Inside Story

Dispatches from the home front

Books | Jack Bowers reveals a remarkable wealth of Australian autobiography

Sara Dowse 25 July 2017 1727 words

Double whammy: writer Morris Lurie. Sandy Scheltema/The Age

Anyone in the book trade will tell you that memoirs, after cookbooks, are the mainstay of the business. Memoirs sell, and their sales often carry other kinds of books that don’t find such a ready market. Perhaps it’s related to gossip: we love to read other people’s stories, whether they’re exotically different from, or comfortingly emblematic of, our own. Digital technology and better access to genealogical information have help fuel the genre’s success.

Jack Bowers, the author of this fascinating survey of what we might call Australian memoirs of the postwar years, never uses the word. I guess he doesn’t want to get caught in the tortuous question of what distinguishes a memoir from an autobiography. He sticks to the term “life writing,” though he does occasionally opt for “autobiography.” But this fastidiousness might be seen to support his basic premise — that writing about one’s life (or any particular part of it) is a way of writing oneself into existence or, as he puts it, creating one’s “self-identity.” More of that later.

Underpinned by a wide theoretical scaffolding set in place by Martin Heidegger and a band of other thinkers, Strangers at Home awakens us to what a complicated exercise writing about one’s life can be. Of necessity, much is going on: the narrator is the self writing about the self that was, or came into being, and the writing itself adds another layer of ontology as the narrative proceeds. In other words, one is never the same self at the end of writing one’s story as one was at the beginning.

But, to paraphrase the poet, no life writer is an island unto herself. Everyone is connected, for good or ill, to other people. These are mainly significant people like mothers and fathers, with a powerful influence in the writer’s formative years, an influence that will last through the writer’s life. The writer will also have strong connections to certain places, to the physical environments that have shaped her, whether they’re nations, cities, suburbs, gardens or houses. These are the legacies with which all the forty-six Australian autobiographers Bowers discusses have grappled. The question is whether any particular place or group of people can comfortably qualify as “home” and, if not, what that might mean for the all too human need to “belong.”

Bowers opens his book with “Belonging and Estrangement,” a chapter in which he sets out his thesis. “In order to get a sense of the way belonging and estrangement are intertwined,” he writes, “we need to recognise the complexity, even the ambivalence, that is at the heart of the relationship between individuals and what they find in the world. Belonging, like identity, requires some nexus between self and something other; belonging requires, quite literally, something to belong to, a ‘home’ in which we seek not to be a ‘stranger.’”

And strangers they are. It seems that the most powerful life writing often has its origins in dissonance or disjunction, between an individual and either the world she would like to belong to, or the one she wants to escape. While it’s not entirely clear why Bowers has chosen the writers he has, all of them have experienced such tensions. These are not memoirs penned to repair the record or celebrate a triumph, although the triumph of having wrestled with their demons is implicit. Nor, with a few exceptions, are they Horatio Alger tales of triumph over adversity.

In fact, the majority of the writers are white Anglo-Celtic and Australian-born, which in itself highlights the problematic nature of “belonging.” Only three Indigenous autobiographies feature, along with one each from a Vietnamese-Australian, an Italian-Australian and a Jewish-Australian. It might be supposed that these members of minorities would have experienced the greatest difficulty in belonging, but in Bowers’s sample this is not the case. What his autobiographies do have in common is some kind of family disruption or dysfunction, and all are distinguished by their literary quality.

Bowers’s in-depth analyses are confined to a few of the forty-two books, and are organised thematically. Under the chapter heading “Giving Voice,” he examines several portrayals of troubled family relationships, focusing on Drusilla Modjeska’s groundbreaking Poppy; Gillian Bouras’s quartet of books mapping her attempts to fit into Greek village life; Rebecca Huntley’s The Italian Girl, the story of her migrant grandmother and her own Italian heritage; Germaine Greer’s Daddy, We Hardly Knew You; and Morris Lurie’s Whole Life. These books are primarily about mothers, though they segue into fathers, then houses, then suburbs, then the Australian nation itself. Even Greer’s book, an international search for a man, her unknowable father, who lived a life of pretence, is also an exploration of the her highly negative feelings about her mother.

So, where to begin? I thought with the Jewish mother, since I happen to be one. My children, should they ever write about their childhoods, could have a lot to say on the subject, but I doubt their depiction of me would match the stereotype to quite the same degree as Morris Lurie’s portrait of his mother. Nor could it be said that Lurie gives voice to an unheralded, voiceless woman as Modjeska and Huntley do, since one of his chief vexations is that his mother never answers his constant questions about her life as a girl, or as a woman before she was his mother.

Bowers characterises her overbearing presence and concern for Morris as a form of “Freudian control.” Her voice is quiet but dominating, and I understand from other sources that Lurie spent many adult hours in therapy exorcising both her all-encompassing presence and her maddening inaccessibility. And it’s in the discussion of Lurie’s book that Bowers makes the strongest association between mothers and “home.” Morris the child has a penchant for crawling into womb-like spaces, “behind doors and under the bedclothes,” in the corners between walls and wardrobes. All of these hiding places are snug and comforting, yet also claustrophobic and restricting.

Often, if not always, where there’s a mother there’s a father. Lurie has a double whammy: both father and grandfather loom in the small Melbourne house. The former is hirsute, menacing, a hyper-masculine being whose hobby is making knives; the latter is controlling in his over-attentiveness, yet not averse to sadistically thrashing the boy. Father figures in Bowers’s sample are rarely portrayed as benevolent creatures. At least one of the fathers is guilty of incest; many are dominating yet distant, as was all too common in earlier times. Many are physically violent.

And others are simply absent. One striking instance is the tale told by Jane Alison in The Sisters Antipodes, in which two little girls find to their consternation that they have exchanged their fathers. Alison’s story is not only germane to Bowers’s insights into writing about fathers, but also fits into his discussion of estrangement from countries. Alison lost her Australian home at four, when her mother’s marriage to another man swept her off to America and the daughter of her mother’s new husband stayed in Australia with Alison’s father.

This early, dramatic rupture established a fierce competition between the two girls, each longing for the father the other one had, setting up conflict in their sense of national identity as well. When the older Alison revisits Australia, she feels very much the stranger, mirroring the seemingly irreparable, emotionally charged distance that has grown between her and her father. Writing The Sisters Antipodes and related fictionalised accounts was successful in “expurgating” her debilitating complex about the loss of her father, says Bowers, and her estrangement from her native country. Thanks to him, I’m determined to get hold of Alison’s work.

On a similar quest, I found a copy of Barbara Hanrahan’s The Scent of Eucalyptus. This book was published in 1973, and though it was recommended to me at the time, I hadn’t read it until now. Bowers spends several pages on Hanrahan, and with reason. Set in the Adelaide suburb of Thebarton, The Scent of Eucalyptus is a sharp-eyed evocation of Australian life in the forties and fifties. A slim volume, it is nonetheless packed with unflinching observations and, amid the grime and squalor Hanrahan depicts, there are moments of startling beauty. Before she died in 1991, Hanrahan had carved out an impressive reputation. Despite a falling off in recognition, she is one of our truly gifted writers.

Like Hanrahan, several of Bowers’s other subjects have published fiction in addition to their life writing, often traversing similar territory. A few have written more than one autobiographical volume. All of which raises the question, why not fiction? Well, to my mind, these authors are writing fiction, of a kind — or rather, out of necessity, using fictional techniques, selecting, highlighting, sculpting their narratives. Once again, the boundary is fuzzy; and never more so than in Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy or Morris Lurie’s Whole Life or Robert Adamson’s Inside Out. A story is a story, subject to shifting emphases and approaches in each telling; and no piece of life writing can ever capture a life in its entirety, any more than literature can be easily corralled into neat, marketable genres.

Cambria Press is an international academic publisher and Strangers at Home is not devoid of academic markings. The need to substantiate and explicate sometimes clogs the text. But while Bowers and his editors have largely succeeded in shaping the text for the general reader, one key word of his still has me stumped. Why use “self-identity,” when to a word-lover like me “self” would certainly do? What is the difference between “self” and “self-identity”? And why go to the trouble of distinguishing between them when surely the former encompasses everything the latter could convey — and more?

But that’s just me. What Bowers has done is introduce us to the astonishing wealth of autobiographical literature produced in this country. He’s made me want to read all the books I haven’t read, and reread the ones I have. His analysis of these works has more than increased my appreciation — it’s offered me great insight into this complex, multifaceted nation I have made my home. •