A Dramatic Dream of Australia


1922 is the wonderful year of 20th century literature, the so-called annus mirabilis: TS Eliot published land of wasteJames Joyce Released Ulysses and Proust died with Remembrance of things past as ready as ever. Polymath Henry Ergas sent a reminder that 1922 was also the year of DH Lawrence Kangaroo but despite a move in that direction, any reference to Lawrence’s far-sighted depiction of Australia in a state of dramatic political upheaval has passed to the editorial staff. Then, just recently, Gideon Haigh wrote a long play repeating Lawrence’s plot twists – private armies, simmering emotions, simmering socialism, all in a country that outraged Lawrence with his ability to settle for the most comfortable and compromised thing. .

From the perspective of the kind of narrowly canonical evaluative criticism that FR Leavis promulgated at Cambridge, where Lawrence was considered almost a messianic figure and certainly the supreme literary figure of his generation, Kangaroo would have seemed to be a minor work of the author of The Rainbow and women in love or the previous resolutely realistic Sons and lovers. But that’s not what it seems if you take it now. The epic scale of The Rainbow and its continuation in the virulence of the depiction of men and women forever struggling and writhing and consumed by the violence of the passion they feel is replaced in Kangaroo by a sort of clairvoyant dream of what is possible in this sunny suburban dwindling of a place. But paradoxically, the result is full of fire and rhythm. Kangaroo is a kind of political thread of this bearded pariah sitting in Thirroul and wondering about the possible action from what he imagines with a wolf hunger.

And how strange to think, in the face of this illegible disappointment of an election, that we can be swept away by this dramatic Australian dream – so urgently political in all its zigzags between left and right, its raucous dramatization of what might be fascism, its power of understanding for something opposite – that it was all simmering in Lawrence’s mind a hundred years ago.

No major writer on earth is less fashionable today than Lawrence with his vast, tumultuous mythologies about woman, but if you look at him simply in terms of his gift (as opposed to his achievement) he is by far the most great writer of his generation. He obviously has a better ear than Joyce, an infinitely superior sense of storytelling, tremendous imaginative stamina. It’s written all over the journals, literary criticism, it’s there perfectly in the anthology poem ‘Snake’, or in an extremely poignant and symbolic story like ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’. And it’s there in Kangaroo.

When JIM Stewart, who was left behind in Australia during the Second World War as a jury professor of English at the University of Adelaide, had to give a lecture on Australian literature, he said he didn’t there wasn’t, so he’d be talking about DH Lawrence. Kangaroo.

Stewart then wrote the 20th Century volume in the Oxford History of English Literature and his criticism is of a rapid elegance and dryness that contrasts with the undulating mannerisms and enchantments of the fiction he published under his own name and admired by Philip Larkin among others. However, in his Adelaide days he was actively working – well, actively playing – concocting mystery novels under the name Michael Innes.

Graham Greene in his memoir book Ways of escape says he read Innes on his long trip to West Africa and was struck by how funny and fantastical these mysteries were. They represent at best a kind of dream of the English detective story. Perhaps the austerities – and conveniences – of wartime Adelaide contributed to this, but there is a magnificent charm in the way Detective John Appleby can quote literature with a beautifully buttoned flick of his wrist. headline and that all the characters look like high comedy characters. Appleby himself is easy to imagine played by Michael Denison – Algy in Asquith’s old movie The importance of being serious. The best intro is Hamlet, Revenge! where a production of this most intellectualized vendetta play is staged on a ducal estate and foreign secretaries – in this case, a Lord Auldearn – and renowned scholars re-enact old rivalries and a famous actor smolders like the Prince. It’s so idle and it has its own sublimity. All of this certainly works to justify the old blurb that Innes’ books bring out the fourteen-year-old in high knowledge.

Strange too that JIM Stewart was there when Max Harris got caught up in that extraordinary adolescent dispatch of all the miracles of modernism, the Ern Malley case – that hoax perpetrated by James McAuley and Harold Stewart that led to such a fantastic obscenity trial in its own way and as funny as anything Graham Greene admired in Appleby’s books.

All of this may seem like a far cry from the fact that Leah Purcell wrote, directed and stars in a new film version of The Herdsman’s Wife. Henry Lawson’s famous story of the isolated woman with her children in the loneliness of the bush is a reminder that there has always been an Australian literature. Purcell’s interpretation is part of a long story that highlights Murray Bail’s hilarious meta-meditation.

Graham Greene and Henry Lawson remind us that there is more to writing than the dizzying artifices of modernism. But if we were to stick with this moment of rebirth, we should remember that the biggest short story writer touched by this moment was Kiwi extraordinaire Katherine Mansfield. She’s sometimes mistakenly overshadowed by Virginia Woolf, but if you want someone who can incorporate the kaleidoscopic perspective shifts Joyce executed in epic fashion, take a look at Mansfield stories like “At the Bay.” Mansfield was an absolute master of narrative momentum as shown in her most famous story “The Garden Party” with classic sharpness, but she could also dazzle with the way she could magically shift from one perspective to another. .

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