Picture of author.

Xavier Herbert (1901–1984)

Teoksen Capricornia tekijä

10+ teosta 523 jäsentä 12 arvostelua

Tietoja tekijästä

Includes the name: Xavier Herbert

Image credit: Darwin 1938, State Library of NSW.

Tekijän teokset

Capricornia (1943) 285 kappaletta
Poor fellow my country (1975) 152 kappaletta
Disturbing element (1976) 27 kappaletta
Seven Emus (1977) 19 kappaletta
Soldiers' Women (1964) 16 kappaletta
Dream Road (1977) 8 kappaletta
South of Capricornia (1990) 3 kappaletta

Associated Works

Australian Short Stories (1951) — Avustaja — 40 kappaletta
One World of Literature (1992) — Avustaja — 24 kappaletta

Merkitty avainsanalla




"Here we have different names for the stars".

This review will be rather lengthy. I mean, lengthy. It will spill over the Goodreads word limit and into the comments section. But, then again, Poor Fellow My Country is the longest single-volume novel in English ever written. So anything less would seem dismissive.

Born in 1901, Xavier Herbert embodied many of the most negative traits of Australian males of his generation. Aggressively nationalist, misogynistic even to his own wife, homophobic to the point of parody, extraordinarily vain; his list of attributes is a gourmet banquet of socially-endorsed machismo and toxic masculinity. My parents' friends can remember Herbert as a blustering figure in TV interviews of the '60s and '70s, establishing his own legacy by creating a series of myths and half-truths about himself. Although he had published one genuinely good novel, Capricornia (1938), Herbert's other works were underwhelming, but he remained a famous novelist in the public imagination due to his own efforts. By the time he published Poor Fellow My Country in 1975, at the age of 74, the book was a guaranteed bestseller, buoyed by the strong Commonwealth literary funding under the Whitlam government, which allowed for the hefty tome (1,453 pages!) to be subsidised, significantly reducing the cost in bookstores. Nevertheless, of the 70,000 copies the book sold within five years (a success in Australian literary terms), one must question how many people actually read the work cover-to-cover. Nobel Laureate Patrick White didn't make it to the end, and one contemporary made the expected joke: "poor fellow Xavier Herbert's typewriter".

Book One: Terra Australis ("Blackman's Idyll despoiled by White Bullies, Thieves, and Hypocrites")

We open in Australia's Northern Territory in 1936. In England, the new King lasts 10 months before abdicating to be with his divorced lover. In Germany, Hitler makes his first moves when - against the Treaty of Veresailles - the Nazis reclaim the Rhineland. 10,000 miles away, Australians watch these events in horror. Could there really be another Great War? Could the God-given British Empire ever crumble? Australians still regard themselves as British first, and the Government endorses that view. In January of 1936, Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs steps down; his appointment five years earlier had been a matter of public controversy with even King George opposing it. Why, you may ask? Because Isaacs was born in Australia. Many did not believe that a native-born person should hold such a key role in His Majesty's government; certainly not when a wonderful, special, perfect British aristocrat would have been available to do the job!

Yet times are also changing in Australia. The aeroplane has made the country feel less remote than ever before. The advent of film has led to a generation of young people as enamoured of the USA as they are of Great Britain. The generation of writers born after 1890 are beginning to direct Australian literature and theatre away from overseas concerns, attempting to complicate and explicate the Australian experience beyond the often crude bush poetry that typified 19th century Australian writing. A battle is looming for the souls and morals of the Australian people, from the ongoing concern about Australia's Communist Party to attempts to dilute the country's strict censorship laws on "obscene" foreign material, countered by government-sanctioned attempts at building nationhood and patriotism through acts such as the transplanting of Captain Cook's cottage from the UK to Melbourne's Fitzroy Gardens. And, although it will be a long time coming, the seeds of the Aboriginal self-determination movement are being planted, which will be formally announced in January 1938, on the sesquicentenary of white Australia. (The "my country" of the title is not, as one might assume, a reference to the modern nation of Australia, but to the Indigenous notion of country as in the particular area a person comes from and remains spiritually connected to.)

Something else happened in 1936 that is worth noting. The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, breathed its last. Hunters, encouraged by bounties, hastened its demise, no doubt helped by the introduction of dogs, and a reduction in habitat. If there were ever a symbol for all that has been lost since 1788 on the great landmass of Australia, the thylacine may just be it. Yes, the question of colonialism sits comfortably at the centre of Herbert's work.

Which brings me to the topic at hand. Book One of PMFC introduces us to Jeremy Delacy, a sixtysomething owner of a great estate in the Territory. We meet Jeremy hosting - somewhat reluctantly - the fiancee of the colonial-cum-corporate overlord of much of the surrounding area. Lady Lydia is a British Fascist and a white supremacist (although, she likes to say "let's not talk about politics"). Jeremy, on the other hand, burns with righteous anger. Anger at Australians who see themselves as less than their British counterparts. Anger at the rich and the landed gentry. Angry at white people for their greed, for their callous takeover of Aboriginal land. Anger, indeed, at anyone who is oppressed themselves - through class, gender, religion, or skin colour - yet continues to grovel and snivel before the oppressors. (His anger at an Irish immigrant who is also a sycophant to the British Empire is especially strong!) Herbert the novelist has very little time for the kind of Australians who would devote their existence to pretending they are in wet, cosy England, and not arid, open Australia. (There is no centre to a Commonwealth, notes one character, and yet has anyone - right up until the present day - ever really believed that?) And there is very little distinction between Herbert the novelist and Jeremy the character.

Jeremy has great reason to be angry. Despite being a member of the landed gentry himself, he holds a great affinity for the native people of the area. His second wife, Nanago, is Indigenous, and so is his beloved grandson, Prindy, the illegitimate offspring of Jeremy's son Martin and a native woman who works as a domestic. Jeremy's anger, which dominates the opening chapters of the novel, is mingled with a tendency to rhapsodise at length - no, I mean, at length - on history, religion, anthropology, culture, and any other subject that reaches his mind. Although his interlocutors - especially Lydia - challenge him, and Jeremy certainly has flaws, it is also clear that Herbert the mad professor is determined to share his endless political screeds with us. (Herbert's editor once said that it was his dream was to live long enough for the copyright to expire, so he could cut hundreds of pages of Jeremy, and reveal the true Great Australian Novel lurking within!)

"I hope these philosophical digressions don't spoil my story"

The first part of the novel dramatises a year in the life of Jeremy and his grey-eyed grandson Prindy, whose paths rarely cross, especially after the boy and his mother are sent northward to Port Palmeston (Herbert's fictional version of Darwin) in the aftermath of a tragic death with which they were inadvertently connected. In the racially-charged 1930s, the boy's "golden" skin renders him a thing of curiosity to white people, who find him handsome and impressive, but also something to be separated, isolated. He is too black to be given a defined role in society but not quite black enough to be dismissed outright. Conversely, Prindy's gradual discovery of his Aboriginal heritage is often checked by the reality that he doesn't quite fit there either. He is ultimately a lonely soul, even as a child, more delighted by his beloved "musics" (whether the ballads sung by an Indian immigrant or symphonies heard over the wireless) than he is by anything else. This solitude in the boy's personality especially sets him aside from his Indigenous people, since theirs is a culture predicated on complex and constant social engagement.

When the novel leaves Delacy in the background at last, it is fair to say that we lose our centre somewhat, but we are rewarded with a rich, undeniably Dickensian clutch of characters. Herbert delights in a range of caricatures of the vicious, outspoken, money-grubbing, colonial types with whom he had lived during his youth when he worked in the role of Protector of the Aborigines in the Northern Territory. From snotty doctors to sour anthropologists, dugong-like public prosecutors to ambitious reporters, Herbert fills his world with a delicious, quintessentially Australian cast. Sean Monahan, in his insightful critical text The Long and Winding Road, argues successfully that the seeming flaws in Herbert's structure can be explained as an attempt to write not what we think of as a novel, but what Northrop Frye described as an "anatomy", putting the book on par with such chimeras as Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and another Australian classic, Such is Life. (Herbert's strongest characters tend to be those he bases on real people and then simplifies cartoonishly, the character type common to anatomies, which E.M. Forster called "flat".)

Book Two: Australia Felix ("Whiteman's Ideal sold out by Rogues and Fools")

Book Two advances the action to late 1938. Prindy is growing up, the country is preparing for a seemingly inevitable war, and white Australians are endlessly debating who they'd rather: communists or fascists. One of the challenges of understanding the era's history is that Nationalism and Communism - words we see in 2020 as polar opposites - flirted uncomfortably with each other in the years between the wars. Communism, of course, is a left-wing ideology, yet it so easily tended towards Fascism if left unchecked, as we saw in the "great" Communist empires of the 20th century. Nationalism, meanwhile, seems to us very right-wing. But of course Nationalism is inherently the opposite of Imperialism. As a result, Australians who sought to extricate their country from the yoke of the Empire found their ideals crossing over with those who sought to raise the working classes and the dispossessed. It was a union that could never last, and unsurprisingly found common ground in the things both groups seemed to hate: mostly non-white people. The White Australia policy, which lasted from 1901 to the late 1960s, was supported by conservatives on grounds of white supremacy and a fear of sharing resources, and was supported by so-called progressives on grounds of, well, white supremacy and a fear of having jobs taken from workers. (Interestingly this was a key area of dissent against the Empire. After all, hundreds of millions of citizens of the Empire were brown and black; Australia was one of the few countries in which this was not the case.)

Into this challenging environment, enter Rifkah (Rebecca) Rosen, a Jewish "reffo" (that is, refugee) who has fled unspeakable horrors, including the loss of her entire family and forced sterilisation. Rifkah quickly develops a connection with this solitary, musical boy and his grandfather, who are now reunited. Her fondness for the land is threatened by the actions of Australian nationalists, and the virulent anti-communist sentiment which often conflated communists and Jews. Before long, all three of our central characters are being hounded by civilised society: Rifkah for her status, Prindy for his skin colour, and Jeremy for his outspoken views.

"Simply to learn to love [the land] enough to find something of what those it was stolen from feel for it... so as not to die feeling like an alien and a thief."

Some of the novel's strongest material takes place in Book Two, so let me pause here and examine some aspects of this fascinating work, before we examine the problems.

The scope of Poor Fellow My Country is staggering. Herbert takes great pleasure in exploring the rugged Australian wilderness, the Aboriginal customs, the hypocritical or self-serving attitudes of all of those on the station, from the top of the hierarchy to the dregs. The novel relishes the bush, contrasting the expectations of international or urban visitors with the liveliness of every moment. He contrasts peaceful scenes of two characters debating politics on a long, dusty drive, with the vibrant sequence of the Beatrice races, in which hundreds of people descend on the small town for a weekend of sociological insight. (Later in the novel, as War descends and capitalism gains ground, the yearly cycle of the Beatrice races is an effective symbol of the negative changes to come.) While I mentioned that the sections without Delacy feel like they have no centre, this seems to me a deliberate choice. In the chapters focused on white people alone, or on everyone, there is usually a dominant force, or two passionate personalities trying to triumph over the other. In the chapters where white people are absent, we get a sense of an alternative way of living, the more holistic, socialist way that existed before the whites came.

From my vantage point in 2020, the country - like the Western world - is engaged in a noisy debate about the lingering effects of colonialism and racism. So often we are told that people just didn't understand it back then but, as I learn more, I find this just isn't true. We may have more words to understand gender theory or intergenerational trauma, but there is very little our Indigenous or female or queer ancestors didn't understand. And, strikingly, this turns out to be true of the (far, far fewer) white people who listened also. Herbert details cultural practices such as name avoidance after someone has died, differences between - and even among - Aboriginal nations, and questions of land rights, language, and gendered racism. Jeremy Delacy is fully in favour of reparations being paid to Indigenous people - and I genuinely had no idea any white person would have written about this subject in 1975! On one of his rare trips to the big city, Jeremy finds himself in fierce debate with a group of wealthy people about paying a tax back to Aboriginal people to do with as they will. After deflecting the usual complaints about "they'd just spend it on drink" (well, isn't that their right if so?) and "they'd sit around not doing anything positive with their wealth ("like rich white Australians do?", Jeremy points out), we get to the crux of the matter. A reparation tax is about expunging a crime that sits at the heart of the idea of the Australian Federation.
[continued below]
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therebelprince | 4 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 24, 2023 |
A great novel, although one that must be read in context if it is to be read at all.

Released in the 150th anniversary year of Australian settlement by white people, and timed for one of the first major Aboriginal "Days of Mourning" (itself strategically linked to the white holiday Australia Day), Capricornia is an angry book. Angry about what white people have done to the natives of the land, angry about the system that has ground down not just Aboriginal but Chinese, Jewish, uneducated, poor, free-thinkers. Angry about the everyday acts of corruption and greed so often concealed behind paper-thin disguises that others choose not to interrogate so as not to upset their own worldview.

Xavier Herbert could be a very angry man on these topics, and when his own voice comes through - either in the narration or in the characters who are most clearly his mouthpieces - we get a sense of why this book riled many of the more conservative white people of the day. (A few months after Capricornia was published, there were calls to lynch a black man accused of raping two white women; Herbert - now a celebrity, if an iconoclastic one - responded with an article entitled Lynch 'em in which he put forward a bold and sarcastic argument noting how the occasional attacks of black upon white were seen as obscene crimes, while the daily acts of molestation committed by white men upon black women were accepted, or at the worst, merely tolerated. )

The novel brings together the key traditions of Herbert's literary life, namely the Dickensian mode, so clear in his peripatetic (not quite picaresque) narrative and his delight in small moments of wit and character insight amongst a broader canvas, and the bush yarn tradition embodied by Henry Lawson. But it is not - as someone once said of another of my favourite authors - merely "much incident and little wit". Herbert is endlessly amusing. He is a fascinating, engaging writer, who resounds off every single page. The narrative voice interjects, or turns sarcastic, or turns sentimental. Words, phrases, dialects, zig and zag in a cacophonous clangour. (One contemporary reviewer, punning on the original name of the Ballarat area "Australia Felix" which Herbert mentions several times, called the book "Australia Prolix". And he wasn't entirely wrong.) Whether describing the plight of one person in a barren landscape over several weeks, or a tightknit sequence in which a few dozen characters occupy a courthouse for one single afternoon, Herbert's skill rises to the occasion.

And although the characters - in the manner of both Dickens and the more superficial of Lawson's stories - usually represent types, their inability to engage in objective thought is a core part of Herbert's thesis. His ideology of humanity is much more cynical than Dickens'. Whereas this makes lack of dimensionality a flaw in the Englishman's narratives, it is a strength here. While I say his characters lack objective thought, they do not lack interiority. Their actions are always in keeping with themselves and their circumstances and what they believe to be their great insight and intellect. And the character of Norman Shillingsworth, as much as he is the generic Nicholas Nickleby hero, is utterly lovable and holds the centre of the book together with his naivete, compassion, bouts of temper, and the great gulf we come to recognise between his personhood and the "half-caste" stereotype with which he is saddled.

But, as we often must say of books that are now coming to the end of their first century, there are a couple of flaws. And, by golly, they're substantial. First of all (I won't harp on about it) this is a book about men. Miles Franklin, the great female Australian author, noted this in her review when the book was first released, sarcastically thanking Herbert for writing a "textbook for practicing feminists." While Tocky and Heather and Fat Anna and Ma McLash have their places in the narrative, they are ultimately mothers/wives/whores/objects, but this is very much in keeping with the world Herbert inhabited, and the boundaries of his own mind. Although Herbert was always self-consciously aiming for the literary, he came from the "Boy's Own" tradition, and many of his short stories that pre-date Capricornia fall easily into this zone. I recommend interested readers track down Frances De Groen's exquisite biography of Herbert for a greater understanding of this, and so much more.

But while that is an inherent flaw in the narrative, as notable in 1938 as it is today, the second challenge is harder. That exactly what made Herbert "progressive" for his age makes him confronting now. Characters use words and phrases we find utterly appalling when it comes to discussing race. Well, this we can live with; after all, they are the words of the characters whom Herbert is usually destroying with his pin-prick satire, not his own thoughts. Full-blooded Indigenous characters are left as stereotypes. Well, this is true, but so are the white people with the possible exception of Oscar. The problem lies more in Herbert's underlying ideology, which was - in short - tied to a sense of alienation, even rejection from Britain, the mother country, and his idea, popular in the early 20th century, that black people were honest and true, perhaps more true than whites, but ultimately doomed by the mere facts of evolution and cultural growth. What made Herbert challenging to his countrymen was that he also thought white people were, to no small degree, feckless and horrible. He believed that mixed-race people seemed to be the solution, but in a worryingly racist way by our standards where he links "blood" to identity, and certainly feels that mixed-race people have a nobility that their "full-blooded" compatriots lacked. It's messy, but again I direct you to the biography and other contextual documents to understand that. Reading this as an historical document published during one of the first years for the Aboriginal rights movement, which would have its climaxes in the 1960s, 1980s and (we hope) the first half of the 21st century, is to delight in its sweep of the magnificent land, in Herbert's cruel attacks on a very cruel people, the moments of truth that are found in the discussion on race and humankind, and simply as a fantastic story.

I continue my journey to find the "Great Australian Novel" and I must ultimately conclude that, for all its incredible strengths, Capricornia is not it. It's closer than almost anything I've yet read, in that it captures a country at a moment while also betraying something baked-in to the premise of that country across time. But Herbert doesn't quite reach what I'm after. Instead, as the late poet Mudrooroo says in his 1990 introduction to the book, I'm going to call this the "Great Australian Yarn". It deserves that title, unequivocally.
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therebelprince | 6 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 24, 2023 |
Very long but interesting tale using a lot of historical fact about the treatment of aborigines during the inter -war period of 20th century as well as Australia's relationship with England/Britain, America and the attitude to Australian resources, environment and politics.Bit preachy at times and certainly poorly proof-read as many spelling errors.
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ElizabethCromb | 4 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Sep 16, 2020 |
At 1443 pages, Xavier Herbert’s masterwork Poor Fellow My Country took a month to read. I set myself a target of 50 pages or so each day, and interspersed the reading with other books to (literally) lighten the load. My hardback copy weighs nearly 2 kilos, and it measures 23.5 x 16 x 6cm, which makes it hard to hold in the hand, but it’s heavy going in more ways than one. The book is dense with characters; it alludes to real people and events that involve guesswork about who they are; plot points are resurrected many pages after their first mention; and there are chunks of polemical rants that seem to go on and on forever. The reader needs stamina, tolerance and patience to read Poor Fellow My Country. It is an intensely political novel, and what many Australian readers may find confronting is that Herbert makes no secret of his contempt for his fellow Australians.
Poor Fellow My Country

First edition, 1975

Yet Wikipedia lists Poor Fellow My Country among its “notable” books published for that decade, and it won the Miles Franklin Award in 1975. IMO that’s not because the novel has great prose, or wonderful characters or lyric qualities or even a very good plot. It won, I think, because it’s one of the few books I’ve read that tackles the issue of Australian identity.

Poor Fellow My Country is a lament for the Australia that Herbert thought it could have been, an Australia that could reconcile the dispossession of its indigenous people and throw off its colonial apron strings.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/05/20/poor-fellow-my-country-by-xavier-herbert/
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anzlitlovers | 4 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jul 17, 2016 |



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