Murray Bail: Landscape and Emptiness

The invitation was to give a talk about ‘writing and the Australian landscape – what makes a book “Australian” – is it the setting or is it the sensibility?

Setting out towards an answer, it’s quite possible I’ll begin to wander, the way our early Australian explorers wandered about in the discouraging landscape. In their journals they noted the low horizons produced in them a sense of melancholy. I’ll have to bear that in mind. If I begin repeating myself, remember when someone becomes lost in bush or even in the desert, where there’s not a single bush, it is well known they end up going around in circles. And apparently when things turn really bad they lose their hat and drop their water bottle and compass, along with everything else; well, I’ll only be dropping names.

Certainly a writer, in my case one who writes novels, doesn’t sit down at their desk in the morning, and deliberately make their work “Australian”. Or if they did it would quickly reveal certain limitations. It is the determined sociologist-novelist who sets out to be nationalistic, via landscape or other self-conscious means. That’s dangerous – by that I mean, limited. It’s very limited. The writer should just be; and if he or she ends up as distinctly Australian, so be it. There is a pastoral tradition in poetry, here and elsewhere – but poets are different (poets after can be very odd).

I prefer here to concentrate on the novel. The novelist will often – though not always – place a narrative within and around landscape. In a novel, landscape can act rather like stage scenery – which can be shifted about to indicate or emphasise mood of a character or a situation – landscape can do that – and it can help make the “action” more believable. Landscape becomes a decoy. By describing khaki hills, or a gum tree, or the homestead with deep verandahs, the reader is led into what seems familar and comfortable – is drawn in – making the created story still more believable, more convincing, more accountable.

Landscape can flow in and out of a novel, to link up passages of time or place. If you want to go from A to B, or from morning to early evening, or to suggest embarrassment between two people, or even interest, a few lines of descriptive landscape can do it. It can be used in that way.

Thomas Mann has said, ‘A writer is someone who finds writing difficult.’ (I should have said this to a distant-aunt, who once told me she still had two ambitions: to play the saxophone, and write a book.) So a writer is someone who finds writing difficult. And yet writing landscape is relatively easy. A landscape doesn’t pull faces or answer back. Description is easier than creating characters and giving them believable shape, revealing their differences, the differences in thought and speech – between men and women, for example – so that it is not just the author’s single voice – while all the time holding a broad view of the story, and perhaps  the constantly shifting speculative point, and for the whole thing to have depth and make sense. Endings are usually more difficult than beginnings, as in life.

An excessive concern with ‘landscape’ – as shown by this very conference – is a New World concern, a kind of cultural adolescence. Here, after 225 years of European settlement, we are still forming ourselves, forming our thoughts, stepping back to imagine ourselves; we worry about who we are – and yet we don’t really; and we glance at landscape which is always nearby, accepting it as distinctive – therefore, we feel, perhaps we are distinctive? British and German landscape – and Russian, Scandinavian, and so on – are distinctive too; but it’s been there for so long, much of it cultivated, it has settled comfortably towards the back of the European mind. They don’t need to worry about it. There is hardly a blade of grass, let alone a flower or a tree, described in all of Jane Austen. In Germany, the snow-capped mountains, pastures and forests have worked their way to the back of the room, along with the lederhosen. There is virtually no “landscape” in Dostoevsky – it is all interior. (His characters never stop talking – urgent, high-class Woody Allen.) In Proust there is more architecture and fashion description and comical mannerisms of head-waiters and aristocrats than landscape. In possibly the greatest American novel, there is virtually no solid earth, the novel rests on water – Moby Dick. No landscape, but it doesn’t make it any less “American”. On the contrary, Moby Dick  manages to sum up the quasi-religious, ever-hopeful American-ness with such an original force it has entered myth. An all-American book – it could only be written in the New World – yet it leaves an indelible effect on us too. (And no landscape.)

Because here we are so far away from everything else, and our country under enormous skies feels virtually empty, and we have, really, precious little history, just a thin layering of what is called culture, landscape comes to the fore in all its ancient familiarity, filling in for history. In some respects we may still be a landscape-culture. But it is not a comfortable one.

I’d like to show a painting which hangs a few hundred yards away, in the National Gallery:

Interior with Black Rabbit, by Arthur Boyd.

The subject of here is the difficulty of being an artist in this new, largely empty place, Australia.......

It shows the dilemma of the painter. It could just as well be the dilemma of the novelist in Australia, or the poet, or somebody composing a piece of music. Perhaps above all the dilemma faced by the painter and the novelist.

The painter is wearing a European ruff representing some sort of distant sensibility. Outside is the Australian landscape – glaring, pitiless, empty, uncultivated. That’s here. That is us. Landscape is always viewed through culture. And here culture is represented by chicken wire. Utilitarian, crude, provisional. And in the darkened room the artist is on his knees, trying to capture something of this, via the rabbit – and the rabbit is an animal that is always out of reach.

Arthur Boyd painted this and others like it in 1973, after thirty-six years of painting Australian landscape.

There’s a lot of anxiety – we could say exasperation, impotence – in this painting. Its poignancy is rather alarming. I don’t think we should look at it for too long.

When I was thinking about the subject for this talk, and I hadn’t decided to do it, in fact I was deciding not to do it, I couldn’t help thinking about Arthur Boyd’s painting. About the difficulty of creating something of value out of barrenness, remoteness, a newly-settled place – still – a place where not a lot has happened – though it may not always feel like that  (there is enough going on within families.....)  There are not many layers of national experience here which could give texture and complexity to a novel’s subject-matter. And this is repeated by the apparently empty landscape. We have endured little of the class and industrial complications seized upon by Dickens. We have not experienced the recent history of Europe, which prompted Gunter Grass to write The Tin Drum, and W. G. Sebald his wanderings in the first person – or Ismail Kadare his fables from Albania. And in France, Celine, Claude Simon, Michel Tournier, and most recently, Jonathan Littell. Important writers, taking on almost foolhardy subject-matter. Vasily Grossman’s and Solzhenitsyn’s experiences of the same grim period prompted them to write their mighty, life-enhancing novels. Back further, at least Napoleon’s invasion of Russia resulted in masterpieces by Stendhal and Tolstoy.

What is bad for a country can be good for art.

These, as I have said, are large savage events. A nation’s sensibility, and therefore its art, is shaped by events large and small. There is of course always space for modest subjects, novels and stories which concentrate on domestic nuances – without any landscape or masculine history or violence. And even the calmest novels can have an underlying urgency. But their very modesty may in the end give them a fragile influence.

Interestingly, if we turn to the main achievements in the Australian novel, they take place well away from our cities and landscape – to Europe and America. It is as if in the local environment there isn’t enough to draw from. Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story, The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning come to mind. These lumpy novels have good claim to stand at the summit of Australian fiction; and writers who followed, from Hazzard to Malouf, Carey, Moorhouse, Anna Funder and Elliot Pearlman, Michelle de Kretser – to name just a few – have also felt the necessity to transport their stories and characters – Gerald Murnane is a curious exception – out of Australia to piggy-back another country’s richness.

It can be said to be the defining feature – so far – of the Australian novel.

And if I may briefly mention my own work: until I began to think about today’s subject, I hadn’t quite realised my novels are centred around journeys, all of them..... My people are instinctively hot-footing it out of here, turning away from the apparent barrenness. The very first one, Homesickness – a friend said, ‘That’s a terrible title. Why didn’t you call it gonorrhoea?’ – takes place entirely out of Australia. The third novel Eucalyptus has stories sprouting all over the place, and not just Australia. The “philosopher” in The Pages has to go to Europe, before returning home, to western New South Wales. And most recent, The Voyage, is at one level, about the very subject we are discussing today. 

This would appear to be a stage in our national literature.

For Henry James and Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the last century, the New World gave them little encouragement: they too took themselves and their assorted characters off to Europe. In the opening page of  The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James’ loving analysis of taking afternoon tea on the lawn of a country house describes a lawn of  blindingly rich green, with long shadows, instantly understood to be England and its almost casual complexities. James sought refuge there. His own country was too brightly lit. It could be said he rolled about on the lawn of Englishness. Compare this seventy-two years later to the first sentence of Saul Bellow’s breakthrough of all-American-ness, The Adventures of Augie March:

‘I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that sombre city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.....’

A certain amount of American history had to pass – and an accumulating dose of literary dissatisfaction – before Bellow could write a sentence as cocky as that. For all Bellow’s “American-ness”, Henry James writing earlier was just as much an American novelist; and few would have The Adventures of Augie March a higher achievement than Portrait of a Lady.

‘What makes a book “Australian” – is it the setting or is it sensibility’? That was also part of the question today.

Another question might be: is it a question that needs to be asked at all? ‘Writing about country: Place in Australian literature’ – should a conference in 2013 still be devoting many hours to such a question?

Time to move on?

Why should Australian literature be read primarily for its “Australian-ness”? If again we look elsewhere, to Russia, for example, we don’t read Tolstoy for his Russian-ness, and certainly not for the glimpses of Russian landscape. We read his novels and stories to enter the lives of people we recognise, people of slightly different appearance, dress and speech, aspects of ourselves, our same human-ness. The atmosphere of Russian-ness gives them additional interest, their sensibility may come at a slightly different angle, but we recognise ourselves in the characters, in their struggles with various moral questions which are placed without apparent effort before them (and us). Tolstoy invariably deals with the essentials – how to live, how to be happy and wise. He can give an almost ecstatic feeling of the ordinariness of life. And so we keep reading and re-reading.

Is there in Russia today a discussion of Russian-ness in literature, or elsewhere, in Germany, German-ness – or French-ness, or Japanese-ness, or British-ness? I doubt it. Not even in America, a younger country, although one with a strong philosophical base, is the subject, as far as I know, discussed anymore. Emerson, Faulkner, Saul Bellow – and Willa Cather, Roth, Updike, Pynchon, Richard Ford and so on – they have seen to that.

When we are at ease, when we have reached a certain acquired naturalness, at ease living here and being “Australian”, the need for lectures and papers and conferences questioning the importance of place should fall away – disappear entirely, perhaps. In fact, have we reached the point where it is no longer necessary – this subject is only slightly interesting? 

Certainly those who are condemned to writing Australian novels – even while the landscape is waiting there through the chicken wire – never think about it, or try their best not to.

To change the subject entirely, or perhaps only slightly: every day and every week hundreds of novels are written and published, forming over the years a sort of enormous papier-mâché mountain, the edges of which flutter in the breeze. Each country has its enormous pile. Most novels don’t make a difference. They add to the pile without adding anything. The majority of novels settle to the bottom, to be read no more, slowly decomposing. Some towards the middle of the pile have had their moment and now there’s just a flicker, or no movement at all. Some novels masquerade as novels (the novel is very accommodating – one of its advantages). Some novels arrive with an infectious energy and produce excitement and interest; others are so ordinary they arrive already tired, and excite no interest – in either case, very few continue to be read, let alone continue to excite and form part of the culture, across the generations, across the years. Once a novel or story is produced its continuing life is given to it by the reader, by a consensus of different readers. This has been called the ‘Second Life of Art.’ It is a very interesting process. And it has no mercy. 

I am simplifying, because much of this is mysterious.

It is dispiriting to find so many Australian novels lacking in the broad imagination, lacking in good and proper speech, unconvincing, and flabby novels, banal, drab, worthy – all the things which drain energy from the reader – whereas the distinctive imaginative voice, which we sense was written out of necessity, produces energy in the reader.

Middlebrow or light novels occupy a reasonable position in any culture. They will always be written. To certain readers they provide a comfort. They make no demands – like putting on an old cardigan. But in our poor country they can become celebrated as literary novels. In these novels, cheap emotions are served up in a serious form.

Such writing is not usually found in a literary novel.

It would be all too easy, and no doubt bad manners, to hold up examples.

Locally written novels have habits and attitudes and landscape we recognise. We are more tolerant, more accepting, of what is nearby. Others – the great wonders of the novel – Tolstoy, again – remain relevant, not only in their own country, but to the rest of the world as well. Even the finest Australian novels, those I named earlier, go in and out of print here, and few, if any, remain in print and are read today in Britain, America, Canada, let alone in translation.

It is not all gloomy; not at all. Not necessarily.

A culture still forming at least has the clean-slate advantage: the clean slate allows anything, anything is possible, it is always the beginning.

Melville must have sensed this in 1850 when he set about writing Moby Dick. And to some extent Patrick White, at the age of thirty-five, writing in an uncommercial way, The Aunt’s Story, which was his own favourite of all his novels.

Perhaps it is time for public floggings to be reintroduced, as in the convict days, to writers who are happy to write without taking a stylistic or intellectual risk – happy to be ordinary. Normally this work – the public floggings – is handled by newspaper critics. (It’s a psychological calling.) But they seem to have escaped as well. It is only reasonable to ask the novelist to pause before writing, before beginning. Only produce a new work which actually adds value to the pile, even if the writer cannot really know whether it is achieved or not. At least no more tiredness. Do we need any more dry stories or novels that show how terribly inarticulate Australian men are in expressing their feelings? No more clichés. No drabness in thought or style. No irrelevance. No ‘grins’ or ‘grinning’. Australian novelists seem to be addicted to ‘grins’ and ‘grinning’.

And readers –  readers have a responsibility. If the novelist takes more than a few risks, especially with an unusual subject, an unusual form, therefore an unexpected work, one that may initially be difficult to digest or understand, readers are needed to form a sort of partnership, tolerant, alert, curious readers, not always waiting for the reassurance of landscape. ‘Readers’ –  or should I say ‘explorers’?