How not to make an Impac

The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf Chatto, pounds 14.99; It's lucky David Malouf isn't trying to earn a living as a comedian, says Christopher Hawtree
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The Independent Culture
An unwritten rule of literary discourse is that one does not ask whether anybody has noticed the extraordinary resemblance between David Malouf and Groucho Marx. No need to ask whether they are by any chance related. If Malouf were on piece-rate at gag-writing, he would be in penury. As it is, his way with language has recently netted him the jackpot on that Irish sweepstake, the Impac Prize.

Good for him, but who really thrills to his work? Limpid, lyrical, subtle, poetic, enigmatic, finely-honed: careless reviewers, given to stringing adjectives in clumps of three, so often use these terms when describing his fiction that one might appear a curmudgeon in finding it atrocious.

In 20 years of writing novels, after devoting almost as long to inert poetry, he has never shown any flair for character and narrative. And so it is with The Conversations at Curlow Creek. Once again we are in remote, 19th-century Australia, this time the night before the execution of Daniel Carney, who is being guarded by Adair, another exile from Ireland. As is so often the way of prisoner and guard, a strange alliance forms - a variant on Malouf's male-bonding theme. Common roots emerge. Adair's occupation is the result of an uneasy life as a foster-child ambiguously involved with his brother and a neighbour, the sultry Virgilia. Or so it seems. As always, Malouf's narrator is so to the fore that events and character are mired in sub-Proustian reflection and one-word paragraphs.

Only in Johnno and Child's Play was there any drive. One was an account of two oddly-matched adolescent friends and the other preparations for an assassination, but even these prove insubstantial. Child's Play is distinctly inferior to The Day of the Jackal, a novel whose author has evidently looked at the world around him. Avowed poeticism need not lose a grasp upon reality, but The Conversations at Curlow Creek takes place in no world, past or present. It goes beyond rumination to vapouring. One paragraph concerns an old Irishman who has built a series of fountains "that struck up as you approached, through a clockwork mechanism, a set of minuets and Turkish marches, and when you got close enough shot a jet of water in your face."

This is not precisely-engineered prose (do visitors themselves go through the clockwork mechanism?), but one gets the point. Then comes the one- word paragraph: "Clockwork." What is going on here?

Why didn't he simply continue with the next, one-sentence paragraph? Even this - "Adair loved the part that clocks played in the life of the Park" - would have been more effective if run into the next one, a serviceable account of these timepieces. On and on it goes. Rhetorical questions tumble pell-mell, interrupted only by such lumbering observations as "certain spaces, with their shadows and secrecies, seem inevitably associated in our minds with particular forms of feeling, so much so that we think of them as their perfect counterpart; if they were different, if the light that filled them had a different quality, or fell at a different angle, what we feel would be different; or so it seems."

This sentiment, cod-Marcel rather than genuine Adair, could occur anywhere in Malouf's novels which, whatever their setting in time and place, never leap free of their creator's mind. Turned in on himself, Malouf unblushingly offers this on behalf of the hapless Adair: "more insistent than his love of justice, or his will to achieve it, was the need to relieve himself savagely of the vision of that girl's thighs, whose light was so much more dazzling than the light off any page, and the darkness between them so close to a form of darkness in himself that he clung to and would not relinquish." Not only is this the worst sentence in any seriously-intended novel since the war, but one must question Malouf's much-vaunted perspicacity. Strictly for reasons of literary justice, six Virgilia-like women recently agreed to have this novel tested against their thighs. None of these, even the healthy-eaters', outshone the paper - and 170 years ago, it would have been rather brighter than that foisted on us by publishers nowadays.