• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Quest for the Girl from Bendigo Street

coetzee_2-122012.jpg
Gerald Murnane

Looking back, he wonders how he could have spent three decades of his life making up fictions. He entertains several hypotheses, none entirely serious. One is that, fearful of travel, he needed to invent a world beyond his small corner of the state of Victoria.

When he gave up fiction-writing, Murnane informs us, he also gave up reading new books and returned to the writers who had meant the most to him, chiefly Marcel Proust, Emily Brontë, and Thomas Hardy. During the years left to him, he resolves, he will occupy himself with the “mental entities” who have visited him in the course of a lifetime; he will “contemplate those images and yield to those feelings that [comprise] the lasting essence of all my reading and my writing.” These images will be tirelessly rearranged and remapped, so that his works of fiction can eventually be viewed as a set of variations, chapters in a single lifelong task.

Fascination with the image clusters in his mind leads Murnane to explore how memory works. He reads books on mnemonics, including Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory; he even invents a system of his own based on horse- racing and jockeys’ racing colors. What interests him most are what (if he did not abhor the notion of the unconscious) he might call unconscious associations: the way the word “hiatus,” for example, brings to his mind “a grey-black bird struggling against winds high in the sky.”

Memory images will continue to trouble him until he can find a place for them in an image network. The qualities of images—their associations and their emotional coloration—engage him more deeply than their overt content. His fictions are, fundamentally, explorations of the qualities of images. He has little interest in where in his life experience these images come from, that is to say, no wish to subordinate them to the seeming real.

The most difficult pages of Barley Patch concern the status of the “other” world where fictional beings live. Although they may depend on some author or another to write them into existence, these beings ultimately escape or exceed authorial control: they lead interior lives all their own; in some cases their author fails to grasp who they truly are.

An important stage in the life of writing is attained, Murnane continues, when the writing self moves from merely observing and reporting on inner images to living an image life among image persons in the other world. Readers of the right kind may be brought along too, into a realm where they or their image selves rub shoulders with fictional beings.

Too sketchy and eccentric to constitute a proper metaphysics of fiction, these pages are better read as the poetic credo of a writer who at one point goes so far as to posit that the “real” (mundane) world and the real (ideal) world are suspended in reciprocal tension, each holding the other in existence:

Being no more than the conjectured author of this work of fiction, I can have come into existence only at the moment when a certain female personage who was reading these pages formed in her mind an image of the male personage who had written the pages with her in mind.

There will be readers who will dismiss Murnane’s dual-world system as idle theory-spinning, and perhaps go on to say that it shows he is all intellect and no heart. Murnane indirectly reflects on this criticism when, in Barley Patch, he tells the story of his last visit to a beloved uncle dying of cancer—the same uncle who had cut ties with him when he decided to become a writer. The two spend their last hour together in a typically male Australian way: avoiding sentiment, discussing horses. After that Murnane leaves the hospital room, finds a private place, and weeps.

His uncle was right, Murnane reflects afterward: there was no need for him to waste his life writing. Why then did he do it? The answer: without writing he “would never be able to suggest to another person what I truly felt towards him or her.” That is to say, only by telling a story of a man who appears to have no feelings but privately weeps, addressing the story, elegiacally, to one who can no longer hear it, is he able to reveal his love.

Murnane’s writing, from Inland onward, reflects continually on this difficult personal fate. On the one hand, being a writer has set him apart from human society; on the other hand, it is only through writing that he can hope to become human. The elegiac tone that surfaces in his later work comes from the realization that he is what he is, that in his life there will be no second chance, that only in the “other” world can he make up for what he has lost.

Barley Patch concludes with a summary of one of the fiction projects Murnane abandoned in the 1970s. Its hero is a young man who is awkward with girls, thinks of entering the priesthood, and so forth—a young man much like his historical self. Then abruptly he abandons the summary, realizing he has resumed writing, albeit in précis form, the work he had resolved to give up.

In Inland, republished in the United States a quarter of a century after its first appearance, we return to the schooldays of the young Murnane (the young Murnane self). At the age of twelve he is joined in his class by a girl whom he names simply “the girl from Bendigo Street.” The two become close companions, even soul mates, until they are sundered by a family move and never meet again.

No word of love passes between the two. However, through an intermediary the boy inquires whether the girl likes him, and is told that she likes him “very much.” This unrealized love from thirty years ago is revisited by the older Murnane (the older Murnane self). Inland is a letter to the girl from Bendigo Street: a declaration of love; a lament over a lost opportunity; but also—and here we touch on an underlying motive force that is harder to pin down—an act of atonement.

The transgression for which Inland is meant to atone is not visible in the story of the youthful pair, but seems part of the constitution of Murnane himself, or the Murnane self who figures as writer of the book. Inland tries to give substance to this obscure originary sin by situating it in an overt work of fiction, and thus—in Murnane’s metaphysical system—making it real.

This invented fiction is a complicated piece of work, so complicated that following its ins and outs will defeat many first-time readers. One of the seminal books for Murnane has been People of the Puszta, an exploration of rural life in Hungary published in 1936 by the novelist Gyula Illyés (1902–1983). Illyés records an episode from his childhood on a country estate: the young daughter of a neighbor, raped by one of the stewards, had drowned herself, and he had seen the corpse. The dead girl became an inspiration to him, an “angel of defiance and revolt” in his later struggles to put an end to the abuse of powerless serfs by the rural gentry.

This tragic story, alluded to repeatedly in Murnane’s oeuvre, comes most strongly to the fore in Inland, where responsibility for the girl’s death is taken on by an unnamed Hungarian landowner. This person narrates the early episodes of the book and is one of the avatars of Murnane-the-writer. His confession, expressed in the most veiled of terms, takes the form of an essay contributed to a journal called Mainland published by the Institute of Prairie Studies in Ideal, South Dakota, and edited by Anne Kristaly, one-time beloved of the landowner. Anne Kristaly, Hungarian by birth, is now married to a jealous Scandinavian who does his best to block communications between the two.

The story of this trio—landowner, Anne Kristaly, husband—complicated by metafictional byplay and parodies of Hungarian authors like Sándor Márai (Murnane reads Hungarian and is familiar with Hungarian literature), takes up the first fifty pages of the book and is its least successful part. After fifty pages, the Hungarian plains and the Institute of Prairie Studies are abandoned. Murnane, as it were, takes a deep breath and plunges into the long contrapuntal composition that constitutes the rest of the book, the most ambitious, sustained, and powerful piece of writing he has to date brought off.

The underlying narrative is of the twelve-year-old boy and the girl from Bendigo Street, their friendship and their parting, and of the man’s later attempts, Orpheus-like, to summon her back, or if not her, then her shade, from the realm of the dead and the forgotten. Woven into this narrative are a number of motifs whose common element is resurrection: the violated serf girl who returns as an angel of defiance; the lovers in Wuthering Heights united beyond the grave (Inland concludes with the famous last paragraph of Emily Brontë’s novel); the great recuperative vision experienced by Marcel in Time Regained; and verses from the Gospel of Matthew that foretell the second coming of Christ.

The physical world beyond Victoria barely figures in Murnane’s oeuvre. Yet in one respect the Old World haunts the boy in Inland. Jesus prophesies the end of the world, but comforts his followers by telling them to watch the fig tree: when the gray branches show shoots of green, he will return. Following the Roman calendar, the priest in Murnane’s church preaches this text six months out of phase with the seasons of the southern hemisphere. Thus when the faithful are exhorted to watch, as if from the depths of winter, for the first shoots of the fig tree, the heat of summer is already upon them.

The obvious lesson to draw is that the Church is out of touch with the realities of Australia, that Australians should get used to reading Holy Writ as a document of a Northern Hemisphere religion. What the young Murnane concludes, however, is that there are two calendars, two world-times, and that unless he can find a way of living according to both, superimposing the one upon the other, he will not be saved.

Once again we see reality being bent to fit a dual-world system. We take to heart the plight of a boy caught in a self-fashioned trap only because of the power of the writing in which his story is told. The emotional conviction behind the later parts of Inland is so intense, the somber lyricism so moving, the intelligence behind the chiseled sentences so undeniable, that we suspend all disbelief, forgive the boy his imagined sins, and allow the peasant girl from Hungary and the girl from Bendigo Street to shine their benign radiance on us from a world beyond that is somehow also this world:

On every day while I was writing on [these] pages, I thought of the people referred to or named in the book with the word for grassland [i.e., puszta] on its cover.
At first while I was writing I thought of those people as though they were all dead and I myself was alive. At some time while I was writing, however, I began to suspect what I am now sure of. I began to suspect that all persons named or referred to in the pages of books are alive, whereas all other persons are dead.
When I wrote the letter which was the first of all my pages, I was thinking of a young woman who was, I thought, dead while I was still alive. I thought the young woman was dead while I remained alive in order to go on writing what she could never read.
Today while I write on this last page, I am still thinking of the young woman. Today, however, I am sure the young woman is still alive. I am sure the young woman is still alive while I am dead. Today I am dead but the young woman remains alive in order to go on reading what I could never write.
  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print