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To the Islands – Andy Stows away with a forgotten Aussie classic

June 5, 2010

Randolph Stow hasn’t written a novel since 1984. This is a bit of a tragedy, I think, because he’s a wonderful writer. His first two novels, A Haunted Land and The Bystander, have been out of print for decades, as far as I can tell. The six novels he wrote between 1958 – when To the Islands was published – and 1984 may have been in and out of print over the years but seem to be available today.

Stow wrote To the Islands in his early 20s and revised it in his late 40s. I read it in my late teens and the version I read then was the unrevised one, although the revised version had been available for some years. The version I re-read on a boat on the Mediterranean off the coast of Turkey last month (did I mention I’ve been on holidays?) was the revised version. I remember little 0f what I read the first time but what I remember is still here. The heat. The isolation. The desolation. The overpowering claustrophobia of the Outback. The meaningless of faith (Western faith, at least).

The last line.

“My soul,” he whispered, over the sea-surge, “my soul is a strange country.”

Interestingly, after publishing To the Islands Stow was accused of trying to imitate Patrick White’s Voss – a book Netty and I read and admired last year, a book published a year before this one. Stow makes the point in the preface to the revised edition that Voss was not available in Australia at the time To the Islands was submitted to its publishers, although that doesn’t necessarily mean Stow was not familiar with it – he travelled widely, and Voss, a quintessentially Australian novel, was first published in the UK. Still, To the Islands didn’t remind me of Voss until the parallel was drawn to my attention. Ignoring the century and half a continent that separate the action in each book, Islands is infinitely less grandiose, much more accessible, arguably less ambitious and mercifully shorter than White’s masterpiece. They cover vaguely similar ground philosophically but Stow is a much more generous human being than White and his characters, desperately, fatally flawed though they may be, are much more likable. White’s writing is more consistently superior but I’ll go out on a limb and say that To the Islands is actually the better book.

Oh, and the fact that they are or were both screaming homos is clearly of no significance whatsoever. I’m a screaming homo and that’s of no significance so…

Apparently I have to stop writing about myself. Apparently I write about myself too much. Apparently I write too much generally and I write about myself too much.

To the Islands is the story of Heriot, the head of a mission in northern Western Australia in the mid to late ’50s. He’s tired and his faith has deserted him and his wife is long dead and he’s desperate to leave. His achievements over the years of his service are considerable in the eyes of some but in the eyes of others he’s the leftovers of a bygone age and the mission would be best served by his departure – an attitude towards which he himself is ambivalent. He seems caught between the paternal attitudes of his forebears and the more egalitarian approach of the new blood – he’s sympathetic to the latter but inured in the former. This inner conflict results in an outer expression of violence that sees him flee the mission for the brutal beauty of the country that surrounds it, sees him flee to the islands. And if you want to know what happens after that, you’ll have to read the book.

Oddly enough, Stow mentions in the preface that one of the reasons he wanted to revise the book was to tone down the propaganda for the church in the original – odd because he spends a good page or so of the precede defending the church. What’s interesting in the book itself is the contrast between Christianity and the spirituality of the Aborigines – the latter is presented as having far more vitality and profundity than the dusty platitudes of the disaffected mission staff. The Aborigines’ spiritual links to the land is also really beautifully done.

Stow’s writing is at its weakest when he’s doing dialogue. Most of it’s either really good or at least serviceable but sometimes it’s – not dire, but a bit crap. I’m surprised he didn’t try to knock this into shape when he revised the book in the ’80s. There’s a love affair too, which he references in the ’80s preface as “tepid” and which he presumably truncated in the revision – but that makes the love interest itself, when it surfaces in the novel’s latter stages, seem even more bizarre. Perhaps To the Islands deserves a third revision (although actually, no, fuck that Randy, how’s about you just write another frigging novel?), if only to iron out the few imperfections that remain. But much of Stow’s writing approaches lyrical perfection. He wrote a couple of volumes of poetry early in his career and I’ve read none of it but there’s a poetic intensity to a lot of To the Islands that leaves me wanting to hunt his stuff out in some musty old secondhand bookshop. When Stow gets it right – as he did, to a slightly greater degree, in some of his later work, particularly Tourmaline and Visitants – he’s simply sensational. He’s lived in England since 1960 and that might explain why he’s pretty much ignored these days (although his most successful novel, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, was released as a cheapy Popular Penguin last year and if you’ve never read it then you bloody well should).

I studied Stow’s last novel, The Suburbs of Hell, at uni. It’s a grim, witty, clever piece of metafiction and it’s well worth a read and perhaps technically more accomplished than his previous novels. But wit and technical brilliance aren’t everything, and I prefer his earlier work. Tourmaline is probably his most impressive achievement but I’m glad I chose to re-read To the Islands. Because at the end of the day, even if you don’t believe in the soul, every one of us is a strange country.

POSTSCRIPT June 7

It’s only just come to my attention that Stow died in England last week. He was 74. So unless he had something hidden at the bottom of his desk I guess that means we won’t be getting another novel. Very sad.

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