Anthony Hassall's critical (and biographical) study has two advantages over Ray Willbanks' book length 1978 assessment of Stow: evaluation of three major works published since that date and a number of fugitive pieces; and two interviews with Stow, Bruce Bennett's of 1981, and Professor Hassall's own of 1982. In addition, Hassall makes use of correspondence with Stow over several years. He treats this background material and authorial recollection of intentions with the care and occasional scepticism required by such after-the-fact notations, a care especially needed with a writer whose search for identity is expressed through his fictions—which is only to observe that the letters, as Hassall conveys them, become part of the known context, aspects of the works themselves. So that Hassall's statement, "The [last two novels] . . . are . . . complementary chapters in the spiritual autobiography of the author," we take to be the prelude to a discussion of the relationship between the author's life and his fiction and are not disappointed.
He begins systematically with a chapter on metaphorical landscape that owes something to the Nobel citation of Patrick White's fiction. There runs through Stow's work a "radical unease with the self that derives from a triple alienation—from "the outer landscape of Australia," the "lost world" of love, and the "silent inner landscape" that underlies the others. Hassall then devotes a chapter to the early fiction in which he sees Stow as describing the landscape with "fanatical realism" and the interaction with it of isolated people. After a chapter each on the major novels, To the Islands (1959) and Tourmaline (1965), he takes up the poetry. What he says here has an important bearing on the prose as well.
He attributes the difficulty in evaluating the poetry to its being part of the "spiritual autobiography." Beyond this, there is Stow's "distrust of the whole [End Page 395] business of writing, with its rhetoric, its strategies, and its manipulations." The first difficulty may have led him to overvalue the poems, many of which exhibit a kind of murkiness: "my store of hate runs low, runs out; and their simple health annuls my bitterness." The real question here, however, is to what extent Stow's distrust of writing may be Becketting his toward silence.
Two works merit the "status of classics," Hassall believes: The Merry-go-Round in the Sea (1965) and Visitants (1981). In discussing these, and others, Hassall makes comparisons upwards with names more solidly established on the international scene—Woolf, White, Robbe-Grillet, Proust, Faulkner—that when restricted to a specific aspect (Woolf's concern with what people don't say) or technique (Robbe-Grillet's cinematic effects) are functional in anticipating what a reader will find who comes to Stow's work for the first time. Only occasionally does this method overreach, as in the assertion that Stow is "the only novelist in recent decades whose best work bears comparison with Patrick White's," neglecting to consider Keneally, for one. Despite a few aberrations from critical objectivity, this study is a valuable assessment of a productive and challenging writer still only in mid-career. Hassall's brief Afterword makes a cogent and effective case for this supposition.