There is a kind of music, or at least very recognisable rhythm, in the writing of Gerald Murnane. It is also clear that there is nothing at all obviously musical in this writing that seems to proceed word by word in the most measured, matter-of-fact way possible – so careful to insert itself into a manila cross-referenced folder in one of the numerous steel filing cabinets which, as we learn from his fiction, line the upper storey rooms of his mind – and where a blind has been pulled over a view of extensive level grasslands the better to report (a word Murnane uses often) images that come to this mind about 'a country on the far side of fiction’, as he puts it in his latest book of fiction, Barley Patch
In fact, regarding the only reference to music in Barley Patch
that I could find (not counting the muffled sounds of radio race broadcasts heard through a closed door), only a certain sort interests the narrator:
The sound was what he called scratchy and many of the words were inaudible, but he heard enough to be able to feel what he hoped to feel whenever he listened to a piece of music: to feel as though a person unknown to him in a desirable place far away from him desired to be in a place still further away.
If there is something Proustian about this focus on imagery triggered by sensations that have, often as not, trivial or even superficially unpleasant origins, this, too, is hardly superficial. Murnane has often referred to Proust in his writings. Elsewhere
, while still early in my reading of this work, I remarked on a passage in Murnane's writing, which recalled a passage from Proust’s Time Regained
. Nearly halfway into Barley Patch
I found this connection was not only made explicit but forms an astonishing, even magical, momentary breach – where the text, until now seemingly fascinated with its own often comic pedantry in a room or similarly defined space, evades us in a moment as if through a rent in the wall, and then is seen far off running somewhere else:
The reader should not suppose that I fail to recognise the workings of the imagination in other writers of fiction because I search out too eagerly and read too hastily passages referring to young female persons. I tried to recall just now the occasion when I read for the first time the passage of fiction that has affected me more than any other passage that I have read during sixty year of reading fiction. I seemed to recall that I was walking across a courtyard on my way towards the front door of a mansion. I had been invited to an afternoon party that was then taking place in the mansion. A motor-car just then arriving in the courtyard passed close by me, causing me to step suddenly backwards. My stepping thus caused me to find myself standing with one foot on each of two uneven paving-stones. What happened afterwards is reported in the relevant passage in the last volume of the work of fiction the English title of which is Remembrance of Things Past.
The rhythm of Murnane’s writing has very little to do with the rhythm of Proust’s. In fact, in my own mind – to borrow this image from Murnane – I see these two writers and their fictional worlds, as with their geographical locations (southern Australia and northern France), just about as far apart as it is possible to be on this earth: Murnane, sitting on a serviceable chair in a bare, dry room surrounded by level paddocks of grass, cataloguing his images and sentences with meticulous care; Proust more feverish, writing in long, often attenuated bursts among a clutter of objects now tattered and moist with handling, and as far from the pollen-filled grasslands as he can be. And yet, if Remembrance of Things Past
could be summarised as how a narrator came to write a long, extraordinary book of fiction with sensibility rather than imagination, Barley Patch
could be summarised as how a narrator came to write a relatively short and deceptively modest book of fiction, which refers to others of his books of fiction, with sensibility rather than imagination and despite his determination never to write fiction again.
Initially, when I was trying to define the musical aspects of Gerald Murnane’s writing, I thought of Glenn Gould's performances of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations
and so I searched for the kind of measured performance, careful and sensitive, that I remembered hearing once. It was only as I was watching one of these performances
that I realised how very little there is that could be called musical in the texture of Murnane’s writing – how in fact it seems to work deliberately against such a reading – and yet I was taken by an aspect of Glenn Gould's performance that I had forgotten about: that Gould always performed while seated on what looked like a very ordinary and therefore low set chair instead of the usual piano stool – and how this brought him very close to the keyboard and the work of his fingers and, together with the apparently unselfconscious, even childish or child-like movements of his eyebrows and mouth as he played, he seemed neither to be particularly concerned nor even aware of anything that was not happening inside of his mind; the kind of childish or child-like concentration, perhaps, that enables the beginnings of the marvel of the work of art – the very beginnings of which the narrator 'reports' in Barley Patch
, as a residue of an abandoned work of fiction that the narrator is describing inside what he has warned us elsewhere, is yet another work of fiction:
At such times, he would seem to have made only a toy-landscape, a place more suitable for recalling certain days in his childhood than for enabling him to see further across his mind than he had yet seen. But then he would foresee himself fitting a brownish holland blind to the dormer window and then drawing the blind against the sunlight and then, perhaps, stepping back into a corner of the room and looking at the lines of pegs through half-closed eyes and even through a pair of binoculars held back-to-front to his eyes; and then some or another glimpse in his mind of something not previously seen in his mind would persuade him to go on.