Barley Patch is Melbourne author Gerald Murnane’s ninth book. Murnane has received many awards including the Patrick White Award and, this year, the $60,000 Melbourne Prize, which he had not applied for before as previously half the money had to be spent on travel.
Murnane will travel by neither air nor water. He broke this rule once to do a book tour to Tasmania and was drunk the whole time due to anxiety over the trip back. In Barley Patch he says that if he was ever to travel to New Zealand it would only be to stand on the flat Canterbury Plains and imagine that there was nothing but land in every direction. He is, clearly, an eccentric, and this is an eccentric book.
In his first work of fiction for 14 years, Murnane starts by asking himself the question posed by the poet, Rilke; “must I write?” After renouncing writing, Murnane had decided he would, instead, devote himself to reading. However, out of the thousands of books consumed over his lifetime he realised only a handful were truly memorable. He considered spending the rest of his life re-reading these but then devised another task. He would instead; “go on reading from a vast book with no pages”, contemplating the images and the feelings that comprised the “essence of all my reading and writing.”
The result of this contemplation is a blend of fiction and what seems to be autobiography. It has no plot, nor really much in the way of character; instead it is a series of detailed images and memories, mainly of landscape.
Fiction is central to Murnane’s life. In one scene he spends an hour with a dying uncle who disowned him after his first book was published. In this hour he behaved as if he had never written, experiencing “...for a little the life I would have led if I had never had recourse to fiction... that life would not have been impossible to lead if only I could have accepted its chief hardship... that I would never be able to suggest to another person what I truly felt towards him or her.” This comment resonated with me.
Barley Patch is a demanding book and probably mainly for those who are seriously interested in the art of fiction. I found it rewarding and frustrating in equal measure.
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.