Fredy Murray, 1993-

The following is from Peter Alexander's Les Murray: A Life In Progress (with author's permission). For details see Bibliography. Other extracts are available from the Welcome page.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
— W. B. Yeats

Since finishing The Boys Who Stole The Funeral in 1979, Murray had been thinking of writing another long narrative poem, partly because he had found the earlier poem so enjoyable to write and wished to renew the experience, partly because he had things to say that only a long poem could accommodate. The Boys Who Stole The Funeral had been an affirmation of the values he admired in the Australian context. In 1992 he proposed a more ambitious project, for which the whole world would be the backdrop: Fredy Neptune.

The book began, he was to say, just as The Boys Who Stole the Funeral did, when the figure of the hero stood up in his mind and demanded attention: ‘I’ll never know where he came from, he just stood up in the poem. Fredy’s poem. He wanted to be told. Forbutt did the same, he stood up and said there was a man who needed burying’.1 Murray had great faith in the importance of the few poems that came to him in this dreamily compulsive way: the first of them had been the weeping man in Martin Place, in ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, and among their number he counted the animal poems of ‘Translations from the Natural World’.2 German-Australian Fredy Boettcher stood up in his mind and said ‘Write me’. And Murray did, to find out what happened: ‘I write basically to discover it’.3

Fredy Boettcher, he was to say, was much like himself. ‘Fred’ was the name Murray wished he had been given.  Indeed, during his periods of depression, Valerie responded to his sudden mood changes by calling him ‘Les’ when he was cheerful, and ‘Fred’ when the Black Dog had him: ‘Les is at least two people’, she would remark.4 Like Murray, Fredy Boettcher is a farm boy from the mid-north coast of New South Wales, and there are many parallels between creator and creation, ranging from the fact that Fredy’s father is the victim of persecution by his neighbours, as Cecil Murray had been wronged by his family, to the fact that Fredy, like Murray, is alienated from his mother. Above all, Fredy is imprisoned in a body without feeling, so that he is cut off from the world, a state that Murray felt he himself suffered, psychologically if not physically. As early as 1961 he had written to Geoffrey Lehmann,

Heard from a friend of mine the other day that you assert that I regard people as ‘unreal ideas’ or some such. You’re pretty near the mark, too, and it worries me. I even wrote a poem about it. [He then quotes a juvenile, obscure poem, ‘Session in Camera’, a Yeatsian colloquy between Soul and Body, and comments on it.] You see? It’s my old theme of lack of communication once more.5

Fredy Boettcher’s condition, which Murray identified as macular anaesthesia, is not dissimilar to one symptom of severely autistic children, who show little response to pain, and who, to break through the anaesthetic barrier, beat their heads. Some can be comforted by the sensation of gentle squeezing.6 Alexander’s condition lies somewhere in the background of Murray’s description of Fredy Boettcher’s, and the portrait of the German boy Hans, whom Fredy saves from the gas chambers, owes much to Alexander. Fredy’s condition, then, can be seen as a physical parallel to the autist’s inner anaesthesia.

In Fredy Boettcher’s case, anaesthesia is brought on by the horror of seeing a group of Armenian women being burned by Turks during the Armenian genocide of 1915, and being powerless to intervene or save them. Murray drew for this scene on a terrible poem by the Armenian Atom Yarjanian,7 who himself died in the genocide:

The twenty sank exhausted to the ground.
‘Get up!’ The naked swords flickered like snakes.
Then someone fetched a pitcher of kerosene.
Human justice, I spit in your face.
Without delay the twenty were anointed.
‘Dance!’ roared the mob: ‘This is sweeter than the perfumes of Arabia!’
They touched the naked women with a torch.
And there was dancing. The charred bodies rolled.
In shock I slammed my shutters like a storm,
Turned to the one gone, asked: ‘These eyes of mine—

How shall I dig them out, how shall I, how?’8

This image of burning paralleled one Murray had already explored in poetry: one of his aunts, Myrtle, had been terribly burned in a childhood accident, and when small he had often wondered over the webbing of scar that covered her to the end of her life. He had conveyed something of her agony in ‘Cotton Flannellette’:

Lids frogged shut, O please shake the bed,
her contour whorls and braille tattoos
from where, in her nightdress, she flared
out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek
pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air,
           are grainier with repair
than when the doctor, crying
Dear God, woman!
No one can save that child. Let her go!
spared her the treatments of the day.

Now the burning women of Yarjanian’s poem came to serve as a symbol of the mob persecution which Murray termed ‘the police’, and which for him summed up much that was worst about human nature in the twentieth century. The Armenian genocide, he believed, had inspired Hitler,9 who several times referred to it in his table talk.10 Murray’s passionate opposition to the creeping nihilism of his time, his steady affirmation that life itself is sacred, would be the dominant theme of the poem, as it had been of his entire output to this point. It was what he called ‘the central statement of the book’. ‘In this century well over a hundred million people have been murdered by police... Another hundred million have died in uniform in wars, but the ones that I particularly have been haunted by, all my life, ever since I learned of it, are these unarmed victims of ideologies, tribalisms, that sort of thing’.11

This spirit of mob persecution represented all he was determined to go on identifying and fighting, whether it showed itself in playgrounds, literary coteries, political witch-hunts or in the gulags of totalitarianism: he would stand with the persecuted, the marginalised, the poor, the isolated and the oppressed wherever he recognised them. He identified with them instinctively. As he wrote to his friends, Walter and Elisabeth Davis:

In my mind I always cast myself in the loner-outcast role. You know how we each have a poem in us, and ‘cast’ ourselves and others in its narrative? One is reality, two or three is company, many more than that’s a lynch mob, is how my poem goes. There! Now the answer’s down to its essence for you. I do tend to be more trustful of very big groupings, eg the biggest church, nations etc.—people rather than their state-apparatus I mean—because the quotient of intimacy there is low as compared with what’s likely in a smallish mob.12

Fredy Boettcher is isolated not only by his loss of feeling and the immense somatic strength he shares with his creator, but by his simplicity, his lack of education, his being a foreigner wherever he goes, and the fact that he feels compelled to hide what has happened to him. Murray chose to make him German partly because of his own fluency in that language, partly because Germans were persecuted in Australia during World War I, when the story starts, but partly because he considered that the history of the Germans was central to the twentieth century, and he wanted to compress it all into the poem:

It is the story of the Twentieth Century, it is the big story, the fate of the Germans and the fate they then visited on others. I’m telling it from way out on the periphery. A man who was in the German orbit but was well out towards the edge and was occasionally spun in towards the centre a bit and spun off again and had this intricate destiny of his own.13

It was important to him that Fredy Neptune not be an intellectual or fore-brain poem: Fredy’s life was to be primarily involved with feeling, or its lack, rather than ratiocination. His was to be principally the thought of the body and of the dreaming mind. Accordingly Murray sought and found non-literary styles and models for the work. The poem is written almost entirely in the dialect of the Bunyah valley, the speech he had learned from his father and uncles, though he infused it with transliterated German idioms to convey the subtle mental flavour of a narrator who thinks in two languages. Even the spelling of ‘Fredy’ in the German manner is part of this bilingual flavouring. To manage this blending convincingly even in a brief poem would have been a feat; to sustain it for 10,000 lines is astonishing.

And since the hero is an uneducated man, Murray was determined to convey him in appropriate terms: the techniques of the poem are determinedly non-literary in their inspiration. Murray drew them from his father’s stories, from comic-strips such as Superman,14 which, he liked to recall, had first appeared in the year in which he was born,15 and above all from the films he had loved since childhood, and of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge.

I learned from movies how to frame sequences, how to move quickly, how to keep the thing in focus and yet moving. People are used to going at great speed in movies, they’re used to literature taking a lot more time. I noticed some of my critics have been saying the book moves very quick, I suppose partly because there’s a lot in it. I thought yeah well where I got that from is two things. One is that Fredy’s looking back into the past, and when you’re reminiscing you call up a lot of stuff fairly close together. The other thing is how to frame it, and I got that mostly from films.16

The rapid cuts, the scene-shifts and the depiction through action are filmic techniques which give the poem some of its bounding energy, and its driving speed. In 1993, about the time he began writing the immense poem, he had told Philip Hodgins: ‘How you do directions, if you really want to know, is you cover ‘em over with vivacity, & you show the directed action as already starting—not ‘he walked across the yard & got into the ute’ but show him doing sthg. or seeing sthg. as he crosses the yard, then show him in the ute. Movie technique, all of it’.17 And the dreamlike unreality of a damaged character who drifts half-conscious through life, yet because of unusual physical powers finds himself involved in many of the central events of his time, is also perhaps borrowed from a particular film, Forrest Gump, though Murray was to say he had not seen it until December 1998, having ‘stayed away from it deliberately’.18

Given Fredy Neptune’s immense length, and the complexity of its blank-verse ottava rima stanzas, Murray’s progress on the verse novel, as he called it before its publication, was very rapid. He began it early in 1993, and finished it on 28 June 1997, publishing it book by book, as he completed each one, in the Adelaide Review and in PN Review.19 His progress can be traced through his correspondence. In July 1993 he was telling Penny Nelson:

I’m writing a vast verse-novel at the moment, abt. a German-Australian sailor named Fred Boettcher, and for some events in Palestine & nearby in 1917–18 I’ve relied v. much on a long-forgotten book by a Capt Sutherland who served, with Hudson Fysh, Ross & Keith Smith & half the other famous Aust aerial pioneers, in No. 1 squadron AFC [Australian Flying Corps]. The other day I happened for the first time in decades to drop in to the War Memorial in Hyde Park [central Sydney], & there was a portrait of that same man, who hadn’t provided one in his book. It reminded me irresistably of the Canadian actor Donald Sutherland—same long head & face, to a T, except translated into dark and saturnine colouring. A family face, very clearly.20

And in a postcard to her, just a month later, he was adding: ‘Book 1 of my long verse novel appeared in the Adelaide Review this month, and I’m abt. 3/4 of the way through Book 2, & wishing I cd get some books on circus strong-men acts & the like. For Bk 3 I’m also reading Mein Kampf. Now there’s a Boys’ Own story!’21

By May 1994 he was writing to Walter and Elisabeth Davis about mass killings, like the Holocaust,

that the world keeps rather determinedly quiet about eg 7 million Ukrainians, perhaps 10 million Russian small farmers, millions of Chinese under Japan and Mao. And perhaps 4–5 million Indians at Partition, and the Armenians, and the native Formosans etc etc. We may need a term besides genocide, for Very Big Slaughters that aren’t primarily racial. A larger term that includes genocide. Myriocide? Democide?22

Book 2, ‘Barking at the Thunder’, was published in 1994, while he was writing Book 4. By 4 August that year he was telling Peter Goldsworthy, who had written to him about the hardships of the blind whose sight is partly restored, ‘If you think the sight-restored get it hard, wait till you read what Fred cops in Book 4! At the moment he’s in Kentucky trying to kidnap the chief madman from a private & very shonky sanatorium’.23

On 19 December 1994 he told me he was running into occasional problems, and being slowed by them: ‘When you hit a difficult patch, the poem will stop you, actually. When you get puzzled you can’t write any further. You have to stop and think that one through. Then you are allowed to write that, and you can go on. Sometimes you can run along for a while, then you'll hit another snag. A snag is telling you to think deeply’.24

He wrote the poem in the way someone from an oral culture might tell a story—the way his semi-literate father had told stories—working from a loose frame of ideas and improvising as he went. In his head was a basic plan which he noted on the cardboard backs of writing-pads, and he shuffled these to find an appropriate order for the events as the story unfolded.25 ‘I’m working from the pattern I learnt from my father, I think, which is start a story and it runs along. It’s a well-known oral literary tactic. Chinese professional storytellers used it’.26 Book 3, ‘The Somatic Nobility’ (later renamed ‘Prop Sabres’), was published in 1996, with Book 4, ‘The Police Revolution’, following later the same year. The finished volume, published by Duffy & Snellgrove, was launched in Sydney on 19 July 1998.

Fredy’s story covers the period of the great twentieth century German drama, from before World War I to the aftermath of World War II, and it ends with Fredy Boettcher’s response to Hiroshima. The burning of women anaesthetised him; the realisation that this new and terrible burning was for everyone sets him on the road to recovery. One of the themes of the poem is the reflection that World War II had produced an equality of suffering, women as well as men, soldiers at the front and civilians in the rear. Fredy Boettcher’s condition, a horror of injustice, begins to break down with his realisation of the universality of suffering. The poem ends with an extraordinary realisation that he must forgive the innocent, forgive those whose suffering he had on his conscience.

The revelation comes in a fumbling conversation with what Murray called ‘his inner man, his deeper self, who's been running the whole thing all the time’, while the retarded boy Hans plays with a tennis ball, the mindless random pulses punctuating Fredy’s advances in awareness:27

You have to pray with a whole heart, says my inner man to me,
and you haven’t got one.
Can I get one?
Forgive the Aborigines.
What have I got to forgive?
They never hurt me! For being on our conscience.
I shook my head, and did. Forgiving feels like starting to.
That I spose I feel uneasy round you, I thought to them, shook my head
and started understanding. Hans served, and the ball came bounding back
like a happy pup. Forgive the Jews, my self said.

That one felt miles steep, stone-blocked and black as iron.
That’s really not mine, the Hitler madness—No it’s not, said my self.It isn’t on your head. But it’s in your languages.
So I started that forgiveness, wincing, asking it as I gave it.
When I stopped asking it, cities stopped burning in my mind.
My efforts faded and went inwards.

Having forgiven Aborigines, Jews and women, Fredy is told to forgive God:

I shuddered at that one. Judging Him and sensing life eternal,
said my self, are different hearts. You want a single heart, to pray.
Choose one and drop one. I looked inside them both
and only one of them allowed prayer, so I chose it,
and my prayer was prayed and sent, already as I chose it.

And with that his sense of feeling returns to him, with pain and joy.

Fredy’s strange growth towards feeling, which is a growth towards moral maturity, parallels Murray’s own in life and art. He remarked of the angry poems of Subhuman Redneck Poems:

I'm not interested in all that stuff now. I wrote it out of my system. Two ways: I wrote that out directly in Redneck, but over a much longer period, five years, I wrote it in Fredy Neptune. Fred is the turning of it right up to the level of poetry. A lot of the Redneck poems in fact are fairly gentle and sweet. There's only a few of them that are angry. Fred is the whole rage and horror turned into art. Really I think my depression as much as anything was about horror, about the unbearable, so I think—There's a lot of me in Fredy.29

He would also remark to me, when asked about his religious beliefs:

My contribution to religious thought has been that God has to share in our disaster and to be punished for what had been done. To take on our nature including the dreadful things we do to each other... If a great deal of pain is involved—the pain of the innocent—then He who provided the opportunity for it to happen has some responsibility for it as well.30

He admitted that this erosion of God’s righteousness was close to heresy (‘It skates along the edge’), but he defended it.31 ‘God has to be punished by humans not least because He alone can bear the punishment.’32

And with the completion of Fredy Neptune, Murray felt that he had reached a new acceptance of the darkness that had begun to fall on his life with the death of his mother, and a forgiveness of the God who had allowed it. It was a turning away from the old, for him, a putting on of the new. The ending of Fredy Neptune brought new problems of its own: ‘Lately I had a period when I thought I wasn't writing very well. I think it was because I'd finished Fredy and I was trying to rediscover myself as the non-depressive me’, he would say.33 But they were problems he found liberating, and he felt the volume decisively marked the end of his former life. Fredy Neptune’s publication was greeted with the award to Murray of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry,34 and he was gratified, for into that book he had distilled the essence of what life had taught him. It marked a closure, in his mind, more profound that anything except death. When I jokingly told him that since he had not yet died I could not end this book, he responded without hesitation: ‘End with Fredy Neptune. And let your last sentence read, “And then Murray turned, and disappeared into his fiction”.’ And with that, Murray turned and disappeared into his fiction.

1. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 20 March 1995.
2. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 2 September 1997.
3. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 20 March 1995.
4. Interview with Valerie Murray, Bunyah, 8 October 1996.
5. Unpublished letter, Les Murray to Geoffrey Lehmann, 29 July 1961: GL.
6. One of the children in Alexander Murray’s special school was known as ‘the headbanger’, and had to wear a crash-helmet. A ‘squeeze machine’, a kind of gentle cattle-crush for the treatment of autistic children, was invented by an American autist, Temple Grandin, who found it gave her great relief.
7. Les Murray mistakenly names him as Atom Ergoyan in the opening pages of Fredy Neptune: he corrected the error in his MS annotations to the TS of a draft of this book, December 1998: PA.
8. Quoted in Fredy Neptune, p. 9.
9. Les Murray says so in Killing the Black Dog p. 13,
10. Hitler's table talk, 1941–1944, translated from the German by N. Cameron and R. H. Stevens, London:Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953.
11. Les Murray at the launch of Fredy Neptune, Sydney, 19 July 1998.
12. Unpublished letter, Les Murray to Lis and Walter Davis, 22 May 1994: WD.
13. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 20 March 1995.
14. The two creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joseph Schuster, encounter Fredy Boettcher during his stay in the United States, in Book III of Fredy Neptune, and he inspires the comic strip.
15. Unpublished postcard to Geoff Page, 9 August 1993, Page Collection G258, unhoused: ADFA.
16. Les Murray at the launch of Fredy Neptune, Sydney, 19 July 1998.
17. Unpublished postcard, Les Murray to Philip Hodgins, 15 June 1993, Hodgins Collection G13, Box 4 Wallet 23: ADFA.
18. Les Murray’s MS annotations to the TS of a draft of this book, December 1998: PA.
19. Les Murray at the launch of Fredy Neptune, Sydney, 19 July 1998.
20. Letter Les Murray to Penny Nelson, 28 July 1993: PN.
21. Card, Les Murray to Penny Nelson, 10 August 1993: PN.
22. Unpublished letter, Les Murray to Lis and Walter Davis, 22 May 1994: WD.
23. Unpublished letter, Les Murray to Peter Goldsworthy, 4 August 1994: PG.
24. Interview with Les Murray, 19 December 1994.
25. Interview with Les Murray, 20 March 1995.
26. Interview with Les Murray, 20 March 1995.
27. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 4 August 1997.
28. Fredy Neptune, ‘Lazarus Unstuck’.
29. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 4 August 1997.
30. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 4 August 1997.
31. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 4 August 1997.
32. Les Murray’s MS annotations to the TS of a draft of this book, December 1998: PA.
33. Interview with Les Murray, Sydney, 23 September 1997.
34. The announcement was made on 2 December 1998, but Les Murray had been approached about it months before in a letter from Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate, who to Les Murray’s great regret died shortly before the official announcement could be made.


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