I am, or was until now, a Gerald Murnane virgin. I had read none of his works nor knew anything about him except, from the colour supplements last year, that he had retired to the Wimmera, to a small town in wheat farm country west of St Arnaud, Vic and something, something, horse racing, something (I’ll look up a link when I’m done … here).
Now, I know a little more. Murnane is a Melburnian, half a generation older than me and, on the basis of this book, a fine, literary writer,
Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in Melbourne, Australia. He spent part of his childhood in country districts of Victoria, returned to Melbourne in 1949 and has lived there ever since [up to 1987 anyway, when this thumbnail appeared in Landscape With Landscape].
The thematically connected stories of this book are of a young Melbourne man, sexually immature and awkward, coming of age in the late 1950s, itself a sexually immature and awkward time in suburban Australia. The young man in this book devises scenarios in his head, plays out meetings before they take place, builds a whole imagined life around a glance or a chance sighting. I feel for him intensely. His awkwardness, the rehearsed meetings, his holding back from ‘real-life’ interaction are mine too.
The stories ostensibly concern his approaching, or not approaching, women. In some of them he meets a woman and marries her, but this woman, his wife, is rarely the point of the story, she is there, perhaps as a marker of his manhood, but playing very little part in his life, in the important part of his life, his imagination. More importantly, the stories are a writer practising his craft, effectively telling the same coming of age story six times from six different perspectives; a cycle, each story referencing the next, and the last the first; and at the same time developing and discussing the theories of his craft.
This was a time when people married young, my own parents, who married in 1950 were 23 and 18. Murnane – or the young man who is his surrogate in these stories – finds himself, positions himself, as the heavy drinking loner bachelor in the lounge rooms of his married friends, until he too has an (unnamed) wife. But his principal life – we might say the life he is reduced to rationalising as his principal life by his failure to make meaningful contact with eligible women – is in the space between himself and the Other.
At some time in my imagined future I would have wanted to see my landscape as a private place marked off from all others: a place that distinguished me as surely as a pattern of freckles could distinguish a woman.
There was such a place, although I did not recognise it for some years afterwards. By then it seemed less a landscape than the ending of the only fiction I could write. It was the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me. [Landscape With Freckled Woman].
He imagines an Australian landscape that has him leaning on a bar in far north Qld, drinking beer (which he is forcing himself to like), a romantic, Kerouac-ian wanderer. He tells this dream to Carolyn, a kindergarten teacher with a Morris Minor, but after four dates with lots of kissing he still hasn’t put his hand on her breast. She tells him she has been sleeping with a married man and he throws her over. His friend, Durkin starts taking her out, sleeping with her, discussing him with her, her with him. Durkin and Carolyn marry, still he remains in Melbourne, getting married himself, visiting them, drinking. Carolyn exposes her breast to him to breastfeed her third child, surely a sign. Durkin and Carolyn move north. To Grafton in northern NSW. Twenty years have passed. Carolyn leaves Durkin, moves north again, to Brisbane. Carolyn’s single, waiting for him, for them both to enter the landscape of his dreams, the far north… [Sipping the Essence]
In another story, he is a descendant of the utopian New Australia settlement in Paraguay, looking for other Australians amongst the Paraguayans, but afraid of course to approach them directly and ask; an extended metaphor for his search for like-minded people in Melbourne suburbia.
I was never sure what value to attach to what Paraguayans called the emotions. (How much, for example, of what I felt for my wife and children was truly derived from my Australianness and how much was derived from my being exposed all my life to overly demonstrative Paraguayans?)
His son, who is far more important to him than his daughter, becomes seriously ill and must be entrusted to Paraguayan doctors. During the long night watches he demonstrates to hospital staff his seriousness, his separateness. [The Battle of Acosta Nu].
In A Quieter Place than Clun Murnane attempts and largely fails to meet women – he describes his pick-up technique as: “Sometimes I did go [to parties], and sat drinking in a corner, hoping some perceptive young woman would notice about me the faint aureole from my fiery pattern of nerves.”
The Clun of the title is from a poem by AE Housman – “‘Tis a long way further than Knighton/A quieter place than Clun” – with which he becomes obsessed, imagining that his literary landscape must be coloured the brilliant green of southern England.
But in Charlie Alcock’s Cock, it is the spaces between things, the ‘gaps’ in reality, that form his landscape. At first he thinks he’ll find another way into reality from under the lemon tree in his aunt’s Hawthorn back yard where he and his younger cousin compare cocks, while he wishes he knew more about his older girl cousins. Over half a lifetime, the cousin becomes a priest and then a marriage counsellor, while he (Murnane) gets to 30, marries a nice, young Catholic girl, has children, decides to leave.
Now I knew that those dark spaces were part of myself. They were a huge projection of some intricate pattern behind my eyes, and it would be my life’s work to explore those dark spaces and to interpret the pattern that gave rise to them. The dazzled and half-blind people of Melbourne’s suburbs would lose sight of me.
Finally, and still sabotaging himself (his fictional self, how he was in ‘real’ life of course I cannot say) with drink, he attends a party in the hills north east of Melbourne, in the house of a successful artist (painter) who has become his friend, who pairs him off with a blonde to whom he is able to declaim the latest iterations of his theory of writing, but of course with whom he fails to go home.
She … asks me to tell her more about myself. I tell her I am a writer, but one whose best work is still unpublished. I say my writing is too complex to talk about. I write fiction in order to discover the pattern of myself and my life. At first sight, a piece of my fiction might seem to describe only a few figures in a landscape; but on closer inspection it reveals extraordinary depths – another dimension perhaps. If she read my fiction closely, I tell her, she would seem to be stepping inside a painting of a landscape with one or more figures and walking back as far as the furthest painted detail and then seeing still further off other landscapes rising to view [Landscape With Artist].
Elsewhere he writes he would “devise a new form of prose fiction – neither short story nor novel -with a shape to match the pattern of my life” and that, I guess, explains why he has chosen this form for this book. And yes, I’m embarrassed; Landscape With Landscape is brilliant and I should have read it years ago.
Gerald Murnane, Landscape With Landscape, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987. Cover painting Contemplating the Faithful by Neil Malone