Plenty of novelists begin life as poets. Few, though, have managed to maintain their status as poet–novelists quite so impressively as David Malouf. But even Malouf, in his ‘middle period’, more or less dropped poetry for his ‘big’ novels – The Great World (1990), Remembering Babylon (1993), and The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996) – before a late return to poetry, kicked off with Typewriter Music (2007). Perhaps appropriately, the last novel that Malouf has so far published, Ransom (2009), is based on a poem: Homer’s Iliad.
All of this suggests that Yvonne Smith, in this welcome study of Malouf’s early writings, has picked up on a pertinent theme (‘the poetic’) to apply to her subject. Smith’s study covers Malouf’s juvenilia, but is primarily concerned with the first part of his professional career, from his début poetry collection, Bicycle and Other Poems (1970), to the collection of autobiographical essays, 12 Edmondstone Street (1985). The prose fiction of that period ranges from Malouf’s first novel, Johnno (1975), to the collection of stories Antipodes (1985). After something of a slow start – Malouf struggled with the writing of Johnno for more than a decade –the late 1970s to the mid-1980s proved to be extremely fertile, with seven books appearing in as many years.