I had no imagination

Christian Lorentzen

  • Tamarisk Row by Gerald Murnane
    And Other Stories, 281 pp, £10.00, February, ISBN 978 1 911508 36 6
  • Border Districts by Gerald Murnane
    And Other Stories, 144 pp, £8.99, January, ISBN 978 1 911508 38 0

Gerald Murnane was named after a racehorse. His father, Reginald, was a front man for Teddy Estershank, a professional punter who was banned from being a licensed trainer or registered owner of horses by racecourses around Melbourne. Estershank, an ‘evil genius’ according to Murnane, used friends like Reginald as dummy owners for the horses he bought, trained and bet on. The ‘equine Gerald’ and later a horse called Geraldo were nominally owned by Reginald and sold when, after a win or two, they proved disappointments. (They became reliable winners for their new owners.) Reginald’s death, when his disappointing son was 21, was liberating for Murnane, though liberation took a while. Tamarisk Row, a novel about the nine-year-old son of a front man for a professional punter, took ten years to write. It appeared in Australia in 1974, when Murnane was 35.

A self-mythologising work of fiction, Tamarisk Row enfolds horse-racing, Catholicism and sin into the birth of its hero. Clement Killeaton is conceived the evening his father’s horse Clementia wins her maiden race, netting him a small fortune. Jean and Augustine aren’t yet married: a Protestant, she still has to finish her catechism and be baptised into the Catholic Church. The sex takes place in the grass by a horse trough behind her family’s ‘untidy’ house. It’s the first time ‘they committed that sin together’. Augustine imagines himself as a jockey mounting a horse, ‘thrusting his hands and knees towards the noise of the crickets. He sees no more of the post as he passes than a blur of white among a throng of his rivals. There is no one to tell him whether or not he has got up to win.’ A few weeks later, Clementia breaks a leg while training and Augustine puts her down. Now baptised, Jean confesses that she became pregnant on the night of the race. He tells her ‘they can use each day of their married life to do small penances for their past mistakes and to earn treasures of grace for the future. He plans to have a horse in training always.’ The baby boy is christened Clement, Augustine gets into debt and Jean comes to see horse-racing as a curse. She forbids Clement from playing with a racetrack he sets up in the backyard, but he persists in his imaginings, playing with a marble called Tamarisk Row, which in his games is also a horse and also the name of the house where its charming owners live, a couple that represents an idealisation of Clement’s parents or perhaps his own future.

Clement is too young to know what sex is, which doesn’t stop him from thinking about it constantly: sex is exposed female private parts; sex is a galloping horse; sex is a majestic vista. His fantasies are many-layered, and the narration weaves between these and his mundane life in thrillingly long, lyrical sentences strung together in paragraphs that go on for pages. Here is the end of a section called ‘Clement loves Barbara Keenan’, in which Clement’s gazing at a classmate during Mass yields to a vision of an idealised American landscape he knows only from National Geographic and songs on the radio:

Clement sees, a few seats ahead of him, Barbara’s white socks turned down neatly over her ankles and, when she stands up for the last hymn, Hail Queen of Heaven, part of the gradual curves of her calves. He reminds Our Lord present on the altar that he has never tried to see beneath her skirt and asks Him to protect her always from boys or men who may want to do impure things to her. In answer to his prayer he is allowed to see how the man who goes home to the Rockies sometimes makes out through gaps in forested cliffs and beyond tenuous valleys the true country of Idaho where it trembles, faint and unapproachable, in the last sounds of a song.

Murnane has called his work ‘true fiction’, not for its relation to or relating of actual events – he disdains plot and dialogue – but rather for its fealty to a personal authorial vision. ‘My fiction is a report of what takes place in the mind of a writer,’ he has said. In Tamarisk Row the report is a roving omniscient narration that alights on various characters, describes their actions and perceptions, and reports on the activity of their minds, the minds of characters within their minds, and so on. Murnane’s second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds, is centred on Adrian Sherd, a 15-year-old in a repressive Catholic boys’ school, who is given to elaborate sexual fantasies set in America. (First published in 1976, it was cut in half – ‘mutilated’, in Murnane’s word – by its publishers; the restored manuscript is to be published this year in Australia under the title A Season on Earth.) With their autobiographical frameworks – or to put it with a precision their author might prefer, frameworks with demonstrable autobiographical parallels – these are Murnane’s most conventional novels. None of his later books could be mistaken, as A Lifetime on Clouds was described to me, for the work of an Australian Catholic Philip Roth.

If that were the case, however fine Tamarisk Row and its successor are (and they are), it’s unlikely you’d be reading this essay. Murnane’s international reputation, which has grown to speculations of a Nobel, rests on his novels and stories of the 1980s and 1990s, especially his 1982 masterpiece, The Plains. These are the works that have drawn comparisons to Borges and Calvino, two among the five authors (the others are Emily Brontë, Halldór Laxness and Proust) whose books Murnane said in a 2001 lecture were the only ones the then 62-year-old wanted to reread before he died. (He supplemented this list with the Australians Henry Handel Richardson and Martin Boyd as well as the Hungarian Gyula Illyés; references in his work suggest that Hardy, Lawrence and Nabokov have also occupied his attention significantly. He seems to loathe Norman Mailer and Peter Carey.) There was a hiatus of 14 years between the stories in Emerald Blue (1995) and the publication of Barley Patch (2009), the first of four books Murnane classifies not as novels or stories but simply ‘fictions’. In these highly self-conscious works he makes explicit his method of reporting on the takings-place in his, or his narrator’s, mind. Narrative thrust and intricate invented worlds give way to twisting examinations of the mysteries of making fiction, the act of reading fiction and the nature of imagination itself.

The Plains is a bright and inviting novel, full of humour yet without resort to slapstick. As it beckons you along its secrets keep receding. The unnamed narrator has travelled inland from his home near the coast in order to make a film called The Interior. He mixes with ‘intellectuals, custodians of the history and lore of the district’ in ‘enormous bars’. (For all its concern with landscape, most of The Plains takes place in bars, lounges or libraries, as well as within its narrator’s mind.) He reports on the region’s history, which is dominated by painters and poets locked in periodic factional struggles between ‘the sea-greens’ and ‘the old-golds’, or the Horizoners and the Haremen, conflicts now transposed into day-long ritual games for children. The filmmaker mentions the classic poems of the plains – ‘The Horizon, After All’, ‘A Parasol at Noon’ – and describes one of its characteristic paintings:

The most impressive of many similar works, Decline and Fall of the Empire of Grass, seemed at first sight only a very detailed study of a small patch of native grasses and herbage – a few square yards from any one of the countless grazing paddocks on the plains. But spectators soon began to make out of the trampled stems and frayed foliage and minute, severed blossoms the shapes of things quite unconnected with the plains. Many of the shapes seemed deliberately imprecise, and even those that most nearly represented architectural ruins or abandoned artifacts were of no style known from history. But commentators could point to a score of details that seemed to comprise a scene of grandiose desolation – and then, stepping back, could see once again a painting of plants and soil. The artist himself encouraged the search for shattered colonnades and tapestries flapping on roofless walls. But in his only published account of the painting (a brief statement which he tried repeatedly to amend in later years) he claimed it was inspired by his study of a certain small marsupial. This animal had disappeared from settled areas before the plainsfolk had given a common name to it. The artist used its unwieldy scientific name, but someone in the course of debate referred to it (inaccurately) as a plains-hare, and that name stuck.

We learn that the animals, relying on their colouring to hide them in the grass of the plains, a form of ‘stubborn foolishness’, had been clubbed to death by the hundreds for their ‘barely usable hides’. So the painting that appears to depict a simple patch of grass actually contains all of history (though without actual historical referents), yet is really just about a missing animal whose absence is explained by a brutal joke. Such deadpan bits of faux sociology are contained within the broadly absurd conceit of a frontier society led by a vanguard of artists and writers. The plains are barren and pregnant, empty and full, everything and nothing.

There are numerous slant comments on literature in The Plains. The filmmaker’s life story is comprehensible to the plainsmen because it’s ‘devoid of events or achievements’, like their own canon (and Murnane’s books). We hear of ‘those few fools who appear every decade or so urging us to set our passions free and to speak frankly before our women’ and ‘the preposterous fallacy that we have lately banished from our plains: the specious argument for the artist’s concerning himself with the distribution of material wealth or the workings of government or the release of men from the constraints of morality in the name of a universal licence masking itself as Freedom’. Economics and politics have no place in Murnane’s world; licentiousness isn’t possible for his characters. But his previous books do contain disclosures of passions, if not frank discussion of them. (One consequence of this for Murnane has been the estrangement of his uncle Louis, his father’s youngest brother and his own closest horse-racing pal, who in another fictional rendering disapproves of his nephew’s enthusiasm for free verse.) The filmmaker is sponsored by a landowner who gives him access to a grand library and unlimited time to make his film about the ‘Eternal Plane’. It’s too much freedom. He spends a decade leafing through books and contemplating Time – the other plane. But in the end, his film unbegun and unfinished, he gives his patron what he wants, a blank screen with the lights out, a vision of the plains covered in the ‘Great Darkness’.

*

In The Plains, as in other books of his middle phase, first-person narration predominates. Murnane subscribes to Wayne Booth’s concept of the implied author – the person the reader imagines to be behind the work. ‘The ghostly outline of this personage has arisen in my mind,’ Murnane writes, ‘as a result of my having read certain details in the text.’ Since The Plains much of the tension in his fiction has come from this distance between the narrator, the implied author and Murnane himself. The 1989 story ‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’ mixes details that parallel Murnane’s life with material most writers would find unspeakable. The narrator, like Murnane, is a married father living in a Melbourne suburb, a former schoolteacher and the son of a man who has things in common with Murnane’s father. Unlike Murnane, who has three sons, the narrator has a son and a daughter. He recalls his bachelor days as a teacher, when he would deliberately live miles away from his pupils and their families. He wanted nothing to do with them because ‘I did not want my neighbours or any adult passing in the street to think I was the sort of solitary man who was attracted to nine-year-old girls.’ Then:

In fact, I was attracted to half a dozen of the nine-year-old girls in my class – and to two or three of the boys every day. Every day I looked from the sides of my eyes at the smooth skins of the girls, at the trusting eyes of the boys. I would never have dared to put so much as the tip of a finger on a child in a way that might have suggested what I felt for the child. All day while I taught my favourite children I wanted no more than that they should think well of me. But when I was safely out of their sight I often dreamed of the children.

I dreamed that my favourite children lived with me in a mansion surrounded by a tall wire fence in thick bushland in northeastern Victoria. The children were no longer children; they were almost adults. They were free to live their own lives in the far-flung suites of my rambling mansion. I had never forced my company on them. I lived alone in my self-contained flat in a corner of the ground floor of the mansion. But the children who were no longer children knew that they were always welcome to knock on my door. I was always pleased to take them into the room where I sat behind drawn blinds on most afternoons watching black and white and grey films of men and women in far countries of the world doing without shame or shyness what I hoped my favourite children would never dream of doing.

The story veers away from this secret into other strands of care and guilt. The narrator worries over his son returning home from school. He recalls a project he recently gave to his students, to write letters to exchange with counterparts in New Zealand, letters he hasn’t sent because he has misplaced his fellow teacher’s address. He hopes the children will forget the undertaking before the end of term and burns the letters, making sure that no scrap remains to float in the air and be found by a child who might discover that his letter was never sent and a reply will never be received. The narrator may be afflicted with terrible compulsions and a tortured dream life, but the implied author is humane, not least for allowing the narrator to resist his attractions.

The process of writing fiction comes to the fore in this period. The 1986 story ‘Stone Quarry’ posits a network of fiction workshops ‘more strict than a Trappist monastery’ that bring together half a dozen writers in silence for several days, allowing them to communicate only in messages encoded in their fiction, which is signed with pseudonyms that change every day. Those who break the silence are made to sit alone in a room and transcribe pages from the works of great solitary authors. A second offence results in expulsion. Talk ‘drains away the writer’s most precious resource, which is the belief that he or she is the solitary witness to an inexhaustible profusion from which might be read all the wisdom of the world’. The 1988 novel Inland is narrated by a writer in Hungary who sends his manuscripts to the editor of a magazine called Hinterland, based in Ideal, South Dakota. Hungary and America are Murnane’s dreamlands: one a landlocked country isolated by its non-Indo-European tongue; the other a vast zone of anglophone colonisation, an alternate, purer and more fertile Australia. The writer in Hungary lusts after his editor and grows jealous of her husband. He is sustained by visions of her reading his work on the virgin prairies. The equation of reading and writing with sex and landscape is just another example of Murnane’s principle of transformation, or imaginative multiplicity: ‘I learned that no thing in the world is one thing; that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things. I learned to find a queer pleasure in staring at a thing and dreaming of how many things it might be.’

It was rumoured in the years that preceded the appearance of Barley Patch that Murnane had lost interest in publishing whatever fiction he was writing. The essays in his 2005 collection Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs put several facts on the record: that Murnane has never flown in an aeroplane, left Australia, travelled on the ocean, worn sunglasses, used a mobile phone or owned a TV; that he lost his Catholic faith around the age of twenty (he briefly trained to be a priest) but never stopped believing in another world (the world of fiction); that he has no sense of smell and little sense of taste; that he has a rigorous ethic of organisation but fears the organisational systems of others; that he dislikes libraries, art galleries, cinemas, the theatre and tourist sites; that he loves charts and diagrams, using them to shape his books, and can’t conceive of history except as points on a timeline; that he has never understood philosophy, is incapable of abstract thought and has read only two books of literary theory, Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory; that he has no use for Freud, Jung or received mythologies; that he tried and failed to write ‘a huge book of fiction’ to be entitled O, Dem Golden Slippers but in 1991, aged 53, discovered he ‘seemed to have crossed, at last, the country of fiction and to have discovered on its farther side a country no less inviting’; that he keeps among his 19 filing cabinets filled with manuscripts and unpublished writings a report on this discovery, awaiting a scholar of the future, who he thinks will be a woman; that he believes ‘all art, even music, aspires to the condition of horse-racing.’ Elsewhere he writes of seeing horse races in his mind as a boy during the recitation of Latin hymns and prayers at Mass. It’s the glue of his obsessions.

*

Barley Patch is the first of the four books Murnane has published from the far side of the country of fiction. It is framed as a self-interview, beginning with the questions ‘Must I write?’ and ‘Why had I written?’ He proposes answers to the second question that sound both a bit silly and plausible for the author of a novel like The Plains: ‘Perhaps I wrote in order to provide myself with the equivalent in the invisible world of Tasmania and New Zealand in the visible world.’ The distance between the narrator of Barley Patch, though it claims to be fiction, and the Murnane of the essays seems to be nil:

When I stopped writing at last, I had not for many years used the terms novel or short story in connection with my writing. Several other words I likewise avoided: create, creative, imagine, imaginary, and, above all, imagination. Long before I stopped writing, I had come to understand that I had never created any character or imagined any plot. My preferred way of summing up my deficiencies was to say simply that I had no imagination.

Murnane says he doesn’t envy writers of ‘imaginative’ fiction because it doesn’t seem a prophylactic against ‘faulty writing’, and alludes dismissively to the elaborately imagined pharaonic Egypt in Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. He thinks of the imagination as a remnant of crude psychology, a faculty that might be located in one or another ‘swellings’ located on a schoolboy’s anatomical map of the brain, one he happens to lack.

Yet Murnane persists in characterising all of his fiction as a report on the images in his mind. He describes it as a process of retrieval rather than generation but in his account even the act of reading involves what we’d usually call imagination: he inserts himself as a character, ‘a ghostly presence’, into the novels and stories he reads. He resists what we tend to call ‘identification’ with fictional characters because he can’t relate to or disapproves of many male characters’ attitudes and actions towards female characters, an exception being Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The fictions since Barley PatchA History of Books, A Million Windows and Border Districts, said to be Murnane’s last book – have continued in this mode: commentary on writing and reading stitched between narrative fragments drawn from Murnane’s mental image-world. ‘For the sake of the undiscerning reader,’ he writes in A Million Windows, disparaging the ‘self-referential fiction’ popular in the 1970s and 1980s,

I shall repeat the simple fact that I am the narrator of this work and not the author. In the matter of my fate, so to call it, I am no more able to exercise choice than is any narrator of any of the texts going forward in room after room in this wing of the house of two or, perhaps, three storeys where this text to be is understood as going forward, or any character, so to call him or her, in any work of fiction reported to be going forward in any of those rooms.

I’ve heard Murnane called an outsider artist, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Plenty of writers emerge as if out of nowhere (after steeping themselves in canonical authors), then proceed to become more and more their eccentric selves. It might be said, however, that Murnane qualifies as an outsider literary theorist, taking a concept or two from Booth and elaborating an increasingly complex theory of fiction over several books. The narrator of Border Districts has moved (in an echo of The Plains) to a remote region far from the capital, but the ‘image-events’ derive from his youth five decades before, ‘the period of my life when I read book after book of fiction in the belief that I would learn thereby matters of much importance not to be learned from any other kind of book’. He recalls losing his Catholic faith while reading a Hardy novel and the ordeal of discarding ‘a host of mental images that were no longer of use to me. I had previously considered these images the nearest available likenesses to personages by definition invisible to me. I could never have prayed if I had not been able to bring these images to mind.’ Murnane replaced the Holy Trinity with a new quasi-mystical complex he’d extracted from his reading of Booth: a tripartite Murnane, the writer (Father), the narrator (Son), and the implied author (Holy Ghost) holding the first two apart in the reader’s mind. The drift away from the church was common to Murnane’s generation, children educated by monks who then did not fill their ranks and put on their black soutanes and white celluloid bibs. The monks and their bibs are one of the striking images from the book’s opening pages, along with a priest who urinates into holy water in an emergency and a woman who must type up the complaint of a victim of sexual abuse, then loses her faith during a funeral ceremony, walks out of the church and never goes back. Relating his disenchantment with ‘texts intended to explain the mind’, he concludes that his own mind ‘must have been a paradise by comparison with the drab sites where others located their selves or their personalities or whatever they called their mental territories’. Border Districts and the three fictions that precede it are letters from this austere yet infinitely fertile paradise.

Interrupting this string of scrupulously tricky fictions, in 2015 Murnane published Something for the Pain, a memoir of his lifelong engagement with horse-racing. It is the only one of his books that can reasonably be called breezy. He reminisces about jockeys, grouses about rules he doesn’t agree with and tells stories about his father. We learn that he now keeps a mobile phone in the boot of his car but doesn’t know how to save numbers to it, that when he drives he listens to horse races broadcast from all over Australia and that he himself has never sat astride a horse. The knot that has bound religion, sex and fiction-writing in his books is loosed and one thing is left. ‘I have never met anyone whose interest in racing matched my own.’