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Finding fragments of a father



In the summer of 1988 I was part of an Adelaide Writers Week symposium on biography the stars of which were two justly famous and accomplished biographers — Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion.

Cover Daddy Cool Allen and Unwin

I described that occasion at the time, like this:

'I greatly admired Motion’s panache. As we ascended the podium to begin the session in front of a huge crowd in the Writers Week tent, he was heard to enquire of anyone within earshot what it was we were supposed to be talking about! For her part, Victoria Glendinning had some spare jottings on the back of an envelope and she, like Motion, spoke with splendid fluency and conviction. Neither of them seemed to have the slightest doubt about the legitimacy of biography or the reliability of what biographical research turned up. They considered that when you committed biography you produced something describable as an accurate, recognisable, to some extent verifiable, life.'

Their confidence, the assurance with which they approached the topic and its intricacies, powerfully intensified my own sense of unease. As a writers week neophyte, I was beginning to wonder whether my planned contribution, which would explore and elaborate on a profound doubt about the legitimacy of the biographical act, was such a good idea after all.

In ensuing years, however, both Glendinning and Motion also began to doubt, Glendinning rejecting what she came to see as the ‘kind of authoritative tone that reckons to give you the whole picture of somebody’s life,’ the tone, that is, of conventional biography. And Motion, joining the ranks of the apostates, suggested that ‘if [biography is] only pursued by orthodox means, it will endlessly go round the same small wheels of people who left papers behind that we can re-read and re-interpret’.

Motion’s doubts and worries about biography were brought to a head when he began to write Wainewright the Poisoner. Confronted by ‘formidable difficulties’ which precluded the construction of a ‘complete linear narrative of [Wainwright’s] life’, Motion came to a conclusion that would have been anathema to him and his compatriot in Adelaide in 1988: ‘Well,’ he resolved, ‘I’m going to have to make it up.’


'Like many a biographical subject, Bungey’s mercurial father evades final capture. Hoping to ‘find’ him, she reveals, in her own estimation, only fragments.'


In Daddy Cool, Darleen Bungey does not ‘make it up’ (strictly speaking, neither did Motion), but she does honestly acknowledge the difficulties and, frankly, the impossibility of ‘the kind of authoritative tone that reckons to give you the whole picture of somebody’s life’. When, as a researching biographer, you just haven’t got the material — the records, papers, diaries, correspondence — to back up your intuitions and speculations about someone else’s life, even someone close and well loved, you have to seek strategies to confront the problem yet maintain a sense of legitimacy, of honesty indeed, in your narrative.

Bungey manages this with aplomb. Although it’s her father she is writing about and although she has available, as one might expect, her own recall of their relationship over the years, as well as other forms of documentary reference to his life, fame and personality, there are still gaps in the biographical narrative which must either be left blank or credibly imagined. Bungey achieves the latter, creatively reconstructing her father’s teenage years like this for example: ‘I imagine that he felt the weight of his father’s arm around his shoulders, heard the words “my son” as he was pulled in close… Throughout his life it’s a fair bet that every time my father tasted summer ripe cherries his thoughts flew back to that house on L street…’

Later, after Bungey has traced more than thirty years of her father’s chaotic, serendipitous, brilliantly successful, calamitous and desperate life story, she explains his sudden, amazing decision to marry the ingénue Gloria Nott by ‘guessing that at the age of thirty-three he resolved to give up the ruckus of the late night bars in exchange for the thing he had always craved as he travelled from country to country, city to city — stability.’ An ‘imagined’ scene, a ‘fair bet’ and some daring guesswork are not the manoeuvres of orthodox biography; but they can work as they do so convincingly for Darleen Bungey, notwithstanding biographical orthodoxies in the past.

Daddy Cool is a thoroughly absorbing biography, witty, astonishing, often intensely moving, effortlessly in charge of a crowded and potentially confusing canvas (readers of a certain age will recognise names like Jack Davey, Roy Rene, Dick Bentley, Willie Fennell). Written with skill and much panache, it metamorphoses to autobiography as Darleen Bungey’s own life begins to assume its various shapes preceding her own literary achievements as remarkable as those of her Pulitzer Prize-winning sister, Geraldine Brooks.

Like many a biographical subject, Bungey’s mercurial father evades final capture. Hoping to ‘find’ him, she reveals, in her own estimation, only fragments. The kaleidoscope, which has seemed often in the narrative to be the most pressing image for her father’s life, remains insistent: ‘I found little pieces of him … like shards of coloured glass that [momentarily] fell into a fleeting image of him. But then, with the smallest tilt of reflection … he shifted again and reformed.’

Alice in Wonderland, which her father had read to her ‘night after night’ all those years ago, provides the final poignant image — for the daughter and the biographer: ‘… like the White Rabbit, I was destined from the very beginning to always be late. To be running forever after that sweet man, my father, back through time in a vain effort to catch him.’



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Darleen Bungey, Daddy Cool. Allen and Unwin RRP $32.99

Image credit: Allen and Unwin

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Daddy Cool, Darleen Bungey, Robert Cutter, Lawrence Brooks, review



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Existing comments

From her home at Martha's Vineyard USA, at the beginning of "The Idea of Home" (Boyer Lectures 2011) Geraldine Brooks writes "Nor can I explain...how and why it is that I am haunted by absence and distance, by dissonance and difference, even if the alien corn that we will eat for dinner tonight is a sweeter variety than the starchy cobs of my Aussie childhood." Certainly, literary merit runs deep for these two sisters. And what a great title for a biography.

Pam | 02 July 2020  

Life writing at its best is a masterly craft. It is extraordinary how differently biography, autobiography and memoir, tainted as they are by descriptive observation, self- aggrandisement-protection and emotive fact, can tell the very same story with such varying impact - something akin to three different artists painting the same still life with varying form and colour.

john frawley | 03 July 2020  

Books about searching for Pa are very pupal. Yes, they are moving and address what is hopefully a deep human need to know both of the pair of our original significant others. But, in the ultimate journey of the human being, all pupas are meant to become imagos resting in the bosom of Abraham. Some of the pathos recedes when it is realised that Pa the imago is fine and doesn’t need anyone to come looking for him, and books about searching for Pa (or Ma) are really about the pupal searcher searching for himself. I’m never sure whether we should be feeling pathos about searching for ourselves. Pupas who practise a belief in the bosom of Abraham, or some concept like it, believe they will meet their imago. Those who don’t put up with accepting that the imago is lost. What is paradoxical is that if we were matter of fact about the bosom of Abraham, books about searching for Pa would not have the resonance they do, but they would still continue to be written because that’s how atheists grapple with the hole in their being.

roy chen yee | 03 July 2020  

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