Porter, Hal

views updated


Nationality: Australian. Born: Albert Park, Melbourne, Victoria, 16 February 1911. Education: Kensington State School, 1917; Bairnsdale State School, Victoria, 1918-21, Bairnsdale High School, 1922-26. Family: Married Olivia Parnham in 1939 (divorced 1943). Career: Cadet reporter, Bairnsdale Advertiser, 1927; schoolmaster, Victorian Education Department, 1927-37 and 1940, Queen's College, Adelaide, 1941-42, Prince Alfred College, Kent Town, South Australia, 1943-46, Hutchins School, Hobart, Tasmania, 1946-47, Knox Grammar School, Sydney, 1947, Ballarat College, Victoria, 1948-49, and Nijimura School, Kure, Japan (Australian Army Education), 1949-50; manager, George Hotel, St. Kilda, Victoria, 1949; director, National Theatre, Hobart, 1951-53; municipal librarian, 1953-57, and regional librarian, 1958-61, Bairnsdale and Shepparton, Victoria; full-time writer from 1961; Australian writers representative, Edinburgh Festival, 1962; Australian Department of External Affairs lecturer, Japan, 1967. Awards: Sydney Sesquicentenary prize, 1938; Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1977, 1980, and subsidy, 1957, 1962, 1967; Sydney Morning Herald prize, 1958; Sydney Journalists' Club prize, for fiction, 1959, for drama, 1961; Adelaide Advertiser prize, for fiction, 1964, 1970, for nonfiction, 1968 Britannica-Australia award, 1967; Captain Cook Bi-centenary prize, 1970; Australia and New Zealand Bank award, for local history, 1977. Member: Order of Australia, 1982. Died: 29 September 1984.


Short Stories

Short Stories. 1942.

A Bachelor's Children. 1962.

The Cats of Venice. 1965.

Mr. Butterfly and Other Tales of New Japan. 1970.

Selected Stories, edited by Leonie Kramer. 1971.

Fredo Fuss Love Life. 1974.

An Australian Selection, edited by John Barnes. 1974.

The Clairvoyant Goat and Other Stories. 1981.


A Handful of Pennies. 1958; revised edition in Porter (selection), 1980.

The Tilted Cross. 1961.

The Right Thing. 1971.


The Tower (produced 1964). In Three Australian Plays, 1963.

The Professor (as Toda-San, produced 1965; as The Professor, produced 1965). 1966.

Eden House (produced 1969; as Home on a Pig's Back, produced1972). 1969.

Parker (produced 1972). 1979.


The Child (episode in Libido), 1973.

Television Play:

The Forger, 1967.


The Hexagon. 1956.

Elijah's Ravens. 1968.

In an Australian Country Graveyard and Other Poems. 1975.


The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (autobiography). 1963.

Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. 1965.

The Paper Chase (autobiography). 1966.

The Actors: An Image of the New Japan. 1968.

The Extra (autobiography). 1975.

Bairnsdale: Portrait of an Australian Country Town. 1977.

Seven Cities of Australia. 1978.

Porter (selection), edited by Mary Lord. 1980.

Editor, Australian Poetry 1957. 1957.

Editor, Coast to Coast 1961-1962. 1963.

Editor, It Could Be You. 1972.



A Bibliography of Porter by Janette Finch, 1966; "A Contribution to the Bibliography of Porter" by Mary Lord, in Australian Literary Studies, October 1970; Papers of Hal Porter 1924-1975, n.d.

Critical Studies:

Porter by Mary Lord, 1974; Speaking of Writing edited by R. D. Walshe and Leonie Kramer, 1975; Australian Writers by Graeme Kinross Smith, 1980; Hal Porter: Man of Many Parts by Mary Lord, 1993.

* * *

Although Hal Porter worked in a variety of modes, it is his autobiographical trilogy and his short stories that established his reputation. The stories work through the actual experiences of his life, but the material is less important than the extraordinarily exotic and individual style, with all its bravura, its foregrounding of language over subject, its list-making, and its delight in arcane, anachronistic, self-invented, and hyphenated words. The delight is in the journey, not the arrival, in the process, not the product.

Porter was born in Melbourne in 1911 but moved to Gippsland in the southeast of Victoria at the age of six. After working for a time as a cadet reporter he shifted to Melbourne and became a schoolteacher, moving around Australia and eventually suffering a bad injury in an accident that kept him from taking an active part in World War II. After the war Porter taught in Japan, a country with which he fell in love, before returning to Gippsland and the full-time occupation of a writer. He died, after again being struck by a car, in 1984.

Most of these experiences make their way into his fiction, as they do his autobiography, especially the first volume, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony: critics have noted as many as 16 of his short stories that are based on experiences similar to those described in his autobiographical trilogy. The most traumatic event of his life, the death of his mother, is the point around which his autobiography is structured and makes its way, in different versions, into at least four of his stories. In "Act One, Scene One" the account is almost identical to that of the autobiography. In "A Double Because It's Snowing" the narrator gives a drunken account in a bar in Hobart of how he escaped his mother for a year by going to Japan as a lecturer and falling in love with a Japanese girl. But a cable arrives saying, "Mother gravely ill, return at once," and he falls for the ruse. In "Francis Silver" the mother dies in much the same circumstances as in the autobiography but asks her son to take a memento of herself to a lover remembered in her youth. When he does he discovers that the lover has completely forgotten the woman who cherished his memory for over 20 years. And in "Gretel" a cable finds the 45-year-old narrator in Athens, and he hurries home to be confronted not with the drama of his mother but with a completely different memory of a beautiful young girl who is also, he now realizes, retarded and in a lunatic asylum.

The factual basis is unimportant. Many of the stories are largely actionless and are built around what would seem in the hands of another writer a trivial event or action. For instance, one of the most moving stories, "The Cuckoo," concerns a man of around 40 years remembering himself 30 years before at an idyllically happy period in his life. In a lyrical yet melancholy opening Porter invokes what is the central theme of all his fiction—the triumph of time over everything except imagination, especially as it is evoked in memory. The boy-narrator of the past steals a cuckoo egg from a nest in the idyllic garden of his friend Miss Reede and is discovered by her in the act. She banishes him from paradise, and in a postscript we learn that shortly afterwards she fell and smashed her hip; because there was no one to discover her, she lay in pain for two days, leading her to become crippled. But the real action is in the repeated threnodies on time that recur throughout the story: "What else could I do, O Time, what else?"; "Time, that day, thirty years ago, then, did I hear Miss Reed?" Like Vladimir Nabokov, a writer he much admired, Porter could well have titled his autobiography Speak, Memory.

The theme, with variations, resounds in the fiction. In "The Cuckoo" time is irredeemable, though in other stories there is sometimes a relief, even if it is only in the narrator's act of self-forgiveness. But they are similarly actionless, except for such action as has already taken place and is recalled. They deal with moments of retrospection, recollection, and reconstruction, and the frankly autobiographical nature of the stories is emphasized by the use of a thinly concealed persona in many of them: the names Gregory and Marcus frequently recur, or there is the transparent Hal-Pal ("Party Forty-Two and Miss Brewer") and Perrot. Many of the stories deal with either particular human beings ("Miss Rodda," "Otto Ruff"), or places ("Country Town"), or both ("At Aunt Sophia's"). The characteristic perspective is that of a middle-aged man looking back on his younger self and recreating the past through various stylistic devices. Porter makes frequent use of the present tense, establishing the immediacy and ever-presentness of the past. There is the constant change of person, from first to third to second ("I see—and how I should like to warn him!—the adolescent"), and there is the use of question-answer ("Now I am in love with a little girl. Name? Nameless?"), establishing a certain intimacy with the reader. Finally, there is the use of certain controlling metaphors—especially those to do with the protagonist as observer, "watcher"—and the use of almost incessant theatrical metaphors that postulate the lives of the protagonists as a kind of performance. In an age of often drab and anonymous prose, Porter's writing stands out in its originality and adventurousness. A shrewd self-critic, he said, "Posterity will probably see me … as a passable novelist, a fair playwright, man, but a pretty good short story writer."

—Laurie Clancy

See the essays on "Francis Silver" and "The House on the Hill."

About this article

Porter, Hal

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article