Lohrey, (Contemporary Australian Writers series) by Julieanne Lamond

Literary criticism of an author’s work is not my usual fare these days, though I read a lot of it in my university days.  I credit it with my ongoing love of literature because it showed me that there is always more to discover in a book that you admire.   These days, I’m more likely to enjoy a literary biography, but I could not resist a copy of Julieanne Lamond’s Lohrey, the first in MUP’s Contemporary Australian Writers series. Though reading it will reveal some of Amanda Lohrey’s personal life, it is not a biography, it is a delicious survey of her fiction, and was such an intense pleasure to read that it made me appreciate the Lohrey novels all over again.  Scholars of literature in general and Australian literature in particular will be champing at the bit to get their hands on Lohrey, but for general readers—whether the completists among us who’ve read everything or those who’ve just discovered Lohrey since she won the Miles Franklin Award, Lamond’s book is a treasure trove of insights into one of the best living authors in Australia. As regular readers know, I was up to page 4 of Lohrey when I jumped ship to read The Morality of Gentlemen, Lohrey’s debut novel from 1984.  My only hesitation in enthusing about it in my review was that while I’d had a copy on the TBR, it is now difficult to source.  I really hope that Lohrey triggers a reissue of this title because Morality is a superb example of a destabilising effect recurring in Lohrey’s fiction: it creates readerly confusion because the author disallows a point-of view.  Her fiction is always unsettling partly because there are multiple perspectives including assertive narrators who undercut the characters, and partly because she creates such irritating characters, who act in ways that we don’t approve of and yet we feel some sympathy for them. But, says Lamond, her broader concern is how our lives are impacted by the economic and political structures in which we live.   Morality, as I noted in my review, features detailed descriptions of the venues where events take place. In the chapter titled ‘The Politics of Renovation’, Lamond discusses the symbolism of houses which are also plot devices in Lohrey’s fiction. Renovating recurs as both a literal activity and an enactment of philosophical ideas and emotional states. Referring to an older meaning of renovation, Lamond provides a fresh insight: it also means “to cause to be spiritually reborn [or[ to invest with a new and higher spiritual nature.” That is what the central character is struggling with in The Philosopher’s Doll, (2004); A Short History of Richard Kline, (2015); and in The Labyrinth, (2020) too. For middle-class characters and wealthy characters alike the home becomes a site of self-discovery and reinvention.  These processes are often accompanied by discomfort caused by the contradiction of desiring social mobility whilst feeling distaste for displays of such desire in others.  Richard Kline and his wife Zoe scoff at ‘the lingua franca of Sydney life: real estate’. (p.49) [LH: I find that these discomfiting emotions often provide the humour in Lohrey’s fiction.] In Chapter Two, ‘Free Solo’, Lamond explores the way Lohrey interrogates the competing expressions of masculinity in the wake of the growth of corporate culture in the 1980s in The Reading Group (1988, see my review.)  Lohrey doesn’t harp on about toxic masculinity or exclude them from her insights, she unpacks the way they behave.  In Camille’s Bread (1995); in Richard Kline and in The Labyrinth, what the reader witnesses is a desperate and dogged attempt for Lohrey’s characters to escape the ways in which they have been socialised to be men.   Many men in Lohrey’s novels are socialised into an expectation of unencumbered power and agency which they cannot enact, except through violence.  (p.79) What these men fear is the unthinking violence of their male role models. Readers of The Labyrinth will remember Jurko, the undocumented immigrant with whom Erica builds a wary friendship.  Jurko’s life is defined by a ferocious beating from his father; his response is to leave his home country and his profession and remake himself, on his own terms, in Australia.  He enters The Labyrinth like a bearded, older, Balkan version of Stephen from Camille’s Bread. Like Stephen, he is a man drawn to asceticism, damaged by his father, but now bedraggled, down to the bare bones of life. (p.79) Lohrey also shows from Morality onwards, how women are sidelined. She is brilliant, says Lamond, at detailing what it feels like to be belittled by everyday interactions between men. It was delicious to be reminded by Lamond of that scene in Camille’s Bread where Marita is thinking about the men in her life—and in the fiction she reads—who resist being ‘domesticated’. Contemplating this now, she is suddenly aware of a presence and looks up.  A large black cockroach has scurried out from under the bench and is poised beside the cooling rack …

Lohrey, (Contemporary Australian Writers series) by Julieanne Lamond

Literary criticism of an author’s work is not my usual fare these days, though I read a lot of it in my university days.  I credit it with my ongoing love of literature because it showed me that there is always more to discover in a book that you admire.  

These days, I’m more likely to enjoy a literary biography, but I could not resist a copy of Julieanne Lamond’s Lohrey, the first in MUP’s Contemporary Australian Writers series. Though reading it will reveal some of Amanda Lohrey’s personal life, it is not a biography, it is a delicious survey of her fiction, and was such an intense pleasure to read that it made me appreciate the Lohrey novels all over again. 

Scholars of literature in general and Australian literature in particular will be champing at the bit to get their hands on Lohrey, but for general readers—whether the completists among us who’ve read everything or those who’ve just discovered Lohrey since she won the Miles Franklin Award, Lamond’s book is a treasure trove of insights into one of the best living authors in Australia.

As regular readers know, I was up to page 4 of Lohrey when I jumped ship to read The Morality of Gentlemen, Lohrey’s debut novel from 1984.  My only hesitation in enthusing about it in my review was that while I’d had a copy on the TBR, it is now difficult to source.  I really hope that Lohrey triggers a reissue of this title because Morality is a superb example of a destabilising effect recurring in Lohrey’s fiction: it creates readerly confusion because the author disallows a point-of view.  Her fiction is always unsettling partly because there are multiple perspectives including assertive narrators who undercut the characters, and partly because she creates such irritating characters, who act in ways that we don’t approve of and yet we feel some sympathy for them. But, says Lamond, her broader concern is how our lives are impacted by the economic and political structures in which we live.  

Morality, as I noted in my review, features detailed descriptions of the venues where events take place. In the chapter titled ‘The Politics of Renovation’, Lamond discusses the symbolism of houses which are also plot devices in Lohrey’s fiction. Renovating recurs as both a literal activity and an enactment of philosophical ideas and emotional states. Referring to an older meaning of renovation, Lamond provides a fresh insight: it also means “to cause to be spiritually reborn [or[ to invest with a new and higher spiritual nature.” That is what the central character is struggling with in The Philosopher’s Doll, (2004); A Short History of Richard Kline, (2015); and in The Labyrinth, (2020) too.

For middle-class characters and wealthy characters alike the home becomes a site of self-discovery and reinvention.  These processes are often accompanied by discomfort caused by the contradiction of desiring social mobility whilst feeling distaste for displays of such desire in others.  Richard Kline and his wife Zoe scoff at ‘the lingua franca of Sydney life: real estate’. (p.49)

[LH: I find that these discomfiting emotions often provide the humour in Lohrey’s fiction.]

In Chapter Two, ‘Free Solo’, Lamond explores the way Lohrey interrogates the competing expressions of masculinity in the wake of the growth of corporate culture in the 1980s in The Reading Group (1988, see my review.)  Lohrey doesn’t harp on about toxic masculinity or exclude them from her insights, she unpacks the way they behave.  In Camille’s Bread (1995); in Richard Kline and in The Labyrinth, what the reader witnesses is a desperate and dogged attempt for Lohrey’s characters to escape the ways in which they have been socialised to be men.  

Many men in Lohrey’s novels are socialised into an expectation of unencumbered power and agency which they cannot enact, except through violence.  (p.79)

What these men fear is the unthinking violence of their male role models. Readers of The Labyrinth will remember Jurko, the undocumented immigrant with whom Erica builds a wary friendship. 

Jurko’s life is defined by a ferocious beating from his father; his response is to leave his home country and his profession and remake himself, on his own terms, in Australia.  He enters The Labyrinth like a bearded, older, Balkan version of Stephen from Camille’s Bread. Like Stephen, he is a man drawn to asceticism, damaged by his father, but now bedraggled, down to the bare bones of life. (p.79)

Lohrey also shows from Morality onwards, how women are sidelined. She is brilliant, says Lamond, at detailing what it feels like to be belittled by everyday interactions between men. It was delicious to be reminded by Lamond of that scene in Camille’s Bread where Marita is thinking about the men in her life—and in the fiction she reads—who resist being ‘domesticated’.

Contemplating this now, she is suddenly aware of a presence and looks up.  A large black cockroach has scurried out from under the bench and is poised beside the cooling rack … No matter what she does she is never rid of them and now she accepts that they will always be there; big, brutish, ugly and omnipresent. (p. 149 in Camille’s Bread, cited on p.83 in Lohrey.)

[LH: It was this quotation that sent me to second-hand booksellers for a copy of Camille’s Bread. I must have read a library copy of it rather than bought my own, and I simply must have it so that I can re-read it!]

The chapter titled ‘Fire’ explores the way Lohrey writes about our apprehension of crisis and its proximity and how the motif of fire raises questions of ethical and political responsibility for others.  Fire is a symbol and a plot device, and a metaphor for crisis more generally. Lohrey doesn’t write dystopias about the endgame of climate change; she uses the form of the realist novel to consider ecological and political agency.  In The Reading Group (1988) and in Vertigo (2009), Lohrey tackles climate change but also explores the causes of inaction.  She has a long-held interest in the causes and conditions of political inaction. 

Have I given you a taste of this wonderful book?  I haven’t discussed the pleasures of the chapter titled ‘Scenes of Reading’ nor the author’s interview with Lohrey because this book deserves to be widely read in its entirety — not just by those intrigued by Lohrey’s writing (and I haven’t even mentioned her short stories or her forays into non-fiction!) — but also as a masterclass in writing about writers.  Lamond is a writer in her own right: incisive, insightful, and often amusing.  

Forthcoming books in the series include readings on two more of our greatest authors, Gerald Murnane and Joan London.

Author: Julieanne Lamond
Title: Lohrey
Series: Contemporary Australian Writers 
Cover design by Evi O. Studio
Publisher: Miegunyah Press, an imprint of MUP (Melbourne University Press) 2022
ISBN: 9780522878936, pbk., 173 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP.