The Mocking Country

Hazel Rowley, The Australian, August 25, 2007


WHY aren’t Australians proud of the writers and artists who have sprung from our soil? The French treat theirs as heroes. The Irish love theirs. Even though James Joyce fled from Ireland as a young man and much of his writing is ferociously difficult, you’d be hard put to find a self-respecting Irish soul who hasn’t read something by him, and taxi drivers will tell you: “Today is James Joyce’s birthday.”

Christina Stead surely vies with Patrick White for the status of our greatest writer, but most Australians couldn’t tell you whether she is dead or alive, let alone name one of her books.

Yet Australia is known the world over for its writers festivals.

Those of us who were lucky enough to attend the Sydney Writers Festival in June came away exhilarated. While ferries chugged past in the harbour and cockatoos screeched in the fig trees, we listened to people who took ideas seriously, who wielded language with care, who were moved by different aspects of our human condition and contributed to our understanding of the world.

No one there needed to be reminded of the importance to our culture of writers, public intellectuals, good journalists: people who make us think and raise the standard of debate in this country. Nor did anyone need to be reminded how much we owed to independent bookshops, and those newspapers and journals, publishers and editors who cared about books and open debate, rather than merely making a buck.

You can’t understand a culture if you don’t speak the language and you will never understand a culture in any depth if you don’t read its writers. My generation was taught almost nothing about Australian literature at school. Australian studies did not come into universities until the 1970s, and now — a tragic sign of the times — they have almost entirely disappeared.

I was just back in Australia for a month, partly to promote the reissue of my book, Christina Stead: A Biography (1993). All in all, I had such a good time and was received so generously after living abroad for 10 years that it seems sour of me to mention the petit probleme we know as our national syndrome. But it’s there still, perhaps more than ever, and frankly, we need to talk about it. I found that people readily toss into the air that term tall poppy syndrome (an expression nobody overseas has a clue about) and they shrug a little helplessly, as if to infer that it is deeply regrettable, this need we seem to have to belittle our local talent; indeed, to punish people for being artistic or intellectual.

Yet I noticed these same people no sooner sighted a bright-coloured bloom standing slightly higher than the waving mass than they got out their shears. “He’s a wanker,” they would assure me. “He’s full of shit.” They were nearly always referring to people I admired, people who made a substantial contribution to the arts and public debate, people who were outspoken, and had conviction and passion. “She’s got tickets on herself,” I was told. “He’s up himself.” Or they would tell me they liked some semi-articulate television personality because “she’s not pretentious”.

That, it seems, is the ultimate sin. Being pretentious. It’s funny that the world sees us as a sausage-sizzling paradise, bathed in beatitude. Stead’s two Australian novels, Seven Poor Men of Sydney and For Love Alone, show that it is not like that at all and never has been. For whatever reason, ours is not a generous culture. Look how much our social exchange involves gibes and mockery. We even express affection by denigrating each other. (One of those habits we have to drop mighty fast in the US, where they don’t understand this at all.)

We flatten our vowels, we flatten our voices, we flatten out any richness in our use of language and we flatten each other. People who take their passions seriously are accused of taking themselves too seriously. “Plain Jane on the high horse!” her father taunts Teresa, Stead’s fictional counterpart in For Love Alone.

Australian artists routinely talk about the painful struggle they have been through among our plodding pragmatists and all too often they have felt it necessary to flee overseas.

Born in Sydney in 1902, Stead brimmed with talent, but nobody here told her so. By 1928, at age 26, she finally had saved enough money to escape to London. Later in life she would write to a friend: “Always I felt like a cripple. Do we all? My father thought I was ugly.”

Without her ostensible pretensions, Stead would have gone precisely nowhere. My god, it took courage. You’ve only got to read For Love Alone to understand how parochial Australia was back in the ’20s, how restricted it was for women, and what a risk Stead took heading off by herself on that six-week voyage across the world with the vague hope of becoming a writer.

Her first books, The Salzburg Tales and Seven Poor Men of Sydney, were published in 1934, and British and American reviewers were bowled over. When The Beauties and Furies, one of Stead’s Paris novels, appeared in the US, Clifton Fadiman wrote in The New Yorker: “I cannot see how anyone can deny Miss Stead’s position as the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf.” In her native country, Stead’s books were rarely mentioned; when they were, the reviews were often patronising. Stead thought it bizarre. So did I, as her biographer. It was not a question of two or three dismissive reviews; it was systematic.

Stead’s books were published in Britain and the US, but it was only in 1966 (the year after The Man Who Loved Children was reissued to enormous international acclaim) that an Australian house published any of her books here. Even then, Angus & Robertson only could be persuaded to publish the two Australian novels.

In 1967, Stead was awarded what was then Australia’s most generous literary prize, the Britannica Australia Award.

A week or so later, the jury changed its mind. Stead had not lived in Australia for 40 years, the press reported. “On available information it was also doubtful whether the proposed candidate’s contribution to literature was of sufficient and specific relation to Australia.”

Stead had other concerns at the time: her husband was dying. Patrick White, however, was furious. “If the higher Junta of Australian Intellect considers a novelist of genius like Christina Stead ineligible it helps explain to me why, for some time past, I have felt a foreigner in this pathetically chauvinistic parish.”

The US is far better at celebrating excellence, but it has always been parochial. Why is Stead’s most famous novel, based on her childhood in Sydney, set in Annapolis and Chesapeake Bay? Because her US publisher Simon & Schuster insisted that its readers would not want to read about Australia. Thus The Man Who Loved Children, the book that could have been the great Australian novel (certainly one of the greatest), became an American novel. For Stead, it went completely against the grain. The world she was writing about was Australian, not American. As if it were not hard enough to write about her tormented childhood, she was obliged to turn sharks into marlins, eucalyptus trees into poplars and Australian dialogue into American.

The book has been listed among the best American novels of the 20th century. Few Australians have even heard of it.

Stead’s life has “the fullness of tragedy, with its glorious peaks and dismal abysses”. This was a New York Times reviewer describing my biography, and it’s true, Stead’s life makes a compelling and moving story.

I’m pleased as punch, of course, that Melbourne University Publishing has reissued my book. It has done a beautiful job; the cover is gorgeous. And there’s something noble about this publishing venture.

The book is about Stead, and this is not Ireland. Frankly, MUP is doing this more for Australian literature than its own coffers. And it’s not exactly a reissue. The first edition was a thick book and since I like to think I’ve become a sharper storyteller through the years and more economical with words, I told MUP I would cut any sentence or end note I could without losing anything of the essence. It had to re-set the book, redo the index, but we all agree: the book has lost nothing and it has gained in pace.

When it comes to book reviewing in Australia, nothing has changed. Generosity is not our cultural practice. I hesitate to pick on one review, since I can come up with dozens that strike the same tone, but it’s only by means of an example that I can show you our national syndrome in practice. In June, my biography was reviewed in The Age. Four out of five paragraphs were glowing. The fifth paragraph I find peculiarly Australian: “It is surprising that this new edition has unremarkable design and production values, especially given that it is published under MUP’s prestigious Miegunyah imprint.

“It is also surprising that this ‘revised edition’ is actuallyonly an abridgment, and that Rowley didn’t make use of the Stead letters that were discovered in 2002.”

Surprises all around. The Stead letters were not discovered in 2002 any more than Australia was discovered in 1788. The reviewer apparently has not read the delightful volume of letters between Stead and her husband published by MUP in 2005 and neither, it seems, has she carefully read my biography, where I quote the letters extensively. Stead had asked her literary executor, Ron Geering, to destroy those precious letters and I was the one, back in the ’80s, who persuaded him not to. For the sake of Australian literary culture, I told him.

Where would we be if Australians were proud of their writers and read their books? Where would we be?

Christina Stead: A Biography, New Edition, by Hazel Rowley (The Miegunyah Press, $39.95).

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