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Australia - Confessions of a reluctant expatriate... [The Sydney Morning Herald]

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  • Brenda Lana Smith R.af D.
    Confessions of a reluctant expatriate The Sydney Morning Herald http://www.smh.com.au:80/news/0011/01/text/features10.html Confessions of a reluctant
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2000
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      Confessions of a reluctant expatriate
      The Sydney Morning Herald
      http://www.smh.com.au:80/news/0011/01/text/features10.html

      Confessions of a reluctant expatriate

      Date: 01/11/2000

      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
      hand.

      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
      Nations.

      "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
      asked her."

      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
      course, Canberra.

      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
      acceptable".

      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
      Gras time.

      "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
      setback.

      "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.

      END

      Kindly appreciate that Brenda Lana Smith R.af D. had no editorial input
      whatsoever in the above...
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