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Michael Wilding Biography

sydney editor university australian

Nationality: British. Born: Worcester, 1942. Education: Royal Grammar School, Worcester, 1950-59; Lincoln College, Oxford (editor, Isis, 1962), B.A. 1963, M.A. 1968. Career: Primary school teacher, Spetchley, Worcestershire, 1960; lecturer in English, University of Sydney, 1963-66; assistant lecturer, 1967-68, and lecturer in English, 1968, University of Birmingham. Senior lecturer, 1969-72, reader in English, 1972-93, and since 1993 professor in English and Australian literature, University of Sydney. Visiting professor, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1987; George Watson Visiting Fellow, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, 1989. Editor, Balcony, Sydney, 1965-69, and Tabloid Story, Sydney, 1972-76; general editor, Asian and Pacific Writing series, University of Queensland Press, 1972-82; director, Wild and Woolley, publishers, Sydney, 1974-79; editor, Post-Modern Writing, Sydney, 1979-81; currently Australian editor, Stand Magazine, U.K. Since 1971 Australian editor, Stand, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Fellow, Australian Academy of Humanities, 1988. Awards: Australia Council senior fellowship, 1978. D. Litt., University of Sydney, 1996.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Living Together. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1974.

The Short Story Embassy. Sydney, Wild and Woolley, 1975.

Pacific Highway. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1982.

The Paraguayan Experiment. Ringwood, Victoria, and London, Penguin, 1985.

Book of the Reading. Sydney, Pope, 1994.

Wildest Dreams. St. Lucia, Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1998.

Short Stories

Aspects of the Dying Process. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1972.

The West Midland Underground. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1975.

Scenic Drive. Sydney, Wild and Woolley, 1976.

The Phallic Forest. Sydney, Wild and Woolley, 1978.

Reading the Signs. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1984.

The Man of Slow Feeling: Selected Short Stories. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1985.

Under Saturn: Four Stories. Moorebank, New South Wales, Black Swan, 1988.

Great Climate. London, Faber, 1990; as Her Most Bizarre Sexual Experience, New York, Norton, 1991.

This Is for You. Sydney, Angus and Rotokun, 1994.

Somewhere New: New and Selected Stories. Rockhampton, Queensland, Central Queensland University Press 1996.

Plays

Screenplay:

The Phallic Forest, 1972.

Television Play:

Reading the Signs, 1988.

Other

Milton's Paradise Lost. Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1969.

Cultural Policy in Great Britain, with Michael Green. Paris, Unesco, 1970.

Marcus Clarke. Melbourne and London, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Political Fictions. London, Routledge, 1980.

Dragons Teeth: Literature and Politics in the English Revolution. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987.

The Radical Tradition: Lawson, Furphy, Stead. Townsville, Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, 1993.

Social Visions. Sydney, Sydney Studies in Society and Culture, 1993.

Editor, with Charles Higham, Australians Abroad: An Anthology. Melbourne, Cheshire, 1967.

Editor, Three Tales, by Henry James. Sydney, Hicks Smith, 1967.

Editor, Marvell: Modern Judgements. London, Macmillan, 1969; Nashville, Aurora, 1970.

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

Editor, The Portable Marcus Clarke. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1976.

Editor, with Stephen Knight, The Radical Reader. Sydney, Wild and Woolley, 1977.

Editor, The Tabloid Story Pocket Book. Sydney, Wild and Woolley, 1978.

Editor, The Workingman's Paradise, by William Lane. Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1980.

Editor, Stories, by Marcus Clarke. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1983.

Editor, with Rudi Krausmann, Air Mail from Down Under. Vienna, Gangan, 1990.

Editor, The Oxford Book of Australian Short Stories. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1994; New York, Oxton, 1995.

Editor, with Mabel Lee, History, Literature, and Society, Essays in Honour of S.N. Mukherjee. Leichhardt, Australia, Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1997.

*

Critical Studies:

"The Short Stories of Wilding and Moorhouse" by Carl Harrison-Ford, in Southerly (Sydney), 33, 1973; interviews with Rudi Krausmann, in Aspect, 1, 1975, David Albahari, in Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), 9, 1980, Kevin Brophy and Myron Lysenko, in Going Down Swinging, 3, 1982, Giulia Giuffre, in Southerly (Sydney), 46, 1986, and Peter Lewis, in Stand (Newcastle-upon-Tyne), 32, 1991; "Recent Developments in Australian Writing, with Particular Reference to Short Fiction" by Brian Kiernan, in Caliban (Toulouse), 14, 1977; "The New Novel" by Leon Cantrell, in Studies in the Recent Australian Novel edited by K.G. Hamilton, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1978; "Uncertainty and Subversion in the Australian Novel," in Pacific Moana Quarterly (Hamilton, New Zealand), 4, 1979, and "Character and Environment in Some Recent Australian Fiction," in Waves (Downsview, Ontario), 7, 1979, both by Ken Gelder; "Laszlo's Testament, or Structuring the Past and Sketching the Present in Contemporary Short Fiction," in Kunapipi 1 (Aarhus, Denmark), 1979, "A New Version of Pastoral," in Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), 11, 1983, and "Paradise, Politics, and Fiction: The Writing of Michael Wilding," in Meanjin (Melbourne), 45, 1986, all by Bruce Clunies Ross; "The New Writing, Whodunnit?" by G.M. Gillard, in Meanjin (Mel-bourne), 40, 1981; "Michael Wilding: Post-Modernism and the Australian Literary Heritage" by Hans Hauge, in Overland (Mel-bourne), 96, 1984; "Lost and Found: Narrative and Description in Michael Wilding's 'What It Was Like, Sometimes"' by Simone Vauthier, in Journal of the Short Story in English (Angers, France), 12, 1989; The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970-1988 by Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman, Fitzroy, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, 1989; "Koka Kola Kulture" by Don Graham in Southwest Review (Dallas, Texas), 78, Spring 1993; "Frank Moorhouse and Michael Wilding and Internationalism" by Frank Parigi, in Antipodes (Austin, Texas) 8, June 1994; "Talking with Michael Wilding" by Nadezda Obradovic, in Antipodes (Austin, Texas) 8, June 1994.

* * *

Michael Wilding is one of a "new generation" of writers in Australia who began publishing in the early 1970s. Impelled to political action by Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war, Wilding has also protested in his writings against censorship, conservative social values, and a subservience to American cultural imperialism.

In the first of his collections of stories Aspects of the Dying Process, an English persona is attracted and bemused in several stories by the hedonistic Sydney youth culture which he encounters. The title suggests the "dying" as an immigrant changes color with his new culture and extinguishes to some degree the old, and is a pun also on his sexual initiation rites. D.H. Lawrence and Henry James have left their mark on the writer's early style, in its rendering of the impulses and withdrawals of an observer who is not yet a participant in the new life. The West Midland Underground, Wilding's second volume of stories, has a free-wheeling variety of narrative modes and settings which include England, Greece, the United States, and Australia. In "Canal Run" a boy's claustrophobic world is evident in images of the English industrial midlands; at the center of frustration is a thwarted sexuality: "Thinking back it is hard to see exactly when one's consciousness of sex began and became a desire for, a whole youth's looking for, fulfillment. Then, though, there was only a strong sense of sin and shame and dirt; no lyricism, and none of the hatred. It was wrong and furtive and C stream; which was another way of saying lower class." Most stories in The Phallic Forest energetically flout "normal" sexual and social mores, or celebrate alternatives; and in a later collection, Reading the Signs, a more reflective consciousness draws on a background of class awareness for sharp and penetrating observations of appearance and behavior. In Wilding's later work the term "Midlander" connotes the circumscribed spirit, against which all his writings rebel.

Wilding's first novel, Living Together, relates the exploits, and fantasies, of young men and women cohabiting in inner suburban Sydney. The traumas of Martin, Paul, and Ann (second names are unimportant) are related with wit and verve as they paint and decorate their house and have sex, joints, or drink with neighbors and visitors. (In a later novel, a character comments that the Pill introduced "a whole new anthropology" for the writer.) The strongest character is the irenic Ann, who, after leaving her outrageously chauvinist partner Martin half way through the novel, returns at the end to give his life some shape and order. The men are weaker and more ambivalent. Paul, the author's alter ego, has taken his sexual apprenticeship, but is unsure of his future directions. Martin's scenario of the house as a sort of "cultural center" is never realized; its most memorable visits are two female grotesques, the ever-ready next-door neighbor Mrs. Bilham, and Gretel Mann, of "cavernous appetite," who helps Paul out of his innocence. Late in the novel Paul has decided that "Change is the only aphrodisiac." The literary progenitor of this urban comedy of the 1970s is perhaps Thomas Love Peacock, whose miscellaneous parties of odd characters in English country houses also mix satire and romance, but where the treatment of sex is much more circumspect.

Wilding's second novel, The Short Story Embassy, and his third, Pacific Highway, contain insights into the literary process. The "Embassy," situated "halfway to the north" on Australia's east coast, approximates to the "cultural center" envisaged by Martin in Living Together. The juxtaposition of culture and nature is a source of comedy, as in this version of "pot pastoral": "The people traveling up from the south rested there and stripped off and got their bodies brown before going on to the full north. They lay around by creeks and wove garlands of bush flowers around each other. They made daisy-chains around their necks and twined poppies in their pubic hairs. The cows came and gazed on them and licked them and they licked each other."

Here, as elsewhere, Wilding is both lyrical and amused; he celebrates the new freedoms and is affectionately ironic about them. While whimsy sometimes predominates, a sharper irony is evident in observations about characters' literary outlooks and values. The middle-aged Laszlo, for instance, possessively jealous of his lover, Valda, puzzles over his generation of radicals, who read Tom Paine, while hers has been "turned on" to astrology. To Valda, Laszio seems to use books as "leaning posts." The Short Story Embassy quizzically examines the "new" experimental literature of process and locates its enemy as the Thought Police. But this is Kafka without the menace. The visitor, Tichborne, who mysteriously leaves the Embassy, may be one of the enemy (his name is a reminder of the famous Tichborne impersonation case), but his departure lacks consequence. There is paranoia aplenty in this novel but "plot" in the conventional sense is missing.

The pastoral element is paramount in Pacific Highway. In some respects it is a 1980s version of Vance Palmer's The Passage (1930), in which a rural holiday retreat on the Pacific Ocean is destroyed by "progress" and "development." But the tone and style of the two novels differ markedly. In Pacific Highway the attempt by the narrator and his girlfriend, Lily, to recreate an idyllic world of innocence among friends who will live off the land, re-cycling their waste, is confronted by a censorious, authoritarian regime. This household (two young women and a man), is differentiated from other "hippies" by being middle-class and theoretical: escapees from the midlands. Confrontations with the wider society are often presented as wry comedy: for instance, how does a household with idealistic communist notions rationalize its employment of a cleaning woman? Another dimension is the love story—of the narrator and Lily—which contains some fine lyrical passages.

A search for utopia, implicit elsewhere, is the explicit theme of Wilding's fourth novel, The Paraguayan Experiment. The novel marks a departure for Wilding, who uses historical documents in his firm narration of the story of the New Australia movement. Disillusioned with the economic depression and social repression in Australia in the 1890s, William Lane led a group of 400 men, women, and children to found a New Australia in Paraguay. Using letters (especially Lane's), memos, and official documents, Wilding builds a lively account of this historic precursor to the idealistic communalists of the 1970s. Anachronisms in dialogue and commentary are evident, but these seem deliberate: in certain respects, which Wilding does not wish to conceal, this was a parable for the 1980s. Hence many of the issues which have obsessed this writer—the creation of alternative human settlements, the clash between individual and group needs, sexual politics, the use of drugs—are evident in this tale of a previous era in Australian history. In form and style, this novel shows Wilding's continuing interest in literary experimentation and is rich in humor, fantasy, and social observation.

The stories in This Is for You suggest that Wilding's themes have begun to seem a bit dated—too much a part of the 1960s (and the twentieth century in general), and thus outmoded for a world entering a new millennium. Wildest Dreams is, on the one hand, a memoir, but it is also a novel featuring Wilding's alter-ego Graham. Again the focus is on issues that for many other people were settled long ago: Vietnam, Marxism, drugs, and the beatnik lifestyle.

—Bruce Bennett,

updated by Judson Knight

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