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Alex Miller Biography

Nationality: Australian (originally British, immigrated to Australia c.1952). Born: 1936. Career: Has held a variety of jobs, including cattle ranching, horse breaking, art brokering, and teaching. Currently a full-time writer. Awards: Miles Franklin award, 1993, and Commonwealth Writers prize, 1993, both for The Ancestor Game.



Watching the Climbers on the Mountain. Sydney, Pan, 1988.

The Tivington Nott. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989.

The Ancestor Game. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1992; St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1994.

The Sitters. Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1995.

Conditions of Faith. New York, Scribner, 2000.


Exiles. Melbourne, Australian Nouveau Theatre, 1981.

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Migration is a recurrent theme in Alex Miller's writing, which vividly reveals the pressures of alienation and the need to belong. Miller's first novel, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain of 1988, is set in the Central Highlands of Queensland. The novel's intensity of passion in isolated situations is reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence, of Molly Skinner's The Boy in the Bush, and of Randolph Stow's first novel A Haunted Land. Miller's landscape and climate are, however, those of north Queensland with its heat, tropical storms, and mosquitoes. When the eighteen-year-old English stockman Robert Crofts arrives at a remote cattle station to work, he is drawn into a series of physical and psychological struggles. Initiation occurs when he becomes the focus of the simmering discontents and desires of the family on whose station he works. His sexual relationship with the station owner's wife leads to tragedy. Anger, jealousy, madness, and revenge drive the plot, but these are counterpointed by the woman's sense of belonging to the mountainous landscape into which she was born. As in later novels, sexual ambivalence is evident and the psychological relationships of parents with children, and brothers with sisters are important elements.

Miller's second novel The Tivington Nott, written in 1989, returns to the English West Country setting of Somerset on the edges of Exmoor. The novel's youthful first-person narrator, a Londoner, is a newcomer to the strict class barriers of provincial England. He is perhaps incipiently Australian in refusing to call his employer "master" but settling for "boss." But his main access to power is through retreat to a private inner world: he thus identifies with the elusive wild stag (the "nott") on Exmoor, which has eluded the local hunters for years by retreating to its secret soiling pit in the woods. The novel's major action is a hunt which celebrates the call of the wild in defiance of the forces of "civilization."

The Ancestor Game of 1992 is a more finely wrought, ambitious novel than the previous two, bringing to a point of subtle imaginative development Miller's preoccupations with home, homeland, and alienation. The sentient center of this novel is an English immigrant, Steven Muir, who lives and teaches in Melbourne. Muir's struggles with his sense of identity as an English-born Australian find their imaginative correlatives in a Chinese-Australian friend, Lang Tzu, and an artist friend of German and Asian extraction, Gertrude Spiess. The Chinese-born Lang Tzu's name is made up of two characters in Mandarin signifying "the son who goes away." But Lang's ancestry is complicated by the fact that his great-grandfather Feng had come to Australia in 1848, and made his fortune on the Victorian goldfields before returning to China. Thus the "son who goes away" paradoxically returns to an ancestral dwelling-place when he migrates to Australia.

The action in The Ancestor Game, carried on in a series of parallel or interwoven histories, moves principally between the cities of Melbourne, Shanghai, and Hangzhou (Marco Polo's "City of Heaven"). At a thematic level, much is made of the notion of "extraterritoriality," a state of being beyond history, place, and circumstance, promoted principally by the German-born Dr. Spiess, father of Gertrude. For Dr. Spiess, life in the International Settlement in prewar Shanghai had seemed ideally "extraterritorial," but he too is drawn inexorably towards a recognition of his involvement in history. When Lang Tzu burns his maternal grandfather's book of ancestors he recognizes himself, like other protagonists in Miller's work, as "a stranger on this earth." But Dr. Spiess offers the young Lang an antidote: "Long for something you can't name … and call it Australia." One of the novel's chief sources of appeal is that it reappraises Australia as a country of postcolonial possibility where ancestry, allegiance, and identity coalesce in an uncertain process of becoming.

Miller's fourth novel, The Sitters, develops a leitmotif from earlier work, namely the power of art to release human emotions and to transcend local conditions. The first-person narrator in this short novel is a late-middle-aged English-born painter living in Canberra. He lives alone, having been left some years previously by his wife and son. When he meets an Australian-born woman academic who works in England but has returned on a visiting appointment to a university in Australia, the two lives and lineages intersect. The narrator is attracted to the woman as a person and as a potential subject of his paintings. As the relationship develops, so too does his renewed desire to paint, which releases him in turn to cope with the psychological effects of his unresolved and truncated past in England. While postcolonial theory informs aspects of The Ancestor Game, The Sitters draws to some extent on Roland Barthes's speculative essays on words and images. A feature of The Sitters is its interweaving of present circumstances with vignettes of memory. A crisis occurs when the narrator returns with his new friend to her childhood home in the Araluen Valley in New South Wales. Here, in a finely evoked poetry of place the artist achieves a consummation through art, and imagines himself for the first time in a place of belonging. Through a deft use of parallel images and intersecting motifs, Miller's fourth novel explores afresh his preoccupations with place, community, and individual identity.

Very much the same could be said of Conditions of Faith, for which Miller drew part of his inspiration from a journal of his mother's that he discovered after her death. In it, she described a sojourn in Paris during the 1920s, and this Miller translated into the tale of Emily, an Australian who marries a Franco-Scottish engineer named Georges. Emily has the sensibilities of a Madame Bovary, and when she discovers just how dull and conventional a life Georges (who is ten years her senior) leads in Paris, she determines to find adventure. The result is an affair and an unwanted child, and Emily pushes herself beyond the frontiers of all emotional comfort to satisfy her longings. Her journey takes her as far as the ruins of Carthage, a fitting symbol for frustrated ambition.

Bruce Bennett

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