With a hint of a sorrow akin to regret it is often noted that Amy Witting only received public recognition and critical acclaim for her work towards the end of her life. Her late blooming is usually accounted for with mention of how the pressures of a teaching career and the responsibilities of bringing up a family stymied her creative output in a manner not unusual for women, then and now. The truth, as it so often is, is a little more complicated.
Joan Levick, who wrote under the pseudonym Amy Witting, had been publishing short stories in literary journals (including the New Yorker) since 1956 and her first novel, The Visit, appeared in 1977. She did not claim any real success for her writing, however, until the age of seventy-one, with the publication of her long-rejected second novel, I for Isobel (1989). Highly successful and popular with readers and critics alike, I for Isobel was followed over the next twelve years by two collections of short stories, Marriages (1990) and In and Out the Window (1995), and further novels and poetry. Both collections, along with other published and unpublished stories, were reprised in Faces and Voices (2000), from which this new, shorter selection has been drawn.
Rather than a late rush of proliferation, Witting’s trajectory should be considered an extensive and comprehensive apprenticeship. Written throughout her life and recording Australia’s changing social landscape, her short stories—distinct in tone and varied in plot—are second to none. With a lightness of touch and an ability to swap perspectives with great subtlety, Witting records both complex psychology and base emotion while prioritising neither. She acknowledges the whole person, every facet of their thinking. Without apologising for their behaviour or attempting to elicit empathy, she tells it how it is. She is both endearingly honest and merciless in her depictions, which makes her characters appear as people rather than ciphers of the writer’s imagination. As her pen name suggests, Witting’s writing is far from unwitting: it is done in full awareness or consciousness. Her characters face up to the circumstance of life and, in doing so, request that the reader must as well.
Critics usually focus on the aspects of Witting’s novels that were autobiographical, depicting a childhood marked by a mother capable of unusual cruelty. Despite the dark subject matter, Witting’s deceptively jaunty voice—particularly as worn by the unforgettably arch character of Isobel Callaghan—captures readers’ imaginations. When Witting takes flight in long form her brilliance is undeniable, yet it is her short stories that really flaunt her skill as a storyteller and, more strikingly, as a truth teller.
While the short story was not Witting’s first love, over the course of a lifetime it became the genre in which she felt ‘most at home’. In her preface to Faces and Voices, Witting offers the following as a statement of fact rather than an apology or justification: ‘I began to write short stories because I could not get a novel finished. In my mid-thirties it became clear that I had neither the creative energy nor the physical strength to combine novel-writing with full-time teaching and the care of a household.’
At first glance, her explanation reads as one common to many women artists, including those such as Virginia Woolf who, even with house help and no children, still longed for a room of one’s own. Witting wanted to write novels, but she also had to live: to earn money, nurture a marriage, survive an illness, run a household, bring up a child, build a career. Early on she made a pragmatic decision: in order to write well (and she wrote so exceptionally well!) she made what initially felt like a compromise on form, from long to short fiction.
It is a shift I can understand, for a story can be held in the mind in the way a novel cannot—all those words, all those possible directions. A short story can be attended to in small moments: I imagine Witting going about her other tasks while mulling over a phrase, mentally editing out the superfluous words that fall onto the page when a writer is desperate to make progress. Or perhaps she built her stories as paragraphs, one after the other, small adjustments made here and there? Or wrote in a flurry, capturing the essence before pruning and revising the telling? However she did it, Witting ended up with a wonderful array of keenly observed stories while also developing a unique style. This style, hinging on brevity and a clear-eyed realism, was then readily applied to the writing of novels when retirement afforded her the time.
‘My idea is, to be a good parent you have to be yourself as successfully as you can,’ says Isobel Callaghan, Witting’s much-loved protagonist who returns for the last time—Witting did not live to complete the third Isobel novel—in this collection’s first story, ‘Soft Toys’. The line can be taken as a hint that Witting was not bitter at the prolonged approach to her writing career. As Yvonne Miels explains on her excellent biographical website, Joan Levick was a French teacher, and a very good one at that, who made her way up the career ladder to the prestigious position of Mistress of Modern Languages at North Sydney Girls High School and published French textbooks. She also taught English as a second language and wrote a book, Each One Teach One (1988), detailing the techniques she used. Passionate about teaching English to migrants, she was made a life member of the Smith Family for her work in this area.
By all accounts Levick was loved and appreciated by her students, while Thea Astley, a friend and teaching colleague, was intrigued by how well Witting managed her happy marriage alongside her writing. ‘Somewhere I’ve picked up the notion that life is worth living. Don’t ask me where,’ says the irrepressible Isobel, much to the consternation of her dining companion, and despite (or perhaps because of) the predicament she finds herself in. ‘Soft Toys’ is, like many of Witting’s stories, a defiant meditation on the restrictions society places on both men and women through the performance of gender roles.
It is unusual for authors today to speak of any job that is not writing as anything more than a means to an end. As the potential money to be made from writing plummets, many authors lament their need for an income that takes them away from the page; often a marker of career success is to have reached a point where one’s time can be entirely devoted to writing. Without presuming there was no such struggle for Witting, particularly as she was a woman writing in a landscape that prioritised the words and thoughts of men, I am cheered by how she bucked the trend in balancing life, work and writing. It seems that Witting took pride and care in her career and family, rather than resenting them; she strived to succeed in these areas and she enjoyed this success. Levick the teacher, mother and wife were not in constant opposition to Witting the writer. She wrote in tandem with her career and life, rather than in conflict.
The stories collected here are a powerful testament to a lifetime’s dedication. The masterly ‘The Weight of a Man’, set within the classroom Witting knew so well, demonstrates an uncanny ability to follow the true erratic nature of a person’s train of thought. Far from a cool and logical rationalism, her protagonist’s mind hurtles from one decision to the next as if encountering a series of switchbacks: ‘Of course!’ cries the reader at every turn. It comes as no surprise to discover that upon reading this story Patrick White wrote to ask Witting’s advice on short-story technique, as he was keen to attempt the form.
I don’t suppose that many people would think of Amy Witting and David Foster Wallace as contemporaries, though they published story collections within a year of one another. With his verbose, rolling style expertly juggling unruly, tangential narratives and profound insights into the human condition, Wallace is still considered by many to be at the avant-garde of the literary world. Meanwhile, the New Yorker described Witting’s style as one of ‘shocking economy’—the two writers could not be more different.
And yet, when I read Witting’s superbly restrained story ‘Knight in Armour’, a hellish descent into the everyday evil born of disregard (a sentiment she revisits in the heartbreaking novella-length ‘The Survivors’), I felt the same growing queasiness followed by a sucker punch to the gut as when reading the penultimate, titular story in Wallace’s collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999). Both tell confronting stories of opportunistic rape, without resorting to cliché. Both demonstrate the capacity of the author to describe the worst aspect of ourselves, without tacking on a hackneyed denouement to dole out the punishment any good-hearted reader hopes for.
In ‘The Survivors’, a young shearer is forced to marry, and cannot understand how his callous disregard has led to this:
He wasn’t thinking about the girl at all, words like son-in-law and wedding coming at him like fists from nowhere, and there she was in the doorway, the past on her face and the future in her great belly, and it shattered him, for he didn’t give thought to either but travelled in the lighted cabin of the moment.
Witting and Wallace share an ability to make us reckon with our most unattractive emotions and behaviours, and to baldly consider how these two things—how we feel and how we act—so rarely intersect.
In ‘A Bottle of Tears’, Witting explores the ambivalence of what it is to be human, to want to be loved and to be alone. It is crude to cherry-pick quotations out of context, but who can resist such phrasing as: they had ‘begun to make love readily and without grace, like awkward swimmers getting into water where there is no danger’?
Thea Astley encouraged Witting to submit ‘Goodbye, Ady, Goodbye, Joe’ to the New Yorker, where it was published in 1965. In brief exchanges between Joe and Ady, who are self-aware but never self-involved, Witting insinuates the ebbs and flows of a lifelong marriage, while fleeting images such as a son-in-law bobbing about floodwaters in an army duck, or Ady asleep with her false teeth clasped to her chest, give more character backstory than chapters of explanation.
Ady turned on him a look of morbid gentleness; it filled him with pity to see how fear had hold of her poor old sagging body. He ought to encourage her to talk, if it made her feel better. The trouble was that what seemed to help her was the very thing he couldn’t stand—to have her soft, monotonous voice go on and on, not mentioning death but taking it for granted, not really facing it but thrusting the idea at him with sly, unconscious cruelty.
Witting is a joy to read, but I also find her a comfort. I wrote this introduction in stops and starts, snatching quiet moments as my one-year-old daughter slept, at each sitting not sure whether I would have the time to complete a paragraph or edit out my praise when it risked reaching saturation point. Each time I stopped to reread one of Witting’s brilliant stories, I saw anew a perfect line here, an unvarnished truth there. As I send a recently finished novel to print and embark on a happily anticipated new job that is unrelated to my writing practice, I silently thank Witting for schooling me in writing’s long game: for reminding me that effort pays off on the page rather than through publication, that writing is for life, but life is for living.