Books 2016 #1
The most significant event in recent Australian publishing has achieved a milestone this year – the Text Classics series reached its centenary title. But, wondrous as Mena Calthorpe’s The Dyehouse is, there is another Text reissue that spoke even more powerfully to me this year – Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel, a novel first published in 1973.
How to describe it? It’s like a meteorite from Krypton landed on Ozlit’s bindi-eye-riddled lawn, greenly glowing. Or perhaps a mosaic of imagined intimacies, based on characters the Australian-born author encountered during her wandering years in Europe, spent in the company of William Blake, her beloved husband, obliged to leave America during the McCarthy era because of his Communist sympathies.
It’s all talk – literally. Stead is a recording angel of the threadbare European middle class of the postwar years: those living in straitened circumstances and on borrowed time, wrenched out of context of nation or class, chattering away as if language itself was suffering from hyperinflation. The power of Stead’s approach lies in the fact that she is one of them: an unaffiliated genius, trapped in a mountain sanatorium out of Nabokov or Mann, staffed by the crabbed anarchs from Fawlty Towers.
Shirley Hazzard died in early December but her writing will live for as long as readers care for literature with a capital L. When, earlier in 2016, a selection of her nonfiction pieces were assembled and introduced by Australian academic Brigitta Olubas under the title We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think, they opened up a wing of Hazzard’s oeuvre that had been shuttered for years. Her essays and reviews showed her to be a forensic critic and a surprising partisan for Ozlit; her writings on the United Nations (where she once worked) revealed the high-minded political idealism that undergirded her fiction; and the lectures she delivered at an Ivy League university during the height of the postmodern ’80s saw a recalcitrant humanist in graceful defence of literary tradition and posterity.
Hazzard’s nostalgia for the best of the Western canon may have been invincible, but it was not naive. Her late speeches and fragments of memoir worry at the loss of civility in the public realm, the eclipse of statesmanship in political office, the shunting of reason and rhetoric from ordinary discourse. She was old school, of course. But today, for glaringly obvious reasons, her words feel more necessary than ever.
The stories in Fiona McFarlane’s debut short story collection display a prodigious variousness. Some, concerned with Australians abroad, recall the offshore cosmopolitanism of the aforementioned Shirley Hazzard; others, set locally, are so closely tuned to patterns of speech or textures of place that they could have leapt from Tim Winton’s imagination. Hers is a talent capable of revivifying the past or recording the present, depicting shades-of-brown rural realism or the suburban sublime. The only thing the pieces in The High Places don’t do is settle into the usual fictional ruts.
Take the title story of the collection, in which a farmer on a drought-stricken sheep station asks his family to pray for rain. He doesn’t go in much for religion but a series of inexplicable events obliges him into a gesture of pure Old Testament supplication. Imagine Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling – that bizarre reworking of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son – set somewhere west of Moree and you’ll have some sense of the eerie mash-up McFarlane generates, between religious belief and fictional creation.
She achieved immediate prominence with The Night Guest, and this collection builds on that sense that a remarkable new voice has arrived in our literature. If this is how McFarlane writes at the outset of her career, we can only look forward to what comes next. AF
Best New Talent
Micheline Lee, The Healing Party
Lee’s family drama and kitsch tragicomedy of religious faith, set in Melbourne’s outer suburbs during the awkward ’80s, was a cracking debut.
Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor
A rogue and a bit of a snob, but Fermor’s selected letters are as charming and erudite as the man must have been.
Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire
His American publishers paid almost $2 million for Hallberg’s 900-page novel. They probably shouldn’t have.
Nicolas Rothwell, Quicksilver
It’s dazzling, of course. The disappointment lay in its brevity, just shy of 200 pages. It could have been twice as long.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "Books 2016 #1". Subscribe here.