Each month we will publish a review from a past issue of Landfall. This month’s review is from Landfall 56, published in 1960 under the editorship of Charles Brasch. The review is by Ruth Dallas, who discusses Australian short-stories.
Coast to Coast, Australian Stories 1957-58. Selected by Dal Stivens. Angus and Robertson. 21S. West Coast Stories, edited by H. Drake-Brockman. Angus and Robertson. 20S.
If a New Zealand reader had no other Australian book on his shelves than these two collections of short stories, he would still be face to face with the abundance, freedom and assurance of the Australian short story, in comparison with the scarcity and nervousness of our own. The more Australian short stories I read, the more I am impressed by the relaxed and unselfconscious manner of the Australian short-story writer, when he is at his best. I should go so far as to say that if a New Zealand short-story writer were to neglect the study of the Australian story, it would be equivalent to neglecting the study of our own; it might even be more serious; for across the Tasman they are bringing in a fine harvest from land that with us is still being cleared. This is not meant to imply that good work has not been done here, as it has, of course, and is still being done; nothing could replace our own; but there is not very much of it; the Australian work is at once a rich addition and a challenge. These collections give an isolated, but very fair illustration of the kind of story Australian writers are winning from situation and character similar to our own (so like, and yet so unlike), and the use that is being made of the language of city and bush. Most of the stories are about ordinary folk, working men and women, coal-miners, gold-miners, farmers, new Australians, fishermen, housewives, mill-workers, teachers. The reader becomes aware of heat, fine-weather, space, and, most of all, of life lived out-of-doors. There is no story with sufficient poetic depth to amaze the reader or to wake a change in his mind, with the power of great art; but the Australian story is in a very healthy state; it is from this kind of abundance and ease that great writing at last emerges.
Among the stories in Coast to Coast that have power enough to linger in the mind after they are read are: ‘Good as Ever’, by Frank Hardy, a story of a coal-miner and his family, an intimate domestic study that could hold its own beside some of the tales of D.H. Lawrence, and which contains a masterly description of a fight between two men; ‘Grandfather Tiger’, by Mena Kashmiri Abdullah, remarkable for its warmth and gentleness, a tale of a little Indian girl’s first day at an Australian school, not a bitter tale of colour bar, a tale of acceptance, of a child’s wisdom, part instinctive, part cultural inheritance (‘It was horrible, horrible!’ said Joti. ‘There are no friends there. They think I am black-people. They laugh at me, and I hate them.’ ‘Ha!’ said the Tiger. ‘I thought that might happen.’ ‘Then what am I to do?’ said Joti. ‘What am I to do?’ ‘Accept,’ said the Tiger. ‘And they will accept you. If you run you will fail. If you fight you will fall. You must only accept.’); ‘Conflict’, by Chris Gardner, a moving little tale of a humble half-caste aborigine couple and their fair-skinned educated son; ‘Those Green Trousers’, by L.J. Blake, really funny; ‘Among those Present’, by Les Robinson, in which a very intelligent rat gives evidence at an inquest, is a leap of the imagination that is quite brilliant. In West Coast Stories there is a delightful tale about an old-man kangaroo, ‘Encounter’, by James Pollard, this time not from the point of view of the hunter, instead, the most sensitive sketch of a kangaroo that I have come across since D.H. Lawrence’s kangaroo poem, (‘He crawled a few paces, setting his paws to ground and gliding his long legs pace by pace beside them.’). The West Coast collection is more uneven; it seems inevitable that dullness and the commonplace should creep in; but good stones are to be found there, all the same – ‘Short-shift Saturday’, by Gavin Casey, a well-sustained long short story that runs deep, below its seemingly casual surface; ‘Full Cycle’, by Lyndall Hadow, a farm story of considerable power, reminiscent of some of the work of H.E. Bates. Another story that recalls the sensuous farm drawings of H.E. Bates is ‘A Clear Case of Self-defence’, by E.A. Gollschewsky, in Coast to Coast (‘She always thought of earth as something hard and unyielding as frozen flint, whereas this Australian scrub ground was so warmly lich and friable that everything grew wild in it.’).
There are twenty-four stories in Coast to Coast; twenty-four in West Coast Stories: there is not room here for detailed examination; a New Zealand reader would soon discover for himself that we have a great deal in common with Australia in material, but not in manner or mood (I should except Gaskell and early Sargeson); this realization in itself helps us to see our own work more clearly. The study of Australian fiction seems to me to throw so much light on our own that I should like to see Australian books in New Zealand given more prominence, for example, reviewed more often, and, if possible, brought forward in our libraries as being of special interest to New Zealanders. In particular I should like to see Australian fiction in a section of its own, beside New Zealand fiction; it has been my experience that, unless one has the name of the author (and few are well known here) Australian fiction is hard to find.