“A Country On The Far Side of Fiction” — Riffing Over Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch

Authors, Books
Claude Lorrain’s "Landscape with Samuel Anointing David."

Claude Lorrain’s “Landscape with Samuel Anointing David.”

 

In my last riff on Gerald Murnane, I wrote about his book Inland, and that he wanted to “craft a universally mutable and relational ‘I.'” And I started off with a quote. I’m going to do that now. This is a short passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Notebooks.

The word “I” does not mean the same as “L.W.” even if I am L.W., nor does it mean the same as the expression “the person who is now speaking”. But that doesn’t mean: that “L.W.” and “I” mean different things. All it means is that these words are different instruments in our language.

Think of words as instruments characterized by their use, and then think of the use of a hammer, the use of a chisel, the use of a square, of a glue pot, and of the glue. (Also, all that we say here can be understood only if one understands that a great variety of games is played with the sentences of our language: Giving and obeying orders; asking questions and answering them; describing an event; telling a fictitious story; telling a joke; describing an immediate experience; making conjectures about events in the physical world; making scientific hypotheses and theories; greeting someone, etc., etc.) The mouth which says “I” or the hand which is raised to indicate that it is I who wish to speak, or I who have toothache, does not thereby point to anything. If, on the other hand, I wish to indicate the place of my pain, I point. And here again remember the difference between pointing to the painful spot without being led by the eye and on the other hand pointing to a sac on my body after looking for it. (“That’s where I was vaccinated”.)—The man who cries out with pain, or says that he has pain, doesn’t choose the mouth which says it (67-8).

 

The “I” in Barley Patch, as it is ostensibly used in the literary sense, merely implies the presence of the author. The “I” is as much of a fiction as the collection of words around it. Barley Patch is a strange, strange fiction. I’m honoring the narrator’s/implied author’s/personage’s/ghostly presence’s/reader’s/image-person’s wishes by not calling it a novel, an essay, a memoir, an autobiography. And though Barley Patch is all of these forms, often simultaneously, ultimately it is a “report,” to use the narrator’s term, of how a story becomes removed from itself. Some questions BP asks: How do I know that am I me? Am I the imagined personage of a writer in a “country on the far side of fiction?” How do I know where I am is really where I am?

 

Forms of referencing the self, Wittgenstein shows us, are various, and each carries with it a specific context and hence rules. For Murnane, the difference between, say, “I” and “Gerald Murnane”; “personage” and “character” and “personage” and “[uncle, aunt, father]“; and “fiction” and “[novel, short story, story]” is one of time and space on the atlas of fiction, and of dire importance to the narrator. The almost imperceptible schism between the historical and fictional worlds are to be mapped out by sentences. But why write? Surely not to only to travel to these fictional worlds–what does the world of the narrator’s mind hold for him?

Must I write?

 

A few weeks before the conception of the male child who would become partly responsible, thirty-five years later, for my own conception, a young man aged nineteen years and named Franz Xaver Kappus sent some of his unpublished poems and a covering letter to Rainer Maria Rilke, who was by then a much-published writer although he was only twenty-eight years of age.

Barley Patch takes as its structure a tale of conception. These italicized prompts function as a sort of “guide” through the atlas of our reading. In broad terms, BP is a sort of dipole–the italicized questions are a kind of representative of a conventional reading path of so-called “normal novels” which, in turn, prompt the narrator to digress away from it, and into the world “behind” the conception narrative that is yet to be written. We might say that this is the bulk of the content of Barley Patch. Additionally, this performs, as the narrator tells us in the thirty-fifth paragraph, the “art of suggestion” that is fiction. Reporting a tale of conception requires as much of the “unwritten” material around what the content one would expect from a tale of conception as that content.

For as long as I had the text of Brat Farrar in front of my eyes, and often at other times, I did as I was compelled to do whenever I was reading much of what I read during the 1950s or whenever I was remembering the experience of having read it. I felt as though I myself moved among the characters.

I was unable to alter the course of the narrative: anything reported in the fiction was a fact that I had to accept. However, I was free to take advantage of the seeming gaps in the narrative. The text of a work of fiction, as I seem to have understood from the first, reports in detail certain events from certain hours in the lives of the characters but leaves unreported whole days, months, years even. A narrative would often include, of course, a summary of a lengthy period of time, but a mere summary hardly restricted my freedom.

…In 1953, for example, while I was reading Hereward the Wake, by Charles Kingsley, I was distressed by Hereward’s abandoning his wife, Torfrid, for another woman. From my standpoint as a shadowy presence among the characters, I knew I could never reverse Hereward’s decision. And yet, I was able in some mysterious way to add to whatever remorse he might have felt from time to time: I became, perhaps, one more of the lesser characters whose disapproval conveyed itself to Hereward. More to my satisfaction, I seemed able wordlessly to convey my sympathy to the cast-off Torfrida and even to suppose that this was of help to her.

I had a similar experience with Inland as I did with Barley Patch; namely, I became very bored at several points in the book. This, in turn, was similar to my experience reading Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Don’t get me wrong: I loved The Rings of Saturn (and Inland and Barley Patch), but the “thesis” of the book doesn’t come until the very end–that massively heavy insight that history is nothing but a series of calamities. At which point I became terrified of all of the other silent and wispy historical connections that Sebald had not written about. The effect is similar in Murnane, when the narrator announces at the end of the book that he was “justified in believing in the existence of places beyond the places that I had read about or had written about: of a country on the far side of fiction.”  An insight signaled by his “imagining” beyond the horizon line in the Lorrain painting above. The reader, like the narrator, becomes completely lost in the non-space which Barley Patch maps.

I can only suppose that I wrote during those thirty and more years so that I could explicate whatever mysteries seemed to require explication in the territory bordered on three sides by the vaguest of my memories and my desires and on its fourth side by a strangely lit horizon in a remembered reproduction of some or another famous painting. I can only suppose that I wrote fiction for thirty and more years in order to rid myself of certain obligations that I felt as a result of my having read fiction. Something else I can hardly believe nowadays: during those thirty and more years, I sometimes recalled my childhood ploy of seeing, or seeming to see, places further off than certain painted places, and yet what I recalled seemed quite unconnected with what I was doing as a writer of fiction. Not until the afternoon mentioned in the fourth paragraph of this piece of fiction did I understand how many were the blank pages; how ample was the space on the far side of every piece of fiction that I had written or had read.

I myself like to imagine–as I hesitate to use the word–that this interior, this inland, mirrors the interior of Australia. An uninhabitable, desolate desert which the peoples on either coast travel into with language. And that on that fourth side, the pathway towards those “places further off than certain painted places,” houses a population of personages who see in their own fictions a personage named Gerald Murnane.

We, as readers, certainly assume that the characters in novels and short stories that contain unreported time go on living in that time. For the narrator of Barley Patch, this is where he, as a reader, resides, and he prefers this world to the historical world. Both worlds need the other to exist for the worlds suggested by fiction to exist. More on these supposed “certain obligations”:  I believe it’s some sort of reconciliation between his childhood memories and the books read during that time. Images that are introduced in the beginning of Barley Patch remain with the fiction throughout, slowly accruing more complications and suggestions of significance. Bachelorhood, prohibited expressions of sexuality, and Catholic guilt are the big three. An example of one is juxtaposed against another in a report of a fiction the narrator wrote, the differences between the two negligible. The guilt and the shame of failing to truly actualize a relationship with God becomes the will to read and write between any two scenes. In turn, the failure of writing–to totally map the entire nation of Fiction–terrorizes the reader-writer into a morosely neurotic voyeur of the personages in his mind. For there is something more that is suggested beyond the world suggested by fiction.

…A few girl-cousins even gave me to understand that they disliked my company. And yet, for year after year, I remained hopeful. On some or another sweltering afternoon in the coming summer holidays, I would surely find myself alone with a girl-cousin in some or another shed on her parents’ farm. There would be between us such an understanding as had never yet existed between myself and a female person. we would neither of us feel urged to prove ourselves worthy of the other. Nor would we live in fear of losing the other’s regard. Our mood would be relaxed, light-hearted even. Our business together would begin with questions and answers. We would ask at first trivial or even flippant questions, as though nothing was at stake. Later, our questions would be such as had for long bothered us or even tormented us. We would answer  each other with frankness, each marvelling at how easily we dispelled doubt after doubt or mystery after mystery. It was always possible that our honesty would oblige us to undress or even to make free with one another’s body, but I never supposed that anything we might do together would be done for any less serious purpose than to learn what it was that our parents and aunts and uncles seemed anxious that we should not learn (41-2).

The narrator’s preference for the conditional mood is fairly obvious. In the mode of reportage, the narrator cannot factually report that he and his girl-cousin undressed and explored each other’s bodies, but fiction presents itself in the conditional, a kind of permanent yet ephemeral world nestled in the historical, what the narrator calls “a state of potentiality.” This may yet explain why the narrator is so averse to words like “create” and “imagine,” for they imply an affective mode; the writer affects a world of characters and behaviors and spaces. For the narrator, writing fiction is reading deeper into the unreported times & spaces mentioned above, it is to further his “image-self” into the fiction and, hopefully, into that other country on “the far side of fiction.”

This is a fiction about what happens to us when we read. What happens to us when we write. We travel to the country of fiction; and if one writes, s/he imagines there, past the horizon, unwritten and untraveled landscapes on the far side of fiction. All characters and personages encountered by the narrator, in his mind, live in the country of fiction, and live their whole lives on this country without having any knowledge of others until those characters themselves see the horizon line, and wonder themselves what is past that horizon. I think this is what Murnane means by a “personage” and not a “character.” In the Brat Farrar “scene” above, the narrator states that he “was unable to alter the course of the narrative.”  The narrator also suggests, towards the end of the fiction, that “fictional personages [live] in a state of potentiality.” Personages are Ur-Characters, if you will, and are parallel to the “certain obligations that [he] felt as a result of [his] having read fiction.” These personages are obligations, they need to become characters for the narrator. This is analagous to the phrase often heard in some fiction writing workshops, “murder your darlings.”

During all the years while I had been a reader of fiction and while I had sometimes struggled to write fiction–during all those years, I had wanted to learn what places appeared in the mind of one or another fictional character whenever he or she stared past the furthest places mentioned in the text that had seemed to give rise to him or to her; what places such a character thought of during the hours or the days that were never reported in the text; what places such a character dreamed about–not only in sleep but during those waking moments the strangeness of which can hardly be described by the dreamer, much less suggested by a writer of fiction. Now, I was free to suppose what I had often suspected: many a so-called fictional character was not a native o some or another fictional text but of a further region never yet written about. … Now, I was justified in believing in the existence of places beyond the places that I had read about or had written about: of a country on the far side of fiction.

Barley Patch subtly suggests that we’re no where except here, in the spaces between the words and the images that these words, when arranged into sentences, suggest in our minds. Vast expanses of land and time are traversed when we use language, but it necessarily keeps us far away from the object at hand. There’s a brilliant scene early in the book that details how the narrator’s girl-cousins keep him from looking into their doll house. The narrator explains that he did not want to touch the miniature dolls (especially in what could be referred to as an inappropriate manner), but merely to look inside. Models in miniature reflect what language affords us: they reduce the scale and size of the world which it purportedly represents. But behind that miniature, as it were, lies the forever unattainable “original” world. This still does not satisfactorily answer why the narrator writes fiction. I believe it is to discover, truly, whether or not he, the “conjectured author,” is himself a fictional personage merely existing in the mind of some other writer on the far side of fiction. How does he know that he is who he is?

I have reported in the previous seventy-eight paragraphs numerous events, few of them seeming to be connected with my conception. Admittedly, my father and my mother have been referred to, but surely I could conjecture, postulate, speculate more boldly as to how those two came together?

 

No, I could not. Whatever I Might have hoped to achieve when I began this piece of fiction, I am not going to be able to explain how I came to be conceived.

Much of what has been written in the preceding few pages might be said to have been misleading. The true account of my conception is simply told. Being no more than the conjectured author of this work of fiction, I can have come into existence only at the moment when a certain female personage who was reading these pages formed in her mind an image of the male personage who had written the pages with her mind (168, 170).

The “I” is the purest of fictions, it inscribes us into a world of personages waiting to be characters in yet-to-be-written fictions, and allows us to wonder how we came to be. Measurements of time, space and distance are negated, and we are left with the feeling of vastness, and a simultaneous feeling of loneliness and community. In short, a kind of ideal personhood wherein individuality is precluded from conception. Someone imagines we exist as much as we imagine him or her to exist, and there may yet be another place on the far side of that fictional world where those who imagine are imagined still.

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One thought on ““A Country On The Far Side of Fiction” — Riffing Over Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch

  1. thanks for this. i’ve been in the middle of barley patch for like 2 months; i’ve similarly experienced some doldrums while reading it, but have such an interest in the book’s overall project that i don’t want to put it down for good. this goaded me, going to pick it up right now!

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