David Malouf Malouf, David (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Malouf 1934–

Australian novelist, poet, and short story writer.

Malouf first gained attention for his poetry but has since developed a reputation as a novelist of considerable talent. His work, much of which is set in Australia, is often concerned with the relation of the past to the present and with the human desire to live in harmony with nature. Malouf's fiction and poetry are often marked by memories of childhood and are full of concrete, vivid descriptions of the natural world. Malouf is also intensely interested in the subject of individuals in search of their "hidden," or true, selves. His first novel, Johnno (1977), portrays the spiritual growth and coming of age of two young men who have been friends since childhood. In the novel An Imaginary Life (1978), which has been described as a long prose poem, Malouf speculates on how the Roman poet Ovid might have come to terms with himself and nature during his exile to a village on the Black Sea.

Malouf's poetry, which has not received the critical interest accorded his prose, reflects his belief that "poems are acts of reconciliation." In his verse, Malouf seeks to join the past and the present, the real and the imagined, and the individual with others and with life itself. In spite of mixed opinions as to how well Malouf succeeds, critics admire his ability to capture the beauty and mystique of nature and are pleased by his wit. First Things Last (1981), Malouf's recent collection of poetry, has received a generally favorable critical response. This volume shares with Malouf's other collections and novels an attentiveness to detail and finely drawn, elaborate backgrounds.

Helen Daniel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] narrative line in Johnno wavers between Johnno and Dante, uncertain of its direction, and by sometimes leaping across periods of several years that seem to have worked significant changes in Johnno or Dante, fails to sustain the development of either as a wholly convincing character. (p. 192)

In Johnno, the narrator is at times observer, duly recording the activities of the observed with the detachment this implies; he is at times directly engaged with Johnno so that their interaction is foremost; at other times Dante seems almost the central figure in whose experience Johnno is a striking but only periodic element. The uncertainty reflected in these different impulses works against the vigour often felt in the portrayal of Johnno himself, particularly in the sections of the novel set in Europe. Malouf does suggest the expatriate search for meaning against what Johnno and Dante both conceive as a stifling and narrow Brisbane, but this period in their lives is broken into isolated sequences and the pace slows. Dante reports increasing bitterness in Johnno, a more aimless and dissolute life, a forced quality to his exuberance…. The nature of the change is not fully realized because there are only glimpses of Johnno during this period, the narrative seeming more attentive to Dante here. (pp. 193-94)

The novel somewhat unsteadily moves towards Johnno's death, through Dante's musing on conventional married...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"How close to where I live lie the ultimate ends of the earth," Ovid wrote from Tomis, the semisavage Black Sea village to which he had been exiled by Augustus in A.D. 8. History is silent about the reason for the sudden banishment from Rome of its wittiest, gayest poet, last of the generation that included Virgil, Horace and Propertius. Ovid himself thought he was being punished for his writing. "My only fault is that I possess both talent and taste," he claimed in the "Tristia," a long, half-defiant, half-abject poem that he thought would somehow win him imperial forgiveness (it did not; he died in exile sometime after A.D. 16) and that gives a vivid picture of the many miseries of life in Tomis. (p. 10)

From this meager historical background the Australian poet David Malouf has fashioned an extraordinary novel. "An Imaginary Life" is just that: a kind of fantasia on what Ovid's life in exile might have been and, as time went by, become, as the quintessentially civilized man of letters was forced to come to terms with a harsh, pre-rational, thoroughly alien world.

To Mr. Malouf's Ovid, newly arrived from Rome, Tomis is raw nature, primeval mud and stone and brackish water: "Even the higher orders of the vegetable kingdom have not yet arrived among us. We are centuries from the notion of an orchard or a garden made simply to please." Yet as he learns the native language, he comes to see that his hosts have, after all, their wisdom—hunting rituals, the visions of the shaman, the secret magic practiced by the women…. His exile becomes a quest for his real self, lost years ago when he put his own childhood behind him and entered what he now sees as a frivolous and superficial existence.

In that long-ago childhood, Ovid had a friend, a wild child who lived in the forest and who in later years came to seem like a...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Kate Eldred

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Lucretius was Rome's philosophical poet, and Virgil her chronicler of former glories, then Ovid was Rome's poet of decadence, the bad boy, extoller of carnal love, the avant-garde revolutionary of the last days of Glorious Rome. Not much is known for sure about his life beyond some bare facts….

In [An Imaginary Life], David Malouf, following in the foot-steps of Doctorow and Vidal and Meyer, has taken an historical figure and invented the missing part of his story. (p. 36)

[Malouf's novel] is a vehicle for expounding one of Ovid's favorite themes, transformation. Beginning with the poet's early journal of banishment, Malouf shows us the mind of a great wordsmith struck dumb in his surroundings trying to adjust to a new life. When he spots the child for the first time the poet recognizes something of himself in him, speechless, outcast, unacceptable; and in transforming the child to human. Ovid will effect his own transformation. Moreover, the poet is interested in his posthumous readers; he questions us rhetorically, asking if we have become gods by the time we read this, if we have harnessed the sun, taken the steps to transformation, stilled the elements.

There are two possible ways to read this book. One is from a position of total ignorance about Ovid, to read it as a daring and experimental novel, a novel that plays with the language and dazzles us with startling syntactical shifts and concatenations of adjectives that enrich our literate experience. And the other is from the position of a classical student, to come to it having read Ovid and knowing something of what he stood for and what the time was like.

If it's read as simply a lyrical dream novel, it has certain rewards; Malouf, an...

(The entire section is 733 words.)

Cecil Hadgraft

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If] you are committed to literature and have written poems, which are shorter and do not require the persistent physical effort—among other efforts—that a novel does, then it may seem that a novel is next in the natural order of things. But a saving sophistication makes you wary of the thinly veiled autobiography. A decent camouflage of interests and themes is advisable. Instead of yourself, an acquaintance may serve as a focus. And if he is in the novel, then you yourself are naturally, even necessarily, present as well, so that you may introduce him, accompany him, and possibly farewell him. A further device should add the last touch to the disguise: enclose it as it were in a frame. (p. 214)

You can even introduce an additional refinement. To underline the fact that it is the friend, not yourself, who is the main attraction, you note some inexplicable trifle that stresses the oddity of the friend. That, indeed, that was characteristic of him, it was part of the fascination that induced you, almost in despite, to take up a reluctant pen to tell his story. As David Malouf puts it in Johnno: "The book I always meant to write about Johnno will get written after all … he had me hooked. As he had, of course, from the beginning. I had been writing my book about Johnno from the moment we met."… To say we don't believe Malouf is to pay him a compliment, to enter the conspiracy, to join with him in the literary jape.

The jape, however, has taken charge of the author. Johnno, the narrator's friend, is to be the lure, distracting our attention while the author enters unnoticed. But a third contestant has slipped in and occupies at frequent intervals those parts of the stage where the spotlight rests. This intruder is Brisbane. It turns out to be the book's real concern, a background against which people move and things happen. It is brought before us by appeals to sight and hearing, touch and even smell: pubs and brothels, corners and alleys, the river and its banks, gardens and backyards, wooden walls and iron roofs—the whole range of dubious items that make up an old-fashioned entirety that as child and adolescent and young man the author carries off as indelible memories. In even greater particularity there are the individual details of rooms and their contents. Indeed, furniture and food have a special place. The most lyrical passage in the book, for instance,...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

John M. Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many of the poems in First Things Last … seem overwrought, as if Malouf were struggling to find forms in which to embody his lyricism. There is often a laboured quality to the rhetoric. 'Reading a View' is typical in this respect….

Most of the First Things Last poems deal with only those aspects of human life that reflect the natural world. A constant stream of intricate metaphor runs through this poetry, with an occasional triumph of the literal. This juxtaposition of the abstractly rhetorical with the sharply delineated detail gives the better poems their edge….

['The Crab Feast'] is a ten-page work in which the speaker digs away at what seems common to his own life and that of the crab. I find it a self-conscious poem, factitious in places. The opening, for instance, applies conventional sexual metaphors to the reality of the speaker's eating the crab. But the effect is merely bizarre….

Notwithstanding the weakness of this, the poem has fine moments….

'The Crab Feast' is an odd mixture of epicureanism (there being no doubt that the speaker plans to eat the crab that sits on a restaurant dinner plate as he addresses it), sharp summary imaging a whole society in landscape …, and a kind of abstract sentimentality where the speaker finds it too easy to see himself as a crab…. 'The Crab Feast' is an ambitious poem, and I may not have done it justice. Its failings, however, preclude it from being the finest in the volume….

[First Things Last is a significant work] by an author who blessedly evades categorisation. What often comes through … is a lyricism about the possibilities for human life when lived in the context of an animal natural earth. (p. 59)

John M. Wright, "David Malouf: Lyrical Epicurean," in Quadrant (reprinted by permission of Quadrant, Sydney, Australia), Vol. XXV, No. 12, December, 1981, pp. 58-9.

Fleur Adcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Malouf is a … mature poet, and … [an] accessible one; his long looping sentences twining over their line-endings need to be followed carefully, but he is no exhibitionist: the techniques he has learnt are subordinated to the poems themselves. He has a strong visual consciousness with a sense of joyful absorption in the natural world which makes the overworked word "celebration" irresistible. The first poem in [First Things Last] is about lemon trees gone wild, and the second about a garden: the image of Eden recurs throughout the book, as garden or as wilderness or as landscape remembered from the past (in a fine long poem, "Deception Bay", he reconstructs the surroundings of his childhood by a series...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

David Guy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The coupling of two so different novellas as ["Child's Play" and "The Bread of Time to Come"] seems peculiar at first: one concerns a young Australian's experiences just before and during the First World War; the other is an intensely inward first-person narration by a contemporary Italian terrorist. David Malouf, however, is a richly imagistic writer, philosophical and literary in the best sense; his terrorist is hardly the subject of a slick thriller. Though probably not written to do so, his stories do reflect and enrich one another by being together.

"The Bread of Time to Come" is the simpler and—at least for awhile—the quieter of the two. Ashley Crowther has returned to pre-World War I...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Surreally hard-edged, the world [the short novel, Child's Play, and the short stories, "Eustace" and "The Prowler," project] is one where details have a hallucinatory vividness and patterns stand out with stark clarity: only significance remains creepily opaque.

Like the dreams that regularly perturb their characters, the short novel and two stories gathered here are intensely enigmatic. Though geographically a world apart—Italy is the background to the novel, Australia to the stories—all three fictions cover the same imaginative ground. Whatever the ostensible setting, Malouf's locales invariably turn out to be disorientating mazes, full of echoing de Chirico perspectives and...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

James Tulip

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is good reason for believing that the Australian coastline region north from Newcastle to Brisbane is one of the choicest parts of the earth, indeed in a good season a Garden of Eden…. David Malouf in Fly Away Peter [published in the United States as The Bread of Time to Come] has … made one part of it his own. The South Coast of Queensland (or, as it is now known, the Gold Coast) is created in his novel of pre-World War I days as if it is a Paradise before the Fall, a world of harmony between nature and human nature. There is even an Adam and Eve. (p. 113)

The moment when [Jim Saddler and Imogen Harcourt] meet is a fine one. It is by accident. Separately, they each are...

(The entire section is 626 words.)