October 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Autumn Laing’ by Alex Miller

By Janine Burke

The Heide mythos, which has grown from the circle that gathered around arts patrons Sunday and John Reed at their home in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, is a tantalising mix of passion, vision, heartbreak, betrayal and great art. Without the art, Heide would be merely a soap opera.

Sunday was the chief engineer of an ambitious plan to invigorate Australian culture – to get it up off its knees where it snivelled before Mother England. Her plan to vivify European modernism here worked and, its proofs are in the careers of Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Charles Blackman.

Reed nurtured, inspired and infuriated successive generations of artists and poets from the ’30s to the ’70s. She was sexy, devouring, uncompromising, sentimental and loyal, a princess who threw in her lot with the ratbags and never limped home to Toorak. Sunday learned from being a failure – at trying to be an artist, a good wife and a mother. She understood pain and rejection, and had no qualms about meting them out to others.

Enter Autumn Laing, the eponymous heroine of Alex Miller’s new novel, based on Reed. It’s 1991 and she is 85 years old, living alone at Old Farm amid the ghosts of the past. She’s in a rage fuelled by self-disgust at her frailties, a pesky biographer, an uncomprehending doctor and an impertinent nurse.

Autumn is writing her account of her affair with Pat Donlon and of the damage done to his wife, Edith. It’s a bruisingly moral tale. Edith, the catalyst for Autumn’s memoir, is a figure both wounded and courageous, who is counterpointed with Arthur, Autumn’s husband, an anguished and dignified man. Edith unflinchingly draws boundaries that the other characters are too egocentric or compromised to acknowledge. What price great art? Everyone, it seems, has to pay.

Miller has fun with his cast of characters and humour, while black, ripples through the narrative, leavening Autumn’s more corrosive judgements and insights. Miller engages so fully with his female characters that divisions between the sexes seem to melt away and all stand culpable, vulnerable, human on equal ground. Miller is also adept at taking abstract concepts – about art or society – and securing them in the convincing form of his complex, unpredictable characters and their vivid interior monologues.

Miller cites himself as helpless before Autumn’s demand to take centre stage while the novel he’d planned to write was about Nolan. Sunday/Autumn was an expert at telling creative folk what to do and, in this case, as in many others, she was right. Miller has triumphantly made art from her life.

Like Lovesong, Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell, three of Miller’s finest works, Autumn Laing explores a geography of emotion – an intimate, treacherous, burning zone where redemption is gained through slow and painful self-interrogation.

'Autumn Laing', By Alex Miller, Allen and Unwin, 464pp; $39.99
Cover: October 2011

October 2011

From the front page

Image of protest against police violence in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 26, 2020

Black Lives Matter

Australia should draw lessons from the riots in the US

Image of Australians queuing at Centrelink in Brisbane.

Moral bankruptcy

Robodebt stemmed from the false ideological division between the deserving and undeserving poor, but the government still clings to moralistic language

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The last word on George Pell

The royal commission’s damning verdict on what Pell knew about child sexual abuse in the Church

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Robo-dead

The PM imposed an illegal ‘debt’ collection scheme on Australia’s most vulnerable


In This Issue

Scene from 'The Theft of Sita'. Image courtesy of Melbourne Festival.

Music theatre masterpiece

An Australian–Indonesian production - ‘The Theft of Sita’, 2000

Theatre masterpiece

Tom Wright & Benedict Andrews - ‘The War of the Roses’, 2009

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Robert Helpmann & Anna Pavlova

The incendiary Meow Meow, 2011. © Magnus Hastings

Queen of the night

Meeting Meow Meow


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Read on

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The High Court’s landmark ruling on the ‘Palace Papers’ is a win for Australian social democracy

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