Malouf’s Operatic New Novel

A review of The Conversations at Curlow Creek by Nicholas Jose

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In a hut ‘at the end of nowhere’ an overnight vigil takes place as a captured bushranger, guarded by young troopers, converses sporadically with the officer, a fellow Irishman, who, come the dawn, is to oversee the act of summary justice that will end his life. The officer, Adair, seeks out the condemned man, Carney, for a private reason too, in quest of confirmation that the rebels’ leader — now out where the dead men lie — was none other than his own foster brother. Long vistas and remote attachments are supplanted during the nightwatch by the more immediate presence of the prisoner. But a slender proof changes nothing. Only the troublesome shadows of the past and the night are quelled, for Adair, in favour of a straighter daylight self.

The plot is as stripped and stark as a bush ballad. Classical unities of time, place and action narrow the focus to a central conversation between men that is less a matter of talk than of silence and unspoken intimation, from which the writing breaks into expansive moments of memory, reflection or rhapsodic awareness. Attention veers from the meagre grimness of where we find ourselves to another world of ampler, more inward imaginative orderings.

Adair, the son of opera singers, is himself ‘a frequenter of opera’. It is an art that one of the book’s bravura passages characterises as ‘all elaborate illusionism’, with a magic capable of raising what

was crude and shameful, unruly, unredeemable even…to ineffable order and beauty — but only insofar as the music did find a shape for it, and only so long as [the singers] moved in a world beyond themselves to give it body and a voice.

It seems to be a qualified transfiguration of this kind, always unsettled by reminders of the experience’s unreality, that the novel is aiming at too: ‘fiction, melodrama, opera’, to suit the Gothic taste of the age, as Adair reflects. In this way the work’s simplicity can be understood as the elaborate illusion of an operatic fragment, embodying emotional drama through lyrical modulations, textual atmospherics, performative introspection and a stunning sequence of climactic epiphanous arias, as the author revisits fiction with the discipline of three opera librettos under his belt. The result is spellbinding.

While place remains abstract, the novel is set in 1827. These were scratchy years for the new colony, but an age of opera, bracketted by Beethoven’s Fidelio and Rossini’s William Tell, elsewhere in the great Napoleonic world. Closer still are Goethe’s fictional investigations of transferred affection in Elective Affinities (1809) and Schubert’s song-cycleWinterreise (1827) — and the years when Coleridge was formulating, in another set of conversations, the romantic view of Hamlet as a man divided against himself. In the first paragraph Adair is given a Hamlet-ish sentence, the shufflings of which are emblematic of the book to come: ‘What is it in us, what is it in me, he thought, that we should be so divided against ourselves, wanting our life and at the same time afraid of it?’ Ghosts and gravediggers come later. It is some twenty years before Voss sets off on his journey. Such suggestive affinities illuminate the manners and concerns of Malouf’s prose, even as they summon attention, again, to the delicate scoring of this seemingly simple tale. Allusions to other forms of art — literature, opera, painting — continue the process of deferral or displacement that marks the writing down to the smallest stylistic detail. Pronouns blur, syntax glides, clauses break over each other like ripples, as in the sentence I have just quoted. Apposition — a defining characteristic of the prose — disconnects or undermines what it appears to equate: ‘What is it in us,’or ‘what is it in me‘? Connections become questions as one perception is transposed into another, often its inverse, in a musical principle of organization. Substitutes and surrogates intervene between people and things; relationships are enacted through or with intermediaries in manifold ways, until they seem to slip through the characters’ fingers.

At the heart of the book is a yearning for some final and enduring connection between one person and another, or between a person and the world, an absolute intimacy that holds out the promise — or threat — of self-disintegration and is feared and deflected the closer it gets. The language achieves an extraordinary physicality as the boundaries of self appear to dissolve — skin becoming transparent, breath suffocatingly shared, ‘the tiniest tiniest air-hole’ offering an opening to communication. Adair, the central consciousness, craves in this world the condition of knowing and being known — ‘a deep communion of mouth to ear and soul to soul’ — such as only God can provide. It is the body itself, agent of proximity, that also prevents a person diving into another’s soul. Communion comes remotely, or with oneself only, as Adair writes to Virgilia — and we, listening on another level, perhaps hear the voice of the writer himself: ‘he found in writing…an escape into the deepest privacy of all, the one a man shares with the blank page’.

Across that distance, in the penultimate chapter, comes an image of the condemned man steadily washing off ‘the world’s muck’, cleansed at the moment before death in the waters of Curlow Creek. Its writerly re-enactment suspends time, as if synthesizing Christ Baptized, Flagellant and Resurrected in the manner, say, of Piero della Francesca, to fulfil a promise of redemption. Then, in a surprise epilogue, that image resolves into a story of an alternative kind. Back in Sydney, hearsay has turned the events at Curlow Creek into consoling bush legend, whereby the turncoat officer lives on with his rebel mate, enjoying the fabled freedoms of the inland sea — somewhere out there forever. As Adair, sure of his ‘new self’, eats the daily bread of survival, light floods in by way of finale.

I hesitate to call this the beginning of late-period Malouf. Yet in the heightened consciousness of the art in The Conversations at Curlow Creek there is that daring and mastery that other artists have shown as they move into their late phase. I suspect for years to come we will be continuing the conversations to which we are invited by the artistry of this affecting, enigmatic and beautiful book.


Nicholas Jose is a highly respected critic and novelist. This review was published in the September issue of Australian Book Review

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