The Australian Novel

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Divergence of theme and form: The novel after 1946

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The bush myth in Australian fiction did not simply vanish in the postwar period. Its champions fought hard to maintain its literary conventions. That is one reason Patrick White’s work gained only limited recognition at home until he received the Nobel Prize in 1973. In a 1958 essay, “The Prodigal Son,” published in Australian Letters—a rebellious journal determined to promote cultural modernism—White called Australian critics “dingoeshowling unmercifully” and expressed his desire to prove the Australian novel as “not necessarily the dreary dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism.”

Although most of White’s twelve novels are set in Australia, he handled the inherited materials in new ways by turning away from the realistic form of Australian fiction and moving into metaphysical realms. His first postwar novel, The Tree of Man (1955), unfolds the lives of an ordinary Australian farm couple, but at the same time it probes the possibilities of their inner being. On one level, the book consolidates the elements of the bush heritage—the tyrannies of nature, such as drought, bushfires, dust, and floods, along with the patience and understated valor of the pioneer. At the same time, the narrative undermines these conventions, reversing them to explore the visionary’s longing. The same could be said of Voss (1957), which inverts the myth of heroism as it traces the Australian desert explorations of Voss, whose tortured journey evolves into a metaphysical one. White continued to give new meaning to sanctioned Australian materials in novel after novel, a practice that culminates in A Fringe of Leaves (1976), which retells an Australian legend of a woman captured by Aborigines. In this version an escaped convict rescues her. On the surface, the narrative resembles a classic bush romance, but in truth it deals with the deeper understanding its heroine gains through her trials. White’s style, especially his tortured syntax, is inseparable from what is being said. In all respects, White opened up fresh possibilities for a fiction once characterized by stark realism.

While only a handful of Australian critics recognized the impact these novels would have on their literature, many emerging writers realized that they were no longer required to “write Australian,” as Michael Wilding (born 1942) described the demands of the bush tradition. Wilding, Frank Moorhouse (born 1938), and Murray Bail (born 1941) write in an experimental fashion far exceeding White and base their work on the urban experience. Another writer, Thea Astley (1925-2004), said in an interview that no Australian novelist who picked up a pen after White began writing could escape his influence. Publishing her first novel in 1958, Astley remained faithful to the Australian stock-in-trade and to the landscape. Yet she employed these familiar rudiments to place her characters in a position to seek and possibly to find what she called the spiritual “center,” a theme that dominates her work. Like White, she forsakes the cheerful bushmen and long-suffering pioneer women for what she called “misfits,” those who confront an often bitter vision as they exorcise what Astley describes as the “sore fruit of their souls.”

Even after White’s death in 1990, some writers and critics complained that he continued to dominate Australian fiction like a colossus under whose shadow novelists must work. That is an exaggeration. Although his massive achievement will endure and remain a landmark in the Australian novel—and in the world novel in English—he freed novelists from the demand that they “write Australian.” As a result, Australian fiction flourishes. Australian novelists are published abroad; their books are well reviewed and are honored with international awards. Two writers in particular, Peter Carey and David Malouf, deserve special notice.

Carey writes mainly about Australia, and his work is distinguished by wit, flights of imagination,...

(The entire section is 1,772 words.)