Peter Mathers Biography
Nationality: Australian. Born: Fulham, London, England, in 1931; brought to Australia as an infant. Education: Sydney Technical College. Career: Worked as a farmer, laborer, in wool-classing, in a brewery, and for the public service in Victoria, 1950s-early 1960s; lived in Europe, mainly in London, 1964-67, and worked as a researcher; theater adviser, University of Pittsburgh, 1968. Awards: Miles Franklin award, 1967.
Trap. Melbourne, Cassell, 1966; London, Sphere, 1970.
The Wort Papers. Melbourne, Cassell, 1972; London, Penguin, 1973.
A Change for the Better. Adelaide, Wav, 1984.
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Peter Mathers is the author of only a few books of fiction, yet he is undoubtedly one of the best of the generation of Australian fiction writers that followed in the wake of White, Stead, and Xavier Herbert. Though he was born in England, his work is marked by a deep strain of Australian nationalism, a conscious attempt at mythologizing Australian experience.
His first novel, for instance, begins as the story of the eponymous Jack Trap, part-Aboriginal, but as it continues its concerns steadily widen until finally it takes in, with the discussion of Trap's forebears, the whole savage history of the Aboriginal race over the last 200 years: its shooting down and poisoning by white settlers, exploitation by businessmen and missionaries, abuse and mistreatment by foremen and fellow workers, and, finally, assaults by police and jailing by magistrates. If the novel is dominated by the angry, ebullient presence of its central character, the author makes it clear nevertheless that Jack is in part the product of a whole history of exploitation, cruelty, and contemptuous indifference on the part of white people. Trap is a misfit—neither craven nor surly, neither in society nor wholly out of it. Although he schools himself to patience, he is prone to violent eruptions at periodic intervals, and the result is always "six months from an understanding magistrate." He is resentful of his Aboriginal features and hopes they will not be recognized but at the same time he "marries" an Aboriginal woman and his final scheme is to lead a party of followers across the continent to the Narakis Mission.
Despite its subject matter, Trap is essentially a comic novel with its author much given to word play, puns, and episodes of slap-stick. In The Wort Papers Mathers takes both his concerns and his experiments with language a good deal further, virtually out of the realm of social realism altogether. Style in The Wort Papers is not merely the means of recording the rebellious and independent freedom to which the protagonist aspires; it is also the means of achieving it. The last word in the novel is MATTERS, the name of the protagonist's alter ego and the mysterious writer who has hovered on its outskirts throughout the narrative.
Although it is concerned with a smaller period of time than Trap—roughly from the 1930s onward—The Wort Papers is similarly involved with questions of identity and mythic journeys inland; there are two series of journeys which are described in comic and even parodic terms. The first third of the novel is taken up with the various expeditions of William Wort, and his attempt to define himself in terms of a sense of Englishness. Like his son later, William is constantly "In Flight." Mathers's awareness that William's peregrinations carry him over territory already covered by other Australian writers such as Patrick White is shown by the heading of one section: "Journey and Employers (& obligatory bushfire)."
William's son Percy is an explorer, but whereas earlier explorers and even his father had traveled on foot or on horseback, Percy mounts a 500 cc Norton motorbike. Whereas they had traveled into the heart of the inland, he sticks mostly to the cities, and his predicaments are urban ones, often taking a farcical form. Where their enemies were droughts or hostile natives, Percy's are figures of bureaucratic authority—policemen, mysterious representatives of the A.S.I.O. (the Australian equivalent of the C.I.A.), and recalcitrant bosses and bar-keepers.
Percy's acts of insurrection are embodied in the language of the novel itself. Wort's words are exuberant, very funny, and finally surreal weapons fired by his "sturdy, 350 shot Remington." At the end of the novel Percy dies but his doppelgänger Matters is still around. It is the artist, the word-maker, who in Mathers's view survives.
A gap of twelve years separates The Wort Papers from Mathers's third book of fiction, a collection of short stories titled A Change for the Better, and when it did appear it was greeted by sympathetic reviewers with no more than respectful disappointment. The distinguishing elements of Mathers's writing—the compression, density, and self-conscious linguistic play—have been taken as far as they can possibly go, to the point where the style is cryptic, rather than merely compressed, not so much self-conscious as hermetic. The title story is both witty and accessible. It tells of a young boy with homosexual inclinations who is therefore the scandal of his country district. Eventually he is discovered peering through the bathroom at a girl bathing. The outraged parents send for his father but are deeply chagrined at his reaction of delight: at least his sexual proclivities indicate "a change for the better." Another story that works well is "Like a Maori Prince," which returns the reader to the territory of the novels: a black man poses as a Maori Prince in order to escape the tag of "Lairy Boong" and is treated with fawning respect by the whites of the town. For the most part, though, the stories are marked by long exchanges of almost indecipherable puns and one-liners. One of the characters in "Like a Maori Prince" comments on the pun that "People have been run out of town for better jokes." There are enough bad ones in this collection to cause a mass exodus.
Mathers continues to write constantly but like Malcolm Lowry is never able to consider a work finished, and is deeply reluctant to relinquish it to a publisher. Like Lowry, also, it is probable that much of his writing will be published posthumously, a suggestion that delights the author when it is put to him.
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