Such is Life

Such is Life, Joseph Furphy, 1903

  • Australia, #6
  • Kindle, free from amazon.com
  • Read September 2014
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: People who like Henry Lawson’s subject matter, but want it presented with a plot and a little bit of comedy.

Between this book, Lawson’s stories, Paterson’s poetry, and My Brilliant Career the reader gets a pretty good picture of what life was like in the Australian outback in the 18th and early 19th centuries. There are squatters–the squattocracy–who own land and employ others. They employ boundary-riders, who figure heavily in Furphy’s book; the boundary-riders are responsible for watching out for drovers, grazing illegally on the squatter’s land. Some squatters are happy to let the drovers graze (like Sybilla’s father in My Brilliant Career), while others impound their cattle and charge a fee to release them. Either way the drovers have no option but to graze on the squatter’s land; there is often no grass elsewhere. There are also swagmen or sundowners who travel the country looking for short-term work, and there are prospectors, digging for gold. Everyone except the squatters and the boundary riders are happy to sleep out in the open, and there is a society among these itinerants; their paths cross and recross and there are friends and enemies among them. Furphy is more concerned with drovers, Paterson with the settled workers (boundary riders and other ranch hands) and Lawson with the swagmen, but it is a picture of a complete and interconnected society, away from “civilization” and all its traps and trappings.

California, 2005
California 2005

Furphy’s narrator is a self-educated minor government official, who roams the outback in the company of a dog and two horses, crossing paths with drovers and swagmen and philosophizing all the while. The digressions can be long, boring, and sometimes infuriating, and yet I think they make the book what it is, and it would be an inferior book without them. It’s a reaction to the flowery language of writers like Marcus Clarke. You can imagine that it is exactly the way a self-educated bush philosopher who spends his spare time reading Shakespeare and Victorian novelists would talk—never one word when ten will do.

The only really detrimental aspect of this book is Furphy’s attempt at dialect. The bush of Australia is peopled with all different nationalities, and all except the Australians of European descent are given ridiculous accents or manner of speech. There are a few different English accents, plus Irish, Scottish, Chinese, French, German, and Dutch. Besides betraying a troubling (if unsurprising) racism (especially in the case of the Chinese dialect), all of them are nearly incomprehensible and painful to read. It is a comic novel, and perhaps the turn-of-the-century audience would have found it hilarious, but it is really quite difficult to read—not purely because it’s dialect, but because it’s terrible dialect. When reading the dialect work of, say, Irvine Welsh, as soon as you read the impenetrable dialogue aloud it is easy to understand because he has phonetically captured a mode of speech that is then comprehensible to the non-Scots reader. Furphy’s dialogue, on the other hand, sounds like complete gibberish when read aloud and I ended up having to skip some of the dialect passages because I couldn’t make heads or tails of them.

Such is Life was an entertaining read for the most part, but I don’t know that there’s much reason to read this book when Henry Lawson is available; Lawson’s writing about outback life is both more nuanced and more readable.

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