Another book fictionalising the lives of artists? Well, yes, and no. Alex Miller’s latest novel, Autumn Laing is loosely based on Sunday Reed’s notorious affair with Sidney Nolan, but really, it has more in common with Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella than other recent fictionalisations reviewed here. Miller’s book is a reflection on life and a plea for redemption.
A page-turner it’s not. Very little actually happens as Autumn Laing looks back over her long life. Now suffering the indignities of old age (few of which Miller spares us, with the effects of cabbage as a running gag) she has caught a glimpse of Edith Black at the shops. Edith is Pat Donlan’s wife, and the woman Autumn wronged when she undertook her tempestuous affair with the artist. And yet, Autumn seems to beg, was it wrong to have made him what he was, the founding father of distinctive Australian modernism?
I haven’t yet read Janine Burke’s biography of Sunday Reed The Heart Garden, but Geordie Williamson in his review (see the link below) confirms that Sunday Reed was pivotal in Nolan’s pursuit of his own style and the birth of modernism in Australian art. Here in Autumn Laing, Miller uses the voice of Autumn to tease out the moral ambiguities that lie at the heart of this notorious relationship. Intellectually, Autumn was what Pat needed. She came into the life of a creative genius at a critical moment and steered him towards his choice with fire and passion:
We can only give ourselves fully to any one thing. Art demands everything. Art is a woman, Pat. She is not kind to those who only give a part of themselves. She wants everything or nothing. She sees everything else as a betrayal.
Well, betrayal is something that Autumn knows about. She ruins Edith’s life, seducing Pat Donlan almost to the day that Edith announces her pregnancy. She cuckolds her husband – kindly, tolerant, almost too-good-to-be-true Arthur - almost as soon as he brings Pat Donlan home to dinner after he has failed to enveigle an art bursary from the only prominent patron of modernist art in town. We can see how awful and arrogant and dismissive of other people’s feelings she was because she is still awful to people in her old age. She is splendidly bitchy to the American journalist Adeli who hovers like a vulture in hope of getting her hands on the Nolan oeuvre just as soon as Autumn dies.
The narrative alternates between Autumn’s formidable voice and an impersonal third person narrator revealing Arthur and Edith’s perspective, but the voice that lives on after the book is closed is Autumn’s: acerbic, wry, self aware. But is she penitent? Should she be? Browse the net for images of Sidney Nolan’s work, or better still go and have a look at it, and consider that the real woman who was the genesis of Miller’s character inspired it…
Autumn Laing has been nominated for the 2012 Miles Franklin award.
And now, a little grammar lesson:
There is more than one annoying grammatical error in this book, which surprised me. Here’s one: They were happy for me to do the organising and for Arthur and
I me to meet the expense of the whole thing (p286). Even without a rudimentary knowledge of grammar an editor should have realised that it looks bad on the page and sounds clumsy. And the reason it sounds clumsy is because in this sentence the pronoun after Arthur and before the infinitive is the object case not the subject case, so it should be me not I. (Try it without the intervening words and you can see it straight away, i.e. They were happy for I me to meet the expense). Last year Miles Franklin judge Morag Fraser made a point of saying that too many Australian books weren’t up to editing standards, and tsk, tsk, here we have one of Australia’s major writers with a book in the marketplace with an inane error like this getting through the editing process of a major publishing house…
Author: Alex Miller
Title: Autumn Laing
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2011
ISBN: 9781742378510 (hardback first edition)
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $39.99