THEMES AND SUBJECT MATTER
‘Our man at cultural studies cliff face’, by Professor Catharine (2004):
In Gleeson, Lumby and Bennett: Frank Moorhouse: a celebration, Canberra: National Library of Australia.
‘Frank Moorhouse and his girlfriend were lying naked in their back garden drinking wine and soaking up sunshine when the writer threw aside the book he’d been reading and exclaimed: ‘My God. Oh my God. Copyright is the key to all understanding. If you understand copyright theory, you understand the whole way the world works. It’s all there.’
‘It’s an anecdote Moorhouse might tell you over lunch if you asked why he got into a court battle which had international implications for writers’ ability to earn money from photocopied works. It’s just a vignette. But in its composition and tone, it’s also a story which takes us to the heart of Moorhouse and his work. There’s the eye for sensual detail. The juxtaposition of the intimate and the abstract. The continuum between the big picture and the everyday. The intellectual energy at play amidst other pleasures. And, of course, there’s the delicious irony of a man lying next to his naked lover, inflamed with passion by legal prose.
‘Moorhouse’s fiction is full of moments like these—casual moments and offhand exchanges that produce a shock of recognition in the reader, an unexpected revelation that, yes, this is what living is like. Moorhouse, many critics have observed, has a keen appreciation of the way our selves are made up of multiple histories, desires, personas, and relationships. We are never one thing. Being in touch with oneself, in the Moorhouse universe, means accepting that ambivalence, ambiguity and even chaos are rooted in our identity at every pass. It’s a view of existence whose implications are most often discussed in abstract philosophical terms. But Moorhouse shows us how the fragility of self and our relations to others is rooted in experience.
This fragility of identity is something Moorhouse understood from the very beginning. A 1977 collection of stories by five Australian writers titled The Most Beautiful Lies and selected by literary scholar Brian Kiernan is telling. Hailed as one of the new generation of contemporary writers along with Murray Bail, Peter Carey, Morris Lurie and Michael Wilding, Moorhouse stands out as the only author whose work, with the benefit of hindsight, is free of false notes. There’s no intellectual or stylistic posturing, no straining to put a stamp on the zeitgeist. On the contrary, his stories make a virtue of doubt; they mine uncertainty and they vibrate with suspicion of all claims to represent truth—personal, political or artistic.
‘In ‘The American Poet’s Visit’ a group of intellectuals and writers arrange a supper party for a visiting celebrity writer. The narrator observes himself and his friends as they wrestle with their desire to impress the poet, Rexroth.
‘We’re doing similar stuff to Bob Rauschenberg,’ says Stewart, and I stun at the avant-garde sound of it all and we all look across at Rexroth for approval.
‘You should do something of your own,’ says Rexroth depressingly.
‘Do your own things as the kids say in Haight-Ashbury,’ says his secretary.
We sit non-plussed and then I fall over backwards into silence like a skin-diver.
‘In ‘The True Story of the Jack Kerouac Wake”, the narrator waits for mourners to come to a wake for the poet organised at Sydney University.
Two students came ‘to the room’ but not to the Wake.
They were not there for Jack.
‘Are you here for the Wake?’ I asked—myself standing just at the doorway, my good sense having reared up, refusing to enter the room. I smiled though, a welcome, as I pig-rooted there. They looked into the room.
I did the welcoming, feeling as I did that I had been appointed, against my will, somehow by the atmosphere of serious intention which the room gave off, as though the room itself by its arrangements had seized me and sworn me in as its human attendant, as rooms sometimes do, and as Western sheriffs do with town drunks in times of crisis.
‘Self-consciousness, whether personal, artistic or intellectual, is sometimes understood to preclude connection with others. In Moorhouse it is the foundation of an ethics of engagement. As both short excerpts from his early work demonstrate, from the outset Moorhouse brought a sceptical as well as an erudite and passionate eye to the world he inhabited and documented. An activist associated with socialist causes, as well as with the Sydney Libertarians in the 1960s, Moorhouse emerged as a fiction writer in the 1970s. In the early stages of his writing career he was tagged as a ‘Balmain writer’. It’s a label the essay about him in the Oxford Companion to Australia Literature notes ‘derives from the congregation of intellectually oriented, politically radical, sexually experimental writers, artists and academics who gathered there from the late 1960s’. 
‘The ‘inner urban tribe’, as Moorhouse once dubbed them, gave birth to a series of semi-fictional characters that recur throughout Moorhouse’s fiction in the 1970s and 1980s. Viewed through [what critics have named the] ‘discontinuous narrative’ style, these characters come in and out of focus. The allusion to cinema is not accidental. As a former journalist and a writer who has worked prolifically in non-fiction genres, as well as in television and film, Moorhouse’s style has some things in common with the New Journalism which emerged in the US in the 1960s and 1970s in terms of its cinematic emphasis on scene-by-scene construction and establishing characters through dialogue.
‘The discontinuous narrative style which Moorhouse is known for is one that highlights the tension between connection and fragmentation which always haunts the stories we tell ourselves of who we are what other people are to us. A key to the profoundly affecting realism of Moorhouse’s work is the way characters appear and disappear across his entire oeuvre, partially glimpsed, disproportionately important, and always partly framed by the fears and desires of others.
‘Etiquette—or the rules of social engagement—is an endlessly fascinating subject for Moorhouse. Indeed, it’s a theme that threads right throughout his oeuvre, from his early proddings of social conventions in ‘Futility and Other Animals’ to the full blown dissection of international law and diplomacy in Grand Days and Dark Palace.
‘In the latter, the book that won him the Miles Franklin Award, Moorhouse recounts a small event with largish ramifications for his central character. Edith decides to have a ‘shoehorn’ drink before attending a delegates’ reception at the League of Nations with her lover and colleague, Ambrose. Ambrose, who has been in the diplomatic game for much longer, has a far more developed sense of when and where it’s appropriate to take social risks—and of their consequences. He tried to dissuade her from having a drink before going out.
‘Ambrose followed her into the sitting room. She went to the drinks’ table. ‘A shoehorn?’
He looked at her. ‘I am going to say one more thing about the Diplomacy of Drinking. As a diplomat you do not begin drinking before everyone else. And even if you think that everyone else in the world has a ‘shoehorn’ before going to an official function, you shouldn’t. If you are right—that everyone has a drink before a social function—then you’re not having a drink makes you one drink more sober than the others. For an observer that’s an advantage.’
She looked at him with amusement. ‘I do believe you’re becoming prudish, hiding it behind your precepts.’
He didn't smile. ‘I am trying, dear Lord, to save you from your brazen self.’
Three drinks later, Edith is contemplating an abrupt end to her career after dropping a glass of champagne at the feet of the Deputy Secretary-General.
‘Moorhouse’s most recent volume is homage to the martini. It’s a drink which has an iconic status in his oeuvre. Martinis, like all the other elements in Moorhouse’s repertoire of living well must be prepared and imbibed with care. There are rituals to be observed, rituals designed to keep the wilder beasts of hedonism at bay. Not that Moorhouse is a rigid person. Rules interest him because he likes toying with boundaries, worrying rather than exceeding their limits. He’s our man at the cultural cliff face, perpetually running his hand along the railing and peering down, with some fascination, at the rocks below.
‘His interest in the question of what role standards and discipline play in human happiness is one of the key things which prompted him to embark on the extremely ambitious novels set in Geneva—Grand Days and Dark Palace. The books chronicle the private and public adventures of Edith Campbell Berry, an Australian woman who goes to work for the League of Nations in the 1920s.
‘Edith begins her journey in Grand Days on a train from Paris to Geneva. A young woman with a penchant for risk-taking and a refined sense of irony, Edith’s cosmopolitan facade belies her parochial background. In a way, she could be Moorhouse at the outset of his own writing career—a young man from the coastal town of Nowra bursting brightly onto the heady scene of late 1960s Sydney bohemia.
‘The fact that Moorhouse made a woman the central character in his magnum opus is not surprising. As a male writer he has a keen appreciation of material traditionally associated with female novelists—the nuances of emotional and sexual relationships, the aesthetics of everyday life. In his first volume of stories, Futility and Other Animals, he moves back and forth between male and female points of view, rendered internally and externally. In The Everlasting Secret Family, published in 1980, he writes from the point of view of a teenage boy groomed to be the lover of a powerful older gay man and then abandoned. More recently he wrote an as yet unpublished, erotic novella titled ‘Sonny’. It concerns a young transsexual boy whose mother enrols him at an exclusive school which, as Moorhouse puts it, ‘specialises in the transsexual world’.
‘There is a portrait of Moorhouse by the recent Archibald Prize winner Adam Cullen, which captures him in a moment that defines the rare intellectual and creative talents that Frank brings to his work. The picture has a faintly alien quality about it. In it, the author floats three-quarter-length against a flat beige background. His penetrating stare is laced with alarm. Adam Cullen has said of the work: ‘I painted him as a man who’s trapped inside someone else’s skin’.
‘Inhabiting other people’s skin is, of course, the first duty of any first rate writer. Moorhouse is not only able to give us the sense of living in another’s skin, but with it the unease that goes with the business of living. The force and originality of his work lies in his ability to conjure the uncertainty of the pact we make on a daily basis with ourselves and with those we know. Think of it this way. Most of us are doomed to perpetual border control in our daily lives. Moorhouse is our double agent. He’s the man who slips between the supposed opposites in our culture, between the masculine and the feminine, between politesse and abandon, between aggressive honesty and ironic detachment. And he brings us delirious reports from the front line.
‘But if Moorhouse is a writer who affronted bourgeois values by writing openly on sex and gender politics in the late 1960s, he has also often affronted colleagues on the left with his refusal to pander to identity politics when it comes to the subject positions he’s prepared to take on. Moorhouse, in turn, has always had a keen sense of the absurdity and pretension which can characterise self-conscious displays of radicalism. His recent response to sharing a platform with Germaine Greer during a gathering of Australian writers in London at which Greer declared herself ‘an honorary Aborigine’ is a case in point. Making his point in a characteristically low-key manner, Moorhouse said he ‘felt embarrassed by this conversation’ and would be ‘happier if we had some indigenous people talking about us’.
‘Both writers were part of the intellectually-oriented, politically radical Sydney Push. But in stark contrast to Greer, Moorhouse emerged from the experience with a profound sense of scepticism about identity politics and enclosed ideological frameworks. The authoritarian nature of so much of leftist politics—the desire to discipline all ambiguity out of human relations—is one Moorhouse noted and called into question early on. In Conference-Ville, it is put to the narrator that he ‘came out of that conference on the side of the CIA’.
‘Is that how it looked?’ I said, shrugging. Oh well, we are imperfect transmitters of imperfect positions and other people are imperfect receivers.
‘Actually it was put quite seriously to me,’ Friedman said, through his entrée, ‘that you’ve changed. Style—position. Drifted somewhat.’
‘Where was I to drift from?’ I said moodily.
‘Two people have said it.’
‘Markham was one. My lips are sealed on the second. There’s nothing you can do about that sort of thing. It’s because you’re so ubiquitous.’
‘You mean—amorphous. It might get me a trip to the US as a guest of the State Department.’
Later, waiting for a taxi, the narrator reflects on the remarks about him having changed positions.
I knew my position very well, it was one of those days when my identity had clarity. It was nonsense and although only gossip, it was disquieting. Maybe it would be me who was pelted with blood at the next conference. Obviously my position contained certain contemporary heresies. Oh well.
‘In a foreword to Tony Bilson’s book, Fine Family Cooking, Frank Moorhouse notes the irony of his friend choosing him as someone to endorse a volume aimed at domestic cooks.
“Although I am an infrequent eater of breakfast, I have been recently introduced to the eating of breakfast in restaurants. I now often eat all the meals of the day in restaurants.
“It is because of all this—because I rarely cook and rarely eat in a domestic setting (although some of my friends who live in houses are fine cooks)—that I am utterly the most inappropriate person to write the foreword for a book titled Fine Family Cooking.
“A culinary perfectionist whose family recipe for a humble minestrone involves more than 20 ingredients and takes around two hours to prepare correctly, Bilson has been a long-term companion in Moorhouse’s quest to sample the aesthetic dimensions of the good life. It’s a journey which has seen the author take a major detour at all invitations to set down long-term domestic roots. He doesn’t own a dwelling and most of his possessions are in permanent storage. He explains his peripatetic existence this way: ‘I once owned a house and a car. I decided I really had no use for a house because all houses have appalling idiosyncrasies. There’s always some trick to the hot water or the front door … And the car disintegrated before my very eyes. I suppose I did once drive it into the sea. If you rent a car it’s always brand new’.
“This lack of domesticity doesn’t indicate an indifference to the aesthetics of everyday life. Far from it. For Moorhouse, the pleasures of eating, drinking, and conversing with friends are art forms in themselves. They are certainly not activities which can be disengaged from the political or the ethical. There’s even a suggestion that if we could only get the small things right, the larger ones would follow.
“The sense of connection between the fine details and the big picture, between the personal and the political, is there in the grain of all his work. He wrote once that: ‘My writing, my making of stories, allows me flight from society into solitude, a solitude which is both a personal need and a condition for my imaginative work. This solitude acknowledges, at the same time, the paradox that the self is the society—the society lies within. At the same time my writing permits me to belong to the society on my own terms through the offering of the finished work, the stories, to the society’.
“At every turn, Moorhouse suggests, the answer to the question of how to live lies in learning to live with ambiguity and resisting the impulse to bury the contradictions of being human behind reductive, authoritarian codes. Navigating flux is not, Moorhouse suggests, an easy task. Some rules are necessary. Extensive dialogue between all involved is desirable. Compromise is definitely required. And darkness always shadows even the best intentions. Grand Days and Dark Palace chronicle just such a descent into profound moral chaos, a chaos that results, not from a want of authority, but from an excess.
“The question of how we can live well—with ourselves, with others, with other cultures and other nations has always been the central question for Moorhouse. It’s not one he offers definitive answers to. His oeuvre, rather, constitutes a vast map of modes of inquiry into the problem. If anything reading Moorhouse leaves sensitive readers with a greater sense of doubt about themselves and the world. And yet despite this- or perhaps because of it - when everyone and everything else appears to be failing you, reading one of Moorhouse’s books can be of help.”’
Professor Alan Lawson of the Department of English, University of Queensland, essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography:
Professor Alan Lawson of the Department of English, University of Queensland wrote in his essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, ‘His writing is “about” Australia in the way, perhaps, that Henry James’s writing was “about” America: it is about the increasingly “complex fate” of being Australian in relation to world politics between the wars—as expressed in Grand Days (1993) and Dark Palace: The Companion Novel to Grand Days (2000), the emergence of modern production methods in small enterprises and the spread of United States entrepreneurship— The Electrical Experience: A Discontinuous Narrative (1974)—the transmission of ideas from the post-Beat generation of United States writers to Australian culture—The Americans, Baby: A Discontinuous Narrative of Stories and Fragments (1972)—generational change magnified by globalised culture—The Everlasting Secret Family and Other Secrets (1980), Tales of Mystery and Romance (1977), and Forty-Seventeen (1988)—new modes of communication and institutional organization—Conference-Ville (1976), Tales of Mystery and Romance, Grand Days, Late-shows (1990), Dark Palace, and The Inspector-General of Misconception: The Ultimate Compendium to Sorting Things Out (2002). Underlying all these themes is a fascination with the ways in which changing social, linguistic, political, and organizational structures and arrangements have disturbing and intriguing effects on the codes of social practice—what Jane Austen called “manners” and Frank Moorhouse calls “protocols” or “aesthetics” and often analyses as rituals. What about new behaviours, he asks, is meaningful, significant, and symbolic of new social relations as the “codes change to fit different times” (Yacker 3)? These characteristics are what tie together his oeuvre from Futility and other Animals: A Discontinuous Narrative (1969) to Grand Days (1993) and from Dark Palace (2001) to The Inspector-General of Misconception: The Ultimate Compendium to Sorting Things Out (2002).
His extensive associations with small and alternative magazines include being a founding editor of both City Voices in 1966 and Tabloid Story from 1973 to 1975.
City Voices was a new inner-city magazine modelled loosely on the New York magazine, Village Voice; Tabloid Story was an important and innovative magazine that strongly influenced the emergence and acceptance of more experimental short prose writing in Australia in the early 1970s. Its most remarkable innovation was to publish itself as a “parasite” on other well-established journals. Many of its issues appeared as supplements to student newspapers, but others appeared within the covers of mainstream mass-circulation periodicals such as The Bulletin, the National Times, the Australian Book Review, and even the Qantas in-flight magazine, QV.
Tabloid Story probably did more than any other publishing phenomenon to bring the “new writing” and its writers to a broader public. The writing to which it gave space was often novel in terms of its form and technique: it included fabulist, frequently confessional, imagist, process narrative (“writing about writing”), playful, and even surreal prose. But the content of the “new” fiction also singled it out for special attention. It often took the form of pseudo-documentary accounts of the so-called new or alternate lifestyles of the early 1970s… Moorhouse says that Tabloid Story did not intend to shock the community as much as to change it. The motivations were manifold, but among them were certainly strong cultural and political reactions to what were then extremely repressive censorship regulations in Australia.
Moorhouse also took on a role as a public defender of his profession. He was a contributor to Thor and Thorunka in the late 1960s when these student magazines actively and often spectacularly challenged Australian censorship laws; he found in the late 1960s that most of his work was rejected by literary magazines because of its language or material; in the early 1970s he and a group of colleagues prepared a publication— The Illegal Relatives (1973)—to challenge the censorship laws, but the federal government abolished censorship and the publication lost its purpose and Moorhouse with-drew; the printer, however, decided to go ahead with the publication, and it appeared without the approval of the writer. The three stories in it—“Watch Town,” “The Oracular Stories,” and “Alter Ego Interpretation”— all appeared in revised form in Tales of Mystery and Romance. In the 1970s he along with Judith Wright, the senior Australian poet, participated in a well-publicised legal challenge to the unfettered photocopying of writers’ works by schools and universities. Their efforts resulted in changes to the copyright law and ultimately to the creation of the Copyright Agency Limited in 1988, through which copying institutions paid a fee to the copyright holders whose work they copied. He has been active in the profession of letters in many other roles. He has been a Union Organizer for the Australian Journalists’ Association and a member of the Ethics Review Committee of the Media Alliance. He has served as president and as a councillor of the Australian Society of Authors, chairperson and vice-chairperson of the Australian Copyright Council, director of the Copyright Agency Limited, and councillor of the Australian Press Council.
The most formal expression of his sense of responsibility to participate in as well as to chronicle and critique the evolution of the institutional forms of contemporary social practices and their public discourses is his edited collection of writing of and about the 1970s, Days of Wine and Rage (1980). It is a collection of pieces that capture the spirit and the major themes of that decade, arguably the most important decade of the past half-century in terms of its impact on cultural, social, and political changes in Australia. It includes chapters (linked collections of his own and other people’s writings) about the emergence of the new wave of Australian playwriting; the major revolution in Australian literary publishing and of what could for the first time in many decades be credibly called “the literary life” in Australia; the Vietnam War; the new national-ism in politics and the emergence of the modern republican movement; sexual liberation; censorship; the new wave of Australian cinema; the emergence of a modern popular environmental movement; and feminism, Marxism, and the development of a left-critical perspective in public life.
Moorhouse has been associated with a variety of semi-formal leftist and progressive humanist social organizations. He was, from early in his adult life an administrator and tutor with the Workers Educational Association, associated with the Sydney “Push,” and with the Sydney Libertarian Movement (principally influenced by the Sydney philosopher John Anderson). “Push,” though essentially never a formal association, bonded around antiauthoritarian but non-activist positions and was overtly nonconformist. These groups were loose associations of “free-thinkers,” these grouping were anarchist-inclined, anti-communist dedicated to public and private critique and to free enquiry; suspicious of formal political affiliations; yet gregariously prone to affiliation in their pursuit of social and intellectual group activity.
In an interview with Candida Baker in the third book in her Yacker series of interviews with Australian writers, Moorhouse speaks of his ethical opposition to the separation of his public and private lives. Although his position is important, it does not mean that Moorhouse the private individual, Moorhouse the writer, and the “I” of the writing are collapsible into one another or are identical. What it does mean is that an ongoing dialogue exists between the life and all of the continually-evolving public utterances in journalism, fiction, opinion-pieces, interviews, festival appearances, radio talks, conference participation, and formal and informal “teaching” situations. At the base is actually an extraordinarily strong sense of public responsibility from which there is no cloistered refuge. The lives he is especially interested in exploring from his parents’ generation are the ones of those who take their social responsibilities seriously and take them into various forms of formal public engagement: Edith Campbell Berry (in Grand Days, and Dark Palace) and George McDowell (in The Electrical Experience).
The critical response to Moorhouse and his work has been loosely organized around three themes. The first focuses on him as a representative of the “new” fiction of the 1970s, as an advocate of short imaginative prose fiction and as the preeminent (contemporary) practitioner and theorist of the discontinuous narrative. This association is curious because of the odd links he has with some of the roots of traditional Australian fiction.
The term, “discontinuous narrative,” is indeed a useful one and appears to be a Moorhouse neologism Moorhouse has explained the term many times, but a particularly clear statement appears in a 1977 interview with Jim Davidson, then editor of the quarterly journal Meaning: . . . when I felt that I had passed through [my] apprenticeship, and was starting to write stories which (looking back on it) were departures from the essentially social realist type of story of the time, I found . . . that the stories were clustering. I wasn’t writing a novel, but one story suggested the next. I was writing about one locality or one group of people, and even though the connections were often oblique, tangential, and at first not altogether perceived by me, they were real and growing. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was proper to have stories referring back to others. . . . But by then I knew they were clustering and I knew they were related, and by 1968 or 1969 I’d started to call it a dis-continuous narrative.
In the “New Writing” Special Issue of Australian Literary Studies that same year, he described the thematic aspects of it this way:. . . it now seems that my work grows in clusters of stories which make fragmented perceptions of characters and situations. The discontinuous narrative appears to relate to my preoccupations with the accidental, the unintended consequence, the non-rational factors of human conduct and behaviour. The clusters form larger unities of book length . . . and the books themselves have interconnections not only in theme but in character and situations.
…Moorhouse distinguished his own practice from the Australian social realist tradition, but as some critics have noted, the writer who has often been claimed as the font of that tradition, Henry Law-son, can now be seen as a practitioner of the discontinuous narrative as well. But it was possible to see in Moorhouse’s work of the 1970s in particular a new formation of writing that did, as he suggests, capture the experience of fragmentation and reconnection that characterized a generation and a culture that was losing faith in coherent and complete narratives told from a consistent point of view. Such volumes are constructed upon principles other than narrative—tone, mood, and character—and to call them “discontinuous” is to indicate that the volume proceeds along multiple trajectories of organization. As a precursor, then, of some of the literary forms of post-modernism and as a representative of a kind of fiction writing practiced by some of his national and international contemporaries, Moorhouse and the discontinuous narrative were not only a recognizable phenomenon but also a useful analytical and explanatory strategy. More recently, it has evolved into an analysis of his depiction of sexuality and of gender.
Linzi Murrie and Stephen Kirby have developed the most extended analyses of this kind. Murrie argues that Moorhouse is the first major writer in Australia to move beyond narrow representations of male sexualities. Moorhouse, he writes, “Challenges central tenets of patriarchal ideology by locating homosexuality in heterosexual society, and by posing a continuum between male homosocial relations and homosexuality.” The limiting condition of Moorhouse’s sexual radicalism, though, according to Murrie, is that he does not deal satisfactorily with that other significant element of male sexuality, homophobia. According to Murrie, Moorhouse locates homophobia solely in his female characters, losing the opportunity to investigate its major role in policing the boundaries of male sexual behaviour.
Like the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century short-fiction writer Lawson (with whom Moorhouse’s work shares some parallels), Moorhouse is a chronicler not only of emergent social formations but also of those that are passing. Indeed, the effect of the discontinuities is to emphasize the back-ward- looking narrative by disrupting the forward movement of chronology.
Moorhouse’s ongoing fascination with his parents’ generation is remarkable considering that his reputation, his early reputation certainly, was built as an eager chronicler of the absolutely contemporary. The intergenerational theme, however, is a strong one and emerges most often in a concern for moments of observable social transition when one set of beliefs, practices, and language (“dialect”) starts to be over-taken by its successor. But his fascination is not solely with the emergent but also with the more powerful idea that “we are a walking archive,” that “our lives, or parts of our lives, are formed before we are born” (Yacker 3).
The movie script Between Wars (1974)—which starred Corin Redgrave, Judy Morris, Arthur Dignam, and Martin Vaughan—traces the life of Doctor Edward Trenbow and his family from World War I, when he was a military doctor, through his discovery of the work of Freud, his bringing of “new” ideas to Australian medical practice, and the responses they evoke in a small country town and in Sydney. The struggle with well- intentioned conservatism, alienation, and bigotry follow him through a range of situations that prefigure the modern Australia of Moorhouse’s own generation. Trenbow is also a character in The Electrical Experience, in which he and George McDowell represent the two kinds of “new”—the intellectual and the commercial.
Moorhouse’s most recent major fictional works, the huge novels Grand Days and Dark Palace, set mainly in Geneva between 1920 and 1946, deal with the world’s greatest experiment in search of universal good intentions ethical behaviour, and world citizenship—the League of Nations. The central character of the book, Edith Campbell Berry (first met in Forty-Seventeen), also comes from one of those same small southern New South Wales country towns as T. George McDowell and Edward Trenbow. In Europe she, too, encounters “new” thought in such domains as politics, international relations, gender relations, sexuality, social organisation, aesthetics, philosophy, and psychology and tries to explain it to her visiting compatriots and family.
Moorhouse’s books of the early to mid-1970s—The Americans, Baby, The Electrical Experience, and Tales of Mystery and Romance—were considered exemplary of this trend toward “the new.” They were variously formally innovative and iconoclastic, and, in a confessional way, personal and revelatory of the presumed lifestyle of the writer. These Moorhouse works are the most readily identified with the “new Australian writing.” The Americans, Baby and Tales of Mystery and Romance were most directly concerned with what he referred to in the preface to Futility and Other Animals as “a modern, urban tribe.” In each book, the majority of the stories are set in inner Sydney; they concern characters who are part of a loose community of writers, intellectuals, the “new” class; they are of varied geographical, employment, and class backgrounds, and their lives intersect in ways that seem random. But there is in each (and especially collectively) an emerging sense of a larger picture of social change and of the lives it affects. The Electrical Experience and The Americans, Baby are, in a formal sense, the most innovative. They include many “non-text” elements—such as photographs of soft-drink manufacturing equipment, recipes, the declaration from the St. Louis Rotary Convention, and some typographical changes.
Lateshows is divided into three long sections, each concerned with the protocols of contemporary life: “The Club: Contemporary Protocol,” “The Movie: Working with Makavejev,” and “The Cabaret: Cabaret Voltaire.” “The Club” is the most typical of Moor-house in his mid-career. It canvasses the changing protocols that help readers deal with such things as “the sight of a former mistress breastfeeding,” “literary quotations,” the “book launch,” “food,” and “detective fiction.” “The Movie” is, in its own words “about how the flow of life is made into stories, how stories become motion pictures, how the making of stories and movies itself becomes stories, and how stories become the flow of life.” It is both a chronicle of the literary life of a decade and a process narrative, a story about the making of stories. Loose Living (1995) is a satiric fantasy, a loose comic narrative of a young Australian writer abroad encountering the culinary, cultural, and sexual sophistication of Europe. These two books share with the earlier Conference-Ville, with some parts of Tales of Mystery and Romance, and with the 2002 novel The Inspector- General of Misconception, Moorhouse’s characteristic interest in the protocols of contemporary life, the new rituals—those practices that are in the process of becoming traditions and those practices that mark the new manifestations of intense meaning in a culture that no longer finds those moments of significance in the cultural practices of its predecessors.
As a representative of “the new” and in keeping with his acceptance of the public responsibility of the professional writer to be involved in the issues of his profession and the culture it serves, he has found himself frequently involved in public controversies. The most scandalous was that surrounding the 1994 Miles Franklin Award—Moorhouse’s Grand Days (along with novels by Elizabeth Jolley and Maurilia Meehan) was ruled ineligible for the award in that year on the grounds that it did not meet one of the core conditions of Franklin’s bequest, that it be awarded to a literary work that presents “Australian life in any of its phases.”
Moorhouse publicly contemplated legal action and gave several public talks in which he contended with the decision of the judges and analysed it as an apparent recurrence of the virus of parochialism, a return to what A. A. Phillips had in the late 1940s diagnosed as the “cultural cringe.”
Moorhouse himself spent most of the 1990s living outside Australia. His principal reason for leaving was to do the research for his two novels on the League of Nations, Grand Days and Dark Palace. He lived for the bulk of that time in Geneva, working in the remarkably under-researched but extraordinarily comprehensive League Archives in the Rockefeller Library there, but he also spent time in France (where he lived for three years in Besançon and La Lande); in England where he did research in Oxford and London and spent a year as writer-in-residence at King’s College, Cambridge (1999); and in Washington DC.
He also worked as a correspondent and visited the multinational peacekeeping force in the Sinai in 1982, Lebanon during the siege of Beirut, and Geneva during the negotiating of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1986.’