I don’t get around to reading many books originally written in English (unless, like my January book of the month, they’re connected to my interest in other cultures), but one writer I’m hoping to make an exception for is Australian author Gerald Murnane. Border Districts was one of my top five books last year, and I’ve finally found time to try another of his novels – although it might be best to put that word between inverted commas given Murnane’s preference for introspective musings. Let’s head off to regional Victoria again, then, for a few hours in the company of Uncle Gerald and his stories of the past, and of what never was…
Barley Patch was released in 2009 and represented Murnane’s first published work of new fiction in around fifteen years. This dry spell provides the premise for the work, with the writer undertaking to explain why he decided to give up on writing fiction, and later why he started again. It would be a naïve reader, though, who expects brief, concise answers, and Murnane warns as such on several occasions:
I would be willing to admit that I have not yet answered the impending question, but only if my hypothetical questioner would admit that a question can hardly be worth asking if its answer can be delivered in fewer than ten thousand words.
p.82 (Giramondo Publishing, 2009)
That being the case, it’s best to just settle back and enjoy the journey, which while long, will be smooth and generally enjoyable.
To answer the questions he himself sets at the start of the ‘novel’, the writer begins with an extended background of his reading and writing life. We receive valuable insights into Murnane the reader and learn of his obsession with images, which fascinate him more than what he calls ‘personages’, and he describes how little he actually remembers of all the books he’s ever read in terms of actual text, or even plots. Instead, what comes to mind when remembering works of fiction are the images he’s held on to for decades, as well as the feelings evoked by the book.
For Murnane, though, it’s not enough to passively read a work of fiction, as he expresses a need to explore the setting of the book on his own terms. This desire to almost become a part of the book is expressed on several occasions here, and he delights in mentally wandering around in the gaps between the narrative, making friends with his favourite characters and exploring the background he imagines in the distance. He has such vivid images of the buildings and landscape contained in the books he read in his youth that he’s not afraid to disagree with the writer if the description doesn’t match up to what he sees in his mind.
Ironically, given this penchant for imagery, one of the themes of Barley Patch is the writer’s modest claims to not have much of an imagination. His own work appears to be a simple matter of recording his memories and reflecting on what was and what might have been. Of course, even here, it’s not quite that simple:
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.
I was seldom embarrassed to have to admit this. The word imagination seemed to me connected with antiquated systems of psychology: with drawings of the human brain in which each swelling was named for the faculty residing there. Even when I looked into some or another novel by a contemporary author much praised for his or her imagination, I was far from being envious; a powerful imagination, it seemed was no preventative against faulty writing. (p.5)
Ouch. That, as my daughter would say, is one solid burn…
In truth, his ability to read a book and burrow deep down inside it shows a lot of imagination. As a boy, he was keen to make the acquaintance of characters scarcely outlined in the work, who then became fully formed people in his mind. In later years, inside a work of his own fiction, the characters imagine a building they’d buy if they won the lottery, and his ‘chief character’ (a thinly disguised Murnane) is obsessed with the idea long after the others have forgotten it. The building becomes his very own ‘memory palace’, ever-expanding and intricately detailed, and even if the objects towards which the writer turns his attention could seem slightly mundane, there’s a formidable creativity at work here, belying the claims of a lack of imagination.
And yet you can see where he’s coming from when you consider the topics he constantly returns to, namely his own life, his family and his reading. Readers who have tried Murnane’s work before will recognise the preoccupation with images, horse racing, a fascination with two-story buildings and the northern grasslands (The Plains!). Then, of course, there’s his uneasy relationship with the Roman Catholic church. He’s never overly dismissive of organised religion, but you sense that he’s happy that his more pious days are behind him.
In the shorter second part of the novel, as he inches ever closer to explaining his reasons for taking an extended break, the focus turns to the book he was working on at the time, a novel entitled O, Dem Golden Slippers. Here we learn of a young man growing up in and around Melbourne, hearing of his religious leanings, his plans for a quiet life to make time for writing poetry, and perhaps some prose. Later, this longing for a quiet life leads to a flirtation with a life away from the world in a monastery – hang on a minute…
Yes, it’s pretty much just a rewriting of Murnane’s own life, but that should come as no surprise. Early on, the writer sets down how he plans to spend his time now he’s given up writing:
During the rest of my life I would concern myself only with those mental entities that had come to me almost stealthily while I read or while I wrote but had never afterwards detached themselves from me. I would contemplate those images and yield to those feelings that comprised the lasting essence of all my reading and my writing. During the rest of my life I would go on reading from a vast book with no pages, or I would write intricate sentences made up of items other than words. (p.8)
This can be taken as a description of Murnane’s work as a whole, less a number of discrete novels than fragments of one overarching work, never to be completed because it can’t be. With the sheer impossibility of describing all the thoughts in one’s mind, all the possibilities open to a character, any attempt to provide a ‘complete’ work is doomed to failure.
But then, those are just my thoughts, and I’m sure Murnane would wryly chuckle at how wide I am of the mark (his surprise at how critics see his writing is another feature of his books…). Let’s not forget that as tempting as it is to read everything here as autobiographical, the writer himself frequently reminds us that we’re reading fiction, albeit of a different kind to that which we are accustomed. We can puzzle over his words all we want – in the end, it all means just what he wants it to mean.
As for the answer to his question? Well, there are hints of sorts. Towards the end of Barley Patch, which sees the writer delving into the very essence of novels, we share Murnane’s discovery of the impossibility of novel writing when the author’s creations have their own lives – most of which is far away from the novel itself:
Now I might try to glimpse in my own mind some of what might be glimpsed in the mind or remembered or dreamed of but never written about. Now I was justified in believing in the existence of places beyond the places that I had read about or had written about: of a country on the far side of fiction. (pp.255/6)
The undiscovered land, one even the writer has no concept of – it’s a lovely thought. And on that note, I’ll leave you all for today – I think I need to do some more reading…