Between 1840 and 1914 Ireland emptied itself of half its population. Famine claimed as many as a million people, but most left their native land in hope of a better life abroad. Though North America was the favored destination, over 300,000 Irish took passage to Australia. By 1914 Australia was the most ethnically Irish country in the world outside Ireland itself. In Australia, Irish community life centered on the Catholic Church, which retained its predominantly Irish complexion until, after World War II, waves of immigrants began to arrive from southern Europe, inflecting its forms of worship with their own rituals and folkways.
Strong on obedience to doctrine and on forms of observance but intellectually torpid, the Church in Australia concentrated its energies on ensuring that every Catholic child received a Catholic schooling. Gerald Murnane, born in 1939, was one of the beneficiaries of this policy, and from Tamarisk Row (1974) onward, in fiction and nonfiction, he records the consequences of an Irish-Australian Catholic education for a boy child with a history much like his own (in a Murnanian spirit of scrupulousness I hesitate to call the child “himself”). Among these consequences have been, on the one hand, an abiding belief in another world, and, on the other, ingrained feelings of personal sinfulness.
Murnane’s belief in another world needs to be qualified at once. Although, after high school, he took steps toward entering the priesthood, he soon dropped the idea and indeed gave up religious observance for good. His belief is therefore philosophical rather than religious in nature, though no less strong for that. Access to the other world—a world distinct from and in many ways better than our own—is gained neither by good works nor by grace but by giving the self up to fiction.
As for sinfulness, the young Murnane we meet has all the frustrated curiosity about sex that one might expect in a child brought up in a community where impure acts are inveighed against from the pulpit, yet in such clouded terms that what they may actually consist in remains a puzzle. In a telling episode related in Barley Patch, the boy waits up until the household is asleep, then steals out of bed to explore a dolls’ house belonging to his girl cousins that he has been forbidden to touch, and that is linked in his subconscious mind (I use the term “subconscious mind” provisionally—see Murnane’s strictures below) not only with the girls’ bodies but with the tabernacle where the ceremonial vessels of the Mass are kept. By moonlight he peers through the tiny window, longing to reach in a finger and touch the mysteries inside, but fearful of leaving some guilty trace behind.
How the male gets into the female is only one of the many mysteries faced by the boy child. In his naive cosmology, God the Father is at best a remote presence. Presiding over his destiny instead is a figure he calls the Patroness, a composite of the Virgin Mary and his own mother in her youth. “The very purpose of her existence was to remain aloof from me and so to provide me with a task worthy of a lifetime of effort: the simple but baffling task of gaining admission to her presence.” A need to offer up to the female principle some strenuous act of penance becomes one of the deeper motives in Murnane’s writing, animating his novel Inland in particular.
As a writer, Murnane is anything but a naive, straightforward realist. Putting down on paper what an Irish Catholic upbringing was like in Australia circa 1950 is not the limit of his ambition. As he makes abundantly clear, his boy hero, who venerates his Patroness yet also tries to get his cousins to take off their knickers in the toolshed, has his existence less in our everyday world than in another world that is nonetheless in an obscure way part of our own.
In this connection Murnane likes to quote a gnomic observation of Paul Éluard’s: “There is another world but it is in this one.” (The same words were used by Patrick White as an epigraph to The Solid Mandala, his novel about a suburban visionary.) Grasping just how the other world relates to this one is the main obstacle to understanding what Murnane is doing, or believes himself to be doing, in his fiction.
Thus: Is the boy about whom Murnane writes to be understood as a figure in his imagination? Is there a site, loosely to be called an imaginary world, where all the personages in Murnane’s fictions have their existence; and when Murnane (or “Murnane”) writes of another world that is in this one is he referring to nothing more unusual than the imagination of his authorial self?
Of himself, his mind, and the power of that mind to conjure up beings who do not “really” exist, Murnane has the following to say:
He had never been able to believe in something called his unconscious mind. The term unconscious mind seemed to him self-contradictory. Words such as imagination and memory and person and self and even real and unreal he found vague and misleading, and all the theories of psychology that he had read about as a young man begged the question of where the mind was. For him, the first of all premises was that his mind was a place or, rather, a vast arrangement of places.
He fills out his scheme of the mind—or, rather, of his own mind, since he is not interested in generalities—as follows:
In his fifties, he…had come to believe that he was made up mostly of images. He was aware only of images and feelings. The feelings connected him to the images and connected the images to one another. The connected images made up a vast network. He was never able to imagine this network as having a boundary in any direction. He called the network, for convenience, his mind.
The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences (“I could never conceive of a network of meaning too complex to be expressed in a series of grammatical sentences,” says Murnane, whose views on grammar are firm, even pedantic). Whether the connections between images lie implicit in the images themselves or are created by an active, shaping intelligence; where the energy (“feelings”) comes from that discerns such connections; whether that energy is always to be trusted—these are questions that do not interest him, or at least are not addressed in a body of writing that is rarely averse to reflecting on itself.
In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of. If there is some central, originary, shaping force behind the fictions of the mind, it can barely be called a force: its essence seems to be a watchful passivity.
As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist. His fictional personages or “image-persons” (characters is a term he does not use) have their existence in a world much like the world of myth, purer, simpler, and more real than the world from which they take their origin.
For readers who, despite Murnane’s best efforts, cannot tell the difference between image-persons and figments of the human imagination, it may be best to treat Murnane’s theorizing—which extends into the very texture of his fiction—as no more than an elaborate way of warning us not to identify the storytelling I with the man Gerald Murnane, and therefore not to read his books as autobiographical records, accountable to the same standard of truth as history is. The I who tells the story will be no less a constructed figure than the actors in it.
With David Malouf and Thomas Keneally, Gerald Murnane belongs to the last generation of writers to come to maturity in an Australia that was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical, and suspicious of foreigners. Of that generation, Murnane has been the least obedient to received norms of realism, the most open to outside influence, whether from Europe or from the Americas.
Between 1974 and 1990 Murnane published six books. Among these, The Plains (1982) and Inland (1988) are usually read as novels, though they lack many of the standard features of the novel: they have no plot worth speaking of, and only the most desultory narrative line; their personages have no names and few individuating characteristics. Landscape with Landscape (1985) and Velvet Waters (1990) are, more recognizably, collections of short fictions, some showing the imprint of Jorge Luis Borges. Murnane is conspicuously absent from the list of Australian writers who have answered the call to celebrate or interrogate Australianness: one of the pieces in Landscape with Landscape is a satirical commentary, not entirely successful, on this call.
After 1990, according to his own account, Murnane gave up writing fiction. In a preliminary note to Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, published in 2005, he writes: “I should never have tried to write fiction or non-fiction or even anything in-between. I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays.” Both Lilacs and the book that followed it, Barley Patch (2009), are, loosely speaking, collections of essays. Now republished in the US, Barley Patch comprises recollections of Murnane’s family, childhood, and early manhood; reflections on his career as a writer, including his decision to give up fiction; explorations of his own practice as a writer; an outline of his philosophy of fiction; and synopses of abandoned projects—synopses so detailed and well developed that they threaten to become works of fiction themselves.
As a child, Murnane recalls, he loved to read because reading allowed him to wander freely among fictional personages and stare openly at the women. In real life he dared not stare for fear of awaking feelings of guilt; spying became his secret sin. He longed to meet a girl who would be curious enough about him to spy on him. To spark the curiosity of girls he would ostentatiously occupy himself in writing. Less amusing, more poignant, are his memories of yearning for “some layer of the world far beyond my own drab layer [where] it might have been possible sometimes to follow one’s own desires without incurring punishment.”
He entered his twenties (he continues in straightfaced autobiographical vein) “lack[ing] the skills that enabled most other young men of my age to acquire steady girlfriends or even fiancées and wives.” On weekends he met with other lonely, sex-starved young men to drink beer and talk about girls. For the rest he holed up in his room, writing.
His decision to devote himself to writing instead of furthering his education was greeted with disapproval from his family; after his first book came out he was disowned by a favorite uncle. To fortify his resolve he recited like a mantra Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Scholar Gypsy,” which celebrates a life of solitary intellectual endeavor. For his daily bread, he told himself, he would bet on the horses.
Copyright © 2012 J. M. Coetzee