The Complete Stories of David Malouf (Pantheon, 509 pp., $27.50); The Biplane Houses: Poems by Les Murray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 99 pp., $23). We need Australia. Its literature is, quite possibly, the most necessary of English language literatures in our century -- or at least the idea of it is. I'm not talking here about the cowboy cosmopolitanism of art critic and memoirist Robert Hughes -- one of the great living roughneck internationalists -- but a literature of the last frontier, the former penal colony and continent down under where the English language literature of the Wild West finally and irrevocably stops.
Read "The Complete Stories of David Malouf" to understand why. In terms of ethnic identity, the 73-year old is surely unique among living writers -- a Jewish Lebanese/Australian. If not quite a great living master of the short story some claim (a la such forebears as Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Frank O'Connor, Katharine Anne Porter, I. B. Singer, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver), he is a very great short story writer of the F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leonard Michaels, Joyce Carol Oates sort. Which is to say he's better known as a novelist and, in his case, poet.
You'll find considerable variety in the 25 years worth of stories in "The Complete Stories" -- urban, suburban, rural, outback. There's much violence -- emotional and otherwise -- and loss. And you'll find, amid its realism, rain forest overgrowths of dreams and language. Sometimes all your painstaking adjustments for Aussie dialect (the words "utes," "billies" etc.) availeth naught for the space of a sentence or reader-resistant paragraph.
But there's enormous narrative power here from its first story "The Valley of Lagoons" -- a kind of Australian hunting variant of Faulkner's "The Bear" or Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
Unfortunately the absence of dates from the stories means that those who are just discovering Malouf will have to decode his literary evolution over 25 years. One can't even assume, for instance, that the newly appearing Malouf volume here in this collection -- "Every Move You Make" -- is all new, because it only collects previously uncollected work. In general, though, he seems to have been more formally experimental at the beginning of his career (the extraordinary story "The Prowler," for instance, which closes the book). He's still a conservative from a wild place in an era when his English and American counterparts were imposing on the form all kinds of non-geographic wildness.
If a "Complete Stories" from Malouf at this stage is a kind of sly publisher's Nobel nomination, a far more likely candidate for Australian Nobelist would probably be poet Les Murray -- by any definition one of the great living poets in the language.
Murray, at the age of 68, is surreal, aphoristic, witty and decidedly approachable in a way that is never remotely "easy" or condescending. ("Spirituality?/She snorted. And poetry?/They're like yellow and gold.") His poetry, like the house in his poem "Through the Lattice Door," is made of "diagonals tacked across diagonals."
Travels With Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Knopf, 276 pp., $25.) When Kapuscinski died, at 75, in January (just before the American publication of this work, published in Poland in 2004), he was close to singular in the world. He was a journalist whose work was unquestionably literature but also one who wrote no additional fiction to clinch literature's case. This brilliant, compulsively readable final work is part travel memoir and part investigation into "The Histories" of the ancient Greek who became his literary model. It was the Polish editor who first sent him to report from India who gave him Herodotus' "Histories" as a "present for the road." What follows is Kapuscinski on India, China, Iran, the Congo (now Zaire) and, among those he ran into, Rabinadarath Tagore and, yes, Louis Armstrong in Khartoum. But, most extraordinarily, it is about the Herodotus who inspires the kind of writer Kapuscinski became: "He lives fully, explores the whole world, meets numerous people, listen to hundreds of tales; he is an active, energetic and tireless man, constantly searching, constantly busy with something. He would like to learn about many more things, issues, mysteries, solve many more riddles, find the answers to a long litany of questions, but he simply does not have enough time or strength." Literary brothers, then, across a couple millennia.
-- Jeff Simon