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Fiction reviews


Jack Hibberd - Memoirs of an Old Bastard

19 October 1989

Memoirs of an Old Bastard
Jack Hibberd
McPhee Gribble

Published in The Age

I tend to assess Australian literature according to four cruel criteria:

1. Was it worth writing?

2. Was it worth publishing?

3. Is it worth reading?

4. Is it worth reviewing?

Many books slip past criterion 1: getting a book out of the system can bring the ex-ad man, single mother or jaded journo - addled with years of quixotic literary imaginings - into a useful contact with exterior reality.

But not many, in my estimation, get past criterion number 2. Memoirs of an Old Bastard, though written by one of our most distinguished playwrights, is no exception.

There's nothing wrong with the idea of an affectionate look at Melbourne through the eyes of a drunken, literate, old member of its Establishment. There should, theoretically, be nothing wrong with the countless surreal situations which this takes us through, in an effort to elucidate the soul of Australia's most endearing city. There's nothing wrong with a lost daughter sub-plot. There probably is something wrong with dragging in literati under such pseudonyms as F Rank Morguehouse, Halloween Gurner and Bob L Arse - especially to those of us who believe Australian literature to be masturbatory enough already. But this element is merely a grain of sand against the reader's neck. It is the whole uncomfortable yoke we must examine.

Memoirs of an Old Bastard is a cartoon. A rambling, discontinuous collection of frames, more accurately. It rips us through one dissolute, chaotic, violent, surreal situation after another. The central character and narrator ("an elderly millionaire...returning to Melbourne after a long and mysterious absence", the blurb informs) survives innumerable encounters with pugnacious colleagues, savage dogs, buxom countesses and cantankerous relics (human and automotive) - in hotel bars, restaurants, and the private homes of quality folk. There is no plot.

I know plots are old-fashioned. I know this banal and meaningless existence is best evoked by art which comes and goes in a kind of boundary-less void. But Memoirs of an Old Bastard is no existential masterpiece. It could therefore do with a few anachronisms such as plot-points and motivation. And characters could grow (or shrink - I'm not fussy); and the story could move toward something resembling a resolution - even if only to cleverly reverse it, or send up the whole notion. Something should happen, apart from hundreds of lightning raids into the improbable, the disturbing and the (allegedly) hilarious, by characters whose reasons for doing so are never clear.

You'd think an accomplished playwright would know about these things.

The rules of writing - which do apply, of course, to parody and farce - must be mastered before they can be transcended. The principal one, arguably, is that characters' compulsions, flaws, whatever, must impel the story. And that probably provides the key to this book's downfall. For all his drunken rumination, we never get beneath our narrator's skin. He moves us through one piece of mayhem after another, never pausing to examine, or to make connections... Even the "reflection" is there chiefly for its immediate laugh-value. It never has depth; it never elucidates character, plot, or anything else. We haven't a clue, in the end, what really moves our narrator, because his story keeps us distracted with novelty.

The aforementioned lost-daughter sub-plot could have given this book a shred of integrity: however it consists entirely of italicised passages along the lines of: "Perdita, your mother sucked me in." And, "I have been prepared to go anywhere to find you. Even Sydney." These cris de coeur are never apropros of anything in particular, and rarely even in character. Not integrated, in other words. In the end they just peter out, leaving us hanging.

Though a far better novel, John Tittensor's recent Carmody Comes Home tends, at times, to be not so much a story as a catalogue of the grotesque. Memoirs of an Old Bastard is nothing but. And catalogues, unhappily, do not engage a reader. The prose itself is choked with would-be amusing characters such as Sir Phosphorous Sewer; with local literary allusions; with wine-labels and gourmands' recipes - and with humour too obvious to deserve the name:

The jogger was none other than Timothy Dow-Jones, a scion of one of Melbourne's oldest and most fortune-favoured families. Educated at Scotch College and Cambridge, Timothy commanded his family's large share-broking business... He announced: "What a bullish day. I feel a bit bearish this afternoon."

The names of these minor characters are almost a sub-plot in themselves: Morrie Bund, Huon le Pine, Phyllis Fuller, Rat O'Tuohy, Glen Waverley, Edith Vale. Perhaps there is something amusing in these travesties, and in the novel as a whole, which this humorless pedant has entirely missed.

Buy it and see. The only thing I liked was the title.

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