A Review of The Penguin Book of Australian Short Stories

The Penguin Book of Australian Short Stories edited by Harry Heseltine,
Penguin Books, August 30th, 1976

Earlier this year I wrote a review of Modern Japanese Short Stories which was a collection by a selection of Japanese authors from the early to mid 20th century. A few months ago I happened to come across the similar collection of Australian short stories that were written within roughly the same time frame above. I mention the Japanese works because I will be drawing some comparisons in my commentary below so these posts will be related.

Australia is still a relatively young nation and unfortunately one that was born in the modern period. It has been observed before that Australia was the first society founded without religion. This is not true in the strictest sense of the word but there is truth in such a statement. Australians had little time to form an identity before they were thrust into a world of mass communication and mass transit. Even the significant distance from much of the old world did no prevent this. Nonetheless, Australia does have a religious history and a unique identity and I would argue that this identity largely solidified around the later 19th and early 20th century. 

The evidence for this is Australia’s Federation occurred around this time and during the Great War, the still prevalent Anzac spirit was born in the industrial slaughter of thousands of our young men. It is sad but true of humanity that we associate the fires of war with our national identity over the far more peaceful (though certainly often politically cantankerous), federation. The other important area which should never be discounted is the literature of the time (mostly poetry) which still remains among the best literature produced in Australia. The names of A.B. Paterson, Henry Lawson and C.J. Dennis are still well known and appreciated to this day. 

I have never had much passion for poetry and though I don’t often read it for pleasure, I do appreciate it when I come across it. The Bush Ballad remains Australia’s best literary creations and where most people are advised to look if they ask for Australian literature. I’ve long been of the opinion that Australia doesn’t have much good literature and I believe we’ve yet to have even one truly great novel to call our own. Even many of the novelists we have, I often discover were actually born (and often even raised) in England. We have certainly had good novelists but none I’d call our Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and certainly none I’d call our Leo Tolstoy. And while I haven’t read all the literature ever written in Australia, it shouldn’t be hard to point to at least one comparable author if there really is one. Every one I’ve been pointed to has come up short and this little book of short stories has done nothing to change my mind.

Short stories aren’t novels and for this reason are often given far less respect than they deserve. As I’ve been discovering with authors like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, this is more than a little unfair. Being a curated collection of the best Australia has to offer, this should really be a quality collection but I would say I disliked and even hated more than half the stories. To contrast the previously reviewed Japanese collection, I found merit, if not enjoyment in the vast majority of them. The introduction opens with the claim that:

A collection of Australian short stories without, for instance, Henry Lawson or Vance Palmer, Hal Porter or Patrick White, would be as unthinkable as a comparable American volume without Melville or Hawthorne, Hemmingway or Faulkner. A nucleus of indispensable authors, however, creates almost as many problems as it solves. In a book of strictly limited dimensions, in particular, it immediately reduces the space available to all the other first-class writers jostling for inclusion.

Naturally the editor Harry Heseltine has to spruik the authors he has as well as reassuring the many living authors who might have felt snubbed at the time of publication. That aside, I’ve not read any Hawthorne and Faulkner but not even Lawson comes close to being comparable to Melville or Hemmingway in terms of literary achievement and his story is far and away the best in the collection. The Japanese collection notably didn’t include anything by Natsume Sōseki which really was a significant omission and the editor said as much. If this really was the best the editor could curate in a century of Australian literature, it speaks very ill indeed about the nation’s literary history.

Patrick White was the one other big name besides Lawson who appears in the collection though I was completely unfamiliar with his work. He somewhat fits into the Australian authors actually born in England though his parents were both Australian and moved back when he was relatively young. He is also the first  (and I believe only) Australian author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This impresses some but these awards have long been more political than literary and running through lists of awardees for this and others, I come up with little of enduring quality.

White’s short story is one of the longer in the book titled Down at the Dump and as the title might suggest, paints a very ugly picture of Australian society and one I find unrecognisable to the one I grew up in. White is far from alone and most of the stories paint ugly pictures of Australia from convict times, to suffering on selections and suburban struggles. Some stories towards the back dwell on sexual preoccupations most explicitly in Five Incidents concerning the Flesh and Blood by Frank Moorhouse which is one of the ugliest in the collection. I looked him up and he actually died just a few months ago as of writing. White is one of the younger authors at the time of publication as was Yukio Mishima in the Japanese collection and both had more in common than similar sinful inclinations. I recall Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask having an inordinate focus on the ugliness of Japanese society as does White’s story. I assume (or rather hope), they aren’t all like this but now have little desire to find out.

I will not comment on all the stories but I do want to single out a couple starting with The Haunted Corner by Edward Dyson a story that would have been more enjoyable if not for the author’s insistence on emulating a likely extinct bush dialect. Here is a necessarily brief portion:

‘ ‘N’ me lord duke fair stooed in atter iv onyins,’ said Ned. ‘Ev’ry one else got ‘ardened t’ ther hum iv onyins, but Artie he never cud. It fair turned him up, ‘n’ he’d go er pale pea-green when er bun iv busy girls got er rush on er ton iv young uns’

I restarted this story twice and gave it an honest go but all joy in reading what was otherwise a clever story was lost in deciphering passages like this. While I’m sure this might one day fascinate a particularly masochistic linguistic historian, it has little to recommend it as entertainment. One could have included a brief bit of this dialogue to get the point across before continuing in plain prose and it would have been a much better story for it. Though that said, much of what is included seems more preoccupied with depressing readers than entertaining them so maybe it is fitting. 

Lawson’s Send Round the Hat is the stand-out story in the collection as mentioned and comes very early in the book. I won’t go into too much detail but the poem at the beginning gives you the gist: 

Now this is the creed from the Book of the Bush —
Should be simple and plain to dance:
‘If a man’s in a hole you must pass round the hat —
Were he jail-bird or gentlemen once.’

 And the prose is as good as the poetry in this good-natured (and humoured) picture or Australia which unlike much of the collection, is recognisable to me. Lawson was famously less romantic than Paterson but he still saw good in Australia and Australians which is largely absent in this collection. That a generous portion of the introduction was devoted to Lawson also speaks volumes. This is the only story in the whole collection I would really recommend though Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo by Alan Marshall is also a cute little story and there are a few others. Finally, I don’t want to be misunderstood as thinking the more depressing stories are all without merit simply for being depressing. A Man’s World by John Morrison is a good little counter-example to that. Overall though, this was a disappointing collection of stories that I found hard to get through. I still hold some hope of finding some literary gems within Australia but this book suggests I could still be looking for a while.

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