Monday, August 1, 2011

D'Arcy Niland

August, 2011:  I went to Cowra with no book, so had the pleasure of picking out one from my grandparents' shelves.  As I had just been reading about Ruth Park, and the Australian novelist for whom she was leaving New Zealand, I chose The Shiralee (1955), by D'Arcy Niland.  
I don't have The Shiralee here with me, so I have to write about it from memory, which is probably a good thing (seeing as I presently have a back-log of 'Books Of The Moment' to write about).  It's a story about a freedom-loving swagman/itinerant worker, Macauley, who unexpectedly gets lumped with his 4-year-old daughter, Buster.  He is unwilling to change his ways; the story follows his gradual compromising, and the increase of happiness that comes to him in exchange for taking on the burden, or shiralee (another name for a swag), of a child.  It's a simple, archetypal story about 'freedom versus attachment' - themes that I, for one, never tire of puzzling over - but it is made unique by the voice it gives to Macauley.  
Macauley is an ultra-masculine man, who expresses himself by action, not words, and is therefore a difficult subject to make the bearer of a written story.  These are men who frequently appear in stories (or more often, films) as the object rather than the subject; they are useful protagonists, as they so readily do things, and cause plot to advance, but few novel-readers or movie-goers would identify with them, would expect to be guided through a story by one of them.  The people who would identify with them aren't often, I'm afraid, reading novels.  Ethan Frome has a similarly inarticulate main-man, but I reckon Niland does it better than Wharton.  Niland shows the reader Macauley's thought-process, in all its rough, simple language and broad strokes, in its lack of detail, in its cruelty and every-man-for-himselfishness, and yet without leaving Macauley looking like a brutish Neanderthal or a lump of stone.  As an inveterate lover of this type of man, it was a great insight for me to read of Macauley's thoughts and feelings - so different to mine!  So impossible for me ever to understand!  
One passage I partially remember is when he is taking shelter from a downpour under a bridge, and thinking about the woman who served him in a bakery.  He is tormented with sexual frustration, and finally thinks (to paraphrase), "Leave it at that: he was a man, he wanted a woman.  Leave it at that."*
A passage that made me "well up" was when he meets up with a crazy old fellow with a few verbal tics, who nevertheless understands Macauley's type and gives him some advice, which will sound hackneyed when I put it down here without a context, and without Niland's straightforward language: it's all very well to keep on the move, but isn't this almost an act of despair, rather than an exercising of your freedom?  Isn't it because there's nowhere you want to be, nothing you want to be doing, isn't it a fleeing from, rather than an aspiring to?  Instead, find something you like and stick to it!  (Sorry, D'Arcy Niland, to Musak your beautifully-couched sentiment.)  Macauley reacts to this piece of advice not by moving into a little cottage and becoming a potato farmer - Niland never sacrifices his man for the sake of a moral - but by investing in an ancient horse and cart, and otherwise keeping up his itinerant ways.  
Another thing that I loved about The Shiralee was its lack of materialism.  Macauley doesn't have a tent - he has a bit of tarpaulin.  He doesn't have special walking boots.  He doesn't have a pram for Buster, or one of those baby-backpacks.  He makes her walk.  And when she starts to fall asleep walking, he picks her up and carries her.  It's good for us - we live in a time of great dependency - to read something that reminds us that all we need to live is our body.  We don't need equipment, a licence, or to have done a course.  We don't actually need money.  We certainly don't need mobile reception!

*In Cowra with my grandfather's bookshelf and my computer.  I feel the obligation to transcribe the passages as they are, putting my paraphrasing to shame.  Here's the bit about sexual frustration:
He twisted his hands with tension, but it was going from him, and he was feeling easier, and in a little while he was all right, quiet and reasoning.  He took a look at himself and he stood by what he saw.
I'm a man, he thought.  And I want a woman.  That's straight.  I wouldn't deny it before God himself.  If I didn't want one I'd start to think there was something the matter with me.  I want a woman all right.  Leave it at that.  For all the good it is thinking about it, I might as well be docked.  Leave that as it is, too.  I don't have to go on like a pimply-faced whore-chaser, do I?
Here's the conversation between Mac and Desmond, the philosophical crackpot:
Desmond suddenly said to him, "Do you know where you're going?"
"I don't mean going away tomorrow, or the day after, and so on.  I mean do you know where your life's going?"
Macauley looked puzzled for a moment.  He shrugged.  "Who does?  Do you?"
"I have a fair idea.  But I don't think you follow me.  I'll put it this way: Why do you move about?  Carry on the life you do?"
"Here and there and all over the place like a fly, you mean?"  Macauley sighed, gazing into the fire.  "Some people can move slow and get on all right, I don't know, I never could.  All my life, something's been biting me - urging me on."
"Yes, but where to, that's my point."
"How do I know?" Macauley said.  "Does it matter?"
"Listen!" Desmond exclaimed.  "Hear that river?  There's water coming from somewhere and going somewhere and so on.  It flows on a set course for thousands of miles.  It's not only getting away from something, it's getting to something.  It's getting away from the mountains and getting to the ocean.  Well, I'll tell you something.  That's the was a man's life should be and so on."
"Why?" Macauley asked.
"Well, otherwise there's no purpose.  A man is right to get away from evil, from trouble, and the things that are bad for him.  But he can spend all his life running away from them.  He should stop and think and so on.  Then he should pick something that will better him, that is good for him, and try to achieve it.  Then he's running towards something.  See what I mean?"
Macauley nodded his understanding.  "But who's talking?" he said.
"What I just said," Desmond replied, "I never thought of it till just a few months ago.  It took me all those years and so on to find it out.  And it's too late for me to start doing anything about it now."

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