Friday, 22 February 2019

Book review: A Season on Earth, Gerald Murnane (2019)

Originally published partly in the 1970s, this novel from the author’s early years looks at such themes as youth and the meaning of a good life. Adrian Sherd is a fabulist with certain psychological peculiarities that make him rather obsessive. The combination of a tendency to rationalise everything he sees and does and a strong spiritual drive means that the book is in many ways a comedy.

A concern for the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church gives the book a slightly more narrow focus than this might suggest but Adrian is so compelling a character and the kinds of mental habits he embodies are so common that the story that Murnane tells effectively is a universal one. Adrian tends to rely on such a complex method of rationcination whenever he contemplates the problem of how to live a good life that his actions border often on the absurd, but always Murnane is laughing as much at the rest of the world as much as he is laughing at Adrian. So this book is also a deeply humane work of fiction, and it is one that touches occasionally on wider topics, such as domestic and global politics.

Adrian’s tendency to tell himself complicated stories about everything he encounters is shown to be a rather common mannerism of the species. In one scene in the part of the book where Adrian is still at secondary school he is with a group of boys who are out on the playing field for football practice. It starts raining and they seek shelter but while they are waiting for further instructions they entertain themselves by having a conversation, and Adrian participates in it. The types of stories that the boys, who are of course all Catholics, tell themselves about their tribe, their place in the world they know intimately, and the global political situation is deftly described in a few pages of dialogue. What emerges is a community that sees itself as beleaguered both locally and internationally (the latter due to the threat of Communism) but one that is determined to protect itself at all costs. It is a masterpiece of economy and intelligence, and certainly Adrian doesn’t come off looking at all strange in the context provided in this scene. In fact it is clear from the reported dialogue that Adrian is relatively well-read and is informed about events that have taken place in the world.

If you take Adrian at face value and consider his rather erratic trajectory from a 16-year-old schoolboy who fantasises about girls in his room at night, to his first “romance” (he sees a girl on the train and decides that she is going to marry him, even though he never talks to her), to his retirement to a place where priests are trained before they are admitted to a holy order, to his employment with the Victorian Department of Education as a clerk, to his sudden and (as usual) strange obsession with poetry and with poets, you might suspect that he is deficient in some way in a cognitive sense. He does seem to veer violently from one thing to another, but so do many young people. In fact, people in general often do this sort of thing.

He becomes deeply interested in whatever his is currently engaged in pursuing, to the exclusion of every other consideration. And he is quite unaware of how a third party might think if they knew what he was actually thinking. It’s all very human and normal, but at the same time Murnane makes Adrian seem almost pathological in his obsessions. In the end the mechanism that is used to finish off Adrian’s voyage fails to a degree to offer up a strong emblem with which to close proceedings, but this is unimportant in the larger scheme of things. This is a very fine and important novel by a giant of Australian letters, and Murnane should be as well-known as other difficult writers this country has produced.

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