Melanie at Grab The Lapels initiated recently a great debate along the lines of what even IS Literary Fiction. It was fun, and illuminating, to sit in the comment stream as for days the various responses and counter-responses came rolling in. Melanie, and probably the bulk of her readers’ tentative conclusion is, I think, that the Lit.Fic. tag is elitist. Mine is that Lit.Fic is Art, that Lit.Fic writers respond consciously to previous developments in Lit.Fic by expanding what can be said and how it can be said.
However you define it, what Gerald Murnane does is definitely Literary Fiction. I was initially, briefly!, disappointed with A Season on Earth because it starts like, say an Alan Marshall story: I was a boy and this is what I did. I have come to Murnane late and was expecting the deep introspection of his later writing, but A Season on Earth is an early work, only lately – this year – published in full as he wrote it.
What he does is write in intense detail his thoughts and actions as a teenager, at a Catholic boys school in 1950s Melbourne. I was sorry on reading Border Districts that I was unfamiliar with Proust’s Remembrance of Times Lost. I’m sorry now that nor have I read Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Murnane’s protagonist Adrian Sherd gives an almost nightly account of the fantasies – sex with Hollywood film stars – to which he masturbates; his discussions about masturbation with his particular schoolfriends; his fantasy about a girl he travels home on the same train as, without ever speaking to her, which leads to him forsaking masturbation, though not wet dreams, in favour of (imagined) courtship, engagement, marriage and children; the ongoing tension between his sins, actual and imagined, and his commitment to his religion; the problems occasioned by his burgeoning manhood
Adrian stood for a minute in the middle of his darkened bedroom. He took a few steps forward and then reached down once more to check what was happening beneath his pyjamas. His enemy had consolidated its position still further. Adrian realised he would never escape from the danger of mortal sin. He would always be at the mercy of his own penis …
and finally, by the end of Part 2 (halfway) to his turning his back on his imagined love to begin studying for the priesthood.
The art in Murnane’s writing is that a) you are equally enthralled and amused by Adrian’s convoluted rationalisations; and b) you feel for Adrian as he inches towards understanding in a very Satre-ian way, with each iteration of love-interest/temptation/religious-response.
In Part 3, Adrian spends his matriculation year (year 12) in the junior seminary of the Charleroi order near Blenheim, NSW. Murnane fictionalises all the school, town and suburb names where he lives and studies, but situates them accurately in real locations. So Blenheim is Goulburn – I didn’t try and work out who the ‘Charlerois’ were – his old school was De La Salle in Malvern and so on … Only ‘Accrington’, his home suburb has me beat, though given that it’s south east and not on the Frankston line, I’m guessing Oakleigh or Clayton (map).
This part is a relatively straightforward account of his life and thoughts – he worries that the Charlerois are insufficiently strict or religious – and to be honest I’m not surprised his original publishers, in 1976, cut it out.
He determines to leave the Charlerois and join the Cistercians, a stricter order with a monastery at Yarra Glen, outside Melbourne. But on the train home from Blenheim, he rediscovers and overcomes the temptations of the flesh, and learns this about himself –
He knew now that looking at landscapes and observing their effect on his emotions was what he really wanted for his life’s work … from that moment on he was a poet in search of his ideal landscape.
And so Part 4: Reassured that his new favourite poet, Matthew Arnold had been an inspector of schools he begins employment with the Education Department, in the section reassigning temporary appointments. He’s told, “… we can give them another appointment anywhere in the state. Mind you, we’re supposed to be reasonable. If Ouyen or Sea Lake needs a temp …”. The Holloways by then had put the wilds of Sea Lake, and Underbool, west of Ouyen, three or four years behind them (though we came back, to Murrayville even further west than Underbool).
For a year he dedicates himself to staying aloof from his workmates, to writing an epic poem, first of a hero on imagined distant plains who conquers his desire to commit the solitary sin, which Adrian imagines Catholic women will not understand but will have explained to them by their husbands; then, on the “blissful union of bodies and souls in the sacrament of matrimony”, based entirely on his covert observations of young wives at communion.
Even Adrian realises that this revised epic requires of him some experience of talking to, meeting, courting young women and so he joins the Young Catholics, goes to Cheshire’s bookshop in the city, and generally hangs about looking thoughtful in a way any sensible young woman must notice and appreciate, until at Cheshires he discovers and begins to model himself, on AE Housman, an ascetic, bachelor Don (the inspiration for his later story, A Quieter Place then Clun).
When the train [to work] reached Flinders Street, Adrian would try to catch the young woman’s eye with a last look full of meaning. It was meant to tell her he was not unappreciative of her interest in him, but he was not free to respond to her as an ordinary young man would have been.
He moves on, toys with nhilism, (imagined) rape in any other language; writing erotic novels (he discovers Henry Miller); monasticism – his ‘cell’ is the shed in his parents’ backyard; and finally, discovers Rimbaud (without I think discovering that Rimbaud was homosexual) and in emulation, at 19, decides to throw over poetry and journey to
the ends of the earth somewhere …
Gerald Murnane, A Season on Earth, Text, Melbourne, 2019.
Parts 1 and 2 previously published as A Lifetime on Clouds (1976)