This month we’re proud to be publishing the fourth David Ireland title in the Text Classics—The Chantic Bird. The Chantic Bird is the confession of a teenage anarchist, who combines a contempt for contemporary society with a great tenderness and warmth for his younger siblings and for Bee, the girl who looks after them.
When I first read this book, as a young, just-out-of-the-country girl in the 1980s, reading the book more than two decades after its original publication, I was gripped by the narrator’s anarchic and aggressive view of the world. It was one of the rare books that made my skin tingle and my heart race. I was so excited about it that I recommended it to a man I had fallen for. He loathed it, but it gave us plenty to talk about and we are still arguing about books more than twenty years on.
In his fine introduction to the novel Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of the Australian, better describes this feeling in the broader context of Australian literature:
This authorial voice remains thrilling and disquieting in equal measure. No one before David Ireland sounded quite like him: his writing is experimental and brutal, utterly at odds with the agrarian school of Australian fiction. And he had no immediate contemporaries, aside, perhaps, from Kenneth Cook, author of Wake in Fright, who was born only months after Ireland in the same south-western Sydney suburb of Lakemba. Wake in Fright appeared in 1961, seven years before The Chantic Bird was eventually published.
Today, Ireland’s traces are everywhere: in the early metafictions of Peter Carey and in The Life, the most recent novel by Malcolm Knox; in the grungier corners of Andrew McGahan and Christos Tsiolkas; in film (Mad Max, Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, Bad Boy Bubby ) and in the antipodean gothic of the man who may now be our most influential literary export, Nick Cave. Hemingway once suggested that all of American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn. It’s arguable that one tradition—modernist, masculine, urban, working-class—emerged from The Chantic Bird and the writings that followed it, irrespective of Ireland’s invisibility to the culture at large.
The Chantic Bird, Ireland’s first novel, was published in 1968. In the next decade he published five further novels, three of which won the Miles Franklin Award: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, The Glass Canoe and A Woman of the Future, which are all now available as Text Classics. His work is characterised by a deep engagement with working-class Australia and the dehumanisation of modern labour practices. In the author’s own words: ‘It has been my aim to take apart, then build up piece by piece, this mosaic of one kind of human life...to remind my present age of its industrial adolescence.’ His contribution to Australian literature was recognised in 1981, when he was made a member of the Order of Australia.
Don’t miss a rare opportunity to hear one of Australia’s greatest writers—David Ireland joins Geordie Williamson in a one-off event to discuss David’s life and career at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Click here for more details.