Gem of a novel dusted off

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - IMRE SALUSIN­SZKY

THE prophet is never recog­nised in their own coun­try, or so the say­ing goes. If any au­thor con­firms the truth of that in Aus­tralia, it is Melbourne writer Ger­ald Mur­nane. Many read­ers of Aus­tralian fiction ap­pear not to have heard of him. But if Mur­nane’s au­di­ence is lim­ited, it is de­voted as well, and ex­tends to north­ern Europe, Canada and the US. In 2006, Bri­tish book­maker Lad­brokes had him at 33/ 1 for a No­bel prize, the most highly fan­cied Aus­tralian.

Un­til last month, only one of Mur­nane’s seven works of fiction, The Plains ( 1982), was in print. But now the small Syd­ney pub­lisher Gi­ra­mondo has brought out an el­e­gant pa­per­back edi­tion of Mur­nane’s first novel, Ta­marisk Row ( 1974).

Ta­marisk Row is a semi- au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­count of a young Catholic boy, Cle­ment Kil­leaton, grow­ing up in rural Vic­to­ria in the late 1940s. Al­ready ap­par­ent in it is Mur­nane’s pro­found pes­simism about the pos­si­bil­ity of hu­man be­ings achiev­ing their de­sired goals, along­side an in­tense in­ter­est in the ir­re­sistible process of reach­ing out for those goals.

There is no writer, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Thomas Hardy, who has man­aged to wring more mean­ing from this ironic as­pect of the hu­man con­di­tion.

Stylis­ti­cally, Ta­marisk Row is closer to a con­ven­tional novel than any of the other books that have made Mur­nane’s rep­u­ta­tion. Un­like those books, it does con­tain di­a­logue. But rather than us­ing quo­ta­tion marks, Mur­nane places the di­a­logue inside dashes. In ef­fect, we don’t so much hear the char­ac­ters speak as hear the echo of their words in the mind of the nar­ra­tor, many years af­ter they have fin­ished speak­ing.

The ac­tion of the novel takes place dur­ing a sin­gle year as Cle­ment’s fa­ther, Augustine, falls deeper into debt as a re­sult of his ad­dic­tion to horserac­ing. Cle­ment’s mother, Jean, be­comes in­creas­ingly ex­as­per­ated and at the end of the novel the fam­ily is forced into ex­ile by Augustine’s debts. Th­ese three char­ac­ters stage their own mini- ver­sion of the oedi­pal drama in Bas­sett ( read Bendigo).

The novel, which re­flects Mur­nane’s im­mer­sion in writ­ers such as Hardy, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and Mar­cel Proust, is a clas­sic bil­dungsro­man, show­ing the de­vel­op­ment of Cle­ment’s imag­i­na­tion as he is ed­u­cated by the nuns at St Boni­face’s, ne­go­ti­ates the threat of the bully Barry Laun­der and his gang, plays elab­o­rate rac­ing games us­ing a bag of mar­bles and stum­bles to­wards sex­u­al­ity — of­ten hi­lar­i­ously — via the usual clumsy in­ter­ac­tions with a cast of un­pleas­ant lit­tle girls. The most un­pleas­ant of all is Mar­garet Wal­lace, who is usu­ally found out the back of her dad’s gro­cery, in a semi- fan­tas­ti­cal aviary: She kicks and punches him silently and sav­agely, but for just two or three sec­onds while her knee is lifted to aim a kick at him he sees clearly among the bis­cuit crumbs cling­ing to her thighs and belly a low white ridge split by a nar­row un­promis­ing fis­sure but with noth­ing else to dis­tin­guish it from the pale slopes around, so that any man or boy who chanced on such a place af­ter years of search­ing would prob­a­bly

’ still go on look­ing for the strange shape that he was re­ally af­ter . . . He says— now I’ve seen what I al­ways wanted to see when I used to ask you to take me in and show me the se­cret parts of the aviary. She says— you must be nuts— I’ve got things hid­den in there that you’ll never see as long as you live. In a new fore­word that would be worth the price of ad­mis­sion by it­self, Mur­nane talks about the method of nar­ra­tion he dis­cov­ered in Ta­marisk Row and has rung the changes on ever since: I call it con­sid­ered nar­ra­tion. It might be said of some works of fiction that they bring to life cer­tain char­ac­ters. I would hope that the text of Ta­marisk Row could be said to have brought to life the fic­tional per­son­age re­spon­si­ble for it: the nar­ra­tor through whose mind the text is re­flected. This gives a good clue to the space in which Mur­nane’s fiction op­er­ates. Else­where, he has de­scribed it as the dis­tance be­tween him­self and the first man or wo­man who seems real to him. His fic­tional land­scape is nei­ther deep inside the self, in the mode of the ro­man­tic po­ets, nor out­side in the world, in the man­ner of 19th- cen­tury nov­el­ists. It is, rather, the place where ques­tions of inside and out­side are up for grabs.

This is the space that 20th- cen­tury con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy calls con­scious­ness and, al­though Mur­nane has no in­ter­est in con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy, there are con­nec­tions be­tween him and writ­ers such as Ed­mund Husserl or Jac­ques Der­rida, in the way in which they un­set­tle what might have ap­peared to be known cat­e­gories.

In par­tic­u­lar, Mur­nane is mas­ter of a trick by which ev­ery view of a scene be­comes part of that scene, once a fur­ther per­spec­tive is in­cor­po­rated. In Ta­marisk Row, and in­deed through­out his work, the clas­sic Mur­nane metaphor is a horser­ace in which the win­ning post is an ev­er­reced­ing point in the dis­tance.

But where this theme be­comes most Hardy­like is as a vi­sion of a se­ries of in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful, in­creas­ingly ar­bi­trary gods, each sud­denly strik­ing from out­side the known uni­verse of its pre­de­ces­sor, wreak­ing havoc. Augustine’s pul­lets don’t know when he is sud­denly go­ing to reach into their cage and snap their necks, but Augustine, equally, doesn’t know what his pow­er­ful punt­ing con­nec­tions in far­away Mel- bourne have in store for him. Those are philo­soph­i­cal as­pects of Ta­marisk Row that I’ve writ­ten about many times be­fore. But on this gothrough, prob­a­bly my sixth or sev­enth read­ing, I was more struck by just what a won­der­ful novel it is about the ut­terly rav­ish­ing, some­times cat­a­strophic love be­tween fa­thers and sons.

This is some­thing that Mur­nane, who has three adult sons of his own, has gone on ex­plor­ing through the rest of his fiction. But Ta­marisk Row, in its quiet way, is an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful ac­count of the long­ing a lit­tle boy feels for the pres­ence of his fa­ther and the way the fa­ther is con­tin­u­ally pulled away from him by other con­cerns.

So how has what is ar­guably the great Aus­tralian novel lan­guished out of print for 20 years? What that fact tells us is that no univer­sity or state school ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has con­sid­ered Ta­marisk Row wor­thy of ap­pear­ing on its cur­ricu­lum dur­ing that time.

If I were to sit down to­mor­row morn­ing with the syl­labus doc­u­ments for lit­er­ary stud­ies used in Aus­tralian schools and univer­si­ties spread out be­fore me like a rac­ing guide, and were to be­gin cross­ing off all the works of lit­er­a­ture that have a smaller claim on our at­ten­tion than Ta­marisk Row, I be­lieve it would be late into the night be­fore I had com­pleted my labour.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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