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Malouf ponders the meaning of identity

Books & Poetry

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The 13 pieces collected in A First Place cover 30 years of David Malouf’s responses to invitations he received to consider place and identity, often specifically in relation to Australia. The book, published to mark the author’s 80th birthday and recently released in hardback, is mostly a delight, even through occasional passages of fairly basic historical exposition.

What unites the various parts is essentially twofold. Firstly, there is the expected singularity of authorship, which necessarily shifts its gaze over the years but retains a link to Malouf’s upbringing and experiences. That tells us a great deal about the man, while reminding us how things have changed in our own time.

Secondly, there is the fact that many of these works are beautiful examples of reflection through writing, and may prod the reader to meditate on the manner of expressing their own lives. Numerous biographers in that swelling area of self-publishing, for instance, could do well to take notice.

If you want to add a third element, let’s just say that they make a damned good read.

All of the works in A First Place were written to be part of the public discourse about aspects of belonging and identity. Some might claim there is too little about the situation of the Indigenous peoples, or that what is present on this score could be more strident. That does not seem to be in Malouf’s nature. As with his prose and poetry, the point in some of Malouf’s essays is offered less directly, less stridently. This is my experience, he seems to say, what is yours?

Few would fail to recognise the contribution that Malouf has made to Australian literature, for his craftsmanship in creative writing and the way he has drawn attention to how Australian identity is both forged and perceived. He has excelled in novels, short stories, the novella, essays and autobiography. In all of them, but especially these last two, it is possible to see him working through concerns of who we are and how we have changed our way of seeing that.

As far as we can say a national identity does exist, its character is best tested at the level of the individual. It is reckoned by what we each see portrayed and what we are told about our fellow Australians, but mostly by how we live now.

Malouf’s forewords and essays and lectures gathered here add to the conversation part of this in a vital way. They nudge us towards a personal pondering and open debate on what makes us different, and perhaps also towards discussing what would make us better people.

A First Place, by David Malouf, is published by Knopf, $29.99.

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