Excerpt

“Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs”

Gerald Murnane

April 9, 2018 
The following is from Gerald Murnane's collection, Stream System. Originally published between 1985 and 2012, these stories are true to Gerald Murnane's experimental style, often blending fact and fiction. Gerald Murnane has written over ten books, including The Plains, A Million Windows, and his memoir, Something for the Pain. He is the winner of Patrick White Literary Award and Melbourne Prize for Literature.

first read part of the novel À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, in January 1961, when I was aged a few weeks less than twenty-two years. What I read at that time was a single paperback volume with the title Swann’s Way. I suspect today that I did not know in 1961 that the volume I was reading was part of a much larger book.

As I write these words in June 1989, I cannot cite the publication details of the paperback volume of Swann’s Way. I have not seen the volume for at least six years, although it lies only a few metres above my head, in the space between the ceiling and the tiled roof of my house, where I store in black plastic bags the unwanted books of the household.

I first read the whole of À la recherche du temps perdu, in the Scott Moncrieff translation, during the months from February to May in 1973, when I was thirty-four years old. What I read at that time was the twelve-volume hardcover edition published by Chatto and Windus in 1969. As I write these words, the twelve volumes of that edition rest on one of the bookshelves of my house.

I read a second time the same twelve-volume edition during the months from October to December 1982, when I was forty-three years old. Since December 1982, I have not read any volume by Marcel Proust.

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Although I cannot remember the publication details of the volume of Swann’s Way that I read in 1961, I seem to remember from the colours of the cover a peculiar brown with a hint of underlying gold.

Somewhere in the novel, the narrator writes that a book is a jar of precious essences recalling the hour when we first handled its cover. I had better explain that a jar of essences, precious or otherwise, would be of small interest to me. I happen to have been born without a sense of smell. That sense which is said by many persons to be the most strongly linked to memory is a sense that I have never been able to use. However, I do have a rudimentary sense of taste, and when I see in my mind today the cover of the paperback of Swann’s Way that I read in 1961, I taste in my mind tinned sardines, the product of Portugal.

In January 1961, I lived alone in a rented room in Wheatland Road, Malvern. The room had a gas ring and a sink but no refrigerator. Whenever I shopped, I looked for foods that were sold in tins, needed no preparation, and could be stored at room temperature. When I began to read the first pages of Proust’s fiction, I had just opened the first tin of sardines that I had bought—a product of Portugal—and had emptied the contents over two slices of dry bread. Being hungry and anxious not to waste anything that had cost me money, I ate all of this meal while I read from the book propped open in front of me.

For an hour after I had eaten my meal, I felt a growing but still bearable discomfort. But as I read on, my stomach became more and more offended by what I had forced into it. At about the time when I was reading of how the narrator had tasted a mouthful of cake mixed with tea and had been overcome by an exquisite sensation, the taste of the dry bread mixed with the sardine oil was so strong in my mouth that I was overcome by nausea.

During the twenty or so years from 1961 until my paperback Swann’s Way was enclosed in black plastic and stored above my ceiling, I would feel in my mind at least a mild flatulence whenever I handled the book, and I would see again in my mind, whenever I noticed the hint of gold in the brown, the light from the electric globe above me glinting in the film of oil left behind after I had rubbed my crusts around my dinner plate in my rented room in Malvern on a summer evening in 1961.

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While I was writing the previous sentence, I saw in my mind an image of a bed of tall flowers near a stone wall which is the wall of a house on its shaded side.

I would like to be sure that the image of the tall flowers and the stone wall first appeared in my mind while I was reading Swann’s Way in 1961, but I can be sure of no more than that I see those flowers and that wall in my mind whenever I try to remember myself first reading the prose fiction of Marcel Proust. I am not writing today about a book or even about my reading of a book. I am writing about images that appear in my mind whenever I try to remember my having read that book.

The image of the flowers is an image of the blooms of the Russell lupins that I saw in an illustration on a packet of seeds in 1948, when I was nine years old. I had asked my mother to buy the seeds because I wanted to make a flower-bed among the patches of dust and gravel and the clumps of spear grass around the rented weatherboard house at 244 Neale Street, Bendigo, which I used to see in my mind continually during the years from 1966 to 1971, while I was writing about the house at 42 Leslie Street, Bassett, in my book of fiction Tamarisk Row.

I planted the seeds in the spring of 1948. I watered the bed and tended the green plants that grew from the seeds. However, the spring of 1948 was the season when my father decided suddenly to move from Bendigo and when I was taken across the Great Divide and the Western Plains to a rented weatherboard cottage near the Southern Ocean in the district of Allansford before I could compare whatever flowers might have appeared on my plants with the coloured illustration on the packet of seeds.

While I was writing the previous paragraph, a further detail appeared in the image of the garden beside the wall in my mind. I now see in the garden in my mind an image of a small boy with dark hair. The boy is staring and listening. I understand today that the image of the boy would first have appeared in my mind at some time during the five months before January 1961 and soon after I had looked for the first time at a photograph taken in the year 1910 in the grounds of a State school near the Southern Ocean in the district of Allansford. The district of Allansford is the district where my father was born and where my father’s parents lived for forty years until the death of my father’s father in 1949 and where I spent my holidays as a child.

The photograph is of the pupils of the school assembled in rows beside a garden bed where the taller plants might be delphiniums or even Russell lupins. Among the smallest children in the front row, a dark-haired boy aged six years stares towards the camera and turns his head slightly as though afraid of missing some word or some signal from his elders and his betters. The staring and listening boy of 1910 became in time the man who became my father twenty-nine years after the photograph had been taken and who died in August 1960, two weeks before I looked for the first time at the photograph, which my father’s mother had kept for fifty years in her collection of photographs, and five months before I read for the first time the volume Swann’s Way in the paperback edition with the brownish cover.

During his lifetime my father read a number of books, but even if my father had been alive in January 1961, I would not have talked to him about Swann’s Way. Whenever my father and I had talked about books during the last five years of his life, we had quarrelled. If my father had been alive in January 1961 and if he had seen me reading Swann’s Way, he would have asked me first what sort of man the author was.

Whenever my father had asked me such a question in the five years before he died in 1960, I had answered him in the way that I thought would be most likely to annoy him. In January 1961, when I was reading Swann’s Way for the first time, I knew hardly anything about the author. Since 1961, however, I have read two biographies of Marcel Proust, one by André Maurois and one by George D. Painter. Today, Monday 3 July 1989, I am able to compose the answer that would have been most likely to annoy my father if he had asked me his question in January 1961.

 

“For most of my life I have supposed that the place that matters most to me is a place in my mind and that I ought to think not of myself arriving in the future at the place but of myself in the future seeing the place more clearly. . .”

 

My father’s question: What sort of man was the author of that book? My answer: The author of this book was an effeminate, hypochondriac Frenchman who mixed mostly with the upper classes, who spent most of his life indoors, and who was never obliged to work for his living.

My father is now annoyed, but he has a second question: What do I hope to gain from reading a book by such a man?

In order to answer this question truthfully, I would have to speak to my father about the thing that has always mattered most to me. I would never have spoken about this thing to my father during his lifetime, partly because I did not understand at that time what the thing is that has always mattered most to me and partly because I preferred not to speak to my father about things that mattered to me. However, I am going to answer my father truthfully today.

I believe today, Monday 3 July 1989, that the thing that has always mattered most to me is a place. Occasionally during my life I may have seemed to believe that I might arrive at this place by travelling to one or another district of the country in which I was born or even to some other country, but for most of my life I have supposed that the place that matters most to me is a place in my mind and that I ought to think not of myself arriving in the future at the place but of myself in the future seeing the place more clearly than I can see any other image in my mind and seeing also that all the other images that matter to me are arranged around that image of a place like an arrangement of townships on a map.

My father might be disappointed to learn that the place that matters most to me is a district of my mind rather than a district of the country where he and I were born, but he might be pleased to learn that I have often supposed that the place in my mind is grassy countryside with a few trees in the distance.

From the time when I first began as a child to read books of fiction, I looked forward to seeing places in my mind as a result of my reading. On a hot afternoon in January 1961, I read in Swann’s Way a certain place-name. I remember today, Tuesday 4 July 1989, my feeling when I read that place-name more than twenty-eight years ago, something of the joy that the narrator of Swann’s Way describes himself as having felt whenever he discovered part of the truth underlying the surface of his life. I will come back to that place-name later and by a different route.

If my father could tell me what mattered most to him during his lifetime, he would probably tell me about two dreams that he dreamed often during his lifetime. The first was a dream of himself owning a sheep or cattle property; the second was a dream of his winning regularly large sums of money from bookmakers at race meetings. My father might even tell me about a single dream that arose out of the other two dreams. This was a dream of his setting out one morning from his sheep or cattle property with his own racehorse and with a trusted friend and of his travelling a hundred miles and more to a racecourse on the edge of an unfamiliar town and there backing his horse with large sums of money and soon afterwards watching his horse win the race that he had been backed to win.

If I could ask my father whether the dreams that mattered to him were connected with any images that appeared in his mind as a result of his reading books of fiction, my father might remind me that he had once told me that his favourite book of fiction was a book by a South African writer, Stuart Cloete, about a farmer and his sons who drove their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep out of the settled districts of southern Africa and north-west into what seemed to them endless unclaimed grazing lands.

One of my feelings while I read certain pages of Swann’s Way in January 1961 was a feeling that my father would have agreed with. I resented the characters’ having so much leisure for talking about such things as painting and the architecture of churches.

Although January 1961 was part of my summer holidays, I was already preparing to teach a class of forty-eight primary-school children as from February and to study two subjects at university during my evenings. The characters in Swann’s Way mostly seemed to lead idle lives or even to enjoy the earnings of inherited wealth. I would have liked to frogmarch the idle characters out of their salons and to confine them each to a room with only a sink and a gas ring and a few pieces of cheap furniture. I would then have enjoyed hearing the idlers calling in vain for their servants.

I heard myself jeering at the idlers. What? Not talking about the Dutch Masters, or about little churches in Normandy with something of the Persian about them?

Sometimes while I read the early pages of Swann’s Way in 1961, and when I still thought the book was partly a fictional memoir, I took a strong dislike to the pampered boy who had been the narrator as a child. I saw myself dragging him out of the arms of his mother and away from his aunts and his grandmother and then thrusting him into the backyard of the tumbledown farm-workers’ cottage where my family lived after we had left Bendigo, putting an axe into his hand, pointing out to him one of the heaps of timber that I had split into kindling wood for the kitchen stove, and then hearing the namby-pamby bleating for his mama.

In 1961, whenever I heard in my mind the adult characters of Swann’s Way talking about art or literature or architecture I heard them talking in the language used by the gentlemen and lady members of the Metropolitan Golf Club in North Road, Oakleigh, where I had worked as a caddy and an assistant barman from 1954 to 1956.

In the 1950s, there were still people in Melbourne who seemed to want you to believe that they had been born or educated in England or that they had visited England often or that they thought and behaved as English people did. These people in Melbourne spoke with what I would call a world-weary drawl. I heard that drawl by day from men in plus-four trousers while I trudged behind them down fairways on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. In the evenings of those days, I heard the same drawl in the bar of the golf club where the same men, now dressed in slacks and blazers, drank Scotch whisky or gin-and-tonic.

One day soon after I had first begun working at the Metropolitan Golf Club, I looked into a telephone directory for the addresses of some of the most outrageous drawlers. I found not only that most of them lived in the suburb of Toorak, but that most of this majority lived in the same neighbourhood, which consisted of St Georges Road, Lansell Road, and a few adjoining streets.

Six years after I learned this, and only a few months before I first read Swann’s Way, I travelled a little out of my way one afternoon between the city and Malvern. On that fine spring afternoon, I looked from a window of a tram down each of St Georges Road and Lansell Road, Toorak. I got an impression of tall, pale-coloured houses surrounded by walled gardens in which the trees were just coming into flower.

While I read Swann’s Way in 1961, any reference to Paris caused me to see in my mind the pale-coloured walls and mansions of St Georges Road and Lansell Road. When I first read the word faubourg, which I had never previously read but the meaning of which I guessed, I saw the upper half of a prunus tree appearing from behind a tall wall of cream-coloured stone. The first syllable of the word faubourg was linked with the abundant frothiness of the pink flowers on the tree, while the second syllable suggested the solid, forbidding wall. If I read a reference to some public garden or some woods in Paris, I saw in my mind the landscape that I connected with the world-weary drawlers of Melbourne: the view through the plate-glass windows of the dining room and bar in the clubhouse of the Metropolitan Golf Club—the view of the undulating, velvety eighteenth green and the close-mown fairway of cushiony couch grass reaching back between stands of gum trees and wattle trees to the point where the trees almost converged behind the eighteenth tee, leaving a gap past which the hazy seventeenth fairway formed the further part of the twofold vista.

My father despised the drawlers of Melbourne, and if ever he had read about such a character as Monsieur Swann, my father would have despised him also as a drawler. I found myself, at the Metropolitan Golf Club in the 1950s, wanting to distinguish between the drawlers that I could readily despise and a sort of drawler that I was ready to respect, if only I could have learned certain things about him.

The drawlers that I could readily despise were such as the grey-haired man that I heard one day drawling his opinion of an American film or play that he had seen recently. The man lived in one of the two roads that I named earlier and was wealthy as a result of events that had happened before his birth in places far from the two roads. The chief of these events were the man’s great-grandfather’s having brewed and then peddled on the goldfields of Victoria in the 1860s an impressively named but probably ineffective patent medicine.

The American film or play that the drawler had seen was named The Moon Is Blue. I had learned previously from newspapers that some people in Melbourne had wanted The Moon Is Blue to be banned, as many films and plays and books were banned in Melbourne in the 1950s. The people had wanted it banned because it was said to contain jokes with double meanings.

The drawler had said to three other men, while the four were walking among the complex arrangement of vistas of green fairways that I would later see in my mind from 1961 onwards whenever I would read in one or another volume of À la recherche du temps perdu the name of one or another wood or park in Paris, “I’ve never laughed so much in my whole life. It was absolutely the funniest show I’ve ever seen!”

On the afternoon nearly forty years ago when I heard the grey-haired drawler drawl those words, I readily despised him because I was disappointed to learn that a man who had inherited a fortune and who might have taken his pleasure from the ownership of a vast library or a stable of racehorses could boast of having sniggered at what my school-friends and I would have called dirty jokes.

Six or seven years later, when I read for the first time about Swann, the descendant of stockbrokers, and his passion for Odette de Crecy, I saw that the Swann in my mind had the grey hair and wore the plus-four trousers of the great-grandson of the brewer and peddler of patent medicines.

The Swann in my mind was not usually one of the despised drawlers. Sometimes at the Metropolitan Golf Club, but more often when I looked at the owners of racehorses in the mounting yard of one or another racecourse, I saw a sort of drawler that I admired. This drawler might have lived for some time during each year behind a walled garden in Melbourne, but at other times he lived surrounded by the land that had been since the years before the discovery of gold in Victoria the source of his family’s wealth and standing—he lived on his sheep or cattle property.

 

The ownership of a country estate has always seemed to me to add a further layer to a person: to suggest, as it were, far-reaching vistas within the person.”

 

In my seventh book of fiction, O, Dem Golden Slippers, which I expect to be published during 1993, I will explain something of what has happened in the mind of a person such as myself whenever he has happened to see in the mounting yard of a racecourse in any of the towns or cities of Victoria an owner of a racehorse who is also the owner of a sheep or cattle property far from that town or city. Here I have time only to explain first that for most of my life I have seen most of the sheep or cattle properties in my mind as lying in the district of Victoria in my mind that is sometimes called the Western Plains. When I look towards that district in my mind while I write these words, I look towards the north-west of my mind. However, when I used to stand on the Warrnambool racecourse during my summer holidays in the 1950s, which is to say, when I stood in those days at a point nearly three hundred kilometres south-west of where I sit at this moment, I still saw often in the north-west of my mind sheep or cattle properties far from where I stood, and doubly far from where I sit today writing these words.

Today, 26 July 1989, I looked at a map of the southern part of Africa. I wanted to verify that the districts where the chief character in my father’s favourite book of fiction arrived with his flocks and herds at what might be called his sheep or cattle property would have been in fact north-west of the settled districts. After having looked at the map, I now believe that the owner of the flocks and herds was more likely to have travelled north-east. That being so, when my father said that the man in southern Africa had travelled north-west in order to discover the site of his sheep or cattle property, my father perhaps had in mind that the whole of Africa was north-west of the suburb of Oakleigh South, where my father and I lived at the time when he told me about his favourite book of fiction, so that anyone travelling in any direction in Africa was travelling towards a place north-west of my father and myself, and any character in a book of fiction who was described as having travelled in any direction in Africa would have seemed to my father to have travelled towards a place in the northwest of my father’s mind. Or, my father, who was born and who lived for much of his life in the south-east of Australia, may have seen all desirable places in his mind as lying in the north-west of his mind.

Before I mentioned just now the map of the southern part of Africa, I was about to mention the second of two things connected with my seeing on racecourses the owners of distant sheep or cattle properties. I was about to mention the first of those owners that I can recall having seen. The owner and his horse and the trainer of his horse had come to the summer meeting at Warrnambool, in one of the early years of the 1950s, from the district around Apsley. At that time I had seen one photograph of the district around Apsley: a coloured photograph on the cover of the Leader, which was once the chief rival of the Weekly Times for the readership of persons in rural Victoria. The photograph showed grassy countryside with a few trees in the distance. Something in the colours of the photograph had caused me to remember it afterwards as having been taken during the late afternoon.

The only map that I owned in the 1950s was a road map of Victoria. When I looked at that map, I saw that Apsley was the furthest west of any town in the Western District of Victoria. Past Apsley was only a pale no-man’s-land—the first few miles of South Australia—and then the end of the map.

The man from the district around Apsley stood out among the owners in the mounting yard. He wore a pale-grey suit and a pale-grey hat with green and blue feathers in the band. Under the rear brim of his hat, his silvery hair was bunched in a style very different from the cropped style of the men around him. As soon as I had seen the man from the district around Apsley, I had heard him in my mind speaking in a world-weary drawl but I was far from despising him.

I have always become alert whenever I have read in a book of fiction a reference to a character’s country estates. The ownership of a country estate has always seemed to me to add a further layer to a person: to suggest, as it were, far-reaching vistas within the person. “You see me here, among these walls of pale stone topped by pink blossoms,” I hear the person saying, “and you think of the places in my mind as being only the streets of this suburb—or this faubourg. You have not seen yet, at a further place in my mind, the leafy avenue leading to the circular driveway surrounding the vast lawn; the mansion whose upper windows overlook grassy countryside with a few trees in the distance, or a stream that is marked on certain mornings and evenings by strands of mist.”

I read in Swann’s Way during January 1961 that Swann was the owner of a park and a country house along one of the two ways where the narrator and his parents went walking on Sundays. According to my memory, I learned at first that Swann’s park was bounded on one side at least by a white fence behind which grew numerous lilacs of both the white-flowering and the mauve-flowering varieties. Before I had read about that park and those lilacs, I had seen Swann in my mind as the drawler in plus-four trousers that I described earlier. After I had read about the white fence and the white and lilac-coloured flowers, I saw in my mind a different Swann.

As anyone who has read my first book of fiction, Tamarisk Row, will know, the chief character of that book builds his first racecourse and first sees in his mind the district of Tamarisk Row while he kneels in the dirt under a lilac tree. As anyone will know who has read the piece “First Love” in my sixth book of fiction, Velvet Waters, the chief character of “First Love” decides, after many years of speculating about the matter, that his racing colours are lilac and brown. After I had first read about the park and the lilacs at Combray, I remembered having read earlier in Swann’s Way that Swann was a good friend of the Prince of Wales and a member of the Jockey Club. After I had remembered this, I saw Swann in my mind as having the suit and the hat and the bunched silver hair beneath the brim of his hat of the man from Apsley, far to the north-west of Warrnambool. I decided that Swann’s racing colours would have been a combination of white and lilac. In 1961 when I decided this, the only set of white and lilac colours that I had seen had been carried by a horse named Parentive, owned and trained by a Mr A. C. Gartner. I noticed today what I believe I had not previously noticed: although the one occasion when I saw the horse Parentive race was a Saturday at Caulfield Racecourse at some time during the late 1950s, Mr Gartner and his horse came from Hamilton, which, of course, is north-west from where I sit now and on the way to Apsley.

One detail of my image of Monsieur Swann, the owner of racehorses, changed a few months later. In July 1961, I became the owner of a small book illustrated with reproductions of some of the works of the French artist Raoul Dufy. After I had seen the gentlemen in the mounting yards of the racecourses in those illustrations, I saw above the bunched silvery hair of Monsieur Swann in my mind not a grey hat with blue and green feathers but a black top hat.

I first read the first of the twelve volumes of the 1969 Chatto and Windus edition of À la recherche du temps perdu, as I wrote earlier, in the late summer and the autumn of 1973, when I was thirty-four years of age. On a hot morning while I was still reading the first volume, I was lying with the book beside me on a patch of grass in my backyard in a north-eastern suburb of Melbourne. While my eyes were closed for a moment against the glare of the sun, I heard the buzzing of a large fly in the grass near my ear.

Somewhere in À la recherche du temps perdu, I seem to remember, is a short passage about the buzzing of flies on warm mornings, but even if that passage is in the part of the text that I had read in 1961, I did not recall my having previously read about the buzzing of flies in Marcel Proust’s texts when the large fly buzzed in the grass near my ear in the late summer of 1973. What I recalled at that moment was one of those parcels of a few moments of seemingly lost time that the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu warns us never deliberately to go in search of. The parcel came to me, of course, not as a quantity of something called time, whatever that may be, but as a knot of feelings and sensations that I had long before experienced and had not since recalled.

The sensations that had been suddenly restored to me were those that I had experienced as a boy of fifteen years walking alone in the spacious garden of the house belonging to the widowed mother of my father in the city of Warrnambool in the south-west of Victoria on a Saturday morning of my summer holidays. The feelings that had been suddenly restored to me were feelings of expectancy and joy. On the Saturday morning in January 1954, I had heard the buzzing of a large fly while I had been looking at a bush of tiger lilies in bloom.

As I write this on 28 July 1989, I notice for the first time that the colour of the tiger lilies in my mind resembles the colour of the cover of the biography of Marcel Proust by André Maurois that I quoted from in my fifth book of fiction, Inland. The passage that I quoted from in that book includes the phrase invisible yet enduring lilacs, and I have just now understood that that phrase ought to be the title of this piece of writing . . . Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.

My book Inland includes a passage about tiger lilies that I wrote while I saw in my mind the blooms on the bush of tiger lilies that I was looking at when I heard the large fly buzzing in January 1954.

I had felt expectancy and joy on the Saturday morning in January 1954 because I was going to go later on that day to the so-called summer meeting at Warrnambool racecourse. Although I was already in love with horse-racing, I was still a schoolboy and seldom had the money or the time for going to race meetings. On that Saturday morning, I had never previously been to a race meeting at Warrnambool. The buzzing of the fly was connected in my mind with the heat of the afternoon to come and with the dust and the dung in the saddling paddock. I had felt a particular expectancy and joy on that morning while I had pronounced to myself the name tiger lily and while I had stared at the colours of the blooms on the bush. The names of the racehorses of the Western District of Victoria and the racing colours of their owners were mostly unknown to me in 1954. On that Saturday morning, I was trying to see in my mind the colours, unfamiliar and striking, carried by some horse that had been brought to Warrnambool from a hundred miles away in the north-west, and I was trying to hear in my mind the name of that horse.

During the morning in the late summer of 1973 when I heard the buzzing of the large fly soon after I had begun to read the first of the twelve volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu, the feelings that came back to me from the Saturday morning nineteen years before only added to the feelings of expectancy and joy that I had already felt as I had prepared to read the twelve volumes. On that morning in my backyard in 1973, I had been aware for twelve years that one of the important place-names in À la recherche du temps perdu had the power to bring to my mind details of a place such as I had wanted to see in my mind during most of my life. That place was a country estate in my mind. The owner of the estate spent his mornings in his library, where the windows overlooked grassy countryside with a few trees in the distance, and his afternoons exercising his racehorses. Once each week, he travelled a hundred miles and more with one of his horses and with his distinctive silk racing colours south-east to a race meeting.

 

A bay in a stream might have seemed a geographical absurdity, but I saw in my mind the calm water, the green rushes, the green grass in the fields behind the rushes.

 

At some time during 1949, several years before I had attended any race-meeting or had heard the name of Marcel Proust, my father told me that he had carved his name at two places in the sandstone that underlies the district of Allansford where he was born and where his remains have lain buried since 1960. The first of the two places was a pinnacle of rock standing high out of the water in the bay known as Childers Cove. My father told me in 1949 that he had once swum through the fifty yards of turbulent water between the shore and Steeple Rock with a tomahawk tied to his body and had carved his name and the date on the side of Steeple Rock that faced the Southern Ocean. The second of the two places was the wall of a quarry on a hill overlooking the bays of the Southern Ocean known as Stanhopes’ Bay, Sandy Bay, and Murnane’s Bay, just south-east of Childers Cove.

During the first twenty-five years after my father had died, I thought about neither of the two places where he had once carved his name. Then, in 1985, twenty-five years after my father had died, and while I was writing a piece of fiction about a man who had read a story about a man who thought often about the bedrock far beneath his feet, an image of a stone quarry came into my mind and I wrote that the father of the narrator of the story had carved his name on the wall of a quarry, and I gave the title “Stone Quarry” to my piece of fiction, which until then had lacked a title.

At some time during the spring of 1985 and while I was still writing “Stone Quarry,” I received through the post a page of the Warrnambool Standard illustrated by two reproductions of photographs. The first of the two photographs was of Childers Cove as it had appeared for as long as European persons had looked at it, with Steeple Rock standing out of the water fifty metres from shore and the Southern Ocean in the background. The second photograph showed Childers Cove as it has appeared since the day or the night in 1985 when waves of the Southern Ocean caused Steeple Rock to topple and the surfaces of sandstone where my father had carved his name to sink beneath the water.

In the autumn of 1989, while I was making notes for this piece of writing but before I had thought of mentioning my father in the writing, a man who was about to travel with a camera from Melbourne to the district of Allansford offered to bring back to me photographs of any places that I might wish to see in photographs.

I gave the man directions for finding the quarry on the hill overlooking the Southern Ocean and asked him to look on the walls of the quarry for the inscription that my father had told me forty years before that he had carved.

Two days ago, on 28 July 1989, while I was writing the earlier passage that has to do with the buzzing of a fly near a bush of tiger lilies at Warrnambool in 1954, I found among the mail that had just arrived at my house a coloured photograph of an area of sandstone in which four letters and four numerals are visible. The four numerals 1-9-2-1 allow me to believe that my father stood in front of the area of sandstone in the year 1921, when he was aged seventeen years and when Marcel Proust was aged fifty years, as I am today, and had one year of his life remaining. The four letters allow me to believe that my father in 1921 carved in the sandstone the first letter of the first of his given names followed by all the letters of his surname but that rainwater running down the wall of the quarry caused part of the sandstone to break off and to fall away at some time during the sixty-eight years between 1921 and 1989, leaving only the letter R for Reginald followed by the first three letters of my father’s and my surname.

I have a number of photographs of myself standing in one or another garden and in front of one or another wall, but the earliest of these photographs shows me standing, in the year 1940, on a patch of grass in front of a wall of sandstone that is part of a house on its sunlit side. The wall that I mentioned earlier—the wall that appears as an image in my mind together with the image of a small boy and the image of a bed of tall flowers whenever I try to imagine myself first reading the first pages of À la recherche du temps perdu—is not the same wall that appears in bright sunlight in the photograph of myself in 1940. The wall in my mind is a wall of the same house that I stood beside on a day of sunshine in 1940, but the wall in my mind is a wall on the shaded side of the house. (I have already explained that the image of the boy in my mind is an image of a boy who was first photographed thirty years before the day of sunshine in 1940.)

The house with the walls of sandstone was built by my father’s father less than one kilometre from where the Southern Ocean forms the bay known as Sandy Bay, which is next to the bays known as Murnane’s Bay and Childers Cove on the south-west coast of Victoria. All the walls of the house were quarried from the place where the surname of the boy who appears in my mind as listening and staring whenever I remember myself first reading about Combray now appears as no more than the letters MUR . . . the root in the Latin language, the language of my father’s religion, of the word for wall.

At the summer race meeting at Warrnambool racecourse in January 1960, which was the last summer meeting before the death of my father and the second-last summer meeting before my first reading the first part of À la recherche du temps perdu, I read in my racebook the name of a racehorse from far to the north-west of Warrnambool. The name was a place-name consisting of two words. The first of the two was a word that I had never previously read but a word that I supposed was from the French language.

The second word was the word Bay. The colours to be worn by the rider of the horse were brown and white stripes.

I found the name and the colours of the horse peculiarly attractive. During the afternoon, I looked forward to seeing the owner of the horse and his colours in the mounting yard. However, when the field was announced for the race in which the horse had been entered, I learned that the horse had been scratched.

During the twelve months following that race meeting, I often pronounced in my mind the name of the racehorse with the name ending in the word Bay. During the same time, I often saw in my mind the brown and white colours carried by the horse. During the same time also, I saw in my mind images of a sheep or cattle property in the far west of Victoria in my mind (that is, north-west of the south-west of Victoria in my mind) and of the owner of the property, who lived in a house with a vast library. However, none of the images of the sheep or cattle property or of the owner of the property or of his vast library has appeared in my mind since January 1961, when I read in Swann’s Way the first of the two words of the horse’s name.

In January 1961, I learned from the paperback volume with the title Swann’s Way that the word that I had previously known only as part of the name of a racehorse that had been entered in a race at Warrnambool racecourse, as though its owner and its trainer were going to bring the horse out of the north-west in the same way that the horse had been brought in the dream that had mattered most to my father, was the name of one of the places that mattered most to the narrator of Swann’s Way from among the places around Combray, where he spent his holidays in each year of his childhood.

After I had learned this, I saw in my mind whenever I said to myself the name of the horse that had not arrived at Warrnambool racecourse from the north-west, or whenever I saw in my mind a silk jacket with brown and white stripes, a stream flowing through grassy countryside with trees in the background. I saw the stream at one point flowing past a quiet reach that I called in my mind a bay.

A bay in a stream might have seemed a geographical absurdity, but I saw in my mind the calm water, the green rushes, the green grass in the fields behind the rushes. I saw in the green fields in my mind the white fence topped by the white and lilac flowers of the lilac bushes on the estate of the man with the bunched silvery hair who had named one of his racehorses after a geographical absurdity or a proper noun in the works of Marcel Proust. I saw, at the place named Apsley in my mind, far to the north-west of Warrnambool in my mind, enduring lilacs that had previously been invisible.

At some time during the seven years since I last read the whole of À la recherche du temps perdu, I looked into my Times Atlas of the World and learned that the racehorse whose name I had read in the racebook at Warrnambool twelve months before I first read Swann’s Way had almost certainly not been named after any geographical feature in France or after any word in the works of Marcel Proust but had almost certainly been named after a bay on the south coast of Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. Since my having learned that the horse that failed to arrive from the north-west at Warrnambool racecourse in the last summer of my father’s life and the last summer before I first read the fiction of Marcel Proust was almost certainly named after a bay on Kangaroo Island, I have sometimes seen in my mind, soon after I have pronounced in my mind the name of the horse or soon after I have seen in my mind a silk jacket with brown and white stripes, waves of the Southern Ocean rolling from far away in the direction of South Africa, rolling past Kangaroo Island towards the south-west coast of Victoria, and breaking against the base of Steeple Rock in Childers Cove, near Murnane’s Bay, and causing Steeple Rock at last to topple. I have sometimes seen in my mind, soon after Steeple Rock has toppled in my mind, a wall of a stone house and near the wall a small boy who will later, as a young man, choose for his colours lilac from the white and lilac colours of the Monsieur Swann in his mind and brown from the white and brown colours of the racehorse in his mind from far to the north-west of Warrnambool: the racehorse whose name he will read for the first time in a racebook in the last summer before he reads for the first time a book of fiction with the title Swann’s Way. And I have sometimes seen in my mind, soon after I have seen in my mind the things just mentioned, one or another detail of a place in my mind where I see together things that I might have expected to lie forever far apart; where rows of lilacs appear on a sheep or cattle property; where my father, who had never heard the name Marcel Proust, is the narrator of an immense and intricately patterned work of fiction; where a racehorse has for its name the word Bay preceded by the word Vivonne.

__________________________________

From Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Gerald Murnane.




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