Review: Nicholas Joseon Geordie Williamson

Auto da fé: The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson

The Burning Library begins with an incendiary question: ‘Who or what killed Australian literature?’ The book investigates various possible answers before solving the mystery with the surprise discovery that the corpse may not be dead after all. Geordie Williamson’s fourteen essays on twentieth-century Australian novelists breathe new life into his subjects as they arise from the ashes of alleged cultural arson. They glow like embers in the dark. Yet the project is fuelled by anger and perplexity, as the burning of books also conjures up images of inquisitional banishment and firebuggery. These books are being rescued from one fire, of abuse and neglect, to be fanned alight in another.

Williamson, chief literary critic at the Australian, where some of these essays first appeared, is a good reader. He appreciates what fiction writers do and knows the difficulties they face. He understands that no great novel can be perfect, to paraphrase Randall Jarrell on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940), and accepts the critic’s role of sifting the wheat from the chaff in a body of work. He directs our attention to the achievement of a particular novel. He has a nose for the telling moment, and good taste, by which I mean he generally likes the things I like. That only shows how slippery these things are.

Williamson is not afraid of novels with political positions, such as Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947) or Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country (1975). He’s strong on feminist fiction, whether Stead or Olga Masters. He values the historical novel in the hands of Jessica Anderson and Tom Keneally. He enjoys Patrick White’s extravagant prose, and the more austere extremity and experiment found in Randolph Stow and Gerard Murnane. He’s open to Sumner Locke Elliott’s popular fiction and Amy Witting’s high art. On his select shelf of fifteen authors (counting co-authors Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw as two, both born in 1897, the earliest of the group chronologically), four are still living, and two have published new work in the last year. Williamson writes with enthusiasm, as a sympathetic guide. He has a nice way of folding elements of the often difficult lives of these writers into the qualified successes of their art. He makes choices and reads selectively, with a knack for the memorable phrase. Witting is ‘a scorpion stinging itself into paralysis’; Elizabeth Harrower’s novels are ‘like dollhouses for grownups’; David Ireland ‘represented a brutalism utterly at odds with the genteel tradition in Australian letters’ (come again?).

As a set of literary essays, The Burning Library has much to admire. It is rare these days to find accomplished literary criticism published in a mainstream venue. Williamson adds opinionated journalism and tendentious cultural commentary to his fine close reading. This goes against the claim that these works of literature are worth reading on their own terms – he shows us how – and not as part of some imposed scheme or ideological filter. But he wades boldly into the larger questions.

On page one he associates a straw man version of Australian literature with ‘cultural nationalism’, later characterised as ‘conservative and xenophobic’ and ‘a razor-wired quarantine zone in a borderless transnational age’. This too is inflammatory. Like any bien pensant, Williamson is keen to see the stigmatised cultural nationalist construct give way to an alternative that is democratic, hospitable and worldly, yet the discussion requires nuance. The cartoon idea of yesterday’s monocultural monolith (white male anglo), always lying in wait, is too easy a target for today’s cosmopolitans. In a contortionist’s backflip Williamson disaggregates his authors, so they are not corralled to any ill-fitting agenda. If they have anything in common, it is ‘only in their insistent independence in terms of vision and voice’. They are eccentric, ‘wrong-box’, ‘aesthetic isolates’ – fabulous attributes to have. Yet these authors also all happen to be Australian. Williamson is wary of generalising from that fact, though he seems to want to. To speak of ‘cultural nationalism’ and ‘Australian literature’ in the same breath, as broad categories, and to leave it at that, is to repeat dead-end debates.

In a book that is fond of noting curiosities, Williamson is curiously reluctant to justify his selection of authors for The Burning Library. If these books are his personal favourites, that’s fine. He’s a reader worth hearing from. But if they are included because they are deemed to ‘have been underestimated or discredited … in recent decades’, that’s something different. In the context of an inquiry into who is to blame for trashing ‘our collective literary achievement’ – academics? publishers? all of us? – the list of victims in need of rescue implies an argument about Australian writing. That list is circumscribed in puzzling ways.

At one level, The Burning Library serves as a companion to Text Publishing’s new Classics series, where eight of Williamson’s chosen authors appear. That welcome series is part of a wider renewal of interest in Australian literature. The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009) was conceived ten years ago as an initiative designed to reinvigorate the field. It builds on the work of scholars whose curatorial labours Williamson considers have ‘an air of obligation’ about them. It has been joined by Sydney University Press’s Classic Australian Works, Allen & Unwin’s recently launched House of Books, and other reprints. The Australian Literature 101 series at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre began with grassroots student demand. Copyright Agency is aiming at students and teachers with its current project for 200 of Australia’s top literary works to be linked to relevant research material online. Ahead of these and other such activities stretches the prospect of a national curriculum in which agreed versions of Australian literature will be prescribed for a new generation. It is through educational settings that the bulk of ‘our collective literary achievement’ will be promoted, sold and, one way or another, read. The lists in all these projects have a fair amount of overlap, despite the heat generated by the game of who’s in and who’s out.

One striking effect of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, of which I was general editor, was the focus, after a quick scan of the contents page, on what was not there. Just three years after its publication, it is amusing to see it invoked by Williamson as a benchmark, where exclusion from the Macquarie PEN becomes a criterion for inclusion in The Burning Library. (Actually four of those five – Stivens, Elliott, Ireland and Harrower – are mentioned in the anthology, pp.33-36.) The mistake is to regard the Macquarie PEN selection, or any other, as a final honour roll.

There is a difference between literary history and living literature. Winning the Miles Franklin may gain you a place in the historical record. But there’s no reason why today’s reader should be bound by the decisions of yesterday’s judging committee. It is as interesting to ask why a writer or a book may not work for us as to insist that it is a great work because someone once gave it a prize.

I’m delighted to read Williamson’s recovery of Dal Stivens’s A Horse of Air (1970), which won the 1970 Miles Franklin Award. The novel tells the story of a privileged Sydneysider who journeys into the Gibson desert in quest of the rare night parrot. It illustrates the most fertile and original theme lying within The Burning Library, the argument that recent decades have seen a severance between the urban Australia of the populous margin and the sparser hinterland, between city and country, depriving readers of connection with one of the central realities of our society and a distinctive strength of Australian writing. ‘Otherwise smart and metropolitan critics evince a serial dislike of rural or non-urban narratives,’ claims Williamson. He offers a more holistic sense of who we are: ‘Our selves are defined and delimited by landscape and climate, by the food we eat and the structures we build … as much as by a nation’s social compact and laws.’ And by the imaginative structures we create, he might have added. Stivens was one who recognised the change in social fabric as ‘an older class-conscious Australia [began] to give ground’ in the 1960s. Jessica Anderson is another. For her, the change included transformed possibilities for writing by and about women, calling forth an epistemic creative shift:

She inherited the manners and mores of a society essentially masculine and rural in character, divided by class and narrow religious squabbles. But the Australia of her maturity was urban, ostensibly feminist, and stratified along lines of wealth and real estate.

Her subject matter and audience had changed. This astute observation suggests a diagnosis of why the production of some writers in this period became attenuated or dried up. It was a difficult transition to manage. Shirley Hazzard, absent here, is one who succeeded, by enlarging her canvas and her ambition.

Williamson sticks to novelists, without much explanation. It may be that a larger grab of Australian writing would expose the literary novel as a form that was difficult – conventional and therefore constrictive – in ways that poetry, short stories and non-fiction were not. He takes up the hint of Nicolas Rothwell’s insight that there is ‘“a shadow-family of place-bound writings” behind the approved canon of Australian fiction’: tale-telling with a different narrative beat. The subverted or expanded conceptions of fiction that came later with Bail, Moorhouse, Carey, Garner, Malouf, and more recently Alexis Wright, go in this direction. The concentration on novelists leaves out writers who cross genres, notably Dorothy Hewett, whose novel Bobbin Up (1959) changes the story. Williamson’s list is Sydney-centric (up to 12 of 15). Consideration of Thea Astley, Barbara Hanrahan, George Johnston, David Martin, Hal Porter and Judah Waten (two of those migrant writers) might have altered the picture further.

Academics ‘charged with preserving the best of our writing for future generations’ are the chief suspects in the whodunnit to Ozlit here. Yet Williamson sensibly and generously informs himself with the work of scholars in almost every case. Those he credits by name include Frances de Groen on Xavier Herbert, Susan Sheridan on Amy Witting, Julie Lewis on Olga Masters, and many more.

In addressing the failings of the culture, one mirage hovers for the critic in what he calls, discussing Stow, ‘our uncanny, empty, unstoried (for Europeans, at least) landscape’. For modern Australians, it is surmised, that old emptiness is reconstituted by a psychological turning away from a space we associate ‘with negative, destructive and tragic aspects of our history’, ‘the monochrome region that contains all the backwardness we’ve relinquished to become globalised moderns’. A vacant interiority is imagined, feared and repudiated once again. Quite a few writers in The Burning Library assume such emptiness as a shaping presence and are constrained by it, even as they cling to the coast or flee overseas. How will Australians write when we finally ditch that pathology? The inland has never been empty, no more than Australian society has ever been a monocultural desert, even if, like the desert, it was never an easy or simple place. Let me quote the opening description of a new book on the desert by Mike Smith (The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, forthcoming, taken from an advance review by Nicolas Rothwell):

Stratified in time, stacked one above another, each one has its own climates, physical landscapes and environments; each its own social landscapes and people, places of association and belonging, territories, resources, and itineraries. Some features of earlier deserts project through these layers to become part of the fabric and cultural geography of later deserts. Structural features and processes are held in common … No one desert is erased entirely by succeeding deserts.

So too with the successive configurations of culture in Australia. What we fear as emptiness is a failure of our own memory and imagination to carry layers, multiplicity, polyglossia, and the excesses of art. If Patrick White’s centenary has been low-key, it is because we recoil from what he asks of us: do you want art that big?

The Burning Library appeals to ‘ordinary readers’ to take charge. Williamson is, on the contrary, an extraordinary reader, as are all those prepared to make their own choices, develop their own interpretations, form their own judgements. His fresh, stimulating and accessible essays will be read gratefully as the books of his chosen writers creep back into educational curricula across the nation.

Further Reading

Geordie Williamson, ‘Museum mentality means the death of Australian literature’, The Australian, (20 October 2014).