Book Review

Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane

Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch begins before itself, before literature. Like all books before it, the book is brought into being by a question. ‘Must I write?’ asks Murnane’s narrator, a man we might confuse with Murnane, but who is nonetheless not him, since Barley Patch is, in its own words, ‘a work of fiction.’ The book is the opposite of an autobiography: instead of issuing from its author, it entails or ‘implies’ him. Not only this, but it implies that all books imply their authors, in the way its own is implied. As such, Barley Patch’s implications appear to touch on a pure form of fiction.

The implied author of Barley Patch, a novelist named Gerald Murnane, reports that ‘in the early autumn of 1991... I gave up writing fiction.’ His opening question, ‘must I write?’ then gives rise to a related one: ‘why had I written?’ The rest of the book is conjured out of these questions, which we might call atomic models of the questions that cause stories to be told. Much of the book is built out of memories, brought together in an associative chain stretching back to the author’s childhood. Each memory calls to mind another memory, and every description suggests second-order descriptions that can’t be described. The book’s subject, says Murnane, consists of ‘what I call for convenience patterns of images, in a place that I call for convenience my mind, wherever it may lie or whatever else it may be a part of.’ A sentence like this deserves to be dealt with carefully. The author’s mind, in this case, lies partly within the work of fiction; after all, he has admitted his own fictionality. Where then can what he calls his ‘network of images’ come from?

A clue is provided by Barley Patch’s break with the rhetoric of authorial ‘imagination.’ This much misused word, Murnane reflects, ‘seems to me connected with antiquated systems of psychology... with drawings of the human brain.’ In refusing itself recourse to this language, Barley Patch retreats beyond reach of romanticism; the book is hallucinatory, but in a way that is different in kind from, say, De Quincey. Yet it also abandons the prearranged reading paths of realist novels, presenting instead a series of scenes set for stories that forget to occur; it progresses by means of digression and detour. So where does it go, now that it can no longer return to the mind of the ‘real’ Murnane?

Murnane the narrator, the one with whom we resolve our route through the book, remarks that ‘a work of fiction is not necessarily enclosed in the mind of its author, but extends on its farther sides into a little-known territory.’ This territory radiates out from the work, taking in the types of experience that envelop it, and that enable our access to it. After all, any work is always already porous, blurred on both sides by the reading and writing minds it implies. And what is implied both is and is not ‘inside’ the work, which is not an object of absolute sanctity, but one which at once includes and is impacted by its being written and read. Indeed, we could conceive of the work as coming together within what Hans-Georg Gadamer describes as a ‘fusion of horizons,’ available via the overlapping encounters that we call reading and writing. Thus, the answer to each of the questions above would be that the work resides in, is brought about by, and is itself a transitional space that those who engage with it enter into.

The space that spreads around and beyond Barley Patch is populated by ‘personages.’ A personage, explains Murnane, is not a ‘character’ so much as a kind of character-in-waiting. In one sense, what comes before any character is the ‘image’ that guides its construction; a glint in the mind’s eye of the writer. But such images are, again, transitional, ‘made up’ just as much by the reader. Reading another author’s story, Murnane recalls how he found himself ‘assigning to the female character... a face that I first saw during the 1990s,’ which is indeed how reading seems to work. A writer cannot fix a face to a character; characters are not completable, which means that other entities will always be glimpsed through their gaps. And if these echoes and ghosts antedate crafted characters, they can’t be pinned down to one point of origin; they emerge from what the work opens onto. I’ve read that face recognition researchers rely on ‘eigenfaces,’ phantasmatic figures derived from the vector space that contains all possible human faces. A ‘personage’ in Murnane’s sense is somewhat similar; a point on a map of the place that precedes characters, and that makes them possible.

This ontology, in which the ‘origin’ of the work evades any vanishing point, is itself figured within Barley Patch by means of a memorised image. The image in question is Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Samuel Anointing David, the ‘painted backdrop’ to the stage at the Capitol Theatre, where a young Murnane and his schoolmates once took part in a concert. As when Murnane says of his early reading habits that he ‘moved among the characters,’ so, as a child, he dreamt of inhabiting the place that this painting depicted. But Lorrain’s landscape doesn’t merely manifest a set of fictional entities. Instead the painting’s pattern of light implies what Wittgenstein would call a ‘change of aspect.’ As Murnane makes out, it isn’t the scene’s foreground but its background that has somehow become ‘the most brightly lit of the visible zones,’ suggesting that what lies beyond may be ‘more richly illumined still.’ Thus:

I saw myself as travelling from the shadowy foreground into the brightly lit distance, past the bridge and the river and then across the grassy countryside. For a few moments, I would have seen the illustration as other than a patch of painted scenery hanging in a shabby room in the place that I called the world. I would have understood that what I had taken for distant background was brightly lit foreground. The persons around the verandah were of little account. Anyone peering in on them from the darkness behind them mattered even less. I would seem to travel to the end of the grassy countryside, while the light around me intensified, and while I strained to make out the first details of the land that began where the painted places ended.

Wherever art appears to end it begins again; every horizon it reaches reveals a new one. On this level, then, Lorrain’s landscape discloses a diagram of an open, ongoing origin. In the same way, Murnane claims, even when literature seems to lead back to ‘life’ (as when the author of Barley Patch tries and fails to tell the story of his conception) it can’t help but lead to a literature beyond literature. Indeed, every text written or read implies another that lies in the distance, and whatever setting a writer describes suggests to the reader ‘a further region never yet written about.’ Behind the book, a place made of blank pages: ‘a country on the far side of fiction.’

To attempt to locate this country would be to pursue an illusion. Still, such a pursuit might not be meaningless; it may be all that can be accomplished. One clue as to how to characterise this aspect of art is provided by Peter de Bolla, who remarks that what one should ask of a painting is ‘what does this painting know?’ Michael Wood has taken up this thought, which he calls ‘truly haunting,’ in its relation to literature. What, he wonders, might a novel know that its writer and readers don’t? Adding to this, we might even ask what it knows that it itself doesn’t.

What Barley Patch knows is that, in its words, ‘a work of fiction is capable of devising a territory more extensive and more detailed by far than the work itself.’ It would be easy to infer from this that a work’s boundlessness amounts to its ‘essence.’ But Murnane means something more meaningful, which we can relate to works by most writers. Let us claim that a ‘literary device’ is, more often than not, one which makes use of what Wood calls a work’s ‘knowledge.’ In that case, literary language is language that touches upon the tacit dimensions within the work. That is, language is ‘literary’ whenever it interacts with its implicature. Enrique Vila-Matas, for example, says of a story by Hemingway that ‘the most important part does not appear in the text: the secret story of the tale is constructed out of the unsaid, out of implication and allusion.’ Of course, Beckett also called the work of art ‘complete with missing parts.’

If this is true, to assert that literary works open up ‘other countries’ is not to make a metaphysical claim, but to call attention to the way the content of a work exceeds whatever words are read or written. Paul Ricoeur once wrote that when we encounter a work we do not reach ‘inside’ it, as if to recover some isolable core. Rather, ‘the ensemble of references opened up by the text’ results in a ‘world’ which ‘unfolds’ in front of us. This may be so, but Barley Patch also knows that works and their worlds unfold away from what is said and known: that literature is found within its own withdrawal.

-- Reviewed by David Winters on 13/02/2012

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1564786765
ISBN-13: 9781564786760
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Publication Date: 04/10/2011
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 296
URL: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search?keywords=9781564786760&index=books&linkCode=qs&tag=marksbookrevi-21

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