When 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 …
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.
Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)