Blesok no. 54, May-June, 2007
Every Move You Make
Ten years have passed since David Malouf's last novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek; 13 since Remembering Babylon, which many people regard as his finest achievement. It would be presumptuous to ask if we have seen the last of the novels: his long career in literature has always had a sure, sophisticated direction, moving fluently from poetry to fiction to libretti to criticism.
Malouf has spoken of his affection for short stories, even those put aside as unconvincing or unrealised. He will go back to them years later and find out if they speak to him. He enjoys the genre because of the freedom it offers to raid different types of consciousness, unlike the consuming task of shaping one world, one sensibility, one set of destinies. In his early 70s, the absorption of novelising may no longer appeal to him.
Six years after his last collection, Dream Stuff, Malouf has assembled seven stories in Every Move You Make. The length varies but the voice is consistent: taut and unembellished. The range of subjects, ages, characters, milieux is as wide as ever, with temporal limits. We have learned not to expect portraits of contemporary Australia from Malouf, who has always seemed happier with colonial subjects or ideas of childhood or wartime themes. Clive James, reviewing Dream Stuff, wished that Malouf would bring the focus of his attention to the present day, and suggested the work was mired in Arcadia. Certainly, in the new collection the characters -- often soulful and introspective -- move through a kind of spacious, isolated world that bears little resemblance to the affluent, brusque, voracious Australia of the 21st century.
As in most of Malouf's writings, the characters' stories are personal, yearning, metaphysical, without any overt philosophising. Little happens in these stories, as in life, as Virginia Woolf once reminded us. Malouf is wary of plot. The stories unfold like moods, like sweetly orchestrated sonatas. (Malouf has remarked that, in his quest for affinities, he structures his books like music.) For the characters, this can entail movement away from family or connection or the past, into an intensely private future. Several characters seem to use these stories to unravel doubt or to understand the past: not in a crude search for wisdom or enlightenment (Malouf is too subtle an artist for that) but in order to grow up, or grow away. Frequently, the movement is literal. Charlie Dowd, the young conscript in War Baby, bound for Vietnam, is conscious that “Walking was another form of thinking -- or maybe unthinking -- in which the body took over, went its own way and the mind went with it.”
Charlie is another of Malouf's troubled, affecting young men, almost maimed by the future before it has used him. We meet more youths elsewhere, especially in The Valley of Lagoons (based on a real incident), in which a boy of 16 is finally allowed to go on a pig hunt with his friends, with dangerous consequences. Malouf has written often and feelingly about children and adolescents, their insight, their vulnerabilities. His empathy with minors is usually impeccable, but here the language of one of the boys seems forced, unreal (“if this goes wrong it'll be the finish of me. For me it's all or nothing”). The characters' sexuality in most of the stories is a kind of blur or irrelevance, with degrees of conviction: the conscript's virginity is a monastic given; he must rely on a worldly mate to cure him.
Notwithstanding the various settings and social complications, the pulse or beat of these stories seems predictable, a measure perhaps of the genre's easy roundedness. We know by now that most of the stories will end in a kind of gloaming. Eventually, these people will step away from others or themselves and luxuriate in a new light or music or knowing. Modest their situations may be, but not their revelations. They are all changed, and the fortunate ones sense new beginnings, such as the Hungarian woman in the title story (perhaps the best thing in the book), mourning the enigmatic Mitchell Maze, but ready, revivified, “(letting) the warm summer dark flow in around her” -- the Maloufian signature swoon, full of lyricism and innocence.
At times, decorum threatens to stultify these lives. We almost crave action, open conflict, more tangible tests of character. So it is a relief to encounter the broad satire of Mrs Porter and the Rock, whose widowed, eponymous heroine surveys Uluru and its tourist trappings through jaundiced eyes. Mrs Porter recalls her late husband, who got down on his knees each morning to polish his boots (“Nugget boot polish was what he believed in”). Wry flaws, for once, are a character's destiny: “Because she had never given up the hard little knot of selfishness that her mother had warned would one day do her in.”
In Malouf we encounter a writer incapable of an ugly phrase or facile characterisation. The attention to detail and the sense of presence are acute, as in his superb memoir, 12 Edmonstone Street (1985). Increasingly, one reads Malouf for the prose. There may be nothing here to rival the diabolically sharp Closer in Dream Stuff, but his sentences still gleam at us in all their lapidary sheen and poise. Mostly the writing is compact, but towards the end of The Valley of Lagoons there is a virtuoso 12-line flourish worthy of F.Scott Fitzgerald. In a drab and solecistic age, that is a considerable gift.