Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2017

‘Landscape with Freckled Woman’ from Landscape with Landscape, by Gerald Murnane #BookReview

landscape-with-landscape

I finished the first of these short fictions in Landscape with Landscape last night, and I’ll read another one tonight.  This collection of  Gerald Murnane’s fictions is irresistible.

First published in 1985 to reviews labelled ‘cruel’ by the collection’s new publisher Giramondo, these six fictions consist of

  • Landscape with Freckled Woman;
  • Sipping the Essence;
  • The Battle of Acosta Nu;
  • A Quieter Place than Clun;
  • Charlie Alcock’s Cock; and
  • Landscape with Artist.

None of them are very long, and five of them, the blurb tells me, trace a journey through the suburbs of Melbourne in the 1960s, as the writer negotiates the conflicting demands of Catholicism and sex, self-consciousness and intimacy, alcohol and writing.  ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’ imagines a Paraguayan man imagining a country called Australia, while his son sickens and dies before his eyes.

At the risk of simplifying a complex and intellectually sophisticated piece of writing, ‘Landscape with Freckled Woman’ tells a story of a writer trying to explain the conceptual basis of his writing.  The narrator is the only man on a committee of ten, being introduced to the rest of the committee as its new treasurer.  He tells us that he has never given up hope of being recognised as the aspiring writer of his youth.  Avoiding direct eye contact with the women:

… I wanted each woman to wonder, when the president introduced me and they learned I was a writer, whether I might have been quietly observing her for some time before she caught me at it.

The women were all a few years younger than me – in their early or middle thirties.  But they were not too young to have been, fifteen or twenty years before, the young women I had tried to impress by telling them I was going to become a writer.  These young women had always stopped listening – sometimes politely, sometimes not – when I reached a certain stage of drunkenness and began long, elaborate sentences and then could not finish them.  Yet I had never been wholly discouraged when some young woman turned away and left me talking to myself; she added one more to the number of women who might meet me years later and learn I had become a published writer after all and regret she had not listened more closely to me. (p.4)

(And here I think, what if the Nobel Committee comes to its senses after its absurd choice in 2016, and gives the Nobel Prize for Literature to our Gerald Murnane?  Would the cruel reviewer of 1985 cringe in shame?  Would there be a young woman who remembers Gerald Murnane talking about his landscape?)

Murnane can’t resist a little irony: the president tells the committee that they can contact their new treasurer any time because he’s a writer, who works from home.  I won’t be the only reader-writer who hisses a sharp intake of breath at this.  But the narrator moves on, only to tell us some pages later about his resolute quest to find a writing space where he will not be distracted, and not by crass committee members, but by vistas that would interfere with his imagined landscapes.

As he talks (or maybe he dreams he talks) to the freckled woman (to whom he is attracted because freckles and moles make skin unique) he recalls with embarrassment how his concept of landscape has changed.  As a young man he boasted that he was privileged to see what no one else could see:

that all I had to do as a writer was to describe the far-reaching vistas and the intricate topography continually before my eyes: that I need not be curious about what were called real people because I had already made out certain dim figures in my landscape. (p.5)

But now, he had taken to dreaming not because the world I saw by daylight was not enough for me but because it was too much.  He moves from one bleak vista to another, he wants a suburb ot Melbourne that offered nothing to the eye: a suburb from which a writer could see only what he himself devised.

And sometimes the tale of this writer’s quest is droll indeed.  Of his room in inner city Fitzroy he tells us:

He had not been able to pass in and out of the kitchen downstairs without speaking to the woman who seemed the chief tenant of the house.  (He was never sure which of the several men who drank with her every evening actually lived in the house.)  He drank in his own room every night, but having no refrigerator he was forced to keep flagons of cheap wine instead of the beer he preferred.  On Melbourne Cup eve the woman climbed the stairs and called out to him to come down and be sociable.  The young man sat in the kitchen with the woman and her men-friends and accepted their beer.  When they asked him what he did for a living he said he was a teacher by day and a writer in the evening.  They became uneasy, and he wondered which part of his answer had not convinced them.  He said he had moved to their suburb to be among real people.  They sat and looked at him.  He thought they might have resented his coming empty-handed to drink with them, so he climbed up to his room to bring back what he called his grog.  When the woman saw his flagon of hock she ordered him to get it out of her house that minute.  Paint was what she called it. No one, she said, had ever insulted her by bringing paint like that into her house before.  He explained that he only drank wine because he had no fridge for beer.  She wanted to know why he hadn’t asked to keep his beer in her own perfectly good fridge in the kitchen.

He took the wine outside and poured it down the gully-trap.  One of the men told the woman to take it easy and offered the young man more beer, and he stayed drinking with them until after midnight.  But from that day he could no longer write in Fitzroy.  For two weeks he went on drinking wine – taking his flagon to work each morning in his bag in case the woman broke into his room and searched it while he was out.  But each night instead of working on his landscape he lay with his ear to the floor trying to hear what was being said in the kitchen.  He no longer walked through the kitchen to the toilet in the backyard but urinated into a bottle and poured it out of the window onto a patch of weeds.  But he began to believe that the woman in the kitchen could hear his water splashing on the ground in the lulls of the television. (p.18)

There is both dry amusement and poignancy in this image of a young primary school teacher carting his flagon to and from school each day.  Only those who have had their capacity to think and to imagine destroyed by the unwitting interference of others can really understand how awful it is.  It’s not momentary; it persists for as long as the fear of its repetition.  It’s not writer’s block, it’s worse than that because the desire to write is overwhelming, but one just can’t do it knowing that the interruption will come.

In the introduction to this edition, Murnane tells us that he began writing short fiction or novellas because in 1980 he had become a teacher of fiction writing, and he saw the incongruity of exhorting his students to write short fiction when he had written hardly any himself.  This story began as a piece he then wrote called ‘The president was freckled’ but ultimately it took fourteen drafts and was the last to be written and almost defied me to find its final shape.  For those of us who’ve read Inland and The Plains, it makes perfect sense, from beginning to end.

The next story is ‘Sipping the Essence’….

Update (the next day)

‘Sipping the Essence’ is a story of courtship.  An awkward, inhibited young man, a writer, has his first painful experience of courting, and losing, a girl (an experience which he thinks might be an auspicious start to [his] career as a poet of the lonely spaces of Australia).  For his brief time as her boyfriend he maps out how to fill the intervals between meeting and the first kiss:

Each week I would talk about the life and work of a writer I admired.  The four writers were Raymond Roussel, Mikhail Artsybasheff, Leonid Andreev, and Jack Kerouac.  (p.53)

He has a drinking partner called Kelvin Durkin, whose wisecracking style seems utterly unlike a friend an aspiring poet of the lonely spaces of Australia might have, but like the landlady of the Fitzroy house in ‘Landscape with Freckled Woman’ Durkin shows Murnane at his economical best with characterisation.  (And yes, I know he would disapprove of my use of the term because elsewhere in his writing he has been at pains to explain that he doesn’t do characters!)

Update (the day after that)

I’ve just finished ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’.  Ostensibly, it’s a story about a Paraguayan man who believes he is Australian, who struggles to preserve this identity while his son is gravely ill.  Like the other stories it is written in first person, revealing innermost thoughts that are not shared with anyone else because no one else understands and it causes discord if he tries to explain.  It is terribly, terribly poignant and made me realise that there can be moments of crisis in some lives that don’t just involve enormous loss but also a struggle to defend a reality that isn’t shared by anyone else.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Landscape with Landscape
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2016, first published 1985
ISBN: 9781925336115
Review copy courtesy Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Landscape with Landscape

Or direct from Giramondo.

 


Responses

  1. I’m not sure I could say my reading of GM ‘makes perfect sense’, but he’s a fine writer. I’ve tried reading a few recent Nobel laureates & was distinctly unimpressed so why not a Nobel prize for him?

    • Well, *chuckle* I wouldn’t want him to join a crowd of authors who left anyone unimpressed, but I suppose I had (until 2016) regarded the Nobel cohort as a very special group of writers because I thought (until 2016) that they were the kind of writers that were unlikely to win popular awards like the Booker or the Pulitzer. Although these days I’m questioning my enthusiasm for book prizes as a source of income for writers, I do think we need ways of acknowledging great writing…

  2. What a terrific review Lisa. I can so relate to his writing difficulties in the Fitzroy house. It is much easier to be an ‘outsider’ tapping away at imagined conversations in rooms unseen with characters shaped in the desired images. Much simpler and more satisfying than real life.

    • Every now and again he tells people what he thinks they are expecting to hear, as when he says he moved to Fitzroy to meet ‘real people’. Our society is still not very good at understanding writers… even though it’s their books that get made into the films that people want to watch.

  3. Yes agree with all of the above. And to read Mr. Murnane is a very particular experience that too few appreciate.

    • I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have him as a teacher in primary school. I bet he read his students all kinds of interesting stories…

  4. Thank you Lisa for bringing this to our attention. The original Norstrilia edition has been sitting on the bookshelf since 1985 when my husband, Alan Collins was a student in a writing class given by Gerald Murnane. I remember so well how Alan was completely bowled over with admiration for his teacher. He must have attended the book launch for our copy is inscribed ‘For Alan Collins, whose writing I’ve enjoyed’ and I mention this not to ‘show off’ on Alan’s behalf but because it is a pleasure to acknowledge the encouragement one writer gave to another. Now after all these years I’m going to dust off ‘Landscape with Landscape’ and read it for myself.

    • Oh, Ros, what a treasure! I’d love to see it next time I come over:) Looking forward to seeing you next Wednesday (I have had a small Hanukkah gift for you under our non-kosher Xmas tree and can deliver it at last!)

  5. Murnane travels around with me in my work bag, but I haven’t been stuck anywhere long enough to actually read him. Not sure how I’d feel about a plonk drinking teacher!

    • Ah, but he wasn’t drinking it at school. He was taking it to work so his landlady wouldn’t find it.
      It made me wonder, do young people at the beginning of their working lives ever live with landladies these days? I think the days of the dreary boarding house with a tyrannical landlady are over now, aren’t they?
      You could read this one in an hour at bedtime. It’s only 30 pages long. Though you’d probably want to read it again over breakfast for the sheer pleasure of it.

  6. I find it impossible to imagine what Murnane would have been like as a teacher of creative writing though I know several people who have been in his class and got a lot from it.
    I remember that story about drinking in his room from his recent autobiography. There’s something almost Chaplinesque about the deadpan way he tells it.

    • My journey with Murnane would probably make him laugh (or wring in hands in dismay).
      I read Inland, The Plains, A History of Books, A Million Windows and Tamarisk Row – and because the books are all written in 1st person and intensely interior in their preoccupations, had formed the view that the author was a highly intelligent, very private, introverted person, and socially awkward. A man who had never travelled and had gone to live in some small unprepossessing western district town after his wife died so that he could go on avoiding people.
      And then I went to an author talk to listen to my literary hero. And there he was, laughing and chatting with children’s author Andy Griffiths, as lively and amusing as anyone you could hope to meet. I was astonished, and whereas I had been almost afraid to talk to him, (because you know, he ticks off his readers for being banal about characters and plots and things, and I’ve always had a sense of trepidation about reviewing his books because I know I’m not smart enough to fully understand what he is on about), I went and said hello and told him I liked all his books and all the other inane things you say to authors. He was so nice, and he put me at my ease, which is not what I was expecting at all.
      I bet he would have been a wonderful teacher because he would have made his student write. Write, and write and write. And that’s the way writers get to be authors…

  7. […] There are six short fictions in this collection and I have been reading them one by one.  (See my previous post about the first three).  There is no better world to lose yourself in than Murnane’s.  His landscapes are both […]

  8. […] Landscape with Landscape (1987, Giramondo reissue) by Gerald Murnane (5 stars) […]


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