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 12 Edmondstone Street (1985), named for the house that his miraculous memory has never completely left. “I can feel my way in the dark through every room…,” he said in the autobiography. “First houses are the grounds of our first experience.” In the new story, he could still be expounding the importance of early experience, with the descriptions uncannily getting sharper instead of duller as the point of view advances ever further from the object:
There was a pool at Schindler’s. In the old days Jack and his father had swum there each morning. Jack would cling to the edge and kick, while his father, high up on the matted board…
For any Australian who first went swimming at the end of World War II, the matted board will have the same effect as a truck full of madeleines would have had on Proust. Yes, the diving boards were wrapped with matting: he’s got it exactly.
The child at the center of the auto-biography, the real Malouf, came from Lebanese immigrants on his father’s side and English on his mother’s. The boy in the story has nothing like so interesting a background, but something much more interesting happens in the foreground. In the autobiography he merely grows taller. In the story he grows up. It is wartime, most of the Australian young men are already overseas (too many of them, including the boy’s father, as prisoners of war), and south Queensland is teeming with American service personnel, young men who have only one thing on their minds while they wait to ship out for the fighting in the north—the Australian young women.
A crucial time in modern Australian history and a crucial place are both vividly recreated. After the fall of Singapore, Australia was obliged to sideline its hallowed but fatally outdated military dependence on Britain and go all out in its new partnership with the United States—a shift of alliance, if not of loyalty, so far-reaching that its consequences are still making themselves felt today. One of the immediate consequences was that the strategically placed south Queensland became an occupied zone. It hardly needs saying that if the Japanese had been occupying it instead of the Americans the results would have been dramatic in an even more unsettling way.
Nevertheless the drama was unsettling enough. The jealousies and resentments were intense, and partly because the Americans, on the whole, behaved like gentlemen. Their good manners, added to their high pay and ready access to a PX full of otherwise unavailable consumer goods, made them hard to resist. Hard to resist didn’t mean irresistible: to form a sexual relationship with an American serviceman was by no means common among Australian women already spoken for by one of our absent nation-als. But fraternization in the form of friendship was. And of course the boy in the story, when his mother takes up with her charming Yank, suspects nothing more. When he walks in on them while they are making love, he hardly knows what is going on, but the story, written from his viewpoint, registers his shock. The long-term consequences are only hinted at, but clearly there will be some.
For the reader of Malouf’s work, this is an uncustomary use for the word “clearly.” The only previous instance I can think of for a potentially formative sexual event was in another short story, included in his 1985 collection Antipodes. In that story, called “Southern Skies,” a first-person narrator, brought up in a refugee family, recalls how when he was a boy at high school a friend of the family called the Professor took the opportunity to grope him while showing him the stars through a telescope. Since the boy has already declined the advances of his mother’s mature and attractive female friend, yet does nothing to stop the Professor jacking him off while he melts with awe at the revelation of the heavens, it would be legitimate to infer that a future course is being charted. No celestial music is heard, but the favorable auspices of the heavenly bodies are hard to miss.
In the fictional world of Malouf’s novels—a world in which childhood is a time rarely touched by sexuality and in which the same, on the whole, can be said for adulthood—the emotional relationships among men are even more fascinating for their lack of specificity than the heterosexual relationships. Apart from that one middle-period short story, there have been no instances of males sharing an explic-itly sexual moment while the cosmos sparkles in approval. The heterosexual coupling in “At Schindler’s” (“nothing he had been told or imagined was a preparation for the extent to which, in their utter absorption in one another, they had freed themselves of all restraint”) has a few harbingers, if only sketchily established. In his biggest novel, The Great World (1990), the character nicknamed Digger, a returned prisoner of war, has a years-long and quite believable Thursdays-only relationship with a widow similarly reluctant to give up her solitude. Nothing explicit is said, but at least you can assume there is a mutual sexual attraction, in the same way you can assume that the male and female protagonists in Jane Austen, upon achieving marriage, will at some time get into the same bed.
But the main relationship in The Great World is between man and man, and the interesting thing about it is that nothing emotional is even implied. Vic and Digger are prisoners of war together on the Thailand railway. The hellish conditions are thoroughly evoked, but one is all too aware that the source-point lies in research. The classic treatment of the subject was written by an eyewitness: Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island (1952). Malouf, marvelous with his own memories, is never quite as good with other people’s. Still, the backdrop is sharply painted. Suffering in front of it, however, Vic and Digger are wavy outlines. Vic is unbearably insensitive, yet Digger is drawn to him. There are heavy hints that their personalities are complementary: Vic has the sense of possibility, Digger the solidity. After the war, Vic gets married and goes on to be a headlong, headline-grabbing entrepreneur, while Digger lives out a quiet life with the woman who is Thursday. Yet we are given to understand that the true relationship is between Vic and Digger. They don’t get on, yet they can’t do without each other. But in what way?
There doesn’t have to be sex: there is such a thing as chaste love between men. But if this is love, why can’t it be explored? Beyond a reciprocal irritability, the thing going on between them is all implied intensity and no expressed feeling. A vacuum is not the same thing as ambiguity, which requires at least two different meanings. For the long scenes between the main men in The Great World it is sometimes hard to find even one meaning, and the general effect of Malouf’s most ambitious novel is of being empty in the middle, a doughnut as big as the Ritz. The fault is compounded by the richness around the periphery. Malouf is touchingly right about how Australia’s unemployed men during the Depression insisted on being given work to do for their handout. And among those same men there was always a tradition of self-improvement: indigent autodidacts would swallow their pride to borrow knowledge.
This tradition reached a sad apotheosis in the prison camps, whose informal oral universities Malouf conjures up with tender, admiring accuracy. He has a real feeling for the kind of friendship between males that Australians are encouraged by their nationalist cheerleaders to call “mateship.” But Vic and Digger, never able to relax with each other or say what is on their minds, are pretty strange mates. They barely even like each other. So what gives?
The same question mark-shaped cloud has hung over Malouf’s nov-els since the beginning, although it should be remembered that a dark enough cloud, as well as blocking out the sun, can provide much-needed rain. Seductively forecasting what his autobiography was going to be like, the novel Johnno was published in 1975. At the exact time when Bris-bane was changing irrevocably into a skyscraper-studded modern metropolis, Johnno recreated the single-story, small-town city of its author’s youth, thereby providing Brisbane’s current and future citizens with a vocabulary and a map by which to cherish its remnants. Malouf was already a wizard for nostalgic detail, conjuring up such ephemeral treasures as the album-cum-catalog, celebrating the career and products of the confectioner James MacRobertson, whose color plates “seemed as beautiful to me then as anything I had ever seen or could imagine, a sort of colonial Book of Hours.”
But this is a fictional narrator talking, not Malouf. His name is Dante and he has a friend whose nickname is Johnno. Dante is slated for a life of order, Johnno is a maudit, a wild man, and…that’s it. Really they should drive each other mad, but they are involved with each other and you wonder why. Coming closer to now but sticking with the same theme, in Jay McInerney’s The Last of the Savages we find out why the square narrator can’t let go of a friend whose erratic nature scares him to death: it’s love. But the ties binding Dante and Johnno are hard to trace. One thinks naturally of other books about the same sort of relationship because Johnno is such a literary performance. Though Johnno has artistic interests, he has no real talent to justify his chaotic behavior, but boy, is he literary: he quotes the first line of the first Duino elegy in the original German without feeling the need to say that Rilke wrote it.
Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t feel the need either. If it weren’t my profession to spot these things, I would have been in the dark. But I spent most of the book in the dark anyway. Is the narrator called Dante because he needs a Virgil to lead him on a spiritual journey? But what kind of Virgil is Johnno, karmically predestined for a beatified self-destruction on no clear evidence of superiority? Even for J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass it wasn’t enough to read Rilke: he had to have his own poetic powers that needed Japanese forms to contain their unheard-of intensity. Johnno just haunts the downtown bars in a dozen or so of the world’s capital cities while Dante checks out his performance from a distance, apparently with no particular disapproval. A mental connection between them is difficult to see, and an emotional one emphatically not in question.
A love between men surpassing all understanding: this theme was repeated in Malouf’s bewitching short novel of 1982, Fly Away Peter, still the most convincing thing he has done when reaching back beyond his own time. Before World War I, an enlightened scion of the Queensland landed gentry called Ashley takes on a proletarian called Jim to help him run a bird sanctuary. The class difference between the two of them is well brought out. Though they are both living in Australia, they are from two different worlds. It takes bird-watching to unite them: that and the war, in which they both die on the Western Front. One an officer, and the other definitely not, they take separate routes to the same death, and you would think that Malouf might make something more of their last meetings in France before they get wiped out in the trenches. But he plays it down. Indeed he throws it away. One suspects that he finds the whole idea of structure artificial, but he would have a more consistent chance of justifying such casualness if the mental connections between his main characters were perceptibly articulated. Whatever joins Jim and Ashley never fully emerges from the wetlands where they watch the birds, so there is not enough to regret when it gets lost in the mud. But, almost exceptionally in Malouf’s work, you can see why they liked each other, and by no coincidence Fly Away Peter is sufficiently focused at the center to make the way it goes blurry at the edges seem deliberate.
If the same could have been said of The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996), it would have been what the Australians call a bobby-dazzler. As it is, it is a work condemned to mere distinction. Transferred backward through time to the bad old colonial days of the 1820s, Malouf’s standard two-man relationship might have had real power if it had been spelled out, but it remains a matter of suggestion. Adair and Fergus were once close friends in Ireland, where Adair was the homeless waif received into a grand family and Fergus was its scapegrace golden boy. Since Fergus will inherit everything by right, Adair lights out for New South Wales to make his own way as an officer of the law. Fergus, going all the way to the bad, ends up there too, and turns bushranger. Adair is a man of order and Fergus is a creature of impulse: Digger and Vic, Dante and Johnno, we have been here before.
Balancing two complementary halves of a single personality isn’t a bad way for a novelist to search his own soul, but it helps the novel if both characters are at least present. Fergus, however, spends most of the book absent without leave. Adair isn’t even sure if Fergus is in Australia. Just why Adair isn’t sure is a bigger mystery than the author allows: there weren’t very many people in Australia at the time, and someone billed as a 6’6″ blond Irish aristocrat would have been talked about. But Malouf prefers another kind of mystery. In the end, if it is the end, Fergus turns out to have been, or possibly been,
a figure created half out of legend to fulfil the demands of some for a breakaway hero, of others for the embodiment of that spirit of obduracy or malign intent that sets some men defiantly above the law, and wearing so many rags of lurid romanticism that every aspect of the man himself has been lost.
In real life, legends undoubtedly do grow out of events. But this sounds like an inadvertent acknowledgment that the urge to create a legend came first, and then the events were made up to fit.
Banishing one of the mysteriously entwined partners to the wings can be seen as a Maloufian device for ensuring that they don’t have to strike up a conversation. From the reader’s viewpoint, a less frustrating stratagem is to deprive one of them of the powers of speech, thus leaving the way open for a visione amorosa pure and simple, as the man of order is transfigured by the contemplation of feral beauty. Malouf tried this in his early novel An Imaginary Life (1978). The poet Ovid is in exile in a rough country, where he takes a consuming interest in a wild boy known as the Child. The reader can’t fail to be reminded of Death in Venice, in which the aged Aschenbach is convulsed in spirit and prepared for death by his vision of the beautiful boy Tadzio paddling on the Lido. Ovid’s Child paddles in less gentrified waters, but to the same effect:
The fullness is in the Child’s moving away from me, in his stepping so lightly, so joyfully, naked, into his own distance at last as he fades in and out of the dazzle of light off the water….
But the reader can easily fail to be reminded of the Roman world. From what we know of Ovid’s eight years of killing time at the mouth of the Danube, the man at the center of Malouf’s book is hard to recognize. It is true that Ovid eventually set about learning the local language, but the suggestion that he had put the old world behind him and was ready to embrace something new is absurd: the Tristia and the Epistulae ex ponto are complaints, not letters of acceptance. The relegatio imposed on Ovid by Augustus was only the mildest form of exile, but was still meant to be a savage punishment, and it worked. Ovid ached for Tiberius to bring him back to Rome—to bring him back to life. Malouf’s Ovid hardly has Rome on his mind. His attention is fully occupied by the Child. Nothing happens, but one can’t help thinking that if the author of the Ars amatoria had had a telescope available it well might have.
The same enfant sauvage theme works much better in Remembering Babylon, Malouf’s justly praised novel of 1993. The setting is Queensland in the 1840s, and this time the wordless child is a white castaway ship’s boy who walks out of the bush to join the white settlers after sixteen years with the Aboriginals. With only a few words of English, the boy is effectively a white black. In America, Mark Twain pioneered this transracial device with Pudd’nhead Wilson, and variations on it have proved usable all the way through to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain; but in Australia it has rarely been exploited, not just because the country has a much smaller culture by volume but because Aboriginals, until very recently, were thought marginal if they were thought of at all. This latter point has always ranked high among Malouf’s preoccupations, and through his misfit bush boy he gives us his most thorough treatment of it. The wild child ought to be a bridge between cultures, but the self-elected representatives of the dominant culture don’t want a bridge; they’d rather have the river they can drown him in:
His arms are jerked back, his head pushed down. His head, roaring into the sack, is thrust under water and the darkness in the sack turns to mud. He gasps mud.
Touch by touch, a picture of inevitable tragedy is built up which would look very like despair if there were not also, at the center of the story, the usual unstated mutual attraction, this time between the settlers’ boy from whose viewpoint we see the action and the boy from the bush whose mere existence is its principal cause.
Attraction might be the wrong word for what goes on between Malouf’s male principals. The lack of warmth might not just be due to the invariable obliqueness of the expression, the thoroughness of the ellipsis. Perhaps what we are shown is a kind of dependence. In Malouf’s Australia, the man of sensibility is walled in. He is not necessarily in a closet, but he is certainly in a cell, and without his yearning vision of someone wild in the street outside he would never dare to attack the bars in the window with that file he found in the cake. Solitude is common in Malouf’s work, but it is rarely self-sufficient; although it should be said that the eponymous hero of Harland’s Half Acre (1984) is very definitely a man on his own, a self-educated artist boiling and bristling at the center of the novel by Malouf that comes closest to being a masterpiece, and the more so because it is so unlike the others. As so often happens with prolific authors, the least characteristic work is the most fulfilled. For once the hero, instead of being drawn to another man and spending the rest of the book failing to find out why, resolves his conflicts within himself. If he has any sexuality at all, it all gets sublimated in creativity. Since the same almost certainly applied to Leonardo da Vinci, the reader can scarcely think this unlikely.
Born in poverty and ignorance, Frank Harland, through sheer strength of talent, becomes a great painter, staying true to his gift even when faced with another economic threat—prosperity. Malouf’s is not the only novel to celebrate the heroically inarticulate misfit painter. Joyce Carey’s Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth was there first, and Patrick White’s Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector must have been much in Malouf’s thoughts. (Malouf wrote the libretto for the opera version of White’s Voss.) But Malouf’s Harland is a true original. It has been said that he was based on the reclusive Australian painter Ian Fairweather, but really he has taken on too much life of his own to be pinned down to one progenitor. Saul Bellow’s Humboldt is said to be based on Delmore Schwartz, but he makes me think of a dozen writers who created a square mile of chaos around them for every square foot of order they created on the page; and in the same way, and for the same reason, Harland conjures up a platoon of Australian painters who came out of nowhere, followed their noses, and drew the world to their solitary hideaways. Harland in his hut on the beach could be Sidney Nolan on his country estate. Harland is the artist incarnate, the artist who has been born to it and can’t stop. The theme has an incandescent focal moment when his friend Knack, a learned refugee from Europe who has survived in Australia by keeping a junk shop, shoots himself along with his mistress. The war in Europe has come to an end but the news from the concentration camps has been too much for them. Harland visits the bodies in the junk shop. There is blood all over the walls and the shape of the stains gives him the idea for a painting.
Harland’s fruitful naiveté is boldly imagined, clearly defined, and psychologically true, so all of Malouf’s gifts can be put to work reinforcing the center of the book instead of glamorously circumnavigating its perimeter. The best gift is his easy access to the memories of his youth, a treasury of sense impressions upon which he seems able to draw at will, with no need to check up on their accuracy. When he names the objects in his mother’s sewing basket, it’s doubtful whether he needs a photograph: he photographed them with his mind when the basket was on a level with his eyes. James Joyce had to write letters home to get some of his details about Dublin right, and Thomas Mann had to be in a constant process of researching his own past to pull off a tour de force like the description of the Frankfurt am Main shop windows that provide Felix Krull with his freshman year at the academy of material desire. But Malouf’s inventories read as if he can just pull them out of his head. You can tell he doesn’t feel the need to check up, because sometimes errors creep in. (In Johnno that little imported English car called the Mini is on sale a couple of years too early.) But anomalies and anachronisms are hard to spot, and it’s a fair guess that they are very few.
In The Great World the prisoners of war sustain themselves by playing memory games, cherishing their personal histories. Clearly Malouf feels that way about his own. He can take his personal recollections with him into Australia’s nineteenth century because the layout of the households and the surrounding scenery in the subtropical south Queensland littoral area wasn’t all that different then than it was in his childhood. An Imaginary Life remained singular in his work because he couldn’t take his memories with him into the ancient world. The supposed classical purity of that book was really just an absence of detail, and when he tried to supply some the results were strangely impalpable. (And in at least one instance disabling, as when Ovid observes that the barbaric locals ride without stirrups, the author having failed to apprise himself of the information that everybody did, since the invention of the stirrup lay six hundred years in the future.)
So far, Malouf has been at his most comfortable with his house around him. At whatever time they are set in the two hundred years of white settlement that we used to think of as the whole of Australian history, his best stories—with Remembering Babylon, Fly Away Peter, and Harland’s Half Acre as the outstanding examples—are richly detailed transitions between wooden-walled interiors and landscapes in which every plant and living thing is catalogued by memory. Even when the house is crowded, there is a place in it for a precocious boy. Frank Harland and his brothers are brought up in a single room, sleeping several to a bed, but Frank ends up getting the single bed against the wall, the way to the world. And there is always a space under the house, which is the way to adventure. Not just in the autobiography but in a surprising number of the novels as well, the dark, wedge-shaped space under the house is where the protagonist goes to be alone and to find his way forward, up to the limit set by the line of light where the front of the house almost meets the ground. (In Queensland the old weatherboard houses usually had a moat of air between themselves and the ground, thus to stave off the white ants, a species of termite fanatically dedicated to the demolition business.) In the title story of the new book he is still under the house, still feeling its weight on his shoulders, still mesmerized by that line of light.
But there is a difference. The old entrapment has, at long last, been reduced to something merely formative, rather than definitive. “Dream Stuff” is a story about someone who has been out into the light and let it change him: it is the story, in fact, of an internationally successful writer who has taken his risks, including the risk—perhaps the scariest of all for an Australian expatriate—of going home. Thus to draw on his adult experience is a rare thing for Malouf and one can only hope for more of it. On the evidence of his new book, there is a new expressive impulse that will be hard to deny. Probably it was always there, but he kept the lid on it. In Antipodes there is a beautiful story, “That Antic Jezebel,” about the Sydney community of European beau monde refugees. A one-time all-conquering beauty dresses up in her old finery to go to the new opera house, where she is disturbed to find that one of her ex-lovers fails to take his regular seat. He has died of old age, and soon she will too.
From someone who could write a story like that, it would have been legitimate to expect a string of books that dramatized the complex postwar interchange between Australia and Europe, but apart from a few pages about Tuscany appended to the autobiography, Knack’s suicide in Harland’s Half Acre was the only further sign of such interests. (Malouf lived in Tuscany at one stage and still spends part of each year there: he has been frank about finding the Australian arts world too attentive. Though pleased enough to be accepted, he is not the type to relish being found familiar.) More often than not, and certainly more often than a man with his qual-ifications might have, Malouf has written novels as if he were setting out to meet the demands of an unreconstructed Australian nationalist for reliably indigenous yarns with as few cosmopolitan overtones as possible. They are complex, many-layered books, but with rare exceptions they are not many-layered in the social sense, and even his sole truly large-scale work, The Great World, has not much in it of Australia’s actual social workings. As in a film script, there is a high-concept contrast between rich man and poor man, but there are no real social divisions, and to carry on as if Australia does not possess social divisions is worse than uninformative, it is sentimental.
In Australia, as in America, there is a world where money grows old, power is preserved, and customs are refined beyond the easy reach of the common people. Australia isn’t England, but it isn’t Illyria either. Though democratic, prosperous, and egalitarian beyond all historic precedent, it is still a complex society, with highly sophisticated, self-protecting elites that Malouf in his years of success has learned a lot about. That there could be startling results if he puts this knowledge to use is proved by “Great Day,” the last and longest story in the new book, in which the members of a distinguished family gather at their country seat, where the patriarch, an erstwhile political grandee called Audley, is living in the afterglow of his influence on public life. He is still consulted as an oracle by the media and the new crop of politicians, but his children, all grown to adulthood, have their own ideas about his infallibility, and are working out their destinies according to their own desires.
The women’s roles are particularly finely detailed—a new departure for Malouf. Audley’s daughters could be Russian sisters longing for Moscow, except that they are already there, and find themselves unsettled. For tone, pace, and sense of nuance, a comparison between “Great Day” and a Chekhov long short story—“Anna Around the Neck,” for example—would not be too far-fetched. And as with Chekhov, the reader finds the end of the story looming far too soon. “Great Day” cries out to be a novel: the novel Malouf has not yet tried, the novel about now.
Malouf has a reason for disliking the present: it wants to murder his memories. In “Great Day” a folk museum—one of those typically Australian amateur collections of bricolage and natural wonders—burns to the ground, obviously as a symbol of the modern world having its way. In “Jacko’s Reach” he is explicit about what he has spent so long saying goodbye to:
The last luminous grains of a freer and more democratic spirit, that the husbands and wives of my generation still turn to dreams…. It is this, all this, that will go under the bars of neon lights and the crowded shelves and trolleys of the supermarkets, the wheels of skateboards, the bitumen walks and solid, poured-concrete ramps.
It would be a more persuasive threnody if he could first persuade himself, but there are encouraging signs that he can’t, quite. Australia’s future is unlikely to be settled on such predictable lines, and one of the reasons is the country’s by now firmly established status as a creative powerhouse. Though the Gold Coast of Malouf’s beloved Queensland looks more like Las Vegas every year, Australia is not in much danger of becoming too Americanized while there are writers like him around. Its cosmopolitan artists, of whom some of the most prominent have spent their lives abroad, have served their country well by pursuing their own ends. An insulated nationalist culture would have been no culture at all, and very easily displaced by the American mass-media influence that Australia’s intellectuals, with some reason, fear can leap oceans at a single bound.
Instead we have been given what we scarcely expected, or we would not have hoped for it so vocally: a world-embracing cultural identity, stated in our own version of the English language, with a vocabulary enriched by the collective memories of a population that came from everywhere, the earliest part of it across thousands of years of time. This is the uniquely vivid language that David Malouf speaks with such fluency, although I wish, when he so deliciously evokes the mid-century childhood some of us shared with him, that he wouldn’t say “all over” to mean “everywhere.” We used to say “everywhere.” “All over”—he may remember—is what the Yanks said.
December 21, 2000