Initial appearances notwithstanding, The Great World is not a grand, epic title. It is a phrase of the wide-eyed naäf, gaping at the wondrous, which is anything beyond his experience, especially any tawdry, flashy concoction. In fact, David Malouf’s primary ‘great world’ is an entertainment park of that name in Singapore where a contingent of prisoners of war are quartered early in 1942. The Great World is a fairground where disheartened men are temporarily housed as they go about various enterprises not of their choosing.
Less neatly of course, the great world is anything that may ever be encountered. Digger Keen, one of the novel’s two central characters, has a formulation that recalls Aristotle’s ‘the mind is as it were all things’. As a child, Digger glimpses ‘the sheer size of the world, and the infinite number of events and facts and objects it was filled with … no number of little paper bags would be enough to contain it, but your head could ... which was the same shape as the world, and really was the world, only on an infinitely small scale.’
Clearly, taking all this for its province, The Great World is an ambitious novel. It concerns the relationship and the careers of two men, Digger Keen and Vic Curran, from shortly before their births in the early 1920s to a popularly remembered mid-October day in 1987. They labour and suffer and play in a fair variety of great worlds.