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.