November 2015

Arts & Letters

In conscious exile

By Geordie Williamson

Randolph Stow, image undated. Courtesy of Fremantle Press and Text Publishing.

Rediscovering the novels of Randolph Stow

The Text Classics series has had some coups since its inauguration in 2012 – re-publication of works by David Ireland and Elizabeth Harrower spring to mind – but nothing on this scale. In August, Text reissued five novels by Randolph Stow, with accompanying essays by significant Australian writers and critics.

It is a precious moment. For the first time, readers can get an overarching sense of the achievements of an author once regarded as heir to Patrick White. They may also gain some insight into why his reputation later faded. It is a rare pleasure for those of us who are already fans to have these works at our disposal, but, more broadly, the story of Randolph Stow and his legacy is fascinating for what it reveals about the limits of our attention and our affection as a culture.

His biography we know in outline, if not close contour. (Two books on his life are in the works; Gabrielle Carey’s wonderful quasi-memoir of the man, Moving Among Strangers, arrived last year.) The descendant of graziers, lawyers and colonial-era politicians, Julian Randolph Stow was born in 1935 in Geraldton, Western Australia, and moved to Perth for his last three years of high school and undergraduate studies. In 1957, after completing an arts degree at the University of Western Australia, he spent several months as a ration storeman at the Forrest River Mission in the state’s far north – and never really returned to his home patch. Soon afterward he became a tutor at the University of Adelaide, and then studied at the University of Sydney ahead of a posting to the Trobriand Islands off the east coast of New Guinea in 1959. He was to be a cadet patrol officer and assistant to the government anthropologist; five months in he resigned after suffering a breakdown, the causes of which remain ambiguous.

Teaching roles and fellowships took Stow farther and farther from home: a lectureship in English at the University of Leeds, a Harkness Fellowship in the US, and then back to Britain for increasing periods. He lived first in East Bergholt, Suffolk, and then nearby in Harwich, an old harbour town on the Essex coast. Suffolk and Essex had been home to forbears from both sides of his family. What Stow gradually undertook was a reverse migration, back to the counties from which his ancestors had set off for Australia generations before.

This decision was as much a point of principle – an extension of his literary project, his personal philosophy – as a lifestyle choice: “a rigorous personal act of undoing colonisation: of returning things to how they might have been”, as academic and author Nicholas Jose has put it. Stow, whose early reputation as a poet and prose writer rested largely on his depictions of antipodean landscape and his groundbreaking representations of Aboriginal Australia, would consciously uncouple from those books that first made his name.

Stow forbade re-publication of his first two novels, A Haunted Land (1956) and The Bystander (1957), written while he was still an undergraduate, and he modified parts of his third (the Miles Franklin–winning To the Islands, which appeared when the author was the ripe old age of 22) and included an autocritical preface when the novel was re-published in the early ’80s. (The Text reissue, with an introduction by Bernadette Brennan, includes this preface.) Stow’s fourth novel, Tourmaline, was mostly composed on a long cruise from Australia to England. As Gabrielle Carey points out in her introduction to the Text reissue, the first book Stow was comfortable with has long been regarded as problematic:

Tourmaline was published in England in 1963 and subsequently greeted with bewilderment in Australia. Dame Leonie Kramer dismissed it as “The Waste Land with a few more bar scenes”. Anthony J Hassall calls it Stow’s least understood book. It is one of the most overtly modernist of his nine novels – at least of the early half dozen, published between 1956 and 1967 – and the author’s favourite, perhaps because it combined his talents as poet and prose writer. Indeed, the first few lines could easily be reformatted into poetry: “I say we have a bitter heritage, but that is not to run it down. Tourmaline is the estate, and if I call it heritage I do not mean that we are free in it. More truly we are tenants; tenants of shanties rented from the wind, tenants of the sunstruck miles.”

Carey notes that this pairing of poetry and prose is just one of many “twin themes” in Tourmaline, “among them what Stow might have called the dual myths of Australia: paradise and prison, antipodean Eden and waterless wasteland, land of the spirit and of the Antichrist”. In its overt Eastern mysticism, its untrammelled experiments in style, Tourmaline reflects in form and content a new-found freedom – one inextricably bound up with an ambivalence regarding the author’s relationship to his birthplace.

Yet Stow’s next novel, 1965’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, is a work that delights in its depictions of Western Australian space and hews closest to the author’s paradisal early memories. This more benign and realist narrative, an elegy of childhood lost, concerned with masculinity and wartime experience, has never been out of print. It is the official classic of Stow’s oeuvre.

What the reissues show us, however, particularly the three novels written and published during Stow’s years of self-exile in England, is that some of his finest work was yet to come. The perennial concerns of Stow’s writing – the physical and psychic damage of colonial experience for colonised and coloniser both, the complex marriage of person and place, the essential loneliness of the self – simply went underground, offshore. Take Visitants, Stow’s dark masterpiece of 1979, introduced by Drusilla Modjeska:

It is a novel of voices – echoes, rumours, languages understood and misunderstood – given to us with no controlling narrator … Stow doesn’t do what so many novels of PNG do … which is to resort to ethnographic asides and explanation. The colonial voices show us the deafness of those who cannot hear the distant stirrings [of political and cultural change], but for us as readers to comprehend them we must listen carefully to the Kiriwina voices, as each speaks from the perspective of its own perceptions of what it takes as normal. This, to my mind, is the radical achievement of Visitants, for it not only turns the colonial gaze back on itself, the view from the “other” – the blundering white man in the tropics, a not-unfamiliar trope – but it incorporates into the text the language, the patterns of syntax and expression of the Kiriwina language.

As Modjeska explains, Visitants is not an easy book. Its depiction of the obscure social shame and malarial breakdown of Patrol Officer Alistair Cawdor is unrelenting and ultimately appalling – an instance of tragic cultural misprision and individual self-destruction played out during a breakdown of intratribal relations and violence on a community-wide scale.

That Visitants is set in the late 1950s, draws heavily on Stow’s time in the Trobriand Islands and was two decades in gestation tells us something about the significance of the author’s own breakdown in PNG. That this brief period was the pivot on which the author’s life subsequently turned is reinforced by the subject matter of the novel that immediately followed Visitants. Where Visitants is a story of individual and collective ruin, The Girl Green as Elderflower is a narrative of healing: bucolic in setting, concerned with familial bonds and the return to health of a young colonial who fell ill in the tropics as Cawdor did.

The novel’s Suffolk village backdrop and its concern with mythic tales from the region’s medieval past might suggest a severing of ties with antipodean subjects, but in her introduction Kerryn Goldsworthy correctly insists that this country remains a central concern: “In its preoccupation with the complex problems of an emergent postcolonial world, the English roots of first-world antipodeans, the effects of landscape and exile on character and fate, and the otherness of strangers in strange lands, The Girl Green as Elderflower is an intensely Australian book.”

The effect of these two works on Stow’s reputation back home was presumably unhelpful. These strange, stylistically complex, geographically removed novels spoke of personal damage in a way that felt fiercely private; they were tough to square with that love letter to the Australian landscape The Merry-go-round in the Sea. Stow had well and truly concluded his move to Britain by the beginning of the 1980s, and he was to publish only one further novel and a scattering of essays and book reviews before his death in 2010. Gradually, the most talented and celebrated Australian author of the post-White generation slipped out of sight, out of mind.

Yet Randolph Stow never relinquished Australia as a subject: how could he do so, when conscious exile from his birthplace was the central fact of his later life? Even at the end of his career as a novelist, with the publication of 1984’s The Suburbs of Hell, Stow was still smuggling antipodean experience into his pages. This final work saw him translate the chilling efforts of Perth serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, “the Nedlands Monster”, to a fictionalised version of his hometown of Harwich.

As Michelle de Kretser points out in a superbly rendered and intensely admiring afterword, all that was there at the beginning of the author’s career remains at its conclusion, only clarified: a wise, sharp, wounded intelligence, a mastery of the detail of character and place, and a melancholy grasp of the awful exigencies of human existence. She writes, “In Stow, the divergent impulses of scientist and shaman converge (he was, after all, a poet: by definition at odds with common sense). Novels like Visitants and Tourmaline yoke a compulsion to depict the world accurately to a conviction that the world is not as it seems.”

Only the literary novel, she concludes, “a lively and elastic thing, can accommodate bizarre shacklings of this sort”. In the case of The Suburbs of Hell, she suggests, Stow grafts something visionary onto the calcified form of the whodunnit. This last distillation of Stow’s fiction reminds de Kretser of Edward Said’s proposed characteristics of an artist’s late style: counter-intuitive, intransigent, unafraid. What these reissues show us, in wondrous or abysmal detail, is how one of our great writers grew into those descriptors, even as we slowly forgot he was there.

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.

@gamwilliamson

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