David Malouf 2000Introduction
"Great Day," which appeared in David Malouf's 2000 collection, Dream Stuff, has been singled out as one of his best stories. This well-crafted tale explores the tensions that can arise in a close-knit family; it traces each family member's need to find a harmonious balance between personal desires and external connection to the group. The story centers on one day in the life of the Tyler family as its members celebrate the seventy-second birthday of the family patriarch, Audley Tyler. The story begins on the morning of the day, which is also a national holiday, as some members of the family wait for the arrival of the entire clan. Tensions immediately arise as individuals begin to express their separate longings and the obstacles to those longings as they gather together for the celebration. The tensions are eventually resolved as all are able to renew or reestablish connections and come to an acceptance of their collective and personal experience. As the story ends, the family comes together to celebrate their sense of community at the close of their "great day."
David Malouf was born in Brisbane, Australia, on March 20, 1934, to George and Welcome (Mendoza) Malouf. After he was awarded a degree with honors from the University of Queensland, he relocated to England, where he was employed as a teacher from 1959 to 1968. That year he returned to Australia where he served as a lecturer at the University of Sydney until 1977. Malouf gained recognition and several awards for his poetry written during his teaching years. In 1975, he turned to fiction with his well-received first novel, Johnno. In 1978, he retired from teaching and devoted himself full-time to writing.
Malouf has gained international acclaim for his work, which includes several volumes of poetry, six novels and two novellas; three short-story collections, including Dream Stuff, in which "Great Day," appeared; several nonfiction works; a series of libretti for opera, and a play.
Malouf has received many awards. Among these are the following: the 1974 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and the 1974 Grace Leven Poetry Prize for Neighbours in a Thicket: Poems; the New South Wales Premier's Fiction Award in 1979 for An Imaginary Life: A Novel and the New South Wales Premier's Drama Award in 1987 for Blood Relations; the 1983 Book of the Year and the 1983 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for Fly Away Peter; the Best Book of the Region Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region), the Miles Franklin Award, and the Prix Femina Prize (France) for The Great World in 1991; and the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, the 1994 Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region), the 1995 Prix Baudelaire (France), and the 1996 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Remembering Babylon. In 1994, his Remembering Babylon was short listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. In 2000, the New York Times named Dream Stuff one of its Notable Books of that year, and the same year, Malouf received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
David Malouf lived in Tuscany, Italy, from 1978 to 1985, after which he returned to Australia.
"Great Day" opens early on the morning of Audley Tyler's seventy-second birthday, which is the same day as a national Australian holiday. Angie, Audley's daughter-in-law, sits gazing out to sea while nearby, Audley is fishing. When Angie walks back to the house, she is greeted by her son, Ned, who informs her that Fran is coming with Audley's son, Clem, her ex-husband.
Angie is always "ill at ease" in the kitchen of her mother-in-law, Madge, where Angie sits drinking tea. Her daughter, Jenny, asks Angie whether Audley has caught any fish, and Ned asks why Fran and Clem are still friends after their divorce, but no one answers them. Ned agrees to go out and pick wild spinach with his sister for Madge's soup. The narrator notes that the daughters-in-law never really feel a part of the tightly knit Tyler clan.
Today, the entire family along with some neighbors will gather to celebrate Audley's birthday. Later, Audley comes back to the house with two freshly caught blackfish, and he eats breakfast. The narrator explains that Audley was an important official in the Australian government for thirty-seven years. Madge puts the fish in the sink and turns to one of the children's books she is writing, which she bases on her family's experiences.
Angie goes outside again, and Ralph, her husband, joins her. An hour later, Fran arrives followed in a separate car by Clem. The children are confused when Clem asks them whether he and Fran look like newlyweds. They know that since his car accident, "Clem said things, just whatever came into his head." Three years before, he swerved his car to avoid hitting a boy and crashed; the accident put him in a coma for fourteen months.
Fran used to be the girlfriend of Jonathon, Clem's brother, but she had gotten tired of his marked self-confidence. Determined that she would "save" Clem from his family, she married him, but then she left after only two years. They remained friends after the divorce, "locked in an odd dependency." She and Angie, who both feel like outsiders in the family, have become friends. Audley is the only member of the family with whom Angie feels a connection.
Clem sits in the kitchen with Madge, asking her to talk about him when he was a child since many of his memories were erased by the accident. She tells him some stories, and he admits that he does not remember them. When he asks her if she and his father loved him, Madge answers, "Of course we did," and insists that he was Audley's favorite. After Clem claims that he thought he was a disappointment to his father, Madge replies, "Maybe. Maybe that too." When he hears his father approach, he runs out the door and gives him a bear hug, telling Audley how glad he is to see him.
Later, Ned sees a group of people heading to the beach. A child from the group introduces himself to Ned, but Ned is furious that the boy has taken him unawares and rebuffs him. When he gets back to the house, Ned asks his father whether the group is allowed to make a bonfire on the beach, and Ralph tells him that they are, which angers Ned who stalks off to tell his grandfather. Ned admires Audley for his formality, which his own father lacks. After he gets no response from his grandfather, Ned goes back to the beach and spies on the group. As he leaves, he stumbles on the boy who had introduced himself and says, "Hi," to him by way of reconciliation.
Audley walks to town and heads toward the Waruna Folk and History Museum, which he often visits. The museum holds a collection of Tyler family artifacts and offers Audley a chance to reminisce about the past.
At seven-thirty, the guests begin to arrive. Jonathon, who brings a new girlfriend, is followed by "an old flame of Audley's," according to Madge. An hour later, groups of men "vigorously" argue while the women sit "on the sidelines." As Fran wanders from group to group, Clem watches her from the background. Cedric Pohl, a guest whom she has never met before, introduces himself to Fran. As they chat, she notices that he is interested in her.
Feeling that "too much might be happening too fast," Fran escapes outside where Ned, Jen, and some of their cousins are dancing to music from a stereo. Fran thinks about how during visits there she used to fill notebooks with angry epithets about the Tyler family, who she felt never fully accepted her. When Audley approaches and tells her he will get her something to drink, she feels the same desire to be a part of the family, but then, just as suddenly, she feels the same anger over her exclusion. She grabs Angie and the two escape to the beach.
As they walk along the beach, Fran admits that Cedric has asked to drive her home. Angie insists that he is "a bit of a s―," explaining that he has cheated on his wife. After they come across the group that Ned had seen on the beach, they stop and watch for a while. Fran imagines herself joining the group.
As they walk back to the house, they see a strange glow in the sky, which turns out to be the museum that has been set on fire by arsonists. When all in the house race to town, they discover that the museum cannot be saved. Audley feels oddly relieved as he stands next to his old friends and watches the museum burn, knowing that many objects connected to his past are being destroyed.
After some of them return to the house, Clem feels that something needs to be said on the occasion. He gives a disjointed speech about how everyone in the universe is connected and that "nothing ever gets lost" Even though Fran had already left with a group that included Cedric, Clem feels satisfied with his speech and himself. After everyone leaves, Angie and Ralph take a walk while Audley plays the piano. Later, she goes into the kitchen to clean up where she is soon joined by Audley. They talk about Clem's speech, which Audley admits moved him deeply. The story closes with a description of the glowing ashes of the museum, the bonfire on the beach, and the promise of "a new day coming."
The night of the celebration, Fran leaves with Cedric Pohl, an attractive thirty-three-year-old. His expensive haircut, along with his propensity for travel, suggests he is wealthy. He is "a bit too sure of himself," but she responds to his need to relieve her of her obvious desperation. Little information is provided about him since he serves more as a illustration of Fran's constant need to develop new relationships.
Angie Tyler, Ralph's wife, has a sense of "stillness" and a "capacity to just sit among all that Tyler ebullience and remain self-contained." She also has a sense of darkness that gives her sympathetic connection to Audley, which is suggested by the framing technique Malouf uses in the story. The opening and closing scenes focus on the two together, separate from the rest of the family.
Audley Tyler, the patriarch of the family, whose ancestors were among the early European settlers, has a formal bearing and appears in a black suit on all occasions. Angie regards him as "a somber column," whose demeanor commands attention and respect. He is fastidious and at times gloomy with a 'tendency to withdraw." His dark side becomes ominous when he tries to disguise it with "bitter jokes and a form of politeness that at times had an edge of the murderous."
Yet he is also responsible in his position as the primary caregiver for his children and as a government official. During his years with the government, he served as a model to young, ambitious men "who saw in him the proof that you could get to the top, and stay there too, yet maintain a kind of decency." He is the one most moved by Clem's speech, and by the end of the story, he comes to recognize more than any of them the value of family. After the museum burns to the ground, he is also able to reconcile himself to the reality of death.
Clem Tyler, one of the four Tyler brothers, never felt included in his family since he did not seem to take after any of them. He has a good nature but is "slow, tongue-tied, aimless," which was exacerbated by his accident. Because of her confidence in him, Fran is the only one with whom Clem "felt entirely whole." When he is at the party, he seeks her out in order to "centre himself. Otherwise, the occasion might have become chaotic" due to the expectations others may have of him. When he cannot think clearly, he experiences moments of panic and must find a familiar object to calm himself. His obvious love and affection for his family fills him with the confidence he needs to give his speech about how connected they all are to each other and to the universe.
Fran Tyler, Clem's ex-wife, is adventurous and restless and so is attracted to new places and new men. She turns to Clem for stability. While she demonstrates a good sense of humor, it can sometimes turn cruel as when she kept journals that attacked what she considered to be the family's faults. Fran is the only one who is able to find a life outside the family that she balances with her need to remain connected to it.
Nine-year-old Jenny Tyler, Angie and Ralph's daughter, is younger than her brother but appears worldlier. She rolls her eyes when Ned does not understand why Clem and Fran got divorced if they are still friends.
Jonathon Tyler, one of the four Tyler brothers, introduced Fran to the family as his girlfriend, but she soon got tired of "the assurance he had of being so much cleverer than others" and of "his sense of his own power and charm."
Madge Tyler is a messy, disorganized housekeeper, whose bluntness and "off-hand discourtesies" sometimes put off others, especially her daughters-in-law. She is self-deprecating and full of life. Her boys have inherited her "energy and rough good humour." She provides a nice counter to Audley's solemn and dignified demeanor. Madge was adopted and brought up by farmers, and she determined early on that she "belonged to no one but herself," which, according to Audley, "made life very interesting."
Eleven-year-old Ned Tyler, Angie and Ralph's son, tries to gain some measure of power in the family by being "the bearer of news," and he is disappointed when the others already know that Fran is coming with Clem. He is also disappointed that the family will not be celebrating the country's anniversary since "he wanted time to have precise turning-points that could be marked and remembered." Ned becomes intensely concerned about things and is "quick to take offense" if he feels that others are not equally concerned, as with the question of the bonfire.
When they were young, Ralph Tyler and his brothers "had to fend for themselves, shouting one another down in the war for attention and growing up loud and confident." Ralph is shyer than his brothers but shared their same love and respect for their parents. He is easygoing, having been part of the liberal movement of the 1960s.
The thematic focus on dreams in the story is announced by the title of the collection, Dream Stuff, an allusion to Shakespeare's The Tempest (4.1.156-58). Prospero, the central character in the play, notes the temporal nature of human life in his claim, "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded by a sleep." (The passage from Shakespeare appears in Peter Pierce's article, "What Dreams May Come: David Malouf's Dream Stuff.) In "Great Day," this allusion suggests reflection, as Audley celebrates his seventy-second birthday, and hope as the characters are able to find comforting connections.
Fran's dream becomes a sign of the unification that the family feels at the end of the story after Clem has declared, "Anything is possible…. Nothing ever gets lost." She sees herself lying down with the others on the beach and recognizes the connection that she has with the Tyler family as she emerges "in out of the dark" and "into the circle of light."
Several characters in the story experience an ironic sense of loss. Paul Sharrad notes that this loss "can be both debilitating and the catalyst for creation." Clem and Fran, for example, lose a partner when they get a divorce, but the experience allows them to establish a new, supportive relationship with each other. Clem is also able to strengthen his relationship with his family while Fran finds a satisfying balance between her life inside and outside of it.
Ned loses his sure sense of right and wrong when his father and grandfather refuse to support his contention that no one should be setting bonfires on the beach. Paradoxically, he is also disappointed that his family is not celebrating the national holiday by waving flags or building their own bonfires. He disagrees with his father's conclusion that "If these fellers want an excuse for a good do, I'm not the one to deny them, but it's just another day like any other really." Ned becomes angry at the members of his family who "like things left up in the air" and who "never want anything settled."
This inconclusiveness, however, also suggests an openness and flexibility that Ned eventually adopts. After he watches the group on the beach, he admits "that what he really regretted was that the bonfire was not theirs," and, as a result, he is able to make a connection with the boy whom he had previously rebuffed.
The dominant image in the story is fire, which appears in the beginning as Ned watches a group on the beach build a bonfire and, at the end, when the museum is set ablaze. The fires provide an ironic tension in the story as they suggest both destruction and positive change. Both the bonfire and the museum fire represent outside forces that have the potential to disrupt the Tyler family, but at the same time, they also provide a cathartic and unifying influence.
Topics for Further Study
- Write an autobiographical essay exploring tensions within your family. Note whether the tensions were resolved and if so, how.
- Read another story from Dream Stuff, and prepare a presentation for the class comparing and contrasting that story's use of the dream motif with that of "Great Day."
- Do some research on the national holidays of Australia and how aborigines may feel about them or observe them. Write a paper on your findings.
- Visit a small, local museum, and learn about a local family whose artifacts may be housed there. Write a paper on this family, describing its contribution to the local area and describing some of the items belonging to the family you saw in the museum.
Initially, the bonfire presents tension through Ned's response to it as he fails to get support from his family for his contention that the group on the beach is breaking the rules. His eventual acceptance of the bonfire helps Ned become less rigid in his thinking. The bonfire also enables Fran to realize her connection to the Tyler family: she imagines herself enclosed in the circle of light it offers, the same comforting "light that fills the world."
Malouf connects the bonfire to the museum fire as he describes the glowing embers of each at the story's close. Initially, the museum fire causes a similar tension in that it is the result of outside forces, here specifically more threatening ones. Yet as Audley watches the artifacts of his past be destroyed by the fire, he comes to recognize the importance of what is left behind. In both cases, the fire draws a circle of people around it, emphasizing connection between those who form the circle.
The story is set on a warm day during the Australian summer. No date is mentioned, but it is most likely in January, which is Australia's hottest month. During this month, Australians celebrate two historical events: Australia's Independence Day on January 1, which honors the day the country won its independence from Great Britain in 1901; and Australia Day on January 26, which honors the date in 1788 when the first white settlement was established. Some critics have assumed that the story takes place on Independence Day, but others have inferred that it is Australia Day. Malouf never identifies the specific holiday that becomes the backdrop for the story, perhaps to place more emphasis on the reunification of family.
Historical details do play an important part, however, at the end of the story when the museum that contains many of the family's artifacts burns down. Peter Pierce, in his article on Dream Stuff, notes regional elements in "Great Day," arguing that while there are no aborigines in the story, and "no bonfires of theirs will ring the long continental coast in celebration," on this national holiday, Malouf asks us "to reflect on where and how far Australia has traveled since the McGiverns … came to the blacksoil country and other regions of Australia that they pioneered."
Aborigines, the name given to the original inhabitants of Australia, may have emigrated from Asia approximately 20,000 years ago. Though various groups of aborigines moved there, the country remained isolated from the outside world until Europeans began to explore and settle it. Portuguese Manuel Godhino de Eredia is considered to be the first European to sight the continent in 1601, followed by Spaniard Luis Vaez de Torres in 1605. Dutch explorers later named it New Holland.
In 1770, Captain James Cook landed on the east coast and claimed the land for Great Britain. The first British settlement, soon established in 1788, was a penal colony in Port Jackson, which is now Sydney. The continent became a British dependency by 1829. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Australia became a dumping ground for anyone deemed undesirable by the British government.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, a gold strike brought an influx of people from around the world to the continent. By the mid-1800s, permanent colonization had erased the old penal settlements, and by 1901, a self-governing confederacy with its own constitution was established.
Dream Stuff earned Malouf overwhelming critical praise, and "Great Day" is often singled out as the finest story in the collection. Paul Sharrad, in his article on Malouf's short prose, insists that Malouf is "Australia's leading producer of 'poetic prose.'" He finds that "the shorter work … relies for its impact on musical qualities such as rhythm and cadence and the modulation of evocative motifs" and allows Malouf "more consistently to tap into his creative strengths and to provide new insights into old experiences."
Rebecca Miller in her review of Dream Stuff for Library Journal, praises "these nine beautiful and often brutal stories" that "[describe] a precarious world in which the imagination, through dreams, is the only thing that can face down the losses of life." She adds, "Almost all of the stories here are superb, evocative creations." She finds, "As a whole, the collection is like a tumultuous life: it reels through surprising turns of plot, alternating between moments on the brink of death in one story and loss of innocence in another, then presses on, redeemed only by the warmth of human feeling and a glimpse of the possible."
A review in the Economist applauds the tone of the collection, arguing that "there is nothing conventionally 'dreamy' about the stories themselves. Not so much as a trace of sentimentality. Not the least haziness or insubstantiality." The reviewer also admires the solid construction, the "uncompromisingly gritty and emotionally charged" subject matter, the "extent of psychological territory covered," and "physical landscape" of the stories, which is "carefully charted." The review concludes by insisting, "Such, in the hands of a latter-day Prospero like Mr. Malouf, is the stuff that dreams are made on."
Peter Pierce, in his article on Dream Stuff, finds "an artful casualness" in the stories and praises their focus on "the variegated stuff of dreams—longed for and summoned up. Or come unbidden, bringing peace, or disquiet," which, he claims is their "unifying metaphorical thread."
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly notes the regionalism of the stories, arguing that "Malouf … has a peculiarly Australian sensitivity to the mechanics of large families" and that his "stories show his feeling for the intense grip of the continent's space upon its people." Yet, the reviewer also insists that Malouf "[transcends] regionalism by his instinct for that odd, modulated empathy victims and outsiders can feel for their assailants" and so "shows a rare, exploratory intelligence coupled with a compassionate view of human conduct." Singling out "Great Day," this reviewer states, "of the nine stories gathered in Malouf's latest collection, most are excellent, and one—"Great Day," the final entry—is outstanding," finding it "elegantly structured and perfectly pitched." Miller also singles out the story, which she claims is "the collection's final and most deeply crafted work" as does a review in New Statesman that claims, ""Great Day" [is] a charming, life-affirming account of a family gathering on the bicentenary Australia Day in 1988." While, like the other stories, it "also turns opaque, with characters making gnomic utterances," the reviewer concludes that "here and elsewhere, Malouf's fine writing does live up to its pretensions as often as not."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins traces the characters' achievement of a harmonious balance.
In his article on David Malouf's shorter fiction, Paul Sharrad argues that Malouf's stories explore the mystery inherent in "the moment of contact between different orders of experience," specifically "the mystery of what makes people tick" and "of how some of us find intuitive balance in a world that others force into solid blocks of unfeeling certitude." These mysteries are the main focal points of "Great Day" in its chronicle of one day in the life of the Tyler clan. During the course of this day, readers get glimpses of what makes each member tick as well as their struggles with the inevitable tensions that arise in a tightly knit family structure. The day, however, becomes "great" by its close, when the characters are able to strike a balance between connection and disconnection and between the past and the future.
Ned, Angie and Ralph's son, is one of the first to feel the tensions on the morning of Audley Tyler's seventy-second birthday, which falls on a national Australian holiday. At eleven, Ned, "whose idea of the world was very different" from that of his relatives, has "a hunger for order that the circumstances of his life frustrated." At breakfast, he wonders why Clem and Fran are still friends after getting a divorce. When he does not get a satisfactory answer to this mystery, he explodes, "People never tell me anything…. How am I ever going to know how to act or anything if I can't find out the simplest thing?"
Later in the day, when he sees a group of people begin to set up a bonfire on the beach, he is certain that they are breaking rules and so tells one of the boys who has come up suddenly behind him to "piss off." Nat gets no satisfaction from his father who tells him, "it's a free country." Preferring the more formal attitude of his grandfather, Ned turns to Audley but gets no response. Yet, Audley's formality tempers Ned's indignation. When he returns to the beach and watches the group set up the bonfire, Ned is able to find a balance between his need for rules, his patriotism as he watches the celebratory fire, and his introduction to a new way of thinking. His experiences this day cause him to widen his view of the world, and as a result, he is able then to greet the boy he had rebuked earlier and so establish "a kind of reconcilement."
Fran and Angie have always felt a sense of disconnection between themselves and the rest of the Tyler family, "a close-knit tribe" that "hedged against intruders." Angie was "always ill at ease in Madge's kitchen, fearful she might register visible disapproval of the mess" she finds there. Angie "always felt, down here, like a child who had been dumped on them for a wet weekend and could find nothing to do." As a result, she hangs back during family gatherings, staying on the edges of the celebrations and often leaving for a time to walk along the beach.
Fran was "never quite sure that Madge approved of her" and had married Clem because she regarded him "as a fellow sufferer among them and decided it was her role to save him." Initially, she and Angie "had been wary of one another" because "they were so unalike," but they eventually came together, feeling "so out of it at times that they would huddle in subversive pockets, finding relief in hilarity or in whispered resentment." During Audley's party, feeling overwhelmed by the crowd, the two go off together for a walk on the beach during which they criticize some of the guests.
Tension between Fran and the family has increased after the divorce, which becomes evident when the family ignores Clem's question, "Do we look like newlyweds?" Yet, Fran is able to find a tentative balance in her relationship with the family by the end of the day. Malouf solves the mystery of Fran and Clem's friendship when he notes that the two "had begun to see one another again, locked in an odd dependency. She was adventurous, what she wanted was experience, 'affairs.' Clem was the element in her life that was stable."
Fran also feels compelled to maintain her relationship with the family. She is one of those people "who'd got hooked on the Tylers," to "the illusion of belonging, however briefly, to the world of rare affinities and stern, unfettered views they represented." Her need for acceptance is illustrated in the vision she has while she and Angie watch the group on the beach drawing together by the bonfire. Fran admits, "I could sit here till I understood at last what it all means: why the sea, why the stars, why this lump in my throat." When she imagines herself lying down on the sand with the others in "a circle of light," Fran has an epiphany of sorts, suggesting that she can be content inside the circle of the family as well as outside it, by striking a balance between the two. This knowledge allows her to acknowledge her ties to Clem as well as to leave later with Cedric.
Clem, like his ex-wife, has always felt like an outsider to his family, especially after the accident, which caused him to lose much of his memory. Tension arises when he says "whatever [comes] into his head," as he does with his newlywed comment. When he sits in his mother's kitchen that morning, he tries to gain reassurance from her that she and his father loved him. Madge insists that they did and that he was Audley's favorite, but then she admits that he may also have been a disappointment to his father.
By the end of the day, though, Clem is able to accept his role in the family, which is illustrated in the speech he gives after the museum has burned down. Feeling that "something more was needed" before everyone said goodnight, he begins to talk with growing confidence to these "friends, people he loved, who would understand if what he said went astray and did not come out the way he meant." Like his wife, he experiences an epiphany this evening, recognizing a connection among all of them, which proves that "anything is possible…. Nothing ever gets lost." This recognition makes everything "all right," even though Fran had not been there. "They could go to bed now. He could. They all could. The day was over."
Audley realizes the same thing this evening after watching all his beloved family artifacts go up in smoke. Peter Pierce, in his article on the story, argues that "the destruction of the museum is cathartic" for Audley. Pierce claims that "he welcomes this destruction of the stuff of his past" because it serves as "a drastic cleansing of the sort that one's own mind and actions can seldom manage." Audley comes to recognize that his family, which represents the true importance of the past and of the present, has not been lost.
As he sits in the kitchen with Angie, reinforcing their special bond that provides her at the end of the night with her own sense of connection, Audley revels in Clem's happiness during his speech and suggests, "I think he was trying to say something to me … about the fire—as well as all the rest." What Audley discovers is the importance of "attending," of paying attention to others, a virtue that they have all displayed at one point during the day that has enabled them to find a harmonious balance in their lives and an appreciation "of a new day coming," of "the light that fills the world."
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "Great Day," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, Rooney gives a critical analysis of Malouf's life and work.
What Do I Read Next?
- Malouf's title story in Dream Stuff (2000) explores the tensions between European and Australian cultures in its focus on a writer returning home to Australia.
- Malouf's "At Schindlers," in the same 2000 collection, contrasts the social and the personal as it chronicles the life of a boy who loses his father during World War II.
- Long Day's Journey into Night, first performed in 1956, is Eugene O'Neill's finest study of domestic interaction and offers insight into O'Neill's own tragic relationship with his family.
- The narrator in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (2001) explores the lives of his offbeat family in this bittersweet bestselling novel as he tells of his struggle to make peace with them.
David Malouf enjoys a distinguished reputation, nationally and internationally, as a writer whose lyrical mappings of identity, place, and the body also bear upon questions of belonging and national identity. Crossing successfully from poetry to prose fiction in 1975, Malouf has continued to write in a wide variety of forms and genres. He is author, to date, of at least six volumes of poetry, several editions of selected poems, six novels, two novellas, three short-story collections, many autobiographical and prose nonfiction publications, a series of libretti for opera, and an original play. While this range demonstrates unusual versatility, Malouf's writing also exhibits remarkable consistency in approach, preoccupation, and style. On the shortlist for the Booker Prize in 1993 for Remembering Babylon (1993), Malouf has been the recipient of many prestigious awards for fiction, poetry, and drama. These include the 1974 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and the 1974 Grace Leven Poetry Prize, for Neighbours in a Thicket: Poems (1974); the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, in 1979 for An Imaginary Life: A Novel (1978) and in 1987 for Blood Relations (1988); the 1983 Age Book of the Year and the 1983 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, for Fly Away Peter (1982); the Best Book of the Region Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region), the Miles Franklin Award, and the Prix Femina Prize (France) for The Great World (1990) in 1991; and the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the 1994 Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region), the 1995 Prix Baudelaire (France), and the 1996 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Remembering Babylon.
Born in Brisbane on 20 March 1934 into a family of mixed British and Lebanese ancestry, Malouf's writing does not explicitly treat issues of ethnic minority or difference, instead drawing upon European heritage in ways that engage primarily with the (white) mainstream of Australian literary culture. As Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra point out, for Malouf "Australia is not the place of exile; it is in fact the place of return." Educated at Brisbane Grammar School, Malouf graduated with honors from the University of Queensland before departing for England, where he worked as a teacher from 1959 to 1968. On his return to Australia, Malouf took up a teaching post in the Department of English at the University of Sydney. During this decade Malouf not only developed an increasingly sophisticated body of poetry but also made his mark as a novelist with the publication of Johnno in 1975. Reviewers heralded this first novel as an innovative contribution to Australian writing, and thereafter Malouf's novels evolved in confidence, breadth, and complexity, ultimately earning him an international readership and reputation. On winning a three-year fellowship from the Literature Board of the Australia Council in 1978, Malouf retired from teaching to commit himself full-time to writing. Living alternately in Tuscany and Sydney, Malouf has been able to harness his expatriate experience to situate Australian writing in an international frame, promoting the imaginative transformation and interpenetration of both Australian and European meanings. In the words of Martin Leer, Malouf "sees Australia as producing 'critical variants of Europe': it is 'Europe translated.'"
Though his fiction has made a greater public impact, Malouf's poetry displays an artistry considered by some (particularly his fellow poets) to source—if not eclipse—his prose writings. For Ivor Indyk, Malouf "remains a poet, writing in the medium of prose." Malouf's first significant mark as a poet was as one of the contributors to Four Poets: David Malouf, Don Maynard, Judith Green (later known as Judith Rodriguez), Rodney Hall (1962), a collection showcasing the work of newcomers to the field. Three volumes of poetry that followed—Bicycle and Other Poems (1970), Neighbours in a Thicket, and Poems 1975–1976 (1976)—attracted considerable critical interest, establishing Malouf's as a distinctive new voice in Australian poetry.
From the outset, Malouf's poetic voice has been infused by a sense of immediacy, an intimacy of address, and, as Dennis Haskell observes, an emphasis on "presentation of the self." A critical moment in Malouf's poetry—signaling the development of a characteristic approach—occurs in his much anthologized poem "An Ordinary Evening at Hamilton" (1974):
The garden shifts indoors, the house lets fall
its lamp light, opens
windows in the earth
The commingling of house and garden relays an encounter—described by Vivian Smith as "the opening out of the individual consciousness to merge with a landscape, a past, another consciousness; a moment which becomes one of self-recognition, of which the poem is the voice"—that recurs throughout Malouf's writing. In both his poetry and his prose, attention is frequently drawn to the space of boundaries, in which the encounter between such pairs as self and other, animal and human, sea and land, nature and culture is negotiated. For Malouf, such encounters on the boundary—a place of meeting or crossing into otherness—can dissolve and transform being. The crossing of consciousness into difference is arrestingly realized in the sensuous sequence "The Crab Feast I-X," from Malouf's highly praised collection First Things Last: Poems (1980):
Bent over you I dip my hand
in the bowl, I shake my cuffs, out in the open
and lost. Deep down
I am with you in the dark. The secret flesh of
My tongue enters a claw.
Observing both the gravity and inventiveness of his poems—their often "anecdotal starting point" and their "sense of intellectual searching"—Thomas W. Shapcott, in "The Evidence of Anecdote: Some Perspectives on the Poetry of David Malouf" in Provisional Maps (1994), argues that "process is centre-stage in Malouf's poetic world." These qualities are amply illustrated in "The Crab Feast I-X" and indeed in poems such as "Adrift," which recalls the lonely and bereft mother in old age, or "This Day, Under My Hand," with its vivid image of
The cold Pacific banging
an open gate. Australia
hitched like a watertank
to the back verandah, all night
tugging at our sleep.
Malouf's poems sometimes prefigure his fiction, especially in their recourse to meditation and the resources of memory. As Philip Nielsen points out, "The Judas Touch," an early poem dedicated to "John Milliner: drowned February 1962," foreshadows Malouf's first novel, Johnno. Likewise, Laurie Hergenhan shows how elements of "The Year of the Foxes" prefigure elements of Malouf's later fiction.
Malouf's novels, however, do not merely repeat the preoccupations of his poetry in another form but also experiment with the novel as form, playing with its temporal constraints and possibilities. The intimacy of the poet's voice is modulated by and contends with the linear drive of narrative. Through the novels, Malouf explores intimate personal terrain in ways that refract and dramatize questions of Australian history and national identity. Andrew Taylor in "The Great World, History, and Two or One" (collected in Provisional Maps) notes the imaginative scope of Malouf's fictional mappings of Australian history: "two hundred years of Australian history are covered almost continuously by Malouf's fiction, something not found in any other Australian novelist." Yet, Malouf's exploration of monumental or emblematic episodes in Australian history, in World Wars I and II, for example, is never directed by a strongly "historical" focus but proceeds by means of subjective experience and encounter. The linear thrust of history is interrupted and slowed by the personal experience of time and the expansion outward of the space of narration. That this strategy is conscious is evident in Malouf's typically lucid account to Helen Daniel of how he seeks to harness the narrative process in his 1996 novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek:
I'm aware of the number of times I really want to use the novel to stop time, to slow things up. You can slow up the narrative so that a second is something that can be explored maybe over pages. I like that play between movement and stillness in the novel.
In Malouf's novels, recurring scenarios cumulatively produce an elaborate network of ideas. These thoughts include, for instance, the narrated recollection of place (particularly of domestic interiors); the playing out of a dynamic between male alter egos or twinned characters (such male dyads are often triangulated by the inclusion of a third, female character); exploration of the figure or role of the artist—for example, Dante, Frank Harland, Imogen Harcourt, Ovid, and the unnamed "Great Man of Letters" in Child's Play (1981); and the juxtapositioning of Australia and Europe. Johnno, The Conversations at Curlow Creek, and The Great World all feature triangulated relations between central characters (the bonds between two men, partly in relation to a woman). Whereas Fly Away Peter and The Great World invoke the mythology of the Australian digger, Child's Play, An Imaginary Life, and Harland's Half Acre (1984) explore the writer- or artist-figure's response to exile and belonging. An Imaginary Life, like Remembering Babylon, plays upon the frontier space of empire, raising questions via an encounter with a hybrid being in the shape of the feral (lost or returned) child.
The evocation of wartime Brisbane in Malouf's first novel, Johnno, sparked excitement among critics about the potential for regionally focused Australian writing. In Johnno, Brisbane is both "the most ordinary place in the world" and timeless or mythological, standing in for that more elusively expansive geopolitical entity, Australia, "a place too big to hold in the mind." Likewise, the brevity and apparent stylistic simplicity of the novel belie its sophisticated organization and the play of ironies generated through the dynamic between its circumspect narrator, Dante, and his wayward and charismatic boyhood friend, Johnno. Dante's musing upon an old school photograph is an early instance of Malouf's recurring use of ekphrasis, a literary device involving the detailed written representation of a visual text such as a photograph or painting. Dante's meditation on the photograph initiates his retrospective tale, in which energies seemingly focused on Johnno frequently divert toward the narrator's own processes of creating meaning. Johnno himself functions, alternately, as a prototypical masculine adventurer—"our very own Tamberlaine and Al Capone"—and as a foil to Dante himself, as a marker pointing back to the narrator's "hypocritical niceness." The dynamic between Dante and Johnno unfolds through space as well as time, moving from adolescent adventure in Brisbane, to Johnno's departure for Africa, then Europe, followed by Dante, until their successive returns to Australia, where their separate yet linked destinies are played out in evasion, suicide, and regret. For Hodge and Mishra, "Johnno becomes, for Dante, both his uncanny mirror image and the shadow he also pursues." As Leigh Dale and Helen Gilbert argue, the ambiguities of the text tend to veil its dissidence, deferring absolute answers about the otherwise erotic dimensions of the relationship between the two men. The invocation of the epic poet Dante, moreover, introduces a significantly metafictional layer to the narrative: Dante's "survivor guilt" over Johnno coalesces with the guilty dilemma of the artist who, as Nielsen argues, must exploit "personal relationships for his own aesthetic ends."
In An Imaginary Life, Malouf broke new ground while continuing to refine and elaborate themes introduced in Johnno. Narrated by Ovid, the Roman poet exiled in old age to a remote northern outpost of empire, An Imaginary Life has been taken up by many readers as a meditation upon the writer's antipodean and (post)colonial positioning, and upon questions of exile and belonging. Flung out from the imperial center where distinctions between civilization and nature are tenuous, Ovid engages in a quest for meaning that brings him to the edges of selfhood, language, and existence. Encountering the mystery of a boy brought up by wolves (mythically central to imperial Roman identity), Ovid entices the boy into the village, seeking to render him tractable to human society and language. Suffering the sudden ravages of illness, however, the villagers become superstitiously fearful, and Ovid and the boy depart, traveling beyond this last outpost into an arctic wilderness. Roles reverse, and the boy becomes Ovid's protector as he journeys toward the culmination of his quest, which is also the moment of his death. Malouf's novel—meditating upon language, spiritual and aesthetic being, and the body's experience of change—converses in imaginative and metafictional terms with the ancient Roman poet of Metamorphoses (completed, A.D. 8):
Our bodies are not final. We are moving, all of us, in our common humankind, through the forms we love so deeply in each other's darkness. Slowly, and with pain, over centuries, we each move an infinitesimal space towards it. We are creating the lineaments of some final man, for whose delight we have prepared a landscape, and who can only be god.
Published in seven languages, this novel is arguably the most widely known and admired of Malouf's oeuvre (with the possible exception of Remembering Babylon, which bears many resemblances to An Imaginary Life). Both when it was first published and during the intervening years, the novel has attracted a great deal of critical attention, particularly as a text about the (post)colonial condition. For Gareth Griffiths, for example, An Imaginary Life suggests how texts can be "effectively open to the full complexity of the condition of post-colonial societies and the problems these societies now exhibit."
Malouf next embarked on a series of novellas and short stories. Though first published in 1981 with Child's Play, the novella The Bread of Time to Come was republished separately in 1982 under the title Fly Away Peter, while Child's Play was republished in 1982 with two short stories—" Eustace" and "The Prowler." Although in some ways entailing a strikingly different scenario, Child's Play is unmistakably continuous with Malouf's previous fiction. As in both previous novels, a palpably metafictional element attends the dramatization of individual power and destiny in this novella—writing and death, and art and terrorism. The narrator of Child's Play belongs to a terrorist cell located in a provincial Italian town; his assignment involves the assassination, for reasons unspecified, of an elderly, preeminent Italian writer—the unnamed "Great Man of Letters" in the novel, whose work-in-progress bears the title "Child's Play." As he prepares for his mission, the narrator is drawn into a quasi-oedipal struggle over the question of who determines and controls meaning, narrative, and destiny—in other words, over "authorship." The terrorist's plot, seeking dominion over its target, is caught within the larger design of the great writer's text: "But I should confess that if, through long sessions of study, I have begun to understand him a little, to observe, that is, the dangers that are inherent in the very nature of his 'trick,' he has also, and so long ago that it quite scares me, both understood and accounted for me." A mis-en-abyme (an infinitely regressing image) opens in the shuttle among the three "author" figures—the terrorist, the writer, and Malouf himself. Other familiar elements from the previous novel that recur in Child's Play include its use of retrospective narration; the twinning or doubling of characters, in the relationship between the narrator and his dead older brother; and ekphrasis in the narrator's use of photographs to familiarize himself with the appointed scene of death, a device that occasions a meditation on issues of narrative, time, destiny, and meaning. The ambiguous ending of the novella has been regarded as only a "qualified success," according to Nielsen, although it has also been read as a deliberate refutation of Roland Barthes's "death of the author," according to Stephen Woods. Walking "under the early blossoms" of an apple orchard, the narrator is either escaping into safety or encountering extinction. Though its significance remains opaque, this conclusion recalls the merging of self and landscape in Ovid's sublime death in An Imaginary Life.
In Fly Away Peter, Jim Saddler, humble rural worker, and Ashley Crowther, heir to a Queensland coastal property, are the mirroring couple whose differentiated class positioning both materially shapes their destinies during World War I and represents male bonding as something capable of transcending class difference. The approach the novel takes to the genesis of the Anzac legend, however, seems less concerned with history than with metaphysical themes—of self in process; self in response to others; and self in relation to landscape, destiny, and time. Educated in progressive land-management theories in England, Ashley observes Jim's practical knowledge of the swampland on his Queensland property and immediately employs him to record its migratory-bird life. Ashley recognizes that Jim's intimate knowledge gives him a claim over the land: "Such claims were ancient and deep. They lay in Jim's knowledge of every blade of grass and drop of water in the swamp, of every bird's foot that was set down there—in his having, most of all, the names for things and in that way possessing them." Although the narrative seems to efface the claims of indigenous people, Malouf's focus on belonging through knowledge and naming augurs the development, in his later fiction, of a more complex encounter with frontier history. New, twentieth-century technologies—plane and camera—enter the plot as ambivalent signs of the progress of modernity and of impending war. English freelance photographer Imogen Harcourt, a mature professional woman working in close partnership with Jim, triangulates the male pairing. Migratory patterns of birds prefigure the absurdity of young men's flight to their deaths on the Western Front, the terms of which are graphically and powerfully depicted in the contrasting second half of the novel. The cruelties that then unfold are resolved, momentarily, and in the consolation a grieving Imogen takes from her vision of a surfer an image that positively fuses human technology with nature.
A more lengthy and historically detailed novel, Harland's Half Acre, came next, featuring—like earlier works—Brisbane and rural Queensland settings, and a dually focused narration. In some sequences a third-person narrator recounts episodes in the life and career of Frank Harland, a landscape artist, son of a charismatic battler and widower, Clem. The significance of exile and belonging in the genesis of Australian art is dramatized in Frank's movements through time and space, from his early removal from the family home after his mother's death, his return to family and his efforts to guide his motherless siblings and his nephew, to his final, Ovid-like death on Bribie Island. An itinerant worker during the Great Depression years, Frank drifts in space even as his landscape paintings mature, finally reaching a wider public. The recounting of Frank Harland's life is interwoven with the first-person narrative of Phil Vernon, whose family life in Brisbane, seemingly tangential, eventually intertwines with Frank's life, leading to Phil's role as intermediary between artist and public. As a child, Phil mediates between his partially estranged grandparents, and later, between Frank and his temperamental nephew and heir, Gerald. Like Dante in Johnno, Phil is a surrogate for the writer, functioning as witness to events. Yet, as lawyer and family friend, he is torn between the need for professional impartiality and the demands of personal involvement. The ekphrastic device of the photo as trigger for narration, previously employed in both Johnno and Child's Play, recurs in a seminal scene in which the young Phil first encounters Frank's landscape paintings and finds himself primally caught by the portrait of a local woman who murdered her partner, a European immigrant. The darkness of European history is here, and elsewhere in the narrative, transplanted into Australian contexts, reversing clichés about Australian innocence in contrast to European experience. Likewise, Frank Harland's "half acre" is more than a modest slice of Australian ground; Frank's mental landscapes and artistic journey essay new strategies for making and thereby belonging to Australia.
Malouf's next published work was Antipodes (1985), a collection of short stories, which was followed by an autobiographical memoir, 12 Edmonstone Street (1985). Shapcott in "The Evidence of Anecdote: Some Perspectives on the Poetry of David Malouf describes these works, in which Malouf vividly recalls the contours of his childhood home and his encounters with Tuscany and India, as "autobiographical prose interiors." Gillian Whitlock in "The Child in the (Queensland) House: David Malouf and Regional Writing" (in Provisional Maps), discussing the regionally inflected exploration in the title story of the "Queenslander" (a wooden bungalow on stilts), observes how the narrative proceeds by means of its "spacial contiguities rather than a sequence of events": "Gradually this child-in-the-house narrative makes its way from verandah, through the rooms and down to 'under the house,' a space that Malouf mythologizes as a forest, as dark as anything in Grimm."
During the late 1980s Malouf turned his hand to writing for the stage. As well as a highly acclaimed libretto written for Richard Meale's opera Voss (1986), based on Patrick White's novel, Malouf also published his first and, to date, only original play. Blood Relations was Malouf's reworking of William Shakespeare's The Tempest (first performed, 1613; first published, 1623) and was first staged by the Sydney Theatre Company in 1987. Set at Christmastime in a family home on the tropical coast of northwestern Australia, the drama concerns the unearthing of the father's past and the transformations that this process brings. Dale and Gilbert observe that the play deploys "the edge" as a "place of negotiation," "a political space where Prospero's dream of a 'prosperous' island state, where the colonizer acts as 'husbandman' to a bountiful new world, is thwarted." Since then Malouf has produced three further librettos for contemporary opera, including Richard Meale's opera Mer de Glace (1991), an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); Michael Berkeley's first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep (1993), based on episodes from Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894); and most recently Berkeley's opera Jane Eyre (2000), based on Charlotte Brontë's novel. Annie Patrick observes that Malouf's contribution to each libretto extends beyond mere adaptation into creation of "operatic counter-parts which not only demonstrate his ability to write for voice and the stage—[but also] his collaborative skills with a composer."
The Great World was Malouf's next full-length novel and his most detailed and expansive yet. This novel, as Nielsen remarks, offers no radical departures from Malouf's earlier work but rather consolidates and extends familiar themes and approaches. Realist and historical in genre, but often ruminative and lyrical as was the earlier fiction, The Great World spans a seventy-year period, focusing on Australians affected—individually and collectively—by their experiences of World War II. Among other memorable episodes, the novel depicts in harrowing terms the ordeal suffered by Australian prisoners of war at the notorious Changi camp and on the Thai/Burma railway. The title of the book refers to an abandoned theme park, "the Great World," used as makeshift quarters for a contingent of prisoners working on the Singapore docks. Thus, juxtaposing the imagined expansive-ness of the world with its cruel foreshortening through war and imprisonment, "the Great World" also alludes to the shifting perspectives of its protagonists—their expectations and experiences of the wider world. Narrative focus is shared between complementary male characters, ne'er-do-well Digger Keen and self-made businessman Vic Currant, whose friendship begins in the camp in Malaya and whose destinies and personal lives thereafter entwine. Malouf's exploration, via the evolving relationship between Digger and Vic, of the ethos of mastership—that quintessentially masculine virtue associated with the Anzac legend—sympathetically rewrites this period of Australian history in personal and ironic but also mythic terms. Though a few reviews were less enthusiastic—for example, Gerard Windsor's in the Australian Book Review (April 1990)—most concurred with A. P. Riemer's view in The Sydney Morning Herald (17 February 1990) that this was "a masterly novel, a deeply satisfying work of art."
In the multiple-award-winning Remembering Babylon, Malouf returns to the motif of the enfant sauvage (wild child) first treated in An Imaginary Life, reversing its narrative movement. Based on an account of British sailor James (Jemmy) Merrill, who was shipwrecked in 1846 and who lived for many years with an Aboriginal tribe before returning to white settlement, Malouf's novel rewrites the imperial first-contact story of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). It also rewrites colonial captivity narratives, such as that of Eliza Framer, a British woman shipwrecked in 1836 on Fraser Island, off Queensland, on which White's novel A Fringe of Leaves (1976) was based. In mid Queensland in the 1850s (during one of the bloodiest phases of colonization), castaway ship boy Gemmy Fairley, having been rescued and nurtured by an Aboriginal tribe for sixteen years, finally returns to white society. Hovering on the fence line—the literal and symbolic perimeter of the colony—Gemmy "surrenders" to a small group of children who then mediate his encounter with the adults. With his damaged body ("smudged appearance" and "baffled, half-expectant look of a mongrel that had been whipped"), strange behavior, broken English, and obscure history, Gemmy represents a highly threatening state of being between two statuses, or liminality. As the "white blackfellow" he was "a parody of a white man," an "imitation gone wrong." Gemmy had also puzzled the Aborigines, who saw him as "half-child, half sea-calf," like Caliban in The Tempest. To the white settlers, Gemmy dangerously embodies that which daily eats at their security—proximity to a vast, unchartered country and to its feared Aboriginal inhabitants: "Out here the very ground under their feet was strange. It had never been ploughed." Taken in by the McIvors, Gemmy's closest link is with the children who first encountered him—Lachlan Beattie and Janet McIvor—and the narrative relays their stories, along with the varied reactions of the small community. Though widely reviewed in glowing terms, Malouf's novel also sparked a contentious critical debate about its politics. Published in the very year in which the Australian High Court replaced the legal doctrine of terra nullius (a legal concept meaning "the land belonging to no one" used by the British to deny the claims of the indigenous people of Australia to their native land) with that of native title (in the case of Mabo vs Queensland, No. 2), Remembering Babylon has been criticized for authenticating white experience and history at the expense of Aboriginal bodies, experience, and history (as Germaine Greer, Suvendrini Perera, and Garry Kinnane discuss). Others, such as Bill Ashcroft, counter this charge with the argument that the novel is subversive, representing "the very different, transformative oppositionality of post-colonial discourse" (see also Lee Spinks and Penelope Ingram).
Reception of Malouf's next novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek, has generally been positive. Anthony J. Hassall praises its "passionate, poetic reimaginings" of competing versions of colonial Australia. Although replete with patterns familiar from Malouf's previous work, in this novel the representation of the violence of colonial history is arguably more direct than that of Remembering Babylon. The story, set in Australia in 1827, concerns the impending execution of Irish rebel and colonial bushranger Daniel Carney, who—among other crimes—has fostered insurrection against the British by local Aboriginal tribes. Also of Irish background, Michael Adair, the officer posted to supervise this execution, passes the night in the hut with the imprisoned man, while the three troopers and Aboriginal tracker who captured Carney make their camp outside the hut. Adair's recollections of his boyhood past compose much of the narrative. Adopted into a wealthy Irish family, Adair had formed a close but rivalrous bond with his foster brother, Fergus Connellan, whose identity merges during the narrative with that of Carney, the condemned man. Rivalry between the adopted brothers is complicated by the presence of a young woman, Virgilia, who was tutored alongside them. Virgilia secretly loves Fergus, while Adair secretly loves Virgilia. In contrast to the austere and conservative Adair, who is overly conscious of his lesser place in the world, Fergus is a romantic idealist who, refusing his inheritance, leaves Ireland for Australia in search of a more just society. Adair's guilt over this uneasy past oppresses him; so, too, the specter of colonial violence—in a moment of confrontation—haunts the troopers' fireside conversation outside the hut. Reconciliation, for Adair, is finally figured in two sacramental movements: in a baptismal moment when the condemned man, prior to his hanging, is permitted to wash himself in the stream, and, in the final moment of the narrative, as Adair breaks his nightlong fast: "He chews as he walks on, his saliva mixing with [the bread's] sugars and driving new light into his heart, refreshing his mouth like common speech." The narrative thus repeats a gesture familiar in Malouf's writing, moving through encounter with difference toward transformation, reconciliation, and transcendence.
As well as the less widely distributed Untold Tales (1999), Malouf has published two volumes of short stories—Antipodes and Dream Stuff (2000)—which show both diversity of content and thematic coherence. In Antipodes, which, despite positive reviews, has subsequently received little critical attention, the geographic opposition of Australian and European perspectives is, as James Tulip suggests, one of a series of dramatic oppositions across a range of stories in which the romance of distance is set against the pleasures of the everyday. "Southern Skies" treats these themes, for example, through the narrator's recollections of the Professor—an esteemed family friend whose "Old Country" manners and erudition at first annoy the young male narrator, who seeks assimilation with contemporary Australia; later the Professor draws him across the threshold into a different experience of romance, vulnerability, and desire. Suburban and familial perspectives—in stories such as "The Empty Lunch-Tin" and "Bad Blood"—delicately explore the unexpected in everyday relationships. The stories in Dream Stuff, set entirely in Australia, are linked unobtrusively by the motif of dreaming. "Jacko's Reach," for example, concerns how the one remaining plot of wilderness in a suburb, finally resumed for development, lingers in the imagination; and the youthful narrator of "Closer" dreams of reconciling, across the closed boundary of a Pentecostal home, with the uncle whose annual visits to the property's perimeter are studiously ignored by his family. In this collection, Peter Pierce detects an increasing sense of "skepticism about the reality of the social world," since its various stories speak "of haunting, of vanishing, of desperate attempts to put down roots and unavailing efforts to escape them—of the impact of war and of the conflicts within families."
As well as being an Australian writer of undoubted eminence and achievement, Malouf is a formidable commentator upon his own work and an eloquent exponent in the public domain of his views, particularly of the role of the writer in contemporary Australia. In addition to his creative works, Malouf has also produced many lectures, opinion pieces, essays, and interviews. During his 1998 ABC Boyer Lecture series (published as A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness ), Malouf reiterates his vision of a necessarily dynamic relationship between contemporary Australians and the land:
We are the makers, among much else, of landscapes. We remake the land in our own image so that it comes in time to reflect both the industry and the imagination of its makers, and gives us back, in working land, but also in the idealized version of landscape that is a park or garden, an image both of our human nature and our power. Such making is also a rich form of possession.
Malouf's own writing, compellingly for some readers but problematically for others, testifies to this observation. Concerned about distinguishing his sense of "making" from negative modes of colonization, Malouf advocates "a convergence of indigenous and non-indigenous understanding, a collective spiritual consciousness that will be the true form of reconciliation" in Australia. Malouf's writing maps encounters between self and other, tensions between exile and home, and relations between the individual and history—issues holding particular resonance for contemporary Australians. The transformations that, in Malouf's writing, are deployed to resolve these encounters—via death in the landscape, absorption into the other, experience of the limitless body, and immersion in the sacred—suggest the writer's belief in the efficacy and relevance of art, not merely as a powerful mode of expression, but also as a strategy of belonging.
Source: Brigid Rooney, "David Malouf," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 289, Australian Writers, 1950–1975, edited by Selina Samuels, Gale, 2004, pp. 214-222.
In the following essay, Pierce explores the importance of dreams as "analogies" to the waking state, the merging of and volleying between spaces and consciousness, and the fluid impermanence of life in "Great Day" and other works in the Dream Stuff collection.
Towards Dream Stuff. The title of David Malouf's first collection of short fiction, Antipodes (1985), specified a capacious geographic setting. This was European, specifically contemptuous British colonial shorthand for Australia, Malouf's native country. Yet, his title implied, opposite of what? Malouf showed himself more concerned with the particulars of a world disparaged sometimes as new than with critical contrasts between it and the parent cultures of Europe. For Malouf's prose fiction, from Johnno (1975) to the present, has revealed him to be, by intuition and craft, a maker of metaphors and seldom an ironist or a satirist.
Antipodes has received scant subsequent critical attention. In full-length studies of Malouf's work by Philip Neilsen (Imagined Lives, 1990) and Ivor Indyk (David Malouf, 1993) and in the volume Provisional Maps: Critical Essays on David Malouf (1994), edited by Amanda Nettelbeck, the short fiction is scarcely mentioned. Malouf's novellas (as it is formally most accurate to style them)—Johnno, An Imaginary Life (1978), Child's Play (1982), and Fly Away Peter (1982)—engage the critic's interest, together with the novels that succeeded them. There have been four of these as well Harland's Half Acre (1984), The Great World(1990), Remembering Babylon (1993), and The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996). In these books Malouf used a broader canvas, and displayed ostensibly larger ambitions to depict the peopling, the shaping of Australia (what Indyk called "The Temptation of Epic"). This was a personalized kind of historical fiction, its nature perhaps best expressed by Digger Keen, hero of The Great World:
Even the least event had lines, all tangled, going back into the past, and beyond that into the unknown past, and others leading out, also tangled, into the future. Every moment was dense with causes, possibilities, consequences, too many, even in the simplest case, to grasp.
This comment resonates through Malouf's writing, whose latest stage is a return to the short story.
Dream Stuff (2000) appears fifteen years after Antipodes. Its nine stories are emphatically, almost ostentatiously set in Australia (two of those in Antipodes took place in Europe). The title of "Lone Pine"—a horrifying, if slightly formulaic tale of a violent intrusion into the lives of elderly travelers—summons remembrance of an Australian battle site of the Great War, at Gallipoli, in 1915. "Blacksoil Country" speaks not only of the contrary earth itself, but of all that is buried within it. Several of the stories relate tensions and accommodations made principally, of course, by women on the home front, in wartime. "At Schindlers" is set in the period of the Second World War, and Malouf's Brisbane childhood. This is the territory traversed in the early parts of Johnno and in his poem "The Year of the Foxes." "Brisbane ladies, rather / the worse for war, drove up in taxis / wearing a GI on their arm / and rang at our front door." "Sally's Story" is that of a willing and remunerated Australian version of a comfort woman during the Vietnam War. Others—"Dream Stuff" and "Jacko's Reach"—treat of the erasure in fact, but not in intimate memory, of an old tropical city by a new, self-consciously modern one.
This time Malouf's title, notwithstanding the studied offhandedness of its second word on the one hand, its Shakespearean allusion on the other, directs us to mental rather than physical space. It prepares for an exploration of the perplexities of individual perception, consciousness, conscience, rather than of the other kinds of burdens of social, communal life. With an artful casualness, Malouf has gathered nine stories, in each of which dreams have important, if not usually central narrative functions. At the same time they have a notable, almost discordant variety of subjects and moods. Dream Stuff hints at a testing stage of imaginative transition through which Malouf is presently working (has worked at here) and whose next, longer issue we wait to see.
"What dreams may come" / "Such stuff as dreams are made on." Hamlet's fretful imagining of the life after death, that "bourn from which no traveller returns," makes him speculate about "what dreams may come" to trouble a hoped-for peace. At least one of Malouf's protagonists in this collection, young Jordan McGivern, might enlighten him. Prospero's magisterial declaration in The Tempest, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on. / Our little life is rounded by a sleep," is Malouf's enticement to his readers, besides providing the title and suggesting something of the range of the stories to follow …
The last and longest story in Dream Stuff, "Great Day," is connected implicitly to the one before it, by one of those delicate touches of Malouf's that are not hints, are barely intimations, but to which we must attend. The occasion is the seventy-second birthday of former Public Service mandarin Audley Tyler. It is also the two-hundredth anniversary of the Australian nation. Of Aborigines there are none to be seen. No bonfires of theirs will ring the long continental coast in celebration. We are asked to reflect on where and how far Australia has traveled since the McGiverns, and many others like them, came to the blacksoil country and other regions of Australia that they pioneered. The Tylers might answer confidently. They boast an old colonial lineage, a long acquaintance with power that is shown off with a complacent, ponderous ease. "In our family everything could be traced back", Audley declares.
As so often in Malouf's fiction, we find ourselves in a luminal space, where land and sea merge, shiftingly. Angie, who has married into the Tyler "clan," enjoys that fleeting time of "an expanding stillness in which clocks, voices and every form of consciousness had still to come into existence and the day as yet, like the sea, had no mark upon it." The cadences of the prose are graceful, slowpaced, sonorous, yet muted, impelling us to listen—as Angie does—to what sounds will shape themselves and end the silence. Anticipated here is the vision of Audley's damaged son, Clem, which is offered exultantly at the conclusion of this day, of making connections, of being able to hear the sounds of other life coming toward us, benignly.
As the family gathers, and readers gradually sort out their names, we learn of how Clem crashed his car while avoiding a child who was playing chicken. "The whole continent came bursting through the windscreen into his skull." In a coma for fourteen months, he was "floating out there in the absolute dark." Now partly recovered, he solicits others to help him to recover his memory, to fill in the lost details of his childhood as though it is a new story whose elements he must laboriously but delightedly learn. Once again, Malouf resorts to a topographical image for Clem's condition. His was "a relationship to the world that was to be obscure and difficult and a life that was not to shoot forward in a straight line but would move by missteps and indirections."
In the anticlimax of "Great Day," the Waruna Folk and History Museum, cluttered with items from generations of the family life of the Tylers, is burned down. Arson ensures that the town, the Tylers, have a "bonfire after all." For Audley, who fears that any bedtime, the next sleep, will be his last, the destruction of the museum is cathartic. He guesses who was responsible, but thinks sententiously and in plural terms of the criminal that "when we punish them it is to hide our secret guilt." In truth, he welcomes this destruction of the stuff of his past. It amounts to a drastic cleansing of the sort that one's own mind and actions can seldom manage. All that had seemed a certified part of family, community, national history, the mutable paradoxically fixed in objects, behind glass, on display, has proved helpless to resist its last change. That which seemed fixed was always fluid….
The vanishing acts that punctuate Malouf's writing—as people seem to step off the edges of their worlds, inscrutably, or into legend—are ways of registering exactly this nexus of the fixed and the fluid. Such vanishings are luminal moments too, as when a person passes from consciousness to sleep, then into the dreamstate that Malouf explores so obliquely and intricately; or when they drown, disappear, go missing, simply—like the novelist Colin—flee. To vanish is principally to leave the social world and its obligations, the web of connections to which Malouf is so alert. The dream world is essentially an antisocial or an asocial realm. Whatever its inevitable nightmares, this is its reward, or compensation, for all that has to be endured in company.
The subtle dynamics of the relationship of the fixed and the fluid in Malouf's fiction is also a way of reckoning with another of his favored dualisms, this time of location/dislocation. Malouf has always spent a significant amount of his energy on the vivid evocation of the tactile presences of place (think of the reexploration of the old family home in his autobiography, 12 Edmondstone Street, 1986). In Dream Stuff we experience the exuberant, provisional settlements of holiday time (in "At Schindlers"); translations from the city to the bush as temporary homecomings, such as Sally's to her mother's in "Sally's Story"; Colin's return to Brisbane and the hurried retracing of his path in "Dream Stuff; the Sodom of Sydney, the infernal, imagined, never directly known place that has swallowed up Uncle Charles in "Closer", the itinerant life of rural laborers such as the McGiverns in "Blacksoil Country."
A pattern of dislocation here contends with the desire to be settled. Remembered places, out of reach in space and time, appear more substantial and permanent than those in which homes are made and families endure. The estrangements within so many of those families as depicted in Dream Stuff are, in some measure, Malouf's intuition of the essential improbability and instability of the social realm, compared to the inner, the dream life. That intuition is crystallized in a passage from Remembering Babylon when Jock McIvor struggles to understand nothing less than a change in his perception:
It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable self, wrapped always in a communal warmth that protected it from dark matters (108).
The price of such perception is that confrontation with the "dark" can no longer be dissembled, or avoided. That which seemed fixed, for McIvor, and for his successors in Malouf's fiction, will never be so again….
Stories of haunting, of vanishing, of desperate attempts to put down roots and unavailing efforts to escape them, stories of the impact of war and of the conflicts within families—these are some of the distinctive elements of Dream Stuff. The variegated stuff of dreams—longed for and summoned up, or come unbidden, bringing peace, or disquiet—is a unifying metaphorical thread in this collection. Yet perhaps it challenges us most of all to confront a perception that now seems central to Malouf's work, a kind of gentle yet implacable skepticism about the reality of the social world. And that leads, more intensely than ever before in his work, to an apprehension of our solitariness, so that our lives in the waking world become analogies for the terrible privacies of our dreaming.
Source: Peter Pierce, "What Dreams May Come: David Malouf's Dream Stuff," in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 4, Autumn 2000, pp. 751-57.
In the following essay, Scheckter examines Malouf's incorporation of "play" to usurp fixed locations—whether a place or consciousness—and how this suggests impermanence. Malouf utilizes the Aboriginal culture's ability to re-imagine the world as a "challenge" to European colonialism and ideology.
In 1998, David Malouf delivered the Boyer Lectures, an annual radio series sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, his presentations were later published as The Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness. "Play," that fine postmodern term, broadens wonderfully in the postcolonial atmosphere of Australia, denoting most usefully, along with drama and other circumstances of production, the deliberate slackness that is built into a ship's rigging to let masts and spars flex without damage, where taut trim in a storm would shatter them. This play, in turn, feeds into the subtitle's similar implication of continuing process, in which "making" suggests an ongoing construction and the avoidance of a definite article suggests that multiplicity and variation have replaced the uniformity in what older fashions of national characterization would have styled "the Australian consciousness." This maneuvering is highly representative of Malouf's style as a writer of fiction, especially in the new story collection, Dream Stuff (2000). But it goes more deeply than that.
The "spirit of play," of course, echoes the most common description of Aboriginal consciousness as "the spirit of place," a conjunction that Malouf wants his auditors to take seriously. To substitute "play" for "place" is to do exactly that, to play with words, to suggest intersecting modes of consciousness and methods of learning, to exchange the suppositions of permanence and objectivity implied by fixed location for admissions of contingency and self-consciousness. It is also to claim that the phrase, and the indigenous consciousness it describes, may be translated meaningfully by later participants. Even so, the notion of play, however vital and energizing to contemporary societies, has here built into it a disturbing reminder of colonial appropriation, as indeed the exploration of historical influences upon a present consciousness has been an ongoing concern in Malouf's work.
Aboriginal culture, as Malouf has referred to it recently, is most notable for types of dynamism and regeneration that challenge monopolistic European cultural definition, while suggesting, on the other hand, that the dominant culture may forget how important its own forms of rapid adaptation can be:
This capacity to re-imagine things, to take in and adapt, might be something we should learn from, something that comes closer than a nostalgia for lost purity to the way the world actually is, and also to the way it works. It might remind us of something we need to keep in mind which is the extent to which Aboriginal notions of inclusiveness, of re-imagining the world to take in all that is now in it, has worked to include us (Spirit, 59).
This clever reappropriation of indigenous culture, which replaces descriptions of "timeless" tribal identity, ultimately licenses the "play" by means of the "spirit" that precedes and surrounds it. Such a process may initiate deep changes within human character, which may, for all their contingency and even violence, include redemptive possibilities for happiness and health.
Dynamism, and the continuing sense of individuality in progress, are central to the models of consciousness in Malouf's fiction. These processes of play are clear, for example, in Malouf's praise of Australian poets of his generation they
created a body of poetry in which all the common phenomena of our Australian world—flowers and trees and birds, and helmet shells and ghost-crabs and bluebottles—had been translated out of their first nature into the secondary and symbolic one of consciousness in that great process of culture, and also of acculturation, that creates a continuity at last between the life without and the life within. It is one of the ways—a necessary one—by which we come at last into full possession of a place. Not legally, and not just physically, but as Aboriginal people, for example, have always possessed the world we live in here in the imagination (Spirit, 39).
Meaning is not inherent, then, but emerges through translation within the structured yet emphatically accommodative symbolism of an individual consciousness. Aboriginal process becomes a great "example" for postcolonial Australia "as it painstakingly redefines itself, reclaiming its history and implanting a home-grown culture" (Conrad, 25). But possible frameworks of translation must be limitless, as the mind moves "towards what is, in effect, a convergence of indigenous and non-indigenous understanding, a collective spiritual consciousness that will be the true form of reconciliation here" (Spirit, 39-40).
Reconciliation, however, cannot come easily, for uplifting translation and convergence imply their opposite, resistant or restrictive mediation by means of rationalization and solipsism. Throughout Dream Stuff, individuals struggle within their perceptions of the world they work to acknowledge, first, that conscious construction of identity is very difficult; second, that self-knowledge often results in a reflexive distrust that threatens esteem and accommodation, and third, that the recognitions achieved through translation and convergence are severely limited by failures of enactment, and above all by mortality.
Dream Stuff is another playful title, an intersection of Western high culture and Aboriginal influence. Its glancing reference to The Tempest ("We are such stuff as dreams are made on," 4.1.156-57) embeds the postcolonial inheritance of high-cultural irony; the suggestion of the Aboriginal Dreaming or Dreamtime, the ongoing spiritual regeneration that manifests itself in seemingly continuous physical reality, characterizes an Australian present informed by converging influences and intersecting mythologies. In between, the pettiness of "stuff is both a playful deflation and a warning that serious human possibilities can be reduced by frustration and deflection when circumstances offer enough routine, enough well-being, enough self-esteem, the easiest way to cope with the enormous burden of the convergent present is to ignore it….
One of the characters in "Great Day," the last and most expansive story of Dream Stuff, advances such a new vision of continuity and encompassment toward its ultimate. Clem Tyler describes a reverse extension of current radio astronomy, a receiver deep in space gathering sounds from Earth that, given the distance they travel, are historical by now—a factor that places Australia in a particular position of coming-into-being:
"What it picks up, it's made that way, is heartbeats, just that. Every heartbeat on the planet, it doesn't miss a single one, not one is missed.
"Once upon a time, all this bit of the planet, all this—land mass, this continent—was silent, there was no sound at all, you wouldn't have known it was here. Silence. Then suddenly a blip, a few little signs of life. Then a rush, till there are millions. Only it takes such a long time for the sound to travel across all that space that the receiver doesn't even know as yet that we've arrived—us whites, I mean. But that doesn't matter because we are here, aren't we?
If we imagined ourselves out there and concentrated hard enough, really concentrated, we could hear it too, all of it, the whole sound coming towards us, all of it. It's possible. Anything is possible. Nothing is lost. Nothing ever gets lost " (179–81).
The leap of imagination to extend the viewpoint seems both ordinary, a common extrapolation of time and space beyond direct observation, and marvelous, a view of human existence from a baseline so long that perspective becomes panoptic synchronous.
In fact, Clem's metaphor of encompassed space and time establishes the first principle necessary for building a definitional structure to liberate 1consciousness from the failures of self-defensiveness. Essentially nonverifiable through logical distinctions of factuality and denotation, the first-principle unity here described as "nothing is lost" is nonetheless measurable in terms of responses that approach nearer to or recede farther from its implications of inclusiveness. Such a model copes with play more successfully than orders based upon categorical limitation and hierarchy. It accommodates contemporary spatializations of fractal patterning and sensitive dependence, and temporal factors of layering and synchronicity. Validly translating scientific terms to discursive ones (Oliver, 126), it signals the collapse of rhetorical figures of analogy and simile, as the neutrality that permits the mind to look in one direction and then to look comparatively in another disappears into simultaneous affective unity; individual differentiation is retained, perhaps even accentuated—the receiver hears every heartbeat—by the breakdown of systems that previously licensed divisive generalizations based upon origin, affiliation, or activity.
With "nothing is lost" as the first principle, the territory of consciousness in Dream Stuff is established by Henry James's discussion of writing from experience, which Malouf cites in an interview with Ramona Koval:
The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of knowing life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience and experience only," I should feel this was rather a tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost!" (James, 427).
Just try—the effort needed to apprehend unity involves extreme effort guessing and tracing patterns, separating and then synthesizing a vastness of sources including the unexpected, scrutinizing and validating the flow of impressions as they coalesce into what can be articulated as experience, followed by pushing that articulation toward the verifiability which an audience can acknowledge as meaning Play, indeed.
Clem Tyler's image of the cosmic heartbeat receiver follows a car accident—perhaps echoing the one that nearly killed Robert Hughes—in which the space and time of the continent are summed up in a terrible instant. Late at night, three years before, a Aboriginal child playing "chicken" had leaped in front of Clem's car:
Clem swung the wheel, narrowly avoiding the boy, and the whole continent—the whole three million square miles of rock, tree-trunks, sand, fences, cities—came bursting through the windscreen into his skull. The remaining hours of the night had lasted for fourteen months. It had taken another year to locate the bit of him that retained the habit of speech.
Nearly every other character in Dream Stuff, except those we have seen retreating into limitation and defensiveness, pays a more or less heavy price for acquiring a sense of inclusiveness and proof from loss….
Time and again, in Dream Stuff and in his writing "all the while," David Malouf offers narrations of broad human possibility that draw readers into wise and complex visions of human dreaming.
Source: John Scheckter, "Dreaming Wholeness: David Malouf's New Stories," in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 4, Autumn 2000, pp. 714-48.
Barnacle, Hugo, Review of Dream Stuff, in New Statesman, May 1, 2000, p. 57.
Malouf, David, "Great Day," in Dream Stuff, Vintage, 2000, pp. 131-85.
Miller, Rebecca, Review of Dream Stuff, in Library Journal, June 15, 2000, p. 120.
Pierce, Peter, "What Dreams May Come: David Malouf's Dream Stuff," in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 4, Autumn 2000, pp. 751-57.
Review of Dream Stuff, in Economist, Vol. 355, No. 8170, May 13, 2000, pp. 14-15.
Review of Dream Stuff, in Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2000, pp. 47-48.
Sharrad, Paul, "'A Delicate Business': David Malouf's Shorter Prose," in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 4, Autumn 2000, pp. 759-68.
Banting, Erinn, Australia: The Culture, Crabtree, 2002.
This work examines the diverse culture of Australia and provides a brief history of the country's development.
Day, David, Claiming a Continent: A New History of Australia, HarperCollins, 2001.
This comprehensive overview of Australia covers its history from settlement to the end of the twentieth century.
Dever, Maryanne, "Secret Companions: The Continuity of David Malouf's Fiction," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1986, pp. 67-74.
In this article, Dever traces thematic pattems and Motifs in Malouf's fiction.
Kavanagh, Paul, "With Breath Just Condensing on It: An Interview with David Malouf," in southerly, Vol. 3, 1986, pp. 247-59.
Kavanagh interviews Malouf about his theories on writing as well as his works' reflection of Australian culture and landscape.
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