Delicious descriptions: Gerald Murnane’s landscape and imagination

A couple of years ago I reviewed Gerald Murnane’s The plains. I found it a mesmerising book, but a challenging one to fully get my head around, to grasp and hang onto what I’d grasped. Then a couple of days ago, I reviewed his memoir, Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf. It was quite a revelation – and among those revelations were some ideas that seemed to flesh out The plains, though he doesn’t specifically address those ideas to the novel in his memoir.

The main revelation relates to his feelings about landscape. Murnane hates the sea and doesn’t much like mountains either. What he loves are plains. In chapter 6 he refers to his “lifelong dislike of travel”, initially developed when he was still a boy. He also, as a boy

settled on what would be my ideal landscapes for the rest of my life: the green and mostly level countryside of south-western Victoria.

Mount Grapples

Mount Arapiles, Western Victoria (released on Wikipedia to Public Domain, without conditions)

Plains, in other words. In chapter 15, he talks about a horse owner P.S. Grimwade. (An aside. In this, as elsewhere in the book, he focuses on what he “imagines” Grimwade to be like, stating that he suspects he wanted “to keep in mind the ideal man rather than have in sight the actual man”! “Perhaps”, he writes, “I wanted to think of him as someone for whom racing was better imagined than experienced – someone such as myself”.) Anyhow, he goes on:

I would have envisaged P.S. Grimwade as owning an extensive property in what I consider the centre of the universe, in the quadrilateral bounded by Ballarat, Ararat, Hamilton, and Camperdown in the Western District of Victoria, which is a landscape of plains and low hills and vast skies. I’ve never felt comfortable when surrounded by steep hills, and I’ve always tried to keep away from mountains.

In fact, Grimwade, he discovered, lived in a different part of Victoria, one he’d never visited – but, it’s telling I think that he places this horse owner, who fascinates him, in a place comfortable to him. He writes that he’s entitled to his imagination about Grimwade:

In the unlikely event that this book should be read by some or another descendant of a man named P.S. Grimwade, and that the descendant should wish to tell me that my account of the man is untrue, inaccurate, preposterous, whatever, I urge that descendant not to waste energy, time, or ink on the matter. Nothing will keep me from revering my saint as he was revealed to me.

Are you getting the picture of this memoir? It’s the imagination that’s important …

Then we get to chapter 22, “Sir Flash and the Borderers”, the chapter that gave me a big ah-so moment. Early in the chapter, he writes again of his ideal landscape:

… the ocean itself repelled me, and I’ve kept well away from it all of my adult life. During my brief holidays on my grandfather’s farm in the 1940s, I was more interested in another sort of ocean. Whenever I stood on a tall cliff above some or other bay, I got inspiration not from the blue-green Southern Ocean reaching away towards the South Pole but from the yellow-brown ocean of land reading towards places I had seen only from a distance, if at all: the plains of the Western District to the north and the north-east of Warrnambool or, away to the north-west, a mostly level landscape …

This discussion introduces a story about a group of horse-owners and horse races in what he calls the Border District. It’s here that I was reminded of The plains, because of the way he imbues the Border Country – and the Borderers who live there – with a sense of “otherness”. These people and their horses came from a real part of Australia, obviously, but it’s a part that was unknown to him when he came across them, so he unfolded a map and “set not only my eyes but my imagination also roaming”. He gives it and its people the aforementioned names, and he awards the people – imagines, in other words – certain characteristics, including “the usual amount of shrewdness and sagacity attributed to people living far from the capital cities”. I won’t tell you all that he ascribes to them – it makes for wonderful reading – but here’s the final bit that brought The plains to my mind:

I would not have my Borderers thought of as wholly devoted to gain, however. They numbered among them many a man who wore his hair bunched above his ears and on his neck and who stood out on a racetrack on account of his elegant dress and proud bearing. Such a man owned a vast cattle or sheep property and lived in a mansion with a veranda on three sides and groves of deciduous trees all around. His mansion included a library and a study. The walls of the study were covered with photographs of the finishes of races won by his own horses. The walls of the library were covered, of course, with books …

This imagination, this creation of a place that seems both in and separate from the Australia we know, a place populated with people who have dreams and an artistic sensibility, is very reminiscent to me of The plains. Rightly or wrongly – but I hope the former – I now feel I understand Murnane a little more, his aspirations, how his imagination works and the absolutely fundamental role it plays in his life.

Many years later, Murnane moved to live in this very landscape – in Goroke where I believe he lives now – and discovered the people aren’t quite as he imagined. But that’s another story.

Gerald Murnane: Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf (Review)

Gerald Murnane, Something for the painWhen I heard Australian author Gerald Murnane had written a memoir, and even more when I heard its title, Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf, I knew I had to read it. I am not a horse racing tragic, by any stretch, but how could I resist such an intriguing sounding memoir from one of Australia’s most erudite, though too little read, contemporary authors? With such a title, the book sounded unlikely to be a typical chronological story of his life – and this suspicion was indeed borne out in the reading.

Something for the pain is a dry book – but I don’t mean dry in terms of boring. I mean dry in terms of containing a wicked, wry sense of humour. Murnane is deadpan straight, and yet he knows exactly what he is doing, what he is telling us about himself, as he discusses this horse or that, this trainer or that owner, these colours or that racecourse. I enjoyed The plains which I reviewed a few years ago, but this is something else altogether. Where that novel was somewhat obscure and challenging to nut out, reading this memoir is like listening to Murnane talking. You could almost think he is ingenuous, but …

Bernborough, c. 1945 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Okay, so what do I mean by all this? Let’s see if I can explain it. The book is, in a very real sense, exactly what Murnane says it is. In other words, it is about horse racing and Murnane’s love of it. It has twenty-seven chapters, and pretty well every one is titled with a specific reference to the turf – usually a horse or a racing personality. The novel’s second chapter, titled “The Drunk in the Dance Hall”, refers to an actual dance hall drunk who gave his father a great racing tip, while the following chapter, “A Bernborough finish”, includes the name of a particular horse (Bernborough, of course). But, while the chapter titles refer to horse racing, and while every chapter tells us something (quite a bit in fact) about horse racing, or, more accurately, about Murnane’s experience of and feelings about horse racing, the chapters also convey information about him. I found it absolutely delicious to read.

“The Drunk in the Dance Hall” starts, for example, with “I could never learn to dance”. We learn a little about his experience of dancing and something also of early to mid-twentieth century dance hall culture  – as well as the story of the aforementioned racing tip and its result. Even more interesting, though, is the next chapter about Bernborough. It starts with:

I was never one for hanging pictures or sticking up posters or postcards. I’ve always preferred to be surrounded by bare, plain surfaces and to have my desk facing a wall rather than a window.

However, in 1982, he tells us, when he was lecturing at a college of advanced education, he found a display board above his desk. Uncharacteristically – for him – he decided to stick up some pictures. There was space, he explains, for thirty to forty postcard-sized pictures, but he stuck up just three, neatly grouped together, surrounded by much bare space:

The first two were portraits: one of Emily Brontë and the other of Marcel Proust. The third was actually two linked scenes, the first showing a field of horses nearing the straight, and the second showing the winner of the race and his nearest rivals as they reached the winning post.

You can just see it, can’t you, the surprise of his colleagues and students when confronted by this. He continues, a couple more pages in:

During those years, I sometimes sensed that some or other visitor to my room was puzzled by the odd little group of images huddled together on the otherwise bare wall. To the few who enquired I was pleased to explain that the young woman from Victorian England, the eccentric Frenchman, and the bay stallion from Queensland were equally prominent figures in my private mythology and continued to enrich my life equally.

I mean, honestly, how can you not love that! He says no more, however, on this, following it instead with the story of Bernborough and how the term “Bernborough finish” was born. He concludes on his orchestrating his own Bernborogh performance. The next chapter (no. 4) whizzes back to the 1940s, Murnane being born in 1939, and some childhood memories – which of course include racing stories.

And so, in this lurching backwards-forwards way, Murnane tells us much about the history of Australian horse racing – about owners and trainers, and betting, and specific horses – which I found interesting in an arcane sort of way. Along the way, though, we also learn a lot about him, things that provide much insight into his work and what drives him. We discover his love of maps but hatred of travel, his favourite landscape, his love of names and colours, his preference for the spiritual over the material, his enjoyment of beer and his meticulous creation of personal archives, his discomfort with any sort of pretension or self-consciousness, and last, but by no means least, his vivid imagination. We discover his cheeky sense of humour. The way chapters are framed or introduced versus the content that follows is a good example. Take Chapter 10 in which he discusses psychoanalysis, religion and betting systems. It might just be my warped sense of humour, but the juxtaposition of these made me laugh. And we do learn some facts about his life – his various jobs, his parents and his uncle Louis, and his wife. What he doesn’t do is discuss his writing in any depth, though he frequently mentions his (autobiographical) first novel, Tamarisk Row, which makes many references to racing, and he does occasionally talk a little about his views on writing.

I’m going to leave it here, not because I have nothing more to say, but because I want to pick up one or two issues – relating to his writing – separately in a Delicious Descriptions. So, I will end with one little anecdote. Around halfway through the book, he discusses his search for his own racing colours and design. He has settled, he informs us, on some combination of brown and lilac but just cannot decide on a design. He writes:

I described the task as serious, and I do take it seriously. I’ve devoted myself to horse racing as others sorts of person devote themselves to religious or political or cultural enterprises, although I hope I can still make a joke at my own expense. I read once that certain musical compositions (by Bach? by Beethoven? I forget) sounded like the efforts of the human soul to explain itself to God. If ever I find my perfect combination of brown and lilac, I’ll feel as though I’ve thus explained myself. But I seem destined to never find my perfect set of colours. Is this because I’ve deluded myself for most of my life? Are racing colours not so eloquent as I’ve always believed? Or, is my soul too much of a mess for explanation?

Not likely, I’d say. Murnane is one very intelligent man – and his memoir is well worth reading. Don’t be put off by the stated subject matter. The turf does infuse it all, fascinatingly so, but it’s the mind behind it that shines through.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also reviewed this book recently.

Gerald Murane
Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925240375

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Gerald Murnane, The plains (Review)

Gerald Murnane, The Plains, bookcover

Bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Wayne Macauley, he of the Most Underrated Book Award fame, wrote in his introduction to my edition of Gerald Murnane‘s The plains that “you might not know where Murnane is taking you but you can’t help being taken”. That’s a perfect description of my experience of reading this now classic novella. It was like confronting a chimera – the lower case one, not the upper case – or, perhaps, a mirage. The more I read and felt I was getting close, the more it seemed to slip from my grasp, but it was worth the ride.

The plains was first published in 1982, which is, really, a generation ago. Australia had a conservative government. We still suffered from cultural cringe and also still felt that the outback defined us. All this may help explain the novel, but then again, it may not. However, as paradoxes and contradictions are part of the novel’s style, I make no apologies for that statement.

I’m not going to try to describe the plot, because it barely has one. It also has no named characters. However, it does have a loose sort of story, which revolves around the narrator who, at the start of the novel, is a young man who journeys to “the plains” in order to make a film. It doesn’t really spoil the non-existent plot to say he never does make the film. He does, however, acquire a patron – one of the wealthy landowners – who supports him in his endeavour over the next couple of decades. It is probably one of Murnane’s little ironies that our filmmaker spends more time writing. He says near the end:

For these men were confident that the more I strove to depict even one distinctive landscape – one arrangement of light and surfaces to suggest a moment on some plain I was sure of – the more I would lose myself in the manifold ways of words with no known plains behind them.

Hang onto that idea of sureness or certainty.

The book has a mythic feel to it, partly because of the lack of character names and the vagueness regarding place – we are somewhere in “Inner Australia” – and partly because of the philosophical, though by no means dry, tone. In fact, rather than being dry, the novel is rather humorous, if you are open to it. Some of this humour comes from a sense of the absurd that accompanies the novel, some from actual scenes, and some from the often paradoxical mind-bending ideas explored.

So, what is the novel about? Well, there’s the challenge, but I’ll start with the epigraph which comes from Australian explorer Thomas Mitchell‘s Three expeditions into the interior of eastern Australia, “We had at length discovered a country ready for the immediate reception of civilised man …”. Bound up in this epigraph are three notions – “interior”, “country” and “civilised”. These, in their multiple meanings, underpin the novel.

Take “interior”. Our narrator’s film is to be called The Interior. It is about “the interior” of the country, the plains, but it is also about the interior, the self, and how we define ourselves. While there are no named characters, there are people on the plains and there’s a sense of sophisticated thinking going on. Some plainspeople want to define the plains – their country, the interior – while others prefer to see them almost as undefinable, or “boundless”, as extending beyond what they can see or know. The plainspeople are “civilised” in the sense that they have their own artists, writers, philosophers, but it is hard for we readers to grasp just what this “civilisation” does for them. Is it a positive force? Does it make life better? “Civilised”, of course, has multiple meanings and as we read the novel we wonder just what sort of civilisation has ensconced itself on the plains.

These concepts frame the big picture but, as I was reading, I was confronted by idea after idea. My notes are peppered with jottings such as “tyranny of distance” and boundless landscapes; cultural cringe; exploration and yearning; portrait of the artist; time; history and its arbitrariness; illusion versus reality. These, and the myriad other ideas thrown up at us, are all worthy of discussion but if I engaged with them all my post would end up being longer than the novella, so I’ll just look at the issue of history, illusion and reality.

Towards the end of the novel we learn that our narrator’s patron likes to create “scenes”, something like living tableaux in which he assembles “men and women from the throng of guests in poses and attitudes of his own choosing and then taking photographs”. What is fascinating about this is the narrator’s ruminations on the later use of these “tedious tableaux” which have been created by a man who, in fact, admits he does not like “the art of photography”, doesn’t believe that photographs can represent the “visible world”. The landowner contrives the photos, placing people in groupings, asking them to look in certain directions. Our narrator says

There was no gross falsification of the events of the day. But all the collections of prints seemed meant to confuse, if not the few people who asked to ‘look at themselves’ afterwards, then perhaps the people who might come across the photographs years later, in their search for the earliest evidence that certain lives would proceed as they had in fact proceeded.

In other words, while the photos might document things that happened they don’t really represent the reality of the day, who spent time with whom, who was interested in whom and what. They might in fact give rise to a sense of certainty about life on the plains that is tenuous at best.

Much of the novel explores the idea of certainty and the sense that it is, perhaps, founded upon something very unstable. Murnane’s plainspeople tend to be more interested in possibilities rather than certainties. For them possibilities, once made concrete, are no longer of interest. It is in this vein that our narrator’s landowner suggests that darkness – which, when you think about it, represents infinite possibility – is the only reality.

The plains could be seen as the perfect novel for readers, because you can, within reason, pretty much make of it what you will. If this appeals to you, I recommend you read it. If it doesn’t, Murnane may not be the writer for you.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers, a Murnane fan, has reviewed The plains

Gerald Murnane
The plains
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012 (orig. published 1982)
ISBN: 9781921922275