Interview with David Malouf

Helen Daniel talks to David Malouf about The Conversations at Curlow Creek and other matters such as God and paganism and the sacred.

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HELEN DANIEL: In his review of Curlow Creek in Australian Book Review Nick Jose talks about the operatic qualities of the novel. Were you conscious of this operatic form while you were writing?

DAVID MALOUF: Operatic is probably not the word I’d first have used. Musical, I think that’s certainly true. But I think that’s true of the way all my books are shaped. I don’t usually think of the forward drive of the book as having to do with plot, but with exploration of things which are announced first, sometimes almost like metaphors in a poem, say. You then explore both ends of the metaphor and let those spawn other oppositions, other comparisons, and then explore those. I think that’s the way almost all my books work, and I think I learned really to shape a novel the way I’d learned to shape a poem. I sometimes referred in the past to the books therefore having a kind of poetical structure in that kind of way, or musical, if one wanted to say that.

Certainly in this book there are a number of operatic references. Adair’s parents have been opera singers and I was deliberately, playfully, dealing with that to this extent — that he doesn’t see any relationship between his own temperament and what he assumes must have been their artistic and operatic temperament. That’s a little bit of play about where character comes from, the extent to which we are determined or separate and self-shaping.

HD: Many of your novels have a kind of stillness and poise — equipoise — coming from this play of rival possibilities. Curlow Creek it seemed to me is like a series of apertures almost, as if you were moving around a house, moving from room to room looking at related explorations. And it yields a strange quality of stillness, I found.

DM: I think the more I’m made conscious of my own work, I’m aware of the number of times I really want to use the novel to stop time, to slow things up. You can slow up the narrative so that a second is something that can be explored maybe over pages. I like that play between movement and stillness in the novel. I think in this book there’s a particular kind of set of movements involved with the fact that there are really two places of action, one is the place of the two men in the hut, and that fulfils the Aristotelian criteria of unity of place, time and action. But those two people both have a past and as soon as Carney starts speaking about the past, or Adair starts reflecting on the past, you’re in an entirely different movement, one which is expansive, moves out further and further, involves more characters and takes in a wider expanse of time — and I hope also of insight. So there are those two opposite movements in the book

HD: The moment at which they emerge from the hut, come the dawn, after that tight enclosure in the darkness of the hut, enclosure in space and within memory and reflection — the movement out into the light is an extraordinary scene, followed by one of the most luminous moments in the novel, the scene of Carney’s washing off the grime of the world.

DM: It was certainly a breaking out of the constriction, but in every kind of way, from their being in the dark, inside. Out into the light and into the world of nature, but also a breaking out of the closeness between them into another form of communication, away from words, for example. And also a kind of breaking out into a larger world. I wanted it to be a break out in all of those ways. I also hoped that it would be a resolution of all those elements in the book which are absolutely obsessed with the body, with the body’s daily accumulation of dirt, if you want, but also all the detritus of life. I wanted it to have that quality of cleansing and freeing.

HD: I’m conscious it’s been eighteen years now since An Imaginary Life, and it seems to me that in a sense it shares with Curlow Creek a sense of exile, of being displaced from the so-called centre of things. I’m wondering if in that eighteen years your sense of exile and centre has shifted.

DM: I don’t myself ever think of exile as being a subject I’m much preoccupied with. But again, people read the books and tell me I am because they are. Myself, I’m not conscious of that being a particular thing. I think there are a lot of very old patterns from storytelling in the book. When Adair sets out to look for Fergus he’s really looking for Fergus on Virgilia’s behalf, or so it would seem. Except we discover as we go on through the book — I hope people discover — there are a lot of times when Adair thinks he is acting for someone else but is in fact secretly acting for himself. I mean there is a series of self-preservative, not to say selfish motives about his behaviour that he’s not aware of, almost until the end of the book. But I also wanted him…to go into a kind of underworld and Australia offers itself in those terms and from that Irish point of view as a very suitable image of the underworld, which is a psychological underworld and a mythological underworld as well as a real one. He has to go into that darkness and come back again. That was another of the patterns in the book that I was interested in: what he discovers about himself and about the world when he does leave the world of light and go into the world of dark, which is, for him, quite a difficult thing. Darkness and disorder, as much as they attract him, also scare him. He feels that’s where you will lose control and discover things about yourself that, once you know them, will prevent you forever living a life of order again.

HD: The Irish material here is new in your work. Why Ireland and the Irish? Is it because of the Castle Hill Rebellion and the rumours of the alliance with bushrangers and Aborigines, or is it more general than that?

DM: When I first started the book I really had two separate things which belonged to different works. One was the idea of a conversation between two people who are in something like the situation in the book — to be something about absolutes, about death and fate and the law and all of those things. And then I had another plot really. It remains in the book here as what ghost of a plot there is. It is about a man who is in love with a woman who is in love with someone else. I suddenly saw a way of matching the two and I wanted none of the contingencies of contemporary life to be involved in it.

Having then set it at that period, I was very interested in the Irish as a symbol almost, in our Anglo-Saxon world, of disorderliness, of something which can’t be included. Something which we recognise as having an enormous force of life, but being not orderly. This is a prejudice, of course, but it’s one of the prejudices on which we’ve postulated our notion of order. It was very, very strong in the early colony that the Irish were the source of a possible kind of disorder. It was partly a terror of Catholicism.

But also it was interesting that the Aborigines were seen, insofar as they were seen, as a threat to order in the same kind of way. There was seen to be some relationship between the Aborigines and Irish. And again it’s quite interesting the very large number of people who are of mixed blood in this country, who are in fact a mixture of Aboriginal and Irish.

Apart from that I felt I could do it for the same reason I felt I could deal with the Scots in Remembering Babylon. Certainly in the world in which I was growing up in Queensland, one was surrounded by people who were Scots and Irish. That background, in someone growing up in Australia in my generation, was almost stronger than anything one thought of as an English background. So the material was always there but we’ve not fully taken account of it.

HD: Remembering Babylon takes a kind of mythic, iconic figure, that is, the white man who has been living among Aborigines. In Curlow Creek, the bushranger — a figure who immediately summons up all sorts of cultural associations and expectations, which the novel steadily subverts.

DM: I like very much, for example, to begin with characters who look like stereotypes, and then slowly, as the novel goes on, complicate those characters or make them so contradictory that not only do they escape from the stereotype they appear to be in but they question altogether whether the notion of stereotype has any existence except in the way in which we read or misread or lazily misread what’s there. In the same kind of way I do quite like setting up expectations which are not going to be fulfilled.

I don’t think that people often talk about my work in terms of its playfulness. I see myself as being much more playful than readers or reviewers sometimes see me as being. That’s certainly one of my interests in the writing, to keep it turning in directions where the readers don’t necessarily expect it to go.

HD: It seems to me that both Remembering Babylon and the new novel work in that larger cultural sense of a generation having to reinterpret its own inherited myths. In that context I find the ending of Curlow Creek remarkable.

DM: I’ve always been very interested in endings. A lot of very great writers are not very interested in endings. I am always fascinated by the fact that Shakespeare, for example, loses interest in the play, a bit before the end. Everything he is interested in in the material has now exhausted itself, and you feel he thinks, Oh God, I’ve got to find some way of ending this thing, and the endings are often quite perfunctory. You have to think of them as not really belonging, at times, to the main body of the work. I think I’m always working towards the ending and I often, in shaping the novel, have no idea what’s going to happen in the middle. But I do know what the ending will be. And I always want it to be not an ending. I don’t want the curtain to come down. I want there to be some kind of suspension at the end of the book so that the narrative world goes on existing and so that things are not resolved. As if you could think of a note that would just go on sounding forever. I’ve tried many ways of doing that. So I was interested in what I was going to do at the end of this.

I would also want to say that the kind of form that I most admire as an artistic thing is comedy. I love comedies. I love Shakespeare’s comedies for example. I love what we all want in the way of a happy ending. But of course life has no happy endings. Tragedy is the only form which is absolutely true to life — the only form that deals with a condition which is inevitably going to end in death, in which that kind of ultimate disintegration and disorder is going to triumph against all your attempts at order. But we all want in some other part of ourselves some other resolution.

So we do create these absolutely free forms in which miracles take place, in which wives and husbands are reconciled, children who were lost turn up again, crimes which were committed turn out not to have been really committed at all, and that is the world of comedy. I wanted somehow in this book to have the tragic world absolutely accepted, and yet at the same timedeal with that deep feeling in all of us that we want those who are condemned to get off. We want those who are going to die not to die, and of course that belongs to the world of wishful thinking, of story-telling, of legend-making, of rumour.

Without there being any doubt about the fact that, given Adair’s temperament, he would go through with it, Adair too would rather let Carney off. He would rather have him escape into the world of nature and out of the world of law. And the reader wants that too. I wanted the reader to have it both ways.

HD: You spoke once of ‘that fall which is peculiar to Australia, in which the landscape and the language are not one’. Can you elaborate on that gap between language and landscape — and indeed, the fall?

DM: I suppose by fall I meant a sense of dislocation, a sense of one’s being outside the garden, say. It’s true that everything about the English language derives from a particular place, a particular landscape. Everything in the language has its origin in a fact of place. That’s not true here. We’ve brought this language here, and we’ve made it apply to a world which is very different. It makes us more self-conscious about language and the uses of language, and the way language fits, than a speaker in England might need to be, and ought to make us more conscious of language as something which is partly willed rather than simply natural. Insofar as we are a people here, and insomuch as we have a culture, it is absolutely rooted in that language. That language is what holds us together.

You know when people are always looking around for what defines our Australian identity, or defines us as a community, or a nation or whatever it is, it seems to me to reside less in particular characteristics than in the fact that we share that language with one another and have changed that language in ways that fit us, but fit us socially rather than fit the land. That seems to me to make the way language exists here something both more precious, because it is the source of our cohesion as a people, but also something that we are self-conscious about in a way that a speaker of the language in England may not have to be.

HD: I’m struck by the idea of both Remembering Babylon and Curlow Creek taking their place in a kind of rival history, a fictive history collectively being written by contemporary writers now. Are you conscious of this fictive history, a history being collectively written by today’s writers — and for some readers a serious competitor with ‘real’ history?

DM: I’m less aware of the particular examples and the particular dates, but certainly very aware of the fact that it’s happening. That’s all work which is bound to come into existence in Australia, because our only way of grasping our history — and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now — the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there. And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. Poetry may do so, drama may do so, but it’s mostly going to be fiction. It’s when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world.

Of course it’s not the real world, it’s not the way it was in 1827, it’s a way that 1827 appears in the significance it has in 1996. The readers are then able to take all of that into their consciousness and their imaginations so that it’s moved out of the world of fact into something like the world of experience — but more like dream experience than real experience.

Of course dream or myth has a particular quality for us, something where we touch on very deep things but we don’t ask what their meaning is. We recognise them as forces that are at work in us that we don’t fully understand and whose particular importance to us is that we maybe shouldn’t understand them. That’s the extent to which it’s a different history: it’s a dream history, a myth history, a history of experience in the imagination. And I keep wanting to say societies can only become whole, can only know fully what they are when they have relived history in that kind of way.


This is an edited transcript of an interview specially granted by David Malouf to Australian Book Review. Helen Daniel is editor of ABR.

To find out more about this novelist, visit the David Malouf home page.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]