Grimm book coverFlight from the Brothers Grimm: A European-Australian Memoir
by Valerie Murray.
Sydney: Books Unleashed, 2016.
Paperback, 184 pages, Aust.$20.

“Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in his autobiography, A Little Learning (1964), “has one reached the age to write an autobiography.”

Valerie Murray’s memoir is inspired by a different motive. It combines a curiosity about the past and a concern for the future. “I am in a hurry,” she admits. Conscious of her parents’ growing dementia, she has been keen to record her own memories while they are still intact.

The memories of this migrant from Europe to Australia begin in World War II and bring to life the experiences of a young girl growing up in Nazi-controlled Hungary. Despite the traumas of this time, including the fear at one stage that her father had perished at Stalingrad, Murray recalls that she “was spoiled, but in the best possible way … indulged and respected, even as a baby.”

She received a grounding in classic children’s books, from Arabian Nights to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, which fostered an early appreciation of solid and inspiring literature. At a later stage, this cultural formation extended into music and art, and was enormously enhanced by a love of words and her marriage to Les Murray, Australia’s “poet laureate,” whom Valerie calls “one of the best masters of words anywhere.”

Valerie Murray was nine years old when the family decided to migrate to Australia. Her father, Gino Morelli—in Murray’s words, “unbelievably named” for a Hungarian—was attracted by Australia’s “kind climate, beautiful beaches, and even a chance to go skiing in winter.”

These first points of appeal no doubt had a magnetic effect, but they left unstated the fundamental reason for fleeing to Australia from Europe, which was to escape the deprivations of a war-scarred continent. As the title of this memoir suggests, leaving Europe was a flight from the childhood fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm as well as from what had happened to the continent that gave birth to them.

The family arrived first in Melbourne in 1950, and within ayear settled in Sydney. There are many memories recounted from this early period of migration that are not only profoundly personal but also of wider cultural and historical import. Indeed, a special value of this memoir is that it works so impressively at these various levels, offering glimpses into the individual lives of a single family after World War II as well as insights into the social challenges facing all those who sought a fresh start in a different land at the other end of the earth. One poignant story that Murray recounts is of a poor man passing through a customs inspection in Melbourne with nothing more than a modest suitcase. He was reluctant to open it, as this seemed such an invasion of privacy, but when he finally consented, the suitcase revealed itself to be empty—a touching testimony to all that he had not brought with him to Australia from the country he had fled.

From the outset in Australia, Murray learned to be self-reliant and developed an early maturity. This was not a new experience as, even in Europe, her parents’ busy lives had forced her to cope alone; but within a year of migrating, she and her brother Steve were left by themselves when their parents went on holidays, and for a time she suffered from panic attacks that ushered in bouts of depression.

Yet she quite liked her own company and knew that her parents trusted her to shoulder adult responsibilities. She enjoyed visiting libraries and bookshops in Sydney on her own, and her recollection of time spent reading in the State Library brought back to my mind, not only the early years I worked in this library in Sydney, but also what Murray calls “a side excursion” when walking around Sydney—in her case frequenting places like Dymocks’ Bookstore in downtown Sydney and, in mine, walking in my lunch-hour at the State Library to bookshops near Sydney Harbor and buying second-hand books that I continue to cherish.

A recurrent theme of this memoir is the incarnational faith of a child raised in a Catholic environment—even though Murray’s Hungarian father was Catholic and her Swiss mother was not. There is an unaffected awareness of religious symbols and habits amid the mundane engagements of ordinary life. The author recalls the little gold medallion on a chain that she received as a christening present, the influence of a religious Sister whom she adored at school, the fact that she and her brother knew the Latin Mass by heart, and that she was anxious to complete a First Friday Novena. When writing of her father’s discovery of a café in Sydney where real espresso was served, she simply remarks that “he may well have stumbled on it after choir practice at St Mary’s [Cathedral] on the other side of Hyde Park.”

An especially appealing part of Murray’s memoir is her insights into her husband, the poet Les Murray, which are presented with the unforced affection of a long-married couple. “I call him my husband,” she notes, “because for decades I have always done so. ‘Partner’ just doesn’t cut it. It is cold and smacks of pre-nuptial contracts and terminology that changes like any other fashion.” And she concludes her reflections on being married to Les:

We married too young to have anything except each other. We grew each other up, as much as we were able to.

Flight from the Brothers Grimm is an engaging and revealing memoir. It sheds light on the experience of a refugee from post-war Europe adapting to, and in turn enriching, the life of a distant land; and, at the same time it adds to the precious store of immigrant chronicles about Australia, a land largely of immigrants.  

Karl Schmude is a Founding Fellow of Australia’s only liberal arts college, Campion College in Sydney, and formerly University Librarian at the University of New England in Armidale NSW Australia.