Few writers, it could be argued, have ever cannibalised life for their art as ruthlessly and consistently as did Martin Boyd; and few are born into situations which lend themselves so readily to art. Boyd’s working life – indeed, much of his entire existence – was spent trying to unite the past with the present, the old world with the new, himself with the man he might have been; and in committing his efforts to paper. To this end, he never shirked from using friends and relatives as material for his novels, as well as the real-life experiences of himself and of others. If he paid a price for this – which he occasionally did, for people often hanker to be preserved in print, only to resent the style of preservation – the consequences gave him little pause. By the time he wrote A Difficult Young Man, focusing the cool spotlight of his attention on his brother Merric as well as more sharply on himself, Boyd had form as a writer whose true gift lay not in the power of his imagination, but in the brilliance of his ancestral inheritance.
It is astonishing how many major works of Australian fiction – and often major works in themselves – are out of print at any given time. Angus and Robertson and Penguin, occasionally assisted by smaller firms like the specialist feminist press Virago and the university presses, have done fine work in drawing attention to novels and writers undeservedly out of print. One writer who seemed out of fashion for a time but whom Penguin are systematically bringing back into print is Martin Boyd. The latest is their series of reissues of his work is a relatively little known and lightweight novel with the misleadingly enticing title of Nuns in Jeopardy (first published in 1940).
Brian McFarlane’s small book on Martin Boyd’s Langton novels is a particularly measured and useful study. He makes no grand claims for Boyd but sees and appreciates him for the writer that he is when he is at his best, and the Langton novels – The Cardboard Crown, A Difficult YoungMan, Outbreak of Love, and When Blackbirds Sing – certainly see Boyd at his best.