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Australia's world-class fiction

Without making much fuss about it, Australia has, in the last 20 years, produced a mature literature of worldwide significance. By mature is meant a consistent standard of excellence, a mastery of indigenous themes, a native idiom, a characteristic voice or chorus of voices.

More than anyone else, Patrick White defined the standard and lighted the way; his 1973 Nobel Prize brought literary prestige to a country best known for its marsupials. But the true flowering has come in the current generation, with the writers who matured after the war.

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Three of the best of those writers - novelists Thea Astley, Rodney Hall, and David Malouf - recently read from and discussed their latest novels at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The event, sponsored by Australia's Literature Board, is part of an effort to bring fiction from down under to American readers.

Happily, the reading coincides with a burst of Austra-philia in the American publishing industry.

''American publishers have suddenly realized what they're missing,'' said Pearl Bowman, an editor at the University of Queensland Press, the only Australian house that publishes in America. ''Five years ago they wouldn't touch Australian fiction. Now there's a rush to get Australian writers on their lists.''

And Glenda Adams, an Australian author who acted as moderator at the Guggenheim discussion, commented, ''People are now saying Australian writing is chic. That's marvelous. We never expected to find 'chic' and 'Australian' in the same sentence.''

Astley, Hall, and Malouf have each benefited from the boom. Penguin recently brought out Astley's latest novel, ''An Item From the Late News,'' and Hall's ''Just Relations.'' Malouf, whose earlier novels ''Johnno'' and ''An Imaginary Life'' are available from Braziller, had his most recent book, ''Harland's Half Acre,'' published last month by Knopf.

To readers accustomed to understatement, a form of irony widely used in contemporary American fiction, these Australian novels come as a shock and a revelation. They have an unforced sense of gigantic consequence that very, very few American writers can match.

Each of the novels explores, in different styles, the gray area between allegory and realism. Events are at once ordinary and symbolic. The Australian sensibility moves fluidly from terror to laughter to cruelty to gentleness. Their writing displays a daring, exciting contempt for the genres that divide more sophisticated literatures.

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Thea Astley is the author of eight novels, three of which have won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious literary prize. She lives in a rain forest in North Queensland.

''I love it,'' she told me. ''It's beautiful.'' Five minutes later: ''I hate it, it's so boring.'' That ambivalence to Australian landscape and culture shows up in the work of all three writers.

Astley's An Item from the Late News is about an eccentric visionary named Wafer, who turns up one day in Allbut, a rural Australian town. Wafer saw his father killed by a bomb in the World War II, and he has come to the outback to build the perfect bomb shelter. But Allbut's violent, stupid inhabitants persecute Wafer for his principles, and finally murder him.

It's not exactly a celebration of Australian life; rather the novel seems born of a remarkably intense indignation over Australian bigotry and philistinism.

There's a lot of social criticism in David Malouf's books as well. Malouf himself leaves Australia for four months every year and lives in Italy. But he always returns to Brisbane. I asked him why.

''I don't like Brisbane,'' he said. ''It's reactionary and prejudiced. But it's the only place I understand.''

Malouf's life of exile and return is a pattern reflected in his books. As with Astley, his characters are alienated from their hostile environments. But Malouf's novels, more lyrical than Astley's, express more than alienation; his characters finally achieve communion with their country. His beautiful earlier novel, An Imaginary Life, is, for me, the quintessential expression of this theme.

The novel is an invented account of Ovid's last years, in exile among the Scythians. At first Ovid mourns the Roman civilization he has lost. But gradually he feels in the harsh landscape and crude Scythians a beauty and nobility more profound than culture can create:

''I begin to see, in snatches, how this old man, my friend, might see the world. It is astonishing. Bare, cruel, terrible, comic. And yet daily he seems nobler and more gentle than any Roman I have known. Beside him I am an hysterical old woman. Utterly without dignity.''

In Malouf's new novel, Harland's Half Acre, the hero's journey from solipsism to community roughly parallels the history of 20th-century Australia. Beginning with the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1941, and propelled by European immigration in the '50s and by a communications revolution, Australia has, with dizzying speed, entered the modern world. Its accelerated evolution exactly coincides with the lives of its contemporary writers, and profoundly shapes their work.

Rodney Hall's massive Just Relations may prove to be the definitive novel about early modern Australian history. An encyclopedia of literary styles, from satire to fantasy to lyricism to black comedy, the novel concerns the 49 residents of Whitey's Fall, most of whom are over 75 years old, all of whom are related.

The main story is about the town's fight to resist modernization, to preserve their rural history. But though it is a history of a people, the novel, remarkably, expresses history not through plot but through character. ''Just Relations'' recalls the roots of the English novel, specifically ''Tristram Shandy.'' It makes the sequential narrative, which is one of the foundations of realism, seem like an abstract, superimposed literary device. As Hall succinctly writes, ''History is not a chain of things done, but a continuum of things been.''

When I suggested the name Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hall, a lively man anyway, exploded. ''The greatest living writer,'' he said passionately. ''He really shows you what the novel can do.''

And so do the Australians. It's time to pay attention.

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