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Vale Laurie Clancy

Laurie ClancyLaurie Clancy’s death this July is a great loss to Australia’s literary community, and a particular cause of sorrow to Overland. Although Laurie was b inclination attached to Overland, a chance combination of circumstances led to his inclusion in the Meanjin team for one of the annual cricket matches that enacted the rivalry between the two magazines. In later years he became not only captain of Meanjin, but one of the main organisers of the match. He celebrated this event in one of the stories he published in Overland. This also appeared, slightly modified, in his novel The Wildlife Reserve. The description of the comic progress and violent end of a cricket match between supporters of rival literary magazines demonstrates the deep knowledge and love of sport that was so much a part of Laurie’s life. In the book it also introduces the hero to the divisions he will find in an English Department tormented by cultural, pedagogical and sexual politics.

Laurie Clancy was one of Australia’s leading literary critics and author of short stories and novels that are by turns satirical, funny, moving and insightful. He first came to public notice in 1965 when, with John Timlin, he launched the independent radical journal Melbourne Partisan This journal enlisted a number of writers just beginning their careers, including Evan Jones, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Brian Matthews, but expired after three issues when Laurie’s biting exposure of then AWU Secretary and ALP heavyweight Tom Dougherty brought legal threats. Earlier than this, while he was editing Melbourne University’s newspaper Farrago, he had run foul of the Customs Department by smuggling in copies of banned novels that he then reviewed, writing as the critic Horace A. Bridgfunt. Outside these publications, he began publishing criticism under his own name in Meanjin, where he reviewed Thomas Shapcott’s poetry in 1967 and Tom Keneally’s first three novels in 1968.

Clancy was educated at CBC St Kilda and Melbourne University and tutored there before moving to La Trobe University, where he spent almost 30 years as a lecturer and senior lecturer. He spent time in the United States, on a Harkness Scholarship, and developed a critical admiration for much of American life and culture. He was an authority on twentieth-century American fiction. After his retirement from La Trobe he began part-time teaching in the Creative Writing course at RMIT, retiring from this position only at the end of 2008. His intention to devote himself to full-time writing was cut short the next year when he was diagnosed with cancer. His students from all three institutions remember him as a caring and generous teacher who took infinite pains with their written work, listened carefully in class, but was quite ready to leap on any instances of poor thought or sloppy expression.

In 1980 I was editing the Australian Book Review when the National Book Council took responsibility for its publication. Laurie became associate editor, and shortly afterwards, while I went overseas, acting editor with responsibility for building up the new editorial organisation. He did this most effectively, and remained associate editor for several years until it became incompatible with his teaching and writing. He continued to contribute invaluable reviews and book notes.

Clancy’s career as a fiction writer began when Westerly published ‘The Wife Specialist’ in 1971. His first novel, A Collapsible Man, appeared in 1975, and his first collection of stories in 1979. The novel begins with a typical Clancy touch when readers opens the front cover and find the story of a failed novelist begins on the fly-leaf: ‘Not bad. Not bad at all.’ He goes on to tell us he has persuaded the publisher to let him write his own blurb. Then, after title page and a proper author’s note, the real story begins with the narrator telling us he has a brilliant career ahead of him. Finally, on the back cover a blurb by one L. Clancy explains how this autobiography of an Irish-Australian teaching at a leading university has provided the high point of his day. Between these two points, the novel unfolds a witty satire of the academic and bohemian life of Melbourne University and the surrounding suburbs that the author was to make his own through a career that saw him publish 57 short stories, four novels, four books of literary criticism and innumerable reviews and literary essays.

His next novel Perfect Love, published in 1983, extended his range beyond satire. It is a moving account of the highs and lows experienced by an ordinary family of his parents’ generation. The narrative leaves Melbourne for a couple of chapters, and succeeds in making real the struggles of a Depression wife matched to a husband who turns to his mates in the local pub to support him through the hardships. Despite some scenes of uproarious comedy, the author never loses sight of his characters’ complex humanity. In The Wildlife Reserve (1994) Clancy goes further in integrating amusement at human absurdity with a profound understanding of the ways people struggle to realise their deepest values. The reserve of the title serves as a metaphor for life in the new university that houses it.

Clancy’s books of literary criticism include his Reader’s Guide to Australian Fiction and book-length studies of Christina Stead, Xavier Herbert and Vladimir Nabokov. He also wrote valuable notes for school students and members of Council of Adult Education book groups. In 1974 he was joint winner of the John Morrison Short Story Award, and in 1975 of the National Book Council for Collapsible Man. Perfect Love was awarded the FAW/ANA Literary Award in 1984. He continued writing new stories into the last year of his life. His most recent story in Overland was a response in fiction to the death from cancer of his younger brother.

Laurie valued conviviality and had a host of friends, but his family was always central to his life. His last publication may have been the entertaining and moving eulogy he wrote for himself and which his sons read at his funeral. It was funny as always, but also a very moving tribute to his wife and children.

He is survived by his wife, Neelam Maharaj, his sons Joseph and Jacob, his sons’ mother, Kate Rhodes, Neelam’s daughters Nitika, Pritika and Seema, and her three grandchildren.

John McLaren was a friend, neighbour and colleague of Laurie Clancy, and worked with him at ABR. This Obituary was prepared with help from Neelam Maharaj, John Timlin, Steve Carroll and Brian Matthews.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

John McLaren started writing for Overland in 1957. He is the author of three books on education and eight on literature. His most recent publication is Melbourne: City of Words.

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