The pains in his shoulder come back.

‘I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my toolkit and put a pillow on the floor and put a towel over it and bash good and hard. And I count: one fucking stupid bitch, two fucking stupid bitch, three fucking stupid bitch, four fucking stupid bitch.’ Patrick is left binge-drinking and working part time at a local garage fixing fancy cars, desperate for a girl. He is tormented by sounds of rutting through the wall and the suspicion that the other lodger with the posh voice and the springy head of hair is moving in on every woman he fancies. His anxiety mounts when the toolkit is left behind in a pub, and when he suspects his room has been entered by his mocking neighbour and his tools plundered.

Patrick doesn’t mean to do what happens next and understands it only as a mistake. There is no remorse except for himself and his ruined life. ‘My mind played hardly any part, but my body acted and as far as the law is concerned, my body might as well be all that I am.’ He returns to his home town through streets that he walked down two weeks before to buy a mechanics magazine. Everything makes him think of something he can never have again. His horrified parents fail him as he knew they would but he can’t help reaching out to them. All he knows is that he wants his life now more than he had ever wanted it. ‘I want another go.’

This is how has a narrative structure as plain as a keystone arch. Taken from a room full of light and the smell of the sea, Patrick will start his next go at life among men even more damaged than he is, with the same yearnings for touch and warmth and shared breath.

A psychologist bends the rules at his last review and lets him hold her ‘really warm and really very close, and the mood of it being wrapped around her, it’s a mood and a feeling so great I want to bawl.’ He is drawn to a man who loves his ficus plant, measuring its growth and watering it tenderly. ‘It’s probably not love but I care what happens to it. You’ve got to care for something.’

Patrick will find his life shrinking to a size that suits him better and even in this dark place there will be moments of almost joy and almost love.

This is How secures MJ Hyland’s place amongst the very best writers of fiction in the English language today.

Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe

When nineteen year old Stella Miles Franklin sent Henry Lawson the manuscript of My Brilliant Career, he recognized ‘a big thing’ – an Australian Story of an African Farm, he told George Robertson of Angus and Robertson. Olive Schreiner’s autobiographical novel had been an international sensation nearly twenty years earlier, and the Australian publisher still hoped for a home grown version. But Robertson procrastinated, preferring more ‘happy sentimentality’ in his native literature. My Brilliant Career was anything but sentimental. The story of a girl growing up on a failed selection in an imaginary Possum Gully near Goulburn, NSW, Sybylla chooses a career over marriage to an eminently suitable man who loves her and she him, in her Miles Franklin-ish way.

Blackwood of Edinburgh published the book in 1901 but cut the ‘anti-imperial sentiments’, without the permission of its ‘little firebrand author’ or of Lawson, who was keeping an eye on his protégée and on publication. British reviews were enthusiastic as if a hitherto unknown species of platypus had been sighted, but The Times was ‘incredulous that a girl in Sybylla’s circumstances could turn her back on wealth and happiness’. Australian reaction was slow and carping, the boundaries between autobiography and fiction too blurred for comfort, the author reprimanded for biting off more than she could chew. But A.G. Stephens of the Bulletin’s Red Page recognized the book’s authentic voice, declaring it the very first genuine Australian novel, full of sunlight. Stella Miles Franklin must have thought she was on her way, wherever that might lead.

But thirty years on it was still tough going and the way unclear. At a 1931 exhibition of Australian books in London, Miles Franklin spotted an old copy of My Brilliant Career, providing atmosphere like a bunch of gumnuts, in the display case of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson’s celebrated trilogy. Her chagrin can be imagined, but, typically, Miles Franklin kept her irritation to herself.

My Brilliant Career had been out of print for many years. Richardson had just been awarded the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for the Best Australian Novel and British and American book clubs had taken the trilogy up in unheard of quantities. The last volume, Ultima Thule, had been proclaimed a work of genius by the London Observer.

Miles Franklin disagreed profoundly, finding Richardson’s trilogy ‘European, internationalist, not of the soil’. Henry Handel Richardson did not care for Miles Franklin’s work either – recognizing the symptoms of a writer chasing fashionable genres. Both women were writing historical fiction centred on Australia, but under very different conditions. Richardson had few close friends and an intense dislike of public life. She was economically secure with a devoted husband who sharpened her pencils. ‘To write is her joy’, said critic Nettie Palmer who admired them both. Miles Franklin had no husband, probably no lovers, but a great talent for friendship as her a massive correspondence attests. She worried about money always. Only in later life did rents on a couple of shops left her by her mother supplement her meagre royalty cheques.

Writing was rarely a joy for Miles Franklin. Perhaps it was when the little bush girl was dashing off her stories in the local vernacular. Maybe occasionally during her nine years of feminist activism at the Chicago Branch of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America when her articles were regularly appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald. But her diaries record dark times and deep despair as she struggled to write stories set in Chicago. She then moved to London where she would live for the next sixteen years, mixing with the liberal intelligentsia and expatriate writers, working for the dreary National Housing and Town Planning Council. Outlets for her journalism dried up but always Miles Franklin kept writing her novels and plays, revising and resubmitting, rejected again and again by the theatre and publishing worlds only cautiously emerging from the aftermath of war and depression.

Miles Franklin, taught not to whine, picked herself up and got on with it, ‘donning armour to cope with life’s disappointments’. This may partly explain her decision, in the mid 1920s, to put on the mask of Brent of Bin Bin, an amiable older man, a pseudonym revealed only to Mary Fullerton, a close friend. Read in England in 1924, Fullerton’s Bark House Days, her reminiscences of a Gippsland childhood, were a revelation for Miles Franklin, the catalyst, Jill Roe suggests, for her later formulation of an Australian national literature. ‘Can it mean so much to outsiders as it does to us whose mother tongue is in every syllable?’

Depressed and unwell in her late forties, Miles Franklin resigned her job and bought herself ‘a nice little Corona typewriter’ and began work on an epic novel. But now she was writing in the well-modulated but Australian voice of a squatter who declared himself interested in making ‘a record of the lives of people in an unworked part of the globe, units of a master race in our day, units of a great Empire’. Up the Country, finished in seven months, was knocked back several times before Blackwood agreed to publish what would become an historical sequence of six novels, ‘distinctively Australian’. Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga may have been the model. From then on, Miles Franklin seems to have regarded publication under her own name as secondary to the greater task, the imperial project she set herself as Brent as Bin Bin, her ‘most important literary endeavour since My Brilliant Career’. Keeping the secret of Brent’s identity required elaborate postal and secretarial arrangements and the deception of close friends, but it gave Miles Franklin considerable freedoms and presumably satisfaction – and seems to have become as much a persona as pseudonym.

As Brent, she wrote to Sir Otto Neimeyer, the Bank of England’s adviser to the Australian government, sending him the recently published Back to Bool Bool hoping that it would help in a study of ‘the cross-currents at work in our Empire’. As Brent, she brought the book to the attention of Lord Beaverbrook as a potent force for drawing the Empire together. She had no qualms about comparing Brent’s work favourably with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Miles Franklin, social activist and writer, may have found a mask which liberated her.

Roe chooses not to probe the Brent persona too deeply, and Miles Franklin, who suspected psychologising, would have approved. She was even more scathing about the ‘new sexology’, the ‘great phallic renaissance’ for which she blamed Freud and his ‘dull and badly written’ studies. By urging women to behave like men instead of vice versa, the pre-war feminist challenge to the double standard was fatally undermined, she believed. Chastity was now mocked, and any hope of releasing women from the drudgery and danger of too many pregnancies was set back decades. Roe is illuminating on Miles Franklin’ attitudes to sex and intimacy with men, documenting but not speculating, backing off where Miles Franklin would have drawn the line.

Roe also chooses not to analyse the eugenically-based social and racial theories Miles Franklin’ seems to have absorbed and which informed her prescriptions for the New World. Her attitudes were those of the vast majority of the pioneer generation and remained common in Australia before Nuremberg, framing what Miles Franklin saw on her return to Sydney in 1933. After nearly a quarter of a century away, she at first hated ‘all the horrible old places and their aboriginal lack of progress’ but soon the beauty of the landscape moved her and she knew herself to be ‘indelibly, dyed in the wool ineradicably Australian’.

But in 1940, in a letter to anti-fascist Nettie Palmer, Miles Franklin gives vent to her feelings of isolation and despair over the war, ‘quibbling’, she tells Palmer, ‘about rich Jews and being sick of the paranoid slaughter of all the blue-eyed, fair-haired youth, German or British, and of the Islamic and Mongol hordes breeding and breeding.’ Her Liberal imperial mission was opposed to war, emphasised mutual aid between the women of the Empire and prided itself as being free of class prejudice – but it was also founded in a conviction that a White Australia was essential, as, presumably, were her notions of a native literature. Even European migration after world war two, from countries with high birth rates, was regarded by Miles Franklin as undesirable.

Jill Roe’s mighty biography of a woman who was pivotal to the culture during a formative period of Australian literary life is meticulous and welcome. Future researchers will bless her for the clarity of her narration and the copious documentation of the vast Franklin archive. A labour of love, it must have been, requiring such empathy and scholarship, that the biographer’s voice is at times as reticent as Miles Franklin’ own. Occasionally they are indistinguishable. Both describe time writing at the desk as ‘pottering’ – a Franklin-ish understatement for what often makes painful reading. ‘I can’t go on indefinitely without fruition,’ Miles Franklin wrote in her diary after another round of disappointments, but always she did, buttressed first by elderly patrons and then by beloved friends who encouraged and praised her.

She seems to have had no professional advice when she most needed it, no one to find a way to tell her the truth – that her plays were pedestrian and fiction uneven, creaking under the strain of being forced into the popular moulds which were then selling. Soon after My Brilliant Career was published she worked incognito as a maid in Melbourne then studied the ‘servant problem’ for a while in Chicago planning to write exposės. In a later era, Miles Franklin may have found a niche as a journalist or social critic.

As she aged, Miles Franklin believed that her life had been a failure, her writing not good enough. Perhaps if she had written less and published under her own name her fiction might have lasted – but her real legacy is to the culture. Miles Franklin worked prodigiously to refine the institutions needed to sustain an authentic literature, to nourish writing which presented Australia to the world from the inside out.

Australian literary life then was provincial and often malicious. Publishing was riddled with black-holes, constrained by the fixed positions of Empire and traditional copyright arrangements. She tolerated the tedium of committee work, mediating where she could the ideologically riven Fellowship of Australian Writers. She felt patronised by the emerging scholarly establishment in Australian literature, knowing herself to be under-educated. But, not trusting their ability to spot ‘the real thing’, she applied herself to broadcasting, lecturing and lobbying to establish the meaning, as she saw it, of a native-grown literature. While her harsh and undermining mother was alive, the modest house in Grey Street, Carlton, NSW had been a place from which she had to escape. But for the last sixteen years of her life, her ‘homestead in the suburbs’, with its vegetable garden and its chooks, its waratah cup for special guests, its piles of manuscripts and drawers full of letters, was her refuge and a place of pilgrimage for several generations of writers. Here, she began, again in secret, to salt away what would become a substantial legacy for fellow writers. Who knew better the restraints and frustrations of an underdeveloped literary culture, or that writers’ prizes make a difference?

Miles Franklin was a vain old bird who loved hats and longed to be painted for the Archibald by William Dargie but worried she’d be given a scraggy neck like the portrait of artist Joshua Smith. She turned down an OBE in 1937 at least partly because fellow writer Mary Gilmore had been made a Dame. She knew she was a national icon and would have been gratified that the prize which bore her name became Australia’s foremost literary award and the only one noticed abroad. The furious disputes which make headlines from time to time about the terms of her will would have been music to her ears, her definition of ‘authentically Australian’ always a work in progress.

Who is Alex Miller?

‘Art cannot do the conceptual work we need if we are to understand ourselves,’ philosopher Rai Gaita said on air recently, arguing that moral clarity was best achieved by philosophical thinking. Hearing him speak of the danger of lucidity losing out to the seductions of literature, I wanted to ask if he had read Alex Miller.

I suspect that, for Miller, the search for moral clarity is something like the terrible climb up the escarpment in the Expedition Ranges in his latest novel, Landscape of Farewell. Two old and damaged men, one a German professor and the other an Aboriginal leader, exhilarated by their quest but full of self doubt and fearful of what they will find, clamber up ridge after ridge in the stone country seeking a sacred cave. And because fact and fiction are refracted through art and the play of imagination, we are not simply observing their struggle from the plain below.

‘As a novelist, I have been not so much a liar as a re-arranger of facts,’ writes Miller in a recent author’s note in a reissue of The Tivington Nott. ‘The purely imaginary has never interested me as much as the actualities of our daily lives, and it is of these that I have written …not autobiography in the conventional sense, it is nevertheless deeply self-revealing of its author.’ This is far from an invitation to the reader to puzzle over mobius strips of multiple fictions, but Miller places his concerns and himself at the centre of his work.

The author of eight novels, Alex Miller is regularly proclaimed one of our best writers, showered with accolades and adjectives, awarded major prizes such as two Miles Franklins, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and a host of others. Yet Who is Alex Miller? asked an exceptionally well-read London friend recently. We are not good at exporting our own unless they slot neatly into the international entertainment culture nor at claiming for them a place alongside some of the finest writers of the day. Miller belongs, it seems to me, with Grass, Kadare and Coetzee.

In real life Miller came to Australia in 1953. He was 16, alone, a ten-pound Pom, who headed up north to the cattle stations of the Central Highlands of Queensland, and found work as an itinerant stockman. His first novel, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain, conveys the impact of the landscape and perhaps the psychological struggles the isolated young man experienced. Here he first heard the story of the 1861 Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, pivotal in Landscape of Farewell, when nineteen white settlers on a neighbouring station were suddenly set upon by local Aborigines and murdered.

Miller has returned to the Central Highlands in three novels to date, its meanings becoming ever more insistent and universal as he probes the wounds in the human psyche, ‘the terrible thing that has been set free amongst [men] like a pestilience and will devour their souls’.

The author-narrator of his second novel, The Tivington Nott, is a young labourer on a farm in Somerset on the border of Exmoor with a writer’s eye and ear and the courage to stand up to his first employer, a ruddy-faced manipulative farmer who he refuses to call Master. Boss, yes but Master with its rural baggage of subservience sticks in his craw.

Here men have hunted wild deer since prehistoric times and especially those aberrant stags without antlers called notts. One day in the woods, the boy happens upon an old nott wallowing in black peaty mud and barking his warning.

‘The whole darkening combe around me filling and echoing with his deep bellowing, low, archaic and malicious towards men and hounds and horses, tailing off into a bolking and rattling in his throat.’

The boy from London knows nothing about harvesting or horses or hunting but discovers in himself a sensitivity to wildness which creatures detect and adults resent. He knows about letting creatures be, about waiting and listening until he is in tune with them.

So it is with art.

‘It always begins with a question. A doubt. And then you’re off, in search of yourself, and it’s not long before you come upon these strange tracks and you ask yourself what kind of creature would have made tracks like these. And you go in search of this elusive creature. And that’s what you have to learn.’

For Miller art is the blank screen of the self on to which his most rigorous thinking can be projected. Here the ambiguities at the core of the relationship between subject and artist are played out. In two sensuous and acutely-observed novels, The Sitters and Prochownik’s Dream, his artists are painters of portraits. In The Sitter, a painter, established and unencumbered except by memory, encounters a woman who intrigues him enough to paint but he succeeds only in painting her absence, a projection of himself. Toni Prochownik finds his way back into his identity and his best work after his father dies by painting portraits of families which shatter his own.

‘He should have followed her at once and comforted her. But he did not move…Then he turned from the doorway and examined the bizarre fiction of himself…a young man’s body with the head of a grieving monster. The fascination of the paradox. The artists in another world. Himself. It was the most important thing he had ever done.’

Always there are silences, disappointed fathers, siblings who put vast distances between each other, who don’t write letters or find words for their memories until too late. People who have to be dead before thoughts of them can surface. Fathers and sons, needing to avenge themselves, set out to hurt each other. At times so close to the bone does he go that you want him to stop.

The Ancestor Game opens in a wintery field in Dorset, after the death of the father. The writer-narrator has returned from Australia for publication of his first novel hoping for reconciliation with the country of his birth. The book he’d once sent his father about Nolan’s paintings has never been opened, discarded as ‘a paen to brutal modernism from across the world’. Later the son hears through the wall his mother playing ‘Dance a Cachuca’ and imagines her dancing in the lamplight in her nightdress, thin red hair flying, ‘celebrating her liberation from the onerous uncertainties of her Scottish husband and her Australian son’.

Miller’s audacity, his oblivion to contemporary fashions in fiction writing, if that is what it is, is unusual. Even in The Ancestor Game – the most post-modern of his novels with its layered text within text – he deftly manages his trans-national histories of displacement and journeying, embedded myths of ancestry and the spirit world by holding the reader in a spell-binding narrative of interconnectedness, back and forth through Chiang Kai Shek’s China and19th century Melbourne’s Coppin Grove and the present, the whole revealed through memory and journals and books of ancestors and, above all, the workings of fate.

Conditions of Faith was triggered by a brief journal left him by his mother which she’d written as a young woman ‘ardently in search of a reason for living’. Perhaps the Emily who swims out to sea at the start of the novel, hoping the man she will soon marry will swim out to her meet her, is the same red-headed mother who danced in the lamplight in The Ancestor Game. Here she is caught in web of marriage and motherhood in the 1920s, her husband a decent man who loves her without comprehension.

The novel has an old-fashioned pace entirely appropriate to the world of middle-class women between the wars. Dawns break and the light changes. Waiters are summoned and orders taken, cigarettes are lit and smoked, eggs are broken against the rims of bowls, copper pans in kitchens gleam, babies are born and women’s lives are restricted.

When Emily, pregnant and desperate in Tunisia, trying to escape the curious eyes of Arab workmen on an archaeological dig, flees down into the darkness of a stone vault, she stumbles over a butchered goat, its pile of guts covered in flies. The stinking cell, she later discovers, was where in the second century AD Vibia Perpetua, a young married woman condemned to the beasts before a baying crowd in the arena, relinquished her child through the bars of her cage and wrote of her incarceration. Emily through Perpetua will find the monstrous courage to break ‘the chain by which mothers are compelled’. Miller’s range is astonishing.

Journey to the Stone Country, which should be read before Landscape of Farewell, is perhaps Miller’s masterpiece. It is also, fittingly, the least explicated, as if he, as Author, light in the saddle, has shed a skin or two of European-ness as he returns to the cattle country. Here is the deserted station of the Bigges who, with their books and piano and heavy furniture from the Northern Hemisphere, believed they were founding a dynasty and a whole new civilization in an empty land – and who, when they found the land inhabited, went out at night and killed people then tried to tame their children by dressing them as ladies maids and stockmen.

Miller writes without sentimentality of the terrible complexity of bridging a divide that resists the simplifications of ideology and responds only to love and the passage of time. ‘You’ll know where you are going when you get there,’ Grandma Rennie used to say to Bo of the Jangga tribe who these days rolls his Drum and drives his white Pajero across the land where his Old People once placed their sacred stones, and where, as a young man, he mustered scrubber bulls with a mob of quiet cattle to coach them along.

Landscape of Farewell revisits the country of the Jangga people and of Miller’s youth but begins in another damaged place. An elderly scholar in Hamburg delivers a shoddy address on the topic of The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre in Human Society from the Earliest Times to the Present. His beloved wife has just died and the unexamined shadow of the crimes of his father’s generation hangs over him. Max Otto’s life is almost over but at the close of his empty address a fierce young Aboriginal professor challenges him.

‘How can this man presume to speak of massacre,’ she asked the enthralled gathering, ‘and not speak of my people?’ She closed her appeal with a last enveloping, flinging gesture, both arms raised in my direction, as if she cast me and the whole tribe of old men to which I belonged from her presence, and from the presence of all serious intellectual endeavour, forever and ever, amen – or for even longer, if her curse would but endure.’

Instead he embarks at her insistence on a journey to the heart of the stone country where he stays with her Uncle Dougald in his fibro shack. Here with his dogs, a goat and chickens, Dougald spends his days steering his people through the thickets of the funding bureaucracy. The two old men become friends across the immense divide of their experiences. In one of Miller’s riskiest scenes, perhaps symbolising the helplessness of old men to rectify the actions of the young, Max Otto in slippers and pyjamas in the middle of the night attempts to release the carcass of a goat which is hanging suspended from a branch on a cliff face. Miller, at the peak of his powers, does not falter.

After this, Dougald entrusts the historian with writing the story of his great-grandfather, Gnapun, who, as a young warrior led his people in a slaughter of Europeans. Otto, writing as Gnapun, describes a dream before the massacre begins where he enters the body of the dying missionary and comprehends his passion for creating a New Jerusalem ruled by the Book and not by the gun. ‘This is the blessed country of our Lord,’ he says to his followers, oblivious to the fact that they have fenced their garden with the sacred stones of Gnapun’s people. The massacre is inevitable. The retribution will continue for countless generations. The land will never be returned. The sacred stones have forever lost their meanings.

Massacre is the blockage in the Australian imagination, in our sense of ourselves in this place, and the wounds are very deep. Miller is essential reading.