For the past year Knopf has been publishing elegant collections of David Malouf’s essays, reviews, speeches, prefaces and, now, libretti. You strain to tell one volume from another. The covers are absurdly sober and nothing is made of that famous face. Malouf’s schnoz is tucked out of sight. The message of these handsome books is plain: what matters is the words.
Malouf has been quietly insisting for 40 years that we pay attention, reconsider, discriminate and learn. He was once a teacher and he has the voice of a teacher still: purposeful, a little lofty, unafraid to be abstruse when the subject demands, a master of the art of winning our attention.
His manners are perfect. He never raises his voice. Though he argues hard for lightness and play in art (“Comedy seems to me to be the greatest of all forms of drama”), Malouf is the most serious writer at work in this country. He can grow a little testy when he sees us indulging the national tendency to laugh things off. He is never facetious.
Serious attention is given in these thousand pages to antibiotics, the invention of landscape, fairy tales, birds, public buildings, Hollywood discovered in childhood (“Half of my life is spent in an American dream made up of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musicals”), space in the Australian imagination, the Ringstrasse, carnival and its prerogatives, Glenn Murcutt’s houses, duets, Christina Stead in great age, and the brand of English imported by the First Fleet.
That’s a short, short list. The treasures are endless. Every few pages there are lines that call for a standing ovation. (“It is one of the conditions of genius that the world he is born into has already prepared a place for him; the time and the place are always right.”) Some of these pieces are more lucid than others, more persuasive. None is less than wise.
The first of the Knopf volumes, A First Place, appeared in March last year, just before Malouf’s 80th birthday. It is a sublime meditation on this country in all of its illuminating contradictions. Several months later came The Writing Life, critical essays from Ovid to Patrick White. Being There appeared this year with libretti for Voss and Mer de Glace, a “free version” of Euripides’ Hippolytus, and essays on theatre, opera, film, painting and architecture.
All three read as memoir. Again and again Malouf returns to his childhood on the south side of the Brisbane River and the ambition that made his name at the age of 41 with his first novel, Johnno: to give “fictional life, against all expectation, including that of my narrator, to what had always seemed to me, in my literary way, to be the most unliterary place in the universe, the Brisbane I had grown up in”.
Is there an educated Australian who doesn’t have some grasp of David Malouf’s childhood? His father’s people were Lebanese. His grandfather spoke only Arabic. A bank crash brought his mother’s English Jewish folk down in the world and out to Australia. Boxing was the connection between the families. Young David grew up in a house on stilts, and the first world he explored was the hot, dark place under its floor. “It’s a sinister place and dangerous but you are also liberated down there from the conventions. It’s where children go to sulk …”
Malouf has a lot to say about the dark. It is where we test our fears and find ourselves. As a little boy at the pictures every Saturday afternoon he learnt to look more closely at himself and the world: “There in the dark … we were off the hook; no one was watching. We were watching.” And all our lives, when music and theatre work as they should, we can shake off our civilised selves and “go back to some darker and more primitive condition of human existence”.
One of Malouf’s great subjects is the hold the past always has on us. His curiously bracing message is that there’s little new that matters under the sun. We are what we have always been; what moves us has always moved us; we’re writing now what we have always written. The first essay in the first of these volumes begins: “One of the oldest stories we tell is the story about leaving home …”
Malouf casts a sceptical eye over proud claims to be unique. Australia’s identity as a settler society? No. Aren’t all societies at some point settler societies? Britain, he notes, is particularly keen to keep alive in its national narrative invasion by Angles, Saxons and Jutes. “It is worth noting that the Romans too presented themselves in this way, not as natives of Latium but as invaders and settlers, immigrants from Troy.”
Greece and Rome are the natural benchmarks of the man. Ovid is as alive to him as Patrick White. Homer is a contemporary source. The gods are still around, perhaps even in the hills of Brisbane and certainly everywhere in great art. Christianity seems hardly to engage his imagination. Ditto Judaism. This absence, in someone so steeped in the culture of the West, is extraordinary – and once again bracing. On the evidence presented, Malouf is pagan.
The gaps in the pattern leave this man, who has written so much about his life, rather a mystery. Politics is also absent from these essays. Power seems hardly to interest him. And he has little to say about sex. It is entirely his choice to make, but Malouf is the least confessional of gay men. He doesn’t apologise and doesn’t explain. He leaves sex to fiction.
Malouf poses a big question in Being There: why does art delight us? What do we find in paintings, plays, poems, novels, dance and music that brings us such pleasure? “What is the nature of our satisfaction? What is the ground of that capacity for simple delight in us on which so much complexity can be built?”
He finds the answer in the body, in its heartbeat and breath. “All music,” he writes, “takes us back to the body.” So does all performance, from opera to acrobatics. So do writing and painting. All have the same knack of stripping away our preoccupations and leaving us more aware than ever of what Malouf calls “the presentness of things – that enlivening sense of our own being, in space, in time, in the world, that is the real pleasure of art”.
We break free. “Our spirit soars.” At times we glimpse other worlds more “real” than our own and we are taken again into those “dark places in ourselves” where we may find “something energising, uplifting, healing”. Great art, it would seem, lands us back where he began on sweltering mornings under the floorboards at 12 Edmondstone Street.
Malouf’s passion for opera is almost as old as his love of the movies. He has seen all of both. He was briefly, and with great distinction, an opera critic for the National Times in what was not quite the heyday of the since-deceased Fairfax weekly. He served for years on the board of Opera Australia. And in the late 1970s he was commissioned to write the libretto and Richard Meale the music for one of the two or three finest operas yet to come out of this country, Voss.
Patrick White’s novel is an epic exploration of Australia. Malouf had been tracking across the same territory most of his life. White sent a visionary manic into the desert. Malouf brought to bear a unique, cosmopolitan intelligence on the puzzles of this country. His set piece 1998 Boyer Lectures and mighty 2003 Quarterly Essay ‘Made in England’ are both republished in A First Place.
The spirit of that inquiry, if not the gorgeous detail, was already there in the spare poetry of the Voss libretto. Those of us who were there will never forget the opening night at the Adelaide Festival in 1986. So many voices were contending on the stage, White’s and Meale’s and Malouf’s. But in the last moments it seemed Malouf was speaking directly to his country.
When will Australia realise its future, a man asks at the foot of the memorial to the dead explorer. “Now. Now,” comes the reply. “Every moment that we live, and breathe, and love and suffer. Now. Now … And what we do not know the air will tell us, the air will tell us.”
The great ovation that night seemed to mix wonder with relief. Malouf was delivering a welcome message: that this country does not have to be invented. The great enterprise is already under way and has been, perhaps, forever. We must pay it serious attention – and three volumes of occasional writing is serious attention – but it is already happening. And what we don’t yet know about ourselves and this place, we will learn in time. The air will tell us.
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