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David Malouf Biography

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Nationality: Australian. Born: David George Joseph Malouf in Brisbane, Queensland, 1934. Education: Brisbane Grammar School, 1947-50; University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1951-54, B.A. (honours) in English 1954. Career: Lecturer, University of Queensland, 1955-57; teacher, St. Anselm's College, England, 1962-68; lecturer, University of Sydney, 1968-77. Awards: Australian Literature Society gold medal, 1974, 1983; Grace Leven prize, 1975; James Cook award, 1975; Australia Council fellowship, 1978; New South Wales Premier's prize, for fiction, 1979; The Age Book of the Year award, 1982; Commonwealth prize for fiction, 1991; Prix Femina Étranger, 1991; Miles Franklin award, 1991; New South Wales award for fiction, 1991; Los Angeles Times Fiction prize, 1993; International IMPAC Dublin Literary award, 1993.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Johnno. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1975; New York, Braziller, 1978.

An Imaginary Life. New York, Braziller, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1978.

Child's Play, with Eustace and the Prowler. London, Chatto and Windus, 1982; as Child's Play, The Bread of Time to Come: Two Novellas, New York, Braziller, 1982.

Fly Away Peter. London, Chatto and Windus, 1982.

Harland's Half Acre. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Knopf, 1984.

The Great World. London, Chatto and Windus, 1990; New York, Pantheon, 1991.

Remembering Babylon. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Knopf, 1993.

The Conversations at Curlow Creek. New York, Pantheon Books, 1996.

Short Stories

Antipodes. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

Dream Stuff: Stories. New York, Pantheon Books, 2000.

Plays

Voss (opera libretto), music by Richard Meale, adaptation of the novel by Patrick White (produced Sydney, 1986).

Blood Relations. Sydney, Currency Press, 1988.

Baa Baa Black Sheep (opera libretto). London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Poetry

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

Bicycle and Other Poems. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1970; as The Year of the Foxes and Other Poems, New York, Braziller, 1979.

Neighbours in a Thicket. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1974.

Poems 1975-76. Sydney, Prism, 1976.

Selected Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1980.

Wild Lemons. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1980.

First Things Last. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1980; London, Chatto and Windus, 1981.

Poems, 1959-89. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1992.

Selected Poems, 1959-1989. London, Chatto & Windus, 1994.

Other

New Currents in Australian Writing, with Katharine Brisbane and R.F. Brissenden. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1978.

12 Edmondstone Street (essays). London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

Johnno, Short Stories, Poems, Essays, and Interview, edited by James Tulip. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1990.

A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness. Sydney, ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1998.

The Fox and the Magpie: A Divertissement for 2 Voices (lyrics), music by Kurt Schwertsik. London, Boosey & Hawkes, 1998.

Editor, with others, We Took Their Orders and Are Dead: An Anti-War Anthology. Sydney, Ure Smith, 1971.

Editor, Gesture of a Hand (anthology of Australian poetry). Artarmon, New South Wales, Holt Rinehart, 1975.

*

Manuscript Collections:

University of Queensland, St. Lucia; Australian National University Library, Canberra.

Critical Studies:

Interviews in Commonwealth 4 (Rodez, France), 1979-80, Meanjin 39 (Melbourne), and Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), October 1982; "David Malouf as Humane Allegorist" by James Tulip, in Southerly (Sydney), 1981; "David Malouf and the Language of Exile" by Peter Bishop, in Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), October 1982; "David Malouf's Fiction" by P. Pierce, in Meanjin (Melbourne), vol. 41, no. 4, 1982; "Discoveries and Transformations: Aspects of David Malouf's Work" by L.T. Hergenhan, in Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), May 1984; "Secret Companions: The Continuity of David Malouf's Fiction" by M. Dever, in World Literature Written in English (Guelph, Ontario), vol. 26, no. 1, 1986; "David Malouf's Child's Play and 'The Death of the Author"' by S. Woods, in Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), May 1988; "Body Talk: The Prose of David Malouf" by N. Mansfield, in Southerly (Sydney), vol. 49, no. 2, 1989; Australia in Mind: Thirteen Influential Australian Thinkers by M. Thomas, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1989; "Mapping the Local in the Unreal City" by E. Ferrier, in Island (Sandy Bay, Tasmania), no. 41, 1989; Imagined Lives: A Study of David Malouf by P. Neilsen, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1990; Sheer Edge: Aspects of Identity in David Malouf's Writing by Karin Hansson, Lund, Lund University Press, 1991; David Malouf by Ivor Indyk, Melbourne and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993; Provisional Maps: Critical Essays on David Malouf, edited by Amanda Nettelbeck. Nedlands, University of Western Australia, 1994; Reading David Malouf by Amanda Nettelbeck, South Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995; Imagined Lives: A Study of David Malouf by Philip Neilsen, St Lucia, Queensland, University of Queensland Press and Portland, Oregon, International Specialized Book Services, 1996.

* * *

David Malouf is never slow to point, in interviews, to his own interest in what he calls the "matter of Australia," and each of his novels can be seen as an exploration of a range of experience perceived to have been crucial to the making of Australians today. This determination to circumscribe Australian experience and identity responds to an impulse that is at base a nationalistic and a post-colonial one. Indeed, the longstanding obsession in his country with the question of national identity probably conceals the felt necessity to inscribe distance, or to affirm cultural independence, from England, seen as a point of origin. It can even be argued that, in the case of Australia, the post-colonial desire to differentiate oneself from England (apparent in the perennial theme of exile) in fact springs from a perception of embarrassing proximity to that very place and cultural model.

On the other hand, some critics have noted a deep tension in Malouf's work between this post-colonial radicalism and what has been called his profound nostalgia for a prelapsarian state of absolute unity. This kind of theme actually goes back to the earliest phase of his career as a writer, when Malouf made a name for himself as a lyrical poet on the look-out for alternative ontologies. Many of the poems collected in Bicycle and Other Poems (1970) and Neighbours in a Thicket (1974) pursue the theme of metamorphosis as providing intellectual entry into the animal, the vegetal, and the mineral states. For example, in the poem entitled "The Crab Feast," the persona finally reaches a level of awareness at which it becomes possible to claim: "We are one at last. Assembled here / out of earth, water, air / to a love feast." This moment of communion with a crab is ironically achieved at the dinner table in the act of consumption; but it also involves an imaginative descent into the crab's life and habitat, conducted so that the eater experiences "the taste of so much air, so much water," until he/it actually becomes the landscape. Malouf's poetry can perhaps be called post-lyrical in that it registers the dissolution of the self's limits, acknowledging in the process the erotic possibilities offered by this breach of boundaries, but resulting always in a surrender of identity equivalent to dying: "You were / myself in another species, brute / blue, a bolt of lightning, maybe God."

It seems clear that this desire for totality beyond speech runs counter to the wish to create or consolidate a sense of national identity for Australia. It is then a paradox that Malouf's post-lyrical impulses should carry over into his fiction, which is avowedly post-colonial in purpose. Johnno (1975), his first novel, is a largely autobiographical account of difficult adolescence in Brisbane. The protagonist Johnno's sense of the vanity of all experience has been called existentialist; but it is an existentialism with a political edge to it, as Brisbane is resented for its lack of potentialities, so that the "entirely unnecessary fate" of being born there implies the need to travel overseas with a view to embracing a more "authentic" life-style. Eventually, after years of travelling in the Congo, in Paris, and Athens, Johnno returns to Queensland, only to die in the Condamine River in a drowning accident that is possibly a disguised suicide. Johnno's death can thus be seen as his final quizzical message, one that can be interpreted (as it is by Dante, the novel's puzzled narrator) as a gesture of ambiguous reconciliation with the place—into which the protagonist is literally absorbed.

This sets the pattern for a good deal of Malouf's subsequent fiction. Although An Imaginary Life (1978), the invented story of Ovid's life of exile on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, seems resolutely un-Australian in terms of setting and subject matter, it traces a process of cultural attunement to an austere and alien environment, which is especially resonant in an Australian context. It is also significant that this story of gradual acclimatization should play itself out in terms of a search for linguistic fit. Malouf has been known to remark that, in Australia, the plight of the first settlers may have consisted in lacking a language to adequately describe and relate to an inscrutable environment. Similarly, in An Imaginary Life, Ovid's Latin is found too articulate to come to grips with a place that, in its rudimentary bleakness, remains close to "the first principle of creation." It is apt, therefore, that the poet should relinquish his native tongue and take steps towards learning the language of the natives, which he finds more expressive of "the raw life and unity of things." Thus far, the novel could pass muster as an allegory of the post-colonial condition; but Malouf characteristically pushes matters ahead by having Ovid meet the Child, a wolf-boy discovered living wild in the forest. Attempts to bring the Child within the compass of human civilization will strangely backfire, as the roles are reversed and it is finally Ovid who takes lessons in the ways of nature. As a wild boy in perfect tune with the natural world, the Child commands a mimetic "language" of sounds and cries that allows him to commune with the creatures peopling the bush. In his own attempts to imitate animal sounds, Ovid, too, becomes aware that the creatures "will settle in us, re-entering their old lives deep in our consciousness. And after them, the plants…" However, he only achieves perfect wholeness when settling "deep into the earth," at the end of a life-long quest, when his body dissolves into the landscape in a way that seems finally de-creative.

After the (post-)lyrical experiments of An Imaginary Life, Malouf's work has tended to gesture more and more towards the quality of epic, as the author rehearsed a succession of major episodes in Australian history. In novel after novel, he strived to imaginatively assess the extent to which these events, which have in the meantime acquired the status of myth, actually served to shape up a sense of national consciousness. Throughout, though, this positive (celebratory) historian's approach is pursued alongside the usual morbid interest in the more entropic dimensions of human experience.

Fly Away Peter (1982) thus engages with the issue of Australia's participation in the Great War, while The Great World (1990) evokes, among other things, the Malaysian campaign and the anti-heroic sufferings and degradations endured by ANZAC troops kept prisoners in Southeast Asia during the Second World War. The Great World is like its predecessor, Harland's Half Acre (1984), in that it also ranges over several decades of Australian life, so that, taken together, these two books probe Australians' experience of the First World War (again), the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Holocaust, the post-war mining and property boom, and finally the financial crash of 1987. Also, these books include a variety of representative characters and types from all walks of life, so that they can be said to aspire to the quality of national realist epics, indeed just like Tolstoy's War and Peace (with which The Great World has been compared).

In each of his novels from Fly Away Peter é onwards, Malouf also addresses a stereotype of national identity with a view to apprehending it imaginatively from within. The first of these superfi-cial clichs of national character is the myth of the "digger," as Australian soldiers in World War I were commonly nicknamed. In Fly Away Peter, the myth (with its connotations of self-indulgent pride in physical prowess and undisciplined "mateyness") is pitted against the horrific reality of large-scale massacres in the trenches of Flanders. The image is further redressed and expanded in The Great World in which one of the main characters, precisely called Digger, is endowed with an encyclopaedic memory allowing him to record "the little sacraments of daily existence," those that constitute "our other history, the one that goes on under the noise and chatter of events and is the major part of what happens each day in the life of the planet." Malouf's portrait of Digger thus foregrounds qualities like contemplativeness (rather than physical prowess), as well as a fossicking urge to lay bare new strata of experience. The point is clearly that the writer approaches national identity not as fixed, a matter of given characteristics, but as an ongoing process of inclusion and change, susceptible to being revisited and transformed.

A similar approach is perceptible in Remembering Babylon (1993) and The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996), in which Malouf challenges traditional representations of the settler and of the bushranger, respectively. Remembering Babylon recreates the lives of the Scottish settlers of a small Queensland township in the middle of the nineteenth century, and so reveals a continuing interest in revisiting history. The villagers' peacefulness is disturbed by the intrusion of Gemmy, a young British castaway who was rescued and raised by the Aborigines. Gemmy's appearance compels the white settlers to address the fact of native presence in new, unbiased ways; in this respect, he emerges as a catalyst of cultural change, which is in keeping with his status as a "forerunner" of the time in the future when Australian culture can be considered as equitably hybrid or "geminate." The Conversations at Curlow Creek can be seen to extend this kind of reflection since, starting from an evocation of bushranging (itself partly inspired by the story of Ned Kelly, the most famous of Australian outlaws), Malouf embarks on a meditation upon the restrictions of official law, in the context of which legal truth is implicitly contrasted with the cosmic laws of the land, or else with the putative laws (and narratives) potentially released by the imagination.

One way of reconciling Malouf's constructive (post-colonial) endeavour with his more de-creative leanings would consist in stating that the death of his protagonists on Australian soil amounts to claiming that territory as an authentic source of cultural roots. In a sense, then, his writing can be seen to conceal colonialist attitudes, or at least a spirit of competition with the natives for possession of the continent as a locus of valid experience. But perhaps this must be qualified, with the recognition that Malouf is acutely aware of the political and epistemological limitations imposed upon him by his own subject matter. For example, in Remembering Babylon, Aboriginal culture is only envisioned through the authorising prism of Gemmy's hybrid consciousness. If it were not for this kind of subterfuge, indigenous experience would of course remain strictly out of bounds for the white writer, who has therefore no other option than to keep exploring his own side of the culture. In the last analysis, it is probably fair to say that Malouf gives literary expression to the profound dilemmas and traumas lying at the very foundation of Australian settler culture; or that, conversely, this kind of issue entered the domain of literature thanks to the consummate skills of a writer who will remain known as one of the most beautiful stylists in the English language.

—Marc Delrez

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