A well kept secret in a world of hype
Alex Miller is a literary star in Australia but little known here. He tells ARMINTA WALLACEabout his 10th novel, based on a notorious love affair in 1940s MelbourneIN A WORLD WHERE anything even mildly worthwhile is hyped to hysteria and beyond, very few well-kept secrets remain. Alex Miller is one of them.
Ever heard of him? Nope. Didn’t think so. A literary superstar in Australia, his name is almost unknown on this side of the globe. And this despite the facts that he has earned comparisons to JM Coetzee and Patrick White – Alice Munro would be my suggestion – and good reviews from John Banville and Michael Ondaatje; and that the book he has travelled halfway around the globe to promote, Autumn Laing, is his 10th novel.
It is, I venture when we meet in a modest BB in Dublin, a beautiful book. “You won’t say that in your interview, though, will you?” he says gruffly, following it with something that sounds suspiciously like a snort. “They never say that.”
Well, we’re saying it now. Narrated by a hugely and delightfully cantankerous 85-year-old Australian woman, the eponymous Autumn Laing, it tells the story of a group of artists in Melbourne half a century earlier, of the affair she has with the most gifted of them, and of the consequences for his wife, her husband and the group as a whole. “They are all dead and I am old and skeleton-gaunt,” it begins.
Autumn is surviving, just about, on a diet of boiled cabbage, with predictably malodorous results, when she thinks she spots the wife of her erstwhile lover on the street. This prompts her to write her confession, and as she journeys back in time she brings us with her in spectacularly vivid fashion. At the same time, by coincidence – or not? – a biographer arrives at Autumn’s house to write the story of her life and (thankfully) to cook her some decent food.
Miller based the book on the Australian painter Sidney Nolan, whose notorious affair with Sunday Reed, the wife of his mentor, was a cause celebre in 1940s Melbourne. But the world of Autumn Laing is so intimate, so intricate, how did Miller go about breathing life into these somewhat dusty historical characters?
“One of the pleasures of writing fiction,” he says, “is that if you get the setting right, and if you get the story right – the situation blowing up like a beautiful big storm cloud – characters arrive fully formed. And you think, Yes, I’ll have that one, and that one; thanks, mate. It’s a wonder. And a great delight to see them. They come in out of the mists of nothing, with gestures already developed.”