In Kangaroo (1923) that dreadful old snob D.H.Lawrence makes some interesting comments on Nat Gould (the wartime soldier’s favourite writer). Somers, who is Lawrence’s alter ego, has come to Australia looking for unspoilt nature in a new country, and has found only a suburbia more suburban than England, miles and miles of bungalows with names like “Wyework” “Torestin”. Here he and his wife, find a library in a small town, and find plenty of cause for condescension:
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays were the library nights. When you had crossed the iron foot-bridge over the railway, you came to a big wooden building with a corrugated iron roof, standing forlorn at an unmade corner, like the fag-end of the village. But the village was an agglomeration of fag ends. This building might have been a temporary chapel, as you came at it from the back. But in front it was labelled “Pictoria”, so it was the cinema. But there was also a black board with gilt letters, like a chapel notice-board, which said “School of Arts Library”. And the Pictoria had a sort of little wing, all wood, like a little school-room. And in one section of this wing was the School of Arts Library, which the Somers had joined. Four rows of novels: the top row a hundred or more thin books, all Nat Gould or Zane Grey. The young women came for Zane Grey. “Oh, ‘The Maid of Mudgee’ is a lovely thing, lovely”–a young woman was pronouncing from the top of the broken chair which served as stool to give access to this top row. “Y’aven’ got a new Zaine Greye, have yer?” She spoke in these tones of unmitigated intimacy to the white-moustached librarian. One would have thought he was her dear old dad. Then came a young railway man who had heard there was a new Nat Gould.
“But,” said Somers, as he and Harriet went off with a Mary E. Mann and a George A. Birmingham, “I don’t wonder they can’t read English books, or only want Nat Gould. All the scruples and the emotions and the regrets in English novels do seem waste of time out here.”
“I suppose,” said Harriet, “if you don’t have any inside life of your own it must seem a waste of time…”
A recurrent theme of the novel is that most Australians (and most people in Europe, which is “done for, played out, finished” it seems) are cornstalks – just an outside, with no interior. This justifies superior beings like Somers and “Kangaroo” (the sort-of-would-be-Duce) calling them “slaves” and so on.
I hate the supposition of this extract – I call it the Ruskinian fallacy, because Ruskin maybe started it, in England at least, but you find it in the writings of doleful Leavisites, and the more uptight cutural studies people, and columnists deploring popular TV – the assumption that because people are choosing unsophisticated art, literature or telly, this means that they are lacking or flawed as human beings.
The smug Somerses don’t ask what the young railwayman wants from his Nat Gould. Excitement to make a change from railway routine? A sense of wider possibilities than rural Australia offers? A confirmation of masculine values? Some evidence about the question that puzzles him – whether these values can be combined with morality? Or maybe he just responds to someone who sounds like he knows what he’s writing about – Nat Gould is a lot more convincing as an expert on horse-racing than DHL is on Australian politics.
Kangaroo itself finds room for “the scruples and the emotions and the regrets” – but mostly the emotions – and this makes it a more literary text than a Nat Gould; I’m not convinced, though that it’s more true to life, and ethically I reckon it’s pretty dubious. I’ll write more about the politics of Kangaroo later.