Reprint: Our Own Writers: Novels From Nowhere by Nettie Palmer

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Significant prose appeared in Australia later than poetry. If in the last decade the novel has arrived with a strange rush, it had been preceded by 50 years in which the joke about our huge crop of spring poets was as monotonous as the mother-in-law joke in America. Furphy, Lawson, Barbara Baynton -- a few names of story writers stood out like islands in an ocean of balladry. This lag in prose was caused, I would cautiously suggest, largely by external conditions. For the novelist there existed no vehicle at all, but it was possible for almost any competent verse-writer to be published in some journal, the awful truth being that he has consistently been paid by the line, by quantity, instead of quality, with every incentive to pad; and all honour to those who have kept sound and terse! After appearing in a journal, a poet could fairly easily publish his work in book form -- at his own expense, of course, for that is expected of a poet. It costs less to produce, in the usual small edition, the comparatively few words of a poet, stringing down the page like a small mob of cattle, than to publish the sixty, eighty, or a hundred thousand words of a novel and to put that novel into effective circulation. The publishing of poetry can be an amateur matter: to publish novels steadily, a country needs to be more professional in its publishing habits, a little more grown up. Even when our novels of the past decade were actually published abroad, they were more or less well circulated here and helped to change the whole literary outlook.

No Audience in Advance

What novels were these? One after another, they were so unexpected, and their writers' names usually so little known, that it was natural to call them novels from nowhere. Not that they lacked marks of their origin: from Katharine Prichard's "Working Bullocks" in 1925, to F. D. Davison's "Man Shy" three years ago or Brian Penton's "Landtaker's" last year, each one belonged to some part of this huge and varied country. If they came from nowhere, it was that they came like rain from a blue sky. As Joseph Furphy said roundly about his "Such Is Life," they were definitely not written in answer to numerous requests. Our novelists had no eager audience in advance. Perhaps the same blank was felt by a novelist in Russia before Gogol and Goncharov; perhaps it was felt in America a hundred years ago, when Fenimore Cooper timidly began his literary career, I understand, by writing society novels set in the drawing-rooms of London, where he had never been. What it was that turned him bravely in the direction of the Redskin I don't know, but there it was, and his books made it seem natural for Americans to expect something interesting; from their country. With us the age of such a discovery is still in the present. Those of our novelists whose books are something more than imitative commercial products have had to write without models, and to descry their own patterns of life in this chaos; their work has indeed been

    All carved out of the carver's brain.

Attempting what had not been touched before they had to be original or perish, and they have not perished.

If one names a certain few of these, it is because their influence as part of what has been called the "literature of direction," has been so important. In these notes I can only suggest how our literature has begun to develop and perhaps indicate a few growing points. As a novel of "direction" as well as for its own greatness, H. H. Richardson's, trilogy, "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony," stands out; the only trouble is that it could not arrive several decades earlier. In Australian novels the literary pace was set in the nineties -- with no guarantee of maintenance -- by a novelist like Boldrewood, who for all his robust qualities had a "colonial" attitude and observed the conventional formula of the happy ending. If at that time we had had an H. H, Richardson, somewhat as South Africa had as her literary initiator, Olive Schreiner, the doors of opportunity for our genuine literary expression would almost certainly have been forced open long ago, and publishing houses would have become active far sooner. As it is, the existence of the Mahony trilogy has made publishers less reluctant to handle Australian books of literary quality, and readers less automatic in their demand for a happy ending at all costs. It used to be assumed, at least by publishers, that an Australian novel would give its characters plenty of physical adventures, plenty of "out-west," but no complex adventures of the spirit. That we are just beginning to live that down is due largely to the world-wide respect for H. H. Richardson, who, after her great European success with "Maurice Guest," thought it worth while to give 15 years to the construction of a novel on Australia's major historical problem -- that of the immigrant in all his resistances, faced by this new country in all its early crudities.

A True Prospector

The literary courage of a novelist like Katharine Prichard it is impossible to express except in comparing her with a prospector in the desert, and having only a few tools. In "Working Bullocks" she first found her true tune, weaving into her prose the bush sounds and words and little songs that nobody had known how to combine before, and thus presenting her illusions -- a bullock team in a jarrah forest, men working in a timber mill, lovers picnicking in a drowsy hillside noon. Her style is a very subtle web, but because she constructs it out of dead leaves and sticks as well as diamonds, its quality has often gone unnoticed. Her successive books have opened one window after another upon our scene; one of them, indeed, as an admirer wrote in a recent book, "Haxby's Circus," "moves like a gaily coloured beetle across the Australian panorama"; but to suggest as Professor Hancock did some time ago that Miss Prichard has merely covered our geography with descriptive writing is to miss her fathomless and unfailing human sympathy.

Novels from nowhere

There was F. D. Davison's beautiful small book, "Man Shy," cunningly reviewed once by Elzevir in such a way as to astound you when he at last revealed that the attractive, tragic little heroine was a wild cow. In an American edition just out there is no ambiguity, for the title is "Red Heifer." There were those unexpected books of crowded adventures and reminiscences, chronicles of the early days in the romantic Snowy River country, by Brent of Bin Bin: "Up the Country " and "Ten Creeks Run." Several years have passed since M. Barnard Eldershaw's decorative and four-square novel of old Sydney, "A House Is Built," was followed by a smaller canvas, "Green Memory," but this composite author has not said her last word. Leonard Mann's war novel, ''Flesh in Armour," in itself would justify a surmise that we were now adult: in his fearless adherence to invigorating fact and his few passages of lyrical ecstasy this writer shows that the novel is not his master, but his biddable slave.  

If like many people I am unwilling to believe that poetry should yield any of its real territory to prose, still I am convinced that the production of imaginative prose literature is necessary to any country to-day. What is a novel? "The development of character through narrative" is a definition that will serve. We need interpretation in such a form, and we are gradually getting what we need.  Our novelists are now, if not encouraged, at least permitted to write in the fullness of their talent. Some of their books, in a secondary function, may, like "Man Shy," act as our ambassadors abroad. 

First published in The Argus, 9 March 1935

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on October 19, 2012 7:03 AM.

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