The Life of Such Is Life: A cultural history of an Australian classic
Sydney University Press, $45 pb, 204 pp
‘Such is life’ is a common phrase in Australian popular culture – it has even been tattooed on bodies – but Joseph Furphy’s novel of the same name, published in 1903, is often forgotten. Ned Kelly mythology suggests that he uttered this phrase just before being hanged in 1880, though some historians argue that what he actually said was, ‘Ah well, I suppose’. Long before Furphy (1843–1912) wrote his magnum opus, the stoic phrase was perhaps wrongly associated with a cult hero’s execution.
Tom Collins, Furphy’s protagonist, is a name that had already been going around in the rich vocabulary of nineteenth-century Australian slang before he chose to use it. It refers to the kind of gossip-monger who knew how to create rumours that would irritate their subjects. Furphy’s meandering narrative, full of lacunae and digressions, is nominally related by Collins, a classic unreliable narrator with notable blindspots.