Karen, known to observant readers as one who contributes perceptive comments to this blog from time to time, is the author of 8 States of Catastrophe, published by Brolga Publishing in 2011. As a keen and sophisticated reader of short story collections, she is the ideal person to fill this gap on the ANZ LitLovers blog, and I was delighted when she agreed to review Antipodes, a 1985 collection of short stories by David Malouf, one of my favourite authors. Here’s Karen’s thoughts about the book:
My first reading of David Malouf’s 1995 collection of short stories Antipodes was perhaps a little too earnest. I was desperate to like the stories as much as previously-read poetry and I hoped it would at least equal the much-read, much-talked-of and much-loved Johnno.
In a collection of stories so full of contrasts – the old world and the new, city and country, life and death, masculine and feminine – it is not surprising to find Malouf capably handling the prosaic alongside the poetic, leaving me searching – as in a treasure hunt – for those glassy-eyed bring-me-to-the-knees passages I longed for.
In ‘A Trip to the Grundelsee’, for example, the background to a group of friends taking a car-trip is told in a very straight-forward – unpoetic – voice: Michael is visiting two women who had been friends of his father’s before the war; Gordon and Cassie were along because ‘Anick had invited them’; Anick was offering female support. Each explanation is succinct and unvarnished.
But, later, a gem-like description of Cassie’s black depression, manifesting in thoughts like ‘the lake might contain unbearable secrets drowned babies, or the records, deep-sunk in leaden boxes, of an era.’
And, in ‘Southern Skies’ (a story about trust and mistrust, knowledge and naivety), the mundane of ‘nothing ever happened’ and ‘we lounged and swapped stories’ is offset by the evocative, when a young boy looks at a photo and recognises the Old Country that his parents dreamed of. He thinks: ‘those flowers are the ones, precisely those, that blossom in the songs they sing.’ Ah, the poetry!
‘Throughout the collection, Malouf presents the Australian male in all his guises: at home and overseas; city or country; native-born or transported from the Old Country.
The men in ‘Sorrows and Secrets’ are the embodiment of that old national stereotype, The Australian Legend. Taciturn, dry-humoured men, licking cigarette papers, using gestures rather than words; tough land-clearing, fire-building blokes like the foreman: ‘he was a sandy, sad-eyed fellow of maybe forty, with a grey-flannel vest instead of a shirt’; someone to be trusted, though not easy to get along with. The men’s stories, ‘dense with the details of their lives’ are kept in the dark. Some secrets, it transpires, are beyond sorrowful.
Malouf gives a nod to another stereotype – the Aussie Larrikin – in ‘Bad Blood’. Uncle Jake is a charmer, a story-teller, a spender, a joker and a snappy dresser with his fondness for two-toned shoes and his Akubra worn “at an unserious angle”.
As easily as he brought us the legendary outback Australian bloke and the Larrikin, Malouf transports the reader – in ‘That Antic Jezebel’ – to a classic Sydney Eastern suburbs socialite, whose elegantly tailored black dress and single piece of jewellery (heavy but understated and ‘too plain to suggest ostentation’) belie the life she lives behind the closed door of her Elizabeth Bay apartment. Her frugality is such that ‘she ate a great deal of boiled rice, was careful with the lights, and on the pretext of keeping trim, she walked rather than took the bus’.
‘In Trust’ reads like a fable to me with two anecdotes to illustrate its moral. An American insurance assessor’s heart collapses at the moment he is confronted by his true lineage in Jerusalem and a young girl who, when offered a piece of family history by way of little trinkets and treasures, chooses a set of x-rays of a young man’s thorax and jaw. The x-rays were Aunty Connie’s last memento of her boyfriend who died at Bullecourt in France in 1917. As another Aunt holds the x-rays to the light, Malouf parts with more of that poetic imagery I craved:
The young man’s Adam’s apple rose in her throat. A word it was, that he had intended to speak but could not, because he had to hold his breath for the machine; a thought that had sparked in the skull, travelled at lightning speed down that luminous cord and got stuck in his throat. It was there, still visible.
Later, she thinks: ‘that lump in his throat must be my name’.
This idea of people as custodians of objects touches upon my own experiences of items bequeathed, with their memories, truths, longings and imaginings.
There are natural lines of descent in a family. They are not always the direct ones. It is proper that the objects people care for should find their way down through them, from hand to hand and from heart to heart.
Antipodes won both the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Vance Palmer Award for Fiction.
© Karenlee Thompson
Cross-posted at Karen’s blog.
Many thanks to Karen for this review which shines a light on the early career of one of Australia’s finest writers.
Author: David Malouf
Publisher: Chatto and Windus, 1985 (First Edition)
Source: The book cover above is my personal copy; Karen reviewed the 1999 Random House edition (which I had bought for a song from an Op Shop before finding a first edition copy).
Karen’s next review will be of The Hanged Man in the Garden (1989) an early collection by another much-loved Aussie author, Marion Halligan. Click here to visit Karen’s own website and also check out her blog.