In human reckoning, Golden Ages are always already in the past. The Greek poet Hesiod, in Works and Days, posited Five Ages of Mankind: Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and Iron (Ovid made do with four). Writing in the Romantic period, Thomas Love Peacock (author of such now almost forgotten novels as Nightmare Abbey, 1818) defined The Four Ages of Poetry (1820) in which their order was Iron, Gold, Silver and Bronze. To the Golden Age, in their archaic greatness, belonged Homer and Aeschylus. The Silver Age, following it, was less original, but nevertheless ‘the age of civilised life’. The main issue of Peacock’s thesis was the famous response that he elicited from his friend Shelley—Defence of Poetry (1821).
Let us take a long step and a deep breath: move to prose from poetry, and to Australia in the 1940s, there to find four of the greatest of local novelists, if at different stages of their careers. Henry Handel Richardson died in 1946. Her last work was the posthumously published autobiography, Myself When Young (1948). Her trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, appeared as single volume in 1930. In the year of Richardson’s death, Martin Boyd’s finest novel, Lucinda Brayford, was published. His Langton tetralogy and unfictionalised autobiographies lay ahead, before a lonely, expatriate death in Rome in 1972. Although she would write on for decades, Christina Stead’s most remarkable novels also appeared in the 1940s: The Man who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1944). Finally, Patrick White completed his first great novel, The Aunt’s Story, while on the boat that took him back to Australia in 1948.
In the nineteenth century there had been one indisputably classic novel written in Australia—Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874). Central to it was a master theme of fiction in that century—imprisonment, and by extension guilt and punishment. Clarke shared his melodramatic mode, encompassing dispossession and the persecution of innocence, floridity of language and gesture, with Dickens, Dumas and Hugo. Clarke pioneered the signal role that melodrama would play in Australian writing to come, in the varied imaginations of Stead and White, Manning Clark and Thomas Keneally, and in Kate Grenville’s Dreamhouse (1986).
To return to the four novelists I have singled out in mid twentieth century: if, not too solemnly, we think of them as belonging to the Golden Age of Australian fiction, affairs must now have passed into the Silver Age. We cannot know how this period (say the years of the present century, although several of its finest authors—Keneally, David Malouf—are at the end of the fifth decades of their careers) will be regarded, but we can be assured that there will be no resurrection of one figure of the Golden Age. In 2006, several publishers rejected the pseudonymously submitted and slightly amended third chapter of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm (1973). The object of this latest of three-quarters of a century of literary hoaxes in Australia was, presumably, to nail the philistinism and want of memory of the latest generation of Australian publishers. White’s revenge from the grave was the release, in September 2011, of a film of the novel.
What if we attempt a strictly impossible but imaginatively enticing task: to essay a retrospect on the literary present, to consider the nature and quality of the fiction of an Australian Silver Age as it might appear some time from now? How would its lineaments be seen? The field of fiction presents an immediate problem. Novels are uneasy at their contiguity, their contemporaneity, the differences between each that distract attention and deny them ground, the fickleness of fashion. Similarly their creators, whose vocation is so solitary, are edgy in, and prefer to avoid each other’s company, save when writers festivals make them share panels and podiums. Nevertheless, let them be brought together: debutants and those who are ambiguously called past masters; those who write from overseas (such as Geraldine Brooks, Peter Carey and Janette Turner Hospital); those who prefer the vantage of internal exile (notably Tim Winton—the choice is much more common among American novelists); and those—sometimes it seems the majority—who live in Brunswick.
Some of these authors have been garlanded with international laurels. A second Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee, has come to live and write among us. For her reworking of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in March (2005), Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alex Miller won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1993 for The Ancestor Game. Part of the spoils was an audience with the Queen. Keneally was the first Australian to win the Booker Prize for Fiction, with Schindler’s Ark (1982), a choice made controversial by claims that this was really historical writing, albeit with the arts of a novelist (recently, Keneally has turned to history not cast as fiction, commencing a three-volume account of the national story). Following Keneally, Carey has won the Booker Prize twice. Yet each (and our first literary Nobel laureate, White) will have found earlier titles of their works to be out of print, frustrating not only for them but also for the embattled academics who seek to mount courses in Australian literature. All the authors mentioned above, with the exception of Brooks, are in late career. How many of their younger contemporaries in this Silver Age will come to rival them?
More than a century ago—in 1903—the most remarkable experimental novel in Australian literary history was published. This was Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. It has had no successors, although Brian Castro is perhaps nearest in formal daring, if utterly different in temper. In the present time, while unbridled imagination sometimes flourishes, it is not found much in company with innovation. Gail Jones’ latest novel, Five Bells, deftly uses the not uncommon technique of multiple perspectives on a single event. David Foster’s thirteenth novel, Sons of the Rumour, is a virtuoso reworking of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights (in its original version, Foster’s book was festooned with footnotes, scores of them, often hilarious). More boldly experimental, and this side of risible, are the uses of dead narrators by Trevor Shearston in Dead Birds and Venero Armanno in Dirty Beat. The latter gives us the posthumous perspective of a musician just dead of a heart attack; the former is told by the severed head of a New Guinea warrior. Shearston is one of the shamefully few Australian writers to have turned for inspiration to our nearest neighbour.
If the Silver Age has little of formal adventure to show, it has even less of the erotic. Perhaps recalling the dour admonishment by James McAuley in his poem ‘In the Twentieth Century’—‘Our loves are processes / Upon foam rubber beds’—current Australian authors have usually avoided treating of sex. It has always been easier to write sensually of food, but is some curious neo-puritan constraint operating? Women—one might incautiously say—do it better than men. When she has a mind to, and the appropriate moment, Amanda Lohrey is an adept at unemotional scenes of coupling, for example in The Reading Group and The Philosopher’s Doll. Steamier, but tactile and convincing, are the carnal encounters in Cameron Redfern’s Landscape with Animals (the author is in fact Sonya Hartnett). So concludes a sadly short paragraph.
There is more material to be found in a perhaps surprising quarter, that of the verse novel. Some novelists began their careers as poets—Malouf and Roger McDonald for instance—while others, such as Alan Gould, have long pursued parallel careers. His novel The Lakewoman is one of the finest of recent years. The verse novel was revitalised in this country by Les Murray’s successful courting of controversy with The Boys who Stole the Funeral (1980); brought to its highest pitch with his Fredy Neptune (1998). Clearly Murray inspired emulators of very different kinds: the spare and elegiac Blood and Old Belief by Paul Hetherington, the sprawling mock-epic frolic in two volumes of Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers (in the same vein as his previous verse novel, The Nightmarkets, 1986), Judy Johnson’s Jack and Geoff Page’s Laurie and Shirley, the two detective fictions in verse by Dorothy Porter—The Monkey’s Mask and El Dorado. But memories are often short. Perhaps the most popular Australian verse novels of all were written as long ago as 1915—C.J. Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and a year later The Moods of Ginger Mick—and have enjoyed a life in print and on the stage ever since.
In Australian fiction there is no dominant tradition of realism centred on domestic life, and on the circumstance that most imperils it—adultery. The social anatomy that was also central to such fiction (as in the novels of Eliot, Flaubert, James and the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina) has in the Australian Silver Age been ceded to the realm of detective fiction and the thriller. Some of Australia’s most vivid contemporary history is being written by popular novelists (as its pioneering past was constructed between the wars by the likes of Eleanor Dark, M. Barnard Eldershaw and Brian Penton; and, in the present, and to the ire of some professional historians resentful of her pretensions, by Grenville in such novels as The Secret River). The doyen of present crime writers is Peter Corris while, among its female practitioners, Gabrielle Lord is paramount. They have plenty of company. David Francis’s Stray Dog Winter daringly wove together the story of an unhappy Australian childhood with the bleak and dangerous months in 1984 of the Andropov regime in the USSR. The formal, as it were, official recognition of the authority of crime writing came with the Miles Franklin Award of 2010 to Peter Temple’s Truth.
Temple’s complex story had no trouble passing the nationality test (a ‘published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases’) for the Miles Franklin. Notoriously, Frank Moorhouse failed it, for his novel of the League of Nations, Grand Days (1994). On the other hand, Helen Demidenko’s The Hand that Signed the Paper (1994) passed. Both of them recognised—with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus— that ‘there is a world elsewhere’. Australian authors have been—in Peter Morton’s phrase—‘lusting for London’ for more than a century. Henry Lawson was early among them. So was Franklin. In the 1960s, Malouf taught school in London and Birkenhead. In his first novel, Johnno (1975), the setting is his home town of Brisbane, but his second—An Imaginary Life (1978)—depicted the exile on the shores of the Black Sea of Ovid, indiscreet Roman poet of the Golden Age. This remote location prompted an anxious search for Australian analogies, of the kind that would now bother no-one. Where, after all, are the ends of the earth? For Australian novelists to set their work overseas, as many do, is an unselfconscious artistic choice.
Consider the winners of the first four Prime Minister’s Awards for Fiction (for three of them, the winning book was his first to be published). The initial recipient, in 2008, was Stephen Conte’s The Zookeeper’s War. Apart from a brief scene in Melbourne essential to the plot, it takes place in Berlin during the Second World War. The next year, Nam Le’s collection The Boat had only one story located in Australia. Eva Hornung (formerly Sallis) chose the grimiest and most frightening reaches of modern Moscow for her novel Dog Boy. And in 2011 the winner was Traitor, by Stephen Daisley. Its events transpire principally in his native country, New Zealand, save for crucially important episodes at Gallipoli and nearby. Daisley’s publisher, Text, was so persuaded that his book would not be eligible for the Miles Franklin that it was not entered.
There is, of course, a further elsewhere—that other country, the past. By rough sampling, about one-third of the adult fiction written in the last five years in Australia (and that for Young Adults would not much decrease the percentage) is historical. This marked turning away from the present time awaits explanation: disgust, despair and helplessness about the current polity might come to seem an element in it. Literary history is, after all, one of the richest if ambiguous kinds of social history, but it cannot (this exercise excepted) be written on the spot. The instances of historical fiction in this Silver Age are so high as to seem its most distinctive feature. Here are some examples, in alphabetical order of undisclosed authors (the phenomenon is more important than their names): de Tocqueville in early nineteenth-century America, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Errol Flynn and Fidel Castro in pre-revolutionary Cuba, the first Native American student of Harvard in the seventeenth century, the adoption of the Aboriginal girl Mathinna by the wife of the governor of Van Diemen’s Land, the 1940s—wartime and aftermath (period of choice in a number of fictions in this year alone)—the first manned flight in Australia (clue: it was Harry Houdini), frontier contact in the early years of the Swan River Colony (a Miles Franklin for that one).
At the same time, there has been another kind of turning in current Australian fiction, not towards foreign lands or past times, but inland and inwards, to rural Australia. This counterpart to novels set elsewhere is yet contemporary with them. Notable examples from the last couple of years are Jeremy Chambers, The Vintage and the Gleaning, McDonald’s When Colts Ran, which sacrificed the catchier title ‘Made in Australia’ because it had already been used, and Chris Womersley’s Bereft. The slower, more ritualised pace of small country towns (named Flint by both McDonald and Womersley), lives lost there, opportunities wasted and talents unrealised, imbue these books, as their authors give demotic voice to the voiceless, or at least to the determinedly laconic. Again there is a literary historical precedent and on a larger scale: the fiction about nineteenth-century Australia that flourished in the interwar years, a parochial literature significantly inspired by recoil from the horrors for so many, overseas, in the Great War.
At least half of the novels published in Australia each year are written by women, but they are, purportedly, so underrepresented in the awards bazaar that there are plans to establish an Australian equivalent to the Orange Fiction Prize (but open to writing by women in any category). An inspection of the work by women novelists in this Silver Age suggests that prizes (or the lack of them) are a suspect index of quality. One of the most welcome events of this year was the return of the presumed lost, Text’s republishing of the tense, acerbic first two novels by the Tasmanian-born Helen Hodgman, Blue Skies (1976) and Jack and Jill (1978). In women’s fiction, although not plentifully, can be found acute dramas of family life, for instance in Deborah Robertson’s Careless and Joan London’s The Good Parents. Careers have begun, or consolidated. H.M. Brown morphed into Honey Brown. Sofie Laguna moved from children’s author to creator of the chilling and unusual lost child story, One Foot Wrong. Jessica Rudd’s playful and prescient political tale, Campaign Ruby, is evidently to be succeeded by a second novel. By contrast, one of the finest and most original novels of the last few years, Mireille Juchau’s Burning In (2007), remains her last published work.
No author of the Golden Age ever attended a creative writing course or submitted a novel to secure a PhD. In the Silver Age, however, a large number of writers have followed that path. At the end of it there is seldom work of high distinction. Rather, beige, socially conscious books are the result of the forcing house of Creative Writing. Often the novels that result seem almost to be the work of committees or faculty departments, a control more benign no doubt, but maybe less constructive than was the case with the input of the Communist Party of Australia into Frank Hardy’s Power without Glory (1950). Institutionally entrenched around the country, these courses are often constricting and homogenising, productive of some of the less lively fiction of the Silver Age.
One of the most admirable features of much fiction of the last few years is what might be called its capacity for consistent surprise. Every few weeks seems to produce a fine and original new novel. Recently it was Mark Dapin’s Spirit House, second volume in his projected ‘Streets of Sydney’ trilogy. Another is the latest Elliot Perlman book, The Street Sweeper. Notably, there is a stream of brilliant debut fiction. Some of it is from the wilder shores, such as Anna Dusk’s Inhuman, the story of a vampire loose in the Tasmanian Midlands. Some is highly capable genre fiction, as in Sylvia Johnson’s thriller Watch out for Me. In other cases there has been a long foreground somewhere before the breakout novel. Ashley Hay had written several works of nonfiction and served as literary editor of the now defunct Bulletin before her first novel, The Body in the Clouds (one of several recently concerned with the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). Ian Townsend had worked as an ABC journalist before publishing Affection, his tale of an outbreak of plague in north Queensland in the 1920s. Kirsten Tranter had a PhD, but in the creative writing called Renaissance Literature, when she wrote The Legacy, her riff on James’ The Portrait of a Lady.
Pushkin belonged to the Golden Age of Russian poetry, the futurist Mayakovsky to its Silver Age. The Golden Age of Roman literature boasted no less than Virgil, Horace and Ovid, but its Silver Age also had a presentable muster: Juvenal, Lucan, Martial, Petronius, Suetonius, Seneca the Younger (to whom, from Shakespeare, much thanks). In the present time of the Australian novel there is an unprecedented, jostling throng of writers of indisputable ability, some of that already long exhibited (consider, for instance, the brilliantly and constantly reinvented career of Murray Bail), some more a matter of the serious promise of first or second novels. How successfully the latter authors will pass the crucial commercial and artistic hurdle of the third novel, the scrutiny of Bookscan and the test of their own stamina (as expressed by Malcolm Knox, whose latest novel, The Life, was his fourth), remains to be seen. The demise of the Red Group of booksellers was predicted, in some quarters, to reduce the demand for new Australian novels by one thousand copies. Some of them would then become unviable for publishers. Nevertheless, an honour board of the Silver Age of Australian fiction, wherever it might be found, would display the names not only of Bail, Brooks, Carey, Coetzee, Keneally, Hornung, Hospital, Jones, Malouf, Miller and Winton, but also numerous others whose distinction we now suspect.