Susan Gordon-Brown, portrait of Frank Moorhouse, commissioned by State Library Victoria, 2007. Pictures Collection.

Des Cowley

State Library Victoria was saddened to learn this week of the death of prominent Australian writer Frank Moorhouse. A multi-award-winning novelist and short story writer, he won the Miles Franklin award for Dark Palace in 2000 and had previously been awarded the Age Book of the Year award, the Victoria Premier’s Literary award, the Queensland Literary award, and many others.

I remember first coming across Moorhouse’s fiction when studying at the University of Sydney in the 1970s. He was part of the vanguard of experimental fiction that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, along with Peter Carey, Michael Wilding, Murray Bail, Vicki Viidikas, and others. For a young student like myself, his books were required reading, an enervating and exciting new voice on the somewhat staid local literary landscape.

Moorhouse’s short stories, often described as discontinuous narratives, were set amongst the student milieu of inner-city Sydney. Characters were often thinly veiled portraits of Sydney’s literary and artistic identities, and his short stories, such as The Jack Kerouac Wake – the True Story, often spawned their own larger-than-life urban myth. The Americans Baby (1972), which examined the anxiety that came with the Americanisation of Australian society, cemented his reputation as a fearless explorer of the sexual and social mores of Sydney’s counterculture.

Aside from his fiction writing, Moorhouse was a tireless editor and journalist. Along with Carmel Kelly and Michael Wilding, he founded Tabloid Story in 1972. To circumvent the costs of magazine publishing, Tabloid Story appeared as irregular inserts in other magazines.

Tabloid Story, the magazine Frank Moorhouse founded in 1972 with Michael Wilding and Carmel Kelly. Rare Books collection

Moorhouse would go to edit many short story anthologies, as well as publishing an extensive memoir Days of Wine and Rage (1980) detailing his volatile experiences as part of Sydney’s underground in the seventies. He even wrote a book celebrating his love of martinis. He was a steadfast supporter of Australian literature, assuming the role of president of the Australian Society of Authors from 1981 to 1983, battling censorship in all its forms, and mentoring younger writers.

Frank Moorhouse’s Days of Wine and Rage (1980), a collage of his and others voices’ memories of the seventies. Graham and Anita Anderson collection.

His apogee as a novelist came with the publication of his Edith trilogy, centred on the character of Edith Campbell Berry and her work with the League of Nations, from its founding in the 1920s to its demise after the Second World War. The first novel in the series, Grand Days (1993), was deemed ineligible for the Miles Franklin award on the somewhat spurious grounds that it was insufficiently Australian. Moorhouse subsequently took out the prize for the second novel in the series Dark Palace.

The Library holds a complete set of Frank Moorhouse’s works, generously donated by Judge Graham Anderson, which forms part of the Graham & Anita Anderson collection of modern literary first editions housed in the rare books collection. It comprises more than fifty items, including ephemeral publications and literary magazines containing his earliest stories. The collection forms a rich legacy of the work of a significant and ground-breaking Australian writer.

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Maxine McKew

Remembering Frank

Frank Moorhouse moved in circles and salons where any discussion of cost benefit analysis was decidedly de trop. Another martini anyone? 

Here’s the important point. For the philistines who may still be out there, it should be noted that you can draw a straight line between the generous Keating Arts Fellowships of the 1990’s and the creation of the Edith trilogy, surely an Australian masterpiece.

The grant money of $100,000 allowed Frank to hightail it to Geneva where he buried himself in the archives that gave him the rich detail about the early heady days of the League of Nations. At the heart of the story that became Grand Days is a young Australian woman, Edith Campbell Berry – as good an export as we’ve ever managed and why oh why hasn’t anyone turned her marvellous cross border/cross everything tale into a film? It’s a mystery. 

First editions of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy: Grand DaysDark PalaceCold Light, published between 1993 and 2011. Graham and Anita Anderson collection.

I interviewed Frank a number of times in the 1990’s. And then again in 2001 when justice was finally done with the awarding of the Miles Franklin for Dark Palace, the second book of the trilogy. He was charming, interesting. But there was something else. He seemed to have cracked the code for how to live. Not an easy life because he was often dependent on the kindness of strangers. But a life that was full of friends and bonhomie and by the end of the last century, more wine than rage. 

I can see him now – in the splendid rooms of Macquarie street’s Royal Automobile Club of Australia, enjoying the club’s patronage as resident writer. The place had everything he wanted. A great position close to that sparkling Sydney harbour, a well-stocked library, and the perfect mix of privacy and companionship. He loved it all. Then he moved on. 

Thanks for the ‘grand days’ Frank. 

This article has 3 comments

  1. Remember him from a book signing for ‘Dark Palace’ early 90s – Erudite gentleman. Vale Frank

  2. Loved his Edith trilogy

  3. Informative tribute to a varied writer.

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