“Five years after his death and 50 since his abandonment of Australia, Randolph Stow remains the mesmerising absence in the literary landscape. The prodigy of youth, the elusive genius, the writer of the inland, the high priest of demanding modernism — he is all these things, but above all else he is virtually unread, a legend, a shadow, a mirage on the past horizon, a void around which stories multiply and grow.” From an article by Nicholas Rothwell in The Australian, August 2015
After that rather bleak opening, the good news is that with the bulk of his work out of print, Randolph Stow, one of Australia’s most influential writers, is today being discovered by a new generation of readers following the republication of five of his key novels.
Randolph Stow’s Olympia SM4? typewriter is on display at the Regional Library, Geraldton, Western Australia
Not only had I never read Randolph Stow, I’d never heard of him until I heard about him via ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live show (hosted by Phillip Adams) and an interview with Suzanne Falkiner, author of Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (University of Western Australia (UWA) Press 2016).
Like many artists and writers of his generation, Stow left the country of his birth for England in 1966 and stayed there for much of the next 44 years.
Stow, known to his friends as “‘Mick”, was born on the 28th of November 1935 in Geraldton, Western Australia, the son of a country lawyer, Cedric Stow, and Mary, nee Sewell. Both sides of Stow’s family were fifth-generation Australians.
Like the Durack family (and his literary friends Mary and Elizabeth) the Stows were early settlers of Western Australia, colonists who eventually rose to positions of wealth and influence. While he was proud of the achievements of his family, Stow was also aware that their privilege had come at the cost of others.
Prolific writer Mary Durack
Stow was educated at Geraldton Primary School, Guildford Grammar School and at the University of Western Australia.
His descriptions of landscape, particularly the coastal landscape around his home town of Geraldton, and the way he used landscape as a means to explore the purpose of human existence were essential components of his writing.
His first novel, A Haunted Land, was published in 1957.
His novel To the Islands — written in his early twenties after living on a remote Aboriginal mission — won the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary award) in 1958.
Stow’s fifth novel, The Merry Go Round in the Sea is regarded as an Australian classic and his novels, poems and criticism brought him recognition and acclaim at an early age. But his life was a restless search for home and hearth; intellectual, gay and solitary by nature, Stow felt like an alien in his own country – he suffered depression and twice attempted suicide.
Stow and a Remington typewriter, University of Sydney, 1958
Stow and a Smith-Corona typewriter, England, late ’70s
“Mick” (Julian Randolph) Stow died of liver cancer in 2010. You can read his obituary here.