Origin, Identity and the Body in David Malouf’s Fiction

The Conversations at Curlow Creek is David Malouf's eighth substantial work of fiction, and his most recent. Only two of these eight works, notably Harland's Half Acre (1984) and The Great World (1990), are much longer than two hundred pages, while several, such as Child's Play (1982) and Fly Away Peter (1982), would more accurately be considered novellas rather than novels. None the less several critics have described Malouf in terms which suggest that he is a historical novelist, a term more usually associated with larger books of epic dimensions. Ivor Indyk, for example, comments on 'a deliberate orientation towards the epochal landmarks of Australian social history' in his work (Indyk 93). Peter Pierce remarks that 'The recent fiction of David Malouf richly imagines key moments of Australian history, both obscure and familiar, from which national mythologies are forged' (Pierce 183). Quoting Indyk's comment, Pierce claims that 'If on scale Remembering Babylon is a novella, paradoxically it is epic in some of its ambitions' (185).

In his essay, Pierce is careful to lay the stress on the 'richly imagines' part of his formulation - not, he is at pains to indicate, on the historical veracity of Malouf's narratives. In fact, he rightly points out that Malouf's fiction 'focuses on moments out of time, on epiphanies in the lives of individuals', and the result is a 'shadowy dialectic' between the historical and temporal, on the one hand, and on the other, the profoundly personal and timeless. This, he contends, produces 'shifts of genre within his novels [within which] are to be seen supple strategies for meeting the challenges which historical materials present to their shaper' (183). Thus, Pierce argues, Remembering Babylon can conclude with one such moment when, in the prayer of Sister Monica, known as a child by the name Janet Mcivor, 'all the continent of Australia is promised its epiphany, and thereby an escape from history's burdens into a deathless world outside time' (196). Although Pierce does not comment on it, there is a striking similarity between this beach scene and Imogen Harcourt's vision (I use the word deliberately) of a surfer at the end of Fly Away Peter. Both vouchsafe a destiny outside time, beyond the trammels of history and the compromises of the contingent.

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Published 1 May 1999 in Volume 19 No. 1. Subjects: Australian history, Australian identity, Characterisation, Imagery, Narrative techniques, Plot, Writer's craft.

Cite as: Taylor, Andrew. ‘Origin, Identity and the Body in David Malouf’s Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1999. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.01670b3c96.