Review of Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow, by Suzanne Falkiner

Abstract

Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow, by Suzanne Falkiner. UWA Publishing, 2016.

Most biographers like to think that what they have written would have been acceptable to the person they are writing about. Suzanne Falkiner has no such illusions about this work. In a postscript to her 890-page biography of Randolph Stow she remarks: ‘No doubt Stow would not have approved of this book, and more especially because it contains a large amount of “chatter about Harriet”’ (721). The phrase, ‘chatter about Harriet’ (originally from a review of a Shelley biography that gave considerable attention to Harriet, the first wife), had been used by Stow in a 1976 interview, when he had been asked whether he thought that ‘knowing something of the life and personality of an artist’ could help readers to understand his work. In reply he agreed on the need ‘to know a great deal – well, a certain amount, anyway – about an author’s life, and not only what he chooses to have known’. By way of illustration, he pointed to Conrad’s attempted suicide, which had only recently become known, as ‘obviously something that one needs to know’. At the same time, he hoped ‘this sort of thing could be kept to a minimum’, as ‘too much chatter about Harriet . . . distracts attention from the work’.

Traditionally, biography has been viewed as a sort of handmaiden to criticism. However, over the past half-century there has been a surge of interest in biography as a genre. Among writers and critics there is now a fairly widespread awareness that literary biography is – as Wikipedia kindly warns the passing surfer – the most complex form of the genre. The attempt to see the lives of writers in relation to the works they have produced makes such biographies especially appealing to the reader and especially difficult for the biographer.

Stow ‘hedged and blocked biographers’, as Suzanne Falkiner says, but when he died in 2010 he left behind a substantial archive and many people who knew him and were prepared to talk to his biographer. She does not appear to have begun research while he was alive, so it is impressive that within six years of his death she was able to produce such a large-scale biography, complete with scholarly notes and a most useful bibliography. But putting a book together so quickly was not without cost, as occasional errors and gaps in understanding indicate. In particular, her description of Hope’s ‘A Letter From Rome’ as ‘a rather pompous satire’ (410) makes one wonder whether she took the time to read the poem.

Falkiner had never met Stow, and her contact with him was limited to a couple of written exchanges, sparked by her impression of a likeness between him and Grant Watson, both of whom, she thought, had in their early writing ‘wanted to reconcile European man’s spiritual quest with his place in the Australian landscape’ (726). She was to learn from Stow that he had never read Grant Watson, and in this book does not argue a case for the likeness between the two. As for the nature of Stow’s literary achievement, it’s hard to tell what she makes of it, as she firmly disclaims any attempt at ‘a critical evaluation’ of his writing. In effect, she sidesteps the major challenge confronting a biographer, a challenge that is all the greater with a novelist and poet as intensely private as Stow, by not attempting to explore how the author is present in his fictions, both prose and poetic.

Defining her intentions as a biographer, Falkiner says that she aims ‘to contextualise the works within the broad arc of Stow’s life’. What this amounts to in practice is an attempt to document as fully as possible the events of his life in chronological sequence. At any point in this chronicle the amount of detail seems to depend upon what material she can find rather than any conception of what matters most. Falkiner has the reporter’s eye for a good anecdote, is adept at descriptive sketches, and revels in ‘writing up’ what comes to hand. What she does not have is a sharp focus and a strict sense of relevance. Nor does she seem to have been assisted by a strong-minded editor with a blue pencil. It is not surprising, then, that there is fairly constant ‘chatter about Harriet’ in this extremely long book.

A few examples will illustrate the superfluity of detail that inflates the text from beginning to end. On page two, Julian Randolph Stow is born in the Geraldton Maternity Hospital, ‘a dignified old bluestone building that had once housed the district’s first magistrate’. On the next page, following his christening his mother arranges a ladies-only entertainment, ‘combining tea and tennis’, and the reader is given the guest list as reported by the West Australian. On page four there is a summary of the report by the Geraldton Guardian of his parents’ wedding ‘at Christ Church, decorated with pink gladioli’, at which the bride wore pink. And so on. On the very last page of the narrative it is recorded that Stow’s brother-in-law came from Australia to join his wife for the funeral in England ‘after seeing the roof put on their half-built house’.

These are comparatively trivial instances of a form of excess that characterises this text. More substantial are the over-detailed reports of Stow at school, his travels, his dealings with publishers, his financial affairs, and his domestic arrangements when he settled in East Anglia. All of this material can be interesting in itself – I was fascinated by what I learnt about his publishers at Macdonald and later Secker & Warburg – but it is too often inadequately shaped to the purposes of a biography.

Memories and comments of those who knew Stow, some only fleetingly, are handled in much the same way. Falkiner has done a remarkable job of tracking down people who might have remembered something, even to the extent of finding those who shared a hut with him when he did National Service, but she seems to regard all memories, however slight or questionable, as of equal value. Her indiscriminate approach means that the grain is not sifted from the chaff. The accumulation of personal testimonies, including what is no more than gossip, contributes less to building up a perspective on the life and personality of Stow than a more selective, considered approach would have done.

The ‘arc’ of Stow’s life is already pretty well known: his growing up at Geraldton; his success as a novelist while still a university student; his triumph in winning the Miles Franklin Award which coincided with a ‘breakdown’ in New Guinea where he was a cadet patrol officer; the consolidation of his reputation as a novelist with the popular The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea; his move to England and after a fallow period three highly individual novels with non-Australian settings; then virtual silence for over a quarter of a century. What has not been known until now is exactly what happened in New Guinea in 1959. Falkiner’s method of copious documentation is at its most effective in describing Stow’s attempt at suicide and the events leading up to it. Having exhaustively researched the official files and obtained firsthand accounts wherever possible from those involved, she is able to give what is the first authoritative account of the crisis that nearly ended his life.

Stow’s main literary interpreter, Anthony Hassall, took the title of his study, Strange Country, from the closing words of To The Islands. The reflection of the aged Heriot, ‘my soul is a strange country’, has an obvious autobiographical application. Stow (who had taken an overdose a year earlier) struggled to understand how he had become so desperate. Some of his actions, such as his study of Conrad – a significant influence on his later fiction – can be seen as part of his search for an understanding of the darkness within. After New Guinea, he abandoned the idea of becoming an anthropologist and committed himself to the life of a writer, with intervals of teaching.

The whole experience of breakdown and recovery was, he freely acknowledged later, a watershed, a turning point in his life. For the first time he visited Europe, where he ‘began to write in a quite different way’, as he told the interviewers mentioned above. Falkiner interprets this as a reference to his ‘technical development’ (327), but I read it as a pointer to a much more fundamental development in his self-understanding, affecting his sense of identity and his relationship to his family and to Australia. What Stow wrote after his immersion in ‘the destructive element’ (Conrad’s phrase in Lord Jim) strikes me as profoundly autobiographical in a way not generally recognised. The ‘strange country’ that had previously been only an idea became the territory that he explored in his major works – the novels from Tourmaline to The Suburbs of Hell.

Until New Guinea, Stow’s life had seemed to have a certainty of direction; afterwards, there were many false starts, long periods of writer’s block and shorter periods of intense creativity. This biography reveals all too plainly how, like many writers, he found it difficult to manage his own life – at least, until the comparative serenity of his last years living alone at Harwich. The record of his struggles with alcohol, prescription drugs, and sexuality has its place, but does not lead far into the interior world in which he lived most fully. In her postscript Falkiner sounds a defeatist note about the limits of biography, saying: ‘How much one can accurately convey of a life lived so much on the interior is debateable’ (727). The obvious rejoinder, unkind though it may be, is that ‘chatter about Harriet’ does not help with what is always a demanding task.

In writing the biography, Falkiner appears to have had the full co-operation of Stow’s family and friends. A few footnotes suggest that some information, perhaps relating to his homosexuality, may be withheld. There is nothing in the text to indicate that any obstacles were put in the way of her giving the whole story of his life, though she does remark that ‘Stow’s great loves, the elusive subjects of some of his most profound works, his love poems’, are still to be revealed. The names of those individuals are probably of less consequence than the nature of Stow’s relationships with them.

Of central importance is Stow’s complex relationship with his mother, which needs more attention than it is given here. Falkiner relies heavily on his letters to his mother as a source, but attempts no sort of critical evaluation of them. It is perhaps an obvious thing to say, but in letters (and now even in emails) we adjust our self-image according to the recipient, and a biographer needs to exercise critical skills in reading them. Few of his mother’s letters to him have survived, which makes it harder to see the relationship in its true dimensions.

Glimpses of the family life given by Stow’s sister, Helen McArthur, suggest lines of enquiry that future biographers may feel it essential to pursue. We are told Helen remembered how the young boy and his mother ‘quoted reams of poetry to each other, mostly over the washing up, from The Bond of Poetry’, an anthology from which Mrs Stow had learnt many poems by heart in her youth (14). It is a memory that highlights a child’s close bonding to a parent, a bonding which carries with it the sort of debt that is never cancelled, no matter how rocky the relationship later becomes. That mother and son became uncomfortable with one another is apparent, and has an obvious bearing on his failure to return to Australia after 1974.

Helen also remarks that their mother would urge Stow, still a teenager, to ‘write things that were more popular with people’, to which he would reply that he ‘wasn’t going to prostitute his art’ (104). Perhaps one should not take this too seriously, but there is no doubt that from an early age he was concerned for the integrity of his art. That, too, has a bearing on his expatriation, and the ‘silence’ of his later years when, as ‘Michael’, he was hardly known as an author but was valued for his performances on local pub quiz teams.

All his life Stow answered to the childhood nickname of ‘Mick’, which he described as his ‘pseudonym for living’. In her postscript, Falkiner quotes a remark by one of his friends to John Hetherington: ‘Mick Stow has two selves. You might begin to know something about him if you could discover where Mick Stow ends and Randolph Stow begins’ (720). One can never clearly distinguish the man from the artist, but even those who knew Mick best were conscious that there was part of himself that he never shared with them. A comment by the painter Patrick Maxwell sums up that feeling very well. Maxwell thought of Stow as living in ‘a huge subterranean world, rich in treasure into which others were not invited’, a world ‘too precious and vulnerable to admit others’ (390). I am inclined to say that only in his writing was Randolph Stow able to be completely and openly himself, and to share what was precious and vulnerable.

Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow is an engrossing account of a gifted but not easily understood personality. To suggest that it might more appropriately have been called A Life of Mick Stow is to identify both its strengths and its limitations.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Randolph Stow, Biography.

Cite as: Barnes, John. ‘Review of Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow, by Suzanne Falkiner.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.e3ed8b01cc.