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  • Australian Patriography: How Sons Write Fathers in Contemporary Life Writing by Stephen Mansfield
  • Alex Segal (bio)
Stephen Mansfield. Australian Patriography: How Sons Write Fathers in Contemporary Life Writing. London: Anthem, 2013. 222 pp. ISBN 978-0857-2833-06, £60/US$99.00.

Stephen Mansfield’s Australian Patriography: How Sons Write Fathers in Contemporary Life Writing explores recent auto/biographical writing by Australian men: Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father (1998), Peter Rose’s Rose Boys (2001), Richard Freadman’s Shadow of Doubt (2003), John Hughes’s The Idea of Home (2004), and Robert Gray’s The Land I Came Through Last (2008). Focussing primarily on the author’s relation to his father, the discussion raises fascinating issues: Can the son’s act of writing be a performance of masculinity for the father? Does the literary gulf that separates the son from the father prevent the son’s memoir from being a tribute to the father? How does one pay tribute to a father whose self-effacing decency renders him resistant to representation? The study does well to foreground such questions in relation to texts that are worthy of more attention than they have received. But addressing such difficult questions requires a level of nuance and precision which I do not think Mansfield achieved.

Mansfield suggests that Hughes, in The Idea of Home, sees masculinity as the kind of display that sociologist R. W. Connell associates with the sporting arena, and that in Hughes this notion of masculinity is linked to an emphasis on the untranslatability of meaning between languages; in effect, on “how meaning is acted out bodily, through gesture” (144)—an acting out that Mansfield characterizes as performance. Mansfield seems to suggest that Hughes evokes a performance of masculinity, “the author’s embodiment of his father’s heritage” (157), in the following passage:

There was a time when I was growing up when I did not feel comfortable with the thought of touching him, when I did not feel comfortable, I suppose, with the thought of our two bodies. Now when I pull my shirt over my head or stand under the shower or lie in bed I smell myself and it is him. My father’s scent when I was a child. It’s an eerie kind of intimacy. It makes me wonder if he noticed the same with his father, and if so, if this scent of mine is the same.

(The Idea of Home 112; qtd. in Mansfield 156)

Pace Mansfield, my own sense is that the experience at issue here is remote from the kind of masculine display that interests Connell. Mansfield notes that Hughes’s statement that “We forget the dead . . . even as our bodies [End Page 585] become the repositories of their memories” (201) is an expansion of the statement of Proust’s narrator: “The dead annex the living who become their replicas and successors.” But he ignores what Hughes explicitly mentions: that Proust’s narrator makes this statement on the basis of his observation “that his mother seems to have taken on many of his dead grandmother’s traits”—at issue in what Marcel observes is not masculine display.

Mansfield, quoting Derrida, characterizes Peter Rose’s Rose Boys as “an attempt ‘to speak for the other whom one loves and admires’” (122); the other here is Peter’s dead brother, Robert. Mansfield then asks: “Can an auto/biographer speak for another who has died? . . . be an interlocutor through whom the dead speaks?” (122). He thereby seems to tie speaking for another person to enabling the other person to speak through oneself. Yet later he writes: “Peter is not willing his brother to speak, but speaking for himself. Despite his efforts, Rose cannot ultimately will another to speak, but (like Derrida) can attempt to speak for and of him. . . . Rose intends to . . . communicate a message. Ultimately, this message can only be read as the author’s own” (137). If the author can attempt (reasonably it would seem) to speak for the other yet can convey only his own message, then the tie made earlier between speaking for the other and conveying the other’s message—a tie that generates the interest...