Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2012

Spirit of Progress, (2011, Glenroy Series #4) by Steven Carroll

Miles Franklin c1940 (Source: Wikipedia)

Spirit of ProgressSteven Carroll’s Spirit of Progress, a self-contained prequel to his acclaimed ‘Glenroy’ trilogy [1], is longlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin award.  In the aftermath of WW2, we once again meet Vic and Rita, this time on the cusp of parenthood and their move to the suburban fringe.

And this excerpt shows why we must nurture Australian literature that tells our stories, our way.  The young artist, Sam, is on his way out of Melbourne:

 It’s good to be out on the open road.  To be out of the city.  Away from the same faces and the talk that is all familiar.  It is a crisp winter’s day.  Blue sky, bright sun.  The green paddocks glow.  The winter flowers are luminous.  The leaves of the bushes and gums lift and shimmer in the breeze, now in sunshine, now in shade.  Dappled. But somehow that’s the wrong word, a word meant for a dappled countryside, which this is not.  And as much as Sam may feel like he’s cycling through an Impressionist painting (most of which he has only ever seen in reproduction), he’s not and he knows he’s not.  The light is wrong for a start.  The scattered houses and buildings are wrong.  The greenery is wrong.  Only a line of bare poplars, lining the part of the road along which he is travelling, like so many upturned brooms, is right.  No, it is more like those morning scenes from painters closer to home.  McCubbin or Tom Roberts.

Paintings he can see any time he likes.  A country junction, a paddock, a farm house, purple plumes of smoke rising from a chimney to a wide blue sky.  One look and you know how cold it is, for all the brightness of the sun.  One look and you know how it would feel to kick the dew off the grass in that paddock.  And this, it occurs to Sam as his legs work smoothly on the pedals, is the difference between paintings from here and paintings from there. (p121)

This is a character-driven novel, but the sense of place, – our own Australian place – is visceral.  Steven Carroll wrote most of this book when he was overseas and you can sense his love of home on every page.

Bringing together the lives of diverse characters, Carroll explores that strange moment in the Australia’s cultural life, when its artists and writers could not flee the prevailing cultural vacuum because of the war, and within this captivity, an artistic community flourished.  For…miraculously assembled … cut off from the great world by the sad and violent years of the war… in a moment that will never come again, these creative people converged against their will to become the Angry Penguins, the avant-garde modernist movement that produced in Melbourne the artists John Perceval, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester, and in literature, the poets Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris based in Adelaide.

Sam, the artist in Spirit of Progress whose painting captures Vic’s Aunt Katherine in all her curmudgeonly glory, is based on Sidney Nolan, and the painting which inspired this book is his ‘Woman and Tent’.   Family stories about this eccentric woman, Carroll’s own aunt Katherine, were the catalyst for the novel. (Click here to see the painting, I can’t reproduce it for copyright reasons).  In Carroll’s book the painting was created for an exhibition curated by Sam’s former lover Tess, who is loosely based on Sunday Reed, with whom Nolan had a complex and stormy relationship [2].  Do you need to know any of this to enjoy this book?  No, not at all, but the resonances are delicious for those of us who do, and what I like and admire about Carroll’s reworking of this story, is his respectful distance from the real subjects and his creative departures from real life when the story demands it.

Because these people are only a loose framework for rendering the complexity of an era which is often caricatured.  Carroll is brilliant at unpacking the world of the Baby Boomers in the economic prosperity of the 1950s, but Spirit of Progress captures its prelude while at the same time exploring the interior lives of ordinary people experiencing a brush with what came to be fame.

Carroll never actually met the real Aunt Katherine; his character, Vic’s eccentric aunt Katherine, is a vivid creation.   In her old age she lives in a tent on a block on the northern outskirts of Melbourne, which in 1946, was a mere 13-odd kilometres from the city.  These paddocks, like the market gardens that predate the suburb I live in now, were shortly to be transformed into the suburbia which now stretches 40 kilometres or more in all directions.  Sam, who wants to paint Katherine, cycles there and back to this block twice in a day, (though his legs were weary, I bet).

But Aunt Katherine’s not willing to be painted.  She doesn’t want to be in the public eye and she refuses to be a ‘curiosity’.  She values her privacy, and with all the authority of a school-mistress has already despatched a couple of nosy reporters looking for a human interest story.  She is solitary, cantankerous and imperious.  Sam’s ploy, and her reaction to it, generate a melancholy sequel: Carroll is master of the poignant what-might-have-been moment.  Vic is used to her strange ways, dropping in and out of his life, stubbornly independent to the last, but Rita is scared of her.  Rita might well have been a woman with less romanticised ideas about life if she had had an eccentric aunt like Aunt Katherine as a role model. [3]

When I posted a Sensational Snippet from this book, I noted that Carroll’s ‘long, discursive sentences are constructed to lodge in the mind and provoke further thought’ in a way that I thought was ‘kind-of Proustian’ so I was not surprised to see in this terrific interview that Carroll read the entire works of Proust in 2009. Spirit of Progress is not a page-turner, it’s a gentle, contemplative book that takes longer to read than you might expect because the insights it offers invite reflection.  And the prose is just beautiful.

Definitely one for the Miles Franklin shortlist; my pick (of the half-dozen I’ve read so far) for the winner.

Other reviews:

Tony’s Reading List
Geordie Williamson in The Australian
Blanche Clark in the Herald Sun

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: Spirit of Progress
Publisher: Harper Collins 4th Estate, 2011
ISBN: 9780732291181
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99

[1] The ‘Glenroy’ trilogy is so called because it is set in the northern suburbs of Melbourne but Glenroy is never named. It consists of The Art of the Engine Driver (2001) and The Gift of Speed (2004) (both shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award), and The Time We Have Taken, which won the award in 2008.
[2] See Wikipedia.
[3] I think everyone should have at least one eccentric aunt, to guard oneself against becoming stuffy.  My eccentric aunt was Aunty Grace who had been a matron in India in the days of the Raj, and was the first woman my mother knew of, to bare her midriff on the beach.  But my Aunty Grace lived far away in England, so instead we adopted an aunt from amongst my mother’s friends.  Aunty Dottie was a  woman of great sophistication, somewhat given to abandoning her family for sojourns in the city when she just could not bear living in the cultural desert of Finley in rural N.S.W. any longer.  (Her husband was a country solicitor, a profession he reluctantly resumed after losing all his money somewhere in Rhodesia. He played Scottish folk songs on my mother’s mandolin when he came to visit, and braved her wrath by making decadent French toast for school breakfasts for my sisters and me).   Aunty Dottie, however, had no domestic accomplishments, culinary or otherwise.  She would hold court from my father’s favourite chair for weeks at a time, somehow managing to look like a French fashion model despite being only five-feet-two and limited to shopping in Deniliquin.  With a G&T in one hand and a swirling cigarette in the other (which enraged my placid, mild-mannered father who hated smoking), she would quote long slabs of lyric poetry, sing melancholy arias, and pepper the conversation with scraps of Spanish.  Dinner was often late when Auntie Dottie was a house guest…

Fishpond: Spirit of Progress


  1. Quite right, it’s important that Australian writers are able to get across that Australian landscape and light :)

    And good to see that my review is linked above Geordie Williamson’s – that’ll show him ;)


    • LOL Naughty boy, Tony, there is no significance to the order at all…


  2. I knew that this was connected to the Glenroy trilogy but didn’t realise it was a prequel. I guess then it doesn’t matter that I haven’t read the original trilogy! I could still read this one.


    • Marg, it wouldn’t matter at all, and I think you’d love the Melbourne setting:)


  3. […] prequel, Spirit of Progress (2011) (see my review) vividly rendered the sense of restless intellectuals and artists being ‘free’ […]


  4. […] Carroll, see my review of Spirit of Progress and a Sensational Snippet Brenda Niall, see my review of Mannix Christos Tsiolkas, see my review of […]


  5. […] Engine Driver (2001), and continued with The Gift Of Speed (2004), The Time We Have Taken (2007), Spirit of Progress (2011), and Forever Young (2015). Now, going back in time to the origins of the family we have The […]


  6. […] Engine Driver (2001), and continued with The Gift Of Speed (2004), The Time We Have Taken (2007), Spirit of Progress (2011), and Forever Young (2015). Now, going back in time to the origins of the family we have The […]


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