Reviewed by Sue Bond
Randolph Stow had an extraordinary mind, imagination and curiosity. By the age of twenty-one he had completed a Bachelor degree in English and French, largely with distinction, written three novels and published thirty-five poems. He had been broadcast by the ABC, written several plays and other poems which were discarded, won prizes, and obtained working knowledge (at least) of several languages. Oh yes, and he also ‘taught himself to play the mandolin harp’ (140)!
He went on to have published twelve books of novels and poetry, including the children’s book Midnite: the story of a wild colonial boy (1967), which was illustrated by Ralph Steadman, and worked with composer Peter Maxwell Davies to produce the short and startling opera Eight songs for a mad king (1969). There were also short stories and prose pieces, newspaper and journal articles, and many book reviews over the decades. His last novel was The suburbs of hell, published in 1984, a novel the mood of which was inspired by the serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke whose crimes caused unease in Perth in the 1960s. He won the Miles Franklin award in 1959 for To the islands, a novel in which ‘every detail … came out of personal experience’ (180) and followed his time in the Kimberley on Forrest River Mission. Typical of him, he learned some of the Umbulgurri language, and got on well with the Aboriginal people of the area.
This first full biography by Suzanne Falkiner of Julian Randolph Stow, known by those close to him as Mick, is thorough and engaging. I first encountered his novels at university twenty-five years ago, and was drawn to the mysterious Visitants, the subject of our study at the time, and later read The suburbs of hell, but it wasn’t until I first heard that this biography was being published that I read two more of his novels to remind myself of his depth and style. Falkiner has obviously researched the author’s life in great detail resulting in a large but captivating book that is finely written. She states at the end in her ‘Note’ that it is not meant to be a critical evaluation but rather a means to ‘contextualise the works within the broad arc of Stow’s life’ (722) as others (such as Anthony Hassall in Strange country: a study of Randolph Stow (1990)) have written about his work.
Stow was born in 1935 in Geraldton, Western Australia, and died in Harwich, England, in 2010, and Falkiner writes in chronological order from the beginning to the end of his life. She describes his relationship to his family, particularly his mother, quoting frequently from their correspondence, but also the distant and difficult relationship with his father, who died at fifty-six while Stow was working in the Trobriand Islands. His mother’s letter, in a supposed attempt to relieve his worry and sadness by insisting it was for the best as his father had been suffering, achieved the opposite: ‘Forbidden to mourn, either for himself or for his father, Mick would guard his grief, solitary and unexpressed, for the next twenty years’ (282). It was after this that Stow attempted suicide for the second time and Falkiner discusses bereavement, illness (he had suffered dysentery and other infections, possibly including malaria, while on the Islands), and loss of a friend (possibly attacked by sharks, but never fully explained) as the antecedents. Beautifully, she ends this chapter with his poem ‘Kàpisím! O Kiriwina’, ‘Stow’s own account of the events’, and including the telling and exquisite line ‘The sudden storm drove my boat from all known islands’ (313).
The issue of Stow’s sexuality is addressed throughout the book at the times when it becomes relevant, such as his relationship with Jenny Paterson, who he met in English class at St George’s College in the mid-1950s, and that with writer and broadcaster Russell Braddon. Paterson later in life wondered if things might have been different if she had told Stow her feelings for him; he, in turn, kept a photograph of her all his life. Braddon and Stow had an intense sexual relationship in Scotland in the early 1960s, which meant more to Stow than to Braddon, according to the poetry he wrote in response. But the author kept this part of his life private, and Falkiner has ably reflected this feeling in her discussions.
She details his extensive travels within the United States after applying for and obtaining a Harkness Fellowship in 1964 at the urging of Sidney Nolan, logging thirty thousand miles and forty-six states in total. While negotiating hostile police in the South, and making friends in bars, he was also writing the novel The merry-go-round in the sea (1965), the most autobiographical of his fiction. He seemed to possess a degree of adventurousness despite being reserved, and preferred the interesting people he met along the way to academics and their conversation.
His personality is gradually drawn through the chapters of the biography, so that the reader gathers up evidence for an outwardly quiet and thoughtful man who contained substantial depths. Letters and recalled conversations are frequent and integrated seamlessly into the overall life story. The painter Patrick Maxwell is quoted by Falkiner described him thus: ‘I always had the feeling that he lived in a huge subterranean world, rich in treasure into which others were not invited. He came out often—bearing gifts or maps and postcards, stories and fables—but that world was too precious and vulnerable to admit others. He kept it a deliberate mystery’ (390–391).
Suzanne Falkiner has written a magnificent biography of a mysterious and brilliant Australian writer, and one which should encourage readers to revisit his work. It is not only extensively researched and detailed—with a hundred pages of notes, bibliographies, and an index—but the facts are woven with intricacy and skill to create a complex portrait of the man.
by Suzanne Falkiner
originally published in Compulsive Reader, 20 August 2016