Displaced Homelands in Gerald Murnane’s Inland


Gerald Murnane is the pre-eminent chronicler of Irish-Australian Catholic male youth: its spiritual curiosity, onanistic fantasies and inevitable guilt, and the irresistible attraction to the arcane and the ceremonial. The specifically Irish-Catholic content in his early novels – principally Tamarisk Row (1974) and A Lifetime on Clouds (1976), both set in the drought-stricken plains of rural Victoria – turns on Murnane’s deliberate approximations between narrative and autobiography, sufficiently non-identical to bear plausible deniability and which lend the narration a sardonic and amused tone. His later novel Inland (1988) also has its protagonist meditating copiously on his Irish Catholic upbringing and its effects on his understanding of faith, his capacity to enter into romantic relationships, and his sense of the world. The narrative is channelled through a geography of the grasslands of Melbourne County, refracted by meditations on the Hungarian Alföld (an exclave of the great Eurasian steppe) and the North American prairie. This displacement of Irish-Australia by way of Hungary and the United States comprises a deft method by which to examine masculine Australian Irish Catholicity out in plain sight, where geomorphology, ecology, and matters of national identity illuminate the meridians of the Irish-Australian Catholic diaspora.

I learned that no thing in the world is one thing; that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things. I learned to find a queer pleasure in staring at a thing and dreaming of how many things it might be. (Murnane, Inland 48)

Gerald Murnane’s fiction occupies a distinctive if not unique place in the landscape of Australian literature in terms of its style, strategic use of narrative point of view, and a compulsive return to such subject matter as horseracing, grassland ecologies, the inner landscape of memory and the mysteries of a Catholic education. Murnane launched his writing career as the pre-eminent chronicler of Irish-Australian Catholic male youth, charting the inner lives of adolescent protagonists Clement Killeaton in Tamarisk Row (1974) and Adrian Sherd in A Lifetime on Clouds (1976). These novels chronicle their protagonists’ struggles with Catholicism, self-abuse and inner life, set in the drought-stricken plains of rural Victoria. Both novels commit to a wide range of religious themes and images, spanning church history and the stringent requirements of canon law upon ordained clergy, informed by Murnane’s own unsuccessful stint training for the priesthood in 1957 before training as a schoolteacher. Murnane’s deliberate approximations between narrative and autobiography are sufficiently non-identical to bear plausible deniability, lending the narration in both novels a sardonic and amused tone, and affording moments of youthful indoctrination a sense of spiritual curiosity combined with an irresistible if perplexed attraction to the arcane and the ceremonial.

This thread of Australian Irish Catholicism runs through Murnane’s writing career, achieving an unsurpassed level of subtlety in Inland (1988). This novel also has its protagonist meditating copiously on his Irish Catholic upbringing and its effects on his youthful understanding of faith, his capacity to enter into romantic relationships, and his sense of the world, mediating plot, character and memory through a series of geographical displacements. The narrative is channelled through a geography of the grasslands of Melbourne County, refracted by meditations on the Hungarian Alföld (an exclave of the great Eurasian steppe) and the South Dakotan prairie. This displacement by way of Hungary and North America comprises a deft method by which to examine masculine Australian Irish Catholicity out in plain sight, where geomorphology, ecology and matters of national identity illuminate the meridians of the Irish-Australian Catholic diaspora.

This narrative strategy of displacement gives Inland a profundity both in terms of subject matter and affect. The inner workings of spirituality, understanding one’s place in the world and recognising the depth of childhood relationships are navigated through a descriptive meditation on grassland geographies, where uniform appearance disguises a complexity beneath the line of vision. This strategy is effective at the level of narration, but it also provides a means by which to examine the location of Murnane’s novel within a wider ecology and history. Irish-Catholic identity plays a significant role in Australia’s history, often in contest with the hegemonic dominance of British Protestant structures of power. This relation is not characterised by obvious markers of difference – in language or ethnicity, for example – and thus risks submergence and invisibility. Murnane has his protagonist show perplexed fascination with ostentatious ritual and theological principles in the novel, exploring just how an Irish-Catholic identity might be constructed, and against which he seeks to establish a sense of his own inner life. On the other hand, Murnane inherits and writes in the wake of a long tradition of the Catholic novel, a genre that emerges in post-revolutionary France and takes specific forms in mid-twentieth-century England and the United States. The Catholic novel operates as a ‘minor literature’ in each of these historical contexts, similar to how Kafka’s writing is said to ‘summon’ his community from his position adrift from both the Jewish community in Prague and the larger Austro-Hungarian and German state structures (Deleuze and Guattari). Murnane’s fiction harnesses two consistent features of this eclectic genre: the subtle narrative layering in which religious iconicity is embedded beneath the workings of plot, and an essential unknowability in character in counterpoint to the liberal individualism that dominates the English novel from the nineteenth century.

Gerald Murnane and the Genre of the Catholic Novel

Murnane’s literary influences tend to be durable and kept in plain sight across his writing career: Emily Brontë, Samuel Beckett and Thomas Hardy among them. His prose technique, drawing deeply on his own life experiences turned to imaginative reconfiguration, might be described as autofiction, tending more toward first-person narration in the latter phase of his career. He has spoken sufficiently in interview and in non-fictional prose to establish the basis for his early characters in his own fevered youthful contests between Catholic faith and sexual desire, and his negotiations with the institutions of the church until he eventually committed to leaving the seminary. There is little obvious evidence that Murnane has spent time considering the traditions of the Catholic novel per se, although it is safe to assume he read some or most of his Australian contemporaries. But what of the French Catholic novel that flourished in the nineteenth century and continued well into the later-twentieth? Or the mid-century British Catholic novel developed by the converts Evelyn Waugh, Graham Green and Muriel Spark? Or the mid-century efflorescence of sacramental violence in the novels and stories of Flannery O’Connor and her contemporaries in the United States?

The French Catholic novel came to prominence in the nineteenth-century following the French Revolution and its aftermath. Jean-Jacques Rousseau led the literary response to post-revolutionary secularisation and to the overtly anti-Catholic sentiments of the philosophes. The genre took shape with such novels as François-René de Chateaubriand’s Atala of 1801 and Charles Saint-Beuve’s Volupté of 1834 (Garfitt 222). The nineteenth century novel – dominated by Honoré Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola – emphasised social realism and the psychological autonomy of the modern human subject. Yet later iterations of the Catholic novel came to contest the assumptions of realist fiction, with authors preferring instead to style their prose in palimpsestic form. In the case of Georges Bernanos, a surface narrative provided cover for the sous-texte biblique, an array of biblical images and references that would guide the reader’s interpretive drives (Gil). The two novels for which Bernanos is best known, Sous le soleil de Satan (Under the Sun of Satan, 1926) and Journal d’un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1936), each illustrate this method by depicting the sparsity of a rural priest’s everyday life, resonant with themes of sacrifice and penitential suffering. This kind of hermeneutic potential, where the text surface presents one narrative but distributed images and references form another network of meaning less obvious at first glance, bears strong formal and stylistic resonances with Murnane’s fiction. The relation between surface and sous-texte is not so much palimpsestic in the case of Murnane’s Inland, but rather a matter of religious imagery embroidered into his narrative, forming threads across its surface to be pulled together in a final scene of identification.

The fortunes of the British Catholic novel are more likely to have made a direct impression on Murnane’s practices in weaving religious and secular narratives and imagery together. A coherent sense of the British Catholic novel comes into focus at the fin de siècle, with Aubrey Beardsley, a Catholic convert, increasingly being seen as totemic in relation to Catholic sensibility in prose fiction and as an embodiment of the affinities between this sensibility and the decadent movement of the 1890s. W. B. Yeats saw such figures as Beardsley, Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson as ‘men fated for early deaths preceded by lives dominated by profound excess and a self-torturing, medieval spirit’, embodying an aesthetic of failure (Lockerd 143). Ellis Hanson adds Oscar Wilde and J. K. Huysmans to this group, in which attraction to a Roman Catholic church hostile to homosexuality entailed feelings of shame and grace, and provided the means by which to aestheticise the institution of Rome as ‘a beautiful and erotic work of art, a thing jewelled over like the tortoise that expires under the weight of its own gem-encrusted carapace in À Rebours’ (Hanson 6). For Hanson, decadent Catholicism in literature displayed an obsession with satirising vice and folly, a feature of Murnane’s prose turned inward onto his characters and narrators rather than directed toward social and religious institutions. Writers such as Beardsley and Johnson took on the weight of decadence like ‘a saint takes upon himself the “consequence” of sin when he heals the sick’ (Lockerd 147). Murnane’s early narrators and characters, obsessed with self-abuse and the necessity of abject penance, might be seen as inheritors of this tradition in which decadence and devotion register a deeply divided consciousness.

The British Catholic novel as a genre was dominated in the first half of the twentieth century by two converts, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Both were accused of recycling ‘the rhetoric of anti-Catholic propaganda’, especially in their use of gothic tropes (MacKay 226; see also Woodman). In Brideshead Revisited, for example, the setting of Brideshead Castle and its fate through the narrative combines a nostalgia for aristocracy with a portrait of an exotic but doomed family lineage. Charles Ryder’s conversion – a contested reading of the novel’s denouement – follows a series of conversion events and returns to the Catholic Church by members of the Flyte family. The vocational impetus of conversion in both writers was made even more explicit for Muriel Spark, whose conversion in 1954 was an event she saw as necessary in her development as a novelist; her first novel The Comforters was published in 1957 to wide acclaim (see Fitzgerald). Marina MacKay notes that many mid-century Catholic novelists kept their characters in a condition of suspended development, installed in the armed forces for Waugh and Greene, and in schools and hostels for Spark (MacKay 227). That so many writers joined the Roman church was cause for scepticism in literary circles: Cyril Connolly set out a classic account of conversion as an indulgent mode of escapism in his Enemies of Promise, and George Orwell saw the discipline and central organisation of the Roman church as an indication of reactionary political beliefs being insulated against more democratic and socialistic systems (Connolly; Orwell 509).

Inland has one dimension of its striated narrative set in the Great Plains of the United States, where complex networks of immigration are embedded in characters’ names, such as the Nordic filiations of Gunnarsen and Dahlberg (noting that the Swedish population formed a significant minority in Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas). Few of these migrants were Catholic, however, instead belonging to Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist traditions. Roman Catholicism has exerted an ideological force upon American literature, film and photography, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present (Giles). The gravitational centre of the American Catholic novel is found in the deep south, most notably in the work of Flannery O’Connor (Georgia) and Caroline Gordon (Kentucky and Tennessee), though Catholic fiction also enjoyed a mid-century flourish across the nation in work by Paul Horgan in the Southwest, Edwin O’Connor in New England and Henry Morton Robinson in New York. This cultural expression charts a delicate relationship with the institutions of the American Catholic Church, which had maintained an Index of Prohibited Books, and the National Legion of Decency, which lobbied Hollywood on matters of morality and censorship (Cadegan). The combination of violence and sacramental vision in Flannery O’Connor bears subdued and secularised echoes in Murnane’s novel – notably the terrible loss in the death of a child and a ritual visitation to the cemetery decades later – but it is set against the narrator’s understanding of his interior life rather than the experience of a religious epiphany. This displacement from sacrament to secularity provides Murnane’s narrator with a heightened sense of mystery, despite – or because of – the intensity of self-scrutiny. In this sense, Inland is in direct descent from the inscrutable characters found in Bernanos, Waugh, Greene, Spark and O’Connor.

The lineage to which Murnane arguably makes the most direct contribution is the Australian Irish Catholic novel. Peter Carey’s brilliant ventriloquy in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) gives an intensely authentic voice to Irish grievance in colonial Australia, especially the sense of separateness and oppression felt by the Irish Catholic community. Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory (1950) provides a forensic and barely fictional study of the intersections of political power and the Catholic Church in the mid-twentieth century. Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate (1959) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) do likewise, albeit with a focus on the Vatican rather than upon Irish-Australian Catholics. Thomas Keneally’s Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) chronicles the comic failure of James Maitland at seminary, a kind of fictional accompaniment to Murnane’s own biographical failure the decade prior. To these might be added Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds of 1977 – still the highest selling Australian novel of all – where personal and familial entanglements reach into the Irish-Australasian colonial experience and the global structures of the Catholic Church.

The eclectic history of the Catholic novel produces different hermeneutic pressure points in texts from British, Irish, French, American or Australian traditions: matters of cultural disposition, denominational hegemony, language, and so on bear upon style, rhetoric, imagery, narration and character. The problem of colonial displacement enters into the history of the Catholic Filipino, New Zealand or Australian novel, to say nothing of the complexities of the southern United States in the Catholic novels of Flannery O’Connor. Without exhaustive knowledge of the titles Murnane may have read, two threads of major significance may be taken from this history. Firstly, the stylistic layering of narrative events upon a substrate of Catholic imagery and reference – whether the sous-texte biblique of Georges Bernanos or the sacramental index of violence in the fiction of O’Connor – provides a comparative lens by which to observe Murnane’s fragmented and displaced narrative in Inland. He writes not so much in the shadow of the Catholic novel as he produces its photographic negative: his characters are fascinated by ritual and display an embedded sacramental consciousness, but they look on the mysteries of faith in perplexity and bemusement. Themes of spiritual insight and loss arise, are submerged in reminiscence, and return in ways that suggest the temporal asynchronies and multiple ‘worlds’ of the surface narrative is a clue not to spiritual growth in the bildungsroman tradition, but instead to the ways that memory and perception mimic the moments of grace and epiphany displaced from Catholic orthodoxy.

The second thread concerns the nature of character: as a counter-tradition to the liberal individualism of the English novel, the Catholic novel presents characters that remain unknowable, residing beyond the conventions of narrative omniscience and psychological growth. For example, such figures as Lise in Spark’s The Driver’s Seat is provided a radical freedom by her narrator, controlling her own actions and fate, yet she is none the more knowable for all that (MacKay 231–2). Murnane draws from a similar source for his characters, providing readers with intensive insight into their psychology and motivations, but having them stand apart from the world through which they navigate. This second thread is important not only in how Murnane draws his characters and structures his narratives; by viewing his work in relation to a Catholic tradition including Waugh, Greene and Spark, his negotiations with the Catholic church become more explicitly coherent. The orthodoxy that critics see as restrictive for these authors, and from which an author such as Spark is seen to revolt, is put in question in Murnane’s novels when his characters face the institutions and paraphernalia of the Church. This confrontation is not necessarily resolved but rather turned to creative impetus, where the reader is invited to experience the process by which a character turns from church orthodoxy to better understand the spiritual implications of his thoughts and perceptions.

Landscape as Catholic Apotropaism

Inland canvasses many of the themes of Murnane’s earliest novels, yet it is less a bildungsroman than a reflection on memory and the intense emotional life of youth. The first-person narrator’s meditation circles around the object of his emotional awakening in childhood, the ‘Girl from Bendigo Street’. Murnane finds some ingenious ways to narrate around and beneath this foundation, deploying landscape and memory in a series of apotropaic gestures. He turns from the florid narrative of Catholic guilt and excursions into political-religious history to provide a view of the Irish-Australian Catholic experience from a reverse angle, where the details of the Latin Mass or the difference between venial and mortal sins give way to landscape, and specifically the various grasslands haunting the novel. Murnane thus displaces the Catholic novel’s sous-texte biblique with a sous-texte de vie sentimentale, where episodes deploying images of the Church invoke a sense of puzzlement, and psychic relief is to be found in expansive geographies. This turn from canon law and Catholic iconography to the panoramic symmetry of grassland and sky is not an entirely consoling gesture: the narrator turns from the perplexing iconography of the Church (where the etymology of apotropaism, ἀποτρέπειν, is ‘to turn away’), but instead of finding solace from ill-influence (ἀποτρόπαιος) the grasslands themselves are haunted by their histories of dispossession.

The novel opens in an estate house in Szolnok County in the Hungarian puszta or Pannonian steppe. The narrator is a writer by profession, who corresponds with his editor and translator, Anne Kristaly Gunnarsen, a native of Szolnok County who is resident in the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies in the town of Ideal in Tripp County, South Dakota. They discuss language and translation and compare the ecologies of the prairies and the puszta. Following a period of silence the narrator writes his own obituary to appear in the pages of Hinterland, the journal Gunnarsen edits. As he recounts this relationship – remote in geographical terms but bound up in unspoken and perhaps unreturned intimacies – the narrator takes surreptitious glances from the window of his book-lined room to the fields and estate workers outside. He discloses in the first few paragraphs of the novel that descriptions of Szolnok County (and indeed the estate occupied by the narrator) are ‘copied from Gyula Illyés’s Puszták népe, first published in 1936, and translated by G. F. Cushing as People of the Puszta and published by Chatto and Windus in 1971’ (3). Soon after, the narrator informs the reader that botanical references pertaining to the Great Plains are taken from ‘The Life of Prairies and Plains by Durward L. Allen, published in 1967 by McGraw-Hill Book Company in co-operation with The World Book Encyclopaedia’ (5). These steppe territories function as apotropaic landscapes, deflecting direct attention from matters closer to home for the narrator, but are themselves mediated through fictional institutes and actual reference texts.

Roughly a quarter of the way through the novel the scene shifts to Melbourne County, where the narrator reflects upon his childhood and coming-of-age. He recalls the influence of geography upon his rising amorous sensibilities, especially the proximity or otherwise of the Victorian grasslands during periods of his family’s transience. This radical shift in narrative location is matched by the fundamental ambiguity of the two narrating voices: do they comprise a single consciousness who fictionalises his experiences by means of geographical displacement, and who then reverts to memoir located in his ‘native district’? Or, are they two separate identities performing specific functions? (Murphy 1–11). The displaced narration with which the novel begins, reaching from Szolnok County in Hungary to Tripp County in South Dakota, installs the necessary distance between the narrator and his complex childhood memories that come to dominate the greater part of the novel. This act of displacement and close description of the Hungarian puszta and the South Dakotan prairie suggests, but never quite attains the gravitational pull of, symbolic or allegorical potential. It acts as a secular counterpart to the narrator’s personal symbolism explored in the larger section of the novel, comprising childhood memories of Catholic iconography and catechistic experience as well as the ways in which a dawning amatory awareness conflicts with an internalised Catholic morality.

A narrative that abruptly shifts location from eastern Hungary to greater Melbourne – and in doing so transforms its narrative persona – presents a steep challenge to the integrity of the confessional mode it employs. The two personae are held together by a metanarrative compact with the reader, where the narrator stands in a slanted relation to one or both voices, yet there exists a biding theme beneath this dispersed geography in its geomorphological unity. Each of the three major regions in which the narrative is set – the Hungarian Great Alföld or Pannonian Plain, the Great Plains of South Dakota and the vanishing grasslands of northern Melbourne County – is an exclave or appendix to a much larger steppe or grassland ecozone: respectively, the great Eurasian steppe, the North American prairie and the South-Eastern Australian temperate savannah. The relative uniformity of each grassland ecology reveals, on closer inspection, a complex biome, having evolved during the Pleistocene geological epoch (c. 2.5 million years ago) with its glacial and interglacial ages, and taking its present form in the Holocene (beginning c. 11,700 years ago) as a result of a hotter and drier climate in Eurasia and North America that followed the last ice age. Grasslands comprise the most widespread of all biomes on Earth’s land masses, are found in subtropical, temperate and semi-arid zones, support complex networks of plants, insects, birds and animals, and sequester most of their biomass carbon beneath ground in extensive root systems (Gibson).

The choice of these steppe ecologies extends well beyond their well-disguised diversity and richness: each zone is a physical record of displaced peoples and violent dispossession. Murnane makes no direct reference to the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains or the grasslands of Victoria, but this absence or silence is difficult to overlook in the experience of reading. The violent dispossession of land and livelihood entailed in the colonial history of the United States and Australia casts an unreconciled shadow across each zone. Murnane’s narrator articulates a greater interest in the cultural and demographic history of the Hungarian Alföld, itself a fragment and remnant of the Eurasian Steppe, and its hold on the European imagination since before Roman times (not to mention its profound role in the Chinese historical imaginary, as the source of replenishing hordes of invading Khitans, Xiongnu, Göktürks and Mongols throughout history). The European history of steppe invasion includes: the Scythians and Goths across the northern regions of the Roman Empire; the Visigoths, who sacked Rome under Alaric in 410 CE; the Huns, who occupied swathes of the eastern Roman Empire; the Bulgars, Avars and other groups, who presented an existential threat to Byzantium and the Persian Sassanian Empire in the sixth and seventh centuries CE; and the Magyars under Árpád, who conquered the Carpathian basin in 895 CE. These waves of invasion and settlement shaped the political and demographic character of early medieval Europe, comprising a replenishing threat from the Eurasian Steppe culminating in the Mongol invasions of Eastern Europe as far west as Hungary and Austria in the early thirteenth century.

The Eurasian Steppe holds a more ancient role in the European imagination however, as the origins of horse domestication and the invention of the chariot – echoed in Murnane’s persistent obsessions with horse racing – as well as gold- and silver-smithing. According to the Kurgan Hypothesis, it is the territory in which the Proto-Indo-European language emerged in the fourth millennium BCE, to spread and transform into many of the ancient and modern languages of Europe, Persia and the Indian subcontinent (Anthony; Cunliffe). The origins of political systems in Russia and Turkey in particular have been traced to a steppe tradition emerging in the fourth millennium BCE, which developed alongside the Proto-Indo-European language and technologies of mobility, and spread its influence into Europe, Persia and Chinese borderlands via waves of migration and through the influence of successive steppe empires (Neumann and Wigen). These confluences of language origin, political structures and histories of invasion and dispossession are deeply embedded in steppe ecologies. Murnane’s habitual return to these themes in his fiction and other prose suggests a network of images, historical lineages and anthropological themes running through – or just beneath – his text surfaces, comprising a field of reference to the grassland ecologies from which he draws inspiration, and emulated in the particular morphology of plain surface and complex depth. To take just one of many examples, in his essay ‘The Curse of Ivan Veliki’ Murnane recounts his early ambition to write a story in which a young man looks out beyond his bookshelves to a vista resembling the Argentinian pampas (49).

The steppe thus performs a double function, representing the threat of nomadic warriors to settled political states, and the deep memory of linguistic, technological and cultural origins of those same states. The steppe is both deeply alien and profoundly familiar, and is deployed by Murnane’s narrator as an apt figure for memory, emergent adolescent desire and loss. At points where his narrator meditates on hidden meaning – a secular cognate of Christian allegory, and specifically the Catholic sous-texte biblique – grasslands are inevitably nearby. The concentric rings of grassland in outer Melbourne provide an ecozone into which the narrator can flee: ‘In desperate circumstances I might flee as far as the outer grasslands, but I could never see myself as fleeing further’ (Murnane, Inland 57). In his essay ‘Birds of the Puszta’ Murnane makes clear his association of steppe ecologies with the gestures toward allegory or sous-texte in his fiction: ‘I thought of plains whenever I wanted to think of something unremarkable at first sight but concealing much of meaning’ (56).

Inland and Irish Catholic Memory

Despite the tectonic shifts in its narrative location, Inland traces out a singular meditation on childhood and youth, the entanglements of early romantic sentiment, and the relation between memory’s archive and the geographical displacements of a quasi-itinerant family around rural Victoria and outer Melbourne. The narrator seeks out his true disposition toward the Girl from Bendigo Street with whom he shared a quiet and undemonstrative bond of affection in childhood, and realises the depth of his feeling decades later when visiting the suburban grave of the girl’s brother, whose tragic death in childhood can be read as a displaced symbol of the two children’s unrealised bond.

When Murnane’s narrator is not pondering the geomorphology, flora and fauna of grasslands, he is immersed in memories of youth, some of which are foundationally connected to his Catholic upbringing. He muses on a childhood photo with two schoolgirls and Archbishop Daniel Mannix which records his winning a book prize in the ‘Paraclete Art Society’ essay competition on the topic ‘How I Can Help Newcomers From Europe To Be Good Catholics’. Having looked at the newspaper photograph each year for thirty-five years, the narrator observes the stark distinction between himself at eleven and the two young teenage girls. The difference in stature is exacerbated by the narrator standing on the other side of Archbishop Mannix from the two girls, who are dressed in smart uniforms befitting their private school status. The narrator instead is without a school uniform, with ‘unbuttoned collar and kiddie’s pullover – as though I had only just been called in to this formal gathering from playing in the sandpit outside’, contrasting not only with the two girls but with the Archbishop in his ‘voluminous soutane and cape and the lofty biretta and pom-pon’ (92).

This tableau of childhood awkwardness plays on the combination of the boy’s overachievement with his visibly diminished social capital, where remembered discomfort is deflected in a turn to language and theological doctrine bound up in the society’s name:

The title Paraclete is used for the Holy Ghost, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity and traditionally the person of those three most ready to help writers, artists, and all who today would be called creative. I knew as schoolboy in the early 1950s that the word paraclete was from the Greek and meant helper, or comforter; but I was struck then, as I am still struck today, by the likeness of the word paraclete to parakeet. (88)

Even as a boy the narrator understood that the key is not in the aural association of paraclete with parakeet, or even that the Holy Ghost – depicted as a white dove at the Baptism of Jesus and at the Pentecost in Christian iconography1 – bears close ornithological associations with its more colourful and excitable cousins, but in how the symbols of the Catholic Church can be turned to other imaginative uses. In the writer’s hands the verbal images and textures of narrative can call upon the generative and regenerative power of the grasslands, in which language itself is generated:

I am not writing about some milksop-child in a joke told by smiling nuns or priests. I knew the difference between the words paraclete and parakeet. But I knew already that each word is more than one word. And I was beginning to find messages and signs beneath the surface of words. (89)

This explicit reference to the sous-texte shifts from its classic formulation as submerged biblical material and replaces such orthodoxy with the pagan world of animal spirits: ‘the parakeet I recognise now as one of the demigods who live on earth rather than in heaven and who are all I know of divinity’ (89). Remote theology is put aside in favour of the haecceitas of the plains and their avian guiding spirits, the birds prized by the narrator ‘for their furtiveness’ (88):

The Paraclete stood for the official religion, which seemed to me in those days a vast and not uninteresting body of doctrine that I might go on learning for the rest of my life. The parakeet stood for something that I knew was no part of the official religion, although I often wished it could have been: what I might have called the religion of grasslands. I could only have talked vaguely about the religion of grasslands. But whenever I stood alone in the paddocks near Sims Street, with Bendigo Street just in view over my shoulder, I felt without straining to feel it what I supposed I was meant to feel during prayers and ceremonies in church. (89)

The grassland evokes reticent feelings of devotion, displaced from his Catholic upbringing and relocated in his affections for the Girl from Bendigo Street. Its uniform surface is a deception, masking its hidden depths and subtleties. The narrator is characteristically specific in noting his affinity for Barnard’s parakeet or the mallee ringneck parrot (Barnardius barnardi), a species of the Barnardius genus which is ubiquitous across the continent except for extreme tropical and highland zones. This is turned to productive use in his memory of the prize-giving photograph, where he associates the parakeet with the colourful uniforms of the private school girls, in contrast to his own dull outfit of ‘my best grey pullover and a white shirt with the top button undone’ (91). The teenage girls are figured as colourful and exotic beside the plain boy observing them, his lack of uniform signifying his lower economic status. What is left unstated though, is comparison with the far more colourful rainbow lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) with whom Barnard’s parakeet competes for territory, and which is far more recognisable as a national avian icon.

The narrator’s training in Christian iconography leads him to seek out a repertoire of imagery befitting the territory and ecology through which his life moves. During one of several episodes in which the narrator’s father evaded gambling debts by fleeing the district, the narrator temporarily lives with relatives described by his father as ‘religious maniacs’. The boy rejects this harsh valuation, redirecting his own views into a kind of monastic vision:

I thought these people were far from being religious maniacs. If it had been possible I would have gone off myself to the community in the mountains. I thought of it as a landscape from mediaeval Europe transplanted to the headwaters of the King River. The settlers went to mass each morning in their chapel; by day they tended their herds or tilled their crops; at night they practised arts and crafts or discussed theology. Living simple and virtuous lives in the mountains, the settlers would not have been afraid if they had seen the signs in the sky of the end of the world. (140)

The boy’s fantasy replaces grasslands with mountains complete with portents of the apocalypse and echoes of various anchorite or monastic settlements. The family’s Advent hymn returns him to the consistent ground of the plains: ‘the song [anticipating Christ’s coming] made me think not of the Jews wandering among rocks and sand but of a woebegone tribe wandering like gipsies across an immense grassland under low grey clouds’ (141). These associations persist when he accompanies his relatives to church. The priest delivers the gospel taken from Matthew 24:15–35 in ‘the last season after Pentecost’, in which a series of apocalyptic images are drawn together: Jesus foretells the future destruction of the temple and the episode realises Daniel’s prophecy of the ‘awful horror’ or ‘abomination of desolation’ to befall the Temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, and 12:11). These images also bear the allegorical weight of the coming of the Son of Man who provides salvation in the wake of destruction. The passage ends, appropriately, with the lesson of the budding fig tree: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’ (Matthew 24:35). The boy is fixed by the demonstrative powers of allegory, but interprets this as a way to understand his purpose in writing:

More clearly than anything I had read or heard in my childhood, that last pause near the end of the last gospel of the year told me every thing would always be more than one thing. The last pause told me that every thing would always contain another thing, which would contain still another thing or which would seem, absurdly at first sight, to contain the thing that had seemed to contain it. (156–7)

The connection between words, images, and events, people and things in the world, is always multiple and unceasing. By turning the allegorical framework of biblical hermeneutics to his secular vision, the writer is able to draw on this reservoir of memory and iconography to interpret the people and landscapes in his own life.

The narrator hears this ‘last pause’ in works of classical music, reads it in the penultimate pages of a book and even senses the pause before the onset of summer. This moment of grace, before ‘the four winds’ begin to blow, draws down apocalypse into the grasslands where the ‘green has outlasted the grey’. But that pause at the penultimate moment, in books or music or sensory experience, is where insight or recognition occurs. It is a gesture of epiphany in the novel the substance of which is not revealed to the reader (157). The narrator hears the gospel initiating this sequence of meditation in St Mark’s parish church at Fawkner. The novel concludes in the present day in the Fawkner cemetery, where the narrator observes the grave of a young boy who passed away decades earlier, the brother of the Girl from Bendigo Street. This is where the grasslands give way to forest, and birds – parakeets no doubt – accompany this habitual pause in the narrator’s mundane life. His consciousness is saturated with the lessons of an Irish Catholic Australian upbringing, but by turning it to one side, and refracting it through the grasslands of his native district and those further afield, he is able to give true tribute to the great anguish of his emotional awakening. The grasslands contain memory, awakened desire and mystery, and it is these hidden depths – so readily allegorised in the history of the Great Eurasian steppe – to which Inland owes its subtle force.


  1. The white dove returning with the olive branch to Noah during the Flood in Genesis 8:11 signifies the withdrawal of the waters and the beginning of new life. The dove descends upon Jesus at his Baptism in the River Jordan in Matthew 3:16 and Luke 3:22.

Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Allegory, American (USA) literature & writers, Memory, Catholicism, Gerald Murnane, Irish-Australian Literature, Grassland, Steppe, Exclave, Etymology, Narratology.

Cite as: Byron, Mark. ‘Displaced Homelands in Gerald Murnane’s Inland.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.c86da72f0a.