Remembering Peter Mathers (1931-2004)
Peter Mathers’ Wort Trap (1966), Mathers’ first novel, has a predominantly urban setting and is a powerful indictment of the way governmental and multinational interests run counter to the interests of the Australian Aborigines. The Wort Papers (1972), Mathers’ second novel, in a structure alluding to the Ern Malley hoax and parodying the life of the fiction writer, recounts the outrageous escapades of two generations of the nomadic Wort family in various and mostly inhospitable rural locations.
Mathers’ clear intention is to criticize the structures of Australian society in a mode that is comic. His methods and devices are the staple of comedy and yet his style, the total mix and structuring of those methods and devices, is individual and unusual, innovative even, so that many readers (and critics) misunderstand his intentions, miss the point in what he is saying, cannot follow him or his protagonists. The strange careers, the careering of his characters puzzle the uninitiated reader. There are understandable reasons for this, which shall be outlined shortly, but it is more difficult to explain why serious readers should misunderstand.(1)
To be conscious of the effectiveness of comedy in writing is to be aware of comedy in performance. Delivery through the written word must be surgically precise. The absence of spoken voice to bind the development means strict control of words in all their layered meanings, subtleties and sounds, is essential. It must “ring true” to prevent dismissal from a serious, sensible or strict mind. Without this strict control, written comedy can become frivolous, indeed disposable, or irrelevant and meaningless. An instance of this “disapproval” appears in remarks by Adrian Mitchell:
… David Ireland and the more recent novelists have increasingly dispensed with the literally observed, and show the extent to which Australian fiction has freed itself, not only of local compunctions, but also from conventional fictional forms. But none of them is a daringly innovative or experimental writer. For both Keneally and Ireland, as for Morris Lurie and Peter Mathers, as well as the short story writers, the experimentation carries a touch of self-consciousness, as though it were a predetermined gesture rather than the most appropriate response to the demands of the subject matter. Even the comic anarchy of Peter Mathers, in the formal literary sense the independent and radical of these writers (‘To write, to put something down, is an act of subversion’), derives much of his impetus from its recognition of contemporary fashions and attitudes. In his flair for fantasy – but not in the disturbing underside of that comic extravagance – Mathers resembles the more comfortable comic riot of Barrie Oakley. But his imaginative restlessness is finally inhibiting: although the political subversions of Trap (1966) are effectively mirrored in the narrative manner, The Wort Papers (1972) lacks direction. He wants the sardonic watchfulness of Murray Bail, whose short stories … accommodate Mathers’ iconoclasm and absurdity without relinquishing, as he appears to do, narrative control.(2)
It is my view that no such lack of direction occurred in The Wort Papers and that Mathers’ intention was more complex: to produce a kind of anti-conventional fiction, to deliberately avoid an orthodox and obvious approach. He focuses instead on intellectual process, the life of the mind and interpretation rather than objective depiction, even while his observation is acute. Mathers’ peculiar self-objectivity, his ability to get outside of himself and his primary concern for Australia, as legendary British satirical film-maker Lindsay Anderson (director of If and Britannia Hospital) once pointed out in an interview, indicates the patriotic spirit of the true anarchist.(3) On the other hand Jonathan Swift believed that satire is a kind of glass that reflects everyone but the writer.(4) If you look closely you do see Mathers in his writing, at times distorted and at others not, constantly undermining himself.
Mathers uses aspects of his own personality and his observations of others – their gestures, thoughts, reactions and feedback – to develop a labyrinth of human relationships. The cross-sectioning of the Australian community is both a parochial and traditional consideration. In this respect Mathers has a classical style, which also extends into the plots of his novels in that they rely on the generation of myth. His protagonists, moreover, appear as cryptic concepts, they are identities of destiny. Where he differs most strikingly from the conventional lies with his instinct to use a brand of satire which obfuscates the linear sense of direction, which in itself is consistent with his anarchic vision, his view that the world is in a state of constant change and chaos.
What is suggested in The Wort Papers is that the European-Australian mentality (in general terms) is one historically fuddled by heat and displacement, and by coping mechanisms like alcohol, apathy, and survival and primal instincts. It is a statement that moves Mathers away – not to escape – but in order to analyse and attack it, to argue with it and to make it think. The fact that Mathers provides a continual freshness is controlled creativity in the writing of the novel and hardly deserves such an unenlightened response from Mitchell. For its time, The Wort Papers may well have been “daringly innovative”: just as, for example, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake was seen to revolutionise Irish fiction. The notion of the “predetermined gesture” is correct in a sense, in the way he sets about his task, but the actual content never fails to surprise and amuse, and to continually undermine the reader’s formulaic structures and expectations.
The novel’s style grew out of its concept – the words themselves (“wort” is German for word) spread like some unexplainable “amoeba.”(5) The extravagance in the humour, often bawdy and possibly offensive, is a result of the observation that moral values, the basis of the laws and religious and anachronistic tenets of our society, can be a hypocritical sham. A good example surfaces in an outraged comment by the outspoken and virtuous Mrs Gilmore: “Liberties, you mean, Mr Prism, with boys, men, calves and sheep and the once-only mock-it with us women.”(6) It’s a cutting remark that speaks to Australian male sexuality, conventional social mores, hidden and unspoken lore, shame and repression, and perversion.
Mathers is describing the male-dominated world of the middle years of the twentieth century, but he sees and advocates a stirring, feminist world-view. Such statements infer that, to Mathers, the forces of conservatism, tradition and history compel the contradictory breath of the outsider, the critic, the radical, who stands, not unlike a wart (“wort”) or growth on the cheek of a superficially glamorous civilisation. Our cultural system is trapped by its values and rituals and there is a hidden depth of corruption – corruption which is socially acceptable. Only now are we seeing public judicial inquiries into child abuse and the role of institutions like the church and state in its perpetuation.
Mathers assumes the cuttingly coarse voice to convey a true-to-life situation and a complexity that shuns niceness and the vacant myth of Australia. It is untrue to pretend that this society does not have it all, that Australians are blessed folk who live in the “lucky country” or an ideal heaven. The most “appropriate artistic [my italics] response” should not deny Mathers the right to call it as he sees it and to attack the obsequious acceptance of wrongs and “yuppy” notions of proper human value, social graces and opulence.(7)
By suggesting that the narrative style of The Wort Papers is unsuccessful, that it lacked discipline and that a solution for Mathers might lie with “sardonic watchfulness,” suggests to me that Mitchell failed to come to terms with the thoroughness of Mathers’ conception. Mitchell himself seems to have become victim to the trap of criticism’s reasoning, a victim of an emerging orthodoxy and preferred, post-modern or “Australian” novelistic style. Long before Mathers, the “Australian” (particularly male) had not been portrayed as well behaved – as “larrikins” and “ockers” they were the clowns of modern and late-modern society. The acceptance of our foibles pre-empted a brand of humour that expanded our intelligent interaction with the world. It counteracted the comparative sterility of mainstream Australian culture in the immediate post-Menzies conservative era. The antiseptic solution of “sardonic watchfulness” would only reinforce and generate a cold attitude to observation. Ironic detachment lacks engagement.
Australian society needs people who can penetrate these retentive constructs, needs people to make propositions and ideas, needs dialogue and exchange to develop new possibilities and functions. The writing of Peter Mathers defies this process of closing-off, of narrowing down and conservative restriction. It is more enema than enigma. It is transformative. It becomes involving: a floating sea of words and implications, a sense of possibilities surround the reader. Minor tactics are provided which spawn off at tangents while the unusual narrative structure unfolds. His style responds to the cartoon vision of the runaway Madmouse, which is a contemporary accuracy in terms of entropy and a world spiralling out of control.
His imaginative method is close to the Magic Realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other South American writers but has a strong Australian flavour. Whereas, for example, in One hundred years of solitude Marquez describes a four year rain, beginning with a paragraph that lasts two and a half pages, in The Wort Papers Mathers allows his paragraphs to burgeon densely, spins yarns and recounts tall tales and wanders down lateral passages. At one stage he builds a gruesome joke about camels in the Australian landscape over many pages. The reference to camels begins with the naïve Englishman William Wort encountering the deadly vastness, heat and desert of the north-west, seemingly too much even for the camels, for the first time:
They took off at dawn (again). Five hours later, the pilot slapped the side of the fuselage, pointed down then dived low over homestead, buildings, yards, patches of green and an airstrip, in a wide brown valley ringed with low hills. Dogs and sheep ran all over the place. A man ran from the house, pointed something at the plane, the pilot banked hard right, William hit his head on the mattock handle and read OREBUL DOWNS painted in big white letters across two roofs. He saw something falling, a piece of meat, it hit the ground and dust ringed it. When they made their second pass they saw two figures struggling towards the homestead. William dropped the rest of the meat. The pilot flew down a third time for a closer look at the airstrip. William stared. Had he come across the final resting place of Australian camels? He saw a great heap of bones, piled high in beautiful architecture… William kept looking over his shoulder at the heap of bones. Fallen cathedral of Australian deserta. Oh shame. O ossuary of self. Ossiferous earth. What mortality there must have been. Tigris, Mecca, Babylon, Alexandria. From Cairo I rode to Ghizeh to visit pyramids, those places of sepulchre, and now I come to Orebul Downs to your resting place. Le Chameau, par sa sobriété et son endurance, est l’animal le plus utile au desert. Le roi du desert. Dromedary, with your single hump (now gone the way of fat and flesh), Bactrian, with your two (gone twice the way of all fat and flesh), I come to save your kind from the Afghan.(8)
William’s romantically heroic, civilised presence is soon brought back to earth and basics. Perhaps the greatest myth, the myth of fate or destiny, when juxtaposed with life, provides the fundamental irony of Mathers’ wit. The observation of characteristics, attitudes and values spark off the chain reactions in, and intense patterning of his substance. How these are bound is a matter of style (not just the avoidance of conventional punctuation and grammar that he later conceded was a hindrance in the initial editions of The Wort Papers) that is the fluctuating signature of each and every writer. Perhaps the stylistic experimentation of the first editions was a step too far for Mitchell, and others: there are so many variations, so many shifts and subtle plays with content, style and punctuation (and the subversion of its conventional usage). It makes the reader work hard, as much modern literature was demanding of its readership.
Mathers’ style and content are inexorably bound and cover difficult territory that is not often tackled: who else, among White Australian writers of his generation, would attempt to describe the worldview of a part-Aboriginal outsider, as Mathers did in Trap, and succeed so stunningly? There is ambition, scope and scale in Mathers’ work. The author once recalled to me that The Wort Papers was once described as the most accurate novelistic recording of rural life (particularly dairy farming) in Australia before 1980. His pride in this seemingly faintly praising response indicated his commitment to the craft of writing and the social significance of his work in a world now comparatively blasé to such achievement. His stories, too, range over many subjects, in their stylistic experimentation and exuberance tackling taboos, noting odd nuances and finding fun in strange corners of Australian society.(9)
Humphrey McQueen noted Mathers’ fierce satirical intention:
What approaches might film-makers develop from the live theatre at the end of the 1990s? Hector Crawford set television on one road in 1964 with Homicide. Over thirty years on, Australians are yet to make a cop show with witty dialogue. Some have been risible but not jokey. A possible launching point appeared late in 1994 when Carlton’s La Mama theatre presented Caught, a four-hander by Peter Mathers. The setting was a Gippsland seaside community during the period when Kennett’s commissioners ran local government. The plot was a murder mystery with connections to members of a Melbourne cult that worshipped money. In charge of the investigation was a female police sergeant who had been transferred to the bush because her probity and university degree had embarrassed Russell Street colleagues. She was a humorous feminist. A latter-day Hector Crawford could have taken Caught as a catalyst for a politically alert and linguistically wry police drama.(10)
Mathers’ material is not for everyone: it is certain to offend, shock, startle and even horrify some readers, and some may take it as a personal affront; but it remains stimulating, demanding and entertaining. Over time, I believe, his intelligence and humane and artful writing will be widely seen as an Australian parallel to the eccentric and much-loved literary styles of the Central and South American Magic Realists, Witold Gombrowicz in Poland and James Joyce or Flann O’Brien in Ireland. It sounds like an exaggeration, but many writers and scholars have felt and continue to feel the same way; and it is a shame that to date Mathers’ myth has not gripped and been appreciated more widely. Perhaps, since he is now recognized as a precursor of an Australian literary school that boasts authors such as David Foster, Elizabeth Jolley, Peter Carey and more recently the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan, this will change.
[This is a reworking of an undergraduate paper I prepared after meeting Mathers for the first time when he was Writer-in Residence at Hartley College, Magill (now University of South Australia), in the early 1980s. I’d like to thank my supervisor, the late Michael Duddy, for helping me with this original assignment]
Notes: (1) Mathers mentioned to me in conversation (around 1997) that the original edition of The Wort Papers was produced hastily by Cassell just prior to a corporate takeover and did not receive the normal or requisite degree of editorial and design attention. (2) A. Mitchell, “Fiction,” in Leonie Kramer (ed.), The Oxford History of Australian Literature (Melbourne: OUP, 1981), 167.
(3) L. Anderson, SATIRE (South Australian Tertiary Institute Regional Express), no. 1 (July 1982), np.
(4) In Don Watson, Death Sentence: the Death of Public Language (Milsons Point NSW: Random House, 2003), 140.
(5) P. Mathers, “How It Is,” simulated interview-fiction in Owen Webster (ed.), Disenchantment (Melbourne: Gold Star Publications, 1972), 181.
(6) P. Mathers, The Wort Papers (North Melbourne: Cassell, 1972), 139.
(7) For a less reactionary and more enthusiastic and detailed assessment of Mathers’ novels see Helen Daniel, “Alarums and excursions,” in Liars: Australian New Novelists (Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988), 43-70.
(8) P. Mathers, The Wort Papers (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1976), 60-1.
(9) The author has edited a revised and expanded edition of Mathers’ collection of short stories, with the working title A Change & A Chance. He also re-edited The Wort Papers, to Mathers’ instructions, just before he died in 2004. He hopes to have these titles available online on a print-on-demand basis. Mathers’ first novel, Trap, has been republished in a print-on-demand form in the Classic Australian Works series by Sydney University Press.
(10) Humphrey McQueen, “Screening out Australia” in Temper Democratic: How exception is Australia? (Kent Town SA: Wakefield Press, 1998), 105-06.