Australia - Confessions of a reluctant expatriate... [The Sydney Morning Herald]
- Confessions of a reluctant expatriate
The Sydney Morning Herald
Confessions of a reluctant expatriate
Frank Moorhouse never set out to spend his life outside Australia - unlike
the main character of his latest novel. Simon Mann reports.
We're at the Groucho Club, a hangout of the literary set in London's Soho.
Frank Moorhouse joined a few years ago "when they were still touting for
members ... there's a two-year waiting list now", he gloats, dry martini in
We've yarned about all sorts of things, from the machinations of
international diplomacy and the moral dilemma of economic sanctions, to
transsexuals and yellow silk nighties, the Australian bush, Germaine Greer
and the rather sorry episode of the Miles Franklin Award.
And it's all because of one woman, Edith Campbell Berry, a sassy young
Australian diplomat working at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s
and '30s. She is, in fact, a figment of Moorhouse's imagination - the
central figure in his two epic volumes about the League, Grand Days and the
just-published 700-page Dark Palace.
We've talked all about Edith - the way her career mirrors the fortunes of
the League, its early optimism and its subsequent decline into the gathering
gloom of a Europe hurtling again into war; her no-nonsense Australianness;
her insecurities in an uncertain political world; her affair with the
bisexual Ambrose Westwood, whose attachment to the Molly Club and its
colourful clientele challenges her moral roots, put down in the red earth of
Jaspers Brush, NSW.
But Moorhouse is agog. He's been asked whether he intends pursuing her story
further. What? He's just spent a decade of his life building this
two-pillared literary colossus and is horrified at the thought of embarking
on a third. What on earth more is there to tell about Edith? he asks,
exasperated. But the inquiry flatters. He recalls that his editor in London
emailed him after he had delivered the final manuscript, raving about it,
and adding: "We look forward to hearing much more about Edith."
He concedes now: "Well, originally we talked about three books in this
series, but once I finished Grand Days I realised that it fell pretty well
into two parts - the grand days and the dark days, the great optimism and
investment, and then the gradual crash of the institution ... "[Dark Palace]
finishes at the first day of the United Nations [in 1945]. The War and the
history wrote that final chapter for me."
Edith, clearly, has got under her creator's skin. "Sometimes she drives me
crazy," he says. She first bobbed up in Forty-Seventeen, his
semi-autobiographical tale about a 40-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl,
written in 1989. She's a very minor character, working for an Australian
government mission looking at atomic energy, and, on a trip to Israel, she
casually remarks to a young associate that she once worked for the League of
"And the guy shows no interest at all," says Moorhouse, apparently
astonished at the failings of his own creation. "In some way, Grand Days and
Dark Palace are the answers to some of the questions that he should have
Moorhouse is 61, the author of 12 books of fiction, countless crisp short
stories as well as non-fiction works. He recently edited a volume about
Australian prime ministers, and has knocked out film and TV scripts.
He spent last year as writer-in-residence at Cambridge as he put the
finishing touches to Dark Palace, though research took him much farther
afield - mostly to Geneva but also to France, Washington, New York and, of
Though he has spent a good part of the past decade abroad, Moorhouse says he
is not an expat. His absence has been "project-driven", he says. "I didn't
do what Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes and Clive James did. I didn't leave
in my twenties to go and start another life in another country."
But he is clearly interested in the expatriate condition. He reveals
something of the phenomenon in Dark Palace when Edith returns from Geneva
for a rest and senses that she's outgrown Australia, symbolised by her
repulsion at the bush, "grim in its barren repetition". "Was there no way in
to Australia for her now? Australia felt closed for her ... Or did it mean
something more dastardly? That she had abandoned her country of birth?"
Unlike his heroine, Moorhouse loves the bush; he's been exploring it since
he was a boy, in an "elaborate and life-long" relationship that he hopes to
define in his next book.
His non-conformity with "the view from afar" was starkly evident in July
when he shared a platform with Greer and others at a London literary
festival and ended up in a public spat with the feminist author over the
issue of Aboriginal reconciliation.
Greer had broken down and sobbed when discussing the plight of Aborigines.
When Moorhouse protested, saying he was embarrassed, Greer told him to
"luxuriate in your embarrassment".
But as he explains now: "That night I just felt she was totally out of touch
and the tone was wrong, and again it was an example of us [whites] laying
down what should happen to the indigenous people.
"In Australia, we've now moved to the stage of at least listening and, as I
said that night on stage, if we're going to talk about this subject let's
get three indigenous people up here instead of two expats and one sort of
vagrant telling Australia what to do about the Aboriginal question."
He blames the media, in part, for turning some experts in defined fields
into "experts on all aspects of Australia ... but this is no longer
Moorhouse is reluctant to condemn the failure that the League of Nations
inevitably proved to be. Is its successor any better? Well, put it this way,
he says, referring to the fractured Balkans and the warring of ethnicities.
"I think I now accept the hypothesis that bad politics can make reasonably
workable situations unworkable".
He describes Grand Days and Dark Palace - his "nine-year study tour" - as
his mother work. He'd completed his "father work", The Electrical
Experience, years before.
In many ways, he says, Edith Campbell Berry is the personification of his
mother. "Essentially the books are an expression of the female part of my
persona." And the League of Nations "was a feminine sort of organisation, a
nurturing organisation that was traditionally for peace, and the ambulance
and hospital of the world."
Ambrose is a manifestation of League motherhood, who joyously accepts
Edith's gift of a feminine yellow silk nightdress, and wears it in bed with
her. He is not the type who would be found gyrating atop a float at Mardi
"Essentially I wanted him to be palatable, if you like," says Moorhouse.
"I'm not putting the case for transsexuals, but I think he's closer to the
reality in terms of transsexuality."
For all his achievement, Moorhouse embarks on his roadshow in Australia this
month as nervously as he might have set out with a first slender offering
three decades ago. It's been a hell of a journey, during which he sank at
times into "darkness and confusion". "I was drowning," he admits. "I thought
I was crashing against the rocks time and time again ... I lost my nerve for
a long time on Dark Palace."
His anxiety came despite acclaim for Grand Days. But the Miles Franklin
farce in 1994, when the judges decided the work was ineligible for the prize
because too little of the action was set in Australia, was an undeniable
"At the time I cracked hardy and I made a lot of jokes," Moorhouse says.
"But I found that personally devastating. I thought, 'My God, what's going
on? I can't see how that works.' Certainly none of the reviewers or
columnists thought it was a rational decision."
Dark Palace is published this week by Knopf, $39.45. Herald/Dymocks literary
luncheon with the author on November 9. Bookings on 9449 4366.
Kindly appreciate that Brenda Lana Smith R.af D. had no editorial input
whatsoever in the above...