The Australian author Alex Miller's latest book, Autumn Laing has, like all of his other novels, its basis in real people and real events. In this case it is the artistic community that gathered at Heide in the late 1930s and 1940s in a farmhouse that was then on the outskirts of suburban Melbourne. The novel is centred on the complex relationships between Sunday and John Reed - the owners of Heidi - and Sidney Nolan and his first wife Elizabeth. In the novel the Reeds become Autumn and Arthur Laing while the Nolan's become Pat and Edith Doolan.
Although real life events and situations are scattered through the novel, Miller insists on it being a work of fiction. Just as a play like Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra has survived not because it is an accurate historical account of the collapse of the Roman Republic, but because it is an exploration of passion and power, so Miller's characters take on a life of their own – through the transmutation of fiction we can feel, touch even smell these characters and explore the working out of their passions, commitments and artistic endeavour in a way that would be denied the historian.
The novel begins on New Years Day, 1991. The 85 year old Autumn Laing, now ageing disgracefully, is still living in the same farmhouse in which the artists used to gather fifty years earlier. She thinks that a few days earlier she has seen Edith – the wife whose marriage Autumn destroyed through her affair with Edith's artist husband – and this unsettles her.
Rather than die unredeemed, Autumn decides that Edith, who has usually been written out of Pat Doolan's history, must be given her own story: 'To forget Edith and her child is to lie to ourselves about the nature of our art and what it is we worship in it. Here she is then, Edith Black. The best I can do for you. A realist portrait. Realism, that most difficult of styles, filled as it is with intricacy and contradiction.'
In allowing Autumn to tell this story (Miller has said that he wrote it at 'her' insistence) Miller seamlessly alternates between chapters of Autumn's monologues in 1991 and chapters that are a third-person narrative of the Melbourne artistic community in the thirties and forties. This technique only heightens the reader's involvement in the story as we see it from both the 'inside' and 'outside'.
Miller's subtle use of language also draws the reader into the story. At the start, as Autumn reflects on her meeting with Edith, she writes: 'They are all gone. Everyone one of them. Except Edith his first. The laughter (I almost wrote slaughter) and passion are spent.'
The idea of slaughter in the midst of other's joy and laughter re-appears later. In a narrative section of the novel, Autumn and Arthur have driven to Pat's home by the sea. Edith, now pregnant with Pat's child, is sick in bed. Autumn and Pat are about to take advantage of Edith's illness by going to the beach together, an incident which is to be the start of their affair.
Autumn is sitting beside Edith's bed and as she is leaving kisses Edith on the forehead: 'A faint imprint of Autumn's lipstick on Edith's forehead reminded Autumn of the pinkish export stamp on New Zealand legs of lamb'. The 'slaughter' of the quiet Edith's marriage is about to begin.
Other characters are also finely drawn. Arthur stands by Autumn through her affair, just as John Reed did in real life. But was this in effect a weakness: 'Arthur was self conscious about the tendency of his cherished good manners to render his responses to people merely conventional and platitudinous … The problem, as he saw it, was to have good manners but not conceal himself behind them.'
As Arthur becomes aware of his wife's deepening involvement with Doolan he hesitates to face it directly. Rather his anxieties are displaced as he becomes concerned with a mysterious noise in the engine of his beloved Pontiac, a noise which no one else seems able to hear.
Alex Miller has always skilfully depicted women and men struggling to keep their integrity in the face of the challenges and vicissitudes life throws up. In the case of Autumn Laing a fusing of the real life situation of Heidi and Miller's artistic imagination has created a masterpiece.
PS: For fascinating conversations with Alex Miller two interviews from the Radio National Book show can be recommended: one on his book Landscape of Farewell and a recent one on Autumn Laing.
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