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Gerald Murnane: Barley Patch

This is another of those novels that is not really a novel, except that it is. (I should remind the reader that every sentence hereabouts is part of a work of fiction.) It is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who is clearly Murnane or, at least based on Murnane. (The narrator who is (or was) a writer states that he generally does not name his characters and, though we do have a few named people in this book (often women to whom he is attracted, it is not clear that these are their names and may well be just arbitrary names thought up on the spur of the moment. I say or was a writer because, early on in the book, he tells us that he has given up writing fiction. And this book is not a novel because, though his publishers and readers call his books novels or short stories, he does not like the terms and prefers the term fiction without further elaboration.) There is not a plot in the standard sense, though the book is clearly, to a great extent, autobiographical and the narrator tells of his family background and stories of his various relatives, past and present. However, if I had to sum up what this book is about in a few words, I would say that it is about how the novelist deals with images, both in his role as a novelist but also in his life.

We all of us, of course, see the world in images (I suspect even blind people do, at least to a certain degree) and images have a powerful influence on us. Few of us, I imagine, have examined this influence the way Murnane has done in this book. However, before he does this, he tells us about his writing – why he did and why he stopped. He himself admits that he has no imagination and did not think it necessary for a writer. He was not envious of writers who, apparently, did. He wrote by instinct and was very happy to write that way. However, and this is where we are leading on to the images, he says he was also a reader. I would describe myself as an erratic reader, not only because I have failed to read many of the books most admired by readers and writers of my generation but because I soon forgot much of what I did read and yet dwelt often on a certain few texts or even a few pages from those texts. He goes onto to say that, of the more than a thousand books he has read, only around twenty made an impression and, when pushed, only eleven come to mind. Shortly before giving up writing, he has decided to give up reading anything but the books that he most remembers and it is the images from some of these books that he will discuss. Indeed, this concern with images has been key to his life. What little time I have had for learning during my adult life has been given to the study of what I call for convenience patterns of images in a place that I call for convenience my mind, wherever it may lie or whatever else it may be a part of.

During the rest of my life I would concern myself only with those mental entities that had come to me almost stealthily while I read or while I wrote but had never afterwards detached themselves from me: I would contemplate those images and yield to those feelings that comprised the lasting essence of all my reading and my writing. During the rest of my life I would go on reading from a vast book with no pages, or I would write intricate sentences made up of items other than words.

But images have always been important to him. One of the things he does is to try and remember the books he has read. As a child, he rarely read children’s books but read adult books from a young age. These may have been serialised in a magazine his mother subscribed to (she indicated the stories that she thought inappropriate for him which, of course, were the ones he read first) or comic books adaptations of such works as Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake. He states that he and, he suspects, most people, do not remember specific phrases from novels but, rather images. One book he specifically remembers is Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar. Interestingly he did not identify with the young male characters( either in this book or others) but did take an interest in the female character, so much so that he he felt the spinster aunt, Aunt Bee, was objecting to his feelings even though he behaved in what he calls a seemly manner. In this, and other favourite books, as we can see, he insinuates himself into the book. Though constrained by the plot, he finds some narrative space where he can move around without disturbing the plot. (With regard to another book, The Glass Spear, he says My not having to take part in the life of the chief male character left me free to have a version of myself wander through the setting of The Glass Spear.) However, this does not stop him, as the reader, from imagining, e.g. Aunt Bee, in a somewhat different way from the way imagined by the author.

Why did he write fiction? He gives various reasons. I can only suppose that I wrote fiction for thirty and more years in order to rid myself of certain obligations that I felt as a result of my having read fiction or I wrote in order to provide myself with the equivalent in the invisible world of Tasmania and New Zealand in the visible world. However, there seems to be another reason he mentions towards the end . I believe I may have learned less from reading books than I have learned from writing books, even those books that I later left off writing..

It is not all speculative. He recounts events that are clearly autobiographical or, at least based on the lives of himself and his family and shows how they are fictionalised but also the genesis of the events not just in real life but in his mind. Indeed, the two worlds – the fictional one and the real one are closely intermingled. I admit that I have sometimes paused while reading about one or another fictional personage. I have sometimes paused as though I had met up at last with an imagined character. I have sometimes paused but then I have gone on reading; the seeming character has become one more of the many personages in the background of my mind; Catherine Earnshaw is indistinguishable from a young woman, hardly more than a girl, whose name in my mind is Christine; Angel Clare and I are of one accord. There is no doubt that his relationships with the opposite sex are affected by his literary aspirations and views. In the real world, he tries only to consort with women who are readers.

Despite his somewhat disingenuous remark about his own lack of imagination, he gives us several stories which clearly are works of imagination. In particular, he recounts the plot of a novel he had written but had abandoned, called O, Dem Golden Slippers. The plot – and it is the plot he recounts – is a work of imaginative fiction and takes up quite a few pages in his telling, involving the Catholic Church, black masses, sexual perversion and various happenings which we must assume are works of imagination and not merely recounting of events from his life. However, his fiction did intrude on his life as his favourite (bachelor) uncle, his youngest uncle, with whom he had alway got on well when young, refuses to speak to him after the publication of his first books and strongly advises his (i.e. the uncle’s) unmarried sister not to read the books. Our narrator cannot understand this.

I have only hinted at the richness of this book. It is a first-class work on the writing of fiction, on how images shape our thoughts, our reading and our loves and how the life of writing and real life intermingle and affect one another. It has already become one of the great works of Australian literature and is essential reading for anyone interested in the art of fiction.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Giramondo