March 2019

Arts & Letters

Tracking time: Gerald Murnane’s ‘A Season on Earth’

By Geordie Williamson

Gerald Murnane. Photograph by Ian Hill

Forty years on, the author’s second novel is reunited with its lost half

“Creating,” wrote Albert Camus, “is living doubly.” He was thinking about Proust when he wrote those words – the Frenchman’s assiduous assembling of the living details of his world. The carpets, the flowers, the wallpaper patterns, the dresses, the table settings, the jewellery and walking sticks, the teacakes and bed blankets: the sheer clutter of stuff in space and time. His imagination was like some nightmare from which Marie Kondo wakes screaming.

And yet, for Proust, the data of the world had no currency in daily existence. They offered no advantage in business; they didn’t get him more sex or help to cure cancer. They were so many scraps for his fictional nest, the bowerbird’s palace we know as In Search of Lost Time. He lived in the world attentively, avid for the textures of everyday existence, the gewgaws and gimcracks of his local reality. But only so that he might retreat to his cork-lined room and feed them into the immense elsewhere of his art.

There is no more Proustian writer in this regard than Gerald Murnane. His fascinations are as various and unlikely (horse-racing colours, mid-century American popular music, the Hungarian language) as they are obsessively pursued, gathered, noted, indexed, filed away. When his fabled archives eventually make their way to a research institution, they will be as much an art installation – the wunderkammer of one man’s life – as a scholarly resource. Yet every page was gathered towards this same extramundane end.

The other respect in which Murnane is Proustian – and this understanding is mostly thanks to the arrival of A Season on Earth (Text; $39.99), the original, much expanded version of Murnane’s 1976 second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds – is that, like the Frenchman, the Australian is a profoundly conservative man.

Proust was a snob, a dilettante, an incorrigibly old-school amateur in a world hurriedly embracing the professional. He revered the past glories of the French nation as he revelled in his own childhood. His peers resisted his genius for so long because they could only see him as a social climber who dabbled in print. His subsequent reputation, as doubtless the most globally revered of the 20th-century modernists, eventually overlaid this more banal aspect of his personality.

Murnane was the other way around. He had none of the earlier author’s happy accidents of birth. He was a battler, a late developer, an autodidact shy of pressing his talents. All he did have was a rural Australian background and a devout Catholic upbringing. But because Murnane emerged into a particular moment in Ozlit in the ’70s and ’80s in which imported literary experimentation was circumventing the dreary realist diktats of the Anglo tradition, he was welcomed under that banner and this has tended to obscure his true nature, as well.

Both writers have been regarded by their fans and boosters as aesthetic radicals, experimental modernists, sui generis visionaries. A Season on Earth recalls us to the truth that Murnane’s avant-gardism emerges out of a resolutely conventional soul.

And A Lifetime on Clouds as it was published in 1976 would seem to bear this out. It is Murnane’s most straightforward novel, also his funniest and most unguarded. All those fixations that appear in weirder guises in the author’s other works are laid out in these pages in ways more closely aligned with a standard coming-of-age story. It forms a kind of key to the more bizarre regions visited elsewhere in his oeuvre. It’s Dubliners in a bibliography full of Finnegans Wakes.

Lifetime narrates a period in the life of Adrian Sherd, a teenaged student at a Catholic boys’ college in Melbourne during the 1950s. Sherd is ostensibly a comic figure – a portrait of the artist as a young man, painted with tender retrospective contempt.

The humour emerges from the chasm that exists between Sherd’s inner life and his outward existence. He is, for example, a chronic masturbator of the sort who makes Alexander Portnoy look undersexed, and yet the richly embroidered fantasies on which his passions are based – American film stars and cheesecake girls from The Argus, arranged in erotic tableaus in various parts of the United States – cannot erase the fact that he has never sighted a woman entirely nude. The actual mechanics of the act he nightly indulges remain a stubborn mystery.

And this is the story throughout: an imagination that outstrips the ordinary moment by so much that it laps reality entirely. Having grown disgusted with the unnatural acts he can’t help but surrender to, Sherd encounters a pretty Catholic schoolgirl on the train to school. Her name, he discovers, is Denise McNamara, and he mentally arrays her demure attractions against the temptations of the harlots who have led him into sin.

Sherd does not speak to Denise: his shyness is as total as his imaginings are wild. What he does do is incorporate her ideal self into his fantasies – this time dreams of chaste courtship, marriage, and respectable Catholic family life. Whole pages go by in which Sherd dreams himself into the role of young patriarch, 15 years married with 11 children, leaving his spindly virgin body far behind.

He similarly internalises the feverish anti-Communism and embattled Catholic sensitivities of the period with an intensity bordering on the paranoiac, projecting apocalyptic visions of the world to come:

Adrian and his classmates had been brought up to think deeply about the things that really mattered. Their Catholic education had trained them to use their reason – to probe beneath the shallow surface that Protestants and atheists never questioned. And if the price that Catholic intellectuals had to pay was to worry about the terrible times ahead – well, at least they would have the last laugh one day when the Communists took over the garden suburbs or the armies of Elias and Antichrist drew up for battle on the outskirts of Melbourne.

These ironic inflations are laid down with a hilarious sincerity. Ideology and belief are exploded by virtue of being embraced so wholeheartedly that their premises are rendered absurd. And yet real pangs accompany Sherd’s callow certitude: earnestness is a form of radical innocence, and the reader starts to feel for the young man who is working so very hard with such circumscribed materials.

This fuller and more melancholy sense of Adrian’s passage was curtailed, however, not by any literary failure on Murnane’s part but by the dull bottom line of the publishing industry. The original manuscript of A Season on Earth was cut in half on original publication – at 142,000 words, it was regarded as simply too long. A Lifetime on Clouds was a critical success but commercially it didn’t warrant a follow-up. Publication of the second part of the novel was quietly dropped.

Now that this excised half has been returned, we’re granted a fuller sense of Murnane’s original aims. When the narrative opens again, we meet Sherd as a novitiate of an invented Catholic religious order known as the Charleroi Fathers. Sherd’s evolving desire to devote his life to the Church has resulted in this move to a seminary in south-eastern New South Wales, taking the young man away from family and friends and thrusting him into a more extreme and disciplined set of practices than he had perhaps anticipated.

The comedy here is no less wicked in deployment, but the edge is sharpened because Sherd has painted himself into a tighter corner. It is not that he is insufficiently devout, or insufficiently earnest in relation to his vocation. It is that his imagination has again moved ahead of his ability to decide his best future. If maturity is the state of achieving some chronological synchrony between experience and the expression of will, then Sherd is a young man out of time.

Where this disjunction between an overdeveloped imagination and an unfledged worldly awareness has been largely painless so far, a matter of schoolboy daydreams, Sherd’s eventual withdrawal from the order opens a real wound. This is the story of experience won in the teeth of an obtuseness that runs bone deep.

Sherd returns, chastened yet still trapped inside his own head, to the family home in Melbourne, where the possibility of university and a career as a public servant or perhaps teacher (the connections with Murnane’s early career are growing clearer here) are placed before him.

His former religious devotion now reconfigured as an obsession with poetry – particularly Matthew Arnold, A.E. Housman, and the mystically minded Anglo-Catholic Francis Thompson – Sherd takes a job in the Victorian education department while flirting with Russian nihilism and the idea of becoming a part-time hermit in his parents’ back shed.

Ludicrous and hectic as Sherd’s casting around for some stable sense of self may be, there is something moving in the efforts he makes. In another context – back in one of the centres of European culture – his striving towards a literary calling would have run along more orderly, officially sanctioned lines. What we see instead is a young man inventing his vocation from those stray materials that come to him; we see an artist inventing himself from scratch.

The conclusion of the novel – involving a copy of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and a pile of black tape – manages to perfectly capture the absurdity and intensity of Sherd’s enterprise. What Murnane describes here is an invented rite, the aestheticising of those former religious impulses, which will characterise the mature author’s method and manner.

It is not that Sherd has abandoned his primary compulsions. Those urges that drove the self-abuser in Form 4 at St Carthage’s remain extant and urgent. What has changed is the geolocation of his imaginative life. Sherd has not yet pinpointed those regions his mature art would explore. What he has learned is that they lie somewhere in the inland empire of his imagination.

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.


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