Authors: David Malouf

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Australian novelist, playwright, and poet


David George Joseph Malouf (mah-LOOF) shows diversity both in his background and in his writing. He was born in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, Australia. He grew up in this provincial city and graduated from the University of Queensland in 1954. His mother of British descent, his father Lebanese, Malouf from an early age identified with both Australia and Europe. At twenty-five, after working at temporary jobs in Brisbane, he moved to England, where he taught until 1968, when he returned to Australia. For the next ten years he lectured in literature at the University of Sydney. After the publication of several books of poetry and two novels, he decided to devote himself entirely to writing and moved to a Tuscan village. In 1985 he began to divide his time between Italy and Australia, as well as traveling in Europe and North America, insisting that he was not an expatriate. The autobiographical essays in 12 Edmondstone Street attempt to explain his double attachment to Australia and Europe.{$I[AN]9810001757}{$I[A]Malouf, David}{$I[geo]AUSTRALIA;Malouf, David}{$I[tim]1934;Malouf, David}

David Malouf

(Jane Bown)

This tow between two continents manifests itself in Malouf’s writing, which draws from both worlds. His major preoccupations are the oppositional forces within each individual and those in nature. He has chosen a wide range of literary forms to express these concerns.

Malouf published first as a poet, beginning in 1962, when he shared a book with three other Australian poets. Three more collections of poems appeared before the publication of his first novel, Johnno, in 1975. He continued to write verse, with Poems, 1959-1989 published in 1992. Commenting on his poetry, Malouf said: “I wrote poetry for a long time before I wrote prose that I thought publishable, and I think that you learn habits of working as a poet which I’ve used in making the fictions, so I think they are in their structures very poetic.” Although highly regarded in Australia for poetry as well as fiction, Malouf has gained an international reputation through his novels.

In Johnno, Malouf re-creates his Brisbane childhood during World War II, when the sleepy city, threatened by Japanese invasion, became the center of operations for Allied troops. While often praised for capturing wartime Brisbane, the novel more significantly examines the oppositions between the two main characters, Johnno and Dante–what Malouf describes as “involvement and withdrawal, action and contemplation.” In fact, Johnno and Dante may be one person, and the novel an exploration of the conflicts in the author’s own consciousness.

Many critics consider Malouf’s second novel, An Imaginary Life, to be his best work. Its action distant in time and place from Australia, this short, poetic, meditative book recounts Ovid’s exile from Rome. The Roman poet, forced to live a primitive life along the Black Sea, discovers disconnection from his language to be the harshest punishment, for he can no longer negotiate his experience. Like Johnno, the novel develops an oppositional relationship, this time between the sophisticated Ovid and a wild boy reared by wolves.

Child’s Play contains three short stories. In the title piece Malouf relies on a factual account of an Italian terrorist who plots to murder a famous writer but gradually finds himself mysteriously linked to his target. Here Malouf takes up the theme of opposition through the metaphor of assailant and victim. A novella published the same year, Fly Away Peter, relates the story of a Queensland soldier in World War I and focuses on the contrast between landscapes he experiences: the life-destructive trenches of the European war and the life-affirming Australian countryside. Several years later Malouf again addressed the twofold experience of war and peace in The Great World, a chronicle of Australian soldiers captured by the Japanese during World War II. Continuing until 1987, the narrative follows two of these men, who–like Johnno and Dante–express oppositional views of life.

Relying on his Brisbane childhood for setting, Malouf directs his attention to the artist in Harland’s Half Acre, a fully developed and richly textured novel. Here the opposition lies in the singular distinction between the artist–in this case a painter–and the ordinary person. Eighteenth century Queensland serves as the setting for Remembering Babylon, which relates the story of a young Englishman who has lived for years with Aboriginals and then joins a pioneer settlement of Scottish immigrants. Not only is the theme of language worked out–the man has lost his native English–but the oppositions are at play again as well in the contrast between civilization and primitivism, past and present, darkness and light, understanding and ignorance, compassion and hatred. This novel is reminiscent of An Imaginary Life, sometimes to the former’s detriment. The Conversations at Curlow Creek contrasts two Irishmen in Australia, one a soldier and one a convict, who spend a night in conversation, which is supposed to end with the convict’s execution.

Although moving between Australia and Europe for most of his life, Malouf has consistently taken Australia as the setting for his work. Still, he has been described as a writer with a European sensibility. Possibly, this opposition of place has enriched his work.

BibliographyBrittan, Alice. “B-b-british Objects: Possession, Naming, and Translation in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 117 (October, 2002): 1158-1171. Focuses on the relationships between names and objects, racial violence on the Australian frontier, and the nature of commerce in a cashless society in Malouf’s novel.Doty, Kathleen, and Riston Hiltunen. “The Power of Communicating Without Words–David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life and Remembering Babylon.” Antipodes 10 (1996): 99-105. Draws comparisons between the two novels, stressing how Malouf employs nonverbal experiences to construct human identity. Written by linguists, the article is dense but rewarding.Indyk, Ivor. David Malouf. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993. A short but substantial and original discussion of Malouf’s essays, poetry, and fiction through The Great World. Places emphasis on An Imaginary Life as the pivotal work. Notes the absence of strong female characters in the fiction and explores the question of homosexual desire as a subversive theme. Extensive bibliography.Nettelbeck, Amanda, ed. Provisional Maps: Critical Essays on David Malouf. Nedlands: University of Western Australia, 1994. A good collection of essays on Malouf’s work.Nielsen, Philip. Imagined Lives: A Study of David Malouf. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1996. Offers a detailed study of Malouf’s poetry and fiction through Remembering Babylon. Intended for students, the book provides extensive interpretations of each novel. Includes detailed primary and secondary bibliographies and biographical details.Taylor, Andrew. “Origin, Identity, and the Body in David Malouf’s Fiction.” Australian Literary Studies 19 (May, 1999): 3-14. Looks at several of Malouf’s works, commenting especially on Malouf’s use of Australian history.Willbanks, Ray. “Interview with David Malouf.” In Australian Voices. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Malouf talks about his approach to writing, especially fiction, and reveals how the ideas came for various novels through The Great World. Includes a full discussion of the genesis of An Imaginary Life as well as Malouf’s use of autobiographical materials. An excellent introduction to Malouf and his work.World Literature Today 74 (Autumn, 2000). The issue is devoted to Malouf’s work, including seven essays on his work, a select bibliography, a chronology of his life, and an appreciation.
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