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Randolph Stow

‘Land isn’t always meant to be grasped any more than art is, or dust,’ writes Michael Farrell in the arresting opening sentence of the first essay of Kate Leah Rendell’s Randolph Stow: Critical essays. Stow’s writing shows just how provisional meaning and territoriality can be, and the statement is a fitting beginning to a new book about his work.

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Late in 1998, the Times Literary Supplement, as was its wont, sent Randolph 'Mick' Stow a book for review. It was Xavier Herbert: A Biography (1998) by Francis de Groen, and Stow accepted the commission with enthusiasm. 'What a ghastly, embarrassing old pillock,' he wrote to his lifelong friend Bill Grono. 'Well, you'll soon read my opinion of him. ...

The Jolley Prize is now worth $12,500

The ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize is the country's foremost short story prize, and we are delighted to be able to present it again in 2016. Generous support from ABR Patron Ian Dickson has enabled us to increase the total prize ...

The port of Old Harwich can be approached by a streamlined highway through a barren industrial landscape, or via the high street through suburban Dovercourt. Either way, you keep going until you reach the sea: 'and if you get your feet wet, you've gone too far', they'll say when you ask directions. Finally, you reach an enclave of narrow streets lined by small cotta ...

Randolph Stow, who died in 2010 aged seventy-four, must now be considered part of the Australian canon, whether that concept is conceived broadly or as a smaller cluster of Leavisian peaks. This status derives from his eight novels, which include the Miles Franklin Award-winner To the Islands (1958), the celebrated children’s book Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy (1967), the much studied The Merry-go-round in theSea (1965), and the book that many (including me) think his masterpiece, Visitants (1979).

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I visited Randolph Stow on impulse. We had corresponded briefly and since I was passing through London in February 1975, I asked if I might meet him. He kindly invited me to spend the day with him in East Bergholt, a village in Suffolk, two hours from London. Stow had been living there, in Dairy Farm Cottage, for some six years. Six years later, he moved to nearby Harwich.

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The judges of the early Miles Franklin Awards clearly knew what they were about. Their inaugural award went to Patrick White’s Voss in 1957; the second to Randolph Stow’s To the Islands in 1958. At the time, White was in the early stages of a distinguished career that would bring him Australia’s only Nobel Prize for Literature, while the precocious Stow also promised great things. Hailed as a literary wunderkind, he had published two novels, A Haunted Land (1956) and The Bystander (1957), and his first collection of poetry, Act One (1957), by the time he was twenty-two. When Act One was awarded the 1957 Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society and To the Islands won it the following year, plus the Melbourne Book Fair Award and the Miles Franklin, he seemed to be embarked upon a stellar career.

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To the Islands by Randolph Stow & Tourmaline by Randolph Stow

December 2002-January 2003, no. 247

Before the age of thirty, Randolph Stow had published five novels and a prize-winning collection of poetry. In Australia, only Kenneth Mackenzie, another Sandgroper, had made a similar youthful impact. Mackenzie’s first book, The Young Desire It, was published in 1937, though I believe drafted some time before that. Stow’s The Haunted Land (1956) was written when he was only seventeen. When another precocious young Western Australian, Tim Winton, published his first novel, he was painfully conscious of these precursors. This was crucial for Winton, because both Mackenzie and Stow were to have troubled creative lives: Mackenzie died relatively young, his later novels disadvantaged by the youthful brilliance of his first. Randolph Stow, after his three initial successes, has published only five further novels, two collections of poems and a book for children. It has been a career with long silences.

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Professor Hassall’s study of Randolph Stow is indeed a strange country. A text which sets out to establish Stow as ‘a more important writer than is generally recognized’ and to show that his ‘best work bears comparison with Patrick White’s’ promises an intellectual engagement with either critics or the text or both which would lead to reassessment of Stow’s work. It appears that these are Aunt Sally’s – although Professor Leonie Kramer, who is presented as one of Stow’s ‘sterner “realist” critics’, can hardly be seen as such an aunt. Hassall puts her up but barely touches her, leaving the counterargument to Dorothy Green. Perhaps he’s being gentlemanly. However, to quote a paragraph from Green which asserts that ‘One of the greatest weaknesses of Australian criticism has always been its refusal to take religious ideas seriously’ is to take advantage of the lady. Hassall needs to fight his own battle against Leonie Kramer’s judgement of Stow’s work as being ‘quasi-religious’ and misguidedly experimental.

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Randolph Stow’s latest novel, The Suburbs of Hell, may be read as a simple whodunit: a simple allegorical Whodunit. Like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, like David Lodge’s Small World, this novel sets out to intrigue the reader. The new genre, nouvelle critique, teases the reader’s vanity, the reader’s erudition at the same time as it engages with questions of a metaphysical kind – the nature of truth, reality, and for those concerned with literature – the purpose of writing today.

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