Observant readers might have noticed that Gerald Murnane’s The History of Books has been on my sidebar for a while now, under the heading ‘Reading Soon’. Well, so I will be, before long, because he is one of Australia’s finest writers and ought to be a candidate for Australia’s second Nobel Prize for Literature. I find myself captivated by the challenge of making meaning from his strange and elusive fiction, and I have every expectation that The History of Books will weave the same enchantment.
But first I wanted to read Tamarisk Row. Tamarisk Row was Murnane’s first novel, published in 1974 by Heinemann, a publishing house obviously more adventurous then than they are now. In the Foreword to the edition I am reading Murnane has some mild reproaches for Heinemann’s editor who insisted on a revision he didn’t like, but hey, I think that this unnamed editor deserves a Courage in Publishing Award for taking a risk on an unknown author with a most idiosyncratic style. After a long period out-of-print, Tamarisk Row is now readily available, thanks to Giramondo Publishing under the apparently more empathetic editorship of Ivor Indyk. It is he who is credited by the US-based Dalkey Archive with encouraging Murnane to embark on ‘a new period of creativity in the twenty-first century … which has brought him a wider readership’. (See below for a list of Murnane’s published work and his assorted publishers.)
I can’t remember where I read that Tamarisk Row is Murnane’s most ‘accessible’ fiction. On the surface it’s a semi-autobiographical novel evoking a 1940s childhood in country Victoria. Episodes in the young life of Clement Killeaton provide an illusion of realism as he describes his father’s gambling addiction and his frustrated mother’s solace in piety. The casual cruelty of children towards anyone who is different is evoked in episodes that reveal the loneliness of this child of a different sensibility; and his confusion about girls, sex and religion is revealed in the context of muscular Catholicism. The third person narration resembles a child’s limited perspective: his acute observations, his immature preoccupations and his very detailed pseudo-memories all imply naïvete because it’s written in the simple present tense mimicking a child’s way of speaking.
But the child’s pervasive perspective is a charming decoy. Quite apart from the appropriation of his parents’ memories of their courtship and early marriage, there are numerous other episodes that Clement could not possibly know about. There is this revelation about his father, for instance (the underlining is mine):
When Clement Killeaton is five years old his parents visit a doctor in Melbourne to see why they have had no more children. One afternoon while his wife and son are shopping in Melbourne, Augustine visits Len Goodchild and asks the Master to keep an eye out for a horse that Augustine can buy cheaply and race around Bassett. He tells Goodchild he will phone him each week from Bassett to keep in touch like the old days. As soon as he is back in Bassett, Augustine waits until his wife and son are out for the day. He locks the front and back doors of his house and pulls down the blinds against the late afternoon sun. He takes off his shirt and singlet and puts on the green and silver racing colours and takes the whip in his hand. He gathers the pillows from Clement’s bed and the spare bed and heaps them on the double bed where he and his wife sleep. He forms the pillows into the broad powerful back and the rump and withers of a racehorse. He rides his mount out of the barrier with the whip to show it who is master. At almost every stride in the long race he has to urge the horse with his heels and elbows. As they near the turn Augustine glances back and sees the moist green shape of Ireland already far away. The straight leads past a coast of high cliffs in western Victoria. (p23)
Murnane uses the deceptively simple prose style of the child to reveal this prudish, repressed-erotic fantasy of the Big Win that has eluded Clement’s father for so long. It is an intensely private moment in Augustine’s life, and the child, of course, knows nothing about it. The same technique is used to show the private pain of Harold Moy’s ancestors:
Behind the man’s half-smiling wrinkled face a blank plain stretches back from streets of tiny wooden cottages in Bassett’s Chinatown, built by people who found their way by sea and land to a country whose name they could not even pronounce and stayed so long among people whose language they did not know that no one remembered them in the land they had left…(p49)
Tamarisk Row is a deliberate illusion of a child’s world. It’s the narrator who begins to question church mores, not Clement. The boy, intensely curious about ‘the girl who nearly died in the confessional box’ eventually find outs the reason for her distress from a schoolmate though he doesn’t understand why the girl ‘went out of her mind with worry’. Clement cannot broach the privacy of the confessional box to know that the priest spouted church doctrine to her about her ‘sin’ and how he fuelled her despair when he said that he did not have the power to absolve her if she
‘was still in her mind when she committed that sin, and if she was … neither he or any other priest on earth can take away the sin, there may be no way she can save herself from hell, not even if she goes out of her mind again.’
(The Unforgiveable Sin in Roman Catholic doctrine is suicide, because only an unbeliever could reject God’s mercy). In this episode it is the girl’s tormented perspective that is evoked. All that Clement can do is wonder why
‘in all those unexplored hills ‘there is no place where someone might escape from a sin that was committed within the few gentle hills that thrust up through the dull city of Bassett’
It’s the omniscient narrator who reveals the girl’s shattered vision of Palestine (as it then was) and her existential search for a place where ‘no has ever heard about mortal sins’. This knowledge is not part of Clement’s childhood world.
The landscape is a significant part of his world. Most of it is limited, it’s where he builds his forbidden racetrack in the backyard; where he faces the peril of the school-ground gangs; where he peeps around adjacent gardens to spy on girls; and where he schemes to see naked women taking a bath. But some of Clement’s landscapes are imagined vistas - as real to him as the footpath outside the pub: the hills of Palestine evoked by images inside the confessional box; Foxy Glen inside a girl’s trinket box; and on a hot afternoon in the Grade 3 classroom when Miss Callaghan is teaching about the oases of Arabia, he sees vividly the green lawns of England offering glimpses of water play and naked children.
But the landscape can be malevolent, and so are threatening creditors: Clement’s mother seals the house on the day that Augustine places a huge bet on Skipton in the Melbourne Cup. He needs a big win to clear his mounting gambling debts. When ‘a huge yellowish shape bumps against the house and waits to be let in…Clement has learned to sit quietly and pretend that no one is home’ (p50). When Skipton wins and his mother prays in relief, the boy peeps out through the blinds:
Big slow plains are creeping sadly away from the house. A haze of dust from the north makes a sign in the sky and tries to reach Bassett, but the blinds are pulled down all over the city and no one sees the silent empty places where they may all be going. But the northern sky comes home in the end and even the Killeaton’s walls and windows might not stop its long searching run. (p51)
Dust storms (because of the Australia-wide 1939-1945 drought) were prevalent in 1941 including a severe one in Broken Hill with dust so fine that it penetrated houses. (If you’ve never seen a dust storm, see here for a view of one approaching a property in the Mallee, and here, for the same storm hundreds of kilometres away as it rolled on into Melbourne.) They are incredibly eerie and Murnane has captured the child’s sense of the shape-shifting nature of the landscape, while also signalling that the creditors’ search for his father won’t be over.
Tamarisk Row would be a tempting introduction to his work for those who haven’t read it before. For me, having read Inland and The Plains, part of the pleasure of reading his first novel is in seeing the early signs of his preoccupation with landscape:
He supposes that the reason he has always been strangely affected by the sight of plains and flat grasslands viewed from a distance is that the most mysterious parts of those lands lie in the very inside of them, seemingly unconcealed and there for all to see but in fact made so minute by the hazy bewildering flatness all around them that for years they might remain unnoticed by travellers … (p180)
I’ve also enjoyed recognising signs of how his writing style would develop in future in episodes such as ‘Clement wonders what the Bassett Creek conceals‘ and of course in the celebrated last episode sometimes compared to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (About which Murnane comments in the Foreword, explaining in very precise terms how it is ‘no such thing’).
I could write heaps more about this very special book, but this post is too long already.
James Halford reviewed Tamarisk Row perceptively at MC reviews.
For an overview of Murnane’s writing, visit the Dalkey Archive’s Context No 23. The Dalkey Archive publishes Murnane for the discerning US market.
Murnane’s Books, via Wikipedia. (The links go to suppliers, but many of the titles are out of print). The list of publishers is not complete because there’s at least one edition missing: Inland was also published by Sydney University Press – which was my introduction to Murnane, thank you SUP!
- (1974) Tamarisk Row. William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne.
- (1976) A Lifetime on Clouds. William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne.
- (1982) The Plains (Text Classics). The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.
- (1985) Landscape With Landscape. Norstrilia Press, Melbourne.
- (1988) Inland. William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne. Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.
- (1990) Velvet Waters. McPhee Gribble, Melbourne.
- (1995) Emerald Blue. McPhee Gribble, Melbourne.
- (2005) Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. Giramondo Publishing Company, Sydney, distributed by Tower Books.
- (2009) Barley Patch. Giramondo Publishing Company, Sydney. Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.
- (2012) A History of Books. Giramondo Publishing Company, Sydney.
Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Tamarisk Row
Publisher: Giramondo (Classic Reprints) 2008
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Giramondo $27.95
Fishpond: Tamarisk Row