Ben Winch's Reviews > Barley Patch

Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane
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really liked it
bookshelves: australian

OK I’ll admit it, this is pretty good. Great even. Certainly unique, and Murnane can sure craft a sentence: the precision on display here is awe-inspiring, and if there’s one thing I love it’s precision. He says what he means and if he can’t say it he lets you know it, and tries again. In this he’s like Beckett, and if there’s one thing I love it’s Beckett, but unique in this too―that while his writing shares some of the key salient features of Beckett’s writing, it doesn’t feel unduly influenced by Beckett’s writing. And maybe, in places, it’s the equal of Beckett’s writing, at least in my eyes, and surpasses other would-be contenders to that throne (the clearly Beckett-influenced Thomas Bernhard for eg, whose turn-on-a-dime, high-performance, self-satisfied prose so often resembles its own parody, which is fine and Murnane does that too but you want more sometimes; you want varied tone, direct emotion, more complexity). All of which, believe me, I’m surprised to hear myself saying, given I’ve never made it past twenty pages of The Plains, found Inland cryptic and impenetrable and Velvet Waters self-important (an impression I find hard to credit after Barley Patch) and even Barley Patch I had to start twice before it really struck me. Besides which, I find Murnane’s general drift bizarre. I tend to agree, at least partly, with one reviewer who described him as autistic―or maybe “autism spectrum” in today’s parlance, but with such a degree of self-awareness that, on the other hand, he can’t be, can he? But then, just how should I read him? When’s he serious, when’s he not? When he claims (as he does repeatedly―it’s a theme here) to have no imagination? Or then again, when he claims not to be nor to resemble his narrator even in the midst of that narrator’s describing episodes from what is almost certainly his (Murnane’s) own life? In the end, it may be nothing but a series of tricks with masks, but which somehow doesn’t undercut but enhances the seriousness of the would-be memoir. He’s got something, this Murnane character (taboo word, like “imagination”: “character”). Due to my typically fractured reading habits I may not fully grasp what he’s driving at (the parts about fiction and the world it inhabits/feeds off/feeds into I think I get; the parts about Catholicism and sexuality I’m not so sure) but I know I’ve never read anything like it. No it’s not perfect but it’s serious as hell, if a mundane provincial fifties Catholic hell. I’ll let Murnane tell it:

In the image that I see of my aunt’s face I can find no detail to explain the sternness and disapproval that seems to emanate from the image. However, I have for long recognised that time has no existence in the image-world. I am therefore able to suppose that my image-aunt, during her wanderings among my image-landscapes, has come upon certain image-evidence from the years during the 1950s when I masturbated often. That image-evidence would have included image-details of her image-nephew syping on his image-cousins, her image-daughters, during certain image-picnics on image-beaches during the early image-1950s, whenever one or another of the image-cousins leaned so far forward in order to reach for an image-tomato-sandwich or an image-patty-cake that the upper parts of her image-breasts were exposed or whenever she reached down to pick up some image-object from the image-sand and so caused the lower part of her image-bathing-costume to be stretched upwards, thereby exposing two image-rolls of image-flesh at the base of her image-buttocks. I am even able to suppose that my image-aunt may have come upon one or another image of a woman with an upswept image-hairstyle and an expression on her image-face of image-tolerance or even image-sympathy for the image-nephew and his image-spying, although I have never been able to suppose that my image-aunt would not have been sternly disapproving of such an image-image.


Did I mention it’s funny? Hilarious, like everything truly serious, truly real.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
April, 2015 – Finished Reading
April 25, 2015 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Stephen P Ben, have you read his short story collection, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs? It offers a pastiche vision of his themes. Also Music and Lit. did a special edition on him. GR Friend Proustitute was a main contributor. Enjoy.


message 2: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala I enjoyed reading this 'give and take' piece, Ben - you give Murnane all the awards and you sort of take them away at the same time - neat!
In any case, you've reminded me to read this book - but since, unlike your experience, The Plains and Inland gave me a lot of satisfaction, I'm wondering if I'll take to this one..


message 3: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Stephen: No I haven't read the stories, and I'll admit that title puts me off, but if I find a reasonably priced version I'll take a look. And yes I read an article Proustitute wrote on Inland, but from memory it wasn't entirely positive. I am curious as to what's been written about the man though, so thanks for the tip.

Fionnuala: You know me, I'm rarely satisfied. But I thought I'd been very kind to Murnane here, especially given that he himself admits (to some degree) to that "autism"! I certainly didn't mean to take back my praise, just to put it in context. One thing I can't take from him is his prose style - it's astonishing. And hey, maybe you'll love Barley Patch even more!


Stephen P While I don't believe serious illnesses such as autism, bipolar, psychotic disorders, create artistic genius, I do believe it puts perceptions and thoughts within a different context. With Murnane there are times that context snuggles up on the universal. I think of Walser here. I believe his magnificent prose style may arise from how he converses with himself, within his own mind, during his many hours alone?

I started Barely Patch and stopped about a third of the way through due to it being on my iPad where things do not yet really carry the true weight of existence. I'm slowly getting there. Trollope awaits me there too. BP I found to be a quality introduction and or an exploration into his major themes. Very useful, interesting, and a further addition to Murnania.


message 5: by Ben (last edited May 08, 2015 05:45PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Stephen, I'm not sure if I'll ever fully inhabit Murnania - it sounds a bit too close to Mania to me. But you never know. On my first reading, Barley Patch seemed incredibly dry, and I stopped after 20 or so pages thinking no, not for me. But as I looked at it again it opened out, like the vista of "mostly level grassy countryside" which Murnane is forever harping on (I love that, by the way), to reveal a vastness I had not suspected on first reading. By the book's end, I was enchanted (or half enchanted, half bamboozled):

While I walked away from the room and back along the first of the several corridors, I understood for the first time that a personage mentioned in a work of fiction is capable of devising a seeming territory more extensive and more detailed by far than the work itself.

See, I love everything about that sentence: the corridors, the "seeming", the paradox, the mysticism. In fact, the question it broaches is very close to one of my own central concerns in fiction: whether or not and if so how fictional characters can be said to be "alive". Of course on one level I'm aware such a question is absurd, but once you frame the fiction in question with another layer of fiction, well, the rules change. For my money, Murnane's exploration of questions like this is on a par with Beckett's. Unique and world-expanding.

As to the autism, etc question, I bring it up only half-seriously. The more people (children mostly) who are diagnosed as part of that spectrum, the less some part of me believes it exists. I mean, of course, there are extreme cases. But maybe a touch of so-called autism, as you say, can help furnish a unique perception. Walser too - he has certainly made me wonder as to his "sanity" before, and yet always with enough self-awareness (on his part) that I can't help but suspect he's pulling my leg. Both he and Murnane, in the final analysis, are too lucid by far to be "crazy", but both mine that seam of craziness that runs through all of us. When it works, it's thrilling!


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