The Paris Review

Who Gets to Be Australian?

David Malouf. Photo: Conrad Del Villar. © Conrad Del Villar.

There he is, in his fat golden tie, accepting the honor of his lifetime (so far). In his steady, high-pitched voice, David Malouf delivers his Neustadt Lecture at the University of Oklahoma, under the aegis of World Literature Today. He speaks of “the power of language as a means of structuring, interpreting, remaking experience; the need to remap the world so that wherever you happen to be is the center.” Later, he describes himself as “a writer whose immediate world and material happen to be Australian.”

Happen to be. In the precise, lapidarian chiselings of Malouf’s prose, this repetition takes on special significance. Happen, as in deed, but also as in happenstance. Something occurs and something is. This is the accepted order.

What occurs—in this instance—is Australianness. And here, at this point of deep concurrence, Malouf and I most meaningfully part ways.

*

Concurrence first. For his Complete Stories, a collection that gathers up at least three decades of work in the short form, Malouf picks his epigraph from Pascal’s Pensées:

When I consider the brevity of my life, swallowed up as it is in the eternity that precedes and will follow it, the tiny space I occupy and what is visible to me, cast as I am into a vast infinity of spaces that I know nothing of and which know nothing of me, I take fright, I am stunned to find myself here rather than elsewhere, for there is no reason why it should be here rather than there, and now rather than then.

There is, in Malouf’s work, an innate awareness of the arbitrariness of things. An awareness that each of us—and what art we might make—is. This is the first, and prerequisite, principle of moral awareness. For first-worlders, especially, it slows us from thinking we deserve what we’ve merely happened into: our bodies and brains, with what faculties they possess; our genealogical, cultural, and linguistic inheritances; our situation in place and time, with its appurtenant advantages in health, education, and technology; our array of advantages themselves.

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