For six months in his eighteenth year, Gerald Murnane believed he would be a priest. He’d attended mass with his family every Sunday since he was small and was much affected by his Catholic upbringing; he considered himself to be a very spiritual person and had even experienced, on a few occasions, what he describes as a “religious fervor.” But in 1957, Murnane had an awakening. He realized that even the greatest fervor of Sunday masses gave scant inspiration to the vibrant inner world engendered by his lifelong fascination with horseracing. In his memoir published nearly six decades later, Something for the Pain: A memoir of the turf, he traces the unique path of his artistic and spiritual development through the lens of the sport, and in so doing creates a singular and intimate glimpse into the life of a famously private writer.
Murnane’s father was a punter and had owned and trained horses; Murnane himself developed a passion for horseracing beginning when he heard his first race broadcast on the family radio as a toddler. For those familiar with Murnane’s oeuvre, his love of horseracing comes as little surprise: his semiautobiographical first novel, Tamarisk Row, tells the story of a Catholic child’s love of horseracing, and the sport often serves as a metaphor in his other works, such as A Lifetime on Clouds and Landscape with Landscape. What’s exceptional about Something for the Pain is the depth of devotion it reveals on the part of its author: “My religious faith rested on foundations that were flimsy indeed by comparison with my faith in—what should I call it?—the dream-world brought into being by the sight of richly tinted drinks and the sounds of mellifluous horse names.”
Horseracing to Murnane is a private polytheism: Punters and trainers are demigods and saints; the names of horses are invocations; and bets are ritual offerings. Most importantly, the characters and their stories captivate him, whether true or imagined. “I have believed for most of my life in my private legend of Alf Sands,” he writes of a well-known horse trainer, “by which I mean that I have believed in a mythical man able to prevail against the odds.” As a very imaginative child, radio broadcasts of races and the photographs of horses that appeared weekly in the Sporting Globe lent material to Murnane’s creativity, and gave him a framework for carrying out his fantasies. Horseracing defined the players, the stakes, and the limitations of each of his private ur-myths.
As he matured and began attending races with his father, and later went alone, the edges of his dream world grew more defined, and as they mingled with the real, there bloomed a mystical dimension to the turf. Imagining the experience of an acquaintance many years before as she witnessed the horse she bet on win a race, Murnane writes, “The increasing prominence of a red-and-white quartered jacket told her that Miss Valora was about to reach the lead; that her lightly made prayer of a few minutes before was about to be answered emphatically; that it was indeed possible for the agencies of the invisible world to intervene in the workings of the visible.” This suggestion that horseracing takes place as much in the unseen world as in that of the seen resonates with others of Murnane’s works, like The Plains and Inland, which are set in a kind of imagined Australia—both of, and not of, this world.
In the tradition of polytheistic gods assuming human forms, possessing humanlike flaws, and interfering in human affairs, among the saints and demigods of Murnane’s mythology is the legend of his father. The senior Murnane’s gambling addiction was the reason for the family’s frequent financial instability. He died when Murnane was twenty-one “with no assets to speak of and owing many thousands of dollars in today’s currency to his brothers and to who knows how many bookmakers that he welshed on, to put it bluntly,” Murnane writes.
Growing up in the world of horseracing, and as a character in his own mythological cast, Murnane defined himself in comparison to his father. Whereas his father “seemed to lose all sense of the value of money” when betting, Murnane has a “built-in regulator” that doesn’t allow him to bet beyond his means. Whereas his father abstained from alcohol, Murnane describes himself today as a “controlled alcoholic” who drinks a “measured amount” of home-brewed beer, with double the alcohol content of commercial beers, every afternoon and evening. Some of Murnane’s most formative and vivid memories involve his father—such as his first time seeing a jockey, “at the Bendigo Showgrounds on a cold evening during the Easter Fair.”
This was also Murnane’s first time seeing racing colors, which comprise a significant dimension of his mythological iconography, and are ubiquitous in Something for the Pain, and always specific: “I have for long surmised that Great Dalla’s colours were Brown, pale-blue stars and cap,” he says of his first racing colors, “but such was the play of light on the star shapes, on that long-ago evening in faraway Bendigo, that I sometimes decide that the stars on the brown background were not pale blue but silver or even mauve.” Murnane suspects his unique experience of color is due in part to his being born without a sense of smell—reading about odors, he says, he instead sees colors: “The odor of a red rose is red; the smell of gas is bright blue.”
Similar to synesthesia, certain colors suggest messages, as if trying to tell him things, and combinations of colors inspire hints of personalities. Describing those of his all-time favorite horse, Bernborough, he illustrates, “I associate the orange and the purple and the black with quiet confidence, with dignity, and with unshakeable resolve.” One can’t help but link this biographical anecdote with Murnane’s use of color and pattern to craft character in his fiction, such as in The Plains, wherein they act as social signifiers—at one point symbolizing alliances between factions of private armies masquerading as polo clubs.
The son of the brawler told me that in all the battles behind sports pavilions and on hotel verandas the colours ripped from men’s coats or clenched in bloodied fists had signified only the two sporting associations of ‘Central’ and ‘Outer’. He claimed to know nothing of a story that I had heard elsewhere of a third group disrupting the great annual matches and throwing themselves into the thickest of the fighting until the blue-greens and the golds were sometimes forced to unite against them. Yet I knew that a few local associations had later combined briefly to choose a team with the name Inner Australia and uniforms red for the sunrise or the sunset or, perhaps, something unstated.
Murnane’s own self-assigned colors are brown and lilac. Though he hasn’t yet settled on a design, he takes the task of choosing one seriously: “I read once that certain musical compositions (by Bach? Beethoven? I forget) sounded like the efforts of the human soul to explain itself to God,” he writes. “If I ever find my perfect combination of brown and lilac, I’ll feel as though I’ve thus explained myself.”
The radio was a sacred object in Murnane’s childhood. When he wasn’t listening to the races, he was listening to the hit parade. The songs inspired rudimentary narratives, or at least “themes of the sort that lie behind narratives”—Clarity emerging from confusion, for instance, or Hope replacing despair. Later, a schoolmate introduced him to classical music and, one afternoon in 1963, Murnane walked to the radio and turned off the hit parade. “Never during the fifty and more years since then have I paid any attention to popular music,” he writes in Something for the Pain. Of particular significance to him in the world of classical music is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, because “from its beginning to its end [it] brings to mind a series of images comprising a complete narrative: a story beginning in early morning and culminating in late afternoon; the story of a noble and closely contested horse race.”
The radio is also where he listened to his favorite race caller, Geoff Mahoney, who did with tone and pitch what lesser race callers did with volume. “I never heard Mahoney stumble over a horse’s name or offer a gratuitous comment on anything he observed,” Murnane writes. “He avoided even the use of first names for trainers or jockeys,” which Murnane considered tacky, as it suggested familiarity with the famous men. Murnane also found his least favorite race caller, Bert Bryant, on the radio. While Bryant was a capable caller early in his career, Murnane writes, “he soon afterwards began to turn into a self-opinionated loudmouth, and by the end of his career he was an incompetent buffoon and I could barely bear to listen to him.” It’s not hard to imagine how these varied experiences of listening shaped Murnane as a writer, whose prose—like Mahoney’s elocution—is memorable in its subtlety and concision.
Something for the Pain is by far Murnane’s most personal book, with intimate descriptions of his family, his adolescence, and his relationship with his wife. Especially interesting are the descriptions of Murnane as a young writer. In the years just after graduating college, he drank heavily—even at the racetrack, which his father considered lowbrow. Murnane was at that time a primary teacher. “My ambition had been to have several poems or short stories published in literary magazines within the next three years” after graduating, he writes. “In 1962, the third of the years was passing and I had nothing published. Worse, I had written hardly anything. What was wrong with me, I wondered, and while I wondered I drank.”
He began writing his semiautobiographical first book, Tamarisk Row, when he was twenty-five—four years after his father’s death. The book is set in the fictional town of Bassett, which resembles the town of Bendigo, in Victoria, where Murnane lived as a child. It tells the story of Clement Killeaton, whose father, Augustine, is a compulsive gambler who keeps the family in perpetual poverty. In Something for the Pain, Murnane writes of his father’s friendship with another punter with whom he had a semiprofessional relationship, and with whom he often shared racing secrets—but who, Murnane suspected, took advantage of him.
I had in mind while I invented my fictional goings-on [in Tamarisk Row] a few occasions when my father seemed on the point of admitting that Teddy sometimes kept from him things that my father deserved to be told and one occasion when my father was telling me about the disappointing career of my namesake in the years before my birth.
The namesake he refers to is the horse after which he was named. Murnane knew from an early age that he was named after a racehorse and had always considered it something of a distinction—only to find out later that the horse was known to be a disappointment even before Murnane was born. He compares the revelation to his own relationship with his father. “When my father died in my twenty-first year he was certainly disappointed in me,” he writes. One gathers he was also disappointed in his father. He asks, “How could I have written Tamarisk Row while he was still alive?”
Something for the Pain is riddled with reminders that the Great Age of Racing has long since passed. Equally important is how long Murnane has been fascinated with horseracing: about seventy years. He often qualifies his statements with phrases like, “to use a present-day expression,” and “at that time,” and, “in those days.” He often feels the need to emphasize just how old are certain of his remembrances: “Graham Nash, whom I haven’t seen or heard of for nearly fifty-five years.” Readers get the sense that, even though Murnane has notoriously been reluctant to travel beyond his small corner of Australia, he has traveled widely in a different sense; his memoir is evidence of his long and uncertain journey through the changes time has wrought on his beloved Australia.
As in his life, time has a material quality in Murnane’s fiction. At times the connection is made literal, as in a passage of Inland wherein the narrator imagines standing on a calendar. At other times, particularly in Something for the Pain, it is mapped onto the landscape: “Plenty Road in Bundoora comprises nowadays six lanes of motor traffic and two tram tracks, but in the early 1940s it was a narrow bitumen road leading through open countryside north of Melbourne,” Murnane writes of the town where he lived with his family from the ages of three to five, and of which he has many still vivid memories. Murnane’s fiction is often set in fictionalized versions of places where he’s lived, yet his preoccupations remain unchanged, as in the following passage.
On the day of the first north wind in spring, in the year when I was twelve years old, I sat near a fig-tree whose leaves were coming forth. On the grey branches the leaves were green: the same hopeful green that I would see in the church for many more Sundays yet. The fig-tree was in the backyard of my parents’ house on the flat land east of the junction of the Moonee Ponds and the Westbreen. I looked at the green coming forth from the grey, and I looked at the dust stirring behind the wire-netting of the fowl yard fence. I had not wanted to think of summer, but the north wind had made me think of the summer that was nigh.
For most people, a life as insular as Murnane’s would result in a myopic view of the world—an impoverished life experience, or at least boredom. But as in his fiction, one gets the sense that Murnane’s insularity—his reluctance to travel, his dislike of cinema, his refusal to learn to use a computer—has simply mitigated disruption of his dream-world from outside influences, in a sense preserving it. It has also allowed for an enhanced understanding of himself as an artist, as shaped by the place and culture in which he matured. Similar to his filmmaker in The Plains, this near-microscopic focus has afforded him time to produce his “antipodean archive,” a fantasy racing game of his devising, which continues to this day. Complete with horses, jockeys, owners, and trainers—and yes, colors—it may as yet be his greatest work.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the novel Binary Star and the forthcoming essay collection Sunshine State. She has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, and other journals. She teaches writing in New York.