Johnno by David Malouf

How did I get almost a quarter of a century into my life and only just become acquainted with such an important, talented Australian writer as David Malouf? I suppose I shouldn’t let it concern me too much, rather excite me with the promise of similar surprises in store.

Often described as semi-autobiographical, this was Malouf’s first novel – published in 1975 (during a six-month sabbatical in Florence, Italy). It begins with the narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the book, except for the nickname ‘Dante’) returning to Brisbane from London with the death of his father. Sorting through things in the family home, he happens across an old school photo and thus begins his reminiscence of his old friend, Johnno.

The book follows the complex relationship of the two and was, I felt – particularly towards the end – a story of unrequited love.

Johnno could be said to have three central characters – Johnno, Dante and the city of Brisbane. The shadowy damp of the Queenslander homes and the idiosyncracies of  wartime Brisbane of Malouf’s 1940s childhood are palpable throughout the novel. In fact, I finished the book feeling as though I’d got to know the otherwise unfamiliar city more than the mysterious human characters themselves.

Calling this book semi-autobiographical seems ironic to me. It is in fact a fictionalised biography of Johnno (based on Malouf’s real-life friend John Milliner who died in similar circumstances to the fictional Johnno in 1962, as revealed in the epilogue), but little is revealed about the first-person Malouf character, Dante – except as he relates to Johnno. The fact he is only known by the name given to him by Johnno is testament to that. If this book is autobiographical, it is only in the sense that it is the story of the part of his life that was touched by his friend.

This is a short book and therefore a relatively quick – but extremely rewarding – read. It’s the type of book you could easily pick up again and again, and take more from it with each reading. Johnno is poetic but unrestrained. Funny, but heartbreaking. I highly recommend it.

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2 thoughts on “Johnno by David Malouf

  1. I was a) lucky enough to be introduced to Malouf as a part of my HSC in ‘An Imaginary Life’ b) lucky enough to hear him give readings from the book including one of my favourite, essentially atheist, quotes, ‘if the gods are with you there, glowing out of some tree in some pasture or shaking their spirits over pebbles in some brook in clear sunlight, in wells, in springs….if the gods are there it is because you have discovered them there, drawn them up our of you soul’s need for them and dreamed them into the landscape to make it shine.’ This so nicely summed up my desire for ‘spiritual’ atheism.

    I think I was the one who picked up Johnno (purpleish hardback?) with the hope of finding a similar experience but in the end I was put off by two things. The subject matter didn’t seem to have the same potential to provide me with the personal clarity and revelations I was after and also, An Imaginary Life was a challenge to get through. It was really only with my English teacher pushing to read past the ‘boring’ bits that I properly understood and accessed those insights. In the end, I never got over the feeling that maybe Johnno would need the same kind of work and so other books always trumped it when I was in need of a new read. But, with this review in hand, maybe I’ll reconsider?

    • So it’s your book! I really enjoyed – but it may well have helped that I had absolutely no preconceptions or expectations. I’m thinking about soon posting a blog about the ‘magic’ bookcase at your parents’ house which seems to constantly grow and change, so no matter how many times I peruse it, there seems to be something new for me to find! About a week after I picked up Johnno, I noticed another book of Malouf’s, ‘The Great World’, which I’m sure wasn’t there before. I’ll definitely look out for An Imaginary Life too.

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