‘A First Place’ by David Malouf – The Monthly Book

April 2014

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.

A First Place – David Malouf

On the occasion of David Malouf’s 80th birthday, his writing is a reason for celebration. It’s not that he should get a prize for just turning up day after day for 80 years but that he continues to nourish us with his work. Novels, short stories, poetry, memoir, libretti, essays – he turns his hand to all of them, and there are two new books just out for us to read this month. The first is a collection of his essays, lectures and other prose pieces called A First Place (Knopf Australia). The second is a volume of new poetry called Earth Hour (UQP).

In the collection of essays, David Malouf presents us with the array of subjects he has been wrestling with ever since he began writing. From his beginnings in Brisbane, as the son of an English Jewish mother and a father of Lebanese Christian heritage, he has always been conscious of the idea of what it means to be Australian. His analysis of our culture and history is filtered through a mind filled with poetry and literature. And that makes his thoughts on a variety of subjects both enlightening and a pleasure to read.

His interest in the way cultures are either time oriented or space oriented reveals the way our histories and geographies can influence the lives we live and our very ideas.

For Europeans, time is very much alive, and they trace their roots back a long way to the classical past of the Greek and the Etruscans.

For newer countries – the United States and Australia, for example – written history is shorter, and the front of mind is taken up with the task of finding a way to live in a landscape that is often harsh, with great expanses and wide horizons. Malouf convinces his readers with his enlivening of Australian history, and for this he starts with his childhood recollections of the first space he knew well. The house in which he grew up was an old Queenslander built up on stilts, with a verandah all around, darkened rooms hidden in the centre, and a space underneath that became the realm of childhood.

His essay ‘Made in England’ is another fine example of the way Malouf starts with early memories: in this case, his exposure to the Englishness of his mother’s household. She insisted that her children should speak well, have good manners and read a range of books that Malouf describes as belonging to a typical Edwardian English childhood. He reaches back into the history of the establishment of Sydney, particularly the way the outlook of seafarers, our beginnings as convicts rather than slaves, and the English language of the Scottish Enlightenment made their mark on the lives to be led here.

David Malouf is a poet-thinker, and his volume of poetry Earth Hour is full of rich rewards. He can make you smile and make you feel wistful or sad in the same poem. As he told me, “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.”

And what about wisdom? What has David Malouf learnt about how it all works?

“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.”

Watch the interview

Read the transcript