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Book Review : The Literary Wonders Down Under

February 20, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature edited by Leonie Kramer and Adrian Mitchell (Oxford University Press: $49.95)

Let me say first that I have read "The Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature." No "read in it," as evasive critics all across the nation are remarking (even as you read this) about books they're going to award prizes to but aren't all that sure about, but read it. All of it. Let me say, second, that the most pertinent quotation in the almost 600 pages here occurs on Page 2: "Readers of 'The Oxford History of Australian Literature' will find the anthology a useful accompaniment to that text. In turn, the 'History' provides bibliographical detail and a critical commentary which will enable readers to extend their reading in the subject."

What that cryptic disclaimer means is that here are dozens of prose pieces (stories, essays, excerpts from novels), and hundreds of poems, and yes, they are arranged in chronological order. Beyond that, here is "New Criticism" taken to wretched excess: "George Essex Evans (1863-1909) Poet. Born in London; came to Australia in 1881." And that's it , for Mr. Evans, and for all the Australian writers here. There is nothing else, not the barest hint of whether or not a writer is considered "good," or "important," or "of historical interest only." The works aren't even dated, so that Harry F. Heseltine's really wonderful essay on the "awareness of horror, of panic and emptiness" in Australian literature occurs, floating , as it were, swirling in time; Heseltine was born in 1931--we're grudgingly told that much, but when did he write this, and why?

'Brilliant Careers'

No, we must learn from the text and the text alone. And deduce from what does and does not appear. You won't find Helen Garner here, or Elizabeth Jolley--whose novels have been so eagerly received in the United States. You won't find Robyn Davidson. And from the 19th Century, Miles Franklin never appears, although characters in other stories ironically refer to each other's "brilliant careers," allusions to Franklin's most popular book. And there's no scrap of A. B. Facey's "A Fortunate Life," a diary from the last century that must surely qualify as a classic. And Peter Carey (whose "Illywhacker" bids to be as vast, strenuous and joyful as our "Moby Dick") is here represented grudgingly with one puny anti-war story. . . .

So what does tell us? It's marvelous, actually. Here, on paper, we can see once and for all how much literary history is "made up." How much the "Establishment" decides, and how much we roll over and let them decide; plead with them to decide for us. Who is more "important," Longfellow or Lowell? Who is more "important," Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer? If the reader's secret answer is "none of the above," it doesn't matter; stick them in an anthology. Once they're safe between hard covers with dates on them, we'll never have to read them again--just assign them, right? And rant, when the students turn in the same term paper, until it's yellow around the edges.

A Truly Weird Place

In some single-page orphic commentaries, the editors mention "isolation" and "ambivalence toward the Australian landscape." What overwhelms the reader is how truly weird Australia must have been, both to the original convicts and their governors, and to the explorers. The aborigines, the gum trees, the bush itself, all so very far from what was England. There is a mushy tendency for American critics to lump America and Australia together (I've done it myself, more than once), simply on the grounds of a "white," conquering race, a subdued indigenous population, a national movement from East to West, but the comparisons don't hold. The Australian landscape was simply too forbidding.

"The loneliness of deaths out here adds a peculiar melancholy to these record," writes a 19th-Century journalist, and letter-writer Rachel Henning, at about the same time, opines, "It always seems to be a terrible end to be 'lost in the bush,' I had rather hear of anyone being killed by the blacks at once."

Again and again, mention of the "Missing Friends Column" in every small town newspaper turns up, and Henry Lawson writes of going to the funeral of a perfect stranger because--it soon becomes apparent--they were all "lost in the bush."

A Land of Afternoons

In the 20th Century, horror is painted over with "mateship" for the men, and domesticity for the women. Elizabeth Harrower (born 1928) writes in "The Beautiful Climate," of the torture of living in "a land where it was always afternoon ... 'Everyone lolling about. Nobody doing anything.' " The opposite of horror is safety. And impatience with that physical and emotional sense of stasis is mirrored in the Australian contemporary writers. All the Civil Defense people worry about, one writer mentions, is the problem of fallout. No one can imagine anyone wasting a rocket on Sydney.

But the bush is still out there. Nothingness is with every one of us. There is still something lonely about death and chancy about life. And the last eighth of this book is--almost in spite of its minimalist editors--luminous with some of the very best writers we have in the English language. These are serious minds attempting (bravely, and as though they are the very first ones on earth to do so) to solve the riddles of life and death. Classy work. Almost "required" for Americans.

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