David Malouf’s new novel is based on an event that occurred in New South Wales in 1827. An escaped Irish convict turned bushranger has been captured and condemned to die at dawn. Daniel Carney is the last of a gang. The rest have been killed or have disappeared. Three soldiers guard him-two nineteen-year-old Irish peasant boys called Garrety and Langhurst, and an older man called Kersey. A young officer is sent by the Governor to oversee the execution. This is Michael Adair, the central figure in the novel. He spends Carney’s last night with him in the hut where he lies in chains. The “Conversations” of the title are between these two; and also between Adair and the soldiers, whom he joins from time to time by their campfire. Not unnaturally, under the circumstances, they talk about death, crime, and punishment; and about their past lives-all of them grew up in Ireland. The young men joke and squabble and tell ghost stories. Garrety’s story has one of the most disturbingly persuasive apparitions in it that I have ever come across: “I felt,” he says “…like he [the ghost] was the one seeing me, rather than the other way round.”
Adair has been a professional soldier since his late teens. He is an orphan, brought up slightly above his station in life by a horsey lady and her alcoholic husband in a rundown country house in County Galway. The lady-Adair calls her Mama Aimée-has lost a large number of babies, and she loves Adair dearly as her son. When he is four, she has another child, Fergus. Amazingly, the boy survives. But Mama Aimée goes on loving Michael best. In due course the boys are sent to be educated with the daughter of the local grandee, who is a cultivated man, a classical scholar steeped in the philosophy and ideals of the Enlightenment, which he tries to pass on to the next generation. The clever, high-spirited daughter, Virgilia, is a few weeks older than Adair, and her father intends to give her a boy’s education in the classics.
The three children grow up inseparable. Both Michael and Virgilia dote on Fergus, and so does everyone else, from the servants, for whom he is a “fairy child,” to the local young ladies when the time comes for Mama Aimée to force the two boys to dress up and go to dances in the big houses around. Adair realizes that he loves Virgilia, but that she loves Fergus. He watches her watching Fergus asleep in a meadow, “staring with a dreamlike fixity at the muscles of Fergus’s throat, which tensed, went lax, then tensed again, as with his limbs flung out and his bare chest lightly heaving, he slept. Her lips were parted. Her teeth glistened. She looked, Adair thought, as if she were drugged. Desire, that is what he saw.”
Adair has already made up his mind to become independent and to earn his living as a soldier. So now he enlists in the Austrian army and spends four years serving in Poland and the Krajina. When he returns, nothing has changed: Virgilia remains affectionately “sisterly”; and Fergus, strange and charismatic as ever, takes him on a mysterious outing to spend the night among poor peasants in their hut. Shortly after that Fergus disappears. Rumor has it that he has gone to Australia, and that is the secret reason why Adair chooses to enlist there. Virgilia wants him to find Fergus.
During his years in Eastern Europe Adair has formed the habit of writing to Virgilia.
Isolated as he was among strangers, and in a profession whose daily routine denied him, with its promiscuity and clatter, the retreat into quietness which he now discovered was one of the cravings of his nature, he found in writing to her an escape into the deepest privacy of all, the one a man shares with the blank page, with candle, ink and pen in the deep hours of the night, when others, a whole barracks full of men, in their regulation cots and hammocks, lie released from the discipline that makes them equal and uniform into the free world of sleep, into an area, beyond surveillance, where, their clothes laid aside, their skin soaked with moonlight, they can indulge without fear of scrutiny in the most outrageous insubordination, the simplest or most grotesque desires.
The passage is all one paragraph and one sentence-a tour de force, except that that is too frivolous an expression for writing as serious and unflashy as this and for a rhythm so measured and exploratory that it seems to feel its way from one idea, one image, to the next, testing for rightness. Malouf’s solemn cadences are catching. One’s thoughts begin to follow his beat. The effect is hypnotic; and occasionally monotonous, but not often, because Adair’s meditations and memories are intercut with plenty of conversation. Besides, the various characters are vivid and appealing, with interesting histories. The long sentence quoted is not only typical of Malouf’s sound; it packs in a remarkable amount of information about Adair while evoking a nocturnal ambiance so potent that one can almost hear the soldiers breathing; and it includes many of the leitmotifs that recur in this novel and in the previous ones as well: night, skin, and writing.
Night is when Malouf’s characters feel the universe stretching away beyond the area illumined by the lamps or campfires they sit by. For the poet Ovid in Malouf’s novel An Imaginary Life it is the unknown, unexplored steppes of Russia and Central Asia that lie in wait outside the small strip of Black Sea shore where he lives in exile among a primitive Scythian tribe. The previous book, Remembering Babylon, like The Conversations at Curlow Creek, is set in the nineteenth century in Australia’s Far West, where Irish and Scottish settlers plow land that has never been plowed before, surrounded by land that no white man has ever set foot on. Reviewing Remembering Babylon a few years ago in these pages, Alice Truax quoted a beautiful passage which can bear requoting:
It was disturbing, that: to have unknown country behind you as well as in front. When the hissing of the lamp died out, the hut sank into silence. A child’s murmuring out of sleep might keep it human for a moment, or a rustling of straw; but what you were left with when the last sleeper settled was the illimitable night, where it lay close over the land. You lay listening to the crash of animals through its underbrush, the crack, like a snapped bone, of a ring-barked tree out in a paddock, then its muffled fall; or some other unidentifiable sound, louder, further off, that was an event in the land’s history, no part of yours. The sense then of being submerged, of being hidden away in the depths of the country, but also lost, was very strong.
Then skin. “Skin soaked in moonlight” is an intensely sensuous image. Malouf is a sensuous writer. His settings are audible, tactile, and pungent, his characters tingle with physical awareness. Conversations contains a bizarre episode which is typical of the disturbing sexy shivers he can generate. When Adair asks Carney whether there is anyone back in Ireland whom he would like informed of his death, Carney says there is only one person, a blind woman, who could possibly remember him; and he tells how at seventeen he went to Limerick fair to hire himself out as a laborer. A farmer took him on and promised him a sovereign. The people at the farm behaved strangely. They made him strip and bathe and gave him a new set of clothes. Then they brought in a young blind girl.
From the way she raised her head I knew she was smelling me out-the way a dog would…. I was beginnin’ to sweat. She’ll smell that, I thought, but what can I do about it? They didn’ pay me not to sweat. She come very close then and put ‘er face into me shirt-her head come just to me breast here-and I felt the breath go out of ‘er and a shiver went over me.
She put ‘er hand up then and her fingers touched me.
A long paragraph follows her fingers down from his ear over his body. When she gets to his penis, she begins to cry: “It went right through me, I felt so sorry for her grief, or her disappointment.” The farmer pulls her away and takes Carney out of the room, but the girl goes on crying: “A terrible sound, sir, I can hear it still.”
Malouf’s prose, like the girl’s finger, often feels its way over the human body, taking in every contour and texture, and every smell: sweat turns him on, and also excrement. In An Imaginary Life, Ovid cleans up a wild child from the steppes who turns up in the Scythian settlement and falls sick with dysentery; in The Conversations at Curlow Creek, two-year-old Fergus has his diapers changed by six-year-old Adair. And toward the end of the night in Carney’s hut, Adair writes to Virgilia:
I feel very close to the cold edge of [extinction], because I am close to him. No, not Fergus after all, whom I had hoped in one form or another to find here, but this stranger whose animal presence comes near to stifling me, I can smell so strongly the fearful stink of his body, have in my ear his groans, the wet snuffling of the mucus in his nose, and in the bucket just feet away the foul voiding of his bowels.-There is nothing shameful in this, and little, after so long, that I find offensive.
When dawn comes, Carney’s last request is to be allowed to go to the river and wash-another sensuous act sensuously described. Adair lets him linger on in the water, then, unpredictably even to himself, lets him escape-thereby becoming himself an Australian folk hero, like the famous outlaw Ned Kelly. As Adair’s story turns into myth, his name turns into the more plebeian O’Dare. He doesn’t find Fergus, but discovers-guesses-that he is dead. Fourteen years later-a puzzlingly long time for which no explanation is given-he sails back to Ireland, intending to ask Virgilia to accept the person he has become. We never learn if she does.
The dead leader of Carney’s gang was called Dolan. Carney worshiped him. “I never knew any man like him, sir,” he tells Adair during their night together, “not here, not in Ireland. He stood six feet six in his socks. There was no horse wouldn’t come to him, walk right up to where he held his hand out and put its nose in his palm as if he was sweet-talkin’ them every step in some language only horses know….” It must have been Fergus, whose affinity with horses was so great that when he grew (to six foot six) in adolescence, he reminded Adair of a centaur, “a kind of composite creature, half boy, half horse.”
Fergus is another, more domesticated version of the wild child who keeps turning up in Malouf’s work. In An Imaginary Life it is the “Child” from the steppes who has no language and whom Ovid (who dreams about centaurs) tries to teach. In Remembering Babylon the Mowgli/Wild Boy of Aveyron/Kaspar Hauser figure is an English cabin boy who has been thrown overboard, washed up on a beach, and rescued by aborigines. He has lived with them for years. When he appears among the white settlers, he has only a few words of English, and the young adopted son of the family who takes him in protects him and teaches him rather as Ovid protects and teaches the “Child.” There is an exchange of teaching: the wild boys teach their teachers about surviving in the wild and about the animals and plants that inhabit it. Both of them disappear back into it, but not until they have seen writing-though they have not learned how to do it. It is magic to them, and the Australian wild boy is pleased that the settlement schoolmaster writes down the story of his life as he tells it: he feels that that will make him known-not known in the sense of well-known or famous, but in the sense of acquiring an existence in the universe. Ovid, for the same reason, writes for a future generation: “I speak to you, reader, as one who lives in another century, since this is the letter I will never send. It is addressed neither to my wife nor to my lawyer at Rome, nor even to the Emperor; but to you, unknown friend, who do not exist at this time of my writing and whose face, whose form even, I cannot imagine.”
Writing and teaching-and teaching writing-figure in the Conversations too. The precocious Virgilia teaches Adair his first letters; then Adair teaches Fergus; and afterward he teaches Madame Aimée’s illiterate old servant Paddy (who, for his part, has taught the boy to ride). Virgilia’s father teaches all the children his ration-alist philosophy, and Carney puts himself into a pupil relationship with Adair by appealing to his education: “You’re an educated man, I see that, an’ I’m ignorant, I never learned. To read, like. Nothing. There’s a lot that happens in the world that a feller like me doesn’t never get the bearings of.”
At first Adair is irritated and refuses to answer Carney’s eschatological questions. But as the two men grow closer through the long night, they speak more and more as equals, though Carney remains deferential to a degree which has annoyed some English critics. As dawn breaks, he says: “I reckon, sir, it must be about time.” And Adair is moved by “the grace that had saved him from having to announce the moment himself.” Malouf loves goodness. He is always highlighting subtle moral grace in his characters, but surreptitiously. Adair’s acknowledgment of it is uncharacteristically overt.
Malouf’s writing-though rich and dense with meaning and atmosphere-is always deliberate and stately. There is no humor, except in 12, Edmonstone Street, a charming memoir of his childhood in a Brisbane suburb. In Conversations, you might also object that the evocation of life among the gentry and their quaint servants in nineteenth-century Ireland is a little déjà lu. On the other hand, the west of Ireland has never seemed more palpably poetic, down to the touch of the moist Atlantic air on the skin.
Malouf’s novels have been criticized for not having much structure, and this is true of An Imaginary Life and Remembering Babylon, whose stories peter out with the return of the wild boys to where they came from. But it’s not true of Conversations, which has a built-in storyline as taut-the wait for an execution-as a storyline can get. The more satisfactory shape of the novel emphasizes the peculiar tension in Malouf’s work between marvelous prose under tight control, on the one hand, and on the other what seems like uncontrollable obsession with compulsive subjects: wild boys, male bonding, teaching, touching, physical emanations. It can make you feel like a voyeur-but, as Malouf might say, “there is nothing shameful in it,” because he writes like someone writing not in order to be known, and not even for future generations, but for his perfectionist self.
April 10, 1997