Harland’s Half Acre by David Malouf


A book that attempts to deconstruct an artist is not going to be straightforward. Occasionally one has insights into the interplay between the individual and the art he creates. In this case the artist is born into a family that has fallen by gambling and other misfortunes such that Frank Harland is sent to live with his aunt and uncle when his mother dies. In that house haunted by the death of a beloved son in World War I, he has the quiet to begin drawing. After a few years he returns to the squalid household of his father and helps care for other children as his father was widowed a second time.

Despite the impediments of these circumstances, Frank becomes a highly regarded artist. He makes decent money for a time, sending much of it home, then he must go out on the road as so many others did during the Depression. He never lives a conventional life, ultimately rejecting having a solid roof over his head. What makes him so, and how this is a part of his art-making is the question. The effect of living in Australia, where "art" is what has been deemed to be "art" in Europe is another matter to be considered.

The story is told sometimes in the third person and sometimes is narrated by Phil, who first met Frank Harland when his father befriended him. Phil tells of going with his father to Frank's studio in a condemned movie theatre at the end of a 60 yard pier. As Frank was denouncing his sketches as botched work, Phil's father picked out a landscape to buy. Frank recognizes it is a good work and agrees to sell it. Phil goes on:

Later, when the little picture had come to have a particular meaning for me, I would spend long hours trying to solve its mysteries; and later again, when Harland was famous, I would understand that it was a masterpiece. But at the moment of first laying eyes on it, it said nothing to me. I was used to seeing pictures in a frame. Seen as my father now held it, slightly buckled and with raw edges that the paint did not always cover, it had no more weight than the painter himself, who was too close to being a tramp for me to see him as an artist.

Frank was moved to be more bold in his painting by a tragic event. He often visited the antique shop of Knack and Edna and spent hours in their company, listening to Knack play Schumann on the piano. One day when he came to visit he found the place crowded by policemen and onlookers as Knack had shot Edna, then himself. Blood was spattered onto a painting of his. 

His picture for instance — the one thing that was near enough to his own experience to offer him access. Changed! Extraordinary. Such reds! What painter would have dared? He was frighteningly dazzled by the possibilities, as if, without his knowing it, his own hand had broken through to something that was searingly alive, savage, triumphant, and stood witness at last to all terror and beauty.

By chance Phil had also visited Knack and Edna:

It was the merest chance that Frank Harland's experience and mine should have crossed in this way, and that I should have come upon his drawing of the woman in a place where I was accustomed, week after week, to make the jump from reality to some other more abstract dimension. Anywhere else I might have missed the connection; and even now there was something in the larger painting that I failed to catch. I saw clearly enough what those linked figures were doing, what the red was, and the madness and pathos of those streaks of blue, but I could not understand why the thing was so joyfully undismayed. It was as if all that red — as Frank Harland conceived it — were something other than blood.

This is a book with no pat explanations, just questions, intimations. 

One small matter I want to note: one character was said to be holding a bottle of Fourex. Curious about what that could be, I discovered online it is a Queensland (where this book is set) beer XXXX, introduced in 1924 commonly called Fourex.

David Malouf, Harland's Half Acre, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1984, 230 pages. Available from UVa library and through Amazon.

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