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Monday, 17 October 2011

Tamarisk Row

Tamarisk Row

I am writing these words in the place that is called by many persons the real world. – Gerald Murnane, ‘Boy Blue’[1]

Had the book I’m about to talk about been written by . . . I was going to say a lesser writer, but let’s just go with a different writer . . . had this book been written by a different writer I have no doubt that it would still have still found a publisher and an audience (possibly even a broader readership than it did find) although it’s unlikely that the book would have been called Tamarisk Row and it would probably have turned out more like Clive James’ fictionalised autobiographical account of his childhood in Australia, Unreliable Memoirs, than the work of fiction I’ve just read which, financially at least, might not have been such a bad thing for the author in question because the story at the core of Tamarisk Row is one that people (especially men who grew up as boys in Australia in the early post-war years) would be able to relate to and might want to read but it would have likely started the author down a path that would have resulted in him not living up to his full potential as a writer; would have reduced him to a mere storyteller, and that would have been a crying shame because Gerald Murnane writes like no other author I’ve ever read, in fact like no other author that most people will have read and because of that his readership tends to fall into two camps, simply put, those who love him and those who loathe him, but I can also envisage a third camp (who knows it might even be the biggest of the three camps) comprised of those who can’t quite make up their minds when it comes to him, who can see that the man can write but can’t understand why when he can write as well as he obviously can that he chooses to write the way he does and for many people that determination will be based on attempting to read this, his first work of fiction, which to be fair is probably his most straightforward book and if people find they don’t like this one it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to be won round by any of his others.

Had Murnane decided to tell his story in a more traditional fashion, in the style of the books he read as a child perhaps, then we would still have learned about who did what to whom, where and how, but we would not have seen it though his eyes. Yes, we read books to prove we’re not alone (C S Lewis), but we also read to see the world through another person’s eyes and Gerald Murnane has a unique way of seeing the world. Many of the things he says are confusing to me as a fellow writer though, things like “I believe I am barely capable of abstract thought. I can only think by considering images,”[2], “I [have] never created any character or imagined any plot,”[3], “Writing never explains anything,”[4] or the fact that he refuses to refer to his books as novels but rather as something he calls “true fiction” which he describes as follows:

People complain to me that my fiction has hardly any dialogue. Those people had better sit in front of their television sets. True fiction can't be made to sound like a stage-play or like a soap opera, with people shouting at one another. True fiction has the silence of the mind that it comes from. True fiction sounds like a cave underground or underwater. The characters in true fiction cannot speak; they've been underground for so long that they've forgotten how to speak.[5]

Tamarisk Row does contain dialogue but the reviewer in the Weekend Australian makes an interesting observation:

[R]ather than using quotation marks, Murnane places the dialogue inside dashes. In effect, we don't so much hear the characters speak as hear the echo of their words in the mind of the narrator, many years after they have finished speaking.[6]

Tamarisk Row was first published in 1974 when Murnane was thirty-five although he began writing it when he was twenty-five (it took him four years to complete), and so the characters in the book will have been with him for about fifteen years, the action being set circa 1948 at which time both the young protagonist, Clement Killeaton, and Murnane himself, would have been about to enter the fourth grade. This requires clarification. In Australia, Primary School is generally for children aged 5–12 but the first year at school is not referred to as the first grade; it goes under a number of different titles such as Preparatory, Reception or Transition. This would make Clement about 9 going on 10 when he is in Grade Four which makes sense since Murnane was born in 1939 and the book is based on events from his own life which has led to the book often being referred to as being semi-autobiographical. Murnane, however, “says that he makes no distinction between autobiography, biography and fiction. To him it's all fiction.”[7]

Tamarisk Row is the story of a young boy growing up Catholic in the predominately Protestant and fictional town of Bassett which just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the town of Bendigo in Victoria in which Murnane lived for a time. Clement’s father, Augustine, is a compulsive gambler (but only on horses) and the family live in perpetual poverty. It is the man’s only fault. When he has money, MelbourneCupunlike some of his fellow gamblers he doesn’t drink it all away, chase loose women or fritter it away in some other fashion, he spends it on his family; those days are few and far between because the man is perpetually in debt. Clement’s mother stays very much in the background disapproving of and yet still tolerating her husband’s lifestyle whilst trying to ensure that their son grows up to be a good Catholic and quashing whenever she can any interest he shows in horse-racing. The boy, a solitary type, prefers to play alone rather than with his school friends. He doesn’t appear to have a best friend but there are a number of girls that he gravitates towards when he has the chance because he’s getting to that age where he’s becoming curious about the opposite sex but mostly he keeps himself to himself inhabiting worlds of his own creation. Clement sees his father as an almost heroic figure and idolises him; Augustine’s addiction is never spoken about in front of his son. It’s inevitable that the boy is going to inherit his father's obsession with racing but Clement applies the racing mentality to all aspects of his life – for example, he deliberately answers questions wrong in a test at school so he could fall back a little before sitting his Geography paper (his best subject) for which he receives full marks but it is not quite enough to get him the first position and he is narrowly pipped at the post – and although he is interested in girls it’s notable that the only time he actually gets sexually aroused is once while playing one of his solitary racing games.

"Someone has written that all art aspires to the condition of music," Murnane says, quoting a line from one of his essays. "My experience is that all art, including all music, aspires to the condition of horseracing."[8]

Already the motifs and themes that appear throughout Murnane's fiction can be found in Tamarisk Row as we can see in the Author’s Note from which he quotes when discussing how the book was written:

None of my books has been written in an orderly way from beginning to end. Tamarisk Row took four years to write and it only came together after I'd drawn a grid of more than 200 squares and numbered the squares. Each number was meant to correspond to one of the themes of the book or one of the clusters of images in the book.

If you could fill each square on a calendar with a picture instead of a number, and if each picture could show clearly some event or landscape or recollection or dream that made each day memorable, then after a long time and from a great distance the hundreds of pictures night rearrange themselves to form surprising patterns.

Tamarisk Row is one such pattern.

Sometimes I thought of the numbered squares as the squares on the page of a calendar. Each numbered square was meant to give rise to about a page of prose but as I went on writing each square gave rise to many more than one page and in the end the text has the shape of a teardrop lying on its side.[9]

He has said elsewhere, “I write fiction in order to discover the pattern of myself and my life,” and “I decided that falling in love was nothing else than wanting urgently to see a woman’s landscape.” What is clear is that these terms – in particular ‘pattern’ and ‘landscape’ – have taken on a special significance for Murnane, a deeper meaning. When he looks at things he sees things, he comprehends and interprets rather than merely imagines:

I have learned little from staring at things, not even at images in my mind. I have learned much more from details that have appeared at the edges of my vision. I prefer to look out from the sides of my eyes until one or another detail winks at me... And I choose the word winks because a wink from one person to another often signals that the two persons share a secret knowledge, and I often feel, after some detail in my view or in my mind has winked at me, that the visible world wants me to learn its meaning or that the farthest places in my mind are well-disposed towards me.[10]

He doesn’t make this particular distinction in Tamarisk Row – although he does mention at one point holding a holy card “obliquely in the sunlight to see the dull sheen of the circles of golden dust around the heads of the holy people” – but there are numerous instances where Clement falls into an object particularly a colourful one like racing silks or the priests’ vestments or marbles:

At night he sits looking up at the electric light globe with a marble held close to his eye trying to explore all the wine- or honey- or blood- or ocean- or lake- or stained-glass-coloured skies or plains where winds or clouds or ranges of hills or curls of smoke are trapped forever and to decide what secret tunnels or caves or valleys or walled cities or thickets or abandoned laneways might never be explored because they lie deep inside it close to its very essence where its truest colours would envelop any traveller who reached there trying to discover what has lain for so many years in the heart of the glass that people have carried without thinking from place to place and what it is to be inside a place that all other people see only from the outside.

In a letter to David Watson upon receipt of an unsolicited gift of one of his photographs Murnane wrote:

A thing seen from the side, so to speak, tends to resemble something else and that something else is always FULL OF MEANING in a way that the thing looked at directly never is.[11]

What he’s trying to write about are “the things that only one person has seen in his or her own mind.”[12] This is most likely why Murnane has been content to live his entire life within a small area of Victoria because all his travelling, all the landscapes he wanders through, are constantly available to him. In a radio interview Murnane makes this observation about the book:

[O]n the cover of the first edition of Tamarisk Row is a giant blue globe which a lot of people, I've found out over the years, thought was a photograph of the planet Earth from space, but in fact it's a close-up photo of one of my precious glass marbles. The marbles that I played with as a child, I used to use them to represent racehorses…[13]

In the back garden of their house Clement constructs elaborate farms, estates and racecourses, a property he calls Tamarisk Row, which absorbs him for hours on end:

[O]ut among the tall ragged weeds of his backyard he keeps stumbling on the familiar roads that he has been forming for years with his own hands to lead back the owner of racehorses to the shaded houses where their wives wait during long hot afternoons, stripping off one piece after another of their clothes as the heat grows worse, and to make long and trying the journey of one man, the owner of a horse named Tamarisk Row, back to the property where his wife has waited so often during the years of their marriage but has still not yet heard late one evening that their horse has won the prize they know he deserves.

Clement is nothing if not a conflicted young boy. Soon all his private obsessions are mixed up in his head: horseracing, Catholicism, marbles, birds, sex. Colour in particular is tremendously important to Clement. And order. He mimics his father’s record keeping:

He begins as a small boy in grade two making entries of a few words in each of a few columns. Before he has finished writing about half the marbles in his collection he gets from his father a much bigger ledger and starts a new system of entries with one whole page for each marble. Because his mother tries to stop him from wasting his time poring over pages of nonsense night after night, his list of entries grows very slowly. But all the while the number of his marbles increases steadily. Towards the end of his grade-three year he reviews what he has done and counts his marbles and calculates that it may still take him several years and perhaps two or three more volumes to bring his work up to date.

marblesHis interest in marbles is started by his father, clearly the major influence in Clement’s life, when he hands over an old tobacco tin with about a dozen marbles in it that he had found when he was a little boy. “Clement values these marbles so much that he never takes them out of the house and seldom shows them to another boy.” Another marble he values highly is one he digs out of the ground in his backyard, one that apparently belonged to the boy who had lived there before him.

Clement’s need to organise things mirrors Murnane’s own:

I have been described by my wife and by several friends as the most organised person they have ever known, and I admit to a love of order and of devising systems for storing and retrieving things. My library is meticulously ordered, as are the many filing cabinets full of my letters and journals and manuscripts and typescripts and private papers. I have sometimes thought of the whole enterprise of my fiction-writing as an effort to bring to light an underlying order – a vast pattern of connected images – beneath everything that I am able to call to mind.[14]

This idea of looking for patterns in the world around us is not new. Some Hasidic Jews do mathematical research on the Torah assigning numerical values to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other. The assumption behind this technique is that numerical equivalence is not coincidental. This practice is called Gematria. Scientists too look for patterns in nature, like Fibonacci numbers, the Golden ratio or the fractal geometry (see the website Patterns). Darren Aronofsky's film π concerns a number theorist who believes that everything in nature can be understood through numbers. These are patterns that anyone can see. What Murnane is looking for are patterns that only he can see.

Although Clement might feel like the book’s main protagonist actually quite a bit of time is devoted to his father and his attempts to get rich. In coming to understand Augustine we’re placed better (now there’s a horseracing term if ever I read one) to see why his son – and by extension Murnane himself – has turned out the way he has. In much the same way as Clement is a dreamer so is his father. His ultimate dream is to own a horse which he will name Silver Rowan and which will win, at the very least, the Gold Cup. (Clement’s dream is for his fictional horse, Tamarisk Row, named after the property in his backyard, to do the same.) Over the course of the book Augustine does in fact acquire two horses, Clementia, who wins her maiden handicap but breaks a leg later and has to be put down, and Sternie, named (but not by Augustine) as a joke after the Jew who first owned him, Hyman Sternberg, who, once he learns about the new name, curses the horse – “he said he hoped the vucking [sic] mongrel would never win a race.” Gus is not the kind of man to look a gift horse in the mouth, even an accursed one, and so when he is offered the second horse at a bargain price he cannot refuse it. The big question, and one the book answers, is whether the curse stuck.

Unlike many of Murnane’s later works of fiction Tamarisk Row does read like a conventional novel. There isn’t much of a plot – it feels, and is, a slice of life – but you do feel when you reach the end that although not every question is answered you have come to the end of a significant chapter in the family’s life; the book ends with them packing up and leaving the house at 42 Leslie Street. Murnane is not fond of the notion of plots:

[A] book that contains plot and dialogue seems to me to work on the assumption that all a reader wants from reading is the illusion that he or she is seeing real events re-enacted. Or even, worse still from my point of view, watching a film. […] My fiction is a report of what takes place in the mind of a writer. It may have characters or 'personages' is my favourite word, there may be personages like Cynthia and Cyril in it, but there will be lots more.

Because he has based Tamarisk Row on events in the real word it is true that the book has no plot because none of our lives follow a plot. What he is doing is exploring “lives that I might have lived, [and] men that I might have been”[15] albeit the fact that these lives might be very similar to the one he actually lived. This is how he conceived of the book in the first place:

The first part of a book that comes into my mind is usually the central image or the title. Sometimes the central image of the title of a book will stay in my mind for years before I begin to write the first words of the book. [...] The title and the central image for my first book came to my mind at the same moment when I decided to call a glass marble Tamarisk Row. After I have the central image fixed in my mind clusters of other images begin to appear around the central image. Then I begin to see connections between images that hadn't seemed connected before. [...] After I discovered the image of the glass marble in Tamarisk Row I saw in my mind the image of the corner of my back yard in Bendigo behind the Tamarisks. I saw a man and his wife living on a stud farm in a corner of my back yard in Bendigo. Next I saw an image of the coloured glass in the front door of my house in Bendigo. Then I remembered that I'd once looked into the green-gold-coloured glass of that door and I'd thought I could see there tiny landscapes in a strange country.[16]

When I think of my fiction in this way, I am somewhat of a mind with the narrator of ‘In Far Fields’, who saw his fiction as resembling a map of a country district in which the small towns were images and the roads connecting the towns were feelings.[17]

I mentioned at the start that had the book been written as a straightforward narrative that it might not have been called Tamarisk Row. The reason I mention this is that it was actually “under a lilac tree that [Murnane built his] first toy racecourse in Bendigo”[18] although it is also true that there were tamarisks in the garden at the time even if he didn’t find out till years later that was what they were called.

The role of women in Murnane’s novels is one that has been written about before. Quoting from Velvet Waters Karin Hansson had this to say:

Woman as landscape/place becomes part of Murnane’s exilic motifs, his search for the “true home,” and his “image of an image of a woman” (VW 154) in grassy landscapes.


Whether the imaginary women occur in the shape of naked girls in magazines or madonnalike figures they belong together with the female notion of place whose true nature cannot be explored and revealed by objective geographical study.


In the dualistic structure that is also part of Murnane’s geographies, place is private, emotional, and filled with mystery and nostalgia, whereas space is public, rational, and transparent. In the process of the quest, which implies turning space into place, the women figures, representing otherness, serve as symbolic catalysts.[19]

Just as he calls his writing “true fiction” one of the purposes of his fiction is to locate his “true home” – the expression appears for the first time in Tamarisk Row – and certainly women comprise a part of that pattern/landscape. In his later works of fiction Murnane uses his adolescence and young adulthood as source material for the images on which he based his writings but in this first book the only women who appear are his mother, Jean, the nuns and a number of schoolgirls, Margaret Wallace, Therese Riordan, Pauline Duffy, Barbara Keenan and “the girl Mendoza,” all of whom know that Clement wants only one thing, to see them with their pants off. Oh and to learn the secret of Therese’s ‘Foxy Glen’ – nothing rude, simply a small tin she keeps locked but it’s still noteworthy that it gets described as a place. Really what Clement wants, not only with the girls but with everything, is to get to see beyond, beneath or within, to expose these hidden landscapes – Murnane admits to a fascination with buried things. What is interesting though is when Clem does get to glimpse a mons pubis eventually and briefly (I’m not saying whose or how) this is how he describes it:

[F]or just two or three seconds he sees clearly … a low white ridge split by a narrow unpromising fissure with nothing else to distinguish it from the pale slopes around, so that any man or boy who chanced on such a place after years of searching would probably go on looking for the strange shape that he was really after. – italics mine

Landscape with LandscapeHe could have been describing a mound of earth. He’s not aroused by it. This brings to mind a line from a later work of fiction, Landscape with Landscape: “I was always looking for some kind of ideal scenery which would correspond to obscure places in my thoughts.”[20] I actually get that. I also felt somehow cheated when I saw my first naked woman. Now I realise that no woman could ever compete with the image of what a woman should be like that sits unresolved in my head; she doesn’t exist. He’s looking to see what cannot be seen, that probably doesn’t exist to be seen.

Tamarisk Row features a recurrent motif of Murnane’s writing – a striving for a moment of revelation wherein the narrator will comprehend the relationship between his inner and outer worlds. The exact source of that revelation is a mystery, but it will apparently occur when a certain landscape is reached or seen from a particular point of view. This revelation, if achieved, will disclose no less than the essence of life itself.[21]

Whereas the girls are mostly shy (or at least feign shyness), Clement and other boys his age have no qualms about being seen naked around each other. The boys have no compunction exposing themselves to each other, knowing it to be something ‘wrong’ (‘wrong’ equals ‘fun’), and they often play games that involve a certain degree of genital abuse, hitting and twisting; the game of “snatches” involves “running silently at some boy who is standing in another direction and … [wrenching] the fellow’s balls until he screams and drags himself free.” There’s even a scene where Clement and a boy called Kelvin Barratt mimic their parents having intercourse when they have the house to themselves on day:

This time Clement allows Barrett to decide what game they will play. He lies on his back while Barrett lies on top of him so that their things rub together. The other boy presses too heavily on Clement. He pleads with Barrett to get up and go but the boy pins him down and bounces up and down on top of him.

Thinking back to when I was that age I can relate to some of it, the delight at seeing a flash of a girl’s white pants, and a growing curiosity about what girls my own age were like but I don’t recall the boys having much interest in each other’s privates; we peed openly but that was about it, although I must have been about that age the one and only time I’ve ever been kicked in the goolies: that is something I will never forget and I thought toothache was the worst it could get.

Religion is also a major part of this book. The Killeatons are devout. Even Jean who has converted to Catholicism to marry Gus. Clement is brought up as a Catholic in a town where it matters whether you are Catholic or Protestant, something as a Glaswegian I can relate to strongly. What I find a little hard to relate to is how serious young Clement becomes about the faith he has had imposed on him and he certainly does far more than most kids would do at that age, barely going through the motions. There is a scene where Clement meets with Margaret Wallace: she is inside her father’s aviary and so there is a wire mesh between them. He wants to come inside but she won’t let him:

Margaret insists that no Catholics are allowed inside because they keep too many secrets from other people and dress up in coloured robes that no proper Australian would dream of wearing and speak in foreign languages when they pray. The boy offers to explain the mysteries of the Catholic religion to her if she will only let him explore the aviary with her. […] Clement persuades Margaret to weave her rifle-bird feathers through the wire-netting to make the shape of a purple screen. She agrees to turn her face away, and he murmurs – bless me Margaret for I have sinned this is my first confession Margaret and I accuse myself of – I have thought bad thoughts many times about a girl who goes to a State school – this is all I can remember Margaret and I am very sorry for all my sins.

Murnane briefly trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1957 but he admits that his main motivation was simply to get a room to himself where he could have peace to write. When he discovered he only was allowed fifteen minutes time to himself per day he soon left. I found this comment by Karl L. Schmude of interest; it’s from his 1981 Aquinas Memorial Lecture:

In books like Murnane's Tamarisk Row, the treatment of childhood affords a means by which authors seek to come to terms with the traditions which shaped them. The promises and celebrations of the Catholic upbringing, the burdens and sacrifices, the haunting mysteries, the unutterable sentiments – all these experiences were part of a distinctive way of life beneath the conformities of a mass secular culture. They furnish the means of explaining what one is – or, more often, obliterating what one used to be. Thomas Keneally has suggested that authors do not write problems or preoccupations out of their system: they write them in; absorb them into the blood stream, as it were; then move on to other themes.[22]

If you’ve never read Murnane before this is as good a place as any to start. I’ve actually read four books by him now, the other three being (in the order in which I read them): The Plains, Inland and Barley Patch. All his other books are available Barley Patchbut mostly only second-hand from Australian websites and they are not cheap. The version of Tamarisk Row I read was a reprint of the original 1974 version; a later version was released in 2008 by Giramondo Publishing. This new edition gives us the final two sections as Murnane intended them and the type is apparently more expansively and readably set than in the rather dingy 1974 original.

I cannot pretend that he is an easy read. It took me six days to work my way through the 188 pages in this book (285 in the revised edition). You cannot rush him and I defy anyone to try to speed-read him. Often when you get lost in a sentence you can’t simply skip to the next one because it might be an inch down the page or two inches or, in the case of the penultimate section, there is no next sentence, the whole thing is one enormous sentence two pages long (three and a half in the 2008 printing) – actually it is “four grammatical sentences interwoven.”[23] But why?

In the … years since I wrote Tamarisk Row my sentences generally have become shorter. The long sentences in Tamarisk Row are many hundreds of words long surely the longest sentences ever written in this country. Anyone can write hundreds of words one after the other, the point about my long sentences is that each of those sentences is a sound grammatical sentence. I wrote long sentences because I believed that only a long sentence can explain how everything in the world is connected to many other things.[24]

The sentence is the building block of all Murnane’s fiction:

The basic unit of all my writing is the sentence. I write first one sentence and then another sentence. I write sentence after sentence and after I’ve written each sentence I read that sentence aloud. I read it aloud and listen to decide whether the sound of that sentence is the sound of my own voice.[25]

One of my greatest pleasures as a writer of prose fiction has been to discover continually the endlessly varying shapes that a sentence may take.[26]

His aim is to write “a pure sentence” which, he says, “has not one word too many, not one word out of place.”[27] He describes himself as a technical writer and says that “the task of this sort of writer is to report in the plainest language the images that most claim his attention from among the images in his mind and then to Emily Brontearrange his sentences and paragraphs (and, if applicable, his chapters) so as to suggest the connections between those images.”[28] This tends to give his writing a considered flavour not unlike Emily Brontë who he cites as an influence; In Inland he mentions Wuthering Heights as a book he repeatedly returns to and “[a]s a young man Murnane dreamt of falling in love with a woman resembling Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights.[29]

What is striking about Tamarisk Row, having read his later and latest works of fiction, is how far along the road he was in developing his own personal style at this stage.

Imre Salusinszy describes the book as being "nothing less than the Great Code of Murnane's imaginative iconography" (Tamarisk Row Form Guide, 157). Tamarisk Row features a complex web of images involving calendars, colours, grasslands, creeks and rivers, Catholic rituals, priests' houses, horse races and racking skills, marbles, stones, freckles, books and libraries, and tunnels and secret places, and all have been used repeatedly and with remarkable consistency by Murnane in his subsequent fiction.[30]

What is probably the most absorbing thing about this book for me is that we get to see the making of a writer. Apart from his homework and keeping his ledgers up to date Clement does no writing in this book. He doesn’t see himself as a writer, imagine that one day he might become one or even feel any pressing need to write down his thoughts; all of that is to come. I was much the same when I was nine or ten. I had yet to discover myself. And yet, at the age of fifty-one, I’ve probably written as much as Gerald Murnane had done by my age. I can trace back aspects of my personality to those tender years although I’ve never felt compelled to write about them.

Murnane is a fascinating character and since his work is so personal it is helpful to find out as much as you can about him and his world view which is a very different one to most people’s. I’ve quoted a few times in the article from ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay Murnane wrote. It is available in full online and is preceded by a short Q+A from the author Pradeep Trikha which is also illuminating. You can read the whole thing starting here.

Murnane would never argue with anyone that his books emanate from his own life experiences but I suspect that one of the reasons he avoids terms like semi-autobiographical is because he sees them as superficial. He is more interested in his “deep self.” This is a term I have seen him use a couple of times in interview. The expression is not his own but one he has adopted from Proust:

le moi profound, the deep self. Now I hide behind that expression… When I sit down to write (I) wasn’t thinking of autobiography or any sort or revelation. I simply wrote what I felt was uppermost in my mind. We can blame it on my deep self if it turned out to be recognisably like someone you know.[31]

Murnane’s writings are “less about the biographical circumstances of the narrator and more about producing a precise account of a very particular imagination and worldview.”[32] Now I can see a reader scratching his head when he reads a sentence like that. Surely if it reads like autobiography and the details correspond to the life of the author even if the names have been slightly altered then, for all intents and purposes, it is autobiography and what is Murnane going on about? He’s using the kind of language that religions have used for years but what he is trying to communicate is his own personal mythology. He believes that the real world is only a part of a much bigger world:

In my view, the place we commonly call the real world is surrounded by a vast and possibly infinite landscape which is invisible to [the] eyes … but which I am able to apprehend by other means. The more I tell you about this landscape the more inclined you might be to call it my mind. I myself often call it my mind for the sake of convenience. For me, however, it is not just my mind but the only mind.[33]

Why do we imagine, daydream? Is it not to escape from the mundanity of our lives? And in those dreams we do indeed travel. For most of us our journeys are fairly arbitrary but there are people, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Fisher for example in Billy Liar, who revisit their own imaginary worlds again and again, in his case Ambrosia. This is no different for what people do every day in Second Life or even what we’re doing now. Just think about how people talk about the Web in spatial terms like going into a chat room. When I first logged onto the Internet and entered the word ‘poetry’ into a search engine and a few seconds later a list of all the websites came up the first word that came into my mind was: home. Clement’s father, in order to flee his debtors, has been forced to move his family many times – Murnane talks about moving home about twenty times as a child – and he talks to his son about feeling isolated from his true country. In some respects this is Ireland from where his family hails but it’s really Australia itself which the Irish Catholics came late to, finding it already ruined by “the bigoted Protestants and Masons” that had arrived there ahead of them. Augustine dreams of finding a place they can truly feel at home. He tells his son they can

dream of plains far inland that are probably too harsh anyway but where perhaps a few Catholic families could live in a little community whose roads led only to properties within the settlement and nowhere else beyond it.

To Augustine this may be little more than a pipedream but not to Clement. He believes that even in Bassett Catholics “might see corners that the Protestants had overlooked and which could still remind them of great mysteries just out of sight behind ordinary-looking things.” Understanding all of this helps us to realise that although Murnane himself rejected the formal religion of the Catholics he never quite shook a belief in a something else, a bigger picture. He has devised his own ways of trying to comprehend the universe he finds himself a part of and of communicating his understanding to others as best he can and that is what his works of fiction are. What is also clear is how resistant this invisible landscape is to exploration which is why so many of Clement’s tentative probings come up dry. Clement sees his family represented by an illustration on a calendar of Jesus and his parents (who, of course, were Catholics) on the road from Palestine to Egypt because underneath the illustration are the squares Murnane talks about in his opening note that form the outline of his story: Clement is Jesus and 42 Leslie Street is Egypt.

Owen Richardson in his review of the 2008 reprint wrote that Tamarisk Row is “one of the very best books about childhood and the world as the child finds it.”[34] I’m not sure that Murnane would be overly pleased with that assessment. It is certainly the best book about this particular boy’s childhood. He might settle for that.

Gerald MurnaneSo, should you read this book? Well, why would I write about 7000+ words if I thought it was just esoterica? Despite a propensity for longer sentences than are really necessary no matter how grammatically correct they might be, Tamarisk Row is actually quite an accessible novel, a moving and believable, portrait of a family muddling their way through hard times and of the bond between son and father that never wavers despite Gus’s frequent absences to pursue his dream.

If this review has piqued your interest I have two more articles about Murnane:

You can read a short extract from the book here.

I’ll leave you with a clip from the very end of the documentary Words and Silk where Murnane reads a slightly edited version of that long sentence at the end of the novel.



[1] Gerald Murnane, ‘Boy Blue’, World Literature Today

[2] Gerald Murnane, ‘At the Edges of Plains’ in Ashley Crawford, editor, Wimmera: the work of Philip Hunter

[3] Gerald Murnane, Barley Patch, p.5

[4] Gerald Murnane, ‘Why I Write What I Write’, Meanjin, vol. 45, no. 4, December 1986

[5] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[6] Imre Salusinszky, Weekend Australian, 5 April 2008, p.40

[7] Elisabeth Hanscombe in a comment on my earlier article Inland: common ground between Gerald Murnane and Samuel Beckett

[8] Interview with Simon Caterson in The Australian, 3 October 2009

[9] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[10] Gerald Murnane, ‘At the Edges of Plains’ in Ashley Crawford, editor, Wimmera: the work of Philip Hunter

[11] Quoted in David Watson, Precious Little: Traces of Australian Place and Belonging, p.51

[12] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[13] Interview with Ramona Koval on ABC’s The Book Show, 12 October 2009

[14] Gerald Murnane, ‘The Breathing Author (An Essay)’ in Pradeep Trikha, Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers & Critics, p.103

[15] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[16] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[17] Gerald Murnane, ‘The Breathing Author (An Essay)’ in Pradeep Trikha, Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers & Critics, p.106

[18] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[19] Karin Hansson, Gerald Murnane’s Changing Geographies, p.14

[20] Gerald Murnane, Landscape With Landscape, p.176 & p.231

[21] Nicholas Birns, Rebecca McNeer, A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900, p.295

[22] Karl L. Schmude, ‘From Greene to Gordon: The Changing Accent of Catholic Literature’, Aquinas Memorial Lecture 1981, p.16

[23] Gerald Murnane, ‘The Breathing Author (An Essay)’ in Pradeep Trikha, Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers & Critics, p.116

[24] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[25] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[26] Gerald Murnane, ‘The Breathing Author (An Essay)’ in Pradeep Trikha, Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers & Critics, p.116

[27] Gerald Murnane, from the documentary film Words and Silk

[28] Gerald Murnane, ‘The Breathing Author (An Essay)’ in Pradeep Trikha, Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers & Critics, p.109

[29] Karin Hansson, Gerald Murnane’s Changing Geographies, p.12

[30] Nicholas Birns, Rebecca McNeer, A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900, p.295

[31] Gerald Murnane quoted in Paul Genoni, Subverting the Empire: Explorers and Exploration in Australian Fiction, p.148

[32] Nicholas Birns, Rebecca McNeer, A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900, p.295

[33] Gerald Murnane, ‘The Breathing Author (An Essay)’ in Pradeep Trikha, Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers & Critics, p.113

[34] Owen Richardson, ‘Tamarisk Row’, The Age, 17 March 2008


Art Durkee said...

Murnane strikes me as having something in common with the protagonist of Aronofsky's film "Pi," in that both are obsessed with finding order revealed in the details of everyday life. There's a psychological terrain in which the mind becomes more than a bit obsessive-compulsive. I am not sure this can be described (or dismissed) as pathological.

For one thing, Murnane's avowed goals for his writing in the quotes given here remind me very much of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf saying some almost identical things about writing down the stream of consciousness, the interior monologue, and so forth. I guess that idea is still pretty strange to most readers who prefer their fiction to be straightforward linear narrative. Psychologically, Murnane and Woolf are much more realistic than "realistic fiction," but it doesn't matter to most readers if the expectation for linear narrative is what people expect from fiction. I don't find Murnane a tough read at all; but then, I've read a lot of Joyce and Woolf, and this isn't a new kind of reading therefore.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Pi, Art, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve only seen two other films by Aronofsky - Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain and they were both good too so I must watch out for some of this others.

Joyce I’ve read – I’m not his biggest fan and I was glad when Beckett slipped from under his shadow – but somehow I’ve never got round to Woolf and I’ve meant to. I think Carrie has a couple. I should see what she’s got (can’t just now, she’s napping) and get a taste. I’ve seen the film of Mrs Dalloway and enjoyed it and I quite enjoyed The Hours even if Glass’s score (of which I am a huge fan) did overpower it at times. I have the book but I can’t remember if I’ve read it or not so probably not.

I have a book of essays by Murnane to read next, probably over Xmas when things are quieter.

Dave King said...

Two aspects of your review would draw me to this book:
your remark that, Gerald Murnane writes like no other author I’ve ever read, in fact like no other author that most people will have read (this in itself might get me to buy the book);

and the way in which he himself describes and explains his work, also something that I find very compelling in an artist - not when individual works are explained (or explained away), but when he lays out his philosophy and overall objectives.

I do wonder, though, whether Landscape with Landscape might not be even more the book for me. I could relate absolutely to it from your brief reference.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve not read Landscape with Landscape so I can’t say, Dave. What I can say is that much of Murnane’s writing that I have read, with the exception of The Plains, treads the same ground from different perspectives and so, if that is the one that’s calling to you go for it. If you hate it I’ll buy it off you.

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