FRANK MOORHOUSE A LIFE

By Catharine Lumby

Allen & Unwin 2023

ISBN: 978 1 74237 224 2

RRP: $34.99 (PB)

 

 

As his friend and literary trustee Helen Lewis has recorded: “There were many rooms in Frank Moorhouse.” In this cute play on words, Lewis captured the many layered man she had known well. Moorhouse was indeed a phenomenon, and his life, personality, his work and his many parts have now been captured in the first of biographies to come since his death in late June 2022.

Frank Moorhouse A Life is the work of Catharine Lumby – writer, academic and friend to Moorhouse over decades – and the person he chose as his biographer. Lumby spent years talking with Moorhouse and interviewed 45 people connected to him either personally or professionally for her book. She had complete access to his voluminous collection of papers held at the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland. He kept everything.

Lumby’s work is a biography which makes clear from the outset that it is a selective biography, “with an eye to exploring the relationship between Moorhouse’s life and writing” rather than a complete or comprehensive guide to his life and work. Lumby, however, was considered by Moorhouse to be the writer who finally “got” him and her portrait in many ways takes this sharpness of perception to another level.

As one of Australia’s most recognised and acclaimed writers (18 fiction and non-fiction books, countless essays, articles and screen plays), Frank Moorhouse was known personally to many. At his memorial, a get-together of Moorhouse friends after his death, Lumby noted that numbers of these friends and acquaintances were surprised to learn of so many others he had been close to and whom they were unaware he had known. Moorhouse was not only exceptionally gregarious, he compartmentalised his friendships and connections. He had a number of tribes so to speak. And he could intensify his presence with acquaintances by the effect he had on them. Lumby writes:

Moorhouse had the gift of making anyone he had taken an interest in feel like the most fascinating person in the room. And they were, when he was with them. He kept his friendship circle largely separate because he knew who he needed to see and when he needed to see them. He very carefully curated most of his social relationships.

Lumby’s recreation of Frank Moorhouse is a cleverly crafted arrangement. It could be said to tackle his life and work and many contradictions in a number of Helen Lewis’ imaginary houses. There are eight chapters followed by a conclusion and a brief summary of how the biography took shape. In her opening chapter Lumby not only introduces her subject and his origins, but also reflects on how so much of this boy from Nowra, on the south coast of New South Wales, remained with him through his life and much of his writing – from shucking oysters to crossing boundaries – alongside Moorhouse’s earliest exploration of his complex sexuality which began in his teenage years.

Frank Moorhouse may have been reared in a parochial country town, but he was no Trent Dalton. His father, Frank senior, was an inventor who had established himself as the owner of a successful farming equipment business. His mother was a community leader and three times branch president of the Nowra Country Women’s Association. Frank’s parents were respected figures in the Nowra community and his father was recognised on his death in a speech to the Australian Senate by Senator Michael Baume for his contribution to the dairy industry on the NSW south coast.

Moorhouse would escape to sophisticated, urbanised and bohemian writers’ collectives soon enough but his parents would remain with him as inspirations for characters in his novels. Lumby recalls how Moorhouse once quipped to her, “I’m always writing about Nowra.” While Lumby calls this chapter “Leaving Nowra” she writes: “It may be more accurate to say that, rather than leaving Nowra behind, Moorhouse lived and wrote in negotiation with his upbringing.” This, to some extent, explains his many contradictions. Lumby pinpoints this as a tussle between urban sophisticate and countryfied ordinariness as explored in his collection The Americans Baby.

Moorhouse’s compartmentalising began early. As he married, in a respectable family wedding, his high school sweetheart Wendy Halloway in 1958 in Nowra, Moorhouse already was aware of his bisexuality having conducted an affair with a male  colleague while he and Wendy were dating. At the time, with male homosexuality a crime, Moorhouse agonised over his double life and later recalled the confusion it gave him. But it would enhance his writing of fiction and in time reveal that Moorhouse brought into focus, in unique ways, the conflicts both personal and public of his generation. Lumby writes:

All the hallmarks are there: knowing self-deprecation, irony, an uneasy yet complicit relationship with the intellectual life, and a searching approach to received ideas about gender, sexuality and human relationships, all three of which were under serious interrogation in the 1970s.

And so began a sort of on screen/off screen personal life. With the early end of his marriage, Moorhouse was to have a number of known and lengthy relationships with various female partners, while keeping his liaisons with male encounters a secret. The most prominent of these partners contribute important glimpses in the book – helping to unravel the complicated man Moorhouse was. Women such as Sandra Levy and Fiona Giles were significant in Frank’s life. But Lumby seeks to keep many names of such affairs out of her biography, writing: “I have constantly balanced my desire to include a quote from a letter that would add genuine shade or light to this biography with my concern about the potential harm that might be done to others by an unexpected disclosure.”

Moorhouse came to writing through work with newspapers, at first working as a copyboy with The Daily Telegraph and then on newspapers in various rural towns. By the time of his first book Futility and Other Animals, Moorhouse was well entrenched in the bohemian culture of Balmain. Living with Sandra Levy in her house in Balmain, Moorhouse connected with the “in” set of Australia’s budding writing elite – David Williamson, Don Anderson, Elizabeth Wynhausen, Robert Adamson, Kate Jennings and more besides. Alcoholic readings of prose and verse filled spare hours in Balmain’s many pubs. A chairperson of the Literature Board on one occasion commented: “What they’re spending on alcohol and drugs would publish a dozen books.”

Linking the fluidity of lives and times in Balmain and Moorhouse’s writing in the 1970s, Lumby explores the confronting themes he tackled. “Moorhouse began his published writing career the way he meant to go on [“The Story of the Knife”]”, writes Lumby, adding, “… he was trying to find a language to talk about the male anxiety that necessarily reared its head when women began challenging established social and sexual norms.” Bred in a home dominated by his father’s exactitude, and scientific and mechanical thinking, Moorhouse would – both personally and in his writing – test the edges of boundaries over a lifetime.

When he wasn’t settled in regular digs, Moorhouse managed with what today is known as couch surfing with any number of acquaintances. Lumby remarks on Moorhouse’s lack of interest in possessions, a true bohemian to the end. Yet, his libertarian attitudes would come up against more doctrinaire leftist times as the new left evolved. Moorhouse mixed happily with elements of Sydney’s Push where discourse was meant not to change the world but to interpret it. He could navigate around the Push’s homophobic sentiments and misogyny while sympathising with second wave feminism to a point. But he could not respect feminism’s ideological bluntness. Similarly, he attacked new left movements as “destructive and mechanical in their sense of personality and sexuality”.

Moorhouse wrote and reflected the era of the god writer in many ways. The decades post war of the late 1950s into the 1990s, before the advent of cyberspace and social media, writers like Moorhouse and his collection of friends and colleagues, both locally and overseas, set the pace for intellectual debate and progressive thinking. Many like David Williamson and Peter Carey acquired considerable assets and wealth. Success at writing, turning out best sellers and popular plays, could be a lucrative career. Moorhouse, however, earning well from sales and advances, lacked an acquisitive nature and spent what he had quite often in a generous and frivolous joie de vivre. Lumby records how, after his novel Forty-Seventeen was published, Moorhouse treated his publisher and London agent to lavish food and wine at the London Groucho Club. The group was joined by Harold Jacobson, Simon Schama and Clive James and the champagne flowed. Lumby writes: “When the cheque was brought, none of the rest of the table volunteered their wallets.” Moorhouse looked at the bill and realised he needed to call his Sydney agent Rose Creswell for extra funds. Rose sardonically replied, “Yeah, I’ll sell my car … or why don’t we cash in one of your gold bars.” Somehow, Rose came through for Frank.

Moorhouse had no time for domesticity and regarded his life choices in being a writer ruled out parenthood, in spite of his warmth with children. This released him from financial obligations, so he lived what one-time partner Fiona Giles described as a “smoke and mirrors” existence and a “tolerance for high financial risk and a kind of anarchistic approach to money”. By compartmentalising her own portrait of Moorhouse, and weaving his professional and personal life together from different angles, Lumby fashions a man who lived and worked not only from intellectual ruminations but also from instinctive pleasure and indulgence of personal tastes.

Moorhouse took from life any opportunity he found. But he was also obsessive when it came to martinis – even seeing his life as akin to a well-mixed martini or a shucked oyster. In an essay for Gourmet Traveller he wrote:

A year or so back I decided to pair with the oyster. I’d eaten so many during my life and they’d given me such fine pleasure, I felt I had become something like an oyster. I hope I have. I like swimming. I like taking in the sun, and I like to close the lid on my life and just have time out – as oysters do. Oh, and they change sex every so often just for fun. I like that too.

Lumby captures Moorhouse, like the oyster. The cross dressing Moorhouse, the devoted lover he could be as in his years with Fiona Giles, the untied man who preferred clubs and motel life to being tied to any particular piece of real estate, the obsessive martini maker, the gourmet indulging at the Bilsons’ restaurants, the Moorhouse who disliked dinner parties because he might be trapped in a house when he wanted to leave, the Moorhouse who could (literally) lose himself bush walking without fear, the Moorhouse who is explored in Lumby’s chapter “The Moorhouse Method: Rules for Living”.

Intellectually, it is Moorhouse’s Grand Days League of Nations trilogy late in his writing that processes many of the themes in his work. His heroine Edith Campbell Berry has been described as one of Australia’s enduring characters in literature. In Edith and her odyssey-like involvement with the League of Nations, Moorhouse combines the grand dream and the ingenue to weave a tale that not only draws from a global organisation seeking to harmonise national boundaries but within that he allows Edith Campbell Berry to form and re-form both personally and professionally. Lumby’s analysis of Grand Days and its sequels explains much of the contradiction and complexity to be found in Moorhouse himself and what he sought to explore in his writing.

Lumby quotes political historian Lenore Coltheart, who was also interested in the League of Nations and reviewed the book out of curiosity:

You need to be able to govern your federation of selves in order to be able to be equal and have equal relationships with people around you… Only when we do that can we actually expect that we might have a national government that acts justly.

This is a grand vision indeed. Whether Moorhouse ever believed it could be achieved with or without federating ourselves is not known. But his vision of a strong woman emerging from Geneva to return to Canberra with ideas on building a national capital suggests he believed a certain coalescence of different strains of character could produce a fertile imagination. And, in a sense, that is what Moorhouse achieved in his life and work.

In Frank Moorhouse A Life, Lumby has left a tender but sharply probing memory of one of Australia’s finest writers.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.