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Australia & New Zealand: Jane Rogers

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Australian and New Zealand fiction has a distinctive flavour. Partly it must be down to the physical qualities of Australasia; vast deserts and mountain ranges, surrounded by a fringe of farmland and cities, flanked by sand and sea; a continent composed entirely of islands, as remote from its colonizer as it is possible to be—with the opposite seasons, even the opposite day and night. A country where not so long ago schoolchildren reading English books were offered visions of themselves as ‘on the other side of the world’.

No wonder Australian writers felt the need to flee to Europe; to join English writers in the mother country where landscapes were wet and green (not dry and red), where art and culture were seen to be valued; where publishers could be found. This passionate rejection of Australia is vividly described in Christina Stead's For Love Alone (1944) as the heroine almost starves herself to death scraping together a fare to Europe, where she would ‘perhaps suffer every misery, but she would know life’. Stead herself left Australia at 26, and lived in both Britain and the United States, physically distancing herself from the land she sprang from and yet, in her writing, never losing her uniquely Australian vision. She finally returned to Australia forty years later.

So what is this ‘Australian’ quality, this distinctive flavour? Other countries have been English colonies, have had wild and difficult frontiers, have histories of appalling indifference and cruelty to the original owners of the land, have a rich mixture of emigrant cultures. What is different about the Aussie/New Zealand brand? How can one sum up the literature of a continent in a sentence? Henry Lawson, making a case for the Australian-ness of Australian fiction in the 1890s, declared: ‘We have nothing in common with English people except our language.’ I'll stick my neck out and say I think directness is one of its qualities; a willingness to get straight in there and tackle big issues, big ideas; a willingness to open up the heart; and alongside directness, a degree of self-criticism and self-questioning which prevents the directness from being brash. This self-questioning has often been seen as a negative quality—as in the famous ‘cultural cringe'—yet it is often, in the fiction, something which makes the writer demand even greater rigour from him/herself; it is the enemy of complacency and hypocrisy.

The clearest example of this is also the first; Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (1901), written when the author was 16, and describing the life of an energetic, imaginative young woman trapped in a narrow life of grinding poverty on her parents’ outback station—and then moved to the richer, kindlier setting of her grandmother's farm. She turns her beady eye on everything and everyone around her, analysing, describing, pronouncing; and then suffers utterly endearing fits of self-doubt and self-hatred. Needless to say, Franklin fled to Europe as soon as she could (not least to escape the notoriety her book had brought her). So too did Katherine Mansfield, born in New Zealand in 1888, whose first collection of stories In a German Pension (1911) is set in Germany. The narrator of those wickedly funny stories is clearly Antipodean, with her inner confidence, her debunking of pomposity and hypocrisy, and then her pangs of social guilt, her good-girl attempts to play the game. In later stories Mansfield meticulously dissects moods and motivations, with an ever-ready eye for her characters’ self-delusions and hypocrisy.

Christina Stead's masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children (1940) is set in the United States but the central character is based on her own Australian father—and indeed the book is set almost entirely in a private world, the tempestuous, hilarious, tragic world of family, where an egotistical, self-serving father, Sam, dominates the lives of his children with his love, his treats, his baby-talk, and his projects (painting the house, boiling up fish oil). Their mother, the poisonous, wrecked, indebted Hetty, maintains her fierce opposition from the safety of her room. In this book Stead dares to push at love (parental, filial, sexual) until it is manifested as hate; her examination of family emotions and dynamics are more intimate and penetrating—and more devastatingly accurate—than any other writer I can think of.

Patrick White, the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, studied and wrote in Britain as a young man but returned to Australia after the war, and his books embrace Australian landscape and history in a way that Mansfield and Stead do not. In Voss (1957) the obsessed explorer leads his team towards dusty death in a landscape where only the Aborigines know how to live; in The Tree of Man (1956) Stan and his wife Amy carve a homestead in the bush and plant their fragile lives. White is interested in frontiers, difficult territories, boundaries, and ways (including those beyond the merely physical—psychic and spiritual ways) of crossing them. Again, that mixture of directness and self-questioning; the confidence to write about the biggest questions. All White's characters approach, circle and beat themselves like moths against the impossibility of making sense of experience; and then, in his very style, the circumlocutory sentences, the odd movements, the heaps of qualifying phrases that shade in and dab towards meaning—in his very style is incorporated that self-doubt, that vastly intelligent caution. Janet Frame's work also pushes at the boundaries between interior and exterior worlds, and explores madness with a forthright, often humorous, energy; and yet also with a heart-breaking acceptance of the powerlessness of those judged (as she at times has been) insane.

Elizabeth Jolley is an interesting Australian writer; born in England, she didn't even move to Australia till she was 36. But her work is self-avowedly Australian, and it shows in the confidence and self-confessed insecurity of her heroines, both when treated humorously as in Foxybaby (1984), or in darker tone, in a book like The George's Wife (1993) where the narrator circles her life in search of meaning. Jolley herself, when asked to typify an Australian writer, commented on the emigrant experience of many Australians: ‘As well as the effects of the sights and sounds of the strange new country there has been the uneasiness of being the stranger, the newcomer.’ The new arrivals are outsiders—but the second and third generation Australians also write as outsiders, outsiders from Europe, with all the sharp-eyed, take-nothing-for-granted, shocking honesty of outsiders.

Helen Garner is a generation away from Elizabeth Jolley but her self-confident, self-destructive female characters are from the same stable—only they have grown up in the 1960s, and are able to apply political analysis and justification to their contradictory impulses. Like Stead, Garner takes her scalpel uncomfortably close to the heart of relationships and family. Seen in the context of Australia and New Zealand, Keri Hulme is not a weird intrusion into the staid lists of Booker Prize winners; her marvellously energetic book The Bone People (1984) is absolutely rooted in place and history, taking in Maori culture alongside 1960s' feminism and—again—the biggest questions.

Thomas Keneally is the Australian writer who perhaps fits least easily into my categorizations; he is so prolific and his work is so wide-ranging in terms of subject, that it's hard to pin him down. Although he's best known for Schindler's Ark (1982), about the manufacturer who saved his Jewish workforce from the camps, he has written books set in and engaging vividly with Australian history, including The Playmaker (1987) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). These are among my favourites of his. Peter Carey has played games with Australian history (Illywhacker, 1985, Oscar and Lucinda, 1988) before returning to straight historical fiction in Jack Maggs (1997). Although The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) is set in an imaginary world, which parallels the First/Third world divisions of our own, the book has those qualities of confidence and loss, of boldly tackling huge ideas, and of outsiderness, which seem to me quintessentially Australian. David Malouf has written lovingly of Australia, its heat, its quality of light, and in Harland's Half Acre (1984) describes a haunting and memorable world. The land is a marvellously vivid presence in much Australian fiction, and is often (as here) used to explore other values, other meanings than those offered by Western civilization.

Tim Winton's Cloud Street (1991) is a happy book to end with; a big family saga, where openness and innocence are provided by Fish, a brain-damaged boy who can never grow old, and where damage and despair and humour proliferate in a great warm tangle around him. Winton won't push things as far as Stead or Garner, he won't make you so uncomfortable; but there is a joyous confidence in this sprawling novel. There are a hundred other books to recommend—Australian fiction richly repays exploration.

See also JANE ROGERS

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