Memory palace

Half a million words into his life in print, Gerald Murnane emerges with Barley Patch, a novel operating somewhere on the ‘far side of fiction.’

Barley Patch is an experimental, fictional memoir. The central character’s father is a compulsive gambler, while racehorses and the colourful silks of their jockeys populate the book’s pages. Empics
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Barley Patch
Gerald Murnane
Dalkey Archive Press

To begin his latest book, a serious, meditative work called Barley Patch, Australian author Gerald Murnane confesses that he had an aesthetic crisis some years ago that threatened to end his long career. "In the early autumn of 1991," he writes, "four years before I ceased to be a teacher of fiction-writing … I myself gave up writing fiction."

The symptoms of this crisis, and the book itself, are challenging to understand. Though Murnane has published many books and won numerous prizes, he observed, at the time, that he "had not for many years used the terms novel or short story in connection with my writing" and would only let himself call them fiction. And though he'd spent decades teaching creative writing, he suddenly had no tolerance for normal talk of literary matters: "Several other words I likewise avoided: create, creative, imagine, imaginary, and, above all, imagination". Finally, although he has published, by his own account, more than half a million words, he believed then that he "had never created any character or imagined and plot" and concluded that his "preferred way of summing up my deficiencies was to say simply that I had no imagination".

These are rather severe statements for a writer to make about his own success. Murnane was born in Melbourne in 1939, has never lived far from the city and has published eight works, including Tamarisk Row and The Plains.

In 2010, he won the Adelaide Festival Award, and was also a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his reputation hardly rivals that of Peter Carey, his compatriot and two-time Booker Prize winner, Murnane's stature has grown to the point now where he can apparently afford to risk starting a book by telling readers how lousy a writer he thinks he is.

Having diagnosed his ailments as a writer - or having dramatised them for his readers' benefit, to disarm us - he then tells how he eventually discovered a cure, a rather wonderful idea captured in a single sentence: "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".

To fill this "vast book with no pages", he then investigates memories from his early life.

Meanwhile, he playfully, or sternly insists (it's hard to tell which) that the book is fiction, yet most of his anecdotes read as frank autobiographical confessions in this long, self-reflexive literary experiment that seeks to illuminate "a country on the far side of fiction".

We're meant to be on Murnane's side as he tries to accomplish this task, and to learn why it is he thought he had to stop writing.

The trouble is that the book's style and substance are clinical and vague, respectively. Clear ideas and sentences do appear every so often and things pick up very well in the book's second part. But the gems are hidden under layers of muddied prose, without organised chapters, and reads too often like the literary fine print of a lawyer honour-bound to write only Proustian rigmarole: "This work of fiction is a report of scenes and events occurring in my mind. While writing this work of fiction, I have observed no other rules or conventions than those that seem to operate in that part of my mind wherein I seem to witness scenes and events demanding to be reported in a work of fiction".

The "rules and conventions", and the "intricate sentences" he warned us about prove to be quirks he's adopted to prove his experimental point. They hurt the book. Among many examples of aggravating language, we have: "As for New Zealand, I had never supposed that I could travel thither", and "The first word is the surname of my paternal great-grandfather followed by the possessive apostrophe" followed by "The aunt mentioned hereabouts could well have afforded to visit a hairdresser whenever she so wished" and "I gave to the image in my mind of the young woman a face that I would have called attractive, but I found her much less interesting than another female character who will be mentioned shortly".

This "report of scenes and events occurring in my mind" starts with early memories. He was a child raised in a poor Catholic family during the 1950s and 1960s. His father, "a compulsive gambler", bet heavily on racehorses, and jockeys' racing colours rank high among the many motifs that later form the book's expanding map of images, including bluestone walls, "girl-cousins", green hills, gardens, "personages" (rather than characters), and many mentions of a two-storey building. A key memory he recalls and connects beautifully to other images later on, amid the dull stretches, is of a pictorial calendar in which, "I would surely have felt many times before as though a ghostly version of myself moved among the images of persons in one or another illustration."

As a young man, Murnane read a great deal and notes that many family members and friends were joining Catholic religious orders. Murnane did so too, briefly, but later abandoned his faith. Key passages focus on societal pressures Murnane faced as a bachelor and his struggle against the fear that he might never marry. He becomes an intensely lonely and shy young man, fond of certain works by Rilke, Proust, Thomas Merton and St. Thomas Aquinas, but especially Matthew Arnold's poem, The Scholar Gypsy. His family, including a beloved uncle, seem to have no tolerance for his artistic passion. His father died when Murnane was 20. Murnane later married and had children, yet it's touching, and brave, to see him write of himself as "a bachelor who admired girls … from a distance", and a young man hoping only to ever be "a writer of poetry or, perhaps, prose fiction, and also a mystic".

The book does dissolve old notions of what a memoir or an essay can achieve. So there is some credence to the idea Murnane expresses early on that he doesn't want to call his work a novel. Though flawed, this is a book for people who love the idea that books have the accidental potential to unlock a beloved memory, or hasten an understanding of our pasts.

Though Barley Patch is stodgy and forms a punctilious chronicle, it does make a serious advance in fiction's ability to offer a metaphorical tour through the "memory palace" which Murnane directly alludes to late in the book. Such journeys are, though Murnane never states it as such in plain language, can lead to personal revelation and deepen one's sense of hidden richness or spirit in life. And this kind of literary project is intimately bound up in the idea that there is magic in reading and writing, ideas Murnane expresses in a tone of determined effort and reserve: "I can only suppose that I wrote during those 30 and more years so that I could explicate whatever mysteries seemed to require explication in the territory bordered on three sides by the vaguest of my memories and my desires, and on its fourth side by a strangely lit horizon in a remembered reproduction of some or another famous painting. I can only suppose that I wrote fiction for 30 and more years in order to rid myself of certain obligations that I felt as a result of my having read fiction".

Murnane writes that the book is "a necessarily complicated piece of fiction," but ultimately strains the value of self-reflection too far. Barley Patch has 100 pages too much staid, archaic language, and defies all sensible urges to compress irrelevant passages. Experimental prose that maps this same territory and does much better is Argentine author Sergio Chejfec's recently translated novel My Two Worlds, a title that succinctly evokes the elusive prey Murnane was chasing.

Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award.