Alex Miller is one of our finest writers, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award for The Ancestor Game (1993) and Journey to the Stone Country, (2003 ); Landscape of Farewell was shortlisted in 2008. It is a compelling story.
The characterisation is superb. Max Otto, has transcended his humble beginnings to become an academic, but his research has always been constricted by his fear of learning more than he wants to know about his own father’s actions in Ww2. He spent his career in the relative calm of 12th century history, unable to confront his real field of interest: exploring that question that challenges us when confronted by an enemy we wish obliterated…
At his valedictory lecture in Hamburg when he feels he has nothing to lose, he presents a rather shabby version of his ideas, in a paper called ‘The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre in Human Society from the Earliest Times to the Present’. (p11) He begins by quoting Homer:
Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek expedition against Troy, and king of the Mycenaeans, cautions his younger brother, Menelaus, against sparing the life of a high-born Trojan. We are not going to leave a single one of them alive, Agamemnon says to his brother, down to the babies in the mothers’ wombs – not even they must live. The whole people must be wiped out of existence, and none left to think of them and shed a tear… (p12)
From the moment we read this quotation, we fear as Max does, that we know what his father has done. We also note the juxtaposition of one small sentence explaining why Max presents his lecture despite his intention to end his life – it’s in deference to the wishes of his wife and child, and he adds, I had always felt more at ease when I did as I was told. (p11) This is a defence that has a special resonance since Nuremburg.
Vita McLelland is a vibrant character whose presence in the novel is pervasive. It is she who lures Max to Australia, and it is she who bullies him back into life. She is a loud character, clothed in bright colours that billow about, as if she needs to fill even more space than she has. She bellows down her mobile phone to intrude across vast distances, and her demands put me in mind of She Who Must Be Obeyed – not Hilda, the caricature from Rumpole of the Bailey, but the powerful ruler of H. Rider Haggard’s novel. Like Ayesha, Vita is both desired and feared, she is waiting for a mate, and she expects a transformation of Max no less. Nevertheless, Vita is not the central female character. The woman whose presence permeates this story is Max’s dead wife Winifred, without whom life seems unendurable.
I heard Alex Miller read from Landscape of Farewell at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year and was entranced. He read a small section where Max recalls the erotic feelings he has for his middle aged wife, and every middle aged woman in the audience went home with a renewed sense of her own allure afterwards!
Most people, I think, would not have described her as beautiful at that age. She became beautiful later, and people who knew her only when young were surprised when they met the woman of beauty and distinction Winifred grew into later in life…
While she undresses at the foot of the bed, she is telling me about something that happened to one of her colleagues at work during the day, and she removes her clothes in a preoccupied and unselfconscious way, her attention caught up in the telling of her story. I am not really listening to her story, but am admiring her. …
It is this moment, this image, that stands at the centre of our erotic life. This is the portal through which Winifred and I are transported to that other world of our sexuality, an enchanted landscape beyond the commonplace of our day. After being together for thirty years we no longer make love every night of course…but when we do make love, it is for me always with these soft lamplit images of Winifred’s naked shoulders and arms, and the lovely hollow of her back, in my mind. (p147-8)
Uncle Dougald is another unforgettable character. He too has a father with a story to tell, an Aboriginal man raging against powerlessness and haunted by history. Dougald and Max forge an unlikely kind of domesticity in the Australian outback, pottering about in an isolated shack just beyond a forlorn little town. Max finds himself abandoning his timidity; Dougald finds his amanuensis to write the story of Gnapun, and together they journey through the landscape of their fathers to find a kind of resolution.
As in Journey to the Stone Country, Miller evokes the Australian landscape with an artist’s eye. Hie genius lies in suspending his own familiarity with the Australian outback landscape to render the scene through the eyes of a European stranger:
‘So this is it then?’ I said, for he clearly meant me to understand that this was the meadow Gnapun had crossed that early morning, striding through the ground mist on his way to meet the messengers. I was about to say more when he laid his hand on my shoulder, silencing me. He brought the truck to a halt and switched off the motor. He sat at the wheel in the silence examining the country to our left, his lips parted and his eyes narrowed, as if he anticipated something. I followed the direction of his gaze. A hundred metres or so in that direction the grasslands ended abruptly and a forest of tall cinnamon trees began. These tall, elegant trees were evidently unrelated to the ironbarks of the open woodland through which we had been passing. The valley had narrowed around us and we were enclosed now by the naked rock of the grand escarpments. The crimson and purple granite of the cliffs stated the dominance of these stone presences in this picturesque valley as confidently as if they had been the fortress walls of a medieval lord. (p235)
There is a very good review of Landscape of Farewell by Angela Bennie at the Sydney Morning Herald, but I do not agree with her criticisms about the intrusive and rather strong histrionic strain in the narration. I think Max’s occasional awkwardness with English (‘younger than she’ (p146); ‘I and my dogs’ (p113) is entirely consistent with his characterisation as a man for whom English is a second language, and his occasionally operatic meditations remind us that he does not belong in Dougald’s country, and never can. His place is in Europe, and he has learned to accept all his losses, not just his grief about Winifred. The black soil which he was to inherit from his uncle’s farm in Hamburg is gone, and he is contaminated by his country’s crimes against humanity. Dougald’s measured calm and the silence of the land as it was when Leichardt saw it resist any attempts to whitewash history….
Alex Miller’s new book is called Lovesong, and I hope to be at the launch at Readings next week.
Author: Alex Miller
Title: Landscape of Farewell
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2007
Source: purchased from Readings at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 and autographed by the author.