The Book Club: Hands-on experience

“Bless me Father for I have sinned, it’s been at least 41 years since my last confession.”
That thought came to me during the ABC’s The Book Club, presented by Jennifer Byrne, this week. As a self-declared bibliophile, I watch the show faithfully on the first Tuesday of each month.
One of the guest panellists was Andy Griffiths, the very popular children’s writer, author of The Day My Bum Went Psycho, The Cat on the Mat is Flat, and the Treehouse Books, just to name a few of his funny creations. He brought Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the panel to discuss, but it was another book he’d been reading that got me thinking about confession.
The slim volume he extolled was Gerald Murnane’s A Lifetime on Clouds. He described Murnane (photo above: The Australian, Stuart Mcevoy) as “one of Australia’s best-kept secrets … one of the funniest and most singular talents we’ve ever had,” and the novel as “an absolute joy from start to finish, detailing the life of 15-year-old Adrian Sherd and his friends who are all self-confessed sex maniacs, dealing with a non-stop problem of masturbation, which has put them into mortal sin.”
Ay, there’s the rub: masturbation, mortal sin, sex maniacs at a Christian Brothers high school in Melbourne. Have I read that book before, I thought, as Griffiths mentioned A Lifetime of Clouds has been out of print for 30 years, and is being republished by Text later this year. In my time as literary editor of The Australian three decades ago, I collected a fair number of Australian books, now hidden behind recently acquired paperbacks on one of my Australian library shelves.
And there it was — behind Peter Ruehl’s Men are Stupid, Women are CrazyA Lifetime of Clouds, an Arkon paperback edition published by Angus & Robertson in 1978 (the first edition was published by William Heinemann in 1976), recommended retail price $2.50. Those were the good old days.
I first read Gerald Murnane in 1982, when his third and most acclaimed novel, The Plains, was published. This complex book prompted literary critic Peter Craven to say: “Murnane is quite simply one of the finest writers we have produced;” fellow novelist, Shirley Hazzard to call it “a distinguished, distinctive, unforgettable novel;” and critic and Sydney University emeritus professor Don Anderson to describe it as a “tour de force.” It’s a short but deep novel about a young film-maker who travels to an imaginary place in the Australian outback, the Plains, where he chronicles the life of its residents and one of his “achievements” — his inability to make a film.
A Lifetime of Clouds is a more conventional, semi-autobiographical novel: Murnane’s main masturbatory character is Adrian Sherd, a student with Catholic guilt about not being able to keep his hands off his lower regions, and a lively imagination, prompting fantasies about having sex with Hollywood stars like Jayne, Marilyn and Susan. This was set in the 1950s and the opening sequence of the novel features those well-known sex objects (readers of a certain age can easily work out their surnames) frolicking on a beach in the Gulf of Mexico.
Masturbation leads to mortal sin and confession. Adrian and his mates keep count of their hands-on experiences and talk about them all the time – each of them knowing what turns the others on. When Adrian goes to confession, he makes up a mathematical equation to work out how many times he has committed this mortal sin. Knowing the total does not mean he can admit it: “… he had never been brave enough to walk into confession and say, ‘It is one month since my last confession, Father, and I accuse myself of committing an impure action by myself sixteen times.” Like many Catholic teenagers of the fifties, he found a way to reduce the number of those particularly grave sins. Full consent was one of the conditions necessary for a mortal sin, and consent must be performed by the Will. Adrian pitted his Will against the Passions – in an ad for a bronchitis mixture, it was a Crusader (Will) going against a pack of little imps with bald grinning heads (Passions) – the Passions won, but at least he had gone down fighting. Such were the silly (and very funny) quirks of the confessional.
Sinning had other consequences. If you went to Church with your parents, you had to go to communion. But you could only receive communion, if you were in a state of grace. If you stayed in the pew, they knew you had committed a mortal sin since the last time you had been to confession. That kept Adrian Sherd away from his long American night journeys to the land of film stars and sexual fantasies. If his father had suspected him of such mortal sins, Adrian would have died of shame or run away from home. In my day in the US, you pretended you went to a different mass, and brought home The New York Times which you could only buy outside Church. Guilt and artifice went hand in hand in the 1950s.
Then there were wet dreams. Some Christian Brothers I knew used to say funny things to high school students about nocturnal emissions. This fictional speech by Brother Cyprian in a Christian Doctrine class at St Carthage’s College sounded very familiar: “One of the most alarming things that can happen to us is to wake up in the middle of some strange dream. You might find your whole body disturbed and restless and all sorts of odd things happening. The only thing to do is to say a short prayer to Our Lady and ask her for the blessing of a dreamless sleep. Then close your eyes again and let things take their course.” In my Year Ten class, the entire room would have been filled with 15-year-old students trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to stop laughing. One thing the book does not mention is child sex abuse, but then that is not funny. But this is Murnane’s story, not mine, and it was published in 1976.
Enough remembrance of Catholic things past. In part two of A Lifetime of Clouds, Adrian Sherd puts his guilty past behind him by fantasising a different life with a girl in a beige school uniform, he first sees in church, but later becomes his “Earth Angel,” the title of a popular song from the period.
Part two focuses on Adrian’s obsession with Denise McNamara, a beautiful young Fourth Form student from the Academy of Mount Carmel in Richmond. He tracks her down to a corner seat of a train she travels on daily … and so does he, without ever actually meeting her. But in his dreams, he proposes to her, marries her and they have eleven children in their first fifteen years together. In 2013, he would probably have been accused of stalking her. In his fantasies, he lectures her on birth control, marriage, and the role of a woman in sex after marriage. His right-wing uncle lectures him on the spread of communism and how all Asia will become communist by 1970. By the end of the novel, Adrian has spent a lifetime on clouds and realises Melbourne is not the Masturbation Capital of the World.
In a blurb on the back cover, poet Les Murray says “… A Lifetime on Clouds is about Portnoy’s complaint, as suffered, enjoyed and sublimated by a Catholic schoolboy in Melbourne in the fifties. Gerald Murnane’s book is as funny as Portnoy, which is saying a great deal.”
In my opinion, it’s not quite as funny as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but a Catholic audience will find it entertaining. My suggestion is that all Catholic high schools in Australia put A Lifetime on Clouds on their reading list next year. It would make a perfect companion piece to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which is still being read Down Under. Adrian Sherd and Holden Caulfield have a lot in common.

PS And just a reminder. If you like my blog and wish to vote for me in the People’s Choice Award of the 2013 Best Australian Blogs Competition, run by the Australian Writers’ Centre and sponsored by Random House, just click on the badge above and it will take you to the voting form. Just tick the box marked gonzomeetsthepress on page two and put your email address on the last page. Many thanks to those who have already voted for me. I promise not to bother you again, except for a reminder on the bottom of my blog. Further information and conversations on Twitter on #bestblogs13.

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