David Malouf by Colm Tóibín

BOMB 101 Fall 2007
101 Fall 2007
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David Malouf at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2006. Photo by Prudence Upton. Used with kind permission.

David Malouf was born in Brisbane, in Queensland, Australia, in 1934. His father’s family came to Australia from Lebanon in the 1880s and his mother’s from London before World War I. His first book of poetry, Bicycle and Other Poems, appeared in 1970 and his Selected Poems 1959–89 was published in 1994. Although as a writer of fiction he has been profoundly concerned with history and psychology, it is clear from his novels and short stories that he began as a poet with a deep interest in tone and rhythm and image. He has also written prose of great beauty about the Australian landscape. His first novel, Johnno, appeared in 1975; his short novel about Ovid in Tomis, An Imaginary Life, in 1978. In Fly Away Peter (1981) and The Great World (1990), he dramatized the Australian experience in the First and Second World Wars; his two subsequent novels, Remembering Babylon (1993) and The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996) dealt with the legacy of Australian history. His Complete Stories has just appeared in the United States from Pantheon.

He lives in Sydney now, wearing his position as Australia’s most eminent writer very lightly indeed. For many years he had a house in Italy, and traveled often to England and Ireland, but over the past decade he has remained for the most part happily in his home country, watching its changing cultural moods and political weather with great wisdom and good humor. Of all contemporary novelists, he is one of the best read—he can read in French, Italian, and German—and also knows a great deal about classical music and painting. In most of his fiction, however, he has dealt with innocent and powerless figures.

I have been a friend and admirer of Malouf’s for many years. This conversation was recorded by phone, while I was in Barcelona and he was eight hours ahead in Sydney.

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Callistemon Camp, Northern Queensland. Photo by Tim Daniel. Used with kind permission.

Colm Tóibín The first story in the Complete Stories, “The Valley of Lagoons,” is absolutely beautiful. There’s a wonderful density in the writing, the description of the landscape and in the psychology and in the setting, a purity and sureness in the rhythms. If the landscape in that story did not come from some deep memory, I’d be very surprised.

David Malouf The landscape in that story is real. I was there when I was 20 on a hunting trip just like that, not with someone I actually knew but with a young fellow they were taking out to shoot a feral pig for the first time. People in the hotel I was staying at in this little town in north Queensland just asked me if I’d like to go. We spent five days out in that place, which is called the Valley of Lagoons.

CT In a lot of your work, there’s a sense that you’re behaving like Adam, naming things in fiction—names of trees, or birds, and plants, or even weather—that seem not to have been described before.

DM Australia offers the writer a real gift in that way, because everything seems to be, as far as writing goes, at the beginning. It’s as if you were in Hesiod’s position in Greek, in that everything is still to be done, but at the same time you’re in the 21st century, with all of that other stuff behind you as well, all that comes with being an inheritor of the whole of Western literature. When I was writing about Brisbane in my first novel, Johnno, I had the sense that for the people that lived there I was bringing the place to life at last. Even a city you’ve lived in all your life takes on a more real existence once it’s appeared in a book.

CT There are two versions of Australian history. One is dark—Australia is a fatal shore, with the story of the aborigines, a place that simply aped England in its structures in every way it could. The second version, a much more benign one, comes out, for example, in your book A Spirit of Play, which is that it was actually, in an odd way, a land of opportunity for many people who came.

DM Look, I don’t think there’s any doubt about how hard life was, especially at the start. The place itself made things hard because its soil and climate were completely unknown, and of course the natives had not practiced agriculture and could not help. There’s something about the landscape too that was unsettling. People had lived there for thousands of years but because they had built nothing permanent they touched the ground lightly and left little mark. In Europe there’s a strong sense that the landscape is not just man-made but was made for man. By shaping it to our needs we made it in our image. It gives us back a comfortable reflection of our own power and presence. Australia doesn’t offer that sort of assurance. The landscape, grand as it can be, is alienating to this extent, that it more or less tells man that he has no necessary place here. So there was difficulty right from the start, some of it practical, a lot of it existential. The natives were no trouble­ because they were so few. We mostly treated them very, very badly. The problem was the land itself. It’s hard to believe now, after half a century of extraordinary affluence, that even on the eve of the Second World War, despite the gold rushes of the 19th century, Australia was an impoverished place. What we think of as Australian values grew out of people’s need to hang together and look out for one another, and that created a particular ethos here. Australia was from the beginning an experiment in social engineering, and that’s the thing that’s positive. It was founded on an enlightenment belief that if you took people, even criminals, out of their terrible poverty, and set them down in a place where they could own their own land and work it, then they would, in a kind of way, be remade. That’s the only part of Australia that is optimistic in terms of something like the American dream. There were no rolling prairies at the center of the continent and no river systems. Just endless desert—the Dead Heart as we used to call it.

CT But what seems to be a major difference between Australia and the United States in the 19th century, a fact that jumps out at you in your book A Spirit of Play, is the number of books imported from England. You have mentioned that in 1870, one third of the books published in England were exported to Australia!

DM Australians have always been huge readers. You know, most Australians were literate, and that was a great difference, certainly from the places they had mostly come from. That did another thing though: books are wonderful, but if you believe that the world as presented in books is the real world, then in some ways your experience in the place you’re actually living—which can never live up to that experience of books—will seem second-hand and not good enough. It took Australians a very, very long time to believe that real life was not happening elsewhere. It also meant that quite unbookish people were in a way “literary.”

CT Could you tell me about the years that you went to England, and the years that you went to Italy, and what that meant for you?

DM I left Brisbane, the town I grew up in, when I was 24. It was 1959. I had pretty much got to the end of my tether there: I could see nothing I could do that suited me among the various limited possibilities that were on offer. So I went to England and stayed there, with a short trip home, from 1959 until almost the end of 1968. I went back to Australia at a very exciting moment, because 1968 was as important in Australia as it was elsewhere. It was the beginning of every kind of social and sexual and political revolution. Australia was changing fast. I taught at Sydney University for the next ten years. Then in 1978, in about April ’78—I had already published two novels as well as some books of poetry (the novels were Johnno and An Imaginary Life)—I decided that I wanted to take myself somewhere where I could just sit down quietly and find out what else I might have to write. I went to Italy, bought a house with the $8,000 that was my superannuation from teaching, and I sat in that house for ten months of the year for the next six years and wrote five or six books.

CT Five or six books! What were they?

DM They were Child’s Play, Fly Away Peter, the stories in Antipodes, 12 Edmondstone St., Harland’s Half Acre, and a book of poems, First Things Last.

CT Must’ve been hard work!

DM It was hard work, but I think of it now as being a very good time. It was extremely lonely in some ways, although of course I soon found friends in the village and in the area. It was very isolated. I had deliberately taken myself away from English speaking (except that my best friend in the village was an English woman), and I had also taken myself out of the literary scene, which is what I had really set out to do. You know, there’s a time, especially near the beginning of your writing, when you just no longer want to have watchers over your shoulder, telling you what it is you can do and what it is you can’t do. You want to find that out for yourself.

CT I remember your saying to me once that it is always better for a writer to not have many readers until you publish four books. (laughter)

DM Yeah, I used to say that it was good to have three or four books under your belt before anyone knew you were there. You can’t do that these days because if no one knows you’re there after three or four books you’re nowhere!

CT All your books are different. But if I were to find one strand it would be the following: that there was innocence. It was the innocence sometimes of preadolescence, of pre-puberty, the innocence of somebody who didn’t know about war, and in the course of a book, that innocence is to be destroyed, or dramatized, as it works its way into knowledge or suffering. Does that make any sense to you?

DM It does, but you know as a writer it’s very difficult to see what it is you actually do. Which is peculiar. But you’re right, in most of my books and stories the central character suffers some sort of disruption—loss of innocence if you like, or of the self—and has to work through to wholeness, or healing. But there is another thing. I was struck by a moment toward the end of The Master, when Henry James says that all he can do as a writer is make the world come alive and become stranger. What I think I’m always doing is going to an ordinary or familiar situation and in some really attentive way looking at it again, and trying to discover a strangeness or mystery there that at a first glance you wouldn’t see. Rather than following a theme, what I do, I think, is try to explore the mystery of that strangeness. Does that make sense?

CT Yes, but there’s also the business of how far away some of those wars were fought and their effect on Australian life. I reread Fly Away Peterlast week and I found it astonishingly powerful, I have to say. The bucolic opening, the solitary way things are, the level of comradeship within class in that landscape, it all evokes the feeling, Please don’t do anything to these people. And then, the main character, Jim, going to war in France, the First World War. Australians went in such numbersfrom this landscape of theirs.

DM Yeah, well, we all grew up in the shadow of one or another of the Wars. I was born in 1934, so the Second World War came along when I was five, but what we were surrounded by was the returnees from the First War. That whole society was haunted by those who didn’t come back. In the First World War, Australia lost 62,000 men, when the population was not quite three million. That’s a huge number, and it meant that every house in the town I was growing up in contained old women living together, the sisters of brothers who had gone away, the fiancées or wives of men who had been killed. And people who had been to that war were in and out of your house all the time. I still lived in a world where men who were on the dole were endlessly knocking on the back door and asking if you had work for them or a meal or something. And all of those men talked to little boys, and told them stories of the war. So for a boy growing up in Australia, not only the Second but the First World War too was enormously close. What I got from all those stories became my experience as well. In writing about anything from about 1910 to the time when I was born, I have an accurate feeling for what that period was like, what it felt like, what the texture of it was, from what I caught as a child from the stories I listened to in what was still largely an oral society.

CT Yes, and then the Australian experience of the Second World War, which comes up in two of your novels, Johnno and The Great World.

DM What’s happening around you as a child, especially events in a world you only hear about, has a very powerful effect on you. I must’ve been about six when a ship crowded with refugee children from England was torpedoed on the way to the States. I can remember the moment of hearing that news; I can see myself sitting on our little bit of lawn and trying to come to terms with it. That was the moment in my life, I know, when I understood for the first time that there might be circumstances under which my parents could not protect me. That’s the kind of experience that a child has of a war that is still happening. It was very different from the way I experienced the First World War, because that was already a story. This was something else, a story we did not yet know the end of, and which might end badly. It was all muddle and nightly news and rumor. Brisbane, where I lived, was a vast encampment, because it was the jumping-off point for all the men fighting in the Pacific. General MacArthur’s headquarters were just down the road. Brisbane had a population then of about 400,000, but at any point, for three years, from 1942 to 1945, another 200,000 soldiers were stationed in the city. So you were involved in the whole business of being somewhere behind a very distant, yet not so distant, front line.

CT It must’ve taken a great deal of thought, working out the structure of The Great World, in that it would have been very easy to write a novel of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps and leave it at that. But it’s fascinating what happens then: that life goes back to being ordinary, even for people who have been through the most horrific experiences. Things don’t get mentioned again, and people move on. I found that a tremendously interesting part of that book, the actual aftermath.

DM In Fly Away Peter, like a lot of other writers who write about war, I killed my central character off. It was right for that book. But it seemed to me that I’d also saved myself from a much larger question—how might this man go back and live in the world again? What’s astonishing is that so many of those men had to come back and pick up ordinary lives, become husbands again, or decide to marry and become fathers. That seemed to me to be a great challenge—not to end the thing in a blaze of glory, or a moment of horror and death, but to see what happens when people have to take that experience back into the ordinary world they’ve come from. One of the great wounds of war always is that the people who’ve been through certain kinds of experience really don’t want to talk about them. Sometimes they can’t talk about them because they don’t have the words, or because they want to spare their wives and their children what they’ve seen. But that makes a very strange dislocation in family life. A man walking around with all this experience in his head that he can’t communicate. As you know yourself, what can’t be talked about is something very powerful for the fiction writer.

CT In Fly Away Peter and in The Great World and also in 12 Edmonstone St. and Johnno and A Spirit Of Play, there’s a sense of you writing for Australians as your primary audience, in order to give them something that is often missing in a new country. Is that right?

DM Yeah, I think that’s true, but you know, the discovery of all that is also a discovery for me. I have to go through the process myself. That’s partly what I meant by looking at what we’ve looked at before and by paying attention to it discovering that this quite common thing is stranger than any of us believed. It’s when you uncover its strangeness that you can make something imaginatively available to people. I’ve always needed to write for myself first, saying, this may be something I’ve got to do, even though I don’t know who, out there, will be interested in it. And then you realize after moving into your writing, into your body of work, that your writing is really a way of talking to the tribe, of opening up to them what you think of as your shared experience. To that extent, I am writing first for Australians. But that doesn’t mean, I hope, that others won’t be interested. I think of the way in which, as a young reader, I was enormously drawn into the world of Faulkner, for example. Faulkner creates a world so vivid and particular that you can step in as a reader and make it immediately your own.

CT I spoke to people who were in the audience when you won the Prix Femina Étranger in Paris, and they were expecting you to talk in your speech about Australia, but instead you invoked the French 19th century, Balzac and Zola and Flaubert as being your forebears. You spoke of feeling utterly at home in France.

DM Well, I was very interested in what Robert Pepin, my translator, had done with The Great World, because I knew French well enough to feel my way into his translation, and it seemed that he was trying to find a place for the book in French writing. I was being given a chance to have a work that fit into French writing, for the writing to be something that I alone couldn’t have done. The translation in that way was a real creation. That’s what excited me about that moment.

CT But it was in a tradition with which you were deeply familiar.

DM Oh yes. Look, French and Russian are the two literatures, outside English of course, that I have always felt closest to. Russian because it too came late on the scene, and its writers had to create a new literature from an unfamiliar landscape. To that extent Australia, like America, has learned a lot from the Russians. But it was French literature, from Balzac to Proust, and going back even further than that, to someone like Diderot, that I’d been soaked in.

CT To go to back to Australian literature for a moment—this is a myth and I suppose, like all of those stories, it’s probably untrue, so please correct me—but it is said that you are the only person who never had a falling out with Patrick White. (laughter) He must have been, when you were starting to write, the towering figure in Australian letters, who wrote such important books as The Tree of Man and Voss and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Everybody else at some time or other provoked his ire.

DM No, I didn’t quite escape. (laughter) We did have a falling out. It was in 1982, at the Adelaide Festival concert version of a scene from Voss, for which I had written the libretto. Patrick had had an opening of one of his plays the night before, and the governor was there. We had all been caught out—all of us good republicans—by the playing of God Save the Queen. Most of us had sort of half-staggered to our feet before we realized what we were doing, and then thought, Well, it’s impossible to sit down now. So Patrick had caught me standing up for God Save the Queen. He attacked me at the door of the concert hall. “I saw that plump little bottom! You were standing for the Queen!” And I thought, I’m too old to be shouted at like this. So we did not see one another for a bit. But a few months later, he read Fly Away Peter and wrote to me. All forgiven. What I’ve always said of him is that you could always write your way back into Patrick’s good books with what he thought was a good book. He was wonderfully generous in that way. But there were things he simply did not forgive. Producing work that he thought was unworthy of your talent. Running after success or praise. Leaving your wife or partner. He could be absolutely unforgiving about things like that.

CT You know the way everybody—and I’m doing this to you to some extent—wants to read your work as being a metaphor for the deepest part of the self or for the deepest part of the nation, something that a psychotherapist could perhaps work out, but I could do nothing with An Imaginary Life except to say that I have no idea—I mean we’ve spoken a good deal over the years—but I have no idea what part of you it comes from. How you thought of it or how you made it so perfect. It does look now like a sort of miracle.

DM It’s funny you should say that, Colm, because An Imaginary Lifeseems to me to be my most personal, most autobiographical book. Much more so than Johnno. I wrote it in Sydney at the end of 1976. I’d fallen in love, and I was in such a state of elation and frustration and sadness and all of those things, that for one of the only times in my life I decided to keep a diary. And then about two weeks later, on a long walk up to the shops from where I was living at Cremorne Point, I wrote a long passage in my head. I didn’t know what it was, a prose poem, or something from a novel, or just a dramatic monologue. It was the episode of Ovid and the poppy, and I must’ve had some sense beforehand that I wanted to write about Ovid, though I didn’t know what, because I wrote that long passage into the diary, and in addition I wrote, I think this is for the Ovid book. Then about two weeks after that, I simply started writing ahead from that point. The diary shows that the whole book was written in 21 days, over a period of about six weeks. I wrote the book between 6 and 8 in the morning, and the rest of the day I marked 1,500 university and public examination papers. Sometimes if you’re very lucky you get a gift book. An Imaginary Life was mine.

CT If you take Johnno and Fly Away Peter and a good number of the short stories and The Great World as being a New Testament for Australia—or for your sensibility, or your imagination—then at a certain point, with Remembering Babylon and the Conversations at Curlow Creek, you decided to write an Old Testament …

DM (laughter) That’s quite a nice way of putting that. Hmm. In some ways you need to spell that out more.

CT You became deeply concerned, it seems to me, with the Australian past, with how the country had formed. There’s a sense of an empty Australia being filled by history, and being filled by your words, as you’re writing those two books. If you come from outside into Australia you notice certain things, you notice how open and friendly people are, so much sunshine, so much open space, so much freedom, but you also notice a darkness in the middle of all this, a continuing darkness surrounding the aborigine population.

DM In those two books I was going back to our rather murky beginnings. There is a dark side to Australian history and a lot of it has to do with violence. Particularly, I think, violence against indigenous people. In Conversations at Curlow Creek, there is that silent aboriginal witness to a panicky massacre. But writing about aboriginal experience is a very tricky business in Australia. Partly because of political correctness, or perhaps its political tact. Mostly out of respect for a form of consciousness, a world view, that we cannot fully enter into, however sympathetic or intuitive we may be. We can only approach it obliquely, which is what I was trying to do in Remembering Babylon.

I grew up in a state where one actually saw aborigines, and I knew aboriginal kids as a child, which is not very usual outside states like Queensland and Western Australia. These days there’s no one in Australia who’s not aware of the presence in the country of aborigines, and we begin to be aware, I think, that we understand some things differently from other Westerners because of our contact with them, because of their presence. A lot of people feel a kind of shame, and almost everybody feels disturbed and uncomfortable at what contact with us did to them. I live in an area of Sydney where aboriginal people are going past in the street all the time. I’m not comfortable myself with the fact that we don’t look them in the eye; partly because in aboriginal culture you don’t look people in the eye, but also because we don’t know what a moment of contact might lead to. This can be a very disconcerting aspect of life here.

CT Do you agree that, in the middle of all the guilt and shame in Australia about the aborigine population, that something genuinely astonishing has occurred: the painting being produced now by aborigines, in which it looks as though aborigine body painting or tribal painting has met somehow with Abstract Expressionism?

DM Indeed, one of the astonishing phenomena in Australia is that aboriginal art—this is painting that is produced by hundreds of aboriginal people, a lot of them women—is now the most visible and admired form of contemporary art in Australia. Some of it brings huge prices in auction sales. I mean someone like Emily Kame Kngwarreye—and I know, Colm, you have an Emily—

CT I have two. (laughter)

DM There are paintings now of Emily’s that sell for over a million dollars.

CT Then there’s Rover Thomas—

DM Yeah, you can name dozens of people. These are people who started painting on squared-up canvas for the first time about 30 years ago. It’s an extraordinary move on their part, from painting on the body or making paintings in sand to taking over from us, appropriating, to use a highly political word, a new way of working. Their capacity for adaptation, for assimilating things from another culture, tells us how alive the culture is. A lot of the social structures of indigenous society have broken down very badly, but to have the energy and vision and imagination to actually change the techniques by which you express yourself, is something quite miraculous.

CT To go to back to literature, your Complete Stories that’s just come out now in the United States is an absolutely beautiful book.

DM Yeah, it’s a fantastic production.

CT And it’s astonishing that the new stories start it, which isn’t often the way. Often a collected stories begins at the beginning and goes right down to now, where the last story is the newest one.

DM It was fascinating to me, as a writer, to be forced in the proofreading to read it the other way around.

CT With Dream Stuff, I think you wrote those stories at a time when you weren’t writing a novel, is that correct?

DM Well, not quite. I write stories all the time. When a story turns up, I’ll sometimes turn away from a novel, for a bit of relief—to write something else for a few days. I usually begin a story and then don’t finish it. Often because I can’t see how it’s to go on, but also because you feel guilty about the novel, and make yourself go back to it. So I have drawers full of unfinished stories that I can’t see my way ahead in, or that have been interrupted. When I don’t have a novel to deal with, that’s when I’m likely to look at which stories I think I can get into some kind of final shape. Then look at which stories I could put together that might speak to one another in a collection. So the stories are often written over quite a long period.

CT You’re a typical Australian in that not only are you at home in three European languages but sometimes you really frighten me in how much you know about opera and classical music.

DM Yeah, music has always been important to me. In the writing, when I revise, often I’m trying to get a word right, but as often as not what I’m trying to get right is the music. When there’s a word I want, an adjective, or even another noun, I’ll jot it down in long and short, like poetry. Music is as important to me as—

CT So you mean you jot it down as notation?

DM Yeah, scansion notation.

CT I’ve never heard of anybody doing that before.

DM I often do that, partly because the music seems to me to contain whatever it is I want to get into the writing, almost as much as the nuances of words. It has to do with the whole business of storytelling. It often happens in the books, that people who don’t entirely catch the sense of what someone is saying, are catching at the emotion of it, because they’re catching the tune. I think that’s a very important aspect of communication for us, so it’s very important to me in the writing.

Originally published in

BOMB 101, Fall 2007

Featuring interviews with Marine Hugonnier and Manon De Boer, Peter Doig and Chris Ofili, Richard Pare, David Malouf, Junot Diaz, Isaac Julien, R. Stevie Moore, Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, and Winter Miller.

Read the issue
101 Fall 2007