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Randolph Stow: An Ambivalent Australian

The hawks wheel in the dawnlight, the dawn breeze blows
from the heart of drought, from the hungry waiting country

– and what have I to leave, but this encumbering
tenderness, like gear for ever unclaimed.

From ‘Ishmael’ by Randolph Stow

 

In 1997, when I was asked to suggest nominations for the Australia Council Emeritus Awards, Randolph Stow seemed a perfect candidate. I wrote to him to request permission. Even his address was enigmatic: Fishpond Cottage, East Bergholt, Suffolk. Stow responded promptly and politely, grateful for my gesture, but pointed out that he was now a British citizen and that this might make him ineligible.

At the time I was curious about Stow’s reasons for dropping his Australian citizenship – an act that appeared to be a disowning of his heritage – but later concluded it was for the purpose of remaining a permanent resident in England. And perhaps it was that simple. But these days I suspect not.

Why is it that one of our greatest writers, who wrote some of the most quintessentially Australian novels, went into permanent self-exile? Certainly there were many of his generation who moved away, but most regularly came back to visit and sound off, maintaining their expat profiles and reminding the rest of us of our deeply irredeemable provincialism. Stow may well have had negative feelings about his home country but he refrained, on the whole, from making these attitudes public, so the reasons for his expatriation remain, largely, a mystery.

Stow had a deeply personal relationship with Australia. By that I mean that the nation and the idea of Australianness wasn’t an abstract notion. I believe that, for Stow, it was almost personified. And it was a person with whom he had a tumultuous, love–hate affair. Like a lover he had tried to please, or a parent from whom he sought approval, Australia couldn’t return his affections, couldn’t match his emotional pitch, couldn’t embrace his artistic intensity. Australia also rejected him – at times brutally – when he offered up his most precious gifts: his poetry and novels. Stow’s first poems, submitted to journals when he was still an undergraduate, were more warmly received overseas than at home. In a letter written during his last year at the University of Western Australia, Stow compares the positive response he gets from English publishers and critics, including people like Stephen Spender, to the lukewarm reception at home. ‘They certainly show up the Australians,’ says Stow. ‘If the Bulletin doesn’t like a poem they sneer at it; if they do, no comment. The editors of Southerly and Meanjin will maybe write a line of vague encouragement on the back of a rejection slip, but never any criticism worth having.’

***

Stow’s first novel, A Haunted Land, was submitted to publishers when the author was barely 20. Written during the summer holidays of 1954–55, A Haunted Land is a gothic tale set on a remote farming property in the Geraldton hinterland at the turn of the century and is a

shocking read, even now. Amid the exquisite descriptions of landscape there is madness, murder, tragedy and, possibly most disturbing for readers at the time, miscegenation. Turned down in Australia, the novel was accepted in London and the United States, and later translated into German, Dutch and Danish. When Stow received his first, freshly-printed hardbacks of A Haunted Land, he sent a copy to his former high school headmaster, a man with whom he had suffered a difficult relationship while boarding at Guildford Grammar in Perth. (Among other things, when Stow’s mother wrote requesting that her son be excused from football practice, the headmaster had written back saying he would not single out the young Julian – as he was known then – for special attention because he could ‘see no reason why he should regard himself as a special case’.)

The headmaster’s response to the receipt of his former student’s novel is dated 30 October 1956:

Dear Mr Stow,

Thank you very much for the copy of your novel for the School. I read it during the week-end and would like to offer you my congratulations. I think it is extremely well-written and creates a very clear atmosphere, though my own personal taste for novels involves the situations of more normal everyday life without quite so many abnormal characters. I have some doubts as to whether it is, as you say, suitable for the School Library, but will hand it on to the master in charge for his opinion. Anyway, it is a remarkable effort and I wish you all success with your future literary ventures.

Best wishes,
Yours sincerely,

Mr Thwaites.

One can only assume that Wuthering Heights – to which A Haunted Land has been compared – was on the shelves of the Guildford Grammar library without Mr Thwaites ever realising just how many abnormal characters also inhabited that particular text. One also assumes that the section of the book the headmaster was particularly bothered by, and that required the master’s opinion, was the part about an Aboriginal farmhand who has sex with the young daughter of a white grazier and is later shot dead for the privilege. In any case, the correspondence between the two men, spanning from apologetic student (after Stow wrote a parody based on his headmaster for the school magazine) to successful young novelist, is a telling one.

Why did Stow feel he needed recognition from such a man? It is not unusual for writers and poets to be dismissed by officious school masters, but how many of those who go on to succeed in their ‘literary ventures’ – if success is the appropriate word – then return to those corridors in the hope that the tone-deaf teacher has suddenly and miraculously acquired perfect pitch? Or that the headmaster might come to see, at last, the ‘specialness of their case’?

By the time Stow was 23 he had written a further two novels and a collection of poetry, winning him the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, as well as the Miles Franklin Award. It appeared to all that this young prodigy had a great future. But then he took a turn from which, some would argue, he never recovered.

In 1963, at the age of 28, Stow published a slim novel called Tourmaline – to my mind his most beautiful work, and Stow’s favourite. The response from Australia’s leading critic at the time, Professor Leonie Kramer, was savage. She disapproved of Stow’s storytelling and style and said so at length in a review and then a 14-page article in Southerly. Kramer attacked the book and its author with almost feverish relish, dismembering the offering of the country’s youngest and perhaps most visionary talent in an episode that was later to be dubbed by A.D. Hope as ‘The Tourmaline Affair’. Her chief criticisms were Stow’s symbolic, anti-realism style and his ‘quasi-religious ideas’. Later, in an essay about the affair, Hope wrote that ‘It would be hypocritical of me, of course, to dissociate myself from Professor Kramer’s review and article. I had nothing to do with the inception or the writing of either but I thoroughly shared Professor Kramer’s views.’

By 1966, Stow was still feeling so misunderstood that, in an act that Helen Tiffin considered ‘a fit of authorial desperation’, he published ‘From The Testament of Tourmaline: Variations on Themes of the Tao Teh Ching’, a lengthy poetic defence of his novel. Was Stow hoping that upon offering his ‘testament’ the Mr Thwaiteses of the world would finally come to understand his Taoist vision?

Professor Peter Kuch suggests that:

Tourmaline proved unacceptable to Australians in 1963 because it set Daoism against the desert … and showed, as it proved all too prophetically, rural Australia’s fatal attraction to fundamentalist religion and the Australian public’s fatal attraction to flawed Messiahs. Tourmaline was too austere, too truthful; too confrontational of conventional attitudes; too much in opposition to a whole set of beliefs and attitudes by which Australians had come to domesticate the outback. The novel was too far ahead of its time.

 

***

When trying to interpret and understand Stow, it is very difficult to be certain about anything; he was a private man, excessively shy. But there is one thing of which I am certain: Stow was extremely, almost pathologically, sensitive. The word that comes to mind most is tender. His authorised biographer, Roger Averill, who had the privilege of meeting Stow on several occasions, commented that Stow was ‘like someone who is missing a skin’. So it is easy to imagine that it wasn’t only Stow’s reputation that never recovered from those vicious attacks on his bold, yet fragile novel.

In 1964 Stow left Australia, perhaps still smarting. He didn’t return for a decade. Then, in 1974, he was offered a Whitlam government fellowship. Despite Kramer, Hope and Mr Thwaites, there were some people, at least, who had realised that Julian Randolph Stow was, indeed, ‘a special case’. A condition of the grant was that he take up residence in Australia. Stow flew home to Western Australia but after only a matter of weeks he packed up, returned the money, and left, never to visit the place of his birth again. Before leaving, however, Stow wrote a letter to Gough Whitlam, explaining why he was giving up the fellowship. Stow’s closest Australian friend, Western Australian poet Bill Grono, remembers that, among Stow’s reasons, was his claim that Australia was uncivilised and unsympathetic with the world’s problems.

Stow was famous for his silences, both personal and professional. At the time of his death in 2010, he hadn’t published a novel for 26 years. Fellow West Australian poet, Dorothy Hewett, believed that one of the problems was that, ‘Stow, incidentally a gifted linguist, wrote out of an anti-lingual society. His ideal clan were country men, tightlipped bushmen, who suspected the gift of the gab.’ Lyrical poetry, she argued, was at odds with the poet’s immediate environment; articulation and utterance were considered threatening – endangering the purity and solidarity of silence as practised by his ‘tight-lipped’ mob.

I sometimes wonder if this suspicion of an ability to articulate is still true of Australian society. One of our country’s most astute political and social commentators, Anne Summers, recently observed that Australians ‘glory in their inarticulateness’. We even seem to have something against multiple syllables; everything gets shortened. Service station to ‘servo’, sandwich to ‘sanger’, Australian to Aussie.

In 1980, the ascetic Stow confessed to a friend that he had bought a television. ‘I’ve seen a few Australian films this year,’ he said, ‘all beautifully shot and badly written.’ Then he consulted his friend on an expression he’d heard while watching Don’s Party: ‘a slab of tinnies’. ‘What are tinnies?’ he asked. The explanation provided apparently enraged the writer. ‘Tinnies! Tinnies! Why do Australians have to infantilise everything?’

***

Possibly the most famous literary self-exile is James Joyce. On first sighting Randolph Stow and James Joyce may seem light years apart but there are a few similarities. Both were gifted linguists: Joyce spoke five languages fluently and had grasp of an almost impossible number of others, as evidenced by the sixty or so languages that appear in Finnegans Wake.

Stow apparently read in most Western European languages, including Old Dutch and Gaelic, even if he didn’t speak them. (Stow didn’t talk much in any language.) Stow and Joyce both wrote their first published works when they were very young, both abandoned their countries of birth and both, dare I say, retained ambivalent relationships with their homes and their nationalities for the rest of their lives. Stow returned to Australia only twice; Joyce only ever returned to Ireland on two occasions. Both were buried in foreign graves.

But also like Joyce, the homeland with which Stow had such a tortured connection was the source of his finest literary production. Dorothy Hewett also recognised a connection between these two writers when deciding on the title for her excellent essay on Stow’s neglected poetry: ‘Silence, Exile and Cunning.’

It appears that, like many writers before them, for Joyce and Stow exile was absolutely necessary. The big question here is why Stow felt the compulsion, not only to go into self-exile, but to almost de-identify himself as an Australian. Stow spent the last 30 years of his life in a small, seaside village called Harwich, living a monastic existence except for his regular, evening outing to the local pub.

While in Harwich on a research trip I visited the same pub and, over a few pints, questioned the locals about their mysterious literary neighbour. Amid the barstool chat, I commented on how much the Harwich port reminded me of Geraldton in Western Australia, where Stow was born and grew up.

Ex-seaman Wavy Davy interrupted. ‘But he told me that he was born in England and was taken to Australia as a baby.’

‘What?’ I responded, incredulous, immediately suspecting that Davy was inventing or misremembering.

‘Yes,’ said Martin, the local bookshop owner. ‘He told me that too.’

Was Stow really so ashamed of his Australianness that he re-invented the circumstances of his birth? Did he consider himself a changeling? Was his shame another incarnation of the old colonial Australian’s sense of inferiority? Or was Stow’s rejection of Australia at least partly a result of Australia’s rejection of him?

***

Perhaps we can dare to hope that Stow’s death will bring about a renewed interest in his work. In 2009 Stow had one biographer; now he has two and a new edition of his poetry with an introductory essay by John Kinsella recently released. Perhaps the day is not far away when – just as we easily refer to certain situations as Kafkaesque or Joycean – we may begin to describe certain landscapes and situations, people or characters, as Stowesque or Stowian. Perhaps we will at last recognise and commemorate the poet’s tender gear that has, for so long, remained unclaimed.

 

Gabrielle Carey teaches writing at the University of Technology, Sydney and is currently working on a book about Randolph Stow to be published by the University of Queensland Press in 2013.

Some of the material in this essay formed part of the Inaugural Randolph Stow Memorial Lecture, given at the University of Western Australia in 2011. Letters © Randolph Stow. Permission given by the Randolph Stow Estate.




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