Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 7, 2016

A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (2016), by Jean-Francois Vernay, translated by Marie Ramsland

A Brief Take on the Australian NovelYes, you read that title correctly: a book about Australian literature that’s been translated into English.  And it’s called A Brief Take because it uses cinematic techniques within the pages of the book.  It is nothing like an academic treatise (thank goodness!)

Jean-Francois Vernay is a bilingual of Australian-French heritage and grew up in New Caledonia.  He started enjoying OzLit when he read Peter Carey’s Illywhacker for a course on Pacific literature, and eventually made it his academic career, researching Australian fiction for 20 years.  Although he publishes in both English and French, this book was originally published in French in 2009, and then translated into English by Marie Ramsland in 2010, and finally expanded and revised by Vernay himself for this 2016 edition.

The Contents page starts with

  • ‘Inserts’: a list of (one-page) ‘panoramic’ views of authors, and ‘close-ups’ or ‘low-angle’ shots of particular works. (It includes a low-angle shot of the Miles Franklin, which seemed to have nothing much that’s new to say about it.) The authors include everyone you’d expect and one author I’d never heard of, a Leonard Mann who wrote a bellicose war novel, so no loss IMO.
  • ‘Teaser’: an introduction, in which the author explains that he has tried to avoid making a canon. [LH: And seems to have succeeded].
  • ‘Sneak Preview’: an introduction by academic Nicholas Jose, noting elements of Vernay’s original style and preoccupations.
  • ‘Trailer’: the author’s explanation of the analogy between cinema and literature and how that plays out in his book.
  • ‘Prologue’: a ‘draft definition’ of Australian literature and a brief survey of some Iconic themes.

This is then followed by the sort of chapters you might expect:

  • The Colonial Period
  • The Emergence of a National Consciousness
  • The Ebb and Flow of History
  • Exploited and Manipulated Reality
  • Literature of Minorities in a Cosmopolitan Era
  • Postmodernism and New Tendencies.

This Contents page concludes with an Epilogue, listing also Special Features: ‘Documentaries’, ‘Bonus’ and ‘Credits.

For me, the book really begins with the Prologue.  The draft definition of Australian Literature explores the possible parameters, and deftly dismisses some of the controversies, merely noting these two:

  • Oz lit is a branch of English Lit because it’s written in English, or no, it’s distinctive (as is American Lit, for example);
  • The absurdity of a national literature because there is only ‘world literature’.

Vernay then goes on to reject theme, author origin and nationality, geographic location or mode of expression as useful traits to define Australian literature, preferring to agree with critic John K. Ewers about works conceived in the minds of writers who have reacted to the conditions of life in Australia and D.R. Burns who abhors a rule but says that the work should be tied in some way, or its author should, to things Australian.

This definition might miss the point for many ordinary Australian readers.  Of course we want to read all kinds of stuff – we are not insular – but we also want the opportunity to read fiction that is distinctively about ourselves, our places, our issues.  This is what the provisions of the Miles Franklin Award were set up to assert, and that is why there are periodic attempts to interfere with the award by those who want our most prestigious prize to include writing about other stuff as long as it’s by an Australian.  Yes, there are great novels which are ineligible, e.g. David Malouf’s Ransom but Miles Franklin’s small bequest has morphed into our most important award precisely because readers can have a reasonable expectation that the winner will be about ourselves, our places, our issues. So the argument is really about who the prize is for.  Readers, or writers.  Well, you know what side I’m on.

Moving on…

According to Vernay, iconic themes in Oz Lit include:

  • The Quest: for a southern continent, an El Dorado, a safe haven, an unexplored country and from the 20th century onwards also a psychic journey leading the main character to discovery of the self.
  • Conquest: territorial conquest, appropriation of land, spatial conquest confronting political intrigues (dystopia, adventure, crime) and narratives about invasion.
  • Voyage: sometimes an allegory for an imaginative voyage. Historically, early Australian authors invoked exile from Britain (whether they were born there or not).
  • Geography: landscape as key, with three trends
    • Country scenes: pastoral scenes, romantic descriptions, picturesque lyricism;
    • The urban milieu: tramways [LH: only in Melbourne!], neon signs, sky-scrapers, and cinemas; and affluence of the metropolis.  [LH: the suburbs, where nearly all of us live, get a mention later on in the book].
    • Beach culture: sacrosanct institution of surfing and its lifesavers.  Characteristics include idiosyncratic language, expression of a democratic attitude, a desire to get to the truth and an ironic sense of humour.
  • Topography: especially for early writers, the naming and labelling of spaces as part of appropriation
  • Isolation: heroic or symbolic figures, marginalised or alone, living on the edges with an unwelcoming desert at the heart of the country.  Identity is elsewhere.  A sense of being exiled, or marooned on the far side.
  • The Antipodes: A transported Europe, with a carnivalesque reversal of seasons and social barriers.  A land of wonders. [LH: carnivalesque seasons??  Maybe in colonial lit, but surely not now.  Only northern hemisphere outsiders think that our seasons are ‘odd’.  We of the southern hemisphere take ’em for granted (with occasional bouts of schadenfreude during our summer).  Hell-o to fellow folk in southern hemispheres! Africa!  Latin America! Yes, there’s millions of us!]
  • Abundance: a certain loquaciousness among Australian writers… accustomed to large geographical sweeps of land … and not inclined to deprive themselves of fictional space.  Filling the void and/or portraying the abundance of life on the continent.
  • Religion: Australia as a paradise, sustained by a Garden of Eden myth occasionally yielding to a pessimistic counterpart… an apocalyptic vision of hell on earth (brutal penal systems, hostile landscape, chaos and savagery outside the ‘civilised’ cultivated areas).
  • Disappearance: the disappearance of any Australian, whether important or not, has almost become a cliché.  In fiction, these include the explorer, the vagabond and other archetypal figures claimed by nature and a hostile space. These disappearances reveal the foreigner’s unease in occupying a land where they do not and cannot feel at home. The Lost Child is a variant, revealing a sense of abandonment felt by a people whose British ancestors were subjected to the trauma of being torn from their land.  Another variant is the Australian disappeared overseas, depicting the anguish felt at the loss of a cherished object.

Ok, got all that?

I will be disappointed if my readers don’t want to argue with Vernay’s ideas, or contribute some ‘whatabouttery’.  Top of my list is what about Gallipoli?  For better or worse, this Test of Manhood symbolising A Test of Nationhood is an iconic theme all by itself, yet (though some Australians have lost sight of this) the place is in Turkey.  Nevertheless, no one but an Australian (Roger McDonald) could have written 1915, A novel (1979). (See my review).   Only an Australian (Jenny Ackland) could have written The Secret Son (2015). (See my review).  No one but an Australian cares about Gallipoli in the peculiar way that Australians do.  Only Australians still want to write about Gallipoli in the 21st century, and my instincts tell me that no one else in the world wants to read novels about it (except maybe for some bemused Turks).

Ok, I haven’t read the whole book yet, and Gallipoli may surface later on – so we’ll see.

PS I’ll revisit this book again when I find something else I want to be argumentative about.  I’m loving reading it!

PPS I noticed on the verso page that there’s a logo for Coriole Wines in McLarenvale.  I assume this means that they have sponsored the publication of the book in some way, and I take my hat off to them.  Philanthropic businesses that contribute to our books and publishing industry will always attract my attention (and my money).  Now I’m sorry if you are reading this from overseas (though you can order Coriole wines for overseas delivery) but I’m here to tell you that McLarenvale is a gorgeous spot for a long weekend and Coriole have a very nice-looking restaurant which The Spouse and I will definitely check out next time we go to South Australia to visit The Relations.

Author: Jean-Francois Vernay
Title: A Brief Take on the Australian Novel
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054048
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available from Fishpond: A Brief Take on the Australian Novel or direct from Wakefield Press or any good bookshop.


  1. This made me laugh a bit, Lisa. There’s too much to comment on, but the one that REALLY entertained me is “a certain loquaciousness among Australian writers… accustomed to large geographical sweeps of land … and not inclined to deprive themselves of fictional space.”

    Really? Anecdotally speaking, I reckon we have as good a collection of “spare” writers, novella writers etc as any literature. Sure we have Poor fellow my country, Illywhacker, Cloudstreet, Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy and so on, but we also have Jolley’s little treasures, Carrie Tiffany’s, David Malouf’s (Fly away Peter, Ransom, et al), Tim Winton’s short books (That eye the sky, Breath, etc) and so many others. This seems like a very strange characterisation of Aussie literature – and an entertaining reason for it – as in my reading I see similar variety in length from OS (think Dickens and the Victoria, Russian classics, not to mention Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas). (I’m not so up on contemporary European writers but surely they still have the gamut?


    • Yup, agree entirely. LOL Maybe he just wrote that out of exhaustion at having to read too many long ones for his research? (I felt a bit like that when I chose Dickens for my study author when doing my BA. I ended up reading all of his novels three times each – phew!)
      Anyway, Sue, #PuttingOnMyCommissioningHat you will just have to do a rebuttal post celebrating our Spare Authors!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hmmm … a Monday musings perhaps! I have written about Spare writing before but perhaps not from the specific position of Australian literature.


  2. You didn’t comment on the cover. Is that the Australian reader up there on the ladder, spoiled for choice?


    • Funny you should mention that. It’s a painting by Prudence Flint and the design is by Michael Deves.
      Actually I think she looks a bit gloomy, as if she can’t find anything to read…


  3. Oh god, how are you not throwing this book across the room, Lisa?! LOL.


    • Nooo, it’s terrific. It’s thoughtful, intelligent, amusing, and occasionally playfully opinionated about the controversies that exercise us. It’s very interesting about eras where I’m not widely read, i.e. the late 19th and early 20th century. I’m just about to start ‘Literature of Minorities in a Cosmopolitan Era’ which covers the years of my teenage and early adult reading (when I was mostly reading British classics and university set texts, but moved into reading almost exclusively women’s writing – Jolley, Weldon, Lurie et al.)
      And it’s not pompous. A rare thing, in the field of OzLitCrit…

      Liked by 1 person

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