Essays on the novels of Randolph Stow
Heriot’s Ithaka: Soul, Country and the Possibility of Home in To the Islands
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way . . .
C.P. Cavafy, ‘Ithaka’
Old king without a throne,
the hollow of despair
behind his obstinate unyielding stare, knows only, God is gone:
and, fingers clenching on his chair,
feels night and the soul’s terror coming on.
Judith Wright, ‘The Harp and the King’
In 2009 Anthony Hassall, writing in Australian Book Review about Randolph Stow’s oeuvre, noted that: ‘The final tableau of [Heriot] alone on a cliff above the Arafura Sea, confronting the strangeness of his soul and looking out towards the Aboriginal islands of the dead, is one of the unforgettable images of Australian literature’ (29). I would add that Heriot’s final utterance: ‘My soul…my soul is a strange country’, is one of the unforgettable, and most powerfully-haunting, concluding sentences in Australian fiction. Yet Leonie Kramer in her 1975 critique of Stow’s novels found that final sentence to be misplaced: ‘It belongs – if indeed it belongs at all – not at the end of a novel of this kind, but near the beginning. Surely we have not come all this way with Heriot to be told, what we could have told him in the first place, that his soul is a strange country’ (87). Despite considerable informed critique of Kramer’s readings of Stow’s work – particularly by Geoffrey Dutton, Anthony Hassall, Helen Tiffin and Paul Higginbotham - ‘her strictures’, as Hassall notes, ‘have been treated with greater deference than they deserve, and have cast a long shadow over later Stow criticism’ (Strange Country 54). At a time when interest in Stow and his work is again on the ascendency, I want to investigate more deeply what Heriot might have appreciated his soul to be, before arguing that he could not have spoken those resonant words until the very moment when he is blinded by illumination atop that coastal cliff.
So what is soul? ...
Words of Water: Reading Otherness in Tourmaline and Oyster
In the long run, foreigners are all much the same. They are not us.
Janette Turner Hospital, Oyster
'White' Australian identity has to a large extent been determined historically by what 'we' are not: not Aboriginal, not Chinese and until recently not, it would seem, female or homosexual. That sense of self seemed to have altered dramatically and deeply with the movement in the 1970s towards a pluralistic, tolerant multicultural society. But the 'cathartic' national debate on political correctness and race which erupted after the 1996 election of Pauline Hanson and the consequent birth of her One Nation party demonstrated clearly that the prejudices of many 'white' Australians against 'others' - Aborigines, foreigners, 'elites' - had never gone away. In 2001 the Australian people were told by the federal government, and to a large extent believed, that foreigners coming across the seas threw their children into the ocean as a ploy to force the Australian Navey to rescue them. The nation, fearing continued invasion from such inhumane outsiders, reelected the political party which promised the most stringent border protection policy. in order to protect the 'Australian way of life' those foreigners who have made it to our shores have been incarcerated in brutal detention centres. They remain for the most part unnamed, faceless and voiceless, that is to say, they remain unknown and other. While many Australian citizens are connector and disturbed by these developments, the nation as a whole has allowed it to happen. Why? Partly through clever political manoeuvring and partly because of a deep seated Australian paranoia about otherness, a paranoia sustained by introversion, self-interest and insecurity. Literature, because it influences the way society understands itself, has an important role to play in an increasingly-insular and anxious Australia. There is no need to wait for the literature that will be written by current asylum seekers to learn some of the lessons so urgently needed. Randolph Stow's Tourmaline (1963) and Janette Turner Hospital's Oyster (1996) demonstrate powerfully the destructive personal and communal costs bred by insularity and fear of otherness. Both texts deal with isolated, drought-ravaged Australian communities and the changes wrought by the arrival of a messianic outsider. These communities, sustained by repression, introversion and silence, insist on sameness but they are ultimately undone by difference.
Literature and the Intimate Space of Death
The desire to come to terms with death, one's own or an other's death, is profoundly human. In our quest to understand our mortality, a quest that must by necessity fail, we turn often to literature, art, and music, and are confronted repeatedly not with revelation and certainty, but with the spaces of absence and death they shelter within. Theorists like Maurice Blanchot can help us understand some of the imaginative strategies artists and writers employ in their attempt to represent the ungraspable experience of death. In this essay some of Blanchot's ideas are utilised to negotiate the spaces of absence and death that inform Alex Miller's novella, The Sitters, and Noel Rowe's poem, 'Next to Nothing'. In both of these texts we see the protagonists responding to the actual or threatened loss of a sister; both Rowe and Miller employ the device of portraiture; and in both texts death is represented through the unsaid, the absent.