The Complete Stories
Pantheon: 508 pp., $27.50
AMONG the collected letters of Patrick White, the sole Australian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, is a 1977 note to the editorial director of the Viking Press. “There’s an Australian writer at last who I think has it,” White wrote. “His name is David Malouf, his origins mostly Lebanese, part London-Jewish. He was born and grew up in Queensland. He is a poet, who wrote a kind of autobiographical novel called ‘Johnno,’ which to me is one of the best books about Australia. He has now written another very imaginative novel based on Ovid in exile. It will not be the big money-spinner, but it is literature and perhaps Viking can still afford that.”
The latter novel White alludes to is “An Imaginary Life,” in which Malouf’s Ovid announces, “What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become.” And that is what life has been like for the dozens of characters Malouf has spun out since. White’s enthusiasm grew so high that in the early 1980s he wrote the Nobel committee directly to suggest Malouf for its award and told others, such as fellow Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, that “some of David’s short stories are amongst the Great Short Stories of the World (at least two).”
Whether or not one agrees with White’s judgment, it is clear from the string of novels that ensued -- including “The Great World,” “Remembering Babylon” and “The Conversations at Curlow Creek” -- and the story collections “Dream Stuff” and “Antipodes” that a writer of enormous seriousness and compassion has been laboring in the harsh sunlight of that nation-continent for a generation. Malouf may not be as well known in America as his countrymen Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally, but the release of his “Complete Stories” brilliantly illustrates his range and the adhesive quality of his prose and characters, which stick in the mind as if, as one of his characters puts it, nothing is to be forgotten: “Not a soul. Not a pin.”
Malouf is a realist, whose work often orients itself tightly within the immediacy of the physical surround and the experience of life as bodily driven, and yet his characters are also apt to slip toward the otherworldly -- experiencing a transcendent moment amid the prosaic -- at the pop of a neuron. They stand in awe of a world that is infinitely mutable and nearly inscrutable as well, pondering their place in it and wondering where their better self went -- or might be found to begin with.
Is life individual and fixed, as a former POW of the Japanese thinks grimly in “The Great World”? Perhaps “there is no other life to be broken through to. It’s all continuous, and you just keep getting thicker and thicker and heavier and heavier as it builds up in you, and that’s it.” Or perhaps life is, as his fellow ex-POW believes, more capacious and communal: “Chance, life, fate -- whatever it was -- chose for you, connecting and binding you into the pattern of other people’s lives, and making that at last the pattern of your own.”
That debate, in varied form, suffuses Malouf’s work: the possibility of metamorphosis; the tension between the will and the world, and between the seen and the unseen; the question of what can be divined with so much left unsaid. In “Elsewhere,” one of the most touching stories in this new collection, Andy Mayo accompanies his father-in-law, Harry, to the funeral of the latter’s estranged daughter -- mostly (and to Andy’s own shame) for a chance to see Sydney (“the Big Smoke”). Virtually nothing is said as the two go their separate ways in the boozy, musical din of the post-funeral gathering, until the drive home, when Harry suddenly blurts out, “She was such a bright little thing. You wouldn’t credit.” Andy swallows: “This was it. A single bald statement breaking surface out of the stream of thought Harry was adrift in -- which was all, Andy thought, he might ever hear.”
Such moments of aridity amid the dampened desire for so much more are staples of Malouf’s stories. The narrator of “The Valley of Lagoons,” the leadoff tale in “The Complete Stories,” cautions the reader that the episode he will relate is “sacred in a way” though it would not be so described by its participants, for “that side of things you had to catch at a glance as you looked away. From the slight, almost imperceptible warping upwards of a deliberately flattened voice.” As a young man, the narrator accompanies his friends on a boar hunt, in a time-hallowed rite of passage. It is a story somewhat redolent of Hemingway, but intensified by a self-inflicted wounding, and shows off Malouf’s penchant for fusing the natural and perceptual worlds. The narrator walks into swampy ground, a “great continent of sound.” His arrival displaces the air “in its close-woven fabric of light, sound, stilled or moving shadow” and confuses “the tiny signals that were being picked up and translated out there by a myriad of forms of alien intelligence. I was central to it but I was also nothing, or close to nothing.”
“The Valley of Lagoons” is, in many respects, about leaving childhood, but that act is a provisional one for many Malouf characters -- just as often, they are trying to recover something from their youth or reconnect with the person they were then. In “Great Day,” which centers on the gathering of a large clan to celebrate the birthday of its patriarch, a former government minister named Audley Tyler, the honoree takes off on his own, to an experience “like re-entering one of the abandoned spaces of his childhood, which had miraculously survived or been resurrected, but with different dimensions now and with all its furnishings rearranged.” In “Mrs. Porter and the Rock,” Mrs. Porter, whose son has dragged her out to look at Ayers Rock, ignores the scenery and instead lapses into reveries of childhood that include finding a dying dorado on a beach. “Mauve, pink, a yellowish pale green, they have never seen anything like it. Slow fireworks. As if
the big fish was trying to reveal to them some vision of what it was and where it had come from, a lost secret they were meant to remember and pass on.”
Near the end of “The Valley of Lagoons,” the narrator, enamored by the geography of the wild, tells us: "[F]or me there could be no final leaving. This greenish light, full and luminous, always with a heaviness in it that was a reminder of the underlying dark -- like the persistent memory, under even the most open of cleared land, of the dankness of rainforests -- was for me the light by which all moments of expectation and high feeling would in my mind for ever be touched. This was the country I would go on dreaming in, wherever I lay my head.”
This confluence of dream and landscape is also characteristic of Malouf. Many stories use Brisbane, where Malouf grew up, as a touchstone, but the evocation varies from nostalgia for the countryside to an aching sense of being trapped in a backwater. In “At Schindler’s,” in which a boy’s mother takes up with an American serviceman while his father is off at war, movie posters attest to “the existence of another world, of such modernity, such intensified energy and speed, of danger too, that their local one of weatherboard houses and bakers’ carts, unweeded pavements, and trams that filled the night sky with electric sparks, seemed by comparison flimsy and becalmed.” Then there’s “Jacko’s Reach,” in which 4 1/2 acres of scrub are to become “a new shopping mall, with a skateboard ramp for young daredevils, two floodlit courts for night tennis and, on the river side, a Heritage Walk laid out with native hybrids.” The story becomes one of eradicating the wild, eliminating “a pocket of the dark unmanageable, that troubles the sleep of citizens by offering a point of re-entry to memories they have no more use for -- unruly and unsettling dreams” of derelicts drinking cheap wine, feral cats, illegally dumped garbage and “the few local Aborigines who claim an affinity with the place that may or may not be mystical.”
While several long stories have arcs suggestive of novelistic aspirations, as if they were outtakes, here and there in the collection are brief sketches that turn on philosophical or metaphysical points. “In Trust,” for example, begins with simple objects from daily life -- “knives, combs, coins, cups, razors” -- and their migration through history to museum settings, in which they attain uniqueness, “as with the breath of a purer world,” and we see them “in a changed aspect of time.” Then the author pivots, to announce that "[o]ur world too seems vividly, unbearably present, yet mysteriously far off.” Malouf’s light touch lends an enfolding sense, which allows for consistent surprise -- the sudden veering of vectors, common to his stories -- without resort to literary gimmickry.
“The stories we tell betray us, they become our own,” he writes in “A Traveller’s Tale,” in which a state emissary for the arts finds himself faced by a woman who tells him a preposterous story about her heritage that just might be true. “Is this how the great tests present themselves to us? At ten thirty in the morning, in a country kitchen, in a place like Karingai?” he wonders.
Well, yes -- in Malouf’s world at least. In “Blacksoil Country,” a boy sees his father shoot an Aborigine: It was as if his father “had just hit on a new way of being inside his own skin,” the boy thinks, “and from now on that was the way he would live, and I was the first, the very first, to get a glimpse of it.”
All these tales could be said to render whatever is psychologically “Down Under.” This is physically represented as well in “Dream Stuff,” the title story of that earlier collection: A boy crawls into an enclosed space, the “under-the-house,” to hold a dying dog -- it is his earliest memory. Again, Malouf’s concerns filter in like slatted sunlight: “the body and its hot affinities,” a yearning to speak of feeling “as fresh and real in him as it had ever been,” an effort to recover “some defining image of his father,” the city that was “out there somewhere, but out of sight, underground,” “a stretch of time where before and after had no meaning.”
It is a character in “Great Day,” Clem, who may hint at Malouf’s aims most concisely. In a coma for months following an auto accident, Clem has taken two years to recover his speech and still isn’t quite right. Others bear him with patience -- he is apt to say anything -- and he asks to give a speech to the collected celebrants. In it, he describes a receiver in space that hears every heartbeat on Earth, and he wishes -- believes -- that if everyone “concentrated hard enough, really concentrated, we could hear it too, all of it, the whole sound coming towards us, all of it.” Whether under the house or far afield from his Antipodean settings, Malouf, it would seem, has been all ears. •