Essay by Patrick Holland

There are always two landscapes in a Malouf story. The one you can touch with your hands, and the one that is dreamed – discoverable by language, always on the verge of disappearing. In medieval Japanese art and letters, this quality was known as yūgen (幽玄),which might be translated as ‘shadow-filled’ or ‘beyond words’ or ‘that which resists being clearly seen’. Arthur Waley, translating fifteenth century playwright and pioneer of Noh, Zeami Motokiyo, said that wandering in a great forest without thought of return is a path to yūgen, as is standing on a shore and gazing after a fishing boat that disappears behind an island, or seeing wild geese disappearing into white clouds. Kamo-no-Chomei (1155–1216) wrote in his Mumyō-sho (Treatise Without a Name), that yūgen occurs, ‘when an unseen world hovers in the atmosphere’.

As the son of an English-Jewish mother and Lebanese-Christian father, it is easy to imagine the young Malouf hearing stories of the world that existed beyond Brisbane – the world of his elusive heritage, but which seemed to have no real bearing on life as lived daily. A thing that could be believed in or not. It is no surprise, then, that Malouf’s stories are fascinated, not only with the world of dreams, but the way dreams persist across time and space.

In ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, an Arts Council lecturer and specialist in the famous Australian-born Opera singer and diva, Alicia Vale, travels to a small hinterland town between Coffs Harbour and Brisbane. There he runs into an unremarkable outback woman, Mrs Judge, who claims an intimate knowledge of his favourite subject.

Of the diva, the narrator tells us:

…she had let journalists tell people whatever they wanted to hear; to dream up previous lives for her that were appropriate to Odabella or Semiramis… So her father was said to be a nephew of Napoleon, who had settled in New South Wales in the Fifties and married a local heiress. Later her parents were saltimbanques in a travelling circus, Hungarian Jews… (p. 453)

Mrs Judge turns out to be Vale’s adopted daughter, and her own story is superb, very nearly fabulous – something like the extraordinary life her adoptive mother pretended to have lived. Mrs Judge is the daughter of a Grand Duke, a cousin of the Romanov children murdered in Ekaterinburg. In 1917, as a ten-year-old child, she fled war and the retribution of the Bolsheviks, from St Petersburg to the border of Poland. From there she travelled across Turkey. She remembers (in the polished words of the narrator),

…the caravan routes. Weeks of swaying across a landscape of blinding light, with nothing to break the horizon but an occasional outcrop or the bristling gun barrels of a band of brigands. Then, one cool morning, India, valley on valley falling among threads of smoky water, long sights of relief after the desert places, and a ridge of mist-shrouded deodars. On narrow paths among the rhododendrons, pilgrims approach to the sound of bells. (p. 458)

In India, at age twelve, she was married to a minor prince; she bore the prince a child that was snatched away by a rival faction. Alicia Vale met and claimed the woman – still a child then – whilst on holiday in India. And so the symbol of exotic adventure and the truth were unwittingly united.

At first, we assume the ‘traveller’ of the title is the lecturer, gone from the city to the outback; then we assume it’s the diva, then the daughter, and at last we realise it is a romantic dream of the East in the early twentieth century that has travelled in various forms, and must now travel again in the lecturer’s writing.

Other writers have written of dreams and ideas that have a life of their own and particular trajectories through time. Jorge Luis Borges comes immediately to mind. But what make’s Malouf’s stories unique is his awareness that in Australia – so isolated from the world, so insular and empty, so suspicious of the life of the mind – the dreams could run aground.

Mrs Judge arrived in Australia in 1920 at thirteen years of age, still hiding from the Bolsheviks. She has witnessed so much adventure and beauty; she has spoken Russian and Indian, her first languages. She is authentic. But she cannot properly articulate her extraordinary story – surely the reason she felt the need to approach a writer. She speaks to the man in a coarse outback accent, with a limited vocabulary. The story is troubled by the loss of language and culture. The narrator, and potential teller of her story, observes that:

…a deeper voice fumbles for words in her throat, and in a language she no longer speaks. Her feeling then is of painful incompleteness, of someone unrecognised and lost now for nearly sixty years, who wears a semblance of her own face and gropes through her for a memory of that forgotten dream, their childhood; stopping dead perhaps on the platform of some Polish border-town where he might be an inspector of trains, and half recalling, as the distant names are called over the station loud-speaker, the dazzle of a courtyard, and a monk’s bearded face leaning over them, a holy breath falling on their brows as they sit wrapped for their journey… (p. 458)

Malouf’s concern with dreams running aground is never so profoundly treated as in the remarkable ‘The Only Speaker of His Tongue’, where a Norwegian lexicographer meets with an aboriginal labourer whose people were massacred fifty years ago. The man alone survived. Now he digs fence posts at the edge of an empty plain. Here, Malouf meditates upon an entire world being lost.

For all his lifetime this man has spoken it, if only to himself. The words, the great system of sound and silence… It is alive still in the man’s silence, a whole alternative universe, since the world as we know it is in the last resort the words through which we imagine and name it (pp. 384–385)

The story is doubly poignant in that the lexicographer, as a Norwegian man of letters, is himself the keeper of an ancient and rich language, which is threatened by the global lingua francas.

When I think of my tongue being no longer alive in the mouths of men a chill goes over me that is deeper than my own death, since it is the gathered death of all my kind. It is black night descending once and for ever on all that world of forests, lakes, snow peaks, great birds’ wings; on little fishing sloops… (pp. 385–386)

In the evenings, like a nervous prayer, the lexicographer recites litanies of Norwegian words into the darkness of his room and the emptiness of the plain as though,

…it were only my voice naming them in the dark that kept the loved objects solid and touchable in the light up there, on the top side of the world… So I say softly as I curl up with the sheet over my head, or walk up and down, or stand at the window a moment before this plain that burns even at midnight: rogn, valnøtt, spiseskje, hake, vinglass, lysestake, krabbe, kjegle… (p. 387)

The darkened state of wordlessness is the one Malouf puts us in again and again. In the two stories discussed thus far, that darkness is threatening because it represents a realm of inaccessibility. But this is not always the case. There are two kinds of darkness in Malouf’s stories: that which exists after language has been taken away, and that which exists before it has been conceived.

‘Jacko’s Reach’ would preserve the world’s liminal, shadowy spaces. The title refers to a four-and-a-half-acre patch of scrub, in the midst of a city, that has thus far resisted development. The narrator admits there is no obvious beauty in the landscape: he calls it an eyesore. It is valuable, though, as an agent of dreaming – a place that facilitates and remembers adolescent adventures, trysts, and even crimes. The place, like all such wild places,

…still lies like a shadow over even the most settled land, a pocket of the dark unmanageable, that troubles the sleep of citizens by offering a point of re-entry to memories they have no more use for – unruly and unsettling dreams. (p. 251)

The story ends hopefully. Though the narrator concedes the material destruction of Jacko’s Reach is inevitable,

its darkness will never quite be dispelled, however many mushroom-lights they install in the parking lot. [It is] a code-word for something so intimate it can never be revealed, an area of experience, even if it is deeply forgotten, where we still move in groups together, and touch, and glow, and spring apart laughing at the electric spark. There has to be some place where that is possible. If there is only one wild acre somewhere we will make that the place. If they take it away we will preserve it in our head. If there is no such place we will invent it. (pp. 255–256)

Plainly, the ‘dark’ here is not a place of nothingness, but one of abstract ideas and forms that exist as blueprints for our experience (that is, a place of Platonic archetypes), waiting to be conceived into reality by language or matter.

One of Malouf’s earliest stories, ‘Eustace’, evidences the author’s fascination with the nameless, archetypal forms that exist in the dark.

The story sees a young boy break into a girl’s dormitory, not for any nefarious purpose, but because it represents a threshold into a world unknown to him, a place of dream and magic. The girl he meets there is more fascinated than afraid; indeed, all the girls in the dormitory have been keeping a nocturnally roaming hamster they call Eustace, and they delight in imagining it moving about the room while they sleep, and the heroine of the piece now transfers the name to the boy. ‘This is Eustace,’ she tells her friends when presenting the boy to them, as though it is the particular qualities of a secret that belonged to the name, rather than the hamster or any other thing. All at once, at the arrival of the boy, she knows the truth the word ‘Eustace’ had been groping for. Says the narrator:

At that odd hour, in the lingering heaviness of sleep, he seemed like a continuation rather than an interruption of her dreams; as if she had first dreamed him and then found him there. (p. 476)

What is striking is the ability for the subject to enter into and dip out of the dream at will, and experience its remaking of the real world. The girl and boy end up running away, to where and what end we are never told, but the dream of their trysts and ultimate escape now becomes a dream of romance and escape that resurfaces in the minds of the other girls in the dorm at significant and trying times in their lives, when it is most needed.

But to take a momentary step back, what delight the reader feels in imagining the girls and their ‘dream hamster’, which moves around the school in the twilight hours as they are never allowed to, a dream and a reality at once. Here we perceive the ambient virtues of darkness as half-knowing.

One of the collection’s finest and most recent stories, ‘Towards Midnight’, has a woman in a Tuscan house witness a man climbing nightly into her pool to swim. Late each night she awaits his arrival, with a sense of joyful anticipation. She enjoys the ambience of his swimming in the dark below her patio, without ever needing to discover who he is, his reasons, or make contact with him at all. This ambience, living side-by-side with a beautiful and paradoxically familiar unknown, brings her healing and peace at a time when she feels her life is unravelling. The peace – the beauty – is in the knowledge of dim forms, of things seen in half-light, things moving just beyond our understanding, which give the sense of infinite possibility.

Ambient literature may seem a strange term, but it has currency. It is a concept known to the Japanese, and those involved in Japanese literary studies*. ‘Towards Midnight’ suggests the virtues of ambient darkness, and with simple imagery and ‘comfortable mystery’ (a chief tenant of ambient writing†) it achieves this liminal space for the reader.

Malouf claims the heritage of Flaubert, Zola and Balzac. In valorising imagination as he does, he is of an older tradition: that of Wordsworth and Blake. In his treatment of darkness and silence, he is accidentally of the tradition of Murasaki Shikibu and Basho.

Malouf is a poet of the dark but, as all true poets must be, a lover of order. He looks into the dark to reassure us there is an order there when we close our eyes.


* See, Paul Roquet’s paper “Ambient literature and the aesthetics of calm: Mood regulation in contemporary Japanese fiction.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 35.1 (2009): 87-111.

† ‘…translucent simplicity plus comfortable mystery governs the emotional architecture of ambient literature’ (Roquet 2009, 96).



Brickhouse, T, ‘Plato: The Theory of Forms’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, viewed at <>.

Richie, D 2007, A tractate on Japanese aesthetics, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley.

Roquet, P 2009, ‘Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction’, The Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 35 no. 1, pp. 87–111.

© Copyright Patrick Holland 2015