Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 25, 2015

The Well-dressed Explorer, by Thea Astley #BookReview

The Well Dressed ExplorerAs you will know if you have viewed the Opening Lines or my more recent Sensational Snippet, there is much to love about Thea Astley’s The Well-dressed Explorer which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1962 along with George Turner’s The Cupboard Under the Stairs.   Thea Astley has the distinction not only of being a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin but also the only two-time co-winner i.e. when the award was shared between two authors.  Astley won it twice in her own right, with The Slow Natives in 1965; and The Acolyte in 1972, see my review; and she was a co-winner for Drylands along with Kim Scott’s Benang (see my review) in 2000).  Astley (1925-2004) is one of Australia’s great writers, notable not only for the numerous literary awards she won, but also for a powerful body of work over a sustained literary career of more than 40 years.

Remarkably, she achieved this with a distinctive modernist style.  The extensive use of complex metaphor can be taxing sometimes, but is offset by her wit; her passion for exposing petty corruption, injustice and human stupidity; and her brilliant observations of people at their most banal.  All these are superbly in evidence in her third novel The Well-dressed Explorer, but if you don’t like to have your brain circuits stretched by imagery used in new and challenging ways; if you’re put off by lush poetic descriptions or if you just like a what-happened-next kind of a story, then Thea Astley may not be for you.  But for me, reading The Well-dressed Explorer makes me want to read her first two: I have A Descant for Gossips (1960) on the TBR but not her debut novel Girl with a Monkey (1958)Hopefully it will turn up in the OpShop one of these days... it is nice to have other titles to look forward to…

The Well-dressed Explorer of the title is George Brewster, a narcissistic journalist whose career takes him exploring jobs, colleagues and women.  Like an explorer, he goes seeking the new, leaving nothing much behind him except a trail that briefly shows where he’s been.  Sometimes there is damage left behind, but most of the time, things revert to what they were, as if he had never existed.   Lippman, a colleague who doesn’t like him, dismisses his piece about the 1934 Melbourne Centenary like this:

…George with his journalistic glands opened to full throttle executed a timely series of articles on crowd behaviour, crowd control, and famous crowds of history.

“Sweet coz!” Lippman said later as he marked down the week’s edition for tabulation purposes.  “You can weave ’em, pal!”

“What do you mean?” George demanded, affronted.

Lippman smiled grimly.  “Those clichés.  Journalistic fair-isle.”  (p. 114)

But barbs like this have little effect.  His self-absorption is so complete that he simply can’t believe any criticism:

“I have always been able to get people to do what I want without raising my voice,” he used to say.  It was true, largely because as he grew older he was maturing as a bore. Quick-fleeing obedience had its attraction for the underling about to be transfixed by a story. (p. 130)

He’s incapable of understanding the feelings of those he hurts (mostly the women in his life) because when, for example, they cry, he twists the situation to complain that he is hurt by their accusations.  His long-suffering wife Alice ends up amused by his indiscretions, and there are some droll scenes where she gently chastises her indignant daughter who’s outraged by his conspicuous flirting.

It’s not a wholly unsympathetic portrait.  The well-dressed Explorer isn’t an anti-male diatribe against a faithless husband, it’s a commentary on the society that makes his wife Alice into a doormat; on toxic workplaces where women are at risk from the dominant male opportunists; and on a religion that dooms mismatched couples to stay together.  His parents are a bit odd: they shop around for a religion that suits their social prejudices but doesn’t make too many demands; needing a religion that offers absolution-on-demand, George opts for Roman Catholicism.  (There’s a very funny scene where Father O’Neil – with whom George has a professional relationship, writing articles for the parish –  encounters him in the confessional.)  While he’s a serial philanderer, George does love his wife and child, and while we readers might well think she’d be better off without him, he wouldn’t dream of breaking up his marriage, a marriage made on the rebound.  It isn’t just a case of having the cake and eating it too: George tends to fall for the wrong sort of woman, and is badly burned by his first love who is as faithless as he turns out to be.  Some of his women harbour long term revenge – he does get his comeuppance, but somehow the reader doesn’t feel like cheering.

It’s a shame that there are no records of the 1962 shortlist.  Now that I’ve read both co-winners, I suspect that there were probably a few other gems there because The Well-dressed Explorer and The Cupboard under the Stairs show that there were publishers prepared to take risks.  My next Miles Franklin winner isn’t going to be the 1963 winner  Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliot or the 1964 winner My Brother Jack by George Johnson because I’ve already read them both, years ago, and I want to read the ones I haven’t read first.  So my next Miles Franklin winner will be the 1965 winner The Slow Natives – yes, another by Astley, and also published by Angus & Robertson.  I’m looking forward to it!

Author: Thea Astley
Title: The Well-dressed Explorer
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, First Edition, 1962
ISBN: None
Source: My collection of First Edition Miles Franklin winners

Availability

Fishpond had a second-hand copy on the day I looked.   You could also try Brotherhood Books, they had half-a-dozen Astleys, but not this one.


Responses

  1. ‘Journalistic fair-isle’. Priceless.

    • Her one-liners are brilliant:)

  2. Lisa, as you say Thea Astley’s one liners are the best!! I love her writing, her writing style, and she is so Australian. All her books are wonderful reads.

    • And quips like ‘maturing as a bore’ … I wish I had a dollar for every time I giggled reading this book, I could shout myself a whole collection of Astley First Editions.

  3. I agree, Astley can be so funny while being so biting about society at the same time. I’ll never stop regretting not being in a tutorial with her at my university. Why didn’t I realise what a treasure we had in our midst? I haven’t read this one … must do so.

    • Ah well, in our youth, one way or another, we’ve all been a bit dismissive of university staff. I was even examined by Ronald Farren-Price in my youth but had no idea who he was. (Just as well, or my nerves would have been even worse).

      • Yes, youth is hopeless sometimes. But, I know what you mean too. I reckon Astley woukd have terrified me then.

  4. BTW Lisa, my research in TROVE brings up these books as considered by the Miles Franklin judges that year (in addition to the two winners): Yaralie, by Donald Stuart; Amid the Plenty, by Gavin Casey; The Young Wife, by David Martin; The Delinquents, by Criena Rohan. I haven’t hear of any of these before, have you?

    Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year was highly commended by the judges.

    There were 5 judges apparently: 2 voted for Astley, 2 for George Turner, and 1 for Gavin Casey’s book!

    • Wow, Sue, you are amazing! I’m excited by the new prospect of finding these titles, but also that you were able to find these records. You know that on the MF page at Wikipedia they say there is no record of any shortlists before 1987? Are there any others that you can find in Trove?

      • Oh, I must check the Wikipedia page … And will do some research and try to fill in some gaps. That would be a good project in my skate time, wouldn’t it?! And would mean even less reading and photo cataloguing! But still, important.

        • Where did you find it, Sue? Was it in one of the judges papers or a report?

          • A newspaper article announcing the winner/s for the year. I thought I’d look there. Some articles just told the winner, but at least one mentioned these others. So if I added it to Wikipedia it would have to be with that proviso – i.e. that it’s a newspaper report not an official MF document -, but I think it would be useful to do nonetheless don’t you?

            • Absolutely yes, you could add it in a separate section so that its provenance was quite clear. But I bet the MF Trust would be interested to know about it too.
              Do you think there would be other sources like that for the other years? Is it possible to search Trove for mentions in other resources? Perhaps literary magazines made passing mentions of it, you know, in the way that both you and I do when we are reviewing books?

              • Yes, I think they could – I mean I just chose that year because of your comment re not knowing – and I’ll start searching … or you could too? It’s a challenge and of course best if you/we can find more than one article to confirm. BUT why would the MF trust not have done that? Presumably some judges would have info too? Don’t they have access to past judges. All very strange.

                • I have to confess that I don’t know how to search Trove, I’ve never used it. This could be a good excuse for me to make a trip to Canberra for you to show me, with side-trips to the Gallery and that nice restaurant you tagged on Facebook last week…


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