Who is Alex Miller?

Only late in her life did my mother tell me about finding skulls in the sand on Brunie Island in Tasmania as a child. And how her elderly friend near the South Australian border whispered about finding bags of ears on the back verandah of her family’s magnificent homestead when she was a girl before WW1 and watching her father distribute poisoned flour to the people camped by the Murray. Not far from the site of the Faithfull’s Creek massacre in Central Victoria my Gaelic-speaking great-great grandfather used bullocks to clear the land on his precious selection. Did he use guns? Probably.

One of Australia’s most ardent exterminators is celebrated in stone in small country towns all over East Gippsland. Once hailed by the Australian Presbyterian Church as our greatest Presbyterian, explorer, pioneer, Member of the Legislative Council of Victoria, Angus McMillan was responsible with a band of fellow Scottish settlers for at least fourteen separate massacres of Aboriginal people. Dubbing themselves ‘the Highland Brigade’; they rode out after dinner full of whisky and bloodlust to the camps of the Kurnai and slaughtered and burnt the people they found there.

Like the roo shoots I dreaded being made to go on during school holidays – guns mounted on the roof of the ute, animals trapped in the headlights or run down in the bush – massacre had a logic and perverted morality of its own. Many of these pioneers had themselves been expelled from crofts and small holdings in the Scottish Highlands to make way for sheep. The people they found in possession of the Promised Land of Caledonia Australis were treated as vermin.1

Massacre is the blockage in the Australian imagination, in our imagination of ourselves in this place. No matter that man’s inhumanity to man is as old as human existence, and despite our history wars, admissions of guilt-by-association, our well-meaning sentiments of reconciliation and compensation, the blockage remains and the wounds are deep . Secrets and lies about the slaughter of other human beings because they were in the way continue to paralyse the place.

The massacre Alex Miller takes us into the midst of in order that we not only comprehend but own the murderous impulse in ourselves is based on the 1861 C ullin-la-Ringo massacre in the Central Highlands of Queensland when nineteen white settlers where suddenly set upon by local Aborigines and murdered. Miller first heard the story as a sixteen year old stockman fresh from London working on a neighbouring cattle station.

Landscape of Farewell, Miller’s latest novel, is eighth in an extraordinary body of work with a trajectory encompassed by his own life. Miller, in an author’s note in the recent reissue of the luminous The Tivington Nott, invites us to place him and his concerns at the centre of his fictions. ‘As a novelist, I have been not so much a liar as a re-arranger of facts. That is the kind of writer I am. The purely imaginary has never interested me as much as the actualities of our daily lives…not autobiography in the conventional sense, it is nevertheless deeply self-revealing of its author.’ 2The actualities that concern him are grave and sometimes dangerous territory for a novelist, even one as assured as Miller.

They overlap from book to book. They reflect the author’s moral imagination Just as some artists working in paint can seer your retina with their way of seeing, so a writer can realign the way we see, the way we read the world. But only a handful of novelists writing in English, and Alex Miller is one of them, are able to allow their creative imaginations full rein to engage in philosophical and moral investigation without relinquishing the power of narrative and story.

Moral philosophers tend to disallow the literary imagination as a vehicle for rigorous thinking. The enticements of literary fiction are regarded as potentially damaging to clear thinking, the empathy it produces at its best is regarded with suspicion.

Miller’s work has always engaged with layers of meaning, the play of the past in the present. His use of journals and letters, the painting of portraits, the play of memory and imagination, allow him to explore the making of art, the vexed relation between fiction and reality but always they are integral to, never at the expense of, story. His novels don’t wind back on themselves like mobius strips inviting analysis rather than engagement with a moral imagination. Impossible to avoid his meaning.

The ambiguities and imperatives of the human condition, his lovers of land and those who are driven to destroy its meanings, the exiled and the colonisers, the killers and those they kill. The uses of the imagination, the play of images and of words, bla bla

Sometimes his over-use of adjectives betrays an anxiety that we mightn’t have followed where he wants us to follow.

Landscape of Farewell opens in Hamburg with the elderly Max Otto delivering 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 life is almost over – in fact he intends to kill himself that afternoon. The unexamined shadow of the crimes of his father’s generation hangs over him. At the close of his address a young Australian Aboriginal academic 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. For her the wheel of history evidently no longer turned, but had come to a stop at her generation’s door.’ ”

He embarks at Vita’s insistence on a journey to the heart of the cattle country Miller went to as a boy where he stays for weeks with her uncle Dougald who also was a pivotal character in Journey to the Stone Country.

The two old men become friends, and Max Otto eventually writes for Dougald the story of the massacre as if he were the merciless Gnapun who, with a large group of warriors, was responsible for the massacre of 19, women, children, missionaries. The massacre is prefigured in a dream in which Gnapun enters the body of the dying missionary is inevitable – and will achieve nothing. The land will not be returned, the sacred stones, with which the missionaries have fenced their garden, can never be replaced.

Both peoples are certain that what they were doing was right. The point is of course empathy, the ability, the necessity of entering into the experience of killing inside the skin of the killer. Sometimes it is like watching a man on a tight rope crossing a ravine. And Language of Farewell, gave me a few such moments – almost literally when elderly Max Otto in slippers and pyjamas attempts in the middle of the night to release the carcass of a goat suspended from a branch in a cliff face. But Miller, at the peak of his powers, does not falter.

I first read The Tivington Nott nearly 20 years ago at a time when the literature that was being written in Australia was being hailed for its ‘Australian voices’, the view from the periphery, reflecting us to ourselves, whether we happened to be in Paris or Shanghai, Carlton or the West Australian countryside. A novel ‘about’ Englishness on the edge of Exmoor, about the behaviour of human beings as hunters, unfettered by the chase, riddled by class ambiguities cut right across the grain as much outside the mainstream of English literature as anything being published in Australia at the time.

A nott is an aberrant deer without antlers. The Tivington nott was an old red stag that had eluded the hunt year after year, almost a figment of the imaginations of the huntsmen. The boy happens upon the soil pit the stag’s slot one day deep in the woods, where the Tivington Nott wallows in black peaty mud and barks his warning at the boy. ‘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.’ (p26)

The author-narrator is a 16 year old labourer in 1952 in Somerset on a farm on the border of Exmoor when men have hunted wild deer since prehistoric times, honing their elaborate hierarchies and skills, dependent on the instincts of those closest to the ground.

It’s also the story of a great black horse named Karbara by its recently retired Australian owner who yearns to merge with the locals for whom he is a laughing stock in his gentleman’s uniform of white trousers and blue shirt. Miller invites us to read this autobiographically and no one who hasn’t ridden a superior horse could have invented the way the boy’s senses are stretched as the horse, ‘the slight tremor of expectancy running through his withers, transferring his readiness to me’.

Not much more than a novella in length, ‘about’ a boy from London who finds the courage to stand up to his first employer, a ruddy-faced manipulative Somerset farmer. He refuses to call him Master: Boss, yes but Master with all its rural baggage of subservience sticks in his craw. This young man from London has a writer’s eye for character and a boy’s ability to see through greed and ambivalence and the total absorption of the hunters in their desire for the kill, their great hounds remorselessly decoding the puzzle of animal scents on the trail of the one deer they’ve been allotted to kill. He knows nothing about harvesting or horses or hunting but discovers in himself a feel for wildness which creatures detect and which adults resent or try to exploit. The boy knows everything about letting creatures be.

In real life Alex Miller came to Australia the following year. It was 1953. He was 17, alone, a ten-pound Pom, who headed up north to the cattle stations of the Gulf Country, as an itinerant stockman. As a re-arranger of facts he gives us little more to go on except the themes and conundrums that reappear in his work again and again. Family silences, disappointed fathers, mothers who thrive once the husband is dead, siblings who can’t speak to each other, who put vast distances between each other, who don’t write letters or find the words for their memories until too late. The colonisers and the colonised, words that conceal, images that reveal, and always the imagination rearranging memory and liberating the spirit.

Miller’s range and depth is astonishing. His audacity, his oblivion to contemporary fashion in fiction writing, if that is what it is, is a huge relief. The risks he is prepared to take with pace and narrative structure set him in the league of those few writers in the world who eschew fashion and even the constraints of individual ‘voice’ in order to find the lens that works for each novel. Dialogue and speech patterns in Miller carry character, and language becomes the medium of narration. Conditions of Fait h (2000) and Journey to the Stone Country (2002) could be written by two different writers so different are they in tone and in tempo – both written from the point of view of women one, his mother in the 1920s and the other a woman whose husband decamped with one of his students in the present.

The Ancestor Game – the most ‘contemporary’ and self-referential perhaps with its multiplicity of voices and dangerous use of text within the text – has an extraordinary scope and depth, and is saying something profound about the interconnectedness of the human condition and spirit that hasn’t been said before. Think of the blandness at the heart of the film Babel following the threads connecting individual lives across cultures. Michael Hanecke does it so much better in the present but add Miller’s layers of ghosts and spirits and history and witnesses back and forth through Chiang Kai Shek’s China and and Coppin Grove in 19th century Melbourne refracted through memory and journals and books of ancestors and you have some idea of his range and audacity.

The Ancestor Game ( 1992) is

The Sitters (1995). Again the subject is altered memory, a memory entangled with certain family likenesses and forgotten moments of childhood. A portrait painter, established and unencumbered except by absences, encounters a woman who intruigues him and who he decides to paint. The novella is a meditation on the creative process, on the ambiguity of family relationships, between painter and subject, at the heart of love itself. Unerring dangerous stuff – at times so close to the bone does he go that you want him to stop. His fathers and sons are dreadful, both setting out to hurt the other because of the need to avenge themselves. Letters are not answered. People have to be dead before thoughts of them can be allowed to surface.

‘I have never painted the members of my family, either my old childhood family in England or my new family in Australia. I left my home when I was 15’ – after

bedding a tea and sandwich girl’ whose tears when he tells her he is going excite him and his power to abandon her increasing him, giving him a meaner grander vision of himself. ‘”I’ll be back in two years,”’ I promise, thrilling to the lie. … I can’t wait to be gone and to have her complete, as my memory. Light and safe. I promise to write from Australia’s outback.’

Miller invites us to read him as author into the interior life of the novels placing memory at the centre and source of his writing and his writing about writing and painting. Many of the novels have as their hinge the ambiguous act of making art by words or in paint a central theme.

The blankness at the heart of the work of art’ he calls it in The Sitters. When he persuades Jessica to sit for him and finds him painting her absence he is released into himself, the true subject of his art. ‘I’d rather do nothing than understand what I’m doing while I’m doing it.’

‘…and suddenly it’s happening. It’s not an intention. But here it comes. We’re alone. We’re in the great isolation. Alone with the great absence … the rushing of the blood… just for a little while you’ve surprised yourself and you’re tired but happy.’

Conditions of Faith (2000) in some ways is the most enticing and engaging of Miller’s novels, triggered, he says, by a brief journal his mother left him written as a young woman ‘ardently in search of a reason for living’. Emily is caught in web of marriage and motherhood in the 1920s, married to an engineer obsessed with a tender he is preparing for the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a decent man who loves her deeply but without comprehension as she does him. His themes mirroring those of James and Wharton, his novel has an old-fashioned leisurely pace. Waiters are summoned and orders given, cigarettes are lit and smoked, eggs are broken against the rims of bowls again and again, and copper pans in kitchens gleam. This is the novel where Miller enters the world of women and at times he tries too hard to feminise his imagery. But there is no doubting his conviction that Emily’s spirit and intellect is at risk from a marriage to a loving but oblivious man. He frames his scenes so they are seered on our eyeballs. The light changes and the dawns break. The novel begins with Emily swimming out to sea ‘through the dazzle of sun on water.’

‘Catherine Stanton said in a measured voice, ‘I do believe, Mr Elder, Emily is expecting you to swim after her.’

Georges shielded his eyes. “I am afraid I’m not a swimmer, Mrs Stanton,” he said regretfully.

Oh dear! That is a pity, Mr Elder. There was a silence between them then.’

And we know, as she does, that the marriage that follows will fail.

The colonised Tunisians in Sidi-bou-Said destroying the remains of Cathage, and the colonising French homosexual who befriends Emily, the stultifying French provincial town and the Catholic priest in his soutane who changes Emily forever – each embodies Miller’s view of the world and the imperatives of creative endeavour. In her reading of the story left by the Christian martyr Perpetua, who passes her child to her father through the bars of her prison the night before she is to be fed to the lions, Emily finds solace and release from her own predicament.

Journey to the Stone Country (2002)

Prochownic’s Dream (2005)

Images of (2007)

His reviewers and publishers have regularly proclaimed him one of our best writers, showering him with adjectives and accolades. His work is brilliant, supple, masterful, gripping, extraordinary. As pleased as we are to have Coetzee in our midst, at least in Adelaide, we have had Alex Miller a good deal longer, regularly anointing him with prized: two Miles Franklins, a Commonwealth Writers Prize and a host of others. Yet Who’s Alex Miller? asked my best-read friend in London recently who even reads our literary magazines. I haven’t seen Miller’s sales figures but I bet Coetzee tops them with novels at least as intricately crafted and weighty as Miller’s.

I have been reading him for twenty years always with pleasure with mounting admiration. But having re-read his entire opus over the past month, except for his first book Watching the Climbers on the Mountain which I couldn’t get hold of, I have him ranged on the shelf in my head alongside my personal canon of about 20 writers of essential reading that alters the way we read the world. Miracolo indeed.

1See Don Watson, Caledonia Australis, Scottish Highlanders on the Frontier of Australia, Collins, 1984

2 The Tivington Nott, Allen and Unwin, reissued 2005, Author’s note, p vii