To begin his latest book, a serious, meditative work called Barley Patch, Australian author Gerald Murnane confesses that he had an aesthetic crisis some years ago that threatened to end his long career. "In the early autumn of 1991," he writes, "four years before I ceased to be a teacher of fiction-writing … I myself gave up writing fiction."
The symptoms of this crisis, and the book itself, are challenging to understand. Though Murnane has published many books and won numerous prizes, he observed, at the time, that he "had not for many years used the terms novel or short story in connection with my writing" and would only let himself call them fiction. And though he'd spent decades teaching creative writing, he suddenly had no tolerance for normal talk of literary matters: "Several other words I likewise avoided: create, creative, imagine, imaginary, and, above all, imagination". Finally, although he has published, by his own account, more than half a million words, he believed then that he "had never created any character or imagined and plot" and concluded that his "preferred way of summing up my deficiencies was to say simply that I had no imagination".
These are rather severe statements for a writer to make about his own success. Murnane was born in Melbourne in 1939, has never lived far from the city and has published eight works, including Tamarisk Row and The Plains.
In 2010, he won the Adelaide Festival Award, and was also a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his reputation hardly rivals that of Peter Carey, his compatriot and two-time Booker Prize winner, Murnane's stature has grown to the point now where he can apparently afford to risk starting a book by telling readers how lousy a writer he thinks he is.
Having diagnosed his ailments as a writer - or having dramatised them for his readers' benefit, to disarm us - he then tells how he eventually discovered a cure, a rather wonderful idea captured in a single sentence: "During the rest of my life I would go on reading from a vast book with no pages, or I would write intricate sentences made up of items other than words".
To fill this "vast book with no pages", he then investigates memories from his early life.
Meanwhile, he playfully, or sternly insists (it's hard to tell which) that the book is fiction, yet most of his anecdotes read as frank autobiographical confessions in this long, self-reflexive literary experiment that seeks to illuminate "a country on the far side of fiction".
We're meant to be on Murnane's side as he tries to accomplish this task, and to learn why it is he thought he had to stop writing.
The trouble is that the book's style and substance are clinical and vague, respectively. Clear ideas and sentences do appear every so often and things pick up very well in the book's second part. But the gems are hidden under layers of muddied prose, without organised chapters, and reads too often like the literary fine print of a lawyer honour-bound to write only Proustian rigmarole: "This work of fiction is a report of scenes and events occurring in my mind. While writing this work of fiction, I have observed no other rules or conventions than those that seem to operate in that part of my mind wherein I seem to witness scenes and events demanding to be reported in a work of fiction".
The "rules and conventions", and the "intricate sentences" he warned us about prove to be quirks he's adopted to prove his experimental point. They hurt the book. Among many examples of aggravating language, we have: "As for New Zealand, I had never supposed that I could travel thither", and "The first word is the surname of my paternal great-grandfather followed by the possessive apostrophe" followed by "The aunt mentioned hereabouts could well have afforded to visit a hairdresser whenever she so wished" and "I gave to the image in my mind of the young woman a face that I would have called attractive, but I found her much less interesting than another female character who will be mentioned shortly".