I'm not really a fair dinkum writer. I've stopped short of writing everything I could have written - Gerald Murnane
Widely studied in Australian literature departments in the late seventies and eighties, Gerald Murnane was touted as an important new voice, someone to watch, perhaps even someone with the right credentials to one day snag the country’s second Nobel Prize. Early success never panned out into popular appeal, however, or even international recognition although for some reason he has always been very popular in Sweden where he is regarded as a major writer. In 1999 he won the Patrick White Award, an award given annually to an Australian writer whose work, in the opinion of the Award Committee, has not received adequate recognition. That seemed an understatement as most of his works were out of print by that time.
Jump forward to 2008 and we find Murnane picking up a cheque for $50,000 and an Australia Council Writers Emeritus Award which recognises the achievements of writers over the age of 65 who have made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and who have created an acclaimed body of work. This year his ninth novel since 1974, Barley Patch, is being published. Might a Nobel Prize by about 2020 be a distinct possibility? We'll have to wait and see. In 2006 Ladbrokes set his odds at 33/1 – surely they must have improved since then.
His lack of commercial success is likely a direct result of his lack of interest in topical material although, like Beckett (who also eschewed topicality in his work), this affords his work a certain timeless quality. In interview on The Book Show, the full transcript of which you can read here, he said:
I call myself a marginal writer. I don't mean this as a disparagement of other writers at all, but I'll just say it in relation to myself; I am not the sort of writer who writes about the things that were yesterday's newspaper headlines. The things I write about tend to be more private matters. Again, the word 'marginal' comes to mind, but in a strange way my concerns have lasted for … as the reissue of [Tamarisk Row] proves, my concerns are still of interest to people, whereas had I written about yesterday's newspaper headlines I might have been old hat and passé by now.
He has always been a determinedly personal writer, fixated on questions of time, memory, and the self. One could say the same of Beckett and that certainly never got in the way of him getting a Nobel Prize. I'm not sure what his fan base was like in Sweden at the time. Needless to say Remembrance of Things Past would be one of Murnane's desert island books.
In the introduction to his Oxford monograph on Gerald Murnane, Imre Salusinszky writes:
Like Blake, Murnane has the courage of his own obsessions, following them through to their conclusions even when those conclusions may be unsettling or distressing for the reader; and his imaginative strength derives from this courage.
I'd like to hone in on the word 'obsessions' here for a minute for Murnane can certainly be described as obsessed on a bad day, preoccupied-to-a-fault perhaps on a good day. Any man who has taken the time to write a history of his bowel movements since the constipated, white-bread forties (admittedly not published) and has taught himself Hungarian without ever intending to visit the country, deserves a second glance. He has also written 50,000 words on "people who might have loved me", maintains a file of "miracles", and a "shame" file that documents the number of times he's put his foot in his mouth. All of this and more fill seven filing cabinets that line two walls of the plain, suburban room where he types, one-fingered, behind drawn curtains. "I am a person who needs to be in control of things," he says, "What you see is extremely neatly organised mess." That "mess" he expects his sons to pass onto a library after his death although he says that any biographer should not hold his breath looking for a file of dark confessions.
Rather than observing the real world, Murnane prefers to imagine what a person like him might find if he ventured out. He has hardly left Melbourne since 1949. He has never been on an aeroplane. He can't understand the workings of the International Date Line. He has no sense of smell and only a rudimentary sense of taste. He has never owned a television set. He has never seen an opera. He has never worn sunglasses. He has never leaned to swim. He cannot understand, nor does he believe in, the theory of evolution. He has never touched any button or switch or working part of any computer or fax or mobile telephone. He has never learned how to operate a camera. Since about 1980 he has never gone into a library except to attend a book launch or similar event. He believes "that a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done as when he reports what he has done or wants to do" which is why when he gave a lecture at the University of Newcastle in 2001 – that would be Newcastle, Australia – he included all the above facts about himself. I have no doubt that all are still applicable.
If you were only going to read one book by this author it really ought to be his slim 1982 novel, The Plains, the book in which he attained his mature style:
I admired the plainsmen because from a landscape of very little promise they could get much meaning. I like to think that from an apparently uneventful life I've got a great deal of meaning. – An Obsessive Imagination
The Plains is a dense story about a filmmaker who spends years researching a film on the seemingly featureless Australian outback and its people. In place of the salt-of-the-earth sheep farmers one might expect to inhabit central Australia the narrator encounters an idealised world filled with aesthetics and intellectuals; wealthy landowners divided into factions idly speculating on metaphysics; I don't believe there's a sheep in the whole book.
The book opens with the following short paragraph:
Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.
It was his intention to make a film entitled, The Interior, about the outback and its effect on those living there. The title itself turns out to be metaphorical.
Murnane evokes grasslands and prairies, prizing their capacity for abstraction and indefiniteness, but the plains are also those of language, the "Interstitial Plain" that exists only as it posits the potentiality of every other plain, or plane, of existence. – Nicholas Birns, 'Gerald Murnane. The Plains', New Issues
Plainly he has some idea of this before he arrives in the nameless "large town" at the start of the book armed with "folders of notepaper and boxes of cards and an assortment of books with numbered tickets between their pages"; he has clearly done his research – at least he believes that he has.
His first task, though, is to find a patron; to persuade one of the landowners to bankroll his project. This problem he approaches in an oblique way by hanging round the local bars where he jumps on every opportunity to worm his way in with these men. There are clearly unspoken protocols to be adhered to. He begins by telling them he is on a journey, a journey that he has already begun in a far flung corner of the plains that no one has heard of. This was easy enough because "[t]he true extent of the plains had never been agreed on" and "many places far inland were subject to dispute":
I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood. It was the kind of story that appealed to their own novelists and dramatists and poets.
The plainsman's heroes, in life and in art, were such as the man who went home every afternoon for thirty years to an unexceptional house with neat lawns and listless shrubs and sat late into the night deciding on the route of a journey that he might have followed for thirty years only to arrive at the place where he sat…
This, with the gift of hindsight, describes not only where we find our unnamed narrator, well down that imaginary road after twenty years living in the plains, but also, it would appear, Murnane himself, perhaps even as far back as 1982.
The great landowners hold audience in an inner room of one of "the labyrinths of saloon bars on the ground floor of the hotel" in which he is staying. He waits his turn. And he waits. And waits. The landowners are nothing less than capricious and when he is finally called we witness the only extended 'conversation' in the entire book. He finds himself in a room with seven landowners who appear in no great rush to interview him. They just sit around drinking and talking amongst themselves until finally one man, identified only as "7th landowner", who up until this point had been lying on a stretcher, gets up and approaches him at the bar at which point all the others stop talking. He senses his opening to present his case and steps to the centre of the bar:
I told them simply that I was preparing the script of a film whose last scenes would be set on the plains. Those same scenes were still not written, and any man present might offer his own property as a location, His paddocks with all their long vistas, his lawns and avenues and fishponds – all these could be the setting for the last act of an original drama. And if the man happened to have a daughter with certain qualifications, then I would be pleased to consult her and even to collaborate with her in preparing my last pages.
The plainsmen prize writing but find film too obviously visible. Most aren't interested but the 7th landowner's interest is piqued (we learn later that he is an enthusiastic amateur photographer) but before offering him a position in his household he points out some of the weaknesses in the filmmaker's pitch:
My proposal suggested that I had overlooked the most obvious qualities of the plains. How did I expect to find so easily what so many others had never found – a visible equivalent of the plains, as though they were mere surfaces reflecting sunlight? … He believed, nevertheless, that I might one day be capable of seeing what was worth seeing … [y]oung and blind as I was…
So the filmmaker moves his things into the man's house but barely leaves his mentor's library. As the years march on and he gets caught up in the prevalent philosophising over the nature of the plains. He begins himself to view them as a metaphor for everything in the lives of its inhabitants and gradually moves farther and father away from being able to make a start on his film. The external plains lose their fascination and he begins to see in the way the landowner hoped he might and explore these inner landscapes. Inner Australia has become a jumping off point, a point of departure, an approach Murnane uses in much of his other writing. Discussing his book of stories, Landscape with Landscape, Xavier Pons makes this observation:
The first story 'Landscape with Freckled Woman', introduces the narrator and his dreams of exploring 'inner space' of 'unfolding' the landscape in order to reach 'the real world' from his vantage point on St Kilda Road in Melbourne. This 'unfolding' implies a merger of spatial and temporal notions, and concerns the mental landscape that Murnane in other contexts refers to as 'the plains'. – Departures, p156
The preservation of history is another important thing to the landowners, "shaping from uneventful days in a flat landscape the substance of myth". He arrives intent on recording aspects of their heritage but in his researches he ends up discovering symbols, stories and parables that lead him down a very different path.
The second section of the book finds the filmmaker ten years down the line and he's still not shot any film. He spends his days in his mentor's library. There he becomes preoccupied with the landowner's wife who also spends some of her day there. Before you jump to the conclusion that we have the potential for an affair I should point out that, although they exchange polite conversation at other times, in this library they don't even acknowledge each other, she spending most of her time in the rooms devoted to Time: "we never spoke, and even when one of us looked across the library the other's eyes were always turned to some page of a text or some page awaiting its text'. For a while the compulsion to communicate something to her distracts him but it passes.
It's not giving away anything to tell you that he never makes his film. His life becomes completely occupied with doing research for it and even after twenty years the landowner shows no signs of tuffing him out on his ear. His hope is that his young protégé will finally get to see the invisible. Nicholas Birns, who I quoted above, says this far better than I can:
That is the presiding trope of the plains - the search for a meaning beyond the visible, the projection of the given onto an indiscernible horizon. This quest may be in vain, or it may actually have an object, albeit occluded and remote. As much as this search beyond visibility is mocked, Murnane's incantatory tones simultaneously privilege it.
The plains have been mapped in previous centuries. This is referred to as the Golden Age of Exploration. The events in this book take place in the Second Great Age of Exploration. The plainsmen now employ writers and artists whose remit it is to interpret the plains and to find new ways of understanding and inscribing this vast physical space.
In his paper, The photographic eye: the camera in recent Australian fiction, Paul Genoni explains how in the book's third and final section the filmmaker's patron gently redirects his interest from moving to still images leading him to a final metaphysical moment:
With his project in disarray, the film-maker is eventually prevailed upon by his patron to take up a camera, and to search for the essence of the Plains within ‘that darkness’. The patron in turn insists upon photographing the film-maker in the act of taking a photograph. But in this carefully composed tableau vivant, with which the novel concludes, the film-maker is posed with his camera reversed, with his eye not at the viewfinder but at the lens. He is photographed in the act of photographing his own eye, or indeed what lies behind it. He is about, ‘to expose to the film in its dark chamber the darkness that was the only visible sign of whatever I saw beyond myself’.
That is, the film-maker is caught in the act of photographing what it is that is entirely personal to him, Time. His project has collapsed in the knowledge that he cannot complete a project based on the unification of space around the common notion of place, because the unique element of Inner Australia is discovered to be Time, the Opposite Plain. This solipsistic and isolated gaze of the explorer of the Second Great Age of Exploration is the antithesis of the empire expanding gaze of the explorers who drew the maps in the Golden Age of Exploration.
The book is also not an easy read and reminds me of parts of Beckett's trilogy. I was pleased to see that it wasn't just me that sees the Beckett connection:
Imre Salusinszky's essay on Gerald Murnane bubbles with an enthusiasm which almost convinced me that I have underestimated the writer. He reads Murnane as a philosophical writer, placing him in a tradition stretching from Dostoevsky through Sartre and Beckett to Robbe-Grillet and Paul Auster. Undaunted by the resonance of big names, Salusinszky goes on to link Murnane's name with a range of philosophers, focussing principally on Derrida. Murnane's fiction is 'an adventure of consciousness', an exploration of human isolation in the face of a reality composed of ultimately unknowable structures. – Susan Lever, 'The cult of the author', Australian Literary Studies, Oct 93
What I find amusing is that Murnane himself in his essay, 'The Breathing Author', which is an edited version of the Newcastle lecture I mentioned earlier, explains that when he studies philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 1966, after handing in his first essay, his tutor took him aside and told him that he had failed to grasp even the basics of the subject. Despite this handicap he managed to obtain a second-class honours in Philosophy One purely by being able to recall passages from books and comments made on them by his tutors.
He does hold one piece of philosophy dear and which has served as a source of inspiration: "that everything exists in a state of potentiality; that is to say, anything can be said to have a possible existence". He explains:
A thing exists for me if I can see it in my mind, and a thing has meaning for me if I can see it in my mind as being connected to some other thing or things in my mind.
In my view, the thing we commonly call the real world is surrounded by a vast and possibly infinite landscape which is invisible to these eyes (points to eyes) but which I am able to apprehend by other means. The more I tell you about this landscape, the more inclined you might be to call it my mind. I myself call it my mind for sake of convenience. For me, however, it is not just my mind but the only mind.
That quote could slip seamlessly into The Plains and you wouldn't notice it. Clearly there is a lot of Murnane in the book and I doubt he would deny it.
The Plains is a strange book. Murnane is happy with the description 'fable' but whatever you want to label it this is certainly not a book to be taken literally. Very little happens over a long period of time but, when it does, Murnane doesn't dwell on it preferring to focus on the spaces in between. We discover almost nothing about any of the characters, in fact, huge chunks of what is a very slim volume, are devoted to outlining the history-come-mythology of this peculiar society; this is Australia but it is not Australia.
It is certainly not a book to read when tired. The subject matter aside, he writes in long sentences and doesn't make his points quickly. "One of my greatest pleasures as a writer of prose fiction," he writes, "has been to discover the endlessly varying shapes that a sentence may take." This book will not appeal to everyone. Many will not be able to finish it (it took me two goes) and even when they do finish it they'll wonder what it was all about. And that's fine. The book's protagonist finds himself in much the same situation trying to come to "see" the plains. In fairness the book does what I am sure he set out to do, to convey the inexplicableness of the plains and the mindset that comes from living there and in that respect it succeeds admirably. I would have no problem reading anything else by him.
He briefly trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1957 but abandoned this path, instead becoming a teacher in primary schools (from 1960 to 1968), and at the Victoria Racing Club's Apprentice Jockeys' School. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne in 1969 and then worked in the Victorian Education Department until 1973. From 1980 he began to teach creative writing at various tertiary institutions.
In 1969 Murnane moved to the Melbourne suburb of Macleod, where he has lived ever since.
He married in 1966 and has three sons.
Recommended further reading:
Karin Hansson, Gerald Murnane's Changing Geographies
This is an extended version of the review that originally appeared on the Canongate site.