David Malouf Essay - Critical Essays


Many reviewers have commented on the finely honed language and the delicately etched descriptive passages that have distinguished David Malouf’s important works. Often, affinities have been found between his poetry and prose writing, which possess similar lyrical traits. Certain thematic concerns—such as the effects of history, time, and memory, and the distinctive cultural position of Australia with respect to other nations—have also received comment. On the other hand, some readers have regarded Malouf’s prose as somewhat coy and elusive, as hinting at meanings that are sometimes obscure or incompletely developed; indeed, some of hisnarrative works are told through highly oblique means and finish on rather inconclusive notes. In this view, Malouf’s achievements in long fiction must be weighed against structural problems to the extent that the manner of his narration at times has threatened to overshadow the stories he has chosen to recount.

Malouf has received increasing critical attention over the course of his career, much of which has been concerned primarily with the unity of his fiction and poetry. His works testify to his defined and preserved individual identity, focused through humanist values in terms of language, mapping, art, and imagination.


Malouf’s first novel, Johnno, is a haunting and evocative depiction of youth and friendship in Australia and abroad during World War II. The narrator, Dante, an outwardly decent and somewhat impressionable young man, has become intrigued with the wayward habits of Johnno, a fatherless boy who possesses a strange, attractive charm. Although Johnno’s propensity for drinking and revelry has a darkly appealing side to it, Dante is unable quite to enter into the spirit of his companion’s conduct, and later he becomes somewhat more suspicious and withdrawn from his friend. After some travels that bring them together in Paris, Dante returns home and learns that Johnno has drowned under circumstances that suggest suicide. He learns later, from a note that his friend has written, that Johnno indeed intended to take his own life, partly because he came to regard Dante as unsympathetic and uncaring. This early novel introduces a theme that preoccupies Malouf: the way oppositional forces within individuals function and the manner in which these forces determine human behavior.

An Imaginary Life

Although much of Malouf’s writing has dealt with settings and historical periods that have had some significance in his own life, An Imaginary Life aroused interest precisely because it represents a venture into an area that is remote in time and is all but unknown to historians and literary scholars. The famous Roman poet Ovid was sent into exile to an isolated outpost on the Black Sea in the year 8 c.e.; the reasons for his banishment remain somewhat unclear. Apart from what can be gathered from his epistles in verse, the Tristia (after 8 c.e.; Sorrows, 1859), which pleaded for his release, essentially nothing is known about the final decade of his life. From this point of departure, Malouf commenced with his own version of Ovid’s last years, into which he also incorporated material from an account of the eighteenth century “wild child” of Aveyron.

The story is told in stark, spare, measured prose, and indeed the setting in which the fictional Ovid finds himself seems gloomy and desolate. His existence among the people of a small, primitive village would appear at the outset to be drab and monotonous, but after a while he has come to regard his life in exile with something more than resignation. As Malouf portrays the classical poet, Ovid feels the stirrings of new life even as he has become accustomed to surroundings that have little in common with the metropolis of imperial Rome. He regards himself as thrown back upon the most elemental and rudimentary sensations, when the most ordinary objects of the natural world arouse in him a wonderment that he has not felt before. Time and change seem recast as they operate in a fashion much different from what he knew before; with only the most basic temporal points of reference, he finds it difficult to keep track of passing days, and only transitions in the seasons serve to remind him that years have passed during the period of his banishment.

When the villagers, who are accustomed to hunting wild animals in the open fields, bring in a small boy they have captured, Ovid takes an immediate interest in the child’s welfare and for that matter believes that, though the boy may appear backward and inarticulate, the poet himself still may learn from the gradual development of his speech and manual skills. His affection reflects in some form memories of his own childhood; indeed, so captivated does he become by the boy’s companionship that he ceases hoping for a return to Rome and becomes reconciled to his fate. Nevertheless, the villagers, who follow a form of shamanism and believe that malevolent spirits are constantly lurking about them, are not quite so tolerant of the boy from the wild; when it is thought that the child is responsible for a mysterious illness that afflicts the local headman, Ovid concludes that he and the boy must leave the family with which they have been staying and venture off into the trackless steppes to the north. His story ends in the open spaces, where, far from other human habitations but without regrets or unhappiness, he and the child have found safety.

An Imaginary Life attracted much favorable comment for its originality in supplying what was possibly a plausible ending in fictional form to what otherwise was a sizable lacuna in the literary history of classical times. Some have objected, however, that Malouf’s depiction of Ovid is at odds with what is actually known about the earlier life of the Roman poet; Ovid, after all, made a name for himself in Rome for the elegance, wit, and virtuosity of his verse works, and to portray him as accepting a simpler and more austere way of life arguably is out of character with the historical figure.

Child’s Play

Malouf uses a contemporary Italian setting in his short novel Child’s Play, which deals with a young man who believes that his chosen calling deserves a better term than what the newspapers call “terrorism.” The novel reconstructs, ostensibly from the inside, a hired gunman’s characteristic mode of operation, and indeed the narrator’s story of preparations for a planned assassination is gripping and engrossing in an eerie, offbeat way. This curiously sympathetic evocation of the mind of a terrorist—moreover, one who takes a distinctly impersonal view of his work (the narrator is moved by no sense of political commitment)—may be taken perhaps as an oblique commentary on violent acts that seemingly defy specific explanation.

The narrator, who maintains that for security reasons he must be reticent about his own past life and identity, nevertheless is willing to provide some glimpses of the inner operations of his group. His planned victim is a venerable literary man, about eighty years old. As part of his assignment, the narrator has learned much about the...

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