On the shortlist for the Booker Prize in 1993 for Remembering Babylon (1993), Malouf has been the recipient of many prestigious awards for fiction, poetry, and drama. These include the 1974 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and the 1974 Grace Leven Poetry Prize, for Neighbours in a Thicket: Poems (1974); the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, in 1979 for An Imaginary Life: A Novel (1978) and in 1987 for Blood Relations (1988); the 1983 Age Book of the Year and the 1983 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, for Fly Away Peter (1982); the Best Book of the Region Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region), the Miles Franklin Award, and the Prix Femina Prize (France) for The Great World (1990) in 1991; and the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the 1994 Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region), the 1995 Prix Baudelaire (France), and the 1996 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Remembering Babylon.
Born in Brisbane on 20 March 1934 into a family of mixed British and Lebanese ancestry, Malouf's writing does not explicitly treat issues of ethnic minority or difference, instead drawing upon European heritage in ways that engage primarily with the (white) mainstream of Australian literary culture. As Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra point out, for Malouf "Australia is not the place of exile; it is in fact the place of return." Educated at Brisbane Grammar School, Malouf graduated with honors from the University of Queensland before departing for England, where he worked as a teacher from 1959 to 1968. On his return to Australia, Malouf took up a teaching post in the Department of English at the University of Sydney. During this decade Malouf not only developed an increasingly sophisticated body of poetry but also made his mark as a novelist with the publication of Johnno in 1975. Reviewers heralded this first novel as an innovative contribution to Australian writing, and thereafter Malouf's novels evolved in confidence, breadth, and complexity, ultimately earning him an international readership and reputation. On winning a three-year fellowship from the Literature Board of the Australia Council in 1978, Malouf retired from teaching to commit himself full-time to writing. Living alternately in Tuscany and Sydney, Malouf has been able to harness his expatriate experience to situate Australian writing in an international frame, promoting the imaginative transformation and interpenetration of both Australian and European meanings. In the words of Martin Leer, Malouf "sees Australia as producing 'critical variants of Europe': it is 'Europe translated.'"
Though his fiction has made a greater public impact, Malouf's poetry displays an artistry considered by some (particularly his fellow poets) to source--if not eclipse--his prose writings. For Ivor Indyk, Malouf "remains a poet, writing in the medium of prose." Malouf's first significant mark as a poet was as one of the contributors to Four Poets: David Malouf, Don Maynard, Judith Green(later known as Judith Rodriguez), Rodney Hall (1962), a collection showcasing the work of newcomers to the field. Three volumes of poetry that followed--Bicycle and Other Poems (1970), Neighbours in a Thicket, and Poems 1975-1976 (1976)--attracted considerable critical interest, establishing Malouf's as a distinctive new voice in Australian poetry.
From the outset, Malouf's poetic voice has been infused by a sense of immediacy, an intimacy of address, and, as Dennis Haskell observes, an emphasis on "presentation of the self." A critical moment in Malouf's poetry--signaling the development of a characteristic approach--occurs in his much anthologized poem "An Ordinary Evening at Hamilton" (1974):
The garden shifts indoors, the house lets fall
its lamp light, opens
windows in the earth
The commingling of house and garden relays an encounter--described by Vivian Smith as "the opening out of the individual consciousness to merge with a landscape, a past, another consciousness; a moment which becomes one of self-recognition, of which the poem is the voice"--that recurs throughout Malouf's writing. In both his poetry and his prose, attention is frequently drawn to the space of boundaries, in which the encounter between such pairs as self and other, animal and human, sea and land, nature and culture is negotiated. For Malouf, such encounters on the boundary--a place of meeting or crossing into otherness--can dissolve and transform being. The crossing of consciousness into difference is arrestingly realized in the sensuous sequence "The Crab Feast I-X," from Malouf's highly praised collection First Things Last: Poems (1980):
Bent over you I dip my hand
in the bowl, I shake my cuffs, out in the open
and lost. Deep down
I am with you in the dark. The secret flesh of
My tongue enters a claw.
Observing both the gravity and inventiveness of his poems--their often "anecdotal starting point" and their "sense of intellectual searching"--Thomas W. Shapcott, in "The Evidence of Anecdote: Some Perspectives on the Poetry of David Malouf" in Provisional Maps (1994), argues that "process is centre-stage in Malouf's poetic world." These qualities are amply illustrated in "The Crab Feast I-X" and indeed in poems such as "Adrift," which recalls the lonely and bereft mother in old age, or "This Day, Under My Hand," with its vivid image of
The cold Pacific banging
an open gate. Australia
hitched like a watertank
to the back verandah, all night
tugging at our sleep.
Malouf's poems sometimes prefigure his fiction, especially in their recourse to meditation and the resources of memory. As Philip Nielsen points out, "The Judas Touch," an early poem dedicated to "John Milliner: drowned February 1962," foreshadows Malouf's first novel, Johnno. Likewise, Laurie Hergenhan shows how elements of "The Year of the Foxes" prefigure elements of Malouf's later fiction.
Malouf's novels, however, do not merely repeat the preoccupations of his poetry in another form but also experiment with the novel as form, playing with its temporal constraints and possibilities. The intimacy of the poet's voice is modulated by and contends with the linear drive of narrative. Through the novels, Malouf explores intimate personal terrain in ways that refract and dramatize questions of Australian history and national identity. Andrew Taylor in "The Great World, History, and Two or One" (collected in Provisional Maps) notes the imaginative scope of Malouf's fictional mappings of Australian history: "two hundred years of Australian history are covered almost continuously by Malouf's fiction, something not found in any other Australian novelist." Yet, Malouf's exploration of monumental or emblematic episodes in Australian history, in World Wars I and II, for example, is never directed by a strongly "historical" focus but proceeds by means of subjective experience and encounter. The linear thrust of history is interrupted and slowed by the personal experience of time and the expansion outward of the space of narration. That this strategy is conscious is evident in Malouf's typically lucid account to Helen Daniel of how he seeks to harness the narrative process in his 1996 novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek:
I'm aware of the number of times I really want to use the novel to stop time, to slow things up. You can slow up the narrative so that a second is something that can be explored maybe over pages. I like that play between movement and stillness in the novel.
In Malouf's novels, recurring scenarios cumulatively produce an elaborate network of ideas. These thoughts include, for instance, the narrated recollection of place (particularly of domestic interiors); the playing out of a dynamic between male alter egos or twinned characters (such male dyads are often triangulated by the inclusion of a third, female character); exploration of the figure or role of the artist--for example, Dante, Frank Harland, Imogen Harcourt, Ovid, and the unnamed "Great Man of Letters" in Child's Play (1981); and the juxtapositioning of Australia and Europe. Johnno, The Conversations at Curlow Creek, and The Great World all feature triangulated relations between central characters (the bonds between two men, partly in relation to a woman). Whereas Fly Away Peter and The Great World invoke the mythology of the Australian digger, Child's Play, An Imaginary Life, and Harland's Half Acre (1984) explore the writer- or artist-figure's response to exile and belonging. An Imaginary Life, like Remembering Babylon, plays upon the frontier space of empire, raising questions via an encounter with a hybrid being in the shape of the feral (lost or returned) child.
The evocation of wartime Brisbane in Malouf's first novel, Johnno , sparked excitement among critics about the potential for regionally focused Australian writing. In Johnno, Brisbane is both "the most ordinary place in the world" and timeless or mythological, standing in for that more elusively expansive geopolitical entity, Australia, "a place too big to hold in the mind." Likewise, the brevity and apparent stylistic simplicity of the novel belie its sophisticated organization and the play of ironies generated through the dynamic between its circumspect narrator, Dante, and his wayward and charismatic boyhood friend, Johnno. Dante's musing upon an old school photograph is an early instance of Malouf's recurring use of ekphrasis, a literary device involving the detailed written representation of a visual text such as a photograph or painting. Dante's meditation on the photograph initiates his retrospective tale, in which energies seemingly focused on Johnno frequently divert toward the narrator's own processes of creating meaning. Johnno himself functions, alternately, as a prototypical masculine adventurer--"our very own Tamberlaine and Al Capone"--and as a foil to Dante himself, as a marker pointing back to the narrator's "hypocritical niceness." The dynamic between Dante and Johnno unfolds through space as well as time, moving from adolescent adventure in Brisbane, to Johnno's departure for Africa, then Europe, followed by Dante, until their successive returns to Australia, where their separate yet linked destinies are played out in evasion, suicide, and regret. For Hodge and Mishra, "Johnno becomes, for Dante, both his uncanny mirror image and the shadow he also pursues." As Leigh Dale and Helen Gilbert argue, the ambiguities of the text tend to veil its dissidence, deferring absolute answers about the otherwise erotic dimensions of the relationship between the two men. The invocation of the epic poet Dante, moreover, introduces a significantly metafictional layer to the narrative: Dante's "survivor guilt" over Johnno coalesces with the guilty dilemma of the artist who, as Nielsen argues, must exploit "personal relationships for his own aesthetic ends."
In An Imaginary Life, Malouf broke new ground while continuing to refine and elaborate themes introduced in Johnno. Narrated by Ovid, the Roman poet exiled in old age to a remote northern outpost of empire, An Imaginary Life has been taken up by many readers as a meditation upon the writer's antipodean and (post)colonial positioning, and upon questions of exile and belonging. Flung out from the imperial center where distinctions between civilization and nature are tenuous, Ovid engages in a quest for meaning that brings him to the edges of selfhood, language, and existence. Encountering the mystery of a boy brought up by wolves (mythically central to imperial Roman identity), Ovid entices the boy into the village, seeking to render him tractable to human society and language. Suffering the sudden ravages of illness, however, the villagers become superstitiously fearful, and Ovid and the boy depart, traveling beyond this last outpost into an arctic wilderness. Roles reverse, and the boy becomes Ovid's protector as he journeys toward the culmination of his quest, which is also the moment of his death. Malouf's novel--meditating upon language, spiritual and aesthetic being, and the body's experience of change--converses in imaginative and metafictional terms with the ancient Roman poet of Metamorphoses (completed, A.D. 8):
Our bodies are not final. We are moving, all of us, in our common humankind, through the forms we love so deeply in each other's darkness. Slowly, and with pain, over centuries, we each move an infinitesimal space towards it. We are creating the lineaments of some final man, for whose delight we have prepared a landscape, and who can only be god.
Published in seven languages, this novel is arguably the most widely known and admired of Malouf's oeuvre (with the possible exception of Remembering Babylon, which bears many resemblances to An Imaginary Life). Both when it was first published and during the intervening years, the novel has attracted a great deal of critical attention, particularly as a text about the (post)colonial condition. For Gareth Griffiths, for example, An Imaginary Life suggests how texts can be "effectively open to the full complexity of the condition of post-colonial societies and the problems these societies now exhibit."
Malouf next embarked on a series of novellas and short stories. Though first published in 1981 with Child's Play , the novella The Bread of Time to Come was republished separately in 1982 under the title Fly Away Peter, while Child's Play was republished in 1982 with two short stories--"Eustace" and "The Prowler." Although in some ways entailing a strikingly different scenario, Child's Play is unmistakably continuous with Malouf's previous fiction. As in both previous novels, a palpably metafictional element attends the dramatization of individual power and destiny in this novella--writing and death, and art and terrorism. The narrator of Child's Play belongs to a terrorist cell located in a provincial Italian town; his assignment involves the assassination, for reasons unspecified, of an elderly, preeminent Italian writer--the unnamed "Great Man of Letters" in the novel, whose work-in-progress bears the title "Child's Play." As he prepares for his mission, the narrator is drawn into a quasi-oedipal struggle over the question of who determines and controls meaning, narrative, and destiny--in other words, over "authorship." The terrorist's plot, seeking dominion over its target, is caught within the larger design of the great writer's text: "But I should confess that if, through long sessions of study, I have begun to understand him a little, to observe, that is, the dangers that are inherent in the very nature of his 'trick,' he has also, and so long ago that it quite scares me, both understood and accounted for me." A mis-en-abyme (an infinitely regressing image) opens in the shuttle among the three "author" figures--the terrorist, the writer, and Malouf himself. Other familiar elements from the previous novel that recur in Child's Play include its use of retrospective narration; the twinning or doubling of characters, in the relationship between the narrator and his dead older brother; and ekphrasis in the narrator's use of photographs to familiarize himself with the appointed scene of death, a device that occasions a meditation on issues of narrative, time, destiny, and meaning. The ambiguous ending of the novella has been regarded as only a "qualified success," according to Nielsen, although it has also been read as a deliberate refutation of Roland Barthes's "death of the author," according to Stephen Woods. Walking "under the early blossoms" of an apple orchard, the narrator is either escaping into safety or encountering extinction. Though its significance remains opaque, this conclusion recalls the merging of self and landscape in Ovid's sublime death in An Imaginary Life.
In Fly Away Peter, Jim Saddler, humble rural worker, and Ashley Crowther, heir to a Queensland coastal property, are the mirroring couple whose differentiated class positioning both materially shapes their destinies during World War I and represents male bonding as something capable of transcending class difference. The approach the novel takes to the genesis of the Anzac legend, however, seems less concerned with history than with metaphysical themes--of self in process; self in response to others; and self in relation to landscape, destiny, and time. Educated in progressive land-management theories in England, Ashley observes Jim's practical knowledge of the swampland on his Queensland property and immediately employs him to record its migratory-bird life. Ashley recognizes that Jim's intimate knowledge gives him a claim over the land: "Such claims were ancient and deep. They lay in Jim's knowledge of every blade of grass and drop of water in the swamp, of every bird's foot that was set down there--in his having, most of all, the names for things and in that way possessing them." Although the narrative seems to efface the claims of indigenous people, Malouf's focus on belonging through knowledge and naming augurs the development, in his later fiction, of a more complex encounter with frontier history. New, twentieth-century technologies--plane and camera--enter the plot as ambivalent signs of the progress of modernity and of impending war. English freelance photographer Imogen Harcourt, a mature professional woman working in close partnership with Jim, triangulates the male pairing. Migratory patterns of birds prefigure the absurdity of young men's flight to their deaths on the Western Front, the terms of which are graphically and powerfully depicted in the contrasting second half of the novel. The cruelties that then unfold are resolved, momentarily, and in the consolation a grieving Imogen takes from her vision of a surfer an image that positively fuses human technology with nature.
A more lengthy and historically detailed novel, Harland's Half Acre, came next, featuring--like earlier works--Brisbane and rural Queensland settings, and a dually focused narration. In some sequences a third-person narrator recounts episodes in the life and career of Frank Harland, a landscape artist, son of a charismatic battler and widower, Clem. The significance of exile and belonging in the genesis of Australian art is dramatized in Frank's movements through time and space, from his early removal from the family home after his mother's death, his return to family and his efforts to guide his motherless siblings and his nephew, to his final, Ovid-like death on Bribie Island. An itinerant worker during the Great Depression years, Frank drifts in space even as his landscape paintings mature, finally reaching a wider public. The recounting of Frank Harland's life is interwoven with the first-person narrative of Phil Vernon, whose family life in Brisbane, seemingly tangential, eventually intertwines with Frank's life, leading to Phil's role as intermediary between artist and public. As a child, Phil mediates between his partially estranged grandparents, and later, between Frank and his temperamental nephew and heir, Gerald. Like Dante in Johnno, Phil is a surrogate for the writer, functioning as witness to events. Yet, as lawyer and family friend, he is torn between the need for professional impartiality and the demands of personal involvement. The ekphrastic device of the photo as trigger for narration, previously employed in both Johnno and Child's Play, recurs in a seminal scene in which the young Phil first encounters Frank's landscape paintings and finds himself primally caught by the portrait of a local woman who murdered her partner, a European immigrant. The darkness of European history is here, and elsewhere in the narrative, transplanted into Australian contexts, reversing clichés about Australian innocence in contrast to European experience. Likewise, Frank Harland's "half acre" is more than a modest slice of Australian ground; Frank's mental landscapes and artistic journey essay new strategies for making and thereby belonging to Australia.
Malouf's next published work was Antipodes (1985), a collection of short stories, which was followed by an autobiographical memoir, 12 Edmonstone Street (1985). Shapcott in "The Evidence of Anecdote: Some Perspectives on the Poetry of David Malouf" describes these works, in which Malouf vividly recalls the contours of his childhood home and his encounters with Tuscany and India, as "autobiographical prose interiors." Gillian Whitlock in "The Child in the (Queensland) House: David Malouf and Regional Writing" (in Provisional Maps), discussing the regionally inflected exploration in the title story of the "Queenslander" (a wooden bungalow on stilts), observes how the narrative proceeds by means of its "spacial contiguities rather than a sequence of events": "Gradually this child-in-the-house narrative makes its way from verandah, through the rooms and down to 'under the house,' a space that Malouf mythologizes as a forest, as dark as anything in Grimm."
During the late 1980s Malouf turned his hand to writing for the stage. As well as a highly acclaimed libretto written for Richard Meale's opera Voss (1986), based on Patrick White's novel, Malouf also published his first and, to date, only original play. Blood Relations was Malouf's reworking of William Shakespeare's The Tempest (first performed, 1613; first published, 1623) and was first staged by the Sydney Theatre Company in 1987. Set at Christmastime in a family home on the tropical coast of northwestern Australia, the drama concerns the unearthing of the father's past and the transformations that this process brings. Dale and Gilbert observe that the play deploys "the edge" as a "place of negotiation," "a political space where Prospero's dream of a 'prosperous' island state, where the colonizer acts as 'husbandman' to a bountiful new world, is thwarted." Since then Malouf has produced three further librettos for contemporary opera, including Richard Meale's opera Mer de Glace (1991), an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); Michael Berkeley's first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep (1993), based on episodes from Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894); and most recently Berkeley's opera Jane Eyre (2000), based on Charlotte Brontë's novel. Annie Patrick observes that Malouf's contribution to each libretto extends beyond mere adaptation into creation of "operatic counter-parts which not only demonstrate his ability to write for voice and the stage--[but also] his collaborative skills with a composer."
The Great World was Malouf's next full-length novel and his most detailed and expansive yet. This novel, as Nielsen remarks, offers no radical departures from Malouf's earlier work but rather consolidates and extends familiar themes and approaches. Realist and historical in genre, but often ruminative and lyrical as was the earlier fiction, The Great World spans a seventy-year period, focusing on Australians affected--individually and collectively--by their experiences of World War II. Among other memorable episodes, the novel depicts in harrowing terms the ordeal suffered by Australian prisoners of war at the notorious Changi camp and on the Thai/Burma railway. The title of the book refers to an abandoned theme park, "the Great World," used as makeshift quarters for a contingent of prisoners working on the Singapore docks. Thus, juxtaposing the imagined expansiveness of the world with its cruel foreshortening through war and imprisonment, "the Great World" also alludes to the shifting perspectives of its protagonists--their expectations and experiences of the wider world. Narrative focus is shared between complementary male characters, ne'er-do-well Digger Keen and self-made businessman Vic Currant, whose friendship begins in the camp in Malaya and whose destinies and personal lives thereafter entwine. Malouf's exploration, via the evolving relationship between Digger and Vic, of the ethos of mastership--that quintessentially masculine virtue associated with the Anzac legend--sympathetically rewrites this period of Australian history in personal and ironic but also mythic terms. Though a few reviews were less enthusiastic--for example, Gerard Windsor's in the Australian Book Review (April 1990)--most concurred with A. P. Riemer's view in The Sydney Morning Herald (17 February 1990) that this was "a masterly novel, a deeply satisfying work of art."
In the multiple-award-winning Remembering Babylon , Malouf returns to the motif of the enfant sauvage (wild child) first treated in An Imaginary Life, reversing its narrative movement. Based on an account of British sailor James (Jemmy) Merrill, who was shipwrecked in 1846 and who lived for many years with an Aboriginal tribe before returning to white settlement, Malouf's novel rewrites the imperial first-contact story of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). It also rewrites colonial captivity narratives, such as that of Eliza Framer, a British woman shipwrecked in 1836 on Fraser Island, off Queensland, on which White's novel A Fringe of Leaves (1976) was based. In mid Queensland in the 1850s (during one of the bloodiest phases of colonization), castaway ship boy Gemmy Fairley, having been rescued and nurtured by an Aboriginal tribe for sixteen years, finally returns to white society. Hovering on the fence line--the literal and symbolic perimeter of the colony--Gemmy "surrenders" to a small group of children who then mediate his encounter with the adults. With his damaged body ("smudged appearance" and "baffled, half-expectant look of a mongrel that had been whipped"), strange behavior, broken English, and obscure history, Gemmy represents a highly threatening state of being between two statuses, or liminality. As the "white blackfellow" he was "a parody of a white man," an "imitation gone wrong." Gemmy had also puzzled the Aborigines, who saw him as "half-child, half sea-calf," like Caliban in The Tempest. To the white settlers, Gemmy dangerously embodies that which daily eats at their security--proximity to a vast, unchartered country and to its feared Aboriginal inhabitants: "Out here the very ground under their feet was strange. It had never been ploughed." Taken in by the McIvors, Gemmy's closest link is with the children who first encountered him--Lachlan Beattie and Janet McIvor--and the narrative relays their stories, along with the varied reactions of the small community. Though widely reviewed in glowing terms, Malouf's novel also sparked a contentious critical debate about its politics. Published in the very year in which the Australian High Court replaced the legal doctrine of terra nullius (a legal concept meaning "the land belonging to no one" used by the British to deny the claims of the indigenous people of Australia to their native land) with that of native title (in the case of Mabo vs Queensland, No. 2), Remembering Babylon has been criticized for authenticating white experience and history at the expense of Aboriginal bodies, experience, and history (as Germaine Greer, Suvendrini Perera, and Garry Kinnane discuss). Others, such as Bill Ashcroft, counter this charge with the argument that the novel is subversive, representing "the very different, transformative oppositionality of post-colonial discourse" (see also Lee Spinks and Penelope Ingram).
Reception of Malouf's next novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek , has generally been positive. Anthony J. Hassall praises its "passionate, poetic reimaginings" of competing versions of colonial Australia. Although replete with patterns familiar from Malouf's previous work, in this novel the representation of the violence of colonial history is arguably more direct than that of Remembering Babylon. The story, set in Australia in 1827, concerns the impending execution of Irish rebel and colonial bushranger Daniel Carney, who--among other crimes--has fostered insurrection against the British by local Aboriginal tribes. Also of Irish background, Michael Adair, the officer posted to supervise this execution, passes the night in the hut with the imprisoned man, while the three troopers and Aboriginal tracker who captured Carney make their camp outside the hut. Adair's recollections of his boyhood past compose much of the narrative. Adopted into a wealthy Irish family, Adair had formed a close but rivalrous bond with his foster brother, Fergus Connellan, whose identity merges during the narrative with that of Carney, the condemned man. Rivalry between the adopted brothers is complicated by the presence of a young woman, Virgilia, who was tutored alongside them. Virgilia secretly loves Fergus, while Adair secretly loves Virgilia. In contrast to the austere and conservative Adair, who is overly conscious of his lesser place in the world, Fergus is a romantic idealist who, refusing his inheritance, leaves Ireland for Australia in search of a more just society. Adair's guilt over this uneasy past oppresses him; so, too, the specter of colonial violence--in a moment of confrontation--haunts the troopers' fireside conversation outside the hut. Reconciliation, for Adair, is finally figured in two sacramental movements: in a baptismal moment when the condemned man, prior to his hanging, is permitted to wash himself in the stream, and, in the final moment of the narrative, as Adair breaks his nightlong fast: "He chews as he walks on, his saliva mixing with [the bread's] sugars and driving new light into his heart, refreshing his mouth like common speech." The narrative thus repeats a gesture familiar in Malouf's writing, moving through encounter with difference toward transformation, reconciliation, and transcendence.
As well as the less widely distributed Untold Tales (1999), Malouf has published two volumes of short stories--Antipodes and Dream Stuff (2000)--which show both diversity of content and thematic coherence. In Antipodes, which, despite positive reviews, has subsequently received little critical attention, the geographic opposition of Australian and European perspectives is, as James Tulip suggests, one of a series of dramatic oppositions across a range of stories in which the romance of distance is set against the pleasures of the everyday. "Southern Skies" treats these themes, for example, through the narrator's recollections of the Professor--an esteemed family friend whose "Old Country" manners and erudition at first annoy the young male narrator, who seeks assimilation with contemporary Australia; later the Professor draws him across the threshold into a different experience of romance, vulnerability, and desire. Suburban and familial perspectives--in stories such as "The Empty Lunch-Tin" and "Bad Blood"--delicately explore the unexpected in everyday relationships. The stories in Dream Stuff , set entirely in Australia, are linked unobtrusively by the motif of dreaming. "Jacko's Reach," for example, concerns how the one remaining plot of wilderness in a suburb, finally resumed for development, lingers in the imagination; and the youthful narrator of "Closer" dreams of reconciling, across the closed boundary of a Pentecostal home, with the uncle whose annual visits to the property's perimeter are studiously ignored by his family. In this collection, Peter Pierce detects an increasing sense of "skepticism about the reality of the social world," since its various stories speak "of haunting, of vanishing, of desperate attempts to put down roots and unavailing efforts to escape them--of the impact of war and of the conflicts within families."
As well as being an Australian writer of undoubted eminence and achievement, Malouf is a formidable commentator upon his own work and an eloquent exponent in the public domain of his views, particularly of the role of the writer in contemporary Australia. In addition to his creative works, Malouf has also produced many lectures, opinion pieces, essays, and interviews. During his 1998 ABC Boyer Lecture series (published as A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness ), Malouf reiterates his vision of a necessarily dynamic relationship between contemporary Australians and the land:
We are the makers, among much else, of landscapes. We remake the land in our own image so that it comes in time to reflect both the industry and the imagination of its makers, and gives us back, in working land, but also in the idealized version of landscape that is a park or garden, an image both of our human nature and our power. Such making is also a rich form of possession.
Malouf's own writing, compellingly for some readers but problematically for others, testifies to this observation. Concerned about distinguishing his sense of "making" from negative modes of colonization, Malouf advocates "a convergence of indigenous and non-indigenous understanding, a collective spiritual consciousness that will be the true form of reconciliation" in Australia. Malouf's writing maps encounters between self and other, tensions between exile and home, and relations between the individual and history--issues holding particular resonance for contemporary Australians. The transformations that, in Malouf's writing, are deployed to resolve these encounters--via death in the landscape, absorption into the other, experience of the limitless body, and immersion in the sacred--suggest the writer's belief in the efficacy and relevance of art, not merely as a powerful mode of expression, but also as a strategy of belonging.
From: Rooney, Brigid. "(George) (Joseph) David Malouf." Australian Writers, 1950-1975, edited by Selina Samuels, Gale, 2004. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 289.