Some­thing for the pain

Nov­el­ist Gerald Mur­nane on his life and work, his No­bel Prize as­pi­ra­tions and his life­long ob­ses­sion with horserac­ing

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Gerald Mur­nane is mid­way through his first pot of beer when I, de­layed by Mel­bourne traf­fic, walk into the near-empty bar in Fed­er­a­tion Square. It’s just af­ter 11am on a Thurs­day. In his brown tweed jacket, checked shirt and cor­duroy trousers, the 76-year-old writer — who is con­sid­ered, along with poet Les Mur­ray, to be Aus­tralia’s best chance for a sec­ond No­bel Prize in Literature — could be killing time be­fore head­ing across the road to Flin­ders Street sta­tion to catch a train to an out-of-town race meet­ing.

Or do I only make that men­tal as­so­ci­a­tion be­cause we are meet­ing to talk about the au­thor’s new book, a memoir of his life­long ob­ses­sion — if ob­ses­sion is strong enough a word — with horserac­ing? It’s the sort of spec­u­la­tion Mur­nane, an in­te­rior man, an ex­plorer of the por­ous bor­der be­tween the real and the imag­ined, en­joys. “Peo­ple ask me how much of my fic­tion is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal,’’ he says in his con­sid­ered way. “I say I don’t know but ev­ery­thing in my fic­tion has taken place in my mind. I have con­fined my­self in my fic­tion to in­ter­pre­ta­tion of events.’’

Mur­nane makes these ob­ser­va­tions later in the day, at a dif­fer­ent bar. We drink a few beers through the day, at a cou­ple of lo­ca­tions, but we keep our­selves tidy. Mur­nane, a home-brewer who doesn’t like wine, de­scribes him­self as a “con­trolled al­co­holic”, and it’s the ad­jec­tive that’s worth not­ing. In his life and work, con­trol is im­por­tant, in ways ex­pan­sive and re­stric­tive.

It’s his beau­ti­fully con­trolled prose, in nov­els such as The Plains, In­land and Bar­ley Patch, to take three of the bet­ter known, works with few lo­cal com­par­isons, that un­der­pins the No­bel spec­u­la­tion. When he and Mur­ray, who are the same age, were con­sid­ered con­tenders in 2010, the poet re­marked of the nov­el­ist: “He’s a re­ally literary writer. There’s a de­gree of shonk about most of us, but not him.’’ The No­bel ended up go­ing to Peru­vian au­thor Mario Var­gas Llosa, and Aus­tralia’s long drought — Pa­trick White be­ing our sole re­cip­i­ent in 1973 — con­tin­ued.

Yet Mur­nane’s life-con­trol means, among many other things, that he has never been on an aero­plane — the first sen­tence of his new book is: “Ma­chin­ery and tech­nol­ogy have al­ways in­tim­i­dated me’’ — an ec­cen­tric­ity in this day and age that lim­its his travel op­tions should the Swedish Academy call. And be­fore any­one sug­gests a nice cruise to Stock­holm, Mur­nane has “al­ways hated and feared the sea’’.

He laughs with ap­proval when I joke that the main rea­son he has been prom­i­nent with the book­mak­ers who take bets on the No­bel is be­cause his main cham­pi­ons, literary aca­demic turned gov­ern­ment ad­viser Imre Salusin­szky and pub­lisher Ivor Indyk, each place $5 on him and that’s enough to move the mar­ket. One has the im­pres­sion he’d love noth­ing more than to be the sub­ject of a gam­bling sting, the likes of which abound in the new book, Some­thing for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf. Yet there’s a bit of stee­li­ness as he pre­pares his re­sponse. He’s a man who doesn’t make a lot of eye con­tact, but he does now.

“I have two thoughts about the No­bel prize. One is a nasty, venge­ful thought, which is to win the No­bel prize would be a de­served pun­ish­ment for all those judges of ma­jor literary awards who failed to give me first prize.’’ He laughs but he’s not com­pletely jok­ing.

“The sec­ond thought is that I have no­ticed over the years the win­ners of the No­bel are writ­ers who would not be the agreed choice of the crit­ics even in their own coun­try, so it makes me think it would be pos­si­ble. And I do have some sort of in­side run­ning as three or four of my books have been pub­lished in Swe­den and been well re­ceived.’’

There are few writ­ers who would see such po­ten­tial up­side in their un­de­served ob­scu­rity, but Mur­nane also ac­cepts his low pro­file has been a choice. The au­thor of a dozen strik­ingly orig­i­nal, crit­i­cally ac­claimed works of fic­tion, es­say and memoir, win­ner of the Pa­trick White Award and the Mel­bourne Prize for Literature, he is not a reg­u­lar at writ­ers fes­ti­vals or other literary events; in­deed he has rarely set foot out­side Vic­to­ria. Al­most need­less to say, he has no so­cial media pro­file; he doesn’t even have email. He does have a mo­bile phone, which he keeps in the boot of his car, mak­ing it mo­bile but not par­tic­u­larly use­ful.

Since his wife of more than 40 years, Cather­ine, died in early 2009 he has lived with one of his three adult sons in the small town of Goroke, pop­u­la­tion 623 at the most re­cent cen­sus, in Vic­to­ria’s Wim­mera re­gion. He’s sec­re­tary of the golf club (he plays off 27, a “hacker’s hand­i­cap”) and is in­volved in other civic ac­tiv­i­ties. He re­cently judged a lo­cal yabby com­pe­ti­tion.

“They all know I’m a writer,’’ he says of his neigh­bours, “but I don’t think any­one has read or tried to read my books. I’m not in­sult­ing their lit­er­acy or any­thing like that; they’re just not in­ter­ested and I don’t care. I’m pop­u­lar and gen­er­ally liked … well, I as­sume so any­way.’’

This is one of the in­trigu­ing as­pects of Mur­nane’s char­ac­ter: de­spite all the avoid­ance of the mod­ern world, he does not come across as reclu­sive by na­ture. In­deed on the cou­ple of times we have met I would char­ac­terise his be­hav­iour as gre­gar­i­ous, and this holds when we spend a few hours at a media preview of the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s ex­hi­bi­tion The Horse, where he hap­pily chats to all and sundry, and is im­pressed to see so­cialite Su­san Re­nouf, who owns a Mel­bourne Cup. He can’t wait to tell his sis­ter, he says.

Later I say that there’s a pas­sage in The Plains — a strange, hyp­notic novel in which wealthy landown­ers en­ter­tain busi­ness pro­pos­als from var­i­ous suit­ors, in­clud­ing a young film­maker who tells the story — that re­minds me of the au- thor of that book. It’s also one of my favourite pas­sages in literature: My pa­tron in­vites to his dusks some of the fa­mous recluses of the plains. What can I say of them, when their aim is to say and do noth­ing that can be de­scribed as an achieve­ment? Even the term ‘‘recluse’’ is hardly apt, since most of them will ac­cept an in­vi­ta­tion or re­ceive a guest rather than at­tract no­tice by un­to­ward aloof­ness.

Mur­nane is de­lighted by this. “Un­to­ward aloof­ness,’’ he re­peats, chuck­ling to him­self.

He does hope Some­thing for the Pain will in­tro­duce him to new read­ers, per­haps even in Goroke, where it was writ­ten (and where he has writ­ten two more yet-to-be-pub­lished nov­els), and that in­tro­duc­tion will lead them to the ear­lier works that have earned him com­par­isons with Beck­ett (from Teju Cole, no less). “I have never tried to be fash­ion­able and I never will,’’ he says. “But it would be sat­is­fy­ing if some young per­son read this book and said, ‘I’ll give his other ones a try’.’’

This memoir is Mur­nane’s most per­sonal book, the most re­veal­ing of him­self — “Yes, easily,’’ he agrees. “There’s noth­ing here that’s in­vented’’ — and I sus­pect he rel­ishes that po­ten­tial bi­og­ra­phers or literary scholars want­ing to win­kle the facts be­hind the fic­tion will have to read a book about horserac­ing to do so.

He says his de­vo­tion to the sport of kings — for him it is more im­por­tant than re­li­gion or phi­los­o­phy, “a sort of higher vo­ca­tion ex­cus­ing us from en­gag­ing in the mun­dane” — has al­ways raised eye­brows among those in­ter­ested in his literary ca­reer. “They snig­ger,’’ he says with en­thu­si­asm. “I’ve been snig­gered at by jour­nal­ists who’ve said, like they knew me as an au­thor, ‘You’re in­ter­ested in horserac­ing?’ Snig­ger, snig­ger. And I said, ‘Yeah’.’’

He says he loves the “pri­mal scene” of the mount­ing yard — “not as Freud imag­ined it’’, he adds with sur­pris­ing bawdi­ness — where the


horses and their con­nec­tions gather be­fore each race. “I just love com­ing back to the fact that in the mount­ing yard any­thing is pos­si­ble. It’s the world of the pos­si­ble. Even the 50-1 horse, its owner thinks it has a chance.’’

He con­tin­ues: “There’ll be peo­ple out there who’ll read this book and say, ‘That’s not the Gerald I know’. But let’s put it as bluntly as I can: I’m 76 years old and I feel less guarded and re­luc­tant about re­veal­ing my­self than I would have even 10 years ago, es­pe­cially since the death of my wife.

“This was the eas­i­est book I have ever writ­ten. I just sat down and wrote it, I didn’t hold back. All the things that mat­ter are there: my wife, the rac­ing game, my love of the bet­ting … it wrote it­self al­most. It’s the only book of mine I’ve felt that with — most of them I have to or­gan­ise and work out what goes where, but this just flowed out.’’ It wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen. Mur­nane’s par­ents, and par­tic­u­larly his gam­bler fa­ther Regi­nald, a race­track reg­u­lar and some­time trainer, dis­cour­aged their son from tak­ing any in­ter­est in horserac­ing. To this day, Mur­nane has not sat on a horse, though that prob­a­bly has as much to do with his gen­eral trep­i­da­tion as any­thing else. But the boy grow­ing up in Bendigo was spell­bound by the sounds of the race broad­casts com­ing from the ra­dio in­side the house, the pho­to­graphs and ar­cane in­for­ma­tion in The

Sport­ing Globe and, per­haps most of all, the bright colours of the jock­eys’ silks.

The last re­mains par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to Mur­nane. While I, in a party trick way, can re­cite Mel­bourne Cup win­ners go­ing back to 1973, the first time I bet on the race, he can re­call their jock­eys, train­ers and, vividly, their colours. The young Gerald would con­struct minia­ture race­courses and stud farms in the backyard, im­mers­ing him­self in an imag­i­nary world of rac­ing that con­tin­ues to this day. The rac­ing game or an­tipodean archive, as he calls it, fills fil­ing cab­i­nets at his home: made-up horser­aces with made-up horses, jock­eys, train­ers and own­ers, the re­sults of which the au­thor de­ter­mines and metic­u­lously doc­u­ments. (He also has fil­ing cab­i­nets hous­ing a literary archive cov­er­ing all of his books, and a per­sonal archive “that can’t be opened un­til sev­eral liv­ing peo­ple, my sib­lings and a cou­ple of oth­ers, are all dead ... my whole pri­vate life will be re­vealed’’.

Mur­nane writes beau­ti­fully of his child­hood self in his semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal first novel,

Ta­marisk Row, pub­lished in 1974. In one lyri­cal pas­sage the boy Cle­ment names the horses for an imag­i­nary race, the Gold Cup, and lists their colours: “Num­ber one Monastery Gar­den, pur­ple shade, soli­tudes of green, white sun­light, for the gar­den that Cle­ment Kil­leaton sus­pects is just be­yond the tall brick wall of his schoolyard … Num­ber Nine, Cap­tain Ri­flebird, a colour that wa­vers be­tween green and pur­ple en­closed with gold or bronze mar­gins, for all the rare and gor­geous birds of Aus­tralia that Cle­ment Kil­leaton only knows from books …’’

Mur­nane likens his re­la­tion­ship to colour to that of Mar­cel Proust’s nar­ra­tor in Re­mem

brance of Things Past, who “as­so­ci­ates the vowel sounds in cer­tain place names with dis­tinc­tive colours or shades’’. A pho­to­graph of Proust (with whom Mur­nane has also been com­pared) was one of three pinned above his desk when he taught writ­ing at a col­lege of ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion in Mel­bourne in the mid-1980s. The other two were of Emily Bronte and Bern­bor­ough, the Toowoomba tor­nado who thrilled race­go­ers in the mid-1940s and re­mains Mur­nane’s favourite horse. “Or­ange, pur­ple sleeves, black cap,’’ he notes au­to­mat­i­cally.

Mur­nane goes fur­ther, con­tend­ing Bern­bor­ough was a bet­ter horse than Phar Lap, the 30s cham­pion gen­er­ally re­garded as the great­est gal­loper this coun­try has seen. He mounts a case for Bern­bor­ough based on weights and mea­sures, but con­cedes he is dis­ad­van­taged by not hav­ing seen Phar Lap in the flesh, as the great horse died in Amer­ica in 1932, seven years be­fore Mur­nane was born. When I tell him my grand­fa­ther saw both and loved Bern­bor­ough more than any other horse, he is all ears. When I re­call the day my boy­ish in­quiry as to who would win a hy­po­thet­i­cal match race be­tween the two was met with near dis­dain — “Phar Lap would have picked up Bern­bor­ough and car­ried him’’ — Mur­nane is will­ing to give ground: “Well, maybe Bern­bor­ough was as good as Phar Lap, or al­most as good.’’

He also thinks his affin­ity for colour is “linked to my hav­ing no sense of smell’’. “I have trou­ble some­times con­vinc­ing peo­ple of this,’’ he writes, ‘‘but I have never smelled any sort of odour. I have held un­der my nose flow­ers said to be rich in fra­grance and de­tected noth­ing.’’ It’s the sort of star­tling fact that pops up now and again in the memoir like a 100-1 win­ner. Ten pages fur­ther on we have this: “My own in­stinct was to re­spect or even to fear fe­males.’’

Mur­nane speaks as he writes, with de­lib­er­a­tion and a rhyth­mic use of rep­e­ti­tion. When we first meet in that bar just af­ter 11am on a Thurs­day, I say that read­ing Some­thing for the

Pain made me feel as though he and I had been sep­a­rated at birth, al­beit 25 years apart, as his pas­sion for horserac­ing matched my own. And it is more than that: our ex­pe­ri­ence of the sport feels not just sim­i­lar but shared. Les Car­lyon, who will re­view the memoir in Re­view next week, puts it with his usual ex­act­ness: “His mem­o­ries re­mind you of your own.’’ Mur­nane is pleased that my in­ter­est in horserac­ing is mul­ti­fac­eted, and goes into a long, an­i­mated ex­pla­na­tion as to why, one which gives the flavour of his speech.

“I said to some­one this morn­ing, my old friend, in fact he’s men­tioned in the book, David Wal­ton, an old school­friend, he’s an old race­goer, he’s met you, he said what sort of in­ter­view will it be? I said I’m hop­ing he’s more than just a punter, I said, we only just had time — this is you and I — to talk briefly over the phone and I got the im­pres­sion, ob­vi­ously wrong, that rac­ing for you started with punt­ing be­cause for me it doesn’t. Punt­ing is an as­pect … in fact I was sit­ting on the toi­let this morn­ing think­ing how I would lead into this — I al­ways try to plan a bit, get the wheels turn­ing — I said, you will of course be aware by now that rac­ing for me is more as­so­ci­ated with day­dreams and mem­o­ries rather than — I don’t have to go to the races, the races are there, wher­ever there is, in mem­ory and in day­dream and [here he vig­or­ously taps on the ta­ble like Kevin Spacey in House of

Cards, some­thing he does a bit] I think that cov­ers it. The in­vis­i­ble world is full of horserac­ing for me, it’s there in mu­sic, in colours, in imag­i­nary race­courses that I’ve de­vised … and, yes, the ac­tual world is great, it fills, it pro­vides the raw ma­te­rial for this vast uni­verse of rac­ing that I seem to walk around in.’’

Yet when we con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion later in the day at Young & Jack­son’s ho­tel, which has the rac­ing on tele­vi­sion, it’s Mur­nane who has a hand­ful of bets on the non­de­script meet­ings at Gos­ford, Rock­hamp­ton and Sale in Vic­to­ria. “I know this sounds, at my age, a bit for­lorn, but I’m ex­per­i­ment­ing with the latest of 375 sys­tems,’’ he says with a rue­ful laugh as he scans the odds on the screens. I have to place his wa­gers at the au­to­mated bet­ting ma­chines. He’s also im­pressed that I can check the re­sults of ear­lier races on my phone.

He bets $20 win on each of his se­lec­tions, all of which fail to im­press. I en­joy watch­ing the races with him in com­pan­ion­able near-si­lence; from long ex­pe­ri­ence we both can see how a horse is trav­el­ling and on this par­tic­u­lar af­ter­noon there’s no need to say much be­yond, “No, it’s gone, no hope.’’ There’s al­ways to­mor­row.

So, the real world of rac­ing is a daily part of Mur­nane’s life. He says when he’s asked why he’s never trav­elled he replies “jok­ingly — well, half-jok­ingly — that I couldn’t bear to go over­seas be­cause I wouldn’t know what was win­ning at Yarra Glen or Morn­ing­ton or who was com­ing up for the spring car­ni­val’’. He buys two news­pa­pers ev­ery morn­ing and the first page he turns to is the rac­ing re­sults. So it is that Some

thing for the Pain is — aside from its other con­sid­er­able at­trac­tions — a mar­vel­lous book about horserac­ing, one of the best this coun­try has pro­duced. It is full of fast and loose sto­ries and colour­ful char­ac­ters; there are strong opin­ions — fans of race­caller Bert Bryant had best skip the bit on him — and lots of laughs.

In­deed, it should be said, in case it’s not ap­par­ent, that Mur­nane is a funny writer and a hu­mor­ous man, some­one who seems to take a wry won­der in the un­usual life he has cho­sen. He has a nat­u­ral feel for the tangy ver­nac­u­lar of the turf. “Couldn’t train a pig to be dirty,’’ he says to me apro­pos a cer­tain trainer. And there’s this rec­ol­lec­tion in the book of a cer­tain jockey de­lib­er­ately hold­ing back his horse, to im­prove its odds for next time: “I’ve never seen a rider use less vigour … If [he] had sneezed in the straight the flashy ch­est­nut would have won.’’ There’s also some­thing more than a lit­tle melan­choly about Some­thing for the Pain, as the ti­tle hints (Mur­nane sug­gests in the open­ing chap­ter that this could be the name of a long­for­got­ten horse, but I wouldn’t bet on that). As a teenager, Mur­nane started go­ing to the races with his fa­ther, but this time to­gether was short: Reg died sud­denly when Gerald was 20.

Mur­nane’s de­scrip­tions of his fa­ther are clear-eyed and lov­ing. “He wore a be­spoke suit and a gold-plated Rolex Prince watch and one or another of a col­lec­tion of grey felt hats with pea­cock feath­ers in their bands, but he died with no as­sets to speak of and ow­ing many thou­sands of dol­lars in to­day’s cur­rency to his broth­ers and to who knows how many book­mak­ers that he welshed on, to put it bluntly.’’

There’s also a bit­ter­sweet story about a pact he made with his wife be­fore she died, one that seems to be hon­oured at Caulfield race­course one day not long af­ter she has gone. Mur­nane, raised a Catholic, is not re­li­gious — “I could be an athe­ist but I’m not a ma­te­ri­al­ist,’’ he of­fers out of the blue at one point — but be­lieves in an “in­vis­i­ble world’’ that ex­ists in tan­dem with our own. “I am con­vinced some part of me will sur­vive death.’’

The book, which Mur­nane has struc­tured with great care, con­cludes not with the ex­ploits of a Bern­bor­ough or another great cham­pion of his life­time such as Tul­loch or Kingston Town but on an or­di­nary Satur­day at Flem­ing­ton, “a day of driz­zling rain’’, and the last race of an old New Zealand steeplechaser named Lord Pi­late. The fi­nal sen­tences, short, pow­er­ful, em­pa­thetic, re­spect­ful, are deeply mov­ing.

And then there is the im­age of that soli­tary lit­tle boy build­ing race­tracks in the dirt be­tween the la­va­tory and the li­lac tree; a boy who would grow to be a man who would turn his back res­o­lutely to the coast, in­ter­ested only in look­ing in­ward, to the plains and to him­self.

When I ask Mur­nane if he has any re­grets about this life, his an­swer is gen­uine and a lit­tle sur­pris­ing: “My re­grets are in an op­po­site di­rec­tion,’’ he says. “I re­gret I haven’t been more as­sertive in my life­time, that I haven’t made clear my view of the world, that I wasn’t con­fi­dent enough to de­clare my true per­son­al­ity.’’

The races are over, for to­day at least, and it’s time to go. “I only wish,’’ Mur­nane says as we put on our coats, “I had more time to un­der­stand my own sim­ple sur­round­ings.’’

Some­thing for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf is pub­lished next week by Text Pub­lish­ing.

Gerald Mur­nane, left, with Fred­er­ick Wood­house’s The

Cup of 1862, part of the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s ex­hi­bi­tion The

Horse; Mur­nane’s favourite horse, Bern­bor­ough, above

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