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Johnno – A love letter, Andy wonders, but to whom…?

December 10, 2010

Johnno is not a gay novel. It just isn’t. OK? David Malouf says it isn’t so it can’t be. He wrote it and he admits it’s autobiographical but he says it’s not gay and if he says it’s not gay it’s not gay. Not in the proper way, not in the South Park way, in no way conceivable is Johnno a gay novel. And he’s a gay novelist so obviously he’d be cool with admitting it was a gay novel if it was a gay novel, right? And he says it’s not so it’s not. End of discussion.

Warning to the faint-hearted: This post contains spoilers, because the novel’s conclusion is integral to an understanding of what has happened before (whether Malouf understands it, or admits it, or not). Or at least to my understanding of what’s happened. There is a point towards the end of the book that pulls everything that has gone before into sharp, unflattering focus.

That point is a love letter.

But to whom…?

The whole novel could be read as a love letter, in more ways than one. Malouf clearly, dearly loved the Brisbane of his youth – a Brisbane that was beginning to disappear as his youth ended and had long gone by the time Johnno was published (by which time the Bjelke-Petersen dictatorship was in full swing). Malouf’s affection for the city of his childhood is shameless and affecting – I lived in Toowoomba for a while in the ’80s, and I visited Brisbane a bit, and it wasn’t a very nice place but there are slivers of what Malouf remembers that chime with what I knew of the town 30 or 40 years later and I wish I knew it as he did. Although of course his own memories are tainted by the kaleidoscope of youthful bliss (unlike so many writers Malouf, refreshingly, seems to have had a vaguely enjoyable childhood), so perhaps Brisbane wasn’t quite the place he remembers it to be.

But, speaking of youth and childhood and memory, Johnno is also a love letter to – um, well – youth and childhood and memory. Malouf has admitted that Johnno is autobiographical (but not gay! not gay! not not not!) and his affection for himself as a child and a teenager and a young adult – as well as his distaste, to some extent, on occasion – is easily identified. Johnno has this in common with many memoirs of childhood and youth, with many pseudo-fictitious renderings of earlier life, with what pretty much all of us think of ourselves – we’re half in love, half appalled by the human beings we were half a life time ago. But Malouf is, again refreshingly, forgiving of his/his protagonist’s shortcomings. Conscious of them, certainly. Not excusing them, for sure. But forgiving them? Yes.

And it’s maybe even a love letter to an idea of Australia and its place in the world that Malouf may have thought was dying, but amazingly does live on. I’ve been part of it. For many young Aussies the pilgrimage to Europe is still de rigeur, as it was for Malouf/Dante and Johnno half  a century ago. It was certainly something I felt I needed to do in the ’90s. Australia was a very different beast when Dante was a kid, even when Malouf first published Johnno – even, to be honest, when I went to London. But that sense of isolation from our roots which at once thrills and terrifies us – that’s as real today as ever. Assuming you’re a European Australian. Obviously if you’re an original Australian you’ve got other, rather more pressing, things to terrify you.

So anyway yes, it’s a love letter, of sorts, to a number of different things. But there’s a love letter in the novel, towards the end, that undermines the reader’s – or at least this reader’s – understanding of what’s gone before. And to my mind it makes ludicrous Malouf’s claim that this isn’t a gay novel. OK, Davy boy, perhaps it’s not a “gay” novel, but it’s a novel about passionate, romantic, tragically sublimated love between two men. And to my mind that makes it a gay novel.

Towards the end of the book Dante receives a letter from Johnno. By the time he receives it he knows Johnno’s dead. His death looks suspiciously (though it’s never confirmed) like a suicide. The letter looks to me like a love letter. And it contains this line: “I’ve loved you – and you’ve never given a fuck for me.” Up until I read this line I could just about believe Malouf’s argument that the book was a story about the powerful, often awkward, emotional but non-sexual bonds between men of whatever sexual inclination. But if Johnno has loved Dante, and he feels that Dante has never cared for him – what does that say about Johnno’s deterioration, his alcoholism, his bloatedness? His apparent suicide? And what does it say about the narrator’s seeming emotional distance from a man whose life he decides, in later years, to eulogise? I think it’s reasonable to suggest that this is a story of romantic, unrequited love, between two men who can have sexual, perhaps even vaguely romantic, encounters with other men – but not with each other. And Johnno’s letter suggests that he was prepared to take things a step further but Dante – more emotionally reserved, more controlled, more controlling than his mate – could not contemplate it.

This is reading a lot into the text, and it’s putting a lot of faith in a letter written by a probably suicidal drunk. But it seems to me like the only way to make sense of the relationship between Johnno and Dante. These two blokes are not mates in the traditional Aussie sense – and I think that’s an idea Malouf wanted to explore. It’s just that he’s explored it in ways he perhaps didn’t intend us to pick up on. I simply do not buy Malouf’s argument. The sexuality may be sublimated – Malouf, at the time, may not have realised exactly what his first novel was – but this is a story about two men who want each other, and for a range of reasons are unable to do anything about it. Johnno is a gay love story, a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy its author is unwilling to admit it.

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