Ramona Koval: David Malouf, welcome to the Monthly Book.
David Malouf: Thank you, Ramona.
RK: And congratulations, because you’ve reached your 80th birthday milestone.
DM: OK. (Laughs) I don’t want to say anything more on that.
RK: You don’t think that’s a big deal?
DM: I don’t think that’s a big deal, no. You know, I didn’t make great effort, didn’t cost me a lot. It seemed to me you just go along step by step, day by day.
RK: Turning up every day.
DM: Yeah, yeah.
RK: Well, we’re going to talk about your two new publications today. A First Place, which is a collection of prose over the last 30 years – essays, reviews, that sort of thing – and your new book of poetry, called Earth Hour. But I thought we’d start with the prose, A First Place. And you say something very intriguing: “Cultures tend to be time oriented or space oriented.” Can you explain what you mean?
DM: Well, I think that most European cultures, for example, are very aware of the passing of time; they’re very aware of the culture they come out of, and how that is continuous and how people keep it alive. And I think they’re very aware of all the influences on the present. Because history goes back for them a very long way, so that if you think of some place like Italy, there’s the classical past as it was in Italy, but there’s also the classical past as it was with the Etruscans, with the Greeks.
But then there are places like the United States, for example, or Australia, where history is shorter. But the thing that is, I think, very clearly in people’s minds is the landscape, and the variations of the landscape and the harshness of the landscape and how people have had to fight to tame it and how people have had to fight also in their heads to adjust themselves to it so that they gradually, over a very long time, feel it as home.
That’s one aspect of that, but the other aspect of it is simply in places like Europe the landscape has already been made and you’re aware of it being something piecemeal. Whereas when you come to the United States, when you come to a place like Australia – this would be true of Russia, for example, also – what you’re aware of is the expanse of it, the vastness of it, and the vastness often as well of the sky above it. So I think that is what I mean by the fact that we’re space-oriented people rather than time-oriented people. It interests me a lot that although most Australians live in cities, and always really have lived in cities, we all have somewhere in our head a vision of Australia as this large, expansive place, and we respond to that even if we live in narrow streets. We have a sense of expansiveness in our head which comes from the country and it also affects the way we think about people and people coming here, because we think of it as being a place where there is room. So we never actually feel crowded, and we never actually feel oppressed by the notion of people.
RK: So the space implies possibility?
DM: Yes, well, the space, the space implies a kind of freedom, I think that’s one thing. It gives you a sense of dimension to your life. And, as I say, also a sense that there is room around you: there’s elbow room and there’s walking room and all of that.
RK: So you say a lack of history can free you from history, by leaving you free to play with the historical and construct an ideal history of the spirit or mind. What’s an ideal history?
DM: Well, I think, first of all, in Australia you feel that history is still happening, so you’re not the product so much of history as the makers of history. And that’s very, very different. I think in Europe people really are aware of “lateness”, as you put it in other contexts, whereas I don’t think we feel that. I think that we don’t have a short history. If you look back, our history now is 230 years or something, which, measured in real daily lives, is not short. But I think we live at a point in history always in Australia where we don’t feel we’re far enough along the way to know what the end is. So we don’t look back. Sometime that’s freeing; sometimes, of course, it means we’re escaping from responsibilities about things that have happened here – as in the case of indigenous people, for example. And we’re getting better at looking back. But mostly we look forward.
RK: In one of these sections in this book A First Place, which is your Quarterly Essay called ‘Made in England’, you point out that all Australia’s early governors were naval officers. And they had a life of the sea. How did that affect what was made here?
DM: We sometimes forget that after Sydney was established— And it was established as a sea port, not really only a repository at all for convicts, but as a port in the south which would serve the uses of the East India Company. So it itself was right from the beginning a sea town. But for the first 30 years of the history of the colony, all the industries of the place were sea oriented, because it was actually our major industries was whaling and sealing. And it was only really after 30 years that we began to think that we might grow things like wheat or raise things like sheep, which required land and which meant that we had to turn to the continent now and start going into it and opening it. So we have always been a sea-oriented people. And most of the population even now is clustered around the coast.
So land has always been there in abundance, and it’s offered us wonderful things in terms of agriculture and pasture industry and later mining and minerals of every kind. But we still fly in and out to those places. We don’t want to live there (laughs).
RK: You say also that the English language, the fact that we speak English, has made us powerful beyond our size – I suppose, our population size. And you talk of the language of the Scottish Enlightenment that settled us, making a very real difference to the way we are with each other. How does language have that effect?
DM: Well, we were settled at a time when Britain, of all the European countries, but mainly France, but also Holland, also Spain, had really passed the big moment of their imperial expansion – and France and Britain fought it out for nearly a century. So we were established at a point when Britain was the most important naval power in the world, was about to become the most important imperial power in the world. And so the English language as we’ve seen over the two centuries after that has really become the universal language, as Latin once was. I mean, English is spoken all over Asia, all over Africa, as well as being now the necessary language for all communication for Europeans of every kind. So we, in becoming an Anglophone nation, we speak the language of the big boys, and we’ve done that for the last 200 hundred years.
But also England was about to become the leader in the industrial revolution, was about to become a huge economic power. And it also, by the time we were established, had been through all those civil wars and rebellions that meant that the political system was absolutely the most advanced in the world. So we simply inherited a whole lot of political institutions which had already been tested over nearly a thousand years. And we’ve adapted them in our own way and we’ve improved them in some ways, but basically those institutions are what has guaranteed responsible government here, the passing of power from one administration to another always without violence, a legal system which guarantees people certain kinds of rights which have never actually been challenged. That puts you in a pretty powerful position.
RK: And you also say the difference between the stain of slavery versus the convict stain, about the time we were established. That other societies had been established before us and therefore had to take on the stain of slavery and the implications of that for their future development.
DM: Well, I think it’s in 1773 that the British parliament had passed a law that no one could be a slave under the British Crown, and that meant all sorts of things. It meant that you had to be paid, even as a convict, for your labour, for example, in England, and it meant that when Australia was going to be established they realised that if they wanted to make that port they would need people to work it and to maintain it. And that could either be done with free settlers, which was not going to happen, or it could be done with slaves, and it was too late for that, or it had to be done with convicts. And convicts were essentially people who once they had served their sentence could go back to England or could become free settlers in the place, so that being a convict was going to always be a temporary thing. And to be the child of a convict meant that you started from scratch. If you’re a slave, the children of a slave remain a slave. And the other terrible thing that slavery does is that to have once been a slave stays with you forever, and to have ever owned slaves puts you in a position which is a moral stain on you forever. And we were free of that from the beginning. And you see the difference of that in a place like the United States or any of those places that for a long time, the chief chattels in the country— and this is the appalling thing about the United States, at the actual moment at which the Declaration of Independence was made, the chief commodity owned by people in the country was other human beings, just an impossible situation.
RK: So we’ve had a lot going for us, from the beginning. So why is it that we didn’t think that we were authentic or we thought that life was going to begin when we left? I mean, especially as writers, the idea that you didn’t really have much to write about until you found out what the world was like beyond the horizon.
DM: Look, that’s not a unique situation. I think of somebody like Balzac. He writes over and over again about people who are growing up as he did in a provincial town in France, Angoulême, for example, and they just can’t wait to get to Paris for their life to begin. And I think people in England did that with London. I mean, [Samuel] Johnson and David Garrick couldn’t wait to get out of Lichfield to get to London for their life to begin.
RK: But that’s a rural/city divide, which is kind of understandable anywhere.
DM: But I would say that was the status in which Australia stood to Britain. It was a provincial part of Britain, not a colonial part of Britain. India was a colony and African places were colonies, but what Australia was was a transposed piece of the motherland. And Sydney or Melbourne stood in exactly the same relationship to London that Birmingham or Glasgow or Dublin did. That’s really a way of saying it, that, I think, describes accurately how people thought of themselves with regard to England. So, of course, if you wanted to be a writer or a famous pianist, a singer, you had to go to where it all happened. That would have been true of people from Scotland or Ireland or Cornwall, as well as people from Victoria or New South Wales.
RK: So, not Victoria, nor New South Wales, but [on] Queensland, we’re going to focus our attention. Because you had your own little bit of England in Queensland, in Brisbane, didn’t you?
DM: Well, I grew up in a household with a mother who’d been transplanted from England herself.
RK: I thought you were going to say “transported” (laughs).
DM: No, no … When she was 11 or something. And she really was determined to hang on for as long as she could to that English life that she had had. Because they had been very well-off people and they lived a very social life in England. And she was the youngest of all the children, and she had missed what all her sisters and brothers had had in the way of the gift of going to opening nights of shows and things. So she hung on very hard to her Englishness and she tried to re-create that in the household we lived in. And we were brought up like little English kids. We would have never been allowed to go to school barefoot, and we weren’t allowed to use Australian slang and all the rest of it.
RK: And did you have to dress for dinner?
DM: No, we didn’t have to dress for dinner, but meals times were pretty formal. But I think that they were pretty formal throughout Australia then. I mean, you washed your hands and you showed your hands before you sat down at the table and things like that.
RK: And did you feel that was very different from your school friends?
DM: Some of it was, yes. And we were on the whole … We had people come in and play; we mostly didn’t go out to other people’s place to play.
RK: Why? Was there a threat to your decorum?
DM: I think it was because we had a very large backyard with a garden that went all the way down to the next street, and a place where you could play Rounders, for example, which not everybody else had. But I lived in a part of Brisbane then that had very large old houses with big gardens. Quite rundown, but in their own way grand.
RK: And you’ve written about the house that you grew up in and the idea of geography being fate – the place you find yourself born in and growing up in – and the way that those old Queenslanders were arranged architecturally to keep the heat out, to keep the breezes going underneath the house. Can you talk a bit about the idea of the inside and the outside and the upstairs and the downstairs being particular in that environment? And different to, say, a terrace house in Sydney.
DM: Yes, well, it’s very different to live in one of those wooden, rather sprawling houses, which are really a nest of rooms, surrounded by verandahs. There’s usually verandahs on all four sides. And the rooms are darkish, they’re very private, and a lot of people who come to the house get only as far as the perimeters. They get onto the front verandah, for example, but they don’t often get into the house. Only people who are real friends and close to you get into the house. I grew up in a world where a lot of tradesman and a lot of people selling things would come to the front door and they’d knock on the front door and they’d be able to open their suitcases and display all their goods on the front verandah but people would never get into the house proper. So you were very aware that there was the street, then there was another barrier, which was the front verandah, and then there was the house. And because Brisbane is very, very uneven ground, almost all houses – those wooden houses – would be on stumps, as they were. Now we don’t know why they were built on stumps, because it’s not even a British colonial thing, really. It’s probably taken over from South-east Asia in some kind of way.
RK: It’s to get the breezes through the underneath, isn’t it?
DM: Well, that’s one thing people say. Brisbane also flooded quite a lot; it could’ve been that. But they were raised above the ground, but because the ground was uneven often you came in at one level and when you went to the back of the house you were at another level. It was either very, very high stumps in front or low stumps in front and high at the back, so that there was a very large space, wedge-shaped usually, under the house and that was the same size as the house, obviously, but it had a very, very different feel and a very different purpose. Sometimes the washing tubs were down there, or my father had a tool shop built down there. But it was a place that children early learnt was kind of their space, really, and when you went down there there were little tests like daring to crawl up through the darkness from the high stump area at the back to the narrow and low place up the front, as it was in our house. That was a place where people [put] things they had thrown out of the house but didn’t want to take to a dump, like old bed-ends, for example – iron beds people had in those days, metal beds, they were always down there – and old pieces of furniture, and old stoves or something like that. Then things often fell through the floorboards down there, so there were all sorts of things down there that had got lost. I mean, sometimes there were only pins and needles, but sometimes there were other things. So it was a place that was part of the archaeology of the house, if you can put it that way, where kids could explore. But it was also a safe dark place where you could go to sulk, which kids often did.
RK: Did you?
DM: I, on the whole, was not a sulker (laughs), but a lot of kids went down there to sulk. And it was a place you could go to explore, so a lot of kids’ early sexual explorations are associated with under the house. And a very suitable place, in a Freudian way, that is for that (laughs).
RK: Yes, it is.
DM: That’s the other thing about it. In a multi-storeyed house, generally speaking the attic is the secret storage place. But in those Queensland houses you’re very aware of the house where living goes on openly and then this darker place underneath, and it’s quite Freudian in its own kind of way. That light above and dark below is my map of the way things are. And I think that, especially if you’re a writer, you remember pretty well how you made up those first maps of how the world was constructed with this up and down or in and out. You go back to those because a lot of your sensory perceptions are created by that, and it’s those sensory perceptions of light and space that you use to call up memories of situations when you are writing. I mean, you don’t call them up, they come to you, but they often come to you first in the form of light or space, and then there’s an actual memory you have of a situation or an event or something like that that is the one you actually need at this moment in the writing to be able to recall.
RK: Well, you can hear the movie upstairs, in the house of your mind. How funny to think that if you’d been born in a different city, or had a different house to grow up in, that your idea of light and dark and space would be reversed, perhaps. I wonder what you writing would be like.
DM: You can speculate about it, but essentially the world you get is the world you’ve got (laughs), and hanging on to it and making sure that you’re properly grounding the writing in it is part of what I think of as being authenticity.
RK: And part of being aware of the kind of work that you do, the soil that you till, the kind of garden you are making … And do you feel that it’s better to know that, to know that this is the kind of work I’m doing, to expand to this or that or the other or have a complete change, or you’ve never been inclined to do that?
DM: Well, that would be fantasy and that’s a possibility, but I think that even fantasy, when you see it in a writer, is often very much grounded in actuality. I mean, I’ve been writing recently on Kafka – not for this book but for the book to follow and based partly on something I’d already written on Kafka. And we assume that all of his writing comes from this extraordinary grotesque and haunted imagination, but I don’t think so at all. I think it comes from absolutely the life that he’s living. It’s only because he is so absolutely driven by it, by fact, that when he puts those facts down we see it as fantasy.
RK: Because we are not living that life, and it seems strange and representative of something.
DM: I think he’s much closer to being a realist than the fabulist that we think.
RK: When you were growing up and thinking about— I think you’ve said before that you used to listen to a lot of adult conversations, it was possible in those houses because all the doors were open and you could overhear things, and you enjoyed going to your school and reading the school reader and being introduced to writing and poetry, you became a teacher yourself, didn’t you, first, before you became a full-time writer.
DM: Yeah, I taught for ten years. Well, when I first took a degree, I was immediately made a junior lecturer. So the first year out of university I was a junior lecturer. Then I went and tried to be a clerk, which I was hopeless at.
RK: Why did you do that? Did you think it would give you more time to write?
DM: No, no. Because getting a first-class honours degree and then becoming a junior lecturer meant in those days that you were on the first step of an escalator, and that escalator meant you did the job of junior lecturer for three years, then you took a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, and then you came back and settled in that university and became a lecturer and went on and on and on, and I did not want my life to be settled in that way so early. So I thought I would escape from the university by going and becoming a clerk. And I don’t know what I thought that would—
RK: A clerk where?
DM: It was BHP. I was a statistics clerk at BHP, who was responsible for tracking empty oil barrels all over Queensland.
DM: I had sheets and sheets and sheets where I had to account for every oil barrel and where it was, and I was hopeless at it. The poor guy who was running the section used to continually have to come and show me that I’d lost this barrel or that barrel and that’s why the two columns didn’t add up. And he would look at me and go away shaking his head and thinking, “This guy’s just come from the university, he’s completely hopeless.” And then at the end of the month, my job was to get all of these things that I’d worked on for a whole month and put them in a trolley and take them up to the top of the building and tip them in an incinerator.
(DM and RK laugh.)
DM: Now if that’s not Kafkaesque …
DM: I mean, these phantom oil barrels that were floating all over the state that I was responsible for, all being put on sheets on paper and then burnt.
DM: So I gave that up, and I went to teach at my old school, Brisbane Grammar, for three months, and the headmaster simply at the end of the three months told me I had absolutely no vocation as a school teacher, I’d better go along and try something else.
RK: Where you surprised that you didn’t have a vocation as a school teacher? Because you seem to me the kind of person who — for me, reading your reviews of poetry or discussing poems that you’ve loved are wonderful exercises in teaching.
DM: I think I was actually, in terms of making contact with the kids and revealing something to them, I think I was probably a successful teacher even then, and in fact I taught a lot of people that I’ve in one way or another kept in contact with, even back then. But I don’t think I fitted in very well to his idea of how the school should be, which was very different from the way the school had been when I was there.
Anyway, I left and went back to teach for another year at the university and then decided, “Look, all this is a complete dead end, and there’s only one thing I can do and that is simply drop everything here and go to England,” which is what I did. And I think the reason why lots of people went off to England was that you had a kind of an alternative as an Australian. If you couldn’t make things work here, you could go to what was obviously a much more crowded and complex and varied place and have a look and see if there wasn’t something happening there that was a closer fit for you of what you might you make as your life. And so that’s what I did. And you know, I travelled quite a lot, saw things I had never expected to see, and then went to teach for six years in Birkenhead, in the north of England, at a direct grammar school. I had a great time.
RK: You’ve also spoken about accidental moments, I suppose forks in the road that you make one choice or another choice, and how important those things have been for you. Could you describe the meeting that you had in Paris, I think, with the young man who changed your direction from Spain to Germany?
DM: Yeah, well, I decided I was going to go and explore Spain and Portugal and did research and bought a guidebook and all the rest, but I didn’t buy a ticket. And I had to go through Paris, went to Paris, hoped I would spend the day with John Milliner, who was my friend from school and university who was teaching there, went to the address he had given me. He turned out not to be there. He was a very elusive character, who never really told you where he was living; he just left addresses for you, to pick up mail.
And so I went back to the station, and while I was sitting waiting at the station for the evening train to Madrid, a guy came up to me. He was 19, 20 perhaps, and he was in absolute rags, filthy dirty, and he turned out to be German. And he told me that he’d been working in France and was about to go back but he had been robbed of everything. What he asked me to do if I spoke enough French, which he didn’t, oddly, was to ask Mademoiselle de Paris, who was the uniformed, beautiful person who sits there finding five-star hotels for you, if there was a refuge where he would be able to get a bed for the night. And she very kindly looked up and found a couple of ones, and I pointed out to him which one was closest to where we were at that station, bought a ticket for him, gave him a thousand francs or something, which in those days was later one franc. And he burst into tears and said, “I’ll never be able to pay you back because I’ll never meet you again, but if you were to go to Germany, people in Germany would, I’m sure, repay this over and over again.”
So I went back and sat with my rucksack and looked up at the board, and the next train that was leaving was to Koblenz in the Rhineland. So I thought to myself, “Oh, maybe I’m going the wrong way. Maybe that was a little sign that says, ‘Not this way, that way.’” So I bought a ticket to Koblenz and that was the beginning for me of the most extraordinary summer of discovering really the whole baroque and rococo world of Bavaria and Central Europe there and all the rest of it. So that was an accidental discovery.
I think you’ve got to have a kind of flair and a nerve or something for recognising something that seems like a message. Perhaps it’s superstitious or naive to believe in such things, but I think once something like that happens you’ve got to be responsive to it. And I’ve always done things on the spur of the moment. And so that was a good one.
But you know, getting that teaching job, too, was an accident, because Judith Rodriguez was a very close friend and she was at Cambridge, and I had met through her a man called Frank McCarthy, who was a Christian Brother from Melbourne, and he said to Judith, “Look, there’s a school, a Christian Brothers school, up in the north of England that needs a head of English department. Would you be interested?” And she said, “No, but David might be.”
And I went along to be interviewed by the headmaster. It wasn’t the head of the department; he just wanted somebody to do a very, very peculiar job. And we sat down and talked and he said absolutely nothing. I later learned that that was what he was like. And so I went all the way up to a convent at Highgate to meet him, and we sat down with a cup of tea each, and he simply sat there, rocking backwards and forwards for about a quarter of an hour, and then he said to me, “So would you be ready to start on the 1st of January?” (Laughs) So I had no idea what I was going to, but I thought, “Well, it’s offered, I’ll go.” And what he wanted me to do, he had a very brilliant sixth form coming up – they were just going into the fifth form. And they were both science and arts [students]. And in those days in England, kids were required to make a very, very sharp choice at that point to be arts or science. And he didn’t want these kids to make that choice. So he wanted somebody independently but within the English department to teach both the science class and the arts people together, and he wanted me to teach them the whole of English poetry and as many plays as we could do and the history of philosophy and Greek philosophy and logic. So that’s kind of what I did.
RK: (Laughs) You taught them everything.
DM: Well, I gave them really a kind of liberal arts course. Which was interesting, because it changed the life of many of those people, although they’d committed themselves to science. I hear from them, they’re now people who’ve retired after their whole life. I hear from them and they tell me that, in fact, you know, “You might remember me, I was in the science group but when I got to university I didn’t do science, I did philosophy or history or social science or whatever.”
RK: This is reminding me of the range of things that you remember from your school reader when you were a young primary school student in the Queensland schools. Because you describe a range of poems and descriptions of the lives of scientists and all kinds of things that were possibilities there to be introduced to you.
DM: I think those readers were very, very carefully designed. They knew that 95% of the people, or, actually, to be precise, 93% of the people, who went through primary school were never going to go on to secondary education. But they were determined that if they got to the end of that primary schooling they would have been introduced not only to almost the whole of English literature in terms of novels and poems and a lot of Continental literature. I mean, there were excerpts there from Turgenev, from Tolstoy, from lots of French writers. And the whole of Greek mythology. And then there were all these other stories of exemplary lives, which kind of introduced you to the idea that, you know, the world was not made up entirely of farmers and plumbers and carpenters, that there were composers, there were scientists – including women, like Madame Curie – there were potters. And the range of things there, too, was not just European. There was a lot of South-east Asian stuff and Pacific Island stuff, a lot of Australian writing. And things like the Gettysburg Address, and an essay of Emerson. A very, very wide range of writing and thinking of all kinds, which left little people who’d left school at 13 pretty well aware of what was out there. I think that’s a great thing to provide as a primary school education.
RK: I’d like you now to read from your new book Earth Hour. Could you read this poem called ‘Entreaty’?
DM: (reads poem)
After the Age of Innocence, golden brawlers
in the arms of demigods,
we arrive at the Age of Reason, credulous poor
monsters led by a dream-team
in a mad dance down loud streets into quicksand.
After that it’s the Age
of the Seven Pills daily. Small mercies
restore us. Bayside air
salt-sweet in our mouths again, we set out for
the corner shop, and by some happy chance
it is still there, the same old woman keeps it.
When the doorbell shakes her
from sleep, through wisps of grey
smoke from her asthma-papers, ‘What’s it to be, what’s your poison
this time, love?’ she wheezes.
Is it a riddle? If it is
I’m lost. The ancient
grins, abides the answer. I clench my fist on the hot penny
I’ve brought; only now, a lifetime
later, find my tongue:
If luck is with me
today, on my long walk home, may no
black cat cross my path, no sweet-talking stranger,
no thief, no mischief-maker,
no trafficker in last words waylay me.
RK: So do you still feel that penny in your hand, even now, in your 80th year?
DM: Well, that’s an actual place and an actual old lady and an actual repeated occasion. Yeah, the thing one wants to keep saying is that being 80 just means you’ve been around for a long time, which means that you’ve got a lot of moments in the past to cross a lot of different ages that you find coming up again out of memory to confront you, which can become a poem or a detail you need in a story or whatever. And I suppose in that poem I’m seven, eight or whatever it is, and a lot of time I think that is exactly what you are at 80. Sometimes you’re seven or eight, and sometimes you’re 17 and 18 and other ages.
RK: What about wisdom? What have you learned about how it all works? You’ve talked about accident or fate or listening for the moment or recognising the moment where they’re being presented to you in some way as a choice, to go this way or that way.
DM: I think you become more reconciled to letting life tell you rather than trying to take it by the throat and shake the future out of it. But look, I don’t think you come to any kind of settled wisdom. I mean, if you’re wise, all questions are still open and you’re as puzzled as you were at eight or nine or whatever it was.
RK: Puzzled and intrigued.
DM: Puzzled and intrigued, yeah. I think the point at which you are neither puzzled nor intrigued, that’s probably a good time to turn over on the pillow and face the wall. (Laughs)
RK: (Laughs) Well, you’re clearly not turning over on the pillow and facing the wall. So why don’t we make a date for another ten years, and we’ll have another conversation about all the new work that you’ve done in between?
DM: Well, thank you very much for the invitation.
RK: It’s a date.
DM: An invitation. I’ll see what happens when the day comes.
(DM and RK laugh.)
RK: That’s right, you don’t like to make plans.
DM: No, no, no.
RK: You like to just be free to make your decisions at the time.
RK: Fair enough, too. David Malouf, thanks for being with us on the Monthly Book.
DM: Thank you, Ramona.