Distinctly Australian

27 January 2022
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An Australian ‘Canon within a Canon’ is problematic yet essential for appreciating the classics and recognising new ones, writes literary critic PETER CRAVEN.

The word canon can be a ticklish point for anyone who has spent his life preoccupied with writing and its postulated transfiguration into something called literature. The term canon—with its derivation from the essential and defining part of the Catholic mass—gains currency just at the point when the concept which underlies it is under maximum threat and subject to most stress.

Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon was the grand and massively influential attempt to defend the great works of literature from various forms of relativism and deconstruction that seemed to threaten them, but in the background of his work were shadows and ambiguities.

In the previous decades, the movement towards evaluation associated with the Cambridge critic FR Leavis took the form of establishing, as it were, a true canon within an apparent canon. Leavis had his ‘Great Tradition’ where great fiction consisted of Jane Austen, the early and middle Henry James (though not the late James), Conrad, and DH Lawrence. Among the poets, Leavis and his disciples liked Shakespeare—especially in dark and complex works like Measure for Measure–Donne and the Metaphysicals but not Milton, although Leavis thought he displayed a kind of parliamentary magnificence of rhetoric (he was less forgiving than Dr Johnson, who said Milton “writ no language”). He had a place for Keats, but not for Shelley. He thought TS Eliot was the great poet of the age, but had reservations about Yeats and admired early Pound but not late. Unlike his eminent wife Queenie, he was inclined to think Dickens, except in Hard Times, was a mere entertainer.

On the other hand, he thought Gerard Manley Hopkins—that rhapsodic and tormented Jesuit who anticipated a modernism he transcended—was the greatest of the Victorian poets (which he probably is). For Hopkins, it was all to the glory of God:

What are works of art for? to educate, to be standards. To produce is of little use unless what we produce is known, is widely known, the wider known the better, for it is by being known that it works, it influences, it does its duty, it does good.

But let’s not beat about the bush. Leavis was a great critic and what he created was something like a Calvinist canon. What is his relevance to this admirable IPA endeavour to write a list of artistic works worth poking a stick at? Well, when Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne sent the budding poet-critic (and son of a farm labourer) Vincent Buckley (1925-1988) to study at Cambridge, he studied under Leavis. Buckley in turn was one of the pioneers—with Dame Leonie Kramer (later an IPA Senior Fellow), GA Wilkes, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe—of the study of Australian literature. When SL Goldberg, the noted critic of Joyce, established English departments first in Sydney, then in Melbourne, his empire was ruled under the standard of Leavis.

An Australian canon is in that purist sense, an oxymoron.

It is worth adding perhaps, that when Sam Goldberg was putting together his empire of adherents he asked Leavis who to get and Leavis said, “The best critic I know is a priest and the headmaster of a Catholic boys school in Queensland.” So began the academic career of Tim Kelly, an academic almost by decree at the age of 40. He influenced for the better a generation or two of students and used to tell the story of a Goldberg lecture at the University of Melbourne interrupted by a fully gowned and superbly erect undergraduate coming into the public lecture theatre and circumnavigating it with stately expressionlessness, bearing a placard that proclaimed ‘Down With Seriousness!’

On the other hand, Germaine Greer said one of the privileges of her life was to be taught by as great a teacher as Goldberg.

But let’s put our cards on the table. Anyone who has edited and scribbled criticism is likely to have had trouble with canons. At Scripsi, the literary journal I established with Michael Heyward, we had a professional typist who was once asked to transcribe the great English critic Frank Kermode’s jottings in which he was complaining about “Black canons, women’s canons, black women’s canons”. Alas, this woman, not schooled in these matters, typed, “Black canoes, women’s canoes, black women’s canoes”. And thus the great man, who had accepted a knighthood, and had been the King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge, read this version which went to him unchecked over the South China Sea and thought he had fallen into the hands of Australian idiots.

We did publish the essay, ‘Limits of Theory’, in which Kermode—who had thought Derrida’s On Grammatology was the most important work to come out of France since Sartre’s Being and Nothingness—nevertheless spat the dummy about what went wrong with theory. He said:

This is an age of theory, and theory is both difficult and usually not related to anything that meets the wider interest I speak of.

All of this is said by way of preamble because these matters get a bit complex and contested for people to whom literature is a lifeblood and not a pastime. Goldberg only wrote once about Australian literature, on the poetry of AD Hope (see Australia, in the IPA’s Canon). Buckley, in many ways his embattled nemesis, did quite a bit of it, hand-in-hand with Chris Wallace-Crabbe. And Leonie Kramer in Sydney made it her own, in her own way—at one point defeating the poet, Les Murray, when he tried to stop her teaching his work.

But the Kermode note of exasperation was triggered precisely by a breakdown of the ‘big’ Canon into sectionalised or ‘little’ canons, with different sections rowing their canoes, as it were. An Australian canon is in that purist sense, an oxymoron. If you believe, with TS Eliot, that literature is a timeless order modified by every subsequent work of literature—an utterly coherent position for all the philosophical idealism of its underlay—then Australianism will be a secondary matter. Does that matter? Not in the least. One of the brighter moves in the Melbourne English department in the 1980s was when the late Peter Pierce—a man who had literally read (as almost nobody else had) thousands of Australian novels—taught a course called Australian and American, which meant bright young sparks who wanted to dream their way into Wallace Stevens or puzzle their way through Faulkner had to attend to Hope and McAuley and Slessor, to Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood and Les Murray.

A canon starts its life as a list.

Does this mean Hope was as significant a writer as William Carlos Williams? No. Did this matter in a national context and in terms of a particular university’s syllabus? Not at all. Monash proved otherwise with people such as Brenda Niall and Elaine Barry teaching Patrick White’s Voss alongside Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to innumerable first-year students.

As Hugh Kenner said once, a canon starts its life as a list and it is cheering to see Scott Hargreaves lead with his chin and provide a cultural list of desirables in the way he has. Will the artistic expression this land has seen illuminate this land? Of course it will. Just at the moment Claudia Karvan has been burbling away about books on an ABC show about the subject which has snippets of Helen Garner and Hilary McPhee and the wonderfully funny and self-possessed indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko talking about books and with extracts from bits of films in a way that is analogous to the list Hargreaves has put together. In it Trent Dalton—whose Boy Swallows Universe conquered the nation in popular and critical terms—says, ‘If you want to know what life was like in the 1940s you don’t go to the history books, you go to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.’ Well, perhaps you go to both, but in an important sense, Dalton is right. From Cloudstreet:

Dogs get howling all down the way. Somewhere a bicycle bell rings. Somewhere else there’s a war on. Somewhere else people turn to shadows and powder in an instant and the streets turn to funnels and light in the sky with their burning. Somewhere a war is over.

Tim Winton's Cloudstreet Poster

How ever the Elizabethans thought and talked and felt, it’s there in Shakespeare. And when we read Tim Winton’s masterpiece, we are aware of a world of enchantments and at the same time deep griefs and of their juxtaposition in a way we know is ‘true’. It has the unmistakable depth of art, which is a symbolic form of truth—even though this is only possible through artifice.

This is true of whatever kind of enduring art of storytelling or memorable shaping of words we can take in or be haunted by.

Only Australia could produce a classic shaggy dog story with an opening like Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. It was Vincent Buckley’s favourite among the old-time yarnsters, even though his acolyte Chris Wallace-Crabbe quipped that no one should have to read it the first time. “Unemployed at last.” Doesn’t that touch something at the very heart of this nation of bludgers and workers? It’s the ‘Call me Ishmael’ of Australian literature. It has its own associative links with the fact that beyond the heroics of Advance Australia Fair—nothing wrong with that one for the big brass band—there’s the haunting national song Waltzing Matilda which then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, wanted adopted as the national anthem, when that was the subject of a national plebiscite in 1977.

Think of the swagman with his jolly jumbuck, the troopers one two three, his cry of ‘You’ll never catch me alive’—and the way ‘his ghost may be heard’. When Stanley Kramer filmed On The Beach in Melbourne in 1959—and the story goes, apocryphally, but who could resist it, that Ava Gardner said it was the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world—Waltzing Matilda is played with increasing plangency and poignancy and hushed grandeur as the end draws nigh. There’s also The Wild Colonial Boy which makes it to the list, and which irresistibly brings to mind that passage about this stirring but also poignant ballad in Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore—surely one of the greatest works of imaginative recapitulation this country has witnessed. Hughes said that the finest version of The Wild Colonial Boy he ever heard was not from an upstanding bloke by a piano, but rather:

The most piercing (version) this writer has heard was not recorded: It was sung by a fat, seamed old Sydney prostitute, buoyed up by a few too many glasses of sweet port, in a pub on the Woolloomooloo docks late one night in 1958—not in the rollicking front-room way of men, but as the off-key dirge of a mother grieving for her dead son.

We need to treasure these perspectives and they belong to everyone who calls Australia home, even if they arrived five minutes ago from Kabul.

There is still the land and its history. Yes, we need the great Aboriginal song cycles. Les Murray, who in the Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle borrowed extensively from indigenous song traditions, had when he died a higher reputation than any Australian poet had ever enjoyed. Both Frank Kermode and the eminent Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye said he could do anything with rhythm in a poem.

That Kipling was a greater balladmonger than Paterson doesn’t matter.

Robert Hughes’s book is a reminder of the convict inheritance, and what bloodier and more spectacular expression could it have than Marcus Clarke’s The Term of His Natural Life. (Interestingly, prior to emigration/exile to Australia, Clarke went to school with—and was beaten with—the aforementioned Gerard Manley Hopkins.) We need to remember it as we do Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. And if we need the jog in the direction of the woman who described herself in her London days as “cooeeing along The Strand”, there is not only the film with Judy Davis directed by Gillian Armstrong but the recent reworking, My Career, by Kendall Feaver, the brilliant young playwright who rejigged it for that remarkable actress, Nikki Shiels.

The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson is a remarkable story by any standards—not just national ones—and it belongs with the very greatest Lawson: with The Bush Undertaker and The Union Buries Its Dead, titles which stir the embers in the national parts of everyone’s consciousness. Murray Bail’s riposte to Lawson’s poem (and the later painting) is also worth including in its own right:

There has perhaps been a mistake—but of not great importance—made in the denomination of this picture. The woman depicted is not The Drover’s Wife. She is my wife. We have not seen each other now… it must be getting on thirty years. This portrait was painted shortly after she left—and had joined him. Notice she has very conveniently hidden her wedding hand. It is a canvas 20 x 24 inches, signed ‘Russell Drysdale’… Fancy coming across her in a painting, one reproduced in colour at that. I suppose in a way that makes Hazel famous.

My own generation can still quote Clancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River. It doesn’t matter that Kipling was a greater balladmonger than Paterson, because Paterson remains brilliantly adept at it:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,

He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just ‘on spec’, addressed as follows, “Clancy, of The Overflow”.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,

(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)

Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”

It’s not for nothing Gideon Haigh quotes him in his recent book about the ambiguities of ‘The Office”; we simply adore Clancy of the Overflow because of who and where we are:

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,

Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal—

But I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of “The Overflow”.

That’s wonderfully adept and so is the swipe at “the gutter children fighting, and their language uninviting”. When it comes to modern Australian novels it is good to see the IPA’s Canon includes both The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson (the nom de plume of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson). Germaine Greer argued convincingly that it’s the small, less ambitious book that’s the greater novel, and she wrote this staggering sentence about it:

Sexual tension tightens every page of The Getting of Wisdom, if not as subtly as it does every page of a novel by Jane Austen, yet with a stimulating degree of restraint.

She says Mahony had the misfortune to exploit the full flower of the convention of naturalism at the moment when naturalism died, though she agrees it has some wonderful writing. The Text Classics introduction I wrote makes high claims for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and for the power and credibility of the hero’s decline and imagines how differently we might view it, if it had been filmed by, say, David Lean. A usage of supposedly outworn conventions is sometimes a re-animation of them.

Henry Handel Richardson’s epic is certainly an influence on Patrick White, and the IPA including Patrick White’s Voss on its list is good to see. Voss confounded us when we were kids who nourished a ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ attitude to Australian writing. The upshot was to feel like the idiotic cynic in John’s Gospel. There is a case for saying “the great Australian novels by which I mean Patrick White and Patrick White and Patrick White”. After Patrick White met Manoly Lascaris, he started to look, as David Marr suggests in his pretty magnificent biography (also in the IPA’s Canon), like an indomitable Australian pastoralist. He also wrote nothing but masterpieces from the time of The Aunt’s Story in 1947 to The Twyborn Affair in 1979.

The fact we ignore Patrick White now is a national disgrace.

White is an extraordinary writer: not the peer of Joyce or Proust, but on par with Faulkner or Beckett or Nabokov. The fact we ignore him now is a national disgrace. He should be on every school and university syllabus in the land. It is also worth bearing in mind that Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children––a book Susan Sontag who had read everything had read, although she hadn’t read White in 1991––is equal to the finest Patrick White.

It is good to see the IPA plumping for Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip––a less tidy book than the flawless novella The Children’s Bach, but with a tremendous heart which brilliantly captures the time and the place of inner-city Melbourne in the far off 1970s. Johnno by David Malouf is also a book that recreates a world and an unforgettable character, and has a wonderful perspective trick in its narrator.

‘When I think of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip I think of blinding sunlight and suburban swimming pools. Is there an Australian who doesn’t know the particular tough pleasure of lying on a threadbare towel on concrete, nestling your pliant young body into that hard, baking warmth?’
– Charlotte Wood, introduction to the Text Publishing edition.

Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is the best introduction to his work and it’s marvellous that Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett agreed to film it just before they became so famous that they might not have been able to. And think of the films of books: Fred Schepisi’s film of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Tony Ayres’ wonderful enrichment of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. There is so much to come to grips with. Clive James’ wonderful Unreliable Memoirs and who could forget Conder or Fred Williams, or Brett Whiteley and that extraordinary icon, Sydney Nolan’s Ned Kelly?

Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, and Gillian Armstrong, Oscar and Lucinda, 1997.

You can have failed to read Seven Little Australians and still hear the stern boom of Leonard Teale as the pater familias in the seventies TV version of that old-time book of family life. Teale, who also played a Detective on the Crawford Productions classic, Homicide, had one of those old-style Aussie voices, Sydney and varnished, who could read Banjo Paterson and Lawson and CJ Dennis to the manner born. His recitals are on YouTube and they glow with the very tincture of Australian life.

But the ground is always moving with canons. Many years ago, when Northrop Frye published The Anatomy of Criticism, he argued that the pursuit of value was not an end itself: we had the classic works and what we needed was simply to contemplate the structures and qualities they exhibited. This seemed fine but maybe it did not allow sufficiently for the breakthrough books which modified all the previous works of literature. The upshot of Frye’s critique of value was ultimately to open the way to relativism.

Sometimes that can be liberating—Frye is right that everyone sometimes enjoys trash—but it might lead to throwing the baby out with the bathwater if it meant we failed to acknowledge the classics we know or to recognise the new ones when they appear.

But these are things the IPA’s attempt to come to grips with an Australian Canon can help us iron out.

The IPA published its Australian Canon in the Spring 2021 edition of the IPA Review. It was produced at part of The Genius of Australia project, housed within the IPA’s research Centre for the Australian Way of Life. More information can be found at www.australia.ipa.org.au

This article from the Summer 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by literary critic Peter Craven.

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