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

'The Writers' Picnic': Genealogy and Homographesis in the Fiction of Sumner Locke Elliott

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

'The Writers' Picnic': Genealogy and Homographesis in the Fiction of Sumner Locke Elliott

Article excerpt

I wanted to begin this essay with a well-known anecdote recounting the dinner party Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris held in their Martin Road home for Sumner Locke Elliott. Elliott's biographer Sharon Clarke suggests that this anecdote is 'told so often . . . some have declared it fiction' (' Writing Life' 239).1 As with a fictional event, there are conflicting interpretations of the evening-Clarke called it 'a great success,' yet David Marr's biography of White doesn't mention the evening at all. White had greatly admired Elliott's third novel, Edens Lost, calling it 'marvellous,' noting the 'atmosphere and place, tone of voice, and the characters-above all the characters' (Altman, 'Crushed'). White had said as much to Elliott's friend and fellow New Yorker Shirley Hazzard but despite this, the admiration and affection Elliott expected were absent; second hand accounts suggest that it was a 'quiet' and 'awkward' evening, and Elliott felt ignored. The punchline (as it were) of the anecdote sees Elliott leaving the party dejected. He recounts:

After saying our goodbyes, with Patrick standing at the top of the stair, I began walking back down and I heard him cry behind me: 'Come back! Come back! ' As I was returning to New York within the following days, I thought he meant to Australia and perhaps even to visit with him and Manoly again. So, with my back still to him, and wanting to immediately reassure him, I also called out my reply. 'I will! I will!' I exclaimed most delightedly, glad I'd made a good impression. 'Notyou,' I heard Patrick say, caustically, behind me. 'I was talking to the dogs.' Apparently his schnauzer dogs had begun to follow me down the stairs. (cited in Clarke, Writing Life 239-40) 2

I thought this brief moment epitomised the complex and at times unexpected dynamics of expatriation, literary celebrity, artistic coterie, and gossip that have contributed to Elliott's fame and also the occlusion of significant parts of his life within Australian literary criticism.3 Here, Elliott's anxieties around his status and readership in Australia were embodied by the Nobel laureate and national representative, who recognises but looks past Elliott-just as he felt Australian readers had done with his writing. As in other such moments of entanglement and connection, this anecdote figured Elliott as a person who intentionally veiled himself through sensationalised accounts of these celebrity relations, only to be revealed in minor footnotes in the biographies of other authors, such in David Marr's life of Patrick White, or Dennis Altman's life of Gore Vidal; and so on in the lives of Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller, Whitfield Cook, John and Elaine Steinbeck, Paddy Chayefsky, Fred Coe, Tad Mosel and others.4 Yet, in depicting Elliott's life and career through these networks and connections, I realised that I was glossing over his novels, and reinscribing predominant accounts of him as a minor, middlebrow, and rarely read expatriate author, studied now mainly for his theatre writing and cited as a curiosity of Australian-American expatriation in accounts of Anglo-Australian cultural flows.5

Accordingly, this essay takes a different point of departure which reconfigures understanding of the intertwined nature of Elliott's life and work, offering instead a view of Sumner Locke Elliott as an author uniquely positioned within Australian, American, transnational, and queer literary networks of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Long recognised as cannibalising life for fiction, Elliott's oeuvre is populated with semi-familiar characters, and structured by the recurring depiction of biographically defining moments, which have been viewed as imbuing his novels with a unifying narrative perspective of nostalgia for Sydney of the 1920s and 30s. Questioning this narrativisation of conjoined life and work, this essay identifies Elliott's recurrent rewriting of childhood as a strategy of self-construction, positing 'The Writers' Picnic' found in Careful, He Might Hear You, Edens Lost and Fairyland as Elliott's primal scene of literary origination in which he returns to the details of his childhood as a negotiation of biography and creativity. …

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