Saturday, 29 August 2020

Book review: The Swayne Family, Vance Palmer (1934)

 I bought this book second-hand at Vinnies in Fairy Meadow and it cost $8.

A nuanced portrait of middle Australia at the beginning of the third decade of last century, this novel contains stories of family relations over the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties. The Great War had not long before ended. Palmer gives us a kind of ‘Neighbours’ for a lost era, with gentle dramatic arcs punctuated by a few striking events that don’t unnecessarily tax the reader’s credulity. 

He also gives us striking visual imagery that adds considerable lustre to what otherwise might have been merely a novel of manners and sentiment, allowing the author to situate his work within the confines of Modernism. Sometimes stiff expression and occasionally awkward structural ploys, however, sit in contrast to the progressive nature of the sentiments the book retails in, though privileging the notion of youth, something that was very much alive in the author’s mind while composing his narrative, today seems quaint and even antiquated. Going by what’s in this book, people living in the 1920s must’ve felt they were part of something unprecedented. Such dreams would be sorely tested in the years that followed that of its publication.

George and Kathleen, Ernest and Dorothy, Digby (the patriarch) and Margaret (his wife) come to life in a way that provides the reader with access to the zeitgeist pre-WWII. Palmer disturbingly foreshadows knowledge of the Holocaust (see publication date) and also, conveniently for a reader not situated close in time to the events portrayed, refers to Japanese ambitions in China. Such tactics help to give depth to the characters and to orient the reader in historical time. 

When he was alive Palmer was known as a left-wing participant in the public sphere and knowing this fact would help a reader of ‘The Swayne Family’ to understand it. Fundamentally about the quality of personal status in Melbourne society during the Depression, the book posits a world of fragile reputations where the opinion of the community is prized more than individual happiness. Reading it you can easily grasp why the counterculture of the 1960s was so necessary: a corrective for outdated ideas that had survived the effects of radical technological and epistemological changes over the previous century. 

Digby comes in for a good deal of the criticism that is implied in the author’s themes and narratorial strategies, but on the other hand Palmer demonstrates a subtle command of the values of his subjects. He examines not just the actions of Digby and Margaret but also their origins, and so gives us to understand them all the more completely. I was deeply impressed by Palmer’s version of Australian society’s mores and customs in an era when the idea of the cultural cringe was already well-established, and when people tried to come to terms with modernity in an environment characterised by both technological change and want. The author is swimming in a sea familiar to him, and the reader is consequently comfortable, feeling that what is presented to him or her makes sense.

But this novel is not a well-intentioned screed. It offers a rounded and whole viewpoint that encompasses a range of different points of view. 

It is also shy of apportioning blame and, for that reason, I valued the book highly as I was reading. Once I finished it my estimation of the author was even higher and I wonder if it mightn’t be worthwhile for some enterprising publisher to reprint some of Palmer’s titles. We now live in an era when the counterculture is the thing that requires some correction, and so see a slew of TV shows situated in precisely the era this book belongs to. I believe it is currently not available in regular retail stores or on Amazon, which seems, to me, to be an unfortunate and unwarranted circumstance. I was completely engrossed in Palmer’s creation and every day, while living with it, looked forward to the opportunity to pick it up and open it so that I could return to the story of the fictional Swayne family. In fact I saw myself in Ernest and my father in Digby.

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