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Thursday, 25 February 2010

Poetry as self-medication


pill bottles No one ever died from an overdose of poetry – Dr. Jack Leedy

There are things in this life that make all of us feel better if taken in moderation: chocolate, alcohol, sex, exercise. One could imagine music being added to that list but what about poetry? You can't really imagine your doctor prescribing a course of haiku to be taken three times a day with food. Or let's say you have a box of Milk Tray in one hand and a copy of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in the other. I mean, where's the choice? And after you've polished off the Milk Tray and you're feeling sick as a pig what're you going to do about it, take an Alka-Seltzer or write a limerick about how crappy you feel?

There's no denying that both reading and writing poetry can make you feel better. If it didn't why would any of us bother? But how many of us have considered poetry as treatment? Using a word like 'treatment' or 'therapy' puts a whole new spin on it: it formalises the process, we read or write with a specific intent.

Historically, the first Poetry Therapist on record was a Roman physician by the name of Soranus in the first century A.D., who prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed. It is not surprising that Apollo is the god of poetry, as well as medicine, since medicine and the arts were historically entwined.

dr benjamin rush For many centuries the link between poetry and medicine remained obscure. It is of interest to note that Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in the United States, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751, employed many ancillary treatments for their mental patients, including reading, writing and publishing of their writings. Dr. Benjamin Rush, called the "Father of American Psychiatry", introduced music and literature as effective ancillary treatments. Poem writing was an activity of the patients, who published their work in The Illuminator, their own newspaper. – A Brief Overview of Poetry Therapy

When we're ill, particularly when we're mentally ill, there is a tendency to feel that we are alone in our suffering. I know tens of thousands of people suffer from depression but no one has suffered from my depression. There are plenty of books that show that many people are much worse than me – I've never spent any time in a psychiatric hospital, for example – but these accounts are long and when I'm depressed, reading is especially hard, besides it really doesn't matter how many people out there are suffering more than me, I'm not responsible for them but I am for me; this is one of those times in ones life when one needs to be selfish.

When we read a poem the first thing we try and do is make sense of it. By that I don't necessarily mean intellectually appreciate it, rather we try it up against ourselves like a dress to see how it might look on. We may not look for intellectual meaning in the poem but we do look for an emotional meaning, for example, one of the poems suggested in Poetry Therapy: Theory and Practice by Nicholas Mazza for use with people with identity issues is 'We Wear the Mask' by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It's one I was unfamiliar with but it begins:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

The poem apparently describes "the harsh reality of the black race in America and how they hide their grief, sadness, and broken hearts under a mask for a survival strategy towards whites."[1] I didn't get that. Like all poems it stands or falls on its own merits and so the first question I asked, before I'd even finished the first stanza, is: In what way do I wear a mask? I could spend the rest of this blog discussing that but I'm not going to, besides by now all of you will have asked yourselves that selfsame question. The thing though is it's not a perfect fit. It's like an off-the-peg suit.

Needless to say I've written one or two poems about masks in the past, like this one:


The Batman would never
stand for this.

Batman_1940sThe Batman would never
have been caught like this.

Not The Batman.

We have a lot in common -
The Batman and I.

We both wear masks
but I don't have his strength.

25 March 1989

It was published years ago in Psychopoetica, a journal of psychological-based poetry. I should also point out that this was written during my previous marriage, a marriage that was coincidentally pretty much devoid of arguments or rows.

I should also also point out that my current psychotherapist has never read me a poem nor asked me to write any. The last one asked to see some of my poems but I didn't find talking about them especially helpful because I hadn't actually written about what was bothering me. I'm not actually sure how I'd react to the suggestion if it was made to me because very few of my poems are completely biographical. Although I frequently write about things in my life, it's rarely a kneejerk reaction; it took me years to write a poem about my mother after she died. They may well spring from biographical material but there's invariably a twist. When I was looking for 'mask' poems this one turned up in the search:


I couldn't warm to him.
His eyes were rheumy
the colour of phlegm,
his skin was pale,
worn and dusty like parchment.

He never smiled but then
that's not really true.
I simply didn't
care for his smiles.
I tried to avoid him, turned

mirrors to face the wall
and gave up shaving
but no mouthwash was
ever able
to mask that taste in his mouth,

the taste of youth gone off.

6 February 2008

There are biographical elements here: I frequently suffer from watery eyes and I do get patches of eczema occasionally; I'm not known for my beaming smiles but I probably spend more time looking in the mirror than our bird does and he loves his own reflection. I haven't shaved in about twenty years and I do use mouthwash daily but I don't see me when I read that poem, not the 'me' as I am krapp1 today, perhaps the 'me' I'll become in twenty-odd years when I finally turn into Krapp.

It is a poem about self image, no doubt about that, but it is also an exaggeration for effect. It's a poem about a truth, containing certain truths but ultimately it's also a lie. I have never found poetry a particularly effective vehicle for the conveyance of the truth. Prose is far better. My poems all wear masks. You can see the eyes and a lot of truths escape through them but not all.

Why have therapists found working with poetry particularly effective? I think one simple answer is that poetry is generally heavily metaphorical, even my own although if you want to see metaphor piled on top of metaphor to great effect look at the poetry of Dick Jones, either way poetry is talking about something by talking about something else. We talk about 'masks' but we're not talking about masks.

In the introduction to her work, The Therapy of Poetry, Molly Harrower, a pioneering clinical psychologist and published poet, has this to say:

The theme of this book is not so much that poetry can be used in formal therapy, but rather that poetry is "therapy" and is part and parcel of normal development. Poetry therapy is a newcomer. Long before there were therapists, there were poets, and from time immemorial man has struggled to cope with his inevitable inner turmoil. One way of so coping has been the ballad, the song, the poem. Once crystallised into words, all engulfing feelings become manageable, and once challenged into explicitness, the burden of the incommunicable becomes less heavy. The very act of creating is a self-sustaining experience, and in the poetic moment the self becomes both the ministering "therapist" and the comforted "patient."

I have expressed the opinion before that the writing process is more important to the poet than the resultant poem. I'm pleased to find I'm not alone in that opinion. In her article 'Conversations with Poems' Fiona Robyn writes:

Selima Hill once said to me that poems are just the by-product of being a poet, and she's right. Looking at the world as a poet means noticing things and wanting to share these things with others. Writing poetry is one way of doing this – I suppose others choose paintings as their "by-products", or music, or any other creative work that involves the communication of something more important. Writing poetry and more importantly being a poet keeps me on my toes.

One thing I don't find is that writing is cathartic - that it helps me to "off-load" my emotions. I'm sure some people do. But I keep this type of writing to my journal – simply because I've found that muddled or extreme emotion doesn't make for a good poem. Once I have some distance from an emotional experience, writing a poem about it can be the best form of "closure", especially if I can get really close to recording exactly what the event meant to me, the essence of what happened. Beware broken hearted poetry.

I get that. The key word in these two paragraphs for me is 'distance'. I've tried to produce poetry in the heat of an experience and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I end up either scrapping the piece or find it's not my best work as far as the poem being of use to others.. The idea of separating oneself physically from ones thoughts is something I've tackled before:


I write things down
so that I can stand apart from them

and look at them or go away and forget
or at least try to.

I can pretend they're no longer part of me.
We can all pretend.

Things look different from a distance,
smaller, or am I stating the obvious?

I can't remember anymore.

13 October 1997

To use an expression of Dr James Pennekaker (who'll I'll come back to), my problem is now "graspable," – literally, I can hold it in my hand, I can even tear it into little pieces. This is similar to what John Fox, a certified poetry therapist in California, said. He said that poetry therapy can "help a person to distil and condense a whole set of experiences and feelings into something that can be put on the page, be tangible, so the person can get hold of it and share it with others."[2]

I expressed this sentiment most graphically in this one:


I don't like reading
I don't much
        care for writing them either

        but then what's a man
        to do with
        all the shit inside of him?

I can't say why I
        have to
        lie in it
        or even play with the stuff.

It just feels good to.
So what
        are you all

You can't really believe this is art.

25 July 2004

It's not a pretty poem but then it's not meant to be. I think both these poems, 'The Reason' and 'Shit Poem' are very important poems for me because in them I'm managed to crystallise what's being going on in my head. By the time I got round to these poems I'd already written hundreds of poems but I was still questioning why. I could have simply contented myself and said, "Well, this is just what I do," but what kind of an answer is that?

The image of a child playing with its poo is not a pleasant one but think about that trauma you went through – we all have one or two traumas to choose from – and how you replayed it over and over again in your head, imagining and reliving rather than covering it over and forgetting about it.

But does all of this actually do any good? Apparently, yes:

James Pennebaker, PhD., a psychologist and researcher, has conducted studies that show enhancement in immune system functioning and emotional well being when research participants write about difficult or traumatic events in their lives. – The Healing Power of Therapeutic Writing and Poetry

I've let you read my poems, some of them anyway, but there are a few that I'll keep to myself if you don't mind. I have published a number of poems that people who know me would be able to jump on and go: "Aha! I know what that one's about," and bully for them but the majority of you know so little about my private life that looking at any poem of mine for scraps of the real me is really pointless. All my poems I write for me, solely for me and if I never published another one it still wouldn't stop me writing. I'm not so sure about all of Pennebaker's claims though:

When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them. – Writing to Heal

I tend to find writing a poem is like getting a hit for me; the effect is temporary, the rush that is. Cumulatively when I consider my canon I can say I'm pleased because I can see a progression. I understand myself better and, of course, as that happens I have less to explore but I expect there's enough to do me for the rest of my life at the rate I'm going. I'm not exactly prolific.

The question is: how long should I write? Pennebaker's thoughts on the matter:

I’m not convinced that having people write every day is a good idea. I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity.

But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important. – Writing to Heal

It's a thought. I tend to write when things flare up and years can go between them. I rarely find answers. Usually what I get are new perspectives. Like this one:


Boxes Unable to find words angry enough
yet still needing to write,
he resorted to scribbling wildly,
and ended doodling:
boxes within boxes.

4 March 1985

As a writer I tend to look to words for an answer. If only I can translate what's in my head into words then I'll feel better. This poem is a good example of the fact that words are not necessarily the answer. The image of being trapped, the 'boxes within boxes' that I came up with is. It's fiction though. I never did what's in the poem, imagining it was sufficient.

I'm not the first writer to realise that writing has its limits. This is a poem by Alan Michael Parker called 'Text':

It has taken me forty years to admit
emotions have no words.
I express and repress, scrawl
vowels on a placemat,

test my artistry
against a poor drawing of the Acropolis
Find me wanting.
Which is not to say that as a man

I am inarticulate by nature, or that the sunshine
moves through the sugar shaker
and then through me without stopping.
Or that even as someone who learns

in metaphor, I am much different from
the sparrow outside the Greek diner,
atop the crusted snow,
brainless with hunger.

On my walk back from town this morning,
I met a woman in her driveway,
one hand on a snow-blower. Weeping.
The enormous trumpet of the red machine

blew the powder into the air,
noise going nowhere as she wept.
They seemed to me as one,
she and her machine, and what could I do—

the placemat folded in my pocket
sang itself a pretty lie
What could I say? Sorry.
Then she realized I had stopped:

she smiled badly, wiped her nose,
and went back to tidying.
And I went back to trudging through
words, head down, humming out of tune.

parthenon-acropolis You know the way children will look at something we take for granted and make us see it in a completely different way, well I think long-in-the-tooth poets like myself can learn a thing or two by looking at how patients who are using poetry merely for therapeutic reason look at it. "One man compared the therapy process to '…using Listerine. You know it works but it tastes terrible.'"[3] We use metaphorical language all the time without thinking about it, poets and non-poets. It is a way we all use to explain the world. Formalising it, structuring it, calling it 'a poem' isn't such a leap.

When I look back at my very early poetry and compare it to some of the poems written by patients I can see one thing in common, the poetry isn't very good. Let me qualify that – the poetry isn't technically proficient. Is that a bad thing? Well, yes, if you expect to get the stuff published but when I first started writing I was just dumping my feelings on the page. Some effort was made to fiddle with them to make them look like a poem but that was about it. In the truest sense though every one of those was pure poetry, unrefined, raw.

Poetry is not something Stephen Rojcewicz, MD, uses with every patient, or even most patients, "but sometimes it seems to be the perfect therapeutic tool," he says. "What I like about poetry is the balance between raw emotion and some kind of governing structure," said Dr. Rojcewicz, a psychiatrist and president of NAPT. "There are some patients in which this clicks. Some patients can express raw emotion if they have a structure to work with." – Poetry as Healer (italics mine)

Over the years I've lost that. On one level I write better poetry because now I'm conscious of the possibility of a reader other than myself but refined, polished poetry is also unnatural when you think about it; we've trained our eyes to expect certain things from our poems.

We've got very used to pill-popping when we feel unwell. Sometimes it's easy to forget how much our body does naturally when we're unwell, for example:

bacteria White blood cells ingest invading pathogens (for example, bacteria) and use the pathogens' antigens to present to the body's immune system. B-lymphotcytes then start to produce their antibodies in large numbers and release these into the blood where they then adhere to the surface of the invading bacteria and cause the bacteria to clump together rendering them ineffective. Memory cells then remain in the blood after this to allow faster and more effective response if that particular pathogen invades again. –

I had to look that up and I really don't understand the answer nor do I have to. My body does that naturally. Is it so strange that for the last three years, while I've barely been able to function for two days in a row sometimes, I've been writing poetry consistently? What I'd love to be working on is my novel but what I clearly need to write is poetry. It's not all woe-is-me stuff either but some of it has dealt directly with what's been troubling me, for example my dire memory:

hands_dirty REMEMBER

Late every evening
the old man collects the
embers of that day

and tries to make something
out of them, something real.

He moulds and remoulds
with burnt and blackened hands
and a too-tired heart

but the ash refuses
to remember its shape.

Every day he sees
the fire burn and tries to
remember that shape.

There is a good reason
that shadows have no depth.

Thursday, 05 March 2009

Did the poem help? Not really, if by 'help' do you mean, did it help improve my memory? No, it didn't. I didn't even remember writing the poem. I knew I'd written about memory but I couldn't remember how any of the others went and this was the first to appear when I did a search for the word 'remember'. It'll do fine to illustrate my point.

faceless doctor My memory is getting better. I first realised this wasn't my usual bog-standard depression I was going through when I found myself walking out of a room and forgetting where I was going and what I was doing; I couldn't remember my doctor's name; I couldn't tell you what I saw on TV the night before. I'm a lot better now. This poem's purpose has now changed. I'm now a reader. I can remember that I used to forget but I'm starting to forget how I used to forget, the experience of memory slipping through my fingertips. Now poems like this serve as diary entries, aide-mémoires. A treatment is not necessarily a cure remember.

Let me leave you with a couple of poems written by patients, non-poets, the first, from 1969, is by a female adolescent suffering from depression:

Perhaps if I tried to communicate
To someone I don't know
Who wouldn't care
And wouldn't think of me
And would carry nothing of me away—
Or to something not committed to listen
Some object, some state of being
That couldn't feel . . .

I've only negative expressions
You would be listening only to the sound of no sound

In "you" or "I" there is nothing real
What is there in front of my eyes
Besides objects?

and this by Charlotte, an anorexic:


I'd like to be in this room
FractalI lie in—
Perfect and white.
I'd like to be the light
That shines in—
And clear.
I am the stain here
Not the room.
I only serve to break
The perfect pattern.

I'll leave you to decide how 'good' they are.

Further Reading

James W. Pennebaker, Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice

National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations, Poetry Therapy – includes a nice list of the goals of poetry therapy

The Institute of Poetic Medicine




[2] Deborah L. Shelton, 'Poetry as Healer', American Medical News, May 17, 1999

[3] Howard R. Pollio, 'Psychology and the Poetics of Growth: Figurative Language in Psychology'

Monday, 22 February 2010


Spinners Alma Cover

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Jerusalem to be born? – W B Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’

I recently read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Anthony McCarten’s novel, Death of a Superhero. You can read my review of it here. One thing that irritated me about the book was that the UK edition had relocated the action from Wellington in New Zealand to Watford in England so I was pleased to find that Alma Books’ edition of Spinners, McCarten’s debut novel, was still set firmly in the factory town of Opunake in New Zealand although, in exactly the same way as Death of a Superhero didn’t actually either benefit of suffer from the change of locale, Spinners would work if set in Wales or small-town America . . . though perhaps not Roswell, New Mexico, besides I think Melinda Metz has that one pretty well sewn up.

The reason I picked this particular book to read next was because of the blurb:

Teenage meat-packer Delia Chapman’s claim that she has encountered a group of aliens is at first considered temporary insanity because of the stresses of her job. For how else can her story, which gains her instant tabloid fame and the envy of her catty friends, be explained? Things get stranger when Delia realizes she’s pregnant, but remembers little more of her supernatural experience than lights and noise. When two of Delia’s friends also disclose their pregnancies and likewise blame the spacemen, the town of Opunake begins to buzz with reporters.

Spinners Cover but the cover, which shows a cartoony flying-saucer, and a cow on its back didn’t do any harm. I wish they’d stuck to the one used by William Morrow & Company but I’ll come back to that.

Spinners – has to be a euphemism for flying saucers hasn’t it? Well, I’m not so sure. The word only crops up once in the book and that’s to describe one of the girls. So were they saying that she was spinning them a yarn? That’s what I thought but it appears that ‘spinner’ is also Australian slang for someone who is not too clever or easily fooled and not a few of the townsfolk think that their own gullibility is being put to the test when the news begins to circulate.

It’s a good title simply because there are layers of meaning kicking around in there if you choose to go looking for them. And you can say exactly the same about the book itself. You’ve got the alien storyline, a social commentary and a religious metaphor all nicely interwoven throughout a rather funny story. In exactly the same way as Death of a Superhero handled the question of mortality, Spinners questions people’s reasons for being.

There’s no pussyfooting around though. In the best traditions of everything they teach you about how to write a best-selling novel, McCarten jumps straight into his first chapter with both feet:

It was some time on Saturday night after work but before closing time down at the pub that Delia Chapman saw a spaceman. Well, that wasn’t quite true. She saw ten of them. They stayed for about half an hour. And they took her on their vessel. They had silver suits and stainless-steel boots. The vessel was ultra-modern and entirely impressive.

Delia had completed her third straight split shift in the small-goods packing section at Borthwick’s Freezing Works. Her body, therefore, was still at breakfast, her head at midnight, her internal clock as scrambled as a long-haul flight attendant’s, and although she was completely exhausted she was too confused to sleep. Still wearing her white factory clothes and gum boots, she left her family farmhouse on foot, bought a bag of hot chips at the Texacana Take-away Bar and wandered on the river road towards the highway leading out of town.

Who expected to see something like a spaceman in Opunake? Since Delia was unprepared for such a nationally significant experience, she was, at best, clumsy in her observations. Two hours later she was able to report that she had had a nice time, seen some lights and a few shapes, and had received a dozen or so non-verbal commands. But beyond that, and when pressed for more explicit details, she could add only that her guests had been extremely polite throughout the incident and had treated her as if she were extremely important.

It’s a good start. A couple of pages on, dazed and confused, she’s found wandering on the road into town by Phillip Sullivan, the mayor’s nephew, who is about is to take up the post of town librarian which has been resurrected by his uncle “as a favour to his dear sister.” Although there are a lot of bit players in the book, these two fall best into the category of male and female leads, the Mary and Joseph of our cautionary tale. They drive into town and park outside the bar (i.e. ‘inn’ – geddit?) attached to the White Hart Hotel where a public meeting concerning the installation of the town’s first speed camera has just concluded with local policeman – and captain of the town’s netball team (of which Delia is an important member) – slouching out of the side door before the dissenting voices get too much, only to be buttonholed by Philip and then things in truth kick off.

Opunake is a real place. A genuine small town. The population was 1368 in the 2006 Census and the place is ringed by meat processing plants so when we read in the book that "it was known that 80 percent of the town's female population were being taxed to the point of near nervous collapse by the factory's unrelenting regimen" that’s probably not an unrealistic figure.

There are plenty of small towns and villages where there’s next-to-no choice as to where you’re going to work when you leave school which is why this book will make sense to a much larger demographic than New Zealanders and ex-pat New Zealanders; I never did manage to shake the Southern accent which I found the police sergeant talking in nor could I stop thinking about him as the town sheriff and I’m positive the wee woman in the book’s post office works in our corner shop.

An old schoolteacher once asked us what the three fastest modes of communication were – this would be in the late nineteen-sixties – and his answer when none of us could guess was: “Telephone, telegraph, tell a woman.” I know, very sexist, but that’s the mistake the police sergeant makes when gets home to his wife that night:

If I tell you something, you have to swear to keep this strictly to yourself. It’s police business. OK?

In the half-light his wife did not bat an eyelid. For eight years he had prefaced every bedtime conversation with such a request, and for eight years she had stared innocently back at him, no such promise ever coming. It was a historical grievance: she refused to have her bedroom shrunk to a witness box, where nightly she would have to swear some oath to her husband! Where was basic trust?

Where indeed? By 6:15 a.m. the milkman knew and as the “milkman moved from door to door like a pollinating bee among flowers” the “contagion” spread. “By 8 a.m., a good portion of the south-western corner of Opunake ... was bubbling with mockery” and, by 8:25, two of Delia’s Deborah_Kerr_in_An_Affair_to_Remember_trailer friends, the one with the film starlet’s name, Deborah Kerr, and the one without, Lucinda Evans, knew so by the time Delia arrives for work “wearing the same clothes as on the previous night”, everyone is fully aware of her now infamous encounter. Gossip is contagious. It’s a good word to use here. It spreads and it mutates.

One school of thought holds that that Delia, who has been known to wear a Lakers NBA basketball cap, a University of North Carolina T-shirt, and to carry a Walkman wherever she goes, might simply have taken "the next logical step in her metamorphosis into a Yank".

Yanks saw spacemen. They imagined close encounters at the drop of a hat, especially when they were depressed, or had insomnia, or were on some kind of pills. ... New Zealanders were different. They saw ghosts, not UFOs; poltergeists, the odd devil and the ever improbable witch.

Others put it down to her mental facilities being compromised due to nothing stranger than overwork. Her friends are jealous of the attention she is getting and wish they’d concocted a story like that. No one really takes her seriously. Which is where the cow enters into the proceedings.

The cow provides seemingly incontrovertible evidence that Delia’s story is true, the part about seeing spacemen at least; incontrovertible proof of the sex bit comes at its own leisurely pace some weeks later but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In a field near where Delia was nearly run down up by the town’s librarian-elect there was discovered a crop circle – just a circle, nothing too elaborate – and in the middle of said circle a cow, squashed as if something very heavy had landed on it. A spacecraft would fit the bill nicely. No proof can be found that anyone has slaughtered the beast elsewhere and hauled it there, no tracks, no nothing, and so much of the mockery stops.

More people shut up and pay attention when first one and then a second young girl of about the same age as Delia announces to the world that she is pregnant and that the father might not be one of the locals. Oh, and did I forget to mention they’re all supposed to be virgins – at least that’s what they maintain – but you were probably expecting me to say something about that, weren’t you? Delia is so adamant of her unsoiled state she allows herself to be medically examined. It turns out she’s no longer virgo intacta but, as she argues, that doesn’t prove anything.

By now, of course, the media is involved. The question is: are they more interested in a story that will sell papers or in getting to the truth? Philip has also decided to investigate matters in a very librarianish kind of way. Once he has managed to replenish the library’s stock – partly by calling in all the overdue books (most of which have been AWOL for over a decade) and partly by ordering in new stock – he sets about researching the matter; he takes an exercise book, writes “A Psycho-Philosophical Enquiry” on the cover and begins copying in bits and bobs that he comes across in his research without bothering to credit the original authors so that when at the end of the book Delia finally comes to read the thing she believes what she has in her hands is a transcript of “his innermost thoughts, written in moments of inspired anguish.” Okay so “[h]is voice was often pretentious, and it varied from passage to passage as if he had many personalities ... but two themes were repeated: where was the individual who would come and protect us from ourselves; and if that individual never existed, how would we begin to create him?”

Just after coming to this realisation her first contraction begins and during the sixth hour of her labour she gives birth to a son, “a tiny infant who weighed 1,065 grams, or two pounds of butter”, names him “James Christopher” (J.C. – think about it) and is visited twelve days later (which is when some traditions believe the magi arrived) by their proxies, Watson, Young and Sullivan.

All a bit much? Perhaps. Who can tell? The Bible doesn’t really say a lot about how Mary’s confinement went. Pretty much all we get are the immaculate conception, the visit with Elizabeth and the arrival in Bethlehem. The first two I’ve covered. I should perhaps mention that one of the other two girls to get pregnant is Yvonne McKay, Delia’s christmas-nativity-scene-1 cousin; the bible doesn’t specify but, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, St. Hippolytus believed Mary and Elizabeth were also cousins. So I guess that covers the highlights. Everything else would have to be conjecture and so, albeit in a modern setting, McCarten conjectures.

Joseph – Jesus’ step-dad – really barely gets a mention in the Bible. We know that when he heard that Mary was pregnant he still agreed to marry her and so it’s no great surprise when we see that role auditioned for by Philip although he’s not the only one champing at the bit to step in there; the newspaper reporter has developed a bit of a thing for her (albeit based on a old photo of her when she was about twelve) and then there’s Gilbert Haines, mechanic and amateur magician, who “had been in love with Delia Chapman ever since he had seen her hitting a shuttlecock in the high-school gymnasium when she was barely thirteen, on tiptoe, biting her tongue.” Gilbert is actually only two years older than Delia so his preoccupation isn’t nearly as creepy as the journalist’s. She’s not interested in guys though and it’s only the fact that Philip is also an outsider in the community that draws the two of them together; he’s an outsider and she’s become one – her choice of attire could be forgiven as quirky, but not this.

There are too many characters wandering through this book for all of them to be fully rounded. We don’t even learn a huge amount about Philip and Delia, just a few key facts. We know that Delia’s mother committed suicide and that her relationship with her father has deteriorated since; we know he beats her; we know that Philip has just been dishonourably discharged from the army “as a result of a kitchen brawl in which one man was maimed”; we know the police sergeant has had a vasectomy (and, courtesy of his wife, the whole town knows that there is no way he could be the father of any of the children); we know the mayor is more interested in the new Aquatic Centre than anything else; we know Gilbert Haines is not very good at card tricks; we know that Vic Young is a caricature of a journalist, a mixture of “vague but interconnected ... concepts: the noon deadline, physical exhaustion, a history of poor relations with his fellow human beings, a history of pitiful relations with the opposite sex, a brewing midlife crisis, the failure of the Sixties to deliver the promised utopia and a pinch of professional excitement related to his latest story” . . . we know all of that and yet I’ve read complaints that the characters are not fleshed out enough. This is rubbish. McCarten has given us enough to work with without feeling the need to provide an extensive back-story which would slow down the pace of the novel. Besides if he told us everything what are we supposed to do with our own imaginations?

And the novel does move along at a fair gallop and what few hurdles there are are negotiated with ease. This is a quick read; I finished the book in just two sittings. The fact that the book is an easy read has lulled some reviewers into thinking it a light read. Far from it. Jesus’ parables, it was pointed out to me years ago, are written in the simplest of English and yet men have debated their meaning for years. Most great truths can be presented in the most straightforward language. No, there is serious stuff here once you get though the sugar-coating and sink your teeth into it. Publishers Weekly called the book a "sprightly, quirky novel", Library Journal says it’s a "fun and wacky romp", only the New York Times got the point:

In fooling around with a narrative that has enough resemblance to a parable to be able to pass as one, McCarten is part barker, part juggler, part aerialist. He hangs attributes on his characters as if they were caps and bells, and he has these unwitting jesters say and do thigh-slapping things. But once he's used his wiles to lure customers in and locked the doors behind them, he has more weighty topics to discuss. While never losing his humour, McCarten seriously considers how discombobulating a story like Delia's can be in an unstable society like Opunake.

village-of-the-damned On one level this is a retelling of the nativity but I was also wondering how close he would get to Village of the Damned and there is that shadow hanging over the storyline too. For the most part no one expects these to be anything more or less than three normal human babies but what, just for arguments sake, if they’re not, just what if the girls’ stories are true, just what then? And then the bricks start coming through the windows...

Now, as much as I enjoyed this book and the way, in the style of the best mysteries, pretty much all the answers are there in plain sight, it’s not a perfect book and I do have to admit the lead characters at least could have had a bit more meat on their bones. The ending will also arrive a tad too quickly for some people’s tastes. All loose ends are tied up, it’s not that, but the ending does feel hurried. In fairness when I consider my own daughter’s birth it was all over in a night. The waiting, the anticipation, the planning, the making sure she had a full set of Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit stories sitting ready for her, all that time and then suddenly a phone call, a hasty car ride, a few hours fretting and it was all over in a bit of a blur. I had no idea what I was expecting but it certainly was a sudden ending to the pregnancy. So I suppose that bit was realistic enough.

This is very much my kind of book, the kind of book I like to read and the kind of book I like to write. The world is a far too serious place as it is without needing to lay it on with a trowel. I would also point out that I read a couple of reviews on Amazon by teenagers who also highly recommended the book even if it was the bright green cover with a cow on it that first attracted them in the first place.

You can read an excerpt from the opening chapter of Spinners here.


MCARTENS Anthony McCarten is a playwright, filmmaker, poet, and fiction writer. McCarten, with Stephen Sinclair, wrote Ladies’ Night (1987), a play about male strippers that became an unprecedented commercial success. It has been translated into six languages and was the most successful touring production in Britain between 1990 and 1994. He has also directed films, published a short story collection, and a number of poems. The English Harem was his first novel to make it to the big screen, his fourth novel, Show of Hands being the second and Death of a Superhero the third. Not sure what happened to Spinners although a screenplay is kicking around. It has also been translated into six languages, and was voted one of the top ten novels of 2000 by readers of Esquire magazine.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Inland: common ground between Gerald Murnane and Samuel Beckett


[W]riting never explains anything for me - it only shows me how stupendously complicated everything is. – Gerald Murnane

You may recall that back in June I wrote a review of Gerald Murnane’s novel The Plains. It was a book I consider a wee gem although not one most readers would jump at. It certainly moved me enough to seek out another of his works. I wouldn't call what follows a 'review', however, just a few observations I've tried to pull together. For something closer to a traditional review check out Lisa Hill's article here. We cover a little of the same ground but our approaches are certainly different enough to justify the existence of both our articles.

As this turned out to be a very long post it will be my only post this week.

Gerald Murnane's fifth book, Inland, was published in Australia in 1988. (It's not a novel, he doesn't refer to any of his books as novels.) Shortly thereafter a UK edition appeared, an unusual event considering the sales even in his homeland were quite limited. Only the illustrious Times Literary Supplement reviewed the book here but Murnane wasn't impressed by what they had to say. In a letter to Paul Genoni[1] of the Curtin University of Technology Murnane mentioned that he considered their review both "stupid" and "uncomprehending" so it's with some reticence that I sit here and attempt to convey what I thought of this book. I'm certainly not qualified to give an educated opinion since much of the source material he refers to in the book is unfamiliar to me but I have nevertheless formulated a valid opinion.

Beckett Let me begin by referencing an author I am more comfortable discussing, Samuel Beckett. I have read all of Beckett's novels and I can tell you that although The Unnamable might not be the last of his novels you should tackle, it should by no means be the first; at the very least one should have read Molloy and Malone Dies beforehand and probably Murphy. I suspect that similar might be said about Inland. Although I have only read The Plains this did make approaching Inland a less daunting task even though there are as many differences as there are similarities.

The most glaring of these is that The Plains is linear and has a plot, albeit not much of one; it is also written in the third person. Inland jumps back and forth in time, the perspective of its unnamed narrator changes frequently and it is so fragmented that there is really no discernable storyline. This will be a problem for many readers although I would suggest that if you have managed to cope with Beckett's mindscapes then Murnane's Inland will make far more sense to you. Many have observed, for example, that Endgame takes place in a set that resembles the inside of a human skull. Well, that is also where Inland takes place.

All writing is translation. I am translating just now. I am translating the thoughts in my head into words. I can imagine Murnane nodding away if he ever reads those last three sentences because, after I wrote them, I discovered this sentence in Barley Patch: "At … times, I have supposed that every item in my mind is a term in a language that has not yet been translated into English." Murnane chose to call his book Inland but he could just as easily have entitled it Interzone or Oz (pun intended) or Mindscape because to begin to understand where he's coming from you have to translate the world 'inland', you have to decide what it means.

In a recent radio interview[2] this is what he had to say about his approach to writing:

[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. So this simple-minded sort of reader is supposed to pick up a book, read an opening sentence that said, 'Cynthia and Cyril strolled aimlessly along the foreshore,' and then all that the reader has to do is read those words and there's a beautiful little scene like the opening of a film, Cynthia and Cyril walking along the foreshore, and if the reader waits a little longer he or she will be told what colour hair Cynthia had and how tall Cyril was and how good-looking or whatever. My fiction steps aside or avoids that, to me, simple-minded way of doing things. 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.

No plot, no dialogue, no characters – this is clearly a writer after Beckett's heart (Beckett famously said: "the best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the text."[3]) Although I doubt he was ever aware of the Australian I can't imagine Murnane being unaware of Beckett.

Proust There is common ground to be found: the writer Marcel Proust who in many ways set the benchmark for writing about memory. Both writers reference him often; Murnane has even been called "Australia's Proust"[4] and he's certainly written about his debt to the Frenchman in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. Beckett, of course, wrote a whole book about Proust. I've read that there are many nods to Proust in Inland but only knowing his work tangentially I guess I missed most of them nevertheless his spirit is unmistakeable. Proust suggests, in In Search of Lost Time, that in reality, as soon as each hour of one's life has died, it embodies itself in some material object and hides there. There it remains captive forever unless we should happen on the object, recognise what lies within, call it by its name, and so set it free.

With Murnane the 'objects'[5] are places mostly – Bendigo especially, where he grew up, featuring strongly in Inland – authors he has read (e.g. Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy and W H Auden amongst others) as well as his Catholic upbringing; his love of horseracing having been dealt with in other books is only lightly touched upon here. A single sentence, a quote by Paul Éluard (There is another world but it is this one.) proves especially significant.

Beckett was not what you'd call an autobiographical writer but once you study him it's impossible to ignore the fact that he used his own life as the basis for much of his writing. Murnane does the same. His writing is clearly rooted in the Australian landscape but it's only a jumping off point for his imagination; the Australia he describes in The Plains and the lands he describes in Inland are a mishmash of real and imagined places, biographical facts, memories (and just as importantly things misremembered), literary references and things he has just made up and, exactly as is the case with Beckett, I think one can get bogged down in trying to see him in the work rather than to discern meaning if one's not too careful.

It is, of course, impossible not to see him in his books. In fact we really should ask the question: Why, more like one of the confessional poets than a novelist, has he chosen to use himself as a template? He asks himself that very question early on in his latest book, Barley Patch:[6]

A reader of this work of fiction may be wondering why I had to insinuate a version of myself into the scenery of so many novels or short stories when I might have chosen from the male characters in each work a young man or a boy and might afterwards have felt as though I shared in his fictional life. My answer to that reader is the simple statement that I had never met up with any young male character with whom I could feel the sympathy needed for such a sharing.

Barley Patch I think his approach to writing has something to do with his approach to reading because, again in Barley Patch, he talks about living vicariously as it were as the "ghost of a character" moving freely throughout the book and through his head.

Okay, let's look for some meaning in Inland. The book opens:

I am writing in the library of a manor-house, in a village I prefer not to name, near the town of Kunmadaras, in Szolnok County.

These words trailing away behind the point of my pen are words from my native language. Heavy-hearted Magyar, my editor calls it. She may well be right.

Granted none of Beckett's characters spend much time in such plush surroundings (Molloy, briefly, but I can't think of another) but this is a typically Beckettian trope: a man alone in a room with his thoughts.

Kunmadaras is a village in Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County, in the Northern Great Plain region of central Hungary; it is a real place. Murnane has never been. It's a well-known fact that he's barely left Western Victoria all his life, so that's made up. It was impossible for me, having read The Plains not to think about the filmmaker installed in the library of one of the great houses in the Australian plains and, since I had no idea we were in Hungary when I read that opening sentence, I thought that's where we were.

Hungarian is a language that Murnane delights in. As far as he's concerned "the angels speak Hungarian."[7] He recorded his struggle and joy to learn the language in a book of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. The unnamed narrator of Inland says he's writing in Hungarian but what we're reading is clearly in English. So, did Murnane think this opening section, perhaps even the entire book, first in Hungarian and then as Beckett did with most of his own works translate it into another language? I don't know. Having a poor grasp of any language bar English I can't imagine thinking in a foreign tongue but I'm told that it can be done. Since we know that the narrator is writing to his editor perhaps what we're actually reading is her translation of his words if indeed she exists at all other than in his mind for we can be certain that neither the narrator nor his editor have ever existed except in Murnane's mind . . . and then in mine . . . and now in yours.

Murnane's narrator says he has never met his translator and yet he writes:

I know that she writes at a desk in a room with books around the walls and a wide window overlooking a prairie.

This may or may not be the case because the narrator admits that he needs to take greater care "to distinguish between what I see and what I remember and what I dream of myself seeing or remembering." He is writing about thinking about writing, the man in the book that is; he is writing or at least thinking about writing to a reader (which I naturally assumed was me but I am who Murnane is writing to) and what he is thinking about writing is, first of all, an account of his native grasslands that his editor will hopefully translate and include in the publication, Hinterland, which she expects to become the editor of, secondly, he thinks about writing a more personal correspondence to her alone, one that would not require any translating; in reality he is only writing about what he has written, what has been written to him by his editor and the fact that he suspects that the correspondence he has received ostensibly from her is actually from one of her rivals because her appointment to the position of editor is not certain; indeed she writes to him:

Write to me … Send me your paragraphs, your pages, your stories of the Great Alfold. Write what may well decide my future in the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute.

It may or may not be one of her rivals that have been in correspondence with the narrator, it may actually have been the woman's husband who the narrator imagines is sufficiently jealous to do such a thing. He even imagines the man forging his (i.e. the narrator's signature) on a letter telling her of his death though how he might do such a thing post-mortem is not explained. He then imagines himself wandering about the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute as if he were a ghost although he never uses the word but a couple of pages later he writes of an interchange between himself and another writer who arrives one day unexpectedly at the front door of his manor-house, a man he imagines may actually be a ghost.

I have seen the editor in this book spoken of as a ghost-writer. I didn't think this was a very accurate description of translating until I read this definition by Dominique Hecq, a Belgian-born writer now living in Melbourne:

The act of translating indeed entails both a reading and a writing, and therefore a ghosting of the voice at first and second removes.[8]

Later in the essay Hecq paraphrases Freud – "writing is indeed communication with the absent, the reverse of speech, which has its origin in presence" – which led me to On Private Madness by André Green which she appears to have used as research material. This quote is most illuminating:

In writing, no one is present. To be more precise, the potential and anonymous reader is absent by definition. He might even be dead. This situation of absence is a prerequisite for all written communication. But here, absence is compounded by the fact that writing is not the transcribed speech of simple communication. Writing fashions this dimension of absence while it re-presents, while (in a certain sense) it renders present. In another sense, writing deepens this dimension of absence which endows it with its specificity.[9]

Just as a potential reader might be dead by the time the writer finishes writing his book, so might the writer be dead by the time the reader reads what he has written. The deadness of the authors in the narrator's library – which he never reads, preferring to simply stare at the spines of the books – is something Murnane's narrator makes much of almost as if to say that to qualify as a true writer one needs to be dead first. At one point the narrator's ghostly visitor leaps to his feet and launches into one of the few bits of actual speech in the book (Murnane is not big on dialogue):

"I am a writer of books. I am a ghost. While I was writing I died and became a ghost. While I was writing I saw ghosts of hundreds of books that I have never seen, nor will ever see, in libraries where ghosts of men that I have never seen, nor will ever see, dreamed of writing to young women in America. I saw ghosts of my own books in ghosts of libraries where no one comes to unlock the glass doors of bookcases. I saw ghosts of men staring sometimes at ghosts of glass panels. I saw ghosts of images of clouds drifting through the ghost of an image of sky behind ghosts of covers and spines and ghosts of books. I saw ghosts of images of pages white or grey drifting through the same ghost of an image of sky. And I went on writing so that ghosts of images of pages of mine would drift over ghosts of plains in a ghost of a world towards ghosts of images of skies in libraries of ghosts of the ghosts of books."

Lilacs It's worth taking note of a sentence from Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs at this point:

My sentences arise out of images and feelings that haunt me – not always painfully; sometimes quite pleasantly.

That sentence could be applied to many writers but you could easily hear Beckett say something like that. Indeed, probably more than most authors, ghosts feature in his plays, poems and prose; frequently even his ghosts feel like they have ghosts (e.g. the unseen mother in Footfalls) and this idea also crops up in Inland.

Like much of Beckett's writing, Inland can be described as 'metafiction', a term I find myself coming across more and more; it is a kind of writing that is peculiarly interested in itself, in the relationship between the reader and the writer. In exactly the same way as an actor reminds us that we are watching a play, by addressing the audience directly[10], so do novelists break down this 'fourth wall' with sentences like the ones that open Italo Calvino's novel If On A Winter's Night A Traveller[11]:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade..."

Calvino Right from the off your relationship to the book is established, though if we're being picky you are not about to begin reading, you have already begun reading. Murnane also frequently refers to his "reader" directly commenting on the writing process. If Calvino rings a bell with you this might be because of the reference earlier in this article to where the editor works: "the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute". Murnane clearly wants to hammer home the nature of the work we are engaged with.

So, who is Dahlberg? That's a good question and one few people will have an answer to. I'd certainly never heard of him. I did a bit of research and I came up with this quote from Gilbert Sorrentino:

Dahlberg is a writer whose work cannot be tamed or reduced or assimilated. He is a subversive and destructive master of prose, who is, at his best, so good that he takes your breath away. He is also zany, goofy, loopy, misogynistic, deeply prejudiced, bitter, nasty, paranoid and absolutely unfair. He has no politics that any politician could possibly find useful, and he is a great agent of the truth that only art can purvey. He is a great American writer, astonishingly original, a virtuoso without peers, and probably much too good for us. That he is hardly known and hardly read, that he is virtually ignored by academics, that he is still rather regularly mocked and patronized by literary scum, all testifies to our unerring vulgarity as a people – our vulgarity and stupidity. The circumstances of his life turned him into a desolate, half-crazed misanthrope, but as an artist he is the very definition of integrity and purity.[12]

Now one has to wonder if Murnane was born in Boston rather than Melbourne what kind of writer he would have turned out to be. (The narrator in Inland wonders much the same, what if he "had been born in the district between the North Platte … and the South Platte" rather than "the grasslands between the Moonee Ponds and the Merri.") I can certainly see certain affinities but it might be something simpler than that. Dahlberg's best known work, Because I was Flesh, begins:

Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvellous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply.

Kerouac That sentence alone would not look out of place in Inland. Whatever Murnane's reasons it's clear that there is a connection between him and Dahlberg. Perhaps he came to him via Kerouac, another of Murnane's recorded influences.

Fortunately there aren't too many references like this to bog us down because there's a great danger with Murnane that one could get caught up with studying him as opposed to reading him which is a problem I have with Beckett.

At this point I think it's only fair to mention that I've barely scratched the surface of the first section of this book. Things don't get any clearer with the beginning of the second section which starts:

I am writing about myself standing in the garden of a large house – but by no means a manor house – between the Hopkins River and Russells Creek.

Eh? Suddenly the action (I use the term loosely) has moved from Hungary to Australia. So where is he? Where he's always been, in his head. Remember he wrote, “I am writing about myself standing…" and not, "I am standing…" – is he deceiving us? Actually he asserts the very opposite:

I am sorry for you, reader, if you think of me as deceiving you. I can hardly forget the trick that you played on me. You allowed me to believe for a long tine that I was writing to a young woman I called my editor. Safe in the depths of your glass-walled Institute, you even had me addressing you as reader and friend. Now, you still read and I still write but neither of us will trust the other.

Although he's imagining his his body is in Australia he immediately begins talking about North America and describing the landscape there in what's best described as cartographic terms. If you're unfamiliar with Australian landmarks (as I was when I first read this) it's easy to think that he's now physically in the States.

It's also very easy when you're reading a book and read the word "reader" to assume, as in the case of the Calvino, that we're the one being addressed but this is not the case here. The narrator doesn't actually know the identity of his reader, he only suspects that it is someone within the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute and yet he still continues to write.

The thread the book begins to follow now is more of a memoir concentrating on his transition from boy through boy-man to man. In case we were in any doubt the narrator of the second section is the same as the first since both suffer from an inability to smell, a condition that Murnane also suffers from. Just like Beckett took some of his own physical ailments and passed them onto his characters, so Murnane has done the same. But remember all of this is taking place in his head so one has to wonder if you couldn't smell would the 'you' in your dreams be similarly disabled.

There is an argument that all fiction is really autobiography. I don't buy it but I do accept that everything we write is affected by who we are and what we have done in our lives. We can liken our lives to a journey and of course any journey can be mapped. Maps feature heavily in this book or at least geographical locations which I interpreted as maps. That this is what Murnane might have wished me to do is suggested by this section:

Your body is a sign of you, perhaps: a sign marking the place where the true part of you begins.

The true part of you is far too far-reaching and much too many-layered for you or me, reader, to read about or to write about. A map of the true part of you, reader, would show every place where you have been from your birthplace to the place where you sit now reading this page.

This being established our narrator now makes this promise:

Trust me or not, reader, but whatever I write about myself having done, I will always write about places. I will name the streams on either side wherever I am; I will match landscape with landscape.

which brings us to the concept of liminality:

We are obsessed with boundaries. Places are divided and sub-divided in a complex web of overlapping patterns of 'ownership', 'sacredness', 'historic interest', 'outstanding natural beauty' and much else. A simple car journey will take us past signs marking the entry and exit of each parish, less frequently past county boundary signs or through the 'portals' of National Parks such as Derbyshire with its prominent millstones. Leaving the road (note, again, the sense of boundary) will take us along rights of way allowing access through otherwise private property, perhaps with distinctive 'Keep Out' signs.

But not only do we create boundaries in space. Our sense of time is similarly preoccupied. Even in our secular age we celebrate seasonal boundaries such as New Year as well as calendar-based religious festivals such as Christmas.[13]

Murnane spends much of this book talking about transitions particularly the transition from child to adult and several of his 'personages' are distinguished by their liminal states, the 'betwixt and between' phases, specifically boy-man and girl-woman. And indeed, only a few pages into the book's second section, we find our narrator's focus changing once again, back to Australia to his grandmother's house where he spent a month of his summer holiday during the years when he thought of himself as changing from a boy to a man.

He doesn't describe the location except in relation to his own house (which is in the "district of swamps and heaths between Scotchman's Creek and Elster Creek" in Melbourne County) saying that his own house is as far north from his grandmother's house "as the junction of the North Platte and the South Platte is from Ideal in South Dakota." Most places in the book are described by their relationship to rivers or streams. Both these creeks are real places (in her article Lisa Hill describes them) unlike many of the places he mentions particularly in America: Ideal, Paradox, Bedrock, Dinosaur, Climax and Gateway. In this respect the entire book can be said to exist in a liminal state somewhere between the rivers Fact and Fiction; it's a ghost of a book.

The narrator describes his native district as being "between the Moonee Ponds and the Merri" which are both areas of Victoria and yet he writes:

I assure you that the district between the Moonnee Ponds and the Merri is a part of the same America that you have always lived in. – italics mine

Has he changed the names "to confuse" his imagined reader in the Institute? He will only say: "You can only suppose I am still dreaming today," and he explains no further. Later it becomes a little clearer when he talks about writing down "the name of a street in a district of Melbourne County" which "might also be the name of a town … [in] South Dakota" or the "name of a town in a book which is partly about a lilac tree and a row of tamarisk trees" (presumably either Tamarisk Row or Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs). America, Australia, Hungary and all the fictional places he's written about are all really part of one place, the vast 'inland' in his head. And, yes, it is confusing.

Victoria Map

In the middle of the book the narrator interjects a thought about how the subject matter of his writings has changed:

Someone reading this page deep in the Institute of Prairie Studies may wonder why a man of my age and standing writes at this table for day after day about a twelve-year-old child. But I am not writing about a twelve-year-old child. Each person is more than one person. I am writing about a man who sits at a table in a room with books around the wall and who writes for day after day with a heaviness pressing on him.

"Each person is more than one person," "[s]ome places are many more than one place," "each name is more than one name" – similar expressions crop up a number of times in the book expressing the thought that not only are we in a liminal state we also exist in multiple states: I am a fifty-year-old man but in my head I can be any age I choose; I can even be an old man. I can even imagine what I would have imagined myself to be like at fifty when I was only twelve which is something Murnane wouldn't think twice about writing about:

Writing about his own experience, the central character in many of Murnane’s texts presents, as mentioned, a double or treble perspective. He is seeing himself from his position in the present evoking memories of a place in the past when he as a young man was looking towards the future, imagining the place where he would find himself then. Typically enough words like “remember” and “foresee” are frequently used.


By his selective zooming-in technique Murnane offers a multidimensional orientation. Time can be seen “as one more sort of plain” (The Plains 75, 90) because “[w]hen a man considers his youth, his language seems to refer more often to a place than to its absence, and to a place unobscured by any notion of Time as a veil or barrier” (P 75). Within this network of relational interdependence the boundaries between time and place, between life and art become blurred. Events do not follow in a serial order that expresses underlying causal laws: “My world has no forward and no back only a place here and a million million other places near or further away” (Velvet Waters 152):

In all the world there has never been, there is not, and there will never be any such thing as time. There is only place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another. (Velvet Waters 152)[14]

The perspective thing is probably best understood by thinking about Beckett's Krapp as an old man listening to a recording of himself as a younger man: the younger man is talking both about his past and the future he anticipates while the old man he has actually become interjects comments.

The Plains Cover By considering these quotes from Velvet Waters and The Plains you should be starting to realise why Murnane doesn't think of his works as novels per se. They are merely extracts from a much bigger work, one that is contained within him from which he has extracted and translated excerpts for the benefit of those who will be left after he has gone, primarily his three sons, the custodians of his legacy. This work is contained in forty-odd metal filing cabinets in his home. (I think it stands at forty-seven at the moment but it is clearly a work in progress.)

What is the purpose of writing? This is a question he tackles in his most recent book, Barley Patch, which I have yet to read, but I would suggest that all writing is exploration. Murnane has chosen to restrict his palette to himself. So what is he looking for? A pattern. The narrator of Inland writes:

I thought of becoming a scientist of patterns. I might have studied some of the thousands of patterns that might have appeared among the hundreds of things in the soils in all the districts between all the streams in Melbourne County.

He's trying – aren't we all? – to make sense out of his life. By 'he' I mean Murnane. His narrator is purely a tool, someone to dig into the 'inland' on his behalf. In 'The Breathing Author', one of the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Murnane confesses that "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". I relate to that statement very strongly. Patterns are something very evident in Beckett's works, especially his later plays "which focus on structural, visual and/or aural patterns in which the characters themselves are the 'pieces' of the game, heteronomy and audience reaction tend to become increasingly unstable and disoriented."[15]

A book is a plain. It is flat and two-dimensional plane. It is only for our convenience that it comes to us chopped up into pages and bound. When Kerouac famously wrote On the Road he taped pages together into a single sheet so he wouldn't have to stop to load a fresh page; in effect he was writing on a scroll which is how books used to be written. It is a perfect metaphor for how Murnane writes even if he does do it with one finger on one of three decades-old manual typewriters. Where the metaphor falls down is the fact that a scroll is linear and Murnane's writing has become less and less so:

In Murnane the cause and effect process is still present, but instead of propelling the story ahead along a linear time it generates a sprawling narrative which disperses itself in all directions. This fragmentation subverts the stable notion of `centre', be it a narrative's ending, the final destination of a journey or the paradigmatic order inscribed in the linearity of time, and in so doing it re-describes the reader's perception of and relation with the text. What we confront is a set of texts deprived of a central and guiding narrative whose place is occupied instead by a myriad of narratives which constantly keep interlocking and referring to each other.[16]

This reminds me of a line used to describe Beckett's writing:

Multiplicity and fragmentation become singularity and wholeness.[17]

Murnane is a very careful writer, yet another similarity I see with Beckett, in fact Murnane's editor on Inland had this to say about the task:

I'm not sure what to call the opposite of speed-proofreading, but reading Gerald was it: this wasn't just reading line by line, but word by word, and confirming every comma. Gerald is a very exact writer, and proofreading him demands total concentration.[18]

When I don't get Beckett I always assume that the fault is mine. Perhaps that's putting the man on too high a pedestal but I feel much the same about Murnane. There is no doubt that what I am reading is what he intended to say. Bearing that in mind I think it would be cocky to suggest, certainly not after a single reading, that I understand Inland. I understand what he's attempting here which is a start. It's certainly not a book I would universally recommend because more people will not like it and not get it than will come close, but there will be the adventurous among you, my readers, who will have got this far in this article and are still intrigued: just as I would wholeheartedly recommend Beckett’s The Unnamable to you, I would likewise direct you to check out Inland. But maybe read The Plains first. I'll certainly have no problems moving onto Barley Patch but maybe not right away.


murnane_1211 Murnane was born in Coburg, Melbourne, in 1939 and has almost never left the state of Victoria. Parts of his childhood were spent in Bendigo and and his grandparents' property near Warrnambool. He briefly trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1957 but abandoned this path, instead becoming a teacher in primary schools (from 1960 to 1968), and at the Victoria Racing Club's Apprentice Jockeys' School. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne in 1969 and then worked in the Victorian Education Department until 1973. From 1980 he began to teach creative writing at various tertiary institutions.

Although not well known for most his life since his late sixties he has started to receive some high profile awards: in 1999 he won the Patrick White award for a writer whose work is deemed to be under recognised, in 2007 a Special Award in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, in 2008 the Australia Council emeritus award and in 2009 the Melbourne Prize for Literature. He has been nominate for the Nobel Prize but failed to win; hopefully there is still time.



[1] The Global Reception of Post-national Literary Fiction: The Case of Gerald Murnane

[2] Transcript of an interview with Peter Mares, originally broadcast on 12 October 2009

[3] Michael Worton, `Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text′, p67, in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, ed., John Pilling

[4] Comment by film reviewer D J Ross on the documentary Words and Silk

[5] The list at the end of Changing Geographies (pp17-26) is illuminating although is does cover more than simply Inland

[6] A sizeable chunk of Barley Patch is available online here courtesy of The Review of Contemporary Fiction

[7] From a radio conversation with Tom Champion, another Australian writer similarly besotted with the Hungarian language; broadcast 21 September 2009

[8] 'Enter ghosts, authors and translators' in Text, Vol. 13 No 1, April 2009

[9] On Private Madness, p321

[10] Far from pretending that their stage has four walls, Gogo and Didi, in Waiting for Godot, are highly conscious of the theatregoers watching them. "Inspiring prospects" is Estragon’s comment directed towards the audience and later, like an usher, he directs Vladimir to the men’s room: "End of the corridor, on the left" to which Vladimir responds: "Keep my seat."

[11] Italo Calvino as Author/Game-master in If on a winter's night a traveller

[12] from an interview with Alexander Laurence in 1994

[13] Bob Trubshaw, The metaphors and rituals of place and time - an introduction to liminality

[14] Karin Hansson, Gerald Murnane's Changing Geographies

[15] Merle Tönnies, 'Players, Playthings and Patterns: Three Stages of Heteronomy in Beckett's Mature Drama' in Samuel Beckett: endlessness in the year 2000, p194

[16] Paolo Bartoloni, 'Spatialised time and circular time: a note on time in the work of Gerald Murnane and Jorge-Luis Borges' in Australian Literary Studies, October 1997

[17] James E Robinson, 'Sisyphus Happy: Beckett beyond the Absurd' in Samuel Beckett: crossroads and borderlines, p349

[18] John Bangsund in 'Why I Don't Write for a Living', The Society of Editors Newsletter, November 1993

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