Suzanne Falkiner. Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing. RRP: $50, 890 pp, ISBN: 9781742586601.
Reviewed by Nathan Hobby
Back in 2013, Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family reflected on the mysteries and silences in the life of Randolph Stow (1935-2010), her mother’s old friend. The author of five acclaimed novels and a poetry collection by his thirtieth birthday, Stow published only intermittently over the rest of his life while living in exile from Australia. Moving Among Strangers is a memoir in which the life and death of Stow are intertwined with Carey’s quest to recover her own family story. The poignant glimpses of Stow highlighted the need for a full biography. Carey mentions Roger Averill had been working on one for a decade; three years later, a comprehensive biography has appeared, not from Averill but Suzanne Falkiner, an experienced Sydney-based biographer who spent four years researching and writing Stow’s life.
Julian Randolph Stow, known as Mick from a young age, was born into a middle-class family in Geraldton, Western Australia. (Falkiner refers to him throughout the biography as either ‘Mick’ or ‘Stow’; in an otherwise careful and consistent book, I found myself unsuccessfully trying to discern a pattern to the constant shifts between the two.) His unaffectionate father, Cedric, was a lawyer prone to depression; Falkiner beautifully captures Stow’s relationship with him in an anecdote in which Stow realises his father is reading the last pages of A Haunted Land (1957), Stow’s first novel. ‘So he stood mute until his father closed the book. Then his father said, “Yes, Mick, what is it?” That Mick was too proud to ask his father for his opinion remained unspoken.’ (138) Stow’s devoted mother, Mary, lived into her nineties and although his regular letters to her are the biography’s most quoted source, their complex relationship remains underexplored. Falkiner treats Stow’s ‘most autobiographical novel’, Merry Go Round in the Sea (1965), as a relatively unproblematic source for his childhood, noting the fictional equivalents of the various people in his life, although eventually referring to ‘the fictional component… where Stow substituted his second cousin Eric—“Rick”—for Ian Pearson as a prisoner of the Japanese’ (1, 15).
After a childhood spent in war-time Geraldton, Stow was sent to Perth as a boarder at Guildford Grammar in 1950. He went on to live at St George’s College from 1953 to 1956 while he completed an arts degree at the University of Western Australia. Incredibly, he wrote two acclaimed novels in his undergraduate years, as well as poetry and drama, while beginning a life-long habit of heavy drinking. The portrait of post-war Perth and its institutions in these chapters is one of the highlights of the book. There are some delightful details, such as Stow’s recollection that the Perth writer Henrietta Drake-Brockman ‘seemed to be at pains to track me down just to tell me about an unfavourable review which I might have missed’ (117).
A biographer usually breaks a subject’s life into periods based on where they were living or what they were doing and can then describe patterns and develop a story within those periods. Falkiner has a particular challenge in depicting Stow’s restless period from 1959 to 1975 in which he moved somewhere different almost every year; the biography is often fully occupied just tracking his movements. With the intention of being an anthropologist, Stow spent time after his degree at Forrest River Mission in northern WA and, later, New Guinea. He attempted suicide twice in his twenties, the second time in New Guinea. Delivering the Westerly Centre’s Randolph Stow Lecture in Perth on 21 February 2016, Falkiner was reticent to answer an audience member’s question about his suicide attempts, not wanting to dwell on them out of context. Even with the context provided by a long biography, Falkiner does not offer an explanation so much as lay out the factors which could have contributed to these crisis points. To the degree she has shaped the events of his life into a narrative, she depicts the twenty years after the second suicide attempt in 1959 as a long period of recovery. His recovery culminated in a period of intense literary activity and the writing of two novels in a short time, one depicting a breakdown—The Visitants (1979)—and one recovery—The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980). It’s poignant to read of Stow’s conviction at this point that he had reawakened creatively and expected to write a book a year from then on. As it happened, he published just one more novel, The Suburbs of Hell (1984).
Falkiner writes movingly of Stow’s quiet years as he finally settles permanently in the port of Harwich in Essex. An enduring image is of Stow at his local pub each morning, doing the crossword. It is a shock after the level of detail in the previous chapters to come to chapter thirty-two and find the last twenty years, but for his death, summed up in one chapter. The complexity of his character is conveyed in the juxtaposition of differing accounts of him by people who knew him—his shyness and reclusiveness placed next to his generosity and long-lasting friendships.
Stow’s death itself is given, appropriately, its own chapter. He was to die in the care of neighbours who had barely known him until they realised how sick he was in 2010. The contrast between the accounts of the night of Stow’s death given by Carey and Falkiner are revealing. Carey writes:
When the call came from the hospital saying that Stow was extremely ill and might not last the night, Deborah and Hugh had already drunk a bottle of wine between them. By that time Stow’s sister, Helen, had arrived from Australia and was sitting with them, perfectly sober, but didn’t feel confident enough to drive a strange car in a strange country in the dark. They lost almost an hour trying to decide what to do. In the end, Hugh drove but it was too late. Stow was dead. He, too, had died quite alone. (52)
Frustratingly, Carey does not reference her source. In contrast, to convey that night Falkiner reproduces a page-long transcript from an interview with Stow’s sister, Helen:
Deborah had had less to drink than Hugh, but she had a responsible job and couldn’t afford to lose her license. It was impossible to get a taxi, they rang everywhere. I said, “I’ll drive” – I hadn’t driven in England since 1962—so Deborah said “I’ll drive,” so she risked losing her license and her job for me. When we got there it was too late—Mick had just died, from lack of breath. (712)
It’s an event that occurred quite recently with only three witnesses, yet in one account, Hugh drives; in the other Deborah drives. More significantly, in one, the emphasis is on the tragedy of the delay costing a chance to say goodbye to Stow before he died; Helen, in the interview with Falkiner, emphasises her gratitude to Deborah for the risk she took. Carey’s account has transformed her source material into a story, conveying an absurd and sad moment; Falkiner’s is a referenced source. This is suggestive of the work as a whole.
Mick shifts gears right at the end with an interesting postscript entitled “A Note”, in which the biographer finally steps onto the stage. Falkiner outlines her biographical quest, reflects on the ethics of writing the biography of a subject who valued his privacy, and directly (but briefly and cautiously) addresses the ‘two major questions that people have tended to ask about Randolph Stow. Why did he leave Australia? And why did he retreat into literary silence? Attempts at answers could be framed in literary, philosophical, psychological or even medical terms, and each would be partly true, and none entirely so.’ (722) The postscript suggests Falkiner is aware of other approaches she could have taken to her subject. The approach she has taken will suit those readers who want the biographer to take a backseat and frustrate others looking for a more active biographer. Biography can be measured on many continuums; Michael Benton proposes a helpful one
whose two poles might be labelled ‘documentary biography’ and ‘aesthetic biography’. Some texts will reflect an emphasis upon documentary information about a life, others upon the narrative shape that gives coherence to a life. […] Arguably, the most successful biographies are ones which exploit the mobility of the continuum, blending the verifiable information of research with a narrative imagination. (37)
Mick fits very much at the ‘documentary biography’ end of the spectrum. It is a restrained, detailed biography, avoiding not just speculation but also, largely, interpretation, instead collating and arranging sources into a chronological account.
As mentioned, Stow’s regular letters to his mother, Mary, are the most quoted source in Mick. Every relationship has its limits and biases, and mother-son correspondence can give an intimate but limited perspective on a subject’s life. Thankfully for us, Stow seems quite candid with his mother, but there were areas of his life which were completely out of bounds; we learn toward the end of the biography that he didn’t think she knew he was homosexual even at the end of her life (695). With lengthy quotes from Stow’s letters but few from Mary’s, we are also given only one side of a relationship, and it is almost revelatory to learn in passing in 1966 of ‘what Mick called her “appalling social and political prejudices’” (458). Letters to Mary are supplemented with direct quotes or summaries of Stow’s letters to various other correspondents, to the point that, at times, the biography begins to read like a precis of his correspondence. The other major source is oral history. Written as it is soon after Stow’s death, Falkiner has the benefit and burden of the opportunity to interview many people who knew him. She draws on an impressive number of interviews and includes people from all the periods of Stow’s life. This oral testimony adds much to the portrait of Stow which would otherwise be lost, but at the distance of so many years, people’s memories are sometimes blunted and generalised, lacking the immediacy of contemporaneous sources.
Mick has been published splendidly in hardback, with a striking cover of a blurred, sun-glassed Stow; it is extensively referenced and comprehensively indexed. It is a major contribution to the field of Australian literary studies. As the first biography of a significant Australian writer, it’s probably wise of Falkiner to take a conventional, uncontroversial approach to the genre of biography. Miles Franklin’s biographer, Jill Roe, notes that in the Australian context
biographers often find that their chosen subject has never been previously researched, which in turn means that the fashion for relativism and new approaches, about which we read so much in biographical theory, is not a serious option. There may be a dozen biographies of Virginia Woolf in existence, so the reader has a choice of both content and style, but even with a well-known figure like Miles Franklin, mine is the first biography to be based on her papers. Nor do we have biographers galore. Given the amount of work involved, no-one is likely to challenge David Marr as the principal biographer of Patrick White for years to come, despite the new-found material. (117)
Those more open to “fashionable” approaches might be less pleased than Roe that the circumstances constrain experiment, but, polemic aside, her point holds true too often in Australian literary biography. Stow’s life and work are so rich and intriguing that he should be an exception; there is surely room for more biographical explorations of him.
Benton, Michael. Literary Biography: An Introduction. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.
Carey, Gabrielle. Moving among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family. St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 2013. Print.
Falkiner, Suzanne. “Randolph Stow: Pictures, Letters and Conversations.” Randolph Stow Memorial Lecture. University of Western Australia. 2016.
Roe, Jill. “Biography Today: A Commentary.” Australian Historical Studies 43 (2012): 107–118. Print.