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Book review: “Island and Otherland", by Noel Henricksen

La république des lettres —

Island and Otherland, by Noel Henricksen. Melbourne: Educare, 2003. Paperback, A$29.95.

Within the publishing arena, Christopher Koch, one of Australia’s leading novelists, stands out somewhat as an enigma. Indeed, this Tasmanian-born writer whose books are frequently put on national curricula (hence the six volumes of study notes dealing with most of his novels) does not enjoy the same academic recognition in Australia as his contemporaries – David Malouf, Peter Carey, Elizabeth Jolley, Jessica Anderson, Thomas Keneally, and so on, who have come under the scrutiny of monograph writers. And yet Christopher Koch’s work forms the subject of scores of scholarly essays and articles, three Masters theses and two comparative doctoral dissertations. However, it is perhaps no coincidence that interest in Koch’s fiction has been flagging since his 1996 Miles Franklin acceptance speech. Significantly enough, readers had to wait for an American journal to lift the veil on the academic malaise which resulted from Koch’s ‘ill-conceived attacks against institutionalized literary criticism, especially against deconstruction and postmodernism …’ (Antipodes 16: 2). In December 2002, European critic Andreas Gaile ventured the opinion that: ‘[t]his might even explain why so far academics and their scholarly journals have almost completely ignored [Out of Ireland]’. For similar reasons, one assumes that scholars may not have been motivated to produce a substantial book-length critical study. In such context, Educare – a small Melbourne-based educational firm – purports to pay this long-awaited tribute to Koch with Noel Henricksen’s Island and Otherland.

In his book, The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination, Richard Nile remarks that ‘Australian publishers have been slow to understand the interest in literary theory, and extremely cautious in their development of a body of critical monographs dealing with Australian writing. Publishing orthodoxy is that students do not buy critical texts’(194). What is more, he adds that in terms of saleability biographies are by far more attractive than monographs based on literary theories. If commercial appeal is the prime motivation for Henricksen’s Island and Otherland, it is understandable that the book’s eleven chapters interweave Koch’s life with his works. Unsurprisingly, the first few chapters challenge Koch’s sense of privacy by focusing on his family, background, and experiences to familiarize readers with this novelist. In some respects, a monograph that features exclusive biographical details along with rich historic iconography is a suitable method to study Koch’s place in Australian literature. Yet, by using such an approach, Henricksen – a dedicated Australianist – is unfortunately doing Koch a disservice.

Instead of displaying the richness and complexity of Koch’s prose through textual analysis (which he only fully achieves in chapter ten), Henricksen persistently quotes a chorus of praise from reviewers before discussing the books to establish their quality authoritatively. For example, Henricksen selects the best critical lines about Across the Sea Wall from the press, while carefully understating the unfavourable reception of the 1965 edition: ‘Critical response in Australia was mixed’ (107), he notes, before acknowledging ‘[m]ost other Australian literary critics, however, were unimpressed’(108). Going back over the Miles Franklin acceptance speech controversy, Henricksen quotes Les Murray who once said: ‘I don’t think any criticism should be done without love’(287). Well, nor should love blind the critic. By turning his biased chronological account into a hagiography, Henricksen sets himself to the same myth-making duty Raymond Barton is given in Highways to a War.

In his elegant prose, Henricksen has chosen to ‘tell’ and not to ‘show’. For instance, mention is made of Koch’s poetry and lyricism but readers are not shown how the novelist achieves such poetic effects (as stylistics is left out). Save for occasional theological and historical investigations (Henricksen’s forte) and a dazzling interpretation of Out of Ireland (a popularized version of his article in Australian Literary Studies), Henricksen appears to master the art of epigones, namely, synthesis and paraphrasing. Unfortunately, the original penetrating insights in his published articles are too rare to be found in this book. Comparative statements are scarce, while extensive and copious quoting leads to padding; postcolonial concerns are almost overlooked, psychoanalytical approaches are sketchy and his arguments generally lack cogency.

On the face of it, Henricksen’s Island and Otherland is a handsome production which can be taken as a good and clear introduction to Koch’s output, though it fails to engage with literary debates. Issues about faction, realism, naturalism, historical novels or romans à clef are simply not tackled. Like an archaeologist on a painstaking search, Noel Henricksen delves into Koch’s life to produce clues about Koch’s inspirations, but he omits to show us to what effect they have been incorporated into his books. In this study of Koch’s eight books (Chinese Journey, a poetic travelogue co-written with Nicholas Hasluck in 1985, is a glaring omission), Henricksen has unwittingly downplayed Koch’s creativeness, reducing his books to mere by-products of life experiences and History. Educare sought to fill the publication gap in the Australian Writers’ collection; the gap has narrowed but it’s still there, begging for some more rewarding exegesis to emerge. By releasing such a book, is Educare hinting that there is no market for in-depth and theoretically-informed author studies in Australia?

Source: Vernay, Jean-François. “Island and Otherland, by Noel Henricksen”, Australian Literary Studies 21 : 2 (St Lucia, Queensland), October 2003, pp.227-8.

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