Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2019

A Season on Earth, by Gerald Murnane

The image on the cover of Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth is immediately recognisable to Melburnians of a certain age.  A quick Google search reveals its provenance: the photo is by Neville Bowler from The Age newspaper in 1972 when the CBD in flood was front page news.  Chosen by the inimitable W H Chong for the cover image, this photo of a man alone, stranded high and dry yet apparently calm, is just perfect for this book…

As Murnane explains in the introduction, A Season on Earth has history.  It was originally published in 1976 as A Lifetime on Clouds by Heinemann – in truncated form with just two of the four sections from the original manuscript.  Indeed this the form in which I bought the 2013 Text Classics edition at the Boyd Community Library in Southbank.   I had gone to hear Murnane in conversation with Andy Griffith, who wrote the introduction.  (Although the book is now available in its entirety, I shan’t be jettisoning A Lifetime on Clouds because I like the introduction.  And I wish I’d asked Murnane to autograph it when I had the chance!)

The story, such as it is, comprises the droll activities of a character called Adrian Sherd.  What’s this? you may ask, since Murnane is so adamant in his later books that it is facile to expect characters (or plots) in fiction.  Well, A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel, for all that its publication is his 15th published work.  It’s a bildungsroman, and in the first section Adrian in the 1950s seems a lot like an adolescent ‘character’, one who is obsessed with elaborate sexual fantasies which take place in America.  The second section reveals his marriage to a good Catholic woman of extraordinary fertility – but like his sizzling sexual experiences in America from Part One, none of it is real.  It’s all his vivid imagination, struggling to reconcile his strict religious upbringing in a mundane suburb of Melbourne with his adolescent sexuality.  This is followed by the two sections excised from A Lifetime on Clouds: Adrian joins a religious order but discovers it’s not his vocation.  As we learn in Part Four, it’s writing that is his vocation, and the whole book has been about his intellectual and emotional journey towards a creative life.

But I’m minded here to quote the New York Times, cited on the Text Publishing website because it describes exactly how I read Murnane.  When I first read his fiction it was new to me and I tried to make it fit into my experience of reading.  I don’t do that now:  I let my mind wander where it will, as suggested by the NYT:

‘Reading Murnane, one cares less about what is happening in the story and more about what one is thinking about as one reads. The effect of his writing is to induce images in the reader’s own mind, and to hold the reader inside a world in which the reader is at every turn encouraged to turn his or her attention to those fast flocking images.’

Since A Season on Earth is an early work, reading it is less like having images triggered by the text and more like a ‘story’.  The reader is never in doubt about what’s real and what’s not, even though Adrian himself has difficulty separating his fantasy life from the real one.  Nevertheless some of the images are catalysts for a good chuckle:

After he had set the table for tea, Adrian read the sporting pages of The Argus and then glanced through the front pages for the cheesecake picture that was always somewhere among the important news.  It was usually a photograph of a young woman in bathers leaning far forward and smiling at the camera.

If the woman was an American film star he studied her carefully.  He was always looking for photogenic starlets to play small roles in his American adventures.

If she was only a young Australian woman he read the caption (‘Attractive Julie Starr found Melbourne’s autumn sunshine too tempting to resist.  The breeze was chilly, but Julie, a telephonist aged eighteen, braved the shallows at Elwood in her lunch hour and brought back memories of summer’) and spent a few minutes trying to work out the size and shape of her breasts.  Then he folded up the paper and forgot about her.  He wanted no Melbourne typists and telephonists on his American journeys.  He would feel uncomfortable if he saw on the train one morning some woman who had shared his American secrets only the night before.  (p.16)

This image (nothing like what came to be known as a Page 3 Girl), and its innocence despite Adrian’s smutty intentions, led my mind to the highly sexualised images that surround us every day now.  Goodness only knows how hormonally-challenged young men negotiate it all!

The sequence in which the young Adrian is dazzled by the pageantry of the coronation in 1953 and works it into his fantasy with Lauren and Rita and Linda in the Bluegrass Country of Kentucky is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  They plan a little surprise for him and Lauren and Linda emerge from behind the bushes in brief two-piece bathing suits that dazzled him. The fabric was cloth-of-gold studded with semi-precious copies of all the emeralds and rubies and diamonds in the crown jewels. 

Behind them came Rita, draped in a replica of the coronation robe itself.  And when the other two lifted her train he saw just enough to tell him that under the extravagant ermine-tipped robe, she was stark naked.  (p.22)

A-hem.  Perhaps not every one might be amused…

Adrian’s grasp of religion is laugh-out-loud funny too:

The examination of conscience was supposed to be a long careful search for all the sins committed since your last confession.  Adrian’s Sunday Missal had a list of questions to assist the penitent in his examination.  Adrian often read the questions to cheer himself up.  He might have been a great sinner, but at least he had never believed in fortune tellers or consulted them; gone to places of worship belonging to other denominations; sworn oaths in slight or trivial matters; talked, gazed or laughed in church; oppressed anyone; been guilty of lascivious dressing or painting.

Adrian had no need to examine his conscience.  There was only one kind of mortal sin that he had committed.  All he had to do before confession was to work out his total for the month. For this he had a simple formula.  ‘Let x be the number of days since my last confession.’

‘Then the total number of sins = 2x/5 + 4 (for weekends, public holidays or days of unusual excitement).

Yet he could never bring himself to confess this total.  He could have admitted easily that he had lied twenty times or lost his temper fifty times or disobeyed his parents a hundred times.  But he had never been brave enough to walk into confession and say, ‘It is one month since my last confession, Father, and I accuse myself of committing an impure action by myself sixteen times. ‘ (p. 28)

I defy anyone to read Adrian’s use of moral theology in order to reduce his total to a more respectable size without doubling up in laughter.

Although I’m delighted to have the full version of this book to read, I can understand why Heinemann pruned it so drastically.  Part Three, where Adrian goes to a seminary to prepare for the priesthood is also droll, but the satire relies on some knowledge of the practice of Catholicism as it was in the 1950s, and, IMO it works especially well for readers who can detect in it, Murnane’s future interest in images and landscapes.  I suspect that an editor, not knowing what was to come from this author, might not have recognised some significances in Parts Three and Four.  (And worried, maybe, that it was too ‘Catholic’ for a general audience?)  All the same, excising Parts Three and Four not only ruined the story, because readers got only half of Adrian’s character, but it also deprived readers of some comic gems.

For example, when Adrian’s aunt tells him to have a special devotion to Our Lady, Adrian organises a sacred beauty contest.  He harvests a pile of images of the Madonna from books and holy cards:

He tried not to think of it as a beauty contest—he knew that Catholics were advised not to take part in such things.  And he had never forgotten that a bishop in America once excommunicated a young woman for appearing in the Miss Nude Universe Contest.

Adrian’s competition was not judged according to physical beauty, although the winner would have to be graceful and pretty.  He intended to find among his pictures of Our Lady the one that would most arouse his devotion. After he had decided on the winning picture, he would take it to Blenheim [the seminary] and paste it inside the door of his room.  Each time he left the room he would glance up at the picture and carry away the beautiful image of Our Lady in his mind.  She would inspire him in his work and study just as the image of Denise McNamara had inspired him in the old days at St Carthage’s.  [Denise McNamara is the girl he ‘married’ in Part Two – without ever having plucked up the courage to speak to her.] (p.259)

Adrian tests out his four finalists to see which was best at protecting his ‘holy purity’ while he watches what he thinks is a raunchy film.  (This is the Fifties, remember, when Hollywood had strict rules about depicting ‘bedroom scenes’.) And significantly, for readers of the mature Murnane, the winner protects him by conjuring a landscape that offers no temptation.  Further on, Adrian reads a book called Elected Silence by the American Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. This classic autobiography of redemption, about the conversion and vocation of a sinner, is transformed by Adrian into film scenes, accompanied by a mighty orchestra playing the climax of a gem from the classics such as Overture 1812 or Capriccio Italien.  On the train to Blenheim he realises that non-Catholics had their own version of history and he sees events in history in images.  On the northward journey it is dark after they change trains at Albury, and it is not until Part Four when he comes home to be a writer, that he sees the vast plains of western NSW, and the reader remembers how Murnane’s fascination with vast empty spaces becomes the fiction entitled The Plains.

In Part Four, I was much entertained by Adrian’s public service stint in the Department of Education.  For those of us old enough to quake in terror when each term the Education Gazette announced which ‘temporary’ teachers were to be shunted about all over the state, it is intriguing to learn that there was actually no system to it at all.  Adrian devises his own.  Fascinated by landscapes he selects destinations in rural England, based on these Victorian rural schools having the same name as the ones in his map of England (such as Macclesfield, Malmsbury, and Mortlake).  He is sure he is doing these hapless teachers a favour when he matches the most deserving cases who are teaching in colourless Australian places (in Melbourne suburbs such as Brunswick, Coburg and Maribyrnong) to greener(!) places such as Horsham.

Every day he could send two or three young men and women on long arduous journeys that would bring them at last to idyllic English landscapes. (p. 388)

Later on, he modifies his system to give some of the young men a taste of the solitude and hardship that his favourite poet had endured, sending

a few complacent young men to one-teacher schools with names that seemed the Australian equivalents of the remote places mentioned in A Shropshire Lad: Peppers Plain, Big Hill, Clear Lake, The Cove, Mosquito Flat. On fine spring days when he crossed the crowded lawns of the Treasury Gardens, he envied the young temporaries in their distant schools, surrounded by the raw material for whole volumes of poignant, lyric poetry. (p.440)

Images of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright are inevitably triggered by this droll sequence…

Is it necessary to have read Murnane’s other books first? I would say not at all, merely that it is enhanced by familiarity with his oeuvre.  A Season on Earth is well worth reading in its own right, and although much of it is a very funny comic novel that pokes fun at Catholic guilt, it is also a poignant portrait of a lonely individual trying to come to terms with being different in a world regimented not just by his religion but by a conformist society.

There is so much more that I could share, but I will stop now, and recommend only that you beg, borrow or steal yourself a copy as soon as you can.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Season on Earth
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 485 pages (first published in truncated form by William Heinemann as A Lifetime on Clouds, 1976)
ISBN: 9781925773347, hbk 1st edition (RRP $39.99)
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available including as an ebook direct from the publisher, from Fishpond: A Season On Earth and from all good bookstores.

 


Responses

  1. Looks great! Thanks for such a solid write up, Lisa. Looks like it will be out here in September—time to save up, it’s a pricey one.

    Like

    • Hi Joe, there’s an eBook which is a good deal cheaper than the HB though still more expensive than most other eBooks I’ve seen. Maybe it might be better to wait until a paperback is released? Because it is a book you will read and read again…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have lots of Murnane to catch up on before release date so I won’t have to rush out. The ebook will be about a third the price, but then it will also be out of sight out of mind. And I want that cover on my shelf! Considering how much paperbacks can run in your country and mine, the hardcover isn’t all that much more and in line with what most mainstream new releases go for. I’ll see where how I feel in five months. :)

        Like

        • I’ve still got Barley Patch on my TBR, but after that, nothing. So I’ll be rereading what I have, which makes it worth having a nice copy.
          And yes, out of sight, out of mind, I often forget what I have on the Kindle.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if the publisher’s experience with a Lifetime on Clouds was the reason Murnane had trouble getting ‘big’ publishers, or if Murnane’s experience of being so severely cut led him to prefer less commercial publishers.

    Like

    • Well, what he says in the intro was that the “six years between A Lifetime on Clouds and of The Plains were the bleakest” of his writing career. Heinemann had said they would publish Parts 3 & 4 as a sequel but they never did because A Lifetime on Clouds was well received but not a “raging success”. He thought that maybe Parts 3 & 4 might conceivably be published as a “literary curiosity” but never as a whole book, the way it should be. Having read the whole thing, I can’t imagine being without it… it brings us a moment in a young man’s life when he realises that he must be a writer, and after a long and circuitous journey of modelling himself on saints and monks and English poets, he is going to be himself. It’s beautiful, and I think that I would have thought so even if I didn’t already know the writer that he would become.
      As you said in your post about A Million Windows, we owe a debt to Ivor Indyk from Giramondo who persuaded Murnane back into publishing. It is he who raised Murnane’s profile internationally so that now he is spoken of openly as a Nobel contender, and we should be grateful to Michael Heyward at Text too, because they must have had the copyright of this one somehow, and have taken a punt on publishing it as it should have been.

      Like

  3. Just checked on Amz UK- it’s published here on 30 May in hb. Quarter the price as ebook- but I too dislike that format . I’ve only read Inland so far, and must sample more by him. What would you recommend?

    Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: