Books

Alex Miller
The Passage of Love

Alex Miller is a gifted writer whose most compelling books – Journey to the Stone Country, for example, or Autumn Laing – have a simplicity of vision, an earthiness and poignancy, an integrity and grace few can match. How surprising and disappointing then that his new novel, The Passage of Love, is such a shambles: slack, unshapely and disheartening.

It begins with a melancholy old writer, Robert Crofts, reflecting on the theme of freedom and how as a young man he always took his independence for granted. He thinks about his recent appearance at a prison book club. He wonders at the symbolism of a pair of wedge-tailed eagles soaring overhead. He reads an essay by John Berger. And then – at last – he decides the time has come for him to tell the story of that young man and how he struggled to become a writer.

Switch on the wavy flashback effect and there he is: a much younger Robert Crofts, an Englishman living in a boarding house and washing bottles at the Abbotsford brewery in Melbourne. He’s fresh from a stint as a ringer up north and longs to tell the world about how unjustly the Indigenous stockmen he worked beside were treated. He gets it on with a laconic woman who encourages him to write the story for a left-wing newspaper she edits. Then he is advised by a fellow boarder, an economist, that he needs to go to university and read the greats of literature if he wants to be a real writer.

Robert thrills to this idea, but his leftie lover is not so keen and gives him the flick. Not to worry. The economist knows a fine middle-class girl who’s simply desperate to meet a serious-minded English cowboy with literary ambitions. The two meet and they’re hitched in no time, despite Robert’s misgivings.

This, of course, is Miller’s own life we’re reading about, at least in outline. The Passage of Love is a fictionalised account of the years before Miller had his first book published and before he became a full-time writer. We have to call it fictionalised – the names have been changed and the usual novelistic conventions, the old codes and limitations, are all observed – but like a lot of Miller’s work, this is a book that sticks pretty close to the contours of fact.

So is it autofiction or perhaps autobiographical faction? Maybe, but the trouble is that such terms suggest an analytical or interpretive intention, an artfulness that is singularly lacking in Miller’s endless desultory circlings around his faded theme.

And it’s that feeling of purposelessness, of being hopelessly adrift in an enormous sea of a book, that makes The Passage of Love so frustrating. It’s the spectacle of a writer who still has an instinct for the beat and the poise of a well-turned sentence but who has forgotten what it means to write.

What has happened to the discipline of shaping the raw material of anecdote into art? It has disappeared beneath so many drab descriptions of a marriage in perpetual crisis.

And yet there are moments that make you remember Alex Miller really can write, that he is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award and the author of such concentrated and radiant books as The Ancestor Game.

In a section towards the middle of the book, Robert meets two older friends of his new wife, Martin and Birte, German-Jewish immigrants who experienced terrible things in Europe. Martin lends the would-be writer a copy of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and tells him to read it and report back. Then Martin and Birte debate whether literature can ever be used for evil. It’s so good it could almost be a scene from The Magic Mountain, an argument between Settembrini and Naphta with Robert Crofts as the young Castorp, all agog at this fabulous duet of high moral seriousness on display.

And in the final third of the book, Robert and his wife buy a farm outside Braidwood in New South Wales in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. Here in the sweet air of the Southern Tablelands, a bit too late, The Passage of Love achieves a belated vibrancy. The writing becomes more focused, with a far greater sense of narrative momentum. And there are revelations of a real wisdom of a philosophical and psychological kind that tempt us to think that this is where Miller should have started.

Here, for example, looking down at the house he is soon to live in, Robert reflects on the destiny of ruins and on the way things fall apart:

He saw the construction of the cottage told a story of declining fortunes and a gradual abandonment of traditional values and materials. Time and skills had been lost, and the last people who had lived here had turned from the old ways entirely to a more makeshift way of life. Then they had left, leaving behind them the signs of their own decline.

The whole book is pervaded by an atmosphere of looming sadness, but at least on the farm the passage of poor Robert’s protracted love problem opens onto a larger vista that is also a more intimate and involving one. It is as though the lovingly evoked landscape of the Araluen valley, with its forests and mists and dilapidated cottages, has insisted on its own truth.

But The Passage of Love is such a strange book. It is a fictionalised memoir about Miller as a young man writing a fictionalised memoir about his life as a jackeroo. The duplication is disconcerting and invites an unhappy comparison. Memories shadow memories as the old man pursues his younger self but falls behind.

Reading this book it is impossible not to reflect on how sparkling and natural those early novels still seem today, how cogent and well shaped. Compared with them, this new book just feels cumbersome and laborious, a weird reminiscence padded out and served up as fiction.  JR

Allen & Unwin, 600pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Alex Miller, The Passage of Love". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR

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