David Ireland Biography
Nationality: Australian. Born: Lakemba, New South Wales, 1927. Career: Worked as a greenskeeper, in factories, and at an oil refinery. Awards: Adelaide Advertiser award, 1966; Miles Franklin award, 1972, 1977, 1980; The Age Book of the Year award, 1980. Member: Order of Australia, 1981.
The Chantic Bird. London, Heinemann, and New York, Scribner, 1968.
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. Sydney and London, Angus andRobertson, 1971.
The Flesheaters. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1972.
Burn. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1975.
The Glass Canoe. Melbourne and London, Macmillan, 1976.
A Woman of the Future. Ringwood, Victoria, Allen Lane, and NewYork, Braziller, 1979; London, Penguin, 1980.
City of Women. Ringwood, Victoria, Allen Lane, 1981.
Archimedes and the Seagle. Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1984;London, Viking, 1985; New York, Penguin, 1987.
Bloodfather. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1987; London, HamishHamilton, 1988.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Wild Colonial Boy," in Winter's Tales 25, edited by CarolineHobhouse. London, Macmillan, 1979; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Image in the Clay (produced Sydney, 1962). Brisbane, University ofQueensland Press, 1964.
Double Agent: David Ireland and His Work by Helen Daniel, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1982; Atomic Fiction: The Novels of David Ireland by Ken Gelder, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1993.
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David Ireland is one of Australia's most innovative prose stylists. His first three novels depict a world that is in its "industrial adolescence," obsessed with profit and production to the point where those who do not contribute to industry (the poor, the aged, the unemployed) are treated as failures and misfits—as social lepers. The Chantic Bird offers this view in semi-comic fashion, its alienated teenage narrator providing a jaded running commentary on existence: "If there is no other life, why is this one so lousy?" Written in the absurdist-surrealist mode, but viewing its subject matter more somberly, The Flesheaters is set in a boarding-house for the poor and unemployed.
To counter the pervasive "functional" mentality (which insists that all human activity must have a public and profit-making purpose), Ireland's fictions insist upon the psychic value to the individual of such "useless" (but natural) activities as day-dreaming, fantasizing, and self-expression. Realistic treatments merge with fantasy sequences, and oblique viewpoints reveal familiar behavior from unusual angles. (Some of these effects verge on magical-realism, and Ireland has acknowledged his interest in South American writers of this school.) Ireland structures his works as scattered fragments, like elaborate mosaics constructed from tiny pieces, and this presentation clearly reflects not only his sense of the fragmentation of experience but also a celebration of its gloriously frustrating diversity.
Arguably the best of Ireland's early novels, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner portrays the life of workers in a foreign-owned Sydney oil refinery, examining their plight piece by piece and layer by layer until the fragmented mosaic builds into a microcosm of Australian industrial society. Ireland himself worked for a time in such a refinery, and the novel provides an absurdist (but acutely authentic) record of the dehumanization of the workforce, the emasculation of management, and the laziness and inefficiency of both employer and employee.
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is an angry and rigorous account of the absurdities of industrialism. But Ireland is Australia's most intensely analytical writer, and it should therefore come as no surprise that he is prepared to question the assumptions behind his own angry sense of injustice. This analytic quality is seen in frequent bitter references to the workers as "the soil" in which the "money tree" of industry is growing. This is primarily an image of protest at exploitation and degradation, but it can also be seen as a wholly natural organic image (for if there is to be a "money tree" there must be "soil" to sustain it). Instead of accepting social realities at face value, Ireland digs for underlying assumptions and implications.
Monotonous conformity is the keynote of Ireland's vision of Australian society. He sees Australians as tame and insipid, bowed in philistine worship to the god of materialism. The Chantic Bird portrays the people of Sydney sitting at home at night, "filling in insurance policies on their fowls, their wrought-iron railings, concrete paths, light globes, their health, funeral expenses, borers, carpets," and so on; The Glass Canoe deals with characters who escape this monotony by drowning their woes in "amber fluid" (beer). A bawdy and violent celebration of life in a Sydney pub, The Glass Canoe portrays the urban drinkers as the last of a colorful "tribe" which preserves values (such as mateship and "macho" brawniness) from Australia's mythic past.
Though the writer of this essay would defend Ireland's earlier novels, most critical opinion favors the works of his "second phase." These recent novels have moved more clearly in the direction of fable, the prose style has become remarkably agile and witty, and the author's earlier concern with specific political issues has broadened into a preoccupation with the inner world of the imagination. The later novels are more mellowed and sensuous without having lost any of their radical analytical edge.
A Woman of the Future is Ireland's first attempt to create a full-scale female character, but—more importantly—it is an attempt to confront Australia's dauntingly masculine national self-image. It deals with the outlook and adventures of an intellectually gifted young female about to take crucial end-of-school exams before venturing upon life in the larger world. By setting the novel some years in the future, Ireland allows himself to extrapolate the effects of current social problems (especially unemployment), but the novel's chief concern is to draw a parallel between the young heroine stepping out into life, and her country—Australia—stepping out into nationhood. Ireland has argued in an interview that "women seem more open [than men] to experience and to new things," and A Woman of the Future attempts to redefine the national consciousness in these terms. But the book is also concerned with female sexuality, and many of its sexual episodes proved controversial (some because they were explicit, some because they addressed female sexuality in allegedly male language).
City of Women pursues these preoccupations, but often by questioning them. Ostensibly, the novel is set in the city of Sydney after all males have been expelled, and tells the story of an aging mother's loneliness after her daughter has joined an engineering project in the heart of the continent. Challenging the premise that women have an outlook different to that of men, Ireland portrays the city of women as being no different from the former city of men. The functions of bully or criminal or whinger are still fulfilled—but by women, not men (which suggests that the basic humanity of the sexes is more important than their differences). However, this judgment in turn is questioned when the novel's ending reveals that the City of Women exists only in the mind of the eccentric central character. Though frequently criticized as a "cop out," this unexpected denouement is an effective means of insisting upon the value of individual viewpoint and perception.
As if having had enough of women, Ireland's most optimistic novel takes a dog as its central character. Archimedes and the Seagle is the memoir of a dog in the city of Sydney … but it is also a deliberately (and successfully) "upbeat" novel, celebrating the joys of life and the beauties of nature even in the midst of a huge city's urban sprawl. The novel asserts Ireland's optimism about the world, re-affirming his preoccupation with fantasy and individual perception. It is a slight work, but successfully exuberant.
Bloodfather is generally considered to be Ireland's best work to date. A Bildungsroman, presented in the by now familiar fragmentary "mosaic" pattern, it clearly draws deeply upon aspects of Ireland's own experience. The life of young David Blood is traced from infancy to his teenage years, recording the child's evolving perception of his environment, his growing awareness that he needs a God (and that this God will provide him with his life's work). But the book's richness lies not in what it is about but the way it deals with that material; in the words of reviewer Mary Rose Liverani, "The sources of pleasure in Bloodfather are too many to explore in a very brief review: enjoyment of characters who are portrayed with uninhibited affection, exploration of religious, moral and social issues in language that is genuinely fresh and unexpected, and the affirmation of the godlike in mankind and the universe."
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