Inside Story

Imaginative affinities

Books | Australian modernist literature looks a little different through an international lens

Susan Lever 10 September 2020 1298 words

Time and space: Australian writer Eleanor Dark. Detail from an Australian News and Information Bureau portrait/Alamy

Backgazing: Reverse Time in Modernist Culture
By Paul Giles | Oxford University Press | £63 | 336 pages

It is impossible to understand the history of Australian literature without knowing something of the international anglophone literature to which it belongs, yet it is often easier to treat local writing as separate from the literature of Britain or America. Australian writing is often seen as a colonial outlier of empire, postcolonial at best, forever inferior and always behind the times. As the title of David Carter’s book on Australian modernism puts it, Australian literature appears “always almost modern.”

Paul Giles, an English expert on American literature who took up the Challis chair of English literature at the University of Sydney in 2010, comes to Australian literature from an international perspective. In his book Antipodean America: Australasia and the Constitution of U.S. Literature, published in 2013, he identified numerous correspondences between American and Australian literary writing and offered evidence for Australian incursions into the American imagination. In all his critical writing Giles avoids the conventional binaries of postcolonialism, with its privileging of the relationship between the empire’s centre and colony and the assumption that colonial writing is bound to be inferior to that of a “mother” culture. He also evades the nationalist focus of much Australian literary criticism.

Now, in Backgazing, Giles surveys a wide range of writing over a distinct period — the era of modernist literary art, in his reckoning from about 1900 to the middle years of the twentieth century. He argues that, rather than forming a separate, belated strand of the modernist project, Australian modernism participated in an international movement, sometimes in contact with its central ideas, sometimes expressing them in parallel. He considers Joseph Furphy’s writing against the work of Joseph Conrad and James Joyce. He reads the poetry of Kenneth Slessor and A.D. Hope alongside that of T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop. He places the fiction of Eleanor Dark with that of James T. Farrell, and Patrick White’s novels in the context of Samuel Beckett’s fiction. These conjunctions may seem surprising, but in Giles’s readings they reveal significant connections and responses to twentieth-century debates about modernism and its politics.

While modernism is most simply defined as a period, it more accurately reflects an artistic and philosophical perspective. For Giles, it can most clearly be seen in attitudes to time. In the classic nineteenth-century novels, which exemplify the notion of time as progress, characters move in an orderly sequence towards their futures. Modernist writing disrupts this notion of causality, seeking a more universal time, not measurable in terms of daily hours, in which the past changes according to the viewer’s perspective. This is the backgazing of the book’s title.

Modernism also has a spatial dimension, and Giles sees Australian art as having, at times, disrupted mainstream assumptions from the margins. As in Antipodean America, he finds numerous moments when Australia and its writing impinge on a central modernist canon as well as many physical connections between canonical writers and the southern hemisphere: Conrad’s many visits to Australia as a seaman, for example, Joyce’s correspondence with his sister, a nun in New Zealand, and a visit by H.G. Wells in 1939.

Giles is particularly interested in how modernism breaks the barriers between demotic and high culture and how comedy and burlesque intrude into serious works of modernist art. In Australia, the popular embrace of modernity during the 1920s is evident in Australian enthusiasm for jazz and the art deco architecture still apparent in cities like Sydney. This leads him to consider how Kenneth Slessor’s poetry plays with time and modernity and opens a way to putting Slessor’s work alongside that of not only A.D. Hope but also Eliot, Bishop and Wallace Stevens.

In a dense chapter that might have formed a book in itself, he considers the links between modernist art and fascism, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. He explores the influence of Heidegger’s philosophy of time on the “reactionary modernists” who supported National Socialism, quoting Thomas Mann on Nazism’s mix of timely and “efficient modernness on the one hand and dreams of the past on the other — in a word, highly technological Romanticism.”

While Mann and Theodor Adorno resisted this philosophy, Giles sees the 1930s novels of Thomas Wolfe (an American of German background) as influenced by the underlying philosophy of Nazism — an influence that was much more common in the 1930s, he believes, than is usually acknowledged. The second world war involved not only a physical battle between national powers but also a conflict over “conceptions of temporality” as “Western culture set itself on a more rationalist, progressive path, one that rejected mythological fatalism in favour of an emphasis on volition and contingency.” Giles examines the effects through the fiction of Jean-Paul Sartre, William Faulkner and Anthony Powell.

The tendency in Australia to see our culture as having been behind the times means that local arguments against modernist art in the 1930s and 1940s are sometimes dismissed as signs of ignorance rather than responses to an influential philosophical threat. Here Giles sets up a framework that invites revision of some critical attitudes, taking the largely forgotten R.D. FitzGerald as a starting place for his discussion of “reverse time” in Slessor’s and Hope’s work. Few contemporary Australians will be familiar with the novels of James T. Farrell, but he discusses them alongside Eleanor Dark’s novels as expressions of the new liberalism that dominated postwar literature. Farrell was the chair of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and visited Australia in 1956 as a guest of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom. Because the Australian organisation was better known for its vehement anticommunism than for its liberalism, the notion that the two writers have “imaginative affinities” might appear at odds with their seemingly contrasting political positions. In this way, Giles’s international view brings some local peculiarities into new focus.

Following on from the shifts in modernism in the 1950s, Giles looks at W.H. Auden’s move to Austria in the late 1950s and the poet’s collaborations with the German composer Hans Werner Henze and librettos for Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. He touches on the burlesque and absurd elements in the work of Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes before considering Patrick White’s “late modernism” and the relationship of his writing to painting, particularly through his friendship with Sidney Nolan and Nolan’s relationship to the American poet, Robert Lowell. In this way, he traces chains of connection across music, painting and literature to find similar patterns of expression in the late modernist art of Australia, America and Britain.

Holding on to these complex notions of time and space can be difficult as this book progresses, and few readers will be sufficiently familiar with the many authors under consideration to engage fully with Giles’s account of international modernism. This includes discussion of music (Wagner, Mahler, Berg) and film (Charles Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk — and another Australian, John Farrow) and ranges from Proust to Patrick White. Giles’s encyclopedic scope may begin to feel overwhelming as he brings together a crowd of writers, many of whom are part of the academic canon (Joyce, Conrad, Eliot, Faulkner) but others of whom (Nancy Cunard, Farrell) are unlikely to be studied and read by Australians. Sharing his wide knowledge, he turns some accepted notions of Australian literary history sideways and offers a new reading of some neglected writers.

Backgazing is full of brilliant ideas drawn from Giles’s considerable knowledge of early twentieth-century writing across the hemispheres. While few readers will be able to match his breadth of reading, many will find parts of the book illuminating and be persuaded by this new arrangement of twentieth-century world literature and Australian literature’s place within it. •