Seeing Edith after all these years snatched the prospect of my own orderly death out of my hands. If Edith Black was not done with life then I was not done with it. The question that refused to let me sleep was whether I might recompense her with the truth. To embark on the confession that he and I resisted for so long. That he resisted. Most of all, the confession he resisted. It was his truth, after all, that he denied to us. And in denying it to us, denied it to himself. I was humiliated and left with nothing. But the largest burden of our cruelty surely fell on Edith, abandoned and alone with her child. The form of Pat’s cruelty was always in his denial of things that made him uncomfortable. Even in that great expansive art of his, encompassing our entire continent, a truth was denied, was kept to one side of the picture, in the silence. And it was great.
His art, I mean. There was none greater before him and there have been none greater since. Not in this country. My poor sad country. This vast pile of rubble, as someone has called it, that we think so very highly of (it is all we have to think highly of).
That “vast pile of rubble” is Australia and, after reading only the most recent of his 10 novels, I would have to say Alex Miller is one of its hidden gems, at least internationally. He is a two-time winner of that country’s prestigious Miles Franklin Prize (for Journey to the Stone Country and The Ancestor Game, his fourth and seventh novels) but Autumn Laing (released in 2011) is the only work readily available in North America — a quick search at the Book Depository in the U.K. shows only two others (Lovesong and Conditions of Faith) available there.
Let’s go back to the excerpt, because it is a precise summary of what the novel will be. First off, it is very much Autumn’s story: inspired by what she thinks is the sight of a woman whom she wronged more than half a century ago, Autumn begins writing down her memories of what took place then. We know from it that she is guilt-ridden over “stealing” Pat from Edith — it will take almost the full 452 pages of the book before Miller reveals all the details of that because Autumn herself is unwilling to fully unpack the memories. And the excerpt offers the tantilizing hint that Pat is not merely an artist, but, at least in Autumn’s opinion, the greatest that Australia has ever produced.
Pat was never deep. He was intuitive, but he was not deep. It was I who was deep. I who was left on my own to struggle with the fearful knots and tangles of our vicious web, while he sailed on in clean air, free of self-doubt, painting his pictures as if they were his alone to paint. So instead of eating my three little yellow pills I shall write this. Then I shall eat them.
And so Autumn returns to 1930s and Ocean Grove, the run-down estate just outside Melbourne where she and her new husband, Arthur, set up a household. Australia at that point (much like Canada of the same era, I must say) is very much a country emerging from its British roots and the couple both come from prominent stock — Autumn’s family for a time “accounted for the largest fortune in Melbourne” and Arthur’s is almost as wealthy, although since their money comes from the land, they have a lesser social standing (“Arthur doesn’t think enough of money” is Autumn’s father’s summary opinion when he first meets the lawyer who will become her husband).
The couple turn Ocean Grove into an Australian version of the rural retreats favored by the Bloomsbury group, attracting a coterie of Bohemian literary and artistic types. That’s the magnet that eventually brings Pat and Edith into the story.
Edith’s grandfather was an outstanding Australian artist, but of the traditional Scottish model: “He was not a visionary. He did not see it as his business to challenge the authority of his masters. His subjects were leisurely pastoral scenes, farm buildings, crops and roads leading somewhere or other, a girl sometimes with a straw hat and ribbon going somewhere or other, a workman in a field with a horse, the sound of birdsong and maybe a butterfly or two.” He trained at the Slade School in London; Edith has inherited some of his talent and is enrolled at the Gallery School in Melbourne, at its best a dim colonial shadow of the Slade, where she paints delicate landscapes herself.
It is there that she meets, and falls in love with, Pat Donlon, son of an Irish tram conductor (in 1930s Melbourne, that is two strikes against him already), who rejects all that this traditional art school stands for, as is shown when the pair move into their first humble house:
For her, work is a subtle, delicate, mysterious coming together of the right mood and the right moment. Work is the difficult making of art. Striving, that is the word that characterises what she does. She has had to settle in to this house before she could begin, to feel herself to be in place. But not him. He was off. He had made five of his pictures by midnight the first night on his pieces of cardboard. She went to bed. After he had finished painting he sat in the kitchen reading and smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, and writing poetry in his notebook. He does everything at once. Writing, painting, drinking and smoking. He does not know if he is a writer or a painter. He does what he pleases. She was asleep by the time he came to bed and wanted to make love.
In 1938, three years after Autumn and Arthur move into Ocean Grove, the four come together. Pat has headed into Melbourne to seek a “bursary” from a wealthy industrialist who supplies funding so young Australian artists can go to England — the art critic who screens applicants summarily dismisses him. A friendly receptionist in the philanthropist’s office gives Pat the address of Arthur’s law office, knowing he has more contemporary tastes. A sorely disappointed Pat does visit Arthur, more out of frustration than anything else, Arthur invites him back to Ocean Grove for dinner, and the door begins to edge open on what will be Autumn’s life of guilt.
Autumn Laing, on its most obvious level, is a character story and all of these four (particularly Autumn) are fully-developed. There is a continuing sub-theme, however, that for this Canadian reader is every bit as powerful.
I have made reference before to the similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction — one of the first posts on this blog discussed it in some detail. The Australia of 1938 is much like the Canada of the same era — both countries, politically and artistically, were just beginning to escape the apron strings of Mother England. Autumn, Arthur, Edith and Pat are each in their own way contributors to making that “independent” Australia come to life. I could cite a number of Canadian examples but will content myself with pointing to the recently-reviewed Carol Shields’ novel, The Stone Diaries, as one that features a similar heroine (Daisy Flett and Autumn Laing are both born in 1905) who will face some similar challenges coming of age and living adult life in a British colony that is turning itself into a country.
If emerging Australia is the macro story and Autumn’s life the micro one, Autumn Laing has a wealth of “mid-level” story lines as well (e.g. the continuing conflict between Melbourne and Sydney for cultural and economic supremacy) that add even more depth to the novel — Miller isn’t just good at close-up and overview, he is equally talented at many things in-between. Because the narrative is being written by an 86-year-old from memory (and some chapters move to the third person), the switches in perspective often come without warning — this is one of those novels that both demands and rewards close attention from the reader.
Autumn Laing first came to my attention last June with an enthusiastic review from Kimbofo at Reading Matters. I only decided to buy a copy, however, when David, a frequent commenter here whose opinion I respect, revealed that he had read no less than five Alex Miller novels last year (two, not including this one, made his top 10 for the year) — that is about as committed an endorsement as I can imagine. And the good news for this reader is that both Kim and David say that while Autumn Laing is just fine, it is not Miller at his best — given how much I enjoyed this novel, I can’t wait to get into his previous work. Once I figure out how to buy them without punishing shipping costs, of course — surely it is time that some entrepreneur figures out how Canadians can read Australian writers (and vice versa) at something close to the posted cover price.
(EDIT: Good news. As you will discover in a comment from Kimbofo below, Miller’s UK pubishers (Allen and Unwin) will be releasing his entire back catalogue this year. So this author at least has broken free from my whine in the concluding paragraph. I plan to (slowly) pick up on his past works in a roughly chronological order since I think I will want to eventually read most of them.)