Archive for the ‘Gerald Murnane’ Category

A Lifetime on Clouds

October 16, 2021

If “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three” (according to Philip Larkin) then masturbation can be dated to the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. Seven years later, another Nobel Prize loser (though a less famous one) turned to the same topic for his second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds. The novel’s protagonist, 16-year-old schoolboy Adrian Sherd, supplements his dull life in the Melbourne suburbs of the 1950s with thrilling sexual fantasies set across the United States of America and featuring a cast of biddable movie stars. The suburban blandness of Adrian’s life is perhaps best summed up in the statement:

“In the two years since the Sherds had moved to Accrington, they had almost never gone out after dark.”

Even his fantasy life must rely almost entirely on imagination, lacking the regular visits to the cinema of his friend Seskis, the National Geographics of Ullathorne’s family, or even the variety of lubricants available to O’Mullane (“Sometimes he stung or burnt himself and had to give up doing it for a few days.”) His film stars come from the pages of newspapers, but his approach is methodical, using a model railway to decide which particular state he will visit, suggesting that geographical escape is as important as physical gratification. Sex just seems more likely in the USA; in fact, so sexless does Australia seem that Adrian wonders if he “might have been a very rare kind of sex maniac.”

The fantasies are not graphic – Adrian lacks the knowledge to go beyond:

“…he grappled with Marilyn’s naked body and finally subdued her and copulated with her.”

One of the funnier sections of the novel involves Adrian attempting to discover what exactly lies between a woman’s legs and being thwarted at every turn. At the age of nine he joins a ‘secret society’ whose sole purpose is to convince a girl to “pull down their pants” but on the only occasion they succeed he is unable to get to the front of the crowd in time to see anything. Next, he tries an art encyclopaedia – “there were cocks and balls and breasts everywhere” – but it is taken from him before he can find what he is looking for. Even Man Junior is no use:

“He saw plenty of naked women, but every one of them had something (a beach ball, a bucket and spade, a fluffy dog, a trailing vine, a leopard’s skin, or simply her own upraised leg) concealing the place he had waited so long to see.”

Though Adrian indulges his sexual urges, he is also tormented by them, due to his Catholicism. After confession on Thursday he must abstain until he has been to Mass on Sunday. At school the priests warn him against films, non-Catholic newspapers, and “the emphasis that some people nowadays put on the female bosom.”

When he is not fantasising about sex, Adrian rewrites history to accommodate his obsession – Cain becomes the “first in human history to commit the solitary sin,” something that even God does not foresee. Those that follow are lucky (according to Adrian) because “there were slavegirls in every city.” During the Dark Ages “Europe was hardly troubled by sex” but with the arrival of the Renaissance “nude paintings and statues began to appear” making the younger generation “resentful of the Church’s strict attitude to impurity” and thus leading directly to the Reformation. In other words, Adrian’s version of history is entirely filtered through the rise and fall of masturbation.

This rewritten history of the world demonstrates Adrian’s powerful imagination, so powerful that fantasy and reality, though never indistinguishable in the narrative, frequently blend. For example, when a priest tells him that Hollywood stars have to “surrender” their bodies to the directors and producers, he reflects how the actresses of his fantasies “never mentioned those things to Adrian for fear of spoiling the fun of their outings together.”

Adrian’s redemption comes in the form of a girl of his own age he sees at mass one day:

“Her face was angelic. She had the kind of beauty that could inspire a man to do the impossible.”

Beside this girl his fantasy film stars look “obscene and revolting.” “For too long he had been led stary by dreams of America,” Part One of the novel ends, “He was about to begin a new life in the real world of Australia.” The irony is that, while Adrian’s life may be new, it is not any more real. His erotic fantasies are replaced with Catholic fantasies. He finds the train carriage the girl travels to school on and begins a wordless relationship where, for example, he will bring out a poetry book to read (sensitivity) but follow up with Sporting Globe (“he dreaded her thinking he was queer or unmanly”). In this way he gets to know her name, Denise, after placing his own (on the cover of an exercise book) before her eyes (she reciprocates). For the most part the relationship takes place in his head, where they are soon married, thus allowing him to lecture her as a caring husband, delivering straight-faced such post-coital comments as: “I’m sorry, Denise, but I did my best to warn you beforehand.” Luckily for him, he is also in charge of Denise’s dialogue:

“And Adrian, if you feel the need for my body again in the next few days, please don’t hesitate to ask me.”

And so the novel becomes a satire of male fantasies of women – Adrian providing us with both the sexually avaricious and the angelically pure. Some readers may find Adrian’s imaginary marriage in the second part even harder to take than his adolescent fantasies in the first, particularly as it becomes increasingly detached from reality, but this, I suspect, is Murnane’s intention. In his introduction, Andy Griffiths declares, “If you only read one Gerald Murnane novel in your life, make it this one.” That would seem a strange choice, but as a counterbalance to his later work it is worth seeking out.