Alex Miller

In Alex Miller’s latest novel, Journey to the Stone Country, we are not in Carlton for long before being taken far to the north, to Townsville, and then inland to country that few Australians know. The short first scene is handled with dispassionateness and economy. Melbourne history lecturer Annabelle Beck comes home to ...

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The Sitters by Alex Miller

by
May 1995, no. 170

Intimacy, someone has said, is ultimately unintelligible. Yet this novel suggests that intimacy, to the self and to others, may well be all we have. Miller’s three previous novels move in a similar direction. But in them there was a good deal still of the world of the likeness, of the external world as it seems to be. The Sitters, however, is about drawing a portrait of an ‘art of misrepresentation’, which interrupts our historical consciousness and unmasks the pretentions of rationality, taking us out into the dark beyond common sense, touching something else beyond words.

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Helen Daniel: I find The Sitters very different from The Ancestor Game, which seems to me much more elaborate and complex. This new novel, which is about absence and silence, is an occasion of great economy and restraint.

Alex Miller: I think a couple of times in the book I actually say the story is my secret. In other words, I’m not going to tell you the story, I’m going to leave that out. Having left the story out, this is what’s left, which is always a kind of aim with me, and I think with any writer probably, to try to do as much as possible with as little. To leave it all out.

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Alex Miller’s third novel treads some complex and difficult territory, staking out the past, memory, and the creation of self. It is also an incursion into the shadowy borderlands that lie between history and fiction, and the way in which, for every individual, the past has a different face ...

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Alex Miller was recently awarded the Braille Book of the Year Award for his novel The Tivington Nott. When he accepted this award, he spoke of the archaeology of writing and how he sees his work as being like a buried city, waiting to be excavated. This is an edited extract from his speech.

Writers and readers, it seems to me, are often driven by a need to confess. Everything. Not just sins. But the lot. To confess in the original secular sense of this word; to utter, to declare (ourselves, that is), to disclose and uncover what lies hidden within us. If I’d not been a writer, I used to think I’d like to have been an archaeologist. It’s only recently I’ve located the connection between writing fiction and archaeology. Historians and biographers are probably just as confessional in their work as writers of declared fictions. But they are undoubtedly able to more easily disguise this because they are accountable to the objective – to outcrops of unrelocatable facts along the way, that is.

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Writers and readers, it seems to me, are often driven by a need to confess. Everything. Not just sins. But the lot. To confess in the original secular sense of this word; to utter, to declare (ourselves, that is), to disclose and uncover what lies hidden within us. If I’d not been a writer, I used to think I’d like to have been an archaeologist. It’s only recently I’ve located the connection between writing fiction and archaeology. Historians and biographers are probably just as confessional in their work as writers of declared fictions. But they are undoubtedly able to more easily disguise this because they are accountable to the objective – to outcrops of unrelocatable facts along the way, that is.

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Don’t be put off by the cover of Alex Miller’s most recent novel, where a stag-at-bay is invoked, rather reminiscent of an early century front parlour picture. Although this novel is firmly set in period and place, it simply cannot be understated as the definitive deer-hunting tale. There is also the powerful universal sub-theme of the outsider searching for meaning and identity in a society firmly entrenched in a rigid and outdated class system.

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