LITERATURE - AUSTRALIAN - ULYSSES BOUND
ABC radio review
Many of us, at some
time or other, have been party to the game of discovering the Great
Australian Novel. Throughout those sessions, never once did I hear a
call for the great Australian work of literary criticism. Unheralded, it
Dorothy Green has
written it. The ANU published it. It is about Henry Handel Richardson,
It is called Ulysses Bound.
There are so many
features to praise about this volume that it is perplexing to know where
to begin. It will certainly not be possible to do the work justice in
the time available. So what follows is a notice, rather than a review.
To deal with a
supplementary virtue first. When I first picked this volume up I was
taken by its physical beauty. It is a large book – nearly six hundred
pages. It has a delicate grey and black and grey jacket. At the
commencement of each chapter there is a full-page drawing. Ulysses
Bound is a pleasure to touch. I am not usually afflicted with this
element of bibliomania, but this is such a handsome piece of book-manship
that it would be unfair not to mention how splendid a gift it will make.
Now to the content.
Dorothy Green has a case to argue, and put simply it is this: Henry
Handel Richardson is a genuinely creative artist, and not a dull
recounter of facts. Several distinguished critics fall victim to
Green’s lethal prose as she presents this interpretation. Indeed, so
well written is this critical study that it must demand attention as a
work of literature in its own right.
Of course, there is
more to Green’s argument than I have indicated. She pursues the
sources of Richardson’s writings into the German philosophical
tradition. The indebtedness to Richardson’s husband is spelt out.
Instead of being an oddity in the Australian tradition, Henry Handel
Richardson emerges as part of a rich and long strand of European ideas.
on this aspect is not the least of her achievements as she isolates and
identifies the influences. Each novel is explored in turn. Substantial
quotations enable even those unfamiliar with the work to follow the
At the heart of the
book, and as the core of her reading, Green has placed the three volumes
of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
Of this trilogy, Green concludes:
Dealing with the final
part, Ultima Thule, Green is
at her most compelling:
Much of the book’s
interest lies in the parallel which Green draws between Richardson and
Mahony. What Mahony rejected, and Richardson found was “A Saving
Occupation” – an activity to keep oneself sane. From this notion
comes the book’s title. In order to resist the entreaties of the
sires, Ulysses had himself bound to the mast of his ship. So it is with
the creative spirit. Unless creativity is bound to work, to the
production of art, it destroys the personality.
To claim that Ulysses
Bound is the first work of Australian criticism is not merely to
comment upon Green’s tireless labours. Nor is it to contrast her tome
with the fragments and essays upon which reputations have hitherto been
founded in this country.
Green has all the
attributes of a team of theses writers. And if a dozen of them had
laboured for three years, they could have collected much of the material
for this volume. But there is a quality which they could never have
supplied, a quality largely absent from academic criticism the world
over. This quality makes Dorothy’s Green’s study of Henry Handel
Richardson such as outstanding work. That quantity is her thoroughly
worked out moral universe.
If Richardson wrote
because she had something to say, there is a similar urgency about
Green’s analysis. Her views are not picked up from a couple of
seminars and a stray acquaintance with existentialism. They are settled
deep within her experience, both intellectual and personal. Against this
definite standard, she judges Richardson, the characters in the novels,
other critics, perhaps all of us.
Bound is a grand, disturbing, elegant achievement. We are the better
for its appearance.