David Malouf’s Australian Spirituality

David Malouf’s Australian Spirituality

In November 2008, David Malouf was awarded the Inaugural Australia-Asia Literary Award in Perth, an award given by the West Australian Government for the best writing in Australia and Asia.  It is worth $110,000, and was given for Malouf’s book, The Complete Stories, a collection of his short fiction in prose.  The award is Australia’s richest prize for literary achievement, and, as well as The Complete Stories, it recognises Malouf’s career that now spans fifty years and covers fields such as novels, poetry, short stories, opera libretti, plays, lectures and, may I say from personal experience, conversation.  At the very least we have to acknowledge that David Malouf is a great talker, public and private, an invaluable asset in our Australian society and culture. The Complete Stories is over 500 pages long, and sells for $25.  A bargain!

The judges of the Australia-Asia award commented that The Complete Stories is “a wonderful piece of writing, a combination of decades of work, and it captures the human condition in such a deep and intense way….his characters are very ordinary people and he captures the intense joys and sadness of ordinary life.”(Weekend Edition SMH, Nov 22-3, 2008).

Now I do not think this comment, true as it may be, does justice to Malouf’s achievement.  There is much more to be said about “the deep and intense way” to Malouf’s capturing “the human condition”, and I wish to suggest, here, that it is the way Malouf taps into an Australian spirituality that gives his work its special resonance and charism.

Powerful motifs flow through his writing that have their basis in religious experience, specifically in matters of belief and worship.  Often when he speaks of the Australian landscape, as in Fly Away Peter and Harland’s Half-Acre, his prose has a transcendence and at times an ecstasy as if a kind of secular worship.  There is a kind of sacramentalism in The Great World where one man, in mateship, saves another by taking him to a stream and letting fish nibble away at his diseased flesh.  Malouf has made much of Australian soldiers and their sacrifice for country, and this without being sentimental. Sacrifice is a mystery, especially when it occurs in men at war.  Then, most significantly, throughout Malouf’s prose and poetry the motif of “dying” is present, but rarely with sadness:  more with the significance of a “dying into life”, a profoundly Christian theme.

Malouf, so to speak, is religious without being religious.  He had a Catholic context in which to grow up, but moved away from the Church in order to claim certain freedoms that were indispensable to him.  Essentially, it was the appeal of what we call ”culture” – literature, opera, painting, and the arts generally – that may be said to have become the real context of his spirituality. Interestingly, he left behind the forms of Christian belief and worship, yet retained their substance.  He seems to have understood the religion he grew up in, while freeing himself from its authority.


But you are Catholic.   The voice comes at him from a woman inside a Flemish Church in Bruges, Belgium, a church where he had slipped inside to escape the North Sea biting cold wind.  It comes from his story “The Sun in Winter”, and highlights a chance encounter in the church between Malouf, (I am presuming he is the narrator) on an early trip to Europe and a woman who seems to live in the church and who embodies the cold darkness of European culture.  Malouf, for his part in the story, continues:   “He should, to be honest, have informed her then that he had been a Catholic once (he was just twenty) and still wasn’t so far gone as to be lapsed – though too far to claim communion.”

It is for my present argument a very interesting exchange, one around which the case for Malouf’s Australian spirituality may be developed.  The story comes from his 1985 collection of short stories Antipodes, where contrasts between Europe and Australia occur, and where he was consolidating his feelings for a distinctive Australian culture and way of life.

We might set this detail of a Catholic background alongside the colourful account of his early childhood, growing up in suburban Brisbane in the 1930s and 1940s.  Here, his immigrant grandfather from Lebanon is clearly resisting assimilation into becoming Australian, while Malouf’s father and aunts are for their part plunging deeply into the Australian way of life, both secular and sacred.  The poem, Early Discoveries, presents the grandfather in his little kingdom of the garden:

He comes and goes with daylight.  He is the lord of


the scourge of birds and nuns, those shoo-black crows his

sullen daughters

taunt him with.  His black-sheep son feeds rabbits live

to greyhounds

in a cage behind choko-vines.  The girls too go to the bad

in a foreign land, consorting with Carmelites, on hot

nights tossing

on their high beds in a riot of lace doilies, painted


unwed, they dwell in another land.  As I do,

his eldest

grandson, aged four

Malouf, in this poem, is presenting the mix of cultures in which he grew up. Interestingly, his mother, who was English, is not there.  She will appear in a later 1985 book, 12 Edmondstone Street, a study of the West End family house in which they lived in Brisbane at the time.  The mother seems to represent inwardness and culture, rather different from the male side of the family.

The book that brought David Malouf to wide notice was Johnno in 1975.  It discovers and creates Brisbane.  It draws on nostalgia for mid-twentieth century Australia just when Australia was losing its feel for early historical, and particularly colonial, memories.  But it is the way, the special way, Malouf levels with his subject – that is, levels with Brisbane – that gives his book its life beyond sentiment and reminiscence.  It is through the story of two youths growing up in Brisbane, the one Johnno a flamboyant romantic extrovert, the other Dante (a Malouf type narrator) who is more cautious, introverted and literary.  Their two characters interact, enjoy each other, oppose each other and ultimately go different ways (Johnno by taking his life).

Balance and equilibrium are obtained here in a way that allows the third character, the city of Brisbane, subtly to emerge.  It emerges with affection, acceptance and sardonic insight.  I stress this since Malouf through all his fiction relies on this pattern of opposed characters in close or intimate relation, testing out each other and the bonds and bounds of personal experience.  Something larger emerges, some theme, which is where “deep and intense’ meaning occurs.

What else should be remarked in Johnno is the presence of death.  The book begins with a death (the narrator returns from overseas for his father’s funeral) and ends with, apparently, the death of Johnno.  These events are like book ends, and define an elegiac stance for Malouf as author that stays with him throughout his career.  It underlies his wisdom.  It is strengthened further by the quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest that introduces the story:  “Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows.”  Perhaps Shakespeare is a little too strong for a first novel by an author about Brisbane, but it does touch on a central quality in Malouf’s makeup, his seeing things from a vantage point beyond immediate experience.

The duality of characters, then, and their involvement in a dying experience may be seen in almost every Malouf novel.  His finest novel, An Imaginary Life (1978) presents the Roman poet Ovid living in exile on the Black Sea coast, and there encountering a wolf-child.  They were total opposites: sophisticated Roman culture of the time of Augustus set against a creature with no social experience in the human sense.  Culture versus Nature.  How these two come to experience and grow together is a wonderful story.  How they seem to die together at the book’s end is equally wonderful – and mystifying.  But what is most remarkable in the writing is Malouf’s way of sinking into a subconsciousness to tell the story.  It comes from a deep interior space, his imagination is almost like prayer.  The story reads with the smoothness of contemplation.

Throughout the 1980s Malouf pressed hard on the subject of being Australian. Harland’s Half-Acre (1984), based on the life of the painter Ian Fairweather, tells of the struggles and triumphs of being an artist in Australia.  The social life of Queensland comes to life in a sometimes journalistic manner here, but is finely counterbalanced by the artist’s feeling for landscape in a way that can only be rendered through abstract art, again revealing a depth of spirituality.

Malouf isolates a special region in Australia to celebrate in this book, the fertile crescent from above Brisbane down to the Northern Rivers of New South Wales and out to the Darling Downs.  It was a world he had made his own in an earlier short novel Fly Away Peter (1982); today we think of it as the hinterland behind the Gold Coast.  Here, a young man, Jim Saddler, is a bird-watcher and ranger.  He is in tune with the environment, and shares this quality with the owner of the land, Ashley Crowther.  A third person is also present, an Englishwoman, a photographer, Imogen Harcourt.  The trio make for a three-sided celebration of Malouf’s sense of sacred place.  It is most beautifully caught through the photos taken of a bird that among others flies in from Siberia, the sandpiper.  Photos capture the bird, forever in stillness.  It is as if a moment of timelessness is there for Imogen and Jim to share.  Malouf seizes this unusual insight into the power of photo; it is part of his spirituality to see it this way.  The ethos of the Australian sand dunes, the tea tree swamps and migratory birds is beautifully seen and felt in the opening pages of the novel.  It is sacred through being shared out among the three characters.

Malouf, however, feels the need to go beyond this charmed world in Fly Away Peter.  Jim Saddler is sent to war – the First World War – and dies there in France.  We can sense here that Malouf is responding to the change coming, in the 1980s, over Australia’s response to Anzac Day — a secular society yearning for a spirituality to be recognised through the sacrifice of its young men.  It was to be a theme of other novels and films at the time, the novel 1915 and the film Gallipoli deepening an experience that had been calling for recognition.  Malouf was to follow it further in 1990, when his larger novel The Great World explicitly set the scene in World War Two experience, and used the prized subject of “mateship” to test how far and how deep he could explore the Australian psyche, especially that of the male.

Again, two men who are opposites in personality are used.  Vic is the extrovert and entrepreneurial type,  while Digger is the little Aussie battler, shy and reticent.  Prisoners of war in Changi, Digger finds himself a cholera carrier, his body wasting away.  Vic, powerfully attached to Digger as a mate, carries him to a stream, and lets little fish nibble away at the diseased flesh on Digger’s legs. At the climax of this scene the word “baptism” is used, as if it is the only word that could be used.  The scene as a whole is told with a heightened style, almost liturgical.  Eating the flesh has a eucharistic ring to it, and reminds Malouf readers of his celebrated poem sequence “The Crab Feast” where eucharistic overtones and erotic undertones play equal roles.

The Great World, the novel, comes home to Sydney, and perhaps among Malouf’s writings comes closest to the Patrick White model of discovering great themes in suburbia.  Vic and Digger go separate ways in the materialistic Australian culture of post-World War II days, but are brought into relationship again through the presence of a man, a sort of father figure in the novel, Hugh Warrender, a businessman who is also a poet.  One wonders if Malouf is feeling for a healing role for literature between the extremes of male cultures in Australia.

The high point of the latter part of the novel comes at the funeral of Warrender, the business-man-poet, when an unusually long eulogy is offered that does not so much celebrate the man’s life as offer a moving defence of poetry and its deep embeddedness in spirituality.  It is worth reading.  The speaker is a university lecturer, and could well be Malouf himself in a very reflective moment:

The speaker, a man from the university…came here, as a good many of the mourners did, as a sharer in his [Warrinder’s] public life, though public, as he pointed out, was the wrong word for something which, in the case of each one of them, and in the poet’s case too, was so hidden that if one was to be true to the spirit of it, it could be referred to only in terms that were tentative and indirect.

He was speaking of poetry itself, of the hidden part it played in their lives, especially here in Australia, though it was common enough – that was the whole point of it – and of their embarrassment when it had, as now, to be brought to light.  How it spoke up, not always in the plainest terms, since that wasn’t possible, but in precise ones just the same, for what is deeply felt and might otherwise go unrecorded:  all those unique and repeatable events, the little sacraments of daily existence, movements of the heart and intimations of the close but inexpressible grandeur and terror of things, that is our other history, the one that goes on, in a quiet way, under the noise and chatter of events and is the major part of what happens each day in the life of the planet, and has been from the very beginning.  To find words for that; to make glow with significance what is usually unseen, and unspoken too – that, when it occurs, is what binds us all, since it speaks immediately out of the centre of each one of us; giving shape to what we too have experienced and did not till then have words for, though as soon as they are spoken we know them as our own.   (The Great World, pp283-4)


Few passages in modern writing can compare with this statement on the spirituality of poetry and literature.  It reads like a piece of natural theology in action, working from ground level and ordinary experience upwards, embracing in its sympathies, transforming in its imagination; it is a precious moment caught here through celebrating a life at the point of death.

Malouf’s later novels of the 1990s Remembering Babylon(1993) and The Conversations at Curlow Creek(1996) have a reflective richness to them, in large part coming from the felt presence of an authorial voice at ease with his subjects; indeed, each book has an epilogue to it, giving the author the last word. Remembering Babylon is a study of British “exiles” in colonial Australia, learning how to come to terms with their land of exile, and discovering for themselves whether it really is a land of exile. Their experience is brought into focus by the sudden appearance – this is in North Queensland – of a young man who, though  English, has been shipwrecked and living with aboriginal tribes for years. He can still stammer out a few words:  ‘“Do not shoot,” it shouted.  “I am a B-b-british object!”’.  These were the actual words recorded from the historical account Malouf was working from, and obviously were too rich in irony for him not to make use of.

What is “object”? and what is “subject?” in race relations, however, is close to the book’s centre of inquiry.  White society treats black society as “object”, yet the real interest for Malouf is in how white society is itself “object” and can be seen in its reactions to the presence of the white-black man.  White society in Remembering Babylon is critically scrutinised, the men much more so than the women.  Indeed, there are remarkable women portrayed in the book.  Janet McIvor is a young woman whose transformation into maturity is followed by Malouf with affectionate warmth.  Her experience with Mrs Hutchence and the bees is a high point in literary imaginativeness, erotic and transcendental.  Not surprisingly, we learn in Malouf’s retrospective epilogue-type piece that Janet McIvor has become a nun.

The Conversations at Curlow Creek presents a bushranger talking with the Captain of the troops who will execute him the following day.  Ireland and Australia is the main subject they talk about, and we see Malouf’s way of bringing two men from opposite conditions of life into relationship.  It adds up to a strong meditation on the Australian soul.  The Epilogue to the book adds the intriguing possibility of the bushranger’s survival, at least in popular belief.  Malouf’s style and habit of mind play with this possibility as if it were true.  It is a way of suggesting how a legend can grow up, such as the Kelly legend.  Something lives on beyond a death.  Religious overtones underpin the plausibility.

Malouf’s prize-winning book The Complete Stories ranges wide across Australian experience.  “Mrs Porter and The Rock” is one story that must startle most readers.  “The Rock is Ayers Rock, Uluru” the story begins.  We are in the presence of an Australian icon.  Two people have come there on a touristic ritual.  Mother and son. They are opposites.  The son is an aesthete, always appreciating everything, exaggerating its qualities in florid prose, incessantly a writer.  It could be a sardonic, but extreme, self-caricature by Malouf.  The mother could not be more different.  She detests The Rock.  She smokes at meals. The Australian way of worship means nothing to her.  We see gradually that she is a soul in torment, without bearings, and as it appears suffering from developing, indeed galloping, dementia.  It leads to the Mother wandering out from the motel and losing herself and her life in the desert surrounds of The Rock.

The study of mother and son add up to a bleak comedy. But it is one that does have a point.  The Rock as icon and the ritual of tourism are exposed as empty when people do not bring spiritual resources to their experiences.  Malouf, however, sustains his story with critical sympathies, finding in the mother’s trauma his most moving inquiry into “dying” as a point of defining life.  “Mrs Porter and The Rock” locates itself at the heart and soul of the country with which Malouf has come so vitally to identify himself.

James Tulip

A talk given by Dr Jim Tulip, 26th February, 2009 at Pymble Uniting Church

Words: 3,136

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