Archive for the ‘Miller, Alex (3)’ Category

The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller

May 8, 2014

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Alex Miller left his native England for Australia at age 17. As an author, his 11 novels (this is only my third but I intend to get to them all over time) have concentrated on telling Australian stories — but he never forgot his roots.

The last one reviewed here (Watching The Climbers On The Mountain) can certainly be read as an autobiographical story — set on a cattle station in Queensland, it features an 18-year-old stockboy, newly arrived from England.

The Tivington Nott, first published in 1989, is even more personal — and unlike the rest of Miller’s works, it is set in England. Here is an explanation from the author, included in the 2005 Allen & Unwin version that I read:

All the episodes [which take place in 1952], not just a few of them, may be traced back to actual events and experiences in my life, and in the lives of the people, and some of the animals, portrayed here. There was such a stag as the Tivington nott, a horse such as Kabara, a cocky Australian who owned him, a farmer for whom I laboured for two years and who had rightly earned the nickname, ‘Tiger’, a labourer by the name of Morris with whom I lived, a harbourer who would know himself in the figure of Grabbe, and a huntsman of the Devon and Somerset who broke his neck while chasing a hind one winter afternoon. I loved them all, and loved the landscape they inhabited. Briefly, they were my reality.

In some ways, I could stop this review right there since it is a perfect summary of the book (note in particular “I loved them all”) — perhaps the addition of a personal opinion that Miller tells this story exceptionally well would provide the best conclusion. And in offering that enthusiastic endorsement, let me say it shows that Miller overcame a number of well-ingrained, going-in prejudices.

Firstly, I’m not a fan of memoirs, fictional or otherwise. Too often, I find them to be self-indulgent, manipulated versions of history — I’d rather the author let his or her imagination run wild instead of offering a sanitized version of what happened. Miller disposed of this personal bias from the opening paragraph: The Tivington Nott may be based on real events that Miller lived through but the author applies himself conscientiously and completely to developing a fair portrait of what he experienced, including the people (and animals) that were involved.

Secondly, the elements of the story lie far from my interests. Until I picked up the book, I did not know what a “nott” is (a stag without antlers, if you share my ignorance). While I knew elements of rural English society hunted foxes to their death while mounted and chasing a pack of hunting dogs, I wasn’t aware that in parts of the country this also involved deer. I can say with certainty that if I lived in England, then or now, I would be firmly anti-hunt. Once the characters have been introduced, The Tivington Nott is the story of a hunt — to Miller’s credit, I was sympathetically engrossed in the narrative throughout.

Let me offer an extended excerpt where Miller introduces both himself and some of the characters noted above as in illustration of how the author both offers insight of those around him and places himself suitably in the picture:

Even though he is a real grinder I did not mind working for the Tiger. He is not just an uncomplicated farmer. His hard good sense about managing the farm deserts him when it comes to the matter of hunting the wild deer on Exmoor. He fears this passion as a disability and is forever guarding himself against it. Everything he does is complicated for him by this duality in his nature. He tried to get me to address him as ‘Master’ when I first came here from London two years ago. It is the tradition and Morris [the senior farm labourer] abides by it. I respect traditions and have one or two of my own. One of them is not calling people ‘Master’. I could see how much it meant to Tiger to have me conform, however, so I did have a go at it, just to be fair. But it was no good. I couldn’t look him in the eye and say it. I wasn’t being stubborn. There was more to it than that.

Tiger is just a tenant farmer and, as noted, a “grinder” who works his staff hard. But when it comes to the hunt, as that excerpt indicates, his self-image becomes more one of “nearly a squire”. His class is undoubtedly a cut or two below the other hunters, but in both dress and behavior, he tries to narrow the gap. The “grinder” becomes a bit of a sycophant.

What sets the drama off is the arrival in the neighborhood of the “cocky Australian”, Alsop, and his impressive hunting stud, Kabara. Like Tiger, Alsop has pretensions to become one of the upper, hunting classes — unlike Tiger, he has the money to follow through on them.

Alsop’s plan comes apart early in the book when he crashes his car into a rural stone wall and disables himself. He needs someone to look after Kabara and looks to Tiger, whose own hunting stock consists of two, not impressive, geldings. Sensing that Alsop will need to sell the stud (at almost any price) Tiger accepts — and turns the stud over to the narrator.

Miller proves to be an excellent hand at this, exclusively because he lets Kabara have his head and only offers gentle guidance — the stud is more than willing to go along with this bargain. The narrator is fully aware that Tiger, with his “dominate the horse” approach to riding and hunting, will face immediate disaster if he ever mounts the horse — the horse will definitely best the man.

All of which sets up the hunt that occupies most of the 167 pages of the novel. Tiger agrees to take Kabara along as his “second” horse, tended by the narrator. But he instructs Miller to hunt the horse hard, rather than just standing by — he wants the horse to return from the hunt exhausted in order to lower the price he will offer Alsop.

All of that suggests a narrative of simple lives in a closed society that has its own complicated set of hierarchy and rules, all of which the author develops with careful precision. The narrator is certainly an active participant but you can tell from the start that Miller, when he actually lived these events, was every bit as much an acute observer as he was a part of the action.

Miller’s prose is definitely one of the reasons this endeavour succeeded so well for me. For the most part, it is tight and almost journalistic — but when he decides to divert into extended description of nature or action, he does it perfectly.

His eye for characters, and the ability to bring them to life, is equally impressive. This novel, particularly when we get to the hunt, involves a number of individuals from very different classes in a community. Miller finds the ideal balance between sympathetic and critical portrayal to bring both the individuals and broader community to impressive life.

Discipline in writing, discipline in character and, perhaps most impressively, discipline in length — too many authors who can deliver on the first two often fail on that final one. The Tivington Nott is a longish novella/short novel (I read it in one extended sitting) that does not have a single extraneous word. On more than one occasion while reading the book, I thought of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, another gem of a book (with a somewhat similar story) whose author knew exactly what it would take to tell his story.

That makes Alex Miller three for three for me (Autumn Laing is the one I have not yet mentioned). While the three have some similarities, they are very different novels — although each one truly showcases a rare talent for prose. This Australian sure can write and I am delighted to know that I have eight more novels to go (and he is still publishing — yeah!). Stay tuned.

2014 kimbofo While I have an ongoing Alex Miller project, I saved this novel for this month as part of Kimbofo at Reading Matters May project encouraging the reading of Australian and New Zealand books. For full details on the project (and links to reviews from others who are participating), click here. I hope to get to at least two other Antipodean books before the month is out.

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Watching The Climbers On The Mountain, by Alex Miller

December 9, 2013

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Perhaps it comes from living in a city that still celebrates its cowtown roots, but I have always had a soft spot for “frontier” novels. From my own part of the world, Guy Vanderhaeghe has long been a favorite — I read The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing before I started blogging; the final volume in his Western trilogy, A Good Man, is reviewed here. John Williams’ Stoner may have exploded in popularity this year, 50 years after its publication, but I was a devotee of his portrayal of the American West more than a decade back (you can check out John Self’s thoughts on Stoner here — the equally good Butcher’s Crossing is reviewed by John here and Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes here). And I am also a long-time fan of Wallace Stegner — I reread Angle of Repose in the early days of this blog and intend to revisit The Big Rock Candy Mountain in 2014.

I have also long been intrigued by similarities between the literature of my Canadian frontier home and the Australian version on the other side of the globe (in the early days of the blog I expanded on this with some examples of comparable works in an essay here). On that Antipodean front, I was introduced earlier this year to the work of Australian Alex Miller with his 2012 novel, Autumn Laing, and impressed enough that I resolved to read his entire back catalogue, in order.

Watching The Climbers On The Mountain (1988) is book one in that nine book project and, while it is not one of his prize winners, it is a frontier story of the first order — more than worthy of comparison with my North American favorites.

One of the traits that all these novels have in common (and it is a reflection of reality) is that frontiers attract misfits, people with serious character flaws or challenges that make them unhappy denizens of the “settled” world, eager to find a new home in a world where “order” has not yet acquired a formal definition that makes them uncomfortable. Miller’s excellent debut novel, set in the Central Highlands of Queensland, revolves around three such misfits:

  • Ward Rankin is the owner and manager of the isolated cattle station where the action takes place and the dominating human force in the novel (nature is always the true dominating force in frontier novels):

    At fifty-sx Ward Rankin was a disappointed man and was easily aroused to extremes of irritation and even — especially in his dealings with the animals — to outbursts of violence. But he was not predictable in this and could be gracious, even charming, so that his family treated him with caution, forever hoping for the best. He stayed indoors as much as possible and loathed the work of the station, doing the minimum needed to keep the place going. He was a short brittle man, nervous, well-read, priding himself on his civilised habits. An only son, for many years he had managed the property for his aged mother. It was not what he had intended for himself.

    Ward is a collector of “brown stamps” — when someone, or the world, treats him like crap, he feels it gives him the right to treat someone less powerful than himself (even an animal) with even greater cruelty.

  • His wife, Ida, also had plans for herself which failed to come to fruition:

    Ward was forty-one by the time his mother died. A year or two before this he had married Ida Sturgiss, a girl from a neighboring station who had volunteered to help out. She was eighteen. A few months later their first child, Janet, was born. Eighteen months after Janet came Alistair. Ward Rankin never got away from the station and with time he grew to resent the circumstances that bound him to it.

    Ida’s resentment over her lost chances is every bit as deep.

  • Ward and Ida may have evolved into an uneasy, dispirited truce over 15 years but it is disrupted with the arrival at the station of a new stockman, 18-year-old Robert Crofts. Raised in poverty in England, he has chosen to flee as far as possible and ended up in rural Queensland:

    At first they teased him about his shyness but soon recognized that it was something more than this. There was a closed solitariness about him that was not natural in a young man. He brought this solitariness with him. It was deeper than theirs — it had nothing to do with geography — and they hadn’t expected it. Robert Crofts was also very beautiful. His body was strong and well-muscled, he was slim and upright and his movements were finely coordinated. His rather Germanic features were slightly elongated and his lips were full and red. In the expression of his eyes, which were a deep and luminous brown, there seemed to be an observation on his surroundings that he could not be brought to utter.

  • The rigors of surviving frontier life may be enough to cause a couple to bury their differences and unhappiness — the introduction of a third party (two’s company, three’s a crowd) brings those feelings poisonously bubbling to the surface.

    The ages of the three are important to author Miller’s structure. At fifty-six, Ward is old enough to be Ida’s father. At thirty-three, she is closer in age to Robert than to her husband. And at 18, Robert is a daily reminder to Ida of her own self when she arrived at the station.

    In the early chapters of the novel, this plays out as a desperate attempt to define new roles. Ward dislikes Robert from the start. Instead of admiring his capacity for work, he reviles it — perhaps a reflection of his own guilt for laziness and forever starting projects that he never finishes. His response is to make even more unreasonable demands in an attempt to break the young man.

    Robert, for his part, discovers that any attempt to escape into a new routine is constantly denied by the owner’s irrational demands. Fifteen-year-old Janet develops a bit of a crush for him, which complicates matters for a youth who is trying to act older than his own years. Life at the station for Robert is based on shifting sand rather than a firm foundation — indeed, an incident featuring a literal sinkhole brings the tension between himself and Ward to a head.

    And Ida, who ended up chained to the station by choosing marriage as the path of least resistance, watches all this with growing frustration. As matters get worse, she more and more sees how Robert’s difficulties as a reflection of her own when she arrived there at the same age — all of which re-awakens the dreams and hopes she had for her life fifteen years back.

    Incomplete misfits may be able to get by in normal times — the introduction of change tends to make their flaws even more predominant. Once he has established the limitations of the three, Miller carefully shows how grasping at straws to seek a resolution makes things even worse. (Vanderhaeghe, Williams and Stegner all explore this same phenomenon of hopelessness — I’d say it is another constant of frontier fiction. There is a reason why misfits have sought refuge in the un-ordered world.)

    Like Williams and Stegner, who have not been getting the attention they deserve, Alex Miller is not a familiar name to Northern Hemisphere audiences. Autumnn Laing attracted positive attention, so hopefully that will soon change. Publishers Allen & Unwin (who kindly provided my review copy) have begun re-issuing his earlier novels — those with a taste for well-written fiction set in the developing North American frontier would be well advised to add this Aussie to their reading lists. He is a wordsmith of substantial talent and while his stories may be set on the other side of the world they have much to say to North American audiences.

    Autumn Laing, by Alex Miller

    March 3, 2013

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Autumn Laing is 85 when 1991 dawns — her body failing (excessive farting, among other disorders), but her mind still sharp (most of the time), she has already prepared for her own end by hiding away three tablets that will bring it to a rapid close. That tentative “plan” has to be put on hold because she thinks that a few days earlier she saw Edith Black, a woman to whom Autumn had done grievous harm 53 years before, entering the local chemist’s shop:

    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.)


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