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An Obsessional Storyteller

by
October 2002, no. 245

Xavier Herbert: Letters edited by Frances de Groen and Laurie Hergenhan

University of Queensland Press, $45pb, 508pp, 0 7022 3309 9

An Obsessional Storyteller

by
October 2002, no. 245

The cover of this substantial volume tells you what’s coming: it features a photograph of Xavier Herbert, sixtyish and fit-looking, standing behind the converted 4WD that constitutes his bush camp and dressed in nothing but a pair of stubbies. His eyes are blazing and a bit mad, his shoulders slightly hunched, and he looks as if he’s been holding forth for some time. To whom? For Herbert, it probably didn’t matter. You can see the man Vance Palmer described in 1941: ‘You feel he’s got a large chaotic world of jetting imagination inside him and it will always be desperately hard for him to write because he’s got a lot to say and he’s got this sort of garrulousness that keeps him talking about his matter instead of brooding on it and giving it form.’

This selection of letters covers Herbert’s life from 1929, when he was in his late twenties and just starting to be published, to 1979, four years after the publication of what he accurately called his ‘maximum opus’, the 900,000wordlong Poor Fellow My Country. What is most immediately striking about the letters – apart from the length and prolixity of some of them – is their energy. Herbert was an intensely physical man and writer, and never did anything by halves. He poured his passionate convictions into his correspondence; he sent yarns, jokes and observations on life to his friends in the city. At the same time, he seldom visited them: on one level, he was an insecure recluse who needed solitude. ‘I think I know why I love the bush,’ he told ABC broadcaster Arthur Dibley. ‘It is only because it is a safe retreat from the battle of life … I can find company that, ignorant of my language or my manner of life, will not criticise me.’ The last thing he wanted, from anyone, was criticism.

Jacqueline Kent reviews 'Xavier Herbert: Letters' edited by Frances de Groen and Laurie Hergenhan

Xavier Herbert: Letters

edited by Frances de Groen and Laurie Hergenhan

University of Queensland Press, $45pb, 508pp, 0 7022 3309 9

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