Magnum Photos

Photograph by Trent Parke from ‘Dream/Life,’ a series of his images of Australia

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.

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.

Copyright © 2012 J. M. Coetzee