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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Quality of Sprawl

Les Murray

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Title: The Quality of Sprawl
Author: Les Murray
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999
Length: 239 pages
Availability: not yet available in the US or UK
  • Thoughts about Australia
  • Some pieces originally published in A Working Forest
  • The Quality of Sprawl is currently only available in the Australian edition from Duffy & Snellgrove

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice odds and ends about Australia

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Quality of Sprawl takes its title from a marvelous Murray-poem, and the poem also serves as the introductory piece to this collection. (Another poem, "The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever", closes it.) This 'sprawl' is something Murray revels in: ambitious yet harmless, wild but generous, often beyond both the pale and all but the wildest imagination. He finds examples everywhere:

       Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first
       lines of a sonnet, for example.
       And this sprawl is something he finds in his Australia too.
       Some of the pieces collected here were previously published in A Working Forest, while others have not previously appeared in book form. There is considerable variety, longer pieces alternating with short notes from "Our Man in Bunyah". The focus is Australia, as Murray muses on aspects large and small.
       "A Generation of Changes" looks at the changes in his native Bunyah over the nearly three decades from when he left in 1957 and returned in 1985 (with a postscript noting the additional more recent changes). Much is presented just in list form, but in its stark simplicity it is still a fascinating catalogue of what has been lost (and what has been won) and how quick and comprehensive transformations can be.
       In other pieces Murray offers more elaboration and analysis, from summertime beach behaviour (in the wonderfully titled "Flaunt, Scunge and Death-Freckles") to what goes on "In a Working Forest". He worries about "The Trade in Images", reminds readers of under-appreciated Australian non-fiction, considers the classic film The Sentimental Bloke, and discusses "Some Religious Stuff I know about Australia".
       The short pieces are more focussed: brief pieces touching on a single point -- the care of the mentally ill, misprints, amnesties, immigrants -- or describing some scene.
       Politics, in its broadest sense, figures in many of the pieces, from specific policies to broad questions about the nature of Australianness. Murray writes about the wait for "The Australian Republic", for example, and Murray's own work on drafting the Constitutional Preamble is also repeatedly discussed.
       Australia is, for Murray, "something other, with different laws", and he tries here to give some sense of it. Its complex history makes for an uncertain identity. First the place of the aboriginal immigrants, then a convict exile, it continues into the 20th (and now the 21st) century to try to prove itself. Change -- often radical and rapid -- seems the one constant (as the first piece, "A Generation of Changes", so clearly demonstrates).
       Australia's awesome natural beauty is also an integral part of the country for Murray, and from his beloved forests to the changing wildlife he presents it as a vital part of Australian identity.

       Readers from outside Australia are unlikely to be familiar with Murray's prose: so far only his poetry seems to have made it abroad. This is unfortunate: Murray proves to have a very fine touch with this form as well. His prose is natural, fluid, and convincing. Unlike the forced efforts of so many poets, Murray understands the very different requirements of the non-fiction piece.
       He does note:
But when I come to meditate on topics such as grace, I don't finally trust myself to talk about them in prose. For the important stuff, I need the help of my own medium of poetry, which can say more things.
       Possibly so, but Murray manages to say a great deal in this different medium too. The Quality of Sprawl is a very pleasant surprise for anyone previously unfamiliar with Murray's prose.
       The long pieces are enjoyably discursive, and everything Murray offers here is both informative and insightful. The collection is very Australian, but there is nothing provincial about it, nor anything in any other way so limited that it should scare off those less familiar with (or less fascinated by) Australia. Worthwhile.

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The Quality of Sprawl: Les Murray: Other works by Les Murray under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry at the complete review
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian poet Les Murray was born in 1938. He has written numerous poetry collections, as well as two novels in verse.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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