LITERATURE - AUSTRALIAN - GEORGE TURNER - REVIEW
Turner a Life
By Judith Raphael Buckrich
Melbourne University Press: Carlton South, 1999,
Pp. 214, $49.95 hardback.
venturing of literary scholars beyond capital-L Literature should not
accompany a retreat from academic standards. New tools will be developed
to shift between Shakespeare and science fiction, but accuracy, a
concern for contexts and alertness to the fabric of writing remain
pertinent whether analysing Damien Broderick or Emily Bronte.
a PhD supervisor, Garry Kinnane, two examiners, Van Ikin and Rosaleen
Love, and an editor at Melbourne University Press, Teresa Pitt, Judith
Buckrich’s treatment of Australian author George Turner (1916-97) is
still not ready for publication. Its introduction claims that Turner
wrote ‘four novels, nine science fiction novels of which eight had
been the published’. Had Buchrich’s team consulted her bibliography,
they might have noticed that Turner had published six novels and seven
science fiction ones.
met Turner in 1979 and interviewed him several times, taking his
recollections as her ‘chief source’. Oral history is no more liable
to error than any method of research. It just as its own difficulties.
Where possible, its recorder should research the documents first to be
prepared for slips in the retelling. Buchrich has taken too much of
Turner’s testimony on trust, despite the failings that they both
acknowledged in remembering.
result is that Buckrich’s opening page is itself a piece of fiction.
The newborn George and his mum could not have returned to Kalgoorlie by
train ‘soon after his birth’ on 8 October 1916 because the
transcontinental did not run until 22 October 1917. Similarly, why would
his mother ever have had to travel by ‘horse and carriage across the
semi-desert flatlands that dominate the landscape beyond the ranges just
east of Perth’ when the railway had reached Kalgoorlie in 1896? As the
biographer of journalist George Johnston, Garry Kinnane should have been
able to tell his student that Keith Murdoch was not the ‘owner’ of
the Herald and Weekly Times in 1933 but its managing-director, and that
the Herald and Weekly Times never was ‘Melbourne’s afternoon
newspaper’, but the name of a company with publications in several
transport and communications are outside the expertise of Buchrich’s
academic guides, no such excuse exists for her claim that, between 1967
and 1971, ‘when Turner wrote Cassidy,
and certainly before that, there were very few practising novelists in
Australia’. When Turner’s first novel appeared in 1959, more than
twenty local novelists found publishers. The year he completed the Cassidy
manuscript, 1971, saw another score published. The stability of those
numbers tells us more about the state of publishing than of the number
of practising novelists. Cassidy,
after all, waited seven years for publication.
by Hooton and Heseltine’s Annals
of Australian Literature, Buckrich embarks on a critical synthesis
of the late 1960s:
Those who were writing could be placed
into three groups: the Left tradition which included Ruth Park, Frank
Hardy, Kylie Tennant … those who were metaphysicists like [sic]
Patrick White and David Malouf; and those who were really writing
autobiographies in disguise … like [sic] Thea Astley and George
Malouf did not publish a novel until 1975, when Johnno,
too, was disguised autobiography, not metaphysical.
George Turner spent his early childhood in Kalgoorlie, the 1950s in
Wangaratta, and died in Ballarat, and although one strand of his writing
explores small-town life, his concerns were never parochial. Like a
biologist, he took the population of one community - Treelake-Wangaratta
- to make a prognosis for his species. Buckrich does consider these
early works within the traditions of the small-town novel from Redheap to Tourmalaine.
Nor does she locate Turner’s evocation of post-war Melbourne as a
space through which to move against other recreations of our urban life. This mishandling and avoidance of literary contexts extend to
Australian Science Fiction when Buckrich does not notice the homage to Tomorrow
and Tomorrow and Tomorrow at the start of The
Sea and Summer.
has been allowed to pass over the same chunks of Turner’s life as he
did: ‘My years with the Commonwealth Employment Service, with the
textile trade and in the brewery’. But not only do we hear nothing of
the grit of Turner’s paid employments, his writing habits remain
unexamined. The biography of an author can never avoid literary analysis
because so much of a writer’s life is the exploring of themes and the
shaping of sentences. Apart from one hint about a typewriter, we do not
hear whether he wrote with a pencil, a fountain pen, or a ballpoint;
whether he changed his preferred implement, or whether he used different
coloured inks for revisions. Nor are we introduced to his routines, or
to how he reworked his drafts. Did he begin with a rough plot, or did he
uncover a narrative line as he limned his characters? Were those
approaches different over time, and different between the novels of
contemporary Australia and his science fiction? Did he keep a
commonplace book for the quotations at the head of his chapters?
investigating Turner’s science fiction, Buckrich has not absorbed his
definition of it as ‘the literature of considered ideas’. She
interrogates neither Turner’s ideas nor her own. Hence, she shows
scant interest in his Turner’s social attitudes, which are not the
same as party politics. Although she mentions that, in 1951, he had
ferocious, almost violent political arguments with a drinking mate, she
did not ask her informant whether those brawls were over the referendum
to validate the anti-Communist Bill, on which it is reasonable to assume
that Turner was voting ‘No’.
Buckrich declares that Turner was ‘not a Socialist despite the very
materialist approach he has to near-future problems’. She defines
neither socialism nor materialism, or why they should be connected.
Later novels, she notes, included ‘a kind of utopian communism’, but
again she gives no clue as to which of its several varieties, from
William Morris or Edward Bellamy, she has in mind. Her disdain for the
political deprives Turner of the impetus that he indentified behind his
The new author would not be writing
science fiction as fans and publishers understand the term; he would be
using the techniques to write political fiction; he would be preparing,
whether bluntly or subtly, those mental buffers which Ballard had in
mind when he called science fiction “the literature of preparation and
learn nothing of how Turner developed his environmental concerns,
nothing of what he read on ecology, how and when he encountered Rattray
Taylor, for instance.
a deserved discussion of homosexuality are passing mentions which become
a bone for Buchrich to worry. When she asked Turner ‘was he?’, he
replied that he had had a couple of encounters when young, as most
blokes do but won’t admit. He was surprised that so many of his
associates assumed that he was that way. In using Turner’s fiction to
reveal his desires, Buchrich illustrates how potently he could convey
the homo-erotic, as in his account of the massaging of the boxer Cassidy
where precision proves passionate. But such evidence is relevant only
when cut off from every other behaviour that Turner delineates with the
same insightfulness, for instance, the canine reactions in traffic on
which that novel’s denouement depends.
Buckrich is too
concerned to find out what Turner did with his dick to appreciate that
fantasy and practice are far from the same. Her academic advisors have
not directed her to the distinctions between the homo-social, the
homo-erotic and the homo-sexual. The literature on those men who have
sex with other men but do not identify as gay or homosexual is also
closed to her. Nor has she been encouraged to relate Turner’s
treatment of these matters to their handling in the works of gay
Australian writers, such as Martin Boyd, Sumner Locke Elliot, Hal Porter
and Randolph Stow. Equally, Buckrich fails to place the recurrence in
Turner’s fiction of male-to-male relationships against Ken Cook’s Wake
in Fright, the middle part of The
Tyborn Affair, Jack Radley’s Good
Mates, or the hero worship in Johnno.
Her placing Turner ‘in a place that was entirely his own’ takes us
nowhere since that is true of every one alive. The task of the
historian-critic is to cope with Sartre’s ‘universal-singular’.
is distressed by Turner’s use of ‘bitch’ to describe women
characters, suspecting that the term voiced his misogyny. To establish
this overlap she would have had to have distinguished the authorial
voice from those of his characters. To specify how extreme was
Turner’s resort to this term, she needed to explore the prevalence of
bitch in speech and literature before the 1970s. The objection to bitch
by second-wave feminists arose from its ubiquity as well as from its
offensiveness. My pious aunt divided her enemies into bitches, mongrels
and dingoes. Princess Margaret called her sister one. Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla in 1961 pivots around ‘a poor little hot
bitch’, while Girlie Pogson was as vigilant against ‘words’ as the
censors who took ‘words’ as evidence of obscenity. With readers left
to supply a preceding expletive, bitch was one of the strong words that
got past censors, perhaps because they shared its assumptions. Bitch is
also camp argot, both as endearment and of abuse, another aspect which
Buchrich overlooks despite her fixation on homosexuality.
books often prevent good ones. Lets hope that this attempt will provoke
another of Turner’s admirers to give us the writer in full. Meanwhile,
we can re-read his memoirs, In the
heart or in the head.