Book review: The Simplest Words, Alex Miller

By David Hill

Alex Miller feels "unplugged" when not writing.
Alex Miller feels "unplugged" when not writing.

I met Alex Miller's novels a couple of years back and was grabbed by the Australian author's big arcs across time and place, his yearning, fallible people. I'm equally grabbed by his first selection of essays, short fiction and a (very) little poetry in four decades.

There are nearly 50 of them and they reflect his belief in the primacy of narrative. "For my father, a day without a story was soup without salt." He watches the mystery of invented plots transform his young daughter; tells you the origins of his novels, people, even animals; evokes the hesitant magic of making.

Pieces build biographical scaffolding.

Miller relates his early years as a stock-man, his search for a language with which to
render such a world to readers. He recalls his first publication and the perplexed phone call preceding it; acknowledges that "when I'm not writing, I feel unplugged". He meets and venerates Sydney Nolan; says goodbye to his admirable, lonely mother; contemplates the inevitability of saying goodbye to himself.

He talks of his trust in the unsaid, his belief in Primo Levi's dictum that the most simple structures are also the most durable and beautiful. It's all told in his bone-spare, luminous prose, with its metaphorical lifts evoking "the dull silver plain", or the "innocent linoleum" on which a young woman kills herself.

There are remarkable moments: a herd of wild horses are relentlessly shot down; a protagonist is so alone that an apocalypse of some sort seems inevitable; a Russian soldier in trenches outside Warsaw confronts death from his own side.

The social conscience of Miller's novels glints here. He's appalled at the denigration and dismissal of Aboriginal culture. He explores a changing, uneasy country and the "deeply un-Australian meanness" of current policy towards immigrants.

Miller can be intimate and confiding. He can shock you with revelations that wrench a life sideways. He's not averse to the odd burnished aphorism: "the writer is not master of the story, but the story is master of the writer". (Yeah. Well. Sometimes.)

American novelist Elizabeth Berg, in her Home Safe, notes that "wanting to meet an author because you like her/his books is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate". But this sophisticated yet - yes - simple selection makes me feel I'd like to spend time with Alex Miller. Even if he doesn't quack.

The Simplest Words
by Alex Miller
(Allen & Unwin $37.99)

- Canvas

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