Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2017

‘A Quieter Place than Clun’ from Landscape with Landscape, by Gerald Murnane #BookReview

landscape-with-landscape

Yesterday was destined to be an awful day, and I decided to spend it with my head in the sand.  I did not watch the news, I avoided political Tweets and my activist Facebook friends.  I read books instead and lived in a different world.

In the morning I read more of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, (a book I won in BookerTalk‘s Christmas competition, thank you Karen!) Reflecting today on this book’s gut-wrenching descriptions of slavery, I am reminded that America has been appalling before and that good people worked to change it.

Over lunch I started a beautiful new biography called Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory who Australia’s first professional botanical artist.  I didn’t choose it for any political reasons, just because I like botanical art, but again, reflecting on it today, I am minded to think that women have overcome all kinds of obstacles in the past and will do so again.

We went next door to admire our neighbours’ (finally!) finished renovations, and over nibbles and a glass of wine, sat on their new deck in the glorious late afternoon sunshine and talked of inconsequential things.  Not entirely inconsequential because (of course!) we also talked books, and I put my old teacher-librarian hat on and told their little girl how much I loved reading because it takes you into different worlds.

Before dinner I resumed reading Drusilla Modjeska’s new memoir Second Half First and was back in the world of my young adulthood, when the world was full of promise and with grassroots activism we were seeing real and important changes that made us a progressive nation once more.

And I went to bed with Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape.  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 vast and intimate all at the same time, and ‘A Quieter Place than Clun’ especially so…

In this fiction, which lures the reader into thinking it is autobiographical because it seems so real, the narrator describes his journey towards writing the landscape.  Not the landscape around him that intrudes into his inner world, but a landscape of his own making.  This journey is both painfully droll and poignant; it is also metaphorical and real as he takes up life as a primary school teacher in the bayside and inner suburbs of Melbourne and then travelling around country Victoria as a statewide relieving teacher, filling absences for head-teachers who had resigned suddenly or had nervous breakdowns.

As a very young man about to sit (and fail) his Matriculation he had struggled with opposing visions of his future: idealised images of life in the gardens of a seminary, or strolling the lawns of the University of Melbourne as a student of psychology or philosophy.  In the event he became a clerk processing sick-leave forms for the Department of Education, telling his parents that he was studying by night for a second try at Matric but actually spending his solitary nights reading, absorbed by what he knew of the landscapes of Kentucky from his reading of Elected Silence by the American poet Thomas Merton.  At the same time he is also obsessed with the problem of finding a soul mate, only partly so that he can avoid the teasing of the boorish males at work and their tales of conquest.

In those days I believed that people were distinguished mostly by the landscapes they thought about. I was sure I had not met a young woman whose landscapes could compare with mine. The public service typists in the office where I worked seemed made up of layers of streets in places like Elsternwick or Moorabbin or crowded beaches on the Mornington Peninsula.  The young women I saw in church on Sunday gave onto the sandy plain south-east of Oakleigh where houses could be built with loans from the YCW Co-operative Housing Society.

Then, one Saturday morning, a young woman brushed past me in Cheshire’s and reached down a small book from a shelf in Standard Authors and took it to the sales counter.  When I saw her face I knew the landscapes behind it would lead me out of Kentucky and North Carolina.  Watching her walk serenely out onto the street, I decided she must have watched over places coloured neither soul-silver nor skin-gold. (p.155)

Most readers, I think, even aficionados of Murnane, will read this fiction half-hoping that each girl will be the one.  ‘A Quieter Place than Clun’ begins, after all, with the poignant image of this young man taking himself off to play basketball each week with the local branch of the Young Catholic Workers in the hope of meeting a female of [his] own age at last, only to find that the girls of The National Catholic Girls’ Movement practised on Tuesdays while the men played on Wednesdays, and the long awaited joint picnic was by convention attended by couples, the man buying the ticket for his girlfriend.

I had watched quietly while every other member of my team ordered two tickets.  Each YCW member, it seemed, had a girlfriend from the NCGM to take to the snow.  I had no girlfriend.  I had never had a girlfriend. That was why I had joined the YCW.  Yet I had still not spoken to a girl in all the months I had been playing basketball. I had never even seen the girls of the NCGM – although I had thought of them often enough. They too played basketball but they practised on Tuesday night.  Every Wednesday night – the young men’s night – I had enjoyed a keen pleasure to think that twenty-four hours earlier a throng of short-skirted young women had pressed the weight of their thighs and buttocks against the same asphalt that jarred my skinny goose-fleshed legs.  (p.148)

(I am so tempted to quote the rest of this passage about his endurance of spending endless freezing nights at practice and hours sitting on the reserve bench being patronised, experiencing it as a preparatory rite which would culminate in an approved opportunity to mingle freely and to inspect an assembly of eligible females without fearing that I might violate some unwritten rule of conduct between the sexes.  But the author and publisher of this very special book deserve that you should buy it, not read some of its best bits here on this blog).

Until he encountered images of landscapes that conflicted with the landscapes he had envisaged for himself the narrator saw his future as a poet and book collector.  The girl in Cheshire’s (a long-gone bookshop in the Melbourne CBD) leads him to the woodland landscapes of Thomas Hardy, although he never sees her again to speak to her.  But Hardy eventually disappoints:

The lives of writers began to interest me as much as their own works, and I soon found fault with Thomas Hardy.  He seemed to have ben too bound up with the people around him, too ready to see his dull neighbours as heroic dreamers. If I was going to follow his example I would have to rejoin the YCW and pretend that the basketball men went to Donna Buang and such places to see the grey-blue heart of Victoria. But what clearly disqualified Hardy was his having been twice married.  I could not accept that the purest green could spring from a man who had spent most of his life as a fond husband.  (p.162)

And there you can see from that excerpt that it would be a mistake to assume that this fiction is a mere coming-of-age story about a solitary young Catholic misfit.  As he ventures from one literary influence to another, he refines his ideas about the landscapes that will guide his life and his writing.  Reading it made me want to re-read Murnane’s History of Books to which I failed to do justice.  I suspect that I could happily spend a year just re-reading my collection of Murnane’s books, and following the trail of his reading…

It things get really bad out there in the real world, I might just do that.

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. Very logical approach to the day – personally I went for a run, read my big book and stayed close to friends and family. Similar to yourself maybe not as conscious of my reasoning but similar.

  2. I coped with the awful day in our country by spending time with my 3 year old granddaughter. I too am reading The Underground Railroad, but in small chunks as that is all I can take at a sitting. Today I was greatly cheered by going on a sister march and by learning that women all over the world came out to protest. I don’t know what will come of it, but it felt good to begin moving.

  3. I think there will be many different ways of responding but the important thing will be to work strategically. Good leaders will emerge as they have in the past and people of good character will support whatever it takes to resist the worst of it.

  4. I appreciate your hopefulness. Yes, we have been awful before. And pulled out. But that was before nuclear bombs and climate change.

  5. Oh dear; I was about to comment on this intriguing stuff from G Murnane, then saw these sad, anxious comments. I couldn’t help watching the ceremony with its car crash fascination. then the marches of protest next day lightened the mood somewhat. We should continue doing what we do, I think, in discussing literature, as a reminder that culture and beauty are resilient, and stronger than ignorance.

    • Yes, all true, but the sense of foreboding is real. Here in Australia we have good reason to be anxious about any military stoush with China over access to sea routes. We are a small trading nation, of no importance to anyone except ourselves, and a trade war and/or protectionism would hurt us badly too. But (almost) worse than that is that the unleashing of racist, sexist, divisive commentary is a contagious plague and we are going to have to work hard to contain it here too, now that they are emboldened.

  6. I spent the Howard years not exactly avoiding the news but certainly avoiding listening to him, and may do the same with the disaster on the other side of the pacific – not helped by having our own don-nothing disaster on this side. Meanwhile, I know I should read Murnane, but that is true of so many authors that I may just continue to grab randomly from my crowded, unread shelves.

    • Speaking as a veteran of the Kennett Years here in Victoria, I think the trick is to be strategic. People suffered from protest fatigue here, they were worn out by the time the read damage was being done. (He didn’t take any notice at all of post-election protests. Why would he? He’d just been elected in a landslide).
      The important thing IMO is to avoid the rhetoric and keep an eye on what is actually being done, and then deal with that – one specific issue at a time – strategically and effectively using methods that modern politicians respond to.

  7. I’m hiding from the news for another reason – the Bourke St Mall and burying my head in fiction too. I really must read Murnane. Yes, I can imagine you are aghast! I haven’t read him yet but Landcape with Landscape sounds wonderful.

    • Sometimes, the world is a bit much to deal with….

      • It certainly is. I think I’m actually barricading myself. Robert Goddard to the right, Beatriz Williams to the left, an unpublished ms by Capel Boake has got my back and in front of me Charmian Clift a very worthy protector who couldn’t unfortunately protect herself.

        • Oh yes, a tragic life, Charmian Clift’s….

          • Have you read Nadia Wheatley’s biography?

            • No, I haven’t … I look out for bios like that in all my bookshops and op shops, but I’ve never come across it.

              • It’s pretty big but groundbreaking. The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift

                • I’ll try the library…

  8. […] Landscape With Landscape (1985) […]


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