Following on from Lisa Hill's list of 12 debut novelists from Australia and New Zealand with a promising future, I thought it might be nice to go to the other end of the scale and look at writers who have been around for a long time. Who are the classic authors from these countries that we should know about?
Sue, who lives in Australia and blogs at Whispering Gums, seemed the perfect person to ask:
‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.’ (Italo Calvino)
Most readers I’ve noticed – and I include myself in this – mostly read recent books. That’s not surprising, I suppose. We all like to be in touch with what’s going on around us, and be able to join in the conversation about current books. But, what about older books – those that have stood the test of time, and that have laid the foundation for contemporary literature? They are worth including in our reading diet.
So, when Kim asked me to write a post on classics (or, older books, as how do we define “a classic”), I jumped at the chance. We agreed that I’d do it by naming some authors rather than by simply listing a few books. Even so, it is a very select list. There are many, many great “older” Aussie books. This list just gets your toes in the water!
So, here goes, in order of the author’s birth!
Any list like this has to start with Franklin — she endowed our most important literary award, the Miles Franklin. Moreover, one of her middle names, Stella, has been adopted for our new women-only literary prize. Miles Franklin wrote many books of fiction and non-fiction, but by far her most famous is My Brilliant Career (1901). It’s heavily autobiographical and tells the story of a young woman from a grazing family who is desperate to become a writer. It is still relevant as an account of a feisty, independent young woman who is prepared to buck her family’s expectations to follow her dream.
Christina Stead (1902-1983)
Stead is, possibly, one of Australia’s most under-appreciated writers. She is best known for her novels The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone. Instead of arguing for her myself, I’ll let American author Jonathan Franzen speak:
Although “The Man Who Loved Children” is probably too difficult (difficult to stomach, difficult to allow into your heart) to gain a mass following, it’s certainly less difficult than other novels common to college syllabuses, and it’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you. I’m convinced that there are tens of thousands of people in this country who would bless the day the book was published, if only they could be exposed to it.
I rest my case – read her if you dare!
Patrick White (1912-1990)
This list of course has to include Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature. He was a rather irascible soul, and absolutely refused for his first novel, Happy Valley, to be published again in his lifetime. Fortunately, Text Publishing released it as part of its Australian Classics series, letting us all see where this writer started. It’s a good read, and is a readable introduction to some of White’s main preoccupations – lives frustrated by the inability (or refusal) to rise above the restrictions of their circumstances. My absolute favourite White, though, is Voss, his re-imagination of the tragic Australian explorer (we have many of those!), Leichhardt.
In discussions about that problematical question, “the great Australian novel”, one of the books regularly put forward is George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, the first in his trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels. In the novel, the narrator, a successful journalist, contrasts his life with his brother, Jack, a “typical” Aussie bloke, uneducated, hardworking, a good mate, and more interested in things physical than intellectual. Johnston was married to author Charmian Clift and they remain one of Australia’s best-known literary couples.
Ruth Park (1917-2010)
New Zealand born Ruth Park made her literary career in Australia, after marrying Australian writer D’Arcy Niland. She won the 1977 Miles Franklin Award with her moving and very readable saga, Swords and Crowns and Rings, but she is best known for her Harp in the South trilogy about the Darcy family. The first two published novels (Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange) chronicle the family’s struggles to survive in the slums of Sydney, while Missus, which was published much later, tells the story of the parents before they came to Sydney. I love Park for the warmth of her writing about real characters, who struggle to cope with hard times in hard places. She’s still relevant for this very reason – and is, besides, a darned good read.
Thanks, Whispering Gums, for composing this wonderful list. I'm especially pleased to see George Johnston on it because I've read all his work and My Brother Jack is my favourite book of all time! Also delighted to see Ruth Park here. Her trilogy is highly recommended. I would also add her husband, D'Arcy Niland, to the list, as his novel The Shiralee, which I reviewed a few years back, is an absolute classic. I loved it so much I sourced all his other books online (they were all out of print) and I have a tidy little pile here ready to explore when the mood strikes!
Has anyone read any of these authors? Or can you suggest other classic writers from Australia and New Zealand worth looking out for?
NB: All pictures are taken from Wikipedia/GoodReads and reproduced under the relevent Creative Commons licence.