At an advanced point in his already prolific career, the Australian writer David Malouf has produced a book of fresh beginnings. Nominally a collection of nine short stories, Dream Stuff could just as easily be nine different outlines for new novels, each of them remarkably unlike any novel he has turned out before. If that sounds like a polite way of reclassifying his novels as expanded short stories, it’s a stricture that he invites. His novels have always left out much of the framework and furniture that most novelists are careful to put in. On the other hand, what he puts in instead makes them read more like a poetic fermentation than a long short story.
“Everything spread quickly,” he says in the title story of Dream Stuff: “Germs, butter, rumours.” He is talking about subtropical Queensland, the stamping ground of his childhood, but he could equally be evoking the luxuriant mental climate of his entire creative life. Fecund is a word that fits him as it fits few other Australian writers. Seen from space, Australia is a thin, wet edge running only halfway around a colossal swathe of hot rock. For Australia, read austere. A celebrated poem by Judith Wright addresses the largest island’s anhydrous vastness in the appropriately desiccated vocative: “Your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart.”
Chez Malouf, however, there is scarcely a dry breast to be seen. Propagating itself like honeysuckle on a trellis, his mind exfoliates in the thin wet edge, and everything it dreams up sends out tendrils, starting new, wild gardens that you couldn’t keep down with a flame thrower. Aridity being decidedly not his thing, he is thus the least characteristic Australian writer yet to have reached world prominence, and therefore one of the surest signs that Australia’s literary culture—cosseted in the long years when it scarcely existed—has by now arrived and is running nicely out of control, the way a culture should.
None of this means that Malouf is an incoherent writer. At his frequent best, and occasionally for a whole book, his prose is as tightly under control as his poetry, and often more so: his poems usually avoid the prosaic with such success that it is hard to figure out what is going on. In his narrative prose he is more likely to evoke before he implies, achieving a clarity that has helped to make obvious the main subject on which he has been reluctant to touch. That subject is sexual love, about which, on the whole, he has had less to say than almost any other serious novelist since Joseph Conrad. In Malouf’s sumptuous corner of a sparse country, there is only one kind of juice that has so far failed to flow. But there are signs in these short stories that it might be finally on the move.
“At Schindler’s,” the first story in the new book, evokes a south Queensland childhood with the same enchanting clarity that he achieved in his directly autobiographical…
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