Three-Dimensionality and 'My Brother Jack.' (Novel by George Johnston)

Article excerpt

It is no surprise that George Johnston's prize-winning novel, My Brother Jack (1964),(1) has often been seen as a reflection upon the self or a search for identity,(2) tracing as it does the partially fictionalised life of the writer(3) from his earliest recollections of a modest Melbourne home at the end of World War I through to his established success as a war correspondent in the 1940s. This article seeks to understand something of the devices used by the novelist in these efforts at self-definition.

In commenting generally upon self-knowledge, the French critic Georges Poulet offers the following analysis:

To know oneself is to discover oneself in a creative moment of time. The

question: Who am I? merges therefore naturally with the question: When am

I? When precisely do I discover myself on the threshold of a time which

will become that of my existence? But no less naturally an analogous

question follows: Where am l? The critical examination of self-knowledge

opens therefore not only upon a study of time but upon a grasping of place.

How, when perceiving themselves, do individuals perceive their rapport or

absence of rapport with the ambient reality? (313. Poulet's emphasis; my

translation)

This rapport (or as we shall see in the work under consideration, absence of rapport or disjunction) between identity and place (for Who am I? we must ask the question: Where am I?) is a key to the novelist's character presentation and has been most profitably explored by Alan Lawson in his study of Clean Straw for Nothing,(4) the sequel to My Brother Jack. The same link is firmly established from the very first lines of the earlier work:

My brother Jack does not come into the story straight away. Nobody ever

does, of course, because a person doesn't begin to exist without parents

and an environment and legendary tales told about ancestors and dark dusty

vines growing over outhouses where remarkable insects might always drop

out of hidden crevices. (1)(5)

In these deliberately juvenile and fairytale tones,(6) Johnston appeals to the adult reader's recollection of children's literature and its traditional emphasis upon place. (This is of the type: `Once upon a time, in a wonderful land far away, there lived a beautiful princess.') Place is thus accorded by Johnston a primordial status in the presentation of character, a prefatory importance as we proceed to a reading of the novel. It is also significant that Jack of the title is named in this first paragraph and linked to the storyteller by the possessive adjective `my', for Jack Meredith is a stereotype of the aggressive Australian male who somehow sums up the Australian working-class milieu of the interwar period. Against Jack, David, the first person narrator and a social misfit, will measure himself. That Jack is a representative figure of the `tough, honest Aussie battler', as Gary Kinnane has put it,(7) is clearly demonstrated by the Meredith family tradition of giving this name to all its firstborn sons, despite any resultant confusion:

My father's name also was Jack, simply because that had been his father's

name. Jack -- never John -- was the name always given to the firstborn boy,

and Dad had been the eldest boy among nineteen children. Mother

differentiated between my father and my brother by calling them Big

Jack and Little Jack; when my sister Jean had a son and named him Jack as

well, Mother gave a promotion to my brother and from then on they were

stepped down as Big Jack, Young Jack, and Little Jack. And years later,

when my brother finally had a son after having fathered a whole clutch of

daughters, the boy was named Jack without the least hesitation. (18;

Johnston's emphasis)(8)

This Aussie Everyman is reminiscent of a family described in Ionesco's The Bald Primadonna: every family member, male and female alike, is called Bobby Watson (24-26). …