Frank Moorhouse: Strange Paths is MATTHEW LAMB’s first book in a two-part biography of the lauded Australian writer, Frank Moorhouse. Good Reading asked Matthew why it’s important that we should be still reading the legendary author’s work.
Most readers may know Frank Moorhouse as the author of the ‘Edith Trilogy’ – Grand Days (1993), Dark Palace (2000), and Cold Light (2011) – the story of Australia’s involvement in the League of Nations, and the establishment of Canberra, told through the experiences and emotional and sexual awakening of the indomitable Edith Campbell Berry.
Moorhouse’s first book was published in 1969, with over 16 titles to his name since. Many of these are ground-breaking works of fiction, while others – such as Martini (2005), where he taught Australia how to drink the world’s most famous gin cocktail – are works of memoir or non-fiction.
What is remarkable about his fiction, however, is that all of his stories are connected. Edith Campbell Berry comes from Jaspers Brush, on the NSW South Coast. In Grand Days, for example, she is visited by an old school friend and one-time suitor, T George McDowell. He is the protagonist of a series of stories first published 20 years earlier in The Electrical Experience (1974). McDowell’s daughter, Terri, is first introduced in Futility and Other Animals (1969) and The Americans, Baby (1972), along with a cast of other characters, including Cindy – who also appears in Conference-ville (1976) and The Everlasting Secret Family (1980) – and Robyn – who appears in Tales of Mystery and Romance (1977) and Forty-Seventeen (1988). What this means is that not only do Frank Moorhouse’s books provide a rich and textured reading experience, they are also designed to be re-read, again and again, with new connections and resonances playing out between each of his books.
Interestingly, Moorhouse had not had a main character die in any of his previous books. This is not a spoiler, however, for in Moorhouse’s work such an event does not mark an ending at all. That he avoided this easy literary device for over 20 years is interesting enough, but what makes this more remarkable still is that he then spent the next 25 years writing three large books – the ‘Edith Trilogy’ – which provided Edith Campbell Berry with a fictional biography worthy of such a death.
First writing in the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Moorhouse used his fiction to try to make sense of his contemporary world and that post-War generation. In order to fully understand this, however, he started writing stories that harkened back to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, to previous generations, as precursors to his own generation. What this means for us reading his books today, is that just as he looked back to previous generations to understand his own contemporaries, his books provide a necessary and critical background that allows us to understand the current generations, and our own contemporary society.
Frank Moorhouse: Strange Paths is the first in a projected two-volume cultural biography of Frank Moorhouse, covering the period 1938-74, following Frank’s youth, his long writing apprenticeship, and his breaking into the literary establishment – on his own terms. The second volume, Ways of Going – which I am still writing – will cover the second half of Frank’s life, 1975–2022.
This includes his mature works and the culmination of his lifelong reflections on the foundations of Australian history and culture.
A biography is not a substitute for – but a supplement to – an author’s books. It is to provide context, and various points of entry into Frank Moorhouse’s vast body of work. But it is also to consider how Moorhouse thought about his own life and the historical period through which he lived, and how he came to\ understand them both through his own writing.
ABOUT THE MATTHEW LAMB
Matthew Lamb is a former editor of Review of Australian Fiction and Island magazines. He has two PhDs, in Literature and Philosophy, respectively.