At last, books about Such is Life and its endearingly attractive, quixotically sophisticated author, Joseph Furphy, are coming out. Three in the last few months is a welcome harvest, certainly a happier response than Furphy got during the prolonged Wilcannia showers of his life.
The history of Furphy’s reputation is well known, and yet its rough outlines will bear repetition. His dauntingly intelligent, high-spirited, and regional masterpiece was published, thanks to the responsiveness of A.G. Stephens, in 1903. It fell into an Australia that was unlikely to understand its feints and dodges, for various reasons, and had no impact on an overseas world that would have failed to grasp it for another swag of reasons. ‘Civilisation north of Torres Straits’ might have been ready in 1903 to cope with The Ambassadors, but hardly to cope with a Riverina novel teetering somewhere between Sterne, Gide, and Pynchon. For the next four decades, responses to the book emphasised its lovable, formless nationalism and the gutsy radicalism of an undifferentiated Collins–Furphy. Between 1943 and 1946, Furphy was reinstated by the newborn university critics as a modernist. Modernist-humanist readings of Such is Life continued through the 1950s, followed by closer, more scholarly readings until the book became the pre-postmodernist comedy of Riverina epistemology that we read today.