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)

Don Miller, Will to win: The West at play (Review)

Sport is probably not the first subject you expect to find here, but it is in fact the focus of my latest read, Don Miller’s Will to win: The West at play. Published by independent Melbourne press, Hybrid Publishers, it was offered to me after my Monday Musings post a few months ago on Australian Rules in literature. In that post, I wrote that Australian Rules “can over-emphasise competitiveness to the point that winning overrides being fair and just”. I said this of Australian Rules because that was the subject of my post, but the statement is true of much sport – that is, of elite, professional sport – and it’s this “truth”, this issue of winning, that Don Miller examines in Will to win.

Who is Don Miller? He’s not familiar to me, but he apparently worked in the Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne for 30 years until 1995, and then in 2006 he established an organisation called the Melbourne Centre of Ideas. I’m not sure what his academic credentials are, exactly, but “creative thinking”, particularly on society and values, is his mantra.

Miller writes in his Introduction that the book was inspired by two ideas. One is anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s statement in his book The savage mind that when football was introduced to New Guinea the locals changed one rule: the game was to be played until both teams were equal. Love it! Miller read this a few decades ago, but the second notion is far more recent: it’s the “failure” of Australia’s swimmers at the 2012 London Olympics. There was such a hue-and-cry about this during and after the Games, including blaming post-mortems, apologies galore, and the commissioning of a review! I remember being horrified. Well, so was Miller. He had, unsuccessfully, tried to write about sport many times before, but the London situation gave him the angle he was seeking: he would write about “contemporary professional sport” and frame it with a reference to New Guinea.

So, this is what he does, approaching it, he says, in a spirit of enquiry:

to follow my own thoughts; to see where they take me; to consider new questions as they periodically erupt. A journey of discovery, clarification, and pleasure.

Several themes run through the book, the main ones stemming from Western culture and civilisation, from the way the West looks at the world. Western thinking he argues tends to be dichotomous (that is, to see issues as black/white, or, in this case, win/lose). The West is focused on the measurable, believes actions should be purposeful, and admires progress. He explores these ideas in terms of their relationship to sport – of how they frame the way we view, practice and understand sport. 

Sport’s excesses

The overriding motif is – as you can tell from the title – that winning is everything. The logical extension of this is the idea of “excess”. To win, sportspersons push themselves – physically, emotionally and mentally – to a point beyond endurance, to, in fact, self-harm. Take hurdler Sally Pearson, who, Australians know, is a tough, determined competitor. She said after the London Olympics:

My back was killing me. It’s just a matter of telling your body that you have to do it, no matter what – I know I am not an old athlete. I’m only 26, but just the way my body is ageing at the moment and my disc is degenerating, it’s just a matter of trying to keep it intact so I can compete at least until Rio.

But, the more sensible (value judgement here!) of us think, what about your post-sport life?

So, there are the punishing regimes athletes put themselves through in order to be the best, to win, regimes that Miller likens to training for and partaking in war. Is such self-harm worth it, he poses. He quotes the infamous Lance Armstrong who famously said “losing and dying; they’re both the same”. Tour de France athletes, we know, undertake punishing training to compete in a gruelling race. But mention of Armstrong of course raises another by-product of competitive sport, that of cheating and corruption. There is a fine line between “winning” and “winning at any cost”, with the latter referring not only to the aforementioned physical and mental cost to the athlete, but to crossing over the line of fairness and ethics to something more ruthless. Armstrong epitomises this crossover, but is by no means the only sportsman to have been so lured. In his discussion of Armstrong’s behaviour, Miller suggests that his behaviour could be seen as “the exemplary model of a Western businessman”. A fair analogy?

Sport’s truths

Miller also explores some “truths” that have been promulgated about the value of competitive sport, arguing that some are false (such as “the practice of sport is a human right*”) and others overstated (such as that sport will set you up for life). Really, he questions? Sport a human right, like food, shelter and security? As for setting you up for life, Miller asks that, even if we agree that sport can have these benefits, “does it have a monopoly?” What about being an oboe player in the Australian Youth Orchestra, or part of a multidisciplinary team pushing the boundaries of science, or even being a wheat farmer or apprentice plumber? Don’t the skills learned here also train you for life? Life, he suggests, is complex, and to propose otherwise, to propose there is a “singular model or formula”, is grossly misleading.

Then there’s that ultimate “truth” about losers, that they are, well, losers, that even second place is losing. Miller quickly puts paid to that idea. We all know winners who do not “succeed” and losers who learn valuable skills. Indeed, it’s worth considering, he says, Jean Cocteau’s statement that “to succeed is to fail”, a statement that “breaks from conventional dualistic thinking”.

Will to win is not so much an academic work, as a clearly written, personal investigation of a topic that has long interested Miller. It is not footnoted, though he does cite sources as he goes, particularly from newspapers, and there is a bibliography. Does it have a conclusion? Yes, and no. This is what he says near the end:

This book returns again and again to the excess in modern sport – to its ubiquity and impact. Whatever it does, it goes too far, and the cumulative consequences can be disturbing. The book is a call for moderation of all its qualities, a change of emphasis, a shift towards a more expansive range of values.

The challenge is to think and imagine other ways of engaging in sport – a challenge that he suggests we should take up now. Can we Westerners, for example, see our way to a win-win value? I enjoyed the read – but, in me, he was preaching to the converted. I’d love to know what those more passionate about competitive sport think, those who expected and accepted the apologies of Australia’s 2012 London Olympics Swimming Team. What would they answer to Miller’s questions?

* The Olympic Charter

Don Miller, Will to win, book coverDon Miller
Will to win: The West at play
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000580

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

David Foster Wallace, Federer as religious experience (Review)

David Foster Wallace‘s essay “Federer as religious experience” is several years old now. I did plan to read it a couple of years ago when I first came across it but, somehow, I didn’t. However, this week, Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed a David Foster Wallace essay collection which includes this essay*. She decided not to read it because tennis “is just running around on a court hitting a ball with a racquet”. I suggested in my comments that there’s some congruence, affinity perhaps, between sports and the arts in that sport is (can be) about drama, beauty and character. She dared me to review the essay on my blog, so here I am! Never let it be said I’m a wuss!

Roger Federer, Master Series Monte Carlo 2007

Roger Federer, Master Series Monte Carlo 2007 (Photo credit: Lijan Zhang, using CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikipedia)

Unlike Lisa, I have read David Foster Wallace. Hmm, I’m cheating a little when I say this – something Roger Federer, the god of modern tennis, would be above I’m sure – because I’ve only read one short story, “All that”, which I reviewed two years ago. A couple of commenters on that post suggested that Wallace’s essays and magazine articles are a good place to start. I enjoy essays, so liked the sound of that.

Wallace does not specifically discuss the “drama” and “character” aspects of tennis, although drama is implied at times such as in his description of the 2006 Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final as a “revenge-narrative” and he does touch on some players’ personalities. However, I was thrilled to find the following discussion of “beauty” on page 2 of my printed out version:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

[ …]

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace of the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s…

Beauty is not, really, the goal of literature either, but those of us who love reading love it best when the writing is “beautiful”. That beauty can take many forms, but we all know it when we see it – not, of course, that we all agree, but that’s partly the fun and challenge of it all. I’d say that Wallace’s writing in this essay is beautiful. It’s there in the way his language slides between the formal, the journalistic and the colloquial; in the way he slips in appropriate classical, literary and pop culture allusions expecting us to get them all even though he’s writing about something as pedestrian (!) as sport. It’s there in the touches of satire, the slices of tongue-in-cheek wit, and the sly digs at some of the hallowed aspects of the sport. (“Wimbledon is strange”, he writes. “Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis”.) And it’s also there in the essay’s very structure and its shifts in tone. Despite all this beauty, though, I did get a little lost in the blow-by-blow description of an actual point played between Roger Federer and the hunky Rafael Nadal. Wallace is clearly a connoisseur of tennis.

Robert Atwan, the man behind Best American essays, defines the best essays:

To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

Wallace’s essay embodies all of these. Wallace clearly loves the sport and knows his stuff. Not only can he identify all the tennis strokes, from cross-court backhands to forehands with topspins, but he knows the history of the game and has his own views on who was the progenitor of the power-baseline game. I particularly enjoyed his analysis of the game’s trajectory in the modern era and his assessment of Federer’s impact on it. There is also a sense, as Atwan likes, of his working out as he goes along what makes Federer Federer.

I would, though, add to Atwan’s definition, that the best essays have to be interesting (durr) and, I think, they need to surprise the reader with some new angles or fresh ways of seeing. Wallace does this too. He doesn’t knock Federer-worship – in fact he’s a worshipper himself – but he explores Federer from what he calls metaphysical and technical points of view. And he entertains us while doing so. That to me is a good essay.

David Foster Wallace
“Federer as religious experience”
Published in The New York Times’ Play Magazine, August 20, 2006
Available: Online

* The essay is apparently retitled “Federer Both Flesh and Not” in this collection.