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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.
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[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 life and through Johnno's enigmatic explanation of his return to Australia…. Johnno's death is "aesthetically apt" and Dante's awareness of this overrides the subdued guilt he feels at having not cared enough for Johnno, not realized Johnno's need of him…. Johnno's baulking at the "narrow certainties" of an ordered, conventional world, his feeling of oppression and diminution, does not … emerge from an explicitly realized society that is scathingly exposed. The novel does rather focus on an attempt to distil a more meaningful existence, through fantasy. It establishes fantasy for Johnno as a defining of him and "Maybe,...
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Johnno himself is often a compelling figure, the portrayal of him lively and rich. When the narrative focuses on Dante, it seems to lose direction, to falter and create a kind of passivity in him. Dante's perception of the implications for him of a relationship found important in the past remain shadowy. In part, this uncertainty in the novel springs from the narrator's role that is both observer and participant, both confined to the narrator's own experience yet extended to the portrayal of Johnno himself. (p. 195)
Helen Daniel, "Narrator and Outsider in 'Trap' and 'Johnno'" (reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in Southerly, No. 2, June, 1977, pp. 184-95.∗
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"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 mysterious messenger, possibly even a god. Now, on a hunting trip he sees another wild boy, and persuades the men of Tomis, much against their better judgment, to capture him. As Ovid patiently attempts to humanize the child, it is really he who is changing, regaining his own early sense of oneness with nature. But the boy's wildness is a direct threat to the barbarians' precarious existence, and so the novel ends with the flight of the poet and the child across the Danube and into the grasslands that seem to stretch all the way to the Pole, lands upon which perhaps no human has ever set foot, and where, tenderly cared for by the child as he sinks toward death, Ovid has a final vision of the mystical union of man and the natural world.
Essentially, "An Imaginary Life" is a meditation on the dialectic between the human and the nonhuman, a subject that arises gracefully in connection with Ovid, whose central work, Mr. Malouf reminds us, was the "Metamorphoses." Mr. Malouf has many penetrating and even original things to say about what it means to be human—his notion that play and ornament are the essential characteristics of civilized life, for instance—so that when Ovid plants a flowerbed he is in a sense subverting the whole barbarian ethos. I must say I was sorry to have it all end in the standard modern wish to dissolve the self in blissed-out communion with the universe, and perhaps my resistance to Mr. Malouf's conclusions was what made me find the wild-child theme a bit forced; this story was already exotic enough. Moreover, Mr. Malouf's child strongly resembles the boy in François Truffaut's recent film, "L'Enfant Sauvage" (which is not surprising, because both are based on the same actual case, the 18th-century wild child of Aveyron), and thus seems from the outset oddly familiar. Certainly he is a much less compelling figure than Mr. Malouf's Ovid, whose complex Romanness is conveyed with great sensitivity.
All the same, David Malouf has produced a work of unusual intelligence and imagination, at once sensuous and quirky, full of surprising images and intriguing insights. Poets are sometimes said to write the best prose, and Mr. Malouf's is indeed fine: a spare yet evocative English that captures both the bleak monochromes of Tomis and the sunny humanized landscape of Ovid's remembered Italy, without ever losing the distinctive voice, now caustic, now dreamlike. In which Ovid tells his own story. (pp. 10-11)
Katha Pollitt, "Ovid and the Boys," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1978, pp. 10-11, 46.∗
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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 Australian poet, has a gift for phrases and an eye for the evocation of murky and mystical places. The book is oddly whimsical, taken naively, and fey and fabulistic in its subjective tone and philosophical overtones.
But read from the point of view of a classicist, it opens up a further dimension of allusion and intellectual appreciation. Malouf interplays the historical present, clumsy in English, with a narrative present and an anecdotal past tense, interweaving them so gracefully that the techniques aren't obvious, only the aftertaste of grandeur in certain passages, of a facile rhythm in others. The knowledge of Ovid's preoccupations from his writings lets us see the change occurring before he, as narrator, does; and knowing that Ovid was an iconoclast if anything, one appreciates his growing sense of omnipotence, his realization that he can become like a god and further, that it doesn't really matter.
There is, of course, a price to pay in each case. For not having to scuff through dusty collections of Ovid's writings, the unlettered reader has to settle for a one-dimensional account of a weird experience. And for being conversant with Latin history, one has to wince slightly at the portrait Malouf draws of Ovid, the bawdy agnostic.
For instance he wrote a lot about and for women; his love poems glorified them and his "metamorphoses" happened more to women than to men. But there are no women in this book, no significant women. Further, Ovid was politically inclined; it may have been only a naughty sort of pseudoanarchism that he espoused, but it was effective enough to get him banished. And there's no sign of that in this Ovid. Certainly not least, one of the most beloved aspects of his work was a line of wry and urbane humor that ran through all his poetry. Granted that a middle-aged decadent Roman plunked down among barbarians might find it difficult to laugh, a devotee of Ovid would look for at least a nod to the absurdity of the position in which Ovid found himself.
Malouf says, in his own afterword, "My purpose was to make this glib fabulist of "the changes" live out in reality what had been, in his previous existence, merely the occasion for dazzling literary display." If the reader might wish that Malouf had let Ovid take a little more of his acclaimed chutzpah into the wilderness, I guess that's her own problem. Malouf at least accomplishes his purpose. (pp. 36-7)
Kate Eldred, in a review of "An Imaginary Life," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 19, May 13, 1978, pp. 36-7.
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[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, is on lollies…. For any reader familiar with the reality evoked, such parts of the book are extremely effective in their nostalgic savour. They are authentic and unromanticized except for the haze of the years between, which gives them the charm that mist confers upon even an unromantic scene. (pp. 214-15)
Charming as the book is in style and vignette, and however evocative, one has to be careful not to overestimate it on this last score. Anyone who knows the period and place cannot but respond to Malouf's re-creation of parts of the overgrown country town. A name is given, of street or suburb or building, and, conjured up with a phrase, the old and sometimes vanished reality rises before the reader. Momentarily he is back where he once was, and he perforce feels a sort of gratitude for this rejuvenation. The same thing occurs in, say, poetry, where an untutored reader finds a poem effective in one way and therefore good in all ways….
If Brisbane, then, is the hero or heroine of the novel, what of Johnno, the overt eponym? He need not worry any reader Malouf has been saying: Bear with me a little, and join with me in seeing how we can ring the changes on a rather trite theme—Looking Backwards. A variation here and there, an elaboration, an omission, an altered stress and we almost have a new genre…. It would be an unresponsive reader who would not collaborate. In doing so, he comes to recognize that Johnno is of little consequence. Johnno appears most frequently in the schooldays, less frequently at the university, and sporadically after that. He dies at the end of the novel, whether by suicide or accident does not matter. So he bulks large when he is small, but when he grows up—if he ever does—he is minor. And this is how he should be. Malouf does his best for him, but nobody adult could find him of much attraction. (p. 216)
The only quality [Johnno] has is his honesty to himself. Hypocrisy being, as the adage goes, the tribute that vice pays to virtue, we all of us try to justify or hide our failings—we may even try to cure them. Johnno will have none of this: he is not so much shameless as indifferent. He is as he is—let them do what they like about that.
This is not endearing: it is merely surprising. We are not shocked at the natural behaviour of a leech or scorpion, but we are shocked that a human being should resemble both and apparently think this natural. So any fascination Johnno may have for us at the start evaporates as the novel progresses. We come to find him distasteful. Then we lose interest. This is a probability that Malouf must have foreseen, for he attributes to Johnno an element of mystery. He is spoken of as having some inner life, as though he concealed an enigma that would be worth solving. And near the end of the book this mystery, we are told, still resides in that fascinating figure—even his death is a mystery. Most of us will remain cheerfully unconvinced. That mystery, if ever it existed, is a bagatelle. (pp. 217-18)
Cecil Hadgraft, "Indulgence," in Studies in the Recent Australian Novel, edited by K. G. Hamilton (© University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland, 1978), University of Queensland Press, 1979, pp. 194-224.∗
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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.
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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 of conscious acts of will shared with his readers)….
One of Malouf's concerns is with the relations between reality and seeming…. Another preoccupation is time, the interfusion of the present and the past. In an elegy for his father he writes of the dead being buried in the living and looking out through their eyes, as do the not yet born. The concept occurs again in "Deception Bay"…. Then there is his reiterated use of the word "blue", not only for sky and sea and shadows on the land but as a personal symbol, almost a verbal tic. It is the indigo of the crabs—"blue, majestic"—he lovingly pursues in "The Crab Feast", in order to eat them, incorporate them and become one with them. The process of achieving a symbiotic harmony with the natural world is also at the centre of his novel, An Imaginary Life, which like many of these poems looks back to a prelapsarian mode of existence.
Malouf's powerful imagination allows a certain amount of surrealism, without too much self-indulgence. He uses a variety of fairly free verse forms, including prose-poetry, while retaining a commitment to normal syntax. He can be playful, and his obsession with the visual sometimes carries him away into digressions, but he is a serious poet concerned with serious things.
Fleur Adcock, "Importing a Modern Tradition," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4113, January 29, 1982, p. 114.∗
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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 Australia after 12 years in England with only a vague idea of what he wants to do with himself and with the thousand acres of land he has inherited. On his land he discovers Jim Saddler, a lower-class man similarly vague about his future, who until his 20th year has been content simply to observe, alertly and patiently, the natural world around him, especially the countless varieties of birds that migrate to Australia in season. Ashley hits on the happy idea of leaving his land as a wildlife sanctuary and hiring Jim as a kind of Adam to name the beasts…. The situation seems too good to be true….
It is too good to be true. The modern world intervenes, in the form of World War I, and Jim feels compelled to enlist simply in order to understand the changes that are taking place. Ashley soon follows. At first Jim's war is liberating and a bit of a lark, but not once it moves to the front; Malouf's descriptions of trench warfare are vivid, sickening, horrifying, and—in their last scenes—almost surreal. Men in that war and, as Ashley sees, in the world to come, are parts in a machine, interchangeable, expendable, a far cry from what a man could be in the little paradise Ashley had founded. Determined individualists in the modern world are like the peasant whom soldiers found digging a garden in a bombed-out forest: obviously mad (or, perhaps, the only sane people left).
"Child's Play" has seen this modern world evolve still further; its nameless narrator has postponed what he thinks of as his real life in order to perform a single act of political terror. He gives few details from his past, and only the vaguest reasons for wanting to pursue this course….
The narrator's rather fascinating assignment is to assassinate a world-renowned man of letters, and Malouf's portrait of this writer—a man of iron discipline and deep compassion, enormous intellect and playful irony—is masterful. To the extent that we are all the children of such an artist—his voice has epitomized a previous generation—the drama is Oedipal, and thus, in one of the title's several senses, child's play. We resent the man who in some ways shaped us, who saw from his lofty eminence what we would become. His knowledge of us is insufferable, and we kill him in order to live.
In his isolation, the narrator studies the approaching event from every conceivable angle…. None of these meditations, however, prepares him for the event itself, which in the shock of the actual becomes, like the battle scenes of "The Bread of Time to Come," almost surreal, revealing that nothing—not art, nor history, nor news, nor even dream—is a match for bare reality.
"Child's Play" is the richer of these two works, but also perhaps the less fully realized, with a few loose ends and odd episodes; still, it is a striking story whose scenes and images remain with the reader long after he has finished it. Malouf is something of a primitive narrator, rough around the edges, but he is also a deeply serious writer, not to be taken up lightly. In these two unique perspectives on the modern world, he exhibits the kind of eccentric vision that one might expect from an outsider, an Australian, say, or an isolated terrorist, or a genuine artist.
David Guy, "Coming Out of the Country," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), May 2, 1982, p. 9.
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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 trompe l'oeil Magritte effects. Ranged in cryptic symmetries around them, the same types recur. Particularly favoured is the threatening solitary, some ominous loner endowed with "the ambiguous gift of singularity". Central to these three pieces are, respectively, an outsider, an intruder, and an interloper. Anti-social figures, they are often cast as the shadows of respectability: dark, distorted counterparts that people in the well-lit public world are unable to shake off….
Polarities … magnetize Malouf's attention. Conformity, community, security are repeatedly set against anarchy, loneliness, danger. Obsessively, his work juxtaposes order and disturbance, light and dark. Those positives and negatives can unexpectedly change places. And always in Malouf's stories the powerful attraction between seemingly opposed poles is used to generate some shock effects. In "Eustace", a trespassing misfit slides into the dormitory of a decorous girls' school, pacing eerily round the ranged beds, fantasizing among dreaming children. When the girls awake, he is not denounced because, until menace breaks through make-believe, he satisfies "their own hunger for fairytale". Similarly, in "The Prowler", a placid and affluent suburb is infiltrated by a sexual maniac. Soon, however, he comes to seem a weird externalization of disruptive urges lurking inside law-abiding citizens. Reports of his behaviour, multiplying fantastically, take on bizarre, semi-revelatory patterns. False prowlers proliferate bemusingly, as deviance is carbon-copied. Finally, the investigating officer, symbol of authority and reassurance—"a sort of prowler in reverse"—emerges as the prime suspect.
Malouf's fiction opts for dream-like stylization. Through-the-looking-glass reflections and refractions turn his work into something like a hall of mirrors. Twisted likenesses loom everywhere: doubles, doppelgängers, secret sharers, alter egos. But the high degree of similarity between the various figures is only attained by a low degree of individual characterization. In these works, even proper names are rationed. Slimmed down to the bone of type—"the woman", "the boy", "the son"—the characters are psychologically anorexic. And their undernourishment is particularly pointed up by the fact that the backgrounds they are silhouetted against are portrayed with great fullness. Here, lavish detail is stamped sharply on the mind's eye. The Italian scene especially is captured with inventive accuracy—as when, for example, Malouf writes of a piazza suddenly floodlit with sunshine after heavy rain: "the square was full of pieces of sky with pigeons sipping at them or splashing up broken glass". Mirroring the natural world in this glittering fashion, Child's Play shows a poetic talent that is at its best when trained outwards rather than diffused in shadowy reflections of the doublings of the psyche.
Peter Kemp, "The Outsider Inside," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4129, May 21, 1982, p. 549.
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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 observing a sandpiper, and when the photo is developed their pleasure is caught by the novel as a moment of suspension of the centrally achieved interest of the book…. The openness of two people—their love of nature—is richly present. It is a poetic triumph for Malouf to have found this kind of stasis and sharing. The maturity in the characters is a measure of yet another advance in his gifts as a writer.
Fly Away Peter, however, does not rest there. It attempts to move out from this centre and frame this Paradise with its Fall. Jim Saddler goes to World War I and dies there. His is no migratory pattern or cycle. Nor was Imogen's, who had come from England and settled eccentrically in Australia. Only Ashley Crowther follows the pattern of the birds in coming home from England to his property, then in going to the War and returning. The two patterns—bird and human—are held up for inspection and comparison. It is as if the myth in the birds' cycle is the superior one. A sadness envelopes the human Fall. Even Imogen's closing vision of a surfboard rider off Southport as if it were some eternal resurgence of youth does not dispel the irony. It has daunting associations for the reader with what the South (Gold) Coast has since become. Who there now thinks of sandpipers?
Malouf's novella works best as a prose poem. So much is evocatively said of nature here. The charm in Jim Saddler's response to life brings a lyric and celebrative density to the writing. (pp. 113-14)
Gratuitously, I feel, Gallipoli makes an entrance in the novel; the second half is given over to a strong but finally unconvincing account of Jim Saddler in France. His knowledge and experience grow; he keeps his morale steady with watching birds. But the effect on the novel is to increase a sense of passivity in a negative sense with regard to human nature, which touches on the overall limitation of the book. For the characters and events in Fly Away Peter are in some disturbing sense not real. The duality of Jim Saddler and Ashley Crowther is transparently schematic. Class consciousness, while real enough in Australian society especially of this period, has an arbitrary feel to it in Fly Away Peter. And even Jim Saddler seems to be a centre of consciousness more than a character. Only in Imogen Harcourt has Malouf landed on a person who is a subject in her own right. She is choric, but quirky. She has made a choice where she wants to be in life. Her answer to the conundrum of choice and doubt in the title of the book is to accept what she has done in migrating like a bird. She knows, however, that she will never return. (p. 114)
James Tulip, "Poets and Their Novels" (reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in Southerly, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1983, pp. 113-18.∗