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JM Coetzee Considers the Nature of Fiction in Gerald Murnane’s Writing

JM Coetzee has written about the work of Australian writer Gerald Murnane for The New York Review of Books. He particularly focuses on Murnane’s Barley Patch and Inland

JM CoetzeeThe Childhood of JesusHere and NowInlandBarley Patch

Coetzee writes of Murnane’s Catholic schooling, which left him with “an abiding belief in another world, and, on the other, ingrained feelings of personal sinfulness”. Coetzee goes on to clarify that “another world” for Murnane was not a religious one but a philosophical one which can be accessed “neither by good works nor by grace but by giving the self up to fiction”.

Coetzee then asks: “Is there a site, loosely to be called an imaginary world, where all the personages in Murnane’s fictions have their existence; and when Murnane (or “Murnane”) writes of another world that is in this one is he referring to nothing more unusual than the imagination of his authorial self?”

Between 1840 and 1914 Ireland emptied itself of half its population. Famine claimed as many as a million people, but most left their native land in hope of a better life abroad. Though North America was the favored destination, over 300,000 Irish took passage to Australia. By 1914 Australia was the most ethnically Irish country in the world outside Ireland itself. In Australia, Irish community life centered on the Catholic Church, which retained its predominantly Irish complexion until, after World War II, waves of immigrants began to arrive from southern Europe, inflecting its forms of worship with their own rituals and folkways.

Strong on obedience to doctrine and on forms of observance but intellectually torpid, the Church in Australia concentrated its energies on ensuring that every Catholic child received a Catholic schooling. Gerald Murnane, born in 1939, was one of the beneficiaries of this policy, and from Tamarisk Row (1974) onward, in fiction and nonfiction, he records the consequences of an Irish-Australian Catholic education for a boy child with a history much like his own (in a Murnanian spirit of scrupulousness I hesitate to call the child “himself”). Among these consequences have been, on the one hand, an abiding belief in another world, and, on the other, ingrained feelings of personal sinfulness.

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