David Malouf – past winner of both the Commonwealth writers’ prize and the Impac Dublin literary award – was first introduced by Bernadette and Jacq. It would be misleading to say he is unrecognised outside his native Australia, but it’s fair to say that he deserves a wider readership on this side of the world. For those who don’t already know his work, like me, this new collection of short stories provides an ideal introduction.
The collection is dominated by endings, by valedictions of some kind. In “War Baby” a young man conscripted to fight in Vietnam submits to his fate but spends the days leading up to his departure engaged in an elaborate ritual of farewells – small wonders now registered with fresh intensity, an experience I felt I relate to very well.
Guts. A feeling for where to put your foot down and where not. The good-luck charm of life itself – the one you were intended for. He believed, though none of this, of course had yet been tested, that he was the possessor of all three.
Beyond that you could present yourself as you wanted to be seen and then try to live up to it. With a rough outline in your head of a story, you could do everything in your power to act it out.
“Towards Midnight” portrays a sick and ageing woman living alone in a Tuscan villa, confronted by the prospect of which is likely to come sooner rather than later. This is a curiously upbeat story, a celebration of the human mind’s continuing capacity for joy in the face of the body’s dissolution.
“Mrs Porter and the Rock”, Mrs Porter is one of the tourists, dragged there against her will by her interfering son to see the rock in Uluru, sacred Aboriginal site and must-see tourist attraction, and. Self-centred, opinionated and entertainingly stroppy.
“The Domestic Cantata” a composer struggles to protect his creative domain against the encroaching muddle of family life – a bicycle left in the hallway, wet towels on the bathroom floor, plates piled with peelings and scraps, the disruptive presence of children. An unsatisfactory lunch party comes to a chaotic climax with the unhappy friend of his teenage daughter suffering a fit. But as the day draws to a close, the composer and his wife begin to work together on an unfinished score, the woman’s singing drifting through the house like the answer to an unspoken prayer – an assurance that human misery was part of something larger that was known, shared, and could take this lighter form.
Malouf’s prose is a little plush and over-upholstery, at times it left me a little cold because it was too testing for my less acute literary sense. But where it works, it works with majestic power, as in the best story in the collection, ‘The Valley of Lagoons’ and “Every move you make”.
‘The Valley of Lagoons’ narrated by sixteen year-old Angus, about a modern-day initiation ceremony of his best friend, Braden McGowan, at a hunting trip in the wilds of north Queensland. But the story is really about Stuart, Brendan’s brother, who has just been ditched by Katie, Angus’s sister. The unspoken demands of “I thought you were on my side” and the belonging that one felt about one’s own land:
Out here, in the country itself, though what it referred to was still discreetly unspecified, it was actual. He had re-entered a part of himself that was his grandmother’s country.
‘His grandmother’s country’ was a phrase that referred, without raising too precisely the question of blood, to the relationship a man might stand in to a particular tract of land, that went deeper and further back than legal possession. When used in town it had ‘ implications’, easy to pick up but not to be articulated. A nod to the knowing.
My favourite is the story which the book took its title “Every move you make”, is about a Hungarian girl, Jo, who came over to Australia and fell in love with a man, used to be named Bobby Kohler, who has a secret past and wouldn’t commit to the relationship.
He took what he needed in a frank, uncomplicated way; was forceful but considerate – all this in appreciation of her own attractions. She was flattered, moved and in the end felt a small glow of triumph at having so much pleased him. For a moment he entirely yielded, and she felt, in his sudden cry, and in the completeness afterwards with which he sank into her arms; that she had been allowed into a place that in every other circumstances he kept guarded, closed off.
On that hot Saturday afternoon, in that darkened picture theatre in Albury. Her heart had melted. Australia had claimed and conquered her. She was shocked and the shock was physical. She had had no idea till then what beauty could do to you, the deep tears it could draw up; how it could take hold of you in the middle of the path and turn you around, fatefully, and set you in a new direction. That was what he could know nothing of.
In “Every move you take”, Malouf uses the allegory of the beauty of a lover, that describes her feelings about the beauty of the country. Malouf amazes me with his sensitivity of being able to describe those tender moments in a relationship between man and woman so deftly that few men could.
The elegiac note sounded in these stories reminds me of Ishiguro, except Malouf captures the emotions of the protagonists better than Ishiguro’s indifference could. At the end of it, I felt it is wrong to compare Ishiguro with Malouf. I think Malouf is on a league of his own. For that I will be reading some of his other work at some point in the future.
This is my first Australia book for the Global Reading Challenge.
Hardback. Publisher: Vintage books 2008; Length: 244 pages; Setting: Contemporary Australia. Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at: 6 May 2010.
About the writer:
David George Joseph Malouf (born 20 March 1934) is an acclaimed Australian writer. He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2000, his 1993 novel Remembering Babylon won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1996, he won the inaugural Australia-Asia Literary Award in 2008, and he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Malouf was born in Brisbane, Australia, to a Christian Lebanese father and an English-born mother of Portuguese Sephardi Jewish descent. He attended Brisbane Grammar School and graduated from the University of Queensland in 1955. He taught at his old school, and lectured in English at the Universities of Queensland and Sydney.