Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 3, 2018

An Open Book, by David Malouf #BookReview – and some thoughts about the future of fiction

I had barely begun dipping into David Malouf’s new book of poetry when I was alerted to a rather disconcerting headline in The Australian.  (A paper I don’t read.  It makes its way into our house once a week because of the book reviews.) But for once, I was glad to have it in the house so that I could read Stephen Romei’s ‘exclusive’.  It was titled ‘At 84, Malouf shuts the book on fiction’ and it was in The Weekend Australian of September 29-30, 2018 on page 5.

I was expecting the article to explain that Malouf had decided not to write any more novels.  That would have been a shame, but at 84, he already has a substantial body of work, and he is getting on a bit.  Novels are hard work, so I was hardly going to be surprised.  But I was taken aback by Malouf making these sorts of claims:

“What I would find most cringeworthy, when it comes to how people think of me as a writer [..]. is for them to think I’m clever.”

The multilingual Miles Franklin winner is not talking about his erudition, but his belief that great writing should be direct and unmannered rather than “clever fictionalising”.

“(Leo) Tolstoy was not clever. (Honore de) Balzac was not clever.”

Well, I have liked Malouf’s fiction for a long time, but I don’t think that cleverness in human beings is a fault nor do I think it a flaw in writing. I like and admire clever writing.  I like having my mind stretched by oblique ideas, themes, structures and metaphor.  I love playfulness that masks a deeper meaning.  And even though I don’t always understand what I’m reading (as you can see from my adventures with Finnegans Wake), I wouldn’t have missed reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red for the world,  or any of Patrick White’s books, or the sly cunning of The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson. I was fascinated by Mud Map, Australian Women’s Experimental Writing and I don’t like to hear other writers criticising venturesome ideas and styles.  I think an author’s cunning can be fun and I enjoy the journey.  And now that we have the internet, I know I am not alone.  Definitely not.

But there’s more:

Malouf believes fiction is in trouble, worldwide, and reveals he has decided not to write any more novels or collections of short stories.

[…]

“Writers have lost faith in fiction and I think readers have lost faith in fiction,” he says, blaming, at least in part, the changes of the digital revolution.

Hmm.  I don’t know who Malouf has been talking to, to form his belief about readers and writers losing faith in fiction… It can’t be surely, that the books and writing scene is all that different in Sydney and the Gold Coast, which is where Romei says Malouf divides his time.  But two weeks ago here in Melbourne I was at a sellout crowd at the Wheeler Centre, listening to Gerard Murnane talking about his fiction (which is about as clever as books can be, and all the more interesting for it).  The noteworthy aspect of that event was the age of the audience.  A lot of young readers were there.  A lot.

A loss of faith in fiction is certainly not the case in the online circles I move in, and if the constant flow of publicity I receive about new literary fiction is any guide, then Australian publishers seem to be confident about their new fiction too.

Fortunately, Malouf’s book of poetry is more digestible than his opinions about the future of fiction.  Romei says that the poems can be read as memoir, and points out that the first poem ‘Parting’ is about birth, a bearable distinction of bodies’ while the last poem ‘Before and After’ is about an old man at the threshold of a familiar/ room, on a breath suspended.  He is not yet ready to startle/my ghost in the shadow/that has stepped into the room/before me. 

In between, on page 28,there’s a provocative poem called ‘Aubade.com’. It’s about Twitter, likening it to a caucus of magpies.  Twitter beyond the goss/ and gotcha of the here and now [is] aspiring/ to the insubstantial. It begins like this:

Trending this morning
on Twitter     the same old

the nothing’s new under
the noisy      the nosey as

that holds
the mesh and mash of things

together     Small wars
in the grass

the loss     the lost    the itch
and ache     all tossed

in and turned over

The blind      the bland as
blend

Well, yes, Twitter and its peculiar trends can be as inane as the conversation one might hear on a train or at the hairdresser or in a queue for a coffee.  But Twitter, unlike these unavoidable everyday interactions, can be curated.  It all depends on the followers and the followed, doesn’t it?  None of my Twitter friends are inane, and the tweets I read alert me to all kinds of substantial reading fare, from reviews to journal articles to news about book awards.

But even though that poem seems a bit judgemental, I can’t help but feel for the lonely boy in ‘Odd Man Out’ and for the man in his golden prime/ cruelly dumped and broken in ‘Pyrra’.  There is loss too in the poems that trace Malouf’s travels in Europe:  in ‘On the Move, 1968’, he mourns a lost love from half a century ago:

I miss it still,
and daily, as I miss you
at moments in the heat
of the pavement as I wait
in the traffic of another

city, in another
decade in another century
and have now for how long
is it?

Other poems I liked include ‘House and Hearth’ – beginning with the small household gods we live with, and page 33  next to it, the homage to the simplicities of bread in ‘The New Loaf’:

Each day delivers it
new-risen like the sun
out of centuries
of homely experiment

My view from the Hermitage, St Petersburg, 2012

I also liked ‘Incident on Myrtle Street’ – about the scent of a burglar breaking into the house, and ‘The View from the Winter Palace’ from a room that knows nothing of sea-light or sea breezes.  And also ‘Kite’, with Malouf’s homage to his mother  lost for the afternoon/ in another century, drowned/like Ophelia in her book. 

There’s lots to like in this collection.  You can buy it direct from UQP , from Fishpond: An Open Book and bookshops everywhere.  It is beautifully published in hardback with a ribbon marker to keep your place.  The slipcover art is by Bridget Farmer and the design is by Sandy Cull from gogoGinko. So yes, a lovely gift book for the litlover in your life.

Author: David Malouf
Title: An Open Book
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2018, 89pp
ISBN: 9780702260308
Review copy courtesy of UQP

 


Responses

  1. Man is a story telling animal. Fiction will never die. I wonder of what Malouf was thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The cover is beautiful.. great post!

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  3. Hi Lisa, I read the article last Saturday and was very surprised by Malouf’s comments. After all, Malouf wrote Ransom, and that is just a continuation of a story being retold. Fiction will never die, story telling is ingrained in all of us. I am now reading Edmund White’s, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, and it is about the pleasure of reading.. .

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    • It’s possible he was misquoted, of course, and more likely, that the nuances of what he said has been lost in the necessities of keeping an article brief. (Actually, it’s amazing that a bit of *literary* news made it into the paper at all). Perhaps he gave examples of what he meant, which might have made his ideas less brutal. After all, if he’d talked about Joyce, most people would agree with him, because Joyce is an outlier, if you like, at the extreme end of ‘cleverness’.
      But the fact that fiction ‘cleverness’ runs along a continuum is my point. Fiction, like the people who read it, is a broad church, offering very simple examples in genre fiction, up to conceptual and experimental fiction which can be incomprehensible if you don’t know the code, if you’re not multilingual or widely read, or have no experience of the cultural allusions and so on. The guide books I read for Finnegans Wake were written by professors who in one case worked with a multilingual team of undergraduates to decode it and still admitted to not understanding a lot of it. Some books (like Beethoven’s symphonies) need to be experienced again and again to reveal all their secrets.
      But so what? They did that for fun, as I read FW for fun. Their excitement leaps off the pages of the guide book, not frustration or irritation. Like me, they enjoyed the pleasure of being among the words of an exciting author, and being ‘in the presence’ of such an intelligent mind. Some books are not about a ‘story’ or a ‘solution’ to be found, they are about the journey.
      I don’t think anyone, not even Malouf much as I love his work, can lay down rules about what fiction can or should be.

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      • I was going to ask what was Romei’s response to Malouf’s statement as presumably he doesn’t just quote him without providing some lead in or comment??

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        • It’s a column of some length, so I can’t quote much more of it for copyright reasons, but I didn’t interpret any of it as a rejoinder to what Malouf was saying.

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          • That’s interesting … isn’t that what a literary critic would do? But I suppose if it’s only a column he’s just reporting not analysing. I was thinking recently that Malouf had been quiet, but then saw this book and was pleased. Let’s see what happens.

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            • Well, context is all. An 84-year-old hero of Australian letters states some opinions… would the journalist dispute them, either at the time, or later on in his homage to an elderly author who’s just given us his last book? I think Romei has let Malouf’s words speak for themselves.
              But interestingly, reviewing Kristina Olsson’s Shell (which I’ve just bought), Geordie Williamson this week writes that this book does what “superior historical fiction is meant to do: ground large abstract forces in a distinct milieu, using psychologically plausible characters as opposed to editorialising ciphers, while using prose that captures and honours individual lives, those human eddies caught in the broader historical flow”
              And then at the end of his (enticing) review he writes what might be a riposte:
              “Those who prefer their stories served straight up may be frustrated by the poetic indirection of the prose. But those who share the sense of Sydney Harbour as a perfect stage for human action – who adore its signal landmark while pondering what might have been – this is a novel with a sharp eye, a warm heart and sprawling ambitions, painted on the most splendid canvas of them all.”
              (Makes me wish that Geordie himself would write a novel, one day…)

              Liked by 1 person

              • It does in fact!

                As for Malouf, fair point re context, but a respectful reflection wouldn’t be inappropriate.

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  4. I find this interesting. I have been put off by quite a bit of modern fiction and my reason has been some authors seem to try to be so clever that I feel it interferes with the story. More than once I have quit a book because of the style. I don’t mind some cleverness but sometimes I feel there is a competition to see who can be the most clever in outdoing someone else and the story suffers. I realise it is a very personal opinion but The Underground Railway and Lincoln in the Bardo had me throwing those books away. I loved their concept but the writing turned me off comp,etely as I felt the “cleverness” was just too much. I lost interest. I’d be curious what others think.

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    • Well, I think you’ve noted something important there. There is a difference between being clever for its own sake – to show off, if you like, and being clever because you have ideas you want to express and there is no other way to do it and you just want to have fun. It’s like vocabulary, in a way. People with limited vocabularies sometimes sneer at people who use a more complex lexicon, and it can be alienating so IMO people should be sensitive to the needs of their audience. But it’s also true that sometimes a less commonly used word or an expression in a foreign language is the only one that will do.
      The analogy for me is jazz. I get bored by traditional jazz, because it’s too predictable, I like 1930s and 40s big band jazz because it’s complex but accessible, and then I lose interest in modern jazz because I don’t understand it and can’t be bothered to learn its secrets. To me it feels like being clever for its own sake, until I’m in the presence of a live musician playing it. And I can see that they’re not being ‘clever’, they are away in a musical world of their own and they just couldn’t play their instrument any other way.
      So I would say, there’s nothing wrong with saying this book is not for me (and I agree about Lincoln in the Bardo but not about The Underground Railway) but IMO it’s (usually) not the book or the author, and it’s not ok to declare ‘rules’ about what authors should do. This is where the beauty of the online book review lies: unlike the print review which is set in stone and clearly the opinion of an ‘expert’ we read different bloggers who are sharing the experience of just being a reader like ourselves, we experiment with what they recommend, we learn to trust or be suspicious of their opinions, and – through the interactivity of comments – we can dive into a conversation about the book.

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      • Yes, you make really good points. I know what you mean re: jazz. A useful analogy. I appreciate your response.

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  5. […] books I’ve read recently. Lincoln in the Bardo was try-hard (read Lisa/ANZLL’s post (here) on David Malouf’s comments about “clever” fiction). The 7th Function of Language […]

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