Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

There’s always a bit of trepidation when you re-read an old favourite from your teenage years. Will the book turn out to be No Good At All? Will it be obvious and sentimental and vacuous? Will it reveal that you used to have appalling taste in literature? Thankfully, Careful, He Might Hear You proved to be just as good as I remembered – perhaps even better, because I can now see the immense skill that went into the construction of its apparently effortless prose.

Careful, He Might Hear You was Sumner Locke Elliott’s first novel. It was published in 1963, but he’d been writing plays, radio serials and television scripts for decades before that, and it really shows in his writing. He knew all about plot and pacing, how to balance action with introspection and how to reveal character through dialogue. But writing a novel also allowed him to write beautiful descriptions of a setting he knew very well, that of Sydney during the Depression. The novel is based on his own childhood, in which he was the focus of a bitter custody battle between several aunts. His mother, a popular Australian writer, had died giving birth to him and his father, an irresponsible alcoholic, played no part in his upbringing. On one side of the battle was his anxious, motherly Aunt Lillian (named ‘Lila’ in the book), the wife of a hard-working but poor Labor politician; on the other was rich Aunt Jessie (‘Vanessa’), recently returned from England and determined to transform her nephew into a proper little gentleman. The situation was complicated by his odd Aunt Agnes, disciple of a bizarre American cult, and his bohemian Aunt Blanche (‘Vere’). The author does a superb job of narrating events from the perspective of six-year-old PS, who is by turns amused, baffled and angered by the grown-ups running his life. It’s a pleasure to watch him slowly gain some control over the adults, although the author also manages to evoke some sympathy for them. There is poor, over-worked Lila; her long-suffering husband, George; emotionally-repressed Vanessa; even exuberant Vere is revealed to have hidden sorrows. There are also gorgeous descriptions of Sydney in the 1930s – a cruise liner steaming into Sydney Harbour, a train trip to dusty Woronora Cemetery, Lila’s suburban backyard and Vanessa’s Point Piper mansion and Vere’s chaotic flat in King’s Cross:

“Vere poured the golden-coloured bubbles into two peanut butter glasses and handed one to Opal. They immediately forgot him and began talking about their friends who were all in a mess, thwarted, broke, maddened or suicidal, my dear. They had wonderful names like Dodo, Ukelele, Widget and Gussy. When they came to visit Vere, they brought her old shoe buckles, brooches, half-used pots of cold cream, combs and long, cool bottles because they were always dying of thirst, just dying of thirst, my dear, and their voices would grow brighter as the daylight faded, would fly around the small room like birds let out of cages telling about gay-sounding things, about parties and dancing, full of mysterious words that had to be spelled out in Lila’s house and which made his heart jump for the time when he would understand and be a part of the things they told about with such laughter.”

'Careful, He Might Hear You' by Sumner Locke Elliott and 'Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life' by Sharon Clarke
'Careful, He Might Hear You' by Sumner Locke Elliott and 'Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life' by Sharon Clarke

Careful, He Might Hear You was a huge success in the United States, Britain and Germany, but didn’t sell very well in Australia, as Sumner Locke Elliott explained:

“I distinctly remember that [his agent] told me 50,000 copies had already been sold in Germany, where there had been three editions in six months, and naturally I was elated. Then I asked about Australia and she said, ‘Seven.’ And I said, with some delight, ‘Well, 7,000, that’s not bad at all – it’s only a small country.’ But she said, ‘Not 7,000, just seven – seven copies.’ And you know, I just couldn’t believe it – my own country and only seven copies!”

Actually, it wasn’t his own country by then, because he’d moved to the United States in 1948, escaping a country that had banned his plays and had little tolerance for gay men. He lived in Los Angeles, and then New York, where he died in 1991. Several of his novels (Waiting for Childhood, Eden’s Lost and Water Under the Bridge) revisit the autobiographical themes of Careful, He Might Hear You, but it is his final novel, Fairyland, that’s probably the closest to his real life. Fairyland is the depressing tale of a young man growing up in Australia, desperately ashamed of his desires for other men but longing to find true love. It includes scenes taken from the author’s life, such as when he was bashed nearly to death in Wynyard railway station, and it shows the conservatism, violence and hypocrisy of the country where he grew up. Sharon Clarke wrote a good biography called Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life, which I recommend for anyone wanting to know more about the story behind Careful, He Might Hear You. There’s also an excellent film version starring Robyn Nevin and Wendy Hughes, which came out in 1983. (At least, I remember liking it when I saw it, but that was a very long time ago. It is possible I had terrible taste in movies then.)

Anyway, I was very pleased to see that Text is bringing out a new edition of Careful He Might Hear You as part of its Australian Classics series. This book deserves to find lots of new readers.