Cover of book: A First Place

David Malouf
A First Place

What does it mean to inhabit a place? For older, settled societies the question makes so little sense it can only be answered with tautology: we belong to the land and the land belongs to us; our home is the place where we feel “at home”. This history of soil and blood intermingled, of long-time dwelling in a place by a particular group, is one German speakers call Heimat – an almost untranslatable term suggestive of a longing for ancestral homelands, for wholeness and unity. It is this peculiar experience of dwelling that finds its earliest, and its most profound expression still, among indigenous Australians.

But what about those who came later, after 1788, bringing guns and germs, politics and laws, and a language wholly unsuited to describing the island continent in which they found themselves? How did they overcome an initial sense of alienation and begin to dwell properly – to feel “at home”? And how successful have they been in doing so, despite their more provisional status? These are the questions that A First Place, a selection of David Malouf’s speeches, articles and biographical sketches over three decades, returns to over and again, from multiple perspectives yet with a singular focus.

Unlike the Americans, we found ourselves in the opposite hemisphere to Europe, with contrary seasons, bewilderingly different plants and animals, and disorienting stars overhead. This has meant a greater tension, for us, between environment and place on one hand, and on the other all the complex associations of an inherited culture.

“And this form of complexity,” Malouf continues, “the paradoxical condition of having our lives simultaneously in two places, two hemispheres, may be just the thing that is most original and interesting in us ... our uniqueness might lie just here, in the tension between environment and culture rather than what we can salvage by insisting on either the one or the other.”

The sometimes halting process by which these two distinct modes of experience have been brought into closer alignment is, for Malouf, the golden thread that runs through an emerging narrative of “Australianness”. And while that narrative is necessarily inflected by the politics of federation and statehood; by the friction between country and city, region and capital; by the Anzac experience, the dark days of potential invasion during World War II and the stasis of the Menzies era that followed, the story of our cultural evolution occupies a subtly alternate dimension to our mainstream, official history. It is less tangible; inscribed in everyday objects, vernacular architecture, popular songs, and particularly in those efforts of the imagination that, in Vance Palmer’s words, managed to penetrate the soil of Australia  ‘‘with love and imagination’’.

So it is that the Bicentenary of 1988 is greeted with ambivalence by Malouf – a round number without much positive significance beyond reminding us to take a collective sighting down the long barrel of our history. Yet a relatively obscure event in the otherwise momentous year of 1939 – publication of Kenneth Slessor’s poem South Country – is described in Malouf’s 1998 Boyer Lectures as an “important moment in the development of consciousness in Australia ... a poem that grants permission to us all to be men and women for whom the inner life is real and matters”.

Once the poetic, visionary aspect of Malouf’s project is appreciated it becomes possible to reconcile the resolutely private artist with the public figure writing, as he does here, “on invitation”, or at another’s request. Malouf is an unlikely speechifier. Indeed it is hard to think of another body of work in this country, Randolph Stow’s aside, that seems so firmly turned away from our hectoring public realm – the place in which politics, media and general rhetorical intemperance coalesce.

Yet it is the exquisite microtonal progression of Malouf’s style – its determined concentration on the domestic, its evident desire to rescue small human story from the wreckage of History or the distant abstractions of mythology – that grants these tactical incursions into the social and political everyday a sense of charm and a subversive lightness. His ideas are communicated with such suavity and decorum that their deeper implications might easily be passed over.

He is, for instance, generous regarding the imperialism, whether military or cultural, of postwar America, arguing against the intellectual snobs of his youth that it was the Hollywood dream factory that first smuggled into Australia aspects of artistic modernism and its revolutionary potential. Yet these benign observations have darker reflections. Of the Aussie 1950s – a formative period for the young Malouf – he writes, again in his Boyer Lecture: “It seems to me now to be a world that was forever crouched in an attitude of aggrieved and aggressive self-defence. Closed in on itself. A stagnant backwater and sullenly proud of the fact.”

This was a world that “had not come to terms with its wounds, deep ones, that something in ... the Digger code … did not allow us to speak about or even feel as deeply as we might need to do if we were to be whole again”. Insights such as these are stunning to the degree that they upset the usual hierarchies of antipodean value. In Malouf’s telling, it was that celebrated blokeish stoicism that did us in – and it would only be when Australian culture developed creative forms that explored the interior, the psychological, the feminine, that it would recover some balance essential to wholeness and health.

But, since he remains reticent on the matter, it falls to the rest of us to acknowledge that Malouf’s creative works formed one crucial component in establishing this new balance. It was his stories, and the lucidity and intelligence with which they lay claim to the world about them, that helped Australians to turn their habitation into a home.  GW

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2014 as "David Malouf, A First Place".

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