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Rodney Hall Biography

university press queensland novel

Nationality: Australian. Born: Solihull, Warwickshire, England, 1935; immigrated to Australia during his childhood. Education: City of Bath Boys' School; Brisbane Boys' College; University of Queensland, Brisbane, B.A. 1971. Career: Freelance scriptwriter and actor, 1957-67, and film critic, 1966-67, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Brisbane. Tutor, New England University School of Music, Armidale, New South Wales, summers 1967-71 and 1977-80; youth officer, Australian Council for the Arts, 1971-73; lecturer in recorder, Canberra School of Music, 1979-83. Since 1962 advisory editor, Overland magazine, Melbourne; since 1967 poetry editor, The Australian daily newspaper, Sydney. Traveled in Europe, 1958-60, 1963-64, 1965, and the United States, 1974. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs Lecturer in India, 1970, 1981, Malaysia, 1972, 1980, and Europe, 1981, 1983, 1984. Awards: Australian National University Creative Arts fellowship, Canberra, 1968; Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1970; Literature Board fellowship, 1973, 1976, 1982, 1986, 1990; Grace Leven prize, 1974; Miles Franklin award, Australian Natives Association award, and Barbara Ramsden award, all 1982, all for Just Relations; Victorian Premier's literary award, 1989, for Captivity Captive.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Ship on the Coin: A Fable of the Bourgeoisie. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1972.

A Place Among People. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1975.

Just Relations. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1982; London, AllenLane, and New York, Viking Press, 1983.

Kisses of the Enemy. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1987; New York, Farrar Straus, 1988; London, Faber, 1989.

Captivity Captive. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, New York, FarrarStraus, and London, Faber, 1988.

The Second Bridegroom. Ringwood, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, andLondon, Faber, 1991.

The Grisly Wife. Sydney, Macmillan, and London, Faber, 1993.

A Dream More Luminous than Love: The Yandilli Trilogy. Sydney, Picador Australia, 1994; New York, Noonday Press, 1995.

Poetry

Penniless till Doomsday. London, Outposts, 1962.

Four Poets, with others. Melbourne, Cheshire, 1962.

Forty Beads on a Hangman's Rope: Fragments of Memory. Newnham, Tasmania, Wattle Grove Press, 1963.

Eyewitness. Sydney, South Head Press, 1967.

The Autobiography of a Gorgon. Melbourne, Cheshire, 1968.

The Law of Karma: A Progression of Poems. Canberra, AustralianNational University Press, 1968.

Heaven, In a Way. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1970.

A Soapbox Omnibus. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1973.

Selected Poems. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1975.

Black Bagatelles. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1978.

The Most Beautiful World: Fictions and Sermons. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1981.

Recordings:

Romulus and Remus, University of Queensland Press, 1971

Other

Social Services and the Aborigines, with Shirley Andrews. Canberra, Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, 1963.

Focus on Andrew Sibley. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1968.

J.S. Manifold: An Introduction to the Man and His Work. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1978.

Australia, Image of a Nation, 1850-1950, with David Moore. Sydney, Collins, 1983.

Journey Through Australia. Richmond, Victoria, Heinemann, andLondon, Murray, 1989; as Home, A Journey through Australia. Port Melbourne, Minerva, 1990.

The Writer and the World of the Imagination. Armidale, New SouthWales, Faculty of Arts, University of New England, 1995.

Editor, with Thomas W. Shapcott, New Impulses in Australian Poetry. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1968.

Editor, Australian Poetry 1970. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1970.

Editor, Poems from Prison. Brisbane, University of QueenslandPress, 1973.

Editor, Australians Aware: Poems and Paintings. Sydney, Ure Smith, 1975.

Editor, Voyage into Solitude, by Michael Dransfield. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1978.

Editor, The Second Month of Spring, by Michael Dransfield. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1980.

Editor, The Collins Book of Australian Poetry. Sydney, Collins, 1981;London, Collins, 1983.

Editor, Collected Poems by Michael Dransfield. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1987.

* * *

One of Australia's most prolific writers, Rodney Hall established his reputation first as a poet before turning to fiction. His early novelistic ventures were less than successful. The Ship on the Coin is a rather heavy-handed satire based on the "Creosus" travel agency, which rebuilds a quinquereme and invites customers to row their own ship for a holiday. The scheme is wildly successful but the allegory concerning voluntary subservience to the United States ("Buy your way into slavery now") seems somewhat dated today and the comedy is very broad. A Place Among People is a more sensitively written novel about a small town just out of Brisbane called Battery Spit. Set in the 1950s, a period where bigotries and conformist attitudes are skillfully conveyed, it concerns the nonconformist (intellectual, aboriginal) Collocott who is persecuted by the townspeople. The central incident involves the town's attempt to drive a black woman, Daisy Daisy, out of their midst and onto a reservation the blacks call Prison Island and Collocott's stubborn defiance of them in defense of her. However, it is relatively benign and even optimistic in many of its views. When it finally comes to the crunch only eleven of the townspeople actually turn up outside Collocott's house to force him to release Daisy, and others among them come unexpectedly to his aid. Many of the characters achieve minor victories over their own lesser instincts, and of the unorthodox hero Collocott the novel concludes, "He wavered on the brink of life." Occasional obscurities aside, A Place Among People is an intelligent and graceful novel.

Hall established his reputation, however, with his third novel, Just Relations. A long, complex, and sometimes overwritten book, it is set in the ironically named Whitey's Fall, a declining former gold town peopled by a set of aging eccentrics, whose only religion is "Remembering." There is Felicia Brinsmead, a seventy-three-yearold spinster who has never had her hair cut so that it hangs over her like a huge, dirty web and who believes that she is the mother of a twelve-year-old boy, Fido. There is the narcissistic Mr. Ping, who willfully destroys his fading beauty. There is the spirit of Kel McAlon, who has killed himself. In the local pub a group of people are sitting around drinking; they are aged between eighty and 114. Into this community comes beautiful thirty-four-year-old Vivien Lang, with whom the teenager Billy Swan falls in love, to the scandal of some of the town. To it also comes Senator Frank Halloran to inform the community that a highway is being built through to bring the town to life. All but one of the forty-nine residents are outraged. Their creed is summed up by Uncle, Billy's grandfather, who proudly lists the examples of "progress" that he has opposed—hospital, old people's home, police station, jail, school, highways, and the draft. Hall seems to intend the community to be a paradigm of a dying Australia that he sees as infinitely superior to the current one. The book is unnecessarily long and the writing often clumsy, particularly in any of the scenes to do with sex: "Her fingers fluttered round him, giant butterflies afraid to alight but fatally attracted by the honey hidden in him." The presence of Patrick White is felt at times in the deliberately dissonant rhythms of the prose, and there is a positive smorgasbord of techniques brought to bear as the novel moves between past and present, employing all kinds of texts—diaries, newspaper reports, letters—to illuminate the theme. Nevertheless, the conception is original and eventually the novel gains conviction, particularly through the beautifully realized figures of the women and its fine treatment of landscape.

In Kisses of the Enemy, Hall returns to political satire with a novel set in the near future. Australia has become a republic under the leadership of Bernard Buchanan, who represents the multinational Interim Freeholdings Incorporated of Delaware; Buchanan, in fact, is really the front man for the company's Luigi Squarcia and Australia is rapidly becoming the puppet state of the United States. Hall manages to draw this parable out to over 600 pages, but though the object of the satire is legitimate enough, the novel rarely comes to life and the jokes are even more labored than in The Ship on the Coin. For instance, Buchanan is very fat at the start of the novel, with two men carrying him around; at the height of his power the retinue has grown to eight and still later, when his power begins to decline, he simultaneously begins to lose weight. The very topicality of the satire ensures that the jokes become dated.

Just Relations apart, Hall's major novelistic achievement to date is found in his three most recent novels, Captivity Captive (published in 1988 but set in 1888), The Second Bridegroom (1991, 1836), and The Grisly Wife (1993, 1898). Hall has finally drawn these together as a trilogy under the title A Dream More Luminous than Love, or the Yandilli trilogy. According to the author, the first volume grew out of the Gatton murders, the macabre killing of three siblings in New South Wales in 1898. Then, according to an interview he gave, "Hall began working on an earlier setting and then realized that, ideally, there should be an even earlier novel, introducing the theme of the white presence and—almost immutably—that of the Aborigines." The Grisly Wife is the middle novel in terms of chronology and the only one to have a woman as its narrator, though all three are monologues. Hall explained, "In the two outside books I had two male voices, a pagan outcast from the Isle of Man and a working-class Catholic. Symmetry required me to have the voice of a Protestant middle-class woman." All three books have the same setting, the backwoods of south coastal New South Wales, where Hall himself now lives and which critics frequently compare to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County as an example of a novelist creating his own fictive territory. All three are monologues spoke in an almost unnaturally eloquent, even poetic voice, though Hall has gone out of his way to anticipate this objection by giving each of his narrators a background of literacy. The convict forger in The Second Bridegroom learned about words from his mother and how to use them from his trade as a printer. Catherine Byrne, the eponymous wife, is the daughter of an Anglican clergyman. And Patrick Malone was the one child (of ten) chosen by his brutal father to be educated outside the closed family by a learned old Catholic priest.

The Second Bridegroom is the story of an unnamed youth told (we eventually learn) to the widow of his master with whom he has fallen blindly in love and who he wrongly believes to have at least some sympathy for him. Transported to Australia in the "Fraternity" for the forgery of a fifteenth-century document, he is manacled to Gabriel Dean, whose mistreatment of him drives him to strangle the man. He then escapes into the bush and joins a tribe of Aborigines who make him their king. When the tribe attack a settlement, killing a young woman and then most of the rest of the settlers and setting fire to their property, the narrator takes the guilt upon himself as having somehow willed it: "The truth was this, that while the Men knew no word of my language they must have known my thoughts. So, they had felt my fury and sensed my need. They had obeyed. I had given orders as sure as if I spoke them."

Although the Aborigines are not individualized and the narrator never learns even a single word of their language, their mode of life is shown to be inherently superior to that of the whites. The narrator quickly adjusts to their ways of thinking. When he comes upon a white settlement after a few months in the wilderness he speaks of their efforts to "tame" and fence the land in horrified terms of "the sheer scale of violence." He notes the Aborigines' generosity and selflessness toward himself, their patience with his clumsiness, and their refusal to steal more food than they need. The theme of the novel is perhaps best summed up in one of the narrator's many bouts of sententiousness: "I want you to understand that there is something to be understood out there, something free of the law, free of any comforting faith in a God whose motives may be explained through our own, something that has to become the map of my heart."

The Grisly Wife is a monologue delivered by Catherine Byrne before a silent audience, which we discover only at the end to be a sergeant who has come to inquire about the murder of the three Malone siblings, her neighbors and the subject of Captivity Captive. We learn also that Catherine believes he is inquiring about a different murder, that of the unnamed narrator of The Second Bridegroom. The year is 1898 and not the least of Hall's concerns is the intrusion of the secular and scientific world upon the kind of messianic faith inspired in Catherine and her female friends by the charismatic preacher Muley Moloch. There is mention of Charles Darwin, for instance, of Richard Wagner as some kind of herald of a new age, and of new scientific phenomena such as cameras, lawnmowers, and steam trains. Muley marries Catherine after she has been impressed by his apparent feat of levitation and then persuades a group of eight women to sail with him to Australia and found a new community on the south coast of New South Wales, christening them the Household of Hidden Stars. One by one the women die of consumption at the mission they establish, as the prophet's hold on them diminishes. Eventually the survivors kick him out after he shoots and kills a wild white man (the escaped convict).

This is an almost ostentatiously feminist novel, as The Second Bridegroom concerns itself conspicuously with environmental issues. A sense of close camaraderie grows among the women, especially after they dismiss Muley, and extends eventually to a close friendship between Catherine and Louisa Theuerkauf, the woman she had once hated. Protests against male authority keep emerging in the text, particularly in Catherine's constant reproaches of Sergeant Arrell, her silent audience. "Tenderness grows among us," we are told of the women, and they embrace frequently.

In Captivity Captive, Barney Barnett, the unsuccessful suitor of one of the girls shot and clubbed to death on a remote New South Wales farm, has confessed to the crime on his deathbed, but it soon becomes clear that his claim is merely a piece of retrospective self-aggrandizement. One of the surviving siblings sets out to tell the story of what actually happened. It does not take the reader too long to find out who the actual killer is, but the question of why remains almost as much of an enigma at the end as at the beginning. In a prose that is in turn poetic, highly self-conscious, rhetorical, and obsessive, Hall explores the relationship between guilt and innocence, captive and tyrant.

For all its occasional stylistic excesses, the trilogy is an impressive attempt to reexplore and rewrite white Australian history. One of the key themes in all three novels is the sense that the land was not empty but was seized by white people; hence the constant presence of the Aborigines, seen as ghosts or demons by the whites, hovering constantly around the outskirts of the narratives, their presence both a threat and an admonishment to the whites: "They were briefly there and soon gone but it was evident to me that they knew more than we had ever believed possible," Catherine says in The Grisly Wife. One critic has gone so far as to suggest that "Each of these characters attempts to live and reenact a myth, to take on some self-imposed mantle of immortality: the Second Bridegroom, the Second Coming or the Second Fall from Grace. Each fails."

—Laurie Clancy

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