Stephanie Guest on Finding Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne

Reviewed by
February 2012, no. 338

Stephanie Guest on Finding Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne

Reviewed by
February 2012, no. 338
I can name many Australian creators of literature. Let not our historians depress them with proofs that they are merely creators of Australian literature.
(W.A. Amiet, Meanjin Papers)

I first discovered Australian literature in Argentina. While I was there studying Argentinian literature at the University of Buenos Aires in 2009–10, I spent many nights hunched over the table in our dingy kitchen with one of my housemates, Teresa. We would pick over the politically infused vernacular of the short stories that I was reading for my class on ‘Problems in Argentinian Literature’. Most days I caught bus number 168, the same route on which Julio Cortázar’s short story ‘Ómnibus’ is set. My encounter with the city became an encounter with its literature. I lived near calle Garay, and walked along it wondering about the possibility of the infinite nutshell window in a Borges basement. Around the corner from my apartment, in the small independent bookshop La Libre, I found a book of contemporary Australian poetry translated into Spanish by Colombian poets. Included were poems by Les Murray. On the cover was a horizon of orange desert, with ‘AUSTRALIA’ in a huge font. At once a rush of recognition and homesickness; then a flush of embarrassment trying to explain to my Argentinean friend why I had never read anything by the famous Australian poet.

Back at the University of Melbourne, there was only one subject on Australian literature, ‘The Australian Imaginary’. To my chagrin, the handbook reported that it was not available in2011. There may be specialised branches of Australian literature taught in Croatia and Texas, but at Melbourne there was not even a general course on offer. The carelessness towards Australian literary studies was clear from the listing in the course curriculum of Murray Bail as ‘Murray Bird’.

The head of the English department told me that staff shortages, reduced funding for the Arts Faculty, and low student interest in the subject were responsible for the absence of Australian Literature in 2011. I proposed organising an unofficial course, which she supported, circulating my call to all third-year English students. Within twenty-four hours I had eighteen responses. The Moot Court Room in the Old Quad offered a colonial Australian ambience: extended horseshoe desk, golden light, austere leather chairs. I was able to book it every Friday afternoon for the entire semester. Melbourne University – such a big institution, with so many empty rooms and possibilities.

We met and asked one another: What is Australian literature? Why does it often seem dull and disconnected from our lives? How can we uncover a vital literature that does not make us cringe? Is the dawn really so galah-breasted?

The idea was to read together; to put an end to dismal tutorials in which no one has done the required reading; to anchor ourselves in the writing itself, without drowning in history, biography, theory, opinion; to find a way of connecting and learning. Sometimes students gave classes; more often we invited speakers. Most of them accepted enthusiastically. I wrote a letter to ΠO, via his PO box, asking him to come along. Next day he replied:

dear Stephanie
just got your letter
i’m quite flattered
where do you meet on campus?
i could make it tomorrow
but no promises as I’ve got to wait on someone showing up etc
i’d like to rave and talk and show and tell etc
hope this finds you well
love + anarchy

I was nervous about what was going to happen, but ΠO captivated us with his erratic and urgent poetics.

Eye thinks-o
Us-traalia goot kuntri for
Eye thinks-o
(‘Two Men in a Corner’)

Some weeks there were just three of us in the Moot Court Room; sometimes there was a crowd. The largest group (twenty-nine people) gathered to hear Helen Garner. This had taken some negotiation. At first Garner equivocated in response to our invitation. In the end we recklessly insisted:

It is important that you come. We have been so let down by our institutions, by a pernicious culture of complacency, that we now take a radical means to edify ourselves. We pursue you with such cold passion because you are a symbol of tenacity, clear-sightedness, plain-statedness – an Australian who writes, who lives, who lives in the national literature we are so wildly in search of, who lives near to us, who has a heartbeat, who can come …
The First Stone did not get to be written by taking no for an answer. We are taking a leaf out of your book. Come and speak with us – empty handed, ready or not – for an hour one Friday. And who knows, maybe a meeting with the young-bloods will pull you out of the (non)fictitious rut you have gotten yourself into.

Her reaction was gracious:

You’re right. I am wimping out. Your perseverance is very bracing.
Okay, I will just rock up, and we can wing it. I would always rather work that way anyhow.
Remind me which Fridays are possible.
Yours with a straighter spine

That Friday, a jolt of reality against fiction, of brisk intimacy.

Kevin Hart intoned the words of Robert Gray and Kenneth Slessor. At the end we asked him to read some poems from his new book. A line from ‘Afternoon’ inspired multiple interpretations. With the poet present, standard undergraduate literary analysis (or, as Elizabeth Campbell might call it, ‘space-ship theorising’) was confronted with the ‘facts’ of the poem.

I had never heard of the ‘Ern Malley’ hoax before. Nor had most of the people who turned up the day Michael Heyward came to discuss the furore. Heyward told the story with investment and love, and we were enthralled. ‘Ern Malley’ seems like a perfect case study for Australian Literature: at once diffident, desiring to be somewhere else (invoking T.S. Eliot and Dürer), and yet unavoidably located in Australia: weeping gum tears (however forced) in Footscray’s gutters.

What I’m saying is not new. During our haphazard year of reading Australian literature, we realised how many generations have grappled with the same questions. Perhaps the pages of the 1954 issues of Meanjin articulate them best. Indeed, debates about how or whetherto study ‘Australian literature’, Justin Clemens suggested to us, become its very basis. But, if Australian universities don’t take Australian literature seriously, my generation will never understand its mysteries, glories, and insecurities.

Thanks to our inspiring speakers in 2011 (in order of appearance): Elizabeth Campbell and Petra White, ΠO, Morag Fraser, Ellen Koshland, Kevin Hart, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Elliot Perlman, Alex Lewis, Michael Heyward, Jan McGuinness, Justin Clemens, Helen Garner, Kim Scott, Sophie Cunningham, Kevin Brophy, Peter Rose, Kalinda Ashton, and Philip Mead.

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