Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books


Cover of Wordlines

Cover of Wordlines

The published introduction can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat format here .


a selection of recent Australian writing

I returned to Australia not long ago after a three-year absence, much of it spent working and writing in the Middle East. This time the feeling of dislocation and disorientation lasted for months. I knew I’d brought it on myself, the price to be paid for staying away too long and becoming too engrossed in where I landed – in Amman where the azans from the mosque five times a day are almost drowned out by the roar of the planes flying into Iraq from a nearby airbase.

Australia feels a very long way off.

Perhaps it was At first I tried to keep tabs on what was happening in writing and publishing at home and writer friends occasionally emailed work-in-progress. I downloaded the Book Show and Late Night Live, The Australian’s Literary Review and copies of Meanjin arrived in my mailbox in the wall of the compound.  But my reading was more and more about the region I was in – its pluralism, the clotted history and layers of identity politics made worse by 9/11. The Crusades seen from the other side seemed less an implacable confrontation between Muslims and Christians and more a misreading of history, one still playing out.

There are few books published any more but the internet has taken their place. Story-telling sites and literary blogs are common, where writers critique each other’s work, and political satire manages to stay one step ahead of the government censors. Passionate conversations about books and writing still happen, as they always have, sometimes in surprising places. I love English literature, murmured a young man in an Amman hotel who was cutting my hair. He opened a drawer where a tattered copy of Middlemarch lay among the brushes and rollers.

The only Australian book I was ever asked about was Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love and then so often that I started to feel personally responsible for its distortions and errors. Khouri’s fake settings and her story of an honour killing in Jordan that didn’t happen was highly offensive. Women can and often do live modern lives, wearing the hijab and long coat perhaps only to visit their village. Repressive cultural practices still curtail the lives of many women but work is being done to support them. The members of the Women’s Commission, who quizzed me over lunch one day, were rightly outraged.

I expected to find it difficult to return but it was worse. All I could see was shocking affluence, food fetishism and the politics of spin.  I felt adrift in the wrong place and getting my bearings back was essential. So the reading I was asked to do for the 2009 Melbourne Prize and the suggestion by Julia Taylor that I compile some annual anthologies of recent writing for Five Mile Press came when I most needed it. Wordlines is a selection from that reading time, idiosyncratic and personal, my biases and enthusiasms on display.

I started by seeking writing that that was international, engaged, political – and was not expecting to find very much of it. It didn’t take long to realise I was quite wrong.

There is a good deal of writing here now that is international. Some of it is political and all of it is engaged. There are new writers, of course, and books of great force and substance. Nam Le has an astonishing ability to take us into the heads of people in extremis all over the world so we share their moral universe. Evelyn Juers has taken biographical writing to a new level. And I was fortunate to read two powerful new novels in draft: Anna Funder is writing about the group of German anarchists around Ernst Toller and their frustrated attempts to alert the world to the rise of Nazism; and Drusilla Modjeska’s untitled novel about identity and race is set among the bureaucracy and corruption and complexities of contemporary Papua New Guinea. And with the quivering antennae peculiar to recent returnees, I fancied I caught more than a glimpse of a distinctive combination of morality and sensibility in writers such as Joan London and Cate Kennedy, and many others, some of whom were quite new to me, in a range of voices and styles unique to this place.

Perhaps, where distance from the rest of the world is a fact of life, it carries its own freedoms and allows our own kind of plain speaking to emerge. Immigrant cultures have long celebrated story and testimony and now a kind of deep texture to our literature is emerging. This is writing a world away from the mid nineties when genre fiction – often with rather thin exotic settings – was all the go, and being ‘Australian’ was reduced to simplistic categories to fit criteria for funding and prizes. The low point was reached when Grand Days, Frank Moorhouse’s first great League of Nations novel, was deemed ‘not sufficiently Australian’ for the Miles Franklin. The following year a sentimental multiculturalism caused judges of the Vogel, the Australian Literary Society and the Miles Franklin, as well as an assortment of critics to fall for Helen Demidenko’s fake ethnicity and to celebrate her clumsy racism as transgressive. Nowadays writers are drilling down deeper for their material within a literary environment where the restraints of convention and scholarly orthodoxies sit more lightly than they do in older cultures.

Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile: the Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann is an extraordinary collective biography about well-known refugees from fascism in the 30s and 40s. Juers slips back and forth in a kind of shimmering pointillism across the fine line between fiction and fact, her imagination refracted through a huge range of sources and cast of characters.

Sophie Cunningham, in a moving extract from her forthcoming novel about Leonard Woolf, has developed her own sure-footed form of biographical fiction. Leonard is Virginia’s mooring, here trying to feed her with trembling hands during one of her breakdowns, Virginia resisting this intrusiveness…. Both of them are locked in a marriage neither fully comprehend but would never give up.

Many writers are inhabiting uneasy places, where certainties tremble. In the opening chapter of Joan London’s The Good Parents, eighteen-year-old Maya, away from home for the first time, is seduced by her employer, one Maynard Flynn, on a mattress on the floor of his seedy Melbourne office. Maya falls in love. He can’t believe his luck. Her parents are about to arrive.

Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘The Bliss of Arrival’, is work-in-progress from her new novel about three generations in postcolonial PNG.  Jericho attempts to persuade his beloved Bili to leave her legal work for an environmental NGO and return with him to England where he feels less dislocated as a hapkaus Õmie man brought down from the mountain as a child than he does in Port Morseby. We are both. We could move between Jericho says, but he knows if you look too long into a woman’s eyes, she’ll take your soul.

Cate Kennedy seems to me to be getting better and better. In her story, ‘Tender’, she has perfected the art of straight-talking, taking things down to their essentials, the husband at the sink, awkward, loving, full of dread, the mother stilling her fear of the black shadow on the breast scan by toiling away late at night to make a magical world in a cardboard box for a child to take to school.

Rod Jones and Carmel Bird’s new stories were written for this collection. Jones doesn’t miss a beat in his glimpse of a marriage at the end of its tether, the dining-room set up for guests they’ll never have. Husband and wife are locked in their separate terrors – his of a comet crashing into Jupiter which he watches on television, hers that she no longer loves him.

Carmel Bird’s comic imagination is always finely poised, acerbic and slightly sinister. ‘No Thro’ Road’ signposts a well-connected cul-de-sac where boats aren’t rocked and the men and women who had mingled with each other in tree huts and at parties long ago now watch their children and grandchildren mingle pleasantly in Paris.

Alex Miller’s latest novel Love Song is deceptively simple and rich with allegory. In this extract, a beautiful Tunisian living in Paris, despairing that her husband cannot give her a child, resorts to the ancient solution of choosing another man to impregnate her – a man who falls to his knees and weeps afterwards.  Years later, her story will be related by her husband to Ken, an aging writer, in order that it be known.

These are writers looking from the inside out, engaging with the rest of the world and reflecting on their own with more sophistication than even just a decade ago.  What can be written ‘about’ here has altered. The easy recourse to foreign settings and interesting encounters seems to have been transformed into a rich connectedness and lightly worn shifting identities.

Tom Cho’s outlandish fictions about slithering between labels and meanings, are hilarious and adroit. There’s a grandmother who answers to the name of Bruce, an Uncle Wang who morphs into having a bi-directional interface between his central nervous system and his old computer, and Tom  himself who wants his Chinese name changed from I will skip and pick clover from lush fields to Marlon Brando.

Abigail Ulman, Paul Mitchell, Amra Pajaric and Tom Cho are writers I hadn’t read before and am very glad I have. Each is distinctive and utterly grounded. Ulman’s assured ‘Chagall’s Wife’ first caught my eye in Meanjin – a gripping story about a male schoolteacher caught in the headlights of a fourteen year old girl’s knowledge of her sexual power. For Mitchell the colloquial and the local provide the story’s texture and meaning – about loneliness, set in the bleak surrounds of a service station on the Hume Highway, where the trucks power south to where the girls are. Pajalic’s The Good Daughter was awarded the people’s choice in the Melbourne Prize, a sharp portrait of the Bosnian Muslim community through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Sabiya, seen in this extract dressed modestly in her mother’s clothes in an attempt to placate her orthodox grandfather.

In some ways, the trajectory of this selection and perhaps of contemporary Australian writing at this time is the long looping thread that runs from Gerald Murnane to Nam Le, two writers who recently won last year’s Melbourne Prizes for Literature. Le’s remarkable story ‘Cartagena’ takes place in the barrios of Medellín inside the head of a hit man who has fourteen years and two months and killed fourteen people for certain, perhaps another two. He is now sent to kill a man he knows, an almost friend, a man who is different, who does not think only of himself, who alone talks about happiness and honour – even about politics – about a future unconnected to money. There is no way back, they know, only a fantasy of a safe place, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, where the sun comes up in a slow-motion explosion like in the movies… and where the girls are taller and whiter and have beautiful teeth and can talk about real things.

Murnane resists categories.  In prose pared to somewhere beneath the bone, he inhabits a universe entirely his own. ‘Australian’ is not the word for it even though a large part of the brilliance of this essay lies in it being centred in the small world of the 1940s – the Bendigo sleep-out, the altar boy chanting the Latin Nicene Creed for the rhythm which conjures in his mind’s eye images of horseracing, a rhythm which will lead inexorably to the man in this middle age teaching himself the Hungarian language in order to recite to members of the Hungarian community the great ‘Ode to the Hungarian Language’ by Gyorgy Faludy. This is entirely fitting, even pre-destined, reality becomes metaphor, ordinariness becomes extraordinary.

How words work, how the best of them encapsulate our time and our place and our sense of ourselves in that space is subjective and too slippery to try to pin down – but for me, fully imagined writing creates threads of thought, wordlines that hold us, connect us, and bring us home.

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.