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.

Janine Burke

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

October 2011

From the front page

Don’t mention the energy wars

Plans A, B, C and D may well be failing

Illustration

Australia’s first body farm

People are dying to get into this forensic research facility

Image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump

Seriously scary times

What are the implications of the Trump-Kim summit for America’s allies?

Image of ‘Spiegelenvironment’ by Christian Megert

ZERO is the beginning

A new exhibition at Mona brings the light to Dark Mofo


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

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Robert Helpmann & Anna Pavlova

Theatre masterpiece

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

The incendiary Meow Meow, 2011. © Magnus Hastings

Queen of the night

Meeting Meow Meow


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Collingwood

A song cycle in 5 parts

Image of The Cure in Brazil, 1987

The Cure’s permanent twilight

Robert Smith and co. are celebrating 40 years of the band. Why do they still inspire such love?

The elevated horror of Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’

This debut feature will test the mettle of even the most hardened genre fans

Image of Rhonda Deans exploring “the Squeeze”, Koonalda Cave, South Australia

‘Deep Time Dreaming’ by Billy Griffiths

This history of archaeology in Australia charts our changing relationship with the past


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Cover of The Lebs

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

A fresh perspective on Muslim youth in Sydney’s west

Cover of A Sand Archive

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day

Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing

‘The Choke’ by Sofie Laguna

Allen & Unwin; $32.99

Cover of Anything Is Possible

‘Anything Is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

Viking; $29.99


Read on

Image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump

Seriously scary times

What are the implications of the Trump-Kim summit for America’s allies?

Image of ‘Spiegelenvironment’ by Christian Megert

ZERO is the beginning

A new exhibition at Mona brings the light to Dark Mofo

Image of Quarterly Essay 70, ‘Dead Right’, by Richard Denniss

Dead Right

How neoliberalism redefined growth in the ugliest of ways – a Quarterly Essay extract

Image from ‘Killing Eve’

The beguiling ‘Killing Eve’

Phoebe Waller-Bridge short-circuits the espionage thriller


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