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 Melbourne

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.”

Miller is forthright and opinionated, with the confidence that comes from a lifetime of work in his field – he’s 76 – and a plethora of prizes, including two Miles Franklin Literary Awards, a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, even a Chinese Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award.

What interests him most in fiction, he says, is the complexity of human relationships. That, he says, is what novels should be about – and what keeps them interesting to us. He achieves this in spades in Autumn Laing, whose gossipy, fully rounded central characters weave an ensemble dance as compelling as any soap opera. He says he wrote the book in five months. “And it’s the biggest book I’ve ever written. But it’s all of a piece. All of a mood.”

A CENTRAL THEME in the book is that of personal and cultural identity. The artists he writes about are obsessed with getting to Europe, being accepted in Europe, painting as the Europeans do.

It’s a topic that has always interested Miller, who was born in England but has lived in Australia for more than half a century. “There is a big preoccupation in Australian circles with being Australian – but, sometimes, the harder you try the harder the wheel ruts of Europe grip you. The roots don’t usually go very deep, anyway,” he says.

His own roots are Celtic; his mother’s family came from Ballyragget, in Co Kilkenny, and his father came from Glasgow. “Mum was brought up in a convent, though she was no longer a Catholic, and Dad was a bit like Billy Connolly. But they were cultivated people. Mum spoke French and could play the piano, and Dad loved music and was a pretty good painter. I grew up on a council estate in southeast London and was very conscious of not really belonging to the mainstream of culture there.”

Arriving in Australia was “like arriving home”, Miller says, with ebullient sincerity. But why did he go there in the first place? “I went when I was a boy,” he says. “On my own. I was 16 years old. I had seen some photos in a book of the Australian outback, and I wanted to go and be a stockman. Or a cowboy. Which I did: I worked on cattle stations in the far north and the Central Highlands of Queensland.”

Did the outback live up to his expectations? “It was magical,” he says. “And two of my books, Landscape of Farewell and Journey to the Stone Country, are inspired by Aboriginal friends of mine from those days.”

It is the outback that inspires the painter Pat Donlon to a frenzy of creativity in Autumn Laing. The narrator, for her part, offers a characteristically astute observation – a meditation, almost – on the topic. “I learned that for the people who live there,” she writes in her journal, “the outback is elsewhere. Further out, that is where they say the outback is . . . They know they are speaking of a place that has no location.”

This semimythical landscape has, clearly, energised – and eluded – Miller as much as anyone. “You never quite get there,” he says with a grin. “We have this saying in Australia, ‘Beyond the black stump’. It’s a legendary place. I think there’s something peculiarly Australian in that idea of the outback. A space for speculation, imagination, hope – not things that you can pin down easily. There’s something there that isn’t available in Europe.”

* Autumn Laing is published by Allen Unwin

Miller's milieu: what to read next

LOVESONG 2009

John Patterner takes shelter from the rain in a Paris cafe – and his life changes forever. Lovesong is a sumptuous love story set partly in Tunisia. Miller says he was inspired by a comment of Edward Said’s, in his book Musical Elaborations, about Louis Malle’s film Les Amants. “I laid the book aside and said to my daughter, ‘I think I’ll write a simple love story.’ My daughter, who was 18 at the time, answered at once, ‘Love’s not simple, Dad. You should know that.’ ”

JOURNEY TO THE STONE COUNTRY 2003

It starts like a bad romcom: 40-year-old Annabelle Beck is abandoned by her academic husband when he falls for one of his students. She flees their comfortable Melbourne home for tropical north Queensland, where she meets Bo Rennie, a member of the Aboriginal Jangga tribe. That’s where the romcom ends and the magic begins. Miller’s book is as dreamy as it is political. If you liked Nicolas Roeg’s movie Walkabout, you’ll love this.

THE ANCESTOR GAME 1993

Recently returned to Australia after his father’s death in England, Steven Muir sets out to write a series of biographical sketches from the life of his friend Lang Tzu, a Chinese-Australian artist and collector. His sources include the diaries of Lang’s family doctor from Shanghai, an expatriate German named August Spiess. Three misfits, one Miller miracle.

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