Book Review: Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth shines new light on early classic for potential Nobel winner

It is rare that at the age of eighty and after publishing sixteen books – a mixture of novels, short story collections, and non-fiction – that an author comes into the light of the public consciousness and begins to find notoriety. But the works of Gerald Murnane have begun to garner considerable interest in recent years, largely on the back of increased media attention both here in Australia and internationally. He’s also seen local award recognition, with his previous work of fiction, Border Districts, being shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award (a first for Murnane) as well as winning the Prime Minister’s Literary award the same year. The New York Times Magazine even published a feature on the author touting him as the potential next Nobel laureate in literature. Though until this time Murnane has never quite attained the readership and admiration many felt he should, always being considered more of a ‘writer’s writer’ than one that appealed to a wider audience. But with the upswing of attention and awards comes his most recent release, A Season on Earth.  

However, A Season on Earth is not necessarily a new publication for Murnane, being a fully unabridged revisitation of sorts of his second novel A Lifetime on Clouds. Released in 1976 as only the first half of the original manuscript Murnane presented to his publishers, it’s seen as an outlier in the Murnane oeuvre, being more comical and accessible than his later works. In the introduction to this latest edition the author even acknowledges that “I’ve sometimes heard or read that A Lifetime on Clouds is markedly different from the rest of my published fiction, or that my second book seems to lack something when compared with the others. These statements are well and truly justified.” And though A Season on Earth does go some way in altering this view, it doesn’t entirely change it enough to truly sit comfortably among his best.

The novel follows Adrian Sherd, a young Catholic schoolboy who spends most of the first section of the novel fantasising about American starlets and frequently providing veiled descriptions of his masturbation habits and general pre-occupation with sex. He dreams of ‘going to America’ and attends a Melbourne Catholic school with his equally sex-obsessed friends where they compare ‘conquests’ and self-satisfactory habits.

The second section has Adrian fantasising about marriage and what life may bring with a wife and children, his ‘wife’ Denise being a girl Adrian has recently seen on his train ride home from school that he is yet to speak to. But, sex is always present, as he invents a game that scores their sexual habits and marks out the births of each of their children.

As we move into the third section (the unpublished additions that extend on from A Lifetime on Clouds) we find the novel progressing to bringing together Adrian’s real and dreamt worlds as he abandons Melbourne and a life of sexual desires and turns to dreams of the church by joining a monastery where he prays and meditates, but ultimately finds this all to be a disappointing life.  

The final section of the novel finds Adrian trying to settle into the life of a poet, where he again dreams of writing socially progressive poems of fields and expanding horizons and searches for a poet to idolise and call his new form of saviour. This proves to be unsatisfying as well, though Adrian discovers the poet Rimbaud, the nineteen-year old literary genius that cast aside his world of composing poetry to discovering the world around him, and Adrian begins to fantasise of a world greater than that of obsessive desires.

The novel is written in a style that makes for easier reading than you’ll find elsewhere in Murnane’s work and presents the life and temptations of Adrian Sherd in a very digestible manner, whilst still capturing the flourish of Murnane’s ability to craft a sentence. However, the subject matter does fall into some problematic tendencies and made for uncomfortable reading at times, especially when judged by today’s standards. Adrian’s obsessiveness with thinking of girls as either sexual objects or homely wives, and the depiction of women throughout the novel, may not necessarily stand up in today’s #metoo era. But, it’s the subtle context of sex and Catholic guilt that builds as the novel progresses that provides some redemption.

It’s real pleasure lies in the descriptions of post-war Melbourne in the 50’s, and the most fervent and interesting reading comes in the sections where Murnane uses the masturbatory fantasies of Adrian Sherd to dissect world history, from Adam and Eve onwards, and the roles masturbation and religious zeal have taken to shape us as humans. The addition of the second half of the novel, as Murnane originally intended, definitely provides more context and flavour to the story and is a much fuller and satisfying read overall, though it still doesn’t quite rescue it from being considered a lessor Murnane when compared to his later brilliance like The Plains, Inland, or A Million Windows.   

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Gerald Murnane’s A Season On Earth is available now through Text Publishing.

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