The Secret Lives of Australians

The chronicler of the outback is master of the interior.

David Malouf.
David Malouf

“They were too extravagant,” a character thinks in a story in this volume, “for the web of quiet incident and subtle shifts of power that were the usual stuff of his fiction.” He is Colin Lattimer, an “almost famous” Australian writer returning to Brisbane, the place of his birth and youth, after an interval of 30 years. He lives in London now and scarcely recognizes his old city at first. Too many “fly-overs, multi-level carparks, tower blocks.” Then he realizes that much of its old surprise and violence lingers, that “the city he knew, and in one part of himself still moved in, was out there somewhere, but out of sight, underground.” The events that are too extravagant for Lattimer’s fiction now hit him in reality. Mistaken for someone else on the street, he becomes the object of an attack by a jealous husband or a betrayed lover, who finally, in his pain and derangement, attempts suicide before Lattimer’s eyes.

It is characteristic of the work of David Malouf, a really famous writer who was born in Brisbane in 1934 and once lived in London, that this extravagance should appear and fade away almost at once. The story needs the violence, but the violence is not the story. Lattimer comes to no harm, and the point is not the distress he suffers but the memories and old dreams he finds through this distressing encounter.

In spite of his abiding interest in the question of individuals in history, and his constant return to the wilderness as an Australian version of the heart of darkness, Malouf always returns us to the human, interior action caught up in whatever turmoil is going on, and this is even truer of his short stories than of his novels. The novels, of which the best known are perhaps The Great World (1990) and Remembering Babylon (1993), do indeed, like Lattimer’s, deal in “quiet incident and subtle shifts of power,” often moving their unmistakably large-scale events and issues to the margins or the shadows.

The short stories—which have appeared in three collections, and one volume that also includes a longer fiction, over the past 25 years—are even more discreet. They are very low on incident, and they deal in subtle shifts of … well, what it is that shifts is often the question. Getting to see how this question unfolds, how various and yet consistent Malouf can be in its pursuit, is one reason why it is very good to have all the stories in one volume. Malouf is a master of the art of the short story in its most elusive, Chekhovian form, and he uses the genre, it seems to me, for three delicate purposes in particular: the exploration of the ordinary; the evocation of moments of change, often seemingly slight; and the interrogation of loss.

In “The Sun in Winter,” one of the most memorable of these stories, a middle-aged Belgian woman introduces a young Australian man to the gloomy tourist delights of Bruges: “very beautiful,” as the woman says, “very triste, you understand French? Bruges la Morte. And German too maybe, a little. Die tote Stadt.” Then she shows him something personal, a cheerful funeral shop with a model of the coffin she has ordered for herself. She is not ill or unhappy, just thinking ahead. The young man is shocked but not only shocked. A “kind of grace” comes over him, allowing him to share the woman’s pleasure and anticipation: “[H]e was relieved of awkwardness, and was moved, for all his raw youth, by an emotion he could not have named—for her, but also for himself—and which he would catch up with only later, when sufficient time had passed to make them of an age.” Earlier, the woman had said that one needs “a passion for the everyday” because it is easy to see the unusual, “difficult to see what is common.” In the coffin the young man easily saw the unusual; then caught the everyday.

“In Trust,” another remarkable story, is effectively an essay on objects and our relation to them. They matter to us, Malouf suggests, only when they have long fallen into disuse, when they are only fragments of memory. These objects “are perhaps the only angels we shall ever meet, though they bear no message but their own presence: we are here.” An illustration: A noisy, boring, elderly American sees a photograph in the Museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, collapses, and dies. The picture was of the man’s 6-year-old self and his family on what Malouf sardonically calls “the welcoming ramp at Treblinka,” but the man hasn’t died of sorrow or shock. He has died of his encounter with the image, that modern technology for the preservation of lost objects, for the insertion of old times into ours. “It was that vision of himself in the same dimension as the long dead that struck him down: that rather than any recollection of the moment when the shot was taken.” Later in the story, a young girl in Australia, invited to choose among the souvenirs her great-aunt is giving away, picks the X-rays of a man now long dead—because she knows how much these pictures, all that now remain of the man, matter to the giver, and because “there are natural lines of descent in a family. … It is proper that objects people care for should find their way down through them, from hand to hand and from heart to heart.” The girl could sensibly have picked the spoons her aunt was also offering. That would have been ordinary. But the X-rays are first strange, then ordinary, like the coffin in Bruges.

The second significant focus of these stories, the moments of change, is present from the very first, in the early story called “Eustace.” A boy starts to visit the dormitory of a girls’ school at night and finally takes off with one of the pupils. There are mysteries here. Why did the girls say nothing about the boy’s presence? Why do they so easily accept the girl’s departure? The teachers certainly don’t know. And the narrator suggests only that the girls have recognized “something outside the rules of their daily existence, the rules that would govern their lives afterwards, and which they knew now was there, had always been there, and would never, even in their own case, and despite the rules, be entirely exorcized; though it did not have to be confronted—or not yet.” This is eloquent but still securely vague. It’s the next move, the analogical leap, that is devastating. “They would recognize it again later, at a point further on, past the husbands and the children still to come. It was ten years off for one, at the bottom of twelve feet of water; twenty years for another, for others fifty, sixty even. It would reappear in a different and quite unpredictable form to each one of them. …” What is “it”? It probably doesn’t have a name, but it is plainly related to the surprises of the city under the city. The real point here, though, is not the meaning or the result but the uncomprehended experience, the moment that secretly haunts lives not altered in any other way.

This moment occurs again and again in these stories, for very different people. A 16-year-old boy on an expedition to the wilds who suddenly feels he is moving into “time, not space,” as he starts to understand “what belongs to the heart and its confusions,” and what must come to him one day, as it came to all those girls become women. A Hungarian girl moves to Australia and, seeing a movie, realizes it was “more than a place, it was a world of feeling she had broken through to.” Even more mysteriously, a young Australian woman in Austria learning German suddenly, for no apparent reason at all, sinks into misery and steps sadly “across a border into the rest of her life.” Yet she doesn’t remember the moment. “It seemed boundless, her depression, eternally deep, though in fact, ten years later … she would not recall this particular gloom.”

These preoccupations, ordinariness and scarcely perceptible change, evoke a third, which is woven into many of the stories, perhaps most of them in some form or other: the question of loss. “Jack loved these broken continuities,” we read of a boy in a piece called “At Schindler’s.” “Nothing was lost.” The same phrase, spoken in the present tense by an older, slightly damaged character, appears in another story: “Nothing is lost. Nothing ever gets lost.” These assertions are not true as they stand. The boy in the first story has lost his father; the man in the other story doesn’t know how much of his mind or memory is gone. But of course they are not lies or idle wishes. They are enactments of what Malouf’s stories themselves are after: something like a memory that survives the fallibility of the human mind and the habits of practical reason. As Walter Benjamin said, the memorable can exist even when it isn’t remembered.