Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel. Mile End: Wakefield Press 2016. RRP: $29.95, 256pp. ISBN: 9781743054048
What is Australian literature? Jean-François Vernay in his book, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel, ambitiously traverses the subject. Positioning the enquiry post colonialism, and within the framework of Australia’s history, geography, people and ideas, Vernay quickly makes apparent that the answer is not simple. To define Australian literature, Vernay argues that the evolution of Australian literature from 1831 to the present must be understood.
Vernay considers and begins his exploration from two definitions of Australian literature, one from critic John K. Ewers and one from D.R Burns. Vernay quotes them as:
poems, short stories, novels, plays, etc, which have been conceived in the minds of the writers who have reacted to the conditions of life in Australia
(Ewers in Vernay, 3)
there isn’t anything explicit … to be called a rule. But the work should be tied in some way, or its author should, to things Australian
(Burns in Vernay, 3)
From this basis, iconic themes in Australian literature are identified: the quest, conquest, voyage, geography, topography, isolation, the antipodes, abundance, religion, and disappearance. Each reflects an intrinsic element of Australia post-colonialism.
Vernay proceeds from this point to the bulk of his book, an extensively researched chronological presentation of key milestones and moments in Australian literature history. Segmented into ‘eras’, the book moves from the Colonial Period, into the Emergence of a National Consciousness, followed by the Ebb and Flow of History, Exploited and Manipulated Reality, Literature of Minorities in a Cosmopolitan Era and finishes at Postmodernism and New Tendencies.
The book further supplements each era with cinema-inspired inserts. Close-ups draw attention to significant themes, authors and books; low angle shots acknowledge great novels or novelists that dominate the Australian literary landscape; and panoramic views survey themes or the careers of important authors. Vernay uses the analogy between cinema and literature to allow the development of parallels between writers and actors. This concept, while creative, is confusing. The inserts are interesting and invaluably make the book more engaging, but articulating them in reference to cinema seems unnecessary.
Vernay has been researching Australian fiction for twenty years and his knowledge is without a doubt showcased within A Brief Take on the Australian Novel. He holds a PhD in Australian literature and writes in both French and English. This 2016 edition of A Brief Take on the Australian Novel is an expanded and revised version of the French original published in 2009, which was translated to English in 2010. Initially it seems odd to consider research on Australian novels being presented in French. However, as Nicholas Jose says in his ‘Sneak Preview’ at the beginning of the book: ‘the outside gaze illuminates what the insider cannot see, especially when that gaze focuses on what most distinguishes the inside, what makes it what it is.’ (xv) Vernay is of Australian-French heritage and grew up in New Caledonia.
But there is also a negative to the external gaze. In this case, identifying people in the texts who would assumingly be known by an Australian reader, but are not. For example, in the section exploring historic account style novels, Vernay identifies James Tyson as a character of significance in Rosa Praed’s book Mrs Tregaskiss (1895) but goes no further to detail who Tyson is, just his name. I know of Tyson because he is my distant uncle, and although he is a significant figure in Australian history, he isn’t well known. An outsider looking in would think that he is known because of his historical impact, but generally speaking most ‘insiders’ wouldn’t recognise the name.
Unfortunately, there is an unappealing, dry density to the book, which if being generous could be attributed to the translation not allowing for colloquial language. There are multiple sections in the book where uncommon words are used, thus requiring more work on the part of the reader. The book identifies as written for a French audience, with an English translation opening the book up to the Australian audience and a wider English speaking audience. However, unless the reader has a good grasp on the English language, and an exhaustive vocabulary, it would be recommended to keep a dictionary on hand.
A Brief Take on the Australian Novel, although dry at times, provides a useful introduction and overview of the history and heritage of the Australian Novel, including key moments, trends and authors. Delivered with enthusiasm and genuine passion the overview is an asset to anyone interested in or beginning studies on Australian fiction.
Samantha Jones is a communications professional, writer and performer, with a passion for arts and human rights. Her reviews have been published in The Big Issue and Right Now Inc. She tweets @typesamantha