David Malouf's Complete Stories.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 3 2007 7:19 AM

The Secret Lives of Australians

The chronicler of the outback is master of the interior.

David Malouf.
David Malouf

"They were too extravagant," a character thinks in a story in this volume, "for the web of quiet incident and subtle shifts of power that were the usual stuff of his fiction." He is Colin Lattimer, an "almost famous" Australian writer returning to Brisbane, the place of his birth and youth, after an interval of 30 years. He lives in London now and scarcely recognizes his old city at first. Too many "fly-overs, multi-level carparks, tower blocks." Then he realizes that much of its old surprise and violence lingers, that "the city he knew, and in one part of himself still moved in, was out there somewhere, but out of sight, underground." The events that are too extravagant for Lattimer's fiction now hit him in reality. Mistaken for someone else on the street, he becomes the object of an attack by a jealous husband or a betrayed lover, who finally, in his pain and derangement, attempts suicide before Lattimer's eyes.

It is characteristic of the work of David Malouf, a really famous writer who was born in Brisbane in 1934 and once lived in London, that this extravagance should appear and fade away almost at once. The story needs the violence, but the violence is not the story. Lattimer comes to no harm, and the point is not the distress he suffers but the memories and old dreams he finds through this distressing encounter.

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In spite of his abiding interest in the question of individuals in history, and his constant return to the wilderness as an Australian version of the heart of darkness, Malouf always returns us to the human, interior action caught up in whatever turmoil is going on, and this is even truer of his short stories than of his novels. The novels, of which the best known are perhaps The Great World (1990) and Remembering Babylon (1993), do indeed, like Lattimer's, deal in "quiet incident and subtle shifts of power," often moving their unmistakably large-scale events and issues to the margins or the shadows.

The short stories—which have appeared in three collections, and one volume that also includes a longer fiction, over the past 25 years—are even more discreet. They are very low on incident, and they deal in subtle shifts of ... well, what it is that shifts is often the question. Getting to see how this question unfolds, how various and yet consistent Malouf can be in its pursuit, is one reason why it is very good to have all the stories in one volume. Malouf is a master of the art of the short story in its most elusive, Chekhovian form, and he uses the genre, it seems to me, for three delicate purposes in particular: the exploration of the ordinary; the evocation of moments of change, often seemingly slight; and the interrogation of loss.

In "The Sun in Winter," one of the most memorable of these stories, a middle-aged Belgian woman introduces a young Australian man to the gloomy tourist delights of Bruges: "very beautiful," as the woman says, "very triste, you understand French? Bruges la Morte. And German too maybe, a little. Die tote Stadt." Then she shows him something personal, a cheerful funeral shop with a model of the coffin she has ordered for herself. She is not ill or unhappy, just thinking ahead. The young man is shocked but not only shocked. A "kind of grace" comes over him, allowing him to share the woman's pleasure and anticipation: "[H]e was relieved of awkwardness, and was moved, for all his raw youth, by an emotion he could not have named—for her, but also for himself—and which he would catch up with only later, when sufficient time had passed to make them of an age." Earlier, the woman had said that one needs "a passion for the everyday" because it is easy to see the unusual, "difficult to see what is common." In the coffin the young man easily saw the unusual; then caught the everyday.