Gem of a novel dusted off
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