Sunday, July 18, 2010

Five best Australian novels

Nicholas Jose has published short stories, essays, several acclaimed novels, and a memoir. He is Chair in Writing at the University of Western Sydney and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University for 2009-2010. He is general editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature which is published internationally as The Literature of Australia.

At FiveBooks, Daisy Banks asked him about his five best Australian novels. One title they discussed:
[Banks]: Your first book is Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by M Barnard Eldershaw.

It was written during the Second World War by two women in collaboration. Marjorie Barnard, who was a librarian, and Flora Eldershaw, who was an historian, and they took a very long view in the book. It is set in Sydney but it goes right back to a mythical past and then it also goes forward into a completely futuristic world, because at that time they imagined that Australia could easily be wiped out because of the war, and then the threat of nuclear war that emerged out of that. They were left-wing people and they believed that a whole new world order might be possible. But this would involve the destruction of the old order. So it is quite a remarkable book because of its sweep and visionary quality.

A lot of the novel is set in the Depression and deals with the very difficult circumstances of people trudging through the city and feeling hopeless. But then the novel has this incredible energy of imagining the whole place burning and people fleeing and this futuristic world at the end.

It sounds similar to those apocalyptic films that have been made over the past few years. What was the reaction at the time?

Well it is very much in that vein. What happened at the time is that it was heavily abridged for publication in 1947 and a lot of the politics and the most scary stuff was removed and it was only in 1983 when Virago in London published the unabridged version that you really could read the novel, and I think that is one of the reasons why it is not as well known as it might be.

And what makes it a great novel for you?
I love it because it is just such a huge imaginative picture. I really like the large canvas, and then I find the characters and how they struggle to make sense of things in that very difficult environment of the 1930s and 40s very moving. It is very close up on these people.
Read about the other books on Jose's list.

--Marshal Zeringue