Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

David Malouf: The Long Breath of the Young Writer

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

David Malouf: The Long Breath of the Young Writer

Article excerpt

In Malouf's poem, set in Venice, 'Ode: Stravinsky's Grave,' the poet speaks of

. . . how

we put out crumbs to catch

birds and such scraps

of sky as are filled with

a singing; and what like Love

is not to be caught

by intent, the longer breath

of late works.

(First Things Last 58)

But is there another 'long breath,' I am asking, which is also 'not to be caught by intent'? I mean that early breath that comes to the young writer, in Malouf's case, turning his eyes from the printed page that captivates the young reader to the blank page that invites the young writer to take up his pen, to place his fingers on the keys of a typewriter, because he feels that he might make something new there? And sensing, too, as Anthony Uhlman has argued about ways of thinking in literature, that the power of words, for some people, can 'open possibilities,' invite moments of understanding, so that the writer values 'getting beyond words through words, by making use of signs-such as the music of language or powerful images' [my italics] (12). How might this early breath, if felt keenly, shape the kind of work that the young writer will try? Might it still be discerned in the works of his mature hand?

To investigate these questions, I have been studying three short stories Malouf wrote as an adolescent and two he published as a young adult. I will focus briefly on each story and, in doing so, venture back to that early time in his career before looking forward from that vantage point to later works. I realise I am seeking a creature to be found now only in traces: it is the bird of Malouf's young writing self who flew away long ago. Perhaps my small crumbs may attract him back here, and better inform my research-in-progress.

Something of the lively, curious, observant boy can be glimpsed in his poetry-'Nostalgie,' 'Early Discoveries' and 'The Year of the Foxes' to name just a few poems about his childhood in Brisbane collected in the first section of Revolving Days-and in his autobiographical work 12 Edmondstone Street. But these are recollections of an adult and we do not see anyone writing in these works. Those years when Malouf was first learning the craft and discipline of writing seem hidden, except as hints in later stories, as when Charlie Dowd, in his early twenties, in 'War Baby,' has a vivid memory of his younger self 'urgently, solemnly setting down his thoughts. Looking up. Biting the end of his pen. Writing again. . . . Impossible now [Charlie surmises] to get back into that boy's head' (Every Move You Make 124). It is a timely warning, but makes me more curious and wanting to press on. To catch a glimpse, Judith Rodriguez's recollection offers enticing evidence. She writes of a moment early in 1950 in Brisbane when she visited her school friend, Jill Malouf, who had moved from South Brisbane to a new house built just after the war. She writes:

One day when I was 13 . . . I was invited to the [family's] three-storey brick house . . . On the way up the carpeted stairs from the living room, Jill opened the door and said: 'This is my brother and he's writing a novel.'

And so he was-a boy with dark curly hair and large dark eyes, working at a large typewriter and undoubtedly writing a novel. The room was full of bookcases, squads of maroon classics. [Malouf was 15 at the time.] ('Away in the Sixties' 8)

Christine Alexander in The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf observes of the origins of juvenilia that 'children learn largely by imitation, their early writings represent a microcosm of the larger adult world, disclosing its concerns, ideologies, and values' (11). Extending the concept of imitation, Paul John Eakin in How Our Lives Become Stories follows Jerome Bruner in regarding the family as the 'vicar of culture' for the child writer, establishing 'genres of life-accounting' that influence the kinds of narrative a child will form as the autobiographical self (117, quoting 'Invention' 32). …

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