Gerald Murnane, Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf. Melbourne: Text, 2015. RRP: $29.99, 288pp, ISBN:9781925240375 (paperback); 9781922253187 (ebook).
Sometime in the mid-1970s, I took one of my frequent walks through the bookshop at the University of Western Australia, very likely looking for nothing in particular. In browsing the ‘sale’ table I came across a novel by an unknown (to me) Australian author promising on its back cover blurb a tale of ‘an Australian country town’; ‘the jibes of the anti-Catholics’ and ‘an ever-hopeful, gambling father’. As the evidence of the copy I bought that day still attests, it was reduced from $2.50 to .59 cents. For someone such as myself, still processing a rural, Catholic upbringing, this looked like a bargain, and so it proved to be. For my .59 cents, Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row introduced me to one of the most distinctive voices in Australian fiction. It also introduced readers to Murnane’s life-long love of horse racing, his fascination with the symbolic function of racing colours, and his affection for ‘the punt’.
And now, some four decades later, Murnane has produced Something for the Pain, a memoir that could easily serve as a non-fictional companion-piece consciously constructed to sit alongside that debut novel. It is a memoir based on the author’s long and deep obsession with the turf, an obsession that is—unsurprisingly—grounded in small town Australia, a Catholic upbringing, and his father’s gambling addiction. Murnane used those intervening decades to produce fiction that was almost wilfully unlike anything else being written in Australia, and now he has written a memoir that stretches the form in its skilful blending of sporting, social and personal history, and its insistence that the best way to reveal a man is through the prism of his obsessions.
Something for the Pain is adamantly not about horse-racing at the big end of town. There is no space for the Sangsters, Inghams or Godolphin; nor Bart, Tommy or Gai. Neither, apart from a homage to Murnane’s personal favourite Bernborough, is it a catalogue of champion thoroughbreds—notably when Peter Moody and Luke Nolen make an appearance, there is no mention of Black Caviar. For Murnane, the memorable characters of racing are small town, small-time trainers and owners looking to put one over the man; unscrupulous bookies and hoops on the take; and the ‘smart men’ working the odds in the hopes of the biggest pay day of all. They are period-piece characters with names to match—Rupe Taylor, Alf Sands, Clarry Long, Hughie Thomas and Teddy Ettershank—names that speak of another time, one that is at once so recent but also shockingly unrecognisable except as a matter of nostalgia. This is a memoir born of decades spent at country meetings and the year-on-year routine of every Saturday at Flemington, Caulfield or the Valley. It conjures up a world of ‘Two-way Turf Talk’, Bert Bryant, ‘London to a brick on’ and the Sporting Globe spread on a laminex table-top. Something for the Pain is a recuperation of what Murnane refers to frequently as the ‘Great Age of Racing’, when as he reminds us, ‘Stewards’ practices … were lax indeed by comparison with today’ (204).
As a sporting history, however, Something for the Pain is perhaps little more than an oddity—how could it be otherwise, when as Murnane concedes in the opening chapter, ‘During all the countless hours that I’ve spent on racecourses, I’ve never really looked at a horse’ (3). But despite this indifference to horseflesh, Murnane also notes that, ‘I’ve come to accept that I’ve never met and will never meet anyone for whom horse racing matters so much’ (167). An explanation of why horse racing matters so much to Murnane is the subject matter of the book’s 27 chapters (or ‘sections’) that explore the human drama of the big dreams, small victories, long memories and tall stories of the turf, and of a time when the nation’s embrace of horse racing went far deeper than carnivals and cup-days. Except of course, that Something for the Pain is also about much more than the subtitle, A Memoir of the Turf, suggests—in that as with any true memoir, the subject is the author himself. Murnane uses the book to explain how most aspects of his life and relationships have been influenced by his passion for horse racing, and of the undeniably intimate relationship between the equine pastimes of Gerald Murnane, racing tragic, and literary achievements of Gerald Murnane, writer of fiction.
In this way, Something for the Pain works at several levels as a literary memoir with a difference. This is achieved in part by Murnane recounting the extent to which his own biographical circumstances are recounted in Tamarisk Row and other fiction; and, perhaps more tellingly, his demonstration of how extensively his imagination has been shaped by the myriad ‘patterns’ he finds in horse racing, formed by everything from the unfolding drama and fluctuating fortunes within each race, the design and colours of the silks worn by jockeys, and the hypnotic cadence of a well-called race. In reviewing these somewhat idiosyncratic obsessions Murnane recognises that ‘I’ve devoted myself to horse racing as other sorts of person devote themselves to religious or political or cultural enterprises’ (118), and that just as other men and women have their lives shaped by their chosen creeds or ideologies, so too has horse-racing formed the imaginative patterns that underscore his own writing. In this context it is little surprise that a consideration of Remembrance of Things Past should morph into a discussion of The Benson and Hedges Book of Racing Colours, or to learn why for a time the sparsely decorated display board in Murnane’s workplace featured nothing other than portraits of Marcel Proust and Emily Bronte, alongside two photographs of the T. M. Ahern Handicap run in Brisbane in 1946. In reading Something for the Pain it also becomes less of a wonder (or at least comprehensible) to learn of Murnane’s ‘Antipodean Archive’—the meticulously constructed record of the ‘image-racing’ he imagines to have taken place in the lands of New Eden and New Arcady over a period of some three decades. This relentlessly compiled archive (‘I could not do things by halves’ (241)), with its cast of 1,500 owners, several hundred jockeys, forty-two race courses and six hundred race meetings a year, may well be the author’s greatest imaginative achievement.
Something for the Pain will be, for many readers, the most accessible book Murnane has written. It has great charm and humour, and carries its author’s presence lightly and engagingly in a way that eludes many memoirs with similar aspirations. Murnane is fully aware of his quirks of personality, just as he is aware of the quirkiness of attempting to explain the development of that personality through the prism (or looking-glass) of horse-racing. It is therefore unfortunate that the audience for the book is likely to be drawn from those who are already readers of Murnane’s fiction, although those readers will be well rewarded if they come seeking another virtuoso display of his singular style and intelligence. Sadly, however, even if the book’s apparent subject matter does bring new readers to Murnane, there is little reason to believe they will in turn be drawn to his remarkable fiction. Nevertheless, Something for the Pain is a significant achievement as both a social history and as a beguiling if indulgent act of autobiography. Hopefully, copies won’t be found on the ‘sale’ table any time soon.
Paul Genoni teaches with the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University. He is the editor (with Tanya Dalziell) of Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature, 1935-2012.