‘Sacred Turf: A Review of Gerald Murnane’s “Something For The Pain”’, by Scott Esposito


We have long since stopped associating authors with the once-glamorous activity of gambling. For some time, however, the two seemed to go hand in hand. Famously, Dostoevsky sped up his execution of Crime and Punishment to pay off gambling debts, and he wrote a novella inspired by his addiction to roulette. Likewise, Edgar Allan Poe sustained fantasies of financing his writing through games of chance. Even philosophers like Descartes and Montaigne pursued robust careers wagering money while pondering the deepest recesses of the human condition. But these days gambling has lost its associations with romanticism and high culture; it is thought of as a lustreless, tawdry pastime best consigned to sin cities like Las Vegas. When a serious literary writer does cover it—like Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle—it turns out to be a book-length exercise in self-deprecation and “I-can’t-believe-I’m-really-doing-this” one-liners.

Gambling is thought of as a lustreless, tawdry pastime best consigned to sin cities like Las Vegas.

None of this has stopped the author Gerald Murnane from enjoying the pleasures of wagering on horse races for most of his life, writing serious literature inspired by it, and attempting to turn it into a reliable stream of revenue. This should not be surprising, for although Murnane is a perennial Nobel Prize dark horse (no pun intended), he is also an individual who resolutely does not change with the fashions (for one thing, he proudly admits to not understanding computers and still bangs out correspondence on his typewriter). He came of age during the so-called golden era of horse racing in Australia, learning to wager from his father (who was also a gambling addict). Betting on horses has in fact been so central to his life that now, at age seventy-six, he has published a memoir recounting how his most notable horse races entwine with his larger existence.

Anyone who has read Murnane to much depth has probably noticed the presence of horse racing at some point in his books. One of the most striking accounts of the sport in his oeuvre occurs in the essay “The Interior of Gaaldine”, which is also an explanation of sorts for a mystifying decade-and-a-half silence that occurred right in the prime of his career; it begins with the following statement: “A true account of certain events recalled on the evening when I decided to write no more fiction.” As though the silence and the gambling were somehow linked, much of this essay is occupied by Murnane’s method for devising the outcomes of horse races in a place called “the Antipodes”. This is in fact two imaginary land masses that have taken the place of Australia and New Zealand in a shadow Earth that Murnane has spent much of his life creating for some obscure purpose. He has run some several hundred races in this alternative universe, which is populated by forty-two racecourses, 1,500 trainers, and several hundred jockeys, alone comprising some 400 pages of information.

Horse racing clearly taps in to Murnane’s creative intelligence, and there is something about the sport that cuts to the core of his belief system. He is an author who has often located the spiritual in unlikely places, and, indeed, at various points in Something for the Pain he makes some variation on the statement that he “devotes [himself] to horse racing as other sorts of person devote themselves to religious or political or cultural enterprises.” Be that as it may, his approach to horse racing in this volume is quite separate from his approaches to other esoteric and highly personal matters elsewhere. For one thing, books like Barley Patch, A Million Windows, and A History of Books, as well as essays like “The Interior of Gaaldine”, are notable for the presence of very few proper nouns. Their places are taken by unwieldy circumlocutions like “the author of the pages in the briefcase”, which obscure fine details behind a white fence of verbiage. At times it can seem as though Murnane is at pains to place as few proper nouns as possible into his books. But in Something for the Pain Murnane names names; it is all but free of the evasions that may be the most distinct aspect of Murnane’s mature prose style.

In another striking stylistic shift, Something for the Pain completely eschews Murnane’s frequent and coy admonitions that the events depicted in his autobiographical nonfiction couldn’t possibly have happened to the author (and shame on you for even suspecting). For those who have grown accustomed to his lengthy talk about the “implied author” of the works he has written, it is a striking change of pace, particularly when one considers that earlier this year in an interview Murnane was still toeing the same line: “You can never … be justified in supposing that the implied author and the breathing author are identical.” Perhaps, yet Something for the Pain all but flatly declares a direct equivalence between the Gerald Murnane on the page and the one off it. Instead of the by-now de rigueur obfuscating between words and life, you will find here a far more naïve approach to nonfiction.

Something for the Pain is built around touchstone concepts that gradually become encrusted with layers of mystique and lore.

As is typical for Murnane’s nonfiction, Something for the Pain is built around touchstone concepts that gradually become encrusted with layers of mystique and lore. The most important touchstone here is the big bet, also known as the “plunge”: a heavy sum placed on a long shot that can return amazing sums of money. Murnane tells us that it was not uncommon for his own father—an inveterate gambler, but also a teetotaler—to win monies equivalent to the cost of an entire house on a single wager. (Unfortunately, he would promptly lose the winnings before anything much could be done with them.) Perhaps more amazingly, Murnane reports that in the golden age of Australian horse racing it was common for the major breeders to finance their operations by pooling their money and winning vast sums on a horse at long odds.

As you may have guessed, such bets were not made on chance alone. Murnane explains how it was a widespread tactic for a breeder to have a powerful horse lose a series of races, so as to ratchet up its odds. Then, once the horse had become a true long shot—offering odds of something like 30 to 1—the breeders would secretly pool as much money as possible and secretly place their bet. Murnane’s father was able to achieve his enormous victories by becoming privy to this inside information, either by dint of a connection or by keeping a sharp eye out at the track. For Murnane too, inside information is one of the foundations of an aspiration that had persisted for his entire life: to one day establish a method of consistently profiting on his horse wagers. Indeed, Murnane reveals in Something for the Pain that it has long been a cherished hope to one day quit his job and thus finance his writing. However, Murnane is a much different gambler than his father: whereas the elder had sufficient courage to wager huge sums on a single race, Murnane exhibits what he calls “short arms and deep pockets” – he struggles to put much money on the line when the time comes.

As a writer and as a mystic, Murnane is a man of systems. In Something for the Pain he endlessly talks about his efforts to find meaning in the details of horse racing, be it the colours worn by the horses or the bookie-beating systems regularly advertised in the newspapers. He even briefly touches on the method by which he has generated the outcome of his thousands of imaginary horse races. Above them all stands Murnane’s lifelong quest to reliably pick winners and earn a modest living off of wagering.

As a writer and as a mystic, Murnane is a man of systems.

There is something about horse racing that appeals to Murnane’s tendency to obsess over permutations, as though the sport were a series of branching possibilities that, theoretically, one should be able to master. Yet he can never quite manage, and it is in those things that always evade Murnane’s grasp that I would say horse racing touches upon the spiritual for him. In the book’s most touching chapter, the author relates how he and his wife agreed that whomever of them died first would attempt to give the other a sign from the other side, via a horse race of course. Murnane’s wife passed several years ago of cancer, and that very next Saturday the author was at the races: he had asked his wife to influence events so that he bet on a 20 to 1 winner and won. He estimated that such a winner occurs once in every thirty races, about once a month; in order for Murnane to receive his sign, it had to occur on that exact day, the first possible race day following his wife’s death. In the end, Murnane was satisfied that there is a second life, and that his wife had contacted him from it.

In addition to offering a spiritual aspect, there are the ways in which horse racing impinges upon Murnane’s writing life. In Something for the Pain he once again makes the familiar declaration that long ago he had concluded that he’d read all of the authors he needed to, and that he no longer cared to discover new writers who might inform his style or amaze his mind. Likewise, Murnane does not care for the cinema or the theatre, and he does not listen to music. He does not even like socialising: “our weekends were too precious to spend on bandying words with would-be intellectuals,” he says at one point. He does, however, still attend the horse races every weekend as he has done for his entire adult life. And he hazards that opinion that “horse racing [has] as much to teach us as had Shakespeare and certainly much more than some of the pretentious films and plays.” This cuts to the heart of Murnane’s artistic aesthetic, for he cannot understand why someone would go to see an actor pretend to exhibit a profound human emotion when one might see those actual emotions amid the high drama of the races. In a similar way one might argue that Murnane has never been a writer who creates false dramas on the page in order to plumb the human soul when he might instead write about actual human dramas, albeit in ways designed to obscure the line between fact and fiction.

Something for the Pain is a pleasant late work, and there is much here for those who adore Murnane’s writing, but it seems to lack a little something. In addition to being a notably straight memoir from an author who has been known to fetishise unreliability, it is also one told with a great deal less subtlety and than Murnane has typically evidenced. The chapters are short, averaging about ten quick pages each, and one cannot help but feeling that things have ended before they have had a chance to properly emerge. Murnane’s points are valid, but they are also rather plainly stated, never even indulging much Proustian speculation over the lethargy that must exist among his memories after all these years. This is troubling, as his genius is most notable when he feels his way around things that can never quite be so simply stated. For instance, what adherent of Murnane would not want him to continue on in the following speculation?

The poster celebrated the achievements of Bernborough and showed the big bay horse with jockey up and wearing the colours of Azzalin Romano, who owned Bernborough late in his career. This was perhaps the first of many instances in my life when I’ve been much more affected by an illustration of something or a written account of something than by the thing itself.

Tantalising as this glint of thought may be, this is where that speculation ends. This is a book about horse racing, not one in which Murnane will chase down rabbit holes like the one concerning his preference for image over substance.

As an attempt to explain Murnane’s love of the races the book is broadly successful. It is a pleasing, quick read that could have been improved if a handful of the less interesting, somewhat repetitive chapters had been excised. It is also filled with fascinating details. Among the things readers will learn about an enigmatic and reclusive writer are: for a time Murnane would regularly come home to a room he rented and urinate in his sink, a practice that he ultimately realised could be heard by the neighbours on the other side of his wall; Murnane claims to have no sense of smell, and this is his explanation for why he fixates on the colours worn by individual horses; he also claims to have had precognitive dreams, despite characterising himself as “not a mumbo-jumbo man”; Murnane considers himself a lifelong controlled alcoholic; in his mid-thirties, Murnane cashed in his pension so that he would have money with which to perfect his horse-wagering system, and lost it all; and Murnane claims that his favourite musical composition of all is the First Symphony of a nineteenth-century Danish composer named Niels Gade because he was able to derive from it “a complex series of images of landscapes and racecourses that the composer himself could never have anticipated.”

Perhaps there could be no better way for Murnane to have structured a memoir than as a series of horse racing recollections. Wagering on the races is an activity that he has engaged in at longer duration and at least with equal regularity as writing. It predates the decades-long marriage to his one and only wife, and it turned out to be a meaningful way of memorialising that wife’s death. It also seems to implicate virtually every important element of Murnane’s aesthetic, metaphysical, and moral beliefs. Something for the Pain is likely to be the best autobiography we will get from this author, at least until the posthumous release of the precise contents of the dozens of filing cabinets that he has spent the better part of his adult life filling with mysterious ephemera. It is wacky and rambling, a little like the long conversation you engage in during a soggy afternoon with the strange uncle that you have a genuine affection for. Whatever else one might say about Murnane, he has always followed his whims as a writer – it is perhaps his biggest gamble, and he has won it.

Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? His book The Surrender will be published next spring. In August he interviewed Ben Moser about Clarice Lispector for The Paris Review Daily, and other recent publications include the San Francisco Chronicle, the Literary Hub, Words Without Borders, and the Times Literary Supplement. He is also a Contributing Editor to BOMB Magazine.