What a place! Johnno would snarl. Brisbane was nothing: a city that blew neither hot nor cold, a place where nothing happened, and where nothing ever would happen, because it had no soul. People suffered here without significance. It was too mediocre even to be a province of hell. It would have defeated Baudelaire. A place where poetry could never occur.
—David Malouf, Johnno, 1975
We’re in the Arts West forum at the University of Melbourne on a freezing July evening and David Malouf is telling his audience that he has just re-read Johnno for the first time in more than 40 years:
The parts of the book I like best are not about either of the central characters, but all the stuff about Brisbane. It really is a history of Brisbane [in the 1940s and 1950s] which had never been written, and it’s an attempt to produce for readers all the detail of what it was like to live in that atmosphere, with that weather, and with that particular social structure. There is a huge amount of detail in the book and I treat that detail as if it were in a poem, so that there is something sensuously felt and emblematic of something larger. I think that’s probably the most successful aspect of the book.
A published poet in the 1960s, Malouf laboured for years over what would be his first novel. Johnno was finally published by University of Queensland Press in 1975. Malouf says it received ‘awful reviews’ and can still recall, word for pained word, the dismissive and patronising commentary. Some of it from mates such as Betty Riddell.
Whether writer, actor or politician, we seem hard-wired to remember those who slap us around. But a check of the record shows that along with the slights, Johnno had some serious fans from the start. Patrick White declared it to be ‘one of the best books I’ve read by an Australian and the only way to write about the love of one man for another’.* Manning Clark praised it, as did fellow poet and reviewer David Rowbotham. He compared Malouf to both Gide and Lermontov.
Although a modest seller at first, word spread and readers made up their own minds. For Queenslanders there was the brilliant shock of recognition. A book that internalised the derision—the rawness of Brisbane as the place of sweaty armpits and not much else—with Malouf turning all this into something approaching poetry. Readers elsewhere responded to the exquisite detail of domestic life and spaces, of family relations and the complexity of a remembered friendship between two very different young men. Perhaps it was the readers who could sense what the critics missed: that the urban-based realism of Johnno was the literary answer to what Donald Horne had been writing about a decade earlier. In The Lucky Country Horne lambasted intellectuals and writers who ignored the realities of Australian life and wrote instead about a dated myth of laconic rural folk. Johnno is the book that signposts a very different kind of Australian prose writing.
A celebration of great writing is at the heart of Ten Great Books—Melbourne Masterclass, the brainchild of academic Tim Lynch. It has to be the best book club in town with Lynch, a political scientist, proving for the fourth year in a row that there’s an appetite for deep discussion of ‘the greats’ and what explains their enduring appeal. This year’s offerings include the works of Darwin, Rachel Carson, Alain Fournier, Adam Smith and, at year’s end, a lecture by Dean of Arts Mark Considine on Lampedusa’s The Leopard. When I was planning my midyear lecture on Johnno, I took a punt and wrote to Malouf asking him to join the discussion. And here he is, 83, and physically almost unchanged since I last interviewed him in 1998 when he wrote A Spirit of Play for that year’s ABC Boyer Lectures.
Short of the Nobel, he has secured just about every other national and international award for works as varied as Fly away Peter, The Great World, Remembering Babylon and An Imaginary Life. In front of the masterclassers, he reflects on how early it all began:
My training as a writer began when I was about three, because one of the things I realised very early on, and I’m sure this is true for many writers, is that what you are told by your parents and by the society you live in is all untrue. Everybody is lying all the time, hiding secrets, trying to save you from discoveries that they feel you’re not ready for. So what you start doing as a young child is to lurk around the place, eavesdropping, looking through the cracks in doors and all the rest of it. The person who is doing that is getting their perfect training to be a writer. That’s what I did.
When it comes to crafting a novel, Malouf has written that ‘a hidden industry of the senses and the spirit’ gets to work. There is a precise art to this. But something else as well. One audience member asks if the process is akin to analysis. How does the writer keep a sense of judgement and not lose himself?
Oh, you don’t. Kipling was right when he said that a writer has to drift, listen and obey. That means allowing some other entity, or some other aspect of your consciousness to do the writing and to trust that. If you’re writing a novel, you have to sit down every day and within five or ten minutes you’ve fallen into a half-conscious state in which the writing is directing itself. The moment when you realise that you’re no longer in contact with that, well that’s the time to stop. So you have to trust that. I don’t want to be mystical about it, but in that kind of trance-like state you are in contact with all sorts of things in your memory, in your capacity to see things, or put things together in a way that would not be accessible to you if you remained absolutely conscious.
Something similar happens to us as readers when we ‘get lost’ in a good book, and when we enter so completely into another world that we can suspend, for a time, the weights and warps of our own lives. As Malouf says: ‘Reading a book is an experience. Everything else is irrelevant. And if the experience is sufficiently powerful people take the book into themselves. It’s why the only people I trust in the whole publishing world are the readers.’
And what of the relationship at the heart of Johnno between the bookish Dante and the wild boy Johnno, who wants to escape Brisbane and ‘shit this bitch of a country out of my system?’ Malouf has always said that his interest is in navigating the space and the tension between distance and involvement. In reimagining many of the details of the short life of his childhood friend Johnny Millner, who drowned in the Condamine at age 28, Malouf draws on the Greek-inspired Nietzschean duality as represented by Apollo and Dionysus. The former represents prudence and order (Dante) and the latter (Johnno) pursues revelry and an all-embracing experience. As the young men grow up in a city that seems devoid of romance and adventure, but at the same time shapes who they are, the two circle each other. The beauty and pathos of the novel are in a series of missed moments. Especially at the end when Dante realises he hasn’t been able to save his friend and wonders ‘about the moment when the whole course of events … quivered expectantly and might have gone another way’.
Looking back on words and feelings he articulated more than 40 years ago, Malouf says that in writing the book he was pursuing the idea ‘that as Dante says in the book, there are lots of different ways that you can fall out of society, and that’s what Johnno does. Johnno is the character who is set on a destructive path’. Malouf describes the real-life Johnny Millner as ‘the maddest character I think I’ve ever known’. The book’s fictional equivalent sets off to indulge his Dionysian spirit via drinking, whoring, a trip to the Congo, car theft, conspiracy theorising and drug-dealing. By the end of it all he seems wasted and, worst of all, he’s back where he started.
In recent years Malouf has reconnected with some of his old Brisbane Grammar schoolmates who have shared their own recollections, among them the time that Millner/Johnno secreted bags of flour in the ceiling of a room at the University of Queensland where the governing Senate was due to meet. Millner dropped the entire contents on his masters. ‘That’s just one story,’ says Malouf, ‘and there are plenty of others. Even now I look and still wonder about things he told me and whether they were true.’
It’s a relationship that holds its mysteries. But via Johnno, Malouf’s childhood friend has achieved a rare kind of immortality.
*Patrick White, quoted in David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, Random House, 1991.