One of Randolph Stow's poems is titled "The Land's Meaning", and all his work might be interpreted as searching for this, suggests Winthrop Professor Dennis Haskell, of UWA's School of English and Cultural Studies. Professor Haskell is also Chair of the Australia Council Literature Board.
In an obituary to mark Stow's death on 29 May 2010, Professor Haskell continues:
Julian Randolph Stow was born in Geraldton, Western Australia on 28 November, 1935. He was educated at Geraldton Primary School, from which he was temporarily evacuated to family properties in the Geraldton hinterland when Broome and Darwin were bombed by the Japanese. His high school years were spent at Geraldton High School and Guildford Church of England Grammar School. At Guildford Grammar, where the poet and novelist Kenneth ‘Seaforth' Mackenzie had been before him (and Stow was conscious of the fact), he annoyed the school administration by insisting on studying both Agricultural Science and Latin, something no student at the privileged school had ever attempted before. Following his father's profession, he enrolled in Law at The University of Western Australia in 1953, but changed to Arts one year later. Stow graduated in 1956 with majors in English and French. By this time he had written two novels and a number of poems.
By 1957 Stow had published the novels A Haunted Land and The Bystander, and the poetry collection Act One, which received the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. The novel To the Islands was published in 1958, winning another ALS Gold Medal and the Miles Franklin Prize. Stow published six further novels: Tourmaline (1963), The Merry-go-Round in the Sea (1965), the children's classic Midnite (1967), Visitants (1979), The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980), and The Suburbs of Hell (1984). He also published two other volumes of poetry Outrider (1962, illustrated by Sidney Nolan) and a selected poems, A Counterfeit Silence (1969), which actually included some previously unpublished work. Stow collaborated with Peter Maxwell Davies on two music theatre works, Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) and Miss Donnithorne's Maggot (1974). Stow was alternately prolific and silent. A Counterfeit Silence includes an epigraph from Thornton Wilder: "Even speech was for them a debased form of silence". Interestingly, Stow met writer's block while working on Visitants, based partly on his own breakdown in New Guinea while working as a patrol officer, but was released by writing The Girl Green as Elderflower when recuperating in the English countryside. Stow wrote The Girl in one month, and then finished Visitants, thought by some to be his greatest novel. One feature of Stow's writing is that he never repeated himself; each successive novel and poem seems a new venture, even while dealing with similar themes.
The land in Stow's work is never just landscape, whether Australian, New Guinean or English; it is a site for metaphysical exploration, a means of exploring the reasons and purpose (if any) of human existence. Stow might well be seen as Australia's Albert Camus, an existentialist novelist who saw human life as fundamentally solitary. Stow once wrote that "The environment of a writer is as much inside him as in what he observes" and "There are two sensations, above all, that the land offers me: the sense of size, and the sense of the past... In the cities one is fenced in by the personalities of others. But alone in the bush, with maybe a single crow ... a phrase like ‘liberation of the spirit' may begin to sound meaningful." Stow saw liberation of the spirit as possible but difficult, and perhaps to be found as much in silence as in speech. He had an interest in Taoism, and once when asked how an interview had gone replied, "Oh good, I don't think he got a thing out of me!"
Stow was able to evoke the sense of a place in succinct prose or verse, but place always had deeper psychological and philosophical implications. Together with the work of artists such as Sidney Nolan and Patrick White, Stow's work is part of Australia's experience of High Modernism. Since he lived and stayed outside all Australian literary networks his influence is mostly diffuse rather than direct, but his influence on writers such as Dorothy Hewett and Tim Winton has been immense. Hewett used a passage from The Merry-go-Round in the Sea as an epigraph for her poetry collection, Windmill Country (1968), because of its evocation of the universal themes of time, transience and mortality in the Western Australian station country: "Lupins withered and foxes rotted, and the windmill whirled and whirled against all seasons of the sky, drinking from the filled dark caves below the earth".
Stow's Australian male reticence eventually turned completely to publishing silence. He lived in England from 1966, visiting Australia only once, in 1974 when he won a Whitlam Government Fellowship, and published only book reviews and rare poems after The Suburbs of Hell (1984). Stow began but abandoned two novels during this period. Stow was awarded a Harkness Fellowship (1964), the Britannica-Australia Award (1966), the Grace Leven Poetry Prize (1969) and the Patrick White Literary Award (1979).
He is survived by his sister, Helen McArthur and two nieces.
* First published in The Australian Thursday 1 June 2010