Jean-François Vernay reviews “On David Malouf” by Nam Le

On David Malouf

Nam Le

Black Inc, 2019

ISBN 9781760640392

“Identity can be experienced in two ways. Either as a confident being-in the-world or as anxiety about our-place-in-the-world; as something we live for ourselves, or as something that demands for its confirmation the approval of others.”
             David Malouf (1)

Published by Black Inc in association with the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria, Nam Le’s On David Malouf is the fifth volume in the Writers on Writers Series. This hybrid exercise in literary sensitivity, halfway between biography (that of a prominent Australian writer) and personal memoir, aims at eschewing the typical university-level critical practice engaged in close readings. Such analyses are mainly to be found in academic exegeses of which Malouf’s work has often been the focus, with no less than 8 theses and countless monographs. 

A former academic, David Malouf (born in 1934) has grown over the decades into a prolific writer tapping into various genres: poetry, novels, short stories, essays, drama and libretti. At the core of his œuvre lies the idea that Australia needs to be re-imagined, constructed verbally in the form of literary and cultural representations. Throughout his literary career, Malouf has unflaggingly served this myth-making process in the imaginative space of his fiction. By combining mind and body, the individual and nature, past and present, place and identity, his books substantially treat polymorphic exile inherent in the Australian postcolonial condition. Beyond the multiple Australian accolades, Malouf has reaped an impressive harvest of international literary prizes such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Australia-Asia Literary Award, the Impac Dublin Literary Award, the Prix Femina Étranger, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and he was even shortlisted for the 1994 Man Booker Prize.

This potted introduction is all the more necessary as On David Malouf is a slim monograph not so much about David Malouf as it is about Nam Le: his background and lineage, his childhood and schooling, his literary tastes and aspirations, his writing gigs, but also his vision of identity and immigration politics. The book-length hommage is divided into four sections whose titles are poetically playing with alliterations: Prime, Pigeon, Patria, and Peril. The first section establishes the elective affinities between Malouf and Le; the second part discusses sovereignty and territory in relation to communities; while the penultimate and last chapters cover Australian identity, history and politics. In these sections, Nam Le turns into a social commentator whose insightful observations might  occasionally stir the pot, as this one: “The White Australia policy may have been abolished in the ’70s but all non-whites know it’s as deeply situated in our DNA as our Western inheritance.” (90) 

No matter how erudite, Le’s roundabout way of paying tribute to Malouf is executed in a rather formal prose with a taste for sophisticated words and Latin phrases. The following excerpt aptly encapsulates the essence of Le’s literary hallmark and somewhat convoluted arguments: “Auden, to whom we both owe early and enduring faith, writes in Horae Canonicae that we should ‘bless what there is for being’. This is as close as I come to creed. This is what I see in Malouf’s eidetic writing. We share, I think, a sense of wonder towards a world that is both sui generis and palimpsestic, sacred with beauty and mystery — against which epiphany serves not as literary reaction but as dialectic of being alive. The world makes us. We can, in our small way, through our writing, perform the mimic miracle. Make a new world.” (20) Not to put too fine a point on it, it is unlikely that most readers, who are not university undergraduates enrolled in literary studies, will understand what eidetic, palimpsestic, epiphany and dialectic mean. 

Nam Le starts by sharing his first engagement with David Malouf’s work, which dates back to Year 12, when Remembering Babylon (1993) was placed on the VCE list. The first part of a colonial period diptych which was eventually matched by Conversations at Curlow Creek, Remembering Babylon is stylistically described as “a sentence-level novel” (7) and David Malouf as a poetic wordsmith “attuned to the molecular level of syllable and sound” (7). While Nam Le opens a productive dialogue with the intimacy of Malouf’s mind style, he rarely touches on the philosophical and psychological implications of Malouf’s variegated narratives, most of which lie beyond the remit of this book-length essay. Out of the thirty-nine books listed at the end of On David Malouf, Nam Le only draws on five novels (Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Harland’s Half Acre, The Great World, Remembering Babylon), one short story collection (The Complete Stories) and two non-fiction books (12 Edmondstone Street, A Spirit of Play: the Making of Australian Consciousness). Le eventually lists the commonalities between his background and Malouf’s to reveal the hidden connections which underly their writing lives: poetry, euphony, literary erudition, philosophical influences, to name a few. 

The last section is perhaps the one which pays the greater tribute to the Brisbane-born “multivalent writer” (68). Given the diversity and prolificness of Malouf’s fine writings, Le’s bird’s-eye view of such complexity becomes a perilous exercise in conciseness. The latter can only be expressed through thematic binaries which converge in a coincidencia oppositorum of sorts: “There is, in Malouf, a tendency towards wholeness. He creates tension through binaries (self/other, mind/body, past/present, human/non-human, human/world, European/Australian, Australian/Aboriginal, civilised/primitive, adult/child, experience/innocence, inside/outside, white/black, fate/free will, etc.) and then yearns, and seeks, naturally and inexorably, to syllogise them — often through lyrical transcendence — into reconciled wholes. At bottom, this is his entire method. At its best, it results in writing that is surpassingly beautiful, moving and profound.” (80) 

The reader’s pertinacity (I’m deliberately using this word as a discreet hommage to Le’s style) will be rewarded as the Melbourne-based memoirist provides useful insights into Australian history and culture in his polished and intellectually mature essay.

David Malouf, A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness (Sydney: ABC Books, 1988), 99.

Jean-François VERNAY’s The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press) were both released in 2016. His latest book, La séduction de la fiction (Paris: Hermann, 2019), the sequel to his Palgrave monograph, deals with all the cognitive mechanisms underlying literary passion.