Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2020

Cyclone, by Vance Palmer

As I mentioned in a recent post, while I wasn’t very impressed by my previous venture into the fiction of Vance Palmer, Chrystopher Spicer’s new book of LitCrit called Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature was the catalyst for me to try Palmer’s work again. Initially enticed by Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm being included in Spicer’s study, I decided to track down a copy of Vance Palmer’s Cyclone because it’s also discussed in the book.

Cyclone‘s blurb begins with the statement that it’s a story of conflict and tension accentuated by a brooding cyclone, and that’s exactly what the book delivers.

It’s a story of flawed relationships and mutual insecurities set somewhere along the Far North Queensland coast.  The early chapters are mainly low-level (and rather tedious) domestic drama, rather quaint in style because women of the type portrayed seem today like museum pieces.  Fay Donolly lives vicariously through her husband and children, and the only other woman sketched in any detail is a vacuous young status-seeker called Con.  Fay and her husband Brian interact with other couples: Bee and Ross Halliday, on whose boat he works, and Elsie and Clive Randall, who’s having an affair with Bee, much to Elsie’s distress.

Unfortunately the dialogue between the characters is pedestrian, and some of it is incomprehensible.  Perhaps these terms were familiar in Queensland in 1947, and perhaps some of them can be inferred from context, but some of them defied a Google search and all the dictionaries in the house:

  • we’ve been kidding ourselves that everything was segarney (p.126)
  • take such a scunner against me (p.127)
  • so much bunce (p.127)
  • you’ve cut the painter (p.129)
  • don’t crab (at me) (p.140
  • burked a fight (p.1717)

Palmer’s writing is at his best when describing the way the weather generates tension:

So many ghosts could be set walking by the threats of the wind.  All night it had been nagging at whatever was loose about the house, coming in little gusts, now from the north, now from a few points to the east, and it was this continual change of direction that fretted the nerves.  At one time it would be the spouting by the tank that was beating a devil’s tattoo, then there would come a rat-tat by the tank again as a sheet of iron worked free from the lead-topped nails.  It seemed as if the ramshackle house was being worried to pieces.  And the fitful currents of air had no coolness; they brought the restless heat of late summer with them. (p.2)

Taking his turn at the wheel, as the dawn broke over a dirty, troubled sea that ran counter to the wind, he looked ahead at the cloud-smeared forelands and thought with a nostalgic twinge of his first trip up the reef with Halliday in the old Eagle. No chance of recapturing the freshness of those winter days: they were part of a vanished dream! It had been magical weather.  Over seas so clear you could see the coral sand ten fathoms down, the boat had moved as placidly as a resting gull, and little islands took shape on the skyline as bunches of foliage or banks of snow. (p.125)

This is a pilot searching for survivors:

Now he was in the area where the full force of the storm had struck and, looking down, he felt a dark shadow pass across his heart.  Not a leaf anywhere, hardly a standing tree.  It was as if a giant scythe had swept over the timber and undergrowth that came to the water’s edge, mowing a twenty-mile swathe to the hills inland.  It brought back to him the look, the very smell of war.  Great trees had been smashed down or torn up and thrown across one another. Even the grass had been uprooted, and high above the waterline, where tidal waves had borne it, was a mass of wrack, pumice, and lumps of coral wreathed with growths of weed.  The whole sea-bed seemed to have vomited up its refuse in a violent convulsion. (p.181-2)

It’s the relationship between Halliday and the other men which offers most interest.  Halliday is not a successful businessman, but Donolly has uprooted his family from the farm where Fay felt secure, to invest what little they have in Halliday’s unprofitable business venture, ferrying cargo along the coast.  Halliday’s charisma derives mainly from his service in the war, and there’s a general feeling amongst his mates that they owe him their loyalty.

This compulsion to admire Halliday even affects Fay’s brother Tod Kellaher, even though he’s of a different generation.   So amongst his other dilemmas he feels an element of guilt in his decision to stop working for Halliday, not least because his reason is spurious.  His girlfriend Con is infatuated with Halliday, and although there’s no sign that he has any intention of leaving his wife and children for her, Tod is so jealous that he joins the other unemployed men sleeping rough at the showground rather than continue living with Fay and Brian when he can’t pay his way.  But with the annual show looming, the town’s business interests want the sussos to move on, even though it was agreed that they could stay there until the cane cutting season started.  There’s going to be violence, and Tod’s not cut out for that though his loyalty is to the men who’ve made him welcome among them.   (Tod’s ambition to be a writer who mixes with the battlers looks like an autobiographical element in the novel, especially when the newspaperman Corcoran recognises his potential and pays him for some sketches.)

With no money and hesitant to borrow any from Fay because he knows her finances are severely stretched, Tod finds his problems so overwhelming that he begins to see the cyclone as a solution:

For a while, tortured as he was by the pressure on him, the thought of the cyclone bursting over the town came as a relief.  It would smash the holiday world to fragments, wipe out the dances and picture shows, straighten out his dilemma of either spending money on Con or losing her.  And when it was over there would be work for everyone, with men being called for to clear up the destruction and a fury of activity along the waterfront as the fishermen got their boats ready for sea again.  (p.34)

All this is set against the threat of a cyclone that no one wants to take seriously.  Despite the warning signs there are those who brush off the danger, reminding others of previous warnings which came to nothing.  As I learned when I completed a week-long professional development course at the Melbourne Bureau of Meteorology, cyclones are notorious for provoking this kind of behaviour.  Because the storm’s course can be plotted and warnings issued —which turn out to be wrong because cyclones by their very nature veer unpredictably off course— people become blasé and distrustful about BoM warnings.  In Palmer’s novel, this lackadaisical belief that the storm will once again bypass the town, coupled with undeserved confidence in Halliday’s ability to read the coast and the weather, leads Brian to join Halliday’s crew in the teeth of the gale.

While the plot follows a trajectory more predictable than the average cyclone, Palmer does succeed in generating some narrative tension in the last chapters of the novel.  With chapters offsetting increasing peril at sea with anxieties back on land, the novel reaches a climax that resonates — and then promptly undercuts it with a rather lame ending.

So I am yet to be convinced that Palmer was a great writer.  But he and his wife Nettie deserve a place in Australian letters for championing a national literature during the era of cultural cringe.  As the Australian Dictionary of Biography explains:

Palmer wanted to be a great novelist and perhaps underrated his other literary accomplishments. Critical opinion consistently prefers his short stories to his novels, which are sometimes held to lack vitality and intensity of feeling. Yet they show intellectual vigour, poetic vision and breadth of social observation. The range of characters, reflecting his own varied experience, constitutes a ‘parade of contemporary Australian humanity’; his interpretations of Australian life and of what it was to be an Australian of his time made a major intellectual contribution which has been largely neglected. His stories—predominantly rural, strong on atmosphere of place and man’s relationship to Nature—displayed steadily maturing craftsmanship and guarantee his permanent prominence in the canon of Australian writing. He was proudly of the Lawson tradition but sought to link it with more sophisticated metropolitan literature.

The Palmers’ partnership was dedicated to promotion of a national literature in a period when few were interested in Australian arts and letters. They emerged as leaders of a profession only beginning to recognize itself.

Still, I don’t think you need to rush out and track down a copy of Cyclone!

Author: Vance Palmer
Title: Cyclone
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, 1947
ISBN: none
Source: personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books

Availability: out of print.


Responses

  1. You’ve cut the painter! I wish I knew what that meant. What a classic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s segarney that baffles me most. I have no idea what it means at all!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I need to find an old Queenslander and see if they can translate!

        Like

        • It might be WW1 slang or seafaring lingo?

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve found out via a friend who is a Queenslander with Queenslander ancestors:
            Don’t crab is to stop harping on, to stop being a whinger.
            You’ve cut the painter is to akin to dropping someone, ignoring them.
            No idea on the others!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Cyclone by Vance Palmer (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Cyclone by Vance Palmer (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gosh! Odd there are terms you can’t find! If there are old expressions over here which are odd they’re usually online somewhere. And I shan’t rush out to read this one… ;D

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right about most obscure terms being on the web somewhere, but this is a reminder that (as with so many things) most of what’s there isn’t from middle-power countries like ours!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for taking part in Novellas in November Lisa, it’s a shame that this one didn’t work for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah well, not entirely a waste of time… otherwise I wouldn’t have finished it.

      Like

  6. Scunner is common in Glasgow. It means you make me sick you’re repulsive. Crabbit means a whiner. The others are a mystery. No wonder we’re enticed by words. I don’t think I will bother reading the book. He is an important contributer to our literary heritage as is Nettie his loyal wife. What a character though making his way to Russia to reach Tolstoy’s residence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Fay!
      I may be wrong but I think I read somewhere that he didn’t actually get to Tolstoy and it was one of the disappointments of his life… it’s a couple of hours drive out of Moscow even on today’s roads, and to visit his grave we had to organise a private tour because it’s not somewhere that many tourists visit. (Or it wasn’t when we went, in August 2012).
      There’s no train, and possibly not even a bus… it’s out in the middle of nowhere. If he didn’t speak Russian, and didn’t have much money, it would have been very difficult.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for that information Lisa. That is so interesting that few tourists visit such an important place in Russia’s rich literary culture. Am so envious of you having the visit to the grave. I am like you in that am fascinated by Russia but doubt will ever make its shores. Maybe it’s a general condition of us Anglo Celts that we are not so inclined to revere our doyens of literature as the Russians seem to do. Still we have this great blog of yours Lisa to keep us informed and enlightened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *chuckle* My grand trip to Russia actually came about because of the Greeks. We had planned to visit Greece for one of my Big birthdays, since I did not want to be around for the inevitable fuss, but the Greeks were protesting about post GFC austerity at the time and it seemed like a bad idea to go there. (We’ve were in Bordeaux when protests were on in 2010 and a lot of things we wanted to see were shut and barricaded, presumably in case they burnt them down.) So I then thought, what’s the furthest place I could go to? and it turned out to be Russia! We had a great time, best holiday I’ve ever had.
      One good thing about Anglo-Celts is that we tend not to destroy our tourist attractions when we’re protesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, now I don’t feel so bad about never having read a Vance Palmer book (or story for that matter).

    Like

    • He must have been successful, because he had heaps of books published, and surely they wouldn’t have kept publishing duds… would they?

      Like

  9. I’m still reading, but you’ve cut the painter refers to the rope securing a boat to a mooring.

    Like

  10. I certainly think Palmer was overrated. I find his writing, what little I’ve read, too self conscious. But I think he was able to carry forward in novels that man’s man view of Australia first generated by short stories in the Bulletin.

    Like

    • I’d have to read a lot more novels from the period to know, but I think that although he seems pedestrian to me from the vantage point of having read a *lot* of later OzLit including greats like Patrick White, he may have been loved just because he was writing about the everyday lives of Australians in a realistic way. Much like Balzac did for French Lit except that Balzac had the French Revolution to liven up his stories. LOL Palmer needed a cyclone to put some excitement into his…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] lurking on my TBR since 2008, but I was prompted to read it now because, like Vance Palmer’s Cyclone,  it’s listed as a novel featuring a cyclone in a book of LitCrit that I’m reading: […]

    Like

  12. […] I had already read Vance Palmer’s Cyclone in advance of receiving Cyclone Country, but I put Spicer’s book aside to read Ian Townsend’s The Devil’s Eye from my TBR because I saw that it was listed in the appendix.   There’s another novel in his list that attracts my interest: The Prelude, by Kate Helen Weston, which in 1914 was the earliest known Australian novel featuring a cyclone.  Alas, it looks Very Hard To Get.  (There are also some children’s books featuring cyclones that I’ve read: Nim’s Island (1999) by Wendy Orr; Crocodile Attack (2005) by Justin D’Ath; and Wreck! (1997) by Allan Baillie.  Without the benefit of Spicer’s book, I had stumbled on these titles as resources for a popular Year 5 & 6 unit of work called Extreme Holidays which if you are so minded, you can still find on my professional LisaHillSchoolStuff blog.) […]

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